of All Things
after the bombs went off, after the monstrous black clouds they sent up
dissipated in the gentle breeze, after the shooters, whoever they might
have been, pocketed their stubby handguns and vanished into the crowd,
after the police ceased returning fire and attempted instead, with their
superior presence, to control a multitude
But for now, she was alive. Until the shooting, the crowd had filled the cathedral to overflowing; it had backed up against the doors, spilled down the broad steps and out into the plaza, where tens of thousands of El Salvador's faithful drove elbows and shoulders into each other, where but a dozen held umbrellas over their heads as a hedge against the sun, and the majority stood acceptingly in the heat, sweat staining half-moons under their arms and triangles over their breastbones. Everywhere there was the stale odor of humanity pressed together in mourning.
Because she and the boy had come early, she had won for them a coveted spot: they stood against the iron-railed barricade separating the general crowd form the cathedral doors and from Archbishop Romero's casket, positioned there, plain and unadorned, on the landing above the steps. The casket gleamed in the noonday sun. It rested beneath a banner draped over the church entrance, a banner imprinted with Monsenor's beloved bulldogish face.
When the bombs went off, the solemn silence maintained by the multitude was debased by shouts and cries pitched high with surprise and then with terror. When the pakpakpak! Of pistols started up, the brrrttt! Of automatic weapons began, the crowd broke apart and scrambled for cover. She and the boy were pressed instantly against the barricade, but she held his arm in a fierce grip lest the swell and sway of the people sweep him from her. She tried scrambling over the barricade because it was only waist-high; she thought they both could make it, but there were people jammed against the other side, too. Bullets whizzed by both directions. Because he was not a husky boy and there was only so much they could do against the riptide of the people, he folded at her feet, his slender back against the barricade.
She used rapid blows from her elbows to gouge a space around him. She dropped down upon him, draping herself over him as if she were a truce flag. She did it because she was his mother. She did it because just yesterday she had gone to fetch him from Chalatenango, the region to the north where he lived with his grandfather; because this morning she had brought him on the bus to San Salvador, a dangerous journey over guerrilla-held land, but a necessary journey if her son were someday to state "When I was nine I attended the funeral of a martyred saint."
She spoke directly into her son's ear, her words vying with the madness surrounding them: "I am here, Nicolas," she said, struggling to keep hysteria at bay. She did not know if he could hear her, but she continued nonetheless. "Do not fear. La Virgen is with us. Monsenor is with us, too." The archbishop, newly dead, his body only meters away and not yet a statue in a niche, and already she was petitioning him for a miracle. She turned her head a bit to get a sense of things: the railings of the barricade were like prison bars. How long had she and the boy been tucked in this position? How long since a shoe had been torn off her foot? How many people had trampled her back, used her as a stepping stool to vault over the barricade? A bullet caromed near, so close the impact of it hitting the railing reverberated in her ears. She pressed her cheek once more against her son's, sought to spread herself more completely over him. "Holy Mother, protect us," she uttered.
Nicolas strained to decipher the sound of his mother's prayers. He was now lying on his side where he had tilted over, both legs drawn up to his chest, arms holding his canvas backpack against himself. He felt the soft pressing weight of his mother, her arms cradling his head, her words one hot breath after another against his cheek. The smell of her was like sweet damp earth. He imagined himself away from here. Imagined himself back home, inside the cave he had found carved into one of the hills behind his rancho. In his secret place he was confined like this, encaved, but it was a condition that brought him comfort. His cave was shadowy, but the shadows did not frighten him. On the contrary; shadows and even the deep dark were an advantage over the light of broad day, the light that could expose you and point you out as accusingly as a finger.
He heard his mother murmuring, repeating and repeating a simple prayerful phrase: "Santa Maria, Madre de Dios."
The Lord is with you, he responded, but in his head, where it was best to pray.
When the bullet found its mark, the impact caused her arms to flail upward for an instant before they flopped down. Nicolas felt the weight of her push suddenly against him and then he felt her go limp. "Mama," he said, and it was like an imploration.
Years later, when he was much older and he truly understood, when he was called to give an account of what he had lived through, he would say, "Like water pouring over stone, that is how she slipped away from me."
© 2000 Sandra Benítez
The Weight of All Things is a novel about war -- and the lunacy of it -- seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. The battleground is El Salvador. The hero is Nicolas Veras. His story begins at the funeral of assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero. Along with thousands of others, Nicolas and his mother have crowded into the plaza of the capital's cathedral to pay homage. When gunfire erupts, pandemonium ensues. With bullets flying in all directions, his mother throws herself atop Nicolás to protect him and is killed. When medics arrive to take her body away, the boy believes she is only wounded. In the melee of the moment, he loses sight of her.
The attempt to find his mother begins an odyssey that leads from one peril to another. Nicolas searches through a merciless no-man's-land menaced by guerillas on the left and the army on the right. It is a search that ends in still another massacre and a heroic gesture by the boy who comes to understand, as grown-ups seemingly do not, that guns and violence are not the answer; that, in war, there are no winners, and that the ultimate losers are the innocent caught in the middle.
"In this graceful and unabashedly tenderhearted novel, the politics behind the fighting is almost beside the point." --The New York Times
"The sheer amount of historical and cultural detail, as well as the pointed and precise descriptive work, are wonderfully rewarding." --The Chicago Tribune
"Benitez spins a lyrically heart-rending tale of a nine-year-old boy's confrontation with war." --The Washington Post
"Benitez' third novel . . . seamlessly blends fact with imagination, evoking the trauma of war more vividly than any newspaper account." --Publishers Weekly (starred reviewed)
"If your book club wants to know what to read this year, I wholeheartedly recommend The Weight of All Things. This odyssey if for all of us who are looking for 'a place where the river is wider and the water is not as deep.' " --Mickey Pearlman, author of What to Read: The Essential Guide for Reading Group Members and Other Book Lovers
"A deeply affecting and startling portrait of a country ravaged by warring factions and the innocent people caught, quite literally, in the crossfire." -- Book Magazine
"The Weight of All Things, like Kosinski's The Painted Bird, illuminates and makes particular the horrors that people at war can inflict on a young boy." --Katharine Weber, author of Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear
Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews
Sandra Benítez, who is of Puerto Rican and Midwestern descent, was born in 1941 and grew up in Mexico, El Salvador, and Missouri. She worked as a teacher and translator for many years before turning, at the age of thirty-nine, to writing fiction. Her first novel, A Place Where the Sea Remembers (1993), is set in the Mexican village of Santiago. It received both the Barnes & Noble Discover Award and the Minnesota Book Award. Her second novel, Bitter Grounds (1997), spans five decades of life in El Salvador and earned its author a 1998 American Book Award. She was a past University of Minnesota Keller-Eisenstein Distinguished Writer in Residence and won a Bush foundation Fellowship in fiction. She lives in Edina, Minnesota.