The First Time

    Six years ago, I read of a national story writing competition in the newspaper. I always walked around with a notebook and pens to keep me occupied. Every time I travelled by bus for over half an hour, I had books to keep me occupied, observing and reporting on the passengers. So, I thought, why not? I certainly had a host of topics I could expound on. I noted the deadline, jotted down the methods of delivery, and promptly forgot about it.

    This weekend, I heard a friend say, “God told Belizeans, ‘go forth and procrastinate’.” It was perhaps the funniest and truest comment I’d heard, and reminded me so much of exactly what happened. I didn’t write anything for the month leading up to the deadline. Instead, I talked about how I would write something brilliant. I worked myself into a frenzy, but had nothing to show for it.

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    Exactly one day before deadline, I decided to write something up. I took my red, hardcover notebook, with unlined fresh white pages, stared for a moment, and started to scribble. This is what I wrote:

    The thirteenth baby

    They say that for every tear shed, a joy is celebrated elsewhere. In the Mai family, every tear was followed by another. Due to circumstances too difficult to comprehend, from her horrendous wedding night onwards, Ana’s life was eternal damnation and tears.

    It was three o’clock in a Wednesday in 1968. The sun shone directly through the window of the makeshift kitchen. The rolling smoke from the firehearth danced around in the sunlight, making shapes and shadows wherever light hit. Silhouetted against this backdrop was Ana. She moved carefully around the hearth, stirring a big pot of beans that simmered on the crackling fire. With her free hand, she rolled an habanero pepper on some hot coals.

    Every so often, she would arch her back slightly and groan softly. She was nine months pregnant and due anytime. Thus, she hurried with the evening meal, lest she risked going into labor and leaving her husband and other children hungry.

    As she arched again, she felt a sharp pain and she knew that her time had come. After sending her oldest son, Henry, to fetch the midwife Luisa, she tried her best to hurry to the big house, to her room where she gave birth to all her children. Preoccupied with her contractions, and thoughts of her oldest daughter gone to help her father in the milpa, she failed to notice Irma, her other daughter, as she came out of the bushes by the toilet.

    She failed to notice how pale and sweaty Irma was. She didn’t notice how she dragged her feet and hunched forward. She didn’t notice the thick braid of hair that trailed down her back. She didn’t notice how, occasionally, Irma would tug at the braid in vain, trying to loosen it, but lacking the energy or the patience to persevere.

    She failed to notice anything. She was conscious only of her oncoming child. By five-thirty, Ana was through with her labor. As the child squalled in her arms, she joined him silently. Luisa, the midwife, had tears in her eyes too. For women of this small village, another child was just an extra mouth to feed. To stop having them would be wrong, for God, provider for all, deemed it so. There was no choice.

    “Wa nex one Ana. Baroncito. Weh name yu wan give ah?” Luisa spoke more Creole than Ana, but Ana understood.

    “Eluterio, como su abuelo,” she replied, her tears flowing freely.

    “Numba thirteen. Eluterio Mai, su number.” She wiped Ana’s brow gently and prepared to leave. She wanted to tell her to stay in bed and rest for a few days, but she knew she would be wasting her breath. She left knowing that Ana would be up the next day, somehow caring for her brood and enduring another beating from her husband before nightfall, when another, different assault would be made on her body. She left thinking it strange that Paula, Ana’s eldest daughter, wasn’t around. Neither was Ana’s husband.

    Luisa had left perhaps ten minutes when Emilio, Ana’s husband came in.

    “Aha! Un baron. Que bueno.” He looked at his wife and smiled. “Māālo,” he told her in Mayan. “Xipal. Winik.” Good. A boy. A man. Taking the baby from her, he rudely pulled down its napkin and fondled his testicles. “Nohoch. Māālo winik.” Nohoch. Big. “Y mi comida?” (And where’s my food?)

    Ana sighed and took the baby from his father. “En la cocina. Digale a Paula que te de la comida y que le de a los demas.”

    Emilio nodded and left for the kitchen, hollering for Paula. Ana lay back hoping some food would be left for her.

    After dinner was over, Paula came in to give her a small bowl of beans and some tortillas. Ana was horrified to see an ugly bruise on her eldest’s cheek. There were other marks and bruises over her skinny arms and legs. Looking into her child’s eyes, Ana saw despair and lost innocence.

    “Irma esta enferma, Ma,” Paula said, averting her eyes quickly. (Irma is ill).

    “¿Que tiene?” (What does she have?)

    “No se. Tiene fiebre. Y un tejido duro.” (Don’t know. Fever. Tough braid.)

    “¿Un tejido? ¿Adonde estaba?” Ana knew that if she panicked, she’d never recover.

    “No se. La voy a buscar.” While Paula went to fetch her sister, Ana prayed. She knew that many people didn’t believe what she believed, and she hoped for once that they were right. She’d already lost one baby over it. “It” wasn’t worth it, whatever “It” was.

    “¡Mama!” Irma came in, looking feverish, and her eyes wild.

    “Bāāx uchi? Tūūx binech?” (What happened? Where did you go?)

    “Monte. Bush, Mama.”

    “¿Con quien?” Who with.

    “Lee man. Viejito con sombrero.” Irma looked at the bundle in her mother’s arms, not seeing Ana’s look of horror. “Baby! Nene Ma!!” Suddenly, she was focused.

    “Si Irma. Pretty baby.” Ana touched her daughter’s burning forehead and felt her heart sink. “¿Que te hizo el viejito?” (What did the old man do to you?)

    “no se.” Irma shrugged and looked down. “Mama, soy mala? You vex?” (Am I bad? Are you mad?)

    “No nene, no. Pero digame que hizo el viejito” (I am not mad baby, but tell me, what did the old man do to you”

    “Tejido.” Irma turned to show her braid. “Mañana me va llevar a jugar con el.” (Tomorrow he’ll take me to play with him.)

    “¿Te toco?” (Did he touch you?)

    “No, solo mi pelo. Pero mañana dijo que vamos a jugar. I want to play Mama.” Irma shivered as if cold. “Frio.”

    Ana felt a wail rise in her. The Tata Duende did exist, and not only in her mind. It had tainted her family. As if her curse wasn’t enough.

    As Paula had been listening, her eyes widened with every word Irma said, and she unconsciously trailed her hands over the bruises on her legs and face and arms. She felt so dirty. Irma seemed so dirty. She wanted to bathe.


    “¿Si Mama?”

    “Bathe she. Ojas de oregano y ojas de rosas en agua caliente*. Chocó. Hot, hot. ¿Me oyes?”

    “Si Mama.”

    “Tu bañas con aceite y ojas de rosa.”

    “Por que?”

    “Te vas a sentir major.” (You will feel better)

    Ana wanted to hug Paula like she held her baby. She knew that no amount of hot water and oil and rose leaves would cleanse her mind, or wash away the sorrow coming their way. Nothing would make it better.

    As her two babies left to bathe, she held her thirteenth baby close. Maybe he would replace a mouth instead of becoming another one to feed. Talvez. Dios trabaja en maneras muy misteriosos. (God works in mysterious ways)

*Not an actual remedy.           

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