All previous chapters are available in either previous posts or by clicking a link on the masthead. This novel, begun and largely finished in the early 2000s, is being rewritten and serialized prior to submitting for publication.
Consuelo Arrives 1899
One morning, Juanita, now a widow for some years, and bereft of both the child who was the light of her life as well as the sweet young husband who adored her, lay wrapped in the dreams of early morning wakefulness. Her world had collapsed around her and for years, she thought of them night and day. In the middle of the simplest tasks, she would suddenly find a numbness creeping over her mind and body. There seemed to be not point to anything. The days crawled by during those first years without the sounds of the child’s voice and with no meal to prepare for anyone but herself. She was eager for the evening and for the time when she could join the other women and crawl into the cocoon of her grief. You see, after the death of her husband and child (with whom she always passed the night, even if the other women left their own husbands at home), she had gone back to sleeping with the piles of women in the twin sister’s ancient house. Yes, the women still slept in piles, no longer out of fear or necessity but out of custom and pleasure at the card games and gossip they shared deep into the night.
There, nested between kin and friends and in her layers of blankets, she could cushion herself against thought and take refuge in her dark dreams.
On this morning, she heard an energetic flicker pounding his tough little beak against the tin roof above her head of the women’s room. That must have been what awakened her, she thought. The flicker’s business moved her to rise from her comfortable bed, and plot her passage around and through the others who were still sleeping. She was, surprisingly for her, eager to start her own day. The bleak dreams of the night had mounted their steeds and fled with the break of day and the light was beginning to show through the dense curtains at the windows
Juanita was a beautiful woman. She was in her prime at age thirty=four. She was a loose-limbed woman with lavish breasts who moved like a sleek jungle cat and bore a sly smile. She had abundant thick dark brown hair with streaks of red here and there and just a bit of grey beginning near her temples. She was a woman who had found a strange peace with herself and her losses in spite of her loneliness and grim days. She had even grown capable of taking the occasional delight in the lives of others. There was nothing bitter or stingy about her. And this hard won beauty of spirit was reflected in her lovely chestnut eyes, soft lips, and in the luxurious way in which she moved around the village.
Juanita was well awake now. She moved quietly, rolling and crawling, over the still sleeping body of the woman with whom she shared her bed. She managed not to touch or wake her. She pulled an ankle length cotton smock that was hanging from the bedpost over her amply skirted, tight bodiced, white dirndl, the dirndl in which she slept. The smock was a brilliant yellow. She pushed the sleeves up to her elbows and gathered the skirt in her hands so that it would not brush the floor. Juanita found a path to the back door, sleekly lifting a foot here and there, winding her way over and around the women who were arranged in heaps on feather beds around the floor. She closed the door behind her gently and walked with almost exaggerated grace (a grace of which she was entirely unaware )to her own house. There was a large, bright, tin pitcher on the stoop behind her back door. She left it there so it was handy for the flower watering. She picked it up and filled it at the irrigation ditch that ran near the back of her house then hoisted it heavily to her right shoulder. She walked around to the front of the house, toward the plaza, with the weighty vessel causing her to walk slowly and with some effort. She turned toward the front door of her own house and began to douse a lovely stand of purple columbine and golden calendula that grew around the doorstep. It was unusual, some said, that Juanita and only a few others in the village could grow flowers so easily. Juanita had flowers that no one else could grow at all.
The flowers grew all around the little stool where she often sat facing the plaza. To the right of her door, hanging on the wall, was a large tin washtub. She kept it well scrubbed and so clean that on this morning it caught the early sun light. To the left of the little stool, nearly hidden by the flowers, a dainty black and white cat slept. This was the lovely scene: Juanita, her pitcher and tub gleaming, her flowers abundant, a little cat breathing at her feet. She drew the attention of many villagers to her generous beauty as she sang to dispel the sorrow she felt. Sometimes now, as her losses occasionally were forgotten for a moment, she sat and dreamed upon her doorstep and sang. She sat there nearly everyday with pitcher and tub and tiny cat and sang. As memories of the husband and child faded one blink at a time, she daydreamed about carnivals and the holy processions in Oaxaca she’d heard about. She dreamed about ice cream and other sweets. Juanita had become a dreamer and her voice sometimes had the effect of awakening other villagers to the possibilities of life.
On this day, when she had finished watering and commenced to sing from her perch, a small woman walked into the village and across the patch of green that surrounded all the crosses and the graves and jumbled grave goods. She walked, picking her way on tiptoe, towards Juanita. She had, it was quite clear, a petite baby in her arms. The baby was wrapped tightly and secured from below and over and around the shoulder of the woman with a finely woven pony blanket. The blanket might have been an important one. Juanita could tell from its designs that it was probably Apache. It had zig-zag lines and fringes and a yellow band on either end. It was worn almost through from where a rider had sat on it and bounced and jangled silver spurs across Sonoran sunsets, perhaps avoiding the buffalo soldiers, she thought, perhaps leading his people across the Mexican border to safety. She wondered how the baby had come to be wrapped in such a blanket and how this nimble-footed woman had come by such a baby.
The woman was, perhaps, a bit under five feet tall. She wore thick glass lenses over her eyes. The lenses were set in large horn rimmed frames. She had a black scarf wrapped over and around her head and secured below her jaw. Her dress and apron and knitted shawl were all black. Her chin was pocked and prominent. Her lips were pursed and lined from sucking far too many sorrows or licking the salt of her own tears. Lines were carved deeply from the corners of her eyes and nose traced the contours of her muffin cheeks. The odd effect was that she looked tired and jolly all at once.
The baby slept with a palpable sweetness within the blanket’s folds and creases. It looked pink and whole and fairly pretty. There was a curl of hair, so light as to be translucent, just framing its sweet eyes. The eyes were dreamy. They were peaceful, waiting eyes with eyelashes meant for spaniel dogs or cows; these were eyelashes certainly not meant for humans. Juanita’s heart seemed to turn about in her chest when she saw these eyes.
The woman, then more certainly, came deliberately but slowly towards Juanita. The babe slept. The woman walked, steadily, evenly, with the little sleeping bundle. Juanita saw the woman’s ring; it was gold, a simple band upon a finger on her left hand. She saw the feet shod in heavy black oxfords. She saw the knitted dark stockings through which no bit of flesh could be seen. She saw the woman’s hands were red with eczema. The disease was peeling and tearing at the flesh at least up to the wrist. Juanita could not see beyond the wrists for her dress and shawls prevented further inspection.
Juanita, living all alone, though sleeping in a pile with other women in the night, felt especially generous that day. She called out and invited the woman to sit. She fetched a mahogany chair from the house. It was one her grandmother had purchased many decades ago from a wandering woodworker.
The chair was highly polished and elegant, for the grandmother had aspirations that included haughty ideas of what one should sit upon and where. The grandmother still remembered stories of Spain and the entrada and the forming of the first bricks of the village and the first idea of where to put the gardens and the bean fields. And of course, she knew many stories about the twins and the little priest.
But most importantly to her, the grandmother still remembered vaguely that she was from a royal lineage. At least she fancied that she remembered this. No one could distract her from this memory or even contradict it. Her memories were from such a distant past that no one could prove or disprove her fixation or beliefs.
And so this chair was hers upon which she sat stiffly in bits of old brocade and yards of lace, with smears of boot black on her eye lids for drama, and cherry juice upon her cheeks for color.
Her hair was piled high upon her head from its coal black youth until it was as white as walls, or school paste, or Lutheran missionary hands. In her surprising hair she placed a carved tortoise comb. The comb held scarves and veils that fluttered when she walked or moved her head.
On her chair and in her veils she sat enthroned and silent. She sat just inside the house by the door, staring out. One day her ordinary sternness seemed preternaturally stiff. She was indeed quite dead, as stiff in death as life, yet surely lifeless. No one knew how long she’d been dead, because she seldom spoke or breathed or ate and so it could have been a week or more.
This very grandmother’s very chair was the one that Juanita fetched for the small woman. The woman sat lumpily on all her garments and such and held the tiny baby even closer to her. She sat patiently as Juanita related the story of the chair that I have just recounted. Juanita, alone so much of the day, often bored guests with long digressions and unnecessary details of her life. The little woman listened graciously.
Juanita offered her a bowl of last year’s piñóns. She brought her a wooden mug of guava juice. There were no glasses left in the house, you see, due to the activities of Julio, the mad man, who had chewed them all to bits. She brought a plate of dates stuffed with walnut meat.
They sat together, the woman, the baby, and Juanita, in the shade of creeping mimosa and an apple tree planted by an uncle. They listened to the water wearily fingering its way along the irrigation ditch. It was a fine day to sit. There was no talking. There was no talking wanted or needed. It was such a fine day and these fine moments they shared in that shade eating and drinking. The little stool was happy and the mahogany chair felt proud again.
It was such a good time that when the little woman left, the baby, of course, as you might have already imagined, stayed behind and lived with Juanita. She was named Consuelo after Juanita’s grandmother.
The baby slept within the warm comfort of the pile of women by night and much later, by day, learned to make corn bread and caramel cream and entertain the village with her puppet shows. Rarely did the women shout, “No, no, no,” after the coming of the baby. They were entertained and ecstatically in love.
The day the baby came was such a fine gentle day that it could, might have changed the destiny of the village. It seemed to have done so for just a little while. People seemed almost blessed for a time.
It truly was a day that might have stopped the tourists coming all those years later. It was the kind of day that might have stopped the rains and winds and kept the watchers busy somewhere else. Oh yes, this was a day to celebrate. A baby with no pedigree, all innocence, from nowhere any one had been. Oh, yes. This, the villagers thought, this peace and wonder was how it was all meant to be.
Paulette, Consuelo, and Juanita have an Adventure
The baby. Juanita’s baby, Consuelo. That baby was so exceptional, people said, that she seemed to be talking even when she was around six months of age. She made sounds that might have been, some thought, connected, meaningful, and quite sensible. And she was beautiful, as beautiful and smooth and ivory-skinned as a baby in those popular painted miniatures that one could find in the finest homes in those days. The baby had a full head of curly hair within about four months of her arrival in the village. The hair had, in those months, gradually darkened to stunning ebony. And her eyes were as big around as walnuts. Her eyelashes were thick and curly and her little eyebrows were so perfectly shaped they could have been drawn on. She smiled most of the time and that she made everyone around her smile. She was a dear, plump, warm baby.
Consuelo, however, had no things when she first came to be with Juanita. She had, for example, no clothes or bedding and no diapers. The woman who brought the baby to the village said she would send a few items, but these did not ever arrive. In fact, the woman was never seen or heard from again. Juanita made some inquiries for she realized she’d like to know more about the circumstances of Consuelo’s first few weeks of life. But though she contacted various churches and agencies in the region, she could not find a trace of the woman.
Juanita had, of course, had a baby once before. But she had burned all of the things that belonged to the first child, along with here husband’s things, while she was in mourning. She wished that she had kept some of her child’s handmade sweaters and caps and knitted booties and soft woven blankets.
Now, this was long before the time that women went to Furrs’ or Target or Walmart stores and could choose diapers for specific sized baby bottoms. This was a time before babies were encouraged by television ads to potty train themselves with elastic panties. Babies and their parents in these long ago days were not urged to buy gendered garments or really anything at all. But nevertheless, babies did need some things and the things they needed had to be, if you lived in places such as Solución, ordered from far away department stores or made by yourself or someone close to you. So, since this baby had no things, Juanita had to begin sewing and knitting and tatting and embroidering and getting the word out that Consuelo would appreciate this and that. Her plea was heard. All of Juanita’s friends got busy with needles and scissors and began arriving almost daily with a donation. “Here dear little baby is a nice blue jumper for you,” one said. “How about a nice stack of clean, bleached flour bag diapers! I’ve hemmed them all with a very fine stitch and washed them until they are soft as goose down.” “Good morning Juanita, my dear. Could Consuelo use some bed things? I had a little time and made her a crib sized blue quilt with matching pillow cases.” And so slowly, Consuelo had things.
The lack of things of her own was not Consuelo’s only immediate problem. Consuelo grew cranky and tired of sleeping in a heap with so many people every night. Consuelo, though just a baby, was bent on having a real home and some stability in her life. She knew, if no one else did, that the first couple of weeks after her birth had been disconcerting. Malleable as these experiences had made her, she was ready to settle in for the long haul. Thus, this daily habit Juanita had of picking up a packed bag and shuffling the two of them across the plaza to bed down with a bunch of fluttering females was just not the ticket.
She grew, quite early in her life with Juanita, to dread the coming of dusk. Dusk always meant to Consuelo that Juanita would set to selecting books and snacks and a nightgown to take to the common bedroom. The baby, cheerful at all other hours of the day, took to crying loudly as the sun set.
Juanita was not stupid. She understood very well what Consuelo wanted. So one morning she got up and went back to her house, sprinkled her floor with water, and swept her doorway free of cobwebs. She deadheaded her calendulas then wrapped Consuelo tightly in a gay posy-covered scarf and bound her to her breast.
She walked with Consuelo to the corral. “Come now, lovely Paulette. We will have a little trip today.” She called sweetly to the beautiful appaloosa, a grand horse who stood at the manger having a morning feed. She was a leopard spotted gray with deep blue rump markings. The mare came expectantly, her great lips pulled back across her enormous teeth in an almost smile. The mare loved to be ridden, loved spending time with Juanita, and most of all had come to love the baby. She always nuzzled the tot when she could get near enough to do so. Juanita entered the corral. Paulette pricked her ears and performed a lively dance when she saw Juanita take the bridle from the rails and walk toward her.
Paulette was always followed about by Juanita’s two Great Pyrenees. These dogs were as big as bear cubs and were the most loyal of companion pups. They each had blonde fur as soft as milkweed pods.
The mare came to stand near Juanita and the dogs alerted now to the possibility of an adventure, rose from their sleeping place under the shade of a walnut near the corral. They squeezed under a bottom rail and came quickly to the place where Paulette stood still, receiving her saddle. The dogs wagged, saliva dripping happily from their tongues, and pressed Juanita’s calves. They looked up and into her in the eyes, mouths pulled into a big-toothed grin. The mare put her head on Juanita’s shoulder and looked down into her face. The animals sensed a mission as well as an adventure and became excited with Juanita’s own excitement. The mare, the dogs, and the woman were all excessively animated because they were going to do something today. They liked doing something other than lying or sitting in the shade and, in the case of the beasts, snapping at flies. Consuelo, on the other hand, was inert in her scarf swaddling. She was, after all, a baby. Her mind, however, was quite active. She would be patient with the others.
Juanita put a saddle blanket on Paulette, lifted herself to the mare’s back, and looped one end of a rope halter around her right wrist. They all, woman, baby, mare, and dogs, rode, walked and trotted off into the morning mountains.
They rode against sandstone cliffs and near smoke-blackened caves, ancient dwelling places, where, unknown to Juanita, many watchers noted her passing. They paused at a rock called Kneeling Nun and lit candles for success. They rode through a valley where wild horses ran. They stopped occasionally and drank from cold, lip-numbing streams of water. They passed tasseled cottonwoods, stands of walnut trees, bunched slender willows, and pygmy junipers. They rode and walked and trotted until they saw a humble house beside a neat corral.