The story made me daydream about my own bones, years after they’re laid to rest. I wonder if they’ll be able to tell how many salmon I’ve picked by the structure of my thumb, or see that I was a runner by the wear on my shins. It is comforting, somehow, to know that the body tells a story as long as something endures. Once words and hair and even sinew has passed away there is still a story nestled in our fragile bones.
I held a salmon this morning and imagined the story of his vibrant flesh. He was muscled and strong, still fighting to get out of my set-net as I scooped him into our aluminum skiff. As I gripped his head, my fingers firmly crooked into both gills, his frenzied writhing quieted. I thought about his body, what lay under his suit of scales.
First the bright red of meat, then the delicate, translucent bones, the shiny entrails and clots of blood. His story is a simple, powerful one. The stream where he was born calls him towards it in a voice so strong it is impossible to ignore. He will let his silvery scales brown, his sleek muscles atrophy, his body transform from beauty to rot to follow the river’s summons. Or he would do that, if I hadn’t caught him first. And thus, in the moment it takes for his fast swim to be met by a waiting, invisible net, his story merges into my own, his body one of thousands that I touch, that mark my bones.
In El Salvador, you are born into your work; a peasant farmer belongs to a family of peasant farmers and his children will follow him as long as they ignore the siren songs of America and organized gangs.
Little girls imitate the dance of their mother’s daily tortilla making, boys follow their father’s slow walks to the fields. Their bodies grow into their work; men’s hands are rough from planting, women’s from washing laundry by hand.
I tried to plant corn with them one dusty day. They follow the same methods of their ancestors, a long stick with a piece of metal sticking out, a chuzo, that makes a shallow hole for the two kernels they carefully put in. I was put in line with a ten-year-old boy.
“This isn’t that bad,” I thought to myself as I tried to keep my line straight, “now they’ll see that women from other countries are stronger than they think.” Twenty minutes later I was exhausted from the sun and there were three blisters on my hands leaking pus all over my planting stick.
“Oh no!” exclaimed the farmer’s wife, Niña Cruz, “Look what you’ve done, Armando to the nice gringa!” Don Armando looked up from the third row he had started to my first pitiful beginnings.
“Go rest, young lady,” he ordered. Then he looked back down and kept planting for five more hours. I sighed and complied.
“My body is not made for this,” I whispered under my breath as I pushed a chicken off a tree stump stool.
While Niña Cruz retrieved a cup of soda, I imagined for a moment the cool wind of Kodiak and the natural heft of a salmon in my hand. I wanted to explain to the family that I had other skills, that at home no one was judged by how they stuck a stick in the ground, but my stories felt strange in Spanish and withered when met by their uncomprehending stares.
If a forensic anthropologist ever looks at Don Armando’s bones, what will she see? The man is thin and his brown skin stretches tight over his body. His shoulder blades jut from his back, his wrists are thick cords. Will the traces of planting be left in his skeleton? The hours of plodding labor, the same up-and-down motion with his chuzo, the sun beating on his head.
In a culture where stories have been quieted for centuries by political bosses and army guns it is unsurprising that he and his family share little about their lives. While my stories are hard to finish, theirs are seldom begun.
Words, perhaps, are fickle in a place of poverty and difficulty. They are the tools of the powerful and educated and some country people are wary of them. Maybe it is our bones that hold the deepest truths about our lives, things we don’t think to say.
See this? His right shoulder is different than the left. He spent lots of time moving an object up and down. His vertebrae are compressed; he bent, maybe over the crops…