Mexican-Canadian author Martha Batiz tells an extraordinary story about a mother and her ill-fated septuplet daughters.
Across the entire region, people spoke about Doña Toña’s multiple births for weeks. Seven strong and healthy baby girls had issued from their mother’s swollen belly, screaming at the top of their lungs. No sooner had Doña Toña finished breastfeeding the lot of them than a ravenous appetite roared again in those who were first to take their turns. For thirty days and thirty nights she didn’t sleep, dutifully offering each child her chance to feed. After only a week of diligent toil, her breasts resembled the udder of a large cow. At the beginning, Doña Toña didn’t have time to dwell on the changes her body was undergoing. It was only later, when others brought it to her attention that she was growing smaller and smaller as the little girls grew—as if the milk her daughters drank robbed her of a piece of herself every day—that she decided to wean them. Choosing names for them was almost as difficult as distinguishing one from the other, so Doña Toña finally opted to call them all “María.” That way she would never make a mistake whenever she addressed them when calling their names.
Doña Toña and her seven Marías lived in a large house on the outskirts of town. The girls would often raise a deafening ruckus, because whatever befell one afflicted all with equal intensity. If one of them slipped and fell in the yard, it was as though all seven had taken a tumble, and their wails upset their plump mother, who would scurry from one of her daughters to the next, attempting not only to console them all at once but also to discover which one had sustained actual harm.
As they grew older, the seven Marías saw their problems multiply sevenfold. In all, they suffered forty-nine cases of appendicitis, measles, and mumps, fourteen fractures, innumerable scrapes, sprains, head colds, and upset tummies, not to mention the terrible pandemic of toothaches brought on by one of them who had a particular predilection for sweets. At school, each time a boy yanked on one María’s braids, all the girls cringed in pain—and afterward they would seek their revenge by surrounding the culprit and spinning around him until he was faint with dizziness.
As they entered their adolescence, their shared conflicts started to become more serious. Every time one María would try to remove a pimple on her face, the other six felt the pinch and became annoyed. And so it was that in addition to shopping every week for food and supplies, Doña Toña had to acquire roses and peaches by the dozens to make ointments for the girls, which she hoped would cut down on the number of arguments that flared up along with the blemishes.
In truth, the whole village was amazed by the patience and constant good disposition that Doña Toña showed as she took her seven daughters, single file, to visit the doctor, to hear Mass said, to attend school—they were always together. Mother had to cure their insomnia, alleviate their aches and discomforts, calm their anger, and satisfy each whim and curiosity: each month, the seven Marías suffered cramps through six menstrual cycles besides their own, an equal number of burns from pots and pans, and pricks from needles during evening knitting. Yet Doña Toña was never too weary to attend to their needs. In fact, she seemed to possess the stamina and energy of seven women.
But the situation took a decided turn for the worse when one of the Marías fell in love for the first time. Suddenly, all seven lost their appetite, their heart rate soared, they found it impossible to concentrate when studying or sewing, and they often ruined the dishes they cooked, but since only one of them had a genuine reason to be suffering, the other six were beset at the confusion they felt. Doña Toña found herself trapped between deep sighs and fierce squabbling, although most of the time her Marías were daydreaming, absorbed in their thoughts: they hummed tunes they’d made up as they sprawled out on the lawn or lounged in silk hammocks or drank lemonade in the old mosaic-tiled courtyard. Their mother was so worried that she devoutly prayed a rosary for each one of her daughters every day.
After several weeks had passed, María could stand it no longer and went looking for Juan to confess her love to him, but she was so embarrassed when she came face-to-face with him that her six sisters could not summon the courage to get out of bed that morning. They were all flushed and tormented, so Doña Toña had to brew six pitchers of linden tea with chamomile blossoms before setting out to search for the missing María. Furious and desperate, their mother scoured the streets of the town in vain, because no one could tell her anything about her daughter’s whereabouts.
When she returned home, she panicked: her six daughters were naked, smiling excitedly, and dancing around the house. They proclaimed they were feeling a strange tickling sensation all over the body, one that was especially pleasurable between their legs. Doña Toña lost her temper and her patience, and quickly ordered them all to take a cold bath and apply mint- and eucalyptus leaf-compresses. María, in Juan’s arms, reclining on the grass, shivered with cold, but that only caused her to embrace him with greater enthusiasm. Even under the effects of the cool water, the chorus of moans in Doña Toña’s house made the walls quiver. The insults and blows that the mother rained down upon her daughters only seemed to make matters worse. The runaway María had resolved to resist with all her might the feelings and sensations that her sisters transmitted to her and, in spite of the pain all over her body, Juan’s kisses and caresses relieved her discomfort.
Ultimately, however, the cumulative bruises of the sisters took their toll, and all seven Marías began to cry. Faced with María’s unexpected tears, Juan was so terrified that he fled the village. His María was so hurt, yet simultaneously so rapturous, that she was incapable of running after him. The sight of him disappearing half naked among the bushes brought on a profound depression. She shouted after him until her voice grew hoarse and her crying became uncontrollable.
Night had already fallen when Doña Toña found her. Her daughter’s overwhelming sadness lessened her fury in the same way that the appetite of her young ones had diminished her own size, and so she merely tried to comfort the lovelorn María and help her walk home without reproach or questions of any kind. Indeed, she profoundly regretted having struck her Marías for the first time, and swore to herself that it would be the last.
Once reunited with her seven Marías, Doña Toña didn’t know which one to console first. María couldn’t stop crying for her lost love, and the others suffered along with her. The tears were so copious that the floor of the house began to flood. Doña Toña gave up on the idea of using absorbent towels and had to bring out her cups and jars first, then a couple of rusty buckets to gather up the water. The more María remembered Juan, the greater the distress she felt, and the more they all wept. Doña Toña finally emptied all her liquor, sauce, and vinegar bottles so she could fill them with tears. In a few days the whole town knew what was happening in the house and, motivated more by curiosity than by compassion, the village women showed up with more containers to contain the tears, which flowed without end.
It was by accident that Doña Toña decided to sell her daughters’ tears. One of the neighbor women had carried away a jarful and, when she mistakenly drank out of it, she sank into disconsolate weeping all afternoon. After repeating the experiment, other women found it useful for when they had to attend a funeral or, as the shopkeeper’s wife could attest, to blackmail her husband into giving her anything she wanted. Soon all the women in the village wanted to get their hands on a bottle or two of María Tears, to store them away and have them on hand for whenever the occasion warranted. Thus, they began to pay Doña Toña in exchange for her daughters’ tears.
Not only did the tears of the Marías never cease; they became more and more abundant. María grieved away perpetually for Juan, but she also bemoaned the sorry state in which her sisters found themselves. They, in turn, cried because of María’s desolation and despondency, and also at their own plight. Their desperation mounted as they looked at each other and felt there was no escape from their misery. Doña Toña would have gone mad if it weren’t for the fact that such sobbing and screaming had driven her deaf a few days after the disaster began.
Gradually, news of Doña Toña’s tear-store spread throughout the surrounding area. Men and women from everywhere started to arrive, hoping to obtain tears to cry at any occasion. Lawyers came from as far away as the city, asking to purchase several bottles to help their clients perform heartrending spectacles in front of a jury; adulterous women sought out the coveted fluid in order to convince their husbands of their undying love; men wishing to appear contrite in the eyes of offended lovers also yearned for a jar of their own . . . The processions leading to the tear-store were endless.
Doña Toña would not have become absolutely exasperated if her Marías, after so much crying, had not begun to shrivel up. The good woman was even more frightened when she discovered that the more shriveled they became, the more fearful they felt, and the more they continued to cry. Numerous doctors called on them to diagnose their condition, but none of their elixirs helped. Doña Toña even hired the funniest circus clowns for miles around to make the Marías laugh, but when the clowns saw the unfortunate girls they too felt so sad that despair set in, and they could not muster a single amusing stunt. Neither the cleansing rituals of the most famous witch doctors nor the blessings of priests from neighboring parishes could exert a calming effect. As a last resort, Doña Toña agreed to search for Juan, but she could not find him in any of the nearby towns. She offered all the money she had earned at her tear-store as a reward to anyone who could bring him to her house and reunite him with her daughter, but to no avail. Long lines of counterfeit Juans showed up at their door, disheartening the unfortunate María and aggravating her propensity to cry.
Despite Doña Toña’s efforts, the seven Marías grew more and more shriveled. Thus began the prayers of desperation, the impatience and anxiety, and, ultimately, the silent curses amid the fountain of tears. Doña Toña had them drink exotic fruit juices and rubbed sandalwood lotion on them because she feared that, after shedding so many tears, her daughters would be bone-dry.
For ninety days and ninety nights she cared for her daughters tirelessly, feeding them, anointing them, wrapping their bodies in sheets, towels, and bandages, but all her exertion was in vain. The incessant weeping suddenly caused the Marías, who were already shriveled, to begin shrinking as well. Exasperated, Doña Toña shut down the tear-store and, ranting and screaming, drove away all the customers and curiosity seekers milling around outside her house.
No one heard any news of the family until, several days later, Doña Toña walked to the village for the sole purpose of asking the local craftsman to fashion seven small boxes made of mahogany, each to be painted with one of the colors of the rainbow. She ignored the comments and questions the townsfolk directed toward her, and flatly refused to accept any company on her return trip home.
With her bare hands she dug a hole in the sunniest corner of her yard and in it, with the utmost care, she placed the seven tiny containers, carefully positioning them as close to each other as possible. Then she went to sit down in the old armchair on the terrace. Gazing absently toward the lawn, she waited for time to erase her from the face of the earth and, along with her, any trace of what had happened in that place.
Las siete Marías © Martha Batiz. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 Martha Batiz. All rights reserved.