The Hacienda

So when it became clear he was attracted to my laugh like bees to piloncillo syrup and to my eyes, my mother’s eyes, bright as Chiapas jade, I seized it.

When I announced to my mother that I would be marrying Don Rodolfo Eligio Solórzano Ibarra, she set down her embroidery into her lap without grace, mouth dropped open in surprise. The months since my father’s death had taken a toll on her: her pale skin no longer called to mind fine china, but faded, crumbling paper. Violet shadows weighed beneath her eyes, which had lost their vigor. Her cheeks, once haughty in their height, were hollow, thinned by exhaustion.

“You . . . Solórzano,” she breathed. “He’s one of Victoria’s men.”

I folded my arms across my chest. Yes, he served one of the leaders of the political party that had turned on my father.

“If you want to leave this house and stop mending Tía Fernanda’s sheets, he’s the only choice. Don’t you understand?” I snapped. Look around you, I wanted to scream. Mamá married for love and burnt bridges behind her. I didn’t have that privilege. I couldn’t afford her idealism. Not when I had Rodolfo’s proposal, not when I had the chance to get us out of Tía Fernanda’s house. I could secure us a dignified life. Rodolfo’s name, his money, his land—these could give us wings to fly.

Mamá closed her mouth, dropped her eyes to her mending, and did not speak another word to me. Not then, not in the weeks leading up to the wedding.

I ignored her absence at the wedding. I held my head high beneath my lace mantilla and ignored the whispers about Rodolfo’s family. About past romantic entanglements and mysterious illnesses that Tía Fernanda jealously relayed to anyone who would listen, her lips smacking like boots in thick mud, her stage whisper scraping like dry, too-long fingernails across the back of my neck.

I heard his first wife was murdered by highwaymen on the Apan road. Really? I heard she died of typhus. I heard she was kidnapped by insurgents. I heard she was poisoned by the cook.

Rodolfo was my salvation. I seized him like a drowning man seizes driftwood in a flash flood. His solidness. His name. His title. His shoulders that cut into Apan’s blinding sky like the mountains surrounding the valley and the calloused, honest hands that led me to the gate of San Isidro.

He was safe. He was right. I had made the one decision that was guaranteed to lift me from the grim fate to which my father’s murder had doomed us.

I only prayed that one day, Mamá could see my decision to marry him for what it was: the key to a new life.


RODOLFO, JUANA, AND I reconvened for dinner in a small drawing room near the kitchen that had been repurposed for dining. Its windows opened to the back of the house: a terrace, lined with pillars and arches, overlooked a dead garden with wilted birds of paradise and black skeletons of flower beds. Heavy-bellied clouds had rolled into the valley; Ana Luisa’s daughter, Paloma, fastened the window shutters against the rain as we sat. The drawing room was cozier for three than the formal dining room, but I soon wished it were less cozy.

“I apologize for the state of the flowers,” Rodolfo said, his gaze trailing over the shutters as Paloma flitted shyly away to the kitchen. “Juana cares for maguey more than she cares for gardens.”

Juana snorted. I looked up from my food in surprise. As much as I disliked my cousins in Tío Sebastián’s house, I was well accustomed to their fine manners. It was how I had also been raised.

“Maguey is resilient,” she said flatly. “It is an admirable trait.”

Rodolfo’s eyes slid across the table to her, their blue no longer brilliant, but icy. “Beauty is also an admirable trait,” he said. A playful retort and delivered utterly without warmth. “This the maguey lack, I believe.”

“Then you’re not looking hard enough.” The edge to her voice laid clear how little she cared for his thoughts on any matter, be it maguey or anything else.

No wonder Rodolfo had never spoken to me of his sister. The air between them crackled with friction.

“The garden is beautiful, querido,” I lied, forcing a brightness into my voice that rang hollow in the closeness of the room. Rodolfo cast me a sideways glance, disbelieving. I rested my hand on his knee under the table, rubbing my thumb against the fabric of his trousers in a calculated attempt to break the tension. “My mother taught me something about gardening, when we lived in Cuernavaca,” I added. “Give me some time with it. You won’t recognize it when you return.”

In two weeks, Rodolfo would head back to the capital. He had accompanied me on the road to Apan to protect me from highwaymen, but his political work meant he could not stay in the country. The Provisional Government meant to hold elections for a president, and if sneakily peering at Rodolfo’s correspondence had taught me anything, it was that his mentor, Guadalupe Victoria, meant to win these elections.

Rodolfo opened his mouth to reply but was interrupted by his sister.

“We don’t need gardens,” she said harshly, not bothering to direct the comment at me. It dismissed me as efficiently as a slap across the face. “What we need is to keep San Cristóbal from poaching our land.”

“I decide what we need or don’t,” Rodolfo snapped. His sudden shift of temper sent a tremor of surprise down my spine. “If Do?a Beatriz wants a garden, she will have a garden. My wife’s word is mine in this house, do you understand?”

If Juana did, she did not say. “I’m retiring,” she announced to the room at large, falsely bright, and set her napkin on the table with a rude slap. I stiffened as she pushed back from the table; then, with a brusque good night, she was gone.

* * *


IF THE RANCOR BETWEEN Rodolfo and Juana cooled over the two weeks he spent with us at San Isidro, I did not see it. I did not see her at all. It was as if she had vanished into the harsh rows of maguey that carved the fields below the main house, ephemeral as a ghost.

She did not join us when Rodolfo and I went into the town of Apan for Mass on Sunday.

It was my first visit to Apan, and the first time I would be seen by the hacendados of the other estates and their wives. Something in the air shifted as we passed through the gates of the hacienda, and I relaxed back into my seat. I rested my head on Rodolfo’s shoulder and rocked with the carriage’s movement, listening as he told me about the hacendados to whom he would introduce me after Mass.

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