Mama’s Chair

I saw Mama again last night. Just sitting in her favorite chair in the kitchen. She looked content. She doesn’t speak in these dreams, but there is hope in her eyes. I miss her so much, my heart just breaks when I see her. I think maybe some of the old stories may be right and she may be watching. Maybe she knows how much I need reassurance. This is her whispered solace to her lost child. 

I have to decide today though. There’s just the one drum of water left. The rains aren’t coming. We have to leave tonight, one way or another. I’ve packed up as much as Nita can pull on low rations. She’s a sturdy old girl, but even a burro needs water. 

So much just left behind. The portrait of Mama and Papi when they were young and in love. The gold-rimmed dishes from some forgotten land of long ago and far away, yet in my family for as long as memory. Mama’s chair. I tell myself it’s all just things, not very useful things at that. But no. These are our emblems, talismans, metaphors, the story of who we were, how we lived. I can’t look at them. There’s almost a guilt, like I’ve failed my ancestors in abandoning our history here in the dust.

But I’ve done as much as I can. Maybe even put off the journey longer than I should have to try to stay in this place where my people lived. No, there is no fault. It’s just how life is. The amazing thing is that we’ve held out for so long. We’re the last. Probably should have left when Mama died.

I’ve just no idea where to turn. 

When Pacheco left it wasn’t supposed to be for good. When I’m despairing, I feel that he didn’t make it. And that makes me think that we can’t follow him on the road north. Then I think that maybe he just didn’t want to come back to this misery. And that makes me wonder if things are so much better there. I suppose it doesn’t matter. We can’t stay. And I suspect that whichever direction we take will have its dangers. Just can’t go south.

I think I’ll follow Pacheco tonight. That way if I find him alive, I can punch him.

Mia and Lupe seem resigned. It’s hard to tell. They’re at that age. Mama used to tell me my children would be retribution for my adolescence. Well, Mami, you are correct. In spades. But I wasn’t this moody, I’m sure of it. I know you’d disagree. I wish I could argue the point with you. I wish you were here to snap them out of their moods with a sharp word and your feral smile. I wish you were here to snap me out of my mood. Maybe that’s why you’ve been haunting my dreams. To tell me to stop rattling around this echoing hacienda and get on with leaving already.

I’m just so lonely and scared.

The sun set a while ago. I think it’s time.

I spent the day saying goodbye to my home. The kids were subdued. Not even an argument when I told them to put the last essentials in their packs. I cleaned out the henhouse and put my last three hens in a crate. The cats have all absconded. I hope they’re happily murdering small creatures and not dead. Bruja is the only one of us who seems eager for this journey, but she is equally keen on sleeping all day in the cottonwood shade, tongue lolling in the heat. I suppose we’ll see how happy she is after a night of trudging far from her bed — which is also my bed. I cut the last of the rosemary and put the cuttings in sand. I don’t know why I think they’ll make it to wherever we’re going, but maybe I have to have some token of hope to carry along with me.

I still don’t know where we’re going. I know we can’t head south. The piracy has been so bad, they’re coming up the river now. It’s lucky the Rio Grande is so shallow. The pirates don’t have the amphibious boats that the Traders use, because nobody has them except the Traders and they keep it that way at knife point. Anyway, we haven’t even seen any Traders for a couple years now, so I wonder if the river is dry down there. South is probably worse than here. 

There are roads east and west, but I don’t remember the last time anyone came from either direction. I don’t even remember any good stories. For that matter, it’s been a very long time since anyone came from the north. There used to be traffic all the time. The Gulf Traders, of course. But also caravans and messengers between Mexico and El Norte. This road is why my family lived here, and now that it’s deserted, my home is too. Even the rains have stopped traveling the north road.

Still, I know it’s much closer to El Norte than to any city down south. And we can follow the river. I don’t know how to cross the southern deserts. To go south would be to travel all the way to the Gulf and then somehow find safe passage on a boat. In pirate waters. Not likely.

But El Norte is strange. All the Trader tales talk of wizards and monks and cities in the sky. They say the air is thin and makes your mind swim. They say the people speak of mysteries in bewildering tongues. They say it’s cold at times, that water freezes and cracks open your skin. But they also say it’s beautiful. And there is trade up there, so there must be people. 

So El Norte it is. Pacheco, you’d better hope I don’t find you.

We crossed the old city last night and at dawn set up camp in the bosque at the edge of a place named Radium Springs. I don’t know what that means — my English is rusty — but I suspect it’s not good. I hope to make it to Hatch by tomorrow morning. I’ll see if the chile farmers have any news. We’re doing better than I thought. No troubles on the road. Though getting the cart on and off the road is difficult. There are strange metal barriers and deep arroyos on both sides. I found a smaller road that led toward the river. I hope to find more of these exits or we’ll have to leave the road behind. I don’t relish taking the cart over the desert rocks.

It’s been four nights. The chile farmers told me that I’d have to leave the road when I came to the old reservoir. I can see now why. The road curves to the west; the river heads east. But it’s going to be slow out there. Maybe we can try the road for another night. But then, we may not find another small road leading off the north road. So I don’t know. I’ll sleep on it today. Maybe Mama will come to me tonight with a sign. 

One of the hens died last night, so we’re having roast chicken for our morning supper. It is strange to be waking in the dark hours and sleeping by day. Everything is upside-down. But we’d never be able to walk in the sun. There is no shelter along the road at all.

It’s been many nights of wearying marching through the bosque. There are paths here and there; there are even a few farms. But it’s as slow going as I thought it might be. Still, there’s water. We’ve hardly had to tap into the drum. And the day before yesterday we got to sleep in a stable belonging to an old lady rancher who was generous enough to share meals with strangers. I’m sure the ragged, but adorable, kids helped persuade her. 

I’m worried about Lupe. He’s so very quiet. There’s nothing wrong that I can see, not that is any different from the rest of our tiny caravan. Even the hens are quiet. And Bruja’s taken to climbing into the cart whenever she can. We’re all dirty even though we can bathe in the river. And we’re all thinner and short on sleep because it’s so very difficult to convince your body to sleep in the daylight. Especially when there are worries. And we’re all worried.

This morning we came to a marvel. The bosque widens out and the river is a marsh land. Poor going for the cart I’m sure, but I think there is a road ahead. Perhaps it leads back to the main north road.

But the marsh is astonishing! Water birds in coruscating streams. Black clouds of birds, like pulsating hearts swirling through the sky. And the air is throbbing with wingbeats and their endless cacophonous calling. I don’t know how we’re going to sleep. I had to tie Bruja to the cart, and the hens are restless as if they have dreams of joining the sky dance. Well, dream on, girls! Those fat bottoms are never going to soar.

I think we might stay here for the day and the night. It seems time to rejoin the waking world. I hope I’m remembering right. There are tales of this marshland. I’ve heard that it is the gateway to El Norte. And I don’t think we ought to be traveling at night through inhabited country. Unknown inhabited country. 

The tales were right. And the north road is near the river again with many connecting side roads. So we made good time and found ourselves in a village before nightfall. It is a sleepy place. There is a plaza with cantinas, however, and a posada. So here we all are, bathed and fed and sleeping in beds for the first time in at least a couple weeks. I’ve lost count of the days. But beds! And not the straw-filled ticking I left behind, but some marvelous foamy confection that soothes all the sore joints. I could lie here forever. Bruja concurs. And the kids are already snoring in their bed.

The innkeeper says we want to keep marching. That this is just the poor cousin to the chain of cities known as El Norte. They call this place Socorro. It is an apt name, for I feel refreshed. Though I’m not convinced I want to put my boots back on for another day of walking. And it’s more like four days to the central city where she said I need to go to be registered. Whatever that means. 

She did say that there are villages all along the road and plenty of places to stop for meals. So we’ll make it there with rations to spare. I had to pay for the room and board with one of the hens, so now I’ve only the one. She’s my best layer though, and I can get chicks when we get to this place of registry — Albuquerque.

I did ask about Pacheco. She does not remember anyone of his considerable stature coming through a few summers ago, but it may be that he had nothing to trade for a room and so had to camp the whole way. It was probably not as pleasant as the beds.

We covered the last stretch in five days because we have not taxed ourselves. Socorro spoiled us all. We’ve not slept in a bed since then, but we’ve not walked too hard either. And we’ve kept ourselves clean. Mia’s head scarf is actually white still. Lupe seems better, but he’s still quiet. I can’t believe I’d ever miss their bickering and back-talk, but this silent acquiescence is unnerving. Still, they’re smiling now. As am I.

This Albuquerque is amazing!

Our home had the old city crumbling nearby. Home only to rats, bats and thorny weeds. And I’ve heard the Trader tales of Mexico. None of that prepared me for a living city laid out before my eyes. It’s as vibrant as the waterbird marsh, with tall buildings in bright paint and green trees reaching to the sky. There are people everywhere, wearing colorful robes and carrying vivid sunshades, all busy movement. Not just people, but cartwheels and turbines spinning wherever your eye falls. Speeding vehicles that rush down the roads faster than the Trader boats do on water. Structures roofed in bright white fabric that billows and bulges in the wind. And all of it seemingly in concert. No crashing or tumult, just energy and motion. It’s spellbinding!

We stopped at a tavern called the COW Palace. The tavern-keep explained that the name is from the strange people that live and work to the east of his tavern. He said that long ago they named themselves the Consortium. But the rest of the Burqueños (as he calls people from Albuquerque) called them the Consortium of Wizards (only partly in jest) which in time became COWs. So it seems that at least some of the Trader tales are true. I didn’t press him on the subject of monks and cloud cities, though I did note that his Spanish was very different from mine — from any that I know, to be honest. There are words I recognize from English, but there are also words I’d never heard. I suppose we’ll get used to this patois in time.

And I do think we’re staying here for a long while. We need the rest, truly, but more importantly we’re all in love with this place. Even the hen is perking up. Maybe she can hear the rooster calls over all the ruckus.

The tavern-keep instructed us to go up the road a bit more and then follow signs to the registry. He explained that we will need to inform the authorities of our intention to stay. He seemed to be telling me that these registry people will arrange for housing. I think he means temporary, but he did keep saying “home” as if we’d be allowed to live there as long as we want. That our new home would just be handed to us by these register people. I think he also said we’d be assigned a guide or mentor or some such person to assist us in getting settled. And there is school for the kids. I didn’t even know school still existed. This all seems like a dream of my mother’s arms encircling me. I can’t quite believe in it — especially since I may not completely understand what he is saying.

It seems I understood perfectly. As instructed we found our way to the Registrar’s Office. It was in an enormous stone building that had to be hundreds of years old but was still as solid and unmarred as new. Inside were several levels each with dozens of rooms. There must have been hundreds of people scurrying about the place. The Registrar was in a cavernous room on the main floor. I had left Lupe and Mia outside with all our goods, but when I entered that massive room I had to go back out to get them so they could each have a turn marveling at this fresh wonder. I’ve never seen a ceiling so high. 

I talked with a young woman who had me answer many questions. She typed my answers onto a keyboard and the words appeared on a screen next to her, green words glowing on black. This, I have learned, is a computer. It is old tech that the wizards have kept alive down all the decades since the old world collapsed. Everything goes into these machines which then talk to each other. My answers, for example, were tabulated by some central machine that almost instantly assigned us a home and a mentor and a small device loaded with credit that we may use in any city market (these are called “commissaries”) for food and clothing. This small thing is like magical silver that weighs nothing yet spends in pounds. I am given to understand that when we become citizens this device will regularly be refilled as though we’re being paid to live here. It’s astounding.

Our mentor met us in front of the Registry. Her name is Maggie. She is a plump elder with a ready smile and much facility with speaking my language. To my amazement, she confirmed all that I had heard in the Registry. Then she arranged for transport for us and found a young man to follow along with the cart. I was nervous about entrusting all we possessed to a stranger, a boy from his looks, but she smiled and assured me that theft was a rarity in Albuquerque. On the ride to our new house, I found out that this boy, Bert, is Maggie’s grandchild; he’d not sooner cross her than chop off his own arm. When we arrived at our home, he came up behind only a little later — and not before the kids had finished running from room to room exclaiming in delight. They each get a room to sleep in with beds and dressers and closets as though we live in the lap of luxury. And yet, our home is not too large by comparison to some of the others I’ve seen here. What opulence!

Maggie and Bert helped us move our cartload of belongings into the house. The hen was ensconced in a new coop in the back yard which also has a substantial garden plot, a small orchard of fruit and nuts planted along thick walls and an outdoor oven attached to an ample bath-house. Everything is contrived to be beautiful and functional. Homes are designed to care for people in this city, with all that we need to feed and shelter ourselves provided to us. What is not in the home we can acquire with this credit device in the city commissaries. And even better, there are craft-workers and artisans, cooks and tailors, taverns and cobblers all with shops throughout the city and all on the city credit system. I can purchase goods from them and the city provides them with the materials or labor for their trade in compensation. And this is for all the thousands of citizens here. 

It is not entirely free. All able-bodied adults, from adolescents to elders, need to work in community service for several days a month. But this is paltry. We also are encouraged to contribute a portion of what we make in our gardens and homes and shops back to the city, though this is just good citizenship and not a requirement like the compulsory work. 

Moreover, the work is pleasant. There is some hard labor, yes. All the work of producing and maintaining everything in this city — from bread to bridges, thread to theater — is done by our citizenry. So some of it is hard, but it is also varied and interesting. And you meet so many people on these work crews. What with school several days a week and their own work shifts, Mia and Lupe soon surrounded themselves with friends — and I was introduced to a new annoyance, the telephone. It seems these communication devices are installed in each home. Burquean youngsters never tire of talking to their friends at all hours. Indeed, the one source of discord in my home is access to this device. I let them fight it out between themselves with Bruja as adjudicator when things get rough.

I spend most of my time in the garden. Whoever lived here before us planted a full harvest of potatoes, chile, onions, garlic and more greens than I can name. There are dozens of herbs — culinary, medicinal, and a few that must be dye plants — at the base of a grape arbor near the outdoor kitchen. There are raspberries and blackberries clambering up the walls between apricot, peach and apple trees. There are artichokes and asparagus in beds under pear and plum and almond trees. There’s even a pistachio tree by the bath-house. I found three new hens and a pair of milk goats to keep Nita company in her small paddock. I still do not believe my luck. The wash of intoxicating scent and color when I step out my kitchen door takes me out of my body to a place of utter contentment. Even the telephone battles fade away when I’m in the garden. I wish we’d made this journey years ago. I wish Mama could have seen this place. Or even just known it existed.

There are other towns in El Norte all connected by trains — which are a fantastic magic. They run on electrified tracks, so fast the passing landscape is nothing but a blur. El Norte extends to the headwaters of the Rio Grande, away in the far north at a place named Alamosa which is said to have grown quite wealthy on its water rights. Even southerners on the river have heard of that city. Closer to Albuquerque is Santa Fe, the capital city of El Norte since time out of mind. It is but a short train ride away, and we’ve been there many times, most recently to go to the opera. Imagine, Mama, your grandchildren at the opera!

Further up the train line, there is a town called Taos. It is a great spiritual center. There is a large abbey, home to votaries — both women and men — who spend their time making remarkable fruit preserves, brewing ale and wine, and producing renowned medicines from their extensive herbaries. Socorro is also on the train line, but the line goes no further. I’ve been back down there to see the innkeeper, Alina, several times now. (We also talk on the phone like the gossipy biddies we are.)

I have but one concern; where in all this paradise is Pacheco?

I’m fairly certain he made it here. Maggie asked around the other mentors; one remembers a tall, thin man with a southern accent. This southerner was silent and withdrawn, declining citizenship and most city services. He had a mentor only for one week — long enough to obtain a job as a mechanic for the city transport system and find lodging in a small shared house near the Registry. The mentor couldn’t even remember the southerner’s name, though it could have been Pacheco.

Pacheco was always good with fixing all manner of things. He is also deeply suspicious and taciturn around even people he knows well; he never takes quickly to strangers. And I don’t think he would approve of this system where everybody is equal and everything is shared. So it’s quite likely this quiet, southern mechanic is my Pacheco. But then he disappeared in the early spring, leaving not a trace of himself. Even his small satchel of belongings is gone. So it looks like he left intentionally.

Yet he did not come back to me.

There are other communities that are not as welcoming to outsiders. The Consortium is one. They are highly secretive. They have territory to the southeast of Albuquerque. I’ve seen it across the north road from the COW Palace; it’s surrounded by fierce fences. They also have a city in the northern mountains that is nothing but mad scientists in underground bunker laboratories. Or so it’s rumored. I haven’t yet met anyone who has visited Los Alamos. The wizards share their wisdom and technologies with Norteños — in exchange for food and other goods because wizards they may be, but they don’t do much about their own provisioning — however they do not mingle. Except for a few who teach advanced courses at the university, the wizards rarely leave their fortress homes.

Then there are the First Nations. They are not hostile or reclusive. They’re our neighbors and best trade partners. But still, you’re not exactly welcome on the Pueblo Federation or Navajo Nation territories without an invite. And preferably an escort with a determinate itinerary. 

But the scariest place is a Norteño city northwest of Santa Fe. It’s a whispered rumor on the edge of knowledge. An island to itself, they don’t trade with any other cities, Norteño or otherwise. (Especially not with the others.) It doesn’t even have a train stop. Maggie thinks, with his predilections, Pacheco may have drifted in that direction. And if you get in, you don’t get out. 

We’re not married, Pacheco and I, but we were partners for years. I’ve known him much of my life. He was the light that got me through the darkness around Mia’s birth, and he’s the father of my son. He helped me keep the hacienda going even as traffic dwindled and the rains faltered. He dug my mother’s grave. We made no promises to each other, but I thought we had an understanding. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe, when said he wanted to find something better, he meant for himself, not us. Maybe he was done with us. Or maybe he really is in trouble.

I just don’t know what I can do about it either way. Maybe it’s best to forget, move on. 

I still think about my home. I wonder if pirates have made it that far inland, if the china is all shattered and Mama’s chair lies broken on the tiles. I wonder if my books are scattered on the porch, dropped as so much worthless weight, exactly the same reason they did not come north with me. I wonder if the apple tree is dead now.

I have another apple tree to tend now. But it was planted by someone else’s ancestors. Here in Albuquerque, we are taught to think of all those who came before as our ancestors, whether they be of our blood lines or not. Because those ancients made all this life possible. They planted the trees, the gardens, the fields and pastures. They created the Registry and the commissaries. They made trade agreements with their neighbors rather than picking up weapons and fighting over land and water and resources. They molded buildings, roads, infrastructure, systems, all to fit a future they would never live to see, that they could only guess at. And they guessed well. They guessed very well. From the vast emptiness around El Norte, we may reckon that few other ancients guessed or acted upon those guesses with nearly the accuracy and precision of ancient Norteños. We can be proud of them and proud to call them our ancestors. That is the belief.

Still, I had blood family. And all my mementos are lost in the southern dust.

It’s been a year now. Maggie is here for a celebration. She is newly widowed. (She is traditionalist enough to have been married, not merely partners.) So the festivity indoors is subdued. Mia and Lupe and many of their friends are holding the true party in the garden. I can hear them singing and laughing. Maggie and I are drinking wine and talking of age and loss. She tells me that she still dreams of her mother; she believes we all do. I do not say this, but I have not been seeing my mother in my dreams as much of late. She feels like she is fading. Maybe because I am in this place that she never knew, living a life she never could have had. Maybe it is guilt because she would have been so happy here. This place was made for her.

Suddenly there is a tumult outside the front wall. A man is shouting. It takes a few minutes before Maggie’s eyes widen and I realize the man is shouting my name. 

Isabel! Izzie! Izzie! 

I know that voice.

I go to the door and unlock the gate and there he is, my Pacheco. Perched on a cart of memories!

All my books, the heirloom china, the portrait of my parents, Mama’s chair.

“Izzy!” he cries once more before he bounds off the cart and pulls me into his long arms.

“I couldn’t find you,” he is saying into my hair, over and over. “I couldn’t find you.”

He came back south. We very likely passed each other on the north road, him traveling south by day, me north by night. He waited. But there was too little left there to wait forever. So when the spring returned, he packed a cart, traded some silver for a mule and headed north again. 

He spent many weeks searching for me, not thinking to simply go to the Registry until today. But he came back. He is here. And he brought with him my memories.

And here I sit. I have my family together. I have friends. I have a comforting home. I have a beautiful life. I want for nothing. And here I sit. Contented.

In Mama’s chair.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021