The Hacienda by Isabel Ca?as
For my mother, who first gave me the freedom to write.
And for my husband, who gives me the courage to never stop.
Hacienda San Isidro
THE LOW SWEEP OF the southern horizon was a perfect line, unmarred by even the smudge of horses tossing their heads in the distance. The road yawned empty.
The carriage was gone.
I stood with my back to the gates of Hacienda San Isidro. Behind me, high white stucco walls rose like the bones of a long-dead beast jutting from dark, cracked earth. Beyond the walls, beyond the main house and the freshly dug graves behind the capilla, the tlachiqueros took their machetes to the sharp fields of maguey. Wandering the fields as a boy taught me agave flesh does not give like man’s; the tlachiqueros lift their machetes and bring them down again, and again, each dull thud seeking the heart’s sweet sap, each man becoming more intimately acquainted with the give of meat beneath metal, with the harvesting of hearts.
A breeze snaked into the valley from the dark hills, its dry chill stinging my cheeks and the wet in my eyes. It was time to turn back. To return to my life as it was. Yet the idea of turning, of gazing up at San Isidro’s heavy wooden doors alone, slicked my palms with sweat.
There was a reason I had once set my jaw and crossed San Isidro’s threshold, a reason why I passed through its gates like a reckless youth from legends of journeys to the underworlds.
That reason was gone.
And still I stood in the center of the dirt road that led away from San Isidro, away from Apan, my eyes fixed on the horizon with the fervor of a sinner before their saint. As if the force of my grief alone could transcend the will of God and return that carriage. Return the woman who had been taken from me. The echo of retreating hoofbeats and the clouds of dust they left curled in the air like copal incense, mocking me.
It is said that mortal life is empty without the love of God. That the ache of loneliness’s wounds is assuaged by obedience to Him, for in serving God we encounter perfect love and are made whole.
But if God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, if He is three in one in the Trinity, then God knows nothing of loneliness.
God knows nothing of standing with his back to a gray morning, of dropping to his knees in the dust. Of his shoulders slumping beneath the new weight of knowing what it meant not to be alone, and an acute awareness of his chest’s own emptiness.
God knows nothing of loneliness, because God has never tasted companionship as mortals do: clinging to one another in darkness so complete and sharp it scrapes flesh from bone, trusting one another even as the Devil’s breath blooms hot on their napes.
Sharp pebbles dug into my kneecaps through my worn trousers as I knelt, my breathing labored, too exhausted to sob. I knew what the maguey felt. I knew the whine of the machete. I knew how my chest gave beneath the weight of its fall. I knew how it felt to have my heart harvested, sweet aguamiel carving winding wet tracks down my hollowed chest. My wounds sinful stigmata, flinching and festering in the sun.
God knows nothing of being alone.
Alone is kneeling in dust, gazing at an empty horizon.
In the end, it was not the ink-slick shadows and echoing, dissonant laughter of San Isidro that broke me. It was not fear that carved my chest open.
It was losing her.
Two months earlier
THE CARRIAGE DOOR CREAKED as Rodolfo opened it. I blinked, adjusting to the light that spilled across my skirts and face, and took the hand Rodolfo offered me as gracefully as I could. Hours of imprisonment in the carriage over rough country roads left me wanting to claw my way out of that stuffy box and suck in a lungful of fresh air, but I restrained myself. I knew my role as delicate, docile wife. Playing that role had already swept me away from the capital, far from the torment of my uncle’s house, into the valley of Apan.
It brought me here and left me standing before a high dark wooden door set deep in white stucco walls, squinting under the blinding sweep of azure September skies, the broad shoulders and steady hands of Don Rodolfo Eligio Solórzano at my side.
In the sunlight his loose curls gleamed bronze, and his eyes were almost as light as the sky beyond. “This is San Isidro,” he said.
Hacienda San Isidro. I let my eyes drag over the heavy door, its wrought-iron accents, the high dark spikes on the front of the walls, the wilting bougainvillea that wound through them, blossoms and thorns alike drained of color and dying.
It was not quite what I expected, having been raised in the verdant, lush gardens of an hacienda in Cuernavaca, but it was my new conquest. My salvation.
* * *
WHEN I FIRST MET Rodolfo, dancing at a ball to celebrate the founding of the Republic, he told me his family had owned an hacienda that produced pulque for nearly two hundred years.
Ah, I thought, watching the sharp panes of his clean-shaven face flirt with the shadows of the candlelit ballroom. So that was how your family kept its money throughout the war. Industry will rise and fall, men will scorch the earth and slaughter one another for emperors or republics, but they will always want drink.
We danced the next round, and the next. He watched me with an intensity I knew then was a priceless tool.
“Tell me about the hacienda,” I had said.
It was a big house, he replied, sprawling over the low hills north of Apan, overlooking sharp-pointed fields of maguey. Generations of his family had lived there before the war of independence from Spain, cultivating the agave and producing pulque, its sour beer, to be shipped to the capital’s thirsty markets. There were gardens filled with birds of paradise, the air thick with swallows, he said, and broad, bustling kitchens to feed all the tlachiqueros and the servants and family. They celebrated feast days in a capilla on the property, a chapel adorned with paintings of saints and an altar carved by the scion of the family in the seventeenth century and gilded by later, wealthier generations.
“Do you miss it?” I asked.
He did not answer, not directly. Instead, he described the way the sun set in the valley of Apan: first rich golden, deepening to amber, and then, with a swift, sure strike, night overtook the sun like the extinguishing of a candle. The darkness in the valley was so deep it was almost blue, and when thunderstorms slinked over steep hills into the valley, lightning spilled like mercury across the fields of maguey, silvering the plants’ sharp tips like the peaked helmets of conquistadors.
It will be mine, I thought then. A flash of intuition that swept me with the strong, trusting arm of a lover into the next steps of the dance.
And mine it became.
The Hacienda by Isabel Ca?as