Introduction to November 2016 Issue
As Eduardo climbed up the steep mountain, a passing montoconcho crammed with three passengers roared past bringing up a dust cloud that watered his eyes and choked his breath. He bowed his head and crumpled his straw hat into a small ball as each step brought him closer to home.
When he stepped through the door and saw Ana with their daughter Eva, the words he struggled to find two hours earlier erupted out of his mouth. “I lost my job today," he said. "The new patrón, he didn’t even look at me when he said it.” The job at the Brugal cattle ranch had allowed them to quietly settle in the mountains of San Francisco de Macoris six years ago. To build the shack they now called home after years of hiding. Eduardo took off the machete strapped to his side and let it drop to the dirt floor with a dull thud.
Ana leaned in and kissed him with such ferocity that her slightly bucked teeth clicked against his. Then she looked at him with such warmth that he was laid bare. When she took a deep breath and drew herself up, she carried him with her. “Mi viejo Yayo.” She squeezed his hand. “We’ve been through worse.”
Worse. When el Rio Camu flooded their village three years ago and they lost their home. Nine years ago, when Ana hemorrhaged after her last miscarriage. And then a year later when she almost walked out on their marriage after he’d done the unthinkable. “God will never forgive you,” she said then. He’d never seen her so angry and disappointed in him. Or so certain that they’d be punished.
“You’ll find more work, right?” she assured. “Mantén la fe.”
“Eva,” Ana clapped her hands. “Get your rosario.”
“Ay, no, Mamá,” Eva wailed and stomped her feet.
Eduardo laughed and felt his anxiety ease. He’d ask Manuel to take him along to his next job. He always knew what farm or ranch needed an extra hand.
He turned on the radio for the daily Rosary broadcast. In all the homes around them, everything stopped as families sat together and prayed out loud with the broadcaster. Nothing else mattered at that moment.
“En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Amén…”
Eduardo walked back to the village and tried to ignore the ache in his lower back. Manuel didn't hide his groans as he dragged his fat, muscular legs. His lunch sack hung limp in his muddy hand.
“Thank God that job is over.” Manuel wiped his dirt-streaked face with an equally dirty rag. “Shoveling mud? Pah! It's not worth the pain.”
“Bueno, I’m glad for the work,” Eduardo replied. “This is the most I've made in six months.”
He felt his pocket to make sure the paper bills were still there. $100 pesos for five days of shoveling muddy trenches, sunrise to sunset. Enough to buy items they'd run out of: rice, beans, platanos, yucca, eggs, coffee, and sugar. Maybe a small bottle of rum if they could afford it? But it still wouldn’t be enough to ease the worry in Ana’s eyes as the food on their plates decreased daily.
“So what will you do now?”
“I heard some men say they needed sugarcane workers. Maybe I'll do that,” Manuel shrugged.
“Sugarcane? Ay, no! That’s work for the desperate. You won’t be paid fairly. You're a skilled worker, Manuel, find something else.”
“We’ll see. Too many laborers lost their jobs at once, Eduardo. If I don’t do it, someone else will. And I’d rather have that money in my pocket than leave it in theirs.”
“I understand, amigo,” Eduardo laughed. “But let me know if you hear of any other work.”
Eduardo arrived home as the village was quieting down. He handed Ana the money and watched her hurry off to el colmado with Eva before it closed. He grabbed the yucca soap plant which had reduced to a few thin fibers and went to bathe in the river. After a day so humid that the clothes on the wash lines couldn’t dry, it didn’t surprise him that it was such a busy night. Mothers sat in the shallows bathing the smaller children while the older siblings splashed midstream. At either end, groups of men and women bathed at a distance, and farther away a handful of lovers sought privacy for obvious reasons.
He walked past everyone to the drop-off point, peeled his clothes off and plunged head-first into deep water. He swam twenty feet, forty feet, sixty feet down to the riverbed and stopped, suspended in water. Eduardo floated a while longer enjoying the coolness of the water against his skin, and the darkness and distortion of sound that blanketed his senses like a baby in the womb. He allowed the water to carry him up to the surface, agitated the soap plant into a lather, and scrubbed his body clean. He had to get ready for the party later that night.
Ana and Eva were home when he returned still a bit damp from his bath. Eva stopped assisting Ana in storing the food in the corner and ran over to him.
“Papá, look! Mamá bought me two mints!” Eva brought the small, green candies up for him to see.
“Two?! You behaved that well today?,” he teased. “Go get dressed. You’re coming with me to old Juan’s party.”
Eva ran to her room with a squeal. Any outing that didn’t involve chores or accompanying her parents to work excited her. Eduardo looked up in time to see Ana’s smile transform into a scowl.
“Let’s not start, Ana,” he said and walked to their bedroom. He picked up the blue button-down shirt he wore on special occasions and inspected it. He turned from the shelf to see Ana standing on the other side of their hammock, arms crossed, head cocked to the side.
“Yaaayooo...why must you take her with you?”
Eduardo changed into his party clothes, a bit worn and wrinkled but presentable.
“You know the drinking that goes on. And the kind of...people...who will be there,” she bristled.
He walked to their small common area, the only other room besides their bedrooms. He pulled his portable record player down from the shelf. He dusted and polished the case with a cloth, and looked through the small record collection he identified by picture. He turned and found Ana standing directly behind him, her breaths coming fast as her frustration grew.
“Yayo, for the last time—don't take Eva with you!” Ana demanded. “That party isn't for young girls.”
Eva sang and spun by the door causing the skirt of her faded, yellow dress to flutter and reveal her polka-dot underwear, one of the only two pairs that she owned. She was ready.
“Where I go, Eva goes.”
Eduardo grabbed the record player on their way out. He carried it with care, the instrument a small blessing during the last six months of sporadic work. It was a rare luxury in his community and he was able to feed his family with the money he made during celebrations. Tonight, it was a birthday party for 80-year old Juan, a small landowner who’d hired Eduardo throughout the years to seed and tend small plots of land. Come and play a little music for me, Juan told him, and bring your wife and daughter; I’ll have plenty of food for everyone. Even though Ana refused to come, Eduardo would make sure to bring a plate of food home for her.
He and Eva walked the two miles to Juan’s home in near-darkness except where the dim glow from homes along the road lit their way. The half-moon was covered by clouds after a day of heavy downpours. The sounds of the crickets and cicadas in the surrounding woods filled the night and created a backdrop to Eva’s endless chatter.
“Stay close by my side tonight, mi reina. Don’t run off by yourself.”
“But I’ll get bored,” she pouted. “Are we just going to sit there?”
“No, we’ll do a little singing, a little dancing,” he demonstrated to her delight. “Maybe we’ll play a few rounds of dice or domino?”
“Ojala,” she rubbed her hands at the thought. She relished a good game as much as he did.
They were both sweaty and thirsty when they reached their destination more than half an hour later.
“Eduardo! Come to the back of the house,” Manuel yelled when he saw him.
Gas lamps flickered on tables and the ground. Dozens of men and women played rabid games of domino, the tiles smacked down with hoots of triumph or grumbles of defeat. The air around the tables was heavy with cigarette smoke and bottles of Brugal and Bermudez were passed around. Eduardo could smell the lechon roasting over the open fire pit and felt his stomach clench in pain.
He set the record player on an empty table and looked for the newly-released record in his collection. He placed the needle on the disc and the sound of the strumming guitar strings sent up a cry among the gathered. When Trío Los Conde began to croon the words of “Querube,” men snatched women where they stood, held them close chest-to-hip and began a slow, rhythmic sway. “Du wop, du wop, du wop…Tu tienes todas las cosas hermosas, que Dios hizo lindas en una mujer...”
“Toma, Eduardo,” Manuel handed him a cigarette and a glass of rum. Eduardo savored the slow burn that trailed down to his stomach and motioned for a refill and a second glass for Eva. She took the glass and had a sip. She grimaced but didn’t spit it out. He lit the cigarette, took a deep drag and passed it to Eva. She took a shallow breath and handed it back to him without a single cough. He nodded, satisfied.
“I’ll be the one to teach my daughter before un tiguere gets a chance to do it,” he told Manuel. They clinked their glasses and drank to that.
As the night progressed, more people arrived with food and drink. The celebration got louder as the invited drank deeper from the bottle. Couples sought shadowed nooks between alleys or by trees, away from clear sight. It would be time to take Eva home soon.
A young woman with dark caramel skin and a frizzy halo of curls came by with a steaming plate of moro de habichuela and lechon made up for him and Eva. “Buen provecho,” she winked at him. She was lovely but the food was more enticing. The pork was tender and flavorful with garlic, oregano and a spritz of lime, the rice was fluffy and fragrant. Eduardo refilled his plate two more times until his stomach felt full for the first time in weeks. No stale pan de agua for dinner tonight!
He watched with gratitude as Eva ate but it turned to dismay. She shoved the food into her mouth with such crudeness that he felt a deep shame smear the pleasure of his satiated belly. His reina shouldn't have to go hungry, he thought.
“Manuel, take me with you when you go to that sugarcane field,” he said when his friend came back from refilling his plate.
His mood soured, Eduardo packed up his belongings and took Eva home, the walk back taking a full hour on a road now in full darkness despite the burning torch Juan loaned him.
Ana ignored him and got Eva ready for bed. She used a wet washcloth to remove the dust and sweat from Eva’s face and body then laid her in her hammock in the room next to theirs.
Eduardo felt Ana move around in the common area but pretended he didn’t hear her eat the food he brought home for her. Eduardo fell into their hammock, his heart heavy with guilt and determined to work harder to feed and support his family.
Two days later, he and Manuel reported for work at the sugarcane field. They approached the foreman, a skinny fellow with nut-brown skin and yellowed eyes who took measure of them beneath his wide-brimmed hat and said, “You look like able men. You work all seven days and I’ll pay you $10 pesos for each one.” Eduardo fought past his anger and forced himself to nod in agreement—que ladrón!
They headed to the fields, their machetes strapped to their belts. The field rose up before them, acres of 10-foot-tall woody stems topped by spiny leaves that swayed in the breeze like a never ending, green ocean. Men, women, and children worked between the rows of cane dressed in long-sleeved shirts and pants despite the heat. Loud rustles filled the air when they stepped on the dried leaves on the ground as they moved among the rows.
Manuel and Eduardo went to their directed posts. Eduardo noticed the same expressions on the other faces around him: fatigue, resolve, anger and desperation. He made himself remember why he was doing this, Eva and Ana. He swung the machete and began cutting caña.
The weather was getting cooler and the days shorter as winter approached. The moon was round and bright in the sky, just a few days shy of reaching fullness; a good night for crabbing when they should be full and heavy. Eduardo hoped their bellies would be just as full later that night, Juan’s party two months ago was now a distant memory.
He and Eva walked along the riverbank, the waves giving a soft moan before they crashed onto the rocks. The torch flickered as Eva skipped in a circle around him, her dark-blond hair flipping up with each hop of her bare feet, the bucket slapping against her long, skinny legs.
“Papá, how many crabs do you think we’ll catch? One for each of us?!” She stopped in front of him, her mouth dropped open at the possibility. “Maybe we can catch enough for tomorrow’s dinner, too!”
“No, Eva,” He shook his head and smiled at her energy. “You can only be certain of what you have today. Tomorrow’s another day.”
Ana had become inventive with their meals and stretched their food supplies but it was still scarce. While before they’d eat chicken or pork once a week, now they were lucky if they had it once a month. Their meals were nothing more than what they could hunt, gather or barter for. Even Eva had grown impatient of their light meals of bread or rice and vegetables. But that night he’d promised her a treat after she went to work with him and helped move the cut sugarcane from his path.
Eva went to the field with him while Ana worked sorting coffee and cocoa beans one-hour away from their home. Eva grew bored watching and hearing the women while they worked. She preferred to run around the sugarcane fields with the children of the other laborers. There were plenty of places to hide behind the tall stalks, away from the cutting area.
Maybe it was time for Eva to start working, he considered. She was almost eleven years old and strong enough to do simple tasks around a farm or field. He'd take her back tomorrow.
“Papá, why do we toss back some of the female crabs?”
“It depends if she has an egg sack. If she does, we don't keep her because we want her to keep having lots of baby crabs.”
“And that's important?”
“If we want to keep eating them, yes. The females are important to keep the population up.”
“What about the ones that can’t have babies? Like Mamá Ana.”
Eva tossed a rock into the ink-black river.
“Those crabs are also important.”
She stared at the river with curious intensity.
“Can you tell me about Mamá?”
And Eduardo knew she wasn’t speaking of Ana, the mother who raised and nurtured her, but Carmen the mother she didn’t remember. An unbendable and proud woman with waist-length brown hair, large breasts and a rolling walk that caught his eye. The daughter of one of his closest friends, who he fell in love with and married when she was sixteen. A vengeful woman who didn’t forgive and would never forget. “Drunkard. Womanizer. Selfish. Machista,” were her last words before she divorced him.
“Carmen is beautiful and you look more like her every day. Your brown hair and light eyes, the mole by your mouth, even the shape of your hands. But more significant than her beauty is that your mother is a good woman and she loves you.”
And that much was true.
Eva’s smile was radiant as she walked ahead of him. Although she called Ana “Mamá,” they’d been mindful to not hide that she had another mother. He never spoke about his ex-wife but Carmen deserved to have their daughter at least know about her. He always made a point to ask about her when he travelled close to their hometown of Villa Altagracia and the story went that Carmen was with an older man who was generous with his money. Eduardo was glad for her.
Eva waded knee-deep into the water and brought the bright orange torch closer to the surface as she watched for crabs. As the next wave pulled back in she cried out and rushed towards the sand.
“Papá! Papá, I see one!” She crowded the crab, her arms and legs wide open as she corralled it. The crab raised its large pincers as it scuttled toward the shore, and they circled each other like two fighters in a ring.
Eva jumped behind the crab, swooped in, and grabbed the rear part of its body. She lifted it up, careful to keep the legs and pincers away, and turned it over onto its back to inspect it. “Yes! It’s a male!” She showed him the triangle-shaped marking on the underbelly and placed it in her bucket.
“Great job, mi reina!” He ruffled her hair before she ran to the boulders and continued her hunt. His pride swelled as he watched her confident, agile climb. She got her love of the land from him but Eduardo was always surprised by how curious and quick she was to learn. Ana insisted they enroll Eva in the local school but he resisted. Ana might’ve gone to school until the fifth grade but he never went—no one in his family had. There were different priorities when your family struggled to survive. “In school you only learn to write love notes and say bad words. The land teaches you how to live,” is what he told Eva when she watched the other children leave for school in the mornings.
They left the river after catching five other crabs and released three that were either too small or female with egg sacks. Eva and her torch were like a firefly winking in the distance as she raced back to Ana’s side with the bucket of crabs.
He walked to the outdoor kitchen which milled with women glossy with sweat who labored over el fogón. With only a few cooking stations available, they waited their turn or combined cooking duties to get their families fed and off to bed after a long day of work in the fields.
Ana stirred a charred pot while Eva chattered on by her side. The crabs were cooking at a rapid boil in the seasoned water Ana had simmering in hope of their successful crabbing.
At the delicious smells wafting up, his stomach gurgled so loudly that it made Eva giggle but Ana looked at him with worry over the rising steam. He could see that she remembered the simple meal of casabe and coffee he had for lunch and before that the lone cup of warm, fresh milk for breakfast.
Ana placed a crab and fried, sweet batatas in three bowls and they sat on wooden crates outside the kitchen. She took the bowl with the largest crab and handed it to Eva who started pulling apart the legs to get to the meat. Eva yelped when the steam billowed from the meat in her hands yet she didn't drop it, just blew on it to cool it quicker.
“Muchacha!” Ana shook her head at Eva. She reached over to give Eduardo the bowl with the second largest crab but he grabbed her bowl with the smallest one instead.
“No, Yayo,” she pushed the bowl back. “You work so hard and need it more than I do.”
“No, no, no, señora. I know you didn't eat anything all day. That one is yours.”
She looked at him a moment longer then took the bowl with a sad but grateful smile.
Eduardo cracked open the carapace and every claw and leg to get to the sweet and tender meat inside. He did a thorough search of every crab chamber but was still left hungry. Eva picked through the husk in her bowl with equal disappointment. She gave up and went to seek her playmates.
“Eva did well at the field today. I’m taking her back tomorrow to see if they’ll pay for her labor.”
“She’s still so young. Can’t we wait until she’s a bit older?”
“Ana, how old were you? How old was I? Here, children work when they have to.”
“I know, Yayo, but she’s our daughter. I don’t want her to work like we did.”
Ana dropped her head onto her hands.
“I’ll take care of her, Ana. Eva will be safe. I promise. She’ll always be by my side.”
The machete cut the bottom of the sugarcane stalks in one fell swoop and brought them down with a cracking sound. Eduardo tossed them onto the pile beside him and continued down the row, chopping as he went. Manuel was further ahead.
He stopped and looked back at Eva who he’d been keeping an eye on. She was in the row behind him chopping cane with her own smaller machete. She swung it slower but with more adeptness than she had on her first day two months ago. She’d taken the machete in her hands and waved it in the air like a stick, cutting the caña midshaft instead of at the bottom. She could barely lift her arms after a few hours and begged, “Take me home to Mamá.” Now her arms were stronger, her stamina much longer.
But today the unbearable sun was directly above them and Eva lagged farther behind. Eduardo knew her endurance for the day was over.
“Oye, Manuel,” he yelled. “I’m taking Eva home. I’ll be back before lunchtime is over.”
He strapped the machete to his belt, ready to leave.
Eva’s sudden scream brought his head up in alarm. Blood was dripping down her arm the color of hibiscus. Her left thumb was amputated and hung by a sliver of skin still attached to her hand. She looked at him, her eyes wide in shock.
Eduardo stood frozen. His vision went dark and he fought the bile that clawed up his throat. “Ay Dios mio!,” the laborers cried out at the bloody scene. “Eduardo, do something!” Manuel yelled.
Their voices lurched him into action. He ran to Eva and wrapped her stump with the sweaty towel around her neck to stop the flow of blood. He picked her up in his arms and ran out of the fields with no clear direction, just an animalistic urge to get his daughter help. Manuel ran behind him and yelled for a ride down the mountain. They got into a jeep that wound down the road to the closest clinic. Manuel’s prayers filled the car. Eduardo stared into Eva’s eyes, the dilated amber pupils his only focus.
Eduardo barreled through the door of the clinic with Eva in his arms and called out for a doctor. He looked around the poorly-lit waiting room but only saw patients standing along the wall or sitting on the floor.
A man wearing a white coat appeared and hurried over to them. He looked young, with messy black hair, and deep shadows under his eyes. He looked at the blood-soaked towel wrapped around Eva’s hand and motioned them into an exam room. Manuel stayed in the waiting room.
Eduardo laid Eva on the bed but stayed near, their clasped hands sticky with blood. The doctor unwrapped the towel and shook his head when he saw her hand. He whispered, “I’m sorry but there's nothing I can do about her thumb. You need to go to a hospital or she'll lose it.”
Eduardo felt a rush of anger overcome him. He pulled the doctor towards him, grabbed the machete and put it to his throat.
“If she loses her finger, you'll lose your life!” He said through gritted teeth.
The doctor stared at him and Eduardo clutched him tighter until he saw his dark-brown eyes settle in realization. He nodded and Eduardo lowered the machete.
He got his supplies ready and placed them on the table. Needles, scalpels, needle holders, scissors, sutures and other tools Eduardo couldn’t identify.
“We don’t have anesthesia,” the doctor said with deliberate pause. “I’m going to need you to hold her tightly.”
Eduardo squeezed his eyes shut and turned away. Ay, Virgen del Altagracia! What else could he do?
He sighed and nodded, resigned to God’s will. The doctor placed Eva’s hand over the medical table, cleaned it, then used iodine to sterilize the wound. Eva stiffened and cried out. She tried to pull away but Eduardo held her fast within his arms.
She eyed the doctor in terror when he brought the shiny instruments closer. As he examined the wound and prepared it for reattachment, Eva thrashed in Eduardo’s arms. The doctor yelled for help and three clinic workers entered the room. The men held Eva, her limbs spread out and pinned down like a mounted butterfly.
“No, Papá, no!” She screamed and sobbed throughout the crude filing of the bone and thumb reattachment, yet she never lost consciousness.
All he could do was sit and cry with her. He forced himself to watch as his due punishment. Was this finally it? What Ana foretold so long ago? A part of him broke and he hated himself for not being able to stop her suffering.
Eva sat outside and watched the other children play hide-and-seek. Even three months after the accident, she still wouldn’t join them for fear that they'd bump her injured hand. She walked around with it clutched to her chest and bared her teeth when anyone tried to touch it. Ana took the bandages off two weeks ago. Eva, ashamed by the red-and-purple, ugly appendage, hid her hand when curious playmates asked to see the scar.
Ana sat by the window in her favorite chair, the one they’d painted together an avocado-green with purple-and-white flowers. She watched Eva, lost in thought, as she passed a comb down the length of her wet, curly hair.
“Ana.” Eduardo waited for her to look at him.
“Ana...Eva needs to go back to her mother.”
She looked at him without comprehension. His stomach turned in knots as the emotions rushed across her face: confusion to horror to denial, then anger.
“No, Yayo, no! I’m Eva’s mother. Me,” she stood from the chair and slammed her hands on her chest. “She’s my daughter!”
“Ana, but what else can we do?” Eduardo threw up his hands. “We can’t even afford to feed her! But Carmen can.”
“No, we just need more time. We can go to another town. I’m sure there’s more work somewhere. If not—I’ll beg! I’ll beg on the streets if I have to, Yayo. I will. Por favor!”
“Ana...I don’t know—”
“This is all your fault,” she pointed a finger at him. “All of it! God is finally punishing us for what you did.”
Punished for what he did nine years ago. Eva was almost 2-years old then. He went to the house when Carmen was away at work as a housekeeper, their children watched over by her parents. Eduardo stepped out to el colmado with Eva to buy milk and cigarettes. As he walked with her tiny hand within his palm, Eva looked up at him with big honey-colored eyes and he knew that he could never let her go again. She was his firstborn and only daughter—his reina—and she belonged by his side.
“What have you done, Eduardo?! Take her back—she doesn’t belong with us,” Ana said when he returned home with Eva. But he refused to go back. He had missed his daughter too much and couldn’t picture his life without her. He bid Ana get their things quickly and they left for another town.
As an agriculturalist he went where the work was available, so they moved constantly throughout the years which helped him evade Carmen’s search—and he’s sure she searched.
He reasoned with himself that Carmen also had their infant son David to love—a baby boy about 9 months old who he barely knew and felt no connection to—while Ana and him had none. Ana prayed for God’s forgiveness of their sin every night. Although she didn’t take Eva, she felt that her love for Eva and eventual acceptance of his action made her just as guilty.
Ana dropped to her knees and sobbed. She covered her face and rocked back and forth, her bow so broken and deep that her forehead almost touched the dirt floor.
It was three weeks before Ana agreed with his decision. And after a search, he got in contact with Daniel, Carmen’s brother-in-law, who told him where she lived in Santo Domingo.
Together they told Eva that she was going to live with the mother she didn’t know.
Eva cried for days then began to rage when she realized she couldn’t change their minds.
“I’m not going, Papá. You can’t make me go. I won’t go!” Eva stomped her feet.
“Mi reina, please understand. It’s for the best. We’re doing this for you,” Eduardo reached out to hug her.
“You’re not doing this for me. You don’t want me,” Eva turned away. “You don’t love me anymore!”
“Que?! Of course I do.”
“No, you don’t. You never did!” She whirled around, picked up the record player from the shelf and threw it against the wall. It shattered into dozens of pieces, plastic shards flew everywhere and slashed Ana’s arm.
Eva stared in horror as the blood trailed from Ana’s cut and she ran out the door into the night.
“Eva! Eva!” Ana yelled as she ran after her but Eva escaped into the dark woods behind their home.
They searched for her all night but it was futile. Eva knew every tree, hole and shrub in the woods intimately and didn’t want to be found. She returned home hours later but the days that followed weren’t any easier. She continued to talk back and yell, refused to eat, and wouldn’t pray with them as a family.
Pobre Ana was distraught at the change in their daughter. She coped by making a rosary for Eva: hand carving the wooden beads, smoothing and oiling them into round orbs, painting them a soft pink, stringing them together and imbuing them every night with her prayers and blessings. It was a nightmare for a while but after weeks of no change, Eva calmed down into a despondency that disturbed Eduardo even more than her anger. Every night he prayed that he made the right decision. And each day he tried to cherish the short time he had left with her.
Eva and Eduardo started their day as they did every morning but this would be their last. He walked with her hand tucked in his towards the field where her favorite dairy cow grazed, her brown tail swishing side to side. She hugged the cow’s wide body, ran her hands over the coarse-haired hide.
When the udders softened, Eduardo squeezed the teats and milk shot straight down into their tin cups with a long hissing sound. Eva inched her head closer to watch as her cup filled up, then dropped a pinch of salt into their drinks. They drank the warm, frothy liquid in silence.
When they returned home an hour later, Eduardo retrieved the $20 pesos for their bus fare to Santo Domingo. It had taken him three months to save up for it. Ana took the solemn walk with them to the bus stop. As she put the rosary over Eva’s head, the beads clicked as they settled around her neck. “Remember to say your prayers every night, mi niña.” She drew Eva into a hug and didn't let go until it was time to board. Eva's last sight of Ana was of her crying by the side of the road.
Eduardo woke Eva when they arrived in Santo Domingo four hours later. She’d stayed up all night crying and not even this being her first time outside of San Francisco could keep her awake.
Eduardo asked the bus driver where the cross street of Avenida las Americas and Avenida 27 de Febrero was before they debarked. That’s 27 de Febrero, the driver pointed, keep walking until you see a tall yellow building.
Eva couldn’t stop staring at the large homes and fancy cars that zipped by. They walked for half an hour before Eduardo saw the home that had been described to him by Daniel.
“That’s it, mi reina,” he pointed. “Your new home.”
Eva stopped short and tugged at his hand when she saw the house they were walking towards.
“Papá, let’s go back home. Please, Papá! I don't want to stay here.”
“No, mi reina,” was all he could manage to say. He wished nothing more than to turn around and take her back home.
He looked down at Eva and engraved her image in his mind. She was tall and long-limbed in that awkward way growing children were. Her light skin was dark from time in the sun but he could still see the mole on the left side of her mouth. Her hair, a light blond when she was younger, had turned brown and was braided down her back. She wore a blue-checkered dress that was a size too big for her skinny frame, the pink rosary around her neck, and thong sandals. She had no other belongings.
He gave her hand a squeeze and walked forward, tugging her along. Eva winced and covered her injured thumb, to protect it from his hold. He felt a stab of guilt and raised his hand to her wrist. The skin around her thumb had started to smooth out from the red, raised scar that shamed her. The doctor saved her thumb but he never made any other promises. She couldn't move it or feel anything other than the healing twinges that still pained her.
Eva resisted at first but dropped her chin and let herself be pulled forward. They walked the long driveway, bordered on each side by manicured lawns. The garden at the front of the house bloomed with Coralillos, Isabel Segundas, Trinitarias, and Durantas. Citrus and almond trees surrounded the elegant white house that seemed large enough for several families to live in. Eva never looked up at it.
At the door, he paused and considered escaping before they were seen. But then he recalled how they lived and knew he couldn’t take her back to their little 3-room shack.
He knocked on the door despite the growing knot in his gut. It swung open and a woman in a white uniform looked up at him. “I’m Eduardo and I’m here to see the lady of the house, Carmen Montez,” he said. She looked with suspicion at their wrinkled and dust-covered clothing, yet asked them to step inside.
Eduardo looked around the foyer not knowing what to do. There was a sitting area with a large ceiling fan, a yellow, stiff-looking loveseat and a low table for visitors to rest. The walls were painted white and decorated with large paintings of la Puerta del Conde and everyday village scenes depicting palms trees, street vendors, and women in colorful dresses and straw hats. He snuck a look at the room beyond the foyer which looked even more beautifully appointed.
The maid returned with several people, a fat boy around Eva’s age and Carmen. His former wife looked as young as she did ten years ago and yet so different. She wore white heels and a buttery yellow dress that covered her arms, chest and knees. Her light brown hair was pulled back in a sweeping up-do and her face was clean of makeup.
She looked up at Eduardo then back at Eva and started to shake her head. Soon her whole body trembled. She stepped toward Eva, cupped her face with shaky hands and yanked her into her arms. She sobbed and rocked Eva against her chest saying “Ay, mi niña!” over and over again.
People ran into the room and jumped with emotion when they saw Eva in Carmen's arms. It was Carmen’s parents and her siblings. Eduardo stepped aside when they rushed to surround the pair. The family took turns introducing themselves and embracing Eva. She looked back at him uncomfortable with their regard, her arms stiff at her sides.
Then a sudden silence in the room made him turn and see Carmen staring at him. Her face was flushed and she looked at him with such violent anger that he took a step back.
“So, you finally bring back my daughter,” her voice shook.
“How could you, Eduardo? And why?!” Her voice rose. “You took my baby away! Maldito!”
His face turned hot at the truth and vehemence of her words. Once, Carmen had looked at him with desire and affection but now all that was left was hatred and contempt. And he’d earned each of those looks.
She clutched Eva closer to her body as if he’d rip her away once more, then lead her to another room, followed by all except for her father Jose and the boy.
The boy stood before Eduardo and recognition hit. His light brown eyes were different in color than Eduardo’s aqua but they were the same shape. Their noses were both long and square-tipped but while Eduardo’s face was thin, David’s was round and plump, like the rest of his body.
David’s eyes roved over his face searching for something...but what? He was prepared for Carmen’s reaction but he never considered an encounter with the son he left behind. He didn’t know what to say. And would it ever be enough?
But David just looked at him in silence, then turned away and followed his mother.
Jose came towards him, his face wet with tears, and Eduardo steeled himself for the worst. Jose shook his head, disappointment in his eyes, but then he hugged him. Eduardo released the tension he’d been holding in and returned the hug. He wasn't sure if his transgression would’ve erased their decades-old friendship.
“Eduardo, I’m glad you brought Eva back. Carmen...she became a different person—completely unrecognizable,” he shook his head.
Eduardo said nothing. While he was sorry that Carmen suffered, he didn’t regret the time he had with her.
Throughout the day, Eva was rarely left by herself; a family member was always with her or nearby. She managed to sneak off to him a few times only to be whisked away again.
At dinner, he was seated at the far end, away from Carmen and their children. Jose alone was willing to sit by him. Eduardo ate without tasting anything and noticed that Eva also picked at her food despite not having anything but warm milk early that morning.
After dinner, Jose took him aside and placed $10 pesos in his hand.
“I know you don’t have money to get home. The buses aren’t running now so you can sleep here tonight. But you have to be gone when Carmen wakes up in the morning.”
Before bed, Eduardo hugged Eva close, determined to remember that moment: the smell of the river in her hair, how its wavy texture tickled his nose, how her long arms squeezed him tight, the sound of her ragged breaths.
“La bendición, Papá,” she said, her voice hoarse from crying. “Te quiero mucho.”
“Dios te bendiga, mi reina. Yo siempre te voy a querer. Siempre.”
The pain in his heart became so unbearable that it hurt to breathe and he let her go.
He walked Eva to her mother’s room but was stopped at the door by Carmen. She closed the door in his face and he stayed in the hallway listening to their voices.
Jose and Eduardo sat on the porch, drank rum and smoked late into the night. They talked quietly about the family and exchanged stories about what had happened throughout the years. Eduardo told him why he took Eva and why he brought her back.
“I want to understand why you did it, but I don’t, Eduardo,” Jose said. “You were my friend but Carmen is my daughter.”
When he felt numb, Eduardo staggered to the room they made up for him and fell onto the bed. The soft mattress and plump pillows closed around him and he felt that he sank into a dark hole.
He hardly slept and was out of bed before sunrise.
He walked out of the house, with only the bus fare in his pocket.
Yahaira Lawrence is a writer who has worked in book publishing for over ten years. She was awarded a MacDowell Colony Fellowship this Winter/Spring 2017 and is an alum of Kweli’s Art of the Short Story workshop. She lives in New York. She is working on a novel.