This time, she knew it was true. Xochitl could feel the new life growing, the tiny heart beating deep inside her. Manuel will be proud to come back to a wife who is full and fertile. The smooth earth was cool under her bare feet as she moved gracefully from one chore to the next in the early morning light.
The day had begun, as every day did, when news of the morning’s approach spread quietly across the dark treetops and reached her sleeping ear. She had unfolded her limbs to a silent music and taken the first slow steps in darkness. As she stirred the coals from yesterday’s fire, the soft pink glow lit the horizon and sleepy strains of familiar songs awakened in the trees. She worked the masa with her hands in the semi-darkness, knowing by touch the desired consistency of the dough — like a baby’s bottom — that would promise the best tortillas.
By the time the tortillas began to puff up on the clay comal, the fire had leaped to meet the first rays of sun and a full chirping chorus. Xochitl brushed the tangled dreams from her long black hair and greeted the day from her doorway. It was time to waken Manuel and give him his breakfast of tortillas and beans before he went off to the fields. But she knew he was gone. He’d been gone for months, and she was growing full of longing and of stories to share with him.
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It was strange that they hadn’t been able to conceive a child for so long, since she had been pregnant when they got married. At least she had felt she was, from the first moment she had met Manuel. He was from another village, nestled high in the mountains about a half day’s walk away. They spoke the same language, but his ways were different, and his words were sometimes mysterious to her. She knew a few people from outside her village, mostly women young men had brought back to be their wives. Her own cousin had left her home to go off with a new husband.
And then there was the priest who came through every month or so. He was not of their people and he came to tell them stories of other times and places. He could speak their words but in a strange and awkward way, as if they just hatched in his mouth instead of deep inside him. The men listened to him with interest and asked many questions, but Xochitl found his answers mysterious and unsettling.
The first time she saw Manuel, Xochitl felt his presence before he spoke. He was passing by the stream as she kneeled to get water, and she sensed his silent approach. All her senses were open to the world around her and she often knew things even before the words or visions took shape. Life entered her through her pores, drawn in through her bare feet, the long braid down her back and the tips of her breasts hidden in her blouse. She could taste the stories of love and pain, feel in her belly the cycles of harvest and loss, and hear the pulsing of magic just under the surface of things.
When she looked up to meet Manuel’s dark eyes, she felt a sudden sprouting inside that made her cheeks burn. She looked down again at the water, where she could see his reflection standing there, upside down, his large hands crossed in front of him. Xochitl felt a fullness invade her, long before that first breathless afternoon when their bodies pressed close together. They moved and grew to fit each other in their lovemaking, and she felt the new life take root inside her. When she told Manuel that she would have a child, he never questioned it. He went to her parents to declare his intentions and they were soon a new family in their small house with the dirt floor still soft under her feet.
They were happy and she grew inside as they wove their daily motions together into a firm fabric. When her body didn’t swell with the passing months, Manuel became anxious. Xochitl was still calm and contented as she lay beside him at night and patted the fullness within her. But one evening, he came home later than usual. He seemed restless and distracted and didn’t answer when she spoke to him.
“We are poor and ignorant,” he said when she finally convinced him to sit with her in the doorway and listen to the night sounds. He explained that the priest had come again and set his mind on fire with the possibilities beyond the village.
“We have what we need,” she answered as she leaned toward him. He smiled and relaxed a little, but after that, she could see the doubts growing around his thoughts, like the wild vines on the mapasúchil tree.
When Manuel walked the full day to the nearest road to catch a ride to the city, she thought she might never see him again. “I need to go,” he had said. “Just for a while. I’ll be back before the child comes and bring some money and things we need.”
The days passed and she kept the same routine, often making too many tortillas. Manuel’s absence fluttered around the corners of the house and finally settled deep inside her. She felt empty. Then one day, the emptiness opened and flooded red. There was no child. She mourned the child that had never been, and her heart felt lonely in her hollow body. Perhaps Manuel had already known and couldn’t face the loss of this phantom child.
Xochitl went out to gather flowers from the mapasúchil tree near their house to make a tea for her pain. “Tree of the little hands” it was called in her language, for the deep red flowers that had five long fingers protruding from the center of the soft pink petals. Each day, a few more flowers would float down from the high branches. The infusions made from these “hand-flowers” were said to be good for the heart and to calm seizures and relieve pain. She could feel the little hands soothe her inside as she drank the red liquid. She had always loved the tree that bore her name. In ancient times, it was called the macpalxochitl, or the “hand- flower” tree. Her own name, Xochitl, meant “flower,” and she was given the name “because you looked like a little flower unfolding,” her father had explained.
In the days that followed, Xochitl went often to lean against the tree and look up at the leafless branches, the red flowers aflame in the sunlight. There was great comfort in the reddish-brown smoothness of the trunk and the little hands waving above her. She would let her thoughts flow as she absently traced with her finger the story of some small creature’s blind journey etched on the bark. The wandering lines of her imagination on the living firmness of the tree gave her a feeling of wholeness and wonder. She began to absorb life around her again, wrapping her emptiness in layers of stories like the rings of the tree.
Manuel came back with some money, a few stories, and strange new things in his sack. A few of the objects found immediate use in the kitchen. Others were placed reverently on a high shelf as artifacts of her husband’s adventures. He looked at her flat abdomen and went to bed in silence. He slipped easily back into the space she had kept for him and their lives went on. Xochitl stayed busy and was no longer lonely. She often helped Doña Modesta, the local curandera, to gather flowers, herbs, roots, and whatever she needed to make her healing potions — the quie-guiña for dysentery and chest colds, arnica for skin problems, balsamo for cuts, sores, and ulcers, bejuco de job for pain and to heal a severed vein, and the macpalxochitl flowers to strengthen the heart.
As Xochitl recorded in her mind the use for each mixture, she also noted the way the lines in the old woman’s face told the story of her whole life. She could see at one glance all the moments of joy and pain, suffering and compassion, wisdom and disappointment that made up a long life. She watched with careful attention and learned quickly. Soon, people in the village began to come to her when the old woman was busy. They called her “la niña que escucha” (the girl who listens) because people would talk to her as she prepared their remedies.
“Trees and Other Witnesses”
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She listened and took it all in — their words, their pains, the way they sat in the chair, how they held a hat in their hands or a child in their arms. She remembered everything about them and carried it with her. The seasons went by, the rivers of rain and the hard, baked days, and they managed. At times, she could see the phantom child reflected in Manuel’s eyes, but they never spoke of it.
Then one day, he left again, headed north. Just until the dry season, he had said, only long enough to earn the money to build them a real house. He had talked about going to Texas. She couldn’t imagine Texas. It was somewhere up there, on the other side, big and dangerous, strange, and far away. She didn’t try to keep him from going. Others had gone, too. The pull was too strong, and she feared that if she got in the way, it would carry her off as well. She would just wait for Manuel and stir up the fire every morning.
This time, he did not leave her alone. Soon after he left, Xochitl began to feel life growing inside her again, stretching her skin and filling the emptiness with a sense of purpose and continuity. She kept it a secret and went on with her work. There was plenty for her to do.
One man had come home with a strange illness, unknown to her or Doña Modesta. “El mal del norte,” the old woman said, shaking her head. Another didn’t come back at all and his wife and children grew thin with waiting. The coming and going of the men had broken the rhythm of village life. Life had always been hard, but now there was a new hunger that couldn’t be satisfied by tortillas and beans, and they went in search of what was missing. They would plant seeds in fertile ground and then return later to find small strangers growing in their homes.
Xochitl watched and listened and added new rings to her girth. In the evenings, she visited the mapasúchil tree to gather flowers for her tea. Though she no longer needed it for her earlier loss, it had become part of her evening ritual. She would gather the flowers and drink the red warmth of the little hands to strengthen her heart and ease the pain of the stories she carried.
She grew bigger and the life within her began to become its own. She marveled at the beloved stranger that moved inside her. As the child grew to fill the whole center of her being, she realized that she would soon need to let him go. She watched her own shape suffer distortions as he heaved and stretched in preparation for his journey. As she ate her tortillas one morning, she knew it would be soon. She thought of Manuel, his image rippling in her memory.
When she heard his voice, she didn’t look up at first, still seeing the reflected picture in her thoughts. “A child!” he exclaimed, and she stood to let him admire her great roundness, only then realizing the full dimensions of his appearance. The fatigue from his journey relaxed into a glow of pride as she handed him some tortillas and beans and he reached out to touch her swollen belly. She had so much to tell and so did he, but there would be time later. They went to bed, and Manuel curled his body protectively around her full womb and their unborn son.
That night, the child was restless and Xochitl knew he was ready to leave his first home. A force more powerful than both of them began to move in great waves, and they rode them together the best they could. In a quiet interval, Manuel brought her some tea and wondered aloud what the child would look like. They waited. Time slowed and a few red flowers drifted down through the clear night air. The tree and the woman sighed in unison. Finally, with a rush of waters, the child was born into the open darkness. He blinked in the candlelight as he lay on his mother’s breast.
“He looks like all of us,” she said as she patted the separateness of the little body and kissed his tiny red hands. Manuel went to get some rags to mop up the dark liquid that ran with creative abandon down her legs and stained the white sheet on which she lay.
Kathy Taylor is a writer and musician and a retired professor of Spanish who has lived in Mexico, Nicaragua, Ireland, Curaçao and Germany . She currently lives off the grid with her husband Peter in the mountains of Colorado, where she is working on a novel that takes place in Germany.