The Hill of Snakes

The American kneeled on the patio, feeding stale tortilla crumbs to the restless ants during the first morning of her research trip. Was this the same species that enslaved ants of other species? She had read about them in one of the science magazines she had torn off of a library shelf. This was during what had become a daily dash from her apartment on St. Nicholas Avenue, up the infamous 145th Street hill, to City College. All of these dusk trips blurred together in the American’s harried mind. Like a nun’s early morning devotion, the trips became a ritual, even if she was barely awake to remember the beginning of any of them. She needed to cram in a few hours of research before her first class. Often, she arrived just as the security guard unlocked the front door. Apart from the greetings of mourning doves, campus was silent.

The titles on the American’s reading list were bound by one topic, broad yet esoteric: El Salvador. Not one of the Spanish names for Jesus Christ, “the savior,” but the tiny Central American nation. Shelf after shelf promised to illuminate the mysteries of Mexico. As a European country, Spain had more than its fair share of books represented in the library catalogue. The university housed its Dominican Studies Institute in the same building as the library, so the Dominican Republic had laid its claim, too. This was, after all, New York City, a satellite Santo Domingo. None of these books interested the American, unless they contained substantial enough mentions of El Salvador to register on her library catalogue search. She only had one semester for these readings and she vowed to stick to the theme.

Book after book covered El Salvador’s civil war. Far fewer touched on indigenous genocide and discrimination. The American had soaked up more about indigo plantations in three months than she ever imagined she would in a lifetime. Once she tore through all of the history books, she anguished over the library catalogue one afternoon after class. Was that all? Had she really read everything there was to know about her mother’s home country? She scrolled and scrolled on the public computer until listings from the hard sciences started to appear. She hadn’t considered reading about El Salvador’s plants and animals, but perhaps this was just the detour she needed. Descriptions of poverty and warfare had already broken her heart many times over. Besides, whenever her mother recalled her homeland, she was quick to relate stories of animals. These stories did not make her mother cry, though they did seem to make her a little homesick.

The American observed that scientists did not write in the same manner as historians. Or maybe that was just the work of their editors. There were reading days when she barely noticed the text at all. She focused on photographs, diagrams, and illustrations. Would she spot a torogoz, the national bird, when she journeyed to El Salvador? The turquoise-browed motmot, as it is known in English, is a bright, plump bird with a long, though not particularly full, tail. Related to a kingfisher, the torogoz feasts on bugs, lizards, and fruit, just like its motmot cousins elsewhere in Central and South America. Or would the American see a black-handed spider monkey in El Salvador? She was partial to their golden orange fur and long, clumsy, dark arms. And what a tail! It could almost be mistaken for a third leg. Or would the American sight an elusive jaguar in El Salvador? She had read conflicting reports about its local extinction, but she rooted for the spotted feline. She refused to believe that the only jaguar in El Salvador was an 18-year-old male holed up in the national zoo. Sometimes, when the American slept, she met a jaguar in her dreams. They crossed paths in the forest—only for an instant—and when the intrigued American reached for her camera, the jaguar leapt into the brush.

As the spring semester ended and summer arrived, the American set about on a flurry of traveler’s tasks. She packed her bag, unpacked it, and then repacked it. She scanned her passport and emailed the .JPG to her concerned parents. She printed out maps, tickets, and lists. Night after night, she could not rest. Her departure was one long adrenaline rush. She hit the airport and the plane and all the lines at Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport and finally the taxi that, two hours later, brought her to a compound built as a Spaniard’s vacation home a century ago. The American found herself in a land so foreign to her sensibilities and, yet, it ran through her blood. Her mother’s village was just down the road. It had taken her 25 years to set foot here in Lago de Coatepeque, an area known for its azure volcanic lake. The name “Coatepeque” was an indigenous word meaning “the hill of snakes”—she knew this from her books.

The American stumbled after her Airbnb host to tour the grand home. It had been the only place available for rent that month, but now that she witnessed its full glory, she grew hot. How could anyone live so lavishly when most of the local villagers subsisted in shacks? When the tour concluded, the American collapsed in her absurd Rococo bed. Part of her regretted not immediately running into the forest in search of iguanas and toucans and all of the other wildlife that now inhabited her brain. But she needed to sleep. Four weeks of ancestral research lay ahead of her. Instead, she drifted into the dream forest, where she encountered the jaguar again. This time, it bounded toward her when she lifted her camera. The American bolted awake. Night had fallen, but just enough light shone for her to see a flattened scorpion—recently squashed—on her poppy red sheet.


Christine Sloan Stoddard is a Salvadoran-American artist making books, films, paintings, and other imaginings, including Quail Bell Magazine. Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Feminist Wire, Bushwick Daily, The Huffington Post, PANK, and elsewhere. Her latest books are Heaven is a Photograph (CLASH Books) and Naomi & The Reckoning (Finishing Line Press). More at WorldOfChristineStoddard.com.

Poppy illustration by C.B. Auder (digital collage).

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