The Trace in the Bones

Leila Guerriero

Artwork by Samuel Hickson

The room is small, barely four square meters. A grainy blue light filters in through the window. The ceiling is high; the white walls are scuffed. The office is in an old apartment in the heart of Once, a commercial neighborhood of Buenos Aires. It is discreet. No one lands here by mistake. The wooden floor is covered in newspaper upon which lies a striped sweater, ripped; a shoe, rigid and twisted like a black tongue; some socks. Everything else is bones. Tibiae and femurs and vertebrae and skulls, pelvises, jaws, teeth, and ribs, in pieces. It's 4:00 p.m. on a Thursday in November. Patricia Bernardi stands in the doorway. She has big eyes, short hair. She picks up a femur and rests it on her thigh.

"Women's bones are elegant." And it's true: the women's bones are elegant.

From 1976 to December 1983, Argentina's de facto military dictatorship kidnapped and executed thousands of citizens. Their bodies were buried under the name "NN" (Nomen Nescio) in clandestine cemeteries. In May 1984, democracy restored, The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo (a group of women searching for their missing grandchildren) convened seven members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Among them was a forensic scientist, a specialist in bones: someone who could read the traces left by life and death.

Clyde Snow was born in Texas in 1928. He had gained prestige by identifying the remains of Josef Mengele in Brazil. He drank like a fish, smoked Cubans, wore a cowboy hat and boots. Snow was used to living in a country where murderers were criminals, not a government machine that swallowed people up and spat out their bones. On that trip, the first of many, Snow gave a speech on forensic science and disappeared persons in the city of La Plata, in the province of Buenos Aires. The translator, overwhelmed by the number of technical terms, gave up halfway through the talk. But a blond man, all charisma, stepped forward and said, "I know English." And that's how Morris Tidball Binz, twenty-six years old, a medical student who spoke perfect English, entered the life of Clyde Snow.

In the weeks that followed, Clyde Snow participated in exhumations requested by judges and relatives of disappeared persons, always accompanied by his new translator. In June, when he had to exhume seven bodies in a suburban cemetery, he decided he was going to need help. He sent a letter to the Association of Anthropology Graduates but received no response. And that's when Morris Tidball Binz said, "I have some friends."

Morris's "friends" turned out to be one person: Douglas Cairns. He studied anthropology at the University of Buenos Aires and he spread the word among his classmates. "There's a gringo looking for people to dig up the disappeared."

"I'm used to digging up llamas, not people," said Patricia Bernardi, twenty-seven, anthropology student, orphan, employed in her uncle's transportation company.

"I don't like cemeteries," said Luis Fondebrider, first-year anthropology student who worked as a fumigator.

"I've never done an exhumation," said Mercedes Doretti, anthropology student, photographer, and library worker.

But they figured they had nothing to lose by hearing what Snow had to say. So at 7:00 p.m. on June 14, 1984, Patricia Bernardi, Mercedes Doretti, Luis Fondebrider, and Douglas Cairns met with Clyde Snow and Morris Tidball Binz at the Hotel Continental in downtown Buenos Aires.

"Clyde seemed like a strange guy to us. We thought, 'Wow, look how this old man drinks, how much he smokes,'" says Patricia Bernardi. "He bought us a drink and when he explained what he wanted to do I thought we were going to lose our appetites. But then he took us to dinner, and we were students, we had never been to a nice restaurant. We ate like pigs. But we were scared. The country was really unstable and we thought, 'If something happens again here, this gringo goes home but we have to stay.'"

They said goodnight to Clyde Snow with the promise to think about it and give him an answer. "I was touched. But they didn't have any experience," explained Clyde Snow years later to the Argentine newspaper Página/12. "I told them that the work would be dirty, depressing, and dangerous. And also there was no money in it. They said they were going to discuss it and give me an answer the following day. I thought it was just a way of saying 'chau, gringo.' But the next day they were there."

The next day they were there. "We decided we would try this one exhumation and then we would decide whether to keep going," says Patricia Bernardi. "We met early at the door of the hotel and they took us to the cemetery in police cars. It was strange to ride in those cars. And then we would get into those cars so many times. I'd never been to a burial site but Clyde made things seem easy. He got in the pit with us, got dirty with us, smoked, ate in the grave. He was a great teacher in hard times. It's one thing to dig up bones of llamas or sea lions but a person's skull is different. When the remains began to appear, their clothes got stuck on my brush and I asked, 'What do I do with the clothes?' And Clyde looked at me and said, 'Keep going, keep going.' That day we dug up the remains, we went to the morgue, and it turned out it wasn't the people we were looking for. Clyde started arguing with the morgue workers about the trajectory of a bullet. We didn't understand anything. The family members were there and I said to the judge, 'Tell them it's not their dead, these people have already been through enough.' When he told them, the sobs of the family members were terrible. We stayed there until 3:00 a.m. It was the longest exhumation of my life."

But many more would follow. Between 1984 and 1989 Clyde Snow spent over twenty months in Argentina. On each of his trips the students assisted his exhumations, submerging themselves little by little into the depths of a profession that had neither precedent nor prestige.

"No one understood what we did. Specialist gravediggers? Forensic doctors?" Mercedes Doretti says from New York. "The academy looked down on us because they said it wasn't scientific work."

They were just over twenty years old, underpaid employees, students of a degree that left them unprepared for a destiny they could never have imagined. They spent their weekends in suburban cemeteries, digging the still fresh mouths of young tombs as the relatives of the deceased looked on.

"The relationship with the family members of the disappeared was there from the start," says Luis Fondebrider. "We were the same age that their kids had been when they disappeared. And then there was the fact that we touched their dead. Touching the dead creates a special relationship with people."

Since they were afraid, they always went together. And since they were always together, they were called "the shoal." To talk about what they did, they met at Mercedes's or Patricia's house.

"We all dreamt about bones, skeletons," says Luis Fondebrider. "We talked to each other about these things."

"We all had nightmares," said Mercedes Doretti. "One day I woke up screaming. I had dreamt of a bullet leaving a pistol and I woke up when the bullet was about to hit me in the head. I thought I was dying and I said to myself, 'Why didn't I see this coming? Why didn't I see that I shouldn't have gotten involved in this?'"

In 1985 they traveled to the city of Mar del Plata to exhume the remains of a disappeared person, certain that they were on the side of the good guys. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the association of women in search of their disappeared sons and daughters, were waiting for them.

"They wanted to stop the exhumation," says Mercedes Doretti. "They said that Snow was a CIA agent and that the government was trying to cover up what was inside the bags of bones. They shouted insults at us. It was hard to see that these women, who were our heroines, were against us. We went through with the exhumation and then we went to the beach. We sat there, looking at the ocean, shattered."

That same year Clyde Snow testified at the trial of the Argentine Junta, where members of the military dictatorship were tried. He projected a slide from the exhumation in Mar del Plata: a young woman named Liliana Pereyra, her skull full of bullets.

"What we are doing," said Clyde Snow to Página/12, "will make it impossible for future revisionists to deny what really happened. Every time we recover the skeleton of a young person with a bullet hole at the base of their skull, it becomes harder to make up excuses."

Time passed; they received funding, fellowships, and when it became clear that they might be able to make a living at this, some abandoned their day jobs. In 1987 they registered the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team as a non-profit organization. Their mission is to practice "forensic anthropology applied to cases of governmental violence, violation of human rights, and crimes against humanity."

In 1988 the team was summoned to excavate the 134th Sector of the Avellaneda Cemetery where the military had buried hundreds. Few of them were over twenty-two years old. The mass grave at Avellaneda would remain open for two years and they would remove 336 bodies, almost all with bullet wounds to the head, many still unidentified.


The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team has its offices in two identical apartments, the first and second floors of an old French-style building in the neighborhood of Once. All around, street vendors, cars, buses, pedestrians: the soundtrack of a city at one of its busiest points. The second floor doesn't have a name. The first floor does; it's called the Laboratory. Both have the same number of rooms, the same bathrooms, kitchen at the rear, and almost no evidence of private life. The furniture is old and new, large and small, a mix of noble hardwood and Formica. There are pictures, a poster of the Metropolitan Museum, but these things have been there for too long; they are things that no one sees. There are blackboards, panels of cork with food-delivery flyers and postcards of dancing skeletons: the Latin American festivals of the dead. Two small cacti sit on a windowsill. The walls are covered in maps. Some are marked to indicate clandestine detention centers: sites that provide what is studied here.

Luis Fondebrider, Mercedes Doretti, and Patricia Bernardi are the only ones who remain from the original group. Douglas Cairns only helped at the start on a couple of exhumations; Morris Tidball Binz left in 1990 to work with the Red Cross and has lived in Geneva since. In the late nineties others joined the team and for a long time there were never more than twelve members. But at the start of the new century the ability to apply DNA identification to bones required many more hires and they are now a team of thirty-seven. Over the years they have worked in more than thirty countries. They have been contracted by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia; the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; the Commissions for Truth of the Philippines, Peru, El Salvador, and South Africa; the courts of Ethiopia, Mexico, Colombia, South Africa, and Romania; the International Committee of the Red Cross; the search for the remains of Che Guevara; and the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus.

"All our salaries for these international missions go into a common fund," says Luis Fondebrider. "We don't charge the families for what we do. We operate with the financing of about twenty private European and North American donors and European governments. We don't have support from private donors or businesses in Argentina."

Hidden, discreet, every once in a while a high-profile identification pushes the team to the front page of the newspapers. In 1989, they identified Marcelo Gelman, son of Argentine poet Juan Gelman; in 1997, Che Guevara in Bolivia; in 2005, Azucena Villaflor, the founder of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, who disappeared in 1977.

"But for us," says Luis Fondebrider, "they're all people. El Che or John Doe. When we found Gelman's son, three of us went to New York to accept a prize from a foundation there. We visited Gelman to tell him that we had identified his son. He was an intimidating figure, serious, distant. We stayed at his house. He was up all night reading the report and the next day he asked us a million questions. It was strange. I had never slept at the house of someone to whom I'd had to give a message like that."


Sofía Egaña first came to Buenos Aires in 1999 when the team offered her a mission to East Timor and she accepted. She spent two years on an island with no power or water where the Indonesian military, in 1991, had killed two hundred thousand. In the office that she uses when she's in Buenos Aires there's a desk, a computer. Click, a photo opens: a skull. Another click: a hole in the skull.

"It entered directly: an execution, like this, bam, from behind. Do we have teeth? What do the teeth look like?"

In two days Sofía will be in Ciudad Juárez, where the team works to identify the bodies of women of unknown or uncertain identity. On a corkboard behind her there is a picture of a butterfly and a sentence that reads, "I love you Sofi" in the handwriting of her young niece. There is also a photo taken during her stay in Timor.

"These are my hosts. They rented out the house we lived in. They call me every once in a while to see how I'm doing. Since I don't have a fixed phone number, they have to call my parents' house. I've been traveling for over eleven years. I don't have a closet. I have two suitcases. But when a bone is connected to a story, it all makes sense. In front of the families I'm the doctor. If I need to cry, I hide in the trees. You can't start crying."

And do you get used to it with time?

"No. With time it gets worse."

At the end of the hall there's a cool, dark room. The walls are covered with shelves that climb to the ceiling. On these shelves, small cardboard boxes read, "Fruits and Vegetables."

"Each box is a person. That's where we keep the bones. They are all labeled with the name of the cemetery, the lot number."

Up front in a few bright rooms, five young women lean over tables covered with paper. On the tables there are, of course, skeletons.


Silvana Turner's desk, on the top floor, is surrounded by boxes that say Kosovo, Togo, South Africa, Timor, Paraguay: a road map of the best massacres in the last century. Silvana Turner has short hair, a clear complexion. She joined the team in 1989.

"If a relative doesn't have the desire to recover the remains, we don't intervene. We never do anything that a relative doesn't want us to. But even though it's painful to receive news of an identification, it's also healing. In other areas this tends to be a more technical job. It's unthinkable that the same person who studies the remains has also interviewed the family member, has gone into the field to recover the remains, and is the one who returns the body. We've always done that."

In all these years they've made over three hundred identifications that resulted in the restitution of remains. By connecting facts and documentation, they have been able to determine the fates of three hundred more whose remains have not yet been uncovered.

"If I had to pick a feeling that relates to this job it would be frustration. You'd like to be able to provide answers more quickly."

Down the hall there is another room where the boxes are labeled with names of Argentine cemeteries: La Plata, San Martín, Ezpeleta, Lomas de Zamora, Ezeiza. The task is large. The work may be interminable.


It's raining outside but the office is warm and dry. It's Tuesday but it doesn't matter. In one of the Laboratory's offices a small coffin has sat for days. They call it an urn. In urns like these they return the bones to their owners.

"See?" asks a woman with a delicate face, an ovular beauty. "This, the inside part, is called the spongy bone. And the cortical bone is the exterior." She lowers her fingers. The skeleton looks like a strange sea creature with its insides exposed. "This is a little piece of skull. In the skull, the spongy bone is called diploe."

When reconstruction is complete, the parts and wounds counted, what's left of him or her spread out on the table, the skeleton will return to its box and the minute patience of the oval-faced woman will result, years later, with luck, in a name, a coffin the size of a femur, and a family mourning for the second time, maybe for the last.

Paper covers a window that faces the street: the grid of a grave and a drawing of sixteen skeletons. There are notes under each: five bullets and an Ithaca plug, teeth missing from upper jaw, five shells. None have names, but they do have ages, thirty on average, and gender: almost all male. From the street anyone could look up and see this paper stuck to the window. But what they would see is a blank page. And anyway, no one looks.


A door opens with a sigh and closes like a feather. Mercedes Salado sets a lightweight box, labeled "Fruits and Vegetables," on a desk. Then she says good morning and lights her first cigarette of the hour. She's a Spanish biologist who worked in Guatemala from 1995, joined the team in 1997; for a long time her parents, two retirees from Madrid, thought that their daughter's profession was not an honest one.

"One day they call me and they ask: 'Hey, Mercedes, what you do . . . is it legal?' Of course, when I started with this, people didn't understand Latin America and to go into the mountains to get Guatemalan remains . . . My parents were afraid they would get a call saying 'Your daughter is in jail for stealing someone.' Now in Madrid neighbors greet me like 'Wow, it's legal.' What surprises me about this team is the connection. The projects support us but there's a common fund. Everybody goes out on international missions but they put their salary into the shared fund. And it's a communist system that works. They do it because they believe in what they do. No one would have spent twenty years earning what we earn if they didn't like this. But this work has something that seems like really romantic, like really corny; it's not a job, it's a way of life. It comes before your family, your partner, before your desire to have children. We've missed birthdays, anniversaries, but we haven't missed a single meeting with a relative of the deceased. And at the end of the day it's so small. What do you do? You find the identity of a person. It's the answer that someone needed for so long . . . and that's it. And that's all. But when you see the people's faces, it's worth it. It's dignity for the dead, but also for the living."

Then, with a slight smile she says that she has one phobia: she can't put skulls into plastic bags and close them.

"It makes me anxious. It's dumb, but I feel like they're suffocating."


It's Friday but it's the same. Young women dressed in various shades of urban informality—piercings, baggy pants, layered shirts—pick over the tables of the Laboratory. Week to week, more and less whole, more or less lustrous, the skeletons change, as if an endless and capricious tide brings them here.

"They were mixed up. I already have five jaws, five individuals at least," says Gabriela, as she sticks two fragments of bone together.

It's hours of this: search and stick, and then look for wounds compatible with blows or bullets, and then bureaucracy: recording everything on infinite notecards. Mariana Selva–light eyes, short, red nails–prepares some remains to be X-rayed: a skull, the jaw.

"Sometimes you see the bones of a twenty-year-old kid with nine bullets in the head and you say 'Oh god, poor boy, what cruelty.' But you can't just cry or think about the deaths, because you couldn't work."

Analía González Simonett has a nose ring and almost always wears a headband. She was one of the last to join the team.

"What still amazes me are the clothes. To open a grave and see that they're wearing clothes. And the restitution to the family members. Once we returned two bodies to a mother. She had two disappeared children, and both were identified by the team. We took her to where their remains were. Before putting them in an urn we lay them out on a table like this. 'Josecito,' she said and she touched the bones, 'Ay, Josecito, he's happy . . .' The way she touched the bones was so tender. And suddenly she says 'Can I give him a kiss on the forehead?'"

On June 6, 1990, a public memorial service was held for Marcelo Gelman. But beforehand his mother, Berta Schubaroff, wanted a moment alone with his remains. Behind closed doors, in the team's offices, thirteen years after having seen him for the last time, she kissed her son goodbye.


In the office of Miguel Nievas there's a plastic skull ashtray, a fingerprint chart, a diagram of a DNA molecule, shelves, books, maps. Miguel Nievas is from Rosario, a city in Argentina's interior. He joined the team in the late nineties.

"I worked in the morgue in Rosario. I was studying some bones and I needed help. I called and Patricia answered. She asked me if I could come to Buenos Aires with the bones. And I came. I continued working on some things from there, and then in 2000 they asked me if I could go to Kosovo. I said yes, but I really didn't know where I was going. When I landed in Macedonia and I saw tanks, soldiers, I thought 'Where the hell am I?' I didn't speak a word of English and in the morgue we did thirty or forty autopsies every day. They had given us a mandatory course in explosives but the only thing I understood was 'don't touch.' When I returned I kept working here. I got hooked on the work in Argentina. When you start to investigate a case you end up getting to know the person as if they were a friend of yours. You need some distance from the work because it takes its toll. Everyone has felt the effect."

"And you?"

"Psoriasis. And it's been years since I remembered my dreams."


Patricia Bernardi says she has professional quirks. The most noteworthy: she looks at people's teeth. "I don't realize I'm doing it. I'm talking and I'm studying their teeth. Because we are always looking for things in teeth. I never could stand corpses. I'm terrified of them. I'd die if you asked me to cut into a dead body. But I don't mind bones at all. Bones are dry. They're beautiful. I'm comfortable touching them. I feel a connection to the bones."

She turns the pages in a photo album. "This is sector 134 in Avellaneda." A lot covered in weeds. Then raw soil. Then an opening. Then bones. A building covered in tiles. "This is the morgue where they worked." They, the military. "They'd made a door that opened to the street so they could bring the bodies in directly. When we started working there we didn't publicize it. We were afraid. Our security guard was from the same police station that used to have the key to dump bodies in that grave."

The doorbell rings and Patricia goes downstairs with a small urn. There, in that urn, are the remains of María Teresa Cerviño, who in May, 1976, was hung from a bridge with a sign that read "I was a Montonera" (a member of the rebel forces). She had a bag over her head; her eyes and mouth were covered with tape. All evidence indicated that she had been buried in the mass grave at Avellaneda. Her mother named the team as expert witnesses in the criminal case she began in 1988 to search for her daughter's remains. All these years, Patricia knew that María Teresa Cerviño was there, somewhere among all those bones.

"I said 'I know she's here, but where, which one is she?' And last year, nineteen years later, she appeared." There are sites like that. Sites where the harvests are late.


It's 7:00 p.m. on a Friday. In a classroom of the Medical School of the University of Buenos Aires, Sofía Egaña and Mariana Selva give a class on bones, lesions specifically, to a small group of students.

"A fresh bone is moist inside and it reacts to fracture differently than dry bone. Bones remain fresh even after death. So the assessment is made depending on the shape of the fracture, the coloration," says Mariana Selva as she projects images of bones, dry and broken, wet, broken and white.

"The traces of life can be seen in the bones," Sofía Egaña says later as she hovers over a skeleton. "Do you see the evidence of arthritis? What can you say about this jawbone? Touch it, pick it up. What do these teeth tell you?"

When the team was formed, forensic anthropology did not yet exist as an area of study in Argentina. They learned in the cemeteries, digging up kids their own age, vomiting upon discovering that they wore the same shoes, reading the traces of green powder inside the skulls. And then they taught each other. Now they are generous: they share their knowledge. They spread the seeds that were sown.


The day is gray. Patricia Bernardi picks up the phone and dials a number; someone answers.

"Hello, good afternoon, I'm looking for Señora X."

". . ."

"Oh, good afternoon, Señora, I'm Patricia Bernardi, from the Argentina Forensic Anthropology Team. I don't know if you know what we do . . ."

". . ."

"Okay, thank you very much."

Patricia's tone is sweet and she's not frustrated when they hang up, when they don't want to speak to her. In 2007, on the ten-year anniversary of the recovery of the remains of Che Guevara, the media rolled out their headline-making machines and all eyes turned toward the members of the team who had been summoned by the Cuban government to identify the remains.

"Sometimes I feel like I should say it was a pleasure to have participated in that exhumation, but it was all really tense. We were there five months, we left, and we returned when the Cubans found El Che's grave, in July of 1997. They called me, it was a Saturday. I don't remember if it was the Consulate or the Ambassador to Cuba, and he said 'They found some bones.' When we arrived there were two or three guys fighting to see who would take the pictures. For me the biggest job was El Petén, in Guatemala. There, in 1982, a military platoon executed hundreds of villagers. We removed one hundred and seventy-two bodies. They were mostly children under twelve years old. And they didn't have bullet wounds because to save ammunition they struck their heads against the edge of the pit and threw them in. It gets to the point where you get used to the little bones, because they're really pretty, beautiful, perfect. But what brings you back to reality are the accessories."

The accessories?

"The toys."

The building next door houses a beauty school. Every day old women covered in plastic smocks can be seen through the window, their hair wrapped in shells of nylon like unset meringue. But it doesn't matter, no one looks at them.


In Carlos "Maco" Somigliana's office there are heaps of papers, children's drawings, piles of things competing for space in the small room. Since joining the team in 1987, he has been dedicated to tying up loose ends and teaching the rest to do the same: to interview families, obtain testimonies, connect information.

"While the state was carrying out a campaign of clandestine repression, they kept recording things in their bureaucratic apparatus. It's like a giant wheel and a little wheel. You can understand what is happening in the first by what is happening in the second. Now there is an urgency to this work that wasn't as strong when we were younger. It has to do with the survival of the people who are going to receive the news of an identification. You contact a family to tell them that you identified a relative and they say 'Oh, my dad died a year ago.' And when it starts to happen often you say 'I have to hurry up.'"

Could you do a different job?

"Yes, I want to finish this job. For me it's important to believe that one day I won't be needed anymore. This job has been very unfair in terms of other possible lives for many of us."

And does it affect your private lives?


How so?

"Nothing you could publish."

So it has a downside?

"Of course it has a downside. When you're the relative of a disappeared person, you've had to accept the disappearance. You accepted it. You lived with it for thirty years. You got used to it. All of a sudden someone comes and says 'No, look, it's not what you thought, we found the remains of your son, your daughter.' It's good news. But it does a number on you. It's like an operation. It's something good. But it hurts. When you realize that the wound is really deep, up to what point are you maybe doing harm by stirring these things up? But there's no good without evil. Which brings us to another possibility, much more disturbing: there's no evil without good."

Somewhere in the office a woman's voice says "My brother disappeared October fifth of '78." Someone discreetly closes a door.


"My name is Margarita Pinto and I'm the sister of María Angélica and of Reinaldo Miguel Pinto Rubio. Both are Chilean, militant Montoneros. They disappeared in 1977. My sister was twenty-one. My brother, twenty-three."

Margarita Pinto says this in the smoking section of the La Perla café in Once, some four blocks from the offices of the Forensic Team. Then she tells me that the remains of her sister were identified by the anthropologists in 2006.

"The pain of having a disappeared family member is like a thorn that sticks in your heart, but you get used to it. And when they told me that they had found the remains, I fell into a deep depression. I didn't want to go to see them. I just went to the memorial we held at the cemetery. It was like a second loss, but then it was a relief. The anthropologists talk about my sister as if they had known her. And I searched for her so much. When she disappeared I was young, and I started to visit the parents of some of her friends. Once I went to see an older couple. At one point, the woman got up and left and the man asked me to excuse her because she was very upset. He said that every night she made her son's bed and every morning she unmade it. And I was there asking about my sister. Sometimes you do harm without realizing."

The gray sky shines in her eyes.


Ten o'clock in the morning: not a cloud in the sky. The cemetery of La Plata is replete with vaults, then headstones, then crosses. And there, among the crosses, two open pits and the black stripe of Inés Sánchez's hair. The sun spills over her bent back. All around, piles of earth, buckets, shovels: things that children play with.

"We're doing well. We found the remains of the three women that we came looking for," says Inés.

She tickles the depths with a brush, feet spread apart so as not to step on the bones: a skull, ribs. On the other side of a wall of vaults, in a zone of cool shade, Patricia Bernardi, three gravediggers, a man and two women, surround Maco. In shorts and sandals, he removes shovelfuls of earth from a grave. The gravediggers eat, say he shouldn't dig with sandals, that he's going to lose a toe. Maco smiles, sweats. He raises the shovel and a gray rag appears, clothes. Maco steps away and Patricia steps into the pit. Nearby, under the trees, a woman with sharp features paces, smokes. She is here for the remains of Stella Maris, twenty-three years old, medical student, disappeared in the sixties: her sister. Patricia removes dirt with a bucket and bones appear, entwined in the roots of the trees.

"Lying face up and wearing socks." The socks are valuable: perfect bags for the loose foot bones. "The skull is badly shattered. Here's a bullet, in the lower left hemithorax. Hands placed like this, over the pelvis." Next, they raise the skeleton from its grave: bone by bone in bags marked "foot," "teeth," "hand."

The sharp-featured woman peers out from the trees. "It's not my sister," she says. "The bones are really long."

"Don't be fooled by that," Maco tells her.

In another of the graves someone finds a striped sweater, a skull with three bullet wounds, like three open fish mouths: women's bones are elegant. Later, in a discreet room in the neighborhood of Once, on newspapers with yesterday's headlines and under a grainy afternoon light, the bones will be dry, the sweater torn, the shoe like a rigid tongue. But here, in the cemetery, the afternoon is a blue sail barely broken by a gentle breeze.

translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle

This article was first published in the Spanish newspaper El País on December 23, 2007, under the title "La voz de los huesos." In 2010 it received the CEMEX Award and has been published in Leila Guerriero's collection of essays Frutos Extraños.