By Allison Baxter
When I was eight years old, my mother decided she had eaten enough guinea pig. Like a curse,“Cuy,” guinea pig in Quechua, our language, crawled from deep in her throat.
“I’m sick of this rat.” Her words bounced off the stone walls of our one-room adobe house. Awicha, my father’s mother, glared at her for insulting a sacred animal. We had always raised cuyes in the small pen behind the house. With eyes fixed on my mother, Awicha dipped her fingers into the box of salt, adding another pinch to the sizzling pan.
My mother squeezed her eyes shut. After a minute, she opened them and spoke with force, dropping the Spanish words, her second language, one at a time, as if they were eggs into boiling water. Then she translated for us: “We’re moving to Lima.”
The box of salt slipped from Awicha’s gnarled fingers with a thud to the dirt floor, making us all jump.
“I want to see the ocean, the beach.” My mother continued in Quechua, a smile moving across her lips.
“Arí,” I cheered. My five-year old sister, Berenice, jumped, her wide-brimmed hat flying and landing flowers down on the floor. We abandoned our notebooks and ran around the table again and again. The dirt rose around our bare feet like masa from my mother’s stone batan when she ground corn. My mother swatted us with the broom she kept next to the fire, but her face beamed.
Looking at the thatched ceiling, my mother stood up straight and continued in her clumsy Spanish, though none of us understood, then translated it: “My girls need to go to school, and there’s nothing here but guinea pigs, vicuñas, and laundry.”
Awicha shuffled out the door and slammed it. Our house tremble like an earthquake. My mother flinched but didn’t watch Awicha go. We ate in silence, the explosion of wood door on adobe frame still echoing in our ears.
Later, just after my mother had tucked wool blankets around our bony shoulders, warming us with every itch, Awicha blew back with the mountain wind. Our mother hissed, Awicha hissed back, their Quechua darting around like Caracara birds chasing insects, wings curved against the Andean sky.
Awicha raised her voice over my mother’s. “It will be ‘serrana,’ clean my house, ‘serrana,’ iron my clothes. Here we have clean water to wash clothes and a good chacrita to grow potatoes. You want to trade our river for a filthy salty ocean. I knew that I was wrong to let you study Spanish with the priests from Lima.”
“You let me study?” My mother asked her mother-in-law. “I’m a grown woman.”
My ears strained to hear Awicha’s response, but this conversation always ended with the clattering of pottery and pots, metal and ceramic.
I wriggled my hands under Berenice’s back to warm them. Bere pulled my ear close to her mouth and whispered, “What’s a ‘serrana’?” Bere’s curls tickled my nose as I shook my head. I squeezed her tight, her head resting under my throat where it fit like a bird in a nest. I didn’t care what Awicha said, I wanted to see the city, the ocean, live with the president.
My mother hissed, “I want my girls to go to school. Learn to read and write in Spanish. They won’t be slaves to cuy meat and laundry.” I opened my eyes. My mother was talking back?
“You want to live your life in the filth of Lima. My son always said…that you thought this in Huancahuasi life was too low for you. That the people here were backwards.”
It was true she ignored the local men after she became a widow, she used lipstick in church when no one else did, but she was like a queen.
Awicha ended the argument again with a stamp of her yanque sandal.
On Fiestas Patrias in July, my mother packed hand-knit chullos to protect our heads from wet Pacific cold, our ruffled dresses, and alpaca blankets. She turned on the radio, the only Spanish we heard. Spanish, the language of singers and newscasters who could reach into our house and touch our hearts, even if we didn’t understand them. We danced around to the creole waltz “Mi Peru,” Bere and I humming along while my mother sang every word.
“Won’t it be wonderful to celebrate next year in Lima, with the president?” my mother asked batting her long eyelashes at us.
“Mama, will we really go to school?” I asked as she spun us both during the last line of the song.
Her eyes lingered on Awicha who perched on her stool peeling potatoes. My mother nodded, her eyes breaking away from Awicha finally. Awicha put the knife down and crossed her arms, her half-closed eyes following our mother.
“I’m going to be a doctor.” I shouted, clapping my hands together. Bere clapped, too. Soldiers brought pale doctors once or twice a year to take care of the sickest of our village. They showed us their instruments, gave us little toys, and healed our sick. I imagined myself with the stethoscope around my neck.
“Girls, let’s say goodbye to the stars. We’re going tomorrow.” My mother, Bere and I went outside and threw our heads back to see the millions of bright specks, like bits of white ash on the side of our black cooking pot.
Then, Awicha came to the doorway, the single bulb in the room backlighting her round body, her arms resting on her protruding stomach. Like a cloud floating over the winter sun, she growled, “I would rather starve with guinea pigs here than drown in pollution.”
“But, Awicha, we can’t go without you.” I wiped salty tears from my cheeks. Bere sobbed, her body shaking like a hanging pacay fruit in a storm.
“Your oldest son is coming tomorrow morning to take us to the bus in Huacho,” my mother said, pulling me close and stroking my hair.
Awicha spoke through clenched teeth. “The Limeñas will look at us like manure, laugh at how we speak. I promised my youngest son before he died….we are people of Huancahuasi.”
Awicha marched into the house, the rest of us following. In her corner of the room, she shoved handfuls of her jewel-colored dresses into a mesh bag, the rainbow stripes bulging like a snake’s stomach. She drew out a crate. Bere and I leaned in, gripping our mother’s apron. Awicha brought it closer. Black eyes peered back at us through holes in the the crate. She had emptied the cuy pen outside.
“I’ll go to protect the girls.” Awicha mumbled.
That night, Bere and I slept with our mother, her smoky smell and warm embrace filled me with all the hope and anticipation of Christmas. The three of us awoke to my mother singing “Mi Peru,” using the Spanish we’d need for our life in the city, Spanish only my mother had— or thought she had. Awicha lay in her bed until we heard the crunch of tires on gravel. Then she rolled out and grabbed her bag and the crate, trudging out the door.
The four of us left our village in Tiyu Jorge’s truck, bouncing with every hole in the road. My grandmother sat in the cab with Tiyu, while my mother, her lips the orange-red of a tunki, cock of the walk, held her flowered hat to her head in the back with us.
In the Huacho, we left behind Tiyu, our mountains and our Quechua as we boarded a rusty colectivo bus. The cuyes twittered and jumped as Awicha tied the crate to the top of the bus. I stepped inside, and the whole bus exploded with Spanish I couldn’t understand. I looked at my mother. She waved us on.
We sat in the back. The late morning sun illuminated my mother’s face, now flat with worry. I searched for air through the stench of dung on farmers’ yanque sandals. My mother whispered into my ear, stroked my cheek, “Do not get sick. They’ll leave us on the side of the road.” I swallowed and breathed through my mouth, her scowl churning my stomach more.
Awicha sat next to me looking out the window as we passed through villages built in the shadows of green peaks, Bere in her lap. She cleared her throat and spoke, her voice muffled by the engine. “Just wait until we get to Lima. The whole place smells like those yanques.”
From Sunday to Monday, we traveled by local bus. At night, our family camped under the big moon in secret places, Bere and I wrapped in Awicha’s velvety alpaca blankets. While my mother killed a few cuyes, Awicha started a fire. We ate the animals and lay by the fire, Awicha singing us to sleep with words soft as her blankets. The first night I was awakened before the sun by my mother’s sobbing. I wanted to reach out to her, but I knew she would feel shame if we knew.
Tuesday, late afternoon, we flagged down a Lima omnibus bigger than our house. My mother spoke to the bus driver, her Spanish just like a woman on the radio. We shoved our last cuy, a rare black one like those used in rituals to cure the sick, next to a crate of clucking hens. There were four empty seats in the back, and our fellow passengers cursed us in Spanish as we stepped on bags and feet to get there. The whole night the bus banged over rock roads, tipping us from side to side. The animals above our heads woke in shrieks and clucks.
The next morning, the bus lurched into El Gran Terminal Terrestre in Lima. We rubbed the sleep out of our eyes. I cried and laughed at the same time, realizing we had arrived. I stepped out of the terminal and threw my head back, looking for my winter sky, the color of a robin’s egg. Instead, I gasped for air and covered my mouth and nose. The sky was the color of condor feathers. My mother stood next to me, her hat crushed, her lipstick smeared, her skirt stained with dirt and blood. I looked up and studied her pinched face. Why had she brought us here? I turned back see Awicha standing next to Bere on the top step of the omnibus, hands on her hips, a sneer on her face.
I tugged at my mother’s skirt. She glanced down, her eyes dark and sunken. She knew.
“Mama, this place is no good. I want to go back. We are people of Huancahuasi.” Awicha smiled for the first time that week, but her nostrils flared with bitterness. I turned back to Bere. She nodded.
My mother lifted a calloused hand. I stepped closer to receive her caress, knowing that she would tell us to get back on the bus and go home. Instead, her palm flew, landing on my cheek with such force I thought the bus had hit me. She had never raised a hand to either of us. I closed my eyes, wishing this place away. When I opened them again, I stood in a cloud of exhaust. She wiped away my tear with a cool hand and shook her head.
We took our things and walked to a small restaurant next to the terminal. Our mother scurried into the line, mumbling Spanish to herself. Two girls in front of us turned their heads, flicking long, loose hair and lifting palms to their laughing mouths. I took my hat off and straightened my braids, my face burning. When we got to the counter, she released her new Spanish words like a trickling waterfall.
The girl behind the counter rolled her eyes. She cupped a manicured hand around her ear and yelled at my mother. I looked at my mother and at the girl, my stomach tense, not understanding the girl’s foreign words or aggression.
My mother repeated her request, her head down but her voice louder. Minutes later, we had a paper basket overflowing with fried pieces. We sat at a hard plastic table and ate, Bere and I watching each other. Did Bere like it? It tasted like the fat we made candles with, nothing more. I nodded to my mother, smiling through gritted teeth. Awicha stood next to the table, nibbling her last orange lulo fruit and offering me one. It cleared away the grease and left a tangy freshness. That was the last time I ate the sour and sweet of our Huancahuasi.
“This is from the ocean, daughters,” my mother whispered through her last mouthful. “The ocean.”
We rose, wiping our faces with the backs of our hands, and exited into the forest of smoke, the Panamerican Highway. At the corner, we crossed a street and passed through a gate into a tree-filled courtyard with a gurgling fountain.
“Where are we going now—” Awicha asked, pausing to add sarcastic emphasis to my mother’s name, the Quechua word for queen, “Koya?” I squeezed my hands into tight fists. Why did Awicha always have to pick on our mother?
We stopped at the end of the courtyard. My eyes moved up the Catholic church at the end of the patio and froze, my heart ready to burst. We ran to the door, Bere and I, and traced the intricate carvings with our dirty fingers. Our mother gripped the handle and tugged it open.
Inside, a palace of white marble, gold, wood beams, and colored glass. As if my eyes were prisoners, I couldn’t stop looking. I didn’t even want to blink.
My mother turned to Bere and me, her face relaxing. “This, girls, is what a church should be.”
We followed our mother in a single line to the back. She cleared her throat and entered an office. A priest stood holding his cassock in huge hands. My mother fell to her knees in front of him, her palms open in prayer. With long, imploring sentences, she worked to gain purchase. Awicha stared at my mother, an expression on her face I had never before seen, her eyes wide with fear.
The priest shook his head.
Again, my mother spoke, begged in this foreign tongue. Again he shook his head, turning to his closet to hang his vestments.
He turned back to us, his eyes focused on the door and pulled a ten soles note out of his desk, placing it in one of my mother’s outstretched palms. It was time for us to leave. My mother handed it back to him, pushed herself off the ground and looked down, a tear sliding down her cheek. I squeezed Bere’s hand so tightly that she cried out.
Gently, soundlessly, Awicha set the crate with the last cuy on the his desk.
The priest leaned in, eyes wide, looking through the holes of the crate. The cuy began to squeal, and he jumped back.
“Cuy?” He spoke our language? But it was the intersection of Lima and the Quechua people.
Awicha bowed her head.
The priest sat in his chair and pulled out a ledger. My mother gave him my name and Bere’s, the priest copying them into his book.
This was how we became Limeñas.
Allison Baxter lives in Oak Park, IL. She works as an ESL teacher by day and writer by night. She recently completed her first mystery, Death in Logan Square, a novel about a Peruvian woman living in the Chicago neighborhood of Logan Square who is wrongfully accused of murder. “Cuyes” is the prologue for that book. She has made several trips to Peru and consulted with her husband and his family, natives of Peru, for cultural details. Her website is www.Allisonbaxterauthor.com.