Traveling from San Diego to Los Angeles in the dry heat can be difficult. Doing so after your horse and provisions have been stolen, can be worse.
All that Joaquin Fernandez de Castro had left after the denuding incident were his guitar, his 3-year-old brown dog, Whisky, and the clothes on his back. To make matters worser, the theft had occurred only a few hours outside of the San Diego de Alcalá Mission. Sure, Joaquin could have simply returned to the Mission from where he departed earlier that day, and requested a new horse and provisions, but he decided against it because he was notorious for these kinds of situations. Hence, he decided to just keep trekking, and somehow find his way up to Pueblo de Los Angeles all on his own.
“Joaquincito, you’d leave your head behind if Our Holy Father hadn’t attached it to that thick neck of yours,” Padre Florencio would tease him every time Joaquin did something stupid.
Joaquin hated being treated as the village idiot. That was the main reason why he left the comfort and affluence of his parents’ home in Madrid, Spain. He was the youngest of six, the runt, as his mother used to refer to him, in tender motherese, but just as insulting, nonetheless.
Joaquin would rather be found dead somewhere between San Diego and Los Angeles than to have to explain to the Padre what really happened, and in turn, have the Padre write a letter to his parents about his imbecility. An imbecility he had planned to shed by becoming a priest and helping those that were in worse shape than he, and start a new life where nobody knew of him or of his ineptitude. An ineptitude that had somehow made its way into his luggage, snugly packed with his socks and underwear, and onto the boat he took from Portugal to Cuba. His flaws had somehow swum behind like a horde of evil mermaids, bobbing up and down in the waves that had made him so nauseous during the whole trip. It was as if God Himself didn’t want him to forget who he was. You’re worthless, Joaquin, he often told himself, and you probably should have been born a woman. However, those words weren’t of his own creation even though they were rattling inside his achy head. They were his mother’s. Joaquin wanted to put an ocean between his life as a failure, as a disappointment as his father used to refer to him after a binge of imported whisky, and his life as a benevolent priest.
As Joaquin walked on the side of the Camino Real, he soon began to create a new reputation, that of a wandering vagabond. Most travelers ignored him, something that hurt him more than anything his family or the friars in San Diego ever did to him. Rejection, in his mind, was the worst sin of all. Christ Himself was rejected by his own people. Joaquin couldn’t help but to sob at this rejection from his own Catholic brethren. It was a sin he should’ve brought upon himself when he encountered the injured man by the side of the road, the one who stole his horse and his sense of trust. His first case of charity. He should’ve just non carpe diem, as he had become known for in his circle of friends, and recently in the mission. As a person that never seized the day. His horse got stolen by a man pretending to be stranded. Joaquin lay the man on his stomach, draping his limp body over the saddle. The clip-clop, the horse’s soothing gait, placed Joaquin in a serene trance. He went for a drink and before he knew it, the man was seated upright and in full gallop toward the sunset. Joaquin yelled out at the hijacker that he was a priest and that God would punish him for having stolen from Him, but he kept on riding without remorse. So much for being a Good Samaritan, he thought.
Whisky, the dog, named after his owner’s addiction— one that had started as a game with his father and brothers to see who could outdrink who— helped to garner some sympathy from a few travelers, often receiving scraps of food and smiles that communicated, “Oh, you poor man.” Good, full-teethed, Catholic smiles. Smiles that communicated empathy, but expressed indifference. Whisky, the spirit, could be seen when the wealthy travelers opened their lavishly upholstered carriages to dump out their trash or charity of water and various foodstuffs at Joaquin and his dog. Joaquin wanted to be filled with the spirit, his black mistress and dark past, his drink of choice. What he wouldn’t give to have just a single drop of it spill off one of the gentlemen’s glasses, warmly permeating into the cracked earth that was his tongue.
“People scare easy,” Joaquin said to his dog. “Unlike you, they find it hard to trust other people.” Up to this point, that was all Joaquin had been doing, trying to garner people’s trust by doing what they expected of him. The only reason that he allowed the stranger to ride his horse was that the church expected him to do so. To be selfless. The reason why he was, presently, in the middle of nowhere was that his parents expected him to leave their house. To be a real man. “Jesus was a selfless, real, flesh and bone man and look where he ended up.” Whisky cocked its little head at Joaquin, furrowing its brow and releasing an ascending grunt. “Maybe this is where I belong. Nowhere. A place with no people to tell me what to do or guilt me into doing their bidding.” He turned over to Whisky for some sort of confirmation, but all he got was its breathy panting.
As he looked for a place to settle down for the night, a desert rose tree caught his attention. He walked over, lay down his belongings, and plucked a flower off of it. He brought it to his face, dipped his nose deep in its bell, and took a long deep breath. It had been one of the few moments of relaxation he’d experienced in years. He closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, the daylight had suddenly turned into a single-candled dusk. He pulled out a three-page letter from his coat’s breast pocket, unfolded it, and placed in it the freshly-cut rose, still wet at the base. Folding up the letter at the creases, he placed it back in his pocket. If something so small and delicate can survive in this climate, then so can I, he reassured himself.
Joaquin began to feel the accumulation of the stress of traveling and getting nowhere fast. That of not having slept on a warm bed and eaten a warm meal. He began to wonder if he’d ever feel the warm embrace of a woman or the warmness of other people again, even in the impersonal way they addressed one another as they passed by each other on the street. He pulled out his bible, opened it to Luke 10:25, and read the story of the man on the side of the road, and thought about how human kindness seemed to leave humans as soon as they left civilization. They despoiled themselves of civility and kindness and hung it like a dirty rag on a rack when they reached the town’s end. They behaved like naked savages outside of it, and before they returned home, they threw it back on, and acted as if they never took it off. He closed the bible and sighed at their hypocrisy.
“Out in the range,” he said to Whisky as he began to lay his body on the dusty, dirty ground, “we’re all just animals.” He called the dog towards him, and it burrowed its little warm, furry body in the nook formed between his chest and thighs. “What if I had married Dalila Gamero?” Joaquin whispered to himself. “What if I hadn’t folded like a bad hand of cards, and kept up the bluff like Gregorio did? Gregorio, the one I thought was my best friend, my true brother. Why did I give her to him? Why do I always do that?” But as he looked around at his surroundings and at the heavens above for an answer, all he got in response was darkness and silence.
Suddenly, Joaquin saw a beam of light emanating from the moon down onto what looked like a finely crafted couch off in the distance. He got up from the blanket-lined dirt floor and walked towards it. The couch was light blue fabric upholstered on dark cherry wood, decorated with golden buttons and matching tassels. It was an exact replica of the one found in his parents’ bedroom. Joaquin began to hear voices that sounded familiar, but not so much that he was able to instantly associate them with anyone he knew. The closer he walked, the louder the voices, their moaning and groaning, became. His sight was blurry, and he began to rub his eyes furiously, but the more he rubbed, they became blurrier still. As he approached the couch, he recognized a scar on what appeared to be a man’s back. It was Gregorio, his best friend. It was from the wound he sustained as a child after he climbed and fell off a big apple tree in Joaquin’s backyard.
Gregorio was thrusting his bare hips into what looked like a woman’s pelvis. Joaquin looked incessantly, circling the small couch, trying to see if he could find any physical characteristics that he could use to identify the woman. He couldn’t. He had a premonition of who it might be, but he didn’t want to believe it. It wasn’t until the woman white-knuckled onto Gregorio’s heaving buttocks that he realized that the woman that was screaming in ecstatic pain was Dalila herself. Her right hand, milky white from having always worn gloves, had three beauty spots, one on each knuckle of the index, middle, and ring fingers. Those delicate hands, the same ones Joaquin used to kiss right before they parted ways for the night, back when he was courting her, were now treacherously wringing sweat out of his childhood buddy’s flesh. How foolish he had been, referring to them as angel kisses when all she really wanted was sex. That goddamned whore, he thought.
“This one is for the Father,” Joaquin remembered saying after the first kiss. “This one is for the Son. And this one, for the Holy Ghost.” Each statement, each person of God, was punctuated by a long, warm kiss on each beauty spot.
Seeing the two people that had meant so much to him aiding one another reach orgasm showed him how cruel Dalila had really been and how she had ruined his life. Joaquin realized that she was the reason why he had left behind a life of comfort and wealth. That he would rather die as a nobody in the Californian wilderness than as somebody without Dalila as his woman. As his own.
“Do you like that?” Gregorio’s blurred face asked with a distorted voice.
“What?” Joaquin asked, shocked that these blurry phantoms of his past were acknowledging his presence.
“He asked if you liked what he’s doing to me?” Dalila asked, never once stopping her rhythmic lovemaking.
Joaquin fell on his ass, thrashing backwards, kicking up small clouds of dust.
“Do you like that?” Gregorio and Dalila continued to ask. The more Joaquin moved away, the closer he seemed to be to their passionate act of love. It was as if Satan himself was pulling his legs back towards the hell he was beholding. He wanted to yell, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t even breathe.
“Do you like that?… Do you like that?… Do you like that?”
“Do you like that?” a gruff voice asked Joaquin as a foot kicked him in the buttocks.
“What?” Joaquin asked looking up at the man, his face shielding Joaquin’s eyes from the blaring sunlight, casting a momentary shadow over his face. Although it was difficult to see what the man looked like, Joaquin could tell that he didn’t have the most enchanting face, based on the smell of his rotten-egg breath.
“Who the hell are you, and what the hell are you doing here?” the man yelled at him as the hammer on his long revolver clicked, long and silvery white in the late morning’s piercing sun. Whisky barked loudly as if rabid.
Joaquin looked around in a panic to make sure that he was no longer dreaming. He was still in the desert. He scooted back violently, and breathed a sigh of relief. When Joaquin’s eyes finally came into focus, he saw just how big and fat the man really was. His big fat body was furnished with a big fat hat and a big fat mustache. Everything on his body was big and fat.
“My name is Severo,” the man said, clearing out his nostrils, and spitting out a hearty hawker the colors of the Mexican flag. “Severo Macario, at your service, and this is my daughter Rosalinda.”
Severo threw him a leather canteen full of a mystery liquid. Joaquin popped the lid, and spilled a little on the dirt. It was clear. Joaquin then brought the lip up to his nose, and smelled it suspiciously.
“Don’t be a wuss, and just drink it,” Severo insisted. Joaquin took a swig. He allowed the warm liquid to reside in his mouth for longer than he should have, and upon tasting the gravity of its otherworldly bitterness, he decided to swallow it hard rather than spray it all over the kind stranger. The wince that invaded his face after doing so drove Severo into a playful cackle. “Yep, that shit’s strong, ain’t it? Just how I like it.” Severo reached down to reclaim the rancid concoction and drank deeply from it.
“Where are you two headed?” Joaquin asked, wiping the last bit of liquid off his lips, noticing that Rosalinda hadn’t reacted to any of her father’s commotion.
“We’re travelling north to Pueblo de Los Angeles for work,” Severo said. “Where are you headed, amigo?”
“It’s Joaquin, and I’m also headed that way.” He continued to look over at the girl. Her stillness filled him with unrest.
“These are dangerous roads, you know. You got to watch out for friendly people as well as strangers.”
Joaquin was dying to tell Severo about what happened to him a few days ago in said “dangerous roads,” but he couldn’t bring himself to admitting that he needed help. Not anymore. Not after having seen the worst side of humanity. Maybe the old Joaquin would have cried at Severo’s feet, thanking him for providing him with asylum, but not the new one. Not the one who was reborn in this harsh environment.
“I usually don’t like to help strangers, at least, not ones off the trail,” Severo said. “You could say that I help them by not helping them.” He laughed heartily and coughed up a cloud of dust residing on the surface of his brown coat. “Trust me, they don’t want my help, right? Mi Rosa mas linda?” Rosalinda didn’t even seem to be breathing. She was a statue sitting on a horse, veiled in white lace, like a figure of the Virgin parading down the crowded streets during Semana Santa. “Don’t mind her. She’s a damned mute.” Joaquin laughed out of respect, but like Rosalinda, he wished he was mute, as well, that way he wouldn’t be obligated to reply to Severo’s inane comments. “I was about to send you to your Maker, but you seemed like a good guy.” Severo explained to Joaquin that he encountered a bum who tried to hijack him and his daughter, but he shot him dead after he saw fresh horse prints going around a bush. A bush that seemed to be neighing like a horse. Joaquin noticed that the horse Rosalinda was riding was the very one that he had lost a few days ago. He wanted to tell Severo that it was his stuff that he had stolen from the bum, but it became clear to him that Severo’s brand of helping was rooted in helping himself.
“Here,” Severo said as he threw a small pistol at Joaquin. The latter fumbled the gun a few times as a virgin’s hands fumble a penis the first time she encounters one. “What? Don’t tell me you’ve never used a gun before?”
“I have,” Joaquin replied, almost indignantly, fully disingenuously. “It’s just that I’m not used to people being so careless with things that can blow my head off.” Severo huffed, brushing off his brashness, and mounted his big, fat horse.
“As a man that lives outside the law, I live by very few rules,” Severo said, turning his horse around. “If you’re going to join us, I ask that you follow just one, ‘Don’t fuck my daughter.’” Joaquin was taken aback by the simple, yet crass request. “If you do, I’ll cut your dick off and feed it to your fucking mutt while you watch, and then I’ll put a bullet between your eyes.” Joaquin wasn’t disgusted at the act of violence proposed to him, but at the fact that this man would speak that way in front of a woman, especially one as young as Rosalinda. “So, what do you say?”
Joaquin thought about Severo’s proposition. Riding with a man like him would guarantee him protection and a safe passage to Pueblo de Los Angeles. But could he really trust a man like Severo? How can a man this vile and disgusting be smarter and have sounder judgement than me? Joaquin thought. After all, Severo was able to snuff out a dangerous man he himself couldn’t. There was something dangerous and unstable about him. Something that told Joaquin to stay on high alert if he decided not to join him, but especially if he did.
“Wait, how do you know I’m not a dangerous killer?” Joaquin asked, feeling a little insulted.
“Because of the clothes you’re wearing,” Severo replied with a smirk.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re dressed in all black. I thought, ‘he’s either a priest or a moron.’ Who the hell would wear black in this heat?” Joaquin fell speechless. He didn’t want Severo to know that he was indeed a priest, because outside of a church, men like Severo considered men of God as weak and unmanly. According to them, priests didn’t have sex, children, or dominion over a woman. Therefore, they weren’t real men. Besides, his title as a Vicar of Christ hadn’t dissuaded others, like the horse hijacker, from treating him like dirt. In his travels, he found out that people only cared about religion when it was convenient to them. When the Word helped them to perpetuate the stolid state they were currently in. Not when it came to having a change of heart, and truly acting as Christ would.
“Well, I’m neither.”
“Very well, Mr. Neither,” Severo said. “Get on the girl’s donkey and join us on our trip to Pueblo de Los Angeles.” Joaquin couldn’t help but feel humiliated at Severo’s kind gesture. Everything coming out of his mouth sounded like an insult, even his benevolence. Joaquin tapped on his lap and Whisky jumped up. This was the first time he and his dog were able to travel off their feet.
After an excursion that felt like a week, a sleep-deprived Joaquin was startled awake by Severo’s rough mannerisms.
“Alright, big boy, it’s time to get up and set up camp,” Severo said. “I’d do it myself, tuck you into bed, and kiss you good night, but then I’d have to kill you.” Joaquin didn’t find the words coming out of Severo’s mouth particularly whimsical, but he appreciated the humor, mainly because he hadn’t heard a human voice refer to him personally in the past few days. He looked over at Rosalinda and a wave of pity washed upon his face.
“Don’t worry about her,” Severo roared. “She hasn’t said a word since her mamma died. And if she was able to speak,” Severo flashed his daughter a smile, “she would only speak when I spoke to her.” He walked over as he blew kisses at her, a gesture Rosalinda retreated from. He grabbed her arm, and yanked her toward him before she could get away. He gripped her neck, pulling her face toward his chapped lips. Joaquin could see blue-green veins arising beneath Rosalinda’s soft, delicate brown neck, her lips scrounging up, baring her teeth, and her eyes bulging out of their sockets, both from asphyxiation and disgust. Severo planted a big, wet kiss on her cheek.
“Can you believe this, Joaquin? She won’t even give her old man a kiss,” Severo said, slightly out of breath. “After all I’ve done for this ungrateful, little bitch.” Severo pushed her thin, neck violently against a rock, as if the neck of an empty beer bottle. This display of affection stirred something uneasy inside of Joaquin, something he tried to silence with all his might. He had just met them, and didn’t feel compelled to stand up for the girl just yet. Maybe Severo was right, the girl could have really been a spoiled little brat. He was right about the horse hijacker, Joaquin hated to admit.
As the men prepared the fire, Rosalinda’s sobbing could be heard emanating from her father’s tent. Joaquin kept looking over to the tent, but quickly stopped after his eyes crossed paths with Severo’s. They were lacking the glint of friendliness he had shone to him when he was calling him a moron earlier that day. So that’s what he looks like when he’s mad, Joaquin noted. After a few seconds of eye-tearing tension, Severo broke the ocular deadlock by pulling back his coat flap, revealing to Joaquin his .44 caliber Colt Revolver.
“Where did you buy your gun?” Joaquin said, attempting to defuse Severo’s hot head and swallowing what felt like the full contents of his neck.
Severo released the flap, concealing the gun he no longer planned to murder Joaquin with. He went back to building the fire.
“I didn’t buy it,” Severo said in a low voice, never once looking over at Joaquin. “I was in the Army back in 1860. It was issued to me.”
“The Civil War, huh? It must have been a hell of a battle.”
“It was hell alright,” Severo said. “It took my brother, and part of my hearing.” Severo removed a lock of his long, greasy hair away from his ear. The ear cartilage and the flesh around it looked as though they had been incinerated. “I’m deaf in this ear. Cannon blast.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Joaquin said, and immediately cringed, half expecting the cold, chrome barrel of the revolver land on his pulsating temple. He didn’t want Severo to think that he was trying to make pun a off of his misfortune. Severo remained unfazed.
“Now, I’m a damned bounty hunter,” Severo said. The fire began to consume the brush, twigs and branches and warmed a red glow on their faces. “I’ve only been good at two things.” He took a long swig from his canteen, settling back against a rock. “Putting booze in my belly and putting men in the ground.” Severo passed the canteen to Joaquin, a peacemaking gesture, but Joaquin only shook it, making a slushing noise, pretending to drink from it. He passed it back. “I’m on the hunt for a man heading north. At first, I thought it was you.” Joaquin looked over in arrogant puzzlement. “But after I realized how pathetic you looked, I knew he wasn’t you.” Joaquin looked down, past his shriveled balls, at the dirt between his knees.
Joaquin glanced over at his guitar case, and pulled it over towards him. He unbuckled the case open and pulled out the distuned instrument. Music always seemed to temper even the wildest of tempers.
“I was wondering when you were going to whip it out,” Severo said, laughing at his own crudeness. “Rosalinda, mi amor, come out. Joaquin is going to play his guitar.” The girl emerged from the tent slowly like the head of a desert tortoise emerging from hibernation. She walked over and took a seat next to her father just as Whisky had taken a seat next to Joaquin.
“Joaquincito, you play the guitar so fucking well,” Severo cheered, beginning to slur his words. “So well that you’re making it talk. Hell, you’re making it cry.” Severo laughed hysterically, halfway towards blacking out. Seeing Joaquin’s hard-hands delicately pluck and stroke the silver strings, partially oxidized by the day’s heat into a red rust, Rosalinda wondered how something so hollow and wooden could speak and cry, and sing so beautifully and why she could do neither. She felt like tumbleweed. Moving on and on, punished by life’s currents, following the blows of a man she hated. She felt empty inside.
Rosalinda wondered if Joaquin’s wonderful hands could heal her muteness. She remembered hearing in church about how Jesus’ hands had healed a man of his blindness. She wondered if he could heal the blindness in her voice. Maybe Joaquin’s angelic music could conjure the Spirit of God and heal me from this misery, she thought. Her misery’s name wasn’t muteness. It was named Severo Macario. The thought of a life without Severo brought a brief verticality to the permanent horizontality that were Rosalinda’s lips. It wasn’t quite a smile, but the closest gesture to one she had experienced in years.
Joaquin, having gulped a distasteful swig of Severo’s wrath earlier that night, didn’t dare look directly at Rosalinda. Instead, he was pretending to look at his hands as he played, even though he had no need to do so. From time to time, he would sneak in a look at Rosalinda, less to admire her fleshy lips and long lashes, but more out of morbid curiosity, as when you’re told not to think of something. Why does this man covet his daughter so zealously? he thought. Joaquin felt an uneasiness every time Severo interacted with her. He continued to play, Severo continued to drink and to sing out of tune, and Rosalinda continued to get lost in the moment, in the fantasy of a life without Severo, draping her eyes with her feathery lashes.
“Alright, mi Rosa tan linda, it’s time for bed,” Severo said. “Daddy’s sleepy. Real sleepy, if you know what I mean.” Severo laughed, patting Joaquin on the back, and knocking the guitar out of his hands. The shrill noise of the strings hitting the hard dirt, rubbing up against stones and twigs, playing cacophonous chords caused Whisky to bark at Severo. “Shut up, you fucking mutt.”
Joaquin called the dog over, and placed him in his bosom. As he kissed the dog’s musty head, he looked over at Rosalinda, whose eyes were red with welled-up tears. How horrible it must be for a young woman to have to live with an animal like that, Joaquin wondered. Severo went in first, and after a few seconds yelled at Rosalinda to get her ass in the tent. Although the tent obstructed what was occurring inside, it did nothing to conceal the sound. Joaquin found it difficult to sleep, allowing his mind to imagine the most deplorable things, his mind filling up with sounds of lips smacking, suckling, and shushing.”
“Shut up, and stay down,” Severo whispered heavily. “Stop moving.” Between Severo’s whispers, Rosalinda’s sobbing, and Joaquin’s morbid, incestuous fantasies, it was certain that nobody would sleep well that night.
When he opened his eyes, Joaquin heard a woman crying across from him. He felt as though he had slept for a minute, but he had indeed slept for a large portion of the night. He palmed the blanket, invaded by red dirt, trying to feel where Whisky was lying. Rosalinda had been crying as she prepared Severo’s breakfast. The sun hadn’t yet risen, so the air was still chilly. Joaquin walked over to her and noticed that Whisky had been panting next to her this whole time.
“What’s wrong?” Joaquin asked in a low whisper. Rosalinda stopped crying and just sat there. He knew that she was mute, but he felt that maybe by asking her questions she could somehow signal to him the reason for her being sad. Her sadness, in Joaquin’s mind, emanated from something that happened the night before. “Did your father do something to you?” Without looking or flinching, a small voice came out of her, one coming from a distance, not in terms of longitude, but one that seemed to be buried deep in a hole.
“He’s not my father,” Rosalinda said. That was all she said. Joaquin was stunned by what he considered a miracle by the Holy Spirit. Before he could ask her another question, Severo came out of the tent more jovial than he had ever seen him. Soon after he let out a boisterous yawn that resonated in the surrounding range, Severo realized that Joaquin had been alone with Rosalinda.
“Rosita, go fetch me some firewood, please,” Severo said, as he gave her a peck on the crown of the head, and a spank on her buttocks. “Take the dog with you.” Rosalinda looked up at Severo and then at Joaquin, asking with her eyes what she couldn’t with her mouth. “I’m sure Joaquin wouldn’t mind.” She looked down at her fidgeting hands, awaiting for Joaquin’s permission.
“Yeah, go ahead and take Whisky with you. She loves to go on walks,” Joaquin said half smiling, half suspicious as to why Severo was so eager to be alone with him. Rosalinda motioned the dog over to her and the two of them walked away into the early morning light.
“Don’t go too far,” Severo yelled. As soon as the girl was far enough, he turned to face Joaquin. “Did she tell you anything?”
“Anything about what?” Joaquin asked, unsure of whether to lie to him or not. Severo took a seat near the dying embers and pulled out his revolver.
“I’m not Rosalinda’s biological father,” Severo said, pulling out a stained cloth, and polishing his gun. “I raised her from about the age of 5 after I married her momma.” That was 10 years ago. “I gotta tell you, she’s looking more and more like her. The face and the body of the woman I fell for.” The hairs on the back Joaquin’s neck became stiff like those on the back of a scared cat. “I wanted to wait to dip my dick into that sweet pussy until she was old enough, but I just couldn’t. I did it behind her momma’s back, of course. You know, out of respect.” Joaquin couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I haven’t been completely honest with you, amigo.” Joaquin felt reviled by the notion of sharing a friendship with this man. “I’m not looking for a man to kill. I’m looking for a man to marry me to Rosalinda.” Joaquin wasn’t sure if it was the warm morning light or a monstrous shiver bathing his back from the neck down, but suddenly he felt a sense of relief. He was certain that had he told Severo that he was a priest, he would have forced him marry them at gunpoint.
“Why didn’t you marry her in San Diego?” Joaquin asked.
“The empty sack Padre, Florencio I think his name is, refused to marry us,” Severo said, pointing the gun toward the horizon. “He said it was ungodly. That fucker.”
Joaquin didn’t know how to react to all of the new information Severo had just dumped on him. Right as he was about to ask Severo why he would want to marry a girl that he raised as his own daughter, he heard Whisky barking nearby.
“There she is,” Severo yelled, waving down Rosalinda. Joaquin stood up to help Rosalinda with the firewood, but was flanked by a rushing Severo. Joaquin figured that Severo was such a jealous wreck that he didn’t want him to interact with his bride to be in any single way. Severo took the wood out Rosalinda’s hands and threw it carelessly onto an unsuspecting Joaquin. The sharp, dry branches scratched Joaquin’s face making him yelp in pain. “Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot that you’re delicate,” Severo laughed to himself and immediately grimaced.
As they ate breakfast, Severo kept going on and on about how when he found that sonofabitch robber he was looking for, that he was going to shoot him right between the eyes. As he mimed how he was going to shoot the fugitive, he kept pointing the gun at a flinching Joaquin and at an unflinching Rosalinda. I guess she’s too used to his erratic behavior, Joaquin thought.
The three of them finished packing and loading all of their belongings onto the horses and the donkey. According to Severo, it would be another four days of travel before reaching the pueblo. Because he didn’t want to listen to Severo’s singing or partake in his unappetizing topics of conversation, Joaquin kept pretending to doze off or be sun sick. Even so, Severo kept waking him up by yelling his name, and laughing as if it were a punchline to one of his cruel jokes, or asking him the same question over and over, until Joaquin acknowledged him and gave him a satisfactory answer.
By the time they settled down for the night, Joaquin was even more exhausted dealing with Severo than dealing with the severity of travelling on foot. Back then, he was carrying more weight on his back, but now, knowing what he knew and not having the ability to remedy the situation, he felt a greater burden on his shoulders. He had never known of a couple that were so wrong for each other as Severo and Rosalinda. Even the thought of Gregorio making love to his once beloved Dalila didn’t turn his stomach as much as picturing his two companions kissing on the lips.
The arid wind earlier that day had made Severo drink much more of his stinking elixir than usual. By the time they had finished setting up camp, he had passed out. He hadn’t even touched his dinner. Joaquin looked over at Rosalinda, who was quietly eating from her plate, chewing because she had to not because she was truly enjoying the meal swishing around in her mouth and swallowing into her belly.
“So, he’s not your fath—” Joaquin said as he leaned over.
“Shut up,” Rosalinda whispered. “He may be passed out and half-deaf, but he can still hear.” She took a bite of bread. “And the details that he can’t hear, he’ll make them up himself.” Rosalinda placed her plate down. “Bring out your guitar, and play as we speak.”
“Sh-sure,” Joaquin said, stunned at the girl’s ingenuity. He began to play random chords, fingerpicked in a random pattern. Severo suddenly began to slur an indistinct melody and unintelligible words. Joaquin looked in shock, thinking that this big, fat beast may wake up.
“Don’t worry,” Rosalinda said. “He’s gone.” Rosalinda began to tell Joaquin not to believe anything Severo told him. “He doesn’t want to marry me. He wants to sell me off to a whorehouse once we arrive at the pueblo.”
“Why would he do that to his own daught—,” Joaquin stopped himself before finishing. “Well, to his bride-to-be?”
“Because I had a miscarriage a few days before we found you on the road,” Rosalinda said, biting and sucking on her bottom lip. “He already treats me like one.” She took a drink of water and cupped her hands on top of each other.
“Like a wife?”
“No. Like a whore.” She looked down at her hands, fidgeting and picking scabs off of her hands. “I made her a promise.”
“Made who a promise?”
“My mamma,” Rosalinda said, sobbing as soon as the maternal word crossed the threshold of her lips. “I did it because I loved her so much. On her deathbed, she made me promise her to marry and bear children for Severo.” She let out a loud yell which made Joaquin fumble the fingering from one chord to the next. “He was raping me, and she knew it.” Rosalinda sniffled, ending the deluge of tears, and changing the tone of her voice from sorrowful to vindictive. “She knew what he was doing to me, but she just wasn’t strong enough to stop it. No one would help because she had been a prostitute. Not even the priest.” Rosalinda had become his concubine, at first behind her mamma’s watchful and soon after, directly under it. Her mamma had induced her first miscarriage when she was 12, just to keep up appearances.
Joaquin wanted to go over and comfort her, but he wasn’t sure how she was going to react. If he were to be completely honest with himself, he was actually afraid of Severo waking up and finding him embracing his woman, and having to see his own dog eat his penis. So, Joaquin simply kept playing and listening intently, something, he imagined, nobody had done for Rosalinda in years. Maybe ever.
“My mamma left home when she was 13, and was married off to a man who didn’t want her. She was recruited by a brothel because her papa didn’t want her back,” Rosalinda said, never once making eye contact with Joaquin. She was pregnant with Rosalinda when she sought the priest for shelter, but he too rejected her, and pushed her out into the streets. From there, her life spiraled out of control. Rosalinda’s mamma worked at a brothel on the Mexican side of the U.S. border where Severo and his friends solicited her services. After they were done having their fill with her, Severo took pity on her, given that she was the only woman who wasn’t reviled by his appearance and mannerisms. He never married her because she was “unclean,” but he just couldn’t deny her beauty and thrall attentiveness. Severo became a father to her bastard child. Her mother explained to Rosalinda that in spite of him being so mean to them and physically abusive, it was better than being alone, being without a man in a man’s world. “‘You take care of his needs, in the kitchen and in the bedroom. You hear? If you do, he’ll take care of you,’ she told me right before she died. That’s what I’ve been doing this whole time.”
Joaquin noticed how Rosalinda spoke without moving or showing any emotion. She was like a rose, beautiful and still. He felt a fire inside of her. A fire that had been suffocated, but not extinguished. Someone this beautiful, he thought, cannot be dead. I can’t allow it to die.
“He wants to sell me to a whorehouse because he says that I am not a woman, that I am a whore. A whore that is possessed by barren demon,” Rosalinda said with no emotion in her voice, as if she had cried herself dry. “He says that I am a whore like my mamma.”
For the first time, Joaquin realized that in the love triangle that he, Gregorio, and Dalila found themselves in, Dalila was the real victim. This whole time he thought he and his best friend had been but mere players in Dalila’s cruel love-game. How she pitted two friends, two brothers against one another, and how it was all in his head. It was, in fact, her family pitting her up against what they, the church and society wanted. He saw in Rosalinda’s dark, sulking eyes Dalila’s true feelings. They reminded him of the almost forced reactions he’d elicit from her after he kissed her hand. Did Dalila see me like Rosalinda sees Severo? he wondered with the taste of bile in his mouth. Even if Dalila’s parents wanted her to end up with the best match, in Joaquin’s mind, it was only a few steps shy from auctioning her off like a prized thoroughbred. Giving her away to the highest bidder. Selling her off like a whore.
“What are you thinking about?” Rosalinda whispered. Joaquin didn’t know. Something inside him may have wanted to do something, but he knew Rosalinda needed him to do something. It was time for him to finally seize the day, to stop thinking about what others wanted him to do, and start doing what he wanted to do. At the moment, he wanted to save this girl from the fate that was awaiting her in Pueblo de Los Angeles. A fate that she was living, and that was slowly killing her. One that Joaquin himself was an accessory to, by having done nothing, aiding and abetting it by lying awake motionlessly. He knew that Severo had been raping her these past couple of days, he could hear everything, but tried to drown it out with tears and nightmares. “Say something,” she insisted.
“We need to run away,” Joaquin said, part of him unsure that this level of tenacity had emanated from him. He had been called weak and delicate all of his life that he believed it without question.
“No. No, he’ll hunt us down,” Rosalinda said. “That’s what he does, and he’s good at it. No, that won’t work.” Joaquin knew that it wouldn’t work, he knew it the second the suggestion rattled around in his head, before he even suggested it.
“You’re right. We need t—”
“We need to kill him,” Rosalinda exclaimed. It was the loudest, most affirmative statement he had ever heard coming from her voice. Joaquin closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and snatched the canteen from a snoring Severo. He took a swig, not caring about the smell of rotten eggs mixed with vomit on the mouth of the canteen. He swallowed the liquid.
“Very well.” Joaquin set his guitar back in its case, and began to pace back and forth, away from the fire’s glow into the darkness and back into the light, scratching his head trying to devise a plan.
“You need to do it before he wakes up, but not tonight,” she said. “We don’t want to attract any unwanted wildlife.” Rosalinda proposed that she wake him up early and that he kill Severo with the gun he was given. Joaquin agreed. Rosalinda then walked over to Joaquin and gave him a big hug, wrapping her short arms around his, resting her head on his chest. He felt trapped, not by her embrace, but by the bind she had put him in. This is what Judas must have felt right before he betrayed our Lord Jesus, Joaquin thought as he regretted making his promise of delivering Severo’s head to Rosalinda.
“Alright, go to your tent, and don’t forget to wake me up before he does,” Joaquin said. He already knew that he probably wouldn’t be able to even blink that whole night, let alone shut his eyes to sleep. He saw Rosalinda go into the tent as he lay across a blacked out Severo. Joaquin placed the gun Severo had thrown at him under his bundled up coat, which he was using as a pillow. He wanted to be ready in case Severo woke up from his slumber. Part of him fantasized about what life would be like with Rosalinda after they killed Severo. Would she want to be his companion? His wife even? Would he be able to look past her history as an abused woman and see her for who she truly was?
Joaquin saw a candle light up inside of Rosalinda’s tent. He immediately grabbed the gun under his coat, rose to a standing position, and walked over to the tent. As he approached it, Joaquin noticed the silhouette of woman bent over, taking a man in from behind. At first sight, he thought the man was Severo, but when he rushed into the tent, he saw that the man had a svelte body, not a big and fat one like Severo’s. The woman turned around to look at Joaquin. It was Rosalinda. However, the face changed from Rosalinda’s to Dalila’s and from Dalila’s to his own mother’s. When he heard his mother moaning as he had never heard her, he ran toward the man pulling him off of her. Joaquin knocked the assailant down and turned him on his back to see who he was. It was Joaquin himself. He was the man fucking them all. All the women he cared about. He never wanted to become a priest or to live a life of chastity, but if there was ever a time when this lifestyle seemed alluring, it was now. Upon seeing his own face, the tent began to fill with smoke, then with hell fire, erupting around him. He looked around for his mother, but she was gone. He then looked for an exit, but he was surrounded by a burning ring of fire. His clothes began to catch on fire as his double began to laugh at him. The flames started to consume his flesh, but he couldn’t seem to put them out. The laughter got louder, gruffer, and phlegmy. It wasn’t his double laughing at him, it was Severo.
“How do you like that, motherfucker?” Severo yelled at Joaquin. “That’s what you get for trying to fuck my woman.” Joaquin jumped out of the burning tent only to be greeted by a rain of bullets shot at him by Severo. One of them hit his hamstring and another one his lower back. Joaquin rolled on the ground, from the pain and to put out the flames enveloping him. The gun shots stopped, and so did Joaquin’s rolling. “Stay down, you piece of shit.”
Severo reloaded his gun, keeping his eye on Joaquin’s charred body. Joaquin, on the other hand, felt like his skin was melting, sliding off his bones.
“She told me all about your little plan to kill me,” Severo said as he spun the gun’s cylinder, taking his time, sliding in each bullet into the chambers. “I may be deaf, but I’m not a fucking idiot.” Joaquin looked up at Rosalinda, her face looking away, a bruise forming around her left eye and blood dripping down her nose. “Disappointed?” Severo asked. Joaquin looked at him appalled and enraged. “Yeah, what did I tell you? She’s a first rate little bitch of a whore. She’s a fucking gossip this little mute. She really is.”
In spite of the rage he felt, toward Severo and a little bit toward Rosalinda, he understood why she had betrayed him and didn’t hold it against her. She had been trained, brainwashed to follow this man’s commands, however sick and twisted they may have been, like a dog who would chase a ball off a cliff only to please its master, or a woman who learns to become an obedient wife and love her husband in spite of his imperfections.
“I’m a decent man, Joaquincillo,” Severo said. “I married her whore mamma with the understanding that I’d be able to make her daughter my wife.” As much as it pained him, Joaquin believed what he was hearing. These past few days, he had grown to see Severo as a compulsive liar, but his words bore the gut-wrenching, cold, dead feeling that accompanies an awful truth. He lied about almost everything. But this wasn’t a lie. “I bet this little bitch didn’t tell you about that, now did she? Hell, she probably didn’t even know.” Joaquin almost forgot about his physical agony trying to reel from all of this psychological pain. “She miscarriages and that’s no good for me.”
Rosalinda’s small, huddled body became tight and shaky, like a fist that’s squeezed so hard that it’s too difficult for the muscles and bones to bear. The blood that ran out of her nose, down her upper lip, and around her lips soon diluted from a dark scarlet into a red rose when it came into contact with her freshly shed tears. She was crying so profusely that even her nose wept.
“Oh, just shut up, you fucking whore,” Severo yelled as he placed his revolver in its holster, and picked up Joaquin’s bundled up coat. He shook it open, releasing a mist of dust and the small gun Joaquin had stashed in it. “Ah, here it is.” Severo picked up the gun and stuck it in the back of his pants, between his belt and his sweaty ass cheeks. “Let’s see what else we can find.” He plunged his hand into every one of the garment’s crevasses, pulling out its innards and tossing its contents on the ground. When Severo pulled out the letter in Joaquin’s breast pocket, he flicked it open. “So, you are a priest, I fucking knew it. You fucking lia—”
Joaquin rushed Severo and tackled his thin knobby knees. Severo collapsed hard like a large boulder falling in a landslide. He hit the ground and Joaquin mounted him, landing random blows all over his body. A surprised Severo attempted to swat the pest off of him, but Joaquin had gone completely mad. He was finally able to slide a concealed knife out of one of his boots and slid it deep into Joaquin’s emaciated side, between his protruding ribs. Joaquin stopped his punching frenzy and twitched spastically as if suffering from epilepsy. He stabbed a petrified Joaquin a few more times, just to make sure he’s nice and dead, Severo thought. After the martyred priest flopped lifelessly on his chest, Severo shoved him off of him with disgust. It wasn’t that he didn’t like blood, in fact, the mere sight of it made him giddy, hard even, but he abhorred the warm feeling of another man’s blood on him. It made him feel dirty, like a murderer. In Severo’s mind, he killed bad people, which made him good. He was merely carrying out God’s will.
As he rocked from side to side, laboring to roll his big body over onto his big belly, Severo made his way to all fours and began to palm his holster, trying get a hold of his revolver. A rush of fear took over him, and he erected his torso, still on his knees. Before he could even turn his head to verify his worst fear, he heard the sound of the hammer click. A sound that he had enjoyed creating and listening to. One that he found to be so reassuring and sweet, almost melodic. Now, it was the sound of death clicking the door knocker, awaiting to escort him to his grave.
“Mi rosa ma—”
“Shut the fuck up,” Rosalinda said. The sound of her voice wasn’t menacing or emotional. Just loud enough to let him know that she was serious about blowing his fucking brains out if he uttered another word. “Don’t fucking move.”
“I…I…” Severo wanted to say the right thing to walk Rosalinda off the ledge, but he couldn’t even think. He looked over at Joaquin’s motionless body. It lay contorted and crusty like a bloodied shaving rag in the heat, flies already buzzing over him like angels.
“I’m going to shoot if you don’t shut your fucking mouth.”
“Buh-but why are you duh-doing this?” All at once, Rosalinda knew and didn’t know why she was holding a gun to the head of the man that was her father and husband. A man who had raised her and protected her all this time. Maybe it was the hate she felt toward him for having treated her mamma so poorly, or because he never gave the chance to another man of choosing her fate. The hate that she felt toward her mamma had migrated onto the person of Severo. He always seemed to bring out the worst in her. All that she felt for her mamma’s memory was love. But now, as she held the sweaty wooden handle and silvery trigger, Rosalinda knew it was her mamma’s fault as much as it was Severo’s.
Having seen Joaquin’s bravery to help her, something snapped inside of her. How could a complete stranger feel pity for her, and risk his life to save hers? Joaquin did for her what she herself would have done for her mamma. He did it out of love for her. Tears of joy rolled down her face as she laughed deliriously, wheezing and choking on her mucus. The percussive coughing soon morphed into sobbing. Sobbing for a lost love. One that was never meant to be in this world, but in the hereafter. Whisky began to howl next to her.
Rosalinda recognized the way Severo was on his hands and knees, begging with tears rolling down his hairy cheeks, clearing streaks of red earth and purple blood caked on his face. She recognized the way he begged desperately for his life as one begs a saint for a miracle, staring down the barrel of his own gun. It was the same position of penance that he manifested during the few times her mamma threatened to leave him, one hand on her belongings and one hand on Rosalinda. Those tears that would appear from nowhere, flowing interminably from his grey eyes. Like an oasis, they would always beckon her mamma to stay and as soon as he convinced her, the tears would dry up and disappear like a mirage and the harshness of a man with a heart of stone, his arid brand of love, would whack her upside the head back into reality.
My mamma always fell for his false promises, she thought, men’s promises as her mamma would refer to them. She fell for them even as she understood that they weren’t worth a damn. In many ways, Rosalinda was like her mamma, they were both beautiful and they were both loyal to a fault. But one thing that they disagreed on was their affection towards Severo. Unlike her mamma, she would not fall for a man whom she hated. She wouldn’t willingly fool herself into trusting a man’s promise. If it was up to her, she wouldn’t let Severo lay another hand on her, and it just so happened that it was up to her. The butt of the revolver was nestled securely in her hands, so tight that she could feel the sweat reservoir and cascade between her breasts. The trigger was erect ready for her sweaty right index finger to release it, and release her from the animal before her. The one that had devoured most her life.
Her left hand was a little shaky, but steady enough to aim for the head— as Severo had taught her to do. Her head was swimming with memories, mostly ones too painful to think about, like the memory of her mamma’s bloodied teeth and nose. Rosalinda focused this pain on her hands, which were now motionless and ready. It was the last impetus for her to end Severo’s life and his pathetic begging and moaning. She pulled the trigger without batting a lash. She needed to see him dead on the ground, his brain matter spilling on the dirt, before she could ever close her eyes again.
Like dominoes stacked side by side, Rosalinda collapsed to her knees, then to her face after Severo’s big, fat body thudded a large puff of red dirt, landing face first. The adrenaline that had evacuated her body as the bullet had left the gun, left her body weak and feeling heavier than Severo’s. Whisky ran over to her licking and pawing her face, nosing and whimpering her hands to get up. When she finally did, she followed the dog toward an agonizing Joaquin. She carefully lifted his battered body, his clothes completely soaked in muddied blood, and placed his head on her lap.
“Are you alright?” Joaquin said in a breathy, small voice, gargling blood.
“Shhh…don’t speak, just le—”
“I want you to take—” Joaquin coughed out a spray of blood as he tried to swallow too much of it. “Take the letter in my bag and—” His eyes grew grayer and grayer, cloudy like the sky he was looking up toward. His voice slurred out of intelligibility and his thoughts out of coherence. The pool of blood in his mouth grew shallower, rippling with Rosalinda’s heavy tears. Joaquin was ready to go Home.
He died in her arms, and for the first time in years, she was able to cry to her pain’s content. Fully satiating the heartache that had been wringing her guts ever since her mamma said ‘yes’ to a life under Severo’s feet. Something she hadn’t been able to do even in her mother’s bosom. Don’t you dare shed a tear in front of a man, her mother would reprimand her, it makes them feel good when they make us cry. Don’t cry, my dear. Don’t cry. It was a strange feeling of guilt, the guilt that comes from having gotten away with something. It felt nice. The only memory that she could remember that even came close to this feeling was when she used to run downhill in the tall grass as a little girl. She ran and ran, without an end in sight, running faster and faster, feeling as though she would never stop. She would roll the rest of the way down after her legs gave out. Laying on her back, her heart pounding out of her rib cage, she felt eternal. Now, as she closed Joaquin’s sweet, dead eyes, she felt eternal again. Free.
Whisky came over and lay beside them, licking Joaquin’s bloodied hand, trying to slobber him back to life. Rosalinda gently slid Joaquin’s head onto the dirt and crawled over to the letter Severo had been twirling around before he killed Joaquin. She opened it and read it. It was from Padre Florencio Abello de Holguín, the very priest that had refused to marry her to Severo. It instructed the Padre Ignacio Salazar from the San Fernando Rey de España Mission to please receive Joaquin Fernandez de Castro as an addition to their effort to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to God’s people. Rosalinda knew that this letter was Joaquin’s last gift. Even in death, he was watching over her.
She flipped through the last two pages and noticed that something fell out of the last page. It was a flat, dried up desert rose flower. It had survived everything that Joaquin had gone through since he plucked it from its home. Rosalinda picked it up and smelled its sweet fragrance. If something as fragile as this flower can survive in the world of men, then so can I, she said to herself. She walked over to Joaquin’s body, placed the rose on his chest, and crossed his hands over it.
Artwork by Cory Bilicko
Bilicko, C. (2017). Sentered [Painting]. Oil and acrylic on canvas, Long Beach, CA.