Jillian is lost in the thorny desert, separated from the Samaritans. The face of her phone is a map. She taps it and it doesn’t become a phone. A tiny panic tightens her throat. Where the fuck are the numbers? The clock? How long has she been separated from the others? The panic starts to pulse. Maybe she is light-headed. Maybe her blood sugar is low. Maybe, if she’s still, her father’s thoughts will come to her, like they sometimes did when he was living.
An orange helps. A piece of cheese helps. A sip of precious water. The phone is still a map, not a phone, but she knows she needs to climb up the side of the canyon even though the rocks are sharp and the way precipitous. On the ridge, her phone might become a phone again. But first she has to pee. One of the babies is resting right on her bladder.
Climbing up—such slow going, what with the loose rocks and the big boulders—she has to stop every few feet to catch her breath. How, she wonders, do migrant women keep up when they’re pregnant? And if they don’t keep up? Well, they’re left behind. And they often don’t have the right shoes. She, at least, has good hiking boots. And she knows the Samaritans won’t leave her, but they have to find her before they can take her with them. That’s her job. To make sure they find her.
When she stops to catch her breath, she listens, not this time for the escaping memories of the dying but for the calls of the living. She hopes her white hat might reflect the sun. Plus, she could use the face of her phone as a mirror: SOS, SOS! She’s watched enough reruns of MacGyver to know it’s the small things that can save you.
Once she’s up on the ridge, she rests her hands on the babies. It’s okay, she thinks to them. She feels a spasm. Weird. She hasn’t felt that before. The panic starts again, but then she sees they are surrounded by ghosts and although she finds ghosts, or spirits, in general, reassuring, there are so many of them. Have they come to help her cross over? No, she tells herself. No. Not yet. They are here to guide you to the living.
They’re not moving much, the babies, but her body’s motion, the climbing, has probably lulled them to sleep. She should be hungry, but instead she’s nauseous. She sips water. Decides to save her last orange. Looks at the phone. Still a map. What the fuck?
It’s her father’s voice she hears now—telling her to breathe. Just breathe. He says: you are on the ridge. Good job. This is the best place for you to be, Jillian. You can see for miles. The sun is behind you, so that’s west. I know logic tells you to walk west, mi’ja, but walk to the east. Trust me. Be careful. It’s still warm enough for snakes. But you have water. You have food. Your legs and your mind are strong. Listen. The wind is coming towards you. Carrying voices. Hear them? A dinner party. Music. Mariachis. Listen.
And she does hear them. Violins, then human voices, the clinking of silverware. She sees the rust-colored wall, now, like a crooked line. Spaces between the tall slats. You couldn’t squeeze through, you couldn’t climb over, but you could see the other side if you were standing there. You could reach your hand between the slats, and touch someone, your grandmother, maybe, or the soft hair on a baby’s head. Or, if you were that Border Patrol guy, you could reach your gun through and shoot someone, like that teenaged boy, as he was running on the other side. How many bullets in his back?
She stops, is out of breath, although she is not climbing. The babies are still in the cradle of her body. She strokes them with her hands, but they give no sign. She feels another spasm, a pressure that begins in the middle of her back and moves forward, around her. She can feel her belly getting hard as it moves. It’s too early. They must be Braxton Hicks. Normal for the 34th week. This is normal. Or it might be dehydration. She stops and drinks a few more sips of water. She eats the last orange.
Oh, the babies. She wonders if they can hear the music. Do the spirits hear? They are streaming towards it. She starts to walk towards the sound. The music has stopped but the wind is carrying voices. And then she sees the long dining table that dissects the wall, one half on this side of the border and one on el otro. There is a tablecloth and, on the cloth, painted, a woman’s eyes, as if she is looking to the heavens. There is a mariachi band, one half on each side. The woman’s eyes shift from the heavens and gaze directly at Jillian and the spirits on the ridge. The people who are seated around the table stand. They look in her direction.
She waves her cowboy hat. The people are pointing. She turns to look behind her and sees a halo around the sun. A dogsun. Are they celebrating some kind of celestial event? Día de los Muertos was last weekend, the dead reuniting with their living in graveyards all over Mexico, so maybe this dinner party is for those who have no graves, for those whose families are still searching.
No wonder the spirits are whispering. The mariachis start playing again, the people start talking and passing serving plates, and Jillian continues to follow the spirits along the ridge. When it’s time to climb down, her father reminds her, lean back into the ridge so, if you fall, you won’t go head over heels, you’ll slide on your butt.
So I won’t land on the babies, she thinks, but if she descends now, she won’t be able to see the dining party. She needs the elevation to know where to go; she wants to navigate that side of the ridge before the sun goes down. The desert, at night, is like the sea. It can swallow you.
“¡Juana! ¡La virgen! ¡Mira, la virgen! She’s waving a cowboy hat! And she is great with child!” It was Nardo who first saw her. We didn’t know it was Jillian, pues, and so of course, we all laughed. We thought it was the sun in his eyes. The sun was very strange that day. Or maybe it was la cerveza. Nardo es muy chistoso, siempre, but especially after a few beers.
Still he insisted. He was going climb that cliff to help la virgen, pero, tu sabes, we were on this side and she was on that, so no era possible. Nardo. He still thinks he is joven y muy fuerte, but we all know how that goes. He called to his sobrinos, en el norte, but they didn’t believe him. ¿La Virgen? ¿Embarazada? ¿Aqui?
¡Oh, pobrecita Jillian! By the time they got to her, she was muy cansada. She could barely walk. I am sure her angels must have guided her. In fact, I could feel them when they brought her to me, I could feel them still around her. Y Victor y Enrique, ellos me dijeron que, when they found her, she touched their hands as if to test that they were real. She had come so far, how far, we didn’t know. How long had she been wandering? ¿Quien sabe?
No one knows, of course, since she can’t speak. But it couldn’t have been longer than a day, especially not in her condition porque, es la verdad, she was very large with child. When they found her, she was sitting on a boulder. She had come almost all the way down from the ridge by herself and she had fallen at least once, es cierto, because her hands were cut up and the butt of her pants dirty, as if she’d slid in the dirt. She had, beside her, a pack with an almost empty bottle of water, some hard candy, and a cell phone—eso era todo—so, if we hadn’t found her, one day in the desert, sin agua, and not to mention los animales. . . cougars. Coyotes. I don’t want to think about what would have happened.
She was drawing in a small notebook when they found her sitting there. She was drawing the dinner party, even the eyes on the tablecloth and the strange sun above. There was a pregnant woman—herself, ¿entiendes?—and she was surrounded by wisps of figures, one with the face of her father. And she had drawn two men. Victor and Enrique? And on the drawing, one name—here, I can show it to you—one name, ¡Juana de Dios! Y es muy extraño porque we were not going to go to that party porque Junie was not feeling well y tu sabes, but at the last minute, Nardo wrapped him up in a blanket and put him in his little doggy bed at my feet in the truck. Nos vamos, Nardo me dijo, and so we went!
When Victor first spoke to her, she showed him the drawing and pointed to the table, y me dijo que, when he saw my name, he felt the hair rise on the back of his neck, he felt the cold air of the ghosts around her. He was glad she had already touched him because that’s how he knew she was not a ghost. She tried to stand up on her own, but she was so weak, they had to get one on each side of her to help her walk. By the end, they almost had to carry her.
Nardo, he is my viejito and I love him, but she is a tall girl. Very tall. And with that baby? Y tú sabes que, at the time, we thought it was solamente uno. Nunca did we think there might be two. Nunca, con su corazón, could Nardo have carried her. Mi amor, I told him, it is enough that you saw her! Otherwise, el desierto would have taken three more. Tres. Y so close to those who could help them. Aye, dios mío, what would I have told her mother?”
Jillian remembers sitting on the boulder, feeling its warm roundness beneath her, her father’s voice telling her, only a little farther, mi’ja, you have to do it. The next thing she remembers? two men standing before her. Miss? they ask, Miss? But are they of the flesh? She is not sure.
Because she cannot speak, she shows them the map she has drawn of her future, and so of the babies’ future. She chooses the one with the kindest face and she presses the map into his hand.
The next thing she remembers? The faces of women, all around her. She is lying down on a bed. She sees in their faces that they, too, have had life grow inside them; they remember being as she is, helpless against the pain, the pain that comes in waves from the middle of the back and squeezes towards the belly button. She sees that some of them have lost their babies and that the sorrow is still alive in them. They have their hands on her to share their strength. Give in to the pain, the women tell her, give in to it. It will wash through you then, and you can relax until the next one. Respira, their hands say, breathe.
This moment is when she notices that she is holding her breath, just as she must have been holding it all day, holding it in fear. Respira como esto, the women say, and they all take deep inhales together, just when she should, and then exhale, slowly, their lips pursed. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. And so Jillian follows. Trust your body, the women say. Is there music? It seems like there is music. Violins. Guitars. As if through a window at night.
And then there is the voice of Juana of God! So the men had followed the map! She hears the jingling of Juana’s many bracelets as she takes them off, the clink of her many rings in a bowl. Juana of God is washing her hands. Juana of God is saying, ¡Nardo! ¡Tráeme Junie! Necessito su ayuda. Jillian understands, then, that the babies are about to be born. Even though it is early. Maybe too early. And then Juana’s face. And then her voice again, softer, Mi’ja. Oh, pobrecita. Pero no te preocupes. You are safe now. The baby is fine. Everything will be all right.
Jillian holds up her hand with two fingers to tell Juana, Two. There are two babies. But just then, she has a feeling that is different from the others, stronger, so strong she leaves her body, floats up near the ceiling, and sees herself on the bed. Nardo brings Junie in. Junie’s head wrenches back as if he has been shot by arrows. Then the spirits leave Junie and gather around Juana and then Juana, she transforms, becomes someone who knows whatever she needs to know as always happens when the spirits come into her.
Jillian sees her body on the bed, sees she is only her body, an animal body. She sees two women behind her, holding her up, and then sees two other women, on either side of her, each holding a leg. Her body tells her to push, to push as she has never pushed before. The breathing in, then out, the pushing with the breath. That’s it, mi’ja, the women say, listen to your body, it will tell you what to do and when. She sees Juana between her legs. Juana is whispering, sí sí sí, santísima madre de Dios. Jillian’s body pushes again, a long hard push, and a big fish slips bloody between her thighs.
With that, her mind is back in her body, and a woman, not Juana, is holding a baby upside down by his feet. ¡Un niño! The woman says. He is a little blue. There is a pulsing cord. He cries, all on his own. Juana, still at the foot of the bed, between her legs, seems to be waiting for something. The afterbirth?
There is another contraction, a strong one, and suddenly Jillian remembers. She holds up two fingers again. Don’t forget the other one, she wants to say. She starts clapping her hands. Listen! She waves her hand with two fingers. But Juana is in her trance, she cannot see her, and most of the women are gathered around the baby already born. They think she is crying from joy.
Jillian grabs on to the arms of two women still standing on either side of her and pulls herself into a squatting position on the bed. Some say she screamed.
“They say she screamed,” Juana told Angie. “Pero no sé. What do I know? I was not there. Tú sabes que Junie sent some very strong spirits that night. Muy misterioso, this going out of your body and your mind, if might I say so, and then coming back in once everything is over. Pobrecito Junie. Aye, Junie. He gave his life for your Jillian.”
And here Juana was overcome. She and Jillian’s mother were sitting on the porch of the women’s collective. She remembered how, when she came out of her trance and saw Jillian and the two babies, Junie was still lying on his side in his bed panting. His eyes, those cute bug eyes, were rolled up in his head. He did not come out of his trance when she came out of hers. Nunca had this happened before. She knew, then, that he was going to the flower world.
Angie grasped Juana’s hand. She had already thanked her, did not know how else to thank her for the life of her daughter and the two babies. It was true Junie had died that night, and even an ordinary dog is irreplaceable to those who loved him. But Junie? Where would they ever find another Chihuahua who could channel spirits?
“Oh, Juana,” Angie said, “lo siento. I know you loved him. I will be grateful, always.”
Juana put her hand on her heart, which felt as if it might break all over again. She knew Junie had chosen to sacrifice himself just as she had known, when she told Nardo to bring him into the room, that it would probably kill him, this last channeling, he was so old, so weak. But what else could she do?
Juana gave a huge sigh. “It happens that sometimes an animal gives his life for a human. No one knows why or how. Fue un milagro, pues.”
She had already told Angie about the miracle of Nardo seeing Jillian up on the ridge and insisting that his nephews go and help her. And Angie had seen the map to the dinner party that Jillian had drawn with Juana’s name on it, so that was miracle number two.
“Getting Jillian over to the women’s collective on this side of the border was not a miracle,” Juana said, “because going north to south never is.”
But it was a miracle that the dinner party was that night, and the strange sun that drew Nardo’s attention to her, that was a miracle.
“Claro,” Juana said, “I should listen to Nardo more often. But don’t tell him that. He’s already growing, como se dice, a big head. He’s telling everyone how he saved Jillian y los niños from certain death in el desierto. And, ok, es la verdad. But he had a little help!
“So this is what they say about that night,” Juana continued, “it could have happened, pero yo no recuerdo nada. Y parece fantástico, yo sé. But the women, they say after Jillian pulled herself up and screamed, el primero answered. La mujer who was holding him by his little ankles, she swears that he said—el bebé dijo—¡no se olviden de mi hermano!—and then, Don’t forget el segundo! as if he were translating for his mother. And so la mujer told them: ¡Ayudale a Jillian! ¡Hay otro bebé!
“Yo sé. ¡Es increíble! Pero ellas me dijeron que only then did Jillian lie back and only then did I help her with el segundo. It could not have been easy because they say I had to reach up inside her. It was as if that baby did not want to come out and the first one, some say, he kept calling, Brother, brother, aqui está, our mother is here, and she wants us to come out.
“Of course, it is hard to understand what a baby says, muy difícil, even a baby much older than this one, and so there is some disagreement about what he said. And, as I’m sure you can imagine, there was quite a bit of confusion.
“So, at any rate, a few remember el primero talking, but most, they were so overcome con el nacimiento del segundo hijo. ¡Qué milagro! they kept crying. They couldn’t believe it! A second baby! They say I had to reach way up and grab him by his feet, they say I had to pull and pull to get him out, pobrecito, and that is why his feet and legs are so bruised. Y Jillian, porbecita, that is why she is so tired and so sore.”
Juana paused. “Angie, mi amiga, pienso que la niña,”—for she still thought of Jillian as a girl and would never think of her otherwise—”pienso que Jillian should stay and rest for at least a few more weeks. I have been making teas to help her blood get strong again and to help her milk come in. It would be good to wait until the babies are bigger, don’t you think? The road back to your home is such a long one, especially with all the ruts from the monsoons, which, as we know, they will never repair. Besides, todos los vecinos quieren conocer a los bebés. They want to bring gifts, of course. They want to know if the babies will talk again and they wonder this, have the babies seen anyone who has just passed? Do they have messages? Or can they see the future?”
Junie was buried in the garden of the women’s collective where they grew vegetables and medicinal herbs. “Go back to the earth, Junie,” Juana said at the ceremony, “nourish it, even though you were so much of the spirit. After all, the line between body and soul is mutable, a border one crosses every day and every night, a liminal space like air over the surface of water. Somewhere, invisible to the human eye, things that seem different are really the same, como el aire y el agua son los mismos. There is a space, right on the surface of a lake, where air molecules sink into the water just as the water molecules rise to meet them. We are all, como se dice, mist, niebla, fog. Ni aquí, ni allá, pero son los mismos, juntos. In death, as in life, the spirit lives.”
For a while after the birth, Jillian felt exactly as Juana had described it: as if she were neither here nor there, as if she were a ghost of herself, somewhere between the living breathing mother she needed to be and the girl who was wandering the desert as one with spirits. The tiny babies, of course, their bodies needed tending, their mouths pulled on her nipples, their breath was like mist on her neck as she burped them. They drew her back into physical life, just as, when she was giving birth to them, she’d felt she was only her animal body, her function to split, to open, to push them into Juana’s hands where, if her body did die, they would still survive.
And so, when Angie needed to leave, Jillian was not ready. She stayed, in fact, for months and during that time the vecinos came and wanted to talk to the babies. Jillian would bring them out to the courtyard and, one by one or two by two, los vecinos would come and talk to them. ¿Entienden español? they would ask, and Jillian would shrug. She held up her finger and thumb to indicate un poquito. Very little. The babies, being pleasant babies, always smiled.
“They are just ordinary babies,” Juana told the vecinos, “milagros, sí, como todos los bebés, but they do not talk. Ni en ingles, ni en español. Just like their mother. El primero has not spoken again and, en realidad, maybe he never talked. Maybe las mujeres were hearing panic and loneliness in his cry,” she said, “the panic and loneliness of being torn from his mother and of leaving his brother behind. Puede ser. They were hearing what he wanted to say and what Jillian wanted to say and so, if you think about it,” she told them, “it is the women who brought about the miracle of el segundo’s birth. It is the women who were miraculous because they could hear what was needed without words.
“Es como Jillian,” Juana would explain, “because Jillian cannot speak, she has been given the gift of listening and this is why she can hear spirits escaping and spirits rising and why she could follow them. Listening is a gift. If we are very still, we will hear whatever we need to hear from both the living and the dead, from the future and the past. We will not need the babies to tell us anything.”