Luzmila, on the other hand, did make comments the day she came to visit, despite the fact that Damaris at no point carried the dog around in her brassiere, instead keeping her in the box as long as she could. Unlike Rogelio, Luzmila didn’t hurt animals, but she did revile them and was the type of person who saw the negative side to everything and spent all day criticizing others.
Most of the time, the puppy just slept. When she woke up, Damaris would feed her and put her out on the grass to do her business. During the time Luzmila was there she woke up twice, and both times Damaris fed her and stuck her out on the grass, which was soaking because it had rained all night long and all morning too.
Damaris would have preferred that Luzmila not meet the dog, not even know she had one, but she wasn’t going to let her pup go hungry or soil herself. The sky and sea were one solid gray stain and the air so damp that a fish could have lived out of water. Damaris wanted to dry the puppy’s paws with a towel and rub her body with her hands to warm the little girl up before setting her back in the box, but she stopped herself since Luzmila kept staring at her with those evil eyes of hers.
“You are going to kill that animal, you keep touching it so much,” she said.
Damaris was hurt by the comment, but she kept quiet. It wasn’t worth a fight. Then, wearing her disgusted face, Luzmila asked what the dog’s name was, and Damaris had to tell her: Chirli. They were first cousins and had been raised together since birth, so they knew everything about one another.
“Chirli, like the beauty queen?” Luzmila laughed. “Isn’t that what you were going to name your daughter?”
Damaris had been unable to have children. She and Rogelio got together when she was eighteen, and when she’d been with him for two years people started saying “Where are the babies?” and “Sure taking your time.” They were doing nothing to prevent a pregnancy so Damaris started drinking infusions made from mountain herbs—María and Espíritu Santo—the people said were very good for fertility.
Back then they lived in town, in a rented apartment, and she would walk up to gather the herbs on the bluff without asking permission from the property owners. Though it felt a little dishonest, she considered it her business and no one else’s. She prepared and drank the infusions secretly, while Rogelio was out fishing or hunting.
He began to suspect that Damaris was up to something and one day trailed her like an animal he was hunting, Without her realizing. When Rogelio saw the herbs he thought they were for witchcraft and confronted her, furious.
“What are you doing with this shit?!” he asked. “What are you up to?”
It was drizzling outside. They were deep in the jungle, in an ugly spot where the trees had been felled for electricity cables to get through. The rotting trunks, still standing, looked like untended graves in a cemetery. Rogelio was in swamp boots but she, barefoot, had mud-covered feet. Damaris hung her head and, in a quiet voice, told him the truth. He stood in silence for a spell.
“I am your husband,” he said finally, “you are not in this alone.”
From then on, they gathered the herbs together, and at night argued over what names they’d give their children. Since they couldn’t agree on any, not a single one, they decided that he would choose the boys’ and she the girls’. They wanted four, ideally two of each. But two more years went by and then they had to tell anyone who asked that she just wasn’t getting pregnant. People started to avoid the topic and Aunt Gilma suggested Damaris go see Santos.
Though it was a man’s name, Santos was not a man but the daughter of a black woman from Chocó and an indigenous man from lower San Juan. She knew herbs and could heal by touch—rubbing people’s bodies—and by secrets—invoking words and prayers. She tried a little of everything on Damaris and when it all failed she said the problem must be her husband, and to bring him in. Though it was clear he was uneasy about the whole thing, Rogelio drank all the potions, accepted all the prayers, and put up with all of Santo’s rubbing. But the longer they went without her getting pregnant the more reluctant he became, and one day he announced he wasn’t going back. Damaris took this as a personal attack and stopped speaking to him.
Though they continued to live together, and to sleep in the same bed, they went three months without speaking. Then one night, Rogelio came home a little drunk and told her that he wanted a child too, he just didn’t want the pressure of Santos and her goddam herbs and prayers and rubs. But he was there for her, and if Damaris wanted, they could keep trying. The room they shared at the time was the storeroom of a big house that had long since stopped being the nicest in town. It was in a sorry state now, full of termites and grime, and the room was so narrow it hardly fit the bed, their old box TV, and a two-burner gas cooktop. But it did have a window overlooking the sea.
Damaris stood awhile at the window just feeling the rust-smelling breeze on her face. When Rogelio finished getting undressed and climbed into bed, she closed the window, lay down next to him, and began to stroke him. That night they had sex without fretting about children or anything else, and from then on they didn’t talk about it anymore—though sometimes when she heard about an acquaintance getting pregnant or a child born in town, Damaris cried silent tears, scrunching up her eyes and fists, after he fell asleep.
When Damaris turned thirty they were doing a little better and had moved to a slightly larger room in the same house. She was working at one of the houses up on the bluff—Señora Rosa’s place—which meant she earned a fixed salary, and Rogelio went out fishing on what people called “wind-and-tides”—boats that spent days on end at high sea and could carry tons of fish. On one trip, Rogelio and his partner caught three grouper, loads of sierra, and found an entire shoal of red snapper they could take—almost a ton and a half in total—so they each made loads of cash. Though he wanted to use it to buy a new drift net and a huge four-speaker sound system, Damaris had been wondering for some time how to say she hadn’t stopped hoping for a child and wanted to try again, no matter what sacrifices they had to make.
Aunt Gilma had told her about a woman who was thirty-eight, far older than her, who’d managed to get pregnant, and now, with the assistance of a jaibaná—an indigenous doctor who was famous in the next town—had a beautiful baby. His consultations weren’t cheap, but with the money they’d saved they could start a treatment. And then they’d see. The night Rogelio announced that he was going to Buenaventura the next day to buy the stereo, Damaris cried.
“I don’t want a stereo,” she said, “I want a baby.”
Sobbing, she told him about the thirty-eight-year-old, about all the times she’d cried silently, about how awful it was that everyone in town could have babies except her, about the stabbing pain she got in her soul every time she saw a pregnant woman or a newborn or a couple with a child, about the sheer torture of always longing for a little baby she could hold and rock against her bosom, only to get her period every month. Rogelio listened without a word, and then he embraced her. They were in bed at the time, so it was a full body embrace, and that’s how they fell asleep.
The jaibaná treated Damaris for a long time. He gave her potions and baths, invited her to ceremonies where he anointed her, rubbed her, blew smoke at her, prayed for her, chanted to her. Then he did the same to Rogelio, who this time didn’t have a bad attitude or give up. And this was all just preparation. The actual treatment was to be an operation he’d give Damaris, but without opening her up anywhere, an operation that would cleanse the paths that her egg and Rogelio’s sperm needed to travel and prepare her womb to receive the child. It cost a lot, and they had to save a whole year to pay for it.
The operation took place one night at the jaibaná’s clinic, which was a thatched-roof hut on very high stilts out past the next town, in the middle of a barren hill whose trees had been felled, a hill teeming with biting midges, brushland, prickly ferns, and grasses that grew together and tangled over each other. Damaris and Rogelio said goodbye outside the hut, because nobody but her and the jaibaná were allowed to be present.
Once they were alone, the jaibaná gave her a dark bitter liquid to drink and told her to lie on the floor, on top of a mattress. She was wearing knee-length leggings and a short-sleeved blouse, and the second she lay down she was attacked by a cloud of mitches that left the jaibaná alone but bit her all over, even her ears and her scalp and through her clothes. Then suddenly they disappeared and Damaris heard an owl hooting in the distance. The owl’s call slowly grew closer and when it got so loud that this was the only thing she could hear, Damaris fell asleep.
She didn’t feel anything else, and the next day woke up with all her clothes intact, the same dull ache in her back as ever, nothing about her body feeling different. Rogelio was waiting for her outside and took her home.
Damaris wasn’t even late that month, and the jaibaná said there was nothing else he could do for them. In a way it was a relief, since having sex had become a burden. They stopped having it, at first maybe just as a break, and she felt freed but at the same time crushed and inadequate, a disgrace as a woman, a freak of nature.
By that time they were living on the bluff. Their shack had a small living room, two narrow rooms, a bathroom with no shower, and a counter with no sink where they could have put a stove, though instead they choose to cook outside in the gazebo, which was large and had a big sink and a wood fire, meaning they could save on the cost of gas cylinders. The shack was tiny; Damaris could clean the whole place in under two hours. But she threw herself into her chores so obsessively during those days that it took a week. She scrubbed the wall planks inside and out, the top as well as the underside of the floorboards, used the toothbrush to scrape gunk from between the joints, a nail to dig out anything in the holes and groups in the wood, and cleaned the inside of the sheet-metal roof with a sponge. In order to accomplish all of this she had to climb on a plastic chair, on the kitchen counter, and on the toilet tank, which, since it was ceramic, broke beneath her weight and then they had to save to replace it.
Two months later, when Rogelio reached for Damaris again, she rejected him, and the following night she rejected him again, and so on like this for a week until he stopped trying. Damaris was glad. She no longer fooled herself about the possibility of getting pregnant, no longer waited anxiously for her period not to come, no longer suffered when it did. But he, bitter or resentful, began to reprimand her for breaking the toilet tank, and every time anything—a plate, a jar, a glass—slipped from her hands, which was often, he criticized and mocked her. “Butterfingers,” he said, “you think dishes grow on trees?” “Next time I’m charging you, you hear me?” One night, on the pretext that he was snoring and keeping her awake, Damaris moved to the other room and never came back.
Now here she was about to turn forty, the age women dry up, as she’d once heard Tío Eliécer say. Not long before, the day she adopted the puppy, Luzmila had straightened her hair, and as she was applying the straightener she admired Damaris’s skin, which was in great shape and had no wrinkles or dark spots.
“Look at me, on the other hand,” she said, and by way of explanation added, “Course, you didn’t have kids.”
Luzmila had been in a good mood that day and was simply trying to pay a compliment, but it cut Damaris to the quick, this realization that her cousin, and no doubt everyone else, thought that hers was a lost cause; and it was, she knew, but it was still hard to accept.
So this new comment from her cousin, who at thirty-seven had two daughters and two granddaughters, gave her the urge to be dramatic, like the people on TV novelas, and say—tears in her eyes, so Luzmila would lament her cruelty—“Yes, I named her Chirli, like the daughter I never had.” But she didn’t get dramatic, didn’t say anything at all. She took the puppy back to the box and asked her cousin if that week she’d spoken to her father, Tío Eliécer, who lived in the South and had been feeling poorly of late.