From What You Have Heard Is True by Carolyn Forché

A Memoir of Witness and Resistance. 

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

What You Have Heard Is True By Carolyn Forche

Over the years, I have asked myself what would have happened if I hadn’t answered the door that morning, if I’d hidden until the stranger was gone. Knowing him as I came to know him, he would have sensed my presence and continued ringing the bell. On that day, I had been at my typewriter a heavy IBM Selectric that a friend would later complain sounded like a machine gun. There were stacks of papers everywhere: human rights reports, students’ essays and poems, unfinished manuscripts, unanswered correspondence. A sea wind passed through the screens, lifting some of these papers into the air and sailing them to the floor. The finches were singing atop their bamboo cage, as its door was usually open, leaving them to fly about the house, perching on ceiling fixtures and open doors. In those days, I could type faster than I could think—my father saw to that when I told him I wanted to be a poet. I would need to be able to “fall back” on something, he’d said. Fall from where? I had wondered to myself at the time. The typewriter was set on the kitchen table, and most days I worked there, the ocean almost audible, the air scented by the fields of nearby flower farms. As it was late morning, the harvesters of Encinitas had already left for lunch, having begun their work at dawn. At first, I might not have noticed the sound of the van pulling into the driveway, but its engine remained idling, so it wasn’t simply turning around. Then the engine died and the doors were opening.

It was not my habit to answer the door when I was alone. My mother had been strict about this with her seven children. She couldn’t watch all of us at once, she would say, so there were rules. Not opening the door to strangers was one of them.

We had moved to this town house hurriedly, my housemate and I, from an apartment we had also shared, after receiving mail from a town to the north of us, an envelope that contained lewd photographs of a man, with a note telling us that he was “coming to visit” and we were “not to contact the police.” The police had said that there was nothing they could do until “something actually happened,” and therefore it might be best for us to move somewhere else. So here we were, in a new, unfurnished town- house rental nearer the ocean, as far from the city as we could reasonably live and still commute to the university where I taught and Barbara studied. Twenty-eight miles—far enough.

The vehicle that was not turning around was a white Toyota Hiace. From the window, I could see a man get out and sling a tote bag over his shoulder, with papers escaping from the top. Then the back panel door slid open, and two very young girls climbed down and stood beside him. I remember reassuring myself that an ax murderer probably wouldn’t travel with two young girls. When the man looked up at my window, as if he knew I was there, I moved away and cowered against the wall. The dust-covered Hiace had El Salvador license plates.

What I knew of El Salvador, I knew from my Spanish professor in college, himself a Salvadoran, and from stories told during the previous summer when I lived on the island of Mallorca in Spain. I had traveled there with my friend Maya to translate the work of her mother, the expatriated Central American poet Claribel Alegría. The Salvadoran Spanish professor occasionally showed slides to the class, most especially of his family’s houses and gardens. Everything I knew about the isthmus of the Americas at that time I knew from Claribel’s poetry and the professor’s luminous images projected onto a blank wall.

The doorbell rang, then rang again. On the other side of the door, the girls’ voices rose in delight, possibly at their first glimpse of the rabbits: does and their young kits leaping in the stubble of garden. The hutch door had been left open. I studied the stranger through the peephole: a tussle of dark wavy hair, a short black beard, heavy eyeglasses. The girls hid behind him, but because they were here too, I opened the door as far as the chain lock would allow.

The man standing on the porch seemed amused by this.

“You are Carolyn Forché,” he said through the opening, “and I am Leonel Gómez Vides. These are my daughters, Teresa and Margarita.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “just a moment.” I closed the door and leaned against it. I had heard this name last summer in Deià. This was Claribel Alegría’s cousin. Her mother was the sister of his mother. That summer, Claribel sometimes spoke of this Leonel with great affection, but at other times she seemed not to want to say very much. I sensed admiration, caution, and also a little fear, but I couldn’t work out whether it was fear of him or for him.

The name Leonel Gómez was usually mentioned when Claribel and her family were talking about El Salvador, where Claribel had spent her childhood. These conversations concerned people who had been killed there, or who had disappeared, among them their friend the poet Roque Dalton, murdered just two years earlier— the handsome revolutionary who had once escaped from prison, according to the legend, when an earthquake shook his c ell walls to the ground just before he was to be executed. In stories like this they often also brought up Leonel but when this happened Claribel quickly changed the subject, especially if I seemed at all curious. When I asked Maya about this secrecy, she waved away my concerns with Mami’s just tired, or Mami’s still grieving over Roque. There came to be an unspoken rule: Don’t bring up Roque or Leonel around Mami.

Now this mysterious Leonel was standing on my porch in Southern California with his daughters. How was that possible? Wanting to be sure of who he was, I went upstairs for the envelope of snapshots I’d taken in Deià. This seems odd to me now— that I should have required some proof from him, as he did in fact resemble the handsome youth straddling a motorcycle in the photograph that Claribel kept in her study.

When I opened the still-chained door again, I passed the pictures to him, asking that he identify the people turning toward the camera: the wiry, silver- haired man with the cigarette, the woman in a cocktail dress, raising a glass, and the young one, a former ballerina, sitting tall in her chair— my good friend Maya, the poet’s daughter. There were others too, a few of the regulars who gathered on the terrace of the poet’s house in the afternoons to drink and talk and watch the sun slip behind the peak of the Teix, but I wouldn’t have expected him to know who they were.

“This is Claribel,” he said, tapping her face with his fingertip. “And there is the husband, Bud. And this?” His voice softened. “This must be Maya. It is Maya, isn’t it?”

“Come in, please come in, I’m sorry to keep you waiting, and I’m sorry to have …”

“No, it’s okay. I like that you checked me out. You were being careful.”

The girls were looking around a bit apprehensively. How strange that house must have seemed, so bare walled and empty. Our kitchen table also served as our desk. We used a soup bowl for an ashtray. Our finches flew about the house as they wanted, but mostly they remained on their perches near the cups of millet. There was a small vegetable and herb garden planted on the side of the house. My friend and housemate, Barbara, had taken care of it all summer while I was in Spain. The rabbits were the offspring of Easter bunnies given to us by my students: two females and a male, as it turned out. What were we supposed to have done with them? On this morning, twenty-three rabbits were living in the hutch and garden. 

The only furniture was the kitchen table with its four ladder-back chairs, two mattresses on the floors of our upstairs bedrooms, and a single daybed in the living room that we used as a couch. In one corner of the living room, a papier-mâché calliope horse painted red, about four feet high, reared on its hind legs. There were flowers on its rump. Leonel stopped when he saw it, seeming taken aback.

“How long have you had this?” he asked, laughing, shaking his head.

 “I don’t know. A friend found it in a bin on the street. Why?”

“No, just asking. But it’s yours, right? It’s your horse?” 

We had drifted into the kitchen, which must also have seemed odd, with nothing on the countertops, and no sign that food had ever been prepared there. The girls kept close to their father, pinching his shirt to their faces, but slowly they began to steal glimpses of me.

“Do you like rabbits?” I asked, remembering the Spanish word, conejos. “They’re in the hutch in the garden— do you want to see? There are two mothers, and the babies are a month old. Go ahead, you can play with them.”

Leonel bent down for them to whisper in his ear, and he nodded that it was okay for them to go outside.

“Do you have any coffee? I’ve been driving for three days. I’m dead. And can you clear this stuff off the table? There are some things I need to show you. We have work to do.”

Work? I remember thinking then, What work? But he was already pushing my papers aside and unpacking his woolen bag, woven with symbols and animals, among them an openmouthed wildcat about to pounce.

He began covering the cleared table with white butcher paper cut from a roll he had brought, taping it down, and in the center, he placed what few objects he could find in our cupboards: salt and pepper shakers, a shot glass of toothpicks, a paring knife, matchbooks, and to these he added things taken out of a second, smaller bag: a miniature metal replica of a World War II battleship, a Swiss Army knife, wooden matches and a pouch of Balkan tobacco. Then he set a pack of my cigarettes among these things.

“These cigarettes are now a military garrison. Sit down.” And then, “How much do you know about military dictatorship?”

No small talk, no How is Claribel? Just How much do you know? I didn’t know what to make of him.

Leaning over the paper, he began drawing a map of his country, almost without looking, moving the pen in a continuous bleed of ink, traveling in memory from the Guatemalan border south to the Bay of Fonseca, then east toward Honduras, suggesting the volcanic peaks and mountain ranges of El Salvador with a string of chevrons.

“Nothing,” I answered. “I know nothing about military dictatorship.”

His elbows were on the map, his folded hands pressed against his mouth. I saw myself in his glasses, two of me, and the girls’ laughter was sieved through the kitchen screens.

“Good,” he said. “At least you know that you know nothing.”

He seemed about to say something else, but stopped himself, clamping down on his cold tobacco pipe. His hair fell onto his forehead and against the collar of the plaid shirt that I would later learn was woven in the highlands of Guatemala. Later, I would also learn that his expensive-looking watch was a Rolex, which he wore because, as he said, “such a watch sends a certain signal,” but what sort of signal he didn’t say. For perhaps the same reason, he wrote with a fountain pen, the first Montblanc I’d ever seen, with a silver-and-gold nib. I wanted to ask him if I might try writing with it, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. He drew his illustrations with a different set of pens made especially for drawing.

“Okay. How is your knowledge of history?” And then without pausing for my answer, he said,

“Look. There is soon going to be a war in El Salvador. It will begin in three years, maybe five at the most. It might cost tens of thousands of lives, maybe hundreds of thousands.”

 “How do you know this?”

“Let’s talk first about your country— finally, finally, a sitting president of the United States has instituted a human rights policy for his State Department. I’m trying to find out what that means.”    

“What? What what means?”

“This so-called policy on human rights. Okay. Why am I here? Maya wrote to me a few months ago and sent me your book of poetry. You didn’t know this? You must have known. You signed it to me ‘with warm regards.’” He took his worn copy of my book from his woven bag and slid it across the table.

“How do you think I knew who you were when you opened the door? Your author photo looks just like you, by the way.”

“I don’t think it does.”

On the title page, Maya had added:

Para Leonel, que entenderá por qué le estoy enviando esto, con mucho amor, Maya.For Leonel, who will understand why I have sent this, with much love, Maya.

“So that is why I’m here. Because of your poetry book, and Maya’s letter. She told me all about you.”

I didn’t tell him that Maya had also told me some things about him. Once, on one of our walks along the beach, barefoot with our jeans rolled up our calves, she had said that her cousin Leonel had given some of his land to the peasants—but who knows? And people say that he sleeps on the ground with his motorcycle in his arms—can you imagine? As she talked, the lace edge of the surf washed over the murmuring stones and the sanderlings hurried across a mirror of water. Gull cries tore at the air above the drying kelp beds and, barely moving their wings, drifted out to sea.

“You drove all the way from El Salvador—?”

“Yes, my dear, I did. More than four thousand kilometers. I wanted to talk to you.” 

“But that’s such a long way. What if I hadn’t been here? I do go away sometimes, you know.” 

“Well, I took the chance. And this might also be my last opportunity to spend time with my daughters, maybe the last for a good while, and so I brought them with me on this— this camping trip.”

The moment had passed to ask casually what Maya had told him about me, but perhaps I would have another chance. 

“Your daughters are beautiful,” I said, getting up to turn off a whistling kettle. “What do you want to talk to me about?”

“What I told you. Among other things, I want to talk to you about a certain dead American.”

This was his manner— to toss out in a flat voice “dead American,” and then refuse to elaborate, as if he were tugging lightly at a fishing line, leaving the lure adrift on the surface. 

“What dead American? What do you mean?”

He rose to pace the kitchen, hands thrust in his khaki pockets, pivoting at the end of each sentence to walk a few feet in the other direction, as if tethered to a fixed point.

“Okay. Maybe I should start at the beginning.”

“Why don’t you tell me why you’re here. I don’t think it’s because of poetry.”

He sat down again, studying his own hand-drawn map, picked up his drawing pen, and began a bit wearily, “I’m a coffee farmer from El Salvador. My farm is small but produces high-quality beans. I’m also an inventor, you might say, and a social critic, and a painter, although I no longer have time to paint.”

Miniature coffee trees had appeared on the map, drawn as he spoke. 

“And a motorcycle racer? And a champion marksman?” 

Maya had also told me that Leonel had gone to school for a while somewhere in the United States, a military academy, she thought, she wasn’t sure where, and he had been a world champion marksman and racer of motorcycles. There was a wall of trophies in his house, she said, and once, in competition, he had even been awarded a handmade AK- 47 assault rifle with a gold-plated inscription. She thought him handsome, and intelligent, but also “too mysterious for most people.”

He seemed at once exasperated and pleased by this description.

It was true that Maya had told me these things, but her father had gone further.

“It was possible,” Bud said one evening as we sat in the dark on the terrace under the stars, “that he is with the guerrillas, as some people say. Possible.” Then, drawing deeply on one of his frequent cigarettes, “it is also possible that he is with the CIA.”

In the flaring light between his fingers, his face was entirely visible then, his jaw set, his eyes narrowing, and I heard a sharp intake of breath from Claribel, who spoke her husband’s name as if it were a stone cast over a balcony wall.

“She asked me,” he’d said evenly. “I’m answering.”

Leonel sighed at this and said quietly, “I don’t race motorcycles anymore. I do other things.”

“And?”

“Well, that’s it.”

“And why are you here?”

“I already told you— because you are a poet.” He stiffened in the chair. “Okay, we’re wasting time. Mirá, I have about three days here before I have to start back. Three days. And we have a lot to talk about.”

He began drawing check marks on the paper: birds flying in a child’s sky and, with a few quick strokes, what appeared to be a brigantine at full sail, with a few smaller ships receding to the edge of the paper.

“You wanted me to begin at the beginning, he said, dropping his pen down among the ships.

“This is the beginning.”

I studied his drawing. “Pirates?”

He thought I had deliberately made a joke. “You might say so, but no. I was trying to draw the Spanish galleons of the conquistadores. Do you see? A brigantine would carry both oars and sails, but the galleon is entirely under sail. The brigantine would have two masts. The galleon, as you see, has three or four.”

“Mr. Gómez?”

“Call me Leonel. A brigantine would have greater maneuverability. But I was about to tell you about Pedro de Alvarado. Do you know who he is?” And without waiting for what would have been my no, he held forth for an hour or so about Alvarado, sent by Cortés to conquer the isthmus of the Americas, Alvarado whom the Indians called The Sun, not (as the red-haired Alvarado thought) because they considered him a god but because they thought his head looked as if it were on fire.

“He was brutal toward Indians,” Leonel said, “and did all the things you might expect: ordering them flayed alive, roasting them over fires on spits.”

The girls had come in with furry rabbits cupped in their hands, whispering to their father again, who laughed and shook his head at whatever they were saying. Then he might have told them to go play, because the rabbits were set loose on the kitchen floor, and the girls followed them on hands and knees around the house and up the carpeted stairs to the two bedrooms.

Arrows appeared on the map indicating the route Alvarado’s soldiers had taken inland. I would learn that Leonel was particularly interested in military history, logistics, weaponry, strategy, and tactics, beginning with the ancient world’s bowmen, slingers, and hoplites, their infantries, and cavalries of archers mounted on horseback, and later in Genghis Khan’s supply routes, military intelligence, and the art of feigned retreats. In the woolen bag woven with a pouncing jaguar, he kept, bound together, a worn copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, and Machiavelli’s The Prince, all of them falling apart and rubber banded, with marginalia in the tiniest script I had ever seen. In the seemingly bottomless bag, he also had the transcript of American congressional hearings and other “documents,” as he called them, but first he led me into his dream narrative of the Americas before the conquest, most especially of the isthmus connecting the two continents: a starlit world whose civilization began, according to the Mayan Long Count calendar, on August 11, 3114 b.c.e. 

He began with the Pipil Maya, as he called them, artists of milpa cultivation, descendants of astronomers and poets who fled their ancient cities after some catastrophe, possibly having to do with drought. Or cannibalism. It was a world, he said, lit at night only by fire, and they were a people who mapped the stars, for galaxies beyond our own, without the aid of telescopes. 

I asked why he was telling me about these things. 

“I thought it might interest you—as a poet, I mean—the history from the beginning. Surely poets are interested in this? But we can start somewhere else, anywhere you wish,” he said, pulling more papers and pamphlets from his bag and stacking them on the table.

“Let’s start with two dead priests and some deported nuns, or with three hundred dead campesinos. Here—these are the proceedings of your own congressional Subcommittee on Inter- American Relations. Read them. I have underlined the relevant passages for you. When you’re finished, we can talk about the dead American.”

Was he angry? I wondered. What had I done to anger him? But he seemed calm, steel voiced, matter- of- fact. He could have been telling me about scientific research or the history of the Goths and Visigoths.

“Leonel, I’m sorry, but you say you’re here because I’m a poet. What does this have to do with poetry?”

“Maybe nothing. I don’t know yet. This is what I’m trying to find out. But let’s go eat first. I’m starving. Do you know a place where we can get hamburgers?”

“Hamburgers? That’s what you want?”

“Yes. Hamburgers and also ice cream.”

The waters of the Pacific resembled hammered silver under that cloudless noon as he drove us north in the Hiace, the girls in the back with all the windows open, the music of Peruvian pan flutes floating from the dashboard. This was a drive we would take several times over the next three days, up the road and a little inland, and each time I would run inside with his money and the order— burgers and Cokes, always the same—and other than these trips, and errands to buy what he described as “supplies,” we mostly talked at the kitchen table, or rather, he mostly talked while I listened and smoked. Early in the evenings, I would run a bath for the girls and then he’d tuck them into my absent housemate’s bed. Sometime after midnight, when I couldn’t listen or think any longer, I would go up to my room and shut the door. He would take care of himself, he said, and the house went quiet.

Excerpted from What You Have Heard is True by Carolyn Forché.  Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Carolyn Forché, 2019.