It is important that we understand Evelyn Vallejo.
One imagines, at the wedding ceremony, her gown all crosshatched with lace in multiple gradations of white on white. Alabaster-like skeins stretch taut across the paler shade of the underlying cloth. The overall impression is certainly not one of traditional virgin simplicity, and Evelyn is not, in any event, a simple person. Nor does “radiant,” the assuring term the world dotes on to commemorate matrimonial epiphany, precisely apply. But she is a happy bride; the community observes that at first blush. She is nubile, and lovely too. There is a sea of smiles in the church, lips mostly pursed tight and content. A collective recognition prevails that, for this particularly signal union, a certain quiet congratulatory restraint is most appropriate. The event has the public gravity of a trade treaty. Bear in mind: this marriage has consequences for the children and grandchildren of the merchants and villagers and outriders and tradesmen and neighboring potentates, the ever so many retainers who’ve not actually met Evelyn Tortazar or Roberto Vallejo, and won’t necessarily be remembered if they do.
Gladness, which is not quite joy, but a commodity palpably rounder and more communal and more bankable than joy, pervades the occasion. The priest who administers the sacrament is, for one, glad to be doing so. “They met in church,” whispers Maria Velez to her confidante Helena Jimenez.
So they did. While they awaited mass that day, Evelyn told him all about the crafts with their dazzling colors, and the astonishing weavers she met the day before on the green dale just outside Antigua. They’d ridden the new buggy equipped with a picnic lunch and sent off the servants for a Saturday holiday. Father took the reins himself.
“The patterns, you know, are ancient. They’re Mayan.”
“Yes,” said Roberto. “Somehow the weavers still know what to weave.”
The assembled parishioners observing the pair exchanged approving smiles. If nothing else, a future union of Ruben Vallejo’s son with Federico Tortazar’s daughter, obviously advantageous for both families, provided a charm of predictability. Love itself in service to social stability always warrants the approbation of the known universe.
“It’s in their minds somehow,” said Evelyn.
“Yet no one has ever taught them.”
“Isn’t it mysterious!” she exclaimed. “How they know to weave the tapestry of a long gone world. As if by instinct.”
The priest came forth and they fell dutifully silent. After mass they were allowed to sit together on the veranda, where they chattered comfortably into the night.
Evelyn set about the task of organizing her new household on the ancient Tortazar estate with great robustness. She directed the workers in the construction of the cavernous closet space tucked within the side of the house overlooking the lake. Her dresses and petticoats and pantaloons could be draped on heavy oaken hangers with space to spare. It was a magnificent closet in a magnificent house. There were many other expansive rooms to fill and, for her, a joyous vista of days ahead in which to fill them.
Roberto’s closet was perpendicular to hers and, since there was no partition, husband and wife could stand together at the juncture. It was a happy spatial configuration that, while not consciously designed to do so, reinforced a theme of connubial familiarity. Each early evening, soul to soul at the threshold of their respective wardrobes, Evelyn and Roberto habitually reviewed the developments of the day. Their joint appearances in the spacious alcove became a casual ritual and a diurnal comfort. When cousin Emilia took to bed with the same mysterious fever that laid Aunt Rosa low, it was there they fretted. One night they talked fondly about Ezekiel, a favorite horse she had named after the prophet who was so fascinating for all his bones and the valley where those old bones might live again.
Maria Velez and Helena Jimenez came calling. The priest arrived too, accompanied by Angellita Tortazar, the redoubtable mother wizened though not yet fifty. On such occasions, Evelyn and Roberto would often sneak away, after an obligatory hour, to visit their private ground and relive their common concerns. “They love each other so,” gushed Maria.
“They could be more courteous,” scolded Angellita.
“They’re young,” said Maria.
“They are the future,” said the priest.
To organize the household, it was necessary to hire and manage the servants, and this Evelyn set about with great vigor as well. Manuel Ramos was put in charge of the stables. He was directed to pick and hire his own stable boys, although it was generally commended that he himself could do the physical labor of a dozen young men, and likely in less time. Yet such was the largesse of the clan to let Manuel employ a staff anyway. Paulo Ramirez acted as a butler. He was hopelessly oafish, but, nearly seven feet tall, with less than one hundred and fifty pounds on his bones, and an enormous handlebar moustache like a ribbon around his mouth, he was sufficiently picturesque to compensate his sundry deficiencies. Sometimes Evelyn and Roberto in their closet told tales of his ungainly misadventures and giggled together when they did so.
Sonya Ramos, who was no apparent relation to Manuel, ran the kitchen. Most every night she lingered fearfully in the doorway during dinner until the food was pronounced delicious or at least very good. It usually was, for Sonya had learned from old Celia Montez, a Cuban émigré who had worked in remembered times for Roberto’s grandparents. Celia was acclaimed for the picadillo she imported from her native land. The world was astounded that so simple a dish could be so rich and good. How the stewed tomatoes imbued the rice, how the garbanzos steamed lusciously in concert with the meat. And, the world wondered where Celia ever found such peppers, such galas of red and green.
Sonya’s picadillo wasn’t quite so good and, knowing this, she labored in torment to revive at least fleeting hints of the exalted antecedent. Night after night she waited to be unmasked for the pretender she was. Evelyn and Roberto found this somewhat comical as well, especially since no one really expected her picadillo could possibly match Celia’s anyway. Yet it was a sad sight, when Evelyn inspected the kitchen, to watch Sonya lay the peppers on a paper towel on the counter, allow them to dry a bit, and, with eyes all a-bulge, sniff around at the roots as if in search of such magic fibrous shreds as might somehow lift the final ensemble beyond the merely acceptable.
There were many other servants as well, including Celia Montez’ great-granddaughter Sophia who variously helped around the house. As the household fell into its established rhythm, Evelyn was free to spend more time in the stable. Sometimes she rode Ezekiel, at other times the black pony Angel, a special gift from the Vallejos on the occasion of her first wedding anniversary.
Evelyn made a point when she rode to circumnavigate the estate, which included her house, her parents’ house, the servants’ houses, and the landscaped backyard meadowlands interspersed among the houses, as well as the lake and a swath of forest. The project she had set herself right after the marriage entailed specific reclamations, improvements, and additions. By now, it was all just about finished, and what she saw as she rode—the fences around the meadows freshly painted, the berry bushes springing up near to maturity, the marble Cupids and Madonnas happily afire when the sun shone onto the lawns—bestowed a sensation of plenitude.
The semblance of plenitude likewise demanded that Roberto be kept happy. Cigars were imported from Cuba and Nicaragua. Evelyn saw to the wine, but this was another cause for Sonya Ramos to lacerate herself. She knew nothing of wine and therefore felt additionally inadequate in her work. At times Evelyn was troubled by Sonya’s habitual self-denigration, as if something other than Sonya herself hung threateningly in the air, an evil spirit animating the poor woman. Evelyn knew too that insane people hear mocking voices, and this concerned her. She was reassuring to her utmost, and advised Sonya to focus utterly on the picadillo and not worry or bother at all about wine. “Work hard,” she urged in a kindly way. “Sacrifice for your work, but don’t let it drive you crazy.”
A favored Hospices de Beaune arrived and Roberto was jubilant. As to other matters, Evelyn remained uncertain and even adversarial. When, if she awoke before the usual time, and the light that had begun to appear in the fading hot night caught for her surfaces of the lake through the window, she might at such moments envision him ecstatic, but it was a dream she struggled to awake from, even when she was not asleep.
One day she rode Ezekiel to the boundaries of the estate, on the north fork where the dark swamps start just beyond the swath of forest. Two riders darted out from behind the dense brush. She recognized one whom her father pointed out years ago. The other she had never seen before. Ezekiel reared; Evelyn, hanging on tight with her thighs, cried out a little.
“Forgive us,” called the one she recognized. “We should have been more careful.”
Evelyn looked back at them through a haze of sun and late afternoon humidity. These were the lowering men of the northern lands. Her father regarded them with great admiration, as a separate breed of being who eschewed civilization and vast wealth. They were not reconstituted bandits such as the rubber and cacao traders from Brazil he knew so well, who in the olden times may have stripped and devoured their mighty country, but were now transmogrified. They’d become landed gentry, veritably suburban in their jealous attention to property lines and political affiliations. They adorned themselves with bogus military titles. Conquerors once, other men have long since been hired to enforce the suzerainty. Their tale is not magical realism. It is the postlude to it.
In contrast, the two men before her now, polite and taciturn, still drink blood and whisper low to succubae. “I’m quite all right,” Evelyn said, and nodded politely.
“Goodbye then,” said the man. They rode back into the brush, tramping intricate patterns along the trail that was fast overgrowing with foliage and would soon be gone for good.
As it was a family custom to bestow their blessings on such occasions, Evelyn and Roberto attended the sixteenth birthday celebration of Celia Montez’ great-granddaughter. Sophia was average looking as Evelyn first observed her, yet many truly beautiful women did not often visit this world—it was a world of children, and mothers who were maidens one moment and matrons the next—and she doubted his lust could hold out much longer. He danced the girl along the edges of the rope that marked off a part of the lawn for that purpose. They swirled the circumference passing close by the small circles of adults looking on. A kind of stupor lay on the faces of these onlookers as Sophia and Roberto swirled and swirled about. The audience neither smiled nor was discomfited.
Evelyn took closer stock as the girl lingered over a washbasin in the dim light of a dying spring day. She was really rather stocky. Her hips and thighs were heavy. Yet a remarkable radiance shone on her nut-brown skin. Either in repose or busy at her chores, Sophia looked vaguely liquid as if she had just bathed and wasn’t quite dry. There were no visible blemishes, although her forearms were streaked with unusually thick strands of smooth hair reminiscent of black velvet or sleek velveteen garb. Evelyn imagined what full clumps must occupy the armpits. An obscene comparison came to mind and she stifled it at once.
She told Sophia to take more responsibility for the laundry. “My husband wants his collars starched, at least those shirts there,” she said, walking the girl into the great closet and pointing out a dozen or so formal evening shirts sequestered on a separate shelf. Sophia nodded in acknowledgment. “These pants he wears to church, or to family gatherings, but to family gatherings only. Air them out as the occasion demands.
“I’ll also ask you to wash some of his clothing by hand,” said Evelyn. Her voice at the moment sounded brittle and even rather guttural. The prospect that lay before her, and her own inchoate notions regarding it, was palpably more ominous than the conventional and seemingly trivial accommodation to which she had first resigned herself. A clammy unsettling sweat flashing upon her might have been fear, if she could have specified exactly what it was she was afraid of, or even a sort of longing that was equally indefinite. Sophia staring back blankly possibly understood the instruction and possibly not. The clammy flash passed. How deeply Sophia’s eyes were set in their sockets, how peacefully they rested there, and how so very dark they were! “Do a good job,” Evelyn added politely. A room was prepared for Sophia as at certain times it might be more convenient for her to sleep there than in her own house.
Evelyn rode the breadth of the estate atop Angel in a moonless evening. This periodic night riding with its tempestuous aspect suggested some species of incipient disorder, a spirit being set perilously loose. It disquieted her husband, who took certain steps to have Evelyn’s surprisingly restive manifestations discreetly monitored. At such dark times, Manuel Ramos stood guard outside the stables. He’d gaze thoughtfully as the lady rode off and then patiently await her return so he could put the horse back to shelter and lock up safely for the duration.
As the years went on, no one thought much about Sophia and Roberto one way or another. Sophia was not aging noticeably. Only her dark skin was getting darker, and the hairs on her body when she went bathing in the lake lay on her longer and thicker. At times she was rather feral, like a child of nature one might encounter in a cave. She was by no means unsightly. A certain sort of fullness attached to her. The hair when it got wet under her arms and on her legs made her seem altogether ripe and, in a most suggestive way, imminently pregnant. Sophia accepted her role in the life of the family with neither embarrassment nor ambition. She was neither slut nor schemer, and what had evolved in the course of time was as acceptable to her as it seemed to be to others; to the Pellot clan, for instance, the three brothers and their wives with their accumulation of ten children in constant tow. Much to Evelyn’s discomfort, these Pellots were accepting increasingly frequent invitations from Roberto.
Why he invited them all so often, she did not understand. They were amiable enough guests but such a friendship would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Yet for Roberto, the tacit disapprobation, even of his own family, was a matter of apparent indifference. Roberto appeared to be losing interest in many things these days, while the Pellots, and the wild gamboling of their numerous get all about the place, offered up for him a comfort his wife found rather demeaning. They treated Sophia as if she were Roberto’s sister. Either they were simply ignorant in their bourgeois simplicity or, conversely, were of a different social caste that, more than tolerates, actively promotes such license on principle. On the other hand, they were possibly just being polite.
One day they picnicked by the lake. The Pellots stood configured in a V-formation facing the lake in order to applaud the exuberant frolics of their children on the shore. Vaguely irritated, even tense in this swamp of self-congratulatory domesticity, Evelyn ambled behind one of the couples on the near wing of the V. On the other side of the far wing, she could see Sophia and Roberto in profile. Their image flickered, was caught and lost and caught again in the crevices formed by the various Pellots as they casually shifted and re-shifted position before her. The sunlight at that time made her husband look younger than he was. More than relaxation, it revealed the abiding serenity of a man at home in his own world at last, of one who has found his rightful place alongside his true life’s companion. Sophia turned toward him and they exchanged a few words. What ease they enjoyed in each other’s presence, how they continued to smile in silence through their pursed and tranquil lips! It was the ripened comfort of a lifetime, as if just the few years they had so far spent together could suffice for that happy effect.
Evelyn was lost in a terrific loneliness. She had counted on disgusting lust. She had counted on her husband lapping like a dog at the servant girl’s hairy arms and legs. She had counted on barnyard noises hollered up in strange contorted positions. She had counted on Sophia waiting in the stables for Roberto to come mount her in the haystack. She may even have foreseen the day when, her lover failing for whatever reason to appear, Sophia might pleasure herself with one of the stallions. She imagined the girl wriggling with him on the grass or soiled on the shore of this very lake. She could see her husband yank his trousers up afterward. His undergarments would be stained, but that was no matter; it was the girl’s job to wash them anyway. She had counted on her husband being what he was; being what he had no choice but to be. But she had not counted on this.
Miracles had occurred between them. The unbearable miracles of quiet intimacy and tender regard transformed the world. Then there was a baby. Even that she might have counted on as an inevitable and acceptable produce, for it was still a lord’s prerogative to seed his fields. But she now suspected that the Montez get was conceived in her own bed. Once, standing outraged and bereft at the entranceway to the bedroom, she espied Sophia’s heels held high aloft as if in salute to love itself. Evelyn, if furious, could not feel quite empowered to remonstrate or strike out to any purpose. She only avoided the bedroom for many nights after that and slept elsewhere, in one of the guest rooms on the first floor. Nothing was said.
Late one afternoon she went to Sophia’s room and found her on the edge of the bed nursing the baby. “Have you been able to get your chores done?” Evelyn asked, gently.
“Yes,” she said, “except I haven’t yet pressed the two new suits.” Sophia was naked to the waist. Her hair fell to her shoulders; by now, it was nearly charcoal-black. She wore a light red slip, and the outline of her pubic beard was faintly visible. Always, the girl showed such confidence. She was radiant in that simple confidence, and Evelyn marveled at it, and respected her for it. How she just sat there with that baby at suck even as her mistress loomed thus above her!
Evelyn imagined peonies flung all through the labyrinthine tresses. Worlds once yielded to such beauty, and would do so again. “The baby seems to be very happy,” she said sadly.
“Oh she is,” said Sophia, smiling, and appreciative. “She truly is.”
Evelyn knew better than to rue this confidence of Sophia’s as insolence. It was not that at all. In these months and years, she had never challenged Evelyn’s authority nor, in their domestic entanglement, had she indulged a single visible moment of heartfelt triumph. In her own way, and with her own unspoken words, Sophia must have known, with painfully intimate knowledge, that Evelyn herself had no choice except to soberly acknowledge the overall rightness of things as they stood. It was a disheartening reflection on how, informed by Roberto, or drawing her own conclusions from what she could see and sense around her, Sophia interpreted Evelyn’s very existence and its fundamental shortcomings.
Sophia held the baby tighter to her breast. “Try to iron the suits either today or tomorrow,” said Evelyn. “Do your best.”
“I will, I surely will,” said Sophia.
“Thank you,” said Evelyn.
Omar Jimenez, the son of old Helena Jimenez who had married a niece of old Maria Velez, became Evelyn’s best friend. Their friendship was encased in a species of formality as intimate in its way as carnal love. How he bowed to her, alone or in company; how he never presumed to use her first name, even when others did so freely; how he doted on her numerous trivial needs as if he, not the seven-foot Paulo Ramirez, were the real major domo. By his very restraint, Omar implied an instinctive familiarity with longings that could never be spoken, and thirsts that were not to be slaked. Of all this she was only vaguely aware as he, faithful husband, and church elder, had learned since their respective marriages to indulge this one great vice of his, which was to adore the idea of his own attentiveness.
He sensed the barren spaces inside her. Not that he could possibly invest those spaces or imagine trying, but he thrilled to the thought of her emptiness as something tangible to live in, as it were, and to roam through day and night. Omar was a careful enough man to think this a great sin in some way. Once he even tried to confess it. “I have impure thoughts about this woman,” he said.
“You dream of an improper relationship?”
“I feel it is an improper relationship already.”
“You have made improper advances?”
“You have carnal thoughts?”
“No, not really.”
“Then what is the sin?”
How warm January and February can be in these parts, even during the great and predictable mid-afternoon rains. The sky slants over Zacaleu to the west as if the big green mountains there have pierced its side. In Cuba, moisture mixes with the dust. In Nicaragua, the heat pounds on the flatlands, and crops die and the peasants in the west endure their perennial travails. In Brazil, where the old rubber and cacao bandits dote on aldermen, everything just heaves with incipient storm. But in these parts, a delicate balance continues to be maintained, and all seems to depend on that balance. The weavers outside Antigua, anticipating the cloudbursts, close up their looms by noon. At LakeAtitlan, the clouds above the old volcano look like goose feather pillows.
Evelyn strolled with Omar Jimenez past the stables. Omar handled everything. It was Omar, for instance, who arranged to have musicians play at her parent’s house on the Saturday just past when all the Tortazars assembled to celebrate cousin Emilia’s vows upon her recovery. It was a great success. They played Mozart’s 5th Violin Concerto, adventuring its lively climatic pseudo-orientalism with pronounced gusto. Everyone savored it like an exotic dessert. It was vulgar in a way, perhaps. Any such ingenuous, or perhaps disingenuous, caricature of things anciently and eternally Spanish might have likewise sounded to her like a shameless travesty. But parody is abstraction of a sort, and abstraction is a truth unto itself. What’s good for the Turk’s goose is therefore good for the Spaniard’s gander, and rootless men were always free to ape in words or deeds her frail and stately passions.
“You are a priceless friend,” she said. There was no one within earshot, yet they were whispering just as Helena Jimenez and Maria Velez customarily whispered when they huddled together like conspirators in church. Nothing, she had come to realize, had ever been innocent.
“Your trust is priceless,” he answered slowly.
“You must know what my life is like,” she said.
“I pray for your happiness,” he said.
“I want to ask you for something that may not be honest or right. Don’t judge me too harshly. But I must know everything they think and feel.”
“I understand,” he said, so he built her a machine to peep with.
She spied for months with the machine Omar built her, as Omar withdrew into the shadows of her life until he could barely be seen by the naked human eye. Evelyn watched their tenderness and it revolted her. She unfolded for him like a last summer bud, and she burrowed in his arms. A kind of animal contentment, not unlike the look of her when she was nursing, held her midway between sleep and wake. Then, clinging each to each for dear life, they slowly writhed until passion rose and overcame them. They pressed harder against each other; they writhed without parting, until she sang out at last and he smiled for her in delight. The sweat percolated on her dark peasant flesh. She saw the beads glisten in her armpits, in the big bushes there, and on the braids all along her legs. How could she grunt like that one moment and be so meekly sweet, veritably childlike, the next! She watched him mount on top; his fury mounted. How could she allow such violence one moment, and such caresses the next!
One morning she entered upon the bedroom. She pulled the sheet from the bed waving the tallow-like white cotton at a slant until it billowed and hung a second or two suspended in mid air. Evelyn shook it, and shook it again, peering intently for the telltale remnants. Expressionless, drained as if by a consumptive ailment, she nonetheless went quickly about this bit of drudgery lest an imaginable passerby catch her at this servant’s work and marvel at the diminution. She bundled the sheet and stuck it with the other dirty laundry for Sophia to wash, by and by, in the course of her daily chores.
She saw them in bed with the baby. They fondled and pinched her tiny toes, and Roberto held Sophia’s breast up to the baby’s mouth. Maybe Roberto was inside her at that moment. Maybe another child would be born, and then another, and another. Sophia, nursing interminably, could not be riper. She saw a new world unfurl before her, and Sophia and Roberto were its parents. Evelyn hectored the kitchen staff. “I’ll take that,” she said, seizing a dinner tray as if the scraggly haired little niece of Sonya Ramos who was now assisting in the kitchen didn’t even know enough to carry roast beef.
Evelyn served the main dish and called out to the kitchen to hurry up with the rest. A glance from Roberto, quiet in his chair at the table, said nothing. He was opaque. Or, perhaps, there was nothing to conceal, and it was a simple blankness in his glance that only seemed to be opaque. There was no point in his thinking much of her, or speaking to her, or condemning or comforting or reconciling her, her who saw and knew it all, as he did too. This was life, that’s all, and it was meant to be lived numbly and happily.
Amid the silence, everything seemed uncannily normal. The new world that was unfurling before her seemed inexorable. “I have sacrificed my life for a peccadillo,” Evelyn said to herself. The Pellots were expected after dinner, but, through the open window on the far side of the dining room, she thought she heard them arriving early. She thought she heard their children scampering off, probably to visit the stable, to beguile the horses and giggle wildly as they did so. “I have sacrificed my world for a peccadillo,” she thought again, and gathered herself up for the evening ahead.
About the Author
Larry Smith lives and works in New Jersey. “The Montez Get” is from a collection of unpublished collection of fiction called A Shield of Paris. His story “Tight Like That” appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (print edition), #27. “The Shield of Paris” (near-title story of the collection) was published in Low Rent and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other stories were published in Exquisite Corpse,Curbside Splendor, FictionNow, PANK, and numerous others. His poetry was in Descant (Canada) and Elimae, among others, and his articles and essays in Modern Fiction Studies, Social Text, The Boston Phoenix, and others. Reach him at email@example.com.