Nacha wrapped her legs around the rope that hung from the jacaranda tree in the center of the town. The coarse jute cord scraped faint white lines along the golden skin on her legs as she slipped down the rope. She threw her head back and pushed off the trunk. Her braids, tightly woven in deep and reddish browns, flew out behind her as she swung back and forth. She opened and closed her eyes over and over again as she glided, the tree's purple canopy, the white-hot sky, the snatches of the adobe houses forming a kaleidoscope of images. As the rope twirled her into gentle, dizzy doldrums, she slipped down onto the ground.
Alongside the tree she approached an ant mound, a miniature volcano, the ants rivulets of lava ablaze in the noonday sun. Nacha edged in closer, kneeling on the hem of her blue cotton skirt. She plucked a blade of grass and placed it in the stream of ants, then dropped her captives into the folds of her skirt. Swiftly she squeezed each ant between her thumb and forefinger, snapped off the last rounded segment, and popped it into her mouth, letting the sweet stinging ant honey burst onto her tongue. She leaned back to savor the lingering flavor and brushed against the jarro she had left by the side of the tree trunk. Remembering that her mother was waiting for the well water, she lifted the jarro and took quick, skipping steps to the well.
Nacha ran her tongue across the split, patchy ridges of her dry lips as she cranked the wooden bucket of water up from the well. The bucket reached the top, swaying and spilling shiny ribbons of water from side to side. She reached out and steadied the bucket, then eased it onto the well's stone rim. She struggled to tip the bucket and pour the water into the jarro at the base of the well. Some of the water rolled over the jarro and formed a network of tributaries in the dusty soil. The runoff swirled toward her bare feet, wriggling mud between her toes.
Nacha gripped the jarro by its thick handles and swung it in front of her. She turned and walked toward her house in a limping gait, trying not to spill the water as her legs bumped against the jarro. She was about twenty feet from her house when she heard the cry: "Los soldados, los soldados, apurense--!ahi vienen los soldados!"
Nacha felt a hot swell roll over her. She dropped the jarro onto the hard ground. A crack split across the base, oozing water from the earthen wound. Nacha leapt away from the water's widening arc and took broad, bounding steps to her door. Throwing open the sash, she raced to her mother's side.
Mage was grinding chiles in the metate when Nacha burst into the house. Nacha ran to her mother and threw her arms across her waist, burying her face into the scratchy folds of her apron. Nachas body began to quiver as she blew short breaths against her mother's breasts.
Mage, startled by the sudden entrance, fell backward one step, and then regained her balance. She stroked her daughter's hair and rocked her gently for a few seconds. Nacha's breathing began to pace itself to the slow, lulling rock. Mage cupped her daughter's face in her hands, "?Que tienes, mija?"
Nacha took a deep breath. At first only cracking noises came out when she spoke. "!Los soldados, los soldados!" she cried.
The softness in Mage's eyes dissolved instantly, and the lines across her face pulled taut. "Cierra y traba la puerta," she commanded her daughter as she bounded to the center of the main room of the small adobe house, dropped to her knees, and ran her fingers along a braided edge of the handmade rug. Her fingers played staccato across the rug's edge until they touched a hidden metal loop. Instantly, she threaded her fingers through the loop and pulled forcefully until a trapdoor flew open across the floor. The burrow was a dark four-by-four-foot cube cut into the earth. Five thin stripes of light cut across it from the slight spaces Mage's husband had left between the floorboards. Mage had braided the rug carefully in a loose weave so as not to block the only source of light and air.
"Vente, vente," she called in a hoarse whisper to Nacha. As Nacha ran to the opening, Mage hurried toward the cradle in the corner of the room, lifted the sleeping infant, Gerardo, and wrapped him in the scarlet rebozo that was draped across a nearby chair. In three steps she was at the trapdoor entrance, easing herself and the infant into the shallow burrow under the floorboards. Mage struggled to yank the heavy trapdoor closed over them. She bent down quickly as the tight-fitting wooden door her husband had made crashed, solid and indiscernible above them. Gerardo, startled out of his sleep by the noise, began to cry. Quickly, Mage placed his wailing mouth against her breast to nurse the infant back into a quiet sleep. Nacha groped in the dark to her mother's side and laid her head against her mother's shoulder as Mage crooked her arm around her.
Mage leaned her head back against the cool earthen wall. She pulled her children more tightly against her body, a gentle reassurance of their presence in the darkness. She closed her eyes and began to pray, her lips forming inaudible words:
"Salve, Maria, llena tu eres de grada ... ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora y en la hora ..." Mage's lips began to quiver; she hesitated, "de nuestra muerte." She clenched her teeth and pushed down hard on the breath that was welling in her chest. She forced her eyelids hard against her eyes to dam the swell that rose and ran in hot lines down her face. She felt Nacha's face turn toward her and wrenched loose the terror that had begun to claw into her. "Sh, sh, sh, sh," she whispered, as she pulled her daughter's face against her side. "Dios nos bendiga, Dios nos bendiga," Mage repeated as she began to slowly rock them back and forth.
Their rhythm was broken by the sounds of horses' hooves outside the house, horses running first in one direction, then breaking and fanning out. Suddenly there was a loud, heavy thump as a soldier struck the front door with his rifle butt.
Nacha and Mage jumped at the sound, Nacha letting out a sharp cry. Mage quickly covered her daughter's mouth. Both their bodies lurched with the second sound of the rifle butt crashing against the door.
The thunder of hooves rose again, and shots, loud and near. Mage bent over her children, pulling them as far under her body as possible. "Diosito Santo, Diosito Santo," she kept repeating into the folds of the rebozo she pulled over them as the hot flames of adrenaline coursed through her body.
The sounds of the horses' hooves pounded into the distance and silence hung unexpectedly and swiftly across them. Mage lifted her face and tilted her head in the direction of the door. The house was still. Then softly in the distance a hum of voices began to build, growing louder and closer to the house. Mage tightened the rebozo around the children. Gerardo shifted and moaned in his sleep, and Nacha buried herself deep in the curve of her mother's arm.
Fast footfalls followed the din of voices up to the door; the lock made a sharp clicking sound, and the door flew open. "Mage, Mage!" Pedro cried as he rushed into the house.
"Gracias a Dios," Mage cried, looking upward at the lines of light as her husband dropped to his knees and raced his fingers through the rug's edge to the trapdoor loop. He flung the door open and let it crash as he jumped into the hole and embraced his family.
Mage and Nacha buried their faces into Pedro's shirt as he drew his arms around them. Mage's body shook as she struggled to push back the choking swell in her chest and throat. Nacha dug her face deeper into the folds of her father's shirt as her cries poured out in hot, gasping breaths. They stood fixed in their positions, feeling a barrage of emotions race through them.
Gerardo began to struggle in the crush, his legs pushing a wedge between Mage and Pedro. Mage backed up and pulled Gerardo to her shoulder, patting him gently on the back as she rocked him. Pedro stood erect and lifted Nacha out of the burrow, then helped Mage and the baby out into the living room.
Mage looked toward the buzz of voices at her door. Her neighbors were standing just outside the door, gesticulating and talking in loud, animated voices. She covered Gerardo's head with her rebozo and walked to the doorway. There, sprawled one foot from her door was a Federale, face down. The edge of a pool of blood seeped out beneath his chin. His rifle lay in front of him, perpendicular to his body. Mage turned to look at the door. The rifle had carved deep pockmarks into the wood.
Two men, bandoleras crisscrossed on their chests, came up to the edge of the crowd. They exchanged a few inaudible words, then bent down and dragged the body away from the doorway roughly by the legs, painting an uneven swath of blood behind it. Together they lifted the soldier by his torso and arms and flung him across his waiting horse. Securing the body to the horse with straps and reins, they slapped the horse's rear flank and watched it speed toward the foothills. Cheers rose from the small group of people huddled in front of Mage and Pedro's house. Mage felt her emotions surge with the crowd's. But as she opened her mouth to join the chorus of cheers, a wave of emotion welled to the surface. Quite unexpectedly, she began to weep aloud, her mouth agape as the pain rolled out in deep, vibrating chords. She slumped against the outer wall of her house, unnoticed by the group who were facing away from her watching the horse fade into the landscape. Pedro had joined a small group of men talking with the Villistas who had begun to assemble down the road near the center of town.
Two neighbor women first noticed Mage huddled against the wall and hurried to her side. Concha, an imposing woman with broad, round shoulders, placed a powerful arm around Mage's thin, five-foot frame while the second reached for Gerardo, who had begun to cry in concert with his mother. Mage leaned against Concha as she was slowly and carefully edged into her house and eased onto Nacha's cot, which stood in the far west corner of the main room. Mage began to take longer, slower breaths, soothed by the comfort of Concha standing over her, Concha with her strong face lined in earth tones boldly framed by a shock of white hair tied loosely in a knot at the nape of her neck.
Mage's eyes began to scan the room. Except for the trapdoor being open, she thought, it looked as if nothing had happened. Then she saw Gerardo's empty cradle. She leapt from the cot yelling, "!Mijito, Mijito, se lo han llevado, se lo han llevado!"
Concha reached out and grabbed her as she started for the cradle. "Calmate, calmate, comadre," she entreated, "mira, aqui esta; aqui lo tenemos."
Lupe took quick strides toward them. "!Aqui esta, aqui esta!" she called as Mage reached out and pulled Gerardo toward her, curling his head under her chin. She stood, her arms locked like bandoleras across the baby on her chest. She closed her eyes and moved her lips slightly, "Padre nuestro, que estas en el cielo ..." when her knees started to buckle under her. Concha felt Mage's weight shift toward her, and she strengthened her support as she moved her backward onto the cot.
"Duermete un ratito, Mage. Nosotros nos quedamos con el nino," Concha pleaded as she pulled the rebozo across Mage. "Dame el nino, comadre, y duermete," Concha said in a slow, whispering voice as she began to gently tug at the arms that held Gerardo in a tight and rigid grasp. Mage pulled against the force, sending Gerardo into a rising whine.
Lupe dragged a chair over to the side of the cot. "Mira, Mage, voy a sentarme aqui cerquita con el nino. Damelo, Mage, damelo."
Mage looked toward Lupe's extended arms, her cousin's face, those shiny dark eyes she had known since her childhood, and released her grip. Concha covered Mage's arms after Lupe lifted the infant onto her lap. Looking up momentarily at their blurred images, Mage closed her eyes to welcome the dark and stillness. As she began to drift off into a light sleep, she felt the darkness close in around her and sensed herself floating down into the earthen hole under the floorboards. The thick scent of newly dug earth rolled across her. She felt her back resting on the cool earth beneath her as the darkness spread higher and higher above her. Slowly, pinpoints of light appeared at the mouth of the darkness, first still and faint, then growing to flickering flames of light dancing on the tips of six white candles. A hum rose above the light, building to a low chant, "Ruega por nosotros, ruega por nosotros ..."
Through the chanting Mage heard Nacha's cries, "Mama, Mama, ?Que tienes, Mama?" Mage started from her sleep to find Nacha's flushed face next to hers, Pedro and Lupe standing alongside the cot.
"?Que paso?" she queried as she struggled to put an arm around her daughter.
"Una pesadilla," Lupe replied, "estabas dando vueltas en la cama."
"Concha fue a hacerte un te calmante," Pedro added.
Mage looked up; the pain in their anxious faces erased the scent of earth that had followed her into consciousness. She placed her hand gently on her daughter's cheek and locked away the fear that had overpowered her.
"Me siento mejor, me siento mejor," she insisted as she sat up on the cot and neatly folded the rebozo. "Lupe, vas a quedarte para cenar," she continued as she reached out her hand for her husband to help her stand.
"No, no," Pedro began, "no te levantes."
Mage looked hard into her husband's eyes. "Ayudame, tengo que hacer la cena," she insisted. Pedro felt the compelling strength in his wife's eyes. He took her small hand in his own two hands, dark and gnarled like burl wood, and pulled her to her feet.
Concha reentered the house carrying a small jarro with a cup at its mouth. The smell of mint and an indiscernible mixture of herbs wafted across the room as she lifted the cup and poured in the steaming liquid. Concha stood back from the table and waited, her authority as the town curandera eliciting Mage's compliance. Mage sipped the liquid as she had seen her mother and grandmother do before her. The aromatic steam plunged their images into her. She exhaled, feeling their pain dissipate into the air. The scent of memory rose from the open jarro and filled the room, intertwining new generations in the ritual healing. Mage smiled at her cousin with the shiny dark eyes, rocking Gerardo in her arms.
Mage savored the comfort she felt from the familiar chores that fueled her energy the next morning. She mused at the light playfully dancing on her husband's mustache as he finished his breakfast across from the kitchen window, at the sweet musky scent that reached toward her as Gerardo nursed at her breast, at her fingers darting smoothly across the plaits to form Nacha's braids. Mage placed a quick kiss on her daughter's forehead as she opened the door and ushered her off to school. She looked for a moment at the thin figure skipping off with her braids bouncing and tumbling behind her.
As Mage turned to shut the door, the dark stripe of dried blood left by the fallen soldier jolted her sense of continuity. Mage stood motionless for a moment staring at the deep stains that formed a dark and ominous river flowing toward her door. Leaving the door ajar, she filled her cleaning bucket with thick, handmade yellow soap and water. Soaking an old towel in the liquid, she dropped to her knees and scrubbed the stain, pushing and shifting her weight into the cloth. She clenched her teeth as the reddish-brown liquid pushed its way between her fingers and rode in rusty fines across her hands and wrists.
After fifteen minutes, dark lines still remained in the indented areas of the weatherworn wood. Mage lifted a box of lye from a high shelf and poured a stream of the white powder into the bucket. She felt the pinpricks of the caustic liquid each time she slipped the cloth back into the bucket. She poured the remaining liquid onto the wood and scrubbed it back and forth with a straw broom. The wood dried quickly in the hot, dry air, revealing a surface free of yesterday's memories.
Mage soaked her hands in the basin, the flush of pain flowing out and into the cool, soothing water. She dried her hands, lifted Gerardo from his cradle, and stood with him at the door, feeling a sense of victory over the events that had forced themselves into her life.
On the way home for lunch, Nacha noticed that not all the Villistas had left the town. Small groups of men sat talking in the town square. Three Villistas were outside of Macias's general store cinching bags of supplies behind their horses' saddles. Two other men sat on a bench alongside the store wall. One man was slumped forward, his arms resting on his legs, his head bowed, a nearly empty bottle of pulque on the bench beside him. The other man pulled a translucent piece of wheat-colored paper out of his pocket and held it delicately between his fingers. Nacha edged in closer as he tipped the metal can expertly across the paper, the red-gold strands of tobacco falling in a neat line across the middle. He stretched out his hand, and the paper became a blur amid his dancing fingers. In an instant, the man raised the new cigarro, rolled tight and straight, to his lips and eased his tongue across the delicate edge of the paper. Nacha edged in closer, her eyes burning slightly rather than chancing to blink and miss a single movement of the magical transformation.
The man flipped the cigarro into his mouth, letting it hang carelessly from his lip as he patted his clothes in search of a match. Finally, he pulled out a slim wooden match from his pocket and traced it down the outside wall, the bright red head exploding in orange and yellow. The flame danced its light onto the tip of the cigarro, then the man held out the lighted match to Nacha, nodding toward her. Nacha bent forward at the waist, took a deep breath, and blew between her pursed lips. As she leaned forward, her skirt hiked up slightly, baring the gold, round curve of her calf and lower thigh.
Nacha lurched as she felt a hand graze across her leg. Spontaneously, she began walking backwards away from the men. "Ay, chulita. ?Adonde vas?" called the man who had been slumped forward, as he roused from his stupor and reached toward her.
Nacha heard their laughter trail after her as she tore down the street to her home. She stopped to catch her breath before entering the house, as she did not want to explain why she had been running. Nacha had broken the strictest rule of the house, never to get close to the fighting men, Villistas or Federales.
The warmth and the familiar smells that met Nacha as she opened the door to her house comforted her. She entered calmly, kissed her mother on the cheek, and took her baby brother into her arms so her mother could finish preparing her lunch. As she tugged on the tiny hands that curled and uncurled across her outstretched finger, Nacha found herself drawn again to images of the swirling paper and the orange flash of light.
As she finished the last spoonful of beans and sopa de arroz, Nacha heard the roar of voices as a crowd of men and women moved past their house. She ran to the window. Groups of men and women were moving toward the center of the town. She raced for the door, but her mother was already there, blocking it with her body.
"!Quiero ir, mama, quiero ir!" she insisted.
Mage just shook her head at her daughter. Nacha tried to edge around Mage. A tug of war began as Nacha grabbed the door handle. Finally, the small hand lost its grip, and Mage pulled Nacha gently over to a wooden chair. Explaining the dangers of being caught in a fast shuffling crowd, Mage took a soft cord and put it around Nacha's waist, tying it to the back of the chair. Nacha moved back and forth, jiggling the chair with her.
Gerardo began to cry. Mage bolted the door and warned her daughter to sit quietly while she nursed the baby in the next room. Nacha waited until her mother had left the room and then continued to wiggle and twist on the chair. She reached her hands behind her back and found the knot. She pulled at it, digging her fingernails into the soft cord. She worked her fingers back and forth in the folds of the knot repeatedly until it finally loosened, and she pulled it apart. Leaping to her feet, she studied the bolt on the front door. She knew her mother would return immediately if she heard the bolt click open. Quietly she edged the chair to the window, climbed from the chair to the windowsill, and leapt out onto the street.
The street was filled with yelling, fast-moving people. Wiry Nacha easily slipped through the crowd into the center of town. She wove her way through the tightly packed group to the front of the crowd that stood shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the town's jewelry store. The crowd cheered as a man on horseback edged in front of the store's door, his sombrero hanging across his back, his bandoleras crisscrossed on his chest.
Other men grabbed ropes and tied them to the handle and the bars on the door. The rider tied the other end to his saddle horn. Nacha moved in closer to the rider. As she did, the rider kicked his horse to move backwards and pull on the ropes. The horse lurched backward; its back left hoof grazing across Nacha's foot. Nacha felt the knife- sharp edge of the horseshoe cut a hot wedge into the top of her foot. She screamed, unheard in the rising volume of the crowd.
Blood running from her foot, she tore across the front of the crowd toward her house. Halfway down the narrow dirt side street, she saw her mother, moving as fast as she could with Gerardo bundled in her rebozo.
"Nacha!" she called, her voice shaking as she saw her daughter approaching. Nacha threw her arms around her mother's waist, sobbing into the folds of the rebozo. Her mother made the sign of the cross, gave a thankful glance skyward, and pressed Nacha tightly against her.
As the noise of the crowd rose, Mage and Nacha looked toward the end of the street. They could see the front of the jewelry store clearly from where they stood. The rider gave one more lurch backward and the store door crashed off the hinges. Instantly, the crowd lunged forward, yelling and trying to push into the store. The people at the front of the crowd were smashed against the outside walls of the store, their screams of pain absorbed in the din of voices. Mage covered her daughter's eyes and turned to face the other direction. They walked down the street slowly to their house, Nacha limping and leaning on her mother.
Mage wove the last portion of the shiny red ribbon through the braid that curled up at the end, looping the ribbon into wide arching bows that rested on Nacha's shoulders. As soon as Mage's hand left her hair, Nacha pinched the edges of her red ruffled skirt and began to dance in gentle limping steps toward the door to the melody of imaginary guitars and marimbas. Mage smiled as she watched the bows, red twirling butterflies circling her head and shoulders.
Pedro walked out from the bedroom, struggling to button the cuff on his stiffly starched shirt. Mage and Pedro moved toward each other across the room in a wordless ritual; he reached out his arm, and she eased the buttons into place. Pedro leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on the top of Mage's head as she bent forward over the last button. The heat of his body rolled his familiar musky scent toward her, mingled with the bittersweet smell of shaving soap and homemade starch.
Nacha twirled toward her parents and grabbed one of her father's hands.
"Baila conmigo, Papa, baila," she pleaded, twirling back and forth under his arms.
Pedro laughed as Nacha became a blur of red ruffles and ribbons swirling around him on one foot. He caught her mid-turn, lifted her high into the air by her waist, and danced with her in broad circles across the room. Mage clapped her hands and tapped one foot to the imaginary music that sailed them across the floor. With a final flourish, Pedro tossed her gently into the air, caught her in his arms, and eased the giggling Nacha back onto her feet.
"Mas, mas, Papa," Nacha pleaded.
Pedro, slightly out of breath, put up his hands and backed away. Nacha, undaunted, kept dancing, making little leaping motions toward him. Mage moved with practiced ease between them.
"Calmate, calmate, mi loquita," she laughed as she grabbed her daughter's hands and held them firmly. "La fiesta ya comenzo. Tenemos que dar prisa."
Nacha looked into her mother's unwavering glance and stopped struggling. In a few seconds Mage released Nacha's hands. Nacha glided toward the door where she danced in restrained, miniature steps while she waited for her father to put on his jacket and her mother to wrap Gerardo and herself in her crimson rebozo.
Pedro lifted the basket of empanadas Mage had prepared and wrapped carefully in bleached white cotton towels. As he led his family toward the village circle, they heard the tones of the marimba vibrating down the narrow streets, its gentle melody beckoning a louder and louder welcome as they neared the church courtyard. Through the open wrought-iron gates, the villagers came to share the peaceful evening. Men in their stiff, clean shirts, women wrapped in a rainbow of rebozos, and children with the shine of newly scrubbed faces and dancing expectant eyes greeted each other as they passed through the open gates.
Pedro and Nacha separated from Mage and Gerardo as they entered, edging their way into the crowd standing around the marimba player. Two men walked up and joined in with their guitars. Some of the Villistas came over to the musicians, and the rest sat or stood around in small groups, drinking pulque and waiting for the evening meal to begin.
Mage continued on to where the women were preparing the tables and setting out the food. Lupe was busy covering the tables with starched white tablecloths. When she saw her cousin, she quickly smoothed out the last tablecloth and hurried to help Mage with the basket she lugged with one hand as she balanced Gerardo on her hip.
The tables were piled with the specialties each woman brought from her household, their votive offering for the freedom to share a communal meal. Everyone stood and bowed their heads in silence as Father Romano raised and lowered the brass crucifix, blessing the food-laden tables. When he finished, everyone glided their hands across themselves in the sign of the cross and then took their customary places. The Villistas, as guests of honor, sat at a long table with Father Romano. The village men found places at smaller tables, and the children sat in groups on benches around the courtyard. The women, molded into an army of caretakers in the images of their mothers and grandmothers, formed efficient squads of servers, piling the metal and ceramic plates high and easing them in front of the waiting men and children. Only after everyone had finished being served did they sit in small clutches, talking and swaying to the music of the marimba and the guitars.
When the meal was finished, the women cleared the tables, and Mr. Macias brought in another washtub filled with blocks of ice and bottles of pulque. Hands reached in from all directions as soon as he put down the tub, leaving the chunks of ice floating alone in the metal container. Lupe cleared away the dishes from the main table. She stacked them cautiously on top of one another, concentrating on this delicate balancing. Once she felt her grip was secure, she looked up at the Villistas who remained at the table. She flushed and put her face down as she noted the men's eyes scanning her face and form as she worked. She turned quickly and returned to the serving table.
Mage was rocking a tired and fussy Gerardo and holding her now empty basket when Lupe returned to the serving tables.
"Tengo que irme, Lupita. El nino tiene sueno," Mage said as she moved toward the center of the courtyard. Pedro and Nacha would stay longer and listen to the music, but the baby needed to be nursed and rocked to sleep.
"Apurate, esta oscureciendo," warned Mage, encouraging Lupe to hurry and meet her at the house before dark so they could continue to work on her trousseau.
Lupe waved and nodded to her cousin, then turned to finish her assigned tasks. As she folded the tablecloths with stiff, nervous movements, she noticed the sky graying into twilight. She set the last tablecloth in the box of linens alongside the tables, then covered her head with her blue and yellow rebozo and stepped out into the rapidly closing night. Fireplaces and lanterns lit the windows of the adobe houses orange-gold. The evening air was crisp and sweet smelling, the distorted half-moon spilling faint lines of light across the narrow path she carved to her cousin's house.
Lupe, feeling uneasy as she strode the short and familiar route, pulled the rebozo forward, shielding her face from view. As she was about to turn onto the main street, she heard the footfalls of heavy boots and deep voices singing loudly, their melody broken frequently by bursts of laughter that erupted uncontrollably between swigs on their bottles of pulque. Lupe stepped back, hidden in the shadows, and leaned against a wall. But the men had already caught a glimpse of her full skirt dancing behind her.
The men's eyes met briefly. Spontaneously, they turned into the dark corner and stood facing Lupe, closing in on both sides. Lupe pushed her back against the wall as she watched the two men slowly advance, their flanking maneuver blocking any opportunity for escape. She felt her face and neck flush and her heart began to race. She started to open her mouth to scream, but one of the men leapt forward and clamped his hand roughly across her mouth. A flash of adrenaline raced up her back, grabbing her consciousness with its fire. As she began to struggle, the man pressed the full force of his body against hers and pinned her to the wall. The smell of soured pulque assaulted her senses as he moved his face closer to hers. She closed her eyes. Suddenly, her head and body lurched to the side as his scratchy, calloused hand slid away from her face, and he was shoved sideways. Lupe looked up to see the muscular arms of his larger, flush-faced companion shove the first man aside. The other hand twisted around the rebozo and instantly snapped it off her, knocking Lupe slightly off balance. He caught her at the shoulder and yanked her back into equilibrium. Then, tracing his hand roughly across her breast, he tore the sleeve away, revealing the delicate curve of her shoulder. As Lupe screamed, the first man rose to his feet, lunged at the second assailant, and stretched his fingers across his throat. The second man moved his arms upwards in a powerful thrusting motion and broke the grip around his throat.
As they continued to struggle back and forth, Lupe seized the opportunity and fled out of the shadows and into the main street, leaving the rebozo on the ground under the feet of the staiggling men. She felt the cold night air plunge into her lungs in rapid, shallow breaths as she raced down the narrow streets. She threw herself against her cousin's door and pounded with her open palms, her hands lifted above her head as she leaned into the door to catch her breath.
The door swung open, pulling her forward, her unbalanced figure and falling arms instantly draping themselves across her startled cousin's frame. In their own pas de deux, choreographed through years of abrazos and shared emotions, Mage's arms simultaneously enveloped her cousin, holding her wordlessly until the trembling stopped. They took slow, easy steps to the bed in the far corner and sat down next to each other.
Lupe's hand reached up to cover the torn sleeve on her blouse. She lowered her eyes, tracing the floor with her glance as her cousin noted the severed sleeve. Mage placed her hand on Lupe's arm and waited, her questions hanging unspoken in the silence.
"Me tocaron," Lupe whispered, "Me tocaron."
Mage stroked her cousin's arm gently back and forth. "Estas segura ahora, estas segura aqui conmigo."
"Me agarraron ... y ... y ..." Lupe's words were swallowed into the staccato cries that erupted from her chest. Mage took both of Lupe's hands in hers and held them tightly.
Lupe continued, "Nadie debe de saber, prima, nadie debe de saber. No quiero que nadie corra peligro. !No quiero que sepan que me tocaron!"
Mage looked at her cousin's pleading eyes. She knew Pedro, Lupe's brothers, and her fiance would have to find and confront the men. Mage nodded her head slowly then rose and reached under the bed. She pulled out the basket full of needles, thread, and scraps of material for the quilt she and Lupe were preparing for her trousseau. Silently Mage stitched the sleeve in place, hiding the bare and bruised shoulder, and Lupe's shame, from the town's eyes.
Mage watched the masa ooze out between her fingers in flat white ribbons as she kneaded the freshly prepared corn dough. Throughout the kitchen and front room, the other women, relatives and comadres, busied themselves with their allotted tasks for the preparation of the tamales for Lupe's betrothal the next day. Their biting scent punctuated the kitchen air as Lupe dropped two dry, wrinkled chiles into the metate and in moments transformed their deep red skin into bright red powder under the expert twist of her hand. The chile powder prickled Mage's nose as Lupe poured it onto the masa for Mage to knead in some color.
Lupe's mother lifted a sauce-covered wooden spoon to her mouth from the kettle that had been stewing on Mage's stove for the past four hours. She brought the spoon to her lips, and the scent of her mother's and grandmother's kitchen wafted up to her. The hint of oregano, comino, and garlic laced through the chile and pork mixture bit into her palate.
"!Esta listo!" she announced, lifting the large pot from the stove and setting it on the trivet in the middle of the table. Mage followed her, setting the broad oval pan of masa next to it.
Rehearsed through years of preparation for rituals and holidays, the women moved in concert across the floor to their stations. Lupe and two younger cousins formed the chorus, opening the stiff cornhusks in unison and painting them with masa in quick, rhythmic strokes. Mage served as the bridge between movements, lifting up their prepared husks to Lupe's mother, who swung her wooden spoon like a baton as she ladled the steamy meat and sauce into them in sync with the motion that glided them toward her. Concha orchestrated the finale, the cornhusks bowing and twisting under the direction of her strong, broad fingers. Their voices rose and fell in harmony with the rhythm of their hands. Theirs was the song of tasks familiar to all women who prepare for any ceremony. The talk was of food, of who would come later to Lupe's house to help make the mole and drench it onto the chicken, and who would spend the evening clapping masa between their hands to fashion towers of tortillas. Concha would bring her pans of rice, sprinkled with bits of tomato and onion and the elusive hint of dried shrimp. And neighbors had promised pots of frijoles de la olla, soupy beans that would sit on the edge of the table flanked by chopped onions to sprinkle across the top of each bowl.
The talk of food came to an end with the sealing of the last tamal. It was time now to talk of other lists: of candles and ribbons and rosaries and white dresses. Lupe was encouraged to try on her dress for them, while the rest of the women cleared the table and kitchen counters.
Lupe started to unbutton her blouse in the front room. She hesitated as she rolled the second button between her fingers, then lifted the dress that was draped across the rocking chair and carried it into the bedroom. As she closed the door, she heard her mother remark:
"Mira a Lupe con su vestido blanco, nina tan pura."
Her mother's words echoed at her in the bedroom as she slipped off her blouse and revealed the rings of purple that the Villista's fingers had imprinted upon her. Her breath grew slow and shallow as she smoothed the bodice, pulling away her hand at the soreness across her left breast. She looked at herself in Mage's mirror, the ruffled hem of her dress dancing about her as she walked. The delicate organdy dress of her childhood dreams reflected back at her in the mirror. But Lupe's heart did not race as it did in her dreams. She did not turn the happy circles she did in her girlhood pretenses. She just stared at the young woman who carried a secret beneath her white dress.
When Lupe entered the front room, all the women stopped what they were doing and came up to her.
"!Ay, que linda!"
"Mira que bella," a chorus of compliments met her.
But Lupe's mother caught her daughter's mood, "?Por que estas tan seria, mija? Baila para nosotros en tu vestido, baila."
Lupe looked toward her cousin. Mage's eyes met hers in quiet recognition. She nodded her head almost imperceptibly toward Lupe.
"Baila, baila," her younger cousins began to chant and clap their hands. Lupe lifted her head, spread her arms gracefully, and twirled in gentle flowing circles about the room.
As she finished her last pirouette, Pedro and Lupe's father entered the house. Lupe's mother turned to invite them to join Lupe's audience when she noticed the serious looks on their faces. Mage had noticed too and was already walking toward them.
"Una cosa terrible ha pasado," Pedro whispered to Mage.
The clapping and laughter stopped, and all the women turned toward the men.
Lupe's father hesitated, seeing his daughter so beautiful in her delicate white dress and flushed cheeks.
"Javier ..." he began.
Lupe gasped and cupped her hands over her mouth. Lupe's father moved toward her.
She dropped her hands and demanded, "?Donde esta?"
"Lupita," her father replied, reaching his arm around her shoulder.
"?Donde esta?" she repeated moving away from her father. "?Esta afuera?"
Pedro automatically stepped back to block the door. Lupe took his movement as an answer to her question and took fast, determined strides toward the door. Her father and Pedro stood on either side entreating her not to leave the house. Their pleas only increased her insistence, and screaming, "!dejenme!" she pushed past them and ran to the wagon that stood in front of the house.
They had closed his eyes, but no one had brought the blanket yet to cover him, to hide the gaping wound in his chest and the blood that moved across his soaked shirt. Lupe's gait froze as she met the wagon. The sight overwhelmed her senses. Her vision fragmented, taking in only portions of her fiance's body at one time: the dusty boots, the limp arms, the twisted torso, the chest a sense-shattering explosion of red. His face, with his eyes gently closed, appeared unrelated to the rest of his body. His face looked peaceful, the sleeping face she had pledged to lie next to for the rest of her life. She placed a hand on either side of his face; the skin was still warm and pliable. She tightened her grip, looking down at the brow she had gently kissed when he left just hours ago. Her parents stood behind her, ready to let her collapse into their arms, but Lupe just stood there still and silent, holding onto her fiance, not ready to relinquish her future.
Concha and the younger cousins left, but Pedro, Mage, and Lupe's parents stood with her as dusk grew a deeper and deeper gray. Lupe's father finally approached her.
"Lupita, vente con nosotros." Lupe's arms were stiff and unmoving. He looked into her eyes. Her gaze was fixed and empty. He cupped her face in his hands. "Lupita," he called, twisting his face in front of hers. She remained transfixed, her senses detached from anything around her.
Finger by finger they peeled her hands away from Javier's face. Pedro helped Lupe's father carry her into the house and set her on Nacha's cot. Lupe's mother took Lupe's hands in hers and caressed them, talking softly to her. But Lupe sat unseeing and unhearing in her white organdy dress, stiff and still as a mannequin, staring forward sightlessly. Lupe's mother began to cry in shaky, vibrating tones, terrified by the sight of her daughter's frozen form. Lupe's father came up and took his wife into his arms, tears slowly winding their way down the sides of his face.
Pedro came over to them and offered to let Lupe stay with them for the night. It would not be easy to move her, he argued, and she needed time to rest and deal with the shock.
Mage came over to the cot, eased her into a lying position, and covered her with a quilt. She sat on the edge of the cot and watched Lupe's shallow breathing. Lupe's mother looked at Mage watching over her cousin, as she had since the day she had placed the infant in Mage's arms. She would be safe here, away from the people who would come and look into her face to offer their condolences, away from the arrangements that would have to be made for the body and the preparations for the velorio. Lupe's parents looked at their daughter lying frail and immobile in the corner of the room. It did not matter what the townspeople might say or what the priest might advise; their daughter would not attend the velorio and burial. They had lost Lupita for now, but they did not want to take the chance of losing her forever; they would give her time.
The parents kissed their daughter's forehead as they left, her eyes dark and unblinking beneath them. Pedro walked them outside and questioned the men who had brought the wagon. They had ridden with Javier to exchange goods in a town about twenty miles away. On the way back, in a curve on the road around a hill just outside of town, they rode into crossfire between the Federales and a group of Villistas. They whipped the horses, but Javier was hit before they could speed out of range. The young man who had been talking in a brisk and animated tone suddenly stopped and lowered his head, adding in slow, measured words:
"Ni se si eran Federales o Villistas que lo mataron."
Pedro placed his hand on the young man's shoulder:
"Hijo," he began, "?Que importa?"
When everyone had left, Mage reached over and unbuttoned the betrothal dress. Stiff and unresponsive, Lupe felt like a cruel replica of her girlhood dolls. She pulled the quilt back up around Lupe's shoulders and gently stroked her hair. Lupe gave no response, holding her eyes fixed ahead. Mage pulled the rocking chair over and sat next to the cot, hoping her presence would help ease Lupe's way back. Mage settled herself into a gentle rocking motion, ready for the long night's vigil.
It was many hours before exhaustion overcame Lupe, and she closed her eyes in heavy, merciful sleep; so she slept long into the morning hours. This gave Mage time to nurse and bathe Gerardo and to feed and send Nacha and Pedro off for the day before trying again to reach into the distance her cousin had placed between herself and the world around her. When Lupe awoke, Mage removed the quilt and slipped on the clothes Lupe had left in Mage's bedroom. Lupe did not resist her, but let her body be moved like molding clay, thick and cold to the touch. Mage brought a cup of coffee to Lupe, drawing it to her lips in hope that the steamy and pungent aroma would invite her to take a sip. Lupe's face remained unmoved by the warmth that reached up toward her lips and cheeks, by her cousin's gentle entreaties, by the world that lay beyond her. Mage squeezed her cousin's hand and walked back to the kitchen. She would let her sit for a while in that dark corner; she would wait, but she would try again.
Mage kept a steady watch over her cousin for the next two hours as she went about her household tasks, looking for any small sign of movement or change. Lupe remained motionless, looking more and more frail in her rigid pose on Nacha's cot.
Mage walked over to the corner once again, took Lupe's hand and, placing her other arm gently across Lupe's waist, guided her in slow, guarded steps over to the table.
"Sientate aqui, Lupita." Mage prodded her into the chair near the window where the sun could drizzle some warmth onto her ashen cheeks. "Puedes ver las flores en el jardin," she continued, surveying the rows of colored blossoms she hoped would bring the softness back into her cousin's eyes. Mage bent down and grazed the top of Lupe's head with her lips as she turned to warm the noonday meal.
As she moved about the kitchen, she came upon her mother's metate, the metate she and Lupe had used since they were girls to grind the corn and chiles for Christmas and New Year's, for weddings and bautizos. They had learned to move to the rhythm of the voices of the women working together in the kitchen or the guitars playing on the patio. As little girls, they had pretended that it was the metate of their future homes, and they were preparing feasts for their husbands and children. They sang together to the rhythm of the metate, skip-rope rhymes and silly verses: "Tortillitas, tortillitas pa tu mama, las quemaditas pa tu tata."
Mage glanced at Lupe then lifted the metate and set it on the table in front of her. She scooped up a bowl in one hand and a large bag of corn kernels in the other and placed them next to the metate. Grabbing a handful of corn kernels, Mage dropped them onto the metate, cupped her hand around the rough gray stone, and began to roll it back and forth. She hummed low and softly to the rhythm of her hand rocking steadily in a perfect, smoothly flowing motion. Lupe's body began to move almost imperceptibly with Mage's. Mage continued for a few minutes, then emptied the metate and sprinkled another handful of corn across the surface. This time she reached forward and took her cousin's hands, forming them around the stone, and with her hands atop, began the rolling rhythm again. At first, Lupe's hands were held in place only by Mage's grip, but in time the familiar rhythm, woven into bone and muscle for two decades, took hold, and Mage eased her hands away. Lupe's hands first moved on their own with a force independent of her body, but gradually they pulled her entire frame into the steady rolling rhythm. Lupe fled into the shelter of the familiar sensations and images that the rhythm of the metate stirred. The limbs rigid and immobile for so long, now eagerly rolled the stone across the coarse surface of the metate, feeling the grains burst under the steady rolling pressure. The rhythm of the metate seduced her, the rhythm that rose and fell throughout the village, the rolling rhythm orchestrated by tens of thousands of women in villages and in cities linking generations in its unbroken melody, the pores of the rough stone imprinted on the palms of centuries of mothers and their daughters.
After half an hour had passed, Mage noted that Lupe's hands had become white from the grip she had locked upon the stone. Mage took a small bowl of chicken and rice soup laced with finely diced carrots to the table. She covered Lupe's hands with her own. "Bueno, Lupita, ya ... ya ..." The gentle pressure broke Lupe's rhythm, and she let her cousin remove the rock that felt embedded in her palms.
Slowly, Mage eased the bowl into Lupe's hands, sending soothing warmth across the tense muscles. The sensations spread a calming glow across Lupe's aching hands. Mage edged the bowl toward Lupe's face. The steam curled about her mouth and cheeks, massaging the taut and rigid muscles. Mage lifted the bowl to her lips. Lupe fixed her eyes on Mage; the patient, loving face of her caretaker since childhood summoned her. Lupe drank the broth in slowly measured droughts. When she finished, Mage took the bowl and, with a soft caress across Lupe's cheek, turned Lupe's face toward the window. Lupe sat facing the window, her once rigid shoulders curving her body toward the sunlight as she looked out into the garden and beyond.
The day stood still for Lupe. Poised at the window, captured by the warmth of the noonday sun, she felt her body again for the first time. She watched the afternoon breeze rustle through the garden, the flowers moving in tousled waves of color. She was oblivious to her cousin's world behind her: the sounds and movements of Nacha's return from school, baby Gerardo's waking and sleeping, and Pedro's entrance did not reach her senses. She watched twilight approach; engulfing the world of color she had allowed herself to enter. She watched tentacles of darkness steal row after row of the flowers until the garden lay hidden under its dusky cover. In reparation, the night offered a canopy of lights, stars summoned in the thousands to puncture the darkness in defiant bursts of white light.
When the rest of the family were all in their beds, Mage opened the front door to let in the last rush of fresh air before closing up the house for the evening. A sweet, balmy breeze rolled the scent of early summer into the house. Mage took deep breaths and exhaled the weight of the day into the silken air.
The door was directly across from the kitchen table, so the breeze danced gently toward Lupe, the sweet, moist air rippling across her frame. Very slowly, Lupe turned toward the open door, the breeze now caressing her face in intermittent waves. On a nearby hill, the howl of a gray wolf began to build, echoed by his brothers across the night. He exhaled a long, vibrating note. It stretched across the evening sky and rolled through the stillness of the sleeping village, ringing into the silence of Mage's house. The long, aching cry of the wolf pulled at Lupe, drawing her toward the open door. Deep within her, taut and silenced chords resonated with the rising moan of the wolf.
Mage looked at her cousin standing motionless facing the open door, a frozen silhouette in the candlelight against the darkness, her once shiny dark eyes cold and brittle obsidian. The wail of the wolf beckoned Lupe farther out the open door. Lupe leaned into the misty darkness. The cries rose louder and longer, their intensity building. Lupe opened her mouth, her movements mimicking the wolf. Muffled sounds writhed in her gaping mouth, her jaw quivered, her body choked to push out the cries that stayed clawed in her throat. Lupe threw her head back forcefully and thrust open her jaw. Her mouth agape, she rolled the vibrating chords from deep within her quivering body:
"Aag-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah," deep and guttural they began.
They resounded through the glistening moisture of the night air, around and through her body.
Mage came up behind Lupe. Her face awash in hot tears, she stood with her hands on Lupe's shoulders, grounding her as Lupe's cries climbed skyward. Together they rode the rise and fall of her plaintive aria, a single silhouette in the wedge of moonlight that cut across the bruise-black sky.
Mage covered her cousin, curled in a heap on Nacha's cot, exhausted from the hours of crying into the night sky. She leaned forward and curved her arms around Lupe. Pressing her cheek against Lupe's, Mage held her for a moment, then left the room, reassured by her deep and easy breathing.
Nacha had fallen asleep in the middle of her parents' bed, secure with the expectation of being flanked by her parents' warm presence during the night. Pedro and Nacha slept soundly, unaware of the events of the past three hours.
Mage changed into her long nightgown, then climbed into bed. Waves of sweet smelling warmth radiated from Nacha toward her mother. Mage reached forward and curled Nacha into her arms. With Nacha breathing softly against her, she felt a calm come over her exhausted body, stealing her consciousness in one sweeping motion. A hunger for sleep drove her deeper and deeper from consciousness, her body heavy and sinking. Images began to dance across her eyelids. Pieces of the day wove together in senseless patchwork; a cavalcade of faces and emotions ran at breakneck speed before her.
Suddenly, a rider appeared at the bedroom door. In the darkness, the figure was not discernible, a shadow figure with deep, piercing eyes sitting tall atop a dark and shiny horse that beat its hooves on the floor impatiently, its flared nostrils and powerful neck gleaming in the faint moonlight. The rider dug his heels deep into the horse's belly. The horse reared then lunged forward, horse and rider a molten dark force racing toward the bed. Mage screamed and rolled over Nacha, pulling her body under her. She turned to look as the horse reared above her in the darkness and fell, plunging its hooves toward her terror-frozen face. The terror thrust her into consciousness, her eyes instantly opening to drive away the shadows. The terror vibrated through every muscle and organ in her body, but she lay paralyzed, pinned helplessly to the bed by the adrenaline that ran its painful, burning course throughout her body. She tried to call out to Pedro, but her thoughts were all she could control. Her mouth could form no words; her body lay alien to her consciousness, dispelling the terror in its own separate course. Her heart racing, Mage lay immobilized for several minutes. She fixed her thoughts on the image of the Blessed Mother and surrendered herself to her care. As she recited a litany in her mind, she gradually regained control over her body. Her muscles aching and exhausted, she lay in the coolness of her white gown, moistened by the perspiration that had beaded her body throughout the ordeal.
Mage wanted to rouse Pedro and have him hold her, but she knew his presence, which had always made her feel safe and secure, was no match for the demons that had entered their room. Consciousness was her only haven, her will the only weapon that would keep their fury from her bed. She placed a hand on Nacha's stomach to feel the reassuring rise and fall of her breathing and brought the blankets up around herself as she prepared for another night long vigil.
She reached for the rosary on the stool by the bed and filled the darkness with the hum of Salve Marias. Her fingers glided from bead to bead in a never-ending circle, the repetitive prayers offering comfort learned through years of trust in their power. She began to sense that the days and nights were also linked in a repetitive pattern, each day bringing new dangers, each morning holding promises of more pain and loss, each night brandishing the threat of terror that steals the only promise of temporary peace.
Nothing that once offered peace and security remained, not her husband's strong embrace, not the feeling of her children breathing in concert with her on her breast, not the thick adobe walls of her own home, not the bonds of relatives and neighbors that tied the lives of the villagers together in mutual caring and protection. None of this touched the foreboding that seized Mage's being. The rider had come to warn her; she sensed that a force had risen deep within her to drive her and her family from the town. The dark messenger had heralded the future on horse's hooves, pounding the message into every electrified nerve and muscle of Mage's body. Mage resolved that the rider would not find her again in that bed.
As soon as dawn broke the first lines of light into the bedroom, Mage rose and gently roused Pedro. They would need as much of the day as possible. While Pedro splashed water on his face and slipped on his trousers, Mage walked to the kitchen and prepared the coffee and steamy cereal. Pedro edged quietly past the sleeping Lupe and joined Mage at the table. She sat across from him, her hands encircling a cup, her gaze averted. Pedro read the tension that stretched from Mage's drawn shoulders to the whitened knuckles on the cup. He knew her bowed head meant she was sifting through her thoughts, searching for the precise words that would touch a common chord between them. Something had changed overnight; the change was palpable in the air between them.
"?Que tienes, Mage?" he initiated, cupping his hands around hers, the coffee in the cup churning at the new pressure.
"Anoche me vino una vision. La muerte me visito."
Pedro's breath lay suspended between them for a moment. When they were first married, he made light of her dreams and visions. As a young man he had even mocked his wife's admonitions and advisement. But over the years, he had come to recognize her gift, not just because her dreams and visions had so often rung true, but because he came to sense his wife's extraordinary connection to the flow of time when the welfare of others was at stake. The visions and dreams were rare and striking reminders of this gift, but she resonated daily with the feelings and needs of those around her, sensing them often before the persons themselves were aware of them.
Mage looked with deep hollow eyes into her husband's intense gaze. "Tenemos que salir de la casa. Tenemos que irnos a las montanas, lejos de la guerra." Mage spoke slowly, knowing what she was saying was sudden and extreme. "Y tenemos que salir hoy," she added.
Pedro sat back in disbelief. She not only wanted to leave the house behind and flee to the mountains, leaving behind not only the war but also everyone and everything they knew, but she wanted to leave today!
"Mage, Margarita, ?por que?" Pedro begged for a rationale for such an extreme request. Mage's lips trembled as she recounted the dream. Pedro was chilled by the dark image poised above the bed. She described the thoughts and feelings that wrenched through her during her nightlong vigil. Pedro tried to stop her as her descriptions began to animate the fearful images.
She continued, "!La tierra no va a devorar a mas ninos!"
Pedro reached his hands across to her shoulders and caressed them, "Suficiente, Mage ... ya ... ya."
Slowly they rose and circled the table to each other, enfolding gently in a rocking embrace. Pedro brushed the wispy strands from his wife's face and softly kissed her weary eyelids. He led her back to the table, and they began the detailed planning for their exodus.
Mage remembered the holy man, Don Ysidro, who lived far in the mountains in caves he had turned into grottos for the statues of saints who guided his meditations. He came to town three or four times a year for the supplies Mr. Macias and other townspeople would offer him and for candles to light the grottos. "Y pulque," thought Pedro, who believed him to be perhaps less holy that did Mage. But, Mage had spent time listening to him, hungry as he was for an audience after months alone in the mountains. Mage always opened herself to the lives of others, so Pedro knew she would have learned of life in the mountains from Don Ysidro. He had told her of his journey--five days on horseback-- of the caves that sheltered him, the game and yerbas growing wild, and water in shallow brooks a short half hour's walk away. But what she remembered most was the peace he described among the pines with not a sound of another human footfall.
It was summer, so they could sleep in the open in the comfort of the balmy night air until they reached the caves. They would take their horse cart and borrow a pack mule, carrying only the supplies that were absolutely necessary for now. Pedro would return later for anything else they might need. Pedro's younger brother and his new bride would stay in their house until they returned, since they were now sharing space in Pedro's parents' house.
Mage looked toward the sleeping Lupe. "Ella no puede quedarse aqui."
Pedro nodded his head in acknowledgement; he agreed that Lupe could not stay in the town. She would have to go with them. He would talk with her parents when he went to make the rest of the arrangements.
Mage took the first deep breath she remembered taking for hours. The anticipation of freedom worked into her being. She exhaled the caustic fear that had gripped her. She lifted her husband's hand to her lips and kissed it firmly, then leaned her cheek against the strong, bronze surface of his hand in tribute to his trust in her vision and his strength that would take them safely through their journey.
Mage and Pedro stood alone together in the center of their house, the children and Lupe secured in the horse cart amid blankets, pans, and supplies for their journey. Pedro ran his hand slowly down the surface of a wall, recalling the months he spent nailing every board in place and smoothing the surface of the walls. The open door to their bedroom beckoned to Mage, spilling images of newborns being placed in her arms. Pedro put his arm around Mage's shoulders and turned them both toward the front door. As they exited, neighbors and relatives who had been waiting outside came up to them with abrazos and gifts for their trip.
Lupe's mother held Mage for a long time. "Dios los bendiga," she cried as she placed her grandmother's scapular in Mage's hand. Concha stepped forward with a basket of sealed jars filled with medicinal herbs and teas. In carefully guarded tones, she imparted her knowledge and healing art to Mage, identifying the conditions each jar was supposed to alleviate. Cousins, compadres, and neighbors waited their turn, the sadness at their leaving tempered by the unspoken anxiety over their venture into the unknown.
Nacha sat in the cart piqued for an adventure, enjoying the attention and small gifts that the group pressed upon her. Gerardo, oblivious to the din, slept soundly in the cradle wedged among the supplies. Lupe sat next to Nacha and stared forward beyond the horses into the road ahead. She had been able to take her mother's hand and hold it tightly as she stood by the side of the cart. She could look into her parents' eyes when they told her of their love and concern, but she could not respond. Words did not form from her thoughts and emotions yet. The jumble of thoughts and feelings still dominated her, their power leaving her unable to sort them into coherent words and phrases. Their power held her apart, unable to extricate herself from their control long enough to respond to those around her.
Mage lifted the large basket of flowers she had cut from the garden and placed them next to Lupe. The familiar colors that had danced for her through the kitchen window brought a sense of calm and continuity to her.
Mage clenched her jaw to hold back the barrage of ambivalent emotions, her anticipation of safety, her need to speed away before the night sent the shadow rider screaming toward her, and her sense of loss as the faces of the crowd grew smaller and smaller as they moved down the road. Mage and Nacha waved their handkerchiefs as the horse cart pressed forward, the extra horse and pack mule tied to the back adding the quick clip of their hooves to the rattling sound of the heavily laden cart.
When they reached the cemetery at the far end of the town, Pedro stopped the cart. He helped Mage out of the cart and then offered his hand to Lupe. Mage looked into her cousin's eyes.
"Vente, Lupita. Todos tenemos que decir adios--por un tiempo. Hasta que regresemos."
Mage reached up and took Lupe's other hand, and together she and Pedro eased her down from the cart. Mage lifted out the basket of flowers and instructed Nacha to stay in the cart and keep watch over her sleeping baby brother.
The soil was loose and deeper brown in front of the wooden cross that marked Javier's grave. The three of them stood at the foot of the grave, Pedro and Mage flanking Lupe. Lupe stared at the cross that bore her fiance's name and traced her eyes across the flowers that covered its base. The connection between that mound of earth and her fiance was unclear. She had felt his presence, had felt it taken from her, more clearly last night crying into the darkness. This did not feel like Javier; this did not have the same reality.
Mage offered Lupe a bunch of the flowers to place at the grave, but Lupe just continued to stare ahead. Mage bent down and placed the bouquet across the foot of the grave.
Pedro looked toward Mage, and she nodded her head. At that signal, Pedro took Lupe's hand and slowly led her back to the cart. Pedro did not wait for Mage; he knew she wanted to have a few moments alone.
Mage took long strides up the sloping side of a hill where rows of small white crosses seemed to glow against the green of the wild grasses. Mage's breathing grew faster as she strode the familiar route. At last she stood in front of three small crosses standing in bright whitewash next to each other. Mage lifted the flowers from the basket and laid them in precise and even rows in front of each cross. The carved names of the infants were barely visible through the whitewash, but Mage knew where each lay and quietly said their names as she left her parting gift. She walked to the head of the graves and touched each cross, all that was left for a mother who reveled in the scent and feel of her infants. Moving her body gently back and forth to the rhythm with which she had rocked their cradles, she sang to her children:
"Estas son las mananitas que cantaba el Rey David ..." The wind carried Mage's voice across the hill of the Holy Innocents, the hill that held the town's children.
"Despierta, mi bien, despierta ..." The irony overwhelmed Mage, and she ended her song abruptly. Placing a kiss at the top of each cross, she turned, picked up her basket, and headed toward the cart.
Gerardo had awakened, and she could hear him crying uncontrollably, demanding her presence. Mage took faster, longer strides as Gerardo's cries drew her out of the graveyard. By the time she reached the cart, she was winded from having run the last twenty yards. Pedro was pacing alongside the cart, rocking an inconsolable Gerardo. Mage reached toward Pedro, and he released the infant into her arms. Mage wrapped her arms around him and tucked his head under her chin.
"Sh, sh, sh ..." she cooed as she twisted her body in a rocking motion. Gerardo dug his face into his mother's neck and chest and quieted immediately, comforted by the familiar warm feel of her skin against his and her sweet, milky scent. In a few minutes, Pedro helped them into the cart, and Mage put the baby to her breast, wrapping them both securely in her rebozo.
Pedro stepped into the driver's seat and took the reins into his hands. He turned his head to meet Nacha's eyes behind him. "?Estas lista, mija?" Nacha smiled at him and reached over and laced her fingers through one of Lupe's hands. Then Pedro turned to Mage. He leaned forward and gently kissed her left temple. "Vamos con Dios," he whispered.
Mage reached forward and placed her hand over his. "Dios nos bendiga," she responded.
Pedro snapped the reins and the cart lurched forward into the late afternoon sun. Butterflies danced in the wildflowers alongside the road, oblivious to those who took the road into or away from the war. Mage heard the sound of horse hooves behind them; the image of the shadow rider gripped her. Instantly she turned, tightening her grip on Gerardo. But the sound was only the horse and pack mule keeping pace with the horse cart. Freed from the terror that had captured her once more, she wrenched the image from within her and flung it into the swirling dust that trailed behind them, the shadow rider devoured by the time and space that separated them. Mage turned her body and faced forward. She looked ahead reassured by the mountains that rose and fell in unending waves across the skyline. She lifted her face to catch the last warming rays of the sun before twilight would be upon them. She took deep breaths, opening herself up to new visions, to archangels guarding the road behind them. But Mage knew she could not summon a vision, nor could she choose its form or mission. For now she would be content with their escape from the dark apparition. For now she would savor the touch and presence of her family. Her visions reflected her world; they could not create the world she would choose for her children. The dark visions were not banished forever, but for now she had the scent of Gerardo reaching up to her and holding her in the present. For now she could watch the even rhythm of her husband's arms as he guided the horses into their future. For now she could smile at the sweet songs Nacha sang to Lupe as they sat together in the back of the cart.
Mage looked up at the sky, golden with the setting sun, crimson veins threading the outline of the clouds. She sat unblinking, savoring every moment of the brilliant sky. Slowly twilight muted the sky, washing the colors into grays. The night rode in quickly behind it, the liquid darkness stealing the mountains and the road that lay before them. But the stars defied the darkness, holding back its claim to the night. Mage watched the white pulsing movement of the stars, mesmerized by their power over the darkness. She rested her head on her husband's shoulder. Now she could have the peace that sleep would offer her. In time the dark visions would return, but for now the darkness that had once held her in its talons lay still and tamed above her.
Diane de Anda, MSW, PhD, is Professor Emerita in the Department of Social Welfare at UCLA. Her short stories, essays, and poetry have appeared in Rosebud, Straylight, Storyteller, Saguaro, El Grito, Pacific Review, Bilingual Review, The Coppeifield Review, Modern Haiku, and many others. She has also published five picture books, three collections of short stories, and poetry for children, a number of which have won multiple awards. In addition to her creative work she has published satirical articles and scholarship on adolescent populations. A collection of flash fiction will be released in winter 2016.
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|Author:||de Anda, Diame|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2012|
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