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Hacienda San Isidro
The low sweep of the southern horizon was a perfect line, unmarred by even the smudge of horses tossing their heads in the distance. The road yawned empty.
The carriage was gone.
I stood with my back to the gates of Hacienda San Isidro. Behind me, high white stucco walls rose like the bones of a long-dead beast jutting from dark, cracked earth. Beyond the walls, beyond the main house and the freshly dug graves behind the capilla, the tlachiqueros took their machetes to the sharp fields of maguey. Wandering the fields as a boy taught me agave flesh does not give like man's; the tlachiqueros lift their machetes and bring them down again, and again, each dull thud seeking the heart's sweet sap, each man becoming more intimately acquainted with the give of meat beneath metal, with the harvesting of hearts.
A breeze snaked into the valley from the dark hills, its dry chill stinging my cheeks and the wet in my eyes. It was time to turn back. To return to my life as it was. Yet the idea of turning, of gazing up at San Isidro's heavy wooden doors alone, slicked my palms with sweat.
There was a reason I had once set my jaw and crossed San Isidro's threshold, a reason why I passed through its gates like a reckless youth from legends of journeys to the underworlds.
That reason was gone.
And still I stood in the center of the dirt road that led away from San Isidro, away from Apan, my eyes fixed on the horizon with the fervor of a sinner before their saint. As if the force of my grief alone could transcend the will of God and return that carriage. Return the woman who had been taken from me. The echo of retreating hoofbeats and the clouds of dust they left curled in the air like copal incense, mocking me.
It is said that mortal life is empty without the love of God. That the ache of loneliness's wounds is assuaged by obedience to Him, for in serving God we encounter perfect love and are made whole.
But if God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, if He is three in one in the Trinity, then God knows nothing of loneliness.
God knows nothing of standing with his back to a gray morning, of dropping to his knees in the dust. Of his shoulders slumping beneath the new weight of knowing what it meant not to be alone, and an acute awareness of his chest's own emptiness.
God knows nothing of loneliness, because God has never tasted companionship as mortals do: clinging to one another in darkness so complete and sharp it scrapes flesh from bone, trusting one another even as the Devil's breath blooms hot on their napes.
Sharp pebbles dug into my kneecaps through my worn trousers as I knelt, my breathing labored, too exhausted to sob. I knew what the maguey felt. I knew the whine of the machete. I knew how my chest gave beneath the weight of its fall. I knew how it felt to have my heart harvested, sweet aguamiel carving winding wet tracks down my hollowed chest. My wounds sinful stigmata, flinching and festering in the sun.
God knows nothing of being alone.
Alone is kneeling in dust, gazing at an empty horizon.
In the end, it was not the ink-slick shadows and echoing, dissonant laughter of San Isidro that broke me. It was not fear that carved my chest open.
It was losing her.
Two months earlier
The carriage door creaked as Rodolfo opened it. I blinked, adjusting to the light that spilled across my skirts and face, and took the hand Rodolfo offered me as gracefully as I could. Hours of imprisonment in the carriage over rough country roads left me wanting to claw my way out of that stuffy box and suck in a lungful of fresh air, but I restrained myself. I knew my role as delicate, docile wife. Playing that role had already swept me away from the capital, far from the torment of my uncle's house, into the valley of Apan.
It brought me here and left me standing before a high dark wooden door set deep in white stucco walls, squinting under the blinding sweep of azure September skies, the broad shoulders and steady hands of Don Rodolfo Eligio Sol—rzano at my side.
In the sunlight his loose curls gleamed bronze, and his eyes were almost as light as the sky beyond. "This is San Isidro," he said.
Hacienda San Isidro. I let my eyes drag over the heavy door, its wrought-iron accents, the high dark spikes on the front of the walls, the wilting bougainvillea that wound through them, blossoms and thorns alike drained of color and dying.
It was not quite what I expected, having been raised in the verdant, lush gardens of an hacienda in Cuernavaca, but it was my new conquest. My salvation.
When I first met Rodolfo, dancing at a ball to celebrate the founding of the Republic, he told me his family had owned an hacienda that produced pulque for nearly two hundred years.
Ah, I thought, watching the sharp panes of his clean-shaven face flirt with the shadows of the candlelit ballroom. So that was how your family kept its money throughout the war. Industry will rise and fall, men will scorch the earth and slaughter one another for emperors or republics, but they will always want drink.
We danced the next round, and the next. He watched me with an intensity I knew then was a priceless tool.
"Tell me about the hacienda," I had said.
It was a big house, he replied, sprawling over the low hills north of Apan, overlooking sharp-pointed fields of maguey. Generations of his family had lived there before the war of independence from Spain, cultivating the agave and producing pulque, its sour beer, to be shipped to the capital's thirsty markets. There were gardens filled with birds of paradise, the air thick with swallows, he said, and broad, bustling kitchens to feed all the tlachiqueros and the servants and family. They celebrated feast days in a capilla on the property, a chapel adorned with paintings of saints and an altar carved by the scion of the family in the seventeenth century and gilded by later, wealthier generations.
"Do you miss it?" I asked.
He did not answer, not directly. Instead, he described the way the sun set in the valley of Apan: first rich golden, deepening to amber, and then, with a swift, sure strike, night overtook the sun like the extinguishing of a candle. The darkness in the valley was so deep it was almost blue, and when thunderstorms slinked over steep hills into the valley, lightning spilled like mercury across the fields of maguey, silvering the plants' sharp tips like the peaked helmets of conquistadors.
It will be mine, I thought then. A flash of intuition that swept me with the strong, trusting arm of a lover into the next steps of the dance.
And mine it became.
For the first time since March, a house was mine.
So why didn't I feel safe when the enormous door of Hacienda San Isidro groaned open and Rodolfo and I walked into the first courtyard of the estate?
A delicate tremor, the tremble of a monarch's wings, fluttered at the back of my throat as I took in the hacienda.
Its buildings were muscular and ungainly, the awkwardly splayed limbs of a beast frozen halfway into adolescence. The rainy season was ending; the garden should have been shades of emerald at this point in September, but what scarce vegetation grew in the outer courtyard was as brown as the earth. Wild magueys scattered weed-like and drooping on either side of a grayed capilla-it must have once been white-and dotted the lawn that led up to the house. Rotting birds of paradise crowded in scattered beds, their heads submissively bowed before us as our boots crunched up the gravel path. The air felt heavier inside San Isidro's walls, thicker, as if I had stepped into a strange, soundless dream where the stucco swallowed even the songs of the birds.
Outside of the chapel, we passed into an inner courtyard. Here, Rodolfo gestured to two rows of servants who stood at attention in front of their quarters and kitchen, waiting to greet us. Before they dipped their heads, a dozen pairs of black shining eyes swept over me, cool and assessing.
After explaining that the tlachiqueros were in the fields until dusk, Rodolfo made introductions: JosŽ Mendoza, once the right-hand man to the dismissed foreman Esteban Villalobos, had acted as record keeper for over a decade. He was the chief authority when Rodolfo was in the capital. Mendoza removed his weather-stained hat and placed it on his chest; his hands were gnarled with age and work. He looked old enough to be my grandfather.
Ana Luisa, the head of household, was a woman of about fifty, her steel-gray hair parted severely in the center, her plaits wound tightly around her head in a solemn crown. Her daughter, Paloma-Ana Luisa's double with raven black hair and rounder cheeks-stood at her side. Other names rolled over me like water; I heard them but remembered none, for a figure caught my eye at an arched doorway at the far entrance to the servants' courtyard.
A woman strode toward us, tall as a soldier and possessing all the same swagger. She wore a faded blue skirt that was short enough to reveal leather riding boots, stained with sweat; a wide-brimmed hat hung down her back by a cord around her neck, but if her complexion was any indication, she rarely wore it. Her skin was bronze and her hair streaked gold from long hours in the sun.
Stay out of the sun or you'll never get a husband, T’a Fernanda once whispered snidely, pinching the skin on the back of my hand. Though she had never met my father, and my mother refused to reveal any information about how mixed his heritage was, it didn't matter to T’a Fernanda: my hair and face gave her enough ammunition to find me undesirable. To refuse to let me stand next to her cream-pale daughters at the ball where I had met Rodolfo.
In the end, Fernanda's behavior meant that I had a golden husband, and her daughters did not. Fate had been unkind to me, but sometimes, its pettiness worked in my favor.
The woman stopped directly in front of me. Her pale eyes were the mirror of Rodolfo's, and her hair was the same color, sun-gilded and windswept. She gave me a swift, frank look from polished black shoes-quickly gathering dust-to my gloves and hat.
"You're early," she announced. "Is this my new sister?"
My lips parted in surprise. Who? Rodolfo had only ever mentioned a sister once in passing. She was called Juana; he said she was a few years younger than his own twenty-eight years, an age that led me to assume she was married. Never once had he mentioned her in the same breath as San Isidro.
"You look displeased," Juana said after Rodolfo introduced me, a hint of amusement in her voice. It was not warm. "Did Rodolfo not warn you about me?" Her lips were dry, and thinner than was considered attractive. They disappeared entirely when she smiled; her teeth were almost too bright, even and ivory as a set of piano keys. "Don't worry, I keep to myself. I won't even be underfoot-I live over there." She jutted her sharp chin over the line of servants, to a set of low buildings between the house and the capilla.
Not in the family's house? "Why?" I blurted out.
Juana's face shifted, resettled. "The house is terribly drafty this time of year," she said lightly. "Isn't it, Rodolfo?"
Rodolfo's face looked a bit strained as he agreed and returned her smile. He was embarrassed by her, I realized with a start. Why? She was unusual, to be sure, but there was a frankness to her that reminded me of Pap‡'s no-nonsense manner. A simple, easy kind of authority, one that drew the attention of all the servants to her.
I could almost feel the air shift around me, toward her and her undeniable gravity. Rodolfo was not the master of this house.
A breathless fear uncurled in my chest; in response, I adjusted my posture, drawing my shoulders back as my father used to. There was nothing to be afraid of. This hacienda was mine. I married its patr—n, and Juana chose to live among the servants. I ought to be glad Juana was so embarrassing to Rodolfo that he barely spoke of her. She was no threat to me. Let her stay in this middle courtyard, in the servants' quarters. The main house would be mine to rule. My domain.
Those thoughts quieted the unsettled lurch of my gut as we chatted with Juana for another moment longer, and then left the servants to their work and walked through the arched doorway into the innermost courtyard.
Rodolfo had asked me twice if I wanted to stay in the capital, in his family's old Baroque apartment, but I refused. I wanted the house. I wanted to steal Mam‡ away from T’a Fernanda, bring her here and show it to her. I wanted to prove to Mam‡ that marrying Rodolfo was right. That my choice would open a door into a new life for us.
And now, as I at last faced the house, the slant of its gap-toothed roof, its dark windows and age-weathered white stucco walls, a feral feeling seized me.
My spine stiffened. I wanted to fling myself back from the courtyard as if I had been burned.
But I refused to let myself falter. I tightened my grip on Rodolfo's hand and banished the feeling. It was foolish. I was taken aback by Juana, but that was no reason to flee. Not when I had won so much.
Not when I had nothing to run to.
The air was thick and silent, our footsteps the only sound as we reached a set of low, broad steps leading up to the front door. I stepped onto the first, then froze, a gasp stealing the breath from my lips.
A dead rat splayed across the third step, its head tilted back at a broken angle, its stiff tongue jutting through yellowed teeth. Perhaps it had fallen from the roof, but its skull had split open as if it had been flung from a height with incredible force. Shining brains spilled onto the stone step, a splatter of rotten pink covered with crawling black flies.