The moon hung swollen and a bright, pearly white in the clear, cloudless sky. Stars like a blanket of sparkling luminescence stretched from horizon to horizon, bathing the bare landscape in startling shades from deep, midnight blue shadows and pale, milky white reflections on the sand. A little pinprick of a more somber, smoldering red bobbed, moving slowly down the lonely desert road. A cigarette hung loosely from slack lips, eyes staring peacefully at the serenity in the quiet landscape. A sudden gust of wind whipped across the land, swirling around the body of the girl and eliciting a shiver. She pulled her jacket closer around her body, drawing on her smoking cigarette and filling her lungs with a sear of warm smoke. She blew it out of the corner of her mouth, eyes watching as the trail curled up into the air and vanished. If it weren't for the tell-tale sign of her smoking, eyes would have had a hard time telling she was there. Her hair hung dark and straight around her face and shoulders, blacker than the nighttime shadows. Her face was pale, and she wore dark clothing, a denim jacket over a dull brown t-shirt, though certain shows of lightness in the garment brought up the possibility that it had not always been that shade. Dark, tough jeans clung to rangy, yet still feminine legs, with the pointed toes of a pair of boots emerging from the bottoms.
Despite her uncertainty about such things, she couldn't help but feel that she was made for this world around her, the contrast and harshness a perfect harmony with her own gruff nature and that gentler side she tried not to show so much, at least not around the men of the little town. She took another pull on her cigarette, continuing her walk down the vacant road. It was almost her favorite time of the day, when the pale, wan light of the sun would just barely start creeping into the air. The sky and land would be scraped clean like a canvas, all turning to bleached grays and whites, before the sun poked up over the edge of the world to color it with tongues of flame. Fire would roar across the sky and the land would glow bright, hot yellow as the orb rose up to the sky, soon to more literally scorch the earth and any so foolish to walk unprotected beneath it. But until that happened, she could watch the dramatic death of the night once again.
It was such a blend to this time that she almost missed it. Just on the side of the road, as this magical time began, was a small, pitiful, cream-colored bundle. She didn't take any notice of it when first her eyes passed it, only as the sun began rising father and coloring the earth, the contrast becoming more evident, did she truly recognize what it was she saw. Patches of pale flesh the tone of finely mixed masa, a splay of hair that at one glance appeared a deep, lustrous brown, and at another shone with the blaze of burnished copper. It was a young girl, lying on the road. Reki felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, and she ran over as fast as she was able. Thankfully, she found the girl alive, though clad only in a simple cloth dress and sandals that were terribly unsuited for this land, and with no evident sign of how she had arrived. Her skin was soft and untouched by sun, her feet showed no signs of walking, and yet it would have been the news of the month had any vehicles gone by on this road today. Reki cleared her mind of those thoughts. It didn't matter right now, she needed to get her to shelter before the sun rose. She shook the girl's shoulder, but she didn't awaken. Looking closer and touching exposed skin, the girl did feel somewhat hot, and her slumber restless. She was sick, alone, and presumably lost, in the middle of nowhere with a sun rising angrily to roast her where she lay. Without a single moment's hesitation, Reki carefully pulled the unconscious girl onto her back, continuing the trek back to her home.
The girl shifted restlessly. Something deliciously cool and soothing touched on her brow, and a gentle caress on her cheek brought a warmth quite apart from fever to her heart. She opened her eyes. The air around her at first seemed somehow... dirty, but as her vision cleared, she found it was only the effect of sunlight filtering through dingy, yellowed curtains and illuminating a dingy, brown room. Her eyes roamed slowly over the slightly discolored walls, finding soon the one example of beauty in this place. Somebody sat beside her, beside the bed she lay in. An earthenware bowl sat on her lap, and she wrung out a clean white cloth with careful deliberation in the cool water it held. Her face was gracefully composed of straight planes, but was kind, and her skin looked soft. The roughly made pants and shirt she wore seemed at once both out of place, and strangely perfectly suited to adorn her. She turned her dark, angled eyes back to the girl in the bed, and appeared surprised.
"Buenos dias, señorita," she spoke in a musical, smooth tongue that the girl didn't understand, though she felt immediately entranced by the gentle voice that spoke it. She opened her mouth to speak, but only made a light croaking sound at first. Shutting her mouth in embarrassment, she wet her tongue and worked her throat, trying again.
"I, I'm sorry. I don't know if I understand you."
A flash of shocked recognition shone in the woman's eyes, "Hold on, you speak this language, Japanese?" Reki couldn't have placed the girl's ethnic origins if she'd been asked, though something in her cheekbones and lips made an Asian origin not unthinkable. Nonetheless, she felt a chill run up her spine at the familiarity of the situation.
"Um, Yes, I guess. Is that unusual?"
"Ah, not really, but there aren't many around her that do."
"What was that you were speaking?"
"Spanish, it's the native language."
The girl stared at the ceiling. This was certainly odd, what was she doing in this place? With a sudden dawning of fear, she came to find that she couldn't recall her origins at all. Where was she from? Why was she here? Who were these people that she found herself among, speaking this unfamiliar language? The woman in the room broke her from these thoughts with but a simple question.
"What's your name?"
"Rakka," the girl answered without hesitation, only thinking later that somehow, she hadn't known even that until she was asked.
"Rakka? 'Falling?' Humm... I guess you must have had the same weird parents as me, to hang you with a name like that," she spoke with a soft smile to show the humor rather than insult to her words, "My name is Reki, meaning 'little stones'. I don't know why. I could understand that kind of name for a little boy, even if he'd hate to have to grow up with it, but me?"
Reki raised an eyebrow, and Rakka laughed, a low, sweet sound.
"So, what brings you to this little slice of the desert?"
"Yes, the dry, sandy place you were in outside, before I found you this morning. Remember?"
Rakka flushed, straining her mind but finding no recollection, "No... no I don't remember. I don't remember anything."
Raki felt another shiver run up her spine, "Not anything?"
Rakka tried again, searching every corner of her memory, "No, just my name. Well, I think I know how to tie shoes, and how many days are in a week, and other things like that, but... nothing about me," she looked to Reki with stark fear and sadness in her face, tears welling up in the corners of her eyes and hanging there, shining and opalescent. She sat up, then, feeling her legs slide under a cool sheet and laying her arms down on top of a scratchy, rough-stitched blanket. Reki reached over and laid a hand over hers, trying to ease the girl's worries,
"Hey now, calm down. It's scary to not know those things, but you're among friends," Through some unbelievable coincidence the sun, in its constant migration across the sky, hit the break in the curtains as Reki said this, illuminating her from behind in a halo of bright light as she smiled reassuringly. Rakka felt a strange surge of recognition, with swirled feelings of bittersweet happiness and hopeless yearning, as though she'd seen this before and it had been somehow a time of joy and great sorrow. Reki, unaware of what had overtaken the girl, grew slightly uncomfortable at the steady, full gaze she was fixed with and stood, blocking the light and breaking the spell weaved over Rakka's senses. The younger girl shook her head, trying to focus on that feeling, feeling something just on the edge of her perception, some important memory that was reluctant to make itself seen.
"Oi! Despierta muchacha, es la hora para trabajar," a rough voice called loudly through the door, breaking her last touch with that sense and startling her besides.
"Sí, sí, estoy despierto ya. Tu ve, cabrón," Reki called back, a good deal more harshly than Rakka had heard her speak thus far.
"Wh-what's going on?" Rakka asked fearfully, and Reki smiled.
"Ah, it's mi casero, er, landlord, waking me up for work. I, ah, just told him I was already awake and, er, would be down in a moment," Reki fibbed slightly, thinking that it couldn't hurt anything. She always spoke that way with the fellow who owned the place. He thought she was strange and unbecoming for a woman, and she thought he was a grouchy good-for-nothing old crank, but they tolerated one another outside of the occasional tossed insult, and even those weren't meant too harshly. For some reason she felt embarrassed to explain what she'd actually said to this young girl she'd only just met. Speaking of which...
"You better go ahead and get up, too, if you're feeling better. We need to let him know that he's going to have another tenant for a bit."
"Oh no, I couldn't just impose like that--"
"Because you have somewhere else to go?" Reki interjected bluntly. Rakka fell silent, and Reki waited for her to get up out of bed.
"Your shoes are there on the floor, might as well put them on. We'll see about getting you some more suitable clothes today, but what you're wearing will work well enough for now. At least it's cute, maybe it'll soften up the crotchety fellow," Rakka smiled shyly at Reki's compliment and accompanying smile. The door was opened and they came out into a thin hallway lined with six doors, the one they exited the middle one on the right, looking in from a bigger room to their immediate left.
Reki led her in there, where they found a small room with a little couch and a fuzzy television that wasn't actually showing anything at the moment, but was still on, and a low coffee table scattered with yellowed magazines and old newspapers. The walls were yellowed with age, and the maroon carpet was--surprisingly, given the clutter--clean, if threadbare. This little room had a set of double doors to one side, and one wall opened to a decently sized little kitchen, which was where Reki led her next. There was a refrigerator, stove, a few cabinets, a sink, and a pantry tucked off in one corner, along with a little round table that looked as though it could fit four people, though there were only three chairs. The ceiling had a fan spinning, with an uncovered lightbulb that wasn't on, the window to the far side of the kitchen providing enough light to get by. The floor was decorated with bright white and sunny yellow striped vinyl, a bundle of pink and purple flowers painted on at patterned intervals. This room seemed much cleaner than the rest of the house, to Rakka's gratification.
"It ain't much, but I don't get rained on... although that wouldn't happen much without a roof, anyway. Why don't you have a seat," Reki gestured to the table. Rakka tentatively took a seat with that air of discomfort that one experiences in a strange house for the first time. She watched as Reki moved over to the cabinets and pulled out a medium-sized pan from the cabinets and placed it on the stove, turning a dial to heat it. She then popped open the fridge door and started loading her arm with things. She paused for a moment in this process,
"You like spicy food?" She asked.
"Um, no, not really," Rakka admitted.
"Ah, you'll learn, but I'll take it easy on you this morning," Reki ended up pulling out a couple of partially consumed wheels of cheeses, one a mellow orange, the other a pale white. She also pulled out a couple of thin, green vegetables that Rakka didn't recognize, a handful of precariously balanced eggs, and half an onion. Setting all of this on a table, she went to the pantry and opened that up, taking an earthy, fresh-looking potato from a basket at the bottom. She took down a slab of scarred wood from a nail on the wall over the sink and put the potato and onion on it, dicing them with a knife she pulled from a drawer without even looking. She looked quite at home in her kitchen, and Rakka could hear her lightly humming. She apparently wasn't much for conversation while she was engaged, but Rakka felt fine with just watching her at work.
She finished dicing, and slid the cut vegetation into the waiting heated pan. As soon as that was done, it left her mind and she went back to her cutting board, taking the thin green things and dicing them up much more finely, with rapid, learned motions of her knife. She finished with them, moved them aside, and pulled out a flat, metal grater. She made herself a pile of mixed white and yellow cheese next to the green plants, quickly scrubbed clean the grater, and put it back up. She turned a cursory eye over the onion and potato, shook her head, and gave the pan a practiced flick of her wrist, tossing the ingredients about and allowing them to cook more evenly. Rakka watched as she walked over to a coffee pot on the counter she hadn't even noticed before and prepared it.
"You drink coffe?" Reki asked her now, and Rakka shook her head.
"Milk okay, then?"
"Yes, please." Reki took a glass from a cabinet and poured a glass of milk from a carton in the refrigerator, coming over to the table and setting it in front of Rakka before taking a seat herself.
"Got a little while before those potatoes cook," she explained. Reki felt like she should try and say something, start some kind of conversation with her guest, but could do little more than just look, vaguely bemused at the girl and the circumstances that brought her here today. She idly wondered why this felt so... comfortable, as if they'd been together an untold number of times before, feeling that closeness that didn't require words sitting between them despite their recent introduction. Rakka, too, found that when she thought about it, her life was frightening and bizarre, but when she didn't consciously focus on that, she felt the oddest sense of familiarity with her surroundings. She'd never been here before, she didn't know where anything was and nothing actually looked familiar to her, but the deepest, most intangible feeling of the place was somehow fitting. They spent a few minutes like that, then Reki got back up with a grunt, sniffing the air.
"Smells like it's about done," she remarked. She looked into her pan and tossed the contents around a bit, plucking out a piece and tossing it in her mouth, chewing thoughtfully, "Yep, perfect."
With three smooth motions, Reki cracked the five eggs she'd pulled out, one after another, and dropped the contents into the pan. Pulling a wooden spoon out of another drawer, she lightly churned the contents, just barefly breaking the yolks, then scraped in the diced green things. As it became readily apparent that she was, in fact, going to be eating them, Rakka became possessed with a sudden desire to know what those things were.
"Reki, what are those green vegetables you just put in there?"
"Huh? Those? Those were green chiles, good flavour, not very spicy. I usually like to add a bit of diced jalapeño as well, but I told you I was going to give you an easy time," she smiled as she spoke, and always kept a careful eye on her cooking. Soon she gave it a satisfied expression, and pulled a plate from cabinet, spooning out the contents onto it. She walked to the curtained window and drew the cloth back, revealing a much broader windowsill than Rakka would have suspected, with a row of containers in various sizes and types sitting in the sun. She brought down a round, squat, ceramic container with a lid, feeling the top.
"Looks like the sun should have them warmed just right by now."
She opened it up and took out a few pieces of some round, flat bread with darker brown spots speckled over the surface. She cupped one in her hand to form an elongated tube, spooned some of the egg mixture in, took a pinch of the grated cheese and sprinkled it over the top, then wrapped the whole thing up, handing it to Rakka.
"There you are, tell me what you think."
Rakka took a small, cautious bite and chewed. Her face brightened, and her jaws quickened. Besides being hungry, she found this absolutely delicious, and told Reki so. The woman's face brightened noticeably, though she hid it with a gruff expression, "Of course it is." She said, though it was obvious she appreciated the compliment. She poured herself a cup of coffee and wrapped up a breakfast for herself. They ate quickly, and just in time, too, because neither of them would have liked their meal spoiled.
"Ah, la aroma dulce de café en la mañana," a gruff voice spoke from the other room, and Rakka looked to the entryway to see a darkly tanned man walking in, wearing a stained undershirt and faded boxers. His eyes were closed with his nose in the air, sniffing appreciatively. His smile faded instantly, however, when he looked down and met Rakka's eyes. She smiled, but his eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"Reki, quién es ella?"
"Ah... ella es mi... prima, si, mi prima. Ella tiene problemas pocas en ella casa, y vinó a la acá en la noche de ayer." Reki spoke slowly and hesitatingly, and though Rakka couldn't understand what they were saying, she got the distinct impression that Reki's slowness was not due to any lack of competence in the tongue. The man standing there looked unconvinced, and still looked to Rakka harshly,
"No opero una casa de caridad, Reki. Halla un sitio otro por tu relativos fugitos,"
"Uno momento, casero, elle necesita un sitio para vivir, ella hace hallar trabajo y pagar por habitación," Reki said quickly, looking like she were protesting. Rakka felt uncomfortable, sure that she was being discussed and not knowing just what was going to happen to her.
"Sí, sí, tú haces, pero miro no dinero. Si ella quiera para vivir, ella paga primero."
Reki's mouth quirked down at the corner, and she bit back at him, "Tu cabrón maldito. Tienes un corazón?"
He wore a sickly sweet, self-satisfied smirk, and shook his head slowly, deliberately, and quite cheerfully. Then his eyes hardened once more, "Yo quiero ella está ausente cuando volvo, comprende?"
Reki stood, eyes blazing, but when she spoke, it was calm, cool, "Voy al trabajo ahora. Traeré ella con me. Adios, cabrón." Reki took Rakka's arm, and the girl correctly thought that to be a sign that they were about to leave, though she still felt a little scared about whatever Reki and her landlord had been arguing about, probably more afraid because she didn't know what they were discussing than anything else. Reki pulled her back into her room, where Rakka felt it was safe enough now to try and satisfy her curiosity.
"What was that all about, Reki?" She asked while the other woman picked up a denim jacket from the back of a straight-backed wooden chair in her room, the same she'd been sitting in when Rakka awoke. She slipped her arms into it, answering as she did,
"I told him you were my cousin and had troubles back home, and that you needed a place to stay. He said he wasn't running a charity, and I told him you would pay when you found a job, but he said money up front or no deal. He also wanted you out of here by the time he got back from his shower, so I'm taking you to where I work. We need to get you some clothes, anyway," Reki took a wide-brimmed, woven hat from a hook on the back of her door and put it on her brow, and also took a rolled cigarette from her jacket pocket, and a lighter from her pants pocket. She held the cigarette in her lips and lit it in a fluid motion, puffing and returning the lighter to her pocket.
"You know, smoking is bad for you," Rakka said reprovingly, then felt bad for saying such a thing to somebody helping her so much.
"Yeah? Oh well, I guess that means I won't have as long to live in this lovely place with all the people that care about me," she rolled her eyes to the other room, and Rakka laughed despite herself. Reki smiled, and she winked at the younger girl. The sight, that of this tough, dark-haired girl in rough clothing and that wide hat, winking her eye while a cigarette seemed to hang haphazardly from the corner of her mouth, somehow struck Rakka as being, well, quite cool.
"Come, Rakka, let us go out into the splendor of a true summer day in our glorious Mexico."
"The country we live in, the sand we stand on, the sun that shines the sky; the land of the hardworking, the enduring, and the slightly insane," Reki responded, and Rakka thought she heard a note of pride in her voice.
Then they stepped out of the front double doors, and Rakka thought she knew what Reki meant by "the slightly insane." The sun shone glaringly in the sky, beating down on her unprotected head like a physical thing, making her squint and giving her the impression that she could already feel her skin burning in the heat. Reki took one look at Rakka cringing from her first meeting with the desert sun and sighed. She took the sombrero from her head and pushed it down over Rakka's eyes. The younger girl looked around amusingly with it covering her eyes, then pushed it back up and looked to Reki gratefully.
"I'll ask one of the abuelas to weave you one of these later."
"Literally, grandmothers. They're three little old ladies that I work for in their little cookshop. They also live with us in el hogar viejo."
"Is that the name for the kind of building you live in?"
"Not exactly. The townspeople used to call it, la casa de las personas viejas, meaning 'the house of the old people', but then it got shortened to the current name, meaning something like, 'the home of the old.'"
"Old home..." Rakka spoke musingly, though she didn't know why the words sprang to her lips.
"Er, I guess that's a more literal translation, but that's not what the people usually mean. How did you know that?"
"Oh, I didn't know! I just... it sounded like a good name, or like something I've heard before. Old home."
"It has a certain romantic feel to it in our language, doesn't it?" Reki looked thoughtful, and Rakka nodded. It did. It felt like home.