By Laura Resau
With the help of a shaman, she rediscovers what she truly wants.
Breathless, I hurry along narrow trails between Quichua family farms, past barking dogs, squawking chickens, curly-tailed piglets. My destination is a shaman who lives in this village on the outskirts of Otavalo, Ecuador. I’m going partly for book research, but mostly as a last-ditch hope he can heal me. Back in Colorado, I tried everything—Eastern and Western medicine, herbs and tinctures, weird diets. And now I’m teetering on the edge of bitter despair.
I emerge from the foliage to a vista of fifteen-thousand-foot peaks rising above emerald fields, dotted with red-tiled roofs and grazing sheep. Two of these mountains are said to be ancient Incan gods: the male, Imbabura, and his lover, Cotacachi. When she’s covered with light frost at dawn, locals claim it’s semen from a night of passion. Their offspring—smaller, baby mountains—lie scattered between them. Then there’s the ubiquitous Andean deity, Pacha Mamma, the World Mother, whose fertile body spills out in swirling folds, patchworks of velvet fields, silken pastures.
Fertility is a deep and ancient craving, at once visceral and mythical, elemental and universal. This, at least, is my impression as an anthropologist, or, more to the point, as a woman who cannot seem to have a baby.
At my side is my close friend, María, who was born in a nearby indigenous village. She easily navigates the path despite her Otavaleña clothes—ankle-length skirts, flimsy sandals, delicate lace sleeves, strands of coral and gold beads. Her son, Yanni, skips and circles around us with exuberant five-year-old energy, a stick swinging in his hand, a braid swinging at his back. “Laurita!” he shouts, offering me a plucked flower. “For you!”
“Gracias,” I say, blinking back tears.
I’ve played with Yanni since he was a baby. Over the years, a tender fact has throbbed beneath our laughter: if my first pregnancy hadn’t ended in miscarriage, my child would be Yanni’s age. And if any of the next five years of fertility treatments had worked, I’d have a preschooler, or toddler, or baby. I’d be holding his pudgy hand, or idly tousling his hair, or, what I crave most, kissing his tiny feet.
A few months ago, after years of heart-breaking negatives, a miracle of sorts occurred: I got pregnant again, naturally. But anxiety eclipsed the initial moments of joy; my body felt fragile and broken. Terrified I’d lose the baby, I refused to have sex with my husband, ate only hyper-hygienically-prepared organic food, let no synthetic chemicals touch my skin. Despite my paranoid vigilance, after eleven weeks, I lost the baby. When the ultrasound showed no heartbeat, a D and C was scheduled for the next day, and my uterus was scraped raw.
Now, one month later, my heart still feels as raw and broken as my belly. If my body had functioned, a baby bump would just be showing. I place my hand over the plane of my abdomen, flat except for a smattering of recent bedbug bites.
After this second miscarriage, I mustered up my scant energy and planned a trip to Ecuador. My official reason was to do research on my book with María, whom I’d met years earlier at English classes I taught in Colorado. But at the heart of it, I needed to get out of my house, with its heavy, empty, childless silence.
Behind the altar stands the shaman, a young man—early twenties at most—with a handsome, smooth face. After María explains my desire for a baby, she translates his confident response. “Yes, cumarita, I can help you.” Cumarita is an affectionate Quichua term for comadre, or co-mother, a term meant to inspire trust. Something that I seriously lack. I have doubts about his ability to understand my situation—his life is probably all about not getting anyone pregnant—but María assures me he’s been healing since he was fourteen. I smile politely as he puts on his enormous headdress and arranges the stones and bottles on the altar.
María settles on the bench and pulls Yanni onto her lap, nuzzling him, breathing in his unique scent as he breathes in hers. She wraps her arms around him, whispers in his ear, kisses his hair, all in a way that makes it clear: she is his world, his own personal Pacha Mamma.
I swallow hard and look away, back at the young shaman, who is cutting rose petals into a small pile of red, pink, and white confetti beside the baby-covered Buddha. He then positions me smack in the center of the room and gives an instruction in Quichua, translated by María with a suppressed snicker. “Strip to your underwear, cumarita.”
I stand, blinking, thinking of what my hides beneath my clothing: a stretched-out, sweat-stained, grandma-style sports bra in an unflattering shade of beige. And covering my entire torso are angry, crimson bedbug bites, a downfall of traveling in rural Latin America with sensitive skin. And I don’t even want to think about exposing my grubby, graying underwear. I shoot María a pleading look, and thankfully, she negotiates for me to at least keep my shorts on.
With a nervous shiver, I take stock of my body, which frankly, I’ve come to hate more with every month of infertility. Encased in the beige polyester are my ever-milkless breasts, six pounds of useless meat, serving only to remind me of what I don’t have. My gaze drops lower, to the faint surgical scar at my navel—a fruitless effort to reduce pain and restore fertility by scraping rogue endometrial cells from various reproductive organs. I take a wavery breath, trying to leave behind negativity, focus on this moment.
The young shaman is now opening a glass bottle, releasing the overpowering fragrance of cheap cologne. Feeling itchy at the mere smell of this stuff, I twitch my nose, scratch some welts on my waist. I know from anthropological research that the young shaman will probably spit this all over me. Which, of course, brings up a whole array of fertility-related anxieties like,exposure to toxic synthetic estrogens! These kinds of worries have transformed me into a fearful version of the woman I once was—only slightly anxious, but mostly carefree, traveling the world alone, leaping into adventures.
“Lo siento,” I say. “Sorry, but can you use something else? I just have, um allergies.” I’m fairly certain there’s no ancient Incan-derived term for synthetic estrogens.
The shaman glances at María with amused confusion. After she translates, a round of laughter ensues. His eyes lively, the young shaman puffs out his cheeks and does a fat guy impression. Yanni giggles so hard, he practically falls off the bench. (Later I’ll discover María claimed that cologne makes me swell up like a large balloon.)
Thankfully, the young shaman is willing to accommodate. “We’ll just use liquor instead,” he says, grinning. He picks up a green glass bottle shaped like a woman in large skirts—reminiscent of the old Aunt Jemima syrup bottles—filled, I presume, with alcohol. He chants and whistles a meandering tune as he circles the bottle in some type of blessing. He then grabs a pinch of rose petal confetti, sticks it between his lips, takes a mouthful of liquor, and, as anticipated, spits it all over me.
I shut my eyes, try not to wince. But the blast, like a shock of sea spray, is surprisingly refreshing. As the young shaman spits wave after wave, I try to imagine myself as a goddess, solid and fertile as the semen-coated mountain Cotacachi. I envision Pacha Mamma herself, rising through the earthen floor, filling me. I visualize the gusts blowing away the dark energy clinging to me.
It does require effort, however, to ignore the germ-laden saliva of a strange man covering my body, and I’m relieved when he stops spitting and begins beating me instead. Gently, I should add, with a bundle of healingchilca leaves. It’s actually a nice sensation, my body turned into a drum. He pounds the leaves on my chest, over my heart, as if giving it a new rhythm, a passionate, strong one. Okay, Laura, I tell myself, picture your womb as something lush, rich with potential, your breasts spilling over with milk, your body pulsing with the timeless rhythms of life and birth, a universal heartbeat.
But no, I can’t; it’s too cold; I’m too shivery. My thoughts creep instead, to the distinct lack of heartbeat on the ultrasound last month. That night, I’d lain in bed, staring at the overhead fan in the blue half-light, tear-soaked and sob-wracked. Near dawn, when I was cried out, I found myself repeating, fuck, fuck, fuck, a beating like a heart, a rhythm like a drum. It went on for a long, long time. Hours, maybe. By the time morning light came, I knew I couldn’t bear another month of hope and heartbreak. A few days later, in my bathrobe, with damp tissues spilling from the pockets, I searched online for adoption information. Maybe, I thought, heavy with desperation and shame, if I adopt, then I’ll get pregnant.
But this time is different. This time the young shaman, standing about six paces away, extends a lighter at arm’s length before he spits the spray of liquor.
A mist of alcohol blasts through the flame and catches fire. Catches fire!
And oh my God there’s a fireball heading toward me and holy crap I’m covered in flammable liquid.
Fear explodes through me. There is no time to dive out of the way. There is only time to squeeze my eyes shut and pray.
A wave of heat rolls over me.
María and Yanni gasp on the sidelines.
I open my eyes, look down at my body. I am not on fire. Thank God, I’m not on fire! Chest pounding, I peer closer, at the light hairs on my arms. Unsinged. The fireball must have burned up just before reaching me. I let out a breath. Oh, thank God, my bug-bitten flesh is intact. Thank God my broken body remains whole.
The young shaman is already taking another mouthful. I steel myself, shut my eyes, and pray. Another wave of heat. A flash of fear. Afterward, a mental scan of my flesh. Still not on fire. Thank you. And on and on they go, these fireballs that tug me right into this place, this moment.
There’s nothing like fireballs blazing toward you to burn up pesky little anxieties like synthetic estrogens. By the time the fireballs stop, my body is quivering like a plucked string, but now thoroughly warmed. Pulse racing, sweat pouring from my armpits, I wonder what comes next.
The young shaman picks up a large, smooth, black stone from his altar. Andean shaman’s stones have personalities, talents, lives of their own. The young shaman places his helper stone over my belly, and then, in a powerful voice, as if he’s channeling the wind, shouts, “Shanguuu!” It’s a whoosh, this word, and it whooshes right into me.
“Shanguuu!” he shouts again, with the force of a storm, and any silly thoughts that were not burned up by the fireballs are now blown away. Shanguuu, shanguuu, shanguuu… It is a perfect word for this focused power aimed straight into my center.
He places two white stones in my palms, and motions for me to rub them over my body, head to feet. I close my eyes and slide the stones across my bony elbows, my knobby knees, the curve of my hips, my breasts, my butt. And I thank this body that has somehow not caught on fire. This body that actually, in most ways, has served me quite well in life. This body that is my own familiar landscape. This body that is as sensitive as a cranky old lady. This body tied to this battered heart of mine.
The young shaman murmurs something to María, who translates, “Think about what you want, cumarita.”
I am very practiced at wishing. For every birthday and shooting star sighting and heads-side-up penny over the past five years, I have wished for increasingly detailed versions of the same thing: that I get pregnant with a baby in my own womb with my own egg and Ian’s sperm and give birth to my healthy and beautiful and happy full-term baby. There is no room for nasty surprises from the universe with that degree of specificity.
I now prepare to carefully whisper my wish, but then, I stop myself. I glance at Yanni, still curled on María’s lap, watching me curiously, probably hoping for more fireballs.
I surprise myself by asking, Laura, what do you really, truly want?
In response, something happens inside my chest. A kind of whoosh of sunlight into my heart. It’s as if a doorway has opened, a passage I never knew existed. And on the other side, in the light, are tiny, tender feet, secret scents and whispers and kisses. There is a baby who nestles into my body, his world. A baby who is not inside my belly, but inside my heart, in this light-filled space that was here all along. This baby, these feet, they are my joy.
This is what I want. This is the wish I whisper.
As the young shaman wraps up his chanting, I finish rubbing the stones on my body, with a new gratitude now, a softness and lightness. Soon, the young shaman gives me a final blessing and returns the stones to his altar, ending the ceremony. I stand, soaking wet in my shorts and sports bra, plastered with bits of rose petals, my heart still hurting, but stronger now, encased in this flawed but loved body. I bask inside my own hidden patch of light as the young shaman explains that to complete the ceremony, I may not indulge in the following items for three days: chocolate, pork, fish, avocado, milk, chili, and (regrettably) showers.
For the next three days, I’ll be living with a thin coating of alcohol and saliva and smoke and rose petal confetti on my skin and hair. But none of that matters because I’m not thinking so much about my body now, but my heart, and its surprise doorway, and the baby feet, and the glimpse of joy.
Glancing at me and nodding confidently, the young shaman tells María one more thing. She beams as she translates, “This mujercita—this little woman—will have a baby very soon!”
Yes, I think, my heart freshly full and newly light, this mujercita will.
I deal with these tasks the way a pregnant woman deals with morning sickness and swollen feet and other annoyances that pale beside the monumental and sparkling anticipation of the baby coming. At the three-month mark, instead of an ultrasound, I’m rewarded with photos of the newborn whose spirit is growing inside me. As his arrival nears, something inside me thrums, something stronger than kicks or hiccups—something inside my chest, the beating of ten thousand shimmering wings.
He nuzzles in my lap like a baby animal and tells me my breasts are soft pillows for his head. He tells me, in our whispered conversations, “I always wanted a mommy like you. Out of all the mommies in the world, I wanted you. I’m so happy you’re mine.”
And I tell him, my voice breaking, “I always wanted a little boy like you. Out of all the babies in the world, I wanted you. I’m so happy you’re mine.”
Then, for the ten thousandth time, I kiss his feet.
Laura Resau is the award-winning author of seven novels for young people, all set in places where she’s lived or traveled, including Mexico, France, Guatemala, and Ecuador. Her most popular books with adults—Red Glass and The Queen of Water (both Delacorte/Random House)—have gained prized spots on Oprah’s reading lists for teens. Resau’s travel essays have appeared in anthologies by Travelers’ Tales, Lonely Planet, and others. She lives in Colorado with her husband and young son, and donates a portion of her royalties to indigenous rights organizations in Latin America. For photos and more about her writing, please visit www.Lauraresau.com. “Barren in the Andes” won the Grand Prize Silver Award in the Seventh Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.