Cassandra Passarelli

"Es mi hermana!" Sister, my sister. She cries over and over, hands locked around her sister’s throat.
To start with that’s all Ula understands. Will nobody stop them? It’s not her business. And yet…

            The agency mothers gape; they're visiting San Antonio Aguas Calientes for an afternoon’s shopping. They've not known each other long but, far from home, made friends fast. The shifting bureaucracy that kept Mayans in their place for centuries tyrannizes everyone today. Foreign cultures cannot be explained by common sense, Ula  used to advise her high-paying clients, you have to work with, not against, them.
            But sense, common or otherwise, does not apply to Guatemala’s labyrinthine adoption process. For six months Ula has been to and from the capital, trying not to breathe choking fumes or dwell on sprawling ugliness and millions of scuttling residents. She’s been in and out of dusty government offices waiting for civil servants, seething with unspecified resentment, to sign documents. Back and forth to immutable lawyers with stiff necks and piles of jaundiced folders, crammed with pages of dot-matrix text plastered with stamps. And always little Gorin in her front pack, bursting with bottles of formula, disposable diapers, scented wipes and toys. No matter how hot or tearful Ula gets Gorin stays calm.
            She's lucky, she reminds herself. Unlike most of the agency mothers, she has decent Spanish. Her husband visits every couple of months or so. She's blessed with a mother who helps. And the biggest break of all; Gorin's perfect. But, as they say at the agency, you get the child you deserve. With his pelt of jet hair and olive skin he's a charmer. Little Gorin's the finishing touch on a career settling corporate ex-pats and a marriage to the heir of a publishing house.
            Her sole worry is Gorin’s sublime indifference. Signild noticed it; typical of her mother, just hours off the plane from Stockholm, to pick up on the significant detail, establishing her superiority. Ula doesn't mention it to the agency mothers who say indigenous babies are inherently placid,  whether nurture or nature is responsible they could only guess at.  But nonetheless she made a discreet appointment with an eye doctor in Guatemala City. He did the slit lamp test, the swinging flash light exam and placed a headset on little Gorin. He mumbled something about poor pupil reactions: the lottery of adoption, malnutrition and Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis. DNA tests were sent off and would be back within a week. In the interim, Signild’s company proved irritating; Ula fell back on the agency mothers.
           "How quickly we women adapt," she remarked to the post-feminist mothers, "from being single to motherhood, from having careers to being carers." They smiled, unsure if she was complimenting or indicting them. Adaptation was, after all, the key to survival and extinction.
            Ula had accommodated: she was in good shape for a woman her age. But the caveat undermined the statement. She’d been passably pretty: blond hair, blue eyes, a good figure, the details hadn’t mattered. A blousy ripeness that flamed and withered quickly. Now when she studied her reflection, all she saw was encroaching age: lumpiness where curves had been, cheeks marred by crows’ feet. Like a page of scrawls; an arbitrary lottery of doodles and crossings-out. Youth had been delightfully unpredictable, at first, but contradictions set in. And all the while, Signild loomed large like some matriarchal archetype of a Norse myth, the spirit of venerable serenity. Preserved in a wintry spring, unwaveringly triumphant in her determination to grow old with dignity.
            By her own account, Signild had given birth at forty-five, before the days of amniocentesis, labor barely interrupting lunch. She breast-fed till Ula could chew and returned to her job as a social worker in six weeks. Ula, perversely, hurtled towards middle age and was past childbearing at forty. Her body, once weightless and resilient, defied her: she understood it through its deficiencies. Unpredictable periods intensified, emotions atrophied into symptoms. Men’s gaze rested on her less and fewer gentlemanly gestures were made now that she hankered for them.
            La Antigua wasn’t such a bad place to spend a year. Picturesque enough to fill a brochure several times over, surrounded by three volcanoes, its ghostly quake ruins had lain undisturbed for two centuries and neglect had preserved its colonial beauty better than Unesco might have. Restoration, with the affluent Ladino and visitor in mind, had smoothed rough edges. Too much polishing had burnished it to a fake luster. Classy restaurants, hotels and discreet beauty salons glistened in its cobbled streets. Even by Minnesota’s standards it was slick. This wasn’t the real Guatemala, if that was what you were after. Ula was sure she wasn’t – but she didn’t want her husband, arrived yesterday, to think adopting had dulled her sense of adventure.
            But having Gorin changed her. She hadn’t suffered childbirth, or the haze of suckling, but she was as tied to this child as much as any mother. His occasional mood, serene Buddha though he was, demanded attention. His nappies and hunger, forethought. While she adjusted from executive to domestic, Alex was exploring the single life, second time around. No matter how mutual their considered decision was, she was on this leg of parenting alone. Of course he wanted to be there, but someone had to pay the agency’s and lawyers’ fees. And this was a fleeting interlude; soon she’d be back in Minneapolis’s rat race, sending Gorin off to nursery, firing orders at the home help as she gulped down muesli.
            So the day after Alex arrived she invited the agency mothers for a lunch and an outing. Signild was an angel – the perfect hostess. She made Kottbüllar and Janssöns Frestelse to go with the Akvavit. What she lacked as a mother, Signild made up for as a grandmother, baffling Ula. Alex was in fine fettle; separation had done him good; he was as attentive toward her as when they first met. As the guests showed up he introduced himself, managing to ask after a detail or two of their lives, proving he'd been listening on those long-distance calls.
            There was Bessie, the stockbroker, whose husband hadn’t left Wall Street but sent a constant flow of exotic flowers and Swiss chocolates to keep her spirits up. And Estelle, the blond New York liver specialist, adopting her second. The fat jolly Helena, a criminal lawyer, Lisbeth and Andrea. All top notch, professional women who’d got to a certain age and found it was too late. Clever women who’d accidentally or intentionally delayed. Some, taking note of mothers' stress and grandmothers' joy, bypassed the prescribed biological window to the gateway to the golden years. Having spent fertile decades avoiding impregnation, latter ones were engaged inducing it. Failing, they’d seized the chance to rescue a child from an underdeveloped country.
            But the defensive note that had crept into Ula’s voice had not escaped Alex.
            "It’s incredible," she told him on those late night calls, "if you saw the conditions these kids are raised in, you’d die: in garbage dumps, in the street, in hovels with dirt floors and corrugated roofs. Running from one car to the next at traffic lights, selling Kleenex or phone cards. Mothers, unable to feed a first, have another and another. Fathers, drunks passed out cold in the street, start new families before the first has been weaned."
            Not so different from the ghettos in the city we call home, thought Alex, but he was new man enough not to contradict her.
           "I want to come home," she murmured. The locals made her feel queasy; fat women with gold teeth and plaits who never stopped smiling, men with sullen, closed faces. They only spoke to Ula to sell things. They were too many, here as at home, indistinct and dangerous.
           "You always have to watch your wallet, hide your camera, not wear jewelery," she told Alex. As she'd been told. Six thousand murders last year, many victims of domestic violence. Hardly the sort a baby should be exposed to.
           "Take Gorin’s birth mother," (that’s what they call them at the agency) "this unmarried girl, practically a child, pretended Eber," (as Gorin was christened) "was her sister’s, to avoid church censure." But, unable to feed him, she gave him up. The agency offered Ula the chance to meet Eber’s aunt, but she chose not to.
           She hadn’t admitted, even to herself, the reason. Supposing the birth mother wanted Eber back when she saw Gorin. Having never had one of her own (abortions didn’t count) she could only guess at that umbilical bond Signild gushed about. And never mind the birth mother, suppose Gorin betrayed some special affection toward her. It would break Ula’s heart. For this reason, lawyers were paid, intermediaries’ palms greased and endless papers signed and stamped. So that Ula, not the birth mother, was recognized as Gorin’s one and only.
            The luncheon went well. The women chatted and cradled dark-eyed babies. Toddlers gurgled and splashed in the fountain. A creepy Texan guy, whose wife was sick, brought his precocious foster-child and had inappropriate conversations with girls old enough to listen. They polished off two bottles of Akvavit, all of Signild’s delicacies and bellowed out a traditional Swedish drinking ditty. Then they clambered into the hired minibus for San Antonio Aguas Calientes and bounced along a pot-holed road to the highway that curled up a mountain and down into a mess of gray breeze-block and rusty roofs. The driver pulled up to the artisans’ market and slid back the doors.
            The plaza was charming, with its stone fountain and bare whitewashed church filled with candles and flowers. The municipal building was decked with orange balloons and huge tarps printed with photos of a presidential candidate: a graying ex-general, fist raised. Men in orange t-shirts were inflating huge paper balloons with electric fans. They filled them with hot air till, billowing, they let them go. Kids watched as they drifted toward the mountains and lost color Without a backward glance, Alex strode into the square, undoing his camera case as he went.
            The agency mothers unfolded their three-wheel prams or slung on their front-packs and hesitated on the steps between the brilliant sunshine and the market gloom. Inside, weavers knelt on the floor, looms belted to their waists at one end, to pillars at the other. The agency mothers dispersed in twos and threes, filling the expanse with enthusiasm over wares that covered every conceivable inch of wall. Ula felt unease ricochet around the room as the weavers registered the contradiction between the babies’ Mayan features and the mothers' Caucasian ones. She hung back.  
           "What a pretty girl you are. With curls too! How old?" she asked a child sitting on the steps, playing with a stuffed doll.
           "Five," a fine-featured mother, in the first stall, answered.
           "What’s your name, nena?"
           "Monica," her mother wavering between resentment and the chance of a sale.
           "My boy’s called Gorin."
           "From where?"
           "I don’t know exactly... the orphanage – Hermano Pedro."
            A small group of weavers gathered around Ula cooing and calling to Gorin in terse Cakchiquel. One, a particularly slight woman, bent to kiss his forehead. Ula had heard of child-kidnappers lynched in Kiché and of children conceived with the sole intention of selling them. Of babies snatched from mother’s arms as they waited for a bus or pick-up. She gave a nervous smile and tried to push on, but weavers surrounded her. The agency mothers were climbing stairs to the balcony in search of bargains, others were already outside, purchases tucked under their arms. Alex was in the square, taking photos. Flustered, she gripped Gorin tightly; he began to cry. She pulled free of the circle and sank down on the entrance steps, heart hammering. Signild appeared clutching a garish bedspread destined to look out of place in the ashen tones of her Stockholm apartment.
            Ula breathed deeply and focused on the square before her; the statue of a woman pouring water, communal pila, figus and tamarind trees. She’d lived here six months and understood so little.

            Just as she's recovering herself, Monica’s fine-boned mother walks briskly toward her, arm in arm with a young girl. The young girl is dressed in traje, her skin is patchy and her dark eyes stare, unwavering, beyond the village into the mountains. Everything slows for Ula. They stop a few inches in front of her. Monica’s mother guides the girl’s hand to Gorin’s face. She traces his profile with her fingers and runs them through his thick hair. Her expression of disbelief transforms into one of horror. Ula braces herself. The girl says nothing and pushes past her. Signild smooths the bedspread on her lap:
           "I knew you wouldn’t like it, but I wanted a bit of Guatemala to remind me of my stay."
            Alex, who’s sat down between them, is editing digital photos.
           "No, no," he protests half-heartedly, "it’ll add warmth to your place."
            The church bells ring out, timpani crashing and reverberating. As they die a brass band starts a funeral march drawing the straggling agency mothers onto the street to watch. Women sway single file on the left, men to the right, silver and bronze coffin swinging on their shoulders.
            All at once, from inside the market, comes a terrible commotion: shuffling, slapping and shrieking. Ula turns to see the blind girl dragging another by her hair. By the time they’re in the street, the elder’s plait is undone, her huipil loose; she whimpers, head tucked under like a roosting bird. By now, everyone is watching.
           "For goodness sake, somebody stop them!" cries Lisbeth.
           "How awful!" screams Bessie.
            But they all stand as still as the statue of the water carrier.
           "Mi hermana. Es mi hermana." Sister, my sister.
            Ula hears the blind girl’s anguish before she understands the words. Accusation or justification, she can’t make out which: the girl is hysterical. She repeats herself, over and over. Ula puts it together.
           "You said he was dead. You lied, how could you lie to me, hermana? You told me he was swept away by the river. I believed you... is that the way to treat your own sister? While I was grinding maize to bring in a few quetzalitos, you sold your own flesh and blood, like he was a basket of tortillas. That’s where the money came from for the stove and the lamina roof. Mi hermana!"
           "He was going blind... . Ala gran! We couldn’t keep another."
            Ula lets go of her front pack to seal her palms over her ears as low moan comes from her own mouth. Upset by his birth mother’s screaming or Ula’s wail, Gorin, or Eber, begins to bawl. The agency mothers are just getting to grips with what’s happening when the driver grabs Ula’s arm and bundles her into the minibus, shooing the others after.
            The blind girl lifts her face at the slam of the sliding door. The driver starts the engine. As he shifts into first she comes toward them, cheeks stained with tears and eyelids swollen. She scratches at the glass:
           "Mi hijo, mi hijo, mi hijo." My son, my son, my son.
            The driver steps on the gas and accelerates out of the square.
            Ula’s breath mists the window as she stares out at the village.
            For the first time since she’s arrived she sees clearly. The cracks in adobe walls over which bougainvillea blossom spills. The gloss on a lime tree's leaves. Children's bright eyes as, breathless, they chase a chicken. An old man, dwarfed by a bundle of cilantro, climbs a rocky path in Wellingtons. A farmer's machete swings from his belt as he cycles. Beyond, lie milpas dividing absurdly steep, green mountains into handkerchiefs of land. Story-book clouds mingle with smoke, rising from the volcano.
            Things Gorin will never see.
            She looks down at him, staring contentedly into space. At least in America no one will sell him, she tells herself. At least he’ll learn to read Braille and go to a special school. At least he’ll have a better life…