Untitled, Jenny Nguyen
The rainy days ended one night of December when Jemial arrived to dry the sky, leaving no trace of the torrential rain that, for three months, had fed the parched earth. I would have to wait for the next rains, for Iwa, to see my mother again. To see her hands that look like flying birds, to hear her stories about the Wayuu spirits of the wind and the drought, Pulowi y Juyá, all the stories she told me while she kneaded the morning bread or when, in the warm afternoons, she braided my hair.
It was hard to conceal the distress of my face that sweltering day of January, the day I was to go away. I waited with my mother outside our house, feeling oppressed by the immensity of the sky, the palms of my hands damp, playing with the blue ribbon of my dress. My rigid body felt like a tree that was about to be hacked, about to lose its green branches, which for centuries had reached for the heavens and shaded the falcons’ nests. I felt lost going to a world I did not belong in, leaving behind my friends, my mother, my home.
My mother’s eyes, fixed on the road, avoided mine.
She did not oppose him. She never did. Not even when he demanded my presence after his long absence. He did what pleased him, he always did. He met my mother while he worked in the fields; she was only fourteen. He took her away from her tribe and gave her a small blue house where a year later I was born. He gave me my name, Alfonsina, and never asked my Wayuumother if she liked it. She did not protest, but secretly called me Siosi. He declared I would become a school teacher for Alijuna children, white people like him, but she said that I would grow up to become a fine putchipu´u—a wise woman with the gift of the word—and take on an important role among the people in her tribe. She never said it in front of him, which was fine with me, until the day he left us one night of April and married an Alijuna woman with a pale face and green eyes like his.
He waited for me to join him in the city that January day, for my mother would never oppose him. But that night, the night before I left, I saw my mother cry for the first time. I was on my way to be a schoolteacher, just like he said.
Ikissed my mother and got on the bus, feeling insignificant and small. I sat in the only empty seat I found, second row, next to a dark-skinned man who smelled like rum. The radio played a sorrowful tune; a woman sitting in the front seat, looking out at the barren ground, followed the words of the song with small movements of her lips. She had deep scars in her legs and knees and carried a heavy a bag of spices and dried herbs, which made her smell like cinnamon and mint.
The bus moved slowly along the narrow dusty roads. A man sitting in the first row pressed his hands together, praying to an image of the Virgin Mary painted on the back of the driver’s seat. The Virgin Mary’s eyes were the color of the sea and her skin dark like the trunk of a tree. She floated in a sky covered with a cloth of stars and had a red rose in place of a heart.
My mind, full of apprehension, could think of nothing but my mother’s hands. I tried to distract myself by reminiscing of my times with Adela and Hortencia, and the green and yellow iguana they gave me for my eighth birthday. I thought of my friends’ eyes, grey and large, I thought of Hortencia’s voice, of Adela’s smile.
Overcome by sadness, I closed my eyes and prayed to Pulowi, prayed and prayed until she came and went inside me in the form of a light wind caressing my skin. She made me feel at peace.
In Maicao, a short distance from my town, a Kusina girl, no older than fourteen, got on the bus. She was barefoot and wore an old brown dress a little too big for her. She held something wrapped in a blanket against her breast. The dark man next to me stood up and gave her his seat. She did not look in my direction, not even once, but I stared at her for a long time, at the tangled black hair covering most of her face, at her long, feathery earrings that had the shape of small snakes, at her bare feet covered in dried mud, her necklace of sea shells.
It took me a while to realize that she was carrying a small child in her arms, for the naked baby, sleeping under the dirty blanket, had barely moved until, perhaps stirred by hunger, it uttered a soft cry, searching for its mother’s nipple. The girl uncovered her chest and carefully pressed the baby closer. The pale face of the child contrasted with the darkness of its mother’s breasts.
The girl had the smell of a forest, a forest of cacao and kapok trees, of maracuja and waterlilies. I turned from her and looked outside the bus onto an inhospitable, barren land—blue seas, wind, sand—and then looked at her again. She wasn’t from here; she came from a far-away place.
After feeding her baby, she placed the child on her shoulder, near me. The baby looked at me with its large brown eyes. It was calm and smelled like fresh milk. The girl put her lips to her baby’s ear and began whispering a song while caressing it. I saw the dirt under her nails. I saw her hands take the shape of birds.
An uneasy quiet filled the bus. The girl was nervous; her Kusina face was still that of a child, but her sad eyes told a different story. Her gaze was old as if she had lived already too much for her young age, as if life had shown nothing but unkindness to her.
We rode in the most absolute silence, sitting next to each other until the bus was almost empty. She stood, then, walked towards the back of the bus, and sat in the last row by herself. I wondered if my continuous gazes at her baby had made her uncomfortable and if that was why she had changed seats. I distracted myself by looking out the window, but I could not stop thinking about her.
An old woman got on the bus and took the seat next to me. She was white, a true Alijuna. She smiled at me. I saw the deep wrinkles around her lips and the gap between her two front teeth. I saw the black spot inside the iris of her left eye, and her long white hair wrapped in a braid that hung down to her waist.
“What is your name, girl?”
“Where are you headed to?”
“To the city.”
“The city? That is a long journey.”
She took a dried piece of fruit from her bag, slowly brought it to her mouth and started chewing.
“How old are you?”
“When I was your age I already had two children. My husband was 25 years older than me; he used to come home drunk and beat me almost every night.”
I said nothing. I began thinking of that half Alijuna child in the back of the bus and could not hear the rest of what she was saying. She noticed my distraction and paused for a moment.
“So what did you do?’ I replied, refocusing my attention on her.
She opened her eyes wide. “One day I got a knife and stabbed him right in his heart.”
She took another piece of dried fruit and said, still chewing, “Then I made a fire and cooked him until his bones were nothing but dark smoke. The next day I confessed my crime, but no one believed me. My neighbors said I was too small to kill a man that size, for he was indeed a big man. They thought he had left me and that I had gone insane. After that, since no one ever missed him, no one mentioned him again.” She spit a seed on the floor. “I never regretted it, for I have lived a peaceful life since then.”
I heard her story, and like her neighbors, I did not believe she had killed a man. Perhaps she was indeed insane.
“You are smart to go away from this town. Men around here are wicked. I heard women in the city wear nice shoes and nice clothing, and they even go out and live by themselves. They need no man.”
Her story almost made me forget about the young girl sitting in the last row, but then the bus stopped and I saw her walk towards the door. She got off quickly. I followed her with my eyes until she disappeared behind dunes of salt. The woman next to me now rested with her eyes closed. I looked at the back of the bus where the girl had sat and saw the brown blanket. Something moved in it. I got up and walked towards it.
“Stop the bus, she forgot her baby!”
I pointed towards the road, unable to mutter another word.
The bus stopped, and the driver and the few people that were still on the bus gathered around the small bundle.
“Poor thing,” someone said.
“We must turn around and find its mother,” I said.
“That is going to be hard,” said the driver, scratching his white belly. “She is an Indian. They are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Besides, she does not want it.”
The old woman, the only one who had remained seated, eating her fruit, stood up, walked towards me and grabbed the baby. It was then that I noticed it was a baby girl.
“It is a girl. No wonder,” the old woman said.
“But what does it matter if it is a girl?” I replied.
The old woman looked into my eyes. “It does matter. She is a girl and here no one wants girls!”
The driver emptied a wooden basket filled with tangerines and put the baby in it. “I will leave it at the next station. Perhaps someone might want it. I cannot keep it, I already have too many mouths of my own to feed.”
I could not believe what was happening. What if nobody wanted her? What would happen to this child?
The old woman reached into her bag for more dried fruit. “You don’t have to go that far,” she said. “Take her to the next Wayuu cazerio down the road and ask for Jayariyu, the putchipu´u. He is a wise man; he will know what to do.”
The bus arrived at a small cazerio, four houses of clay and thatched roofs. Half-naked children with swelling bellies ran back and forth chasing a dog, but when they saw the bus they let the dog go and looked at us with curious eyes.
“Is Jayariyu here?” the driver said to them.
One of the children pointed towards a house surrounded by tall blooming cacti, wrapped in winds of sand, where an old man sat in his chinchorro, a small green and yellow parrot on his right shoulder.
The driver took the box with the baby and went to talk to the man while people in the bus began looking at each other, some murmuring complaints. I remained seated, looking at the sky, until I saw a falcon fly high and disappear behind a cloud. I looked at the house and from afar I saw the driver engaged in an elaborate rhetoric of gestures, but Jayariyu’s stern expression did not change. After ten minutes or so, the old man made a sign with his hand and a Wayuu woman who looked like my mother came and took the baby inside the house.
The driver came back, took his hat off, and dried the sweat from his forehead. “He will keep her,” he said.
“What will he do with her?” I asked.
“He will probably make her a putchipu´u like him.”
And as if nothing had happened, as if it had been another normal day, he drove the bus away, while I remained with my eyes fixed on the cazerio, thinking of that baby girl. I knew I would never see her again. I knew I would never see my hometown again, or my friends Hortencia and Adela, or my mother.
Before the old lady got off the bus, she turned to me. “You are doing good by leaving this town behind. Go to the city, you will have a different life, because there, being a woman is not so bad.”