My husband taught our daughters to swim in the way he said he’d been taught. He waited until they were old enough to climb above our sight in the ipil trees and to run beyond the reach of our voices. This, he said, was when learning to swim became a matter of life or death. We were river people.
He took them, first the eldest, then a year later the younger one, to the end of our slatted wooden walkway, where the river ran sluggish and deep. He tied a rope around her chest, picked her up laughing, told her to keep her mouth closed, and threw her in. He pulled her up gasping, made sure she hadn’t sucked water, and when she was ready, he threw her in again.
It didn’t take long for either of them to swim, and as far as I knew, neither became afraid of the water. The swimming lessons were, though, yet another reason for them to fear us. They came back from the river slick-haired and exhilarated, but where they used to clamber into my husband’s embrace and demand the commissary chocolates he brought home each Saturday, they began staying just out of his reach—the eldest, then, a year later, the younger one.
We both had punishing hands, my husband and I. I’ve slapped my daughters’ mouths to warn them against the fruit they’d just plucked from the ground. My husband has thrashed them for rude speech. But with my other hand, to replace the bad fruit, I would offer pan de coca and hot rice with a fresh egg steamed on top; and my husband, in place of rudeness, taught them all the hymns and love songs he once sang for me.
We always told them that such lessons were given out of love—sometimes out of fear for their lives. I hope they believe it.
I pray that I can continue to believe it myself. O Lord, how young they appear, as we leave the fires behind, and they lean blank faces against the shoulders of my husband’s fleeing guerrilla soldiers.
We have succeeded in this moment of the war. Our guerrillas have driven back the occupying forces. Ours, I say, because my husband trained them and I fed, clothed, and shielded them in the days leading up to the attack. The enemy has guerrillas of its own, and any soldier, however well-trained and supplied, can turn. Ours will not, we say, because there among them is the boy whose mother died of a fever and whose youngest sister was saved by my care. And there is his father, whose grain we have milled and always sold for a fair price. His rifle was granted to him through the force of my husband’s reputation. He goes ahead to scout a path to the sea for tomorrow, and sends word back through his son that the camp is secure.
“They will not be after us tonight,” I tell my daughters, as we risk a little cooking fire and the day falls. I don’t tell them my fears for tomorrow. They understand that their father has led an important victory. They are able to smile. I promise them a refuge by the sea in a place too far for the enemy to send its scouts, with an aunt they’ve never met, my husband’s kinswoman, the cousin of a cousin so far removed that the war will never find them. They envision one of the divine maidens from the old stories, watching for them with eyes like the noonday sun. Caught up in the vision, I allow myself to lie outright only once. “We’ll leave in the morning,” I say.
They are able to sleep.
My husband and I begin preparations at once. If we journey with the guerrillas to the refuge by the sea, it will not remain a refuge for long.
We risk a last look at our daughters. The fires have gone out and it’s really too dark to see anything. They are two small humps beside the scout’s son, who is barely larger than a fifty-kilo sack himself. A few steps into the jungle and they are gone from our sight, gone from our reach.
If anything should happen to them, O Lord, in my blindness and stupidity, let me be struck dead. Angels dear, you guided me when I was far younger than my youngest daughter, and had to make my way alone. God gave them the blessing of sisterhood, each with the other to rely upon. I learned to swim in the river on my own when I was younger than my youngest daughter. I learned to swim without a rope.
The truth is, I’ve never swum in the sea. The truth is, I have never known God to barter fairly. Between my daughters and death, there has probably never been anything thicker than an ipil bough; not even thicker than the hemp fiber of a rope wound in haste, during wartime. On the unmarked paths of the jungle, it’s as dark as I imagine the nighttime sea must be. I don’t expect to see any more clearly tomorrow.