Kathryn M. Huber
Kathryn M. Huber
Kathryn M. Huber started out in Seattle but ended up in Lima, Peru. In between, she studied Theater at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, got a Masters in Social Work from Columbia, and spent a decade in NYC before moving to Peru the first time. After living, working, and writing in Costa Rica, Bolivia, and Atlanta with three kids and more dogs, she returned to Lima with her Peruvian husband to continue the adventure. She has just finished a novel set in 6th century Peru—the period when the Nasca culture succumbs to environmental and climate crisis. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of literary magazines, and include a Pushcart nomination. A taste of her work is available at kmhuber.com.
The unrelenting sound of construction has not ceased since the day Marisol first asked me about curses and enchantments. I hadn't really paid much attention to all the building in the neighborhood, since I kept my radio tuned to an upbeat oldies station that masked the other noises. But that day, I turned off the radio to be able to hear her better. For some reason, I never turned it back on. The rhythms of construction have replaced the music that used to fill my office. From all sides come the buzz and clank, the banter of workers—but I digress. I am not here to recount the problems in the neighborhood, but to tell you something of Marisol's story before my office is taken apart around me.
It was almost exactly a year ago when Marisol's dark and downcast face suddenly moved out of the shadowed corners of my world right into its center. Her name had always made me think of girasol—Spanish for sunflower, from girar "to turn" and sol for "sun." Marisol was anything but sunny back then. Oddly enough, that day I had bought a bouquet on the way to the office, thinking that their cheerful yellow halos would brighten up the place. As soon I took them out of the plastic wrapping, however, they all dropped forward, burdened by their own weight. I should have known. The one time I tried planting a line of sunflowers against my garden wall, they all needed string to hold them up. Yet each day, even though barely able to hold their heads up, they rotated with the light, ever turning toward the sun.
I first met Marisol eight years ago when she came to pick up tickets for one of my neighbors. The Vasquez family had kept me in business with their huge cotton factory and clients worldwide. Both husband and wife traveled extensively and the company sent sales reps all over the world. I confess that there were times when their patronage was the only thing that paid my rent. Señora Vasquez has been using my services ever since I came down from the States to handle my brother's travel agency when he got sick—may he now rest in peace. At that point, Marisol had been the Vasquez housekeeper for almost ten years. As well as running the Vasquez household, Marisol occasionally ran errands—like picking up plane tickets and hotel vouchers from me. I always offered to send a messenger, but the señora was never one to wait. My office is just around the corner and actually has a view to the Vasquez property. There is another back yard between us, with the usual eight foot walls, but from my third floor balcony I can see their interior garden. I used to sit with a cup of tea and watch the parties around their crescent pool, trying to see if I could identify any of their distinguished guests. Once their children finished college, they entertained more than ever. They maintained a chauffeur, a full-time cook, a man twice a week for heavy cleaning, a laundry woman, and Marisol, who kept everything neat and orderly. It was obvious that Marisol took pride in her position with such a well-established family. Behind her deference and exaggerated courtesy she always exuded a sense of dignity that I seldom saw in other household help.
Despite decades of hard work and contributions from older children with jobs. Marisol's family hovered just above the official poverty line. To neighbors who lived far below that line, she appeared to be one of the lucky ones. She had had steady work for almost twenty years and made $300 a month, which was more than most domestic help in Lima. She owned the land she lived on, two hours north of the city. Her home not only had brick walls, but she had managed to add a second floor. The first floor might be nothing but hardened earth and the toilet still outside, but in a country where half the population lacks running water, she had more than most. She even had enough space in the back corner of her yard to add a makeshift room when her son got married.
I don't remember much about our first meetings. I was busy learning the business and she was the epitome of deference, nearly blending into the wall in an effort to stay out of my way. I don't think we exchanged more than five words at a time. She would wait quietly until I had a moment to attend to her, and apologized for intruding on my time. The first time I really noticed her face was several months after she first visited my office. I had gone to the other room to get something, and when I came back, she was staring so intently at the map on my wall that she did not notice me come in. Her forefinger was tracing the outline of Peru. The map had a pin in each of the different places I had booked for my clients and postcards pasted on the wall around it. Every Vasquez vacation added a new flag somewhere. They had already left a cluster in the Caribbean, a string across Europe, and last year they added three countries in Africa during an extended photo safari. My first real conversation with Marisol started around those little pins.
A large pin with a Peruvian flag indicated the city of Lima with smaller ones dotting the landscape nearby. The Cuzco region and its Sacred Valley were littered with pins. Marisol traced the line indicating the road from Lima to Cuzco. "It takes twenty hours to take a bus to Cuzco," she said. "But I've never been there." Her square face was textured by the trace of pock marks from some early illness, but the dark hues and uneven shading on her skin made them seem more like tricks of light and shadow than real scars.
"Do you have family there?" I asked.
"Oh, no, Señora," she replied, suddenly flustered. "I've seen it on television. It looks beautiful. So green." Marisol was from one of the narrow valleys along the desert coast and had never traveled inland. The lush greens of the high valleys at the "eyebrow of the jungle" must have seemed other worldly to her. "My cousin went once," she volunteered. "She said she never saw so many rainbows in her life." She fidgeted with her bag, as if embarrassed at having spoken so much.
I went to the map and pointed out the island of Crete. "That's where the Vasquez family is spending New Year's Eve," I told her. I pointed to France. "They're stopping in Paris on the way back. From there, it will be about twenty hours by airplane to get back home." Marisol stared wide-eyed at the map as I traced the distance over the ocean back to Lima.
Her customary mask of respect was replaced by a look of wonder as she stared at the contours of Europe. "I didn't realize it was so big," she said. I wasn't sure if she was referring to Europe or the world in general. I offered her a pin.
"Would you like to stick the newest pin in the map?" I asked. "I just booked someone a trip to Sicily." Her hands fumbled nervously as she accepted the pin. I pointed out the location. "Just off Italy, right there."
She smiled. "I worked for some Italians once."
As a domestic worker, Marisol earned more than her husband, whose forays into business yielded little profit. Twice, he ran food kiosks near major bus lines, but they both went under after his equipment and supplies were stolen. In the first case, they suspected the landlord, in the second, a brother-in-law who moved to Canada shortly thereafter. Marisol's daughter Luz lives at home and works as a lab technician, analyzing blood and urine samples. Luz managed to get a college degree, but Marisol had to borrow $2,000 from Sra. Vasquez to pay for all the layers of bureaucracy and paperwork necessary to obtain the government certified title and license that would make her employable. "We were lucky that Sra. Vasquez had such a good heart to loan us the money," Marisol told me, "or my daughter would have no job." At Luz's meager salary of $1.00/hour, however, it will take 2000 hours of work to cover the cost of that title. Two of Marisol's sons were unemployed for almost a year. After occasional odd jobs here and there, one finally got a full-time job delivering notices for the Customs Office. He was assaulted twice on his second day of work and quit on the third day after four tough women in a bad neighborhood had to intervene to save him from a group of thieves.
I can't say that I actually got to know Marisol, but over the years I learned a few things about her. She wouldn't volunteer information on her own, but if I asked, she would talk about her children, her mother, the local politics of her neighborhood. It passed the time while we waited for tickets to finish printing. I also learned the latest on the Vasquez household. I can still name the seven chauffeurs they've gone through and all the reasons they were fired.
A year ago Marisol came in to my office, very agitated. I was surprised to see her since I had no pending requests from her employer. The day had been fairly slow, and Julio Iglesias was crooning one of his romantic ballads on the radio, so I set aside the itinerary I was working on to find out why she had come. "You've traveled a lot," she blurted out, uncharacteristically direct. "Do you know anything about brujeria?"
Witchcraft, sorcerers, even herbal healers can be included under the category of brujeria, but usually the term evokes the dark arts. Along the northern coast of Peru such practices are common and people assume most problems are caused by someone trying to harm them through witchcraft. In Lima, poor neighborhoods are papered with advertisements for curanderos norteños who promise to deliver love, money, power or vengeance to their clients. Tales of success often are followed by whispers about opened graves with voodoo type dolls tucked into the ribcages of corpses. I had traveled quite a bit in the north, but preferred to steer clear of such things, and I said as much to Marisol.
"There's a new girl working in the house—she's from Chiclayo," she told me, as if that would explain everything. She spoke softly, as if afraid of being overheard.
"You think she's using witchcraft?" I asked. "What for?"
I could barely hear her answer. "My job."
I turned off the radio. "Your job?" I couldn't imagine Señora Vasquez ever firing Marisol. I had, however, spent enough time in Chiclayo to understand her concern. Many folk healers work strictly with herbal remedies for common ailments, but there are practitioners of all kinds, and many a sorcerer, or brujo, who makes a living through doing harm to others. People take it pretty seriously in Chiclayo.
"You must have heard of someone there . . . someone who might be able to help me," she pleaded. "At least, you might know of someone you could ask?" She glanced around nervously. "Someone who can remove curses." I gazed past her shoulder to where a reproduction of the Mona Lisa stared back from a cheap calendar. Stop smirking, I wanted to tell the portrait, this isn't funny.
I had, in fact, heard about someone—the curandera Sofia, who had a reputation for countering daños cast by the worst brujos. One of my clients told me about her after he survived a plane crash. Pedro Martinez had consulted with Sofia when he suspected a business rival of malicious intent. Along with her sessions to counter the black magic, she prepared him a seguro, a charm to protect him. When a small plane that he had chartered for a jungle trip flipped on the runway, Pedro insisted that it was the work of the brujo. That he and the pilot miraculously walked away from the wreckage was due to the power of Sofia'sseguro. He wanted me to have her card in case I might ever need it.
I have my own opinions about how these things work, but that doesn't matter. The fact that Marisol believed in the power of the brujos was enough to make her vulnerable, and the best way to help someone like that is not to try to persuade her that the magic is in her head, but to give her access to someone who she believes is more powerful. I gave her Sofia's phone number, wished her luck, and went back to work on a complicated itinerary that I had to deliver later that afternoon.
The next day, Marisol was back, looking almost cheerful. She said that Sofia had already begun work to protect her. Marisol wanted me to arrange bus tickets to Chiclayo for the weekend. She had asked for a day off Saturday to attend to personal matters. She carefully counted out the bills and placed them on my desk, demurring when I invited her to sit down while she waited. She wandered around my office, studying the maps, pictures, certificates and diplomas from my other life. On a table against the back wall was a dusty stack of promotional flyers from which smiled a younger version of me, my hair neatly clipped and dyed an almost purple red. Marisol picked one up and glanced at me as if to check whether or not we were really the same person and looked terribly embarrassed when she saw that I was watching her.
"That was nearly ten years ago," I said. "I leave my natural gray now. It's easier." I asked her about seating preferences, took down her ID number, punched it out on my keyboard and waited for the printer to wake up. She watched it whir and rattle as her ticket slid out.
"Silver," she said. "Your hair is silver, not gray." She fumbled with her purse, suddenly awkward again. "And I think it is elegant, not dull at all."
"Thank you," I replied. "You are very kind." I slipped the ticket into an envelope and handed it to her.
"No, you are the one who is kind, Señora. Thank you."
I'm not sure why I didn't let go of the envelope right away. I held on for a moment too long, looking at her hand. She was wearing a gold ring that I had never noticed before. For a moment it looked almost like a miniature serpent wrapping around her finger, with a small garnet in its mouth. When I blinked, however, the illusion disappeared. It was just a scratched up wedding ring. I smiled at her and wished her luck on her trip. "With your help, and God's guidance," she said shyly, "I won't need luck."
I didn't see her again for another month. When she returned to my office, I didn't hear her come in. The jackhammers next door had my nerves on edge, so I was startled to turn around and find her standing there. I hardly recognized her. Her hair was disheveled, her eyes bloodshot, and her hands trembled as fumbled with her purse. The ring was gone.
"That new girl has hexed me," she said in a voice so low that I could barely hear her over the construction noise. "Her brujo has placed a powerful daño against me. Even Sofia is sick. I need to get back to Chiclayo. As soon as possible."
I was in the middle of arranging accommodations for twenty Chinese businessmen and didn't really have time to deal with her. I arranged for tickets on the next overnight bus, apologized for being curt, and went back to my work. She hesitated at the door, shivering
"Are you sick?" I asked.
"No, just cold," she replied. "Very cold." She just stood there, staring blankly at my coffeemaker.
I got up reluctantly, and offered her a cup. She sipped it gratefully, her hands curled around the Styrofoam with a child's grip, not unlike a newborn clinging to a finger that brushes its palm. She looked haggard. I took my scarf from the coat rack and wrapped it around her neck. "Maybe you shouldn't be traveling," I told her. "You look sick. It's a long ride."
She smiled weakly. "I'll be fine once I get there. Sofia is expecting me. She'll have something to make it better." She squeezed the empty cup until it cracked. I pried the cup gently out of her quivering hands and patted her shoulder sympathetically.
"Try to sleep on the bus. It will do you some good."
"I haven't been able to sleep for two weeks," she told me. "I heard that girl call her brujo when I was cleaning the silver. She—her name's Patricia—she was in the back yard, with a candle and a horrible sweet perfume, calling to him as if he were right there in the garden. Don Cesar is his name. They say he's the most powerful brujo in the whole country. Sofia made him mad when she blocked his last attack. Now he's after her, too."
She looked around as if expecting someone to be listening, then lowered her voice even more. "Sofia gave me a bath that cured the first rash. It was only under my clothes, but Patricia knew about it. And she somehow knew as soon as it was gone. She asked who my doctor was, as if she needed one for herself. But I wasn't fooled. I didn't tell her about Sofia, but Don Cesar found out. He sent a bundle to her house with a message not to help me. Sofia called me and gave me instructions for a new bath with more powerful herbs. I felt very strong for a while, then the dreams started. Horrible dreams that don't let me rest." She leaned close to me and pulled the hair back from her neck, revealing a cluster of sores. Some still bubbled under her skin, others oozed. "And there are more down there," she added with a glance that indicated her belly. "Don't worry," she added, "I'll wash your scarf before I return it."
"That's okay," I said. "You can keep it."
I wanted to suggest that maybe she might be having an allergic reaction to the silver polish, or a bad case of shingles, but I knew that she would not really hear anything until Sofia herself spoke. "Be careful on your trip," I said. "Perhaps you could take something to help you sleep." She stared at me blankly. I pulled out my purse and began rummaging through the chaos. "Here," I said, handing her a small blue pill. "Take this as soon as the bus leaves By the time it's out of Lima, you'll be able to sleep."
Her fist closed around it. She nodded, turned, and left.
The next day, Señora Vasquez herself came in. She needed a complicated four country itinerary that partially overlapped with her husband and chief manager. I hadn't seen her personally in months. "You are looking quite marvelous," I said.
She accepted the compliment with an almost regal aloofness. "I still work out every day," she replied, glancing at my neglected shape. "I have to if I want to keep up with Gerardo. After all, we wouldn't want him to get tempted by the help, now would we?"
"Marisol?" I gasped. "How could you possibly imagine him being tempted by Marisol?"
She laughed a little too long. "You haven't seen the new girl. Patricia is not only twenty years younger than Marisol, but a thousand times prettier than Marisol ever could have been."
"Patricia," I echoed.
"The chauffeur's niece. She came down from Chiclayo a few months ago and we promised him we'd find her a job. Brought her to the house to train her first."
"His sister moved there when she got married. Ugly city if you ask me. But some awfully pretty girls." She smoothed her hair back from her face. "Lucky Gerardo's too busy lately to notice such things."
"Lucky," I echoed, then asked for the details of her upcoming trip.
As I made the last of my notes for her travels, I ventured another question. "So, how long will you have this girl?"
"Patricia? Probably until after the holidays. It's worked out well having her around, actually. Marisol has been sick so much lately that it's lucky we've had Patricia here to help out."
"Lucky," I repeated again.
It was another two weeks before I saw Marisol again. She came in looking more like her usual self. She stood across from my desk and waited until she had my full attention.
"How can I get a picture of her?" she asked, when I invited her to sit down.
"How can I get a picture of Patricia?" she repeated. "I don't have a camera."
"Why do you need a picture?"
"So that Sofia can work with her from a distance. I already have one of her handkerchiefs, so that will work instead of an item of clothing. But how do I get a picture?"
"Photocopy her ID card," I found myself saying without wanting to. I did not want to get involved in the drama, yet my voice acted without my assent. "Tell her you know a family interested in hiring someone, but that they need a copy of her ID first to do a background check."
"But she doesn't want another job. And the way Don Gerardo looks at her, she'll never need another job."
"Maybe not," I said, lowering my voice, conspiratorially, "but she wants you to think that she does, doesn't she? I'm sure Señora Vasquez would encourage her to pursue the opportunity."
Marisol smiled and looked away.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"Fine," she replied. "Absolutely fine."
"Like a baby with a choir of angels."
"Great." I stared at the dust on my desk. Damn construction. Ten minutes after you wipe it clean, everything's covered again. "So," I ventured, "how was Chiclayo?"
She flickered her own Mona Lisa smile. "Very nice, thank you." She gathered her purse and gloves and stood to leave.
I had never seen her with gloves before.
When she returned several weeks later, I was standing at the map, adding a handful of pins to note the destinations of some adventurous clients. Business had been booming since the President's appearance in a travelogue on international television. The whole country would be in a lot better shape, I thought, if he only could inspire as much economic growth in small industry and the service sector as there had been in big business and tourism. I thought about how desperate people were for work. That morning when I returned from the bank, I had to cross the street to avoid two men who were fighting on our corner. I thought I recognized them as the ones who washed cars on our block and watched over them, hoping for a few coins from the owners. I asked the taxi driver parked at the corner if he knew what was going on. "Territory," he said. "They don't want to share the block." Not enough work to go around, I was thinking. It makes people do ugly things. I counted myself fortunate that I had enough work. I shoved a pin into a remote corner of the Amazon, and stepped back. That's when I noticed Marisol standing in the doorway watching me.
She nodded at me, without smiling.
"Marisol," I said, "You're looking much better. I guess Sofia found your cure."
"Sofia died." She said it so calmly that I wasn't sure I had heard her correctly.
"Died?" I echoed in a near whisper.
"She wasn't as powerful as you thought."
I hesitated. "An accident?"
"A fever. A terrible fever. Her skin turned yellow, almost green." Marisol looked at the chair then back at me. "May I?" she asked. I gestured for her to sit down. She smoothed her skirt under her, sat with her back erect, gloved hands resting in her lap. She closed her eyes for a few seconds, as if to collect her thoughts. "Don Cesar bragged that there were only two people as powerful as himself. Doña Sofia was not one of them. It is my fault that she is dead."
"Marisol," I began, thinking about the way hepatitis had turned my brother's body yellow before he died, but she cut me short with a wave of her hand.
"My fault." She took something out of her purse and placed it on my desk. "If I had gone to Don Julio instead, Don Cesar would not have gone to battle with her, and she would still be alive." On my desk was a charred photograph of Doña Sofia with an x slashed across her neck.
"Everyone knew it was Don Cesar's work," she replied hoarsely, pulling away from me. "They found a doll in the coffin of Sergio Palermo, Sofia's cousin. His niche had been opened. The doll was wrapped in a handkerchief that belonged to Sofia and had a bloody needle poking out of it. Right where the liver would be." She shuddered. "So I went to Don Julio. The only one powerful enough to help me. I did not have enough to pay him, though I offered him everything I had." I wondered if that had included her wedding ring.
I didn't like the feeling of this.
"I had to promise him more. He said that to undo the work of Don Cesar was risky for him, and the risk would cost me." She held her head a little higher. "He wanted to know what else I could offer him." She turned to look out the window, avoiding my eyes as she continued. "I told him I knew someone who puts pins in the whole world, someone with power outside of Peru." She looked back into her lap. "I promised him that if he would bring you more business, I would bring him back a ticket to pay him for his troubles. He wants to visit America. To go to a place called Arizona."
I almost laughed out loud. "That's ridiculous," I blurted. "You're talking at least a thousand dollars!" I stared at her, but she regarded me steadily, unfazed. "How . . ." I began to stutter.
She interrupted me. "Have you had an unusual amount of business this week?" she asked, narrowing her eyes at me. "There will be even more. You'll see."
It didn't matter that I refused to believe in that stuff. Marisol was trying to pull me into the center of her paranoia. "No," I lied. "Business has been the same as ever. Don't let him put ideas into your head." There was a limit to what I would go along with. If I wasn't careful, I'd soon be equally paranoid and start worrying about who had pictures of me or had borrowed my clothes. I don't mind people having their placebos—I figure everybody has a right to use whatever helps them cope. But enough was enough. "Be careful, Marisol," I said. "He may be trying to take advantage of you."
"Watch and see," she replied softly. "Watch and see."
A week later, when Patricia got sick and returned to Chiclayo, Marisol called me, half whispering, to tell me that my idea for getting Patricia's picture had worked better than she had expected. I told her that people make what they want of things. The clammy winter in Lima was a far more likely explanation for illness than witchcraft. She ignored my comment and continued to report that Patricia's father had come personally to collect his daughter, apologizing profusely to Señora Vasquez for all the trouble her sudden illness had caused the family. "Believe what you want," I replied.
Marisol was back in my office the next day. She wanted to go back to Chiclayo to see Don Julio again. She had both Friday and Saturday off and wanted to take the Thursday night bus. Again, the Sunday night bus would get her back in time for work on Monday. When she returned she was visibly calmer. She told me that he had done a good cleansing and a full florecimeinto ritual to release the "flowering" of her full vitality.
"He doesn't just work dark magic?" I asked, no longer amused by her growing obsession.
"It's not dark or light," she said, "It's just working with the energies."
"But all those daños and curses?" I asked. She shook her head, "That was Don Cesar. He directs energy in ways that harm people. He's an evil brujo. Not Don Julio. Don Julio blocks the bad intentions; he redirects things. He doesn't set out to harm people. He says that people will do enough damage to themselves without any help if you just give them enough room." She spoke with such authority that I wasn't sure I was talking to the same woman, but I didn't really have time to continue the conversation. Two huge group tours were coming through the following week, and I had a thousand details to attend to. I excused myself to get some notes I had left downstairs in the kitchen. I cursed when I heard the office phone ring, and ran back up, arriving out of breath to find Marisol listening intently and writing things down. She hung up, and handed me a detailed message from an Argentinean group requesting travel services. "Thanks for answering the phone," I said, suddenly considering her in a new light. It dawned on me that I really could use some extra help.
# # #
That was three months ago. Now I look at my office and wonder what I ever did without Marisol. Last week, I hired her daughter to help with the phones, and if things keep up at this rate, I may hire her son as well. I have more business than I can handle, even though the Vasquez family no longer uses my services. When Marisol decided to work for me, they brought Patricia back from Chiclayo. Marisol was actually right about one thing—the girl was trouble. The next thing I knew, Señora Vasquez had moved out and filed for divorce; the house was for sale, and Patricia's growing belly was the talk of the neighborhood. Now, the Vasquez house is being pulled down to build a modern apartment building like the one going up on the other side of us. I heard that they got a good price for it, but that most of the proceeds went to cover business losses.
The upshot is that now my office is constantly covered in dust. I told Marisol this morning that I might just have to consider doing the same thing with this old house—not only would an apartment building be an excellent investment, but we could set aside a floor for our offices, maybe even expand. "Señora," she replied, "I've been meaning to tell you. I didn't want to be rude before, but I think you should know that my name is not Marisol, it's Mirasol. Like the chili pepper." I was somewhat taken aback, immediately thinking of all the paperwork I would have to redo for reversing two letters. Then it occurred to me that I couldn't remember when I had stopped thinking of her as that sunflower barely able to hold its head up. From girasol to Mirasol, I mused, watching her blankly. Mirar, "to look," indeed seemed more fitting for the woman before me now—someone capable of regarding the sun straight on, head held high. She gave me an odd smile, then turned back to the map on the wall to push a pin deep into Phoenix, Arizona.