Vicente

Vicente and I used to laugh in the codas of our days, before Guerra Civil Española, before Franco took root. We were poor, but I believe we were happy.  I will always believe that. Poorness is something that needs no definition. It is a most comprehendible condition, and it cannot always be solved by hard labor or dirt under the fingernails. It is tiresome, but it is not impossible to live without more. Hunger does not render love useless.

My father said that poor men were the most honest of men, that they were virtuous by default. But never mind, he was a drunkard and a mujeriego… a womanizer. What did he know of virtue? Do pigs have manners?

Vicente was a good man, but there was a sadness that shadowed his eyes. His laughter was a sparse thing. When he did laugh, it was generous, and not at all like the noise that drifted from the cantinas, from those loud men with their drink and card games. Vicente’s laughter was an honest sound, and he shared it when he thought he could.

Before we were married, he confessed he had a young daughter, whose name was Lorianne, and that she lived with her mother, a woman called Mariana. Vicente and Mariana were never married, and it caused their families much deshonra. This was all he would say say about her. He said that he missed Lorianne very much and hoped she would one day come to live with us. It seemed like a well-worn tale he told himself to allay his guilt. I was still young, and I felt his shame and I accepted it. It was the shadow he wore.

When he told me these things, I measured the condition of my heart, and wondered if it was a sin to marry a man who had been with a woman who was not his wife, a man who made a child with her. What did that make me, and what did that make us? I did not ask Father Martín, because I knew he would denounce us if we married. And so I stayed silent, and I hoped that God would understand.

Now I am alone without him, but not alone at all. I sit here with Lorianne on one side of our fire, and Boyd Henry on the other. I think of Lorianne as my own blood, and she honors me as a daughter. She calls me her mama. One day I will tell her about Vicente and what I know of The War, but that is for a later time, when she is older. Today, she is young and she still knows laughter. I want her to know it for as long as it is allowed, before life tries to strip it from her. I want it to stay with her, before God begins to question it.

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The creational rain

I have not been so familiar with house shoes as I have been for these past seventeen days. It is impossible to walk barefoot across my kitchen without feeling unclean. The floor is sticky and gritty from the rolling, breathing rain. The water that spills from the Rio Pardo pours across the corduroy rows of the cornfield, flattens them, then churns the soil into runnels of muddy syrup.

It has been a creational rain, and I fear what it will bear. I fear the diseases that may live in that water, and I dread the chance of an unholy baptism should my children fall into it.  I worry about the cholera it may bring, and the mosquitoes it will tempt.

We are worn by the blankness of this rain. It has been a cortina that clings to our windows, and it fills my days with worry. Each day fades into another, each with the same blankness and the same worry.

We play card games, and I sing them the childhood songs I only half remember, and I try to teach them my Spanish. If the rain stops, they will forget my language, and I will forget the songs I sung to them. There is a sadness to this that hurts me throughout, this forgetting of things that will one day drown us.

This night, and every night, we will wear our shoes to bed, and we will shield our eyes with our arms, and we will listen to the rain shout at us. And perhaps we will sleep. If the rain opens all our doors, it will already be too late for us to run. 

I have not been so familiar with house shoes as I have been these past seventeen nights.

Between the folds of the map

Tú allí!” she shouted, and I jumped. “You there!”

Mara stood at the edge of the parking lot, and she gestured. Sometimes her hair was plaited, and sometimes she wrapped it in a scarf. Now it was loose, and it flowed below her shoulders. She wore a blousy ivory caftan that almost matched the color of her hair, and a pair of holystoned sandals. If I were an artist, I would have drawn her with brown and beige pencils, and filled in her shadows with a turquoise crayon.

She was looking beyond me.

A fat gray cat swaggered out from a cluster of chasima behind me. It was sturdy, with dense fur that shivered silver in the hard morning sunshine. The cat seemed prosperous and tame, and there was a kitten draped between its jaws. The kitten was very small, and it was dead.

Where you go now, Mrs. Kokopelli?” Mara said. She sounded a bit like a cat herself, growlish and teasing.“We must follow her,” she said. “You must see this.”

Me?”

Of course, you,” she said. “The cat already knows what she has seen.”

I said, “Cats do not interest me. I came here to avoid them, and all else, if possible.”

She crossed her arms slowly, and her expression did not change. “Am I to be curious about that? Do you need me as an audience to move your story along?” She stepped towards me. “It seems like you might have something important to say? Someday?”

No. My story is uninteresting. That’s why I came here.”

Here? To this particular motel? To this particular moment when we should meet?”

We can follow the cat,” I said. “I’m sure she has more interesting things to tell you.”

Her smile was uncomplicated. “Do you have to fight at everything?” It seemed like a serious question.

I don’t know. Probably.”

The cat padded across the hardpan beyond the parking lot. Already, the ground was hot.

Mara was standing beside me. I did not notice her approach until it was complete. She moved as easily as a shadow being pulled by the sun.

You come from a great distance?” she asked.

Sure,” I said. “This place was in all the brochures, and it had all five stars.”

Ah. But you don’t even know where you are, do you?”

Of course I do. I’m following a cat into the desert.”

There is more here than you have considered,” she said. “You do consider things, don’t you?”

I used to,” I said. “But now I drive and then I stop driving. Now I have stopped driving. I have no idea where I am.”

We are at an ancient place, between the folds of the map. Unnoticed, and sometimes carelessly erased. It is a resting place. You are exhausted, we are exhausted, Mrs. Kokopelli the cat is exhausted. We come here to heal. These things take time. The cat is in no hurry, I am in no hurry. Why do you hurry?”

I thought about it, but hurried through my thoughts. “Because time is chasing me.”

It chases everyone,” said Mara. “We are all captured at the end of our journeys.”

No,” I said. “Not like this.”

You are not so special,” she said.

No. I’m not. But this is where we are. Destined to follow Mrs. Kokopelli the Cat to the end of our days.”

Mara laughed at me, but it was not a cruel sound. “I am a magic woman. Perhaps you have heard that about me?”

Cándido said such a thing when I arrived. He said you were beautiful but innocent.”

He did? That is kind. What do you think that means?”

Maybe he loves you.”

Maybe he does. I love him. I love all the ancient and weary ones.”

Is that what I am?”

I cannot say. I do not know you, I do not love you. Are you ancient? I know you are weary.”

And how do you know that?” I asked.

Because you are here.”

We followed Mrs. Kokopelli a little further, and I saw the sun fill the belly of the great sky. I felt sound.

The storm

We sit cross-legged on the scatter rug and listen to the rain peck at the windows. The water fractures itself against the screen and it draws patterns I want to trace with my fingers. We have a box of candles on the kitchen table, for when the dark comes back inside. She leans into me whenever the rain turns loud, and her face is solemn and so still. Outside, the wind carves itself into the hickory trees. She can’t hear me offer up comfort, so I lean back into her. We listen. We wait.

The fields

When we sleep under wet canvas, when we sleep at all, I dream of clean cotton sheets. They are a fiction, I suppose; nothing is clean, or ever has been. It is almost beyond memory to remember such things, even in dreams.

The tastable, breathable air is layered with mildew and the blood-stench of los muertos. I have seen men’s hands hacked off for the theft of a small spoiled cabbage or a spool of thread to stitch their children’s wounds. A god who allows such things does not approve of clean cotton sheets. Even so, a god who does allow these things must approve of me, for I still submit to these corruptions.

In my appetite for sleep, I try to remember an extraordinary woman who can calm me, but there are none (or so I recall). My mother, I suppose, or a grandmère who once fed me soup and sang me to sleep. I have known extraordinary men, of course, and I have known terrible men. Sometimes they are the same man, squatting in a field, picking the pockets of their spilled comrades, or tipping their canteens to the blistered tongues of the dying. Some men are proud of their cruelty, but most are hollow-eyed boys who swallow the last of their boyhood as they watch punctured guts drip from their bayonets.

We keep our women safe in the muddy photographs we tuck away in our boots, and imagine the perfumed letters they will one day write us. These things sooth us between the gray silences. If these women knew us now, what we have become,  they would hide themselves in sunlight, where we cannot see them. We do not speak to each other of the things we have done, because we might reconsider our souls, and repent to a more thoughtful god. These fields are stained with the blood of too many regretful men.

I wonder about the clean things I have forgotten, and I wonder if they are forgotten at all, and not just made up things. Then I try to pick up all the scattered sleep I have lost, and watch the dark fields fold in around me.

Comes the rain

Boyd Henry over there, he watches me. I have never seen a child so committed to watching. He is four years old and seven months. I love him, Lord, but his intensity wears on me. He plays with his toys under the porch, and the dried-up mud and boot grit falls on the back of his neck. He flours up the dust, and it powders most of him, but his neck gets it worse. He shows me his dusty palms when he sees me seeing him.

Lorianne is on the porch with him now, and her hands are curled around his small shoulders. I’m grateful that she loves him, because Boyd Henry is different from most. He is my gift, he is my surprise.

Today is wash day, the day I float away. Watching Boyd Henry makes me lonely to think there was a time before him. It makes me lonely whenever the wash water from the cotton pillowcases drips onto my arms, because it bears the same coldness and travels down the same paths of my skin as it did last week, and last month.

Nothing has changed, except in the small ways of loneliness, and in the smaller ways of fading.

The sheets and towels are to be washed first. They need to hang before the rain catches them. The wind has swelled up, and it tugs at my kerchief like a kite. Boyd Henry stops wiggling in Lorianne’s arms, and he watches me as I adjust the scarf. He is already dirty, and he will turn into mud when it starts to rain. She wipes him down with a washcloth when she can.

The woods beyond the hayfield are generously leafy because of the rain, and there are some mornings when their greenness becomes transparent in the sunshine.

And so I rise.

I see the shape of a man come forth from these trees, and it is an unblemished shape, clean and handsome. I wonder if he is a good man. It will take him a long time to reach my doorway.

At first, his stride is strong, and he walks with purpose, but after a few steps, he begins to founder. He struggles with the slope of the field and the softness of the soil. He is still just a shape to me, too far to notice his features, but even in the distance I see that he is tall and narrow-chested. With each step, his left leg falters. He clutches it and continues. I cannot see his face, but I can see his pain.

The crows,” says Lorianne, and she points to the selfsame field.

There are a half-dozen crows on the other side of the field gate, and they glide low to the ground. Abruptly, they ascend, like barn swallows, and there is a strenuous fold and unfolding of wings. Their constructs are not made for elegant flight, and they rise in an awkward lurch, and nearly collide with one another. They repeat the design again and again, moving further down the field each time, flexing their wings in evident agony, until they disappear below the standing hay.

Lorianne’s face is serious, but she giggles at the strangeness of it. “Why were they flying like that, mama?”

I don’t know,” I say. “They might be warning us of a bad storm.”

Or it might be a bird illness. Or it might be they were not crows at all. I don’t say those things, of course, because it will cause her to worry. But I don’t know why they were flying like that.

***

It’s not a hard thing to do, to leave a place where you don’t belong. The things you walk away from, the pictures and trinkets and combs, they are just the scraps of our presence. There will be new things, and they will probably be the same things, but with different thoughts behind them. There will always be things to gather for our tables.

I left my father’s house when I was young, and then my grandmother’s when I was done being foolish. This place has become my truest home. I came here when I married, and I have stayed here since he passed, six years ago. This land belonged to his family, and then to him, and now to me. If it would bring him back, even for a minute, I would leave it behind. But it is my children’s home now, his daughter and my son. I lease out the work fields and I raise my children the best I can. I keep my pictures and trinkets and combs in a box carved from gopher wood, under my bed.

***

The rain is hard, as promised. We sit inside our little living room and listen to the tin roof percussion. It is a loud and drunken sound. Lorianne has her box of crayons on the rug, and she hunts for the right shade of rain. Boyd Henry watches her, and he peels off the papers, one color at a time. She digs into a plastic shopping bag for another coloring book, and she moans, quite theatrically: “Oh, my goodness, have I done them all?”

I stare at the wood stove and the slow tangle of flame: how long will it keep us warm, how long will it give us light?

And the rain, it still falls, five days in.

He wears  a white shirt, sweat-stained, wrinkled. His hair is black, tousled, but thinning. Gray eyes, uneven teeth, a weary shrug of shoulders. Just let me sit down for a minute, he says.

He said, “There will be rain. You will need two of everything. One plus one.”

“I have two,” I said.

“The rain will be hard,” he said. “And it will last. Forty days, at least.”

Boyd Henry, over there, he watches me watching him. And Lorianne, she loves me in my fever, loves me in my worry,  and in my rain.

His hair is black and tousled. I have two children who are surviving the rain. And my boy, he watches me, and I watch him back. But it is harder to see him, because we are becoming blurs in the rain.

Thursdays

What day was it when they put up the swing rope? It was a Thursday. No reason to remember that, it didn’t mean anything, but David remembered. Elani was excited. She was always excited when she was at the creek. It was, maybe, the only place where she could be herself. She was the speaking water, full of splashes and exclamations. It could be exhausting, being with her, but David was always smiling, or outright laughing. Even Efrim laughed, and he didn’t do that often. She brightened everything. And it had nothing to do with silliness. She was all splash and chatter, with hardly any silence between them.

And when she was still, the world became still, and those moments left echoes.

Like a fridge over troubled daughter,” she sang.

What?”

It’s a song I heard,” she said. “Honestly, David, don’t you listen to any good music?”

I don’t think those are the words,” he said.

I know that. But don’t you think mine are more interesting? I mean, what does that even mean? What’s troubled water? And why a bridge?”

***

There are crows in the back field, behind Jimmy’s Grill. Jimmy has no imagination beyond perfecting his Manhattan. Thursday night, all-you-can-eat wings night, and the place is grim and gray. The neon does it no favors. Twelve-month Christmas lights droop from the ceiling, and the jukebox cooks in the corner, steaming 50’s rock and roll.

Gin?” the bartender asks her, as if it’s a real question.

Elani nods, and she can still hear the crows over “Kansas City”.

The outside sounds are soothing. She can hear her real nature in their dimness. The fog of old music in the background, the craunch of gravel as another truck pulls in. A song, a shot, or many, and the flatness of background conversation that has nothing to do with her. She, always laughing or cringing, the polar parts of her. She has to be strong, crush the anxious, bury the worthless. Music, a drink, and left alone. These are the things she cares about.

The door swings open, and in walks another cowboy, complete with hat and rogue mustache. He’s gray at the temples, wearing the requisite ninety-dollar Calvins, the L.L Bean shirt fresh out of the wrapper. Oh, and the imitation snake skin boots. Of course. More East Coast than Eastwood. A whiskey-drinking son-of-a-gun ready to stir the ladies.

He ambles towards her when he sees her looking, a big grin on his face, and she says: “No thanks. I’d really love to break your heart, but no.”

Why did they always think they knew what she wanted?

The Motel Fatigado

Oh, honey, there are shapes beneath these roads. They push me and they drag me, and, God help me, I’m yoked to every mile. I’m numb to the drizzled headlights and smudged taillights, the curves, the swerves, the nerves of bumper-to-bumper, the mathematical sinew of the overpasses, the poster board landscapes, the flat hallucinations of the Alpha and Omega.

Oh, and sweetheart, the construction, the obstructions, the crazy and the caffeinated, they want to pour their horsepower into the concrete while I’m steering left-handed, trying to pry the goddamn plastic lids off the goddamn Styrofoam cups, and honey, I always spill the hot coffee on my fucking wrist.

These have been my nights and days since you left me.

And then I came upon this place: a slender space beside the swagged shoulders of an unmarked highway. I recognized the tarnished ancianos who were waiting for me. There were six men and a woman, and they were sitting in a straight line on the sloped walkway of the Motel Fatigado. A flat line of hands rose to guard eyes against dust and sun. They studied my silhouette for a moment, then resumed their pinched slouches.

An old man dismounted from his chair and approached. He was wearing a shredded straw hat and baggy jeans. His shirt was a clean button-down, a faded antediluvian white. He could have been an Old World priest soliciting confessions. More likely, he was tired of sitting.

“You have el bagaje? Suitcase?” he asked.

I nodded.

He pulled a packet of folded tissue paper from his shirt pocket, and offered me a cigarette. He told me that Room 8 was vacant and clean. He did not ask me my name. I accepted his tobacco, and he lit it with a wooden match. His hands were narrow and veiny.

He said his name was Cándido, and the woman was called Melancholia. “The new guests always ask about the woman,” he said. “You see her? The beautiful woman who sits among the dogs? She is clean-handed. You understand? Inocente. She knows magic. You prey on her, you will leave with bruises.”

I nodded.

“Sit with us,” Cándido said. “Melancholia keeps plastic cups in her room. We have tap water and tequila. Perhaps there is ice. I will introduce you to the others.”

I declined.

***

(My apologies if this looks familiar. It’s a revised version of something I posted in early October, and it’s a piece that I’m really drawn to. I’ve been struggling with writerly insecurities and self-doubt for quite some time, but this has been in the peripheral for awhile… I think I’m finally ready to chase it down. Thanks for the indulgence, and thank you always for reading. — Steve) 

The good girl

Compelled to stir the ashes, of what was cruel, what was unadorned. And still I reach for those extinguished minutes and years, and walk into the smoke, shoulders broke, bending to grief’s provocation, aroused by what could have been.

Elani was the most gifted of us, but it was hard to watch her subtract herself from happiness. She was the good girl, the kind girl, the quiet girl who leaned into the shade of a river birch while others swung from ropes and imprinted the water with their thrashing bodies.

She was not destined for great things, and she did not pursue them. The current ran deep, and she found comfort in her aloneness and sandpapered memories. She had no quarrel with pain. She reconciled it as the great truth of life, and saw strength as a punch in the belly, holding back the yelps, damming the tears behind waxwork eyes.