This hilarious novel is a feminist spoof on the mostly-male magical realists of the "Boom" generation.
About the Author
Cecile Pineda is the author of Bardo99, Face, Fishlight, and Redoubt.
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The Love Queen of the Amazon
By Cecile Pineda
Wings PressCopyright © 2001 Cecile Pineda
All rights reserved.
Many years later, when there was little doubt left, people still marveled how Ana Magdalena as a young girl at least had possessed all the qualities you would expect in a young girl of good but impoverished family. "Who could have imagined," they said, "that one day she would become known as a succubus?" And they remembered that she came at once when summoned, she spoke only when addressed (and then only just above a whisper). Her braids hung in two straight undeviating lines; she curtseyed gracefully without a touch of flamboyance, and cast down her eyes with befitting and appealing modesty.
Her mother, Andreina, a thin, depressive woman who suffered always from the cold, was inordinately proud of her. To any who would listen, and the many who would have preferred to do otherwise, she was always quick to extol the virtues of her daughter. True, she had no other standards of comparison: all her other children had died mysteriously in infancy.
Ana Magdalena's father, Hercules Figueroa da Cunha, came from a well-heeled family known for its prowess in the field, although later his wife would muse out loud, why anyone armed to the teeth with such an illustrious pedigree would want to comport himself like some kind of low-life drifter. Their opulent nuptials fueled the town gossips for a number of seasons. Already early in their union Hercules came and went exactly as he pleased, in keeping with the local custom. It was said that on those rare occasions when he returned home to Andreina it was to give her yet another painful pregnancy — or to change his shirt. Once when she was pregnant with Ana Magdalena, she caught sight of him riding by in a stylish Victoria, whores to either side of him, turned out in colors of unspeakable vulgarity — reds, purples, heaven knows what — having fun. She came close to miscarrying.
Her physician, who in the course of a long career had perfected a mortician's smile displaying teeth yellow as piano keys, recognized in Andreina the signs of an incipient and fatal melancholia. Alarmed, he prescribed hot baths. But because bathtubs were still a rarity in Malyerba, Andreina was obliged to order a galvanized metal tub of gigantic proportions, which had to be transported by muleback from Lima and over the Andes at great cost, and almost insurmountable personal hardship for the muleteer, an Andean Indian of resilient strength and Inca descent. Because the passes were still snowed in much of that spring, the tub could be delivered only in the ninth month of Andreina's pregnancy. Every afternoon, following the siesta, she would have her servant heat water to scalding temperatures. This she would mix with cold water from the well until it was exactly the temperature and consistency of her own blood, and, sighing with resignation, she would remove her shift and lower her swollen body until she was entirely immersed in water up to her chin.
On the particular afternoon of Ana Magdalena's birth, Andreina experienced the severe lassitude that comes of unrelieved depression. She sank gratefully into the warm and dreamy water of the bath, and almost instantly, feeling the great weight and mass of her body eased by the water's buoyancy, allowed herself the folly of falling fast asleep.
When she opened her eyes, however, she realized almost at once that she was no longer alone. Swimming vigorously in water tinged a delirious aquamarine by her ruptured amniotic fluids was a sturdy female infant whose back was entirely covered with downy black hair. Although at first she found her daughter's hairiness somewhat disconcerting, it never came to her attention that the condition, admittedly rare in newborns, augured a future that, whatever can be said of it, was going to be singularly free of virginal modesty or unnecessary chastity. She christened her daughter not ten days later with the name Ana (after her maternal grandmother) and Magdalena, the name of a deceased maiden aunt.
Embittered by her husband's neglect, Andreina had become so chronically neurotic that by the time her daughter was six years of age, she had abjured smiling altogether and her face had assumed the sour, pinched expression that prompted the people of Malyerba to shun her in the streets.
"Mira Ia salmuera. Look, here comes The Pickle," they would say as they crossed quickly to the other side.
But to a child, even one whose birth was as mythic as Ana Magdalena's, a mother is a mother. And by extension it must follow that all mothers have forsaken smiling, all mothers must be hopelessly pinched and neurotic. Gossip had it that at a tender age, Ana Magdalena must have read her mother's heart. And it was perhaps for this reason that she came at once when summoned, lowered her eyes with appealing modesty, and spoke only when addressed.
And, too, there were other influences, influences that must be mentioned here. Because at an early age, Ana Magdalena's education was entrusted to the nuns who kept a local learning institution, a convent for young ladies. It was there Ana Magdalena learned the feminine arts: music, dancing, embroidery, watercolor, sewing, lace making, washing, sweeping, and keeping accounts — in sum, all the qualities that make a woman a woman — and not a man. Ana Magdalena did not exactly take to these arts as a fish does to water, but perhaps the metaphor is not altogether misplaced, because if she paled in the face of the household arts, Ana Magdalena displayed not the slightest fear of water.
Once a week the sisters took their charges to the river to bathe, there being no plumbing facilities in the convent at that time. One must remember that where the convent was situated was then at the outskirts of Malyerba, where the river meandered just beyond the town's outer limits. Bathing was an event heralded by preparation bordering on the ritualistic. Early the preceding week, the younger girls crowded into the convent kitchen to make soap from lye and suet under the watchful eyes of the kitchen sisters. Garbed in white pinafores designed to preserve the spotlessness of their pastel clothing and to emblemize the spotlessness of their thoughts as well, the young initiates allowed themselves to be shown by the kitchen sisters how to stoke the wood-burning stoves: first with newspapers, which they were not allowed to read, then kindling, and finally with great logs of wood, a process guaranteeing that with the application of a single match, the strategic blaze would leap to life. Then the great, gaping vats of suet were placed on the open flames to melt, and the youngest girls had to perch on lovely pinewood stools to stir them with enormous wooden paddles.
It was a grueling apprenticeship, and the young participants fulfilled their part of the bargain with exemplary dedication. But it must be said here that, although lengthy and exacting, it was an apprenticeship appallingly ill suited to a class of young ladies whose mission in life was prescribed from the first. They would aspire to marry well, to enter the somber mansions of their class, and to allow themselves to be washed, perfumed, and dressed by the dark-skinned and silent servants who would bring them tea in the endless afternoons, dress their hair, and throw out their slops.
It must be pointed out that this very unsuitability was not their fault. And perhaps not even the fault of the reverend mother and her devoted little band of sisters. Perhaps, at best, it can be assigned to a failure of the religious imagination, the question being: How better to prepare for a life of indolence, boredom, and indifference?
Somewhere there must have lurked the assumption that things like the making of soap instilled character. There was, for one thing, a rigidly established sequence involved, and, at last, when the molten mess was poured into the cooling trays, there were all the dos and don'ts that guarantee the formation of a perfect cake of brown, foul-smelling saponifacient, abrasive, and sufficiently unpleasant to the touch to discourage the remotest hint of sensuality.
Nor was that all. On Wednesdays, the girls were marched to the riverbank, their soiled linen piled high in baskets, each one of them armed with a cake of the evil-smelling soap, there to squat over the river stones, rubbing and beating their laundry the prescribed number of strokes. And as they rubbed and beat and wrung, nothing stopped them from watching the river traffic. It was there Ana Magdalena first laid eyes on the young dockhand who was later to lend a hand shaping her destiny. Sergio Ballado had shining brown skin, and as he worked stripped to the waist, the writhing of his muscles began to trouble her.
"My God," she whispered to Aurora Constancia, the young lady who squatted next to her, "just look at him!"
"Don't get overwrought," replied her friend. "That's Sergio Ballado. Everyone knows about him. Remember: you didn't see him first."
"That doesn't mean a thing."
"Anyway, he's bad news."
Aurora Constancia leaned close enough to whisper something in her ear.
"Oh, my God!"
Whether Ana Magdalena's exclamation came from shock or some other more complex emotion need not concern us here, but Aurora Constancia could see she had made a deep impression on her friend.
"No talking, now," admonished the good sister as she passed them. "Keep your mind on your work and don't forget to count your strokes."
On Sundays the girls were lined up in the convent courtyard, and once they had been counted by the porter sister to make sure each one was present, the great carriage entrance doors swung open. They marched out in double file, wound along the alleyways and streets, crossed the boulevards at a furious clip to arrive at church just as the procession of priests and acolytes and altar boys made its way to the altar to celebrate High Mass.
The good sisters had arranged this down-to-the-wire entrance with some premeditation, because in order to take their seats, the girls had to pass the rows of already-seated boys from the local Jesuit academy, and it was thought that rushing them down the aisle just in time to reach their pews would discourage any kind of contact — although on one particular occasion, despite such extreme vigilance, there took place a hurried exchange of hymnals between Aurora Constancia and one of the more enterprising Jesuit boys.
"What's going on?" Ana Magdalena whispered to her walking partner.
"Oh, nothing," replied Aurora Constancia nonchalantly. "I'll tell you later if you promise not to spill the beans." Silently and piously both girls took their seats.
The morning of the bath — always a Saturday, regardless of the temperature or inclemency of the weather — the girls returned after breakfast to their dormitories to dress. Dressing for the bath may seem a contradiction. But in that golden age of progress it was nothing of the sort. Stockings, corsets, petticoats, and ruffled pastel dresses were cast off with abandon.
A flock of thin white arms threaded themselves into the great and massive tents of the bathing tunics, as their young and virginal charges prepared for the bath under the sisters' watchful supervision. Then, armed with the very same towels that earlier in the week the young ladies themselves had beaten into immaculate submission, they lined up, cakes of brown soap in hand. The procession wended its way through the courtyard, out the gate, and along the rows of fruit trees in the orchard, until it reached the wall. There, before she could unlock the gate, the porter sister counted her charges to make sure all were present and accounted for.
No sooner had the wooden door squealed open than a remarkable and astonishing transformation took place: pandemonium, which had been carefully held in check all week, broke loose. Laughing and screaming, the girls poured through the gate and raced each other down the slope to collapse in a breathless heap on the sandy riverbank. Indeed, their abandon was of chronic concern to the mother superior and her entire staff. Such deportment, the reverend mother would repeatedly remind them, resembled nothing more than the stampede of biblical pigs, squealing and snorting, that followed the Divine Lord's each and every casting out of devils.
But once the gate was open, repeated evidence seemed to indicate there was no longer any way of civilizing them. Once in the water, they seemed to quiet down, particularly if the river was glacial, which it not infrequently was, being fed from its source in the very high Andes. But once they became accustomed to its bite, the girls frolicked as before, splashing one another with huge fans of icy water, shrieking and howling with terror and delight.
The chaperon nun had to beat strenuously on a frying pan to bring the proceedings to some kind of order. When decorum was restored at last, each girl found a shallow place in the stream where she could squat and reach under the massive folds of her bathing smock to soap the dark and exquisite repositories of her female sex.
It was from their vantage point concealed in the bushes on the opposite shore that the town boys from the Jesuit Academy would wait for just this silent moment to contemplate in solemn and collective lubricity the fate of the happily straying fish who might, with better luck than theirs, be able to eye his piscine fill.
One has only to imagine the spectacle for a moment — a flock of white-clad innocents hard at work, rubbing their fragile and concealed flesh with cakes of soap more abrasive than sandpaper, the theater of spectators giggling and sniggering in the bushes, and the lone force for order sitting far up on the river bank, blinkered in her wimple, armed with nothing more substantial than her frying pan — to marvel that utter chaos took as long to break out as it did.
One must not for a moment imagine that — in this respect at least — young ladies are more backward than their male counterparts. In the endless stretch of hours after their meager evening collation and before the curfew bell, what more fervid subject for furtive conversation than courtship and marriage, whispered in corners, in corridors, in the shelter of their curtained dormitory beds. In proliferating variety, heated discussions raged defining the subtle and various conditions of virginity, true virginity as opposed to false virginity, measures to restore virginity should it haplessly be lost.
"Poor little innocents." Aurora Constancia took on a condescending tone. "What do you poor things know about it? Virginity comes in many shapes and sizes, everyone knows that. Everyone knows the one about the pregnant lady pretending she swallowed an olive pit, but with real virginity you know the signs. It has to be as bouncy as a trampoline."
"The bed ...?"
"The bed?! Oh, that's a good one! Your cherry, silly. It has to be so resilient you can spin a gold piece on it."
One of the girls began to cry. "Dios mio, what'll I tell my mother? I don't have anything like that."
"How do you know?" Ana Magdalena challenged her.
"I just know," she wailed.
"Don't cry pobrecita! You can always have it fixed. Did you hear the one about the Paris cocotte who was so old and tired, she had to have an operation?" All eyes turned to Aurora Constancia. "They had to take her eardrum and graft it to her ...?" By now the girls were squealing with delight.
Aurora Constancia nodded. "Everything was perfect, but she became so hard of hearing, she took to reading lips."
Bathing in the river, the older girls at least knew from the start that they were being watched. And they knew very well that, basking in the protection of the frying pan sister's gaze, tantalizing as they might wish to be, they were assured of nothing more forward than those heated schoolboy glances. They were aware of just how provocative is the soaping of a nubile, pear-shaped breast, and how, once wetted, the clumsy bathing smock could be carelessly arranged to show a lovely nipple to titillating advantage. And, even as they splashed water and laughed at one another, in the toss of their dark manes, in the rosy flush of their bright faces, in the luster of their beautiful white teeth, they were already hard at work ruthlessly scoring the points that later would assure them entry into those gleaming white mansions that, unbeknownst to such unsuspecting innocents, were to become their mausoleums.
Excerpted from The Love Queen of the Amazon by Cecile Pineda. Copyright © 2001 Cecile Pineda. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A fantastical fable about love, family, religion, sex, and business. Ana Magdelena finds her life's calling and a way to support herself and her penniless writer husband in her aunt's bordello in this witty and sexy tale which perfectly balances a sweet and funny story with a biting satire of religion, politics, patriarchy, and business values. Every page was a delight to read because of Pineda's knack for storytelling and natural flow.