Consuelo’s Odd Marriage
Tiny half-formed apples rotted on the trees the year that Consuelo married the old man. Even they were few and not worth harvesting for there had been no rain. Beans pods shriveled before the fruit within could mature. Corn was ravished by a plague of rats. No one danced. No one sang. It was a bitter time.
She married an old man with a long beard. She was his third wife, though some people said she was lucky to marry at all. “What kind of harsh luck is this,” she wondered? “And on top of everything else.” But she was not lucky. Luck had nothing to do with it. She certainly was not lucky in the marriage. That is, until the old man died and that was luck enough.
The man she married was an old Anglo man of Irish descent. He was not so kind although not really as awful as some of the acidic and antique single or widowed men who rode in and out of the canyons and valleys around the village in search of succulent young wives.
Consuelo’s old man came to her bedside soon after word of her blindness had spread beyond the village. News of her misfortune had traveled even deep into the little dry canyon where he had built a diminutive hermit’s cabin from smelly railroad ties and bits of bitter brush and dried bones. He imagined living out the rest of his life there and alone.
Juanita reluctantly admitted him to the house the day he arrived on his dusty mule. She guessed his errand. Indeed, he went straight to Consuelo’s bedside. “My dear girl,” he began. “I am not a young or handsome man, but I will care for you and give you respectability. Marry me and you will be happy again.” That any care or respectability might come from this union was a lie. That he was not young or handsome was a perverse understatement. But, of course, Consuelo could not see him and no one had the heart to tell her the truth.
Consuelo was still listless. Her fractured frame and bruises were healed. But she was still blind and did not wish to be a burden to her mother. Thus she answered the old man, “Of course I will marry you. How kind an offer.”
This old man was not only deluded about his looks and age, but he was also had pretensions.
You can see his pretensions to being someone he was not in their wedding photograph. He is seated and tucked all about as if a lord or congressman. His beard is neatly trimmed but recklessly long like that of an eastern potentate’s. Though it is predominantly white, the beard is darker and grayish around the edges and near the temples. It must have been impossible to keep such a beard clean. It must have been regularly full of bits of food and pine pitch and vermin.
His left hand is tucked, Napoleon style, between the buttons of his waistcoat. Over his collarless white shirt and dark waistcoat, he wears a long black coat, clearly frayed at the wrists. This long coat is ill fitting, especially about the shoulders and the elbows. His pants don’t nearly seem to match the coat. The later is pin-striped and the former not.
The hems on the trousers look rough and are sewn with little care, almost as if merely basted. His shoes or boots are worn and not at all polished. In fact, they appear to be quite dusty as if he had just walked in from his farm and appeared just in time for the picture to be taken.
Yet, he wears his trousers and boots with a certain arrogance.
His lips are tight against his face. These lips are not smiling or frowning, just there, as if drawn onto his face and served no purpose at all. On his head he wears a flat broad-brimmed hat of the kind you might imagine an Amish countryman to wear.
His right leg is crossed over his left and his right hand rests on his right knee. He does not quite address the camera but looks off to somewhere quite distant, a place unconnected to the world in which he lived, to his young wife, and to the moment. It is clear that he believes himself to be a gentleman of means and importance to dress so and assume such a stance.
Consuelo as a youthful woman of about sixteen stands next to him. She is to his left and short and unseeing. It is clear that she is blind. Her eyes are vacant and languid and one seems to be looking off to the right while the other is peering sightlessly and lazily up toward the ceiling.
She is slim and dressed in a dark dress buttoned down the front and draped all around her tiny hips and stomach. The bow around her neck is bigger than her face. Her hair is parted at the middle and drawn back severely to a spot somewhere behind her head.
Her right hand rests lightly on the shoulder of the “old gentleman,” as he enjoyed referring to himself. He was not a gentleman, but an old rounder or knave. He was a horse thief and a gambler. He worked his former wives to death, forcing them to sell his puny crop of apples, apples each had cultivated and harvested, in the streets of far off towns. During the harvest season, he left the current wife with her baskets of apples in these towns to fend for themselves. He returned, sometimes, several days later.
At home, when they were not working the streets, he forced them to care for all the animals and entertain his card-playing friends deep into the night. He did very little himself to support the household but gamble. And at this he was not successful. His wins, few and far between, were more than cancelled out by his losses.
If there were no money in the house, he sent the current wife out door to door to sharpen knives and scissors and offer to do laundry or read fortunes. If they came back empty handed, he sent the wives out to steal chickens from his neighbors. These he obliged them to sell, squawking and indignant, in a village some distance away so that the chickens would not be recognized. If that didn’t bring in sufficient income, he offered his wives to road crews to act as common roustabouts. This is the man some considered a lucky match for a young blind woman.
It must be said that by the time Consuelo married him, he was still a grim tightwad but not so active in his nefarious pursuits and was often content to sleep at night rather than entertain his chums. At his advanced age, he was rarely interested in chickens or horses or anything else for that matter. He tried once or twice to convince Consuelo to take in sewing or to iron for people or sell tortillas in the plaza. But Consuelo found that if she assented to his requests but did nothing, he forgot all about it by the next day. He couldn’t write, so he did not record his orders to her and all was lost in the fog his mind had become.
In fact, the old gentleman lived only long enough to consummate the marriage. This peculiar occasion happened one autumn night after Consuelo had taken the day’s stiff washing off the clothes line. It was after she had folded sheets and shirts and put them into a chest of drawers. It was after she had served the old gentleman a bowl of noodle soup seasoned beautifully with dill and fennel. It was after the dishes were cleared and remaining bits scraped out the door for their few elderly chickens who managed now and again to provide an egg or two for their meals.
The old man was still in his dark wedding suit and hat for it was soon clear to Consuelo that this wedding suit was actually the only clothing, other than his shirts, that he owned or ever wore.
So still in his suit, the old man took his place upon the bed. “My dear,” he called to her in the kitchen. “Will you not join me tonight. I am so lonely and so cold.” Until this night, she had slept on a small cot in the kitchen and had not been troubled by him. She assented to his request. She lay by him, at first stiffly. He was cold. His hand reached out to her, an icy, bony paw of a thing. She felt a twinge of pity. Amidst the drapes and trousers and watch fobs and buttons and bows he managed, with her complete consent, given out of mild curiosity rather than desire, to conceive the child Rosalie.
It was not too many days later that he died of unknown causes. He died quite suddenly and in his bed (which he had not left since the consummation). In fact, his death was a rather unnoticed affair because it took place on the same day in 1916 that Pancho Villa invaded the United States and raided the little town of Columbus, New Mexico.
Everyone heard about the invasion and were quite excited by the news. Ramona had her old uniform somewhere and began tearing through trunks to find it. You see, Ramona had decided to cross the border and become a soldier in the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Sophia was exceedingly proud of her when she announced her intentions. She came home, one day, dressed as a soldara with bandoliers slung over both of her shoulders. She wore a tidy uniform jacket with brass buttons down the front and on the pockets, jodhpurs, and a bright white pair of spats over her boots
She found the uniform. It had only a few moth holes in it, but otherwise was fine and it still fit over her bosoms and hips. She polished the buttons, darned the holes and was ready to go within a couple of hours. “I must go. He needs me,” She said, speaking of Pancho. She borrowed Paulette, saddled up and rode south as quickly as she could. Paulette, being overweight, was not the fastest of mounts she could have chosen from the horses resident in the village. But she was a faithful old friend. They rode in splendor, south, once again, to the border.
Of course the whole thing was over as quickly as it started. It was, historians said, a factor in the decision of the United States to enter into the war raging in Europe. Something was said at the time about a letter from the Germans to the Mexican government. Whatever, General Pershing himself arrived in southern New Mexico to protect the borders from further incursions and Ramona was right there when the American troops arrived looking for Pancho. There she was, and can be seen in photographs in the archives in Mexico City, right next to Pancho, in support of the revolution as always. She knew nothing about the Germans or the European front and slipped across the border and back home some days after Pershing left.
When she returned to the village, she was greeting with cheers. Her adventure was a cause for food and drink. Ramona, still in uniform, sat in the plaza surrounded by admirers as she sipped lemonade and told stories of the encounter and described Pancho and his soldiers. Everyone loved Pancho. There was not a house that did not have a picture of him hanging on a wall. And everyone loved Ramona for her bravery and daring. Thus it was Ramona’s return and Pancho’s bravery was the talk of the village and everyone forgot about Consuelo’s loss and its circumstances.
The old man’s death was not only quiet but almost, as I said, unnoticed. He was buried high on a hill outside the village, his grave marked by a cross constructed of painted Mountain Ash. It was painted a bright white. His final resting place was near where three large crosses planted by the villagers had stood for many years representing the crosses on Calvary Hill. They were firmly rooted in their bases of stones. They had recently been freshly white washed and gleamed in the sunlight. The old man’s cross was mounded at its base with roses from the church. Other than the cross, there was nothing there to commemorate the old man. His name was inscribed on no stone and in no family album or Bible.
Back in the village now and away from the horrid ranchero of the old gentleman, Consuelo remained distant and quiet. She doubled her domestic efforts, though she did laundry less frequently and ate only to sustain the growing life within her. This little, fragile and wholly unexpected being was all that she attended to aside from her own mind and soul.
Lest you have come to believe that the villagers, prone from the founding days to embrace suffering, dwelt only on the tragic elements of their lives, let me assure you that there were occasional joyful diversions. It is hard to believe that anything could have lifted spirits after yet another round of flu and the blinding of the wonderful young Consuelo. Yes, she was permanently blinded when the altar fell on her that day. Yes, she could see if she got really close to something and squinted. And she could make out dark forms moving against bright backgrounds. But for all intents and purposes, she was blind.
Blind as she was, and now a pregnant widow, she was never the playful young woman she had been. She took to exploring (or perhaps creating) her interior life. Yet she, too, did not dwell constantly upon her tragedy. She became a writer.
No one seemed to know just why and how she came to write. She had been moved, after the old man died, back to her mother’s household. And of course she began to sleep in her own astonishing bed again. She slept beneath the limbs and branches and under all the birds and nests. But now she really listened to the leaves rustle as she went to sleep at night. She reached up and touched the leaves when she first awoke. She heard the birds gently chirping throughout the night. She felt the seasons come and go from the comfort of her bed. Sophia still occasionally came and bathed her in lemon balm and rubbed her with sage and saxifrage most mornings now that she was back in her mother’s home. She frequently massaged Consuelo’s limbs and put chamomile compresses on her eyes before she helped her to dress for the day.
Then, Consuelo, supple and scented went haltingly into the plaza and walked about the village smelling the blooming flowers and listening to the sounds of voices and horses and dogs and cats. She still felt love and tenderness for all the world. In fact, she felt even more love after her accident, for everyone in the village with great hugs and kisses greeted her. They adored her so much. And this new life, these new sensations, must have inspired her to take up pen and paper and record what she learned.
Consuelo’s determination to embrace life was one joy for the villagers. Another were the periodic performances in the plaza. At least once a month a troupe of dancers came up from Chihuahua. The troupe danced merrily for several days. They danced in and around crosses and the twin graves, and around apple trees and large tables laid with generous platters of corn and grapes and sliced apples and large jugs of tea and lemonade. Everyone took time from their chores and chatting to clap and sing and join the dancers while they were in the village.
But this was not enough diversion for people like Juanita and Consuelo and Ramona and the sweet young Epiphany. They could not be satisfied to be mere bystanders. They organized their own entertainments. They rehearsed songs and practiced violins. They had a viola and concertina and learned to play these. They worked on dance routines. All of this practicing and rehearsing was accomplished in the small corral to the rear of the plaza and the houses. This was the corral where Paulette, the horse, lived and was directly behind the house of Juanita. Paulette, of course, having her corral thus honored, joined in and rehearsed a few numbers of her own.
Ramona was the informal leader of the group. She had actually gained some considerable fame on the toy piano. She had a collection of them. One account puts their numbers at thirty-seven. They were of all colors and sizes and shapes except, of course, that they all were of the size to be considered toy. Ramona, as we have said, was a somewhat large young woman. She appeared even larger when seated at a toy piano.
When she was first learning to play, and before Epiphany could walk, she tucked the baby in her bosom, sat on a small red woven cushion placed on the hard dust of the corral, and bent over a piano. She made, with this small instrument, a magnificent sound. Later, by the time Consuelo and her baby joined the group, Epiphany herself would sing with her mother.
Paulette often danced. She demanded that her dress blanket be on her back before performing. It was red and gold with thin black stripes and long fringe that hung down either side of her withers. Someone, often Epiphany as she grew older, braided her tail and her mane. Epiphany sat upon the horse to do this or climbed a railing and reached out to the horse. The horse, loving the braids and the attention, stood still while Epiphany worked, just breathing quietly and occasionally blowing through her nose and lips while the braiding was happening. She loved Epiphany almost as much as she loved Consuelo.
The rehearsals in the corral were quite enough to engage this group and keep them happy and full of good spirit on even their worst days. The participants in these joyful days were mostly women, except for Hermes.
The rehearsals in the corral happened weekly, though sometimes not all of the performers were available. Ramona, for example, was otherwise occupied during the Mexican Revolution. But stories of her escapades were woven into the corral performances upon her return.