Hunger's Brides
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"Unstable Margins"


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I took her maiden name, Ramírez de Santillana. She gave me Juana and Inés. The year was 1648: Isabel was beautiful, spectacularly pregnant again and still defiantly unwed. She took her confinement in what everyone called the cell, a hut of dry-laid fieldstone serving as tool shed and sometime way station to any Dominicans stopping the night on their missions among the Indians. And so it was that even at my life’s beginning, my cell was haunted by the Dominicans and their good works.

Of course I’ve heard it described. Gables thatched with dried agave spikes ... in a child’s imagination they loll like leathern tongues. From the ridgepole, the cane-stalk bassinet hangs just inside the door, at eye level set beyond the reach of snakes and scorpions. Walls left unmortared for ventilation, and in the evening breeze the slight basculations of the bassinet. All this has been painted for me. If I have a memory all my own it’s a modest one: of loose-chinked stone ... a wall of shells pale as canvas, pegged in place by wands of light. And beyond, panes of jade vegetation and turquoise sky.

The shed stood (yawed rather) at the upper reaches of Grandfather’s hacienda in Nepantla. In the poetry of the ancient Mexicans, Nepantla means ‘the unstable margins of things,’ and according to family legend I’d surely have been raised there, in my shaky palace of shells, had not Grandfather, who was riding the fence line on a tour of inspection, glimpsed my seraphic head through the doorway. Naturally he relented, and ended his daughter’s exile.

Within a year or two I was to have seen enough of newborns to find that legend not wholly persuasive. Indeed I’d one day learn that my mother’s exile had been largely self-imposed, a dramatic gesture directed at my father because he was not there. Adults, it seemed, were complicated. And none more than she.

The chief thing, for me and for our Siglo de Oro’s latter, better half, was that she did emerge from our cell — either by Grandfather’s leave or at his beseeching. Whereupon she refused first the offer of his horse, then the offer of his help with the hollow-boned bundle of cherub she held.

She stalked down (here I imagine Grandfather riding meekly behind), little moved by the view. Just above the ranch house the path bends north over a hill. Straight ahead lay the city on the lake, its far shore a frail glitter in the distance. The bearish shoulders of Ajusco hill would have blocked her view of the island where Mexico rests on the charred stones of the city it supplanted. For that is the custom of this place, to build on the ruins of the vanquished.

Below her lay the ranch house, a one-storey horseshoe barred to the west by a high corral of ocotillo thorns. Once down, she returned to running the hacienda, having handed me over (‘fastened me,’ as she put it) to a wet nurse she called Sochee. In my version it was to preserve her figure; in Isabel’s, to preserve her nipples from the predations of an infant cannibal. I once ventured to ask, If I was so much worse than my sisters, why it was that Xochitl never once complained. A question answered with the barest shrug, leaving me to conclude all on my own that a descendant of the Mexicas could have no objection to nursing an infant of my sort.

From about that time, the frequency of Father’s visits dwindled to roughly once a year. One of the least mysterious of his skills was with horses. He still came faithfully for the breaking of the yearlings but only on rare occasions now for the breeding of the mares. It seemed attending the birth of daughters was no longer in his routine. My sister Josefa told me, with malign satisfaction, that he used to come much more often. This only made it all the more like a royal visit for me, and not just because of his family’s remote and lofty origins. There was the unmistakable nobility of his bearing, there was the civility of his manners — and he was so handsome. With black, black hair, and a manly chin, and big soft brown eyes like a horse’s — no wonder even the wildest ones bent to his wishes.

And tall, taller than Grandfather, even. When he stooped from the saddle to scoop us each up for a hug goodbye, it was like being lifted into heaven.

Then he was gone.

We caught our breath.

The seasons resumed their turning.


It was harvest time — I would have been nearly two — when I discovered the roof. I was in the courtyard confecting mud delicacies in the flower beds when there began a faint but incessant knocking at the great double doors. Eventually Xochitl hobbled over to open for a dozen or so fieldworkers saddled under immense baskets of maize. Very quietly the first worker asked if la patrona was in, and when Xochitl shook her head, their faces brightened.

I had edged closer to determine for sure that these baskets, higher than each man’s head and tapering to a point behind his knees, were indeed attached by straps — or was this some sort of centaur of the fields?

Xochitl waved them in. The baskets must have been crushingly heavy, to judge by how the straps cut into each brown shoulder. And still the men lingered at the door, asking after her, and very respectfully. Her health, her hip, her daughter Amanda, who was sleeping in the rebozo strapped to Xochitl’s back.

Xochitl said to hurry up, before doña Isabel returned to find them all standing around.

"Yes, hurry up," I parroted, eager to see what might happen next with those baskets.

"You have taught her our tongue?" one asked.

"She learned. Same as Amanda."

"Doña Isabel does not mind?"

The first few men through the doors were all looking at me now

"Go on up," Xochitl said more sternly, and drew the screen aside.

For over a year I had played in that courtyard with only a folding screen of woven straw between me and the sacred science of the stair. I had seen the ascending rectangles begin halfway up the wall and had — to the extent I noticed at all — thought them ornaments. It seemed my older sisters had not been interested; but then, they could go outside and wrestle for their lives with the coyotes and eagles and panthers and jaguars — and who knew what else — we heard at night.

One by one the corn men lumbered up. Then, from down below where I swayed in wonder, I watched them turn and, from the topmost rectangle — step straight into the sky.

Xochitl shifted to block my ascent and redrew the screen, but the next day at siesta, I clambered up — with all the grace of a turtle, an indignity foisted on me by the thoughtless wretch who had built the steps so high.

At first all I took in was a wobbly carpet of cobs baking in the sun, and the hot, moist smell of the world as a drying oven. All I had known was the compound. I was splendidly unprepared for what I now saw.

Even a very short girl could see for nearly ten leagues all around.

To the southeast was a jumbled crust of sharp hills and spent craters like heaps of burnt sugar subsiding in a pan of caramel. To the southwest, as though warped on a loom, rough-woven panels of sugar cane stretched, and all through them the silver threading of irrigation ditches. An Aztec feathercape of greens fanned west and north — deep lime groves and oranges, and blue-green plantations of what I eventually learned were Peruvian pineapple. Closer in, ranks of spindly papaya and the oily green oars of banana trees transplanted from the Philippines.

It may have been then that I had my earliest intimation of the links running from form to knowledge to power, for it was not long after that I began to draw. Maybe if I drew a thing I might learn to look for what I had not yet seen. As soon as I took up my first piece of charcoal, my eye found the pyramid in Popocatepetl. It took longer for my mind to trace the paradox hidden underneath: that volcanoes should mimic the simplest, stablest polyhedron, the pyramid — five sides to the cube’s six. To picture that smouldering mass up there as stable was like a gentle tickling right behind the eyes.

For the next year I went up to the azotea every day, once I’d endured the first few spankings and then the dire injunctions to stay well back from the ledges.

Out onto the plain — as day after day I sketched their progress — the long dun caterpillars of aqueducts edged forth on their tiny arches ... and on cold winter mornings I traced the little teapots of hot springs that riddled the join of plain and hill. Farther off stood a lonely tableland, and on it what Grandfather felt was certainly the ruined city of the House of Flowers. If only I looked hard enough I might make out the huge stained stones through the tangle of overgrowth ... and then I would draw them for him.

I had discovered a world! — entire and new.

And now my old world was about to discover me. For I’d started trailing after my sister Josefa, who was not going out each day to wrestle jaguars, after all, but to attend a school for girls. Though her teacher, Sister Ada, would not at first let me into the classroom, as I was only three, she indulged me, allowing me to look on through the window at their lessons of reading and writing. On the third day, as though by magic, a small bench of fresh white pine, sticky still with fragrant resins, stood under the low window. It was tranquil there beneath the arches, bees whirring among the bougainvillaea and geraniums, the gurgle of a little fountain echoing as from within a cave.... But I felt a great mystery about to be revealed. Far from nodding off as Sister Ada must have expected, I fairly bristled with concentration. The way my mouth was watering, one would have thought I was observing a lesson in cookery.

"I must learn to read," I pleaded that third day. "Please don’t tell my mother — please?" Sister Ada consented not to tell for a little while, versed as she was in the attention span of three-year-olds. But after two more weeks she insisted I ask my mother’s permission, and in exchange she would find me a seat in the classroom, where I might learn a little of the alphabet. And what good would a seat inside do anyone spanked by Isabel? "No, no," I said, "I like your classes very well, but I can read now." She laughed — no, brayed. Which annoyed me, so I proceeded to treat her to samplings from the many little mottoes pinned up about the classroom walls. I had just the rudiments of reading but my memory was prodigious, and in combination these were enough to make her cross herself and go quite pallid. In our region, when one learns swiftly it’s said, the sorcerer has passed there. Anyway her gesture was to me a very satisfactory form of applause. I thanked her for the lessons and left. Grandfather had been away in Mexico City visiting my aunt and her rich husband. A day or two later he returned with his latest trove of books and a few childish texts to serve me as primers, but he found it was too late for these.

That same week the parish priest made a rare visit to my mother. At its conclusion Padre Luis, himself a man of scant education, confided, "Your Juanita has much promise. God must have designed her for great exploits."

Isabel had little time for either priests or Church. "Well then," she replied, "He should have designed her as a man."

From that day forward, Padre Luis went about suggesting, to anyone who would listen, that there was an unholy character to my hunger for learning. Priests.

I stopped eating cheese, though the queso de campo of the region — stringy and sharp and sour smelling — was a great favourite of mine. It was said that cheese made one stupid, and I already learned too slowly to appease my appetite. Though I missed the cheese sometimes, I did find that within a few months I could read nearly anything. In no time, when I needed to ask the meaning of an unfamiliar word, often only Grandfather could give it. If he was away for more than a week, we might spend an hour or two like this, with him helping me vanquish my collection of strange new foes.

First among the cherished memories of my childhood is that big sun face, round and tan, a thick red-grey ruff lining his jaw and tufting his chin. My abuelo’s was the first serious portrait I sketched. His hair was reddish brown, the hairline high and well back from his temples, which lent a further roundness to the cheeks and forehead. His eyes were green, and clear as gems. After seeing him next to Father I could no longer confidently call him tall; he was thick-set, with rounded shoulders. And down the years, to line up my sketches of him side by side was as if to chart the progress of ageing in the cinnamon bear.

Grandfather rented two haciendas from the Church. Ours in Nepantla, which Isabel ran, and another he looked after, higher up, just below the pass. In that house was a library I had only heard him speak of, but that shimmered in my mind as the real and true El Dorado. For it was from that great larder of books that Grandfather regularly refreshed his shelf in Nepantla. Architectural studies, treatises on Euclid and Galen, and — still maddeningly inaccessible — the Latin poets. Virgil and Lucretius, Lucan and Catullus, Seneca and Juvenal. The names alone were as the metres of a mighty epic.

By the time I was five I had sworn an oath on the little ruby pricked from my thumb to learn Latin without delay. This was to be the first of my great failures, for as it turned out I would not master the godlike speech of Romans for almost ten years.

In translation, mercifully, was Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and of course Grandfather’s beloved Iliad and Odyssey. And the great classic of our Castilian tongue, Baltasar de Vitoria’s The Theatre of the Pagan Gods. But the book he perhaps treasured most was by a soldier who fought under Cortés. The True History of the Conquest of New Spain is an old man’s chronicle of the campaign, a story of the sufferings and deceptions inflicted on the common soldiers the author had fought beside as a youth.

"Books are powerful," Abuelo said. "This single book is why, en mi opinión, those generations of us who followed Cortés have raised not a single monument to him."

Books were powerful, irresistible even: the scent of mildew they brought down from the mountains was for me like fresh bread, a bakery laid out between each set of covers.

Grandfather was a capable if reluctant farmer, but how he loved riding out over the land. Sometimes it was to El Dorado, or the land of Quivira, or the Seven Golden Cities of Cíbola, and then he would return to share out some of that fabled hoard: a legend, a rumour, a report he’d just read or heard.

"We live, Angelita, in the El Dorado of legends. Sabes, not so many years ago, on his way to a city on a lake, a man named Hernán Cortés — "

"Because he was courteous?" I asked, eager to show off.

"I doubt he was called Cortés for his courtesy. With his soldiers and a few horses, this Cortés was coming from the east, up from the sea. Sometimes they had to hack their way through the densest jungles they had ever seen. But as they worked their way upwards, he and his men began to climb through a cool forest of cedar and pine. Huge trees with growths hanging from them, like the beards of prophets. Yes, feel — but much longer than mine. Once at the pass, Cortés stood gasping in the thin air, satisfied he was now higher than any man had stood in Europe. Yet the peaks soared still a thousand varas above their heads. He was surer than ever that it was indeed snow up there — though it was beyond belief, in such steamy latitudes as these. Can you see it, Juanita, the stubble on those lean wolf jaws of his? To confirm the marvel, he sent ten men up to fetch down ice...."

Grandfather neglected to add that they went also to fetch sulphur for their cannon; nor did he mention that Xochitl was from the pass and was his source for the story of the ice. She would one day tell me her people were greatly reassured by such a display of human curiosity, from one rumoured to be the god FeatherSerpent returning from the East.

But they had never seen a curiosity quite like this.

"Just a few leagues from this hacienda — just there, beyond that next hill — Cortés came down from our sacred mountain to meet the Mexican emperor. They met on the south shore of the lake that circled the imperial city ... great Tenochtitlan."

"Mexico," I said gravely.

"Yes, Angel, and here everything begins. See them: Cortés and Moctezuma stand in the shadows of late afternoon, beside the longest of the stone causeways connecting the island to the land. This one, which we have now renamed the Calzada de San Antonio, is as straight as the line of sky on sea on a still day. And wide enough to accommodate six carriages abreast! Before this day, the emperor’s feet have never been allowed to touch the earth. Now, he stands ankle-deep in soft black mud. Into that mud he inserts the full length of his index finger. And what comes next stuns his attendants. He places it in his mouth...."

Here was a gesture of grace, of surrender to charys, that Grandfather considered worthy of an Athenian — of old Pericles himself.

In a few weeks the great Moctemuza II, regent of the Fifth Sun, incarnation of the war god Blue Hummingbird who commanded a million men, would be taken prisoner in his own palace by a ragtag band of mercenaries. Iron clad, gold crazed, famished, reeking from the purulence of their wounds. Or so, listening to my grandfather, I imagined them. Locatable by their smell even through the stench of the dread Black Room, its every surface tarred in blood. There, stunned by their success, uncanny in its suddenness, they hold Moctezuma captive. Though captained by a lawyer (¡un abogado!¡imagínate, Juanita!) they are in truth led and guided by a woman the Mexicas had sold to the Mayans as a slave. Now she has returned to bring her people, the chosen ones, a very different destiny.

"The unstable margins of things, indeed — eh, Angelina?"

The unstable margins of things ... The feature that gives Nepantla its name stands to the east: across the entire east, where the ground is heaved and rutted as by a titan’s wheel of quakes and slides and lava floes. The country of my birth lies across the foothills of two white-tipped volcanoes. Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl. WhiteLady and SmokingStone. One dormant, the other murderously active. As the legend goes, they are lovers from rival tribes. She lies in a drowse of stone — struck down by a wizard’s curse — while he, distraught, stands fuming over her, in a tower of ice and the black rock I was to learn the Egyptians first called basalt.

Their slopes are the dark green of pine and cedar. After a rain in the afternoon, which falls as snow at the peaks, the fresh-glazed ice dazzles in the sun’s decline, as the rains drift beyond them like a blue-black scrim. The effect is theatrical yet they are real — one deadly real — and from real stuff fashioned: rock, rain, ice, the very earth. Two immense actors up on the East’s solitary dais. There, in the setting sun, they blaze up as if footlit by colossal lanterns. In autumn, when the rains come daily, rainbows are commonplace, prosaic as the tremors. And so it is not uncommon for them to be framed, quite perfectly, quite implausibly, under an immense rainbow. As though she has fallen in a bower of shimmering iris....

Ever since I can remember, ever since making a childish pledge to always live within sight of them, they are those lovers, more than they are mountains; they are that play, and the play can only be reality itself. This theatre has been my grandfather’s gift to me.

I craved more time with him. But he took any excuse to be out, away from the place in Nepantla, which he conceded his daughter ran more ably than he did the hacienda up in the pass. She could outwork any man, as Grandfather sometimes said to reassure himself. She was a force of nature, everywhere at once, startlingly so, like the first burgeoning of spring. Giving orders to Xochitl in the kitchen, riding out to the orchards and cornfields, butchering calves, fretting over lambs, shouting instructions to the charros as they bred the horses. All this, the work of a day.

Father’s company, on the other hand, was too rare a delicacy to crave, which did not keep me from brooding on his absences. Grandfather one day referred to him as an adventurer, and this struck me as a calling of the highest sort. He was like a handsome ghost, a restless paladin of old whose occasional visits were so very vivid and memorable that all the rest seemed a fabrication. One spring day — I might have been four — felt particularly real. He had thrown open the portals and called in to all the girls to come out for horseback rides. They ran happily after him, but I’d been watching from the roof as he had put a fiery roan stallion, stamping and backing and screaming, through its paces. It was that horse he would now have us ride.

Josefa, and even María who was almost an adult, balked at being hoisted into a saddle that bore every sign of becoming a catapult. Though frightened I sprinted down from the roof, but by then there was Amanda, looking tiny and demure and being led about so placidly she might as well have been on the back of an enormous roan lamb.

I felt someone behind me at the door, and turned to find Isabel. In that proud face I thought I’d seen every variation on anger, but this one shaded swiftly into hurt. Which on her I had never seen and did not see for long now before she turned away and walked across the courtyard to her room.

Father had seen her face too. So ended the children’s rides, before my turn, as he thundered off on a long ride of his own.

Abuelo, for his part, stayed away for weeks sometimes. Between them I came to think of men as a variety of migratory bird. Father on his noble and secret missions. Grandfather, reading, riding between the two haciendas, mending fences, tinkering with his little hydraulic projects — windmills, watering ponds, catchment basins.

It must have been the next spring, during one of those rare planetary conjunctions that brought Father and Abuelo to the hacienda at the same time. On the hill above the house Grandfather had recently installed a millpond to be replenished on windy days by the small windmill he’d had the workers build to his specifications. One morning he took me out with him right after breakfast. Though the ground in Nepantla was dry, he explained, the real problem was not scarcity of water but rather the swiftness of its drainage. For this I must be wary of dry streambeds.

I knew this already.

"Imagine, Juanita, flash floods from a blue sky! Boulders, trunks and mud all washed down in massive swipes." This was dramatic even for him. "And so, in a way — no? — Time itself has gouged these ravines. As with an adze — there — in its fist. See how, between the arroyos, the high ground runs like roots? Are they not like the buttress roots of cypresses?"

I felt strangely anxious to know what was leading up to.

Did I know that the people of this place once believed our volcano held up the sky? Here he included the heavens in the generous sweep of his arm. "They saw SmokingStone as a tree, rooted in the earth, its plumes of smoke and steam as branches supporting the heavens." His gaze returned to earth.

"We live, Angelina, in the Manoa of legends and — "

"I know, Abuelo, and you are its El Dorado."

He put his arm around me then. We looked out over the world he had helped me to see, that I still see as if through his eyes. The stage of the horizon and the forms beyond. The dry, grassy hills, the blond camber of their narrow spines. The orchards rising up from the ravines. Intersecting diagonals of deep green mango trees and avocados. Hills with diamond spines. Volcanoes that were lovers, who were really cypresses....

"Abuelito!" I cried, eager to please him. "See how the hills are like snakes now? — see the diamonds on their backs, their green bellies."

He looked down at me as if surprised, and with a sober nod of that great head replied, "Why no, Juana Inés, I had not, until now."

And then he began to explain that we would be leaving Nepantla. The land was even richer up at the other hacienda. With my mother tending it, we would earn nearly as much as the two places combined.

"Abuelito, you’re not leaving us?"

"No, no, child, not I." I should have guessed, then. "You’ll like it up there. Just as much as here."

The message in all this was clear enough, I thought, with his parables of the tree, the mountain that changes yet abides: Permanence in change. I would soon read as much in Heraclitus. I wanted to shout, Of course I will love the other place, Abuelo — it has your library. Touched by his concern, I kept this to myself.

But that wasn’t what he was trying to say at all. I only understood this, in a sickening rush, the following day. The last day I would ever see my father.

Abuelo and I were looking back down at the ranch house. He was quiet a moment. A thread of mesquite smoke rose from the clay chimney pipe. A loose tissue of other such threads trailed up from the plain. Ewes bleated in the high corral of ocotillo; little red flowers budded among the thorns. There was the sweet scent of mesquite, and also of sage. And in the big laurel spreading its shade over the south wall a flock of urracas raised a castanet racket of the usual chatter....

It was one of the rare times Abuelo talked to me of him. "Did you know, child, that I was the one to introduce your father to my daughter? With you here beside me now, how could I regret that miracle? I was up in the pass riding on a narrow trail when I met him. A natural horseman!" This was a thing Grandfather knew how to admire. "Your father is descended from the great Basque whalers. They crossed many times, you know, before Columbus ever thought of it." He found it deeply honourable that Father had come to America to restore his family’s noble fortunes.

"It was always my great hope that they would marry. The love at first was obvious. But when your father did not come back for Isabel’s lying-in this last time ..."

Was that when Abuelo came to bring us down from the cell? Yes it was, and yes, my head was very angelic.

"I am not sure my daughter has yet abandoned her hopes. But never mention this. She would rather die than confess it."

The great current of his talk faltered then. Isabel called, and for once I skipped gladly down to the house. All that day I was in high spirits, playing on the patio with the others — my sisters and Amanda, and the younger children of some of the field hands. Usually I found such play difficult, though I loved to observe the others from the roof, admiring as I did their capacity to invent new games on the spot, then enjoy those games well past the point when I might have stopped.

That day, Father was sitting at a table under the arches in the shade of the laurel. Beside his hand on the table rested a little cantaro of cool water, its top covered by a lace mantilla, its clay sides sweating in the heat. He himself had brought it from a journey to a land called Guadalajara. The flask was made of barro comestible, the speciality of potters in a village far to the west. One could eat the clay when the water was gone, a notion that enchanted me.

Even slouched in a chair, he seemed coiled to spring onto the back of a horse. He had a quick mind and was often amused by my little offerings, but the trick was holding his attention. I thought to ask him how the cantaro was able to keep the water so much cooler than the surrounding air. The thing was somehow to connect this to horses. Did he think, as I did, that by allowing the sides to sweat, like a horse, it dispensed its heat faster than the air could replace it? Or was there something about evaporation itself that cools? Since dogs didn’t sweat in the heat but panted, were they panting sweat?

I was an idiot — what did he care about dogs?

But phantoms were perhaps formed of vapour after all, such as was sometimes said. For when one entered a room did everyone not feel cold? So why oh why did I now stand before this one, flushed and sweating and babbling? I was about to ask, but my paladin of smoke was so absorbed in watching Josefa and Amanda playing with spinning tops beside me at the well. And yet watching them now myself, I had no sooner observed the patterns being traced on the flagstones than — impelled by this madness of mine for hidden forms — I called for some flour to be scattered there in order to better apprehend the effortless motus of the spherical form; whose impulse, persisting even when free and independent of its cause, should — it seemed to me then — be mathematically describable....

Exactly how I conveyed all this then, I can’t recall. He only blinked those great brown eyes at me and shook his head a little, like a horse adjusting to a bridle.

But later that day he did take me out for a short ride on his big roan. So I supposed I was partly successful. When he swung me down, I curtsied. "Gracias, señor caballero."

"Oh, but it was my pleasure, " he said and bowed. "And anyway, señorita, I owed you a ride...."

He remembered. He remembered.

That night I lay awake well into the night, sitting up finally to watch the slopes of the volcano glisten in the moonlight and thinking about the geometry of pyramids. We were going to the mountain. We were going to the library. Perhaps Father would like it there. Enough to stay.

A wind was blowing from the west. A shutter was banging somewhere. I suppose I didn’t realise how late it was.... All at once I had a sort of childish revelation about the addition of pyramidal angles and rushed out of bed to share it with him. Rather than take the long way round through the arcades, I ran barefoot across the windy courtyard to their room, in which I could see a light, and blundered in on a scene not meant for my eyes. It was the first time I’d seen my mother that way, yet I felt a shock of recognition as though finally seeing her as she was. I couldn’t have explained how, but I knew then that some of the sounds I’d associated with the night were not from the fields or hills but from her.

She was like a panther, beautiful and carnal and wild-eyed. She was not ashamed, but this was no time for my nonsense. "Child!" she rasped, "will you never learn your place?"

Will you never learn your place.

He reached out an arm to restrain her. It is my last image of him: sweat drenched and lean, his eyes deep and blackened by lamplight, his hair atangle, and even as he withdrew from her grasp his movements were all fluid grace. He smiled gently, and shot me through with a look I will never to my last day forget — a farrago of melancholy and regret. Was there still a trace of that look in his eyes the next morning as he turned in the saddle to cast one last glance over the slopes of the Smoking Mountain? I like to imagine he was even then regretting bitterly that he would not see me grown up. He was leaving, my phantom pursuing a fantasy — wealth, glory, some goddess of Fortune. To be a hidalgo in Spain, a latter-day conquistador back from the New World, and eligible at last to marry up to the station his family had fallen from — with one of the stale and pasty virgins of his dusty Basque village.

He’d made up his mind. And looking into those rich, dark eyes, I knew. I knew, and my mother did not; even as her soul merged with his, she did not know. Even as it shattered like glass beneath the hot blows of a hammer, she did not know. But I did, in that instant. And for this my mother never quite forgave me.

After that night I ceased being a little girl in her eyes.

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