The canvas ball sailed through the air like a freed bird. With a crash, an elaborately painted vase shattered, sending shards of ceramic scattering all over the colorful tile floors.
"Lucía! Miguel! Enrique! Adelita! Alejandro!" A woman's voice yelled from upstairs. "What was that noise?"
The children froze. Through an arched doorway, another woman appeared, wiping her hands on a paintstained apron as she assessed the scene before her. Her blonde hair, streaked with silver, was pulled back neatly with a blue ribbon; her face and arms were tanned from the Spanish sun.
The ball was still rolling across the floor. It gently passed by a handmade carpet before settling under a corner beneath a tapestry and some dried flowers. The woman watched it, eyebrows raised.
Enrique, who had just turned eight, pointed at his older brother. "Alejandro did it," he blurted.
"Abuela-- he's lying! I didn't touch it!"
The woman sighed, and the children seemed to shrink under her gaze; however, the sparkle in her blue eyes told them she wasn't really mad about the mess.
"Now what did we tell you about playing in the house?" she chided gently. "If you want to act like animals, the barn is right outside. You're more than welcome to sleep in the henhouse, if you so please; see how much the chickens like you throwing rocks in their house."
"Sí, Abuela," the two boys muttered. "We're sorry."
"Enrique, Miguel, Lucía, Adelita, run upstairs; your Abuelita wants to speak with you before you go to bed. Alejandro, help me sweep up this mess, por favor?"
The two boys trodded upstairs.
Adelita, the second-oldest, turned to her grandmother. Using blankets and scarves, she and her sister had turned the dining room table and chairs into a home for their dolls. "Abuela," she whimpered, "Lucía and I didn't do anything wrong. It was the boys. They're always causing trouble."
The woman suppressed a soft smile. "You're not in trouble, hijitas. Now go upstairs, Lita wants to see you all, bien?" She watched affectionately as the two girls put down their dolls and scampered up to see their other grandmother.
Only Alejandro remained, standing sullenly in the corner next to the pile of broken pottery. She took the broom from him, and touched his cheek gently. "Alejandro, cariño mio. Thank you for sweeping. I'll take care of the rest." He nodded respectfully.
"Abuela," he said, and went upstairs.
The bedroom was modest; a big, soft bed took up most of the space, and the remaining walls were swathed in tapestries and paintings. Beads and chimes hung from the ceiling, sending fragments of light dancing across the walls. A vase by the bedside, not dissimilar to the one being swept up by their grandmother downstairs, was full of red roses, their colors rich and velvety in the late evening light, and in the corner was an easel with a half-finished painting of the Spanish countryside. Out the window, the sun was setting over those rolling green hills, rich blues and reds blending together. The shadows reached long and lazily across the fields. From a narrow side room emerged another woman. Grey curls, once black, still tumbled proudly around her shoulders; her dark eyes glittered with benevolent mischief as the grandchildren clambered into the bed. She lit a candle and slid into the bed beside them, tucking a grandchild under each arm.
"Tell us a story, Lita!" Miguel, the second-youngest, pleaded, looking up at her.
"Yes, Abuelita, please," Adelia added, sitting across from her. "Your stories are always the best."
After a moment, the woman held her hands up, and the children quieted. "I will tell you a story, mis amores. It is a very special story, so you must listen carefully and quietly. Lucia, Miguel, you must promise not to interrupt, sí? And Enrique, no bothering your siblings."
Each child nodded, and the woman smiled proudly, sitting up straighter, as if she had been waiting her whole life to tell this story.
"Mis amores... Let us begin. The story starts in Sevilla--"
"Lita, where's Sevilla?" Miguel asked.
"It's a city to the south," Alejandro replied quickly. "Hush."
"Once upon a time, there was a man named José, Don José, and he was a soldier in the square in Sevilla. Each morning he and the guard would march proudly through the square, followed by cheering children. In the square there was a factory, a cigarette factory. Local men would wait in the square for the factory girls to emerge, smelling of sweet tobacco from their cigarettes, and they would try to woo the girls with flowers or the promise of a kiss."
"One of the factory girls was well known amongst the men; everyone wanted her as their sweetheart, but she would never tell the men whom she would pick. Her name was Carmencita--"
Lucia gasped. "Just like you, Lita!"
The woman held a finger to her lips for silence. The girl quieted, but her eyes sparkled with excitement.
"Her name was Carmencita. The moment she saw José, she said to herself-- That man will be my lover. Mi amante," she purred; the grandchildren did not notice the hardness in her eyes as she spoke of José. "She threw José a flower, and before he could react, she and her friends ran away, laughing! Silly boys, they said, they'll do anything for love."
Alejandro, who was just old enough to have his pride bruised, crossed his arms and frowned. After a moment, he pulled his legs to his chest, resting his sharp chin on his knees.
"José's mother lived in the country, and she would send him letters, brought by a local girl. She was pretty, so pretty, with hair like spun gold and the bluest eyes. Later that same day, the girl came with a letter from José. In the letter, José's mother gave him permission to marry the girl! And they were so, so happy."
Adelita looked up. "But what about Carmencita?" she asked seriously. "Does José love her? And does the girl know that Carmencita gave José a flower?"
The old woman smiled. "You're a clever girl, hijita. José loved the girl very much, it's true. But when Carmencita had thrown him that flower, it was as if she had put a spell over him, and she became all he could think about: the flash of her eyes, the sound of her voice."
Adelita seemed terrified, and so her grandmother reached and put a comforting arm on the girl. "Let me continue. Later that day, José would encounter Carmencita a second time. There was a fight--"
The children gasped.
"--and José was called in to break it up. Just like me and your Abuela have to break you all up when you start fighting in the yard, sí? José arrested Carmencita, but she was clever. She knew that José was madly in love with her, and so, by dancing and singing, she managed to get José to loosen the ropes around her wrists. When the guards came back to take her to prison, she pushed José out of the way-- and escaped!"
Nestled at their grandmother's side, Lucia and Miguel cheered.
Enrique rolled his eyes. "This story is boring," he whined. "I don't wanna hear about people falling in love. There should be pirates! Or a duel!"
"Enrique, cariño," the woman said reproachfully, "paciencia."
"Yes, Abuelita," he whispered.
"Enrique, Alejandro, would you like to hear about a bullfighter? A brave toreador named Escamillo?"
The boys nodded eagerly.
"Bien. Two months later, there was a bar in Sevilla, with many dancers. The man who owned it, Lillas Pastia, he was a friend of Carmencita, sí? And this night, it was a special night, because Carmencita and her friends were going to dance. And ah, how they danced! Ah, the tambourines and guitars, the flashing of skirts, the glitter of rings! The movement of the body to the rhythm! Pues, and after the girls danced, there was a clamor in the streets. Through the doors burst a tall man, with a glittering smile and a handsome face, perhaps even more handsome than José."
"The toreador!" exclaimed Enrique.
"The toreador," his grandmother confirmed. "Escamillo," she added, and he name rolled smoothly in her mouth. "Escamillo. He was dashing-- handsome-- a hero! With his cape and sword, he moved almost like a dancer, after years of fighting in the bullring. All the girls in the room wanted him to choose them as his lover, but Escamillo had eyes for only one-- Carmencita."
"But Carmencita loves José!" Lucia cried.
"Ah, sí, princesa. For now, she loves José. But she can't help but notice how handsome Escamillo is, no? Or the way her heart skips a beat when he looks at her, offers her a rose?"
"What's she going to do?"
"You'll see, hijita. Shh. Escúchame. That night, Escamillo left, but promised Carmencita he would return. Later, with her friends, Carmen could hear something in the distance... the singing of Don José. Where was Don José, you ask?" she asked, just as Alejandro opened his mouth. "For freeing the prisoner, for freeing Carmencita, he was sent to prison for two months."
"No!" the children cried.
"Shh, shh. Sí, José was sent to prison for two months, and demoted in the army. He survived only because he loved Carmencita; this he told her, showing her the flower she'd given him in the square, at the beginning of the story, recordáis? Carmencita danced for him, to show how much she loved him, but the sounding of bugles--"
Enrique mimicked the noise, and the children all giggled.
"The sound of bugles called him back to real life, to reality-- he had been released from prison, but now he had to return to the army. It was his duty. But Carmencita begged him to stay-- she had waited months for him, and yet he was leaving her again? She was angry, afraid of being alone again, and bitter for having waited, only to be left again. She begged him to stay. She said to José, if you love me, if you've ever loved me, than you'll stay with me. And so he did. When the lieutenant of the guard returned to the tavern of Lillas Pastia, Carmencita and her friends were waiting. And to the mountains, to the beautiful life of freedom, Carmencita and Don José escaped together."
The children cheered, all but Adelita. Sensitive little Adelita, just like her Abuela, just like the girl with golden hair. She looked to her grandmother with wide eyes and asked, "Abuelita, what about the girl? The girl in the square, who José was going to marry?"
The woman sighed. "Ah, Adelita, mi corazón. What about the other girl? It's getting late, and that's a story for another time. Or ask your Abuela, she knows that story better than I. Perhaps we will tell you another night."
"No, Abuelita, please," they begged. Little Miguel reached up, tugging on the brightly-patterned sleeve of her blouse. "Please, Lita, I'm not sleepy... I'm not sleepy. I wanna know what happened. You always let Alejandro and Adelita stay up later than me and 'Rique and Lucía, it's not fair. I wanna know what happened."
"Are you sure you want to know? It might be frightening," the woman said, her eyes flashing. "You don't want to get nightmares."
Lucía buried her head into the crook of her grandmother's arm, but the other children laughed.
"I'm not afraid of anything!" Alejandro announced, and his brothers were quick to join in.
"Ah, mis hijitos. One day you will grow up to be good, strong men. And you, mis nietecitas? Will you hear the rest of the story?"
Adelita nodded resolutely, although there was still uncertainty in her eyes; my, how similar she was to her grandmother. And little Lucía, never to be outshown by her older siblings, crossed her arms. "I'm not scared. I'm even more not-scared than Enrique and Miguel! I'm not afraid of anything, just like Carmencita." Indeed she was.
"You're all certain?" Five stubborn faces stared back at her. "Bien, mis amores. Where were we? Ah, just after the escape to the mountains. Sí. For months, Carmen and José lived in the mountains with the other gypsies, the family and friends of Carmencita. But already there were problems; José was unhappy, missing his family back home, and Carmencita was restless, her mind uneasy. José wanted to leave, and Carmencita dared him to, knowing that he would never. He was too stubborn, too proud, too aware of all that he had sacrificed to be with a woman who cared for him no longer. They fought, and bitterly. But neither would leave."
She cleared her throat and continued. "One night, when Carmencita was away with her friends, someone new came to the high and lonely mountains. Despite her fear, she had hiked, far from town and the life she had once know, out her deep love for José."
"The girl from the square!" Adelita exclaimed with relief. "She'll come back for José, and they can be marry, and then Carmen can be with Escamillo."
"Ah, my Adelita, don't get ahead of the story. Fate is often not as straightforward as one might think. Where were we? Sí, sí, the girl from the square had hiked into the mountains, searching for José. But suddenly--"
The old woman clapped loudly. Adelita gasped, nearly falling off the bed; Miquel and Lucía seemed about to cry. Even stoic Alejandro looked startled. The woman seemed to enjoy the reactions; she smiled cheekily as she continued, though her face grew grave once more.
"A shot! The girl hid behind a rock, watching the scene before her. To her surprise, it was José who had fired the gun! She watched in horror and shock as another man-- the toreador Escamillo, though she did not know it then-- approached José. The two exchanged words, and then blows; the glint of knife blades caught her eye even in the darkness of night. She watched in terror, afraid José might die, afraid she might see José kill a man before her eyes. It was only when the group of gypsies returned that the fight was interrupted; this was the first time that the girl from the square and Carmencita would meet, though it would not be the last."
Reaching around, she scooped Lucía into her lap, holding her in her arms. "Now, as your Abuela tells it, rough hands suddenly grabbed the girl, dragging her out of the rocks and into the clearing, where she was thrown before the group. José was shocked to see her, and angry at her for following-- that is, until she revealed that his mother was ill, perhaps even dying."
"Carmencita," she continued, "was angry with José, and for this she was cruel to the girl. She laughed and teased them, telling José to go with the girl and run back home to his mother. This made José angry, very angry. And before he left, he swore to Carmen--"
For the first time, the woman faltered in her story. When she spoke again, her voice carried an edge that had not been noticeable previously. "He swore to Carmencita that they had made a vow, and that they would meet again. Their fates had been tied together."
The children were silent.
"That night, though they knew not of the other, both women wept, for what they feared most was nearly upon them." She sighed deeply. "Adelita, you were very nearly right when you said that the girl and José would be reunited, and that Carmencita and Escamillo would fall in love. These things are true: Carmencita and Escamillo did fall in love, and it was a love like nothing Carmencita had ever before known. This, she was sure, was the only man she would ever truly love. All before him had been nothing compared to the feelings that the brave toreador stirred within her. She had always sworn she would never marry, that she desired freedom above all else, but if Escamillo had asked her, she would have accepted his proposal without a second thought."
The girl smiled. "I knew it, Abuelita! And everyone has a happy ending this way."
The woman shook her head sadly. "But it was not to be so. You remember José's promise, sí? That he and Carmencita would meet again? The fates agreed, and conspired for José and Carmencita to meet once more. Quiet now, for this is an important part in the story of our Carmencita."
She cleared her throat. "Close your eyes, mis amores, and imagine a busy square in Sevilla. Banners are waving! Children cheer! Merchants pass through the press of people to sell flags, beer, fruits, bread! Men wear their hats, women bat their fans. The air is joyous, and voices are filled with anticipation for the coming parade, for today is a special day in Sevilla: today, there will be a bullfight. And not just any bullfight, no. Today, the great Escamillo will fight! The crowd splits to reveal the guards, and then the mayor. Next come los chulos, y los banderilleros with their little flags. Then los picadores, who anger the bull with long, pointed staffs. And finally out comes Escamillo, ever-so-handsome in the glittering red and gold costume of the matador, the one who must kill the bull and end the fight. And at his side, Carmencita, beaming, happy, looking more beautiful than she ever has. Confetti falls from the balconies above! Viva, Escamillo!, the crowd cheers."
"I want to see a bullfight," Enrique said. "I want to see the flags and capes, los picadores y el matador."
The old woman laughed darkly. "You must listen to the rest of the story, hijito. A bullfight is a spilling of blood."
The boy blinked, and grew quiet. At his side, Alejandro put his arm around his younger brother and drew him closer as they listened.
"For Carmencita and Escamillo, this was a joyous moment. Despite the crowds and the people around, the world seemed to be just the two of them. Escamillo drew her close, and promised to make her proud of him. Mi querido, she replied, I already am. I have never loved a man as I love you. They shared a final embrace, and Escamillo left for the arena, surrounded by fans but thinking only of Carmencita."
The woman drew a breath. "The crowds followed Escamillo and the other toreos into the arena, but Carmencita lingered outside, distracted. She had spotted familiar faces in the crowd-- her two most loyal friends, Frasquita and Mercédès."
"Like tía Frasquita and tía Mercédès?" Miquel asked. Lucía, who was beginning to fall asleep in her grandmother's lap, perked up at the mention of the two women; they were adored by the children, always bringing toys and sweets when they took tea with the grandmothers.
"You can imagine tía Frasquita and tía Mercédès if you like, mi amor. Frasquita and Mercédès pulled Carmencita to the side and desprately warned her-- José had come to the bullfight, and he was looking for her. Carmencita was scared, but was determined to confront José once and for all. She thanked her friends, and sent them away with a brave smile. In the distance, she heard the band begin to play, and she knew the fight had begun."
"Out of the corner of her eye," she continued, "she saw him. Don José. He was nothing like the man she had once fallen in love with: desperate, maddened with love and rage, his clothes dirty and worn, his eyes wild. He confronted her, begging for her to come back to him, to love him once more. He had given up everything for her, he said. He had been everything she wanted, and it had not been enough, but he loved her still. It mattered not to Carmencita. She loved José no longer, and would not leave with him. Even in the face of death, she told him, I will never love you again. I love Escamillo, and I am loyal to him. But José would not hear it: he would leave with Carmencita, whatever it took. And Carmencita was determined not to relent: free she was born, and free she would die."
On the last word, the children's eyes widened, and the woman wondered if she should stop. But there was more to the story, and the story would be told at last.
"The music and the cheers grew louder, but nothing could hide the sound of a pounding heart in Carmencita's ears. José pulled out a knife, and she knew what was to happen. She would not run. She was not afraid of him. Come with me, he said, and in his eyes was nothing but rage. For the last time, you're coming with me. But again she refused. Looking down at her hand, she spied a ring that he had once given her. She yanked it off her hand, offering it to him. Take it, she said, and she threw the ring into the dirt. This was too much for José. He took his knife. With a roar, he grabbed Carmencita and drove it deep into her stomach--"
There was a knock at the door, and the children gasped--
"What kind of bedtime story is this?" the other grandmother asked, looking at the wide eyes of her grandchildren.
"I'm telling them the story of Carmencita," the woman replied, drawing the children near to her affectionately.
Much to the children's surprise, their abuela smiled. "Ah, sí. It's a very good story. Pues, I'll leave you to it, then."
With a sparkle in her eye, the woman in the bed asked, "Would you like to tell the next part? You know it just as well as I do."
"No, mi querida. Not tonight. I've just put the kettle on the stove downstairs. Tea?"
"Yes, but only once I've finished the story and gotten the children to bed. Thank you."
With a warm smile, the fair-haired grandmother stepped into the hall and disappeared into the evening.
"Carmencita could feel the arms of José around her once more, and heard distant voices, trumpets, cheering. She felt cold, and wondered if this was what is was like to die--"
Again the woman was interrupted, this time by a tug at her sleeve. Lucía looked up at her, teary-eyed. "Is Carmencita going to die?" she asked in a small voice.
"No, princesa. You think I would tell you such a story? Shh." She cleared her throat, once again adopting the voice of a storyteller. "Shadows shifted across her darkened vision: a guard, then José. They left together, and Carmencita was alone. That was until a lone figure, wrapped in a shawl, approached the woman. In her pain, Carmencita could not tell who it was, only that as the woman knelt down beside her, she removed her shawl and pressed it to the wound to staunch the bleeding, revealing a glimmer of blonde hair. Just as she began to fall into a deep sleep from her injury, she heard the familiar swish of skirts and jingle of bracelets, and she knew that her friends had returned to take care of her. This was her last thought before she fell into the dark."
She closed her eyes briefly, like a memory. After a moment, she opened her eyes once more and sighed.
"Pues, we must now return to the the girl who Carmencita encountered at the bullfight, the girl who had bloodied her own clothes to help a stranger, stopping to help a gypsy woman bleeding out on the streets amid rose petals and scattered confetti. But they were not strangers: they had met once before, in a camp atop a high and lonely mountain. This was the girl from the town, José's sweetheart. She had followed him to the bullfight, worried, afraid for him, afraid for what he might do. Hiding behind a corner, her worst fears were realized as she watched José drive the knife into his lover's stomach, holding the woman as she struggled, and finally fell still. He did not run; no, José himself called for the guards, and surrendered peacefully, for he had nothing to live for without Carmencita. All of this the girl saw, and she realized that she had lost him forever. But in the alley, the woman was still breathing. And so, despite the hatred and fear that the girl felt, she approached the woman and used her shawl to tend to her wounds."
"Suddenly," the woman continued, "the girl jumped-- two women ran up from behind, wearing the colorful clothes of the gypsies. They approached her and the woman lying on the ground, and they began to move the woman. Despite her fear, the girl found the courage to speak. Stop, stop, she said. What are you doing? This woman needs a doctor. The gypsy women exchanged a glance. She's one of us, the taller one replied. We take care of our own. The girl froze, unsure how to respond. Finally, she said desperately, If you move her, the guards will return to find no body, and José will be released. The mention of José caught the women's attention, their eyes suddenly black and sharp; she shrank under their intense gazes. You know José? the shorter woman asked. Yes, the girl whispered. The woman turned to each other, talking in sharp, quick tones. She's right, the first said. And she knows that she's still alive, the second added, gesturing first to the girl and then to Carmencita. They both turned to face the girl, and seemed to be considering. Finally, the shorter woman spoke. You must come with us. She will die here if we do not take her, but José must never find her. You must come with us, then, if you want her to live. The girl protested, promising not to say a word, but the women insisted. Eyes lingering on the bloody pavement, she followed them into the dark Spanish night. And perhaps, in her soul, she was glad to escape Sevilla, and the thought of what Jose had done. A new start, sí?"
She looked to the children, who listened with wide eyes, spellbound by her tale.
"They walked for many days and nights, sometimes joining a caravan of other travellers, sometimes only with each other. The three women worked together to treat the wound. When they passed through rural villages, the girl spent what little money she had on medicines, doing her best to clean the area and keep it covered, just as she'd learned as a young girl, growing up on a farm in the Spanish countryside. And the others-- Frasquita and Mercédès, she learned, were their names-- gathered herbs to make tinctures and ground willow bark into tea that would relieve the pain. It was on one of these such trips, when the two women had left to find certian mushroom that would help Carmencita to heal, that the woman began to slip back into consciousness. In the shadowy light of the gypsies' tent, it was hard to tell the flicker of an eyelid from the gentle breath of the wind. It was not until she spoke that the girl was certain. Her first words were indistinct, murmurs of a language that the girl did not know. Then names. Escamillo. José. Frasquita, Mercédès. The girl moved, hesitantly shifting closer to the woman. Carmencita turned her head towards the noise, and blinked with confusion."
"I know you, she mumbled. You're the girl from his village. Why are you here? She spat disdainfully, but in her weakened state, the insult only managed to find its way down her chin. The girl sighed and reached to her side; to the surprise of Carmencita, she grabbed only a small rag, gently wiping the other woman's face and chin. She set the rag down and reached for a small tin cup. Water, she said simply. Drink. Your friends will be back soon. Carmencita moved to accept the water, but moaned in sudden pain, and found she was too weak even to sit up. Without hesitation, the girl moved, shifting to support her, her hands slipping through black curls to hold Carmencita's head up as she drank the water. It was cool on her lips, and quenched a thirst she had not even realized she had. Through the hazy light filtering through the tent, Carmencita could see that the girl was not really a girl, but a woman, nearly her own age. Her face might have been pretty, but dark circles hung below her blue eyes; her blond hair was matted with dust from the road. Carmencita flashed her eyes at the woman. What's your name, girl? she asked. She knew enough to recognize the girl, but little more. My name is Micaëla, the other woman replied softly."
Enrique scoffed. "Lita, is everyone in this story named after someone you know? First you, then las tías, and now Abuela, too?"
The woman looked down at him, her dark eyes crinkling with amusement. "Well, Enrique, what do you think she should be called?"
"Hm..." he said, thinking seriously. "Elena!" he announced after a moment.
"No, Abuelita, don't listen to him, don't change the name, please," Adelita cried.
"Sí, 'Rique only wants her name to be Elena because he's in love with Elena Morales from school--" Miguel teased.
Enrique reached over and shoved his brother's shoulder. "Shut up! Miguel!"
"Boys!" the old woman snapped, and they instantly grew quiet from the power her voice held. "That's enough. We can finish, or you can go to bed now."
They exchanged a glance. "Sorry, Abuelita. Please finish the story," Miguel replied; Enrique gave his younger brother a dirty look but said no more.
"My name is Micaëla, she said. Frasquita and Mercédès will be back soon. Rest. You're injured. And then she moved away, retreating back to the corner of the tent, where she watched Carmencita with wary eyes. Indeed, though those haunted blue eyes would follow her every motion through the next days and weeks as she recovered, it seemed that Frasquita and Mercédès had earned the woman's trust. The three of them cooked together, sitting in the sun outside of the tent, and she heard easy laughter and friendly words exchanged. Carmencita was surprised to find that it was Micaëla who had tended to her wounds, and twice each day she would unwrap her scarves and roll up her shirt just enough so that the girl could clean the wound and apply herbs or village medicine. Carmencita watched her hands, and was surprised by the gentleness of her touch. She began to trust the girl she had once laughed at with such scorn. At night, while Frasquita and Mercédès slept lightly, Carmencita lay awake from the pain. Sometimes she would hear a quiet sob, and knew her fate had not been the only one tied to José's. She thought of Escamillo. He would be missing her. He had loved her like the sun, a proud love, a warming love. Without him she was cold and numb, caged and unseeing. She thought of José and felt something like shame, shame mixed with fury. And she thought of the girl. Micaëla. A pretty name. A pretty girl. Why was she here? Carmencita wondered. If she sought penitence for herself or José, she would not find it: on the road, the past did not matter, only the path ahead. To her, that was freedom," the woman continued.
"One night, curious, Carmencita decided to ask the woman. Micaëla answered simply and honestly: she had been following José and seen the attack, and had moved to help. She had left with Frasquita and Mercédès to protect both Carmencita and herself. The conversation was uneasy, both women uncertain. Micaëla turned to her and said, I'm so sorry for what he did to you. You didn't deserve that, no matter what may have passed between the two of you. Carmencita was startled. She had expected condemnation from the woman, to hear that she had gotten exactly what she'd deserved by luring Don José and then leaving him. Micaëla's apology was disarming. He loved you, Carmencita admitted softly. He wanted me, but loved you. Men are strange like that. Micaëla looked at Carmencita. He might have loved me once, she replied. But that man is gone. Sometimes I wonder if he ever existed at all, mi José. I wonder. All I know is that I don't want the love of a man who would leave a woman to die in the street. The women sat in silence for a long time after that, staring into the flickering fire. Carmencita finally broke the silence. It's a good thing you never married him, then, she said lightly. Micaëla laughed until her grief was too much to bear, and then she wept. Carmencita held her, pulling the sobbing girl close until her breaths quieted and the night was still once more. After that Micaëla was no longer afraid of the gypsy woman."
The woman cleared her throat. "Several nights later, the two women found themselves sitting together again; a different camp, a different fire, but the same feelings. Carmencita could feel Micaëla watching her carefully, though no longer with suspicion, only contemplation. Finally, she asked, Wild girl, what are you afraid of? To Micaëla, this was a moment of bravery, shadowed only by her ascent to the gypsy camp to find José all those months ago. She was used to meekness. To look the woman in the eye and ask such a question would once have seemed impossible, but the words formed on her lips and fell into the night air. She had changed from the quiet village girl she'd once been. Across from her, Carmencita crossed her arms stubbornly, her dark eyes glistening in the firelight. I'm not afraid, she replied, and they both knew it was a lie. Micaëla looked away. I may not be as worldly as you, but in my life, I have learned to listen, and I offer you my ear and my heart now, she said. She waited. Carmencita said nothing. The night was quiet, and crickets and owls were the only sounds to be heard. Finally, Carmencita spoke. I am afraid, she said. I'm so afraid. For Carmencita this was a moment of vulnerability: open herself up to another was to make herself weak, for she knew better than any how fragile a heart could be. And yet, sitting in the quiet darkness, she found that she trusted the woman before her, trusted her in the way she trusted no man. This woman would not break her heart, she knew. She was safe, finally, and did not have to be strong anymore. For me, she started, love is like a dance, a whirlwind of motion and passion that must move to live. It's a bird that must fly to stay alive, must never be still, must never be tamed. I need this. I need to feel needed, loved, adored. Without it I am nothing. When I find myself losing that feeling, I run. It's the life I've always know, sí? Always moving, always free. But... Her hand drifted down to touch the freshly-heal wound in her side, a reminder of the cost of that freedom."
Without thinking, the woman's hand drifted down, feeling the same puckered scar on her stomach all these years later.
"When I was a child," the woman continued, and it was impossible to know who spoke the words now, her or Carmencita, "you were taught to serve a purpose, to have your usefulness. And I thought love was just the same. I had to be loved, had to give love. When it was gone, I had to move on, or else I had no purpose, and I would be left behind, abandoned, forgotten. I know how they talked about me in Sevilla, the names they called me. But no matter if I was loved or hated, I was known, so I was not afraid. Even José could not make me afraid, for I knew myself, then. Now I'm not so certain. But I know I owe you an apology. You did nothing wrong, and yet you've suffered just as greatly as I have. For this-- for everything-- I'm sorry. Micaëla covered Carmencita's hand with her own. You have known so much loneliness, she said. So have I. Carmencita took her hand and held it, and from that moment forwards the two women knew they understood one another."
Downstairs, a tea kettle whistled, as if the universe was reminding the storyteller that her tale was coming to a close. She continued, reaching in her mind for the final chapter of her story. This part was more Micaëla's story, but really were they so separate? Had two lives not come together to form one complete story, like two threads intertwined?
She took a deep breath, preparing for the end of the tale. "After that night, they became inseparable. Micaëla grew to love the road, learning the rhythms of the countryside and the joys of travel. And for once, Carmencita found herself at ease and unworried, unburdened by jealousy or the whims of fate. She taught Micaëla to dance, and they laughed and clung to each other as they stumbled through the gypsy dances together. Over the campfire they told stories each night, just like I'm telling you a story now, sí? Carmencita, Frasquita, and Mercédès would tell Micaëla of their bohemian childhood, always moving, always meeting new people and seeing new places. Then they would listen, enchanted by her tales of growing up on a simple farm in the Spanish countryside, of raising chickens and herding sheep in the rolling meadows. They'd all had goats, at one time or another, and thought that the oranges in Sevilla were the best in the country; they each laughed and shared food. Together, Carmencita and Micaëla were happy, happier than they had been back in Sevilla, perhaps happier than they'd ever been in their lives."
Alejandro yawned, and indeed, all of the children looked as if they were about to fall asleep.
"Pues, I think that's about the end of the story. Carmencita y Micaëla lived happily ever after, fueron felices y comieron perdices. Este cuento se ha acabado, el final. It's time for you all to go to sleep, mis amores."
"But what about Escamillo?" Adelita asked, her eyes big despite her sleepiness.
"Ah, sí, what about Escamillo? He did all he could: he mourned Carmencita like he'd lost his own heart, for she was his pride and soul. But eventually he moved on. He retired from the ring, found another woman, and lived happily for many years. Love is a deep well that does not easily run dry, mi corazón. Just as Carmencita loved José, Escamillo, and Micaëla, Escamillo grew to love another. He never met Carmencita again, but she thought of him often, and fondly. Así es la vida. Sometimes you must say goodbye to those you love."
"And José?" Alejandro asked.
"Yeah, what happened to Don José? Did he go to jail for hurting Carmencita? Did they kill him?" Enrique asked, his voice a dramatic whisper.
"Enrique! If your Abuela heard you talk of such things..." the woman scolded. "I don't know what happened to José. Carmencita never saw him again, and the women tried to seldom think of him. Such is the way forward, to forgive the pain of the past. Does that answer your question?"
The boys nodded.
"So what happened to Carmencita and Micaëla?" Miguel asked.
His Abuelita shrugged. "After the story? I don't know. Use your imagination, hijito. Maybe they travelled the world with Carmencita's caravan of gypsies. Maybe they moved back to Sevilla, and went to bullfights and ate oranges in the square. Maybe they found a house in the countryside and took in street cats and stray children until their family and hearts were full."
The children seemed content with this answer. Lucía said nothing, for she was fast asleep, snuggled into the crook of her grandmother's arms. Careful as to not wake the sleeping girl, the woman whispered for the children to dress for bed, that she would be in in a moment to tuck them in. In her arms, Lucía stirred but did not wake as she brought the girl to the bedroom she shared with her siblings during their frequent visits.
There was a tin cup on the side table, with small holes punched into the sides. After laying Lucía down and kissing each child on the forehead, she placed a candle into the cup, sending pinprick stars sparkling across the walls and ceiling of the room.
"Buenas noches, mis amores. Os quiero muchísimo," she said. A quiet chorus of goodnights reached her ears, and she shut the door with a soft smile. A full family and a full heart indeed. She crossed back over to the window, intending to draw the drapes, when a thought occurred to her. She did know what had happened to Jose. He had been arrested, but with no body it appeared that the charges were to be dropped. He hung himself in his cell before they could. Without his love, his jealousy, and his rage, he had nothing. He was buried, she'd heard, in a potter's field outside of the city. But she could not tell the grandchildren this, not yet, perhaps not ever.
She stared out the window at the night, draped like black silk over the countryside. There were gentle footsteps on the floor behind her, and she turned.
"How much did you tell them?" Micaëla asked, slipping an arm around her waist. "I hope you didn't scare them."
"Querida mia." She placed a kiss on the other woman's wrinkled cheek, then a gentle one on her mouth. "I told them the truth, but wrapped in the gentle veil of a story. Shouldn't they know how their family started? And, for now, it is only a story, with heroes and villains, bullfights and great escapes, love and drama."
"And a happy ending, I hope?"
"But of course. They wouldn't sleep otherwise. And why change the truest part of the story?"
The other woman hummed a familiar melody and smiled. "Ah, mi Carmencita." After following her down the stairs, Micaëla opened the front door to the farmhouse and they stepped onto the porch, settling in two side-by-side chairs looking out into the countryside.
Carmen reached into the deep pocket of her colorful skirts, pulling out matches and a handrolled cigarette. After she lit it, she slipped her hand into her wife's. She sighed deeply and dragged on the cigarette before exhaling, blowing fragrant smoke into the starry Spanish night.