“BATTLE FOR A SOUL”

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PROLOGUE: PUERTO RICO 1956

Agapito could still hear his wife’s screams as he ran past his neighbor’s farm. In the silence of the dying night, the screams climbed and lifted themselves high above the darkened mountains. The screams disturbed him, rattled his brain, yet they pushed him and drove him into a mad dash across the uneven dirt road. He tumbled through gashed ditches and raised roots from old mango trees while shadowed branches ambushed him. Knotted pains squeezed his stomach forcing him to stop and to reclaim the breath his lungs had released in painful gasps. A dried metallic taste coated the inside of his mouth, and he swallowed the last drops of his dense saliva. He could feel his heart pounding, rattling convulsively inside his chest. Around him, armies of crickets shrieked in monotonous sounds and unseen coquis—tree frogs—joined the chorus. A gentle breeze covered his perspired face with cool kisses. The exhaustion during the day began to weigh down on his shoulders with frustrated thoughts. Thin blue lines threatened to slice the sky’s darkness, throwing hints of a morning ready to spread its new brilliant colors. His eyes—deprived of sleep—began to close, as he leaned for a second or two upon the trunk of a tree to rest his fatigued body. He heard snores deep within the cavity of his throat welcoming oblivion. His wife’s screams, which once echoed in his ears, were now distant and no longer important. Slowly, he felt himself succumbing to the soothing touch of sleep; a touch that hunched his shoulders and buckled his knees. He plummeted to the ground hard, a pain exploding through his body snapping the sleepiness away. He jumped back on his feet, the old tree aiding him in finding strength. For a few seconds, he felt disorientated while he pushed away from the tree in unsteady steps. Above him, leaves rustled in murmuring whispers while more strips of blue streaked the velvet, navy sky. Somewhere a rooster crowed at the unfolding dawn. Once again, his wife’s screams tore through the air, awakening the reason of his mad race through the country hills. His wife was in labor and there was something terribly wrong, which he couldn’t understand. It seemed the child inside was forcing itself from the womb before the pregnancy had reached its nine-month term. Throughout the evening, he’d tried everything to soothe her pain, it all failed—so he decided to seek the only person able to help; Doña Lola, the midwife. Leaving his wife alone kept gnawing at him in small annoying bites. He was relieved that he had taken their other children to his sister’s house the second his wife’s conditions had worsened; they were too young to witness their mother’s sufferings. He was not far from the midwife’s house and for that he was grateful. He took a deep breath and started to run again. He stopped short on a hill where he could make out the shape of the shack where the midwife lived; it looked like a black smear on the canvas of an amateur artist. He dashed down the knoll, his feet scrambling to keep his balance. Scrawny dogs ran at him from underneath the shack with snarling, angry barks. But, they ran by his side when his smell was registered as familiar and as someone who belonged among them. As he came closer, the hut’s door was flung open and an old brown-skinned woman appeared like a ghost. A ragged shawl covered her bony shoulders, protecting her from the coldness of the early aurora. Against her chest, she held a bundle, which she quickly shoved into Agapito’s arms. She went around him, and with the help of a stick, she moved toward the screams. Agapito followed her, struggling to keep up with her hurried steps. Doña Lola’s agility and strength defied her old body. “Why didn’t you come sooner?” she asked in a scolding fashion. “I didn’t think that it was time for the baby to come out. This is only the beginning of her eighth month. I just thought it was nothing more than bad indigestion from dinner.”

“What did she have for dinner?” The old woman maneuvered her makeshift cane through the rugged path.

“She didn’t eat that much…just a few spoonfuls of noodle soup. She didn’t have much appetite,” he was puffing hard, his words coming out in halting spurges.

The old woman remained silent; the only sound came from her walking stick as it hit pebbles on the road and slashed at branches that had grown too close to the dirt path. As they rushed the screams ceased, and Agapito hoped that his wife had finally fallen asleep and that all the pain was truly caused by what he’d thought—indigestion—and nothing as serious as the baby being born premature. He could see his house now, a wooden shack with a zinc patched roof, which stood a bit slanted on top of four stilts. His two old dogs peeked at them from underneath the house; a slow cough of a bark was all they could muster. The midwife entered the shack, and he followed, afraid of what lay before him. Overhead, the sky was illuminated with more light, as slivers of blue and yellow stroked the radiant pale blue space. An intense suffocating heat mixed with a stench of unearthly sweat greeted them. Agapito looked at his wife as she wiggled and took deep  breaths on the sweat-soaked cot, he was traumatized to see that she didn’t have any resemblance to his wife of nine years. She had been swollen to twice her weight, and her face was streaked with a mixture of tears and sweat. Her hair was plastered against her skin; her puffed face was pale, red blotches appeared all around her body like a rash. She opened and closed her mouth with the desperate action of a fish thrown upon the sand to die. Her screams were now reduced to an irritating whimper. Her drenched body lifted itself from the cot, writhing with every painful contractions. Her pupils, covered with a deathly white film, seemed to stare blankly at the inside of her head. Agapito stood there paralyzed, until a strong push from the midwife snapped him out of it. In a domineering voice, she instructed him to bring her water and without looking at him, she began to undo the bundle and spread on a table small glass jars containing an assortment of dried herbs and different color lotions. “For the love of the Almighty, what’s taking you so long? Either be alert or get out of the way,” the midwife raised her voice without anger, but with an authoritative tone. This was clearly not the first time she had been in a situation this grave. Doña Lola had been delivering babies all over the area for over fifty years, something she had learned from her mother when she was barely the age of conceiving. She was never baffled by the process of birth. Many sick newborns had been restored to health by her after the local hospitals had given up hope to the poor illiterate jibaros—hicks— from the hills. In all her sixty-plus years of midwifery, only ten had passed away. A small margin to the hundreds that had grown up to adulthood. And now she was delivering their offspring as well.

Agapito walked clumsily inside the partitioned area that formed their bedroom as water from a tin bucket, which he carried, spilled all over his feet as he held a porcelain basin under his arm. Doña Lola seized the basin and placed it next to her opened bundle. “Fill the basin halfway and go and get me a clean blanket and a few towels.” When he came back, she grabbed a towel and submerged it in the water. She squeezed the excess water, afterwards smeared a brownish lotion on the center of the cloth and massaged the mixture on the woman’s temple and next rubbed the rest on the woman’s belly; her soothing touches bringing sudden relief to the laboring mother. Doña Lola lowered her body and with the morning light, she could see part of the baby’s head. She massaged the woman’s stomach as she felt for the body of the struggling child. She guided her slender experienced hands around the woman’s vagina, her fingers becoming her eyes. The mother hissed with soundless yells while her nails ripped the thin soiled mattress beneath her.

Agapito caressed his wife’s forehead with trembling hands. His lips twisted into a sneer of fright. He had never felt such a helplessness in his whole life, and he prayed to God for a miracle. He watched his wife’s body contort on the cot; her lips chapped and bleeding by her clenched teeth. He pulled his eyes away from her and stared at a large cross that hung on the wall by the head of the cot. Sweet Jesus, he found himself silently praying. Don’t let her die; please, don’t let her die. In gradual moving actions, Agapito watched as the old woman’s hands disappeared inside his wife. Her eyes closed as she followed her slender fingers. His wife jumped in pain, and quickly he began to recite prayers in his head, prayers he’d abandoned many years ago.

“Wait outside,” Doña Lola’s stern instructions startled him, her clear brown eyes focusing on his blood-shot eyes. He began to protest, but her controlled anger chilled the marrow in his bones. “Go outside I said. When it’s over you can come back, but for now, you would be more helpful if you stand outside with the dogs. Make me some coffee. When I’m finished, a hot black cup will be much appreciated.”

“But—”

“Please Agapito, don’t let me waste precious time by arguing with you. Get out!”

He glanced apprehensively at his wife, with hesitated steps, Agapito went outside. The harsh morning sun attacked him as soon as he exited the shack as colorful birds and wild red parrots flew above, oblivious of his pain. He climbed down the wooden planks that served as stairs and stepped on the reddish dirt. His eyes wandered through the peaceful countryside, yet he could not shake the fearsome image of his wife out of his head. He feared for their new baby, but he was willing to accept the death of the child over hers. His beautiful wife Josefa, without her existence, life would be a frivolous laughable concept. His whole life was entrusted into the hands of Doña Lola. What other choices did he have? The sophisticated medicine and complicated apparatus that the hospital possessed were not invented for people like himself or his wife. He trusted the old woman; everyone in the whole area did. Didn’t she deliver his other four children? Didn’t she deliver him and his wife as well? His wife was in good hands; he consoled himself, and with God on their side, very soon there will be another mouth to feed.  His two old smelly dogs dragged themselves from underneath the house, their matted sickening coats showing patches of missing fur. Agapito looked at them, and then glanced around disorientated, as if he were noticing his whereabouts for the first time. He sat on a rock next to a large barrel where the rainwater was collected, and squeezed his face between his rough callused hands. He looked down and began to pray again. Besides a few soft moans and large sighs from Doña Lola, everything was calm and peaceful. He thought of his mother and what she taught him about the beauty and love of God. However, now he questioned the reality of those aspects. He felt betrayed by his beliefs, and even though he prayed for the safety of his wife, deep within he was cursing at everything associated with God. He was beginning to accept the child’s death, thinking it would be a blessing instead of a tragedy. He closed his eyes, and the fatigue began to creep and consume his bones; sleep was not far behind. The first shout that startled him was his wife’s, and even though the yell was weak and laced with pain, it was a good sign. The dogs barked and howled in unison terror and like terrified vermin, they ran underneath the house. A second cry was alien and small. A third scream belonged to Doña Lola and that revelation disturbed Agapito and seized his heart with horror. He jumped to his feet and stood staring at the door; his body tensed and paralyzed. Like a mad symphony, the three different cries melted and fused into each other.

“Agapito!” Doña Lola called in an almost childish shriek. “Agapito!” she called again, this time the urgency was alarming.

He took a few steps toward the shack, but Doña Lola came out; her eyes glowing with awe and disbelief. Her hands were no longer brown, but were a rich loud red. Her clothes were splattered with bloody droplets, and tears streaked her bloodstained face.

“Agapito,” she repeated his name again in desperation. The old midwife took one step forward—a single step—that she missed completely. She fell hard on top of the bushes of roses by the side of the house. Thorns slashed her thin wrinkled skin with perfect red lines.

Agapito ran to her, confused at the old woman’s behavior and the sudden screams that seemed to rush at him from the depth of the house. From under the shack, the two dogs howled, their sagging necks quivering and squeezing the wails into pathetic yelps. Agapito lifted Doña Lola from the bushes, her skeleton-like body weightless and limp. He carried her into a hammock that hung between the avocado and mango trees. He placed her down gently, smelling the aroma of herbs and lotion all around her along with the foul smell of fresh blood. Doña Lola’s breaths were short; many pauses separating each breath. Her large brown eyes opened up, leaping from her sunken face. Her arms flailed in a desperate effort to keep invisible hands from touching her. Her paper-thin fist grabbed Agapito by his collar and brought him closer to her trembling lips. “He wants him,” she whispered, before she died.

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"DARE TO ENTER HIS MIND"