It was a hot day in the desert when the moisture rose from the ground and made the world shimmer like a sequin held in front of a candle. Across the hot sands a girl ran toward a dead tree, its limbs white and stripped of bark.
Elena’s black hair and purple skirt streamed behind her until she stopped and kicked off her shoes at the base of the tree. She grabbed onto the ladder tacked to the trunk and climbed the dusty rungs to sit in the little shade the treehouse, built between three naked branches, offered against the sun.
Elena drew her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on the smooth cloth of her skirt. She could not imagine smothering in a wedding gown nor crushing her wide feet in heels, or even lying with a man, choking on her own hot breath yet that was the future her father’s words spelled out for her.
Elena dragged her nails on the floor of the treehouse, feeling the wind sweep dust off the scrubby desert floor and plaster it to the sweat on her golden-brown face.
Elena started at the call of her twin sister’s sweet voice in the coarse sounds of the desert. She did not reply, but Margarita found her anyway, quickly scaling the ladder to the treehouse refuge of their childhood.
Margarita’s black head appeared before Margarita stepped off the ladder onto the floor. Not slender nor plumb but rounded, she said, “Father tells me you are to be married.”
Elena nodded. Her loose hair, identical to Margarita’s down to the split ends and hints of inky purple, swished across her back like a carpet cleaner. “I am afraid I will wear a ring before the week is up.”
“But what of your teaching?”
Elena raised her eyebrows and her moon-shaped face turned bitter. “Miguel will not allow it. No doubt I shall dwell in a bower and unveil myself only to his rough hands.”
Margarita sat down and crossed her legs. She glanced about the little tree house, with its peaked roof and short railings, and a small smile played on her rosebud lips. “This place used to be so big to us; a whole new world to escape into. Even now it seems our imaginations are kinder to us then reality.”
The rich green cloth of her skirt flowed around Elena as she tucked her legs beneath her. “I fear marriage, sister. Mama has told us such horrors at the hands of men and now she is dead! How I want to keep teaching; cling to the hope the girls I educate will have better lives then our own.”
The desert sighed with the twin sisters, offering a small breeze to ruffle Margarita’s dark veil against the dust. The tiny pink flowers and coughing green plants growing between the rocks in the little garden at the base of the tree the girls sat in turned smug faces to the sun, secure in their plant world against the troubles of young women.
“I know what is to be done,” Margarita said suddenly. “I will wed Miguel.”
Elena gasped. “Sister! You are a widow! Father will not hear of it.”
“Father will not know,” Margarita said. “And Miguel will find it hard to know I am no virgin after I work my magic on him before our wedding night.”
Elena shook her head. “I cannot allow you to suffer more, sister! You have already been violated by strangers, had your dead child cut from you, married a brute!”
“That part of my life is done,” Margarita said. “I must shield you against a torment no girl should ever know. Here in this treehouse as girls, we made many plans.; plans barred from us because of the duties of woman. You will make our dreams life for the girls you teach. That is your destiny. This is mine.”
“Oh, sister!” Elena cried. She reached for Margarita’s hand.
“You would not last two nights in bed with a barbarian such as Miguel,” Margarita said firmly. “But I have survived five men in one night and will endure.”
“If father discovers our deception, he will kill us.”
Margarita shrugged. “He knows us only by our clothes and colors, as most men do. Come, we must change clothes now to begin our deception.”
“I am to be wed three nights from now,” Elena said. She stood and began to untie the fastenings of her white lace bodice.
“Indeed,” Margarita said, pulling the purple ribbon from her hair. “You must help me draw a milk bath and prepare a rose water wash for my face.”
“You do not teach, Margarita,” Elena said. Her skirt swished as it swooped across the floor of the treehouse. “If I am to take your place and name, how can I still teach?”
“Margarita will teach in Elena’s stead as a tribute to her memory,” Margarita explained. “Father will not be suspicious; he knows we are close, and I am often sentimental.”
The sisters finished exchanging clothes and left the treehouse. Margarita put on Elena’s shoes discarded on the ground and the women joined hands on the quiet walk into the sunset home.
Home made itself known on the golden desert landscape; a majestic casita painted purple with a surrounding adobe wall and tended garden plots filled with prickling cacti exploding with purple flowers. The sisters entered through the wrought-iron gate and went up the path to the white door.
They entered the cool foyer and turned left into the hall, planning to settle into their seats in the living room. Passing their father’s office, the man called out through the open door, “Margarita! A word, if you please.”
For a moment the girls stared at each other before Elena remembered it was she who must answer the call. She thrust her head high, straightened the ribbon at her neck, and entered the office.
Elena, who was Margarita, continued down the hall into the vast living room, her skirt gently flowing with her stride. The room was brightened by light from two bay windows overlooking the muted tones of green and yellow and purple in the front garden.
A silk carpet covered the floor between two chairs and the velveteen sofa with its back to a second door in the wall opposite the windows. A man with broad shoulders stood near the bookcase opposite Elena, who was Margarita, as she entered the room. He turned to greet her.
“My darling bride!” he exclaimed. He discarded the book he held on the coffee table as he stepped around it and swept her into his embrace.
Miguel’s strong scent met Elena’s nose as she rested her head on his shoulder. His black beard tickled her neck before he let her go and his yellow eyes searched her face.
Elena, who was Margarita, planted a kiss on Miguel’s lips. She whispered, “Have no fear, my love, it is I, Margarita. I had no trouble convincing Elena to switch places with me.”
“Were there no fear of being discovered, I would show you how much I love you,” Miguel replied.
Margarita swept her slender hands through Miguel’s hair. “All these long years, you have lingered in my heart. Of all the men who harmed me that night, the memory of your touch still sweetens my dreams.”
“My gem,” Miguel said. “I have known ever since that night you were to be mine. This time we will have a child your father will not steal from your womb.”
Up the hall in the malevolent air of her father’s office, Margarita, who was Elena, faced the brutal eyes of the man behind the desk. With white hair and big hands, his aura threatened her.
“Father,” said Margarita, who was Elena. “It is done and I hold you to your promise.”
The man stood and came around the desk to hold Margarita’s chin. “So you have traded places with your sister, hmm?”
“It did not take much doing. She is a noble soul and wished to save me from torment.”
“Margarita is a widow, disgraced and not worthy to be married again. I am glad to have pawned her off on Miguel’s ignorant shoulders. As for you, Elena,” father said. “Take your petty freedom and go. I care not what happens to you after you leave my house.”
And so the sisters parted after the wedding, Margarita at the side of her husband who teased her in bed by calling her Elena, and Elena who skipped toward her destiny at the head of a schoolhouse. She teased herself at night by whispering Margarita.
And the old man back at the house smiled and thought, “Now those girls will not fuss when I marry again."