Vintage: The Revolutionary's Wife
Those who have served the cause of the revolution have plowed the sea.
One thing I should explain right away. I still refer to the Great Man as my husband, though he divorced me forty years ago. You probably didn’t know I existed, did you, till you started your research. I doubt anyone’s left alive who remembers me. Except him, of course. Coffee? No, stay here, I’ll bring it out.
In the official biography—the early editions—they gave me two or three whole sentences. In the latest version you’ll have to look for me in a footnote. I don’t complain. I know what his life is like. Each day he’s under a microscope, he can say, “It’s raining” or “Pass the rum” and he can be sure someone will quote him reverently in tomorrow’s paper, and someone else will write a diatribe against him. Obscurity has its advantages. I’m free to express myself because no one’s listening.
Well yes, there was one other interview, years ago. Not a reporter, exactly. A famous writer. I suppose I should have felt honored.
“You’ve had a hard life,” he prompts. Most of the article is written already, but it won’t hurt to add the spurned wife angle. Besides, he’s got an unlimited travel budget in addition to the fee they’re paying him, a staggering amount that will tide him over till his next book comes out. The woman frowns. She’s small and lean, wary as a feral cat.
“Could you talk about how you adjusted to life as an exile?” he says. “Day-to-day things, you know, learning a new language, negotiating a new currency . . .” She informs him she’s fluent in three languages and has no problem understanding monetary theory, and somehow she gets from that to the International Monetary Fund and underdevelopment.
He makes his tone sympathetic, tries to bring her back to the point, “Do you resent your husband?” but she’s on a roll. Sweatshops. Exploitation. Imperialism. He smiles and nods, doodles in his notebook. He can’t wait till the article comes out, a bold exposé of the revolution on its tenth anniversary. He’ll make people feel foolish for romanticizing this guy.
He starts writing a description of the scene; he prides himself on his flair for visual detail. When he glances up she’s looking at him with a disdain so pure and impersonal it makes him wonder if anything would be different if she and not her husband had wound up in charge of the Revolution.
When the magazine comes it’s a month old already. A man at the marina gets it from someone who docks his yacht there every weekend. She scans the article, her name buried in a sentence near the end. She reads about the worn wooden floor boards of her front porch, the torn plastic cushion on her rocking chair, the coriander and sweet pepper plants growing in coffee cans.
My footnote in the biography still describes me a “child of privilege”–as if my husband weren’t. It’s true, as a child I knew nothing but fine things. The floors in our house were of marble quarried from Tuscany, the furniture hand-carved mahogany and rosewood; nothing touched my skin except Italian silk and Irish linen. It was a novelty to see something like plastic, concocted by scientists in the laboratory. And this furniture here—they have this process, I’ve read about it, where they take the little odds and ends of lumber and grind it into sawdust. Then they mix it with water and press it into whatever form they want–tables, chairs. Before you know it God will show up and form it into people. Maybe better than our kind.
Religion—I won’t start in on that, don’t worry. When I first got here, the local priest showed up to welcome me. You’ve probably heard the saying, the enemy of my friend is my enemy, and the friend of my enemy is my friend and so forth. It goes on and on, like a folk dance. The priest must have been assuming something like the jilted ex-wife of my enemy is my friend. He gave up on me soon enough.
“Surely we have more in common than you think,” he says. “We’re both exiles. We’ve been wronged by the same person.”
She looks at him as sternly as a schoolteacher about to correct his grammar.
“He’s wronged you—how? By confiscating church property, taking your mansions away from you?”
“We were a godly country.”
“What a paradise it was. With the representatives of Jesus on earth defending justice for everyone. Like they did during the slave trade. Like they did during the genocide of the Indians. A pirate on the high seas did less damage than those pious fathers.”
“Slavery? I don’t see what . . . that was before my time.”
For a moment she almost pities him. If the man can’t think metaphorically, what is he doing in the priesthood?
He reminds himself what she’s been through, how far down she’s come in the world. And she’s a lovely woman, after all. He forces himself to speak patiently, gently. He knows what an effect his soothing voice has on women.
“We can help you with groceries.”
“Spare me your pity.”
“Your neighbor tells me you’re living on two potatoes a day.”
“We had no more than that in the mountains.”
He’s about to say, You’re too delicate for armed combat. He thinks better of it.
What was he like? As a young man? He was handsome, certainly. But he wasn’t the only good-looking man I knew. I’ve never known how to explain the force of physical attraction between two people. The excitement of the student protests must have added to the romance. And now scientists are saying it’s all a matter of chemicals, some kind of hormonal essence that wafts off you, and there’s always someone who has the right receptor for that essence.
With all the work we were doing, everything that was going on, sometimes all we could think about was each other. My molecules responding to his molecules, a key turning in a lock.
His revolutionary activities. Yes. That’s what you meant, of course.
As you probably know, it started with the upheavals at the university. We met when all that was just starting. He saw me in class debating my professors, he saw me on campus handing out pamphlets and arguing over Hegel with students passing by. “You have a man’s mind,” he said. He meant it as a compliment.
I spread word about our meetings, I found ways to get our pamphlets and broadsheets printed when the authorities had shut us down. Later during the fighting I managed to make contact with the foreign press so the world knew what was going on. We had allies in many countries. I kept them informed about our needs, medical supplies, guns, ammunition.
He should have given me a cabinet position. I would have been minister of communication, not fleeing for my life and leaving behind my only child.
Sometimes I think about what he would be like if he’d been overthrown in a coup. It’s a humbling experience, it would have been good for him. He might have landed on these shores, who knows? I would have shown him my little cinderblock house, safe from hurricane winds, my view of the ocean—yes, I have a view, if you put a ladder against the east wall, climb up to the flat part of the roof where the rain cistern is, lean far to your left, and look where the roof of that restaurant almost meets the balcony of that guest house. You’ll see it. A wedge of blue and white. I don’t complain, I can walk to it anytime.
Some people think the ocean is a goddess, did you know that? Not only the ocean. Lightning. The wind. There’s also a god of iron. A god of herbal healing. In my country besides the official religion there was also what you could call a folk religion. The people who believed in it were mostly black and mixed-race, mostly poor. For centuries the government tried to suppress it. Among the upper classes people ignored it or called it superstition. That’s the kind of world it was—lots of poor people, a few very wealthy ones, all of us white. The only black people I came in contact with were the ones who laundered my clothing and cooked my meals or chauffeured my father to his office.
There was a cook who worked for my parents, an old black woman named Chlotilde, who always wore a blue head-scarf and a blue and white checked apron. I vaguely understood that those colors stood for the ocean goddess. I learned the goddess’ name much later. Yemayá. At the time I had no interest in religion of any kind, in nature or inside a church building. I was a rather arrogant child, and Chlotilde wasn’t fond of me. I respected her for that.
The girl trails her father around the house, talking at high speed. A perfect score on her math test again and something about a Mr. Darwin. The father is busy, he will need to go back to the office later. He tells the housekeeper to make arrangements for an extra dinner guest.
“A long time ago,” she says, “there weren’t any humans. Just apes, and a group of them changed, slowly—millions of years—into humans. Isn’t that amazing?” She pauses. Was it millions or billions?
She’s almost bubbly, like a normal girl instead of so serious. He wonders if she has a crush on a boy. He glances through the letters arranged on the tray in the entrance hall. Nothing of interest. Social invitations. Relatives. The important things come to his office.
He’s gone again before she can tell him more, but it doesn’t bother her. She’s picturing people digging up old bones buried in the earth, learning something important about ourselves, and it thrills her that the mind can jump across long spans of time and logic, that if you look long enough, and think long enough, a door opens. This will be a pattern all her life, exhilaration at a new idea, an insight that brings her slamming into truth.
The cook has set out some food for her on the kitchen table, the usual things the girl eats after getting back from school, farmer cheese and jellied guava, fresh bread from the bakery, milky coffee. She can see the child’s bursting with these school lessons, almost pities her even though she’s as spoiled and self-centered a child as Chlotilde has ever seen.
“So we come from monkeys,” Chlotilde says. “And what does your book tell you about where they come from?”
“I don’t know. Some other mammals.”
Chlotilde’s granddaughter, twelve years old just like this one, is already working in a kitchen in a house nearby, no question of schooling for her. Will it occur to the girl to wonder about that?
“And those, then, where do they come from?”
“The mammals? They evolved from reptiles.” The girl realizes she has only a sketchy grasp of the details. She tries to remember how the science teacher put it. “And reptiles evolved from amphibians. And amphibians from fish. And fish evolved from . . . I think it started with fish.”
“Is that so?” Chlotilde could have told her it all begins in the ocean. Even the white people may be starting to understand this.
She adds more charcoal to the stove, starts in on the bowls of green peppers and onions she needs to chop. After that a mound of plantains.
“Red snapper’s on the menu tonight,” she can’t resist saying.
I see you’ve stopped taking notes. Your attention is wandering. I don’t mind. I know the reason I’m of interest is that I was briefly married to the Great Man. My husband also had no patience for religion. It was an obstacle to revolution, to progress.
We had such faith in progress. When the old regime was gone we were going to make everything new and better. Education. Transportation. Farming methods. There was a dairy farm where they mated a meat-giving breed of cow with a milk-giving breed. The result was a cow that was perfectly suited to our climate, but it was no good for either meat or milk. I heard about this and said, “Well, it’s a revolutionary cow. It refuses to be exploited.” My husband was not amused.
By then he was no longer my husband, technically. Somewhere on his way to being a hero and a world leader—a Great Man—he decided I was a liability.
He used to laugh at my pointed comments, but that was when I aimed them at other people. He hadn’t expected to be a target himself.
We weren’t the first couple to ever end their marriage, that’s an old story. Custody of the child was handled reasonably: our son was too young to be in school, so he alternated between us, a month with me, a month with him. On the other hand, not many women have their divorce papers delivered by government agents, along with warnings against talking to foreign journalists and suggestions that it was in my best interest to leave the country.
The threats weren’t so subtle when he made them in person.
“Lack of respect,” he says.
“It was nothing. A casual comment.”
Even now the woman argues with him. “There has been more than one.”
She’s been sorting coffee beans all day and her neck and shoulder muscles are burning. She hadn’t thought it possible that each phase of production—picking, drying, hulling, sorting—would leave her body aching in a different place. She was looking forward to a dreamless sleep when word came that he was here. His car was parked on a side road at the edge of the woods. She’s had to pass the outdoor drying tables and the hulling sheds, a good ten-minute walk from the workers’ dorms.
“A coffee estate in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “I thought here at least you would do something useful and manage to stay out of trouble.”
She leans against the car, tries to look nonchalant. She wishes he had diminished somehow, or that she would stop noticing his beauty. “The kid who brought your message, he looked like he’d seen a ghost, or a god.”
“You’re bordering on counterrevolutionary.”
The word has started to mean firing squads or disappearing into prison and never being heard from again. He moves closer to her, draws her hair away from her forehead.
“Don’t think I won’t have you thrown you into a prison cell.”
How many times had they and their comrades told each other, You must never let fear be your motivation. They had talked about justice. Not anger. Not desire.
“I’ve noticed lately,” she says, “all of a sudden whenever there’s a photograph of you in the newspapers, you’re always the tallest person in it. There are other men as tall as you, or there used to be. Have you had them all shot? Or are you surrounding yourself with short people these days? And I haven’t mentioned that to journalists, in case you’re wondering.”
The woman is infuriating. So stubborn, so needlessly argumentative. You’d think she had a demon inside her. It irritates him all the more that at a moment like this he’s resorting to religious imagery.
He strokes her neck and whispers, “At a word from me. . .”
He doesn’t have to finish the quotation, they’ve both studied the history of the Roman Empire. Caligula. At a word from me this head comes off.
She’s pushing him to the ground at the same time as he’s pulling her. From the years of fighting he knows how to fall without injuring himself, how to keep her balanced on top of him as if she were a priceless and dangerous weapon.
When she’s older and she reads about pheromones, it is a relief to think about desire that way, molecules leaping from his body to hers, from hers to his. It pleases her to have an explanation.
Science answers so many questions, doesn’t it? The chemical composition of the human body, for instance. Carbon and water is what we mostly come down to; I still remember learning that in high school. It amazes me even now.
The girl natters on about it.
“A random bunch of chemicals,” she tells her parents, the servants, anyone who’ll listen. “That’s all we are. Why do we think we’re so special?”
Her mother is horrified.
“Why are we letting her study this?”
“What can you do about it? It’s already in my brain and you can’t take it out again.”
Pressed by Chlotilde, the girl finds she has difficulty explaining what “chemicals” are. Or “elements.” The scientific terms are dear to her despite their slipperiness. She’s like a tone-deaf child happily plonking piano keys.
“As if that explains everything,” Chlotilde complains later to the other servants. The chauffer leans in the doorway, the maid and housekeeper sit at the kitchen table. By this time of night they’re usually too tired to do anything but be together for a few moments.
“Because they’ve figured out what our bodies are made of, it means there’s no God? Have you ever heard anything so foolish?”
They shake their heads.
As she wrings out the dishcloth she sees the moon edging into view of the kitchen window.
“Moon, I greet you,” she says, like her mother, her mother’s mother before her. “I ask health for all.”
“Prosperity,” the maid adds.
The chauffer: “An end to war and sickness.”
It makes her stop, take a breath.
Carbon and water.
With tongs she pulls out a charcoal from a burner on the stove, sets it on a small plate at the table. She takes a tumbler of clear glass and fills it with water. “Wait, I forgot.” She throws a pinch of salt into the glass. They watch it cloud the water.
“This is what we’re made of,” she says.
“Uh-hmmm.” The others have become the audience. They wait for more.
“How do you put those two together to get people?”
They approve her dramatic staging, the way she’s worked toward the rhetorical question.
Chlotilde points to her little finger, holding it out from the rest. Simplifying the question, narrowing it down.
“Tell me how you get this finger by putting those two together? That’s God.”
It’s all in the gap, you know, between the carbon and the water.
Don’t get the idea that I had nothing to do but sit on the beach and think. What an easy life that would have been. I’ve earned my living; before I retired I taught foreign languages and gave lessons in piano. Those were the sorts of things, the only things, that girls like me were supposed to learn. Accomplishments to make me pleasing to my suitors. If I hadn’t insisted on going to the university, who knows what nice, respectable boy I would have met?
Sometimes my husband sends men here to give me money. Maybe he thinks of it as alimony. Or he worries that some reporter will track me down one day and how will it look if I’m in desperate poverty? At the beginning the men he sent were thugs, assassins, they had orders to get rid of me if it looked like I was starting to make trouble for him. There was no chance of that. I was quiet as the grave. I hoped I would get time off for good behavior, or at least a chance to visit my son.
I know you don’t want to hear this. You admire him, as do many people. As do I, to a certain extent. You can choose to believe it as you like.
The order of expulsion is short and direct. She is given a week to leave the country. After that date there are standing orders to shoot her on sight.
This doesn’t stop her from one last confrontation with her husband. She makes it as far as the main staircase before one of his lieutenants notices her.
“Dramatic, isn’t it?” she tells the lieutenant. “Enemy of the people showing up at the presidential palace. And the damndest thing is, it’s still called a palace. Did I dream the Revolution?”
He frowns. The Revolution a dream. His parents were cane cutters, their dream was for their son to have an easy job, a chauffer to a white man. Without the Revolution he would have spent his days with eyes discreetly lowered, opening doors, “Yes sir,” “Thank you, sir,” bundled into a clownish uniform so no one would be frightened by his muscular black body.
“What are you doing here?” he says.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t heard. The pope has excommunicated me.”
“Keep your voice down.”
“Was that disrespectful? Are we calling him God now?”
“That’s enough. You have to leave.”
“I demand to take my son with me. He needs me.”
He grips her thin shoulders, hard. He has been in the mountains with this woman. They’ve been hungry together. They’ve slept on the hard ground side by side. Fatigued beyond what either thought they could ever have endured.
“You won’t do him any good if you’re dead.”
Just another henchman, she thinks, following his boss’s orders. Only much later does she decide that perhaps he truly didn’t want to see her killed. A simple act of kindness.
The lieutenant will do well for a while, rise to the rank of general before the falling out. The firing squad. When the woman reads about it she will go to the ocean and send him a flower on the waves.
The folk religion I told you about, there’s another god they have. Guardian of the crossroads and the thresholds. Elegua. Every path belongs to him, every door. He opens a door for you if he wants, and if he doesn’t want, he doesn’t. Or it looks like he’s opening it but then he slams it in your face, or he puts his foot out and trips you as you’re walking through.
I started to think about this god when I was expelled from my country. He more than any other deity that I’ve ever heard of, old men in the sky, saviors on crosses, this was the one who made sense.
The truth of Elegua—well, have you ever learned something, found the answer to something, that was so true you couldn’t breathe, so true it made you want to cry? Have you ever felt like that? You want to cry because you’ve fallen flat on your face but then you have to pick yourself up because what else is there to do? And so you laugh. You fall in the dirt, you have scrapes and bruises, broken bones, you’re covered with dust. It’s him. It’s his foot that got jammed into your shin and sent you sprawling. And there’s no guarantee he won’t do it again if he feels like it, no matter how much you try to appease him.
It’s not a question of right or wrong, deserving or undeserving. It’s not cruel. Why waste your breath calling the universe cruel? You have to laugh.
The woman dreams that a raft is carrying her to her birthplace across a warm ocean. Her hunger and thirst and the hot sun are making her delirious, she thinks she is arguing with the priest. Father, she is saying, that blue and white plaster virgin standing in your church, we’re floating on her, she’s big and warm and salty. One moment we were molecules of salt water, we were part of the all, and then the next moment we were single-celled living things, and then onward, floating, swimming, crawling, flying.
The leap of faith is to think that she wanted to give birth to us.
The raft deposits her on the shore and people are so astonished–no one tries to sneak into this country–that they watch silently while she stands up and walks away.
Of course. You must be busy. And you’ve been quite patient. I expect you’ll whittle all this down to a sentence or two: Even the Great Man’s former wife expresses qualified admiration.
Yes, it’s true neither of us has remarried. I wouldn’t make too much of that. Neither of us is the marrying kind.
Now that the sun’s not so high I’ll take my folding chair and walk down to the beach. I have plenty to read. The newspaper. People give me old issues of science magazines.
They say that after the Revolution there’s no need for God, that science can explain everything. But they’ve elevated science to a religion. They take its precepts on faith. Look at the concept of gravity. It’s everywhere, all-powerful. A force, an attraction, a relationship between every physical body and every other physical body in the universe. That sounds magical if you ask me. And what I want to know is, who are we to say that that’s not God?