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 meets Jim Flores, studying to be a doctor, and the two become deeply in love. Graciela, after attending secretarial school, obtains a position with a banker, and meets a wealthy Mexican, Senor Munoz, who becomes interested in her. Lolita consents to the arrangements for a marriage between her daughter and Senor Munoz. The American Senora visits Lolita and asks for an explanation, but she fears that she has pleaded for Graciela in vain. Jim tries to see Graciela, but his efforts are useless, and he plans to leave Mexico. The American Senora asks Lolita and her daughter to come to her home on a matter of great importance.
Graciela’s dark liquid eyes begged me to believe she had no other plans, but I kept my attention on the mother.
“You did not know, perhaps, that he came to me this afternoon to say goodbye. He is leaving Mexico.”
There were two startled gasps in the room. “He feels that everything he had in Mexico is lost to him and he is adrift in the world.”
Graciela came swiftly to my side and grasped my arm. “It is not true. What are you saying?”
Solemnly I nodded.
With a protective gesture, Lolita moved to her daughter. “I did not know it would affect him so, believe me,” she said, her voice gentle with love. “But,” and hardness came into her voice again, “he is young, he will recover.”
“That I do not know,” I answered Lolita. “I only know what I have seen.” I stepped back, my eyes holding Lolita’s. “Since I have seen Jim Flores, I feel there is one thing more I must know, and you must answer me before this child.” I made my voice ring out.
“She is,” I pointed a finger at Graciela, “in your words, a woman grown. Did she have any choice in this decision to cast aside her affianced one, and her hope for a different life in her new religion, for you have tied the two in one knot?” Pitching my voice higher, for I knew now that I had touched something in Lolita’s tight defense, I asked, “Did she choose this man whose hands are full of gold, but whose back is weary with the burden of the years? Did she?” With head thrown back, I defied Lolita to answer.
There was no sound in the room save that of our labored breathing. The three of us waited in the dim light. Graciela acted first. She looked at her mother as if she were a stranger, seen for the first time. When Lolita refused her gaze, the girl jerked off the fragile black scarf and in an unexpected burst of passion, twisted the lace in her hands until it frayed and pulled in two. I watched the girl’s eyes blaze, her cheeks go high with color.
“No!” she fairly shouted. “I was not asked. I did it because she, my mother, said I must!” Then she threw the lace fragments at her mother’s feet.
Lolita, horror and fear marking her face, stooped to pick them up.
“No!” Graciela commanded her. “Let them lie. Never again will I wear a black scarf.”
I think I caught the purport of her declaration even quicker than her mother did, and a wave of happiness and warmth surged through me. Why, I told myself, I should never have doubted this girl’s strength. So it was I who stooped and picked up the tortured fragments of lace.
Holding them in front of me for Graciela to note, I asked, “Are you sure you have the strength of will to keep the promise you have just made yourself?”
“Yes,” the girl’s voice was firm. ‘I will keep that promise.”
Lolita stood as if rooted to the floor, a growing look of fear on her face, and, even now, I would have dealt with her compassionately, if I had not felt more compassion for her daughter.
“It is as I thought,” I said, keeping my role as judge. “You did not consider her. You thought yourself wise enough to decide all things. Do you still feel that you are?”
Slowly Lolita raised her eyes to mine. The fear and indecision pulled at me, but I hardened myself again. From me she turned to the girl, rebellious for the first time.
“I did it for you,” she said, her voice thick and dry. “It was a wonderful thing he offered you. I thought it best, you understand?”
“How could you think money piled on money to be what I want? I want only my right to believe, and my Jaime.” She picked the tattered scarf from my hands and tossed it on the table near her in a last gesture of defiance. “I want my Jaime,” and she began to sob.
“You see,” I said to Lolita, “she is exhausted by the ordeal of these long weeks.” And I, too, felt weary and the warmth gone from me. I would have comforted the girl and told her she had done well, but that was the mother’s right. I looked at her, my eyes saying, “Now you must act.”
“Where can I find this joven?” Lolita raised her tired shoulders, and there was the beginning of light in her face.
Silently I pointed to the telephone and to the pad beside it, where I had written Jim’s number earlier in the evening.
Graciela’s sobs did not stop – not until she heard Jim’s voice, clear in the quiet room.
Waiting in the night, we were a strange trio. Lolita sat on the brown leather couch beside her daughter, who sat there with a look that was almost the bliss of heaven, now that her decision was made and Jim was on his way.
Upstairs I heard one of the children murmur, and I excused myself. When I came back we heard the honk of a taxi and the bell’s shrill clamor. Amporo, whose nose must have been in the kitchen door, came running through the living room to admit Jim.
Worn and puzzled, he came to us. This time, however, his clothes were neat, and there was a look in his eyes that could easily be turned into hope. Graciela’s eyes leaped to meet him, and he responded to the gladness in her, but she did not stir, and quietly he pulled a chair next to mine, his questioning face turned towards the three of us. I nodded to Lolita. The responsibility was hers.
I knew her enigma, but I could not help. She clutched at the lace scarf, still knotted about her throat, and the touch of it was like the answer to her disturbances. Silently she undid the scarf, rose, and placed it side by side with Graciela’s torn one.
Jim watched, more puzzled than ever, and I thought Graciela’s joy would burst through her skin, she was struggling so hard to contain herself. Calm now, Lolita returned to her seat on the couch.
“Today,” she told him, “when I came to you I was wrong. I did not ask my heart, only my head. If you will help me, we will forget all that was said.”
A complex person, this little serving woman. Many things had changed in her while she sat so passive on the couch.
Jim was equal to the moment. Gravely he rose and crossed to her, his hand extended. “I will be grateful to you all the days of my life,” he said sitting beside her. The words made a bond between them. Then he turned toward Graciela, his eyes warm with love.
I rose and beckoned Lolita to follow me. These lovers, who had never been completely alone since the spring morning they met in the shadow of the chapel, deserved their hour of privacy.
In the kitchen, Amporo was sitting in the harsh light of the naked bulb, her head, with its dark braids resting on the table. Awkwardly she arose, her eyes opaque with sleep, and pulled out two more straight-backed chairs from against the whitewashed wall.
Lolita sat uncomfortably in her chair. I was eager for the explanation she was preparing herself to make, but I wanted it to come in her own way, and I knew she must be hungry.
“Let’s have a piece of cake and something to drink. It won’t take the place of the supper you missed, but it will help.” I nodded to Amporo.
Happy to be once more part of the eventful evening, Amporo brought the cake and removed the wax paper. In my unrest this morning, I had used my dwindling supply of raisins and nuts from home. There is, I had early discovered, a certain national quality in the sweet confections of Mexico, and my cake was purely foreign.
When Lolita had eaten a few bites, her face lighted eagerly, and she ate until the last crumb was gone. With the taste lingering in her mouth, she leaned forward, studying the cake, unable to analyze its ingredients. Amporo offered her another piece to eat with her glass of limonade, but she denied herself.
“Would it be possible, Senora,” she asked, her eyes still on the cake, “to have such a cake for the wedding?”
If there was hysteria in my laughter it was because of the unexpectedness of the request coming after the tension of the evening. Amporo shared my amusement. In a moment the three of us were laughing without restraint, the innocent cake before us.
“Pues,” I picked up a crumb that had fallen on the table. “I think it can be done. When will you want it?” I was truly curious.
Lolita beamed. “That will depend upon the novio, of course, but I have been doing much thinking, and I am of the opinion that the young people need not wait. I only ask that my daughter have a wedding worthy of her.” She moved uneasily in her chair. “Before we speak of weddings, there is something I must say to you.”
“I am waiting.”
“Senora, I must tell you tonight a burden is gone from me. I had not realized it myself until I made the telephone call, but I did not altogether act with unselfishness – as I pretended to myself. Oh, I thought I did everything for my daughter’s sake, believe me, I thought it would be best for her, that in the years to come she would be grateful. Now I know that I was thinking more of myself … and that I denied the truth that had come to me.”
Hot tears stung my eyelids. It was not in me to blame her because she wanted a soft bed, the assurance of daily food, the luxury of an American dress. The security of things she could caress with her eyes and hold in her hands meant much to one who had lived in the twilight of bondage. What she had not understood was the fact that she was placing herself in another kind of bondage, perhaps more fretting than her earlier chains.
And there was enough of the child left in her to want the traditional wedding of her people. I patted her hand. ‘You feel there should be a wedding festival?”
“If you’re discussing weddings, we are two interested parties.”
Startled, we looked up to see Jim and Graciela standing in the archway. Jim’s arm was possessively around his girl; their happiness was as warming as a fire.
“Lolita has just said she would like my nut cake for the wedding, which means it must be soon for my supply is almost gone,” I said looking at Jim. His expression was not all I had expected.
Graciela, from the protection of his arm, smiled up at him. “You will believe me now, my Jaime, there is no reason why we should not be married very quickly.” With her slender fingers she smoothed the deep furrow in his brow. “He,” she said including us all in her happiness, “is already a viejo – worrying for fear my mother will delay us, worrying he won’t have time to fix the house in San Angel. See, his wrinkles will not rub away.” She removed her fingers to show us the furrow persisted.
“I think a toast of limonade, supplemented with a piece of cake, would be appropriate before we get into further discussion.” I reached for the cake and signaled for Amporo to fill the pitcher.
“I could go for that,” Jim said, “I don’t think I’ve eaten today.”
Picking up the cake, I led them to the larger table in the dining room. Amporo followed with the limonade and large bowls of corn flakes and milk, over which she lavishly sprinkled banana slices. The national supper of the people, I thought.
Not until Jim had settled back in contentment, Graciela’s hand modestly in his, did I ask about his wedding doubts.
“For one thing,” Jim said reluctantly, “there’s the old house in San Angel. It isn’t safe to live in, and it would take a lot of time and money to get even the necessary three rooms livable.”
Troubled, Graciela withdrew her hand. “You must remember, Jaime,” she said softly, “We have been living there for some time.”
He was a little taken back. “I know,” he said, “but things are different now.” Taking both her hands, he looked at me for support. “The floors are so rotten, it’s a wonder none of you have fallen through. And the plumbing!” he glared at the polished mahogany of the table. “I don’t imagine it’s been changed since the days of the viceroys.”
“A sanitario was installed the year before I went to work for the Urbinas,” Lolita said with hurt dignity.
Jim winked at me, his face straight. “There’s running water, too, all cold. And have you seen the sink? It looks like something Cortez dreamed up for the whole army to use. And that brick masterpiece that takes up half the kitchen was used to cook the first meal, centuries ago.”
“I have a right to live in the house as long as I desire.” Lolita was firm.
Designed to be a peacemaker, Graciela drew them together with her loving glance. To Jim she said, “It is not as bad as you say. We live there and are healthy. Before long I shall have money saved, then we can make the repairs you think necessary. But we do not wait for those, do we?”
“I guess we’ll sleep over it, anyway.” Jim smiled at his two women.
I was willing to give Jim my support. “We’ve decided enough for one night.” I pushed my chair back and stood a little apart, surveying them. Then quite unexpectedly I heard myself saying, “You want to be married soon, don’t you, Jim?”
“What do you think?” His lips touched the burnished roll of Graciela’s pompadour.
There was a puzzling look on Lolita’s face as she watched them. Looking at me as if for permission to speak, she rose and stood beside me. “I am the eldest, you would do well to listen to me.” All of us turned our eyes on her. “The time for you to be married is now – very soon, I mean. It will help to forget the sorrow of these past few weeks and the two of you can go about your work, not waste time dreaming. Is that not right, Senora?”
Emphatically I nodded, glad for her wisdom.
“And, in addition,” the color rose in her face, “the Senor Munoz is away from Mexico for a short time. I do not anticipate trouble …” she stopped Jim’s protest with a gesture of her hands. “As I say, there will be no trouble, and I, myself, will go to him immediately on his return, but it will be better if the marriage is accomplished.” A sweet smile lighted her eyes. “I ask only that there be a wedding worthy of my daughter.”