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Authors: Laura Resau

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chapter 8

I
T’S DURING THIS TIME
, my second year with the Doctorita and Niño Carlitos, that their big troubles begin. And against all logic, I find myself caring about them. In another attempt to make money to pay off their debts, they buy a bus with a brother-in-law. The idea is to hire a driver to take passengers around Otavalo, and then divide the profits. “We’ll be swimming in money soon,” Niño Carlitos says. So they take out loans to pay for the bus, claiming they’ll earn the money back in no time. But the bus is a lemon, always breaking down, and after they’ve poured heaps of money into repairs, some thieves steal it.

“Oh, my nerves!” the Doctorita whines. She’s become a disaster herself, ever since the theft of the bus. For months now she can barely drag herself from bed in the mornings, and after school she flops right back in, frantically knitting Baby Jesus dresses and ranting about thieves. She fears that criminals are lurking around every corner, plotting to steal more of her things. “Just thinking about those horrible thieves makes my heart race,” she moans, pressing her hand to her chest. “Maybe I’m having a heart attack. Open the window, Virginia! I’m suffocating!”

I climb onto a chair and open the window. Fresh, cool air blows into the room. “Everything will be all right, Doctorita.”

“No, it won’t,” she says, her knitting needles flying and clicking. “We’re in debt up to our ears. We’ll all starve.”

She has a point. The cupboard is bare except for a bag of dried rice, some sugar, and spices. Inside the refrigerator sits a lonely pitcher of our cow’s milk. “What should I make for lunch?” I ask the Doctorita hesitantly.

“Go find something,” she calls from her bed. “Stop bothering me.”

I cook sweet rice pudding with milk and cinnamon for lunch, which at least makes Jaimito happy. That evening, when Niño Carlitos comes home and plops on the sofa, I say, “Excuse me. Niño Carlitos?”

He waves his hand in the air, flicking me away. “Not now, not now,
m’hija
. I’m busy thinking.” He’s been spending more time away from the house, staying later at school, going out to the bar in the evenings. And always a distracted look clouds his face.

“But there’s no food to cook,” I say.

“Oh, you’ll think of something,” he mumbles. “You’re a clever girl.”

A clever girl.
Clever for stealing food
was what Mamita always said.

I begin to hatch my plan.

*  *  *

That afternoon, with two-year-old Jaimito at my side, I lead the cow to pasture in the
colegio
yard, near the clump of avocado trees. I glance around. No one in sight. “Wait here, Jaimito. Keep a lookout.”

I climb the tree and gather avocadoes, dropping them furtively into the bag slung over my shoulder.

Next, we take the cow farther down the dirt road, to the groves of fruit trees on Don Arturo’s property.

“Stand guard,” I tell Jaimito, who is staring at a bee and sucking on his thumb. The Doctorita is always yelling at me about his thumb sucking, a habit which she insists could mess up his teeth for life. “And take your thumb out of your mouth,” I add.

I scamper up a tree and quickly pluck a dozen guavas. Then we make our way farther down the path to Don Gerardo’s vegetable fields. This will be trickier; they’re surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, and rumor has it Don Gerardo pulls a gun on anyone who trespasses.

But surely he won’t shoot at a two-year-old. “Jaimito,” I whisper, “when I say go, crawl under the fence and take some fat red tomatoes. And the biggest cucumbers you can find. And some green peppers. You’ll have to pull really hard. Can you do that?” I wish I’d brought disguises, so if someone spots us, we could run fast around a corner and then rip off our masks and act like we were innocently strolling. I take one last look up and down the dirt road and squint at the field. Not a soul in sight. “Now, Jaimito. Go!”

He toddles to the fence and wriggles underneath like a worm. If Don Gerardo catches us, I’ll say that Jaimito is just a little boy who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Jaimito wanders through plants taller than he is, tugging with all his might at the vegetables and dropping them, with clumsy toddler hands, into the sack. Finally, he crawls back under the fence, dragging his loot and grinning. I kiss his forehead and brush the dirt off his shirt and pants so the Doctorita won’t get mad.

“Let’s go, little friend!” I say, taking the heavy sack from him.

On the way back, we pass Doña Juliana’s chicken coop. By this time, Niño Carlitos’s egg-buying business has fizzled. I pause in front of the coop. Doña Juliana won’t miss a few eggs. I sneak inside and snatch six eggs, still warm from the hens, and put them carefully into the bag of fruit and vegetables.

“Now remember, Jaimito,” I said. “Don’t breathe a word about this. Not to anyone. Especially not your mother. All right?”

He nods, slurping at his thumb, happy to share a secret that involves getting dirty. As a reward, I let him suck his thumb in peace all the way home.

That night I make a big, colorful dinner, a
cortido
salad of fresh tomatoes and cucumber and peppers, rice, eggs, and guavas in sugary syrup for dessert, with enough guavas left over for the next day’s juice. I heap the plates with food and set them on the table. “Time for dinner!” I call out.

The Doctorita wanders to the table in her bathrobe, still clutching her knitting needles, half a yellow Baby Jesus dress draped over her arm. She stares at the food, dazed at first and then suspicious. “Where did you get all this?”

“Oh,” I say mysteriously, motioning with my chin, “over there.”

The Doctorita raises her eyebrows at Niño Carlitos. The corners of her mouth turn up. “Well, let’s eat.”

As usual, I haven’t set a place for myself, since I don’t eat dinner until after they’ve finished. So it’s a surprise when the Doctorita says, “Why don’t you join us tonight, Virginia?”

Food tastes better when you’re eating with other people, much better than scarfing down leftovers alone in the kitchen. After we’ve stuffed ourselves, I collect the dirty dishes, their china ones and my metal ones.

Niño Carlitos pats his gut. “
Rrriquísimo, m’hija
. And just the perfect amount of salt.” He winks.

The Doctorita nods, her chin jiggling. “Virginia, I don’t know how you do it, but thank you. You’ve cooked food when there was nothing to cook.”

What would they do without me? I feel like one of those saints the Doctorita is always praying to, like the Virgin of Baños in elegant robes and a giant crown who does miracles for desperate people. I imagine being carried through town on a golden throne, smiling and waving to my fans.
Thank you, Virginia
, everyone shouts.
You are a worker of miracles! You make food out of nothing!
People shower me with applause and confetti and candy, especially caramel squares and purple lollipops.

chapter 9

D
URING MY FIRST YEAR IN KUNU YAKU
, my mind was always plotting how to escape, but as the first year has slipped into the second, something inside me has shifted, settled. Oh, I can still see opportunities to run away. I could use the grocery money to pay my bus fare, or sneak out on the days the Doctorita forgets to lock me in the house. My plan to make them trust me has worked.

But I don’t take the next leap. I give myself the same excuses—that I wouldn’t know where to go, that someone could steal me, that I’d get lost, that Mamita and Papito don’t want me anyway. I tell myself that the Doctorita’s beatings aren’t as bad or as frequent as when I first arrived. Although she still calls me hurtful names and whacks me for one thing or another every day, she usually doesn’t leave bruises or draw blood. Niño Carlitos is always telling her to treat me more kindly, reminding her that I’m a little girl, yelling at her if he sees me with a black eye or split-open lip. Now a whole month might pass between beatings, the bad beatings when she pounds me until I’m sobbing, until my legs collapse and I curl up, stinging and throbbing and aching, on the floor.

Sometimes I wonder:
What would you do if they took you with them to visit Niño Carlitos’s parents? How could you resist escaping then?
But as soon as I ask the questions, I push them from my head. They scare me. And exhaust me. It’s hard work to be miserable all the time.

At some point, I decide to dwell in the bright moments. And there are some. Moments when Jaimito wakes up babbling to himself and then, when he sees me, lights up with a smile. Moments when I’m tickling him and he’s laughing, breathlessly, and rolling around, and I can’t help laughing too. Moments when I come home from an errand and he runs to me and throws his arms around my waist like I’m the most important thing in the world.

Sometimes I try to remember what my little brother Manuelito looks like. I close my eyes and see light brown eyes framed by curly dark lashes and wispy brown hair. It’s not Manuelito’s face I see, but Jaimito’s.

It’s early Saturday morning and the Doctorita is dashing around the house, packing for a weekend visit to Niño Carlitos’s parents in Yana Urku. Whenever they go on these visits, they refuse to take me, locking me inside the house all weekend, which isn’t so bad because I can secretly watch all the TV I want and sleep in their pink bed and dress up in the Doctorita’s clothes.

I’m folding Jaimito’s little pajamas and outfits and arranging them in his knapsack, when the Doctorita says, “Pack a change of clothes for yourself, Virginia. You’re coming, too.”

“I am?”

“We’ll be at a wedding tonight, there in Yana Urku, and we need someone to take care of Jaimito.”

For a moment, I’m frozen in shock. Then, trembling, I change into my favorite blue dress and brush my hair back into a braid. I’m so excited I can barely finish my papaya juice. I imagine walking along Alfonso’s cornfield. Mamita and Papito—who will be working in his fields—will spot me. They’ll watch with open mouths as the breeze ripples over my blue dress and the sunlight shines on the lace trim; I’ll look like an angel.
Oh, my daughter, you’re beautiful! Please come to live with us again. We’ll always give you the biggest potato of the soup, always.

It’s been a long time since I let myself think about Mamita and Papito, and it feels good, like sneaking cookies. But I usually don’t let myself think too long, because then the good thoughts veer into bad thoughts that leave my stomach aching and my eyes burning.

As I pack my bag, I think of Mamita. I try to find a memory of her smiling at me, but in every memory she’s frowning. Now I’m remembering how she used to frown at me when I begged her to take me to work in the fields. I wanted desperately to start making money to make my dreams come true.

“Take me, please, Mamita,” I’d beg. “Let me be your partner.”

Everyone needed a partner to plant: one person made a hole with a stick and dropped in three corn kernels, and the other person dropped in three beans and covered up the hole with dirt. That way the bean vines could wrap around the corn plants like necklaces and dangle their pods like earrings.

Alfonso paid his workers in cash, not in sacks of beans or corn, but real silver coins and paper bills. I’d been dreaming of buying a lamb who would be my cute, cuddly friend and grow up to be a sheep who would have lots of babies that I could raise and sell—my first step to being rich.

One morning, annoyed by my whining and begging, Mamita snapped, “Fine.” She strapped my brother to my back and my sister to hers and headed to Alfonso’s field. I ran alongside her, breathless from Manuelito’s weight tugging down my shoulders.

The brown field stretched out, the remains of last year’s crop plowed into the soil. Mamita tied a cloth around my shoulder and made a sling where she put a few handfuls of beans. She walked ahead, digging a hole with her stick and dropping in three corn kernels from her own sling. I followed, carefully counting out three smooth beans and letting them fall into each hole and patting dirt on top.

As the morning wore on, the sun blazed and wind blew dirt into our eyes, our mouths, our noses. Soon I grew tired of walking and planting and started dumping beans by the handful, quickly covering them with dirt so Mamita couldn’t see. When I announced that my sack was empty, she frowned at me, suspicious, but didn’t say anything.

When the sun was directly overhead and everyone was ready to have lunch, Alfonso emerged from his big white hacienda with its red tile roof and sauntered by, checking on the progress. All the workers lowered their heads, mumbling, “Good afternoon, Amo Alfonso,” or “Good afternoon,
patrón.

Alfonso stopped near me, very close. I tilted my head back to look up at him. He was so tall my neck got a crick in it, and I had to squint into the sun behind him.

“You are a very pretty girl,” he said, “and very smart, and I like how you’re working.”

“Thank you, Taita Alfonso.” I jutted out my chin stubbornly, calling him
Taita,
the title I’d use for any indigenous man in our village.

He didn’t seem to care. “Now, how old are you,
guagua
? Five? Six?”

I shrugged. “Who knows.”

He grinned the way a man grins at a pig when he’s deciding whether to buy it—admiring it and imagining how good it will taste or how much money it will make him.

I smiled the most charming smile I could muster up, letting my eyes dance. “Taita Alfonso, if you like my work, we can make a deal.” I paused, searching for the right words in Spanish. “I can work more days for you. And you can pay me a lamb.”

He chuckled and pushed up the rim of his hat.

I stretched my smile even bigger, proud that he understood my rough Spanish. “You don’t need to pay me money. A lamb will do.”

“All right,” he said. “If you work hard and plant all the beans today, you’ll get a lamb.”

As he moved away to talk with other workers, I felt rich and important already, just like a business lady must feel after making an especially good deal.

But Alfonso broke his promise. He never paid me my lamb.

A month later, huge, chaotic clumps of plants sprouted from the holes where I’d thrown handfuls of beans. The vines crowded each other in a twirling mass, winding desperately around each other’s stems, suffocating the tender corn shoots. A furious, red-faced Alfonso asked his workers who was responsible, while at his side, Mariana pinched her lips together as if she’d just eaten a green berry.

I said nothing.

But Mamita knew. “You’re the one,” she said, frowning at me like I was soup with too much salt. Or corn with worms.

Once I was sure she wasn’t going to hit me with a eucalyptus stick as punishment, I smiled inside, because that rotten, lying thief Alfonso and his wife got what they deserved.

In the truck, on the road out of Kunu Yaku, the Doctorita opens a crinkly bag of fried plantain chips. “Have some, Virginia.”

“Thank you, Doctorita,” I say, pouring some chips into my palm. I’m watching the roads carefully, in case I ever do decide to make this journey alone, by foot or by bus. But I may not need to. What if I run back to my family today and refuse to leave? My insides leap wildly at the idea.

“Now, Virginia,” the Doctorita says sternly, as if she can hear my thoughts, “you know if you try to go home to your parents, they’re going to sell you to other people. To a family that won’t treat you as well as we do.”

I grit my teeth. She might be lying … but maybe she’s telling the truth. After all, Mamita had said,
I’d be happy if one day you left and never came back.
If only I could forget those words. Thinking about them makes me blink and blink to keep from crying.

I eat the chips slowly. The salt stings my tongue, makes me thirsty. I’m quiet during the ride, watching the fields and canyons out the window, memorizing landmarks and turnoffs. The two Virginias inside me argue—the brave one and the scared one, the one who wants to leave the Doctorita and the one who wants to stay.

The brave Virginia says,
Stop thinking about Mamita’s bad words to you. She said some good words, too. Think of them.

So I think and think and when I spot a
chilca
tree out the window, I finally come up with something. A memory where Mamita is not frowning at me. A memory where she has something close to a smile on her face.
My daughter, she can do it.
Words that glisten with a kind of tender reverence.

Whenever a neighbor had
mal viento
—evil air—or
espanto—
fright—Mamita would walk me over to the sick person’s house, and announce, “My daughter, she can cure you. She can do it.”

Mamita would take a warm, fresh egg from beneath one of our hens, then break off a bunch of small branches from the
chilca
tree. I carried the heap of leaves, pressing them to my nose in anticipation, breathing in their strong scent, a scent that seemed sweet at one moment and pungent the next. At the house of the sick person, usually a cousin or aunt or uncle of ours, I put a holy look on my face. At those moments I forgot the itch of my flea bites and the sting of my cracked cheeks; I felt pure, like a scrubbed-clean angel dropped straight from heaven.

First, I knelt on the woven mat and prayed: “My God, give me the power to cure.” Then I rolled the whole, smooth egg over the patient’s arms and legs and neck and stomach and back and head, to soak up all the evil air. I patted the
chilca
leaves vigorously over the sick person’s body to clean his spirit. Within moments my breath quickened, and soon I was nearly gasping for air, my arms aching, heavy and weighted down. The more evil air a person had, the more my body turned into a limp rag afterward.

But it was worth it. The patients and their families paid me a few riales and thanked me with respect, as though I weren’t a little girl but a wise, grown-up healer. And best of all, Mamita nodded proudly, saying, “My daughter, she can do it.”

Finally, after six hours in the truck, when my legs are stiff and cramped, we turn onto the dusty, pebbled road to Alfonso’s house. In the distance, my parents’ shack perches on a small hill, looking a little lopsided. Gray smoke streams from the chimney. They must be home. Mamita must be cooking potato soup. My brother and sister are probably playing together. I close my eyes to keep the tears in.

Behind my eyelids, I imagine little Manuelito crawling under the bed and discovering my box of old clothes.
What are these?
he asks. Hermelinda shrugs. Mamita frowns.
Once there was a girl named Virginia,
she says.
But she was bad and she hit her sister and stole food and always got into trouble. So we gave her away and we hope she never comes back. She is dead to us now.
Manuelito grows bored playing with the clothes and starts banging on pots with Hermelinda and laughing. They forget all about the bad girl named Virginia.

My eyes open and I strain to catch a glimpse of someone in my family, but the yard remains deserted. I struggle to remember the good words—
My daughter, she can do it—
but they feel flimsy and light, as though they could blow away in a gust of wind. No, the other words, heavy as mountains, are the ones that stick.
I’d be happy if one day you left and never came back.

The Doctorita follows my gaze. “There you have nothing. It’s filthy and there’s not enough food to eat. And it will always be that way. With us you have good food and shelter. With us you live like a civilized person.”

I try to ignore her, try to find some Quichua words to use as shields or weapons. How to say
Hello! I’m home!
How to secretly insult the Doctorita in Quichua—
ugly
mestiza,
mean
mestiza, mestiza
whose chin jiggles!
But the words stay hidden.

As we pull up the dirt driveway to Alfonso’s house, the Doctorita asks, “Virginia, do you want to leave us? We can take you back to your parents right now.”

“No,” I say softly.

The Doctorita pats my knee. “Good, Virginia.”

Niño Carlitos smiles his bland smile. “You’re making the right decision,
m’hija.

We climb out of the truck and unload the bags. I clutch Jaimito’s hand as we walk toward Alfonso’s house. I take one last look back at my old home, the flat tin roof flashing in the afternoon sunlight, the column of smoke fading and drifting away.

The weekend passes quickly. Sunday afternoon, under clouds heavy with rain, we head back to Kunu Yaku. My parents’ house looks sad and abandoned and swallowed by the mist. As we pass it, I shiver and wrap my sweater tightly around me. I peer at the valleys and pastures and red tile roofs spread out below us, dissolving into fog, and then up at the Imbabura mountain disappearing into a stony white sky.

I tell myself that the next time I come here I will be a famous singer in a sequined dress, and these sights and sounds will mean nothing to me. I will breathe in the smells of wood smoke and cows and potato fields and there won’t be an ocean of tears in my throat and it won’t matter if my parents don’t want me, because I will be famous and loved by all and no one will ever know that I came from this place.

BOOK: The Queen of Water
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