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Authors: Florencia Mallon

Beyond the Ties of Blood

BOOK: Beyond the Ties of Blood

Beyond the
Ties of Blood

A Novel

Florencia Mallon


For my sister, Ignacia Schweda


For my parents, Ignacia Bernales Mallon and Richard D. Mallon



Bearing Witness

Boston, 1990

The longest and hottest August drought ever recorded in Boston had seared the summer leaves from the trees, giving the city an eerie, bombed-out feeling. As Eugenia made her way up the stairs of the newly renovated journalism building at Carmichael College, she mopped the sweat streaming down both sides of her face. Looking down at the tissue in her hand, she saw thick streaks of mascara. She could only imagine what her face looked like, so she swung by the bathroom to repair the damage.

She gazed at herself in the mirror and wiped the remaining smudges off her face. Her light brown curls, combed into even ringlets little more than an hour ago, were now a mass of sweaty frizz. She took a wide-toothed comb from her bag, wetted it under the faucet, and began disentangling the thicket piece by piece. After repairing the curls, careful to tuck the occasional silvery corkscrew underneath the brown ones, out of sight if not out of mind, she put away her comb.

Then her eyes focused on her pinstriped blouse with the long sleeves, its even pattern smeared with sweat. Why couldn't she just wear a different top, at least until the weather cooled off? But the minute she unbuttoned the sleeves and pulled them up above her elbows, the same old shudder went through her and she knew she could not. Purple scars went up both arms like malevolent snakes. Over the years she had gotten to know them by heart, their distinct textures and shades, each of them a different length and height. But she had never been able to share their presence with anyone, or explain why they would forever mark her. And then that Chilean lawyer from the new Truth Commission had called, intensifying the old memories that had already been stirred up in the dust storm of transition and media attention as the dictatorship was ending in her native land. She had gone backwards, as if no time had passed since her arrest. She started waking up in the middle of the night with a huge weight pushing down on her chest, making it hard to breathe. Still dreaming, she felt men attach prods to her arms, nipples, and toes, then shoot her body full of electricity. She relived the burning sensation for a few seconds, but then she felt herself lifted out of her body, as if she were flying. Looking down, she saw faceless figures holding her down, forcing her down. Then she would always wake up. She began pulling palmfuls of hair out of the drain every time she took a shower.

Eugenia brought her sleeves back down, buttoned them securely at the wrists, and walked out into the hallway. Her sandals chirped softly on the newly renovated stone floor, and the old-world elegance of the walnut paneling on the walls contrasted starkly with the acrid smell of new paint. So much of the building was like this now, Eugenia thought. In her own office, the tall windows and old-fashioned high ceilings made the new linoleum floor with the fake parquet design seem garish. But she was definitely grateful for the recently installed central air conditioning. Bad with the good, I suppose, she mused to herself.

She opened the heavy oak door of the Journalism department. Mary Jean, the secretary, looked up from her computer at the front desk and smiled. An older woman with a helmet of grey hair, Mary Jean had developed an almost maternal attachment to Eugenia over the past several years. At least once a week she'd put a clipping in Eugenia's mailbox from a women's magazine containing a recipe for a new casserole or an article on the mothering of teenagers.

“Hello, Eugenia,” Mary Jean said. She pronounced it “Ewe-gee-neea.” “There's a foreign airmail envelope in your box that arrived yesterday.”

At first Eugenia had considered getting Mary Jean to pronounce her name in a more recognizable Spanish-language way. If I see this person every day, she'd thought, and she keeps track of my mail and gives me advice on cooking and childrearing, then at least she can pronounce my name right. “Eh like in ‘best',” she heard herself say. “Then ooh, heh (the E is like ‘best' again), neeah. Eh-ooh-heh-neeah.” But then she'd remember her struggles with her journalism students, who couldn't pronounce her last name, Aldunate, to save their skins. Finally she'd just accepted being called “Professor A.” And so, she decided, “Ewegeeneea” it would remain, even though she cringed a bit inside every time she heard it.

It was more than just an issue of pronunciation, however. This had been the story of the whole five years since she had moved to the United States from her original exile in Mexico. Every time someone addressed her by this strange sounding name, a chasm opened between her experience, her culture, her life, and the world around her. When people commented that, with her light brown curly hair and blue eyes, she certainly didn't look latin, at first she had tried to explain that not all Latins looked alike, that color was a question of social class, and that most Latins in the United States were economic refugees rather than political refugees like her. When she repeatedly received confused and disinterested looks in return, she finally gave up. After every interaction that involved her name or her coloring, a wave of longing would come over her, and for a moment she was sure she would die if she didn't see the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, the brilliant blue of the Chilean sky, or the alabaster majesty of the Andes on a winter morning. But she also knew that she lived in a way that would have been impossible in Chile. Her sister Irene, who had been in Boston a lot longer than she had, lived openly with her girlfriend Amanda. Neither sister felt the pressure to find a man (with the right last name, of course) and have the abundant grandchildren that would have sealed their mother's prestige among her friends.

Yet they were still bound to their world of origin with invisible strings. Irene returned to Chile every year to spend her Christmas break, which was during the Chilean summer, at their family's country house. Last year, Amanda had complained about being left alone over the holidays once again. Every year when Irene got back, she reported to Eugenia that although their mother knew that, as a political exile, her other daughter could not return, she still complained bitterly about being abandoned. And even though Eugenia knew it was silly, she always felt guilty.

She tried to raise her daughter differently. She wanted to give Laura enough room to develop freely, without the burden of constant judgment. So she let her stay out late and go to parties at a much earlier age than she had ever done herself. Then she saw bruises on her daughter's neck. Only fifteen, and already making out with boys! But when she remembered her mother's clinging, spying, and wheedling, she bit her tongue. Still, she was never sure she was doing the right thing. She felt that chasm again, between how she and her sister had grown up and what seemed normal in her daughter's world.

Eugenia opened her mailbox and took out the thick envelope with red and white stripes along the edges. Across the front was her name and university address in a spiky, self-assured script that was unfamiliar to her. Looking up at the return address she saw, in official-looking cursive, the name and address of the new Truth Commission in Santiago. Above it, almost on the fold of the envelope itself, was written in the same unusual script of the address: I. Pérez. Ah, yes. Ignacio Pérez. That was the name of the lawyer who had called her the other day. Ripping open the envelope with trembling hands, she found a series of documents which she presumed were sent to all potential witnesses. A small handwritten note was attached in identical spiky handwriting. “These are the basic rules of testifying,” it said. “Look them over carefully, and if you feel you cannot follow the guidelines, please write to me at the Commission. Otherwise, I suggest you begin trying to remember things in systematic order, perhaps through a journal. We have found with other witnesses we have contacted that this helps a lot. Unless I hear from you otherwise, I will see you in about three months—Ignacio.”

Eugenia knew it would be hard to understand the bureaucratic language in the rules, but Irene had worked in the human rights movement and could help her figure it out. She put the sheets back in the envelope, returned it to her mailbox, and retraced her steps out of the building. She took the brick pathway diagonally across the quadrangle to the student grocery store, where she picked out a blank book with lined pages, a pack of Gauloises cigarettes, and a large, fresh orange. Then she went back to her office, locked the door behind her, and sat down at her desk. She lit a black tobacco cigarette, peeled the orange, and closed her eyes. Manuel's scent surrounded her, and for a moment he was in the room. With all the lights off in her office except the desk lamp and no classes or office hours to get in the way, she opened her new journal and allowed herself to remember.

Santiago, 1971

She careened off the bus at the Plaza Baquedano, trying unsuccessfully to straighten her brown leather jacket in the crush of college students. Once the herd had stampeded by, she stood for a moment on her own, facing the statue, and wondered how in the world she would find Sergio in this crowd. Already the tide of humanity swelled in all directions. Jostled back and forth by a new wave of dark-haired demonstrators, she felt her right ankle give way as the thin heel of her boot caught the edge of a cobblestone, pushing her down on one knee. Another young woman stopped to help her up, then strode off on sturdy hiking boots, hands free of bags or packages.

As she watched the other girl disappear into the crowd, Eugenia realized she was overdressed yet again. She was trying so hard to fit in. She'd found her bomber-style jacket at one of the secondhand stores that were sprouting up all over the neighborhood near her university, filling the demand among her classmates for more worn-in, hippie styles. With the slightly faded jeans and black turtleneck she was sure she'd hit the right note. But the boots were still too fancy, and they weren't good on the uneven cobblestones.

She wished for the hundredth time that Sergio had been willing to agree on a place to meet. It'll be easy, he'd assured her vaguely. Not that many people will show up before the afternoon. She had to admit he'd been more and more evasive lately. She'd lost count of the number of times he had kept her waiting for more than an hour. True, it was barely ten in the morning and they'd agreed to meet at ten thirty, but it was an unusually hot fall day and the place was overflowing. She could already feel a thin rivulet of sweat dripping down the middle of her back. All around her the scent of young, unwashed bodies—musky underarms combined with the stench of days-old socks—mingled with cheap black tobacco and the occasional forbidden sweetness of marijuana.

From the corner of her eye she caught the fluttering of a red and black revolutionary flag hanging from the nose of the Baquedano statue's horse. Ironic, she thought, that General Manuel Baquedano, whom she knew from her history textbooks as yet another generic nineteenth-century military hero from the War of the Pacific, should have his horse insulted in this way. This brought her attention more fully to the center of the plaza and to the three young men who seemed to be leading the chants. As she looked, two of them, sporting Che Guevara–like berets, descended the stairs of the monument and fanned out among the masses, holding bundles above their heads that looked like leaflets to give out. The single figure left at the top of the stairs held a megaphone in his right hand while his left fist waved in the air with each chant. As he climbed further up to the base of the statue, the crowd roared with approval. He turned his back on her to whip up enthusiasm on the other side of the plaza, and a blaze of light hurtled through his red curls. Ricocheting through the crowd, it shone directly in her eyes.

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