Tarnished Beauty A Novel

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-06-02
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
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Jamilet is a beautiful young woman marred by a shockingly gruesome birthmark. It spills over her back and down her legs, twisting and writhing like a hideous cape of blood, causing her to be shunned by the villagers of her rural Mexican town. In search of medical salvation, this angel with the devil's mark is finally driven to escape north and cross the border illegally to Los Angeles.After acquiring false documents, Jamilet finds work at a mental hospital, where she is assigned to look after Senor Peregrino, an elderly man from Spain who is as disagreeable as he is mysterious. Jamilet is given strict orders to keep her distance, but when he cleverly snags possession of her papers, he bargains to return them upon the condition that she listen to his story. Jamilet begrudgingly agrees, and Senor Peregrino takes her back to the days of his youth, when he embarked upon a mystical and romantic journey along the legendary Road to Santiago in Spain.Jamilet and Senor Peregrino forge a spiritual bond that is more healing to them both than modern medicine could ever be. In an inspiring story of redemption, faith and the enduring power of love, Samartin offers an enlightening perspective on the true meaning of beauty.

Author Biography

Cecilia Samartin
was born in Havana during the Cuban Revolution and arrived with her parents in the United States as a refugee. She grew up in Los Angeles and lives with her husband in San Gabriel, California.



It wasn't the first time a girl cried rape when her belly bloomed beyond the confines of her waistband. Yet in Lorena's case, no one doubted it was true. She'd always been a serene and modest girl, and when her passage through puberty transformed her into an alluring beauty with dark and mysterious eyes, her humility proved sincere, for she wasn't moved by the compliments lavished upon her by friends and strangers alike. She merely accepted their praise with no more than a gentle bow of her head.

Mothers in the village used her as an example for their daughters to follow, but most of the other girls preferred playing with their emerging sexuality, as if they'd happened upon the switch that turns on the sun, and couldn't be persuaded not to touch. They tried enlisting Lorena in their teasing games with the hope of convincing their mothers that the Blessed Virgin herself was not in their midst. But Lorena didn't need to unfasten the third button of her blouse or sneak her mother's lipstick to be noticed. She was simply beautiful the way the dawn is beautiful, without embellishment or pride.

It was rumored by some that she'd been born to royalty and had floated in a basket across the ocean to Mexico the way Moses floated down the Nile to Egypt. Of course, no one could conceive of a destiny appropriate for royalty in the dusty village of Salhuero, outside Guadalajara, where Lorena lived. And when imagination succumbed to jealousy, it was the same group of girls who reminded all interested parties, especially the young men, that she, along with her older sister, Carmen, had been born in a brothel the next village over and had been taken in by the devoutly religious widow Gabriela. Nobody was certain what had happened to their mother, whether she'd died in childbirth or had abandoned her children, as so many women in her situation did.

Such undesirable parentage would have discouraged better prospects, but countless suitors, intrigued by the modest beauty, overlooked her past and made their intentions known as honorably and fervently as they could. And when the time was right for Lorena to consider marriage, she tolerated endless suggestions and directions from her mother and sister about who was the best match, as this was an opportunity for the family to better its station by a prosperous arrangement.

Lorena herself was growing fond of a gentle boy with light eyes who visited on Sundays after church. He was the son of a wealthy merchant who exported tropical fruits north, across the border. Carmen, rough hewn and heavy, especially when compared to her sister, insisted he wasn't man enough and that she should consider the butcher's son, a dark and swarthy young man with eyes that wandered shamelessly down the blouse of whichever woman happened to be standing before him. Carmen insisted, with a bright cackle and a smack to her prodigious thigh, that a man like that would know how to handle a woman. Nevertheless, Lorena made her preference known and preparations for the wedding began shortly thereafter.

Rumor and careful calculation placed the rape at about the time of the Posada, in mid-December. And the villagers were fairly sure about the identity of the assailant. He'd been seen a few times before during major events such as weddings and funerals, when it was easy to partake of refreshments without drawing too much attention -- a drifter looking for a drink and a place to sit so he could watch the young girls fluttering like pigeons in the square. He'd once been a handsome man. His sturdy frame and even features gave testament to the fact, but time and alcohol had degraded him so that only the most astute observer might suspect his former glory.

They say he lured Lorena into a derelict house as she was making her way to the celebrations, on the pretext that he'd hurt his leg and needed assistance. Lorena, having been raised on the milk of her mother's religion, didn't hesitate to respond. And once she was within his reach, the violation was as swift as it was efficient. She told no one about the incident, and as her custom was to dress modestly, she was able to effectively hide her growing middle even from herself. But two weeks before the wedding, Gabriela walked in on her while she was bathing and almost fainted at the sight of her daughter's belly and breasts, as heavy as bags of dried chilies ready for market.

The young man, desperately in love as he was, wanted to proceed with the marriage anyway, but his family forbade it and, for good measure, moved away, in case their son should prove more willful than they suspected. Four months later Lorena learned that he'd married another, but she didn't have the strength to weep or comment, or to even get up from her chair. The baby was due to be born any day.

Many prayers were said and candles were lighted after the atrocity was known. In this humble village where every child was considered a blessing, there was even secret hope that she might lose the baby and be spared the culmination of this hideous crime. The pregnancy, however, was a healthy one, and at nine months and two weeks, Lorena found herself unable to think of the shame she'd suffered because of the excruciating agony shooting through her body, worse than anything she'd ever known.

The labor was brief, and the baby slipped into the world so quickly that the midwife almost dropped it onto the dirt floor, laughing at her near blunder when she usually frowned, as her expertise required. She'd been delivering babies for more than fifty years, but she was particularly nervous about this birth, as all knew well of its origin.

"It's a girl," she announced, once composed. The baby whimpered instead of bellowing with the fullness of her lungs, but she was breathing well, and her eyes squinted at the dim lights as she responded to the voices around her with slight spasms of her chubby arms and legs. It was a beautiful child, perfectly formed, even angelic in the perfection of her features. Never had the midwife seen a newborn with such clear eyes so soon after delivery. Her coloring was warm like honey rather than the angry purplish red so common for newborns. The midwife's scrutiny softened to a glowing smile, as if her efforts had everything to do with the perfection of the child, and for an instant the unsavory origin of the birth was forgotten, and she could only gaze upon the splendor of new life that wriggled in her hands.

Nearly unconscious with exhaustion, Lorena fell asleep as the midwife and Lorena's mother took the baby to the basin. The midwife moistened a cloth with warm water and began to clean the little face, the arms and belly, the sweet little private area, small and demure as it should be, and the thighs and feet before turning her over to finish the bath. It was then that Gabriela smothered a gasp and for a second time the child almost slipped through the midwife's hands.

The mark, thick and red, like an open wound, covered her tiny shoulders and back, reaching down to her buttocks and all the way to the backs of her knees. With hands now trembling, the midwife dabbed at the mark briskly, hoping it was the harmless remnant of the afterbirth and nothing more, but it could not be wiped away any more than could the bright eyes and little mouth puckering for food. She hastily placed the infant back on the table and declared, "I've seen many birthmarks of all shapes and colors, but nothing like this. It's...it's as if the child sat on the hand of the devil himself."

She collected her modest fee and left without her usual instructions about how to give the breast while taking care of the mother's discomfort and other remedies she knew. Gabriela finished cleaning the infant and wrapped her snuggly in a blanket, intent that Lorena's first sight of her baby should be of her beautiful unblemished face, so much like her mother's. The next morning Gabriela would walk on her knees to the church, starting at the fountain in the middle of the plaza and not stopping until she'd reached the principal altar. All the way there and back, she'd pray for the Lord to take the mark away. Lorena had suffered enough for one so young, beginning life as an orphan and losing her one chance at marrying well. This disfigurement might prove too much for even the strongest of women to bear, and Lorena, disciplined as she was, had grown brittle, like dry kindling that could ignite in a warm wind. Gabriela had worried she wouldn't survive the pregnancy and every morning had asked Carmen to make sure that her sister was still alive and breathing on her bed.

"Sleep now, child," Gabriela said when she heard Lorena stir. "Your baby is fine and you can see her later."

"I didn't hear her cry."

"She's fine. You rest for now," Gabriela said, knowing she was going to need much more than rest to survive what lay ahead.

"I'll name her Jamilet," Lorena said with surprising certainty, for she'd refused to entertain any discussion about a name during her pregnancy. "It came to me the moment she was born, like a faraway chant, and I felt such peace when I heard it."

"Then Jamilet it is," Gabriela said, placing the sleeping baby in her box crib.

Despite Gabriela's best intentions, and careful avoidance of improper reference to the mark, Jamilet came to be known by everyone in the village as the angel with the devil's mark. She grew up familiar with the expression of troubled awe in the eyes that gazed upon her, sometimes directly, at other times peeking around corners or on fleeting faces that appeared like a parade of phantoms spooked by the living. Her own large eyes began to reflect a certain tenderness born of pity, so that by the age of three she was able to look back at the strangers who gawked at her with the serenity and wisdom of a priest who understood all the mysteries of life and death.

This only served to deepen the fear the villagers felt toward her. A child who was the perfection of human form in face, but hid a hideous swirl of blood and disfigurement that few had ever seen, but all had heard about. It was said by some to resemble a freshly gutted cow, by others to writhe like many snakes in a pit of blood. The few who had actually seen it, perhaps at the market when she pulled off the blanket her mother always kept around her despite the warm weather, said it was beyond description, and that they were unable to sleep for days after seeing it.

Lorena managed her fate like a chronic illness that throbbed steadily through the years, depleting her of what little energy she had left. Nevertheless, she wore her martyrdom like a crown and held her head high whenever she ventured out of the house, which wasn't often. If she was admired before, she was now revered as a woman of supreme courage who was able to endure the curse of her child with unfathomable dignity and grace.

"She's wise to keep her home as she does," they commented when she was seen walking alone down the very road where she'd been accosted.

"So young and beautiful. She might still find a husband if not for her obsession with the child. She would do better to abandon her, as she was abandoned."

Heads nodded like heavy fruit ready to drop from its branches. "She's devoted to her and spends what little money she has on trying to rid her of the devil's mark. Strange people come to the house at all hours. Sometimes very late at night, but they close the windows and I can't see what they do."

"Poor Lorena," they all said. "Poor, poor Lorena."

Lorena was able to muster a bit of hope when it came time for Jamilet to attend school, since she knew that her daughter possessed a unique mind. By the age of two, she was able to speak in full sentences and shortly thereafter began imagining and telling the most amazing stories about anything she happened upon. The insects she found in the chili patch behind their house were helping her to till the earth and preferred the darkness under the rocks because they were shy. The birds that landed on the windowpane gossiped about the neighbor who spent the entire night in the outhouse, relieving himself of the agony of too much tequila. And then there was the moon's frustration with her children, who were scattered about the heavens, refusing to do their chores.

"So you shouldn't be so mad at me, Mama," she'd say. "I am not as misbehaved as the stars."

Lorena's upset would ease, and she'd allow herself a rare smile. Surely her daughter's gifts, once they were discovered, would overshadow everything else, and the mark would be overlooked or perhaps forgotten altogether. And then, when the time was right, she'd find the courage to tell her daughter of its existence. As it was, when thecuranderosapplied their treatments, Lorena instructed them not to mention it, and to say instead that they were ensuring the child never became ill. If the treatments were painful, they were to explain that it was normal for badness to sting when leaving the body.

The first day Jamilet was to attend school it was well over eighty degrees, but Lorena insisted her daughter wear long sleeves and a sweater as well, making her promise not to remove it until she returned home at midday. Jamilet held her one and only schoolbook closely to her chest. This too she'd been instructed not to lose. Her grandmother complained that they'd spent more on that little book than they had on an entire week's worth of food.

Jamilet took a moment to admire the picture on the cover. A boy and a girl were walking to school with books of their own, and she smiled when thinking that she was now on the verge of becoming like them. Jamilet longed for the company of other children and watched daily from the window as they passed by like a colorful and noisy river of laughter and hijinks.

She would have preferred to walk with the children, and without her mother, but knew better than to argue with her. Lorena controlled her, not with anger or punishments, but with a sadness that loomed large and heavy, like black moons, in her eyes. Jamilet avoided looking at her mother too much or else found herself feeling that she had little energy to play or laugh, or tend to the peppers in the back field. Only when Lorena slept did her sadness lift, so that in the middle of the night, when other children were prone to waking with nightmares, Jamilet felt most at peace as she snuggled against her mother and found the comfort she craved.

On that first day, Lorena took her daughter's hand as they walked out to the road, and the children became silent all at once. As some crossed to the other side, Lorena's grip tightened, and Jamilet's fingers were aching by the time they reached the bend in the road, no more than a few hundred yards from the school yard.

"Go on, Jamilet," Lorena said. "I'll watch you from here."

Jamilet did as she was told and didn't turn around to look at her mother, although for once in her short life she truly wanted to, for she sensed the other children watching her, how she walked, and how she held her book in front of her like a shield. She looked neither left nor right, but down at her feet, mesmerized by the shiny buckles of her new shoes that winked at her with every step. She heard the children whispering, but it was not the carefree and happy whispering of a harmless joke or plans for play. Jamilet was only too familiar with the hushed sounds of fear.

Keeping her eyes downcast, she noticed tiny pebbles bouncing on the ground. They reminded her of the way the wind swept the dirt up in the back field when she was tending the chili patch. She thought it looked like backward rain making its way up to heaven. Her grandmother, not easily distracted from her work, had actually straightened up to gaze upon the dark cloud rising as Jamilet told the story of the backward rain and how the dirt in the field had come to life when touched by the breath of God. She knew her grandmother was more likely to listen if she gave the story a religious slant, but she'd tell the children a different version they'd like better. She was thinking of how to begin when she realized the pebbles had become larger, palm-size rocks the wind couldn't possibly have lifted. One smacked her soundly on the ankle, causing her to stumble.

It was then that she heard her mother's frantic call, and she saw the children lined up across the road, only a few hundred yards from the school grounds. Some held rocks in their hands, and others were hunched over, looking for more in the dirt. Lorena was running toward her with eyes that weren't sad, but were alive with fear. Jamilet had begun running as well, eager for the safety of her mother's embrace, when a deafening blow to her temple caused her arms to go limp. Before the darkness came, she felt the warm flow of blood in her ear, and heard a ringing so loud, she couldn't be sure if the children were jeering or laughing, as they did when she watched them through the window.

When Jamilet opened her bleary eyes, the first thing she saw was her mother's face, spongy with sadness once again, as she placed a cold compress on her daughter's head. Then she heard Gabriela fussing in the kitchen, banging pots and pans like she was prone to do when complaining about the scant help she got from her daughters and only granddaughter with the chores around the house. Although on this afternoon the noise she made was for another reason altogether.

Jamilet winced against the clatter, and reached a hand out for her mother. "Why did the children throw rocks at me, Mama?"

Lorena gently guided Jamilet's hand back down to the bed. "Quiet now. I only just stopped the bleeding."

Jamilet spoke up so her grandmother could hear her. "I was going to tell them the story of the backward rain, Abuela, but I never got a chance."

"It's a clever story, Jamilet," she responded tersely as she dropped a large pot in the sink and another on top of it.

Jamilet felt a piercing pain in her head, and held her breath until it had settled into a dull ache. She turned to her mother once more. "Why did they throw rocks at me, Mama?"

Lorena placed her daughter's hand on the compress and left the room without a word. She returned moments later carrying under one arm the mirror they kept in the front room, along with a smaller handheld mirror. She instructed her daughter to lie on her side, and pulled her nightdress up as high as it would go, positioning the larger mirror behind her.

"Be careful what you do, Lorena," Gabriela said, but Lorena didn't hesitate as she gave Jamilet the small mirror, guiding it so that her daughter could see the full expanse of the mark. Jamilet peered into the mirror and thought she'd caught sight of the wound on her head. "Am I still bleeding?" she asked, alarmed.

"It isn't blood," Lorena said, forcing her voice to sound strong, as one does when imparting news of a family death. "You were born with the mark on your back, and the children must know about it. They don't understand..." She hesitated, her voice trailing off, but she regained her composure. "The midwife who delivered you wasn't discreet."

Carmen had slipped into the room, and was slathering butter on a fresh tortilla. "Discreet?" she said while stuffing the tortilla in her mouth. "After the old bitch died she was devoured by rats, and they found her black tongue lying in a pile of bones and hair because even the rats refused to eat her filthy tongue."

"Carmen!" Gabriela gasped.

"It's true, Ma. Why shouldn't I say it when it's true?"

Normally Jamilet would have asked her aunt many more questions about the rats and how they happened upon the corpse and all matter of gruesome details, but she couldn't tear her eyes away from the formidable bloody landscape that spread across her shoulders. It seemed impossible that she was looking at something attached to her own body. She reached a cautious hand around to dab her finger at the red edges on one shoulder. Her skin felt thick and alien, and it bubbled and puckered in places, like an overcooked tortilla. But this thing was uglier than anything she'd ever seen before. Uglier even than rats and snakes and slimy creatures that lived under rocks, causing most women and children to scream, and men to demonstrate their bravery.

Finally, she found the strength to ask, "Will it go away, Mama?"

Lorena took the mirror from her daughter and smoothed her nightdress back down as she considered what to say. Then her eyes brightened, and she set her jaw firmly. "Of course it will. We just haven't found the way to do it yet, that's all."

"Be careful what you say, Lorena," Gabriela warned again, but she'd spoken with her daughter too many times on the subject to expect her to listen now.

Lorena stole a glance at her older sister, who was preparing her second tortilla for consumption. "It's true, Ma," she said with an uncharacteristically defiant nod. "Why shouldn't I say it when it's true?"

Once or twice a year, Jamilet retrieved her schoolbook from the high shelf in the kitchen, where the spices were stored, to look upon the picture of the boy and girl on the cover. The blood had dried and faded into a faint shadow across their world. And when she opened the pages to study the shapes, and the intricate markings that she knew to be the mysterious code for words and stories, she felt a sadness quivering in the very center of her heart that she didn't dare share with anyone. The people in her small world appeared perfectly content with their illiteracy. They managed by asking neighbors and even strangers coming to the door selling seed and wire fencing and such to help them decipher this or that. Once, Gabriela bought a soft, plastic, bristle broom, completely useless on her rough floors, so the salesman would do her the favor of reading a letter that had just arrived from Mexico City, only to discover that it had been delivered to the wrong address.

In the quiet hours, when the work of the day was done, the women often sat around the kitchen table mending clothes, or doing their needlework. At these times Jamilet asked quietly, almost chirping like a cricket so as not to disturb the moment, if she might be allowed to return to school, but her request was never considered with a serious mind before it was dismissed, and she was left with nothing to hang on to but that resigned sadness in her mother's eyes. Weary and detached as they sought a moment's rest, genuine interest could only be generated by a new recipe for red beans they'd heard about at the market, or the latest gossip that the milkman's son had fathered yet his third child out of wedlock. Sometimes their talk turned to more practical matters, like the need to hire a handyman.

Upon hearing this, Jamilet would say, "If my father was still alive, we wouldn't have to worry about paying a handyman."

The only sure way to get their attention was to bring up the subject of her father, and Jamilet took every opportunity to do so. She was intrigued by the furtive glances exchanged among the women, followed immediately by an increased concentration on their needlework. Eventually, one of the three would respond, sometimes by reminding Jamilet that her father had died many years ago, and how unfortunate that he was trampled to death by six horses at once so that there was nothing left of him. The year before it had been a drowning accident, and the year before that a tragic encounter with several bandits who had, for some reason, shot their pistols all at once while pointing at the same target between his legs.Copyright © 2008 by Cecilia Samartin

Excerpted from Tarnished Beauty: A Novel by Cecilia Samartin
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