I dreamt of caves, and woke up because my nipple was leaking.
Morning light poured through the cracks between the cabin walls. I listened. Over the sound of the fan, a dozen birds were singing little glass melodies. These were nothing like the birds in New England, with their harsh cries that echo off the frozen ground. Here, the land was green and humming.
I paused while changing out of my nightgown to look at my body in the mirror. My breasts were so swollen they seemed taken from a larger woman’s body. I rubbed at the pillow marks on my cheek and combed a hand through my hair, which had grown soft and supple and was my only consolation amid all my body’s changes. I placed my hands around the taut bottom of my belly and stepped back. I knew I was supposed to treasure this new shape of mine, but in truth, it struck me as ugly.
Last month when Adan called home to Venezuela to tell his father we were pregnant, he began to cry. I was touched at first, listening to the old man sniffling over the speaker, but then he turned to sobs. There was something wrong in his abdomen, he eventually managed, some kind of lump, and the pain was so bad he couldn’t sleep.
If we hadn’t shocked him into this confession, he may have never said anything. My husband’s phone calls with his father usually featured masterful examples of saying nothing in a few words. But once we knew, there was nothing to be done but get our passports and go.
The plan was for me to stay in Adan’s childhood home while he took his father to get some tests done in Caracas. I would rather be on my own a few days than face that parallel world of doctor’s offices and hospitals with their sinister vocabulary I had gotten to know so well last year. Mammogram. Malignant. Metastasis. Adan had offered to take my mother to the doctor then, when her radiation became a daily event, but I refused, jealous of any moment I wasn’t at her side. It had always been just the two of us, my mother and me. From the beginning of my life to the end of hers.
Adan slept beside me in the months after, when I lost track of time, when grief was my blanket and I felt certain the world was not only random but sick—the pastime of some perverted God. Everyday objects struck me as terrifying. The wand of my mascara appeared slick with decay when I pulled it out of its pink tube. The eggbeater hanging in the kitchen looked like a trap for small birds.
Nearly every night, I searched for him between the covers and begged him awake. He didn’t question my motives, but he should have. When I closed my eyes, my desires took on monstrous shapes. I was insatiable. I went to a therapist. I hammered my lust like a metal spike into the smooth rock of her evaluation and used it as an anchor. The truth, I relayed to Adan, was that I wanted a child, and both of us seemed relieved to hear it. The more I thought about it, the more I decided I had never wanted anything more. Images of chestnut curls and lashes crowded my mind. I wanted to name her for my mother and keep her to myself.
Eight months went by, all empty. At the supermarket, I shut my eyes at the sight of small children to stop myself from becoming dizzy with longing. Women with two or more children were my enemy, I despised their surplus.
One night, I reached for Adan and found him dead asleep. I looked at his face, his thick brows framing eyes unlined by worry, one arm flung up over his forehead to reveal the spidery hair and soft brown skin of his underarm.
“I would trade you,” I said quietly. It wasn’t a lie.
I became pregnant soon after. At first I felt warmer, as if floating in shallower waters, but by the second month I just felt sick. It didn’t help that Adan had become anxious, endlessly asking me how I felt, and shouldn’t I take a day off from teaching, and didn’t Dr. Mansouri say no caffeine? Walking around the house, I felt his worries lingered in every room like an odor. I stayed awake long after he’d gone to bed, planning Spanish lessons to leave for the substitute. Once, around 2 a.m., I felt the floorboards undulate softly beneath my feet and gripped the edge of the desk to steady myself. When the movement stopped, I put my head in my hands, and the tears rolled down to my elbows. The doctors said nausea is natural, in my condition.
▴ ▴ ▴
The visitor’s cabin stood on high stilts on the side of a mountain, overlooking the town and valley below. It was linked by a sloping dirt path to Adan’s father’s house, which was nearly at street level. I had chosen to stay in this guest cabin over the main house because I liked the view, and the way it was tucked safely into the steep ridge.
The old man’s dogs swarmed around me as I started down the mountain path, tails wagging. I breathed deeply and felt the air reach all the way to the bottom of my belly. I used to travel alone before I met Adan, and felt now the clarity of mind that came with it. There were no plans to be made. Whatever I wanted to do, whatever small errand I wanted to plan my day around, it was a simple matter of drifting in that direction. Today, it would be groceries. Before he left last night, Adan had written out directions to the town’s supermarket, but I was determined to try the outdoor market, which was bound to be more interesting.
Walking into town, the streets seemed emptier than I remembered from my first visit, four years prior, when Adan and I were still a new couple. The town had seemed bright, bustling and well-cared for. But now I wondered if my memories reflected more of myself during that time than they did of the town. Back then, the world seemed to follow a gentle, steady sort of logic. Now it did not. I tripped over a raised crack in the sidewalk and felt sickened by the smell of mangos fallen beneath the trees. I felt as if I was being watched. A group of boys stopped playing ball to look at me as I crossed the street, their arms hanging limply at their sides.
The market turned out to be an alley near the center of town, where strange items overflowed the storefronts and onto the street. Hairy tubers and thick-skinned green bananas spilled out of crates along the sidewalk, and scaly brown marbles hung in grape-like bunches from tiered wire baskets. The smell of frying oil hung in the thick air, and I realized I was starving. I bought two chicken empanadas and a little plastic shot glass filled with burning-hot coffee. The fried corn shell of the empanada was crunchy and golden. The coffee smelled glorious, like wet, forbidden earth. A little caffeine would do me no harm, I reasoned, and drank it standing up, watching the other shoppers. Two stores down, an older woman was shoving large, dirt-clod roots into a thin plastic bag, which promptly broke. She stood out from the other shoppers, and I wondered if she was one of the local indigenous people. With her round face and long, straight hair, she reminded me of Adan’s late mother, whom I’d only seen in photos—she had died when Adan was very little. The woman lifted her eyes to meet mine, and I smiled. She squinted slightly as she looked me up and down, and did not smile back.
I paid for my breakfast and set off down the alley, determined to find some items I would know how to cook. Browsing the stalls, I noticed a little girl sitting out on a stool in front of a shop. Her blunt bangs fell in front of her eyes as she smiled at something curled in her arms. Not a doll, an armadillo. The child looked up with proud eyes and offered the small creature for me to take.
It was like holding a baby dinosaur. The interlocking plates of its body were warm and earthy-smelling, its scaly armor was covered in sparse white hairs. Its thin snout prodded at my palm inquisitively, and the girl giggled and reached out to stroke it. I smiled, watching her small pointer finger trace the curve of its back.
Suddenly the little hand was jerked out of sight. I straightened up to see a woman with a glossy braid pulling the girl by the arm. The child cried out as the woman pushed her into the shop and pulled the door shut.
The woman whipped around and motioned for me to hand over the armadillo. Her mouth was turned down in fear or disgust.
“Perdón,” I said hurriedly. “I was just looking—”
“Get away,” she said. Her feet were planted on the top step, hands on her hips, chin jutting out in a challenge. A man appeared behind her in the doorway and made shooing motions, as if to a dog. I looked around, unable to believe myself the target of that gesture, and was startled to find the woman I’d locked eyes with earlier standing just behind me. She carried the roots tucked between her arm and body. The man grew silent at the sight of her.
“Soledad,” the younger woman’s voice broke as she greeted her.
“Niña,” Soledad touched my elbow gently. “Can I escort you home?”
It was this word, niña, that made me nod. She would never hurt someone she called a child. I leaned over to meekly deposit the armadillo onto the stoop, then followed the woman Soledad up the alley to the street, where she hailed an old Mustang with a taxi sticker on the windshield.
I climbed into the bench-like backseat after Soledad and slammed the door behind me. Immediately the taxi driver swung around, sputtering with rage. Too late, I remembered what Adan once told me, that cab drivers treat their cars lovingly, and expect passengers to do the same.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” The driver swore.
“She’s foreign,” Soledad said. “She can’t understand you.”
I understood him perfectly well but didn’t say anything. My cheeks burned, and his question rang in my ears. I didn’t know what was wrong with me.
“Why are you here, child?” Soledad turned to address me in low Spanish, ignoring the muttering of the driver.
“My husband is from here,” I said.
I nodded, surprised. But then, it was a small town. I wanted to ask if she had known Adan’s mother, but there were more urgent questions on my mind.
“What happened there, back at the market?”
Soledad tilted her head to one side as she considered my belly. She had not heard me, or had chosen not to hear.
“How far along are you?”
“Six months,” I answered automatically.
She seemed to think about this.
“His father is dying, you know.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “We don’t know that yet,” I said. It struck me as an unfair comment, but of course, there was a cultural gap.
“You bought no groceries,” she observed.
I looked down at my empty lap.
“May I visit you later?” She asked. “I’ll bring food.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary,” I said hurriedly, but she cut me off.
“It’s no trouble for me.”
I wondered again about the cultural divide. I had already offended two people that morning. Three seemed like too many to bear.
“Okay,” I said. “I’d be grateful.”
The car stopped at the entrance of Adan’s father house, though I had not given directions.
“Good,” Soledad said as I got out. “If you are six months pregnant, you should rest.”
▴ ▴ ▴
Back at the house, the dogs were anxious to greet me, leaping and whining as if to beg me for news of their owner. I waved them off, feet dragging as I climbed the steep mountain path and flung myself into the porch hammock. There was a working phone in Adan’s father’s house, but I was too tired to think of calling my husband. Exhaustion had taken on new meaning since I was pregnant. I watched the shadows of vultures glide over the prickly grass beyond the porch rails. When the vultures flew close, I could hear the swish of their wings.
I was awoken by dogs barking. The sun was low over the hills and I was hungry. From the sound of it, the dogs had climbed high up on the ridge and were barking furiously at something. I listened as their baying became louder and more rabid, then between the barks I heard voices.
I walked barefoot along the wraparound porch and leaned over the wood rail to look up behind the house. A group of men were spread out along the ridge, carrying sticks.
The sticky sweat of my nap turned cold.
The dogs were irate, baring their teeth, lashing out at the men’s ankles as they struggled to find footholds. I counted six men in sweat-stained clothes, swatting at the dogs as they edged sideways down the slope toward the cabin.
I looked over my shoulder at the hammock still rocking in the empty wind. I took a step backward toward the door of the cabin. They were fifty feet up the ridge and moving slowly. I could run, I thought.
“Mírala!” the man closest to me shouted. His eyes locked on my face, eyebrows raised in shock. He was a teenager, his face framed by a squarish jaw and buzz-cut hair, his arms glistening from the cut holes of his orange T-shirt. The other men paused to look over in my direction. I put my hands on my hips and swallowed bile, arching my back to give the appearance of height.
“Who are you?” I said loudly, trying to keep the fear out of my voice.
The teenager yelped as the red mutt, the oldest of the dogs, snuck behind him to nip at his ankle.
“Call them off!” A stocky man swung angrily at a brown dog growling before him, hackles raised.
“Tell me who you are,” I shouted.
“Listen.” A gray-haired man was speaking now, holding his palms tentatively out in front of him. “A child is missing. A two-year-old boy.”
There was a pause. A fourth man moaned and, as if gravity were pressing harder on him than the others, he folded into the ground. The men turned to where he sat in the dirt, knees bent, head bowed against his forearm.
He must be the father, I thought. Sensing surrender, the dogs started toward him.
I whistled and they responded, loping reluctantly down the slope, gnashing their teeth as I opened the gate for them to thunder up onto the porch. They quickly formed a huddle around me, stinking of fear.
The men glanced sideways at each other, shifting uncomfortably in the sudden silence. I could feel my heart beat in my throat, and thought of my second heart, the one that beat light and swift in my belly, like a rabbit’s. I reached down to touch the red dog’s head, and she licked my hand.
The gray-haired man took a step downhill, using a clump of grass as a foothold.
“Stay where you are!” My voice sounded shrill and foreign.
He raised his hands again, palms out.
“Relax,” he attempted to soothe me. “We just want to look in the house.”
“There’s nothing in the house,” I cried.
The man who was the father turned to spit angrily to one side.
“Please let us search,” the teenager appealed to me again. It was hard to tell across the distance, but he looked as scared as I felt.
“I can’t do that,” the words stuck on my dry tongue. “If it were just one of you—”
“I know who you are!” the father roared. He lunged to standing, then slipped. With one knee on the ground he looked up at me and shouted. “Bruja! Maldita!”
I found myself on the other side of the door, pushing the sliding lock closed with my palm, then moving to the windows to do the same. I shouted at the dogs through the door, gasping their names between short breaths.
The mad barking returned while inside I searched for a knife, a machete, anything sharp. What I found was a pair of scissors which I held inside a closed fist, the points facing out. I took a wide stance at the back door, shifting from foot to foot, blinking rapidly to keep the black dots from moving in from the corners of my eyes.
I waited, listening, as the barking receded up the mountain. Then there was quiet.
I checked the latches on the windows and doors and crawled into bed, lying awkwardly on top of the sheets, my body curled around the fist with the scissors. My joints felt painfully stiff.
I don’t know how long I lay there. I watched the shadows grow along the walls until total darkness arrived. Cicadas whined loudly in the hills. My mind circled, moth-like, around a memory; the night my mother rallied. She hadn’t moved or spoken for days, and suddenly she was angry. She rose from her hospital bed and walked toward the door saying all she wanted was a pillow that didn’t feel like a rock. Hair wild, oxygen hose trailing, she terrified me to the point of muteness. I didn’t press the emergency-call button, I didn’t take her soft hand or lead her back to bed. Mind blank, I stayed hidden in the corner of the room as I watched her mutter and roam. What I hate the most is that I cannot see past this night. When I reach for her with my mind, this is what I remember.
▴ ▴ ▴
After a while I heard a hammock creak, and the thumps of wagging tails. Outside, a woman was shushing the dogs. I slid the lock and let the door swing inward. Standing on the porch, Soledad held a plate of something hidden underneath another plate. Her long hair hung in a limp ponytail over one shoulder. The dogs swarmed around me, their whole bodies wagging in excitement.
“The man from the market,” I said, for I had recognized him, “he came here with five others.”
She stood there and said nothing. She was not surprised, then.
“Did you know they were coming?” I demanded.
“No.” Her face was impassive.
“They’re saying I kidnapped a child.”
She shook her head. “No. They’re saying you stole a child.”
“Same thing,” I said, waving an impatient hand.
“Not kidnapped,” she lifted a hand to point at my belly. “Stole.”
I looked down at the lump under my shirt, then back up at her, waiting for the punchline. I wanted her to laugh at the absurdity, but her face was grave.
“Can a woman do that?”
“Not a woman. Enek. Something evil.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it. Soledad offered me the plate, which was filled with lentils and rice, fresh cheese, and plantains.
“Eat,” she said, and I did. I couldn’t have stopped myself if I wanted to—I was famished. I sat in the doorway while Soledad explained what had happened.
A two-year-old was napping in his backyard when he disappeared. The police were called and did nothing. The family’s search parties found no clues. The boy’s mother had come to Soledad with a dream—something about cobwebs in a yagrumo tree.
“Why did she go to you?” I asked.
“I read dreams,” she said simply.
Slowly, I swallowed the plantain I was chewing.
“And what does it mean?”
“It means a woman who cannot conceive,” she said. “It means, hunger.”
I tried again to swallow, but my mouth had become dry.
“Soledad.” I paused. “What are you trying to say?
“The family that was robbed had five children,” she said. “This abundance, it attracts envious spirits.”
“I don’t envy anyone with five children.” I tried to laugh.
“They don’t have five anymore,” Soledad said.
I placed my fork carefully down over the half-eaten rice and covered it with the plate.
“Do you think I stole their baby?”
She was examining my belly, her head tilted to one side.
“It doesn’t look like six months,” she said. “It’s too small.”
I can show you the ultrasound on my phone, I thought, but said nothing. Soledad was looking at me keenly.
“You may not have meant to do it,” she offered. “You might not remember.”
I wanted to call my husband but couldn’t think of what I would say. I couldn’t even locate the certainty that I was innocent. The word hunger had seared my thoughts like hot metal. I recalled the emptiness I had felt, the monstrous desires, the fits of rage. But no. If I had been capable of stealing a child, if such a thing were even possible, I would have chosen a girl.
“I didn’t steal him,” I said firmly.
“It is easy to check,” she shrugged, and rose to her feet.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a small ritual,” she said. “It won’t hurt you or the child.”
“What if I won’t let you?”
Again, she shrugged. “Then I’ll leave.”
I thought about this. She would leave, but the men might come back. I was alone on this mountain, and she was the only person who could confirm my innocence.
▴ ▴ ▴
I followed Soledad down the mountain and onto a side path, the dogs rustling alongside us. A fat moon was rising, making the dew glisten on the tall grass. After a few minutes, my pants were soaked through and sticking coldly to my legs. Soledad paused, holding a hand out for me to stop. She stood at the edge of an open fissure, a fold in the mountain’s skirt. The ground before her appeared to slide into darkness. Soledad motioned for me to copy her movements as she lowered herself into the gap. I hesitated.
“Why there?” I asked.
“No dogs down there,” she said. I held onto branches and roots as I made the slow, steep descent.
The night grew around us, humid and brimming with insect sounds. I could barely pick out the prickly vegetation blocking the stars through the thin strip of sky above. I calculated we were about seven or eight feet under the ground. At her request, I removed my shirt and wet pants. My bare feet sunk into the sandy ground and formed rivulets of water from some spring underneath. I shivered. Then she pulled my hands forward, palms up, and poured an oily liquid over them. There were pieces of something soft in the liquid, but it was too dark to see what. It smelled like cheap liquor and freshly cut grass. I swayed forward, stumbling slightly as she rubbed the slippery mixture into my hands.
“Is that alcohol?” I asked.
As if in response, she took my hands and placed them firmly at my sides. I stayed awkwardly in this position as she leaned back into a low crouch and, cupping her hand around her nose and mouth, began to sing in a language I did not know, rocking slightly on her heels. My feet were freezing, and I moved them slightly as I listened, trying to make sense of what she was saying. Her words had none of the roundness of Spanish vowels. They were brisk and fluttered up and down in the back of the throat, like a melody with clipped wings. When she ran out of words, she continued to hum a tune that followed that same melody, then she held her palms up and was silent. I stiffened, watching her hands move closer and closer to my belly. She moved them slowly, hesitantly, the way a trainer might approach an untamed horse. I shivered as they came to rest on me. Her hands were warm, the palms soft from age. She held them there for a full two minutes before speaking.
“Not stolen,” she said quietly, and I realized I had been holding my breath.
“How do you know?”
“She is very content in here.”
I swallowed, and found my throat blocked by tears.
Soledad held still for another moment, her eyes on the ground. Then she straightened up and stepped back.
“Tell me,” she demanded. “Why are you here?”
Enough, I thought. I was innocent. It was time for her to understand my side now. I felt that she owed me something, some pity or wisdom.
“If you want to know, I’m here because my mother died last year,” I snapped. “I’m here because I hate hospitals, I hate sickness and bodies. I hate my own body, and the way it’s changing. I have a million questions, and no one to ask, and I hate it. I hate how alone I am.”
She was silent as I struggled to regain my breath. When she spoke, her voice was not as soft as I would’ve hoped.
“You are not alone. You have your husband.”
“Adan doesn’t know the first thing about having children.”
“But he is beside you. That is something.”
“It’s not the same,” I said. “In indigenous culture the babies are raised collectively by the women. It’s natural that I should want—”
“Indigenous is not a culture,” she said shortly. “I am Pemón, Arekuna.”
“I know that,” I said, defensive. “I meant—my husband’s mother was Pemón too—”
“Belinda?” Soledad laughed loudly. “Now you want to tell me about Belinda.”
I paused, blushing angrily.
“Go on,” Soledad grinned, “you speak as if you knew her. Tell me, what would she say? What would she think of you sleeping here, on this land where she lived, when her son is in need and her husband faces death?”
I wanted to brush her words off, but couldn’t. I felt my heart sink lower in my chest.
“I never claimed to be a good person. But I’m not a thief.”
“No,” she agreed. “Not a thief.”
She sighed heavily and bent to gather the items into her bag. She seemed angry with herself, and tired. Somewhere in the night, a child was still missing.
“How did you know Belinda?” I asked quietly.
She seemed unwilling to look at me. I did not blame her.
“We were like sisters,” she said, after a pause.
“A long time ago, before she was married.”
“What was she like?”
She turned now, her mouth twisted, her face half-covered in shadow.
“She was very loved.”
▴ ▴ ▴
She slept on the porch, in case the men returned. I offered her the bed but she said the hammock was better. I listened to the hammock creak gently until, eventually, it fell quiet. I thought of the missing child and didn’t sleep at all.
At 7 a.m., the bus terminal was deserted, its arched entranceways open to the blowing wind. A thin cloud of dust whirled around the giant compass painted on the cement floor. The ticket-seller’s eyes were blurred by age and sun, and a missing button revealed the soft brown knoll of his belly. When the bus arrived it was air-conditioned and, as I settled into my seat, I could feel the last prickles of fear receding. I watched the enormous sky disappear from view as the bus descended into the canopied forest, then reopen in gray hues as we neared the city, shacks and shanties making way for the high-rise buildings that crowded the window with the dull promise of shelter.
It was late afternoon when the bus pulled into the terminal where more than a dozen people were waiting on the curb. Their faces caught the orange light as they peered up at the bus for their loved ones. Adan’s hands were in the pockets of his old chinos and his thick hair was overgrown around the ears as he searched for me through the dark windows. I saw him more clearly than be-fore, as if the air around him had become sharper in my absence. He seemed older, his eyes more deeply lined than I remembered. I thought again of my long-awaited child with her chestnut curls, but the image was now hazy. Our child will probably have black hair, I realized, shiny and straight like her father’s.
The city streets were sticky and pulsing with traffic. In the relative quiet of a taxi, Adan looked into my eyes. It used to make me anxious, as if he were trying to look deeper than I wanted him to see. This time I searched back and saw the fear there, and the terrible questions the doctors had asked him, the ones that no son or daughter is prepared to answer. I allowed myself, for a mo-ment, to feel what he was feeling, and inhaled quickly at the pain. There was so little comfort in me to be found. Maybe once the child is here. Maybe then, I will be the person she needs me to be. Mother, this is what I hoped.