Thursday, March 01, 2018

The Ranchero's Daughter, published in 13 Claws

"The Ranchero's Daughter" was published in 13 Claws by Carrick Press in 2017. I wrote the story after my husband and I visited his old boss, H, in a swanky seniors' residence in Santa Barbara the previous fall. H introduced us to his friend at the residence, a ninety-five-year-old Honduran psychiatrist who had spent the last half of his life practicing in the U.S.  I and my husband, also a psychiatrist, were spellbound, listening to his melodic voice recounting what he had done and where he had been over his long life. His profound insights and generous spirit resonated with me long after we left. This story is not about him but was inspired by his humanity and the echo of his voice in my ears.

The Ranchero’s Daughter

       My father, the famous psychiatrist, Sebastian de Aguilar, was dying at the age of sixty-two. I had taken over his patients in the sanitarium he founded thirty years ago on the rancho. Our family still kept horses and cows and hens who wandered freely among the banana plants, to the delight of the half dozen patients. They helped in the care and feeding of the animals, an integral part of the treatment at our facility. My father understood that it soothes the mind to think about someone other than oneself.

       He was a pioneer in this kind of therapy, where patients and animals are brought together for the benefit of both. I, myself, was cheered by a tiny dog who adopted me on the street a few years ago. She was too straggly to have an owner, and though hesitant at first—she was not a man’s dog—I took her home. I named her Luz, since she was a light in my life. I have a tendency toward melancholy, which she alleviated with a touch of her diminutive paw.

       My father called me into his bedroom in the evenings to check on his patients’ progress and give me direction. He would sit up in bed, leaning back against his pillows, while I pulled a chair to his bedside. My little Luz lay curled at my feet. I glanced at the old photo of my mother on the night table, the dark eyes moist despite the radiant smile. She died when I was three.

       My father’s concern for his patients lasted several months. But as his illness progressed, he began to divert from this path and instead, wandered into memory. He would relate milestones in his career: his studies in psychotherapy in Vienna, the autopsies of the nervous system he conducted in New York, his positions in the Ministry of Health at home.

       One time he began in the same way, dredging out from dim memory the names of old physicians who had taken him under their wing in Zurich and Berlin. Then he stopped, the soft white curls on his head trembling. I had never seen him so weak. The disease was gnawing away at his identity, leaving behind a stranger.

       “Mateo, you were not yet born when a ranchero in the neighbouring valley started having trouble with his beautiful but insane daughter. He was a rich landowner from a distinguished Spanish family who had come to Honduras in the 1700s. Now, two hundred years later, the family was in danger of disappearing, with the girl being the last offspring. The ranchero’s wife had died, so the girl lost her beloved mother and became even worse. The stepmother could not control her and came to hate her.”

       This was not my father talking! He had never demeaned himself with gossip.

       “The girl was a beauty, but completely mad. One never knew what to expect from her. She whirled around when there was no music. She talked to the horses and cows and claimed they talked back. She would scream for no reason as if someone were killing her. They could not keep maids because the girl would curse them and prick them with a fork, threatening to eat them.”

       My brilliant father was disappearing. In his debilitated state, his low raspy voice arrived slowly, between halts.

       “Such a beautiful girl, with long black hair and dark green eyes like a forest. The only creature she truly loved was her Chihuahua, Conchita, a demanding little dog who ate the shredded beef out of the girl’s tortillas. She had the seamstress sew a special pocket in all her skirts so she could carry the dog around, its ugly little head poking out.”

       With effort, my father sat up and glanced at the Chihuahua lying at my feet. Luz lifted her fawn-coloured head, alert. “Your dog could be her sister, they’re so much alike.”

       I tried not to take offence at the comparison, and steered his mind back to the practice of medicine. “Did her father take her to see a doctor?”

       “In those days, they did not understand mental disease as we do now. They thought she was possessed by spirits. Because her father was rich, everyone pretended to overlook her behaviour, but they murmured behind his back. He had his heart set on his daughter marrying the handsome son of a nearby ranchero. However, this family would not hear of it, having witnessed the girl’s madness.

       “While she was a child, her father went to the church in town every Sunday to pray for the spirits to leave her. When she turned eighteen, at his wit’s end, he announced to the world that he would bequeath half of his land to the person who could cure his daughter’s insanity. You can imagine that this offer brought all sorts of schemers to the rancho to try their luck. A woman came from far away who claimed to have psychic abilities. After a few hours, she gave up, saying the devils were too strong in the girl. A man who was famous for his powers of hypnosis arrived. When he put her under his spell, she became quiet and peaceful. Her father rejoiced. But as soon as the hypnosis wore off, she started to scream that someone was trying to kill her dog.”

       My father’s voice had become so quiet I had to lean forward to hear. 

       “Men appeared from far and wide, their common attribute the conviction that their charm alone would break the spell of her madness. Two young men distinguished themselves from the others. One was a musician of medium height but well-muscled, who arrived carrying his guitar. Black hair and black eyes, he sang ballads of honour in war in a passionate voice that made even the lizards stop and listen.

       “The other young man couldn’t have been more different. Tall and fair, with well-formed limbs, he was a poet who recited his stanzas about the sky and the stars from memory. While the musician thrilled the girl with his ardent voice, the poet left her spellbound with his soft words that were laden with longing and regret. These two young men vied with each other to bring soundness to her mind, one with passion, the other with peace.”

       I had become absorbed in the story when heavy shoes sounded in the hall. Beatriz gave a knock at the open door. “El Doctor should have some tea.”

       A young boy whose parents worked on the estate carried in the tray. Beatriz could carry nothing but herself, since as a child, she had contracted polio which destroyed the muscles in her legs. She moved awkwardly into the room on her crutches, pushing along her useless legs encased in leather braces that ended in the solid shoes.

       One of my father’s first patients, she had arrived as a young woman soon after the sanitarium opened, her family not knowing what else to do with her. She was normal in every other way, though her upper body was muscular from the labour of pulling herself around. Not pretty so much as interesting, with wide nostrils and brown eyes that tended to protrude. But her small face was animated, softening the sum of the parts. Though my grandmother, my abuela, had assumed the running of the household when my mother died, her severe nature precluded any affection. Beatriz took pity on a lonely child, and loved me. She was as close to a mother as I would ever know. I was the only one she had allowed to strap her into her braces, an intimate procedure that required access to her thighs. Once I was twelve, we both shied away from the physical contact and she had to struggle, herself, to lift the dead weight of her legs into the torturous contraptions.

      Her brow creased as she gazed at my father, whom she worshipped. “He is tiring himself out.”

       I stood up, Luz suddenly awake on her tiny feet. “It’s my fault.”

       Beatriz gave me her sardonic smile, standing at the foot of the bed. “He enjoys your company.”

       I bent to kiss her on the cheek before I left the room, her powder scenting my lips. Now in her fifties, she was still vain enough to apply make-up.

       The next evening, my father continued the story of the ranchero’s daughter. By this time, I knew he was failing quickly and I was content just to listen to his voice.

       “The girl could not make up her mind between the two young men. The musician excelled at throwing knives and twirling the lasso, while the poet milked the cows with much success, the animals entranced by his words and responding with more milk than usual. Both young men made a show of treating the dog with deference, knowing the girl’s attachment to her. Neither of them knew the reason for the attachment: the girl had somehow come to believe the dog contained the spirit of her dead mother. When she asked Conchita for advice, people didn’t understand that she was talking to her mother. When she gave Conchita the best pieces of meat from her plate, she was feeding her mother. And the dog was a life saver. Once, when the girl didn’t recognize her father and thought he was the devil, Conchita kept her from attacking him with a knife.

       “It happened to be the season of banana fruiting. The poet had never witnessed the harvest and was loath to chop off the heart that sits beneath the banana clusters. You have seen its magenta blossom that resembles a heart, heavy with unopened flowers of baby plants inside. The new green bananas grow from it in clusters above like a crown. But the energy required to open the unborn flowers within the heart keeps the new bananas hard and green. The old heart must be chopped off to allow the bananas to ripen. Just as I must die and you shall continue in my place.”

       Before I could respond to this he went on.

       “The musician had no qualms about cutting off the heart of each plant with his sharp knife. The magenta blossom fell into the dry banana leaves littering the ground below, clear sap dripping from the stalk.

       “The girl was greatly agitated by the keen competition between the two young men and paced along the rows of banana plants, lamenting to Conchita. They saw the girl bent over her skirt, conferring with the dog, finally clapping her hands with pleasure at some resolution. The dog, it seemed, had an idea which the girl thought brilliant. She told the two young men to stand six feet apart in front of her amid the dry banana leaves. Then she lifted Conchita from her pocket with one hand, placing her on the ground. ‘Conchita will choose between you. With her dog instinct, she can see into your hearts better than I.’

       “The two men stood in shock, that their future was to be determined by a dog! Then the musician started addressing the Chihuahua in his sing-song voice. ‘Here, Conchita, you know I’m the best one. I’ve seen you sway to my music.’ He waved his hand at the dog to approach. She sniffed the air, then pranced toward him, her tail raised high. When he put his hand out to pick her up, she opened her little jaws and bit down hard.

He held up his bloody hand, screaming. ‘You bitch! You’re just as crazy as she is!’ “With blood dripping down his arm, he lifted the little dog into the air by her neck and proceeded to choke her with his good hand. She yipped a few times, then her tiny eyes closed.

       “The girl shrieked. She thrashed around the huge dry leaves on the ground before finding the musician’s knife. With strength beyond her size, she plunged it into his heart.

       “Immediately, he dropped the dog. He stared at the girl in silence before sinking to the ground.

       “The poet was appalled and relieved at the same time. The girl bent beside the lifeless dog, weeping, inconsolable.”

       Luz gazed at me, her bulging brown eyes fraught with terror. How could she know what was being said?

       “The poet lifted the tiny body of the dog, laying it in the crook of his arm. He pressed his fingers down on her chest rhythmically, once a second for a minute. Then he opened her muzzle with one hand and bending over, blew gently into her mouth.

       “Time stood still. The girl held her breath. Conchita`s furry little chest moved. She opened her eyes and blinked. She tried to yip but only a squeak came out. She was alive!”

       Luz growled in her throat with relief.

       “The poet buried the musician in an overgrown field on the estate. When her father asked where the musician was, the girl said he had gone home because she had chosen the poet. She was not cured, but was quieter because she loved the poet and knew he loved her.”

       My father stopped. He leaned his head back against the pillows, his face ashen.

       Beatriz pulled herself into the room on her crutches, alarmed. I had been so entrenched in the story I hadn`t heard her heavy shoes in the hall.

       “Sebastian,” she whispered near his ear. But he could no longer hear.

       I held his hand while he slipped away. I wept into my pillow all night, Luz whimpering beside me.

       After the funeral, when the visitors had left, I found Beatriz crawling on the floor in the hall near my father`s room. I placed a warning hand on Luz whom I was carrying in one arm. I had not seen Beatriz creeping along the floor for years. When I was young, she would sometimes get into a funk about the braces and how they chafed her skin; it was easier sometimes not to put them on. But then she was reduced to crawling on the ground like a lizard. She didn`t care that a child saw her pulling the dead weight of herself along with her arms. Now I was embarrassed for her.

       She was heading back to her own room. I waited until she reached it. When I heard her door close, I gave her a moment before putting down the dog and knocking.

       She called for me to enter. I found her upon the settee, her face flushed from the exertion. I brought her braces toward her, but she shook her head.

       “I loved him, you know.”

       I sat down on the edge of the bed nearby. “I know.” Luz jumped onto the settee and began to lick her face. A large tear rolled down her cheek.

       “The story he was telling you—” She bit her lip. “It was not just a ranchero`s daughter. It was Adelita.”

       “Adelita! But that was my mother`s name.”

       “Yes. Your mother.”

       I blinked at her, not comprehending.

       “She was a beauty. But quite mad.”

       “My mother?” She nodded.

       “Then—the story was about her?”

       She just looked at me and I understood. My head was spinning. I thought of the photo of the beautiful young woman on my father’s night table, how little I knew about her. He had never talked about her. I wracked my brain, trying to recall the details of the story.

       “Then—who was the poet?”

       She shook her head as if I were blind. “It isn’t so difficult.” When I didn’t respond, she said, “Your father.”

       I sucked in a breath and started to cough.

       “He had no more time for poetry after the ranchero sent him to medical school in the city. The ranchero knew your father had a gift for seeing into people’s hearts. When Adelita danced to the music in her head, your father danced with her. I think after a while he heard it too. She seemed at peace when she was with him and the ranchero thought your father could do more for her if he studied. Your father loved her more than life itself and would do anything for her. When he finished medical school, he opened the sanitarium here. He thought she was improving. You were born and she loved you very much.”

       Dear little Luz could see my distress. She jumped down from the settee and stood in front of me, begging to be picked up. When I obliged, she lay down on my lap, not taking her eyes off my face.

       “But she was afraid of what she might do to you. She couldn’t always control herself and she was terrified that she might… well, she had killed a man once. She was always whispering to Conchita—in her mind, her mother—for help to restrain herself.

       “But when Conchita died, an old dog at seventeen, Adelita beat her breast as if her real mother had died again. She feared for you, that there would come a day when she would look at you and see the devil, and there would be no Conchita to keep you safe from her.” Beatriz stopped.

       “Please go on.”

       She shook her head.

       “Please.” I dreaded what she would say.

       She took in a deep breath. “I envied her that she could walk, but she was more broken than I. One day she walked to town, climbed up to the steeple of the church… and jumped off. She did it to protect you.”

       A sob caught in my throat. I had lost not only my father, now I was losing a mother I had never known. I tried to compose myself. “He told me she died from heart disease.”

       “He could not tell you the truth.”

       Tears coursed down my face. Luz gazed at me with moist brown eyes. I was stunned to find they were not dog eyes, but glistened with a mother’s tears, a mother’s love. A shiver skipped across the back of my neck. She had sacrificed herself for me. Such love vanquished time, transfiguring flesh and bone, to land before me.

       Little Luz finally lay her head down on her paws and let herself sleep, now that I understood. Such a tiny body, such a towering spirit.

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