El Hueso: Part I of III / by Daphne Malfitano

They were due back with water that night. In the merciless late afternoon sun Elena threw twigs at the dog who tossed supine in the dirt, a cloud of his own making engulfing him. The back door was open and through the shady screen your eyes could adjust to see Abuelita smoking a cigarette inside. Small puffs of her exhaled smoke escaped the mesh and floated over Elena’s head, then mixed with the dust clouds, together adding to the eternal haze enveloping El Hueso. The screen scratched open a few inches, the butt of Abuelita’s cigarette flew past Elena’s cheek, then the screen slapped shut. The noise drew the dog out of his dirt bath as the twigs had sought to, and the ever-twitching snout rested over the butt only a moment before lapping it up. The sky was drained of color, hanging heavy in its opaque beige-ness, but somehow the sun penetrated and the heaviness of the sky magnified its strength, and it seemed there was no escaping the glare.

The sweat perpetually pooling under the breasts of the women of El Hueso caused a collective itching to appear familiarly at intervals wherever one went. Elena stretched, and scratched, and stood, kicking the rocks out of her sandals. The brown dog, hip bones sharp and pronounced as stumps of amputated wings, followed behind her as she rounded the house. The front yard, lacking grass, was all rocks and two small, side-lain bicycles. The dog panted and made circles around Elena as she crossed the road to where sat three men on plastic folding chairs in the small strip of shade at the side of another shabby house.

Fausto in the center was just older than Elena, and handsome, flanked by two of his grandfather’s generation. He ground the heels of his leather boots into the gravel, and leaned back in his chair, and whistled at the dog who came running. Elena glanced at Fausto, but addressed Sosimo who sat to his left.

“Abuelita says to come in five minutes.” Sosimo nodded his dark, wrinkled head at Elena and took a swig of something brown in the bottle he held balanced against his kneecap. The dog sat panting before Fausto who nudged him with his knuckles while looking at Elena.

“She have any more nopales?” asked Fausto.

“No.”

“Well, maybe tomorrow…” he looked out briefly toward the horizon, then back at Elena. His heavy brown eyes chased hers away, and she turned and took off toward her house.

“It’s your birthday, no?” asked Eduardo, the frailer, grayer elder.

“Tomorrow,” said Elena without looking back. The smallest rocks in her path leapt up at her legs as she crossed them, desperately grasping for her own body’s forty liters of water, begging to be tilled.

When Elena returned Abuelita was behind the house looking into the distance. The light was dwindling but the air remained steamy and stagnant, and there was little relief in the awaited shade. The older woman’s swaddled head oozed sweat which left a trail running between her eyebrows and down the side of her nose.

“I called Sosimo,” said Elena. “They’re going to lose the light.” Abuelita grunted affirmation and turned and disappeared through the back door. Alone, Elena listened to confirm Abuelita’s retreat into the kitchen via the metallic clap of saucepans, and then walked crossways behind the house with the last dying gash of yellow bisecting the horizon, and slid into the cover of a yucca palm. There she waited, wiping beneath her eyes and tossing her coarse mass of reflective hair anxiously. Normally darkness brought anticipation and the buzz of forthcoming relief, but not tonight. 

The road into town was still abandoned despite the innumerable eyes fixed upon it, and Elena told herself to look away, she still had time. These moments of darkening tricked the eye into beholding El Hueso with affection. The low buildings sat as audience to the stage of the massive, multi-hued sky. Small lights flickered within houses, but soon the town fell to shadow and even Elena could be fooled for a moment into thinking this place blessed. Animals dug or twitched in pockets of darkness between external walls and strewn crates, dust popping up around them marking the air as smoke signals from one to another.

Behind Elena came a man-sized darkness passing the house and drawing towards her. It moved quickly through the black, and illuminated windows blinked on and off as it concealed then revealed them, a morse code of nonsense left in its wake. Elena did not hear it until it was on her, and then its arms were around her and its face in her hair, and she released a small, sweet moan and fell into him. 

“It’s still just us,” said Elena.

“Yes. Just us,” repeated Fausto softly into her neck. 

“Will it work?” 

“I don’t know.” He pulled back, glancing in secret at the horizon.

“It has to.”

“It will.” 

Then all at once they were one with the ground, pushing into the gravel and patches of dead grass, perhaps hoping to merge with that gray expanse where no one could find them. They camouflaged into it, and into each other, and above them the sky closed, allowing only a splash of light in the distance, and that splash grew five silhouettes with five tiny sparks of fire which stayed with them after they left the light and the sky locked shut, and they moved slowly but steadily toward the town. 

On the ground, Elena’s legs bent happy and shaking between her tatty cotton skirt, and bits of rock gripped her hair. Fausto gently cradled one of her fuzzy, tan knees and felt the whole world explode through his heart. They could see stars, but what use were stars. The only lights that mattered were the five that traveled ever nearer them, and those they did not see as the spangled sky above their love.