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Gloria

by Jolanta Polk


Image of a butterfly sitting on one of the many caccoons hanging on a rod.
Image credit: Gabriela Tamara Cycman on Unsplash

My mother has never been sure who fathered the creature that miraculously, in the sudden invasions of her body, in one interrogation or another, took root in her womb and, from a collection of haphazard cells and genes, grew to be me. She has neither the certainty nor the desire to know. But above all, she has no regrets. 

The planter of the seed could have been any of the men who used her body as a source of meteoric pleasure and a receptacle for their sperm. She never knew their names, habits, ambitions, and fears. But not knowing who her father was and remembering her natural curiosity about his identity and whereabouts, she somewhat hesitantly explained to me the circumstances of my conception and birth.

“Your father could have been the long-limbed, short-tempered soldier smelling of leather, brass, and his self-importance. I only know about him as much as he permitted me to know,” she told me. 

“Or maybe it was the doctor who washed and dressed my wounds, whispered reassurances in my ear and, availing of the blindfold, leaving no images and no reflection of himself, deposited the seed.”

“Or perhaps it was the taciturn, reserved soldier who ferried me out of prison in a grumbling jeep. Silent, odourless, formless as a ghost, he left nothing but sticky, life-bearing semen.”

She learnt later about the phone call that had broken the pregnant with gloom silence of her godmother’s house late one December night, just before Christmas. The place was sad and grey; even the typically festive pine had shed fragrant needles like green tears.

Helena, her godmother, and her mother’s best friend had answered, the receiver slipping from her sleep-numbed fingers when a brisk voice informed her of the approximate time and place where she’d find her goddaughter. 

“You can pick up Esperanza in Chocalán, three kilometres from the Ruta 5 motorway. To the south. By the eucalyptus grove. Four hours from now.” 

The line went dead. 

When they came for my mother, when the groan of the key in the door announced their approach, my mother had already desisted from trying to interpret the hazy present and the murky future. She had given up all hope, although her name, Esperanza, meant just that - hope. 

“For months, I thought I was going crazy,” she told me many years later.

“It was an almost palpable sensation. Some people say that madness dwells in the head. But no, madness invades the heart like the rest of our feelings. And that is where I felt it. But then I realized that it was not madness but detachment. I suddenly looked at my situation with nothing more than a slight intellectual curiosity. The punctilious ritual of torture still tormented my flesh, yet it could no longer hurt my mind. That was the most sensible thing to do - to disengage myself from my earthly self, to convince myself that no matter what happened, no matter what happened to me, they could not take away the ‘I’ in me.”

“There is an inner part of you that no one can ever touch,” Helena had once told my mother. 

 “It is hidden so deep inside you that only you can feel it. Never allow anyone to treat you as an object for personal gratification. You give what you want to give – nothing more. And remember, it doesn’t matter how others perceive you. It matters a whole lot how you perceive yourself. And that’s what you must do: keep the “you” in you,” 

So, my mother tried. It wasn’t always easy to separate physical pain, peel it off like a glove, and discard it somewhere where it no longer had relevance. Uncertainty of what was real and what was imagined had become a part of her life - it grew from the centre where she tried to banish pain. She knew that if she managed to keep it there, restricting it to that small core, it would no longer have a hold on her. 


Image of a dark, old room with a small bed and a chair.
Image credit: Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Led for the last time along the dim prison corridors, descending the dreaded fourteen steps from her cell, passing the familiar metal platform scraping against her bare feet, she focused on bypassing thoughts of what would occur. But to her surprise, instead of taking her to that dreaded room where, for months, her interrogators had tried to get out of her information that she did not possess, they took her to what seemed to be the courtyard. 

A door squeaked open, and, for the first time in months, she felt the cool embrace of air, the kiss of the wind, and the moisture of dew-drenched leaves from a tree guarding the entrance like a silent sentinel.

Quick hands pushed her into a car, the acrid reek of burnt petrol pouring out of a faulty exhaust pipe. The vehicle bumped on a cobbled surface, a gate crashed against dense foliage, and the scent of moist grass soon overlaid the reek of fumes.

The road wound down - she could tell by the forward slant of her body. Listening to the monotonous creak of suspension and the discord of grinding gears, she sat motionless, her hands tied at the back, the blindfold biting into her face.

The driver cruising around the city for hours was silent, or if he said something, it was lost in the cacophony of the engine. A current of warm air wafting in through an open window wrapped her shoulders. She marvelled at how noiseless everything was - no car horns, no voices, nothing. 

Her bones rattled as the car hit the road honey-combed with potholes. She knew nothing of her destination. No explanation had been volunteered, and she didn’t dare to ask. Was it an execution? A single bullet in the head, quick disposal of the body in a pit filled with lime, and the harsh tattoo of soil falling on top of her. If yes, ignorance was sweeter. And, like her name, hope started to creep back slowly. 

The mighty hopes that make us men,” she quoted Tennyson to herself and, despite the savage pangs of fear, laughed inwardly at the memories of a poem she had once been made to learn by heart. 

The wind grew colder and whipped colour into her cheeks. The car gathered speed as it raced along the road. She lost all sense of time. Minutes, perhaps hours, beaded on the string of her perception, fused into an eternity.

Lulled by the rhythmic movement of the car and the even-paced drone of the engine, she had nearly glided into a shallow slumber when the vehicle came to a halt. As it braked, she was jerked into wakefulness from the clutches of the half-daze. 

“Get out,” the driver said and pressed the round nuzzle of a rifle to her ribs. She slid onto a lumpy surface that felt like a freshly ploughed field on her soles.

“We’ll have a bit of fun now,” he whispered, his hot breath rasped close to her ear. 

The rifle prodded at her as she slumped to her knees and was swallowed by a furrow. Impatient hands tore at her clothing. She offered no resistance, focusing on that spot in her brain, the untouchable spot where her pride still dwelt. 

The man’s respiration rose and fell in waves. She let his roaming hands explore her body, indifferently accepting the urgent, passionless thrusts. Silently, she witnessed the relief as he climaxed, depositing the seed in her.

“All done. I hope you enjoyed it,” he laughed. 

She made no move, uttered no complaint, taking courage in the thought that she was untouched despite the crass act of violence. Untouched inside, where it mattered.

Then she waited for the dry click of the trigger, for a moment of pain with the bullet lodging itself in the brain. Instead, she heard retreating footfalls and the stridor of the jeep´s engine. Once more, vehicle fumes cloaked her in a mantle of stench. Afterward, there was nothing but silence so solid that she could nearly touch it. 

She lay in the furrow, drinking the aroma of moist earth, enjoying the peace, enjoying every second of it, hoping it would last forever. She smiled. She was alive, radiant with renewed hope. Alive, despite her aching bones poking through the starved flesh stretched on her frame. She quietly took in the earthly smells, relishing the firmness of the soil, the moisture trapped on grains of sand. 

She was alive! She was surprised at how fast she had accepted the sudden turn of events: an hour ago, she had been reconciled with death, and then, in a matter of seconds, Fate changed its mind.

When the night departed, it got bitterly cold, and a drizzle, from which she deduced she was near the coast, drenched her completely. But she didn’t care. Nothing could rid her of the sensation of triumph. 

Conquering her physical weakness, having passed the point where sleep was necessary, she pushed herself up by sheer willpower, her hands still tied behind her back. Stumbling, propelling herself over the furrows, she scrambled toward the rising sun whose warm fingers caressed her face. She walked on, fell, got up, and willed her legs to carry her, to take her somewhere where she could share her joy of being alive.

All around her, the world was awakening, the chirpy banter of sparrows leading her on. From a distance, she detected the scent of wood smoke. Someone somewhere was up and going about his everyday business. The notion that people still lived their unassuming, ordinary lives was encouraging. 

Fatigue collected itself in her feet, stabbed at her ankles. She was so weak she felt she would fall like a discarded piece of clothing but instead kept marching towards the scent.  

The ground got firmer. She climbed a small knoll and felt warm asphalt under her bare feet. From afar, she could hear the rumble of an approaching car - weak and timid at first, then growing louder and stronger.

“It would be life’s biggest irony if I died under its wheels,” she thought with a paroxysm of anguish.

The car stopped. She heard the door snap open, then footsteps. Fear seemed to unfurl itself from the inner core of her body again. Sobbing, reluctant, suppressed, reached her ears.

“Esperanza!” Helena broke into a trot, her eager arms supporting her, tearing the blindfold off her eyes. When it finally came off after several tugs, she saw her godmother’s face frozen in stark grief. 

“Take me home,” my mother murmured. 

“Please. Just take me home.” 

She then began to weep, the relief almost tearing her chest apart.


Red image of a woman screaming; double exposed.
Image credit: Andrea Cassani on Unsplash

*


Constellations of visions plagued her for a long time. She was beset by dreams - coming one after another like a film played at high speed, the frames flicking one after another, hardly stopping long enough to let her take in their whole meaning. Blurred shapes, headless torsos spurting rivers of blood, and the smell of wet leather, brass, and dusty uniforms haunted her sleep and sometimes her waking hours. 

She does not remember the trip back home; her first real memory is of Helena’s face and gentle hands. She remembers being submerged in a tub full of warm water and her struggle to break free. The hands restraining her, the halo of love growing stronger, seeping into her consciousness until she complied with Helena’s tender ministrations of love. Words, promises, and endearments whispered. Then, the soothing rubbing of a towel, the wonderful caress of starched sheets. The long-forgotten comfort of her bed.

Reality mingled with dreams or nightmares rather. The click of boots on a cement floor. The smell of chicory-laced coffee and the familiar aromas of her room. She slid in and out of slumber, unsure of what was real and what was concocted by her mind.

Slowly, the feeling of rage, side by side with the child she was unaware of, grew inside. She launched into diatribes against God and man, abandoned her previous placidity and clamoured for vengeance, wanting to destroy, demolish, grind to dust the world that had wronged her. But Helena welcomed it, for it showed a spark of the old, resilient Esperanza - the child, the girl, the woman she had known and loved. It also showed her healing - anger was an essential part of it.

Time and distance would mellow my mother’s desire for revenge and her fury with Fate. With time, she would again develop a zest for living and an immutable optimism for the future. 

Anger would cool in her, and she could finally acknowledge that a new, better part of her life was just beginning. 

The stigmata of electric shocks and rope burns faded in the following weeks. 

“With time, the invisible aftermath of torture will fade away, too,” Helena reassured her. 

Four months later, as soon as she was strong enough, Helena drove my mother to the airport to finally join her mother in exile. 

The airport official was conscientious. He scrutinized the photo, his gaze sliding back and forth from the frozen image to her face, and flicked through the pages until he came upon a thick stack of green notes with the familiar, even to ignorant minds, portrait of Benjamin Franklin. He returned the passport and diverted his attention to the next person in line.

As the American Airlines jet climbed higher and higher, her fear of the unknown decreased in inverse proportion to the altitude. Eventually, an hour or so before landing, it dwindled to nothing. 

“Something to drink?” the words of a pretty air hostess interrupted her thoughts. 

“No, thank you,” she replied, then added: “I am going to New York to start a new life. My mother is waiting for me.”

The woman’s lovely face was non-committal initially, then dissolved into a pleasant smile. 

“I’m happy for you,” she said. 

New York greeted my mother with glow-worms of lights blossoming on the tarmac. She stepped out of the plane into her mother’s waiting arms. No words were necessary. They stood in the gleaming terminal surrounded by crowds yet alone in their embrace. And for the first time, since she had left prison, my mother felt at peace. Inside her, she could feel the first stirring of a child. A child conceived not in passion, love, or desire but pain. Yet the option to get rid of me, to flush me down an abortionist’s toilet, had never crossed her mind. It did not matter who fathered her child. In fact, fathers didn’t matter at all. It was mothers who took care of their children from the very moment of their conception. And like Amparo, her grandmother, and later Soledad, her mother, she was reconciled with Fate. She accepted its decision, bowed her head in obeisance, and loved me with the intensity only a woman can love.

I was born a little prematurely in an American hospital among chrome furniture, white sheets, the coming and going of patients and visitors, and silent nurses with mild smiles on their serious Virginia Woolf faces. Doctors with flying coattails examined me minutely from head to toe, found nothing wrong with me, and deposited me in my mother’s impatient arms. She accepted me gratefully. It was a gift—a rare and wonderful gift given to her by a perfect stranger.

There was nothing special about me, my mother says. I arrived neither fast nor slowly. The labour was ordinary and lasted the proscribed twelve hours with a moderate degree of pain. My eyes were just two slits covered by puffy lids. Comforted by her loving embrace, I settled peacefully like millions of other newborns. No sign, no omens foretelling a bizarre, noteworthy future. Or past. 

She named me Gloria not because she had glorious hopes for me but because she basked in the glory of motherhood and wanted to preserve that moment forever. For me, she foresaw no winding paths, roads pitted with hardship, dazzling glamour, or stardom. And she was right: I teach Spanish in a neighbourhood of sad-eyed, salsa-loving Puerto Ricans.

And she understood her revenge had been granted – the three generations of women who had spent their lives trying to make amends, bow to Fate, fight against adverse circumstances, and always do as they were told were finally over. She had given birth to a normal, average child born to our family. The fruit they had been waiting for finally matured. It was no longer the fruit of a poisoned seed. 

But all that is past. By now, you will have understood why I must leave New York and return to my roots. Why I must go back to my homeland. 

I am not going in search of my father. I have never desired to find his features in my own as I look in the mirror. What I want is to go back to the little village my mother and grandmother came from. To reconstruct my and my family’s broken past, to sit by my grandmother’s grave, engage in a silent conversation with her, and tell her that, at last, the fruit she hoped for has come. Healthy. Ready to bloom. Bursting alive with new fruit. 


Image of woman with faced blurred looking at the mountains and sunrise on the horizon.
Image credit: NEOM on Unsplash


***

Black and white image of the author, Jolanta Polk.
Jolanta Polk



Polish by birth, a citizen of the world by choice. First story short-listed for the Irish Independent/Hennessy Awards, Ireland, 1996. Since she went back to writing fiction in 2020, more than 80 of her stories, flash fiction and non-fiction, have been accepted for publication. She has recently won 1st prize in the International Human Rights Arts Movement literary contest. Facebook: Jolanta Polk and Instagram @jolantapolk

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