By Camincha Benvenutto
Alba was barely two years old, or so the story goes. She has heard the story many, many times from many different people including her father, mother and her cousins, Julia and Alberto, each contributing a piece, a patch of the quilt. Sometimes one or another has told her the whole story, or as much as they know. So that now she really doesn't know what she remembers, if anything, or what she has been told.
This is a potpourri of memories from cousins Julia and Alberto:
Alba, at two and a half, you had been sick for several months and were way behind in weight and size for children your age. Several childhood diseases had debilitated you and made you easy prey for what came next, the fever that ravished your tiny, frail body. You were depleted of the defenses necessary to fight infections. That is why the sore on your left buttock refused to heal and kept extending over your entire back. No wonder the doctors had given up on you.
The argument between Uncle Alvaro and the doctors took place in an office somewhere off the labyrinth of the clinic's corridors. When he heard what they had to say, he broke out in a rage, would not listen. How dare they! What do they know! Die? She is not going to die!
As Uncle Alvaro charged out of the office where the meeting had been scheduled, the clinic's head doctor tried to follow him. Alba, you caught a glimpse of him as he turned on his heels in front of the opened door of your room, his eyes two dark pools of frustration, compassion. He probably thought he could reason with uncle Alvaro. Perhaps calm him down. It didn't work. Your father never listened to anyone and when adversity hit him turned definitely deaf.
Uncle Alvaro had been to see you a few minutes before. His handsome full face, with eyeglasses and smile, had looked down on his daughter's tiny frame. He was so tall, so big. He knew everything. God, who was God for you then? Your father. Then, and for some years after. Your father, dressed in the impeccable gray suit, silk shirt. As he bent over you, the mysterious black pearl nestling in his tie, seemed to shine with a special glow.
Your father. As he walked back into your room his eyes were full of determination, his lips a firm line as he turned his attention to instructing the persons in the room -- your nurse, your nanny—on how his baby was to be handled and bundled up. Careful there. Gently. Got her? No. No, not like that. To you, his voice softening: All right, my little lady?
Your father did take you home. But not to die. He had a plan.
Somehow Uncle Alvaro obtained reservations on the next ship sailing two days later from Callao to Mollendo, Arequipa. He would not travel by plane. He had with him, to help him care for you, your nanny, a maid and a house boy. When the ship's Captain was informed -- after you were securely aboard—that one of his passengers was a little girl who was deathly ill, another terrible battle ensued. The Captain wanted you disembarked at once. Uncle Alvaro convinced him to let you stay. He signed a document absolving the Captain of all responsibility. Nothing was going to stop him. His destination? Yura, the village in the Sierras famous for its thermal spring waters credited the world round with saving the lives of thousands. More miraculous than Lourdes or Vichy.
Yura. Remember, Alba? Then, and now, a valley in the mountains an hour's plane ride south east of Lima. By ship it took two days and arriving in the port of Mollendo, you traveled by train to Arequipa, by taxi to Tingo where we lived with our grandmother and Aunt Carmen, who was mother and father to us. Julia was thirteen, I was twelve. You stayed the night. In the morning we left by taxi for what was then an all day ride to your final destination.
Yura. People, then and now, come from all over the world to recover their health, bathing in its many different medicinal waters that perform miracles. World travelers, honeymooners, entire families, business people. Yura has something for everybody.
They come for the pure mountain air, to soak up the sun, to find peace in the quiet life of the village. And, as an extra bonus, to enjoy the natural beauty of the place, taking long walks, hiking up and down the surrounding mountains. They also find organized tours of the nearby soda factories. Picnics. Luncheons in the picanterías, the open air eateries. Elaborate celebrations of Catholic Holy Days full of pomp and ceremony. Usually starting with High Mass in the morning, then a procession through the main road that culminates in evenings of singing and dancing in the central plaza of Los Baños, adorned with string lights holding colorful lanterns under clear skies laden with bright stars.
When nothing major is going on, the tourists themselves would take over and organize casino tournaments in the ancient Valencia Hotel's dining room‹before the Hotel de Turistas was built across the main road‹where usually at least one player would display uncanny ability at card tricks. And there were also, in private homes, literary and musical evenings in which every member of a family or families would participate.
Yura. A fertile valley nestled in the mountains, traversed by a river that swells dangerously in the winter but is a gentle, useful friend to all the rest of the year. The local residents make their living at cultivating different crops and livestock and catering to the tourists.
Arriving in Yura, your father had arranged to have the house cleaned ahead of time. He exchanged the suit, silk shirt and tie with the black pearl for overalls, faded old shirt, comfortable worn out shoes and went to work in earnest to save his daughter from a sure death.
Although in Yura people were used to seeing signs of illness in different stages all around them, Uncle Alvaro learned very soon that he had to bathe you before or after the baths opened to the public. The first day he bathed you at regular hours, the others in the pool with you were appalled at the immensity of the sore on your back, nauseated by the sight of the dead flesh around it falling from it like dried-old-bread crumbs.
Uncle Alvaro then made arrangements with the baths' guardian to give him a key so he could bathe you when the building was closed to the public. He got up at dawn. Your first bath was at five in the morning. Your last one of the day at six in the evening. That way the guardian could also clean the pools before they opened to the public.
The house Uncle Alvaro had rented was a five-minute walk from the bath house. After giving you the morning bath, he fed you a bowl of oatmeal and warm milk in which floated a pat of rich butter. Then he applied himself to cooking your next meal, a thick soup. The servants he had brought with him-- the house boy, the maid—were kept busy cleaning, washing, peeling, cutting, preparing the meat, the vegetables, the legumes.
Uncle Alvaro designed a rigid schedule that he followed daily: he bathed you, fed you the oatmeal, at mid-morning he fed you the thick soup he cooked you daily. Next, he sunbathed you, making sure there was shade for your eyes while your tiny, skinny body was exposed just enough to the sun on the front, then the back. Then you had a nap followed by another meal. And he made sure that you were forever held, endlessly cuddled. Your every need anticipated. And round and round the next day and the next. For endless months he never deviated from it.
The fact that the family was divided did not quench his zeal. Aunt Laura was alone handling the family business. This was unheard of. The risk tremendous. Aunt Laura was young, delicate. But this was an emergency, he had to trust. And he was trusting the common sense and she had plenty of it. Besides, she had been alongside him in other business ventures. His decision turned out to be a wise one.
After months of sacrificing himself Uncle Alvaro had to return to look after their businesses. He didn't want to take his daughter back so soon to the damp, semitropical climate of Lima so he took you to our home in Tingo, four hours from Yura, and left you in the care of his sister, Aunt Carmen.
It was altogether two years before you, Alba, reunited with your parents. But when you did you were cured, whole!
What a happy pair you were. Uncle Alvaro elegantly dressed, again, in an impeccable suit, silk shirt, the black pearl in the tie. And you, Alba, holding on to his hand, all lace, pink ribbons and shiny patent leather shoes, cut a perfect picture of health and well being when you walked into the clinic. The one who, wide-eyed- and-opened-mouthed seemed about to lose both of those eyes, was the doctor, head of the clinic.
Camincha Benvenutto is from Miraflores, near Lima, Perú. She earned her M.A. in 1987 in Spanish Literature at San Francisco State University. She published her novella, "As Time Goes By," through iUniverse in November, 2005. Her poems,short stories and literary translations have been published in English and Spanish in several literary and e-zines magazine.