Below are chapters 3 and 4 of Julia Alvarez' In the Time of the Butterflies.
By Monday, January 13th, you should choose one quote that stands out to you from the text, and then compose AT LEAST 2 paragraphs (you may post longer responses) that speak to the significance of your quote as well as these chapters. In addition, you should identify connections you can make. Here are some think questions to get you started. You should address significance, connection and supposition somewhere in your answer, but you also may branch off into other things that speak to you about these two chapters. That was a lot of writing so I'm going to type something happy here before putting more text. I LOVE YOU GUYS! I'M SO EXCITED TO BE READING THIS WITH YOU!
By Wednesday, January 15th, you should respond to at least two other people's writing, keeping significance and connection in mind as well. Try to respond with at least 3 sentences, although you could of course go above and beyond this!
I'll go first with a response below so you know what I'm after!
*What happens in these two chapters that feel important? Why do you think they feel important? What parts stand out? Why do you think they stand out?
*What matters about these two chapters?
*Is there any part of these two chapters that give you a clue to why the book as a whole is valuable? What part?
*Why should people care about this story?
*Is this piece relevant to everyone? Who? Who isn’t it relevant to?
*How can you connect this piece to current events, to the past or the future?
*What personal connections can you draw to these two chapters? Do these characters remind you of anyone or anything in your own life?
*How does any part of this connect to any other areas of your learning? (Maybe other subjects/texts that you have studied in the past or present?)
*Do these two chapters connect to anything that you have read in the past?What? How?
*What other relationships/connections can you draw between these two chapters and your life, the world, other literature, history or other art?
*Make a prediction about what is going to happen next for one or two of the characters.
*Which events in the book had a major influence on the direction of the characters?
This little book belongs to María Teresa
1945 to 1946
Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception
Saint’s Day of our school!
Dear Little Book,
Minerva gives you to me today for my First Communion. You are so pretty with a mother of pearl cover and a little latch like a prayerbook. I will have such fun writing on your tissue-thin pages.
Minerva says keeping a diary is also a way to reflect and reflection deepens one’s soul. It sounds so serious. I suppose now that I’ve got one I’m responsible for, I have to expect some changes.Sunday, December 9
Dear Little Book,
I have been trying to reflect, but I can’t come up with anything.
I love my new shoes from my First Communion. They’re white leather with just a little heel like a grownup young lady. I practiced a lot beforehand, and I must say, I didn’t wobble once on my way to the altar. I was so proud of myself.
Mama and Dedé and Patria and my little nephew Nelson and my little niece Noris came all the way from Ojo de Agua just to watch me make my First Communion. Papa couldn’t come. He is too busy with the cacao harvest.
Wednesday, December 12
Dear Little Book,
It is hard to write in you here at school. First, there is hardly any free time except for prayers. Then, when I do take a minute, Daysi and Lidia come up sneaky and grab you. They toss you back and forth while I run after them trying to catch you. Finally, they give you back, giggling the whole time like I’m being silly keeping a diary.
And you might not know this, Little Book, but I always cry when people laugh at me.
Feast Day of Santa Lucia
Dear Little Book,
Tonight, we will have the candle lighting and all our eyes will be blessed on account of Santa Lucia. And guess what? I have been chosen to be Santa Lucia by all the sisters! I’ll get to wear my First Communion dress and shoes all over again and lead the whole school from the dark courtyard into the lit-up chapel.
I have been practicing, walking up and down the Stations of the Cross with a blessed look on my face, not an easy thing when you are trying to keep your balance. I think saints all lived before high heels were invented.
Saturday, December 15
Dear Little Book,
What does it mean that I now really have a soul?
All I can think of is the picture in our Catechism of a valentine with measles. That is the soul when it commits mortal sins. Venial sins are lighter, like a rash instead of measles. A rash that goes away even without Confession if you say an Act of Contrition.
I asked Minerva what it means to her, having a soul. We had been talking about Daysi and Lidia and what I should do.
Minerva says a soul is like a deep longing in you that you can never fill up, but you try. That is why there are stirring poems and brave heroes who die for what is right.
I have that longing, I guess. Sometimes before a holiday or a birthday party, I feel like I’m going to burst. But Minerva says that’s not exactly what she meant.
Sunday, December 16
Dear Little Book,
I don’t know if you realize how advanced I am for my age?
I think it’s because I have three older sisters, and so I’ve grown up quick. I knew how to read before I even started school! In fact, Sor Asunción put me in fourth, though really, I should have been in third with the other tens.
My penmanship is also very pretty as you will have noticed. I’ve won the writing prize twice, and I would have this week, too, but I decided to leave some i’s undotted. It doesn’t help with the other girls if you are best all the time.
At first, Mamá didn’t even want me to leave home. But she agreed it made sense for me to come since this is Minerva’s last year at Inmaculada Concepción, and so I would have family here to look after me my first year.
Don’t tell anyone: I don’t like it here that much. But after we talked Mama into letting me board, I have to pretend. At least, Minerva is here with me even if she sleeps in another hall.
And you are here with me too, my dear Little Book.
Thursday, December 20
My dear Little Book,
Tomorrow, Minerva and I take the train home for the holidays. I can’t wait! My soul is full of longing all right.
I long to see Papa, whom I haven’t seen in three whole months!
And my rabbits, Nieve and Coco. I wonder how many new ones I have?
And Tono and Fela (they work for us) making a fuss over me.
And my room (I share with Minerva) with the windows you throw open on the garden with its bougainvillea arch like the entrance to a magic kingdom in a storybook.And to be called Mate. (We’re not allowed nicknames here. Even Dedé was called Belgica, which no one has ever called her.)
I guess I will miss some things here.
Like dear Sor Milagros who always helps me braid my hair with ribbons. And Daysi and Lidia who have been so nice lately. I think it helped that Minerva had a talk with them.
But I will NOT miss waking up at six and early morning Matins and sleeping in a big dormitory hall with rude sleepers who snore and Rest & Silence every day and wearing a navy blue serge uniform when there are so many nicer colors and fabrics in the world.
And the chocolate not made with enough chocolate.
Sunday, December 23
Minerva explained everything to me in detail and with diagrams as we were coming home on the train. I was not one bit surprised. First, she had already told me about cycles, and second, we do live on a farm, and it’s not like the bulls are exactly private about what they do. But still, I don’t have to like it. I am hoping a new way will be found by the time I am old enough to be married.
Oh dear, everyone is calling me to come see the pig Tio Pepe brought for tomorrow’s Christmas Eve party.
To be continued, Little Book.
Back to the train coming home. A young man started following us around, saying Minerva was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. (She’s always getting compliments when we walk on the street.)
Just as Minerva and I were going to sit down, this young man dashes forward and wipes our seat with his handkerchief. Minerva thanks him, but doesn’t really give him the time of day. At least not the time he wants, which is the invitation to sit with us.
We thought we’d gotten rid of him. We were riding along, the thing lesson being done, and here he comes again with a cone of roasted cashews he bought for us at the last stop. He offers it to me, although I’m not to accept tokens from strange men either.
And yet, and yet ... those cashews smell so yummy and my stomach is growling. I look up at Minerva with my sad puppy dog look, and she gives me the nod. “Thank you very much,” I say, taking the cone, and suddenly, the young man is sitting to my left, and peering at the lesson on my lap.
“What a lovely drawing,” he says. I could have died! There it was, the thing and its two balls. Minerva and I giggled so hard, I started choking on a cashew, and the young man smiled away, thinking he had said something very clever!
My dearest, darling Little Book!
I am so excited! Christmas and then New Year’s and then Three Kings—so many holidays all at once! It is hard to sit still and reflect! My soul just wants to have fun!
My little niece and nephew are staying through Three Kings’ Day. Yes, at ten, I am an aunt twice over. My sister Patria has those two babies and is pregnant with a third one. Noris is so cute, one year old, my little doll. Nelson is three and his is the first boy’s thing I’ve seen close up, not counting animals.
First Day of 1946
I pulled out Regular from under my pillow for my New Year’s fortune. Mama frowns that this isn’t allowed by the pope, but I have to think fortunes really do tell the truth. My first day of the year wasn’t Good and it wasn’t Bad, just Regular.
It started out with Patria scolding me for telling Nelson ghost stories. I know that Patria is pregnant and not feeling all that well. Still, doesn’t she remember she used to play Dark Passages with me when I was only four?
And it was Fela who told me the zombie story. I just repeated it.
It takes the joy out of making my resolves, but here they are.
Resolves of Maria Teresa Mirabal for 1946:
I resolve not to scare Nelson with scary stories.
I resolve to be diligent with my tasks and not fall asleep when I say my prayers.
I resolve not to think of clothes when I am in church.
I resolve to be chaste, as that is a noble thing to do. (Sor Asunción said we should all resolve this as young ladies in the holy Catholic and Apostolic church.)
I resolve not to be so tenderhearted as even Minerva says crying will bring on prematuring wrinkles.I think that is enough resolves for a regular year.
Friday, January 4
Dearest Little Book,
We went all the way to the shops in Santiago. They were swamped. Everyone shopping for Three Kings. We had a list made up with things we needed. Papá had given me some money for helping him out at the store. He calls me his little secretary.
I talked Mamá into letting me buy another pair of shoes. She didn’t see why I needed a second pair since she just got me my First Communion ones. But these newest ones are patent leather, and I have always wanted patent leather shoes. I must admit Minerva helped with some of the convincing.
Minerva is so smart. She always finds ways around Mama.
Like today, Minerva found this cute red-and-white checkered swimsuit with a little skirt. When she went to buy it, Mamá reminded Minerva of her promesa. Last night at dinner, Minerva announced that this year she’s giving up swimming in our lagoon in exchange for divine help in becoming a lawyer. Minerva drops hints as big as bombs, Papá always says.
“I don’t plan to use it,” Minerva explained to Mamá. “But how can my promesa have any bite unless I have a pretty suit to tempt me?”
“You are going to argue with Saint Peter at the gate,” Mamá said. But she was smiling and shaking her head.
Saturday, January 5
Dear Little Book,
Cousin Berto is so dear. His older brother Raúl, too, but Berto is especially special-minded, if that is a word.
Yesterday when Tía Flor was up with the boys, Mama was bemoaning that her rose bushes were so scrabbly and saying she wasn’t going to be seeing much of her favorite flowers this year. Right after breakfast this morning, Berto appears with a big basketful of the most beautiful roses for her he had picked himself. Tia’s garden has been blooming every variety. Berto had arranged them so specially in the basket. He had picked them with long stems too. Isn’t that unheard of for a boy?
The whole house is as sweet as a perfume shop this morning.
Three Kings Day
Dear Little Book,
I had such a time deciding between the patent leather and white leather for church today. I finally settled for the white pair as Mamá picked those out for my First Communion, and I wanted her to feel that they were still my favorites.
Afterwards at Three Kings dinner with all the uncles and cute cousins, there was a funny little moment. Tío Pepe reminded us of the big parade next Sunday for Benefactor’s Day, and Minerva said something like why don’t we go celebrate at the cemetery. The room went silent as a tomb, all right.
I guess I do have a reflection. Why should we celebrate Benefactor’s Day in the cemetery? I asked Minerva, but she said it was just a bad joke, forget she said so.
My dear Little Book,
We’re expecting Tio Pepe any moment. He is coming in the old wagon and taking us to the celebrations in Salcedo. After the parade, there’s going to be recitations and a big party over at the town hall. Papá is going to say the speech for the Trujillo Tillers!
This time I’m inaugurating my patent leather shoes and a baby blue poplin dress with a little jacket to match. Patria made them for me with fabric I picked out.
While we’re waiting, I am taking these few minutes to wish El Jefe Happy Benefactor’s Day with all my heart. I feel so lucky that we have him for a president. I am even born the same month he is (October) and only nine days (and forty-four years!) apart. I keep thinking it shows something special about my character.
Monday, January 14
Dear best friend Little Book,
Back at school after the holidays, and I am so homesick. Really, I am writing to keep myself from crying.
Daysi is now best friends with Rita. They both live in Puerto Plata, so they became best friends over the holidays. Maybe Lidia will be my best friend now. She is not coming back until after the Virgencita’s feast day on the 21st as her whole family is making the pilgrimage to Higüey.
We are having Rest & Silence before lights-out. We must keep quiet and not visit with each other, but think only of our immortal souls.
I am so tired of mine.
Monday February 18
Dear Little Book,
This morning without warning, I was summoned to the principal’s office, and my heart dropped when I saw Minerva there, too. At first, I thought someone had died in our family until I noticed Minerva eyeballing me as if to say, watch what you say, girl.Sor Asunción comes right out and says your older sister has been caught sneaking out of school. Then, before I can even put that in my head, she asks me if our Tio Mon, who lives in La Vega, is ill, yes or no. I take one look at Minerva’s sick-looking face and I nod yes, our Tío Mon is ill, and then I invent with sarampión, last I heard.
Minerva’s face recovers. She flashes our principal an I-told-you-so look.
I guess I even improved upon her lie. Now Minerva could explain her sneaking out. Sarampión’s so contagious, the sisters would’ve never let her visit if she’d asked.
Thursday, February 21
Dear Little Book,
I’ve been worrying about Minerva sneaking out and lying about Tío Mon. Today, after our courtyard rosary, I cornered her behind the statue of the Merciful Mother. What is going on? I asked, but she tried to brush me off with a joke, “Now, little sister, you don’t want us to talk behind the Virgin’s back, do you?”
I said yes, yes I do. So Minerva said I was too young to be told some things. That made me angry. I told her that if I was going to commit a Mortal sin, as lying to a religious can’t be Venial, the least Minerva could do was tell me what I was risking my immortal soul for.
She seemed pretty impressed with my arguing back at her like that. She’s always telling me to stand up for myself, but I guess she didn’t figure I’d stand up to her.
She promised to tell me later when we can have a more private conversation.
Sunday, February 24
The whole school went to the Little Park of the Dead today. Minerva and I had a chance to talk and she told me everything. Now I am worried to death again. I swear my older sister will be the death of me!
It turns out she and Elsa and Lourdes and Sinita have been going to some secret meetings over at Don Horacio’s house! Don Horacio is Elsa’s grandfather who is in trouble with the police because he won’t do things he’s supposed to, like hang a picture of our president in his house. Minerva says the police don’t kill him because he is so old, he will soon die on his own without any bother to them.
I asked Minerva why she was doing such a dangerous thing. And then, she said the strangest thing. She wanted me to grow up in a free country.
“And it isn’t that already?” I asked. My chest was getting all tight. I felt one of my asthma attacks coming on.
Minerva didn’t answer me. I supposed she could see that I was already upset enough. She took both my hands in hers as if we were getting ready to jump together into a deep spot in the lagoon of Ojo de Agua. “Breathe slowly and deeply,” she intoned, “slowly and deeply.”
I pictured myself on a hot day falling, slowly and deeply, into those cold layers of water. I held on tight to my sister’s hands, no longer afraid of anything but that she might let go.
Monday, February 25
Dearest Little Book,
It is so strange now I know something I’m not supposed to know. Everything looks just a little different.
I see a guardia, and I think, who have you killed. I hear a police siren, and I think who is going to be killed. See what I mean?
I see the picture of our president with eyes that follow me around the room, and I am thinking he is trying to catch me doing something wrong. Before, I always thought our president was like God, watching over everything I did.
I am not saying I don’t love our president, because I do. It’s like if I were to find out Papá did something wrong. I would still love him, wouldn’t I?
Sunday, March 3
Oh dear! Little Book!
Tio Mon appears today for visiting hours with some letters and a parcel for us, and almost the first words out of Sor Asunción’s mouth are “And how are you feeling, Don Ramón?” I just about died of flabbergastedness, if that is a word. Minerva, who is much quicker on her feet, just hooked her arm in his and whisked him away saying, “Tío Mon, a nice stroll will do you good.” Tío Mon looked a little confused, but Minerva had him through the arm as well as around her little finger, so off he goes.About the letters he brought me. Dear Little Book, here I am ten years old and already getting beaus. Berto wrote again. I’ve shown Minerva all his letters and she smiles and says they are “sweet, boyish letters.”
I confess I didn’t show her his last one.
It’s not that it was mushy, but I felt sort of shy about it. Berto wrote so sympathizingly about my homesickness and signed himself, “your Stronghold.”
I do like the sound of that.
Tuesday, April 30
Dearest Little Book,
This new friend of Minerva‘s, Hilda, is really rude. She wears trousers and a beret slanted on her head like she is Michelangelo. Minerva met her at one of her secret meetings at Don Horacio’s house. Very soon this Hilda was always at Inmaculada. I think the sisters felt sorry for her because she is some kind of orphan. Rather, she made herself an orphan, I am sure. Her parents probably just died of shock to hear that girl talk!
She says the most awful things like she isn’t sure God exists. Poor Sor Asunción. She keeps giving Hilda little booklets to read that will explain everything. I’ve seen what happens to those little booklets the minute our principal turns her back. The nuns have let her get away with her fresh ways for a while, but today, they finally put their foot down.
Sor Asunción asked Hilda if she wouldn’t like to join us for Holy Communion, and Hilda said that she liked a heartier menu!
So, she was asked to leave and not come back. “She has a very poor attitude,” is how Sor Asunción explained it, “and your sister and her friends are catching it.” Although I hated to hear anyone criticize Minerva, I had to agree about Hilda.
Friday, June 27
My dear secret Little Book,
All week guards have been coming in and out, looking for Hilda.
Minerva has told me the whole story.
Hilda appeared a few nights ago at Inmaculada wanting to hide! What happened was she hid some secret papers in the trunk of a car she borrowed, and she ran out of gas on the highway. A friend came to pick her up, and they got some gas in a can at a station, but when they were on the way back, they saw police swarming around the car. The trunk was pried open. Hilda got her friend to drop her off at Inmaculada where she woke up Minerva and her friends. They all argued what to do. Finally they decided they had to ask the sisters for help.
So, late that night, they knocked on the convent door. Sor Asunción appeared, in her night dress, wearing a nightcap, and Minerva told her the problem.
Minerva said she still doesn’t know if Sor Asunción agreed to help Hilda out of the goodness of her heart or because this was a perfect lesson to teach that fresh girl. Imagine! Hilda, who doesn’t even believe in God!
The police have been here again today. They passed right by Sor Hilda with her hands tucked in her sleeves and her head bowed before the statue of the Merciful Mother. If I weren’t so scared, I’d be laughing.
Thursday, July 4
Home at last!
Dear Little Book,
Minerva graduated this last Sunday. Everyone went to La Vega to watch her get her diploma. Even Patria with her stomach big as a house. She is expecting any day now.
We are home for the summer. I can’t wait to go swimming. Minerva says she’s taking me to our lagoon and diving right in herself in her “temptation” swimsuit. She says why keep her promesa when Mamá and Papá still won’t let her go to law school in the capital?
I’m going to spend the summer learning things I really want to learn! Like (1) doing embroidery from Patria (2) keeping books from Dedé (3) cooking cakes from my Tía Flor (I’ll get to see more of my cute cousin Berto, and Raúl, too!!!) (4) spells from Fela (I better not tell Mama!) (5) how to argue so I’m right, and anything else Minerva wants to teach me.
Sunday, July 20
Oh Little Book,
We all just got back from the cemetery burying Patria’s baby boy that was born dead yesterday.
Patria is very sad and cries all the time. Mama keeps repeating that the Lord knows what he does and Patria nods like she doesn’t half believe it. Pedrito just cracks his knuckles and consoles her by saying that they can have another one real soon. Imagine making such a gross promise to someone who is already having a hard enough time.They are going to stay with us until she feels better. I am trying to be brave, but every time I think of that pretty baby dead in a box like it doesn’t have a soul at all, I just start to cry.
I better stop till I get over my emotions.
Wednesday, in a hurry
My dearest Little Book, Oh my dearest,
Minerva asks if I’m ready to hand you over. I say, give me a minute to explain things and say goodbye.
Hilda has been caught! She was grabbed by the police while trying to leave the convent. Everyone in Don Horacio’s meeting group has been told to destroy anything that would make them guilty.
Minerva is burying all her poems and papers and letters. She says she hadn’t meant to read my diary, but it was lying around, and she noticed Hilda’s name. She says it was not really right to read it, but sometimes you have to do something wrong for a higher good. (Some more of that lawyer talk she likes so much!) She says we have to bury you, too.
It won’t be forever, my dear Little Book, I promise. As soon as things are better, Minerva says we can dig up our treasure box. She’s told Pedrito about our plan and he’s already found a spot among his cacao where he’s going to dig a hole for us to bury our box.
So, my dearest, sweetest Little Book, now you know.
Minerva was right. My soul has gotten deeper since I started writing in you. But this is what I want to know that not even Minerva knows.
What do I do now to fill up that hole?
Here ends my Little Book
for now, not forever
From the beginning, I felt it, snug inside my heart, the pearl of great price. No one had to tell me to believe in God or to love everything that lives. I did it automatically like a shoot inching its way towards the light.
Even being born, I was coming out, hands first, as if reaching up for something. Thank goodness, the midwife checked Mamá at the last minute and lowered my arms the way you fold in a captive bird’s wings so it doesn’t hurt itself trying to fly.
So you could say I was born, but I wasn’t really here. One of those spirit babies, alelá, as the country people say. My mind, my heart, my soul in the clouds.
It took some doing and undoing to bring me down to earth.
From the beginning, I was so good, Mamá said she’d forget I was there. I slept through the night, entertaining myself if I woke up and no one was around. Within the year, Dedé was born, and then a year later Minerva came along, three babies in diapers! The little house was packed tight as a box with things that break. Papa hadn’t finished the new bedroom yet, so Mama put me and Dedé in a little cot in the hallway. One morning, she found me changing Dedé’s wet diaper, but what was funny was that I hadn’t wanted to disturb Mama for a clean one, so I had taken off mine to put on my baby sister.
“You’d give anything away, your clothes, your food, your toys. Word got around, and while I was out, the country people would send their kids over to ask you for a cup of rice or a jar of cooking oil. You had no sense of holding on to things.
“I was afraid,” she confessed, “that you wouldn’t live long, that you were already the way we were here to become.”
Padre Ignacio finally calmed her fears. He said that maybe I had a calling for the religious life that was manifesting itself early on. He said, with his usual savvy and humor, “Give her time, Dona Chea, give her time. I’ve seen many a little angel mature into a fallen one.”
His suggestion was what got the ball rolling. I was called, even I thought so. When we played make-believe, I’d put a sheet over my shoulders and pretend I was walking down long corridors, saying my beads, in my starched vestments.
I’d write out my religious name in all kinds of script—Sor Mercedes—the way other girls were trying out their given names with the surnames of cute boys. I’d see those boys and think, Ah yes, they will come to Sor Mercedes in times of trouble and lay their curly heads in my lap so I can comfort them. My immortal soul wants to take the whole blessed world in! But, of course, it was my body, hungering, biding its time against the tyranny of my spirit.At fourteen, I went away to Inmaculada Concepción, and all the country people around here thought I was entering the convent. “What a pity,” they said, “such a pretty girl.”
That’s when I started looking in the mirror. I was astonished to find, not the child I had been, but a young lady with high firm breasts and a sweet oval face. She smiled, dimpling prettily, but the dark, humid eyes were full of yearning. I put my hands up against the glass to remind her that she, too, must reach up for the things she didn’t understand.
At school the nuns watched me. They saw the pains I took keeping my back straight during early mass, my hands steepled and held up of my own volition, not perched on the back of a pew as if petition were conversation. During Lent, they noted no meat passed my lips, not even a steaming broth when a bad catarrh confined me to the infirmary.
I was not yet sixteen that February when Sor Asunción summoned me to her office. The flamboyants,.I remember, were in full bloom. Entering that sombre study, I could see just outside the window the brilliant red flames lit in every tree, and beyond, some threatening thunderclouds.
“Patria Mercedes,” Sor Asunción said, rising and coming forward from behind her desk. I knelt for her blessing and kissed the crucifix she held to my lips. I was overcome and felt the heart’s tears brimming in my eyes. Lent had just begun, and I was always in a state during those forty days of the passion of Christ.
“Come, come, come”—she helped me up—“we have much to speak of.” She led me, not to the stiff chair set up, interrogative style, in front of her desk, but to the plush crimson cushion of her window seat.
We sat one at each end. Even in the dimming light I could see her pale gray eyes flecked with knowing. I smelled her wafer smell and I knew I was in the presence of the holy. My heart beat fast, scared and deeply excited.
“Patria Mercedes, have you given much thought to the future?” she asked me in a whispery voice.
Surely it would be pride to claim a calling at my young age! I shook my head, blushing, and looked down at my palms, marked, the country people say, with a map of the future.
“You must pray to the Virgencita for guidance,” she said.
I could feel the tenderness of her gaze, and I looked up. Beyond her, I saw the first zigzag of lightning, and heard, far off, the rumble of thunder. “I do, Sister, I pray at all times to know His will so it can be done.”
She nodded. “We have noticed from the first how seriously you take your religious obligations. Now you must listen deeply in case He is calling. We would welcome you as one of us if that is His Will.”
I felt the sweet release of tears. My face was wet with them. “Now, now,” she said, patting my knees. “Let’s not be sad.”
“I’m not sad, Sister,” I said when I had regained some composure. “These are tears of joy and hope that He will make His will known to me.”
“He will,” she assured me. “Listen at all times. In wakefulness, in sleep, as you work and as you play.”
I nodded and then she added, “Now let us pray together that soon, soon, you will know.” And I prayed with her, a Hail Mary and an Our Father, and I tried hard but I could not keep my eyes from straying to the flame trees, their blossoms tumbling in the wind of the coming storm.
There was a struggle, but no one could tell. It came in the dark in the evil hours when the hands wake with a life of their own. They rambled over my growing body, they touched the plumping of my chest, the mound of my belly, and on down. I tried reining them in, but they broke loose, night after night.
For Three Kings, I asked for a crucifix for above my bed. Nights, I laid it beside me so that my hands, waking, could touch his suffering flesh instead and be tamed from their shameful wanderings. The ruse worked, the hands slept again, but other parts of my body began to wake.My mouth, for instance, craved sweets, figs in their heavy syrup, coconut candy, soft golden flans. When those young men whose surnames had been appropriated for years by my mooning girlfriends came to the store and drummed their big hands on the counter, I wanted to take each finger in my mouth and feel their calluses with my tongue.
My shoulders, my elbows, my knees ached to be touched. Not to mention my back and the hard cap of my skull. “Here’s a peseta,” I’d say to Minerva. “Play with my hair.” She’d laugh, and combing her fingers through it, she’d ask, “Do you really believe what the gospel says? He knows how many strands of hair are on your head?”
“Come, come, little sister,” I’d admonish her. “Don’t play with the word of God.”
“I’m going to count them,” she’d say. “I want to see how hard His work is.”
She’d start in as if it were not an impossible task, “Uno, dos, tres ...” Soon her gratifying fingering and her lilting voice would lull me to sleep again.
It was after my conference with Sor Asunción, once I had begun praying to know my calling, that suddenly, like a lull in a storm, the cravings stopped. All was quiet. I slept obediently through the night. The struggle was over, but I was not sure who had won.
I thought this was a sign. Sor Asunción had mentioned that the calling could come in all sorts of ways, dreams, visitations, a crisis. Soon after our conference, school was out for Holy Week. The nuns closed themselves up in their convent for their yearly mortifications in honor of the crucifixion of their bridegroom and Lord, Jesus Christ.
I went home to do likewise, sure in my bones that I would hear His calling now. I joined in Padre Ignacio’s Holy Week activities, going to the nightly novenas and daily mass. On Holy Thursday, I brought my pan and towels along with the other penitents for washing the feet of the parishioners at the door of the church.
The lines were long that night. One after another, I washed pairs of feet, not bothering to look up, entranced in my prayerful listening. Then, of a sudden, I noticed a pale young foot luxuriant with dark hair in my fresh pan of water, and my legs went soft beneath me.
I washed that foot thoroughly, lifting it by the ankle to soap the underside as one does a baby’s legs in cleaning its bottom. Then, I started in on the other one. I worked diligently, oblivious to the long lines stretching away in the dark. When I was done, I could not help looking up.
A young man was staring down at me, his face alluring in the same animal way as his feet. The cheeks were swarthy with a permanent shadow, his thick brows joined in the center. Underneath his thin guayabera, I could see the muscles of his broad shoulders shifting as he reached down and gave me a wad of bills to put in the poor box as his donation.
Later, he would say that I gave him a beatific smile. Why not? I had seen the next best thing to Jesus, my earthly groom. The struggle was over, and I had my answer, though it was not the one I had assumed I would get. For Easter mass, I dressed in glorious yellow with a flamboyant blossom in my hair. I arrived early to prepare for singing Alleluia with the other girls, and there he was waiting for me by the choir stairs.
Sixteen, and it was settled, though we had not spoken a word to each other. When I returned to school, Sor Asunción greeted me at the gate. Her eyes searched my face, but I would not let it give her an answer. “Have you heard?” she asked, taking both my hands in her hands.
“No, Sister, I have not,” I lied.
April passed, then came May, the month of Mary. Mid-May a letter arrived for me, just my name and Inmaculada Concepción in a gruff hand on the envelope. Sor Asunción called me to her office to deliver it, an unusual precaution since the sisters limited themselves to monitoring our correspondence by asking us what news we had gotten from home. She eyed me as I took the envelope. I felt the gravity of the young man’s foot in my hand. I smelled the sweat and soil and soap on the tender skin. I blushed deeply.“Well?” Sor Asunción said, as if she had asked a question and I was tarrying in my answer. “Have you heard, Patria Mercedes?” Her voice had grown stem.
I cleared my throat, but I could not speak. I was so sorry to disappoint her, and yet I felt there was nothing to apologize for. At last, my spirit was descending into flesh, and there was more, not less, of me to praise God. It tingled in my feet, warmed my hands and legs, flared in my gut. “Yes,” I confessed at last, “I have heard.”
I did not go back to Inmaculada in the fall with Dedé and Minerva. I stayed and helped Papa with minding the store and sewed frocks for Maria Teresa, all the while waiting for him to come around.
His name was Pedrito González, the son of an old farming family from the next town over. He had been working his father’s land since he was a boy, so he had not had much formal schooling. But he could count to high numbers, launching himself first with his ten fingers. He read books, slowly, mouthing words, holding them reverently like an altar boy the missal for the officiating priest. He was born to the soil, and there was something about his strong body, his thick hands, his shapely mouth that seemed akin to the roundness of the hills and the rich, rolling valley of El Cibao.
And why, you might ask, was the otherworldly, deeply religious Patria attracted to such a creature? I’ll tell you. I felt the same excitement as when I’d been able to coax a wild bird or stray cat to eat out of my hand.
We courted decorously, not like Dedé and Jaimito, two little puppies you constantly have to watch over so they don’t get into trouble—Mamá has been telling me the stories. He’d come over after a day in the fields, all washed up, the comb marks still in his wet hair, looking uncomfortable in his good guayabera. Is pity always a part of love? It was all I could do to keep from touching him.
Once only did I almost let go, that Christmas. The wedding was planned for February 24th, three days before my seventeenth birthday. Papa had said we must wait until I was seventeen, but he consented to giving me those three days of dispensation. Otherwise, we would be upon the Lenten season, when really it’s not right to be marrying.
We were walking to our parish church for the Mass of the Rooster, Mama, Papa, my sisters. Pedrito and I lagged behind the others, talking softly. He was making his simple declarations, and I was teasing him into having to declare them over and over again. He could not love me very much, I protested, because all he said was that he loved me. According to Minerva, those truly in love spoke poetry to their beloved.
He stopped, and took me by the shoulders. I could barely see his face that moonless night. “You’re not getting a fancy, high-talking man in Pedrito González,” he said rather fiercely. “But you are getting a man who adores you like he does this rich soil we’re standing on.”
He reached down and took a handful of dirt and poured it in my hand. And then, he began kissing me, my face, my neck, my breasts. I had to, I had to stop him! It would not be right, not on this night in which the word was still so newly fleshed, the porcelain baby just being laid by Padre Ignacio—as we hurried down the path—in His crèche.
You’d think there was nothing else but the private debates of my flesh and spirit going on, the way I’ve left out the rest of my life. Don’t believe it! Ask anyone around here who was the easiest, friendliest, simplest of the Mirabal girls, and they’d tell you, Patria Mercedes. The day I married, the whole population of Ojo de Agua turned out to wish me well. I burst out crying, already homesick for my village even though I was only moving fifteen minutes away.
It was hard at first living in San José de Conuco away from my family, but I got used to it. Pedrito came in from the fields at noon hungry for his dinner. Afterwards we had siesta, and his other hunger had to be satisfied, too. The days started to fill, Nelson was bom, and two years later, Noris, and soon I had a third belly growing larger each day. They say around here that bellies stir up certain cravings or aversions. Well, the first two bellies were simple, all I craved were certain foods, but this belly had me worrying all the time about my sister Minerva.It was dangerous the way she was speaking out against the government. Even in public, she’d throw a jab at our president or at the church for supporting him. One time, the salesman who was trying to sell Papá a car brought out an expensive Buick. Extolling its many virtues, the salesman noted that this was El Jefe’s favorite car. Right out, Minerva told Papa, “Another reason not to buy it.” The whole family walked around in fear for a while.
I couldn’t understand why Minerva was getting so worked up. El Jefe was no saint, everyone knew that, but among the bandidos that had been in the National Palace, this one at least was building churches and schools, paying off our debts. Every week his picture was in the papers next to Monsignor Pittini, overseeing some good deed.
But I couldn’t reason with reason herself. I tried a different tack. “It’s a dirty business, you’re right. That’s why we women shouldn’t get involved.”
Minerva listened with that look on her face of just waiting for me to finish. “I don’t agree with you, Patria,” she said, and then in her usual, thorough fashion, she argued that women had to come out of the dark ages.
She got so she wouldn’t go to church unless Mamá made a scene. She argued that she was more connected to God reading her Rousseau than when she was at mass listening to Padre Ignacio intoning the Nicene Creed. “He sounds like he’s gargling with words,” she made fun.
“I worry that you’re losing your faith,” I told her. “That’s our pearl of great price; you know, without it, we’re nothing.”
“You should worry more about your beloved church. Even Padre Ignacio admits some priests are on double payroll.”
“Ay, Minerva,” was all I could manage. I stroked my aching belly. For days, I’d been feeling a heaviness inside me. And I admit it, Minerva’s talk had begun affecting me. I started noting the deadness in Padre Ignacio’s voice, the tedium between the gospel and communion, the dry papery feel of the host in my mouth. My faith was shifting, and I was afraid.
“Sit back,” Minerva said, kindly, seeing the lines of weariness on my face. “Let me finish counting those hairs.”
And suddenly, I was crying in her arms, because I could feel the waters breaking, the pearl of great price slipping out, and I realized I was giving birth to something dead I had been carrying inside me.
After I lost the baby, I felt a strange vacancy. I was an empty house with a sign in front, Se Vende, For Sale. Any vagrant thought could take me.
I woke up in a panic in the middle of the night, sure that some brujo had put a spell on me and that’s why the baby had died. This from Patria Mercedes, who had always kept herself from such low superstitions.
I fell asleep and dreamed the Yanquis were back, but it wasn’t my grandmother’s house they were burning—it was Pedrito’s and mine. My babies, all three of them, were going up in flames. I leapt from the bed crying, “Fire! Fire!”
I wondered if the dead child were not a punishment for my having turned my back on my religious calling? I went over and over my life to this point, complicating the threads with my fingers, knotting everything.
We moved in with Mama until I could get my strength back. She kept trying to comfort me. “That poor child, who knows what it was spared!”
“It is the Lord’s will,” I agreed, but the words sounded hollow to my ear.
Minerva could tell. One day, we were lying side by side on the hammock strung just inside the galería. She must have caught me gazing at our picture of the Good Shepherd, talking to his lambs. Beside him hung the required portrait of El Jefe, touched up to make him look better than he was. “They’re a pair, aren’t they?” she noted.
That moment, I understood her hatred. My family had not been personally hurt by Trujillo, just as before losing my baby, Jesus had not taken anything away from me. But others had been suffering great losses. There were the Perozos, not a man left in that family. And Martinez Reyna and his wife murdered in their bed, and thousands of Haitians massacred at the border, making the river, they say, still run red—iAy, Dios santo!I had heard, but I had not believed. Snug in my heart, fondling my pearl, I had ignored their cries of desolation. How could our loving, all-powerful Father allow us to suffer so? I looked up, challenging Him. And the two faces had merged!
I moved back home with the children in early August, resuming my duties, putting a good face over a sore heart, hiding the sun—as the people around here say—with a finger. And slowly, I began coming back from the dead. What brought me back? It wasn’t God, no señor. It was Pedrito, his grief so silent and animal-like. I put aside my own grief to rescue him from his.
Every night I gave him my milk as if he were my lost child, and afterwards I let him do things I never would have before. “Come here, mi amor,” I’d whisper to guide him through the dark bedroom when he showed up after having been out late in the fields. Then I was the one on horseback, riding him hard and fast until I’d gotten somewhere far away from my aching heart.
His grief hung on. He never spoke of it, but I could tell. One night, a few weeks after the baby was buried, I felt him leaving our bed ever so quietly. My heart sank. He was seeking other consolations in one of the thatched huts around our rancho. I wanted to know the full extent of my losses, so I said nothing and followed him outside.
It was one of those big, bright nights of August when the moon has that luminous color of something ready for harvest. Pedrito came out of the shed with a spade and a small box. He walked guardedly, looking over his shoulder. At last, he stopped at a secluded spot and began to dig a little grave.
I could see now that his grief was dark and odd. I would have to be gentle in coaxing him back. I crouched behind a big ceiba, my fist in my mouth, listening to the thud of soil hitting the box.
After he was gone to the yucca fields the next day, I searched and searched, but I could not find the spot again. Ay, Dios, how I worried that he had taken our baby from consecrated ground. The poor innocent would be stuck in limbo all eternity! I decided to check first before insisting Pedrito dig him back up.
So I went to the graveyard and enlisted a couple of campesinos with the excuse that I’d forgotten the baby’s Virgencita medallion. After several feet of digging, their shovels struck the small coffin.
“Open it,” I said.
“Let us put in the medal ourselves, Dona Patria,” they offered, reluctant to pry open the lid. “It’s not right for you to see.”
“I want to see,” I said.
I should have desisted, I should not have seen what I saw. My child, a bundle of swarming ants! My child, decomposing like any animal! I fell to my knees, overcome by the horrid stench.
“Close him up,” I said, having seen enough.
“What of the medal, Doña Patria?” they reminded me.
It won’t do him any good, I thought, but I slipped it in. I bowed my head, and if this was prayer, then you could say I prayed. I said the names of my sisters, my children, my husband, Mama, Papa. I was deciding right then and there to spare all those I love.
And so it was that Patria Mercedes Mirabal de González was known all around San Jose de Conuco as well as Ojo de Agua as a model Catholic wife and mother. I fooled them all! Yes, for a long time after losing my faith, I went on, making believe.
It wasn’t my idea to go on the pilgrimage to Higüey. That was Mamá’s brainstorm. There had been sightings of the Virgencita. She had appeared one early morning to an old campesino coming into town with his donkey loaded down with garlic. Then a little girl had seen the Virgencita swinging on the bucket that was kept decoratively dangling above the now dry well where she had once appeared back in the 1600s. It was too whimsical a sighting for the archbishop to pronounce as authentic, but still. Even El Jefe had attributed the failure of the invasion from Cayo Confites to our patron saint.
“If she’s helping him—” was all Minerva got out. Mama silenced her with a look that was the grownup equivalent of the old slipper on our butts.“We women in the family need the Virgencita’s help,” Mamá reminded her.
She was right, too. Everyone knew my public sorrow, the lost baby, but none my private one, my loss of faith. Then there was Minerva with her restless mind and her rebellious spirit. Settle her down, Mama prayed. Mate’s asthma was worse than ever and Mama had transferred her to a closer school in San Francisco. Only Dedé was doing well, but she had some big decisions ahead of her and she wanted the Virgencita’s help.
So, the five of us made our plans. I decided not to take the children, so I could give myself over to the pilgrimage. “You sure you women are going on a pilgrimage?” Pedrito teased us. He was happy again, his hands fresh with my body, a quickness in his face. “Five good-looking women visiting the Virgin, I don’t believe it!”
My sisters all looked towards me, expecting I would chide my husband for making light of sacred things. But I had lost my old strictness about sanctity. God, who had played the biggest joke on us, could stand a little teasing.
I rolled my eyes flirtatiously “Ay, sí,” I said, “those roosters of Higüey!”
A cloud passed over Pedrito’s face. He was not a jealous man. I’ll say it plain: he was not a man of imagination, so he wasn’t afflicted by suspicions and worries. But if he saw or heard something he didn’t like, even if he had said it himself, the color would rise in his face and his nostrils flare like a spirited stallion’s.
“Let them crow all they want,” I went on, “I’ve got my handsome rooster in San José de Conuco. And my two little chicks,” I added. Nelson and Noris looked up, alerted by the play in my voice.
We set out in the new car, a used Ford Papa had bought for the store, so he said. But we all knew who it was really for—the only person who knew how to drive it besides Papa. He had hoped that this consolation prize would settle Minerva happily in Ojo de Agua. But every day she was on the road, to Santiago, to San Francisco, to Moca—on store business, she said. Dedé, left alone to mind the store, complained there were more deliveries than sales being made.
Maria Teresa was home from school for the long holiday weekend in honor of El Jefe’s birthday, so she came along. We joked about all the commemorative marches and boring speeches we had been spared by leaving this particular weekend. We could talk freely in the car, since there was no one to overhear us.
“Poor Papá,” María Teresa said. “He’ll have to go all by himself.” “Papá will take very good care of himself, I’m sure, ” Mama said in a sharp voice. We all looked at her surprised. I began to wonder why Mama had suggested this pilgrimage. Mama, who hated even day trips. Something big was troubling her enough to stir her far from home.
It took us a while to get to Higüey, since first we hit traffic going to the capital for the festivities, and then we had to head east on poor roads crossing a dry flat plain. I couldn’t remember sitting for five hours straight in years. But the time flew by. We sang, told stories, reminisced about this or that.
At one point, Minerva suggested we just take off into the mountains like the gavilleros had done. We had heard the stories of the bands of campesinos who took to the hills to fight the Yanqui invaders. Mamá had been a young woman, eighteen, when the Yanquis came.
“Did you sympathize with the gavilleros, Mamá?” Minerva wanted to know, looking in the rearview mirror and narrowly missing a man in an ox cart going too slow. We all cried out. “He was at least a kilometer away,” Minerva defended herself.
“Since when is ten feet a kilometer!” Dedé snapped. She had a knack for numbers, that one, even in an emergency.
Mamá intervened before those two could get into one of their fights. “Of course, I sympathized with our patriots. But what could we do against the Yanquis? They killed anyone who stood in their way. They burned our house down and called it a mistake. They weren’t in their own country so they didn’t have to answer to anyone.”
“The way we Dominicans do, eh?” Minerva said with sarcasm in her voice.Mama was silent a moment, but we could all sense she had more to say. At last, she added, “You’re right, they’re all scoundrels—Dominicans, Yanquis, every last man.”
“Not every one,” I said. After all, I had to defend my husband.
María Teresa agreed, “Not Papá.”
Mama looked out the window a moment, her face struggling with some emotion. Then, she said quietly, “Yes, your father, too.”
We protested, but Mamá would not budge—either in taking back or going further with what she had said.
Now I knew why she had come on her pilgrimage.
The town was jammed with eager pilgrims, and though we tried at all the decent boarding houses, we could not find a single room. Finally we called on some distant relations, who scolded us profusely for not having come to them in the first place. By then, it was dark, but from their windows as we ate the late supper they fixed us, we could see the lights of the chapel where pilgrims were keeping their vigil. I felt a tremor of excitement, as if I were about to meet an estranged friend with whom I longed to be reconciled.
Later, lying in the bed we were sharing, I joined Mamá in her goodnight rosary to the Virgencita. Her voice in the dark was full of need. At the first Sorrowful Mystery, she said Papá’s full name, as if she were calling him to account, not praying for him.
“What’s wrong, Mamá?” I whispered to her when we were finished.
She would not tell me, but when I guessed, “Another woman?” she sighed, and then said, “Ay, Virgencita, why have you forsaken me?”
I closed my eyes and felt her question join mine. Yes, why? I thought. Out loud, I said, “I’m here, Mamá.” It was all the comfort I had.
The next morning we woke early and set out for the chapel, telling our hosts that we were fasting so as not to give them any further bother. “We’re starting our pilgrimage with lies,” Minerva laughed. We breakfasted on water breads and the celebrated little cheeses of Higüey, watching the pilgrims through the door of the cafeteria. Even at this early hour, the streets were full of them.
The square in front of the small chapel was also packed. We joined the line, filing past the beggars who shook their tin cups or waved their crude crutches and canes at us. Inside, the small, stuffy chapel was lit by hundreds of votive candles. I felt woozy in a familiar girlhood way. I used the edge of my mantilla to wipe the sweat on my face as I followed behind Maria Teresa and Minerva, Mamá and Dedé close behind me.
The line moved slowly down the center aisle to the altar, then up a set of stairs to a landing in front of the Virgencita’s picture. María Teresa and Minerva and I managed to squeeze up on the landing together. I peered into the locked case smudged with fingerprints from pilgrims touching the glass.
All I saw at first was a silver frame studded with emeralds and agates and pearls. The whole thing looked gaudy and insincere. Then I made out a sweet, pale girl tending a trough of straw on which lay a tiny baby. A man stood behind her in his red robes, his hands touching his heart. If they hadn’t been wearing halos, they could have been a young couple up near Constanza where the campesinos are reputed to be very white.
“Hail Mary,” Maria Teresa began, “full of grace ...”
I turned around and saw the packed pews, hundreds of weary, upturned faces, and it was as if I’d been facing the wrong way all my life. My faith stirred. It kicked and somersaulted in my belly, coming alive. I turned back and touched my hand to the dirty glass.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” I joined in.
I stared at her pale, pretty face and challenged her. Here I am, Virgencita. Where are you?
And I heard her answer me with the coughs and cries and whispers of the crowd: Here, Patria Mercedes, Fm here, all around you. I’ve already more than appeared.