There had been a change, a big shift amongst her siblings. Her brother looked at her often, deep in thought. He was angry for no reason, but he seemed to hold in his emotions. Her little sisters were once very playful and childish. Now they hardly laughed out loud, they were very quiet, mousy, simply going from day to day. They all held back from their big sister, whom they felt was no longer the same. Irma felt her world had crashed around her, but in her young, yet so very adult 14-year-old mind, she simply carried on, following the path her decision had led her to.
In town, the rumblings had begun. It took one of the church women to simply state what she thought, and soon, the word spread like wildfire through the little village. Mothers eyed their daughters suspiciously. During the communal water gathering at the pump, housewives all stood around muttering with each other, talking, asking, wondering, always leaving with a little more gossip than they came with. Eventually, the story took shape, added to, wildly colored in - out of line, yet, at the center of it all, there was that black cloud of truth. The painful facts were that a young girl was being subjected to an abominable experience. That it was at the hands of her own father made the religious leaders and followers angry. They plotted and planned; days grew into weeks, and still they planned.
It felt almost natural now, to wake up next to her snoring father. The stickiness between her legs, despite the pain she felt every time, it no longer bothered her. She still spent an inordinate amount of time with her bucket of hot water, washing, scrubbing, rinsing and wiping away the truth. But like all things before, she shouldered her burden, carried on like nothing was happening, just a little change here and there. And then, the bleeding stopped.
The old maid in the village was actually a single mother who had chosen to keep her daughter with her, raising her on her own. Her skills as a bush doctor and midwife kept Rosa within the community that was so quick to judge and hard to forgive. She never told anyone who the father of her child was, only that she had made a mistake, one which her family shunned her for. Her father had fashioned a small hut for her, at the outskirts of the village, far from her family home.
Set at the base of a hill that was being used as the village cemetery, with a creek that grew swollen and angry during the rains of summer, Rosa’s home was far enough that getting to her was a chore. Those who visited her had to walk across the main streets of the village. In doing so, they subjected themselves to a quick lift of a curtain corner, windows looking out at them, occupants wondering out loud what was wrong with Pancha, with Olga, with Josue, with… Women couldn’t keep the truth of a pregnancy or an ailment a secret. That same distance kept the father of Rosa’s child away. And so she remained in her hut, and with the little money that she made as a healer, she slowly added to her small home. With the money she made from her more lucrative ventures (if the pastors knew how many of his congregation refused to add to their flock), she added to her home, living in comfort.
It was inside her home, while lounging in her hammock enjoying a short siesta, that déjà vu paid a visit. A distraught young girl stood before her, the daughter of the woman who had died only a few months ago. She looked slight, skinny, with work-worn hands, and a face that should have been smiling and radiant. She looked like a woman in a child’s body. Rosa had seen enough of those in her little corner of the world.
Irma stood at the doorway, watching the woman swaying in her hammock. Her daughter must have been at school; it was a weekday. After sending off everyone to school, and having done everything at home in record time, she had headed to Rosa’s place. She didn’t know what was going to happen, she didn’t understand what was happening to her, but she wanted to know, and she wanted to find a way to make it better. She had a plan for her little sisters and brother, and she was going to make sure nothing happened to stop it.
On her way, she had seen how curtains twitched and fell almost as quickly. She had felt the heat of stares on her back as she walked, her head down, looking at her sandal-clad feet that kept getting dustier from the dirt road she walked on. Still, she carried on till she hit the hill where the cemetery looked peaceful under the heat of the sun. She looked for the small mound that signaled where her mother lay. There was not enough money to pay for a proper cement tomb like some of those that peppered the cemetery. But even if there wasn’t money, there were several small mounds that got extra attention, standing out with planted flowers, clean and pretty, out of the dirt that piled over loved ones. Irma decided to plant some flowers on her mother’s spot to make sure that she wasn’t forgotten. With that thought, she hit the bottom of the steep hill, crossing the makeshift bridge over the creek that barely held a trickle – rains hadn’t come yet.
Rosa knew without a doubt what the problem was. And soon, with a kind word and smile, Irma let open the floodgates. She spoke in fits and starts, fiercely defending herself, explaining what had gone through her mind, she told of the nightly ordeal she dealt with, and of the rat that scurried across the beams holding up the thatch roof. She spoke of how sad her siblings looked, and how much she longed for them to be something better. She couldn’t seem to stop. Rosa let her speak, biting her tongue, holding in her anger at the injustice visited upon the young child, about the age of her own girl.
When Irma was finally done, she felt spent, she felt lighter, and she felt shame. Rosa recognized the look of shame, and gently, she explained how she came to be. She too, had held in her secret. She had hidden the fact that her pastor, the man she so often looked up to for guidance, had been unable to control himself around her. It didn’t help that he was her father as well. She explained to Irma how the house was built for her, as far away from him, but not away from the only place she had known. She wanted to remain in the village, as a reminder to him, every day of his life, of what he had done. He couldn’t bear to lose the monthly tithes that kept him comfortably, and so she played her hand.
Irma did not want to have a baby. She couldn’t have a baby. The family could not afford a baby. She didn’t even know what would happen if she kept the baby. She looked pleadingly at Rosa, begging her silently to make it go away. Without being asked, Rosa started mixing her cure for this special ailment. Whole spice seeds, peppercorns, garlic, a few leaves and barks, all went into a pot of water. Irma was rooted to the chair she sat on, while the other woman went around making it all better.
The entire time she prepared her mixture, Rosa chattered on to the young girl, asking about her mother, asking about the sisters and brother – asking her in a roundabout way, why she chose to deal with the situation alone. Hearing the dreams of such a young girl, dreams for others if not for herself, Rosa felt a stirring of such anger and violence. Still, she held back, only listening, and when it was time, she ordered Irma to drink the potent liquid.
With a resolve mature women hardly had, she drank the entire contents of the mug she was given, hardly stopping but for a breath. The nasty, smelly drink burned down her throat, and Irma felt like spitting it right back out, but she had made up her mind. Rosa meanwhile, was going around getting a tub full of water, and she pulled out some clean towels from a shelf in the kitchen. The patterns on them hid the stains that hardly ever came out. She put a big pot of water on her hearth, and together they waited. Rosa told her what to expect, how the pain would be nothing like she had ever felt before. In one hand, she held a small white rag, which she gave Irma to bite down on when the time came. It was to be a private pain, hidden from everyone like the nightmare that brought it all about. After stripping off all her clothing, Irma wrapped herself in one of the towels. Then she joined the other woman, waiting for the water to boil, which would be about the time everything would happen.
When it did, no-one was more shocked than Irma. The blood simply trickled down the young girl’s legs as she gasped and doubled over. The water hadn’t boiled yet, but Rosa took the pan down and poured it into the waiting vessel. Then she made the child get into the wide-mouthed tub. The warm water soothed Irma, but the pain inside ate and tore away at her. Her fear came out in whimpers, screams silenced by the big ball of fear stuck in her throat. She thought of the things she had learned in school, she thought of the bible teachings that had said this very thing was the biggest sin, she thought of the baby that would never be, but that she would never love. She thought of the life ahead of her, and when she could no longer think, she closed her eyes and bit into the rag.
Rosa prepared another bath of herbs to heal and stop the bleeding, plus a sweet drink with cinnamon and nutmeg. The young girl had come to her very quickly, so the ordeal wasn’t drawn out. What she went through was a quick pain, followed by a dull, numb sensation that would take a while to heal. As to what happened to her mind, there was no time frame for healing that. She let the older woman bathe her as though she were a child. She put her clothes back on, she drank the sweet drink, and she rested a while. But soon, it was time to go back home.
Rosa chose a late night hour to walk across the village. Curtains didn’t twitch, but here and there, a dog growled. She found her footing, walking up the hill where her family lived. Where he lived. He was awake, working on his sermon by lamplight. He tried not to show his fear when she knocked and he saw her standing at the door. What she had to say to him confirmed what everyone was talking about. But what she expected him to do came as a shock. Yet he could not deny her.
She walked away from her old home, once again crossing into her territory. But not before paying another late night visit to an old friend. The plan was outlined, and Rosa felt satisfaction at accomplishing something. Despite everything she had been through, witnessing and helping others with their dark secrets always felt like a sin. Her soul felt tainted. But for tonight at least, she would sleep easy.
Ramon Sr. slept more often than he worked at the fields. He didn’t deny that his laziness was fueled by the fact that his children were still taken care of. He knew where the buckets of vegetables and fruits came from. He was a selfish man who cared only for himself. He could not deal with the curveballs life had thrown at him. And so it was that he slumbered under the shade of his favorite tree when he should have been working. So it was that he slept when the rock hit his head. He never saw the man who wielded it, or the men who helped him bury it far from where it found its mark.
Irma continued her life, only this time, she had no nightly responsibilities. She took the time to learn from Rosa, when the younger children were in school. She didn’t worry about money, because the church paid for everything. She knew why, but she thought of the kind people whose tithes were being used to care for her family. She looked forward to seeing what their efforts and care would bring about for everyone. For the first time in a long time, she saw a future brighter than she’d thought possible.
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