by S. Kay Nash
Children are such untidy little creatures. The Lady’s children are no exception though they have been more of a challenge than my previous charges. Little boys are made of runny noses, skinned knees, and dirt-covered hands. Little girls are another thing altogether.
She wants to see them every morning at breakfast, scrubbed and bright, clean and pink-cheeked. I dress them in frills and lace with their beautiful black hair in curls around their shoulders. They stand before her in the parlor and chant in perfect unison, “Buenos días, Madre.” It does her heart good to think that her daughters love her. She smiles and strokes their hair with her carefully filed red nails and sends us out into the gardens to play.
“Be careful, Aya,” She says, “Make sure they don’t get dirty.”
I bow my head, “Si, Doña.” The girls and I walk quietly into the morning air. They break away and race for the trees like pink and white flowers blown by the wind across the grass. They squeal with delight and climb a tree, their little claws tearing at the bark. They climb so high that tree sways with their weight.
Elena has caught a squirrel, Marcela is jealous. When I catch up with them, Marcela has torn the thing in two with her teeth so she can share it. Elena is crying over her broken toy. Marcela tries to soothe her sister by tickling her cheek with the tail, but Elena screams, and bloodies both of their dresses.
“Aya! Aya! Aya!” Elena cries from her branch, reaching her arms out, knowing I will catch her as she flings herself from the tree. Her sister throws the squirrel’s head at us, and now we are all spattered with blood and tears. Filthy, awful girls. I hold Elena close and promise her a new kitten from the stable. It should last the day, at the very least.
The girls have too much love for their toys. They adore the bright eyes, soft fur, gentle cries and delightful antics. They love them so much that they become upset if their toys wander away or if one sister has what the other lacks. Any of the small injustices that children endure can result in a bout of tears. Angry girls do things they don’t mean, and their hearts break when the things they love escape.
It would be easy to leave the remains in the garden, but they do start to smell. The sink attracts rats, rats attract men and men whisper. When they whisper too loudly, they are taken to the canyons and never return. The Lady will have no gossip among her staff, especially about her children. She brought them here to be safe from harm.
As the girls sleep in the afternoon, I gather what’s left of the toys and put them in a basket. The Río Marañon is two miles away, an easy walk. In the canyons carved by the river, there is a cave where a condor has her nest. The canyon floor below is littered with the bones of those who will never threaten the children again. Above the cave, an iron post is set into the stone, securing a coil of stout hemp rope.
I tie the rope around my waist to keep from joining the bones on the ground a hundred feet below. Carefully, stone by stone, I walk the narrow trail to the mouth of the cave. In many places, it is barely more than a foot-hold. The condor hears me coming. She knows me, knows what I bring with every visit. She takes to the air, her wings as broad as I am tall. I empty the basket; the red-streaked fur, limb, and bright bone tumble down to the ground below. The bird has her prize. If I hurry, I will have mine as well.
With a bird of my own, I will no longer need to make this journey, and my charges will be safe from discovery, whispers, and harm. They will be able to have as many lovely toys as they wish. They will be content, and my mistress will look on me kindly. Her gaze can be pitiless.
I see the chick stirring in the nest. It is soft and grey, its beak open wide, screeching, looking just like Marcela or Elena baring their sharp white teeth and begging me for the tender flesh they love. I scoop the chick into the basket, and it is mine. It struggles and hisses but I hold it fast. Quickly as I can, I find the footholds to climb up, but the condor has heard the commotion. She rises from the canyon floor.
Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo. Santificado sea tu nombre…
I am buffeted by a mother’s fury, by wings and grunts of rage. My feet lose the path, but I will not lose my prize. My hands are full. I dangle helplessly, kicking out at the rock to find purchase. She rips my hair with her talons. I dread the stab of her beak at my neck.
The chick struggles and the basket falls away, bouncing off the rocks. The condor flies after it and leaves me there. One hand for the rope and one for the chick, no third to cross myself. The only way to go is down, so I pray aloud as I count out inches of the rope in my hand like the beads of a rosary. My arms ache as I creep down the rocks.
Oh mi Jesús, perdónanos nuestros pecados, líbranos del fuego del infierno…
When my feet land on the canyon floor, I fall to my knees and give thanks to God. The claws of the condor are cruel, but it is only a bird. I fear the sharp claws and red eyes of my mistress. God have mercy on me, for the Lady will have none.
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