Congratulations to Lisa Leyenda for winning first place in fiction for the 2020 WNBA Writing Contest!
You can read Lisa’s winning entry, “The Scent of Water,” below.
The Scent of Water
The first I heard of the oasis was when Tía Rosa came back from the panadería with the Pan de Muertos. She’d heard it from Manuel the Baker while he was cutting dough before sliding conchas into the brick oven.
“Because the fire was roaring, he yelled that I should see the milagro before it disappeared. I didn’t hear much more than that. It’s his busy season.”
My mother nodded. Día de Los Muertos was a major holiday in our town; the bakery must have been doing a brisk business. I wondered about the milagro, the miracle. Manuel wasn’t one for talking big, but any body of water in our parched desert was a miracle that had to be believed. Tía Rosa smiled while laying out the breads on the altar to our relatives, the oldest being their mother, my grandmother. My mother added more flowers, lit more candles. They stood back to admire their handiwork. It was a wondrous ofrenda. Red roses, baby’s breath, and purple cockscomb from the warehouse grocery chain where my mother worked stood in jars on a freshly washed and ironed pink and orange tablecloth. My grandmother had brought it with her from Chiapas on La Bestia, the mighty freight train migrants hopped to traverse Mexico.
The other relatives being honored on the altar were my father and my brother, both killed on that same train: my father having fallen between the rail cars and crushed on the tracks; my brother having been so brutally raped he died of his injuries before we could get him aid. Their images on the ofrenda were just drawings I’d made years ago on our first Día de Los Muertos here in West Texas.
I was just a child then. My mother thinks I’m just a child now. She tells me how to dress, tells me I’m a coqueta, bound for a sad life jumping from one man’s bed to another. The candles smelled like vanilla and distracted me from my sad memories, my sad present. Their flickering blurred because of my tears.
Outside, the day was cool, clouds moved quickly across a turquoise sky and the wind whistled through the creosote shrubs. The ocotillo swayed; their tips crowned with bright flower clusters, red as blood.
I wrapped a shawl around my shoulders as my mother, Tía, and I filled the front cab of the old truck and headed out to the west side to look for the oasis. We were hungry for a milagro, a miracle.
“Manuel said to watch for the pilgrims. They’re heading out there, too.” Tía instructed.
Pilgrims, I wondered. Aloud, I asked, “Why pilgrims?”
“It’s an oasis,” Tía Rosa said. “Of course, they’re going to the oasis. None of us have ever seen an oasis before.” Silently, I counted how many times Tía said the word “oasis.” It must be a magical thing, this oasis.
November daylight is sharp and clear in the desert. Since the day was still young, the west side of the mountain was cast in shadow. Together, we searched for signs of pilgrims heading across the chaparral. The oasis was supposed to be at the base of a strange hill; strange because it was isolated from the other foothills. We called the strange hill “El Borracho” because only a drunkard would leave the safety of his brethren.
“Leave it to El Borracho to make the only water around,” my mother tittered.
“And as the drunkard he is, he will try to hold it with his fingers!” laughed my aunt.
I sat between them, rolling my eyes at their dumb jokes. The overflowing cigarette tray filled with sour butts and ashes turned my stomach. The truck belonged to my uncle Pedro, a traveling salesman who sold tools up and down the Valley, North to Socorro, and South to Ysleta. He was a chain-smoker, which my mother said helped him with his nerves. She noticed my discomfort and at the next stop, pulled the tray and dumped the foul-smelling contents out the window. I was relieved, but the ratty upholstery and cracked windshield that still remained from when that Anglo had thrown that rock were depressing.
We kept the windows rolled down to let the desert air sweep out any lingering tobacco smoke. My aunt pointed to where the desert gave way to fresh tracks. “Go that way.”
My mother obliged, bumping us over the shoulder onto the raw desert floor. Soon, we’d slowed to a crawl, the truck tilting side-to-side as it rolled over rocks, dodging several pilgrims on their knees, knees bound with cardboard and rope, who were heading to the oasis to witness the miracle.
Pray, I said silently to the struggling pilgrims, Pray because there is nothing else but to pray.
And what of it matters? I silently scolded the sky.
The sky remonstrated, You are in America now.
I jeered back, We are all Americans, all of us north or south of that stupid border line. It’s just a human construct.
We are in the United States, for whatever that’s worth. Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. This is where my Tía labors as a maid, dodging the attentions of the men of the house. This is where my mother “fell” down some stairs to rid her body of a rapist’s child. This is where the Anglo boys cornered me in the playground and pulled down my skirt. Where sometimes my aunt’s bosses forget to pay her; where my mother works three jobs; where I work after school and on weekends, so we can eat and pay rent. Teachers complain about my grades, students laugh at my clothes and call me “illegal.” My uncle has to fight to keep his tools and his truck from being stolen in front of him.
I cast back to memories of high school history class, to the stories of invasion, depredation, and disease. Here on the border, life is the same, but history class made it all sound like troubles were in the past, that our futures were bright.
Who is it bright for? I screamed inside my head.
Ha! said the sky.
I stared into its limitless blue. The sky. It is big and silent, even when it reverberates with stars. I was nudged back to the moment by my mother.
“Mija,” she said, pointing forward.
Ahead, El Borracho rose up sharply. At its base, stood beige crumbling cliffs and assorted scattered boulders. A few heavily clothed people stood around, looking down. Others were on their bound knees, praying. We parked at a discreet distance. When my mother turned off the engine, the only sound was the wind.
My Tía opened the dented, bent door. Its creaking caught the attention of some of the pilgrims, but they quickly resumed staring at the ground.
The three of us walked over to join them.
The scent of crushed creosote mixed with whiffs of exhaust tinged the air. Excitement tickled my scalp, and I held my breath as we drew closer. I was afraid to feel disappointment.
Big rocks stood over a large depression in the earth. It was like the pool in the backyard of the house my mother cleans for money. Water filled that depression to the brim, water so clear that I could see the pool’s rock- and silt-filled bottom. Now the air felt moist on my face. It was if I’d stepped into a cloud full of rain. I let the ends of my shawl fall. Tentatively, I stepped closer to the edge.
I kneeled and dipped my fingers into the water. It was cool. I raised fingers to tongue. The water was the freshest I’d ever tasted, rinsed as it was by minerals in the rock. Relief flooded my brain; this was a miracle. I wanted a cup to drink more. My mother and Tía kneeled beside me. They, too, dipped into and tasted the water.
All us pilgrims stood or kneeled, savoring the scent, letting the cool wind seep into our clothes and cleanse the stale cloying air absorbed from our shambling wooden houses or smoky workplaces. I felt like I was being baptized, like I did after putting on a new cotton dress and braiding my clean hair. I felt like I had been fully bathed with perfumed soap from the little drugstore, like when my mother toweled me down and pulled a freshly dried nightgown over my head. Or how I felt when drinking a glass of chilled horchata on a hot afternoon.
Judging from the silence of the other pilgrims, I imagined they were feeling the same sense of refreshment. My mother’s face was a wonder: lines relaxed, eyes peaceful and contemplative. The three of us leaned into one another, in a reverie from witnessing this miracle, this body of fresh water, in a parched desert that saw less than six inches of rain a year.
A flicker at the bottom of the pool caught my eye. Leaning forward slightly, I watched a minnow appear, followed by another and yet another. A tiny tendril pushed up from the silt and a faint hue of green gathered onto rocks that probably had no experience of still water. Delicate winged insects skated across the surface of the water, triggering barely perceptible ripples; the way air must be during the butterfly migration.
I’d only ever seen water in the Rio Grande, a river of extremes, extreme shortages punctuated by rare brief floods. My experience with water was of deprivation. There are places where water is plentiful, slow-moving, languorous, but I’d never seen them. Here, in our valley, it was feast or famine. Mostly famine.
A couple of pilgrims stepped away. Others took their places and bowed their heads as if in prayer. There must have been thirty of us gathered in this miraculous place. I stepped closer to the pool and closed my eyes, breathing in the heady mix of desert air acquainting itself with hydrogen. Briefly, I caught just the tiniest whiff of smoke. My eyes sprang open in alarm. What could that be from? My head filled with possibilities including the ofrenda. Had we forgotten to blow out the candles before coming to see the oasis? To ease my mind, I settled on a farmer burning trash and closed my eyes again.
The sun rose, and we removed our top layers. Despite the warmth, we still felt refreshed. I closed my eyes again. I thought, This is what heaven feels like; this is eternal spring.
Several pilgrims consulted the sun, or, if they had them, their watches. They stepped away. There was work to be done. I could hear their sighs. I glanced at my mother, fearful of an impending departure, but she sat with her eyes closed, her mouth turned into a slight smile, her shoulders relaxed, her palms open on her bent knees. Her breath was even.
A woman stepped away and then returned. I heard her murmur to my mother. I cast a brief glance back. My mother’s eyes caught mine, but she gave me a look of love. Behind her in the distance, a plume of black smoke formed. The image of our altar with its candles lit flashed back, but her look of love quelled my alarm. I faced forward again; my skin seemed to clamor for moisture. I breathed in and out. I closed my eyes. I kept them shut.
The sun crept and crept. Soon the pool of water was fully lit, and the barest signs of life grew more apparent. The tiniest baby frog hopped into the shadows of the cliff. The tendrils uncurled into fronds; the algae turned an emerald green.
And so, we sat. People stopped coming. The sun bore down and would have ordinarily driven us back into the truck to the relative comfort of our wooden house with its window unit sputtering out puffs of cooled air, smelling of mold and refrigerant. Here our noses were treated to a spa of scrubbed air.
Toward the end of the day, the sun slanted long from the west; my mother, my aunt, and I stirred. In our silence, we looked back at the truck and again at the water.
My aunt stood first. A beatific smile lit up her face. What she did next did not surprise me. She took off her dress, her socks, her shoes, everything. I’d never seen her naked before, but that fact barely registered with me. Instead, wordlessly, I watched as she dipped her foot, then stood fully in the water, her skin looked like ripples, and then she was gone. My aunt had turned into water. The level of the pond rose perceptibly.
Without comment, my mother stood and removed her clothes, leaving them beside her sister’s, and I watched as she, too, turned into water, her body like ripples and then gone. The water level rose higher.
I considered my choice only briefly because what were my mother and aunt leaving exactly? A brief glance back at our little town, the dilapidated truck, the distant smell of smoke and mold and dust. I stood and worked to remove my clothing, the jeans, the concert T-shirt, the tongue piercing, the thumb ring. I, too, took a step into the pool of water. I, too, felt the silt soft against my toes, and I watched my legs and arms as they shimmered, then rippled, and turned into water. I felt so clean, so clear, refreshed by the minerals of the earth. And then I joined my mother and my aunt in the depths of the water; the level rising a bit more.
And so it was. The pool grew bigger and deeper. More pilgrims joined us in the clear suspension of time, joined us in feeling forever clean, forever fresh and full.
A recovering lawyer, Lisa Leyenda writes with her storytelling, gun-toting ancestors whispering in her ear. Raised primarily in El Paso, Texas by a German-Texan mother and a Colombian immigrant father, Leyenda’s work is rooted in the magical but gritty borderlands of the US and Mexico. Leyenda currently resides in another borderland, Appalachian Eastern Ohio near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She lives with her husband, and when not tending the family ofrenda, communes with the birds outside her window. Leyenda was a 2020 finalist in the Malahat Review Open Season Awards.
View the list of all of the 2020 WNBA Writing Contest winners.