Today's Reading

INTRODUCTION

Every work of art—every book, every film, every painting—is an unlikely achievement. We know this instinctively, of course. The vision one has for any piece at the outset can never be more than partially fulfilled, limited as we are by our talent, our time, our ability to execute. Even so, some works of art feel more unlikely, more miraculous than others, and Emma Reyes's remarkable epistolary memoir is one of them.

It's best to say it plainly. The very fact that this book exists is extraordinary. Everything about it, from the author's backstory—her childhood in grinding poverty, abandoned by her mother in the Colombian countryside, her escape from a convent, her improbable life in Europe—to the fact that she managed, without any formal education, to write these beautiful, moving letters, maintaining the correspondence across decades; then, the manuscript's survival and eventual publication in Colombia—all of this is astonishing.

When she passed away in 2003, at the age of eighty-four, Emma Reyes was known—to the extent she was known at all—primarily as a painter.

She'd been living in Europe for decades, having escaped the most miserable, stultifying kind of poverty her native Colombia could offer a child, and established herself as a presence in France, a kind of godmother to Latin American artists and writers. As a painter she was a peripheral, if beloved, figure on the scene. Felipe González, editor at Laguna Libros, the independent house that published her memoir in April 2012, described those who knew Emma's painting as "very few, and very old." Still, over the course of her life, she was close with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and rubbed
shoulders with Alberto Moravia, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Enrico Prampolini, and Elsa Morante. She made a life for herself in Paris, later in Bordeaux, as part of a Latin American and European cultural elite.

Emma was, by all accounts, magnetic, a great storyteller, the kind of person who could hold a room rapt. The stories she told most often had to do with her childhood. Sometime in the late 1940s, she met the Colombian historian and critic Germán Arciniegas, who, like others before him, insisted she write it all down. She protested that she found it difficult to organize her thoughts, and so Arciniegas offered a solution: tell the story of your childhood in letters, he said. Write them to me. The first of the twenty-three letters collected here is dated from 1969; the last from 1997. They
aren't evenly spaced; in fact, there was a gap of more than two decades. Apparently, sometime in the early 1970s, Arciniegas had Gabriel Garcia Márquez over for dinner in Bogotá. He was so excited about Emma's letters that he showed them to the future Nobel Prize laureate. Weeks later, Gabo telephoned Emma in Paris to tell her how much he'd enjoyed them, and she responded with fury. As she saw it, Arciniegas had betrayed their implicit agreement of confidentiality. Emma didn't write him another letter for more than twenty years.

She must have known, though, there was something special in the work. According to editor Felipe González, Emma was proud of her writing—not because it was good, but precisely because it wasn't, at least not in a conventional sense. "She wanted the book to be published with errors," González told me. "She cultivated her mistakes." Emma had no formal education to speak of; she was, in fact, illiterate until her late teens. Her grammar, punctuation, and spelling were plainly intuitive, and every sentence was hard earned, every error part of her inheritance, a reminder of the childhood she'd survived. The Colombian edition applied a light touch to the original. As a translator, I've tried to do the same, while silently correcting some of the more obvious errors.

None of which is to say her prose lacks sophistication. On the contrary, I don't think I've read many books of such power and grace, or that pack such an emotional wallop in so short a space. Her memoir begins in a garbage dump in Bogotá, narrating moments of uncommon dignity, moving from there to the countryside and back again, describing with a poetic dispassion the sorts of trauma that would break most people. Emma, somehow, does not break. Colombia, or rather the version of the country that brought her up, the country described here, is classist, violent, provincial, prejudiced. The Catholic Church is unyielding in its cruelty, willing to pass judgment, even on little girls like Emma, no more than six or seven when she was abandoned by her mother and taken to a convent.

After escaping in her late teens, Emma fled to Buenos Aires, making her way across South America on foot, by train, by car, hitchhiking and working as a traveling saleswoman. When she arrived in the Argentine capital in 1943, she began to paint. She married in Uruguay and had a child in Paraguay in the years immediately after a disastrous war had crushed that nation's economy. She was living in a small town outside Asunción when it was overrun by a group of
armed looters. They sacked her home, and her newborn, only a few months old, was killed before her eyes.

This tragedy comes after the book concludes—and still Emma does not break. Eventually she won a scholarship to study art in Paris. Her husband abandoned her, opting not to travel with her, and so she left for Europe alone, to start a new life. She paid for her trip by offering to paint the ship as it sailed across the Atlantic. She hadn't anticipated how difficult it would be and fell ill from the strain. On board the ship was a French doctor, who took care of her; they fell in love and eventually married. The years that followed took her to Mexico, the United States, Spain, and Israel. In Italy she drove a cab, and, so the story goes, she ran someone over in Rome, then fled the country before she could be arrested.

I find it easy to connect the dots between Emma's memoir and her work as a painter: She has a visual artist's eye for detail. The first image that strikes you is the figurine built from garbage, created by the children's ingenuity, brought to life by their imagination, and finally destroyed by their lusts. And in the pages that follow are burning villages, endless rides across the barren plains, train stations that feel as lonely and terrifying as any in literature.

There are towns that feel like outposts of civilization, sinister characters, cruel abandonments. The convent itself is a universe apart, with arcane rules and habits that Emma and her sister struggle to decipher. We see it all through Emma's eyes: Her vision is acute, detailed, remorseless, and true.

There is no self-pity, only wonder, and that tone, so delicate and subtle, is perhaps the book's greatest achievement.

• • •

At some point in the 1990s, Emma resumed her correspondence with Germán Arciniegas. Before his death in 1999, Arciniegas had his secretary type up Emma's letters, and according to Felipe González, Emma herself corrected this manuscript before she passed away. It was shopped around, but no publishing house in Bogotá would take it.

When she died in 2003, Emma left fourteen chests full of papers, one of which she gave to Arte Vivo Otero Herrera, a family foundation that had supported her work for years. Camilo Otero, the foundation's director, went through the documents and found references to the letters. On a trip to Bogotá he contacted the Arciniegas family, who still had the letters Emma had corrected. Otero took that manuscript to Laguna Libros in early 2012.

Calling Laguna a small operation would be an exaggeration. In fact, when Camilo Otero arrived with Emma's letters, it had only three employees. It specialized in art books, but before Emma Reyes, Laguna's bestseller was a collection of 1920s Colombian sci-fi. It had never had a second printing of any title in its catalog, and from a business point of view it was certainly a risk to publish a collection of letters by a dead painter whom few, if any, had ever heard of. Back then the employees of Laguna would deliver the books themselves, driving across Bogotá in Felipe González's station wagon. When they took Emma's published letters to stores in April 2012, González recalls that booksellers made fun of him.

But when they read the book, it all changed. Booksellers started talking about Emma Reyes. And, little by little, her memoir started to sell. The first print run of a thousand copies was sold out by September. And that was just the beginning. Against all odds, it became a runaway hit. A sixth edition has just been published.

My personal introduction to Emma Reyes was both unusual and typical of a book with such passionate fans—a stranger literally pressed it into my hands at the Bogotá Book Fair in 2014.

"You must read this," she said. "You have to." Now I urge the same of you.

DANIEL ALARCÓN


Letter Number 1

My dear Germán:

Today at noon General de Gaulle left elysee, his only luggage the eleven million nine hundred forty-three thousand two hundred thirty-three NO votes cast by the Frenchmen who have repudiated him.

I had mixed feelings about this news, but curiously, it brought to mind my oldest childhood memory.

The house we lived in consisted of just one very small room with no windows, and a door that faced the street. This room was located on Carrera Septima in a working-class neighborhood in Bogotá called San Cristóbal. The tram passed directly in front of our house and stopped a few meters ahead at a beer factory called Leona Pura and Leona Oscura. In that room lived my sister, Helena, another child whose name I didn't know whom we called Piojo, and a woman I remember only as an enormous tangle of black hair; it covered her completely, and when it was down I'd scream with fright and hide under the bed.

Our life took place in the streets. Every morning I would go to the garbage heap behind the beer factory to empty the bedpan we'd all used during the night. The bedpan was enormous and glazed with white enamel, little of which remained. Every day it was full to the very top, the odors that emerged from it so nauseating that I often threw up. There was no electric light or toilet in our room. Our toilet was that bedpan, where we did all our business. The trip to the garbage heap with that overflowing bedpan was the worst part of my day. I had to walk, scarcely breathing, eyes fixed on the shit, following its rhythm, possessed by terror that I might spill it, which would mean dreadful punishment. I gripped the bedpan firmly with both hands, as if I were carrying a precious object. The weight was also tremendous, a test of my strength. Because my sister was older, she had to go to the spigot to bring the water we needed for the day. As for Piojo, he had to go for coal and take out the ashes, so neither of them could ever help me carry the bedpan, since they went in the other direction. The best part of my day came once I'd emptied the bedpan on the garbage heap. That's where all the neighborhood kids hung out; playing, screaming, sliding down a mountain of clay, squabbling with each other, fighting. They rolled around the mud puddles and dug through the garbage looking for what we called treasures: cans of beer to make music, old shoes, pieces of wire or rubber, sticks, old dresses. Everything interested us; it was our game room. I couldn't play much because I was the smallest and the bigger kids didn't like me. My only friend was a boy we teased for his limp—we nicknamed him Cojo, even though he was also the biggest of the children. He'd lost one foot completely, sliced off by the tram one day when he was arranging Leona bottle tops on the rails so the tram might flatten them like coins. Like the rest of us, Cojo didn't wear shoes, and he helped himself along with a stick, his only foot executing extraordinary leaps. When he started to run, no one could catch him.

Cojo was always waiting for me at the entrance to the dump. I emptied the bedpan, cleaned it quickly with weeds or old papers, and hid it in a hole, always the same one, behind a eucalyptus tree. One day Cojo didn't want to play because he had a stomachache, and we sat beneath the slide to watch the others play. The clay was wet, and I began to make a tiny figurine from it. Cojo always wore the same pair of pants, his only pair, three times his size, tied with a
piece of rope around his waist. He hid everything in the pockets of those pants: rocks, spinning tops, pieces of glass, and a knife blade with its handle missing. When I finished the clay figurine, he took his half-knife and used the tip to make two holes for the eyes and another slightly bigger one for the mouth. But when he finished he said, "This doll is very small. Let's make it bigger."

And we made it bigger, adding mud to it.

The next day we returned, and it was lying where we'd left it. Cojo said, "We're going to make it bigger."

And the others came and said: "We're going to make it bigger."

One of them found an old, very large board, and we decided we'd make the figurine grow until he was that size, and then, atop that board, we could carry him around, marching. For many days we added more and more mud to the figurine until he was as big as the board. Then we decided to give him a name: General Rebollo. I don't know why we
chose that name, but it doesn't matter: General Rebollo became our God. We dressed him in whatever we found in the garbage heap; the races came to an end, the fighting, the leaping. Now everything revolved around General Rebollo, the central character in all our games. For days and days we lived around his board. Sometimes we made him seem good, sometimes evil; most of the time he was magical, possessed of superpowers. That's how many days passed, and many Sundays, which, for me, were the worst days of the week. From noon until the evening on Sundays, I was left alone, locked in our only room. There was no light other than what came through the cracks and the large keyhole, and I spent hours with my eye pressed to the hole to see what was happening in the street and to forget that I was afraid. Often, when the woman with long tangled hair and Helena and Piojo returned, they'd find me asleep against the door, exhausted from so much looking out, and so much dreaming of General Rebollo.

But after inspiring a thousand and one games, General Rebollo's heroism began to wane. Our tiny imaginations could find no more joy in his presence, and each day fewer and fewer of us wanted to play with him. General Rebollo began to spend long hours alone, no one taking care of the decorations that adorned him. Until one day, Cojo, who was still the most loyal, climbed atop an old bureau and pounded his improvised cane three times. His sharp voice cracking with emotion, he shouted: "General Rebollo is dead!"

In circumstances like the ones in which we lived, one is born knowing what hunger, cold, and death mean. With our heads bowed and our eyes filled with tears, we slowly gathered around General Rebollo.
 
Once again, Cojo shouted, "On your knees!"

We all bent a knee, drowning in tears, no one daring to say a word. The son of the coalman was older than we were, and he always sat on a rock reading pages from the newspaper he found in the trash. He came toward us, still holding the newspaper, and said, "Idiot kids, if your General has died, then bury him."

Then he left.

We all stood. Together we lifted the board with the General, and decided to bury him in the garbage heap, but all our efforts were useless: we couldn't even move the board. So we decided to bury him in pieces. We broke each leg in three parts, did the same with the arms. Cojo said the head had to be buried whole. An old can was found, and we placed the head inside; four of the kids, the oldest ones, carried it first. We all followed behind, crying like orphans. The same ceremony was repeated with each of the pieces of the legs and the arms, until all that was left was his torso, which we broke into many pieces. We made many tiny mud balls from it, and when there was nothing left of General Rebollo's torso, we played war with them.

Emma Reyes

Paris, April 28, 1969


Letter Number 2

My dear Germán:

In spite of your very discreet letter, I can tell you're dying to know who the woman with the long hair was. The truth is the memories are blurry, and if I've managed to maintain a certain coherence to them through the years, it's because of my sister, who is two years older and remembers a bit more.

The long-haired woman was named Maria. She was very young, tall, and thin; she never spoke to us about her family or her life. Our dealings with her were limited to answering her orders with refusals or questions. She was tough and severe.

The only person who visited us was Mrs. Secundina, who had a store on Santa Barbara. She was much older, and was Maria's only friend. As soon as Secundina arrived, they'd send us into the streets to play, with the order not to come back until we'd been called. We never knew what they talked about. We'd buried General Rebollo not long before. I still had the same mud- stained dress. We always slept in our clothes; Maria only took off her long skirt and undid her hair. One morning she woke very early. It was still black like night. She sent the three of us to empty the bedpan and bring back the buckets and the jar full of water. When we came back she turned on the small gas burner and put the big pot on to boil. While the water warmed, she changed the sheets and cleaned the four pieces of furniture we owned.
 
"Take off your clothes," she said. "I'm going to give you a bath."

It was the first time she bathed us all at the same time. The three nudes stood around the basin, and she soaped us quickly and then rinsed us one by one, using a wooden bowl. The floor of our room was soaked and sudsy; before dressing us, she put us to work drying it. She dressed us in our Sunday best, and we sat on the edge of the bed, under orders not to move. Before long she too had put on her Sunday dress, then brushed her hair very carefully, asking Helena to hold the mirror and Piojo to hold the candle. She'd get furious each time one of the two would move. When she was finished, she sent Piojo to the factory to see what time it was. She didn't give us any breakfast that day; she was nervous, circling the room like a caged beast. Day had dawned, but she didn't open the door as she usually did, and we remained in the candlelight. Suddenly, there were three soft knocks on the door, and she crossed herself and hurried to open it. A very tall and slim man appeared, dressed unlike the people in our neighborhood. He was like those men we saw in the newspapers we found in the garbage dump. He wore an overcoat and a hat and carried an umbrella, all dark, perhaps black. He passed his hand over his eyes, as if to acclimate to the candlelight, and entered as if slipping through the door. He gave her a kiss on the cheek, and all three of us laughed at once. It was the first time a gentleman had been in our room.

Mrs. Maria shut the door, locked it, and took the bottle with the candle and came to the bed, where we still sat, paralyzed. He followed her, wearing a serious expression. She brought the candle close to Piojo's face and said to the man:

"This is Eduardo. He's yours."

The man patted Piojo lightly on the cheek with his palm.

Then she showed him Helena, and then me. Nothing was said; there was a profound silence. The gentleman unbuttoned his overcoat and his jacket, and with the tips of his fingers took some coins from the pocket of his vest. He gave three to Eduardo and one to each of us.

"Say thank you," Mrs. Maria said, "and now go play outside, but stay near the door, and if you see a neighbor coming, tell her I'm still asleep."

We went out and heard the lock turn behind us. The man was there a long time. Finally, the door opened. Mrs. Maria stuck her head out and made sure no one was watching. She turned and said, "Okay. Now."

The man left, scurrying out the way he'd come. He passed by without looking at us, as if he'd never seen us before. We watched him leave with large, bounding steps, staying close to the wall, as if he were afraid of being seen.

When we entered the room, Mrs. Maria was crying. She began to empty the drawers and separate everything that belonged to Eduardo. She took out a cardboard box from beneath the bed and packed away everything she'd set aside.

"Helena and Emma, put on your old dresses. Eduardo, no, because he's coming with me."

She was still crying, so we also started to cry. While Helena undressed, we saw a stack of bills on the table, and I was scared. I felt something was about to happen. We had only coins; we'd never seen bills in the house. Mrs. Maria didn't say a word. She took a shawl from its box, wrapping it tight around her face. For the first time I saw that she looked like the Virgin from church.

"Don't move. I'm going to the neighbor's."

She came back with the neighbor, Cojo's mother. She showed her where the plates and candles were kept. She took the cardboard box with Piojo's clothes in it, stood before us, and told us she was going away for a few days, but that the neighbor would come by to bring us food. Because there was no one to take care of us, she'd leave us locked inside. "Behave," she repeated twice, then shuffled Piojo to the door, placed a seaman's beret on his head, and ordered him  out. Piojo looked at us, his big, open eyes filling with tears.

We spent many days and nights locked in that room. We lost count of how many. The bedpan filled up with our shit, so we started using the large serving plate. The neighbor came by only once a day and left us a big pot of porridge. "Don't eat it all at once," she'd say, "because I'm not coming back until tomorrow. And blow out the candle as soon as you're done eating."

We cried and screamed so much that the neighbors came to the door to try to console us. For hours, we'd look through the keyhole and the cracks in the wood to see if she was coming. Finally, she came back one day, and found us asleep on the floor, our backs against the door. It was the first time we both threw ourselves on her neck, hugging her and kissing her with happiness. She started to cry, very sweetly removed our arms from around her neck, and, holding our
hands between hers, said: "Piojo isn't coming back. His father, that man who came here, is an important politician. He may become the president of the republic. That's why he didn't want his son to be here. He says he's afraid and prefers to deal with him himself; I took him far from Bogotá, to Tunja, and left him in a convent where everything had been arranged so they could take him in."

Without Piojo, I felt lost. I cried and screamed; I called his name. I didn't understand what "far from Bogotá" meant. I thought that if I shouted loud enough he might hear me. Mrs. Maria also seemed very sad. She became quieter and tougher. I think this was when a secret pact was born between Helena and me, an unconscious notion that we were alone and belonged only to each other. In that moment I didn't know that I'd never see Piojo again, and that I'd be left with just the memory of his immense black eyes full of tears, beneath that ridiculous seaman's beret.


Letter Number 3

My dear Germán:

As I said in my previous letter, after Piojo, or Eduardo, left, Mrs. Maria became more indifferent toward us and crueler. She hardly spoke beyond what was strictly necessary and began to go out into the streets almost every day. She'd wake us very early and give us breakfast. I had to run out to empty the bedpan on the garbage heap, and Helena brought the water. Sometimes I helped her, but the jar and the bucket were too heavy for me and I'd spill half the water. As usual, Mrs. Maria would leave us locked in the room while she was out, and sometimes she returned only at night, not concerning herself with whether or not we'd eaten.

One night she came back very, very late. We were crying with hunger. She was carrying packages, and for the first time she brought us some pastries and guava snacks. She made us dinner, and without warning, she started to laugh, a wild laughter. Tears streamed down her face, and we were frightened, not knowing if we should laugh with her or cry. When she managed to calm down a little, she pounded the table and said: "We're leaving this miserable room. Tomorrow we pack up, and we're going to a town far from here and we'll have a big house."

She started laughing again and ordered us off to bed, since we had to be up early.

For many days the room was hell—nothing was in its usual place and the dresser was empty while she made piles of various things in every corner. One morning she went out and bought three big trunks and began to pack up the clothes and the plates. She wrapped every plate carefully among the linens and the towels; in the last trunk she packed the pots, the serving bowl, the jar, and the bedpan. By evening the room was bare except for the furniture. The mattress had no sheets or blankets, and various boxes full of old things were strewn on the floor. After dinner the neighbors came and took what they wanted. Cojo's mom took the old broom; we sold the bed to a worker from the beer factory. When everyone was gone, all that remained were the three closed trunks in the middle of the room and the old mattress on the floor. Cojo's mom came back and brought us a blanket and a bedpan.

It was still dark when we woke up. We wore our Sunday dresses, the only ones we'd left unpacked. Mrs. Maria sent us to the neighbor's to return the blanket, the bedpan, and the dirty clothes we'd taken off the day before. When we came back Mrs. Maria was waiting for us by the door; she'd already put on her shawl, and she had a new leather briefcase. She locked us in the room with the three trunks and said she wouldn't be long. Not long after, we heard the sound of a horse, and we looked through the keyhole and saw her, descending from a buggy that had stopped in front of the door. The neighbors hurried out and helped get the trunks into the buggy. They sat me among the trunks, and Helena stood, holding me so I wouldn't fall.

Mrs. Maria greeted everyone with a handshake; in that moment we saw Cojo running toward us. He came right up to the buggy and gave me half of an orange that he had in his hand, then watched us with very sad eyes. Mrs. Maria locked the door and gave the key to the neighbor, asking her to take care of the room.

I didn't see what happened next, only heard a horrible cry. When I turned, Mrs. Maria was prone on the sidewalk, her eyes closed and blood coming out of her mouth. The driver said all manner of vulgarities. Helena says that Mrs. Maria tried to walk in front of the horse to greet the priest, and that the horse raised its frightened head and hit her in the jaw. She bit her tongue from the shock, and fell like a dead person in the middle of the sidewalk. The neighbors brought alcohol and lotions and started rubbing her forehead. We wept like lunatics, calling her name and pulling at her sleeve. Finally she opened her eyes, and little by little sat up. She was pale, and we all went inside Cojo's mother's house. They
made her gargle salt water, and the priest said it was best to scrub her face with menthol ointment. The neighbor said candle wax was better. Meanwhile we kept crying, and the driver was furious because he was losing time. The worker who'd bought our bed folded a handkerchief, held it to Mrs. Maria's jaw, and tied it in a knot around her head. The neighbors helped replace her shawl, and after a thousand more bits of advice and farewells, we got back in the buggy. I can still see the neighbors in the middle of the street, their arms raised high, waving good- bye. In the midst of it all, I
lost that half of an orange that Cojo had given me.


Letter Number 4

My dear Germán:

If it's true that certain moments in our childhood mark us forever, then that ride was one of them. It signaled the end of our lives in that room in Barrio San Cristóbal (patron saint of travelers) and was the beginning of a life that would take me along America's most difficult roads, and later the fabulous ones of Europe.

The buggy took us to the Sabana station. Mrs. Maria didn't say a word for the entire trip. She was so pale and so sad that I asked her again if she was going to die, and with a wave of her hand she answered no. We rode along so many grand streets, past houses with balconies, and churches, that I didn't know where to look; the fright from having seen Mrs. Maria stretched across the street like General Rebollo on the garbage pile had left me with a stomachache and an urge to vomit.

At the station, Mrs. Maria called some men to carry our trunks. There were people running in every direction, all weighed down with suitcases, bags, and backpacks; I held on to Mrs. Maria's dress, and Helena took my other hand. We walked in circles; Mrs. Maria spoke with various people and opened her handbag again and again, giving out money in exchange for little pieces of paper that she would put away. At last we boarded a train, and she sat by the window. She made Helena sit next to her and sat me on her knees. It was the first time she'd carried me. I didn't know what to do. She smelled strongly and unpleasantly of medicine, and I was afraid my head might touch her face. People kept shoving their way onto the train, bulging with packages. Some men came aboard, shouting and carrying tiny four-stringed 'tiples' and a bottle. They began to sing, and I fell asleep before the train even departed.

They woke me when it was time to get off. It was already dark when Mrs. Maria showed up at the door of a big house. We were received by the owner, a very fat woman with a red nose who was dressed in all black.

The fat woman took us to a large room that faced an inner courtyard full of plants hanging from the ceiling, as if they'd been planted in the sky. She summoned an unkempt teenage boy who had a toy top in one hand and told him to go to the kitchen and let them know that there would be three more people for dinner. Mrs. Maria told the owner what had happened with the horse before we'd left. The owner said she'd call a healer who cured people by applying heated frogs
wherever there was pain. Mrs. Maria wouldn't agree to this, so we ate and then went to bed.

We stayed in that village, whose name I never learned, for many days. Mrs. Maria went out almost every day and got in the habit of taking Helena with her, leaving me in the care of the ratty teenager, who'd sit beside me, playing with his spinning top. One day he made it dance on his hand, and I was so frightened I started to cry; another day he asked me if I had a dad and a mom, and I asked him what those were, and he said he didn't know either.

On the last day Mrs. Maria left very early. When she returned she was weighed down with packages and called us to the room and had us undress. She'd bought us new dresses. Helena's was blue—which I liked more—and mine was pink; both had buttons and lace. They were lovely. Once we were dressed, Mrs. Maria made us go out to the patio. A while later she came out of the room and we almost didn't recognize her. She was so beautiful and looked so young. She'd
bought a gray dress with many pleats and buttons and washers, black boots that also had many buttons, and a large gray hat with a kind of veil that cinched below her chin. Everyone came up to her and congratulated her; the owner touched her everywhere. They called the kid so he could help us carry the packages. We walked many blocks and came to a kind of pasture full of horses and other scary animals I'd never seen before, and Helena told me that these animals made the milk we drank with our coffee at breakfast. There were groups of men called Indians because they were dressed differently from the men of Bogotá. Mrs. Maria spoke to many of them and asked each for Mr. Toribio.
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INTRODUCTION

Every work of art—every book, every film, every painting—is an unlikely achievement. We know this instinctively, of course. The vision one has for any piece at the outset can never be more than partially fulfilled, limited as we are by our talent, our time, our ability to execute. Even so, some works of art feel more unlikely, more miraculous than others, and Emma Reyes's remarkable epistolary memoir is one of them.

It's best to say it plainly. The very fact that this book exists is extraordinary. Everything about it, from the author's backstory—her childhood in grinding poverty, abandoned by her mother in the Colombian countryside, her escape from a convent, her improbable life in Europe—to the fact that she managed, without any formal education, to write these beautiful, moving letters, maintaining the correspondence across decades; then, the manuscript's survival and eventual publication in Colombia—all of this is astonishing.

When she passed away in 2003, at the age of eighty-four, Emma Reyes was known—to the extent she was known at all—primarily as a painter.

She'd been living in Europe for decades, having escaped the most miserable, stultifying kind of poverty her native Colombia could offer a child, and established herself as a presence in France, a kind of godmother to Latin American artists and writers. As a painter she was a peripheral, if beloved, figure on the scene. Felipe González, editor at Laguna Libros, the independent house that published her memoir in April 2012, described those who knew Emma's painting as "very few, and very old." Still, over the course of her life, she was close with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and rubbed
shoulders with Alberto Moravia, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Enrico Prampolini, and Elsa Morante. She made a life for herself in Paris, later in Bordeaux, as part of a Latin American and European cultural elite.

Emma was, by all accounts, magnetic, a great storyteller, the kind of person who could hold a room rapt. The stories she told most often had to do with her childhood. Sometime in the late 1940s, she met the Colombian historian and critic Germán Arciniegas, who, like others before him, insisted she write it all down. She protested that she found it difficult to organize her thoughts, and so Arciniegas offered a solution: tell the story of your childhood in letters, he said. Write them to me. The first of the twenty-three letters collected here is dated from 1969; the last from 1997. They
aren't evenly spaced; in fact, there was a gap of more than two decades. Apparently, sometime in the early 1970s, Arciniegas had Gabriel Garcia Márquez over for dinner in Bogotá. He was so excited about Emma's letters that he showed them to the future Nobel Prize laureate. Weeks later, Gabo telephoned Emma in Paris to tell her how much he'd enjoyed them, and she responded with fury. As she saw it, Arciniegas had betrayed their implicit agreement of confidentiality. Emma didn't write him another letter for more than twenty years.

She must have known, though, there was something special in the work. According to editor Felipe González, Emma was proud of her writing—not because it was good, but precisely because it wasn't, at least not in a conventional sense. "She wanted the book to be published with errors," González told me. "She cultivated her mistakes." Emma had no formal education to speak of; she was, in fact, illiterate until her late teens. Her grammar, punctuation, and spelling were plainly intuitive, and every sentence was hard earned, every error part of her inheritance, a reminder of the childhood she'd survived. The Colombian edition applied a light touch to the original. As a translator, I've tried to do the same, while silently correcting some of the more obvious errors.

None of which is to say her prose lacks sophistication. On the contrary, I don't think I've read many books of such power and grace, or that pack such an emotional wallop in so short a space. Her memoir begins in a garbage dump in Bogotá, narrating moments of uncommon dignity, moving from there to the countryside and back again, describing with a poetic dispassion the sorts of trauma that would break most people. Emma, somehow, does not break. Colombia, or rather the version of the country that brought her up, the country described here, is classist, violent, provincial, prejudiced. The Catholic Church is unyielding in its cruelty, willing to pass judgment, even on little girls like Emma, no more than six or seven when she was abandoned by her mother and taken to a convent.

After escaping in her late teens, Emma fled to Buenos Aires, making her way across South America on foot, by train, by car, hitchhiking and working as a traveling saleswoman. When she arrived in the Argentine capital in 1943, she began to paint. She married in Uruguay and had a child in Paraguay in the years immediately after a disastrous war had crushed that nation's economy. She was living in a small town outside Asunción when it was overrun by a group of
armed looters. They sacked her home, and her newborn, only a few months old, was killed before her eyes.

This tragedy comes after the book concludes—and still Emma does not break. Eventually she won a scholarship to study art in Paris. Her husband abandoned her, opting not to travel with her, and so she left for Europe alone, to start a new life. She paid for her trip by offering to paint the ship as it sailed across the Atlantic. She hadn't anticipated how difficult it would be and fell ill from the strain. On board the ship was a French doctor, who took care of her; they fell in love and eventually married. The years that followed took her to Mexico, the United States, Spain, and Israel. In Italy she drove a cab, and, so the story goes, she ran someone over in Rome, then fled the country before she could be arrested.

I find it easy to connect the dots between Emma's memoir and her work as a painter: She has a visual artist's eye for detail. The first image that strikes you is the figurine built from garbage, created by the children's ingenuity, brought to life by their imagination, and finally destroyed by their lusts. And in the pages that follow are burning villages, endless rides across the barren plains, train stations that feel as lonely and terrifying as any in literature.

There are towns that feel like outposts of civilization, sinister characters, cruel abandonments. The convent itself is a universe apart, with arcane rules and habits that Emma and her sister struggle to decipher. We see it all through Emma's eyes: Her vision is acute, detailed, remorseless, and true.

There is no self-pity, only wonder, and that tone, so delicate and subtle, is perhaps the book's greatest achievement.

• • •

At some point in the 1990s, Emma resumed her correspondence with Germán Arciniegas. Before his death in 1999, Arciniegas had his secretary type up Emma's letters, and according to Felipe González, Emma herself corrected this manuscript before she passed away. It was shopped around, but no publishing house in Bogotá would take it.

When she died in 2003, Emma left fourteen chests full of papers, one of which she gave to Arte Vivo Otero Herrera, a family foundation that had supported her work for years. Camilo Otero, the foundation's director, went through the documents and found references to the letters. On a trip to Bogotá he contacted the Arciniegas family, who still had the letters Emma had corrected. Otero took that manuscript to Laguna Libros in early 2012.

Calling Laguna a small operation would be an exaggeration. In fact, when Camilo Otero arrived with Emma's letters, it had only three employees. It specialized in art books, but before Emma Reyes, Laguna's bestseller was a collection of 1920s Colombian sci-fi. It had never had a second printing of any title in its catalog, and from a business point of view it was certainly a risk to publish a collection of letters by a dead painter whom few, if any, had ever heard of. Back then the employees of Laguna would deliver the books themselves, driving across Bogotá in Felipe González's station wagon. When they took Emma's published letters to stores in April 2012, González recalls that booksellers made fun of him.

But when they read the book, it all changed. Booksellers started talking about Emma Reyes. And, little by little, her memoir started to sell. The first print run of a thousand copies was sold out by September. And that was just the beginning. Against all odds, it became a runaway hit. A sixth edition has just been published.

My personal introduction to Emma Reyes was both unusual and typical of a book with such passionate fans—a stranger literally pressed it into my hands at the Bogotá Book Fair in 2014.

"You must read this," she said. "You have to." Now I urge the same of you.

DANIEL ALARCÓN


Letter Number 1

My dear Germán:

Today at noon General de Gaulle left elysee, his only luggage the eleven million nine hundred forty-three thousand two hundred thirty-three NO votes cast by the Frenchmen who have repudiated him.

I had mixed feelings about this news, but curiously, it brought to mind my oldest childhood memory.

The house we lived in consisted of just one very small room with no windows, and a door that faced the street. This room was located on Carrera Septima in a working-class neighborhood in Bogotá called San Cristóbal. The tram passed directly in front of our house and stopped a few meters ahead at a beer factory called Leona Pura and Leona Oscura. In that room lived my sister, Helena, another child whose name I didn't know whom we called Piojo, and a woman I remember only as an enormous tangle of black hair; it covered her completely, and when it was down I'd scream with fright and hide under the bed.

Our life took place in the streets. Every morning I would go to the garbage heap behind the beer factory to empty the bedpan we'd all used during the night. The bedpan was enormous and glazed with white enamel, little of which remained. Every day it was full to the very top, the odors that emerged from it so nauseating that I often threw up. There was no electric light or toilet in our room. Our toilet was that bedpan, where we did all our business. The trip to the garbage heap with that overflowing bedpan was the worst part of my day. I had to walk, scarcely breathing, eyes fixed on the shit, following its rhythm, possessed by terror that I might spill it, which would mean dreadful punishment. I gripped the bedpan firmly with both hands, as if I were carrying a precious object. The weight was also tremendous, a test of my strength. Because my sister was older, she had to go to the spigot to bring the water we needed for the day. As for Piojo, he had to go for coal and take out the ashes, so neither of them could ever help me carry the bedpan, since they went in the other direction. The best part of my day came once I'd emptied the bedpan on the garbage heap. That's where all the neighborhood kids hung out; playing, screaming, sliding down a mountain of clay, squabbling with each other, fighting. They rolled around the mud puddles and dug through the garbage looking for what we called treasures: cans of beer to make music, old shoes, pieces of wire or rubber, sticks, old dresses. Everything interested us; it was our game room. I couldn't play much because I was the smallest and the bigger kids didn't like me. My only friend was a boy we teased for his limp—we nicknamed him Cojo, even though he was also the biggest of the children. He'd lost one foot completely, sliced off by the tram one day when he was arranging Leona bottle tops on the rails so the tram might flatten them like coins. Like the rest of us, Cojo didn't wear shoes, and he helped himself along with a stick, his only foot executing extraordinary leaps. When he started to run, no one could catch him.

Cojo was always waiting for me at the entrance to the dump. I emptied the bedpan, cleaned it quickly with weeds or old papers, and hid it in a hole, always the same one, behind a eucalyptus tree. One day Cojo didn't want to play because he had a stomachache, and we sat beneath the slide to watch the others play. The clay was wet, and I began to make a tiny figurine from it. Cojo always wore the same pair of pants, his only pair, three times his size, tied with a
piece of rope around his waist. He hid everything in the pockets of those pants: rocks, spinning tops, pieces of glass, and a knife blade with its handle missing. When I finished the clay figurine, he took his half-knife and used the tip to make two holes for the eyes and another slightly bigger one for the mouth. But when he finished he said, "This doll is very small. Let's make it bigger."

And we made it bigger, adding mud to it.

The next day we returned, and it was lying where we'd left it. Cojo said, "We're going to make it bigger."

And the others came and said: "We're going to make it bigger."

One of them found an old, very large board, and we decided we'd make the figurine grow until he was that size, and then, atop that board, we could carry him around, marching. For many days we added more and more mud to the figurine until he was as big as the board. Then we decided to give him a name: General Rebollo. I don't know why we
chose that name, but it doesn't matter: General Rebollo became our God. We dressed him in whatever we found in the garbage heap; the races came to an end, the fighting, the leaping. Now everything revolved around General Rebollo, the central character in all our games. For days and days we lived around his board. Sometimes we made him seem good, sometimes evil; most of the time he was magical, possessed of superpowers. That's how many days passed, and many Sundays, which, for me, were the worst days of the week. From noon until the evening on Sundays, I was left alone, locked in our only room. There was no light other than what came through the cracks and the large keyhole, and I spent hours with my eye pressed to the hole to see what was happening in the street and to forget that I was afraid. Often, when the woman with long tangled hair and Helena and Piojo returned, they'd find me asleep against the door, exhausted from so much looking out, and so much dreaming of General Rebollo.

But after inspiring a thousand and one games, General Rebollo's heroism began to wane. Our tiny imaginations could find no more joy in his presence, and each day fewer and fewer of us wanted to play with him. General Rebollo began to spend long hours alone, no one taking care of the decorations that adorned him. Until one day, Cojo, who was still the most loyal, climbed atop an old bureau and pounded his improvised cane three times. His sharp voice cracking with emotion, he shouted: "General Rebollo is dead!"

In circumstances like the ones in which we lived, one is born knowing what hunger, cold, and death mean. With our heads bowed and our eyes filled with tears, we slowly gathered around General Rebollo.
 
Once again, Cojo shouted, "On your knees!"

We all bent a knee, drowning in tears, no one daring to say a word. The son of the coalman was older than we were, and he always sat on a rock reading pages from the newspaper he found in the trash. He came toward us, still holding the newspaper, and said, "Idiot kids, if your General has died, then bury him."

Then he left.

We all stood. Together we lifted the board with the General, and decided to bury him in the garbage heap, but all our efforts were useless: we couldn't even move the board. So we decided to bury him in pieces. We broke each leg in three parts, did the same with the arms. Cojo said the head had to be buried whole. An old can was found, and we placed the head inside; four of the kids, the oldest ones, carried it first. We all followed behind, crying like orphans. The same ceremony was repeated with each of the pieces of the legs and the arms, until all that was left was his torso, which we broke into many pieces. We made many tiny mud balls from it, and when there was nothing left of General Rebollo's torso, we played war with them.

Emma Reyes

Paris, April 28, 1969


Letter Number 2

My dear Germán:

In spite of your very discreet letter, I can tell you're dying to know who the woman with the long hair was. The truth is the memories are blurry, and if I've managed to maintain a certain coherence to them through the years, it's because of my sister, who is two years older and remembers a bit more.

The long-haired woman was named Maria. She was very young, tall, and thin; she never spoke to us about her family or her life. Our dealings with her were limited to answering her orders with refusals or questions. She was tough and severe.

The only person who visited us was Mrs. Secundina, who had a store on Santa Barbara. She was much older, and was Maria's only friend. As soon as Secundina arrived, they'd send us into the streets to play, with the order not to come back until we'd been called. We never knew what they talked about. We'd buried General Rebollo not long before. I still had the same mud- stained dress. We always slept in our clothes; Maria only took off her long skirt and undid her hair. One morning she woke very early. It was still black like night. She sent the three of us to empty the bedpan and bring back the buckets and the jar full of water. When we came back she turned on the small gas burner and put the big pot on to boil. While the water warmed, she changed the sheets and cleaned the four pieces of furniture we owned.
 
"Take off your clothes," she said. "I'm going to give you a bath."

It was the first time she bathed us all at the same time. The three nudes stood around the basin, and she soaped us quickly and then rinsed us one by one, using a wooden bowl. The floor of our room was soaked and sudsy; before dressing us, she put us to work drying it. She dressed us in our Sunday best, and we sat on the edge of the bed, under orders not to move. Before long she too had put on her Sunday dress, then brushed her hair very carefully, asking Helena to hold the mirror and Piojo to hold the candle. She'd get furious each time one of the two would move. When she was finished, she sent Piojo to the factory to see what time it was. She didn't give us any breakfast that day; she was nervous, circling the room like a caged beast. Day had dawned, but she didn't open the door as she usually did, and we remained in the candlelight. Suddenly, there were three soft knocks on the door, and she crossed herself and hurried to open it. A very tall and slim man appeared, dressed unlike the people in our neighborhood. He was like those men we saw in the newspapers we found in the garbage dump. He wore an overcoat and a hat and carried an umbrella, all dark, perhaps black. He passed his hand over his eyes, as if to acclimate to the candlelight, and entered as if slipping through the door. He gave her a kiss on the cheek, and all three of us laughed at once. It was the first time a gentleman had been in our room.

Mrs. Maria shut the door, locked it, and took the bottle with the candle and came to the bed, where we still sat, paralyzed. He followed her, wearing a serious expression. She brought the candle close to Piojo's face and said to the man:

"This is Eduardo. He's yours."

The man patted Piojo lightly on the cheek with his palm.

Then she showed him Helena, and then me. Nothing was said; there was a profound silence. The gentleman unbuttoned his overcoat and his jacket, and with the tips of his fingers took some coins from the pocket of his vest. He gave three to Eduardo and one to each of us.

"Say thank you," Mrs. Maria said, "and now go play outside, but stay near the door, and if you see a neighbor coming, tell her I'm still asleep."

We went out and heard the lock turn behind us. The man was there a long time. Finally, the door opened. Mrs. Maria stuck her head out and made sure no one was watching. She turned and said, "Okay. Now."

The man left, scurrying out the way he'd come. He passed by without looking at us, as if he'd never seen us before. We watched him leave with large, bounding steps, staying close to the wall, as if he were afraid of being seen.

When we entered the room, Mrs. Maria was crying. She began to empty the drawers and separate everything that belonged to Eduardo. She took out a cardboard box from beneath the bed and packed away everything she'd set aside.

"Helena and Emma, put on your old dresses. Eduardo, no, because he's coming with me."

She was still crying, so we also started to cry. While Helena undressed, we saw a stack of bills on the table, and I was scared. I felt something was about to happen. We had only coins; we'd never seen bills in the house. Mrs. Maria didn't say a word. She took a shawl from its box, wrapping it tight around her face. For the first time I saw that she looked like the Virgin from church.

"Don't move. I'm going to the neighbor's."

She came back with the neighbor, Cojo's mother. She showed her where the plates and candles were kept. She took the cardboard box with Piojo's clothes in it, stood before us, and told us she was going away for a few days, but that the neighbor would come by to bring us food. Because there was no one to take care of us, she'd leave us locked inside. "Behave," she repeated twice, then shuffled Piojo to the door, placed a seaman's beret on his head, and ordered him  out. Piojo looked at us, his big, open eyes filling with tears.

We spent many days and nights locked in that room. We lost count of how many. The bedpan filled up with our shit, so we started using the large serving plate. The neighbor came by only once a day and left us a big pot of porridge. "Don't eat it all at once," she'd say, "because I'm not coming back until tomorrow. And blow out the candle as soon as you're done eating."

We cried and screamed so much that the neighbors came to the door to try to console us. For hours, we'd look through the keyhole and the cracks in the wood to see if she was coming. Finally, she came back one day, and found us asleep on the floor, our backs against the door. It was the first time we both threw ourselves on her neck, hugging her and kissing her with happiness. She started to cry, very sweetly removed our arms from around her neck, and, holding our
hands between hers, said: "Piojo isn't coming back. His father, that man who came here, is an important politician. He may become the president of the republic. That's why he didn't want his son to be here. He says he's afraid and prefers to deal with him himself; I took him far from Bogotá, to Tunja, and left him in a convent where everything had been arranged so they could take him in."

Without Piojo, I felt lost. I cried and screamed; I called his name. I didn't understand what "far from Bogotá" meant. I thought that if I shouted loud enough he might hear me. Mrs. Maria also seemed very sad. She became quieter and tougher. I think this was when a secret pact was born between Helena and me, an unconscious notion that we were alone and belonged only to each other. In that moment I didn't know that I'd never see Piojo again, and that I'd be left with just the memory of his immense black eyes full of tears, beneath that ridiculous seaman's beret.


Letter Number 3

My dear Germán:

As I said in my previous letter, after Piojo, or Eduardo, left, Mrs. Maria became more indifferent toward us and crueler. She hardly spoke beyond what was strictly necessary and began to go out into the streets almost every day. She'd wake us very early and give us breakfast. I had to run out to empty the bedpan on the garbage heap, and Helena brought the water. Sometimes I helped her, but the jar and the bucket were too heavy for me and I'd spill half the water. As usual, Mrs. Maria would leave us locked in the room while she was out, and sometimes she returned only at night, not concerning herself with whether or not we'd eaten.

One night she came back very, very late. We were crying with hunger. She was carrying packages, and for the first time she brought us some pastries and guava snacks. She made us dinner, and without warning, she started to laugh, a wild laughter. Tears streamed down her face, and we were frightened, not knowing if we should laugh with her or cry. When she managed to calm down a little, she pounded the table and said: "We're leaving this miserable room. Tomorrow we pack up, and we're going to a town far from here and we'll have a big house."

She started laughing again and ordered us off to bed, since we had to be up early.

For many days the room was hell—nothing was in its usual place and the dresser was empty while she made piles of various things in every corner. One morning she went out and bought three big trunks and began to pack up the clothes and the plates. She wrapped every plate carefully among the linens and the towels; in the last trunk she packed the pots, the serving bowl, the jar, and the bedpan. By evening the room was bare except for the furniture. The mattress had no sheets or blankets, and various boxes full of old things were strewn on the floor. After dinner the neighbors came and took what they wanted. Cojo's mom took the old broom; we sold the bed to a worker from the beer factory. When everyone was gone, all that remained were the three closed trunks in the middle of the room and the old mattress on the floor. Cojo's mom came back and brought us a blanket and a bedpan.

It was still dark when we woke up. We wore our Sunday dresses, the only ones we'd left unpacked. Mrs. Maria sent us to the neighbor's to return the blanket, the bedpan, and the dirty clothes we'd taken off the day before. When we came back Mrs. Maria was waiting for us by the door; she'd already put on her shawl, and she had a new leather briefcase. She locked us in the room with the three trunks and said she wouldn't be long. Not long after, we heard the sound of a horse, and we looked through the keyhole and saw her, descending from a buggy that had stopped in front of the door. The neighbors hurried out and helped get the trunks into the buggy. They sat me among the trunks, and Helena stood, holding me so I wouldn't fall.

Mrs. Maria greeted everyone with a handshake; in that moment we saw Cojo running toward us. He came right up to the buggy and gave me half of an orange that he had in his hand, then watched us with very sad eyes. Mrs. Maria locked the door and gave the key to the neighbor, asking her to take care of the room.

I didn't see what happened next, only heard a horrible cry. When I turned, Mrs. Maria was prone on the sidewalk, her eyes closed and blood coming out of her mouth. The driver said all manner of vulgarities. Helena says that Mrs. Maria tried to walk in front of the horse to greet the priest, and that the horse raised its frightened head and hit her in the jaw. She bit her tongue from the shock, and fell like a dead person in the middle of the sidewalk. The neighbors brought alcohol and lotions and started rubbing her forehead. We wept like lunatics, calling her name and pulling at her sleeve. Finally she opened her eyes, and little by little sat up. She was pale, and we all went inside Cojo's mother's house. They
made her gargle salt water, and the priest said it was best to scrub her face with menthol ointment. The neighbor said candle wax was better. Meanwhile we kept crying, and the driver was furious because he was losing time. The worker who'd bought our bed folded a handkerchief, held it to Mrs. Maria's jaw, and tied it in a knot around her head. The neighbors helped replace her shawl, and after a thousand more bits of advice and farewells, we got back in the buggy. I can still see the neighbors in the middle of the street, their arms raised high, waving good- bye. In the midst of it all, I
lost that half of an orange that Cojo had given me.


Letter Number 4

My dear Germán:

If it's true that certain moments in our childhood mark us forever, then that ride was one of them. It signaled the end of our lives in that room in Barrio San Cristóbal (patron saint of travelers) and was the beginning of a life that would take me along America's most difficult roads, and later the fabulous ones of Europe.

The buggy took us to the Sabana station. Mrs. Maria didn't say a word for the entire trip. She was so pale and so sad that I asked her again if she was going to die, and with a wave of her hand she answered no. We rode along so many grand streets, past houses with balconies, and churches, that I didn't know where to look; the fright from having seen Mrs. Maria stretched across the street like General Rebollo on the garbage pile had left me with a stomachache and an urge to vomit.

At the station, Mrs. Maria called some men to carry our trunks. There were people running in every direction, all weighed down with suitcases, bags, and backpacks; I held on to Mrs. Maria's dress, and Helena took my other hand. We walked in circles; Mrs. Maria spoke with various people and opened her handbag again and again, giving out money in exchange for little pieces of paper that she would put away. At last we boarded a train, and she sat by the window. She made Helena sit next to her and sat me on her knees. It was the first time she'd carried me. I didn't know what to do. She smelled strongly and unpleasantly of medicine, and I was afraid my head might touch her face. People kept shoving their way onto the train, bulging with packages. Some men came aboard, shouting and carrying tiny four-stringed 'tiples' and a bottle. They began to sing, and I fell asleep before the train even departed.

They woke me when it was time to get off. It was already dark when Mrs. Maria showed up at the door of a big house. We were received by the owner, a very fat woman with a red nose who was dressed in all black.

The fat woman took us to a large room that faced an inner courtyard full of plants hanging from the ceiling, as if they'd been planted in the sky. She summoned an unkempt teenage boy who had a toy top in one hand and told him to go to the kitchen and let them know that there would be three more people for dinner. Mrs. Maria told the owner what had happened with the horse before we'd left. The owner said she'd call a healer who cured people by applying heated frogs
wherever there was pain. Mrs. Maria wouldn't agree to this, so we ate and then went to bed.

We stayed in that village, whose name I never learned, for many days. Mrs. Maria went out almost every day and got in the habit of taking Helena with her, leaving me in the care of the ratty teenager, who'd sit beside me, playing with his spinning top. One day he made it dance on his hand, and I was so frightened I started to cry; another day he asked me if I had a dad and a mom, and I asked him what those were, and he said he didn't know either.

On the last day Mrs. Maria left very early. When she returned she was weighed down with packages and called us to the room and had us undress. She'd bought us new dresses. Helena's was blue—which I liked more—and mine was pink; both had buttons and lace. They were lovely. Once we were dressed, Mrs. Maria made us go out to the patio. A while later she came out of the room and we almost didn't recognize her. She was so beautiful and looked so young. She'd
bought a gray dress with many pleats and buttons and washers, black boots that also had many buttons, and a large gray hat with a kind of veil that cinched below her chin. Everyone came up to her and congratulated her; the owner touched her everywhere. They called the kid so he could help us carry the packages. We walked many blocks and came to a kind of pasture full of horses and other scary animals I'd never seen before, and Helena told me that these animals made the milk we drank with our coffee at breakfast. There were groups of men called Indians because they were dressed differently from the men of Bogotá. Mrs. Maria spoke to many of them and asked each for Mr. Toribio.
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