This page contains:
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Body transformation
- Child death
- Drug use
Up in the hills, where the green shadows grow long, and far from all the student protests in San Juan, Gloria and her husband, Pedro, lived in a tiny house. An almost perfect square of concrete in the center of a space carved out of the surrounding jungle, their closest neighbors nearly a mile away. Every morning, Pedro drove his little Toyota down the narrow ribbon of asphalt to work at the pharmaceutical factory the next town over, leaving Gloria alone with her housework until he returned. Theirs had never been a marriage born of passion, but a way for her to finally get out from under the shadow of her family. Being sturdy country folk, sending Gloria to university was seen as inviting godlessness into the family—Dios mío, can you imagine all those students throwing rocks at the police!—even if there had been money for that type of thing. Getting married was simply the next thing to do.
Pedro hadn’t even been someone Gloria felt any attraction to, but the focus of her younger sister, Eulalia—who joined her mother in mocking Gloria for being a jamona, a spinster. It had been Eulalia who swooned over Pedro at church or at the market, when she caught a glimpse of him buying plantains or dried cod crusted with salt. So, Gloria stole him from her—partly to get back at her, but also because she didn’t know what to do next.
Their wedding was small but celebrated. In spite of herself, Gloria was happy. But soon enough, the glow faded and her life as Mrs. Villanueva took on the predictable rhythm of a much older marriage. Pedro was decent and hard-working, but rather dull and attached to his routines. At times, she chafed at his adherence to responsibility, but often succeeded in squelching her dissatisfaction by reminding herself Pedro had been a means to an end. Even so, with each day plodding its way to the next, she soon lost track of the months as they stretched into years.
Gloria also suspected her dislike of her husband’s love of routine was something she saw in herself—a thought she could only admit in the small hours before dawn, when sleep fled her, something she was almost sure had started after their first year together.
Not prone to daydreams or flights of fancy, Gloria was nevertheless afflicted by a peculiar dream: her belly grew round as if with child, only for an ají plant to sprout from her navel. Every night, her other dreams would fall away or transform, and she would find her belly swelling, stretch marks growing like stripes on her skin. Then, the plant burst from her, broad green leaves unfurling, narrow red peppers lengthening until they peeked out from under the shelter of the foliage. Gloria didn’t think of it as a nightmare even as its arrival drove her to wakefulness; she was never frightened in the dream. She’d lurch awake to find Pedro snoring beside her. He noticed the dark half-moons under her eyes, eventually.
“Maybe I should take you down to see Doctor Mendoza,” Pedro said over his morning coffee. “I can talk to my shift supervisor to get time off next week.”
From where she drank her own coffee, leaning against the kitchen sink, Gloria accepted.
Sitting next to Pedro, Gloria waited for Dr. Mendoza to finish reading their files. Diplomas from Universidad de Madrid and Johns Hopkins hung on one wall, with several photos of what she presumed were former patients on another. The doctor—a sleek little man, hair slicked back with brillantine, wire-rimmed glasses and a precise goatee—set his cigarette on a crystal ashtray at the corner of his desk before speaking.
“It could be insomnia. I could run some quick tests on you at the clinic,” Dr. Mendoza said before glancing at Pedro. “Maybe next week—?”
Pedro grimaced. “I don’t think I can get time off that soon—”
“It’s nothing really,” Gloria said.
Both men stared at her, but Gloria fixed her gaze on Pedro, who after a moment had the decency to look away, stammering something about being worried for her health.
Gloria turned on Dr. Mendoza. “How much would these tests cost?”
Dr. Mendoza met her eyes before grinning at Pedro, as if sharing a private joke. “Gas money to drive her to the hospital, that’s it. A research grant covers the tests.” Confused, Pedro smiled back.
Dr. Mendoza had them sign paperwork, assuring them it was a necessary formality. “If you can’t sign, all I need is a mark,” he said when pointing out where their signatures were needed. Gloria bristled at the doctor’s presumption they couldn’t read or write, even as Pedro shrugged and followed his instructions.
Even with two weeks’ notice, Pedro couldn’t get more than a half-day off to take Gloria to her tests. Only enough time to drop her off before doubling back to clock into his shift. They drove down through the hairpin turns in silence, radio turned down to a murmur in the background. Once the road levelled off Gloria glanced at her husband.
“What,” Pedro said.
“The doctor only talks to you.”
“I told you already—they’re looking for excuses to cut my hours. You think we can afford that?”
“If you hate that job that much, why are you bending over backwards to keep it?” She knew she sounded petulant, but she wanted a fight almost as much as she wanted him to stay with her, to ignore his job, even if he got fired. “Just stay with me. Please?”
In the end, he dropped her off at the front entrance. He didn’t bother turning off the car—just drove off to work, still angry.
Gloria woke to pain.
Dull. Constant. It throbbed through her. Details trickled in, between pulses. The fizzle of fluorescents, light stuttering. Pastel walls around her, gone grubby with time, with use. Her hospital robe crinkled. Like those knockoff paper towels her mother always warned against. Lo barato sale caro, she always said. A vague memory—Dr. Mendoza asking her what triggered her insomnia—drifted into focus. She struggled to connect it with anything else as she lifted her robe. An angry red smile had been cut into her, inches below her navel. Deep in the cut, crusted blood as black as the stitching.
Still in a fog, she wanted to scream. A hollow rage filled her instead as she understood what Dr. Mendoza had done to her, what Pedro had sat there and accepted instead of—what? Pedro had always been too meek, too deferential for her to expect him to prevent an important man like Dr. Mendoza from cutting out her womb with all the cold pragmatism of scraping seeds. But he should be here. He should be made to bear witness. Trembling with fury, she turned away from the approaching nurse, hot tears leaking onto her pillow.
Once she was home, Pedro’s concern rankled, but the process of mending left Gloria too wrung out to do much more than accept his help in sullen silence. For the first few weeks, she could tell what day it was by when he left, when he came back, when he stayed home, but she was adrift. She gritted her teeth every time she was too weak to walk on her own or had to depend on Pedro to get to the bathroom, lower her onto the toilet. As soon as she was well enough, she insisted on sleeping on the couch in their living room. She told Pedro it was because she’d be closer to the bathroom and didn’t want to wake him in the middle of the night. What she didn’t tell him was: the dream had returned.
One night, she woke barefoot and standing at the edge of their back plot, jungle looming over her, staring at an ají plant that reached her chest. Its long red peppers looked as black as blood in the moonlight. At first, a thin voice rose to her, and as Gloria pushed aside the plant’s leaves to find its source, she realized it was coming from under it.
Using her bare hands, she dug into the red clay. She scooped dirt out faster as the voice became clearer, only stopping when her fingertips brushed against the cold curve of someone’s pale cheek. Startled, she flinched away, falling on her ass. A twinge of pain shot through her abdomen, furred black closing in on the edges of her sight. Panting, she waited until the pain faded before peering into the hole, past the roots—thicker than she’d expected—and saw a girl’s face as pale and cold as a statue in profile. Dirt freckled her cheek and seemed embedded into the corners of her closed eye, her mouth.
Eyes fixed on the girl, as if by digging she had uncovered a viper’s nest, she backed away. One step after another until her back was against the sliding glass doors leading back inside, hand searching for the handle.
“Mamá,” the girl in the hole said. “Don’t leave me.”
With the gray light of dawn, Gloria rubbed the grit from her eyes and realized she didn’t remember anything after she heard the voice. She jerked her blanket aside and went to the glass door, staring. She couldn’t find the ají bush in the riot of growth at the edge of the yard. Her hand—resting on the handle to the sliding door she’d meant to open but had not—was smeared with mud, crescents of dirt caked under her fingernails.
This was what occupied her mind when Pedro talked to her about getting a lawyer over breakfast. She realized he’d been staring at her, waiting for her response.
“Sorry,” Gloria mumbled. “What happened?”
“Don’t you want him to pay for what he did?” Pedro raised his voice, angry he needed to repeat himself. Gloria bit back her weary answer: she had already paid the price, so what was the point? Spend money they didn’t and might never have, and for what? It wouldn’t undo what had been done to her. She knew Pedro expected her to want to do something, to act so what had happened to her didn’t happen to other women, but that might mean letting others—who knew almost nothing about her—see her as a victim. It would mean she would have to think of herself as a victim. Then again, maybe Pedro didn’t want to see himself that way, either. So used to believing he was in control, he thought he was owed justice, and misunderstanding there are blows so devastating there was no hope of redress. One could only try to live with the aftermath.
Instead, she said, “Just find a lawyer who’ll do it pro bono.”
Only then did Pedro notice the red clay smeared on her hands. “Why are your hands so dirty?” Not waiting for her answer, he stood up, drank the last gulp of his coffee and put his dishes in the sink. “I need to go in early, but we can talk more about the lawyer when I get back.”
Gloria was relieved when he at last drove off to work.
Another restless night. Gloria found herself curled around the hole at the base of the ají plant again. She rested her head in the crook of one elbow, her other hand dangling over the edge to stroke the girl’s cheek as she spoke.
“Stay, Mamá. The bad dreams come when you go,” she said in her small voice, and Gloria remembered long nights when her own mother had stayed by her bedside to keep her nightmares at bay.
How soon that had changed. As soon as Eulalia was born, Gloria had been expected to grow out of crying for her mother in the middle of the night. Never mind that her waking world did nothing but grow those bad dreams tall enough she was always walking in their shadows. No, Gloria wouldn’t let her daughter feel alone and left to fend for herself. She cooed and murmured assurances, realizing that even though she was unsure how, the girl was her daughter, and as real as the dimple of scar tissue under her navel.
“I’m not going anywhere, but when will you come to me?”
Her daughter fell silent long enough for Gloria to raise herself on her elbow to look down into the hole. Her daughter’s eyes had opened, with every slow blink deepening the furrow on her brow. Flecks of clay were caught in her lashes, her eyebrows.
“¿Bebé?” Gloria cupped her hand against her cheek.
“I can’t,” the girl said. “If I could pull myself up out of the dirt, I would wither. You will have to come to me, Mamá.”
The girl took Gloria’s hand. Her grip was as cold as anything underground, untouched by the sun and as strong. For a moment, Gloria half expected to get pulled down into the hole to curl protectively around her daughter down there in the dark and damp.
Then, the girl’s grip softened and settled into a gentle, familiar shape Gloria recognized from her own youth. The trusting grasp of a child surrendering to her mother’s guidance through the plaza pública, or a park filled with people, or a department store. If the girl had indeed pulled her down into the ground now, Gloria wouldn’t have resisted.
Gloria started at the sound of Pedro’s car pulling into the carport. She’d half-dozed through the whole day. Kicking off blankets heavy with sweat into a tangle at her feet, she got up. Their breakfast dishes rose from the sink like an accusation, and she hadn’t taken anything out for dinner. Shaking off her lethargy, she turned the spigot and watched it flow until the water steamed.
“Gloria?” Pedro glanced at the dishes when he walked in and noticed she was still wearing the same oversized shirt she’d been wearing this morning. Gloria was sure he could smell her from where he stood. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing.” Gloria stared through the steam.
“Don’t say ‘nothing’—” Pedro’s voice rang against the walls of the kitchen before he managed to bite back the rest. After a moment, he tried again, voice threatening to unravel without warning. “Gloria. Mi amor, mi vida … it’s obvious something’s happening.”
Gloria stood at the sink, jaw clenching and unclenching. How dare he act like the voice of reason? He couldn’t have found out about the girl, the one she was sure was her daughter—could he?
It wasn’t until Pedro reached past her to turn off the water and ask what girl she was talking about that Gloria realized she’d spoken aloud. “She’s under an ají plant. In our yard,” Gloria said, already hating how she sounded admitting this to Pedro, but doing it anyway. Who else could she tell? “She—she’s my daughter.”
Pedro’s face shifted, softened. “Your—” he chewed on the word, swallowed and tried again. “Our daughter?” Pedro’s fingers brushed her arm as if he wanted to steady himself, but Gloria squirmed away from his touch until the kitchen counter dug into her back.
She debated correcting him by repeating my daughter but nodded.
He looked away before speaking again, voice flat. “Do you remember signing paperwork before you went to the hospital?”
“The lawyer showed me.” Pedro shook his head, afraid to meet her eyes. “He said that no judge would care what Dr. Mendoza promised, only what the papers we signed said.”
Pedro’s look of superiority drove out any feelings of fatalism Gloria might have had. “But he lied to us.”
“Maybe.” Pedro wouldn’t meet her eyes. “The lawyer won’t take the case.”
“And you’re just going to accept that? Find another one—”
“Any good lawyer would say the same.”
Gloria glared at him, speechless until her fury boiled up. “Why do I bother? You’re worthless!” She punctuated the last word by scooping her coffee cup out of the sink and flinging it at the wall, where it shattered. Pedro’s eyes flashed, and she thought finally, but instead of fighting her, he took his keys and left.
After that, Pedro spent long hours away. Gloria was left to wander the cramped rooms of the house, often leaving the small radio in the kitchen on all day—depending on strangers' voices for company. Some nights, he’d return, while others he’d call her to let her know he was staying at his mother’s or sister’s house. Gloria wondered if he was telling her the truth, even as she was certain he was not—the men of her own family had been found out, keeping mistresses and sometimes whole other families hidden the next mountain or the next town over. She knew she should be upset, act betrayed if only for appearances, but instead she was relieved.
In the full dark that came when night fell in the mountains, on the very edge between dreams and waking, Gloria found herself once again curled around the ají plant. Her hand once more dangled over the edge of the hole, hand-in-hand with the girl underground.
She crooned an old shapeless tune she half remembered her own mother singing to her as a young girl. The night air was velvety warm, but Gloria couldn’t stop shivering, as if the chill that never left her daughter’s skin had soaked her through.
“¿Mamá?” The girl’s voice sounded so far away.
“I’m here, mi amor,” Gloria said.
“Don’t leave me.”
“Never,” Gloria said.
Eyes closed, Gloria’s entire world shrank to her daughter’s hand in hers. Gloria didn’t notice the sweep of headlights, the familiar sound of Pedro pulling into the driveway, the creak of the Toyota’s door opening.
“I’ll be here for you as long as you live.” As if from the edges of sleep, Gloria heard Pedro calling her name. Faint at first, but louder after Gloria refused to respond. She just wanted him to give up and go away. She decided he would not take her time with her daughter away from her.
When at last he slid open the patio door, Pedro stood swaying before remembering the flashlight in his hand. He cursed under his breath as he struggled with the blunt thing designed for hurricane season and not his drunken fumblings. After some more curses, he finally clicked it on.
“Gloria?” His voice slid over her name as he waved the flashlight beam around. She remained silent, but her daughter whimpered.
“Don’t let him take you away from me,” she said.
She sounded so tiny and afraid; Gloria cooed and murmured, “I won’t, don’t worry. I won’t … ”
A beam of light blinded Gloria, interrupting what she’d been about to say, and from behind the piercing glare came Pedro’s voice. “Gloria? Why’re you sleeping out here?”
God, she could smell the rum on his breath from where she was lying on the ground. A miracle he’d been able to drive at all like that. The girl shrank away from the light with a low moan, her cold fingers curving into claws before releasing Gloria’s hand.
No, no, no—it couldn’t be—
Pedro drew near and settled into an unsteady crouch next to her, asking, “Who are you talking to?” He craned his neck to see what Gloria had been holding, shining his light deeper into the hole. Out of sight below, Gloria heard the girl, her daughter, keening. The wordless cries tore at her, so she turned on Pedro and slapped away his light.
“For the love of God, turn it off. You’re hurting her.”
The square thing flew out of his hand and tumbled to rest under some brush a few yards away. Pedro looked from where it landed back to Gloria before speaking. “Who?”
Pedro’s mouth worked before he was able to ask, “We have a daughter?” He crawled to the edge of the hole and peered inside, a rush of apologies and promises to be a good father tumbling out of him as if bottled up for a long time. When he heard no reply, he pleaded with the girl to come up out of the ground. Struck by his sudden behavior, Gloria didn’t think to do anything until he began to scoop out even more dirt by the fistful, uprooting the ají plant in his effort to dig her out. The girl writhed. Her face contorted in a silent scream as her arm up to the shoulder was uncovered.
“Stop.” Gloria pulled on his shoulder, but he simply kept digging as if he couldn’t see the girl. “Pedro, you’re hurting her. Stop!”
Pedro yanked her hands away, snarling. “How dare you hide my daughter from me?” He dug a bit more, then stopped when he was wracked with laughter.
And even though Gloria could now see through her daughter’s pale face, to something behind it, dark and shriveled as a tangle of old roots, she was her daughter, not Pedro’s. She would not let him take that from her. So, she hooked the flashlight in one hand and swung it at him.
It bounced off the back of his skull, and he slumped forward into the hole for a minute, long enough for what Pedro had been digging out to clamp her cold hands onto his cheeks and shriek her fury. He jumped, scrambling backwards, away from the hole. Visibly shaking, he glanced at Gloria before he fled, gunning the Toyota’s little motor before fishtailing out of the driveway.
In the aftermath, Gloria turned off the flashlight and reached down into the hole under the now uprooted and trampled aji plant. Only clay, cold and damp as old blood met her fingers, and no matter how many times she called down into the darkness, she received no answer. Feeble tears burned their way out, but she didn’t have enough strength to cry. Instead, she lay next to the hole, humming and tracing the edges of the plant’s leaves until sleep came.
It seemed she’d only just closed her eyes, but woke to sunlight slanting through the trees, and someone rattling a stick or something against the driveway gate. It took Gloria a few minutes to recognize she was the “Señora Villanueva” they were calling. She was still wiping dirt off her cheek and clothes when she approached the gate and froze.
The police officer holstered her flashlight and solemnly asked Gloria if she and her partner could come in. She opened the gate but knew why they had come. She received the news of Pedro’s death dry-eyed and calm, nodding as they told her he’d missed one of the curves on their narrow road. She was a widow—and so young, she imagined people talking about her. Distantly, it dawned on Gloria she had no idea what widows did outside of wear black and go to church more often. Thankfully, the police officers didn’t feel the need to fill the silences that stretched out and after glancing at each other, rose and offered her their cards if she needed anything.
Gloria sat through the funeral despite Pedro’s sisters and other family members whispering to each other and staring at her when they thought she wasn’t looking. Gloria wore her widow’s black like armor. Months later, the gossip that she’d all but killed Pedro herself reached Gloria in her isolation. She guessed Pedro’s family was furious she’d gotten the house they’d bought for him but didn’t let that ruffle her. She learned to order groceries for delivery since she hadn’t bought a car yet. One afternoon, she found a handful of fresh ají peppers she hadn’t ordered atop one of the grocery bags full of Goya black bean cans.
She placed the peppers on the kitchen table, her eyes straying to them as she put everything away. Even as she fried up some cube steak and onions, she could feel their presence the way one feels the warmth of the sun.
When she sat down to eat, she couldn’t help but set aside her plate to take the sprig of peppers in trembling hands. Would it work? She wasn’t sure but pressed her hands together to get them to stop shaking long enough to cut one of the peppers lengthwise. The sharp smell dug its barbs into her nose and drew tears she’d promised herself never to shed again. She scooped out the seeds—so white against the red flesh of the ají—and took them to the very edge of her yard, where the green shadows were deepest, to put them in the ground and hope.
Editor: Aigner Loren Wilson
First Reader: Aigner Loren Wilson
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors