"The Mournful Mist" by Mark Brazaitis

Mark Brazaitis

Mark Brazaitis is the author of nine books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose. His novel American Seasons is forthcoming from Main Street Rag. A former Peace Corps Volunteer and technical trainer, he is a professor of English at West Virginia University, where he directs the Creative Writing Program and the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop.


The Mournful Mist

I’d been working in Guatemala as a Peace Corps volunteer for a year when I read an article in La Prensa Libre about a bridge over Calle Roosevelt, a street in the capital more properly called a highway. People who needed to get to the other side of the road could, of course, walk across the bridge, the article said, but they risked encountering the thieves and worse criminals who often staked out places on it. To cross Calle Roosevelt without using the bridge, however, was its own risk. Odds were good you’d be hit by a speeding car. The article seemed more like a Kafka parable than a work of journalism, but it highlighted the Guatemala I’d come to know: a country of dilemmas and cruel ironies.

When I arrived in Guatemala in October of 1990, the country was in the middle of a presidential race, with Jorge Serrano Elias facing off against Jorge Carpio Nicolle. Both men had their enthusiastic supporters, but for some of my Guatemalan friends, cynical or perhaps only realistic students of the country’s troubled history, it was six of one, half a dozen of the other. Whoever won, they would be stuck with a Jorge.

Jorge Serrano, a protégé of the country’s former dictator, Rios Montt, won the election, but after his failed autogolpe, or self-coup, in May of 1993, he fled to El Salvador, then to Panama. Jorge Carpio suffered a worse fate. He was assassinated in July of 1993 during a tour of Guatemala’s Western highlands. The assassination was evidently spontaneous. After members of the Civilian Self-Defense Patrol, a paramilitary group sanctioned by the Guatemalan military, pulled over the minivan Carpio was in, they recognized the former presidential candidate and shot him three times. 

In the presidential race, I favored one Jorge (Carpio), the founder and editor of El Gráfico, over the other because he was the more progressive (or, rather, the less conservative) of the two and was, like my father, who worked as a reporter and columnist for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, a newspaperman. Of course, I couldn’t vote, and the Peace Corps urged Volunteers to keep as far from the country’s politics as possible. So I expressed my preference to no one, and certainly not to the other Jorge, who campaigned one morning in Santa Cruz Verapaz—the town of 4,000 people in Guatemala’s northern mountains where I’d been assigned to live and work. Townspeople had been alerted to Serrano’s arrival, and 200 of us gathered in the park to meet him. When he stepped off his bus, the crowd swarmed around him, shouting his name and shaking his hand. I stayed at the back, snapping photographs. 

Eventually, Serrano made his way over to me. He’d earned a Ph.D. at Stanford, so to him I wasn’t the exotic specimen I was to most of the Guatemalans I’d met. He was nearly as tall as I was, with skin as pale as mine (his relatives on his mother’s side were Lebanese). He looked me over, probably appraising what I was doing here. Moments later, his expression suggested he’d figured it out: I was an aid worker or missionary, a temporary resident of this verdant and impoverished town. Historically, politics in Guatemala, especially at the highest levels, wasn’t a long-term career, so perhaps he saw us both as transients. This may have explained the brotherly smile he gave me. We shook hands, the palm of an exile in the palm of an exile-to-be. 

His record as president was, at best, mixed. In 1991, he gave official recognition to Belize following a century of on-and-off war between the two countries. In 1993, he signed an agreement with Mexico so that 2,500 refugees who’d fled there during Guatemala’s civil war could return home. On the other hand, when it came to Guatemala’s fragile democracy, he was a one-man wrecking ball. During his week-long dictatorship, he suspended the Constitution and dissolved both the Supreme Court and Congress. After his bungled autogolpe, during which the military quickly turned against him, I imagined visiting him in Panama City, the two of us sitting on the balcony of his seventh-floor apartment with its view of the Gulf of Panama, drinking coffee and talking, with poetic melancholy, about what we’d lost in life (he, a presidency and a country; I, a couple of girlfriends). I could play Gabriel García Márquez to his Fidel Castro. 

Guatemala wanted Serrano extradited so he could stand trial. Panama declined. In the meantime, Ramiro de Leon Carpio, the cousin of Serrano’s opponent in the 1990 election, was appointed president. During Serrano’s autogolpe, de Leon Carpio had been on the verge of being arrested, but he escaped out of his bathroom window—or so the newspapers, perhaps hyperbolically, reported. The newspapers didn’t say what happened next. Did he hail a cab? Jump on a bus? Run to the nearest Catholic church? (The Carpios were Catholic; Serrano was Evangelical.) 

It might once have been difficult to imagine a U.S. politician resorting to a similar escape to save his life. But this was before the events of January 6, 2021, when a violent mob, hellbent on realizing its own autogolpe on behalf of a corrupt president, stormed the U.S. Capitol. One of its aims, as made evident in its chant of “Hang Mike Pence,” was to kill the vice president, whose security team doubtless would have hoisted him out of a bathroom window if it had been the clearest path to safety. Other elected officials in the Capitol had their own close calls, including Utah Senator Mitt Romney, who came within a few missteps of meeting the mob. Had they found him, would they have opted for an impromptu assassination like the masked men who killed Jorge Carpio? 

Until recently, any comparison between Guatemala—sometimes referred to derisively as a banana republic—and the United States would have been apples to oranges. But look whose politics are full of bad apples now. One hundred and forty-seven members of the U.S. Congress, all Republicans, voted against certifying the free and fair 2020 presidential election. Serrano, too, had supporters of his coup in the Guatemalan Congress. Bad apples, meet bad apples. 

Which country is more bananas now? 


The ironies I witnessed in Guatemala were often sad.

I knew a man who worked in a health center where the walls were covered with “Stop Cholera” posters. He died of cholera. 

I knew a boy who loved to walk in the mountains. He was on a hike when the army kidnapped him and forced him to become a soldier. Afterwards, he marched across the mountains with such a heavy rifle, and in such heavy boots, and with such a hideous obligation, he despised his every step. 

I lived next door to six girls who were three times smarter than their brother, their eyes flames of curiosity to his dim indifference. But it was the boy, of course, whom their parents bet on to study his way to success and pull them out of poverty. Every morning from their front door, the girls watched him as he plodded up the street to school. When they could no longer see him, they returned to the family pila, where they scrubbed soap into his shirts, socks, and underwear, dunked them in cold water, and hung them across lines in the mountain mist. When I left the country, the boy was repeating the third grade.

I was an irony all by myself, a big-city boy with a liberal arts degree assigned to teach silo-building in tiny villages. Predictably, the first silo I tried to build—it was designed to be chest high and hold 1800 pounds of corn—ended up a pile of wet concrete. The farmer I was working with fed me lunch anyway. This was especially generous considering how much he was looking forward to the silo preserving his corn harvest, which he traditionally stored on the ear in the rafters of his house. The location made the corn vulnerable to rats, who, thanks to my failure, would continue their feast.

Alas, irony wasn’t done with me. In Guatemala, I dated a woman from the States who was so abashed by her father’s bipolar disorder that she was considering changing her last name. I hoped my bonhomie would reassure her. There was no reason to run from—or not marry—me. I was happy! Couldn’t she see? 

When she told me that her father would be visiting her, I was prepared to meet one of two men: someone both alternately so manic he wouldn’t want to sleep and so depressed he wouldn’t want to get out of bed, or someone so drugged on antidepressants and antipsychotics that he would be a zombie. 

Both of my visions were grotesque caricatures, the kind of stereotypes people who suffer from a mental illness often contend with. My girlfriend’s father proved smart, kind, and funny, as, in ironic juxtaposition to her misgivings about her last name, she told me he would be—a man worthy of a daughter’s love. Even so, I wanted to show her the contrast between the two of us. In a photo I have of me and her father, my arm is around his shoulders and I am grinning with exaggerated cheerfulness. His smile is restrained and knowing—a smile similar to the one Jorge Serrano gave me—the smile of an exile who meets a comrade. He saw in me what I couldn’t see, knew about me what I didn’t yet know. 

Or so I imagined when, a decade later, fixated on all the wrongs I couldn’t right—I was terrified of the climate catastrophes my two young daughters would endure as they grew up—I spiraled into a profound depression.

We, the depressed, are exiles. Everyone around us lives in a world in which it is possible to find contentment, and even joy, whereas we live in a world emptied of even the simplest pleasures and suffused with a misery so pervasive it’s impossible to imagine it as anything but endless. That these two worlds are, in other respects, identical—same sights, same sounds, same smells—only enhances our disconnection and deepens our despair. Our pain doesn’t manifest itself physically, though it can feel like a knife to the brain, so it’s easy for even the people closest to us to believe it doesn’t exist or to dismiss it as something that can be overcome with willpower or a warm bath. 

The severest depression presents a false dilemma to its victim: live a life in which you’re so reduced by pain, anguish, and anxiety that you’re all but dead or save yourself from endless misery by killing yourself. There’s a third way across that torturous road, though if you’re wallowing in depression’s darkest miasma, it’s hard to believe it isn’t an illusion or a doctor’s or a friend’s or a lover’s sadistic lie. But with some combination of medication, talk therapy, efficacious other measures—from meditation to electro-convulsive therapy (ECT)—and, most of all, time, you are likely to see the mournful mist clear and a pathway to tomorrow beckon. 

My remedies included time (specifically a three-month stay in a psychiatric hospital) and ECT. In the days after my recovery, I teared up at whatever provoked in me even the slightest pleasure—snow falling on my head, a cat’s purr, a poem a friend had sent me. To feel joy after depression’s numbing misery was astounding. I was sure I would never again experience any of life’s uplifting emotions.

Like so much worthwhile in life a healthy mind requires vigilance to be sustained. For sixteen years, I held depression at bay. I might have done so indefinitely had I not become a politician, winning a seat on the Morgantown, West Virginia, city council in 2017. In trying to save the world, or at least a little corner of it—specifically, a 42-acre forest I hoped the city would buy from a developer and turn into a public park—I nearly destroyed myself. 

I gave more than twenty tours of the forest, held dozens of meetings with opponents of buying it, spoke on the radio, wrote newspaper op-eds, and endured a lawsuit filed against me because my house bordered the forest (as did dozens of other houses). My sleepless efforts drove me into a mania, something I’d never experienced. In the aftermath of the council’s 6-1 vote against buying the forest (mine was the single “yes” vote), I again became severely depressed. I again believed I was at an awful crossroads: live as a dead man or exit a life of seemingly endless pain, though my suicidal ideation never became profound enough to warrant a stay in a psych ward. ECT didn’t work this time. I credit my recovery to lamictal, a drug typically given to epileptics, and a friend’s insistence on summoning me from my torpor four times a week to swim with her.

I survived my two years on the city council as well as my depression. The forest wasn’t as fortunate. Half of it is gone now, sacrificed to condominiums, with the other half awaiting the developer’s next move.

I often recall a conversation I had with the grandmother of one of my good friends in Guatemala. We were standing on the family’s back patio—three generations lived in the same house—and gazing at the mountains to the east. She wore the traditional Maya güipil and corte, although her son had married a Ladina woman and her grandchildren had become Westernized. The mountains seemed lush and green to me, but she drew my attention to several bald spots, and I saw how large and unsightly they were. The degradation of the forest had begun to affect the weather, she said. She remembered more rain, cooler mornings, and few periods of intense heat.

Not having lived as long as she had, her grandchildren didn’t know the mountains as she’d known them and couldn’t, therefore, comprehend what they’d lost. “Do you understand?” she asked me.

“I do,” I said, though I understand better now.