Jose Carpintero had not seen his wife for one year, but the coyote promised that she would be delivered tonight. He assumed that the smuggler picked this, the longest night of the year, for the extended darkness, but the quarter moon lit the sky like a glowing hojarascas snapped neatly in half. He watched its blue light dance on the surface of the Rio Bravo and wondered whether Maria could make shortbread cookies as good as his abuela’s.
The coyote was the same man who took all of the newly married couple’s money in exchange for shepherding only one of them safely across the border, money that they would not have had to spend if many years ago Jose had not been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was only a tradesman, after all, there to repair some rather obvious little holes in the walls and ceilings. Legitimo, he told the police, artesano, but he could not afford their bribe so they arrested him along with the unprotected hangers-on: the house staff, the low level dealers, a couple of “soldiers.”
Protesting his innocence wouldn’t matter to the border guards–only his criminal record mattered–and so paying a coyote was the only way. You go first, Maria insisted. You have a trade. What can I do? You go, and when you’ve saved enough money you send for me. And so he did, and then every day for the next year the master craftsman hiked into Eagle Pass and stood in the parking lot of the lone home improvement store, waiting for the pickup trucks to stop so that their drivers could shout or wave their fingers: I need two…I need three…Do any of you tile?…Pour concrete?…I need a framer….
Most of the work was unskilled, backbreaking labor: digging, hauling, demolishing. Rarely did Jose get a chance to use his skills, but how he earned the money needed to bring his wife across the border didn’t matter. He saved everything he could, only eating when he couldn’t stand it any longer, and sleeping under the stars during the warm months. He didn’t mind. Watching the planets chase each other across the sky reminded him of his wife. Soon she would reach him just like Saturn catches Jupiter, or she would if he just saved enough to pay the coyote.
And now he crouched in the brush near where the Rio Bravo narrowed and grew shallow, waiting in the moonlight for Maria to emerge from the rippling water. He watched many others make the crossing: a family of four, each parent carrying a child to keep them safe from the gentle current; two girls barely old enough for Quinceañera, holding hands and laughing as they waded and splashed; a single woman, the hood of her sweatshirt concealing her face but bulging around the swollen belly that caused her to wobble in the current. He watched with a mixture of fascination and anxiety as the almost comically pregnant woman breached the river, her round torso bobbing in the water like a float tied to a fishing line. As she neared the shore her shadowy face emerged from beneath the gray hood.
Jose hesitated for a moment so brief that anyone watching wouldn’t have noticed, and then he stepped from the brush and walked to the river’s edge. He extended a calloused hand and Maria took it without looking at him. Come with me, he said, and he led her to the spot where he hid the dry towel, fresh clothing, and bottled water. You are shivering. Get out of those wet clothes.
Maria was ashamed but she did as her husband asked, never averting her gaze from the shore. He rubbed her shivering body vigorously with the towel. When he touched her swollen belly something touched him back–a knee, an elbow, maybe a tiny foot or hand. Yes, it was a tiny hand reaching deep inside, feeling for his corazón.
Lo lamento, Maria whispered. Jose —
Put this on. What luck, what providence, that the only dress the mission had would have been several sizes too large for the Maria to whom he said goodbye in Piedras Negras. The fabric strained to cover her tummy but billowed against her long, olive limbs. We have a place to sleep, he said flatly, and he began to walk.
She followed behind him, exhausted from the long journey at the coyote’s vicious pace and even more merciless tongue: I have more customers to worry about than you. It is not their fault that you are a whore. Keep up or don’t, the money is already mine. She felt like a beaten pack animal with her aching feet and heavy belly, but she would not dignify the coyote’s insults then just as she would not burden her husband with complaints now. He was already carrying too much of her load on his shoulders.
They walked for an hour before Jose said there and pointed to a small cinder block shed with a tin roof and a rusty door. Before he could reach for the latch the door opened and the long black barrel of a hunting rifle emerged. Gabriel sent us. This was the English phrase that the coyote told Jose to memorize in case of trouble. Whoever was standing behind the rifle replied, but the only words that Jose could translate were “I…no Gabriel.” Jose repeated his secret phrase again. The rifle barrel waved in a “get moving” motion and the rusty door slammed closed.
The two continued down the road, sheltered by nothing but the glittering sky where the planets chased each other and the cookie moon glowed. They are just like Maria and me. No matter how close they look they are millions of miles apart, Jose thought. The pains were coming faster now, stronger. Maria could no longer hide them from her husband, but she tried. They walked for two more hours, stopping when necessary to let the spasms subside.
The smell of cattle hung in the air. Jose spotted the gates to the rancho just ahead. Can you make it that far? he asked. Si, Maria nodded. Jose knocked, and an elderly rancher swung open the heavy oak door. Gabriel sent us, Jose said.
No puedes quedarte aquí, said the rancher. You can’t stay here.
Please, we are exhausted. Gabriel said–
It has become too dangerous. The people here, they have become vigilantes–
But my wife–
They threaten to burn down our houses if we–
The baby is coming right now. Please.
The rancher looked at Maria, saw the quiet suffering in her blue eyes and the gentle way that her delicate fingers protected her swollen belly. You can use the barn, but you must be gone by morning, he said, and the big wooden door swung closed.
And there in a bed hastily fashioned from straw and surrounded by livestock Maria delivered the couple’s first child, a baby boy whom Jose would love as his own no matter the child’s conception. They looked so beautiful, mother and child. Mi familia, my family. All of his sacrifice was worth this. No, his meager sacrifice barely accounted for a fraction of what this was worth.
He needs a name, Jose whispered. It’s almost Christmas, Maria smiled. Let’s call him Jesus.
Outside the barn’s open doors Saturn kissed Jupiter, the pair bathing the world in their heavenly light. And it was good.