Polish by birth, citizen of the world by choice First story short-listed for the Hennessy Awards, Ireland, 1996. She became a regular contributor to Women´s Quality Fiction, Books Ireland, IncoGnito. Her creative writing was interrupted as she moved to Latin America. Since she went back to writing fiction last year, 18 of her stories have been accepted for publication in international anthologies and magazines.
FRUIT OF A POISONED SEED
Labarca had always been just one dust road along which houses, touched by neglect, crouched like brooding hens in a coop. Winter moisture stamped mildew patterns on the lime-painted walls and steamy summers, so common in this part of the world, battered the rotting timber into networks of cracks. Moss clung to the slanting, tile-covered roofs in a brown-green carpet and the fences surrounding the dwellings could do little to prevent the incursions of roaming goats into the yards where they scrounged for lettuce, carrots and cabbages planted there by the villagers.
The valley cradling the hamlet was surrounded by hills overgrown by feathery ferns, imported Oregon pines, Australian eucalyptuses and native espinos - low prickly bushes speckled with duck-yellow flowers that stole threads from trespassers’ clothing. The place smelt of dust and oblivion as the serpentine roads leading there were so little used (contact with the outside, hostile world was sporadic and unwelcome) that thistles, nettles and dandelions sprouted from the bumps between the ruts.
Labarcans, who lived on acre plots and their faith in the Lord, valiantly struggled with poverty - the men tilling and toiling, the women cooking, sowing and bearing children. But, as everyone knows, trying to defeat it has always been a losing battle the world over.
As if to make up for the human-made squalor Nature, in her striving for perfection, bestowed a fantasy of colour on the village: lavender and poppies, daffodils and clover grew in the shadow of slender poplars and squat hazel bushes. Periodically, the lush vegetation, that at times was almost defeated and at others resembled the invincible General Romel in his African campaign, stepped forward to reclaim the cleared fields and Labarcans, with a fierceness equal to Nature’s, waged another war with the encroaching forest successfully reclaiming a couple of hectares to plant water melons, string beans and basil.
Wedged into the backdrop of greenery, Labarca differed little from dozens of other villages in the country. Following well-rooted but unwritten rules, the villagers had erected a church for the consolation of the soul and an inn where they gathered at dusk to douse deep sorrows with Licor de Oro and to celebrate small triumphs with chicken stew and tomato and coriander salad.
"Let’s drink and eat as if there was no tomorrow," gathered around the tables they said following the wise adage to the letter and swallowing another glass of wine with two empanadas.
Time seemed to have stopped in Labarca or, at least, Father Grande’s watch, the only watch in the hamlet, measured it differently as summers rushed by in a flurry of activities, while winters moved at a leisurely pace.
The villagers knew little about cities and national calamities and triumphs affected the immutability of their lives even less. If someone asked them about their hopes and ambitions, they’d say they were too busy trying to survive to entertain any hopes, never mind talking about them. They’d say that their lives, just like the lives of millions of the poor in other parts of the world, revolved around changing seasons, the vagaries of weather, the abundance or shortage of grain and earthquakes that sometimes were gentle shivers but more frequently were deep and prolonged growls of indigestion in the bowels of the Earth.
However, one thing Labarcans, who were neither more intelligent nor more stupid than other people, knew well and that was Fate. They could perceive and detect the intricacies of Fate as easily and with as much precision as other, smarter people, could decipher the grainy letters in newspapers. Fate cohabited with them every hour and wove into their days and weeks like strands of hemp into fabric.
It was logical then that they developed a kind of an innate sensitivity in all that referred to Fate and that was why they managed to detect the prelude to the future drama and see the signs that branded the Parras as cursed. They knew that no one ever looked for trouble on purpose, but that occasionally trouble looked for people and that seemed to be the Parras´ case. They were convinced that the family had been marked out from the common herd. They noticed it in the tremendous swelling of his mother’s belly, a bulge so big that the black skirt she normally wore stretched and burst in the seams.
“Not even into her seventh month, Amaro is. A child this size will tear her insides to shreds just as he has her skirts.”
“Bad omen,” they whispered, knocked on wood, touched good-luck charms and spat over the left shoulder.
“It sure is better to be born lucky than rich but the Parras are neither,” they murmured.
Carrying the child in her womb Amparo Parra perceived it too. The kicks the unborn aimed at her ribs doubled her up in pain and the skin on her taut tummy turned red and cracked. But she kept patting the swelling reassuringly, tried to think only cheerful thoughts, brought images of blue and white Andean Star flowers , warm summer nights and clear spring skies to her mind but the anger, or whatever it was the child was feeling, would not go away. She even got rid of the black umbrella with the wooden handle carved into a gnome’s malevolently smiling face her husband had brought back from the city. Just in case, she buried it under the sacred ruil in the village square where years later, it unexpectedly shot roots and grew into a healthy tree.
She hoped that if she surrounded herself with peace and beauty, she would be able to influence the child in a positive way. Deeply religious, she prayed for his calming to the Dark Virgin whose painting, allegedly brought here by a missionary from a faraway town called Czestochowa, hung in the church. But since no help was forthcoming from the Heavenly quarters, she decided that the Holy Mother was hard at work on other issues to intervene in such a trifling matter.
“I know, madrecita, that one can’t expect divine intervention for any silly trifles and such,” she talked to the Virgin in her head.
“There must be more important things keeping you busy. Things, I imagine, like floods and earthquakes, wars and failing crops. This child of mine beating a crazy tattoo on my belly must be just one of a thousand problems that happen every day.”
And she felt that she would either have to wait her turn or take matters into her own hands.
“Don’t worry,” she said humbly. “I understand.”
After contemplating various options, she finally decided there was nothing else to do but to consult Black Celestino, a local diviner famous for his wisdom and predictions and considered by the locals as the region’s leading authority on magic, necromancy and other supernatural phenomena.
Black Celestino’s hut stood in a clearing in the forest, a mile from the village, and Labarcans, although respectful of the old man, were thankful for his seclusion as strange things had been seen around his house. Children collecting mushrooms and wood for kindling had chanced upon blue lizards with tails as thick as tree branches and some had seen a three-legged puma of exceptional docility whose eyes gleamed orange in the dark.
Black Celestino was generally left to his own devices and, in the best tradition of Christian hermits, he enjoyed his solitude subsisting on roots, nuts, berries, herbs and corn flour he ground in a stone mortar. From time to time he even trapped a rabbit or found still fresh sheep carrion to put in his stews. And for the services he rendered, which varied from casting spells to pulling out rotten teeth, from curing baldness, dropsy and impotence to setting broken bones to expelling the ringworm, he received eggs, cheese and chicha, a sweet murky liquid made from fermented grapes that was kept in huge oaken barrels.
There are things and institutions that always remain sacred. They are untouchable, immune to changes, fashions and moral mutations. And Celestino was one of such – he seemed timeless and limitless and no-one knew the exact extent of his knowledge or his origins any more than they knew why everybody called him Black for his hair and beard had been white as the snow peaking the Andean tops for as long as anyone could remember.
In the evenings, when the sun haemorrhaged ruby red on the mountain tops, people congregated in the inn or in their houses to pluck goose down for feather beds, to peel and roast the chestnut-like fruits of the Araucaria tree, to shred cabbage or to churn butter and to talk. For once, letting themselves be caught up in frivolities, Labarcans swapped recipes for blancmange and malted milk, cures for coughs and aches, played cards and dominoes, indulged in local gossip and chatted about harvests and crops, the colour of the moon, the confluence of rivers and the dryness of the soil. They talked about the things that happened during the day such as the birth of the strange lamb covered with russet fleece or the clay pot unearthed near the cemetery by young Varela with a single silver coin lying under a pile of dry leaves. There was a lot to talk about (country folk might lack their city brothers’ sophistication, they might eat simple food and value simple things, but they certainly don’t lack their loquacity) yet it was Black Celestino who, unfailingly, was the favourite topic of conversations.
Amparo was familiar with the old man’s soothsaying and his medical skills - few were the villagers who, at one time or another, had not relied on his calming potions, sleep-inducing draughts or anaesthetic ointments. Surely, in the selection of his herbs and incantations he would find one that would subdue her rowdy child whose intrauterine somersaults tired her enormously.
She set off one scorching afternoon after Rosita, the cow, had been milked, all the pans scoured with lemon juice so as to get rid of nasty cooking smells, the kitchen floor mopped, and the bread dough kneaded and left rising under a tea-towel. With all the chores done, she packed a bag with dried pimientos, a pot of fresh coriander and a slice of jerked beef which she was hoping to exchange for the diviner’s magic. With a final gaze at the house to make sure everything was in order she locked the door, put the key in the skirt pocket and walked to the gate making a fast mental note to oil the hinges with pork grease.
She was a small woman possessed of a limitless store of energy with seemingly fragile bones on which flesh was distributed with great economy: no fat, just firm muscle. Her unusually light-skinned face held black, turbulent eyes that quarrelled with the meekness of her character. Like most country women, she moved with great efficiency, every action worked out to the smallest detail, whether she was ironing, cooking or swinging the hoe in the garden.
Although she was sure the seer’s wizardry was Christian in origin (after all he did go to Mass from time to time and she saw him talk in a friendly manner with Father Grand after the communion), a splinter of anxiety lodged itself in her heart (or maybe it was the unborn kicking her ribs again). It was the first time she needed his favours and the rumours about the odd happenings witnessed around his house wrapped her in a haze of foreboding.
The village was silent except for the occasional dog barking in the distance. It was hot - the clouds dyed pink and purple by the setting sun glided leisurely above letting the still fierce glow rest on Amparo’s head and shoulders. Slapping at swarms of mosquitoes feasting on her face and naked arms she plodded on to the diviner’s hut with a heaviness common to pregnant women, her swollen legs tireless like pistons.
When she arrived at the clearing she was astonished by its eerie calm - totally unlike the comfortable silence of a church or the stillness of the night interrupted by snores and creaks and scuttling mice. The silence here was smooth and thick - not even one chirp. Even the trees, like solitary sentinels, calmly defied the sun shearing down between them and the slight breeze stroking their tops. She looked around half-hoping, half-fearing to catch a glimpse of the three-legged puma or the blue scaly skin of the lizards but stumbled upon nothing out of the ordinary.
The hermit’s hut was silent. She moored herself in front daring neither to knock nor to call out in fear of offending the wise man and, instead, stood quietly until the door opened and his wizened frame emerged. He regarded her without surprise as if he had been expecting her all along.
“Get in,” he motioned with a bony hand.
“It’s taken you a long time to come.”
The room smelled of sawdust whose motes floated on shafts of light and waltzed above the sparse furniture. The walls were lined with shelves heavy with bags, boxes and sachets – all packed full of herbs that could soothe pain and bring sleep, ward off evil spirits and lure back reluctant lovers - a vast apothecarium gathered, dried, ground and distilled by Celestino. Under each small receptacle a word was written in chalk: salvia, fennel, mint, laurel, oregano, marjoram, henbane, thyme.
The last word reminded her of the one and only occasion on which Rodolfo, her husband, gave her flowers. They had been married for barely three months when the sudden flooding of fields forced him to leave the village and head for the nearest city to look for work. Before leaving, though, he had wandered off to a meadow behind the house and collected a bunch of lemon thyme.
Not a man to waste his breath on idle chatter, he thrust the clumsy bouquet into her hands and said: “Thyme for lost time.”
It had been enough for her to realise that no matter how long it took him to return, no matter how hard the wait on her, she would still the clock of her life until he was back with her again. She had pressed a couple of the flowers between the tissue-thin pages of the Bible to remind her of those days and of those words and there they remained, so faint now they seemed nearly illusory.
“Take off your clothes,” Black Celestino’s voice resembled the crackling of burning paper.
She obediently shrugged out of her white sleeveless blouse with cornflowers and ferns embroidered on the bodice and the torn black skirt.
“Lie on the table.”
Heaving with effort she climbed onto the table then covered her nakedness with her hands. The spicy aroma of dried herbs and roots tickled her nostrils making her sneeze.
“There is nothing to be ashamed of,” the old man scolded then leaned over her, his beard resting on the pumpkin of her stomach.
“I should have known earlier,” he muttered.
“No doubt about it.”
The bony fingers roamed across the mountain of her flesh, traced elaborate patterns around the belly button, dug deep into the stretched skin, probed, investigated, examined, clearly on intimate terms with human anatomy.
“A poisoned seed,” the lips, red and thin, moved like in a prayer under the beak of a nose jutting out over the wisps of his beard.
“A Parra seed,” he declared ominously like a judge pronouncing a death sentence.
“A cursed seed.”
He turned away and approached one of the shelves selecting a bunch of herbs tied with a piece of brown string.
“Boldo,” he explained.
“To calm the spirit. Can’t say it’ll do much good, though. What a man carries in his soul is hard to cure. It’s not a scab or a wart or acne that can be extracted or burnt or covered with an ointment. It’s not an ache that can be eased by a potion. It is not indigestion that can be cured by a syrup. I’m not sure what souls exactly are made of, but they seem to be liquid - and like water they can freeze or become vapour. One never knows what composition they´ll have so it’s nearly impossible to heal them,” he said.
“One thing´s certain. Your soul’s sick, and it’ll be hard to find anything to help.”
She looked up at his bobbing head surrounded by specks of sawdust. The eyes shone orange like the eyes of a cat in a face as wrinkled as a walnut.
“Drink buttermilk, a quart a day. It’ll help to expel bad humours. Boil the boldo in spring water collected at dawn, and even better if gathered before the sun peeks above the mountaintops. Drink the brew at midday, before your main meal. There’s nothing else I can do for you or your child.”
The grid of wrinkles deepened as he tendered an arm to help her up. His hand had a bluish tint and was as dry as leaves left outside in the afternoon sun. It throbbed and trembled and for an instant she thought she was holding the tail of a lizard.
“There’s something for your trouble,” she said after slipping into her clothes.
He nodded absentmindedly, said something in rejoinder, his interest seemingly gone into eclipse. He then turned his back to her and busied himself with a clay bowl in which he ground desiccated petals. He poured in some water from a bottle and with his fingers rolled the mixture into little lozenges and placed them one by one on the table to dry.
She took his silence for dismissal and made towards the door. Crossing the threshold, she heard him murmur: “A bad seed will always remain a bad seed. Poor child…poor child, condemned to a life of misery”
Dusk had already draped the hills like a silk scarf. The sky was not black yet, but night began to finger it spotting it with stars. It resembled a dark fabric with holes punched in it. Wind lapped her hair as she walked across the clearing to a field with furrows as long and liquid as frothy waves. Bordering trees cast spindly trembling shadows. The wind raced faster sending leaves flapping along the ground and the pockmarked moon spilt a silver radiance.
Somewhere a dog bayed, the howl crumbling the fragile silence of the night. Inside her womb the child stirred. She could feel him turn, a virtual cartwheel, a complete shifting of positions and her ribs ached unbearably.
She quickened her pace, the savage protectiveness of a mother-to-be growing in her heart. Her walk changed into a steady trot. Agonising for breath and holding her belly with both hands, she hurried out of the expanse of shadows to the safety of her home.
Just as she was entering the nineth month of her pregnancy, things took a turn for the worse. The entrenched heat had dried the fertile soil of the valley into a grid of cracks and all crops withered and died. Hens pecked hopelessly among yellowing grass, cows chewed on foul-tasting straw left over from the previous summer and even omnivorous goats, creatures of an amazing talent enabling them to find scraps of paper, rags and cast-offs in the harshest conditions, could not calm the gnawing pangs of hunger. Food was scarce even for humans and the threat of a famine hung over the village brighter than the implacable sun.
Joined by other men Rodolfo Parra had to leave Labarca once again and head for the city to look for a job - carpentry, service or simply extracting usable materials from the dumps.
With the placidity of someone used to farewells Amparo bade him good-bye and pressed a linen napkin with bread and boiled eggs into his hands. Rodolfo, dressed in his wedding suit now quite tight around the waist and shoulders, with the collar of his starched shirt like a bleached bone around the neck, patted Amparo on the head with an almost unconcealed tenderness. The gesture, although passionless and stolid, expressed the extent of his love for her. It was more than he had ever given her, more than she had ever expected, even more than he thought he was capable of giving.
Benumbed by the proximity of the parting, a certain vacuity in her gaze as if the same vacuity inhabited her mind, Amparo held on to his arm, her heart thudding with love.
“Pronto,” Rodolfo said with a twinge of sadness. “Soon...”
She savoured the magical word that encompassed today, tomorrow, a week later or never but it was a word that could restore ailing hope to health.
“Pronto,” She replied fearing he would not return in time to see the birth of his child.
For an instant he was tempted to kiss the vacuity from her eyes but repeated instead stretching the word out dramatically: “Soon...”
He turned on his heel and walked down the road shaded by a fringe of poplars that stood side by side as if in a brotherhood.
Her heart was heavy as she saw him crane his neck to take one last look at the village and at his wife. A moment later, he was gone and the only thing that remained was the echo of family laughter and family combats that neither time nor distance would ever silence.
Days and nights blended into each other, weeks flowed into months and Amparo waited immersed in melancholy. It was not a conscious, controlled by her mind waiting. She had no power over it, it was a natural process, ungovernable like breathing and digestion. She waited in the same way she walked, talked and ate, without giving it a second thought, without trying to influence or modify it; a little at a time, a day, a month, reconciled with Fate, knowing that no matter what she did or didn’t do, she was not endowed with the magic skills that could change anything.
“What will be, will be. Nothing else to do,” she often sank into nostalgic musing as she swept the kitchen, washed and dried the dishes, cooked corn pies and hearty stews, hung up the clothes in the scorching heat of the rainless summer or baked cakes to sweeten the bitter taste of waiting.
“Soon,” she whispered and occupied her mind and her hands with another unnecessary chore aware that idleness bred jealousy and evil thoughts.
“One day he´ll be back,” she refused to let go of her innate optimism.
She had always been a steadfast and dutiful wife and there simply was no place for bitterness or self-pity in her life. Until Rodolfo’s departure her existence had been like a swing - the twin pivots on which it turned her husband and her work as a housewife. But now one of the pivots was missing and the swing swayed lopsidedly and, feeling lame and incomplete, she languished rather than lived.
When the rain came, she had almost been squeezed dry of hope. It stirred her into wakefulness, and she sat up in the overheated darkness listening to the spatter of drops on the windowpanes. She strained her ear to the good, clean country rain and to the thunder that sounded like the ripping of a giant canvass. She was grateful for it as it meant more than just corn and cabbage and pumpkins poking green heads from the ground, more than the splashes of colour against the awakening sod, more than the abundance of grain that could be expected when the earth drank its fill.
“Soon,” she murmured to the pillow, patted her swollen belly and waited for the sound of footsteps announcing Rodolfo’s return from the city.
The sky wept for eight days and eight nights. The map of cracks filled with water then vanished. The soil changed from a parched crust to a squelchy sponge and, like the sponge, it could absorb only this much and no more. Where once an arid desert reigned, now there was a marshland with slightly less wet promontories and hummocks. The road disappeared under a river of water, thick and sluggish as treacle. And as much as Labarcans had prayed for the rain, they now prayed for it to stop. The water washed away everything the drought had not destroyed. Layers of soil were swept clean of humus leaving behind mire, mud and ooze.
After eight days and nights the downpour relented and became a soft drizzle then stopped completely and when the bank of dense fog burnt off, mosquitoes began to breed with the speed of lightning descending on the village like hordes of Saracens and as hungry. They emerged at night to attack everything that moved and showed a sign of life or a drop of blood. To fight off the invasion the villagers ingested valerian and burnt lavender flowers wrapped in verses from the Scriptures. They swathed their bodies with opium poppy poultices and rubbed them with camphor and eucalyptus oil, but the army of insects respected neither the Holy Verses nor the overpowering odours emanating from their victims.
The land was soon taken over by slugs, snails and frogs. Squatting around the yards they resembled a big slimy carpet, fat and glistening with multi-spherical orbs and hungry proboscises. The slugs and snails slid along walls leaving meandering silver paths in their wake. The frogs croaked a never-ending concerto as if praising the rain and the marshland, as if asserting their indisputable right to the place.
When all remedies had failed it was Amparo’s idea to consult Black Celestino. Even though the boldo prescribed by him had failed to have a noticeable effect on her unborn child, she had blindly believed in his wisdom.
“Let’s go and see Celestino,” she suggested. “He will know what to do. If it doesn’t work we have nothing to lose.”
They set off to the sage’s house keeping an open eye on some unusual but interesting phenomena one could expect near the old man’s hut. They found it surrounded by muddy waters but strangely without any of the cohorts plaguing the village.
Black Celestino, his eyes sparkling in the corrugated face, the beard long and shaggy, came out of the house.
“Butterwort,” he said, preliminaries not being something he cared for.
“The slugs and snails feed on the mosquitoes. Eliminate the insects and you’ll get rid of the other creatures.”
Thus said, he returned to the shack.
“Butterwort? What the hell is that? The old man has gone completely crazy,” decreed Aurelio Parada, the owner of the inn.
But when they pondered the meaning of his words, someone remembered a strange violet flower, the inhabitant of marshlands that devoured the insects it managed to trap in its honey-tasting mouth.
They began planting the same day. By the end of the week, the village was overrun by row upon row of butterwort multiplying in gardens, burgeoning along soggy roads, and taking over vegetable patches. And the plants did not linger taking their job with zest. Drawn by the sweet smell of honey, the insects perished in the beautiful but deadly jaws by millions The butterwort throve and grew to unimaginable heights but before the month was over, there was not a single mosquito around and with them the frogs and slugs and snails vanished as if by a trick of magic.
Gradually, things got back to normal. The river, choked by floating vegetation and debris, calmed down. The hills, swathed in greenery, exhaled steamy clouds of evaporating water. Warm breeze shook droplets off trees and bushes. The land absorbed the mud, slime and ooze, the cracks healed and, lacking nourishment, the butterwort wilted and died leaving a layer of natural fertiliser and heavy fungoid odours of decomposition as if dozens of corpses had washed out of recently dug out graves.
Shaking off mildewed feelings of gloom Labarcans sighed with relief. The hardship was over. It was time to plough and plant and wait for grain to ripen in the sheaves.
And it was then, surrounded by all the public rejoicing and exultation, that Amparo understood that Rodolfo would never come back. That the satisfaction of having a healthy, normal child would be denied to her. That the Parra curse would follow her all her life and would inextricably wind into the life of the unborn – a child conceived from a poisoned seed.
ANGANDEEP KR CHATTERJEE
BENSON PHILLIP LOTT
DENNIS J. KAFALAS
ELISE DANIELLE IRWIN
ERIN X. WONG
JAMES RODERICK BURNS
J. B. POLK
L. L. FRIEDMAN