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My intention with these pages is to leave you a testimony of my life. I imagine someday, when you are old and less busy, you might want to stop and remember me. You have a terrible memory since you’re always so distracted and that defect gets worse with age. I think you’ll see that my life story is worthy of a novel, because of my sins more than my virtues. You have received many of my letters, where I’ve detailed much of my existence, minus the sins, but you must make good on your promise to burn them when I die, because they are overly sentimental and often cruel. This recount of my life is meant to replace that excessive correspondence.
I love you more than anyone in this world,
Santa Clara, September 2020
I came into the world one stormy Friday in 1920, the year of the scourge. The evening of my birth the electricity went out, something that often happened during storms, so they lit candles and kerosene lamps, which were always kept on hand for these types of emergencies. María Gracia, my mother, began to feel the contractions, a sensation she knew well since she’d already birthed five sons, and she surrendered to the pain, resigned to bring another male into the world with the help of her sisters, who had assisted her through the difficult process several times. The family doctor had been working tirelessly for weeks in one of the field hospitals and she felt it imprudent to call him for something as prosaic as childbirth. On previous occasions they had used a midwife, always the same one, but the woman had been among the first to fall victim to the flu and they didn’t know of anyone else.
To my mother it seemed she’d spent the entirety of her adult life either pregnant, recovering from childbirth, or convalescing after a miscarriage. Her oldest son, José Antonio, had turned seventeen, she was sure of that, because he had been born the same year as one of our worst earthquakes, which knocked half the country to the ground and left thousands of deaths in its wake. But she could never precisely recall the ages of her other sons nor how many pregnancies she’d failed to carry to term. Each miscarriage had left her incapacitated for months and after each birth she’d felt exhausted and melancholic for a long while. Before getting married she had been the most beautiful debutante in the capital, slender, with an unforgettable face, green eyes, and translucent skin, but the extremes of motherhood had distorted her body and drained her spirit.
She loved her sons, in theory, but in practice she preferred to keep them at a comfortable distance. The exuberant band of boys was as disruptive as a battle in her peaceful feminine realm. She’d once admitted during confession that she felt doomed to bear only sons, like a curse from the Devil. In penitence she was ordered to recite a rosary every day for two years straight and to make a sizeable donation to the church renovation fund. Her husband forbade her from returning to confession.
Under my aunt Pilar’s direction, Torito, the boy we employed for a wide range of chores, climbed a ladder to hang a labor sling from two steel hooks that he himself had installed in the ceiling. My mother, kneeling in her nightdress, each hand pulling at a strap, pushed for what felt like an eternity, cursing like a pirate, using words she’d never utter under normal circumstances. My aunt Pía, crouched between her legs, waited to receive the newborn baby before he could fall to the floor. She had already prepared the infusions of nettle, artemisia, and rue for after the birth. The clamor of the storm, which beat against the shutters and ripped tiles from the roof, drowned out the low moans and then the long final scream as I began to emerge, first a head, followed by a body covered in mucus and blood, slipping through my aunt’s fingers and crashing down onto the wood floor.
“You’re so clumsy, Pía!” Pilar shouted, holding me up by one foot. “It’s a girl!” she added, surprised.
“It can’t be, check him good,” my mother mumbled, exhausted.
“I’m telling you, sister, she doesn’t have a willy,” Pilar responded.
That night, my father returned home late, after dinner and several hands of cards at the club, and went directly to his room to change his clothes and rub himself down with alcohol as a precautionary measure before greeting his family. He ordered a glass of cognac from the housekeeper on shift, who didn’t think to give him the news because she wasn’t accustomed to speaking to the boss, and then he went to say hello to his wife. The rusty smell of blood warned him of what had occurred before he’d even crossed the threshold. He found his wife in bed, flushed, her hair damp with sweat, wearing a clean nightdress, resting. They’d already removed the straps from the ceiling and the buckets of soiled rags.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me!” he exclaimed after kissing his wife on the forehead.
“How could we have? The driver was with you and none of us were going out on foot in that storm, assuming your henchmen would even let us,” Pilar responded coldly.
“It’s a girl, Arsenio. You finally have a daughter,” Pía interrupted, showing him the bundle she held in her arms.
“Thank God!” my father muttered, but his smile faded as he saw the creature peeking out from the folds of the blanket. “She has a lump on her forehead!”
“Don’t worry. Some babies are born that way. It goes down after a few days. It’s a sign of intelligence,” Pilar improvised to avoid mentioning that his daughter has crashed headfirst into life.
“What are you going to name her?” Pía asked.
“Violeta,” my mother said firmly, without giving her husband a chance to chime in.