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ELIZABETH GAMBLE MILLER
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"LUCRECIA"
(Cuento  original  en  español_de_Nela Rio)
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Although it was true that Burda had beautiful patterns she preferred Labores because the instructions were easier. She only hoped this issue would have a more interesting pattern than the last one. It was to be a sweater for Marianita, still Marianita not Mariana, even though she was married!  That was six years ago now and for the past three years she had been living in the States, yet Lucrecia still called her by her pet name! Oh, children, children.... But what would she do if she didn't knit for her Marianita? She didn't even buy a newspaper, didn't want to know anything,  didn't want to complicate her life. She was always telling her neighbor she just wanted to stay at home, knitting, remembering, rereading Marianita's letters every afternoon. Sometimes Rosario would come over and they talked about stitches, fabrics, and embroidery, and about the children when they were youngsters, all while they waited for the soap opera to start. 
     Rosario would tell her "Luque, you should get out more, go to town, go to the movies, life is passing you by and you don't even know it."

     Lucrecia would smile good-naturedly, realizing no one could understand that life was like that for her, simple and satisfying, full of the memories she treasured during the long days. All she wanted was to live in peace. She liked her cup of tea and the sweet little cookies from "La espiga de oro," and on her way to the magazine stand she was picturing her afternoon at home, a peaceful time, with Labores, a nice cup of tea, and her memories.

     The street noise seemed to be growing louder and louder. It must be from the high school in the next block, said Lucrecia under her breath, and she tried to hurry to the newsstand. What a day to be out buying Labores! A protest march! That's exactly what it was; it was a student protest. Those youngsters, what they should be doing was studying, that's what they needed, to prepare for life, to be someone useful in the future, that's what this country needs. Troublemakers! I'll bet those parents don't know where their children are. They probably think they are where they ought to be, not out in the streets yelling for liberty and social justice, and freedom for political prisoners--things only adults understand. What do those brats know about democracy and socialism and multinationals, they haven't even studied that yet. It may well be that political science classes do teach those things like Rosario's sister says, but those kids, come now, you can't tell me....

     They were marching up Avenida España, some two hundred students, a few in church school uniforms, most in state school uniforms, all of them yelling, carrying posters...a carnival-like, party atmosphere running through the lines...some might know why they were there, and what they were risking, others didn't understand much but were excitedly following those who seemed to know, while others were enjoying a free afternoon--savoring the image of the principal's face when she saw them leave school, disrupting regular classes!--while some, in short, sensed they were part of something that could be very important, others were tired, a few very angry. 
 The school assemblies had been packed with speeches, heavy in content, light in heart, reflecting an authentic sense of responsibility and absolute innocence; many students were just having fun...a kind of nervous thrill...perhaps with a vague sensation of risk...these were the first student protests...that’s what they were saying. The leaders were easily identified by their sure, aggressive manner, intellectual conquistadors--ideologues they would call them later--conquering the crowd, almost all young people from a middle class taken by surprise, probably moved more by intuition and ambiguous solidarity than by an exact knowledge of what social injustice or the lack of freedom meant or by any understanding of why students were in favor of workers. Almost all of them had heard their parents saying: don't get involved, the country's deep in shit or going to hell--depending on the family--something's got to be done, prices are sky-high, who can live on this salary, look at the hunger, the lack of security, the subversives, it's not even safe to talk, they are carrying people off, there are death squads, paramilitaries. Everybody had also heard lofty proposals about action, about revolts, but few had decided to confront the events.

     Now the students had finally mobilized, convinced of their power. Courage abounded, along with a pathetic lack of experience. In the fifth block, two blocks before the plaza, they saw mounted police. Those in front began to feel threatened. Their leaders redoubled efforts to encourage their compañeros. Some left by side streets; others went into the entrance patios of private homes, or were thrown out of stores that had yet to lower their protective metal shutters. Suddenly, the horses charged the students, stomping, thrashing about, pitting their full force against them.

     Lucrecia, who was in the middle of the routed students, saw the face of a young girl being thrust against the stomach of a horse. In horrified amazement she followed the girl's attempts to push the horse away...the policeman, shouting and cursing, kicked her in the head with his foot still secured in the stirrup. The horse kept charging and the youngster fell to the pavement.

     Another group continued yelling, this time cursing the policemen--traitors, beasts, animals, bastards, brutes--as they dragged Lucrecia toward the approaching Neptune for the day. Suddenly, three men jumped down and fire hose in hand shot the water at the protesters, water stained red with aniline dye. The youngsters were terrified...now they would be recognized anywhere! The horror of the situation convulsed them, made them physically ill. Some ran, vainly searching for a place to hide in a fear-ridden city, a city that closed its doors so as not to become compromised. Others faced the police head-on, trusting in the power of their convictions and in the promises of some of the "big honchos," who had assured them they would see to it that they weren't in any danger. As the young people ran, they scattered fear in all directions...

     Lucrecia's dress had a large, red stain on the blouse and part of the skirt. She stumbled toward the sidewalk ahead. At her age it was difficult to run like a kid! She managed to get out of Neptune's range. Someone running by stuffed a pamphlet into her hand. Lucrecia straightened up as much as she could, still trying to hide the stain that was there now and always would be, and started home. She didn't realize--how could she!--that from the moment she passed the bank with the gold shield over the entrance, a man dressed in gray began watching her intently.

     When she reached home, she leaned against the door, and stood there shaking. Once in the bathroom, she threw the pamphlet into the trash, dropped her sack in the tub, pulled off her dress, collapsed on the toilet seat and dissolved into tears. She felt so sorry for herself, for the injured girl lying on the ground, for the scene some of the youngsters would face at home, for those who would finally be taken to the police station, for the stupidity of the young people and of the adults, for the daily violence in the streets, in  the schools, in the country, and for the disgrace, the red dye--the mark of a delinquent--the shame of hiding so the neighbors wouldn't see her. 

     She cried for her daughter who didn't know what was happening, who told her three years before--we are leaving, it's impossible for anyone to live here and Alberto is on their list--and they left, and she didn't understand then and didn't understand now why there were people on lists and then some would leave or disappear, and she cried inconsolably.

     Lucrecia got up, her back aching from sitting so long in the bathroom, and went to her bedroom, where the large bed always seemed bigger since her husband died of cancer. She put on her robe and lay down, but it was impossible to relax, so she got up and went to the kitchen. It's odd, she thought, how you can move around in the dark. There was no need to turn on the lights because she knew the house by heart. She had lived there some thirty years, no, really twenty-eight. She knew the house like the back of her hand, as they say, but now she realized the outside world was a complete unknown, even the neighborhood had changed. In the kitchen she switched on the light because she had to put a match to the burner, and that was something she wouldn't do in the dark. After the water was boiled and she was preparing her tea she realized the cramps she felt that morning were the sure sign of her "period," the "curse" as the young women called it; she smiled softly, remembering how embarrassed her mother seemed when she told her about menstruation for the first time--the only time!--when she was twelve, and now even at fifty-two, when she was almost through, she was still embarrassed at times to buy those things at the drugstore, especially when a man was waiting on her. Back in the bathroom, she looked for the napkin that now was pure cotton--what is it they call them now?--not like the first ones we had! Her thoughts were muddled. She still felt a kind of anguish, like something was broken somewhere, a sudden loss of reality, an intangible distortion,  a sort of dislocation. She told herself that tomorrow would mean a trip to the store for another package, as there were only three left.

     On her way back to the kitchen she noticed the time on the living room clock, eight twenty-five, and it made her shudder. Cup in hand she went to her bedroom, took a sleeping pill, and, without removing her robe, she snuggled into the sheets seeking warmth, protection, not knowing what, maybe just to cuddle up in a ball so she wouldn't feel alone.

     The loud ringing awakened her. Still half asleep she wondered who it could be at that hour. A telegram or maybe Rosario who had been expecting bad news from her sister? Still trying to clear her mind she opened the door. They threw it wide open.

     "Don't scream," they warned; she tripped and fell on the entrance hall rug.

     "Get up, you old whore."

     Two of them went inside and came out with the stained wool dress and a piece of wrinkled paper. They kicked randomly at the furniture, opened a few drawers, scattered things around. Only one was holding a weapon. They weren't laughing or saying anything.

     "Here you," one of them burst out, his voice sounded like gunfire, "Get the old woman into the car," and he threw a cloth that they pulled over Lucrecia's head. 

     The silence was deafening, terrifying as she tried to make sense out of what was happening. They forced her onto the floor in the back of the car. A man got in and propped his feet on top of her, intentionally mashing her. No one was talking. Lucrecia's throat was dry and she couldn't muster the courage to clear it, for fear they would punish her.

     Who were they? What did they want with her? Where were they going? The man with his foot on top of her intentionally dug his heel into her waist, provoking a severe pain in her hip bone. She cried silently without a tear or a sigh.

     The car stopped. They pulled her out by one arm. The footsteps resounded authoritatively. Sounds of people shuffling papers, someone typing.

     "Take her over there, we'll fill out the papers later," said a voice nearby.

     "We didn't see any scar on her but I think it's the same bitch," said another.

     "We'll give her a few now,” someone said sternly.

     "She was with them, yelling them on, she's the one in the picture that the little fucker drew. And if she's not, shit, we can fix that!" His voice cut like sharpened steel.

     Lucrecia glimpsed some light and some bulky shapes through the weaving in the cloth. From time to time, when they pulled on her arm the fabric opened up at her chin and she could look down and see black and white tiles in a checkerboard pattern.

     They opened several doors. They seemed to be moving down halls. They stopped, opened a door, pushed her in and slammed it shut. The cloth was still over her head. She waited a few minutes, hours? without daring to swallow the saliva that had accumulated in her mouth, not daring to move her cold, clenched fingers, or even daring to open her eyes. The room seemed cold, she broke out in a cold sweat. Fear. What would happen if she took off the cloth? What if she didn't? What would happen if she moved? Hours?

     A whisper. Someone was saying something. "Don't be scared," somebody said. "You're by yourself, you can take off the cloth," said another voice, softly, fearfully.

     Where was she? Who were those people talking to her? She stood there, stiff, motionless, questioning. She swallowed the bitter, thick saliva. She was shaking all over. She wanted to take a step forward. She couldn't. Silence. Whispers. Screams, someone in severe pain, screams apparently muted by thick walls, screams that unraveled the silence paralyzing her.

     A more audacious whisper penetrated the cloth that covered her, "Take the rag off, hear, don't be scared." She lifted her arms that were heavy as cement and that responded to an order not to her own will. Only the fingers of the left hand found the cloth. The other hand waved aimlessly in the air.

     She pulled on the corner of the rag at the same time that she opened her eyes. A wall painted light green, a floor of yellow tiles, an empty room. She turned around. They had cut a small square out of the wooden door and inserted iron bars. All improvised. Like a room in a house but at the same time like a cell.

     She went up to the grating. Facing it was another one on the left and at an angle another one and on the right a common door. Through the grating on the left she saw only an eye. In the one in front a pair of eyes, a forehead and a hand sticking between the grate and the eyes, and waving a sort of hello. The silence weighed heavily on her. Lucrecia knew nothing, not even where she was or who had brought her or why. She looked at the friendly hand in front of her and tried to speak. It was hard to find her voice. Finally, very embarrassed, she said, "I have to change." The eyes behind the bars didn't understand. Lucrecia repeated, "My period. I have to change."

     The eyes closed. Lucrecia couldn't see her face, but she knew the woman was in pain. She was sure when she opened her eyes. She thought she had never seen eyes like that, with little squares, like a canvas for cross-stitching. "They won't give you anything, you got to use a piece of your dress or something and make a pad. They won't give you anything," the woman whispered sadly and disappeared.

     Lucrecia looked at her feet, moved her arms up and down as if trying something on and discovered the blood had soaked the pad. Something had to be done right away, it would be shameful for them to see her this way. To think of it made her blush.

     She looked for a switch to turn out the light but didn't find one. She slipped off her batiste half slip, folded it as best she could, removed the wet pad, checking to see no one was spying on her, and changed. With the soaked pad in her hand, she looked for a place to hide it. Nothing. A completely empty room. Her blood smelled strong. Because it was forced out from fear, she thought. And it was such a strong odor, there was no way to hide it. They would be able to tell.

     Someone whispered to her again. "Why are you here?" "I don't know," she answered. "They'll let you know soon enough," the woman with just one eye said aloud. "They'll rip you apart and then tell you why you're here." Lucrecia followed up with her own questions. Who? Why? What had she done? Where was she...?

     Hours passed. They couldn't hear the screams anymore. No one had said anything about them. A brightly lighted silence filled the hall and the room. She calculated that it must be very late at night. Footsteps. Someone was coming. She huddled into the back corner against the wall. They opened the door. "You bitch, get over here."

     Lucrecia didn't understand. "You bitch." Someone in a blue shirt and pants, with a round face and a thick mustache yelled "You," and he kicked her and it would not be for the last time. They jerked her and pushed her, two, three times, four, five times and then, when she could hardly walk, they dragged her through two large rooms into a room at the far end. There they beat her not once or twice but again and again....They called the room the "corral of horrors," a place to break-in the mares. When they came for her, in her terror she had clutched the blood-soaked pad and she wouldn't let go for anything. When they realized what she was holding in her hand it first became an object for laughter and then for ridicule, "She's got the filthy curse...nasty...hands off...disgusting...look out or she'll get you dirty...." 

     No one had ever talked about her like that, had ever called her all the bad names she hated, used words that violated her, violated her private world. Then someone began beating her fiendishly and yelling filthy words, " you bitch, your mother's a slut, whore, big boobs, fat ass, suck me here, fuck yourself," and they squeezed her blood into her mouth, and in that last madness Lucrecia recognized and clung to that familiar odor to sustain herself in the midst of the nausea and the interrogation--"Who are you? Who you working for? What were you doing at the protest? Where did you get the pamphlets you gave those assholes...who prints that crap? You know Renata? Where did they send Big Balls? Who do they call Field Marshall?"--And they pulled on her and hit her and she couldn't understand why they were beating her, why the insults, what did they want, why all the pain? "Let's see who wants this old whore, and to top it off, with that crap pouring out? She's for the dogs!" Lucrecia heard peels of laughter. "Let's keep her for old Cross-eyes, see if he can find her hole!", and more laughter, more questions, fists jabbing her and feet kicking her...She didn't understand any of it, didn't know anything, didn't recognize any names, a Renata was the same as a Carmen or a Field Marshall. What did she have to do with those people? She only recognized the smell of her flow mixed with the blood from her lips and from her body and hands that had been crushed by heavy boots. Covered with blood inside and out, she felt horrible pain.

     She would wake up, but just as often she fell on the floor--there were times she didn't want to wake up. Somewhere, somehow, the world would go on, but she wouldn’t be the same. Not ever. She opened her swollen eyes and saw everything was as before. A pale green wall, a yellowish tiled floor, an empty room that she had filled with odors and with screams.

     They didn't take her to the "corral of horrors" again. Occasionally they brought food and took her to the bathroom. She washed up there as best she could with the water available, which was cold. Lucrecia couldn't urinate the first time they took her because they wouldn't let her close the door. She felt the cold, cynical eyes following her awkward attempts to pull up her robe, uncovering herself. She was so embarrassed she couldn't do anything though bursting from the need. They took her back to her room, cursing her for not having done anything after asking to go. When they left, she felt the urine flow down her legs. She was so humiliated, so ashamed and mortified. They cursed her again when they brought a bucket for her to wash up her urine and blood.

     They left her alone for what may have been two days, perhaps more. Time had lost shape; it was uncertain like her life. Then they led her to a cellblock they said was for subversives. When she went in, five women were already there. As she stumbled forward--her shoes stiff from urine and blood, her bathrobe in shreds, dirty, disheveled, her body mangled--she looked at them with eyes lost in despair, and all the women gathered around her and embraced her.

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