Lady of the
By Agustín Cadena
by C.M. Mayo
A Traveler's Literary Companion
was Cielo, which means
"sky," and she lived in one of those Baja California
towns that, by the end of the 1960s, it seemed the whole world
was passing through. If at first it helped kill time, she soon
lost count of all the cars, motorcycles, and long-haired gringos
who stopped to fill-up on gas or to buy something, and then head
on south. They were all going to the Sierra Madre, or even further
south, to the Oaxacan coast. Seated on hand-made Hopi-Kachina
cushions, they would drink coffee or booze and talk about Ezra
Pound and the communitarian nature of artistic creation. For
them, poetry was a tribal bonfire and the poet should return
to recite his cantos in the plaza. They would go on about this
while watching the seagulls fly, and then they would leave. None
stayed for more than a couple of days, even with Señora
Gómez's cooking, and the charms of the plump-cheeked and
dark-eyed girls who waited on them in the restaurant. The heat,
the flies, and the town's lethargy drove them away. Year after
year, summer after summer, the sun parched the grass at the edge
of the highway that overlooked the ocean. And year after year,
Cielo had only Sundays to rest from the shrill ring of the cash
register in the little grocery where she worked. On Sundays she
went to mass in her barrio's church where she sang in the choir,
and afterwards, she would go to look at the ocean. She would
walk barefoot for a while along the beach, feeling that this
cold moistness on her feet was her portion of happiness for the
week, and when the sun went down and the mosquitos began to bite
her arms and calves, she would put on her shoes and head home
to get ready for the next week.
It was in the church choir that Cielo met Tacia. Although Tacia
was a few years younger, Cielo liked her at once, for she loved
animals, she was obsessed with leaning new things, and had a
spontaneous and natural tendency to contemplation, but most of
all, it was her way of laughing like a country girl, covering
her mouth as if she was ashamed to show her teeth or to let anyone
As Cielo remembered it, the morning had been filled with sun.
It was one of the first sunny mornings of the year, a day so
festive that many of the hippies who were heading south took
off almost all their clothes and went to throw themselves on
the sand. From the hill where the church was, she could see the
dark sand sprinkled with bright bodies braided together in endless
kisses. At times, when the breeze from the sea changed direction
and blew towards the hill, she could hear singing and the muted
twang of a guitar.
"Wouldn't you like to go with them?" Tacia asked her
in a voice soft so that no one else would hear. Cielo just crossed
her arms. Tacia began to laugh in that funny way of hers, and
she moved away, towards the highway. Cielo followed.
"Are you going to the town?"
"Yes. You, too?"
And they walked along the highway, without looking at the beach.
For several months, they went on meeting on Sundays at church.
Soon they knew every small detail of each others's lives. Cielo
lived with her sister in the oldest part of town, next to an
enormous flour mill that hadn't worked in several decades. But
her sister was rarely home; all day she worked in a packing plant
and at night she just came in to change to her clothes and go
back out. Tacia, however, still had both of her parents. She
lived with them and two sisters and her grandfather, who was
paralyzed. Up until this time, Tacia's inner world had been nourished
by his stories about Pancho Villa. The old veteran would relive
his memories of the Revolution, when he fought by the general's
side all along the border, and Tacia was much happier to listen
to him than sit with her sisters watching the television that
never got good reception. Because of her grandfather, she got
the idea she wanted to become a nurse even though her family
did not have the money or didn't want to pay for her studies.
In any event, she took advantage of every opportunity to follow
her vocation, about which she was learning more each time. Cielo,
however, had no ambitions for herself, but she admired her friend
and wanted to help her achieve her dreams. There was still time.
Tacia had only just graduated from junior high.
One day since morning Cielo felt dizzy and she had shivers. By
the time she closed up the grocery, she had a fever. Her sister
had gone to party in San Diego, but Tacia was with her. Defying
her parents, Tacia went to take care of her sick friend. She
stayed up with Cielo all night, spoon-feeding her medicines and
watching over her sleep until her back hurt from sitting up so
long in the bed. Two days later, Cielo was able to get up again,
feeling that her sickness was no more than a memory that was
actually a pleasant one, for it was lit with the glow of affection,
by smiles and words whispered in her ears by a voice full of
concern and hope.
It so happened that it was nearly mid-day when she opened her
eyes and saw how the June light came in only timidly through
the closed window of her sickroom. She felt that she longed for
air smelling of rain; she got up to open the blinds. Then she
got dressed and went out to the street. They were not expecting
her at the store yet, so she went for a stroll toward the highway
and then down the slope that was covered with wet grass. Waiting
stranded on the beach was the only friend she had had until Tacia
appeared: an old iron boat, its hull riddled with holes and completely
rusted. Many times Cielo had come here to gaze upon it and tell
it her secrets. At the end of the afternoon, a few seagulls arrived
to roost on the mast. Cielo heard them fighting and screeching
for the best perch; she heard the slap of the tide that had begun
to rise and she thought of Tacia, of her dark eyes filled with
tenderness, and she felt that she would have liked in this moment
to stop time.
She stayed there sitting on the sand for a long time, until the
sun was a red line on the other side of the sea and suddenly,
over the sound of the surf, she heard someone calling to her.
It was Tacia, who had come looking for her, worried because she
had not found her at home.
Cielo said nothing; she stood and held out her arms, which were
Night surprised them there on the edge of the highway, innocently
hugging each other, each protecting the other, and each noticing
how the ocean, far in the distance, had begun to reflect the
glittering darkness. The earth gave off a strong and sensual
Many times they hugged each other like this, their tenderness
immense and cowardly, each inhaling the scent of the other, incapable
of confessing what they felt. Maybe this was their way of protecting
that feeling. Because love, while called friendship, can last
indefinitely; it survives an earthquake thanks to one of most
perverse kinds of hypocrisy. But when it recognizes itself for
what it is, when love is called love, then, like Medusa, it turns
to stone. A stone statue that soon breaks apart and crumbles.
Yes. This is why they never spoke of it: they were afraid that
their love would come to an end. And they were embarrassed and
A few kilometers away, young people talked about free love and
the girls went braless and would make love twenty or thirty times
a day. But Cielo and Tacia were confused, and so they suffered.
Cielo was the older of the two and she felt responsible. She
was the one who would have to put some distance between them.
She started out by saying she was really busy, making up problems
her sister supposedly had, and that affected her as well. But
she could not stop what had begun. One Sunday after mass, Tacia
asked to come with her for a walk along the beach, and she brought
her to where there was an abandoned ship. She demanded an explanation,
and she began to cry. Cielo took her in her arms and she hugged
her with all her strength, and the power of this secret and lonely
love. She did not know what had happened.
September was mild in Baja California. The town awoke blanketed
in fog, but it was not cold. And the afternoons were brilliant,
golden. Someone on the beach lit up a reefer and began to recite
When you are in love, you feel wounded by the slightest things;
this is why it is easy to become ungrateful and cruel. Love is
also made of this.
One day, without saying goodbye, Tacia left. These were the last
years of Vietnam and the pressure of the hippies and pacifists
meant that there were ever fewer volunteers for the front. Many
Mexicans enlisted in the U.S. Army. Tacia offered her services
as a nurse. But Cielo did not find this out until many years
later, when the war was over and she saw her friend's name on
a list of casualties. She had waited for her for so long... She
had waited for her on the beach, in church, in the grocery, every
day, every afternoon. Even among the groups of hippies who came
in to buy things, she would search for her face, her voice. Time
went by and with it that was of life. One day, a girl came into
the store. She was wearing a multicolored blouse and sandals
and she had flowers in her hair and flowers painted on her cheeks.
She bought some tomatoes and a pen, because she said, she was
going to write a sonnet. When she left, a speeding car ran her
down. She was already dead when the ambulance took her away.
Cielo understood that this was the last of a race of young people
to whom, who knows how, her friend had belonged. And she felt
The following Sunday, on leaving church, an admirer offered her
his arm and she accepted it. She was nearly thirty years old
and she did not want to go on alone. They went to walk along
the highway and then down toward the beach. The iron boat was
still there, invincible, like a guardian. The man proposed that
they climb up onto it, and this surprised her. It had never occurred
to her to that it could be possible to clear this small stretch
of water and storm this kingdom of crabs and gulls. Nevertheless,
she did not want to; it seemed to her a kind of desecration.
The more her companion insisted, the more stubbornly she refused.
In the end, he contented himself by moving the boat a little
bit and with a pen-knife, scraping off the rust that covered
its name. But for Cielo, even this seemed to her an attack on
something that should not be touched. The name of the boat, like
hundreds of others in North America, was Lady of the Seas. Cielo
did not want to know it. When she turned her back to the beach
and started walking toward the highway, the only thing in her
mind was to forget the past. In the last memory she allowed herself
from that time, she saw herself lying naked on the grass, covering
her eyes with her arm and trying to catch her breath, while Tacia
looked at her and smiled, covering her mouth like a country girl.
2004. All rights reserved. Translation originally published in
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