Dear Cousin

Tara Goedjen

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From the jungle they watch her, but she doesn’t know this. She sits on the third-story verandah with her monkey, Don Sergio de Ferdinand, who fiddles with her birthstone. Sergio spits apple and leaps into the branches of a nearby tree. The vines twisting up the lattice are still wet. Daily showers followed by sun and wind gusts—rain that dries soon after it finishes. She reaches for an ink pen, trying to steady her hands.

Dear Cousin, my Izzy,

The letter is too white and she abandons it. Parrots shriek from the twisted branches of the tree where she has buried gold. At dusk when the sun has nearly disappeared behind the hills, the forest line spreads gray and subdued. Now there is still light enough to see the tree where three sets of initials are slashed. The lightning-struck tree with the termite sack. Its branches home to the tree boa.

When she walks to the east railing, decorated with orchids that Don Sergio hops between, she sees the village in the distance. Corrugated tin roofs, white walls, the mud of the roads. Smoke rises from the rubble of the hospital. The guerillas’ second warning. A fire and road blockade to cut off the supply of medicine. Men with machetes and greased faces. Children holding guns.

Ernesto!

He’s there like her shadow and just as quiet. Mi chombo. He stares at the floor as if the grain of the wood is more interesting than her face.

Necesito algo.

Sí, claro. All he ever says is yes.

She sends him to the village to find the sick inside the hospital, where her father once worked. Then she yells for Clesey to help her prepare the cots. Clesey is fast, always listens to the witch. The bruja.

This is what they also called her father. This is why the villagers allowed him to keep the mine. They believed in his spirit stories, his healing powers. Power, her father told her, resides in your head and in your heart. Control both and control anyone. She remembers when she was a small girl clutching his leg while dark faces scattered in torchlight. Breaths hot and fast in a circle. A woman screaming, bent with convulsions. It was her job to steady a bowl under the dark drip as her father cut.

And now she is the witch. The healer.

Clesey drags in iron basins and soon Ernesto is back. With him are the wounded, those burnt in the fire. Por favor, an old man begs, his face blistering, por favor. The smell of scorched flesh knocks her back. Don Sergio trembles until Isabella, Ernesto’s small daughter, picks him up, burying her nose in the monkey’s belly.

Hola, don, the child whispers.

Watching Isabella and Sergio, she wants suddenly to hug them—both girl and monkey—but instead she walks out of the glass doors and into the dampness of the rainforest. There she picks what is needed from the shrub layer, taking care to avoid the growth of coca plants claimed by the guerillas. She has known this jungle path for years and years—it led her day and night to her lover. Now she steps firmly between ferns and moss, her slippers soft over the decaying leaves. She finds bitter melon, bell apple, and sarsaparilla to act as antibiotic. Cat’s claw, worm bush, and guava for inflammation. For those burned, she fingers the jagged blades of the billy goat weed and pockets its black fruit. There is bitterwood for hysteria.

After her patients are treated they leave her house in wraps if they are able and new ones arrive. Back and forth these stiff shadows trail the hills, attracting attention. Soon Clesey yells for her at the front entrance. Visitors. Four men in green jackets. Dust covering their arrogant faces. They ask for money. They thumb the lobes of her ears with cigarettes cradled between their fingers.

Muy flaca, they say. Siempre, sí?

They think it’s funny. A boss woman. A witch. They laugh loud, tears come to their eyes. They yank the fabric of her dress until she’s pressed against them. Sour breath on her cheek. She looks up at the sky and her dress feels so loose that she believes she’s as thin as they say. They tell her to quit causing trouble. They slit their throats with their fingers and whistle. She could come with them, they say, if she’s a virgin they will take her as a wife. More laughter. A young woman shouldn’t play games with men.

I’m not so young, she says, and they laugh again.

She pays her dues and they say: no, not enough. They tell her they’ll come back soon for more. They know how to threaten, how to stick three fingers in her face. Only three warnings, senora, y entonces

And then what? She doesn’t ask. She doesn’t want to know. Sí, claro, she says, nodding, trying to keep her voice even.

She climbs onto the roof to watch them go. She steps onto the iron railing and remembers her cousin, also a pale-skinned gringa, doing the same many years ago. Balancing on the railing and then leaping the gap to grab the tree limbs. Her cousin slipped and broke her legs. You could have broken your neck, her father had yelled at them. She had thrown herself in front of Izzy so he wouldn’t hit her. Her cousin, her beloved rival—a heap of blonde hair and limbs and red mouth wailing on the stone floor.

She wouldn’t make the same mistake. Her slipper wobbles on the railing and she steadies herself. She reaches for the gutter, relieved when her fingers clasp the lip. Don Sergio clicks his tongue and follows her onto the mansard roof. There, crouching on the tile, they watch the men retreat. Their jeeps bounce over potholes, flinging dirt and exhaust in their wake. They barrel over a stray dog and its yelp is lost in their laughter. They’ll keep returning until nothing is left. Until even the mine is gone. The mine that was her grandfather’s, then her father’s, now passed to her. She has never thought of it as a gift.

It has been so long.

She stops writing and tucks the letter into the pocket of her dress.

A day later, a third warning. The last, if they are true to their word. She perches on the roof again and wonders if they are watching her. Laughing at her. A woman in slippers and a skirt on a rooftop. A woman who thinks she is fit to be a monkey. She pulls a spyglass from her pocket and sees her workers wandering through the jungle to the mine, the gray film of early morning about them. They come dressed in jeans and long-sleeves and hats, the skin dark below their hair and darker still by end of day. The women haul their babies in cloth looped over their shoulders like miniature hammocks. Mothers who sing as they crouch in the tailings—white heaps of blasted waste rock—where they search for leftover gold.

Ernesto! she calls, sliding off the roof and dropping to the verandah.

He’s there in a moment, his head bowed. Smelling of earth. His black-lined nails, calloused hands. She remembers how she and Izzy would twist their long blonde hair into curls and then walk into the jungle and call for him. Waiting on their backs, the trees high above. Pinpricks of sunlight through the leaves and then the shadow of his body.

Ernesto, she says again. Her voice wavers. She wants him to stand over her again, to lean into her and make demands, but instead he’s silent. Her cheeks flush and she tells him to invite the workers to supper. It might be the last.

Sí, he says.

He won’t meet her eyes, instead staring at her neck. Her silk dress. She warns him to watch his daughter. Isabella is down in the courtyard, balancing on the stones of the well. Round and round the ledge she races, Don Sergio on her shoulder. She gestures at the child and Ernesto stands closer now. His breath draws in and out evenly, not fast like her own. His breath she would like to feel again—she needs to feel it, she is suffocating. Still, he won’t look at her. Once, long ago, he called her weak. His eyelashes are coarse and the length of her fingernail. She looks away from him, at the mine in the distance.

The open pit. Its crater sprawls to the south edge of her property. Dirt spread in ripples and molten in the light. She cannot pinpoint the exact color of the ore. From her house it looks like a yellow and red bowl. All brightness and heat. The colors of a sunfall, of cayenne pepper in olive oil, of Don Sergio’s wounds the day she found him. Of Ernesto’s swollen lips when she and Izzy had finished.

She sighs and blinks; Ernesto has slid the eyeglass into her pocket. His footsteps echo down the verandah until they fade into silence. She fingers her book of matches and then the letter. She unfolds it on her thigh.

I thought you’d never come again.

Then she sits and clutches the pen and writes nothing. She smells plantañas frying in sugar. Walking to the kitchen, she catches little Isabella by the dress and then plaits her hair with ribbons. She fastens a red ribbon around Don Sergio’s small wrist. Clesey scurries, tending to large iron pots of beans and rice simmering on the stove.

Workers sit at a table that Isabella sets, standing on her tiptoes to reach it. The line of men extends out the door. Their number has dwindled, she thinks, counting as she walks outside. The torches she has lit shine on their black hair. The men are restless. They speak of gunshots in the middle of the night. Of smugglers. Of people taken while sleeping and yet to return. People who can never be healed. She knows their fates. Buried in the earth are metal and bones.

The guerillas want to scare the workers into a revolt against her. She tugs the hairs on Don Sergio’s chin and thinks of what her father would do. Remembers his bent head over the ledger on the smooth oak table. Papers shuffling. See? he asked. See how you run this business? You are a quick learner. You are a Ferdinand. Lessons in language, lessons in mathematics. Numbers written in ink up her arm. Men understood numbers. Numbers made them brave. She announces that she will raise the workers’ salaries.

A cheer goes up. Mouths full of tortilla grin at her.

She will go to their church.

Another cheer.

Sunday. She stares at the white of the paper and it swims before her. She can manage only a sentence. A sentence is enough penance for one day, and, after all, she is going to mass.

It was foolish, our game. Three children who thought themselves old.

The priest allows her to pass through the chapel doors without resistance, though she feels his eyes. Smells his incense-scented robe that billows as he walks.

Doña, he says, and nods curtly.

Inside, the tiny church is more cavern than cathedral. She tightens the scarf across her shoulders. She wears her wide brimmed hat, for she no longer exposes her skin to the sun. A thin gold belt looped around her waist. She shouldn’t have concerned herself. In the chapel the workers worship in jeans. Thick hair slicked into razor-straight parts for the men and careful braids for the women. All of them praying to their statues and ornaments. Figurines made of plastic and wood.

Saints that have done nothing for them.

One of her men strums a guitar and she mouths the words, but doesn’t sing. She wonders if the guerillas will burn the church. This house that gives her workers peace. Where they look up at the ceiling as if it holds a promise. Their trust so large that they gratefully shed their earthly belongings, the small amount they have. She throws pesos into the hand-woven basket. Hopes her men are watching. After mass she’ll go to the priest and beg for his help. Perhaps he has connections. Perhaps the mine and the house can be saved from the guerillas. She bows her head, miming prayer, and she is almost praying. The priest doesn’t take his eyes from her during his homily. Sed libera nos a malo, he says. Latin, but close enough to comprehend: Deliver us from evil. His eyes never stray from hers.

Since her father’s death, the priest has protested against her mine. Her methods. Your sodium cyanide, he told her, is leaking into our water supply. You want to kill us all? She had smiled, though secretly she took note of his suggestions. Wouldn’t you like to go to heaven, Father? she asked. Chemicals had never bothered him before. It was only when he buried her father that he began to ask questions. He wanted to know about her servants. How she ran her household. Clesey was nursing Isabella the day she opened the door and let him inside. He made the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead. He spoke of ethics, of pecado. Sin.

Deliver us from evil. Deliver us, she thinks, deliver us, deliver us.

After mass she enters the confessional box—a gift to the church from her father. She kneels on the red velvet cushion of the bench and looks through the bars.

It feeds this village, she says. Your parishioners. There are new babies every year.

True, he says. Have you baptized yours?

I have no children.

She should have known that it would go this way. That the priest wouldn’t equate gold with bread. Without the mine, no one would eat or drink, no matter how pure the water. And yet . . .

Don’t you believe in God and the Holy Spirit?

I believe in ghosts, she says.

Diablita, he whispers.

For a man who believes in demons, he lacks imagination. On her way out, she pulls a matchbook from her pocket and lights a candle for her father, in case it is dark where he is.

She has a plan, but the thought of it makes her stomach hurt. She can feel them closing on her. She remembers a time when a challenge gave her a cheap thrill, made her suck air through her teeth and grin. Made her wriggle herself against him all the more harder. But now her breath lodges in her lungs.

Ernesto.

She moves closer to him. Rests her cheek against his shoulder. Silent, he lets her lean. Ernesto, she repeats. Their shadows blend together on the terracotta floor. Ernesto. She feels she might choke again. She wants to say more but cannot. She has made her promises to the dead.

Sí?

Her hand finds his wrist. Then she can speak, though her words are rushed, half-breathless. She whispers her plan: Have the workers come one last day. They must hurry. His breath soft on her neck as he listens. Then he steps away and she follows him, wondering if he still thinks she is cold. She remembers how she used to stand on his feet when her father wasn’t home. Their steps the same—a tangled, swaggering march. They could do this, if they hurry. She grabs his hand, her palm damp against his large dry one. As her grip tightens, she sees the start of a smile at the corner of his mouth. She wants to kiss him. She wants to tell him her whole plan, all of it.

Then he turns and yells: Isabella! Footsteps patter and the girl runs through the doorway and stands before them. Isabella, Ernesto says again. His hand moves to the glossy crown of his daughter’s head. His love is for her. The child lifts up Don Sergio as if he were an offering.

As Ernesto and the girl leave the room, she takes the monkey and presses his warm body against her ribs, which now surrender only shallow breaths. She tugs the white whiskers of Don Sergio’s beard. Remembers when her father brought him home. An eagle had dropped the young monkey into the pit and her father had rescued him. Had rubbed ointment on the gashes in Sergio’s back. He showed unexpected patience with animals.

She pulls the letter from her pocket and paces through the house. She treads each hallway, the circumference of every room, until she can hardly breathe from the fumes. Don Sergio rides her shoulder as she climbs the stairs to the verandah, level with the highest of the trees.

Father sent you away. And warned Ernesto. Later when he saw what came from me his heart stopped . . .

Her hand shakes, her fingers grip the pen. Hiding inside her fingers are bones. She can no longer write so instead she watches the ramp near her mine, just beyond the trees. A dump truck roars, its shocks squeaking along the road that runs to the heap. This is the place where the priest takes issue. The place where she extracts gold from ore. Her lines of black hoses and carefully cut ponds. Her leaching solution—the sodium cyanide. This is not the only poison, though.

. . . but not his speech: Don’t disgrace this house. Ernesto named her after you.

She holds the looking glass. Through it she sees into the downstairs window, where Isabella and Clesey are setting out empty pots inside the rooms. Ernesto moves the furniture to the walls. Hurry, she thinks. Please hurry. She should be working, too. A gray sheet of rain at the horizon rushes over the leaves of the jungle until it splatters across the verandah floor and soaks her dress. Yes, she thinks. Soon the rain will stop and the sun will dry the water and her plan will be perfect. But for now her dress is wet and cool and she remembers the night they spent at the river. Ernesto’s and Izzy’s kisses as she stood alone under an encenillo tree, its branches the shape of fingerbones. The human metacarpus, her father would say.

Now she watches Ernesto grab the edge of the dining table, dragging it across the room. It seats twelve and is the most valuable item, its wood engraved by a cubist. Her father’s last gift to her, because, he said, she should refine her sense of beauty. The engraving in the wood is best admired from a vantage point above the table. If she stands in the stairwell, she sees the distorted outline of a serving woman, her neck angled in submission, a bowl of abundance in her hands. Aren’t you lucky, her father had said, that you were born a Ferdinand.

When the rain stops, she watches from the verandah as the workers wind down the drying hills from the village to the bruja’s house. Their hushed voices shivering the air. In the great room, Clesey draws the bamboo blinds on the windows and her workers start fires in the small hanging pots. Here, with the time they have before the guerillas arrive, they’ll extract gold using mercury, a trick her father taught her. Cotton rags are pushed into the waists of their jeans. With the rags they wipe the sweat from their temples and squeeze out the mercury. A final, hasty effort to take some before all is taken. All I can do, she thinks. Perhaps she should have given it to them long ago. Perhaps.

From the hiding spot in the jungle, the place where the truck dumped the heaps of mud and crushed gravel, Ernesto loads the wagon and carts it across the courtyard to fill the burning pots. Listening to the mercury pour, she feels as though her father is still alive. She still hears his inventory lessons, his ceaseless counting. His recitations. Thirty thousand hectares. Forty thousand ounces per day. Now the ore tumbles into the pots and her men sift gold with their spoons. She silently weighs the amount in her head as if holding it on her tongue. She is barren now but the land is not.

Here in this shimmering room I made the ring on your finger.

While the men work, Don Sergio clings to her, his nails reminders of impending sharpness. She peers out to the road and spies their jeeps coming for the mine. Dirt and exhaust cloud the air like the fumigation mists farther south, poison delivered by foreign governments.

Vayanse! she shouts. Vayanse!

She hurries away the men who crowd her rooms, their blue-tipped fires flaring. Hurry! Go! She tells Ernesto to guide them through the jungle but for once he refuses and with heavy pockets, they’re already running outside. There’s a sharp clap like a shot and then several more—pop pop pop—and Don Sergio whimpers on her shoulder.

There are more shots—pop pop pop—and the men run from her house, most escaping into the safety of the forest. An older man trips, the gold tumbles from his pockets and scatters. The jeeps swerve past the nails she has left in the road. Their headlights intent upon her house, her workers. Frightened, Don Sergio claws at her neck and then rushes to Isabella in the stairwell. The child’s eyes wide and dark, just like Ernesto’s.

Hurry, she says. She grabs Isabella’s small hand and tugs. Carries the girl to the courtyard and tells her to run into the jungle. Vayate! Isabella screams for her father but she screams louder and then slaps the child’s face—Ahora, ahora! Vayate!—until finally the girl disappears into the labyrinth of trees.

Ernesto! she shouts, climbing the lattice to the verandah. Ernesto! She wants him at her side. He was supposed to be with her, at her side. It was part of the plan. Please father, send him to my side, she thinks. Please father, I will not disgrace your home, never again. Please padre, please God, please saints and angels and ghosts, holy or otherwise . . .

But, too late. Their jeeps screech to a halt and they’re charging the door. Ernesto! she screams once more and finally he appears. She sees him through the window. He looks at her and says something and then she covers her mouth to keep from shrieking as they corner him—his eyes still steady on hers. Isabella, he might be saying. The soldiers claim his body like her cousin once did. They push him back against the table and then slice his throat and laugh when his blood trickles into the wooden grooves of the table. Clesey screams from the corner of the room when they catch hold of her wrists and lick her cheek. They will take her later. For now they grin gold-toothed and leave her be.

Don Sergio leaps from her hands to the branches and begins to howl. She feels dizzy as she turns. Dizzy as she reaches into her pocket.

Cousin, you must realize why I asked you not to come here. That when you did, despite my warning—

There’s no time to finish. Hurry. She reaches again into her pocket, finds the matchbook and next to it the wrapped object she found on her doorstep over a week ago. The first warning: her cousin’s finger. Wider than the width of her pen and bundled in a ransom note. The ring on her cousin’s knuckle as proof. There isn’t time to finish the letter, but she knows what she would write: When they asked that your ransom be the mine, I could not say yes. I could not say, Sí, claro. I am my father’s daughter.

Enough. Her letter is pointless. Its words a disgrace, like the stain she has poured through the house. A shiny goodbye. Matchbook in hand, she peels off her white dress, its hem drenched with gasoline, and lays it on the verandah. As the green uniforms choke the stairs, she strikes a match. She cups its small warmth with her palm and then climbs onto the iron railing, close to the jungle’s branches.

She will leap. She will find Don Sergio. She will find Isabella, because Don Sergio loves her. And together they’ll watch as the house shines with all inside.

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