Inez Santiago is a Mexican writer from Southern California. Her fiction and CNF works are published in Rejection Letters and Liminal Transit Review respectively. She focuses on fiction, poetry, and something slightly in between. She enjoys the strange and the emotional. You can often find her staring at photos of stars and space or on Twitter @InezSantiagoFic.
Wander, Lost Daughter
When the bell above the door jangled, every head in the bakery turned – brown eyes tired and curious. It was early in the morning, earlier than most residents in the neighborhood were used to getting up--but this was no customer. tía Juana wiped her floured hands on her floured apron and came around the counter.
“Bienvenida, mija,” she greeted and the welcome echoed from her behind her as tíos, tías, and primos crowded the threshold of the kitchen door.
Standing quietly at the entrance--in chanclas and holding a large canvas bag covered in grass stains was Dolores.
When she spoke, her voice boomed across the bakery like a strong wind felt all the way to the back of the kitchen. Every eye widened, bodies shook Her Spanish was strange. It sounded different, off. Not gringo strange, not other Hispanic strange, just strange, as if her lips had never known how to make sounds.
Tía Juana enveloped her in a hug and directed her to the kitchen where the family was working on the daily specials. She watched as her tías regarded her long, striped skirt and huipil with disdain, all the while clawing at her long thick braid plaited with flowers down past her waist. Her tíos studied her face as if to see how much trouble she might give to them as she’d given their sister. They were bothered by her expressionless face; her full lips seemed to be tugged downward and her eyes were narrowed as if bleary. She looked subdued but ready to explode.
Meanwhile, primos and primas watched with narrowed eyes mixed with mild apprehension, curiosity, and resentment. Dolores has always been the “como la..” cousin. They were constantly compared against her qualities and talents. Why can’t you be smart like Dolores? Why can’t you speak English like Dolores? Why can’t you smile and be friendly like Dolores? Why don’t you obey like Dolores? But that was before she up and disappeared. No one knew where she went, and because she had just turned 18 when she’d disappeared, the police hadn’t bothered to look for her. Then everything good about Dolores turned into suspicious and cautionary tales. Don’t be so friendly, you might be taken like Dolores. Don’t be too hard on the kids or they’ll run away like Dolores. Don’t get any grandiose ideas like Dolores.
Tía Juana gave Dolores the tour and informed her she would be working the counter while Antonia went to school and would not need to get up early for her shift. Dolores nodded and kept nodding as Antonia shyly appeared from the kitchen, flanked by her older brother Pedro and older sister Anthonela, to show her how to use the register and where items, recipes, and other things were kept. Dolores met Antonia as a baby. She’d held her every Sunday for a month during Mass while Tía Juana and Anthonela sang hymns in the front pews.
“You are very pretty,” Dolores trilled. Her smile was small, but the words rushed over the siblings and warmed them to their bones. Antonia beamed.
The days flew by after Dolores’ introduction to the family bakery. With her at the counter, the family began to get customers they’d never seen in the neighborhood before. They all spoke a language that sounded like a backward trill, melodic and warbled.
Bird-like, cousin Ana had said as she listened. Brujeria, tía Concha snapped. The primas scowled on Dolores’ behalf.
But sales were up and no one could deny the charisma Dolores had when these customers came in. Her face lit up, her skin seemed to glow and pulse – radiating joy! Her entire being seemed to ebb in and out of reality. Sometimes tía Juana and tía Concha had to blink and rub their eyes when they thought they couldn’t see her even though they'd just looked her way. Still, no matter the strange effect Dolores seemed to have on them from moment to moment, they seemed to forget it all the second she stepped foot out of the bakery.
The second week, Tío Pancho wanted to have a carne asada to welcome her into the family-that and because their sales had gone up, up, up! Dolores smiled and shook her head. She could not make it over the weekend. She was traveling she said. The work in the bakery stopped.
“Traveling?” Tía Juana asked. “Where to?”
Dolores’ head tilted and her smile broadened. “It’s a secret.”
Mouths opened to protest but her long dress was already disappearing out of the bakery entrance and they watched, spellbound, as flowers floated down behind her.
At dinner, around bowls of menudo, the family came to an agreement. They needed to know where Dolores was going. They enlisted Antonia, whom they believed was Dolores’ favorite, to help get it out of her.
“A donde vas a ir, Lola?” Antonia asked the next morning. She leaned against the counter wearing her backpack as she waited for Pedro to walk her to school.
“Puedo ir contigo?” she asked next, just as her tías has coached.
Dolores laughed, and the air around them tingled, electric, twinkling.
“No, mija, you can’t. You are too young to go where I am going.”
Antonia could protest no more as Pedro appeared and hauled her out the door.
Pedro was next. He offered to escort her home after work at the bakery. He claimed her neighborhood was dangerous in the evenings and that he couldn’t believe that her tíos would let her walk home by herself . But Pedro was a bad liar and they walked in silence as they passed pretty fences, well-kept lawns, polished cars, tall apartment complexes, and pristine parks.
Still, the closer they got to her apartment the worse Pedro began to feel. Nerves, he thought until his vision swam and his head felt like it was being squeezed for lemonade. He barely noticed that Dolores was talking in her strange language. Each trill she made intensified the pain in his head. He leaned, panting, against her door, unsure of where he was and why he was waiting and alone. Dolores returned with a container of frijoles for his troubles. When Pedro made it home late in the evening, the family nursed and berated him for drinking after two years of being sober. He couldn’t remember where he’d been and so couldn’t defend himself against the accusations. When they asked where Dolores lived, Pedro answered truthfully and gave nothing away.
So the weekend passed with no carne asada and no Dolores.
When Monday morning came, Dolores trailed into the bakery. Her eyes looked lost and a smile sat on her face, lips unmoving even as she greeted them. The hem of her dress was stained with grass and flowers stuck to her clothes as she walked over to wash her hands. She skirted around her family as they watched with creased brows, tight lips, and aprons clenched in their fists. Her smile did not falter at their faces. She danced her way toward the counter, feet drumming a song into the bakery, and for a moment the family thought they could hear the drumming of their hearts, beating in song.
They could barely work as they watched Dolores trill and laugh with their customers. But business beckoned and they could not stare for long. The longer they stared, the brighter Dolores began to look and their eyes stung, only finding relief in the dough they kneaded.
That night Dolores agreed to visit their home. The family did not know how to feel this time.They were fFar less excited about her visit now than they’d been only days before. While her tíos prepared pollo asado on short notice and her tías and primas made tortillas, guacamole, and salsas to match, Dolores told stories to her youngest primos. The children could barely understand a word she said in her strange Spanish, but none wanted to step away from her side when their parents called them to the dinner table.
Brujeria, her tía Concha muttered and this time her primas kept quiet, eyes averted.
As they ate they asked question after question, some harsher than others.
You like working at the bakery, don't you? Are you living in town? Do you have a boyfriend? Are you going to church? What language do you speak? Where have you traveled? Where did you go? Why did you leave? Do you know the pain you caused your parents when you left?
The last question hung in the air as everyone stopped chewing, stopped breathing. Dolores’ face cracked. Everyone stiffened as she slapped a hand to her face, barely large enough to keep herself together.
“It is time for me to go,” Dolores said in English. The words didn’t sound any less strange than her Spanish did. “I have overstayed my welcome.”
Her chair scraped along the floor and everyone sat stock-still as she gathered her skirts and her canvas bag, her bare feet tiptoeing her out of the house.
That night, as the family sat outside by the bonfire, they watched a light shoot up from the earth somewhere in the distance. It glowed bright white, a trail of stardust behind it, and the sharp sound of trilling laughter echoed in their ears. Their heads inched up, up, up, chins to the sky as the twinkling orb disappeared into the water dark heavens.
“Pirotecnicas,” her tíos agreed, firm in their decision to see nothing but what was in front of their noses.
“Pirotecnias,” her tías echoed, crossing themselves just to be sure.
But the primos said nothing. Instead, they looked to the youngest of their cousins. One of them pointed up where the light has disappeared into the wisps of clouds floating in and out of the murky sky.
“Dolores,” she trilled.
“Dolores,” the cousins agreed, turning away to ignore the twinkle that encompassed their littlest prima.