Although the sun had set and the deep mauve of the sky shrouded everything in shadow, the indigenous adolescent girl had wobbled in her faltering gait to this remote spot beside a cluster of trees to assure her privacy. Her pronounced limp was the result of a deformed leg, an avoidable blunder that occurred at childbirth.
On the morning of her misbegotten birth, the corpulent, squat midwife arrived just before dawn in a violent rainstorm. She resembled a Paleolithic Venus animated from its petrified repose, with heavy breasts resting on an imposing round and protruding stomach. Pulling aside the rain soaked burlap sacks that served as a door, she entered the squalid one room shack which was haphazardly erected with cardboard walls made from discarded boxes and covered with a rusted corrugated zinc roof. Cold brown water leaked everywhere from the corroded ruptures tearing the roof, the thick drops plunging down and smearing the straw mats stretched on the wet earth where a young girl, Maria Concepción, writhed in unusually painful labor. The straw mats were used to sleep on each night, and also served for that eternal sleep, when the lifeless body would be tightly wrapped in one and lowered into the earth, as all present believed was to be the conclusion of the drama to which they were witness.
Maria Concepción was agonizing in the final stages of excruciating labor late in the month of March, during the Vernal Equinox, when the day and the night meet each other as equals. Although she had no idea precisely how old she was, she was able to roughly calculate her age at no more than twelve or thirteen, because she experienced her first menstruation only months before becoming pregnant. Her people always measured the passage of time by specific occurrences not easily forgotten, such as a birth or a death, a natural disaster, an eclipse, the appearance of a comet, or a change of government.
Because it was anticipated she would not survive her suffering, a young boy was dispatched to run swiftly through the downpour, past the flooded, rundown hovels of the impoverished community and into the town. Scampering over narrow, hard earth footpaths that had turned into slick streams rushing down the hillside, the boy reached the stone paved streets where he was able to make better progress. The purpose of his errand was to fetch the priest for the indispensable last rites that would assure the young girl her place in the eternal abode of God.
“Through this holy unction and His own most tender mercy may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed by sight by hearing, smell, taste, touch, walking, and carnal delectation."
A collection amongst the neighbors provided the amount necessary to pay for his services, and a mournful deathwatch commenced. However, the priest never arrived. When the young boy returned, drenched from the rain and fatigued from the exertion of his long race, he informed the somber group that the priest told him he would come by as soon as he had finished breakfasting. Five hundred years after the Catholic debate attempting to determine if native peoples possessed souls was resolved positively, a number of the clergy continued to maintain an uneasy skepticism.
The grim faced midwife was resentful at having been awakened, and irritated by the inclement weather. She did find some comfort in the deafening roar of the rain crashing against the metal roof however, because it helped dull the shrill screams of the young girl’s agony. The breech birth proved exasperatingly difficult and the mishap occurred during an incautious moment, when she was extracting the fragile infant.
Collecting her fee, she remarked that the newborn she had just delivered was obviously unlucky, not simply because of the inevitable accident which, she insisted, was not her fault, but also for being born a deep brown color. This was a curious self-deprecating remark, given that she was of the same complexion.
The midwife admonished the exhausted, prostrate mother who had miraculously survived her ordeal, to take the baby to the witch doctor to be purified, for obviously someone had cursed her with the evil eye. Waddling clumsily out of the shack and into the unrelenting torrent, she added that obviously even the heavens were lamenting this inauspicious beginning.
The witch doctor burned copious amounts of incense and lit each of the numerous red candles on an improvised altar abounding with crucifixes. He mumbled incoherent incantations, repeatedly making the sign of the cross with pronounced devotion across his torso. He slit the throat of a chicken, holding the convulsing creature firmly in his hands while draining the pulsating red liquid into a gourd he had prepared for that purpose. After ceremoniously sprinkling the chicken blood over the twisted limb, he passed a fertilized brown egg in rapid circular motions across the infant’s naked body and concluded the solemn, syncretistic ritual by raking it with wet herbs.
“En el nombre del Padre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo, Amen.”
Folding the coins he received from a grateful Maria Concepción with skeletal fingers into his palm, he pronounced the baby’s soul cleansed, but he was unable to straighten the deformed leg. The girl was destined to pass her life a semi invalid.
On a Sunday, Maria Concepción’s daughter was baptized, inheriting a submission to two thousand years of doctrine ordained by God to His Apostolic Church. Those present joyously exclaimed that the “horns were removed” from the infant, a popular expression used to describe this fundamental passage from heathenism to Christianity; the expunging of an original Biblical sin, and the acceptance of a New Covenant with the Almighty through the baptismal waters faint echo of a distant inundation. Some of those assisting at the christening even said they saw a rainbow in the drizzly, vaporous sky above the small stone chapel.
Maria Concepción named her infant Dolores, considering the name apropos; dolores being the word for pain. As the priest sprinkled the transparent liquid over her tiny forehead, he added the name of Maria in veneration of the Virgin Mary. Henceforth, she would be known as Maria Dolores.
During the previous months, with her pregnancy evolving into an irrefutable certainty, and lacking a husband, Maria Concepción was frequently interrogated by the village elders for the purpose of determining the responsible perpetrator; on each occasion she claimed not to know how it happened. Finally compelled to confess, she said that she was certain she had been impregnated by the Holy Spirit, just as had happened to the Virgin Mary and revealed in the Holy Scriptures. Present at this inquiry was the Catholic priest, the same priest who would, during her excruciating parturition, be unwilling to perform the sacramentum exeuntium on an empty stomach. He was amused by her ingenuity and told her that such an occurrence was impossible. She insisted adamantly that her name was also Maria, and if it could happen to the mother of Christ, then it could also occur to her, provoking him into threatening, with great solemnity, that the Lord God Almighty would damn her soul for eternity into the fires of Hell. She considered this inconceivable betrayal unreasonable, for she was young enough to assume there had been commitment in his extravagant coital perspiration.
In what was considered by the community punishment by the Eternal One, Maria Concepción was suddenly struck dumb and could only make unintelligible sounds. No one ever heard her utter another word in the village. On the day Maria Dolores was born, the priest was unexpectedly reassigned to another parish by the Bishop.
Mocked and ostracized by her society, Maria Concepción spent long hours sitting on the edge of a sheer, rocky precipice. Nursing the baby at her swollen breast, she contemplated the hard surfaces of the sharp boulders below; ultimately, she chose to abandon her family, and her community. In a chill pre dawn fog she wrapped the infant in her rebozo, and cradling it behind her fragile shoulders, evaporated into the thick mist of the dirt path leading out of the village.
Clutching her maimed infant, she later boarded an obsolete third class bus that initiated its itinerary coughing and lunging violently on exhausted springs and non existent shock absorbers. The bus company’s logo, painted across the center of the vehicle, was two broad black stripes separated by a thick white space that housed red dentoid triangles, like the open jaws of some snarling, insatiably voracious beast. This bus was additionally painted with large jade green circles, an incongruity in that they had been the symbol for valuable or precious objects in the Pre-Columbian hieroglyphs of the previous possessors of this territory. All buses were individually painted with distinctive patterns such as this to unmistakably signal their assigned route and facilitate the illiterate, such as Maria Concepción, who were unable to read the hand lettered signs scrawled in whitewash on their windshields.
The bus driver had an aphorism painted in silver capital letters across the front windshield that read, in the idiomatic syncretism permeating the official language, “My Copiloto Its God.” On the dashboard, a framed image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was coiled in tiny, rapidly blinking colored Christmas lights and plastic Christs competed for space with expired metal license plates from New York, Idaho, Texas and California. The driver had also placed red gels over the headlights and covered the tail lights with green plastic, preferring that color combination to the one the bus originally possessed.
Arriving at the distant town, the mufflerless engine, in a terminal spasm, shuddered to a harsh metallic stop. It emitted a hoarse gasp that resulted in the discharge of a final massive cloud of acrid black exhaust, coating the pedestrians scurrying to avoid being soiled by the sticky residue. The black soot floated through the air and settled on the red aqueous slices of watermelon, the yellow guayaba, and the sensual, oval mamay; all succulently displayed on the fruit vendors wooden carts at the crowded bus terminal.
Miraculously regaining her speech, Maria Concepción joined that multitude of dark shadows begging with outstretched hand and bare feet. She was assimilated into that legion of young native women nursing infants against once immaculate, intricately hand embroidered garments that had vibrated with intense colors, now soiled and tattered.
When Maria Dolores was old enough to manage a wobbly totter, Maria Concepción took her to a corner in the center of town where she customarily begged for coins. She taught her daughter to imitate a suffering face, approach the automobiles stopped by a traffic signal and reach high above her head to the driver’s window with her tiny palm open. When she was old enough to speak, before she had yet learned to pronounce the word mother, she was taught the word for bread in order to manifest the reason she was begging.
Maria Concepción sat nearby for the entire day on the jumbled, broken cement slabs of the narrow sidewalk, joining an extensive crowd of older, barefoot beggar women whose deformed black nipples, thick from years of nursing, were suspended from creased, emaciated breasts into the mouths of naked infants insistent on finding an unavailable drop of milk. The women’s wrinkled, leathery hands, bony fingers extended, stretched out to the pedestrians who stumbled over and around them to continue their journey.
Often, when the traffic light turned red, Maria Dolores stared transfixed with large eyed amazement at the bigger children rushing into the street to perform somersaults in front of the stopped vehicles, while others leapt audaciously unto their hoods, wiping the windshields with dirty rags; all anticipating to reap an occasional coin. Receiving a heavy blow to the back of her head from Maria Concepción, Maria Dolores would be abruptly reminded to return to her assigned task.
When the pedestrian traffic diminished along the sidewalk, Maria Concepción would change her strategy by haltingly juggling two oranges while standing in front of the stopped vehicles, subsequently also proffering her hand at the car windows.
Whatever man she was living with at the time watched from the coolness of the shade across the street, waiting until either Maria Concepción or her daughter received a coin. Only then would he step out into the burning sun to approach them and appropriate it, returning again to his shaded refuge to join the other men also attentively monitoring their women.
Several months ago the now adolescent Maria Dolores had the extraordinary good fortune, notwithstanding her disability, to be given a job at the cantina. Having proved herself a not very successful beggar, being easily given to distraction, the only other remunerable activity possible for her was to join that swelling crowd of the poorest of the poor who lived still farther away from the town, even beyond the outermost fringes of her forlorn community. These were the “Pepineros,” the rejected and forgotten of their society, traversing waist deep through the stench of rotting trash in the voluminous expanse of the garbage fields, competing with stray packs of hungry dogs also anxiously inspecting the extraneous refuse; irrelevant, superfluous humans sifting through discarded waste in search of any consumable food, or anything salvageable that could be cleaned, mended, and sold for a few coins to ensure a tentative daily survival.
Her duties at the cantina consisted of wiping the tables, only when necessary, of any spilled liquid and accumulated filth, and to light the kerosene lamps with a wooden match when the sun set, there being no electric service available to the community. In addition, she had to remove from the hard earthen floor, with the remnants of a broken shovel, the occasional vomit from any customer who had exceeded his capacity. She was also required to wash the used glasses, without the benefit of soap, in a plastic bucket of water she filled for that purpose several times each day at the public water spigot about a kilometer downhill from the cantina. This convenience consisted of a narrow galvanized pipe that snaked the three kilometers along the side of the narrow, rock strewn dirt path rising from the valley into these foothills.
The public water spigot had been inaugurated with abundant political fanfare. For the celebration, colorful balloons and paper streamers decorated the galvanized pipe protruding from the arid soil, crowned with a diminutive brass faucet. The town band played the national anthem and military marching songs vigorously. Schoolchildren dressed in their uniforms stood at attention; the boys with carefully combed, slicked down shiny hair, the girls with white bows perched like giant butterflies on their heads. They waved small flags bearing the colorful logo of the dominant political party, which was also emblazoned on the baseball caps and T Shirts distributed gratuitously to the assembled crowd.
The mayor, accompanied by all the distinguished political figures in his administration, sat under the only canopy available that shielded them from a scorching sun. He proclaimed in a long and convoluted discourse his satisfaction at the successful fulfillment of the large number of benevolent undertakings, too many to enumerate specifically on this occasion, which were accomplished by his ruling party for the sole benefit and usufruct of those less fortunate members of society; this water spigot being an irrefutable, tangible example of the ceaseless preoccupation of the party on their behalf. He concluded by ceremoniously opening the faucet and allowing the first initial drops of water to dribble into the parched, crusty earth, spattering his impeccably polished, hand stitched, designer shoes with mud. The community murmured their approval, punctuated by a grateful applause. Finally refreshments were made available to those dehydrated individuals who had persevered, as the dignitaries hastily retreated back into town where a sumptuously sybaritic luncheon awaited to comfort them.
In that year of the inauguration Maria Dolores was still a youngster, and she would spend hours watching the water trickle from the spigot, waiting to catch the fish that would also unavoidably be pushed out. Weeks passed before Maria Concepción finally disclosed to her daughter that no fish would appear. She had been given this information by someone with book learning: the pipe was too narrow, and the pressure too low, to permit their passage.
Maria Dolores sensed someone was watching just after pulling her full skirt tight up around her waist and settling into the tall weeds. When she heard footsteps cracking the dry twigs, she jumped to her feet uttering a short gasp, the warm liquid that was still flowing from her pubescent body wetting her thighs. She let the loose folds of her long skirt drop to her ankles, as much to hide her nakedness as to cover her twisted and shriveled limb. In an atavistic reaction that bespoke millennia of self preservation, she stood frozen and silent, barely permitting herself to breathe. Suddenly the long braid of her ebony black hair, flawlessly coiled around a crimson ribbon, was violently yanked down from behind. With the pressure of his foot against her back, she was forced to her knees.
He had approached concealed by the cluster of trees that she had assumed would obscure her presence, and she saw him only when he stepped in front of her to kick her in the chest, propelling her flat on her back into the urine wet grass; the imprint of his boot etched in micturated mud across the exquisite stitching of her hand embroidered, pristine white huipil. She suppressed the impulse to scream for help, terrified that doing so would incite him to further brutality. It darted through her mind that the impulsive flaunting of her body in the cantina provoked him into following her.
She recognized him as the clean shaved, fair complexioned foreigner, a young man who had been standing alone, drinking beer and smoking from an expensive pack of cigarettes. His presence had delighted and aroused her. In the dank chiaroscuro of the cantina lit by the kerosene lamps, crowded with dark melanian shadows, his porcelain pallid features seemed to emanate a shimmering iridescence, and his transparent eyes excited her. He brought to mind the blanched features of the Lord, painted across the lofty, vaulted ceiling of her church, and it occurred to her that God, when he was a younger man, must have resembled this boy.
Maria Dolores believed his presence to be the result of her prayers to Saint Anthony of Padua, the Saint responsible for procuring a suitable spouse for the faithful seeking his intervention. She had gone to the church accompanied by her sisters on June thirteenth, the propitious day set aside by the Saint to attend to matters of the heart. They knelt in abject supplication before his effigy, depositing with wholehearted devotion and magical ritual, one by one, the thirteen coins required from each of them as the necessary incentive to stimulate the Saint into initiating an effort on their behalf.
Doubting he could attend to all the single girls petitions, Maria Dolores silently begged Saint Anthony to grant her request first, even if that obliged him to disregard those of her sisters. Eyes shut, hands clasped tightly at her breast, she prayed fervently for a man who would be a good provider, beseeching the Saint to perform that priceless miracle.
Staring with incredulity directly at the young man, her mouth moved in a prayer of profound gratitude for this more than generous response to her entreaty.
The young foreigner appeared intrigued by the solemn native men sitting around the broken wooden tables drinking pulque from large spherical clay cups decorated with colorful geometric designs. They were part of an unceasing procession of men and boys who passed continuously through the town, invariably leaving some of their scarce coins on the termite scarred bar, before surreptitiously taking the river crossing.
They ordered their drink haltingly, with the accents of their diverse native tongues heavy on their lips. They sat in small groups strictly comprised of members from their own community, any outsider who intruded was considered an interloper. Amongst themselves, in muted whispers, they communicated in Nahuatl, Otomi, Totonaco and the myriad other indigenous languages still extant in the remote villages they called their home. Reluctant to assimilate, even after centuries of domination, they were barely conversant in the official idiom which sought to condition them to a new allegiance, integrate them into a nation with a different name and impose a culture of unfamiliar demeanor and suspicious utility.
They boasted thick, straight shafts of hair, their high cheeked faces and frail bodies smooth skinned, devoid of even the finest fuzz which immediately identified them as the genetic continuation of their indigenous race. These native men and boys had abandoned their ancestral lands throughout the country. They had discarded their hand embroidered white cotton clothing and leather sandals and were now incongruously wearing baseball caps and T-shirts, jeans and tennis shoes, on their way to the Land Of The Foreigners. Not the one they were in now - for them, the Land Of The Foreigners began where the silhouettes of the mountains ceased to be the familiar ones surrounding their valley - but that other one, the one across the river.
There were also city men drinking there and although they too were intent on completing the same objective, the two groups never mixed. The conceit of the city men was evident in their contemptuous disregard of the indigenous population that enveloped them, betraying vestiges of the asphyxiating racism that had permeated the society since the Conquest.
These city men in the cantina were mixed blood laborers. They were loud and boisterous, forced laughter at insipid humor exploding from mustache framed mouths reverberating from the warped wooden boards that formed the cantina’s exterior walls, to be absorbed by the microscopic filaments of the disintegrating corrugated asbestos roof. They drank tequila from small, transparent glasses in one rapid swallow, coughing frequently from the cigarette smoke they drew deep into their lungs. Occasionally they pressed a forefinger against a nostril to blow the thick mucus from their noses into the air, wiping their discharge moistened hands across the coarse fabric of their pants.
The city men appeared confident and eager for the crossing, knowing that what they would earn in one eight hour day across the river was equivalent to a fifty hour laborious workweek at home. The native men sat quietly reserved, watching with stern faces the uninhibited behavior with a perturbed mixture of envy and disapproval.