The Hacienda

With that, Rodolfo mounted his bay mare and rode south. I waited until his dark hat was nothing more than a smudge on the horizon, then retraced my steps through the courtyards, midmorning sun already hot on my hat. Now that he was gone, there was something I needed to do before anything else.

Once inside the house, I headed upstairs. The suite of the patrón was divided into four rooms: the first was a parlor of sorts, bare of much furniture and cluttered with chests filled with my clothes from the capital. The only windows were set high in the wall and were far too narrow for my liking; they had no glass panes and were covered with old cedar shutters. Such was the way with country houses, Rodolfo had explained. It would be hard to adjust to this after years of sewing by the large glass-paned windows in Mamá’s parlor in the capital.

The next room was a drawing room, a study of sorts. Rodolfo had left a number of books here from his studies: military texts, a Bible, Plato’s Republic. A door on the left-hand side of the room led to the bedchamber, and off the bedchamber was the room for washing.

I knelt before the first of my chests. The lock clicked open, and I lifted the heavy lid. Atop my bedclothes, undergarments, and stockings was a small square of folded paper. I took it, held it to my nose, and inhaled deeply. Something about the smell of paper was Papá. It was his map, the one piece of home I snatched as I fled.

I took it, and a handful of embroidery pins, to the study and pinned it to the wall above Rodolfo’s desk. Yes, the room was still dusty, still in desperate need of airing out. Too dark. But Papá was on the wall now. His neat x’s in red, the sweep of his charcoal pencil directing armies.

This tiny bit of the house was home now, and I would not rest until the remainder of it was as well.

* * *


UNTIL THE FIRST SHIPMENT of furniture arrived from the capital, I was going to see what could be done about the gardens. I tightened the ribbons of my hat, took a pair of gloves from my chests, and made for the back terrace. While Rodolfo was present, I sat on my hands, fighting every urge to clean the house myself. Rodolfo was still unaware of how I had toughened my hands to work Tía Fernanda’s house, and I intended to keep it that way.

I strode through the cool halls and made my way to the parlor that had heavy cedar double doors to the terrace. I threw them open and inhaled deeply of fresh morning.

I had resented every callus I built following Tía Fernanda’s orders, every cut I accidentally gave myself in the kitchen. But here? The garden before me was mine to fix, and though it was wilted and brown, a fierce affection for it welled up in me. This was mine to make ready for Mamá. I could already picture her standing next to me on this terrace, her green eyes lifting up to the bright azure sky.

My earliest years were spent on an hacienda in Cuernavaca on a vast sugar plantation with my father’s extended family—the Hernández side, the one that had less Andalusian blood, as he euphemistically described his darker complexion and thick black hair. The vine-covered stone main house sprawled lazily among palm trees and two-hundred-year-old fountains and was crowded with generations of cousins, but we lived in a smaller house apart from most of the family. For while Papá was loved by his aunt, the matriarch of the hacienda, she alone tolerated his choice to join the insurgency against Spain. Our small cottage once belonged to a long-dead foreman, or a gardener, and was connected to the main house by arches covered with thick vines, their lush green accented by trailing bougainvillea.

Mamá did not mind this slight. She loved how the boisterous growth of the gardens always threatened to overtake the buildings of the hacienda and draw them into a verdant embrace. She had a miraculous way with everything living and green, and when Papá was away fighting, she spent hours with her broad-rimmed hat walking the property with the head gardener, discussing irrigation and pruning.

The arid climate and dead grasses of the lawn before me were not quite the same palate she had worked with in Cuernavaca, but I had no doubt she would work her miracles on the gardens of San Isidro. Long grasses whispered against one another, gossiping like aunts as I crossed to the back wall of the garden. A tall wooden ladder was propped against it; though its bottom rungs were splintered and cracked, the next few bore my weight. I climbed until I could peer over the row of bricks that lined the top, gap-toothed with age.

San Isidro was built on high ground to the northwest of the town. The rainy season had just ended; the green that swept from their foothills to the town’s edges looked as soft as one of Mamá’s rugs. Its hue was browner and earthier than Cuernavaca’s bold strokes, its color broken only by white dots of sheep and the severe rows of the hacienda’s maguey fields.

There, in the farthest corner of the fields, the dark forms of tlachiqueros swung machetes in steady arcs or strode through the rows of maguey. Every once in a while, a male voice rose from among them; a shout of surprise, or a swoop of laughter as they drained aguamiel, the honey water that collected in the heart of the maguey plant and that was fermented to make pulque.

I squinted against the rising sun. A woman’s form strode among them—I knew it was Juana from the determined sway of her skirts and her broad-rimmed hat.

Perhaps I could understand Juana’s fierce dedication to the hacienda. For Rodolfo, San Isidro was a source of guaranteed income during the transition of power between Spain and México, emperor and republic. It was a godsend. But for Juana? The money it generated for her family allowed her freedom. She lived well without marrying, an enviable privilege in wartime and peace alike. As far as I knew, she had lived on the hacienda all her life. Why, then, was she so dismissive at dinner with Rodolfo of my desire to improve the gardens? Were my attempts to revive the wilting grounds so repugnant?

Juana, Juana.

A voice lilted from behind me. So faint it could have been the twisting of the breeze in the grass.

I looked over my shoulder at the house. Its red-tile roof looked too heavy for its walls; the way the building was situated on a gentle slope made it look stocky and squat; the way the wings were crowded atop one another, their shoulders overlapping at various angles and heights, made them look like too many teeth in a mouth.

The ladder rung my feet rested on broke with a brittle snap.

My breath left my lungs in a yelp rather than a scream as I fell. I flung both my arms out and caught the top of the wall, hissing as my face struck stucco.

Madre de Dios.

I hung there, heart pounding, for a long moment. I was going to be fine. A fall from this height could not hurt me. The wall was only about as tall as Rodolfo—not very high at all.

I prepared myself, then let go of the wall. I caught myself in a low crouch and straightened. A breeze stung my cheek; I must have broken skin when I grazed it on the wall.

“Buenos días, Do?a Beatriz.”

I whirled to face the kitchen doorway.

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