"Where are you, Rosa No-Name?" a man's voice called from a distance. "Are you hiding from me?"
Although the voice sounded real, I thought I might be dreaming. None of the villagers would have asked questions like those; no one would have wanted to find me. On my bare knees at the edge of the river, I ignored both questions and questioner and continued to scrub the only two pieces of outer clothing I owned on the worn-smooth rock.
"Baby," I said aloud, addressing my words to the giant bulge in my belly, "quit kicking and getting in my way or I'll be too exhausted to deliver you." I laughed. "And you will be too tired to come out."
Footsteps on the hard pathway made me draw my blanket around me and turn halfway to look.
"There you are," he said.
Oh, it's you. I had hoped you were my imagination. Not a living nightmare.
Tomás stood looking down at me. Although the late afternoon sun at his back kept me from distinguishing the details of his face, I could hear him clearly. He gasped as if he might be trying to catch his breath, his voice so husky I thought he might be ill.
At one time, I would have cared.
When I twisted to face him more completely, gravity rolled me into a sitting position, and the baby protested with such a hard thump I thought she might kick a hole in my stomach and come crawling out. Was that why the village women cried out in such pain at childbirth?
Although I had never expected to confront Tomás again, his interruption gave me an excuse to set my laundry aside and rest my arms, back, and shoulders momentarily. When I relaxed, so did my baby.
"You have found me," I said, trying to swallow my sarcasm like a bite of some bitter fruit. "You've found us. Your unborn child and me."
He glanced at my belly. Under the tattered blanket I had wrapped up in so I could wash my skirt and blouse, my middle resembled one of the wild gourds that proliferated in this west Mexican wilderness.
Eight months ago, my stomach had been as flat as the terrain of my tiny village, Santa Marìa de los Campos. I had trusted Tomás then. I thought I loved him.
"You don't look like a proud papa-to-be."
He grunted as if answering would be too painful. "Rosa, we should marry."
Simple words. Words I had once longed to hear. But. . .no longer.
"We need to marry," he said as if I hadn't heard him the first time. Although his voice sounded raspier than it had been a moment earlier, I couldn't miss his emphasis on the word need.
I no longer tried to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. "Not 'I love you, Rosa, and I'm proud to be the father of your child?'"
"Not that," he said, gazing past me at the river we had once frolicked in like a couple of young children. After several moments of silence, he looked at me again. "Can't you see what they've done to me?"
I closed my eyes. I didn't want to look. I didn't want to care.
"They beat me up just for getting you pregnant."
Just? You want to win my sympathy talking that way?
"They've ordered me to take you to my home in San Diego and marry you."
I turned my head the other direction to keep him from seeing me twist my face into a scowl.
The villagers of Santa María weren't any more concerned about me now than they'd ever been. They wanted me out of their sight because they couldn't—or wouldn't—accept an unwed mother.
Especially a sixteen-year-old orphan who wouldn't be pregnant now if one of her past "keepers"—the numerous guardians who'd shuffled her from shack to shack since infancy until finally sending her to live in a cave—had bothered to teach her even the basics about intimacy between men and women and reveal its dangers.
No, Tomás. if the village men beat you up, they didn't do it for me. They were warning him never to touch one of their daughters.
"They?" I spat the word out as I looked toward him again. Shading my eyes with one hand, I looked toward him again. I looked at the expensive clothes he'd been wearing upon his arrival. But they didn't look so fine now. They were filthy. Shredded. Blood-soaked stained.
"The Council of Elders, of course." He might as well have added, "Why did you bother asking?"
His voice had grown even coarser—and more urgent. More desperate. The villagers will stone me if you don't leave Santa María with me. Today."
I had never thought anything could terrify Tomás. I was wrong.
"They won't let me come back unless I bring proof of our marriage. They've locked my van in the storage barn so I can't run off without you. They know I can't make it back to civilization without it."
I stared at him. My stomach jolted and reeled at the still-fresh signs of his beating. He looked thirty years older than me, not just ten.
Bruises, caked blood, and swelling formed a mask that hid the most handsome face I had ever seen. A bumpy, low-lying purple mountain had replaced his once-perfect nose, and a cut over his right eye continued to ooze blood. His short ponytail had come undone, and the hair stuck to his head—stringy, matted, knotted. Someone had pulled—perhaps yanked—enough hair out to leave him with several conspicuously thin places.
When I shuddered unintentionally, he probably thought I pitied him.
But I didn't. He deserved all of this and more.
What had become of the Tomás del Mundo I used to love, the man whose muscles were as powerful as his air of superiority and self-assurance? Could a man be so strong and yet so weak at the same time?
I couldn't laugh at his downfall, though. He had brought it upon himself, but my naiveté had played a part.
"You must come with me now," he said. His voice was weaker, his words harder to understand. Had someone jabbed his voice box with a tightened fist? The very thought of that made me woozy.
Although we had been talking only a moment or two, his face had grown so much puffier during that time that his eyes now looked more pig-like than human.
"If you're willing to." When I didn't respond, he said, "Please." I still didn't say anything. "I will treat you well. You and the baby. I promise."
The only thing Tomás had ever promised me was a new water jug. I hadn't received it yet. But he hadn't said when I would get it, so I couldn't accuse him of lying just because he hadn't given it to me yet.
And during our three jubilant days together, Tomà had convinced me he loved me, though he never actually said so.
Yes, Tomás had implied many things that later proved false. I had learned over the months how sly he was. None of the villagers trusted him. But no one had warned me not to.
Despite his record of deceit, something deep inside me said, "Heed him now. However twisted his sense of right and wrong, he may prove to be enough of a man to keep his promise."
No matter how much I doubted it, though, what choice did I have but to go to San Diego with a man I detested?
San Diego? I didn't know where it was. In America, they said? But where was that? Sure, I'd seen pictures in the magazines Tomás brought the other girls, but I couldn't comprehend what I was looking at.
I'd overheard Tomás tell those girls all about the "modern conveniences" that were part of his daily life: cameras, ovens, refrigerators, washing machines. And what of electricity and running water? Was any of it real?
That didn't matter.
I had to get away from the villagers—they loathed me and I loathed them back. If I remained in Santa Marì I would have no means of support for myself and my baby. And even though I could have endured a lifetime of ridicule and rejection, I didn't want my baby to suffer the same way I had.
Tomás, the villagers know you are too greedy to resist their demands. Without their produce to provide your easy income, you might have to do manual labor—and work as hard as they do just to survive.
They wouldn't kill him, though. They needed him to carry their special produce to San Diego to exchange for food, clothing, and other day-to-day necessities—just as the men in your family had done for generations.
The very existence of Santa María depended on Tomás. He and the villagers needed each other. Didn't he realize that?
When I began laughing at his gullibility, his face contorted in pain and bewilderment.
The villager elders hadn't bothered to share their plans with me; they took my cooperation for granted. I resented that. So I would not give them my decision one moment sooner than necessary.
"I will answer you tomorrow, Tomás."
With strength I couldn't afford to waste, I rolled back onto my knees, pulled the blanket tighter, and resumed rubbing my wet skirt against the rock. My baby protested painfully.
"I'll be dead before tomorrow." Tomás had almost whimpered.
I looked at him again. Although the sun was warm and the air still, he had begun to shiver. As if winter had just set in and caught him unprepared.
I shivered, too, but for a different reason. No matter how I tried to deny it, our lives were inseparable.
"I will ask them not to kill you until tomorrow."