Juan Felipe Guerrero de Ortega, only son of El Primadór, was thirty-six years old when his marriage to Marta Sánchez was announced. Marta was the daughter of Hector and Isabela Sánchez, the most affluent family in Tierra de Pluma. She was just seventeen. The two families announced the arrangement with great pride, as the union would align power and wealth in the governance of the tiny island nation for generations to come.
When Felipe and Marta met for the first time on their wedding night, neither was duly impressed. Before they were formally introduced, Felipe regarded Marta from afar. He had seen her before without ever really noticing her. She was smallish, shapely in places, but with a plump face, a little too much tummy, and funny little balls for breasts. Her hips were the narrow hips of a child, not at all suited for bearing children of her own. As she mingled among the guests at the wedding gathering in beautiful Santa Lucia, she conducted herself as a peasant, and she clung openly and unabashedly to the arm of an equally provincial young man known only to the other guests as Raúl.
Marta, upon their introduction, turned her eyes quickly from Felipe back to Raúl. She knew everything about Felipe and had since she was a child. Every girl in Tierra de Pluma did. This marriage, however, was no choice of Marta’s. Felipe was prematurely grey, old enough to have fathered her, and appeared older still. He was much too skinny. His hair was greased up and back in an outdated pompadour. A pronounced ridge on a long thin nose and naturally sunken eyes created the comical look of a cartoon bird. It was only minutes before the ceremony was to begin, and it was the fear in her eyes Marta hoped to hide by averting them.
Two quiet, reluctant, and unfamiliar people took their vows that night before the delighted and drunken cheers of half the island’s haut monde. Music and merriment commenced. All throughout the reception, Marta continued to give her full attention to Raúl. Guests began to gossip. Hector’s angry looks and Isabela’s stern whispered warnings changed nothing. The girl danced and flirted about with the boy she loved. In her heart and in her mind, it was the last time she could, and so she did, until finally at the end of the evening, her indentured groom cut in.
“Perdón señor, may I have this last dance with my wife.”
The words were polite, but the manner in which he brushed the young rogue aside was a reminder of their respective places in society. Marta’s love was torn from her heart and brushed aside with Raúl.
Felipe’s stature, his sure feet and gentle hold, the musicality of his steps, caught Marta by surprise. For a moment, her fears were soothed, but this was the last dance. The ceremonial suite was prepared, and she was well-rehearsed in her country’s custom. Their marriage would not be complete until the two had been united as one, conjugado. Marta understood that she had the same right as every woman before her. To exercise that right, El Pase Libre, was to refuse her husband sexual favor. She also understood that it was considered the ultimate insult to the man’s family for the woman to do this, and that no woman before her ever had. Neither the grace in Felipe’s dance nor the fragrance of his cologne could still her anxious heart.
Soon after the dance, as the guests carried the fiesta on into the night, Marta sat frightened on the edge of their marital bed, unsure of what to expect. Thoughts of this moment, one after another, had been pushed hastily into darkness in the back of her mind. She had dreamed often of sex, but with the handsome young man who had begged her in whispers to invoke El Pase when the time came. Soon those dreams would be dashed forever. Trembling noticeably, she fought against tears as Felipe approached her.
“Is it so terrible? Am I so terrible?” he asked as he stood before her.
Marta shook her head. She could not bear to look up at him. The practiced words of El Pase danced upon her lips, tugged at her tongue, but she dared not utter them.
Felipe settled down onto the bed beside her, full of his obligation. He reached into her lap and took her clenched hand into his.
“Do you think I am blind?” he asked softly. “Do you think I have not seen your feelings for this Raúl? The way you whisper to each other? The way you dance every dance with him?”
Again Marta shook her head. Guilt washed over her. Already she had publicly shamed her new husband. “Forgive me,” she said with forced strength. She pulled her hand from his, stood, and walked from the bed. Slowly, she unfastened her dress, letting it fall to the floor. Felipe watched in silence as she disrobed until she stood wearing nothing but a single tattoo, a clave de sol, on her leg. She had allowed the tears to fall as she undressed and she could not turn to face him.
Felipe’s eyes focused on the tattoo. “And if I must forgive my wife her feelings for another man, how can I believe in the ones she shares for me?”
When she had wiped her eyes, Marta turned bravely to face him and found him standing quietly behind her holding the dress he had picked up from the floor. He barely looked at her as he held it out to shield her from his eyes. Marta was filled with bewilderment. It was considered an equal insult to the woman for the man not to fulfill his marital commitment on their wedding night, an indication that she was not suitable for him, a rejection of her and of her family. Thoughts of Raúl quickly filled her head, but it was shame that filled her face.
Felipe shook his head kindly. “Do not be ashamed,” he said. “It is from respect that I offer this, not insult. Clave de sol. Are you a musician?”
“I played the violin,” she answered, clutching the dress thankfully to hide her naked body.
Marta told him of her love for Frédéric Chopin, of her favorite nocturne. She told how she and Raúl had first met at a cantina where she had been playing, of how he made her laugh. Felipe never made any advance. He listened. They talked into the night until at last they retired to sleep, each on their own side of the bed. But Marta could not sleep. Her fear had been replaced by rejection. The more they had talked, the more she had warmed to his kind eyes and his infectious laugh. He was bright and personable and charming, if a little stuffy in his manner. When at last she had timidly lowered her dress and reminded him that their marriage was not conjugado, he had simply smiled and assured her that no one would be the wiser. After she was sure he was asleep, she let herself cry quietly.
When morning came, Marta rose up early and sneaked silently out before dawn. Felipe awoke, and upon finding himself alone, set out immediately to find her. The town of Santa Lucia was the home of Tierra de Pluma’s busiest market place and it was there that he finally found her shopping with her parents before their departure. He joined them awkwardly. Hector and Isabela would not speak to him. Marta would not even look at him. Poor Felipe could not be sure what she had said to them, what they must be thinking of him, so the four of them walked from shop to shop together in anguished quietude.
Presently, they entered into a shop full of musical instruments. There, Felipe touched his finger to the keys of a majestic grand piano on display. Finding it to his liking, he seated himself, and as no one dared tell the son of El Primadór he could not, he began to play. The instrument rendered beautifully the tones of Chopin’s nocturne no. 20 in C# minor. Marta was entranced. It was the piece she had told him was her favorite. She sat next to him on the bench and watched mesmerized as he played. Finally with the nerve to speak to her, Felipe pulled Marta aside upon leaving the music store.
“Your integrity is safe, Felipe,” she said softly. “I’ve seen how you would not look at me. I’ve told mamá y papá that I invoked El Pase Libre. The marriage can be annulled. The shame will all be upon me and upon the name of our family.”
Felipe folded his hands behind his back. He stood up straight and looked solemnly into her eyes.
“Marta, I confess at first I did not see beauty in your face. It is I who must be forgiven. I had not yet seen you smile an angel’s smile. I saw only your fear and the eyes you have for Raúl. Yes, at first I saw only a young girl with idle thoughts in her head. I had not yet heard you speak with the voice of la doña. I did not know that you were so rich with ideas and that when you laugh it fills my chest with your joy. It is true. Our marriage is not yet conjugado, but I swear to you: it was truly out of respect that I turned away. Has not the music of our souls united before we have? I admit to you, we are new and I cannot profess a love that has not yet grown. But I know if you will give it the chance, that our love will flourish and that I was meant to love you as I could never love another.”
Hector and Isabela Sánchez, stood watching the body language of the unconsummated couple’s conversation from a distance. The shame of their daughter’s decision would hang over them for the remainder of their lives. Perhaps it would not bring their family to ruin, but the Sánchez name would never again hold the affluence it had once held. They turned their backs to her as one, when in tears, she left Felipe’s side and came running to them alone.
© 2014 Anne Schilde