This story is comprised of two scenes from "Don Fernando's Family" (working title). To read the previous excerpts, click on "1--Trust," or “2--Comandante,” in the Menu. Doctor William (Wilhelm) was taken to a village massacre site by Abuelo. Trust between the two grew and Abuelo introduced William to Raúl, a rebel comandante. We met María, William's Indigenous stepmother. In this story, María begins to reminiscence while the three men finish their late night meeting in William’s house. Don Luis is Gustav’s superintendent and the grandfather of María‘s baby, Pakel. Carlos is the father.
“María and a wife and a woman….”
Gustavo’s wife, Doña Lela, died giving birth to William. The bleeding kept on and on and the farm was too far away from the Ladino doctor to get help. My father, the shaman of our lineage, offered. He quickly raised a little six-posted shrine and placed food and fire and prayed. He sacrificed a chicken and opened the portal into the Other World; he shared the food with the spirits and they allowed him to see into their place but they would not come out to help.
He prayed to the Gods of the Spanish who he honestly thought, and told everyone, were same as the old Gods but with different names. Their God became reborn upon death of blood sacrifice, like those of the Kakchiquel, and their symbol was the cross, the same as the world tree except that the cross of our lineage had branches and leaves. The Gods would not help and Doña Lela died as Don Gustavo held her hand.
"MaXimon has a plan," my father said, "Whenever I am denied, he always has a plan." And that day, he offered me as la ama de leche for the baby. I did not feel shame when my father offered me to Don Gustavo as a wet nurse for William. Pakel was already two weeks old and he could not take all I made. I knew what my family hoped for and I felt no shame in it.
Then, as the months passed, one day as all knew would happen, Don Gustavo desired me. It happened on the same day that the family of Doña Lela, her father and brother, Don Fernando and Don Fabio, came with the judicials and the nurse to take William away from us.
Gustav Hoffman pried his heel from the sole-sucking mud. Gaze steady, like a heron he lifted his foot and slowly lowered it in another place. The Geyger shotgun, breech closed and muzzles draped with a piece of leather, shifted to the other shoulder. Still peering into the mist, he did the same with his other foot, and unsnapped and re-snapped the holster on his left hip.
Twenty village men waited in the trees on either side of the road, most with machetes, a few with ax handles or shovels. Good men, all of them, including Luis his superintendent who carried the 410, Gustav's rabbit gun. None of them would permit Doña Lela's family to take baby Wilhelm from Gustav and though soaked through from the dripping foliage, their loyalty warmed him. A runner from the Indigenous village had beaten the men on horseback by a half an hour. They would have recruited a guide from the village who would have slowed them also.
The party was coming to enforce a court order, a complete fraud, he thought, to remove his first born after his wife died from the bleeding. His lawyer in Guatemala City had sent a messenger two weeks ago to expect the judicials and at least one member of the family to execute the order. "Please forget that you heard this from me," the message pleaded.
The party would drive from Antigua north to Agua Escondida, where they would have to acquire horses to go west to the farm. Gustav waited for them after a bend in the horse trail so the approaching party would not see the reception until the last minute. If he had to use the weapons, he wanted his own drawn first.
The walking guide was followed by the first horseman, a judicial, head down, covered with a poncho and a dripping campaign hat; he did not see Gustav until his horse stopped abruptly, and backed a step. His hand tried to find his pistol under the poncho, but he found himself staring into the business end of two 28-inch barrels. His free hand went instinctively up, and another judicial's horse came up beside him. This man seemed more determined and he cleared the rain gear from his belt so as to reach his own pistol. The first pulled out an oil-cloth packet.
"You are Don Gustav Hoffman," he said.
"I have a court order to retrieve the infant Wilhelm."
Two other men and a woman, leading a pack animal came into view and stopped without speaking. A long pause ensued, the judicial's hand with the order lowered as his other rose to the pistol butt protruding from his belt. The shotgun exploded. Fire, pellets and wadding filled the air, pieces of foliage dropped onto the group. No one spoke. The acrid air space around the nervous horses filled with armed men on foot. No one else moved.
Finally a man said, "This is a legal document Don Gustav. We have the right to take the baby. Besides, he'll have a better life, and you know it."
"The order is a fraud Don Fernando. And you know it. And so do the judicials." One of the law officers looked down, confirming the probability. Gustav could see the older son, Fabio, fuming at the potential humiliation. "Everyone leave their weapons holstered."
"Except you, Gustav?" Fabio spoke and Gustav felt the intended absence of a proper address.
An insolent and dangerous teenager, Gustav thought. The barrels of the shotgun scanned from one side of the intruder group to the other. "Let me be as clear as I might. No one," he said staring at Fabio then shifting to Fernando, "no one, takes my son." The butt of the gun now rested on his thigh, the barrels tilted forward. All remained quiet. "These barrels are short, no one gets a pass if I fire again. His free hand unsnapped his holster. You should turn around now and ride back where you came from."
One of the judicials kicked at a barefoot Indian man who moved close to inspect then touch the policeman’s leather boot. The Indian looked at Gustav and he shook his head. The Indian backed away from the mounted man.
Gustav shifted his gaze to the woman. "Who are you señorita?" he asked.
"I am a nurse Don Gustav. We will take excellent care of the baby. He could ride in the cradle on the pack horse."
"And if the horse slips?" Gustav began, then waved the air as if erasing what he had just said. "It matters not."
"Out of respect for Lela, and your family, Fernando, the nurse may go with one of my men to examine Wilhelm. I instruct you not to try to remove him from the house, enfermera, regardless of what you may think."
She looked at Fernando who nodded, "Of course, Don Gustav."
"Thank you Gustav," he said.
"I accept responsibility for not taking Lela to Antigua sooner, Fernando. I am sorry and I apologize to you and your family. No one can be sure if that would have saved her life. Still, I deeply regret not getting her to better care sooner. I am at least as sorry as you are. She is the only woman I ever loved."
"She convinced me that she loved you. And I guess she did but I'm sorry I ever gave my permission. You hid your socialist politics—.”
“Not from her.”
Fernando nodded acceptance of Gustav’s version of events. “What you are doing here could upset things badly. It will backfire on you Gustav."
"Except for the Nazi, your politicians seem to be saying what I'm saying these days."
Fernando looked off. His horse backed a step and took his attention. "Some of them, and some of what you are saying, but they won't survive without our help—not without money," he said finally.
"You treat these people like serfs."
"People?" Fernando said it so innocently Gustav caught his breath.
Gustav paused looking carefully at Fernando, "I guess that says it all."
The conversation shifted to non-political matters. Fernando said, "May we dismount, Gustav. I don't ride much anymore."
"Okay, if you want to get down, hand your weapons to my men first. We'll return them when you leave."
All the visitors remained mounted except for Fernando, he walked toward Gustav with his coat held open to show he carried no pistol. "The nurse is coming back Gustav. I have one request before we leave." He paused as if checking to see that Gustav might consider the possibility, "if you would allow our grandson to visit us."
"I would like to do that Fernando. It might even be good for him, but if he ever gets to Antigua I will lose him forever." He looked at Fabio, whose face was as malevolent now as it had been since he first spoke. "Even if I trusted you, which I don't, none of the rest of your brood can be trusted."
"No child of the Zelaya family will be raised by a communist." Fabio said.
"Socialist." Gustav added slowly, "As was your sister."
"You," Fabio menaced his opponent, "are a liar. They are the same thing anyway. It will not happen in Guatemala. Never, not here.”
"Bring the army when you come back Fabio. These people will fight for us and I guarantee they will be better armed than they are now." The last idea stopped the younger man.
"You would arm the Indio—" he sputtered.
"Fernando threw up his hand to stop his son's retort, "That's enough," he said half turning to catch Fabio's eye.
"Gustav, I think you know the Americans are requesting that German nationals be interned in the camps in Texas. Several are packing now." He engaged Gustav's eyes. "This court order, which you choose to ignore, identifies you as a German national."
"I'm a German Jew, Fernando, as your mother's family claims to be, we are all covered by the new law."
"As usual," Fernando shrugged impatience with his son-in-law's recklessness, "your confidence is misplaced. It is a policy, not a law, done as a favor to the German side of my family. The ‘Nazi,’ as you call him, could change his mind. Exceptions are not unheard of and if one is made, the baby will not go with you and your farm will be taken. I happen," his mouth twisted wryly, "to like it here."
Gustav's shoulders heaved with this new knowledge. The certainty fled his eyes to be replaced in the next moment by determination.
"Do your worst Fernando."
"I'm sorry it has to be like this Gustav."
"As am I señor."
The nurse returned to stand beside Fernando. "Well?" he said.
"The baby is in good health and good spirits."
Fernando looked at him with a sadness and a feeling that Gustav had never before detected in the man. Neither stuck out a hand. Fernando went to his horse and the party turned back down the trail without speaking.
Gustav stood there feeling exultant yet lucky. No one died, no one even hurt, and he still had Wilhelm. And yet he felt uncertain. He had known the feeling before but it was far from usual.
* * *
After it was over we were so happy, exulting in Don Gustavo's victory and he was feeling strong. And he was. We made the posse a picnic when they returned that day and served them great volumes of the chicha we kept fermenting at all times. Everyone was feeling good and the men, especially the younger ones began to act like young braves do after they've faced their first fearful encounter. They had been determined but they did not know if the Ladinos would fire on them or how many of them might die or be injured before they prevailed—which they never doubted. Our people had fought the Spanish and their offspring and their hired Náhuatl soldiers, but we are so many different peoples that our enemies had been able separate us, even to get us to fight each other. So my father said.
"Don Gustavo is not Spanish nor is he like the other Germans who came to us. MaXimon has a true plan," father said knowingly, again, that day.
I saw Don Gustavo with my father. He treated my father as though he were the true leader of the posse and the men treated my father so as well, and they treated Don Gustavo with greater respect because of his deference to my father. Don Luis saw it also and he left the party without speaking to Don Gustavo. Carlos had not joined the posse and I was happy not to have to talk to him.
After the party was well started, I went to the babies and fed them. By then William was so much bigger than Pakel that he nursed for twice as long my baby. Finally I could put both of them to sleep and with my cup of chicha, I went to the back porch and sat on the steps away from the party that would last most of the night. It had been several minutes and for some reason I looked behind me. Don Gustavo stood there. Perhaps he moved a little, or I heard him breathing, but I tried to stand as soon as I saw him and he said, "No, please, I will join you," and he sat beside me on the steps.
He sat, not too close, but close enough for my skin to sense his skin and for his odor to waft to me. We did not speak, yet after a few minutes I began to want to be closer to him. Still neither of us moved. I felt the tension rise, his knee moved, accidentally perhaps, to touch mine. I pressed back and I knew I wanted him. And I'm sure that now my odor pursued him as well. It had been a long time since I had known Carlos and from time to time, I dared to imagine Don Gustavo as my partner. In that moment I knew he had been thinking of me also.
We spent that afternoon and evening in his bed. I was happy and safe and could not get enough of his loving. I could not get enough of him and he was strong for me, for hours. I realized much later that what I learned that day was the difference between a boy and a man, and a girl and a woman. But in those days, I thought his manner of loving was because he was a foreigner. Somehow, I thought being German was what made him my lover and it somehow empowered me to love him in ways I had never imagined. He was so urgent and needy—yet so generous. I was just a girl but that was what I learned that day.
In the dark he tried to say, "Tle'pe'kil," but he made my name sound like "T-pickle" and I began to laugh and then he laughed, and we laughed a long time. "You are beautiful," he said, "I call you María." And so I became María and a wife and a woman in the same afternoon.
* * *
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