Years later, Toya would remember the boy’s birth among the coca plants, how he’d arrived in silence, like some sort of harbinger announcing the end of the world. She would recall the girl’s ghost face as she bent over the rows, both hands holding the bulk of her stomach, as if trying to carry its weight. And when she cut the girl’s umbilical cord with her sickle, how the girl had looked into her eyes, arms extended, waiting for Toya to hand over the boy. He was ten now, his real mother long gone.
Together, Toya and the boy worked the coca fields along the sloped hills of Barrio Carraízo, and like every morning during the harvest, she chewed a small clump of coca leaves with llipta, made from plantain ash and burnt cane sugar. Most of the other jíbaros who worked for Don Joaquín did the same. Don Joaquín didn’t mind a small handful each day as long as they kept working—it was the coca leaf that made them move faster. During the off-season, when Toya harvested coffee or cut sugarcane in the cañaverales, she craved Don Joaquín’s small ration of coca. While she made sure the boy never went hungry, Toya often worked on an empty stomach. It was the coca leaf that kept the hunger pangs at bay, that took care of the fatigue. It was the coca leaf that sustained them.
Toya worked fast, one eye on the boy, plucking leaves and stuffing them in the pockets of her apron. This morning, having arrived ten minutes later than usual, Toya and the boy had to climb to the top of the hill. From their row, they could see all the other jíbaros, including Don Péno. She liked to watch him, his pava drawn low over his forehead, his hairy, muscular arms flexing under the weight of the sacks he lugged downhill. But she would never admit it. He was a forty-year-old bachelor, twice Toya’s age. He’d told her once, flat out, that he would marry her one day, but Toya had ignored him, rolled her eyes. She’d been widowed at sixteen and was not interested in this old man. Her husband had been a soldier, killed by the Yanquis a week after he turned seventeen. She’d been left childless and alone, but Toya worked the fields to feed herself. She’d never needed any man.
Don Péno turned to Toya, as if he could tell she’d been thinking about him. He took off his hat, smiling, his dark mass of hair lifting in the wind like something wild, a tangle of thick curls poking out under his shirt’s collar. Toya never understood how a man with so much hair thought he was desirable. She waved and kept working, pulling leaves and watching the boy.
In the next row, Doña Cusa filled her own apron with handfuls of coca. Her granddaughter, Celestina, plucked leaf by leaf and sang under her breath. She was a year younger and so much quicker than the boy.
“She’s getting better, your girl,” Toya called out to Doña Cusa.
Doña Cusa didn’t even glance up, like it wasn’t news to her. “I keep telling her it’s not a race.”
Toya moved over to the next plant, her mouth already numb with the wad of coca and llipta tucked in her cheek. It made Toya a little sad for Celestina, that this was all she had ever known, that this would probably always be her life. That she’d spend days working the fields instead of climbing flamboyanes, instead of running wild with the other kids, instead of swimming in the Río Carraízo, like she had done when she was her age, before the war. Before her boy—silent and steady, mouth like a fist. Soon they would come for him, like they came for every other boy.
The girl had been barefoot on the day he was born. She’d come out of nowhere, and somehow got past the western border of landmines, past the guerrillas in el monte. Toya had tried to pull her off the field, but the girl went down between the rows.
Not here, Toya told her. You have to get up.
She tried to explain about the dead, how many had fallen there, but when the girl would not or could not hear her, Toya saw that she was lost. El campo de coca, Toya knew, would take her. And Toya would let it have her. But not the boy. The boy she would take for herself.
Right there, in the middle of what had once been sacred land, Toya emptied her apron into one of the sacks at the end of the row. She shook off the leaves and wrapped the boy in the apron. She would build a life for them. She would never again speak of the girl in the field.
She didn’t like to think of the girl now, how she’d gone back for her hours later, the boy in her arms, the heat of him making her feel the weight of what she’d done. Toya had scoured the field for hours, had walked up and down the rows, searched every drying bed, every cart, opened all the storage silos, but found no sign of the girl or the afterbirth. The boy never cried. Not once. And in the ten years that followed he would not speak a single word. He would never laugh, never cough, never sneeze. He wouldn’t sigh, or groan, or make a sound. Even his footsteps would be silent, his entire body mute, like el campo de coca had taken much more than his mother.
By midafternoon Toya and the boy had filled all the sacks at the end of their row. One by one, Don Péno heaved them over his shoulder and lugged them down the hill, where the leaves would be spread out and dried in the sun. As he came up for the last sack, Toya chewed on a fresh batch of coca and llipta. The boy was already starting on the next row, Doña Cusa and Celestina a couple of rows down, when Toya heard the rhythmic pulsing of a helicopter’s blades above the fields. She didn’t turn on her heel and run for Don Joaquín, or call out to Doña Cusa, or stumble down the hill yelling for the boy. Instead she watched as the helicopter released bursts of herbicidal powder. Some of it rained down in white flurries, or shot across the rows, propelled by the force of wind from the helicopter’s blades, and splattered the jíbaros in the face. Toya got a mouthful before she tumbled forward onto the dirt, dry heaving, the whole time thinking of the boy. She spit out coca, llipta, powder, all of it, her throat feeling like she’d eaten a fistful of fresh-shorn wool. Then she heard the shots.
The first shot made her flinch, the second got her up on her feet. She couldn’t see the boy through the cloud of dust and poison, leaves flying like projectiles, the helicopter blades, the wind pushing her sideways. She got on her hands and knees, rubbed the dirt from her eyes and started crawling toward the last spot where she’d seen the boy. Then three more shots rang out and she froze, counted one second, two seconds, three. Did they think she was dead? Were they aiming for her? She’d been shot at before, more than once, but never in front of the boy. Four seconds, five. She started crawling again, faster this time, then a string of shots, each one louder than the last. They were impossible to count, so she went down, pressed her face into the dirt, covered her ears, waiting, breathing, waiting. She was trembling. She thought of her husband, Piri, what he’d think if he could see her in the dirt now, like some kind of animal, while the boy was dying somewhere, voiceless and alone. She opened her eyes.
Not like this, she thought. She would die anyway, but she refused to go like this.
This time she didn’t crawl—she stood up. She heard one more shot and then nothing, and was surprised to find the boy standing among the rows, covered in white powder. As she ran for him, her feet heavy, her linen skirt flapping in the wind, she still heard only silence. And then, before she reached him, she saw her.
Six years, but the girl was the same—her ghost face pale, her mouth a bruise. And the boy with his powdered face stood there like a mirror.
Toya tried to speak, but the words didn’t come. She wasn’t sure if the boy could see her, his mother, reaching out to him with one phantom hand.
You can’t have him, she wanted to tell the girl, but instead she pulled the boy against her like a mother would, her arms around his shoulders, his face against her neck. He’s not yours, Toya wanted to say, and she held him there, his skin against hers, a prickling in her spine. The girl wouldn’t take her eyes off Toya and the boy, a plume of white breath uncoiling from her mouth like a snake. And then, as the helicopter disappeared above the hilltops, the girl vanished, the world and all its sound returned to Toya.
Sometimes Toya found herself thinking of her husband, Piri. Except the memories she kept returning to weren’t of Piri the husband, but Piri the boy. She saw those two children they had been, herself as a girl, hair parted down the middle, braided, Piri and his ragged fingernails, hands always in the dirt, pulling up earthworms or catching lizards.
He’d lived two houses down from her in el Barrio Carraízo, before the war. Their fathers woke before dawn, walked down to the cañaverales with their machetes in hand and their stomachs empty, to cut sugarcane. Their mothers lugged their children with them to the fields, taught them to make llipta from plantain ash and lye and sugar, taught them about Naya, the goddess of the harvest, of the earth and sun and water. That was when la sagrada coca was still sacred, before the Yanquis and landmines and helicopters.
Then the guerrillas came, late one morning. Toya had been running around the coca plants with Piri when the soldiers advanced, spread out over the fields toward the women. There had been rumors that the Spanish army and their guerrillas would take the boys. In other barrios, they were already gone. Some went willingly. Maybe their parents had been too terrified. Maybe they really believed their only hope against the Yanquis was to send their boys to die in el monte.
Toya ran to her mother’s side when she saw the men in their makeshift uniforms—which were supposed to look like the Spaniards’—automatic rifles and pistols in their hands. Piri ran too.
His mother said one word when they came for her son: No.
Then a soldier put two bullets in her chest. He picked up Piri, and carried him off toward el monte.
Other women screamed and they were shot down. And then women who hadn’t screamed, who had already given up their sons. And then women who had no sons.
Toya’s mother always said the coca leaf was sacred, the coca leaf was magic. When you drank the coca tea, Naya would infuse you with energy, with life. When you chewed the coca leaf with llipta, Naya would alleviate your hunger. Naya, warrior mother, who brought down rain for sugar, coffee, coca, who kept away drought, who flooded the earth and shook it, who could move mountains, erupt volcanoes, flatten terrain, who could heal your pain. Naya could perform the greatest magic of all.
As her mother lay in the fields among the other dead, Toya didn’t cry. The guerrillas took the boys and headed for el monte, and Toya knew in her bones that she would see Piri again, that he would come back to her. But her mother…
Toya scooped up handfuls of coca from her mother’s apron, picked out four perfect leaves, and placed them one by one over her mother’s heart, mouth, and eyes. Then she spread the rest of them over her body and on the soil around her. On her knees, she bent forward, placing her forehead on the bed of leaves, and prayed for Naya, warrior goddess, keeper of the harvest, to give her back her mother.
It didn’t rain. There was no lightning in the sky, no massive earthquake that cracked the world wide open. She was not engulfed in flames. She’d prayed for hours, but in the end her mother was still dead, and Toya would see her always as she was in those last moments.
Later, el Barrio Carraízo would be seized, along with all the other boys who had come of age. Her father and Piri’s father would return from the cañaverales, head out to the fields in search of their families. They’d find Toya kneeling next to her mother’s lifeless body.
The stories about what happened next would come back to her father, to the other women and girls left in el Barrio Carraízo: How in a rage, Piri’s father had raced into el monte with his machete, demand to have his son returned to him. How with the force of a single blow, he would behead one of the Spanish soldiers. How he never dropped his machete, even after being riddled with bullet wounds.
Toya would recall how her father wept when he found her. She would remember how he dropped to his knees, how he took her mother’s face in his hands. And she would remember, always, the swarm of butterflies hovering above the coca plants. How one of them floated down, how she opened her hand as it lingered in the air, how it perched on the tip of her finger, then turned to ash.
Toya dabbed at the boy’s eyes and face with her apron, tried to catch her breath. His face was expressionless, his eyes the same six-year-old eyes they had been this morning, until he started to change: His hair, already dusty with powder, turned into a tuft of gray and white atop his head. Deep wrinkles formed at the corners of his eyes. His brown cheeks sagged and sprouted a handful of sunspots. He grew a full mustache and beard, the kind a man like Don Péno might grow, gray and bristling.
Toya didn’t recoil from the man her son had become. He was old and shriveled now, but he was still the boy, steady and silent as ever. She dried her face with her forearm and went off to search for survivors, the boy trailing after her.
They found Don Péno first, sprawled on his back in the middle of the fields, shot once through the bicep. She got to work on him, grinding coca leaf and llipta in her mouth until it was sludge, then slathering it over the wound in his muscle.
“Can you get up?” she asked.
Don Péno took her hand and squeezed. “I’m fine,” he said. He winced, rolling onto his side, and pushed himself up with his good arm.
She wasn’t sure if she should stay behind and search for the others, if there was anything she could do. When Don Péno started making his way toward Doña Cusa and Celestina’s row, she took the boy’s bony, weathered hand, and started downhill. She didn’t look back. She didn’t have to—she knew she would not see Doña Cusa or Celestina again.
The boy—the man—picked up his pace, his footsteps soundless, his beard growing longer with each step. They passed a few people who had been shot, and Toya prayed that Don Péno would get to them soon, that he’d be able to help them.
Once they reached the bottom of the hill, she slowed to a stop and let go of the boy’s hand. There were people everywhere—shot down where they had been carrying sacks, or picking leaves, or spreading them on their drying beds. The Yanquis and the Spanish guerrillas didn’t care who was caught in their crossfires, and it was the Jíbaros, Toya’s people, who would pay the price. The war had already taken all the boys. It took the boy Piri had been and sent back a phantom in his place.
As she passed people covered in white powder and torn open by gunfire, she thought of reaching her hands out, covering the boy’s eyes. But then she remembered that he wasn’t the boy any more—he was something else.
It was the same when she saw Piri again for the first time after all those years. He’d come for her in the night. He had aged, but she recognized him as soon as she opened the front door to her house in el Barrio Carraízo. It was the same house where she’d lived with her family all those years ago. They’d been allowed to return, except it was just Toya and her father then.
Drunk on cañita, her father was asleep in the hammock when the guerrillas came. He didn’t wake when the boy soldiers burst through the door, or when they trampled her mother’s clay Naya statue in la marquesina, or when they cut him down with their machetes. And after they used the chickens and goats for target practice, after they finished the last of her father’s rum, after Piri took Toya into the bedroom, his child bride, her father’s house, the spoils of war, after he bent her over the bed and pulled up her skirt and entered her, she could only think of how she’d spent all those years dreaming of his return.
Toya didn’t find Don Joaquín at the bottom of the hill. She could not make herself call out for him, or look into the faces of the dead in search of him. She kept walking, past the drying beds and the tree line, past the edge of the clearing into el monte. She didn’t look back to make sure the boy was following—she knew he was there, even if she couldn’t hear him. In el monte, she heard peacocks, coquis, roosters, heard running water. Light filtered in through the canopy of flamboyanes and ceiba. She pushed aside gallito branches and the leaves of giant ferns, cutting through a path she’d never taken before, even though she’d lived in Carraízo her entire life. When she got to the river, she stopped.
She took the man’s hand again. She remembered the other kids in el barrio. Children and all their noise, how they burst into fits of laughter as they chased each other among the trees, as they splashed around in el Río Carraízo. This was not what she wished for her son, this silent wilting. She wanted him to be a boy again. Once they took him, she knew, he would be lost.
She stepped into the river, feet soaking in water, silt rising in murky clouds. She didn’t wait for any signs—thunder or rain or the earth shuddering and cracking beneath her feet. She didn’t plead to Naya to give her back her son—she knew he’d never been hers. She let go of his hand, took him by the shoulders and pushed him under. He gripped her wrists, trying to free himself as she held him underwater, kicking, jerking sideways and backward, the water splashing all around them, spraying her in the face. But Toya would not stop. She would not let them have him. She would hold him under until the beard and mustache ungrayed, receded, until the age spots disappeared and his face unsagged, until he was reborn. She would release his body to the river. She would watch him float away a man, a boy, a baby. She would return him to his mother unwithered. And it would be then, after the boy was already gone, after she had returned him, that Toya would realize she could hear his splashing, the bittersweet sound of it, finally, like a confirmation, like proof that he had been in the world.