(El callejón del beso)
The full moon bathed the auburn terra cotta shingles in its silvered light from her perch in the firmament. Below, the two young lovers stood on opposing balconies less than a foot apart over a narrow cobbled alley of a Spanish colonial mining town.
Doña Carmen pushed him away, and Don Luis opened his eyes as from a drunken stupor. His hands gripped the black curlicued wrought-iron fencing of his balcony, and the returned circulation of reality tingled his sleeping mind. “What’s the matter?” he asked looking up at her, standing behind the amber stucco balustrade.
“I’m cold. I want to put something on.”
She was right. The air had chilled in in the past two hours. The climate in Guanajuato could shift without warning. Clouds would cover the sky within minutes.
His gaze pursued her through the honeycombed latticework that filled the balusters of the balcony. They had met at her father’s silver mine the previous month. She visited to bring her father lunch. Not knowing her way, she got lost, and he’d escorted her to her father’s office. On the way, they talked of Guanajuato, of the mine, but mostly they talked of their shared dream of escaping the sleepy Spanish colony–and its ubiquitous silver mines. When her father found them talking, he scolded Don Luis for wasting time with his daughter. Nevertheless, before she left that day, Doña Carmen made a point to seek him out and thank him again for his guidance.
Determined to see her again, Don Luis followed her father home a few days later with hopes of catching another glimpse. Standing on the Calle de Patrocinio San Cristóbal in front of her house, he waited late that night. A storm came and passed, and he stood in the rain–waiting. Then not long before the Basilica bell rang midnight, after the storm had blown over and skies had cleared, she appeared on the eastern balcony. She stood there for moments that felt like hours. He had almost worked up the courage to approach the balcony from the street below, against his better judgement. No sooner than his foot had taken that first step onto the cobbled street to cross, however, someone appeared. Opposite Doña Carmen, from the other house, an elderly gentleman appeared on a small, nondescript balcony just below hers. The man was carrying a basket covered with the kind of kitchen towel with which one might cover bread or fruit.
“Señorita, buenas noches. I thought I heard your steps.” Don Luis was at least a hundred feet away, but at that time of night their voices resounded down the street, past the Jardín de la Paz. Don Luis could see the man had prepared some kind of food basket for her and her father. The old man raised the basket up to her. She took it and thanked him. Then they vanished into their respective houses.
As often happens with determined young men, Don Luis had found a means to realize his dream where there ought to have been none. Probably it would have been better if the opportunity had not presented itself. That determination would set into motion a sequence of events that would resonate in Guanajuato for years to come.
The neighbor–a retired schoolmaster and widower–had no use for the upstairs room, which had been his children’s bedroom when he was a younger man. Don Luis pretended to be an art student at the local university seeking to rent a studio for his work. He didn’t want the man to suspect he worked for the silver mines. Such news would almost certainly find its way to the ears of Doña Carmen’s domineering father. At first, the man didn’t want to rent the loft, but Don Luis raised his offer and agreed to help around the house with some of the chores.
“A storm is coming. Didn’t you hear the thunder?” Doña Carmen rubbed her arms.
Don Luis startled from his reverie. “What? Oh. It’s off in the hills. Where are you going?”
“I’m only grabbing my rebozo,” she protested. “Besides, I should go to bed. Papá will get suspicious if my eyes sag from lack of sleep. He complained yesterday that I look tired. I fear he suspects something.”
In the alley below, a cat pattered across cobbled stones wet with moonlight.
“How can you tell that your father is suspicious? His humor is alw–”
“Quiet!” She raised a silencing finger to her lips “Someone’s at my door,” she whispered.
“It was a cat in the alley below.”
“No. It came from my room. Close your shutter–hide. Someone is outside my door.”
“Don’t worry. Your father passed out drunk hours ago. He never lasts this late.”
“Just close your shutters. I can’t open the door with you standing there across from my window. Do you want to see me thrashed?”
“I’d like to see him try! Why, I’m not afraid of your father.”
“Shhh,” she hissed.
She was angry. He didn’t want her to leave yet, so he did as she asked and closed the shutters before turning to fall on his bed.
No sooner had he landed than a gust of strong wind blew them open again. The rustling of leaves shimmered from the plaza, a few blocks away. Doña Carmen returned “I told you to close the shutters,” she scolded.
“I did. The wind blew them open again.”
“You’re lucky. I must have imagined a noise.”
“It was the momias. Their souls grow restless when the moon is full–and I don’t blame them. If I were condemned to this piddly mining town, I’d be restless too. Oooh.” He wiggled his fingers at her tauntingly.
“Ah, you are a pendejo!” She rolled her eyes and sighed before stomping off back into her room.
Bodies didn’t decay in the earth of Guanajuato. Something in the ground preserved the bodies. Some attributed the phenomenon to the chemicals used to extract silver from the mine. Others told stories of native brujas who cursed the land after the Spanish came. The effect was most prominent at the Panteón Santa Paula cemetery, from which bodies dug up were displayed. The exhibit reminded the people of Guanajuato that life is precious–and altogether temporary.
“Are you still there?” she was spying on him through the latticed stucco.
“No. I’ve lost interest. I’m talking to the woman in the window below yours now.”
“You should not jest. He will kill you if he finds out.”
She was right. If her father knew of their trist, he would kill him. He’d done it before. Her father had earned a reputation around town for his violent outbursts, especially when he’d been drinking, which happened most nights. It was a fact Doña Carmen knew too well. Her mother should have known better.
“Not if I kill him first.” He almost believed it himself–almost.
“You’re saying nonsense again. I should rid myself of you and marry that old Spanish caballero my father chose.”
“You would do that?”
Her lips pulled into a facetious smile. “No. But I should. He would buy me a marvelous hacienda! And beautiful dresses and jewels.”
“I can do better than that.”
She pouted with her lips. “What could you ever provide me? Besides worries?”
She sighed with frustration. “You are a child. Love doesn’t last. Look around. How many people do you see in love? No. Love does not last. Children last, and debts–sorrows.”
“What about regrets?”
“Yes, I suppose those last,” she said with too much weight, the way children sometimes do when they want to sound like adults.
“We’ll be different. I promise. You’ll see.”
“You’re a dreamer, Don Luis. A pendejo and a dreamer, and it’s time for me to go to bed. Otherwise, I will age before my time and spoil your undying love.” She turned to close the wooden balcony door.
“What is it now?” she shrugged her shoulders emphatically.
“Run away with me.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“It’s no joke. Run away with me. I’m serious. I have a plan.”
“Do you, now?” She pretended not to care.
“Tomorrow when you go to town, I’m going to bring something. Look for me. I’ll give you more instructions then. But you have to be ready to go when I come to the window tomorrow night.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you. What about my magnificent hacienda?”
“What about getting out of this town–away from your father–with me?”
“What if a storm rolls in? Father doesn’t send me to the market when it storms.”
“Find a way. You’re a woman–use your guile.”
“Oh!” She huffed, and disappeared.
Don Luis arrived at the Jardín de la Unión around one-thirty. Her father sent her to the the jardín to buy fruits from the stalls that littered the square most days, and Don Luis had made a habit of waiting there for her. But on that day, two o’clock came and went. By the time the setting sun flushed the sky with pinks and purples, he had begun to steel himself for the difficult reality that he was, in fact, only a poor silver miner who could not give Doña Carmen the hacienda she dreamed of, nor the children of sangre azul her father’s suitor offered.
He took out the vial of clear liquid from his pocket and turned it in his fingers. The liquid could be ordinary water to the naked eye. For all he knew, that’s all it was. Still, Lucinda assured him that it would put her father to sleep long enough for he and Doña Carmen to elope. Lucinda was a cunning old woman who lived in the hills of Guanajuato, past the mine where he worked. Most of the other men were afraid to go near her, and the women of town refused to say her name. He was to give the vial to Doña Carmen to put in her father’s drink at dinner. Lucinda promised her father wouldn’t wake until the next morning. So long as no one called on the Virgin, the saints or the Holy Father within earshot of the slumberer; otherwise, the spell would break and the victim would wake in a rage, aware what had been done to him. But Don Luis feared he’d imperiled his soul by gracing Lucinda’s veranda for nothing. Carmen would never even see Lucinda’s potion.
He’d been a fool to believe Doña Carmen would sacrifice a life of plenty and luxury to be with him. She was laughing at him that very moment. He rose from the bench to leave when he saw in his peripheral vision a young woman running toward him. It was Doña Brígida–Doña Carmen’s lady in waiting. He’d seen her several times at the Jardín with Carmen.
“Don Luis, wait! Don’t leave!” She ran up and grasped his arm. “Doña Carmen sent me. Her father heard your conversation last night, and he’s locked her in her room and locked the balcony. He wouldn’t even let me see her. She had to slip this note to me under her door. She asked me to deliver it to you.”
Don Luis recognized the handwriting on the envelope. He tore open the seal. In the letter, Doña Carmen begged him to come for her. The Spanish caballero had heard about Doña Carmen’s affections for another and withdrawn his offer. Her father, enraged by her impertinence as well as his spoiled designs, had sent word to the sisters of the Convento de San Pablo Apostol in Yuriria to fetch her.
Don Luis looked up from the letter to Doña Brígida, gasping for breath. “He’s going to send her away–to live in a convent. I have to get her–tonight. Here, Doña Brígida. Take this. It’s blessed water. One of the priests at the Basilica gave it to me. Give it to Doña Carmen. Tell her to put it in her father’s drink tonight when they dine. The blessed water will quell his violent temper and assure us a successful flight. I’ll come for her when the lights go out.”
Doña Brígida took the vial and agreed to do as he asked. She thrust it in her skirt pocket and disappeared down the street, past the marble colonnade that stood sentry before the marbled Teatro Juarez.
Don Luis turned to leave. He had just passed the yellow and burnt umber Cathedral Basilica Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato when the bell chimed six, and he froze–he’d forgotten to tell Doña Brígida about Lucinda’s warning. He looked upward and said a prayer under his breath.
When he arrived at Patrocinio San Cristóbal, the waning moon hung higher in the firmament than the previous night. The lights in Doña Carmen’s living room were extinguished. Still, the risk of knocking on Carmen’s front door was too great. What if Lucinda had lied about the potion? He shouldn’t put faith in such superstitious nonsense. Only people in desperate situations relied on such things. The balcony provided the safest means of approach. He could could climb over to her balcony and tear the shudders from the wall if need be.
He unlocked the door to his apartment. The landlord had stepped out. God had heard his prayer. He lit the oil lamp sitting next to the door, and carried it upstairs where he unlocked the door to his apartment and ran to the balcony.
Across the narrow alley, the doors Doña Carmen’s room hung open on their hinges. “Carmen? Carmen, it’s Don Luis!”
“I’m here.” She ran from the room out onto the balcony.
“Did you put the vial of blessed water in your father’s drink, like I told Doña Brigída?”
“Yes, he’s fast asleep downstairs in his chair. I’m worried. What was in that vial? Surely it wasn’t blessed water. Never did the blessing of any saint have such an effect on a man.”
“Don’t worry about that now. We need to get going before he wakes.”
“Don Luis. What if he doesn’t wake up? Did you put something bad in that water? Is he dead?”
“Don’t worry. He’ll be fine. But we won’t be if he wakes up and discovers what we’ve done. Have you packed?”
“Yes, everything I own is here.” She gestured towards a large, bulging valise lying on the balcony next to her.
“Good. Throw it down.” He extended his arms.
“Throw it down? Are you mad? It’s too heavy. What if it falls to the street below? Everything I own is in this bag.” Her knuckles whitened as she tightened her grip around the handle of the valise. “No. Meet me downstairs. My father is asleep. I’ll sneak past him, and I’ll leave by the front door.”
“It’s too risky. I don’t know how strong the enchantment is. I don’t want to risk waking your father. No, you must throw it to me. Hurry!”
“Enchantment? You told me the water I put in his drink was blessed.” The valise plopped to the balcony in front of her with a thud.
“It was–blessed–just not by a priest.” A clap of distant thunder sounded in the foothills as a cloud passed across the gibbous moon. The wind began a low howl. “You see? The moonlight is too little now for me to see well enough to pass you the bag, and the winds are too strong.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Carmen. Hand me the bag. We don’t have much time. My landlord will return soon. If he catches us, he’ll wake your father, and all will be lost. You must trust me.”
“I’m afraid, Don Luis. I regret that I agreed to this. If only I had chosen to marry the wealthy caballero my father chose for me.”
“Don’t be afraid. But we must hurry.”
Another bolt of lightening tore the sky, this one closer than before, and Doña Carmen whimpered. She grabbed the valise with both hands and heaved it up onto the balustrade. She place one hand on top and the other below and heaved with all her might.
If she had pushed the bag straight off the balustrade, Don Luis would have caught it, but her effort to throw the bag caused it to fall sideways. Don Luis strained for the handle, which he caught with one hand. He yelled as the weight of the valise twisted his wrist and strained it.
The bag and all of its contents plunged to the ground.
Doña Carmen shrieked as black tears streaked her cheeks.
Don Luis pulled himself back from the railing.
“My bag–all of my things. Everything I own will be ruined–” She began to sob loudly.
Don Luis worried that her cries would wake her father when he remembered the old woman’s warning. He hadn’t told her! “Doña Carmen, I forgot to tell you. Whatever you do, don’t–“
But he was too late.
“Querida madre de Dios, ayudame! Ayudame, por favor!” she called to the Holy Mother.
“Doña Carmen! Stop! Your father will wake–the old woman warned me not to–“
Before he could finish a crash thundered from inside Doña Carmen’s room, but it was not thunder. Something had struck the wooden door. Her father had woken. Don Luis could hear him yelling for his daughter to open the door. He raged on the other side.
“Carmen, your father is not in his right mind. You must jump down to me now. There’s no time to argue. Here, take my hand!” He reached up for her.
“I’m afraid, Don Luis! What if you drop me? Your hand is hurt.” Her voice shook with fear.
“I won’t. You’ve no choice. You must be brave. Give me your hands, and I’ll pull you down. You won’t even have to jump.”
“I can’t. I’m so afraid!”
A louder crash came from the door. Her father was breaking it down. Don Luis could hear him yelling and cursing them.
Doña Carmen leaned over the side of the balustrade and grabbed his hands. But she cried out and retracted them as he started pull. “Wait!”
“Carmen, listen to me. There’s no time!”
Again, she leaned over and took his hands. Overhead another peal of thunder rattled even the wrought-iron pressed against Don Luis’s stomach.
“That’s it. Now hold–“
A louder crash resounded from the empty room behind her. Her father had bashed the door down. If Don Luis, had not known better, he might have mistaken her father’s voice for that of a beast, so contorted were the man’s cries.
Doña Carmen squeezed Luis’s fingers harder, but it was too late. In another moment, she let out a cry that stifled Don Luis’s breath. Another flash of lightning revealed her father’s scowling visage behind Don Luis’s beloved and her’s fingers, still in his hands, grew cold. The father glared at Don Luis from the shadow of her room. Something about the quality of the moonlight gave his mien a bestial even feral quality to it. His knuckles white around the handle of the knife he had plunged into the back of Doña Carmen.
Don Luis pulled the lifeless body of Carmen across the alley into his room and fled the house past the landlord who had returned home just in time to hear the ghastly cry from the room upstairs.
When the comandante of the pueblo arrived with his men, All three had fled–never to be seen again.
Nevertheless, rumors circulated that someone had seen the bodies of Don Luis and Carmen lying together in a makeshift grave at the Panteón Santa Paula cemetery.