Soledad knew she would die that night. And her body would remain here, far from her homeland. She hadn’t thought it would bother her much. But, now in the face of death, it did. She threw off the blankets she had washed that afternoon—that filled the room with the smell of lilac and lavender. She had taken such care because she supposed it would be her deathbed. Soledad shrugged her shoulders and shuffled into the kitchen of her small house. She would go to heaven—or hell—on a full stomach.
After boiling the chicken, preparing the red salsa, blending the green salsa, and whipping the cream, she finally started to make her flautas. She shredded the chicken, rolled it up in soft corn tortillas, and dropped them into the frying pan. They sizzled. She inhaled deeply as she plopped them onto a mound of paper towels to absorb the oil. She turned off the burner, and plucked five flautas from the twenty she had made, shuffled over to the refrigerator, grabbed a beer from the pack she had bought earlier that day—despite Mr. Mercado’s raised eyebrow—and shuffled over to the kitchen table.
“On your way?” asked Soledad’s dead husband.
She nodded and bit into the crispy tortilla slathered with salsa and cream. The tanginess and heat of the salsas exploded in her mouth, toned down just enough with the cool silkiness of the cream. Soledad closed her eyes and chewed. The chicken was salty and tender.
“Bueno,” he said, “Que te vaya bien, good luck.” Again she nodded as she popped open the beer and took a long gulp.
“Gracias,” she replied as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Once she finished her meal, she filled a canteen and slung it over one shoulder. She draped herself in her shawl and tucked Pepito’s picture between her sagging breast and bra. It was ten miles to the border.
Soledad shuffled over dust and rocks, passing the tired, squatting houses of her neighbors. She thought of them tucked in blankets, put away for the night like toys. You have tomorrow, she thought. The only sound was the yipping of coyotes that reverberated off the mountains in the distance.
She continued, venturing deeper into the desert and farther from the main road. She wanted to go unnoticed. As she walked, she heard and felt the movement of bodies skulking on some not so far off path. Her paisanos headed in the opposite direction. She wondered who they were—a pair of brothers, some good friends, a few strangers who’d never met before tonight, a young couple....
“Que les vaya bien,” she whispered, though she knew they couldn’t hear the well wishes of an old woman. She shuffled on, thinking of that night so long ago when she and Chaco had crossed. How different things were now. She sighed and patted her chest. Pepito. She took a sip from her canteen and shuffled on. You killed him.
“You’re wrong,” Chaco answered, falling into step next to her, “and it wasn’t by chance.”
She pursed her lips. Her shawl felt heavy on her shoulders, but neither her shawl, nor her skin, nor the anger in her blood could combat the coldness of the desert night that penetrated her bones. They walked in silence as she tried to calm herself and find a safer subject. She was growing tired of hating him.
“Why do you think the desert gets cold at night?” she asked at last.
“A lot of people die in this desert. They become restless souls that wander it, stuck here, between worlds.”
“Is that why you’re here?” she asked him.
“No,” he answered. She bit her lip, annoyed that he should be in peace. She took another drink from her canteen and shook her head, determined to ignore him the rest of the trip.
“You know,” he started, “even if I hadn’t taken Pepito with me that day, even if that rock he tripped on had not formed over hundreds of years and decided to lay in that exact spot, even if I’d held his hand, even if he hadn’t tumbled down that cliff, this earth would have claimed his body, Soledad. Death wants what it wants, and He doesn’t make mistakes.”
“Did you come to irritate me?” she asked him.
“No…” his voice trailed off as if he wanted to say more, but he stopped. She was glad. She didn’t want to hear his voice anymore. She walked on, not wanting to talk but brimming with things to say. She accused him silently and put her hand to her chest again.
Just this picture where he looks like he’s sleeping, because you never wanted to pay for one when he was alive. That’s all I have.
“You had my love,” he told her, “even when you didn’t want it.” She felt his rough hand reach out to hold hers. She snatched it back and finally looked at Chaco. He looked the way he had fifty years ago, when he had been handsome enough to tempt her away from her mother and father.
“Remember goodness, Soledad, and forgive me,” he grabbed her hand before she could pull it away again, “Forgive me,” he pleaded. She faltered for a moment. Hating him had taken such effort.
“Please trust me, because… you just can’t imagine,” he said shaking his head, his eyes prisms of light, “but you have to forgive me,” he said.
“Will I see him?”
Chaco looked down and let go of her hand, “No, it doesn’t work like that.”
Her stomach dropped with disappointment. She took another drink from her canteen, and when she looked over at Chaco, he was gone. The coyotes’ yip came closer. She cursed him, but the yipping now made her uneasy and she wished Chaco had stayed. She hated herself for wanting him near. She’d never really let him go, even after Pepito’s death. She’d tried, had even run him from the house with heavy threats and cutting words but with each lash of her tongue, she secretly hoped he would stay. He did.
Her feet ached so she laid down on the desert floor to rest.
“He killed Pepito,” an old voice rang in her ears, “it was his fault,”
“You never liked Chaco,” Soledad replied.
“Shameless bastard—stealing you from us and then stealing your only son from you, “ it continued. Soledad stared at the sky as her mother’s voice hissed in her ear, “It was your punishment for disgracing us, Soledad”
The earth chilled her body. It was so cold in the desert. The tears she wiped from her eyes left cold streaks on her face. Maybe Mama was right. Maybe it had all been a punishment, an irreversible streak of misfortune from the moment Chaco took her hand to hoist her up on his horse the night they fled. A punishment for the love they made that night, laughing and giddy with pleasure. Perhaps having been conceived that night, that wonderful, sinful night where the sounds of his mother and father’s laughter must have reached the ears of God himself, Pepito never stood a chance.
Soledad stared at the blurry stars.
“It doesn’t work that way,” she heard from far away, “forgive me—you can’t imagine.” The coyotes yipped louder, drowning out Chaco’s voice.
Soledad was too tired to go on. The stars swirled in the sky like a dizzying pinwheel. Her lips felt dry and stiff, but she called for him, the man she had loved and hated for so long. She waited for his hand in hers, for his touch on her forehead, but it didn’t come. She remembered his face that terrible day so long ago—gray and sallow, twenty years older than when he’d left that morning with Pepito. How his voice had faltered when he delivered the news to her. How on his deathbed, she had refused him her forgiveness. She’d never thought of his pain.
“Chaco, I’m tired. I’m...sorry,” she said as the stars merged into a great ball of brightness, “forgive me,” her heart quivered as she let go of the hatred she’d carried for so long. It shook and rattled her body, looking for a new place to settle, but finding none it launched out of her body with such a force, Soledad laid limp and blind on the floor.
Thick blackness replaced the bright stars. Soledad blinked and the sky turned gray. She blinked again to the yellow and orange of sunrise, and before she could stop, she blinked again to white-hot brightness. Soledad squinted as the sky grew brighter and brighter and just when she thought the very corneas of her eyes must be on fire, she felt them. Large, rough hands she had known so well lifted her up from the cold earth, and a small one slipped into one of her own.
Jenny Torres Sanchez isa young adult writer and is currently working on a second novel. Sheis represented by Ms.Kerry Sparks of the Levine Greenberg LiteraryAgency. El Viaje is inspired by the music of Mexican singer/songwriter, Lila Downs and the photography of Agustin Casasola.