On the evening of Saturday, the twenty-ninth of March, after descending from the final pass, Nicolasa Cisneros and Dominga Prieto were skirting the flanks of the mountain, hoping to run into some traveler who could tell them where they were. There was no one. They spent almost an hour on tenterhooks, and just when the horses were beginning to flag, nickering and chafing at their commands, and just as the women began to wonder if death would meet them here on this rocky slope that darkness was beginning to devour, they made out a building in the distance and first hoped and then deduced it must be the Andaymayo hacienda.
Four days earlier, on Tuesday the twenty-fifth, seeing that Nicolasa’s swelling belly could no longer be concealed, Gregorio Cartagena persuaded her to go to stay for a time in Huacaybamba, a tiny village in the Peruvian sierra, in the high puna region, three hundred kilometers north of Huánuco on the misty frontier with Ancash, where he owned a hacienda. There, he assured her, far from the civilization of the provinces and above all far from the gossip and scandal that would surely arise, she would find an ideal place to give birth. Nicolasa accepted without thinking twice and left on horseback two days later, on Thursday at dawn, accompanied by Dominga Prieto, the black servant whose loyalty and discretion would be rewarded many years later.
The packhorse trail to Huacaybamba was steep and winding, crossing mountain passes almost four thousand meters high, and so rough in parts that they were forced to lead the horses on foot. Whenever Nicolasa faltered and begged for them to halt, numb with exhaustion, Dominga Prieto would pass her a moistened handkerchief and say, “We can’t stop, child, Father Gregorio forbade it, you remember. Do it for the little one.” And she rubbed her swollen belly. As the hours went by they grew accustomed to taking a rest to eat, judging the hour from the position of the sun, or to sleep a little in a spot of shade in the wood where the lichen hung from the trees, or for Nicolasa to curl up in the undergrowth to recover from the continual fevers, shivering, and nausea that afflicted her. Each time they paused, Dominga Prieto would withdraw a few yards, murmuring Ave Marias and prayers of protection to St. Christopher or St. Turibius, and once she’d taken a seat on any suitable rock or rise, she would take off her shoes, which were too tight, burst her blisters, and gather her strength with a swig of aguardiente from the hip flask she hid in the same pocket of her pinafore where she kept her prayer cards.
Three days and three nights it took them to complete this seemingly endless journey. Three days suffering the humid, ruthless heat that filled the air with swirling steam, and at night a dense fog that rose from the depths of the ravines. Three days at the mercy of the cutting late-summer wind, that turbulent summer of 1828, with the first great floods and mudslides caused by savage rains that fell like knives and made a quagmire of the path. Three days and three nights fearing the precipices and gullies, the poisonous fruits, the nests of snakes, the caves of bats, the soaked rats scuttling among the undergrowth, and attacks by pumas or skunks whose eyes glittered in the dark grottoes. Three moonless nights, guiding themselves by the succession of the mountains—the foothills of the cordillera proper—and by the thick, erect shadows of the acacias, the periodic migrations of the black-feathered hawks, and the sound carried up from the Marañón river, that dim roar like a wounded animal clattering in its cage.
At the entrance to the hacienda they were hurriedly received by a slim, sunken-eyed woman of mixed black and criollo ancestry who could neither speak nor hear, but who quickly set down the trays and jugs she was carrying and led them to the most secluded room in the building. Only once she had helped them get settled did she light the fire, round up the fowl that had been disturbed by the visitors, and lay out fodder for the famished horses, before untangling their manes, brushing their hooves, and pulling ticks from their ears. The woman, whose face, arms, and belly were disfigured by chicken pox scars, was Isidora Zabala, the only servant Gregorio Cartagena ever had, and with her rudimentary sign language and guttural sounds she was able to keep him apprised of everything that happened in that region where nothing ever happened.
After a week in this dungeon-like, windowless room, on the threadbare sheets of the iron bed, flanked by tin buckets filled with hot water, a collapsed mahogany wardrobe, two oil lamps, and Dominga Prieto as her midwife, and following twelve hours of labor, Nicolasa’s son was born. She was left so worn out and weak that she sighed deeply and fell into a faint, and Isidora Zabala—who had stood by her bedside throughout the entire birth—began to moan in fright, and poked her shoulder to see if she was dead.
“Leave her alone, she’s only fainted!” objected Dominga Prieto.
Isidora Zabala managed to read her lips, nodded in obedience, and mumbled something.
Cartagena arrived at the hacienda hours later, leaping from his horse and heading straight for the bedroom, where he found Nicolasa sleeping in a nightgown still drenched with sweat and the baby swaddled in a blanket, shivering in the soft arms of Dominga Prieto. The priest tiptoed forward to keep the floorboards from creaking, stood before his son, and scrutinized him without coming too close, controlling himself as if to practice the nervous distance that would later prove decisive. In that fragile, peaceful face still blank of defining features, he sought himself, and stayed there for several minutes studying the veined forehead, the tiny nose, the doll-like chin. Dominga Prieto held the baby out to him as if offering a candy, but he startled and shrank back, beating down the rush of emotion that had welled up inside him. His backward step caused the wooden floor to creak, and the baby opened his eyes. “Is all well, Father?” Dominga asked. Gregorio waved his hands, fumbled to open the door, and muttered something about the work to be done in the hacienda before fading into the night like a restless ghost.
Two months later, on the eve of his return to his center of operations in Huácar, Cartagena told Nicolasa what had troubled him since before the child’s birth.
“Very soon, it’ll be time for him to be baptized and his birth registered in the church records.”
“Care must be taken when it comes to recording the legal particulars,” Gregorio observed, insinuating the awkwardness of his surname appearing on any such document.
Before Nicolasa’s widening eyes, he laid out his proposal to alter the papers.
“You don’t want to appear as the father, do you?” she challenged him.
“I can’t. You know that.”
“Whose name are we going to put, then?” Nicolasa said, fretful. Her voice was tremulous.
“It will have to be another man’s name.”
“Another man’s name?”
“Yes. It’s a question of inventing one,” Gregorio said, boldly.
So this was the mission, the grievous mission delegated to Nicolasa: the invention of a father for the child. A legal, yet fictitious father. A fantasy father who would free the newborn from being treated as what he was, at bottom, and would always be: a bastard. The bastard son of a priest who could not or would not or dared not recognize him as his own before the eyes of God and of men. The first of the seven bastard children that he, the Reverend Don José Gregorio de Cartagena y Meneses, would have with Doña Nicolasa Cisneros La Torre, whose illegitimate relationship lasted almost half a century.
In her fright, or rather panic, Nicolasa would have preferred to refuse, but she unhesitatingly accepted the assignment, with the resolve that already defined her character at the age of twenty-eight. Over the following days, as she walked with Dominga Prieto through the monotonous fields of rice and other crops grown at the Andaymayo hacienda, she dedicated herself to fleshing out the identity of her son’s imaginary father, her brand-new ghostly husband. She weighed up first names, rejected common surnames, considered the sound of the two conjoined names, seeking something both agreeable to the ear and wholly unusual. She repeated them aloud, savoring them on the tongue, until she was left with just one. Dominga Prieto listened in silence, asking herself if Nicolasa’s ideas were real or just ravings.
This was the origin of Don Roberto Benjamín. A man enigmatic to all, whom no one had heard of because he never existed. Roberto Benjamín was a fiction, an artifice, a hasty lie that nonetheless endured. A being imagined into life by a woman whose joy at becoming a mother sparred with the inevitable bitterness of living out her maternity banished to the shadows.
A few months later, as was stipulated, the child received the holy sacrament in the church of La Merced in Huánuco, at an ordinary mass baptism not attended by Cartagena, and which concluded with attendees tossing abundant handfuls of flour in the air as a show of joy. When the time came to state the name of her son, Nicolasa called him Juan and asked the registrar to record on the certificate that Juan Benjamín Cisneros was the “legitimate son of Don Roberto Benjamín and Doña Nicolasa Cisneros.”
Only Dominga Prieto accompanied her on that sunless day and stayed by her side, stiff but serene, with the same composure and companionable spirit she maintained at the christenings of the other children born successively between 1828 and 1837, all receiving the same well-intended yet fraudulent surname: Benjamín. The children would grow up asking after Don Roberto, their putative father, who was always away on business as a metals trader in indistinct far-off countries, from which he was always “about to return.” They would also grow used to seeing the priest, Gregorio, their biological father, as an affectionate godparent, a stole-wearing relative who was often around the house to act as tutor, correct their mistakes, and sometimes, if they behaved, slip them unconsecrated communion wafers that melted like snow on the tongue.
Shortly before Juan’s birth, in February 1828, Gregorio Cartagena, already the parish priest of Huácar, had founded a school he called the College of Virtue. In April, having served for a year as elected deputy for the province of Junín, he joined the Congress that would promulgate Peru’s third constitution. He had recently turned forty and, despite this relative youth, he was already a parish priest, school director, member of the National Assembly, father of the fatherland, lover of a woman, and progenitor of a secret child.
For her part, Nicolasa had not found motherhood to be overly taxing thanks to the know-how she’d earned growing up. Her parents—two Spaniards who arrived in Peru in the late 1700s and settled in Huánuco hoping to get rich from the mountains of gold they eventually tired of seeking—had died of tuberculosis when she was seventeen. As a result, under the watchful eye of Dominga Prieto, she had to take care of her six younger siblings: Antonio, Pedro, Pablo, Gerónimo, Armenio, and Rosita. In acquiring these maternal traits early, Nicolasa had gained household expertise, and by the time she was twenty she was conscientious, self-sufficient, and resolute in the face of the slightest setback. So much so that, years later, none of her siblings questioned the clandestine nature of her pregnancy nor of her mysterious marriage, and instead received news of their first nephew, Juan, with joy.
Their care not to discomfort their older sister with untoward questions didn’t mean they weren’t curious about the origins of this elusive Roberto Benjamín, this fellow of euphonic name, honorable no doubt, who had married Nicolasa overnight and become their brother-in-law without any of them having met or even seen him in those parts. The siblings were intrigued but not nosy, and only behind closed doors and in low voices did they give free rein to their speculations and hopes to soon meet this Roberto, to fête him and officially welcome him to the family. An occasion that, naturally, would never arrive.
From You Shall Leave Your Land by Renato Cisneros, translated by Fionn Petch. Copyright © 2017 by Renato Cisneros. Translation copyright © 2023 by Fionn Petch. By arrangement with Charco Press.