Marco Etheridge

The Broken Vow of Ramón Torres

The morning Ramón Torres broke his vow, he was standing at the corner of Loveless Gardner and Thunder Sky. The quiet lane was lined with pueblo-style houses, each wall painted in pastel hues chosen from a limited palette. The sun flared above the ridge of the Rincon Mountains. A promise of heat filtered through the shade of the acacia and mesquite trees. Fingers of slanting light reached through the shadows, illuminating the tall man.

Ramón Torres stood still; arrested in his walk. His shadow was still as well, cast as long and lean as he was. A woman, una mujer anglo, was standing in the middle of the narrow sidewalk, blocking his way. Her face was raised to the shadowed branches of an acacia over her head. He saw the tracks of two tears on the woman’s tanned face. His eyes followed hers into the low branches that shaded the sidewalk. He caught a flash of scarlet and black where a small bird was preening itself.

Words came from his mouth without his willing them.

“Excuse me, Señora, but are you unwell?”

The woman lowered her eyes to meet his. She made no attempt to hide her tears, nor did she answer his question.

“A vermillion flycatcher; it was my husband’s favorite bird.”

Ramón Torres nodded his head. There was a soft whirr and a blur of color as the bird darted from shadow into sunlight.

“The same is true for me, Señora. Certain birds may hold very powerful memories, as do certain flowers.”

She did not answer him. Without apology, she raised a corner of the shawl that was draped over her shoulders. Her face wiped clean of tears, she smiled at him. It was a good smile; a strong smile.

“I am interrupting your walk.”

It was a statement, not an apology.

“No, Señora, I would not say so.”

“Well, then, we could walk together if you would like.”

“I would be honored, Señora.”

They walked that morning as a man and a woman with a shared history. His words were formal and slow; hers as quick and darting as the swift small birds she pointed to. She spoke of her dead husband, how she had taken his name despite disliking the sound of it in her own mouth. She said the name always reminded her of a breakfast snack: Rose Ronson. Now she was Rose Mallory again. Not to refute the past; it simply sounded better. She and George had married late, both in their thirties. Two children followed, then twenty-five years of married life before the cancer took him. With George gone, she left the cold plains behind and fled to the desert. Her children and their families were scattered far to the North.

In his turn, Ramón Torres spoke of marrying his Olivia, of their happiness together. He told her of their four children, two boys and two girls; exactly as his Olivia had wanted. For his love as well, the cancer came, while their last daughter was still at the high school. Los Malos Años, he called them: The Bad Years. Rose Mallory nodded her head. She understood the Spanish words.

Their footsteps took them past houses painted in peach and ocher, down a steep path under mesquite trees. They left the clustered neighborhood behind and crossed into the open heat of the Pantano Wash. They passed with care amongst clumps of teddy-bear cholla and the grasping fishhooks of the barrel cactus.

They walked through a landscape in which every plant bears a barb or sting. They shared of themselves as they walked. Ramón pointed to a series of diagonal lines etched across the coarse sand, the path of a sidewinder rattlesnake who hunted the night. Rose named the cactus wrens and lesser goldfinch hiding in the thorny brush under the raised arms of saguaros. Taking careful steps, they spoke of their lives; the then and the now of them.

Ramón Torres remained silent about his vow, the promise he felt slipping away. What words could he use to explain to this lovely woman? I am sorry, Señora, but I have sworn never to take that risk again? No, better to not speak of it at all.

The full heat of the day was upon them as he walked her to her doorstep. There, amidst a riot of cactus flowers, she asked him to dinner. Ramón accepted her invitation.

. . .

Their courtship moved forward at the pace of a formal promenade; properly attired, with decorum, in full view of the local populace. Their respective neighbors grew accustomed to the sight of them walking together. From their shaded porches they would wave to the solemn hawk-like man and the smiling woman at his side.

Rose and Ramón shared three dinners before they shared their first kiss. It was the evening Ramón tried to replicate his Olivia’s molé poblano, knowing she would have laughed at his counterfeit. But Rose had praised it, heaping her plate with a second helping.

When he walked Rose home, she did not rummage for her key, but stood still and smiling in the darkness of her doorstep. He bent his head to kiss her, his hands reaching for her shoulders. It was a good kiss, without awkwardness. When it was over, she smiled again, wished him goodnight, and vanished through her front door.

Another dinner passed, shared out over Rose’s scarred wooden table. With dishes piled high in the sink, they sat together in the courtyard, watching the waxing Pink Moon arc across the April night. When the moon slid behind the canopy of her palo verde tree, Rose took Ramón’s hand. She pulled him from his chair and led him to another doorway that opened off of the courtyard.

. . .

The announcement of their engagement to wed was a surprise to no one. Irish Catholic and Hacendado Católico, widow and widower, they were both welcome in the eyes of the church. Their children were glad for them: hers from afar, his from nearby. Perhaps Ramón’s children were the more cautious, but they welcomed Rose into their father’s life.

The wedding ceremony was sedate and traditional. The reception that followed was boisterous and loud. Their children sat in clusters under the shade of the white canopies, learning of each others lives. The grandchildren played in noisy herds, spilling food on their fancy clothes.

When the ceremony and celebration were over, there followed tearful goodbyes. Her family flew back to the cool northlands. His children scattered across the desert basin that was their home. Rose and Ramón began their married life together.

The decision of where to live took care of itself. Each Monday was a moving day of a sort; a short journey along the quiet streets of their shared neighborhood. One week was spent at her house, the next week at his. Treasured possessions moved between their houses, blending the two buildings into one home.

They filled their days with walking and cooking, laughing and eating. The summer monsoons came, chasing them to the shelter of their covered porches. Safe under his ramada, or hers, they sat hand in hand, watching the rains bring life to the desert.

In the fall of that first year, Ramón took his new bride to New Mexico. He showed her his family’s heritage: Hacendados two hundred years before the coming of the Angloamericanos. First under Spain, then Mexico, finally forgotten by everyone; this was his history. Having nothing to compare it with, Rose marveled at these deep roots. She understood more clearly her new husband’s somber manner and aquiline profile.

She told Ramón the little she knew of her Irish ancestors. They had been dirt-poor immigrants in a sea of immigrants, all fleeing the potato famine. They settled in the cities, gave up their names, and became poor in America. With her words, he saw the source of her porcelain-white skin, hidden from the sun.

They traveled on, avoiding the cities and the touristed pueblos. They drove into the mountains and hiked to the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi. At night they made love in hotel rooms, the ease of their new-found intimacy still surprising. In the mornings they ate chorizo and eggs, served up at formica counters. When the time came, they turned west and south, driving across the vastness of the Navajo Reservation on their return to Tucson.

. . .

Winter brought a respite from the heat of the desert basin, and a promise of visits from the North. The holidays saw both houses filled with Rose’s children and grandchildren, a noisy sprawl of family that spilled over into the houses of Ramón’s children. In the babel of Spanish and English, the grandchildren soon learned the meaning of ‘Niños, tranquilos, por favor!

Tranquility returned with the coming of the New Year. The nights were chill and sharp. Ramón and Rose wrapped themselves in blankets as they sat outside to watch the stars.

They fought only over small things, then learned the compromises between them. Ramón forced himself to accept Rose’s piles of books and her long-standing habit of reading three or four simultaneously. Rose teased Ramón about his formality, until she came to see that the teasing hurt him. On the whole they were happy, the days passed well, and they were very much in love.

The first year of their marriage passed in celebration. The heat returned to the desert, bringing with it warm nights punctuated with the yip-howl of coyotes. On one such night, Ramón and Rose Torres sat together, watching the geckoes hunt the courtyard wall.

Rose turned to her husband, saw his eyes looking far away into the darkness.

“You are quiet tonight, mi esposo. Is something troubling you?”

“No, nothing is troubling me.”

It was a lie told badly, without conviction.

Rose squeezed Ramón’s hand.

“Do you remember the evening you asked me to become your wife?”

“Of course I remember. How could a man forget such a thing as that? I asked you to be my wife. You said that you needed two days to think it over. I was worried that you would say no.”

“And what happened?”

“After two days, you said yes, making me a very happy man.”

“Shall I tell you about the dream that I had, a dream that came to me the night after you proposed?”

, mi corazón, tell me of your dream.”

“I was walking in a forest. It was dark, but the forest was not frightening. It seemed peaceful and quiet. Then I heard a voice, the voice of a woman and it was speaking to me.”

“And what did this voice say to you?”

“The woman’s voice was very calm, very reasonable, like the voice of a doctor or a counselor. The woman said: I will offer you a gift, a moment with a person who will give you unconditional love and happiness the likes of which you have never known or imagined. This moment comes complete with an absolute lack of guarantee. It may last a single day, a year, or a lifetime. There may be a great cost or none at all. Will you accept this gift completely, knowing that it comes without any form of certainty?”

“Did you answer the voice in your dream?”

“I did. I answered: Yes, I will accept this. The next day, I agreed to marry you.”

“Then I am glad for this dream, and for the voice of this woman. But much more, I am glad for your choice.”

. . .

One month to the day before their second wedding anniversary, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame caught fire. Ramón and Rose watched television images of the flames. They held hands, as on the television screen the people of Paris held hands. Arcing across the gloaming sky, the flaming spire of the cathedral toppled. Rose said that it was a tragedy for such a thing of beauty to pass from this world. Ramón nodded silently, taking it for a bad omen.

Rose died one week later. He found her, on a bright May afternoon, after returning home from an unimportant errand. She was sitting in the shade of the ramada, her right arm hanging down beside her favorite chair. A book lay on the concrete floor of the terrace. Her hand hovered above it, as if reaching for it. Ramón Torres did not run to her, or cry out. He knew the presence of death when he saw it. When the pounding in his chest lessened, he sat beside his wife, taking her dead hand in his.

The tears began as he looked into her face, and they did not stop. He saw that death had come upon Rose in peace, and took her in peace. Through his tears, Ramón Torres felt the crushing weight of the vow that he had broken. To not love again, to not suffer again. When his Olivia passed it had been the simplest of things to promise. Then came the morning, under the acacia trees, when he first saw Rose. Now he would remake this same vow, knowing that this time he would remain true to it. He sat as a statue, unmoving, holding Rose’s hand as the sun crept behind the palo verde tree.

. . .

In the slow time that followed Rose’s death, Ramón continued their tradition of moving between the two houses. Every Monday morning, he left one house, bound for the other. He carried a worn leather satchel over his shoulder. The neighbors would wave to him, as they had before. Ramón Torres still raised a hand in greeting, but without even a vestige of his old smile. From their shaded porches they marked his slow pace and the stoop of his shoulders. A sadness followed in his wake and they shook their heads after he passed.

The day came when Ramón’s legs refused the journey. He remained at Rose’s old house. The daughters of his daughters took it in turn to care for their grandfather for the little time that remained to him.

Ramón Torres died in his sleep, in the same bed he had once shared with Rose every other week. There was no reason for him to die, just as there was no reason for him to stay. With his dying breath, the last vow of Ramón Torres remained unbroken.

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