Family Secret

Dina Bern

© Copyright 2004 by Dina Bern

Photo (c) 2004 by Richard Loller.

                                                                                                                     Photo (c) 2004 by Richard Loller.


 Beatriz Sevilla was in her classroom when someone knocked on the door.  The visitor pressed his face against the glass square in the upper part of the wooden door.  She recognized him immediately:  It was Mr. Jones, administrative assistant at the university where she worked teaching Spanish.  She walked fast towards the door, opened it and inquired his reason for interrupting her class.
 ”Your husband called a few minutes ago.  He said it's urgent that I inform you about a telegram he received only a few minutes ago.  I have the content of the telegram here”.  He waved a piece of paper on the woman’s face.  “Your husband dictated it to me.”  She took the paper from his hand to read.

 Mama Pía is at the hospital extremely ill.  I hope you can come to see her.  Love from your mother, Anastasia.

 -”I’ll have to travel soon, Mr. Jones.  I must talk with Dean Harrigan right away.  Is he in his office?”

 -“Yes he is.  Hurry.  He’s about to lock himself up in the conference room for several hours.  And don’t worry about your classes.  You know that we have a list of substitute professors.  I'll find someone who can replace you for as long as you need.”

 -”Thank you.  I’ll cancel the class right away.”  She went back to the beige metal desk strategically placed under the enormous white rectangle that served as writing board and projector.

 “Ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry, but due to an emergency of personal character I see my self forced to cancel the twenty-five minutes we have left of class.  I also want to inform you that a substitute professor will be teaching you during the next two weeks.”  Cold sweat ran down her back.  She had to travel to Guatemala.  Her beloved grandmother could be near death.  And to this pain she had to add the disturbing certainty that she would meet her brother.  Her voice a bit husky, she corrected the information just given to the students:  “No!  You will have a substitute for a whole month, not for two weeks.”  I definitely need four weeks, she thought, two weeks to visit my grandma and two weeks to rest here, at home, after returning.  I’ll need to relax to recuperate from the emotional stress of seeing my family again!


 As a child Beatriz asked her mother and grandmother countless times why was it forbidden for her to be in the company of Reynaldo, her brother, older than her by seven years, if no other adult was present.  For as long as she could remember the women had managed to keep them apart.  She had lived with Mama Pía while Reynaldo had lived with her mother.  Anastasia and her grandmother never answered her questions.  The way the women ignored her curiosity produced anxiety and insecurity in Beatriz.  She felt lonely as a child,  and the loneliness translated into insecurity and even anxiety in her adult years.  Beatriz was still a teenager when she decided never to have children.  When she met Alán, her husband, she told him of her decision before initiating a serious relationship. Alan proposed anyway.

 Beatriz had not seen her family in fifteen years.  The last time had been when she married Alán and both traveled to Guatemala to meet her family.  Reynaldo was studying in London then, which meant that she had not seen him for more than twenty years, from the time that she had moved to New York.


 At home she found out that her husband could not accompany her.   “I have to travel to Madrid.  I’m about to close a contract that the company has been working on for at least two years”, he explained.

 The next day Beatriz left for her country.  Anastasia was at the airport when she arrived.  They took a taxi.  On the way home the older woman talked endlessly and lovingly about Reynaldo’s three children. Mama Pía came as a second topic in the conversation.  Anastasia expressed her lack of concern for the old woman, “It's time for her to rest.  She has lived long enough and we all have to go some day.”

 They stayed in Anastasia’s house only the minutes required for Beatriz to leave her luggage.  The visitor insisted on rushing to the hospital to see her grandmother, feeling immense relief when she realized that Reynaldo was not at the hospital.

 Mama Pía recognized her immediately.  Her small wrinkled face was as pale as the sheets that covered her body, but it illuminated with a tender smile when she saw her granddaughter.  A bony, shaky hand appeared from under the sheets, the trembling fingers tried to wipe out the tears from Beatriz’s face.

 ”It’s wonderful to see you, my sweet little girl!  I didn’t want to die without seeing you just one last time.  I hope you can convince your mother to get me out of here.  I’m not going to get well again, I know I’m dying and I accept it.  But, Beatriz, I don’t want to die among people that don’t even know me, among doctors that stick me with needles and force me to take medicines that taste as bad as poison and which I know cannot help me.  As soon as I’m back home and you take me out to take the sun I’ll die in peace, even happy.   Please, my sweet little girl, get me out of here!  Get me out of here Beatriz, please!”

 “I will, grandma, I promise!”


 At home Mama Pía seemed to recuperate as if by a miracle.  One night, when Beatriz and Anastasia helped her into bed she complained that Reynaldo had not visited her.

 “I’m sure he’ll come tomorrow”, said Anastasia, “We have breakfast every Monday, he comes here after the school bus picks up the children.  Don’t you remember Mama Pía?

 Mother and daughter sat in the living room to watch television.  The daughter asked if Reynaldo knew that Mama Pía was home.  Anastasia answered not to have told him to avoid making him angry.  He thought the hospital was the best place for the old woman.  “But I’m sure he found out when he was at the hospital.  And if he has not been at the hospital, when he comes for breakfast tomorrow he’ll find out any way.”

  The minutes moved slowly the next morning. Breakfast for  the grandmother was orange juice, vitamins and medicine. For Beatriz and Anastasia a cup of coffee.  The visitor looked at her watch.

 -“At what time do you expect Reynaldo, mother?”

 -“He usually comes after the school bus picks the children up.  But it’s already after nine, I don’t think he’s coming.”

 Relieved, Beatriz directed her attention to her grandmother.

  -“Do you need anything, Mama Pía?”

 -”Only that you take me out to take the sun for a little while.  Your presence in this house has revived me, but I’m tired, my sweet little girl, I’m so very tired.  I told you that I forced myself to live only to have the chance to see you again, and to feel the warmth of the sun again.  I have seen you, my darling, the only thing I have left to experience now is the warmth of the sun, outside in the garden, among the flowers.  Please, take me out to the garden, Beatriz, take me out.”

 -”Mamá Pía, my care and the sun’s warmth are going to make you well, you’ll see!


 Beatriz placed her grandmother’s wheelchair among the roses and carnations of shiny and abundant colors.  The flowers danced at the rhythm of the soft morning breeze.  Suddenly a man’s voice coming from behind startled her:

 ”Are you going to kill her too, assassin?  Do you want her to get pneumonia?  You have not changed at all!  You are still an assassin!  Assassin!”  Beatriz turned slowly to face her brother at the same time that she heard the “NOOO!” that escaped her grandmother’s throat.  Then she saw the tiny old body get up from the wheel chair and walk, arms up, towards the tall husky man who was yelling and screaming insults at her.  His face terrified her.  It was distorted in a grimace of hate and rage.  Beatriz lost all perspective of reality.  A part of her self escaped and watched from somewhere outside her body how scenes of her life as a child of three or four were being projected in the screen of her mind, as if she were watching a movie.


 It was morning.  She, her mother and brother were sitting at the kitchen table having breakfast.  The table was placed right in front of the double window through which they saw her father running, running, running towards the house.  Her mother got up and opened the door before he actually arrived.

 “We were at a trade union's meeting…” her father started explaining, “When the soldiers came.  They shot many but some of us managed to escape…They yelled that the government doesn't want us to organize...!”  He fell to the ground exhausted, short of breath, and Anastasia ran to the backyard.  She came back with a light aluminum ladder which she placed at one of the corners of the living room.  Her father went up the ladder.  He removed carefully a few boards from the light blue ceiling, then disappeared through the hole.  Her mother placed the boards again, covering the hole in a way that made it impossible to guess that part of the ceiling was a hiding place.  She had just returned the ladder to its place when an army truck and a car full of soldiers parked in front of the house.

 “Go play outside!  Go to the backyard!”  Commanded Anastasia, and the children obeyed.

 Someone knocked on the door.  A few soldiers waited for it to open while others jumped over the black iron fence that surrounded the house and joined the children in the backyard.  Reynaldo escaped the intruders by climbing as high as he could up a mango tree, which stood at one of the corners of the house.  Beatriz pressed hard against her breast the ragged doll that became her favorite toy when she learned to walk.  A young soldier of dark indigenous features, short and sturdy, approached her,

 -“What a beautiful little girl you are.  Your black hair shines as much as your black eyes, little one.  I bet it hurts when your mom tries to comb your hair!”

 -“Yes, it hurts.  My Mama Pia wants to cut it but my mom won’t let her.”

 -“Well, I don’t blame your mother.  You have beautiful hair!”  The soldier caressed the little girl’s long, wavy hair, and proceeded,

 -“Who’s your ‘Mama Pía'”?

 -“My grandma!”

 -“Aha!  You seem a little sad.  Is it because your brother went up the tree instead of playing with you?”

 -“Yes.  He never wants to play with me. He says that I’m too little and that I’m a girl.  He doesn’t like to play with girls.  He likes to play with boys from school.  Sometimes he goes to their houses and sometimes they come to our house.  They like to play ball.”

 -“Do you have any friends to play with?”

 -“No.  My mom says that when I go to school I’ll meet girls my age who will play with me.”

 -“But your mother and father play with you, don’t they?”

 -“Some times.”

 -“Does you father have many friends to play with?”


 -“Do they come here to play with your father?”


 -“Do they play ball? Do they play cards?  Do they just talk and look at papers?  Grown ups have a game where they just talk and look at papers, you know.”

 -“Some times they play ball out here.  Other times they talk, like you say, and drink coffee or beer, and look at papers.”

 -“Aha!  Look, little one, I have some candy here in my pocket.”  The soldier unwrapped the lollipop he had produced from the pocket of his shirt and handed it to Beatriz.   “You know, my little beauty, you have never seen us before but we are actually friends of your father.  Earlier today, while you were still sleeping, all of us got together here in your house.  We played the game of talking and looking at papers, then we went to my house.  There we decided to play ‘hide and seek’.  Do you know the game ‘hide and seek’?”

 -“Yes, sometimes I play ‘hide and seek’ with Mama Pía and with Reynaldo.”

 -“I like you very much, little one, and I’d love to play with you.  But if it take us long to find your father and his other friends I won’t have any time left to play with you.  Have you seen your father and his friends?  Do you know where they hid themselves?”

 -“I only saw my father.”

 -“Do you know where he is?”


 -“Is he here?”


 -“Good girl!  Commander!  Commander!”  The soldier called his superior.   A man who could well have been the young soldier’s image fifteen or twenty years later, appeared at the kitchen door, which led to the back yard.

 -“What’s the scandal, Corporal Toj!?”

 -“The little girl knows where her father is!”

 Up the mango tree, Reynaldo heard the words of the soldier.  He started down the tree as fast as he could.  He had to stop his sister from showing the soldiers the hiding place.

 Inside the house Mama Pía, who had been picked up at her house, a block away from her son’s, and Anastasia, had also heard the soldier’s words.  They tried to go to the backyard to prevent Beatriz from revealing the hiding place but were held by the soldiers inside the house.

 The little girl came in the house in the arms of her 'new friend’, who placed her on the floor when she murmured  “This is the room.” The child sensed that something was amiss.  Her mother and grandmother held each other, sobbing.  She looked at the face of her ‘friend’, who winked and smiled a warm reassuring smile.  Beatriz lifted her arm.  Her tiny index finger pointed to the place where she had seen her father disappear earlier that morning.

 She heard her brother’s voice yelling “Assassin!  Assassin!”  Then thunder, thunder so loud and fierce that it seemed to be exploding right inside her.  Thunder so strong that made everything and everyone disappear from the room.  It was raining inside the house!  It had to be rain, those drops that were falling on her.  But, Oh!  God!  No!  Someone had hurt her raggedy doll, she was soaked in blood!  Some drops fell on her hands.  The drops felt warm.  She looked at her hands.  It was blood!  The drops on her hands were blood!  Blood rain was falling from the ceiling!

 When she woke up her mother and grandmother were holding and trying to appease Reynaldo, who sobbed disconsolate.

 -“She’s just a baby,” explained the grandmother to the boy,  “She didn’t know what she was doing, Reynaldo, she’s just a little baby!”

 -“I’ll kill her with my bare hands!  Answered the boy,  “Neither of you can be near her all the time.  The time will come when I’ll find her alone, then I’ll kill her!  I’ll kill her!”

 The women locked the boy up in one of the bedrooms.  Then they collected Beatriz’s toys, shoes, and coloring books.  Everything fitted easily in a big suitcase and two paper bags.

 “You’re going to live with your grandma till Reynaldo likes you again”,  her mother explained.  “I’ll love you, Beatriz, and I want you to know that we’ll see each other everyday.  Soon, my precious, you’ll be back in this house again.  As soon as Reynaldo stops being angry.”

 But Reynaldo’s anger didn’t seem to vanish.  One day Beatriz disobeyed her grandmother’s order of never visiting her mother unless she came along.  What the grandmother had feared happened.  Anastasia was not home when the little girl arrived.  Reynaldo was alone in the house.  She was rescued from Reynaldo’s hands by the neighbors, who heard her cries for help when the boy started beating her up.  From that day on, it was agreed that Anastasia would be the one to visit Beatriz.  The issue was never discussed again.

 The psychological implications and Beatriz’s tender age caused her to forget why she was separated from her older brother.


 The first face Beatriz saw when she opened her eyes was her grandmother’s.

 -“Where am I?”

 -“In the hospital, Beatriz.  The doctors say that Reynaldo’s presence and her words this morning brought something very, very painful back to your memory.  How do you feel, my little one?”

 Beatriz wept quietly.  “Yes, Mama Pía, I remembered something so horrible!  Please forgive me, forgive me!  My father was your only son and he died because of me!

 “Now, now, Beatriz!  It was not your fault, it was that God damned soldier who knew how to get to the heart of a lonely little child.  He got to you with kind words and candy!  And don’t you excuse Reynaldo’s behavior!  That boy should have gone to a psychologist a long time ago.  Of course, my Camilo was as much his father as he was yours, I can understand his pain.  But it’s not healthy or normal to harbor such sick hatred for so many years, Beatriz.  Camilo was my only son, as you just said, however, I cannot hate you, how could I?  You are his, therefore, you are mine, Beatriz.  It was not your fault, my little one, that you must understand as well as I do.  It was not your fault.”

 “Alán will arrive tomorrow”, informed Anastasia, “We called his office in New York and there we got his number in Madrid.  He loves you so much Beatriz! He was very worried.

 When the husband arrived the couple decided to take a few days vacation in the Guatemalan Atlantic coast before returning to New York.  Those days were full of happiness for Beatriz, and brought about a change in the relationship that made her husband very happy as well.   She told him that she had brought to consciousness the terrible reasons that had made her decide not to have children, that there were no more secret demons threatening the fulfillment of her life, that the awareness had produced peace within her being.

 -“I feel different now”, she confessed, “I’d like to try to become a mom.  What do you say?”

 -“I’d love to try”, he answered, “We’re not too old yet, maybe we can get pregnant.  But if we don’t, we can definitely have fun trying!”

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