Inocencia’s Indiscretion

The courtship of Inocencia Martínez and Sotero Figueroa, excerpted below, is part of a copyrighted forthcoming work of fiction based on historical facts that explores women’s roles against the backdrop of Puerto Rican liberation in the 1890s.  Entitled Two Wings of a Bird, the narrative completes the saga of Antillean activism in New York City initiated in my book, Feminist and Abolitionist: The Story of Emilia Casanova, [Arte Público Press, 2013], where Inocencia Martínez and Lola Rodríguez de Tió first appear.
In Two Wings of a Bird, the story delves into the budding friendship between Doña Lola and Inocencia Martínez. A poet who has left an unparalleled legacy and an activist whose legacy is scarcely known, the two women lived dramatically different lives. Yet, they found common ground on the issue of their nation’s liberation and their own. The story follows Inocencia and Doña Lola into exile where both channel their passions into subversive roles as writers or organizers. But along the journey to the inevitable consequences of the Spanish - Cuban - American War of 1898, neither patriot could have foreseen the heavy toll and sacrifices they would have to pay for their ideals.

Ponce, Puerto Rico, 1887

“Sh h h . . . listen!” whispered Inocencia Martínez. Furtively, she turned and caught Luzita’s eye. She pressed her finger against her pursed lips and gestured to her young maid not to move or make a sound. Luzita Santiago quickly squeezed her eyes shut! She held her sweat - soaked body taut like a bow about to shoot an arrow, hoping to disappear into the overgrown bushes. Holding the hem of her muslin skirt so it would not snare on the thick brush along the side of the dirt path, Inocencia eased her slender body into a protective stance not far from where the girl stood and again whispered, “Sh h h!”

Inocencia stood very still. The scent of damp earth and fresh foliage filled her nostrils. Alert to every movement, every aspect of her very being, she consciously tried to slow the forceful pounding in her chest. Fine golden hairs began to rise on her bronzed bare arms where she had pushed up her cotton sleeves. Her palms were suddenly moist with perspiration and she tightened her grip on the set of covered lunch pans, the fiambrera she carried, one nesting on top of the next.

“Be very still, Luzita . . .listen . . . ,” Inocencia murmured more softly, straining to catch snippets of afternoon sounds from the surrounding countryside. She held her breath. Think, she told herself! Get us out of this mess! Hoof beats . . . Galloping horses! But where? Are they coming towards us or retreating? Sounds easily bounced off the mountain passes. She concentrated on listening for movement from the direction of the village’s central dirt road. Did I hear one horse or more. The wretched Guardia Civil always travels in pairs or in a group, doesn’t it? . . . Who else could it possibly be but the Guard . . . Instant panic drove cold fear into her heart. . . .  Or . . . could it simply have been my own imagination playing tricks on me? Then, silence.

Above their heads they heard the unmistakable buzzing of a nest of wasps. Inocencia grimaced and silently gestured to Luzita that they should move along. Perspired and exhausted from their unpleasant ordeal, the two women continued their half mile walk in the searing heat, the silence broken only by the long moo of a stray milk cow and the occasional crow of a rooster.

In the distance, Inocencia could see her destination not more than sixty feet from where she and Luzita stood. Almost hidden by the overgrown brush the small weathered, palm thatched, house sat on stilts nestled at the base of a palm tree. It’s really more like a Jibaros shack, nothing special. It can barely be seen from the main road unless one knows where to look. She heard a skittish grunt and shuffle. A tethered bay horse near the shack caught their scent. She noticed a group of red hens pecking at scraps under the house, but nothing here was unusual. Everything seemed ordinary. The setting would not attract undue attention. She and Luzita, on the other hand, stood out like scarecrows clearly visible to any curious passer by or an inquisitive search party.

Why did I decide to wear white? Inocencia chastised herself. She regretted her coquettish impulse to look pretty rather than using her head. She did not even want to imagine what would happen if  someone saw her there. Weeks of deceiving her parents weighed heavily on her mind. Inocencia knew better than anyone that in the flash of a second, a careless action or a word spoken here or there could spell disaster. And she was the only one to blame. If she brought about her own undoing because of all her lies and half-truths, she was the one at fault.                      

Inocencia placed the fiambrera on the ground. She looked about for places where, in her mind’s eye, dozens of armed guards could hide.  The sweltering sun burned her exposed arms so she pulled down the sleeves of her dress. Once she decided it was safe to do so, the two women continued on their way. Inocencia’s studied calmness masked the uneasiness in her stomach as she walked confidently towards the small house.

The shack’s front door was a makeshift plank bolted unevenly to the frame. As the women approached, it began to open cautiously. A second or so, and the handsome mulatto face of Sotero Figueroa was revealed. At first, a hesitant greeting played upon his lips, but he was relieved to recognize his unexpected visitors. Sotero quickly ushered the women into the house. Before closing the door behind them, he took a moment to survey the surrounding terrain. His keen brown eyes searched for any sign that they may have been followed.

“What in heaven’s name are you doing here?” He laughed, turning to face Inocencia. “How did you find me? Don’t you know they have been searching for me high and low since Román Baldorioty and others of his followers in the Autonomous Party were thrown into prison?”

Inocencia pushed a wayward, honey colored curl behind her ear.  Suddenly, she was at a loss for words and simply handed the fiambrera to Luzita. Not knowing what to do next, she folded her hands in front of her. Did she at least make a pleasing appearance in spite of all she’d gone through to get here, she wondered? Gradually, her vision adjusted to the dim interior. She smiled shyly looking down towards the floor and, for the first time, she was aware of the humbleness of her surroundings.

Inocencia expected Sotero to set the tone for the visit, but he was not at all prepared for the company of ladies.  At first, he stood tall and confident in the center of the room, then nervously ran his fingers through his close cropped, wiry hair. When he realized he was clad in the garb of a campesino, the peasant’s loose fitting, coarse, cotton top and calf length pants held in place by a cord tied around his waist, he felt somewhat uncomfortable; he didn’t want to be seen looking like a Jibaro by the likes of someone as refined as Inocencia Martínez. But when he realized he was also barefooted he dropped all pretense at decorum. He simply murmured, “How did you find me,” unable to hide his delight in the fact that she had, indeed, found him.

Inocencia’s lively green eyes, the color of the Caribbean at dawn, matched Sotero’s own excitement. Between spurts of giddy laughter, she tried to answer his questions but only succeeded in saying, “I knew where you were because for months I’ve begged, bribed and cajoled your servant into telling me.  But no one else knows we are here . . . I assure you . . . We left the horse and buggy with Don Pedro, my family’s gardener. He brought us      here . . . It’s well hidden behind a shed in an orange grove down the road . . . You should be proud of us; We walked the rest of the way.” And she smiled again, her eyes avoiding direct contact with his.

As the shack was not intended for visitors, there was no suitable place for her to sit so she remained standing trying to control the warm glow that silently crept up into her cheeks least it betray her deep feelings for Sotero Figueroa. When she allowed herself to look at him out of the corner of her eye, she felt her heart skip a beat. Dios querido! . .  The man resembles a caged animal, she realized, aching to throw comforting arms around him, but she quickly turned away. Fighting her desire to embrace him, she began to pace about pretending to take an interest in her surroundings.

“It was not easy to find this place, Don Sotero,” she said feigning lightheartedness. “The local mountain folk must love you very much to hide your whereabouts so well.”

Unfamiliar though she was with the ways of country people, Inocencia had guessed correctly. The sparse, white and mixed race community living in this mountainous region, remote from the coastal cities, did protect Don Sotero. Having no reason to visit rural barrios on her own, she didn’t know how tightly isolated communities formed protective walls against outsiders.

Speaking rather quickly, she said,“but, you do realize, Don Sotero, we cannot stay very long.” She found herself rushing her words. “I can see afternoon shadows . . . sunset will soon be upon us . . . I’d prefer, you understand, not to be caught in the mountains . . . the roads, I mean . . . after dark . . . Do you smell the wood fires burning?”

Unsettled by the nonsensical chatter that insisted on spilling forth from her mouth, she stepped to the small window. She needed space to clarify her thoughts so that he wouldn’t think she was an imbecile. She gazed at the surrounding landscape, a play of shadow and light on the mountains orchestrated by lazily floating clouds. “See? . . . Look there . . . See? . . . Those thin clouds of smoke beginning to rise from the mountains? People will soon return to their homes for the evening meal. I don’t think it wise to be seen . . . someone might recognize me.” Like the smoke rising here and there in the mountains outside the window, her words drifted aimlessly. She secretly berated herself, a silly fool, a school girl stating things he obviously knew. But Sotero saw only the lovely woman standing before him.

When Inocencia finally controlled her babbling, she looked up at him longingly, losing herself in the warmth of his eyes. She felt forlorn, as if she already had one foot out the door and would never see him again. There was, after all, no other recourse, no other option opened to a well-bred, young lady of her class. Quietly, she lowered her gaze. She felt compelled to offer some kind of explanation although none was needed.

“Doña Lola,” she murmured just above a whisper. “She is the only soul in the entire world who knows where I am. She promised to tell my parents, if they inquire, that I spent the day helping her prepare for her poetry salon.” Another lie, she thought. Even Doña Lola is helping to build my mountain of lies.

“I understand, Señorita Inocencia,” Sotero softly responded. He lifted his arm part way as if to gather her in an embrace but changed his mind. Suddenly, he felt peculiar, unlike his usual self in the company of ladies. He sympathized with her predicament! Surprised to realize he cared deeply about the welfare of this woman, Sotero was determined to protect her from scandal were it to surface if anyone discovered her visit.

* * *

Luzita felt like an intruder. Alert to the subdued, furtive glances and soft exchanges between Inocencia Martínez and Sotero Figueroa, the encounter between the two was fraught with ambiguous undertones. As her deep set, coal black Taino eyes darted from her mistress to Don Sotero, the girl felt an indescribable tingling down her spine as if she ought not to be there. In spite of the harrowing time Inocencia had just put her through, Luzita decided she would have to guard her mistress’s secret. Young ladies simply did not visit men alone in their cabins, she thought. Even under the harshest of tortures, she decided she would never tell.

Luzita scrambled to unload the contents of the fiambrera on the only available space in the rude enclosure, a desk angled to catch the light from the one window in the room. But it was covered with books and pamphlets, sheets of written paper, an inkwell and pens of varying sizes. On one corner of the desk a kerosene lamp balanced precariously casting illumination through a crystal font speckled with bits of soot.

The girl hurriedly scanned the room. The floor accommodated additional piles of books. Two small green iguanas scurried along the floorboards in play. She noticed Don Sotero’s few articles of clothing hanging from pegs hammered into the windowless wall. A moderate sized shelf held some soap, razors and five candles. The only other piece of furniture in the room was a small, palm wood board upon which lumpy bedding was covered with a soiled sheet. The “bed” offered no possible solution for spreading out the lunch pans.

Knowing full well she must not disturb the papers piled on the desk of one of the most important newspapermen in the Island’s political circles, Luzita twisted her long black braid away from her face, wiped the top of the desk chair with her bare hand, and laid a white cloth napkin across it. Using both the chair and a small stool she found tucked under the crude desk, she deposited the tin containers of the fiambrera: portions of yellow rice, red beans in a succulent onion and cilantro sauce, seasoned ham hocks, dried cod fish with steamed onions, crispy fried plantains, meat patties shaped like half moons, breads, biscuits, fruit and lemon meringue tarts. Another container she had carried in her apron pocket for safe keeping gave off the intoxicating aroma of freshly ground coffee beans. Now she needed to find a tin to collect some water.

As soon as the purpose of their visit was accomplished, Inocencia and Luzita moved towards the door. “A moment, please . . . before you leave, Señorita Inocencia,” interjected Sotero standing between her and the door, “might you be so kind as to take some letters I’ve written for Don Ramón Betances and Doña Lola?” He handed her the letters, then held her hand between both of his own. Realizing the danger he would place her in, he quickly added, “Please forgive me, Señorita. I understand perfectly if you do not wish to take the letters. It was insensitive of me to ask you.”

But Inocencia already held the letters in her hand and had every intention of complying with his request. At that moment, she could not have been in any more danger than she already was for she had fallen in love with this dark, exotic man of political controversies and lofty ideals.

* * *

Suddenly, like a frenzy of wild, galloping horses, Don Pedro was shouting at the top of his lungs! “Señorita Inocencia, darse prisa! Aqui viene una caballeria!. . . Come quickly . . . There is a cavalry regiment on its way!” Inocencia and Sotero both heard the commotion at the same time and sprang into action! Don Pedro raced the horse and buggy at great speed lengthening the reins so that the frightened animal could run faster. When Don Pedro was close enough to the Jibaro shack for the women to climb on board, he called out again to his mistress! “Señorita! Vengase, pronto! . . . Come quickly! There is a cavalry regiment on its way!” Just minutes before he had spied a group of Spanish soldiers on horseback riding through the brush.

Wasting no time in niceties, Sotero Figueroa lunged for the pistol that hung sheathed in its leather holder on a peg near the door. “Run!” He shouted at Inocencia and Luzita, forcefully pushing the women towards the waiting buggy. “Make for the road keeper’s stone house about two miles from here. You’ll be safe there.”

Once the women secured a foothold in the buggy, Sotero bolted towards the tethered mare and mounted. Within seconds, he had galloped into the dense brush, the sure-footed bay quickly finding her way to the dirt road and into the mountains. Sotero raced towards a secret cave-like enclosure he’d prepared for such eventualities. While he thought it unlikely that Civil Guards would stop at a dilapidated, obscure shack barely visible from the road, he could not afford to take that gamble. Better to lose his writings than his life and so he pressed on until horse and rider melted into the mountainside.

Inocencia had climbed onto the front seat next to Don Pedro. To her great surprise, he thrust the reins into her hands and scrambled towards the back seat where he and Luzita began to secure their provisions and uncover the loaded rifle he kept for protection.“Look towards the road in front, Señorita!” He yelled above the racket. “And trust Huracán! He knows the way . . . We’ll handle things in the back until we get to the stone road house.”

Was Don Pedro intending to fire at the guards! Inocencia suddenly felt sick, as if she were trapped in some horrid nightmare! Gripping the horse’s reins tightly with both hands, her fingers felt about to break but there was no pain. Sotero is safe, Sotero is safe . . . Please God, let Sotero be safe. She repeated the phrase over and over in her mind until the moment Don Pedro assured her that there was no further danger.

It was then that she began to unravel and lose her composure. Her rigid fingers were bloody where the leather had cut into her skin and for the first time she thought about her predicament.

Dios mio!!! How could I have faced my parents if I’d been caught? 

© Virginia Sánchez-Korrol. Published by permission in Centro Voices  on 3 September 2014. 

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.