I was the second eldest to three sisters: Maggie, Rita, and Jovita. We grew up in Mexico; we lived in a small house on a ranch, sharing one bedroom and two beds. Maggie and I were the eldest. We didn’t go to school; we were in charge of the babies when Mom and Dad went to work in the fields. By the time I turned six, I knew how to sew, cook, and clean diapers.
I daydreamed of beautiful movie stars like Dolores Del Rio and Maria Montez—women like Mom. Mom wore pretty dresses and kept her hair pinned up. Every night, after dinner, she told stories about Santa Fe; stories about roadrunners, tumbleweeds, a 20-foot man set on fire, while Dad went outside to smoke. Dad was strict, beating us if we did or said something he didn’t like. I did as I was told, and stayed quiet.
Maggie would tell me, “One day, things will change, Carmela.”
She was three years older, confident and pretty; she sang pretty, moved pretty, and talked about life changing. I couldn’t sing, didn’t know how to move, or what to say. When she turned sixteen, she smiled and giggled a lot. She wore her black hair down, and shuffled around the house, singing.
One day, I asked her, “Why do you keep singing?”
“Why?” she grinned. “Don’t you like my voice?”
I loved her voice. It was sweet and soft like Mom’s voice. All they needed were new dresses and makeup to wear on a big stage. They could be stars. But Maggie was different, not singing to sing. She stared out the window, hardly watching our sisters, sighing throughout the day. Finally, while we scrubbed the floor, she looked at me and smiled.
“I have to tell you something,” she said. “But if I do, you can’t tell anyone.”
I’d never kept a secret safe. Maggie went to sit at the kitchen table, and I followed behind, excited. She waited for me to sit, before giggling and covering her face. When her hands slid away, her cheeks were red. I didn’t understand what there was to be so happy about. She was the eldest, so maybe Mom and Dad might have told her a secret about leaving Mexico.
She said, “I’m in love.”
I learned about love from Mom and Maggie. Since I was tiny, they’d told me, “I love you very very much,” so I told them, and our sisters, “I love you very very much,” but she was in love. In love, I knew, was like Mom and Dad, living on a ranch in a little house with kids. My heart sunk when I imagined Maggie with a man like Dad, having babies. Dad had warned us to not have kids, or boyfriends, or else.
“He sells fish at the market,” she said. “His name is Jorge.”
“If Dad catches him—”
“He won’t,” Maggie snapped.
“Are you getting married?” I asked.
She laughed, “Of course not. He has cousins who cross the border. Jorge wants to take me to the States.”
“Where will you go?”
“Santa Fe, I hope.”
“When will you go?”
She shrugged, “I don’t know. Promise not to say anything, okay?”
“I promise,” I said.
The days went by. After telling me her secret, Maggie went to the market every day, leaving me at home. She’d leave for hours, and when she came back, she’d tell me about getting lunch with Jorge, and sneaking off to french kiss. One day, she went to the market and didn’t come home for hours. I’d worried Mom and Dad had caught her, but when she finally came home, she was alone, wearing a big smile, and stayed with her back pressed against the door.
She was beautiful, wearing a white dress with flowers stitched at the collar and bottom of the dress. I looked up and down at her, and froze, when I noticed red blotted at the bottom.
I covered my mouth. “You’re bleeding.”
She looked down. “Shit!”
Jovita and Rita played with wooden dolls on the floor, babbling, as Maggie and I went to our bedroom. I sat on our bed, staring at her, as she tossed the dress off.
“Is it your period?” I asked, remembering when Maggie had explained how all girls would get the period and bleed every month.
She went to our closet, naked. I stared at the bruises on her back from the last time she talked back to Dad. He’d whipped her until she screamed she was sorry.
“That was my best dress,” she sighed. “Now I’m back to three dresses.”
“Maggie, what is it?” I asked. “What happened?”
Maggie sat with me, wearing a tan dress like mine. “Jorge surprised me with chocolate, sugar cane, and,” she paused, leaning close to my ear, “sex.”
“Dad says sex is a sin,” I said. “Like boyfriends.”
“It’s not,” Maggie said. “All it is, is sleeping with a man.”
I pictured Maggie in bed with a man instead of me; how difficult it must be to fit because men are bigger, but maybe not if he slept on top of her.
“You touch each other in bed,” she went on. “You make each other feel good. And sometimes, we bleed.”
“Does it hurt?”
“No, it was like magic. He says he loves me, and he’ll take me to Santa Fe soon.”
I knew Maggie wasn’t in love when Dad came home early, holding her by the neck. I was sitting on the floor, rocking Jovita to sleep when the door swung open. I jumped when I saw Dad in the doorway, glaring. Maggie was hunched over, crying.
He dragged her to the couch, shouting, “Get on your knees!”
She kneeled, shaking.
Dad pulled off his belt. “Tell Carmela where you’ve been.”
“Doing what?” he yelled.
She cried louder, though he hadn’t done a thing, yet.
“Doing what?” He whipped her.
She screamed, “Kissing!”
He grabbed her, and turned her, so I could the bruises on one side of her neck not like the bruises on her back.
“He did this,” Dad said. “You’ve sinned, Magdalene. I’m ashamed.”
“I don’t care,” Maggie whispered.
He began to whip her so hard she screamed, waking Jovita. I stood, pressing Jovita against my chest, as she began to cry.
Dad turned towards us, hoisting the belt above his head to whip Jovita in my arms. I had seen him do this, when my sisters cried, and if they didn’t quiet. I moved towards our bedroom, but Dad yelled, “Watch,” so I rocked Jovita in my arms, as he continued beating Maggie.
The next day, Dad took Maggie to the fields, leaving me with the babies alone. When she came home in the evening, she was different; her black hair was pulled in a bun, and like Mom, she wore baggy pants and a loose shirt instead of a dress. She was squinty-eyed, sunburnt, and her hands were covered with blisters. When we went to bed, I iced her palms. She cried beside me in the dark.
“Someday, our lives will change,” I said.
“Not if we don’t leave,” she said.
I whispered the stories Mom told us—stories my sister knew: roadrunners, tumble weeds, a 20-foot man, being burnt for gloom.
Maggie sighed, “What do you think Santa Fe’s like?”
“The women wear dresses and lipstick. They dance to Fred Astaire and look over big buildings to wave at people.”
“What if they’re only stories?”
“Mom wouldn’t make it up.”
I cooked oatmeal when the sky was dark. I helped Maggie make her bun, and cleaned Dad’s shoes. I prayed for a good day, wrapping Maggie’s hands in old cloth. They walked up the dirt road, trailing far from sight. I bathed and dressed my sisters after feeding them. I cleaned the diapers, washed the clothes, sewed holes in Rita’s trousers, and made a new dress for Jovita from Maggie’s bloody dress. The day went quick, and when the sun fell, I cooked. I knew my family had returned when the front door creaked open like the nights’ before, but stood straight when my Dad shouted, “Carmela, what are you doing?”
I stepped from the stove. “Cooking dinner.”
He kicked off his shoes, and pulled off his belt. “Cooking what?”
“Beans and chili.”
“Did you clean the diapers?” he asked.
“Did you finish washing the clothes?”
“Why isn’t dinner done?” He went across the living room, around Rita and Jovita, playing with their dolls. “If dinner isn’t done when we come home, you can work in the fields, too.”
“But I finished everything.”
He bent me over the counter before I could blink. “Don’t talk back.”
I tried not to cry, waiting to be whipped. I focused on my sisters’ crying in the living room, Maggie shushing them, and Mom hurrying into the kitchen, begging Dad to stop. The pain never came, as I stood straight, staring in Dad’s black eyes.
I iced Maggie’s palms in bed.
“Are you okay?” she whispered.
I nodded, “Yes. Are you okay?”
She turned to stare at the ceiling. “I’m leaving, Carmela.”
I sat up, staring at her in the darkness. “Leaving?”
“Jorge’s taking me to Santa Fe.”
“You can’t leave.”
Maggie sat up, taking my hands. Rita and Jovita tossed in their bed.
“My minds made up,” she said. “Jorge has money. Enough to get me someplace safe.” She climbed off the mattress, digging for something from underneath our bed. Instead of one suitcase, she held up two in the dark.
“When did you see him?” I asked.
“Yesterday, before I was caught. Jorge told me we’d leave tonight, if I wanted.”
“You want to leave.”
“I want a life. I want you to come with me.”
“But if we get caught—”
“We won’t,” she said.
We packed the few clothes we had. We changed into dresses, tying scarves Maggie had stolen from Mom around our heads, and slowly climbed out our window. Before I left, I turned to look at Jovita and Rita, and swore Dad’s heavy footsteps came towards us, but we never saw him. The dirt road seemed longer, as we walked in silence. I tried to imagine us from the kitchen window, disappearing in the distance. I turned to see our house, small and lonely, then went forward with Maggie, looking up to the stars. In them, I saw Mom’s stories: roadrunners, tumble weeds, and the 20-foot man on fire.
We walked beyond the market, where Maggie had been for weeks. We walked until the night was cold, wrapping ourselves with the scarves around our heads. We walked so long, so late, my eyes grew heavy. I shut them, following the crunch of our feet in the dirt until Maggie stopped.
She said, “There they are.”
Only then, did I open my eyes to headlights, illuminating in the distance. But I couldn’t go forward, as Maggie did. I turned around, expecting to see our small house behind us, down the long dirt road, but there was darkness.