There is a tale about two sisters from Oaxaca. The elder was as lively as a summertime storm, and the younger was as sweet and placid as fruit from the harvest. One hungered to see the world, while the other wanted nothing more than to make Santa Ana Del Rio her world…
And, when their abuela lies dying, Dolores’s older sister finally comes back.
Dolores’s fingers are clenching onto a cornhusk, tugging with undue and uncharacteristic violence, revealing the yellow beneath the green. When her eyes burn she looks up- in a valiant effort to blink her tears away- and that’s when she sees Efigenia.
“Oh!” Dolores yelps, feeling as though she’s suddenly been encased in ice. As if she’s seeing a ghost. And isn’t she, in a way? The calls from Efigenia had ceased month ago, and the Tijuana police would not search for her. How is it, then, that she is now in their kitchen, smiling tentatively, looking far healthier than expected, and wearing long sleeves even at white-hot zenith of summer?
Relief gives way to melancholy so Dolores hangs back as her parents run to embrace Efigenia. She searches her soul and finds no lurking bitterness. This is not the case of an overshadowed daughter resenting attention showered on la hija prodiga. After all, their mother had raised them to give their affections freely.
Love is a bit like water, Lola. You can’t really divide it. You can’t cut it with a knife and parcel it neatly. It’s part of a great whole.
And Dolores had accepted it; accepted it the way plant fields accept rain. Why, then, did her sister’s arrival make her want to sob?
“I thought you were dead,” Dolores says, and their parents become as still as statues. Efigenia’s glance stabs. “You let us think you were dead.”
“Shh, Lola,” their father says. Not unkindly. “Something must have happened. She’ll tell us in time.”
Efigenia spends several aching seconds looking everywhere but at her sister. And then, finally; “I’m sorry.”
And Dolores believes it; her sister is adventurous and loud, but her soul is compassionate. In the past, Efigenia had shielded her from bullies in the past- had joked that she was a knight born in the wrong century- and even now her protective instincts may be at work. Abruptly ashamed, Dolores sets the half-shucked corn to the side, and she opens arms to her sister. Efigenia exhalation is as sharp as a knife, and she and launches herself into Dolores’s arms. Settles herself into her sister’s embrace, like she has come home at last.
“I’ll explain everything later.” The mumbled promise in her ear is quiet, so quiet. Dolores feels an onslaught of concern. Even fear. It burns her throat much like the time when she had reached into one of her mother’s spice containers and swallowed the pepper flakes whole.
Dolores’s sister has never whispered in their entire life.
“I’ll listen to anything.”
The next morning their abuela dies. Leaves the world. Commends her spirit to God. Whatever a person might want to call it. Add everything up, and that blessed soul is gone; that person who told Dolores and Efigenia tales about La Llorona, who braided their hair and listened to their woes, and had calmed them when they had had to register their DNA with government (how Dolores had sobbed when they drew her blood! “Poor dear,” their abuelita had said. “You earned your name.”).… There is an empty space where there had once been laughter and stories as old as their village.
“I think she was waiting for you,” Dolores says on the day of the funeral, as she weaves ribbons into Efigenia’s hair. Her sister pats her on the hand and says nothing. There’s something… odd about the feel of Efigenia’s wrist, but then Dolores shoves that observation to the side. After all, the colonia is outside their window. The brass band is warming up, and the coffin is waiting for its pallbearers.
It’s a large crowd waiting for them- after all, Dolores’s abuela was well-loved- but nothing compared to the heyday of Santa Ana Del Rio. The young adults had scattered to the four corners of the earth, in search of factories and a steady income. But, when Dolores is feeling lightheaded from the scent of copal she catches sight of Miguel. His presence tethers her to the ground, and she thinks she could drown in all the compassion in his eyes.
She is so terribly glad Miguel in not one of the ones who has left.
“Let’s talk,” Efigenia says several days after their grandmother has been laid to rest.
“Alright,” Dolores agrees, sipping on tejate, resolve seeping in to her bones. “Go.”
She can see Efigenia biting on the corner of her mouth. And then, finally; “what do you think I’ve been doing all this time?”
“Um,” Dolores says. She takes in her sister’s healthy state and contrasts it with low income at the job she claimed. She thinks about the legions of American men who enjoyed crossing the closed border (closed on one side only) in order to pay for the services of Mexican women. The equation and solution seem equally clear.
“Ah, so you think it’s been prostitution, then?” Efigenia rubs at her lower arm.
Dolores sets her drink aside. “You know that mom and dad won’t care about. I don’t either.”
Efigenia rubs at her eyes. “It happened once or twice, but… The situation is more complicated then that.”
And before Dolores can consider the implications of that statement, Efigenia finally tugs one of her sleeves up. Small metallic nodes glimmer from her arms. “It’s going to be a new thing,” she says, “Americans want cheap Mexican labor but they don’t want us in their country, so they’re developing technology… These things here mean we can operate Californian machinery all the way from Tijuana.”
For some reason, Dolores recalls that one of her first memories is of Efigenia scowling at the newspaper. They had closed the Mexican-American border that day. “So you offered to be a test subject. You look like a robot, you know.”
Efigenia laughs and nods, and runs her fingers against the machinery at her wrists. “I do, don’t I?” She sighs. “It was easy money at first.”
“But then they became cruel, didn’t they?”
Her sister nods, slowly, and Dolores can see that it costs her. Efigenia has never cared to admit that she can be hurt. “Once it was clear the technology worked, they used it to broadcast all kinds of scenarios to us. When they thought I was passed out, I overheard two scientists say that they knew the technology worked. And now they were using as test subjects to study the effects of trauma.” Efigenia folds her arms and stares up at the ceiling, blinking rapidly. “There’s trauma everywhere. Why did they have to create some where there was none.”
“My God…” Out of the corner of her eye, Dolores sees one of her new dresses. She remembers receiving money from Efigenia- for her birthday- and going to the market to purchase clothes. “If you had told me…”
Efigenia shakes her self, and dons a wry half-smile. “It’s okay, I kept you from knowing.”
“Protecting me still?”
They fall silent, and the wind howls outside their bedroom window. It sounds like a wailing woman, and Dolores remembers that La Llorona was the only thing she remembered Efigenia fearing.
“I didn’t want you to know that these people thought of me as a machine.” And Efigenia is at it, whispering again. Scaring her sister. “I shouldn’t have come here.”
“I signed a contract.” Efigenia massages her temples with her fingers, and Dolores stares at the technology that’s attached to her sisters arms. “For five years. Five years I had to let them do whatever experiments they want. Otherwise they’ll probably fine me. I don’t know. Maybe worse.”
Dolores bolts to her feet. “You ran away.”
Efigenia nods. “I was going to fake my death so that my law breaking wouldn’t effect any of you but… then I heard about abuela and well-"
“No.” Dolores cuts her off with a sharp gesture. “You’re my sister and you’re always welcome here.”
It’s one of the only times she’s seen her sister cry, but Efigenia is smiling too.
A few years ago Dolores had repaired two old cell phones. After a great deal of deliberation she had gifted one of them to Miguel, and over the past few months they had been texting each other with the ferocity of a swarm of bees.
Tonight is no different. Tonight he agrees to meet her by the old river. Something in her heart lifts, as it does every time she sees Miguel… and then it crashes as she thinks of what they must do. Tonight they’re not going to talk about their future, or the farm they will grow together.
“I’m so sorry to ask this of you,” she says, shifting from side-to-side.
Miguel takes her hand, and Dolores can’t look away from their intertwined fingers. “Are you in danger?”
She shakes her head. “No, but Efigenia is. She needs to leave the country.” The story spills out of her, like dammed up water bursting free.
And Miguel’s eyes narrow as he listens to the tale. “You know I had a much older brother, right?”
“The one who disappeared.” Dolores covers her mouth with her free hand, contrite for bringing it up so inelegantly.
Miguel brushes his fingers against her shoulder, as if to tell her not to worry. “He was in America when the border closed, and we never heard from again.” Stories drifted back to Mexico, about what had been happening to undocumented and trapped workers ever since. Each tale was more hair-raising than the next. “So, yes, I will gladly help your sister.”
Miguel has another sibling, you see. A sister who helps transport crops all the way to the east. Who regularly helped people escape to Guatemala.
The rising sun feels like a beacon for Efigenia’s travels. Dolores, her mother, and her father, help load her sister into the back of the truck.
“Looks like I’ll be keeping company with potatoes,” Efigenia says, giggling with relief.
“We understand if you can’t contact us for a while,” their father replies, “but know that we love you.”
Dolores kisses her sister on the forehead, while their mother hands Efigenia on of their abuela’s rosaries. Her older sister- her only sister- is wearing a smile that feels like it’s sob in disguise. But she also looks like a bird who’s about to fly from the nest for the first time.
When the truck’s engine starts, it sounds like a gunshot. Miguel grabs onto her hand, briefly, and stays with her and her family. They watch until the vehicle is a pinprick on the
Government officials eventually come calling, demanding the return of a criminal who had broken a contact. It’s easy to shake them off by claiming that Efigenia is dead and gone.
(It’s equally easy to get the village involved in the sham. They still hold onto memories of a certain recent funeral, and are willing to protect the life of that woman’s granddaughter.)
Dolores had wondered if they would fine them the loss of Efigenia’s stolen technology. But, listening to them speak, she gathers that the nodes on her sister’s wrists were already becoming widespread in certain circles. Therefore, the offense here was that Efigenia had had the gall to think of herself as a human being. But her “death” had washed away that sin.
As they walk away, Dolores spits on their shadows. She knows, somehow, that this is the first and last mutinous act of her life. But she made it count.
On the day of her wedding, Miguel’s sister- newly returned from Guatemala- hands Dolores a note.
Congratulations on your wedding. I wish you all the happiness in the world. Your husband is a good man.
-Your robot sister.
Everyone in this town has stories- family legends- that are much like this. People are born and people die. But during the vast space in between those two landmarks there are moments of rebellion and grace.