A story by Beatriz Espejo, translated from the Spanish by Nina Perrotta
I think she went to Paso de Ovejas—I never knew for sure. I didn’t see her again. Her name was María de Jesús Sombra and we called her Marichú. What can I say about her? She was dark, but lighter than my younger sister’s nanny. Dark and wide, with black cherry eyes and large breasts. I loved her more than I ever loved anyone, though I got to know a great many people in my life. I became María de Jesús Sombra’s shadow and followed her everywhere. She told me ghost stories, brushed my teeth, helped me on with my shoes, and fastened big plaid bows to the four braids I had then.
In those days Mamá cried silently and inconsolably, huddled in the corners of our house to hide the sorrow that weighed on her heart. If one of us surprised her, she dried her tears, blew her nose, and tried to mask a voice thickened by sobs. She made an effort to keep up appearances, and yet her sadness was evident even in her leaden gait, dragging legs tangled up with invisible rags. All this because Papá was trapped in the seductive threads of a coquettish seamstress. Marichú had met her somewhere and said she was an upstanding woman, so Mamá gave this honest worker the task of mending our clothes in the afternoons and knitting us sweaters. Her balls of yarn rolled through the hallways, bounced down the stairs, entered the library, and came to a stop at my father’s feet. He picked up a skein and followed its maze-like path to Ariadna, who was darning a sock. She lifted her face and gazed at him, thrilled to find the object of her desire within reach. And my father fell in love and gave her a sewing machine and a house. Not on our own Calle de Emparán, of course! He bought her a basement apartment beyond the city limits; but Veracruz is small and gossip spreads like pollen, and there was no shortage of sympathetic friends who came with the news.
My mother prayed on her knees before the Dolorosa in her bedroom, made promises to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and hid the Baby Jesus from Saint Anthony. Marichú, witness to her pleas and sorrows, tried to console her by repeating that storms pass quickly and the sea finds its level, but nothing changed. So when she ran into Ariadna at the market, Marichú leapt on her like a panther. The seamstress fought back. Grabbing each other by the hair, they stumbled to and fro, knocking over baskets as they went. Carrots, onions, peas, and squash rolled under the stalls and between the feet of passersby, who whistled, swore, and chose sides, either for the prieta or the güera. The bets multiplied until Marichú prevailed. Straddling her opponent, she pounded her with her fists.
“What my señora can’t do to you, I will!” she shouted. “Shame on you!”
The brawl escalated, the police got involved, witness statements were taken, and Marichú, with all her soft curves, found herself in jail for having instigated the fight. There was nothing to do but invoke the family name and send us a message. Without showing her face at the jailhouse, Mamá hired a lawyer to take care of bail and free Marichú. It would all have ended there if it hadn’t been Marichú’s turn to serve us at dinner that same night. Papá saw her walk into the dining room with scratched cheeks, a neatly ironed apron, and hair pulled back with ornamental combs, carrying a tray of sugar doughnuts and hot chocolate. He let her approach; then, as if studying the paintings on the opposite wall, he tucked the edge of his napkin into his collar and asked disdainfully, “Why have you kept this domestic under my roof?”
Mamá paled slightly but refused to admit to any knowledge of the marketplace scuffle. “What do you mean, Ismael? Marichú is efficient, clean, and honest, and she’s always taken excellent care of the children.”
“You’ll dismiss her tomorrow,” said my father, taking no notice of Marichú’s virtues and leaving no room for further comments.
No one tried to argue. Marichú and my mother exchanged an understanding glance, the former gingerly left the room, and the rest of us sank into a thick silence. But like all the wives of that era, my mother thought that her house was her kingdom, or at least that she held the power behind the throne. She conspired with María de Jesús Sombra, asking her to hide from my father, to play cat and mouse in that grand house filled with galleries, garages, underground vaults, rooftop terraces, and secret alcoves. I still remember the anxiety that plagued us during those months.
One night, in the middle of my bath ritual, Marichú heard noises. She started sweating, covered me with a towel, and barely managed to get me into bed before slipping into the closet. She knew that as soon as he walked through the front door, my father went through his long-standing routine of inspecting his seven children. Some of us had our ears examined, others our fingernails; a few of us had our breath smelled to see if we smoked. Trembling, I pulled the quilt over my head and prayed to the entire Heavenly Court for my father to leave my bedroom without noticing Marichú, whose considerable girth was now tucked behind a folding screen by the sofa.
Sometimes my mother suggested that Marichú go to the rooms on the top floor or run an errand in town. I would beg her to take me along, and we would leave through the service door while my father took off his hat in the hallway. And if I got scared thinking he would discover us, Marichú would hug me tightly, squeezing me against her chest and comforting me with her affection, her working woman’s aroma, her words. She promised me that nothing would separate us because I gave her all the love that the world had denied her. And I still remember how much I loved to hear her say so. But our luck didn’t last. One day, Papá came home mid-morning and found us in the kitchen, Marichú preparing salsa in the molcajete and me on my knees, making little tortillas with a fistful of dough blackened from so much handling. In a fury, he sent for Mamá, who dropped her rosary on the floor out of sheer fright.
There were no arguments or protests this time, either. The lord and master had his way, and in short order Marichú was tying her few belongings into a bundle. I found her in her room. She was serious, her features wooden. I talked and talked; without responding, she took her sandals from under the dresser. Then I asked, “Why are you leaving? Why are you leaving when you promised to stay with me?” She didn’t answer. “Why did you say God wouldn’t let this happen?” I insisted.
Without speaking, she arranged the photos of all of us in a wicker basket and put her clothes on top. She let a few silent minutes pass and then assured me that whatever happened, she loved me and my portrait would always be engraved on her soul. She gave me one last hug, straightened my crooked bun, and bustled indignantly out of the room.
My mother was waiting for her at the door. I thought she would stop her at the last minute to put a hand on her shoulder, thank her for her loyalty, and ask her to stay. But not a single word crossed my mother’s lips, nor did she dare meet Marichú’s gaze. She gave her a gold coin and let her go. I knew then that my mother had betrayed me out of cowardice, and her betrayal grew into a stomachache and tears that I didn’t cry. It was the first time I felt it, because children seldom understand the actions of adults. I called to Marichú with the full force of my lungs. She didn’t turn around. She kept going, hips swaying, a bundle under each arm. Once she turned the corner, I knew nothing of her fate.
I went out on the balcony and spent hours gripping the bars, until the slow-rising moon detached itself from a cloud, until the sirens cried from the boats on the piers, until I got tired of waiting for someone to come for me, to place me sweetly between the sheets and watch over my sleep on that bitter night.