Learning to Speak


(excerpt from The Reddening Path, Thistledown Press 2007)

She’s crouched in the corner of the schoolroom with Mamá and all the children. Sweat trickles down her temples. She sees Mamá’s lips trembling. They’re all crowded in, all the women and children. Why are we here? Why do we have to be quiet? Shhhh! Mamá’s finger to her lips. She whimpers and Mamá pulls her face into her breast, covering her head, stroking, stroking. A single gunshot jolts her body and Mamá grips her so hard she thinks she’ll die. Then the air is filled with cries and shots, one after another, bam bam bam, like ten thunderstorms. When it stops the air has turned white, the women’s faces are white. One of them looks through a crack in the wall and she doubles over, sobbing. She trembles like a corn stalk when the wind comes up with a warning smell of summer rain. Then the door bursts open and she hears loud voices, feels the vibration of boots hitting the ground, the tightening of Mamá’s hands on her shoulders, around her hips. She’s lifted in the air, she’s flying through the screams, across the schoolroom, thunk in the corner. She crouches there, curled like a caracol, eyes shut tight. When she uncurls it’s almost dark and everyone is gone. A terrible silence hangs in the air. She walks across the earthen floor, her bare feet raising little clouds of dust. The blackboard is empty, their slates are clean, this is Sunday. Outside the earth is dark with blood. She hears it gulping. It drinks and drinks, darkening with each gulp. All the Papás are lying in a heap, their mouths open in surprise. She keeps walking, the soles of her feet turning red, walking on the gulping earth. By the time she reaches her house she’s empty. There’s no-one, no-one left, only the disembodied limbs of her mother, a brightly woven cloth still grasped in her hand, all the women and children, hacked to pieces with machetes, the blood of the massacre mixed with the blood of babies swinging in circles, their heads splitting open on white plaster fashioned by the hands of their fathers, their brothers, their uncles. She sees hands everwhere, holding, patting, smoothing, picking, swinging, stroking, she cannot tell one from another. She starts walking, ankle deep in blood now, out of the village, past the mountain of Papás, past the smoking milpas, all the cornstalks burned like discarded limbs, into the jungle. She sees herself a tiny girl disappearing down a reddening path, and she wakes sobbing.

Fabiana woke in their big bed in the high-ceilinged room. Her forehead was damp. She lifted her head and pulled her dark hair back with both hands, off her neck. It was heavy and she was hot. She tried to get up but slumped back into her own imprint. The languid afternoon. Her dream. One side of her face was streaked with tears. It had left her with a weight of sadness, undefined. She closed her eyes and glimpsed . . . but it was gone . . . only an absence, as though someone had just left that dark place she felt but couldn’t quite see. Shadows, only shadows. She opened her eyes and turned her head to the window. It was barred to keep her safe. Between the slats of the blinds yellowed grass struggled for life, small patches of green where the trees shaded it. Everything was familiar. She closed her eyes and drifted. She remembered nothing before she’d reached the city, her feet brown with dried blood. “Pian wey nbi”, my name is Fabiana, “N’el nk’uu,” I’m hungry. No-one understood – “No entiendo, niña” – until a Mayan man from the Mam-speaking region of Huehuetenango, leaning against a pillar in the cool air of the marbled Banco de Guatemala, stepped forward and translated, “Su nombre es Fabiana. La muchacha tiene hambre.” A woman with thickly mascaraed lashes and red lips took her to the lunch room and fed her tortillas and milk. The child ate slowly, methodically, like a cow chewing on absence, then they opened the glass door and put her out onto the street. She slept curled around her own small body, listening to the soft murmurings of the Mayan street people, shaping her tongue to the strange sounds she heard, the hard metallic sounds of the Spanish speakers. The next day she slipped into the bank again and stood by the pillar. The red-lipped woman fed her and at the end of the day she took her by the hand and marched her over to Casa Central at Calle 13 and Avenida 2a. The child stood in front of a heavy wooden door, looking up at the woman as she lifted the brass-hand knocker with the ring on its third finger and rapped on the door. They heard footsteps, a grille opened, Fabiana watched her red lips moving, heard whispered sounds from the other side. Then the big door opened and a small figure in flowing robes took her hand and tugged gently. The door slammed behind her.

She slept in a dormitory with many other orphans, none of whom spoke Mam. Fabiana learned slowly, reluctantly, repeating the Spanish words, thick in her mouth, as she stared into the courtyard, losing herself in the bougainvillea which spilled from the tiled roof like a cloud of bright butterflies.

“Fabiana!” Sister Rosa’s voice was sharp. “Mira, muchacha, presta atención!”

For a long time she didn’t understand what they said to her, but she learned to anticipate the nuns’ wishes and eventually they deemed her fit for service. One bright morning she and Sister Rosa took the bus, rattling through the exhaust fumes of the city, swaying and stumbling in a crush of passengers. Fabiana gasped as they turned onto Avenida La Reforma; it was wider than a river. The roots of huge trees buckled the sidewalk as though there was a world under the concrete that she couldn’t see. Enormous bronze creatures stood in the middle of the river – a snorting bull with curved horns, a lion with open mouth and tangled mane – and tall buildings like mountains.

“Aquí, muchacha!” Sister Rosa yanked her by the hand and shouldered her way off the bus. They walked briskly down a broad leafy street, away from La Reforma. This time the big wooden door was opened by a maid who tossed her head, gesturing them to follow her down a long corridor, into a bright room filled with vases of flowers. Señora Méndez sat in a bay window, painting her fingernails with a tiny red brush. She looked up with an amused smile, her lips parting to reveal perfectly white teeth.

“What a small one. Your girls get younger and younger, Sister Rosa. I hope she can manage the work of kitchen maid.” She resumed her manicure.

“She’s a good girl, Señora, and quick to learn.” Sister Rosa patted Fabiana’s head.
“You will make the tortillas and wash the vegetables,” Señora Méndez said, addressing Fabiana for the first time. “Go now. You must take a bath and put on a clean uniform before you start work in my kitchen.”

Fabiana entered servitude as some enter Heaven. She served coffee to Señor Méndez in his study and stood by the side of his chair twisting her fingers. He smiled and gestured her to sit, but the child was shy. He asked about her village, but she couldn’t remember a village and she didn’t understand his questions. She was learning the new language fast, but it deserted her when she was afraid. He took down a book from the wall of books behind his desk and opened it, pointing to the black letters. Fabiana shook her head, so he began speaking, one word at a time, pointing to pieces of furniture, paintings, the fireplace, letters scattered on the desk, a crystal bowl, a letter opener, a paper weight, a vase, pointing and speaking until she learned all his belongings. The coffee grew cold.

Fabiana remembered the first day Señor Méndez touched her. It was the day she learned to name the parts of her body – boca, nariz, ojo, oreja, cabeza. She was proud that she already knew some of these words. Cuerpa, brazo, mano, pierna, estómago. He was patient – pointing and speaking, smiling, praising her when she got the words right. “Bravo,” he said, “Bravo, muchacha!

Señora Méndez had been angry with her that morning and she had shouted at Fabiana. The child hadn’t understood, because she’d spoken rapidly, her brow fierce and furrowed. She’d been afraid and had tripped and dropped the tray. The coffee cups had shattered into fragments on the floor and Fabiana had wept in terror of losing her place in the grand house.

“Espalda,” he said, placing his hand on her back, “Cuello,” his hand gentle on the back of her neck, “Nalgas,” running down her back to her behind, “Muslo,” descending to her thigh. Then Señor Méndez took her hand and placed it in his lap. “Pene,” he said, “Pene, entiendo?” Fabiana shook her head and pulled her hand away. He laughed. “Enough, muchacha. You can go.” He dismissed her with a sweep of his big hand.

She lay awake in her bed that night, feeling the parts of her body, her lips moving, forming the strange words. She was afraid that she had somehow disappointed her teacher. The next day when she served his coffee as usual there was no smile, no greeting. He didn’t even look at her as she placed the coffee tray carefully on the mahogany sidetable, bobbing in a little curtsy as Señora Méndez had instructed her. For three days he withheld himself from her until the child could bear it no longer. “Disculpe, Señor,” she lisped, “Disculpe, disculpe, perdoneme.” He looked up finally from his newspaper, a cool, appraising look over his spectacles into the child’s face, wet with tears. He said not a word and she couldn’t bear the silence. She needed more than anything to be forgiven, so she placed her small hand in his lap.

“Never tell,” he said. “This is our special secret.”

Fabiana grew up in the house of Señor and Señora Méndez. She spoke their language and ate their food. She had no memory of who she was, but she was not unhappy, because she had given her loyalty to Señor Méndez. She received a small wage for her work, enough to take the bus downtown on her day off and drink a cup of chocolate or visit the sad animals at Parque Aurora Zoológico. She walked the sandy gravel paths and strayed barefoot onto the grass to gaze into the wrinkled eye of the pacing elephant. Then everything changed.

Fabiana thought the bleeding was a punishment from God for what she did with Señor Méndez. She knew it was penance for her secret because it attacked her in the same place, hurting, so she told no-one, neither Cook, nor the Señora, nor even the maid, Julia, whose room she shared. She thought Julia would surely smell her bloody rags, but Julia was in love with the gardener’s boy and quite oblivious to Fabiana. She scrubbed the rags clean in the wash-house at night, swilling the bloody water down the drain and hanging them on a branch to dry. On her day off she went to Iglesia de la Merced and prayed to the Virgin. She lit a candle and begged the Holy Mother to intercede for her and ask God to end the punishment. When two months passed without bleeding she lit another candle and gave thanks to Madre María.

But her body was not her own. Strange feelings invaded her; nausea and cravings she’d never felt before. She was ravenous, devouring her food in the kitchen like an animal, sneaking downstairs in the night to gnaw on leftovers, hiding stale tortillas under her nightgown and padding silently upstairs to her bed to chew on them while Julia sighed in her sleep, dreaming of her boy.

“You’re filling out, Fabiana,” Señora Méndez teased. “We must find you another dress.” Cook gave her a sidelong glance. A week later the Señora walked in on Fabiana while she was washing herself in the bath. “Stand up,” she ordered, her red nails scraping the air. “I want to look at you.” Fabiana tried to cover her body, but Señora Méndez grabbed her by the wrists and spread her arms. “Puta!” she hissed, “Dirty little slut,” and she slapped Fabiana’s face. “Get your clothes on and get out of my house!”

She didn’t have a chance to say goodby to the Señor, to tell him that she’d kept their secret, that she had been loyal. There was nowhere to go but back to Casa Central. When the baby was born they took it from her. “Your baby will be adopted and she will have a good life,” Sister Rosa had said, “You must go back into service, Fabiana, and learn to be a good girl.”

Fabiana sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. She stretched her arms and yawned. Ernesto would come soon, then she would feel better. Her toes touched the cool floor as she slid from the bed. She walked to the bathroom, her feet slapping the tiles, and stood in the shower. Warm water streamed into her open eyes and plastered her hair flat against her skin. She felt dirty, as though some darkness were rising in her, a rip tide surging against the pumping of her heart. She took several showers a day, and sometimes in the night, as Ernesto lay sleeping at her side, she would rise quietly and tiptoe from their room to shower secretly. She’d powder and perfume her body. She’d shave her legs and rub fragrant cream into the prickling skin and finally, calmed by the ritual, she’d go back to bed and nestle into Ernesto’s big body, solid as a wall. She stepped out of the shower and wrapped herself in one of the fluffy pink towels he’d brought from the United States. Ernesto travelled sometimes with President Portillo and he always brought her expensive gifts; jewellery, perfume, silk undergarments. The towel felt luxuriously thick around her small body. She longed to be enfolded in his arms. It was the only time she felt safe, in the arms of her General, in their secret apartment at the heart of the Palacio Nacional. She’d heard the guards call him Generalísimo Carbonero – the charcoal maker – their young faces grinning nervously, “Because he has burned many villages,” they whispered, nudging each other. She looked into the steamy mirror, wiped a small patch with the corner of the towel and saw her face looming. She looked like a ghost. Tears stung her eyes as she ran back to the bedroom and flung herself onto the bed. Her dark hair spread across the pillow and warmth seeped through her, calming her, as she imagined herself curled by the hearth, heard hands slapping, shaping the tortillas, thunk, thunk as they landed in the steaming comal. Circles of light danced across the floor, flickering like fish in moving water. She felt Ernesto’s hand laying lightly on her belly, his deep voice murmuring, “Mi amor.” More than 20 years of memory densely woven in her body, tied and wrapped and intricately worked until she could no longer feel where the threads began or ended; all the loose ends secured and she inside, swinging in a hammock of red, yellow, turquoise and blue. She saw Ernesto buttoning his shirt, pulling up the fly of his pants, smoothing his ruffled hair with the palm of his hand. He was a vain man, proud of his good looks. He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on his boots. The effort brought out beads of sweat on his brow. When he turned to kiss her Fabiana tossed her head and he was gone, leaving her lying in the rumpled sheets watching the play of light on her belly. She’d lain like this for so many hours, her mind vacant while her body entwined with a small part of Ernesto’s life. She missed him all the time.

Fabiana jumped up and dressed hurriedly. She smoothed the sheets and pulled up the covers, opened the blinds and paced the room, but she couldn’t stop the shuttered images slicing through her brain, bright flashes, shadowed as soon as they appeared. She ran out to the courtyard half expecting Ernesto to be there, but the colonnade was deserted, the pale grass brittle in the shadows. She leaned against a pillar, her cheek on the warm stone, and remembered how he’d come to her and pulled her by the shoulders, up from the sidewalk where she’d been crouched in a doorway after she’d run away from Casa Central. She’d smelled the alcohol on his breath. She’d been afraid he was from the police and that he’d put her in jail, but he’d taken her to a hotel and fallen on top of her, fumbling. She’d been sore still from the birth and had cried out when he’d tried to enter her. “Please don’t cry,” he’d said, “Please, please, no more crying.” In his drunkeness he’d started babbling, about the smell of burning in his hair, on his clothes, everywhere. He’d ripped off his clothing and sat naked on the bed, arms clasped around his knees, shivering as he’d stared into the darkness and spoken of swollen bodies floating in the river, bubbling flesh lumped into unrecognizable shapes. He’d talked until dawn and Fabiana had listened without understanding. Then, as light crept slowly through the blinds, he’d lain down beside her and she’d held him in her thin arms, cradling his head, heavy on her collarbone. When he’d woken there’d been a new light in his eyes as he gazed down at her. “Mi niña,” he’d said, “You’ve saved me.”

Fabiana turned and entered their apartment. As she passed through the hallway into the living room she looked up at the high ceiling where a fan whirled lazily in the hot afternoon. All around her were beautiful objects – a vase of white lilies, a darkened mirror on the wall reflecting the doorway behind her, Ernesto’s books bound in red, green, brown leather leaning on a shelf, above the fireplace a framed picture of Jesus, his heart an open wound with rays of light gushing from it, striking the earth in front of Him. Like the light in her dream, she thought, a flash illuminating her mind for an instant, her heart leaping and plunging again into darkness. She walked to the kitchen in the back of their apartment and made coffee for herself, spooning grounds into a small pot, filling it with water, heating it over the stove. She poured the steaming liquid into a small cup, added sugar and carried it into the living room. She sat in Ernesto’s big leather-backed chair, the one with the studded edges, and waited. Soon he would come, and she would cling to him, pressing her body into him as though she could merge with his flesh, her bones bruising him, and he so gentle with her as she pushed against him like an enemy.