The Daughter of Doctor Moreau
They’d be arriving that day, the two gentlemen, their boat gliding through the forest of mangroves. The jungle teemed with noises, birds crying out in sonorous discontent as if they could foretell the approach of intruders. In their huts, behind the main house, the hybrids were restless. Even the old donkey, eating its corn, seemed peevish.
Carlota had spent a long time contemplating the ceiling of her room the previous night, and in the morning her belly ached like it always did when she was nervous. Ramona had to brew her a cup of bitter orange tea. Carlota didn’t like when her nerves got the best of her, but Dr. Moreau seldom had visitors. Their isolation, her father said, did her good. When she was little she’d been ill, and it was important that she rest and remain calm. Besides, the hybrids made proper company impossible. When someone stopped at Yaxaktun it was either Francisco Ritter, her father’s lawyer and correspondent, or Hernando Lizalde.
Mr. Lizalde always came alone. Carlota was never introduced to him. Twice she’d seen him walking from afar, outside the house, with her father. He left quickly; he didn’t stay the night in one of the guest rooms. And he didn’t visit often, anyway. His presence was mostly felt in letters, which arrived every few months.
Now Mr. Lizalde, who was a distant presence, a name spoken but never manifested, was visiting and not only visiting but he’d be bringing with him a new mayordomo. For nearly a year since Melquíades had departed, the reins of Yaxaktun had been solely in the hands of the doctor, an inadequate situation since he spent most of his time busy in the lab or deep in contemplation. Her father, however, didn’t seem inclined to find a steward.
“The doctor, he’s too picky,” Ramona said, brushing the tangles and knots out of Carlota’s hair. “Mr. Lizalde, he sends him letters, and he says here’s one gentleman, here’s another, but your father always replies no, this one won’t do, neither will the other. As if many people would come here.”
“Why wouldn’t people want to come to Yaxaktun?” Carlota asked.
“It’s far from the capital. And you know what they say. All of them, they complain it’s too close to rebel territory. They think it’s the end of the world.”
“It’s not that far,” Carlota said, though she understood the peninsula only by the maps in books where distances were flattened and turned into black-and-white lines.
“It’s mighty far. Makes most people think twice when they’re used to cobblestones and newspapers each morning.”
“Why did you come to work here, then?”
“My family, they picked me a husband but he was bad. Lazy, did nothing all day, then he beat me at night. I didn’t complain, not for a long time. Then one morning he hit me hard. Too hard. Or maybe as hard as every other time, but I wouldn’t take it any longer. So I grabbed my things and I went away. I came to Yaxaktun because nobody can find you here,” Ramona said with a shrug. “But it’s not the same for others. Others want to be found.”
Ramona was not quite old; the lines fanning her eyes were shallow, and her hair was speckled with a few strands of gray. But she spoke in a measured tone, and she spoke of many things, and Carlota considered her very wise.
“You think the new mayordomo won’t like it here? You think he’ll want to be found?”
“Who can tell? But Mr. Lizalde’s bringing him. It’s Mr. Lizalde who’s ordered it and he’s right. Your father, he does things all day but he never does the things that need done, either.” Ramona put the brush down. “Stop fretting, child, you’ll wrinkle the dress.”
The dress in question was decorated with a profusion of frills and pleats, and an enormous bow at the back instead of the neat muslin pinafore she normally wore around the house. Lupe and Cachito were giggling at the doorway, looking at Carlota, as she was primped like a horse before an exhibition.
“You look nice,” Ramona said.
“It itches,” Carlota complained. She thought she looked like a large cake.
“Don’t pull at it. And you two, go wash your faces and those hands,” Ramona said, punctuating her words with one of her deadly stares.
Lupe and Cachito moved aside to let Ramona by as she exited the room, grumbling about all the things she had to do that morning. Carlota sulked. Father said the dress was the latest fashion, but she was used to lighter frocks. It might have looked pretty in Mérida or Mexico City or some other place, but in Yaxaktun it was terribly fussy.
Lupe and Cachito giggled again as they walked into the room and took a closer look at her buttons, touching the taffeta and silk until Carlota elbowed them away, and then they giggled again.
“Stop it, both of you,” she said.
“Don’t be mad, Loti, it’s just you look funny, like one of your dollies,” Cachito said. “But maybe the new mayordomo will bring candy and you’ll like that.”
“I doubt he’ll bring candy,” Carlota said.
“Melquíades brought us candy,” Lupe said, and she sat on the old rocking horse, which was too small for any of them now, and rocked back and forth.
“Brought you candy,” Cachito complained. “He never brought me none.”
“That’s because you bite,” Lupe said. “I’ve never bitten a hand.”
And she hadn’t, that was true. When Carlota’s father had first brought Lupe into the house, Melquíades had made a fuss about it, said the doctor couldn’t possibly leave Carlota alone with Lupe. What if she should scratch the child? But the doctor said not to worry, Lupe was good. Besides, Carlota had wanted a playmate so badly that even if Lupe had bitten and scratched, she wouldn’t have said a word.
But Melquíades never took to Cachito. Maybe because he was more rambunctious than Lupe. Maybe because he was male, and Melquíades could lull himself into a sense of safety with a girl. Maybe because Cachito had once bitten Melquíades’s fingers. It was nothing deep, no more than a scratch, but Melquíades detested the boy, and he never let Cachito into the house.
Then again, Melquíades hadn’t liked any of them much. Ramona had worked for Dr. Moreau since Carlota was about five years old, and Melquíades had been at Yaxaktun before that. But Carlota could not recall him ever smiling at the children or treating them as anything other than a nuisance. When he brought candy back, it was because Ramona asked that he procure a treat for the little ones, not because Melquíades would have thought to do it of his own volition. When they were noisy, he might grumble and tell them to eat a sweet and go away, to be quiet and let him be. There was no affection for the children in his heart.
Ramona loved them and Melquíades tolerated them.
Now Melquíades was gone, and Cachito slipped in and out of the house, darting through the kitchen and the living room with its velvet sofas, even stabbing at the keys of the piano, ringing discordant notes from the instrument when the doctor was not looking. No, the children didn’t miss Melquíades. He’d been fastidious and a bit conceited on account of the fact that he’d been a doctor in Mexico City, which he thought a great achievement.
“I don’t see why we need a new mayordomo,” Lupe said.
“Father can’t manage it all on his own, and Mr. Lizalde wants it all in perfect order,” she said, repeating what she’d been told.
“What does the mister care how he manages it or not? He doesn’t live here.”
Carlota peered into the mirror and fiddled with the pearl necklace, which, like the dress, had been newly imposed on her that morning to assure she looked prim and proper.
Cachito was right: Carlota did resemble one of her dollies, pretty porcelain things set on a shelf with their pink lips and round eyes. But Carlota was not a doll, she was a girl, almost a lady, and it was a bit ridiculous that she must resemble a porcelain, painted creation.
Ever the dutiful child, though, she turned from the mirror and looked at Lupe with a serious face.
“Mr. Lizalde is our patron.”
“I think he’s nosy,” Lupe said. “I think he wants that man to spy on us and tell him everything we do. Besides, what does an Englishman know about managing anything here? There are no jungles in England, all the books in the library show snow and cold and people going around in carriages.”
That was true enough. When Carlota peered into books—sometimes with Cachito and Lupe looking with interest over her shoulder—magic lands of make-believe spread before her eyes. England, Spain, Italy, London, Berlin, and Marseille. They seemed like made-up names to her, jarring in comparison with the names of the towns in the Yucatán. Paris especially surprised her. She tried to say the name slowly, the way her father did. Paree, he said. But it wasn’t merely the way he said it, it was the knowledge behind it. He had lived in Paris, he had walked its streets, and therefore when he said Paris he was invoking a real place, a living metropolis, whereas Carlota knew only Yaxaktun, and though she might conjugate her verbs correctly—Je vais à Paris—the city was never real for her.
Paris was the city of her father, but it wasn’t her city.
She did not know the city of her mother. An oval painting hung in Father’s room. It showed a beautiful blond woman wearing an off-shoulder ball gown and sparkling jewels around her neck. This, however, was not her mother. This was the doctor’s first wife. He’d lost her and a baby girl; a fever took them. And then, afterward, in his grief, the doctor had acquired a lover. Carlota was the doctor’s natural daughter.
Ramona had been at Yaxaktun for many years, but even she could not tell Carlota her mother’s name or what she looked like.
“There was a woman, dark and pretty,” she told Carlota. “She came by one time and the doctor was expecting her; he received her and they talked in the little parlor. But she came round only that one time.”
Her father was reluctant to paint a more detailed picture. He said, simply, that they had never wed and Carlota had been left with him when her mother went away. Carlota suspected this meant her mother had married another man and had a new family. Carlota might have brothers and sisters, but she could not meet them.
“Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old,” her father said, reading the Bible with great care. But he was both mother and father to her.
As for her father’s family, the Moreaus, she knew none of them, either. Her father had a brother but he lived across the sea, in distant France. It was the two of them, and that was enough for her. Why would she need anyone but her father? Why would she want Paris or her mother’s town, wherever it might be?
The one place that was real was Yaxaktun.
“If he brings candy, I won’t care if he’s nosy,” Cachito said.
“The doctor will show him the laboratory,” Lupe said. “He’s kept himself there all week, so he must have something to show them.”
“Or equipment or something. I bet it’s more interesting than candy. Carlota is going into the laboratory. She’ll tell us what it is.”
“Are you really?” Cachito asked.
He had been pushing an old wooden train across the floor, but now he turned to Carlota. Lupe had stopped rocking her horse. They both waited for an answer.
“I’m not sure,” Carlota said.
Mr. Lizalde owned Yaxaktun; he paid for Dr. Moreau’s research. Carlota supposed that if he wanted to see her father’s lab, he would. And they might show it to the mayordomo, too.
“I am. I heard the doctor talking to Ramona about it. Why do you think they got you in that dress?” Lupe asked.
“He’s said I might receive our guests and walk with them, but nothing is certain.”
“I bet you get to see. You have to tell us if you do.”
Ramona, walking down the hallway, paused to look into the room. “What are you still doing here? Go wash your faces!” she yelled.
Cachito and Lupe knew when their merriment was at an end, and they both scampered away. Ramona looked at Carlota and pointed a finger at her. “Now don’t move from this spot.”
Carlota sat down on the bed and looked at her dollies, at their curly hair and long eyelashes, and she tried to smile like the dolls smiled; their tiny mouths with a cupid’s bow looked perfectly pleasant.
She grasped the ribbon in her hair, twisting it around a finger. All she knew of the world was Yaxaktun. She’d never seen anything beyond it. All the people she knew were the people there. When Mr. Lizalde chanced to appear in their home, he was, in her mind, as fantastical as those etchings of London and Madrid and Paris.
Mr. Lizalde existed and yet he didn’t exist. On the two occasions on which she’d glimpsed him he had been but a figure in the distance, walking outside the main house, talking to her father. But during this visit she would be up close to him, and not just to him, but to the would-be mayordomo. Here was an entirely new element that would soon be introduced into her world. It was like when Father spoke of foreign bodies.
To soothe herself she took a book from the shelf and sat in her reading chair. Dr. Moreau, wishing to cultivate a scientific disposition in his daughter, had gifted Carlota with numerous books about plants and animals and the wonders of biology so that, in addition to the fairy tales of Perrault, Carlota could be exposed to more didactic texts. Dr. Moreau would not tolerate a child who knew only “Cendrillon” or “Barbe Bleue.”
Carlota, always agreeable, read everything her father put in front of her. She had enjoyed The Fairy Tales of Science: A Book for Youth, but The Water Babies scared her. There was one moment in which poor Tom, who had been miniaturized, met some salmon. Even though the book assured her salmon “are all true gentlemen”—and even though they were more polite than the vicious old otter Tom had previously run into—Carlota suspected they would eat Tom at the slightest provocation. The whole book was full of such dangerous encounters. Devour or be devoured. It was an infinite chain of hunger.
Carlota had taught Lupe to read, but Cachito stumbled over his letters, jumbling them in his head, and she had to read out loud to him. But she had not read The Water Babies to Cachito.
And when her father said Mr. Lizalde would be visiting, along with a gentleman, she could not help but think of the terrible salmon in the book. And yet, rather than turn away from the image, she stared at the illustrations, at the otter and the salmon and the horrid monsters that inhabited its pages. Though they were all getting too big for children’s tales, the book still fascinated her.
Ramona returned after a while, and Carlota put the book away. She followed the woman into the sitting room. Carlota’s father was not much for fashion, so the furnishings of the house had never concerned him, and they consisted mostly of the old, heavy furniture that the previous owner of the ranch had brought, supplemented by a few choice artifacts the doctor imported through the years. Chief among these was a French clock. It struck a bell upon the hour, and its sounds never failed to delight Carlota. It amazed her that such precise machinery could be produced. She pictured the gears turning inside its delicate, painted shell.
As she stepped forward into the room she wondered if they could hear her heart beating, like the song of the clock.
Her father turned toward her and smiled. “Here is my housekeeper with my daughter. Carlota, come here,” he said. She hurried to her father’s side, and he placed a hand on her shoulder as he spoke. “Gentlemen, may I present my daughter, Carlota. This is Mr. Lizalde and this here is Mr. Laughton.”
“How do you do?” she said, automatically, like the well-trained parrot that slept in its cage in the corner. “I trust your trip has been pleasant.”
Mr. Lizalde’s whiskers had a bit of gray in them, but he was still younger than her father, whose eyes were bracketed with deep wrinkles. He was dressed well, in a gold brocade waistcoat and a fine jacket, and dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief as he smiled at her.
Mr. Laughton, on the other hand, did not smile at all. His jacket was of brown and cream wool tweed, with no embellishments, and he wore no vest. She was struck by how young and dour-looking he seemed. She’d thought they’d get someone like Melquíades, a man balding at the temples. This fellow had all his hair, even if it was a bit shaggy and untidy. And how light his eyes were. Gray, watery eyes.
“We’re doing well, thank you,” Mr. Lizalde said, and then he looked at her father. “Quite the little princess you have there. I think she might be of an age with my youngest child.”
“You have many children, Mr. Lizalde?” she asked.
“I have a son and five daughters. My boy is fifteen.”
“I am fourteen, sir.”
“You’re tall, for a girl. You might be as tall as my boy.”
“And bright. She’s been schooled in all the proper languages,” her father said. “Carlota, I was trying to assist Mr. Laughton here in a matter of translation. Could you tell him what natura non facit saltus means?”
The “proper” languages she’d learned indeed, though the smattering of Mayan she spoke she had not obtained through her father. She’d learned from Ramona, as had the hybrids. She was, officially, their housekeeper. Unofficially she was a teller of tales, an expert in every plant that grew near their house, and more.
“It means nature does not make leaps,” Carlota replied, fixing her eyes on the young man.
“Right. And can you explain the concept?”
“Change is incremental. Nature proceeds little by little,” she declaimed. Her father asked questions such as these frequently, and the answers were easy, like practicing her scales. It soothed her fragile nerves.
“Do you agree with that?”
“Nature, perhaps. But not man,” she said.
Her father patted her shoulder. She could feel him smiling without having to look at him.
“Carlota will guide us to my laboratory. I’ll show you my research and prove the point,” her father said.
In its corner the parrot opened an eye and watched them. She nodded and bid the gentlemen follow her.
Chapter 1: Carlota
Chapter 2: Montgomery
Chapter 3: Carlota
Chapter 4: Montgomery
Chapter 5: Carlota
Chapter 6: Montgomery
Chapter 7: Carlota
Chapter 8: Montgomery
Chapter 9: Carlota
Chapter 10: Montgomery
Chapter 11: Carlota
Chapter 12: Montgomery
Chapter 13: Carlota
Chapter 14: Montgomery
Chapter 15: Carlota
Chapter 16: Montgomery
Chapter 17: Carlota
Chapter 18: Montgomery
Chapter 19: Carlota
Chapter 20: Montgomery
Chapter 21: Carlota
Chapter 22: Montgomery
Chapter 23: Carlota
Chapter 24: Montgomery
Chapter 25: Carlota
Chapter 26: Montgomery
Chapter 27: Carlota
Chapter 28: Montgomery
Chapter 29: Carlota
Chapter 30: Montgomery
Chapter 31: Carlota
By Silvia Moreno-Garcia
About the Author
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|Epub, PDF||July 23, 2022|
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