Title: MISS DEL RIO
Author: Bárbara Mujica
Pub. Date: October 4th, 2022
Publisher: Graydon House
Find it: Harlequin | IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | Powell's
Lola crouched beside the armoire the way her mother had told her. Something was going on, something awful. Everyone looked terrified. Even Mamá, usually so regal and poised in her bustled skirts and lacy, tight-sleeved blouses, was tense and angry. Nearly all the maids had disappeared. Where were they? Only Juana—loyal Juana—had stayed behind to care for her, but now there was so much work to do that Juana couldn’t spend the whole day in the nursery. She had to take over the kitchen and do the jobs of the laundress and the parlormaid and the chambermaid, too. There was no one around to sweep Mamá’s hair up into a bird’s nest, and the strange thing was that Mamá didn’t seem to care. She pinned up her thick brown mane herself without fussing when a whole lock came loose and fell defiantly over her shoulder.
Lola began to whimper.
“Chatita!” hissed Doña Antonia. “I told you to be quiet. Don’t make a sound! It’s dangerous!”
She tiptoed across the bedroom where they were hiding and squatted beside Lola. “Maman, I have to pee.”
“You can’t pee now. You have to be very, very still. They can’t know we’re here. And don’t call me maman! You’re going to get us killed!”
“But, Mami, I have to pee!”
Doña Antonia crawled toward the bed, grabbed the chamber pot from underneath, and dragged it back behind the armoire. “There, go ahead.”
Six-year-old Lola picked up her dress and pulled down her bloomers. When she was done, Doña Antonia pushed the pot away. “I can’t empty it now,” she whispered. “Just leave it there.”
Lola bit her lip. She knew better than to ask again what was going on. The tightness of her mother’s jaw, the way she rubbed her hands against her long black silk skirt, her hushed voice and edgy gaze—all these things told Lola that from now on she would have to sniff back her tears and not ask questions.
Things had begun to change months ago. Now, she could no longer tear through the patio with Juana, screeching with laughter, while her dog, Siroco, yapped happily. She was no longer free to dance for hours to the music of the Victrola. She could not ride out to the country house in the landau with Mamá and Papá, or trot around the orchard on her milk-white pony. She had to stay where she was, be very still, and creep around on all fours like a baby so that nobody would know they were hiding in their own house.
“How long do we have to stay here?” whispered Lola. She was tired of crouching by the armoire. The air reeked of piss, and the heat was stifling.
“I think they’ve gone. I’ll send Juana out to the patio to check.”
“Who’s gone, Mami?”
“I thought I heard a noise…but…let’s see what Juana says. If she says it’s clear, you can play, but stay indoors and away from the windows. Holy Virgin, this is a nightmare.”
A moment later, Juana entered the bedroom and assured them that no one was in the patio or the stables, and the doors were all secure. Lola sprang up, but Doña Antonia held on to her ankle.
“Wait,” she whispered. She still looked worried.
Lola squirmed. “Why? Juana says it’s alright!”
Doña Antonia sighed. She looked wistful, but after a moment, she said, “Alright. Go play.”
Lola had noticed that lately the grown-ups had been speaking in muffled voices. Her parents thought that Lola wasn’t listening, but she was. They tried to shield her from the truth, but they couldn’t. There had been stories about people just like them, the Ansúnsolo López Negrete family. Decent people who shared their idyllic existence in beautiful Durango, a city filled with elegant, colonial-style homes and wide streets upon which stylish carriages rolled day and night, a city that boasted a seventeenth-century baroque cathedral considered the jewel of northern Mexico. Decent people who came to her mother’s soirees, the men in top hats and tails, white boutonnieres in their lapels, the women in frilly, high-collared blouses. People whose children were learning French and believed Porfirio Díaz had saved Mexico from barbarism and superstition. Stories, for example, like what had happened the month before to the Pérez Lorenzo baby.
She had pieced it together from scraps of speech and muffled sobs behind closed doors. Pablito had been playing in his room, attended by his niñera. Lola had seen the child often—a roly-poly two-year-old with soft brown curls and rosy cheeks, the spitting image of his father. His mother, Doña Mercedes, gave him a kiss and told the nursemaid to put him down for a nap. The weather was lovely, temperate and dry, and she had instructed the servants to set up tables outside on the veranda for her weekly card game. But the tables weren’t there, the potted dahlias she had ordered the kitchen girls to place on each one still sitting in rows in the patio, fuchsia, crimson, orange, and yellow blooms opening to the sunlight like tiny origami forms. Doña Mercedes glanced at her watch. The ladies would arrive soon. She breathed deeply and listened. Silence. Suddenly she felt her blood turn to ice. She spun around, darted up the stairs, and ran to the nursery. A scream of terror froze in her throat. The nursemaid had vanished. A ladder rested against the unbolted window. Pablito was propped up in his little chair, his head thrown back, his mouth and eyes wide-open. Someone had arranged the scene to produce maximum horror when his mother found him sitting there, his throat slit from ear to ear.
Lola understood what had happened, but why did it happen? Could it happen to her?
After the tragedy at the Pérez Lorenzo estate, her mother became increasingly anxious and angry. She stopped being meticulous about her dress and hair. She sent Siroco to the country to be cared for by a farm family. Often she and Lola’s father, Don Jesús Leonardo, locked themselves in the study for hours, leaving Lola to fend for herself or hang on to Juana’s skirts while the maid ironed in the laundry room. Lola was bored and she missed her dog, but after a week or so, she began to lose her fear. She had heard of no other murders of children. Besides, she knew that Juana would never abandon her the way Pablito’s niñera had abandoned him. Juana had come to work for the Ansúnsolos as a ten-year-old and had lived with the family her whole life. She’d been taking care of Lola since she was born. She wouldn’t just disappear through an open window. Anyway, her parents were dead. Where would she go?
Sometimes Lola snuck away from the nursemaid and pressed her ear against the study door. She heard words like cash, accounts, liquidate, but she knew that her father had a high position at the Bank of Durango, so these were the kinds of words he always used. Then one day there were new words, words she hadn’t heard before: Pancho Villa. Lola didn’t dare ask her mother what these words meant, so she ran to Juana.
“Oh, Pancho Villa is a very famous man,” explained the maid nonchalantly. “His real name is Doroteo Arango. He shot a man to protect his sister’s honor. Right there in rancho El Gorgojito, one of your father’s properties. Your father is a very rich man, you know, señorita. Anyhow, now Pancho Villa has become a protector of the people.”
“Protector of the people? What does that mean?”
“Nothing you need to know about, little one. Now go and play. Do you want me to turn on the Victrola so you can dance? Only don’t dance near the window. It’s too dangerous.” Juana stroked Lola’s cheek and dug into the pocket of her apron. She pulled out a brightly colored candy and handed it to her. “Don’t tell your Mami,” she whispered with a wink.
Lola took the sweet and giggled. She felt safe with Juana.
One evening, a few days after that conversation, Doña Antonia instructed Juana to give Lola her supper and put her to bed early. Lola fell asleep almost immediately, but suddenly awakened in the middle of the night. She looked around. Something was off. A luminescent moon cast a diffused glow over the room. Why wasn’t the window shuttered beneath the gauzy curtains? Shadows flickered on the dimly lit wall. The silhouette of a person seemed to form and then dissolve. Lola trembled. Her eyes darted around the room. She saw the armoire, the dresser, the shelf for her dolls and toys. She saw the crucifix above her bed, a small table and chairs where she often took her meals, and the cabinet where the Victrola sat. Everything was in place. The statue of the Virgin stood white and ethereal on the nightstand. But where was Juana? She wasn’t on the cot by Lola’s bed, where she usually slept. Lola began to whimper.
“Shh!” Juana stepped out from the alcove, fully dressed, a frayed rebozo thrown over her shoulders. She was carrying a candle. Its glimmer made the shadows on the wall dance and twist like rag dolls.
“Juana, I’m scared,” whispered Lola. “I think I heard a noise.”
“No, you didn’t. Go back to sleep.”
Another shadow appeared on the wall. Lola squinted hard. It wasn’t on the wall at all! It was a man standing in front of the wall! Lola couldn’t see his features, but she was sure this form was solid. The man took a step toward her. Lola screamed.
Juana raised her hand and slapped the child across the face. “Shut up!” she snapped.
Lola couldn’t believe the sting on her cheek. And she couldn’t believe the hatred in Juana’s voice or the cruelty in her eyes. Lola opened her mouth to say something, but Juana raised her hand again and the words stuck in her throat. A warm, sticky wetness oozed out of her body, covering her thighs and bottom, and then trickled down her leg. She had to scream. She had to call Papá. But she was paralyzed.
Juana said something to the man in a language that wasn’t Spanish. Lola didn’t understand it, but she knew it was a dialect of Nahuatl. Juana sometimes spoke it with the other maids or at the marketplace. Lola knew what was going to happen next. The man was going to grab her by the hair and Juana was going to hold her down. Then they would slit her throat. They would place her head on the pillow soaked with blood, and Mami would find her dead in the morning, just as Pablito’s mother had found him. Once again, Lola opened her mouth to scream, but before she could hurl a bloodcurdling shriek to wake up her parents, she felt something warm and gooey and disgusting on her face.
The man wiped his lips and Lola grabbed a sheet to wipe the spit out of her eye. “¡Viva Pancho Villa!” he hissed. The man grabbed the porcelain Virgin from the nightstand and smashed it against the edge. Then he snatched some silver knickknacks from the dresser. In a heartbeat, they were gone. They didn’t go out the window but ran down the stairs. Lola hardly heard them open the front door. They were careful. They didn’t slam the door. They didn’t want to wake up Papá, because Juana knew he had a gun and would use it. In her mind’s eye, Lola could see them seize the key to the front gate—Juana knew where it was hidden—and then cross the yard and exit.
As soon as she could move her legs, Lola ran to her parents’ room. Doña Antonia took one look at her little girl and began wailing and shaking like a branch in a storm. She held Lola to her. “Oh my God,” she cried. “Oh, my dear God!”
Lola’s father leaped out of bed and grabbed his hunting rifle. He lit a torch and surveyed the perimeters of the property, then came back inside, bolted the doors and windows, and went into the bedroom. He sat on the bed behind his wife and rubbed her shoulders. Doña Antonia was sobbing violently, but struggling to contain herself. When at last she’d steadied her hands, she rose and poured water into a basin. She washed Lola from head to toe, put a fresh nightgown on her, and rocked her like an infant until the child fell asleep. She placed her in her own bed and lay down beside her.
“They’ve invaded our home,” she said to her husband. “We have no choice now. We have to leave.”
Excerpted from Miss del Río by Bárbara Mujica. Copyright © 2022 by Bárbara Mujica. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Bárbara Mujica is the bestselling author of four novels, including Frida, which was translated into 17 languages. She is also an award-winning short story writer and essayist whose work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Miami Herald, among others. A professor emerita of Spanish at Georgetown University, she grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
LINKS: Author Website | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads