Julia wiped her hand across her forehead, feeling the corrugations of a thousand wrinkles, reflecting on a life of worry and despair. She was never the strong one, the warrior who marched to her own drum; she was the one who stayed home, taking care of the elders, the sick, the weak.
Marina, her sister, had left the village when she was fifteen, running away with a boy whom she had bullied into accompanying her on a grand adventure to the land of milk and honey. It didn’t matter that Jose was married and nine years older. That was the power she had, to weave magical fairytale into a reality that suited her view of the world.
Jose had left his wife and three children, forsaking them for a girl with untamed hair and wild brown eyes. She had a laughing mouth, and her teeth flashed white against her olive skin so that she looked like the embodiment of life and lust and danger.
Julia sighed and the letter fluttered from her grasp. She watched as the wind took it, and it played and dipped and tangled with a tumbleweed, where it rested for a while. The paper was yellow with age and stained by her fingers from years of handling.
She knew the contents by heart, the words imprinted upon her very soul.
“Julia, please come! Don’t throw your life away!”
Marina had begged her to leave the village, to experience the vastness of the world, but it frightened her. Here, she could look down at the valley, admire the endless vista as the seasons changed and breathe the clean air. She felt sure God did not want her to leave, to forsake her duty to her family, so she stayed.
She rose from the rickety blue chair – the paint had peeled off around the legs and backrest from use – and went inside the dark, cool adobe hovel.
Her uncle, the last of the family, was sleeping, drool oozing from his flaccid lips. She smoothed the sheet over his inert body, the chest barely moving as he breathed.
She paused, and knelt next to the bed, and then withdrew with a gasp.
Tio Manuel’s soul had fluttered with the letter, into the light of the great beyond, to a place where he was free.
She covered her face with her hands, dry sobs racking her body. She too was free. Free to be alone, to leave, to find Marina, to live the life she never had. She rose and drew the sheet over his waxen limbs, his sparse grey hair like gossamer on his bony skull. “Poor Tio Manuel,” she thought. “He had worked so hard all his life, never married, never knew the love of a woman.” Yet, as a man, he had opportunities, ones she had been denied.
No one in the family ever spoke about Marina, about the scandal she had brought upon the family. She was evil, she was a puta, even worse, a prostituta, despised and best forgotten. Her mother had died with Marina’s name on her lips and with the bitter words, Que se pudra en el infierno!* Her eyes had stared into the fires of hell and it was there that she saw her daughter, despised, unforgiven and eternally damned.
Julia realized she had better fetch the priest and looked for her sandals, reaching under her bed in the corner of the room. The cat darted out and she screamed and then laughed at her own foolishness. The release of emotions brought on by the laughter was like a healing balm to her body and she could feel a lightness entering her being, as if she too, were being borne aloft by the wings of the angels. She felt her soul soar and expand as the shackles of the years fell away and she gasped as a surge of energy moved through her. It was so powerful that she sprang to her feet and she threw her arms open wide as if to embrace this new feeling, this freedom, this lust for life.
“I will find Marina! I will live my life! It is not too late…I am not too old!” she thought jubilantly. She was startled into reality by a timid, tentative knock on the front door.
A nun in a white and black habit stood there, an uncertain smile on her lips.
“Yes, Hermana? You come at a most opportune time,” Julia said with a tinge of sadness. “I was about to call the priest for my Tio Manuel has just passed on to the better life…”
The nun looked at her quizzically, then grasped her by the shoulders and looked her in the eye. Julia felt herself encircled in the arms of the stranger who clung to her like a lost child and after a long, endlessly long moment, whispered softly in her ear.
“Julia, Julia, do you not know me? I have come home…”
*”May you rot in hell!”