By Fay Tarlock
Synopsis: The story “Hermanas” (sisters) is narrated by an American woman living temporarily in Mexico. She has befriended Lolita, a widow, and her lovely daughter Graciela. At Church, Graciela is introduced to Jim Flores, studying to be a doctor, and the two become deeply in love. Graciela, after attending secretarial school, is given a position with Mr. Carson, a banker. About this time a wealthy Mexican, Senor Munoz, begins discretely to court Graciela, and Jim is very much worried. The American Senora learns that Lolita has consented to the marriage of Graciela and Senor Munoz. She visits Lolita and asks for an explanation.
In the darkness Lolita’s eyes had an intense gleam, and I was silent before her. I remembered my early days with Amporo when I urged her to eat bread instead of the stack of tortillas that looked like nothing to me but a grayish mass. Bread, I had told her, with foreign superiority, would be best for her. She had answered me by rubbing her stomach and saying, “Bread is good, Senora, but it does not satisfy the hunger.”
Could it be that the bread I was offering Lolita for her soul did not satisfy the hunger? No, I was not yet convinced; after an appropriate silence I tried again.
“You know,” I said to Lolita, as one woman of experience to another, “what the life of a Mexican woman is, even a wealthy woman. She lives forever in the shadow of her husband. Although she has servants and luxuries, her only diversions are kneeling in the church and sewing for the poor, and what,” here I raised my voice, “will kneeling in a dark, musty church mean to her after the new light she has seen? It will never mean truth to her again.” I looked at Lolita, who heard me in stolid silence.
“She will sew,” I belittled the word, and “talk with other ladies with whom she has little in common. She will seldom appear with her husband in public. When her children are old enough they will be sent away to school. What a life that will be for a girl of Graciela’s spirit and intelligence.”
“She will have children!” Lolita shot me the words triumphantly. “She will find ways, my Graciela. It will be the sunshine for her after the dark years.”
“It will be prison,” I rebuked her. “Graciela knows the sweetness of finding herself, of making her own decisions. She is a whole person now. and you?” I was relentless. “What will your position be in the Munoz home? You do not know her, the Senora Valades, mother of the first wife, but I have seen her, and she is hard and domineering. She will never accept you as an equal in the household. You will belong neither in the parlor nor the kitchen.”
“I will have a soft bed to sleep on and food when I want it, not won by the sweat of my frail body.” Her words were a whisper.
“You may grow sleepless on your soft bed,” I defied her, “when you see your child’s spirit broken by the real mistress of the house. And there is the daughter. She is near Graciela’s age, without half her beauty or charm. Poverty may seem desirable after that problem.”
“You, Senora, do not understand the women of Mexico.” She rose, as if to end our battle, and I rose with her. “In Mexico, we do not desire so much independence for women as in your country, and we do not desire the separation of the family. We live together. One day,” she shrugged her thin shoulders, “the mother will die and the daughter will marry.”
“I can only hope.” I said it coldly and stooped for my shoes, drying them with the paper Lolita had stuffed in them.
“No, Senora, I will do it.”
Humbly she took the shoes from my hands and pulled out the paper. Kneeling, she slipped my feet into the pumps, and I could not speak. After she had helped me with my raincoat, she handed the umbrella to me.
“Con permisso,” she said with firm politeness and opened the door for me.
We started down the dark corridor together.
“I will think of what you said, Lolita. I do not want to sit in judgment.”
“The Senora is always kind,” she murmured, steering me towards the entrance.
“You have followed the dictum of common sense.” I chose my words with utmost care. Soon I would be on the other side of the wall. “But have you given heed to the dictates of the spirit?”
Her eyes opened wide, and I knew I had her interest. “Security can never be the end of life.”
My hands had found the great iron knob, and the door opened, throwing a gray light on our intent faces. “We are taught in our religion that security lies within ourselves. Each of us has the divine spark, and we are free to choose between good and evil. We can disregard the spark and kill it, or we can kindle it into a flame that will illumine our lives. Do you understand me, Lolita?”
The door opened wider and the noises of the street came between us, and Lolita half shut the door, leaving space for my exit only.
“You use many words, Senora,” she rebuked me, “but I understand. I have chosen and, as you say, it is not for you to judge.”
Under the high arched doorway, she looked thin and fragile, a little woman with graying hair and dressed in a worn black dress.
“Is there, Senora, any evil in my daughter possessing a house with servants to care for her? Is it wrong that I who have served all my life will no longer need to serve?”
Again she had obscured the issue. I bowed and walked down the street, the massive door swinging behind me. It was already twilight and the vendors had set up their braziers and were calling the menu for the evening meal. The sounds and smells were stifled in the damp air. I saw a taxi moving toward me. I climbed in and sat upright on the seat, defeated.
When I told John, who was waiting anxiously for me, he warned against any further action. “You know how these people are,” he reminded me. “Remember, you are a foreigner. You can’t interfere.”
“But it’s so unfair to Jim,” I protested. “And it will ruin Graciela’s life.”
“Aren’t you being overly dramatic?” John asked. “Here’s a poor servant and her daughter with no prospects of anything better, when, like the bolt out of the blue, the daughter gets a chance to marry a wealthy man. She’ll be mistress of the Cuernavaca estate. She’ll have a mansion in the Lomas, a place at Acapulco, and I don’t know how many other homes. It’s not exactly a ruined life, is it?”
He was teasing me, and I did not like it.
“You know what I mean.” I was angry.
“I do … in a way.” He rubbed my cold hands with his warm ones. “Call Amporo and get something warm inside you, and you’ll feel better. Of course,” he pacified me, “I feel sorry for Jim. It’s a raw deal for him, but you can’t carry his burden.”
A week went by and Jim did not come. Neither did I hear from Graciela. John left on a business trip to the ends of Michoacan. I got up early to see him off. The morning was dark, promising rain. Wandering about the still house, I picked up the twins’ playthings. After that I baked a cake, with no one to eat it. When there was nothing more to be done, I wrote letters. I might have gone calling, but I was poor company, and I did not want to be caught in the afternoon downpour.
After our one o’clock dinner, Amporo took the twins upstairs for their siesta. I stayed in the dining room to make a centerpiece of blue plumbago and red Pelargoniums, and I was still there when Amporo came down to ask if she might go on the street.
“All right,” I said reluctantly. The room was growing suddenly dark, and I did not want to be alone. “But don’t stay long.”
Amporo had not been gone five minutes before the rain started. The bell clamored, and I hurried through the garden, the wind strong in my face. To my great relief, Jim stood under the sheltering arch. His face was haggard and white, his blue eyes bloodshot.
“Hurry!” I shouted above the wind. then I ran ahead. In the living room, with its dark walls, his face was a white blur.
“Don’t turn on the light.” His voice was sharp.
We sat in the brown leather chairs, facing each other in the strange dusk.
“I’ve been worried about you,” I said, wiping the rain from my face with a handkerchief.
His smile was bitter. “I’ve come to say goodbye. You and John deserve that from me.”
“Goodbye!” I echoed his word.
“Last night Lolita came to the hospital and told me everything.” His voice was that of a stranger.
“Then the marriage is that close? I had a feeling she would not tell you until it was near at hand.”
“Oh, it’s as good as done.” He stood up, hurt and angry. “I tried to see Graciela. I went to the San Angel house three times. One night I waited at her office until I was late at the hospital.” He looked at me, so young and full of misery.
“I did everything but crawl, but still I haven’t been able to see her.” His hurt eyes looked down at me. “She’s as bad as her mother.” He sank into the chair again, his legs stretched long before him, a man alone in a bitter world.
Through the glass doors that led to the dining room, I could see the storm beating down with sudden violence. I moved to the dining room to watch, and Jim followed me, his mouth in harsh lines. The garden was lost beyond the furious sheets of water.
“It’s like standing behind a waterfall,” I said, my voice lost in the roar of wind and water.
From upstairs, I heard the frightened cries of the children, and we raced up the circular stairs to rescue them from a dark window. I dressed them and brought them to the living room to play with their toys. when I touched the light switch I got only darkness. Marita pressed against me, whimpering.
“I’ll light a candle,” Jim spoke softly to the children and took Judy in his arms.
We found two candles in the kitchen and placed them on a carved cabinet, above the toys. Somberly the two children started playing in the flickering light.
Some of the tight lines were gone from Jim’s face.
When we were seated again, close to the children, I sad, “You know Graciela had no part in this. She is more miserable than you.” I threw my hands in an expansive gesture. “She would come to you through the streets on her knees, if necessary.”
“There is nothing keeping her from me.”
“You should understand your people better than I. It is impossible for her to defy her mother. Unless you do something, it will end like this.”
His head was sunk between his hands and his voice came to me muffled, as from a distance. “After what Lolita said last night, there is nothing I can do … unless …” His voice rose hopefully, then dropped.
“Unless what?” I asked it sharply.
Graciela is no child. She knows what she’s doing. If I mean anything to her – if our religion means anything, and it should,” he raised his head, his fists clenched on the chair arms,” she would do something. We’ve talked of it enough this summer. I’ve told her the things I’ve never said before, how the Church is all to me.”
He leaned towards me, his face intense. “If she were sincere, and I’d have staked my life on her sincerity, she said it was giving her insight and confidence. If she meant it,” he struck his hands together, “all she has to do is tell her mother she’s going to become a member and marry me.” His eyes begged me to believe that was all she had to do.
I shook my head. “I’m not convinced she can do it by herself. All her life there’s been only her mother – and back of her mother there are centuries of tradition. And you, what do you mean by coming here to say goodbye?”
“I’m going home – as soon as I can get a plane north.”
“I thought this was your home.” I said it gently.
“That was only a dream. It has no meaning now.”
“It did have meaning and it will again.”
“Without her?’ His laugh was derisive. “I could never stay here.”
“Be yourself!” I was irritated. “You aren’t a king who can abdicate. You’re just a common man who had a dream, a plan of life. You were alone when you made the plan. Surely you have the moral strength to carry it out … alone if you have to. If you run away now, you’ll regret it all your life.”
Jim ran his hands through his hair, already in disorder. “I never thought I’d put love before everything else in life, but right now I guess I do.”
“Only for the moment,” I assured him. “Don’t do anything decisive, Jim, not right now. You’re the man who dedicated his life to an ideal. You can’t desert it.”
“I couldn’t live in Mexico, knowing she was here, married to that man.”
He pulled himself out of the chair, a tall, young figure in the wavering light. The twins watched him, big-eyed.
“When I get some place, I’ll write. And don’t worry, I’ve still got the Church. I’ll get going in time.”
“You’re feeling a bit sorry for yourself.” I rose, too. “And that’s not worthy of you. Anyway, let’s be sensible.” I looked around the room, dark as night, save for the two candles. “You can’t go in this storm. Besides, I’m frightened to death.”
A deafening clap of thunder accented my words, and the twins clutched at my skirts. We saw the quick flashes of chain lightning, followed by thunder so fierce that it seemed to split the building.
In renewed fury, the rain poured down. With fascinated eyes, we saw fierce rivulets rush under the corridor doors and across the wide hallway, then sweep across the polished boards of the living room floor. At the same time, the water poured into the dining room, on the opposite side. Through the dining room windows, I saw the kitchen door waver and the water burst in as over a broken dam. The menacing stream poured down the connecting hallway and spilled upon the shining floor.
Jim whistled. “Where’s the ark?” he asked, lifting the children to the couch. I knew he was not altogether lost.
When we got into the kitchen the water was above our ankles and rising. With a mighty heave we forced the door to and bolted it against the waterfall. But the water poured underneath the door and pressed higher against our legs.
“Wouldn’t you know!” Jim sighed. “This pavement slopes towards the door.”
We treaded our way to the living room, left our shoes on the stairs, and came back with bundles of newspapers which we stuffed under the doors. I got out two buckets and we began emptying water in the sink. When the water had receded, I lighted another candle and mopped while Jim poured. When the kitchen no longer spilled into the hallway, we went into the living room with pails and mops. There was a final crash of thunder, far down the street, and the rain stopped as abruptly as it had begun.
“This is the living end.” Jim looked admiringly at the havoc left by the storm. Then he bent to his mops. We were still at it when Amporo came rushing in, dry as a kitten.
“Ay, Senora!” She took the mop from me.
Soon she and Jim had the floors dried, and I brought the children into the kitchen for their supper.
Jim refused my invitation to eat. But he made me a promise he would do nothing until he heard from me. He promised also to stay within reach of the telephone. When he walked through the front patio his head was up and some of the haggardness gone from his face.
The storm, too, had swept through my mind and cleared the fuzzy edges. I think I was pouring the last glass of milk when the thing that had been struggling in my subconscious mind this past week slipped through. Under God no person is higher than any other person. If I believed that, and I had been born with that belief in my blood, then Lolita and Graciela were not just serving woman and daughter. I must do for them what I would do for any other women who claimed my help. Only an hour or so ago Jim had said that Graciela had the strength to free herself, if only her devotion was sincere. This strength I doubted, but I would give her the chance.
It must be Lolita who came to me this time. In my own home I would be a better match. Amporo did not question me when I told her to leave the dishes and get ready for the street; neither did she ask any reason when I told her to go to San Angel and return with Lolita and her daughter. If they were out, old Ramon would know where they were, and she was to wait.
“And if,” I concluded, “they show an inclination not to come, you perhaps can think of a reason that will bring them.”
Amporo’s dark eyes sparkled. I hoped her invented disaster would not be too violent, for there could be much imagination in her explanations for wanting an unscheduled night of freedom.
Within two hours she was back, followed by an anxious looking pair. Mother and daughter were dressed in black, their heads covered with fragile shawls of black lace.
“I had to wait until they returned from church,” Amporo informed me with smug satisfaction as she surrendered my coin purse.
“You are well, Senora, not hurt by the storm?” Lolita spoke from the doorway, where her eyes followed Amporo with a question mark.
“It was a bad storm, but I survived it.” With gratitude I saw the anxiety go from Graciela’s pale face, and I waited for them to advance, thin and graceful in their long black skirts, their heads slightly bowed. Amporo bade me a soft goodnight and went discreetly to the kitchen.
Neither of them would be seated. Graciela stood a distance from her mother, her eyes lowered and her face inscrutable.
“You sent for us, Senora,” Lolita said. Her tone implied, “And we are here.”
I stood, the three of us making a triangle in the circle of light, with the dark walls surrounding us. Wasting no time on informalities I said, “We discussed many things when I saw you last in San Angel.”
“Does the Senora know of anything we left undiscussed?’ Lolita’s voice was cold and polite.
“Yes,” I said boldly, answering her challenge. “There were two things we did not fully discuss. For instance, Graciela may have some rights as a person that we did not go into, and there are the rights of James Flores.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Graciela’s hands clutch at the fringe of her black shawl.
“Earlier today,” I looked Lolita squarely in the eyes, and hers did not waver, “he came to see me, and I think you have a responsibility towards him. You gave him all encouragement, did you not, in the courtship of your daughter?”
This time her eyes fell, and she said in a low voice, “That was before. I have since told him of other plans.”