Aged in her 50’s, Maria Paloma was every bit the indigenous Colombian Indian. She was tiny with dark, straight hair; high, defined cheek-bones and two small beady black eyes. She was also my first “maid.”
Following the murder of her husband she had been displaced from her mountain finca in the department of Cauca. Four strangers had called at her home looking for señor Paloma, produced pistols, and opened fire, killing him and three companions.
Always smiling except when laughing, Maria Paloma never wore footwear, was illiterate and was totally unable to grasp the concept of a lock and key. However, she was reliable, efficient, and our dog was unusually fond of her.
The reason for this fondness became startlingly apparent when one evening my wife found Maria Paloma vigorously masturbating Henry, our Boxer. When asked why on earth she would do such a thing she innocently answered, Because he likes it, señora.
Whilst it’s hard to argue against such simple logic, we never again felt comfortable whenever we saw Maria washing carrots, and so she had to go and we had to find ourselves a new maid, Maria Arbol.
In her mid – 40’s, with an air of vast sexual experience about her, Maria Arbol turned out to be an exceptional maid. Our house had never been cleaner, she cooked fantastic food, and she never went sick. She was as happy to work for us as we were to employ her.
Maria Arbol was also from a small village in the mountains of Cauca and she told us that she had been displaced from her home following the murder of her husband by four gunmen. My wife and I glanced at each other in simultaneous recognition of this story, and I pressed Maria for more details. The answer left us both amazed at the coincidence which unfolded.
Maria Paloma, the first maid, was regarded as the village witch of the small rural community in the mountains of Cauca where both she and Maria Arbol had lived, providing herbal remedies for the villagers and performing tarot card readings for local women.
During the course of these readings Maria was prone to inform the women that their men were being unfaithful, and several relationships had experienced serious problems or had broken down completely as a result. The strangely sensual Maria Arbol was suspected as the likely culprit and, despite denying these allegations, was becoming increasingly unpopular in the village.
Maria Paloma’s husband was employed by the local guerrilla commander to collect FARC-Tax from the local inhabitants. He and three henchmen would regularly visit the surrounding farms to pick up the compulsory payments of cash, alcohol, food, and various peace offerings before delivering them to the guerrillas who operated in the area.
Maria Arbol’s husband was one such farmer who was obliged to make this regular “donation” and resented doing so. He began to refuse to pay señor Paloma, which resulted in a heated argument between the two men, which came to blows.
Señor Paloma informed the local guerrilla commander about Arbol’s refusal to pay up and his violent outburst. In the meantime, señor Arbol contacted the local paramilitaries and denounced Paloma as a FARC operative.
Several days later, just before mid-day, señor Paloma and his three “workers” went to the Arbol’s farm, found señor Arbol amongst his coffee crop, and shot him through the head in front of his wife and their young son.
On that same morning four unknown men attended the Paloma’s farm, asking for señor Paloma, who was not there. The strangers said that they would wait and, just after mid-day, señor Paloma and his companions returned. Upon entering they were shot dead by the four paramilitaries who were waiting for them. Maria Paloma escaped by diving through a window and running as fast as she could. She was found on the Pan-American Highway, twelve miles away, still running, with her bare feet in bloody tatters.
Both women subsequently ended up in Cali, one living with family and the other being re-housed by the authorities. Both blamed the other for their husbands’ deaths and neither had heard of the other since the incident, yet they had unknowingly lived within two miles of each other for several years.
We recently heard that the part of Cauca where the two women had previously resided had been designated as a safe zone following military operations against the FARC in 2009 and that both Maria’s had been re-located back to their fincas in Cauca following a government incentive to restore to their owners the properties of displaced Colombians.
I’m genuinely glad for them and sincerely hope that they can both move on. But given the obvious feelings of resentment and pure fucking hatred which persists between them, I can’t help feeling that once they encounter each other the term “safe zone” may be far from the correct term to use.
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