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Authors: David Bergen

Stranger

BOOK: Stranger
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D
EDICATION

To Vicki and Tom

1.

R
UMOUR HAD IT THAT THE DOCTOR'S WIFE WAS COMING TO
take the waters at Ixchel. The clinic was located in the highlands of Guatemala, at the edge of a lake that was eighty-four thousand years old. You came for the lake, and for the beauty of the three volcanoes, and for the quaintness of the twelve villages that surrounded the basin of the lake, and for the afternoon winds that were thought to carry away sin. But if you were a woman who was infertile, you came to take the waters.

Íso Perdido, who lived in the village and worked as a
keeper at the clinic, had heard of the wife's imminent arrival. The doctor himself had told her. His wife was to arrive on Sunday. Even so, when Íso arrived at work on Monday morning and was given her assignment, she looked at the name on the card and wanted to say that she couldn't. But she had no good reason to give, or no reason
that was safe. And so she prepared herself. She changed into wide black pants and a black top. She wore sandals. No jewellery and no makeup. She pulled her hair back in a ponytail with a hand-carved barrette. She went to the doctor's wife's room and knocked on the door. A voice called out and she entered.

She was at the table, finishing her breakfast. Her back, as she sat, was very erect and rigid. Her hair was blonde, like her husband's, but it was straighter, and it was shiny, as if it had been brushed and then brushed again. Her face was sharp and long, her eyes blue. She half rose from her seat and then sat down again.

Íso introduced herself. She said, I
'll be your keeper for the next two weeks. If you need anything, simply ask. If you're unhappy, tell me. I'm here for you. Everyone at the clinic is here for you. We only want the best. She paused briefly and then asked, Should we begin, Mrs. Mann?

Please. Call me Susan, the doctor's wife said. And then she said that there were many expectations and she didn't know if she could live up to them.

This was a typical confession, immediate and without boundaries.

No expectations, Íso said. Only hope and goodwill.

The wife's face went soft.

Íso offered her a hand. She said that she would help her change.

Oh, I can manage.

Íso said that it was best to accept help. At first you might be shy. But you
'll get used to me and soon it will feel normal.

Íso
led her into the bedroom and took a robe from the closet. Rubber sandals. A towel. She laid all of this on the bed. The doctor's wife was wearing a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar, and it was fastened down the back. Íso began to unbutton the blouse. She slid it off, folded it, and laid it on a chair. She said that she would now remove Susan's bra. She did so and laid it on top of the blouse. She moved around to face the doctor's wife, whose hands fluttered up towards her chest and then back to her hips. Many of the women who came to the clinic were afraid of their bodies. A woman might walk around naked, but then avert her eyes when she passed by a mirror. Or she might carry herself as if curling into a cocoon. Or she might walk on tiptoes, as if the floor below might crack.

It's all right, Íso said. You're safe. She kneeled and released the wife's belt and undid her buttons and pulled down her jeans.

And your underwear, Íso said. She helped her.

The wife lifted one foot, then the other.

Íso saw the length of her neck, her jaw, the size of her breasts, her navel, the thin strip of pubic hair, her le
gs, the narrowness of her feet. Inevitably, she compared herself and she felt inferior, and this made her breathless and she thought that everything was impossible. But then she focused again and helped Susan into her robe. She tied it.

May I put your hair into a braid? she asked.

Susan nodded.

Íso wove a single
thick braid. Susan's hair was very long and very beautiful, and Íso told her so.

I wonder sometimes if I'd cut it, and then I might get pregnant. My husband thinks this is nonsense.

Íso said that she didn
't think anything was nonsense.

Do you know him? the wife asked.

Everyone knows Doctor Mann.

I haven't seen him yet. Everything is strange. The vegetation, the waves against the shore, the men who fish at night outside my bedroom window. She said she'd heard a knocking and thought that someone wanted to enter, but it was only oars banging against the gunnels of a boat. Coming in by car yesterday she'd seen a little boy carrying a huge bundle of sticks on his back. Like an image from the underworld, she said. My husband told me not to get my hopes up. What do you think?

Íso said that hope was never harmful. In any case, there were no rules.

She said that it was time, and she led her outside and down a cobbled path, beneath the jacaranda trees, and into the pool area, which was surrounded by walls of bamboo. She told Susan that she would take the waters twice a day. In the morning and in the afternoon. After each bath she would receive a massage that would focus on her womb.

At the pool's edge, Íso reached to untie Susan's robe.

Could I wear a bathing suit? Susan asked.

It's better to let the water touch you everywhere, Íso said. Don't worry, we're alone.

They were. The pool was not large, and it was heated, and above them there were skylights. Íso wore her pants and top. She
stepped down into the pool with Susan. Susan floated naked on her back as Íso supported her. There was music playing softly. Íso, as she did with other patients, tried to look elsewhere, and not at the body she was holding. But she was aware of how slight Susan was, and she was aware of Susan's face and its vulnerability, and of how Susan closed her eyes and turned away as if to hide. Íso thought of the doctor's hands touching the body she was now holding. It was too much, and so she thought of English verbs and irregular conjugations.

As they came up the stairs from the pool, Íso retrieved the robe and held it open for Susan and then tied it in front. She felt Susan's breath on the crown of her head as she bowed. They crossed the cobbled path and descended a small staircase into a cave-like room with an oval skylight. The room held a shower, a steam bath, and a narrow bed. Íso excused herself and changed into a dark blue sleeveless shift that came to just below her knees. It made her look androgynous. She returned to the room where Susan waited.

In the shower Susan sat on the chair and Íso released her hair from its braid and it fell to the small of her back. Íso soaked Susan's hair and took some shampoo and lathered her scalp. Her forehead was broad and her skin was smooth and almost translucent. Íso could see the small blue veins, like many lines drawn by a thin pencil.

It's a workout, washing my hair, Susan said.

It's beautiful, Íso said.

If I don't succeed this time, off it goes, Susan said.

Íso was quiet.

I've been trying for three years, Susan said. It's a strange thing, but I have to continually fight against the shame. Why shame? I haven't done anything wrong. I haven't acted badly. But I still feel shame.

Íso
had heard all this before, from many other women. The shame. But she'd never heard it from someone so intimately connected to her. She rinsed Susan's hair and twisted the water from it and the water ran down Susan's back. She asked Susan to stand, and then she turned on the shower and soaped her body. Her breasts, her stomach, and between her legs. There were women who did not want Íso to wash between their legs, but Susan, for all her shyness, did not mind, nor did she balk at having her pubis massaged. It was considered an important part of the treatment, as the massaging might stimulate fertility.

Susan was limber, and she had a genuine pelvis with a shallow cavity, which meant less trauma when giving birth. Íso thought that she would tell Susan later in the week, when she might need encouragement.

She kneeled and washed Susan's calves and ankles and feet. She asked her to lift one foot at a time. Susan did so, leaning forward with her palms against the shower wall.
Íso
took an emery board and kneeled and worked at Susan's heels, though she did not have calluses. Her feet were white and clean and smooth, like polished enamel.

After, she asked Susan to lie down on the bed. She laid towels over Susan's chest and her legs, and she massaged her stom
ach. Susan was now completely silent. The only sound was of Íso's hands, like paper shuffling, on Susan's body.

Susan began to cry. She wept without noise, and the tears dropped onto the sheets. Íso kept touching her, massaging her uterus and her bowels, cresting near the ribcage, and then descending towards the pubis. And then Susan was laughing softly, and she looked at Íso and said, Oh my, that's never happened before.

Later, Íso gave Susan drops of Vitex agnus-castus and two pills of bovine colostrum. Then she handed Susan her robe and led her back to her room.

Sometimes a patient would leave a small tip for Íso, but on this day Susan did not give her anything. Íso, because she never expected a tip, was not surprised. Susan, like most of the women, had her mind on other things.

In the afternoon, Íso found Susan in her room and took her temperature. When she was finished Susan asked if she had ever witnessed a case where a woman became pregnant.

It can happen, Íso said.

And it had happened, several times, though the role the clinic played in the pregnancy was always unclear. But the clinic liked success stories, for they encouraged more women to come and take the waters.

Susan asked about her husband. Have you seen him? she asked.

Íso was quiet for a moment, and then she said,
Here, at the clinic?

Yes, here.

He's working today.

When I called and told him I was coming, he wasn't pleased. I insisted. He won't see me the first week, which is superstitious, don't you think?

Those are the procedures here, Íso said. You're supposed to focus on yourself.

It's just odd, to imagine him so close. My skin is very aware.

That's important, Íso said. It's good for your body.

A year ago, when we learned that we couldn't get pregnant, we stopped having sex, Susan said.

Íso had no words.

He might have been interested. As an act. But I wasn't. What's the point? She was quiet for a long time and then spoke very softly, as if fearful that someone other than Íso might hear. She said that she had gone to find other men, maybe to hurt her husband, maybe out of sadness, but certainly to find out the truth. She didn't get pregnant. And she was sorry that she had embarrassed herself in various ways.

She didn't explain what the various ways were, and Íso didn't ask. She led Susan to the pool to take the waters once again, and then she showered her, and once again she massaged her, but this time there were no tears. All was silent save for the birds that sang wildly in the trees outside. And the El Norte that blew in off the lake.

Í
SO
had worked at the clinic for two years. When she finished high school, she
'd lived in the city and gone to university in prep
aration for medicine, but her school funds were soon depleted and she'd returned to her village to work with the women at the clinic, who were most often foreigners. She had learned that desperation in a woman's face and body was not a pretty sight. Desperation and sadness and false happiness and hope and wishful thinking and physical ache—all of this was mixed up and thrown into a tempest, and what survived, what fell to the earth, was disappointment.

Íso
's view of the world was limited to her own needs and her own passions and to the needs and passions of her family and small circle of friends. She felt for the women who arrived at the clinic so full of hope. But when they were gone, she forgot about them.

The clinic had come about by a series of contingencies. An American scientist, Doctor August, had visited the lake six years earlier with his wife, who was thought to be infertile. His wife bathed in the waters of the lake and underwent a series of local procedures (the baths, the massages, the ingestion of aguacolla, the smoking of the roots and bulbs of the water lily), and she became pregnant. After his wife gave birth to a healthy boy, the scientist claimed that the waters of the lake were responsible, and he built the clinic, to which women came, full of optimism. And the women went home confident. And failed to become pregnant. But this disappointment did not halt their return. Some women had come back three or four times.

Believing that one's surroundings were essential to constructive thoughts and positive results, Doctor August set up birthing chambers in the clinic. At the entrance to each chamber, carved into the lintel, was an image of Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of
creation and destruction. These chambers were offered to the local women free of charge. Nurses and doctors and midwives were present. And so, the giving of birth was paired with the treatment for infertility, and the hope was that the former would affect the latter. But it only made the infertile women sadder. What could be worse than wishing very much for a child, and observing through a one-way mirror the birth of a stranger's child, and hearing the cries of a stranger's newborn?

The job of a keeper, the most important aspect, was to be both present and invisible. Doctor August had invented a name for this. Igual. Physically, it was like floating, and eventually the patient came to accept that the keeper would always be present, but that the presence was never invasive. The keeper became an object, much like a remote control or a timepiece. The perfect keeper would always be available.

Íso depended on
igual as she worked with the doctor's wife. For nine hours every day, she floated in that space where her own existence was nothing. And then she walked through the village back to her mother's tienda, and it was during these walks that she let go of the weight of the women she served, and their unhappiness, which was not her unhappiness. Sometimes, when they worked the same shift, she and Illya walked together to the playa, where Illya would catch a boat back to Panajachel, and as they walked they laughed and gossiped about the women they worked with. Illya was working with a British woman who kept correcting Illya's English. I
khant
, Illya said, I
khant
. And she said that the English woman, Mrs. Hadley, had had an orgasm during
her massage. Yes, she
khan
, Illya said. She laughed and wrapped her arm around Íso's shoulder.

BOOK: Stranger
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