I once went out a few times with the great-granddaughter of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, the ex-President of El Salvador. She told me stories about how crazy he was, unless, of course, you were crazy, and then he was perfectly sane. She stared at me and asked, “So, are you crazy?”
One day General Martínez looked out the palace window and saw a campesino drop in the street. He didn’t think too much about it and turned back towards a group of ministers huddled over a table. They were pointing at a map with the location of Indian villages, discussing how they might launch another massacre of the Pipil people. Put them away for good. The General and his ministers smoked and drank for hours, planning the genocide. The man lying in the street was eventually carried away to the hospital, where he died that night of smallpox.
The smallpox spread through San Salvador rapidly. General Martínez declared a national emergency and ordered colored lights to be hung from houses and placed in parks. City workers taped colored cellophane over street lamps and the city was soon bathed in a rainbow. One could not walk on city sidewalks at night without wearing a multicolored mask that turned ordinary citizens into sunsets and flower bouquets.
There were treatments for smallpox at the time, but the General was a believer in the curative value of colored lights hitting the body. He had treated his own son, who had appendicitis, by surrounding the boy’s body with bottles filled with blue water. The son eventually died, but the General said the treatment was sound and the failure occurred due to the insufficient number of blue bottles. With this in mind, he pushed the country to place as many colored lights in the streets as possible. He wanted to stop the epidemic in its tracks.
The city looked beautiful at night, but the people died by the thousands through 1935 and 1936. The Bishop of San Salvador asked the General to attend mass where he could pray to God for help in curbing the outbreak. General Martinez replied that in El Salvador, he was God.
Half-awake at 3:20 in the morning, I call my friend in Jordan. There is a complete lockdown of the country. Unfortunately, the government has not thought things through completely. People are without food, water, and cooking gas. My friend is worried about a COVID-19 outbreak in his camp of Syrians. It is snowing there.
We hang up and I lie in the dark.
I can see the Spanish infecting native American Indians with smallpox. There were so many dead that Cortez and his men had to walk upon the bodies to make their way through villages and towns. It is true. Sometimes the bodies are so thick that you have no choice. In Kibumba Camp there were thousands of bodies littering the ground. Some were dead and some were dying. This I must remember:
It was almost dark and along the periphery he noticed a dog chewing on a hand. The sight had almost no impact on him. Dogs eating the carrion flesh of human beings were minor visions and totally understandable. Excited birds, insects, cats, feral dogs, pissing microbes—all things feasted. The stench was a bonus. His flashlight went out and then a woman grabbed his ankle and wouldn’t let go. She tried to pull him down into the pile of bodies where she lay near death. Time was being squeezed by a metal press and his panicked form began to lose its balance on the edge of thirty seconds. Her fingernails ripped into his skin. He kicked her in the head with his other foot. She held on. He stepped on her arm and finally she let go. As he reached the top of the pile, he looked back at her and she vomited. The other dying congratulated her. None were ready to concede the ground where they waited. The almost dead were critics and quick to take offense. They had nothing to lose as they confronted well-meaning, but ignorant people in the most brutal way. The moon rolled down the volcano and it shone upon an open field with 10,000 dead who didn’t care about dogs or footfalls or the dying. He walked upon the dead to get to his tent and none of them seemed to mind. They were beyond such considerations and were without judgment, content to lie in the darkened crevices of unused nightmares. The dead presented fewer problems than the dying and he acted accordingly.
Everything is careening out of control. I’m alone in the house, save for Missa Him and my new dog, Matilda. I wonder about my sore throat. Is COVID-19 starting? No, it is only my allergies. The Jacaranda are in bloom. My wife is trapped in Seattle with my sick kid. I weep quite a bit. I read again the greatest French novel of all time, The Plague, by Camus. I watch again the movie, “The Painted Veil”. This is one of those stories better as a movie than a novel. I wonder how Somerset Maugham found the tale of the cholera epidemic in China? I’ve seen too many people die of cholera and typhoid and AIDS. Too many from famine and war. Too many, but it never stops. These are the things I think about in my house as COVID-19 lurks in Mexico. I recall the polio epidemic in San Miguel back in the 1950s. I knew a woman who came here during the outbreak and took the room of a girl who had just died. She noticed that the walls spoke of death. She couldn’t sleep and finally decided to move to another hotel. She had an affair with the owner of the hotel and eventually bought a house in Guanajuato where she lived for the rest of her life. If I get COVID-19 I will try to rough it out alone. I’ve seen videos of Chinese patients dying. It must be horrible. I’m sure it is. I will wait until they line the streets of San Miguel with bodies and then I will walk outside. It will seem familiar. I will be home.