Broken Boundaries--A Christmas Story

Luis, in the moment of awakening, couldn't remember whether they'd crossed the border or not, whether he was traveling in the States or was still in Mexico. He'd been so tired and dozed so much of this trip. Being old could be a nuisance. Wasn't at all like when he was younger and remained wide awake for hours, even through the nights, reluctant to surrender watching the towns and, particularly, la tierra. But, of course, this was the States. He now recalled drowsily changing buses at Juarez-El Paso, automatically going through the familiar ritual of customs. He must have drifted immediately into sleep again, for the huge crowded vehicle had traveled less than 50 miles from the border, was lumbering through the Dona Ana Valley. He'd worked the fields here many years ago, had worked so many fields between Torreon and Santa Fe. The land didn't really change. People did, and what they erected upon the land did. But the Rio, with its twisted ribbon of trees and shrubs, irrigated farms as it always had; the Organ Mountains soared majestically in the east, and to the west lay the low profile of Picacho Peak. I know it like the back of my hand, Luis thought, all of the land north and south of the border--and that boundary line no longer holds meaning for me. It is one vast tierra encantada, glorious country, and mine. I recognize no frontier. Some of the passengers began to sing, Feliz Navidad. They were a mixed cargo, Mexicans and Spanish-Americans, with quite a few blond gringos, college kids, among them. Going home, or to visit relatives, for the holidays. They sang lustily, as if their loud voices could successfully dispel the discomfort and loneliness of sitting among strangers on a rattling bus on Christmas Eve. Luis's seat companion was, fortunately, a boy in his early teens. Someone who'd take no interest in an old man and not attempt to provoke conversation. The boy's mother and two younger sisters shared a seat farther back on the bus. They were from Old Mexico, campesinos; and the youngster, perhaps frightened or intimidated by his first trip away from home, was exceptionally quiet. For that, Luis was grateful. He'd had enough of kids--his own, and his children's children, too. The past year without them in Torreon had been a needed respite from all their demands. Still, he was going back. His daughter Maida had written that they all missed him, wanted him home among them, not just for Navidad but permanently. Certainly his huge ranch north of Santa Fe, with its numerous adobe casitas spread over the vast acreage, held room enough for all of them. His favorite house, in the west quarter, had been left untenanted, awaiting his return. None of the family understood, Maida wrote, why he persisted on long visits to Mexico after he'd spent most of his life as a United States citizen, prospered in the States and raised his family there. He belonged, she argued, with his own children and grandchildren. I belong in no one place, Luis thought. But Maida couldn't know that. She'd never understand, born in the states and ignorant of poverty, how the old ways and values still influenced so much of his behavior. "Papa,'' she'd scolded during the expensive phone call to him last week, "you're not poor but rich now, and can afford to take a plane. Why do you insist on dirty old buses?'' She didn't know yet, after all these years, that he preferred the bus, preferred to travel slowly between his two homelands, to see again at close range the mesas and mountains, the dry arroyos and flowing ritos, the chamisa, yucca and cacti. And yes, the people, no matter that he long ago had despaired of community and elected to go his own way alone. The college youths persisted in repetitious choruses of their song, Feliz Navidad, I Wanna Wish You A Merry Christmas. Some of them were walking in the aisle, visiting friends scattered throughout the bus, passing bottles of wine and tins of beer. The driver, acknowledging the Christmas spirit, made no objection; in fact, seemed to enjoy the diversion. Luis and the boy beside him did not sing. The muchacho seemed as indifferent as the old man to the festiveness swelling about them. They think Christmas makes a difference, Luis pondered. It does not. One day a year of reaching out, seeking brotherhood, and then it's right back to life's jungle, dog-eat-dog. He was traveling toward what Maida called a family reunion, but he held no illusions that his sons and daughters had abandoned old feuds among them. Blood was blood, and it was right that he see them again. But with Maria gone, it was not the same. Even now, the empty ache that drove him to Torreon a year ago cramped in his chest. For many years now, he'd held no more faith in the family than in anything else. When you were as old as he was, you knew that everything and everyone ultimately disappointed you--women, children, government, the church, society, fiestas; Christmas, too. Song left home to pursue their own interests. Daughters married men who, perhaps simply because they were men, brought new problems into the family. Babies sickened and died--even a beautiful, perfect baby girl could be snatched from you, and the memory stay with you for half a century. You ended up alone; and no person, nothing and no event changed that. And yet, deep down, there was always that small stirring of hope--like an unborn child moving--saying, this time, perhaps, it will be different. He closed his eyes against the noise and distraction. It was always better now to shut things out. He was practiced at it, an expert, and within seconds had escaped once more into sleep. They were well up the Rio when he wakened again. On the east lay the Jornada del Muerto, that awesome desert through which his ancestors, the Conquistadores, had first traveled by foot and horseback. Like him, they had seen the land as one vast country, from Tenochtitlan to Colorado, and acknowledged no boundaries but those fashioned by El Buen Pastor. And these--mountains, rivers and deserts--they overcame, as he had, too, in the push northward. It pleased him to think that he may have succeeded where his forefathers failed. Their Cibola proved to be made of adobe dust, not gold; his rancho and haciendas were real, proud monuments to his triumph over generations of poverty. He hadn't been any older than the boy beside him when he'd taken the first journey north toward his own cities of gold. The muchacho was no longer alone, Luis realized. His smaller sister had joined him from the back of the bus. No older than 7, considerably more active than her brother, she sat upon the boy's lap but continuously brushed against the old man. Luis's disapproving frown merely produced a wide grin on her pretty brown face. "Be still,'' the boy cautioned the girl in Spanish. "But I can't see past el viejo out the window,'' the child answered in a dialect that Luis recognized as Zacatecan. She leaned across him, her long black hair under his stubbled chin. "We can exchange places,'' Luis, though reluctant to relinquish his window seat, suggested to the boy. "No, gracias, senor,'' the boy replied. "She'll only want to go back and forth to my mother and sister, anyway. It's best we stay here on the aisle.'' "Can I sit on your lap, then?'' the girl asked Luis. "No,'' her brother answered. "And don't disturb the gentleman again, or I'll take you back to Mamacita.'' The bus was now quiet. Looking about, Luis saw that many of the passengers, including the rough college crowd, were napping. He caught the eye of the mother of the children beside him, her older daughter sprawled half on the seat and half across the woman's body. The mother, thin and wiry, looked extremely tired and perhaps frightened. She acknowledged Luis's look with a slight bow of her head. The girl had pressed a tiny elbow hard against Luis's groin. She couldn't seem to sit still. "There's nothing to see, nina,'' the old man scolded her. "It's not much different from your own country or all the desert we've crossed today.'' "But where is Albuquerque?'' the child demanded of her brother. "You said it would be a big norteamericano city, with tall buildings and lighted Christmas trees and rich gringos everywhere. Like in the pictures you showed me.'' "We're still a few hours away from that,'' Luis grumbled, pushing her toward her brother. "I'll take her back to Mama,'' the boy suggested. "Come one, Juanita.'' "No, Pancho! I'll be quiet, and not move.'' For the first time, Luis noticed that the girl's legs were bound in steel braces and observed that the children's poverty was like a brand, indelibly stamped, as his own had been so many years ago. Pancho turned away from the old man and sat silently staring straight ahead. Luis recognized that defense against worlds other than one's own. "I didn't know your sister was lame,'' he muttered. "She can sit at the window.'' "She must learn that she can't have everything she wants just because of the bad legs. Papa used to spoil her because of that.'' The boy spoke matter-of-factly, without emotion. Staring at his dispassionate image, Luis felt strangely as if he were looking into a mirror, at himself as a youth. The toughness essential to survival. Juanita's big eyes, mischievous and unrepentant, held his. "Papa didn't spoil me,'' she whispered. "He was just good to me. We're going to visit his grave, senor.'' "Be quiet, Juanita,'' her brother commanded. "No, no, let her speak.'' Luis, acutely mindful of the girl's lameness, felt she should be denied nothing. "She doesn't always know what she's talking about,'' Pancho said. "Are you really on a pilgrimage?'' Luis asked. "To your father's grave?'' "Partly. He's buried on the rancho where he was working near Taos. Killed last summer in a truck accident. And Mama wants to take Juanita to the santuario at Chimayo to rub the holy mud on her legs. They believe in miracles.'' It sounded so much like himself. "You don't,'' Luis said. "I believe I must find work up here, as Papa did.'' "That is difficult even for grown men. What makes you think yourself, a mere boy, can manage that?'' "He thinks he already is a grown man,'' Juanita taunted. "I'm the man of this family now,'' Pancho forcibly told her, "and you, and Consuelo, and Mama, too, will do as I say. We'll live in the north, and we will be rich and we will have doctors take care of your legs, as Papa wanted.'' Juanita heaved an impatient sigh and rolled her eyes at Luis. He felt her small fingers land lightly on his creased, brown calloused hand. When he attempted to draw away, the child's grasp tightened. He offered no further resistance. Light was beginning to fade, the eastern mountains taking on the crimson glow that always seemed most spectacular at this season of the winter solstice. Farther north, they called that stain on the sierras El Sangre de Cristo--blood of Christ. As the bus approached the town of Belen, passengers stirred to view the smoking chimneys, lighted trees in windows and yards, the modest but festive civic decorations of this village on the Rio Grande named for Bethlehem. Vamos Todos a Belen. Even as he remembered the old hymn, Luis heard someone in the bus softly humming its melody. Juanita, drowsing, her head against the old man's shoulder, was missing the lights. Her brother, though awake, appeared to take no interest in the passing landscape. Luis was annoyed that he could not successfully ignore the children. They were so young, so vulnerable, and were getting to him. Pancho's infinitely sad face was too much of a reproach of the disillusion and cynicism that had taken root in himself when he was the boy's age, and had crucially dominated his senior years. No child should be so badly scarred. And the girl's frail legs, rigidly encased in steel, would never support her slender body, never permit her to walk straight and bold, upright. Holy mud, doctors, nor anything else were likely to change that. God, Luis pleaded, why did you put them next to me? I'm old, Senor, you know that; but, Senor, you always play me dirty tricks. Tonight, this noche de paz, this birthday of your Santo Nino, you dump these strange and needy children in my lap. And all I've ever wanted, ever asked of you, Senor, is to free me from a lifetime bondage of service to others. Let me rest. I've earned it! He clutched again at sleep, but this time it eluded him. Behind closed eyes, for long minutes, he resolutely refused to gaze on the world. Juanita was tugging at his coat. He felt the child skillfully easing her twisted body from her napping brother's arms onto his weary thighs. Through half-raised eyelids, he observed her successful occupation of new territory, her victorious possession of the window. She pressed her nose against the glass, and Luis heard her whispered cries of delight at first sight of the lights of Albuquerque. Snow was falling, lightly and gently, not heavily enough to quench the farolitos already lighting paths to the city's homes. The flickering candles within the brown-paper bags stretched for miles, outlining rooftops and terraces of the adobe houses, illuminating walkways, circling gardens and climbing staircases. Luis surrendered his pretense of sleep to mutter an explanation to Juanita. "The farolitos are to light the way of El Santo Nino into the people's houses.'' "Of course,'' the child answered, impatiently. "What else would they be for?'' She had a quick tongue. Well, he was accustomed to that among the females in his family. And he had well know, but not experienced for a while, the sweetness of a child upon his knees, her head against his chest. But sentiment was a trap, and he didn't want to be trapped. Not again, not still again in these, the quiet years of his life. The bus passengers were exceedingly silent, a few asleep, but most gazing out at the lights of the hold night, mindful of their journey's end and imminent reunion with loves ones. Then Juanita began to sing, tenderly, a familiar refrain--Jesus Es Mi Amor--and other voices joined her. She touched Luis's lips, inviting him to accompany them, but he'd forgotten how to praise. And, startled, he realized that the child's finger had touched upon his cheek a tear from ducts he'd long believed gone dry. Pancho, wakened, put a hand upon his sister's arm. "Come back to me, nina. You're disturbing the senor.'' "Let her be,'' Luis said. "This is Albuquerque?'' the boy asked. "End of the line,'' Luis responded. "I change buses for Santa Fe. Where are you headed?'' "Nowhere tonight. We'll go north in the morning.'' "Where will you sleep?'' "In the depot.'' The bus, its terminal merely blocks away, was winding through the downtown streets. Passengers began fathering their hand luggage. Juanita kept her nose pressed against the window, her eyes wide at the commercial decorations. Luis's legs ached under her light weight, but he did not attempt to move her. Ah, Senor, he thought, you've hooked me again. And to the boy, he said, suddenly, reluctantly, "Would you work for me? I have a ranch north of Santa Fe.'' Pancho's reply was unhesitant. "I will work for anyone who pays a fair wage--enough to support my mother and sisters.'' "My own children and grandchildren live in houses on the ranch. But one casita is mine. Your family could share it with me.'' "Mama is a good worker, and so am I. Consuelo is already accustomed to chores. Juanita, of course, cannot work.'' Of course, Luis thought. And she'll need looking after, and who else but I will do it when your mother's busy. And doctors should see her legs, and who will pay for that? And Pancho and the older sister should be in school, not at labor, and how could one deny them education? There'd be problems with their visas and immigration papers, but he knew all the politicos at the state house; they, governor included, owed him favors, so who better could sponsor and fight for these pobrecitos? "Go ask your mother if she's agreeable.'' "I will tell her. She'll leave the decision to me.'' "Tell her, too, that I make no promises, no guarantees, that it's a trial arrangement. I don't want you thinking I can solve all your problems.'' "We know that, senor.'' "I don't believe in miracles.'' "Nor do I, senor.'' The boy very gravely, formally, shook Luis's hand. Then he went to the rear of the bus to speak with his mother. Juanita, who'd appeared disinterested in the pragmatic conversation, suddenly turned from the window and kissed Luis. "Silly abuelo,'' she whispered, "and silly Pancho. Of course there are miracles.'' She was a flirt. Well, he'd always been susceptible to that. The bus was turning into the depot. Luis well knew what he'd have to do. First things first. Phone Maida, to begin with, and say he'd not be in until tomorrow. She'd be furious, of course, but then she was used to his infuriating her. Get this little family to a good dinner, and then a motel, and somehow make travel arrangements for the morning. Could he rent a car so late over the holiday? Well, there were commuter planes and always the buses. You have money now, spend it, Maida was constantly advising him. Juanita rocked back and forth across his knees, anxious to be off the bus, for the adventure to begin. "That hurts my old bones,'' he said and lightly cuffed her. The child grinned. Pancho was making his way forward with his weary mother. Consuelo, and their ragged assortment of parcels. For one second before they joined him, Luis took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Ah, Buen Senor, you've won again--given me still another burden! Now, in my old age! But no doubt you think you know what's best. So it's people again. He let Pancho take Juanita from him and watched the boy expertly carry her from the bus. He followed the children's mother onto the loading platform. In the terminal, the public address system was loudly broadcasting the carols of Navidad.

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