Cecilia Samartin Tarnished Beauty: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9781416549512

Tarnished Beauty: A Novel

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9781416549512: Tarnished Beauty: A Novel
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Now available in paperback from the critically acclaimed author whose writing is “soulful and unsentimental” (Kirkus Reviews)— a profound story that reflects on the true meaning of beauty.

From the moment she was born, Jamilet’s gruesome birthmark frightened the superstitious villagers in her rural Mexican town, making them believe she was marked by the devil: “It was said by some to resemble a freshly gutted cow, by others to writhe like many snakes in a pit of blood. The few who had actually seen it said it was beyond description and that they were unable to sleep for days after seeing it.” When she enters young womanhood, she can no longer bear her lonely, scorned life as an outcast. She flees her oppressive village and illegally crosses the border to Los Angeles in hopes of finding a medical cure for her physical affliction. Eventually, Jamilet finds work at a mental hospital where she attends to the eccentric and disagreeable elderly Señor Peregrino. He begins to share with her the glorious stories from his youth when he embarked on a religious pilgrimage along the legendary and mystical Road to Santiago. An unlikely spiritual connection forges between them—healing their minds, bodies, and hearts in ways that medicine could not. Tarnished Beauty is a compelling story of redemption, faith, and the enduring power of friendship that examines the wounds of the soul.

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About the Author:

Cecilia Samartin was born in Havana in the midst of Fidel Castro's revolution. She grew up in Los Angeles as a fully bicultural, bilingual American. She studied psychology at UCLA and marriage and family therapy at Santa Clara University. Deeply concerned with the lack of Spanish speakers in her profession, Cecilia has practiced within the Latino communities in some of the most impoverished inner-city areas of San Jose and Los Angeles. She lives with her British-born husband in San Gabriel, California.

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1

It wasn't the first time a girl cried rape when her belly bloomed beyond the confines of her waistband. Yet in Lorena's case, no one doubted it was true. She'd always been a serene and modest girl, and when her passage through puberty transformed her into an alluring beauty with dark and mysterious eyes, her humility proved sincere, for she wasn't moved by the compliments lavished upon her by friends and strangers alike. She merely accepted their praise with no more than a gentle bow of her head.

Mothers in the village used her as an example for their daughters to follow, but most of the other girls preferred playing with their emerging sexuality, as if they'd happened upon the switch that turns on the sun, and couldn't be persuaded not to touch. They tried enlisting Lorena in their teasing games with the hope of convincing their mothers that the Blessed Virgin herself was not in their midst. But Lorena didn't need to unfasten the third button of her blouse or sneak her mother's lipstick to be noticed. She was simply beautiful the way the dawn is beautiful, without embellishment or pride.

It was rumored by some that she'd been born to royalty and had floated in a basket across the ocean to Mexico the way Moses floated down the Nile to Egypt. Of course, no one could conceive of a destiny appropriate for royalty in the dusty village of Salhuero, outside Guadalajara, where Lorena lived. And when imagination succumbed to jealousy, it was the same group of girls who reminded all interested parties, especially the young men, that she, along with her older sister, Carmen, had been born in a brothel the next village over and had been taken in by the devoutly religious widow Gabriela. Nobody was certain what had happened to their mother, whether she'd died in childbirth or had abandoned her children, as so many women in her situation did.

Such undesirable parentage would have discouraged better prospects, but countless suitors, intrigued by the modest beauty, overlooked her past and made their intentions known as honorably and fervently as they could. And when the time was right for Lorena to consider marriage, she tolerated endless suggestions and directions from her mother and sister about who was the best match, as this was an opportunity for the family to better its station by a prosperous arrangement.

Lorena herself was growing fond of a gentle boy with light eyes who visited on Sundays after church. He was the son of a wealthy merchant who exported tropical fruits north, across the border. Carmen, rough hewn and heavy, especially when compared to her sister, insisted he wasn't man enough and that she should consider the butcher's son, a dark and swarthy young man with eyes that wandered shamelessly down the blouse of whichever woman happened to be standing before him. Carmen insisted, with a bright cackle and a smack to her prodigious thigh, that a man like that would know how to handle a woman. Nevertheless, Lorena made her preference known and preparations for the wedding began shortly thereafter.

Rumor and careful calculation placed the rape at about the time of the Posada, in mid-December. And the villagers were fairly sure about the identity of the assailant. He'd been seen a few times before during major events such as weddings and funerals, when it was easy to partake of refreshments without drawing too much attention -- a drifter looking for a drink and a place to sit so he could watch the young girls fluttering like pigeons in the square. He'd once been a handsome man. His sturdy frame and even features gave testament to the fact, but time and alcohol had degraded him so that only the most astute observer might suspect his former glory.

They say he lured Lorena into a derelict house as she was making her way to the celebrations, on the pretext that he'd hurt his leg and needed assistance. Lorena, having been raised on the milk of her mother's religion, didn't hesitate to respond. And once she was within his reach, the violation was as swift as it was efficient. She told no one about the incident, and as her custom was to dress modestly, she was able to effectively hide her growing middle even from herself. But two weeks before the wedding, Gabriela walked in on her while she was bathing and almost fainted at the sight of her daughter's belly and breasts, as heavy as bags of dried chilies ready for market.

The young man, desperately in love as he was, wanted to proceed with the marriage anyway, but his family forbade it and, for good measure, moved away, in case their son should prove more willful than they suspected. Four months later Lorena learned that he'd married another, but she didn't have the strength to weep or comment, or to even get up from her chair. The baby was due to be born any day.

Many prayers were said and candles were lighted after the atrocity was known. In this humble village where every child was considered a blessing, there was even secret hope that she might lose the baby and be spared the culmination of this hideous crime. The pregnancy, however, was a healthy one, and at nine months and two weeks, Lorena found herself unable to think of the shame she'd suffered because of the excruciating agony shooting through her body, worse than anything she'd ever known.

The labor was brief, and the baby slipped into the world so quickly that the midwife almost dropped it onto the dirt floor, laughing at her near blunder when she usually frowned, as her expertise required. She'd been delivering babies for more than fifty years, but she was particularly nervous about this birth, as all knew well of its origin.

"It's a girl," she announced, once composed. The baby whimpered instead of bellowing with the fullness of her lungs, but she was breathing well, and her eyes squinted at the dim lights as she responded to the voices around her with slight spasms of her chubby arms and legs. It was a beautiful child, perfectly formed, even angelic in the perfection of her features. Never had the midwife seen a newborn with such clear eyes so soon after delivery. Her coloring was warm like honey rather than the angry purplish red so common for newborns. The midwife's scrutiny softened to a glowing smile, as if her efforts had everything to do with the perfection of the child, and for an instant the unsavory origin of the birth was forgotten, and she could only gaze upon the splendor of new life that wriggled in her hands.

Nearly unconscious with exhaustion, Lorena fell asleep as the midwife and Lorena's mother took the baby to the basin. The midwife moistened a cloth with warm water and began to clean the little face, the arms and belly, the sweet little private area, small and demure as it should be, and the thighs and feet before turning her over to finish the bath. It was then that Gabriela smothered a gasp and for a second time the child almost slipped through the midwife's hands.

The mark, thick and red, like an open wound, covered her tiny shoulders and back, reaching down to her buttocks and all the way to the backs of her knees. With hands now trembling, the midwife dabbed at the mark briskly, hoping it was the harmless remnant of the afterbirth and nothing more, but it could not be wiped away any more than could the bright eyes and little mouth puckering for food. She hastily placed the infant back on the table and declared, "I've seen many birthmarks of all shapes and colors, but nothing like this. It's...it's as if the child sat on the hand of the devil himself."

She collected her modest fee and left without her usual instructions about how to give the breast while taking care of the mother's discomfort and other remedies she knew. Gabriela finished cleaning the infant and wrapped her snuggly in a blanket, intent that Lorena's first sight of her baby should be of her beautiful unblemished face, so much like her mother's. The next morning Gabriela would walk on her knees to the church, starting at the fountain in the middle of the plaza and not stopping until she'd reached the principal altar. All the way there and back, she'd pray for the Lord to take the mark away. Lorena had suffered enough for one so young, beginning life as an orphan and losing her one chance at marrying well. This disfigurement might prove too much for even the strongest of women to bear, and Lorena, disciplined as she was, had grown brittle, like dry kindling that could ignite in a warm wind. Gabriela had worried she wouldn't survive the pregnancy and every morning had asked Carmen to make sure that her sister was still alive and breathing on her bed.

"Sleep now, child," Gabriela said when she heard Lorena stir. "Your baby is fine and you can see her later."

"I didn't hear her cry."

"She's fine. You rest for now," Gabriela said, knowing she was going to need much more than rest to survive what lay ahead.

"I'll name her Jamilet," Lorena said with surprising certainty, for she'd refused to entertain any discussion about a name during her pregnancy. "It came to me the moment she was born, like a faraway chant, and I felt such peace when I heard it."

"Then Jamilet it is," Gabriela said, placing the sleeping baby in her box crib.

Despite Gabriela's best intentions, and careful avoidance of improper reference to the mark, Jamilet came to be known by everyone in the village as the angel with the devil's mark. She grew up familiar with the expression of troubled awe in the eyes that gazed upon her, sometimes directly, at other times peeking around corners or on fleeting faces that appeared like a parade of phantoms spooked by the living. Her own large eyes began to reflect a certain tenderness born of pity, so that by the age of three she was able to look back at the strangers who gawked at her with the serenity and wisdom of a priest who understood all the mysteries of life and death.

This only served to deepen the fear the villagers felt toward her. A child who was the perfection of human form in face, but hid a hideous swirl of blood and disfigurement that few had ever seen, but all had heard about. It was said by some to resemble a freshly gutted cow, by others to writhe like many s...

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