Tales from the Town of Widows

TALES FROM THE TOWN OF WIDOWS

& Chronicles from the Land of Men

James Cañón

This book is for
my mother, my grandmother
and every woman in the world.

The day will come when men will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation. Then, and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that shall result in the highest development of the race.

—S
USAN
B. A
NTHONY

Mariquita, November 15, 1992

T
HE DAY THE MEN
disappeared started as a typical Sunday morning in Mariquita: the roosters forgot to announce dawn, the sexton overslept, the church bell didn’t summon the faithful to attend the early service, and (as on every Sunday for the past ten years) only one person showed up for six o’clock mass: Doña Victoria viuda de Morales, the Morales widow. The widow was accustomed to this routine, and so was el padre Rafael. The first few times it had been uncomfortable for both of them: the small priest almost invisible behind the pulpit, delivering his homily, the widow sitting alone in the first row, tall and buxom, quite still, her head covered with a black veil that dropped over her shoulders. Eventually they decided to ignore the ceremony and often sat together in a corner drinking coffee and gossiping. On the day the men disappeared, el padre Rafael complained to the widow about the severe decrease in the church’s revenue, and they discussed ways to revive the tithe among the faithful. After their chat, they agreed to skip confession, but the widow received communion nonetheless. Then she said a few prayers before returning to her house.

Through the open window of her living room, the Morales widow heard the street vendors trying to interest early risers in their delica
cies: “Morcillas!” “Empanadas!” “Chicharrones!” She closed the window, more bothered by the unpleasant smell of blood sausages and fried food than by the strident voices announcing them. She woke up her three daughters and her only son, then went back to the kitchen, where she whistled a hymn while she made breakfast for her family.

By eight in the morning most doors and windows in Mariquita were open. Men played tangos and boleros on old phonographs, or listened to the news on the radio. On the main street, the town’s magistrate, Jacinto Jiménez, and the police sergeant, Napoleón Patiño, dragged a big round table and six folding chairs outside under a tall mango tree to play Parcheesi with a few selected neighbors. Ten minutes later, in the southwest corner of the plaza, Don Marco Tulio Cifuentes, the tallest man in Mariquita and owner of El Rincón de Gardel, the town’s bar, carried out his last two drunk customers, one on each shoulder. He laid them on the ground, side by side, then closed his business and went home. At eight thirty, inside the Barbería Gómez, a small building across from Mariquita’s municipal building, Don Vicente Gómez began to sharpen razors and sterilize combs and brushes with alcohol, while his wife, Francisca, cleaned the mirrors and windows with damp newspaper. In the meantime, two streets down at the marketplace, the police sergeant’s wife, Rosalba Patiño, bargained with a red-faced farmer for half a dozen ears of corn, while older women under green awnings sold everything from calf’s foot jelly to bootleg cassettes of Michael Jackson’s
Thriller
. At eight thirty-five, in the open field in front of the Morales widow’s house, the Restrepo brothers (all seven of them) began to warm up before their weekly soccer game while waiting for David Pérez, the butcher’s grandson, who owned the only ball. Five minutes later, two old maids with long hair and slightly square bodies walked arm in arm around the plaza, cursing their spinsterhood and kicking aside the stray dogs that crossed their way. At eight fifty, three blocks down from the plaza, in the house with the green facade located in the middle of the block, Ángel Alberto Tamacá, the schoolteacher, tossed in bed sweating and dreaming of Amorosa, the woman he loved.
At three minutes before nine, on the outskirts of Mariquita, inside La Casa de Emilia (the town’s brothel), Doña Emilia (herself) passed from room to room. She woke up her last customers, warned them that they were going to be in serious trouble with their wives if they didn’t leave that minute, and yelled at one of the girls for not keeping her room tidy.

 

I
MMEDIATELY AFTER THE
ninth stroke of the church bell, while its echo was still resounding in the sexton’s ears, three dozen men in worn-out greenish uniforms appeared from every corner of Mariquita shooting their rifles and shouting, “Viva la Revolución!” They walked slowly along the narrow streets, their sunburned faces painted black and their shirts sticking to their slender bodies with sweat. “We’re the people’s army,” one of them declared through a megaphone. “We’re fighting so that all Colombians can work and be paid according to their needs, but we can’t do it without your support!” The streets had emptied; even the stray animals had fled when they heard the first shots. “Please,” the man continued, “help us with anything you can spare.”

 

I
NSIDE THEIR HOUSE
, the Morales widow, her three daughters and her son, were clearing the dining table. “Just what we needed,” the widow grumbled. “Another damn guerrilla group. I’m so tired of these bands of godless beggars coming through here every year.”

Her two younger daughters, Gardenia and Magnolia, rushed to the window hoping to catch a glimpse of the rebels, while the widow’s only son, Julio César, clutched his mother fearfully. Orquidea, the oldest, looked at her two sisters and shook her head in disapproval.

Orquidea Morales had lost interest in men some five years before. She knew they didn’t find her attractive, and at her age—thirty-one—she wasn’t about to expose herself to rejection. She had pointy ears, a hook nose and a mouth too small for her big, crooked teeth. She also had three warts on her chin that looked like golden raisins. When Orquidea was born, these unpleasant protuberances had been on her cheeks, but
as she grew up, they’d migrated down to her chin. She hoped the warts would keep moving and eventually settle in a less visible part of her body. Orquidea claimed to be a virgin, a statement that had been confirmed repeatedly by the unkind men of Mariquita with remarks like, “If all virgins had bodies like hers, they’d remain untouched forever.” She had inherited her late father’s breasts: two dark little nipples side by side on her flat chest. But despite her sisters’ recommendation to stuff oversized brassieres with corn husks, she decided to wear nothing underneath her immaculate white blouses. Orquidea didn’t have a waistline or any curves. She was a walking rectangle with a very charming personality. She was capable of engaging in long conversations about Napoleon Bonaparte or Simón Bolivar, Shakespeare or Cervantes, Iceland or Patagonia, but also humorous topics like Colombian politics. She had educated herself by devouring most of the books available in the small library of Mariquita’s school. But despite her erudition and broad views, she was a devout Catholic. She believed with all her heart that the pope was the emissary of the Lord, and her fondest dream was to have him sign her Bible, “To Orquidea Morales, my most devoted follower. Yours, John Paul II.”

When she was younger, Orquidea had had a suitor: a farm worker named Rodolfo who thought he could improve his living conditions if he married her. But in 1986, when the first Marxist guerrilla group had come to Mariquita looking for recruits, Rodolfo surprised Orquidea by joining the rebels. It upset her so much she had diarrhea for two months. Finally, one day after using the toilet, she came out of the outhouse and said loudly and confidently, “I just finished shitting out my love for Rodolfo!”

Since then Orquidea had had neither boyfriend nor diarrhea.

 

“P
LEASE COME OUT
and join us at the plaza for a short talk,” the guerrilla went on shouting through the megaphone. “We’re not going to hurt anyone. We’re fighting for your rights, and for the rights of every Colombian citizen.” He repeated the same lines over and over,
louder each time, but aside from the schoolteacher, two drunkards, an insomniac prostitute and three stray dogs, no one accepted the rebel’s invitation.

“Can I go, Mamá?” Gardenia Morales said to her mother, who was washing the dishes with the help of Julio César.

“You have no business attending Communist meetings.”

“But I have nothing else to do.”

“Go find your sewing case and finish the quilt for the magistrate’s wife. We’re going to need the money soon.”

“It’s Sunday, Mamá. I want to go out.”

“You heard me, Gardenia,” the widow said, raising her voice as well as her eyes.

Gardenia strode away angrily, leaving behind a nasty smell. Julio César covered his nose and mouth with both hands and mumbled through his fingers, “Please, Mamá, don’t get her upset.”

Like her two sisters, Gardenia had been named after a fragrant blossom. When she was irritated, sad, or disturbed, however, her body gave off a smell quite different from the one emitted by that delicate flower. No matter how many times she bathed in warm water scented with roses, honeysuckle and jasmine, or how many times she sprayed her body with sweet-smelling perfumes, when she was agitated, her pores gave off a carrion-like stench. Dr. Ramírez—the only doctor in town—had been unable to cure the odor, and the witch doctors her mother had taken her to said Gardenia was possessed by an evil spirit. Nothing could be done, so the Morales family had learned to live with the recurrent stink. Even so, Gardenia was a handsome woman. She was twenty-seven, and she constantly challenged her sisters to find a single spot or wrinkle on her face. She had big black eyes and full lips that concealed two perfect rows of white teeth. Her eyebrows were thick, and she never plucked them, though she did curl her eyelashes on special occasions. Her long, delicate neck was permanently adorned with an aromatic necklace of dry cloves, cardamom seeds and cinnamon sticks on an invisible nylon thread. Behind her left ear she tucked
fresh-cut flowers, angel’s trumpets or lilies of the valley, whichever smelled best that day. She stuck out her tongue, almost involuntarily, every few seconds to wet her lips, a habit that the pious women of Mariquita took for a hint of lust. But like her older sister, Gardenia was a virgin. She’d had three suitors from nearby towns, all of whom ran away as soon as they figured out the source of the stench. Even when the second guerrilla group had come to Mariquita looking for recruits in 1988, Gardenia was one of the few women that the lascivious, girl-chasing revolutionaries didn’t bother to court.

 

S
INCE THE VILLAGERS
chose not to come out of their houses to attend the guerrillas’ meeting, the insurgents opted to go from door to door asking for voluntary contributions, hoping to interest any young, healthy man in joining their movement. But only a small number of families answered their doors. The people of Mariquita had grown weary of being harassed by the many groups of rebels who went up and down the mountains asking for money, chickens, pigs and beer; enchanting the most ingenuous women with their macho attitude and their olive-drab uniforms, winning their hearts and their maidenheads and finally, after a week or two, leaving them behind with bad reputations, swelling bellies and few possibilities of marriage.

When Magnolia Morales, who hadn’t moved away from the window since the rebels arrived, informed her mother that the guerrillas were knocking on all doors, the widow quickly wrapped the leftovers of their breakfast in plantain leaves and left the small bundle outside on their doorstep.

“We should at least hand them the food, Mamá,” Magnolia said. “They’re Communists, not dogs.”

“Oh, no,” said the widow emphatically. “If I open that door, they’ll start lecturing us about communism and flirting with you girls. Absolutely not.”

“I just want to talk to them, Mamá. I’m not going to run away with some guerrilla.”

“Talk to them through the window,” her mother said. She pushed a heavy wooden chair against the door.

Magnolia Morales, the youngest of the three sisters, was twenty-two but looked much older. Her breasts were flaccid through the almost transparent blouses she liked to wear, and her hips were wide and nearly flat. She had the legs of a man, hairy and muscular, which she disguised with dark-colored stockings. Her face wasn’t missing anything: she had two dark eyes with their respective eyelashes and brows, a mouth, a nose and plenty of undesired hair. In the past she had plucked out bristles and the excessive mustache, but the obstinate hair—like the guerrillas—always came back. Finally, she decided to let it grow as fast and long as it pleased, and so it did. The hair on her head fell freely to her waist, black and shiny.

Magnolia definitely wasn’t a virgin. “If she charged every man for her favors, she’d be a millionaire,” the old maids used to say. The girl had such a bad reputation in town that she might as well have sold herself. In truth, she had not slept with many men, just the wrong ones: the ones who told. When she first heard the rumors, she locked herself in her bedroom for over six months, thinking people would forget about her damaged reputation. In 1990, however, when the third guerrilla group arrived in town, Magnolia came out of her seclusion, hoping to meet someone new. That’s when she realized that her reputation was the least of her problems; the rebels had persuaded most of Mariquita’s single men to join the revolution. Suddenly, Magnolia’s dearest dream of getting married to a handsome, wealthy man was unrealizable. Even her second dearest dream, getting married to any man, seemed remote. Devastated, she’d lingered awhile by the window of her bedroom, watching the large group of bachelors march out of town with the guerrillas, slowly waving her hand in the air, weeping as the last man disappeared from sight.

 

T
HE GUERRILLAS
,
FORTY
of them, gathered once again at the plaza at noon. They sat down on the ground in the shade of a mango tree and
made an inventory of the items they’d collected: two live, bony chickens, four pounds of rice, three liters of Diet Coca-Cola, six panelas, three small bundles of leftovers and a handful of rusty coins. They also had a new recruit, Ángel Alberto Tamacá, Mariquita’s twenty-three-year-old schoolteacher. He was the only son of a legendary rebel killed when Ángel was only a few months old. Ángel had been raised by his mother, Cecilia Guaraya, and her second husband, Don Misael Vidales, a wise man who had moved to Mariquita many years before with nothing but his goiter and three large boxes full of books, and who three months later had become Mariquita’s first teacher ever. From his mother Ángel had learned good manners, discipline and perseverance. From his stepfather he learned mathematics, geography, science and communism.

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