Salvadoran author Claudia Hernández's first novel, Slash and Burn, is out this week with And Other Stories. Translated by Julia Sanches, the book follows several women through a brutal war and its lingering traumas. In the excerpt below, a woman is given an opportunity that could lift her family out of poverty.
She’s never been to Paris. She knows it’s the capital of a very old country because it was a question on a test in her early days of school and she had to ask a classmate for the answer, even though she was scared the teacher would catch her and take away her test paper, send her out of the classroom to see the principal, then call her mother to let her know what her daughter had been doing instead of reading over her notes every day like they’d told her to at the start of the year. They’d said it was wrong to cheat and she knew she shouldn’t, but, after a quick calculation, had decided it’d be worse to have to explain at home why she hadn’t managed the ten her mom had wanted and that she’d committed to getting. She was so nervous about asking for the answer to number seven that her voice barely made a sound. In fact, her classmate had turned toward where she sat not because she’d heard her plea for help but because she’d felt someone’s eyes on her. Once she realized it wasn’t the teacher, she had to ask the girl several times what it was she wanted and then guess what she was asking because she couldn’t hear the girl’s request or even read her lips, which hardly moved.
Feeling sorry for her, the girl started giving her all the answers. But she already knew the rest. She only needed one. The easiest one. The one that anyone in the classroom or on the street could’ve gotten without needing to study because everybody knew it: it was on TV all the time and they were always mentioning it on the radio, as if there were no other capital in the world. Her classmate couldn’t believe she didn’t know. From then on, until the day she graduated, she told everyone time and again how the girl hadn’t known the answer to that question. Paris became the thing she was teased about for her entire school career.
If she’d known how much they’d tease her, she would never have asked. It was a short word. Her classmates wrote in large letters. She could have craned her neck a little and taken the information from the girl to her right, or slid her eyes over to the test of the kid on her left and gotten it from there. If push came to shove, she could have leaned back and asked the girl behind her, who’d have swapped the answer to that question for the one to number eight, leaving no one any the wiser. But she’d thought only of her friend from recess to help her out of that mess, which wasn’t really a mess at all, because the truth was her mom didn’t care whether or not she got a ten. She’d asked her to, in part because it was something all the moms asked of their kids, but above all because the agency they got aid from every month asked for it as well. They wanted proof that her four daughters were studying and getting their shots, as well as evidence they were attending the religious services held weekly for the community by the church that sponsored the aid program.
The grades didn’t matter. The agency never asked if they were genuine or if she’d cheated on that test, or why she kept cheating on the ones that followed. The teachers weren’t interested either. In fact, they couldn’t care less if all the children cheated, however blatantly they did it. The teachers were less missionaries out to save souls than caretakers who opened the door in the morning and closed it at noon, officers who steered the traffic of students from one year to the next, responsible only for delivering report cards to the ministry at the end of each school year. If they wanted to be anything else, or do anything else, they had to move away or enter the private school system, which paid less and demanded more. If they stayed, they had to understand that the local girls and boys weren’t to be troubled with any more than necessary because, no matter what they wanted or what they did, they’d only end up sowing the fields their parents had tilled and looking after the cattle born of their stock—that is, if they didn’t emigrate and end up working in somebody else’s kitchen, or painting another person’s walls, or tending to gardens whose owners would never ask them about the social sciences or blood types, which is why it was best not to pester them with that or insist they improve their handwriting. The girls would bake bread, do their household chores every day, and prepare tamales for special occasions. They’d have kids and spend their whole lives taking care of them in their villages, unless they married or got together with one of the soldiers at the barracks, or with a cop. Then, if their husbands were assigned to new posts, they’d have to move and keep looking after their kids wherever it was they went until eventually they returned to their village, if they ever did. In any case, no one would ask them how they’d done in the years of school they’d completed, or whether they had or hadn’t cheated in an exam. All that mattered was that no one failed, so the country could qualify for new loans and aid from the cooperation agencies. So even if she’d gotten every question wrong that time, or any subsequent time, they would’ve passed her just as they passed the kids who could neither read nor write by the time they finished high school, or who didn’t go to class because they were playing in the square opposite the school. They were so sure they couldn’t change the children’s destinies that if she’d asked if she could skip the test and still get a ten, they’d have let her without batting an eye. Not knowing this, though, she’d strived to get hold of the one answer she was missing and was glad—and a little remorseful—when she got the promised ten and saw her mother’s happiness as she took it, proudly, to the office that gave her aid month after month, where it was simply placed in a stack on a shelf.
“She didn’t want a bunch of strangers to witness something that didn’t concern them.”
Which is why she didn’t need them to explain what Paris was when they announced that her mother might well travel there for a month, or a month and a half. She knew this was good news and, deep down, she was happy for her. That she wasn’t smiling like everyone else had nothing to do with it being that city in particular, of all the cities in the world, but rather because a month or a month and a half was a long time, especially if their mother intended to leave her and her sisters in the care of a señora.
It was too early to tell. Several details had to be ironed out before they could say whether her fears would come true or not. Her mother wasn’t giving any clear answers. All she said was that right then the matter of the señora who’d look after them wasn’t important. Nor did she care much about getting hold of proper clothing to weather that city’s chill, which she couldn’t even imagine because she’d lived all her life in the hottest region of a tropical country. What concerned her was getting hold of the money she’d need for the trip, which even with the discount she was told had been arranged was much, much more than she could come by before the agreed deadline, or even in many years’ time. She figured she could sell the cornmill she’d bought to do her work with after all the chickens she’d raised had died in a single wave of avian flu, but gave up on that idea as soon as the señora who agreed to look after her daughters explained that the mill was her girls’ safety net. If something were to happen to her on this trip—God forbid, and not that she’d ever wish such a thing on her— the girls could still work and have food to eat even if she wasn’t around. She understood where the mother was coming from, but she had to think of the little girls staying behind. She suggested going out to ask for the money, even if she was ashamed to. But not on the street, like the poor, or door to door, like people thereabouts, but at offices, on the radio, or on TV. Maybe if she told her story, if she shared its most sorrowful moments, people would take pity on her and make a donation to help make her dreams possible. It might work. She’d seen people who’d gotten wheelchairs, special beds, and even surgery, without being asked for anything in return. She once saw a little old woman ask for a house to be built for her because the one she lived in might cave in on her head at any moment, and within two weeks a notice was released announcing it was underway. She couldn’t recall if it’d been paid for by one person or if several had deposited money in the account whose number was listed on the screen. The point was that the old woman had gotten what she’d wanted, and the mother could, too. People were generous to those who begged, especially if they were silenced by their tears. Her chances were good since she was always going speechless in the middle of her stories. But she didn’t want to beg. More than that, she didn’t want a bunch of strangers to witness something that didn’t concern them. The circumstances of her personal life belonged only to her, and to the people who’d gotten her into them. She’d contemplated seeking them out to ask for help. They owed her. Even though they claimed not to be responsible and held forth about how the situation was bigger than all of them, they knew. If they saw her sitting in the air-conditioned waiting rooms of their workplaces, they’d agree to anything she asked. But she didn’t want to see them again. Or ask them for anything either.
Better to take out a loan, even one without those financial guarantees banks gave out. She knew about a man thereabouts who lent money easily if you went to him with a recommendation, and she knew someone who could recommend her. She wouldn’t make her look bad. If necessary, she’d clean houses to pay off every last cent. No one doubted it. The problem was that the creditor didn’t give out long-term loans for the amount she was requesting. And in her case, a recommendation didn’t cut it: he wanted more, in case she suddenly discovered Paris was a nicer place to live and ended up staying there for ever. All he asked for was something that would give him peace of mind while she was away: a little parcel of land, a small house, something with a property title to quieten his nerves. He wasn’t a man of much faith, even though he’d have liked to be. Perhaps in another time, in other clothes, under other circumstances. But unfortunately, things were the way they were, and he couldn’t give her what she was asking for. Instead, he suggested she appeal to the television networks. Or to the recently elected mayor. Desperate to cover up the fraud that’d gotten him elected, he thought it pragmatic to give everyone anything they asked for.
“No one could accuse her of not having tried.”
In the end, there was no need. Before she agreed to seek him out, she got a phone call from another office sponsored by another church that gave her aid, saying they might have a solution to her money issue: someone had heard her story and wanted to make a donation toward her trip. The only thing the person asked in return was to meet her. They hadn’t asked why, assuming it was just a way to verify everything she’d said was true. If she agreed, they could meet at their offices in the capital or arrange for the person to visit her village. The first option seemed preferable. The person, however, thought it best to go to her. They weren’t the kind who thought they could understand her situation better by walking her paths or glimpsing her walls. They weren’t giving themselves any false hope. It just struck them that if a woman like her had trouble getting hold of enough money to travel someplace else in the world, she would certainly also have trouble making her way to the capital.
The people at the agency explained that she’d have to come to them anyway, since there were no travel agents where she lived. The closest one was in the state capital. If the donor wanted, she could go there to buy the ticket, but the woman would still have to come to the capital to arrange a passport. They were certain she didn’t have one. The donor insisted on going to her and the agency agreed. One day, they took the donor all the way to the woman’s house, without telling her, so that she could see how the woman really lived.
They found her scrubbing baby clothes. She knew that the money she made from all that laundering wouldn’t be enough to cover her trip to the capital, but she did it because every cent counted in the race to collect the full amount. If in the end she didn’t manage it, no one could accuse her of not having tried or of passing up opportunities. The donor asked her if she thought she’d manage. She answered that, if she didn’t manage it this year, she would many years later. The donor asked her if she didn’t trust the offer she had made her, through the agency. She took a moment to answer. She didn’t want to seem rude, but, truth be told, she didn’t. She had learned that people sometimes experience a change of heart. She said that sometimes circumstances don’t allow people to keep their promises or fulfill their intentions. The donor didn’t try to convince her. The people from the agency asked her to stop scrubbing for a moment and show them her house. The donor thought it curious that she didn’t have a Christmas tree. She decided to send the woman one of her own, and presents, too, after the woman’s eldest daughter said that she (gladly) and her sisters (reluctantly) had donated their present money to their mother’s travels. The eldest had also wanted her to use the money that would otherwise pay for the señora to look after them, but her mother refused to leave them unsupervised.
If asked, the donor would have spent New Year’s Eve with them. But she wasn’t asked, because the woman and her daughters thought she would be better off in her comfortable home than there, with them. The donor didn’t ask either. It would have seemed improper. She also didn’t see the inside of the house. As soon as the donor saw what she had come to see, she offered to cover the cost of the passport, too. Embarrassed and moved by the offer, the woman thanked her. Then she went back to scrubbing diapers.
From Slash and Burn, copyright © 2017 by Claudia Hernández; translation copyright © 2021 by Julia Sanches. Available January 2021 from And Other Stories. By arrangement with the publisher.