Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Chapter Fifty-Four

The drought continued into summer and Amalia, Donovan and Will were up late many a night irrigating the fields and garden after the sun went down to minimize evaporation of the precious water. Showers were rationed at once a week, leaving the adults dirty and grumpy and the children peevish for a chance to play in cool water during the heat of the day. Their prudence paid off as their animals continued to thrive and their crops ripened under the desert sun. With a little supplementation from their stash and whatever Carina's veterinary calls might bring, their harvest would sustain them through the winter.

Carina went on a lot of calls, some on her own initiative, but most at the request of the farmers themselves. A man would ride up on a dusty pony, leading another mount for Carina, and off she would go to check on a colicky horse or an emaciated foal that was failing to thrive. When it wasn’t a valley neighbor needing her services, it was an Indian needing help with the sheep and goats on the reservation. Carina always went right away, and now that Amalia had Donovan and the children to help with the chores, she went without misgivings, sometimes staying away for several days to make the best possible bargains.

Tasha was a busy girl that summer. She picked tomatoes and Donovan showed her how to cut them and lay them on big screens to dry. She picked peas and Amalia cooked them for dinner or added them to fresh salads. She mended screens with a needle and thread and she crocheted diligently, even though the wool was hot and scratchy on a summer day. Her favorite task was to wander the creek for herbs, which she brought home and tied into bundles to dry.

Will proved his worth with the animals during Carina's absences, handling them with an ease and experience beyond his years. Unlike Carina, he had the patience to dig worms for the hens on the banks of the creek. He devised a cunning predator deterrent around the chicken coop and he repaired a goat cart he found in the barn, enlisting a docile nanny to pull it around so Tasha could range farther and bring home more herbs and wild edibles.

The kitchen stove was now used for extra counter space as cooking moved outdoors to the solar cooker, the grill, and the dome-shaped mud oven. The thick adobe walls of the house kept out the worst of the summer heat and at night the windows were left open to the desert breezes. In the evenings the family sat on the porch with the wind blowing through the cool leaves of the apple trees while the children practiced their reading and arithmetic. When they were finished studying, they could have a piece of watermelon or whatever other fruit had come into season, while the adults sipped homemade wine and planned the next day.

It was a good life, even though it seemed they were always working. Sometimes Donovan thought back to his first weeks at the farm. He understood now why Amalia had been hostile. Anyone who didn't produce required them to dig into their stores, leaving them ill-prepared for the next emergency. But he had paid them back. He had worked hard and had brought home more trade goods than they could've ever acquired on their own. That there might be something degenerate in the way he had scammed and stolen for them didn't bother him in the least.

Perhaps one of the best things that had come out of his tenure on the farm was the change in Amalia, whose mood had grown more hopeful, even before she found her way to his bed. She had become fond of the children, especially Tasha, who had taken to reading with an eagerness that won her heart. Now in addition to Amalia's nighttime readings they had breakfast readings, with Tasha puzzling out an inspirational thought for the day.

Amalia began drawing again. She did it furtively at first, but when the rest of the family earnestly ignored her, she warmed to her project and began sharing her work. She sketched mesas, rabbits, apple trees and clumps of manzanilla in bloom. An expert rendition of Tasha with her goat cart became the little girl's prized possession, and Will made a frame for it from scrap he found in the barn.

In a private sketchbook, she drew pictures of Donovan. Pencil, ink or charcoal; shirtless or with no clothes at all, she seemed to enjoy his body as much on paper as she did in the bedroom. He teased her, but she was always quick to remind him, "The human form has always been a favorite subject of artistic expression."

Donovan knew almost nothing about art and remained unconvinced. "Come to bed and tell me that you are only interested in my, what did you call it, 'aesthetic' qualities."

As the hot, dry summer wore on, Carina stayed away more often, and when she was home, she spent as much time as she could with her animals or with Will, who shared so many of her interests. Even though Carina had urged her to follow her desire, Amalia suspected she was jealous. If Amalia wore a pretty blouse or made an effort to style her hair, Carina was quick to tease her about "dressing up for your boyfriend." If she went far afield or came in late, it was, "Don't make your boyfriend worry about you." Everything was said in her usual sweet tone, but Amalia knew her sister too well not to catch the meaning that lay beneath.

The worst moment came when she decided to move into Donovan's room. Carina laughed and said it was about time, since she was there all the time anyway, but there was something false in her enthusiasm for having a room to herself again. On the day Amalia moved her things down the hall, Carina was so sullen that the entire family was relieved when a neighbor rode up with an extra pony, asking Carina to tend an injured ewe.

The tension between the sisters had become a visible thing, obvious as a banner, when one afternoon a cloud of dust on the horizon heralded the return of Alvi, the peddler.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Chapter Fifty-Three

It was past midnight when they hitched their team and headed home from the party. The children slept soundly in spite of the way the wagon bumped over the road. Carina was too tired to talk, and Amalia seemed glad to not have to speak. Donovan watched her out of the corner of his eye as he drove. Cautiously, he took her hand and was surprised that she didn't pull away and even seemed to smile a little in the faint light of the stars. The warm night air was gentle on his skin, and when he breathed, the clear sky, the distant stars and the desert breeze came into his body with a rush that intoxicated him.

It was a letdown to arrive at the ordinary little farm. Seeing that Carina and Amalia were tired, he put up the animals without enlisting their assistance. By the time he returned to the house, he felt certain everyone would've gone to bed. He was surprised to find Amalia set up with the book and lamp in the living room, Carina and the sleepy children on the sofa. "They insisted," Amalia said. "But you don't have to stay up if you're too tired.

Although whittling had become Donovan’s new evening project, he had a slight phobia for working with a knife at this late hour. He found his latest attempt at knitting and settled into a chair. Amalia picked up her knitting and opened Pride and Prejudice to where they had stopped the night before. "But the attention of every lady was soon caught by a young man, whom they had never seen before. . .'"

Donovan pretended not to notice the occasional glances the sisters were exchanging and tried instead to remember what count he was on, when to knit and when to purl, but it had been so long since he had knitted last that he couldn’t keep it all straight.

"'All were struck with the stranger's air, all wondered who he could be. . .'"

Well, it didn't matter how it looked, since it was just for him. He would knit straight through and see how that turned out, but as he listened to Amalia's clear soft voice, even the simple act of knitting failed him and he let the needles drop into his lap.

Amalia stopped reading and looked around. "I guess that's enough for tonight."

"I'll put the kids to bed," Carina offered.

For some reason Amalia blushed. "We'll do it like we've always done." She headed for the children's room with Tasha in her arms while Carina pulled Will off the sofa. She tossed a glance over her shoulder at Donovan. "Don't stay up too late."

Donovan thought he detected something coy in her manner, but was too tired to puzzle it out. "Not much chance of that. I'm going to bed as soon as I can find my candle."

"Take the lamp. We already have one lit in the children's room, so we don't need this one." Without waiting to see if he would take the lamp or not, she guided Will to his room. Amalia had already gotten Tasha into her nightgown and was tucking her into bed. "Don't worry about that," Carina said. "I'll take care of it."

"I don't mind."

A look passed between them. "Wait long enough and it will be too late."

Amalia looked at the floor. "You like him, too."

"It hardly matters whether I like him or not. I've still got a husband."

"You won’t be jealous?"

"Of course not."

Amalia kissed Tasha on the forehead, then went into the bedroom she shared with Carina and changed into a robe of authentic Chinese silk that had once belonged to her mother. She paused in front of the mirror and ran a comb through her hair, then on impulse put on a dab of Carina's lipstick. She smiled at her reflection and was relieved to see that in the dim light of the oil lamp, she still looked almost like the young woman who had once been thought a beauty. That was another lifetime ago, but maybe everyone was right, that you sometimes had to take a chance, take happiness where you found it.

She padded on bare feet down the hall, passing the children's room where Carina was telling a story in soft, measured tones. She stopped outside Donovan's room. He had left the door ajar, whether from carelessness or expectation, she couldn't be sure, but it didn't matter why the door was open, or why he was still awake with the glow of the lamp spilling out into the hallway. All that mattered was that the door swung inward at the pressure of her fingertips. She stepped inside and shut the door softly behind her.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Chapter Fifty-Two

Now water had been found, the more expert well-diggers remained at the site to pound the pipe deeper into the aquifer, then add a tap and pump. Everyone else returned to the house and prepared for the evening's festival. The goats were removed from the spits, carved, and the meat stacked onto waiting platters. Quick-cooking foods that had been prepped earlier in the day were now put onto the fire. Bread came out of dome-shaped mud ovens and kettles of beans were pulled out of their beds of hot coals. Tables and benches were improvised, blankets spread on the ground for picnic-style feasting, dishes and silverware of all description set in a common area. Children scurried to and fro to set out utensils, cups, and bottles of home-brewed beer. A CD player and speakers were brought out, fresh with precious batteries, and on a side table were cakes, pies, cookies and a big bowl of rice pudding, all covered with a sheet to keep away flies and to minimize their temptation to small children.

When the men came trooping back, tired and wet, freshly scrubbed with well water, Señora Montoya sent three of the older children with a clean washtub to get water for everyone to drink.

All was almost ready when Doña Alma approached José Montoya. "Yo me voy.”

José's eyebrows went up in surprise. "No, Doña, please stay. Disfrute la fiesta.”

The curandera was firm. "És su fiesta," she said. "Your party. For you and your family. Me voy ahorita."

He had no choice but to let her go. He sent Carlitos and Jimmy to get the horses and directed Pete to bring Doña Alma her pay— a goat and kid, which he tethered to the little girl's saddle. Then the entire company wandered down to the gate to see the wise woman off. Before she could mount her horse, her eyes met Donovan's in the crowd and her satisfied expression clouded. She beckoned to Carina. "Aquel hombre," the woman whispered, clutching Carina's arm. "Es peligroso."

Carina smiled and patted her hand. "No Doña. He's very kind."

"No es malo," the curandera tried to clarify. "Not a bad man, pero. . ." she frowned, searching for a way to make herself understood. "Falta coraje."

Carina stole an anxious glance over her shoulder at Donovan, who at the moment did indeed look like the coward Doña Alma claimed him to be.

"Es débil," the woman continued. And before Carina could protest that Donovan had taken his place at the well with a sledgehammer and wasn't weak at all, the woman added, "Es débil en el espíritu, en el alma." She tapped her chest for emphasis, then she mounted her waiting horse and placed a gentle hand on Carina's hair. "You know what I say?"

"Yes, but—"

"Bueno." Doña Alma kicked her horse with her heels and moved toward José, who had been watching her curiously. After flicking his eyes toward Carina, he gave Doña Alma a bow and made a small speech thanking her for saving his farm and family. The curandera accepted his thanks, blessed him and each family member individually, offered a blessing to the assembled crowd and then moved her horse onto the road. Her attendants fell in behind her, the goats bleating, their bells jingling. The crowd devoutly watched them retreat down the road until they were a cloud of dust mingling with the setting sun.

"Bendígala, Dios!" someone said aloud.

"Yes," someone else chimed in. "God bless her."

"And God bless the food," José added. "Let's go eat."

* * *

The feasting went on past sundown, and after everyone had his fill, someone pulled out a guitar and someone else grabbed an accordion. Tables, chairs and benches were moved out of the way for dancing. Donovan didn't know the country dances and sat out at first, watching as Carina and Amalia danced to the Spanish and native rhythms of the local music, taking their turns with the Garza boys and each of the men in turn. Although Carina was an enthusiastic dancer, it surprised him that Amalia was the more graceful one. He tried to ignore both women's increasingly frequent glances toward him, embarrassed that he didn't know these local dances.

Diana ran up to him. "Aren't you going to dance?" She tugged his hand.

"I don't know how to dance to this kind of music."

She furrowed her brow in confusion. "It's just ordinary dancing. Come on."

With a little patience and a lot of laughter, Diana soon had Donovan doing some of the simpler steps, but as he moved through the crowd with her, he still didn't feel confident in approaching Amalia, who obviously knew these dances well. At last he felt like he could cut in on Carina, though. He handed off Diana to Lupe Garza. "Isn't this fun?" Carina said, clasping his hand for the twirling maneuver that Donovan was still having difficulty with. Fortunately for his ego, she was no better.

"It would be more fun if they played something I knew how to dance to."

"It doesn't matter if you know the steps," she said, demonstrating by missing a beat in the music. "None of us are any good, either. We don't get enough practice."

"Your sister is good." Donovan looked to where she was executing a perfect twirl with Grandpa Peterson.

"She doesn't count. She can dance to anything."

Suddenly Lupe cut in. "She wants to dance with you again," he told Donovan, depositing Diana in front of him and leading Carina away.

"Is that true?"

"You're better than he is."

"He must be pretty bad, then."

"He steps on my feet."

The musicians were tiring. They finished a song, and then stopped for a break. Someone put on a CD and although Donovan didn't know the song, he knew the style. He had danced to this type of music as a kid. Diana launched into the dance with enthusiasm, bouncing and swaying as if it were a song written just for her.

Donovan scanned the group. Carina was dancing with José, but Amalia was gone. He caught a glimpse of her yellow dress by the refreshment table and thought she looked unhappy. He handed Diana off to Pete, who had been dancing with a smug, aggressive girl who appeared to be making his life miserable. It obviously wasn’t easy being one of the only teenage boys around. Rid of Diana for the moment, he moved toward the refreshment table, but by now Amalia had wandered into the fields, her pale dress visible against the dark of the land. He came up behind her. "Why did you leave? I hadn't gotten to dance with you yet."

"You danced with Carina. I figured if you wanted to dance with me, you would’ve."

"It's a little intimidating to cut in on someone who's so good."

"That didn't put anyone else off, and I'm not so good as all that. Anyone can do it."

"Teach me, then."

"Out here?"

"Why not?"

She laughed. "All right. What do you want to learn? You were doing okay there at the end."

"Show me how to do that twirl thing you were doing with Peterson."

Indulgently, she walked him through the moves. Back at the party, the band started up again and the strains of their instruments carried faintly to the drought-hardened bean field. They picked up the beat and Amalia danced with real enthusiasm this time. When the song ended, she leaned back in Donovan's arms. "That was nice. You dance well."

"It's easy when you have a good partner and no one watching."

Amalia was silent for a long time. "Thank you for following me out here," she finally said. "Alan was a good dancer. Sometimes parties bring back too many memories."

"I'll dance with you anytime you want. Loneliness is optional, you know."

Amalia pulled away. "Save your flirtations for the girls your own age, or haven't you noticed them watching you tonight?"

"I'm not interested in the local girls. They're all looking for husbands."

"And you'd rather have fun without the commitment."

"You make it sound like a crime."

Amalia considered. "No. I think I'm beginning to understand the temptation."


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Chapter Fifty-One

Having found a credible location for water, everyone sprang into action. While José’s wife led Doña Alma and her assistants to the house for lunch, young Pete and a handful of men too decrepit to help with the digging trooped off to the corral to slaughter goats for the evening's feast. José led the rest of the men and the hardier women, including Amalia, to the site of the new well and everyone started digging a shallow basin with the predicted water site at its center. After watching for a few minutes, most of the women went back to the house to wait on Doña Alma, tend to the youngest children, and begin cooking. The children old enough to no longer toddle scurried back and forth among the different activities, sometimes helping the adults by scraping coals from the ovens or by taking water and tools to the well diggers. They played as much as they worked, hiding in the barn, chasing each other through the fields and getting underfoot as the men dragged the giant tripod and auger to the well site and set it in place.

The drilling was slow, difficult work. They had to stop often to let the mule rest and to allow water to soften the baked earth. Some men wandered off to see how the goat roasting was coming along. Some, like Donovan and Amalia, merely waited, talking a bit and occasionally fanning themselves with their hats. About twenty feet down, the ground became damp and sandy. The work sped up. When the mule tired at fifty feet, everyone took a break while one of the neighbors went to get one of his own mules to take over the task.

Donovan and Amalia wandered in the direction of the house in search of Carina, who they found sitting under a tree near Doña Alma, talking quietly, each in a pidgin of the other's language.

"Señora Amalia," the curandera greeted her. "Mucho gusto."

"Good to see you, too," Amalia said, taking the offered hand and squeezing it. "Me agradezco que me rememora."

"I forget no one. The old woman's gaze settled on Donovan. "¿Quién es este hombre?"

Carina made a quick introduction. The woman smiled, but when Donovan took her hand in greeting, a flicker of fear crossed her face. She composed herself with a shake of her narrow shoulders, and her benevolent wise woman's smile returned. "How did you find us?"

"I was lost in the desert. I got lucky."

"Lucky." Doña Alma considered the word. "La suerte es cosa misteriosa. ¿No tienes familia que te extraña, que te busca?" She frowned and considered how to translate. "Your family. They do not look for you?"

"I'm an orphan.”

"We're his family now," Carina added. "Nosotros somos su familia."

The curandera pondered this. "Cuídale bien," she finally said, directing her attention to Carina, "Cuídale quien le elige para ser miembro de su familia."

Amalia and Carina exchanged curious glances at this pronouncement. "What do you mean?" Amalia asked, unwilling to go so far as to ask what business it was of hers who they chose for family, but the old woman said she was tired and asked for a fresh cup of water. They hurried away to fulfill her request, leaving Donovan behind.

After an uncomfortable minute of Doña Alma's black eyes boring into his own, he could stand it no longer. "Is there something wrong?"

"Eres peligro a todo este valle," she hissed, no longer the kindly curandera but an angry Indian woman with the gift of sight. The lines on her face deepened into a scowl. "Eres débil y desagradecido." She reached for a staff lying in the grass beside her and shook it at him. "Déjanos. No te quedas aquí."

Donovan was so startled he took a few steps back, his eyes wide with shock at such treatment. He didn't understand Spanish, but the hostility of her meaning was clear. He quietly murmured, "I'm sorry," then followed the women toward the house.

* * *

After a snack of some nuts and dried fruit, Amalia, Carina and Donovan wandered back to where drilling on the well had resumed. Donovan was still shaken by his encounter with the curandera and he hung back, standing apart from the women as he watched the proceedings.

The new mule was stronger than the Montoyas' and was rapidly gaining ground, mud already oozing around the bore. Finally someone stopped the mule and set her trotting in the opposite direction to bring the shaft back up. When the pipe reached the surface, the bit was removed and the hollow pipe dropped back down the hole. Sledgehammers came out. The rest of the work would be done by hand.

The men stripped off their shirts and took turns pounding the pipe into the mud. As it went deeper, additional sections were screwed on, checked for proper fit and painted with sealant. Then the pounding would begin again. The pipe slowly inched its way downward and mud started bubbling over the top. This caused some excitement, even as the men wielding the sledgehammers became splattered with each stroke of the hammer. "It don't matter," one said, "I have a feeling we'll all get a shower real soon."

There were enthusiastic nods of agreement as the mud turned to brown, silty water. A few of the younger men were so encouraged that they rushed the pipe to catch a the overflow and rub it on their faces and in their hair. "Out of the way," said lame Lupe Garza, who was taking his turn at the sledgehammer. "You'll get your water soon enough."

A few hammer blows later, there was a rumble and spindletop of water burst from the pipe, showering everyone in cold, clear water. The flow died down quickly, but the shouts of the workers brought people running from the house and barbeque pits. Children swarmed out of nowhere, squealing and rushing to dip their hands into the bubbling flow. Women cupped water in their hands to drink, then wet the heads of their babies with the remaining drops, like a blessing.

After a little while, Doña Alma arrived, followed by her attendants. She dipped a bundle of sage in the burbling fountain and flung the drops at the crowd, chanting a blessing. Then the little Indian girl handed her a white china cup and she filled it with fresh water. She sipped the water with a pensive expression, then pronounced it "Sano y dulce."