Authors: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“You think he is that mercenary? That he’d put his finances before the welfare of his wife?”
“I don’t know him, Noemí. None of us do. That is the problem. He is a stranger. He says she has good care and is improving, but for all I know Catalina is tied to her bed right now and fed gruel.”
“And she is the melodramatic one?” Noemí asked, examining her orchid corsage and sighing.
“I know what an ill relative can be like. My own mother had a stroke and was confined to her bed for years. I also know a family does not handle such matters well at times.”
“What would you have me do, then?” she asked, daintily placing her hands on her lap.
“Assess the situation. Determine if she should indeed be moved to the city, and attempt to convince him this is the best option if that is the case.”
“How would I manage such a thing?”
Her father smirked. In the smirk and the clever, dark eyes, child and parent greatly resembled each other. “You are flighty. Always changing your mind about everything and anything. First you wanted to study history, then theater, now it’s anthropology. You’ve cycled through every sport imaginable and stuck to none. You date a boy twice then at the third date do not phone him back.”
“That has nothing to do with my question.”
“I’m getting to it. You are flighty, but you are stubborn about all the
things. Well, it’s time to use that stubbornness and energy to accomplish a useful task. There’s nothing you’ve ever committed to except for the piano lessons.”
“And the English ones,” Noemí countered, but she didn’t bother denying the rest of the accusations because she did indeed cycle through admirers on a regular basis and was quite capable of wearing four outfits in a single day.
But it isn’t like you should have to make up your mind about everything at twenty-two
, she thought. There was no point in telling her father that. He’d taken over the family business at nineteen. By his standards, she was on a slow course to nowhere. Noemí’s father gave her a pointed look, and she sighed. “Well, I would be happy to make a visit in a few weeks—”
“Monday, Noemí. That is why I cut your party short. We need to make the arrangements so you’re on the first train to El Triunfo Monday morning.”
“But there’s that recital coming up,” she replied.
It was a weak excuse and they both knew it. She’d been taking piano lessons since she was seven, and twice a year she performed in a small recital. It was no longer absolutely necessary for socialites to play an instrument, as it had been in the days of Noemí’s mother, but it was one of those nice little hobbies that were appreciated among her social circle. Besides, she liked the piano.
“The recital. More likely you made plans with Hugo Duarte to attend it together, and you don’t want him taking another woman as his date or having to give up the chance of wearing a new dress. Too bad; this is more important.”
“I’ll have you know I hadn’t even bought a new dress. I was going to wear the skirt I wore to Greta’s cocktail party,” Noemí said, which was half the truth because she had indeed made plans to go there with Hugo. “Look, the truth is the recital is not my main concern. I have to start classes in a few days. I can’t take off like that. They’ll fail me,” she added.
“Then let them fail you. You’ll take the classes again.”
She was about to protest such a blithe statement when her father turned around and stared at her.
“Noemí, you’ve been going on and on about the National University. If you do this, I’ll give you permission to enroll.”
Noemí’s parents allowed her to attend the Feminine University of Mexico, but they had balked when she declared she’d like to continue her studies upon graduation. She wanted to pursue a master’s degree in anthropology. This would require her to enroll at the National. Her father thought this was both a waste of time and unsuitable with all those young men roaming the hallways and filling ladies’ heads with silly and lewd thoughts.
Noemí’s mother was equally unimpressed by these modern notions of hers. Girls were supposed to follow a simple life cycle, from debutante to wife. To study further would mean to delay this cycle, to remain a chrysalis inside a cocoon. They’d clashed over the matter a half dozen times, and her mother had cunningly stated it was up to Noemí’s father to hand down a decree, while her father never seemed poised to do so.
Her father’s statement therefore shocked her and presented an unexpected opportunity. “You mean it?” Noemí asked cautiously.
“Yes. It’s a serious matter. I don’t want a divorce splashed in the newspaper, but I also can’t allow someone to take advantage of the family. And this is Catalina we are talking about,” her father said, softening his tone. “She’s had her share of misfortunes and might dearly need a friendly face. That might be, in the end, all she needs.”
Catalina had been struck by calamity on several occasions. First the death of her father, followed by her mother’s remarriage to a stepfather who often had her in tears. Catalina’s mother had passed away a couple of years later and the girl had moved into Noemí’s household: the stepfather had already left by then. Despite the warm embrace of the Taboadas, these deaths had deeply affected her. Later, as a young woman, there had been her broken engagement, which caused much strife and hurt feelings.
There had also been a rather goofy young man who courted Catalina for many months and whom she seemed to like very much. But Noemí’s father had chased him away, unimpressed by the fellow. After that aborted romance, Catalina must have learned her lesson, for her relationship with Virgil Doyle had been a paragon of discretion. Or maybe it had been Virgil who had been more wily and urged Catalina to keep mum about them until it was too late to disrupt any wedding.
“I suppose I could give notice that I’ll be away for a few days,” she said.
“Good. We’ll telegraph Virgil back and let them know you are on your way. Discretion and smarts, that’s what I need. He is her husband and has a right to make decisions on her behalf, but we cannot be idle if he is reckless.”
“I should make you put it in writing, the bit about the university.”
Her father sat down behind his desk again. “As if I’d break my word. Now go get those flowers out of your hair and start packing your clothes. I know it’ll take you forever to decide what to wear. Who are you supposed to be, incidentally?” her father asked, clearly dissatisfied with the cut of her dress and her bare shoulders.
“I’m dressed as Spring,” she replied.
“It’s cold there. If you intend to parade around in anything similar to that, you better take a sweater,” he said dryly.
Though normally she would have come up with a clever rejoinder, she remained unusually quiet. It occurred to Noemí, after having agreed to the venture, that she knew very little of the place where she was going and the people she would meet. This was no cruise or pleasure trip. But she quickly assured herself that Father had picked her for this mission, and accomplish it she would. Flighty? Bah. She’d show Father the dedication he wanted from her. Perhaps he’d come to see her, after her success—for she could never picture herself failing—as more deserving and mature.
When Noemí was a little girl and Catalina read fairy tales to her, she used to mention “the forest,” that place where Hansel and Gretel tossed their breadcrumbs or Little Red Riding Hood met a wolf. Growing up in a large city, it did not occur to Noemí until much later that forests were real places, which could be found in an atlas. Her family vacationed in Veracruz, in her grandmother’s house by the sea, with no tall trees in sight. Even after she grew up, the forest remained in her mind a picture glimpsed in a storybook by a child, with charcoal outlines and bright splashes of color in the middle.
It took her a while, therefore, to realize that she was headed
a forest, for El Triunfo was perched on the side of a steep mountain carpeted with colorful wildflowers and covered thickly with pines and oaks. Noemí sighted sheep milling around and goats braving sheer rock walls. Silver had given the region its riches, but tallow from these animals had helped illuminate the mines, and they were plentiful. It was all very pretty.
The higher the train moved and the closer it got to El Triunfo, though, the more the bucolic landscape changed and Noemí reassessed her idea of it. Deep ravines cut the land, and rugged ridges loomed outside the window. What had been charming rivulets turned into strong, gushing rivers, which spelled doom should anyone be dragged by their currents. At the bottom of the mountains farmers tended groves and fields of alfalfa, but there were no such crops here, just the goats climbing up and down rocks. The land kept its riches in the dark, sprouting no trees with fruit.
The air grew thin as the train struggled up the mountain until it stuttered and stopped.
Noemí grabbed her suitcases. She’d brought two of them and had been tempted to also pack her favorite trunk, though in the end she had judged it too cumbersome. Despite this concession, the suitcases were large and heavy.
The train station was not busy and was barely a station at all, just a lonesome square-shaped building with a half-asleep woman behind the ticket counter. Three little boys were chasing one another around the station, playing tag, and she offered them some coins if they helped her lug her suitcases outside. They did, gladly. They looked underfed, and she wondered how the town’s inhabitants got by now the mine was closed and only the goats provided the opportunity for a bit of commerce.
Noemí was prepared for the chill of the mountain. The unexpected element was therefore the thin fog that greeted her that afternoon. She looked at it curiously as she adjusted her teal calotte hat with the long yellow feather and peered onto the street looking at her ride, for there could hardly be any mistaking it. It was the single automobile parked in front of the station, a preposterously large vehicle that made her think of swanky silent film stars of two or three decades earlier—the kind of automobile her father might have driven in his youth to flaunt his wealth.
But the vehicle in front of her was dated, dirty, and it needed a paint job. Therefore it was not truly the kind of automobile a movie star would drive these days, but seemed to be a relic that had been haphazardly dusted off and dragged onto the street.
She thought the driver might match the car and expected to find an elderly man behind the wheel, but a young fellow of about her age in a corduroy jacket stepped out. He was fair-haired and pale—she didn’t realize anyone could be
pale; goodness, did he ever wander into the sun?—his eyes uncertain, his mouth straining to form a smile or a greeting.
Noemí paid the boys who had helped bring her luggage out, then marched forward and extended her hand.
“I am Noemí Taboada. Has Mr. Doyle sent you?” she asked.
“Yes, Uncle Howard said to pick you up,” he replied, shaking her hand weakly. “I’m Francis. I hope the ride was pleasant? Those are all your things, Miss Taboada? Can I help you with them?” he asked in quick succession, as if he preferred to end all sentences with question marks rather than commit to definite statements.
“You can call me Noemí. Miss Taboada sounds so fussy. That’s the sum of my luggage, and yes, I’d love some assistance.”
He grabbed her two suitcases and placed them in the trunk, then went around the car and opened the door for her. The town, as she saw it from her window, was peppered with winding streets, colorful houses with flower pots at their windows, sturdy wooden doors, long stairways, a church, and all the usual details that any guidebook would call “quaint.”
Despite this, it was clear El Triunfo was not in any guidebooks. It had the musty air of a place that had withered away. The houses were colorful, yes, but the color was peeling from most of the walls, some of the doors had been defaced, half of the flowers in the pots were wilting, and the town showed few signs of activity.
It was not that unusual. Many formerly thriving mining sites that had extracted silver and gold during the Colonia interrupted their operations once the War of Independence broke out. Later on, the English and the French were welcomed during the tranquil Porfiriato, their pockets growing fat with mineral riches. But the Revolution had ended this second boom. There were many hamlets like El Triunfo where one could peek at fine chapels built when money and people were plentiful; places where the earth would never again spill wealth from its womb.
Yet the Doyles lingered in this land, when many others had long gone. Perhaps, she thought, they’d learned to love it, though she was not much impressed by it, for it was a steep and abrupt landscape. It didn’t look at all like the mountains from her childhood storybooks, where the trees appeared lovely and flowers grew by the road; it didn’t resemble the enchanting place Catalina had said she would live in. Like the old car that had picked Noemí up, the town clung to the dregs of splendor.
Francis drove up a narrow road that climbed deeper into the mountains, the air growing rawer, the mist intensifying. She rubbed her hands together.
“Is it very far?” she asked.
Again he looked uncertain. “Not that far,” Francis said slowly, as if they were discussing a matter that had to be considered with much care. “The road is bad or I’d go faster. It used to be, a long time ago, when the mine was open, that the roads around here were all in good shape, even near High Place.”
“That’s what we call it, our home. And behind it, the English cemetery.”
“Is it really very English?” she said, smiling.
“Yes,” he said, gripping the wheel with both hands with a strength she would not have imagined from his limp handshake.
“Oh?” she said, waiting for more.
“You’ll see it. It’s all very English. Um, that’s what Uncle Howard wanted, a little piece of England. He even brought European earth here.”
“Do you think he had an extreme case of nostalgia?”
“Indeed. I might as well tell you, we don’t speak Spanish at High Place. My great uncle doesn’t know a word of it, Virgil fares poorly, and my mother wouldn’t ever attempt to stitch a sentence together. Is…is your English any good?”
“Lessons every day since I was six,” she said, switching from Spanish to English. “I’m sure I’ll have no trouble.”
The trees grew closer together, and it was dark under their branches. She was not one for nature, not the real thing. The last time she had been anywhere near a forest had been on that excursion to El Desierto de los Leones when they went riding and then her brother and her friends decided to do some practice shooting with tin cans. That had been two, maybe even three years before. This place didn’t compare to that. It was wilder here.
She found herself warily assessing the height of the trees and the depths of the ravines. Both were considerable. The mist thickened, making her wince, fearing they’d wind up halfway down the mountain if they took a wrong turn. How many eager miners hunting for silver had fallen off a cliff? The mountains offered mineral riches and a quick death. But Francis seemed secure in his driving even if his words faltered. She didn’t generally like shy men—they got on her nerves—but who cared. It was not as if she’d come to see him or any other members of his family.
“Who are you, anyway?” she asked, to distract herself from the thought of ravines and cars crashing against unseen trees.
“Well, yes, but are you Virgil’s little cousin? Long-lost uncle? Another black sheep I must be informed about?”
She spoke in that droll way she liked, the one she used at cocktail parties, and that always seemed to get her very far with people, and he replied as she expected, smiling a little.
“First cousin, once removed. He’s a bit older than me.”
“I’ve never understood that. Once, twice, thrice removed. Who keeps track of such a thing? I always figure if they come to my birthday party we are related and that’s it, no need to pull out the genealogy chart.”
“It certainly simplifies things,” he said. The smile was real now.
“Are you a good cousin? I hated my boy cousins when I was little. They’d always push my head against the cake at my party even though I didn’t want to do the whole mordida thing.”
“Yes. You’re supposed to take a bite of the cake before it is cut, but someone always shoves your head into it. I guess you didn’t have to endure that at High Place.”
“There aren’t many parties at High Place.”
“The name must be a literal description,” she mused, because they kept going up. Did the road have no end? The wheels of the car crunched over a fallen tree branch, then another.
“I’ve never been in a house with a name. Who does that these days?”
“We’re old-fashioned,” he mumbled.
Noemí eyed the young man skeptically. Her mother would have said he needed iron in his diet and a good cut of meat. By the looks of those thin fingers he sustained himself on dewdrops and honey, and his tone tended toward whispers. Virgil had seemed to her much more physical than this lad, much more present. Older, too, as Francis had indicated. Virgil was thirty-something; she forgot his exact age.
They hit a rock or some bump in the road. Noemí let out an irritated “ouch.”
“Sorry about that,” Francis said.
“I don’t think it’s your fault. Does it always look like this?” she asked. “It’s like driving in a bowl of milk.”
“This is nothing,” he said with a chuckle. Well. At least he was relaxing.
Then, all of a sudden, they were there, emerging into a clearing, and the house seemed to leap out of the mist to greet them with eager arms. It was so odd! It looked absolutely Victorian in construction, with its broken shingles, elaborate ornamentation, and dirty bay windows. She’d never seen anything like it in real life; it was terribly different from her family’s modern house, the apartments of her friends, or the colonial houses with façades of red tezontle.
The house loomed over them like a great, quiet gargoyle. It might have been foreboding, evoking images of ghosts and haunted places, if it had not seemed so tired, slats missing from a couple of shutters, the ebony porch groaning as they made their way up the steps to the door, which came complete with a silver knocker shaped like a fist dangling from a circle.
It’s the abandoned shell of a snail
, she told herself, and the thought of snails brought her back to her childhood, playing in the courtyard of their house, moving aside the potted plants and seeing the roly-polies scuttle about as they tried to hide again. Or feeding sugar cubes to the ants, despite her mother’s admonishments. Also the kind tabby, which slept under the bougainvillea and let itself be petted endlessly by the children. She did not imagine they had a cat in this house, nor canaries chirping merrily in their cages that she might feed in the mornings.
Francis took out a key and opened the heavy door. Noemí walked into the entrance hall, which gave them an immediate view of a grand staircase of mahogany and oak with a round, stained-glass window on the second landing. The window threw shades of reds and blues and yellows upon a faded green carpet, and two carvings of nymphs—one at the bottom of the stairs by the newel post, another by the window—stood as silent guardians of the house. By the entrance there had been a painting or a mirror on a wall, and its oval outline was visible against the wallpaper, like a lonesome fingerprint at the scene of a crime. Above their heads there hung a nine-arm chandelier, its crystal cloudy with age.
A woman was coming down the stairs, her left hand sliding down the banister. She was not an old woman although she had streaks of silver in her hair, her body too straight and nimble to belong to a senior citizen. But her severe gray dress and the hardness in her eyes added years that were not embedded in the flesh of her frame.
“Mother, this is Noemí Taboada,” Francis said as he began the climb up with Noemí’s suitcases.
Noemí followed him, smiling, and offered her hand to the woman, who looked at it as if she was holding up a piece of week-old fish. Instead of shaking her hand, the woman turned around and began walking up the stairs.
“A pleasure to meet you,” the woman said with her back to Noemí. “I am Florence, Mr. Doyle’s niece.”
Noemí felt like scoffing but bit her tongue and simply slid next to Florence, walking at her pace.
“I run High Place, and therefore, if you need anything, you should come to me. We do things a certain way around here, and we expect you to follow the rules.”
“What are the rules?” she asked.
They passed next to the stained-glass window, which Noemí noted featured a bright, stylized flower. Cobalt oxide had been used to create the blue of the petals. She knew such things. The paint business, as her father put it, had provided her with an endless array of chemical facts, which she mostly ignored and which, nevertheless, stuck in her head like an annoying song.
“The most important rule is that we are a quiet and private lot,” Florence was saying. “My uncle, Mr. Howard Doyle, is very old and spends most of his time in his room. You are not to bother him. Second of all, I am in charge of nursing your cousin. She is to get plenty of rest, so you must not bother her unnecessarily either. Do not wander away from the house on your own; it is easy to get lost and the region is puckered with ravines.”