Queen of america, p.1
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       Queen of America, p.1

Queen of America


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  For Cinderella, who saw this through beside me

  Living with a saint is more grueling than being one.

  —ROBERT NEVILLE

  Prologue

  AT FIRST, SHE FOUND IT DRY. Soon, and forever after, she would find it vast, dreadfully open, more sky than prairie, more prairie than mountain, more mountain than city. The whole would outstrip her ability to see, and she knew her days would end before she had seen one half of the continent and its rivers, its forests, its shores. Dry at first, then running, raining, flooding, wet. Then dry again. But now, in these days, for the first time in her life, she knew she was about to face the endless sea. The Saint of Cabora had discovered America.

  To the sea. Among strangers. The rest of her life would be played out, she feared, among strangers. Like these well-meaning Americanos who, here in the summer of 1900, had taken over her existence.

  She crouched against the wall of her train car, feral with shame and grief, skinny, silent, unwilling to eat or turn her face inward from the window that rattled and banged against her forehead for hundreds of hungry miles. She hid her bruises from everyone. She had been bruised before. They had tried to break her before. She was not broken. This was the worst part of her life. But she would find her way through it. She hid her thoughts.

  Mr. Rosencrans had begun to think of her as a caged fox. Her other companions watched her surreptitiously, secretly afraid that she had gone insane. Mr. Rosencrans’s son Jamie dared to sit beside her and take her hand. She did not speak to him, nor did she turn her face to him, but she allowed her fingers to be tugged, her fingernails to be polished by the pads of his thumbs. When she drew up her knees and placed her feet on the cracked leather seat, pulling herself into a tighter ball, he left her in peace.

  She remembered the star-frost dawn when Huila first took her to discover God. She’d watched the old woman talk to plants and thought her half crazy. She remembered the day Tomás realized she was his daughter, the way the emotions rippled across his face like wind on water, and the still moment when he mysteriously accepted her, like a man greeting his fate, for surely she was precisely that. She remembered her small chapel at the ranch at Cabora, its peaceful curved white walls of painted adobe. She remembered Cruz Chávez, the Pope of Mexico, so serious, so deadly with his big rifle and his scowl, so hilarious when she teased him. How unarmed he was when facing her. And his death far from her, how she imagined her letters to him burning and their ashes falling on his cold face like moths. War consumed her memories. Flames. Howls of rage and terror.

  She tugged her old yellow rebozo over her head so that no one could see her face. She was nothing but eyes and she stared north from that right-side window, watching the tireless convolutions of the Arizona desert in their appalling sprawl and horrid writhing. Jagged peaks ripped at the overwhelming sky. Saguaro skeletons and dread black fossils of ruined ocotillo and creosote bushes battered by the white violence of the sun. Shadows spilled like dried blood at the base of shattered rocks. Volcanism. Above, vultures circled arroyos, waiting for dead rattlesnakes to ripen. Nowhere water, nowhere sheltering trees. Cattle were dying slowly from eating cactus and poisoned vines, their ribs already showing through their dusty sides like the rattling wooden bones of those dead cactus giants fallen, stripped of flesh by the sun, and leaving spindles of wood that looked like cages on the colorless hardpan.

  The boy brought her a sweet roll and a cup of coffee from his father’s hot bottle. She nodded and took the bread into the cowl of her rebozo. She smelled like roses, and her sweat was tart like marigolds. She smelled like a garden that could not be found outside the window.

  They paused in Tucson. She craned around and stared at the city scattered to the south of the station. To the north, that great Frog Mountain where Mr. Dinges planned to one day find snow and bears. She saw her companions staring at her, and she turned her face away from them again. It was a relief when they pulled out, and all the memories of baseball and the Van Order boys and the Arizona nightingales and the swan boats in the pond and the Yaquis embracing her father and Guapo El Chulo in far lamented Tubac fell back, and the town and the mountain and the San Xavier mission were never to be seen again.

  It was a few hours to the next stop. Yuma. All she could think of was the dreadful prison—she had heard of the howling despair of the wretches buried in its baking cells cooked alive by the sun. Hours of cowboy ghosts, angry Indian wraiths, endlessly wandering the blank land, unhinged by sudden death, hungry and unable to eat, thirsting but unable to find water. She pressed her eyes shut and put her fingers in her ears.

  In her mind, she was flying, flying like she had once dreamed she could fly, when she would take her friends through the cold clouds to far cities and the distant sea. She would put her feet in its insistent waters now. Perhaps she would simply walk into the waves and swim away, forever.

  The Saint opened her eyes and watched the land unfurling, flopping, rising and falling like a flag or a sheet drying on a clothesline being tossed by the wind. In her mind she was out there, not in the dark squeaking car, and she was in the air, speeding, her hair unfurling behind her for a mile, her arms wide in an embrace of the wind, flying like she had once seen Huila do in her dream upon the llanos many years ago, Huila, drifting in the air as she came back from her journeys, coming down the breeze as if gingerly stepping down a stairway to the empty earth below. Teresita dove and swooped like a hawk over the cactus, over the boulders and hills and crags. The train rocked, its wheels endlessly clacketed on the rails, a vast sewing machine stitching America together, and its lulling rhythm was the closest she got to sleep on that journey. Her flying, the closest she now got to dreams, but she was learning fast: In America, you needed different dreams. And she did not yet know their language.

  Book I

  ANGEL OF THE BORDER LANDS

  Part I

  IN THE LAND OF DEVIL-MONKEYS

  Dr. Braburn: Many people consider you a saint, due to your many healings. Do you consider yourself a saint?

  Teresita: True, I have cured some, but I have never known how, and because of this I have never considered myself a saint. I have always been ashamed of that title.

  —EL FRONTERIZO

  Nogales, Arizona

  June 25, 1892

  One

  TWO RIDERS CAME FROM the darksome sea, black against the morning light, and they tore into the first Mexican village. They demanded, as they would demand in towns north, the same information: “Have you seen the Saint of Cabora?”

  And at every dust-choked ville, in each forlorn rancho with nothing but skeletons mouthing the dry water tanks, in every charred Indian settlement, they were pointed north. That was all the People knew—she was there, far away, north. Gone. The People had come to fear unknown men seeking news of the Saint. Unknown men with great rifles and grim faces. Unknown men with questions. Such men had killed hundreds of the People and brought in hordes of slavers and soldiers to imprison others and drag them to their doom.

  Always from horseback, sometimes from behind weapons pulled and cocked, shouted, rude, louder than the People cared to be spoken to: “You! Do you kn
ow where we can find the Saint of Cabora?”

  No, it was better to shake their heads and point north. Nobody knew anything.

  “We do not know her,” they said. “They say she is in el norte.”

  Even those who felt abandoned by her, forgotten, dared not complain to these men. What if it was a trick? Some devilish strategy?

  A voice in the dark outside yelling, “Long live who?” Think a long time before answering.

  “Try looking in el otro lado,” they said, turning away.

  The other side; yes, of course. The United States.

  The riders didn’t know much—they were incurious men, for all their interrogations—but they did know their masters feared her return. And these two feared their masters. The great men in the great halls that the black riders would never see would burn the entire land to eradicate her. There was no failure available to the riders.

  “She has not come through here?”

  The People shook their heads in village after village; they returned to their meager labors.

  “Who?” they asked back. “We never heard of her.” Their lips fluttering with minuscule flags of burned white skin. At most they would look down and mumble, “That’s an Indian thing.” They scratched in dead soil, under white sun, with woven straw satchels of hard corn and clay jugs of muddy water and they did not look up to the riders, did not show their eyes. Something bad was crossing their land. They hunkered down, like their ancestors before them, and silently wished their saint good luck.

  When there was a town big enough for beds and tequila, the riders watered and fed their horses, ate cooked meat with frijoles and tortillas, drank. People in the small eateries backed out the door. Women in the dingy hotels turned to the piano players and hoped the riders did not seek their flesh. These two enjoyed the fear they caused. Twin .44 revolvers, long big-bore rifles, great belduque knives like half swords. And that smell. They only smiled at each other. Sometimes they paid. And before light came, they left.

  It was hard riding. Hot. They had no time to dawdle or bathe, no time for women. Most nights they slept under a delirium of stars, under slowly spinning heavens black and hard as ice and shattered along the horizon by bare peaks devoid of trees. One was stung by a scorpion; he pinched it and slowly pulled its tail off. They were sons of rocks and spines.

  They shot rabbits from their horses and speared the little corpses on saguaro ribs and ate standing in the smoke of the fire. The smoke drove the lice from their chaps.

  They pointed and nodded and grunted like the most ancient of wanderers who’d passed through here before there were horses. Talking dried out the mouth and the throat. There was nothing to say.

  They stopped a lone ore wagon somewhere in the Pinacate desert and asked again: “Have you heard of the Saint of Cabora?”

  “Yes.”

  “Where is she?”

  “She went north.”

  “Have you seen her?”

  “I have not seen her.”

  “Are you sure?”

  The wagon driver hiding a small shotgun under his serape, and the riders, knowing it, fingering their pistols.

  “Will you kill her?” the mule skinner asked.

  They said nothing.

  “Better her than me,” he said, and shook the mules awake with a jerk of the ropes, and the heavy dark wagon groaned like a dreamer into the terrible light.

  “She lives close to the border,” he called back. “In the Pimería. Look for trees.”

  They exited Sonora through a defile in the rocks east of Nogales. The taller of the two was constantly watching the peaks to his right, aware of the Apaches hiding there—not afraid, but sick to his stomach when he imagined them coming like wasps out of some arroyo, and him mounted on his horse with Apache scalps and ears thronged across the back of his saddle. He would be roasted alive if they caught him. Still, it did not occur to him to remove the totems from the witness of the sun.

  Around his neck, his companion wore a simple talisman on a black thong: one human finger bone.

  They turned east and rose into foothills that seemed lent to this landscape from an entirely different world. Pine trees and oaks. Small streams winding down. Jaybirds and deer. They would have killed a deer for real food, but they were too close, they could feel it. The riders could not afford a shot now, even though the deer made their mouths water and their guts yowl within them. No, they would not signal their targets that retribution was upon them with an undisciplined rifle shot. They sucked pebbles so that spit flowed down their throats to fool their bellies. They had heard there was a great bosque of cool trees by water. The Girl Saint and her damned father would be cowering there.

  Later, after their targets were dead and the scalps salted and packed away in burlap and sawdust, there would be venison. Meat steaming from the fire. Dripping fat like tears.

  The cabin was so different from anything in Mexico. They could have been blindfolded for the whole journey and then been unblinded and they would have seen immediately they were in gringo territory. Perfectly squared walls. Neat fences. Hewn wood. White smoke unspooled out of the chimney and gave the air a scent of cedar, even where the riders hid above, in a strange small crown of granite. As if American tidiness could keep the devil at bay.

  They were far from the cabin, but they could still hit it easily. They counted three horses. There were a few goats there too. The tall one held a spyglass to his eye. It wasn’t good, but it was good enough. Ah, there she was—skinny, wasn’t she. In a long pioneer dress. He scoffed. Stupid American clothes. He spit. She was casting some kind of water pan out among her chickens—milky water scattered the birds. She went inside. He adjusted his gaze to the window. There! There he was. Her father. The Sky Scratcher, the Indians called him.

  Perhaps, thought the tall one, the devil is attracted to pretty little houses.

  “He don’t look that tall to me,” the short man said.

  “He’s sitting down, pendejo,” his companion replied.

  He grunted, spit, squinted.

  The Sky Scratcher was just a shadow through the cheap glass of the window. The rider shook his head. He could not believe they had glass windows. He had never had glass windows.

  Just for that, they deserved what they got.

  “They don’t look special to me,” the short one said.

  “Cabrones,” the tall one replied. “Bring me the rifle.”

  In his grove of cottonwoods and mesquites, Tomás Urrea lay in the ghastly heat of his little house. His head pulsed slowly with the crunching beat of his heart. Hungover again. Sick to his belly. Tired.

  You know you are old when you awaken exhausted, he thought.

  Tired of so many things. Tired of struggle. Tired of the pilgrims who still sought them out, hoping for a touch from his daughter. Oh, the Saint! They would follow her to her grave. And worse—his friend Aguirre had warned him that Mexico would regret letting her live. There would be men pursuing her.

  The United States. Bad things were not supposed to happen here. He rubbed his eyes. He was tired of the United States. He did not want to admit the deeper truth: he was tired of his daughter.

  He sat up slowly and stared into the murk. It was always dark in here.

  “Teresita?” he called.

  Why was he shouting? They only had the two rooms and a small kitchen off to the side. He could have whispered and been heard. But she was gone. Nineteen-year-old girls had a way of vanishing when they wanted to. Gone again—gone every day in the trees or out on the desert, cutting and collecting weeds. He shook his head. Talking to crows or something. Healing lepers.

  He leaned over and spit on the floor. Why not. It was only dirt.

  A shadow fell across the doorway. He felt around for his guns. Where were his pistolas? Not for the first time, he thought: How can I let her go wandering when I expect attacks from these goddamned religious fanatics? Back at their old hacienda, at Cabora, Teresita would have been watched over day and night. In h
is mind, he heard her voice. It had that tinge of disapproval that all young daughters seemed to develop and use when speaking to their fathers. That slight disappointment. Perhaps, her imagined voice said, you were drunk when I went out and didn’t notice I left.

  The outsider knocked on the doorframe.

  Tomás stood and steadied himself on the table and then dragged his gunbelt out from a corner where he’d flung it on top of his wadded black coat. He went to the door, squinting—the damned sunlight hurt like a punch in the eye. He leaned on the frame and looked out. A pilgrim. But what a pilgrim stood there. Filthy, but they were often filthy. Skin dark as nutshells. But his eyes were pale grapes wobbling in his skull, bugged and sunburned. He had a reek about him of brown teeth.

  “Where is the Saint?” this creature demanded.

  “Otro come-mierda,” Tomás muttered.

  The man quivered.

  “I do not eat shit,” he said.

  “You smell like it.”

  “I will see the Saint.”

  “You will not.”

  “Make way.” He reached behind himself.

  “What have you got there?” Tomás demanded.

  He had a machete tucked in his rope belt. He started to draw it. Tomás snatched one of his pistolas out of the holster and hammered the pilgrim in the head with it and dropped him limp to the ground.

  “Like a wet coat,” Tomás said. He drew back the hammer and sighted down the blue-black barrel. He let the hammer down softly. Cocked again. The pilgrim moved in the dirt like an upended centipede. “I want to,” Tomás confessed. “I really do.” He let the hammer back down.

  Several of the pilgrim’s comrades hid in the shadows across the small clearing.

  “You,” Tomás ordered. “Collect this trash and be gone. And if I see any of you again, I will shoot you all.”

 
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