Montevideo, Uruguay, 1924: Pajarita grew up in the country and first arrived in the city as a seventeen-year-old bride. Now, her husband has not been home for days, leaving her alone with three small children and a house that has run out of food. Her friend Coco, the butcher's wife, has come over to visit.
"First of all," Coco said, pushing a hefty package into Pajarita's hands, "you're taking this meat. I don't care what you say. I know your husband's gone—the desgraciado." She sat her ample body down at Pajarita's table. Pajarita stared at the gift.
"I have no way to thank you."
Coco continued as if she hadn't heard. "Secondly: your plants. They're strong. You should sell them."
"To women in the barrio. You can start in the store, behind the counter with me. Look, once word spreads about your cures, better than a doctor and cheaper too, you'll be putting food in those boys' bellies." It had never occurred to her, but she couldn't think of a reason not to try. She took her children and a basket of leaves and roots and barks to the butcher shop. The boys resumed an epic pretend game of gauchos-in-the-campo, riding imaginary horses among the chunks of ﬂesh that hung from the ceiling. In one corner of the room, between the chopping block and meat hooks, Pajarita arranged two small wooden stools and sat down on one. Ignazio, she thought, I want to kill you, to kiss you, to carve you like a ﬂank; just wait and see how I'm going to live without you by my side.
Coco served as a living advertisement. Women began to come. Some of them just needed to be heard; they told sprawling, unkempt tales of death in the family, brutal mothers-in-law, ﬁnancial pressures, wayward husbands, violent husbands, boring husbands, loneliness, crises of faith, visions of Mary, visions of Satan, sexual frigidity, sexual temptation, recurring dreams, fantasies involving saddles or bullwhips or hot coals. She offered them teas for comfort, luck, or protection. Other customers came with physical conditions—pain in their bones, a stitch in their side, numbness in hips, ears that rang, forgetfulness, sore knees, sore backs, sore hearts, sore feet, cut ﬁngers, quivering ﬁngers, wandering ﬁngers, burns, headaches, indigestion, excessive female bleeding, a pregnancy that wouldn't come, a pregnancy that had to end, cracked bones, cracked skin, rashes no doctor could diagnose, aches no doctor could cure. There were housewives, maids, sore-handed seamstresses, sweaty-handed adulteresses, great-grandmothers swaying with canes, young girls swooning with love. Pajarita listened to them all. She sat still as an owl as she listened. Then she handed them a small package and explained what to do with its contents. Word spread. Women came to see her from all corners of the city. She could barely keep up with harvesting from cracks in the sidewalk, nearby parks, and the pots in her own house. To Coco's delight, the seekers often picked up their daily beef along with their cures. Pajarita set no price. Some gave her pesos, others fruit, a basket of bread, a ball or two of handspun wool. Anonymous gifts appeared on the Firielli doorstep—baskets of apples, jars of yerba mate,handmade clothes for the children. They had enough.
She had developed a peculiar sort of fame. Her name was whispered through the kitchens and vegetable stands of Montevideo. Pajarita, she cured me, you should go see her too. And when I almost. You saw me then. If it hadn't been for her. Strange, she thought, that all of this should grow from something as familiar as plants, such ordinary things, opening new worlds, drawing the souls and stories of this city to her doorstep, unveiling a startling thing inside her: a reach, a scope, adventures with no road map, forays into the inner realms of strangers where she roved the darkness in search of something that bucked and ﬂashed and disappeared, slippery, evasive, untamable.
One sweltering afternoon, as a hunchbacked woman who smelled of garlic confessed her infatuation with the new priest, Pajarita felt something stir inside her body. Her mind reached in to feel. She was pregnant. A girl. She ﬁlled with the memory of conception, that ﬁnal night, the clawing, Ignazio's torn and hungry skin. And he was gone. She almost imploded from the sadness.
Montevideo, Uruguay, 1938: Eva is thirteen years old. After two years of working for a shoe salesman who abused her, she has rebelled against him and her parents, found a job in a fashionable café, and begun to spend her evenings with a group of aspiring poets.
Months and years would stretch and turn and she always pined for this: these nights; smoky, electric, succulent, ineffable; the feel of the red table under her hand (chipped and glossy, sticky underneath) as the poets dreamed and joked and boasted; the way the air stretched and shimmered after her second glass of wine; the conversations that coiled intricately through war to recent essays to the deepest meaning of life. A light shone through those nights that Eva could not deﬁne, that vanished if she sought it too directly, that gilded everything it touched—voices, faces, wineglass, table, words—with numinous honey. She grew to rely on it, trusting its power to ward off all that must be kept away—drabness,
boredom, nightmares, the rage of home, the terror inside shoe stores and of Nazis in faraway lands. She was free inside its unseen sphere, and life became more possible. Surely the other poets felt it too: Joaquín, with his meticulous verses, knotted forehead, and arsenal of freshly sharpened pencils; Carlos, who smelled of shoe polish and stole moments at his father's law ﬁrm to scrawl odes on legal ﬁles; the Well-Known Poet, with his amiable laugh and unkempt gray hair; Pepe, with his pointy chin and fast martinis; Andrés, with his lucid voice, sharp thoughts, sharp smile; and Beatriz, the kind of girl whose laugh poured like molasses, whose poems brimmed with maudlin nubile shepherdesses yearning for their errant gaucho men. Eva could have borne her poems if she did not also sit so close to Andrés.
"We're changing the world, right, Andrés?" Beatriz said, twirling her hair on a slow ﬁnger.
"Poetry alone won't change the world," Andrés said. "But without it, where would we be? Stripped of mystery, passion, everything that urges us to stay awake despite the shit and pain of living. In a world full of war, we need it more than ever."
Joaquín and Carlos murmured their agreement. The Well-Known Poet nodded behind his cigarette smoke. Andrés' words mixed with the smoke, swirling around the table, imbibed on each poet's breath. In a world full of war. Eva felt the smoke and bulk of the Admiral Graf Spee within those words. It had been only a month since the German battleship had dragged its huge hard broken body into the port, seeking refuge, trailing ﬁre and smoke and the toxic scent of battle. Uruguay was neutral. Uruguay was far from Europe. Uruguay had not been invaded the way Poland had last spring. But the Graf Spee came anyway, and so did the British ships that set it on ﬁre. War's ﬁngers were very long and they stretched over the Atlantic and shook up her city the way a ghost's cold ﬁngers reach through a window and shudder you awake in your own bed. That's how it was when Eva woke to Papá in the hall telling Tomás about the Graf Spee: the smoke was thick like—well, like—a big black blanket, all over the port, and up on the crane we were coughing like crazy, and I saw the Nazis standing on deck rigid like fucking toothpicks, like everything was ﬁne, like they were breathing air from the fucking Alps. After the German captain gave up and sank his battleship to the bottom of the river, Eva dreamed of dead wet Nazis smashing her windows and crawling into her bed, cold and dripping, cutting her with shards of glass and ship and with their ﬁngernails.
Andrés had written a sonnet called "Graf Spee's Ghost" and it occurred to her that he might understand. She tapped his foot with hers. He smiled without looking at her.
"The things you say," she told him later on their walk home. "The way you say them. Everybody listens."
"It's just talk."
The heart of things, you touch it when you speak; somehow you shake and shift the ﬂesh reality is made of. "It's more than that."
They walked home together every night, but never all the way to the door. They did not want to be discovered. Eva came to dread buying the family meat, because of the way Coco pinned her with doleful eyes. "What happened to that son of mine? You, Eva, tell me! He barely even lives here anymore."
We are told, Andrés wrote, that the world is made of burlap: / Coarse, enduring—when really it is gauze, / Layer upon layer, ﬁne, fragile, inﬁnite, / We can see our ﬁngers through it in the light.
Montevideo, Uruguay, 1966: Salomé is fifteen years old. She has watched the nation become increasingly repressive, as well as admired the Cuban revolution from afar. Her best friend, Leona, has just led her to a clandestine meeting.
They entered a cramped dark room with no windows. Four people sat inside: Leona's sister, Anna, with her long face and gold-rimmed glasses; a young man in a starched collar; another man in his late twenties with a square face and bushy beard; and a broad, large muchacho with hair that wisped into his face, who looked older than Salomé, about seventeen. He looked familiar, but she couldn't place him, couldn't think, because they all were staring at her.
Leona motioned for her to sit down. Salomé arranged herself carefully on the freezing ﬂoor, regretting that she'd rushed out in her knee-length school skirt. She tasted the mingled breaths of six people and two oil lamps.
Bushy Beard nodded toward Leona, who closed the door.
"So," Bushy said, "you're Salomé."
She nodded. All eyes were still on her.
"She can really be trusted?"
Leona's nod was decisive.
Bushy stared at Salomé. His eyes were dark green, shaded by a ledge of brow. "What do you know about the Tupamaros?"
She cleared her throat. So here it was. "They plan to liberate Uruguay."
"Where did you hear that?"
"In the papers—"
"The papers are much less favorable."
"And my family talking."
The wisp-haired boy grinned and now she placed him, the grandson of Cacho Cassella, the magician from Abuelo's youth. Tinto Cassella. He winked at her in the low light.
Bushy continued. "What do you think about the Tupamaros?" She had rolled that question through her mind all day. "That they're important. And brave."
"What would you say to a Tupamaro if you met one?"
She saw Leona in her peripheral vision, lifting her chin, leaning forward, and Salomé could almost smell the eucalyptus, feel the stippled light of their lawn. " 'I admire what you're doing and I want to be part of it.' "
Bushy Beard was impassive. "What if that Tupa told you that liberation is only achieved by action—including force, when necessary?"
That was when she saw the guns. They almost blended into the dark walls: riﬂes in the corner, a pistol at Anna's knee. She'd seen guns before, on policemen, in soldiers' hands, in photos of the Cuban Revolution—but never so close, and not in the lap of a university girl, not within reach of a man giving her a test. Her body felt like a cup full of crushed ice, so tight and cold. But guns, of course, were necessary, weren't they? A dirty need that you don't want but can't ignore, like defecation. She thought of Che, luminous Che, embracing a sleek riﬂe in his sleep. The air hung thick, unventilated, pressing.
Bushy Beard leaned closer. "How old are you?"
"You understand what's being asked?"
"You don't think you're too young?"
He stroked his beard. He glanced around the room. "Any comments?"
Tinto raised his hand. "I know her. Our grandparents are friends. She's a good person, reliable."
Leona added, "I would trust her with my life."
"That's good," Bushy Beard said. "You may have to. Any concerns?" The room was silent.
"All in favor?"
All the members raised their hands. Leona hugged her tightly. "Welcome, friend."
From the Hardcover edition.