Aphelion Issue 240, Volume 23
June 2019
 
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San Miguel

by Elizabeth Hurley




I didn’t see them enter the master’s house, but I heard them. I froze halfway down the garden corridor toward the kitchen as they stumbled over the threshold, laughing in the way only drunken men do. The empty dinner dishes weighed heavily in my arms as I strained to hear what Thomas was telling them in the sala. If the master expected them, I would need to tell the kitchen servants to stop the dessert preparation and scrounge up whatever was left of dinner.

I caught the word, “Uninvited," and then, “Disrespectful." The longer I listened, the more I doubted Thomas would allow them to dine at San Miguel; they didn’t sound like guests of the master. Their voices were rough, their language plain.

I pressed my back against the adobe bricks as the laughter floated through the sala, through the arched hallway, and into the dining room. Shocked that Thomas had changed his mind, I prayed they wouldn’t come my way. If he spotted me lurking outside, I would get a lashing without question; idling wasn’t tolerated in the Whitelock household. Still, I couldn’t resist hanging back to listen as the dry desert breeze ruffled my hair.

“We have guests tonight, sir. I told them we would be honored to have them join us." Thomas’ voice was reedy as it echoed through the dining room. “We have more than enough to go around."

It struck me as impetuous, and if the silence in the dining room was any indication, the master agreed. What was Thomas thinking allowing these strangers to see the master? The heavy clink of a glass broke the spell, and then the master’s voice rang out strong and unmistakably angry. “We don’t operate an inn, Thomas. This is a private home. You will leave immediately or I’ll have Emmanuel fetch the dogs."

I flinched at the sound of my name and resisted the urge to hide in the kitchen. Not the dogs - not again. Kept in the old stables past the cemetery, they were like snarling, drooling beasts from hell. Word among the staff was that they were at least part wolf. They were all bigger than me, and stronger too. I suspected the master himself couldn’t even control them.

“Won’t you spare a bit of food for weary travelers?" An unfamiliar male voice asked. His, accent was thick and slow like molasses. I couldn’t tell if that’s what made him sound like he was on the verge of laughing or not. “We have real good stories to share, if that helps."

“Thomas." The master’s chair clattered against the wall as he stood. “Remove them from my house."

“No."

No? No one said ‘no’ to the master, especially not his shadow, Thomas. I crept forward instinctively, ducking back inside the mission. The doorway to the dining room loomed before me, beckoning me to peer inside. How long I’d waited to see Thomas reprimanded. Just a glimpse of the shame undoubtedly covering his doughy face -- just a glimpse would be enough…

“Thomas," the master said again, even more surprised than I was. “What did you say?"

“He said no!" Little Clara Whitelock shrieked with delight. I could almost see her ringlets bouncing in her rosy-cheeked excitement.

“Thomas?" The master’s voice was soft.

“We should let them eat." When Thomas answered, his voice didn’t waver with a trace of uncertainty. “We have a bounty and they’re in need."

One of the drunken guests tittered. I would have given anything to see the master’s moustache quiver with silent rage. Having the head of his waitstaff disrespect him would infuriate him enough. Letting a stranger laugh at him in his own home would be too much for him to take. “Emmanuel!" I shrank back. “Bring the dogs!"

I couldn’t make my feet move, even though I knew he’d be out of the dining room in a moment if he didn’t hear my response. I would face his wrath, another inevitable lashing, but I wouldn’t be bitten again. Not again.

“Do you consider yourself a man of God?" A woman’s voice cut through my panic. Her voice was soft, faintly European. She sounded like she was smiling.

“How dare you ask such a -- a man of God?" The master spluttered, taken aback by the ease of her question.

“Yes, a man of God," she replied. When he didn’t answer, she pressed him further. “I only ask because this is a house of God. Isn’t that right?"

“I…" the master trailed off and I realized I’d held my breath. The strangers must have come for a reason - perhaps they knew the truth about the master’s takeover of the old mission. It was the Whitelock home now, but only because the master said so. He’d never signed any papers or paid for the land. As far as I knew, he’d never even met one of the Franciscans. No one had ever seemed bothered by the arrangement, at least not until that night. “I’ve asked you to leave three times, and now you’ve forced my hand. Emmanuel!" My heart skipped a beat. “No, no use waiting -- I can handle this myself."

There was a clatter as he lunged for his Enfield rifle, which hung above the fireplace. He’d jumped at the chance to move it there just a few weeks earlier when the rumors of Confederate deserters-turned-bandits roaming the West reached his ears.

When the mistress gasped, I couldn’t resist any longer -- I had to peek inside. The strangers were clad in ragged, dusty clothes, but their faces shone like figures in fine art. The men were tall and lanky. One was pale with a graying beard and the other was raven-haired and tanned. I thought perhaps he was a Native American, though I’d never seen one except in the mural behind the altar in the chapel. The woman was fairer than Clara, her pointy features framed by two red seas of hair on either side.

The master was nose-to-nose with one of the men, his arm held fast by the stranger’s iron grip. Something cracked like a chicken bone and the master was on his knees, clutching his right hand to his chest as beads of sweat dripped down his brow. Clara and the mistress pressed themselves further against the peeling white wall.

Thomas shocked me the most. The woman held a fistfull of his hair and had pressed his cheek to the bosom of her high-necked dress as if he was her lover. It was a compromising position, and yet his face was as blank as the walls. Perhaps he did know her -- perhaps he knew them all.

When the master spoke again, his voice was strained. “What...do you want?"

“We asked three times," the woman said with a smile. “Dinner."

“We have extra food in the kitchen," the mistress began, rushing through her words. Her flushed cheeks looked even more pink against the lace of her gown. “Anything you want. I can take you-"

“Sit down," the Southern man drawled. He still loomed over the master, eyes narrowed like he was considering breaking the other arm for good measure. “We know our way around a dinner table."

“Tell me, Master Whitelock," the female guest said. “Do you pray before your meals?"

The master didn’t answer. With a movement so quick I missed it completely, the woman pushed Thomas to his knees against the red tiles. The force must have sent spikes of pain through Thomas’ legs, but he faced the master with empty eyes.

“I...I know what you are." The master gazed at the woman over Thomas’ head, his jaw set. “You weren’t invited in."

“We come and go as we please." The woman crouched down beside Thomas, fingers weaving through his black curls. She seemed older than the mistress, with pale eyes and a softness to her features. Her smile didn’t waver, even as the master glowered at her through his haze of pain. “I asked you a question, Master Whitelock." She woman watched him expectantly.

“Do you pray before your meals?"

“Edward," the mistress whispered through white lips. “Answer her."

“I…" The master hesitated, and in that half second, the woman lifted Thomas’ chin with one finger. “Y-yes, I do. We do. Of course we do."

“Then let us pray." The three strangers closed their eyes. “Our father," the woman began, lips curling at the words. “Which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name."

The mistress motioned to the master, bidding him to take up the gun again. The master winced and shifted his weight so that he could reach out with his unbroken arm.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts…" the woman paused there, smiling. “As we forgive our Debtors."

The mistress pushed Clara behind her back and clutched at the neckline of her dress. Her slender fingers closed around the chain of her necklace as the plates rattled in my hands. “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil-"

“Leave us!" The mistress thrust her gold crucifix pendant into the strangers’ faces, wild eyed. “I bid you to leave us alone! You aren’t welcome here!"

The Southern man approached her, a wry smile on his face. Without a word, he reached beneath his own shirt and withdrew a smaller but equally ornate silver cross. “How could we fear the God that gave us eternal life?" he asked, his voice like music.

“Why don’t you give that to us?" the dark-skinned man suggested, stepping around the master and advancing toward her. “We’ll look after it for you."

The mistress’s expression went as blank as Thomas’. She slipped the necklace over her head and placed it in his outstretched hand, eyes glassy. The man in turn gave it to the red-haired woman, who pressed it against her lips. I watched in disbelief as the pale man cupped the mistress’ face with his hands, wrenching a strangled grunt from the master.

“For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever." The red-haired woman slipped the necklace on and placed the crucifix against her ivory skin. “Amen."

One of the plates slipped from my hands and shattered against the tiles, but none of them heard it over the mistress’ scream. Pain split Thomas’ face when the woman tore into the skin of his neck with her bare teeth. He didn’t move - maybe he couldn’t - but his eyes were wide with terror when they met mine.

Transfixed, I didn’t notice Clara had slipped through the fray until she slammed into me and knocked the rest of the plates to the ground. The force of her small body was enough to jar me out of my stupor. “Come on!" I hissed. Her clammy hand in mine, we tore out the back door, down the garden corridor to the kitchen. We took the waitstaff stairs two at a time, unable to shout anything but, “Run!" to the bewildered servants. What more was there to say? I didn’t even know what we were running from. Confederates? Franciscans? Or something else entirely- something that took issue with the master’s use of God’s house…

By the bottom of the staircase I was carrying her. I felt her tears soaking my muslin shirt as I scanned the dormitory for some place to hide. I cursed myself for choosing the stairs at all - there were no windows down here - but slipping beneath one of the bunks was our only choice now. Once we were underneath, I realized she’d been sobbing out loud.

“Clara," I whispered, pressing a hand against my hammering heart. “You need to be quiet. They’ll hear you." That only made her cry harder. “Clara, please! We have to be-" I heard the top step squeal under the weight of a pursuer. Clara fell silent immediately, clamping her fingers over her mouth. I stared at the snot smeared across her upper lip, willing my own breathing to steady. I pinched my nose and sucked a breath in through my mouth, determined to hold my breath if I needed to.

It only sounded like one set of boots against the wood. Perhaps the master had managed to make an escape.

The scuffed boots came into view, caked in rusty soil. The master would never deign to wear dirty shoes.I locked eyes with Clara as the boots stopped in front of the bed beside ours. My face was slick with sweat and maybe tears. I kept myself silent as the grew louder, but her eyes bulged - she was going to give us away -

And then she was gone, dragged out from the bed too quickly. It wasn’t possible for anyone to move that fast, but she was gone. She screamed like her mother.

The screams became whimpers and the whimpers petered out after what felt like a lifetime. I closed my eyes, squeezing tears and sweat down my cheeks, and then I opened them. I had to see my attacker. I wouldn’t die sniveling.

I saw her hair first. It came down on the opposite side of the bed like a red theater curtain, followed by her hands and knees. Please, God, please no. I tried to keep silent, but a drawn-out whimper escaped. I wanted to move, but I knew she would catch me. So I would die sniveling-

And then she smiled at me like an old friend. “Emmanuel?"

As soon she fixed me with her gray eyes, I felt my terror drain away. Her face was real porcelain - it had to be. I’d never seen skin so smooth and unblemished, except on the Virgin statue in the courtyard. Her body curved in the way my mother’s had - narrow on the top but wider on the bottom, like a chalice flipped upside down. As gazed at me, I knew I was safe. She’d come to rescue me from the master, the dogs, all of it.

“Can you write, Emmanuel?"

Was it an Irish accent that made her voice so lilting? No, she would sound enchanting no matter where she hailed from.

I nodded, and I could tell that I’d pleased her. “Good." When her smile widened, my heart threatened to burst. I wanted to make her smile like that forever. “You can come out now, Emmanuel."

I crawled out, bringing the dust with me. I blushed - what an undignified way to meet her.

“S-sorry," I heard myself murmur.

“That’s quite alright." She rested her cool hand against my cheek. Clara’s body lay like a ragdoll on the bed behind her but I did my best not to stare. “Can you do something for me, Emmanuel?"

I nodded. Anything.

“I want you to write down everything you saw tonight." I opened my mouth to offer up an excuse - would she be angry I’d idled in the courtyard? She put a finger to my parched lips. Only the gentle rustling of her dress broke the silence in the house. “I know you watched. It’s alright, I don’t think your master will mind." We both smiled, like it was our joke. “I want you to write down everything you saw tonight - all the details. When you’ve finished, bring it to the dining room. Can you do that?"

“Yes."

“What a good boy." She leaned forward and kissed my forehead. The crucifix pressed into my chest, but it didn’t really hurt. “When you’ve finished, we’ll have our dessert."

I bowed my head, breathless. I wouldn’t leave anything out. “Yes, mistress."



THE END


2019 Elizabeth Hurley

Bio: Elle Hurley received her BA in Literature from Oregon State University. She currently lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she writes short fiction and teaches her students to love stories.

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