Image: Lia Liao

It was the Christmas card that tipped her off. Maria couldn’t believe it. After acquiescing to her husband’s will and moving back into her family’s isolated old farmhouse with its ruined roof, creaking floorboards, and leaky faucets, Blake was doing it again!

“‘I appreciate your Teddy-Bear heart and your de-light-ful sense of humor!’” Maria read the card out loud over their weekly Zoom visit. Being so far apart, nearly two-thousand miles in the distorted triangle between Tucson, Arizona, Dallas, Texas, and Sisters, Oregon, virtual brunching after church had become their new ritual—their pachanguita.

“Really?” Teresa asked. “That’s all you’ve got?”

Maria tucked the Christmas card into the deep pocket of her cerulean sweater and stared at the snowy peaks on the horizon. Three Sisters, an omen, the promised land their parents had been looking for when they’d migrated north, trying to get as far away from the oppression and poverty of La Frontera as they could. With three dark-haired, flush-faced toddlers, tres hermanitas, snuggled together in the back seat of their carcachita, they had stopped to take in the sight and, mesmerized, decided to settle there.

Freezing, Maria pulled the sweater cuffs over her knuckles and hugged herself. “It’s in the tone,” she mumbled.

“What tone?” Teresa asked, tearing at a flour tortilla and nibbling on it.

“The ‘I,’” Maria said. “She could have said ‘We,’ as in the team, the department, the business, but, ‘I,’ well ‘I’ feels ...”

“Intimate,” Corina found the right word for her. They often did that for each other, the three sisters. Being so close in age, like plump Muscat grapes on a vine, they always knew when one of them was withering and hurried over to help.

“Yes!” Maria tossed her hair out of her face and sat up with a jerk. She leaned forward, distorting her image on the screen. Her lips became pale, and her left eye was suddenly sanguine, swollen. Horrified, she pushed the laptop away and fell back into the arms of her white, rattan chair.

“What happened to your eye!” Corina screamed.

“Nothing,” she said.

“Don’t lie.” Teresa’s beautiful face, when she inspected the screen, became distorted too, her jowls drooping, her chin enormous. 

Resigned, Maria pulled her long hair up. She twirled it around and around, gathering it into a tight chignon that stayed up all by itself, strangled by its own weight at the back of her head.

“I’m not,” she defended. Nevertheless, her mind went to the evening’s events.

Instead of being clipped to the cord on the Christmas card display running across their old chimenea, the card was hidden in Blake’s dark office, the art studio he’d commandeered after overwhelming her, one stick of furniture at a time. Its home inside his cluttered desk, beside the massive copier, in front of the hulking bookshelves, next to the filing cabinets, and across from the ping-pong table, the card felt like part of a secret plot.

A plot to drive her out.

Into the bitter cold.

And she’d told him as much—to her regret.

“Did you call the cops!” Teresa
demanded.

“Of course.” Maria clammed up. She didn’t have the energy to answer their questions.

“Incredible, just incredible,” Teresa shook her head.

“But he’s so old,” Corina said, biting into the crimson tinged stalk of celery from her Bloody Mary. “You’d think he couldn’t anymore.”

“No, no.” Teresa put down her cafecito and raised her hand as if to swipe away the notion. “Remember Doña Carmen’s husband? Sixty-five. With a 22-year-old. And....”

“And they had a kid,” Maria acknowledged.

Teresa tossed the celery stick across the table. “Yeah. Well, that’s just disgusting.”

Maria sighed. “I’m 45.”

“Stop it. Don’t even go there. You look 15 years younger.” Teresa shook her finger at the screen. “Have a concha. Wait. Why aren’t you eating? Where’s your pan dulce?”

Maria’s stomach lurched, and she thought she might have to leave the meeting early. “I’m not hungry.”

“Well, you always knew he would leave again.” Corina adjusted the angle on her webcam, as she shifted in her seat. “Good riddance!”

“Yeah! Let her deal with him,” Teresa grumbled. “And don’t take him back. Not this time.”

Corina sipped at her Bloody Mary.
“Never again!”

“Course not,” Maria had mumbled.

They’d kissed, pressed fingertips to screen, several times before ending their call—another ritual, another must. Maria cleared the table and walked back inside, wandering through the house, going over every detail in her head again.

Week after week, after signing off, she did the same thing. Wandered. Worried. Wept. She didn’t want to go back to work. She didn’t need to. She had a small pension from teaching. She didn’t eat but once a day. It was enough.

And after circling the house, deep in thought, she always ended up in his office, her old studio. Like her sisters, Maria had expected Blake to move out. Only this time, he hadn’t left her right away. Instead, he did something worse, something more insidious. This time, Blake stayed and toyed with her heart—that soft, aching, bloody mess that gushed in his hands every time he squeezed it before he bounced it off the formica or smacked it against the wall like a ping-pong ball.

He stayed and pawed at her like a great, big, satiated cat. Larger than life, with a mane curlier and more ridiculous than the Cowardly Lion, he lingered in her bed, lunged at her from out of dark corners, growled and bit into her neck and licked her face while she fought him off, because a soft kiss, a gentle caress, was not something he could give her now.

Until weary and unkempt, Maria stopped wandering and resorted to sitting in the arms of the white, rattan chair in the backyard, wishing she could tell her sisters what was really going on. Even though she asked him to move out, he just ignored her.

It seemed to her that everywhere she went that winter, Blake was always there, breathing in her air, pulling the oxygen away from her and using it to feed himself, until, finally, his vampiric negligence had all but suffocated her. Malnourished as her brain was, she couldn’t think, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t dream.

Every week, her sisters wanted to know everything, but not the everything in graphic detail, not the pulp of blood spatter or crimson drops on linoleum. Not that she’d been tending the garden when she came in and caught a glimpse of the zeroed-out joint savings account statement for April on his desk. Not that the shovel in her hand had blistered her palm. Not even that he’d laughed at her when she confronted him about their money—when she pleaded. Sobbed.

She was glad when he’d sucked the breath out of her space for the last time and was finally out the back door. In a stupor, she spent the rest of the day in the garden, wrestling with Blake’s thorny vine, burying all memory of him. He was gone, gone—all thought of him tucked
under the narcissus bulbs in her large flower bed.

But Teresa and Corina did not want to know about that. No, her sisters, with their lacquered nails and dark, flowing hair, had seen their own share of troubles. Three divorces between them, the sisters who told her to get out, to thread her eyebrows and wax her upper lip, grieved over her torn fingernails and sallow skin. That’s why they’d come. Out of nowhere. Six months later, on a warm, Saturday night, they’d just driven up, exhausted but beautiful, light spilling out of their eyes.  Teachers on summer vacation!

“Didn’t you used to paint?” Corina asked, sipping her late-night strawberry margarita. “Why did you give that up? You were so good at it.”

“So good,” Teresa agreed, already tipsy.

“I have a friend with a gallery in Portland,” Corina said, pushing a strand of Maria’s hair out of her face. “Do you have something, anything, I could show him?”

“Come on sis,” Teresa had squeezed her hand. “You must. You must be working on something.”

Why couldn’t they understand she couldn’t create? Couldn’t they tell that the setting and characters for the telenovela they wanted to bemoan over Sunday brunch tomorrow were all wrong? Her cheating husband. His leading lady, a beautiful entrepreneur, part of some kind of exchange program, were real, living, breathing people.

Maria had met her once, at an office party. The woman had smiled at her—de los dientes pa fuera. So surreal, the way her perfume had shot straight up Maria’s nose, delivered a blow to her frontal lobe, blunt force trauma that left her reeling, disoriented, after the woman leaned over and whispered, “It was nice to finally meet—to set eyes on you.”

“The light is all wrong here,” she told her sisters on their first morning there, when they found her standing in front of the obstructed window. “That thorny vine Blake planted has gone rogue. I tried cutting it back, but it got me. Right here.”

She’d shown them the scar on the underside of her wrist. They hadn’t gasped like she’d expected. If only they’d seen all that blood.

“He left, huh?” Teresa frowned. “Then why’s his stuff still here?”

Corina gazed around Blake’s office. “Where did he go?”

“Abroad somewhere,” Maria mumbled. “To live in some kind of commune with her. He took what he needed. Cleaned out our accounts.”

 

The gardener drove up, before Maria knew what was going on. Teresa walked him around back and talked to him, while Maria and Corina peeked out the back door.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Maria said, her voice placid. Though she was mad as hell. This was her mess. She was dealing with it, in her own way. Nobody should convict her for the way she’d handled things.

“Isn’t he sexy?” Corina asked. “Look at those jeans. They fit just right.”

“He’s perfect, in every way,” Teresa whispered, when the gardener reached into the bed of his pickup. “I mean, not perfect for me. I have Miguel. But perfect for you. Make sure you get his card. Have him—fix things for you.”

Carrying a pair of shears, the gardener walked across the lawn.

“Whatever you do, don’t get rid of it,” Maria ordered. She wanted to make sure he didn’t disturb things. This was hallowed ground. Soon after Blake vanished from her life, she’d had Father Patrick over for breakfast. They’d eaten out here, with the mountains filling their eyes. After taquitos de chorizo con papas, Father Patrick said a prayer over her and blessed the garden, her garden now.

“Of course, never without permission.” The gardener smiled, and Maria recognized that he was not only handsome but charming. Maybe she would ask him back. The pear trees needed trimming.

“Mira! Que pretty!” Teresa beamed as they stood inside, clustered together in front of the row of obstructed windows. The gardener clipped away and, suddenly, Maria saw sunlight peeking in from behind him.

“It was always there, hermana. Your light was always there!” Corina kissed her cheek warmly.

Teresa draped her arm around her waist and kissed her, too. “Now you can create.”

“Yes,” Corina sighed. “Create.”

Create.

As they hugged each other, the darkness crept backward, relegated to the corners of the house, while in the window, the proud peaks of the Three Sisters emerged, standing together, side by side, beautiful and breathtaking, as they had always been.

Guadalupe García McCall is the author of several short stories, many poems, and four award-winning novels for young adults, including All the Stars Denied. She teaches creative writing at George Fox University and lives in the PNW with her husband.

Show Comments