The Hacienda

They will teach you things I cannot, Titi said as she put me on the road to the seminary so many years ago. Besides, she added, a sly twinkle in her eye as she patted my chest, aware her palm rested directly over the darkness that lived curled around my heart, won’t you be well hidden there?

The people of San Isidro needed more than another priest. They needed my grandmother. I needed her. I missed how she always smelled of piney soap, how the veiny backs of her hands were so soft to hold, her knobby fingers and wrists so strong and sure as they braided her white hair or ground herbs in the molcajete to cure a family member’s stomach pain. I missed the mischievous glint in her dark eyes that my mother, Lucero, had inherited, and that I wished I had. I even missed her exasperatingly cryptic advice. I needed her to show me how to be both a priest and her heir, how to care for her flock and calmly deflect the withering suspicion of Padre Vicente.

But she was dead.

I closed my eyes as the procession shuffled to a halt before the front door of the church.

Please. The prayer reached out, up to the heavens to God, out to the spirits that slept in the bellies of the hills ringing the valley. I knew no other way to pray. Give me guidance.

When I opened them, I saw Padre Vicente shaking hands and blessing members of a group of hacendados. Their silks and fine hats stood out against the crowds, garish as peacocks in a famine. The old patróns of Hacienda Ocotepec and Alcantarilla tipped their hats to Padre Vicente, their pale-haired ladies and daughters clasping his hand in their gloved ones. Even the hacendados had not escaped the ravages of war. Their sons had left to fight for the gachupínes, the Spanish, and left only old men and boys to defend the estates against insurgents in the countryside.

The only young man among them was one with light brown hair and piercing blue eyes, whose saintly face looked like it was carved and painted for a statue in a gilded retablo. He stood apart from the others and met Padre Guillermo’s effusive greeting with a calculated half smile.

It took me a moment to place why he seemed so familiar.

“Don Rodolfo!” Padre Guillermo cried.

He was the son of old Solórzano. Now, presumably, he was the patrón of Hacienda San Isidro. I had seen him from a distance as a boy on the property; I knew children in the village did not mind him, and even played with him chasing frogs in the creek below the house from time to time. Now, he could not be more different from the villagers: his clothing was finely tailored and cut a sharp silhouette. A criolla woman hung on his arm, whom he introduced to Padre Guillermo as his new bride, Do?a María Catalina.

He had brought her from the capital to be safe from typhus, he said. She would join his sister on Hacienda San Isidro and stay for the foreseeable future.

“Does this mean you are returning to the capital soon, Don Rodolfo?” Padre Guillermo asked.

“I am.” He glanced over his shoulder at the other hacendados, then leaned into Padre Guillermo and lowered his voice. “Things are changing very quickly, and the capital is not safe.” His voice lowered further; another man would not have been able to hear him over the general commotion of the crowd, but my grandmother left me with many gifts. My ear, long accustomed to hearing the shifting moods of the fields and the skies, was sharp as a coyote’s.

“You must watch over Do?a Catalina, Padre,” Rodolfo said. “You understand . . . my politics are not popular with my father’s friends.”

“May he rest in peace,” Padre Guillermo murmured, his tone and the slow dip of his head subtle assent.

Curiosity sharpened my ears, though I fought to keep my face as passive as a saint’s. To be unpopular with the conservative criollo hacendados, those who clung to their wealth and the monarchy, meant that Rodolfo was sympathetic to the insurgents and independence. It was not unusual for sons of hacendados to turn the tables and support the insurgents, but I did not expect it of the son of old, cruel Solórzano. Perhaps Rodolfo was different from the other criollos. Perhaps, now that old Solórzano was dead, the people of San Isidro would suffer less under the younger man’s watch.

I peered at the woman on his arm. She looked as if she had stepped out of a painting: her small, pointed face was crowned by hair pale as corn silk. Her eyes were doe-like, dark and wide-set; when they flicked in my direction, they slid right over me. They passed over the townspeople, unseeing, and then refocused on Padre Guillermo.

Ah. Those were eyes that did not see faces that were not peninsular or criollo. There were many such pairs of eyes among the hacendados and their families. How could such a woman survive without her ilk, alone in the country, in that enormous house at the center of Hacienda San Isidro? She looked as if she were made from expensive white sugar, the likes of which I had only ever seen in Guadalajara. Unreal as a phantom lilting pale on a riverbank. I had seen women like her in Guadalajara, pious, wealthy women with hands as soft as a lamb’s spring coat, utterly incapable of working. Such people could not survive long in the country.

I wondered then if the changes Don Rodolfo hinted at would end the war at last. Whenever it did, I was sure that his spun-sugar wife would flee back to the comforts of the capital, typhus or no.

How very wrong I was.



Present day

AFTER BREAKFAST ONE MORNING, Rodolfo saddled his horse and bade farewell to me at the gates of San Isidro.

He cupped my chin in one hand, searching my face. “Are you sure?”

This was now the third time he had asked if I was going to be all right at San Isidro. I had slept fitfully and woken before him, staring at the cobwebs between the Nicaraguan cedar beams in our bedroom. There was so much in the air of the house that felt other.

Perhaps it was that many generations had lived here before me, slept under the same beams. Each had made it their own. So, too, would I.

“Of course, querido,” I said. “I need to settle in. Make it presentable for my mother. You know how she is about tidy houses.” He didn’t. His smile was knowing all the same. A politician, an actor, even with his wife. I paused, weighing the wisdom of what I was about to say next, then went ahead anyway: “Promise me you’ll deliver my letters to her. In person, if you can spare the time.”

Mamá hated everything that Rodolfo stood for. She would not welcome his presence, especially if he was delivering messages from me, her turncoat daughter. But I had to try, even if none of my other letters had been answered.

“Of course,” he said, and kissed me. A brief, chaste brush of lips. His skin had a bite of citrus from his aftershave. “Don’t hesitate to write if there is anything you need. Anything at all.”

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