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"A sensual and well-crafted story about courage and passion that brims with vivid descriptions and characters."—The Network Journal
"Marisel Vera is a gifted storyteller with an eye for the subtle motions of the human heart as it struggles with the disturbances of desire. This is a deeply felt and satisfying tale that brings attention to the courage required to sustain hope, love, and passion as a stranger in a new land. Vera understands her characters and brings them to us with lyric intensity, humor, and perfect pitch so that they live in us long after the last page is closed."—Award-winning author Jonis Agee
"If I Bring You Roses has everything you want in a novel— flawed complicated characters, lush descriptions, breathtaking plot, and a fierce beating heart. With this brillant novel she at once excavates history, while weaving a story that is entirely new. With this amazing debut, Marisel Vera has burst onto the literary scene. I am eager to see what she writes next."—Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow
Felicidad’s dress stuck to her thin frame, and her bare feet felt the burn of the sunbaked road. She clutched her books against her stomach. She’d had no breakfast except for coffee and had refused lunch: a lump of peanut butter plopped down directly on a tray. The Missus had been angry at her ingratitude and had mocked her, saying maybe she thought herself above the others, Felicidad with the made-up name, a name that wasn’t even Puerto Rican because she certainly had never heard it before. Felicidad, ha! She wasn’t likely to find much happiness because she was going to die of starvation first.
Felicidad longed to tell the teacher that her name was a wish, a hope her parents had for her life to be a happy one. Instead she stood under the almácigo tree, as the teacher directed, while the other children, even her brother Ruben, ate the school lunch, glad to ease their hunger. She picked at the copper-colored bark that peeled off in papery flakes before plucking a few leaves, intending to give them to her mother. When her sister Isabel was alive, Felicidad would bring the leaves daily for Mami to brew tea to cure Isabel’s terrible itching. How she hoped Mami would be cooking in the kitchen. But sometimes when Felicidad came home from school she would find her mother lying on her bed clutching her head, murmuring words that didn’t make sense, the baby crying.
Papi decided the children and all the housework were too much for Mami and decreed that the girls would take turns going to school. This was Felicidad’s lucky year; next year would be Leila’s. The girls knew it could be worse; they could be like the Martinez Gutierrezes up the mountain who kept the daughters at home and the sons in the fields. Even Felicidad’s older brothers had some schooling.
Her younger brother had run home ahead of her when the school day ended, but she lingered under the spell of the blue sky and the lush green of the mountain. The air was still with the heat of the afternoon and heavy with the fragrance of the wildflowers that grew abundantly along the country road. She made a game of walking under the shade of the light green leaves of the eugenio trees, glancing up at the brilliant blue sky through the large, broad branches. But she should hurry; she was liable to get a little slap for dawdling.
Felicidad saw a man walking toward her. Maybe he was a vagabond, a mendigo like Mami’s cousin Primo Samsón.
She wished it might be Primo Samsón, although it was unlikely since they had had a visit from him only last year. Mami had shared their dinner with him, lamenting that she didn’t have any rice because it was scarce since the war, but at least there were a few beans and codfish and always cornmeal.
Felicidad’s mother had given Primo Samsón a sheet from her own bed; Papi had said, Mujer, are you as crazy as your cousin? Who knew what kind of fleas or disease Samsón carried with him. Mami had said, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. After all, he knew that pobre Samsón hadn’t been the same since he lost his land and his wife left him. While she cooked, Samsón had sat on the stoop of the lean-to kitchen, the inside of which was black with smoke.
Felicidad’s father had built the house, only thirty feet by twelve feet, from pieces of salvaged wood that had served other houses and showed the years of beatings from the tropical climate. The house rose on stilts among mango, panapén, and orange trees. Granada bushes and banana rhizomes grew in the shade of the large mamey trees. El batey, a yard of pounded dirt typical of the campo, surrounded the house. Felicidad’s father had anchored a hollowed-out limb from a bamboo tree to the roof to drain rainwater down into a barrel. Mami and the girls used it to sponge-bathe at night while Papi and the boys went down to the river. Alongside the house was the pen where the family kept pigs when they had them.
Down the slope was the barraca, a thatched-roof hut, built low to the ground from plant fiber to store crops and to shelter the family during hurricanes. Felicidad’s father had cut and tied reeds into bundles to fit the barraca’s wood frame. A chicken coop built from scraps of wood and mesh wobbled on narrow posts like a tiny ramshackle house. A rooster with his harem of hens pecked the ground.
Mami had fluttered about listening to Primo Samsón tell stories about Puerto Rico and what he had seen in his travels, about how the island wasn’t what it had once been. Felicidad had taken up her mother’s piecework and sat in Papi’s chair so that she, too, could hear the fairy tales without happy endings.
The mendigo passed her and said, Buenas, niña.
She turned off the road into the brush and walked uphill on a narrow dirt trail strewn with stones and broken branches. She stubbed her toe on a rock and walked on tiptoe the rest of the way. All she could think about was the pain in her stomach; Mami was sure to have saved something from her own lunch, even if only a cucharón of cooked cornmeal. Harina, beans, something.
The shouting frightened Felicidad out of her languor and jarred the tranquil afternoon. She stared up at the sky as if expecting Papa Dios to appear and reassure her, saying, Little Daughter, do not worry. She heard children shrieking over the howl of a wild animal.
She ran toward the sound, her feet kicking up dust and dirt and rocks and pebbles. When she reached the ravine that led to her family’s home, the shouting became louder and she ran faster, half sliding down the path that led to the house. She tripped over a large twig and grabbed it, thinking in her fear that somehow she might use it to beat back whatever it was that was making that hideous sound and scaring her brother and sisters, most likely one of the mangy dogs that scavenged around in the countryside eating the eggs that the hens laid and sometimes the hens as well. She wondered where Mami was and why she didn’t chase off the dog herself.
Felicidad came to the clearing. The sun glistened on the roof cobbled together from pieces of zinc that Felicidad’s father had picked up here and there. Stones and large rocks littered the area surrounding el batey, where she found her siblings shouting up at the sky. Why were they doing that? Where was Mami?
And then she saw her. Her mother crouched on the edge of the roof, howling a high-pitched cry that did not belong to a human being.
Felicidad was confused. Why was Mami on the roof, why was Mami wearing that strange pink shirt and pair of pants with those black patches? And then her brother and sisters were upon her, clutching at Felicidad’s dress and legs, and it came to her that her mother was naked, her skin burned by the Puerto Rican sun.
“Felicidad, why is Mami on the roof?” Five-year-old Juanita was crying.
“She won’t get down.” Eight-year-old Leila, a year younger than Felicidad, cradled the sleeping baby.
Felicidad dropped her books on the ground. “Take Juanita and the baby to Hilda’s.” She lowered her voice so that her siblings stepped closer. “I’ll go get Papi.”
“I’ll come with you.” Ruben was seven and would rather work in the fields with his brothers than go to school.
“Stay and watch over Mami,” Felicidad said. “Pray she doesn’t jump.”
Felicidad ran. She didn’t notice her favorite mango tree, which always hid a juicy mango just for her between its leaves. She didn’t breathe in the perfume of orange and lemon blossoms from the cluster of citrus trees. She ran past the tomatoes and onions and green peppers that her father had planted and tended by moonlight. Mami naked on the roof.
She ran past the fields of malanga and yuca and yautía and calabaza and sweet potatoes, past the little patch where Papi grew tobacco, which he shared with his brothers. Mami naked on the roof. Somehow, she put one foot in front of the other, running toward the field of corn that she could see at a distance. She ran without thinking how she would tell her father when she found him. Her throat was dry. What she would do for a little tazita de café. Her heart beat the refrain: una tazita de café, Mami naked on the roof, naked, naked on the roof, una tazita de café, Mami naked on the roof, naked on the roof.
She spied an obreo hidden among the tall stalks of corn.
“¡Miré!” She stopped to catch her breath. “My father, Juan Vicente Hidalgo. Have you seen him?”
El obreo was hand-hoeing the ground and didn’t pause in his work. Like most farmworkers, he wore a hat, a long-sleeved shirt, and long pants despite the heat. His feet were bare. He nodded to the left.
“Over there. Your father and your brothers.”
Felicidad ran between the rows of corn, moving through the airless tunnel of tall, green stalks. The leaves of corn brushed against her arms and legs and she felt her breathing constrict as she ran faster toward the end of the rows, finally bursting through the stalks and colliding into her older brother Vicente. In his threadbare shirt and too-short pants, Vicente was tall and bone-thin as they all were, including their parents. Only Don Agostos’s wife was plump, and everyone said that was because he owned the country store and she could eat from the jars and tins as she pleased. Why was that jar of olives that Pancho Pacheco bought last week not quite full?
Vicente caught her by the elbows and shook her.
“Mami,” she said, but it was indistinguishable from a croak.
“Felicidad, con calma.” Vicente was missing his four front teeth and he pressed his lips together into a straight line, imitating their father. He relished his authority over his siblings because he was the oldest and a boy.
“Mami is on the roof, Mami is on the roof naked,” Felicidad said.
“This better not be a game you little kids are playing.” Vicente’s fingers tightened on her elbows.
“I swear it’s true.” Felicidad struggled to get free. He had forgotten he was holding her.
Vicente called out to their father; Papi came running.
He pushed back his hat from his eyes. “Your mother?”
“She’s on the roof, Papi,” Vicente said.
“Get the boys.” Papi disappeared into the stalks.
Felicidad wondered why her brother hadn’t told their father that their mother was naked, but he would find out soon enough.
They ran in a little pack, father first, elder brother next, and Felicidad lagging behind the twins, Julio and Eduardo. She wished that this day was just another day when she would wake in the dark, trembling and calling out to her mother to protect her from the Spirits that roamed restless in the night. She often dreamed of Spirits running in these very mountains on this very same path. Felicidad heard their footsteps pounding the ground as they ran in the moonlight, rustling the leaves of the banana and plantain trees.
Now she listened to the footsteps of her father and brothers and Felicidad prayed that somehow she had been mistaken about her mother on the roof, naked.
She heard a woman’s voice, normal as the afternoon sun, and thought, Mami, that’s Mami. The others reached the clearing to the house before Felicidad and stopped, so she knew without seeing that her mother was still on the roof.
“Get the rope,” Papi told Vicente. “Felicidad, get your mother’s dress. Julio and Eduardo, come with me.”
In el batey stood Hilda la mulata, midwife and nearest neighbor.
“Ay, Don Juan Vicente, la señora is very bad.” She was toothless like most poor country folk. “I sent my Berto with Ruben for the priest.”
“Why did you do that? This is family business,” Felicidad’s father said.
“It was either the priest or the curandero,” she said.
“¿Curandero? Witch doctor!” Papi said.
“Forgive me, but your señora is obviously possessed by an evil spirit.” Hilda pointed up to the roof of the house where Felicidad’s mother perched precariously on the edge.
“Son of a bitch!” Papi spat in the dirt.
Felicidad wanted to hide behind her mother’s skirt as she had done as a little girl. She ran to get her mother’s dress.
Inside the house, a kerosene lamp sat on the table covered with a dingy oilcloth. Two machetes with their blades pointing down were wedged in the wall behind Papi’s chair. Next to it was the requinto guitar that Papi had carved out of roble wood. He hadn’t played it in a year. Felicidad and her siblings fought for the chair on the rare occasions when Papi was away, but Mami would cede it to Vicente as the oldest male. Papi had built a wood bench, but the children preferred to eat outside on tree stumps in el batey or perch on a favorite branch, taking turns climbing and holding plates for one another.
Tin cans and cups made from the inner shells of coconuts and plates of higüero wood were stacked on a shelf. Spoons, also from higüero, along with Papi’s silver knife and fork, rested in a box. Three frying pans of varying sizes, a small strainer, and a large ladle hung on hooks nailed to the frame of the house. A pair of seamstress scissors dangled upside down on a nail. Draped over a beam to keep it dry and clean was a colador to strain coffee: a piece of cotton fabric, permanently stained brown, stitched around a circle of wire.
Felicidad’s mother stored each day’s portion of coffee beans in a tin that once, long ago, held caramels. Two empty bottles without labels were wedged between the wall and frame. A sack of root vegetables sat on a makeshift shelf. Next to it was a stone molino for grinding corn into flour.
A bunch of bananas not quite ripe hung suspended from a ceiling beam. Beneath it was the massive mortar and pestle for grinding coffee beans that Papi had sculpted out of a tree trunk. Nailed to one wall was an elaborately carved Jesus on a large wood crucifix, a gift to Mami on her wedding day. A picture of the crucifixion drew one’s attention from the bed. On the wall Papi’s good shirt, pants, hat, and various pieces of clothing hung on nails, which served as the family’s closet.
Papi had partitioned part of the house with a faded piece of cloth to make a family bedroom. In the main room the twins rolled out a catre while Vicente slept on old clothes or whatever he could find. Felicidad and her sisters and Ruben slept two by two, head-to-toe, on top of a quilt spread on a casoneta, a frame with springs; over their heads hung the baby’s coy, a sling with a flat base that dangled from the ceiling like a hammock. Across from the casoneta was her parents’ bed, with its mattress of dry plantain leaves and pillows stuffed with corn husks. On the floor, between her parents’ bed and la casoneta, was an escupidera, which the family used at night as a latrine. The enamel basin was large enough to squat over and had a handle for carrying. Felicidad, as the oldest girl, emptied it out and rinsed it every morning.
A bird flew in the open door. Felicidad looked up, afraid that it might be a bat. Last year a family of bats had settled on the rafters of the house, and Papi had beaten them with a broom to get them out. She shooed the pretty blue bird out the window.
Vicente untied the rope from the coy.
Mami had folded her dress on top of the wood trunk that held her prized possessions including the porcelain figurines from Spain of various holy saints.
Felicidad heard footsteps on the roof, her father shouting, her brothers calling out, and a deep growl that, by now, she knew came from her mother; then she felt a weight flinging itself off the roof. Mami. Felicidad’s hands shook as she picked up the dress.
She hurried outside, her mother’s dress in her outstretched palms as if in offering.
Felicidad couldn’t understand how her mother could be standing in the yard, kicking at Felicidad’s father with her bare feet, clawing at him with her fingers.
“¡Condenada mujer!” He cursed a few more seconds and then wrestled his wife to the ground.
“Bring that goddamn dress!”
Felicidad scurried over. She didn’t realize she was crying.
“Stop that goddamn whining and dress your mother,” he shouted at her. He turned to Felicidad’s twin brothers. “Boys! Get some water.”
Papi pinned Mami down between his knees and braced her elbows against the ground. Felicidad’s mother moved her head side-to-side, saliva leaking from her mouth; her legs thrashed beneath him. Tears welled in Felicidad’s throat and she coughed.
She wanted to recite to her mother all the prayers that she had murmured to them each night, phrases that merely reassured Felicidad of her mother’s presence. But for Mami, they were blessings, reaffirmations of her faith, of her surety of God’s pledge to them, that somehow he would take care of them.
But all Felicidad could say was Mami, Mami, please. With Hilda’s help she managed to tug the dress over Mami’s head and pull her arms through.
“Vicente,” Papi said. “Tie the rope to her wrist.”
Vicente knelt on the ground and did what he was told. He already had the hands of a man and the quick, deft fingers of one accustomed to field labor. He had worked alongside Papi since he was old enough to follow behind him, dropping seeds in the holes his father dug in the ground. He had spent a total of three years in school. He could read and write a little and that would need to be enough.
“¡Ay!” Vicente yanked his hand away. Blood streaked down his wrist in a thin line from where his mother had scratched him.
Papi gave his wife a little shake. “¡Mujer, por favor!”
There was a note of sadness, a tinge of exasperation in his voice, the tiniest hint of a cry that betrayed all the days of working under the punishing sun, the disappointment of backbreaking effort for so little yield, the fear that despite how hard he tried, he wouldn’t be able to fill his children’s bellies.
Her mother lay sprawled in the dirt, her father’s strong farmer’s hands gripping her fragile wrists. Her brother’s jaw was clenched so that he wouldn’t cry, dirt streaked down one pimply cheek.
Hilda whispered to Felicidad, “Go get a wet cloth to pass over your mother’s forehead.”
Felicidad ran back to the house and removed a rag hooked on the wall in the lean-to kitchen. A large green coconut husk filled with water was set aside for cooking. Her mother took special care that the cooking water should always be clean, but Felicidad stuck her dirty hand in the shell and cupped water twice to her lips. She wanted to cry with the guilt of it, from her fear of her mother’s irrational behavior, of her father’s despair, her brother’s pain.
She dipped the rag into the water and hurried outside, water dripping on her skirt. Hilda took it from her and gave it a good wring.
“Pass it over your mother’s forehead.” She handed it back to Felicidad.
She didn’t want to touch her mother, this screaming woman, this crazy woman naked on the roof, this wild animal lunging at her family.
Hilda gave her a little push.
Felicidad wiped Mami’s brow with trembling fingers, but rather than calming down she began thrashing and screaming again.
“Vicente, we’re going to tie her to that tree,” Papi said.
They stared at him, sure that they had misheard.
Papi was already half dragging, half carrying her. Mami pulled at the rope, digging her heels into the dirt, but Papi kept his grip on her arm, walking with the firm determined strides of a man in control. Vicente wrapped the rope around the tree trunk; Papi tied Mami to the trunk, her back against the bark, arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross.
Her brothers hurried up the hill carrying lard cans filled with water on their shoulders. They didn’t question why their mother was tied to a tree.
Papi sent Eduardo to the house for a cup, filling it with water from one of the cans. He pinned back his wife’s hair and poured water into her open mouth. She sputtered, wetting the collar of her dress.
“Rosario, why are you behaving this way?” Papi let go of her hair.
Surely, their mother had heard the pain in her husband’s voice, the plea to his beloved Rosario? In that moment Felicidad believed that life would ease back to the sameness of yesterday, with Papi working the land and Mami caring for home and children.
Mami reached out a bare foot and kicked Papi hard in the shin.
“¡Coño!” He limped away.
“Felicidad, you’ll have to manage dinner today. Boys, go back to work,” Papi said. “I will stay here with your mother.”
Vicente gave Felicidad’s shoulders a little squeeze then tilted the five-gallon can to pour water down his throat. He passed the can to his brothers before heading back to the cornfield.
Hilda was sitting in Papi’s chair peeling malanga and yautía with a knife. Felicidad carried in the can of water, bending at the waist from the weight. She poured water into a tin can that had once contained tomato sauce.
“Give me some, too,” Hilda said.
Felicidad offered hers and got herself a cup made from a coconut, refilling it twice.
The midwife stared at a piece of salted codfish soaking in a pan of water on the table. She talked over the howling from the yard.
“These hard times are bad enough, but to have a baby born dead? Oh, how I hated my job that day. Of course, your mother got pregnant with Raffy right after, but then your sister Isabel died. What woman wouldn’t go a little mad?” Hilda glared at the codfish as if it were responsible for all the trouble.
Felicidad tucked the lard can of water under her arm and went through to the kitchen. A pot of beans was on el fogón—the poor woman’s stove. Stones were set on a tabletop in a bed of ashes. On the smoke-blackened wall was a square cut into the wood, which served as a window; the matching square of wood was hinged to one side. It was opened in the morning and closed at night to keep out the harmful night air. Hammered to the base of the window was a wooden shelf sloping down into the yard, supported by more wood anchored into the ground. Lard, drained from the last time the family smoked a pig, was stored in a large earthenware container. A galvanized pail used for dishwashing or bathing sat on it.
The howling became louder. Felicidad and Hilda crossed to the open door of the lean-to. Her father had loosened the rope so Mami now sat on the ground. He squatted down, passing the washcloth over her forehead. They couldn’t hear what he was saying to her.
“He’s a good man, your father is,” Hilda said. “Up the mountain a ways, Pedro Maldonado abandoned his family. Six children.”
Felicidad turned to look at Hilda. The sun had baked her skin the color of bark and left it with as many wrinkles.
“Why did he leave his family?” Felicidad had to know.
“Because a man can or because sometimes the responsibility is just too much.” Hilda’s glance acknowledged that while Felicidad was still a child, soon the day would come when she, too, would learn the ways of men.
Felicidad wondered about this Pedro Maldonado. How was he different from her father? Perhaps his wife wasn’t a helpful mate, perhaps she was sickly or didn’t have sons, although girls sometimes worked in the fields. Maybe this Maldonado was just a bad man.
A ligartijo sprinted up the smoke-blackened wall and out of reach before Felicidad could get the broom to sweep the small lizard out.
In the evening they brought her into the house; Papi and Vicente held her up between them. Felicidad looked away from her tear-streaked face.
Father Manuel Cortez wore a long black cassock and a black hat and kept a silver rosary handy in his pocket. He glanced around the room. He had not often gone into the mountains. It was difficult to see in the dark house after the long ride in the bright sun, but he didn’t need to see to smell. He took out his handkerchief from the pocket of his cassock and dabbed his nose. What was it? It wasn’t a single odor in particular; it was the smoke of the fogón, it was the jíbaro habit of shutting himself up from the dangers of the night air. It was the stink of human beings living in a tropical climate, it was the escupidera, it was sweat and bacalao and the coffee beans crushed by maceta and pilón. It was living.
He had arrived on the island from Spain only six months before, on the eve of Pearl Harbor. His parishioners made fun of him behind his back for the thick brows that met over the bridge of his nose. Other than that, his congregation agreed that he could be worse looking.
Not even in Spain, in the country towns where he had served his first years as a priest, could he remember such malnutrition, such sheer impoverishment as he had seen on this beautiful island of Puerto Rico. The priest blamed the Americans who now owned most of the farming land. He had heard from many of his older parishioners how life hadn’t been so desperate when Mother Spain had been in possession.
In town it was not unusual to find children sleeping on the cold steps of buildings or a mendigo huddled in a doorway with his child in his arms. On this very ride up the mountain, he had seen children whose protruding potbellies were incongruous with their bone-thin frames. There was not much that he could do about food. There was little rice on the island: Supplies from the good Christians of his sister church in Spain were impossible with the war and the German submarine blockade. Much more was needed from the United States. He would appeal to the governor, American or no, about whom he had heard good things, and to the bishop. Sometimes, in the dark of night, he despaired of being so far from his home country and of his growing certainty that what the island people needed most were food and shoes, not religion. And then he would kneel and beg God to forgive him for his human frailty.
Father Cortez saw children in the little house; a child lurking in that corner, another in that one, a few bunched up on a wooden bench, two leaning over the table there. A chair.
“We’ll need a chair,” the priest said.
“The chair,” Papi said.
One of the twins set it where the priest pointed.
Papi sat Mami in the chair.
The rope was still tied to one of Mami’s wrists. Vicente looped it through the chair’s ladder back and handed the end to Papi, who tied her hands.
Mami began to curse and yell with renewed energy. She called the priest an hijo de puta and her husband the king of all hijos de putas. Her children, she said, were motherless bastards and she, the motherless bastard of them all.
Ashamed, Felicidad looked away. Leila carried the baby on her hip. She slipped her hand into Felicidad’s. Juanita, crying, hid behind her sisters.
“Your mother’s behavior is a sign that an evil spirit has taken possession of her,” the priest said.
“She prays every night,” Papi said. “How could that be?”
“Even the faithful are fallible,” Father Cortez said. “We humans are all of a weak nature.”
Papi, resigned, moved away from his wife. “If you can alleviate her suffering, I’ll say nothing more.”
Father Cortez pulled at his collar. He could not get used to the heat of the tropics and envied the barefoot children their clothing, which, although tattered, must at least be cool. His shame at such thoughts added harshness to his instructions.
“We must have water,” Father Cortez said. “And a large bowl.”
Eduardo brought forward the second lard can of water, Julio the bowl.
Felicidad thought now there wouldn’t be enough water.
“Do you have candles? We must have candles, at least two or three,” the priest said.
Her father nodded to Felicidad, and she went to the trunk to get her mother’s precious candles.
Papi and Vicente each took a candle. When she tried to give the third to one of the twins, her father gestured for her to keep it.
Felicidad whispered in Leila’s ear. “Put Raffy in the coy. Have Ruben take Juanita to get avocados then watch the vianda and bacalao.”
“Do I have to?” Leila whispered back.
Father Cortez’s solemn tone in the darkening day was as terrifying as Felicidad’s dreams.
“Do not be afraid, children of God, the almighty Father will protect our good sister,” he said.
Felicidad’s brothers looked at her.
“Now let us pray.” Father Cortez began to recite in Latin. Felicidad’s father stared unwaveringly at his wife as if by sheer will he could rid her of whatever sickened or possessed her. Her brothers slouched forward like the tired laborers they were. Felicidad, handmaiden to the men, stood apart. She could hear Leila at the fogón. She hoped Ruben would find enough avocados. The wax of the candles dripped on the wood floor; she would have to scrape it up.
She thought she might faint. Men stank when they came in from working in the fields. Felicidad tried to identify another odor, worse than the male smell. Then she realized it emanated from her mother. Mami had relieved herself on Papi’s chair. Ay bendito, if only somehow she could have gotten her mother on the escupidera. Felicidad dared a glance at her father. Yes, he had noticed. She hoped Mami’s dress wasn’t soiled; she only had one other dress, which was for her yearly trip to Mass and for weddings and velorios.
Father Cortez placed his hands on Mami’s head, holding it steady with his fingers.
“Save your daughter, Lord, from this evil that has found its way into her mind, this evil that has stolen her soul. This woman is a good wife, a good mother, a good Catholic. Bring her back to your fold, dear Lord, I entreat You.”
Father Cortez bade them to join him in praying the rosary. Each night, Mami knelt by her bed and said the rosary, for which she was named. Felicidad would take up her embroidery and watch her through the gap between the wall and the cloth that was the bedroom curtain. She liked to hear her mother murmur the prayers in rapid succession and had learned to distinguish the periodic up-and-down chants that signified the next decade of Hail Marys. Felicidad murmured what words she could recall. Her father’s praying surprised her, and her mother quieted down at Papi’s voice reciting Santa Marías.
Father Cortez poured water from the lard can into the bowl and made the sign of the cross over it. Felicidad had seen him do this during the blessing of the palms.
“Begone, Satan!” The priest splashed Mami with water. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, begone!”
Mami began to murmur softly. Juanita’s singsong voice filtered up through the floor’s wood planks from beneath the house, where she liked to sit on the ground filling tin cans and glass jars with dirt as the chickens pecked at her feet. Outside the wood box of a house, the world lived on in the caw and trill of birds, the ceaseless hum and buzz of insects, the scampering of small critters, the breeze filtering through the trees. Inside the house, a group of people stood entranced by a little girl’s reedy voice, by candlelight, by the mysteries of God and Spirit.
“God is all-merciful,” the priest said.
Papi carried Mami to the bed and Leila tended to her. Felicidad carried the chair into the lean-to and scrubbed it with the hot ashes from el fogón.
Father Cortez was now able to pay closer attention to physical matters and he took note of the sackcloth curtain that hid the beds in the cramped room, the single chair, the sad children all impossibly thin. He was moved by pity as he often was with these campo people. He wrote monthly reports to his superiors in Spain, letters he did not mail because of the war, about the abject poverty, the urgent need for nourishment for the physical body in addition to that of the spiritual. The island poor were at the mercy of the German submarines patrolling the ocean and upon the charity of the American government and the island’s rich businessmen. He had seen members of this family before—certainly the older girl with the fanciful name, and he wondered what it was about her eyes that made him remember her. Some of the other children, too, had been to church, the blond girl and the twin boys. He remembered the twins because one had green eyes, the other brown, and both were missing their front teeth.
“You must be hungry,” Papi said.
Father Cortez was a man as well fed as one could be on a tropical island during wartime and he could not take food away from these children, for whom he feared it was their one and only meal this day.
Felicidad’s father insisted. “It would be an honor.”
Leila went to help Felicidad, who was peeling one of two large avocados by el fogón. She told Leila to place a piece of bacalao and yautía and malanga on each plate while she added slices of golden avocado.
“Do I give the knife and fork to Papi or the priest?” Leila held up the knife and fork.
The knife and fork were relics from Papi’s previous life; the rest of the set had been sold somewhere along the years of his marriage.
Felicidad considered the problem. Their father used the utensils every night, but the priest was a holy man and used to a proper table. Besides, how could one offer him a spoon that their father had carved from wood? It wasn’t as if he were a jíbaro.
“Give them to the priest,” she said.
When her father nodded, Felicidad knew she had chosen correctly.
Papi sent Vicente to lead the priest’s horse down the mountain. They agreed that the priest would send a car in two hours’ time. Father Cortez assured him that he would send a woman to accompany la señora. Felicidad heard: “… Not to worry… rest… the dedication of the good Sisters… one month, perhaps longer…”
She stood looking at her mother, who seemed to sleep without breathing: only the heat of her body reassured her that her mother was not dead. Felicidad lifted the skirt of Mami’s good dress and eased her into the panties with the modesty that her mother treasured.
Felicidad took her mother’s hairbrush and tied it up in the faded blue dress she used for a nightgown. She waved a mosquito away from her mother’s forehead then squatted down beside her. Felicidad recalled her mother’s tenderness, the way she put her husband and children first, how she never seemed to sleep, always working: caring for the children, grinding corn and oats and manioc into flour as the base for many of their meals, then cooking, serving, washing, ironing, mending, never quite finishing one chore before there were two or three or four others requiring her attention. One thing Felicidad was certain of was that as long as she lived, she would never utter a word of this day to a single human being.
She wondered how Mami got an evil spirit inside her. Felicidad knew that at night, when it was so dark that the mountains and the sky were one, the Spirits felt empowered to walk the countryside. They were all around them, her mother had said. They wandered through the dark night, searching for what would quiet their restlessness, an indiscernible something that would bring them peace. One had to take care not to tempt a Spirit, not to be doing what one shouldn’t be doing. Wanting something desperately was dangerous, her mother had warned her. It made one vulnerable to Spirits. Remember that, Felicidad.
I’ll remember, Felicidad had said.
Papi came in and stood over the bed, staring down at the ghost that was his woman. Her father’s face was dark with the shadow of a beard; her mother liked him clean-shaven. Some nights, before Isabel had gotten sick, Felicidad would glance up from embroidering roses and see her parents standing together in el batey. Papi would be doing some kind of odd job like repairing the chicken coop by moonlight and Mami would bring him his coffee. They would be talking, her mother laughing softly. Felicidad would wonder what her father had said to make her mother laugh in that peculiar way. If she asked her, Mami would smile and say, “One day you’ll have a husband and you’ll know.”
Felicidad watched Papi press his fingertips against his temples.
“Is Mami going to be all right?”
Her father looked away. “God willing. She just needs a rest. What with the baby that died… and then Isabel… It’s a hard life…”
They stood for a few minutes in silence, Papi lost in his thoughts and Felicidad engulfed in a sense of foreboding that, being so young, she did not recognize as such. She only knew that she wished her mother would wake and sit up in the bed and that all would be as it had been before—before the stillborn baby, before the death of Isabel, before her mother on the roof naked, before.
“We need to wrap her in something so that she won’t catch cold from the night air,” Papi said.
Felicidad considered the problem; her mother had so little. Then she thought of Mami’s silk mantilla woven into a flower garden and brought from Catalonia by a long-dead ancestor.
“Mami’s wedding mantilla,” Felicidad said.
“Get it,” her father said.
The mantilla gleamed white in her father’s brown farmer’s hands. He handled it gingerly, careful not to snag the silk.
“She was just eighteen when I married her. I knew her older sister, your tía Prudencia, and my parents told me that it was time I got myself a wife,” Papi said. “I was already twenty-five years old and they had heard… that’s not important. I went to see Prudencia and your mother opened the door. I knew that moment that she was the one for me.”
“Was Mami very pretty?” she dared to ask.
“She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen,” Papi said. “You favor her, Felicidad.”
Felicidad stared up at her father in wonder. He had never talked like this before.
Papi draped the web of flowers over his wife’s head and shoulders. It was so long that he was able to wrap it around her and bind her arms to her body. If she awoke before reaching town, she would cause little trouble.
He lifted his sleeping wife into his arms and buried his face in the lace.
“Rosario,” he said. “What will become of us?”
The children watched their father carry their mother into the night until they could no longer see the white speck that was their mother’s mantilla. Felicidad prayed that the Spirits that roamed the mountains would stay away from her parents and that Mami would return the same as before. She prayed, too, that their father would not abandon them as Pedro Maldonado had abandoned his wife and six children.
Felicidad woke before the sun unveiled its face. The room was hazy with shadows, and she wished that she didn’t have to leave the casoneta she shared with her siblings. Her parents’ bed was empty. Papi was already up and tending to one of the many farm chores. She went to el fogón and saw that there wasn’t enough kindling to start a fire. Why hadn’t she thought about this the night before? She had to start thinking more. Felicidad ran outside to hunt for twigs or scraps of wood. Her bare feet became cold and wet with the morning dew. She was glad there was beginning to be light enough for her to see because she was afraid of stepping on a spider or a slumbering snake. The rooster crowed. She climbed a little way up the hill, worrying that she was taking too long, that the coffee would not be ready for her father.
The family’s day started and ended with coffee; in fact, there were some nights when the children were already asleep and Mami would shake them awake to drink their café. A cup of coffee filled the belly and kept away the hunger. Except for Papi and the older boys who worked the land, there was no breakfast. Evenings, Mami roasted the coffee beans in a cast-iron pot on el fogón and ground them in the tree-trunk pilón. Now it was Felicidad who took the tin from the shelf and poured coffee beans into the pot. If only she had thought to roast them the night before.
She went to start a fire. The twigs were damp. Felicidad rubbed them dry on her skirt, then broke them into pieces. She prayed that they would catch fire on the first try, but when they did, she forgot to thank God. She hovered over el fogón taking care that the beans not burn. She set them to cool on a plate, then poured them into the coffee mortar.
Felicidad lifted her arms and crashed the maceta into the pilón again and again. Soon she began to tire and her shoulders to ache, yet she kept pounding the pestle into the huge mortar. Papi became angry when he found pieces of the beans in his coffee. This wouldn’t be the morning to annoy her father. While Papi woke her brothers, she heated water for coffee and porridge. She stirred ground up oats into the boiling water to make avena, then served her father and older brothers. Felicidad spooned ground coffee into the colador and draped it over the blue enamel coffeepot, then poured the water through it. The boys swallowed the coffee in quick gulps so as not to keep their father waiting.
The baby woke crying for his mother and Felicidad mixed powdered milk with warm water and poured it into an opaque bottle.
When Felicidad went to remove her father’s empty bowl, he looked up at her.
“Don’t forget the lunch,” he said.
Watery excrement leaked out of the baby’s bowels, and she held him over the escupidera. Then she gave him to Leila to wash while she carried the escupidera by the handle and emptied it away from the house. It was heavy and awkward and she needed two hands to carry it. When she came back, Leila was using a leaf to clean Raffy. Felicidad rinsed out the escupidera with the dirty bathwater.
She had forgotten to send Ruben for water so she told Leila to find some kindling. Felicidad carried the empty lard can under her arm, stopping by the quenepa tree. Birds picked the green limes off the tree, where they grew in grape-like clusters, then dropped the fruit on the ground after only a bite. She picked a half-eaten quenepa off the grass, tore out the bitten part, and peeled the thin, tight skin with her fingernails. Then she ate it, making a face at the tart melon-like pulp.
Felicidad walked on. The forested countryside did little to lighten her spirits. She could think only that her mother was gone.
She took refuge from a light shower under a coconut palm. The old Felicidad would have brooded over her only dress getting wet, but the new Felicidad worried whether Leila had gathered twigs before the rain. She wouldn’t be able to cook lunch if the kindling wasn’t dry.
Felicidad thought that if she and Leila tried very hard, they might be able to do Mami’s work while she was away. Perhaps their mother just needed to rest and eat lots of good food and drink plenty of milk. She couldn’t remember the last time she and her siblings had drunk real milk. Not since Papi had to sell their cow.
The rain stopped and she continued on to the well her father had built onto a rocky shelf of the mountain. He had laid a small tank of cement to catch rainwater that coursed between the rocks flowing in and through a six-foot pipe that Papi had rigged with a valve to open and close. It was a lot better than going to the river. Once the five-gallon can was full, she lifted it onto her hip and hurried up the dirt road, her bare feet splashing in the puddles.
Leila was feeding Raffy sugared water. She was undersize for her age, but with the same capacity for mothering as their mother.
“Tell me that you found kindling before it rained,” Felicidad said.
“It’s by the fogón,” Leila said.
Felicidad went inside and set the can of water on the table. She broke some twigs and went about lighting el fogón. It took numerous tries, even with praying, to get the fire started. She set water to boil before peeling the yautía and ñame. Leila put the baby down and Felicidad tied one end of a rope to the coy and the other to her ankle, so she could rock it while she went about her chores.
When the twins came for the fiambreras, enamel pots with lids nestled on wire hangers, Felicidad measured out portions of bacalao and vianda into the individual containers.
“Did Papi say anything about Mami?” Felicidad asked.
Julio pointed to his red ear. “This is what I got when I asked him about her. Maybe we should share it,” he said.
“No thanks,” she told him.
Felicidad’s arms and shoulders strained to lift the can of water to fill the palangana. She looked out the ledge for a leaf with spiky edges. She called out to her sister, who sat on the ground staring out into space.
“Juanita, pick me an hoja de fregar,” she said.
Felicidad scrubbed the pots and dishes with the spiky leaf and set them on the ledge to dry. Then she poured the dirty dishwater out the window into the yard. Leila came in with the naked baby, who was squirming in her arms, his arms and legs red with prickly heat.
“Maybe he’s just hot,” Felicidad said. “Let’s wash him.”
Felicidad poured clean water into la palangana and wiped his face with a clean leaf, murmuring indistinctly as her mother had always done when one of them was sick. The words had never been important, only their mother’s soft voice and gentle touch, cool and calming.
“Mami puts aloe vera on rashes,” Leila said.
“Go pick a leaf while I dry him,” Felicidad said.
They cut open the aloe vera and scooped out the gel, which they smoothed over the baby’s skin with their palms. Leila put Raffy down for a nap and covered him head-to-toe with an old sheet to protect him from the mosquitoes while he slept. Some families had mosquito netting to drape over the beds and coy, but they didn’t have that luxury. A black spider the size of her palm crawled up one wall and Felicidad knocked it down with the broom and swept it out the door. On the shelf where Mami set sacks of beans and vianda and what food they had, she found a nest of cockroaches, and she set to boiling water. Then she did what her mother always did—poured the water over the cockroaches and killed them.
While the baby slept, she sent her two younger sisters to gather more kindling. Felicidad rinsed her hands with water and used a spiky leaf to scrub them well as her mother had taught her. In Mami’s chest she found the package containing the pieces of a blouse: front, back, collar, sleeves. Each piece was precut and marked where one piece was to be hand-sewn to the other. Mami usually worked on the blouses—which required more skill—while Felicidad embroidered the handkerchiefs, but she had begun to teach Felicidad how to embroider the large hibiscus on cascading vines or the blossoms of the flamboyant tree. Both were very popular in American stores. Even Doña Claudia, the woman in town who represented the American store, had marveled at Mami’s flights of fancy, at the gardens come alive in embroidery silk.
That evening Felicidad saw that her mother had started to embroider red hibiscus on the sleeve of the blouse and had sketched the size of the flower on estraza paper. She set the piecework on the table along with her mother’s sewing scissors and embroidery thread, which she kept in the large tin that had once held perfumed soaps from Spain.
Sometimes she had gone with her mother to deliver the finished pieces to Doña Claudia, who would pay Mami a dollar or two and give her more work. How her mother would stretch those few dollars! They would stop at la panadería and admire all the pretty pastries on the shelves as some women admire diamonds and rubies in a jewelry store. Mami would tell of her brother who had married a woman whose family had negocios. They had a good business with their panadería because even in these hard times, everybody had to have bread.
“Too bad this isn’t the uncle’s panadería,” Felicidad said. “We could eat bread and not have to pay.”
“Oh, we would have to pay,” Mami said.
Bent over in her father’s chair, Felicidad could have been any girl or any woman doing piecework with strands of embroidery silk draped over her shoulder. Her mother put her to embroidering when she was five. She had been so happy to see her daughter’s talent with a needle, telling her that she was following in a long Spanish tradition. Often when they sat together on the bench, Mami would correct Felicidad’s posture. Hadn’t she noticed that most of the seamstresses they knew, young and old alike, were slump-shouldered? She must think of her spine as the trunk of a tree. Wouldn’t she rather grow up straight enough to reach the sky than drooping over on the ground like a vine? Having a straight back was just as important for a seamstress as for a dancer, her mother said. When she had been about Felicidad’s age, a traveling troupe of flamenco dancers from Spain had visited and she had gone to see them perform. It would be hard for Felicidad to believe, but there had been a time when she hadn’t been quite as poor as she was now. ¡Ay, Felicidad! The dancers! The women so beautiful. The men so handsome. All the flounces on the dresses. She and her sisters had counted seven on one dress alone. She dreamed that one day she, too, would become a flamenco dancer.
Felicidad had looked up at the wistfulness in her mother’s voice, at her face with its hollow cheeks, the pinched mouth with its missing teeth, and the sadness that never seemed to leave her dark eyes, and she wondered how it could be possible that she had once dreamed of flounces and music and handsome men sweeping her off her feet.
Once or twice as the weeks passed, while Felicidad was embroidering in the evenings, she felt her father’s gaze. She expected him to say something, to comment in some way on one of her chores or ask her to get him something, a tin of water perhaps, but he would only nod and go back to sharpening his machete or repairing a tool. Some evenings he would call for Leila to bring him Raffy and he would bounce the baby on his knee to all his children’s delight. On these occasions Felicidad remembered the happy days when Mami was home and Isabel was alive. She laughed along with the others, hoping that her laughter would ease the loss of her dead sister and her absent mother.
Felicidad’s father shared the land with his brothers and, on his portion, he planted root vegetables like yuca, malanga, batata, ñame, apio, and yautía. Corn. Equally important were the beans, rosadas and blancas, rojas, pintos, and also garbanzos and gandules. Felicidad and Leila often helped Mami crack open the slender pods, their mother keeping a watchful eye on their work so as not to waste a bean. The family relied on the fruit from the trees he had planted: the coconut palms, mamey, mango, quenepa, quama, lemon, lime, guanábana—from which Mami would make a favorite drink if the children didn’t eat all the ripe fruit—panapén, sweet orange, and sour orange trees. Also different varieties of banana trees like plantains and the sweet, tiny-fingered niños or the mansano, its fat-fingered cousin. He even grew a delicious banana with a black skin. He planted papaya, chayote, aguacate. He grew pepinos because Mami had a particular liking for them. He planted oregano and cilantrillo bushes. Recao grew wild. And then there were the tomatoes and peppers and garlic and onions and corazones. Papi grew tobacco for his own use and coffee for his family’s consumption and to sell, along with legumes, to neighbors or in town. He planted everything and anything; any seed or root he could find, he planted. He liked to tell Mami that he was a man with many mouths to feed and he couldn’t afford to be choosy.
Mami had been gone a month and try as she might, Felicidad didn’t know all the things necessary to feed and care for the household of a large family—her father and eight children including herself. Daily she foraged for leña for el fogón and root vegetables and ripe fruit, but somehow there were never enough dried pieces of wood or fruit and vegetables. She didn’t quite know how to measure and mete out the beans and dried codfish from their meager stores. Sometimes there was enough for their meal; other times, not. One day, after she portioned out the lunch for her father and brothers, there wasn’t any food for her and her sisters. She was so hungry that she made casabe although she never liked the flat, dry cakes made from grating the roots of the yuca plant and adding water to make dough. Her sisters waited eagerly while she roasted the cracker-like cakes in a pan. She yearned for her mother’s guidance, for her patience in teaching her all that a young girl should know.
Felicidad could cook beans and boil green bananas, ñame, malanga, batatas, any root vegetables. Cooking harina de maiz was easy—you boiled it in water, stirring constantly—but grinding the corn was man’s work. From this corn flour, Mami’s magic fingers would shape surullos, delicious sticks of cornmeal, which she wrapped in banana leaves and roasted directly on top of hot charcoal. Mami wasn’t afraid of the fire. Her fingers danced around the flames, flipping the surullos until the bananas leaves were brown. Nothing tasted better with a cup of café con leche than freshly made surullos.
One evening there wasn’t any bacalao or rice for dinner. Felicidad had cooked a pot of beans. Papi came home from the fields and said, “Felicidad, come, we are going to make surullos.”
The twins went to the barraca to get a sack of corn and another of charcoal bricks that Papi made from burning green wood. Felicidad used the big knife to slice the kernels off the cob. One of the twins poured the kernels into a small opening in the molino while the other turned a pole like a crank. The top stone of the molino rotated on an axis anchored on a metal rod and ground the corn into a fine powder.
“You see how red the charcoal bricks are?” Papi’s fingers seemed to touch the fire and dart between the flames. “Where are the banana leaves?”
Felicidad hurried to the shelf to get the stack of green leaves.
Papi placed the leaves on top of the coals to soften before picking them out and laying them on a plate to cool. He showed Felicidad how to add water to the cornmeal flour and shape the dough into rectangles.
“Now you wrap the leaf around the surullo so it won’t crumble in the fire,” he said, before placing one on top of the charcoal. “You try.”
“Papi, I can’t,” Felicidad said.
“This is woman’s work,” he said. “Do it.”
Her fingers trembled over the flames. The heat warmed her fingertips.
“Don’t drop it,” he said. “Place it on the brick.”
The slippery banana leaf dropped from her fingers into the fire.
Papi shook his head. “Well, at least the fire was fed.”
“I’m afraid,” Felicidad said.
“Try again,” Papi said.
Her father was getting irritated; he was tired and hungry. She wished Mami were here making surullos and not she. Felicidad placed another on top of the charcoal and when her father directed, she reached in to flip it over. Later that night it hurt to hold the embroidery needle between her fingertips.
Felicidad brewed the evening coffee and took a cup out to Papi, who was under a mango tree weaving banana leaves into an aparejo, a plaited pack saddle for horses or burros. Known for the intricate tapestry of his aparejos, Papi would weave one for a horse that would span six feet over the animal’s back and three feet on either side. He wove the quilt into a three-inch-thick layer, tying the leaves in place every six inches with rope that he made from emajagua rushes. Felicidad waited by the wood-frame loom staked into the ground while her father drank his coffee.
They watched the sunset wash over the mountain and listened to the evening breeze rustling the leaves of the trees. They heard the drone of the night insects and the lullaby of the coquís. She imagined that this was how it would be for her one day, how she would make the evening coffee for her own husband. Felicidad recalled her mother’s soft laughter when she brought Papi his coffee. She wondered if Papi was thinking of Mami now, if he missed her as much as she did. She thought the answer was yes and it made her heart ache in a way that she didn’t quite understand.
As if from far off, she heard her siblings in the house where she had left them drinking their coffee. She felt removed from them by more than just mere distance, but by the responsibilities she had inherited because of her mother’s absence. The girl who had dawdled on her way home from school, who thought of her mother saving her a spoonful of beans, was no more and she didn’t have time to think about that girl or mourn her. That girl had been but a child.
Felicidad was still afraid of the Spirits that roamed the mountains at night, but her father’s presence gave her courage. She knew without thinking that her father would protect her and, with the passing of eàch day, she grew more confident that her father was not like Pablo Maldonado up the mountain who had abandoned his family. Papi expected complete obedience from his children and he liked things done in a particular way, yet Felicidad and her siblings would say he was fair. Her father was a proud man and not one for railing against fate or lamenting misfortunes. He had a reputation as a hard worker equally dedicated to the land and to his family. Everyone said that he was like his grandfather, who, in the late 1850s, had arrived from Spain as a young man determined to make Puerto Rico his home. Grandfather and grandson were known for having carácters—a fierce temperament, a strength of character, a single-minded determination—attributed to the Spanish blood. They were men respected and even a little feared by family and neighbors alike; they were men one thought twice about offending.
She turned to watch him drink his coffee, which she had served in a porcelain cup. The family had two, which were reserved for the parents and guests. Mami would drink from a tin cup as the children did, but she always served Papi’s evening coffee in one of the porcelain cups. Felicidad had often pondered the history of the cups, thinking of the great care Mami must have taken for them to survive. The children knew not to touch them. Mami, herself, had always washed the cups, and now Felicidad had taken on that duty too.
Felicidad plucked a dama de noche flower, breathing in the heavy scent of the pretty white blossom named the lady of the evening because it showed its face only at night.
Her father handed her the empty cup.
“Sunday, I will go see the priest. I’ll need my good shirt,” Papi said.
“You’ll go to Mass, Papi?” Felicidad looked down at the piles of shiny brown leaves at her feet, thinking that would make their mother so happy.
Papi’s laughter reminded her of that fateful day. She shivered in the dusk.
Felicidad left the baby with Ruben while she and her sisters went down to the river. Monday or Tuesday was the usual wash day for the women of the campo, but Felicidad found it impossible to keep up with her mother’s schedule. Felicidad had liked helping her mother with the laundry because after they had scrubbed the dirty clothes clean and stretched them out to dry on bushes or rocks, she played in the river with the other children. She glanced up at the huge breadfruit tree by the river bank, recalling how she and her sisters had had so much fun running around picking up all the ripe fruit they could find. Back at home Mami would boil the breadfruit and the seeds, which resembled chestnuts. They could barely wait for the seeds to cool to eat them.
Today they were the only ones at the riverbank. She and Leila carried the burlap sacks of clothes and Juanita carried the precious blue soap that they bought by weight at the rural store. The girls scrubbed the clothes with large stones. The scabbing blisters on Felicidad’s fingertips tore as she scrubbed. It seemed to her that her body always ached, that she was always tired. Was this what Mami had felt?
Papi looked like a young man in his well-starched clothes. His eyes were a startling blue in a face tanned as brown as the coconut shells from which the family drank. His hands were brown, too, up to the wrists, and then they were the color of coconut milk. When Papi laughed, one noticed his missing teeth.
Felicidad was to come with him that Sunday morning to attend to her mother. Ruben would help guide the neighbor’s burro, which was laden with sacks of charcoal and corn to sell in town. Mami would ride the burro on the way back.
Papi tied the laces of his shoes in a knot and swung them over his shoulder. Felicidad and Ruben followed their father down the mountain. Tiny rocks and pebbles dug into the soles of her feet.
Felicidad examined the burns on her wrist from ironing. Her father liked the cuffs of his shirtsleeves doubled over, and she had struggled to get them just so. There were many things that she didn’t know how to do, things that Mami would know.
Last night Felicidad woke to find Leila leaning over her.
“Felicidad,” she’d whispered, “what if Mami never comes back?”
“She’ll come back.” Felicidad tried to sound as certain as a whisper allowed.
“I hope she comes back. I’m tired of doing all the work,” Leila said.
Papi squatted on the side of the road while he put on his shoes. They weren’t work boots or fancy shoes for show, just an ordinary pair of shoes that he saved for town or to talk business. He had once told Mami that a man was at a disadvantage while barefoot because he could never be anything other than a peón. Poor man, rich man, a man had to have shoes.
The sun beat down on them. It was warmer than on the mountain, and the pavement was hot under the children’s bare feet. Small frame houses with balcóns lined either side of the main street. Most had small yards; some people kept chicken coops under their houses to supply their families with eggs and poultry.
Papi sent the children off to the church, where he would meet them after he sold the charcoal and corn at the general store. Felicidad and Ruben hurried past a cafetín that sold bebidas—coffee, tea, fruit drinks—and paused in front of the window of la dulcería, staring openmouthed at the sweets, the trays of dulce de coco, guava squares, lechosa, and pudín. They remembered the time Mami had made the delicious bread pudding studded with raisins: it was a year ago, perhaps, before their sister Isabel had died. Then again, maybe they had dreamed it.
They passed other negocios. A fonda with half a dozen tables had a sign that read WE SERVE RICE AND BEANS, MEAT. Someone had crossed out RICE. They saw one or two clothing stores with fairy-like dresses in the windows, and a hardware store with machetes stacked next to metal basins. There was the alcaldía where Felicidad told her brother the mayor lived and the church across from la plaza. Built in the Spanish style, the windows of the white building were shuttered against the sun and heat.
Felicidad liked attending Mass because she could rest. She pinned a piece of white lace that she took out of her pocket to her hair and slid into the back pew that their mother favored because Mami was ashamed of their bare feet and threadbare clothing. There were other families as poor as they and others worse off, yet there were also people in well-fitting clothes and new shoes. How Felicidad envied them! When Felicidad had asked her mother for a pair of shoes, red shoes would be nice, Mami said that someday she might have a pair of red shoes, but she would have to pray hard for them. After months of praying and no shoes, red or otherwise, Felicidad gave up.
While Father Cortez said Mass, elderly ladies in black with their hair covered with Spanish mantillas prayed the rosary. The murmured Our Fathers and Hail Marys and the clacking of the rosary beads reminded Felicidad of her mother. A bird flew in through the open window and she watched it fly across the altar. She wished on it that her mother would be the Mami before her sister Isabel’s illness, before the troubles. Then she could go back to being the old Felicidad.
They went outside after Mass to wait for their father. The priest passed them still dressed in his holy vestments, cocking his head to hear what one very short lady had to say. Felicidad, at nine, was taller.
“Doesn’t he know us?” Ruben asked.
“He must have many parishioners.” Felicidad knew it was something that Mami would say. She decided to speak to the priest. Papi might be upset with her, but she had heard the priest accept an invitation. What about her mother?
“Pardon me, Father Cortez, I hesitate to trouble you,” Felicidad said.
The priest looked down at the girl. What clear enunciation. True, not Castilian Spanish, but a nice pacing to her words spoken in a charming little-girl voice. Not what he had expected in ragamuffins.
“We would be in your debt, if you could tell us where our mother is,” the girl said.
“I know you?” He took a good look at the girl and her brother. She was a pretty thing with delicate features and dark hair that looked as if someone had set a pot on her head and trimmed the hair beneath it. Her brother had gone to the same barber. The townspeople laughed at the jíbaros for things such as these.
“You came to help our mother.” The girl pointed up in the direction of the mountain.
He looked into her dark eyes and remembered.
So these were the children of that poor, unfortunate woman. At first he had been too preoccupied to notice the children who came out of the shadows. He recalled how he had taken deep breaths on the ride home, uncaring of the islanders’ warning about the dangers of the night air. When he had arrived at the rectory, he had ordered his servant to fry him some eggs and he had eaten three with four pieces of toast slathered with papaya preserves.
“Where is your father?” Some things were better for a father to relay.
“He had to run an errand, but he’ll be back soon,” the girl said.
Father Cortez thought of the lunch that awaited him at Doña Flores’s table, such delicious arroz con pollo with peas and carrots even that it reminded him of his mother’s paella. Still, the work of God must come first. The good woman would be sure to hold lunch for him, and he could thank her with a story of children searching for their mother.
“Wait here,” he said.
The priest entered the church and was swallowed up by the dark coolness of the vestibule. Felicidad looked down at their feet and wished they weren’t so dusty. Father Cortez had worn shiny, black shoes without a smudge. Where was Papi? Surely, he knew when Mass ended. If he didn’t hurry, he might miss the priest and then when would they get Mami back?
Father Cortez came out dressed in his black cassock with his hat set on his head at a jaunty angle.
They followed the priest down the cobbled walkway behind the church, past lush flowering bushes heavy with perfume. He led them up the steps to a wood-frame house with a small porch.
A dark-skinned elderly man hurried down the hall.
“There must be a cracker somewhere or other you can feed these children,” he said. “I will be in my study.”
Ignácio instructed them to wipe their feet on the bamboo mat outside the door. They entered the rectory with bowed heads. Cool ceramic tiles soothed their sore feet. They had never seen anything so grand, and Felicidad wished that she had checked Ruben’s feet to be sure they didn’t shame their parents by leaving footprints in their wake.
They followed Ignácio into a kitchen gleaming with a large white cabinet. They stared openmouthed when he opened it and took out a glass pitcher of milk.
“Sit down.” Ignácio pointed to the table and chairs.
Surely, he didn’t mean for them to sit down at the table? Ignácio pushed Ruben toward a chair.
“Sit, sit. Are you children dumb? Can you not hear?”
They sat, afraid to risk the treat of a cracker. Ignácio busied himself in the pantry. The children would have been stunned to learn that not only did some people stockpile sacks of rice and beans and cans of peaches and tins of chocolate even during the war, but that these stores had their own special room. They waited silently, Felicidad hiding her feet under the table and gesturing to Ruben to do the same.
Ignácio gave them each a chunk of cheese and some crackers, but not the Marías from Spain, as those were only for the priest except for the one or two he himself could sneak. He went back to the pantry for a block of guava paste and cut a few pieces.
“Eat,” he told them. “I don’t have all day.”
While her brother washed the pasta de guayaba down with his glass of milk, Felicidad lingered over the sticky square and admired its redness, surely the color of hibiscus.
They heard the servant’s returning footsteps and Felicidad plopped the square into her mouth, afraid that Ignácio would yell or that he would take away her plate before she was finished.
Ignácio surveyed the children at the table, milk drunk, food eaten, no talking.
“Uh-huh, that’s the way I like it.” He waved them up from the chairs. “Your father is with the priest.”
Felicidad and Ruben followed him down the hall again, wiping their sticky lips with the backs of their hands.
The white floor tiles continued into a sparsely furnished room with a huge wood crucifix on one wall. Their father sat on a wooden bench, holding his hat between his legs. The priest wrote at a desk in front of a bookcase filled with leather-bound books. A small burlap sack like the kind their father filled with coffee beans sat among framed pictures of a blond Jesus Christ, one of the Holy Father, and another of a woman whom Felicidad did not think was the Virgin Mary.
Ignácio closed the door behind them. They stood awaiting instructions from either their father or the priest, but none came.
Padre Cortez addressed their father. “And that matter that we discussed… you agree that it is for the best?”
“The best.” Their father inspected the brim of his hat.
“The most important thing is that the evil spirit is out of her,” Father Cortez said. “Sometimes we have to make difficult decisions for the right reasons. God likes to test us.”
At this, Papi looked up at the priest. Felicidad had never seen such an expression of despair on her father’s face before and she was afraid.
“Don’t worry, señor, those doctors up in San Juan have seen cases like this before. All she needs is a little rest, a little food, some sleep,” the priest said.
“A little food, some sleep,” repeated their father.
Father Cortez got up from his chair. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with a certain arroz con pollo.”
Felicidad thought of her mother’s arroz con pollo, how she chopped the chicken so that everyone got a piece of meat, dicing fresh herbs and steeping annatto seeds in oil for the rich orange-red color. For these occasions, Papi or Vicente killed one of their chickens. Or her mother would wring its neck right there at el fogón. Mami told Felicidad that a woman must be prepared to do anything.
Leading the burro, the children hurried down the road after their father. His shoes were slung over one unyielding shoulder. They stared without speaking at the back of Papi’s white shirt, now dabbled with sweat.
Felicidad wished she dared to ask her father what the priest had said about their mother, but she was afraid of what he might tell her.
In time they would learn Mami’s fate. That was the nature of secrets in the mountains. The heat of the day kept them suppressed inside the wood and zinc houses, but the night air released the secrets into the countryside, blowing them in gentle breezes and sifting them through the leaves rustled by the Spirits wandering restlessly through the mountain nights.
That evening, Papi sat in his chair rolling tobacco into a scrap of paper. He cut the cigarette into three pieces and tucked two into his shirt pocket. He smoked the third piece in deep contemplation. Now and again he looked up at Leila, who was tending to the baby, and at Felicidad, who was embroidering. When he spoke, the children were quiet; even the baby stopped making gurgling noises. He told Felicidad that she would have to go to the medical center to get some milk for Raffy. Even Juanita understood that Mami wasn’t coming back home anytime soon.
When Felicidad went to bed, she thought of her mother somewhere out there listening to the coquís. She felt a rush of air. Spirits? We are all Spirits, her mother had once told her. Felicidad dreamed of Mami floating over the mountain and knew that her mother protected her.
The days awaiting news of her mother passed slowly for Felicidad. Sometimes she dreamed of that terrible day. Felicidad would be standing alone in el batey, holding the wedding mantilla like a tarp, calling out “I’ll catch you, I’ll catch you,” as Mami perched on the edge of the roof, arms outstretched. Felicidad always woke up trembling at the image of her mother suspended in midair.
Whenever she could, Felicidad embroidered, her fingers cramping as she strove to copy Mami’s minute stitches, hoping that the day would come when her mother would hold up a blouse and say to her, Felicidad, I am proud of you. It looks like mine!
One day Ruben brought home two letters for their father. One was a business-like envelope, return address San Juan; the other was written in a firm, unadorned hand.
“I think that one must be from Mami’s relative. The one who owns la panadería,” Felicidad said, proud to know more than her siblings.
They stared at the envelopes as if they would be able to divine their contents. That night Papi read the letters to himself then tucked the envelopes in his shirt pocket, the two pieces of cigarettes a bump against the fabric.
The day came when Papi told Felicidad to prepare his good shirt and pants. He would need to leave before sunrise and wouldn’t return until night. Felicidad should save him his dinner.
That next morning he stood by the open door, a tall man dressed in his good white shirt and pants with his Panama hat in one hand, dangling his shoes by the laces in the other.
“I am going to get your mother,” Papi said.
They asked him questions all at once. Could they go, too? Was she well? Would she be the same mother as before, before la tristeza? He held out his hand for silence.
“We have to be very careful not to say or do anything that could upset or agitate her in any way,” he said.
“Will she have to sleep all the time?” Felicidad asked.
Papi looked at her. “I hope not,” he said.
One afternoon after her mother came home, Felicidad sat at the table granando gandules, cracking open the black-eyed pea pods with her fingernails and dropping the empty pods into the lap of her dress, while Mami told her stories about Spirits. Felicidad’s great-uncle had encountered a Spirit while walking his cow down the mountain. He had run away in terror and broken his leg. Felicidad’s grandfather, her own father, may he rest in peace, was tormented by the family of cats he said lived under his bed. At night, while everyone slept, the cats called out to him, shrieking his name. Pobre hombre, it got so that he would get up in the middle of the night and bang his head against the wall to make them stop.
“My father wasn’t quite right in the head during that time,” Mami said.
“Were there really cats living under his bed?” Felicidad glanced across the room at her parents’ bed, imagining the family of cats.
“No cats. Mamá sent for the curandero who prayed over him and rubbed him with special herbs for two days,” Mami said. “I was afraid of Spirits then.”
“I’m afraid of them, too,” Felicidad said.
Felicidad’s mother stared out through the open door. “When your sister Isabel died, my heart hurt so bad, but I felt her spirit,” Mami said. “I would stare out at the mountains and think my little girl was still with me.”
Felicidad tried not to think of her older sister, of the terrible itching inflaming her vagina, causing her to cry with shame and desperation, or of the day when she had been taken away to the hospital and returned home in her coffin, which had been set down for the velorio on the very same table at which they now sat shelling beans.
“We are all flesh and blood, but Spirits, too. It is difficult for you, a child, to understand. I, too, am sometimes confused. My family believed in Spirits and we would often pray to them and call on them to help us. Yet the Church tells us that except for the Holy Spirit there is only what you can see. The sun, the trees, this table, you, these beans,” Mami said.
“We must follow the teachings of the Church.” Her voice quavered. “Yet I know what I know. Spirits are everywhere, even in this room. At night, I hear their whispers.”
“Mami?” Felicidad wished her mother would stop talking about Spirits. She was afraid to look around the house, afraid she would see a Spirit.
Her mother stared into the bowl of gandules as if she hadn’t seen it before.
“We are only human,” Mami said.
Felicidad stared at her shadow of a mother, so thin that her bones poked out beneath the collar of her dress, and she believed.
The aunt came for her on her tenth birthday. It was a season of much rain so that the aunt’s shoes sank in the mud and her stick legs with them, sloshing in and out, in and out of the mud. Mami gave her a parcel with two pairs of panties she had sewn and closed Felicidad’s hand over two caramelos, telling her not to forget to pray. Felicidad followed the aunt on the long walk down the mountain where a público stopped for passengers. She clutched the package to her chest and felt the coolness of the mud squishing between her toes, splashing on her ankles. The mountain was alive with the caw of the birds and the rustle of its fauna, but Felicidad was deaf to her childhood home. Felicidad stopped to look for her father among the rows of bean plants. She fell behind and the aunt chided her to keep up—she didn’t have all day.
Felicidad imagined Papi striding through the fields, sweeping her up onto his shoulders and carrying her down the mountain as he had when she was a small child. He had pretended to be a paso fino horse, she, a Spanish conquistador.
Her father had told her that morning of her birthday. Felicidad was grinding the coffee beans in el pilón, using two hands to lift the huge maceta.
Papi said, “Felicidad, your attention.”
He never asked so formally. He spoke to them and they knew enough to listen. She trembled to think what she had done wrong.
“How would you like to live with your uncle? Mami’s brother. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in town?”
“A visit?” Was this a birthday surprise? A reward for how she had taken over her mother’s work? The things she would have to tell the others when she returned!
Papi took up la maceta and began to pulverize the coffee beans. Felicidad was so surprised that she didn’t realize for a moment that he hadn’t answered her question.
He looked at her then. “You will live with them, Felicidad.”
She stared into his blue eyes that were so startling in his brown face and thought it must be some kind of joke.
“But Mami can’t do everything,” Felicidad said, smiling a little.
“One of your aunts, my own sister, Imelda la jamona, is coming today,” Papi said.
Felicidad looked at Mami to tell Papi that it wasn’t nice to tease her on her birthday, but she was still lying in bed and her father wasn’t smiling.
The thump, thump, thump of the maceta echoed the thump, thump, thump she began to feel in her head.
Perhaps there was something that she could do better, maybe if she worked harder. Just yesterday she had run after butterflies with Leila and Juanita, time better spent embroidering. She had felt guilty even as she chased them, knowing that people said that seeing mariposas meant someone would soon die.
“Have I done something wrong?”
Papi looked at her with those light eyes of his and she wondered, Why do some people look like they want to cry yet not a tear would dare to leak out?
“No, niña. You’ve been a good little mother, but you’re still a child,” he said. “Soon it will be time to cut the cane, and when I go to la safra, we must have another woman in the house.”
She would stop asking to attend school. She would grind the coffee beans finer, she would cook surullos and not complain about burning her fingers.
“I can do better, Papi. I promise I can do better,” she said.
Papi gave her back la maceta, a glossy mound of fine brown powder at the base of the pilón.
“You will live a good life and have everything your mother and I wish for all of you,” Papi said.
She didn’t want all that. She wanted only to stay with her family.
“I don’t want to go,” Felicidad dared to say.
“You must. Vicente will work for my uncle Praxtor and Ruben will stay home from school to bring the lunches and help in the fields.”
“But, Papi…” Felicidad made to go to Papi.
Her father turned away. “El café, Felicidad.”
The aunt had sat by the window instructing Felicidad to keep her hands on her lap and an eye on the man next to her. She was to let her know if there was any falta de respeto. Not that she expected any—after all, it was broad daylight and in full view of others—but you never knew with men. Felicidad was embarrassed; the aunt spoke loud enough for everyone to hear.
The caramelos melted into a glob that made a squishing sound when she opened her palm so she held it closed, afraid that the aunt would make her throw the candy out the window. Once the aunt turned her back, Felicidad planned on eating it and licking her palm clean. Caramelos were only for birthdays. She wasn’t going to waste them.
El público, by nature of its business, made what seemed to be random stops on the single-lane road to pick up or drop off passengers. Going around the mountain, they fell behind a team of oxen. The man next to Felicidad asked the driver to stop just for a moment so that he could buy one of those coco fríos from that stand up the road because, ay bendito, it was as hot as Ponce in the car.
“That’s the problem with these públicos. It takes all day to get you where you want to go,” the aunt said. “One day I’ll have my own car and I won’t have to put up with this tontería of stopping for coco fríos in the middle of the day when I have things to do.”
Felicidad was thinking that she would like a coco frío, too. She had never had one and she had already eaten the caramelos.
She said to the aunt, “Today is my birthday.”
“Humph.” The aunt turned away.
The driver and the thirsty passenger went out to the stand, an aluminum tub on top of a rickety card table. The vendor dug into the tub for a large green shell, slicing off the top with his machete.
Felicidad looked down at her hands and tried to think of other things, of how her fingernails really were very dirty, as the aunt had pointed out, and not what her mother was doing or her brothers and sisters or if Tía Imelda la jamona had already arrived and taken her place and she, forgotten. Especially, she tried not to think of her father’s eyes.
The driver came back and so did the passenger, carrying two coconuts.
“Niña, a coco frío for you on your birthday,” he said. “Con su permiso, señora.”
Felicidad waited for the aunt’s permission.
The aunt nodded at his good manners. “Thank el señor,” she said.
Coconut water eased down Felicidad’s throat and helped soothe the ache that had settled there ever since Papi told her that she was to live with her uncle. She wondered if her parents had ever drunk cold coconut water. She wished she could say to the aunt, Tía, have you ever had coco frío because, if not, then why don’t you try it, and, if so, why aren’t you drinking it? For Felicidad, the car was no longer hot and musty with the odor of passengers past and present, or with the lady-like perspiration of the aunt seeping through layers of perfumed powder. She didn’t feel the hot stickiness of the seat beneath her thighs or smell the stink of cigarettes. Everything was wonderful, everything was coco frío.
The aunt glared at the driver when he stopped for a passenger. Felicidad wondered why she couldn’t trade places with the aunt. She would have liked to sit by the window. She wanted to stare at the people chatting in the dusty town plazas, she wanted to look out at the land, at the wood houses perched precariously on hillsides, to wave to the people they passed, often obreos working the land or skinny, barefoot children, to memorize their faces and everything she saw, so that she could describe it to her brothers and sisters upon her return.
When finally they reached the aunt’s town, she indicated to Felicidad to follow her. They hurried past pastel houses with wrought-iron gates, curtains fluttering in the open windows. From a street cart, a man sold linbergs—flavored ices of coconut or tamarind or pineapple. Another sold fried yuca fritters called alcapurrías. Laundry women balanced baskets of clothes on their heads. Two well-dressed men rode horses, one of which defecated on the street as it passed. The aunt said to no one in particular that they should ride their horses en el campo and let the animals take care of their business out in the countryside where they belonged.
Felicidad clutched her mother’s package to her chest, thinking she didn’t know there were so many cars in the world. They reached the plaza where merchants had set up sheds. Ceramic basins, large and small, pots and pans and fiambreras hung on hooks or were stacked on shelves or on the ground. Handkerchiefs and ladies’ slippers dangled on nails. She wanted to stop and look over the items for sale, preferably with a tamarind ice in one hand and an alcapurría in the other. The aunt chided Felicidad to walk faster, it wasn’t her business to be looking around and what did she have to look at, she was the one who would be looked at with her rags and dirty bare feet, like any peasant from the mountain.
The aunt’s home was a neat frame house with a porch. The aunt pointed to the burlap sack used for a doormat, a sack that had once held rice, and Felicidad wiped her feet before following her inside.
“Wait here,” the aunt said. “I’ll go get your uncle from la panadería.”
She stood; she had been taught to wait until invited to sit. When her tío Pablo came, he saw a skinny little girl with a haircut like his own father had given him and eyes dark and shiny as coffee beans. Her trembling hands clutched a parcel wrapped in the estraza paper he used en la panadería.
“Ay bendito, you look like Rosario.” He was overcome with love for his sister and pity for her child.
“Bendición, Tío,” Felicidad said, asking for his blessing.
“God bless you.” Tío Pablo kissed her cheek.
“Well, it seems she has some manners,” the aunt said, grateful for that, at least.
There were three bedrooms, each smaller than the other, each filled with more furniture than the other, but to Felicidad it was one of those haciendas that her mother had told tales about, that their Spanish ancestors had owned before the Americans came, before sugarcane plantations, before the great hurricanes of 1899 and 1928, before so many children, before Felicidad.
She would share the smallest bedroom with seven-year-old Adela and have mosquito netting and the privacy that was impossible in her one-room house, which not even her parents enjoyed. She thought of her tía Imelda la jamona having to share a bed with children, caring for another woman’s family and home, and never having a moment for herself. Felicidad pitied Tía Imelda la jamona and took note that her fate was the result of not having a husband and home of her own and being dependent on the charity of others.
That first day was the worst day of her life, worse even than the day her mother had her breakdown or was possessed by the devil or a Spirit or whatever it had been. Immediately upon her arrival, she felt the urge to relieve herself. Felicidad walked around the back of the house looking for a letrina, sure that a house as grand as the aunt’s must have one; even her family had one as poor as they were. Why, she could recall the day when they got their very own letrina! Papi and the boys dug the hole and the town’s municipality delivered a brand-new letrina gratis. People along the way stopped whatever they were doing to watch the tiny wood shed strapped to the cab of a truck driving up the mountain. The children drew lots to see who would use it first. Felicidad stood outside the door with the others, calling out to Leila and asking her to tell them how she liked it.
She searched the back of the house in vain. No letrina. It made her think that the aunt and her tío Pablo weren’t as civilized as their house implied. Oh, she did not want to have to go back to squatting on the ground! Back home on the mountain there were tall trees and bushes and lush vegetation providing some measure of privacy. Here in town, the houses were close together. How about if some neighbor were to see her? The shame she would bring to her uncle. But Felicidad didn’t see what else she could do, so she squatted down in a corner of the yard under a lemon tree and peed.
Felicidad stood by the table while the others sat at their meal. When Tío Pablo asked her why she didn’t sit down, she told him that at home she usually ate outside with her siblings sitting on tree stumps or perched in their favorite trees. The aunt ordered her to sit and pointed to the way Felicidad held her fork, telling the girl that she held it like a monkey, but what else could one expect from a girl who ate in a tree. Her cousins, twin boys a year or two older than she, giggled and called her Cousin Mona until their father admonished them for calling her monkey. Adela smiled, too young to understand. Felicidad had never seen a monkey, but she knew enough to be embarrassed. When she tried to eat, her rice fell through the tines. Look, such a jíbara the girl is! It was impossible to cut off a piece of her green banana with a knife, as the aunt demonstrated. She wished she dared to pick it up with her fingers or at least to ask for a spoon.
She had a plate of food—viandas, chicken, and rice—that would feed three of them back home. Yet Felicidad could only pick at what was on her plate.
The aunt asked her questions. How many brothers and sisters do you have, Felicidad? Two dead, seven living! That many? Pablo, did you know that your sister had that many? How does your father support them? How many brothers did you say? All work in the fields? Hmmm. What grade are you in? You didn’t go all last year? Stayed home to help!
Felicidad answered in between her few bites of food. She wondered why only the aunt spoke and not her uncle. Was he not interested in his sister’s family? Eventually, she would learn that her tío Pablo was a man of few words and an easy nature and that the aunt liked him that way. The aunt said, Tell me about your mother, what is her condition? Felicidad knew it was a falta de respeto not to do as the aunt asked. Before Papi had left for la finca, he had admonished her to do as she was told. Naturally the aunt only wanted to know out of familial concern, but she did not want to remember that day.
The aunt grew frustrated at Felicidad’s brief answers. She thought the girl was either disrespectful or just plain dumb. After dinner, the aunt led her to the basin. “This is a sink, Felicidad. Have you seen a sink before? I didn’t think so. How did you wash dishes at home? A palangana! In which you added water? From el pozo? ¡Hoja de fregar! How primitive! Soap? You didn’t have any! Well, that’s not the way we do things here. By the way, we don’t expose our dirt to the neighbors.” The aunt shook her head in exasperation. “No, muchacha, it is just an expression. What goes on in this house stays in this house. You don’t go about telling my business, your uncle’s business, your cousins’ business, the family’s business, to anybody. Understand?”
“I understand,” Felicidad said.
The aunt nodded in satisfaction. “I appreciate how you protected the privacy of your family. It isn’t right to bare your troubles to the world, but I am not the world. I am your aunt, part of your family, and you can tell me anything. Understand?”
“I understand,” Felicidad said.
The aunt grimaced in what Felicidad would learn passed for a smile. “Now let us go over your place in the house.
“Adela’s clothes are your responsibility. You used to wash down in the river? Well, lucky you. In this house you soak the clothes in the tub and scrub on a washboard using plenty of soap, mind you. Let me see your hands. Hmmm, your hands are small, but they must be strong. You have to wring the clothes before you hang them on the clothesline. Clothesline? In the back of the house. See these little wood things? Clothespins. Tomorrow Lucinda will show you how to wash. The sheets, I send out to a washerwoman. It’s only for now because I ordered a washing machine from Sears, Roebuck. Mala suerte that I have to wait until the war is over to get it. Lucinda? Lucinda is the woman who helps your uncle and me in the fonda. You didn’t know we had one? Yes, muchacha, we have la panadería next door and the fonda. Really, more like a cafetería, just a few tables and a kitchen for now, but respectable. I have the talent for cooking. I could make even rats taste good. We’re hard workers, your uncle and I, and we expect you to earn your keep. Your father wanted to give us one of the others, Leila, I think. She’s the blonde? But I knew that you were the one for me when I heard how you cooked and cleaned and took care of the children when your mother had her breakdown. That’s what happened to her, right? There is a saying: If the pot of rice is burned black then the pot of rice is black. I’ve heard of such a thing happening to women before. I think it comes from having so many babies. Something happens when a woman gives birth, and often, it’s not good. Take my advice, Felicidad, and don’t have too many babies.”
Felicidad stood at the sink, thinking soon it would be time for Mami to make the evening coffee. Maybe she would take coffee out to Papi. They would stand in el batey like the old days, before the sad times, whispering to each other.
The aunt continued. “I’ve heard of plenty of women who lose their minds when they have babies. I think it’s something in their blood that makes them like that. One woman banged her head against a palm tree until finally her husband took to tying her to her bed before he went out to la finca. It seems to me that most of the women who get sick like that are campo women. I think it’s the primitive life and the running back and forth to el curandero for this and that instead of going to the doctor.”
Felicidad thought of her mother standing on the roof, naked.
“Muchacha, are you listening? In the mornings I work en la panadería and then I go to the fonda. You are to watch Adela after you come home from school.”
Felicidad held her breath, ay bendito, if she had heard correctly, if only she could have this one thing to live for.
The aunt had certain thoughts on what made for a happy marriage and letting a man think he ruled the household was one of them. The girl’s uncle had promised Felicidad’s father and she let her husband have his way, against her will, true, but still, he got his way. On another point, the aunt was firm: She didn’t believe in squandering affection. Each night before bed, she held out her cheek for her children’s kisses and willingly granted her blessing with each petition for Bendición. As for love and affection? In her opinion, there was too much kissing and loving going on. Look at all those brothers and sisters of Felicidad and all those mountain people with half-starved tribes of twelve or sixteen children with protruding stomachs, all those barefoot children haunting the mountains like spooks.
Felicidad would prepare the children’s breakfast along with her own while the aunt tended to customers en la panadería. Once the aunt taught her, she would cook dinner. Sometimes the aunt might bring food from la fonda depending on what was left over. Leaving food on the plate, the way Felicidad had, was not permitted in her family, not when some people like Felicidad’s own brothers and sisters were wasting away due to a lack of rice and beans, was that right?
“Yes, Tía, that is right,” Felicidad said.
The aunt scrutinized her to make sure she wasn’t being disrespectful and, satisfied that the girl wasn’t smart enough to be sarcastic, told her, “You watch your step, young lady, and we will get along fine.”
She told her to call her señora always, no aunt this, no aunt that, because next thing she knew Felicidad would be calling her by her first name and she wasn’t having any of that. Felicidad never considered not following the aunt’s instructions.
Was it her fault Felicidad didn’t have shoes? What would the townspeople think of her with a relative shuffling down the sidewalk in her bare feet? She had given the girl an old pair of her own flats, now she had to suffer the noise of the too-big shoes flapping all over the floor. Tomorrow, she would buy the girl a pair of proper shoes and a dress or two, nothing fancy, tú sabes. She couldn’t let it get around that the new girl in school who was barefoot and dressed in rags was her niece. The lengualargas in town would love that! Was it her fault her husband’s sister lived in a one-room shack? With a dozen children? Oh, why did everything have to be so difficult for her? She even had to show the girl how to use the toilet.
The first nights Felicidad knelt at the bedroom window listening to the coquís, imagining their familiar chanting lulling her family to sleep. She wanted to call out to her mother and know that she would comfort her. She missed her brothers and sisters. They had never been intimate, talking and sharing their thoughts and feelings, but they had the same parents, lived the same life. She helped Adela with her homework, caring for and dressing her as one would a favorite doll, but often she thought of Leila and Juanita and how pretty her sisters would have looked in Adela’s frilly dresses. She hoped that Leila was able to go to school now that Tía Imelda la jamona was helping their mother.
She reminded herself that her parents wanted her here and that one day she would return. She imagined the day when she would again embroider with Mami by the light of a kerosene lamp and listen to the screeching owls and other night creatures. Her mother would turn to her and say, It’s just the creatures of the night. We are together and all is well.
Felicidad wasn’t sure, but she thought there was a Spirit in the house with her. She felt the Spirit in the moments when she was most lonely, when she wanted to cry out for her parents and home. She thought of that day when Mami had talked to her of Spirits and believed that her mother had sent one to watch over her, and she was no longer afraid because the Spirit’s presence was steadfast and reassuring in the manner of her father. The Spirit stood beside Felicidad during her aunt’s reprimands; he accompanied her through the town’s streets in the early days when everything was new and intimidating in its unfamiliarity. At night, the Spirit sat at the foot of her bed until Felicidad fell asleep dreaming of how it would be when she returned home.
Her twin brothers would run down to the road to help the driver unload the presents that she would bring. They would have a party because it was Three Kings Day, feasting on roast pork and pasteles and arroz con gandules. Papi would pass the jug of cañita to the neighbors come to celebrate. One neighbor would produce a guitar, another maracas, the third a güiro, y entonces, se formo! Singing! Dancing! She would show Tía Imelda la jamona how to grind the coffee beans in the grinder with the handle that was another present. Café con leche. Did she forget to mention the cow? Mami would serve arroz con dulce, which Felicidad had cooked on the aunt’s stove and brought in a dozen of her fanciest plates. Her uncle would provide the cinnamon and fat juicy raisins. The singing! The dancing! The food! Ay bendito, God was good, Mami would say. After everyone was asleep, Felicidad would dart about, setting down a present or two by each pair of brand-new shoes, just like the Three Kings.
It warmed her heart, the way they would beg her forgiveness for sending her away, telling her that they had been miserable every single day and that it was better to be without rice and beans than without her, their precious Felicidad.
That first night Felicidad wrote her mother. The aunt admonished her not to write her business and to remember that once a woman had un ataque de nervios as her mother had, anything sad would make her sick again. Felicidad tore up her letter begging to come home and wrote instead to her father: They are good to me here. I drank a coco frío. Tío Pablo sends this dollar. Felicidad.
From then on, she wrote only when she had a dollar to enclose. She couldn’t put her yearning to return in her letters and the details of her comfort would be cruel to her siblings, so what was the point?
With the passing of the days, Felicidad settled into the aunt’s household. She slept on a real mattress instead of a box spring; coils didn’t jab into her back. When she turned her head on the pillow, a piece of straw didn’t poke her in the eye. She wore shoes and ate well-prepared food so she didn’t need to drink a laxative to rid her intestines of hookworms. Even the work she did for the aunt was easy compared with her old chores. She cooked on an electric stove. She didn’t have to hunt for firewood. There was no going to the river to wash clothes or el pozo for water. The aunt had a toilet so she didn’t have to go out to the letrina or empty out the escupidera every morning. She didn’t have to roast the coffee beans or mash them with a mortar and pestle. When the aunt discovered Felicidad’s gift with the needle, she ordered a Singer sewing machine from the Sears catalog and put her to making Adela’s dresses from Simplicity patterns, which Felicidad enjoyed. She did her schoolwork without worrying abut completing piecework to make a much-needed dollar. Now she embroidered because she wanted to and because it reminded her of the happy days.
Felicidad struggled with her guilt over her comfortable life, but what was worse was that the hardship of her childhood began to fade from her memory.
She thanked God every night for all her blessings and especially for her cousin Adela, who treated her like a big sister, holding her hand to and from school those first years, insisting that Felicidad share her bed, and begging her cousin to let her help with the housework until she grew old enough to realize it was work.
All this, yet Felicidad yearned for more.
Except for school, the aunt allowed her out only long enough to walk from one place to the other. She kept her skin white for she was never out in the sun long enough for it to imprint its love on her. Not that the much-prized white skin did her any good.
She was a servant in the aunt’s home and even with Adela’s companionship, she was lonely. She didn’t belong to anyone and no one belonged to her. Despite the warning that she would not see her family for a very long time, she hadn’t believed it would be so.
In those first days it was the hours that Felicidad counted, hours when she believed in her heart that her father would arrive in a público or on a borrowed horse or even a burro to take her home. When the days became months and still no Papi, she thought her mother’s Papa Dios and her Papa Dios couldn’t be the same God.
The first year away from her family was the hardest because she ached for her old life. The morning of her eleventh birthday, Felicidad put on her best dress and sat en la sala with her hands folded on her lap, back straight, the way Mami taught her. She waited all day for her father.
That night at dinner her uncle promised to take her for a visit as soon as business permitted.
“You’re sure to see your family very soon,” Tío Pablo said. “Either your aunt or I will take you. Isn’t that right, mujer?”
“It’s half a day’s ride in a público,” the aunt said.
Tío Pablo squeezed Felicidad’s hand. “I’ll take you. I’ll get to see my sister again.”
Her uncle’s promise at first gave her hope, but the years passed and still no visit. First, Felicidad was too young to travel alone and the aunt was always too busy and secretly disinclined to give up a day to travel up a mountain to see people she didn’t care to see. Felicidad’s uncle was a man of good intentions; he always planned on taking his niece back for a visit. Such a sweet girl that Felicidad was, so capable and helpful that it was the least she deserved, but her uncle, when the day approached for the visit, had forgotten his promise or he hadn’t planned properly for taking the time off from la panadería or it was the year when he had advanced to the second round of the domino competition en la plaza and that didn’t happen often! He was so sorry. He promised he would take her soon.
Always, her uncle looked a little ashamed when giving his excuse. It pained Felicidad because Tío Pablo was always so nice to her. Eventually she resigned herself to not seeing her family. She meant to go as soon as she was old enough, but she didn’t count on growing into doubt and fear. By the time she was fifteen and could travel alone, too much time had passed. What if her family didn’t want to see her? What if they didn’t remember her—or worse, what if they didn’t care? She was a different Felicidad from the one she had been and they were a different family from the one she had known; a spinster aunt had taken her place and her older brothers had been scattered to different parts of the island. She would be going alone to a family of strangers.
With the passing of the years, she eased into the routine of living with the aunt and her uncle’s family and did her best not to pine for the family she’d left behind. Only the infrequent letter in her father’s hand or the sighting of a country mother and young daughter with paper parcels tucked under their arms inflicted a quick stab of pain for what she had lost.
Felicidad would close her eyes and seek comfort in her Spirit Father: she was a little girl again being carried on her father’s shoulders, Papi galloping down the mountain making her squeal with frightened delight. And for a little while, she was happy.
Excerpted from If I Bring You Roses by Vera, Marisel Copyright © 2011 by Vera, Marisel. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted July 31, 2011
I wasn't sure what to expect when I started reading If I Bring You Roses. Having known Marisel Vera since I befriended her daughter about six or seven years ago, I knew that she loved Nabokov and Jane Austen. I also knew that family, her Puerto Rican heritage, and life in Chicago were (and are) very important to her. These qualities were evident in If I Bring You Roses. I never knew much about Puerto Rico but the book was so rich and resplendent with imagery and sensations from the land that I felt like I had been there myself. I could understand how much of a struggle it was for people like Felicidad, who were transplanted from P.R. to an unfamiliar place they knew only as "America," where everyone had steady jobs and plenty to eat. I often forgot who had written the book because I was so absorbed in Felicidad and Anibal's story. It has the draw and enjoyability of a romance novel and the curiosity and intelligence of historical fiction. I'll be recommending to everyone I know!
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Posted June 27, 2011
Lovable and compassion worthy characters, especially Felicidad, make this book a captivating read. The extremely human, emotional, and personal writing style make this book difficult to put down: do not buy it if you have to be productive this week!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 22, 2011
Award-winning, first-time novelist Marisel Vera pens an honest, heart-felt, often sad tale of an idealistic, naïve Puerto Rican girl named Felicidad who goes to America to be with the man she loves. The story, told from an author omniscient point of view, begins in the early 1940's in the Puerto Rican countryside and ends about ten years later in Chicago. It follows Felicidad's life from the time she's a young jíbara living in appalling poverty in the mountains to the time she gets married and moves to America. Young Felicidad lives in a tiny shack with her parents and siblings. Her father works in the fields and can barely support them. At times, Felicidad must be happy with only one meal a day. Their living conditions are so deplorable, she must tie her locks in a bun so that flying roaches in the latrine will not make a nest in her hair. Her sister dies because they can't afford medical care. But worst of all, her mother is losing her mind. Unable to face the situation they're in, one day her mother climbs naked onto the roof. The priest, of course, says she's possessed by the devil. Then Felicidad is sent to another town to live with her uncle and his wife, who own a panaderia. Though her uncle is kind and quiet most of the times, her aunt finds every opportunity to criticize Felicidad and treat her like a servant. Felicidad, naïve and good-natured, does her best to put up with her. She slaves in the panaderia and remains submissive, but she dreams of a prince who will love her and 'rescue' her one day. Years pass and Felicidad doesn't hear a word from her family. She misses them terribly and would like nothing more than to visit them, but she wonders if the feeling is reciprocated and, afraid of rejection by her own flesh and blood, she stays away from them. One day, a handsome man walks into the panaderia and Felicidad is swept off her feet. Aníbal Acevedo, a man of the world as far as women go, is taken by Felicidad's innocent beauty. To everyone's shock, a few days later, he asks her to marry him. Felicidad is ecstatic, filled with idealistic illusions of happiness, but is Aníbal capable of fulfilling his dreams, when he has another woman waiting for him in Chicago? Marisel Vera's prose flows beautifully. In a skillful, often blunt manner, she paints a painfully realistic picture of the jíbaro. In a way, Felicidad's story is a Cinderella story but with an unusual twist. The two protagonists, Felicidad and Aníbal, come to live through the pages, each one so very distinctive from the other. It is especially fascinating to be inside Aníbal's mind and see the world from his perspective, a brutal contrast to Felicidad. Their love story is bitter sweet. But most of all, the author gives us a powerfully sad glimpse of the jíbaro in the 1950's in Chicago, their difficult lives and tribulations, the prejudice they had to confront. Vera is definitely a new Latina voice to be reckoned with, and I look forward to reading more of her work.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 18, 2011
i *loved* your book. i *loved* ana, the best friend...she had the best lines! the imagery was fantastic and the characters were all so real. i wanted the story to continue. but, ay bendito, how you made me blush sometimes! :)Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 4, 2011
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Posted July 28, 2013
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Posted September 3, 2011
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