(From A Map Of The River, an unpublished short novel/prose poem)


Washing clothes by hand in the pila is nothing new for me.
In Los Rios I have left behind a small white washer, but before I had it I washed in the way of our Grandmothers.
I know how to do this.
It is an important thing a woman must know.
The little girls on the block come to stare.
They have never seen a white woman wash.
They don’t suppose we know how.
They ask me “Sabe usted lavar?”
I answer them,”Sí” and still they stand in disbelief to watch.

Consuelo wet the clothes in the stone sink, sprinkled them with soap and scrubbed, deftly rolling and unrolling them against the rough surface. I watched her rinse them with scoops of fresh water from a gourd dish, then a hard wring with her muscled brown arms. She came to our house every morning to wash for Guadalupe, her four grown sons and her young boy. With her came Nanci, her five year old animal-child who grunted and screamed, scratched and stole, who learned the unintelligible speech of her mother. She is the one on whom the poor take pity because her poverty is complete.

Consuelo and her animal-daughter Nanci came to wash and I learned to understand their grunted language. The payment for Consuelo’s work were the plates of rice and beans which she and Nanci ate at midday. I watched them. They watched me. Consuelo offered to wash my clothes for small fee and I said no. She had no way of understanding my desire to learn so she thought I was stingy and mean. She watched me without pretending not to as I struggled to wash my own clothes, a clumsy imitation of her efficiency. Guadalupe’s sons watched me wash. Neighbors who stopped by watched me wash.  All of my life, people have stopped to watch me wash.  A gringa washing clothes by hand: who knew it was possible?

Later, in our rented house in Santa Cruz, before we had money to buy the small plastic washer, I washed everything by hand on Saturday mornings. Towels, bedding, the clay-encrusted work clothes of a potter went into the sink on the porch. I sweated out the penance for my sins one by one. Penance for selfishness were the shirts, penance for untruths were the stained socks to be whitened but not stretched. Penance for leaving my home and my traditions were jeans ground in the mud. Bed sheets were the penance for the iniquities of the unwed. Towels were the penance for having been born rich enough never to have hand-washed towels. When I finished, I was spent; drenched in suds and sweat, knuckles raw, wrists limp, back splitting, dizzy with exhaustion and the relief that comes only from cleaning your conscience along with your clothes.


2 thoughts on “Penance

  1. Wonderful, Diana, as all your writing.

    You have such a great way of painting word pictures – I see it all so clearly – a real artist.

    And always a funny twist.


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