The Far Empire of Sanguinity


LISA WINTER COULD ONLY SEE the back of Luc’s head as the repurposed school bus descended the steep valley toward Ahuachapan. The transmission whining through its downshifts was very loud. Over the noise Luc was trying to talk to Concha, the Volunteer Director, and the guys from Habitat for Humanity who were building houses at the same site. They were all talking about the El Salvador drug gangs.

“I mean, even after a week I still can’t get used to the guards with shotguns,” Luc shouted. Having to raise his voice over the engine made Luc sound breathless and overeager. “I mean, are there really a lot of them? The, you know – the gangs. What do you call them again?”

Maras,” Concha replied, in the patient manner of a practiced tour guide. But Lisa thought she saw a hard spark in Concha’s black eyes that betrayed annoyance. “It’s just the slang word for gangs,” Concha said, and then slid into an officially-sanctioned patter in her unaccented American English. “It’s true that the maras are present in the region and represent a law enforcement challenge but the actual undesirable activity in all of the Western departments has diminished markedly in recent months and as you have seen both our organizations take great precautions nonetheless,” she said. She did not perceptibly inhale between phrases.

“In New York, the Maras own the Giants,” Cliff put in. Cliff was a Habitat volunteer from Queens. He made a bad joke about everything.

Lisa watched quietly as Luc talked. His head was turned away from her, still talking animatedly with Concha and Cliff and the handful of other men from the Habitat group to whom Luc had attached himself ever since he and Lisa had arrived at the beginning of the week. His own little gang, Lisa thought. She sat near the back of the bus, two rows behind Luc. A casual observer, she thought, would not have connected them, would not have taken the tall, striking blonde man in front for the boyfriend of the small and rather mousy-looking woman sitting behind. But he was, Lisa insisted inwardly. It was she who he had travelled with, all the way from North Carolina to El Salvador. She regarded Luc for a moment appraisingly: the short blond hair on the back of his head, tanned creases on his muscular neck, a broad spread of shoulders below. He was handsome – even from behind Luc was handsome. Despite his French name (the legacy of a socially ambitious mother, who thought it sophisticated), Luc was straightforwardly American, the very paradigm of a Charlotte banker. Years ago Lisa’s father had told her that he could always spot the Charlotte bankers in New York. They wore a uniform, with identical short haircuts, identical blue oxford shirts, identical straight teeth. It was, he said, like being invaded by a church choir.

“I mean, have the maras gangs ever tried to get onto the grounds of our hotel place?” Luc persisted. “I mean, there must be a reason for those shotgun guys, patrolling like that.” Concha’s eyes flicked to meet Lisa’s for a split second before explaining, again, that the organizations took no chances with the volunteers’ safety, that the guards were merely a precaution, that it was the very scale of the extensive, beautiful grounds of the volunteers’ accommodation at the converted coffee plantation that required the armed guards.

Lisa turned away and watched the morning landscape out the bus window instead. They were approaching the city outskirts, and Lisa had grown familiar with the landmarks. They had already passed the green ridge topped with the soaring Latin cross, and the hairpin turn of the road from the highway that led to the village of Concepción de Ataco. Lisa’s eyes followed the turnoff to Ataco as they passed, looking down the road as far as she could, but she knew her line of sight would be abruptly cut off by the angle of the curve. They rode on down the slope; now the view was of the ragged end of some village with no name that seemed to hang in space over the face of the gorge. As they passed the village each morning the air was spiked by a sharp chemical reek that rose from discharge seeping into the ravine. Lisa had never asked just what industrial process produced the smell, but on each successive morning as that village had come into view she had increasingly felt as if she were glimpsing something indecorous that the village was obliged to do to for its livelihood. The bus rolled on, they entered the city. Now the ground became flat. There were street corners with knots of people waiting for municipal buses, men in worn denim pants wearing folded-brim straw hats, women alone or holding the hands of children. Small red moto-taxis sputtered through the traffic in clouds of blue exhaust. In just a week the morning drive to the site had become a comfortable routine, and now Lisa found herself unexpectedly sad that, as this was the last day of the project, she would not take the ride again.

It was only a week ago that she had first seen any of it. The highway between Sonsonate and Ahuachapan was called, according to her Frommer’s Guide to El Salvador, La Ruta de las Flores – the Route of Flowers. It began about forty miles outside of San Salvador, where an abrupt exit from the highway across the coastal plain launched into a twisting way into the mountains above. When the bus carrying her group had made that turn on the first day and laboured up the slopes, Lisa had not been certain what to expect. Flowers, perhaps – but Concha had told the group that February was still the dry season and so not to expect many flowers. On that first trip – going too slowly up the hills, too fast down – Lisa had sat in the front, close enough behind the wordless teenaged driver in sunglasses to see his slight smile each time gravity took hold of the bus and hurtled it down a hill almost onto the bumpers of creeping trucks and cars ahead, before he would swerve over the double lines and successfully pass the slower traffic at velocity. Lisa had imagined him thinking, behind those stylish sunglasses, that these North Americans would see that he drove as skillfully as any boy from California.

But for most of that first drive Lisa had fixed her attention to the view out the bus window, struck by the strangeness of everything, afraid of what she might miss if she looked away. She memorized the details: the steepness of road; the battered labouring pickup trucks with iron crossbars welded across their truck beds as handholds for the standing workers swaying there; green volcanic slopes sweeping toward the sky, serried with the repeating square pattern of coffee trees. She had watched carefully as the bus had crawled through the villages of the Ruta de las Flores noted in her Frommer’s: Nahuizalco (“artisans display their meticulously-wrought furniture on the verge of the road”), Sacoatitán (“interesting and typical restaurants”), Apaneca (“site of a canopy zip-line for the adventurous”). They didn’t pass through Juayúa so she had no chance to see the famous black Jesus statue, and because the bus had finally pulled into their hotel at the former coffee plantation in the hills before reaching Concepción de Ataco, she didn’t get to Ataco either (“unique contemporary art and sculpture”).

Although Luc had insisted that the trip to El Salvador was an adventure vacation, Lisa and Luc were really in Ahuachapan as volunteers for a charity called Network for the World! (the exclamation point being, annoyingly, part of its official name). It was a newly-formed organization seeded by a tech billionaire, with the purpose of putting a kind of tough, toy-like laptop computer into the hands of as many small children in as many developing countries as their donors could be persuaded to fund. Lisa hadn’t really meant to get drawn in. At the start of term at the university where she taught English, among the tables at the student union where organizations and activities customarily sought to enlist the freshmen, Lisa had paused at the Network for the World! table, and soon found herself submitting her email address and a form to request further information. For several weeks following, Network for the World! had conducted an electronic courtship of Lisa – friendly, but also vaguely menacing. Emails cajoled her almost daily to Get Involved!, or to Visit the NFW!.org Website!, or to Make a Donation!, or to Be an On-Site Volunteer! When she mentioned it to Luc, he gruffly called them charity whores and told her to unsubscribe. Instead, Lisa had finally relented – swayed perhaps by the organization’s persistence, or by its profligate use of exclamation points – and had agreed not only to fund the purchase of a dozen laptop computers but also to spend a week in a developing country of NFW!.org’s choice as a teacher. Luc had resisted going with her for most of the fall and winter, pleading that he was too busy, or had near-term deadlines that couldn’t be moved, or (lapsing into his own world’s jargon) that he just didn’t have the requisite skill-set for a net accretive value-add. Lisa had finally insisted, strategically pointing out the adventure-vacation possibilities of El Salvador’s Ruta de las Flores (including that canopy zipline) and Luc at length had acceded, but not before calling the NFW!.org executive director to ask her to please change the organization’s domain name to something less stupid.

Luc never raised the topic, but Lisa knew that the amount of money she had spent on the computers and the trip was an affront to him. Money – yes, she had money. Lisa’s father had been a very famous, very rich chief executive of a software company. Though now long retired to his vast house in Westchester, he continued to cultivate an extensive network throughout the computer industry. Lisa knew that in his bank Luc was assigned to coverage of technology and tech sponsors. She suspected that his assignment was not mere coincidence.

While Lisa’s father treated Luc like he treated all bankers – with an air of bemused disregard – Lisa’s mother was more suspicious. She thought Luc was only dating Lisa to get access to her father and his contacts, and she told Lisa as much to her face. Lisa tried to ignore her mother’s jabs; the persistent conflict between them had, since Lisa’s adolescence, been frozen into static battle lines where both sides had abandoned any real expectation to change the mind of the other. But the suggestion that Luc’s motives for dating her were mercenary, even in part, nonetheless invaded Lisa’s mind. The fact that it was her mother who said it didn’t necessarily make it wrong. When they had first met the previous summer, Luc’s finance-bro ambition had seemed refreshingly straightforward. He was going to do deals, find clients, advance to managing director. He was going to meet the right people and build himself a little empire of relationships. And it would all yield money. It seemed to make Luc happy within itself, and she was happy enough to watch the bright smile in his tanned face and bask in its confidence.

But her relationship with Luc, begun in a rush of excitement, had by now wound down to a series of habitual reflexes. She could admit to herself that perhaps she had indeed deceived Luc in a way. She had never intermediated any friendship between Luc and her father. Luc had never pressed her for it, never broached any expectation of such an opening, but they were both adults, Lisa thought; they knew what was what. It would have cost her nothing, and for Luc it could have been very important. But she hadn’t even tried.

Instead, an indifference had grown between them. Small, bitter remarks were dropped, Luc’s comments often oddly matching her mother’s. Observations were tendered as to how a rich father was so useful to the uneconomic study of literature. Lisa fumed but didn’t respond. Luc would still come to her apartment most evenings and mutely share her bed. Only a few months ago the mere thought of Luc naked beside her would inspire such lust that Lisa could hardly contain it. But now, she thought, their mingled strewn clothing on her bedroom floor in the graying morning light looked lifeless, as if they were chalk outlines at a murder scene. Luc began to take muffled calls on his cellphone, away from her hearing, with people he smilingly declined to identify. It was work, she thought; it was easily explained, easily rationalized. One night shortly before they left for the trip, she overheard a phone conversation when Luc thought she was sleeping; he told the caller that he couldn’t really talk just then because he was still there with the moneyslut. Of course, Lisa thought, she might have misheard, or it could have been a trick of her own fear, but still she found herself pressing her face into the bedclothes, not daring to move, not daring to breathe, trying to make herself small like a burrowing prey animal evading a captor while all the time her silent heart cried out, agonized.

Concha seemed from the first to sense the friction between Luc and Lisa. Perhaps, Lisa thought, it was part of her job to do so; perhaps she had seen this before among volunteer couples. Perhaps it was not even unusual. For whatever reason, Concha took to seeking out Lisa for breakfast each morning in the rustic dining hall at the hotel, which had once been a drying room for the former coffee plantation. Luc would sit across the room with the men from the Habitat group. The Habitat men had made the same trip with each other many times before. All successful businessmen, all wealthy, all friends of long standing, they came to El Salvador for a week every year or two, playacting as manual workers for the good of humanity. They welcomed Luc as a kindred spirit. Day by day Luc acquired more of their equipment: borrowed work gloves, an extra hard hat, the pair of wire cutters that now hung at his belt. Concha had canted an eyebrow at him humorously on the second morning as she joined Lisa. “Luc seems to have found some friends,” she had said.

Lisa nodded. She found relief in Concha’s simple acknowledgement but it was not enough to let her unburden herself. Lisa was acutely aware that Luc had elected other company over hers, and was surprised at how quickly Luc had become fully accepted by them. She found that if, as she sipped her coffee, she lowered her eyelids as far as possible, she could avoid seeing Luc across the room. Meanwhile, she imagined, she would maintain a controlled and cool demeanour. Concha had watched her for a long moment and said nothing.

Concha was a Salvadoran woman in her late twenties, a doctoral candidate in development economics at the university in the capital. Concha had, Lisa soon learned, ample opinions of what the volunteers did. Concha was not entirely dismissive of Network for the World!; she was far too diplomatic for that. But in their conversations Concha simply asked whether, rather than spending the tens of thousands of dollars so that some North American volunteers might travel and personally train children on little computers, it might not make more sense to train local teachers for far less money, and use the remaining thousands to buy more computers? The high-net-worth construction workers building the Habitat houses drew the same critique. But in the end, Concha shrugged; it was not her concern. Better to have illogical arrangements than none at all.

Lisa and Concha fell into a habit of conversations morning and evening, before and after the trips to the teaching site. They maintained the conceit that they were two professionals who had just happened upon each other in the remote volcano country. They alternated topics from their respective fields of inquiry: from Concha, the roles of international aid and regional self-sufficiency in developing economies; from Lisa, the problems of nonlinear narrative and symbology in contemporary American fiction. The absurd preciousness of such conversations in such a setting, oddly, seemed to loosen their tongues; both realized that they were really just talking bosh, and nothing great was at stake. It was a great relief to them both.

They would break off their breakfast conversations when Concha had to coax the groups onto their shared bus for the drive to the outlying Ahuachapan neighbourhood, where the project sites were. At the construction site the Habitat group would meet with the local masons who directed the work. They instructed the North American millionaires to carry wheelbarrows and spades and pickaxes from the locked tool storage, and then smilingly led the group up the packed-earth streets to the far side of the neighbourhood where a row of clean, squat concrete block houses stood half-finished. Having attached himself to the building crew on the first morning, Luc now trailed along with them day after day, carrying the borrowed work gloves and hard hat and wire cutters.

Concha and Lisa would walk the other way to the neighbourhood’s community centre, built by the same Habitat group some years earlier on a previous mission trip. The community centre was a large building, made of the same concrete block and steel rebar as the homes, and painted green and white. The builders had left a canopy of trees standing when they built the structure so the building was shaded and cool. The windows were barred and covered in screens, and the front and rear doors stood open to admit a slow but pleasant breeze. There were long tables arranged inside the building with the dozen candy-coloured laptops laid out. Behind each machine a child sat expectantly, looking scrubbed and starched in clean school clothes. Though wired for electricity, the community centre had never been connected to the power lines – the reasons for this were vague. Instead, the computers on the tables were each tied by their cables to a fat orange extension cord that ran along the floor and out the back door, where a gasoline generator chattered busily. Beyond the generator, the same shotgun guards who had patrolled the hotel grounds now slowly walked the community centre’s perimeter, slipping along the trees noiselessly as wolves. They had, Concha had whispered to Lisa, followed from the hotel in another vehicle, always keeping the volunteers discreetly in their sight.

It was a small group of Salvadoran women, teachers from the local school, who made things run. After the children were all seated and the Network for the World! volunteers had arrived, the women would begin by addressing the children in a rapid idiomatic Spanish that Lisa could not follow. Lisa’s job – and Luc’s, had he been present – was then to walk between the rows of children as they performed exercises on the computers, squatting beside those who seemed to have trouble and showing them how the computer exercise worked. Some of the children were shy, some of the children were forward; the forward ones were eager to try out their English on the North Americans. The computer exercises were clever and fun and well suited for the nine- and ten-year-olds in the class. Lisa had learned enough by studying the course manual on the plane trip to feel that she could truly be helpful. After two hours of this there was a break, and then a further hour of lessons, before the Salvadoran teachers would again take to the front of the classroom and give another rapid set of instructions. All the children would then line up and, in a flurry of smiles and bilingual goodbyes, the teachers and children together would march out to a half-sized school bus that would have pulled up unnoticed in front of the community centre while the class was going on.

The computer class attracted not only the teachers and the children, but also a small clutch of adults who gathered at the back of the community centre to watch. They were people from the neighbourhood: busy-looking women in faded coloured t-shirts, with their hair tied back severely and expressions of impatience on their faces; the men more relaxed, with sun-creased faces shaded under straw hats. They sat on plastic chairs along the walls, sometimes murmuring into a neighbour’s discreetly inclined ear, sometimes craning to see what was happening on the little computer screens. The shotgun guards drifting by the entrances to the community centre looked over the groups of adults impassively as they passed. Lisa asked Concha whether the adults were the parents of the schoolchildren.

“Some are,” Concha had said. “Some are just curious gossips.” She smiled. “I think some of the fathers just want to keep an eye on the computers that their children will be allowed to use at home after you’re gone. Those are valuable capital assets that will soon belong to their school.”

As the days went on, Lisa would gently encourage some of the adults to stand beside the children as she ran through the lessons. She would watch as a harried woman’s demeanour would relent, or as a man would slowly remove his straw hat and squint to see the moving cursor. “And now, you?” Lisa would ask formally – her textbook Spanish was adequate for that, at least – and guide the adult hands to the keyboard and mouse. Lisa would watch the pride show on the child’s face as the adult tried the tricky machine; Lisa watched the adult’s face as the man or woman mastered the lesson. Most of the adults were cautious, trying the machine once and then, with grins and embarrassment, returning to their stations at the back of the room. But two of the adults – parents of the children who sat behind the laptops, surely, although Lisa never actually inquired – soon became part of the class routine, drawing up chairs and joining the children at the table for the last few classes in the week. One was a heavy mother who gaily laughed with her daughter as they flew through the lessons together; the other was a gray-haired, solemn man with a dark face and thick moustache, who carefully followed the work of the white-dressed little girl beside him before making a slow, deliberate try himself. His daughter would confidently address Lisa in English as “Mrs. Teacher;” she was, Lisa saw, the best student in the class. Lisa could occasionally see a tentative smile emerge on the man’s face behind the moustache.

Concha had at first tried to discourage Lisa from including the adults. Lisa’s time was to be spent with the children, Concha said; that’s why the organization had sent her here. But Lisa rehearsed back several of Concha’s development economics arguments from their breakfast talks, and Concha relented. Concha’s eyes nonetheless still frowned in disapproval.

But this was the last day, now. The routine of the classroom had so quickly fixed itself, even in such a few days, that Lisa found it hard to imagine that she would not be bending next to these children tomorrow. She walked quietly along the rows, helping here, helping there. She knelt on one knee beside the white-dressed girl who sat with her father. Having finished the entire first exercise book that was the subject of the course, the two were already beginning the lessons from the second.

“You are doing very well,” Lisa said to the girl in English. Lisa had learned that the girl was also the best student in her English class in school. 

“Thank you, Mrs. Teacher,” the girl replied seriously. Her young eyes were wide as she looked at Lisa, and then across to her father beside her. He nodded gravely, his big hand on the straw hat that lay upon the table.

“And you as well, sir,” Lisa attempted in Spanish. The man made another polite nod, but Lisa wasn’t sure if she conveyed her meaning.

There was a commotion outside the door to the community centre. A voice was calling for Concha – Cliff’s voice. Lisa stood and walked to the doorway to look out. She saw Cliff and Luc walking up the earthen street from the building site, dust rising from their feet as they moved. Concha met them some distance away and spoke with them in the street, her hands on her hips in the glaring midday sun. Cliff turned and began to walk back to the building site; he carried the spare hard hat and wire cutters that Luc had now, apparently, relinquished.

Concha joined Lisa in the shade of the community centre as Luc sat on one of the benches in the centre’s forecourt by the street, pouring water over his hands from a stained thermos jug and trying to rub the dirt off them. She spoke to Lisa in a low voice. The knot of adults on the plastic chairs at the back of the room studiously avoided the appearance of overhearing.

“A supervisor came to the building site and discovered he wasn’t authorized to be there,” Concha murmured. “An insurance matter. And also, maybe, a bit of a power play. That supervisor is a little emperor, and I don’t think they showed him respect.”

“So Luc is to be a computer instructor at last?” Lisa smiled wanly.

“Only for another half-hour,” Concha said. “Then we have the cultural events in the afternoon, remember, to celebrate the end-of-programs. Luc can help you wrap up the class.” Concha squeezed Lisa’s hand briefly, and left as Luc entered the room. Lisa saw Concha stride purposefully down the dusty street, toward the building site and the little emperor supervisor and whatever other disputes might be brewing there.

In the event, there was no trouble between Lisa and Luc as he joined the class. Lisa explained to the Salvadoran teachers that Luc had previously been building houses at the construction site, but now was teaching computers; this explanation was fully satisfactory. And, despite the dirt on his jeans and the dust powdering off his shirt, Luc still bore a kind of golden, Hollywood charisma. As they slowly walked along the rows of computers each child’s brow was knit with new intensity, as if Luc were the proctor of a final examination. He bent to the children, smiling and encouraging; Lisa was relieved to see him so pleasant about it, after having been ejected from the place he wanted to be.

They wound their way to the children who sat with the parents beside them. The heavy mother continued to laugh and burble happily with her daughter; a jokester, she offered broad, meaningful glances at the handsome blonde North American. The dark-faced man beside the girl in the white dress rose to greet Luc with gravity. Luc offered his hand and the other man, perhaps not expecting the gesture, or perhaps (Lisa thought) betraying a momentary suspicion, hesitated before taking the handshake; Luc of course noticed nothing.

It was over quickly, though, and the children and teachers departed in the half-bus, and the Network for the World! and Habitat volunteers gathered along a dirt street by the volunteers’ bus. Concha pushed her sunglasses on top of her head and laid out the plans.

“OK, departure is very early tomorrow morning – six-thirty the bus leaves for the airport. So we only have a few hours this afternoon before we need to be back at the hotel.” She studied a schedule on a folded sheet of paper in her hand. “We can go to Ataco first, and see some of the artisans and crafts vendors there, and then after go to Apaneca for the canopy zip line,” she said. “Or if you want, we can skip the crafts, and spend the extra time on the zip line.” Concha looked up at the group expectantly.

“Zip line, all the way!” Cliff exclaimed. The men of the building team laughed, concurring in the choice to skip the crafts with a chorus of “Hell, yeah!”

Lisa glanced up and noticed that Luc was no longer by her side, but had rejoined the building group. She turned back to Concha.

“No, I want to go to Ataco,” she said.

Concha’s eyes glanced away from the group to Lisa and just for a moment seemed to ask Do you really?, before she turned back to the volunteers and asked if anyone else also wanted to see the crafts. One other volunteer raised a hand, an older woman who was one of the computer volunteers but who Lisa had not really gotten to know. Lisa smiled over to her but the woman did not look her way.

“OK, Ataco first,” Concha said. Groans from the building group. “Oh, stop,” Concha teased. “It’ll be quick. It’s on the way.”

As the bus drove back out of the city and into the hills Lisa felt annoyed with herself. She had known that Luc wanted to go on the canopy zip line – indeed, next to the Salvadoran drug gangs it had been his staple topic of conversation. Concha knew that the so-called cultural events that volunteer organizations planned at the end of such trips were frequently feeble and ill-organized; that was why she had offered a choice. If a group of adults wanted to spend their time on a zip line, Concha reasoned, at least it was something they wanted to do. Lisa knew all this. And Lisa had actually felt no great interest in seeing the contemporary art of Ataco. She didn’t know why she had insisted. Perhaps it was simply curiosity about what lay beyond that hairpin turn off the highway she had passed each day in the bus. But it just hadn’t seemed right, she thought, that Luc should have everything his way. She knew that Luc and she were finished; if they hadn’t been before this trip they certainly were after. Maybe that was what Concha was warning her off of – why bother now, since it can’t be helped? Lisa closed her eyes and leaned her head against the glass of the window and must have dozed off, because when she opened her eyes again the bus was already lumbering down the narrow streets of Ataco past shops and restaurants, and she had missed seeing the bus finally making the enticing turn off the highway.

The bus discharged the group along a pleasant street that allowed a long view through the village, past the gleaming white Iglesia el Calvario and to the velvet green mountains beyond. Concha gave injunctions to keep together, to have fun shopping and to meet back at the same corner in an hour. “Understand? one hour.” The group drifted away; Lisa hung back for a moment, watching Luc and the men of the building group walk toward a pupuseria that displayed a large sign above the door, promising cold beer. The other volunteers were milling, wandering uncertainly toward a store offering handmade gifts. Lisa saw the other woman who had also wanted to see Ataco point a camera at a handbag on a shelf in front of the store. Lisa looked at her watch, noted the time, and then quickly turned and began walking the other direction.

The streets of the village were paved in smooth gray stone, and lined with low, handsome colonial-style buildings. Many of the walls bloomed with wildly-coloured murals. Lisa slowed and looked at the murals. She was surprised to see them at first, so modern in style, energetic and unrestrained, but then recalled that, of course, this was the unique and contemporary art from the guidebook. She walked slowly through the streets past the murals, examining their lines and elements, appreciating them as she walked. There were other small groups of tourists who seemed European. The people Lisa took to be the village residents had strong indigenous faces. She glanced shyly at the villagers as she passed, not wanting to seem impolite. Some of the faces seemed familiar after her week teaching: here was a man with a thick moustache who looked like the father of the girl in the white dress, here was a woman with pulled-back hair who looked like one of the group who had sat at the back of the classroom. Good cooking smells surprised her at each corner, but didn’t stop her walking. She walked all the way to the municipal park in the centre of the town and sat and rested for a while, watching a group of boys kick a soccer ball against the wall of a fountain.

She then stood again and walked several streets away from the artisan district with its galleries and craft shops, and passed into blocks with houses and shops that were ordinary, utilitarian. People watched out of windows in the houses; pickup trucks with workers in the back pulled to at one of the corners, and let passengers off and on. A man on the sidewalk caught her eye; he nodded, embarrassed, and smiled shyly at her. Lisa recognized him – one of the guards from the hotel and the community centre, still keeping an eye on her as she wandered, though no shotgun in sight. She nodded silently in reply, and walked on. She circled slowly back toward the tourist district again. She looked again at the riot of colour in the murals. She found it all more pleasant than she expected.

The hour for the visit was up. Lisa walked back to the corner where their bus waited, idling; the volunteers were beginning to gather for the drive to Apaneca and the next part of the cultural events. She looked out over the streets of the village and thought again how really very beautiful it all was. The sun was still hot; it was yet early in the afternoon. Lisa felt a sudden flush of anger that she had to leave Ataco so soon.

Concha stood by the bus, counting the volunteers as they returned. Her fingers noted Lisa and Luc as well, who had materialized behind Lisa as she stepped aboard.

“Get a good walk?” he said. “Get some good culture?”

She looked at him tartly as they sat across the bus aisle beside each other. “Yes, I did. I enjoyed that,” Lisa said. “Great culture, in fact. You might try it.”

“Yeah, okay,” Luc replied, looking away.

Lisa sat staring stonily ahead for several seconds. She felt incipient tears stinging behind her eyes, though she did not permit them to be shed. She noticed her left hand gripping the steel frame of the seat rest before her, tightly, knuckles whitening. Without a word, without thinking, that hand pulled her up and out of her seat and she pushed along the aisle past the other volunteers who were boarding the bus, and down the steps and onto the sidewalk, past the driver and Concha’s turned back as she finished reckoning her count. Lisa blended herself into another group of tourists by the gift shop who were fingering the leather goods there and speaking low in a language that might have been Danish or German, Lisa wasn’t sure, and she watched as her bus insulted its gears and pulled away from the curb, laboriously shifting down the village street and leaving her with a last sight of Luc’s face behind the windowpane, his expression showing equal parts surprise and disgust with her. Or so she assumed.

Lisa walked slowly along the street after the bus had driven away, expecting at any moment to hear it returning to retrieve her. But she wasn’t going to run after it; she was tired of making demonstrations she didn’t mean. Instead, she was going to walk deliberately down this street, look at the murals on the buildings, and she would just face Concha’s accusing look when the bus came back.

But the bus did not come back. Lisa walked again down to the fountain by the central square, and again watched the boys kick their ball against the wall. Apparently her absence had not yet been noticed, and apparently Luc had not told the driver to return. She felt strange to be on her own this way, with unstructured afternoon hours suddenly stretching before her. She considered going into a restaurant to eat; she considered going into the galleries – the art on display was, she thought, quite good. But in the end, she just continued walking.

The afternoon grew late, and Lisa knew she must have been missed by now by the group at Apaneca. She came back to the fountain at the square; the boys and their ball were gone now, and she sat again to rest. She felt strangely like a child who had wandered from her parents at a fairground, and with the same dilemma: would she stay in one place so that she could be found, or would she try to find her own way? The green of the slopes beyond the village was now gold with slanting sunlight, and cut with deepening violet shadows where the ridges folded. Lisa stood, as she knew she would, and began walking briskly to the other side of the village. She was no child; she would find her own way back.

In her circuits around the village she had seen no bus stop, only the corner where the pickup trucks had stopped with their passengers. She hastened her steps, deciding that she would try that corner and see what transport she could find. She had plenty of money; at the very least perhaps she could find one of the moto-taxis that had puttered about the streets of Ahuachapan.

But the corner was less busy now in the declining light than it had been a few hours ago. There was a cluster of women standing near the corner, holding plastic shopping bags. They regarded her curiously as she approached them and attempted to ask questions. Lisa didn’t seem to know enough words to engage the women the way she wanted to; they smiled and nodded only when she mentioned place names like Apaneca and the name of her hotel. As they spoke, a pickup truck rounded the corner and pulled up at the curb, and the group of women began to climb aboard. Lisa motioned to them that she wished to board, and how much to the driver? That transaction was easily engaged.

The other women in the truck were middle-aged; Lisa smiled at them as the truck began to move and they shyly smiled back. There was enough room in the truck for everyone to sit rather than having to stand holding the metal bars above the truck bed. Lisa enjoyed the rush of warm air in the open truck, so different from the closed bus she had inhabited all week. Lisa felt weariness begin to come over her. The setting sun made a show of brightness above the volcanoes; the languor of the end of the workday rendered the women in the truck quiet.

It was not until long after the sun was down and dusk was deepening ever more into a real darkness that Lisa became concerned. She had not thought to check the road that the truck had moved onto after leaving Ataco, or to note the time of their departure. She hadn’t noticed any of her accustomed landmarks of the Ruta de las Flores on the way from the converted coffee plantation – no ridge-top cross, no sharp smell of chemicals. Or had she just not noticed? She had not been paying attention; she may have dozed. The truck seemed to be moving swiftly past open country now, fields and cropland, although in the gathering darkness it was hard to tell for sure. Lisa knew she was lost. There was no way to stop the truck, but it would not have made any difference if she could, she thought. She may as well just find out where the truck would let her off.

It was a long ride and long after dark when the roadside began to be reanimated with streetlights and parked cars. Rows of buildings with concrete walls now faced the street, concertina wire looped along their tops. The truck slowed, swerving into tighter and tighter streets as it entered a city centre. There were car horns and the chattering of moto-taxis again, loud, much louder than they had sounded behind the windows of the volunteers’ bus.

The truck pulled over at a street corner next to what appeared to be an auto repair shop. The women stood, stretching their legs slightly after the long ride, and began to move off the truck. They smiled their farewells to Lisa shyly; two of them shook her hand. Lisa followed them off the truck. The driver of the truck waved to her tiredly, pointed forward, and drove the truck away. Lisa looked to where the driver had pointed, and where most of the other women seemed to be walking. It might have been a bus terminal, but she wasn’t sure. She knew that she was in a city that she had not seen before – it was a big city, bigger than Ahuachapan. She began walking; it was full night now, and beyond the orangish glow of streetlights above her the sky was heavy black.

Perhaps she could find a telephone, she thought. Perhaps there would be a telephone operator who spoke English, and could put her through to Concha with the NFW! organization. The thought of Concha’s inevitable remonstrance made such a phone call unappealing – Do you know the risks you took? Do you know you could have been kidnapped? You could have been killed? You could have been could have been could have been?

But in any event where would she say she was? She didn’t know. She looked for clues in the signs for the shops and businesses along the street. It seemed like the city might be called Santa Ana, but that might equally be the name of the street she was walking on, or the destination of the buses leaving the terminal. She wasn’t sure.

She continued walking. There were many people on the street; she glanced at them as she passed, much as she had done in Concepción de Ataco, but she felt fear beginning to rise and the faces she passed no longer seemed familiar. Each street corner she crossed seemed to create a vertiginous perspective down the cross-street, ending in smeary, bloody darkness that the streetlights could not lighten. She walked a block and then another, and then backtracked toward the building that might or might not have been the bus terminal, because at least that building was brightly lit.

She was afraid, and it made her feel foolish. After all, she had decided to go this way. If she was lost, she was lost of her own doing. She would find her way back, she thought, and none of this would matter any more.

Lisa heard a vehicle pull up behind her along the curb. “Hello?” a small voice said behind her. She turned, uncertain what she was hearing. “Hello, Mrs. Teacher?”

Lisa searched the dark street for the voice. There was a truck parking along the curb behind her. Lisa saw the girl in the white dress – still in her white dress – from her computer class lean her face out the window. Lisa walked over uncertainly. The girl’s father was driving; the accelerator seemed to be giving some trouble and he had to keep revving the engine to prevent a stall. He nodded silently and smiled slightly from behind his moustache as if to say, Yes I saw you in Ataco.

Lisa answered the girl’s next question before the girl asked it; Lisa let herself into the truck cab and squeezed onto the seat. “Yes, Mrs. Teacher would very much like a ride back, thank you.”