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a kind of flight.

We watched Rosario fall down on her way to market with her mother. She was 2, and this was her first time stepping outside. Although the oldest of us was only 5 and the one in the middle was Rosario's age and the youngest wasn't even born, we all marked her sandals, a bright red like her lips. And we saw that though she stumbled beside her mother--awkward as a chicken--she was beautiful. No, she was no more beautiful than other girls her age, but her beauty entranced us because we were our fathers' sons. Even then, to him who looked up at her from his game of marbles, to him who gazed at her while cradled in his sister's shawl, to him who observed her from inside his mother's womb, her beauty was the moon. She had a round face, pitted even then with life's cares, but glowing, too, if only to us. We watched her fall, and we gasped, and then we watched her lift herself up without crying, knees unscraped, spirit undaunted, and follow after her mother--gliding, floating, soaring--as if in her fall she had acquired a pair of wings.

Our fathers were in love with her mother, had been since they were boys. Her mother wasn't any more beautiful than other women in town--Elena Sanchez had darker eyes and Alicia Rax had smoother skin and Esperanza Cal had longer, lusher hair--but when Olivia Escobar walked to market or stopped in a tienda or waited in the rain for a bus, our fathers watched her as if beholding a single star in a black sky. Our fathers murmured her name in dreams, spoke each syllable as if it were smoke held deep in their throats expelled with tenderness and missing. Our mothers heard them, of course, but they could not hate Olivia as much as they wanted; when Olivia saw them in tiendas or the market or in cool rain at the parada de buses, she spoke to them like a sister, confronted their problems as if they were hers, offered gentle advice--feed him half a banana sprinkled with Nido, a cup of manzanilla will help her sleep, cut your hair a day before the full moon--and they listened, their faces bright with interest. They knew why our fathers loved her.

When Rosario was 8, we trailed her one dawn to the river. We watched from behind trees as she sang to the water. Her singing was like an angel summoning the sun. We saw fish congregate at her feet, and she placed a single toe in the water and they danced around it, silver and gold, and she laughed and they laughed--we swore we heard them--she and the fish both laughed.

The girls loved Rosario because she would draw their portraits, and on the small-lined paper of Rosario's notebooks they would look more beautiful than life bad ever made them. But they despaired and blamed Rosario when no one else saw them as she had drawn them, long-haired princesses with butterfly wings.

When she was 12, Rosario walked one night to the empty field across Calle Tres de Mayo and called the dogs with a song. They came racing, and we heard the soft rumble of their feet and opened our windows to see. They were hundreds, big and little, fat and emaciated, well-groomed purebreds and rough-haired chuchos. Gathered at Rosario's feet, they should have growled and fought--we expected this, braced ourselves for howls and barks and blood--but they lay down and fell asleep. And soon we fell asleep, engulfed in silence, and our sleep was deep and undisturbed. We were carried onto great seas and into lush continents.

Rosario made the girls dresses from string, sap, and pine needles, and the gifts stared at themselves in mirrors and knew they were beautiful because Rosario had made them beautiful. And as soon as their dresses wore away--stolen by wind and rain and the procession of days--they were themselves again. They loved Rosario for making them beautiful and hated Rosario because their beauty was ephemeral.

When she was 16, Rosario sat in a dark corner during the dance to celebrate the feria. One by one, we asked her to dance, and she shook her head and pointed us toward one girl or another, and so we danced with Sandra Sanchez and Dolores Rax and Maria Cal. And even as we danced with these girls who would become our wives, who would bear our children, we thought of Rosario, alone and beautiful--but not any more beautiful than Sandra or Dolores or Maria--and imagined ourselves dancing with her. We swirled around the dance floor as if guided by wind.

When the lights were turned off, everyone groaned, then cursed, then filed outside. But we stayed and the girls we'd been dancing with stayed and Rosario stayed, too. And soon we heard Rosario singing, like an angel summoning the moon, and we saw doves fly through the open windows and circle the dance floor, throwing light on it with their wings. And the doves' feathers fell on the girls' hair, and glowing white with doves' feathers, they danced with us like they'd never danced, and they loved Rosario for the dance and hated Rosario because the dance was only a dance.

Rosario's father was a tall, thin man with a thick black mustache who owned a bank, two pharmacies, and four cantinas in Coban. Our fathers knew him well because they worked for him. Drinking tepid beer in El Dragon, they spoke with envy about all he had--his two-story house, his fancy red car with black drawings of naked women on the doors, his clothes made by tailors in the capital. Most of all, they envied him his wife and spoke with drunken bitterness about how if she were theirs their lives would be free of hardship and remorse. In the pale gray minutes before night became dawn, they whispered about killing him, their words soft and drifting, disappearing into cock crows and the groans of early buses.

We waited until the day Rosario turned 18, when her father said she could marry. And when Rosario turned 18, we asked her to marry us. In October, Galindo asked. In November, Jorge asked. In December, I asked. To each of us, she said no. With lowered eyes, blushing pink and bright, she said she didn't want to marry. We asked her why.

"Because," she said, "I want to fly."

We told our friends what she'd said, suffered their laughter and puzzled faces, and when we'd listened long enough to ridicule and disbelief, we huddled, our breaths heavy with the beer we'd learned to drink, and asked ourselves if her flight were possible. We weighed the evidence, considered gravity and miracles, decided yes, yes, yes--it was possible. We'd seen enough to know it was.

Her father found her a husband in January. His name was Hector and he was tall and thin and had a thick black mustache. He owned a shoe factory, two ferreterias, and four tiendas in San Cristobal. He drove a fancy blue car with black drawings of naked women on the doors. His clothes were made by tailors in the capital.

He married Rosario in the Catholic church in Santa Cruz, and at the end of the ceremony, we stood in the park and watched Rosario and Hector drive off in his fancy blue car toward a honeymoon we had already lived in dreams.

And since we couldn't marry Rosario, we married other women. Galindo married Sandra Sanchez and Jorge married Dolores Rax and I married Maria Cal. We had children--beautiful children borne by beautiful women--and yet we dreamed of Rosario and whispered her name in dreams, and our wives, sleepless beside us, whispered her name with us, first in jealous fear of our faithlessness, then in mockery, then in resignation.

We knew Hector because we worked for him. Galindo dyed shoes in Hector's factory and Jorge dispensed nails and hammers behind the counter in one of his ferreterias and I sold jalapeno chips and Coca-Colas in one of his tiendas. Some days, Hector visited us, licking his mustache as if it were a strawberry helado. He would chide Galindo for using too much dye and ask Jorge why he didn't keep the dust off the ferreteria's floor and needle me about eating more jalapeno chips than I sold.

At night, we cursed him over beers and whiskey in El Dragon, cursed his mustache and the way he spoke to us as if he were speaking to children on street corners. We cursed his fortune and luck. And we talked, idly and dreamily, of killing him, beer and whiskey making justice sound as simple as the thrust of a knife or the retort of a gun. Our words grew fierce before daybreak, then evaporated in morning's orange light.

We knew Hector because we saw him in San Cristobal with women who wore pink eye shadow and used doro to bleach the ends of their hair and splashed perfume on their necks. They stood beside him as lovely and inconsequential as shadows. Over beer and whiskey in El Dragon, we asked ourselves why he needed other women if he had Rosario. We said, "I'll kill him, the hijo de puta." We thought of means: knives, pistols, machetes. Places: the shoe factory, the parque, his house. We were drunk and vague, harmlessly married and impotent, and when the cocks crowed and the first bus roared over the hill into town, we returned home to fall hopeless beside our beautiful wives.

In time we almost forgot her, surrendered her to the drudgery of our days. We sweated, made love to our wives on nights the rain hid bed sounds from our children, drank. Our talk over beer and whiskey turned to soccer and observations about the pattern of beer bottles on the cantina shelf and then, finally, to silence. We left El Dragon earlier, needing sleep, needing the warmth our wives offered us ungrudgingly despite what we murmured in dreams.

And then one morning or noon or night someone drove a knife through Hector's heart. No one knew how long his body lay in the courtyard of his house in Santa Cruz before the vultures circled. We saw them turn the sky black and frighten children and dogs and descend like giant black butterflies. We stood on chairs outside the courtyard wall and peered in and saw the vultures picking at Hector's heart.

Our two policemen came--the old one with the missing eye and the young one who lingered all day in the bakery, confusing the twin girls behind the counter but loving them both--and scared away the vultures from Hector's body. They had no choice but to arrest Rosario--she hadn't reported him dead, the knife was hers, Hector's family was angry--and they walked her to the jail, and she stood inside the bars and we came to tell her she was wrongly accused.

"It's all right," she said. "Death is a kind of flight. He was afraid. I'm not."

Our wives visited her with tortillas and tamales; warned her to cover herself at night, offered blankets; suggested she pray, recommended John 3:18.

She was tried in the court in San Cristobal, the light falling heavy from tall windows and the judge bearing on his robes dust from ancient books. He said she would have to die--blood drawn, blood returned--and Hector's family said Amen, and his friends said Amen and the strangers who knew neither Hector nor Rosario said Amen. Our wives said, "Que lastima" and sighed. They had forgiven Rosario--they could now--easy to forgive a dead woman. They'd brought our children to the trial, and during the judge's languid preaching, our children danced in their seats. Our children were young yet, unburdened by passions, haunted only by imaginary ghosts.

Rosario was driven in a van without windows from San Cristobal to the high-walled prison in Coban. Her father, appalled, ashamed, refused to help her. But her mother filed appeals, drew up petitions. Time passed. Appeals met with stone faces, petitions with cold shakes of the head. The sentence stood. Death.

But then hope. Rosario's father died. Her mother sold his bank, pharmacies, cantinas. She gave the money to lawyers, judges, politicians. But Hector's family, dreading pardon and forgiveness, gave more. Years grew thick with heat, cooled in light rain, fell into night's absent stars. Money defeated money. The sentence stood.

One morning Galindo, drunk, drowned in a tub of dye. In his coffin, he stunk like shoes. Jorge left his wife and daughter to find riches north, in another country, in tiresome jobs with high wages. He never wrote. This left me, Fabricio, to finish the story for all of us.

My wife died birthing our last child. My two sons grew up and found jobs carving dusty roads in the east. My daughter liked to linger in her grandfather's workshop, sifting through sawdust, leaving me alone nights to walk the long road to Coban, to stand outside the high walls, to imagine I could see Rosario, unable to sleep and pacing a moonlit courtyard.

And though old, my hair graying, my bones aching in the cold rain, I planned her escape and our love. I planned days, selling jalapeno chips and Coca-Colas to boys and girls who didn't linger on the stools in the tienda anymore but ran off to watch men and women love and kill and dance on television. I planned nights, standing cold and thin in puddles and street light outside the high prison walls.

Her mother's efforts were dying in the grip of Hector's family fortune, and the hangman was readying his rope, the firing squad its rifles. Her days descended toward death like a blade.

And then her mother, too, died. She was buried in a wood box with only our fathers, stooped and half senseless from too much life, sobbing as her body disappeared into the earth.

And now Rosario's death was certain, scheduled, announced.

On the night before her day to die, I waited outside her walls, shivering in cold light and rain. And the rain grew fast and thick and fell like bullets shot down from clouds. On a far side of the mountain, water filled the electric dam, flooded it, ran wild over barriers and trees. Engineers tried to flee in slow trucks and on slower feet, but were drowned. The light I was standing under blinked off. The lights across town disappeared as if a thousand eyes had closed. And finally the prison lights--shining into every corner like noonday sun--vanished.

With no moonlight, no blazing lights by which guards could see to shoot, I began my ascent. I climbed the high walls, my hands and feet finding nooks in the brick, and in their absence, my mind inventing them.

I imagined descending on the other side, finding her shivering in the courtyard, ready to receive me. Seeing me, she would come, easily and quickly, offering me her love and song, and I would carry her on my back over the wall to freedom.

So I climbed as in a dream, propelled by my vision. I no longer needed nooks, real or invented--I climbed on air.

When I reached the top of the wall, she was already there, no more beautiful than the most beautiful night. And I felt myself, finally, panting, suffering my age and disappointment, the beginning and end of my dreams. She smiled, sang a note or two or a thousand--we were together a minute, a lifetime, long enough, anyway, for the sky to clear--and I thought I heard her say I love you, but this might have been only the wind slipping under her wings as it lifted her toward the moon.

MARK BRAZAITIS is a writer and professor living in New York City.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:short story
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jun 1, 1999
Previous Article:Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., recipient of the 1999 U.S. Catholic Award.
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