Deep in the Amazon jungle of Peru, the traditional mode of travel on the Ucayali River is the narrow watercraft called Peque-Peque. A young boy, in his late teens perhaps, sits cross-legged at the stern navigating the boat around the large hazardous logs that float down river. The only thing more frightening than the threat of flipping the small craft into the swift murky current and being ripped to pieces by ravenous Pirañas is attempting to sleep overnight on the river’s shores. In the dark, the jungle comes to life with the sounds of every crawling creature imaginable. They slither, creep and slink down from the thick Amazonian canopy to explore the lush jungle floor. And if the thought of tarantulas, giant beetles, centipedes and snakes invading your tent doesn’t drive you insane, the bats will—bats the size of a prairie dog with wings that, like crazy kamikaze pilots, crash into your mosguitero. But I digress. The story begins in Lima—the city of kings, a thousand kilometers away.
My name is Gabriela Velez, and I am a dentist. I grew up in Lima, in a small, humble apartment with my mother, my younger sister, Claudia, and my Aunt, Lucia. Claudia is actually Lucia’s daughter, but grew up in our household, and I loved her like my own sister. Her father was a taxi driver who died when the rebels set off a bomb on Tarata Street in Miraflores. Lucia did not have the means to take care of Claudia on her own, so my parents took her in. My father left home to fight for the socialist party in Guatemala when Claudia and I were young. His departure ultimately led him to a new love and my parents’ divorce, but despite the meager finances and dire straits, we managed to survive our childhood. In the face of unending hardship, I was hell-bent on getting an education and becoming a doctora.
I was five years old when I first decided that I would become a doctor just like my grandpa. His name was Emillio, but I called him Abu. He was one of Lima’s most respected surgeons specialized in traditional medicine. I was his favorite grandchild and he loved to spoil me. Every Sunday, after attending Mass at St Judas, he and my grandma visited and had lunch with us. After dessert, Abu would step into the living room while the women cleaned up the dishes. He always sat in his favorite chair by the window and smoked his pipe. To this day, the sweet smell of pipe tobacco brings back memories of those afternoons spent on his knee listening to the most fascinating things about the human brain and anatomy. Years later, after several failed attempts at entering medical school, I conceded and decided to become a dentist. I would stay in the field, be designated a doctor and still be able to help people. To pay my tuition, I worked night shift at the local McDonald’s and sold baked goods and hand-made specialty cards to students at the university. I was twenty-five when I earned my degree. A loan from my grandpa enabled me to open a dental clinic of my own. My new career and the chance to help others were like a dream come true. All was going well till I met a young, inspired doctor named Andres.
I met him during my dentistry internship at Maria Auxiliadora in Lima. By chance, my sister Claudia was admitted to the same hospital with a punctured appendix. Having made some connections during my stay, I insisted on the best pediatric surgeon. Andres was the young intern working under the surgeon’s supervision. The compassion and care with which he treated my sister, his intelligence and dedication, and his passion for medicine made him very attractive to me.
On a Saturday he asked me out. That first evening, we shared thoughts and ideas about medicine and caring for others in general, but we both recognized that our attraction was more than intellectual. We found ourselves sharing our dreams, our passions. During those hours, we began to feel we were meant for each other. We talked till dawn. When Andres asked me to marry him, I said yes. Never would I have suspected that one day I would regret that decision.
At home, I fell into bed, exhausted. I intended to sleep late, since Sunday was my only day off. I relished those late Sunday mornings because I studied very late into the evening on every other day of the week. Voices and the closing of the front door woke me from my slumber. Sleepy-eyed and miffed from the rude awakening, I made my way down to the kitchen where mother was drinking coffee at the kitchen table. Obviously troubled, she forced a smile and a Good Morning when I entered.
‘Hey, what’s wrong? Who was at the door?’
‘It was Toni. You remember Toni, from the corner apartment building?’
‘Your friend, the clairvoyant? Yes, of course. How could I forget him? Remember how he predicted Patricia’s marriage to Jim. Auntie told him he was loco if he thought she would ever date a gringo. Then she ended up marrying one. Ha ha. That guy is a freak of nature.’
‘Well, he dropped by for coffee this morning, and everything was fine until he leaned back against your sister’s sweater, which she left on the sofa.’
‘Oh, no. My lord! Please don’t tell me she’s going to marry a gringo, too?’ I said sarcastically.
‘You make fun, but Toni’s predictions are real, mi amore.’
‘Of course. So what is it this time? Car accident, hit by lightning, gingivitis?
‘Cancer! He said she has cancer.’
‘She is fine. She doesn’t have cancer, mother.’
‘How do you know? After all, they found that small mass when they were removing her appendix, and we’re still waiting for the results of the biopsy.’
‘Yeah, well, that’s no reason to jump to conclusions.’
‘The poor thing. She is too young to suffer with cancer.’
‘You’re so gullible. Toni is a nice guy and all, and quite insightful, but his predictions are hunches and guesses at best.’
‘Really, dear? What about Patricia and Jim? You yourself said…’
‘Even a broken clock is right twice a day, mom.’
‘But there’s more, sweetheart. He told me you have met a man.’
Trying to mask my surprise at Toni’s prediction, I answered, ‘Mom! I meet men every day. I work in a hospital, remember?’
‘Listen, he said you mustn’t get involved with this man. He will bring you heartache.’
‘Oh my God, Enough of this nonsense. I’m going back to bed.’
‘He will break your heart. Please listen to Toni. He knows these things.’
‘Well, you can thank Sherlock for warning me. Now, would you please keep the noise down? I really need to catch up on some sleep.’
A few days later, Mother met Andres. She did not approve, but was quick to point out Toni’s accurate premonition. He had none of the required characteristics of a successful suitor for her daughter. He was not particularly handsome, not white nor from the same social class. Mom didn’t speak to me for a week after I told her that we were engaged. The day she finally broke her silence, she merely said ‘Toni warned you.’
Shortly after that, Andres was sequestered to a charitable medical mission deep in the jungle on the Ucayali River in eastern Peru. We were less than thrilled about the assignment, but such things were part and parcel of the life of a Man of Medicine. He was stationed at the remote clinic for many months, and I missed him very much. Every Sunday he was allowed to chat with me for fifteen minutes by high-frequency radio. We spent most of those minutes crying and telling each other how much we missed each other.
The second of March. I remember the date like it was yesterday. I knew immediately something had changed. Even his ‘hello’ was different. Call it intuition, call it whatever. When I heard his voice, alarms went off in my head. Warnings of infidelity, broken trust, a cheating partner screamed for attention. Of course, he denied anything was wrong, but I knew. Something had changed. I was no stranger to the stories of faithful married men being seduced, entranced by half-naked Amazonian women; men who, after one night of erotic rapture, never returned to their families in the city. As a doctor educated in sciences and owner of the successful Dental Clinic, I had difficulty believing such farfetched tales, but I couldn’t be sure. When he announced that his placement had been extended by three months, I was suspicious. I suggested that I visit him at the mission. I had to face him, look in his eyes and know the truth.
‘Andres, listen to me. I am coming to meet you. Understand? You have been away for three months, and now you say your placement has been extended by God knows how much longer. I miss you so much.’
‘Out of the question. The trip is much too dangerous,’ he said, and went on to emphasize how treacherous the voyage could be. River pirates were common and often stopped Peque-Peque to rob the travelers especially ‘Blanquitas,’ white city people. I told him that challenges didn’t frighten me, and I looked forward to a little adventure. I was coming to join him regardless of the hazards. He was not pleased.
Andres, this is not up for discussion. I am coming to spend some time with you. Tomorrow morning, board the first boat down river; I will take the next flight out. We’ll meet in downtown Pucallpa at the Manish Hotel. We’ll spend the night together before heading back up river to your clinic in Curiaca in the morning. Yes, I am stubborn. You know me well.’
He recognized that my mind was made up. ’Mi amor, please promise me you’ll wear your life jacket. I know nobody else wears them, but you can’t swim. I don’t want to lose you through some stupid accident. Those Peque-Peques are not the most stable boats. Please promise me. Thank you. See you soon, mi amor. Beso.’
The flight over the Andes to Pucallpa was a dizzying turbo-prop rollercoaster ride due to heavy air turbulence created by the mountains. Relieved to hear the squeal of the tires meet the asphalt runway of Captain Rolden International Airport, I couldn’t help but wonder if the rough flight had perhaps been an omen. Pushing the negative thought to the back of my mind, I grabbed my backpack, deplaned, and made my way through the thick, humid air into the crowded airport. A quick exit led me to the waiting line of mototáxis, essentially three-wheeled, enclosed motorbikes, the main source of transportation in many South American cities. Most are modified by the operators, with more pride than skill, to accommodate a driver and two nervous passengers. They weave in and out of city traffic, coming within inches of crashing into other vehicles, each other and foolhardy pedestrians. In my experience, for the sake of one’s sanity, it’s best to shut up, hang on and say a short prayer. Arriving at the Manish Hotel unscathed, and a little surprised at the fact, I paid the driver, thanking him for delivering me in one piece. He laughed out loud and revved off with a spray of dusty gravel, disappearing into a cloud of blue exhaust.
I checked in at the front desk. I was excited to finally see Andres after several months apart. My excitement was quickly dampened by the clerk at the front desk. He informed me that Andres had not checked in yet. Disappointed, but really not surprised, I went to my room. Too exhausted to tackle undressing and taking a shower I laid down and fell fast asleep. I ate alone that evening in the dining room. I wasn’t overly worried about his tardiness because Peque-Peque operators rarely run on a schedule, and the seating was assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. If the boat was filled to capacity at the first few stops downstream, passengers upstream would have to patiently await the next one available.
The following afternoon, I located a shop that offered High Frequency radio time for a small fee. After several attempts to contact ports along the river, I finally got through to someone at Curiaca del Caco; the village where Andres was stationed.
‘What do you mean he left three days ago? They would have arrived here in Pucallpa yesterday, at the latest. What? The boat capsized! A fisherman told you three people drowned? Oh my God! Was one of the victims a doctor? Of course, yes. Of course, I understand. How would you know? Thank you.’
My mind was churning with worry. Was Andres one of the drowned passengers? No, he must have worn his life jacket, like I asked. What should I do now? Wait here and hope he shows up in the next few days or head to the marina, rent a charter and travel upstream to find him? That river is so wide and traveled by dozens of boats a day; the chances of seeing him on the water were slim to none. What if I arrive in Curiaca and he isn’t there—then what? Damn! I had to stay put and wait. That was the most rational conclusion.
I managed to fall asleep sometime after midnight. I woke to the honking of the morning traffic blasting through my open window. As I slowly opened my eyes and began collecting my senses, I was jolted to reality by a knock at the door. I jumped out of bed and opened the door to find Andres standing in the hallway.
‘Andres! You’re alive?’ I blurted.
‘Yes, and only because you made me promise to wear my life jacket. It saved my life. Without it, I surely would have drowned.’
‘Come in. I got word from Curiaca that the boat overturned. They said people died.’
‘Yes, but I managed to save a few passengers. Wearing my life jacket allowed me to dog paddle to some of the people hanging on to the overturned hull of the boat and pull them to shore.’
‘That took courage. Thank God you’re okay.’
‘I’m fine. I managed to get some sleep on the next boat heading here. We only have a few hours. The next charter for Curiaca leaves at noon.’
I quickly got dressed. We had brunch in the hotel restaurant before rushing out to pick up some medical supplies and a few provisions. We arrived at the marina just in time to board the next boat out. The forty two-hour boat ride gave me a lot of time to consider my options. If my suspicions proved true, and Andres had dared break our trust, could I ever forgive him? Latin men, especially doctors, were notorious for cheating on their wives. Many treated their mistresses with more respect than they did their spouses. Most Latinas turned a blind eye to this practice. The missing five minutes of love making was not considered a tragedy. But I am not your average Latina; I would never allow any man to control or disrespect me. Although I felt silly, I couldn’t help but wonder if Toni’s prediction had been accurate after all.
Twenty-six hours later we arrived at Galilea, a quick stop to drop off some supplies, pick up passengers and refuel. The captain had barely landed the vessel when I leaped out of the boat and scrambled up the dock’s rickety wooden stairs into the edge of the forest to pee. I felt like my bladder was about to explode. Unlike most of the locals, I didn’t have the courage to hang my butt over the side of the boat in order to tinkle. Not with two dozen onlookers. Feeling relieved, I returned to the dock and followed Andres up the beaten path to the village situated in an opening only a few hundred meters away. I considered returning to cool in the river, but the thought of piranhas lurking in the muddy waters changed my mind. A small cabin by the entrance to the village served as a hospice and medical centre. The lady behind the counter addressed Andres by his first name, which was not unusual since he had dropped off supplies before, but what she said set off alarms in my head.
‘Doctor Romero. Thank God you’re alive! Your wife called and was worried to death about you.’
‘Huh? Pardon me, but I am the Doctor’s fiancé, and I didn’t call here. What are you talking about?’ I asked laying the parcels on the counter.
‘Oh, I’m sorry. I received so many calls in regards to the boat accident, I was confused. Uh, excuse me. I have to run an errand in the village. Leave the supplies here. I’ll tend to them when I return.’
‘Andres, should I be worried?’ I asked, looking into his eyes for an explanation.
‘Of course not. Misinformation is common at the posts along the river. I’m surprised any of these boats get to their destination.’
‘That’s comforting. One more reason to wear our life jackets.’
The next sixteen hours to Curiaca were spent mostly in silence. Andres suspected that I did not fall for his cover up and I could tell it made him very uncomfortable. I knew my suspicions of his affair were well founded and I was going to deal with them in due time, but for the moment I was preparing myself for the encounter. I wasn’t going to head back to Lima without meeting this tramp face to face.
Surprisingly, we arrived at Curiaca on schedule. Tribesmen ran down to the dock to help us carry the supplies up to the medical cabin. They were very uneasy with me, taking quick glances at me and turning away when I looked at them. Andres explained that white women were very uncommon visitors to their village and certainly never accepted as doctors.
‘They don’t believe women are intelligent enough to become doctors. Women are only smart enough to cook, clean and tend to the children.’
‘Well, I guess it’s time to set them straight,’ I replied.
‘Please be patient. And be very careful till you earn their trust. They believe ‘Pishtaco,’ white people, kill natives and boil their bodies down to oil in order to fuel the planes they see fly over their village.’
‘You can’t be serious,’ I exclaimed.
‘I am very serious. These are but a few misconceptions they have passed on from generation to generation. These myths may sound crazy, but they serve an important role in assuring their survival over the years.’
‘Okay, fair enough. For your sake, I will tolerate it, but this will be the only place I will put up with that nonsense.’
I stopped momentarily along the path to undo one of my sandals. Andres and the tribesmen continued ahead while I dislodged a pebble that had wedged itself between my foot and the insole of my sandal. They had already reached the center of the village by the time I finally caught up to them. A nurse running up to Andres and hugging him stopped me in my tracks.
‘Thank God, you’re alive, Andres. I thought I lost you!’ she exclaimed.
She noticed me over Andres shoulder and quickly pulled away from him. ‘I mean, we thought you had drowned, Doctor.’
‘The boat did capsize,’ answered Andres, nervously. ‘But because of my fiancée’s eternal wisdom, I survived and even helped rescue a few others.’
Andres took a few steps back and put his arm around my waist. ‘This is my fiancée, Gabi. Gabi, this is Sandra, my head nurse. She is instrumental in keeping this centre operating smoothly.’
‘Yes, I’m sure she takes good care of you,’ I answered.
‘Nice to meet, Gabi.’ Sandra extended her hand.
‘May I see the medical clinic?’ I ask, ignoring her offered handshake.’
‘Uh, of course. This way,’ she answered, awkwardly lowering her hand.
In those few minutes, my suspicions of Andres unfaithfulness increased. That Sandra was the tramp was becoming clear; no assistant nurse would ever call her doctor by his first name or openly hug him in public. I was hurt, but I had many hours along the Amazon River to prepare myself for the inevitable. I wasn’t about to make a scene and leave, crying like some teenage girl that got felt up at the prom. No! I was going to make the best of the next couple of weeks, and make things very uncomfortable for the cheater and his tramp.
That night we slept in the same hut in the same bed, but Andres never touched me. No words were spoken, and you could cut the tension in that bedroom with a knife. He didn’t dare touch me or pretend to be affectionate, and he certainly wasn’t going to ask me what was wrong. He squirmed and tossed all night long. I’m sure he suspected that I was onto them, but was too terrified to tell me the truth. He was a scumbag and a coward, and I relished his agony.
Early the next morning, we were awakened by the chief’s son. He said his father wanted Andres to come to his cabin right away. We quickly threw on our clothes and ran over. The chief was waiting at the entrance and asked Andres to come in. When I tried to follow, the chief stepped in front of me and pointed outside. Insulted, I was about to say something, but was cut short by Andres.
‘Gabi, please. Remember what we talked about. Just give me a minute, and I’ll arrange to get you in.’
I stepped out onto the trail to calm down, grumbling under my breath. After what seemed like an eternity, Andres emerged from the cabin with the chief, who looked at me as if I had a penis growing out of my forehead.
‘What’s his problem?’ I asked.
‘There’s no problem. His wife, Adela, had several teeth removed by a US dental student a week ago. She has been in severe pain ever since. I was asked to have a look. I explained that you were a dentist and better qualified to diagnose her than I am.’
‘Better qualified? I am the only one here qualified to do dental work!’ I responded with indignation.
‘Yes, that’s what I meant. Unfortunately, she has an issue with you being a Pishtaco. She will not allow you to touch her unless the community members are present to watch.’
‘You aren’t serious?’
‘Actually, I am. I needed to use every argument I could to get him to agree to you completing the procedure at all.’
‘Well, isn’t that gracious of him. It’s not a sterile environment out here. Does he understand she could end up with a nasty infection?’
‘They have no understanding of our medical practices nor the concept of sterilization and infection. If the chief’s wife develops an infection after your surgery, you will be found responsible.’
I agreed to do the procedure, but not without misgivings. The chief had his wife lie on a large makeshift reclining chair in the courtyard. The village people gathered several meters away. They gasped in unison when I set out my dental tools next to the patient. Startled by the sound and the sight of my tools, Adela sprang up and began to complain to her husband. Andres again assured the chief that his wife was in good hands and that she had nothing to fear. Appeased after a few minutes of persuasion, Adela lay back down and opened her mouth wide. As I suspected, she had several un-sutured dry sockets that were infected and still contained bone shards. I administered the freezing and got to work. Fifteen minutes into the procedure, Adela became agitated, struggling to speak. I removed my instruments to enable her to communicate with Andres.
‘What is it now? Is she feeling pain or discomfort?’ I asked Andres.
‘No, it’s just the opposite. She doesn’t believe you are a good dentist because she feels no pain. All her other experiences with dentists were painful.’
‘I don’t know if I should take that as a compliment or an insult.’
As the surgery continued, Adela relaxed. The crowd, feeling more comfortable, moved in for a closer look. At one point, I had to have Andres ask them to move back a meter from the operating table to enable me to do my job, and more importantly, to avoid contaminating the area more than it already was.
With Andres as interpreter, I successfully completed the surgery. The chief and his wife were pleased. I gained respect from them and the villagers that day. After that, they addressed me as Doctora and brought me the best fish from their daily catch for dinner, sparing me the bony-spined pirañas, serving me the delicious Dorado instead.
Over the next two months, we continued treating patients. I completed surgeries and spent many hours training Lucho, the boat operator and ‘community appointed’ dentist, the basics of injecting anesthetic and removing teeth. Andres was busy helping to deliver babies, treating serious Dengue Fever patients and immunizing the locals for TBC, measles and mumps.
We worked professionally together, but there was no intimacy between us. We slept in the same bed, but Andres never touched me nor made any attempt to caress or kiss me. The tension between Andres and his head nurse, because of my presence, increased daily until her unscheduled departure for Lima.
Andre was clearly upset and things would soon get worse for him because I planned to leave only a few days later myself, as soon as I was caught up with my dental patients. He would be in a bad way with no head nurse nor medical assistant. He had brought it on himself.
I was ready to leave both Curiaca and Andres for good. My suspicions had been confirmed and I had accomplished what I had intended by coming. No man was going to play me and make me a victim—not now—not ever!
I was interrupted in the middle of a tooth extraction a few days later to take an emergency phone call from my mom.
‘Toni was right. Claudia has cancer. They caught it early and the doctors say she has a very good chance of recovery. She is terrified of the chemo and the radiation treatments; so upset that she refuses to make an appointment for the therapy. Please come home and talk some sense into her?’
‘Stay calm, mother. You will only make things worse if you try to pressure her. There are alternatives to occidental medicine that she could try. I am just about finished here and was planning to head back anyway. I’ll take the next charter out and return to Lima as soon as possible.’
‘Hurry, Gabi. The sooner she begins treatment, the better. You’re seriously not considering jungle remedies are you?’
‘I think we’re losing the connection, I’ll be home as soon as possible. Bye. Love you.’
I completed the procedure, then I contacted the village Shaman to discuss natural treatments for cancer.
The jungle is a literal pharmacy with a remedy equivalent to just about anything conventional medicine has to offer. Antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, parasite control, pain relief, and even cancer medicines, can be found in the roots, bark and leaves of the Amazonian plants. These remedies are carefully guarded and passed from generation to generation, Shaman to Shaman.
Andres agreed to translate for me. The old Shaman listened to us carefully, then asked me some questions—some very odd questions about Claudia, such as did she have any enemies or did anybody wish her harm? Andres explained that cancer was not known to the Shipibo-conibo as cancer, but rather as a curse brought on by inner negative vibes or cast from a malicious person wanting to cause deliberate harm as revenge. I told the Shaman that she was a sweet girl and had no known enemies. The Shaman grinned and asked me where Claudia was experiencing pain. When I told him, he simply nodded and sent a young boy to the jungle to gather the medicine he required. The youngster returned with a plastic jar wrapped in cheese cloth. I was instructed how to administer the medicine. I was not convinced, however, that Claudia would entertain the idea of ingesting Gorgojos (True weevils).
I returned to Lima feeling strangely revitalized and free. With Andres out of the picture, I had more time to concentrate on operating my dental practice. I was returning to a clinic I shared with Alberto, my partner, and a large clientele I had amassed over the years.
During that period, Claudia surprised me by agreeing to the unusual True weevils treatment prescribed by the Shaman. Before starting the treatment, she researched the therapy with a local doctor of alternative medicine who explained that it did have some merit and that the treatment had, in some cases, cured the patients of the cancer. The science was simple: the digestion of the live bugs by the stomach acid releases enzymes that enter the blood stream that attack and destroy the cancerous cells. After only a month, Claudia’s tumor had shrunk to half the size, and in the months that followed, it eventually disappeared altogether. Her family doctor was skeptical from the start, but couldn’t refute the results of the x-rays and blood test. Claudia was cured.
Of course I was thrilled for Claudia but my own good fortune was short-lived. Inexplicably, patients were no longer booking appointments. Much of my income, of course, depended on regularly scheduled check-ups, dental work and cleanings. Soon I was struggling to pay my share of the rent and groceries. I tried to get a temporary loan from the bank, but I had maxed out all my credit cards. The loan application was rejected.
My mom, always understanding, told me not to worry, business would certainly turn around and I could repay her then. Alberto wasn’t as kind and understanding. We shared the clinic space; we each had our own work station, but operating expenses were shared. Alberto became upset at me for not keeping up with the payments.
‘You’re three months behind on your share of the expenses. I can’t afford to support you. I’m not a bank.’
‘Do you think I’m not trying, Alberto? I don’t know what the hell to do? I even tried calling my patients to remind them of their scheduled appointments. There has been nothing but stories and excuses for not re-booking. It’s mind boggling. Everything was fine till I got back from the jungle.’
‘Maybe if you had spent more time taking care of your paying clients in Lima rather than running off to the middle of the jungle to play Mother Teresa, you could pay your bills.’
‘That’s not fair. What I do with my vacation time is none of your concern.’
‘Then what is it? I’m as busy as ever, maybe you should have considered something more appropriate as a career.’
‘Don’t you dare lay that Latin macho shit on me. I am a professional and a damn good dentist with the same qualifications you have, and twice the skill. I will figure out what is going on. And don’t worry. I will get you your precious money, but don’t ever pull that chauvinist crap on me again or I swear…’ I shouted.
Alberto stood speechless as I turned, walked out of his office and into mine, slamming the door behind me.
I was so angry and frustrated. I couldn’t believe that he would suggest such a thing. It was so out of character for him to suggest such a thing. Alberto thought pretty highly of himself, and often jokingly insinuated that he was my superior, but he never came across with such hostility before. Overcome, I put my head down on my desk and had a good cry.
A few minutes later, feeling better, I decided to do some paper work; busy work, really, to take my mind off my problems. I had been organizing files and folders in my filing cabinet for about forty-five minutes, when I felt an odd shape at the bottom of one of the folders. Removing the papers and reaching to the bottom, I pulled out a disgusting jawbone. It exuded a foul odor. Bits of flesh and hair still clung to it. The mandible seemed to be from a large rodent, much bigger than a mouse or a rat. I had no idea where it came from nor how it got into my filing cabinet. I put the jaw into a plastic bag and brought it home. Then I called Toni—the one person I knew could figure out this riddle.
I was not a big believer in Toni’s clairvoyant abilities and supernatural knowledge, but if my experience with the Shaman and Claudia’s recovery taught me anything, it was that I had to open my mind to the possibility that witchcraft could be a factor in the occurrence of the offensive mandible found in my office.
‘I am amazed that you called Toni to come look at this bone,’ said mom.
‘Well, I have nothing to lose by having him take a look at it, do I?’
‘True. But you’re so skeptical of these things.’
‘To be honest, mother, I don’t believe in fairies and ghosts, but maybe I’m wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.’
‘The doorbell. That must be Toni.’
I opened the front door and let Toni into the apartment. He was dressed in black, as somber as ever. He has always been sort of an odd duck, yet somehow his demeanor made him strangely interesting and mysterious. I told him about the fascinating discovery I made in my dental office. He simply frowned, seeming unsurprised.
‘Do you know of anyone who wants you harmed?’
‘No, not that I can think of.’
‘Did you do or say something to someone that may have really upset them?’
I don’t understand. What does that have to do with this jaw bone?
‘If I am correct, this jaw bone is no ordinary bone. It is a fetish.’
‘Fetish? You mean as in somebody getting their jollies by putting a rodent bone in my file folder?’
No. Fetish, from the French fétiche, which stems from the Portuguese word feitiço meaning ‘charm’ or ‘sorcery.’ Bones are a type of fetish that can embody an evil spirit or carry magical potency. Skulls and bones are used by Shaman as simple ways to connect with spirits of the dead. They can be used to cause many ailments, such as disease, pain, strife between friends, and even bad luck.’
‘Wait. You’re saying that this, this rodent bone, is some kind of curse or jinx? That someone took the time to travel to the jungle in order to have a Shaman place a curse in this bone – ah, fetish—then, broke into my office and slipped it into my filing cabinet?
‘Yes, it definitely could be used in that way.’
‘Well, that explains it. Until recently, my dental practice has been running smoothly for years. Sure, business slows at times, the usual lull around holidays, for example, but I’ve never seen it as dead as the last few months. Patients haven’t been booking their regular appointments or they’ve simply cancelled appointments for no apparent reasons. Or they just don’t show up. I was at my wit’s end trying to understand what was happening. But a curse? Toni, if what you say is true—well, that would explain everything. But who would want to hurt me? Who would go to that extent—? Wait! Unless the person was already in the jungle! Sandra! Andres’ head nurse. That tramp!
‘Gabi, do you actually believe Sandra would break into your clinic?’
‘Only one way to find out, Mother. Hand me the phone. I’m going to call the clinic. My partner, Alberto, was taking patients in his office while I was away. He will know if Sandra came to the office.
‘Alberto. Am I interrupting anything? Oh, okay,. I’ll be quick. Did Sandra have an appointment with you while I was in Curiaca? Yes, Andre’s head nurse. She did! She booked for a cleaning. Tell me, did she stay in the chair the whole time she was at your station? Yes, it was a while ago. I know it’s a strange question, but please humor me, Alberto. It’s important. Uh-huh, yeah. Oh, nothing, I’ll explain later. You’ve been a great help. Thanks. Bye.
‘Well Toni, you’ve made this Doctora a believer. Sandra went to the bathroom in the middle of the cleaning. That was her opportunity. So, now that the bone is out of my office, will the curse end?’
‘Yes, but you have now contaminated your apartment. Take the trash and that bone to the street, and have Father Fuertes bless your place as soon as possible. The evil must be chased out at all costs or your bad luck could return.’
A knock at the door interrupts Toni.
‘Who can that be?’ wonders Mom, getting up to answer the door. As she opens it, Andres steps past her without saying a word and approaches me in the kitchen.
‘How dare you. I called you half a dozen times over the months and you hung up on me every single time. How dare you leave me like that without notice? You left me with no assistant, nobody to help me with the patients. You sneak away in the morning like a thief, no warning, no explanation! What the hell is wrong with you?’
‘You know damn well what’s wrong, and it isn’t me, I don’t owe you any explanations, you cheater!’ I yelled back.
‘You don’t get to talk to me that way. I should…’
‘Enough!’ shouts Toni, stepping between us and grabbing Andres by the arms.
‘Who the hell are you? Take your dirty hands off me.’
Toni pulled Andres in tight against his chest and whispered into his ear. Struggling in vain, Andres couldn’t get free from Toni’s powerful grip. The whispers continued. In moments, Andres began to relax, to listen to Toni. He stared wide-eyed over Toni’s shoulder at me. His eyes began to well up, and tears ran down his cheeks. The two stood together for several awkward minutes till Toni finally released Andres. Toni stepped away into the living room and crossed to stare out the window.
Andres stood in front of me, visibly upset and crying.
‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’ Andres turned and walked out the door.
I never saw Andres again. Toni never told me what he whispered to Andres and I’ve never asked, I guess I already knew everything I needed to know. Not long after, my regular customers started making their usual scheduled appointments, and soon my business was thriving again. Claudia regained her strength and continued the True Weevil treatment as a precaution. She was so fascinated by the outcome of her treatment, she enrolled in a school for traditional and herbal medicine. She has made several excursions to the jungle to learn the therapeutic secrets that lie in the leaves, barks and roots of the Amazon.
Over the next few years, I learned to love myself and be happy being single. There is going to be a soul mate in my future, a confident, trusting man who will love this intelligent, strong-willed, Latina. If you can believe it, an earthquake will bring us together! I know this to be true. Toni told me so.