Katherine Quevedo was born and raised near Portland, Oregon, where she works as an analyst and lives with her husband and two sons. Her fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Factor Four Magazine, Triangulation: Habitats, Apparition Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. Her story “Song of the Balsa Wood Bird,” from Fireside Magazine, was selected for Tor.com’s list of Must Read Short Speculative Fiction from 2022. Her debut mini-chapbook of poetry, The Inca Weaver’s Tales, is forthcoming from Sword & Kettle Press in their New Cosmologies series. She is the daughter of an Ecuadorian immigrant to the U.S. Find her at www.katherinequevedo.com.
The Galapagos Widows
I was never predisposed to sadness. Frustration at the world, of course. A dose of disgust at humanity here and there, yes. When you grow up in the most populous region of your nation, in an industrial port city with more than its fair share of corruption, beggars, con artists, hawkers, people scraping by, people expecting bribes, so many people flung into a class system by the circumstances of birth—how can you not lean toward melancholia? But I sensed that the other women of Guayaquil, Ecuador, carried their sorrow more closely than me, bound against their bodies like those in the Andes who carry their infants in mantas wrapped snugly upon their backs.
There was plenty to love about my home, of course. The bustle and vibrance, tropical breezes, fresh produce and seafood, the growing pockets of revitalization, the proximity to scenic beaches, the subtle blending of cultures from the imports and exports flowing through our harbor. I wanted the best for my people. More of the good, less of the bad, a way to unburden that silent sadness I detected in others.
I shoved away such thoughts as I arrived to meet my father at our favorite restaurant. The ceiling fans battled against the constant mugginess from outside. Paper menus and napkins fluttered in response.
My father spotted me and rose from his chair. “Hola, Beatriz.” He wrapped me in a hug. “I already ordered our usual.”
Chifles and menestra. I grinned and scooted in my chair. Soon we were crunching on salty plantain chips and scooping up forkfuls of lentil stew and rice.
“I found some of your grandfather’s old letters,” my father said. “It’s really taking me back. I’m sorry you didn’t have a chance to know him better.”
I shrugged and took a sip of Coca-Cola, savoring its fizzy sweetness on my tongue. My grandfather died when I was very little, and he lived less in my memory and more through the stories my older relatives told me about him. Today, my father was all too eager to furnish me with another one, a recollection of something his father had told him once, about a memory sparked by one of his letters.
“You know about the Wall of Tears?” my father asked.
“A little.” I hadn’t visited the site in the Galápagos Islands, even though it was an easy flight from Guayaquil’s airport. I was still busy planning my trip to Chile next month, but I knew of the legend of the Wall of Tears, I had seen the pictures of the dark gray mound of stones built by prisoners on Isabela Island back when the Galápagos had housed a penal colony. The wall sat atop a hill, then and now guarding nothing, and its grueling construction had cost many their lives. This happened after the days of the pirate strongholds on the archipelago, and before the islands gained fame as the bastions of biodiversity that draws so many tourists today.
My father crumpled his napkin in his fist. “It gets its name from all the deaths it caused and how pointless the wall is, yes, but more specifically from the energy and the sounds. They say you can hear the prisoners’ cries when the wind blows through the stones.”
The fan overhead rattled. A lock of my hair fluttered against my cheek. I forced myself not to jump, not to brush it away. “What does this have to do with Abuelo?” I asked.
“He heard cries for those who didn’t even make it that far, who don’t have a plaque to commemorate them.”
As a young man, my grandfather had finished at the top of his law program at the University of Guayaquil and earned the position of Secretary of the Court for the city. He’d worked in a building not far from the main street, Nueve de Octubre, overlooking the Guayas River. This much I knew. But now my father told me more. Early one morning, as my grandfather approached the building to start his workday, a chilling sound met his ears. Wailing—faint at first, like the humid mist drifting over the Guayas, clouding his perception, then growing louder. A dark throng moved into view: women who’d shed their usual pale, subdued dresses for black robes of mourning.
My grandfather listened to them. They’d learned terrible news about their husbands, sons, and grandsons, imprisoned here in Guayaquil for crimes either unknown to my grandfather, or deliberately unmentioned (and all the more mysterious to me). Their loved ones were to be transferred to the penitentiary on the Galápagos Islands. It is a death sentence, the women cried—and they didn’t just mean because of the Wall of Tears. My grandfather listened to them, and in doing so he discovered that the soldiers transporting the prisoners would shoot many of them in the course of the journey, dropping their bodies overboard into the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps they carried out these secret executions due to limited rations on the archipelago, or to intimidate the surviving prisoners. Or out of impatience to see a life sentence come to its end. Or to fulfill some even fouler inclination hidden in the folds of their beings, beyond these other rationales.
My grandfather listened to the wailing and lamentations. He’d never heard of this particular brutality and didn’t know the women’s source. But he believed them. Such was the cruelty he’d witnessed in his day.
My father leaned forward in his chair. “Somehow, the women knew.”
I dragged my fork through what was left of my menestra. “Wow, that’s a pretty heavy topic for lunch.”
“I thought you should know, mi hija.”
As if I should conjure my own wall of tears at the thought.
Later that week, I spotted a thick line of people filing down a street at the edge of town, with a cluster of them hoisting a plain wooden box upon their shoulders. A funeral procession from one of the slums, headed for the tall brown hillside dotted with simple white crosses. It was as much as they could afford.
Was it possible for one’s heart to break with no discernable welling of emotion? I felt for them, but maybe that wasn’t the same thing. The wind pressed the humidity against my cheeks as though to make up for my lack of tears.
At last, I took my trip to Santiago, Chile. As expected from my research, I found the city clean, safe, full of airy parks and well-lit streets devoid of potholes and embellished with proper crosswalks. Cars didn’t honk at each other constantly. No one expected bribes, and in fact, they looked offended at the prospect of me offering one. What would it take for my country to make such a leap? I felt secure while exploring the metropolis on foot and via taxi and subway, though I fielded a few glances here and there at my slightly darker complexion, my accent with the sharper double-L sound.
On a whim, I decided to visit the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. I descended the stairs from the street-level sidewalk to the broad sunken plaza in front of the museum entrance. The wide, rectangular building stood three stories high, with sheer, blue-green glassy walls stretching like Andean cliffsides. Inside, some exhibits had screens playing black-and-white footage on a loop, including one showing the bombing of the Chilean presidential palace, the scene of Salvador Allende’s assassination, with a voiceover of his final broadcast. Hearing someone’s final words, their last message out to the world, chilled me. I moved past walls of photographed portraits and through displays of artifacts, letters, posters, buttons, and other paraphernalia, arriving at a second-floor exhibit with another screen.
This one showed interviews with survivors of the 1970s coup, each describing the imprisonment and tortures inflicted upon them during the resulting dictatorship. An older woman, with hints of stolen innocence in her lined face, described being bound to a metal bedframe and electrocuted. I wanted to turn away and hide. I also wanted to stare and take it all in. I wanted to spectate in secret, play the voyeur, dabble in someone else’s life-afflicting misery from the safe distance of an audience member, a tourist.
Then, I rounded the corner.
A wire bedframe. Black and slightly curved as though bowing with human weight, the whole thing as stark as naked, emaciated ribs. Not a photo; this was the real thing sprawled indecently in front of me, casting a checkered shadow on the wooden floor. At one end, a tangle of wires snaked from the metal bed to a box on a stand. As soon as I caught sight of it, a low hum of electricity sounded off in the distance, insect-like, insidious, raising the hairs on my neck. No, it wasn’t far away, just quiet and all around. I glanced to and fro trying to detect the source of the faint buzzing, as if the energy coursing through every bulb and screen throughout the museum chose to reveal itself to me in that moment, threatening to activate the torture device in front of me.
The sound grew more distinct. Not a buzzing—a wailing. Many tongues undulating, throats constricting, agony and desperation pouring forth. The women. They’d followed me across two generations, all the way down the Pacific coast! I knew in that moment, in the kernel of my soul, that they’d hound me, even if I flew to Patagonia and beyond, to the farthest, iciest reaches of the Earth. My father’s words echoed in my mind, barely discernible over those lamentations, but I heard his voiceover of my grandfather’s experience so long ago on that inauspicious morning at the courthouse: Somehow, the women knew.
I slapped my hands over my ears. Other museum visitors furrowed their brows or raised their eyebrows at me, some pointing as I fled the building hunched with my palms pressed to the sides of my face. How could those strangers possibly understand? What else could I do? I was powerless. You can’t block out a sound that isn’t there.
That night I saw the first of the faces. She stared out from the pattern in my hotel bedspread, wearing an expression between abjection and rage. I ended up squirming in fitful sleep in the armchair, which I’d turned toward the corner.
The second one found me at the hotel’s continental breakfast the next morning. She had different facial features but the same expression, watching me, unblinking, from the lines in a rumpled cloth napkin on a neighboring table. I had nowhere else to sit but across from it. From her? I fidgeted with my pastries and grapes while slow, instrumental versions of 1980s pop hits from the U.S. and England droned on in the background. I worried that if I looked at her too closely, the music might morph into that wailing again. I couldn’t help it, though. I met her nonexistent eyes.
Unreachable pain and sorrow. White crosses scattered across a hillside. Dark stones piled on an island. The forgotten, the washed away, the silently buried. The music swelled up in a trill, and I couldn’t tell if that was actually part of the song or not. My food withered to ash on my tongue.
They came in pairs the rest of that day, as though to emphasize that they outnumbered me. Why, they seemed to ask, must one latch onto an individual to feel the most deeply moved? Like those portraits and interviews at the museum, each singling out a particular experience to drive home the magnitude of repercussions across many lives. Even a country like Chile, making the leap from a developing nation to a developed one, had its skeletons. And I knew a bit about neighboring Argentina’s history of military dictatorship, the killings via death flights, people drugged and dropped from planes. I shuddered. It reminded me of those Galápagos-bound prisoners. Those women who’d encountered my grandfather—how, how had they known? How did they still know?
As my plane back to Ecuador took off, I wept at last. I’d chosen to visit Chile to see the star performer of our continent, a role model of what we could work toward and achieve. It was so beautiful, enchanting, and real, but at a cost. We could take no shortcuts to progress. Steps in the right direction still cast their shadows, long and restless. Our poor, unacknowledged dead. I mourned for them. I hoped for a moment, selfishly, that my tears would satiate those faces and earn me some peace. But no. And like that sound at the museum, I quickly learned on my flight that you can’t reason with or intimidate or outstare a face that isn’t there.
As soon as I arrived back home, I called my father.
“¡Hola, Beatriz! How was Santi—?”
I cut him off. I had to know more, had to ask. “What did Abuelo do? After he listened to those women in front of the courthouse? Was he able to help them? Did he put a stop to the shootings?”
“Ay, it’s complicated. He was so early in his career. I’m sure he did what he could. But it stayed with him, you know. Later on, when he became a judge, he built such a reputation for his fair, intelligent, perceptive verdicts that local law students would attend his trials to take notes.”
Steps in the right direction. Long, disturbed shadows.
More faces watched me from the walls as I paced with the phone in my slippery hand. They had invaded my home.
Now I see the faces everywhere, precisely because I don’t know their true individual looks from when they were alive. Each set of features, each countenance, drifts across my vision as a great haunting cipher. I’ll spy a face in the shadows of a rock, in the bark of a tree trunk, in the wrinkles of a poncho. Facelessness confers its own power, often when it’s too late to benefit the faceless, through its ability to haunt. Their anonymous suffering glares out at me from whorls in the ceiling, from clouds patterned just so, from an unfortunate swirl of coffee foam.
When one finally looks for the faceless and notices them at last, who stares back? Now I know who—that robed, veiled, unnamed throng ready to vocalize their anguish, if we have ears for the unearthly sound. If only we had stomachs for the guilt. Some nights, just as I drift off to sleep, I hear that banshee-like call carried on the warm wind. But these spirits actually walked this Earth. They gazed into my grandfather’s eyes. They heralded death in their own way, but not of the person they haunt, no. That leaves them free to seek out any unsuspecting soul for whatever their purpose may be, doesn’t it?
I don’t know what they ask of me. That’s what frightens me most of all.
I do know that they seem to revel in their collectiveness. Perhaps that’s the key. They can no longer beg for the lives of their loved ones, nor for their own; perhaps all they ask for now is a name.