(Excerpt from Chapter VI)

The Other Widow

As he had every night for the past five years, Santiago Marín sat on his steps, shirtless and barefoot, staring into the darkness, waiting for Pablo. Tonight he also lit candles to the Virgin Mary, who according to tradition, traveled on December 7th from house to house and town to town, giving away blessings for every candle burned.
He heard the roar of a car in the distance. At first he remained uninterested, but when the sound became louder, he quickly gathered his long hair into a ponytail, wiped a rag over his oily face and lit one more candle. Then he saw the headlights of a car coming down the rise. The last car to drive on the unpaved streets of Mariquita had been the rattletrap of a Jeep that had brought a politician, a middle-aged man wearing a crisp white shirt, khaki trousers and perfectly round spectacles. The man had delivered a meaningless speech from an improvised platform set in the plaza, promising, among several other things, to get rid of the guerrilla and paramilitary groups that plagued the area, to provide Mariquita with electricity and running water, and to build a bridge where there was neither a river nor a chasm. Except for its black color, the car approaching town tonight was no different: an old, beat-up Jeep with a loud engine. The driver went twice around the dilapidated plaza before stopping at a corner to greet the town’s magistrate, the priest and the schoolmistress, who, together with numerous women and children holding candles, had come out of their houses to welcome the visitor. After getting directions, the man drove slowly through the growing crowd, down a narrow side street, and pulled over in the middle of the block, in front of the Jaramillo widow’s house, across from Santiago’s.
“Let me out,” the driver said to the half-naked children surrounding the car, a hint of irritation in his voice. The women pulled their children aside and waited quietly. “Get out of my way,” he yelled. He sounded arrogant and contemptuous despite his slanting eyes and dark skin, despite his straw hat, ragged poncho and sheathed machete at his waist that clearly indicated he was a man of Indian descent—nobody important. He stood in front of the Jaramillo widow’s doorway, thinking perhaps that the noises made by his car and the crowd were enough to draw the woman out. The widow hadn’t lit any candles tonight because she’d lost hope of blessings a long time ago (she had gone mad after her husband and two of her sons were shot dead by guerrillas, and at present she had nobody to look after her). When the Jaramillo widow didn’t come out, the arrogant driver knocked on the door and waited. He knocked a second time, then a third and a fourth, louder each time until the widow finally opened the door, barely poking her nose around it. The man whispered something to her, and without replying the insane woman slammed the door in his face.
“Bitch!” the man shouted. He began kicking the door with his pointy leather boots. “Open the door, you bitch. It took me hours to find this damn hole.” The crowd stepped back. The enraged man continued kicking the door and shouting abuse. “If you don’t pay me right now, I’m gonna dump that sickening piece of shit on your steps,” he yelled, pointing toward the car with his index finger. “And you know what else I’m gonna do? I’m gonna take the damn suitcase with me. That’s what I’m gonna do.”
Santiago quietly observed the scene from across the street. He asked his two younger sisters to go inside the house and his mother to observe from a prudent distance. He didn’t move. He remained on the same spot where he’d been every night for the past five years, lighting more candles to the Virgin, hoping for more of her blessings, staring into the darkness, waiting for Pablo to return to him.

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Pablo and Santiago had both been born on the morning of May 1, 1969. Pablo was older by two and a half hours. Doctor Ramirez, the physician who delivered them, liked to say that except for a dark birthmark under Pablo’s right eye, the two boys looked identical when they were born: “Like twins, only born to different mothers.”
Growing up Pablo and Santiago were the only children on a lonely street of Mariquita. The street was narrow and unpaved and lined with mango trees. The houses had mud tile roofs, their white adobe façades forever hidden under layers of dust. This street was known as Don Maximiliano’s street, because he owned all the houses up and down each side. He also owned three coffee farms near town. During harvest season, most of the men he hired to pick the crops were from around Mariquita. The women stayed home and tended their children, along with their cassavas, potatoes, cilantro and squash. 
The two boys spent most of the day playing in the backcountry. They always went to one or the other’s house for meals, then went out again. It was not unusual for their mothers to see Pablo and Santiago walking around Mariquita hand in hand. “They’re like blood brothers,” their mothers agreed.
The two boys’ favorite game was playing father and mother by the river.
“I’ll be the father,” Pablo said.
“You’re always the father. I want to be the father, too,” Santiago complained. But he gave in every time. Pablo disappeared behind the bushes and pretended he was on Don Maximiliano’s coffee plantations. Santiago stayed by the bank impersonating his own mother: carrying water from the river in big clay pots, cooking, watering the garden, cooking again, washing clothes, cooking one last time. After a few minutes Pablo came out of the bushes, acting dirty and tired.
“Buenas tardes, mi amor,” he said, kissing the back of Santiago’s neck.
“How was your day?”
“Oh, just the same. Too much work.”
The two boys sat on the ground and ate a pretend meal of rice and beans. After dinner, Pablo took his shirt off and lay in the grass, facing the sky, his hands beneath his neck. “I’ll do the dishes later,” Santiago said, and quickly moved on to a part of the game he liked better: the massage. He began with Pablo’s feet, gently rubbing each of his twelve toes (the boy had inherited his father’s six-toed feet). Santiago worked his way up slowly, massaging Pablo’s calves and knees and thighs, spending a good amount of time on his chest. When Santiago pinched Pablo’s little brown nipples Pablo began to howl. And when Pablo began to howl Santiago knew it was time to start playing with his friend’s small penis, pulling on it, laughing heartily at the way Pablo wriggled with pleasure, like a puppy. When Santiago stopped, Pablo took him in his arms and walked with him into the river. There, with the water up to his waist, Pablo rewarded Santiago with a tender kiss for being a good wife. They spent the rest of the day swimming naked in the river, drowning crickets, peeing on anthills, throwing stones at wasps’ nests and running back into the water. The kiss, however, was the part of the day Santiago liked the best, a true expression of love that to him was worth the boredom of impersonating his mother every day.
At night, the two boys sat on logs of wood outside Santiago’s house and listened to his grandmother’s magical tales, like the one about the old woman who turned into a cat to deceive death, or the one about the rich princess who didn’t know how to laugh. Almost every night Pablo and Santiago slept together on the bumpy earthen floor of Santiago’s house, wrapped in the same white blanket, dreaming different dreams.

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Resolutely, the driver went back to the Jeep. He opened the back door and pulled out a shabby leather suitcase, unzipped it, took out a large white towel and zipped it back up. Before carrying on with whatever he was doing, the angry man looked toward the Jaramillo widow’s door, as though giving the woman a last chance to come out and settle up with him. Then he set the bag aside and from inside the Jeep he carefully pulled out a body by the legs. The body didn’t move, didn’t make any sound. The women stepped a little closer, illuminating the scene with the light of their candles. “Back off!” the driver yelled. He hastily stripped the body naked, revealing a scrawny man covered in sores and bruises, and took a cap off the man’s head with a swipe: he was almost completely bald.
“I’m cold,” the unclothed man cried softly.
“Ohhh!” the crowd whispered in unison, relieved to find out that the stranger wasn’t dead. The driver removed a golden chain from the naked man’s neck and a flashy watch from his wrist and put both things in the front pocket of his own dirty pants. Then he tried to pull off two rings from one of the man’s bony fingers.
“No,” the naked man moaned. “Not the rings, please.” He firmly clenched his hand.
“Shut up,” the driver ordered. “You swore she was gonna pay me for bringing you here, but she’s not, so you’d better let go of those damn rings now.”
“Please, not the rings.”
“Let go or I’ll cut off your hand,” the driver shouted, reaching for his machete.
“Ohhh!” the crowd whispered again.
“Stop, in the name of God!” The despairing voice belonged to el padre Rafael, the priest, who had just been notified of the situation and now rushed to the scene together with the widows town’s magistrate and the police sergeant. “Please let that poor soul die in peace.” El padre halted some distance away from the sordid sight and, producing a chaplet from within the pocket of his soutane, began murmuring a rosary. A few widows promptly joined him.
The frustrated driver ignored el padre’s request and kept struggling to open the scrawny man’s hand, but he wouldn’t let go.
“You leave that ill man alone right now or I’ll blow your brains off.” The threat came from the village’s magistrate, the Patiño widow. She stood right behind the driver, pointing a pistol at his head. Next to her, holding a revolver with both hands was the Restrepo widow, Mariquita’s police sergeant.
The driver turned his hateful eyes on the women and spat on the ground. He seized the white towel and wrapped it around the scrawny man, then carried the bundle of bones on his shoulder to the Jaramillo widow’s door, laid it on the ground near the steps, and kicked the door three more times. “He’s outside your door,” the driver yelled. “Naked, because I’m taking his clothes. You hear me?” He went back to the Jeep, ignoring the two guns that followed his every move, and collected the ill man’s clothes and shoes and stuffed them into the shabby leather suitcase. He closed the back door, got inside the Jeep, and started the engine. Through the window he screamed the words Santiago, sitting across the street, had been so afraid of hearing: “It’s your own son dying outside, you heartless bitch. You’re going to hell!”
Santiago remained still, staring in an absent way at the mass of familiar faces crowded before him; unable to see how they abruptly went from distressed to solemn. He didn’t see the women put their heads in their hands, or hold their quivering lips with the tips of their fingers. He didn’t hear their crying, or the loud engine of the Jeep as it drove away. At the moment, the throbbing of his heart in his chest was the only movement there was about him.