The Thinnest Veil’, Peri L. Fletcher

Illustrations © 2017 Miranda Jean



Purépecha Highlands, Mexico, 1905

 [ Purple Pecha Road, © 2017 Miranda Jean ] Elisabet had stayed too long in Erongarícuaro, stolen moments in the plaza where Celestino sold his father’s fish, and now an hour of lonely road stretched between the town and her village. Celestino pulled her to him as they walked to the edge of town. “It’s late. Let me come with you.”

“No. What if someone sees us alone out here? Besides, you have to be at the mill.” She glanced around to make sure they were alone, but the road was empty. The sun was already vanishing behind the mountains, and tendrils of mist were rising from the lake. In these troubled times most people retreated behind locked doors at night while bandits and the dictator’s militia prowled the countryside.

“It’ll be dark by the time you get to Las Palmas,” he said, kissing her lips, her forehead, and her eyes.

“Don’t tell me you believe the devil waits by the lake to steal souls?”

“Of course not. But strange things happen there. Remember when Trino planted oats at Las Palmas? His cows got sick and died.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t eat any oats.”

“Be serious, mi amor. Also, my father said someone saw the lights above the lake last night, near Las Palmas.”

“The purple lights?” She had heard about the beautiful displays of light over the lake all her life, but the mention now frightened her. The last time people saw the lights had been two years ago, right around the time her mother disappeared while working at the hacienda.

She shook off her fear and said, “I’ll be careful. Go. I’d rather meet the devil himself than have my father find out we were out at night together.”

Wrapping her rebozo tightly around her head, Elisabet picked up her basket and hurried along the road, her bare feet softly thudding on the dirt road. Despite her fast pace, it was dusk when she reached the small spit of overgrown land called Las Palmas. The stories about the devil were just superstition, but she crossed herself anyway.

Three bats swooped low above the road as she ran. Suddenly the sky over the lake lit up with ribbons of cobalt and violet. Elisabet stopped, her heart pounding, then pushed apart the dense foliage at the side of the road to get a better view. The undulating bands of light were so compelling, so beautiful, she kept going towards the lake, hardly noticing the stones underfoot. A cascade of lights fell towards the lake and reflected off the dark water. Elisabet sucked in her breath; she had never seen anything so beautiful, not even the stained glass window at the cathedral in Pátzcuaro where she took her first communion.

She thought of her mother, missing for two years. Had her mother walked on this road, and seen the same thing? Had she stepped into the lake, dazzled by the lights?

A faint, thudding came from somewhere below her. She took another step forward, curiosity overcoming caution. A man leaned into the dirt with a shovel in a small clearing between the road and the lake. Beyond him a horse stamped nervously while another man slashed at the bulrushes with a machete. The man with the shovel began digging a new hole. The men weren’t burying something; they were searching for something.

As the violet lights coalesced into a brighter light, she recognized the two sons of Don Vicente, the hacienda owner. Suddenly a dog barked. Elisabet stepped back towards the road, as the dog’s barks turned to howls, and a blinding flash of light, brighter than the lightning of summer storms, split the sky. The horse reared, pulling out its stake, and crashed through the brush. Viktor, the younger brother, ran after it, yelling.

A violent gust of wind rushed past her, and the light exploded a second time. The wind grew stronger, churning the waters at the edge of the lake into a foaming mass. A waterspout rose out of the water and sent a blast of drenching rain over Las Palmas. Elisabet sank to her knees when an oval of light appeared at the edge of the lake. The dark center of the oval opened, revealing the glowing figure of a man.

Dios mio!” Felipe, the oldest son, shouted, swinging around and dropping his shovel.

The figure stood motionless for a moment then stepped back into the oval of light. It dimmed, then disappeared, and abruptly, the deluge stopped. Felipe stood in the field staring at her. With the purple light still bright all around, she knew he saw her, and he knew her name.

Even though she was a poor girl from a Purépecha village, he had stopped her after mass in Erongarícuaro one Sunday and asked her name. When she told him Elisabet-Marie, he smiled. “A pretty name,” he said. “So unusual.” Why hadn’t she just said Maria? Every other girl in Tíncuaro was named Maria.

Grabbing her basket, she clambered up the muddy embankment to the road and raced towards Tíncuaro, slowing to smooth her clothes before she arrived at her small adobe house. Her attempt to slip unnoticed into the yard failed. Her father stood by the gate.

His hand went to his mouth when he saw her. “Where have you been? Why are you covered with mud?” He stared at her suspiciously. “Go inside.”

She followed him into the larger of the two rooms of their house. Her brother Inocencio, who’d clung to her like a bean vine since her mother’s disappearance, sat on the floor eating a bowl of pozole. He stood and raced over to the doorway, hugging her tightly. In the other room she could see Adriana, her younger sister, combing her dark hair, which spread across her shoulders like a rebozo.

“Where were you?” her father asked again. He grabbed her arm. “Did you go meet that anarquista, Celestino? Did you go in his boat?”

“No,” she said. “I went to Eronga, to light a candle for Mother,” she said, crossing herself. “Tomorrow is her birthday.” It was partly true. She had stopped at the church before meeting Celestino.

“I remembered. I lit one here,” he said, indicating a new white candle glowing on the small altar in the corner. “Then why are you wet, chica?” In the candlelight the deep lines on his face looked like lines drawn in charcoal.

Why didn’t she tell him? She considered it for only a second. He would never believe her story about the glowing figure and the waterspout, and it would make things worse if she told him about seeing the two sons from the hacienda.

Instead, she lied again. “Tia Catahcu’s chicken fell into a ditch and I helped get it out.” Her father wouldn’t check on this, not having spoken to his sister since she’d claimed his missing wife, Beatriz, had run off to join a traveling opera.

“Just remember, your reputation is all you have. Go get changed,” he said. “Inocencio, get Elisa some soup. I’m going to feed the pig.”

The moment Elisabet pulled the curtain across the doorway to the room she shared with her sister, Adriana jumped up from the reed mat they slept on. “Tia Catahcu doesn’t keep chickens anymore,” she whispered, her eyes gleaming in the candlelight. “You went to meet Celestino, didn’t you? Papa was about to go to his house. He thought you were spending the night with him.”

“He should have more faith in me,” Elisabet said, although she’d considered it. One night at Celestino’s house and she’d be considered married to him, without the cost of a wedding or a priest.

But Celestino, the youngest son from a landless family in Tíncuaro, had won a place at the secondary school in Erongarícuaro, and he had big plans. He worked at the hacienda’s mill to save money for them both to go to school in Pátzcuaro. His dreams were so big, so generous, he dreamed for her too, dreams a girl from a Purépecha village could barely imagine.

“We deserve to dream. Don’t ever forget that,” he had told her, and for a minute he reminded her of posters she’d seen of Francisco Madero, the man who dared to challenge the dictator.

“You did go to Celestino. I see it in your eyes,” her sister said.

Elisabet’s thoughts returned to the windowless room, lit by a single candle. She stepped out of her wet dress and into her voluminous nightgown. “I’m almost seventeen, not a child. Most girls are married by my age.”

“Papa says Celestino has unchristian ideas.”

“Since when it is unchristian to want a decent life? The hacendados, who stole our land and make us work for almost nothing, should not live like kings. Even Father Guillermo agrees with Madero.”

“Yes, and Father Guillermo got sent off to the jungles of Quintana Roo for his ideas.”

Adriana leaned forward and picked something off Elisabet’s neck. “Santo cielo! You met Celestino at Las Palmas?”

“No, of course not. What gave you that idea?” If her father thought she’d met Celestino at Las Palmas he would lock her in her room for the rest of the year.

Adriana waved a piece of palm in front of Elisabet. “Palms don’t grow anywhere else around here. Know why they grow at Las Palmas?”

Elisabet shrugged impatiently.

“You know how people say there is only a thin veil between the worlds of the living and the dead at the lake? Tio Cuini say there’s an opening right into hell at Las Palmas. That’s why it’s warm enough for palms.”

“I don’t believe those stories.” Elisabet said. Her fear had let her imagination run wild. It had been nothing more than a freakish storm. Yet when she snatched the piece of palm from her sister, she remembered the time Father Guillermo ordered his deacons to cut palm from Las Palmas for Palm Sunday instead of buying it from the vendors in Uruapan. The palm-bedecked donkey stumbled in the procession, spilling Alfonso Garcia Aguirre onto the ground. Alfonso, who had spent the entire year growing his hair to play the role of Jesus, struck his head, bleeding all over his white robes.

“And why are you wet?”

“So many questions! Why don’t you go see what’s taking Inocencio so long. I’m starved.”

Later she knelt in front of the small altar, where the only picture of her mother leaned against a glass jar with a candle. Beside the candle, a delicately filigreed silver vase looked out of place in the humble room. A gift from the wife of the hacendado, her mother had said, and suddenly Elisabet remembered her father’s accusations that no one would give a village woman a gift of silver.

She studied the picture of the beautiful young woman with long curling black hair. Maybe her mother’s life had disappointed her. Elisabet knew the story of how her mother, an orphaned girl raised by Carmelite nuns in Erongarícuaro, fell in love with the handsome Tzurequi Cayetano Barajas after seeing him climb to the top of the greased pole in front of the church on Corpus Christi. He took the garland of flowers he won and wrapped it around her wrists like the cords of the wedding dance.

A week later, despite the nuns’ admonitions, Beatriz climbed over the ivy-covered walls of the convent, her leather bound books and green velvet dress wrapped in a small bundle, and ran to Tíncuaro along the same road Elisabet had just traveled.

Her mother did not speak Purepécha, and many in the village pretended not to understand her formal Spanish. When she disappeared, those who enjoyed gossip said she had run away. To Pátzcuaro, some said. Run away with another man, said others.

But her mother would not run away from her family. Beatriz longed for a better life for her children. She taught them to read and sewed all day, trading her beautifully-embroidered baptismal robes for fish. When she went to work at the hacienda, she brought the children delicacies when she visited, soft white bread and marzipan candies in the shapes of flowers. She would never leave them, Elisabet insisted to herself. Sometimes, though, she remembered how her mother had spoken of the luxuries of the hacienda with such longing and desire.

A sudden gust of wind blew the candle out. Elisabet crossed herself, suddenly full of dread.

The following morning she sat on the back porch, carefully knotting strands of cotton thread to repair her father’s fishing net. Her mother, with delicate fingers, had been a genius with the nets, but Elisabet hated to sit still, and she pulled impatiently at the knots until one broke in her hand. She pushed it away, avoiding Inocencio’s anxious look.

A knock on the front door interrupted the quiet morning. Not a polite tap on the gate, but a loud knocking at the door. Elisabet crossed the small back yard to the kitchen and sat on the stool by the fire, wrapping her shaking hands in her skirt.

Adriana appeared in the doorway, her eyes dancing. “Elisa, there’s someone for you. From the hacienda!”

“Tell him I’m not here.”

“Papa says you have to come.” She lowered her voice. “It’s Felipe, the handsome son.”

Elisabet pulled her rebozo over her hair and followed Adriana through the yard, around to the front, where her father sat on the railing of the wooden porch. Felipe sat in the only chair, looking out at the garden. Elisabet’s mother had planted the neat rows of herbs and peppers, with a border of marigolds, before she disappeared.

Felipe stood and offered her his chair. “I was telling your father my sister Carolina needs a maid. And how I met you a few weeks ago at church and you said you might come.”

“Papa…”

Her father nervously turned his straw hat in his gnarled hands. He’d come up short for the hacienda taxes this year; everyone was suffering from the drought.

“If you can’t come, we’ll ask your sister.” Felipe glanced at Adriana, who stared at him with wide eyes.

Her father looked at his feet, and Elisabet understood the shame he felt. He could barely feed his family, despite working six days a week from dawn to dusk, gripping a wooden plow as he walked behind their aging ox. Inocencio was only ten but worked alongside him in the fields, while the two girls took care of the animals and house. Still, they could not pay all their taxes. Taxes they paid to work the lands of their ancestors.

“I’ll get my clothes,” Elisabet said, going to the door.

She looked around the tiny front room, with its pictures of saints pinned to the walls, the crucifix, the silver vase. Someone had relit the candle. She put her good dress and her rosary beads into her basket and put on her shoes. She was not about to go to her fate barefoot.

Adriana watched from the mat. “I wouldn’t mind going. I hear the house servants don’t work very hard and get fed chicken and meat. You’ll get new clothes, too,” she said, eyeing Elisabet’s basket.

“You’ll have to stop eating so many tortillas if you want to wear this, gordita,” Elisabet tried to joke. Her hands shook as she handed Adriana the threadbare green velvet dress their mother once wore.

Adriana closed her hands around the precious dress. “You’ll come back to visit?”

“Of course. It’s only an hour’s walk. And I’ll see you at church, if you ever bother to come.”

Her father rested his hand on her cheek briefly when she returned to the porch. Looking into his eyes she saw the bitterness behind his shame, the anger simmering ever since their mother had gone missing from the hacienda. When he went to the hacienda for answers, the foreman told him Beatriz was last seen bathing at the edge of the lake, as if a village woman would ever be so foolish.

“Where’s Inocencio?” Elisabet asked Adriana.

“At the lake. Tio Cuini is teaching him how to throw a net.”

“Sister, watch out for him.” Imagining leaving her brother made her want to cry.

“He’s a boy,” said Adriana. “He doesn’t need anyone to watch out for him.”

“Yes he does. Please, for me.”

Elisabet followed Felipe down the path leading to Tíncuaro’s cobblestone-paved main street. His horse and cart were tied up next to the mill, on the main road. He offered her his hand and helped her into the cart. Two women watched from the mill doorway, and she heard one of them say, “Like her mother.”

She looked hard as they passed the edge of the lake where the fishermen sat in their canoes, their butterfly-shaped nets resting on the water like giant gossamer wings, but she didn’t see her brother. When they reached Las Palmas, Felipe snapped the reins on the horse’s neck, cursing under his breath. Elisabet clutched her rosary, saying a prayer under her breath even though she’d stopped expecting any kind of intervention since her mother’s disappearance. Sometimes she wondered if the saints even listened.

Just before reaching Erongarícuaro they turned off the road, passing under the hacienda’s wooden ramada. A sign carved with the hacienda’s name, Tierra de Cielo, hung from the crosspiece. Heaven’s land. Not for the men and women Elisabet could see bent over in the fields.

The entrance to the hacienda bustled with wagons loaded with trees, their limbs stripped, waiting to be milled. Others had come all the way from the port of Veracruz, loaded with wooden crates of luxuries from Europe. Beatriz had spoken of the beautiful bolts of silk, French wines, and months-old newspapers from Paris and Madrid.

Felipe threw the reins to a workman and helped Elisabet off the cart. “When will I meet Senorita Carolina?” she asked, as she followed him up the driveway. Despite the bustle at the gate, no one seemed to be around once they got closer to the house.

Felipe did not answer.

A massive carved door opened into a large foyer permeated with the fragrance of lemons and wax. Portraits of men in elaborate clothing lined the wall alongside a curving staircase leading to a long balcony. A crystal chandelier sparkled, reflecting sunlight from the leaded glass windows. A girl of six or seven, scrubbing the floor in a salon off the foyer, seemed to be the only person around.

“Here,” Felipe said, taking her elbow. She fought the instinct to pull away as he led her through a doorway then down a dark hall and out to a tiled patio. Beyond the kitchen, herbs and peppers grew in neat rows within marigold borders, just like her mother’s garden.

“Do you know my mother?” she asked suddenly.

“Why would I know your mother?”

“She worked here. Until two years ago.”

Felipe shrugged.

“Her name is Beatriz. Beatriz Madrigal Avila de Barajas.”

His eyes seemed to change when he heard the name, but he shook his head. Surely he would have heard about it. Or were the hacienda workers so disposable it didn’t even register when a village woman with three children went missing?

“Beatriz,” he said, the name sounding like a sigh in his mouth. “Elisabet. Adriana. Such exotic names. Was she beautiful?” He used the past tense, even though Elisabet had not mentioned her mother’s disappearance.

“I don’t know. She was my mother.” Yes, Beatriz had been beautiful, an exotic bird in a dull mud village.

They turned a corner and stopped in front of a row of outbuildings. Felipe took a ring of keys from a pocket, opened a heavy wooden door, and shoved her inside.

“I haven’t decided what to do with you yet. Maybe you can help me decide how it will all end. I’ll be back.”

Elisabet stumbled into a shadowy room smelling of leather. When her eyes adjusted to the darkness she made out burlap bags of oats on the floor and rows of bridles and saddles hanging on the wall. A beam of light angled in through a small mesh-covered window high on the plaster wall. She piled two saddles against the wall, climbed up, and peered out the window at the kitchen garden. An eerie quiet pervaded the whole place. Then Elisabet remembered the banns read out at the church. Don Vicente’s first grandchild was being baptized today. The entire family, even the house servants, would be there.

Felipe had a secret in Las Palmas he would kill for. Elisabet wished she had run from him in Tíncuaro. If she died here it would not protect her family. She’d seen the way he looked at Adriana. She sank to her knees to pray. But how could she pray to the Virgin, with so much fear and anger seething inside her? After a few minutes she stood and looked out the window again, yanking at the mesh. It moved just enough to give her hope.

The small square of sky turned from blue to an indigo twilight alive with flickering lights while she worked on the mesh, using the end of a spur and her fingers to pry it loose from the wooden frame. After what seemed like hours, her fingers were raw and bleeding, but she had only pulled a small corner loose. The sound of hooves striking the cobblestones in the courtyard made her push the mesh back and jump to the floor, her heart hammering. Felipe stepped through the door, dressed for hunting in the charro costume of tight deerskin pants and short jacket trimmed in silver lace.

“Elisabet-Marie, what shall I do with you?” He turned the key in the lock behind him and took a step forward, his spurs clumping on the stone floor. He smelled of liquor. “Did you tell anyone about Las Palmas?”

She didn’t know what to tell him. If he thought she’d told her family maybe they would be in danger. Or maybe he would let her go. He could do to her whatever he wanted, and no one besides her family and Celestino would even care.

“Did you?”

“I didn’t see anything in Las Palmas. Where’s your father?” she asked in desperation. The hacendado was known to be a godly and fair man. Surely he would not tolerate Felipe’s behavior.

Felipe grabbed her by the shoulder, pulling her rebozo off her head. As she stepped back her hand closed around one of the bridles hanging from a peg on the wall. Without thinking she whipped it around at his face. The mouthpiece caught him on the cheek. He leaned into her and slapped her hard, and she lashed out at him again. This time he caught the bridle and yanked it from her hand.

“You’re even more beautiful than your mother,” he said. “Oh, you look surprised. What I could tell you about her, the lovely thief Beatriz.”

A surge of pure hatred shot through her. She stopped flailing at him and used her head to butt into his chest, like she’d had seen the goats do, catching him off balance. Suddenly she knew she’d kill him if she could, even if it meant going to hell. He fell heavily onto a metal grain box. Breathing hard, he reached up to wipe blood from his face and grabbed for her again but tripped over the saddles near the window. Elisabet ran to the heavy door, thinking now only of escape. The ring of keys hung from the lock. She’d never used a key before, and it slipped out of the keyhole when she reached for it. Felipe stood, his face contorted with rage, and she pushed on the latch, opening the door. Felipe had not locked it after all.

Gathering her skirt around her knees she ran past the rows of herbs and the chicken coops, around to the front of the main house. The hacienda gates were pulled shut, secured with a massive chain. There was nowhere to go but the lake.

Felipe staggered behind her, calling her name. “Elisabet, I’m sorry. Come back. We can forget all this.”

She ran past the stables, following a path leading to a small dock at the edge of the lake. She didn’t know how to swim, but the lake was shallow a long way out. Maybe Felipe would follow her and slip and drown.

Cold mud sucked at her, pulling off her shoes when she stepped into the water. Navigating around the tule reeds into deeper water, she spotted a dugout canoe. The lake bottom sloped suddenly and the water rose to her chin. She grabbed frantically at the tule and pulled herself back into the shallows. The broken tule on the lake bottom felt like knives against her bare feet. She followed the shoreline in the direction of Tíncuaro, trying to ignore her ragged breath. The lake had receded so far she could walk around the end of the fence marking the boundary of the hacienda.

She pushed through the jungle of spike rushes and cattails until she found the dirt road and stopped, unsure where to go. The city of Pátzcuaro was a day’s walk around the lake, and Elisabet had no idea how a village girl could survive there. Celestino would help her, of course, but fleeing meant the end of all his dreams. Realizing she had no choice, she turned towards Tíncuaro.

Halfway across Las Palmas she heard the drumming of a horse’s hooves against the hard clay road. Looking over her shoulder, she tripped over the root of a tree, landing hard on the path still muddy from last night’s waterspout. A light flashed near the lake’s edge, a crackling explosion she felt as a deep ache in her bones. The light illuminated Felipe on the road in front of her as he slid clumsily off his horse. She cried out in terror as the horse pawed at the air in the shimmering light.

A gust of wind whipped across the lake, hurling a sheet of water onto the shore. A second blast of sound and light loud erupted over the lake, and an oval doorway at the edge of the lake appeared. This time, instead of a demon, the figure of the Virgin of Guadeloupe appeared, wreathed in light like in the retablo in the church.

 [ Ancient Paths, © 2017 Miranda Jean ] Elisabet sank to the ground, overcome with fear, when the figure walked through the water towards her. It wasn’t the Virgin. She gasped in confusion. It was her mother, not the careworn woman who had borne three children and lived the hard life of a campesina, but her mother as she must have appeared as a young bride, her skin smooth, her raven hair lustrous. The woman turned and lifted her hand towards Felipe. An arc of light shot out from it, and he crumpled to the ground.

Elisabet stayed frozen in place on the muddy ground, not trusting what she saw. They said the devil could take on different corporeal forms. Perhaps this was the same demonic figure she saw the night before.

The figure stood right above her. “Elisabet,” it said.

“Mother?” Her voice came out in a whisper and she turned her face away when the woman reached down and touched her. She brushed Elisabet’s hair from her face in a gesture so familiar, so well-remembered, Elisabet began to cry.

“Mother, where have you been all this time? Can’t we go home now?”

“Oh, my little Elisa. There is so much to tell you.”

“Am I dead?” asked Elisabet. “I don’t want to die, I can’t die.”

“No, hija, this isn’t death. It isn’t heaven, either, it’s so much better. Come, see for yourself.”

“If I do, can I come back?”

“Yes, but you won’t want to.”

Beatriz helped Elisabet up and went over to Felipe, who groaned and twitched on the ground. When he opened his eyes he let out a strangled shout.

“It seems history has come full circle,” Beatriz said. “Once you stood over my body, leaving me to die. And you would do the same to my daughter? I think not.”

Elisabet clung to her mother’s arm as they splashed through the shallow water to the oval of light. The lake, the mountains, the palms, vanished. They walked down a short ramp onto a metal walkway above a cavernous room aglow with thousands of lights glowing steadily without flickering. The place hummed with a low throb, and below she could see figures wearing nothing except fabric that appeared to be painted right onto their bodies.

Surely not angels. Was her mother leading her into hell?

What is this place?” Elisabet asked.

“Come, I’ll show you.”

A door along the walkway opened, and they entered a large room awash in violet light. Elisabet shrank back at the sight of a tall man, every muscle and bulge showing through his tight clothing, standing in front a window alive with lights of every color. He didn’t look human, with grayish skin and delicate tracings of blue on his face.

He spoke to Beatriz in words Elisabet couldn’t understand. Her mother answered in Spanish. “Ashin, we must take her with us.”

“Take me, take me where?” Elisabet asked, looking back at them.

“These star travelers go through the heavens,” said her mother. “Beyond the stars we see at night. They journey along star roads, like tunnels through space, connecting worlds impossibly far away. The lake next to Las Palmas is one of the places where the tunnels intersect, like a station.”

“The lake?” Elisabet asked. “It takes you through to other realms?”

“Not exactly. Under the lake, where we are now, is a portal, in the star roads these travelers follow.”

“I still don’t understand.” Her mother made no sense at all.

“It took me a long time to comprehend. But our ancestors knew. They believed the barrier between our world and the world beyond was but a thin veil at the lake. They didn’t understand what the worlds beyond were, of course, but, still, they sensed something.”

The creature called Ashin turned to Elisabet and said in Spanish, “Our portals open onto many worlds. I search out cultures on other worlds to learn about them. Our people have been visiting your corner of this world for centuries, since the days the Purépecha king built the temples in Tzintzutzan. We found your mother here.”

“I don’t understand. You found my mother here, in Las Palmas, and you took her away with you? Why?”

Ashin looked at Beatriz and smiled, suddenly looking completely human. “She didn’t give us much choice. I’ll let her tell you.”

“I was left for dead at Las Palmas, by that bastard, Felipe,” said her mother.

“What happened?” Elisabet asked, as Ashin turned towards what looked like a glowing window on the wall, moving his long hands as streams of light jumped between them and the window.

“One night at the hacienda I heard Felipe talking with his brother. Their grandfather buried gold at Las Palmas, but he died without telling anyone where. They, the criollos, see the winds of change shaking all of Mexico and they think their gold will protect them. Felipe and Fernando planned to steal the gold and run away to Argentina. I thought maybe I could find it myself, but I got caught when I followed them to Las Palmas. Felipe struck me with his shovel and tipped me into the hole he’d been digging, like a dead cat. He barely bothered to cover me with dirt.”

Ashin turned back to Elisabet. “Your mother was badly injured when we found her. We stayed in the area, thinking someone might come for her, but only the man, Felipe, returned the next night, with a shovel, probably to bury her more deeply. Beatriz told us he would search for her. We rarely get involved in the affairs of other worlds, but your mother was so afraid, and she begged us.”

“We come here from time to time,” Beatriz continued. “I’ve always hoped I could contact you somehow. The portal has become unstable, though, and we can’t leave the immediate area. It’s a miracle we were here now.”

Elisabet was surprised to hear her mother speak of miracles. “Why didn’t you come to our house on one of your visits? We thought you were dead.”

Her mother leaned towards her and smiled. “Elisabet, this is a life exceeding your dreams, a life of riches and wonders beyond compare.”

“Like Paris?” Her mother had spoken of Paris often, and to Elisabet it sounded like a place slightly better than paradise.

Her mother laughed. “Beyond Paris, beyond the stars you see at night.”

“And you want me to go with you? What about Papa? And Inocencio and Adriana? Can’t you come home now? We miss you so much.”

Her mother turned away, the violet light reflecting in her large eyes, bouncing off the intricate necklace she wore.

“If you won’t come home, you could take all of us with you.”

Beatriz glanced at the man. Elisabet saw the look passing between them and understood. The man put his hand on Beatriz’s shoulder. “The life of an ethnologist can be a lonely one. I admit it pleased me to take Beatriz with me. Now she has a new life with us, she has everything she wants.”

“At least take Inocencio and Adriana,” Elisabet said. “I’ll stay with father.”

“This life isn’t for everyone. Inocencio is too young, and I don’t think your sister could adapt. But you’re so smart. Always so independent, so curious. This is your chance at a happy life. These people will welcome you. Their worlds are wondrous beyond words. You’ll live without poverty, without fear or sickness.”

“How could I be happy knowing I’d left everyone behind? How could you do that?”

“I had no choice. If I’d returned to Tíncuaro, how long until Felipe found me?”

“You could have gone to the hacendado.”

“Don Vicente wouldn’t approve of Felipe’s actions, but how could he protect me?”

Elisabet didn’t answer, and her mother turned and spoke in a low voice to Ashin.

“Wait here for us,” Beatriz said, leading her to a bench of shiny white metal. She and Ashin slipped through another door in the wall. After what seemed like a long time her mother returned and sat next to Elisabet, stroking her arm. “There’s something else. I wanted to kill Felipe when I saw him coming after you, but it’s not the star travelers’ way. To protect you they’ve changed his memory. When he wakes he won’t remember this. Just stay away from the hacienda.”

“Why didn’t you change his memory two years ago? You could’ve come back to us!”

“When they found me, I was half-dead, crazy with fear.”

Elisabet knew, though, why her mother hadn’t returned.

“I’m sorry, Elisa. You are right, I could have come back. But I was so unhappy, not with you children, but with your father, that silent man. With life in the village, the unending work, and so little to show for it. Working at the hacienda I felt miserable seeing how much other people had. I acted selfishly, and I am sorry, but I cannot go back.”

Beatriz stood up, still holding Elisabet’s arm and took her back to the cavernous room where she whispered in the strange language to Ashin. He nodded and motioned for them to wait. When he returned he carried a glass jar full of gold coins.

“The hacienda treasure?” Elisabet asked.

“Some of it. We found it easily,” said the man, handing her the jar. “I reburied the rest.”

“It’s enough for a good life,” said her mother. “Be careful, and don’t tell anyone. Spend the money in Pátzcuaro. You children can go back to school and your father can hire a man to help him in the fields. Tell your father… Oh, cariña, I don’t know what you can tell Tzurequi. Buy him a pocket watch. He always wanted one.”

“You could still come home,” Elisabet said. “Father hasn’t even looked at another woman. Inocencio cries every night for you, and Adriana needs a mother. With this gold you can have everything you ever wanted.”

“I’m sorry, Elisa. Listen, you could take the money to your father and come back here if you go quickly. It may be a while before we leave, I don’t know. The portal might close suddenly. We will not return for some time, if ever. You must hurry.”

Elisabet gave her mother a kiss, then stepped through the doorway and splashed through the water back to the shore. She stepped around Felipe, who lay curled on the ground, and untied his horse, slapping it on the rump to send it back to the hacienda. Then she glanced back to see her mother and the man standing in the oval of light. It hardly mattered, she thought, whether these people were demons or star travelers, because her mother had sold her soul.

When she reached Tíncuaro she stopped and looked at the sky, imagining the worlds beyond, the wondrous life she could claim. Her hands gripped the jar of coins tightly. She held enough money for a better life for both her family and Celestino’s, enough to send all the children to school, a new boat for Celestino’s father, a pair of oxen for hers. Enough to pay the taxes for the rest of their life. To take her father to Mexico City to visit the pyramids he’d always dreamed of seeing.

Mist rose off the lake, and the fishermen were already casting their butterfly nets in the pearly dawn. She would make her own future, travel her own star roads.


© 2017, Peri L. Fletcher

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