What follows are the next two chapters of my serialized novel, The Romance of the Village of Solución. Check out the masthead for the beginning….and then posts below for subsequent chapters. This novel was begun about a decade ago. It is being rewritten bit by bit and then will be submitted for publication.
Juanita Finds a Husband: 1887
Juanita was adored by her family and all the other women and men of the village. She grew steadily and with little drama. Her playmates included a precocious child named Sophia. Sophia was favored with more of Juanita’s attention than the other attractive but less gifted playmates who courted her.
There was something special in that friendship, something that made their time together sparkle like a bonfire or a lightening strike or sun hitting a half buried bit of glass in the desert. It was clear that the two had a future together.
Juanita, in spite of her interest in Sophia’s wild imagination of their possible futures, had no particular aspirations except to someday be a mother. Every woman in Solución shared that dream. No one knew if she would be thus blessed. All prayed and did what they could to be worthy of that blessing themselves. Their prayers were met with limited success.
When Juanita met a dreamy young musician from the next village down the road, she convinced herself that she was in love in order to get on with her life and the possibility of a fulfilling her primary ambition. The young man, well educated for the period and place, was more than willing to set up a household with Juanita and began to save money from his labors at an office in the nearby town with this end in mind. Juanita’s parents promised to give her a small house adjoining the central plaza in the village. Thus, as their whispered talks together became serious and their chaste visits more frequent, they made plans for a life together knowing that they did not want for much in order to begin a family life.
Though this was not a grand romance, Juanita had pleasant feelings for this young man. He was a good fellow with a head of curly, dark hair and a chin that commanded respect. Prominent chins were much valued in Juanita’s family. He had a full, dark, neatly trimmed moustache that he maintained with daily effort. He dressed modestly and properly in a well-pressed suit coat and dark trousers. He always wore a dazzling white shirt, one of three that his mother bleached and starched and ironed after each wearing. The shirt itself had a collar with prominent “wings,” removable to ease his mother’s efforts.
Around his neck was a silk Windsor tie. The ties he chose from a catalogue were woven with a colorful pattern that gave forth a quite jaunty look to his otherwise somber appearance.
The young man respected himself and respected Juanita. He treated her with the dignity she deserved. Though she required no proof of his comradeship and faith in her, she appreciated and carefully catalogued the wonderful letters he sent to her during his absence. Some of these survived into recent times. I copied those that I was permitted to see and found a few of these in one of my old journals yesterday. One particularly is worth quoting in order to demonstrate the young man’s sweetness:
“My dearest Juanita,
I cannot refrain from writing you a few lines to-day, though we parted so recently. My thoughts are constantly with you, and your pleasant face and sweet smile seem even now to be before my mind’s eye. I do not know that it is much satisfaction to you to be so often reminded of my love and devotion, but it is a pleasure to me to speak my thoughts on the subject and perhaps you will think me selfish in this respect…..”
And so on.
Juanita, who had many admirers, refused the attentions of other gentlemen once she and her young lover made a commitment to one another. She went nowhere with a man unless he was an uncle or cousin or her own father. Uncle Joachim, somewhat chastened by old age and attempting to change the reputation held of him by his kin as death approached, was often a chaperon.
One day the young man asked if she were ready to name the day. She declared happily that she was and planning for the occasion of the wedding commenced. Every woman who had taken part Juanita’s birth was now called upon to assist in preparation of linens, food, and the decoration of the plaza where the reception fiesta would be held. The church was whitewashed and all the woodwork inside polished.
Someone made arrangements for a padre to come to officiate. He was promised that no one would be offended if he did not care to stay over night in the village.
Trees and bushes in the plaza were trimmed and pruned. The twin graves were covered with new plants and flowers so that they would be in bloom on the day of the wedding. Desert mallow, marigold, and poppy were planted all around the borders of the plaza and fine, smooth stones were brought from the arroyo to make a new pathway from the church to an arbor that the young groom himself made of ponderosa cut and carried from the mountains.
The women who helped birth Juanita also helped to put together a marriage outfit for the young bride. She was given all new clothing and linens, and her house was scrubbed and provided with furniture and silverware and dishes.
On the morning of the wedding, Juanita was dressed in white with a beaded veil and carried a wreath of orange blossoms. The gown she wore was constructed from a beautiful antique lace. It had a high collar that emphasized her slender, shapely neck. The sleeves were puffy and long and studded with elaborate white silk rosettes. The waist of the gown was fitted and ribbed so that nothing of Juanita’s body was left to the imagination.
The groom wore a black morning coat with a swallow tail and, underneath, a deeply cut white vest, and a white shirt with a tall, heavily starched white collar. His white bow tie was made of silk ribbon.
Juanita’s sole bridesmaid, Sophia, was also dressed in white and adorned with orange blossoms. They were all handsome and happy that day.
Forty-seven pairs of eyes, and numerous others belonging to distant friends and non-related relatives, wept as the vows were spoken. Forty-seven pairs of eyes closed and prayed silently that this couple would be blessed with off-spring. Juanita’s mother fainted dead away with hope and joy as vows were exchanged. Juanita’s father’s smile was so broad and proud it looked as if his dark face might crack. This old gentleman, it must be said, had played no role in Juanita’s life up until the wedding day. In fact, he had never married Juanita’s mother. Still he came to witness his only child’s big day and he fairly burst with the pride of it all.
The wary priest, it must be said, did not linger after his duties were performed. His pony was quickly repacked with gold embroidered vestments, crosses, and vials of holy water and he was off at a gallop long before sunset, indeed, not long past high noon.
Juanita’s father hired a band from Juarez to play in the plaza. He paid to have a group of dancers come with them as well. He had an ox killed and roasted in a pit. He donated twenty of his older chickens to be stewed and roasted. He bought two large bags of white flour and one of corn meal to be used in the preparation of the feast. He was trying, some said, to make up for his life long neglect of this lovely daughter of his.
The women of the village cut and sliced and mixed and ground and shucked and peeled and floured and fried and wrapped and stuffed for three days before the wedding day. In consequence, after the ceremony, there was much dancing and singing and and eating. Uncle Joachim, relieved of the burden of chaperonship, drank to excess and curled up near the twin graves where he slept for several hours in the late afternoon sun and well into the night while others sang, ate and danced. Men of the village who remained sober gave speeches to each other as well as to the groom. Most of what they said does not bear repeating. The groom was embarrassed and disgusted but maintained his silence for the sake of Juanita. The women, lovely and sly in the mantillas and frilly gowns, brightened about their cheeks upon hearing the suggestions for a happy marriage the men made in their speeches. They looked at each other, feigned shock and surprise as they were supposed to do, and turned their eyes to the ground. But they were not unfamiliar with the bragging of the men. They knew that in reality the men had very little else but imagination when it came to fulfilling nuptial duties. They knew that the men were never subtle or romantic in their approaches to them. They knew that marriages would never last if not for the confining nets of custom and tradition and their lack of choice. The women remembered, anew, why they were relieved to have the excuse of their fear of ghosts in order to sleep in great heaps together.
Never mind. Nothing could spoil the joy of this day. There was hope for a future that might be brighter.
In a few hours, in the late afternoon, the couple went into the house and changed into riding clothes. Juanita emerged in boots and pants that nearly matched those into which her young groom had changed. Their horses were ready and, with a well laden pack horse which Sophia had decorated with garlands of roses, they rode off into the mountains for a week of honeymooning under the stars. It was during this adventure that Juanita, indeed, conceived a child.
Death is a frequent visitor: 1889
Life seemed to follow an appropriate course during the next two years. The baby was born to great celebration. The husband was a good one. Juanita enjoyed her household duties. Uncle Joachim died. Sophia married and bore two children, Ramona and Armando, always called Hermes. Sophia was considered especially fortunate after the birth of two children. Many believed that she must have some strong medicines or potions and they wondered about her. Her reputation as a fecund woman with, perhaps, some secret knowledge that might increase one’s capacity for conceiving spread to villages far beyond Solución.
Sophia, still the one of the pair of friends who was imaginative, was not content with having simply a fine reputation for fertility. She was not content to simply raise children, clean a house, and split kindling. If people thought she had strong medicine, why not capitalize on it, she decided. Thus she began her long career as midwife, herbalist, and healer.
Then came an invisible, devastating stranger. This was the flu epidemic of eighteen-eighty-nine. Many in the village were stricken first with respiratory problems, then with problems of the nervous system, and finally by gastrointestinal distress. Juanita’s mother and father were among the first to go. So many were dying, there were, finally, no coffins available. Village handy men found scraps of lumber here and there and dismantled a few sheds. They nailed together makeshift boxes as well as they could. Women found bits of woven cloth and blankets with which to line them. Juanita’s mother and father were laid out, wrapped in clean white sheeting, grieved over, and put into the earth in a shared pine container. Juanita herself cut and sprinkled sweet sage over the bodies before the box was closed.
When the flu struck, Sophia took it upon herself to study the disease. Sophia administered to all who fell ill. She tried all the newest treatments for which she could find reference. Some suggested efficacy in combating the disease. Potassium bromides had been used with some good effect the literature she had on hand said. Opium was, of course, indicated for the extreme agitation that often accompanied the affliction.
She made gelsemium from the dried rhizome and root of the yellow jasmine, a plant she ordered from herbalists she tracked down after reading about the epidemic in city newspapers. Ads and claims for cures were common in those days, and Sophia tried them all. The alkaloids present in the bark of the yellow jasmine root is probably the active ingredient and would have some effect she reasoned. She gave the gelsemium doses to most of those in the village who had been stricken.
Truth be told, she tried everything she heard or read about. She stuffed asifidity pouches with camphor and hung these around the necks of all the village children. She rubbed chests with a mixture of lard and turpentine and placed a few drops of the turpentine on sugar cubes to make the medicine more palatable to the youngsters. She boiled down onions into a thick, sweet syrup and brought bottles of this to each household to be used as a tonic.
She drew the line at using a remedy, recommended by some, that was made of dried sheep dung.
Her services were called upon all during the seemingly endless scourge. She cared for everyone and could be found ministering to the old and the young day and night. None did she care for with more hope and fervor than Juanita’s spouse and child.
The young husband was the first of the two to show symptoms. For a day or so he complained of a severe headache. He became confused and agitated. Sophia got him into a bed and urged him to rest and drink water boiled with bits of cherry bark. This calmed him for a few moments, but he soon tossed blankets off and threw further mugs of the proffered brew against the wall. During the next hours, he sometimes jumped up and paced up and down the floor of the little house then screamed out the window at things and people no one else could see. He mistook the few trees on the plaza for men and the sparse bushes and tumbleweeds for women. Sophia could see by his behavior and pallor that his temperature had risen dramatically by evening when she returned from making the rounds to care for others in the village. He complained of a chill. He struggled mightily that night against the grips of a powerful seizure.
While Sophia did her best with the husband, Juanita tried to comfort the child, barely two years old. He had developed a fever during the day and lay listless in her arms in the far corner of the room. The course of his illness was quite different from that of his father. He became nauseous and vomited repeatedly during the night. His pulse slowed and his body became rigid in his mother’s arms. He lapsed into a coma around midnight.
Try as both women did, both husband and child died within the week. They were two of the more than thirty villagers who were prematurely taken that year.
Sophia was with Juanita when her husband died. They had been up for several nights with man and child, holding hands with each other and with the beloved ones. There had been no tears, not yet. But, later, yes. When the suffering young man breathed his last, the women fetched a small tin tub of warm water with soap and slowly undressed him. They began to bathe his body, the life and vigor drained away from it. They stood each on one side and leaned against the bed gently bathing his skin to prepare him for his burial clothes, so recently his wedding clothes. Juanita put her hand under his back to lift him slightly for the bath. It was when she felt the warmth still in his back that she began to cry. There was pooled all that was left of his vital spirit.
Juanita’s husband and the child were laid to rest together, he in his black morning coat and the little one in a small suit with a large lacey collar that Juanita’s mother had made for him on his last birthday. A photographer was called to make a picture of them before they were wrapped tightly in cotton muslin and an antique blanket with a beautiful pattern of indigo stars. Then they were placed in a box made of boards from Juanita’s mother’s chicken house and carried to the sacred ground high up on the hill, near the three crosses.
Most all of the village doors, including Juanita’s, were draped
in black crepe.