AUNT ADELINA’S THUMB
For as long as I can remember, Aunt Adelina has talked about her list: who was on it, who wasn’t, what sort of thing we might do to be taken off or—a rare occurrence—put back on. The offences that invited erasure were many. Poor grades or one too many curse words or a spotty paint job applied to the walls of Aunt Adelina’s small hotel (which, nonetheless, is the largest of our small town) or the misspelling of hotel (Otel) on the outside wall by the entrance. Or—and this was perhaps the worst crime in her view—the failure to regularly visit our aunt and kiss her dry old cheek. From our earliest days, we learned by rote the perils of not “securing our futures” and yearned to prove worthy of the largesse to which she so often alluded.
Initially, we were all on her list—and by all, I mean myself and my brothers and sisters, the nine children of Joel Guzmán Juárez and Flor de Mayo Marín Rompiche, Joel being the younger brother of my Aunt Adelina. And all includes also my cousins on my father’s side, the children of Aunt Adelina’s further twelve siblings. But the list has dwindled over the years, or so Aunt Adelina has told us while threatening to make it shorter still. Three summers ago, Jaime, Güayo, Ernesto and even little Paco fell from it in a single stroke, although by evening, after collecting a bag full of winged ants—a delicacy when toasted—Güayo had recovered his place. Ernesto, poor thing, polished Aunt Adelina’s sturdy leather shoes to no avail, and Paco—well, Paco was simply too young. Unless he’d been standing directly in front of her, pinched perhaps between her long fingers, Aunt Adelina was unlikely to remember him at all. Jaime, the oldest of the group, made no effort to reinstate himself. Once out of our aunt’s earshot, he had told us exactly where he thought Adelina and her list could go.
I should clarify. None of us has ever seen this list of our aunt’s, but the omission in no way diminished our faith in it nor its power over us. In that respect, it was much like the book of the righteous to be read on Judgment Day, though Aunt Adelina’s parchment was entirely of this world.
Our aunt is—or was—a very wealthy woman, certainly by the standards of our town and, I imagine, by the standards of the rest of Guatemala, though I cannot vouch for it myself, as in my seventeen years I have not travelled far. No, she never owned plantations on the South Coast or commanded the destiny of laborers or peons. She is no unmixed descendent of the Spanish criollos. She is not part of the oligarchy at all. She is a self-made woman and, in terms of property amassed, stood at one time head and shoulders above anyone else in town—man or woman. We are very proud to count her among our closest relatives.
I, by a good fortune for which I cannot quite account, am among her favorite nieces and nephews. She has threatened me, too, when I have performed imperfectly an assigned task or played some small trick upon her. I once snuck into her henhouse and emptied the eggs there of their contents, carefully extracting the yellow ooze to a bowl I would later take to my mother and replacing it with confetti—a Carnival prank my aunt might have expected. Another time I sewed her nightie to the bedsheet, but I was never caught and never admitted to that misdeed. More often than not, Aunt Adelina has held me up as an example for my siblings to emulate. And she has never failed—until recently because of age—to reward me at Christmas with ten centavos and a length of cloth so I might make myself a new dress.
My family is not poor. We have always, through the industry of both my parents, had enough to eat. But I did not know the feel of a shoe beneath my foot until I was thirteen. (My first were plastic, a gift from Adelina. I wore them proudly to a dance and spent the night limping to the music because of the blisters that formed on the backs of my heels.) As children, our toys were the stones and bottlecaps and bits of string we gathered along the street, and we worked hard to contribute to the household, which in the end numbered fifteen, including my first nieces and nephews.
Oh, how I longed for Christmas as a child! From April on, it was all I could think about. And I did my best to kiss Aunt Adelina’s cheek daily and to curtsey to show her how ladylike I could be, and to run her errands and to bring back the exact change and watch her count it, passing the coins one by one from my open hand to hers and then, counting again, from her hand to the cloth purse she would later fold and wrap with string and place in a hole beneath a loosened tile beneath her narrow bed. Never lingering in the hope she might lift one of those pennies with her trembling hand and return it my upturned palm. Lingering just long enough to hear her say, “That’s my Carolina,” then spinning on my heel to go, content in the knowledge that Christmas was coming and one day Aunt Adelina would die, and her list would be revealed.
I have heard the stories, that Aunt Adelina was once in love and that once she was married. They surface from time to time during the late-night conversations my parents and assorted aunts and uncles indulge in when they think we are asleep. They laugh—all of them—when they speak of their eldest sister, but their laughter is to my ear too raw, as if to mask their discomfort, the note of shame or resentment, bafflement even, as to how Adelina had managed to have it all. My uncle Daniel, the youngest and poorest of Adelina’s siblings, tells the story in exactly eleven words: she discovered he was after her money and sent him packing. To be sure, love is a word not easily associated with my aunt, something Uncle Daniel knows better than any of us. More than once he has stood at his sister’s door, hat in hand, in full view of passersby, while she sees to more pressing business than settling with him for harvesting her coffee crop. I, too, when I call to mind my aunt’s stiff figure and correct movements, the straight lines of her features, find it difficult to imagine that a blush ever flowered on her cheek. I am reminded instead of the sad romances I have sometimes read, the sort of tale in which the princess is so virtuous she chooses duty or religion over her prince. In Adelina’s case, she chose money.
And those are the stories I prefer: how Adelina got her money in the first place. They do not reflect well on my dear aunt, but there is nothing unusual in that. Guillermo Estrada, for instance, the biggest landlord of the district, is a foreigner who has never set foot on Guatemalan soil, let alone worked it. Around here, people say no one gets rich without the help of that phantom horseman Juan No, which is our way of saying, of Lucifer. Adelina’s story goes like this: My grandfather Isaías was among the early settlers of our town, in the days when the municipality was giving land away to any resident who could work it. My grandfather, who was prescient enough to realize that such an arrangement would not last forever, worked hard to accumulate all the property he could. He hoped to leave enough of an inheritance to each of his many children to see them through to the next generation. By that time, my grandmother had died and grandfather had started a new family with his new wife. As the number of heirs and the squeeze on municipal lands grew, my grandfather began to consider options other than farming to guarantee his children’s futures. In an act of great faith, he mortgaged all but three lots and used the money to send his eldest child, Adelina, to school.
Understand, this was an era when the only school in town was the primary, and very few of our citizens, for reasons of money and time, managed to make it to the end of its six years. In those days, all the professionals in town, which is to say, the three primary school teachers, came from someplace else and left again when the Ministry of Education reassigned them. Adelina had to go all the way to Huehuetenango to complete middle school and then to Chimaltenango to attend the Normal School and graduate as a teacher. She returned to teach in our primary school and went on to teach in the secondary when one was finally built. In the afternoon, she would put in a second shift in Nentón, some thirty miles away. It is said that she counted among her pupils there a boy who would later attain the rank of general and eventually dictator and would burn to the ground dozens of villages in our part of the country. That, however, had no bearing on Adelina’s future wealth. I suspect, in fact, it is not even true but simply bad talk of the kind that sticks to people who have done well in life.
Aunt Adelina was our first professional and received a decent salary and after so many years of service, a handsome pension too. The arrangement with grandfather had been that on graduating, Adelina would begin to pay off the mortgages on his lands. This she did, but instead of returning the deeds to her father, she had them made out in her own name. I have no idea how she justified her actions either to her family or to the authorities or how she managed with time to convince everyone that she was the rightful owner of the titles. But she did. On a prize lot near the center of town she built her hotel: eight simple rooms arranged around an open-air courtyard, with a small kitchen and larger dining room at one end and two toilets and a shower for use of the guests at the other. My father helped Adelina and gave up one of the few tracts of land left to him to make the place a profitable size. He had only his sister’s word as guarantee that in exchange she would leave him the stretch behind the market. During the early years of my parent’s marriage, before my father was fully on his feet, they lived in the hotel and my mother worked, unpaid, as my aunt’s housekeeper. My mother often talks about this time, bitterly, I admit, and on occasion, when our house has been very full, she has delivered one or other of my siblings or nieces or nephews to the hotel to room for a time at Aunt Adelina’s expense. I went once myself. I still recall the breakfasts and suppers she’d serve me of one egg and two tortillas, often without even beans or fresh cheese to accompany them. Luckily, I ate my main meal at home, where food was perhaps the closest thing we had to religion, and beans and tortillas were never in short supply.
Now that Aunt Adelina is old and infirm, the hotel is not the tidy and functional shelter for travelers it used to be. The few objects of value or adornment I am told once existed have disappeared, and the friendly aromas of a home well loved and lived in are likewise absent. The stealthy green mold that lies in every crevice of our town awaiting an opportunity to advance has gained more than half the height of its inner walls, giving an emerald cast to the whole thing. The cemetery, with its moss-covered mausoleums and crosses, has something of the same look.
As I’ve said, when I was a child, Adelina kept all her cash in a hole under her bed; she did not trust bankers any more than she trusted the rest of us. So she kept her money there and everyone knew it. One night, a bandit, his head covered in a black stocking, burst into her room, overturned her bed without even bothering to empty her from it first, and shoveled the rolls of ragged quetzales and dingy green dollars into a sack that smelt strongly of cinnamon. The experience was a shock to my aunt to say the least, but the robbery did not set her back for long. She continued to receive rents from her lands or payment in kind from those lands she let to her less fortunate relatives on the shares, and she had the hotel. After the robbery, however, she opened a bank account—at Banrural, the only one in town. There was something else. The steel that had always flashed in her eyes lost its sheen, replaced by a look many people mistook for fright, but I understood as hunger. She retained solitary charge of her affairs. She continued to apply the mention of her list with the precision of a surgeon. Yet it was as if she had begun, ever so slowly, to shrink: her dry but sturdy limbs turned hollow; the pallor of her cheek, yellow. And, eventually, she began to smell.
At that point, we realized she was in need of care. Uncle Daniel’s daughters Locha and Nepta took it on: bathing, wiping, turning my old aunt in her bed to prevent sores. Though sores appeared anyway. They washed her bedclothes and hung them in the hotel courtyard, sometimes for days. They made her meals but did not ensure she ate. Adelina remained able to count money, however. She would send Nepta to the bank to withdraw the sum she needed and then to the shops to buy whatever was required—her medicines, her creams, her lotions, her diapers. Then she would ask Nepta for the receipts and would count out the change and send her back to the bank to deposit it. She also paid Nepta and Locha a wage, though it was not much. It was obvious that Aunt Adelina was failing. Nobody said so, but a ripple moved through the family—more and more she was the subject of conversation: her health, her welfare, her counsellors (was she of sound mind? might she fall prey to unscrupulous influences? what could be done to protect her?). More and more her properties, her list, and her will (where was it, that will? did anybody know?) were the topics of hot debate. There was an urgency, a feeling that it would all come down to who got there first: who would be holding Aunt Adelina’s hand at the very moment she delivered her soul to the Almighty?
Everybody in the family got busy. Sometime before, Nepta had drawn up a power of attorney so she could withdraw funds from the bank in Adelina’s name. Now, my eldest sister, Pancha, got a court order so Aunt Adelina could authorize any necessary documents with her thumbprint instead of a signature, because she could no longer hold a pen. And Aunt Adelina’s care improved considerably. Much as we had as children, when her list was very much on our minds, I and my siblings began to visit, to sit at her bedside, and to kiss her yellow cheek. We brought small gifts of buns and cakes we ended up eating ourselves because Adelina had no appetite. We reminded her of how we loved her and how our family had always been closest to her. We did our best to keep Nepta and Locha away, except as they were needed to deal with Aunt Adelina’s physical needs. Through all this talk and after inquiries at town hall and some late-night searches for documents in the hotel, it became clear there was no will. There might not even be a list. My mother was worried. She began again to talk about the work she’d put in for Aunt Adelina and about my father—“that stupid old fool”—and his “arrangement” with his sister. I recall very well the night she shouted at him from the kitchen, “The land behind the market is yours. Everybody knows it, but where’s the proof? You’ve traded away your children’s future and my labor for what? For your sister’s word! For nothing!”
My father has always been a quiet, solemn, honest man. He has worked hard to keep us all and to send us to school (in that regard he is very like my grandfather). He is stern but not violent, and perhaps in deference to my mother’s disappointment at seeing his rightful inheritance so entirely escape his grasp and to her many years of toil to keep us fed and clothed, he has rarely opposed her wishes. So it was when my sister Pancha and I came up with our plan and our mother approved. The idea was mine, said in jest as we helped with the evening meal. Once the words were out of my mouth, I was shocked by the note of treachery in them and ready to take them back. But Pancha, whose drunk of a husband had died early in their marriage, leaving only debts and two children behind, seized on my whimsy and brought it to life.
Pancha and I went to the hotel. I took a jug of lemonade, and Pancha took a sheet of blank paper and an inkpad. We found Aunt Adelina alone in her bed, staring at the ceiling, her grip tight on a woven blanket pulled up to an inch below her shoulders. Her window was shuttered and the light in the room was dim. The sharp tang of urine competed with another—vinegar, perhaps. I don’t know why but I had the sensation of having entered some underground chamber, so that I too looked to the ceiling to make sure it was holding.
“Good evening, Auntie,” I said as I leaned down to kiss her forehead. “Are you cold?”
Aunt Adelina turned her head toward me. Her milky eyes followed my voice. “Nepta? Is that you?”
Pancha drew up a chair and sat. “I’m here, too, Auntie.”
“Ah, Pancha. I know your voice. Why haven’t you brought Carolina more often? Such a good girl. You could learn from her.” She turned again to me. “Has your mother been keeping you busy?”
“Some. I’m in exams.”
“Exams? Perhaps you’ll be a teacher like your old aunt?”
Then she said, “You’re still on it, you know.”
I glanced at Pancha.
“You needn’t worry. I’d never take your name off.”
I coughed then, in surprise or perhaps in an attempt to erase Adelina’s words. Pancha was looking at me, and though her expression had not changed, in it I felt something that reminded me of distant thunder.
Pancha leaned forward. “Auntie, Carolina has made lemonade for you.”
I went to the kitchen to fetch a glass and soon found one. It was misty, so I looked for a cloth to clean it with. Since the only thing I encountered was stiff with whatever it had last mopped up, I made do with the corner of my skirt.
When I returned to my aunt’s room, Pancha was holding her hand, stroking it. On her lap, the inkpad was open. Aunt Adelina’s eyes were closed.
“What did you say to her?” I asked.
“Nothing. I started stroking her hand, and she nodded off.”
Aunt Adelina’s eyelids fluttered, but otherwise she was quite still. I placed the glass on the night table and then took the inkpad from Pancha’s lap and held it steady under my aunt’s thumb. Pancha pressed the thumb down and lifted it. Quickly, I closed the pad and put it in my skirt pocket. Then I got the blank sheet of paper. “It’ll need a book or something under it to keep it flat,” I said.
“Hurry. We don’t want the ink to dry.”
I found a book—a Bible—and just to be sure we rolled Aunt Adelina’s thumb in the ink again and placed it against the paper, near the bottom. We arranged her in her blankets, concealing the black smudge on her thumb beneath them. She lay there, motionless in the half-light, the gentle wheeze of her breathing the only sound. I cannot say she looked at peace.
Before we left, we each gave our aunt a kiss.
That night, Pancha wrote out a deed transferring the property behind the market to my father. She made a draft in ballpoint and then typed it out on the sheet of paper that held my aunt’s thumbprint. The next day, my father took it to town hall. The town secretary, a cousin on my mother’s side, recorded it in the registry.
That was almost three months ago. Another Christmas has passed, and Aunt Adelina is still alive. We have learned there is nothing left in her bank account. Nepta saw to that years ago. We have learned also that an intestate estate takes years to sort out, and that Nepta and Locha do not plan to leave the hotel even after my aunt finally dies.
I visit my aunt, but rarely, just enough to keep up appearances. She no longer recognizes or remembers me, so there is little point. Besides, I find her room impossibly cold. Whatever heat is left in Aunt Adelina’s body, I do not feel it when I take her hand between my own. And I cannot bear to kiss her. I sometimes think that the real Adelina, the one who shaped so many of my childhood memories, who misshaped perhaps the person I might otherwise have become, has already abandoned that place. I sometimes fancy she has taken lodging in my brain. The land behind the market is ours now. We are having it subdivided so that each of us gets a parcel. There is a rumor, however, that my sister Pancha has already sold some of them and spent the money. She has built a new apartment. That much we know for sure.
I have passed my exams, something I’m sure would please my Aunt Adelina if she were aware of it. I answered each question, not honestly, but as my teacher would have me answer, and was rewarded with a place at the Normal School in Chimaltenango, should I wish to accept. We would have to find relatives to take me in or, failing that, strangers. Either way, to earn my keep I would be made to scrub and launder their clothes, wash their dishes, sweep and mop their floors. Here, it would be no different, whether I lived with my parents or whether I married. But I would not suffer the derision of relatives my own age as they elaborately excluded me from their recreations, whispering to each other about the “girl” brought from the countryside to serve them. I suppose my aunt suffered and overcame such prejudices, and I suppose I would also. But then what?
I remember, as children, gathering around Uncle Daniel’s knee, under the shade of Aunt Adelina’s coyo tree, as he told us stories about Juan No, the invisible demon who calls your name and steals your soul. “If you answer,” he’d say, raising his arms above his head and curling his long fingers as we imagined Juan No would do, “you become nothing. You become a non-being, a no, as empty inside as a hollow gourd.” But if that were so, I ask myself now, wouldn’t each of us in this town bear his mark? The hollow stare? The mirthless laugh? For hasn’t each of us at some point passed along the cobbled road that extends beyond the town limits, beyond the lamps of the outermost hovels, where the sweep of sky is shrunk by overgrowth crowding the lane from either side and the moon is hidden from sight? Hasn’t each of us on a lonely night along that road turned at the sound of hooves approaching and searched the darkness? Heard the snort of a horse, felt the heat of its breath and yet seen nothing to account for these sensations? Perhaps in larger towns or cities, Juan No’s voice is drowned by the noise of traffic. Perhaps his invisible steed passes unnoticed among the multitudes who never sleep. Perhaps the inhabitants are too many to know each of them by name. Who, then, do the sinners follow? With whom have they made their pact? How, after all, do they survive?