By Elizabeth Cutright
(Excerpted from East Junction, a novel in progress)
The chill snuck in through the sleeves of the hand-me-down raincoat that had been the sum total birthday gift to commemorate lucky 13. Faded red, with big yellow daisies, it was hip in the sixties, but woefully out of fashion by the time it came to rest on Felicidad’s shoulders. It still hangs in her closet, these many years later – a reminder that someone, somewhere, had cared enough to keep her dry in the desert.
Surviving meant finding armor where you could – like the faded raincoat. In Puenta Areynas, where the giver of this particular gift resided, rain came often and heavy. How could this aunt know, surrounded by tropical vegetation and swollen creek beds, ever know that in Felicidad’s world, rain appeared as often as extra money in a 7 person household? No rain, but protection nonetheless. A plastic armor of love to ward off a family ruled by abuse and neglect – against a town of bigots and perverts. Against a desert that lay flat and oppressive with summer heat and December frost.
It was a love shield against an army prepared not just to conquer – an army bent on nothing better than complete destruction. It sent out slinging mercenaries to follow her this night, on her solitary retreat and last attempt at escape.
In the blindness of the hour she walks, stumbles, falls, and picks herself up: keeping one step ahead of the freezing numbness intent on dragging her down. The cold was a blessing, possible to defeat with movement and will, unlike the heat which dominated the other half of the year. Hot sand in whirlpools of wind could bruise. Even worse, sun-induced paralysis; no one can move very far when it is 110 degrees in the shade.
Defeat in this enterprise was preordained. And yet, Felicidad continued to stumble along the dirt shoulder of the same road to nowhere that now held the secrets of another pilgrim. Moonless, starless, soundless night enveloped her. Eyes open or closed revealed the same truth – she mattered to no one in this place, in this time, but everyone laid claim to her bruised body, her beaten soul.
Learning about slaves during Black history month had lent a talismanic relief at first. Others had been forced to live this life. Eventually a war was fought to set them free. In the meantime, they remained noble in their waiting – heroes of strength, patron saints of suffering. But then, later the brutal truth: For them a stranger held the whip and locked the shackles. Money and racism fueled the train of servitude. Where could a poor Mexican girl find comfort when there would be no wars waged for her deliverance, and the torturers laid a blood claim on her head.
And so she’d chosen this night to fly. Knowing before the headlights hit the pavement that she’d be captured, wings chopped, maybe never able to fly again. At least she’s always have this escape. She would wind it up tight, like a lock of hair from a beloved, and place it in the locket of her mind. Then she could pull it out and remind her broken down, battered self that once she’d had the courage to flee. Once, she had mattered enough to herself
Only one person had ever given and never asked in return. The man with the dog and the beat up truck. Ramon gave her a ride back to town that night, too late for an alibi but just in time for Felicidad. He never asked the why or the how or the who that propelled her onto that dusty desert road. He just knew, with the certainty and insight inherent in those born of similar fate, that brutality awaited her at every turn. He only said one thing that night,
“Don’t let the bastards grind you down, mija. Don’t let them grind you down.”