FlowerSong Press in McAllen, Texas, recently published Sonia Gutiérrez's novel, Dreaming with Mariposas, winner of the Tomás Rivera Book Award 2021. Read an excerpt below. Order a copy from FlowerSong Press.
Our Doctor Who Lived in Another Country
Whenever Paloma, Crucito, and I got so sick Mom couldn’t heal us with her herb-filled cabinets, an egg, or Vaporú, we had to wait for the week to hurry up, so Dad could take us on a trip to visit our doctor who lived in another country. We crossed the border to a familiar place called Tijuana, Baja California, México. Estados Unidos Mexicanos—the United Mexican States—said the large shiny Mexican pesos in Spanish. With her miracle stethoscope, our doctor’s Superwoman eyes and Jesus hands always found where the illness hid.
As our father drove into Tijuana, the city looked like an expensive box of crayons. Fuchsia and lime green colors hugged buildings. Dad parked our shiny Monte Carlo the color of caramelo on the third floor of a yellow parking facility, and we walked down a cement staircase and crossed onto Avenida Niños Héroes. Then, we went up peach marble stairs and entered our doctor’s waiting room.
On the weekends, patients from faraway cities like Los Ángeles and San Bernardino came to see La Doctora. Judging from the looks of some of the patients’ faces, they were there to see the doctor’s husband, who was a dentist. They made the perfect couple—the doctor and the dentist—for both their Mexican and American patients. The doctor, a tall woman with smoky eye shadow, looked directly into her patients’ eyes when she spoke. Not like some American doctors in the U.S. who didn’t look at Mom because she only spoke Spanish.
On one of those doctor visits, I heard the dentist, a tall, burly man with a mustache that looked like a broom, speak English on the telephone with a patient. “John, you need to come in, so I can take a look at your tooth.”
Another time I saw an elderly gringo, waiting for his wife, seeking the dentist’s services. That’s when I realized the other side was expensive for them too.
When we were done at the doctor’s office, our next stop was El Mercadito on the other side of the block on Calle Benito Juárez. Churros sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon in metal washtubs rested on the shoulders of vendors. Fruit cocktail and corn carts were closer to the sidelines of streets, so passersby could make full stops and buy their favorite pleasure bombs to the taste buds.
During summer visits to Tijuana, Paloma ate as much mango as she wanted because fruit was affordable in México. My weakness was corn. And even if I felt sick, I always looked forward to eating a cup of corn topped with butter, grated cheese, lemon, chili powder, and salt. Mexican corn didn’t taste like the sweet corn kernels from a tin can—Mexican corn tasted like elote.
Approaching El Mercadito, dazed bees were everywhere. Mother warned us about not harassing bees. Because according to Mom, bees were like us—like butterflies. “Without bees, our world would not be as beautiful and delicious. Bees are sacred, and without them, we wouldn’t exist. Paloma and Chofi, please don’t ever hurt bees,” Mom said as we walked by our fuzzy relatives and nodded in agreement.
The smell of camote, cilacayote, cajeta, and cocadas added to the blend of enticing smells at the open market, where we roamed with buzzing bees peacefully. Colorful star piñatas and piñata dolls of El Chavo, La Chilindrina, and Spiderman hung along the tall ceiling, and the familiar smell of queso seco filled the air heavy with delight. Wooden spoons, cazos made of copper, molcajetes, loterias, pinto beans, Peruvian beans, and tamarindo provided such a wide selection of merchandise vendors didn’t have to fight over customers. Politely, they asked, “What can I give you?” or “How much can I give you?” as we walked by.
In Tijuana, street vendors sold homemade remedies for just about anything imaginable. “This cream here will alleviate the itch that doesn’t let your feet rest,” and “For a urine infection, drink this tea,” vendors hollered. And then there were the funny concoctions, for which even I, a girl my age, didn’t believe their miracle powers: “For the loss of hair, use this cream that comes all the way from the Amazon Islands.”
Hand in hand with our familia, Paloma and I walked the streets of Tijuana with our sandwich bag full of pennies and nickels. We gave our change to children who extended their little palms up in the air. Mom would take a bag full of clothing and find someone to give it to, which I never understood, because most people on the streets dressed just like us, from the pharmacists to children wearing school uniforms.
Once, when we were walking in Tijuana, Paloma and I saw a man with no legs riding what looked like a man-made skateboard instead of a wheelchair. Our eyes agreed; the man needed the rest of our change.
Besides the rumors about Tijuana being a dangerous place, nothing ever happened to our car or Mom’s purse. In Tijuana, doctors had saved Crucito’s life because my parents knew, if they took Crucito to a hospital in the U.S., he might not come out alive because American doctors wouldn’t try hard enough for a little brown baby like my little brother. In Tijuana, our parents spoiled us with goodies and haircuts at the beauty salon. And I felt bad for Americans who couldn’t afford a doctor and didn’t have a good doctor or a dentist like ours in El Otro Lado—on the Mexican side. Pobrecitos gringos.
“. . . Girls--to do the dishes
Girls--to clean up my room
Girls--to do the laundry
Girls--and in the bathroom . . .”
—The Beastie Boys, “Girls”
Because we couldn’t afford a fancy steam iron, Mom was very practical. Instead of using a plastic spray bottle, she sprayed Dad’s dress shirts, including other garments with her mouth. She gracefully spat on each garment lying on el burro.
Ironing was always an all-nighter that seemed endless and agonizing. I hated ironing Dad’s Sunday dress shirts—or anything, requiring special care and Mom’s supervisory instructions.
There were two chores I hated most about being a girl: ironing and washing someone else’s clothes.
The piles and piles of Dad and Mom’s dress clothes on top of our clothes seemed endless. (Thank God Father worked in construction or else long sleeve dress shirts would have added more to the pile). As soon as Mom started setting up el burro—the ironing board—in what should have been half a dining room, but instead we used as a bedroom, I began my whining.
“Mom, but why do Paloma and I have to iron Dad’s clothes?”
“¡Ay Sofia! You’re so lazy!”
“It’s just that I don’t understand. I don’t wear Dad’s clothes. Why us?”
“Sofia, are you going to start? That mouth! ¡No seas tan preguntona! You always ask too many questions! You always talk back! That tongue of yours. Where did you learn those ways‽”
When I nagged, my mother’s facial gestures expressed her disappointment, and she turned her face away from me. What had she done to deserve such a lazy daughter like myself? With a cold bitter laugh, Mom responded, “Because he’s your father,” which I never understood.
Having to live in apartments also meant we needed to fight over laundromat visitation rights. If anybody left their clothing unattended and the dryer or washer cycle ended, Paloma had to spy to check if anyone was coming, and I’d quickly take out the clothing and place it on a folding table. I’d throw our clothes inside the washer or dryer, and then we’d run to our apartment; otherwise, we’d be washing and drying all day.
When we moved from Vista to San Marcos, that’s when I noticed chores strategically favored the man in our family. For instance, we girls never carried out the trash like Dad—just heavy laundry baskets mounted with dirty clothes. To me, mowing the lawn didn’t look difficult at all. It looked super easy and fun.
How to Mow the Long Green Grass
By Chofi Martinez
1) Check the lawn for Crucito’s toys, Dad’s nails,
and any other sharp objects, including rocks.
2) Add gasoline.
3) Turn the lawn mower’s switch ON.
4) Press on the red jelly like button several times.
5) Pull the starter a couple of times.
6) Push the lawn mower with all your human strength.
If I could mow the lawn like a boy, at least I could be outside and listen to the singsong of finches, watch white butterflies flutter through the garden, greet and wave at neighbors passing by, and stare at the endless blue sky. But instead of Paloma and me mowing the lawn, Dad dropped us off at the laundromat on Mission Avenue next to the dairy to wash and fold everything from heavy king-sized Korean blankets to Dad’s dirty and not so white underwear. Bras and underwear were the most embarrassing garments to dry, especially when red stained or not so new underwear fell to the ground, while we checked the clothes in the dryer. If an undergarment accidentally fell, it’s not like we could ignore it and just leave it there when it was clear we were watching each other. For us, if someone looked at our bra or underwear, it was as if they were looking at our naked bodies. It was equivalent to watching feminine hygiene commercials in front of boys or even worse—Dad. Oh my God! ¡Trágame tierra!
Sometimes, when we barely had enough quarters and single dollar bills to spare in our imitation Ziploc bag, I’d window shop at the vending machine with its snacks and cigarettes then stare and admire the package labels with the bright oranges and mustardy yellows.
While we waited for the washer to end, we sat on the orange laundromat chairs (bolted to the ground in case anyone tried to steal them, I figured). My eyes wandered—at the graffiti, the announcements, the tile floor that needed a broom and a mop, the Spanish newspapers with the sexy ladies with their back to the readers wearing a two piece—a thong and high heels and the constant drop off and pick up of wives and daughters.
Swinging my feet back and forth out of boredom, I stared at the dryer’s circular-glass door with the thick-black trim, where garments would slowly go round and round and round and round, painting a picture of a vanilla and chocolate ice cream swirl, which was like meditating in front of a TV screen. Another dryer gave form to a motley of colors from the palette of Matisse’s bright yellows, blacks, oranges and greens Ms. Watson, my art teacher, had lectured on. And then, the dryer came to a full stop, and the colors—the burgundy red and thorny pink roses and the stoic lion—on heavy blankets took their true forms in need of folding.
Our Dream Home
Mom and Dad were always working for our dream house. In his early twenties, dressed in slacks and a tie, José Armando, our real estate agent, came to our apartment and talked to my parents about becoming homeowners. He sat patiently for what felt like hours translating endless paperwork. José Armando, Tijuana born with Sinaloa roots, grew up in Carlsbad, “Carlos Malos.” He smelled like a professional, and the heaviness of his cologne and starchy clothes filled our small kitchen and living room long after he was gone. Our real estate agent felt like familia.
“Helena and Francisco, the contract states that if you complete all the renovations within a year, the bank will approve the loan. You can move in now, but the house is not in living conditions.”
“But Jose Armando, I’m sure you’ve heard stories--what if the gringo doesn’t keep his promise?” Mom asked our real estate agent.
“Helena, please trust me. Mr. Stoddard is a good man and will not back out of the deal because he signed the contract,” José Armando assured Mom the owner would follow through. “You know Francisco more than I do. Your husband is going to make the house look like a palace—like your dream home. Helena, the property even has a water well. You can add the roses, calla lilies, and fruit trees you’re looking for in a property. And, most importantly, you won’t have to commute from Vista to San Marcos anymore.”
Where Dad and Mom came from, waiting periods to build a house didn’t exist; people didn’t need permits to build a home made from adobe or blocks. In the U.S., however, my parents had to settle for a fixer-upper Dad could mend in no time with the help of family and friends.
When José Armando finally struck a deal with the owner, it took Dad a whole year to claim the house on 368 West San Marcos Boulevard as our own. After Dad came home from working construction all day, he’d work at home. Mom must have had sleepless nights when Father agreed to buy our first house. That’s because Mother didn’t see what Father saw. We would have a street number to ourselves, 368.
The first days at 368, Mom refused to eat in the kitchen, and how could she eat in there? How could her children eat in that thing Dad called kitchen? Yes, the house included a small stove, but cockroaches were baking their own feasts in the oven. Dad imagined a swing set for Crucito in the backyard’s green lawn. But Mother had heard the neighbors walking by say the backyard turned into a swamp during the rainy seasons. Dad imagined a one-foot swallow lined with miniature plants that would keep the water moving to the large apartment complex next door. But Mom saw the swamp at our feet. Dad imagined the pantry and mom’s new wooden cupboards. But Mom saw mice and cockroaches. Lots of cockroaches. Mom saw the faded dilapidated and peeling mint green paint. Dad saw a new wooden exterior and a fresh coat of paint.
Our new but old kitchen was infested with silky brown cockroaches—the thin kind that matched the plywood. Underneath the crawl space lived the critters, and at night, big roaches squeezed and welcomed themselves in through both the front and back door to drink water and eat crumbs. Paloma and I, in our superhero capes, made from black trash bags, became Las Cucaracha Warriors de la Noche and ran after the cucaracha bandits. We routinely turned off the lights, and then at about ten o’clockish, Mom turned on the kitchen lights, and Paloma and I charged at them. While they scattered everywhere, we all took our turns killing the horde of nightly visitors. The pest problem at 368 went away with endless nights of Raid attacks and hot water splashing. Paloma and I even conquered our cockroach phobia and squished cockroaches with our very own index fingers.
The master bedroom had seven layers of dusty carpets pancaked on top of each other. The wooden floor in our living room held itself together miraculously—we were always careful to wear shoes to prevent any splinters from pricking our bare feet.
When we finally settled into our new home, one Saturday morning Paloma and I still in our pajamas were arguing over who would have to sweep and mop before our parents got home from work when suddenly we found ourselves shoving and wrestling each other. And then with a big push, the unexpected happened. I flew through the wall.
“Oh my God, Chofi! Look what you did!”
“Look what I did? You pushed me, Mensa!”
Paloma and I had to reconcile immediately to cover up the crime scene.
When Dad got home later that afternoon and walked through the hallway to inspect our chores, he demanded an explanation, “¿Y este pinche sofá? ¿Qué está haciendo aquí?” Chanfles, we thought as our eyes placed the blame on each other. Dad gave us the mean Martinez Castillo stare with the white of his eyes showing that always worked, shook his head, and stormed out of the house because Dad knew he had to replace all the house’s old plywood with new drywall.
Our idea of placing a love seat in front of the hole to cover it up didn’t work. Our fear for our father’s punishment turned into giggles and then uncontrollable laughter. Poking at each other’s ribs and yelling at each other, “It’s your fault!” and “No, it’s your fault!” we almost peed our underwear. We laughed at the hole in the wall, the sofa that barely fit in the hallway that must have looked ridiculously out of place in our father’s eyes, and at our new but old house facing the boulevard.
Strangers driving by honked or waved and gave Dad a thumbs up when he worked on our house on the weekends. We were living in Father’s dream home, and we were happy. José Armando, our real estate agent, was right—Dad fixed our house, and Mother created her garden of dreams, where Dad and Mom planted hierbas santas. Orange, avocado, peach, cherimoya, guava, and purple fig trees. And native yellow-orange, deep-purple, and rose-colored milkweeds for our butterfly relatives who passed by and travelled south to Michoacán, our parents’ homeland. One day we would follow them if Mom and Dad worked hard and saved enough money. One day.
The Guayaba Tree
In San Marcos, our backyard smelled like Idaho. The familiar smell of manure from the Hollandia Dairy on Mission Avenue lingered in our backyard. Months before the guava tree joined us at San Marcos Boulevard, Mom took free manure from the dairy for our garden and prepared the earth with water. Even if we already had a few trees, Dad and Mom talked about the trees and plants with special powers that would join our family. Next to the guayaba tree’s new home, the apricot tree had already joined us, and now it was the guava tree’s turn to step out of its black plastic container and to spread its roots and branches. At the end of the week with their Friday paycheck, Mom and Dad’s eyes were set on an árbol de guayaba.
Right after work Dad drove us to the northside of San Marcos on the winding road to Los Arboleros, the tree growers’ ranch on East Twin Oaks Valley Road, to buy the perfect tree for our backyard. As we approached a dirt road leading to the Santiago property, Don José in his sombrero and red and yellow Mexican bandana tied around his neck waved at us. At his side, two large Mexican wolfdogs with imposing orange eyes barked at us as we approached the nursery next to their house.
“Paloma and Chofi, be careful with Don Jose’s dogs.”
“Okay Ma,” we answered in unison.
“Buenas tardes, Francisco and Helena. Don’t worry, Señora Helena. My calupohs don’t bite unless they smell evil. They scare off the coyotes that want to get into the chicken coop. Last week a red-shouldered hawk snatched one of my María’s chickens in broad daylight.” Don José’s dogs, Yolotl and Yolotzin, sniffed our stiff bodies while I prayed to San Jorge Bendito: “San Jorge Bendito, amarra tus animalitos . . . .” Yolonzin sniffed and licked my hand. Thankfully, Don José’s calupohs remembered us; we were in the clear. “If you need anything, holler at me. I’m going to water the foxtail palm trees on the other side.”
At Don José and Doña María de la Luz Santiago’s small ranch, Paloma and I were careful not to step on rattlesnakes. We walked through the rows of small trees in 15″ containers and played with sticks next to a large flat boulder with smooth holes. I filled the holes with dead leaves and dirt and mixed it with a stick. “Paloma, let’s ask Don Jose about the holes on this large boulder. How do you think these holes got here?” Paloma shrugged her shoulders and signaled with her head to get back. With the calupohs following us, we found Mom and Dad still deciding on a tree and a crimson red climbing rose bush.
“But Pancho, look how green the leaves look on this one!”
“Yes, Helena, but look at this one. It has a strong tree trunk.”
“Pancho, this one has ripe fruit! Smell it, Pancho. With time, this one will be strong too.”
“You’re right, Helena. We can take the one you want. Let’s pay Don Jose and get going before it gets too dark, so we can plant our tree today.”
“Yes, Pancho, it’s a full moon!”
“Paloma and Chofi, I’m glad you’re both back. Go look for Don Jose, and tell him we’re ready to pay.”
Paloma and I ran to look for Don José. On our way to find him, I remembered we needed to ask him about the holes on the boulder.
“Hola Don Jose. My mom and dad are ready to pay.”
“Let’s go then.”
“Don Jose, we have a question for you. We saw a big flat rock on your property, and we’re wondering how the holes got there.”
Don José cleaned his sweat with his bandana and gave us a pensive look.
“Those holes. Well, Chofi, as you may know, this land you see here from Oceanside all the way to Palomar Mountain and beyond was inhabited by Native people. Women sat and pounded acorns on metates like the one you saw and made soup and other foods. You can only imagine how many years it took for those indentations to leave their mark and to withstand time. Those women, Chofi and Paloma, left their mark.”
“Oh, wow, Don Jose. That’s why the road is called Twin Oaks Valley Road? It’s a reference to Native people’s trees, who lived in this area?”
“Yes, Chofi and Paloma. Native people still live on these lands—in Escondido, San Marcos, Valley Center, Fallbrook, Pala, and Pauma Valley and beyond. Ask your U.S. history teacher about the people who inhabited these lands. I’m sure they can tell you more.”
“Thank you, Don Jose. I’ll ask.”
Dad and Mom paid Don José, and off we went to plant our guayaba tree. With our guava tree sticking out of the window in the Monte Carlo and lying on Paloma, Crucito, and me in the back seat, Mom was all smiles and kept glancing back.
“Pancho, please drive slowly and turn on your emergency lights. Children, hold onto our tree carefully.”
“Don’t worry Helena. Two more stop lights, and we’re almost home.”
Dad agreed to Mom’s pick because he knew she loved guayabas—all kinds. This time they chose the one with the two guayabas with pink insides, which wasn’t too sweet and just about my height. I preferred the bigger trees at Los Arboleros. Why couldn’t we get bigger trees? Mom and Dad always chose the smaller trees because those were the ones we could afford, and plus we didn’t have a truck like our neighbor Don Cipriano’s, but maybe we could borrow it next time.
As soon as we arrived home, Dad cut the container down the middle with a switchblade, and Mom pushed the shovel down with her right foot and split the earth.
“¡Ay, ay! ¡Ay Pancho! Be careful with the tree’s roots. Here, grab the shovel. Let me hold onto the arbolito.”
Dad dug the hole, exposing the dark brown of the earth as two pink worms shied away from the light.
“Dad, can Crucito and me get the worms, pleaseee?”
“Hurry up Chofi and Cruz. Go ahead. Your mom and I want to plant the tree today.”
While I carefully took the worms from their home, Mom held the guava tree as if she held a wounded soldier and whispered to the tree, “Arbolito, don’t worry. You’re going to be safe here. I’m going to water you when you get thirsty and take care of you—we all will.”
“Pancho, one day we’re going to make agua de guayaba.”
“Sí, Helena, we’re going to make guayabate like the one my mom used to make. It was so good!”
“I bet it was, Pancho. To prevent a bad cough, my mom used to give us guava tea to fight off the flu.”
“Helena, did you know guava leaves are also good for hangovers?”
“Ay Pancho. ¿Qué cosas dices? Let’s get this tree planted.”
From the dried-up manure pile, Dad mixed the native soil and compost and pulled the weeds. As Mom placed the rootball above the hole, they both looked for the guava tree’s face and centered the tree on top of the hole. With the shovel, Dad poured the dirt around the tree. Mom took the shovel from Dad and pounded softly on the dirt surrounding the guava tree, making sure they left the edge below the surface.
Next to the apricot tree with a woody surface, the small guava tree with tough dark green leaves would be heavy with fruit one day for our family, our neighbors, and friends. Dad went looking for a canopy for the young guava tree to protect her from winter’s threatening frostbite, and mom stood in the garden, admiring our new family member.
It was time to return the worms to the earth; they were so tender but so strong. I made a little hole with my hand, placed the worms inside, said thank you to the worms, and covered them with dirt. The guayaba tree would make a perfect home.
Sonia Gutiérrez is the author of Spider Woman / La Mujer Araña (Olmeca Press, 2013) and the co-editor for The Writer’s Response (Cengage Learning, 2016). She teaches critical thinking and writing, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. FlowerSong Press in McAllen, Texas, recently published her novel, Dreaming with Mariposas, winner of the Tomás Rivera Book Award 2021. Her bilingual poetry collection, Paper Birds / Pájaros de papel, is forthcoming in 2022. Presently, she is returning to her manuscript, Sana Sana Colita de Rana, working on her first picture book, The Adventures of a Burrito Flying Saucer, moderating Facebook’s Poets Responding, and teaching in cyberland.
The Extravagant Stranger
Excerpt from Not Your Abuelita's Folktales
By Maria J. Estrada
She smiled coquettishly at the baker’s son. Rosa Maria couldn’t remember his name, but she lingered on his gaze. He blushed, and she swung her hips one last time as she
entered the local mill. The smell of corn filled her lungs; she wasn’t partial to that odor. Still, her smile widened, when she spied Mr. Sanchez working alone. He was sweating profusely, his simple shirt clinging to his thick muscles.
He was young, maybe five years older than Rosa Maria, and he had inherited his father’s maize mill at the young age of 23. He averted her gaze.
“How many kilos?” he mumbled.
She paused, forcing him to look up. “Five, please.” She handed the large bowl over, which he filled expertly with a mixture ground maize, lime, and water.
She cocked her head and asked sweetly, “Don’t you need to use the scale?”
He grew irritated his upper lip curling upward. “You doubt me, señorita?”
He grabbed the bowl and dumped the meal into the scale. It read five kilos exactly. He put the mixture back into her bowl and handed it to her, pushing her away in the process.
“Thank you so very much.” She said, “I pray for you and your family every day, for the repose of your dear father.”
He turned his back and added more water to the corn as he began to grind another large batch. She turned walking provocatively, until her neighbor Elena marched in with a large bucket.
“Hello, Rosa Maria.” She smiled. Rosa Maria tried not to grimace. The old woman’s two front teeth were missing. Rosa wondered why in God’s name the woman just didn’t go to a dentist in Durango. After all, in 1960, there were plenty of medical advances, or so she thought. Still, she prayed with all of her might not to look that awful when she grew old. In fact, she would give anything to never grow old.
Just then, the shop windows opened letting in a rush of air. The old woman crossed herself and advised, “Get home. The wind is picking up, and you don’t want to catch a cold.”
On a search for sweets, Rosa Maria walked to the local shop. Ricardo was working there, and he always gave her a few hard candies for a kiss on the cheek. She continued home, hoping to catch another young man’s attention. Instead she spied a beggar on the street, an abandoned old man most people ignored. She handed him a couple of candies and one last peso she hid in her cleavage.
He smiled at her and gave her a heartfelt blessing, “May the hand of God rest on you.”
Rosa Maria squeezed his shoulders and wished she owned the means to find him shelter.
On the way down the cobbled street, the hairs on the back of her neck stood. Someone was admiring her rear end. She looked back towards the mill, which was just a couple of blocks away. But it was not Mr. Sanchez.
His loss, she thought.
FROM THE ROOFTOP, he looked down at her. She was an exquisite specimen, his Rosa Maria. Her impertinence and arrogance were especially alluring. He loved how she swayed her hips and turned her neck, just so, to catch the weak men’s adoration in her small town of Las Nueces, Durango. Las Nueces was a sleepy little town where most people worked hard, but there was always a gem to be acquired, just like her.
Today, she wore a red bow in her hair and a pretty white lace dress, too fancy for common chores. From a distance, he thought he could smell her scent. He smiled as she flirted with a man carrying Coke bottles. He stumbled when she said hello, the poor man dropping half of his wares.
The stranger chuckled and slicked his own hair back. For good measure, he shined his shoes one more time. Tonight, he would introduce himself at the town dance, and he had no doubt that she would dance with him. And only him.
BY THE TIME SHE GOT HOME, her mother was nagging her.
“What took you so long? Your uncle will be here soon!”
Her mother wore a black skirt and dark buttoned blouse. She glanced at her daughter who dropped the bowl on the table. She scowled. “What are you wearing?”
Rosa Maria smirked. “It is so hot, and this is the only thin dress I own.”
“Take that off and put some decent clothes on!” said her mother as she chopped a carrot, almost nicking her index finger.
She did as commanded, only because she wanted to wear the dress later that night. She changed into a thin cotton housedress that clung to her body. Rosa Maria admired her long hair in the mirror and loved the flush of her cheeks. Her curves were the envy of most women, and she cherished her small waist.
She would never have children and ruin her figure. That was for certain.
The banging in the kitchen mirrored her mother’s stress, which pulled her out of her reverie. Rosa Maria regretted not having any lipstick because her mother said only whores wore lipstick. She longed for nail polish and mascara. She was about to curl her hair, when her mother bellowed her name. Last time her mother had gotten so angry at her, she had burned Rosa Maria’s best dress because some nosy neighbor lady said she thought she had seen Rosa Maria at the dance, unchaperoned. She went back to the kitchen.
“Start mixing,” her mother commanded.
Rosa Maria scoffed, but her mother was in no mood. The girl took what she thought was a decent amount of salt, a large handful, and mixed. She worried about her nails and winced at the next part. She grabbed a handful of the disgusting mess and was about to add lard, when her mother slapped her hand.
Rosa Maria did. “It’s too salty.”
Her mother rolled her eyes and pulled out some cornmeal from the cupboard. It was just enough to make the tortillas acceptable. “We have to impress your uncle.” Her mother frowned at the amount of lard.
Her mother said, “You don’t need that. You’re making tortillas, not tamales.”
Rosa Maria scowled as she put half of the lard back in the container. Her greasy fingers repulsed her. “Come on,” her mother said.
“What’s the point?” Rosa Maria asked and swayed her body.
“I will marry a rich man and have maids. I’ll never have to cook a day in my life.”
Her mother laughed and watched as Rosa Maria struggled with a basic task. “If I ever die, you’re going to starve.”
Her mother added warm water and nodded, approving of the job. “Go wash your hands and get me some mint from the garden.”
“I need to curl my hair!”
Ross Maria left in a huff.
Out in the small garden, she looked at the plants and had to smell them before she found the mint. She plucked what she thought was an acceptable amount, and then she spotted him.
He wore a dark suit made of shiny material and beneath his fine jacket he wore a trendy white silk shirt. Rosa Maria had never seen such a refined gentleman. What could he be doing here? she wondered.
He rode a black horse and tipped his hat at her, giving her a warm smile. Rosa Maria licked her own lips as she stared at his perfect white teeth. His skin was sublime, even better than hers.
She tried to pretend not to be interested, but she couldn’t help but search his eyes.
This is the man I’m going to marry, she thought. In that instant, that was all it took to fall in love. He grew near her and was just a few feet away. He looked beyond to the horizon, and Rosa Maria was perplexed that he would not speak to her.
On impulse she said, “How are you this fine morning?”
He rode away without saying a word to her. Men didn’t usually ignore her. She stared at his back longer than she should have. Rosa Maria crushed the mint plants in her hand and went back to her mother.
Her mother took the leaves and put some in the stew.
She said, “Go sweep the floors.”
Rosa Maria raised her hands and spat back, “I am not doing more work. The floor looks fine, and I have to go curl my hair!”
Quickly, Rosa Maria left to her room. She had a brand-new curling iron that plugged into the wall. It had been a present from one of her admirers who owned the local furniture store and had been to the States in Mississippi. He had bought it for his wife and then on a whim, gave it to her. The gift caused divisions in his marriage, but Rosa Maria hadn’t promised him anything in return.
She was sure it cost a fortune. It was better than the iron rods people used which often singed her girlfriends’ hair.
Rosa Maria curled each ringlet perfectly. When she was done, she pinned the upper left and right corners like she had seen in the American movie. She put on a decent blue dress and went to the living room. She had spent a good forty minutes curling her hair, but her uncle was still not there.
Without thinking, she grabbed the broom and quickly swept the small house. She sneezed at the cloud of dust, and then yelped as a small scorpion ran from under a chair. She killed is swiftly and did a better job of sweeping under all the sofas. She swept the dirt out of the front door and put the broom away.
Her mother finished setting the table and kept staring out the window.
Riding the old mare her father had given him, Uncle Thomas arrived soon after. He was a brusque man and offered a gruff greeting. She went to him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He reeked of cows and noticed that he still wore his work clothes.
Rosa Maria smiled and had him sit at the head of the table.
Her mother served him, while they exchanged pleasantries.
Her uncle was a man of few words; but he mostly answered her mother’s questions. After he was finished eating, her mother waited expectantly. Rosa Maria was certain she was asking for another loan. Since her father died a year ago, she struggled to make ends meet as a seamstress. And though Rosa Maria finished high school, she was not the brightest student. There was no work she could do and wanted to be taken care of as she deserved.
He looked at Rosa Maria and at her mother. “Well, it’s settled.”
Her mother clasped her hands. “Praise the Lord!”
“What is settled?” asked Rosa Maria.
Uncle Thomas gave her a side glance and explained, “Don Sebastian’s oldest son saw you at the plaza a few Sundays ago. He wants to marry you.”
Rosa Maria sat dumbfounded. Yes, she was eighteen years old and needed a steady suitor, but she had heard rumors of this eldest son. He was well to do, the son of a rancher a few towns over, but he had been burned in a fire recently. She also recalled he was an avid gambler and drinker. She had no idea what he looked like, and she would be damned if she married an ugly man with bad habits. She was about to object, but her mother gave her a stern look.
“He will come to meet you this Sunday, after church,” he concluded and said his goodbyes. He was about to leave and added, “Look, I hear the rumors. Be on your best behavior when he visits, Rosa Maria.”
“Oh, Uncle,” she said unabashedly, “I haven’t even kissed a boy yet.” Of course, that was not true. She had kissed plenty of men, but she hadn’t been stupid enough to do more than that. Even when the mill’s dead owner tried to put his hands up her skirt in exchange for a few kilos of maize.
He went to leave as her mother gave him a sack full of gifts for his wife and three daughters. All of whom were goody two shoes.
No doubt she’s giving them each an ugly dress fit for a nun, Rosa Maria thought.
When her uncle left, she ranted about not wanting to marry the Sebastian boy. “I can have any boy I want! Why am I going to marry some rancher’s son?”
Her mother slapped her and said, “I barely make enough for us to live on. You’re a fool if you think anyone decent in the village is going to want to marry you! You think I don’t hear the stories? What were you doing with that idiot who runs the local shop last week?”
Rosa Maria smiled and was about to get another one, when her mother admonished, “And don’t even think about going to the dance tonight!”
It was Friday night, and her village held a dance every month. Rosa Maria often snuck out and managed to make it back before midnight but always made sure a couple of her trusted friends walked her home. After all, it was one thing to kiss boys and quite another to have rumors of her being a slut—which she wasn’t. Not really.
IT WAS 9:00 P.M. AND LIKE CLOCKWORK, her mother fell asleep at the chair doing some extra sewing. Rosa Maria quickly touched up her hair a bit and put on her lace dress. She wore simple flats her father bought in Texas. One last gift for his princess. Of course, she wanted high heels.
She had no red lipstick but managed to put on some white powder. She looked virginal, her upturned nose delicate. Her face was Hollywood perfect—light-skinned and the envy of most girls. She admired her full lips, but wished her eyes were blue.
They were honey brown.
Rosa Maria took a black shawl and snuck out of the house. She walked speedily to the town hall, and outside was her best friend, Tila.
“Just look at you!” Tila was nineteen years old. Tonight, she wore an orange dress that covered most of her curves and showed no cleavage. She also had a crush on Mr. Sanchez, the mill owner. But he married her cousin a couple of months ago. No one could tell if he was happy or not.
When they entered the dance, it was already full of people dancing a fast-paced dance. She went with Tila to grab a drink.
Heads turned towards them. A young man just turned seventeen was going to ask her to dance, but she averted him, putting Tila between them. They grabbed their drinks and sat at the table. Rosa Maria gave her a glum look.
“What is it?” asked Tila loudly.
The song changed to a slow waltz, so they lowered their voices. Three people asked her out to dance, but she declined politely saying her stomach hurt. Rosa Maria explained her predicament, and her friend squealed with delight!
“A son of Don Sebastian!”
Rosa Maria shushed her as a few girls turned to look at them. “Be quiet!” She leaned in close.
“I heard his face is badly burned,” Rosa Maria continued.
Tila shook her head. “Nonsense—”
The music stopped as he walked into the hall. He was wearing the same clothes as before, but Rosa Maria’s heart stopped along with every girl of marriageable age and even some married ones. Tila also held her breath then exhaled. “Who is that?”
The stranger held her gaze and walked towards her table, as people parted the way. He extended a hand without even asking.
It was a magical moment. She breathed in his scent as another melancholy waltz began. It was Pedro Infante‘s “The Nights of October”, a song Rosa Maria wanted played as her wedding song.
She looked deeply into his eyes as he spun her around effortlessly. Rosa Maria thought they were made for each other. He had light skin and dark curls. What struck her the most were his blue eyes. Every time he smiled at her, she wanted to swoon, but she was too strong for that.
“What’s your name?” she finally asked.
“Nicholas,” he answered and added no other details. Other men glared at the stranger, but none dared to cut in. They danced for over an hour, but Rosa Maria was so enveloped in him she did not notice the passing of time. Round and round they went without taking a break. She was delighted at his grace. He never missed a step and knew how to dance the twist on down to a ranchera without sweating all over her. He was a man of few words, but she didn’t care as long as she was his universe.
Near midnight he asked, “Do you want to go for a ride?”
The question of course was complex. Leaving with him would cause the town to buzz with rumors of a love affair, and she wasn’t sure if he would steal her away to some remote location and deflower her. Rosa Maria thought about her uncle and her mother.
Then, she scrutinized his left hand. He had no wedding band, but on his pinky was a gorgeous gold ring with a large emerald.
“Are you married?” she asked point blank.
Without skipping a beat, he answered, “No.”
Rosa Maria calculated. He could be lying of course, but he did not seem to be conniving. Nicholas was suave and graceful, but he wasn’t a liar. She could usually tell when someone was lying to her, as she was an avid conniver, when she needed to be.
She looked towards Tila who gave her a worried look as she walked to get her shawl.
“Don’t,” Tila said grabbing Rosa Maria’s arm, but she shook it off and went with him anyway.
Nicholas was an absolute gentleman. He sat her on the back of the horse behind him, as a lady should ride. She had ridden like that many times before with her father, and she was not afraid of horses. They rode past the mill towards the river.
“Where are we going?” she asked but got no answer.
The horse began to pick up speed. The wind was blowing through her hair, and she found it exhilarating. He curved past the river and sped away down a rocky path. She had to grip his back, and almost fell off. He took a sharp turn, and she lost her shawl.
The horse rode faster than any beast should. She turned back. The town was too far away for the minutes they had been together.
Nicholas then raced up to a strange place filled with thorns and brambles.
The horse was just as nimble when raced.
She cried, “Can you please stop?”
The horse raced up a steep mountain Rosa Maria had never been to before. The horse sped up an impossible vertical incline. She clung for dear life, and then, they entered a large cave. It was pitch dark.
Rosa Maria was relieved when the horse finally stopped.
Through the darkness, the horse continued down a series of tunnels descending downwards. They stopped finally at a level place. Nicholas dismounted and grabbed her and threw her down on the ground. The fall knocked the wind out of her, but she fought striking at emptiness.
He gripped her wrists and tied them painfully. He lifted her up brusquely. Her feet trailed, dancing above the ground. She was suspended high, unable to wrest free.
SHE STRUGGLED until she fell asleep from exhaustion. He traced his fingers down the curve of her neck. In her sleep, she gave a small cry. Nicholas turned her back towards him and began.
First, his nails extended themselves into flawless instruments, exactly one inch each. He stroked her back, all the way down to her perfect waist. He raked his nails down her back enjoying every second.
THE BURNING PAIN in her back awoke her. She screamed as he raked his fingers down her back again, from the nape of her neck to her buttocks. He spun her around and kissed her. Rosa Maria felt like coal entered her mouth. The pain was excruciating—radiating through her whole mouth—outside and inside.
Even as she was tortured, she was worried that her mouth would be permanently scarred and that the blood would stain her shoes. She wondered if her mother could sew the dress back or cut the back out, somehow.
As if he was reading her mind he said, “I can offer more than rags.”
She whispered, “I don’t want anything from you, you piece of filth.”
He smirked and was about to kiss her face, but he stopped.
“I’m not touching your pretty face. I’m not supposed to leave any area unscathed, but your face is so lovely.”
Bile rose from her throat, and the pain grew worse. He took a dirty finger and ran it around her lips soothing them. Then, he stuck his thumb in her mouth. No man had ever done that to her. It was sensuous, but repulsive. She wanted to gag, and at the same time moan in contentment. The pain lessened.
Five surrounding torches lit simultaneously. She spat at him and when it landed on his face, it sizzled.
“Who are you?” she cried, but deep down, she knew who he was.
WHO WAS HE? The truth is he didn’t know anymore. Centuries ago, he had been a devoted father, but small pox killed his wife and five children. He had been tempted, as he was tempting Rosa Maria now, but he chose poorly.
She was strong. Perhaps stronger than he had been, even though she was so young. He smiled at her. She cringed. He kissed her again, this time doing so gently without heat.
She bit his tongue, drawing blood, and his laughter echoed through the cave. He brought a tin of water, and she drank against her better judgement. She wanted to spit it in his face but was too parched. He caressed her cheek and was pleased to see she did not flinch.
“I do care about you,” he said softly and meant it.
He unhooked her and lay her down on the dirt. She fell asleep in due time, and he went to get some dry jerky. He turned his back and reached for his satchel. Suddenly a sharp pain on the back of his head made him yelp as Rosa Maria kicked him and ran down a dark passage.
“Clever girl,” he said rubbing the injury. He marveled that she outwitted him, if for a short spell. He walked listening. He couldn’t let her get too far, or she might be killed. He found her a few minutes later, crawling on her hands and knees.
Nicholas picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. She fought and scratched and pulled his hair. He tied her hands and feet and placed her in the exact spot.
She screamed, and he jammed the jerky in her mouth. She wanted to curse, but instead chewed methodically. Rosa Maria was plotting, he was certain. He bent over and kissed her forehead which raised a tirade of insults.
She fell asleep after a time, as he watched over her, making sure nothing disturbed her peace.
WHEN SHE WOKE, she was hanging on the hook again. This time, he scratched her arms and legs, always being careful not to touch her face. He looked pained every time he clawed her. The pain was unbearable, but her rage was stronger.
Suddenly, he stopped, and like magic, he soothed every wound. He worried she would scar.
Why did he care so much? he asked himself.
Thirteen hours had passed, and she was still awake. She glared at him and tried to spit, but her mouth was dry.
He flinched, when she sneered at him. At first, he couldn’t understand what she said. He grew closer.
“So, you weren’t man enough to get a woman, so you have to steal stupid girls away.”
She kicked and impacted his penis. He bent over as she laughed for the first time in a long time since her father died.
“Wretched girl!” he howled, and she fainted in terror. The transformation had been a reflex. First, his eyes went back from a glowing amber to a sky blue. His fangs receded, but his pointed ears were stubborn.
It took thirty minutes for him to go back to normal. He caressed the curve of her neck. She was truly beautiful. She woke with a start and began to fight.
He sat there watching her until she calmed down. Normally, he would wait another day, but her stubbornness was unlike any he had seen in centuries.
Out of nowhere, two tables appeared. One of them was laden with jewelry and a rich red dress, like the one she always wanted. At the center was a set of high heels. They were a fantasy come true.
To the right were ordinary rags. A metal basin with a washboard and a coarse apron.
“You can have a life of luxury,” he said pointing to the table with elegant articles. “You can stay young forever. Have any man you want.”
He saw the light in her eyes as she stared at the shoes. He knew she would love them but realized the adoration in her eyes ran deep.
“Or.” He paused gesturing towards the other table. “You can have a life of drudgery. You will marry a simple man, but never be rich. Ever.”
THE SHOES SHIMMERED in the fire light. They were exquisitely curved and the heels the perfect height. The dress was the material of dreams. She stared at the alluring table, then the drab table.
“Well,” he asked again and added, “As soon as you make your choice. This ends.”
She would not choose. Most people would have been screaming one way or the other, but she was weighing her options. He smiled. “If you choose this life,” he continued pointing at the life of boredom, “You will always have to be obedient, always do good.”
“Or what?” she asked.
“Or this will seem like child’s play.” He ran his fingers against a wall making a grating noise.
“If you choose the other life,” he said, “you will never want or suffer. You will never grow old.”
There was no way she could be obedient forever, and she dreaded the thought of growing old like her neighbor. She looked down. By now, her dress was rags, and she hung, naked, but he never touched her. Not there.
Rosa Maria thought long about what she wanted. She screamed as a burning pain ran up her left thigh. It was his hands that were burning her. He was no magician. In fact, she had figured out who he was. He ran his hand down her right thigh. That same look of pain on his face made her shout.
“You don’t want to do this! Stop.”
He hesitated but spun her around and proceeded to burn her back, then traced his fingers all around her.
This went on for what seemed like an eternity, but then, she thought about her father and how much he loved her. She thought about how much her mother struggled. Surely, no one would want her now, but the promise of youth. That made her pause.
“Stop!” she said finally, “Stop, devil.”
She looked at him, as a small smile curved his lips. He grabbed her by the hips, this time without burning her. He grew close to her face, so he could hear and breathed in her scent of sweat and pain, as she whispered into his ear.
HE LEFT HER in the middle of the desert. It was Sunday morning, and he knew they were near. Then, he spied them, a group of five men. Her choice had surprised him, no doubt, but he was secretly glad of it.
He saw as a young man on a chestnut horse pick her up gently. They rode away, and Nicholas gave her one last longing look. He would never see Rosa Maria again.
THE NEXT DAY, she walked in the plaza arm in arm with Sebastian.
Two months had gone by, and she was still wearing long-sleeved clothes and a long skirt to cover her scratches and burns. She looked at his straight brown hair. He would steal a glance every now and then and smile. Nicholas had lied to her; he was not a plain man. There were burn marks on his neck that his collar could not hide, but that didn’t matter to her anymore.
He sat on the bench with her and asked her if she wanted something from the vendor. She shook her head. The last few weeks she had slimmed down. The doctor said she was dehydrated and had suffered a shock. The day she was returned, her mother brought the priest, but all she said to him was that she had been punished.
Now, as she sat by her suitor, she admired his strong hands.
“They weren’t always like that,” he said.
“I used to be a gambler and alcoholic,” he said. “I don’t remember everything that happened, like you can’t remember everything. I still have nightmares. I guess you don’t really forget.
For me, it was a gorgeous woman named Isabella. She offered me a career in the states away from all of this boredom, but then. . . .” He pointed at his back.
Her mouth dropped.
“I made the right choice, as you did,” he said, “You know what saved me?”
She shook her head.
“The image of my mother crying over my absence. I couldn’t break her heart.”
Rosa Maria breathed in and confessed, “For me it was my father. He loved me so much. I also thought about my mother who works so hard. I think he, Nicholas, promised me youth and riches, but I don’t recall exactly. Just that the temptation was awesome.”
He laughed. “Ah yes. Well, I can’t give you youth.” He kissed her hand, and she blushed.
He added. “You will never want for anything.”
She laughed, which perplexed him. “He lied to me.” Rosa Maria looked down, appreciated how shined and clean his boots were.
“I’m a terrible cook,” she admitted.
“Your mother told me,” he said and smiled. “I have my flaws. I can’t stand disorder, and I struggle with anger.” She flinched.
“I won’t ever hurt you,” he stammered. “It’s just my cross to bear.”
She turned to him and asked, “Why me?”
“You are very pretty, to be sure,” he said, “but that is not why I noticed you.”
Sebastian explained that when he saw her in the plaza, she had given the local beggar her last change. It wasn’t the first time he had seen her. That was the third time.
Another time, he spied her giving nuts to a little girl and another seen her give a mangy dog some tortillas. Sebastian saw what few people rarely saw in her, kindness and compassion.
“Besides,” he said, “I have no room to judge. It took me a while to figure out how to plant corn. Horses, no problem, but when it came to actual hard work, I was a joke. You will figure it out, and my mother and sisters will help you. I will as well.”
A life of drudgery, she thought.
“Besides, I was thinking our village needed a new dress shop. Your mother could help you,” he said. “I’ve seen her handiwork.” He pointed to his elaborate shirt.
Nicholas had been lying as had all the town gossips.
Sebastian was offering her a dream she had never thought of and her mother a means to live.
In the end, she accepted not for the riches he offered. She accepted because he shared her pain and was more than she could imagine in a husband. He saw the best in her and didn’t judge her.
Since she had returned, most of the men in the village said she had been raped and that she deserved it. A lot of women agreed. For the rest of her life, she would always wonder what life would have been like had she chosen youth and riches, but deep down, she knew she made the right choice.
MARIA J. ESTRADA is an English college professor of Composition, Literature, and her favorite, Creative Writing. She also runs her union chapter with amor and pride. She grew up in the desert outside of Yuma, Arizona in the real Barrio de Los Locos, a barrio comprised of new Mexican immigrants and first-generation Chicanos. Drawing from this setting and experiences, she writes like a loca every minute she can—all while magically balancing her work and union and family obligations. She lives in Chicago’s south side with her wonderfully supportive husband, two remarkable children, and two mischievous cats—one of whom has killed at least one laptop. You can learn more about her writing happenings and favorite books on her YouTube channel Radical Books and Politics.
She is Founder and Editor-in-Chief at Barrio Blues Press.
Gloria Delgado, born and raised in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, is the daughter of a Mexican father and a Hawaii-born Puerto Rican mother. She and her husband live in Albany, California. One of her stories, “Savanna,” was included in the Berkeley Community Memoir Project’s recently published collection, “A Wiggle and a Prayer.” This is her fourth story for “Somos en escrito.”
Día De Muertos
Extra Fiction Contest
New Mexico History
Novel In Progress