SUAN by Andrea Amosson
About the Author
Andrea Amosson is a journalist and writer from Chile, based in Dallas, TX. Her fiction works focus mostly on strong female characters who experience displacement and challenges because of their gender. SUAN is part of her short story collection TOLD FROM THE HIPS, available in its English translation and in its original Spanish CUENTOS ENCADERADOS (a fragment is available at the bottom).
YOUR STORY ISN’T EASY to tell, but I promise to do my best. Afterwards I will expect you to stop asking questions. I swear that this time I’ll tell you your whole life story. I know you don’t understand much. I know because I don’t speak Spanish, either. I mean, I speak it, yes, but as a borrowed language like you do.
It was on a Sunday. I remember because Laura and Maura were making empanadas. As usual, I spied them from the china room. They were getting ready to put the trays in the oven when we heard someone knocking on the back door. They were surprised, because everyone knows you don’t knock on a Sunday, empanada day, and least of all at lunch time. Still in the kitchen, they had a brief dispute over who would answer the door. They didn’t want to interrupt my parent’s reading session. But your mother was a persistent woman and continued to make a racket. I now know she came from very far away, from China I believe, and hence the persistence.
In the end, Laura lost the argument and had to go open the door. I don’t understand why she resisted; it was just as hot in the kitchen as it was outside. When she peeked out, she said she had to look down because your mom was so short. At first she thought she was a child because of her soft, smooth skin. But when she saw her belly, or rather “you,” she quickly let her in. That was the first time I saw your mother. And Laura was right, she did look like a girl because we were almost the same height. At the sight of her, Maura hurried to get her a glass of water with sugar. I brought her a chair.
She sat down and took three sips of water. She spoke words that nobody understood, and we just stared at her without knowing what to do. Your mother was very smart. She saw the broom in a corner, got up and grabbed it with both hands. And started sweeping. That was how Laura and Maura understood she was looking for a job. Being two cooks who fought all day long about who cleaned what, they decided to hire her. My mother had authorized them to do this sort of thing for quite some time. The three of them closed the deal with a handshake. You could see your mother didn’t understand the gesture, because she took both their hands, as if it were a children’s game where they all hold hands. I laughed. Then she spotted me and I felt my cheeks getting red. It was then that I noticed her belly. I approached her slowly and motioned to touch her, but she backed away.
“Leave her alone, Tali. Can’t you see the woman is scared? You better just go play,” Laura ordered me.
“I don’t want to go, Laura!” I yelled, stomping on the floor and crossing my arms.
“Señorita, excuse my sister, why don’t you come back after lunch? It’s too hot in here with the oven on…” Maura interrupted. She always was my favorite.
“Good idea,” I said, while I sneered at Laura. I turned around and left, but didn’t go that far; I continued spying on them from the china room.
The flat-eyed girl carried something within her. It was you, I found out a few months later. At the time, however, I just thought she had a strange sort of fatness. Not like Maura, who was round all over. Your mother was only chubby in the middle. That’s why she suffocated so quickly. And panted as if she was short of breath. In reality, I didn’t understand why Laura and Maura had wanted to hire her; she didn’t seem like a good cleaning lady. It must have been because neither of them wanted to clean the house.
Your mother was just a girl, I’m sure. Because, after a while, we started to play. When she came into my room with the broom… yes, she carried the broom everywhere she went… I would hide under my bed, and when I saw her thin ankles appear in front of my eyes, I’d quickly grab them with both hands. She would jump, speak that language nobody understood, and run off. Then I would chase after her, and she would run into the kitchen and hide behind Laura.
“Be careful, Tali; there are pots full of boiling water in here! Please, your mother has told you not to play in the kitchen.”
“I’ll play where I want to, Big Laura!” I’d yell back, and manage to tug at your mother’s arm, until I forced her out of her hiding place behind Laura.
In the game we played, I would chase her and she would pretend she didn’t want to play. The more she resisted, the more thrilled I felt and the more she whined. She had a strange way of showing joy, as well, and we would soon have to stop because she’d open her mouth wide to get a breath of air. Just like you, when you laugh so much you can’t even talk. Your mother was the same. You even turn purple like she did. So that’s how you got here: you were smuggled in. It’s now been seven years since then. That’s why you don’t remember. Truth be told, no one ever thought about having a portrait of your mother done. Laura said your mother didn’t have a name. I suppose that without a name, she didn’t have a face either… I don’t know. I’ve grown older, but not enough to understand everything.
You came into the world in the spring during the time of independence. I remember because one afternoon, after our roast turkey dinner, instead of going to the Blue Room, I sneaked off to the kitchen to see what the women were doing. Laura and Maura were toasting with a glass of chicha, a substance I had tasted a couple of times. It’s an acid-tasting drink that makes everything in the room spin around. They toasted and said “Viva Chile!”
“What’s ‘Chile,’ Maura?” I asked.
“Chile?… what’s Chile, señorita Tali?…” she answered, surprised. “Chile is our country… Where do you think you live?”
“In England, Maura, Eng—…” Laura’s loud laugh interrupted me.
“Silence!” Maura intervened. “Tali, do you really think you live in England?”
“Of course I do,” I told them. “My parents are from England. We are English, aren’t we?”
“They are from England, yes. But you were born here…” Laura interrupted. “Queen Tali of England…” she added, laughing and sipping chicha.
Your mother was sitting down, staring at the floor. I noticed her smiling slightly and thought that she, too, was laughing at me. How could they tease me like that in my own house, this simple cook and a cleaning lady? I felt very angry, Suan, as if a volcano were growing inside of me and suddenly all my blood had turned to lava.
As Laura was so much bigger than me, I would never dare to hit her. But your mother would have to pay. I jumped like a burning rock on her belly. Your mother got scared and screamed. Then she shrieked so loud I thought the crystal glasses were going to shatter. I had pushed her very hard with every intention of throwing her to the floor.
Your mother cradled her belly in her arms and burst into tears. Laura ran to help her, and I stood paralyzed in the middle of the kitchen… I had gone too far.
“Go back to your family, señorita Tali,” Maura told me, agitated, setting her hands on my shoulders to lead me through the china room and towards the hall.
“I don’t want to!” I demanded. And just then we heard the jingle of a little bell.
“It’s coming from the Blue Room, señorita Tali! They’re looking for you, please go,” Maura said, looking at the board where the bells hung.
“Chile, Shmile!” I yelled at them as I left, dragging my feet and grumbling.
Back in the parlor, my mother scolded me as usual for spending too much time with the servants. But she soon cheered up when I joined her in song at the piano.
I had nightmares that night. I heard screams, people running about, weeping. My mother and Laura had dogs’ heads on their bodies. And they’d growl and show their teeth. I awoke sweating and very thirsty. I wanted a drink of water. My mother had told me to pull the string to wake Maura up, that she’d bring anything I wanted to my room. But I liked to be with Maura and her comforting aroma of roasted flour and cinnamon. So I got up in spite of my mother’s instructions.
On my way to the kitchen I heard someone sobbing. I could feel my heart beating in my throat, and couldn’t get enough air even though I took deep breaths. Cold drops of sweat sprouted on the back of my neck and trickled down my spine. My nightgown was soon drenched. But I kept on walking, slowly, until I got to the crystal room.
Then I saw those red stains, dark and spread across the floor. First, it was drops here and there, close to the table, a puddle. And there was your mother. Completely still. So very white. Bathed in blood on the table they use for de-boning cattle.
Laura and Maura stood by her. They were silent and motionless, and seemed even paler than your mother. The sickly sweet smell of your blood made me dizzy; I felt my legs collapse and fell backwards against the glass shelf.
Laura came running.
“What are you doing here, Tali?” she demanded angrily, grabbing me by the arm and picking me up. “Luckily nothing was broken,” she added, annoyed, while checking the tableware.
“I want to see Maura,” I said, terrified.
Laura’s hands were covered in blood and my nightgown was soon spattered with it as well.
“Why did you kill her?” I asked them, crying.
“No, señorita Tali, we…” Maura said softly as she approached me with a bundle in her arms.
“Don’t kill me!” I responded, letting the tears fly.
“Shhh! It’s all right; here, take a look…” Maura comforted me, bending down and holding the bundle closer.
I was so scared that I wet myself. My mother was right; that was why I should have asked them to bring the water to my room, so I wouldn’t see how they killed people at night. That’s what I thought until Maura opened the bundle a bit. I squeezed my eyes shut so I wouldn’t see. But something amazing happened; a sweet sound came from that blood-soaked package. I opened an eye and saw a tiny hand coming out of there.
I was astonished by the little noises you made and that floppy little hand that moved, drawing circles in the air. It was some time before I understood that the little hand was connected to a body. A body that was you.
“Go back to sleep,” Maura added, with the look that soothed me even when my parents had been travelling and came back after Christmas.
“All right,” I said, and didn’t make a fuss this time.
I went to my bedroom and tried to sleep, tried to forget your dead mother’s aroma, surrounded by osso buco bones, onions and beans.
I awoke the next morning in my nightgown sullied with blood and urine. When my mother saw me, she called for Maura immediately.
“The girl is a woman, Maura. She mustn’t play with boys anymore.”
“As you wish, señora…” Maura answered, looking at the nightgown stained with your mother’s body fluids.
A little while later, I was back in the crystal room, spying on Laura, Maura and you. I didn’t go into the kitchen anymore. The image of your dead mother still haunted me in my dreams. So I spoke to you from the door and you looked at me from an apple crate, lined with old sheets. Because of the heat, they kept you naked. I liked looking at that extra finger you had between your legs. I don’t have it.
I never asked what happened to your mother and the women never mentioned her again. After your birth, my father got sick and my mother took him to England. My mother was also concerned because she said my bleeding had come too soon, that I was too young, that she would consult with doctors over there. It seemed to me a new excuse for escaping from Chile and abandoning me, in the desert mansion, with Christmas around the corner.
I stayed with you at home. And with Miss Nancy, the governess. And Maura and Laura, of course.
I’ve seen you grow up and you don’t really take up much space; just like your mother, you ended up being short. Your eyes are always half open, half closed. You look as if you’re sleepy all the time. And it wasn’t strange that your first words were like your mother’s: sharp little hiccups that don’t mean anything.
When my parents got back and met you, my mother took pity on you because you came shortly after my baby sister died. Yes, I had a sister, but she only lasted a few days, so I never got to meet her. She was born and died in England, or in the boat they were coming back in— I’m not sure.
When you started to walk at last, I would spread a trail of candy across the floor so you’d leave the kitchen and come to my bedroom. When the maids couldn’t find you, the first place they’d look was my room. You didn’t want to leave; you preferred staying with me to spending the day among the stews and the squabbles. But even if I protested, they always took you back.
My mother wouldn’t pick you up, but she looked on you with tenderness. “It’s good that Tali has a little girlfriend,” she said, while sighing and patting her belly.
Sometimes my father paid attention to you as well. Perhaps he liked your blonde hairs; you had a few yellow strands mixed in with the mop of brown hair that covered your head. Now it’s all saffron black, as you know.
The day came when you began to speak better, and we could finally understand you. You no longer let out those shrieks that scared off the pigeons, and our games became more fun. In the kitchen, Laura and Maura handed you a knife and you started peeling potatoes.
That would be it. That would be your life. The rest, you more or less remember.
Oh, and the thing about the skirts? That’s easily explained… Ever since the day of my false menstruation, I was forbidden to play with boys, and so Laura and Maura dressed you in the clothes that I had outgrown. One day, I heard them agree to keep you here and teach you how to cook. They said if anyone found out you were really a boy, you would be sent off to haul sacks of rice in the village shop and, in the blink of an eye, you’d be working in the mines.
They didn’t want that for you. Needless to say, neither did I!
And that is why, from that day forward, you, too, have been a girl.
 empanada: A Spanish or Latin American pastry turnover filled with
a variety of savory ingredients and baked or fried.
SUAN (Spanish fragment)
TU HISTORIA NO es fácil de contar, te prometo que haré mi mejor esfuerzo. Y espero entonces que dejes de hacer preguntas. Yo te juro que esta vez te contaré tu vida completa. Ya sé que no me entiendes bien. Lo comprendo porque yo tampoco hablo el español. Quiero decir, lo hablo, sí; pero de prestado como tú.
Era domingo, lo recuerdo porque Laura y Maura estaban haciendo empanadas. Como de costumbre, yo las espiaba desde la sala de vajillas. Se preparaban para meter las bandejas al horno cuando escuchamos los golpes en la puerta trasera. Ellas se extrañaron, porque todo el mundo sabe que no se golpea en domingo, día de empanadas y menos a la hora de almorzar. Todavía en la cocina tuvieron un breve pleito para decidir quién iría a atender. No querían interrumpir la sesión de lectura de mis padres. Pero tu madre era una mujer persistente y siguió alborotando. Ahora sé que venía de muy lejos, de China creo, por eso la persistencia.
Al final Laura perdió la pelea y le tocó abrir la puerta. No entiendo por qué se resistía, si la cocina estaba igual de caliente que afuera. Cuando se asomó, dice que tuvo que mirar para abajo porque tu mamá era corta. Al comienzo ella pensó que era una niña, por la piel tan lisa y tan suave. Pero al verle la barriga, o sea tú, se apresuró en hacerla pasar. Esa fue la primera vez que vi a tu madre. Y Laura tenía razón, parecía una niña porque éramos casi de idéntica estatura. Al verla, Maura se apresuró en buscarle un vaso con agua y azúcar. Yo le acerqué una silla.
Entonces se sentó y bebió tres sorbos de agua. Habló algo que nadie entendió y la quedamos mirando sin saber qué hacer. Tu madre era muy inteligente. En el rincón vio la escoba, se levantó y la cogió entre sus manos. Y se puso a barrer. Así es que Laura y Maura comprendieron que ella buscaba trabajo. Como eran dos cocineras que se pasaban el día entero discutiendo sobre quién limpiaba qué, decidieron contratarla. Hacía bastante tiempo que mi madre les había autorizado para ese tipo de cosas. Las tres cerraron el trato con un estrechón de manos. Se ve que tu madre no entendía el gesto, porque les tomó ambas manos, a modo de ronda. Yo me reí. Entonces ella se fijó en mí y yo sentí que un color rojo me entraba en las mejillas. Fue ahí cuando le noté la barriga. Me acerqué lento hacia ella, hice el ademán de tocarla, pero ella se echó para atrás.
Déjala tranquila, Tali, no ves que la señora está asustada. Ándate a jugar mejor –me ordenó Laura.
¡No quiero irme, Laura! –le grité, dando un zapatazo en las baldosas y cruzando los brazos.
Señorita, disculpe a mi hermana, ¿por qué no vuelve aquí después de almorzar? Hace mucho calor con el horno prendido… –interrumpió Maura. Ella siempre fue mi favorita.
Buena idea –dije, mientras le hacía un desprecio con la cara a Laura. Me di la vuelta y me fui, no lejos, sino a espiar desde el cuarto de la vajilla.