From the novel I, the Worst of Women

Part I, Chapter 2: Lover of Words

Refugio Salazar tied the apron at her waist, and although the wool fabric hampered her writing on the board, the cold that morning didn’t permit taking it off. In a few hours the sun would be higher, by noon the heat would be intense and she would have to ask the little ones to play under the shade of the trees. That mountain sun was incisive. Spaniards acquainted with the mountain climate of their homeland insisted that the rays at these altitudes scorched the skin so swiftly no ointments could ease the burn. That’s why they put hats on the children, who abandoned them on the coat rack when they arrived in the classroom and forgot them when they went out to the patio. They shouldn’t reprimand her for it; she wasn’t meant to care for others’ children. It was enough that she was teaching them numbers and letters, as she had learned them with the Puebla nuns. But here, in Amecameca, there was a dire lack of schooling. The closest convent was in Tlayacapan and they only taught boys there. Refugio looked out the window at the brightening day, the morning fog still threading through the oak trees. So much stillness filled her with melancholy and she yearned for the children’s voices to interrupt her as they trooped in, like when her brothers came into the kitchen of the house in Puebla. The voices brought her the smell of the pots and pans: black beans with epazote. She could eat plate after plate of that stew, although her stomach would hurt then and her mother would rebuke her and make her memorize a prayer, another of the many that at home and in the convent the nuns gave them to make sure the path of faith was being sown. If it hadn’t been for Plácido she wouldn’t have left the city. Why hadn’t she married the mayor’s brother who could’ve given her a good life and would’ve gone on being worth talking about because he was alive and wealthy? He didn’t die too soon like her husband Plácido had. Refugio could have been the wife of a notable Puebla city administrator, Becerra y Acosta. Instead she was the widow of Plácido Sanjuanes, Navarrese by birth, sterile by disease, fool by breeding, city government official by calling. The latter and his origin captivated the Salazar family, so concerned with not darkening the tone of skin, so solicitous in keeping it as pale as the manchego cheese her father bought.

Refugio anticipated the voices: they seemed to emerge from the mist because only when they reached the field facing the classroom entrance could she distinguish the Geodovius brothers and the girl Dorotea, who by her age ought to have known more than her lights allowed her to understand, and from the right side and running came the Mondragon twins and her sister-in-law Concepción’s only boy, a timid and silent little one, accompanied by his slave Martín who sat next to him during lessons. Refugio noted that Martín learned his letters and numbers better than her nephew; she ought to have ignored him when he spontaneously called out the answer to a sum or spelled a word. The black boy was deemed a ghost like the dense mist of Amecameca and no notice should have been given him. But it was difficult for Refugio to maintain the pretense while the children shouted: “Let Martín do it, Martín knows how to solve the rest.” She understood that black children were also intelligent but she couldn’t break the rule. They would condemn her whether or not they’d heard her ask her nephew, Concepción’s delicate son, to go to the board, and when he began to cry and she went to him with the idea of taking his hand and guiding it while he traced the M, the boy retreated to his esclavo, barely two years older than he was, and ignored his aunt’s entreaties. Martín remained immobilized by the timidity of his patrón, by the invisibility Refugio required of him, until she yielded and proposed to her nephew that he go to the board with Martín, that Martín could help him. And then things proceeded: the boy wrote the letters in a neat handwriting and then read in a high voice: “María,” because with the pagan affront of a black boy in class, Refugio made sure they named the principals of their faith. When the boys returned to their seats, Refugio crossed herself at the board, but to tell the truth, she did it less each time and each day permitted Martín to speak more. She had even committed the rash folly of leaving him as substitute teacher, explaining sums, when she felt that frightful cramp. It was the vengeance of the plate of beans she’d eaten at six in the morning—curious that her only rebellion was to dine on black beans, so prohibited at home, where they cooked navy beans, familiar and white, and only in the kitchen with the indias could she savor that delicacy. When she was melancholy, food was the only thing that consoled her. Luckily it didn’t stick to her ribs, because at twenty-seven she was still slender.

 

The children came into the classroom and greeted the teacher, who reminded them to hang their hats and coats on the rack. The last to arrive were the Ramírez sisters. Since Josefa brought her little sister, she came late. She always apologized for interrupting with her arrival, but when Refugio looked at the little one, she understood. Juana Inés was so small that the walk from the Panoayan hacienda must have tired her. The first time Josefa came in the door with that tiny one who sat on the bench next to her, Refugio asked who the visitor was.

“She’s my sister Juana Inés,” Josefa replied proudly.

“She’s very small to be coming to school,” Refugio protested, observing the girl’s tiny hands, which were scribbling on a piece of paper without paying attention to her.

“But she’s very smart,” Josefa defended.

“Don Pedro knows you’re bringing her?”

Josefa lowered her head and Juana Inés whispered something in her sister’s ear, who responded for her:

“My grandfather knows because he likes books. My Mamá, no.”

The little one seemed sincere, but it struck Refugio as strange that anyone would choose to come to school on her own. Children often would stop to play in the woods and she’d have to tell their parents about their absences.

“If you want to return, you should ask your mother’s permission.”

Even as Refugio gave this admonition she knew it would be pointless. Isabel Ramírez lived with don Manuel de Asbaje and managed the Nepantla hacienda, and it was the grandfather who took care of the girls. Don Pedro was respected, the only educated person in the entire region; hence he sought to see that the girls had some instruction.

Refugio didn’t need to make good on the warning. Looking at the paper on which Juana Inés had been scribbling, she saw that the child had copied, with fairly good precision, the word junio from the blackboard. Refugio always wrote the date before beginning class. She made some religious references if it was a saint’s day, and then described the season of the year, the harvests, or the weather. For the words to be retained, it was not enough to teach the words themselves; it was necessary to fill them with images. At the end of class, the children drew accordingly.

From then on, the Ramírez sisters entering class hand in hand became the routine at the Amiga school. And somehow to see that little girl copy the letters and pronounce them with care aroused a particular emotion in Refugio. Martín provoked the same emotion with increasing intensity, but with Juana Inés it wasn’t necessary to hide her feelings. On the contrary, she applauded and showed her astonishment in front of the class. As she did that morning of June 24, when, after writing the date and indicating that it was St. John’s Day, he who baptized Christ our Lord, she asked the children to welcome their new youngest classmate. When Refugio asked her to make a wish, Juana Inés said that she wanted to learn to write a word.

She gestured at her sister’s notebook and the teacher came over to see the drawing from the previous class.

“It’s Iztaccíhuatl,” she said smiling. “The white mountain.”

Juana Inés tried to repeat “Iztaccíhuatl” slowly. She obviously liked that the word was loaded with so many difficult to pronounce letters.

“It would be easier for you to learn to write ‘white mountain’,” Refugio suggested.

“Iztaccíhuatl,” repeated Juana Inés and stood up, amazed to be able to say it better each time. The group began to imitate her, trying to pronounce that strange word.

Defeated, Refugio wrote the Náhuatl name of the mountain on the board, letter by letter. She hesitated when she reached the double “c,” and even more when the “h” appeared. Juana Inés smiled.

“Cihuatl is mountain,” the teacher explained.

The little Náhautl she knew she’d learned from the india cook at her family home.

“Then Iztac is white?” asked Juana, astonished by being able to decipher that mysterious word.

And under her sister’s drawing Juana copied the difficult, sonorous word Refugio was relishing that afternoon on returning to her empty house, while contemplating the volcanoes shimmering in whiteness. The word was well matched to the mountain’s magnificence.

Part I, Chapter 7: María Izta of the Volcanoes

Being the oldest wasn’t easy. It wasn’t strange that Father was gone because he went often to the capital or to the port of Veracruz to sell the calf, goat, or sheep skins of whose smoothness he boasted; but this time more than a month had passed and then two and María knew something wasn’t right. Her mother became sick, claimed it was migraines, and asked the three girls to leave her alone in her room at the big house in Nepantla.

“Take Josefa and Juana Inés for a walk, go collect the honey. Honey will make me better.”

María–Marieta, as the family called her–didn’t dare ask about her father; she only felt a queasiness in her stomach. She only noted that normal life had been disrupted. Pedro de Asbaje was never gone more than a month on those business trips, and upon his return, would shower them with gifts: for her mother, the earrings she liked so much; for her, a Chinese fan; for Josefa and Juana, a miniature tea set. That was what their father had brought back from his last trip. María was listening that morning for the trot of horses while she walked away with her sisters. She looked back from time to time to the farm’s entrance by the road but heard nothing but the stupefying hum of bees and Josefa and Juana singing nursery rhymes. María resigned herself, averted her look, and stopped listening for the rhythm of cantering hooves that would announce her father’s return. She concentrated on the lush greenery before her as they carefully descended the slope of the ravine to the bank of the river. Her mother wasn’t often sick, and usually was happy. Sometimes she was quiet, but she’d never hid away as she did these days, when even sunlight bothered her. Perhaps she knew something that María and her sisters did not.

María understood days later, when, because she was the oldest, her mother called her to her darkened room. Her mother was lying down, her hair in a dark braid that fell over her shoulder. María didn’t like seeing her like that; being sick made it seem as if she were far away. Perhaps her mother realized that blood had begun to drip between María’s legs and that it had been their servant Francisca who gave her the cloths to place in her underwear, attached to the waist to keep them in place. María had been alarmed, but Francisca had told her not to bother her mother. María was sick of her mother being an absent presence. Didn’t she realize her daughters were also suffering from their father’s absence? María didn’t ask anything; she approached the bed hiding the rage her mother’s prostration stirred in her.

“I have no strength.” María listened to her. “We’re going to Panoayan, to grandfather Pedro’s house.”

The words fell like rapids in the river, striking the crown of María’s head and seeping through her body, taking with them those fields, taking away forever her walks with her father, who described for her the smoothness of the hides, how they were dried and given color, how they made them textured or soft; how some were good for belts, others for shoes and only some for jackets and overcoats. And her mother repeated:

“Are you listening, Marieta? Go get your sisters and pack your things in the trunks.”

For a moment, María couldn’t move, her feet seemed attached to the bedroom mat.

“Marieta, are you okay?”

“Pack everything, Mama?”

And now they were back in Nepantla, to celebrate the baptism of Antonia, her second half-sister; but it was clear that neither she nor Josefa nor Juana still had a place in that house. Her half-sister Inés and now baby Antonia were in her old room. Francisca received them with a smile when they got out of the carriage. That day her stepfather celebrated generously. He provided two carriages to take all of his wife’s family from Panoayan to the church in Chimal and then to Nepantla.

Little angels! exclaimed Francisca, her hands in the air. And although she kissed Josefa and made elaborate note of how Juana had grown, María she pressed to her chest as if they’d taken her away against her will. But as the oldest, María had learned not to cry, despite the warmth of Francisca softening her like a plum in syrup.

“And you, do you go to school with your sisters?”

María made a gesture of disdain; like her grandmother she embroidered many lovely things, and because she was the oldest helped with the household chores as she’d done in Nepantla. Her sisters urged her to play tea with the dolls those first days in Panoayan, but she shrank from the sight of that ceramic set her father had said came from China. She would climb to the top floor next to the chapel and sit on the stone bench. There she fanned herself with her Chinese fan, at first gently and then more rapidly, looking at the volcanoes that were so much closer there, as if Pedro de Asbeje were about to burst from the cone of Popocatepetl, a jar full of golden lava in his hands “for the princess of these parts” as he used to call her. On such afternoons, in which she got accustomed to not seeing him again, she took comfort in the treasure of her memories. Of the three sisters, only she had been “the princess of these parts,” and if the other two went on playing—Juana sniffing around in grandfather Pedro’s library, Josefa in the kitchen with the servant María—she could dream of her father and in those moments be certain he had not forgotten her.

But returning to Nepantla would be a raw reminder; she thought to avoid it. That morning of the baptism of her half-sister Antonia Ruiz, like her mother she would invent a migraine. Her grandmother would say it was an unfortunate inheritance and she would spend the day in bed in Panoayan or walking along the edge of the wood, far from everyone, as far from her mother’s new family as from her father, who’d been gone three years already and had not sent a single message. Some suspected he was dead, although her mother did not. It is rightly said that deaths are always known, especial if they are of a certain importance. And her father, the curer and seller of skins of Vizcaya, was important. That morning of the baptism she watched from her bed as Josefa and Juana washed their faces in the basin and put on the dresses she and her grandmother had made for the occasion. This was the second sister born to her mother from this new father who lived with her in Nepantla and María should have already gotten over her resentment, but the first occasion, the baptism of Inés Ruiz was in Amecameca and the banquet was here in Panoayan: the central patio converted into an enormous dining room. How excited her sisters were, going to this second party: they would see their mother and little Inés Ruiz, and that made them happy. Pedro Asbaje was a ghost to them. Josefa remembered his mustache and his green eyes but had to confirm that with her older sister.

“Is that right, Marieta, that he had green eyes?”

Juana, by contrast, had no memory from those three first years of her life other than a voice, as she told María one day.

“Papá talked very low?”

Curious that her youngest sister remembered her father’s baritone voice; María thought that along with his voice, Juana might have kept some words. It occurred to her to ask from the bed she still hadn’t abandoned.

“What did Papá say to you, Juana?”

Adjusting the sky blue dress that Josefa was buttoning up the back, Juana, distracted, looked at her sister.

“Papá?”

“Yes, with the low voice.”

“Ah, him,” Juana responded, surprised, as if recovering something between veils.

María remembered the cascade of the ravine and her mother’s announcement and saw Juana on the other side of that curtain of water. Juana seemed to be making a great effort; then she said, although they weren’t a child’s words and they were a lie:

“Hear me with your eyes.”

Her sisters went back to getting dressed, and María, perplexed and comforted at once, felt her father’s closeness. She got up in a rush and planted a kiss on Juana’s cheek. They had to hurry to be ready before the carriage arrived to take them to Chimal.

That morning, María didn’t want to be separated from Juana Inés. She took her by the hand, although Josefa was the apprehensive one, to enter the atrium of the church. Perhaps she had been too distant, sulking with her mother and missing her father, to notice the clear wisdom of her youngest sister. It made sense that the teacher of the Amiga school hadn’t protested when Josefa had taken tiny Juana with her to class. Juana Inés was seven now and María looked at her afresh, not as a doll to sew dresses for or someone to sing lullabies to at bedtime; since their mother had moved to Nepantla with the captain, María had adopted those maternal missions. For nothing in the world would she have let her sisters feel the void she’d suffered during the days of their mother’s illness.

It was curious: now that their mother lived far away, María didn’t feel like that. Her face was animated, she laughed often, and when they ate together at the celebrations, the captain paid a lot of attention to her. He called her “Beautiful” when he asked for the bread at the table or advised her that he was leaving with grandfather to talk business—which Josefa and María thought was very funny—but their mother, occupied with baby Inesita, didn’t notice, and now Antonia had been born into that house of women.

“I am condemned to women,” sighed grandfather when he sat among them all.

He hoped some man would break that rosary.

At Chimal, beneath ash trees covered in moss, they walked toward the portico of the church behind their grandparents, Uncle Diego and Aunt Magdalena, and cousin Pedro Ramirez, already a young man. Near the entrance, María saw her mother, dressed in pearl gray, carrying her new daughter wrapped in white like a butterfly’s cocoon. Juana broke loose and ran to hug her mother’s skirt. María and Josefa hurried to join her. María noticed that instead of looking at the rosy little face of her new sister, her tiny mouth puckering, Juana buried her head in her mother’s pearly taffeta. The captain patted her head, but she shrank away from him.

It was a moment to behave like the oldest, and after kissing her mother and greeting the captain, she pulled Juana away.

“Look at the baby. They are going to do the same to her as they did to you in this place. A few drops of water on the head.”

Juana, intrigued, left her mother’s skirts to learn what her sister knew.

“They baptized you here,” said María, and pulled her to the interior of San Vicente Ferrer, to the edge of the font. She observed Juana’s astonishment, how she looked into the crystalline water.

“It’s holy water,” she explained, dipping a finger in and sprinkling it over Juana’s head. “I name you Princess of These Parts.”

Juana stared at her, surprised that it was so easy to change names.

She also wet her hand and made María bend down so she could moisten her forehead.

“I name you Izta. María Izta of the Volcanoes.”

Josefa joined them; she had noticed a game that intrigued her. But the choir began to sing the Ave María and the priest gave them a severe look as he crossed from the altar.

María took Josefa by one hand and Juana by the other. And thus, anointed with a new name, she left the chapel after the ceremony to join the procession that accompanied her new sister, her mother, and the captain, sure that with her hands enlaced with those of her sisters she could keep the Asbaje of her blood and her father’s deep voice from being lost forever.

Bios

Mónica Lavín

Mónica Lavín, from México City, is a prolific award-winning author of novels, nonfiction, and short story collections. Her novels include the historical Yo, la peor (“I, the Worst of Women”), about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. The book, whose translation is excerpted here, won 2010 Elena Poniatowska Prize. Her most recent novel is Cuando Te Hablan de Amor (2017). See www.monicalavin.com.

Patricia Dubrava

Patricia Dubrava’s translations from Spanish include stories by Mónica Lavín in Reunion: The Dallas Review and Norton’s Sudden Fiction International, (2015). Stories have appeared in Mexico City Lit (2016), Catamaran (2017), Hawai’i Review (2018), and Asymptote (2018). Dubrava blogs on many topics, including translation, at www.patriciadubrava.com.

Copyright (c) Mónica Lavín, 2009. English translation copyright (c) Patricia Dubrava, 2019.