The five women moved slowly, their shoulders hunched, their caps and hats pulled low over their foreheads, their eyes shielded against the glare of the late morning sun. Short handled shovels protruded from backpacks stuffed with gloves, bottled water, notebooks, trowels. Where the unpaved road angled away from scrub brush and clumps of gray, nearly moribund cactus they stopped, nodding to each other, then pushed past stumps of desiccated yucca and paused beside a narrow trough of recently excavated earth. Shoulders twitching, fingers rubbing their faces and groping at their backpacks, they nodded to each other. The slender one, thin face striated with tiny wrinkles, drew the sign of the cross and in raspy Spanish recited a Hail Mary and for guidance in their search.
Then to work. Separately they moved away from the narrow trough, heads bowed as they shuffled through tangled, brittle brush. Two-meter length of rebar stabbing the parched soil, the youngest of the five hesitated, took a step backward, thrust the rebar downward. Again. Another step backward, peering at the ground.
“Que?” The woman closest to her called.
The others joined her, scraping brush aside, moving rocks, as she continued to probe with the rebar, finding where the earth was softest, where someone might have dug some time before. Slowly, arduously they began to dig, grunting, sighing, coughing with each shovelful they threw aside.
“Cuidado. Careful,” the tallest of them cautioned. Although only in her early forties she looked older, her wide-set dark brown eyes webbed beneath a permanent scowl. Wiping sweat from her face and pulling her cap closer over her eyes, she slid into the trough they’d dug. Carefully, deeper, their interchanges monosyllabic, they gouged past rocks, roots, sludge, then, “Miren! Look!” A scrap of mezclilla. No longer with shovels but with trowels, scraping earth away, they widened the excavation. The rotting jeans seemed unattached to anything until, “María, Madre de Jesús!”
Side by side the plump grandmother with a circular scar beneath her lip and the raven-haired widow pawed dirt away with gloved hands, coughing as the thick odor of rotted flesh oozed upward. One leg bone, covered with scraps of mezclilla, seemed bent beneath the other. As she clawed dirt from around it the widow’s fingers caught on something, “Qué es? What is it?” A piece of belt, the buckle bearing a thick metal angel. The slender woman shook her head. Not my José. One by one the other women confirmed Ni Edgar. Ni Pablito, ni Rafael. “But someone,” the slender woman murmured. “Rescued from nowhere,” the grandmother lisped.
Back to work. They uncovered the spine, then chest bones covered by thick greenish-gray mold. The youngest thrust her head away, fist pressed against her lips, shoulders heaving as she took deep breaths. The others covered their noses, mouths, with shawls and surgical masks. Skin was patched to the skull, blackened as though burned. As, carefully, the tallest woman lifted it, the lower jaw gaped open. “Mother of God!” the widow gasped. The others stared as a gust of wind flicked across the corpse carrying something with it. A shadow. A slight film of dust.
A departing soul?
None of them said it but the feeling was there.
Together they knelt to say a prayer for the son or brother or father whose body it was and to ask for the strength to continue to search, then one by one arose and on a torn bedsheet that one of them had brought with her they lifted the corpse, the skeleton, out of the trough they’d dug. The tallest of them pulled a cellphone from her pack and notified the police. As always the response was one of annoyance but it was police duty to respond to reports of cadavers that had been found. If they didn’t come to retrieve it the tallest woman’s husband would drive out in his old pickup and take it to the morgue.
Grimy, sweaty, tired, the five women slumped beside each other, saying little, their nods and grimaces conveying feelings they had no words to express. Then one by one they pushed themselves to their feet, gathered their tools together and joined hands for a final silent oration then tromped back through the scrub brush and yucca stumps, each absorbed in her own thoughts.
Tomorrow would be another day. Another corpse. Another being brought back from nowhereland.
Robert Joe Stout is a journalist living in Oaxaca, Mexico, who has contributed nonfiction, fiction and poetry to a wide variety of publications. Much of his writing is focused on social and political themes involving people and events, present and past, that affect the United States and country in which he resides.