canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Ex Voto 

by Teresa Kennedy

They said in the village they were drying up. The winter rains had not yet fallen and the winds that blew in from the northern mountains had a way of making them restless and sad.

Xavier Flores heard the old women talking at the well in the town near the mission of Mater Dolorosa. They said the cattle were growing thin and it was not yet December. It boded ill, they said. The wind whispered and put them on edge, giving them ideas that were better forgotten.

The women shook their heads as he passed them that day, on his way to his job with the Fat Man, Joe Aguilar. They chattered like hens in the morning, crossing themselves repeatedly, as if the relentless, indifferent blue of the sky could somehow be remedied by prayer.

For himself, Xavier was glad of the drought that winter, the warmth of the evenings when the sun went down. The house where he lived with his aunt and two cousins still had wood stacked up near the back porch steps, and the chill of the mornings could be bought away with no more than a cup of chocolate with chile and a little bit of fire in the stove.

He nodded and grinned as he passed them and the women drew their shawls closer about their heads. It was said in the town that Xavier Flores was too charming to ever be entirely good and that if God had blessed him with a beautiful smile, He had surely seen to it that the boy was lacking in more important qualities.

Xavier was unconcerned; he had counted his money the evening before, and by his calculations had only two months more as the Fat Man’s apprentice, saving his wages in a jar under the bed. Two months, and he would have enough to call his life his own.

He glanced back at the women huddled near the mission, waiting for the bell that would summon them to Mass. Women were always complaining about something, he knew; crossing themselves and whispering in the mornings. They prayed if it rained, or if it was cold. They whispered if the sky turned dark and rain didn’t come and pointed to the red ants scattering in circles in the dust.

"You see? Even the ants have been deceived. It is a bad sign."

Xavier turned down the road that lead away from the square. Women were always looking for new troubles, always beseeching Our Lady of Sorrows for deliverance from their afflictions Having been raised by women, he was sure of himself in that respect. His own aunt, Rosa Morales, sister of his mother, was the worst of them all. She seemed to him to live in a state of perpetual consternation; if the mail came late, or the bougainvillea faded or the water from the pump had to be boiled on the stove, all such things only served to affirm her suspicion that the world was not right and only her prayers could save them. His cousins, Sofia and Irina, with whom he shared the little house just off the square, had inherited their mother’s natural distrust of the world, along with her cheekbones and Indian jaw. Their thin lips and cautious eyes seemed set in preparation for a future so grim it might only be guessed at

He had come to their house in the arms of his father, sick with a fever at eight years old. His mother and a sister, old enough to hire out, had waited behind them on Rosa’s porch just before dawn one dark October, their weeping silent and inconsolable

"He will not wait, Rosa. The coyote. We must be at the road. Xavier--"

"I can see Xavier," Rosa had answered sharply. "Put him on the sofa."

That was all. Sometimes at night, caught halfway between sleep and waking, Xavier thought he remembered his father’s face. He thought he could feel his mother’s cool fingers as she made the sign of the cross on his burning forehead and the wet of her tears as she kissed his cheek. He thought he remembered these things and more from the time before he had come to live with Rosa, but he was never really sure.

And there in that house with the bougainvilleas by the mission Mater Dolorosa, he had been for seven years, growing up tall and well-mannered and learning soon enough not to ask questions for which there were no answers.

"Is there a letter, today Tia Rosa?"

"Letters are for those who can read, Xavier. Are your lessons done?"

"Have they sent us any money Tia Rosa? From America? My Papa said he would make money to buy me a fine coat."

"A coat is it? Foolishness, to fill a child‘s head. Do you see the other boys in fine coats?"

It was many months later, after his family had gone, that Xavier began to fully comprehend the complexity of his situation. One night, when his cousins were sleeping, he could see his aunt’s face was softer in the evening light and he’d thought he could approach her. He’d settled at her feet on the floor and offered his most appealing expression until she’d paused in her mending to stroke at his hair.

"Where have they gone, Tia? My mama and papa--I want to go to them. In America"

She stared at him over her sewing basket, and all at once he could see every hour of the day’s labors settled into the lines around her eyes and mouth.

"Go to bed, Xavier."


Rosa was not used to defiance and she lifted her hand as if to cuff his ear, then stopped herself, her fingers waving uselessly in the air.

"Tell me! What has happened to them? Why don‘t they write to me? Why don‘t they come?"

"I don’t know! I don’t know! Don’t speak to me of them--please."

Her voice had held a high, trembling note that he had never heard before, not even the day they had found scorpions in the cupboards. Astonished, the boy rocked back on his heels and could only wait as Aunt Rosa worked the muscles in her jaw for a moment, then returned to her mending by an effort of will.

For several minutes he stayed at her feet, aware only of the sound of the blood in his ears, keeping time to the ticking of the clock.

"Say your prayers, Xavier. It is late. You must give thanks to the Virgen for this miracle."

"What miracle?"

"That you have come to live with us."

"But how is that a miracle?"

She finished hemming one of the cousin’s dresses and snapped the thread off with her teeth. She studied him carefully in the light from the lamps, taking his chin and lifting his head so that he had no choice but to meet her eyes.

"I prayed for a son, and our Lord sent me only girl children. Then he sent me you. I must imagine that you are the product of a miracle because I cannot understand that in another way. Do you see why you must pray?"

He did not, but it proved of little consequence, for Xavier was a child who was quick to discover that the world turned harder for those who were disobedient, and that whatever kind of mother’s love Rosa may have harbored for him, her punishments were swift and sure.

Yet she cared for him as best she could. It was, after all, she who had put him out to apprentice with the Fat Man in his workshop at the edge of town. One day three years previous, she’d discovered Xavier’s drawings hidden in the trunk where she kept his outworn clothing. The following day, she’d ironed him a shirt and wet down his hair and walked him to the workshop on the road out of town.

"You should hire my nephew, Señor Aguilar" she announced without knocking. "He will be your retablisto. Xavier is a miracle, Señor -- an Artist of the Highest Order."

Joe Aguilar glanced up nonchalantly from a table littered with stones and wire and unfamiliar animals made of clay. He peered at the boy with small rodent-like eyes that looked implacably out from the folds of his face in a way that made it impossible to tell what he was thinking.

They said in the town Joe’s mother was a Navajo who’d raised him on fry bread, and he’d returned to the land of his fathers to live as he pleased Every weekend, the Fat Man would load up his van and his pots and the endless paintings of cactus and rock to sell to the tourists in Nogales. Every weekend, Joe Aguilar returned with a wad of folding money in his pocket and got drunk.

"No," Aguilar answered, turning his attention back to his work. "I don’t think so. Take him to the priest. Better to make that of him than a painter."

"Señor--" Rosa began, and Xavier had been surprised to see that she was blushing. "With all due respect, the Padre…" she paused and shot a furtive glance in Xavier’s direction. "A good man, mind. A saint--but it has been rumored he has--proclivities."

Xavier stared at her, astonished. Until that moment he had never understood her to be sophisticated in such things.

The Fat Man grunted uncomfortably, threading rough turquoise beads on a fish line. "I see--well--it’s nothing to do with me."

But Rosa had insisted, unrolling Xavier’s drawings out on the table in a way that made the boy feel faint with apprehension. Joe scowled over them, puffing out his meaty lips and breathing noisily.

"You see? This one? " Rosa insisted. "That is San Isidore! And Santiago! And this? Cristobal Sanchez, the shopkeeper!"

The Fat Man squinted and picked up one of the charcoals by the corner so as not to smear it, holding it delicately between a massive thumb and forefinger.

"Who is this one?" he asked.

Xavier glanced at the dark, reptilian image, a thick, sinewy face all but obscured by sunglasses and a baseball cap. He could only hang his head and mumble, his embarrassment complete "They call him El Chapo, Señ or."

Joe peered at him. "You know El Chapo? You have seen his face?"

"No, Señor--I--I just imagined it. Sometimes I read the stories in the paper. They say he is hiding in the mountains."

"With the rest of the jackals, no doubt." Aguilar shook his head and looked away. "Better to imagine the face of Christ than the devil. Because if he does come through, a man like him doesn’t leave witnesses."

Xavier answered without thinking. "Out on the highway, they light candles to him."

The Fat man paused in his work, as if even familiar things were suddenly beyond believing. "Shrines to a bastard. Big shot fucking drug lord. And the spics put out flowers, like he was a saint."

"Yes, Señor."

The Fat Man eyed him once again.

"Can you paint?"

Xavier had no idea if he could or not, but the notion of being able to come every day to this place and swirl colors onto a brush filled him with an inexpressible sense of possibility He swallowed. "Yes, Señor, of course."

Rosa crossed herself hastily, aware that her nephew had broken a commandment and told a lie.

"Well then," she said brightly. "It’s settled."


Xavier had a quota of paintings to make every week, chosen at his employer’s direction The tourists, Aguilar explained, had no sense of the sacred, and so collected images of the saints as though they were painted flower pots or cheap woven blankets The day Xavier reported to work, Joe lumbered out to a rough tin shed in the back of his house and began to dismantle it.

"Tin is your canvas, " he said, pointing to the pile. "When you run out, pull off another piece. Use the mallet -- or a rock to roughen the surface A rusted edge is better than not. "

Inside the shop, he showed him what was expected. He withdrew a cloth-covered bundle from a drawer in his worktable and it spewed up dust in the light that came from the window. The cloth held a half dozen ex votos, old stories of Thanksgiving painted on sheets of rusted tin and yellow canvas, their once vibrant colors softened with age and concealment.


"In the old days," Aguilar explained. "They were placed in the churches for an answer to prayer, so people would know God was real." Aguilar pointed at an image of El Niño de Atocha -- "The Child, you see? The patron of prisoners They always show him with a little hat. Like a monkey."

Xavier stared mutely down at the painting nearest to him, in which El Senor floated in his heaven, wrapped in a fiery robe, while down in a field, a horse and a rider were ready to tumble into an arroyo, and a jaguar crouched to devour them. Below the painting, lines of clumsy letters told the story of the miracle.

"Can you read it?"

Xavier did, overwhelmed by a sudden uncertainty and the hot, unwashed smell that rose off the Fat Man’s clothes.

"Agapito Maldonado had drunk a lot because love deceived him and he also gave some drinks to his horse and when they were walking by the edge of the ravine, they were so drunk that they did not see the beginning of the abyss. Santo de Cristo, to whom he always was entrusting his life, sent an angel to send back the horse to the path and when they saw it, they became sober again and give thanks for the miracle."

"You must paint one just like this," Aguilar instructed him. "Make it dark, as if it were old, like this one is. Mix the sienna with a little turpentine and ochre to make the wash and dry it in the sun. It mustn’t be too perfect, either. The gringos like them better when they seem as if they were painted by peasants."

Aguilar grunted and crossed back to his chair and Xavier was glad of the little bit of distance between them. "Shall I put the date, too?"

Joe reddened with irritation. "Of course! The tourists must believe they are originals, don‘t you see? They are highly collectible!"

And at all at once Xavier understood. He stared down at the half dozen relics on the table and wondered if it could be right. He wet his lips, trying to think how to put words to his thoughts and the question came before he was ready for it, his voice cracking a little in the silence.

"Did you get these from a church, Señor? Did you--take them?"

The Fat Man’s face went from red to a kind of purple, and his eyes darted first to heaven and then to the boy. "Are you calling me a thief?"

"Oh, no Señor! I--I just thought--"

"See to your work, boy. Or go back to your Auntie."

"Yes, Señor."

It would be another hour before they spoke again. Xavier was perched on a little wooden stool in a corner, lost in the deep red rock of the arroyo, when in another part of his mind, he heard the Fat Man grunt as he rose from his chair.

"Ahh--" The boy felt a kind of exhalation somewhere above his hair as he swirled a brush in bitter green to begin the valley.

Aguilar spoke to the air and to him and to no one as he headed for the door that led to his kitchen and disappeared for the rest of the afternoon.

"The great Frida Kahlo and her beloved Rivera. They saved these things from the sanctuaries when your priests threw them out. Art, they called it. Primitivo."

"Perhaps you can console yourself with that."


The sun was already warm as Xavier passed out of the town, and he paused to roll the last of his tobacco into half a cigarette. Rosa forbade smoking in her house, but as with most of her rules, he had learned to circumvent them and smoked when he could. Aguilar didn’t mind the habit, but was afflicted with asthma and had given them up. At times, he would ask Xavier to light one, so as to enjoy the aroma as it mingled with the turpentine in the air.

Today, he would get paid again and the thought of folding money made him smile. The ex votos sold well at the markets in Nogales; each week he painted five or seven, depending on the complications of the image and the text and Aguilar would sell them and split the profits. The tourists were ignorant and always changing, he’d explained. So there was never any danger of the forgeries being found out.

And too, Xavier had added some touches of his own to their manufacture, learning over time how the work dried faster left overnight on a stove. He taught himself to add soot and a powder of rust to get the colors just right, and to darken the images with candle smoke. He used his brushes lightly so the tin showed through, more like an picture fading away than one just applied. He was anxious to see how his latest was faring--the prayer of Artemio Santos:

"Artemio Santos thanks el Padre Jesus that after showing the gringita how to properly ride a horse she proceeded to have pleasurable love relations with him"

Aguilar had found one like it on something called eBay and was sure it would be popular. Xavier copied it from a printed sheet and gave the cowboy the face of the Cristobal Sanchez If it had dried in the night the way he was hoping, he might yet finish it for Aguilar to sell. It was six hours’ drive to Nogales, and Xavier was certain that would be enough to finish drying in back of the van. Someday soon, in two months’ time, Xavier himself would go to Nogales, concealed like his paintings in the back of Aguilar's van. From there he would cross the border with his money sewn into his clothes. From there, he would search for America.


He did not see the girl until he was almost upon her. At first, he was sure she was dead. Lying in the ditch by the side of the road, her blonde hair spread out around her, she was wearing only jeans and a filthy t-shirt, stained with blood at the shoulder Her eyes were closed and her mouth was set in an attitude of heavenly repose. But as he drew closer, he could see that she was not deceased, but breathing well enough, And he watched the rise and fall of her breasts with a terrible fascination, trying to think what to do.

Beneath her head was a knapsack made of military cloth, tucked underneath her like a pillow She was hardly older than himself, and even in sleep her hands were clenched into fists. Cautiously, he nudged her foot with the toe of his sandal and her eyes flew open.

"Fuck!" She shouted with a vehemence that startled the lizards.

Xavier took two steps backward, suddenly regretting his decision. The girl stared at him furiously, with the furious incomprehension of interrupted sleep.


"Are you hurt?" he asked her. "Can you sit up?"

The girl shielded her brow with her hand and he could see her eyes were a startling blue, and full of desperation. The skin of her cheek was already pink and he put out his hand to help her.

"You can’t stay here in the sun, " he told her. "You’ll dry up."

She sat up painfully, in stages, propping herself first on one elbow, then another. She climbed to her knees, clutching her knapsack close, displaying ugly bruises on her arms

"I have a knife," she informed him haltingly, and her speech was thick with a foreignness Xavier could not identify.

He held his hands open wide. "Don’t be afraid, señorita. What has happened to you?"

She scowled at him in an unfriendly way and, seeing the dark stain at her shoulder, ran her fingers cautiously toward a place on the back of her skull, wincing. After a moment, she seemed to ascertain the damage as less than it looked and eyed him again, warily.

"Nothing. It’s…" she paused for a long moment, searching for the word. "…complicated."

Xavier nodded. It was often best not to ask questions. "You’re not American I thought at first you might be--your hair." He hesitated, feeling unexpectedly foolish. The girl was beautiful in a way that was unfamiliar to him, with large round eyes and a high forehead and broad cheekbones that jutted in a challenging way from beneath pale, almost translucent skin. Standing there against the celestial blue of the sky, she might as well have fallen from the moon. The girl shifted uneasily, aware of his attention and turned her head, squinting out over the desert He watched the veins in her neck throb with apprehension.

"How far?" she asked him.

Xavier shrugged "To the town? Not far. Don’t worry. I‘ll take you. Can you walk?"

She frowned at him again and hoisted her pack over shoulder.

"No! Not town! America."


Her name was Vania which meant in her language the gracious gift of God. She had come not from the moon at all, but from an unpronounceable city halfway around the world She’d met a man online, she explained -- thumbing through a worn Spanish dictionary she’d pulled from her pack -- and that was the moment her fortunes went wrong.

Aunt Rosa had offered a bath and some soup and painted the wound on her scalp with a poultice She’d dressed her in the poorest of her daughters’ clothes and they were gathered at the table in the kitchen in the long light of the afternoon, while the girl’s hair dried in ringlets, like syrup or gold.

After inquiring as to the month of the year, Vania reckoned that she had been traveling since early September. A cowboy had promised to bring her to the city of angels, she said and there they planned to marry so that she might study cosmetology.

She was a careful girl, she told them, and saved her money. At the cowboy’s instruction, she’d come to first to Colombia and then through Belize. There, she met a jackal who’d claimed to be her lover’s brother who’d put her on a bus, first to one town and then another. She had to ride with goats, she told them. A fighting cock had bitten her finger while she slept. In Guatemala, she’d found a library with a computer and written again to her cowboy to inform him that her heart was breaking and most of her money was gone.

This time, another brother, or perhaps it was a cousin, came to her rescue like the answer to a prayer. He had a plane ticket to Mexico City and a package for her to deliver to another man there. She had only done as she was asked, she told them. The man to whom she had given the package was almost surely a man of honor, because he had in turn helped her find a man with a truck, who carried travelers across the border.

When she’d met him something in her heart had known her betrayal was complete. Yet she had come so far, and dreamed so long, there had been no turning back. The man had taken her money for the passage and her passport -- for safekeeping, he said -- and packed her in a van with nothing but desperados.

It was all she remembered until she’d awakened, there on the side of the road.

"I’m sorry for your troubles. But don’t imagine you can stay." Speaking with a certain finality, Rosa stood up and began rinsing the dishes.

Xavier stared at her, appalled that his aunt could be so inhospitable.

"But Tià, she is all alone. We can‘t just turn her out in the street."

"I doubt she’ll be alone for long." Rosa responded icily, "And if you ask me, the street is a fine place for a girl like her -- una rutelera!"

"No!" Xavier protested. "She will stay until she heals. I found her and she is my responsibility."

Rose whirled to face him. "What? Your responsibility? Have you lost your mind? You have already missed a day’s work. Hieracha. She has bewitched you." Rosa crossed herself hastily for protection.

"She is only a girl! And I am the man of this house!" He stopped all at once, astonished at himself. And Rosa’s eyes glistened with bitterness or tears.

Understanding well enough the tone of the conversation, if not the specifics, Vania rose from her place to delve into her knapsack, withdrawing an object wrapped in cloth, which she handed to Rosa, who refused.

"Please." Vania insisted. "For you. It belonged to my mother."

Rosa scowled and crossed her arms over her chest. The girl unwound a length of cloth and the dust of the world spewed up in the light. "Put it away. I don’t want anything--"

"No, please," The girl turned and appealed to Xavier’s understanding, beseeching him with eyes that made him feel as though his life would never be the same. "I need to sleep." she continued in her thick accent "A little food. Then I go. You take."

Xavier placed himself between Rosa and the girl, close enough to smell the soap she had used in her hair, acutely aware of her and yet somehow not. It suddenly seemed to him as if she were made of different things than flesh and bone and love might be accomplished just by breathing her in. He watched helplessly as she set her treasure on the table. And from somewhere behind him, Aunt Rosa uttered a little gasp.

"Madre di Dios. It is a sign."

It was an icon covered in hammered silver, polished to a breathtaking sheen. The Madonna’s face was dark as an Arab’s, graced with thin lips and an Indian jaw The Child, too, was there in her arms, decked out in silver armor to better protect the painting beneath, His tiny hand raised up in benediction as his sad, inconsolable eyes looked out on the world.

It was a moment before Xavier, the scent of the girl still befogging him, was able to recognize the miracle. "Our Lady of Sorrows? Where did you get such a thing?"

All but overcome with the struggle to be understood, Vania tried to find a word and found instead that language itself had escaped her. She turned to Xavier and pleaded with her eyes.

"Theokotos." she managed finally. "She who shows the way. You take."

Xavier picked up the holy thing and turned it over in his hands, fascinated by the lacy details of the silverwork, the whispery fine portraits, edged in gold. It seemed to him as though they had been painted with brushes made of cat whiskers or silk. He wondered who had felt such devotion to the Virgen, to create something so reverent and fine. He handed it back reluctantly. "I can’t--it’s yours. We can’t accept a gift in exchange for a kindness.."

Vania shook her head in a kind of confusion, took the icon and the cloth and stuffed them both away into her traveling pack. When she faced him again, her eyes were unreadable

"Not gift." she said abruptly. "Is pay. For food -- for bed. Then I go to America."

"No," Xavier told her. "Not yet. First sleep. Okay?"

She exhaled with relief and the sudden warmth of her breath on his skin filled him with wonder and despair. He motioned her to follow him, leading her to his own small room in the back of the house, where he gave her a blanket and closed the door. He returned to the kitchen feeling years older, as though in the time since he'd found her on the road, he might call his life his own.

Rosa glared at him, her lips pressed into a line.

"If we are supposed to feed her, too, I’ll have to kill one of the chickens"

Xavier smiled "Yes." he said. "Do that. Aguilar owes me wages. If I hurry, he will still be there."

"Do whatever you please," Rosa answered him. "But know this. Only a whore would insult me like that -- to barter a holy relic just for a bed."

His hand on the door latch, he gave her a long look. "You believed it was good enough for me."

And as he passed them at the well by the Mission Mater Dolorosa, the gossiping women said nothing at all.

The light had changed as he made his way down the road out of town. It was not yet sunset, but the darkness would fall fast. In the north, Xavier could see a line of ominous-looking clouds boiling above the gold and silver band of light at the horizon and caught the unfamiliar scent of moisture in the air.

A breeze whipped up dust devils here and there in the desert’s empty spaces and under his feet a line of red ants broke ranks and ran in circles. Rain would come, he reckoned. Vania would have to stay now. It was surely a sign.

Outside the workshop, Aguilar was packing the van. He looked different outside, trying to move like an ordinary person. His weight gave the impression of a kind of fluidity and he seemed, as he loaded up the boxes and paintings of cactus and rock, to progress like a man under water.

He could see in a moment that something had changed. "Where have you been?"

In spite of himself, Xavier grinned. "Rescuing women," he said.

"Oh, " Joe replied. "That. A thankless business. Hand me those there." 

Xavier took up the boxes and shoved them into the van. "She is a foreigner -- a rusa I found her by the side of the road. A coyote took her money and dumped her, she said."

Joe threw in a pile of weavings and slammed the door. "She is pretty, this girl?"

"Oh, like an angel, " answered Xavier, quite seriously.

Joe heaved a sigh. "Ahh -- well. I am sorry for you then. They leave you the soonest and are the hardest to forget."

Xavier studied him curiously. It was difficult to think of Aguilar with a woman, much less a pretty one. But every heart carried a secret and in that he might be no different from other men. "But she isn’t leaving. I have spoken to my aunt She will live with us until I decide what to do."

Joe raised an eyebrow. "She was trying for the border, this girl?"


"Then she might as well be gone. Even a handsome boy like you can’t win a heart that is already stolen."

Aguilar climbed in the truck and fished in his pockets. He counted out Xavier‘s wages for the week, twenty-one dollars, American. As an afterthought, he counted out three more and handed the money through the window. " For your rusa," he explained. "Take her to the cantina. Buy her a beer. Fuck her if you want to, but keep your heart to yourself." He paused and peered up through the windshield at the clouds to North.

A little figure of St. Christopher hung by his neck from a chain on the rearview and Aguilar touched it once, then made a furtive sign of the cross. "It’s already finished raining in Nogales," he said. "I’ll have to drive through."

The last of the light was nearly gone and the wind turned insistent and sharp as Xavier made his down the road that led back to the town. The air was alive with a kind of longing and he could smell the rain wanting to fall. He paused for a moment to turn to the north, long enough to witness the long lines of lightning as they danced over the mountaintops. He never saw the cloud that had fallen to the earth, summoned by the terror hidden in the wind.

The dust storm was on him in an instant, blinding his eyes and filling his mouth and covering him like another skin. The whirlwind consumed him; sand and rocks and withered grasses, stung his eyes and slapped his flesh -- a polvareda come to steal his breath. He fell into the ditch, trying to find some little bit of shelter, clutching his shirttail up over his nose and mouth while all around him the world filled up with a roaring darkness.

It was minutes or hours or no time at all before he squinted at the road to see if the storm was ending and saw instead a car was creeping down the road that led to the town, moving like a spirit in the swirling red mist that whipped and thrashed in every direction

Xavier lowered his head and whispered a prayer. He had only heard of men dying in storms like this, caught in the open without protection. But he was certain that none but the devil himself would brave one in a car.

And then he was back at the house near the mission Mater Dolorosa, where the lamps had been lighted and the bouganvillea were torn, their blossoms scattered over the porch for a welcome.

The house was filled with the scent of chickens cooking and his cousins squawked and chattered when they saw he had returned, as though the spirit of the bird had possessed them Rosa came to him with a towel and a basin and a poultice of herbs to bathe the cuts on his face.

"We thought you might be dead," she told him. "The shopkeeper’s roof was torn clean away. A terrible storm. Terrible. It is a sign, I tell you."

He watched as the water in Rosa’s basin swirled and filled up with dirt and red. "Where is she?" he asked, remembering himself. "Vania Is she still asleep?"

Rosa took the towel away and dumped water in the sink. "Her? She is gone. Some time ago."

"What do you mean gone?" He stared at her helplessly, suddenly feeling a boy again, as though he might weep.

Rosa sighed impatiently. "She slept for a little while only. Then she wanted to know where there was a telephone. I sent her to Sanchez. She came back for her things and was gone."

"How could you let her go?" shouted Xavier.

Rosa offered only a perfunctory shrug. "How could I not? She knows her business better than I do. At least now I have chicken to offer the priest."

Xavier felt his heartbreak like a physical thing, precise as a knife in his chest. He rose and turned away from the women in order to spare them the spectacle of his tears

And that night in his room at the back of the house where he laid down and caught the scent of her hair, Xavier Flores felt under his bed and found that the jar with his money was gone. In its place was an icon covered in silver where the almond-shaped eyes of a Virgin and Child gazed without passion on the world.

The rain did not come and the drought had continued and they said at the well that a car with a devil drove out of the storm and took her away. Xavier Flores was unconcerned Their words rattled like seeds in the gourd of his breast and he walked out of the town to the workshop like a sleepwalker, too dried up with misfortune to care

He had some pebbles in his pocket and some bits of metal too and the icon wrapped in cloth that he held close to his heart. If he hurried, his painting would have dried on the stove. At the workshop, Joe Aguilar was sleeping off a hangover and Xavier slipped quietly through the door, taking his place at the stool by the window where the light came in. He positioned his icon better to see and compared it to the wood that was his canvas. He applied a few touches to the face of the Virgen, graced with Rosa’s thin lips and an Indian jaw. The Child had Xavier’s own face and a tiny, perfect hand raised in benediction--too handsome perhaps to ever be true, with the same inconsolable eyes. And still it was not finished.

He made his way to the shed at the back, and tore away a piece of tin. Inside, he measured the faces carefully, and cut the piece carefully, so the armor would leave room to reveal his devotion.

And using only sharpened pebbles and bits of metal he’d found on the road, he began to hammer out an intricate design that would form a perfect copy of his heart.


Teresa Kennedy is the author (or co-author) of more than 30 published books of fiction and non-fiction. She lives in Tucson Arizona with her husband and daughter. "Ex Voto" is part of her upcoming collection of short fiction, An Unwilling Grace.







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