The Raw Scent of Vanilla
The Raw Scent of Vanilla-THE SCENT OF VANILLA
MY DREAMS BEGAN to reek of vanilla. The first sign had emerged, like a raw scented petal that fluttered out of the labyrinth of my memories. It was my mother’s scent, the sweet smell that shrouded our storytelling afternoons, the rich aroma that rose from the cake on the dining table as we rode into her fantasies, mounted on her unbridled imagination. The spirit of my mother would guide the first steps of my journey back into the past. Hers was the voice that came from beyond time, the sound that lived in between my thoughts. I felt guided and protected by her presence. Armed with resolve, I hugged my pillow at night and inhaled the scent that impregnated my life before I was even born, for surely she craved vanilla biscuits as I floated in the waters of her womb. There is a reason for it, I know, a very good reason for my mother’s sugar cravings, which have now become the cravings of my heart. She said that vanilla was good to spice our thoughts and give life a meaningful dimension. Perhaps she was right. So to get the initial glimpses of my story I closed my eyes beneath the covers and tucked my anxieties under the pillow. Then I let the scent lead me down into the dark chambers of my underworld. I pushed through the first web of shadows that blocked my way as I entered my memories and followed the scented path, a step here and a step there, slowly, and with care. The scent of vanilla was beckoning my soul to read the genesis of my life.
The scent takes me to the time when I was a child, when I used to sit on a tiny stool by my mother’s side and watch how she embroidered white damask pillowcases to give as gifts on special occasions. Not because she was a brilliant embroiderer, but because she believed that a gift made at home carried a piece of the giver’s heart. I would often visualise a piece of her red heart pinned on the pillowcase as she slid her soft fingers along the winding line on the white linen, breathing life into the stitches, filling the landscape with green cotton, and then with orange, and then with pink. It was during those times that she filled my head with her stories about our past. The exuberance of her mood seemed to draw sparks out of thin air. And I, with eyes wide open and a heart full of expectations, would watch how her crimson lips relished every piece of vanilla biscuit that she put in her mouth, keeping the thread of her own imagination alive. One side of her mind followed the patterns on the linen, while the other carried me through the doorway of the In-between, the place where all time became one. The place where she visited the past in order to restore her present. That is how I came to know about the legends of my ancestry.
Sometime during the early part of the nineteenth century, on an enchanting island near Manaos, a city in the Amazon region, lived a young girl who became the fount of our legends. The island was indeed enchanting. And enchanted, for it had been pulled away from the mainland during an ancient cataclysm that had closed the passage between our world and the realm of the spirits, and had penetrated the space Mama called the In-between. This was the place where all souls rested before they moved into other lives, and where the jungle gods reconciled all sins. This island was visible only to people imbued with good intentions and could not be reached by those possessed by wickedness. From the In-between came all things good and unexpected, and to it all souls were returned once they had completed their journey here. A bridge built by the love and collective belief of most of the locals brought the inhabitants of the ethereal island down to the mainland every so often so they could do some shopping, check the new imports, and mingle with the rest of the population to whom they told stories of extraordinary value and wisdom.
No one knew for sure the origins of these enchanting inhabitants, although tales had it that they were related to ancient gods who had arrived from the stars at the beginning of time. Most people had forgotten their source or did not care much about it, for in the Amazon there were many villages that existed in the realms of the In-between, perceptible only to those who truly wanted to see them and had the courage to do so. Old people said that some of these islands had been vast and exuberant territories bathed in golden auras, for they were immersed in the light of the sun and golden awareness, entrusted with the true secrets of nature. Large and primeval trees grew on these islands, trees that possessed human heads and fed from exotic flowers in the darkness of the night, and sipped the early morning dew to refuel their fertility and vigour. These jungle giants also provided relief for tormented souls and protected all forest pets from clandestine attacks by heartless men.
‘The maiden of our story lived on one of these enchanted islands,’ said Mama with intimate passion and a deep sigh, her eyes filled with fascination. The name of our feminine past was ‘Sarinha’, a girl with endearing grace and unquestionable purity. Her virtue attracted the admiration of most villagers, for the air in the jungle had been impregnated with many spells, powerful enough to bewitch even the purest of souls, and fiery enough to ignite in its heart a torrent of uncontrollable desires. The island had been marked by destiny, for it had been so written with the quill of prophecy. Some old villagers knew deep in their minds that one day the island would disappear, immersed in the oceans of its own source.
Sarinha, whose name means ‘Princess of the jungle’, loved taking walks through the green and golden forest, greeting the spirits who lived in every tree, hid in every shrub, swam in every droplet of rain, and roared in every wild animal that crossed the enlivened jungle. She was slender and agile, with long legs and extended neck, and undefined hips that at times made her look like a boy. But one day she woke up and saw that she had developed the beginnings of a womanly bosom. It was also the first time she noticed a Blue Cat in the distance. It did not stop her from running through the jungle on balmy afternoons, and wading like a young heron through the thick vegetation, eyes shining and glee in her heart.
Sarinha could connect with almost everybody and everything that moved in the jungle because she possessed strange attributes. Her almond-shaped eyes could see in the dark, her refined nostrils could distinguish the smell of fear in all creatures, and her thick long hair, always waltzing in the wind, had the remarkable power of alerting her to danger. She trusted the jungle would never hurt her because she believed she was part of it. As she walked she often hummed a bouncing tune that her family had taught her in order to connect with the main Spirit of the Jungle. Filled with such a belief, she traversed walkways ingenuously, crushing leaves and pushing shrubs in order to collect fruits and nuts for the family meal. Sometimes she would stop by the river to catch fish brought to her by small alligators, and there she would often chat to Bufeo Colorado, the famous Pink Dolphin, the spirit of the mother river with whom she had a special relationship.
But there was another side to the jungle. The treacherous and dark side, the face of the Spirit in anger who only manifested when the collective soul of the island was weak. However, as long as Sarinha’s hair was shining clean she did not have to worry about dangerous beasts that lurked behind trees or emerged from the bottom of poisonous swamps. Or about savage felines that stalked her as she walked in the afternoon, or slimy reptiles hungry for her soul, or dangerous plants ready to bite her unsoiled flesh and infect her with guilt-ridden nightmares. Sarinha believed that the big boa, the Sachamama, primordial serpent and holder of ancient secrets, would always protect her. Sarinha had always respected the power that lay in the folds of the past. The giant boa with her powerful body was indeed one of the layers of the forest on which life balanced.
Aware of the islanders’ premonition, Sarinha’s parents lived with anxiety in their hearts. They had noticed a mysterious Blue Cat, believed to be a messenger from the underworld, following Sarinha at all times. Particularly on the occasions she went to see Bufeo, the wise dolphin who lived in the waters of the Amazon River and often lay on the edge, basking her iridescent body and alluring those willing to listen to her tales and advice. Legend has it that Bufeo Colorado had once been a woman with a broken heart whose beloved partner was devoured by the torrid passions of the jungle. One balmy afternoon when Sarinha came to sit by the edge of the river, Bufeo Colorado told her that a shining knight with golden skin and feathers on his head was on his way to meet her. The wise dolphin added that this ‘most handsome creature’ was coming down from the far northern lands, a place of tall pyramids and glistening lights where the sun shone even brighter and the moon was twice the normal size. The knight was bringing a gift that would be good for her own growth. Sarinha’s heart swelled with joy; she believed every word that Bufeo said because she knew her friend was a knower of all things, wise and dangerous. But Bufeo warned her to handle the gift with care, and the foreigner with discretion, for his intentions were not very clear.
Mama’s tales often came on Mondays. The days when she did the laundry, and cooked beans with smoked pork ribs, and onion and tomato salsa. She taught me that even doing the laundry could be turned into a ritual. All white linen should be soaked in soda salts to clean the ‘impurities of the flesh’. Our school uniforms were always boiled in a copper with herbal soaps and disinfectant and a touch of lavender, to invite good fortune. She taught me to use creativity in everything I did, including the hanging of laundry on the line, placing every garment under the sun in aesthetic balance. ‘For even the stars like to see our world as a piece of art,’ she would hammer on the wall of my forming brain.
So, as my ears awaited the next chapter of the story, I would hand her the wooden pegs one by one to place my brothers’ socks next to Papa’s socks, my pants and underwear next to her underwear, and white napkins next to bleached linen. The beans were often cooked in a wrought-iron pot so we would get stronger, and she put in chunks of smoked pork to add punch, and a bay leaf to enrich the aroma and nurture our passion for life. Every Monday the atmosphere in our cement-floor kitchen was impregnated with her love for nostalgia, the aroma of smoked pork and the ardent flavour of her voice as she penetrated the thicket of her jungle tales.
Bufeo’s prophecy had swung from tree to tree and every leaf breathed the story into the wind, to be carried to every corner of the island. Even the mosquitoes, always thinking of themselves, helped carry the story in their nib, and when every living soul was finally aware of the forecast visit, quietness returned. Hush reigned and the butterflies became transparent. The fervent pulsations came to a lull and drums toned down their rumbles for a while as Sarinha waited for the gift with pubescent anticipation. Then one early morning a heavy downpour fell from the sky to signal the moment. After the rain passed, the air in the forest was spiced with a strange animation and the life force again pulsated with excitement. Every leaf and pebble in the forest was pregnant with exhilaration. After breakfast Sarinha went out on her daily errands, but this morning she wore a crown of feathers and a silky tunic hung over her shoulders. It was a gift from her mother, a delicate gown made out of butterflies’ wings and good wishes. As her slender frame disappeared behind the giant ferns, the large Blue Cat followed, moving sinuously, his mind alert. Her mother watched silently in the background, aware of a strange premonition and unable to stop destiny.
Sarinha crossed the jungle freely and unconcerned, without much thought about her Mama’s anxieties, wrapped in the whims of her adolescence and inhaling the scent of fresh walnuts and ripe banana. Suddenly a strange sensation snapped from the bottom of her belly and her skin began to glow with unprecedented radiance. She whirled round and round, skipping and dancing to the tune of her Amazon’s lullabies. She hopped and skipped under the spell of tropical enchantment, reaching with the tip of her fingers the leaves that hung over her from giant ferns. Then, as she was about to take a rest on a fallen tree, she noticed the expected knight in the distance. The boy moved majestically through the foliage with a certain glow around him. He carried the aura of a dignified being, like an emissary from the luminous gods of the past, those who spoke the language of the universal heart.
Sarinha’s eyes, speared by curiosity, marvelled at the apparition as it approached her, slowly. With the sun sketched on the firmament above his head, the handsome creature from the northern land emanated strength and magnetism. His eyes glistened with vigour, and his golden skin shone with the brilliance of his solid race. He smiled as he stepped closer, touching her presence with his radiance, filling her heart with new-found joy. An air of familiarity engulfed her. She knew she had seen him somewhere before. Of that she was sure. Perhaps in a dream? Or in the mirror of her own soul. A headpiece of colourful feathers adorned the boy’s hair, and a solid pendant of emerald and lapis lazuli hung against his hairless chest. He wore a cotton-silk wrap around his waist, and on his well-defined feet he wore sandals made of soft hide and brown leaves. As he reached her, he bowed and lifted his right hand, his palm facing her. She looked at him with wonder and noticed he carried something wrapped in a silk cloth. It was as the dolphin had forecast. Somehow she felt very comfortable with the stranger. He gazed at her with friendliness and nodded a greeting smile. She smiled back, with timid eagerness, experiencing the blushing of her cheeks. An odd tingling sensation pricked her skin. An omen.
After the initial courtesies had taken place, both teenagers found a clearing with dry leaves close to the edge of the river and began their acquaintance. He came from a kingdom in the northern peninsula, far away from her island. A territory that could always be reached when the heart was truly open, he said, and she listened with bewilderment. The boy had brought a liquid from his lands, a fluid from a sacred pod that his people used in ceremonies to taste Life’s different flavours. He said that the liquid was called ‘Vanilla’, and that this essence had the power to align the past, present and future so changes could be made when necessary. He lifted the cloth that covered his gift, revealing a beautiful bowl. He handed it to her. Her eyes sparkling with fascination, she praised the smooth contours of the skilfully adorned chalice and the drawings on it. It was a most delicate piece. A set of symbols had been drawn on its smooth outer surface, a string of carefully aligned geometrical motifs of perfect angles and waving lines. Inside, the figure of a serpent was etched across the bottom. A tiny bottle of dark liquid was sitting inside the bowl. The knight lifted it out, opened it and offered her a taste of the liquid.
‘Try it, you may get a glimpse of life as it is,’ he said.
She was filled with curiosity. The boy added that the key to true happiness was in swallowing the right amount. But Sarinha was far too excited to register any other details and remained hypnotised by the candid nature of her friend and the contents of the bottle. She thought of the Bufeo’s words ‘the present had come for her growth’, and with a burst of impulsiveness, she lifted the tiny jar up to her face, fully inhaling its hypnotising scent. The intriguing aroma travelled into her nose, taking her mind to distant places, unknown territories of magnetic fascination. The Blue Cat stared, quietly perched on a hidden branch of a tree, watching the scene with voracious confidence, aware of its imminent unfoldings.
Moved by her desire to remain suspended in timelessness and keen to watch how the past fused with the present, Sarinha fell prisoner to her own extremes. Temperance had never been a virtue of hers. She threw her head back and poured the entire bottle of liquid down her throat as if to experience the whole of life in one swallow. As if the moment would never end. And as prophesied by her friend, the feathery knight, happiness was not experienced because the measure was out of moderation. Indeed, it totally exceeded life’s necessary equilibrium. Once the liquid was in her being, Sarinha’s soul fragmented into sparkling dots and she experienced her body evaporating into a gaseous breath, melting in the fluids of the sweet potion. In horror she also saw the handsome knight fragment into glowing pieces, bubbling in the same fluids that now poured out of her; and she lost consciousness. The alchemy had not worked.
Soon after the lethal drink had been consumed, a bolt of lightning appeared in the sky, thunder was heard in the jungle and the blow of an earthquake roared under the ground. Cold rain pounded on the earth, and the Blue Cat, that terrible feline with a gleaming gaze and an ominous mission, hid behind a giant leaf, staring at the unseen, searching in the void, and swallowing the images in the transparency of nature. The boy disappeared and Sarinha became confused. Suddenly she was violently jolted by a loud uproar, a clamour that came from outside the forest. She recognised the voices of her family. The shrieks and roars made her shiver with fright for she now felt guilty. Her father and other villagers yelled and moved into the thicket with machetes, sticks and sharp knives, chopping down everything that moved with the frantic rustle of the wind, looking into the night, searching for the lost maiden. Even the slimy reptiles, ancient beings from the underworld, were frightened for they knew that the earth would shake before its final collapse.
I never ceased to be frightened when Mama narrated her version of the first sign of collapse in our family history, when the thread of innocence snapped and suffering made its way into our lives. During those occasions Mama lowered her voice to a whisper and I watched the restless jungle loom inside her eyes, and in the disquietude of her breath I could perceive the events that stirred the terrifying prophecy of the enchanted island.
Above the Amazon island the sky turned dark blue, and the reptiles slithered along the ground, rattling their tails in apprehension, hiding from the wrath of destiny and the inclemency of fate. The virgin jungle was in danger. The girl, now fully conscious and recognising the familiar voices of the search team, dashed towards her father in blind despair, her heart filled with a newly acquired emotion. She ran and ran but reached nowhere, and to her horror she saw a sharp machete hurtling towards her, landing almost at her feet. ‘Oh no!’ She realised that the search team could not see her. She had become invisible, sucked into her own dream. In sheer terror, she darted to the edge of the river to bring an end to her shame, for it was at that moment that she remembered the warnings of her friend Bufeo Colorado. Before plunging into the water, determined to wash away her nightmare, she turned to take a last glimpse of her beloved island. Sadness descended upon her with full force and she saw her island slide away from her, moving further and further, slowly disintegrating into the dark sky, entering the realm of emptiness. Returning to the In-between. Tears flooded her and a newly found remorse invaded her spirit. In the distance the big Blue Cat gazed at her with an air of intimacy. She sank deep into her sorrows, her grief so heavy that it pulled her to the bottom of the river.
But not all was despair. Her genuine repentance persuaded Bufeo Colorado to look upon her with compassion and turn a school of silver cod into a shining vessel to carry her to a faraway land where her sad memories would be rinsed away. As she floated off, the girl cried and cried in anguish, touching with her deep sorrows the sacred force of the Amazon. So much so that her tears filled the vessel, overflowed and managed to raise the waters of the river. All beings of the underworld began to cry with her. With such an emotional outpouring, a misty foam spread over the water until, finally and miraculously, tiny droplets soared up out of the river, transforming themselves into crystals. As they reached the limits of our sky, and in divine alchemy, they came down as floating feathers, gliding like tender blessings filled with raw vanilla scent. Sarinha’s sadness subsided for a while and she fell into a deep sleep.
As she lay exhausted in the swaying vessel that drifted along the river, a playful wind blew a kiss towards her, brushing past her navel, parting her tunic and allowing one of the feathers to enter her belly. The subtle prick brought a sweet smile to her face and her cheeks shone a bright red. With a flutter of her eyelashes she emitted a golden glow into the air, and a taste of pure ecstasy filled the atmosphere as she let loose a big moan. The silver cod watched her with astonishment, unable to understand the strange episode, wondering whether this was a symptom of tropical madness.
After a long journey, the vessel arrived at the other side of the river where she was greeted by a delegation of zesty women and young girls bathing. Helped by the female clan, Sarinha, who arrived with a swollen belly due to all the vanilla petals she had eaten, gave birth to a honey-coloured child. Her name would be Sarita, a variation of her own, for she was born on a land that spoke a different language. The instant the baby took her first breath, her mother’s soul flew back into the sky, led by the remaining petals, following the dream image of the feather boy who had brought her the syrup of Life. The vanilla toddler grew into a young woman and learned the ways of her adoptive clan and, later as the time was ripe for the clan to enter the In-between, the girl crossed over to the real world and moved to a nearby village called Yurimaguas, which means ‘City of women’. This town is not too far from Iquitos, the main city near the Amazon River, and it was there that the female line of my ancestors settled.
My mother discovered her personal legend with the tip of her tongue as she nibbled a vanilla bar she had bought from a travelling merchant one steamy afternoon. The sweet flavour became the tool that rattled her memories and the quill with which she would write the tales of her life on the enthusiastic attention of her audience. One day when she was already an adult, she narrated the tale to her father, and he, fascinated by the coincidence, confessed he had heard the same tale from Mama’s mother. Her life in the land of the Amazon was not a fairytale; however the memories of her vanilla line and fertile imagination made it richer and more endurable. Her mother had inherited the name of the family clan, Sarita, a name I also carry.
Sarita Davila, my mother’s mother, grew up in Yurimaguas as a quiet and practical woman who knew exactly what she wanted and waited until the time was ripe, and competition scarce, to get it. Her strength lay in her discretion, for she knew that a woman who reveals little holds power. In the early part of the twentieth century, a woman had to proceed with guile and moderation, and Sarita Davila followed all the rules of life in order to safeguard her existence and keep unnecessary dangers at bay. She was slender and flexible as if made of rubber, with almond-shaped eyes which glowed as she smiled. A gesture she seldom made, for she was forever vigilant, as she felt deep in her heart she was stalked by a restless spirit. She treasured prudence and acted always with temperance, for in the back of her mind she was aware that extremes only lead to trouble. She always moved about the streets with agility, appearing here and there like a ghost, sudden and enigmatic as a nimble spirit. Her long, dark brown hair was often plaited over her shoulders or pulled up in a bun, but was never loose, unless she was in the intimacy of her own company. She did not speak of magic nor of her legendary beginnings, although she knew about the fount of her own power. She grew up as a lonely child, feeding her own needs, learning from the signs of life and the voice of the great mother that lived within her.
One day she realised she had already come of age and did not have a partner; she decided it was time to search for a loving and durable companion to walk with her the green path of fertility. A few weeks later she met a musician. She saw him as a free-spirited knight whose air of congeniality and smell of seduction convinced her to cast her net upon him, in the way only Amazon women can, and invest her feelings on the emotional enterprise. With her mysterious power, she recognised the sound character behind the bohemian smile of the happy troubadour. The scent of vanilla came her way and she appreciated the alchemy of the moment, when certainty is so strong that it dissolves inhibitions and time. For the statement by the northern knight about life’s measures was written in my Grandma’s cells, as it is in all of us who came after her. Sarita Davila remembered well how to brew a potion of green seduction.
Desiderio Lujan, my mother’s father, was a man who came from a respected middle-class family, well known in the region for their musical talent. His soul was possessed by a rebellious spirit and he was always uncomfortable with keeping up appearances or following the rigorous map of tradition. His talent for playing the clarinet had earned him wide popularity in bohemian circles. His tunes often bedazzled his audience, which included the four-legged ones, the gnomes of the jungle and the mischievous Shipibos, the ferocious children of the wild forest who shrank the heads of jungle infidels. So the day he discovered the perfect opportunity to escape from the stuffiness of his family, he left home perched on the back of a cart, bound to chase his own fortune in the womb of the jungle, following the path of many adventurers.
The Amazon was a region known to provide fabulous riches to those who dared ride on the wings of uncertainty and sweat their fear out with courage. Rubber was the precious fluid that had turned a few audacious men into wealthy lords whose courage was measured in coins and machetes. But it had not been easy. A dear price was often paid and unfortunately it was not paid by the big lords but by their workers. For the jungle had its own wild and unpredictable ways to defend itself. Shrunken heads, poisonous insect bites and snake hugs would ferociously hit back at the machos who attempted to dig out its treasures; lethal fevers and leprosy sores pulled the kingdom of hell up from down below. The jungle was no place for the feeble or the treacherous. Either you carried courage under your sleeve, or you fastened it around the sharp blades of your machetes. Or your head was shrunk, your tongue pulled out and your heart chewed at mealtime.
The clarinet minstrel had been hired by a mob of rubber prospectors to appease the Spirits in the jungle, and he became deliriously happy with the prospect of unfolding his talent in the heart of the fertile wilderness. But soon my grandfather realised that the jungle was not the place where he would meet his destiny. He became convinced of it on the day when, after he finished playing a tune about the Green Spirits in the sky, he noticed a huge boa – watching him with attentive mood and undulated pleasure, her skin glistening like prime silk, her tongue flickering in true delight – wrapped comfortably around a tree, only a metre away from him. His heart nearly stopped and the earth shook beneath his feet. Half hypnotised by the giant reptile and half terrified, his brain melted and his blood began to turn to ice. His waters flooded down his legs, but he did not notice. Nor did he notice his clarinet dropping to the ground. My grandfather was convinced that the boa apparition signalled his final hour, for in the Amazon all things are symbolic of the journey we take in life. But instead, the boa was far more scared of him and of his jittery reactions, for she was a good boa, the Keeper of the Forest, and had made not even a tiny move to scare him. On the contrary, this awesome reptile had enjoyed his music and had been enchanted by his melodies. Saddened by the incident and feeling pity for the feeble minstrel, the huge boa moved away to search for help.
After this initiation Desiderio decided to search for happiness in less perilous surroundings and became a troubadour of happy tunes and auspicious tales, travelling from town to town exchanging his rhapsodies for smiles. When the elders in his family discovered his adventures and his performances as the troubadour for the Shipibo Indians, they ordered his immediate return home, under threats of disowning him and locking him in a madhouse forever. Disheartened, Desiderio returned with his head down and a feeling of defeat, but with a pouch full of funny tales that ‘made even stones crack with chuckles’. Finally, his family convinced him to join the army, explaining to him that perhaps he could earn an honorary rank in the service and give his family pride and honour. It was the tradition and at the time the army was actively keeping invaders from the border. Young recruits were being enlisted to block the passage of intruders eager to reach the Amazon River because of its riches and access to the Atlantic. ‘You could inspire the soldiers with your tunes,’ his family told a rebellious Desiderio. The argument convinced him and Grandpa joined the army with more enthusiasm for musical adventure than patriotism.
Rosita, my mother, took after her father and was proud to describe him as an attractive man with the looks of one who knows how to please people and is always happy to do so. Average in height, with a seductive presence, thick black hair and a mischievous pair of brown eyes, Desiderio Lujan possessed a romantic tongue, and a weakness for good food. He had a cosy friend in every town, whom he would regale with serenades of love every time he visited. A thin moustache outlined his upper lip, giving his mouth the appearance of an ‘elongated heart’. He was always prompt to recite pearls of passion, as some Latin men can do so well with sonorous elegance and affected sincerity. It was during a music tour to Yurimaguas that Desiderio’s heart was pricked by the spear of love, not from Eros but from Sarita Davila, whose purposeful heart lurked in the crowd to launch the arrow of her intentions. And it was not Sarita’s beauty that pricked Desiderio’s skin and conquered his heart, but the solidity of her presence and a degree of invincibility about her, which he recognised as pillars for a healthy future. Once bewitched by Sarita’s spell he saw the brown-skinned girl as a genuine inspiration to contemplate the highly improbable and realise the totally impossible. How could a bohemian of hearts, accustomed to soft and silky touches, notice such wise features in the image of an unadorned girl? After all, she was a humble figure of plain constitution with hardly any embellishment on her skin, or decoration on her dress, and no rouge on her lips.
‘No rouge on her lips?’ I asked Mama.
‘No, no rouge on her lips,’ she replied.
Most unusual in our family.
But Sarita Davila had the unsurpassed strength of her youth and her legendary mysteries. Her love potion was contained in a single bowl of masato paco, a special banana porridge she prepared for him, to be served the moment the Amazon spirits came into ‘emotional alignment’. According to Mama, a person is in emotional alignment when one’s heart surrenders to the dictates of life. Women of the Amazon are known for their secret love potions, and that’s how it worked with my abuelo, my grandfather. After one swallow he was convinced that Sarita Davila would become the name of his destiny and the ambrosia for his delight.
The story emerged from the river where the fish tell the future under the moonlight and mosquitoes carry an aphrodisiac in their bite. This exotic aphrodisiac is picked from a voluptuous serpent whose sole purpose in life is to tease men unable to control their desires. These are the passengers of the night who step out of their boundaries, searching for the devil that looms in the obscure passages of their souls. The banana of the masato paco contains a potent aphrodisiac and comes from a luxuriant tree, known as El paco banano, fertilised by the local and exuberant Huallaga River. It is believed the paco is able to intoxicate anybody who dares to eat its golden fruit without taking the protective antidote. The fruit is said to excite its victims with insatiable and erotic cravings, intensifying all senses to such hedonistic levels that a man could explode in delight. But beware those who eat too much of it! And this is important advice: too much paco porridge can lead its prey to enter the lower chambers of the unseen world. There they get lost in the labyrinth of unpronounceable pleasures, able only to come out at night to wander in delirious craving and swollen membranes, unable to consummate any sexual yearnings; for these men are no longer of the flesh. So the masato paco should never be eaten raw and should be served only in small portions, unless the daring Romeo wants to be arrested for indecent exposure.
After a wild and successful concert, Desiderio was invited by ‘love alchemist’ Sarita to enjoy a small portion of masato paco mixed with cream and vanilla essence. This was an important detail: Sarita had presented her original dish in a ceramic bowl which had etched on the base of it a silver snake, the symbol of wisdom. She served a small enough portion that the love recipient could savour the porridge with ease, thus allowing the warmth of her formula to enter his body, glide into his heart and make him contemplate her attributes from the essence of his soul. After savouring the scrumptious porridge, young Desiderio Lujan felt renewed and jollier than ever, a sense of trust for natural law and a strong feeling of responsibility suddenly possessed him, and, recognising the wisdom of the unadorned girl, decided he should marry her on the spot. His family, who lived in the capital, breathed a sigh of relief when they discovered that there was now a strong woman to ‘handle the reins of Desiderio Lujan’s wild horse’. The young couple settled together with the blessings of all the people around them. Those were the happiest of all times in Desiderio’s life because for the first time he felt the strength of unconditional love around him, even though to bring the couple together, the wisdom of the underworld had to be summoned.
My mother was born out of such love under a Leo star, the sign of courage and leadership. Her name was Rosa, but her family came to call her Rosita. She was a pink ball with straight black hair, rosy skin, a mischievous spark in her eyes, and a strong determination to see the invisible, explore the improbable, push down barriers and make things real. The three of them formed a silent alliance of mutual love and protection, a sentiment that Mama stored somewhere in her chest, in a glowing rosy chamber close to her heart, for the episode of happiness was not to last long.
Her blissful years ended abruptly when the large Blue Cat of the island of Manaos visited Sarita Davila in her dreams to tell her that her purpose in this life had already been fulfilled. It happened one tenebrous night when Sarita Davila went to sleep with a touch of fever, complaining of a sore throat. As she fell into a deep sleep she met the Blue Cat, who told her about her past, her fate and her predicament. A wave of despair flooded the young woman’s dreams, for her daughter was still a toddler, and her own life so short. However, with strength in her heart she told her husband of the dream of the Blue Cat, instructing him to pass the story of her lineage to her daughter when the time was right. The descendant of the vanilla lineage, who had once promised never to reveal her secrets to men, knew that it was the only way. Desiderio Lujan was struck by sorrow but refused to accept her version of fate. With clarinet in hand he struggled to convince her to set such fantasies away. ‘Life is not a legend,’ he claimed, but Sarita Davila replied, ‘We all come from a legend, and the story in it lives in the depths of our soul.’ Sarita Davila knew of her final hour, with the knowing of those who have read their life’s mission in their hearts. Soon her fever turned into a bronchial infection that no city doctor nor jungle healer could alleviate. The next evening, unable to avoid her own prophecy, Sarita Davila mounted the Blue Cat and rode into the dark sky, and never woke up. She had entered the In-between.
Mama never recovered from her grief, and for the rest of her life sought the company of women, mainly strong ones, to fill the gap her mother had left. I became one such woman, for I learned from a very young age that the fibre of my soul was strong and enduring, and able to help her heal. As the calendar renewed its pages, she managed to transform most of her grief into fortitude. She was still a toddler when Sarita Davila passed away, and during her own sixty-six years she revered the legacy her mother had left, because included in it was the source of our imagination. And as her soul began to record her experiences in the Book of Life after the passing of her mother, she also learned to accept what she could not change, and celebrate the gifts she received. But that took a long time.
Unsure of her future, Rosita would dangle her adolescent legs by the edge of the river, trying to connect to her legendary wisdom. She sat on the jetty, her eyes fixed in the centre of the radiating circles that she made as she threw pebbles in. The image on the flowing waters was like a fluid mandala, and she watched it with intensity, pondering how her life would unfold and how her story would be carried by the wind to the horizon. ‘Perhaps this fortitude will be necessary in the next millennium,’ she once said when she came to visit me on the other side of the ocean.
Mama grew up in Iquitos, the capital of the Peruvian Amazon, and a magic word for me. It encapsulated every fantastic story she narrated over lunch or afternoon tea to an audience made up of my family and neighbours. My cousins would often book spots on the wooden floor of our lounge room, drunk with curiosity and bewitched by Mama’s mysterious tales, sucking the ice blocks she made with purple corn and sugar syrup. Bunched up around the table, and inebriated by raw sugar, we would ascend to the In-between riding on Mama’s wondrous imagination, bound to the realm of the spirits, flying with her surreal ability to enliven meaningful details. But her audience was more than just children. Against the three-door wardrobe sat my father, my aunties and uncles, our neighbour, Doña Panchita, and even some friends of my father who enjoyed her ghostly love stories, particularly the tale of seduction between a voluptuous woman and a melancholic foreigner.
It was a story of torrid passion in which a sailor savoured desire with a most seductive temptress to be later horrified to discover that she was a wandering spirit, and that the bed on which they had ignited their flaming passion had, in fact, been a cold and spooky tomb. ‘Oooohh!’ would cry the mob on the floor. Probably the foreigner had not followed the rules of the jungle and had eaten too much masato paco. Mama often giggled, and only the adults would understand. She entertained us until we grew up and television captured most of the children’s attention and split our imagination. However, I remained her loyal spectator and learned to carve the sound of her voice into the walls of my own imagination.
Mama’s life bubbled in the early twenties in Iquitos, a town bustling with raw energy, duty-free trade, gorgeous women and intriguing visitors, seekers of magic potions to heal emotional and physical sores. The atmosphere in the town was enlivened by exotic animals such as the mischievous ‘Capuchin’ monkeys, named after the Franciscans because the ruffs of hair on their heads resembled the cowls worn by the monks, and because of their devotion to humans. In Iquitos one could find the biggest pineapples and paw paws on the planet, which grew on spirited trees under surreal skies, along vibrant rivers where young maidens rubbed their skin with alligator oil to keep their sensuality alive and their fertility strong, for the children of the civilised jungle were always at risk.
Everyone who was interested in the mysterious and the profane visited the Amazon, particularly at a time when Europe was being torn by struggles of all kinds. From workers against aristocrats, to Germans against the rest, tensions brewed, seeding anxiety in the hearts of many and filling the coffers of a few. Many of these casualties flocked to the peaceful Amazon jungle, spreading their seeds across the southern continent. They knew they had come to a land so nurturing and virginal, a place that was as much alluring as it was aloof, a paradise that rotated in the rhythm of its own seasons to gestate new varieties of life force. The healing secrets of this land were much sought after, for mysterious diseases had become famous in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Amazon, herbal concoctions could settle any psychotic, arouse the impotent, repair mortal wounds, annihilate bacteria and revitalise the chronically fatigued. It was known as ‘The Magic Hospital’, and it honoured this name for generations.
Along with those looking for magic had come the Christian missionaries who tried to transform the children of the Amazon, ‘sinners of the underworld’, into followers of the suffering Christ. Some of them were generous of heart, but some were guided by religious arrogance; together they hooked the children of the jungle to a God that offered them misery and sacrifice. Some of the population respected the Christian God and prayed to Him in their own style, but others resented His representatives fiercely.
Rosita was a product of religious diversity. She carried her own spiritual connection to the Green Spirit of the jungle in her genes and watched others pray to natural idols and sacred effigies. In the past, Iquitos had not been a religious place, not one of the Christian kind. It was hot and sensual, often teasing the prudish and titillating the obscene. Most of the trade was done at the Bethlehem markets, a large floating bazaar spread on the bank of the river, half on the water and half snuggled in the luxuriant land. The extravagant market pulsated daily with the slyness and dexterity of local traders, many of whom lived on the grounds and were accustomed to waking up on floating mattresses cruising the river after torrential downpours. In Bethlehem you could find your way to heaven, and you could also discover an orifice to hell. From crocodile skins for the ostentatious, cat’s tongue for the lecherous and tortoise’s heart for divine inspiration, it was all there, to please the most demanding eccentric. Fish of the freshest quality and fruit of the sweetest taste were always available from the baskets of young women as tender as the harvest they picked, but who knew how to juggle the tricks of life, and how to tickle your appetite. Together with fine linen, floral silks and French cottons, you could find oriental spices, Italian leathers, Egyptian fragrances and toiletries from distant lands whose smell invoked ancient spells of Arabian delights; there were also pots and pans, and all types of liquor and tobacco. No duty was applied because Iquitos was a free port and the lifeline of the region.
These were the grounds where Rosita grew up, hiding under giant ferns like a lion cub, meandering with the spirits of the forest, concocting imaginary potions, and chasing gypsy children who had appeared with their families one day on the shores of the mother river, as if purged by the bowels of the Earth. The gypsies settled where the woodland and the birds played tricks on you, where it was hard to distinguish the real from the imaginary. With Sarita Davila gone, Desiderio Lujan’s family wanted to take custody of Rosita and be in charge of her education in the proper tradition of the family, and to prevent her from developing the natural rebelliousness of her father. To let the child have what she deserved. But Desiderio would not hear of it and refused to give her away. He argued that Rosita was the only link he had to the woman he loved, if only for a short time in the physical world. Desiderio did not believe in what he couldn’t see with his own eyes. Therefore he did not believe his wife had gone to the In-between, so he grieved for a long time, and this grief affected his formerly exuberant lifestyle.
Rosita learned to play alone by the river and often walked along the tropical gardens near the family home, trying to catch enchanted butterflies, singing to frogs and christening naughty monkeys with kinky names. She grew into a lean and light girl with a contagious laugh, and an agility on her feet. She loved dancing and often practised charleston steps on the edge of the river, watching her own reflection. When she turned six years old, Desiderio Lujan formed a duet with her and performed in the town square. He played, she danced, all in the name of innocent fun. For Rosita they were some of the most hilariously memorable times in her life. With clarinet in hand and rapture in his heart, Desiderio played bouncy charleston tunes while Rosita tapped in criss-cross lines, showing a flair for fancy footwork and a penchant for business as she would often claim her share of the enterprise.
The public display and street business affair provoked the fury of the Lujan clan, who threatened my grandfather to take custody of Rosita if he did not place her under ‘decent’ care. To please his family, he put young Rosita in a boarding school run by Anglicans, where she learned the ways of the people from the north – the gringos who lived above the big lake and spoke English. The missionaries endeared themselves to her with a less strict church than the Catholics and seeded warm memories in her heart, for she was a girl who also treasured refinement and starch. After she had helped in the kitchen and changed into her white and blue uniform she would strut across the patio feeling like a princess, proudly bound to the students in her English class. She was delighted with the new girls she met, the daughters of foreign merchants and some of the non-Catholic well-to-do. She learned to speak a different language and treasured it like a bosom friend. It was this experience that nurtured Rosita’s desire to travel and to explore new horizons, later instilling in me the belief that ‘knowledge is the key to survival’. At boarding school she also learned embroidery and ballroom dancing, trying always to excel in whatever she did, for the school principal had promised her a scholarship to go abroad. But again destiny showed its ugly claws and disrupted the unfolding of a fairytale. Desiderio Lujan, who had been sent to the border to repel the intruders, was taken prisoner. His new partner, Rosita’s stepmother, pulled Rosita out of boarding school and sent her to work in the markets, to help support her father’s new family. Definitely a culture shock for Rosita, who at the time was beginning to greet people in English.
With a mournful face, she was forced to farewell organza frocks, starched petticoats, flowery hats and candied fruit for tea. Rosita Lujan, the teenager with the gifted tongue and transparent butterflies in her heart, returned to Bethlehem markets, to the smell of fried fish and banana porridge. Her new reality threatened to rip her heart to threads, but Rosita chose to grow a transparent skin to protect it. Barefoot, grief-stricken and with eyes filled with sour melancholy, the long-legged adolescent fitted a pot of cooked bananas inside a basket, placed it on top of her head, and with the air of those who accept life’s resolutions for there is nothing else they can do, strode market-bound to help feed her new family. It was her first real taste of private enterprise.
The conflict on the border intensified and the number of casualties increased but the government would not give in. The border struggle was becoming more and more ferocious but the modern authorities had realised that the Amazon basin was a paradise of natural wealth and future income. They would not let one blade of jungle grass go, even if in the process they let their soldiers be swallowed by the forest or shredded by the bullets of the invaders. There was no word from Desiderio Lujan and his family feared the worst. Confusion sprouted gloom and cynicism in town. Wild invaders seized on the moment and moved in against defenceless villages, raiding locals’ properties, pillaging and abusing women. A deep-seated anger exploded against the villagers, the people lost control and were sent into total chaos. In a horrifying display of the most wretched features of human nature, soldiers and locals alike discharged their frustrations upon the feeble, the vulnerable and the defenceless. Against this backdrop, and shut within her protective sheath, Rosita would still head down to the markers and continue her trade in cooked bananas, sell the few beads and necklaces left from abroad, and exchange perfumed soaps and talismans meant to clear bad luck. She saw the horrors take place before her eyes and felt them under her skin, but she had learned to transfer her feelings into a bubble she had built out of fragments from the past to shelter her from the violations of her personal reality. It was her way to protect herself and not collapse.
When Desiderio Lujan returned from the war he was a broken man. Sores from insect bites and poorly healed wounds covered his skin; his inner glow had been shadowed by war hardships and the atrocities he had seen. Instead of playing, he would mumble strange words, a dialogue with beings from the unseen. His brain followed its own direction as though it was responding to the call of the jungle pixies, creatures in whom he had never believed. His condition shocked his family, for he had lost all desire to live, or compose or play music. Poor Desiderio, he had been traumatised by war, his spirit had retreated inside to protect itself, unable to deal with the crude and gruesome atrocities he endured as soldier and as a prisoner. There was not a shadow of the dandy minstrel from days gone by. All that was left was a dependent carcass with a tear in his eye and pain in his heart. His superiors, who knew little about depression, described his condition as ‘Fifi’s’, or ‘poofter’s’ disease and ordered him to re-enlist immediately. But it could not be. The man was sick, his soul was hidden and his spirit debilitated. Eventually he was charged with desertion and made to face public shame in the eyes of those who once had cheered him and enjoyed his music. Now, people scorned him and his heart retreated even further. But, as life takes away, so does it return, when patience fertilises the mind to wait for new shoots.
Desiderio Lujan earned back his name and was pardoned, because, in his delirious trip with the green pixies, he had been linked again with his tropical Muse. She, who filled his songs with joy and led him to new grounds of musical possibilities, had returned to his heart, and he regained his passion for music, composed his best pieces and founded the Great Brass Band. To his amusement, the band became the town’s most popular attraction and the pride of all who attended the plaza every Sunday afternoon to enjoy the tunes that returned to the locals their joy in life. But all gifts have a price, even if they are given by a spirit: Desiderio remained distant from his family, and from his elder daughter.
While he recovered from his emotional ills, Rosita was pregnant with her first son. The child was the fruit of a relationship that could not be. The sort of love that is written with the ink of intensity and the pen of enthusiasm.
The women in my family received a bag full of unexpected predicaments when it came to romantic liaisons. It was a sad legacy that some of us inherited, a force that led love to fall out of the window and hit the grounds of disenchantment. Once, as a child, while helping Mama do the dishes in the kitchen, she whispered in my ears her own confessions of unrequited love and disillusionment. It was the first time she let me touch the core of her emotions. It was then, when charged with conspiratorial whispers and enraptured sighs, we let our hearts connect. Amid mincing and chopping and the clackety-clank of pots and pans, she hummed into my ears the story of her first love.
It was a moment of emotional alignment. When two pairs of eyes meet and recognise that they have to watch a romantic landscape together. For Rosita it was the reaching of a summit. He was her first feathered knight, as well as her first villain. The love prince who elevated her spirit to a high plateau, to later push her into the abyss of cruel disenchantment. Mama never mentioned his name but the way she referred to him made me realise she had adored him with the innocence of love that knows no boundaries. They had met during a lemonade party at a relative’s house. She was spending a short vacation with a dear cousin with whom she shared her name, Rosa. On that particular afternoon, her cousin was to give a piano recital for a group of family friends accustomed to piña coladas, siestas and coteries.
Mama would often recall one particular room in the house framed by tall palms on the wooden verandah. It was warm and blue, with a powerful and shiny grand piano that rested proudly in the centre, and a cedar and glass cabinet crowded with multicoloured china. Music overflowed into the four corners of that room. Probably even ghosts had parties after everyone went to bed, for the old gramophone was often heard softly during the night. Her cousin Rosa had been encouraged to follow the family musical tradition and she had done well. Mama was her dearest admirer, ‘She played with exquisite sensitivity and deep emotions.’ I remember how Mama used to hum and relive the tunes her cousin had played during her adolescence, as she spoke with her hands pressed against her heart. ‘What your Aunt Rosa did not get in looks, she certainly made up for with musical talent,’ she would say, ‘and that is much better, for talent never leaves you. Even if you do not see it, your talent will always find you.’ She was sure of it and I always looked behind my right shoulder to see whether it was after me.
When the young people’s paths crossed, it was love at first sight. At least for Rosita, who had believed that passion was the driving force in life. A flutter of an eyelash, an innocent smile and a keen feminine curiosity captured the emotions of the young man. He came from a ‘good’ conservative family with a snobbish flavour and a disdain for the less privileged. Rosita fascinated the boy with her ability to charm her audience with tales of transparent beings who lived in the jungle and teased clean souls with enchanted syrups. They talked music, pets and future wishes, and their penchant for adventure took them deep into lush gardens eager to explore each other’s secrets and exchange sensual rhapsodies. Their friendship grew and their illusions intertwined like creepers, urgent to cross over the boundaries of time. One afternoon, as they followed the sinuosity of life’s path, lost in the jungle’s voluptuousness, they unlocked each other’s inhibitions and discovered the taste of genuine seduction. As the young lovers, inebriated with desire, swallowed the prohibited syrup from the luminous jar of passion, they fell into an ecstasy that no word could verbalise, because the bliss of pure love is indescribable.
When Rosita discovered the gift that the boy and his luminous jar of passion had left in her womb, she panicked. And to her dismay, salt was added to her agony. The boy’s family had already made arrangements to send him to the capital to join the navy. So Rosita found herself drinking her tears with vinegar to purify her soul and cleanse herself of bitterness. Again she was left alone. Snubbed by the Lujans, she returned to her stepmother to confess her ‘shame’. The stepmother, whose harsh life had turned her into a severe woman, was not at all impressed. ‘So much for the Anglican school,’ she said. Rosita did not even weep. Her anger at life had found a spot deep inside, far hidden where no one could find it. And the strict stepmother found a soft spot in her heart and took pity on Rosita, agreeing to assist in the birth rites just as long as Rosita forgot her ‘crazy illusions’ of learning English and travelling abroad. That was not for girls like her. Not with a baby. Oh no. ‘One had to know one’s own place.’
The baby was born a happy little boy with the joy of life inherited from his musical grandfather and with the lightness of those who touch this world for only a brief season, as though they came here to bring a short message. His name was Hernancito and his company made Rosita the happiest girl in the village. It also gave her a touch of maturity, for she stopped dreaming the dreams of a seventeen year old and became a single mother in charge of the affairs of the market and of a large household.
Another big war had just broken out on distant shores, the source of the gorgeous goods found in large mansions and the key for active trade in the villages of the Amazon. Sorrow cast shadows on the population, who felt God was again abandoning them. Song and dance in town became sourness and abuse. Local people, although far from the war and recovering from local conflicts, felt the pinch of global scarcity. They were forced to work long hours to produce supplies and provisions required abroad. Rubber barons became richer and their rule became stronger as the authorities bowed to their mighty power. It was the doorway to the nineteen-forties in Latin America, a decade that would usher further pain and injustice, as victims arrived from war-torn lands carrying bitterness in their withered souls.
Rosita returned to the markets to the smell of fried fish, sandalwood soap and the fear of the pigs bound for the slaughterhouse. One day, her young sister Techa brought ominous news to her. Hernancito was very sick. The boy, who had just celebrated his first birthday, had been affected by a lethal virus unseen in the area before. It was a viral poison against which there was no known antidote in the jungle. Prayers were invoked, but the gods were not listening. No motherly love potions, nor prayers to the Jungle Spirit, nor medicine from the old worlds, could kill the virus and alleviate the baby’s condition. The sinister bug had poisoned his lungs and blocked his bronchial cavities. As the clouds marched through the sky, a sheer veil covered his tiny eyes, and, like a withering petal, Hernancito dissolved out of this world forever. As the baby’s last breath reached the sky, Rosita recognised the shadow of the Blue Cat carrying her boy back to the In-between. This time, the dark feline, messenger of death, looked somehow apologetic. After the funeral Rosita poured her heartache into the river until she ran out of tears. Then she opened the box of her memories and carefully placed the story of Hernancito inside it.
Her life went on in nostalgic acceptance, as the lives of many girls who are forced to find the antibodies of tragedy in the core of tragedy itself. One day, as she walked past a large department store a Chinese gentleman standing at the door greeted her.
‘Good morning, Rosita. Happy are the eyes resting upon your beauty.’ The man bowed to the lean girl with the long legs and cute face.
‘Hello, Don Ramon,’ she said smiling demurely.
‘Would you like to try some of the chocolates I have just received from overseas?’ He offered her a box covered in silver wrapping paper and cellophane.
‘No thank you, Don Ramon.’ He’s a nice gentleman, she thought, but too old.
‘Perhaps your Mama and your little brothers would like some?’ he insisted.
‘No thank you, Don Ramon. We’ll get some later perhaps.’
She walked away, sensing the pressure of his gaze and his attentions.
Don Ramon was a successful and respected Chinese businessman who had moved to Iquitos from T’aipei many years before. It was obvious he was looking for a wife, the future mother of his children. He was generous with those he wanted to please and from whom he wanted favours. Discreet and cunning in business, as family tradition dictated then. To procure Rosita’s affections the Chinese man, long past the pinnacle of his youth, would often send large fruit baskets, jars of conserve, smoked fish and chocolates to her family. The neighbours speculated on how long it would take for the merchant to catch Rosita’s heart, how many more baskets and generous signs of his intentions would have to arrive at the door of the modest adolescent with a shadowy past and a pragmatic stepmother. Don Ramon did not mind about Rosita’s romantic past, for he was different from those males who were bonded to the strict tradition of protected virginity. He was a man of business who spoke the universal language of money, and no one dared to disapprove of his actions or intentions. But Rosita was not interested in him. The most she could do was to grant him a smile of thanks for the gifts and jams his keen heart provided. Never had she given him a sign that could encourage his intentions, but Don Ramon would not give up. No, he was relentless in his enterprise. As he was with everything that could be traded or exchanged. He knew that perseverance would always work. And he waited for the right moment.
One afternoon, his heart fuelled by rejection, Don Ramon decided to try a more direct approach. Armed with silk fabrics, lace ribbons and jars of sweet conserves, he marched towards the bungalow where Rosita lived with the stepmother and her children. Rosita was in the backyard feeding chickens with fresh corn and lettuce hearts. She would do this every afternoon before she packed a basket ready for her early morning market rounds. Her sister and brothers had gone to play by the river so the stepmother was able to receive the important visitor in style and in private. When Rosita saw Don Ramon approach her door she sensed the tone of his visit. Placing the bowl of corn and lettuce hearts on the ground she quickly tried to jump over the back fence to spare him the embarrassment of her rejection. But the escape was not to be, for as soon as she started climbing over the fence the stepmother caught her, slapped her backside with a banana leaf and ordered her to get ready immediately for the visitor.
Inside the humble hut, after two glasses of vermouth and a few canapés of fresh sardines, Don Ramon spoke of his intentions. He wanted to take her to live with him. She would be well looked after, of course. The whole family would. The stepmother listened carefully, ruminating on every word with keen attention, exploring every possibility with feminine calculation. Rosita sat listening with a blank face, distant from the plans about her future. All she wanted to do was dissolve into the ground and meet her maker. The stepmother promised Don Ramon that she would give him a definite reply the day after. Affably, she accompanied him to the door, chitchatting about the latest fabrics in fashion and how Rosita ‘would love to work in the shop’. She waved at the merchant courteously, hinting that she’d make sure the decision was positive. A few minutes later, Rosita stamped her feet on the ground, banged her head against the wall and pleaded to the stepmother to leave her alone. She argued with the stepmother, tried to convince her she could no longer love. Her refusal did not reflect the quality of Don Ramon’s suitability, but more a heart filled with melancholy, she claimed. She was still waiting for her knight in feathery armour. The stepmother would not hear of it, insisting a woman was better off in a marriage, that she had nothing to lose and so much to gain: ‘This gentleman would return to you the respect you lost with your irresponsibilities.’
Rage began to brew in Rosita’s veins for she had been refused the right to choose, but what could she do? In the end she agreed to discuss it with her father, hoping he would come to the rescue.
Sadly, her father was away in his own world of music, communicating only with his clarinet and the spirit of his wife Sarita, leaving all women’s business to the inclement discretion of the stepmother. Rosita’s dreams stopped and the transparent butterflies closed their wings behind her sadness. After a chat with the river she came to the conclusion that the best alternative was to agree to the proposal, for leaving the house alone was not an option. She prayed that one day she would learn to love this gentleman.
Three years later, two sons had enriched the life of Don Ramon, the stepmother’s lifestyle and comfort had improved, and Rosita had learned to play the dutiful wife. Her mood gradually changed as her hormones settled with childbearing. She became a mature woman, more elegant in her attire, with rounder hips and a poised step. However, some nights her young heart pounded with nostalgic emptiness, still sensing the past and its tyrannic stream, still longing for another chance. Staring at the sky during summer’s tropical nights she often pondered how it would have been had her soul chosen another option in life.
“Few books are written at such a pitch of emotion as this one or in a language that is so unabashedly sensual and romantic” – Weekend Australian
A true story of hope and courage spanning four generations, The Raw Scent of Vanilla is born from the storytelling traditions of the lush and fertile Peruvian Amazon. It follows the highs and lows of the Bresciani-Lujan family, whose women turn to the wisdom of nature to solve their problems. They take counsel with the wise Pink Dolphin of the Amazon, ask the river for advice, and follow the profound messages of their dreams. But when tragedy hits hard and a mystical Blue Cat announces death, their wisdom persuades them to seek other spiritual routes.
Decades later, in another land, Emilia Bresciani must face her own tragedies. She turns to the wisdom of her ancestors for guidance. After becoming a successful journalist she was looking forward to starting a new family with her husband – until her life was shattered by his murder in mysterious circumstances. In a horrifying downward spiral, she found herself not only a widow, but also the only suspect in his murder.
This compelling book is a blend of wit and sadness, courage and adversity, and the vanilla and cinnamon scents of Latin America. A sensual feast of vibrant colours, rich aromas, magic and passion, it is the story of a woman’s spiritual journey to find her true self.
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Emilia Bresciani was born in Peru of Peruvian and Italian parents. At the age of eighteen she travelled to Australia on a journey of adventure and later graduated as a journalist from the University of Technology, Sydney. For fifteen years she worked in radio and television, dedicating her time to the promotion of cultural diversity and the fight for social justice. Her vision and commitment to work for a harmonious society earned her a series of highly regarded awards. Emilia …