2. “Mamaconas”, Part I


“This coca was so valuable in Peru

in the years 1548, 1549, and 1551

that there never was in the whole world

a plant….so highly valued.”

Pedro de Cieza de Leon, The Incas, 1553

Each morning she stands in line with the other women.

On the cold days in June and July when a soft, cold drizzle, the gurau, settles on the centuries old dust of the city, Elizabeth wraps her shoulders in a crocheted cotton shawl. The virginal white flowers and lacy traceries are gray now and distorted like the parched gardens she passes on her long walk. She wears the shawl out of habit unaware of its shabbiness.

In the early months of the year when the scorching rays of the sun are refracted from the tin roofs, the lines of slow-moving automobiles, the steel carbines of the guards, a flicker of desire for a decaying wide-brimmed straw hat and its floating gauze streamers dies almost before it surfaces. Elizabeth doesn’t put the hat on. It lies untouched, covered with cobwebs on the top of the high, wooden clothes cabinet. She stands in the heat bareheaded, her waist-length hair pulled back behind her ears, a rubber band securing the thick brown mane.

Summer or winter, the women in the unruly line pay no attention to her. They are familiar with this tightlipped young woman who never laughs, who glares through large, rimmed glasses as a latecomer casually steps ahead of her to join a group of friends. When they think of her at all the Indian women with their painstakingly curled hair and lipsticked mouths puzzle at her careless appearance. Her hair is disheveled. She makes no effort to hide the dark, haggard lines etched into her pale skin. The Norte Americano wears a striped pinafore of blue and white seersucker, unironed, which covers her bare knees, under it a simple white blouse. Her scuffed leather sandals would fit a child’s foot. In another time and at another place, she might be mistaken for one of the eager kids of the sixties who spent sleepless days and nights in fields organizing migrant farm workers, but there is no eagerness in Elizabeth’s face.

She scans the three hundred or so Mestizo women with unflinching bitterness. She recognizes most of them and notes the absence of one, the return of another, the addition of a third. Her jaw clinches as she thinks of the absent ones and what has kept them away.

If Stuart doesn’t die or get killed, she’ll be here every day with her heavy baskets of food. She labors over her offerings trudging miles through dusty streets slipping through hordes of Mestizo children plaguing her like gnats. They clamor to carry her parcels for “a centavo, por favor, Senora.” At a tiny health food store where she goes to purchase vitamins, they block the door buzzing around her.

Tucked among the baskets’ shining glass jars and tidy parcels are clusters of fresh fruit from the Indian market. Elizabeth rises before dawn on market days, brushes her teeth if the water tap gurgles and spits, rubs soda across the enamel with a quick motion of her index finger if it is silent and hails a collectivo to the mercado hurrying to make her purchases before the Indian women crowd the stalls. Delving into a box, she holds a papaya to the light, examines it for imperfections, turns it over in her hand, testing it for ripeness with a gentle pressure of her palm. The sharp-eyed sellers and the young woman argue furiously over the price battling for the loss or gain of half a centavo. When her selections are unblemished and the price lower than she hoped, it brings her no pleasure. Before the purchase is complete a picture of the puncture wounds the fruit will bear chokes her mind, blotting out the small victory. Her eyes narrow as she imagines the sharp blows of the stiletto stabbing the soft flesh, leaving it mangled and bleeding, the precious juices dripping into the murky darkness.

There are containers of soup in the baskets, minestrone and vichyssoises, fancy names for the cheap vegetable broth she simmers in Senora Pilar’s cramped kitchen. There is a slice of cold ham, a bit of cheese, the vitamins wrapped in brown paper. If there is extra money from the States, small packets of ceviche and arroz con leche are placed neatly on top of the other food parcels. On days when these special treats are resting against the perfect fruit, she stands motionless in line steeling herself against the theft or destruction of her gifts. She has learned to expect the worst and draws within herself as she waits, neither patient nor impatient, for the doors to open.

As the hour of admittance comes and passes, the jostling and shouting of the crowd becomes a roaring wave propelled by tense, seething energy. It is a part of the day, this contest between the early docility of the women and the flamboyant authority of the guards. The women have stood on the dirty, litter-strewn pavement outside the block building since early morning. They are tired. These boys in their uniforms are still boys, after all. They shout at the soldiers it is time to let them in. The guards brandish snub- nosed machine guns and shout obscenities at the women. The restlessness and hostility swell as a plaintive howl of Spanish and Quechua floats up above the prison and over an anesthetized land.

At last the captain of the guards begins his slow swagger up the line of women stamping a number in black on each extended forearm. Other guards follow with other stamps which they press into the women’s flesh until the soldiers become bored or the women will be pushed no further. An air of smoldering violence weaves its way down the line. The men sneer at the anger engulfing them. They harden their looks and slide their hands toward the triggers of their guns. The captain casts the women a look of disdain. The right-hand side of the small double doors nested inside the immense wooden entrance gates in the center of the concrete block opens. One by one, the women file past the guards, step carefully over the raised threshold and enter the prison.

On bad days as the women wait for the small door to open, buses pull up. Armed men, La Guardia, pour out of the vehicles and into the prison through the big gates open wide.

Elizabeth flinches at Stuart’s savage laugh when describing the requisas. The beatings of the men and the plundering of their meager possessions are a class in prison education. The Internationales swear at the stupidity of the marauding soldiers and at their own bravado. Herded into an open patio, the tattered men clutch what they can, letters, shoes, a smuggled AM wireless. They pass bundles through barred gates to men still standing after running the gauntlet. The requisa becomes a game of wits, a game the Internationales are good at and against all reason think they can win.

The first time she sees the green clad troops spill through the doors into the prison, Elizabeth faints. A heavy woman bringing food to her son catches her. Spreading a soiled scarf on the sidewalk, she lays Elizabeth’s head on it. Other women kneel to comfort her screaming epithets at the men.

Before she is quite steady, Elizabeth furiously shoves the women away. For a moment, she huddles on the pavement. Tears cover her face. She searches for her baskets and finding them, rises to stand beside them. She doesn’t look at the women. She stares at the men.

When her name is called, she picks up the baskets and carries them to the gates, closed now.

“Es para Stuart?” the guard taunts.

“Si,” she murmurs, hands him the baskets and walks away.

The women do not cross the threshold that day.

No matter how often it happens, Elizabeth is never prepared for it. The sound of the heavy diesel engines cutting off conversation. The women turning, quick, smooth movements, a graceful fugue, the shriek of the buses, the scream of the tires. Soft bodies surge against the hard, uniformed line pressing them back. There is animal snarling, animal helplessness. In the midst of the rage, Elizabeth stands still. She doesn’t move until she is called to bring Stuart’s baskets to the prison entrance.

On other days when the small door is open, she carries her baskets inside setting them on a narrow board propped on wooden crates.

“Hola,” she says softly. She smiles at the empleada standing behind the makeshift table. “Como esta usted?”

“Mas ó menos.”

“Hola, Raphael,” she sings out to a man on the other side of a low iron railing.

“Hola, Betta.” Raphael speaks rapidly to the woman wielding the knife. With a shrug she takes the ham in its neat paper envelope, drops it into her lap and pushes the baskets toward Elizabeth. Raphael swings the baskets, crooning. Elizabeth disappears into a dark, moldy hallway to be prodded by an ancient woman while a second rifles her frayed denim clutch where a wad of tissue conceals a few solés.

A prison pet, Raphael is a simple, quiet man serving a life sentence for murdering his two children. In a fit of despair he set fire to the family’s board shack clinging to the edge of the New City. He is Elizabeth’s guide and protector leading her to Stuart towering over the Mestizo prisoners.

“Hey, senor,” Stuart touches Raphael’s shoulder in gratitude. “Gracias.”

In the sepia tones of dank, filtered light, Stuart and Elizabeth pass dark figures lining the narrow corridor. Faces carved with unfathomable expressions measure the Norte Americanos’ passage. The two glide through a maze of walkways and doorways arriving at a spiral staircase tight against a cement wall. At the top are two cubicles, home.

Lima’s tubercular dampness presses in on the prisoners. One high, small window, a builder’s sly joke, offers no relief, catching neither sunlight nor breeze. Double bunks scrape dirty walls. Rough wood nailed together to fit the small, wiry Quechuas crammed into Sexto, the beds are too short by a foot for the Europeans. Gaunt, fatigued men crouch on the hard pallets or shuffle crab-like down a narrow aisle between the rows of beds.

Elizabeth speaks to each man in turn.

“Damn it, Ray, write Sally. She is driving me crazy.”

“I will. I promise, Beth. Tonight.”

“You said that last week. Every time I get home there is another message from her. She doesn’t trust the embassy. She’ll not trust me, either.”

A look of disgust crosses her face. Sally telephones twice a week from London and weeps during the entire conversation. Elizabeth dreads the calls. Sometimes she brings paper and pen and sits beside Ray until a letter is written. The letter is proof to his mother that Ray is still alive. Ray is sixty. Sally is terrified he won’t survive the Sexto years.

To Bobby, Elizabeth speaks only of his attorney’s demands.

“Senor Ramirez wants another five thousand dollars before the trials.”

The young American bears a semblance of the good looks and easy demeanor which made him a favorite of the Hollywood crowd. He nods understandingly at the Senor’s request. The police did unspeakable things to Bobby when he was arrested teaching him the rewards of patience. His adoring sister sends her paycheck to the embassy for his attorney. He knows the Senor will get his five thousand sooner or later.

Bobby thanks the pretty woman standing in front of him, smiling at her, calculating the days until her rage will explode over them all, wondering if it will spill over and destroy them all, as it must surely destroy her.

Elizabeth moves on down the aisle.

“Nick says he hasn’t heard from Sidney. He says we should stop pestering him. Yes, I’ll go see him again next week.” ––– “How should I know what’s happening to the mail. The consulate says there isn’t any. I don’t know what to do.” ––– “Your account is empty. Shall I call Amsterdam?” ––– “Eduardo insists a doctor was here yesterday. I’ll tell him he didn’t show up.”

Not everyone is here. Elizabeth looks around for the missing man. On one of the bunks lies a crumpled body pressed against the cold wall, barely visible under the worn blanket covering it. James has the White Lady Blues. His money gone, no credit, no crudely refined cocaine the men call pasta to see him through the endless twilight.

The day is half over when Stuart touches her arm.

“Come on, Beth.”

He takes the stairs two at a time gripping Elizabeth’s hand. Brushing the skirts of young girls sitting on crude stools, slipping past the motioning arms of great talkers, climbing between and over backs and legs of crouching, leaning, sprawling family groups, ignoring the menacing stares of enforcers, they make their way to Manuel’s cell. Manuel, an ugly, flat faced man, squats on the floor holding a small child, his wife next to him; they wait for the Norte Americano and his esposa.

“Hola, Betta. Hey, Stuart. Mi casa, su casa.” Manuel grins and waves his hand towards an open door.

Manual’s connections allow him to own his own cell. Stuart pays Manuel rent with the solés Elizabeth smuggles into the prison. Careful not to offend, Stuart admires the new blouse Manuel’s wife is wearing. Elizabeth plays peek-aboo with the child. They nod lighthearted goodbyes, laughing as Stuart ducks his head to clear the low Mestizo entrance portal. Inside he forces the crude lock imprisoning them in a suffocating four by six barren Eden.

Stuart squeezes into the bunk, knees drawn, an oval embrace for Elizabeth. They speak in low tones conscious of listeners on the other side of the thin partition. The talk is casual, what was stolen, who has money for pasta, Stuart’s steady loss of weight, trials and planned escapes.

“Have you heard from John?”

“No. And, we’re not going to. He doesn’t want to get involved.”

“He’s my best friend.”

“Was.”

“What about Steve?”

“He told Mother to channel the money through the Bahamas.”

“Will she?”

“She’ll try. It’s a bad idea. I don’t even know who she’s talking to. She may get us all killed.”

“I wouldn’t worry about her. How have you been?”

“Mas ó menos.”

Their voices betray the desperate need to keep emotions in check, the struggle for control, to be calm, certain, unafraid, invulnerable. Exhausted by the effort, they become quiet lying in each other’s arms.

At the beginning Elizabeth cried wildly and beat her fists against the wall. “They are killing us. I can’t bear it. I am going mad.”

Those outside hearing her cries were scarcely aware of them. The women vaguely uneasy, shrugged, and bounced their babies on their knees. The men hear worse in the night when the security police do their fine work at the far end of the prison.

She stopped screaming a year ago. Understanding came slowly. Why, she wonders now, did it take her so long to realize she, too, was condemned. The epiphany came to her one nightmarish night in her sweat soaked bed. Knowing is a comfort to her. Hope lost is a bestowal of grace.

Before the shuffling and shouting begin, Stuart and Elizabeth know the women must leave. Their timing is precise, so many minutes allotted for talking, so many for lovemaking, a like amount for the despair that follows. If Elizabeth was more knowing, she would recognize the cadence as belonging more to a brothel’s crib than a lover’s bed.

 

(continued in Part II)

 

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