*** OK... Rather than write a blog post, I started with renewed fervor this week working on a book about our experience as missionaries in Guatemala. It's been several months/years in the making. I'm about halfway finished. So, this blog post is a "cheat." Just posting Chapter One of the book... happy for any feedback you might have... good, bad or otherwise.***
Chapter One: The Chicken Killer
“I killed Graciela’s chickens.”
The confession poured forth from my mouth like something from an episode of Law & Order. I nervously paced across the floor of our tiny adobe casita.
Taking off her hiking boots, Gabby turned toward me. With that look of half-contempt and half-curiosity that wives throughout the ages have mastered, she repeated my statement, phrased as a question.
“YOU killed Graciela’s chickens?”
“Yes. I killed her chickens with my vomit.”
Minutes ago my wife and I had been munching on a dinner of hand-patted corn tortillas, rice, beans and watered down instant coffee with Martin, Graciela, and their six kids – the Guatemalan family that had adopted us for a year. Huddled around a large, unsteady table, we ate silently as the family conversed.
Though we’d been in Guatemala for seven months, it felt as if our Spanish fluency was hovering somewhere between Antonio Banderas and Larry the Cable Guy. Still, as Graciela told her story, her intonation allowed us to get the gist of things. She spoke in the slow, gentle, vowels-last-for-an-hour brand of Spanish that is typical of Mayan women who learned Spanish as a second language.
“Los pollitos murieeeeeeeron de la enfermedaaaaaad. Toooodos! Ya saaaaabe es la eeeeepoca.”
“The little chickens died of “The Sickness”. All of ‘em! It’s that time of year, you know.”
I nearly choked on my frijoles.
I’m no chicken farmer, but I have a hard time believing that there exists a very consistent, predictable “Chicken Sickness” that comes along every year at tax time and wipes out every clucking hen within the borders of a Central American country. I’ve heard of the Plague of Livestock from Exodus, but I believe chickens received some sort of “white meat” exemption, right?
Harder to believe was Graciela’s tone. She was surprisingly nonchalant about the chicken deaths. For most of us, hearing the word “chicken” conjures up images of The Colonel and a bucket of extra crispy. To Graciela and poor Guatemalans like her, the chickens represent much more.
In her community, women are second-class citizens. After months of eating our body weight in rice, beans, noodles and tortillas, we had come to learn that meat is expensive and scarce for poor Mayans. A woman who raises chickens and generates income for herself and her family is a big deal. The chickens that Graciela cared for were a living, breathing business for her. The chickens represented good fortune. The chickens were hope, covered in feathers.
And I had killed them with my vomit.
“How do you kill chickens with vomit?” Gabby asked, getting ready for bed, back in the confines of our casita.
“You heard her!”, I barked. “It’s gotta’ be my fault. Not Colonel Mustard - in the Library - with a CandleStick. Nope. It’s Scott - By the Chicken Coop - With Puke.”
“But how?” she pressed.
I continue. “Remember when I got that stomach bug last week when my parents came to visit?”
“Yes, I remember your parents coming to visit,” she confirms.
“Well I wen…” I try to move on, but Gabby interrupts.
“But I don’t remember the stomach bug.” she says, making mocking air quotes in my direction. “What I do remember is you being sooooo nervous about your mom having to maneuver around chicken poop, eat mysterious food, and pee in a hole in the ground for three days that you made yourself ill.”
Caught off-guard, I consider defending my intestinal fortitude until I realize that she is probably right. I am an expert worrier. If worrying was a martial art, I’d be a 10th degree black belt. I gloss over this blow to my manhood and carry on with the story.
“Whatever. Late that night, I felt my stomach churning, and knew I was in trouble. I ran out of the casita toward the baño" (our term for the concrete seat over a large hole in the ground) "and realized I probably wasn’t going to make it, especially since I had forgotten the flashlight. So, I ran over to an open space and… well… got sick.”
I looked at her.
“So?” she questioned.
“The open space was the chickens’ ‘area.’ The coop! I contaminated their space! They probably died ‘cuz they caught what I had. By exposure to my puke. Or eating it.”
“Well! They’re kinda’ like free range birds! It’s not like they’re sitting there ordering off a menu, making sure they eat equal amounts of protein and carbs! They just eat whatever is on the ground, and that ‘whatever’ was really bad! I know I killed them.”
“Scott. You’re overreacting. I sincerely doubt you killed the chickens with your vomit.”
But I couldn’t get this idea out of my head. What kind of missionary kills a poor woman’s chickens!? Her livelihood! The guilt was heavy. Such a thing is not very Jesus-like. As we lay there in the dark, I tossed and turned on our makeshift twin bed. This obviously kept my wife awake. Noting my genuine concern, her words cut through the blackness,
“If you’re really that worried about it, I think you should just talk to Graciela about it in the morning. What can it hurt?”
The next morning, I woke to the sound of a rooster crowing. Not our rooster, mind you, but someone else’s. It appears Foghorn Leghorn survived the “great plague”. This only solidified my theoretical position. I’m a chicken killer. Not some “Chicken Sickness.” Me.
Gabby and I walked from the casita, across the dirt patio, to the cinder block structure that served as the kitchen. We entered the room and found the table set, our breakfasts ready as usual. The meal consisted of a few corn tortillas and leftover rice and beans from the previous night. Most of the rest of the family had eaten before we even got out of bed, so it was just me, Gabby, Graciela, and Josesito, our two-year old host brother.
We ease into breakfast conversation, and I gingerly approach the subject. My insides want to come out and confess, like some made-for-TV-movie. I want to shout “I did it! I killed your chickens! I never meant to hurt anyone, but I was just so nervous and careless! I puked all over them! Take me away! Lock me up and throw away the key! Tear up my missionary card – the laminated one! It’s in my wallet! I’m not worthy!”
But I can’t think of the Spanish word for “laminated.”
Instead, I ask,
“Graciela. Tell me again what happened to your chickens?”
She tells the story again. No frills. Just the facts. Same as yesterday.
“So this happens every year?”
“Sí”, she continues. “The chickens just start moving slowly, or not moving at all. Some people give them treatment.”
I imagine a little chicken hooked up to IV antibiotics. Laying in a motorized bed made out of hay. Watching a TV that’s mounted on the wall. Graciela hovering over him with a chart in her hand.
“Sí, tratamiento. Les dan asi tambien o fin.”
In my head, I am translating her words. Literally, they mean “Yes. Treatment. They give them like that also or the end.”
Is this some weird saying that makes no sense out of context? All languages have them, right? Like in English, we say silly things like “knocked up” to refer to getting pregnant. The literal translation makes no sense, but if you know the lingo, you understand. So, I run the last four words through my brain again.
Asi. (like this/that)
Fin. (the end/final)
Nope… still means “like that also or the end.”
Scott no comprendo.
“Graciela. What do you mean by ‘asi tambien o fin?’”
Graciela giggles and covers her mouth to hide her embarrassment caused by the fact that what once was a “prom queen” face has been aged by hardship and a few missing teeth due to a lack of access to dental care. Her laughter means one of two things. Either I just told a joke, or completely misunderstood her.
“No!” she says, still masking a grin. “Una palabra. Acetaminofen.”
“Oh! One word! Acetaminophen!”
She nods in agreement.
Now I’m laughing. Not so much for the miscommunication as for the image that is now in my head. What once was a chicken on IV antibiotics is now a chicken struggling to open a tamper-proof bottle of Tylenol.
“So how do you give a chicken acetaminophen?” I ask.
It appears that the image in my head is not too far from the truth. Graciela went on to explain that she and the kids would chase the chickens around the yard, corner them by the woodpile, and wrap their arms around their flapping wings to keep the mayhem to a minimum. Once a chicken was in hand, Graciela - whose name literally means “grace”
Would pry open the chicken’s tiny beak and shove a couple of big pills down its throat with her index finger.
Well. That oughtta’ fix ‘er right up!
My guilt fades as I warm to the idea that it was likely not my queasy belly that caused the great “chicken deaths”, but rather, the Tylenol. I’m no doctor, but I think 500 milligrams per bird exceeds the chicken dosage instructions listed on the bottle by about a million percent. It’s a poultry OD for sure. Like giving a grown man a Big Gulp full of liquid Robitussin. It’s a comic beginning to a day that is faded around the edges by reality.
Here is a woman who had spent hard-earned money on a few chickens, hoping only to turn that investment into a few more Quetzales. Money she could use to buy some shoes for her two-year-old, some thread to mend a blouse, or some school supplies for her daughter. Instead, her poverty - a product of decades of bad government, bad education, bad luck, and bad choices – keeps this tiny dream from becoming a reality. And it’s in this moment, as with many moments, that I grasp the magnitude of the task before me.
This is all part of being a missionary. Starting with a desire to save the world, only to realize that the world is not yours to save.
So what’s the point?
And how did I get here in the first place?