December 2013

Dust

     His name was José, after his dad, but everyone called him Little Joe, because they already called his dad Joe. And he was pretty little; he was scrawny where both of his brothers were beefy. So he supposed Little Joe was as good a name as any.
     His brothers weren’t there at the moment, though. It was Little Joe and his dad and his Tío Marcel and his cousins Berto and Michael. There were a couple of other men there, too, but Joe was still little and he couldn’t quite remember their names.
     They were all smushed inside the old truck. Every part of him was touching someone else; his shoulders pressed against his cousins, his right leg was propped up so that his foot jabbed into his dad’s hip, his left leg was stretched out across the foot of one of the men he didn’t know. The truck bounced and lurched along the rocky road, and would have sent all of its passengers flying if there had only been enough empty air.
     It wasn’t comfortable, but Little Joe didn’t mind. He was glad they’d let him come along. He liked spending time with the men, with their rough jokes and rougher faces. He liked the laughter and companionship. He liked the low burr of their voices when they spoke Spanish.
     He wasn’t sure if he liked the story. Michael was trying to tell him where they were going. Apparently ‘Buela Concha had had a sister that no one knew about, because she’d died, and now everyone wanted to find her.
     “She was beautiful,” Michael said, tilting his head towards Little Joe. “The prettiest girl in a hundred miles.”
     “Red hair,” Tío Marcel added. “She had red hair.”
     “Lots of long red hair,” Michael continued. “Like fire!” He wiggled his fingers like flames, making Joe laugh.
     “Like I said—the prettiest girl in Texas.” Little Joe thought someone had told him once that Texas was hundreds of miles across, not just one hundred, but maybe he was wrong. “And there was a man in town who fell in love with her. Really, really fell in love with her. He wanted to marry her.”
     This was when Little Joe decided maybe this was a boring story. This sounded like something his sister would like, but not him, because he was a boy. Kissing stories were for girls.
     Michael wasn’t done yet, even though Little Joe made a really big yawn to show him how boring this story had become. “The problem was that she didn’t want to marry him.”
     He leaned down so his face was closer to Joe’s. “He got very angry, this man. He decided that, since she didn’t want to marry him, she couldn’t marry anyone.”
     Michael’s voice had gotten very quiet. The story wasn’t so dull anymore, and Little Joe’s eyes were now stuck to his cousin’s face like gum.
     “He asked her to marry him one last time,” Michael whispered. “He took her to the woods, to a pretty meadow with flowers and shade. But she still said no. So… he stabbed her!”
     He clapped his hands together as he shouted the last sentence. Little Joe could not help but jump and gasp, feeling his heart leap up into his throat. Baritone laughter flowed out of the open windows, and Joe blushed at his fright. His little arms folded tightly across his chest.
     Berto managed to free his arm from the tangle of bodies packed into the cab and sling it around Joe’s shoulders. “It’s all right, primito, Mike’s just messing with you.”
     Little Joe looked up at his cousin. “So it’s not true?”
     “No, it’s true,” said Big Joe. “Mom told us where she’s buried. We’re going to move her, so she can rest with her family.”
     “What happened to the man?”
     This time one of the other men answered. “He killed himself, right then and there.”
     The wind was the only thing that spoke for the rest of the ride. It wasn’t long; soon the driver was pulling over, and the men were piling out.
     Tío Marcel pointed out the spot, and dirt began to fly. Little Joe kept out of the way after a lump of it caught him in the face. Wiping his streaming eyes, he moved to the side, crouched, and waited.
     The digging took a long time. Bored, Little Joe began to play in the dust, sifting dry dirt through his fingers and drawing pictures. First, they were just lines, but after a while he noticed that they looked like a woman with long hair. Quickly, he rubbed the image back into dust.
     Finally, Joe found something. His son stuck his head over the hole and saw a box, a big, old, wooden box. Carefully, his cousins and the men he didn’t know lifted the coffin and set it back on top of the ground.
     The air felt thicker now. There was a solemnity in it that Little Joe wasn’t quite old enough to understand, though he still felt it. Calmly, his dad stepped forwards and pried open the lid.
     Little Joe, since he was so little, was able to squeeze to the front of the group as the box was opened. For an instant, he saw the old face, atop the remains of a dress, and the vivid flash of a cloud of bright red hair. The woman had been preserved almost perfectly in decades of South Texas heat.
     Then the fresh air hit her, and the instant was over. Her body dissolved into dust, even her flaming red hair.

—Rachel Wesson

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