He Comes While We Are Walking

By

When I tell the story about my great-great-grandmother’s braid, listeners get chills and sprout small smiles, as if they want to believe me but can’t allow themselves the indulgence. My friends say something like, “That’s some 100 Years of Solitude shit,” because, luckily for me, their stereotype of Colombia is more literary than pop-culture. I agree—these stories have a way of finding me that I don’t understand. And, they find me just in time.

The story begins with my grandmother’s paternal grandmother, her namesake, Mamá Inés. I’ve barely heard anything about this ancestor; she’s far back enough in my lineage that there exist few photos of her and even fewer firsthand memories. I’ve seen three photos: one with her husband commemorating fifty years of marriage; one of her smoking a cigar in a rocking chair surrounded by other women from our family; and one of her holding a great-grandchild, an infant by the name of Beatriz. Despite being only a few years older than my mom, they met only once or twice in their youth. Beatriz grew up in Medellín, with a different branch of the family, and my mom grew up in California, mainly visiting her aunts and first cousins in Barranquilla. It’s Beatriz who bears our story, and she does so with great care.

 

There is time and there is memory. Time seems to stretch forever, but memory is like water: it evaporates, lies dormant, rushes back to you, happening now and in the distance, here and far away. If you touch one part of it, the other part feels it, too.

 

Mamá Inés grows up in Sonsón, a small town in the mountainous region of Antioquia, in the late 1800s. It’s a town with deeply embedded customs and social agreements—a place where duty is celebrated and celebration is dutiful. Inés is thirteen years old when the incident occurs. The day of our story is a Sunday.

Young Inés walks with her babysitter to the morning mass, wearing two braids long enough to rest on her shoulder blades. It is early, and the air smells of damp bricks, tinto, and shoe polish. Inside the church, incense replaces the fragrance of the plaza outside, and Inés prays, she scratches her cheek, she daydreams. When she leaves the mass, she walks slowly through the plaza of Sonsón, several paces behind her babysitter, because she is in no rush. She doesn’t understand why everyone rushes everywhere. An energy of possibility pervades the square, and it hooks her. She wants to stay in this rhythm for a while, to avoid going home for a few more Sunday morning minutes.

 

There were only three blocks between me and Walgreens—a quick journey down 16th Street to buy binder dividers, of all things. It was the same route I took every evening before disappearing into the BART station and under the Bay, past bars already attracting regulars, a trendy but empty jewelry store, the glowing Roxie Theater, Pancho Villa Taqueria, and the guy grilling hotdogs and onions outside the bank doors. A pressure point of gentrification and homelessness in San Francisco, these blocks of the Mission trembled simultaneously with activity, resistance, and collapse. In another era, my mother and grandmother took the train here from the East Bay to pick up Latin cooking products, like masarepa and plantains. But right then it was just the way to Walgreens and the way back to work, the distance between an errand accomplished and the rest of my Thursday.

 

We were not violence before violence was done to us.

 

He is already there, in every scene, watching her enter the church, watching her leave the church. He has been following her for weeks now and knows her routine. Apparently, he waits for her. Apparently, he’s taken with her beauty. Nobody knows who he is, exactly, but it doesn’t matter. He is the faceless man who comes and goes with satisfaction, having gained power over someone both coveted by and inaccessible to him.

 

Between Guerrero and Valencia, I heard a man making weird noises behind me. He may have had a runny nose, or maybe he was spitting up phlegm—I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t think much of it. I’ve heard a lot of shit on 16th Street. Then I felt someone too close to me. It wasn’t just the sounds behind me, heard through my headphones; I could feel a presence parallel to mine, within my sphere of sensation but not quite touching. I walked faster, uninterested in turning to spur a possible confrontation. Once I passed the Little Roxie, I no longer felt the man’s presence. I may have even seen him pass me, watching his back as he blended into the bustle of 16th and Valencia.

Thirty seconds later, I felt a coolness on the seat of my pants. Still walking and almost to Walgreens, I looked back quickly, seeing a drop of something, a blue streak where the wet fibers appeared starkly deeper in tone than the dry fabric. I wondered if something had dripped from a sign or a telephone pole. Unconvinced, I wondered, Did that guy just spit on me? I arrived at Walgreens, the thought of spit still in the back of my mind, to find a gate guarding the door, through which I could see the empty shelves of a building in transition.

 

He sees her at ease, and he knows it is his moment. He approaches stealthily and with a quick maneuver of his pocketknife, he severs her left braid in half, leaving her suddenly unbalanced and frayed. He takes the detached piece with him, disappearing into a crowd, down an alley, never to be identified, beat up, ostracized, or rehabilitated. (I don’t know what is possible for men like this, but I imagine these are the alternatives to camouflage.) I can feel her muscles seizing, her diaphragm freezing, her body curving into a defensive position: Protect the arteries, the intestines, the soft tissue. The moment of her stillness, though brief, lasts for an eternity.

 

For an eternity, for generations, for one hundred and fifty years. Frozen here together for who knows how long, we both begin to tremble.

 

I headed back to work, taking a different route. With less people around than on the main drag, I took the opportunity to actually check out the back of my pants, like when you think you’ve bled through a tampon or your menstrual cup has leaked, straining your spine to see straight-on the point where everything converges. What I saw was a carefully targeted mark of what looked like a bodily fluid, but not the one I’d initially thought of. Oh my god. That guy came on me. That guy fucking came on my pants, and I didn’t even notice. I wished that he had spit on me, that he had done it with disdain and contempt. That would be better than this. This quiet and intimate violation. This public display of untouchable violence. This faceless man who comes and goes with satisfaction having gained power over someone both coveted by and inaccessible to him.

 

When Inés gets home, her mother cuts off half of her other braid, because walking around with wildly uneven hair is some combination of socially unacceptable and a personal source of dread. The braid is preserved, passed down the generations until it finds itself in the hands of Beatriz, who carries it ever so gently and with great reverence, before offering it to a distant niece she has never met but who seems interested in family history and folklore, who extends herself continuously to maintain a connection to the country of her foremothers, who may be worthy of this legacy.

She offers the braid to me.

 

I wonder what we must cut off when part of us is forcibly taken. What do we let go of to find balance? Does it actually help, after all, or are we just twice as empty?

 

I know, my title sounds so crude now, so base. I’m sorry if it took you off guard. It doesn’t feel good, does it? I didn’t see it coming either.

Beatriz offered me the braid in January 2020, over a hundred years since Mamá Inés became the subject of an infamous public encounter with one of history’s many creepy, violent, and ultimately covert offenders. When my own violation occurred that same week, I wasn’t sure what solace her story was supposed to provide me. Truly some 100 Years of Solitude shit. I presumed at the very least that I needed to tell someone what had happened to me. Someone who could help me cut the other braid.

I think of Mamá Inés feeling conflicted after that day, lighter due to the unexpected trimming of her hair and heavier as she carried the awareness of her body in public. I think of her returning to mass each week and walking briskly home, looking around to distinguish the familiar back of a man’s head, and quickly looking away again if she thought she recognized him. I think of her lingering in the Plaza de Sonsón despite her heightened vigilance, defiant or resigned, drinking tinto into the afternoon under the trees. I honestly don’t know if she felt assaulted or admired, how she needed to contextualize or integrate that formative experience of her nineteenth-century youth. I know that she married young, had many children and grandchildren, and eventually moved away from Sonsón and lived long enough to see her great-granddaughter be born. I know that she was loved by those who knew her, by Beatriz and by my own grandmother, who mostly remember her loving them.

 

We treat these lesser assaults like wounds of trees—count ourselves lucky, compartmentalize, and grow around the abscess. Marked, but still alive.

 

The name Inés is the Spanish equivalent of Agnes. It is said that Saint Agnes of Rome was a thirteen-year-old virgin martyr who, unwilling to marry one of her many noble Roman suitors, was reported as a Christian and condemned. Supposedly, she was dragged naked through the streets to her execution, and as all the boys she rejected tried to brutalize her, her hair grew instantly around her body to protect her. I think she probably just didn’t want to marry those dudes. I think she was a child, not a martyr. Even so, at nearly twice her age, I aspire to her level of embodied subversion. My admiration and my grief are not for her sanctified, so-called purity but for her stubborn agency, her somatic autonomy, the casual nature of her transgression: No, I will not marry you.

 

That night my friend Eliza came over. She cried when I told her the story. She laughed when I made jokes about it (Fuck, I wish this happened yesterday when I was wearing my ugly-ass work slacks) because I should be allowed to do that. Because the whole thing was absurd. She held a plastic bag as I slowly lowered the pants into it, trying to avoid touching her hands with even the uncompromised lengths of fabric. She took them home with her to wash or to save as evidence, depending on what I decided to do.

A few days later, I reluctantly emailed the SFPD sex crimes unit. I thought maybe they had received other reports like this, maybe this man was already registered as a sex offender, maybe all they needed was DNA to link everything together, maybe it would keep this from happening to another woman in San Francisco.

I never heard back.

 

I see you, and I know what your pain is. The knife is yours, now—do with it what will leave you the strongest. Remember where you are tender.

 

I don’t actually have the braid yet; Beatriz will mail it to my grandpa in a few months when she visits the States. But I already have what was destined to be mine: I have word from the ether. If I held silence or shame before, I have none now. He has taken those with him. These words will belong to all my children. They will fall from above, will break through stone, will rise toward the light. Like memory, like water, like the truth: 

If you touch one part, the other parts feel it, too.

***

Rumpus original art by Liz Asch.


Liliana Torpey lives in her hometown of Oakland, California. Her work has appeared in Trend at UCSD and Kosmos Journal, and in 2018 she self-published her first chapbook of poetry, Sol(a). She also writes and performs on-the-spot typewriter poetry for audiences and individuals. In addition to writing, Liliana has practiced participatory theater at the Center for Theater of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro and with Tijuana/San Diego-based artists addressing the politics of the Borderland. More from this author →