|<- Back to main page|
by Charlene Koski
In the desert, water is everything. Yessenia is only fifteen, but already she understands this. She has lived her entire life in a desolate, drought-stricken village in northern Mexico, where famished livestock stumble through the dusty landscape and pesticides taint the stagnant remains of rivers and streams.
“Everything here is dead,” her father says as he steers the truck to avoid a cow carcass sprawled across the road. His words drip with bitter resignation. “It wasn’t always like this. Every year, the water is less.”
Yessenia has heard it before. There is nothing inconsequential about water in the desert. Without enough water, there is only death. For as long as Yessenia can remember, there has never been enough water.
The late afternoon sun singes her skin through the window. She rolls it down and lets her hand ride the current like a bird. In the side view mirror, the carcass disappears behind a plume of dirt and exhaust. Outside, the familiar terrain whirs by. Barbed wire strung post-to-post guarding empty acres of creosote and dust.
It is 2004 and there is too little water, no work, and not enough to eat. The cartel is moving in, with its drug crops and American guns. Yessenia’s father says he is making arrangements through his cousin, Rene, for them to move upstream, to Arizona, where there is still plenty of water. There, he says, they have contorted and strained the laws of nature to allow for sprawling cities and pursuits of livelihood: Power, sanitation, mining, irrigation. Pump, divert, siphon, suck. Enough water to grow crops year-round.
“In the United States,” her father says, “only the lazy fail.”
To prepare Yessenia, her father quizzes her on American trivia and insists they speak English. Yessenia doesn’t mind, except when they talk about the actual plan—when he tells her what she will have to do, and what will happen if she fails. Yessenia prays they won’t have to go through with it. She tells herself they are simply taking precautions. All of this planning makes it easier to believe they have a say in how things turn out. Her father is a dreamer. He dreams. That’s all it is.
And yet every week, he becomes more emphatic. Less hesitant. She hears it in his voice. Sees it in the way he looks at the land, the house, her. She notices, but pretends she doesn’t, until the day finally comes when she can no longer pretend.
It’s still dark outside when he shakes her awake and motions for her to stay quiet. Even then, she thinks, maybe it’s a test. Half expecting to return to bed after the drill, she pulls on a pair of pants and a t-shirt, wipes the sleep from her eyes, and lets her father lead her outside to the truck. When he opens the passenger door and ushers her inside, her pulse quickens. She climbs onto the seat and watches as her father walks around to the other side. She hopes he won’t get behind the wheel, but he does. Then she hopes he won’t turn the key. But he does.
As they pull away, she looks back at their house. Her bedroom window is dark. She thinks of her unmade bed on the other side. Her clothes. Her dictionary. The spinning top her father gave her when she was three. The arrowhead she found last summer. Who will find her things? What will they think happened to her? She doesn’t stop looking until there’s nothing left to see.
At the end of the gravel drive, they head west, toward the village. They pass the road leading to the house of Yessenia’s best friend, Gabriela. They continue past the sun-cracked riverbeds, the village and its empty shops. Yessenia memorizes the details, burning them into her mind like a photograph. Too soon, everything she knows is behind her, and there is only the glare of the headlights on an unfamiliar road. She looks at her father and wishes he would look at her, but he doesn’t. And so they ride quietly apart—Yessenia lost in the past, her father in the future.
Just after sunrise, they pull into a mechanic’s garage. Inside, a scrawny man Yessenia doesn’t know leans against a Ford Bronco. She notices the vehicle’s faded paint, its cracked windshield coated in grime. Her father cuts the engine and climbs out. He wants her to follow, which, of course, she does. She stands beside him as he squats next to the Bronco. He points to a metal box bolted to the undercarriage. Motions for her to climb inside. She wants to say no. This is a mistake. They should forget about the water and the crops and go home. What they have is good enough. She opens her mouth to say so. But when she looks at her father, she can’t. His face is stern. His gestures impatient. But his eyes. They say, I know I ask too much. And so she bites her tongue and says, “Okay.”
He helps her maneuver into the box. She just fits if she lays prone, arms at her side. He pats her shoulder before pulling away. “You’ll be fine. It’s as we discussed. Everything will be fine.”
Yessenia nods and tries to smile, but now that she’s here, in the box, it’s worse than she imagined.
The door closes.
A latch clicks.
Someone has punched tiny holes into the metal walls for air, and shadows flicker against the scattered dots of light. The vehicle dips as her father and the driver climb inside. She hears the muffled sounds of her father being secured inside his own box beneath the back seat, just above her, and wonders if anyone punched holes into a wall for him.
She tries to steady her breathing as the engine misses a few times, then settles into a steady roar. The fumes overwhelm her. She coughs. As the Bronco starts to move, she closes her eyes against the burn. Her head is turned left, and there’s no room to turn it any other way. As they drive, gravel pelts her face. Her arm goes numb. The heat intensifies. Sweat trickles into her eyes and dust stings her throat. She struggles to get air. Something sharp jabs her leg and she shifts her weight to avoid it. She wants to scream for someone to let her out, but knows she needs to be quiet. Her father told her it was the most important thing.
She closes her eyes and thinks of her mother. Yessenia never knew her. She’s been dead as long as Yessenia’s been alive. But her father always told Yessenia she has her mother’s hands. Now she pictures those hands, as she has so many times before, with long thin fingers like her own. Braiding her hair, caressing her. Yessenia imagines it is her mother holding her, not a metal box anchored to the bottom of a truck.
She loses track of where they are. How far they have gone. How far they have to go. The truck lurches right and left. Stops and goes. Every time it brakes, Yessenia holds her breath and waits. At different points, she hears male voices, car engines, barking dogs, a crying baby. A tinny Britney Spears song playing on a radio.
Finally, the truck stops and the engine sputters to silence. Then a car door. A man clears his throat. Shuffling in the dirt. Yessenia holds her breath. The latch clicks. The door opens. When she sees her father’s face, her heart soars. “You’re okay?” he asks. Then, when he sees she is, “I told you it would be fine.” He helps her out and pulls her to him.
“Te quiero,” he whispers as she finally allows herself to breathe.
The Bronco has stopped on a dirt road. The only other vehicle in sight is a U-Haul truck idling ahead, with the back door open. A white man in a faded ball cap standing near the truck waves them over. Inside the truck’s cargo area, other migrants wait. Yessenia’s father gives her a boost, then follows her inside. Another metal box. The same waft of grease and dust, now mixed with the sour stench of anxious men. A door shuts and a latch clicks, but this time there are no holes for light or air.
The truck drives hard. The temperature soars. A man to Yessenia’s left lets out a breathy, high-pitched laugh and rocks back and forth, banging his fists on the floor.
“Shut up!” someone hisses. He only laughs harder.
“Idiota!” someone else shouts and shoves the man hard into the wall. After that, he is quiet. Yessenia’s father takes her hand. She closes her eyes. Tries not to think about her dry throat, the dust on her skin, the salty sweat on her chapped lips.
At first, the men in the truck groan with every bump and turn. But it is sweltering. They are roasting. Soon they lack energy even to groan, which leaves only the sound of the truck and the bodies jostling inside. Yessenia’s muscles ache. The space is tight and dark. What she wouldn’t give for a breeze. A sip of water. But there is only the heat, the stink, the clatter of the truck pounding down the highway.
Finally, they slow. Then stop. A hush settles over the men. When the door opens, they shield their eyes against the sun. The driver looks in and nods at Yessenia’s father.
“You two,” he says. “Let’s go.”
Together, Yessenia and her father climb out. When they are clear, the driver slams the door, then hoists himself back into the driver’s seat. When the truck pulls away, there are no goodbyes or good lucks. No cheers or waves. Yessenia and her father stand alone at the side of the road, feet firmly planted on new ground, afternoon sun in their faces.
“This way.” Her father motions toward a nearby gravel road and begins walking. They walk a long time. They do not talk. Not about how thirsty they are. How hot. How tired. Yessenia keeps her head down, watches her feet shuffle through the dirt. By the time they reach the ranch’s main gate, the sun has nearly set.
Rene meets them on the road. “Antonio!” he says.
Yessenia’s father clasps Rene’s hand, then gestures toward Yessenia and, in Spanish, introduces her.
Rene smiles at them both. “Let’s get you settled,” he says. He leads them across a bridge spanning a wide dry wash, toward a set of wooden barracks. He explains that Yessenia will stay with the single women and her father will stay with the single men. They will sign up for work in the morning.
At the women’s barracks, Rene nudges Yessenia forward and bangs on the door. A petite stern-looking woman answers. Her skin is tinged with dirt. Her hair hangs over her shoulders in two frayed braids. She looks at Yessenia. Her father. Rene.
“Theresa, this is Yessenia,” Rene says. “You’ll find her water and a bed?”
Theresa looks at Yessenia, then takes her by the arm. “Yep,” she says, leading her into the barracks.
Yessenia’s father calls out, “I’ll find you in the morning.”
Yessenia turns back. Her father stands stark against the dimming sky. Sweat stains. Greasy arms. Scraped skin. He looks smaller in this new place. Older. The magnitude of what they have done strikes Yessenia then—how far they are from anything she knows. She has only her father, and now he is leaving. She yanks free of Theresa and moves toward him. Wraps her arms around his waist.
He holds her a moment, then in a whisper repeats, “I will find you in the morning.” With that, he gently aims her back toward Theresa and turns to follow Rene. They walk along the road toward the men’s barracks. Neither looks back. When they reach the building, Rene opens the door and Yessenia’s father follows him inside. The door closes.
It’s only good night, not goodbye. Yessenia tells herself this, but watches a moment longer. When the door remains closed, she finally allows Theresa to lead her inside.
Twenty sets of bunks line the unfinished walls. Wool blankets cover some of the mattresses, but mostly it’s sheets of various colors and patterns. A guitar stands propped against one of the corners. In the back, cooking pans and plastic cups clutter a utility sink and card table. Two electric hot plates sit unplugged on a shelf. Clothing in different states of cleanliness hangs from the ceiling and has been draped across beds and chairs. An open window lets in a warm breeze, but it does little to freshen things. The women shuffle across the concrete floor. Yessenia can smell them. Their sweat, their dirt, their hot sour breath.
Theresa motions toward the kitchen area, then heads back to one of the bunks. Yessenia makes her way to the sink. She takes a cup from the table and is about to fill it when a stout woman stops her. The woman might be thirty or sixty. Everything about her is tired, dusty, and sun-worn. Except her eyes. Her eyes are dark and clear and alert. The woman looks at the faucet, crinkles her nose, shakes her head. From beneath a nearby bunk she retrieves a bottle of water. Holds it out for Yessenia.
“Gracias,” Yessenia says. She drinks too quickly and some of the water trickles down her chin.
“My name is Maria,” the woman says in English. “I remember what it was like. Today you need good water, not sink water.”
Yessenia finishes the bottle. Her stomach rumbles, but she is too exhausted to care. She scans the room for a place to lie down. Maria gestures toward a bare mattress. Yessenia thinks she says thank you as she collapses onto the bed, but can no longer tell with certainty whether she is speaking out loud. She’s asleep in seconds.
Maria removes Yessenia’s sandals, covers her with a sheet. Places another bottle of water on the floor next to the bed, just in case.
It’s still dark outside when someone turns on the light. Yessenia squints and pulls the sheet over her head, but it doesn’t help much. She tries to ignore the sound of creaking bedsprings as the other women start to get up. Finally, Maria shakes her awake. The motion reminds Yessenia of her father, rousing her the same way just the day before, gesturing for her to stay quiet. Leave everything behind.
“Buenos días—rise and shine,” Maria says, tugging at Yessenia’s sheet. “Here.” She tosses a rag onto the bed. “Use the sink. Then we go. The toilet’s outside. I’ll show you on our way.”
Yessenia sits up. All of the room’s light comes from a single bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling that casts shadows all around. Women scurry. Dressing, buttoning, straightening. A few huddle around the sink. Washing, rinsing, brushing.
Someone has left two granola bars on the floor next to Yessenia’s water. She immediately devours one and sticks the other in her back pocket. It occurs to her she has no clean clothes. She straightens her t-shirt and tries to brush off some of the dirt. Maria notices and says they’ll find her some clothes tomorrow. Yessenia slips on her shoes and walks to the sink. She is stiff and sore. She wets the rag. Scrubs at the filth on her skin. A clock on the wall says 4 a.m.
“Vámonos!” Maria shouts from the doorway. Yessenia and the others follow her outside. Maria points to a fiberglass outhouse several yards away. “You can use it,” she says to Yessenia, “or you can take the paper to the field.”
Yessenia doesn’t understand why she wouldn’t use it until she gets closer. Then she notices the odor, the flies, the filth. She holds her breath, opens the door, rips some paper from the spool, and rushes to the nearby field. When she is finished, she catches up to the other women and follows them down the road to a barn.
Her father is there, waving. She runs to him. Rene approaches and tells them to follow.
“I will take you to see Mister Chance,” he says. On the way, he tells Yessenia, “If he asks, if anyone asks, you’re sixteen.” Uncertain, Yessenia looks at her father. He nods his approval of this lie.
Rene leads them to a white Chevy pickup parked next to the barn. The interior dome light is bright in the morning darkness. Before Yessenia sees the face of the man sitting at the steering wheel, she notices his wide-brimmed hat, his silver hair, the way he keeps one bony elbow slung out the window. He’s studying papers on a clipboard.
“Mister Chance,” Rene says, “this is Antonio and his daughter, Yessenia. I told you about them. They arrived last night.”
Mister Chance is silent. His focus remains on the clipboard. After a few long minutes, he looks at Yessenia’s father. Pools of crystal blue peer through a mask of pale sun-toughened skin. Yessenia has never seen eyes like that.
“Hours are five to two, but you’ll work ‘til we’re done. I won’t tolerate slackers,” Mister Chance says. “You get fifteen minutes in the morning, thirty for lunch, fifteen in the afternoon. I see you take more, it comes directly out of your wages.”
Yessenia’s father nods. “Yessir.”
“We’ll start you on melon pitching. See how it goes. Wages are sixty for the day, minus the taxes, the drinking water, and the rent.” Mr. Chance turns to Yessenia. “We’ll put you on weeds and packing. ‘Course, you’re small, so the wage is less. Forty a day. Same costs. We’ll take those out, so you don’t need to figure it.”
“Yessir,” Yessenia says. Her father places a reassuring hand on the back of her neck. Mister Chance takes their names. Writes them on his clipboard.
“All right then. Go on,” he says without looking up.
Yessenia follows her father and Rene back toward the others. Her father thanks his cousin for the work.
“De nada,” says Rene. “Mister Chance is tough, but he usually pays what he says.” At the barn, Rene gestures toward the women gathering to one side and looks at Yessenia. “They’ll show you what to do,” he says. Then he motions for Yessenia’s father to follow him. “We’re over here.”
Yessenia’s father kisses her lightly on the top of her head. “The first day of our new future,” he whispers before walking away.
The women train Yessenia. Every morning, they start in the fields. They teach her to separate weeds from vines. To pull by the root: Dig, twist, tug. To pace herself. To avoid the chalky film on the leaves. “Medicine to the plants, poison to you.” In the afternoons, they pack melons onto trucks. The days are long, the work hot and gritty. At breaks, they take turns drinking water from warm plastic jugs. They ration to make it last. One hard day bleeds into the next, into the next. The soil stains Yessenia’s hands. She develops a rash on her arms. To distract herself, she sometimes imagines what her friend Gabriela might be doing back home. Going to school, gossiping with their friends, fighting with her brothers. But even as she daydreams, Yessenia works hard. Quick and efficient. Never complains. She can tell from the way her father looks at her that he is proud.
He was right about the work. It is demanding. Punishing. But there is plenty of it. He was also right about the water. The ranchers have harvested it and put it to use. Yessenia can’t help but marvel at the miles of concrete-lined irrigation canals that frame the fields. The water glistens in the summer sun. It beckons, especially in the intense heat of late afternoon. She’s tempted to dip her feet in, douse her clothes, splash water on her face. But the women have warned her to stay away, that the water is unclean, the current swift. Yessenia settles for admiring it from a distance, which is exactly what she is doing when Maria walks up next to her and says, “It’s ours, you know.”
Yessenia looks at her friend.
“Why do you think our streams and rivers are dry?” Maria says. “Here is all the water. ”
Yessenia watches the water sparkle and splash and thinks of the riverbeds near her home.
“All their pumps and ditches and dams,” Maria mutters, shaking her head as she continues pulling weeds nearby. “They took it all. They will use it all. And then their rivers will dry up, too.”
Yessenia says nothing, but watches the water a little longer, and wonders. Until now, she had seen it simply as a sign of ingenuity. Prosperity. But of course there must be more to it than that.
That night, she and her father take their dinners outside and sit on a stretch of wooden fence. A few yards away, water courses through a canal. Beyond that, melon fields sprawl nearly to the mountains. Even in the waning light, the contrast between the flourishing fields and the scorched desert is striking.
Yessenia has never felt so far from home.
“Everything okay?” her father asks.
“Yes,” she says.
“You sound serious. Worried about school? I told you, you can start up again after harvest.”
“I know, papa.”
“School is better here. You’ll like it. And they’ll like you.” He elbows her. “Especially if you aren’t too serious.”
Yessenia doesn’t want to talk about school. She liked her old one just fine and, besides, it seems unimportant now. She changes the subject. “Maria says this water is Mexico’s.”
“Well,” he says, “Maria tells tales.” He takes a few more bites. Looks out at the mountains, toward home. “But anyway, what does it matter? All that counts is, who has the water now. I don’t remember seeing it in Mexico. Do you?”
Yessenia shakes her head.
Her father is quiet, then says, “I know you miss it. But remember what it was like. There were no good choices there. The water is here. The work is here. The opportunities are here,” he says.
“I know,” Yessenia says. “But, is she right? Is it our water?”
“Of course not. And, even if it was, it’s not anymore. Why dwell on these things? Yessenia, look around you. We are here. We made it. This land—this country—this is prosperity. This is success. If we fail now, it will not be because we lacked a chance. Hard work. It comes down to that.”
Yessenia nods, but her father is the hardest worker she knows. It seems to her that that has never been enough.
The weeks go by. In addition to teaching her how to work the fields, the women teach Yessenia what she needs to know to survive in the United States. They talk in hushed tones on breaks and over meals. They speak of children who go missing and parents who disappear. The key, they say, is to avoid la chota at all costs.
“Never let your guard down, child,” Maria tells her. She places a weathered hand on Yessenia’s shoulder and drops her voice. “If they see you, they will take you.”
Yessenia later learns they had, in fact, taken Maria’s son.
“If you hear sirens, run,” adds someone else. “Don’t stop to find your father or your friends, or any of us.”
“That’s right,” says another. It’s Theresa this time. “They don’t care if you are with someone. They don’t care if you have family. They will send you back.” She leans forward and rips an invisible piece of paper in half.
The women go on and on. Don’t trust strangers. Don’t touch spiders. Don’t get in the way. Don’t wander. Don’t eat the melons. Don’t drink from the hose. Don’t go barefoot. She listens carefully. Nods when she needs to. For the most part she does as she is told, though when no one is looking she sometimes drinks from the hose.
No one mentions the monsoon.
In the weeks leading up to the first storm of the season, the summer heat smothers everything. Colors wither. Breezes die. Even the jugged water is so hot it hurts to drink. The workers shuffle through the fields. They lack energy even to make eye contact with one another. Every task is grueling. Every step difficult. No one speaks. No one laughs.
Then one afternoon, at the height of misery, the monsoon arrives. Tall dark clouds cluster on the southern horizon, where they hover briefly before charging across the desert. The sky turns a light shade of purple as the storm darkens the sun. Then the rain begins, punching viciously at the brittle terrain. Yessenia stands outside in the downpour, arms outstretched, reveling in the assault, letting the water soak her through.
That night, after the skies have cleared, she sits with her father on the embankment of a wash that runs beneath the bridge. It’s the perfect night for it. The air is cool and tinged with the scent of that day’s rain. Yessenia’s father has spread a wool blanket on the ground, as have some of the other workers. On a night like this, some of the men will undoubtedly choose to sleep outside.
Yessenia’s father talks with another man who sits nearby. They speak in Spanish. The sound of their conversation, with its familiar words and rhythms, comforts Yessenia. She lies on her back and looks at the stars—nearly as bright and vivid as back home. The rain has cut the heat and for the first time in weeks she is comfortable. A soft roll of thunder serves as a lullaby as the storm moves through the mountain passes. Her eyes close and she begins to drift to sleep.
“Yessenia.” Her father nudges her gently. “Wake up. You need to go to bed.”
Yessenia sighs. “Can I stay?”
He laughs. “To bed with you. Look. All the other women have already gone.”
She sees her father is right. The other women, and most of the men, have retreated to the barracks. The few still there have staked out their positions for the night, using the overpass as a shelter and blankets as beds. Yessenia doesn’t understand why only the men sleep outside, but knows she isn’t going to change her father’s mind tonight. Grudgingly, she stands and prepares to go as her father wraps himself in the blanket and prepares for sleep.
“Cheer up,” he says, rolling onto his side. “Tomorrow we’ll go to town. Think of what you need, okay? Maybe some socks? Some chocolate?”
She bends down to kiss his cheek. “Actually, yes. Now that you mention it, I need some chocolate.”
“I thought you would,” he says, and they laugh.
She says good night and returns to the barracks, leaving her father to sleep in the cool night air beneath a canopy of stars. She doesn’t look back. Not once. When she reaches the barracks, she goes quietly to her bunk and tucks herself in.
Since the border crossing, she has had the same dream most nights. In it, she is locked in the barracks (or a car, a room, a box) and hears people running outside, calling for her. She calls back but no one hears. She bangs on the door but her fists make no sound. She knows, no matter how hard she tries, no one will come for her. No one knows she is there.
She groans in her sleep and nearly rolls off the bed, startling herself awake. She sits up. The room is stuffy and hot. She’s uncomfortable and decides she needs fresh air, so gets out of bed and slips outside. Without actually deciding to do so, she wanders toward the wash where she left her father. She thinks she will just look in on him—not for any reason other than it’s something to do. The moon is not quite full, but bright enough to cast shadows and light her way. Crickets chirp. The air smells of dust and creosote. Already she is feeling better. This place isn’t home, but, at times like this, it isn’t terrible.
As she nears the top of the wash, a sound catches her ear. She stops. Applause? She looks down the embankment to where she left her father a few hours earlier. Something is different. The ground is too dark. And it’s—moving? She quickens her pace, slipping and skidding down the slope. She doesn’t see her father, or any of the other men. Where did they go? Where is her father? Her breath catches. What she thinks is, he left me.
As she moves closer to the spot where she last saw him, her mind begins to catch up. It is not applause, and the ground is not moving. It is water—everywhere, roaring and cracking. But the wash was dry when she left. Wasn’t it? How can there be this much water this fast?
Yessenia’s eyes dart. Searching. She can’t bring herself to yell. Yelling would mean this is real. She stumbles to the water’s rapidly rising edge. Far downstream, the thin arms of a Palo Verde tree spike through the wet surface like splintered bone. Moments ago, the tree had stood firmly rooted in dry desert ground. Now water crashes against its trunk, threatening to upend it. But something is off. Yessenia strains to see. There’s something—someone?—in the branches. She runs along the water’s edge. Her sandals slip on the gravel. Is it him?
Finally, she calls out: “Papa?” She runs faster, straining for a better look. She can make out a shirt. An arm. A hand. It’s him! He’s in the tree.
“Papa!” But then she can’t tell. Is it really him? What color was his shirt? She can’t remember. “Papa!” She shouts again. He gives no sign of hearing. As she runs, she looks for some way to reach him. Part of the bridge has been washed away and she sees no other way across. Everywhere she looks, nothing but angry torrents of water, screaming at her to go away. She runs a few more feet. She needs to reach him before the tree breaks or he’s washed away, and she needs to approach from upstream or she will miss him altogether. Without any more thought than that, she leaps into the flood.
The current catches her. She swallows a mouthful of water that tastes like dirt. Coughs and kicks as hard as she can. Fights the current. Aims for the tree and thinks she will miss it, but, somehow, does not. As she grabs hold, she ignores the sting of branches scratching at her face and wraps her legs tightly around the submerged trunk.
She was right. There’s a man in the tree, his figure twisted through the branches. She tugs at his shirt and struggles to lift his head out of the water. Turns him toward her.
It’s him. Yessenia is so relieved, she almost laughs.
“Papa?” She pulls him closer. His free arm floats, motionless, like the scarecrow in the melon field with its stained, overstuffed shirt. She clings to the tree. Clings to him. Cries in his ear: “Papa, please. Wake up. It’s me!”
The tree shifts. Yessenia’s grip loosens. She gasps and inhales more gritty water. How do I get him out of the tree? Debris rushes by—tree branches, a wooden crate. Then, a sudden movement on the other side of the wash. Red and blue flashing lights. La chota.
If they see me, they will take me.
But she has no choice. She tries to yell for help, but every time, the water chokes her.
She doesn’t see the piece of wood until it slams into her. The impact knocks her father around so Yessenia can finally see his full face. She looks into his eyes—eyes that have watched over her, that can make her feel with a single glance safe, loved, sorry. Eyes that always looked to the future with more hope and confidence than Yessenia has ever felt. Those eyes stare past her now, open and unblinking. Unfamiliar. Void of comfort. A purple gash on his forehead barely bleeds. His skin is too light. His black hair, which had only recently started to gray, lies flat against his scalp. His mouth hangs open, the angle not quite right.
The water silences her.
She grips her father. I will not let you go. But he is heavy. The branches dig at her skin. She struggles to pull him closer, but the harder she pulls, the harder the water pulls back. Her left arm begins to cramp.
She hears yelling and looks. It’s Maria, standing on the other side of the wash watching Yessenia and glancing occasionally over her shoulder toward the red and blue lights. She shouts something. Yessenia strains to understand but, when she does, wishes she hadn’t.
“Let him go!”
The words cut Yessenia clean through. What does she mean, let him go? Yessenia shakes her head. She won’t. Maria shouts. Again, Yessenia shakes her head. No.
The water takes Yessenia then. It sucks her down below its dark surface. The weight of her father pushes her deeper.
She starts to let go.
And then she is angry. At herself, her father, the ranch, the desert, the flood. This country. She kicks and kicks until, finally, she breaks through the surface. Dry air rushes at her face. The tree sways under her weight. She tries to shift her balance, but she can feel the branches giving way. No, no, no. Then everything happens at once. The branches snap. Yessenia loses her grip on the trunk. Her father is ripped away.
Brushes against her fingertips.
Yessenia tumbles and tosses, untethered, like another piece of debris being swept downstream. She fights to keep her head up. When she sees the embankment, she clutches at it and, on the second try, gets hold. She heaves herself out of the current. Lies on her stomach a moment and catches her breath. Then she forces herself to stand. She turns around and scans the water. No sign of her father. Her chest tightens. Her eyes burn.
I left him. How could I have just left him there?
She looks at Maria, still on the other side of the wash. The flashing red and blue lights grow bigger. Brighter. Yessenia considers staying where she is, letting them take her, but Maria is motioning toward the desert. She wants Yessenia to run.
Yessenia wipes the water from her face and looks at her hands, her mother’s narrow fingers silhouetted against the faint glow of the emergency lights. Already the water has risen. Yessenia can feel it lapping against her feet. Taunting her. She wonders briefly if it would carry her all the way home. If the water, unbridled and untapped, would once again make it that far.
Maria, still waving frantically, is yelling at her to go. Even as Yessenia again shakes her head, she knows, in the same reluctant way she knew her father needed to leave their home in the first place, that Maria is right.
Yessenia turns from the wash and starts to run, stumbling at first. Her legs are tired, but then she finds her footing. She feels the gap separating her from her father widen as she goes. Gradually, the applause fades. Her clothes begin to dry, cool against her skin. She makes for the soft hum of the distant highway, her slight figure darting between the saguaros, blending with the shadows. She pushes herself as long as she can, but her legs finally give out. She falls. Gets back up. Falls. Until she can’t get up again.
She makes it to a rocky area near a cluster of mesquite and props herself against a boulder. Pulling her knees to her chest, she gazes toward the hazy aura of the ranch. Even from this distance it pulses with rhythmic bursts of red and blue.
In the pit of her stomach, she feels panic start to take hold. She tries to remember what it felt like to walk from the open desert to her sleeping father, knowing he was there. She tries to tell herself he’s still sleeping. He will soon wake and tell her yet again of his hopes for their future, his faith in hard work, his love of this land. She tries.
She doesn’t realize she has fallen asleep until sunlight wakes her the next morning. Her arms and legs are stiff. Her neck aches. She struggles to make sense of her surroundings and looks around for her father. But as the trees and cacti come into focus, so does the night before.
She leans her head back against the boulder and closes her eyes, waiting for the nausea to pass. When she opens them a few minutes later, she notices a lizard sunning itself on a nearby rock. So ordinary, it shocks her. But there it is. Her father is gone. But the sun came out. The rock warmed. The lizard positioned itself accordingly. Breathe in, breathe out. What else is there? And so she stands, takes a deep breath, and begins the long trek back to the ranch.
She arrives that afternoon. The women gasp at the sight of her and rush to bring her food and water. Someone wraps her in a sheet. Maria pushes through the crowd. She grips Yessenia’s shoulders and looks her in the eye.
“Mija,” she whispers. “You will be fine.” Why do we tell each other that? Yessenia wonders. Still, she rests her head on Maria’s shoulder and tries to believe her.
For two days, Yessenia stays in bed. Awake, she can think of only the flood. Silently, she replays every detail. The water. The tree. His eyes. His face. She cannot stop seeing it. Asleep, she dreams about what she didn’t see—the flood crashing into him and washing him away. Panic. Terror. Did he scream? Did he call her name?
Maria tends to her. Coaxes her. Tries to get her to eat.
On the third day, Yessenia opens her eyes to find Rene sitting on a chair next to her bed. When he sees she is awake, he says, “They found your father’s body, Yessenia. And two others. A few miles downstream.” He says he thought she would want to know. The county medical examiner collected the remains and will dispose of them. “It’s best,” he says. “There’s nothing else to be done.”
His expression is warm, but matter-of-fact. He waits for a response. But what is there to say? His words devastate her, but she can think of no reason to dispute them. And so she says, “Okay.” That word—the very breath of it—extinguishes her last flicker of hope.
Rene hands her a plastic grocery bag. “Your father’s things.” The bag contains about eight hundred dollars and two of her father’s shirts. She pulls it to her chest, then turns back to the wall. Closes her eyes.
On the fourth day, three new workers arrive at the barracks. The other women greet them and show them to their beds. Yessenia watches without getting up. They are sunburned. Filthy. Fatigued. They stagger to bare mattresses, one of which, Yessenia notices, belongs to Theresa.
Yessenia sits up and looks for Maria. Catches her eye. “Where is she?” Yessenia asks, gesturing toward Theresa’s bed.
Maria walks toward Yessenia and lowers her gaze.
“The flood?” Yessenia asks.
“No sé. La chota, perhaps. They took some.”
Yessenia shakes her head. She hadn’t even noticed Theresa was missing. What else had she missed? The night of the flood, she had seen the flashing emergency lights, but the others would have been asleep. They wouldn’t have known what was happening. All this time, Yessenia had been thinking of the flood as something that happened to her and her father. She hadn’t thought of the others. She looks at Maria.
“How did you—”
Maria keeps her eyes down and speaks softly. “I hid. After you ran. I hid.”
Yessenia notices a stained bandage wrapped around Maria’s forearm. “What happened?”
Maria hides the bandage. “It’s nothing,” she says. “They came for the flood. To save the ranch. I ran outside when I saw lights and there you were, running. And then you disappeared. I called out. But you disappeared.” Her voice trails off. “I tried to warn the others.” Maria pauses. “Your father is gone, mija. You have to choose now, what you will do.”
Yessenia doesn’t want to choose. She wants her father back. If only she had stayed there, maybe she would have heard the flood coming. If only she had said no when he pointed to that metal box, maybe they would both be safe at home. She lies down again and buries her face in her pillow. She cries softly, so the others don’t hear. She cries for herself. Her father. Theresa. For everything that should have been and will never be.
On the fifth day, Yessenia gets out of bed because she knows she must. She washes. Eats breakfast. Works her shift in the fields. Mister Chance cruises his truck nearby, surveying the workers. He slows to get a better look. Yessenia feels his blue eyes sizing her up, like livestock. Trying to decide if she is worth keeping, even with her father gone. She wants to shout at him to leave her alone. I am not a mule! And you are a cheat who did not deserve my father! Instead, she channels her anger into her work. Walks the rows. Yanks weeds firmly by their roots. Dig. Twist. Tug. She finds her pace and doesn’t break. Not even to wipe the sweat. The truck moves on.
That evening she walks to the bridge, already repaired. She sits on the embankment and gazes down the wash. It’s empty now, except a few muddy patches and bits of debris. The desert has reclaimed every drop of the flood. Yessenia sits on the ground near the spot where less than a week ago she had sat next to her father, where he had breathed and spoken and laughed, as though he always would. She wears one of his shirts and every now and then catches his scent. She wonders how long before it fades.
What now? Return to Mexico? There is nothing for her there. Hardship and struggle. Memories of a life she will never get back. No, Mexico no longer fits. Everything is here. The water. The work. The future her father wanted for her. But something about this place doesn’t fit, either. Her father embraced this country, but Yessenia isn’t sure she can. It has taken too much, and she knows it will take more. This land is tainted, she thinks. Cruel. Greedy. Indifferent to suffering. Blind to justice.
She grabs a handful of rocks and lets them drop through her fingers one by one. The sun is setting and all around her the desert blazes pink and red. Along the embankment, barren just a week ago, orange and yellow wildflowers have bloomed. Beautiful.
The sky darkens to a deep violet. When the stars begin to show, Yessenia stands and brushes her hands against her jeans. She turns her back to the wash and starts toward the barracks. Her route takes her alongside an irrigation canal filled nearly to the brim with dark moving water. She walks near the edge, where the air is slightly cooler. She takes in the vastness of the sprawling ranch. Tall metal wheel lines adorn the fields. Moths flutter about the lush green mounds. She tries to see it as her father saw it: prosperity and opportunity everywhere he looked. In the desert, water is everything. She has long known this, but is only now beginning to understand. She takes a deep breath. The earth smells musky and sweet. She thinks about the work. The water. Her father’s words: If we fail, it will not be because we lacked a chance. She accepts that she must stay. Her course is set. It was set long before the flood. Before her father. Before her mother. Before she was even born. Everything brought her here.
As she continues along the canal, she looks for comfort in the familiar rhythmic crunch of gravel beneath her feet. The quiet splashing of irrigation water in the canal. A hushed clap of thunder in the distance. Sounds of progress. Sounds of her future.