At least one Wednesday a month they drove the thirty-miles south into the valley and Ocotlan de Morelos. It wasn’t that Oaxaca itself didn’t have sprawling open-air, and closed-air, markets; indubitably, there were several, and possibly one for every day of the week. But Sally and Anna and most of their neighbors, whether ex-pat or local, preferred this one. The market in Ocotlan was the one they’d bring out-of-town visitors to, and each time they did they reminded themselves to make it a habit, and not save it for special occasions. Sometimes they stopped on the way down in the pueblito of San Martin Tilcajete, to browse and sometimes purchase more of the carefully painted wood carvings – the alebrijes — the delicate animalitos that danced on Anna’s bookshelves at home. “Every trip your office looks more zoo than workplace,” Sally told her.
But once in Ocotlan and the market, strolling dos de la mano through live goats and pigs and chickens waiting to be selected for a festive meal, plants and baskets and fruits and vegetables and kitchen implements and sandals and socks and all other manner of clothing, and all of that was before they got to the pottery and tools and — increasingly – electronics, it was a splendid mix of beauty and practicality. More than once they’d had their pictures taken with the woman who sold chocolate and was a dead-ringer, and dressed as such, for Frida Kahlo. It was a long way from Chadron, Nebraska.
Sometimes there were entertainers just outside the market, between the square and the art museum, and today Anna squeezed Sally’s hand as soon as she saw the banner:
Los Hermanos Rosales
It was a tiny traveling circus, not quite as small as a flea circus but small enough that all the performers and all of the gear fit inside and in the back of a small pick-up, but it was a circus nonetheless, with a tent pitched on the corner near the HSBC bank. The tent was barely bigger than an REI family-style, and it was open on three sides.
They watched, first in amusement, then in awe, as one of the five or six or eight Los Hermanos Rosales, the one with a braided ponytail, casually juggled an axe, an egg, a frog and an iguana.
Anna whispered to Sally, “What, no partridge? No pear tree?” Sally — cameras in each of her carrier pants pockets — started shooting. These would be good.
After the juggling came two tumblers with more energy than grace and Los Hermanos knew it because their clown re-entered, screamed – silently, but loud-and-clear gestures — at the tumblers, knocked them to the ground, and proceeded to kick each one off the large rug that was their stage. The rug was probably Walmart, a shame given the classic Teotitlan de Valle rugs widely available in the market and in shops and showrooms for miles around. Just last week they had spent twelve hundred U.S. on a 10×15 that was alive with reds and blues, birds and triangles, all dancing within a classic Zapotec pattern — they had watched it come off the loom. But as Sally often reminded Anna, if everybody and her sister back in the states got to eat, sleep, and breathe Walmart, why shouldn’t similarly misguided citizens of the State of Oaxaca have the same opportunity.
“Y ahora, and now, la estrella de las estrellas, the star of stars, our very own sister, nuestra propia hermana.”
Sally gasped as the slender young woman emerged from the tent. She could have been twenty-five, could have been fifteen, but even in the shimmering B-movie-version gypsy- outfit, she was the image of Jenna: Jenna, the one saving grace of East Jesus, Colorado, almost two decades ago. They were both eighteen, Sally and Jenna. Sally was stuck there for a month with her all-male crew — they grudgingly admired her strength but they would never be buddies — while they yanked out and replaced three busted pipelines at the edge of town. Jenna was stuck for a lifetime. A lifetime that would not see nineteen.
Sally swallowed, grabbed Anna’s hand, and watched as the woman who looked like Jenna walked into the center. The announcing brother shouted even louder but Sally missed what he said. The small crowd surrounded the rug.
A brother tapped on an ancient drum. Another riffed on some kind of flute, like the ones in the Peruvian bands that often played in the Zocalo. A third, the worst of the tumblers, gravely placed at the feet of the woman who was not Jenna a long, thin wooden box. He stood up, bowed once, and backed his way off of the rug. The gypsy-dress rippled in the breeze as the woman bent with impossible grace. Her knowing fingers found the spring that released the lid. Sally tugged Anna closer.
In the box, sheathed in velvet with only the handles and hasps visible, were three knives. First, a knife with a six-inch blade; second, a similar but lightly longer one, with a blade about ten inches long; and third, what could only be called a sword. It had to be a foot and a half long. Sally realized her own breathing had stopped and she willed its return. Anna placed one hand on the small of Sally’s back. With her other hand she caressed Sally’s right hand.
The six-inch knife, studded with rubies, was first to be employed. The crowd continued to grow, its shuffling feet raising dust that floated above their heads and settled on hats, faces, shoulders. The sister stood tall, arched her back, and opened her mouth impossibly wide. She held the knife inches above her lips. Soon the knife disappeared, rested for a moment somewhere between and beyond those lips, before it returned into the daylight, the gems again brilliant. As slowly as she had removed it, she placed it back into its sheath and returned it to the box. One spectator shouted but stopped in mid-note. Another sobbed. Jenna-not-Jenna closed her eyes and stood in silent yoga sun-salutation. The crowd waited, an alchemy of patience and desperate anticipation. Sally counted heartbeats. Three minutes faded from present to past. Then the next knife, this one’s handle smothered with emeralds. The action duplicated the first, but the blade, twice as long, reduced the first effort to child’s play. An abuelita swooned into the arms of a stranger who kept her from falling but never took his eyes from la estrella de las estrellas. Again, fearful beauty ascended from the angelic neck, the throat of magic.
Despite, or perhaps because of the stillness, the hush, more people came, doubling, then doubling again, the size of the crowd. Moving as minutely as possible, men wiped sweat and grime with red bandanas. This time the wait was five minutes.
Sally’s eyes moved like fingers along the woman’s face. She traced the lines of the chin, flickered along the lips, ran them down each arm from shoulder to elbow to fingertips, and paused. She dared touch the astonishing neck before slipping effortlessly to the chest, hidden by the silk blouse. Her eyes feathered the breasts, just a whisper of contact. “Feels like God’s grace,” Jenna had said. Anna now stood fully behind her, against her, arms wrapped around Sally’s waist. She took both of Sally’s hands in her own, fingers interlocked.
Sally took a deep breath. She allowed the fingers of her eyes to trace the scar across the heart, the scar that would have formed had Jenna survived, but Jenna hadn’t wanted that. Just as she hadn’t wanted Sally to disappear, her begging insufficient to keep Sally in East Jessup, and she knew she herself would not leave, could not leave, as long as her mother lived. Not until her mother’s death. Or her own. The knife she used was a mere three inches, rusty rather than jeweled, but it worked.
The sword was now in her hand. The sword and her right arm formed a glimmering L in the cloudless sky.
Sally screamed, “No!” No one moved, nor spoke. The sword, too, remained in position.
Anna cradled Sally into a sitting position, squeezed her hands and gave her a quick kiss. “Hold on,” Anna said. Next she approached the oldest hermano, an uncle or father if they were related at all. She engaged him in private, rapid conversation. The man raised a huge hand in the air and requested continued silence. All obeyed: the sword-woman, the brothers, and the people, who appeared now more as penitents than circus-goers.
Anna and the man entered the bank. Time suspended its circuit. Butterflies stilled. Lifetimes later, Anna and the man re-appeared, each shielding eyes against the sun. Wordlessly he removed the sword from the compliant young woman – she did not break pose – inserted it into its velvet glove, and handed it to Anna.
Anna drove in silence, the sword nestled on the back seat with the papaya, mango, and jicama, all purchased before they knew the circus had come to town. Sally’s eyes were open but she could have been sleeping. At home she did sleep for most of the afternoon.
Out on the redwood deck, beneath the stars that filled the summer sky, they shared a blanket on the bench as the temperature cooled. The sword lay inside like a sleeping dog. It was still wrapped in newspapers – Noticias and El Imparcial. Sally had already contacted the artisan who would build a case for it, for their bedroom wall.
The night yawned before their eyes.
“She had never seen a sword swallower. Shit, she had never seen Denver.” Sally stopped, sipped from Anna’s mojito – Sally had declined one of her own – and started again.
“Jenna never once got out of East Jessup — East Jesus according to the locals, all 143 of them — and she wouldn’t know a nail salon from a cell block, but God, her fingers. They were flawless, gorgeous, longer than mine. People thought she was a frail little thing, but she wasn’t. She was so tough, but … . I really never will forget her.”
Anna kissed her. “I’ll just make that #412 on the list of reasons why I love you.”