Lilia wished the direction of the evening breeze would shift as she diced the small octopus, dropping the chunks into the briny broth already steaming on the fire. But the wind kept its course, and the funk of her village’s incinerated waste continued to waft across the courtyard. She plucked a sprig of mint from the cracked clay pot beside the kitchen door and stripped its leaves from the stem then popped them into her mouth. She chewed the herb into a slick pulp, hoping it would lessen her nausea.
Fernando sat in the dirt nearby, rolling a small truck between his bare feet. When he shrieked with laughter Lilia looked up from her work at the fire.
“What do you see, my boy?”
The child pointed at a white hen and her butter-yellow chicks pecking at the dust just beyond Fernando’s new rubber ball, abandoned for now beneath the shade tree.
Lilia had not experienced any morning sickness with Fernando. Her pregnancy had gone so smoothly she’d worried something was wrong with the baby until she saw him, counted his fingers and toes, and heard him wail. His head had been bare, unlike the thickly matted scalp of Alejandra at her birth. Lilia’s pregnancy with Fernando had been so different from her first that she should have suspected the child to be a boy, but no. That simple conclusion had escaped her, and instead she’d assumed the child inside her womb to be deformed, and she had not fully felt excitement or love until she’d held him and he’d suckled at her breast. Only then did her tears and prayers of gratitude emerge from somewhere unexpected and deep within her.
But this third pregnancy felt similar to her first, with daily morning vomiting, and the constant taste of bile lingering in her throat. Perhaps this baby, like Lilia’s first, would be a girl child. Little Alejandra would be almost four now. Is almost four now. She is almost four, Lilia told herself. Is, not would be.
Lilia prayed daily for Alejandra’s well-being and happiness. And on the days she felt her hope waning, at those dark times, she prayed to God to punish her for allowing her faith and optimism to slip. These occasional, doubtful thoughts she did not share with Héctor; she’d learned long ago she must shoulder enough strength for the both of them. Lilia ached to believe that Héctor trusted her again as fully as he ever had, that he understood the depth to which her being had been shaken with the loss of their daughter and the horrible, undeniable guilt that permeated Lilia to her marrow for her part in that loss. She longed to tell him that oftentimes as she passed the village cemetery at the top of the hill she felt it watching her closely, as if she should be there with the dead instead of walking among the living.
For months after Lilia’s border crossing and the disappearance of Alejandra, Héctor sneered at the sight of his wife. He tried to hide his contempt by turning away, busying himself in some pointless activity, but she felt his scorn as sure as a slap to her cheek. Even if his countenance had not betrayed his deep disappointment in Lilia, his inability to touch her all but screamed what Lilia interpreted as disgust, perhaps even loathing. They had been the most loving, most affectionate couple in all of Mexico until that unforgettable, life-altering day at the border, when she’d arrived unexpectedly and without their child. Ah, but enough of these thoughts.
She spit the wad of mint into a gnarled hibiscus, its spent orange blossoms littering the ground around it.
Her grandmother had planted the shrub in honor of Lilia’s birth, and even now, years after the old woman’s passing, when Lilia looked at its large, trumpetlike flowers she thought of her grandmother Crucita, and how, at Christmastime, she would dry the blossoms to make delicious sugared candies for Lilia to suck.
“Papa!” Fernando said, waving to Héctor. “Papa home!”
Héctor, haggard and sun-darkened, brushed the boy’s head with his grimy fingertips but did not scoop him up into a big hug as was his usual greeting for Fernando. He tossed a sack on the lone table in the courtyard. “Squash and onions,” he said.
“José brought us an octopus this afternoon. I’m making a stew,” Lilia said. “I’ll roast the squash, too, if you’d like.”
Héctor sat in one of the two chairs beside the weathered old table and unlaced his work boots. The breeze rattled the wind chime that hung inside the kitchen window, though Lilia didn’t notice the sound until Héctor said, “Can we get rid of that thing?” He jutted his chin toward the jangling.
“You don’t like it?” she said, sensing something other than the gentle clanking of the shells as the source of his irritation.
During their courtship and early marriage, prior to their time in el norte, Héctor wore his emotions like a banner; he’d been so easy to read. His imaginings and zest for life had drawn her to him when they were in school. Even when she’d been but fifteen years old and Héctor sixteen, they’d sit under the stars beside the bay speaking of their future, of the children they’d have, and of the life they imagined together. Lilia would have been content to live out her days in Puerto Isadore, but Héctor had held bigger aspirations and an imagination like no one else she’d ever met. He’d been silly and jovial as a schoolboy then, laughing and joking and dreaming what others might call impossible dreams. Lilia had believed in him and in his vision for their future.
“We’ll go to el norte one day, Lilia,” he’d said. “I’ll go first and find work, and I’ll save enough money to bring you to me.”
She knew such days of innocence and pure delight would never return, yet she refused to give up on the notion of their happiness.
He lifted the other boot and began untying its laces. Without looking at her he said, “No, Lilia. I don’t like the wind chime. I’ve never liked it.”
She wiped her hands across her faded yellow apron before detaching the chime’s string from the rusted hook above the open window.
She set the wind chime on the table beside the bag of squash and onions, then hoisted Fernando to her hip.
“That boy’s too big to be a hip child,” Héctor said, bringing a hand to his temple.
“What’s wrong, Héctor?” She squeezed Fernando when he gripped her shoulder, eager to remain in his mother’s arms.
Héctor slapped both hands on his thighs and sat up straight, inhaling a long, slow breath.
“Guess who I saw today, Lilia,” he said, staring at her, his eyes dark, troubled.
She eased Fernando to the ground, afraid her legs would fail her under the added weight and the news coming toward her. A strange flickering played in her chest, and the ever-present bile thickened in her throat.
“Emanuel,” he said.
She slipped into the chair across from Héctor, her palms flat on the table between them. “Are you certain you saw him? Did you speak to him?”
Héctor brought his hands behind his head, interlocking his fingers and tilting his face toward the clouds mounding in the western sky. “I know who I saw,” he said.
“Did you talk? What did he say, Héctor? Where did you see him? Oh, my God. Tell me everything.”
“I don’t have much to tell. No, we didn’t speak. I saw him, but he didn’t see me.”
“Are you sure the person you saw was Emanuel? Where was he?”
“He was boarding the bus to Escondido. I know it was Emanuel. I’ve looked for that pendejo every day for years, Lilia. The man I saw was Emanuel.”
“This is good news, Héctor. We’ll find him!” She reached for him and took his hands in hers and brought them to her lips, tears brimming her eyes.
Héctor exhaled, and for the first time since his arrival from work, he seemed to relax, to soften, though the worry lines, long etched into his brow and temples, remained, a constant reminder to the world, to Lilia, of his grief.
“All the emotions, you know?” he said. “Just when I begin to put him and our past behind us . . .” He shook his head. “I hate him, but we need him.”
Héctor stood and scooped Fernando into his arms. “Your stew smells good, Lilia.”
She returned to the pot and stirred its contents with a long wooden spoon, her thoughts far away from the fire or this courtyard. She closed her eyes and inhaled sharply, her mind not on the briny scent of her cooking but lost in the memory of the lavender-scented head of her firstborn child.