Sunday, August 11, 2013

River (Pt. IX)

Hope dies hard. And on the occasion of finding the child, this truth served Guadalupe well.

Early in her marriage, Guadalupe had sewn a wardrobe of baby clothes in expectation of the child that she and Máximo would someday have. As the years passed and Guadalupe's womb remained empty, the baby clothes made their way to a trunk in a corner of her sewing room. As the hope faded further, the trunk made its way to the cellar. But Guadalupe had never forgotten the sad little garments. 

On the day she found the child, she brought him in and laid him naked on her bed, then hurried to the cellar and dragged out the old chest. The clothes were there, neatly folded and smelling surprisingly fresh. She hurried back to try them on the child who gurgled happily as she poked his arms and legs into the sleeves. She took it as a sign from God that the clothes fit perfectly.

Next, she went to the goat pen and tried to squeeze milk from the udder of a less-than-obliging nanny. The goat had recently kidded and was stingy with her milk, but Guadalupe knew a trick or two. She found the kid and strapped it to the nanny's side with its head toward the udder. After that, the milk flowed freely into the pail. 

She returned to the bedroom to find the child wide awake and staring solemnly at the shadows playing on the walls. She fashioned a nursing bottle from some cloth and a flask and fed the child until he fell asleep in her arms.

As he slept, Guadalupe's thoughts turned to the matter of the child's mother. Where was she? How had her child come to be on the stream bank near Guadalupe's home? 

Puerto Rico was a dangerous place in those days, and Guadalupe had no trouble imagining a likely story. Civilization, such as it was, had spread all along the shores of the island, but the interior hills were a different story. Escaped slaves, stranded pirates and common criminals inhabited the dark places in the forest, keeping out of sight and beyond the reach of Spanish law. Doubtless, the child was the product of some liaison among the hidden people. The mother, whoever she was, put her child in the basket and sent it down the stream, hoping for the best. After all, even a watery death for the newborn could be no worse than the fate that awaited it in the wild interior.

The more Guadalupe thought about it, the more convinced she became that the child had come to her through an act of God. As He decreed, thus would it be. For the sake of the child and, yes, for the sake of Guadalupe and Máximo who were basically decent, pious people, her Christian duty was clear. 

She decided against making inquiries in San Juan to find the child's mother. 

And although she was sure in her faith, she repeated the rationale to Ingrid, the old slave woman who kept the chickens and cooked meals for her. As Ingrid stirred a kettle over the flames in the kitchen, Guadalupe explained how she had no choice but to keep the child for herself and her husband. It was God's will. Ingrid, mute and impassive, nodded. Guadalupe was never sure how much Spanish the old woman understood. 

The Caribbean were troubled waters in those times. A swash-buckling brigand known to the local authorities as El Cocodrilo del Mar terrorized the waters between Veracruz and Havana and word reached Guadalupe that Máximo's return would be delayed. The notorious Cocodrilo had boarded and looted a fully-laden merchant ship just as it was leaving for Sevilla and the Spanish commodore had ordered a restriction on travel between the islands while his fleet sought the ever-illusive Cocodrilo

Guadalupe greeted the news of her husband's delay with ambivalence. On the one hand, Máximo's absence gave her time to prepare. He was a stolid, unimaginative man and Guadalupe was not sure how he would react to the discovery of an infant of unknown origin under his roof. The extra time afforded by his absence could be put to good use accommodating the child in the house. Máximo would be easier to win over if he returned to a smoothly functioning household.

On the other hand, Guadalupe was already stretched to her limit running the house, seeing to the farm's affairs, and overseeing the slaves. The addition of a child who required constant attention required time that she simply did not have.

But Guadalupe's faith was rewarded.

One morning, having left the child in Ingrid's care, Guadalupe hitched the plow horse to the cart and drove to the market before the gate of San Juan. As she urged the old nag across a muddy ford in a stream that cut the road, she notice a young woman by the water, bent with grief. The girl lay in the mud, face to the ground, her slight frame wracked with sobs.

Guadalupe reined up and called to the girl, who lifted her face to reveal a tear-streaked brown face. Shabby clothes and calloused, bare feet spoke of a life of poverty and destitution.

"Why do you cry, child?" Guadalupe asked.

The girl's reply was angry and full of venom. "Because I am bereft and powerless and my enemy has taken my happiness from me."

Guadalupe responded with a puzzled frown.

The girl continued, interrupting herself with pitiful sobs. "Not long ago, I gave birth to a child, an angel. He was my life. But one day, when I went to the river to bathe him, a squall came up from the sea and the stream flooded and carried him off. This very stream. Since that day, I have followed it, hoping against hope to find my child. And now, here I am and the sea is there and I know my child has passed beyond my reach forever and I am left with nothing. And I curse fate for taking away my purpose."
Guadalupe's mind churned. Could it really be? 

In the tiny, eternal wake of the girl's soliloquy, the course of fate was laid out before Guadalupe. She spoke. "Come, child," she said. She patted the cart bench next to her. "I have work for you."

The girl rose like a marionette dangling from the hand of some unknown puppet master. Wordlessly, she climbed onto the cart and took a seat beside Guadalupe, who wiped her face with the folds of her skirt. "All will be as it must, child," Guadalupe told her.

As she wheeled the cart around, clucking at the horse and shaking the reins, Guadalupe felt her heart settle into its new channel. God in His infinite wisdom, had sent this girl to her to fill the voids in each of their spirits.  Guadalupe was never more sure of anything in her life.

Together, they would raise the child in a godly fashion. 

To be continued... 

Read Part I here.Read Part II here
Read Part III here
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here
Read Part VI here
Read Part VII here
Read Part VIII here
Read Part IX here.  
Read Part X here
Read Part XI here
Read Part XII here.  
Read Part XIII here
Read Part XIV here
Read Part XV here.  
Read Part XVI here
Read Part XVII here
Read Part XVIII here.

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