3. “Mamaconas”, Part II


 

The first winter of captivity, Stuart gives Elizabeth a birthday party.

Manuel’s sisters prepare the traditional ceviche and camote. The Internationales brew chicha, the wine of the Orejones in Cuzco at the time of the conquest. Stuart insists Elizabeth spend money on a taxi to the elegant suburb of San Isidro to buy torte de chocolata el grande.

“Don’t worry,” he pulls her close. “We’ll dull the stiletto.”

Maria, Bobby’s dark-skinned beauty, carriedthe Internationales’ clothes to the New City and washed and ironed the ragged shirts and torn pants. The men lounge against bunks as they once did in hotels from Singapore to Buenos Aires. Freshly shaven. Nails trimmed. Eyes gleaming with satisfaction, they speak of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, Liverpool and Los Angeles, Berlin, Beirut. These gaunt men are cosmopolitans but their stories would sound familiar to an old bootlegger, full of the excitement of hide and seek, mad chases and miraculous getaways. And, sometimes, absurd captures.

Stuart and Elizabeth serve from bowls placed on a top bunk.

“Raw fish? This is celebratory?”

“For god’s sake, James, it’s not raw. It’s ceviche. It’s marinated in lemon.”

“Chicha ‘82,” Ray assumes his professorial look. “Not a bad year for corn.”

“Montrachet it is not.”

“Ca-mo-te.” Bobby runs his tongue over his lips. “A sensual word for the humble yam.”

Stuart presents a bouquet of red roses to this woman he loves and once dazzled. Picked up in Callao, he urged Elizabeth to go to Hawaii and smell the flowers. Now she is here, he can not imagine her not here. Conjuring lush blooms in the middle of a concrete tomb will be his last magic trick. Elizabeth gives herself to the fragrance, face pressed against the velvety petals, eyes closed, inhaling slow, deep breaths. The men pause in their storytelling, watch, hungry. It is over; time for the women to leave.

Word spreads of Stuart’s gift. The Indian men tug Beth’s arm. They bury their faces in the roses as she did, breathing deeply. They caress the smooth petals, press their callused fingers against the thorns on the long stems. The blood of the Savior. It is a miracle.

“Muy bueno, Stuart.”

Outside the prison Elizabeth parcels her days between the embassies. The vice-consuls believe her mad, one of the Incan Mamaconas of the Sun, betrayed virgin assigned to cruel fate. Unfailingly polite, slightly amused, they give her ten minutes, and if possible don’t keep her waiting.

It is the man she most wants to please, the man whom she dreams of in her fitful predawn sleep ravished with fear, the Vice-Consul Descharme who displays the least interest in the foreigners fading away in the windowless building. Canada has a treaty agreeing to the exchange of prisoners. Elizabeth believes, as Sally does, the men will not survive Sexto. The aching emptiness will not subside until Stuart is sent home. Descharme and Elizabeth endure a continuing, never ending or ended conversation regarding the complexity of the treaty, the interminable paperwork and the countless ministers and attorneys and international channels which must be understood and completed and convinced and paid and negotiated. Descharme has passed through time explaining.

“The process does not lend itself to haste, my dear Elizabeth.”

He is a handsome man, impeccably dressed, fastidious, and correct. An intelligent man of breeding and education, who gets things done, he appears unable to make the bureaucracy work for Elizabeth and Stuart. He shrugs ironically. He has two thousand Mennonites to look after, he reminds her.

“What are those Mennonites up to taking so much of the Vice-Consul’s valuable time?”

He murmurs deprecatingly.

Descharme hands Elizabeth Stuart’s mail, a minor infraction of the rules permitting him to escape a vile visit to Sexto, and who is to know. She inquires about money which was to arrive two weeks ago. Descharme shrugs once more. She asks for a doctor. She tells of Stuart’s lacerating wound inflicted at the last requisa. Ah, he has heard of it. His handsome head turns toward the window; he moves papers around his desk. He glances at his watch. The interview is over.

Elizabeth sleeps at a small boarding house run by Senora Pilar and doesn’t complain that the crude shower rarely works or the bedding goes unchanged. At night she drinks lukewarm tea sitting at a scarred table composing letters to the States in small, perfect script. Occasionally, she goes out.

A group of German engineers mining gold outside Puno stop by when picking up supplies in Lima and overwhelm her weary protests, sweeping her off to the Cricket Club. They drink pisco sours and flirt. Wealthy Peruvians speak languidly about the rigors of crowded Cannes or Boston provincialism.

There is scant interest in terrorist attacks spreading across the country from high Andean villages to the capital itself. It is rumored the guerrillas are led by a professor vowing to blow up Lima, planting bombs even on the sidewalk in front of the American Embassy. Guerrilla sympathizers chalk graffiti on walls and buses exhorting the peasants to join the Maoist revolution. This causes great confusion. One woman excited by the news insists there are hordes of Chinese in the mountains. Most of the Cricket Club crowd remain unperturbed. Nothing will come of it; the professor is a mad Bolivar plowing his private seas.

Elizabeth drinks too much. Men swarm, worker bees feeding the queen. She chooses an engineer. In the hotel suite half undressed she recoils from the starched sheets blindingly white against the inky tromp l’oeil, an Incan princess, carved into the dark headboard. Stumbling, she makes vague motions toward straightening her clothes, shaking her head groggily.

“I’m sorry,” she says with an anguished smile.

The engineer guides her to a taxi. Bemused, he heads to the bar, eyeing the crowd for a possible replacement.

One night the Maoists make good their threat o attack Lima bombing ten electrical towers blacking out the city. At Sexto the next morning, the surly guards ram the women with the butts of their guns.

“No! Va! Va!”

Elizabeth wards off the blows. “Es malo?”

“No! Dejame solo,” they grip their weapons and shout angrily.

She walks home, the baskets weighing her down. It is so cold. She lies on the bed wrapped in a poncho and tries to sleep. A gentle knock on her door followed by the voice of Senora Pilar rouse her, but she is too tired to answer.

“Senora Betta,” the voice becomes insistent. “You have a visitor.”

The door is unlocked. Senora Pilar thrusts a young Indian, almost a child, into the room. It is Bobby’s Maria.

Bobby sent her to the rooms of Senora Betta. Maria is afraid, but she does what she is told. She comes with a message. Bobby instructed Julio, a young prison guard who is her neighbor, to tell Maria to go quickly to Atahualpa House. Stuart was shot during the blackout. Bobby thinks he is in a hospital. He doesn’t know where.

Maria, her sensual figure destined for so shot a bloom, her shiny, black hair soon to frame a face passive in despair, smiles shyly and wishes to go. A hesitant, “Ciao, Betta,” blends into the afternoon sounds as she retreats from the American woman’s presence. Elizabeth’s “Gracias” fades with her.

The chill is gone, replaced with sudden warmth. Elizabeth rises from the lumpy bed her face flushed with sweet, warm color. Her fingers move methodically, arranging her hair with the carved bone comb, a prison gift from Stuart. The folding handle is in the shape of a swan feeding a fish and, below, the words “mi amore” etched by poor, retarded Emilio squatting in the prison pavilion. The knife that did the carving is taken each requisa. Still, Emilio carves the day after the beatings. He repeats the pattern endlessly, the pretty fish, its mouth delicately open, the swan’s graceful beak concealing some unseen morsel.

Elizabeth returns the comb to the round table where it lays next to a beeswax candle in an ornate silver holder, another gift from Stuart, this one from long ago. She brightens her lips with a red wax crayon in a golden tube. The lovely arched eyebrows and long, brown lashes need no coloring nor do her cheeks today.

From the rough hewn armoire she chooses a dress, full and flowing, a fine spun fabric blooming with delicate hibiscus. Far back on one of the shelves she uncovers a pair of gossamer hose and fragile high heeled sandals. Stuffed in the folds of old and dirty clothes thrown into a corner on the top shelf is the bundle of American bills she has collected. She hoped someday they would take her home. She smoothes the crumpled bills, fives and tens, the odd twenty and folds them neatly before zipping them in a pocket of her leather bag. Turning slowly in front of the mirror she measures herself, her lips practice a radiant smile, her hands secure a pin in the thick coil of hair, piled high, revealing the neck’s tender skin.

At the door, she stops and changes direction, seeking Senora Pilar. Finding her in the kitchen, Elizabeth matter-of-factly explains her errand.

“La Guardia shot Stuart. I have to find him. Call the Embassy, please, if I don’t come back.”

Senora Pilar reflects this is the way Elizabeth looked when she first arrived at Atahualpa House and the Senora agreed to rent her a room asking no questions. The older woman disapproves of those who seek out unhappiness when so much comes of its own accord but has grown tired of giving unheeded advice. Her cynical gaze follows the Norte Americano until she is out of sight before returning to her half mixed flan.

Elizabeth walks the two blocks to the avenue. Ignoring the busy, cheap collectivos she holds out her hand to stop an ancient Volkswagen. The taxi right-angles across lanes of traffic, its youthful driver beaming at capturing a rich and beautiful foreigner.

The young Mestizo careers through traffic on the broad thoroughfare eager to show off his skills and brakes to an abrupt halt in front of the Canadian embassy. Un mil, he says, unexpectedly self-conscious. Jolted by a sudden rush of tears, Elizabeth presses extra solés into his hand.

The embassy watchman leaning against a eucalyptus at the modest hacienda doesn’t mind having his boredom broken by a lovely senorita. On duty only on Saturdays and Sundays when the embassy is closed, he has no memory of Elizabeth. He is indignant at her request. No, he will not ring through to Descharme. He doesn’t believe the senorita’s husband has been shot in Sexto. She is not the wife of a prisoner. She is making a fool of him.

“Por favor,” Elizabeth wheedles, simpering, “the telephone number of Anna Leguia. A friend, only.”

She caresses the muscular arm suggestively, stacking bills on the palm of his hand. Sullen and suspicious, he cracks the guardhouse ledger, “Aqui,” and slams it shut. The instant is time enough.

A second beaming driver speeds her to the sprawling Hotel Caesar over which scarlet Bougainvillea climbs in gaudy display. A doorman hands her out of the cab and into the terra cotta lobby.

“Welcome, Senorita.”

She sits in an overstuffed chair, waiting for the public telephone to become free. When her turn comes, there is no “Hola” at the other end of the line. She pauses; signals the doorman; the senorita wishes to be taken to the American embassy.

At the Plaza de Armas, Elizabeth trembles with relief at the sight of Juan on duty in front of the wrought-iron gates. They are old friends; they see each other so often.

“Juan, you must help me.”

Vice-Consul Vargas is out of town for the weekend. All the Americans are gone. To ease Elizabeth’s fears Juan dials each staff number and leaves a message.

It is four blocks through the middle of the city from the embassy to the prison past ravaged buildings with boarded up windows, the only inhabitants sad, mangy dogs. It would be insane to take a taxi to the prison, and she walks, hurrying, trying not to run, avoiding when she can potholes and restless bands of soldiers. Reaching El Sexto, she is unnerved to find the streets surrounding the massive cell block quiet. No cars, no dogs, no silent, waiting women. Two armored tanks bar the entrance, revolving turrets sweep the empty streets. Elizabeth waits to cross to the prison side until she reaches the sealed gates.

A few of the guards recognize her. One, ho does not, shouts in broken English, “Go, go!”, and aims his machine gun at her. She shakes off the warning, crosses the street, calling to Jesus. Jesus saunters toward her, nonchalant. Other guards stride over and gather around. They all talk at once, trying out their English.

“I don’t know anything.”

“Ah, Stuart is okay. Everyone is okay.”

“Go home, come back manána.”

They grin and stroll away. They come back. She pleads with Jesus, gives his money.

“I must talk to Felix. Get me Felix.” She leans against the building and waits. Half an hour passes.

“Ya esta,” Jesus points. Felix stands in the doorway.

She fashions extravagant promises. She will fly Felix to the States. Arrange a visa for his girlfriend. Her family will set him up in business. She gambles and hands him a great many bills. He growls the name of a hospital.

“Es muerto!” he shouts after her. At the hospital it is the same. He is not here.

He was here, but he is dead. He was here, but he was sent to another hospital. La Guardia came and took him away. Tired of her pleading a nurse leads her to the ward where Stuart lies, face blackened and covered with blood. The bullet ripped into his ear shattering the cheekbone as it passed out. Elizabeth sits by his side, helpless, until the embassy offices open Monday morning.

Descharme is subdued. “It is always regrettable, a death. The prison Commandant is investigating. An accident most likely, a guard made nervous by the terrorist attacks.” Descharme’s face contorts in disgust at the lack of discipline.

Elizabeth gazes at Descharme, forcing her hands to lie still in her lap. “No, Mr. Descharme, not dead.”  She and Stuart are going home.

 

Visiting hours are one-thirty to three forty-five on Wednesdays and Thursdays and eleven to three-fifteen on weekends. The Canadian guard nods Elizabeth through the metal detector along with a clutch of chattering wives and parents into a spotless visitor’s center. It is quite appealing, really. Rather like a fast food restaurant in an upscale neighborhood. Sunny windows look out onto a groomed green sward bordered with red geraniums. Chirpy black- striped sparrows hop along ledges pecking at bits of torn lettuce.

One-way mirrors cover the three remaining walls. Elizabeth defies her taut figure as she enters, turns, her drawn face stares at her, tight lips crippling a painful smile, she pivots, and the macabre figure bores into her, she shrugs imperceptibly. By the window, his face blotched and misshapen, Stuart waits for her, jacket pocket heavy, bulging with doled out quarters. He buys hamburgers from the sleek cafeteria and cheap cigarettes from the machine next to a shiny urn. Lurching across the polished floor, coffee spotting the doughy hamburger buns, he goes, cheerful as the yellow and green table where he comes to rest.

His soft sweats spill over the edge of his chair, the tall, angular body gone. Immaculate in faultlessly tailored suit, she sits across from him, rigid, watchful. To pass the time they play Scrabble. Stuart is unaware when their hands touch over the board; Elizabeth, cornered prey, starts, bewildered.

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