Lika López de Victoria
“Santo Dios mio Virgen María de los Angeles!” Paz squeals hit such a high note that they woke the midwife who was nursing a hangover under an almendro tree four miles away. The sharp wails cut in half the numbing calmness of the Hacienda San Antonio, which was particularly quiet that morning, since eighty percent of the workforce was celebrating the Gobernador’s win for a second term as the incumbent on the other side of the Island. Old Capital City received laborers, dones and señoras from all the haciendas with live music, speeches, and kioskos with all kinds of free delicious food, like fried pig skin, shaved ice with dulce de leche, blood sausage and coconut cinnamon custard. Don Antonio, who saw himself as the epitome of fairness, had done a lottery to determine who would have the day off to enjoy the festivities. Luck dictated that Paz stayed working that day. She had been picking coffee overwhelmed by the moist heat of the mid-morning when Luna started to fight her way into life.
“Puta Madre de los Infiernos maldita sea el Diablo!”
The few male workers in the field quickly identified Paz as the source of the obscenities since an unspecified number of them had made her privately scream with desire before she started showing. Rodolfo, the foreman of the hacienda, ran faster than the others towards the animalistic grunts that originated somewhere in the middle of the bushes. All Paz heard were the inconsolable cries of Luna, the noise muted while her belly filled up with salty tears. She wobbled her way through the coffee plants trying to find the closest dirt road, still carrying the bag of ripe pepas de café.
“Aaaagggghhhhh Santo Dios ayudame” Paz tried to move faster but the thin branches of the coffee bushes lashed her in every step. Each lick of a twig distracted her from the burning pain in between her legs. Paz heard her heartbeat in her eyeballs and the roars of Luna’s struggle in each of her screams. All she could see were green spots with some yellow and red and brown. The sea of matas de café opened as if prompted by Moses and the path led to a tamarind tree, under which Paz collapsed on top of the bag of red coffee beans. It felt as if she was breaking from within as she leaked water that smelled like pig’s blood. Paz’s bony hands and feet sank into the thick swamp that formed from the mixture of dark soil and the gallons of saline-smelling liquid that came out of her. Her insides cramped forcing her to push. On her first push Paz saw the face of the Virgin Mary hiding in the bushes and on the second it was a sweet-faced old lady with stark white hair that hunted her altered state. Then it was Rodolfo’s muscular arms with gray hairs opening their way toward her that gave Paz the strength to push a third and final time, spewing into a mound of coffee beans her baby girl, covered in a caul.
“What is that?” Fear assaulted Paz. The thing joined to her through the bluish-red umbilical cord didn’t look like a baby. She had read stories about cousins that got married and had babies born with alligator skin or a rat’s tail, so she considered the odds of being related to the baby’s father.
“Go get the doctor or the midwife or a truck, dale corre, some help” Rodolfo ordered a worker, who left in the same direction he came from. With shaky hands he caressed Paz’s forehead, sweeping her wild black hair away from her face. She remembered when she first was introduced to Rodolfo, how she had been intimidated by his stern expression and his shadow-casting height. His dark bushy eyebrows made every crease of his face noticeable, making him look years older than his actual age of thirty-something.
“Niña, don’t worry, I think I hear the midwife’s jeepeta getting close…anda muñeca, take it, that’s your baby”. Rodolfo’s caramel-coated voice and the sound of the midwife’s heavy steps making her way through the coffee plants calmed Paz. When the midwife finally arrived to the scene, sweating droplets of dark rum, she found the baby in her mother’s arms still inside the caul. Without hesitation she opened the veil with her chubby fingers revealing Luna, her big chameleon eyes wide open and wearing a wise smile on her pruned face. The midwife took her stained white skirt off in front of the pink-faced mother, the worried foreman and the few workers that gathered to take in the event, and placed it on the moist soil between the mother’s legs. She grabbed Luna away from Paz and placed her cautiously on the skirt.
“Give me your machete!” the midwife yelled at the foreman. Rodolfo jumped, but before he could comply she snatched it from his grasp. Taking the machete with both hands, she raised it over her head to gather momentum and in one swift motion she cut the umbilical cord. As the whiteness of the skirt absorbed the bright red blood, Luna, who so far since entering this dimension had not shed a tear or made a sound, quietly cried ginger smelling tears.
Later that day, while Luna struggled with suckling at her mother’s breast, Rodolfo transferred Paz’s clothes from the cheap wood armoire into a half-full wicker trunk. Years before Paz watched as Gustavo filled that same trunk with a few books, a bundle of photos and some clothes before driving her to the Hacienda San Antonio. Once again Paz watched a man burry with clothes the mementos of a life she couldn’t remember into the trunk that belonged to her grandmother. Inside the damp room Paz shared with three other cafeteras, Rodolfo tried to remain stoic and do his job as expected, stuffing stolen silk undergarments and flowy dresses between a moldy hard cover edition of Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Pablo Neruda’s Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada, poems nine through thirteen unreadable since humidity made the pages stick to each other. The baby clothes that the cafeteras stole for the newborn rested on top of the bible and a bunch of world history books, including a heavy one about European paintings.
“Tavo’s waiting,” said the foreman in the same reassuring tone he used the times he brought her to ecstasy in the past “an’ you know that if you get in trouble, all you do is send for me.”
“I won’t get in trouble” said Paz, trying to ease Rodolfo’s concern as much as her own. He closed the trunk and sat by Paz, carefully touching Luna’s tiny feet. His down-turned upper lip revealed his resentment toward Paz, for taking away what he believed was his baby, and the wrinkles on his forehead showed his guilt for being the enforcer of laws he didn’t agree with, especially the one where unmarried live-in employees of the hacienda would be exiled to the coast if they decided to keep their babies. It didn’t bring any solace to Rodolfo that many haciendas worked under similar regimens. This was one of the many solutions brought by the el Gobernador for the scarcity of food and resources that was rampant on the Island. Once again Gustavo was driving Paz and her wicker trunk, this time towards the coast and away from the hacienda. Paz saw from the back of Gustavo’s rusty pick-up truck how Rodolfo disappeared into the main house, already missing him and all the men she left behind. She knew she would not miss the lumpy twin-size mattress that made her lower back ache or the hours spent hand washing señora Magdalena’s silk stockings and underwear.
Gustavo helped Paz get settled in the house she lived in years before. He made sure she had some bread, running water and a kerosene burner and lamps. The tall mulato treated her with respect and with traces of love, which confused Paz, making her wonder if this accommodating man, with hair that looked like cotton balls, wanted the same thing every other hombre in her life had taken from her. She began to feel the itch, although it quickly disappeared because between her legs still hurt and bled different from the monthly bochorno. Gustavo finished helping her, leaving her a hand drawn map of the area and a gallon of the “best maví you’ll ever taste”. Maví.
All this mess started the day the son of Don Antonio pierced her skin with his eyes the color of maví. Since then between her legs was always warm and pulpy. Since that day, when he unhurriedly removed her sayo, and sat her on a desk only wearing beads of glimmering sweat, she developed an itch. He put his mouth in the moist place between her legs, scratching her itch away with his appetite. Once the itch dissipated, she was flooded by melancholy; sour tears made watery trails on her face and trickled all the way down to her naked breasts. He kissed her, his lips tasting like ripe sugar cane, and when Paz saw her reflection in his glassy brown eyes, her stomach flipped upside down. Still wearing his white guayabera and cream linen pants, he entered her for what felt like a hundred black moons. Her sweat and his sweat made his shirt transparent, while the smell of sun-toasted coffee beans invaded the bright room. Since that day, Paz had no choice but to melt into the arms of almost every man in the Hacienda San Antonio, because anytime a man looked at her with piercing eyes, her stomach flipped and between her legs dripped wet salve.
Paz expected the life on the coast to be difficult since the life on the Island hadn’t been easy when it became a sovereign nation. The little money Paz stole from señora Magdalena only lasted for a month of buying food from Gustavo’s store. There were no jobs, hospitals or schools outside the haciendas, which had become the modern castles of a feudal society. El Gobernador had dismantled the federal structure of the Island, giving the dones the authority to choose among a list of laws to impose on their land. Gustavo helped Paz for a while after her money ran out, dropping by her house for conversation in exchange of coffee, bread and milk.
“You know I’m not going to be able to do this forever” said Gustavo before taking a sip of the café puya spiked with black rum.
“I know, I know, but I don’t know what else to do” Paz made faces to Luna making her giggle a big person’s laugh.
“This is all his fault, el caudillo ese, he led our Island into independence, and for what?” That every other word Gustavo said was accentuated by flying drops of thick spit was a sign that he had had too many cups of coffee on that toasty afternoon.
“How the women loved him…do you remember that choreography he used to dance back on his first election?”
“Hay Tavito, did you forget about the problem with my memories?” Said Paz with the same tone she used to calm Luna’s crying.
“Nena, that you don’t remember is a blessing”
“Maybe one day when I’m all old you can tell me all about what happened on the day of el huracán.”
“Maybe by then I’ve managed to forget.” Gustavo had been trying to forget for the past four years what happened on the day Hurricane Joaquín hit the Island. Around that time Paz’s mother disappeared, so she lived with Mamia, her only known relative. Before the Independence Agreement was signed, the houses in these parts of the coast were valued in millions, but after the exodus nobody wanted beachfront property. Gustavo took the abandoned pieces of land and bought the others for a few hundred dollars from the last batch of people that were fleeing the Island. Paz doesn’t remember living with her grandmother in the same desolated chunk of property she lives in with Luna. She doesn’t remember how the old little lady with platinum hair made a home out of the house she owned by appropriation. Mamia chose the house because it was built by a known architect and it was the only one in the strip that wasn’t made of hurricane-resistant concrete and it wasn’t on the ground like the others, as it was up on two massive hollow columns, like the ones that held highways and bridges. Paz doesn’t remember the relief they felt when discovering on the day of the huracán that the house, though made of wood, was strong enough to withhold the hundred-miles-per-hour winds, and since it was up on columns, the seawater that crept into the mainland didn’t reach the house. Mamia, Paz, and Pulga, a small dirty white stray dog that Mamia rescued months before, patiently waited for the fierce winds to recede. As soon as the calm hit the zone, the three went out to explore the damage. Under a clear blue sky they hiked a mile through uprooted palm trees to Gustavo’s, their closest neighbor. Pieces of wood and zinc sheets were scattered on the sandy road. As they approached the store, Pulga, as if possessed, barked hysterically at the sky that turned dark grey in a matter of seconds and then ran away in the opposite direction.
“Go to Tavo’s, this thing is not over, la calma was just the eye, I need to get Pulga, dale nena, corre!” Mamia yelled as she dashed towards the dog. Thankfully, Paz forgot what happened next. No memories remained of her running under the salty rain with Gustavo, of finding Mamia and Pulga enveloped by the unforgiving wind gusts or of all them struggling to avoid the fluttering debris on their way back to the store. Paz might have forgotten, but Gustavo remembered, how Mamia’s head rolled down the road after a flying zinc sheet decapitated her.
Gustavo’s visits stopped a few days after. Paz went for weeks only eating coconuts and bananas sporadically, making her weak to the point that her breasts shriveled, and she stopped producing milk for Luna. For a while Paz walked, with Luna in a sling, one sandy mile each way three times a day under the smoldering sun to the nearest brothel. One of the girls had just given birth to a dead baby, and her breast still leaked honey-tasting milk, so she agreed to make time to feed Luna. Paz grew restless in her situation, until the day Don Eduardo de Gracia paid her a visit.
“I don’t have fun anymore when I visit Antonio’s. Since you left his hacienda I don’t even want to go over to play the weekly poker game” Don Eduardo whispered on Paz’s ear as he hugged her hello. He was the godfather of Don Antonio’s son, and as such he spent a lot of time in his compadre’s property. In every one his many visits he loved Paz in the first dark corner he found.
“You always lost anyways” Said Paz as she led him towards the balcony.
“Muñeca, what happened to you?” Asked Don Eduardo examining her body as he walked behind her. He look horrified when he saw what living on the coast did to Paz’s body. He used to idolatrize how every part of her body was soft and round, and especially adored the space between her noticeably uneven breasts. After only a few months in the coast, her body was all sharp edges and rough ends.
“What can I say? I’m not eating well, it’s just how it is around here. Tavo helped me a bit, but that’s done”.
“I hadn’t been on the Coast since before the exodus. It’s difficult getting here, the roads are awful, and I even had to bribe Rodolfo into telling me where you were.”
“You should ask your friend el Gobernador to make them better.”
“You know he’s not my friend.” Don Eduardo’s forehead became wrinkled and Paz knew that it pained him to see the direct results of el Gobernador’s rulings. Don Eduardo saw how everything happened and he just watched. He saw how el Gobernador sold everyone the utopic idea of autonomy, filling the hearts of the illiterate masses with patriotism and the pockets of the dones and of his retinue with mucho dinero. The people trusted him; the woman loved his blue eyes with thick black eye lashes and the men envied his cojones, his youth and passion. He spoke to la gente of the Island like an experienced lover talks to his mistress, in a soft, intimate tone, asking for faith in him and in his ways. He hypnotized the masses with speeches about freedom from the oppression of the Big Nation that owned them and convinced everyone that they were mature enough as a country to stand on their own two feet. He persuaded the people to go back to working the earth, encouraged by the dones, because they owned the land suitable for agriculture. The concrete parks that hosted the multi-national companies that supported the local economy were abandoned as soon as the Independence Agreement was signed. Every desperate measure later taken by the power of the government, like the rationing of food items and the shutting down of the public school system, was sold to the hungry jobless people as ‘means to a future that should satisfy both our souls and our blessed bodies’.
Don Eduardo found a new corner to love Paz. He vowed to bring her food in every visit as he loved her from behind, thoroughly enjoying the painful stabs of Paz’s bones against his abdomen. As she licked the void of her absence away he promised that she would have everything she and Luna needed, and then told the other dones about the uncommon beauty that sold her love in exchange for food and other necessities.
Every day around three in the morning, after spending herself selling bits of her love, Paz took Luna for walks on the beach where she told her daughter intimate stories of her business. She told Luna how she felt like the Virgin Mary. The same way Virgin Mary asked Jesus to convert water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana, Paz would convince the dones of las haciendas to grant their wives the wishes she sold them days before. She was particularly proud of the wish she sold to la Señora de Don Eduardo de Gracia. Don Eduardo was a peculiar kind of don because he didn’t agree with the politics of El Gobernador, but didn’t have the guts or real motivation to stand against him. He had a lot to lose, so he calmed his conscience by providing the best school for the children of his employees and never explicitly supporting the government. On the other hand, his wife wanted to be in the center of the Gobernador’s social circle, and the way to get there was to plan an elegant party on their hacienda and invite all the dones and señoras of the Island. Don Eduardo was adamant on his position against hosting such an event until Paz straddled his face the taste between her legs sold him on the benefits of having such a man as his guest. On those walks Luna didn’t pay attention to the smell of saltpeter, or the silvery shadow that the moon cast on the calm sea, she just paid attention to the constant bearing of her mother’s soul. And even though Luna hadn’t spoken yet, Paz believed that her child understood everything that was happening around her; she believed there was no other reason for a baby to have such big eyes that were always open.
There were no schools on the coast, so during the week Luna was allowed to sit quietly in the corner of the living room while Paz sold the señoras the wishes. Dry palm tree leaves decorated the walls of the room with vejigante masks hanging from the ceiling and black wooden saints with guilt painted on their faces. Paz received the señoras wearing white gauze dresses and seashell necklaces, providing them with a theatrical experience for the price of luxuries like ice, chocolate and imported wine. Luna never told her mom, but as soon as any of them walked into the room, she knew what their wishes were going to be by the smell they carried with them. When la Señora de Don Eduardo wanted to host a dinner, the smell of burnt rubber tires that came with her made Luna nauseated, but when she wanted a trip to Madrid it was the aroma of coconut that tickled her nostrils. She also knew when some of them didn’t want anything but to see Paz up close, because they all stunk of garlic. While they examined her eyes the color of molasses, her loud kinky hair, and her aged body dressed in a thin layer of leathery skin, they wondered why their husbands chose this woman to calm their desires. By the smell of the people in her world, Luna could know some of their intentions, sometimes even their wants and needs.
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