Theft 3

Part 1, and part 2.

***

            At first I thought that no one was home.  The doors were all pulled shut and secured with twigs through the latches to hold them closed.  But I heard voices coming from the back, so I walked around the little buildings and saw the family gathered around a cow near the paddock.

The Rodriguez Mariscal home was built on a narrow flat space between the road and a steep hill that extended back up into their property.  They had only half a farm—25 hectares that had come from the sale of someone else’s land.  And it was not great land, either.  A deep ravine cut through the property, carving the soil into steep slopes that were difficult to work and eroded easily.  Only at the far back of the property was a high, flat place suitable for rice and corn. Everything in between was being used as pasture land, although Octaviana’s interest in diversification and innovation had led to the planting of small trees strategically placed to slow erosion.  At different times she raised hair sheep (bred for their lack of wool, they did better in hot climates), rabbits, and ducks, but their main income came from cheese and Octaviana’s per diems as a community educator.  She was one of the only women in the community who had been to high school.

At 36, Octaviana was the mother of eight and grandmother of two.  She ran her household like a general—shouting orders, mobilizing the troops, seeing exactly what needed to be done and knowing exactly who needed to do it.  Her husband, Don Pedro, was a quiet man with beautiful dark eyes made soulful by thick black eyelashes and a sad expression.  But he loved to laugh as much as she did, mumbling his small jokes through toothless gums, then chuckling quietly as his children hooted with laughter.

I watched Octaviana and her four youngest gathered around the cow.  Emma and Elba, the twins, held the cow’s head, keeping its nose in a hollowed half-gourd of feed.  Rachel, their older sister, held a tin of salve that Octaviana was rubbing on the udder, and Javier, the youngest, kept the dogs and other sundry animals away with a long switch.  I walked over.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Good morning, Elizabeth,” shouted Octaviana, and the children echoed her, “Good morning, Doña Elizabeth.”

“What’s wrong with the cow?” I asked.

“Oh, just some sores she has on her udder.  I bought this from the veterinary in town but I don’t know if it will be any good.  I always used to use dung mixed with used motor oil, but you know how they say that’s not really good for the cow.”

“True,” I said.

“We’ll see if this works.  There,” she said, patting the cow on the rump and standing up.  “Emma, Elba, you can let her go now.  Raquel, put that away with my other things, you know where.”  She walked past me towards the kitchen, and I turned to follow her.  She paused to wash her hands off with water from a green plastic jug, a recycled vegetable oil container.

“Come in,” she said kindly as she unlatched the door and pushed it open, shooing the chickens away.  She pulled out a small stool for me to sit on, then sat down herself and pulled a ten-gallon white plastic bucket towards herself.  Taking the lid off, she reached in and began to lift out the cheese curds swimming there in the thin, gray whey.

“Have you found out who stole your money yet?” she asked, not hiding her curiosity.

“Yes, I think so,” I answered miserably, and out poured the whole story: the running feet, the cash tossed through the window, and Centeno and the teacher’s plan to bring in the police.

“That Centeno!” she tsked, really angry.  “He always has to stick his nose in everywhere.  He doesn’t have enough work to do, he just goes around making trouble.”

“I want to go talk to Betty’s parents, but I don’t speak enough Quechua,” I said, exploring the idea.  “I really don’t want the police involved.”

Octaviana was silent for a moment.  “I don’t speak Quechua either,” she said.  “I understand it, but I don’t speak it.”  She thought for a minute.  “Maybe Doña María could go with you.  She speaks Quechua.”

“Would you come too?” I pleaded.

“If Doña María goes, I’ll go,” she said decisively.

 ~

“If Doña Octaviana goes, I’ll go,” said Doña María a few hours later.  “Just let me give supper to my workmen, then we can go.”  It was almost dark, and she was dishing out rice and a vegetable sauce for the men who had come to help build her new brick house.

“I’ll go call Doña Octaviana,” I said.  I took my flashlight, crossed the creek, and went back to Octaviana’s house.  Soon we were somberly making our way back.  María met us by the road, and we walked the short distance into the cluster of thatched huts  in the center of the of the community, to the Quispe house.

They were home.  Doña Victoria and her husband came out when María called.  I could hear hushed voices and the sound of spoons and tin plates inside the kitchen, where the orange flare of the cooking fire blazed through the cracks in the cane wall.  There was no sign of Betty or Marina.

Doña Victoria offered us seats on a log outside, laying her woven aguayo over it to make a bench.  The three of us sat down, but she and her husband remained standing.  I could only barely follow the conversation in Quechua; María did all the talking for me.  I could hear the hesitation in her voice, the over-use of her “um”s, the slow stringing together of words.  Then Doña Victoria spoke.  I could hear the anger in her voice.

Octaviana translated for me: Victoria was furious with Centeno.  He had come to her house in the afternoon, and she imitated the “sh-sh-sh” with which he had silenced her when she tried to speak.  I could see her skinny legs and tattered pollera in the moonlight, but could not see her face, shaded under a broad-brimmed hat.  Her husband said nothing, merely grunting corroboration at certain points.

“They’re going to pay back the rest of what they owe you,” said Octaviana quietly in my ear.  “They just need to sell a pig first.”

“Doña Victoria,” I said.  “I am so sorry that this happened.  I really like Betty and Marina, I like having them come visit my house.  It really hurt me that they took my money.  I just need to be able to have confianza in them again.”

She said something, and Octaviana translated: “She says they’re going to pick rice and kudzu seeds for her now to earn the money back.  The money is no problem.  She’s just angry that Centeno yelled at them.”

“I don’t want the police to come,” I said.  “They’re just girls, they’re children yet.  I just want to be able to fix things up between us ourselves.”

Evidently we were all in agreement; we shook hands all around, then the three of us left together.  I felt enormously relieved, and more grateful than I could say for the help of Octaviana and María.  I thanked them again and again.

 ~

Sure enough, about a week later, Doña Victoria came by at dawn with 100 Bolivianos in hand.  She had sold her pig.  I didn’t see Betty or Marina for a long time, and Centeno avoided me.  He was angry that I had gone to talk with Betty’s parents behind his back, without his sanction.  I myself was still angry at the heavy-handed way in which he had tried to take over, that didn’t feel like helping to me.

But Doña Victoria was cordial, grave, and dignified as she handed me the money, her spine straight, her head erect.

“Thank you,” I said.  Now Betty could come back and color at my table.  And, eventually, she did.

***

If you’ve made it this far… thanks for sticking with it! I’d love to hear any feedback you might have.

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