“I, Lucretia” by Natalie van Hoose

Ecuador, my old friend. You have not changed.

From the plane, I see Quito coming, a great spill of a city filling the valley and creeping up the mountainsides. It has been twenty years since I was here, a girl of thirteen, so scared I was trembling in the terminal.

“Lucretia!” My Tia Flor, strong and worn, had hurried to meet me, to enfold me in an embrace.

She will not greet me this time. Now I come for her, and it is to pay my last respects.

I remember that summer well. How many times have I relived it in my dreams? Every morning I arose to find a plate of steaming eggs and rice on the table, and Tia Flor and I would eat in silence before catching the milk truck into town. She showed me how to carry the fruit basket on my back, tying it with a shawl knotted tight below my breasts. We stood in the market all day, calling and shaking handfuls of berries until our fingers were purpled with juice. Sometimes Tia would give me money for ice cream, and I would come back with two cones. We’d sit in the shade of Sra. Perez’s stand and swallow them quickly, licking the sugar off our hands. Back home, we put water on to boil, and at dusk, my cousin Jaime and I trudged up the hill to bring the cows back from the field. I would not speak to him and was careful to keep at least two bulls between us. He was only two years older, but his eyes were sunken like those of the dead.

Night was my favorite time. I would sneak out after Tia was softly snoring and run past the stable to the open fields. The thin air blew cold through my skirt. From high up on our wind-scarred mountain, I could see everything worth seeing: the green and copper lights of the town below, half-shadowed by the farthest mountains, the clear constellations of the Southern Hemisphere, and Cotopaxi, ageless and wise. Sometimes I talked to its snow-covered peak. When the moon was full, the summit was so bright, it looked alive.

One morning I awoke to find the farm blanketed with a thick, gray mist. By the time I ran through the yard to the kitchen, my coat was shimmering with fine droplets.

“Tia!” I shouted. “It’s raining!”

“No, querida,” she smiled. “We’re in a cloud.”

People say that the hills of Ecuador are full of mysteries, and you can woo them out if you are patient. I think this is true. But some knowledge is too heavy to hold, and at thirteen, there are secrets which you wish you never knew.

One evening I did not come home with the cows. I ran as fast as I could away from the farm, the miserly air burning in my lungs. I was running for Cotopaxi, my old teacher and protector, but no matter how swiftly my legs carried me, the summit drew farther away.

Tia Flor and the milkman took the truck out to look for me, their lanterns swinging in the darkness, light bouncing over the road. When she found me, my Tia sent the milkman away, and she, shorter than I, picked me up and carried me on her back, up the mountain, all the way home.

In the kitchen, she wrapped me in woolen blankets and lit the stove to boil chamomile, the gas a blue halo. Tears trickled down her face in the lines that were deepest-set. Long after she thought I was asleep, I listened to her whispering by my bedside, calling to Our Blessed Mother.

The next morning, Cotopaxi hid itself behind a veil of clouds. I did not see it all day, or the next, or the day I boarded the plane for home.

Neither did I see Jaime. In five years, he would be dead, kicked in the head by a horse he’d been branding behind the house. No one saw it happen. Yet I can feel that whip-quick motion as though I were the animal and it was my leg—not small, not spindly, but thick, corded, and able, the blood hot as high noon—flashing across the corral to imprint an iron salute on his forehead. The skull crackles, the neck twists like a rope. His body arches backwards in a blind flight, and the ground receives it, dust leaping into the low, whistling wind. In a corner of the yard, the brand slowly darkens and grows cold.

So we meet again, Ecuador, my country without a face. I know you well, perhaps even better than I know myself, but you will not recognize me now. Forgive me if I stay a stranger.

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