Although it had no official name, never even meriting a dot on the most detailed map, the village, with just a scattering of wooden houses, one grocery stand, two communal spigots, and one dirt path leading west to the main road and east over the next hillside, was called Arturo Bass. No one who lived there knew who Arturo Bass had been or why this particular community bore his name. There was a rumor that he was a white man who once came up the mountainside riding a black horse and, as he waved his hand over the landscape, said, “All this is mine.” But that story could have been mixed up with some other tale of some other white man proclaiming ownership. The village, Arturo Bass, was far from any coast, in the fertile land of plenty, the central highlands region of the island, and the island was part of God’s dominion. And that was that.
Someday soon, green valleys and craggy slopes, trees chock full of fruit and bleating herds of goats would plummet in appeal as stories slithered along the mountain path and hissed tales of cities that glittered all night, a magical box called television and the world of endless things, and then Arturo Bass would just be a place to get away from. But not yet.
The Envidóns had been village residents for all the generations they could remember. Of the Envidón family, only Piedad, the beautiful wife, felt the cramping of village life early on. Even though she had only been to the capital city three times in her life—she carefully stored away the memories from each visit as if they were precious jewels—she longed for the bustle and excitement of the city. She dreamed of being a fine woman on the arm of a handsome man; her husband Marco would do if he were properly cleaned up. As for the rest of the Envidóns, the regular rhythm of the days—gardens and animals, food preparation and cleaning—lulled them into an easy acceptance. Then the nights brought neighbors together and there was song and gossip and chatter. Also, there was the expanse of the blue sky bordered by green hillsides, dotted with swooping birds; just that sky alone brought space and freedom that they felt inside their bodies. It was only when Antonio, the eldest son, reached adolescence that somehow Piedad’s yearning wended its way into his sleep and one night he dreamed of a castle as big as a mountain, the roof made of molten gold and encrusted with jewels so dazzling that birds flying overhead were blinded and lost their way.
* * *
Piedad Envidón stepped out into the bright sun of late morning and approached the washroom behind her house. The washroom was not really a room but a makeshift place created by hanging a muslin cloth on a wire stretched along a semicircle of wooden poles. The fabric enclosed a plywood platform and an old table upon which stood a tin washtub, a towel, and a cake of brown soap. Piedad stepped behind the curtain, drew it closed, and began to undress. The washtub had sat outside in the sun all morning, and the water was at least tepid, certainly not the fire-heated water she had used to bathe her children when they were infants, but warm enough so her teeth didn’t chatter. She dipped a rag, a scrap of one of Marco’s old shirts, into the water, soaped it up, and began to wash her feet, drawing the rag between each toe and then soaping the hollow spaces behind her ankles, scrubbing her callused heels. Other than the hard skin on her heels, she had nice feet, smooth with no bunions, bumps, or ingrown nails, just the hint of the metatarsal bones raising the tops of the feet in a pattern of delicate ridges.
She worked her way up her body—calves, knees, thighs—each part meriting a quiet nod of approval. Even her hips, which at puberty had never broadened out much, and so she didn’t have the sensuous curve outward from her waist, but still they weren’t dimpled with fat, and so her hips too were satisfactory. Only when Piedad reached her stomach and drew the soapy rag across that expanse of skin did her guts tighten in censure. Although she was still slender, Piedad’s skin tone reflected the effect of five pregnancies, six births. Between rib cage and hip bones, her flesh was no longer taut.
Piedad moved the washrag up over her ribs and under her arms, down her back, and then around toward her breasts. These too bore the marks of babies, five hungry sucklings, for she did not nurse the youngest—Almita. A parade of infants passed through her mind. First Antonio, with his fierce intensity, which was laughable paired with his bald head and fat thighs; then Linnea, serious and solemn, who almost never cried, as if she knew that there was no time for such nonsense; and that was true because two years after Linnea, Piedad gave birth to twins—Marirosa and Violeta, crybabies prone to rashes and congestion, an adorable pair by three years old but spoiled into vanity—and then less than two years after the twins came Pablito, a rambunctious hellion who ran as soon as he could walk and constantly needed to be rescued from the brink of some self-devised disaster. And then, six years after Pablito, when Piedad, although still technically young at thirty-two, had settled into a disappointed middle age (Marco off courting some new lover, her beloved Antonio withdrawn into adolescent silence, Linnea managing the household), Piedad found herself, after one ridiculous night of submission, pregnant with child number six. As Piedad worked her way up around her neck with the rag, the parade of babies stopped. Almita didn’t appear in her mind at all.
At first Piedad was not going to wash her hair; it was so long and heavy that shampooing was a chore and often required one of her daughters’ help. But Piedad didn’t want to leave the quiet of the washroom yet. She didn’t want to listen to Marirosa and Violeta titter about the boys of the village; she didn’t want to chase down Pablito, who had developed a habit of setting things on fire; she didn’t want to relieve Linnea of the burden of tending to Almita. Not yet. So Piedad dunked her head into the tin tub and swirled her hair through the water, and then she jerked her head back up so that water sprayed onto the towel, the muslin curtain, even her neatly hung clothes. Suddenly everything seemed without consequence so she shook her head some more, droplets flying willy-nilly through the air, and then she flung her head back and the sun shining down into the enclosure made rainbows, flashes of golden color that lasted a mere moment.
Perhaps it was the lightheadedness that came from tossing her head around, or perhaps it was the evil eye, a malignant curse cast by her enemies, but something snapped that morning; something that had been strained broke inside her. Piedad gasped and sunk down to her knees. Suddenly she felt huge and bursting, as if in the throes of childbirth, but it was not just her loins, it was every cell, bulging, rupturing, and then spewing its contents, as if she were a sponge filled with millions of sea creatures—anemones, jellyfish and seahorses, miniature shrimp, ominous bivalves and schools of tiny shimmering fish—a pulsing, swirling, throbbing mass of rapacious life. She squatted and pulled her knees to her chest, the euphoria of just a few moments earlier gone far, far away. She sobbed into the space between her knees.
Suddenly the curtain drew back, and Linnea, with Almita clinging to her leg, let out a small cry and then squatted down beside her mother and touched her back.
“Get away. Go away,” Piedad mumbled.
Linnea turned toward Almita, pried her fingers loose from her dress, and waved the small child into the house.
“Both of you.” Piedad’s voice rose higher.
“It’s okay, mama, I will help you. I will help you now. Antonio will be here soon.”
The mention of her eldest son’s name stilled her shaking body, slowed the leak of her guts. Yes, Antonio. Piedad nodded her head, which was still lowered between her knees.
Linnea wrapped the towel around her mother’s bent back and led Piedad to a chair by the back steps. Piedad dressed and sat in the sun while Linnea combed and oiled her hair, helping it to dry lank and smooth. Without warning, Piedad rose, stamped her feet and went into the house. She went into the main room, the only room besides the one bedroom and the kitchen galley, and sat in the best chair—an upholstered brocade armchair, originally cerulean blue shot through with gold threads but now faded to steel gray with barely a glint of gold.
Piedad rose again and went to the galley at the back of the house. Although most of the cooking was done out of doors, this narrow space served for food preparation and storage. The sweet corn cake made with coconut milk was wrapped in a towel; the thick stew of pork hocks, yucca, and sweet potatoes was in a lidded pot; the rice was cleaned of pebbles and awaiting the final preparation—all done, all ready, all waiting for Antonio.
Piedad felt Linnea standing behind her. Piedad turned and said, “To drink? What are you planning to give Antonio to drink? Do you think the nasty warm water you serve me will do?”
Linnea pulled back a chair to reveal six bottles of beer nestled in a basin of ice.
Piedad exhaled sharply through her nose and lifted her chest. “Help me with my hair.”
They went into Piedad’s bedroom, and there they found Marirosa and Violeta with faces stuck up close to the mirror, critically examining noses and eyebrows, hair parts and lipsticked lips. Linnea shooed them away. Piedad turned and watched them go, giggling heads bent toward each other, not even glancing at her, and she wished on them hasty marriages to philandering, shallow men, men who would suck all their silly vanity out and replace it with poverty and jealousy and the humiliation that every weak man must load onto his wife’s back.
“Are there boys in the village who are interested in those two?” Piedad pointed her chin at the door through which the twelve-year-old twins had left. “What about that dimwitted son of Señor Machado?”
Linnea smiled and shrugged her shoulders. She brushed her mother’s hair, holding each hank tightly as she worked through the tangles at the ends, and then, with a series of artfully hidden bobby pins, she put Piedad’s hair up. This routine comfort combined with the joyful anticipation of Antonio’s visit soothed Piedad, and she felt herself gliding back into her familiar, warm body. Soon, however, she grew tired of Linnea’s presence and began to fidget and twiddle with her rings. Linnea understood the unspoken message and let her hands drop to her mother’s shoulders for one second before turning and leaving the room.
Piedad closed her eyes, breathed deeply to dispel Linnea’s presence, to restore the sanctity of the room. She felt embarrassed by the shower scene earlier in the day. Perhaps she was sick, sick unto death, and slowly, magnificently, she would deteriorate and everyone would weep, especially Marco. He would be overwhelmed by grief, distraught, fainting away, and all the other strong men of the village, men who had desired Piedad, would have to hold him up, and secretly they would scorn Marco, not only for his weakness but also for his lifelong neglect of Piedad, his possession but their coveted treasure. At her funeral, they would speak both publicly by her coffin and privately in gossiping knots of two or three of her devotion, her beauty, her composure, which endured even in the throes of death. Antonio would return to the village, and he too would be distraught, but not weak like his father; rather, he would be . . . and there the fantasy ended. With Antonio. He was the sole figure in her world who was too independent to play a bit part in her daydreams of worship and devotion. As much as he had all the makings of a hero, handsome and intelligent and strong, as much as she had tried over the years to make him fit the role of the devoted son, the savior who would take her to a better life, the life for which she had always been suited, he had resisted typecasting, refused to dangle like an accessory on her arm and instead fell in love with a series of inferior village girls and then left for the big city with barely a goodbye, much less a promise to come back for her, to save her.
Piedad looked in the mirror once again. Its comforting power had been depleted, used too frequently over too short a period of time. She needed other eyes besides her own: the boys who loitered around the door of the bodega, even the toothless old men playing dominos in the shade would do. But it was too late to go out now, even just to the corner; Antonio might come at any moment. She must sit on the porch and hope for some passersby, someone who would smile a good day or even, better yet, someone who would glance at Piedad and then quickly look away, that avoidance a sure proof of the envy seeping out through the person’s pores, and its putrid stink would be like a balm to Piedad, and she would be restored and be able to greet Antonio with the certain knowledge that he could not possibly abandon her again.
She sat in the cane rocker just outside the front door. She longed for a porch, a concrete box enclosed by black iron bars. Still, the front of the house was the best spot in the neighborhood, with its overhanging tin roof to protect from the sun. The chair was fine too, with its runners so solid that they barely creaked as Piedad rocked. Many others in the village had nothing at all, just a step down onto the hard, compacted dirt where they sat on a wooden crate, a scrap of cardboard box for their bare feet.
The sun had slipped past the meridian, although Piedad could still feel the high-noon burn of it on her face and scalp when she stepped away from the front door to peer around the corner and strain her eyes down the path towards the distant mountains. It was dinnertime, and most of the villagers were at home preparing the main meal of the day: plates of white rice glistening with oil; red or black beans boiled and seasoned into a thick stew, usually with a starchy root vegetable, yucca or taro; and, since the cane cutters, all paid on the same government schedule, had gotten their paychecks only two days earlier, certainly a fried chicken or oxtails or goat stew. To Piedad it was uncomfortably calm, not because quiet was unusual at that time of day but because the tranquility was in such discord with her jittery, jangling insides. She longed for the hubbub of a busy place—the shouts and murmur of a crowd, the buzz and chatter of a large party, the quick clicking of high heels on a cement sidewalk.
She squinted into the sunlight, hoping to detect some movement, someone waking up from a nap, someone curious peering out of a doorway, but everything was dead still. In fact the only action seemed to be decay—the water pump, the crumbling walls of the shuttered bodega, the ground itself, all a brownish-orange color—rusting, oxidizing, flaking away bit by bit. She heard a low-throated growl behind her and turned to see a couple of mangy dogs, what was left of their pelts rust-colored as well, nosing in some chicken innards. The only dash of a different color was the iridescent green of the flies buzzing around the putrefying guts.
After a few moments, she sighed and looked up, thinking perhaps to look down the path one more time, but there in front of her, she didn’t know how she had not heard him approach, a man sat astride a horse. The man remained mounted, and although he was facing Piedad, he was not looking at her; rather, he seemed to be trying to look in at the door of her house.
Piedad rose from the rocker and stood next to the front steps, arms crossed high over her chest. Still the man did not look at her. She brought her hands down and placed them on her hips, elbows jutting out to the sides, thinking to make herself wider, more noticeable. Still the man stared through her. Piedad squeezed her eyes shut for a second, half expecting the man and the horse to disappear; only a hallucination, an illusory being, could have such power, such temerity to see through her. Yet when she opened her eyes again, the man was still there. In fact, he had moved the horse closer so that Piedad could reach out and touch its muscular black chest. She coughed slightly, not to call attention to herself—she would never use such a meek approach—but involuntarily because her throat had constricted in exasperation. The man started and look down then, indeed seeing Piedad for the first time. He pulled his horse back slightly and smiled.
He didn’t dismount but addressed her directly from the horse. “Excuse me, ma’am?”
“Señor Paredes?” Linnea had come to the front door, wiping her hands on the front of her thighs, Almita clinging to one leg. Linnea hoisted Almita up and rested the child on her hip. “Señor Paredes, you came to the village today?”
He nodded and smiled and swung down off the horse. “I had some business today.”
“Oh,” Linnea said.
“I remembered the house you pointed out.”
“I wanted to stop by and see you.”
A noise issued from Piedad—something halfway between a snort and a groan. The man turned toward Piedad and extended his hand. She raised her eyebrows and left her hands on her hips. The man let his hand drop and continued smiling. “You have a lovely daughter. I started as the new overseer last week, and she helped me find my way around. Your husband is Señor Marco Envidón, correct?”
Piedad did not answer—not a word, not a nod, no longer even a movement of her eyebrows. “Well, he asked her to . . .” the man attempted to continue.
Piedad pushed Linnea and Almita inside. “My daughter is busy helping me, and I am not well, if you haven’t noticed. Furthermore, if you must know, my son, Antonio Envidón, one of the chief assistants of El Generalissimo in the capital, is due in Arturo Bass at any moment. I must ask you to move away from our house.”
“Of course.” Señor Paredes bowed his head slightly.
Piedad stared at the man until he backed away. “What kind of overseer relies on a silly girl for to guide him! I expect you will never interrupt our day again.”
“But Mami…” Linnea, who had been watching from the open doorway, came back down the front steps. Piedad turned and slapped her across the face. Linnea did not cry; she blinked back the tears, bit her lip, and turned her face away. Almita, however, who had stayed in Linnea’s arms, nestled her head under Linnea’s chin and sobbed and howled as though she had absorbed the full strength of the slap. Linnea returned to the house, consoling Almita with soft shushes.
Piedad watched the man move away from the house and down the path that led out of the village. Piedad grabbed the straw broom from behind the door and returned to the dusty front yard and swept the dirt, obliterating each hoofprint, each footprint. At first she swept briskly, bearing down on the broom, pushing the dirt away, until she began to cough from the exertion and the dust particles in the air. Then she noticed the neat, even lines that the broom left behind, and she slowed down and swept more carefully, trying to even all the strokes up, trying to create a perfect pattern of brown lines radiating out from her house, as if she were creating a star that would shine on her alone.