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05/17/2013 07:01 am ET | Updated Jul 17, 2013

The Widow Of Loreto

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As it turned out, the baby created itself without permission from either of them, announcing its existence in subtle ways after they returned from their vacation in the small Mexican village of Loreto, near La Paz.

First, Monique seemed fixated on the waning of the moon as it hung over the lake by the cabin that had been her grandfather's. Then Monroe noticed that she quit wearing her favorite jasmine perfume, and developed a craving for orange pekoe tea instead of coffee. She spent more and more time going for slow walks on the narrow deer paths that wound in and out of the birch tree forest. Within two months, he noticed a slight thickening at the waist, a firming of her breasts, a transparency to her skin--or perhaps it was that her veins became more pronounced, especially the ones that ran from her breast to her throat. He could almost see the blood coursing through her body as she lay beside him.

He kissed her, just below the belly button.

We're going to have a baby, she said softly.

I know. He smiled. And do you mind? After all this time?

She shook her head. And you? she asked. Do you mind, after all this time? Her eyes were wide, like a doe's.

I suspected we were, he said, cupping one breast in his hand.

But we're not married, and we're older now...

Shall we get that way, then--married, I mean--now that you're pregnant? It suddenly seemed so simple, after all these years of wavering.

She nodded, her lips softening. When winter ends, she answered. In a few months. I'd like to wait until spring, when we can go to the village where my grandparents were born. I still have a great uncle there, my grandfather's younger brother. I would like him to give me away. Does that seem silly, at our age?

He shook his head. We will wait then, until spring.

And then he kissed her belly again, and stroked her breasts, toying with each nipple, imagining milk running from them. He let his tongue travel from nipple to navel, tracing circles around these places that tied her to all the women who had ever come before. How different he felt now than when he had made love to her in Loreto, when the lushness of her body had reminded him of grapes hanging in vineyards, her juices like sweet water that turned grapes to wine or made olives grow thick on the trees.

You're happy, aren't you, she whispered, her fingers stroking his hair, and he nodded. He lowered his lips to the darkness below her belly and kissed the curl of hair that crested at the opening. As he inhaled her familiar scent he realized that he knew nothing yet, really, of the mysteries of womanhood, could not fathom the depth of caring, of giving, of daily sacrifice. He wanted to honor this place, to let her know that after fifty years of living he was beginning to understand.

He carried these thoughts with him, ever so gently, night after night, into the entrance of her womb where their infant grew until one night she smiled and grabbed his hand, placing it on her belly. Here, right here. Can you feel that?

But he could not feel the movement for it was a quickening only, and so he felt left out instead, alone in his fatherhood. He waited until her belly grew beyond her clothes and then finally he could feel the kicking and movement of life beneath his hands. On those days and nights when they made love, he felt himself, too, grow beyond old boundaries and fears, grow into the knowledge of their coming commitment. He waited for winter to pass, for spring to come, for the snows to melt.

And then one day he was outside splitting cedar, with snow coming down hard, layering the boughs of the pine trees, gathering on the upturned spine of the old birch-bark canoe. His arms loaded with kindling, he pushed open the cabin door and found Monique huddled on the rug by the stove, wrapped in her grandfather's worn green flannel shirt, rocking back and forth, her hands clutching the globe of her belly.

I can't feel anything, she sobbed. I can't feel anything, Monroe!

The panic in her voice chilled his blood.

What do you mean, you can't feel anything?

I cannot feel the baby, she screamed. Not since yesterday. It hasn't moved all night!

It's probably just sleeping, snuggling up on this cold day.

He tried to hold her, to stroke her stomach, but she pushed him away and sat rocking alone in her anguish. He brought her hot tea, watching her take small sips, her face masked in fear, her lips drawn tight. All day, she sat near the fire, holding her belly, rocking back and forth. Only once did she get up to go to the bathroom.

By that evening, when there'd still been no movement, he bundled her up in a sleeping bag and took her from the cabin to the city, to the emergency room. Her doctor arrived in the early morning hours and an ultrasound verified their worst fears. Intrauterine death of a male fetus in the 32ng week of gestation. A baby boy, his son, their son. Then there were further tests, and then a prognosis, with a second conclusion as horrifying as the first. She lay on her side when the doctor came back in the room, her legs drawn up in a fetal curl.

The doctor cleared his throat but would not look either of them in the eye. "She will still have to deliver the baby," he said, "but with luck, the stillbirth will come within the month...."

He couldn't have heard right. "You've got to be joking," he said.

The doctor shook his head.

"Within the month? Deliver a dead baby? That's impossible," he shouted, reeling at the shock. "It's inhuman to expect her to do that. Surely, something can be done, a cesarean, inducement, something?"

The doctor shook his head. "In cases like this, I'm afraid not...."

And so he bundled her back up and took her back to the cabin, but still she would not let him comfort her. She sat in the rocking chair, wearing the green flannel shirt over her nightgown. She did not seem to notice when the storm subsided and sunlight flooded the cabin. For the next twenty-four hours, she did not eat, did not sleep, did not move.

The next evening just a little past dusk, with the round shadow of a waxing moon hanging in the sky, she suddenly rose from the rocker, unbent her stiffened legs, and came to him.

Take me out in the canoe, Monroe, she said, putting her hand on his shoulder. Out across the lake. I want to feel the moonlight on my face.

He bundled her up again, this time in a sweater and wool pants, boots and mittens, a scarf and hat. With his hand on her elbow, he guided her down to the icy lake. He shook the snow from the old canoe and pulled it toward the shore, helping her step in, pushing the canoe out into the water as he lowered himself down.

She sat with her back to him, her spine erect and eyes forward as he moved them through the water, his strokes soundless in the still night. The canoe glided along a silver path of moonlight to the middle of the lake. He let them coast to a stop, then put down the paddle and moved toward her, wrapping his arms around her. She collapsed back into him and a deep sigh escaped her. He leaned back, bracing himself against the paddle so that they were nearly lying down. He wanted her to see the stars. He searched out the Milky Way, guiding her attention toward it, but she was already lost in its spiraling luminosity. He wished she would cry. Show some sign of emotion. Anger. Fear. Sadness. Anything. Her silence frightened him, made him think he would lose her to this awful thing. That it would take her from him, as it had taken their child.

Then finally, she said simply, I'm cold. Please take me back.

And so he did. He took off his jacket and put it over the jacket she already wore. With the moon at their backs, he eased them through the water, across the lake, toward the light beckoning from the cabin window, until eventually they reached the shore. Once there, she climbed out, then waited for him as he dragged the canoe up out of the water.

She followed him inside, collapsing into the rocking chair. He knelt down and took off her boots, rubbing her feet to warm them. He took off her mittens and her hat, then the two coats, and then he tucked a blanket around her. His teeth were chattering. He started to get up, to put another log on the fire, but she suddenly sat forward.

You're shivering, she said. You're shaking.

She reached out a hand and stroked the hair away from his forehead. She took his hands in hers and rubbed them, then pressed them to her cheeks.

Monroe, you're freezing.

He was shivering, he realized. He couldn't seem to stop.

Here, put this over you. She took the blanket and wrapped it around him. Then she rose and walked over to the stove, her movements suddenly calm and purposeful. She opened the cast iron door and placed a log on the glowing embers.

Have you eaten? she asked. You need to eat.

He watched her place a pan of leftover stew on the stove to heat, then cut thick slices from a loaf of wheat bread she'd baked two days ago. Lord, it seemed like a lifetime ago. Still shivering, he watched her deliberate movements, so sure, and he marveled at the transforming power of need. Together, they gulped down great swallows of hot chocolate, chewing bites of stew, spreading each other's bread with rich yellow butter, lifting the slices to each other's mouths. They did all of this in silence, their eyes, their mutual hunger, their bravery, forming the only conversation between them.

She cleared their dishes and brushed the table crumbs into the palm of her hand, tossing them into the fire along with their soiled napkins. Then she held out a candle, and he struck a match and lit it. They turned off the lights and walked, hand in hand, over to the bed. She placed the candle on the nightstand, then turned to him, lifting her arms around his neck, her swollen belly pressed hard against him. She smelled of hospital, of smoke and winter and night and grief.

I'm so frightened, she whispered.

I know, I know. Let yourself cry, let yourself go...

Long into the night, past the burning of three more logs, they lay in each other's arms. She fell asleep once, for what must've been an hour, then awoke with a start, relaxing when she realized he was there beside her.

I'm glad you slept, he said.

Will you make love to me, Monroe? With just kisses, nothing more? Can you do that?

Slowly, he unbuttoned the flannel shirt and slipped it from her arms. He rose to put another log on the fire. He pulled off his sweater and stepped out of his jeans, then pulled the quilt down and eased her under it before taking off the rest of her clothing. They were both naked when he slid beneath the covers beside her.

Her belly was warm against his coolness, its skin taut across her gravidness. Slowly, he covered her belly with his hands, spanning her girth with his long fingers and broad palms. He felt as if he were touching something holy, something sacred. And then he realized he was. Her womb had become a crypt, and she the mausoleum. Their child was entombed in her body. He couldn't imagine how she would bear it.

He lowered his head and began kissing her, letting his lips wander over every inch of tautness, over the places where she had once placed his hands to share the impatient thrust of tiny elbow, foot or fist. The vital movements of their son. His son.

His chest heaved and tears broke loose. He sobbed, deep sepulchral sounds that shook his body. He pressed his face against her belly, trying to silence this unmanly outbreak. She put her hands on his head and pressed his cheek against her breast, bending to kiss the top of his head, stroke his hair, soothe his sobbing. He lifted his face and kissed her on the mouth, raised himself up until he was leaning over her, kissed her again, their lips wet with tears, for she was crying now too.

They kissed as they had not--in all their years of passionate moments--kissed before, their desire fueled by their pain, this deepest of all sharing, of all that it meant to be human, to love and be loved, to risk and lose and risk again. Their passion did not subside with the drying of their tears but rushed headlong down this chasm into which they had fallen. He wanted to kiss her everywhere, as if to anoint her, to prepare her body for the tremendous task that lay before it. He wanted to sprinkle holy water on her, to massage sacred oil into her skin to help supple her soul so that it would not tear under the pressure of carrying such a burden. He kissed her throat and neck and the space between her breasts, and the roundness beneath, where her pregnant belly rose to meet them. He kissed her ribs and back and the curve of her hips, the maternal softness that had, of late, come to her thighs, the softness between her thighs, the place that he had always thought belonged to him but that now belonged to neither of them, but to a much grander purpose.

And so, as the full moon hung faithfully in the night sky, as it succumbed sweetly and willingly to morning, he made love to her. With kisses and nothing more, save the whole of himself, the deepest part of his manhood, the hidden half so rarely seen.

The moon would rise over the lake, waxing and waning six more times, before he spoke to her of going back to the small Mexican village of Loreto. None of the long walks through the woods had brought the color back to Monique's cheeks after the stillbirth. No amount of wood blazing in the cabin stove had taken the perpetual chill from the heart of winter. Perhaps returning to Loreto, where the baby had been conceived, would bring things full circle and allow them to move on.

They arrived in Mexico weary in body and mind, yet the village lay just as they remembered, nestled between the azure beauty of the Sea of Cortez, and the grandeur of the lavender mountains of Sierra La Giganta, untouched by human trauma.

I think I've forgotten how to have fun, she whispered.

We'll remember how, darling. We'll remember....

On their third day there, as they sat holding hands on the hotel beach, watching the wind surfers like giant butterflies in a field of blue cut through the waves in great splashes of color, they noticed a lone figure, dressed in black, walking along the shore. As the figure got closer they saw that it was an old woman in mourning clothes, her graying head covered in a black veil, a black shawl wrapped around her shoulders, a long black skirt dragging in the wet sand.

The old woman paused near the breaking waves, just below where they sat watching. She stared out into the ocean, her body bent, weighed down by the voluminous yards of black cloth. She did not seem to notice them, nor the two children playing in the sand nearby, nor the two young lovers who sat rubbing suntan oil on each other, nor the three native boys, their brown legs wading through the water, fins on their feet and snorkels tucked under their arms.

Motionless, the old mourner stared out across the ocean, searching the horizon.

Oh, Monroe, she must be so hot, in all those clothes.

He nodded. Who do you think died?

Her husband, I suppose. At her age, most likely it would be a husband.

It could also have been a child, but neither of them said as much.

It's a struggle for her to sit down, he said.

They watched as the old woman lowered her body an inch at a time, leaning on a piece of driftwood to steady herself. Finally, she knelt, her black skirt forming a circle around her, the edges of the black veil brushing the sand.

It would be difficult, he said to her, to lose someone you have loved for a long time.

Or even someone you have loved for not so very long...

He squeezed her hand and lifted it to his mouth and kissed her fingers. She felt a spasm in her chest at the familiar gesture. And then, for the first time since the stillborn birth, she felt a response within her that seemed to be hers alone. Was her body, at long last, to be returned to her? Would they be able to make love without the lingering ghost of their grief?

The old woman worked her feet out from beneath her skirt and seemed to be unlacing a pair of black shoes. And then they could see that she was taking off the shoes and setting them aside. The woman lifted the veil from her head, gathering the lace into a neat bundle and placing it atop the shoes. Then she took the shawl from her shoulders and, folding it, set it beside the veil.

She wore a black blouse beneath the shawl. A tarnished gold cross, suspended from a necklace of black beads, hung between her breasts. She lifted the necklace to her lips and kissed it, and they could see that she was praying, her mouth moving in supplication. She kissed the cross again, then mouthed a prayer, then made the sign of the Trinity with her hand, then kissed the cross and prayed again, over and over, until the brown-skinned boys had kicked their way far out into the water, until the young lovers were lying beside each other, their eyes closed, their fingers stroking the narrow band of sand between them, until the father had come and gathered his children up, one under each arm.

They watched as the old woman lifted the cross to her mouth, then raised the beaded necklace over her head, untangling it from her braided hair before placing it on top of the shawl.

Maybe her year of mourning is over, he said.

Do you think it's a ritual, Monroe, what she's doing? Something done once the official mourning is up?

He shook his head. Neither of them knew, really. It was all conjecture.

He turned to her. A year is a long time, he said.

There might not be anything left of a person, after a year...

And then he lifted her hand to his mouth again, and it seemed that his lips were everywhere, kissing every inch of her skin, yet really they were only kissing her hand but the sweet ache inside of her told her that it was time, finally, to reach out, to open, to yearn.

Take me back to our room, she asked.

He smiled, hopeful. Where I can love you properly, Monique? he asked, moving his kisses from her hand to the tender skin on the inside of her arm.

Where you can love me into tomorrow, she answered. I am so, so ready for tomorrow.

They rose and slipped their feet into their sandals and gathered their towels and, arm in arm, walked up the steps of the hotel, past the outdoor pool and bar, past the potted ferns and across the veranda, then up more steps to the wrought iron railing and the door of their suite. Before going in, they turned for one last look at the ocean and could see the old woman still sitting on the beach, staring out at the horizon, her head lifted slightly, no longer weighed down by the veil.

They made love with a new abandon, a fresh awareness of life's brevity. She could not get enough of his hands - the tips of his fingers, the muscled palms, the strong wrists, the gnarled knuckles. It seemed as if the gods had made his hands for the sole purpose of touching her, and she felt grateful, overrun with a need to give something back to these hands that loved her so thoroughly and with such skill and devotion.

These were the hands that held her, that wiped the tears that cupped full breasts aching to nurse a child that did not live to know the pangs of hunger. These were the hands that adored her, that traced each line of her body as if to commit it to memory, that stroked her temples as if wanting to share her every thought, to ease every pain.

And so she made love to his hands, pressing them against the smoothness of her cheeks, against her lips, taking each finger into her mouth, probing at the spaces between each finger with her tongue, stroking the length of his thumbs from wrist to nail. She lost herself in loving him.

They marveled at the shapes of each other's bodies, as if discovering each contour and angle for the first time. She kissed his nipples and the soft spot just beneath his ribs. She laid her cheek on his thickening waist and teased him about drinking too many margaritas. She played with the hair on his chest, teasing him about the graying strands. She let her finger follow the path of hair that grew from his belly button to his penis, twirling her fingers in it, newly fascinated with his maleness. Sunlight sneaked in through the slats, spying on their nakedness. A breeze stirred the air and brought the scent of ocean into the room through the wooden shutters.

You know, she said, sitting up on her elbow, your penis is very independent.

He laughed. She stroked the length of it and then, as she lifted her hand, it rose, as if drawn to her fingers by its own magnetic desires.

See, she said, it has a mind of its own. She stroked it again and it quivered and this time they laughed together, shy virginal laughs. Then, without thinking, she lowered herself down on him and he began to move slowly beneath her, and they both felt the hollow sadness begin to fill with newness.

Yet, within moments, the breeze brought the sound of anxious voices in through the shutters. Even in their rapture they could hear commotion and excitement coming from the ocean's edge. They jumped up from the bed and peered through the wooden shutters to the beach below. People were clustered around the little pile of shoes and shawl and veil where the old woman in black had been.

Let's find out what happened, she said, pulling on her sundress. Quickly, quickly.

She pulled him by the hand and he stumbled, trying to step into his shorts as she pulled him toward the door. Together, they ran down the steps and across the veranda, past the potted ferns and the outdoor bar and pool. The hot sand scorched their bare feet as they hurried up to the crowd that had gathered around the old woman's belongings.

"What is it?" she asked one of the brown-legged boys.

"It's la Senora," he said, "la Viuda de Loreto. The Widow."

"Where is she?"

"She has disappeared, into the water."

"Disappeared?"

"Sí, Senora, disappeared. Drowned. She was demented, they say."

She gasped. "Drowned?"

"Sí, Senora, la Viuda walked out into the water and before anyone could reach her, she was gone, carried out to sea."

They stared at the tarnished cross lying on top of the black shawl.

"Had she been a widow for long? Was it her husband who died?"

"Sí, Senora, her husband, yes. But it was many, many years ago. Before I was born."

"Yet she still wore black, after all this time?"

"Sí, it is why they called her la Viuda, because she wore black, always since it happened. She was only a young woman when he died. Sometimes she was called la Viuda Loca, because they say her grief made her crazy."

He gestured toward the limp pile, then waved his arm in the direction of the water. "Pero ahora, she is gone, sí? The mourning, it is over."

Grasping each other's hands, they stared out into the ocean.

Do you think she'll be washed ashore, she whispered to Monroe. Do you think they'll ever find the body?

She meant to die, he said. It is what she wanted.

He put his arm around her and they walked away from the crowd until they found one of the scattered pieces of driftwood on which to sit. She rested her head on his shoulder and hugging her to him, he kissed the top of her head, then each of her temples. Her body stirred, and the pleasurable craving brought feelings of guilt. She should be thinking of the plight of the poor widow. But as he kissed her again, she realized that it was this very craving that had saved them.

It is what we are meant to do, she said, lifting her face toward his.

What? he asked.

We are meant to love, Monroe. More than anything, we are meant to love. She took her hand in his and raised it to her lips. She kissed his fingers. It is our seed, from which everything else grows, she whispered, tracing the line of his finger with her lips. It must come before all else.

And after too, Monique. It must come after everything, too.

The breeze carried the salty smell of the azure ocean across the shoreline to where they sat. They rose, hand in hand, turning one last time to look at the shawl and the veil lying in the sand and at the cross nestled in the blackness. Then they walked toward their room, listening to the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks and to the seagulls crying over the water.