Room of the Three Windows

by Rebecca Huggins
It was not long after the flood that Padre[1] became sick. His sickness had begun as a simple aversion to some of the meals that my mother prepared, but slowly progressed into what the people of Iguitos, Peru have referred to as the Great Sickness[2]. When the medicinal woman, Isidora Ortega told us that there was little she could do for my father in his progressed stage of illness, our family mourned him as if his life had already been lost. Madre[3] spent the days in sorrowful contemplation, while Abuela[4] Adela held her silent vigil over her bead working. My younger brother, Hernan, was too small to truly understand the sudden dark cloud that had been placed over our lives, and Tia[5] Consuela was the only one who managed to keep a cheery, though artificial disposition during that time. Without resent, she cooked, cleaned, and maintained the household singlehandedly, allowing Madre the opportunity to mourn the loss of her husband in peace.

On the Sunday following, I was helping Tia make manjar blanco[6] to help brighten the otherwise somber mood of the home. Hernan was busy playing in the sugar and licking his fingers happily, while I stirred the large pot of milk. Tia was bustling about, giving us orders, and sticking a chubby finger into the concoction to test it occasionally. When I was certain that Hernan was not listening, I asked Tia a question that had been bothering me as of late.

“Tia, why are we mourning Padre? He is not dead yet, and still, we act as if his spirit has passed.”

Tia Consuela made a sorrowful face and wrapped one of her strong arms around me. “No tears, Carmen. Your father was a great man, but has lived his life. Sometimes things happen we can’t control.”

We ate our manjar blanco and laughed for the first time since my father had contracted the Great Sickness.

Later that day, I went to see Padre who was staying in Isidora Ortega’s small floating home in Belén. Father was in a bed in the back of the shack, behind a curtain that kept the flies and the mosquitoes out at night. He was pale and gaunt, covered in beads of perspiration. Occasionally he would open his eyes, though never focusing on any one thing, and seldom did I actually feel he recognized me as Carmen, his daughter, the young girl he used to lift high up above his head and spin around in circles, laughing, dreaming, and never thinking that life would take such a horrible, drastic, turn. It was difficult for me to look at him without crying, but I was the only one in the family who still came to see him, still hoping that he would open his eyes and remember, and I did not want him to be alone. I did not notice the medicine lady sit down behind me until she placed her boney hand on my shoulder, and I wiped away my tears shamefully, wanting others to believe I was stronger than I was; wanting them to see a woman rather than a timid child.

“You know, Carmen, that you do not have to come,” Isidora said slowly.

I nodded my knowledge of this fact, but did not say that I had to come; that it wasn’t a choice that I made but a need.

She sighed and nodded, as if she heard my silent thoughts. “I see a lot of death, little Carmen. Too much death and not enough life,” she sighed again and her eyes were sad. There was something knowing in them, however, and my tiny flame of hope rekindled within me.
“Are you sure there’s nothing that can be done?” I asked again, perhaps for the hundredth time.

Rather than shaking her head and hurrying me out of her home as she had done on every other occasion, she looked at me with those sad eyes. “There is one thing,” and having said the words, it seemed as if a great weight had been lifted from her aging shoulders.

“What? What is it?” I asked breathlessly, my eyes widened and my heart racing with hope.

“It’s so dangerous, Carmen, please promise me that if I tell you, you won’t go; you’ll stay here, in Iquitos, with your Madre and your Tia, and your little baby brother who needs you, and your dear old Abuela.”

I took her hands, and met her gaze, encouraging her to speak.

“Deep within the Amazon you will find the Cinchona tree. The bark of this tree is used to make Quinine, a medicine that helps treat Malaria. I have been treating your father’s pain, but I can’t stop this fever. With the herb, I might be able to do something for him. But remember, Carmen, you promised you would stay here. Don’t go searching for dreams that can’t come true.”

I nodded again, and hugged her, and left the little home in Belén with a rebirth of hope inside of me, for despite her desperate desire for me to stay in Iquitos, Isidora Ortega knew that I had no choice but to go deep within the rainforest and find the great Cinchona tree, to save my father’s life.

I left early the next morning, before the sun could rise from her slumber. The rainforest was dense, and I knew that it would be many days before I would find the tree I sought. I held a small picture of the tree in my hand, which I had taken from a book Abuela Adela had in her bedroom. It did not look like a tree of life, it being so small and rather plain, but to me it looked like the Savior, Himself, His arms spread like the many branches of the tree. I kissed Hernan on his chubby cheek, and whispered to him that I would be home soon, to not worry, and to never feel as if I’d abandoned him. Though he wouldn’t understand my words, I felt comforted having spoken them, and I left our small home with pride in my heart.

The rainforest was dark and untrustworthy at the best of times, but made exceedingly more dangerous at night. I was unperturbed, however, as I stepped into the thick trees and began my long journey through the forest. I walked for what seemed like hours. I walked until I could no longer feel the bottoms of my feet, and my arms were cut and bruised from the numerous tree branches I’d scraped my arms against along the way. The sun was up now, and it made the forest even more humid and unbearable. Yet I kept walking, searching for the tree, never stopping, not for a moment.

After much of the first day had passed, and I was well into the thick of the forest, I stopped to have a drink of water from the canteen I’d brought with me. I opened the flask and let the cool liquid fill my mouth and pour down the back of my throat, filling me with a renewed sense of being. So relaxed was I that I found myself leaning against a rather large tree, with a thick trunk, the width of five men or more. Slowly I felt my eyes begin to flutter and before I knew it, I was asleep, curled up against the base of the tree. Little did I know what kind of tree this was, for as Abuela Adela had always told me when I was a little girl, the rainforest was a place full of many wondrous things, though many things were not to be trusted. Not only did tigers, anacondas, and other horribly dangerous creatures reside within the forest, but even the trees themselves were not to be trusted. La Lupuna, as Abuela had always said, was a giant tree with a belly, like that of a human’s. When it saw a lost traveler among its midst, it would lure them in, comforting them and offering them shelter against the other dangerous creatures of the forest, and when the traveler was fast asleep, its giant belly would open and swallow the traveler whole. I dreamt that such a thing had happened to me and I was fighting my way out of the giant tree’s stomach when I opened my eyes and realized that I was only dreaming. I looked about myself and found that it was completely dark, the sun was no longer hovering above the canopy of trees, and now the forest was filled with the constant hum of a thousand creatures or more, buried deep within the forest.

I dusted myself off and continued on my way, alert and cautious. It was not long before I came upon some strange tracks. Unfamiliar as I was with animal tracks, I examined them to the best of my ability and found that the left print was very small, and almost childlike, while the right imprint was perfectly round, much like the imprint left by a walking stick. I scratched my head in confusion, considering whether or not it was possible that another human could be in the forest with me. Then looking up, I was shocked to see what appeared to be my brother, Hernan, waving to me, only a few feet away. I rose to my feet, horror filling me; could he have snuck out of the house and followed me? Desperate, I called to him, but the moment I did so, he turned and began to run away from me, laughing, as if we were playing some sort of a game. I chased after him, calling to him as I did so, but never once did he stop. His laughter became more and more pronounced, and he weaved in and out of the trees, going deeper and deeper into the jungle, never once looking back. At last, exhausted and completely out of breath, I stopped running, tears of frustration swelling in my eyes. The possibility that I might not only lose my father but my younger brother horrified me and filled me with a surge of energy, and I continued to pursue him. But then, as suddenly as he had appeared, he vanished, his laughter echoing into the stillness of the forest, reverberating against the trees and filling the forest with an unnatural chill. My eyes were wide with fear, and slowly I realized that the thing I had been following must have been El Chullachaqui, the devil of the Amazon. I recalled the stories that my mother used to tell me about how the creature would disguise himself as the physical form of a hunter’s prey or a loved one, tricking them deep within the forest, and leaving them on the very edge of a cliff or in a trap. New tears of frustration burned down my cheeks as I wondered how I could be so foolish to fall for such a thing. I slept fitfully and restlessly that night, lost and alone, deep within the Amazon Rainforest.

The next morning I awoke and the sun was already bright above the trees. I proceeded on my search for the elusive Cinchona tree, but now I was so thoroughly lost, I doubted I would find my way back home. I came upon an opening and before me was a running stream, beautiful and clear, a myriad of fishes swimming peacefully down the rushing current. I stopped to wash my face with the cool, refreshing water. And then I heard it; the sorrowful cry of a woman, mourning the loss of a child or another loved one. It was so piercing that the sound lulled me into a kind of stupor. I wanted to follow it, to go towards it, to comfort it. I stepped into the running stream and immediately lost my footing. I hit my head against a rock, and all was consumed by blackness.

When I awoke, I was no longer traveling down the stream, but I was in fact in a beautiful clearing, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of Cinchona trees! I rose to my feet in awe, laughter escaping from my lips, and I went to them, kissing them, thanking them, and then thanking the Amazon itself, for it had done nothing but led me to the trees, helping me and guiding me the whole way. I chose the healthiest one I could find, and carefully took out a pocket knife and scraped bits of bark from the tree’s trunk. It seemed to glow with pride, for having been chosen for the task, and I quietly thanked it for what it had given me. Then after I had plenty of bark, a great array of Macaws appeared, beautiful, each a different color, singing delightfully and calling to me to follow them. I did not disobey, and I pursued them as they led me back—back towards my home and my father.

It was sometime before my family could accept what I had done, but when they saw my father healing and talking again, each day better than the last, their praise of me could hardly be enough. I visited my father every day as I had done when he was sick, and slowly he became the father I had always remembered him being. Still I know, deep within me, that it was not me who saved my father that day, but in fact the Forest itself, who seeks to help its weary travelers who come to it with nothing but love and compassion in their hearts, and ever the slightest bit of faith.
© 2010 Rebecca Huggins. All rights reserved.

[1] Father
[2] Malaria
[3] Mother
[4] Grandmother
[5] Aunt
[6] A traditional Peruvian sweet made by slowly and gently cooking pure, non-homogenized milk to thicken gradually adding sugar. In some regions other ingredients such as vanilla bean, citrus juices, cinnamon, and even rice may also be added

About the Author

Rebecca Huggins is a graduate from East Tennessee State University where she received her master's degree in education, and is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Black Lantern Publishing and its imprints, Broomstick Books and Crow's Nest Magazine. She holds a literature degree in English from King College. When she isn't writing, reading, or editing, she's spending time with her husband, two dogs and cat, watching movies and listening to Swedish rock bands.