Baby Snatcher
by DEBORAH CLEARMAN
Concepción’s idea was to give the jaladores just one baby. Think about it. Is a woman not overblessed with two identical sons? One son is a gift, a joy, a polestar. The second? A redundancy.

The twins had been awful all morning. They both had colds. Gobs of snot hung from their pug noses no matter how often she swiped at them. They screamed for the breast. They were too old and toothful to be such nursing fiends, and her nipples were chewed raw. She had finally gotten them to sleep, one swaddled to her back, the other in the playpen on the patio, and she was doing laundry. She bent over the pila, the ponderous outdoor sink that guarded the patio, and raked the twins’ little pants and shirts over its cement washboard. She wrung ice water out of their clothes with vengeful vigor.  She hated that this job sucked the juices out of her for another woman’s children. She felt the sun blasting down on her from a cold sky, lighting up the gloss on her heavy black braid (of which she was so proud), burning into her secret places.

The three strangers arrived stealthily, unheralded by bus-horn blast or truck-gear grind. They must have walked the four dusty kilometers from town, peering into yards. They clambered up the short flight of steps to the pila. Concepción, tall for fifteen, straightened up to her full height, put on a haughty expression and stared at them with eyes like black stones. They were two women and a man, dressed as Todosanteros. A long silence happened, as if all four people on the patio were the earth’s first humans, awaiting the miracle of speech. The strangers took in the sleeping twin, the compound of low buildings that hemmed the patio, doors opening onto the narrow veranda, the steep rise behind of outbuildings and milpa, standing up against the weight of mountain walls.

“Buenas tardes,” one of the women said at last. The words jumped out in a clip, instead of the long sing-song the country people gave them. “Is your husband or father-in-law at home?” Concepción could tell she was not really from Todos Santos. The indigo skirts, the hand-woven blouses, the man’s red pants, were a ruse. The disguise triggered her instinct to be on guard.

“They’re not home,” she said, not offering information or hospitality. Concepción had so little to give. She had neither of those valuable male assets (husband, father-in-law) but she would never reveal that. What she had was Doña Lala, the twins’ mother, and Doña Pancha, their grandmother. In her thoughts she called them la Subcomandante and la Comandante, respectively, delegated by the men of the household to rule her.

“We have nice items to sell, baby things. Perhaps you’d like to see. You’ll soon be needing more.” The saleswoman eyed Concepción’s stomach through the thick folds of her clothing. Concepción didn’t tell the woman that there was nothing left inside her cavernous bulge except expired dreams. The doctors had taken out her womb along with her dead baby.

The man lowered the bundle he’d been carrying on his back, and they spread out their wares on the patio, next to the playpen: baby slings and plastic bottles and soft, squeezable toys. A suspicion had occurred to Concepción, an idea had burrowed its way into her skull like a bead of glass. She watched and waited for the real reason for the sellers’ visit. It didn’t take too long.

“So hard when the babies come one after another!” the saleswoman said in a voice like sweet melon. “And so expensive! Yet there are women in other counties who have no children at all—pobrecitas! Rich women who would give anything, anything,  for a little chuchito like your sons.” She looked from the playpen to the bundle on Concepcíon’s back with a hungry smile. “So precious, what are their names? These wealthy gringas value girls even more. Perhaps your next one will be a nena. She could grow up in a big white house with a marble kitchen and green lawn, just like on TV. Little Guatemalans every day now grow up to be Americans and go to college and drive big cars with doble tracción. They don’t have to live in the dirt like animals, the way we do.”

The saleswoman scuffed with the toe of her platformed sandal at the dirt of the patio, which, to be fair, had a patch of starved grass in one corner. It was the dry season. A film of grit crusted everything—the cement porch floor, the painted wood bench, the prickled hedge between the patio and the road below, the laundry flung out on the hedge to dry. No matter how many times a day Concepción hosed down the road, every passing vehicle fired up a cloud of dust.

An idea takes time to put together, like stringing the glass beads one by one into a grand chandelier, the kind that hung over the lovers in Concepción’s favorite telenovela, The Body of Desire. She placed her hands, sun-brown and rain wrinkled, on her big belly, cradling the hypothetical baby, and set a date three months hence for the strangers to return. After they left, she made a slit in the thin mattress in her dark little room off the woodshed, and shoved the wad of dirty quetzals into it. For medical expenses, the woman had said. But they both knew it was a down payment. For of course, the jaladores weren’t really sellers; they were buyers.

*  *  *

Concepción, when she was seven, had dropped her baby brother off the balcony of their house. It was an accident. She’d been told to watch him, her job since her sisters had married and moved out.  Emptied of older siblings, the house was dull and lonely. Out front her mother washed dishes; her father worked the labyrinthine strings and pedals of his big wooden loom. Concepción could hear the steady thunka thunka of the loom even over the roar of rain pounding tin roof—the roof that extended in front of the house over the loom and pila, in back over the hanging balcony—heard it even over the TV. Rodrigo, intent on baby things, was learning to pull himself up, first on Concepción’s extended fingers, and then, when she got tired of the game, on the table legs. Her mother didn’t like Rodrigo to sit on the dirt floor of the house, so Concepción, eager to prove sufficient to her task, plopped a straw mat by the table for him. Rodrigo had just mastered the art when the rain stopped and Concepción, looking through the open door to the balcony, saw a rainbow.

“Look, Rodrigo!” she squealed, hauled him up from the mat, and rocketed out onto the balcony.

The double bow arced the head of the valley, spanning the hoary tops of T’ui Bach and T’ui K’oy, the two sentinels casting off roiling clouds. Under the rainbow the silver-cliffed mountain walls fell into Todos Santos and broke against the ridge, crosswise to the valley, on the crest of which Concepción’s house teetered. Below the balcony her father’s cornfield dropped like a knife into the part of town called Los Pablos. On the flats of Los Pablos, stretched between the ribs of the mountain town, the red-tiled and thatched roofs of squat adobe houses swam in a sea of corn.

At the balcony railing Concepción stopped short, but somehow Rodrigo did not. In an inexplicable move—a wiggle on his part? a failure of strength on hers?—he shot from her arms, over the rail and out into space.  Concepción, horrified, felt herself freeze into something rigid and useless. The baby canonballed out of view, into the green mouths of cornstalks, five meters below. Rodrigo’s wail reactivated Concepción, and she screamed.

The baby did not die. In fact, the curandera assured them, after a thorough poking of bones and organs, that he was fine. She did the necessary rituals to ward off his fright. But seven years later, when the thatched roofs of Los Pablos were all gone and new houses had sprouted all over town—many-storied, gabled and arcaded, tiled in dollars from the generous North—when Concepción fell in love with the leader of the Los Pablos gang, Rodrigo had never learned to talk. The Cuban doctor said it was not her fault, that the fall was not the cause, but what did the Cuban doctor know?

*  *  *

While Concepción went back to her chores, Prudencia led the other two jaladores down the steps from the patio. No, not jaladores. Prudencia didn’t like that rural slang word, smacking as it did of hauling and yanking and dragging. She considered herself a professional, not an ox. She was a baby contractor.

Prudencia had worked hard to get to where she was, on the opposite side of the country from where she’d started out, just as worthless as that girl who had just sold her baby. Prudencia had left eastern Guatemala, where the rainy season never arrives and thirsty eucalyptus trees suck what moisture there is out of the earth and famine comes as regularly as new babies. She’d run away from Chiquimula, the so-called pearl of the east, and the father who had done unspeakable things, to the capital, where she was taken in and put to work in Doña Merced’s household. Doña Merced was a lawyer, an adoption lawyer.

She learned how to clean indoor bathrooms—porcelain and stainless steel, fíjese! Later on how to cook fine dishes. Her new employer recognized her skills, and after they got to know each other elevated Prudencia from housekeeper to personal assistant. Her rural roots and knowledge of Mayan languages made her perfect as a scout to search the countryside for desperate girls and unhappy families for whom the foreign appetite for black-haired, saucer-eyed babies would be a salvation.

“You’re so clever,” Prudencia’s companion Marta said when they were out of Concepción’s earshot. “You talk so beautifully. So convincing.”

“I’m not happy,” Prudencia replied. “There’s something about that girl I don’t trust. Something’s not right. The house buildings are freshly painted, the flowerbeds well tended. Even a satellite antenna! That household smells of money and lies.”

They heard distant honking.

“The bus,” Jorge, the man carrying the bundle, said. Prudencia had hired him in Huehue to accompany them. He had claimed knowledge of the local language and customs, claims that had turned out to be exaggerated when they arrived in Todos Santos. His Mam was imperfect and accented by a different region.

“Good,” Prudencia said. “Let’s get out of here.” Having made their deal, they needed to go quickly, before word of their presence could spread to people hostile to baby contractors. Villagers in other regions had been known to attack jaladores, beat them and shave their heads as punishment for their efforts on behalf of poor mothers who didn’t want their babies.

The three jaladores flattened themselves against the embankment and waited for the bus, the Flor de Cuchumatán, to grumble to a stop. Jorge’s bundle, disguised by its cloth cover so that no one could guess their business, went on top. The three blended into the crowd on the bus and wedged themselves into seats. They gripped the metal seatbacks in front of them. The bus bounded over potholes, spewing dust. The dust settled on the town they left behind them as they climbed up out of the valley.

*  *  *

Two months later on a Sunday, it was the twins’ first birthday, and Doña Lala, their mother, had decided a party was in order. Although it was Concepción who had suckled them these last six months, tending to their needs with the same fierce devotion as she had given poor Rodrigo, she knew that Doña Lala would take full credit for their fat bellies and dimpled limbs bulging with health.

Doña Pancha disapproved, and said so that morning to her daughter-in-law, in the kitchen, where Concepción, bent over the wood stove, was patting out tortillas.  “You’ll only tempt God to come after them,” Doña Pancha said. Her face was severe and lined with years of suffering; her nose divided it like an escarpment. “When I was a girl we never celebrated birthdays, only funerals. Then at least you know your troubles are over.”

Doña Lala only laughed and rolled her eyes. “Nawita!” she said, addressing her in-law as little mother, another thing that annoyed the older woman. Educated and confident, Lala shrugged off respect for her elders like a threadbare shawl, lightly and with ease. “Don’t be so superstitious! My boys will grow up to be doctors and lawyers and poke fun at those old ideas.”

Lala plucked up the chilies and miltomates toasting on the stove’s hot iron surface and tossed them into the electric blender with a practiced hand. Doña Pancha measured flour and scowled more deeply. “Watch that the onions don’t scorch,” she said.

In this dispute, Concepción silently agreed with Doña Pancha. Her Amor would never have a birthday. Better to celebrate death, a fact so much more certain than life. She slapped harder at the tortilla in her hands.

“Concepción! What are you doing?” Lala, as if noticing her taciturn servant for the first time, changed to her subcomandante voice, machete-edged. “The fire’s dying. Fetch more wood.”

Concepción wiped the dough from her hands on her apron and left the kitchen. She passed the open door to Lala’s room, where the twins’ father Octavio lounged on the big bed with his two sons watching TV, and went to the woodshed. Returning to the kitchen with her load of splintered logs, she counted the days. Escape played constantly in her mind like a telenovela, filling her with desire and apprehension. She saw herself running through lush grass toward a many-turreted mansion. She fed a log to the fire. Smoke billowed from the stove and stung her eyes. Doña Lala exploded in a coughing fit. “Híjole!”

“Stand back, girl,” Doña Pancha said, and whipped the fan back and forth until the fire caught and drew the smoke. Doña Lala recovered and ran the blender with a grating roar.  The scent of burnt squash seeds and cinnamon rose from the stove like bitter memory.

The day proceeded as Doña Lala had ordered it, with the guests arriving under a cloudless sky.  The guests—all uncles and aunts and cousins, grandparents and great grandparents of the twins—came to honor the new princelings and stuff themselves with the turkey that had been slaughtered that morning at dawn and now swam in golden sauce. Concepción passed plates and bowls and cups of sweetened maize drink, while the twins bounced from knee to knee, and ate her pepián in a corner by herself. Only Octavio’s youngest brother Baldomero paid any attention to her. He caught her at the pila where she was stacking piles of plates to wash.

“Poor Cenicienta,” he said and put his hand on her waist. “How about a kiss for your handsome prince.”

She pushed his hand away.

*  *  *

It was seven years after she had dropped her brother, and Jerónimo was back again. That’s what the rumors whispered: older, handsomer, and more dangerous from his years in steely Michigan. Always Concepción kept track of his comings and goings, for she had an instinct that could sense his presence. It was her crime that gave her radar: she was the baby-dropper, self-judged and self-convicted, by the weight of her neighbors’ pity and fear.

Rodrigo was her punishment. He’d become a strange and secretive child, her special charge, placed on her by her child-worn mother. Concepción and Rodrigo, the last two of six, were on their own, linked by Concepción’s crime and by the fact that only she could understand and interpret the speechless boy. She wore Rodrigo tied by the baby sling to her back until he was nearly as big as she was, because only the tight binding could ease his anxious tremblings, his angry fits.

Jerónimo, ten years older, was already a man and she a gradeschool girl when she had first noticed him at the corner below her house, where the dusty track looped down toward Los Pablos. He was with a group of boys drinking beers and breaking bottles against a large grey rock in the shape of an ear that jutted out from the mountainside. His muscled arms flexed with each toss. His thick hair hung to his waist in a luxuriant ponytail. She knew instantly that he was their leader, and that he was bad. She clutched Rodrigo’s little hand in her fist and hurried past the gang, keeping her eyes down on the tips of her plastic sandals, to their jeers of “Mudo! Mudo!” Their scorn for her damaged brother burned. Jerónimo’s appraisal scorched her.

Then he disappeared al norte—to Michigan, the rumors said. Distance didn’t lessen his pull. She felt drawn by his criminal magnetism, with its hint of her destruction. If she could have, she would have gone after him, to Michigan. Each time he came back, expelled from the beast of the North, deported or sloughed off, he brought the boys of Los Pablos new knowledge—a secret language of whistles, marijuana smoking, fighting with knives. The boys stayed young while Jerónimo grew older. Concepción grew older as well, until at fourteen she was a quiet beauty at the end of her first year of middle school, tall for her age, twisting magenta ribbons into her long, black braids.

It was October thirty-first. Fiesta frenzy ignited the town of All Saints. Men, boys, and even women were drinking and brawling in the streets. All over town boys and girls walked in furtive pairs, lust hanging over them like a vapor. Tonight there would be a dance in the salón, but Concepción did not intend to wait until nightfall. She knew what to do. She tucked her brilliant blouse into the sash of her dark skirt and cinched it tight.

A bright morning sun shone, boasting that the rains were over. Concepción slipped down the road to the rock in the shape of an ear, where, sure enough, Jerónimo held forth with his gang of boys, passing a bottle of aguardiente. Beer was not potent enough for this day. She stopped in front of the group and looked Jerónimo in the eye. “Hombre,” she said, “I’ve lost my brother, the mute, and I need your help.” She slid her eyes aside and down, in practiced modesty.

The boys, several from Concepción’s class at school, whooped and cawed. “We’ll help, mamacita! Whatever you need, Concha.”

Concepción tossed her head, flashed her magenta entwined braids. “Not you,” she said. “I need a man.”

Jerónimo smiled and stretched toward her in a lazy slouch. “OK chicos. I’ll be back.”

She led him up the road, past her house, past the humps of buried pyramids, staked by two crosses. Next to them smoke curled up from a ceremonial fire. From the top of a pine tree the clarinero called like a lover. She led Jerónimo on, higher, drawing him after her, casting an occasional glance over her shoulder. They left the road and followed a path through cornfields and into forest. In all this time Concepción hadn’t said anything and if Jerónimo was waiting for explanation, he didn’t mention it. She felt him captive.

They crossed a small stream rushing over flat rocks toward a waterfall where, in their season, blackberries ripened. They climbed a steep slope and before Jerónimo could wonder if she was taking him all the way to the altiplano she turned off the trail and dove into a copse of black pine. Thick duff on the forest floor deadened the chatter of birds. She stopped, breathed deep, sucking in the silence, quivering like a wire, and said, “I lied to you.”

She turned around to face him, look again into his eyes, willing him to be hers. “My brother is with my older sister in Huehue, seeing doctors. I need to talk to you about the mara. I want to join.”

“Mara?” Jerónimo said. Gang? “We’re just a group of friends.” His full lips spread in a dangerous smile. A stud glimmered in one ear, a red bandana knotted around his thick neck, his shirt opened on a sweat-damp wifebeater. She could see the heat rise off him.

“Is it true, what they say about the maras in the United States, that before a girl can join, the whole gang initiates her?” Concepción picked up his right hand and placed it against her blouse, cupping, through the thick cotton huipil woven with hieroglyphs of sun and rain and corn, her breast. “I only want to be initiated by you.”

His other hand came up and tugged the huipil out from her sash. She raised her arms like a child and he lifted the blouse up over her head.

*  *  *

On the morning of the day appointed for the return of the jaladores, Concepción, jittery with anticipation, took extra care with the twins. She kissed them and tickled them the way they liked, to make them laugh. She dressed them in new clothes: matching blue pants, lighter blue sweaters, like matched pearls. Would even their mother know the difference? She knew the difference. She picked up Cándido and gave him a squeeze. “You’re my big boy!”

Felícito tugged at her skirt and raised his arms.

“You too!” She tumbled them both onto their parents’ big double bed, with the TV on. Her goal was to keep them perfect until the jaladores came. Anxiety curled in Concepción’s belly like a snake. The house was empty. The twins’ parents both worked respectable jobs as schoolteachers. Doña Pancha was at her shop in the market, it being Wednesday, market day. Don Chepe, the head of the household, was safely in his office in the municipal palace, at least for now. If the baby contractors came on time, she would be free. Her bag was packed, ready for escape, ready for a new life with thick carpets and silk negligees, so wonderful it could only be imagined in scenes from a telenovela.

Unable to sit still, she stood in the open doorway room and kept one eye on the peaceful twins, the other scanning the empty sky above the mountain walls. Then, above the sound of the TV she heard barking dogs and an approaching vehicle.

Now was the moment of decision. Which twin to leave behind for Doña Lala? She hadn’t thought about this part of her plan. The magnitude of the choice almost paralyzed her. She picked up Felícito. “Here, my sweet boy,” she said. “I have a treat for you.”

She plopped him in the playpen, handed him a sippy cup of cherry drink and a cookie. Then she took Cándido in her arms and went out to the edge of the patio to look down the road. A large red pickup arrived in a cloud of dust.

*  *  *

The dance was well underway. In the salón a wall of sound blasted from speakers stacked three meters high and six wide at the far end of the crowded room. The basketball hoops had been pushed aside and the cement floor pulsed. Red pants stamped, indigo skirts swirled, heads bobbed, and writhing arms winked in strobe light. Concepción stood at the sidelines in darkness, waiting for her black prince. Jerónimo, before they had parted at the ruins earlier in the day, had promised to dance with her. She felt she must be glowing, giving off blue light like a TV screen. She watched the entry to the salón, where people funneled in through narrow doors past three lurking policía.

Jerónimo reeled through the door, clutching onto his younger brother Oscar, also back in Todos Santos. It looked like they’d been celebrating and were bien bolo. Jerónimo stopped in the entry and flicked his gaze over the hall, probing for her, Concepción hoped, but not seeing her yet in the shadows. Oscar took a slug from a bottle of Quetzalteca he carried, then held the bottle out to Jerónimo.

“I’ll take that. Prohibited inside the salón.” An official voice cut like ice through the rockero din. The three policía circled the two brothers. One reached for the bottle. Jerónimo’s hand met the bottle first, grasped it, twisted it upward in a defiant gesture just grazing the chin of the policía, and then, in a brazen finale, balanced the bottle on top of his own head. He pirouetted toward Oscar.

“I’m so scared,” he piped in a ludicrous falsetto. “I’m so scared of the mean policeman. Hermanito, save me!”

Guffaws erupted from the audience of watching youths, sounding over the Babasónicos’ beat. Concepción stiffened. Ever since Jerónimo’s return the police had been under pressure from the comité de seguridad, the town elders, to arrest him, get him out. Concepción liked the added luster that the comité’s censure gave him. She knew his crimes in town were not so desperate as the comité would have its citizens believe: small larcenies like the charity fund left on a teacher’s desk at the Instituto Urbana Mixta, fist fights with the rival Tiburones gang, occasional blood wounds from a broken bottle or knife slash. But to the elders of Todos Santos his crime was the upending of social order. Jerónimo relished the opportunity to flout their authority.

The cop hit Jerónimo with a hard fist to the gut. Concepción gasped. Oscar swung back and laid the policía out like a petate. The second policía yanked out his stick to flail at Oscar. Jerónimo grabbed the stick and brandished it in the music-dense air, playing to the crowd of revelers. “Coca, too hot in here. Let’s take it outside!” he shouted and led Oscar in a charge for the door.

Clutching her hands to her throat, Concepión watched them go, watched the police chase after them, like dogs after the fox, watched the crowds at the entry follow out into the night. Caught in the excitement of pressing bodies, Concepión was carried like flotsam out of the hall, into the street, where she raced uphill. She felt her excitement turning to fear, pounding in her ears. She heard feet pounding on the pavement, heard shouts all around and up ahead, heard the firing of a shot, and then another.

She kept running until she reached a wall of people. She shoved her way through the crowd, not hearing shouts, questions, explanations, expletives, exhortations, until she reached the inner circle, found its weak point, and burst through it to the body of Jerónimo, face down on the paving stones. Illuminated in the streetlight, the back of his shirt was bright with blood.

She screamed and collapsed to her knees beside him, not caring if she gave her love away. She knelt beside his head that was turned toward her, his ear pressed against the pavement as if listening for sounds from the earth. She touched his cheek with a tentative hand, wanting to brush aside his knotted hair, to look into his hooded eyes. Blood spread from his nose and open mouth, smashed against the stones.

“He’s dead! My brother’s dead!” a woman’s voice wailed nearby. A hand grabbed Concepción and tossed her aside. More shouts rose in a chorus around her.

“The policía!”

“Get the police!”

“Fuck the policía! Kill the sons of whores!”

Concepción, whose life was over at fourteen, slunk home.

Two months later, she discovered that Jerónimo had left her a gift. She named her gift Amor and kept him secret. She kept her secret as long as possible. Her mother was the first to notice, late in the seventh month, the bulge growing under her thick huipil and tightly cinched skirt.

“Ay, hija!” her mother wailed, “Who has done this to you?”

But Concepción wouldn’t say. Even when her father struck her a blow across the face that knocked her to the floor, she wouldn’t say.

“You can kill me,” she said. “I don’t care.”

Her parents didn’t kill her, but they closed their faces and their hearts to her. They kept her out of school, away from the eyes of the world. With Rodrigo gone, in Huehue in the care of her older sister while the doctors tried to make him speak, Concepción was a prisoner in her house. She had no one left to care for, to bundle and feed and protect. She was alone except for Amor. She talked to her baby boy and sang him sad songs while she worked.

Late in the eighth month, despite her parents’ efforts, the world’s prying eyes saw Amor. Up and down the streets and pathways of town the gossip traveled at the speed of sound. And the leaderless boys who still lolled at the rock shaped like an ear, who had seen her lead Jerónimo away on the morning of his death, dropped his name into the rumor stew.

Her father heard the name and, yanking up her huipil, lashed his leather belt against her back, demanding to know if it was true. “Just kill me,” she repeated, her naked and bleeding back to her father.

“Sin vergüenza,” he rasped. “I’ll sell you instead.”

Her practical mother defended her by reasoning that no one would buy the services of such an encumbered girl. Her mother took pity and called the midwife when her time came, and wiped her face with a damp cloth when she lay screaming each time pain clamped down on her Amor. The midwife said, “Not long now.”

The midwife was wrong. Concepción labored and screamed and labored and screamed until the midwife said, “You must get her to Huehue.”

Her father took pity and called for a truck to carry her at bone-shattering speed over the fifty-two rocky kilometers to the hospital, where white-coated nurses delivered her into blackness.

When she woke up, Amor was gone. The doctor told her he had saved her life. Her womb could not be saved. “Where’s my baby?” she demanded. “I want my son.”

The doctor’s voice was like a machine. “Your baby was a girl. She’s with the angels.”

Concepción wailed and thrashed against the blankets and had to be sedated. When she could leave the hospital her parents took her home. Their pity and their savings exhausted by the medical ordeal, they sold her to Doña Pancha and Doña Lala, to be a wet nurse to the twins.

*  *  *

“Stop here,” Prudencia told the driver, Doña Merced’s nephew. This time there would be no public bus. “Wait for us,” she told the nephew. She and Marta got out. This time there was no pretense of the local costume. Prudencia wore her city clothes, a straight black skirt and pink sweater, poised and professional, the kind of outfit Doña Merced herself would wear.

The girl met them at the top of the stairs, with a toddler in her arms and a satchel by her side. Prudencia stared at her, trying to put it together. “Where’s the baby?” she asked.

“Fix on this, señora! I lost the baby.” There followed Concepción’s long-prepared tale of medical emergency and woe.

Concepción talked fast and watched the jaladora’s face. The woman didn’t believe her, she could tell. Her plan was withering in the woman’s glare. What would she do if the jaladora wouldn’t take the twin and give her the money, money she needed for her journey, for the coyotes to take her North?

“So you see, señora, I lost the baby but you can take my little Cándido instead. He’s all I have to give you. Please.” She begged, because even the woman could see that her roundness had burst. In the three months since the jaladores’ last visit the bulge Amor had made had collapsed beneath her tender breasts and cinched sash.

The woman’s lips drew a tight line. “We want babies, daughter. Newborns. That’s what the North Americans want to adopt. Not little boys who run around making messes and speaking their mother tongue.”

Concepción felt the panic of her collapsed dream. Escape from Doña Lala, from her hopeless life, from her lost Amor, vanished. It was punishment. Happiness was never intended for Concepción, the girl who dropped her brother.

From the bedroom came Felícito’s cry. He would not be left behind. She shoved Cándido into the other woman’s arms, the one who stood like a duck beside the baby-buyer, and ran.

“Hija!” the duck quacked.

Concepción returned with the other twin. “You see, he wants to go too, al norte with his brother. The American can have both boys. I want them to be together, to be happy.” The wish for both boys’ happiness swelled in her with sudden force. “I’m going to America too. My husband wants me to come. He’s in America. There’s nothing for me here.” Concepción spoke faster and faster. “You must believe me. My mother-in-law beats me,” she lied. “I can show you scars.” With her free hand she tore her huipil out from her skirt, but before she could lift it past the wriggling twin, the baby-buyer grabbed her arm.

Prudencia had done a fast calculation. The risk had doubled. More so. If she were closer to the capital she might have turned her back on the lying girl and her goods, and the money she had already spent on the deal. But the boys were healthy and adorable; she knew the foreign hunger for progeny would gobble them up. Would the family come after them? Even if they traveled the seven hours of terrible road, they would never find these two in a city teeming with orphans. They would swallow their sorrow as country people always did, and have more babies. Her decision made, she acted.

“Stop,” she said. “Marta, take the child. And you,” she poked out her lower jaw at Concepción, “will come with us to sign the papers.”

She turned away. Concepción picked up her satchel and followed them down the stairs to the waiting truck.
DEBORAH CLEARMAN's work has appeared in numerous journals including Beloit Fiction Journal, Connecticut Review, Chautauqua Literary Journal, and storySouth, and has been selected as a Glimmer Train award finalist. Her novel Todos Santos is available from Black Lawrence Press. She lives in New York City and Guatemala. For more information, visit deborahclearman.com.