Concepción’s idea was to give the jaladores just one baby. Think about it. Is a woman not overblessed with two identical sons? One son is a gift, a joy, a polestar. The second? A redundancy.
The twins had been awful all morning. They both had colds. Globs of snot hung from their pug noses no matter how often she swiped at them. They screamed for the breast. They were too old and toothful to be such nursing fiends, and her nipples were chewed raw. She had finally gotten them to sleep, one swaddled to her back, the other in the playpen on the patio, and she was doing laundry. She bent over the pila, the ponderous outdoor sink that guarded the patio, and raked the twins’ little pants and shirts over its cement washboard. She wrung ice water out of their clothes with vengeful vigor. She hated that this job sucked the juices out of her for another woman’s children. She felt the sun blasting down on her from a cold sky, lighting up the gloss on her heavy black braid (of which she was so proud), burning into her secret places.
The three strangers arrived stealthily, unheralded by bus-horn blast or truck-gear grind. They must have walked the four dusty kilometers from town, peering into yards. They climbed up the short flight of steps to the pila. Concepción, tall for fifteen, straightened up to her full height, put on a haughty expression and stared at them with eyes like black stones. They were two women and a man, dressed as Todosanteros. A long silence happened, as if all four people on the patio were the earth’s first humans, awaiting the miracle of speech. The strangers took in the sleeping twin, the compound of low buildings that hemmed in the patio, doors opening onto the narrow veranda, the steep rise behind of outbuildings and milpas, the cornfields standing up against the weight of mountain walls.
“Buenas tardes,” one of the women said at last. The words jumped out in a clip, instead of the long sing-song the country people gave them. “Is your husband or father-in-law at home?” Concepción could tell she was not really from Todos Santos. The indigo skirts, the hand-woven blouses, the man’s red pants were a ruse. The disguise triggered her instinct to be on guard.
“They’re not home,” she said, not offering information or hospitality. Concepción had so little to give. She had neither of those valuable male assets (husband, father-in-law), but she would never reveal that. What she had was Doña Lala, the twins’ mother, and Doña Pancha, their grandmother. In her thoughts she called them la Subcomandante and la Comandante, delegated by the men of the household to rule her.
“We have nice items to sell, baby things. Perhaps you’d like to see. You’ll soon be needing more.” The saleswoman eyed Concepción’s stomach through the thick folds of her clothing. Concepción didn’t tell the woman that there was nothing left inside her cavernous bulge except expired dreams. The doctors had taken out her womb along with her dead baby.
The man lowered the bundle he’d been carrying on his back, and they spread out their wares on the patio, next to the playpen: baby slings and plastic bottles and soft, squeezable toys. A suspicion had occurred to Concepción, an idea had burrowed its way into her skull like a bead of glass. She watched and waited for the real reason for the sellers’ visit. It didn’t take too long.
“So hard when the babies come one after another!” the saleswoman said in a voice like sweet melon. “And so expensive! Yet there are women in other countries who have no children at all—pobrecitas! Rich women who would give anything, anything, for a little chuchito like your sons.” She looked from the playpen to the bundle on Concepcíon’s back with a hungry smile. “So precious. What are their names? These wealthy gringas value girls even more. Perhaps your next one will be a nena. She could grow up in a big white house with a marble kitchen and green lawn, just like on TV. Little Guatemalans every day now grow up to be Americans and go to college and drive big cars with doble tracción. They don’t have to live in the dirt like animals, the way we do.”
The saleswoman scuffed with the toe of her platform sandal at the dirt of the patio, which, to be fair, had a patch of starved grass in one corner. It was the dry season. A film of grit crusted everything—the cement porch floor, the painted wood bench, the prickled hedge between the patio and the road below, the laundry flung out on the hedge to dry. No matter how many times a day Concepción hosed down the road, every passing vehicle fired up a cloud of dust.
An idea takes time to put together, like stringing the glass beads one by one into a grand chandelier, the kind that hung over the lovers in Concepción’s favorite telenovela, The Body of Desire. She placed her hands, sun-brown and rain wrinkled, on her big belly, cradling the hypothetical baby, and set a date three months hence for the strangers to return. After they left, she made a slit in the thin mattress in her dark little room off the woodshed, and shoved the wad of dirty quetzales into it. For medical expenses, the woman had said. But they both knew it was a down payment. For of course, the jaladores weren’t really sellers; they were buyers.
* * * *
Concepción, when she was seven, had dropped her baby brother off the balcony of their house. It was an accident. She’d been told to watch him, her job since her sisters had married and moved out. Emptied of older siblings, the house was dull and lonely. Out front her mother washed dishes; her father worked the labyrinthine strings and pedals of his big wooden loom. Concepción could hear the steady thunka thunka of the loom even over the roar of rain pounding the tin roof—the roof that extended in front of the house over the loom and pila, in back over the hanging balcony—heard it even over the TV. Rodrigo, intent on baby things, was learning to pull himself up, first on Concepción’s extended fingers, and then, when she got tired of the game, on the table legs. Her mother didn’t like Rodrigo to sit on the dirt floor of the house, so Concepción, eager to prove sufficient to her task, plopped a straw mat by the table for him. Rodrigo had just mastered the art when the rain stopped and Concepción, looking through the open door to the balcony, saw a rainbow.
“Look, Rodrigo!” she squealed, hauled him up from the mat, and rocketed out onto the balcony.
The double bow arced the head of the valley, spanning the hoary tops of T’ui Bach and T’ui K’oy, the two sentinels casting off roiling clouds. Under the rainbow the silver-cliffed mountain walls fell into Todos Santos and broke against the ridge, crosswise to the valley, on the crest of which Concepción’s house teetered. Below the balcony her father’s cornfield dropped like a knife into the part of town called Los Pablos. On the flats of Los Pablos, stretched between the ribs of the mountain town, the red-tiled and thatched roofs of squat adobe houses swam in a sea of corn.
At the balcony railing Concepción stopped short, but somehow Rodrigo did not. In an inexplicable move—a wiggle on his part? a failure of strength on hers?—he shot from her arms, over the rail and out into space. Concepción, horrified, felt herself freeze into something rigid and useless. The baby canonballed out of view, into the green mouths of cornstalks, five meters below. Rodrigo’s wail reactivated Concepción, and she screamed.
The baby did not die. In fact, the curandera assured them, after a thorough poking of bones and organs, that he was fine. She did the necessary rituals to ward off his fright. But seven years later, when the thatched roofs of Los Pablos were all gone and new houses had sprouted all over town—many-storied, gabled and arcaded, tiled in dollars from the generous North—when Concepción fell in love with the leader of the Los Pablos gang, Rodrigo had never learned to talk. The Cuban doctor said it was not her fault, that the fall was not the cause, but what did the Cuban doctor know?
* * * *
While Concepción went back to her chores, Prudencia—she of the platform sandal—led the other two jaladores down the steps from the patio. No, not jaladores. Prudencia didn’t like that rural slang word, smacking as it did of hauling and yanking and dragging. She considered herself a professional, not an ox. She was a baby contractor.
Prudencia had worked hard to get to where she was, on the opposite side of the country from where she’d started out, just as worthless as that girl who had just sold her baby. Prudencia had left eastern Guatemala, where the rainy season never arrives and thirsty eucalyptus trees suck what moisture there is out of the earth and famine comes as regularly as new babies. She’d run away from Chiquimula, the so-called Pearl of the East, and the father who had done unspeakable things, to the capital, where she was taken in and put to work in Doña Merced’s household. Doña Merced was a lawyer, an adoption lawyer.
She learned how to clean indoor bathrooms—porcelain and stainless steel, fíjese! Later on how to cook fine dishes. Her new employer recognized her skills, and after they got to know each other, elevated Prudencia from housekeeper to personal assistant. Her rural roots and knowledge of Mayan languages made her perfect as a scout to search the countryside for desperate girls and unhappy families for whom the foreign appetite for black-haired, saucer-eyed babies would be a salvation.
“You’re so clever,” Prudencia’s companion Marta said when they were out of Concepción’s earshot. “You talk so beautifully. So convincing.”
“I’m not happy,” Prudencia replied. “There’s something about that girl I don’t trust. Something’s not right. The house buildings are freshly painted, the flowerbeds well tended. Even a satellite antenna! That household smells of money and lies.”
They heard distant honking.
“The bus,” Jorge, the man carrying the bundle, said. Prudencia had hired him in Huehue to accompany them. He had claimed knowledge of the local language and customs, claims that had turned out to be exaggerated when they arrived in Todos Santos. His Mam was imperfect and accented by a different region.
“Good,” Prudencia said. “Let’s get out of here.” Having made their deal, they needed to go quickly, before word of their presence could spread to people hostile to baby contractors. Villagers in other regions had been known to attack jaladores, beat them and shave their heads as punishment for their efforts on behalf of poor mothers who didn’t want their babies.
The three jaladores flattened themselves against the embankment and waited for the bus, the Flor de Cuchumatán, to grumble to a stop. Jorge’s bundle, disguised by its cloth cover so that no one could guess their business, went on top. The three blended into the crowd on the bus and wedged themselves into seats. They gripped the metal seatbacks in front of them. The bus bounded over potholes, spewing dust. The dust settled on the town they left behind them as they climbed up out of the valley.
From CONCEPCION AND THE BABY BROKERS. Used with permission of Rain Mountain Press. Copyright © 2017 by Deborah Clearman.