Javier De La Cruz was an honest and somber man. He didn’t ask for anything unearned and he certainly never took. The old caballero, owner of a small business that made little ceramic dolls with faces painted like sugar skulls, received an invitation one spring to hand deliver the biggest order he’d ever seen. He was to leave his one-room shop in Mazatlán, cross the border, and drive into Tucson with fourteen handcrafted muñecas, each wearing unique, fragile smiles and dresses that danced in the light. The trip would be a long, lonely one. But Javier told his wife, who had always remained unwavering in her support, to fear nothing, for she was all he truly needed. She put a hand on his cheek, telling him to drive safe and come home soon. He said he would.
The master craftsman packed his rusted van, complete with its two missing hubcaps, one on each side, with his many carved, painted, and sealed boxes. As he got out of the city and onto the highway, the horizon opened up before him. The clouds were such a deep color of blue that they seemed almost purple to Javier, who thought that they looked like oddly colored cotton balls. He imagined it was God himself that shined through the tiny gaps found here and there, shooting divine, golden rays to the earth. It wasn’t for some time that Javier recognized that his favorite muñeca, the one he crafted last and had poured the most amount of time, energy, and amor into, had pried open her box and crawled into the passenger seat. It was her gaze he first felt. And as he turned his head, Javier nearly took the van off the road, swerving at the sight of the small, child-sized muñeca casually sitting beside him.
Once confident that the doll was in fact alive, not simply a manifestation of a shattered mind, Javier pulled the car to the side of the road by the Navojoa exit. He took his creation in, recalling each steady stroke of her painted face. He cautiously ran his finger over the intricate pink locket shaped like a heart in the center of her forehead, the tiny blue petals that danced and floated around it, and the swirling ribbons of bright pink intertwining a bloody red racing down her cheekbones. He asked his new companion whether she was an angel or demon. Should he fear or rejoice? La muñeca gave him no answer. She simply sat there, staring with her empty, hollow sockets. He felt the call to flee, but couldn’t. He was drawn to the ceramic doll sitting there, a compassion of sorts. After all, it was he who had made her, he who had shaped her, molded her, given her vida.
Some time passed in silence, some miles beneath the tires went by, and eventually Javier realized, or at least thought, that he was not in any danger. He figured it was rather silly to fear something of his own doing. Now the man was simply intrigued. He made multiple attempts at sparking conversation, unsure of whether or not the child could even understand him. She only replied with reticence, occasionally lifting her hands with their long, meatless fingers, opening and closing them with a slight creaking noise. He turned on the radio and decided it best to just drive.
* * *
When the van approached the border between Mexico and the United States, Javier grew restless. Crossing was nothing new for him. He had done it many times throughout his years, mostly with his wife by his side and a wild coyote leading the way. They often traveled there as a young couple, going up the coast of California and back down again. Together they had seen the giant sequoias, with their massive trunks and limbs that reached to the clouds. They saw the wake of God’s anger in the Grand Canyon. They had crossed too many times to count, but that was before the broken hearts. When having a family was still an option. That was before he became a craftsman, before they struggled to feed themselves. It was back when they didn’t have to work so hard to love one another. Now, though, was the first time since those bright days that Javier was crossing with what he could only describe as love’s gentle warmth.
“Esta es mi hija, Ofelia De La Cruz,” Javier told the man with a badge. The border patrol officer had just asked Javier what on earth sat beside him and, upon hearing this answer, asked why she was dressed in carnival colors with a face painted like muerte. Javier simply told the officer that his daughter was to perform in a play. A grand spectacle just outside of Tucson. The officer spit a blackish stream of saliva out and peered over his shades, passing a watchful grin to the odd pair before him. Now, it must be understood that this particular patrol officer, Mr. Brian García, was as crooked as they came. He’d guarded the border for four years and liked to think he knew a thing or two about rats. One thing he knew for sure: Rats don’t play in plays.
So with that, García tipped his hat, told the two to hold tight, and moved to the back of the van. He couldn’t help but notice the fourteen child-sized coffins within, and found that reason enough to ask Javier to step out of the car for a second. The old craftsman didn’t argue, but reached across the cab of his van and tenderly picked up la muñeca. He held her close, shielding her from the sun and the wind, while she rested her head on his shoulder. She was far heavier than Javier recalled. The officer, circling the vehicle with his hand on his radio, peered through the slightly tinted windows in an attempt to decipher what all this was about. He poked a tire with the tip of his brown boot and rounded to the front of the van. For just a moment, Mr. García let his eyes wander. They strayed to the father and daughter. He noticed how tightly they held onto each other. The old man embraced her like she could shatter, like she was made of glass. García deemed him too old to have such a young child and was beginning to contemplate what he’d be able to get for snagging this old fool.
As he reached for his radio, the little girl lifted her head, giving the badged man an opportunity to see her face in all its color. He noticed how her skin, in the spots where the paint was missing, reflected the sun a little and was as white as a bone. He then looked right into her empty, endless eyes and something he must have found there led him to quickly change his mind. What’s an old man and a little girl worth, anyways? Wiping his mouth with the edge of his sleeve, he told Javier to get back in his van and get out of here. Mr. García wondered where the sun had gone and why the air felt so damn cold all of a sudden.
* * *
With the border in his rearview, Javier was surprised when he didn’t feel any sense of relief. He figured crossing would’ve been the worst part of it, the hardest moment of this journey. But now he was beginning to feel apprehension toward reaching his destination, toward separating with this thing of his, this thing he now considered his own. When they finally did arrive, Javier was shocked by the massive estate before him. It was glorious. More money went into the stone and iron fence work surrounding the property than he had seen in his fifty-some-odd years of being alive. He parked the car outside the gate and got out; the little muñeca, who over the past few hours practiced in many ways the bounds of her new body, climbed clumsily into the muddy drive after him.
As they approached the unopened gate Javier slowed, his knees aching from the many hours spent sitting. La muñeca, with mud caked to her velvet shoes, reached up and grabbed for his hand. Javier looked down at her, receiving a reassuring glance, and took her cold hand in his. The gates shuddered open without warning, echoing a dismal moan. Javier told the girl to not be afraid, that everything was going to be okay, and that he would keep her safe. She nodded back, beginning the walk forward. The two went a fair distance down to the door, passing by a small pond with tall cattails and two white swans watching them. They stood before the biggest, oldest building that he had ever seen. It was made of reddish-brown bricks with a certain sense of proportionality running throughout. Thick columns guarded the door with their titanic proportions and a single, lonely saint, carved in marble, sat niched above the door. A looming clock was embedded in the center of the edifice, its slow ticking slightly audible.
Javier had never been more frightened in his life. Dry knuckles rapped the wooden door. There was nothing for some time, so long that Javier had nearly decided to simply pick up the little one and run. But just as the thought entered his mind, a series of shifting bolts and turning locks could be heard. The ugly door opened and a woman stood in the entryway. She had long, red hair as bright as the embers of his kiln and wore golden earrings studded with obsidian stones. To Javier, the woman didn’t seem a day over thirty. She addressed the craftsman politely, telling him to come in, all the while looking down at la muñeca who shied behind the man. Javier took off his frayed hat, entered the abode, and the door closed behind all three.
The curious woman, introducing herself as Mrs. Mictlan, ushered Javier and the ceramic muñeca to a great mahogany table covered in a long, tassled tablecloth and ornate candelabras that flickered patiently. The columns that stood outside continued inside, spreading across the room. His shaggy brown coat and cap made him feel entirely out of place amid the elegance. The hostess instructed them to wait as she fetched refreshments and Javier thanked her, pulling a seat out for his skeleton child. He took a moment while Mrs. Mictlan was away to excitedly whisper to the little one that he planned to take her back home, back to Mazatlán, so she could meet her madre, his wife. See, as Javier approached the colonial mansion with the girl holding onto him, he decided that this was the feeling he had been missing his entire vida, the passion of being a father and of loving something more than anything else. This was his creation, his own work; surely the woman would understand his argument, especially with such wonders at play.
Upon returning with two tall glasses of what Javier could only assume was either blood or wine, the woman asked him how the drive had gone. He told her it went well, that he’d made many long trips as younger man. He asked her to share a little about herself, inquiring as to what a woman could want with so many dolls. The woman told him about her husband, a traveling doctor, who often left her alone in this dreary place. She shared with him stories of her daughter, about how she was lost to a sickness many years ago. Javier told her he understood the feeling, that he’d seen those dark days too. She flashed a smile, briefly, and told Javier that she saw it as though she was protecting the little bone dolls. Though he felt a touch of unease, Javier managed to lean forward in his chair and looked down at his chalky hands. The master craftsman told Mrs. Mictlan that he had an awful request of her. She took a sip from her glass, leaving behind a touch of lipstick, but didn’t give him a response. A few seconds passed before Javier felt the need to say something again.
“I have never loved something the way I love her,” he said, putting his hand on top of the doll’s naked skull that fought to reach above the table’s edge. The lady laughed maniacally, falling back in her chair. When her breath returned she wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and told Javier that they’d figure something out. He thanked her again and told her anything, anything at all, would do. The woman asked to see the rest of his work, sending Javier to retrieve his van with the thirteen other lifeless dolls. When he had finished placing each one delicately upon the table, he asked the woman how she wanted to move forward. The crimson lady, softly playing with one of her earrings, proposed he could simply work from here, that she had all the necessary tools and materials to weave new dresses and craft elegant jewelry. He began to argue, seeing this as the most problematic idea imaginable. But upon catching his daughter standing before her useless counterparts, he swallowed his doubts and extended his hand to her. She took it.
That evening, Javier penned a letter to his wife on an old piece of parchment and tied it to the leg of an owl. He wrote of their skeleton daughter, of the woman bathed in embers and the deal he had made with her. He pleaded with her not to worry and told her he’d return soon enough. He asked for her to forgive him and explained that she must understand. Signing the letter with amor, Javier De La Cruz sent the bird over the plains of Arizona toward home. But that was three months ago now.
* * *
Over the first few weeks, Javier was not made uncomfortable by any means. Mrs. Mictlan, while relatively shrouded, remained polite. She fed him well and provided him with all that he needed. It was not hard work, either. He was simply required to sew new dresses and craft small trinkets. Javier got along fine by spending time with his little bone princess. Each night, at the top of the pointed tower, behind the clock, he’d read to her and they’d dance to the norteño playing through an old wooden radio. He’d fall asleep in the highest room, his muñeca cuddled beside him, and each morning he’d wake to her colorful face and obsidian eyes.
However, at the end of the first month things began changing. Mrs. Mictlan demanded his work go uninterrupted, pulling his daughter from him often. The work itself became more difficult, more intense. At the end of the second month, Mrs. Mictlan started to lock the man in his workshop for days at a time, insisting he focus. He grew impatient and troubled. Javier knew he had worked enough to pay for his daughter twice over, but never said anything for fear of insulting the lady in red. On the last Friday of the third month, Javier figured he had done enough. For the first time in his vida, he decided it was okay to take. He packed his few belongings into a small bag, explained to his child that he planned to escape within the night, and waited for the sun to fall behind the mountains to the west.
In the safety of shadows, when nothing but the winds could be heard, Javier snuck down the spiraling stairs, daughter in hand. He kept her close to him, staying against the wall and within the darkness. Mrs. Mictlan had always made Javier uneasy, like there was something beneath her skin crawling to escape. He didn’t know how she’d react to this betrayal, so when he reached the bottom of the stairs he proceeded with caution. All seemed silent, save for the ticking that echoed. As he stepped toward the front door, a voice came from behind asking him where he was going. He turned slowly and saw the woman, donned in a red silk nightgown and holding a single, dancing flame that cast long shadows across her face. He held his chin up and told her his work here was done, that he was taking his daughter and leaving. A laughter filled the entryway, sounding as though it came from the walls.
My little girl of bones isn’t going anywhere, she told him. Javier saw the woman’s face, usually a perfect example of beauty, contort itself within the candlelight. He told her this muñeca was his, not hers. Mrs. Mictlan let out a hideous wail that extinguished the light, and she flung herself at the craftsman. Her body passed through him, pushing him with a force that knocked him off his feet and la muñeca from his arms. The little skeleton, who had never before found her voice, called out for her papa. As she put her delicate hands out in an attempt to catch herself, they shattered, glass meeting stone. The rest of her tiny body quickly followed. Ofelia De La Cruz laid on the floor of the dark entryway, strewn in a million bits of dazzling whites and reds and blues and greens. Javier let out a cry, the wail of a man who had just lost everything. He began picking up the shards, wrapping them in the bright dress that they had just filled. The hysteric laughter filled the room, fading into the recesses of the mansion. Welcome home, Death, it seemed to say.
Javier ran from the house with the broken pieces of his daughter and got in the van he hadn’t used in months. He turned the engine over and barreled through the gate. He went straight to Mazatlán, not noticing the border for even a moment. He sped down the highway, all the while telling the heap of nothingness beside him that everything would be okay, that he’d fix her up just like new. As he burst through the door of his one-room shop, he threw the remnants on the table and began gluing them back together. Javier worked for two weeks, ignoring the pleas of his wife to stop for only a minute, to please come eat something, to sleep just a little. He wouldn’t listen. He worked endlessly, eventually piecing his daughter together again. And as he pulled her from the kiln for the second time, he cradled little Ofelia, running his fingers over the heart-shaped locket with sharp, white scars that ran like rivers where the pieces met once more. He peered into the dark, empty eyes of his little muñeca, hoping he’d succeeded in giving her life once more. Javier, in this moment, didn’t know whether to fear or rejoice.
Chaze Copeland is a recent graduate of Miami University in Ohio. He’s come to realize labeling himself is always awkward and that he’s not very good at it. His personal website is undergoing reconstruction, but you can still find him at www.chazecopeland.com.
Buy this writer a coffee.
Photo by Gary Bendig