It was done.
Amelia Varga looped a wayward strand of hair behind one ear before dipping her hands into the bowl of tepid water. It was the last she had brought from the communal well and while not exactly dirty it was still far from clean but it would do. She dried her hands then, with the same cloth, mopped up the droplets of water strewn across the tabletop. The cloth joined those already in the basket, a motley collection of rags to be washed and reused. Here nothing was allowed to go to waste.
Taking up the bowl she crossed the room and flung its contents out the open door. If she had been in her own shack she would have carried the water to the bush that struggled to grow beneath her window. The bush was small but it was green and once it had even bloomed, a scattering of delicate yellow flowers. This water would do little but tease the parched earth.
She leaned into the doorframe, gazing out into the night, the heavy bowl perched on her hip. The wood was far from comfortable, cracked and brittle as it was. She shifted slightly, rolling forward on her resting shoulder. A loose sliver of wood snagged the sleeve of her cotton blouse, stretching the material. She twitched her arm free heedless of the damage done. Who was there to care; those pendejos at the cantina, those pigs who pinched and groped as they swilled cheap tequila and even cheaper beer? She could hear them now, their loud and boisterous voices, the course laughter that reminded her of a braying donkey.
Having believed a man’s honeyed promises, she had willingly followed him from village to village as he gambled and won and gambled and lost. She should have realized what it meant when they arrived here, in this village that was little more than a collection of broken down adobe buildings. She should have but she had been young and stupid and in love. Two days later he was gone. Denial had swiftly followed on the heels of confusion. Then anger but her anger had been tempered by the sad realization that she had no one to blame but herself.
Only later had she realized she had been more fortunate than most. Never once had he threatened her. Never once beaten or abused her.
Unlike the others who lived here; men with hard eyes and even harder fists who thought a woman had but one purpose.
The woman’s name had been Isabetta Lozada. At least that had been the name she had given when she arrived in the village with Benvenuto nearly three months before. Amelia knew it for the lie it was but accepted the charade. Here many of the men went by more than one name, hoping to keep one step ahead of the rurales. She had wondered who it was Isabetta had been hiding from.
Her now departed lover had once taken Amelia to see a bullfight. Watching Isabetta and Benvenuto had been like watching a matador in the ring except it had been Isabetta artfully wielding the cape, goading and enticing the bull. The power she had over Benvenuto had been like a drug; exciting and intoxicating. But, as with drugs, there had been side-effects. She became more reckless, seeming to take pleasure in provoking Benvenuto, testing the limits of his patience.
Amelia had tried to warn her, so many times. Warn her that Benvenuto was not a man to trifle with but she refused to listen. She had remained headstrong and defiant, confident in her ability to handle any man. It did not matter that Benvenuto had given her this place to live, a place that had glass in the window and a sturdy door and a roof that did not leak when the rains came. It did not matter that there was food on the table and wood for the stove. Nor did it matter that he tolerated the presence of the blue-eyed mestizo who was her shadow.
It had not been the first time Amelia had heard raised voices coming from this shack but she knew enough not to interfere. No one crossed Benvenuto. Still a feeling of dread had washed over her at the sudden silence. Isabetta was all too adept at concealing what injury had been done by his explosive temper.
The sound of the muffled gunshot had been a surprise. That was not Benvenuto’s way. He preferred to intimidate others with his size and strength.
She had hesitated, fearful of what she would find. Then she had heard another voice and she knew, she knew. She had run, holding her skirts in both hands, her bare feet scarcely touching the course, withered grass.
The boy had turned on her when she entered, scuttling across the floor on hands and knees to retrieve the pistol before retreating into a corner. She had seen the blood, the weeping cut on his face and the old bruises visible through his torn shirt. Instinctively, she had moved toward him only to stop at the look he gave her. It reminded her of the feral dog who would snap at her hand whenever she tried to feed it.
Amelia straightened. The bowl slid from her hip, its weight dragging at her arm.
Off in the distance there was movement. She heard rather than saw it; a rustling carried out of the darkness on the wind. No doubt some desert creature scavenging for food.
The desert, it had many secrets. Tonight it had one more.
She shut the door.
The cheap tallow candles guttered then flared. Shadows wavered against the far wall, flicked along the edges of the low ceiling.
After placing the bowl on the table, Amelia slowly made her way back across the room. Sitting on the stool she had left beside the bed, she arranged her skirts to cover her bare feet and settled to begin her vigil.
She tried to pray but found that she could not. Her faith, like so much else, had deserted her
There would be no coffin as there was not enough wood to fashion one nor enough money to purchase one if one had been available. Only a sheet, patched yet clean, to wrap the body in before it was laid in the grave. No priest to say the words. No bells to toll the passing of a life. Not even a proper cemetery with flowers and a headstone and a fence to keep the desert at bay.
Leaning forward, Amelia rearranged a fold of the black mantilla to better conceal the bruises marring the beautiful face. For a moment she caressed the delicate lace between her thumb and forefinger marveling once more at the workmanship. Convent-made; she would stake her life on it. She had found it at the bottom of the worn carpetbag, carefully wrapped in a square of soft linen along with the rosary now wrapped around one of the slender hands which lay folded atop the still breast. How had Isabetta come to possess such a thing? Certainly not from Benvenuto whose gifts ran to the practical.
The man who had fathered her half-breed child?
Amelia raised her eyes to glance across the room at the boy huddled in the corner. As if sensing her gaze, he lifted his head, his blue eyes cold and belligerent, staring at her from between strands of raven black hair. She had noticed how his hand would slip behind his back to touch the pistol he had secreted there as if needing the reassurance.
The boy ducked his head, hiding his face against his upraised knees but not before she had a glimpse of tears. There were other kinds of wounds, wounds the eye could not see, wounds it often took a lifetime to heal.
What would become of him? Where would he go, what would he do? She was in no position to take in a child much less a child of mixed race. She was barely able to take care of herself.
Amelia sighed, closing her eyes and tried once more to pray. Her hand closed around the small silver cross suspended from the chain around her neck, squeezing until she felt the sharp sting of the metal biting into her palm.
Tears pricked her closed eyelids; tears for an ending, a beginning and for a simple childish faith that had been lost.
She opened her eyes. The glass in the window glittered, reflecting the candlelight.
In a few hours it would be dawn.
Lancer Bingo Challenge
Words—Confusion, Cantina, Desert, Side-Effect, Injury