Rómulo and Julissa is a chapter from a novel entitled The Twelve-Year Chaqwa: A Time of Suffering and Chaos. The title refers to the twelve years (from 1980 to 1992) during which the Shining Path guerrilla movement launched a violent insurrection in Peru. Ultimately, the conflict claimed more than seventy thousand lives, the vast majority of which were native Amerindians. In the novel, I try to tell the story of that period of Peruvian history from the perspective of all its major players: the Shining Path rebels, the Peruvian military, the Catholic Church, the activist feminists, the quechua peasants, the jungle Ashaninka people and Abimael Guzmán himself, the brutal founder and leader of the Shining Path.
Rómulo and Julissa is a fictionalized story, but it is true to life. The conflict between the Shining Path guerrillas and the Peruvian military was essentially a civil war. In civil wars, sometimes family members find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. In certain circumstances they find themselves killing each other. This was also true of the Shining Path insurrection. It is not unlikely that during the twelve-year insurrection, lovers found themselves pitted against each other. In the end, this chapter does not try to convey a political message, but to pay homage to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and ultimately to say something about the human condition and the power of love.
Rómulo and Julissa
Run away, my love! And be
like a gazelle, a wild stag
on the mountains of spices.
Song of Songs 8:14
“For they had lived together
long enough to know that
love was always love...
but it was more solid
the closer it came to death.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
When Rómulo and Julissa met at the Salsodromo, not knowing that was the moment when the past and the future were forever riven asunder, they both blatantly lied to each other, knowing there was nothing else to do. Each of them had an inadmissible secret. Rómulo could not tell Julissa he was a lieutenant in the Peruvian military. The Shining Path had “a thousand eyes and ears,” and if he disclosed he was a soldier, his life would be in mortal danger. More than one military man had been killed by a senderista sniper in broad daylight in the department of Ayacucho. For her part, Julissa couldn’t tell Rómulo that she was a guerrillera, a member of the all-woman squad of the notorious Shining Path guerrilla Comrade Bárbara. So they each offered each other invented lives. Rómulo told Julissa he was a mechanic working at a garage on the Avenida Bolognesi. Julissa lied and said she was a sociology student at the Universidad Nacional of San Cristobal de Huamanga. And slowly, during that first conversation, the two began to fall in love. They were both lovely in their own ways and after having met, they both dreamed only of each other. But they should have dreamed of death instead.
Rómulo was the son of a Basque butcher and an Amerindian woman who had worked as a laundress all her life and whose life had been ruined by his father to such an extent that the woman ended her life by committing suicide. Rómulo was copper skinned like his mother and had the ardent green eyes of his father. His emerald eyes betrayed his picardía, a picaresque mischievousness which had led to the ruin of more than one virgin and more than one married woman. All of his friends celebrated his wit and his labia – his ability to use words almost in a poetic manner in order to seduce the women he desired. He was a master of the piropo – a florid expression of flattery – and knew that women were more likely to succumb to a man who praised their beauty than to a man who was beautiful himself. It was not that Rómulo didn’t realize he was handsome in an uncommon manner. It was just that he realized that to court a woman, it was necessary to use poetry rather than rely on one’s own beauty.
“You have to be slow and subtle,” he told Ignacio, one of his fellow officers, when telling him how to seduce a woman. “You can’t deliver the estocada until the bull is ready. The woman has to be in the right condition for you to be able to pierce her heart with the sword of your seduction.”
For her part, Julissa also had an uncommon beauty, an enticing silhouette and eyes which had something mournful about them, as if she had already endured a great tragedy at the young age of seventeen. Julissa had never been with a man in a carnal sense, although she had killed her share of them under the tutelage of Comrade Bárbara. She maintained her virginity not because of any religious scruples, but because she had never loved a man and felt love was necessary in order to give oneself entirely to a man’s embrace. Unlike Rómulo, Julissa was a full-blooded Amerindian who had taken up arms as a response to the undeniable oppression of her people. Whereas Rómulo had been raised comfortably in Lima, Julissa had grown up in Patasucro, a tiny Andean hamlet in the mountains of Ayacucho which was marked by its great poverty.
The Salsodromo was essentially a great cavernous hall with chairs and tables where groups huddled together to drink beers, pisco sours or cuba libres. A large orchestra played salsa and chicha music – a hybrid of the Colombian cumbia, the Andean huayno and American rock and roll. They also played huanynitos and had all the musical instruments required: the quena, the harp, panpipes, the saxophone, charangos, violins, guitars and mandolins. All of the musicians were dressed in red ponchos and beige hats. When Rómulo first spotted Julissa, she was at a table with her friend Carlota, a fellow senderista who often allowed herself to be “picked up” and often after a night of dancing found herself in a strange man’s bed.
“You see that one,” Rómulo said to his friend Ignacio, pointing at Julissa. “Tonight, I’ll make her mine. I have no doubt about it.”
“Tumbachola!” exclaimed Ignacio as he downed a pisco sour. He was a white man and a lieutenant in the Peruvian army. “Tumbachola” is a vulgar expression meaning to knock a quechua woman – a “chola” – into bed.
“She’s lovely, isn’t she?” asked Rómulo.
“And her friend isn’t much worse,” Ignacio answered, “although she’s a little heavy. You can take the chola and I’ll take her friend.”
The two girls looked like two innocent teenagers celebrating a night on the town. No one could guess they had blood on their hands like Lady Macbeth.
“Hurry!” said Rómulo to Ignacio. “They’re playing a huaynito. I’m an expert at dancing the huaynito.”
“You? A man from Lima? I thought only the Indians knew how to dance the huaynito.”
“My mother’s family is from the highlands. Never forget that, Ignacio. Every summer my cousins would visit me and taught me all the Andean traditions.”
“Well, I suppose I’ll have to sit this one out,” Ignacio lamented. He was a tall, stout man built like an ox and, like every white man in Peru, had no idea how to dance the huaynito.
“I’ve heard the huayno ayacuchano is Communist music in any event,” he scoffed.
“Too bad for you,” laughed Rómulo. “There is no better way to capture a woman’s heart than through a dance. A woman prefers a one-eyed man who can dance a lusty marinera to a blue-eyed boor with two left feet.”
Then Rómulo advanced to the table where Julissa was sitting with Carlota.
Rómulo addressed Julissa.
As is the custom, he put his white handkerchief on Julissa’s shoulder as he asked her to dance and then offered her his right arm in a movement labeled the wayñukuy by the quechuas. Julissa initially made a gesture to decline, saying she was just watching. But Carlota looked at the man from top to bottom, liking what she saw, not only his green eyes but also his sinewy athlete’s body, and told her friend not to be shy. So Julissa took Rómulo’s hand as he led her to the dance floor. Rómulo thought she walked with the grace of a gazelle. Once the two arrived to the dance floor, they began the vigorous stamping of their feet.
“I’m not much of a dancer,” Julissa excused herself.
But that was not altogether true. She easily danced in syncopated rhythm with Rómulo, approaching him and then retreating from him multiple times, as if she were an expert in the huaynito, in its simulated act of seduction and retreat.
“The huaynito is the soul of our people,” Rómulo replied. “I’m sure it’s in you. I can see it in your lively quechua woman’s eyes.”
“Misery became a poem,” replied Julissa in Rómulo’s ear as she danced. “Hunger became a huaynito, and the wound to calm its pain was transformed into a crimson rose.”
“So you’re familiar with the huaynitos of Walter Humala?” asked Rómulo. “I’m surprised a woman as young as you would like his leftist music.”
“Appearances can be deceiving,” replied Julissa. Not knowing Rómulo was a soldier, she let her guard down as she spoke. “I think the best huaynos are those which sing about the oppression of our people. The red rose is a symbol of the prisons where so many of our brothers and sisters are unjustly punished.”
“I prefer the ones that sing about love and happiness,” said Rómulo, trying to avoid political subjects. He well knew that nothing could thwart an attempted seduction as much as a discussion of politics. He also knew that certain huaynitos were considered música de protesta by the masses – music of protest – and that those by Walter Humala and Ricardo Dolorier, both sons of Ayacucho, were deemed to be anthems of the Shining Path. Walter Humala’s support of Sendero couldn’t have been much clearer: “Chewing on your misery,” he wrote, “trying to mitigate my hunger, sharing in your punishment, Andean huayno, I learned about freedom among prison bars and chains.” Rómulo hated the Shining Path with all his might so he could never enjoy music celebrating their feats. And even Humala’s love songs sang of terrorists in chains.
Rómulo was now very glad he hadn’t told Julissa he was a soldier, for he realized that would have nipped the relationship in the bud. Julissa hadn’t said much, but she had said enough. As his Basque father used to say, to the man who understands well, few words suffice.
“Love and happiness…” mused the young ñusta. “Yes, I like those huaynitos as well. I see no contradiction between the huaynitos that sing of a love for a woman and those which sing of love for the people. Humala often sings of sexual love and love for the revolution in the same breath.”
“For my part, I like the huaynitos which remind us of the carnival,” countered Rómulo. “El carnaval ayacuchano as they say. Those which sing of joy, inciting the quick zapateo, all feet tap dancing to the same beat. Those are the huaynitos which my cousins taught me as an adolescent. I like the huaynitos which do not preach, but above all are meant to be danced with joy. I like the traditional huaynitos, not modern-day political arguments disguised as music. My favorites are Mambo de Machahuay, El pío pío and Malarina – all brimming with happiness, love and hope, and having nothing to do with politics.”
As the orchestra played, Rómulo and Julissa continued to speak with each other as they danced. The more Julissa said, the more Rómulo understood the politics of the seventeen-year-old girl. He didn’t want to talk about politics – and neither did she – but almost unintentionally their conversation gravitated toward political subjects. Perhaps it happened because it was in their nature. It was in his nature to be a soldier and in hers to be a senderista. They saw everything – even dance and music – through the prism of their political identity.
“I think all the arts, music, poetry and even painting,” said Julissa, “cannot avoid references to the subjugation of our people. Everything else is clever and meaningless artifice.”
“So that’s what you think?” Rómulo inquired.
“It was only with Jose Sabogal that Peruvian painting developed its indigenista character and that made for better art, not for mere imitations of Spanish religious subjects. And the same can be said for the novels of Ciro Alegría or Jose María Arguedas. If they hadn’t written about the quechua peoples, their works would have been forgotten long ago.”
“I’m not so sure,” Rómulo responded.
“As you said,” Julissa continued, “the huaynito is the soul of our people. It has survived four-hundred years of the white man’s incessant domination, which in its own way is a form of rebellion. And our peoples’ soul has long been a martyred soul. The music has to reflect that. And it has to speak to the fact that many of our quechua brothers and sisters are imprisoned only because they want to improve the lot of the campesinos.”
Rómulo didn’t want to argue, first and foremost, because he was sure it would ruin the evening, but also because he had no interest in hearing political diatribes in the mouth of the girl he was trying to seduce. At the same time, the young girl’s intelligence intrigued him. This wasn’t any ordinary ñusta – worried about only her daily chores – but a woman who had thought through the history and art of Peru at a deeper level and had come to her own conclusions at the age of seventeen.
As a man from the coast, Rómulo had certain prejudices about Andean women and expected them to be unschooled and ignorant. So slowly, without his even realizing it, the girl’s brightness enticed Rómulo all the more. He concluded that Julissa outshone all the other women he had been with, the white mistis as well as the native runas. He felt a sudden tenderness toward her even though he agreed with little of what she said. As the son of a ruined quechua woman, he understood Julissa’s lament about the condition of the Amerindian, but he could never agree with the proposed solutions of the Shining Path nor with Julia’s contention that the rebels were unfairly incarcerated. Nevertheless, despite their obvious disagreements, Julissa was the stuff of the nocturnal dreams Rómulo had had since his adolescence: a quechua woman who was more intelligent than him. Rómulo no longer just desired to possess Julissa’s olive-skinned quechua woman’s body, although he desired her curved figure intensely. He also wanted to make a conquest of her soul.
As far as Julissa, she also experienced a keen desire. Little did she know that the man she was falling in love with was a man she was sworn to hate and kill.
After they finished dancing, Julissa allowed Rómulo and his friend Ignacio to sit at the table where she had been sitting with Carlota. Before Ignacio arrived, Rómulo advised Julissa not to discuss her theories about the subjugation of the Indians with Ignacio, for Rómulo said his friend was a “radical reactionary.”
Rómulo was a soldier, trained to hate the senderista rebels and all they preached, but he understood the peasants’ plight. Ignacio, on the other hand, was a white limeño, impervious to the quechua people’s centuries-old oppression. The only thing Julissa would obtain by continuing with her political arguments with Ignacio would be to cause him to fall into an uncontrollable rage, for the man had seen some of his fellow soldiers killed by the senderistas and blamed everything on the quechua peasants who protected Comrade Bárbara and Comrade Carlos, leaders of the two Shining Path guerrilla squads in the area. Rómulo didn’t realize that some of the dead soldiers mourned by Ignacio might have died at Julissa’s hands.
At the end of the night, Julissa and Carlota agreed to allow Rómulo and Ignacio to accompany them to their small, one-room apartment a few blocks away from the Salsodromo. As was to be expected, Carlota quickly retired to the bedroom with Ignacio, leaving Julissa and Rómulo alone in the living room. Rómulo quickly realized that he wanted more than a one-night stand with the idealistic ñusta. When they sat down, Rómulo said something he did not expect himself to say.
“I don’t mean to be abrupt, Julissa. But I think I love you.”
And then he kissed her fully on the mouth.
Suddenly Julissa got up from the sofa and told him he had to leave. The truth is Julissa was green when it came to physical love. She was startled by Rómulo’s confession that he loved her, particularly since she recognized that Rómulo had undeniably moved something powerful within her, which for some odd reason filled her soul with dread.
“This is all happening too quickly,” she said. “I’m not like my friend Carlota. You and I barely know each other.”
“Promise me that you’ll let me see you again,” pleaded Rómulo. “It’s not like Ignacio and Carlota. I want to offer you something more. Please don’t tell me that I’ll never meet with you again.”
“I’m not sure. My life is so complicated, Rómulo.”
“Please, Julissa! Tell me when we can see each other again.”
Julissa hesitated. She knew a normal relationship with an ordinary man was virtually verboten to her. But her heart told her something different and she relented.
“I’ll be busy for the next two weeks,” replied Julissa, not telling him she would be on an “expedition” with Comrade Bárbara. “You can meet me at Doña Juana’s restaurant on the Avenida Miguel Grau at noon on the third Sunday of the month.”
Rómulo blurted out, almost in tears, “I love you, Julissa. I know it seems sudden, but I have never felt such a feeling for any other woman. I’ll meet with you whenever and wherever you want. I promise you’ll have my undying fidelity and unfailing love.”
At the time, Rómulo did not realize that for a few desperate souls love and death are intertwined, nor that for some doomed couples love inexorably leads to catastrophe, to an unavoidable shipwreck without survivors.
Early in the morning of the third Sunday of the month, Rómulo visited the rectory where Padre Rogelio, the army chaplain, lived. The priest seemed surprised to see him, never having been approached by Rómulo before.
“What brings you here?” asked the chaplain. “You’ve never graced me with a visit in the past.”
“I want to get married,” Rómulo confessed. “Perhaps next Sunday if it’s possible.”
“Rómulo wants to marry,” Padre Rogelio said with a smile on his face. “Is it true, Rómulo? After all, everyone knows you’re a womanizer and a rogue.”
“I’ve met the woman of my life, Padre Rogelio. I didn’t realize it immediately, but I’ve never felt such tenderness for any woman in the past. I can’t sleep. I barely eat. All I do is think about her, night and day, when I go to bed and when I wake up at dawn. And I’m sure she’s a virgin. I don’t want to take advantage of her innocence. She’s not the fleeting object of my attention. I want her hand in marriage.”
“What is the name of the woman? Is it someone that I know?”
“Her first name is Julissa. I’m afraid I don’t know her last name.”
“Now let’s back up a little, Rómulo. You want to marry her in a week, but you don’t even know her name. For how long have you known this woman?”
“I met her three weeks ago at the Salsodromo while I was having drinks with Ignacio Peña. But I know I love her. I want our union to be sanctified by God.”
“When did you propose to her? This all seems rather rushed.”
“I haven’t yet,” replied Rómulo. “I intend to do so this afternoon.”
“So you’re not even sure that she’ll accept. I think it’s best to slow down a bit. Court her for a while and then we’ll see if she wants to marry you.”
“I know she does, Padre Rogelio. When I kissed her briefly, I could tell that there was a sublime desire in her heart. And if I don’t marry her immediately, I’m afraid I won’t be able to contain myself. I know that as a priest, you don’t want me to give in to unbridled lust when a saintly marriage is possible.”
“Since when have you been a Catholic? I’ve never seen you even close to the chapel when I say the Mass.”
“Let’s say my love for Julissa has coincided with my conversion to the Faith. Love makes one believe in God. It makes the wayward and weary soul seek solace in Christ. Whatever is noble, whatever is good, whatever is beautiful – that is what my love for Julissa leads me to seek. Never have I enjoyed classical music as I do now. Never have I been as mesmerized by the song of the quena nor as enchanted by the wild garden verbena which blooms in spring. The whole planet speaks to me of love because everything lovely reminds me of Julissa. Even the sweet mango which I eat with delight makes me think of her.”
“Is she a Catholic too? I don’t need to tell you that for many in this wretched Ayacucho, a Catholic marriage counts for nothing.”
“I do not know, Padre, I do not know. All I know is she’s very idealistic, that she strongly believes in social justice.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve fallen in love with a Communist. ‘Social justice’ is a code word for revolution in many quarters. Have you even told her that you’re a military man?”
“No, but if that’s an obstacle to my union with Julissa, I’ll give up on the army in an instant. Self-denial is sometimes a requirement of love, as you well know. Haven’t you given up everything because of your love for Christ?”
“This all seems half-baked to me, Rómulo. Such grave decisions can’t be made on a whim. You’re confusing love with infatuation, with a passing fancy. Under the circumstances, I’m not sure that I can marry you. I always favor long engagements.”
“But what if she says, ‘yes’? What if she agrees? Instead of blessing our union, you’re forcing us to live in sin. I tell you our marriage is ineluctable.”
“How old is this woman? How does she make her living?”
“You’re asking me for a lot of information I don’t have. I gather she’s about seventeen and that she’s a sociology student at the San Cristobal de Huamanga University.”
“That’s not a good sign, Rómulo. You have to get to know her better. I’m sure you realize that university is a hotbed of Maoist indoctrination. That’s where the Shining Path leader hatched up his plans for insurrection and terrorism. Maybe she supports Abimael Guzmán. Maybe she’s an atheist, an hereje, a woman without faith.”
“She’s much too young to be a subversive, father. She has the idealism of the very young. I’m sure she shares more with Don Quixote than Abimael Guzmán.”
“Be careful, Rómulo. This might be a fleeting emotion on your part. Only a fool makes a decision to marry in a rush.”
“You say that because you’re a priest and have never loved a woman. Those who laugh at scars have never truly felt a wound. You don’t realize that the man who loves is first and foremost a martyr because true love is a torment. I wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and expecting to find her at my side, for she visits me in my dreams. Even the memory of her voice enchants me. On other nights I succumb to the worst case of insomnia, nervously smoking one cigarette after another until the dawn finds me and only then can I sleep for an hour before bugle call.”
“Well, if you persist in your delusion, I suppose I have no alternative. Assuming she consents to marry you, I shall not object. I can conduct the ceremony in a week. But be forewarned. I think you’re acting in haste. Marriage is supposed to last a lifetime.”
“Thank you, Padre Rogelio. You’ve lifted a boulder from my heart. There is only one palliative for my disease.”
“Just one more thing,” said the priest.
“Don’t be unduly disturbed if she says ‘no.’”
Rómulo arrived at Doña Juana’s restaurant on the Avenida Miguel Grau at noon on the dot.
Julissa was already sitting at a white table beneath a parasol, munching on the cancha the waiters brought before the guest ordered her meal. She was wearing a simple floral dress, with no lipstick on her mouth and a gray boina on her head above her twin black braids. Rómulo saw the beret adorned by a five-pointed star and for an instant was reminded of that worn by Che Guevara, but he quickly eliminated such divagations from his mind. Padre Rogelio had been an alarmist, after all. Just because Julissa said she was a student at San Cristobal de Huamanga University didn’t mean she was a Communist. And if it was, it didn’t matter. What man cares one whit about the political philosophy of his lover?
Rómulo was heartened to see that she welcomed him with a radiant smile. Truth be told, he hadn’t been quite sure she would appear for their rendezvous. But he had prayed for her to come to the restaurant. Lord, how he had prayed! Rómulo hadn’t been lying when he told Padre Rogelio that he had experienced a newfound faith in Jesus when he discovered he was in love with Julissa. He had been desperately afraid that she wouldn’t show up, that he would never see her again. But now she was there, in the flesh, telling him with her deep, dark eyes that she had been waiting for him with expectation too.
“I’m glad to see you,” he said in a tremulous voice. “You don’t know how joyful I am that you didn’t miss our appointment.”
The womanizer – the ravening wolf – had become as harmless as a lamb, not desiring merely to bed Julissa, but to make her soul his own.
“I was looking forward to seeing you too,” admitted Julissa. Then she blushed, averted her eyes from his, and whispered, “I’ve been thinking of nothing else.”
Rómulo recognized it was an awkward moment for Julissa and tried to give her a lifeline.
“Were you able to resolve your business, the reason you had to leave Ayacucho?”
Julissa didn’t know what to say. How could she tell him she had left town because she had to participate in the armed ambush of a police station in Apurimác?
“I had to visit one of my aunts,” she lied. “The woman was very sick.”
“And now she’s well?” Rómulo asked.
“Yes,” Julissa lied again. “It was a fleeting fever in the end. What about you? Have things been very busy at the mechanics’ shop?”
Then it was Rómulo’s turn to lie.
“No more than usual,” he answered.
At some point, if he was to marry her, he’d have to admit he was a soldier rather than a mechanic, but he wasn’t sure at what point to do so. Should he first propose to her, or should he first tell her he had deceived her about his work? He opted to propose to her first and then deal with the fabrication later.
“I want to cut right to the chase,” he announced. “I wanted to meet with you to ask you to marry me. See? I’ve brought an engagement ring.”
Julissa hadn’t expected a marriage proposal so soon, but she would have happily joined him in marriage if not for the fact that it was impossible. A guerrilla could never marry a man who wasn’t also involved in the armed struggle.
“I’m flattered,” she said. “But marriage isn’t in the cards for me. I’m afraid I can never marry anyone.”
“Why?” queried the disappointed Rómulo. “If it’s because you’ve lost your virginity, that won’t be a problem. If you can accept me with my past, I can accept you with yours.”
“No, that’s not it,” admitted Julissa. “I have my reasons but can’t explain them to you.”
“Tell me, Julissa. Do you love me?”
“More than you can imagine,” she confessed. And then she began to weep. “But it’s just not possible to marry you.”
“Is there another to whom you’re betrothed?” Rómulo persisted.
“Yeah, sure, that’s it.”
“Don’t lie to me, Julissa. Whatever secret you have is no greater than the love I have for you. I could accept you even if you were a common whore.”
“If you want to take me to bed, I can satisfy your desires. We can delight in each other for a night, but I can’t join you in a committed relationship. In how many ways must I tell you the same thing?”
“I don’t want you for a moment. I want to consecrate my life to yours. Is it that you’re a lesbian? Is that your great secret? I can’t think of another.”
“I’m a Shining Path guerrilla,” Julissa brutally confessed. “You’re a peaceful mechanic. We live in two different worlds. My life is waging war against the Peruvian state and all its lackeys, killing soldiers to rescue the peasant classes. How can I ever join with you in a marriage?”
Rómulo felt he was swooning, fainting, dying.
“I love my most hated enemy,” he stammered. “I would have preferred for you to be a prostitute a hundred times. Or a simple Communist interested only in books, not an actual terrorist.”
“I’m sorry,” said Julissa. “I wish things could be different.”
“Well, let me tell you my own secret now,” Rómulo shouted. “I’m a lieutenant in the fucking military. I hunt down guerrillas for a living.”
And then he abruptly left the restaurant after gulping down his beer in a single swallow.
Comrade Bárbara’s squad of women, including Julissa, had taken over the tiny hamlet of Chuburbamba at dawn. By the early morning, the red hammer-and-sickle flag of the Shining Path blew in the winds above the plaza. Only a few policemen had stood in the way of the rebels. The senderistas had blown up the police station with dynamite and killed them all at once.
Later in the morning, Comrade Bárbara convened all the comuneros to the plaza and announced that Chuburbamba was now a zona roja, under the command of the Shining Path. She also instructed her women to bring the mayor to the center of the plaza, where his juicio popular – his popular trial – would begin. After she read a litany of charges, the comuneros, anxious to please the ruthless Comrade Bárbara, had declared the mayor guilty of all the charges. The mayor was promptly hanged as the comuneros nervously applauded. None of them wanted to be suspected of being anything other than fiercely loyal to the Shining Path, for they knew that “traitorous” peasants were also hanged.
Comrade Julissa followed all of Comrade Bárbara’s directives to the letter, doing everything in a mechanical fashion, for her thoughts were elsewhere. It was Julissa who had tied up the doomed mayor and was thus directly guilty for his death. But there was no intentionality in her actions. She was thinking only of Rómulo as she complied like an automaton with her leader’s demands to participate in the mayor’s execution.
If Comrade Bárbara had ordered her to jump off a cliff, Julissa would have easily complied, not only because of her deadened state, but also because she could not contemplate a life without her beloved Rómulo. And now she had to prepare to hunt him down and kill him if he was with the soldiers who would soon rush to Chuburbamba to liberate the town. It always happened that way, the senderistas would take over a village and the military would soon follow, seeking to oust the Shining Path. What a horror, thought Julissa, if she was forced to face off against Rómulo, undoubtedly her implacable foe but also the only man she could ever love.
At around four in the afternoon, the military arrived and there was immediately an exchange of gunfire. Julissa took her double-barreled Winchester and began to shoot into the distance, without seeing the faces of the men she was shooting. Perhaps her Rómulo was among them, thought Julissa. She would prefer to be felled by the soldiers’ bullets a hundred times rather than be among those who killed her Rómulo.
She prayed to a Christ she did not believe in but for a moment thought there was nothing else to do. Let death, not Rómulo, take my virginity, if necessary, but don’t let me be the one who takes Rómulo’s life. Let me be a martyr for his love if I must. And suddenly she stopped shooting and let the gun fall at her feet. She could not go forward with the charade – that she was a ruthless guerrilla who only wanted to shed the military’s blood – and briefly thought of shooting herself in the heart with her own Winchester as a sacrifice to her love.
In the end, the few soldiers who attempted to oust the guerrillas from Chuburbamba failed miserably and the plaza was strewn with their bodies as the senderistas celebrated victory. Julissa moved silently among the corpses on the ground, terrified that one of them might belong to Rómulo. When she saw a cadaver with a demolished face, she almost fainted, thinking the dead man was her beloved, but after her initial reaction, she took a second look and concluded the body belonged to another. At that very moment she thought that if Rómulo was not among the dead, she would forever forswear the Shining Path and marry Rómulo in a church. Yes, Chairman Mao had said that the revolutionary must love the revolution more than any mortal being, but Julissa was not Chairman Mao. She would gladly give up on the revolution if that meant a lifetime at the side of Rómulo. And if she was killed for trying to escape the Shining Path, so be it. Death did not have the same sting as living in the absence of her Rómulo.
That night she decided to confront Comrade Bárbara directly. Julissa knew that it was a secreto a voces – an open secret – that Comrade Bárbara was a lesbian who had abandoned her lover to join the Shining Path, but she could not have acted otherwise as Abimael Guzmán tolerated no homosexuals among his cadres. Perhaps, thought Julissa, Comrade Bárbara would empathize with her plight and let her leave Sendero to marry the man she loved. Or perhaps Comrade Bárbara would order a swift ajusticiamiento to make an example of her for the other militants in Comrade Bárbara’s squad.
At all events, Julissa had made an irrevocable decision. She was abandoning the revolution forever. It didn’t matter whether she would plunge into the arms of Rómulo or jump into the abyss of her death. Either way, she would no longer belong to the Shining Path. So she knocked on Comrade Bárbara’s door, making de tripas corazon.
“How can I help you?” asked Comrade Bárbara as she opened the front door of the small, thatched dwelling where she was spending the night.
“I need to speak to you about an urgent matter. We need to speak now.”
“Yes, I gathered that it was urgent. It’s almost midnight.”
“I’m sorry,” said Julissa. “It’s just that it took me some time to figure out what I should say.”
“Get to it, Julissa. What matter is so important that you would rouse me in the middle of the night?”
“I’m not quite sure how to put it. I’ve given it a lot of thought.”
“Go on,” commanded Comrade Bárbara.
“It’s just that I have decided to leave the Shining Path. I want to ask for your permission to leave the cadres.”
“You want to quit the armed struggle?”
“I joined the revolution when I was just fifteen, when I had no attachments and –”
Julissa paused again.
“And what?” demanded Comrade Bárbara.
“And I’ve met a man.”
“He’s asked for my hand in marriage, and I want to become his wife. I don’t think I can be a married woman and at the same time be a guerrillera. It’s one decision or the other.”
“Well, it’s out of the question. You have sworn yourself to the Shining Path, body and soul. Every senderista has to give up her private life for the sake of the revolution. I know everyone thinks I have a heart of stone, but before having a heart of stone, I had a heart of flesh. And I had to sacrifice everything for the cause of Presidente Gonzalo. I can understand more than you might think.”
“I know about her,” Julissa said tentatively, looking fixedly at her leader’s eyes, “the famous senderista lawyer whom you abandoned, Brígida de la Torre. You made your choice. I want to make another.”
“Traitorous guerrillas are routinely hanged. I can’t let my cadres leave the squad every time one of them is smitten with a man – or a woman for that matter.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about hanging me. If I can’t marry my beloved, I shall take my own life. After having met him, life is no longer worth living without him. So give me the pistol now and I’ll do the deed.”
Comrade Bárbara’s eyes softened, thinking of her own decision with mixed feelings. She still remembered Brígida de la Torre so much time after their separation. She could count with exactitude the years, the months and the days since she last saw her. Hers was a chaste love – enforced by the Shining Path itself – but it was a reality nonetheless.
“Do you really love him?” she asked.
“It’s sheer delirium,” answered Julissa. “He’s so elegant, so clever. He has the habit of command.”
“And you would be willing to commit suicide if you could not join him?”
Julissa was imperturbable.
“It’s not an empty threat. I love him more than you can imagine.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Comrade Bárbara said pensively. “Even after so much time has passed, I live with a stubborn nostalgia. But my allegiance is to the armed struggle, not to a capricious love.”
“That was your decision,” responded Julissa. “I don’t want to be a martyr. I don’t want to live a life of prostration and suffering.”
“Well, then go with him,” announced Comrade Bárbara. “If you think your juvenile fantasy is more important than the revolution.”
“So you are releasing me from my obligations?”
“I am, but not immediately. You’re one of my most efficient warriors. I’ll have to find someone to replace you. For now, you can return to Ayacucho, but I’ll need you in about ten days.”
“Thank you, thank you,” cried the enamored ñusta . “I now see bliss in my future. I shall see an end to my sleepless nights.”
“It will get worse,” Comrade Bárbara opined. “With love you never know. Things always get fucked up in the long run.”
Early in the morning of her first day in Ayacucho, Julissa wrote a message to her beloved. After sealing it in an envelope sprinkled with agua de azahar – the scent of oranges – she gave it to the shoeshine boy at the corner with instructions to give it to a man with green eyes named Rómulo who could be found in the army headquarters on the periphery of the town. The boy took the money she gave him – it was more than he earned for three hours’ work – and made his way to the barracks. On the way, he found a bunch of boys playing dice and decided to play with them. As a result, he did not arrive at the army base until two o’clock in the afternoon. But he found Rómulo and gave him the letter.
“Who sent it?” inquired Rómulo.
“A girl named Julissa,” the boy responded.
Rómulo began to read the missive out loud as his hands began to sweat and tremble so much that he could barely hold the letter.
“My dearest Rómulo, I just wanted to let you know that I agree to take your hand in marriage. Don’t worry. I have decided to quit the Shining Path forever. My love for you is greater than my faith in the revolution. If you want, we can meet at the church in the plaza at noon tomorrow. Of course, I understand if you no longer want me to be your wife. But if you do, please respond to my letter. You can give your response to the shoeshine boy who is bringing you my message. He will bring it to me. I also expect that you will quit the military.”
Rómulo suddenly burst into tears. Then he started to write his letter desperately.
“Oh, Julissa of my heart! You have lifted the great cloud which tormented and fatigued my spirit. Of course, I will quit the military although I can’t do so for another three months. And I would be delighted to make you my wife. I realize that you are giving up something important to you. I know that you are not a guerrilla because of any depravity of spirit, but because you feel you are helping the peasant classes. I appreciate that because of your love for me you are willing to change your entire life. I shall meet with you tomorrow as requested. I love you with all my heart. I was on the verge of suicide and now I am so close to Heaven.”
At noon the next day, Rómulo found Julissa seated on a pew in the empty Cathedral and approached her with a mixture of joy and trepidation. He kissed her chastely on the forehead as he sat next to her. Then he took her by both hands.
“I have waited for this moment for a lifetime,” he said to her.
“As have I, my dearest Rómulo.”
“I have already spoken with the chaplain at my barracks. He has agreed to marry us this Sunday. “
“Will the marriage take place at your base? I would like Carlota to be my maid of honor and haven’t told her you’re a soldier.”
“We can get married at the small church of Cristo Rey. I suppose I’ll ask Ignacio to be my best man.”
“I have to tell you something though. We can spend the night together on Sunday, but Comrade Bárbara may call me to join on a last expedition at any moment. She has agreed to allow me to leave the Shining Path but needs to find a replacement for me before I can return to civilian life.”
“I don’t really like that,” Rómulo responded. “What if your platoon is involved in a skirmish with the military? You could be killed, Julissa, now that we’re so close to liberation. And even worse, I could be the one who does the killing.”
“That can be solved. If I learn that Comrade Bárbara has decided to occupy any Andean hamlet, I can send you a messenger to warn you. Then you can figure out how to avoid participating in any military response to Comrade Bárbara’s actions. Don’t forget that Comrade Carlos is also active in the highlands. If it’s Comrade Carlos who is acting, there would be no danger of your killing me.”
“I don’t like it,” repeated Rómulo. “Why don’t you make it a clean sweep of it? That way you would not be in mortal danger.”
“I can’t press it, Rómulo. Be happy that Comrade Bárbara has allowed me to leave the Shining Path without hanging me. Don’t worry. The gods of our people are protecting us.”
“The gods?” echoed Rómulo. “There is one God and His name is Jesus Christ.”
“We don’t need to argue about religion or politics,” said Julissa. “Such arguments have no importance in our lives. Our love is greater than all our differences.”
“Still, you should confide in God. I became a convert to the faith when I met you, not a day earlier and not a day later. Don’t you see our love is a miracle rather than a coincidence? It is an undeserved gift, an invitation to God’s redeeming grace.”
On Sunday, Rómulo and Julissa were married in the small church of Cristo Rey, with Padre Rogelio presiding. Julissa did not have time to obtain a wedding gown but was dressed in a white muslin dress that reached her ankles, trimmed with three pink roses. Rómulo wore a black tuxedo with a purple cummerbund and a white carnation on the buttonhole of his lapel. Ordinarily he would have been dressed in his military uniform, but Comrade Carlota was attending the ceremony and Julissa had begged Rómulo not to disclose his work to her. There was no feast, no celebration, no dancing, just a short brindiz – a brief toast of champagne – after the participants confirmed their intentions to marry. Later the few people who had attended the services ate slices of fruitcake covered in butter – Peru’s famous panetón D’Onofrio – and drank hot chocolate as the priest made a brief speech about the sanctity of marriage before departing. In the end, a propos of nothing, Padre Rogelio added that Communists were a bitter enemy of the Catholic Church and the Peruvian people.
That night Rómulo basked in Julissa’s beauty and in the perfume she had bathed in just for the occasion, the scent of lilies in bloom. It was their first night together, and it would prove to be their only night in each other’s arms. He showed her the ways of love with tenderness and kindness. He did not want to startle her and realized her initial pudor – her sense of modesty – when her small pigeon breasts were first uncovered from her thin, bright orange satin slip. They were staying at the apartment Julissa shared with Carlota and at the allotted hour, Rómulo placed the kerchief seeped in blood on the balcony, as was the custom, to prove that his wife had been a virgin before marrying. It had been a first-time experience for both of them. It was the first time Julissa made love to a man and the first time Rómulo had sex with a woman he loved. Early in the morning, just before dawn, they woke up for some more loving. Julissa nestled in Rómulo’s chest as he caressed her jet-black hair now no longer in twisted braids and kissed her gently on the face. The mattress was wet with the sweat of their two entangled bodies. And Rómulo felt it was not only their bodies which had communed that primal night but also their souls, in a union sanctified by God.
“I want to fill your life with children,” said the exhausted Julissa in the uncertain light beginning to come in through the window. “I want to fill the world with the sprout arising from your seed.”
Soon Rómulo got up from bed and put on his military uniform. It was Monday morning and he had to report at the base by seven. Outside, the sun was bright and he enjoyed feeling the lambent light upon his face. He still had her odor about him, on his mouth, his hands, his hair, and it filled him with a radical joy. Suddenly everything was beautiful. The jacarandas seemed more purple, the sky bluer, the faces of the kids on the road much brighter. She was his! She was his! Not all the horrors of the universe could rip that away from him. When he arrived at the base, all his thoughts were on their next rendezvous. He wanted to bite her face, to caress her everywhere, to fall asleep in her breasts.
On Tuesday, Julissa received a telegraph from Comrade Bárbara. Even before reading it, she knew it could only bring bad news. And it proved to be a cataclysm. Julissa was instructed to depart immediately to the town of Ichabamba for they had “occupied” the village that very morning. Julissa’s cooperation was necessary, as three of the cadres had fallen gravely ill the previous week and could not participate on the expedition. Comrade Bárbara underlined the word “immediately” in her message. She then warned Julissa that the military was sure to launch a counteroffensive and that was why her presence was of the utmost necessity.
Julissa did not have time to wait to warn Rómulo about the Shining Path attack on Ichabamba in person. She thought of ignoring Comrade Bárbara’s message but that would incite her wrath of a woman known for her penchant for punishing those who disobeyed her orders. So Julissa wrote Rómulo a brief letter before she departed and gave strict instructions to the shoeshine boy at the corner of the street to deliver the message to her new husband at the military barracks of Ayacucho. Comrade Bárbara’s telegraph was stapled to the letter.
Julissa’s missive was brief, blunt and desperate.
“This letter is a warning,” she wrote. “I’ve been called to the town of Ichabamba, where the rebels have taken over the village. It is possible – perhaps certain – that the military will seek to oust the senderistas from the Andean hamlet. Please make sure you are not in their number. Claim you’re sick and drink some purgativos to vomit. Shoot yourself in the foot if you must and claim you’ve had an accident. Do whatever is necessary to avoid meeting me at Ichabamba in the midst of a volley of gunfire. I don’t want to meet you in death at the very moment when all of life’s majesty is suddenly appearing before us in all its glory.”
Julissa took the next bus to Ichabamba. When she arrived, the town was in an eerie calm. There were no peasants in the plaza, only about thirty senderistas hoisting guns and hammer-and-sickle flags. When Comrade Bárbara first caught sight of her, the hardened revolutionary smiled. Apparently, she had not expected Julissa to leave the comforts of her new married life to join her in the defense of Ichabamba. But it was a good thing that she did. Comrade Bárbara was prepared to send a squad to Ayacucho to make a lesson of Julissa if she disobeyed Comrade Bárbara’s orders. It would not have been the first time that the notorious Comrade Bárbara sent one of her own cadres to her death for lacking the discipline necessary to fight the people’s struggle.
“We’re just waiting,” Comrade Bárbara said.
“Do you think it will be many soldiers?” asked Julissa.
“You never know. This is a tiny village, not really much of a trophy for the Shining Path. But ever since the arrival of General Hinojosa, the army has been a lot more aggressive in their defense of even the smallest Andean hamlets.”
“How many policemen were guarding Ichabamba?”
“Only a handful,” responded Comrade Bárbara. “They were swiftly killed, but it’s quite possible they contacted the military authorities in Ayacucho before they died.”
“The military…” Julissa echoed pensively. “Our sworn enemies, right?”
“As true as the fact the sun rises every morning. Were it not for the Peruvian military, the Shining Path would have taken over the country long ago. The policemen are not even a threat.”
“I see,” said Julissa, not knowing what to say.
At five o’clock what Julissa dreaded happened. The military began to arrive in large numbers, apparently more than fifty men. Seeing how overpowered the guerrillas were, Comrade Bárbara gave the order for the senderistas to flee into the highlands. There would be an opportunity to occupy Ichabamba again in the future. The military couldn’t be everywhere at once. But for now, the wisest course was to escape. Julissa was comforted by the fact the military had arrived so late. That meant her message had surely arrived at Rómulo’s hands before the military left Ayacucho for Ichabamba.
As Comrade Bárbara’s all-female squad ran into the mountains, they could hear the soldiers following closely behind them.
“Yes, sir!” cried out the soldiers on their trail. “Here we are, make way, the little soldiers salute you. Terruco, little terrorist, since I’ve found you, I shall eat your head!”
At some point, a soldier’s bullet hit Julissa’s friend Carlota in the back. Julissa tried to help her, pulling at her by the shoulders while she was still alive. The woman was bleeding profusely, however, and soon it became clear that nothing could be done. At that moment, Julissa decided to respond to fire with fire. Her revolutionary instincts took over, and she remembered why despite her age she was considered the best sniper in Comrade Bárbara’s platoon. Since she was sure Rómulo was not among the soldiers, she began shooting at them with abandon, felling one man after another.
“Soldiers! Traitors!” she cried out mocking the military men. “Let me give you a taste of the arsenic of the Shining Path!”
Rómulo was among the soldiers trailing after Comrade Bárbara’s platoon. Julissa had promised to send him a message if she was involved in the “occupation” of any Andean towns. Since he had not received one, he assumed that she was not among the terrorists in Comrade Bárbara’s squad. At first, Rómulo decided to shoot into the air just in case there was any possibility that Julissa was among the rebels. But then what happened to Julissa happened to Rómulo too. As soon as his friend Ignacio was killed, the soldier in Rómulo came to the fore. He had not ceased detesting the Shining Path just because he had fallen irremediably in love with one of its members. Now he was determined to avenge Ignacio’s death and aimed his mauser at the fleeing female rebels with a deadly precision. He was doing so from a distance and could not see their faces. Since he thought Julissa was not among them, he killed as many terrucas as he could.
The hours passed and night fell. Colonel Artemio Flores told his men it was time to return to Ichabamba. As he was retreating, however, a rebel approached him and shot him point blank in the chest. Rómulo returned fire. The rebel fell. As he moved to tend to the colonel, Rómulo realized something monstrous. The rebel next to the colonel’s cadaver was his irreplaceable Julissa. Rómulo cried out a Heaven-rending cry into the night as he hugged her bleeding body. He could not accept the injustice of it all. Death, that jealous traitor, had come to lay an underhanded claim on its beloved. He had expected to spend fifty years with Julissa and as a result of his own actions he had to be satisfied with a single night of love.
“Please don’t die. Please mamita don’t die.” He could not control the sobbing and tried to staunch her blood with the silk handkerchief with which he had first asked her to dance and which he had used to proclaim to the world that she had been a virgin on the first day of their marriage.
Julissa looked at him with defeated eyes and barely whispered, “Rómulo, I love you.”
“You were supposed to send me a warning,” Rómulo bitterly complained as he continued to weep. He felt not only shock and sadness but also rage. “This was not supposed to happen. How was I to know you were in the group of rebels?”
“I sent you a messenger,” Julissa said in a slurred voice as she agonized. “You should have received it this morning.”
“I received nothing,” Rómulo panicked as he hugged her all the closer. “No, please don’t die, Julissa,” he pleaded. “No, mamita, don’t die.”
“My messenger was a boy,” whispered Julissa in a faint, languid voice. “He must have delayed playing games. Please say a prayer for me. Pray for His unfathomable mercy.”
“Repent of everything, Julissa, repent now,” Rómulo pleaded in desperation. “And you’ll die a holy death.”
Julissa turned on her side and continued to moan.
“Pray! Pray! Pray!” Rómulo cried out as if he was speaking to himself. He was still anxious for a miracle during this time of horror.
Suddenly Comrade Bárbara appeared, pointing a weapon at Rómulo’s head. All of the other soldiers had already left.
“She’s dead,” said the senderista leader. “I’m not sure why you should care.”
“Then shoot me as well. Do it right this instant. Can’t you see that I’m her husband? We were supposed to live our lives together, had pledged our lives to each other. And now we’ll share only in death.”
“You’re the man she married? A military man? I guess the whore deserved her fate.”
And then Comrade Bárbara delivered the coup de grace. Rómulo fell to the ground and as he expired took hold of Julissa’s hand. Her skin was intensely cold, like the Andean highlands in winter. In the end, Rómulo was glad he had not been forced to commit suicide like his mother, that the Shining Path guerrilla had made the decision for him. As he drew his final breaths, he thanked God for taking him through Comrade Bárbara’s actions instead of compelling him to put a bullet in his own head.
The Shining Path leader picked up the two lovers’ weapons and disappeared into the night.