I Knew There Was a Bridge

Photo by Tarcila Mesquita on Pexels.com

by Michelle Donahue

issue 66

When I entered the house, what I first noticed was the smell—like bleach and rose petals—a scent I didn’t then understand as death.

I was somewhere in Belize. I was alone on some small farms nestled in the jungle’s edge of Hummingbird Highway. Though it was one of the four main highways in Belize, it was only two lanes. I’d originally had other plans. I was in Guatemala because I was young and wanted adventure, because I was trying to do research for a novel set in Tikal. I wanted to learn more about the ancient and modern Maya. I wanted to experience this jungle that had once been home to such large civilizations. I had volunteered to work at an organic farm close to Punta Gorda, Guatemala. But a week before I had planned to leave the Petén, Guatemala’s jungle, and descend south toward Punta Gorda, the farm owners emailed and said they were deluged from a hurricane off the coast. Ten feet underwater. Closed indefinitely.

I’d been in Guatemala for six weeks. I was nearly out of money and needed a free place to stay in exchange for work. And so here I was, last-minute on a farm, in a house that smelled of death, in what seemed the most reasonable option.

The owner, a dual American and Belizean citizen, dropped me off. He said the woman next door, one of two houses in sight, needed my help. He said for the next three weeks I could stay in the house and help with her juice business, clean his house, and keep an eye on his farm. Before I had even opened the front door, he had departed to Belize City to catch a flight to Florida.

The moment I stepped inside, I smelled it. A smell that clung to each wall and diffused to the two upstairs bedrooms. It wasn’t difficult to find its source, an abandoned rat in the middle of the tile floor, visible from the front door, from the staircase. A rat as I had never seen it, so unlike the kinds sold in pet stores. My grandmother had a rat once, and though it viciously bit my mother and sister, it was attractive, pale caramel, well groomed, and small, so much smaller than this black, grizzled body. At first I thought it might be a cat or else some other jungle creature I couldn’t name.

I wanted to deal with the rat immediately, because of the smell, that evidence of rot, those corpse particles that were entering my lungs with each breath. I also didn’t want to deal with it at all. Already I felt I didn’t belong there, that this dead rat was not my duty to bear. But the smell demanded attention. After I deposited my backpack upstairs, I surveyed the house for supplies. A bucket, non-potable water from the sink, some white vinegar, dish soap, a black garbage bag, a stained towel. It would have to be enough.

Its face was intact, except for its eyes, which were hollowed and gutted. Its stomach, split open by some unknown force, revealed red, dried innards. I covered my mouth and nose with the towel and examined that sinew and flesh, at once overwhelmed and intrigued by the extent of the decay and gore. There was black fur everywhere, shed from the ruptured stomach. I wish I hadn’t looked so closely, hadn’t memorized that image, the dried skin, fraying fur, bright red stomach peeled open and inviting. I thought blood dried dark, but something had made this rat maintain its vibrancy.

This wasn’t the worst part. What I hadn’t expected, hadn’t prepared my stomach for, was when I wrapped my hand in the garbage bag, encased the rat in plastic and attempted to grab his body. It must have alarmed the maggots that called his body home. Suddenly the rat, which I had believed so stiff and still, became white motion.

There’s nothing more grotesque than a mass of writhing maggots, or at least that’s what I thought as they scattered, as it seemed like they flung themselves out of the dead body and onto the tile. It was as if their movement, or their mere presence, intensified the smell. That was almost the end for me. My stomach almost protested too much. I screamed. I’m not normally a screamer, but I was so aware that I was alone, that there was both no one here to save me and no one to hear my possibly embarrassing scream, that I allowed this noise to continue, allowed curses and coughs and gags. I plunged the rat into the garbage bag, dumped vinegar over the maggots, and tried to capture those squirming bodies with my towel.

What I remember: the pattern the maggots made on the floor, their yellowed bodies alongside the dirty, white tile. The dark red tips of their heads forming violently bright pinpoints of color.

Even after I disposed of the body, killed every maggot, swept up the rat hair, and poured dish soap and vinegar over the tile, the smell refused to dissipate. I opened every window and hoped and waited. I fled to the outdoors.

The man had said this was a farm, but it seemed like the jungle to me, with the humid air that smelled of fresh green, the threes adorned with thick vines. A river ran nearby, and its sound, along with the breeze, ensured a constant whisper. This was what I had wanted. I had long imagined the Central American jungle, this land where the ancient Maya once lived, and being here, with no real signs of humanity—no streets or telephone poles or even people—gave me a sense of what it might have been like for the Maya all those years ago. What it might have smelled like, felt like, how the beauty of this landscape of mountains and rolling jungle might have swelled their hearts and smiles.

Being alone, in a place so few modern had seen, made me remember the beauty that had drawn me to Guatemala. In magazines I’d seen the burnt washed colors of the old buildings in Antigua, the cool peaks of mountains in the highlands, the jungle jeweled with Maya ruins in the Petén. I’d seen all of that beauty in the past six weeks, but I’d also discovered the unbeautiful. As I tried to converse in Spanish with Maya women in the marketplace, one woman said that things were better now, since the period of instability that ended in 1996, but what I hadn’t known was that this war was better described as genocide. Over 200,000 Maya were killed. In Spanish they say people were disappeared. I always thought that passive construction implied both magic, some spontaneous vanishing, and a lack of agency which eliminated the capacity for remorse. To be disappeared was to become only a body, a corpse to be disposed of and forgotten.


Once the smell from the dread rat had grown less pungent, I returned indoors, because I was thirsty and hungry. The woman whom I was supposed to help would be gone to Belmopan for most of the day, though she would be home that night for dinner. It was morning, and I was alone, which I felt most strongly when I realized certain limitations. For instance, clean water. I couldn’t drink the tap water, and though there was a stove, the gas canister stood beside it, unconnected. I had no internet, no phone, and no idea how to hook up the gas to the stove. I feared a mistake would result in a leak, or worse, an explosion. I imagined the gas catching fire, how quickly the flames would spread through the house, through my body, so I could join the rat, so that I too could permeate the house with the scent of dead flesh.

I also worried about food. There was trail mix in the cupboard, and it seemed fresh enough, or at least there were no maggots. There was oatmeal, but that required water and heat. There was a microwave, but I wondered if I could boil water for a sufficient amount of time to make it safe. I tired. I put a glass bowl in and set it for ten minutes and watched that bowl turn and turn, waited for the water to boil. It did only timidly, and once a few bubbles popped, the water settled down and refused to maintain its boil.

I abandoned the bowl and turned my attention to making the house habitable. I couldn’t imagine anyone could live here, and it wasn’t just the lingering smell from the rat. There were cobwebs in every corner, strange, black pill-like remnants in the crevices. I guessed it was some sort of insect, long dead and dried. They were everywhere. But there was evidence that people had been living here. In one of the two bedrooms, the one I hadn’t claimed, the sheets were undone and pillows covered the bed. There were children’s clothes in a pile in the corner. The owner had mentioned there was a Maya family next door, and he had once employed their son to help him on the farm. I wondered if they had entered his house, had claimed the bedroom.

I continued cleaning. With the passing hours, as my stomach began rumbling, I felt more and more trapped. I decided to see if the woman had returned early. Her house was maybe a ten-minute walk from the farm. I hadn’t even neared if when I heard a dog barking and saw some mutt, probably part black Lab, running toward me, baring his teeth. This was the only time I’ve been scared of a dog. I thought about what would happen if I were bitten. I would stumble, shed blood in this jungle. I would never find the road that would take me to some city, some hope of a hospital with rabies shots, proper dressings, and clean water.

I ran back to the house and thankfully the dog didn’t follow me, didn’t view me as a threat. After all, I wasn’t a threat. I had almost no food and water, no contact with the outside world. If I died here, who would know where to find my body?

It’s difficult to stop thinking about what horrifies us.

In Guatemala I couldn’t stop myself from seeking out information about the war crimes, from reliving those horrors. The allure came from the shock, and a sense that no one, no animal even, should be treated like the Maya were, to be rounded up and raped and slaughtered, to be forced to kill their own people, fathers killing their children and the reverse. But my guilt also came because it was the United States that organized and funded the coup d’etat against President Guzmán in 1954, which led to the instability and a decades-long reign of terror. It was Americans, who were so afraid of fictitious communists that we funded this genocide masquerading as civil war. It seems our government knew of the war crimes, too.


When I returned to the house, the door was unlocked. I had locked it. The clothes had vanished from the bedroom. I heard rustling downstairs, and this scared me much more than the dog had. I’d always been inclined to trust animals over people. As I went down the stairs, I wished I had a weapon. I knew it was likely someone kind, not someone there to harm me. The mother, perhaps, from the family next door, or else a child.

It was the eldest son. He spoke mainly Mayan, so we conversed poorly in Spanish. His youngest sisters had been sleeping in the bed upstairs. I insisted it was fine, insisted that they continue to sleep there. I didn’t want to deprive any child of a bed. He said no, this was my house for now. I said it wasn’t, but he left.

It took me some time to quiet my heartbeat. I’ve never been the sort of woman to be scared, to see ghosts where there were none. But before my trip, so many adults, all of them women older than I, urged me not to travel alone. Find a man to travel with, they all said. I had tried, but even that trying felt degrading somehow, like I needed a man, tall and strong and whatever else, to protect me. Once I had arrived in Guatemala, I felt safe. At five-foot-seven, I was taller than any man I met. And I was cautious. I returned to my hostels before dark. I didn’t wander the streets drunk. But seeing that man inside the house frightened me, even though he was shorter than I was, and I was certain I could take him in a fight, because I was larger and better nourished. Seeing him in a house I had expected safety from, a locked door at least, made him feel like an intruder, made him feel like a threat.

What was worse, I was the real intruder. What was worse, I had so immediately imagined the worst and pictured him a threat, some man capable of such violations.

I kept imagining him and his sisters entering the house, choosing to sleep here amid the smell of dead rat. Opening the door, ascending the stairs, they must have seen that decaying rat, front and center on the white tile. They must have chosen to leave it there. I couldn’t imagine that choice. In that instance, I thought them barbaric, though I hate to use that word, to even suggest for a moment I thought them savage. I use these loaded words deliberately, regretfully. Never had I felt so unable to comprehend another’s inner life. Never had I felt so overwhelmingly ashamed by an emotion, a thought formed nearly instantly. But I kept returning to the rat. How could they leave it there, for what must have been days, possibly weeks? How could they have faced that smell every night?

My shame was heightened further because this family was Maya, a culture I’d been reading bout for years, a culture I had been trying to understand, at least a little. That’s what this trip was about. Of course, this one Maya family in the Belizean jungle no more represented Maya culture in its entirety than I represented American culture, but I’d imagined I would have had more compassion for them, less awe, and on some level, repulsion. All it took was a dead rat for me to be unable to comprehend them.

I don’t know why it’s sometimes so easy to see others as different. It’s not that I felt I was better, because I certainly didn’t, but it was that I became tangibly aware of my privilege, my upbringing, and that this place was not mine to explore. I’d come here by accident. I’d met a man on Caye Caulker, during lobster fest, and had followed him home. I was only here through chance.

I knew I had to leave this place. I was further resolved in this when the woman returned, and we had a small dinner, and it became obvious she didn’t need my help. That I would be a burden. I thought I would leave in a few days, once I could determine how to go about it, where the road was, which bus to take, which large city to flee to. But that night, as rat decay filled my nose, I knew it would have to be the next morning. It was running from something, rather than giving back what was never mine.

At 6:00 AM I left the house with half a bottle of water, the equivalent of twelve US dollars, no food, and no idea where I was going or how I could get there. I knew there was a bridge where I could cross the river then find the highway. I remembered it was somewhere near the woman’s house. Every step I took, I wondered if there might be some poisonous snake I would step on. I knew I was woefully unprepared for any of this, that one misstep could be disastrous.

I heard the woman’s dog barking. He sounded ready for an attack, but I kept walking. I should have been scared. All my readings about the Guatemalan genocide had made it abundantly clear how fragile bodies are. But I wasn’t scared. I was confident I would find the bridge, locate the road, hop on some bus to a city with ATMs and Wi-Fi. This is what my upbringing had taught me. I had luck on my side. I was not the sort of person who would die.

I was the sort of person who would be haunted by a decaying rat, as I would also be haunted by what I’d read about the genocide. The rat’s haunting was more visceral, a sudden swell of bodily disgust, whereas the genocide was lingering, a sort of dread that had settled in my body. A dread complicated by my own role in its horror, not only as an American, but as a tourist who had thought a Maya family strange and uncivilized, because they had allowed a rat to decay in their house. What horrified me was their ability to sleep alongside death. To live with it in their lungs.

I found the bridge. The dog didn’t attack me, and I didn’t step on any snakes. I found the road and waited for a bus. I decided either direction would do, right or left, Dangriga or Belmopan; it didn’t matter. I waited on that road for a very long time with no company but the mountains.

A few cars went by, appearing as if from nowhere around a curve. Their sound hit my ears only after they had passed me, as if there were a delay in time and experience, as if I could only experience what had already occurred.

Once I had left, I was more capable of imagining a life that would have driven me to accept the presence of a decay rat in my house. In such a life, perhaps I had learned to accept death, cherish it, understand life’s cycles, so that the rat was not a concern. In another life, perhaps I had seen so much that a dead rat and its stench seemed small, seemed to be nothing. A life where I would notice the warm, soft bed and not the rat decomposing on the tile.

A bus drove by, and I waved my hands wildly. I thought the bus driver and I locked eyes, but he didn’t stop. I worried that the bus only made certain stops, that I was once again in the wrong place. I began to walk. I followed the direction of the bus, hoping if I walked long enough, either another bus would come or I’d come upon a person I could ask.

I walked for over an hour until I saw some tin roofs in the distance. It was hot and I was almost out of water. There were two nuns on the side of the road. I’d never been so relieved to see nuns. I was so relieved to know that I could walk up to them and speak English, the official language of Belize. To know that they would have answers, would be able to tell me which way was Dangriga or Belmopan, where the bus would stop, how much it would cost, what I might do once I arrived in a city. And yes, I was relieved that these two women were dark-skinned, likely Creole or Garifuna, certainly not Maya. For a moment, I was relieved that I could forget the Maya family and the pit in my stomach that formed, not from the fear that I could never leave that place, but from the guilt that I knew I could.