The midday sun beat down on the thirsty willows that leaned toward the riverbank. Summer was relentless and within hours the heat would be unbearable.
Not so for the girls who were absolutely unrelated to atmospheric determinism and had worked for hours trying to build a different world around them, which certainly was incomprehensible and above all immense.
PP or “Pepé” was nowhere to be seen and the children’s screams echoed in the silence of their grandmother’s old farm house. Two floors crammed with bedrooms with high ceilings and doors designed for giants. The girls ran up, jumping the marble steps two at a time as they did every day.
“Pepé, Pepé, where are you?. We are hungry” they chanted in unison. Then silence, expectant glances, shy smiles and understanding without words that today would be another day of eating stale bread that they had been keeping from the previous days. Another day they would eat some berries and grapes from the grapevine.
They ran throughout all the rooms, looked under the beds, counting as they did every day; two bathrooms, one room, two rooms, three rooms, etc. Seven rooms on a floor and eight in the second floor plus the kitchen, dining room and pantry. The two dens included and the silence of summer only interrupted by the buzzing of bees and sometimes the distant sound of a tractor on nearby fields.
In a couple of hours only the noises of the cicadas obsessed with finding their kind, would be heard at siesta time.
Perpetua Pino, better known by the initials of her name, dried the sweat furrowed in her mature face. She wiped her face with the back of her apron that she wore for as long as she could remember. There was no work that could be undertaken without an apron on her waist as she had told herself for many years.
But she had forgotten something that was important and in spite of trying really hard to remember, she could not. The truth is that she was already reaching an almost uneasy point with forgetfulness. Two months ago she was the laughingstock of the small town of Pencahue when she appeared at Sunday mass with only a petticoat and vest top. That day she forgot to put on her dress and shoes.
At first they were small blackouts that did not allow her to remember where she put things and occasionally suffered some embarrassment like not recognizing people who she had not seen for some time. One morning she had breakfast three times and another time she confused Wednesday with Sunday and went to the church to realize that it was locked and there was not a soul around. These things confused her, but luckily she also ended up forgetting them.
That warm afternoon, Pepé tried in vain to remember something. She had a hunch it was important but nothing came to help the almost desperate search that eluded her without explanation. She reviewed the events of that week – or was it months? -. And of course, there was the agreement she had with Isabel to take charge of Felipito.
The poor child had no more than five years and polio had ravaged his weak little legs leaving him virtually crippled and condemned for the rest of his life to move with an iron frame that covered both legs from the waist down. Every movement, every step was a huge effort for the boy. It seemed that at any moment he would fall flat on the ground, but Felipito stubbornly ignoring its precarious condition tried in vain. With a great joy in his blue eyes he tried to run with the chickens and chase flies, moths and dragonflies.
Inevitably these raids ended up on the floor with a noise of metal crashing against the rocks. The contained crying escaping his small throat in sobs was the unmistakable signal for Pepé to desperately run to rescue the child from his misery and pain.
She took him in her arms, against her chest and rocked him with songs she had invented until Felipito fell asleep. Pepé put him to sleep in her own bed and cleaned the dust, tears and sometimes the wounds caused by the countless falls.
“Oh my little boy” she said to herself.
“What was God’s design that gave you so much suffering?”, she continued muttering in silence.
“I will ask the Lord to take you and then you will become one of his angels”
And gradually Pepé was calming herself down with the images of Felipito all dressed in white with a long tunic and two wings surrounding his big smile, floating in the clouds with a choir of cherubs singing the national anthem in four voices. The Chilean national anthem was stubbornly all that had remained in her memory, despite all the uncertainties caused in the effort to remember other important things, the verses of Mr. Ramon Carnicer overlapped everything with a very special insistence and brightness.
“…and the sea that calmly bathe you, promises you a future splendor”
“Sweet motherland, receive the promises with which Chile swore to protect…”
In the oppressive heat of that afternoon, Pepé lay beside Felipito and both napped while the choir of angels was slowly dissolving in the February sun.
The girls had pulled out all the dining chairs and a large wooden chest that the great, great grandfather had brought from the Basque country in a boat that crossed the Strait of Magellan in the middle of a storm and deposited it in a corner of the garden under a leafy tree whose trunk was painted with white lime,
“To stop the ants from climbing” said her cousin Elizabeth.
To move the chest took them at least half an hour, but they did not give up their efforts for a moment. They were determined to build a house there in the garden on that day and not another. The chairs were just around the trunk to support the magnificent ceiling that would be done with the finest and large tablecloths they could find.
Veronica scratched her head with weeks of itching. Her whole body was itching but mostly her head and the more she scratched, the more it stung. Desperation was so great that she felt she had been injured by the force with which she scratched. However, the task of decorating the new residence under construction made her forget about it and she started to cut roses that were very discreetly placed at the entrance made by the intersection of two cloths in the style of an oriental store.
Elizabeth, scratching her head also told Veronica “Our house is almost ready and this is the bedroom. Want to try the bed?”
She opened the trunk full of cushions and pillows and she told her cousin with pride in her eyes that the wonderful bed was ready.
The two jumped in and between laughter and comments decided to each take a corner of the trunk and they thought that never before in their lives had they had such a lovely house and such a comfortable bed.
Elizabeth knew very well and she had calculated that two weeks had passed at the grandmother’s house and for the last four days Pepé had been gone.
Elizabeth did not understand why they were left alone and once again she felt the unmistakable stinging of hunger that was enlarged and stretched inside in the same way that the shadows of the hills did in the late afternoon.
The girls crossed the ditch, they went into the grapevine and with small hands took again the ripest grapes they could find. In the pantry there was only a jar of condensed milk which Elizabeth passed it to Veronica with an overly exaggerated disgusting gesture with that sticky white liquid.
Veronica took the jar in silence and with a nail and a stone she opened a hole big enough to suck the milk with the avidity of days they had not eaten much outside of the few fruits they could find.
“I do not know anyone who does not like condensed milk” Veronica said, trying to justify her anxiety, at the same time she felt a huge relief to know that she could drink it without having to share it with her cousin.
The bread was a different story and there was only the last piece. Elizabeth ceremoniously divided it into two almost equal parts and let Veronica choose the one that supposedly looked bigger. After all, Elizabeth had taken a vow of generosity to the Virgin of the garden when Father Michael suggested that she had to control her egoism in the last confession she had.
What gave Elizabeth the most anger with herself was the fact that it was an invented sin as all the other girls had confessed to at least two or three sins and she was not going to be less, but now in this unusual situation they were in, was only the fear of a hell full of devils and fire, that kept her decision to continue with the vow, but she had no need to be generous pass the end of the month and there was only one more day to go.
Mrs Isabel and Mrs Adelaide arrived at the train station of San Vicente de Tagua-Tagua around six in the evening. Isabel’s husband will not come until the next day so they decided to take the time and do all the shopping they needed right there in the village. The two women estimated that Father Michael would be in the village church and again as they had been doing for years, they would ask the priest to take them to the farm in his blue truck.
Of course they would ask without asking, with smiles, flattery, gossip and all that at least Isabel was an expert.
Father Michael was a gentle soul in his late sixties with a smile practiced for decades in front of the mirror imitating the best saints of the “Exemplary Lives” magazine, whose complete collection was owned by him and he admitted publicly that were more entertaining and useful than the damn breviary he had to read every evening.
The priest Michael liked to hobnob with the landowners of the place and invite them to tea with Chilean sweet cookies and crackers with pate foie. The ritual was known for both women and the conversation invariably revolved around the “competition”.
Three small churches competed in place for parishioners and for their generous contributions. The priest Michael was in charge of the church of San Vicente, the priest Javier was in charge of Pencahue and the priest Enrique was in charge of that undefined territory between the two small towns. The competition had become a brilliant game of chess in the effort to win souls and the pockets of the faithful. Unfortunately Enrique, getting old and with rampant arteriosclerosis had significantly given way when a few months ago he ended scandalizing several faithful during the Sunday sermon.
It was never known if the midday heat or the aging process or simply his extraordinary passion and zeal with which he celebrated Mass, made the priest Enrique to lash at the parishioners from the pulpit to the point that a frightening silence fell on the little church full of people.
At that time Father Enrique gave the final verdict:
“If you don’t repent, dirty sinners, then boiling shit will rain from the skies. The Lord in his wrath will punish you with boiling shit pouring from heaven …”
The confusion and pandemonium was complete; children crying, three old ladies fainted in the front row, the organist was so nervous that instead of playing Bach, out came the melody from “Never on Sunday”. The land owners were furious and left the chapel at once with a firm resolve never to set foot in that church with a deranged priest. Enrique, completely unmoved by the commotion created, continued with the Mass as if nothing had happened, finishing with one altar boy since the other left in a hurry to the bathroom wrestling with the apocalyptic images that the priest had created in his consciousness.
Next day the priest Enrique completely forgot what he had said and could not understand why so few people turned up for the celebrations of the beginning of the “Month of the Virgin Mary.”
The priest Michael with his angelic smile finished telling the details of the incident to the two women with huge eyes, feigning incredulity without limits for the sake of the priest since they had heard of the incident the same day through Pepé who tried in vain to understand whether the boiling shit was for everyone or only for the sinners.
Once they finished tea, cookies stuffed with pate and dusty blancmange the priest Michael rose ceremoniously and said:
“It would be a great pleasure for me to take you both to the farm.”
Pepé got up from her nap and left Felipito sleeping. She made herself a tea and slowly drank it with a few slices of homemade bread. The day was dying and finally had a respite from the summer heat. That was when the blue truck stopped in front of her house with a screech of brakes and a cloud of dust that barely let her see the two figures that got down from the vehicle.
And when the two women approached the house, Pepé suddenly remembered the girls but she could not understand why the two girls were in a truck with a man dressed all in black and she decided that enough was enough.
“Little girls, what are you doing here? How could you get on a truck with strangers? As soon as your moms get here I am going to tell on you”
Isabel without understanding much replied “Good evening Pepé. How are you? How are the children? And what nonsense are you saying about the truck and Father Michael?”
The old Pepé looked at her up and down and concluded that no doubt the girls had grown a lot in the summer, but still there was no reason for them to be this bold and disobedient, so once more she informed them that she would not endure even a minute more of bad behavior and that she already had sufficient work with Felipito for two insolent brats to talk that way to her.
Mrs Adelaide did not see Veronica anywhere and Isabel did not see Elizabeth anywhere either. Pepé was speaking incoherently and she had obviously lost her mind. Adelaide felt her chest was shrinking and had a feeling of immense distress. The old Pepé had not only reached the limits of what memory allowed but she also had the feeling that Pepé’s enormous confusion was just the beginning of something terrible.
Adelaide abruptly took Isabel by her arm and said with urgency: “Leave Felipito with Father Michael and let’s go to the main house. The girls are not here and old Pepé has lost her memory. Hurry…”
Adelaide ran the kilometer separating the two worlds with a desperation that only mothers can understand. A world where the modest house that Pepé had inherited from the grandmother for taking care of children for generations and in the other world the enormous mansion estate that Adelaide found in the dark surrounded by silence and foreboding. Two strange worlds mingled in this absurd social order of Chilean society with a fluency and ease that anyone would have thought that even the best social utopia couldn’t achieve what the aristocracy boasted of having done.
“Tenants working our fields and we pay them a salary and also feed them, clothe them, educate them and cover all their basic needs, while they in turn will give back by caring for our children, cleaning the toilets of our homes, cooking and doing housework so we don’t end up having to do it ourselves, which leaves us free to worry about maintaining a standard of living high and beneficial to everybody.”
These are the words of a candidate who won the village elections with an absolute majority. No one could object to that infallible logic and in conclusion, the candidate had said
“What would their miserable lives be if we did not exist to provide for them?”
Adelaide crossed the grapevine breathing heavily and within minutes she was in the big house completely dark and silent. She shouted with all her might: “Little girls, little girls, where are you?”
Her voice filled with anguish echoed through the 15 rooms returning with an empty echo.
“Veronica, Elizabeth, where are you?” cried Isabel while she reached the opposite side of the house. The two women looked at each other with horror in their eyes and without managing to do anything rational they kept screaming throughout the entire mansion without finding a trace of their daughters. Finally exhausted from screaming, sobbing and being anguished they both sat at the foot of the huge marble staircase hugging, giving free rein to mutual recriminations, promises and guilt.
Adelaide noticed that the chairs were not at the table and the first thing she thought was that they were stolen, and then she stepped back and realized the absurdity of her thoughts. Thieves would have taken several other things besides chairs, and that’s when she remembered that Veronica and Isabel were always playing with them and with a very strong intuition told Isabel:
“The chairs, the chairs!, bring some candles and we will look for the chairs.”
Isabel did not understand anything but dutifully lit the candles and both went to the garden lit by the moon and the soft light emanating from the candles. They walked carefully until finally next to the well, just in a corner, they found the house that the girls had built with chairs and tablecloths. To enter it they had to bend completely and in the middle of the circle of chairs was the trunk and within it, huddled into the cushions the two girls slept in their small world dreaming of games to invent the next day. A world made according to what they felt and to their measure, as they obviously had been abandoned by the world of adults.
Adelaide with tears of relief lit up the sleeping faces and could not help out a gasp from the stupor. Elizabeth golden hair and Veronica’s black curls were one bunch of lice jumping and mingling with the dirt that covered them. The children’s little bodies had lost several kilos and were covered with scabs of mud, leaves glued to the arms, grass, dirt and ashes.
The dresses that barely covered them had been reduced to mere rags of an indecipherable color. The site was overwhelming for the two mothers to see their daughters in this sorry state. Both took the girls in their arms, still overcome by sleep, hunger and fatigue. They have built their own world to compensate for the inexplicable.
Neither of the two women knew how long they were hugging and caressing their daughters and promising that never again in their lives would they let such a thing happen.
The nests of lice and nits had played havoc with their hair and the next day the two girls with balding squalid heads, freshly bathed, and dressed in white went back to Santiago. They only stopped to say goodbye to the old Pepé who thought the two girls were the daughters of her little girls that she had not seen since the night before and she very gently asked for their names while offering them baked fresh bread from the oven.
The truck left with the two women and the two girls behind a cloud of dust suspended in the heat of another day of a summer that at least Veronica would not forget while she was alive.
Pepé sat in her rocking chair and sang as loud as she could the only verses that came to her memory.
“…and your fields knitted in flowers are the exact copy of a happy Eden”
Portland February, 2000