It was February, summer, when an old woman sat dozing, her bare legs splayed across the wooden platform of her house on stilts. The sun was nearing its zenith when the woman, Alvita, was bothered by the call of a macaw – persistent and unusual for that time of day. Alvita roused herself from her mid-day torpor and struggled her bulk down her ladder to the dusty path where she picked up a stone to throw at the miserable bird that was disturbing her snooze. She followed the call to a guayaba tree just on the edge of the village where the forest began. But now the bird, so loud and persistent just minutes ago stopped calling. Alvita heard only the rustle of wings, the scrape of guayaba leaves and then the thud of a guava fruit hitting the ground. Her eyes followed the sound to discover that the fruit had fallen alongside a leg. It was, without doubt, a woman’s leg. Smooth and strong looking: foot, ankle encircled by a thin gold chain, calf, knee, and thigh, propped up against the tree trunk.
The old woman was taken aback but not shocked by what she saw. People in Alvita’s country disappeared regularly. That parts of them might end up alongside tree trunks made as much sense to her as their disappearance. For years now, nervous young soldiers had been arriving at villages to accuse daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers of disloyalty and betrayal. But to whom and to what was never clear. No amount of pleading, no bribe could dissuade these red-eyed boys in shoddy uniforms from taking away loved ones. Families wept and prayed and waited. But the taken never returned, and in time they were referred to as los desaparecidos – the vanished: Maria la desaparecida, Pablo el desaparecido, Celestina la desaparecida. And where did they go?Alvita had heard rumors of dark rooms deep underground where the young soldiers performed monstrous acts, sending electric currents through men’s bodies, violating women – girl children even – drinking and spitting, excited and eager to take their turn. Afterwards girls lay praying for death. Tales of dismemberment too, had circulated – soldiers carving flesh to pieces, the better to dispose of their victims, make the vanishing complete.
Ay! thought Alvita. It is best not to think of these things. Best to concentrate on this leg without an owner and what to do with it. Alvita picked up the limb and wrapped it in her apron, meaning to give it a proper burial in her garden.
But when she arrived home she found her old friend Antonietta sitting drinking tea in the shade of her house. The old woman looked unnerved. She too had heard the persistent call of the macaw, had gone to investigate, had heard the rustle of leaves, followed with her eyes the fall of fruit and had discovered an arm which she produced for Alvita extracting it from a burlap sack. A woman’s arm: hand, wrist, forearm, elbow, shoulder. No jewelry.
By the evening of that day in February Alvita’s hut was filled with women – young, old and in between – all with the same story, all carrying body parts wrapped in whatever cloth they could find. One enterprising small girl carried a breast between two macaw nests she had stolen from the guayaba tree. There was some confusion at first while the women held the body parts aloft, placing a left leg to the right side of the torso, a shoulder to thigh like excited children trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle. Finally, Alvita climbed on top of her wobbly kitchen table, quite nimbly, for an old woman and called for order.
“Señoras, muchachas! Escuchan!” Listen! “We will never give this woman her due unless we work carefully together. You, Rosa with the head! Place it here alongside my table. That’s right, that’s right, with the neck pointing toward the doorway. Now Olga,” she called to a broad shouldered but not very clever young woman “good, good you found the torso. You’re strong enough to carry it, eh! Lay it here below the neck. Ay niña! Turn it over, that side faces the floor!”
One by one the women placed their finds on the floor of Alivita’s house on stilts. When it became apparent that they had indeed found parts for an entire body, Alvita made a poultice of aloe, curare, and mud. As if they were patching cracks in their kitchen walls the women joined neck to torso, arm to shoulder, breast to chest. Nadia, the oldest among them, older even than Alvita, soaked the body’s torn vagina in cool water mixed with roots and leaves she’d gathered in the forest before gently putting the body’s sex back between her legs. For long hours the women worked, all the while murmuring softly, “We remember you sister, come back to us dear one.” All night long a flock of gold and green macaws scratched impatiently on the roof of Alvita’s hut while the women’s voices drifted up and finally through them: sister, hermana, soeur, dada, suster.
Alvita wiped crusted blood from the body’s eyes, nose and mouth, and dribbled a thin potato soup into her throat. Finally, near dawn the body on the floor of Alvita’s hut on stilts breathed three staccato breaths, twitched violently, licked her lips, opened her eyes and uttered her first words: “No more!”
Soon after her awakening and first utterance, the woman stood. The village women had done well patching her, expertly filling in the cracks between her parts. Her legs were the same length, her arms even, her head balanced properly on her shoulders. But still she was a strange sight. The mixture that held her together hardened into green mortar, her eyes were black as the night and flecked with the gold of the jaguar. Her hair hung thick and straight to her waist and was tangled with the brilliant macaw feathers that would forever be a part of her. It was because of this jungle crown, she was called Reina.
The women in Alvita’s hut were a bit frightened by this reformed woman. They stood back silently while Reina regarded them, blinking her eyes and running her hands along the dry poultice between her body parts. The young girl who had carried the breast between two nests piped up, “Who are you? Who tore you apart? Was it the soldiers? Did it hurt? Where is your village?”
Reina looked down at the girl and smiled indulgently, her teeth shining hard and white like dried tagua nut. She lifted the girl up as if she had no weight at all and held her in the crook of her elbow. “Little hermana, you ask so many questions. What does it matter how I came to pieces or if it caused me pain? My village is where I stand. And as for the red-eyed soldiers. My dear girl. Señoras. . .”
Here Reina’s eyes became like the deepest eddies of the Amazon and the gold flecks took on the appearance of restless piranhas. Her lips curled back to expose the clay colored roots of her ivory teeth and the stinging scent of curare filled the air – an odor both alarming and comforting. A sound came from deep inside her; some heard it as laughter, others said it was a growl.
It was then that the women knew for certain what they had done: from flesh and bone and dirt and herbs, from their own desperation, and then from love, they had re-membered a lost one. Their prayers had been answered. A desaparecida had returned.
It soon became clear that Reina thought nothing for convention and cared little for modesty. She was content to wander naked through the village stroking brilliant orchid petals; or she would be spotted resting, sprawled beneath the guayaba tree listening to the rustle of leaves, cooing softy to the macaws that gathered above her. Worrying about her modesty for her, the village women clothed her in what would become her uniform – farmer’s pants that hung just above her ankles; a cushma, loose at the neck so that it exposed the green mortar at her collarbone like a jade necklace. She never wore shoes.
Everywhere she went children followed her. Girls especially left their chores and were seen mimicking Reina’s long, stilted stride along the village paths. At first the girls followed from a shy distance. Reina was patient, gradually slowing her pace so that the young things would become accustomed to her presence. The walks became longer. As they became more familiar, some of the girls reached for Reina’s fingers and were delighted to be guided by her dry, warm hands. The littlest girls allowed Reina to carry them when the walks became too long and tiring. In time the entourage ventured well beyond the village paths into the jungle. They would return at dusk.Then the walks lengthened again and they would not return to their huts on stilts until after dark.
It was an infuriating and worrisome thing in this village on the Amazon, that the girl children would leave their homes all day for no other reason than to follow this woman with feathers in her hair. But no amount of cajoling, shouting, or even beating could return them to their homes to learn the ways that their mothers had kept for centuries. In fact, in the face of admonishments their play with Reina took on more urgency. Overwhelmed with frustration and worry, some of the mothers silently followed their children into the jungle, barely able to keep up and only able to observe the group when Reina stopped to point out the leaves of cupuacu or abuta or to teach some recipe for mixing roots and bark into a potion, the formula for which had been lost even in this ancient village. One mother reported that she saw her child speak the language of a fledgling macaw, another that her daughter conversed with a jaguar, and one woman claimed that she’d witnessed a black caiman – the long, sharp toothed Amazon crocodile – accept a quivering mouse from her daughter’s hand.
The mothers watched as their daughters’ play became more organized. The children spent long hours on the riverbank marching to the tune of one military song or another crooned by Reina in a voice like the bone flutes of ancient Maya.
At the end of the day, when their daughters returned mud-spattered and ravenous, some of the mothers still shouted that a girl’s place was in her hut and not in the endless jungle. But this was mostly show for the men of the village, so they would believe that their daughters were going through some wild phase ignited by the unfortunate woman their wives had found and pieced together, and would soon be back under control performing the duties expected of them. In truth, the women had begun to take pride in their daughters’ muscled limbs and bold behavior.
The boys of the village also followed their sisters into the jungle, and tried to join in the play along the riverbank. They were not unwelcome. But their knees buckled on long marches, their ankles turned in the soft mud, and they were intimidated by the black caimans that slithered from the river at their sisters’ bequest and were regularly being fed by hand.
These were still harsh days. From the air choked Andes to the dank jungle, word of the vanished continued to spread. Everywhere candles flickered and prayers were whispered for loved ones who would never return.
Then, one day, Reina and her girls and the black caimans disappeared from the village. There was no weeping, no burning of candles, no incantations sent heavenward. Not for lack of affection, though it’s true that the folks of the village – particularly the boys – did not miss the black caimans. The villagers did not believe that Reina and her girls had fallen into the hands of the brutal young soldiers.
And on the day that came to be called El Día del Río Rojo – the Day of The Red River – they were proven right.
It was the culmination of the battle Reina and her girl warriors waged on the part of the people who had suffered too long at the hands of young soldiers who terrorized them in the name of revolution. It was, as one would imagine, a bloody ordeal. Young girls, some of them no taller than the smallest forest fern, raised their hands and caimans leapt from the river and slithered into holes and sewers and long narrow passageways that led to the dark underground rooms that had been rumors to some and too real for others. The caverns echoed with shrieks, growls, bellows and the repeated snapping of powerful jaws and the crunch of bone. A squadron of macaws plucked eyes, hair, and bits of flesh from the writhing rebels and rained the bloody debris into the Amazon. The sluggish river became thick and sticky with blood, deepening the surprising color of pink dolphins to a shocking crimson. Everywhere were limbs, bone, and shredded pieces of clothing like those favored by the young soldiers. For three days the fetid mess flowed steadily eastward until it washed into the Atlantic Ocean. When the river was clear, Reina and her girls returned to their village.
But they did not stay long.
Teresa Giordano writes and produces non-fiction, documentary television on topics ranging from earwigs to forensic anthropology to badass presidents. Her work appears on television and in museums such as the National Museum of American History and The Children’s Museum of Manhattan. This is her first published work of fiction.