It took all morning and part of the afternoon to wind my way through the passes, but I finally found myself on a ridge overlooking Valle Redondo. I halted the mule and spent a few minutes looking. There had never been much to see from this side of the valley, but in a way my whole life was down there. Not a single thing in this last horrible year couldn’t be traced to this valley and the day Strecker led his Guard contingent out of these very mesas to take our livestock and invoke the federal anti-hoarding laws by killing my family and neighbors.
But I couldn’t stay in this one spot forever, so I clucked to the mule, slapped the reins against her back and we headed down.
I wasn’t sure what I had expected. Maybe I had expected nothing, which is why everything surprised me. Certain familiar homes and ranchos were gone, the adobes melting into the earth and charred remains of outbuildings still lying where they had burned eight years ago. The intact buildings were populated by squatters. Some of them had a few scrawny animals, but nothing like the modest prosperity I remembered from my childhood. Fields that should have been mulched or covered in alfalfa gleanings for the winter were instead littered with debris. Fences were absent or poorly repaired. A few ragged children ran to the road to watch me pass, but didn’t rush my wagon like city children and instead just stood and stared.
But these first few properties were unimportant to me. Just around the bend was Auntie’s house. I stared at it as we drew closer, remembering that Strecker had spared it because Auntie’s older brother was a colonel. I had a claim on this house if I wanted it, but of course it was full of squatters; dirty-looking people who seemed to be more diligent in the creation of trash than in the care of their animals, which wandered the yard and out into the road, foraging for what bits of sustenance they could find among the weeds and garbage.
I wouldn’t have wanted to stay in that house, even if it had been empty. I was fond of Auntie’s sister Carina, and wouldn’t want to live where she had died.
I continued on. This was the hardest part. Although the fences were gone and the landscape slightly changed, I knew as much by instinct as by memory where Auntie’s lands became my family’s lands. I caught myself looking for our sheep, but of course they weren’t there. The beehives were gone. No more honey. Barn fallen into a heap of scrap. And the house. Dear God. I don’t think I was even breathing any more by this point, but there it was, or what was left of it—-blackened walls, caved-in roof and all. It was clear that scavengers had taken what they could, and what remained looked like it had lain in ruins for a thousand years. Was this ancient, snow-frosted relic the place that had haunted my nightmares for so long?
I looked away and urged the mule to hurry.
We continued past the Torres place, where not so much as a brick or stick of wood marked the place where all those children I used to play with had once lived. Then we went into what passed for a village center, with a few old buildings still standing, now empty. Finally we came to the church. It looked like it was still in marginally good repair. No big surprise. Strecker had been a Catholic and spared churches wherever he went.
I turned off the main road onto a trace that passed the church’s outbuildings and wound up a small hill. Incredibly, the iron cemetery gate was still in place, and I had to climb down and open it up so I could bring my cart in.
In front of me lay the little cemetery, almost as I remembered it, only more crowded. Now I was at a loss. Where to bury Ishkin? I tried to think, but my mind had gone blank. If the beating of my heart had required conscious thought, I would’ve died in that moment.
I was standing on one of the paths between the plots, trying to will myself into some sort of action, when a sound behind me brought me back to my senses. I spun around and saw a weathered, hunched little man watching me with a flat, unreadable expression.
I walked over slowly, so as not to startle him. He averted his eyes at my approach. “Hello, Sebastian. Do you remember me?”
Sebastian stared at the ground. “Yes.”
There had always been something wrong with Sebastian, but he was a good groundskeeper. Sometimes we children had been cruel to him. “It's been a long time. I’m sorry I was such a mean little kid. Do you forgive me?”
He didn’t look up, but I thought I saw a slight twitch of his lips, as if he was trying to smile. “Yes.”
Everything came over me in a rush and I realized I loved this valley and these long-dead people and especially this old man, better than anyone on earth. I knew Sebastian couldn’t bear to be touched, but I had to ask anyway. “Is it okay if I give you a hug?”
He nodded and stood stiffly, as if bracing for an attack. I made it brief and tried not to cry, remembering that deep emotions alarmed him. There was something magical in the touch of another human being who remembered me and remembered my childhood. Auntie told me it would be like this when I got old, but she never said it could happen while I was still young. Nothing mattered any more at all, except that here was a person from my past.
“I’ve come to bury someone. A friend. Do you still dig the graves? Can you help me?”
Sebastian looked nervous. “Joaquin says where the graves will go. We don’t dig graves unless he says so. Only Joaquin knows.”
“He’s still here? Can you take me to him?”
Sebastian gave a little twitch of a nod and I followed him out of the cemetery. All the way down the hill he mumbled under his breath about how Joaquin would know where to dig the grave, and it wasn’t good to leave mules at the cemetery because they eat the paper flowers.
We were almost to one of the church outbuildings, when a door flew open and a little girl ran out, followed by a boy and then a tall dark-haired man in ordinary farm clothes, but who I recognized immediately as the priest, Joaquin Estrada. He strode over in an unhurried way and grasped my hand in greeting. “The children said they heard someone go by, but they’ll do anything to get out of their lessons, so—” He scrutinized my face more closely. “Diana Nuñez?”
“It’s Diana Channing now, but yeah, it’s me.”
He pulled me close and I was surprised at how comforting his embrace felt. “What brings you back here?” He stepped back and looked at me again. “You’re not alone, are you? Look at you, all grown up.”
This was a bit much for me, what with the two children and now a puppy clamoring at my heels while Sebastian fidgeted nearby. “I came by myself, Father.“
“Don’t call me Father. Just Joaquin.”
“Are you no longer a priest?”
“No one’s told me I’m not, but unless you’ve converted, we can skip the formalities. It seems so silly after all we’ve been through together.”
We talked for awhile and I explained my errand. Then we all went up to the cemetery in a group, the children running ahead and Sebastian walking behind. “Did you have a place in mind?” Joaquin asked. “We’re very short on space, but we might be able to make a spot near your grandfather.”
“That could work. He always wished for another boy after Uncle Nick was killed.”
“But you called yourself Channing a few minutes ago. Does that mean. . .?”
“I married Amalia’s boy, Will.”
“Did she ever formally adopt him?”
“What do you mean, formally?”
“I guess it’s all the same, isn’t it?” He led me to Amalia’s family plot. “Technically there’s no room here, but there’s no coffin under Alan’s stone. Maybe we could move a few things around.”
I hated to do that to Auntie—move her husband’s headstone, but since they never found his body, what would it hurt? That would mean we could bury Ishkin next to Carina and her husband, Miles. It seemed appropriate that Ishkin should lie near child-loving Carina and her physician husband. They would take good care of him. “That would be nice.”
By now it was growing dark, so Joaquin gave Sebastian instructions on how to proceed in the morning, and then we took the cart to the stable. It was nice to bed Flecha and the mule down properly, with hay and oats.
Then we went into the house where a wizened little woman was making supper on a cast-iron stove. I remembered Señora Estrada only vaguely, because their family had been well off and didn't associate with ours. I suppose having a son in the priesthood had been no help in sparing the vast Estrada holdings from Strecker and his men. I had been too consumed in my own grief eight years ago to be much aware of how others had fared during the raid. I remembered only what had happened to my family and to Auntie and Will. I also remembered all the funerals, with those of us who survived digging many of the graves ourselves, and Joaquin stopping to say a few words over each of them as we covered the bodies with earth. He had even spoken over my family’s graves, even though my mother and grandparents were Lutherans. People in the valley had once said Joaquin was too young and frivolous to be a good priest, and he was only doing it to keep from getting drafted for the Resource Wars. All I knew now, as I tried to link my old memories with the present, was that he was kind.
I ate supper with the family, still consumed with questions, but I had barely finished my soup when I began nodding off, too exhausted to even try one of the dessert empanadas Joaquin’s mother had made for the occasion. Questions and answers would have to wait until morning.
Tonight I’m sleeping in a room of my own. It’s the children’s room, and it was generous of them to offer it to me. I thought I would hate being in Valle Redondo, and the place would feel full of ghosts. Maybe it’s because I’m so tired, but tonight I feel safe and loved, like I'm wrapped in a thick, soft blanket. I had no idea it could feel so good to be home.
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