These are just about the best people in the world. I love them dearly. You’ll have to poke around this blog (starting with the masthead) to find the chapters that lead up to these.
Don’t imagine that this baby in the ever-growing cradle with the Great Pyrenees always near her was the only baby that had been admired in the village in the recent past. There was a boy named Hermes, about thirteen years old at the time of Consuelo’s arrival, who had been of at least equal interest to the people. He was the son of Sophia and lived just a few doors from Juanita and Consuelo.
Hermes had been a serious boy baby. He rarely cried and almost never demanded anything. He seemed always busy with some problem of his own design. He had never had, however, the same spark in his eyes as Consuelo who was living and laughing with Juanita. He attracted people for quite different reasons.
Hermes had a round face and a sharp little nose. Hermes looked much like a poet or maybe a seer or prophet. Yes, he had the far away gaze and seldom blinking eye look of a prophet. “Have you seen Hermes today,” people would say. “He has that look. I’m sure he will have something to say to us soon,” the villagers told each other. And they managed everyday to pass by Sophia’s house on the pretense of some chore or another in order to look at Hermes.
He sometimes played with his toes, even in adolescence, although it seemed more as if he were calculating than strictly playing. He sometimes sucked on licorice offered him or chewed on a crust of bread. Other than that, his appetite for the purely material was modest. He laughed occasionally, but his laugh seemed more ironic than sincerely joyful. He did not, for example, guffaw. His laugh came from a sideways semi-smile.
While he was still quite a young person, he sat in a little painted chair outside his mother’s door among the sweet peas and the hollyhocks. He was always dressed in his christening gown. So as people came round to see him sitting there, the white light of his costume greeted them and he seemed to glow there in his painted chair like a little saint. They sometimes chucked him under his chin and cooed at him and smoothed his thin little hair, all for good luck rather than with much affection. “Good day, Hermes. Make my goiter go away and I’ll bring you a candy,” one said. “Oh, good Hermes,” said an old woman as she stroked his bare right foot, “Please give me some teeth so I can chew my beef steak.” His right foot became smooth and shiny from all the touching and kissing that people did, for they especially thought that touching the foot brought luck. And, yes, the foot stroking brought on those ironic little Hermes laughs.
He was also hung with various religious medallions offered in the hope that he would intercede for them with the God they believed in but believed they had no access to. “Here is an unworthy present,” someone said and hung a tin medal in the shape of an arm around his neck. “Please have a word with Jesus for me and make my arms grow big and strong so I can beat Phillip at arm wrestling,” another pleaded. Hermes’ little chair grew weary with gifts for it was also hung, by villagers, with medallions and with rosaries of various kinds.
People often and sat or kneeled before him. They waited, pointlessly it turned out, for some word, because he was the kind of child that it forever seemed as if some word might be forthcoming. The people were seldom satisfied for Hermes seldom spoke.
Hermes had an ordinary crib and no dogs about, but Hermes was an extraordinary baby and everyone knew and remembered this about him.
The Painted Chair
Have you ever seen a child’s painted chair? A painted chair has a tiny ladder back and the back slats and the legs are painted with bright reds and yellows and blues. The seat is woven tightly with raffia and palm fibers. The whole chair does not stand more than eight or ten inches from seat to ground so that a little body with short legs can easily sit in it and have feet touching the earth. This is the seat upon which Hermes sat amidst the mauve and yellow hollyhocks. The wonderful thing about Hermes and his chair is that Hermes could sit in this chair well into adulthood because Hermes, you see, never did grow much.
He did become less baby looking. His nose became sharper and some of the roundness of his cheeks fell away so that a jaw line was discernible. As he aged, he did not always wear his christening dress, although sometimes he did. Now that he was thirteen, however, and nearly an adult, his mother had made him a little suit with a collarless jacket and short boxy pants. The entire of the suit was dyed a wonderful dark brown with a dye made from the walnuts of the tree growing out of Juanita’s baby’s cradle.
Hermes preferred to go without shoes because people never stopped rubbing his foot for luck and he never did stop calculating with and on his toes. He counted many things and did household budgets and figured who owed what to whom. Now the people did not come to him only to see if he would bless them or intercede for them. They came with business problems. “Hermes, I’ve sold a pig for twenty dollars but I wonder if I’ve made anything on it. Here are bills I had to pay for feed over the year. It seemed it must have cost me quite a lot to grow that pig.” “Hermes, I need an operation. How many years will it take me to pay the doctor, assuming that I can ever work again?” They carried lists of debts and hopes for income and asked him to help them develop household budgets. They came to him before buying a mule or selling corn. They came to him when they had to build a new house. He listened to their ideas and determined the cubic feet of the new structure and therefore could tell, within a brick or two, exactly how many adobe blocks would need to be made and dried and how many hours the work to make them would consume. He could figure areas of fields so that wills could be written and land distributed precisely and fairly to beneficiaries. All of this difficult mathematical work he did when asked and with and on his toes and in his head. He loved this work. “All is number,” was about the most profound thing he was ever heard to actually say by way of prophecy.
When he was not calculating, or being prayed to or asked for advice, he simply sat thinking, feeling the warm earth under his toes and between his toes, smelling the calendulas and watching the hollyhocks grow taller and taller while he remained about the same height. He thought and wondered at the gifts he clearly had. The gifts were more important, he knew even as a small boy, than his size or any other limitation he may have. He was, he knew, simply on earth to do well what he could do well. This he was determined to do.
He had a nice pair of white silk knee socks and some lovely black patent leather buckle strap shoes; these were so glossy he could see his own face in them. Yes, he could wear shoes and did upon occasion. Sometimes, on special days, he put these socks and shoes upon his feet. Then he carefully dressed in his walnut suit, and sat in his little painted chair. On days such as these, he looked quite fine and serious. He was accorded great respect by friends and neighbors for he had saved many villagers from penury. Yes, they knew Hermes’s worth. He received thanks without blinking.
As he became older, his hair was cut below the ears and was thicker than his thin wispy baby hair had been. It was brownish red or chestnut and not unlike the color of his walnut suit.
Hermes’s full grown though still quite small adulthood was achieved long after, or a few years after, anyway, Consuelo, the child of Juanita was no longer really a baby but was already a girl who preferred garments that showed off her small waist. She especially liked a short red velvet jacket her mother had ordered from HK. She wore this jacket with lace leather boots that sported quite long tongues. In this outfit, including the dark brown velvet britches she wore with the jacket and boots, she looked a little like a military hero. It was true that she did seem to fancy epaulets and medals she found in pawn shops, left there by military heroes of unknown wars. She sewed the epaulets upon the shoulders of her jacket and hung the heavy medals around her neck. So, in the abundance of medals about their persons, she and Hermes had something in common.
She was altogether much taller and bigger than was Hermes by the time she was ten and he was twenty-three. By the time she was sixteen, she was a handsome woman, full and strong and ready any minute for a fight with words or pen because you see she talked and wrote incessantly. She loved to speak. She loved to read. She loved to write letters. These she wrote with a fearless coral colored fountain pen. She favored onionskin paper.
Hermes, meanwhile, sat. Hermes looked around, and up and down, and seldom blinked.
Hermes had a niece named Epiphany. I came to know her very well when she was an older, grown up woman of about fifty and as big around as Kate Smith but on a bigger frame, maybe about five foot seven. She had lots of bright red hair cascading down her back when I knew her. It was just beginning to grey but that made her look even more exotic than she had in youth people told me. That hair of hers was so extravagant even at fifty that it reached nearly to her waist. Some days she wound it all around a giant sausage shaped form that she called a rat. It was a thing that she’d made of her own hair, saved from the many brushings she gave it. Some days she just let it tumble around her as she swept and baked and walked about the plaza delivering Sophia’s medicines and gifts to neighbors and friends.
I was renting a room from her and her mother Ramona and her grandmother Sophia. In fact, Epiphany and Ramona as well as Sophia told me many of the stories of the village and its history. They were, what we anthropologists call, “primary informants.” It was because of these stories that I came to hear about Epiphany’s early years.
When Epiphany was born she fit into the palm of her mother’s right hand. I say right hand because her mother, Ramona, had a left hand substantially bigger than her right. It was something you noticed about her right away. Everyone knew that it would make a difference in imagining the size of the infant Epiphany if you said right hand rather than left hand in describing her. So everyone said that the newborn had fit into the palm of her mother’s right hand.
Epiphany was only twelve years younger than Ramona’s brother, Hermes, her uncle. Of course, Ramona herself was only about fifteen when Epiphany was born. She had been pregnant without benefit of marriage. Babies were so scarce, as I have mentioned, that people cared little about husbands and celebrated Ramona’s condition. In truth, everyone in the village watched her like a hawk lest some ill befall her during the pregnancy. Though they knew Sophia would tend her well, they sent baskets of freshly baked bread, pies, and steaming bean pots to the house just to be on the safe side.
And then out popped this minuscule baby. Everyone said of Ramona that, “She did not eat enough.” “The baby is small because the mother starved herself while carrying the poor thing.” However, Ramona’s appetite when I observed her was substantial. She was significantly larger than Epiphany when I first came to live with them and apparently had always been a “big girl.” I would guess she weighed well over two hundred pounds and was a muscular five feet nine or ten. And besides, Sophia, her mother and Epiphany’s grandmother, was always one to urge food upon a person, pregnant or not. I presumed she had always done this with her “kids” as she called everyone in the village more than ten years younger than herself.
Though in her mid-eighties when I first knew her, Sophia was constantly cooking and pressing food on me and everyone else who entered the house. No one could leave without eating for she said it would “bring shame” to her if we didn’t oblige. “It is my honor, my gift to you,” she’d say. “I may as well die if I can’t feed you,” she’d say and cast her eyes to the floor. So, of course we’d pretend hunger for her sake. “Oh, yes, please. I could eat a horse.” She’d fill a plate, the visitor would force the food down, and then, faster than one could protest, second helpings were served. “Come now, you’re too thin. You must have some bulk to prepare you for times of stress and disease,” she advised. This she did know something about to be sure.
When I was doing my field work, I always ate meals with the Sophia and Epiphany and Ramona. Hermes came for nearly every meal as well, unless he was busy working with Consuelo. If that were the case, he took his meals with her.
I always ate far more than I needed. And in addition, I was forced to consume several plates of this or that if left alone with Sophia during the day. My interviews with her on tape are constantly interrupted. “How about some nice pumpkin cookies? We’ve been talking far too long,” a scratchy voice calls out to me across the years. Or, “Just let me finish icing these shortbreads and we’ll have some tea and a little snack.” I remember, listening to the recordings all these years later, how helpless I was to refuse. I gained fifteen pounds that first summer.
Sophia, though in her eighties, was still a strong woman in the late nineteen forties, but a short one. She was maybe only five one or two. She told me that she had been considerably taller in her youth. “Ah, you should have seen me in my twenties. I was a tall, beautiful girl. Serious, though. Always serious,” she said. She was not only short when I met her, but slightly stooped. She walked with a pronounced rock in her slow gait, as if she had injured her right hip or had a stiff joint there. Nevertheless, she still carried firewood and worked with medicinal herbs and was present for most village births as an advisor. But times had changed. The people in the village who had become Methodists wouldn’t call upon her. “Ignorance,” she said. “Nothing for it.” And one of the Baptist ministers in Purgatoria who had attracted some of the village people to his congregation, had fumed against the use of “witchcraft” in the treatment of illness, saying from the pulpit that old women who used plants and unguents of various kinds should be avoided. “They are of the devil, these old curanderas. Shake the dust from your feet. Fear for your soul,” he ranted.
In the years after I was in the village, Sophia cooked in her own wing of the house. It was the biggest room in the house by far. She had her own stove, much smaller than the old one in her original home on the plaza, and kept most of her plants and books in that room along with a small iron frame bed and all of the family photographs. She stayed there in her private area most of the day. Except, of course, at meal times or when she was cooking for the family. Then she was in the large front room which also served as the main kitchen and dining room.
Sophia, if she hadn’t cooked the meal, nevertheless directed its serving and consumption and provided running critique. “More beans on that plate,” she’d screech at whomever was serving. “The tortillas are undercooked and pasty,” she’d say between the remaining teeth in her mouth as she fingered the warm flat breads. Bits of boiled corn and dribbles of bean juice escaped between those same few teeth when she talked. Her chin was forever shining with the grease of the food while we dined. “Eat, eat, Epiphany,” she’d grumble while pinching the middle-aged woman’s upper arm, “You’ll never grow at this rate.” “Ramona, you are starving yourself. For what! Not a man, surely.” and she herself would pick up a large wooden ladle and scoop another tremendous helping of corn chowder into her daughter’s bowl.” Thus both women, the daughter and granddaughter of Sophia, ate and had always, apparently, eaten, like ranch hands or boxers after a ten mile run or loggers after a morning of felling cedars.
So food or lack thereof while still in the womb did not explain Epiphany’s size when she was born.
It would rather seem that this was simply a smallish family tending genetically toward smallness and sharp noses and such. These traits were certainly present in Hermes as well Epiphany.
Ramona, however, was, as I said, “a big girl” and woman and had been all her life. At the time of Epiphany’s birth, the women of the household told me, she had breasts big enough to accommodate the baby Epiphany to sleep down in between them while she worked hoeing chilies and beans and peppers. Granted a baby the size of the palm of a hand did not require much in the way of accommodation.
Ramona, when Epiphany was young, worked in the fields of a large nearby commercial farm in order to support the family: Sophia, Hermes, Epiphany and herself. Sophia always prepared Ramona and Epiphany for the day of hard labor.
The baby was wrapped in an oversized, fresh handkerchief and given a large, sloppy, helping of wheat gruel laced with molasses then tucked into Ramona’s bosom each morning before she left the house. Sophia packed a large lunch for Ramona, usually something that contained meat, a bowl of beans and one of corn pudding, a jar of tea, and a slice or two of buttered bread. These she placed in a wicker basket along with a piece of fruit and a small covered dish of extra gruel often mixed with ground nut paste, bee pollen and honey, for the baby.
Accommodating Epiphany was so effortless that it was easy for Ramona and everyone else to forget that there was a baby there at all. That people forgot about Epiphany was aided by the fact that while Ramona was pregnant, her tummy was quite small or, in truth, hard to see. She never really looked pregnant. So that while everyone knew intellectually about the pregnancy and brought food and other gifts for the mother to be, they forgot all about it when she was just walking about or playing or working outside.
Of course they all knew when the baby was born, though it took very little time, an hour of labor at the most, and caused Ramona almost no discomfort. She was out in the field working again within a few hours of the delivery. Even so, the villagers celebrated wildly that same night with fireworks and songs and a big dance in the plaza. Then they all sort of forgot the birth as well. There simply were no memorable tales of suffering to be told and it was these that always captured the imagination of the villagers.
Indeed, the baby was so small, the pregnancy so comfortable, and the birth so easy that many people who worked the fields with Ramona were quite surprised when she pulled the baby out occasionally to nurse her or at lunch time to feed her some solid food. Each time the baby came up from the bosom, whomever was about and witnessing was once against astonished. “Good God,” someone would cry out. “What is that?” And then, embarrassed, he or she would see it was a baby and remember. Indeed, almost nobody remembered from day to day that the baby was there all the while between Ramona’s breasts sleeping and humming to herself while Ramona hoed. Even Ramona was sometimes surprised to find her when she occasionally plunged into her own cleavage to find a kerchief with which to mop her sweaty brow. Yet there was Epiphany and up she came with the kerchief, smiling and tiny, pale and shining, like a pearl popping out of an oyster.
The baby in this way became accustomed to being a surprise and to being something of great value, for when people actually recognized her for what she was, they rushed to Ramona’s side to pet and praise the infant. “Oh, you sweet thing. How much you’ve grown since yesterday,” a woman would say. “Oh, you darling dumpling. Are you not simply smothered by your mother’s sweat and heaves?” The men took off their straw hats, all stained around the crown and band from years of service in the hot fields, pushed their hair back from their brows with their rough, calloused hands, and shyly touched her tiny feet and held her small hands. Their dark, furrowed faces beamed and their work worn, sad eyes filled with tears. The women wiped the sweat from their sunburned faces and leaned into her to kiss her tiny nose. They crossed themselves and prayed for her health, that she would be fecund, and that she would be delivered from the hard lives all women seemed destined to have. They led Ramona and the baby to the bank of the irrigation ditch and bid them stay near them at lunchtime as they munched and lounged beneath the nearest cottonwood tree.
The baby came to love the attention. The baby in this way also became accustomed to the movement and rhythm of her mother’s body and the rhythm of her work and the sound of her efforts in the fields. She also became accustomed to heat and sweat and did not mind these. In fact, she came to think of heat and sweat as necessary elements of love and safety.
At night when it was time to sleep all in a heap (as many of the women continued to do even when Juanita ceased doing so and everything seemed as if it might be all right), Ramona found a quiet place for Epiphany in a drawer lined with a goose down quilt and fitted with a soft white duck feather pillow in the corner of the room. The drawer was at the base of a wonderful and ancient birthing bed carved and painted blue, with four posted corners and a heavy painted roof. The sides and ends were tiled with large panels and the walls on the two sides where the bed fit against the wall were painted with images of pear and plum trees bearing large ripe fruits. The occasion for its intended use had never come, for it was a bed that had belonged to the twin who, of course, died without issue.
The women piled themselves on mattresses and pillows with their sunflower seeds and novels and propped their heads up and crooked their knees and read and snacked together. All the while Epiphany dawdled in her drawer and played with her toes, though not with the perspicacity of Hermes, and sucked her little fingers. Epiphany came in this way to enjoy a drawer and to love the sound of pages turning and the scent of lilac and of lotions. She came to love the crackle of a brush in hair. She came to love the sounds and smells the women made together. Unlike Consuelo who could not wait to be in her own home through the night, Epiphany secretly hoped that these wonderful communal nights would never end.
While Epiphany was young, Sophia, of course continued to contribute to the household though Ramona was the main wage earner. Sophia liked to make a pie sometimes. She liked to walk the plaza and engage the languid dogs and listless cats together in some games. She related and interpreted dreams and cared for sick and aging people in the village and brought soup to them. She was mightily loved for all her caring. This she did until the day she died. It was very well for this small family to have money from Ramona’s labors, but it was the grace and beauty from Sophia’s way of being in the world that made their lives special. All together this was good life.
Their household, the original one, on the plaza, not the one in which they lived when I first knew them, was just a few doors away from Juanita’s home. Sophia still talked about this house in great detail in the late nineteen forties and helped me make written plans and drawings of its interior so that I could understand what a typical plaza household was like before all the “modern” changes had been made. She had some photographs of the interior, taken on special holiday occasions. And the house was still occupied by Hermes. So I was taken there many times and Sophia sometimes made me sit for a cup of tea there while she described the house as it had been when she was a young woman. It really hadn’t changed much.
The plaster on the adobe outside and in was still white and smooth, maintained lovingly by Hermes. The table and the shelves and all the chairs were made of cleanest mountain pine and brightly polished. The vigas were black with age and in the corner was a small fireplace, dome shaped like the orno, the beehive oven outside in which Sophia used to bake her bread. Their fireplace, too, was plastered white.
Around the walls were hung images of Sophia’s ancestors, solemn looking women dressed in black lace and dreary looking mustachioed men in floppy bow ties, and somber jackets. Some of the photographs were hand tinted so that the people in them had cheeks and lips that glowed an odd pink that made them look like the painted dead in coffins. Their skin in the pictures matched the color of dried tangerines. The frames were all ornate, deeply sculpted and gold leafed, though chipped or tarnished in places.
Here and there in the walls were niches, deeply cut and painted at their borders with a deep Marian blue. They held within them a variety of representations of the Virgin herself, each more pale and mournful looking than the last, each draped with painted plaster and bereft in appearance. Bereft and sorrowful, perhaps, because the joy of her life was absent from her in all of these statues. Beyond her various sight lines he hung on a carved cedar crucifix. But she would have grimaced had she seen him and she was spared, at least, this. He was, in the foot-high sculpture, extravagantly skeletonized and fixed to his cross at a grotesque angle. His face was contorted in agony. Nothing about this image could give comfort to anyone. The image of the son adorned a wooden door that led to a bedroom, now Hermes’, and over the door was a dusty, dried piece of palm from some distant past Palm Sunday. Hermes wasn’t sure, but thought it might have been something Sophia put there the year he took his first communion.
In one corner of that bedroom, seldom used, was an iron bedstead covered with a luxurious quilt made of the shreds and tatters of Sophia’s grandmothers’ and great grandmothers’ dresses. Sophia had given the quilt to Hermes when she went to live in the new house. She brought it out into the light one day to show it to me. The stitches that made the fabric one were tiny and even. The seams were tough and flawless.
A large wooden candelabra hung over the big kitchen table. It hung from a dark iron chain and had fixed on it four large beeswax candles. These candles, when lit, made a honey colored flickering light and fine moving shadows on the walls and on the floor and under chairs.
I was there many evenings talking with Hermes. He still preferred the candlelight of his childhood. When he lit the candles on the candelabra, standing tiptoe on a kitchen chair, their soft glow gave the room the feeling of an ancient catacomb and the sensibility of a wondrous living thing. I could imagine the place when it was inhabited by Sophia, Ramona, and the young Epiphany. I could imagine them moving around on the clean earthen floors, their bodies casting long dark shapes. The place must have seemed to have been inhabited by a covey of wizened nuns.
There was little in the place to detract from the impression I had of going back in time. Hermes had hung a few more recent framed photographs and some snap shots of Epiphany at different stages of her life were tucked into some of the old frames. Other than those pictures, what I saw was probably pretty much how things had looked since the early nineteen hundreds