Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism/AFTER THE REVOLUTION by Daniel Olivas

Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
AFTER THE REVOLUTION
b y   d a n i e l   o l i v a s   ~   l o s   a n g e l e s,   c a l i f o r n i a

AFTER THE Revolution, after the last ringing “ˇBasta ya!” echoed through the plazas, calles and ranchos of Mexico, after the murders of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, and after the drafting of the new Mexican constitution, Lázaro Mayo Cisneros worked with all his soul, all his essence, all his sweat, to rebuild his wealth and power.

The agrarian reforms inexorably led to the confiscation, division and distribution of Lázaro’s once vast, lush rancho. Out of pity, the Revolutionaries left him with a few acres of rocky terrain at the outer edges of the pueblo. But he was a realist. Lázaro asked himself: What could I do with all that wonderful grazing land when my fine cattle has been taken away as well? And he answered: Después de la lluvia sale el sol. Things must get better after such a calamity. żNo? Lázaro looked in the mirror and saw a healthy man of thirty-two years. The Revolutionaries could not take this from him. So he accepted the unusable acres with a smile and an elegant bow and pledged, on the memory of his late parents, to begin anew in this measureless land of Mexico.

Aside from his youthful vigor, Lázaro enjoyed several other advantages. First, he benefited from a keen mind, one that not only gathered and retained limitless quantities of facts, but a mind that never ceased to assimilate these facts—whether during working hours or in the dark depths of his hard-earned slumber—so that they could be used in the most efficient and lucrative manner. Second, Lázaro enjoyed a diplomatic nature and a graceful bearing so that even the Revolutionaries took great delectation in his company. Indeed, the Revolutionaries grew to trust Lázaro’s opinions on politics, ranching and science. Finally, Lázaro enjoyed immense luck: one crisp morning, he discovered that his rocky plot of land was nothing less than a boundless source of fine granite that could be quarried to build the many new edifices the pueblo desperately needed to take advantage of the blooming economy. Realizing that much more money could be made from his land, he hired an architect and an engineer so that he could not only sell the granite, but also offer the services of his newly-formed company to design and construct the new courthouse, mayor’s home and plaza. Soon, the surrounding pueblos learned of his structures. A Mayo edifice was solid, dependable yet handsome, graceful, not unlike Lázaro himself.

Lázaro’s popularity grew almost as rapidly as his wealth. He employed scores of men from the pueblo, which made him that much more appreciated. Indeed, at the end of three years, several of the more ardent Revolutionaries cajoled him into running for mayor, which he did reluctantly. Of course, Lázaro won the election, having no opposition candidate to take away a single vote. Yes, three years after the Revolution, Lázaro had risen like his namesake, Lazarus. But where he had been merely a wealthy landowner, he now possessed not only money, but the respect and support of the entire pueblo.

Yet, at the age of thirty-five, Lázaro still lacked a wife and a male heir. So, he set about the task of filling this one void in his otherwise full life. If he suffered from a personal failing, it was this: Lázaro knew nothing of the fine art of romance. True, he was sturdy and handsome, and when dressed in his Sunday finery, Lázaro attracted many fluttering, appreciative eyes. But he approached the idea of starting a family the same way he constructed a building: he carefully drew up plans, thought about what kind of foundation to use, and how long the entire process would take. One night, Lázaro closed himself up in his study with strict instructions to his ancient, but competent, housekeeper Marta that he should not be bothered until he opened the study door. His other request was for Marta to brew a large, strong pot of café, because Lázaro appreciated the importance of his decision. He did not let his housekeeper know the nature of his task, because he was a bit embarrassed by it all.

Once he settled at his desk, and after a few sips of Marta’s wonderful, hot brew, Lázaro pulled out a large piece of paper, dipped his pen into the inkwell, and deliberately wrote three names separated, only by vertical lines running from the top of the page to the bottom. He sat back and pondered the first name: Celia. Oh, beautiful Celia! Her father, Miguel, who owned the pueblo’s largest restaurant, had hinted that he would not mind such a match. But Lázaro, at that time, was not interested because he had too much to accomplish to rebuild his fortune. Now his mind’s eye washed over the few furtive glances he had thrown Celia’s way when she walked through the pueblo. She reminded Lázaro of a brilliantly-plumed parrot: exquisite and proud. But Lázaro’s mind stumbled into a memory of his one conversation with Celia. Though at first she seemed quite normal, with a particularly mellifluous voice, he remembered that she had no opinion about anything, not even the weather, and that, indeed, she said nothing of any importance, though she said it quite beautifully. Surely, he would grow bored living a life with this woman.

Lázaro took a sip of café and then turned to the second name: Hortencia. Though not as beautiful as Celia, Hortencia, the daughter of one of the more affable Revolutionaries, was a sturdy young woman who wore glasses and loved to read Russian novelists and German poets. Perhaps she could keep Lázaro content and produce an intelligent son who would eventually take over the family business. The downside to Hortencia? Lázaro couldn’t think of one other than Hortencia did, indeed, enjoy polemic, the intense debate, controversy. Was this an unwanted trait? Would it not benefit Lázaro to live his life with a woman who had the intelligence to point out the pitfalls of this business venture or that? Interesting question. He underlined Hortencia’s name twice.

Finally, Lázaro looked at the name Socorro on the parchment. Why he would do this he did not know. Socorro was the last woman in the pueblo to be made a widow by the Revolution. She had been married to Lázaro’s friend, Manuel Osorio Martín. Oh, poor Manuel: he was a fine man, but stubborn beyond belief. When the Revolutionaries took his land, he spat in their faces and told them to burn in hell. And one bullet ended this great man’s life, leaving behind the handsome, seventeen-year-old Socorro and no children. Before her husband’s death, she had been gay, but not frivolous; practical, yet not boring. But when she held Manuel’s lifeless body on that horrible day in October, her soul crumbled, caved in, became a cheerless abyss. And for a full year, Socorro wore nothing but black and shielded her ethereal visage with a veil. When she finally discarded her mourner’s apparel, she went about her business trying not to make eye contact, trying not to make a ripple in the pueblo’s activity. But once, and only once, on one of Socorro’s rare visits to the mercado, Lázaro caught her eye. And she smiled, not much of one, a mere shadow of an upturned lip, but it was enough for Lázaro to catch his breath and be trapped for a moment in the beauty and sorrow of his late friend’s widow. Was there a downside to choosing Socorro? Perhaps only her poverty, but money was not at issue here. Finding a true helpmate, a mother for his future male heir, that was the only issue for Lázaro to keep in mind.

Lázaro’s task had kept him so enthralled, he had not noticed the passing of the hours. A sharp rap on the study’s door snapped him from his musings. The heavy wooden barrier creaked opened and there stood Marta, holding a large silver tray of breakfast, shaking her large head back and forth, clucking her tongue, as if she came upon an unruly child who was unceremoniously torturing the household cat.

“No sleep,” she said as a statement of fact and not as a query.

“None,” offered Lázaro, feeling just like that unruly child.

Marta shuffled to her master’s desk, set the tray down and crossed her arms.

“Eat before it gets cold,” she said with more concern for the fine meal she had prepared than for Lázaro’s health. She reached for the napkin and handed it to Lázaro. He took the napkin, spread it upon his lap and gazed upon his breakfast of huevos, frijoles, tortillas and café. Despite her personal failings, her lack of warmth, Marta was an accomplished cook who ran an efficient household. Suddenly, as she started to walk away confident that Lázaro would eat his food, Lázaro had an idea.

“Marta,” he began. “Look here. Look at what I’ve been writing.”

Marta let out a sigh without any attempt to conceal her annoyance.

“I have much cleaning to do,” she said as she turned back to the desk.

“This won’t take long,” said Lázaro. Then he corrected himself: “This won’t take you long at all.”

She scanned the parchment and made a small whistling sound through her narrow nostrils. “And what am I looking at?” she said.

“I am deciding who should be my wife,” said Lázaro, pushing back his embarrassment, for he was at a terrible impasse.

Marta fell back upon her heels as many thoughts invaded her mind. Wife? she thought. What of me? Will she replace me?

Lázaro, sensing her panic, added: “It is important for you two to get along because you will be with me for as long as God allows.”

Marta recovered her bearings, for her master was nothing if not an honest man. She squinted and peered at the parchment. For a full five minutes, she offered nothing more than a cough as she absorbed Lázaro’s elegant notations. Lázaro’s heart beat harder with each minute Marta mused in silence. He respected this tough old woman’s opinion.

Celia, Hortencia and Socorro. Marta recognized each name. And this is what she thought: ˇAy! Why must Lázaro make such a change in my life? Things are so good, under control, and predictable for me! Oh, what a hard life God has set down! So who would cause the least damage to me? Who? Celia? She is pretty. Too pretty! She’ll have me doing much more laundry just to keep her looking bonita in her frocks. She would be the end of me! I would surely die of exhaustion! And Hortencia? She’s no fool and she doesn’t worry much about how she dresses, either. She might not bring too much misery to my life. But she does love argument, doesn’t she? In fact, she seems to love debate for the sake of debate. I saw her engage the wonderful, patient butcher, Alonzo, in an argument about the name of a certain cut of beef! Poor Alonzo! He had customers piling up behind Hortencia, but did she care? No, she had to argue! She will ruin my life! She will turn everything I do into fodder for a diatribe! Let me see: Socorro. Poor woman. So young to lose a husband. And she very properly wore black for a year. She knows her place. Socorro. ˇSi! It will be Socorro who will bring me the least trouble!

Marta pulled herself up straight and cleared her throat as Lázaro waited anxiously for her opinion.

“Well,” she began, “you have listed three of the finest women in the pueblo.”

Lázaro smiled and nodded.

“And your notations are not only beautifully written, they are accurate as well.”

“Yes?” said Lázaro. “Go on.”

“So, the question is which of these fine women will make you a solid wife, a good mother of your future children.” And then she added: “The most important thing is which woman would be best suited for you and only you.”

“And your thoughts?”

Marta paused for emphasis. “These are my thoughts: there is one woman on the list who will make my life more difficult, but who will be the best match for you.”

“But it is not my intention to make your life more difficult,” said Lázaro.

Marta waved her callused, veined hand. “I am not important. You are. So let me speak.”

“Yes, I am sorry. Who would be best? For me?”

Marta paused again. She finally said in soft voice: “Socorro.”

Lázaro looked down at the parchment. “Socorro,” he whispered. “Socorro,” he said again.

“Socorro,” echoed Mart.

Lázaro dipped his pen in the inkwell and crossed out the other two women’s names. “Socorro it is, then!” he said triumphantly.

Marta reached for the pot and poured café into a large cup. “Please, now, you must eat breakfast,” she smiled. “You have much to do today.” With that, Marta left the study triumphantly.

Lázaro grinned a wild grin and ate his breakfast with great vigor while the image of Socorro swirled about his mind. He saw the faces of his future children: a first born son who would be named after him, and maybe a daughter or two to keep Socorro contented. And he saw a wonderful retirement, with grandchildren running about the house and a competent, successful son taking over all of his business ventures. Yes! A momentous day lay before him.

After a joyous breakfast filled with reverie, Lázaro bathed vigorously and then shaved his smiling face while Marta set out his finest outfit. As he dressed, he wondered how he should broach the subject of matrimony with Socorro. Lázaro had not spoken many words to her since Manuel’s demise, but he felt a connection with her. So did it much matter? He would have an invitation delivered to Socorro inviting her to dine with him at the pueblo’s finest restaurant. It is so easy to discuss business over a delicious meal and delightful wine, he reasoned.

As Lázaro directed two boys in the washing of his Model T, Marta hired another boy, Tito, to deliver the invitation to Socorro. A half-hour later, Lázaro proudly gazed upon his gleaming automobile. As he removed a stray fleck, he observed, in the reflection, Tito wandering up the road. Ah! he thought. He must have the response from beautiful Socorro! Suddenly, the front door opened and Marta went to meet the boy. As Lázaro happily fussed with the Model T, he heard Marta’s voice become shrill and scolding. Alarmed, he turned in time to witness Marta slapping Tito across his bony face. Lázaro turned on his heel and ran to his maid and the boy.

“What is this?” he yelled.

Marta pulled her hand back and slapped the boy one more time.

“This boy,” she said with a sputter, “did not deliver the invitation as instructed!”

Lázaro motioned for Marta to leave. After a moment of hesitation, she let out a huff and walked back to the house.

“Well,” he said to the frightened boy. “Is this true?”

Tito kept his eyes to the ground and slowly nodded. Tears rolled silently off his high cheekbones and hit the dusty cobblestones with remarkable force. Lázaro leaned closer to Tito.

“What happened?” he gently asked the boy.

After a few sniffles and a wipe of his nose on his soiled cotton sleeve, Tito said: “I gave it to her but after she read it, she handed the invitation back to me.”

“Really?”

“Yes. This is the truth.”

“Did she say anything?”

Tito thought for a moment. He was now calm with the knowledge that Lázaro was not the type of adult to hit a child indiscriminately.

“Not really,” Tito said slowly.

“Not really?”

“Well, she did laugh,” the boy said.

Lázaro leaned away from Tito. “Laughed?” he said as a smile broke out on his glistening face. “She laughed!”

And with that, Lázaro let out a hearty laugh of his own. Tito couldn’t help but join in. After a moment of glee, Lázaro handed the boy a coin and told him to run along. He called out to Marta, who had been observing the dialogue from the kitchen window.

“Marta, we have a change of plan,” said Lázaro. “Prepare dinner and pack it in my automobile, por favor.”

Marta looked at him through squinted eyes of disbelief.

“I will have to approach the widow a bit differently, I believe,” offered Lázaro as an explanation.

Marta shrugged. “It is your choice.”

“Yes,” said Lázaro. “It is my choice.”

Once Marta had prepared the meal as ordered, and packed the Model T with the delicacies, Lázaro got in his automobile, started it with a great puff of smoke, and waved triumphantly to his disgusted housekeeper. He is becoming foolish, thought Marta. Men are such stupid creatures! She watched as the black vehicle grew smaller with distance. Finally, Marta turned to the task of scrubbing the kitchen, her one true domain.

As Lázaro drove over the newly-paved roads of the pueblo – paved by his company at a fair but lucrative price – he thought of what he should say to Socorro. She was a proud woman, no doubt. And he had virtually ignored Socorro after the Revolutionaries murdered her husband and took her property. Why he did, Lázaro did not know. Perhaps he wanted to forget the horror of it all and concentrate on rebuilding his life. Perhaps he felt responsible in some way. It didn’t matter. It was time to begin anew, start fresh, write the next chapter of his life.

Lázaro drove past Socorro’s former home, a large structure built in the French colonial style with smooth columns and a fine, ornate balcony. He remembered many wonderful dinners there, with his friends, talking of business and politics and even moving pictures. Now the house was filled with three families, all Revolutionaries, who allowed the magnificent residence to fall into disrepair. So sad. So unnecessary.

By the time he had reached Socorro’s simple home at the outskirts of the pueblo, Lázaro’s mind was mired in pitiful thoughts. He shut off the motor and grabbed the basket of food. Was this a bad idea? Well, it was too late to turn back, because he saw Socorro standing at her front door, arms crossed, brow knitted. Lázaro offered a wan smile and a tip of his hat as he left his automobile and walked toward his best friend’s widow.

“What is that?” she asked.

Lázaro blushed a deep crimson. But even in his embarrassment, he observed the great beauty of this woman.

“Dinner,” he answered. “May I come in?”

Socorro slowly and without a word stepped aside to let Lázaro pass. Once inside, he noticed the humble, but tidy, surroundings. Despite being forced into this hovel, Socorro made the best she could of her predicament. Lázaro nodded towards the dining table.

“Yes,” said Socorro without emotion as if she were telling a boy to gather twigs for her. “You may put the food there. I will get everything else.”

Lázaro complied. The wonderful, rich aroma of Marta’s cooking began to fill the modest abode mixing with the loamy smells emanating from the red dirt floor. Lázaro allowed his eyes to roam freely over Socorro’s sturdy, curvaceous physique as she set the table. Once or twice, she leaned close to finish her task, and Lázaro filled his nostrils with her warm, sweaty, delicious scent. But Socorro didn’t seem to notice. She had a task to complete, and she set to it as if she were alone.

Finally, she said, “Done.”

Lázaro ran to Socorro’s chair and held it for her. He thought he saw a bit of a smile appear on her lips, but he wasn’t certain. She sat slowly, elegantly, but it could have been fatigue that made Socorro move in such a manner. Lázaro, acting as haughty as a French waiter, bowed and proceeded to serve dinner. This time, a true, almost broad smile flickered on the woman’s beautiful face. When both plates were full of Marta’s fine cuisine, Lázaro bowed again and took his seat.

As dinner proceeded, Socorro grew more comfortable and the conversation eased into that wistful nostalgia that only two old friends could delight in. Her anger towards Lázaro dwindled with each laugh, every shared anecdote. And Lázaro fell into the moment with such ease and joy that he forgot his great plans to propose marriage. He simply luxuriated in this woman’s company without a conscious thought. When the food had disappeared and the wine bottle long stood empty, the two old friends grew quiet. They simply looked at each other, lost in their separate, though similar, thoughts. Why be alone? Life is so short. Why not this one? While such thoughts were new to Socorro, they seemed new to Lázaro, as well, because his abstract plan of action had been met with the power of this woman’s presence.

Finally, Socorro broke the silence: “So, Lázaro, my dear friend. It is time you started a family. żNo?

Though Lázaro normally would have been shocked by both the boldness and prescience of such a question, he was not. Rather, he leaned forward and tried to catch the scent of this woman. And he answered, simply, with a nod and a soft smile. Socorro touched Lázaro’s hand, and he felt what could have been a small spark leave her fingers, travel up his arm, round his shoulder and reach the nape of his neck in a small electrical dance. He had, indeed, made the right choice.

And so it was: the wedding took place one month later in the still-majestic Santa Cristina Church, with an extravagant fiesta in the plaza that lasted two full days and nights. People wondered why Socorro had hidden herself away for so long, for when they saw her resplendent and smiling on her wedding morning, she was certainly the most beautiful and joyous woman within many miles.

Perhaps the happiest person in the pueblo was Marta, who knew that, of all the women her master could have married, Socorro was least likely to be a burden. But this would not be so. For when the new mistress of the household moved in with her new husband, she proceeded to chip away at Marta’s duties. Socorro never would sit idly as Marta cooked, cleaned and did the laundry. No, Socorro was constitutionally incapable of becoming an indolent person. So, she started to prepare the meals while Marta watched helplessly from the corner of what was once her domain. This distressed Marta to no end, but what could she say? The mistress was now her boss. She decided to spend more time with the housecleaning and laundry. But Marta had too much free time. No problem, said Socorro. You work so hard. Take a day off. We will survive. What would she do with a day off? She had no friends, no family, nothing to occupy herself. And if she left for even a day, Marta was certain that Socorro would start doing the cleaning and maybe even the laundry. Oh, what a horrible predicament!

One day, being forced to leave and enjoy a day at the insistence of Socorro, Marta wandered the pueblo like a suffering ghost. She mumbled to herself, damning the day she cunningly convinced Lázaro to choose this woman. This horrible, evil woman! What will I do?

The next morning, Marta’s worst fears came to fruition. She entered through the kitchen at the back of the house and found it empty except for the rich aromas of beef picadillo and frijoles cooking on the stove. But the smells merely made her queasy. Marta suspected something was amiss. She left the kitchen, ostensibly to see if her mistress needed anything, but to her horror, she almost stumbled over Socorro, who was scrubbing the main hallway tile floor!

“Mistress,” Marta sputtered. “What are you doing? Are you well?”

Socorro let out a laugh. “I’m very well, thank you.”

“Let me do that,” said Marta, sounding more like the boss, rather than the housekeeper.

Socorro turned back to scrubbing. “No, I don’t mind. In fact, I enjoy good hard work. It makes me feel alive.”

“But that’s my job!”

Socorro laughed again. “Feeling alive is your job?”

Marta did not welcome this joke at her expense. But she could not fathom what to do next. This was her mistress, after all. In the end, Marta was at the mercy of this strange woman. So, she offered a weak nod and headed toward the backyard to do laundry. Luckily there was plenty to do that day. Certainly her mistress would not take this task away. Unless of course she was, indeed, insane. For what kind of woman would voluntarily take on such toil? If Marta were wealthy, she would relax, perhaps travel, maybe tend a pretty garden. That is what a woman with money does! She does not cook and scrub floors!

Marta exited the house through the kitchen and found herself on the back porch. She gazed upon the gleaming, copper electric washing machine that sat squat on three legs. Marta hated using it. That damn machine could never get the clothes as clean as my own two hands could! She pumped water into a basin, sprinkled in a liberal amount of soap powder, and set the washboard at a good angle. Marta’s mind felt as though it would burst. She grabbed a one of Socorro’s dresses from the basket and plopped it into the soapy water with a splash that wet her face. But she did not care. Marta had to calculate a way to end this lunacy. She soaked the fabric and then started to knead it up and down the washboard’s metal ripples. After a few moments, Marta suddenly stopped, hands clenching Socorro’s dress. She stood motionless while staring at the white cotton garment. And the longer she stood there, the more her mind turned. Finally, she let out a small chuckle. Yes, there was something Marta could do before it was too late, before she lost her job to this demented woman’s desire to slave away at household chores when she could be enjoying her new station in life. Marta had no choice. Something had to be done. Period. But the solution had to be subtle. Nothing too dramatic and certainly nothing to bring blame upon Marta’s head.

That afternoon, pretending to need additional soap, Marta offered Socorro a strained smile and headed to an encampment just outside the pueblo in search of Katrina, the curandera. The townspeople knew that Katrina was Russian and that long ago, she sold her body to any man who was willing to turn over a few pesos. Now that her face and body no longer pleased, she turned to the black arts to make her living. There was also no doubt that Katrina possessed the kind of powers that no one had ever before witnessed, at least no one in this particular pueblo.

As Marta approached the encampment, she could discern several dilapidated, crudely-constructed huts hugging the edge of a creek. The closer she got, the stronger the stench of this loose community grew. Disheveled men, women and children wandered about the encampment almost in slow motion, without joy, without sound. Even a pack of mongrels lacked life as it hovered by the garbage heap to the far north of the structures. Marta entered the encampment, but not a soul seemed to care: no one lifted a head, no one glanced at her. She asked a young girl where she could find Katrina. The girl offered nothing but large, vague eyes. Then, just as Marta was to give up, the girl lethargically pointed to a moss-covered hut a few yards away. Marta trudged through the muck to the hut and rapped on the piece of rotting wood that passed for a door.

“Come,” said a voice that sounded more like an animal’s grunt than a human response.

Though not a woman to be cowed by anyone or anything, Marta shuddered with dread, for she knew that there were things that could not be explained, things that could cause great harm if you refused to admit your helplessness. And rumor had it that Katrina was no less than a devotee of the Santisima Muerte, a banned saint whose cult was without a doubt rooted in an Aztec goddess often depicted as a skeleton. Oh, the thought of such mysterious power shook Marta to the core. She entered the darkened hut warily and with great trepidation. Once inside, Marta squinted and attempted to adjust her eyes as rapidly as possible.

“Come,” said the voice again. “I am here.”

Marta turned to the far corner of the small room and beheld this woman the townspeople feared most. Marta’s heart relaxed as her eyes absorbed the vision of this great curandera. At a table sat Katrina, a small-framed, fragile-looking woman of no more than forty years. The curandera’s long hair, which still shimmered a rich cinnamon, hung neatly away from her face and down her back. Her sharp, green eyes flickered with the light of a lone candle.

“Please,” said Katrina. “Come forward and sit here.” She motioned with a miniature hand toward a stool that stood at the opposite end of the table.

So, this is the great curandera, thought Marta. I’ve wasted my time for certain!

Katrina let out a low chuckle. “No,” she said. “You have not wasted your time, I assure you.”

Marta’s eyes widened and her scalp danced. Katrina chuckled again.

“Please,” said Katrina. “Sit. It is time to talk of what you need.”

Marta had no choice. She must sit and tell this powerful woman what was in her heart, though it was clear that she already knew. Marta slowly made her way to the stool and sat as directed. Katrina smiled, leaned forward and said softly, almost gently, “You have come to me for the freedom another woman is taking from you.”

As these words entered Marta’s consciousness, she knew that Katrina would help her. Marta nodded and mouthed the word, Yes. The curandera suddenly stood and walked to a small ledge that was cluttered with every size, shape and color of bottle. As Katrina carefully examined her potions, searching for the correct one, Marta noticed that the woman was no taller than a child, but moved with the grace of a dancer. Finally, Katrina emitted a soft Ah! and returned to her chair.

“Here,” she said as she placed a slender, blue bottle before Marta. “This will bring you freedom from that woman.”

She reached for the bottle, but Katrina snatched it away with such alacrity that Marta jumped back in fright. After a moment, Marta understood. She reached into her cloth purse, produced three coins and placed them on the table. Katrina smiled and put the bottle near the money. Marta grasped the bottle and brought it to her bosom.

“So,” she said to the curandera, “I give this to Socorro?”

“No,” said Katrina. “Feed it to your master at night.”

Marta’s eyes narrowed. “What?”

Katrina ignored the question. “But you must make certain Socorro is not in the house.”

“How?”

Katrina again ignored the question. “Be patient,” she said. “Wait for the right time.”

Marta opened her mouth to ask another question, but she knew it was useless. She slid the bottle into her purse, stood and left the hut without turning back. As Marta hurried away, she heard a small but distinct laugh follow her.

And so it was: Marta waited for the opportunity to use the magic as Katrina had instructed. She patiently watched as Socorro cleaned house and cooked every meal, leaving only the laundry for the once-busy housekeeper. In disgust, Marta also watched as Lázaro fell deeper in love with this interloper. But her patience paid off well. One morning, after Socorro had cooked but not served her husband breakfast, she called Marta to the kitchen.

“Tomorrow is Lázaro’s birthday,” she whispered to the housekeeper, though there was little chance that anyone could overhear.

“Yes?” said Marta through a forced smile.

“I wish to make a magnificent dinner for him,” said Socorro as she tidied the kitchen. “But I must go to town today to buy what I need.”

“Oh, I can do that for you,” offered Marta, knowing full well that she would reject such an offer.

“No, no,” Socorro said, almost on cue. “This must be from me.”

“Is there something that I can do to help?”

“Yes,” she smiled in excitement. “I’ve prepared breakfast for Lázaro. Please serve it right after I leave.”

“Of course,” she answered. “Anything else that I can help you with?”

As Socorro removed her apron and reached for her purse, she said, “Make certain our finest table linens are as clean as they can be. And if Lázaro should ask, confirm that I simply went out to visit with Seńora Miramontes.”

Marta grinned with such intensity that Socorro froze. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, yes,” Marta said as she tried to control her glee. “Please go. All will be well.”

And with that, Socorro left the house. Marta quickly fumbled with her own purse, which always hung by her side. When she found the bottle, she poured its reddish, thick contents into the boiling pot of frijoles and stirred until not a trace was visible. Marta filled a large bowl with a hearty helping of the frijoles, placed the bowl on a silver tray, and completed the meal with pan dulce, tortillas, a pot of café and a large glass of water.

“Ah!” said Lázaro as Marta carried the food to the dining room. “Looks wonderful! But where is my lovely wife?”

The housekeeper set the tray down and started to unload it. As she placed the bowl of frijoles before her master, her right hand trembled a bit, so she quickly employed her left to steady the bowl.

“Socorro had an errand or two to tend to,” said Marta, not remembering what her mistress had instructed. “But she left this magnificent breakfast for you.”

Lázaro’s eyes glistened with hunger. After Marta had set out everything, Lázaro took a big gulp of café, grabbed a tortilla, tore it in half and proceeded to devour his breakfast. His housekeeper stood back, arms crossed tightly across her narrow chest, crooked smile in place, and quietly observed Lázaro. In a short time, he had finished every bit of food. As Lázaro drank the last of the café, Marta approached.

“Do you desire anything else?” she asked as she reached for the empty bowl.

Lázaro nodded and placed the palm of his hand squarely on Marta’s lower back. “I desire you,” he said softly.

Lázaro’s intimate request paralyzed the housekeeper. After a moment of silence, Marta realized what was happening. The potion! But what to do? She had not anticipated such a result.

“Well, mi amor,” cooed Lázaro. “Socorro is out of the house. You and I are alone.”

Before she could answer, Lázaro stood and enveloped Marta in his arms. She thought that she should scream, but she had brought this on. And perhaps it was the only way to get rid of Socorro without shedding any blood.

“But I am too old for you,” said Marta, knowing full well that her words did not matter.

“And the thought delights me,” countered Lázaro.

He gently lifted Marta’s chin with one, strong finger. She saw nothing but adoration in his eyes. Well! Why not? she thought. I am not so old that I cannot enjoy myself. And if this is the only way to win back my freedom from that woman, so be it! With that, Marta closed her eyes and welcomed her master’s lips to hers. And her memory fell back many years to when her own father had kissed and embraced her in such a way. But she was only twelve then. What did she know? Now, as a mature woman, she could truly enjoy the love of a man without guilt.

A scream snapped Marta from her reverie. She pushed her body from Lázaro’s. In the entryway stood Socorro with a look of abhorrence so excruciating, Marta had to turn away. Lázaro looked at Socorro and then back at Marta, and back again. He shook his head, blinked several times, and tried to say something, but his lips could form no words. Socorro’s hands trembled before her. All three stood motionless, not knowing what to do or say. Socorro finally turned and ran from the house, making a pitiable sound.

Lázaro turned to Marta. He no longer craved her. Rather, his heart now filled with disgust and a knowledge that Marta had played with fate, though he did not know how. And Marta understood she could not escape. So, as Lázaro approached her and slowly, but with great passion, placed his enormous hands around his housekeeper’s frail neck, Marta did not scream or struggle. She merely closed her eyes and yielded to Lázaro’s hatred. For she had no choice. He was her master. And the curandera, indeed, had promised her freedom. Nothing more. Nothing less.

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