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A Place Called Milagro de la Paz

A Place Called Milagro de la Paz

by Manlio Argueta

This remarkable novel continues the saga of life among the common people in El Salvador begun with One Day of Life. A Place Called Milagro de la Paz tells the story of the courage and strength of two women, a single mother and her daughter, who have to overcome the trauma of the murder of the mother's older daughter and survive in an atmosphere of bitter


This remarkable novel continues the saga of life among the common people in El Salvador begun with One Day of Life. A Place Called Milagro de la Paz tells the story of the courage and strength of two women, a single mother and her daughter, who have to overcome the trauma of the murder of the mother's older daughter and survive in an atmosphere of bitter poverty and repression. The book is filled, however, with magical, lyric moments of love and hope, especially surrounding the figure of a strange young girl with butterflies in her hair who appears suddenly and adopts the family. The tiny family group bravely preserves traditional values in spite of fear and repression. This new novel is Argueta's most lyrical work to date.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Argueta's novel of poet-rebels, brother-traitors and young women wandering in a forest of wolves is an invaluable memento of [El Salvador's] exceptional past." —New York Times Book Review

"A charmingly elusive political romance... Through the voices of his characters, Argueta portrays the aspirations of an entire generation." —Publishers Weekly

"Argueta's message in Milagro de la Paz is that even in the midst of extreme violence and fear, solidarity and love can continue to prosper among human beings."

—Ed Hood, World Literature Today

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Argueta (Little Red Riding Hood in the Red Light District) is considered El Salvador's greatest living writer, and this latest of his works to be translated into English will add to his reputation: it is a postmodernist tour de force. A disjointed literary puzzle--less so in this translation than in the original--the novel asks much of the reader, but the richly symbolic text offers many rewards. The form is clearly a metaphor for the political condition of El Salvador following the protracted civil war of the 1970s and '80s that left a broken country whose citizens are still trying to restore their former way of life. Likewise, the family of women who live in the shadow of a volcano in the small village of Milagro de la Paz (Miracle of the Peace) are attempting to piece their lives back together after the oldest daughter, Magdalena, is randomly killed by a wandering death squad. The youngest daughter tries to signify continuity by conceiving a child with a handyman in an almost-but-not-quite-immaculate conception. Into the village wanders Lluvia (Rain), an angelic orphan who eats roadside flowers and whose head seems to bear a halo of living butterflies. Under her springlike influence, hope is reborn in the family. To some extent, this novel counters the despair that is so overwhelming in some of Argueta's earlier works, beginning with Un d a en la vida (One Day of Life), yet the message is ambiguous: is Lluvia actually Magdalena reincarnated? Will the suffering created by human greed be replaced by the violence of the earth itself when the local volcano erupts? Miller's fine translation of this powerful but elusive narrative is accompanied by a short glossary of the Spanish terms. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
VOYA - Voya Reviews
Argueta paints a sorrowful story of superstition, fear, and longing set in a modern-day barrio in El Salvador. Soldiers patrol the area looking for les seres desconocidos, the unknown assassins who dump dead bodies into Calle de las Angustias, the Street of Anguish. Latina and her two daughters, Magdalena and Crista, who age from girls to young women in this story, live on a small plot of land near the imposing San Miguel volcano. Older daughter Magdalena and Latina eke out a meager living selling handmade clothing and roses from their garden. Their lives are filled with work and fear--of the soldiers, the unknown, and evil spirits. The only respite for the girls is reading the old books given to them by the local handyman. Latina holds fast to her superstitious beliefs, occasionally fluctuating in her ideas about the evil of men. Despite her mother's warnings, Magdalena falls in love with and is impregnated by the boy from the neighboring farm. Magdalena's sudden and mysterious death force Latina and Crista to deal with their loss by pretending she never existed. This works for them to varying degrees until a little girl, with butterflies in her hair, comes down from the volcano to live with them, changing their lives dramatically. This intriguing story is told from different points of view. Contradicting inner thoughts are revealed as a character verbalizes an opposite idea. At times, thoughts of two characters overlap the speaker's voice. This sometimes confusing stream-of-consciousness technique heightens tension and internal conflicts in this thought-provoking work. Argueta vividly portrays the often harrowing but hopeful life of many El Salvadorans. Glossary. VOYA CODES: 3Q 2PS A/YA (Readable without serious defects; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult and Young Adult). 2000, Curbstone Press, Ages 16 to Adult, 203p, $14.95 Trade pb. Reviewer: Brenda Moses-Allen
Library Journal
Picking up in his fifth novel where he left off thematically in One Day of Life (LJ 9/1/83), Argueta, one of El Salvador's most renowned contemporary writers, narrates compassionately and authentically the struggle of marginalized peasants for survival and dignity in a violent, tragic world. Less vitriolic and declamatory than in his earlier works, the simple, subdued lyric prose is a throwback to the author's original poetic avocation. Argueta creates strong heroines in the matriarch Latina and her daughters, Magdalena and Crista. The multiple points of view and temporal disjunction do not detract from the otherwise straightforward narration. The eternal themes of birth, death, love, and life that concern the novel transcend the Central American milieu to encompass a much broader context. Recommended for most collections.--Lawrence Olszewski, OCLC Lib., Dublin, OH Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Ed Hood
Argueta's message in Milagro de la Paz is that even in the midst of extreme violence and fear, solidarity and love can continue to prosper among human beings.
World Literature Today
Kirkus Reviews
El Salvador's best-known novelist (Little Red Riding Hood in the Red Light District, 1998, etc.) relates in both present action and extended flashback the life of middle-aged single mother Latina, who barely survives, during a time of violent political oppression, supporting her adolescent daughter and motherless young grandson by selling homegrown flowers and homemade clothing. These characters' separate detailed memories evoke both the terror that took the life of Latina's eldest daughter Magdalena and their present straitened (and endangered) circumstances. Their plaintive yearning for the "miracle of peace," which the name of their village ironically promises, provides the best moments in an otherwise unfortunately derivative novel: it's very nearly a rewrite of Alberto Moravia's famous Two Women.

Product Details

Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The two women sleep together. It's their custom, before giving in to slumber, to talk about things that went unspoken during the day. In the darkness of the room, having their eyes open is no different from keeping them shut.

    There's also a little girl in another bed.

    They can't sleep. They've spent the hours before dawn listening to the dogs barking, a howling that's more like the sound of children wailing. They're barking at the men who patrol the streets to keep order in their barrio, but mostly it's the sound of their boots against the cobblestone pavement that sets the mongrels off, half-crazed.

    That's how it is at night, the mother tells herself. It's best if a person can just sleep.

    The daughter says nothing and turns over on her back. She sees I'm really awake, she tells herself.

    The mother's fustán provides her the necessary warmth in the chilly morning hours.

    "We're all alone here, but at least we're alive," the mother says. I can hear a song going around in my head, she tells herself. The words speak of yellow flowers that brighten the paths leading up to the volcano. Her thoughts about the dogs interrupt the melody. It is night and she wonders if they're howling out of fear, or at the soldiers who patrol the barrio, or at los seres desconocidos as they are called, faceless assassins who in recent days have been dumping dead bodies into Calle de las Angustias—the Street of Anguish.

    Or maybe it's becausethe mongrels go to bed hungry. Magdalena: I know when I go to bed hungry I'm more afraid. It sounds as if their very howls are devouring the house.

    Then my mother crosses herself and glances over to see if her mother is still awake. Magdalena bites down on her lip. It hurts. In sleep there's no pain, she tells herself. That's what her mother has told her. She stretches out her arms to feel about in the darkness. "Mama, mama, are you asleep?" Magdalena's imagination tells her the dogs have climbed over the stone fence and will soon be on the roof. "Nothing's going on. It's our imagination," Latina tells her. "Maybe it's death coming for us," the daughter replies. The mother: "Stop making such a fuss!"

    It's all because of the soldiers. They never sleep. They go about at night—patrolling from midnight to dawn—keeping watch over the streets of Milagro. That's what makes the mongrels so frantic. The soldiers chant patriotic slogans and shout orders to boost their morale and make themselves feel more macho.

    "And what if it isn't the dogs howling?" Magdalena asks. Because in recent months Milagro de la Paz has been invaded by packs of stray dogs. And with their long snouts they look like coyotes. Others say it's really some unknowns, faceless assassins, going around imitating their sounds. "I think we're safe here. We'll feel better if we can get some sleep," the mother says. Besides, the animals can't get inside the property because it's surrounded by barriers: barbed-wire in back, a high stone fence on each side, and in front, facing the street, a row of thick piña with thorns like needles.

    "Do you mean to tell me those howls are all in my head?" Magdalena asks, her eyes half-closed, heavy with fatigue. Their fear is heightened by the fact that they feel trapped. The night—a shroud of frightening shadows—is a cloak that closes around them. Magdalena tries again to fall asleep.

    Latina: I think about my other daughter, Crista. She's little yet and lies there in the bed next to ours. I even think about Plutón, stretched out there at the foot of her bed. Plutón is their dog. He doesn't howl or make a peep. As long as no one makes a sound, he just lies there like some dried up old stick. Magdalena has fallen silent. What will become of them? the mother asks herself, lying there, thinking about her two girls. For some mysterious reason she believes one of her daughters is going to die before she does. At fifty-three I'm already an old woman and my time is past. I'd trade my life to save one of them. She crosses herself to scare away the evil thoughts.

    Magdalena turns over in bed to lie face down. Wrapped in her white sheet smelling of rattan, she fidgets impatiently. I'm so tired. Oh, dear God, let me sleep. They say if a person really wishes hard enough for something his prayer will be answered.

    One last howl from the coyote-dogs is heard above the fence. When I hear them, it seems like they're just outside the door, but they're really not. And when it sounds like they're far away that's when they're really close. That's how they fool a person, the mother thinks.

    And then, with some emotion: Stinking coyotes, why don't they go to hell once and for all, and leave us in peace? Suddenly the howling stops. They can hear what a person's thinking, that's why they've finally shut up. For as long as we live in this barrio we'll never have a moment's peace.

    Magdalena detects her mother's thoughts and her breathing: "Go to sleep, mama. It's late." She moves over closer to her. The mongrels that roam the barrio at night had stopped their barking. But, the mother still won't get any sleep.

    The only time a person doesn't feel any pain is when he's sleeping. I bite my lip and feel pain. Then that must mean I'm really awake. In spite of everything, within a few minutes she is snoring like a tired old god.

Magdalena, the older daughter, leaves the house every morning to peddle their merchandise to the rural folk who come into town. Clothes her mother sews at home, garments she herself has been gradually learning to make. While Latina sits at the sewing machine, Crista helps with chores around the house. All three share the work amidst the loneliness of Milagro de la Paz, where the only thing that breaks the silence of the days is the tower clock in the marketplace, striking the hour. Lord, which of them am I going to lose? Latina wonders. If any of us has to die, let it be me.

    "Even if I pretend I'm brave, mama, I'm really not. I'm scared," says Magdalena. There are moments when she feels desperate. "Then sing," Latina advises her. "If I sing to myself in the dark, you'll think I'm crazy." And my mother tells me: "Just imagine how terrible it would be if you really were, and that's how it'll be if you don't give your head some rest." Magdalena: And she taught me to sing quietly to myself, inside my head; that way, no one would make fun of me; I hum songs while I work;, even when I go to bed and when I get up. "That's life, mi hija."

    "Singing won't help, mama. The truth is a person's life just slips away." Latina: "The one who sings scares off his troubles."

    "Mama, what makes you say they're unknown beings and not coyotes?" Latina: "Because coyotes don't howl like that." She thought the animals had abandoned Milagro de la Paz. "The cotton pickers have been killing them off," she tells Magdalena. A sleepy silence. Then: Should I wake Magdalena? And I wake her. She tells me to go to sleep, that there's nothing going on, that the soldiers who keep watch over Milagro de la Paz scare the mongrels.

"Why us? I don't know," Latina says.

    "The night is like a mistake, an illusion."

    Maybe it's because everything becomes a blur and the innocent get punished no matter what when the law is cruel. Latina: "Why are we always getting blamed for something?" The only ones who don't get blamed for something are infants at their mothers' breasts. Latina: "Sometimes I think something's going to happen to us." Magdalena pats her mother's hip to reassure her: "When a person's expecting the worst, nothing happens. Bad things only happen when we least expect them. It's called misfortune." Nothing was going to happen to them as long as they stayed together and "because God is great." I can hear my daughter's heart beating even when I'm sound asleep. I hear Magdalena singing to herself. Magdalena: I tell my mother the night is more than a mistake. It's a nightmare."

    Magdalena's ruminations are interrupted when daylight comes. Then she goes out to make her rounds. A farm couple approaches her and asks to see the clothes she is selling. "How much is it?" Either to haggle or to compare. When she grows tired after a whole day on her feet, she sits down with her basket on a street corner the campesinos pass by on their way to the market to sell their crops, or on their way to the town's main plaza or the church. "If you want, you can pull on it and you'll see how strong the seams are" she tells them. She is proud of the quality of her mother's work.

    Except for Saturdays and Sundays, and popular festival days for the saints, the sales are meager and her hopes are bleak. She remembers what her mother has always told her: You have to work if you want to eat.

    Magdalena: "Did you make sure the doors were locked tight?" And I get up to see for myself. My mother says I don't trust her enough. Latina: "Yes. Not even Saint Peter himself could pry open these doors." Los seres desconocidos aren't going to attack us. Faceless murderers, they start their damn howling after midnight. "No one can get in as long as we've got these doors locked." My mother sets out a huacal filled with salted water to keep out the evil spirits. It's a secret she learned from her great-grandmother. She was convinced that any evil spirit that might sneak in through the cracks would dissolve in the water, although we knew better. It would never keep a real person out.

    Latina: I've always believed in the mystery of things. "The coyote-dogs went away," the mother says. Magdalena: "I'm not so sure because the howling I hear sounds far off, and that means they're really nearby." Both women are scared. My mother says it's natural for people to be afraid. It's all because of "original sin". "Let me get some sleep or else we'll be up all night," the mother says.

    Ever since the soldiers who keep watch over the city had targeted the barrio of las Angustias for carrying out their military exercises, Magdalena's mood has changed. The mother tries to ease her mind and tells her to put her trust in the heavy wood beams that secure the doors. Besides, Latina has faith in her prayers and in the small bowl of salted water.

    "Why do we need the soldiers here?" Magdalena wants to know. Outside a strong wind is gusting and it begins to rain. The unknown beings run for cover. "So we can feel safe," the mother explains. I heard the mongrels jump over the stone fence and take refuge nearby in the town dump. The imagination plays tricks on us. I hear the coyotes howling all over the place, not just around our patio. They prowl about and can pounce on any of these houses. My daughter tells me again: "Go to sleep, go to sleep." But even in sleep, the howling can be heard. "Maybe they're men disguised as animals," Magdalena says. I begin to pray. The daughter is sensitive to any sound: "I can even hear their voices in my sleep, even though you don't believe me," Magdalena adds. "Or animals disguised as men," the mother corrects her.

    Their fears will vanish with the morning sunrise, but still over the course of the day they won't be able to stop them from resurfacing. It's because our souls are so fragile, Latina thinks. "Anyway," the mother says, "it's better for us not to remember the bad things that happened. Or else we'll end up making our lives a living hell."

    The older daughter ponders the words her mother repeats everyday: "Hija, why were we born weak?" And I tell her: "We're strong. If it weren't so, we wouldn't still be here."

    Magdalena: Crista is the only one who's weak and that's because she's still just a child.

Scattered words, bits of laughter, sighs, laments.

    "I like it when you're asleep next to me; it makes me feel better. I pray for you." The mother never grew weary of telling her older daughter why she was afraid: "It's because you don't pray at night before you go to bed. That's why." The day ends too quickly and the frightening dreams don't stop even with the arrival of a new day. My mother decided that the best thing for us to do was to sleep together. My little sister sleeps in another bed, close to ours, with the dog next to her. That's how we're able to get some rest. We keep each other company.

    The mother feels better as a result of her prayers and in having my two daughters close to me. The older we get, the more we're afraid of things. The younger sister could sleep more peacefully because of that nearness.

    Every once in a while Magdalena touches her mother's buttocks. It makes her feel safe. "I'm never going to leave," Magdalena says. She means taking up with a man one day and leaving her mother and younger sister alone. "Nothing can separate us."

    The older daughter is thinking about that day when, on her way home, she found a bouquet of withered roses lying in the street. But their stems were still green. She marveled at the colors. Magdalena placed her basket on one arm and with both hands slowly brushed the dirt from the flowers. She is thirteen years old and believes it's time for her to begin thinking about the future, but that's something that still seems so abstract and remote to her, even though she is at the turning point in her life. Just waking up to a new day—that was the future. But, she didn't know that yet.

    "Look what I found," Magdalena says, holding out the fresh stems for her mother to see. "There's enough here for us to start a garden." "That's the last thing we need around here. To bother ourselves with some flowers," her mother replies. "At night you give me strength, but during the day you're different," the daughter protests. Latina says life is more real in the light of day. The night doesn't exist; what exists are its horrors. "I'm going to plant a garden and you'll see. You'll help me and we'll grow roses." With some caca de gallina and water in the morning and afternoon, the rose bushes took root.

"The trouble with you is that you're always thinking the worst," the mother complains to Magdalena. I can't help it if I'm scared at night, but she doesn't understand me. Latina: "You need something to help you get rid of those bad thoughts." Magdalena tells her she doesn't need anything: "You're all I need." "You also have your little sister, and the dog. We're a small family, but strong; we'll survive." I don't want to listen to her. There's always going to be something that scares me. "Tell me, so I'm not left to wonder. What is it that has you so scared?.... It's just a feeling I get sometimes," she explains. My mother tells me that premonitions don't exist, that they're just evil spirits that have to be rooted out of our minds. Latina says it biting her lip because she, too, has a premonition about one of them dying, but she won't say it. "It always helps to pray," she says. I tell her I'll probably never be a religious person and that's how I'll die. "Don't say such a thing. It's a sin to talk about dying." An unforeseen death is the only thing the mother fears. "Or maybe it's just that I respect it. I can't explain it to you. All I know is that no one dies at vespers," my mother tells me. "The thing that scares me most about dying is that there's a great darkness," I say. My mother says there's no darkness there, just a great light. "Of course, it's a different kind of light," she says. "I don't know where you get that stuff from, those strange ideas," I tell her. "To overcome your fears you've got to talk about them," she says.

    "Mama, why are men braver than us?" She answers me: "They've made all that up, but at the moment of truth, they're bigger cowards than we are!" I tell her: "Mama, sometimes you scare me more with the things you say. I know from what I've seen that our lives are in their hands." She answers me: "It only seems that way, hija. Illusions deceive. What's in their hands is death." And I begin to tremble and I cry in silence so she won't hear me sobbing.

Magdalena attends the school run by Doña Rafaelita, who also happens to be one of the town lesbians. At first, she rebelled, especially because of the distance. She had to walk almost a kilometer along the hot, steamy road. And then all the way back home, starting out at eleven in the morning, the hour of the devil when the inferno-like heat blankets the town of Milagro de la Paz and the asphalt highway melts and forms big reflecting pools.

    By the time she completed her first three months of lessons, Magdalena already knew how to read and write, to do numbers and count. And later the mother tried very hard to convince her to quit when she was in the third grade. She was especially concerned about her daughter having to cross that street at the end of Calle de las Angustias where they dumped the dead bodies. She didn't like the idea of her daughter coming face to face with the reality of her nightmares. "If I didn't have two mouths to feed, I'd keep both of you locked away here, safe with me."

    The mother accompanied her for the first week of school so she'd gradually become familiar with the streets and their dangers. She also put the teacher on notice: "And I won't have you punishing her, not with a stick across her bare bottom, none of that. When it comes to the children, the only ones to see them with their pants down is their family." She'd rather her daughter remain ignorant. The teacher stood her ground: "Without punishment, I can't be a teacher to them. You have to understand, I need to make the children learn and how can I do that if their parents don't let me punish them? There's nothing evil in punishment. Don't you see? Why, even God punishes." The mother reconsiders; maybe the teacher was right. "Well, if she needs to be punished for something, then go ahead." And the teacher knew that no child would dare consider a slap across the bare backside an unjust punishment; no one had ever complained to her. Because the little creatures would never tell their parents they had their pants lowered for a slap across their bare bottom. "Magdalena is smart. The best thing for her to do is to finish her primary schooling. Leave her with me for two more years," Doña Rafaelita told the mother. Latina unwillingly agreed to let her older daughter finish the sixth grade. "Well, I don't put much stock in all this learning or in people with a lot of schooling. I'd rather you tell me she knows how to look out for herself in this world." The teacher explains to her that's what school is for.

"And what's this idea of the infinite, anyway?" Latina asks Magdalena. But she answers her own question: "I imagine it's just like the sea."

    "No," Magdalena corrects her. "It's something much greater than the sea. It's as big as the distance from here to the stars."

    And Latina can't believe the sea could be smaller than the distance from her home to where the stars are. The older daughter explains to her that the sea is only so big and that it can be crossed in a boat, while not even a four-engine airplane could reach the sun. She is astounded to see how much Magdalena knows about so many things; but, to her mind, none of it serves any useful purpose. She tells her mother that those are things she learns in school everyday. She even won first prize: the teacher rewarded her with a cutting of cotton fabric to make a dress. "Take it home to your mother to show her. Tell her you earned it with your brains and your sweat." It was her reward for having written all the numbers up to one hundred thousand. But once she finished primary school, she would have to let Crista, the younger daughter, have her turn. "Both of you have a right to some education, but I can only manage one at a time." That's when Magdalena began going out to work, making her rounds of the streets of Milagro to sell her roses and the clothes they made at home, while her mother stayed glued to the sewing machine and Crista attended class at Doña Rafaelita's school.

The mother and her two girls walk along the highway that takes them home. Latina, to protect herself from the hot sun, covers herself with a black shawl that falls over her shoulders and around her body.

    "Why did you come looking for me?" the older daughter asks, addressing her mother and younger sister. "Because you were late coming home and I was afraid something happened to you." They continue making their way along the road, three figures slowly dissolving into the asphalt's shiny lake until, beneath the bright sun, they become completely invisible to the human eye.

The older daughter, on returning home from her day's work—selling roses and the clothes her mother makes—reprimands her younger sister because she has found the pots nearly empty; there wasn't enough water for the garden. "And all because you didn't haul up all the buckets of water we need. You spend most of your time in the house. There's no excuse." The younger sister explains why she didn't do what she was supposed to; it rained early in the day and so she saw no need to water the garden. And, anyway, there was already enough water in the pots. An unexpected midsummer rain. Magdalena answers her sharply, saying that it's just her excuse for not doing what she was told to do. "I might as well do it myself," she says even though she has come home worn out. Crista just ignores her. She has learned to use her eyes to communicate and express her moods. She's got the eyes of a cat when it's stalking its prey, Magdalena thinks. The younger sister meant to take care of it for her. But I tell her not to bother. After seeing the way, she glares at me, I'd rather do it myself. "You've got to learn to pull your own weight here, because gazing at the stars isn't going to put food on the table," she says angrily. I'd like to be as carefree as her, Magdalena thinks, alluding to her younger sister.

    The two sisters almost never share the work that needs to be done. But, when it comes to my roses, I'll go into a fit if I have to. I'm the one who did all that work in my spare time. Crista goes on about her business. Even though they have different personalities, both sisters are strong, slim, and good-looking: the nose, slightly broad and flat; full lips, heavy eyebrows, dark complexion, sinuous body, agile movements. A penetrating gaze. They can be tenacious when it comes to their survival, but they're afraid, too. Ever since they were little, they've seen death on the prowl and they had to learn to be careful.

    In the late afternoon, when the sun has gone down, the younger one goes to bed under the nance tree, on a bed of yellow leaves, and she begins to count the stars according to the order in which they appear, something she can do easily enough when there are only a few and she can keep track of them. She also knows how to count up to a hundred thousand like her sister Magdalena. But suddenly all of the stars come out at once and her mind isn't agile enough to keep up with them. Besides, it's time to go inside—to avoid the suffering souls that start coming out of their hiding places at night and also to escape the mosquitoes and the jejenes, the gnats that feast on a person's flesh. The only one the insects don't bother is the mother who some time ago took up smoking cigars, Honduran tobacco brought from Copán by Doña Matilde, the owner of the corner grocery store. At four in the afternoon she lights up and doesn't take it out of her mouth until late at night when she is ready to go to sleep, all the while puffing away like the chimney on a wood-stoked locomotive, like the one that brought the three of them from Usulután.

    "While I'm out working, my sister is here daydreaming," Magdalena says. "Don't complain. She'll grow up soon enough and then she'll have to take your place," the mother retorts. Once the older daughter has taken the buckets to the well and finished fetching the water she needs to fill the pots, she turns sad. Magdalena feels guilty for having scolded her little sister like that. She has learned how to deal with Crista's personality, but there's always something that defies explanation. The mother tells her it's a family trait. That's how the grandparents were: fickle, strong-willed. "I don't think they sat around counting the stars," Magdalena protests sarcastically. "They couldn't even count the fingers on their hands, but they were hardheaded right up to the day they died." Maybe that's why we're the only ones left. No one survives very long acting like that. And the mother trembles when she wonders if maybe Crista will be the one who is going to die.

    Magdalena: It's that time of night when the bats come out and zoom around overhead. I stretch out my hand, wanting to catch them in flight. My grandparents died when my mother was still young. It's also that time of night when the owls come out; during the day they perch themselves in the cemeteries; then, at night they come out and cast fire from their huge eyes. I know, even though mama doesn't say it, that my grandparents died at the hands of the unknown beings. Magdalena draws closer to her sister. That's why we came here from Usulután. Crista-child lies face up, stretched out on the ground, on a mattress of yellow nance leaves. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by what I said," Magdalena says. "Let me be. I want to be by myself; I'm counting the stars and I've only reached five hundred, five hundred one, five hundred two ..."

By the time she turned fifteen, Magdalena began changing and she started to overcome certain fears, too. She met Nicolás, a young neighbor who lived adjacent to them, on a plot larger than theirs, where his family grew guineos and pineapples. Their relationship turned intimate without their families' knowledge or permission. It was a love no one could know about, because at that age, confused feelings can breed sinful acts. And evil too. If two young people love each other, they have to keep it a secret. Their intimacy unfolded in stages, becoming a reality several months after they started seeing each other, a full two years after they first met.

    My mother finally accepted it, unlike his family which wasn't about to stand for him becoming involved with a family of women. Women of no importance, women who had nothing except a small plot of land. What's more, they were different. Women who lived alone and stayed to themselves. "What would become of our son, a varón living there with three women?" his family asked.

    And when I tell my mother about it, she says this is what happens when a boy and a girl make the mistake of falling in love at such a young age. Besides, his family was counting on him marrying into a family with a decent piece of property and all we had to offer was a little plot of land with some hens, a sewing machine, and this house we'll be paying for the rest of our lives.

    Magdalena tells her mother that she loves Nicolás, and Latina asks her if she knows what that word means. The older daughter doesn't know exactly, but she tries to explain the best she can. "Love is when you feel little butterflies fluttering around in your stomach." The mother tells her that's true, but a girl has to know when it's time to tell those butterflies to go to hell.

    Then one day Nicolás and Magdalena find themselves lying together in the hammock, under a faint half-moon, and her skirt slides up over her hips, revealing her youthful, mahogany-colored skin, as fresh as new wood. She draws her legs up to prevent Nicolás from getting on top of her. She feels confused. Why does the woman have to be underneath? she wonders. At a time like that, a girl needs someone who can properly advise her, but Magdalena has to be patient, not rush into anything, especially girls like her who have nothing to offer.

    The mother had also been a woman alone. Widowed at a very young age and faced with the impossibility of staying on at Cerro el Tigre in Usulután, she had packed up and moved to Milagro. Magdalena was just a little girl and Crista an infant. "They murdered my parents. Who knows for what reason?" That was the only time they traveled by train. The tradition of women alone. "We're leaving. There's nothing for us to do here." They came by train from Usulután to Milagro. "What happened to our grandparents?" Magdalena asks. "Some men killed them. No one knows who they were," the mother replies. "In the war?" "No. In a struggle for a scrap of bread." Latina: Death is such a familiar face to us, always on our heels until it overtakes us.

Magdalena and Latina took turns selling their roses and clothes on the streets of Milagro, with the younger daughter always accompanying one of them along the way. "I'm going to teach you how to sew. That way you won't need to depend on some man just so you can eat. You'll never have to go hungry," Latina told her older daughter. For Magdalena it seemed strange that when it was her turn to stay home by herself she didn't feel afraid the way she did at night. Maybe it had nothing to do with anything inside the house, but rather the night shadows and los seres desconocidos. I prefer being here by myself when my mother and sister are out selling our merchandise. I like to stay home and sit down to do my work at the sewing machine. That way she could enjoy some solitude, something she found so pleasant because it afforded her the opportunity to fantasize about faraway places, other worlds, even if at times they seemed unfathomable mysteries to her, worlds she only knew because of some books I keep underneath my bed. Perhaps if she had had more time to read, she might have been able to decipher the perplexing geography of distant places. "The only time I read is when I'm by myself, out there in the privy," she tells her mother. "To know the world you've got to be out in it, there on the street, and you've got to learn how to use your hands for something," her mother repeats. "You won't learn any of that from books. A person has to know and understand people, how to talk to them." Magdalena would leave the house by herself to sell their wares, and when the little sister's time came, she would also have to do the same.

    On weekdays, it's Crista who accompanies the mother on her rounds. On Saturdays and Sundays it's Magdalena's turn. "I like working at home better. That way I can sing whenever I want." The mother: "You won't learn anything about life if you spend all your time inside these four walls."

She had other reasons for wanting to stay home. She had met Nicolás. A chance encounter. The boy had come by to ask for some water. "Our well went dry" he said. By the time she was twelve, Magdalena began to have dealings with the campesinos but never with the people from the barrio, not even with Doña Matilde, the owner of the grocery store, because her mother took care of everything they needed. Nicolás represented her first warm relationship with a person other than her mother. After three weeks, they became friends, and after several months strong feelings developed between them. But she had been taught that love at her age was wrong, even sinful, and so she tried to avoid seeing him. "My mother won't accept you because your family has some property and you grow bananas and pineapples. As for us, all we've got is this sewing machine and some hens." The poor with the poor and the rich with the rich. An unwritten law, but it only seemed natural. "And we've got this house we'll be paying for until Judgment Day."

    As the months passed, they became intimate with each other. It came after a number of chance encounters and some flirting. Whenever Nicolás walked past their patio, on his way to the well, Magdalena couldn't take her eyes from him. They would meet in the asoleadero. She would stop her sewing and go outside to clear her head or to throw water on her dress so she wouldn't burn up under the blazing sun. There, in the asoleadero, they gradually lost their timidity.

For Magdalena that first day was charged with emotion when, in an unguarded moment and while they were chatting next to the well, Nicolás's hand accidentally brushed against her dress and the soft skin of her thin, strong legs. It was a heat different from the one Milagro's burning sun produced; it was the heat of feathers of white-winged doves coursing right through her dress and spreading across her body. According to some of those books she had been reading in secret, that was the sort of thing that led to sin, but in fact it was the sensation that comes of being a woman, something her mother had foreseen more than once. Suddenly she realized she liked looking at Nicolás, at his strong body. But she didn't stare at him openly. Instead she would wait until he passed by, then she'd look him over from head to toe, including his shoulders and his buttocks. She couldn't comprehend the power of this attraction. To her it was something that went beyond visual pleasure; it had something to do with the mind and with my blood.

    That was when she began to feel the mariposas fluttering in her stomach. And so she would reach under her bed to pull out the books she kept hidden there to see if she could find an answer somewhere.

    She recalled her mother's explanations about sin, that it's something that begins as a temptation between a man and a woman. "The fact is that in the real world a girl can get pregnant just by thinking about a man," the mother warned her. Magdalena, for her part, couldn't manage to figure out how it worked, that insertion of the man's vile organ into a woman's body and how from that union could emerge a life separate from their own, her body being invaded by someone else. The whole idea seemed detestable to her. Anyway, she had casual conversations with her mother about what she was reading. After a while she came to give less importance to those little talks because, after all was said and done, the need to get on with life and survive in the real world overshadowed everything else. She had to go out into the street to sell her roses and the clothes they sewed at home when she wasn't spending the rest of her time glued to the sewing machine. So she would take advantage of the little bit of time to herself alone in the privy to carefully review page by page the book she had selected for each particular session. Of special interest to her was the one titled Health in the Home. It included depictions of anatomy and nude bodies, and the onset of motherhood.

    The mother, for her part, had come to accept the fact that her older daughter was old enough to read the books she kept under her bed, the ones their friend Chele Pintura gave them; he was a local handyman who, from time to time, would drop out of sight from las Angustias. Starting a few years ago, when her daughters were younger, Chele would come by to trim back the wild brush around their property. There was one time when he cut grafts for them from the roses so they could produce even larger and more brilliant flowers. Latina even thought about Chele as a husband for Magdalena one day, but God told me to forget it, that it was a bad idea.

    The mother had been taking note of Magdalena, how she was becoming a woman, and consequently she knew the role her daughter was soon to fulfill, the one that nature bound her to. "We women pass through that stage in our lives."


Meet the Author

Manlio Argueta's novels have earned him an international reputation and have endeared him to the Salvadoran people. His first two novels, El valle de las hamacas (1970) and Caperucita en la zona roja (LittleRed Riding Hood in the Red Light District) (1978), present the social instability and political repression in the country during the seventies. Caperucita en la zona roja (Little Red Riding Hood in the Red Light District) received the Casa de las Americas Prize in 1977. His third and fourth novels, Un dia en la vida (1980) and Cuzcatian donde bate la mar del sur (1986) describe the escalating repression and rebellion in the late seventies. His fifth novel, Milagro de la Paz (1994) examines the legacy of civil strife in the lives of a Salvadoran woman and her family. He currently lives in San Salvador.


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