This story is by Susan Earle and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The New Mexico sunset reddens the Sangre de Cristo mountains over the cottonwood grove. I’ve wandered these mountains for a hundred years, hovering between the living and the dead. I cannot avenge myself or take it out on others. Meandering like a cold river, I am caught between two places with no destination and no end.
I am a murderer, so they say. But I know the truth. I am innocent. Of course, all murderers say they are innocent.
It happens all the time in this town between the dry plains and foothills. All sorts wander through. Thieves, murderers, preachers. Saloon owners, madams, and shopkeepers. Scavengers and grifters, in and out. Men and women leave their lives behind in search of something different nestled here in no man’s land. It’s the perfect place to start a new life or ruin the one you have.
We were not newcomers, he and I. Our people had been here forever, blood and sweat born in these ancient hills. We descended from Old World conquistadors, rich with the mighty peso and land. Together we form the backbone of our community to help the poor, feed the widows, and clothe the children. People frequent our stores and work the ranches we build. We were not like them, or so we said.
We associated with each other because that is the way it is done. We bring culture and God to the center of life. We pray to Our Lady because she is the Blessed Mother. The saints guide us and pop up in all the pretty places. In the sky, in the rain, in the prairie grass, and the birds.
But it is lonely here, and temptation is everywhere. I am not the first person led astray. But I was the first woman to be punished for loving the wrong man.
He was a handsome man, but not nice. Esteemed in the community, but despised behind doors. A cheater and swindler. Was I in love with him? Maybe. Was he in love with me? I thought so. We just had one barrier and that was her. His wife. I know that no one should get involved with a married man, but I did it.
I don’t regret it. I enjoyed every minute with him. He was passionate and rough and loving and gritty. He gave me the attention I was looking for. I gave him what he was looking for. Someone who loved him with no conditions. No obligations and no fighting. Until, of course, there was. There always is.
I see it all the time now. I can see everything now. I am a legend in both of our families. Stories about me pass on down through the generations, the wronged woman, the town whore. As they say, the truth is somewhere in between.
But who is truly to blame in all of this?
It is not like I went looking for the man. It is not like he came looking for me. We just met in the middle, like the truth. And there we found each other.
We did not mean to hurt anyone. We didn’t even think about it. Until we did. Until we were found out. And then everything imploded and everyone was hurt. It was a terrible disaster, destroying families and killing friendships.
Except people don’t really die. They are just absorbed into the trees and clouds and land. If you look carefully, you can see us. Some people call us ghosts or spirits or witches. But really, it’s just us. Heaven is an extension of earth, an airless form of living, with more freedom and forgiveness and kindness. It is the reward for living on the hell of earth, committing sins and mistakes and hurts to ourselves and each other.
God is the sky and the sun and the moon and stars. He watches over us constantly, in life and death. Why doesn’t anyone tell us that? I still pray the rosary to Mother Mary even though I’m not sure of her existence. I don’t even know where she was when I needed her. I found no protection from her when he came to me and no resistance from him.
Isn’t that what mothers are supposed to do? Imbue you with the fortitude to say no. But maybe she didn’t see the danger, maybe she had others with more important needs. Maybe with her being immaculate she just didn’t understand. I still pray to her everyday, though, to protect the other young women on this earth who need the strength to say no and walk away with their minds and bodies.
It happened one hundred years ago today. My physical death, that is. Memories live on, anniversaries remembered and celebrated, even awful ones that are best forgotten.
Horrifying and gruesome, that’s what people remember about me the most. I doubt anyone would even care if it weren’t for that. The sheriff was a cruel man and he taunted me everyday. He counted down the days until my execution, jeering that the perfect tree stood right in the middle of the cottonwood grove.
Said I wasn’t worth building a gallow for, me being a woman and a trash one at that. I ignored his big mouth and sat quietly, my rosary in my hand and my eyes closed, pretending to pray or maybe I was. It was so long ago I don’t rightfully remember, but non-believers pray in all sorts of messes. Most likely I did, too.
It was a hot day for April, the day I was to be executed. A big crowd was gathered over by that cottonwood grove. The sheriff put me in the back of the wagon.
The priest tried to give me last rites, but I spit on him. He crossed me and murmured some words in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I was defiant to the end for as I told you earlier, I did not murder him.
I looked in the crowd for my mama, and then for him. Neither was there. Mama couldn’t stand the shame, or maybe the sadness. Granny said it ain’t natural for a child to die before the parents. As for him, he should be the one in this wagon. He’s the one who did it for her.
I stood proud and straight while the clumsy sheriff tied the rope to the tree branch and then around my neck. He did not put a cloth bag over my head. I stood silently, the sun beating down on the dry sod of the plains. The dull roar of the crowd gradually dimmed to whispers and then to silence. Deafening silence.
Finally, the sheriff read his order. He slapped the horse on the backside and the horse moved. I grabbed the rope away from neck with my hands and loosened it. I swung back and forth.
I heard screaming in the crowd and shouts of “Hang her! Do it right this time. She can’t get away with it.”
The sheriff and another man lifted me up back into the wagon. This time he tied my hands. He hit the horse and the wagon moved. I saw him, just as I floated. He looked at me and then she took his hand and they walked away. I may have loved a married man, but she loved her husband’s murderer.