“The Virgins of San Nicolás” by Nicole Simonsen

In San Nicolás de Ibarra, in the old house where Abuelita’s spinstered sisters lived their entire lives, my cousin Perla and I shared a small room with a single, large bed. The pillows were thin, the mattress hard, the sheets musty, and it was hotter and more humid than we’d ever experienced, so we didn’t sleep well. Until that summer, neither of us had ever shared a room, certainly not a bed, and Perla was often irritated by my presence. Even if I was just reading or drawing in my sketchbook, she would huff at me—“Can’t you do that somewhere else? Like on the edge of a volcano?”

I had many other annoying habits, according to Perla. From smacking my gum to asking irrelevant questions to talking in my sleep. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I would sit up suddenly, shaking the rickety bed and waking Perla. Or, I might walk to the window and stare out through half-closed lids. Perla would hiss from the bed, “Elena, what are you doing?” And then, with the moonlight casting a spotlight around my body, I would turn around, slowly, looking right at her, right through her, and glide wordlessly back into bed. It was the creepiest thing she ever saw, one of the creepiest things.

I never remembered getting out of bed and going to the window, but Perla insisted that I had. She had a heart condition, she kept reminding me. Did I want to give her a heart attack?

* * *

We were allowed one phone call home per week, though Perla refused to call her parents. They were getting divorced. From eavesdropping on my mother’s conversations, I’d gleaned the following facts: Perla’s father had run off with some woman who was now pregnant and, to retaliate, her mother went out and got a new boyfriend. Perla was fifteen. She told her mother that her new boyfriend was creepy, that he stared at her breasts when her mother wasn’t looking. She told her father that she would poison the new baby. And so the family decided that Perla needed time away and she was shipped off to Mexico with Abuelita on her annual summer trip. I went with them so that Perla wouldn’t be alone. Before we got on the plane, Mom told me that I had to try to understand that Perla was in pain and that when people were in pain they said and did things they didn’t mean. I was twelve, and Perla’s pain seemed unknowable to me.

* * *

There was one phone in the pueblo, located at the corner store. After urging Perla to come with us, Abuelita and I set off alone. Sometimes one of Abuelita’s sisters, Tia Chata or Tia Sulita, came with me instead. Abuelita’s sisters were a mystery. They spoke not a single word of English. My Spanish was broken, clumsy, and there was much I couldn’t ask them. Sometimes, at breakfast, I’d look up to find them staring at me like an animal in a zoo. But most of the time it was me looking at them. Tia Sulita was round and hard as an apple. She rarely smiled, but when she did, the skin around her eyes crinkled merrily. Tia Chata, the youngest of the sisters, was taller and thinner, but more wrinkled, her wrinkles deep as the folds of a curtain I used to hide in, and when she wasn’t looking, I would stare at them, wishing I could touch one.

To get to the corner store, we had to pass the deserted house. There, the tias would cross themselves and increase their pace, but I would slow, straining to peer in the blackened windows. A palm tree had broken through the rotting roof and the whole house seemed to sag against it. Abuelita said that something terrible had happened within its walls and that was why no one wanted to live in it anymore. Only the land wanted it now, and inch by slow inch, the land was taking it back. But when I pressed her or the tias for details, none would answer me.

I tried to get Perla to play my What If game—What if the people who lived there all got a disease, a flesh-eating bacteria that ate away at their brains? What if they’d all been stung by scorpions in the middle of the night? At first Perla refused to play along, saying, “What if! What if!” but then she relented said, “What if it was a murder-suicide?”

I looked at her expectantly.

“A jealous husband. He found his wife in the arms of another man, shot them dead, and then he killed himself. And now, the ghosts of the lovers haunt the place, that’s why no one wants it.” Perla had a way of speaking, a confidence in her own ideas, that shut out further speculation.

I sighed and opened my drawing pad.

“All marriages end in disaster,” she said. “Disaster or death, take your pick.”

* * *

Was it true, I asked Perla one night while we lay in bed trying to sleep, that her mother’s new boyfriend stared at her breasts?

Perla turned on the bedside light. She heaved up her breasts with both hands and shoved them towards me as if they were appetizers on a platter. “Look at these. Can you blame the guy?” She settled back into her pillow. “You’d better not talk in your sleep tonight. I never heard anyone yammer on so much. It’s like you have these full-on conversations. So annoying.”

“I do not,” I said.

“Oh yeah? Next time I’m going to tape you.” She put her Walkman by the bedside table. “Just watch.”

I wanted to say something mean, but what? There was nothing special about Perla’s breasts. They were just boobs, B-cups at best. What did she want, a medal for them? I turned my back to her.

* * *

In the afternoons when our great-grandfather, Papa Miguel, took his siesta, Abuelita and her sisters played poker. They sat at a little table in Tia Chata and Tia Sulita’s shared room, smoke from Abuelita’s cigarette curling around them, the little black radio eking Mexican love songs full of longing and despair. I waited until one of them got out the tequila glasses, then I could leave without them noticing. I’d walk to the corner store alone and buy as much chiclet as I wanted. Or, I’d stroll around the plaza across from the church, wondering what it would be like to have a novio. When Perla came with me, which wasn’t often, she’d roll up her shorts revealing long, bare thighs in defiance of the priest who’d commented to Abuelita that her American granddaughters were not modest enough and were setting a bad example for girls in the village.

When Perla had better things to do, I went to the corral behind the house and tried to draw the cows crowded at the trough, or the chickens that had the run of the yard, the feral kittens hiding in the bushes. Other times, I stood outside the deserted house, daring myself to get closer. Once, I ran up, tried the door knob, which was locked, and then sprang back when I heard something rustling inside.

“It was the murdered wife,” Perla said later. “Imagine being stuck for all eternity with your husband and your lover. She probably wanted you to come inside so she could possess you and escape them.”

“Let’s go back,” I urged her. “We’ll climb in through the window.” What if something interesting had been left behind: aging photographs, a gold earring, a folded love letter. There had to be something.

Perla sighed. “Oh, Elena, you are too much sometimes.”

* * *

On Sundays, we had to go to church, no exceptions. I hated church. I hated church in California and I hated it in Mexico. Priests were the same everywhere, no matter what language they spoke. Everything they did was slow and weighted with purpose and sometimes I wanted to run down the aisle, grab the chalice from their raised hands and shout, “The blood of Christ already! We know! We know!”

My mother had bought me two waistless church dresses: a navy blue one with a sailor’s bib and a pink one with ruffly sleeves. Toddler dresses. Perla doubled over with laughter every time I wore one of my “baby doll dresses”; it was the only time she seemed genuinely happy. Once, she tried to wear a pair of tight jeans, but when Tia Sulita threatened her with a big hypodermic needle that she used to inoculate the village kids against polio, Perla finally stomped upstairs to change. Then, properly dressed, the five of us walked to church together, as Perla declared loudly that it was too hot for jeans, anyway.

Papa Miguel stayed behind in his wicker chair. No one else was allowed to sit in his chair, even touching it seemed off limits, but when Papa Miguel sat in it, the back rising behind him like an open seashell, he looked like a shriveled oyster, or like a mute, decrepit king. At a hundred and three years old, he was the oldest man for miles around, in probably the whole state, maybe all of Mexico. He’d said not one word to me or to Perla, though he had lifted his leathery cheek to receive a kiss on the day we first arrived.

“What do you think he thinks about all day long?” I asked Perla. “He just sits in that chair, drooling.”

“People that old don’t think. They’re more like potted plants.” She sounded so certain, I believed her. “If I get that old, I hope someone will bash my head in.”

“I’ll do it,” I said. “I’ll bash your head in.”

Perla pinched me hard. “Not if I bash your head in first.”

* * *

Sometimes, when Perla was bored, she would let me draw her. She would even pose for me, at the bedroom window, looking out at the deserted house, or in bed, with her knees drawn to her chest. With a pencil in hand, my eyes grew sharper and I noticed things that I would otherwise miss. For instance, that Perla had a small mole on her jaw, that her nails were chewed down to the quick, that her left eye sat slightly higher than the right.

She also had a scar on her chest where she’d had heart surgery as a baby. Normally, she kept the scar covered, but on one occasion, she pulled her shirt away and let me draw it. There were little dots on the side where the stiches had gone in. She still had a weak heart. Even now, it was prone to skipping beats or beating too fast. She never knew when it might betray her or in what way.

One thing I liked about drawing: I could change things however I wanted. That mole on Perla’s jaw? When she was especially mean, I would add two black, wiry hairs poking out of it. I would exaggerate the asymmetry of her face, making one eye much higher than other so that she looked like two halves of different people, smashed together. A childish form of revenge, but it gave me some satisfaction.

* * *

One morning, I woke up at the kitchen table, my cheek pressed into the crocheted tablecloth. I touched my cheek, feeling the bumpy seashell pattern pressed into my skin. I must have been there for a while, but why? What was I doing there? A few days later, in the middle of the night, I wandered into the kitchen to pour a glass of water. I was asleep. I reached for a glass on the bottom shelf and took it over to the pitcher. The pitcher must have been too heavy to hold in my sleepy state because it slipped from my hands, bounced off the table, and shattered on the ground. Water splashed my legs and feet; ceramic shards spread all around me. Then I was awake, blinking in the darkness. I swooned for a moment, bewildered once again— what was I doing here? I took a step back, right onto a sharp piece. I cried out. Then Tia Sulita appeared, having heard the pitcher break. She was standing there in her nightgown and bare feet. “Mija? Que paso?” She took quick stock of the situation. “Esperate.” She came back with huaraches on her feet, and then my tia, who was stronger than I realized, picked me up and carried me to the couch. She swept up the shards, moped up the water, tended to my cut.

When all that was done, she walked me to my room and settled me in the bed, kissing my forehead before she left. Perla was curled on her side, her back to me, but I could tell by the way she kept sniffing that she was awake. I wished she would turn over and put an arm around me. I wanted to be weighed down.

Perla sniffed again.

“Perla? Are you crying?”

“No,” came a muffled response. “I’m going to the bathroom.” She left the room. I waited until I heard the stairs creak, and then I touched her pillow—it was wet.

* * *

The tias thought I was sleepwalking because I was homesick. She wants her mother, they said. She’s trying to go back. When I tried to tell them that I didn’t want to go back, not yet anyway, they shook their heads as if I didn’t know my own feelings. The farthest  they’d ever ventured from home was to Guadalajara and that was just for an afternoon; they couldn’t fathom anyone my age living away from home. They brewed teas to help me fall into a deeper sleep, urged me to take a walk around the plaza before bed so that I would be more tired. They prayed, lit candles. They were always praying, to the Virgin, to the saints. They prayed to the Virgin to help me because it was dangerous to sleepwalk. Who knew what could happen to me in that vulnerable state?

Sometimes their efforts worked and sometimes they didn’t. Even on mornings when I did wake in my bed, I’d wondered if I’d spent the whole night there. It was strange to think that my body could do things without my waking mind knowing. It was like being possessed. I thought about what Perla said about the murdered wife, how she might try to possess me, and I feared that maybe she had. Maybe she borrowed my body at night.

* * *

Just when Perla thought she would literally die of boredom, one of our distant cousins, who lived in Guadalajara, came to stay with her aunt. Her name was Consuelo. She was sixteen and she spoke English because she’d spent the first ten years of her life in Los Angeles.

Perla began spending all her time with Consuelo. If I was lucky, Perla and Consuelo would spend the afternoon in our room, trying on Perla’s outfits or curling each other’s hair, and if I was quiet, they would let me stay. I had to be careful not to ask too many questions or to butt into their conversations or Perla would banish me.

I noticed something about Consuelo: she liked to shock people. She told us that she’d already had a few boyfriends, and that she was secretly engaged to an older man. She showed us a Polaroid of a handsome young man in a white baseball cap.

Perla studied the picture. “Cute. What’s his name?”

“Pedro.” Consuelo told us that he was twenty-six and a friend of her older brother, but her parents thought she was too young to have a boyfriend, that’s why it was a secret. They were going to wait one more year and then they were going to elope.

Perla’s eyebrows went up. “Don’t you want a wedding? A white dress?”

“It’s more romantic to elope. Ask your Abuelita.”

“Abuelita eloped?” I asked.

“You didn’t know?”

We knew the basics, that Abuelita had married young—all girls did at that time—and that sometime later she’d immigrated to the U.S. But never had she, or anyone, mentioned an elopement.

“She e-loped,” Consuelo repeated, “because he wouldn’t allow her to marry.”

“Papa Miguel?”

Consuelo nodded. “Uh-huh. He didn’t want any of his daughters to marry. He wanted all of them to stay in this house, to care for him in his old age. But your Abuelita defied him. She ran away with your Abuelo in the middle of the night and when they came back, Papa Miguel refused to speak to her. For thirteen years, not a word, not a glance in her direction. Every year, she would come back crawling on her knees, begging—”

“That’s not true!” I said.

“It is true. Ask her. Ask anyone. Your grandmother begged on her knees for thirteen years until he finally forgave her.”

He forgave her? He should have been the one on his knees,” Perla said.

Consuelo shrugged. “That’s just the way it was back then.”

I kept trying to picture my strong, proud Abuelita on her knees, but my mind balked. If all this were true, if he’d wanted to keep her locked up in this house for her whole life, then why did Abuelita push us to give him a kiss every night? If he’d had his way, we would have never been born.

That evening, Perla took me by the elbow and steered me into the kitchen where Tia Sulita had been preparing dinner. There was Miguel’s plate of watery, mashed beans. She spat into it. “That’s for Abuelita. Your turn. Hurry.”

“I can’t,” I said, backing away.

“I swear to God, Elena, you are such a wimp.” She stirred her saliva into the beans, and then, smiling sweetly, she took the plate out to him and urged him to eat all of it.

* * *

One muggy afternoon, Consuelo asked if we’d heard about the girls of Juarez. She was sitting cross-legged on the bed, her elbows on her knees, and as she leaned forward, a look passed over her face, a look that I realized later was excitement. She knew something we didn’t. “Every day, girls are murdered in Juarez.”

“Every day?” Perla asked.

She nodded soberly, then added, “Well, almost every day. At least three hundred girls have been killed.”

Three hundred dead and missing girls in one town—we didn’t believe her. Impossible. She was exaggerating to shock us.

“Oh no?” From her purse, she produced a rolled-up magazine. She tossed it to Perla— “Page thirty-nine.”

On the first page was the headline, “Who is Killing the Girls of Ciudad Juarez?” and below it a picture of eight pink crosses sticking out of the sand, marking the spot where eight bodies were found. We didn’t even need to read the article to see the number: three hundred eighteen. Three hundred eighteen girls were dead or missing, and there were more every week.

“Where is Juarez?” I asked, imagining that the killer was already on his way, right now, to San Nicolás.

“Oh, it’s far away, right on the border,” Consuelo said. She raised her eyebrows. “Who knows? It could be un Americano doing all that killing.” Sometimes, her accent betrayed her.  “Keeeeeling,” she said, turning the i into a long e.  We were supposed to be practicing our Spanish with her, but mostly Consuelo wanted to practice English because one day she’d go back to Los Angeles to work in a beauty parlor where she would cut and style the hair of famous actresses. “Starrrrlets,” she liked to say, rolling the r, “only the beautiful people.”

Perla turned the pages, while I looked over her shoulder and Consuelo lined up all our bottles of nail polish. There were posters all over the town with pictures of the missing girls—Claudia, Imelda, Jacinta, Juanita, Leticia, their names all ending in A, just like Perla, and me— Elena. Only Consuelo was immune.

I waited until Perla tired of the magazine and then I took it to the window where the afternoon light fell softly across the pictures. The mothers of the dead and missing girls searched alleys, questioned strangers, and with sticks, spades, and sometimes their bare hands, scraped at the dunes where so many other girls had been found. They held tight to pictures of their daughters and their troubled eyes asked all the questions: Who took their girls? Were they still alive? Their daughters had left for work, had either boarded a bus or set off on foot and then just disappeared. How could such a thing happen and then keep happening? Why hadn’t anyone stopped it? Why didn’t anyone care?

The world was not what I thought it was, the world had an ugly side; I could almost feel the edges of my mind expanding, burning with this new knowledge. Some months earlier, when I’d watched an educational video about the Holocaust, the bodies stacked like firewood, the same feeling had come over me—people did this to other people? On purpose?

“But is it a serial killer or a group of men?” Perla asked.

“No one knows.” Consuelo uncapped a bottle of the brightest red and painted a stripe down her left index finger.

I didn’t say it, but the dead girls, with their dark hair and round cheeks, looked like Consuelo. They even had her puffy pink lips. In some photos, they smiled demurely, and in others they pouted, as if they already knew or sensed what was in store for them.

“But why would they walk alone if they knew it was so dangerous?” I asked.

“They have to work!” Consuelo said. “You think they have a choice? Anyway, all girls in Mexico have to be careful.”

Be careful. “Cuidado.” Abuelita said this word every time we left the house. If one of the tias happened to be standing there, they would make the sign of the cross over us and mutter a blessing—“Que dios les bendiga.” Fusty words from fusty old women—I hadn’t paid much attention to them. But now, I realized the words were a spell, an incantation—Que dios les bendiga, words to ward off evil.

“Couldn’t they get a ride?” I persisted. “Someone must be able to give them a ride.”

Perla and Consuelo looked at each other, and I knew I had said something stupid.

“They’re maquiladoras—factory girls. It’s not like they have”—Consuelo paused, thinking of the word— “resources.”

Perla rolled onto her back and shut her eyes. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. It’s too sad.” I suppressed a slew of what if questions that would only annoy them: What if the girls fought back? What if the girls banned together and carried knives? Or what if—

“I’m so bored,” Perla said. “There’s nothing to do.”

So Consuelo took us to the lake. A forty-five-minute walk and when we got there, no boys, only a few mothers and children. Perla sighed. Neither one of them wanted to get wet. I watched them from the water as they sunned themselves, and then later as they practiced their sexy walk, swinging their hips from side to side, tossing their hair over one shoulder, a walk that was sure to get them some male attention.

It was no fun to swim alone, so I came out of the water. “No one walks like that in real life,” I said.

“In reeeeal life,” Perla mocked. “What do you know about real life?”

“Plenty,” I said.

Consuelo rolled her eyes at me, and the list of things I knew about life fizzled away.

“Let’s just go back,” I said. For once, they agreed with me.

We passed fields of cucumbers that we’d learned to eat sprinkled with lemon and pepper. A Brahmin bull stood behind the fence, head lowered, as more flies than I’d ever seen in one place crusted around his eyes. I stopped and held out my hand to him—I wanted him to shake the flies off, to buck or run away—but he only stared. Finally, we made it to the main road. It was hot. A popped blister on my heel throbbed. I took my shoe off, but the asphalt was hot, and so I’d flattened the back of my sneaker and was hobbling along, a few paces behind Perla and Consuelo, half-listening to their conversation until they mentioned the tias.

“But don’t you think that they must be jealous of Abuelita?”

“No,” said Consuelo. “I don’t. Not everything is better in the U.S.”

Perla groaned. “You know what I mean. They never got married. They never had a house of their own, or kids, and all because of him.”

Consuelo’s voice dipped to a whisper. “Did you know that Chata and Sulita once had secret novios? Chata was going to elope with her novio, but then, two days before, he fell off a horse and broke his neck.”

“Poor Chata,” Perla murmured.

“And she never got over it.”

“But what about Sulita and her novio?” I asked.

Another look passed between them, and I could see that they’d forgotten about me trailing behind.

Consuelo shrugged. “Papa Miguel chased him off with a machete.”

I burst out laughing. Papa Miguel, that shrunken mummy, chasing off a suitor? All he did now was shuffle from his bed to his chair to the toilet.

“It’s not funny,” Consuelo said.

“I would have run away,” Perla said.

“Me too, of course.” Consuelo glared back at me.

“They’re probably still virgins.” Perla’s voice fell when she said “virgins,” as if it were a bad word. “Imagine being seventy years old and no man has ever touched you.” She giggled. “I hope they had lovers, lots of lovers.”

Consuelo cackled.

Encouraged, Perla continued. “I hope they had men climbing through their windows at night, right under his nose.”

They went on for a while, describing all the men who might have visited Sulita and Chata in their youth, all handsome, of course, with bedroom eyes and ropy, muscular arms—cowboys, the bus driver, the man who ground the corn into masa, the mayor, even the priest.

“Hijole!” Consuelo said. “Too far.”

I was about to tell them that they’d forgotten the store clerk when a car pulled up alongside us. Three men with thick moustaches looked out a dusty window. For a moment, I thought Sulita’s and Chata’s lost novios! Somehow, Perla and Consuelo’s litany must have summoned them through time and space. Then one of them rolled down the window and whistled. Another one said something, but I only understood mamacita. From the backseat, the third one grinned, revealing a gold incisor.

Consuelo picked up her pace. “Don’t look at them.”

We kept our heads down as the car kept pace with us, those three hard faces staring out. I forgot about my blister. When we sped up, they sped up; when we slowed, they slowed. Go away! I thought furiously, just please go away.

Finally, the driver revved the engine, and the car lurched ahead. With relief, we watched the taillights receding. Consuelo let out a pent-up breath. But then they pulled off the road a hundred yards away. The driver got out and leaned against the trunk. A half a mile past them was San Nicolás, the steeple of the church just visible above the tree line.

We slowed. “What should we do?” Perla asked.

“Keep walking, and pretend they aren’t there,” Consuelo said. “That’s what I always do. I just pretend.”

“Let’s go back to the lake,” I said. “We’ll hide until they leave.”

“Don’t worry. They’re just being men,” Consuelo said without much conviction, “and men like to stare.”

As if her words were a command, the other two got out, leaned against the car, and stared right at us.

No man had ever looked at me this way before, so openly bald and predatory. My heart sped up; heat flooded my cheeks. Was this what the girls of Juarez felt when they first realized they were in trouble? Were we in trouble?

“I don’t feel good,” Perla said. “I need to lie down.” Her eyelids fluttered, and she put her hand to her chest.

“Is it her heart?” Consuelo asked.

I nodded and grabbed her elbow. “Get her other arm.”

Together, we led Perla across the road onto the gravel path. Perla’s eyes were closed and Consuelo kept her head down. “Don’t look at them,” she said again, and then she began to pray. “Dios te salve Maria…” I prayed too, but in English. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” And then, for some reason, I couldn’t think of the next line, so I made up my own. I promise never to complain about church again. I promise to pray every day on my knees. I will be good, I will be good.

By the end of Consuelo’s third Hail Mary, we were almost directly across from the men. One of them made a cht cht sound at us, the way you might to an animal. I shut my eyes.

Then, from behind, we heard a honk. We turned—it was Consuelo’s tio in his truck. He pulled over and we half dragged Perla to him. There was room for only two in the front, so I sat on the truck bed. The metal was greasy and hot, and I had to shift my weight from side to side to avoid being burned. Worse, he seemed to hit every pothole, slamming my hipbones against the metal.

The story gushed out of Consuelo as soon Abuelita put Perla to bed. Tia Sulita and Tia Chata listened, then all three erupted.

“What are they saying?” I asked.

“It was the Virgin who saved us,” Consuelo said. “Think about it, if my tio hadn’t forgotten his wallet, he wouldn’t have turned around, he wouldn’t have found us.”

I was dubious. “So the Virgin made him forget his wallet?”

Consuelo raised her hands as if to say, what other explanation could there be?

I thought about this for a while. If the Virgin had saved us, then we had been in real danger. But then… why didn’t she help the girls of Juarez?

* * *

That night, Abuelita slept with Perla, and I was forced to sleep in Chata and Sulita’s room while Sulita took the cot that Abuelita slept in. I stared up at the ceiling as Chata got into the little bed opposite me and turned out the light. I feared that sleeping in that bed would transform me overnight into an old woman, my best days gone. Or, what if, as we slept, Chata and I switched bodies? What if I woke to wrinkles and gnarled knuckles, and she to smooth skin and knees that didn’t crack?

Do not go to sleep, I told myself. Chata’s statue of the Virgin Mary, on the bedside table, looked at me with sorrowful, inscrutable eyes. I turned away and faced the wall, until I realized that it was foolish to turn my back – who knew what Chata was up to? I flopped over and saw that she was sleeping on her back, arms across her chest, like a vampire.

I got out of bed. In the darkness, I could barely make out the checkered linoleum. I eased the door open and slipped through it, stepping on only the white boxes. Across the hallway, Sulita slept. I could hear her snores through the curtain that served as a door to her little nook.

At the table, I opened my notebook and drew a picture of the three men, their maroon car, a line of spindly trees, the church steeple. I drew Perla’s pale face, Consuelo’s head dipped in prayer. I tried to draw the fear that had been on my face, but while I was good at drawing other people, I could never seem to draw myself. I wondered what would have happened if those men had grabbed us. They would have driven us somewhere, forced their lips on us, and we would have ended up dead in a field, the only witness an old Brahmin bull.

I stood, and in the darkness, made my way into the living room. Papa Miguel’s chair was empty, of course—Chata or Sulita had led him to bed hours earlier, as they had been doing all their lives. I felt a sudden defiance. I would sit in it. I would pick at the wicker fibers and make a little tear so that it would scratch and irritate him—that would be my revenge on their behalf. I sat down, the chair creaking under my weight. It was uncomfortable, with a thin mat and a straight, hard back that forced me to sit up. Gripping the arm rests, I said to myself, I will never let anyone tell me what to do, I will never let anyone hurt me. That is the last thing I remember.

Hours later, I woke to a pair of milky, brown eyes. Papa Miguel was leaning over me, one bony claw balanced on his cane. I thought he was going to rap me with it, but he only patted my head twice and waited for me to get up.

I scrambled out of his chair and backed away, my heart pounding as if I’d gotten caught snooping or stealing.

Bones creaking, he lowered himself into his chair. He smacked his lips, pushing a brown tongue out as he raised a shaky finger and pointed it at me, and I thought, Oh no. He’s chosen me. He’ll live forever and I’ll have to spend my life taking care of him.

“Agua,” he croaked. Then, that old man, thin and brittle as a matchstick, who raised his daughters to be slaves, opened his toothless mouth and laughed.

Nicole Simonsen is a writer, teacher, mother, and wife from Northern California. Her stories have appeared in Washington Square Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Booth, and won the fiction prize at Salamander Magazine. “The Virgins of San Nicolás” is excerpted from a novel-in-progress. Check out more stories at nicolesimonsen.com


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