The first sunny day of spring evaporated the dampness that had accumulated in the soil through the winter months, and warmed the fragile bones of the old people who now could stroll the gentle orthopedic paths of the garden. Only the old depressive remained in his bed, because it was futile to take him out into the fresh air when his eyes saw nothing but his own nightmares and his ears were deaf to the clamor of the birds. Josefina Bianchi, the actress, dressed in the long silk dress she had worn to declaim Chekhov a half century earlier and carrying a parasol to protect her veined-procelain skin, walked slowly among the flower beds that soon would be crowded with flowers and bumblebees.
"Poor lads," smiled the octogenarian when she saw a slight trembling in the forget-me-nots and divined there the presence of her admirers, the ones who loved her in anonymity and hid in the vegetation to spy on her as she passed by.
The Colonel inched forward, braced on the aluminum walker that helped support his cotton-wool legs. To celebrate the birth of spring and salute the colors, as was his duty each morning, he had pinned on his chest the cardboard and tinfoil medals Irene had made for him. Whenever his agitated breathing permitted, he shouted instructions to his troops and ordered the tottering great-grandfathers off the Parade Grounds where they were in danger of being flattened by infantry troops displaying their most spirited parade step and their spit-and-polish leather boots. Near the telephone wire, the flag flapped on the breeze like an invisible turkey buzzard, and his soldiers stood rigidly at attention, eyes front, drumroll reverberating, manly voices raised in the sacred hymn that only his ears could hear. He was interrupted by a nurse in battle uniform, silent and sly as those women usually are, armed with a napkin to wipe away the saliva that dribbled from the corners of his lips and collected on his shirt. He wanted to offer her a decoration, or a promotion, but she spun away, leaving him standing there with his good intentions unfulfilled, after warning him that if he dirtied his pants she was going to paddle his behind, because she was sick and tired of cleaning up after other people. Who can this madwoman be speaking to? the Colonel wondered, deducing that she was obviously referring to the wealthiest widow in the land. She was the only one in the encampment who wore diapers, owing to the cannon shot that had blown her digestive system to bits and consigned her forever to a wheelchair, although not even that had earned her the slightest respect. if she dropped her guard for an instant, they stole her hairpins and her ribbons. The world is filled with ruffians and scoundrels.
"Thieves! They've stolen my house slippers!" screeched the widow.
"Be quiet, dear, the neighbors can hear you," her nurse commanded, pushing the chair into the sun.
The invalid kept firing accusations until she ran out of breath and had to stop or else die, but she had sufficient strength left to point an arthritic finger at the satyr who was furtively opening his fly to expose his doleful penis to the ladies. No one paid the least attention, except for a tiny old lady dressed in mourning, who regarded the poor dried fig with a certain tenderness. She was in love with its owner, and every night left the door to her room encouragingly ajar.
"Whore!" muttered the wealthy widow, but had to stop as she suddenly remembered times long gone by, before her husband died, when he had paid with coins of gold for the privilege of being clasped between her heavy thighs--a not infrequent event. She had ended up with a bag so heavy that no sailor alive could have slung it over his shoulder.
"Where are my gold coins?"
"What are you talking about, dear?" replied the absentminded woman who was pushing her wheelchair.
"You stole them! I'm going to call the police."
"Don't be a pest, dearie," the other replied, unperturbed.
The hemiplegic had been propped up on a bench in an elegantly British, leather-elbow-patched jacket, legs wrapped in a shawl, serene and dignified in spite of the deformity of one side of his face, his useless hand tucked into a pocket and an empty pipe in the other. He was waiting for the mail; that was why he demanded to be seated facing the main door, to watch for Irene and know at first glance whether she was bringing him a letter. Beside him, taking the sun, was a melancholy old man with whom he never spoke because they were enemies, although neither remembered the cause of their disagreement. Occasionally by mistake, one of them would speak but receive no answer, more out of deafness than hostility.
On the second-floor balcony where the wild pansies were still without leaf or bloom appeared Beatriz Alcántara Beltrán. She was wearing grass-green suède pants and a French blouse of the same shade, matching her eye shadow and malachite ring. Fresh and tranquil after her session of Eastern exercises for relaxing tensions and forgetting the night's dreams, she held a glass of fruit juice good for improving the digestion and toning the skin. She breathed deeply, noting the new warmth in the air, and counted the days left before her vacation trip. It had been a hard winter and she had lost her tan. Frowning, she inspected the garden below, beautiful in the budding spring, but she was oblivious to the light on the stone walls and the fragrance of moist earth. The perennial ivy had survived the last freezes, the red roof tiles still shone with night dew, but the coffered and shuttered pavilion of her guests seemed faded and drab. She decided she would have the house painted. Her eyes counted the old people and reviewed every minor detail to assure herself that her instructions were being carried out. Everyone was there except the poor depressive, who lay in his bed more dead than alive. She also inspected the nurses, noting the clean starched aprons, the hair pulled back in a bun, the rubber-soled shoes. She smiled, satisfied; everything was functioning smoothly, and the danger of the rains with their attendant epidemics had passed without snatching away a single one of her clients. With any kind of luck, the rent would be paid for a few more months, since even the bedridden old man might last the summer.
From her observatory Beatriz spied her daughter Irene entering the garden of The Will of God Manor. Annoyed, she could tell that she had not used the side door with access to their private patio and the stairway to the second-floor rooms where they had installed their living quarters. Beatriz had had the separate entrance constructed specifically so she could avoid walking through the geriatric home when she left or entered the house; infirmity depressed her and was something she preferred to observe from a distance. Her daughter, in contrast, never missed an opportunity to visit the guests, as if she actually enjoyed their company. She seemed to have discovered a language that overcame their deafness and faulty memories. Now she was wandering among them, handing out soft candies in consideration for their false teeth. Beatriz watched her walk over to the hemiplegic, show him a letter, help him open it--since he could not with his one good hand--and stand by his side whispering. Then she went for a brief stroll with the other old gentleman, and although her mother could not hear the words from the balcony, she supposed they were talking about his son, his daughter-in-law, and his grandson, the only subjects that interested him. Irene gave each one a smile, a pat, a few minutes of her time, while on her balcony Beatriz stood thinking that she would never understand that bizarre young woman with whom she had so little in common. Suddenly the old satyr stepped up to Irene and placed his hands over her breasts, squeezing them with more curiosity than lust. She stood motionless for a few moments that to her mother seemed interminable, until one of the nurses noticed what was happening and ran to intervene. Irene stopped her with a gesture.
"Leave him alone. He's not hurting anyone," she smiled.
Beatriz abandoned her observation post, biting her lips. She went to the kitchen where Rosa, her servant, was chopping the vegetables for lunch, lulled by a soap opera on the radio. She had a round, dark, ageless face, an enormous midriff, voluminous belly, gargantuan thighs. She was so fat that she could not cross her legs or scratch her back. "How do you wipe your bottom, Rosa?" Irene had asked when she was a little girl, marveling before the inviting bulk that every year increased a few pounds. "Where do you get such strange ideas, little one! Pleasingly stout is what beauty's about," Rosa replied without changing expression, faithful to her custom of speaking in proverbs.
"I'm worried about Irene," Beatriz said, sitting on a kitchen stool and slowly sipping her fruit juice.
Rosa said nothing, but turned off the radio, inviting the confidences of her patrona, who sighed deeply. I have to speak with my daughter; I don't know what in the world she's up to, or who any of that riffraff she runs around with are. Why doesn't she go to the Club to play tennis, where she can meet some young men of her own class? She uses the excuse of her work to do whatever she pleases. Journalism has always seemed a little questionable to me, more suitable for someone of a lower class. If her fiancé knew some of the ideas that Irene gets in her head, he wouldn't put up with it. The future wife of an Army officer can't allow herself such luxuries--how many times have I told her that? And don't tell me that worrying about a girl's reputation is out of style; times change, but not that much. Besides, Rosa, now the military move in the best society, it's not the way it used to be. I'm tired of Irene's outrageous behavior. I have my own worries, my life isn't easy--you know that better than anyone. Ever since Eusebio ran off and left me with a frozen bank account and a trainload of expenses that would run an embassy, I've had to work miracles to keep my head above water; but it's all so difficult, the old people are a burden, and after all's said and done I think they cost me more expense and energy than I earn from them. Getting them to pay their rent is like pulling teeth, especially that damned old widow, she's always behind on her monthly payment. This business hasn't turned out to be a bed or roses. I don't have the strength to go trailing around after my daughter to see that she creams her face at night and dresses properly, and doesn't scare off her fiancé. She's old enough to take care of herself, isn't she? Look at me; if I didn't keep at it, what shape would I be in? I'd look like most of my friends, with a face lined with wrinkles and crow's-feet, and rolls and bulges everywhere. I've kept the figure of a twenty-year-old, though, and look how smooth my skin is. No, no one can say that I have an easy life--just the opposite, all these surprises are killing me.
"You can see the gates of glory, señora, but the Devil's got you by the tail."
"Why don't you talk to my daughter, Rosa? I think she pays more attention to you than she does to me."
Rosa set her knife on the table and looked at her mistress without sympathy. On principle, she never agreed with her, especially in anything concerning Irene. She did not like to hear her little girl criticized; still, she had to admit that in this case the mother was right. As much as Beatriz, Rosa longed to see Irene in a filmy veil and virginal flowers, leaving the church on the arm of Captain Gustavo Morante, walking between two rows of raised sabers; but her knowledge of the world--acquired through soap operas on radio and television--had taught her that it was everyone's lot to suffer in this life and to bear many trials and tribulations before reaching the happy ending.
"It's best to leave her alone. A cicada born will sing to its last morn. Irene won't live a long life, anyway--you can see that in her eyes."
"Rosa, my God! What kind of foolishness is that?"
Irene entered the kitchen amid a whirlwind of full cotton skirts and flying hair. She kissed both women on the cheeks and opened the refrigerator door and poked around inside. Her mother was on the verge of delivering an impromptu lecture, but in a flash of lucidity realized that any word from her would be useless, because that young woman with the finger smudges on her left breast was as remote from her as someone from another planet.
"Spring's here, Rosa. The forget-me-nots will be blooming soon," Irene said with a wink of complicity Rosa had no difficulty interpreting; both of them had been thinking of the baby-that-fell-through-the-skylight.
"What are you up to?" Beatriz asked.
"I have to go out on a story, Mama. I'm going to interview a kind of saint. They say she works miracles."
"What kind of miracles?"
"She removes warts, cures insomnia and hiccups, comforts the forlorn, and makes it rain," Irene laughed.
Beatriz sighed, with no sign of appreciating her daughter's humor. Rosa returned to her task of chopping carrots and suffering along with the radio soap opera, muttering that when live saints are at work, dead saints will shirk. Irene left to change her clothes and look for her tape recorder as she waited for Francisco Leal, the photographer who always went along with her on assignments.
Digna Ranquileo looked at the fields and noticed the signs that announced the change of seasons.
"Soon the animals will be in heat and Hipólito will be off with the circus," she muttered between prayers.
She had the habit of talking with God. That day, as she performed her breakfast chores, she lost herself in long prayers and confessions. Her children often told her that people laughed at her for that evangelical fixation. Couldn't she do it silently, and without moving her lips? She paid no attention to them. She felt the Saviour as a physical presence in her life, nearer and more helpful than her husband, whom she saw only during the winter. She tried not to ask too many favors of the Lord, because she had learned that celestial beings are bored by too many requests. She limited herself to seeking counsel in her endless doubts and pardon for her own and others' sins, giving thanks in passing for any small benefactions: the rain stopped, Jacinto's fever is gone, the tomatoes are ripe. Nevertheless, for several weeks now, she had been regularly and insistently importuning the Redeemer with prayers for Evangelina.
"Heal her," she prayed that morning as she poked the kitchen fire and arranged four bricks to hold the grill above the burning wood. "Heal her, God, before they carry her off to the asylum."
Never, not even in the face of the parade of supplicants praying for miracles, did she believe that her daughter's attacks were symptoms of saintliness. She believed even less in possession, which was what her garrulous women friends were convinced of after seeing a movie in town about exorcism, in which foaming at the mouth and rolled-back eyes were signs of Satan. Her common sense, her contact with nature, and her long experience as the mother of many children led her to deduce that all this stemmed from either a physical or a mental illness, and had nothing to do with evil or divine intervention. She attributed it to childhood vaccinations or to the onslaught of menstruation. She had always been opposed to the Public Health Service, which went from house to house rounding up the children crouching in the garden or hiding under the bed. Even though they struggled and she swore they had already had their shots, the aides still chased the children down and mercilessly injected them. She was sure that those liquids collected in the blood and caused changes in the body. In addition, although menstruation was a natural event in every woman's life, for some it stirred the humors and put perverse ideas in their heads. Either of the two things could be the source of the terrible illness, but of one thing she was sure: her daughter would grow weaker, as happens in a really bad illness, and if she did not get better within a reasonable time, she would end up completely out of her head or in the grave. Others of her children had died young, felled by epidemics or surprised by accidents that were beyond treatment. That happened in every family. If the child was an infant, they did not cry over it, for it went straight to heaven to be with the angels, where it interceded for those on earth whose time had not come. Losing Evangelina would be more painful, since she would have to answer to her real mother. She did not want to give the impression of not having looked after the girl, because people would talk behind her back.
Digna was the first in her house to get up and the last to go to bed. With the rooster's first crow she was already in the kitchen placing twigs on the still-warm coals from the night before. From the moment she began to boil the water for breakfast, she never sat down but was always busy with the children, the washing, the meals, the garden, the animals. Her days were all the same, like a rosary of identical beads shaping her existence. She did not know what rest was, and the only time she found relief was when she had a new baby. Her life was a chain of routines that varied only with the seasons. For her, there was nothing but work and weariness. The most peaceful moment of the day came at dusk, when she sat down with her sewing and a portable radio and was transported to a distant universe of which she understood very little. Her destiny seemed neither better nor worse than any other's. At times she concluded that she was a lucky woman, because at least Hipólito did not behave like a field hand; he worked in the circus, he was an artist, he traveled, he saw the world, and when he came back he told of the wonderful things he'd seen. He likes his wine, I don't deny it, but at heart he's a good man, Digna thought. He was never there to help her when it was time to plow, to sow, to harvest, but her wandering husband had qualities that compensated for all that. He never dared hit her unless he was drunk, and then only if Pradelio, the oldest son, was nowhere nearby, because Hipólito Ranquileo never raised his hand in front of the boy. She enjoyed more freedom than other women; she visited her friends without asking permission; she could attend the religious services of the True Evangelical Church, and she had reared her children according to its gospel. She was accustomed to making decisions, and only in the wintertime, when her husband returned home, did she bow her head, lower her voice, and, out of respect, consult him before acting. But that time, too, had its advantages, even though often rain and poverty seemed to last an eternity. It was a time of calm; the fields rested, the days seemed shorter, dawn came later. They went to bed at five to save candles, and in the warmth of the blankets she could appreciate the worth of a good man.
Because he was an artist, Hipólito had not participated in the agricultural unionization or any of the new plans of the previous government, so when things returned to the ways of their grandfathers, he was left in peace and his family suffered no misfortune. Daughter and granddaughter of countryfolk, Digna was prudent and suspicious. She had never believed the words of the advisers, and knew from the beginning that the Agrarian Reform would never succeed. She had always said so, but no one paid any attention to her. Her family was luckier than the Floreses, Evangelina's real parents, luckier than many others who worked the land and had lost their hopes and their skins in that adventure of promise and confusion.
Hipólito Ranquileo had the virtues that make a good husband; he was calm, not at all wild or violent, and Digna knew nothing of other women, or other vices. Every year, he brought home some money and also some little gift that was often useless but always welcome, because it's the thought that counts. He had a gallant nature. He never lost that virtue, like other men who almost as soon as they're married treat their wife like a dog, said Digna; that's why she bore him children happily, and even with a certain pleasure. Thinking about his caresses, she blushed. Her husband had never seen her naked; modesty above all, she maintained, but that did not make their intimate moments any less magical. She had fallen in love with his beautiful words, and decided to be his wife before God and the Civil Registry, and that is why she never let him touch her but came virgin to her wedding, just as she wanted her girls to do, that way they would be respected and no one could call them loose; but times were different then, and now it's not so easy to look after your girls, you turn your head and they're down by the river, you send them to the village to buy sugar and they're gone several hours, I try to dress them decently but they hike up their skirts, unbutton their blouses, and paint their faces. Oh, dear Lord, help me to look after them till they're married, and then I can rest; don't let the disgrace of the oldest one happen again, forgive her, she was very young and hardly knew what she was doing, it happened so quick, poor girl, he didn't even take time to lie down like human beings, he did it standing up against the willow tree down back, like dogs; look after the other girls, and don't let some fresh young fellow come along and go too far with them, because this time Pradelio would kill him and shame would fall on this house; with little Jacinto I've had my share of shame and suffering, poor baby, he's not to blame for his stain.
Jacinto, the youngest, was really her grandson, the bastard fruit of her oldest daughter and a stranger who arrived one autumn evening and asked to spend the night in their kitchen. The baby had had the good sense to be born when Hipólito was on the road with the circus and Pradelio was fulfilling his military service. So there was no man to take revenge, as would normally be the case. Digna knew what she had to do: she bundled up the newborn child, fed him with mare's milk, and sent the mother off to the city to work as a servant. When the men came back, the deed was done and they had to accept it. Soon they got used to his presence, and ended up treating him like just another child. He was not the first fatherless child to be brought up in the Ranquileo household; others had been taken in before Jacinto, lost orphans who knocked at their door. With the passage of the years the true parents were forgotten, and all that remained was habit and affection.
As she did every morning when the dawn was peeping from behind the mountains, Digna filled the gourd with maté for her husband and placed his chair in the corner near the door where the air was freshest. She melted a few lumps of sugar, placing two in each large tin cup as she prepared the mint tea for the older children. She moistened yesterday's bread and set it over the coals; she strained the milk for the younger children, and in an iron skillet, blackened with use, stirred some scrambled eggs and onion.
Excerpted from Of Love and Shadows: A Novel by Isabel Allende. Copyright © 2005 by Isabel Allende. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press Trade Paperback, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.