The barest hint of a breeze scuttled around the corner of the white-washed adobe house carrying with it the sound of children at play.
Sitting in the strip of shade cast by the house, his frail form supported by the wealth of pillows cushioning the woven chair, the old man smiled. It did his heart good to hear the laughter of the young ones.
A handful of children came into view; their bare feet kicking up puffs of dust as they played a game of their own devising. He chuckled to himself as he observed their antics, recognizing one of his own among them; the youngest grandchild of his granddaughter. The ninos seemed oblivious to the stupefying heat that oppressed their elders.
As he watched, one small boy neatly evaded an outstretched hand, crowing with delight as he outran his pursuer. The boy slowly circled his companions, keeping just out of reach, ducking and weaving as he warily watched for the next move. The pursuer lunged forward but the small boy leaped aside and nimbly outran him.
The boy slowed as he neared the house where the old man sat. The man judged him to be about five years of age. Like the other boys, he was dressed in a loose-fitting white shirt and pants, was sturdily built and possessed a shaggy mop of black hair.
“You play the game well.” The old man said as he leaned forward, smiling.
Though his attention remained focused on the game, the boy turned his head quickly and grinned at him, pleased by the compliment.
The old man’s smile fractured, his mouth suddenly dry as he found himself looking into a pair of brilliant blue eyes. The word leaped unbidden into his mind…
Where had this child come from? He had glimpsed such children on his rare excursions beyond the village; children who were a part of both worlds yet accepted by neither. There had been a time when no gringo was seen in this remote area. There was neither mineral wealth nor enough water for cattle or horses to tempt them. Now the border bled and gringos were commonly seen in the streets but he knew of no honest woman who would willingly accept such a man’s advances much less submit to their touch. Perhaps some woman had recently arrived seeking to cover her shame at having a child of mixed blood. It would be a simple enough matter to ask his granddaughter.
When the niño scampered back to join the others the old man shifted uneasily in his chair. More than a dazzling pair of blue eyes marked this child as mestizo. Other clues testified to the gringo blood flowing through his veins. He was a handsome child who would grow into a handsome man if given the opportunity.
But this was a child who was destined to be hurt by life and he felt a pang of pity for the unknown boy. Whatever had taken place between his parents; the child was innocent but it was he who would pay the price for their night of passion.
Today he was accepted because the other children had not yet learned to fear and hate but all too soon he would no longer be welcome. He would be forced to confront the brutal realities of his existence before he was old enough to fully comprehend them. A future where he would be shunned by both Anglo and Mexican, forced to live on the fringes, grudgingly tolerated. Though it went against the beliefs of Holy Mother Church, it would have been best if this child had never been born.
A sudden commotion interrupted the old man’s musings. One of the village’s older boys had come out of nowhere and grabbed the little mestizo by the collar, lifting him into the air so his toes dangled above the hard-packed earth. The other children had already scattered; some skirting the corner of the neighbor’s house, others racing down the street, stumbling in their haste.
The boy squirmed, his small hands reaching back to claw at the hand holding him. His sharp cries of surprise and fear caused the old man to reach for his cane and attempting to rise though to do what he did not know. Vicente was the storekeeper’s son, big for his age and arrogant in the knowledge that many in the village were in debt to his father.
The old man pounded the end of his cane on the ground in frustration when he collapsed back against the cushions, his legs unable to support him.
Cursing erupted when the boy landed a solid kick to Vicente’s shin.
“Bastardo! Hijo de puta!”
The boy landed on his rump, blood spurting from his nose.
“We don’t want your kind here, bastardo! Or her. How much did it cost the gringo, eh? How much did she make him pay before she spread her legs?”
The boy tried to crab away but one of Vicente’s sandaled feet caught him in the ribs, sent him flying in a wild tangle of arms and legs.
“Enough!” the old man’s voice was strong and forceful, demanding obedience.
The storekeeper’s son was a bully but also a coward. He pelted down the street without as much as a backward glance.
The old man leaned forward, both hands braced atop the wooden cane.
“Chico?” This time his voice was soft, reassuring.
The boy was sitting upright but ignored his entreaty, keeping his face averted.
A sudden burst of wind had the old man raising a hand to shield his face. Through watering eyes he glimpsed one of the neighbor women racing to retrieve her laundry from the line, the sheets snapping like ship’s sails. Behind him he heard his granddaughter calling to her daughter, heard the bang of shutters being closed in an attempt to keep the dirt at bay. Out of the cloud of dust and windblown debris ran a raggedy boy, an equally raggedy dog hot on his heels.
“Abuelo, come, out of the wind.” One of his great-grandsons took the cane from his hand, slipped his hands under his arms to help him to his feet.
The old man leaned to one side, peering around the youth’s broad shoulder, the airborne grit stinging his eyes.
The boy was gone, the road empty.
He let himself be assisted to the door where his granddaughter waited, wrap in hand. She draped it over his shoulders, tut-tutting to herself as she felt his cold hands and bustled off to fix him something warm to drink.
Settled once again into a comfortable chair a colorful throw across his knees, the old man sighed. Already a line had been drawn as surely as if it had been drawn in the sand. There would be no questions to his granddaughter about a new woman. No need to draw further attention to the boy’s presence. Perhaps the woman would move on. Go to a larger village, better yet a town where she and the boy could more readily disappear.
His granddaughter’s daughter strolled into the room, a sleeping baby in her arms. She made her way to the cradle set beside the hearth, the one he had fashioned a lifetime ago for his own firstborn. She laid the infant down with practiced ease, tucking a light blanket securely in place. One hand set to slowly rocking the cradle insuring its tiny occupant remained asleep.
The old man’s mood lightened and he began to relax, sinking into the chair’s soft embrace.
Yes, a mother’s desire to protect her child would compel the woman to leave.
A mother’s love would always put the welfare of her child before her own.
A smile creased the old man’s face as he watched gentle fingers lovingly trace the curve of the infant’s cheek, light as a butterfly’s kiss.
A mother’s love…