This short story is for all of the people who follow me around online and have done so much to help me promote my works. There aren't words for how fabulous you all are, or for how much your support means to me.
I had a lot of help in writing this story. If there is anything wrong, or any facts are incorrect, it was blunder on my part and not because of my editors or my sources. Remember, this is a work of fiction. When the facts didn’t work for the story, I did what any writer worth her salt would do … I made things up.
To read more about how I came to write "La Santisima," you can read about the story here.
Many thanks to Sabrina Vourvoulias who read a very early version of this story and assisted me with names and locations—I think of you every time I read it.
I turned fifteen the year the desert swallowed my brother. I should have gone first, but Mamá said that I looked too young, too skinny—no one would hire a boy my size. Although I possessed the sharper wit and even spoke a little English, my wiry build went against me. Time wasn’t our friend and we couldn’t wait for me to attain Jorge’s girth.
Our sister Lucía had lost the ability to walk. At thirteen, her leg braces and crutches no longer fit her, her spine curved more with every passing year. Surgery was out of the question, we couldn’t afford it. She knew she didn’t have long for our world, yet she rarely complained.
The doctor recommended a motorized wheelchair with supports to make Lucía comfortable while her body crucified her. He patiently explained the benefits of the chair to Mamá and Lucía, who sat before his big desk. A nurse propped pillows around Lucía and patted her shoulder gently before departing. Lucía was dwarfed by her chair.
Jorge and I stood behind her, a tattered honor guard dressed in clothes made pale and thin by too many washings. Jorge held his baseball cap in one hand, his knuckles black with the grease that never seemed to leave his skin no matter how hard he scrubbed. He had our Papa’s sad eyes and our Mamá’s quiet demeanor. His gaze flickered to the brochure but he didn’t study it hard—Jorge could barely read.
Lucía pretended to scan the pamphlet. Her gaze followed the direction of mine, straight to the prices. A sour drop of acid hit my stomach. Our finances were stretched to the breaking point. We’d never be able to afford such a machine, and even if we could, our building had no elevator. To hand those glossy pages to Lucía was cruel.
“Look, Mamá, the doctor wants to sell me a Tsuru,” she said. She reached over and patted her wheelchair, an ancient device patched with duct tape and wire. “But I am happy with my old Volkswagen.”
Jorge huffed a soft chuckle.
A tense smile crawled beneath the doctor’s mustache.
Mamá shushed her and took the brochure. “Jorge, Sebastian, take your sister downstairs and wait for me.” She wanted us out before we injured the doctor's pride with more jokes. She knew us too well. “I need to talk to the doctor.”
I dropped my head to hide my grin and folded Lucía’s wheelchair. The idea of the doctor as a car salesman amused me and defused my rising anger just as Lucía probably knew it would. We barely made it from the room before Lucía and I broke into giggles.
Car jokes became the order of the afternoon as Jorge, Lucía, and I left. Jorge led the way, carrying Lucía down the narrow stairs; I followed with her folded wheelchair in my arms.
At the street, we paused to set her in her chair. A well-dressed man shoved his way past Jorge and almost caused him to drop Lucía. The man glared at Jorge as if my brother was shit on his shoes.
Harsh words flew from my mouth to bury what little happiness we’d conjured. My anger was born of my frustration and our vulnerability, but that made it no easier for my family to bear. My rage hovered over us like unquiet stones, an avalanche waiting to fall.
The man didn’t notice my shout. His arrogance escalated my rage.
I cursed and started after him.
Lucía called me back. “Sebastian, stop!”
I whirled and met her hard glare. I saw myself reflected in her eyes, a boy made of rags and brittle shards of fury. Shame merely fueled the fires of helplessness that burned my gut.
Lucía refused to drop her gaze. She never backed down from my rages. Her strength was born of adversity. She defied pain the way I defied authority. If her body matched her spirit, she would be twelve feet tall with legs of thunder and eyes of flame.
We all feared her might.
I glanced over my shoulder and saw the man’s head bob and weave as the distance grew between us. I shoved my hand in my pocket and clutched the only comfort that I possessed. I felt for the small pewter icon of La Santa Muerte.
The skeletal figure was no longer than my finger and fit neatly in my palm. She stood on a pedestal; her long robes concealed all but her face, hands, and her thin, silver feet. She held her globe and scythe close to her body, the long blade curved over her head, an upside-down crescent moon like a frown. Two yellow beads made her eyes glisten wetly.
Neither Mamá nor Jorge knew that I owned the icon. If they did, they would take it from me—Mamá because Father Andrés said La Santa Muerte was the devil and Jorge because the icon was most often associated with the narcos.
My friend Carlos claimed that La Santa Muerte was neither devil nor symbol. He said that she watched over the poor, the ones the Church forgot. Death comes for us all. Keep her as your friend. He promised that she would be my patron saint, that she would protect me and grant my wishes.
I wished the arrogant man who had pushed Jorge would be hit by a bus. The man paused at the street corner. A bus passed without coming close to him.
Fuck the saints. I would catch that bastard and make him sorry with my fists. “Hey!” My shout was swallowed by the crowd as I stepped toward the corner.
“Jorge!” Lucía slapped the arm of her chair in frustration. “Make him stop!”
Jorge snapped at me. “Let it go, Sebastian.”
I turned on him, a retort on my lips.
He threw me a dark glare that wilted my righteous tongue. Jorge, who refused to kill a mouse, would batter my flesh to paste if I continued to upset our sister. He tolerated no abuse of Lucía, and she defended him with the same passion.
He placed himself between the pedestrians and Lucía to protect her from being jostled.
She held her hand out to me.
I gave the man one final glare, then took my sister’s brittle fingers in my own. For her sake, I bit down on my rancor and nailed it deep within me so that my heart hammered and my ears rang. I said nothing more.
Mamá finally joined us and my family walked home.
None of this was their fault.
When my father died, we moved from the country to the slums of Pachuca to be closer to Lucía’s doctors. My mother worked two jobs; the pay at both was poor—like us, we sometimes joked. We’d sold all that we could sell and, as the months passed, our humor stretched as thin as our budget. My two younger sisters Ana and Jazmín took turns watching over Lucía and attended school on alternate days. We depended on ourselves, we had no one else.
Later that evening, after Ana and Jazmín were in bed, Mamá, Lucía, Jorge, and I sat around the table and talked about the journey north. We had scraped together the funds to pay a coyote. A year in the United States, maybe two, and we could earn enough money for Lucía’s surgeries and the means to keep her comfortable. With some time, we might save enough to buy a little store and leave the slums behind. We discussed the dangers—there were many—and our options—there were none. One of us had to leave Pachuca and ride the trains.
My brother was slow and simple, but he possessed a great heart and a strong back. We decided that Jorge would cross the border first.
Lucía held his hand and although she wept no tears, her smile was white with her fear.
Jorge glanced at the door and I needed no further cue; I knew he wanted to talk to me alone. It was then that I realized how effortlessly Jorge had stepped into our father’s role. Just as Jorge and Lucía had their rites, Jorge and I had ours. Perhaps that is why I never felt left out of the special bond between my siblings; Jorge made sure we all were loved.
He stood and kissed Lucía’s forehead. I followed him into the hall and down the dim stairwell. Outside, cars floated by and offered glimpses of ghostly faces before moving down the street. People chatted as they walked and somewhere a radio played a corrido, the singers’ voices as far away and plaintive as our dreams.
We didn’t walk far before Jorge slipped into the alley between our building and the next. He lit a cigarette and passed the pack to me. “Watch out for them.” He nodded toward our apartment.
I inhaled deeply, the nicotine bitter on my tongue. “I will.”
“Always pick Lucía up from her right side; her left hip hurts all the time. And be gentle. Sometimes you are too rough, Sebastian.” The tip of his cigarette glowed hotly in the darkness as he took a long, hard drag. “I want you to stay away from Carlos.”
I met his gaze, then looked away, but not before he saw my guilt. Carlos ran errands for the narcos. He had approached me recently and told me of the easy money to be made. To prove his goodwill, he had given me the icon of La Santa Muerte.
Carlos understood my rage and frustration. He knew what it meant to be poor with nothing before you and nothing behind. Out of respect for my brother, I never sought him out, but if he found me, I didn’t turn him away.
Jorge’s palm touched the back of my neck. He drew me close and pressed his forehead against mine. “Are you listening, Sebastian?” He forced me to look at him and the fear in his eyes sparked disquiet in my heart. “We don’t need Carlos. Money never comes easy, no matter what he says. You stay away from him and all the ones like him. Promise me.”
I squeezed the icon in my pocket and wished for a miracle. None came. “I promise,” I whispered.
“Pick Lucía up from the right, help Mamá, watch my temper, and make sure that Ana and Jazmín go to school.”
“Good.” Jorge kissed my cheek and released me. “Rely on Lucía. You both can do this.”
My hand shook as I raised the last of the cigarette to my lips. I looked away. I didn’t share his confidence, but I said nothing more. I tossed the butt into the gutter and followed him back inside.
Two days later, Jorge was gone from us. He disappeared into the crowds, headed for the trains. I expected Lucía to grieve; instead, she devoted herself to Ana and Jazmín, making sure they did their schoolwork. Her constant humor kept my anger subdued.
The days passed into weeks and we fell into our routines. I clearly saw why Jorge admired Lucía. Rather than focus on her pain and fear, she channeled her energy into loving us. Attuned to our moods, she easily defused confrontations before they began.
Only in the evenings, when Mamá had fallen into her exhausted sleep and Ana and Jazmín curled up on the sofa, did Lucía give in to her fears. One night, the sound of her weeping dragged me from uneasy dreams. I staggered out of my bed and hurried down the short hall to her room. She had slid sideways in the bed so that she lay crumpled on her side.
“Ya, ya, ya.” I lifted her gently, mindful of her left hip. Then I eased her into my lap as I’d seen Jorge do so many times in the past. Her wet cheek rested against my chest. Birds weighed more than she. “Are you in pain? Do you want your medicine?”
She shook her head. “I miss Jorge.”
“Me too,” I whispered and smoothed her hair.
All during the days, she was strong for us, and we easily forgot that she was just a child. Often I had awakened in the night to find Jorge gone and now I understood. Just as Lucía comforted us, so did Jorge hold her while she wept her fears to him. I patted her shoulder as gently as I knew how, woefully aware that my brother’s role was too large for me to fill.
Uncomfortable in the face of Lucía’s grief, I sought some way to deflect her sorrow. All I had was the small icon in the pocket of my shorts. “Be quiet now. I’ll show you something, a secret.”
She wiped her eyes with the sheet and frowned up at me.
I withdrew the icon and held it up in a strip of pale moonlight. “No one knows I have her, not even Jorge, especially not Mamá.” Santa Muerte’s eyes were amber in the night.
“I know her,” Lucía whispered. “I have seen her in my dreams and made her my friend. She walks beside me every day and lends me her strength.”
A chill passed over my flesh. Lucía lived on the periphery between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Of course she would know La Santa Muerte.
Lucía stroked the icon’s silvery head. “She is cold.”
“She is death.” My hand closed over Lucía’s and we sat quietly, holding the icon together. “I pray every night that she will give us some news of Jorge.”
“Has she answered you?”
I shook my head. “You won’t tell Mamá, will you?”
“No.” She breathed the word softly. “Pray to her.” The command resurrected the Lucía I knew, a woman-child with eyes of flame and a heart to match.
“The icon is yours, Sebastian. You must pray to her,” she said again. “Tell her we want to see Jorge.”
Many times I had prayed to La Santa Muerte and received no answer. I didn’t believe anything would happen tonight, but I saw no point in refusing Lucía. If the ritual helped her sleep and brought her rest, then I could play the game. I settled myself on the bed and cradled her in my arms. We held the icon together as I whispered the Lord’s Prayer, then invoked my request to La Santa Muerte to reveal Jorge to us as he traveled north. A mild shiver coursed through my body.
Lucía repeated my prayer. The third time, we said it in unison. I kept waiting for Mamá to investigate the noise, but she never came.
I closed my eyes and leaned my head against the wall. The night grew still and cocooned us in deep silence. The heavy carbon odor of the city gave way to the scent of creosote. A hot wind tousled my hair.
I dreamed that I stood in the desert with Lucía in my arms. We held the icon, hot between our palms, and watched a man run across the wasteland. A cloud yawned over the stars …
~ ~ ~
… and drank the moonlight from the sky.
Hector slowed and glanced back, but the group of migrants he’d just led across the border was almost out of sight. They walked in the opposite direction along the slender ribbon of a dirt road, hurrying toward the remote glow of the highway.
The crossing had gone well for a change, and all of the three men and five women had managed to keep up. Good thing too, because Hector was alone tonight. He and his partner Alonso usually worked together to herd the migrants through, but Alonso hadn’t shown up at their rendezvous, and the migrants had money, and the narcos were hungry, and the night came down fast, there had been no time to wait …
Hector stumbled and quickly righted himself. He damned Alonso and whatever carelessness had kept him from the run. Something must have happened to his friend. Like something will happen to me if I’m not careful. Twist an ankle or knee and if the Border Patrol or the narcos didn’t get him, the desert heat would end his days. More than once, Hector and Alonso had left migrants behind when they couldn’t keep up.
Alonso always blew them off and said they had paid for a chance—good luck wasn’t in the gamble.
Hector couldn’t rationalize their lives away so easily. He drank until he washed their faces from his mind, and as the years passed, he learned not to listen to their stories, or inquire where they were from.
From somewhere behind him came the sound of shuffling feet, a murmur—a hushed rasp that sounded like a name.
Hector dropped without thinking and squatted behind a clump of creosote. His fingers touched the grip of the pistol tucked into his belt. Shit. It didn’t matter whether the noise came from the narcos or the Border Patrol. Hector didn’t need trouble.
Right now, he needed whiskey and a smoke—Leonor on his lap with her cool hair in his face—that’s what he needed. He was close to the border and Sasabe where his old van awaited him, a creaky steed with bad shocks. Another mile, maybe two, then he would be in the driver’s seat, headed to Altar and Leonor’s place. He practically smelled her perfume, hot and sweet like flowers tumbling on the morning air.
The air wavered, a ripple across the night. Moonlight pierced the edges of the cloud with slivers of glass, fractured moonbeams that barely illuminated the land. Hector imagined he saw a young man standing several yards away. The youth held a crippled girl in his arms.
Hector rubbed his hand over his eyes and looked out over the desert again, but the boy and the crippled girl were gone. Fuck. The kids were a hallucination. It was the heat, playing tricks with his mind. He needed water and rest.
Hector counted his heartbeats, twelve … fifteen … thirty …
He crouched behind the creosote until his thighs cramped.
The sound didn’t recur.
He was alone.
Hector rose cautiously and paused until his dizziness passed. He took two steps. His left foot tangled with his right. Another step and his boot found only air. His curse choked into a strangled gasp as he fell forward, reaching out blindly. The scree slid beneath him. His gut turned hot with fear. Thorny limbs snatched his hat from his head and snarled around his arms. Skin peeled from his exposed hands as he tumbled down the embankment.
He rolled to a stop and landed on his back. He clenched his hands and moved his legs. All his limbs worked. He was fine. Everything was fine. He sat on the ground and waited for his raging heart to slow.
The cloud moved away from the moon and washed the gully in icy light. A corpse slumped nearby, the face tilted up toward the sky. Hector recognized him. It was the migrant they’d been forced to leave behind two days ago. There hadn’t been enough nights of booze and Leonor to put between him and this man.
Jorge. He said his name was Jorge and he was from Pachuca.
He had traveled with a smaller group of migrants. As they’d passed the gully, Jorge had stepped in a hole and snapped his ankle.
Don’t leave me.
There wasn’t any question of taking him. Hector had helped Jorge move to the shade and told him they’d pick him up on the way back.
It was a comfortable lie. Experience taught Hector to keep the injured migrants calm—that way, the others wouldn’t offer to carry him and slow the group down. Lies soothed them, kept them from becoming hysterical and making a scene. Hopefully death had slipped over the young man before he knew she came.
Jorge still clutched the rosary that Hector had fished from his bag and placed in his hands. The beads resembled roses and lay soft and pearlescent against his dark skin.
Guilt shifted Hector’s gaze away from the rosary. He sat beside the corpse and rocked himself. Jorge’s death wasn’t his fault. Luck favored no man. God, but he needed a drink.
Up ahead, a pale woman emerged from the shadows. She drifted toward Hector as if her feet never touched the ground. Her loose black hair framed eyes yellow as topaz. Something about her seemed familiar, the arrogant tilt of her head, her proud cheekbones—he’d seen a likeness of her somewhere.
“You never returned.” The words crawled through a throat of broken glass. “You promised to return, Hector.”
Moonlight fell on a figure behind her—a creature with two heads. Hector blinked the sweat from his eyes. His vision cleared and he realized the two-headed creature was really the same young man and crippled girl that he had seen earlier. Their faces were so similar Hector had no doubt they were brother and sister. Earlier, he’d thought them a hallucination, but now he saw that they were real—as real as the woman, who had ceased her merciless advance.
The youth’s gaze went to the corpse and his jaw tightened. His accusing glare hit Hector like a blow. “Is he dead?”
“It’s okay.” Hector tried to assure him. He felt for his pistol but the gun was gone. His hand found only the tail of his shirt, the fabric hot and wet. “It happens sometimes. He broke his ankle. We couldn’t carry him so we left him behind.”
The woman observed Hector with yellow eyes that glittered in the moonlight. “You promised.”
How did she know? How the fuck did she know anything? Hector’s mouth kept moving in spite of his need to shut up. Lies squirted through his lips with such regularity, he never knew when to stop anymore. “We got turned around and couldn’t find him.” He got to his knees and looked for his gun.
“Don’t let him get away with this,” said the boy. He started to place the girl on the ground.
“No, Sebastian!” She clung to his neck and whispered in his ear.
Although Sebastian’s eyes were on fire with his hate, he nodded once and held her. She was so frail that Hector wondered how she didn’t break in the boy’s trembling arms.
The woman measured the boy with her gaze. “What will you have?”
“I want my brother home,” said Sebastian through clenched teeth.
The woman nodded and stepped to Hector. Her pale dress billowed around her skinny body like robes. Then Hector realized where he’d seen her likeness: painted on the back of a truck owned by one of the narcos. She was death—they worshipped her and called her La Santa Muerte.
She blocked the children from his sight. The wind caught the hem of her dress. Hector glimpsed the bones of her shins.
Fuck, no, no, this isn’t real. His gaze caught the glint of moonlight on metal. His gun. There, just on the other side of the corpse. Hector slid backward.
Skeletons didn’t walk, Saint Death was a fable. As soon as he put a bullet in her, this woman would die. He was sure of it … sure of it.
A hot wind scattered the dust. Sharp rocks sliced his palms. His fingers tangled in Jorge’s rosary and the string broke—plastic beads flew into the crevices, decades of tears wept into the stone. The corpse tilted sideways and toppled slowly, sending a puff of dust into the air.
The woman stepped quickly, her thin, white feet bare upon the rocks.
“Who are you?” Hector sobbed.
“I am the dark sound,” she said. “I am the lament of the rain.” Her face was a grinning mask of teeth. “I am silence.”
Overhead, the stars winked out one by one until nothing was left but an endless void. A finger of blackness oozed forward. Nothing was left but the woman and the night.
Hector’s teeth chattered.
She knelt beside him. Her breath smelled of the grave. “Don’t leave,” she whispered, amber eyes aglitter in the dark.
She pressed her lips against his and held him still with icy palms on his cheeks. Dirt and bitterness flooded his mouth. He gagged and thrashed to wrench himself free. His hand touched something smooth and hard.
His gun. Finally. His gun.
Hector put the barrel to his head and pulled the trigger.
~ ~ ~
The crack of the pistol turned into the backfire of a car.
I woke with a start, conscious of Lucía’s sweating body heavy against mine.
In the street below, someone cackled and banda music caused the windows to pulse in their frames. A woman screamed and tires squealed. The music faded in the distance.
I almost lost the dream in the noise, then I remembered Jorge. A block of ice slammed into my chest. No. It was a dream. Only a dream. Jorge wasn’t dead, he couldn’t be. We needed him.
Lucía hitched a sob. “Oh, Sebastian.” Her fingers clutched my arm and dug furrows across my skin. “Our poor Jorge.”
“It was just a dream. Jorge isn’t dead.”
“How did you know I dreamed him dead?” she asked.
A fine shard of anger sliced my heart. Why did she have to question me? I made an effort to keep my voice low. “I dreamed he broke his ankle and the coyote left him to die in the desert. What did you dream?”
“I dreamed the same dream as you. You started to put me on the ground, but I whispered to you. I told you to ask her to bring Jorge home and you did.”
I stared at her, my rage gone, my mouth dry with fear. She was right. Everything she said, I had dreamed, and she couldn’t know these details unless she was there. Now I understood why everything felt so real, right down to Lucía’s fierce breath on my cheek as she whispered to me.
The icon of La Santa Muerte had turned my hand numb. I flexed my fingers and Lucía gasped when the moonlight illuminated the figure. A smear of blood decorated the saint’s pewter mouth. My hand shook. Lucía snatched the icon away from me.
I slid out of the bed. Grains of sand cascaded to the floor, my feet dusty with the desert. I looked to my sister. “What did we dream? The past or the future?”
“I don’t know.”
Raw hope burned in my chest. If we had dreamed the future, then I might have a chance to save Jorge.
Down the hall, Mamá’s cell rang, persistent and shrill. Lucía’s head whipped toward the sound and my skin crawled with every ring.
Mamá finally answered. I tried to distinguish her words through the papery walls. The call seemed to go on forever, the minutes stretched out in silence, interrupted by the staccato burst of my mother’s questions.
Lucía’s fingers found my wrist and she pulled me close once more. “Say nothing, Sebastian.”
The light came on. I blinked stupidly at Mamá, who stood in the doorway, her short black hair wild around her face. When she spoke, her voice sounded far away, part of another world, like the city streets below.
“They found Jorge,” she said. Her eyes darted from one corner of the room to another, never lingering in one place for long. My heart tore to see her like this. She cleared her throat and whispered, “The Border Patrol responded to a shot fired in the desert. A man committed suicide and there was a body in the same wash. It was Jorge. They discovered our phone number in his pocket. They said we are lucky. They said there are many who never come home.” A wan smile preceded her tears. “We are lucky, they say.”
I wrapped Mamá in my arms while she sobbed. I barely noticed when Ana and Jazmín wandered into the room. Mamá pulled away from me then and took the younger girls out of the room where she could comfort them.
“Sebastian?” Lucía murmured my name.
I returned to her side and knelt by her bed. I touched the icon nestled in her palm. I thought of how easy it would be to go to Carlos and work for the narcos. I remembered my promise to Jorge. I had no choice. “You know I must go next.”
“Give her to me.” She indicated the icon. “Give her to me and we will watch over you. I will dream you every night, Sebastian. I promise.”
I didn’t hesitate. “Of course, she is yours.” I folded her fingers around the icon. “How will I know when she’s there?”
“Listen for her. She is the dark sound.” Lucía whispered in my ear. “You will hear her in the lament of the rain.”
~ ~ ~
I ride the trains. I am going north where I’ll find work or I’ll find death. I am not afraid.
I see my brother’s face all around me, in the men and women who guard their hope behind closed expressions. I hear Jorge’s deep laughter in the train’s rumble. His eyes shine down on me through the stars.
In the night, my Lucía watches over me. If I should die before I succeed, she will guide my body home. She knows the dark sounds and whispers to me beneath the rain.
She is with you, listen for her …