She watched her mother’s face as all color drained away. For once, her mother had heard her. It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
She wasn’t used to winning. Now, watching her mother collapse into the kitchen chair, her stomach clenched and her eyes burned. The crippled hands that had always been so busy gripped the edge of the table as though her mother needed something – anything – to hold onto. Her breath was quick and shallow, like a dog panting in summer heat.
Mercedes realized she was holding her breath and gasped, air rushing into her lungs. Words flew through her mind, vanishing before she could capture the right ones.
“But why?” her mother wailed.
Mercedes heard the fear in the plaintive cry.
“It’s so far.” Her mother’s milky eyes filled with tears.
Because it’s far enough from you, Mercedes thought, but didn’t say.
“Because that’s where work is,” Mercedes replied. And Rafael. And escape from this dry, dusty place that shrivels my soul.
“Do you hate me that much, Mercedes?”
“No, Mamita, it’s not about you. It’s this place. There is no life for me here, no friends, no school.”
“No! I don’t love Juan! We’ve been over this again and again.” Mercedes shuddered at the image of the squat adobe house bleached by the desert sun, the man with the empty eyes and hunched shoulders who lived just down the road.
Mercedes averted her eyes from the tears trickling down the parchment skin of her mother’s cheeks.
“Let Juan take care of you, Mamita. You are safer here in the country than you would be in the city. But I need more. I will send you money.”
Her mother snorted and shook her head. “What do I need money for? There is nothing around here to buy!”
“My point exactly, Mamita,” responded Mercedes, passion rising within her. “If you could see, you would understand. There is nothing here to give life color or music.”
Mercedes lifted her gaze beyond the green of corn and beans to the monotone sweep of desert and barren hills.
“Don’t you remember from when Papi brought you here, when your eyes first began to fail?”
“I remember, but it was beautiful to me. Safe. Peaceful. It was safe for you, too, as it got harder to see. It was just the right thing to do.” Her mother’s voice was strained.
“For then, Mama. Not for now. At least not for me. You know this place so well that you get along fine without seeing. I can’t imagine that your beans and tortillas could taste any better than when you could see. You can tell when the garden needs water and your feet find the path easily. You can shuck corn faster than I can still.”
“But, Mija, I will be so lonely without you,” her mother whispered.
Mercedes knew that her mother mourned the babies she would not hold, babies Mercedes refused to make with the slow, silent Juan.
She thought about Rafael and felt heat flush her cheeks as the muscles in her belly tightened. She wanted so much to make babies with Rafael. The boys would be strong like him, and laughing. The girls would have his flashing eyes and easy grace. She would bring them to visit. But she couldn’t tell Mama that. Mama didn’t know about Rafael. She would never approve a husband who wasn’t Catholic. Unless there was a beautiful baby to help her change her mind.
Her mother covered her face with her worn, twisted hands and her shoulders shuddered as she sobbed.
Mercedes stiffened. She would not give in this time. Since Papi died, Mami leaned more and more on her. She was nearly 27, almost too old for niños. She was lucky that Rafael wanted her in spite of her age. Mami would forgive her when she brought her a baby to hold. Rafael would not fix things around the place, but he would play his guitar and sing songs until Mami laughed and clapped her hands.
Following that train of thought, Mercedes blurted out, “Juan will take care of you, Mami, and then he will not be lonely either.”
Her mother sniffed. “He has been like a son to me.”
Mercedes heard the accusation that her mother’s clamped lips cut off. Not like you, the daughter who wants to run away. But this time Mercedes hardened her heart, the color and fabric of her new life beckoning.
She saw her mother’s grief turn to anger, which flushed her cheeks red as she pressed her lips into a thin line. Mamita pushed down on the table and stood, wobbling only a little. The chair behind her scraped across the dirt floor but stayed upright. As Mercedes watched, Mamita turned her face toward the breeze that gusted through the open door and followed it outside, her steps sure on the familiar path.
Mercedes followed her, put her arms around the stiff, unrelenting shoulders. “Mamita…” she breathed.
“Don’t Mamita me, Mija. You are the one who is leaving.”
Mercedes gazed past her mother to the blaze of coral that spread across the horizon as the sun sank behind the clouds of dust, painting the monotone landscape with a rosy glow.