This Is a Haunted House Story—But Not the Kind You've Read Before

Kali Fajardo-Anstine
Photo credit: David Trood - Getty Images
Photo credit: David Trood - Getty Images

From Oprah Magazine

Author Lorrie Moore once said, “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage.” With Sunday Shorts, OprahMag.com invites you to join our own love affair with short fiction by reading original stories from some of our favorite writers

A finalist for the National Book Award in 2019, Kali Fajardo-Anstine's first fiction collection, Sabrina & Corina, unearthed the lives of contemporary indigenous Latina women in the American West. The stories are lush, unvarnished, and breathtaking--fitting for the landscape among which many of them are set.

Photo credit: Temi Oyeyola
Photo credit: Temi Oyeyola

In "The Yellow Ranch," a photography grad student named Tasha accepts a mysterious invitation—offered to her by a wise and handsome professor—to stay and work at El Rancho Amarillo, a secluded adobe house in Colorado's San Luis Valley. There, she hopes to reconnect with her indigenous heritage, but what seems too good to be true usually is.

A creeping sense of dread pervades the first half of this story before shifting to full-on terror. Fajardo-Anstine deftly upends the tropes of a haunted house narrative while weaving together a frightening fable of exploitation.

"The Yellow Ranch"

“But is the house really haunted?” Tasha asked Arturo, leaning over a chrome café table, a metal glow lightening her eyes. They were in Boulder, a desolate patio on Pearl Street. He was visiting for only a few days.

“It was,” Arturo said and let out a clipped laugh. He wasn’t wearing his wedding band and was husky in designer denim and mall cashmere. “I had the cleansing done by a local woman, Lucille Mestas. She described it thoroughly, how the house held unrested spirits, a little girl, she had said, attached herself to me.”

“Horrible,” Tasha said. “I don’t know if I can stay in a haunted house.”

“It’s just an old house now,” he said. “All the spirits are gone.”

He drank a cappuccino from a white cup, trailing his upper lip with foam. Tasha ran her index finger along her own lip. Arturo grinned, dabbing a paper napkin to his mouth of pretty bright teeth. He appeared much younger than fifty-two, early forties at most. Tasha thought there should be a word for the way he made her feel, but she found too many at once, and so she settled on pulled.

She then asked with seriousness, “It’s safe, right? I’ll be OK alone?”

“Not just safe,” he told her. “It’s sacred. People are different down there. You’ll see.”

*

El Rancho Amarillo spanned hundreds of acres, tall dark fields dotted with distant porch lights and the shining backs of cattle, an adobe home nesting like a brown pearl at its center. The house has stood for over seventy years, sighing and shifting mud walls into muddier earth. The land originally belonged to his grandmother’s family while the house was designed by Arturo Lobato’s paternal grandfather, Francisco Torres Lobato, the adobe bricks molded by the hands of his two small daughters. When Tasha first heard this story, she felt the house was built, in some way, piece by piece, by its women, and she wondered why Arturo hadn’t mentioned any of their names.

She had accepted the invitation to visit El Rancho Amarillo after Professor Arturo Lobato, Distinguished R. F. Morley Chair of Architecture at Cornell University, delivered a guest lecture on her campus.

Tasha was a first-year MFA student at the University of Colorado, studying photography and multimodal narratives. Attend at least one art talk outside your discipline, stated her Ideation in Photo Representation syllabus. She had no interest in architecture, but the talk fit her Thursday schedule and on that mild spring morning as Arturo Lobato took the stage in that small black auditorium, standing erect with a potbelly above pressed denim, Tasha was surprised to find him handsome. He spoke on indigenous architecture and the historical significance of building with earth, noting that his theoretical work was profoundly influenced by his childhood in an isolated alpine valley of Southern Colorado, a portion of the state which had once been Mexico. Tasha wiped her fingers along her jeans until, meekly, she raised her hand, wanting to know more about this valley.

“San Luis,” Arturo said swiftly.

“It’s just, my own grandma was born there. A town called Saguarita.”

“Ah,” he said, “you’re a Manita.”

Afterward, students descended the auditorium stairs, they rushed the exists in backpack mass, Tasha among them when she felt a shock—a hand around her wrist, the dampness of touch, gold wedding ring, brown leather watchband, and those white-flecked nailbeds that people often said were a sign of some deficiency.

“I’d love to learn about your background.” It was Arturo, vivid. “Shall we get coffee?”

Tasha peered upward, keeping her eyes halfway hidden beneath clumped-mascara. “Now?”

Arturo ordered their drinks, paid, and selected their seats—outside, away from others, cherry blossoms blowing through the air. What was she was studying? Could he see her work? What a fine eye for detail. She should have applied to the ivies, a shoo-in. Tasha lowered her gaze as she smiled, felt warmth in his attention. They stayed on the patio a long while as violet-blue dusk seeped into the brick road. Tasha searched her iPhone photos for a Día de los Muertos altar, paper marigolds and brass baby shoes, an installation on the cement floor of a Denver gallery named Redline. “For my Grandma Luisa,” she finally said, revealing her screen to Arturo and leaning forward. “She left the San Luis Valley in the 1960s.”

“We could be cousins,” Arturo teased. “But I’m not related to any Espinosas. Not that I know of, at least.” He scooted his chair close. He smelled of pine. “Do you know much about the Valley?”

Tasha shrugged in a kind of shame. When her grandmother was still alive, she had emphysema and an old Southern Colorado Spanish accent, making it difficult for Tasha to understand her tales of that dreamlike region to the south. “Not really,” she said. “But I’ve wanted to visit.”

Arturo’s invitation was presented then, as if awaiting its summons. “You’ll get to see where you come from,” he suggested. “Or at least some of you.”

*

“Like a retreat?” her best friend Chantel had said later that week over brunch mimosas at a restaurant called Quartz, in Denver. Chantel was a coordinator at a youth non-profit on the Westside. She had a loud, hoarse voice and always dressed in black. Earlier they had hiked Table Mountain, still drunk from the night before, smoking weed along the path. Tasha had photographed volcanic rocks and wildflowers. Stretching against a trailhead sign, arms high in neon sleeves, she had gazed east through a smoggy veil at Denver’s skyline.

“Or is he trying to fuck you?” Chantel said abruptly.

Tasha looked to the restaurant’s dirty floor. “Rude.”

“Do you want to?”

She made a face, exaggerated offense. “He’s old.”

“And married,” said Chantel. “And the Chair of some fancy Department. What an asshole.” She gulped the last of her clear-ish yellow drink, more champagne than orange juice, her tarantula-like eyelash extensions flapped over her freckled cheeks. “Will anyone else be there? Will he be there?”

“No,” Tasha said with resolve. “I’ll be alone. It’s fine. Just a few days.”

“Who the hell is this guy? The wizard of OZ?”

*

She arrived in the dark, parking her red Camry in the dirt drive and slamming the trunk. Tasha dragged her hard-shelled suitcase over mushy ground, languidly, as if the land had reached up, gripping her ankles. At the dim door, her back to a seemingly endless field, Tasha pried cakey mud from the soles of her black sneakers with a long white stick. Great, she said entering the house and flipping on the lights. Mud had spread from her shoes to her hands and across her leggings. She was filthy cold, and The Yellow Ranch, as she called it, was stoically silent, smelling of soil and coal.

All of it—the long main room with a cast iron stove, the walled kitchen sink with a string of twinkly lights, and those barren lopsided bedrooms flanked on either side. Everything seemed dusted in night, lonely, unlived-in. The furniture was an odd mix of 1960s wooden chairs and southwestern inspired West Elm rugs. There was a record player, shelves of old books, and Chicano Power posters, mounted and framed, from the 1970s. The only original art was a triangular God’s Eye woven in green and blue yarn. Ojo de Dios, her Grandma Luisa had once said, keeps an eye on the dead.

That night, after two glasses of Yellow Tail and half a joint labeled Black Hole, Tasha got into bed and posted a photo on Instagram. It was the county road she had driven in on, the cottonwood trees blurred and ridged, gravel varied in headlights, a long dirt way, lonesome and dark. Tasha saturated the image, captioning it, Blue Velvet, and she wasn’t surprised when Arturo soon messaged.

u arrived

It’s nice… so far. :)

good. u deserve nice. btw, thanks again

for what?

last night, my stunning subject

Tasha winced, remembering the photo. She had cropped her face, and that had to count for something. He had asked, slipped the request into a text as if inquiring about the weather. It was an old one, topless and taken for herself over floral sheets but Tasha lied, told Arturo— Just. For. You. Mindlessly, she tapped to like his last message. Tasha was high now, recalibrated with weed. She tossed her phone across the patchwork quilt and then switched off the lamp, the darkness heavy, rich, as if sleeping underground.

*

Tasha Nicole Espinosa Spencer was depressed, but it wasn’t always this way. Sometimes it felt like the entire universe was powered by an affectionate current, running from sky to earth and into each person’s veins. It was better than being drunk or stoned and only matched occasionally by sex. But these moments were rare, and for a long while, Tasha had been adrift. For the two years between college and graduate school, Tasha worked for a tech start-up, selling ad space to real estate companies while sitting in a cubicle on the dreary 5th floor of a glass and steel high rise, overlooking the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art. The day Tasha was laid off, she was standing at the window, the coolness of the view emanating onto her skin, when her supervisor, a white woman from Indiana or was it Ohio, asked to speak with her privately.

“Do you like that sculpture,” Tasha had said before turning around, her breath fogging the glass. “The one outside the museum, the dagger through the heart? A little cartoonish, huh?”

She was only twenty-six, but she wondered about dying, the finality of it. During her time at the start-up, Tasha used dating apps. She photographed well, her lips naturally plump, her eyes deep mournful pools. There were many matches. Tasha got drunk and met men who had recently moved to Denver and lived off their generational wealth in loft apartments. They smelled of musky soaps, new cars, metallic snow, and expensive booze. One crushed her during sex, laid across her body with all his weight, a tall man over six feet. She had sputtered and gasped for air, and wondered for a moment if this is how it felt to die.

*

“How do you like it so far?” Arturo asked over Facetime audio.

“No cell service is weird, but thank God for Wi-Fi.” Tasha stood at the stove, scrambling eggs with salt and pepper, sipping her coffee black. El Rancho Amarillo was airy with open windows, the sheer curtains breathing a sage-scented breeze. Sunflowers blanketed the nearby fields and Tasha imagined napping beneath their sunny petals.

“The house has nice energy,” she said after some time.

“Any spirits visit you in the night?”

Tasha laughed, lowering the stove’s flame. “Thankfully, no. I did have a weird dream, though.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes,” she said, scooping her eggs onto a white dish. “I dreamed an owl was looking at me through the bedroom window.”

“Maybe it wasn’t a dream.” Arturo teased. “Maybe it was real.”

“No,” she laughed. “Because it was hovering.” Tasha set her breakfast on the long cedar table. “Like a hummingbird.”

Arturo asked how the dream ended, and Tasha knew he wasn’t fully listening, anyway.

“It was the strangest thing. The house closed the curtains, just shut its own blinds.”

*

That afternoon Tasha drove into town. Four miles over the country road through farmland rows of lettuce and wheat, and something else. Barley. She studied the fields, abandoned barns and adobe school houses, grooved waterlines of the acequias, those irrigation ditches of the former Spanish Colonies. She thought to return later to take photographs. Each farm house was miles from another, and Tasha couldn’t imagine living with so much space, a dizzying reminder of inconsequence. She wondered about her Grandma Luisa as she passed the oldest church in Colorado, Our Lady of Guadalupe, with its bright Spanish doors and double brick towers, a marble statue of La Virgen at its center. There were a lot girls I knew, she once said, covering the tracheostomy hole in her throat with her right index finger, who never got to leave, the land had a way of trapping.

Tasha ended up at The Green House, hot springs housed inside a metal hangar at the base of the Great Sand Dunes, overlooking the impressive National Park. As a little girl during catechism, she had learned about Lot’s nameless wife and Tasha imagined the massive white dunes were piles of salt clear to the blue sky. She swam in a vintage black bikini through the mineral rich pools, coming up for air on the far end of the springs and resting her head upon her hands against the stone ledge. There were several pools of different temperatures and sizes. It was busy. Locals, she imagined, and some white tourist families on National Park road trips. Flashes of ancient tattoos faded and winked among freckles and moles. Tasha wondered if she looked out of place, especially as a woman. She was small and noticeable, and most everyone else was partnered or grouped.

The hot springs were decorated in neon lights and subtropical plants, a tiki bar served box wine and beer and $2 U-Call-Its. Tasha lay across a woven beach chair and sifted through the books she had brought from the ranch library. The first was The San Luis Valley: Ghosts, Legends, and UFOs, a 1990s paperback written in a mixture of old Southern Colorado Spanish and academic jargon. Tasha made it through the introduction before moving onto another book. She had laughed upon seeing it on the shelf. Dr. Seuss, The Lorax, and the cover immediately reminded Tasha of a time she was often trying to remember, filling her mind with images and sounds from the past. Tasha was interested in memories and the Valley felt familiar, though she had never spent time there before. Maybe if a people have been somewhere for hundreds of years, that place, and its memories, is part of them.

“I prefer his later work,” said a crisp male voice. He stood against the garage light, shirtless and smiling, a nice build with red swim trunks. He held a can of Tecate with specks of lime pulp down his thumb.

Tasha placed the open book over her stomach, feeling naked speaking to a stranger while in a bikini. “A true fan,” she said.

“Hell yes,” the man said, lowering himself into the pool before Tasha’s feet. He was now eye-level to her legs. He was close enough, Tasha thought, that he could reach out from the water and touch her ankles.


Oh, The Places You’ll Go. A Classic,” he said. “Perfect gift for quinceañera, graduations, funerals.”

Tasha laughed and sat up straight, tucking her legs together and placing the book across her lap. “Quite the range.”

“It’s a life cycle, baby.” He laughed and dunked his face under water, coming up in a tremor of waves, his striking smile gleaming, his black hair shiny blue.

He told her his name was Marcus Quintana, and that he was a diesel mechanic nearby in Alamosa, born in Capulin. “You’re a city girl,” he said. “I see your manicure. Get it.”

Tasha pretended to ignore him, drifting back into her book, smirking between the pages.

“You know,” Marcus said from the water, “I didn’t want to tell you what happens in the end, but I heard he speaks for the trees.”

Tasha looked up from her book. She laughed. “As if they can’t speak for themselves.”

“Exactly,” said Marcus. “That’s why I want you to come with me to the tiki bar.”

Tasha rolled her eyes. She asked what he meant.

“Tell that nice lady what you’d like to drink.”

*

His black Silverado tugged at sunset along the two-lane highway. Tasha followed Marcus in her Camry, the windows down, hay-scented warmth of oncoming night moving through her hair. She was listening to the radio, country music, old Rihanna songs, snippets of faraway voices discussing something about wolves in Colorado and then something about sheep. Ridiculous. What she was doing wasn’t rational, but it didn’t matter because it was summertime and it was late but it was still light out and everything was beautiful and open against the green fields.

They pulled into town, a bar called the Broken Bluff with a red sign, a horse standing on a mesa outlined in bulb lights, many gone dark. The town was a single road with a post office, a small library, a diner, few scattered bars and hair salons. The near-empty parking lot was tinged a grayish night, and an old carwash sign, in the shape of a blue metal cloud, hovered over them, squeaking in the dry wind. By now the sun was fully set. They stood together against Marcus’ pickup bed, smoking Marlboro Reds and sipping from his thermos, this one filled with 1800, backup, he had said, for the flask of Jim Beam he kept in the dash. Tasha tipped her head back, swallowing the liquid warmth down her throat and into her belly. She licked her lips, felt happier and sexier standing there looking out at the parking lot, quiet as a church, Tasha wondered why she couldn’t feel this way always.

“Thanks for coming with me,” she said, taking a drag. “I didn’t think you’d want to drive this far into town.”

“My old stomping grounds. Besides,” he said, brushing his hand along the top of Tasha’s. That electric rush moved between them, lodging itself in Tasha’s center. “Look at this night. I’d drive through this night forever. Quiet,” he said. “Nice,” he said.

A silver Grand Prix pulled into the parking lot then. It drove in a wide circle, the windows down, and for a moment Tasha caught the gaze of a little girl in the front seat. Her dark hair blended into the interior and her ghost-like eyes followed Tasha until the car pulled back onto the highway, retreating in a blur of taillights. Marcus tossed what was left of his cigarette after them in a burning arch. He cupped Tasha’s hand in his, and kissed her left temple, his saliva over her skin a little too cold as they headed inside, moving quickly to the bar.

“Whatever you’d like,” he said, and Tasha pushed forward on her tippy toes against the old-timey wooden bar, the back mirror webbed around a bullet hole. At the jukebox, Neil Young’s "Cortez the Killer" played beneath the scattered sports sounds of distant TVs.

“Tequila,” she chirped. “A double with coke.”

First, red. The vinyl booths, the carpet, the mirrored walls, the bottles of scotch, the register, the bathroom stall, the sinks, the back door, the front door, the pickup truck’s seats, the mats on the floor, the lines she imagined on the dirt road, the inside of her eyelids against the bedroom light.…………. Then white. Amarillo, the ranch’s earthen walls, the soil smell, teeth in the night, the undershirt, the boxers, the shine of the silver crucifix around his neck, how it moved forward and back…..as he moved inside and out? And then there was dark,…………. black, the feeling of sleeping with no one………….. ………Alone……… She reached through the sheets and her fingertips grazed the chilled adobe……………………………….

walls………………………………………………………………………………………………………and she rested like that, keeping her hand there, remembering in some distant part of her brain that she ……………………………………………………………………………..

was……………………………………………………………………………………

..…..….steadied, grounded,………………………………………………………………………

that the world was not tipping on its side and dropping itself inside into nothingness…………….

Please, she groaned to no one, and thought she had remembered saying no.

*

“Do you know there are people who don’t black out?” Chantel had once told her at a Lodo bar called the Giggling Grizzly. They were celebrating it being a Thursday. They were newly twenty-one. “Like they drink and never ever have regrets.”

“Must be nice,” Tasha had said with genuine surprise. “That’s the ultimate in good genes.”

“I know, right? So many bad things happen while I’m drunk. I lose jewelry, I spend all my money, I give my number to anyone.”

“Yeah,” Tasha said. “All the bad things happen while I’m drinking.”

“But I mean, I’m not gonna quit.”

Chantel laughed. They both did. They laughed until Tasha had tears in her eyes.

*

Tasha woke up at five in the morning—still drunk and still dark, as if she had entered endless night. She only wore a t-shirt, and it was on backwards and inside out. She was surprised and disgusted to find cold vomit beside the toilet. Was it even hers? The front door was unlocked and it felt as though the adobe walls themselves were disappointed in her, pitying her as some broken daughter of the house.

In bed, Tasha pulled the patchwork quilt over her head, hiding from the home. She couldn’t remember most of the night. But her body ached, her legs, abdomen, mouth and breasts, everything was tender, harmed—that’s how Tasha knew she had had sex. She needed to drive over an hour into Alamosa for Plan B, and she’d have to make an appointment to get tested. Tasha thought to call the university women’s clinic then, but there was a time, several months ago, she had slept with an old boyfriend when he visited Denver for the weekend. Tasha was mortified, when weeks after his visit, she tested positive for chlamydia. “No big deal,” Chantel had said. “It’s literally antibiotics.” But the nurse had said something to Tasha over the phone that made her want to die: “This kind of thing doesn’t need to happen. You could take better care of your body. Aren’t you in graduate school?”

Tasha smoked a joint, the dusty curtains drawn, filtered daylight painful on her swollen face. After some time, she staggered to the kitchen sink and drank water from her cupped hands, the liquid spilling over her bottom lip and onto her neck. She took too many Tylenol, but it all came up anyway and Tasha lay there, nauseous and pained, searching his name on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google. Nothing. A fake, and it served her right. She cried at this, heaving tears, wetting her sheets and pillows.

After some time, Tasha tried Arturo over Facetime audio.

“I can’t talk right now,” he said when he answered.

Tasha breathed. She mutely cried. “I just—.”

“Not now,” he said. “I’m with my family.”

He hung up then, and Tasha went back to bed, groggy with embarrassment, wishing she could escape herself. Are you fucking kidding me? Chantel had said years earlier. They were having breakfast in a small diner on the Northside, neither had an appetite. Yellow eggs and brown toast rested over plastic plates. Tasha, there’s a word for what he did. But Tasha shook her head. She teared up and dripped into her coffee. No, she said, this was different. The shame made her sleep that time, too.

Tasha woke up hours later, the day all but gone. Her car, she realized, was still at the Broken Bluff, and so methodically, painfully, she dressed herself for a long walk.

*

The county road and barbed wire fences lined the desert like a palm. The valley floor was high and wide, bordered by far-off snowy peaks and blue mesas. At the horizon, where sight edged into air, a white pickup truck stirred a halo of dust, as if the sky midway decided to rain dirt. Tasha passed few adobe farm houses, cottonwood trees along ditches, the slithering and bleak body of a bull snake shuffling into the grass. She marched with a stolid expression, her face knotted in perseverance, her dark eyes held in a squint and her mouth fixed in a sweaty line. She tried to think of nothing, repeatedly moved her thoughts to the dirt road. There was eventually a dead bird, a baby owl, stretched out in the road, cruciform in infant wings. Tasha stopped and turned toward a patch of mailboxes. She leaned with her left arm into the post, vomiting into the grass.

The road felt infinite, a flowing dirt path, too warm for late day. Tasha considered turning back, starting again the next morning, but she forced herself to keep walking. She could do it. She had walked further before. Sophomore year of high school, Tasha’s mother had taken her to a dermatologist appointment in the suburbs. Tasha accidentally locked the keys in her mother’s minivan. She screamed at Tasha in the parking lot, told her that she was always distracted, always lazy. Tasha cried then. She felt worthless, a way she felt often. When her mother went inside to wait for the locksmith, Tasha began walking home. She had underestimated the distance by several miles and walked alongside 72nd Avenue for what felt like hours. It grew dark. Cars honked and men hurled insults and trash from their windows. They yelled slut and bitch, someone even shouted cunt. Tasha intermittently ran, afraid to be dragged into a truck bed. When she arrived home, past dinner time, aching and shivering, her mother slapped her. What was wrong her? Did she want to get raped?

“You could have picked me up,” she had said. “You didn’t even try to find me.”

*

Homes began to group, three or four trailers on a tire-filled lot. A water tower appeared over high trees and Main Street was within sight. Tasha wiped her sweaty face with the end of her black t-shirt. She thought of her grandmother, buried near Denver, and wondered if she had walked to school like this as a little girl, zigzagging over dirt roads, tucked into the desert, hidden from the major byways of the world.

Pieces of the night came to Tasha as she walked. They laughed, sitting together at the long cedar table in the kitchen. They smoked cigarettes, overlooking the cattle in the dark. A chorus of moos. It wasn’t that bad, she tried telling herself. She would have preferred to have been present, that’s all. Tasha cried then and bent forward, forcing her hands across her thighs. She readied herself to be sick, but there was nothing left to puke. Far above her in the sky, hawks tilted in flight and the sunflowers, sprinkled throughout the fields, lowered their golden heads, as if they saw nothing at all.

They arrived in silence then, padded sneakers upon the earth. A whole grouping dressed in white. They came from behind Tasha carrying images of the Virgin Mary draped over tall wooden sticks. They were all ages, children, grandparents, young people with ringless fingers. Tasha stood tall and watched as they moved around her like a stream. She was swallowed by the group of twenty or so religious pilgrims. She had seen processions before, in Denver, devout Catholics sometimes walked into the mountains to visit sacred shrines. They walked the dirt road rhythmically in solitary unison. They prayed, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. Tasha didn’t know if she should adjust her pace, cross the road and walk beside them, going in the same direction separately. A woman turned around, looked deeply into Tasha’s eyes. She wore brilliant green humming bird earrings that flickered with fading light. “Pray with us, jita.”

Tasha thought to say no, but didn’t want to seem rude, and so instinctively, she nodded, stepping into the crowd.

They had come from San Luis, a town some 40 miles west, deep in the valley. Starting at dawn, the pilgrims descended the Stations of the Cross from the high mount overlooking the entire region. Tasha told them that her favorite station was Jesus’ second fall, though she had no idea why she had a favorite station in the first place. The people smiled at her. They asked why she was in the Valley, and Tasha told them that she was an artist. “I’m visiting my ancestors,” she said, surprising herself. The pilgrims told her that it was special, to be able to create is special. They were on their way to Our Lady of Guadalupe and they carried water and fruit, granola bars tucked into fanny packs. They offered Tasha some, and she ate with enjoyment. They felt like warmth and they whispered to one another, cooing.

“We’re going to visit the sacred crown, a miracle,” said a little girl with pink ribbons in her braided black hair.

An old man whispered that the church had nearly burned down twice. “But each time,” he said. “God protected La Virgen. She wears a crown of smoke now. She is indestructible.”

“Don’t you get tired along the way?” Tasha asked.

The woman in the humming bird earrings nodded, they floated around her. “Weakness opens us up to grace.”

They arrived together in town, crossing train tracks, marching over dirty steel. At a fork in the road, Tasha said that she must turn away now. They embraced her. They smelled of sweat and stones and told her that she was welcome to pray with them anytime. Tasha’s car was in the distance, glinting in the dusky bar parking lot, indestructible, she thought, walking off on her own.

*

In the days after the unwelcome visitor, the young woman used more of the rooms, opened all the windows and doors. She aligned with the walls, blurred into the corners, as if built of the same earth. “It’s fine that you don’t want to talk to me,” she spoke. “It’s distracting anyway. I’m not able to focus on making art. But I want you to know, Arturo,” she said, peering through the window above the sink, in the distance beyond her shoulders, a cemetery. “I’m not just some dumb girl.”

She moved about the house, speaking and sleeping and eating and drinking. She had tendencies and tastes, a left around the table instead of a right, one water glass, rinsed each time, drying on the rack. She walked the fields in the mornings and rested in the afternoons, napped with books beside her bed. At night, she kicked the quilt and ground her teeth. When she spoke, her voice often changed. Sometimes, as if reciting her thoughts, a low tone, unadorned. But other times, she cussed and laughed loudly. And other times still, she was meek and somber. “It’s just, I have a lot to work on. But I’m glad I got to see this place, this land I come from.” She went to say more, but all that came out was, “Bye now, Arturo. Thank you, I guess?”

The young woman had a sadness that went very deep, a well connected to a spring. But it was a pleasurable sorrow with the capacity for great feeling, a rare gift, and the house had encountered it before. The girls’ names were Teresa and Anita, and they had played in the fields, bristling in colorful dresses and strict braids. When they molded the bricks outside in the merciless sun, they laughed and told jokes in two languages, Spanish and English, and were often scolded by their father. “Back to work, no laying about, no laughing, either.” Anita was the first to spit, a clear glistening speckle of salvia. Teresa followed with a phlegmy rush. They took turns spitting into the adobe, laughing at their naughtiness, rubbing the gritty clay between their fingers, pinching at the straw.

*

From afar the girl’s jacket caught what little light illuminated the land. Some ways down the dirt road, she walked the edges of the ditch with Our Lady of Guadalupe in blue against her back. Foolish, the old man thought, when it’s about to rain. In the distance veins of lightning spread over the mesas like a sky of shattered glass. As he pulled alongside the girl, he saw that she was older than he originally thought, very pretty and looked somewhat Spanish and Indian, though, like his own grandchildren, appeared to be a mixture of many things. He drove beside her for several seconds until she removed the white dangling cords from her ears and with a look of horror, acknowledged his presence with a stifled wave.

The old man rolled down his passenger side window. “Hello,” he said.

“Hello,” the girl said, quickly without making eye contact.

“It’s about to storm,” he said. “Are you just out walking?”

The girl heisted for a moment, and the old man knew she must be scared.

“I was on my way to the graves, to visit my people.” He held up a fistful of wildflowers, a small stuffed bear. “This one’s for the baby.”

“I’m on my way there, too,” the girl said after some time.

“Pretty far,” he told her, “Another twenty-five minutes and by then you’ll be soaked. Want a ride?”

Tasha entered the truck oddly without any fear. She’d never done something like this before, but the old man seemed gentle, the way kindness spreads from certain people. They drove without the radio on, the only sounds coming from the gravel and rocks spitting up from the ground and into the truck’s undercarriage. The old man said his name was Joseph, and he was born in San Luis on the floor of his parents’ adobe ranch in the 1940s. He asked Tasha if she was visiting family, and she lied, saying that she was staying at her cousin’s ranch, the Lobatos.

“I just arrived the other day,” she said.

“Those Lobatos,” he said, and for a moment went silent. “When we were kids, I was in love the eldest daughter, Teresa. She was a good woman. Gone now.”

Tasha let out a sad sigh. She asked about the other sister.

“Anita,” he said. “Haven’t thought of her in ages. Left as soon as she could. Just married and got out. But I heard he wasn’t a good guy. She was back often.”

Tasha gazed at the land, as if it were alive, some part of its soil and rock embedded in her DNA. It felt like looking into her mother’s eyes, like embracing her grandmother, all the women she had ever loved. They soon came to a grouping of trailers, their metal sides dented and torn. It had started to drizzle by now, and the trailers’ metal siding blurred into the haze, as if leaking into the air.

They arrived at the cemetery, working together to unlatch the chains around the cattle gate. Tasha helped carry the stuffed bear and flowers from the truck while the old man lifted tools from the back—sheers, a gardening shovel. They stepped past a hand-painted that sign that warned against rattle snakes. The snake looked like a petroglyph. When Tasha asked if it was safe, the old man laughed.

“Snakes all over this land. I don’t know why they’re warning the dead.”

“Do you know much about that land over there, El Rancho Amarillo,” Tasha asked.

The old man shook his head. “We don’t call it that. That’s the Hernandez.”

“But the family—”

“That’s the grandmother’s name, the name of her people.”

“Her maiden name,” Tasha said.

The old man shrugged. “I used to sheep herd around all these hills. All these bluffs. Up into those mountains. All of it. Motherland, if nothing else.”

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