|(Note: I am posting rewrites of The Romance of the Village of Solución. Scroll down or check the masthead for earlier chapters. Remarks welcome at @dedanaan on Twitter)
“The anthropologist Lola Romanucci-Ross, who once worked with Margaret Mead, observed that anthropological field trips echo the heroic voyages of classical literature. Not just scientific expeditions, they are ‘voyages of self-discovery’ and ‘metaphors for finding oneself…in magical flight, far from creatures of their own kind, [anthropologists]…go to other worlds and return with their versions of them.”
Quoted in: Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict: The Kinship of Women
University of Massachusetts Press: Amherst 1999
One time I wanted two moons
in the sky.
But I needed someone to look up and see
those two moons
because I wanted to hear him
try and convince the others in the village
of what he saw.
I knew it would be funny.
From The Wishing Bone Cycle
by Jacob Nibenegenesabe, tr. Howard Norman
Juanita is Born: circa 1864
Juanita’s mother missed first one menstrual period and then another. Her belly began to swell. She didn’t feel well. She was pregnant.
The anticipated birth was cause for daily celebrations, tea drinking, friendly gossip, and ministrations. The women of the village rubbed and oiled the body of the mother-to-be. They made certain that she was never frightened, always well fed, and never alone during the day or during the long dark nights. Of course, the women were all sleeping in a house together, so it was easy for them to fuss over the young expectant and give her special attention. They made syrupy, hot drinks to relax her. They saved the sweetest, meatiest morsels from their own stew pots to feed her. They searched their wardrobes for old laces and fine silks and with these festooned her in spite of her protestations. She looked alternatively like a wraith and a demonic bride from the middle ages.
All the women took up knitting and those who had stopped weaving started again. In their knitting and weaving they made the finest attire for this baby to be.
For a long time, Juanita’s mother couldn’t decide who should be present and attending to her at the time of her confinement. At first it seemed that Juanita’s mother would want only the midwife and her closest friends with her when she labor began. But life in a small village is more complicated than this. So she thought further.
She knew she wanted the two grandmothers to be there. But she also wanted her husband’s uncle, Joachim, and her husband’s uncle’s present wife. The wife was nice to her, and her husband’s uncle had helped raise the husband when he was a difficult, headstrong teen. Her husband often called his uncle “father.” But if the present wife was to be invited, then what about the wife who was actually in the household when the uncle was helping with the boy? She considered herself to be a grandmother too. Since Juanita’s mother didn’t want to offend anyone for fear of future complications (the ex-wife was prosperous and perhaps would not invite her to her extravagant parties or pass on wealth to them if she were excluded.), Juanita’s mother decided to invite both wives. But if these with a tenuous claim to be part of the family were to be welcomed, what about her great grandmother? She would be without doubt mortally wounded if she were excluded.
There were other considerations. Juanita’s mother’s closest friend, Paciones, did not care for Joachim. She thought him crude and lewd. He had pinched her behind once. And he had a way of leering over his mug of beer that disgusted her. The drinking was another strike against him.
Juanita’s mother wanted Paciones by her side. Thus she would have to be cautioned to hold her tongue because Joachim was family and he would, of course, be part of the birthing party.
It grieved Juanita’s mother and to have to sort through the list of those she loved and imagine how they might all come together in peace.
When it got right down to it, there were many more whom probably ought to be invited. There were the aunties and the nieces. They could not be ignored. The list grew longer and longer. It was no longer a birth but a birthday; no longer a birth but a homecoming for those who had left the village or lived out in the canyons or had moved to a distant town. The invitations were necessarily vague. The date was unpredictable. The sex of the baby was, of course, unknown until the baby’s actual appearance. But surely a girl was expected, else why the impulse to invite all of these women? And of course, the women had, in their rubbing and anointing, managed to overwhelm nature with their own desires for a new female. They were determined to have their way.
All of the women were naturally delighted to have been invited. They burned with anticipatory pleasure as time passed. When the day predicted by the midwife approached, the women coming from a distance arrived in the village. There was not enough room for all of them in the large sleeping room, so some set up a rough temporary camp in the plaza where they huddled close to each other after sunset. They watched all the comings and goings of villagers, donkeys, dogs, and lovers as they built small fires and cooked beans and patted tortillas and lay about on their blankets telling each other stories and looking at the stars by night.
Juanita’s mother had not meant to cause such trouble for everyone and began skulking in and out of her own house by day. She tried her best to avoid the crowd, for the women peppered her with questions whenever she appeared in her doorway or was seen going out to feed a cow or pick a flower. She took to throwing a shawl over her dark hair and bringing it around her face in order not to be instantly recognizable. She fitted pillows all around her body under her dress so that she might appear to be just a fat stranger instead of the pregnant one. Juanita’s mother’s efforts to elude them were not successful. The women were ever vigilant. In fact, there was some hawk eye charged with keeping a watch out for her and did so. The hawk eye might be involved in listening to a story or filing the hard calluses on her old feet, but one eye was always scanning the plaza and the doorway to Juanita’s house. She was always spotted no matter how early the hour she crept about or how carefully she disguised herself. It is not easy to disguise oneself in a small village.
The hawk eye would call out the first question: “How are you today? Is it time? Have you started?” Juanita always was stunned and stood stalk still. Then the whole chorus of women called out: “Is the baby moving? Has your water broken?”
The questions were sometimes inappropriate because a few of these younger, unmarried women had never given birth themselves. But more than that, quite a number of the married women had no children either. For reasons they did not understand, the birth rate in Solución was quite low. In fact, the villagers so seldom successfully reproduced themselves that it was feared that the whole town might simply vanish in a few generations.
Because many of the women had not given birth, they didn’t know what to ask Juanitia’s mother when they saw her. They weren’t certain what to expect or when to expect it. Only the veteran mothers knew what they were talking about when they discussed such things among themselves or with Juanita’s mother. Some questions from the uninitiated were so outlandish that Juanita’s mother’s mother announced that she would conduct a series of talks on childbirth. Juanita’s mother’s mother had been sent to a boarding school in Santa Fe when she was a young girl. One of the priests who came to the village had noted that she was a girl of exceptional intelligence and managed to convince her parents to let her attend the very fine mission school with which his order was affiliated. As a result, she was an educated woman and followed all the latest developments in women’s issues, including reproductive health, with interest.
Juanita’s mother’s mother assembled the women in an area of the plaza unencumbered by tents and fire pits, near the twin graves and under the shade of a large apple tree. First, Juanita’s mother’s mother held forth with all the latest information on pregnancy that she had gleaned from books and magazines. Elizabeth Blackwell’s New York clinic for women had recently opened and had gained certain notoriety in the press and Juanita’s mother’s mother received books and manuals from the clinic. She was prepared for any query. The women, however, were shy and reluctant to even look at the charts and diagrams pinned to the apple tree.
So Juanita’s mother’s mother decided practical applied knowledge would be of more use to these women. The women were told to sort themselves out on their rugs and blankets to practice breathing. They worked in pairs and coached one another. They were instructed on the best food for babies, shown how to prepare it, and told when it should be introduced. They were given watermelons to diaper and dress and carry about in order that they might be of some actual help to Juanita’s mother after the baby was born.
Meanwhile, Juanita’s mother, realizing that she would have a crowd in the birthing room, had all the furniture removed except for a bed with a birthing drawer, something you will hear more about later. She asked her young husband if he could remodel the room, just a little, for the big day. A wall was removed and the room thereby enlarged by half, though the living room walls sagged a bit forever after. She designed an easel for him to build and had it brought into the room. On it she rested a large chalk board and wrote instructions for all the observers. For example, no one was to chew food or tobacco or talk after the head had crowned. Excessive outbursts were discouraged. Falling to one’s knees in prayer was allowed if done quietly. Anyone feeling faint was to leave the room rather than draw attention to themselves.
Finally, many extravagantly stewed chickens and rice dinners later, Juanita’s mother went into labor. The call went round the campsites in and around the plaza in front of Juanita’s mother’s and father’s house. In all, forty-seven women of many shapes and sizes politely entered the birthing room, nearly smothering the few men in the room with their bosoms and gowns. The women had been, graciously instructed not to wear scents and to avoid tight clothing. As a result, shapes never before seen in public were bulging and flouncing all about the plaza before and after the birth and in the birthing room itself, Uncle Joachim and Pasiones, though stuck standing next to each other, her uncorsetted breasts squeezed close in against his muscled back, remained polite throughout the day. It must be said that Joachin helped matters by keeping his roving eyes in his head, his hands to himself, and refraining from liquor.
The women were, fortunately, advised not to lock their knees. Isabella’s father knelt near her mother and, as they breathed together, the whole room began to rise and fall with the sound of forty-seven extra pairs of lungs. The women, some of whom had not known each other until this journey together, hugged each other and tears filled their eyes. The breathing, the breathing, the breathing continued until finally there was a brave little cry and Juanita came into the room to join them all.
Juanita entered life to the cooing and crowing of all the females in the village and a few fortunate fellows. She was born, at last, content, healthy, and amidst great happiness.
Juanita looked around the room and knew what this family was all about. She took charge from that day on.