In Hope Chest, sixteen-year-old María Angélica De la Cruz arrives from a semester away at school to discover that frightening changes have taken place at home in the island of Chauquelín. Her prodigal cousin, Juan Bórquez, returned after a long absence, picks up bullying Angie and her younger brother, Fabián, where he left off five years ago. Her mother not only denies the abuse, she defends Juan and demands that Angie accept his proposal of marriage. Even her father, blackmailed and in debt, reluctantly concedes that Angie must give up her dreams of education. And beneath the surface, Angie suspects that the local witches’ coven has cursed her family. She must find the courage to resist. But breaking the spell may mean breaking faith with everyone she loves and everything she’s ever known.
Archipelago of Chiloé, Southern Chile – December 1968
Even for South America, I grew up on the fringes of modern society, at the border of turmoil and terror. We Chileans are people of countless contradictions, but that year I turned sixteen, the hairline between magic and reality widened from a crack to a chasm.
Our president then was the illustrious Don Eduardo Frei Montalba, leader of the Christian Democrats, yet instead of his speeches, we young people listened to the Beatles and the Beach Boys on the radio whenever we chanced out to civilization on the Big Island of Grand Chiloé. News of the space race and the war in Vietnam trickled down to us from the north too, of course. Our naval hospital in Viña del Mar attempted a heart transplant before Dr. Barnard of South Africa, and in Santiago the university students marched and sat-down ahead of the Americans—though with less hope and even less success.
More than eight years had passed since the greatest earthquake in recorded history rocked our island province, but it might as well have been eighty for all we remembered. Our neighbors continued to perch their palafitos, homes-on-stilts, at the ocean’s precarious edge, the easier to guard their boats from petty thieves, naturally. Never mind the Great Wave that might dash away in a moment everything they had built over a lifetime. And still we ran to God only when the storm winds swelled to such proportions that the church-tower bell rang on its own.
More than eighty years had passed since Chilean politicians, in a panic to ferret out spies during our War of the Pacific, held the last of the world’s witch trials and forced the Righteous Province—our whispered name for the mystic guild of covens in Chiloé—deeper underground than ever. Compared to the rumored goings-on in the cave of Quicaví, the scandal of Rosemary’s Baby that year sounded almost as innocent as the Christ Child. Obviously, we were slow to learn there too. Instead of sweeping the cobwebs from our gloomy corners and breathing the pure air of ‘life and hope’, as President Frei put it, we cowered in the shadows, mired in the sludge of an occult underbelly.
Fear not. Those words I memorized for the Christmas pageant that year saved me from the storm. From the chains that bound me to my fate, from the crate of vain hopes I clung to, built of sand and sawdust. The deeds of our Righteous Province became for me filthy rags and withered leaves and rudderless ships, driven before the wind.
Once I feared them. Then, dressed in the Righteous One, I feared them no more.
I danced into the orchard to find an herb, but discovered my brother weeping instead.
It was fennel I wanted. Around the borders of our century collection of apple and hazelnut trees, one of my ancestors had set out rows and beds of every medicinal plant we Chiloé islanders knew. The fennel—hinojo, we called it—would be in bloom this time of year, its butter-yellow flowers sprinkled among the feathery green leaves on celery-like stalks. Señora Carmen Gloria had caught me at the village dock, her newborn son in arms, to ask what to give the squalling infant for colic.
While my mother midwifed, cured illnesses, and gathered herbs on our island of Chauquelín, she never sought out the shrouded coven of machis to learn more of their secrets. She was too much in love with my father to defy him in that way. But she’d made me her own apprentice, and I recommended fennel tea with a little chamomile, or catmint if I could find it.
Of course, at our house Mamá stocked shelves of jam jars and powdered-milk tins refilled with bushels of dried herbs. But I did not want to head home just yet. I hadn’t seen my family since the winter school vacation in July, but… Señor, let me smell the roses first. Mamá would shove a hoe into my hands before I had a chance to unload the groceries from my feed-sack bag.
I took the roundabout route from our village of North Head, up the steep esplanade to the rain-washed church lording over the cliff, through the gaudy-yet-grim graveyard—quickly—and onto the choked track south, along a ridge that formed the spine of our island. The shore path would have taken me to my front door in an hour, less if I marched fast, but then I’d risk my mother trapping me as I hustled through the yard toward the orchard.
Humming my new favorite tune, “Mrs. Robinson,” I twisted off the main path and ducked into the wilderness of the island’s western flank. The writhing arm of an arrayán bush grabbed at the silver embroidery on my simple home-sewn dress and snagged it. A knot pulled tight in my stomach. Pucha! I’d made it myself from half a dozen well-bleached flour sacks, under my profesora’s critical eye, and debuted it just last night as an angel in the school Christmas pageant.
I’d fix it, I’d have to since I had little else to wear around the house. I had to save my navy jumper and blouse for the next school year. Wool in the summer, even in southern Chile, not for me, thanks—though some Chilotes never took it off. And Mamá would be scandalized if I brought out those bell-bottom blue jeans my friend Emilia had given me in town.
So I’d be stuck cutting holes in my feed sack and belting it around my waist if I couldn’t mend this cotton shift enough to get through the next couple of months. I couldn’t wait for the summer to finish, so I could hurry back to high school in Castro on the Big Island of the archipelago. Two more years…
I twirled on the toes of my black penny loafers—Papá always made sure I didn’t go barefoot—through the wild-rose-draped arch into the orchard. I’d locate the fennel for Señora Carmen Gloria and take it back to the village for her before facing—
A snuffling under the gnarled limbs of an apple tree alerted me to the presence of another living creature. How had Mamá’s pig gotten loose and all the way up here? Obviously not yet too fat to waddle far. I would not willow-whip him back to his pen now, but at least I could chase him into a downhill course.
I pushed aside the thick tent of branches that pooled around the tree. My eleven-year-old brother, Juan Fabián, lay stretched out on the patchy grass, belly-down, his head in his arms.
Definitely not the pig. “Faby?” I whispered. I didn’t wish to embarrass the poor kid. “Are you all right?”
His dark head flew up, whacked into a tree limb, and drew a long scratch across his brow as he scrambled up and crab-walked out past me into the afternoon sunlight. Squinting, he stripped the leaves off a branch as he pulled himself to his feet. “Angie. You’re back. Mamá expected you—hic—on Saturday.”
“I stayed the weekend. A Christmas program.” I hugged and kissed him, and then gawped at his face.
I considered my little brother, five years younger, the handsomest boy in the province, and I knew a good many of them from studying in the island capital since seventh grade. Faby had eyes and skin as golden as a perfectly-fried milcao, hair the color of fresh-brewed coffee.
But today the ripe apples of his cheeks shone like purple plums. He wore a mottled mask of bruises around his eyes and a split lip to match. Blood trickled down the side of his face, and it wasn’t only from the new scrape on his forehead.
“Dios mío,” I blurted. “Seriously, what happened to you, corazón?”
He wrenched his arm out of my grasp and sprinted toward the archway. “Fell down in the woods. It’s nothing, Angie. I’m glad you’re home.”
I ran after him, but he had already leaped the brook. “Don’t tell Mamá I’m here, vale? I-I want to surprise her.”
Even though he barely acknowledged me with a wave, by the direction in which he barreled along the edge of a lacy green field, I knew he was headed toward our hidden lookout spot, El Mirador, not toward home.
I released a sigh. I could trust Fabián anyway. We were close as clamshells.
Still, he had lied to me. Why? He certainly hadn’t bashed his face up that horribly with a mere tumble in the woods. He wasn’t that clumsy, and the terrain wasn’t as rough as all that. A fist-fight with one of his pals? Or…had he sneaked off somewhere he wasn’t supposed to go? Papá had prohibited us wandering near the deep coves on the northeastern side of the island. Threatened us within an inch of our back hides. The witches…
Next Projects – Angélica’s Story
- Hope Chest (Baúl de Esperanzas) – What if the man Angie’s mother picked for her turned out to be a monster?
- Joy Ride (Paseo de Alegría) – If Angie accepted David’s offer, it would mean a journey of no return for them both.
- Grace Stroke (Golpe de Gracia) – In the island, Angie and David had finally escaped the trouble…or had they?
- Love Knot (Nudo de Amor) – Angie never expected life with David would be easy, but…
- Peace Work (Obra de Paz) – How could Angie build a nest in a place like this?
- Truth Test (Prueba de Verdad) – Why was David’s government so interested in a boy’s visions from God?
- Honor Code (Código de Honor) – Finally, what really happened to Fabián De la Cruz?