Independence Day by Joy Castro
An agave can be many things, its tough gray-green spikes frozen in their waving like the stilled arms of an anemone in the desert’s long-parched sea. The bison of the Aztecs, it proffers its lathering innards as soap, its vicious brown-pointed tips to men as arrowheads or to women as threaded needles ready-made (with a strand of fibers left attached), its deep rubbery layers as condoms, its thinner dry sheets near the surface as paper, and its fibers as the thread for weaving, tough but softening with washing and time. If a flowering plant has been cultivated nearby, its blossoms can be used to rub hot pink or tomato red into the agave’s pale fibers just as they’re stripped from the plant. And don’t forget mezcal, the intoxication buried at the agave’s base, the root of our tequila.
Yes: the agave gives us love and frenzy, the soap to clean up afterwards and the clothes to put back on, and the codices to record our acts and visions. A whole culture can be read in the pith of the agave, if one knows how to read: a testament to the resourcefulness of a people and to the generosity of the gods we used to love, who scattered such bounty over the dry land.
Yet when the white men came, they saw only a forbidding weed, a thorned sentry tall as a man.
In the year of our Christ 1848, I was some two decades into my life, minding my business and flirting with one José Maria Loiaza—a quiet, inoffensive sort of man, the papers called him later—just living quietly, when somebody somewhere signed something, and suddenly the town of San Jose, where I’d lived since my parents moved us north from Jalisco, was no longer home. Los estados unidos ahora. México no more.
When José asked me to marry him, we headed farther north, and east into the mountains, for freedom. Raised on haciendas to know our place, we worked in wood, José and me, him a carpenter and rough carver, and me learning with sharp-tipped tools how to hew the fine detail. We thought maybe there would be call for us in the little villages, and we would find peace: the crisp light of mountain mornings, the scent of pinesap and cold streams. Birdsong.
But then somebody somewhere found some gold, and suddenly people—men, white men—were flooding everywhere, craving that useless shine. Quick and dirty riches. They came alone or in little bands through the mountains, risking death, these men without women or soap. They staggered along the streets of Downieville, loving nothing more than whisky, cards, and fast wealth.
Frederick Cannon, rushing in your rush for gold, did my gold shoulders disarray your mind? I was one of Downieville’s few women. And brown. Did you think to pan beneath my skirt that day you ripped our door from its leather hinges, reveling in fresh statehood, stumbling with your friends down Main Street, a celibate and frustrated brotherhood of miners-forty-niners, your fingers sunk all day in the earth’s wetness, sifting for a treasure you could sell?
July 4, 1851. God Bless Your America, los estados unidos ahora, when a mere three years ago it had been home and mine. Praise God and liberty. Your revelries went on all day, guns fired into the air, bright bunting strung around the general store, whisky downed in gulps, your faces painted red and white, chickens and hogs massacred for your culinary delight. Your feast of grease. When you and your drunken miner friends wove down Main Street, shouting your national pride, loud, fueled by your clogged cocks, did the closed door of our little house offend you? Did it confuse you, there in the mountains, in the place you’d come for your fortune of last resort—where you’d expected that everything, finally, would open to you? Were its shut boards the final straw after months of your invisibility to me? How goddamn pissed off you’d been when I wouldn’t notice you, the tension so hot and thick I could smell its stench when I went to draw water from the Yuba. When I lifted the clay jar to my head, your gaze sifted my dress like fingers.
That evening, July 4th, when José came home, our wooden door lay in the street. Main Street, USA. Without shame you did it, Frederick Cannon, knocked my door from its frame, threw it down, and came with your stink into the place that was mine. Your friends, drunk on America and whisky and our mezcal, waited laughing in the road.
You left with my shawl, its cobalt tassels swinging in the hot evening wind.
Plenty of women can handle a blade, and I was a carver, a worker in fine detail. When you stumbled past the next morning, groaning with tequila suffering, José stopped you, demanding payment for the door’s repair. (The broken door. That’s what he said. Some things cannot be spoken.) You spat in the dust, called my husband a bad name.
“Well, hello, my dear,” you said when I materialized in the empty frame, your breath thicker, stale and rotten, “and how are you today?” You swept low with your crumpled hat in hand, a mocking bow.
I only stared. Your eyes got ugly then. The light was the high bright light of morning, and it was my pleasure to watch you squint. I called you pig and wished you all the pain mezcal could bring.
And then you called me whore. The easy, open door.
I heard the sound of thumping footsteps in my ears. It was my blood. The wide world grew quiet. Even the hot breeze hushed.
“What did you name me?”
You said it again, the sweat-stink rising off you.
“Would you dare to name me that in my own house?” I asked, withdrawing under the shadowing shelter of our roof. I’d helped to hoist the beams onto the joists myself. Inside I stood poised upon a brink: if you left, you left.
But you followed like the bellowing fool you were, crossing the threshold we’d made with our hands—
Well, I shoved my Bowie blade inside you, and you died. Slowly, coughing blood and hatred, the shock alive at last in your eyes.
My husband cried, “Josefa! My God, what have you done?”
So many miles I have already come, from Jalisco and the pueblo of my ancestors in Atotonilco el Alto, to San Jose with my parents, and at last to this stupid mountain town where we’d thought to make our wedded home, this fraternity of pigs, where we tried one year to live in happiness, thinking we could ignore what lay around us, thinking we could build with our hands all we’d need. Foolishly trusting that a closed door promised safety. Hundreds of miles have I come to this place, crossing deserts, mountains, fording fast rivers in rainy weather, granting wide berths to snakes and wolves.
To walk now onto this bridge over the blue Yuba is easy for me. The boards of the makeshift platform are rough, left un-planed in the excitement of the men. No great distance, this little drop.
In Sacramento once, I met the loveliness of roses and breathed their lifting scent, but John Rose, the white rancher pressed into emergency service as Judge Lynch, is nothing like them. Not flower or song, the makeshift Judge Rose ladled down his strict justice, as brutal and efficient as he’s rumored to be with his Mexican ranch-hands: my trial the same day, a verdict and sentence in minutes. Then came the lengthy public justification as the newspapermen busily scribbled their accounts. Judge Rose’s words went on and on: a woman killing miners, stabbing citizens? A nation must not abide such a bringer of fear into their civilized midst, and so on. And more: I was unwomanly, unnatural, a female wielding weapons, my brown face unreadable and thus forever dangerous. . . . The crowd lapped up the rousing sounds as his speech spun reasonable excuses for my death.
So this is the Yankee justice.
They ask for my last words. Suddenly the flute of my mother’s voice comes back to me, a little song she used to sing on melancholy afternoons: Nobody, nobody, nobody, truly lives on earth. Now I was learning its truth in my flesh. Now I was going to the place of defleshing. The scent of copal smoke seemed to fill my nostrils, and I knew what words to leave.
“I would do the same again if I was so provoked.” I let my voice float out over the sweating faces of men red with rage—drunk men who had made no success in the regular white world of the east and so came here, tough and hungry with quick greed, the beads of fat from yesterday’s feast still lacing their jowls. Their united states of yelling. My good voice floating above them, my speech clearer than any mission bells.
My name is Josefa Juvera Loaiza. Let it be known and remembered. My date of birth: unknown. My devotion to my quiet man: complete. My age at death: twenty-six or so, said witnesses. Some said twenty-three. The only woman ever hanged in California, newly of the U.S.A., newly a state. A girl who walked always with a cross at my throat, who loved only La Virgen, mi familia, my husband, the land and wind and the tools of my hands. A woman whose only crime was to say, No, some things are not for you to take.
I throw my hat to the ground, unpin my black braids for the noose, and step up onto the makeshift stage.
The Yuba ripples below, its silk the same blue as my stolen shawl, the rage inside me so calm. To fall through this hot, dusty air into heaven is no fall at all.
Joy Castro is the author of The Truth Book: A Memoir, the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water and Nearer Home, and the essay collection Island of Bones. Her short fiction collection How Winter Began is forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press in September 2015. Her work has appeared in Salon, Seneca Review, Fourth Genre, North American Review, Brevity, Afro-Hispanic Review, and The New York Times Magazine.
Artwork: “Girl Braiding Her Hair” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.