5.12 / December 2010

Emperatriz de la Orilla del Río or  Empress of the Riverbank

She lies on cerulean silk, arms and legs undulating in fleshy waves over the bedcover as if pushing and pulling deep-earth water, a silk and mesquite cenote beneath a canopy of gauze. A breeze washes in from the window. It comes from the river and she imagines the air brings the kingfisher’s call.

He stands beside the bed, now. Even when he’s not there, his smell infects the room'”the undershirt he left last Tuesday, the handkerchief she cannot bear to wash. She keeps it on the bedside table, close to her while sleeping and he studies them now, the handkerchief and the woman. He moves to the foot of the bed. Always him, moving through the room and behind her closed eyelids during days and nights when she opens herself to other men who never bring her wine or apricots or poetry in aberrant words, in deviant affections. He suspects his infection of her. The weight of his presence in this room.

“Mi Emperatriz de la Orilla del Río,” he calls her before folding down, tucking himself into her. He whispers in her ear, “Quiero flotar con vosotros para siempre.” Too soon, he lays pesos on the bedside table, tips his hat.

It is oddly new, the tipping. She tells herself, “Certainly, he’ll come again tomorrow.”

The Empress pulls up from the bed, opens the window shutters. She places bits of raw fish in her hand to entice the bird. On cue, it flies to her, tips its blue featherhead, puffs its orange belly. The Empress imagines the bird puffs in disdain, a proud gesture. They have the same argument every evening.

“You waste yourself on him,” the kingfisher says.

“I don’t want to hear it.'”

“A pity.'”

“I have to eat.”

“You will die worn and wasted.” The kingfisher picks at a piece of raw fish. “He’s left you for good this time. You’ll see.”

She flicks her hand, sends the kingfisher back to its river nest.

In her closet hangs twenty dresses in increments of color—crimson, saffron, tangerine. She chooses the crimson dress, notices how similar the pattern is to blood drops. She brushes her dark hair, paints her face, readies for the cantina where she will dance with a tray of seven beer bottles on her head, gallivant the floor, spin her dress so the men cannot help but grab at the hem. In time, she pulls pistols from their belts, waves the pistols in the air, just to watch the men duck beneath her. She does not bring a man home, tonight. She leaves them to their drinking.

When she steps free of the dress, stands bare-breasted in the window and moonlight, she breathes in the odors of him left on the handkerchief. She holds the white cotton close to her neck, listens for the kingfisher’s call. She imagines that her day is really the day before playing out in repetition. In thirty years, she’ll find herself still a child with this handkerchief close to her neck. She imagines him in the room again, whispering, “Quiero flotar con vosotros para siempre.”

She walks to the river, sits, watches the moonlit sheen. An avocado hangs from a nearby branch, dangles over the water. The kingfisher’s nest floats nearby, along the riverbank.

“You’ve left him,” the kingfisher says. “I knew you would.”

She dips a toe into the cool water, lets her body fall in, wades to the center where she can no longer touch and must tread water to stay above the surface, a moment longer. She spins herself so to face the bird. “I’ve left nothing,” she says. The bird watches, ruffles its feathers, settles down into its water nest as the Empress disappears beneath the halcyon surface. She floats there, between air and another world, close to the kingfisher’s nest. The bird studies the surface, searches for a ripple or bubble of air, whispers his last words, “Siempre flotan querida Emperatriz. Mi amor.”