Theft

This is another blast-from-the-past, something I wrote in 2004 about an event circa 1998 when I was a community development volunteer in Bolivia. It’s really long, so I’ve divided it into three parts and this is part I.

***

           I hurried along the dark, empty street towards the market.  Most of the shops closed at seven.  As the low block building came into view, I saw with relief that there were still a few lights on.  Without breaking stride I threaded the narrow passages towards my favorite shop, passing rows of dark, closed stalls.  Under the dim light from the single 40-watt bulb I quickly selected rice, salt, and few spices before turning to the shopkeeper for the total.  But when I reached into the inner pocket of my shoulder bag to pay him, I experienced one of those momentary waves of unreality that occur when something that exists in your mind fails to match your sensory experience.  There was no money there.

Mumbling an apology, I replaced the items I had selected and went back outside.  What in the world?  I clearly remembered having at least 200 Bolivian pesos, as well as a few smaller bills in that pocket of my bag.  As I walked along towards the taxi stand to catch a ride home, I mentally retraced my steps over the last few days.  I had a distinct memory of pulling out a ten-peso bill two days previously, when I had bought a bottle of soda at Doña Petrona’s house.  And I could just as distinctly picture the two reddish 100-B bills enfolding the blue 10-B note at that time.  Because I had to keep track of all my expenditures for the organization I volunteered with, I always kept a running mental list and a daily log of every peso spent.  I knew I had not spent that money.  And I couldn’t imagine having lost it on the way to the market, either.  I had been alone on the road, and furthermore I had not even once opened the bag for any reason while en route.  There was no possible way that the money had accidentally fallen out.

I had lost more money than this on previous occasions, but 200 Bs was still enough to bother me.  200 Bs converted to around $30, which could actually buy a young sheep.  It was sixty percent of my monthly personal allowance.  And where could I have lost it?

I found two coins at the bottom of my bag, enough to pay the motorcycle taxi to the village of San Rafael where I lived, so I flagged one down on the main drag, negotiated the price, and hopped on.  I balanced easily on the back of the Suzuki 125 as we wound our way up the hill and onto the dirt track that led to my community.  The dim headlight illuminated the flapping wings of nightbirds frightened off the road in front of us.  This particular driver was not given to small talk, so I continued to mull over the disappearance of my money until we arrived at the schoolhouse.  I paid him, and he turned the motorcycle around to head back to town while I strained to distinguish the numbers on my combination lock by the dim light of the stars.

Once inside, I switched on my single solar panel-powered light, and gave my small room a serious once-over.  No money anywhere.

The next morning, I mentioned the missing money to my neighbor, Doña María, as we sat in her smoky kitchen visiting.  The board walls of the room leaned at askew angles, and puddles of spilled water made mud of the dirt floor.  Soot from the wood fire had turned all the walls and ceiling black.  Skinny cats darted in and out, and María had to keep shooing chickens away from the door.  I sat perched on a small block of wood, my knees up in front of my chest.

María was instantly concerned.  “Who could have taken it?” she asked, her eyes wide.  She stopped stirring the pot to stare at me.

“Maybe nobody took it, maybe I just lost it somewhere.”

“Maybe, no?  But did you look everywhere?”

“Yes, everywhere.   I know I had it on Tuesday, and I didn’t buy anything since then until I went to the market last night.  I can’t think where I could have lost it.”

“You know those Quispe girls, you shouldn’t let them come into your house all the time they way they do.”  She stirred the pot furiously.  It sounded like a subject shift, but I knew it wasn’t.  I thought of Betty and Marina, the skinny sisters with long, thick-lashed eyes who often visited me at home.  Especially Betty, the younger one.  Just yesterday she had been sitting at my table coloring, and I had helped her with her homework.  But I hated María’s deductive leap of suspicion.  We had no evidence, nothing.

Florinda, María’s nine-year-old daughter had been listening from the doorway.  Just then she burst out, “Doña Elizabeth, do you know what!  Yesterday Marina was paying the schoolteacher the fees with a 50-Boliviano bill, and he said where did you get that?  And she said my patrona paid me, but she hasn’t been working!”

“Aha!  You see?” said María, angry now.  “They took your money!  Are you sure you didn’t see them?  Are you sure they weren’t alone in your house?  Did you leave them there on Tuesday?”

“Maybe,” I said, feeling tightness in my stomach.  “I don’t remember.”  How was a 50-Boliviano bill proof, though?  I had lost two hundred.

“Those Quispes, they’re all like that,” said María, “especially Betty.  You can’t leave anything lying around, she’ll take it.”

It seemed like it took no time at all for the rumor to take wing—Betty Quispe had stolen 200 Bs, maybe more, from Doña Elizabeth.  People began to re-circulate stories of small items that had gone missing when Betty was around—a comb, a bar of soap, candy.  Everyone just knew it was her.  I felt miserable.

The next time I saw Betty hovering outside my one small window, I called her in.  She came, uncertain, the tangled hair, dirty dress, and open sores on her legs all testimony to the grinding poverty her family endured.

It had taken me some time living in the village to begin to distinguish the layers of poverty around me.  Although all were farmers, living in homes made from materials found on the land, there were certain gradations.  At the top were the land-owning families, with 50 hectares each—enough to graze a decent sized herd of cattle.  Most of them sold milk or cheese through the local cooperative, and a few had branched out into other forms of income, such as citrus or trucking.  The wealthiest had homes made of brick, with tin roofs.  In the middle were families who had come later on, to tired land.  But they had enough to live on, to slowly build into something better.  And at the bottom were the families who had no land of their own.  They rented rice fields and rented themselves out as hired hands.  They tended a few small animals around their homes in the village’s “urban center” but did not have the wherewithal to invest in cattle or citrus with the attendant higher returns.  At the very, very bottom was the family of an alcoholic, who refused even to rent a field.  He preferred hunting and fishing – going further and further afield, leaving his no-longer-pretty wife and three small children to make do with the perpetual starch of their manioc garden.  Betty’s family was slightly better off, but not by much. Her mother’s teeth were worn to nubs from a lifetime of chewing coca, and her father looked on the verge of death.  Marina was her only sibling still in school – a stubborn girl on the cusp of puberty, wearing her new breasts with an “I dare you” smirk.

Once, sitting at my table, Marina told me, “my baby sister died because of Betty.  She was a beautiful little baby too.  But this Betty was sick, and because my mother was looking after her, the baby fell into the creek and drowned.  It was all Betty’s fault.  If it wasn’t for Betty, the baby would still be alive.”  Betty sat silently during this story, watching and listening, giving away nothing with her face.

Now here she was again, sitting at my table, looking at me with those same guarded eyes, alert and interested, but giving away nothing.

“Betty,” I said, each word hurting.  “I am missing some money from my purse.  I need to know, did you take it?  If you did, I’m not going to do anything against you, I just want to get my money back.  It’s not right to take things that belong to other people.”

“I didn’t take it, Doña Elizabeth,” she said.

I looked at her for a long time.  “I hope you are telling me the truth,” I said.  “If I don’t get it back, I won’t be able to accept children visiting in my house anymore.”

***

to be continued…

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2 Responses to “Theft”

  1. Rachel Says:

    I am anxiously awaiting the next part. I felt like this was the first chapter in a novel, very well written.

  2. Elizabeth Says:

    Aw, thanks! I’ll get it up soon!

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