In the desert secrets are cloaked in broken down cars, and concrete sand colored houses. Hot, sticky heat at the end of October felt strange for the time of year when the rest of the world was under a comforter of leaves and dustings of frost. Brisk night air, and obsidian colored skies blanketed the small desert town while Tate finished the last touches of his daughter's costume. The deserts of New Mexico was where Rio had been raised her entire life. The desert with its open expansive sky and land with nowhere to hide was all that she knew.
“Hold still Rio. I just have to just fix this. Okay! You are the cutest robot ballerina I’ve ever seen!!!”
Rio's dad adjusted her silvery gray tutu to stay on top of her robot chest plate made of aluminum foil and Chex cereal boxes. The makeshift robot garb slipped down a few times before when they did a test run of costume wearing. Tate wanted to make sure that Rio didn’t have any costume mishaps when she went out to trick or treat with her mom. This would be the first time Rio had trick or treated, and the first time she’d be spending time with her mom for longer than thirty minutes since her last stint in jail 8 months ago. Tate was nervous. He knew that at some point he had to trust Lola. He had to believe that she was really, truly better this time.
Lola was his ex, or something more complicated Tate wasn’t really sure where they stood. The love between Tate and Lola was deep and complicated, twisted like cords behind a television console. Electric and powerful, Lola fueled all of their adventures in life. Like the time they drove all the way from Santa Fe to Las Cruces on a whim, because Lola wanted to see what the sun setting on the Rio Grande looked like. They were like rebellious wayfarers traveling down the back highways to see the Rio Grande. That momentous, unplanned trip is how their daughter got her name.
Whatever was beautiful in life, Lola was a current drawn to the source. The beauty never sought her out, rather her body received the notes from the universe that she had to go to the loveliness no matter how distant it may have been.
As impulsive as Lola was, her smarts were equally matched. One morning Tate sat in his broken swivel chair, upholstered in velour corduroy fabric. Sipping his Mexican hot chocolate with a splash of coffee, and sprinkle of cinnamon he pivoted to the only direction the chair would go. Lola muttered some musings about the indigenous cacti that sat right outside of the window she leaned into.
“Ya know Tate this Cane Cholla is a pretty fascinating cacti. Did you know that the skeleton of the actual cactus is used to make canes and furniture and the like? Wouldn’t it be weird if they used our skeletons to make a walking stick?”
Lola was always pleasantly teaching Tate all about the desert and its bounty. He’d tell people upon introduction, “This is my girlfriend Lola. She’s the only reason I’m smart.” To which Lola would blush, cheeks the color of a grocery store pink carnation. She never bragged about her abundance of knowledge. Lola simply just shared, it was like breathing to her. Lola knew things and she felt things.
“Daddy! When is Momma going to be here?!” Rio darted from her fathers busy hands to the window by the Cane Cholla. “Daddy, when will the Cane flowers bloom again? I want Momma to make flour again, so I can make her cookies and she can come home.” Only Lola knew how to harvest the flowers that bloomed on the cactus. Like she knew everything else, Lola learned from her grandparents that the Natives used to harvest the flowers and turn them into a flour of sorts.
“If I remember correctly, they bloom in the late spring or early summer.”
Fidgeting with her tulle skirt, frustrated at her fathers answer, “That’s so far away Daddy. I want Momma to be home now.” Rio was five years old, and her patience and understanding of Lola’s absence was vague and circuitous. Discussing where her Momma was usually took Tate around and around in a metaphorical circle until he was dizzy with sadness. To be honest, Tate didn’t know when or even if Lola would be coming back.
Rio raced down the dusty pathway to the neighboring houses, five strides ahead of Lola. The moonlight reflected off of the tin foil on her tiny arms as she excitedly made her way down the road. That’s the thing about the desert, there are no sidewalks to keep people in line or uniformly arranged in a designated area. The desert allowed for precocious robot ballerinas to skip with joy to their next candy stop with the freedom every five year should have.
Occasionally Lola would hunch down, whispering to Rio “Not too far ahead my girl.” With the sweet guidance of her mother, Rio slowed her gait twirling her hand in her mothers. Rio had missed the way that she and her mother went so easily together. Like the way a lizard climbs onto a hot rock and eases in a visible state of relaxation.
“Momma, can you tell me about how you learned all about cactus? I love that story.” Rio beamed at her mothers motionless face, waiting.
“Well, when I was very little you know I lived with my grandparents right? Because my mommy and daddy weren’t here anymore.”
“Where were they? Your mommy and daddy? Did they go somewhere?”
Lola sighed, gathering her words for her wanting daughter. “No, they didn’t go anywhere in particular. I guess they just left one day. They were here, and then they just weren’t. Anyway, my Abuela and Abuelo were connected to this very land that we walk right now. Their ancestors before them lived off the earth and its gifts. To them the cactus was a precious plant, one with many healing properties.”
“What do they heal Momma?”
“I suppose lots of things. I don’t think I could list them all. But coughing is a simple one that cacti was used for.”
Rio, looked ahead at the dustiness of the path in front of her and back to her mother. “Do the cacti heal broken hearts?”
Lola, caught off guard stopped walking. Rio pushed forward, with a small jerk as if she weren’t prepared for the abrupt stop her mother had just made.
“Rio, what do you mean? Why did you ask me that?”
This question stopped Rio in her tracks, bringing a complete pause to her thinking they were headed to the next house for more treats.
“Daddy sad you had a broken heart and that’s why you haven’t come home yet. That you gotta heal, and get better.”
“Oh honey. It’s not that simple. I am getting better every day. I hope I can come home real soon, but the kind of sad I have takes time to heal.” Lola silently thanked the dark night sky for hiding her brimming eyes. Now wasn’t the time to appear weak to her daughter who was counting on her. Rio had the same current for life like Lola did, so she folded into the crook of her mothers neck and shoulder. Rio was in tune with people the way that Lola was in check with the land.
A gentle sob left Lola’s lungs as she pressed her hand to the temple of her daughters head pulling her into her very full lips.
“I love you my little Rio girl.”
“Mommy! Trick or treating is the most fun thing ever. Look at all my treats. I’m so glad I didn’t get tricked!” Rio kicked the dust up in front of her as her toes moved through the front yard of Sra. Graciela. “Sra. gave me sandia con chile momma! Daddy’s favorite!”
“It’s time we get back home Rio. Let’s make our way back to the car.”
Hand in hand they walked slowly, enjoying the gentle embrace of one another. Lola had promised to bring Rio back to Tate by 8:30pm. Driving the small car that she had borrowed from someone in the halfway house she’d been staying in for the past seven months, Lola was extra cautious. The darkness was sneaky and it wasn’t unlikely to have a snake or roadrunner on the dirt roads. Lola’s heart was heavy, and accidentally killing an animal wasn’t something she felt she could deal with. She pulled the car onto the street where she used to live with her family. Putting the car in park, she noticed Rio had nodded off. Lola took this time to unleash the trapped tears and grief of losing so much of her life and her heart to her sadness. If healing her broken heart were as easy as using the cactus that surrounded her, she’d be entirely whole. Nature was complicated like that, it gave as easily as it took away.
Succumbing to the cathartic feeling of crying so freely, her relaxed body slouched into the torn seat of the Geo Metro.
“You’ll never guess what happened Daddy!”
“What’s that my little Rio girl? How’d you get here? Where’s your mommy?”
“Momma told me to be real careful with candy. That sometimes the candy is actually a trick filled with poison. She told me told me if I found any with a weird eyeball on them I had to give them to her.”
Tate swooped down the dust covered yard frantically looking through the darkened night.
“She’s asleep daddy. Down the street, in her car. I got cold, and I knowed the way home so I walked.”
Tate coursed both hands through his hair with despair. Wiping away his worry, like a duck shaking water off of its feathers. Tate had grown waterproof to Lola’s antics, and he was kidding himself thinking she’d actually stayed sober this time. His hope for her sobriety was a terrible pain management plan, it delayed the inevitable. As he made his way to the powdery entryway to their front yard, he saw Lola’s car about a block away.
Running with all his might, Rio’s tiny legs obstructed by her ton foil covered tights tried to keep up. Her shouts were hardly audible to Tate who made his way to Lola who looked dead in her car. Before he could pound on the window a memory came to his mind.
They were at the Rio Grande, watching the sun come up Lola had said to Tate, “Tate. The river, and the cacti, and the openness of the land it’s so simple isn’t it? Don’t you ever wish you felt so certain and so uncomplicated? Like you just were, and that was enough.” The way the amber sun glowed onto the murky brown waters rapidly making their way through the riverbed felt omniscient. That the sun could still shine, and the waters could still be cloudy.
“Lola!!!! Lola!!!!! Please, LOLAAA!!” Tate pounded on the window, shouting the words in one long syllable panicking. Startled, Lola sat up petrified by all the screaming, eyes wide. Tate ripped the door open, throwing himself into her lap sobbing.
“What….what is? Where’s Rio?! Oh my god Tate I fell asleep, where is she?!”
Rio made the last few strides on her five year old feet to the car her parents were in. As she came to the side of the car, Rio did one tiny hike up on her tutu composing herself.
“What’s wrong daddy, did mommy give you a trick and not a treat? Why’re you crying??” Lola and Tate laughed in unison pulling Rio into their group hug. Maybe there were secrets in the desert as there were gifts. But like the cacti of the desert with its thorns, and hollow bones a there was the ability to heal, be repurposed into something new with certainty.