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Each of Us a Desert
Author: Mark Oshiro


A los que han cruzado

A los que han elegido irse

A los que han buscado una vida mejor

Yo te veo y te levanto.

 

 

It always began at night, when You had disappeared.

And when You were gone, we came alive.

I am Your cuentista, Solís. I had been raised to take the stories of others, and return them to You in ritual.

But I had none of my own.

I also ran away. I left behind Empalme. Mi familia. You. Myself. And I ran.

I should have spoken to You long ago, but I couldn’t.

I needed to be free. And I’m not sorry.

So let me tell You a story, Solís.

 

 

We met the others at nightfall on the western side of Empalme, past the square and beyond the well. It was where Julio and his men had made their camp over a month ago. We ignored them as we passed, but I could see them watching us as we went by, the fire lighting up their dour, bitter faces. But they said nothing, did nothing, and we joined the rest of the celebration.

Rogelio was there and already drunk, strumming his guitar dramatically while two women harmonized over it all, their voices a complicated dance of melody and sadness. They sang of leaving their husbands behind and making the journey across the endless desert together. “Montamos juntos y nos hacemos uno,” Amada sang, almost laughing as she made eye contact with her novia, Carmita.

They were not the only sound in the clearing, as most of los aldeanos were spread around an enormous central fire. This was a celebration of our lives, of surviving another day in the scorched and unbearable world that You left for us. A respite from Your harsh stare. Even without You in the sky, though, las estrellas were many, were brilliant, and they cast a glow over all.

I weaved through the crowd, holding the basket out, offering our tortillas for others. I had helped Mamá make them earlier that evening as You set in the west. We had formed a line behind our home, my parents and I, with my brother, Raúl, at the end, working as the earthy scent of the first burning coals floated up to my nose. Mamá made her tortillas thick and crispy around the edges, la masa blooming into a savory taste on the tongue. She kissed Papá, ran her fingers through his long hair, then yelled at Raúl, who had let one of the tortillas linger on the heat for too long.

It was an important part of our daily ritual. We all took something to our village gatherings. None of it was sold; this was our offering to one another. La señora Sánchez came with her guisado de cabra, and I could smell the spices from across the clearing as she filled bowls with the hot, savory stew. People greeted one another, perhaps not so loudly as usual—our voices thick with increasing worry since Julio’s arrival in Empalme.

But we were still here, still alive, and this tradition had lasted for many, many years, since long before I was born. At night, there was a great sense of freedom, but as was usually the case for me, it came at a cost. I had already made my way to the other side of the fire, greeting Lani and Omar, when Rogelio stumbled over, nearly crashing into me. “Cuentista, cuentista,” he slurred.

I saw Lani roll her eyes at me. Rogelio was always like this.

“Cuentista, I need you.”

“I know,” I said, exhausted. “But not now. It is barely nightfall.”

“I will find you later,” he said, smiling, a dribble of spit slipping out of the corner of his mouth.

“I’m sure you will,” I muttered.

Lani reached a hand out. “We do appreciate you, Xochitl,” she said, her light eyes reflecting the fire behind me. “Don’t worry about him. As long as he’s talking to you, we’ll all be fine.”

I nodded at her, but bit back what I wanted to say. Everyone would be fine; she was right about that. I watched Lani laugh at something Omar had said, and the thought raced through me: But am I going to be fine?

Something bumped into my leg, and I looked down to see the wooden cart belonging to la señora Sánchez, a large metal pot of guisado de cabra in the back. “Disculpe, Xochitl,” she said, and she waved at me with her wooden arm, the one she got in Obregán after she’d lost the one she’d been born with. “Would you help me for a bit?”

I smiled at her. I liked la señora Sánchez, and enjoyed her stories of her early days in Empalme, but what I liked most about her was that she never lied to me. “Sure,” I told her, and I took hold of the cart and pulled it after her. She greeted the other aldeanos, offered them el guisado, and then moved on.

I kept up as best as I could, saying hello to those gathered around the fire, but otherwise remaining silent. When Ofelia came to get a bowl, she nearly tripped over me. “Didn’t see you there,” she said, then turned back to la señora Sánchez without another word to me. There weren’t many of us in Empalme—we were so far from Obregán to the north and Hermosillo to the south—but most people treated me as Ofelia did. They rarely saw me unless they needed me, and I knew that as soon as Ofelia had to tell me a story, she’d be much kinder.

Now, though, she was locked in conversation with la señora Sánchez, and I didn’t matter. “He’s going to start interfering with los mensajeros,” Ofelia insisted. “And I can’t have that. I’m waiting for some very important mensajes from my family. I cannot have them delayed.”

“Perhaps there are more pressing issues, Ofelia,” la señora Sánchez said, her mouth curling up in irritation. “Though I sympathize.”

“What are we doing about Julio?” she demanded, as if la señora Sánchez had said nothing at all. “Are we just letting him take over our well? What’s next? Our food?”

Papá came up to stand beside me. “He’s only a bully,” he said. “We have enough water that we can get on our own. We’ll just bore him until he leaves. Solís will protect the rest of us.”

Like instinct, we all made the sign: our palms dragged across our eyes, then passing them down to our chest. A reminder to see the truth, to believe the truth. As long as we kept the truth in our hearts, as long as they all spoke it to me, we would be spared from Your wrath.

But I made eye contact with la señora Sánchez, and she was not thrilled with mi papá’s calm. She was scowling.

I looked to Papá, uncertainty snaking up my spine. “But what if it gets worse?” I asked. “What if he does take more from us?”

“We’ll be okay,” he said, running his hand over my head, into my long hair. “Just keep helping us tell Solís the truth.”

La señora Sánchez cleared her throat loudly. “Beto, I’m not so sure about that.”

“There’s no need to doubt Solís, señora,” Papá shot back.

“Well, you don’t have the same history with Julio as I do,” she snarled, and I winced.

“Papá, are you sure we’ll be okay?” My voice trembled as I spoke.

He ignored me. “Señora, can you speak to the guardians again? Find out if they need anything from us? Or if we’re drifting too far from Solís?”

I knew what he meant: Did I need to do a better job? Was there more I could do? But he wouldn’t say that directly, only hint at what was expected of me. That’s what they all did. I was the undercurrent, the quiet assumption in all their lives, the person they depended on to keep them safe. But would I ever get to be anything else?

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