César Tejeda / Excerpt from Novel in Progress

 

It would be irresponsible to begin a story about the Tejeda family, no matter how fictional it might be, without acknowledging the size of our eyebrows. Some forefather or other, dreaming of posterity, must have deliberately planted this dominant feature in us. I partially blame Doña Luisa Argüello, my great-grandmother, who was born in Antigua Guatemala as the second half of the nineteenth century took root. I’ve never seen a photo of her, but I can easily imagine her face. She must have been a beautiful woman, though one with exceptionally delicate eyebrows, almost invisible. For that very reason, she must have fallen in love with someone quite different from herself – opposites unconsciously attract; it’s an anthropological law – and intentionally hoped, since girlhood, that her children wouldn’t be born with three little hairs above her eyes, as she had. Her existence as a “bald forehead,” as her friends called her, had earned her considerable derision. She decided that her offspring would never suffer this same scarcity, and she was still a very little girl when she would dip her index finger into her father’s inkwell and spread black lines above the eyes of her dolls. If, as was clearly the case, her father were at fault for her deficiency, she had to get even somehow. The story of our faces must have begun on the day my great-grandmother determined that she would produce a heavy-browed bloodline. When she told her mother, “I will marry the man with the thickest eyebrows in Antigua.”

This must have been an unsettling pronouncement for my great-great-grandmother, whose name I don’t know. While it was normal for little girls to play at motherhood, it certainly wasn’t normal, not at all, for them to go on about hairy men. Besides, she had to clean the black paint that dripped from her daughter’s finger and marked the meters between her husband’s studio and Luisa’s bedroom every time she got a new doll. Which is why she resolved, as if she could do such a thing, to change Luisita’s future by hiding her away from her own desire, and perhaps our destiny (how naïve!): she sent her to a school run by nuns, with the idea that she would never leave it. My great-grandmother was a just a child, and her mother’s decision must have affected her only in terms of the day-to-day: leaving home, pampered no longer, must have been difficult for her. But the nuns’ affection helped her forget her childish daydreams until she reached adolescence. In this way, she grew up, resigned, committed to God, certain that her urge to produce bushy-browed children had been a mere trifle. Everything was very simple without any men around: a gardener who came to the convent once a week, but he was ugly, and as if that weren’t enough, the Mother Superior didn’t take her eyes off him for even a moment. The priest who took confession, the only man who gave her the time of day, was elderly, plump, and gentle, incapable of whetting anyone’s appetite.

One day, as tends to happen, the old man, the father who never inspired so much as a half-sigh, died. And he was replaced by a young Spanish priest, one Balladares by name, who entered the convent with our fortune all but tattooed across his face. He was handsome, and each hair in his tightly woven eyebrows passed through Luisa’s iris like a stake in her heart. Who made the first overture? Who knows. Could my grandfather have been conceived in a confessional? It’s possible. Before or after the Sacrament of Repentance and Reconciliation? No one will ever know. Did it happen in the space where the penitent knelt or where the confessor sat? I’d like to believe that my ancestors and I are children of volition and consent, and that, even if Balladares was an expert in matters of seduction, my great-grandmother had nothing to condemn: desires guide us. She simply couldn’t hold back in the presence of that compassionate, supportive man who pressed his fingers to his forehead and raised those enormous, beguiling eyebrows to smile at her. To say, with the strong Spanish accent he strategically maintained, that his desire was not an unwholesome one: perhaps imprudent, perhaps reckless, but not unwholesome. “I can bear it no longer, Father.” “Then bear it no longer, my child.” And, thus, the novice drew close to Balladares the priest and profaned the Sacrament of Repentance and Reconciliation without shame, surrendering herself to the sacrament of the flesh and its hairy places.

My great-grandmother was expelled from the convent. A young woman, eighteen or nineteen years old, crossed the threshold of her parents’ house, her belly lightly swollen, and declared, unironically, “God wished it so.” My great-great-grandparents, resigned – at this point, what else could they do? – set out in search of someone willing to marry Luisa and accept her gestating progeny as his natural child. Another Antigua native, Arcadio Tejeda – a neighbor who, as a boy, had often asked about his little friend Luisita after she was sent to study with the nuns – was the brave soul. He was a romantic, and he had prayed for many years that his childhood playmate would flee the convent. He had waited for her, and his pleas had been heard at last. He reckoned that the unborn child was his penance: the price for his wish, among all his many supplications, to carry off a servant of the Lord. He was willing to shoulder the burden. “I accept on three conditions,” he said, with a firmness unsuited to the circumstances – as if my ancestors weren’t disposed to go along with anything that would solve the problem of their sacrilegious girl. “The first is that we marry tomorrow, so that at least the town’s most innocent inhabitants will believe the child is mine; the second is that the baby shall bear my surname but not my first name; the third is that I receive a son as soon as possible, who will be called Arcadio, and that he too shall be mine.” “Sold!” my great-great-grandfather must have shouted, as if in an auction, and my great-great-grandmother must have leapt for joy; it had all been so easy. Luisa, however, had an objection: the third clause of the contract struck her as very stupid indeed. In a sense, it cancelled out the first. And it wasn’t so much a logical complaint as the possibility that Arcadio and his medium-sized eyebrows would be rejected that prompted her to say, sharply, “If the firstborn isn’t called Arcadio and the second one is, everyone will find it strange.” “My daughter, what does it matter?” said my great-great-grandfather. “No, no. She is correct,” conceded Arcadio Tejeda; “Name them whatever you wish, but there must be a second.” It was decided that neither child would be called Arcadio. The Tejeda and Argüello families toasted their children’s happy union while Luisa wept in her bedroom.

Antonio, my grandfather, Balladares’s biological son and Tejeda’s natural one, was born in 1872. A second son, Maximiliano Tejeda, was born in 1874. My great-grandmother and her husband had no more children; her heart never forgot the curved, ample, striking feature that Balladares had embedded in her. Besides, she had kept her promise to conceive a second son. Years later, Luisa would regret taking her girlish complex to such an extreme. Her husband Arcadio Tejeda’s eyebrows were hardly voluminous, but they weren’t so bad – she reached this basically sensible conclusion, however, when she was no longer able to reproduce, when all attempts went barren. Luisa Argüello de Tejeda by name, but Luisa Argüello de Balladares in her body, began to long with all her heart for another child, or for a grandchild, without caring about its facial features. And years later, this desire, both simple and ungracious, would come to deeply hurt my grandfather. But I’ll get to that later.

Sometimes I wonder why I find women with heavy eyebrows so attractive if my own are heavy, too. I thought for years that it involved some kind of narcissistic aspiration. Now I know that my great-grandmother planted her wish in us, ensuring that her descendants would never lack copious, effective protection against sweat and rain. It’s her legacy. We owe this physical trait, then, not to mention many of our genes, to Father Balladares. And to that fine man willing to adopt my grandfather, Don Arcadio, we owe our name, which is no small matter.

 

(Translated by Robin Myers)