Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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The Best and Only Whore of Cwm Hyfryd
Patagonia, 1886

I have sex with the men of Cwm Hyfryd so that their wives don’t have to. The wives, for the most part, are grateful; this is a hard place for new life. The town is barely that, a collection of cabins spread apart by miles, no general store or midwife. The men are grateful, too; I never tell their secrets. Some are after sex, or more than sex, or not sex at all. Ask anyone if I can be trusted. If a man enjoys my company and some other man wants to know what we did, I’ll say, That man? That man standing over there? He was up fast as a boy, swived me bowlegged, and smacked my ass when it was over. Tipped me extra he’d put himself in such a good humor, came back a week later to say I’d cured his gout. It makes every man smile to hear it, happy to imagine that if he visits me, the same will be said of him.

When a man comes to the door of my cabin, he brings a bag of meal or a bit of dried meat; sometimes, if I am lucky, a bottle of moonshine to pull from or a bit of sugar to bake. Money is less use here, though when it is offered I take it. Money is always worth having. When we have sex it is each to his taste, though I do not tolerate being slapped around or handled too roughly and it is easier here than in Wales to make sure of it. Women, whores in particular, are less disposable when we are scarce. I am willing to suck a man’s prick if I know he’s a good man, if I consider him a friend, because a good man will be grateful but a bad one will think a prick suck means he owns you. I sometimes enjoy the sex—these men aren’t strangers anymore—but often I simply tolerate it. It never hurts to have had a bit of moonshine first.

Whether we have sex or not, the evening usually ends with the man napping in front of my fire. I like to watch them sleep and wonder if they dream of home, or here, or nothing. When they wake, I do not inquire, because I would not answer the same question, if anyone thought to ask me.


All men are different, but what is true of all of the men of Cwm Hyfryd is that they are tired. In the spring, snowmelt off the mountains floods our fields and sometimes our houses. The paths are so muddy they are impossible to use, worse even than in the winter. The summer is too short to let us fix what needs to be mended and the fall is over as soon as the crops are taken in, if not sooner. We grow potatoes and carrots, shoot and cure meat until our cabins are more larder than home. When I write to my brother in Wales, I say that come early November I am as a mouse who has burrowed a hole in a block of cheese; I stay inside getting fat all winter long. He writes back to say his son now pictures all the houses of Patagonia as cubes of fine cheddar and begs to come. His son is too small to know that we will never meet, that I have come too far to go back. I also write my brother stories of my reliable husband, a strong man who enjoys pushing plows and keeping the barn stocked with wood. My brother is too good and honest a man to worry with the truth. He worries already and does not understand why I have moved from Rawson, where the rest of the Welsh settlers are, where the irrigation has made the land easier.

I write, I left for the foothills of the Andes because I am foolish and because I do not care to go to church. I write, If I’d wanted to walk down a cobbled street and take afternoon tea, I could have saved myself a long journey. There are no cobbled streets in Rawson, no afternoon tea you do not make yourself, but it is nice to think so, to imagine streets and tea so close, to imagine I am choosing to forgo such luxuries.

I write, Do not worry. I promise I am well. This place will not last long as an outpost. People are always arriving, pushed out by the arrivals behind them. If we keep this up, we will all be back where we started.


I love to be alone and I am never more alone than after a man leaves. All the space he occupied—the chair, the cup, the looks my way that ask what I am thinking, the glance of the hand against my body, yet another question I have to answer—suddenly, he is out the door, and that chair is mine to sit in. If I were always alone, though, I would start to glance my own way, to bother myself with foolishness. For example, sometimes, when I am chopping wood, I try to think of a different word than whore because whore is not a pretty word. That in itself is not bad, for I am not pretty and sex is not pretty. The natural world is not pretty either; it is nothing so weak and neither am I. Last winter, I shot a wolf. When I was ten, I began work in a cotton mill. When I was thirteen I lost my middle finger in the machine.

Really, I sometimes think, it is not the word whore I mind so much. But I do have other occupations. I am a farmer. I am handy with a needle and thread, despite the missing finger. I do a good job patching clothes and wounds. I can read and I own a Bible. They might call me whore if they also call me surgeon and minister and friend.


When I am happy, which is my temperament, I write to my brother often and tell him what the Andes look like in the summer, not as green as the hills of home, but so high as to make me always look up to God. I tell him that the pampas are not fertile like we were promised, but that Welsh work has made them better. That it was a good Welsh woman, Rachel Jenkins, who imagined the irrigation system in Rawson, and more than that, imagined it so hard and well it came into being. Now the river Camwy floods and fertilizes on command. It makes me proud to write it and I like to think of my brother reading my letters by his fire, with his wife and his son nearby, telling them all what a woman can do. I miss him and I sign my letters love and hope every one will reach his door.

When I am melancholy, I write to my older sister, who is dead, and I burn the letters I write to her in my fire. She would not have liked to imagine the Andes, as my brother does. Too big. Too unlike home. She would have said, Cariad, come back to bed. We have work in the morning. Why do you always make things harder? They are hard already.


When I was a girl, a man came through my village in northern Wales, passing out pamphlets about the new Patagonian colony. His voice was loud as he tried to attract a crowd, severe as a preacher’s, promising that better place. “A new home for us,” he said. “We will thrive, and not be bothered.” My sister was with me, tugged at me though I dug my heels in. I wanted to watch him. There was little enough excitement.

“Do you think it’s true?” I asked. Verdant, fertile fields. Hard labor rewarded with honest living. Enough for everyone.

My sister shook her head. “Whether it is or isn’t, it has nothing to do with us.”

I pulled my arm away from her, angry, and walked through the small gathering to take a pamphlet anyway. The man made me show I could read before he let me have it. “That is good,” he said. “We need women like you.” I glowed.

“You’re wasting that man’s paper,” my sister said, to me and to him. “More than he’s wasted it already.”

I wonder if my sister would say the letters I write to her are a waste. No doubt she would. She had only the beginnings of cotton lung that summer, a small cough through the night, a tightness in her chest that made her sour and frightened, not like the sister I had known, who had helped me keep my doll and hair so tidy, who taught me the right songs to sing to make the bread rise. It would be four more years before she finished suffocating on her own breath. So many pieces of cotton inhaled, I imagine her lungs became pillows.

The air inside the mill is kept humid so the thread will not break. Here the air is thin. I breathe deep and still want more. I want to feel how much I can take.

I could have stayed in Rawson, but I could not have stayed in Wales. There are always things we will not do to save ourselves, ways we will and will not sell our bodies. I would not watch that slow death again, or die it myself.


Patagonia is a land with more sky than earth. I wish you could see it, I write to brother and sister. In the pampas, the brush huddles close to the ground, afraid of the air and right to be. It punishes. Sometimes I lie on the ground with the bushes, to feel as they do, a moment away from being plucked and tumbled. I never forget that here I am rootless. I am careful to have no children and am every year less likely. It is a miracle to be this far from home, a blessing if I can remember to take it.

At least, when the men of Cwm Hyfryd come to visit me, I know exactly where I am. I am whole and warm and full of conversation. I am across the room. I am by their side. I am beneath. I am above. I am making a pot of tea just so and pouring it into two mugs. I am in the vacant chair again, at last, and even then they ground me. I am where they recently were. I am held still in the heat of their bodies, and this way, I can live a practical life, and revel in the moments I do become untethered, when I am across and below and above, when I am plucked and tumbled, a small kite broken free. Then, I float up the Andes, fly with the condors and shout down greetings to the grazing vicuñas. Pob lwc! Siwrne ddiogel! Good luck! Safe journey! I fly until I am so high I have reached God’s arms and He waits with me awhile, passing time in quiet until He sets me back down again, refreshed and able to continue my work.


So I am contented. And on the nights when my missing finger throbs and aches, I hold the stump tight and tell my body that the finger is gone, that all this protest will not bring it back.  

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