The Potbellied Virgin, first published in 1985, treats the excesses of a religious sisterhood in an unnamed town in Ecuador's central Andes. The Virgin of the title is a small wooden icon, a kindly little mother in elaborate robes. The town is inhabited by rival clans, the Benavides family, which dominates the Sisterhood, and the disenfranchised Pandos. The powerful members of the Sisterhood shape the life of the town and dictate the appropriate worship of the Virgin. Seated on a park bench across from the cathedral, four old men, known as the "four old Pandos" represent the town's collective memory and establish a counterpoint to the Sisterhood's authority. The four provide a recitation of Ecuadorian history, linked always to events in the town and to the details of the Potbellied Virgin's miracles and worship. As they trace the evolution of the observances associated with the local patron saint, the Pandos refer repeatedly to Eloy Alfaro ("our father Alfaro"), and use a variety of national and international events as markers. A similar catalog of events serves to situate the town's long search for a resident priest. The history evoked covers the late nineteenth century through the 1960s, ending prior to the petroleum boom of the 1970s.
The town that houses the Potbellied Virgin is both central and marginal, a meeting point of disparate social classes and ethnic groups defined by language, custom, and tradition. Ecuador comprises three regions, the Pacific coast, the Andean highlands, and the lowland Amazon rain forest, known as the Oriente. The novel is situated in the highlands, and its characters participate, to varying degrees, in the regional rivalries that have characterized Ecuadorian history. Ecuador's population includes mestizos (mixed indigenous and white ancestry), Indians, Afro Ecuadorians, and whites. The indigenous and white-mestizo populations are the groups represented in Yánez Cossío's novel. Calculations of Ecuador's indigenous population vary widely, from 12 percent (based on self-reporting of native language) to as much as 40 percent of the national population (Pallares 6). Ecuador's indigenous groups are predominantly Quichua speakers, though many, especially among the younger generations, speak Spanish as well. Quichua refers to the northern (Ecuadorian) dialects of Quechua, the common language of the Inca empire. Numerous Quichua words have been adopted by Ecuadorian Spanish-speakers, whether or not they identify as indigenous, and many of these expressions are present in Yánez Cossío's novel.
While the Pando family is never clearly characterized as "Indian," their position in the town as the dispossessed—the family that owned everything before the Benavides clan manipulated the documents—as well as their darker hair and skin and use of various Quichua words, clearly suggests the social division between Indians and whites. As the description of racial mixing (mestizaje) in the novel suggests, racial categories blend with ethnic or class distinctions, and language or costume can be as great a marker as "race." The Pandos are identified as mestizo, differentiated from both Indians (who appear in the town at fiesta time but are not otherwise major characters) and members of the privileged Benavides family, who have assiduously protected their blond hair (and prestige) through intermarriage with white Europeans and North Americans. Still, the Pandos' sense of having been defrauded of their lands places them closer to the Indians, and their struggle for vindication becomes part of a long history of resistance to colonialism and racial domination. For example, the Pandos allude to the Hacienda Leito massacre of 1923, in which hundreds of peasants were killed by army troops after they went on strike for better pay and improved working conditions (Gerlach 29). However, the united and increasingly powerful indigenous movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries belong to a period after the action of the novel.
After achieving independence from Spain in 1822, Ecuador was initially part of Gran Colombia (present-day Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador) and became an independent nation in 1830. During the nineteenth century, political power was concentrated in the highlands, where the landowning elite was closely allied with the Catholic Church. Political power shifted toward the coast following the liberal revolution of 1895, but interregional rivalry has continued to characterize Ecuadorian politics and economic development.
A central figure in the politics of the nineteenth century was Gabriel García Moreno, twice president of Ecuador (1861-1865 and 1869-1875). Fiercely Catholic and conservative, García Moreno championed religious education, organized the central government, and undertook numerous public works projects, among them initial work on a railroad to connect Quito and the port city of Guayaquil. In his second term, García Moreno went so far as to dedicate the country to the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Handelsman 28). The wide-reaching concordat signed between Ecuador and the Vatican also significantly extended the role of the church in national affairs (Spindler 65). George Blanksten describes García Moreno as "a caudillo who employed the Church rather than the army as his primary instrument of power" (13). García Moreno was assassinated on the steps of the presidential palace in 1875. He remains a controversial figure. The life and death of García Moreno are the subject of Yánez Cossío's novel Sé que vienen a matarme (I Know They Are Coming to Kill Me), published in 2001.
García Moreno's great rival (though not his assassin) was General Eloy Alfaro (1842-1912). In September of 1895, Alfaro marched triumphantly into Quito after a thirty-five-year struggle to oust the ruling Conservative Party. During much of that time, Alfaro had been in exile in Panama. Known as the "Old Warrior," Alfaro first participated in an uprising against García Moreno in 1864. Alfaro's government separated church and state, provided certain civil freedoms, secularized government education, confiscated church estates, and completed the railroad between Quito and Guayaquil. In addition, a new elite made up of coastal agricultural exporters partially displaced the aristocratic landholding class as a center of political power. Yet the liberal movement quickly fragmented. Alfaro fought his way back to power in 1906, but bitter fighting erupted again following the untimely death of Alfaro's successor, Emilio Estrada, in 1911, and Alfaro was eventually imprisoned by government forces (Schodt 46). Alfaro was killed by a mob in 1912 and his remains burnt in El Ejido park in Quito.
From 1916 to 1925, the government was largely controlled by the Guayaquil-based Banco Comercial y Agrícola. The bank's dominance grew out of the liberal government's reliance on private bank loans, a reliance necessitated, in part, by Ecuador's poor credit rating abroad. Dissatisfaction with the bank's influence on national policy contributed to popular support for the insurrection of army leaders who seized power in July of 1925. Reforms enacted under Isidro Ayora, installed as president in 1926, included the founding of the Central Bank and a devaluation of the currency, from three to five sucres to the dollar. The newly minted sucres were known popularly as ayoras, mocked for being cruder and less valuable that the old sucres, while the delicate fifty-cent pieces were labeled lauritas, after the first lady, Laura Carbo de Ayora (Salvador Lara 453). In the novel, the memory of these coins serves as another signpost in the Pandos' recollection of unexplained changes in the Potbellied Virgin's appearance.
The Four Days' War, a brief civil war lasting from August 27 to August 30, 1932, is also singled out for mention in the Pandos' reminiscence. The conflict began after congress had refused to accept the Conservative president-elect, Neptalí Bonifaz, in part because he had at various times accepted Peruvian citizenship, and installed a Liberal, Alfredo Baquerizo Moreno, in his place. Bonifaz, who had received a numerical majority of the votes, declared in turn that if he were disqualified, blood would run ankle-deep in Quito (Oña Villarreal 279). The short-lived conflict between the troops loyal to Bonifaz—joined by armed conservative civilians—and the troops defending Baquerizo Moreno saw the first use of war planes in Ecuador, and more than five hundred people were said to be lying dead in the streets of the capital following the final battle; the New York Times reported that some 40 percent of the male population of Quito "had been armed and organized into rebel sharpshooter bands" (August 31, 1932). The conservatives ultimately surrendered, and Miguel Albornoz took office as provisional president.
The populist José María Velasco Ibarra (1893-1979), born and educated in Quito, is another central figure in the history presented in the novel. Elected to five presidential terms, Velasco was able to complete only one. As president, he more than once granted himself dictatorial powers. His ideology was somewhat undefined, advocating patriotic nationalism, moral regeneration, and a variety of reforms. In The Potbellied Virgin, he is recalled as the only president ever to have slept in the town; the fact that he addressed the population from the hotel balcony alludes to Velasco's often-repeated boast, "Give me a balcony and the people are mine" (Martz 1). He was elected to his first presidential term in 1934. Overthrown by the military in 1935, he lost the election of 1939 and took power again following the Revolution of 1944.
In 1940 Dr. Carlos Alberto Arroyo del Río, a wealthy costeño, was elected president. Many felt that Velasco Ibarra, exiled to Colombia following the campaign, had lost only because of electoral fraud. Peru's occupation of much of Ecuador's Amazon territory in 1941 further complicated the situation. The Protocol of Peace and Friendship, signed in January 1942 by the Conference of Western Hemisphere Foreign Ministers in Rio de Janeiro, ceded to Peru more than 240,000 square kilometers of Ecuadorian territory. Following this defeat, many felt that dignity demanded that Arroyo del Río step down. Instead, he availed himself of extraconstitutional powers granted for the conduct of the war to suppress his opposition. Following a poorly handled presidential campaign in which Arroyo del Río selected the aging and unpopular senate president as official candidate while simultaneously outlawing the candidacy of Velasco Ibarra, the military garrison in Guayaquil finally rebelled on May 28, 1944. Joined by many civilians, soldiers burned the only barracks loyal to the government and issued a proclamation stating their aim to be an "end to the hateful tyranny of traitors which we can no longer tolerate" and labeling the Arroyo del Río government an "interminable orgy of crimes, thievery, and infamous mistakes which have brought the country to its ruin" (Blanksten 45). Supporters of the uprising, in which civilians fought alongside conscripts and junior officers, included Conservatives, Catholics, Socialists, and Communists (de la Torre 28-29). The uprising was a response to many years of liberal domination as well as a rejection of the surrender of national territory. Resentment of Peru continued to fester, and a definitive peace between the two countries was achieved only in 1998.
Following the revolution of May 1944, Velasco Ibarra replaced Arroyo del Río and a new constitution was drafted. Velasco was deposed by the army in 1947 but reelected in 1952, when he managed to serve his entire term. Although he was replaced in 1956 by a conservative president who sought to redress the mismanagement and corruption that had undermined gains brought about by booming banana exports, Velasco was elected to a fourth term in 1960. While initially committed to a program of major socioeconomic change, Velasco proved "characteristically unable to convert electoral support into meaningful policy" (Martz 73). His vice president, Carlos Julio Arosemena Monroy, turned against him and began to build a personal following. When Velasco declared extensive taxes on consumer goods in October 1961 in an effort to shore up the economy, demonstrations in Guayaquil and Cuenca brought on a wave of strikes, work stoppages, and military retaliation that culminated in the toppling of the government on November 8, 1961. Velasco was replaced by Arosemena Monroy, who was supported both by leftist organizations, such as the federation of university students, and the economic elite. Though Arosemena Monroy moved toward the center to assure his political survival once his support for the Cuban revolution aroused suspicions, his reiteration of planned structural reforms alarmed the elite, and allegations that his cabinet had been infiltrated by communists as well as charges of public drunkenness led to his overthrow by the military in 1963. (In The Potbellied Virgin, the breaking of diplomatic relations with Cuba is mentioned as a chronological clue to situate the narrative of the town's search for a priest.) However, the military proved both unwilling and unable to govern in the face of student protests, labor strikes, and the opposition of the political parties, and the junta resigned on March 28, 1966. A group of national figures selected an interim president, and a new constitution was drafted. After the 1967 constitution was adopted and new election laws passed, national elections were held in June 1968, and Velasco was elected to his fifth term (Martz 75). Velasco assumed dictatorial powers on June 22, 1970, declaring that he would retain such powers until his legal term ended in 1972. As the elections of 1972 neared, army leaders feared that Guayaquil populist Assad Bucaram would run. The army pressured Velasco to postpone elections and remain in office. When Velasco refused, he was ousted in a bloodless coup on February 15, 1972, and General Guillermo Rodríguez Lara, the army chief of staff, took over.
The historical changes evoked in the novel illustrate the shifting role of the military in national politics as well as the ongoing power of the church. The two institutions appear as distinct sites of power, sometimes opposed to one another, sometimes acting in concert. Both come in for parody and criticism, although the power of the church is the more constant, oppressive force. As an icon of popular faith, the Potbellied Virgin herself is at times dismayed by the official or institutional actions undertaken in her name. Throughout the novel, the power of the church is evident at both national and local levels, exaggerated for satirical effect but repeatedly linked to historical reality. The Pandos quote approvingly a sermon by Federico González Suárez (1844-1917)—historian, literary critic, bishop of Ibarra, and archbishop of Quito—who "dominated Ecuador's social, political, and cultural life of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries" (Handelsman 28). Tellingly, the sermon cited deals with national honor and sovereignty, not with matters of religious faith. The link between political and religious authority is present from the very founding of the Sisterhood, for the Sisterhood is established in part to counterbalance the prestige of the Virgin of the Sorrows (La Dolorosa), whose portrait in the Jesuit school in Quito is said to have cried real tears in 1906, during the presidency of the anticlerical Alfaro. The 1906 miracle connects events in the novel to the history of Ecuador at the same time that it highlights the excesses of the Sisterhood and the rivalry between virgins (or apparitions of the Virgin Mary) that motivates the Sisterhood's decisions.
Such exaggerated yet motivated linkages are typical of Yánez Cossío's narrative, in which popular wisdom both shapes the interpretations of events and is modified in the face of social change. The four old Pandos' ritualistic retelling of national and local history is punctuated by proverbs and traditional sayings. Such refrains are used throughout the novel to convey conventional wisdom and popular knowledge, as well as to provide an often ironic perspective on the events described.
In his discussion of oral cultures, Walter Ong stresses the importance of proverbs and formulas to speech and memory (34-35). While the Pandos do not represent a wholly oral culture—one of the Pandos publishes a newspaper—the four old men in the park do pass the time with a highly ritualized speech filled with the proverbs, repetitions, and formulas central to oral cultural transmission. Proverbs also characterize the speech of the Sisterhood, so that the weight of tradition and repetition can be seen in their thought as well.
Short, formulaic, often though not always employing devices such as rhyme or alliteration, the proverbs of a community might be seen as a set of shared assumptions or beliefs, the embodiment of popular knowledge. Still, a speaker can employ a proverb with varying degrees of irony or belief. Dick Gerdes argues that "the proverb challenges its audience to better it with something more appropriate, more opportune, or even with something contradictory" (54). At the same time, "proverbs constitute typical mechanisms of repetition through which the dominant authority in a community attempts to preserve the hegemony of a moral system that is grounded in the past" (Gerdes 56). The proliferation of proverbs in The Potbellied Virgin also contributes to the comic exaggeration of the novel, allowing characters to express their blinkered or limited worldview at the same time that such a view is undermined or questioned.
Born in Quito in 1928, Alicia Yánez Cossío is widely acknowledged as one of Ecuador's foremost contemporary novelists. She is the author of nine novels, including Bruna, soroche y los tíos (1972, published in English in 1999 as Bruna and Her Sisters in the Sleeping City), Yo vendo unos ojos negros (I Have a Pair of Black Eyes for Sale, 1979), La casa del sano placer (The House of Healthy Pleasure, 1989), Aprendiendo a morir (Learning How to Die, 1997) and Sé que vienen a matarme (I Know They Are Coming to Kill Me, 2001). She has also published poetry, two collections of short stories, several children's books, and a memoir. Her short stories have been widely anthologized. In addition to her first novel, several of Yánez Cossío's short stories have been published in English translation.
Yánez Cossío's work displays the variety and experimentation that have characterized contemporary Latin American narrative. Her novels reveal multiple narrators, a flexible sense of time, and an agile satirical sensibility. Her principal themes have been the roles of women, the power of the church, the nature of representation, and the interpretation of the past. Her most recent novels treat controversial or little-understood figures in Ecuadorian history, such as Santa Mariana de Jesús and Gabriel García Moreno. Yánez Cossío's work cautions against either a stubborn adherence to oppressive tradition or a wholesale surrender to modern commercialism. Her work addresses the complexities of Ecuadorian and Latin American society, engaging racial, gender, class, and ethnic tensions. Yánez Cossío invites us to read—and reread—both the present and the past, alert to the dangers of easy answers, of hypocrisy and posturing; her novels demand of their readers a critical attitude leavened with good humor and a recognition of human fallibility.
Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop, striking showers of sparks against the rocks carved by the water of the rivers whose terrifying currents carry whole settlements to the Oriente, over the round stones like hard rolls, like the bread eaten by the sweat of one's brow, the bread that is burnt at the oven door, stones that have been placed one by one by the calloused hands of the Indians, gallops Magdalena Benavides, and she thinks that the day will come when people from far away, who are the ones who discover foreign lands, will be amazed and come to see with their own eyes the hand-laid cobblestones of the town's streets and its long roads. And the stones that were domesticated by water and later tamed by the mother stone acting as sledgehammer to plant them in the ground are polished further by the blows of the horseshoes, and they are like the souls of the townspeople, blunted by life's blows so that they say at each encounter:
—Here we are, still alive, better that than be too proud.
The horse's hooves hit the stones with a contained fury, as if they wanted to pass over the prone bodies of the Pandos and flatten them into empty hides. The dark chestnut seems as though it were flying when it passes, its feet extended at chest level. The streets, entirely deserted at this most uncertain hour of the day, when the sun is rolling behind the mountain and the shadows stretch to meet the night, awaken with the clatter of this crazy gallop that rings against the ancient stones, tearing them up, and one doesn't know if it is afternoon-evening or afternoon-night.
From all sides you can hear the shoemaker Romualdo. He strums his guitar, wasting away, pasillo after pasillo, songs he doesn't sing, no, he's crucifying himself on those trite litanies of disaster, lashing himself with the halter of heartache, he's slitting his own throat, adorning his entire body with masochistic hair shirts:
"Not even your memoooory
comes now to consoooole me
because I think those memories have diiiiied
with the cold of these last eeevenings . . ."
Magdalena rides with one hand on the reins and the other trying to brush out of her eyes the golden weight of chamomile and broom that is her blond hair, because if she wasn't blond, she wouldn't be a Benavides nor would she have to take such care of her hair for the day when her turn comes to cut it all off in the dreaded ceremony, in order to give it to the Virgin who must change wigs every five years. This year it is her turn, and the other Benavides women will someday have to cut their hair, too, since they should have that terrible privilege at least once in their lives . . .
Magdalena gallops to the very center of town, to the plaza, where she knows the last four old Pandos are watching her from the nests of wrinkles that surround their tiny, malignant eyes. They come from the old Pandos, the eternal opponents of the Benavideses. The two families are like water and fire, like vinegar and oil, like good and bad fortune, like night and day; they are like Ahab and Zedekiah who, "though both were enamored of her, they did not tell each other their trouble, for they were ashamed to reveal their lustful desire to have her."
The hardened, wizened old men—old age without peace is visibly rough—consume her with their eyes so as to say, once she has passed, that she is the craziest of the Benavides women, the only mannish one in the bunch, the scandal of the town, the least worthy of all the handmaidens that the Virgin has had since the Sisterhood was founded, and the words falter and stumble in the toothless hollows of their mouths:
—Carishina, guarmishina, pela papa en la cocina.
—Carishina, guarmishina, peel potatoes in the kitchen.
They've been waiting for her since the sunny midday when they heard her arrive, preceded by the long bark of the hungry dogs that point the arrows of their howls to heaven. They squirm in their impotence, because after populating the entire town and after having exercised for years their feudal rights over the unmarried Indian women, they have given out, and now they're all show. The best they can do is watch this crazy Magdalena in her wild gallop, and what they hate about her is what she represents: the strength and the power that they once held in their hands and that was wrenched away from them with the twisted force of the law, taking from them the land that had belonged to their grandfathers and that extended across every known climate. The lands that had always belonged to the Pandos, until the first Benavides arrived and changed both landscape and customs. The Pandos then had to Hispanicize their surname, exchange their rope-soled sandals for worn out shoes, their rough homespun for mended shirts and their racial pride for an anodyne mestizaje.
For years, the four old Pandos have been searching for the documents that prove their claims. They sense that although they spend their lives sitting on the park benches, they are in fact marching toward death unable to find the proofs of the lawsuit they began one day, for which—they recall—they sold two milk cows, and made their first and only trip to the capital, and went to the courts to consult hundreds of lawyers and quishcas, but the documents were mislaid in the notaries' offices and are no longer in their power, but rather in the hands of the Benavides clan.
Seated in the shade of an old walnut, which bears only a few stunted green nuts, they smoke their hand-rolled cigarettes, and the cut black tobacco dribbles through their trembling arthritic hands, spattering their worn trousers of ancient wool, and they retrieve it bit by bit, using the nail of an index finger as a spoon. They gather the minimal particles and the ribs of the best leaves of tobacco available on the coast, which their nephews bring when they travel to Esmeraldas, and they combine them parsimoniously with those stored in a rusty can, on which one can just make out the figure of an angel in voluminous robes, fat as a matron, with open wings, with the trumpet of judgment day in his right hand and, in the left, a basket from which fall, as if raining from heaven, boxes and cigarettes that are retrieved by boys in sailor suits and men with mocora palm hats and women with little boots and broad-brimmed, feathered straw bonnets, dressed like women from the turn of the century. One can barely make out the words:
Selecting tobacco from the best plantations
Esmeraldas, Daule, and Santa Rosa.
J, B, Nieto G.
Magdalena arrives galloping along one side of the plaza. She slows little by little, stopping at the steps of the magnificent cathedral, where she throws herself off the horse and runs up the stairs, but then pauses at the threshold of the doors carved with biblical scenes of the loaves and fishes and the parting of the Red Sea. The enormous doors bear the weight of ancestral devotion and the accumulated dust of the long streets. She knows that the four old Pandos are watching her; she senses it through her dorsal vertebrae. She can't go into the temple, still less approach the altar of the Virgin, because the gaze of the four old men has her tied, and she is wearing pants, and no woman can enter the church dressed as a man. Magdalena lets her eyes adjust to the dim interior barely illuminated by the thousands of candles that never go out, and when she sees the icon, she asks of her, trustingly, the greatest of miracles:
—Let me leave this godforsaken town. Have pity on me, Oh Potbellied Virgin, little Potbellied Mother . . .
She draws back. She descends the stairs with the accumulated sadness of all the vestal virgins and daughters of the sun and of the moon who have occupied the temples of the enigmatic East and of the ancient West. She mounts her horse. Whips it and departs.
The four old Pandos spit out the thick, dark saliva of inveterate smokers and repeat:
—Carishina, guarmishina, peel your potatoes in the kitchen.
And they twist their necks after the galloping figure who circles the plaza and disappears. And when Magdalena has gone, the day really draws to a close, and the sun slips behind a mountain, and suddenly the sadness that has always inhabited the plaza of every Andean town built of stones and sorrows arrives all at once. And Romualdo Pando and his guitar are dying along with the day as the horse passes and once again the bleeding lament opens like an incurable wound:
"It seems to me the breeeeze
of these winter niiiights
has entered right withiiin
to freeze my soul and boooody..."
Manuel Pando, the one from the Voice of the People press, sets to one side the linotypes with which he had been laying out his eternally subversive newspaper with its perennial attacks against the Benavides oligarchs: it's Magdalena again, with her mop of blond hair unraveled by the wind. Once again Magdalena, with her strange eyes the color of sugarcane about to be cut. Once again Magdalena, with the almost perfect oval of her face resembling that of the Potbellied Virgin to whom he long ago stopped praying, but that he always watches with curious interest when the local dignitaries take her out in procession, and he sees how she sways above their heads like a miniature Magdalena. A forbidden Magdalena, who in any case is his cousin, and who he can never approach because he broke all the ties that bound him to the masters of the village when he learned that he was the bastard son of one of them.
He comes out sadly to watch her pass and, leaning against the doorframe, he cleans his hand on a rag of indeterminate color while his neighbor (who is Manuel Pando's real mother, although she has never told him that, because she would die of shame) moves abruptly so as to peek through the half-open window, and knocks over the bottle of Thimolina with which she rubs the eternal and stubborn arthritis of her washerwoman's legs and of the fingers so absurdly twisted and swollen that they seem like frostbitten potatoes.
The acid deposits in her overworked veins ache, ache with the pain that will last until her death without respite or remedy, because she will always be standing among the large boulders of the river washing her clothes, the clothes of Magdalena Benavides who passes her time galloping from the hacienda into town, and who sends her so much clothing that isn't even dirty, for the pure pleasure of making her work and harassing her with the hard soap of bad fortune. The ill humors of the neighbor's swollen arteries are stirred up further when she interrupts the reverie in which Manuel Pando, the untouched son, has become lost, leaning against the doorframe with the stained rag in his hands, whistling through his teeth what he always whistles when he's laying out the linotype:
"Life doesn't kill us, nooooo,
what kills us are the sooorrows . . ."
And the neighbor doesn't know whether to curse him for a fool or take pity on him as her son, since he's a Benavides and didn't choose to remain one, for as the four old Pandos tell, when the one from the press was young, he lived in the hacienda house with his aunts and uncles. But one bad day, when the Benavides family couldn't curb his rebellious impulses, they told him he was bad natured because he was a bastard, and he didn't need to hear more. He broke all ties, returned their surname and went off with the Pandos to earn his living, and ever since, he has understood the misery of the poor and the exploitation of the rich, and he swore that one day he would put things in their place.
And the neighbor follows him like a shadow, loving him from a distance, anxious to tell him when he watches Magdalena:
—Stop, stop looking at her, she's not for you, or for anyone. Even though she's a tomboy and doesn't even know how to ride sidesaddle, like a woman should, she's destined for the Potbellied Virgin, and as your people would say, honey wasn't made for the ass's snout.
And then she bends down, resigned, to mop up the Thimolina with a cotton ball she later wrings out in a delicate stream over the mouth of the bottle. The red liquid turns brown while she calculates that the Thimolina isn't going to last the month, and she'll have to go to the pharmacist again to ask him for credit, pretending not to see the sign that is the most visible thing in the pharmacy and which reads:
"Today I don't give credit; tomorrow, I will."
It is the only sign the pharmacist has added—on top of all the older signs you can barely read—since he inherited the shop from his grandfather:
If you want Strength and Beauty
For sale in all the pharmacies and
drugstores of the world
S/. 2 the bottle
from César A. Pajuelo
S/. 1 the bottle
for family use
especially for children
during the period of nursing
Zevallos & Icaza
FOR MEN OF ALL AGES
Masculine Weakness (Impotence)
New, inoffensive, agreeable, and infallible
Buenos Aires, 14 December 1907
P. N. ARRATA
And as the horse passes, the pharmacist also spills his bicarbonate. Annoyed, he throws aside the silver spoon with which he is measuring out small mounds on rectangles of brown paper, since what he sells most of in the pharmacy La Confianza is bicarbonate to soothe heartburn caused when the potatoes eaten with their skins, with hot pepper and fresh cheese, begin to ferment in the vigorous darkness; to calm the colics with their spasmodic contractions when the inevitable phase of the moon arrives and is hurried along with a tea of fig leaves; to stifle the fierce gas pains that torment the men of the town and the beasts of the field. The pharmacist never leaves his counter, but he knows the intimate secrets of the entire town. He knows more than Manuel Pando who watches the people toil and sweat and who takes the pulse of the town to confirm that it is dying of all possible miseries; he knows more than the old priest Santiago de los Angeles, who created the Sisterhood of the Bead on the Gown of the Potbellied Virgin and who took with him to the other life the thousands of secrets that shamefacedly crossed the grating of the ancient confessional, which is now festooned with gray cobwebs; he knows a lot, because in curing them of their physical ailments, he contrives to spy out the folds of their souls, and between prescription and consultation he keeps track of the menstrual cycles of all the young women, and he knows about missteps and about misbegotten fruits; and he knows, above all, that all of the men of the town are dying of love for Magdalena Benavides and for all the Magdalena Benavideses who have been born and been unable to marry as would have been proper; and finally, he knows of all the fights and quarrels on account of those Magdalenas and of the hatred the Pando women feel for the Benavides women, because their husbands sin in thought whenever they are on top of them.
And he knows about the hatred and envy of the taffy maker Rosa Inés who, as the horse passes, suspends in the air the golden, twisted strap of brown sugar taffy that looks like the braid of any one of the Magdalenas, and she tosses the taffy furiously against the chonta wood hook above the door, beside the aloe branch that needs neither soil nor water because it feeds off matter found in the air, which no one sees but which the aloe eats and for that reason it brings good luck and prevents the owners of the house from being bewitched. It has been there for years, tied up with a ribbon that was once red but is now white. And Rosa Inés pulls and twists the taffy and throws it again as though it were a vertical, malleable river of gold, or a cabuya rope suitable for hanging a white neck like the elongated, heron-like, Modigliani throats that all the Benavides women have, and she doesn't stop working when she sees Magdalena pass like a flash of lightning while she has to stay in the same place, under the sticky chonta hook, working until the day turns to night, when she will sit down to wrap the candies that pile up on the shelves as if they were gold ingots, while she hears the persistent, cascading voice that sang to Magdalena—never to Rosa Inés—when she was a child:
"Ricky gets spun sugar candy
Roque gets a hokey pokey
tricky tricky tricky tran . . ."
And she throws and stretches the taffy before it gets cold and stiff, sighing:
—Who wouldn't want to ride like her over the green paddocks, devouring roads and distances the way you'd slurp up a noodle, lose herself behind the hills, ford the thousand rivers of the region, escape.... But the weeks of the poor have so few Sundays!
And she comes back from her impossible dreams when she hears the curses of her father who has spilled his jar of blue paint at the passing of Magdalena Benavides' horse, and she watches, both mocking and distressed, the trail of blue that zigzags between the stones and stretches from the overturned can in a thread that finally disappears in the kikuyu grass as if it were the entrance to the forest of an enchanted miniature world.