Isabella lived in the southern part of the country, where she had run first, avoiding the West, where it was believed she would have gone. Having foiled Papa’s plans of catching her and possibly killing her, she stayed put in the Southern region, but Rebecca felt a tiny prick of fear when she realized that a week before, Papa had been talking about the very village where Mama was. All phone calls were civil. When Isabella had called the first time, Celeste had broken down in tears and begged her to come back. Alternately, he threatened to find her and kill her and her lover, and then he wept like an abandoned child, only to then finally resign himself of the inevitable. Now the conversations were brief, and since they were made via pay phone, untraceable…or so Rebecca thought. He had been scouting the bills, and any mention of intriguing details had been filed away in his mental storage.
Say what one wanted about her Papa, he was wily. Had he been given half the chance to explore his mind and educate himself, he could have been a successful, if ruthless, business man. A somebody. As it was, he was a ruthless sonofabitch who vacillated between sweet and psychotic, but always, he remained unforgiving.
With the threat of pending doom if she didn’t make calls and confirm that she was well as soon as she got to Mama’s, Rebecca made her way off the island. The thought crossed her mind to give it all up and never come back, but she had a feeling Papa would find her wherever she went. So she stayed put, and followed her travel plans. She reminisced about Mama all during the boat, and then the bus, ride, even when the bus started to smoke and the smell of burnt rubber filled the air, and as passengers swiftly alighted the bus in a routine and resigned fashion – she thought of the times they had had together.
The best memories always included the two girls together. They were close enough to be a great mother-daughter duo, but there was still a measure of respect that remained. It was fun to stay up all night with Mama, either making crafts, baking, talking, or Rebecca reading to Isabella. They always found a way to enjoy their nights when Papa was away. Every once in a while, they emulated what they read in magazines or on TV, and they would have girlie breakfasts. Rebecca smiled wistfully as she remembered the fruit salads after a late night of doing nails and hair. Two hours after the fruit, they were scrambling eggs and making tortillas to calm their raging hunger pangs! They were not cut out for spa life. There was no way she could equate a dying mother to the vibrant woman who made life bearable for the past umpteen years.
So to alight the bus at a lonely stop in a valley somewhere, surrounded by impossibly fragrant orange groves, and not knowing what to expect – that made her nervous, and scared, and tears sprang up in her eyes. She looked around hoping for someone familiar, hoping she had landed in the wrong stop. Maybe she wasn’t in a lost world somewhere, and really, her mother was lounging somewhere laughing at the practical joke she’d played and waiting for her to have another girlie weekend. But it was not the case, as she saw a man walking towards her, his small figure growing larger as he neared, and his face coming into focus with every step he took. He was the man Mama was with.
He was the same man Mama had been friends with at work; the man who would give Rebecca flowers, and kept her company while Mama cleaned rooms at the hotel. As he grew closer, Rebecca saw the lines of worry on his face. He no longer looked as young, and it may have been some time, but he should not look like he did. He was worried – and her heart sank. Mama really was ill.
They walked quickly down hill from the bus stop, exchanging few words, the air between palpable with worry. Rebecca wondered what would happen if Mama was indeed dying – there was no way to know what he thought. If he was willing to run off with Mama, knowing that she was older than him, and knowing what kind of danger he was in, then he must be really worried for his bride. Rebecca started praying, her flip flops slapping loudly in the silence of the valley, her bag a true burden on her back. He carried her other bag effortlessly, and for a moment, he looked like he did back at the hotel.
The house was up a little ways after the steep slope down, and as she grew closer, Rebecca’s apprehension grew more. She hoped that Mama had something that would be quick to determine, something she would be able to pinpoint at a glance. She imagined what a hero she would be if she were to utter the magic ailment, one that would be easily curable. She prayed silently as they walked across the yard, and at the door, she hesitated. It opened slowly, and standing there was a ghost.
Rebecca screamed – the white apparition was almost transparent, her hair silvery in the sunlight that beamed down, and the large robe flapping around the skeletal frame seemed almost ethereal. Skin stretched across bone, absent of color, it seemed translucent. Mama. It was true, she was dying – was she even alive? Rebecca stared, and stared, blinking several times, wondering if that ghost was indeed Mama.
Isabella stood at the door, looking at her daughter, knowing that she was a sight to behold. Her daughter’s horror and shock was apparent when she screamed and then stood agape, her bags at her feet, staring like she’d never seen such a sight. She held out her arms, skinny bones with skin stretched across. It wearied her that she was standing, but she refused to give in to the pain and suffering. She wanted her baby, and her baby was home.
Rebecca stepped gingerly into her Mama’s arms, all thoughts of the plump, happy woman who had raised her flying out, replaced instead by the sad and wasted remnants that held her in their bony clutches. There was nothing that had prepared her for this sight, and there was no disease that could possibly explain what had happened to the once vibrant mother she knew. She smelled different, of herbs, of an unfamiliar fragrance, of death.
There were so many questions, and the answers were unsatisfactory. Mama’s new husband explained having taken Mama all over to different doctors around the district, even to the hospital in Cayo. To no avail – there was no diagnosis. They were left at their wits’ end. Mama finally had asked to see her. She was at a dark place, and she believed her time had come. She wanted to have some time with her baby before she left the world. There was someone else in the house – his mother. Rafael, Mama’s new husband, had called his mother, also at the end of his rope, begging her to come and see them. She had traveled from far north of the country, alone and afraid of what she would encounter.
She was now suggesting another world, another belief, another explanation for what was wrong with Isabella. As she ran around, spinning like a very efficient top preparing a meal for them all, she relayed her belief, her suggestion, and her last hope for Isabella’s cure.
Flip went the tortillas, and the tomatoes bubbled alongside the green okra, while eggs sat in their cold water bath, awaiting peeling. Jacinta was of the old beliefs, the beliefs that Isabella and Rafael both shunned while well, but clung to now in their desperation. Rebecca listened half in disbelief, and half with hope, for she wanted Mama to be well. She could see how Mama was wasting away, and a tiny niggle at the back of her mind made her listen even harder to what Jacinta was saying.
“When a person wants to cause harm, it is easy to do it with just the name of the person and their home. Where they live. There is evil everywhere, and even if your mind doesn’t want to accept, when you say that you don’t believe – it still can make you suffer.” Jacinta took the tomatoes off the stove, pouring the water into a bowl, and setting the vegetables in another, ready for smashing. She chopped onions and cilantro efficiently, and without losing a beat, she continued. “Bad people can do many things. The madder they are, the worse it is – ma’a ku cha’ak mixbā ka ma’anāk (they don’t let anything pass – they don’t forget anything).” The steaming bowl of tomatoes and slimy okra got a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper, and while she added the tomato and cilantro, she dropped the hardboiled eggs into the mixture, landing the whole mixture at the center of the table. The stack of hot tortillas joined the bowl, and she mashed roasted peppers with some lime and salt, with some of the leftover cilantro and onion. Rebecca sniffled a bit with the pungency of the onion, and perhaps just a bit of self-pity.
Jacinta laughed shortly at her sniffle, setting the table so everyone could eat. Mama lay in the hammock, weak and unable to rise for food. Jacinta prepared a small bowl for her, eliminating the eggs, and adding more okra than tomato, and with a spoon, she fed Mama. Rebecca was amazed at her efficiency, and ashamed to realize she hadn’t thought to offer. Rafael shook his head and smiled at her, as if to say, my mother won’t let you anyway. They all ate, and even though she felt she shouldn’t be eating, Rebecca went for seconds. It was one of her favorite meals, something Mama always made for her when Papa would be gone for a week or two. No meat, and sometimes, no eggs. The familiarity stung her and she knew she had taken too much for granted. All of a sudden, everything she had lived and believed at home, paled in comparison to being with the person she truly loved.
Jacinta continued her talk, advising them to look into a healer, someone who was versed in the cure of a curse. Rebecca tried to shake off the ridiculousness of it all, knowing that she was in another realm, another world – one so far removed from what she had grown with and was used to falling back on. But looking at her Mama, laying there pale and wasted, breathing laboriously, eating tiny mouthfuls of broth, hardly able to chew the soft tortillas being fed her, she knew that anything was possible. She thought back to the feverishly whispered conversations she’d overheard at night – Papa’s smug smile of satisfaction every time, and his refusal to admit more than the name of the person who he was speaking to. She began to open her mind to believing. There was no other explanation for why Isabella was wasting away, visibly shrinking. There had to be a way to get her back to her usual self, and the only way was to believe. And believing was a decision she made quickly. Believing found her planning a trip to the north, to where the healers were. Going west would have been ideal, but the biggest healer had passed, and his apprentice was now based in the north. It was time to jump in with both feet, down the rabbit hole, and into the realm of the unknown, full of faith and hope.
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