Retelling of the southwestern tale of La Llorona

submitted by: Patricia Gonzalez

Southern New Mexico, 1870
Elena de Silva gathered her skirts and seated herself in the wooden chair by a window overlooking a courtyard. Lace curtains had been drawn back and tied with a silk cord. Verdant vines heavy with pink flowers lined the white courtyard walls. The high walls had shielded the court from the noonday sun, but gathering shadows gave hint of the advance of evening and a time of uncertainty. She returned her attention to the drawing room: round wooden tables covered with lace doilies holding rotund porcelain vases containing lush white bromeliads, wooden floors covered by lush carpet, a massive painting of the Conquistadores with a gold frame, a heavy candle chandelier. Yet Elena was accustomed to these trappings. She waited. And waited. He did not return. He would not return.
Although in her third decade of life, Elena was still beautiful. Other women envied her slender corseted waist and full bosom. Her golden-brown hair was swept high with silver combs. Flashing green eyes and full rosy lips stood out from a heart-shaped face. She was tall for a woman.
Senor Alejandro Rodriguez and his wife Maria had moved to New Mexico from Mexico when Elena was a small child. She could remember the noisy, dusty wagons carrying household goods, and asking her mother why they were leaving home. She had cried in her mother’s arms and was put to bed in the huge adobe home that Rodriguez had built in the southern New Mexico foothills. He had used his wealth to establish a huge cattle estate, with business extending north to Santa Fe, south to Mexico and east to Texas. He also raised Andalusian horses. Elena, however, had no interest in her father’s business, as she was caught up in a world of fashion, painful hair styling and eyebrow plucking and corseting from the age of ten. She learned to sit still for hours on end and how to seductively use a silk fan. Her mother took her to ladies’ socials where she became bored with their incessant chatter and disliked girls her own age, while being raised in a strict religious atmosphere. It was decided that Elena would marry at age 17. Many suitors came to visit the Rodriguez estate. Removing their hats, they were ushered into the drawing room where they sat in an armchair across from the sofa where Elena was seated, flanked by two aunts who served as chaperones. The young men would make polite conversation while Elena lowered her eyes and fluttered an elegant silk fan in front of her face. After a long hour, the youth would bow deeply and leave the room to talk business with her father in his nearby study. These visits went on for about a year until Elena had three offers of marriage. She knew that her father could choose a husband for her, yet Alejandro Rodriguez wanted his daughter to be happy, so one day he asked her to choose one of the young men. He was shocked by her response.
She visited her father one day in his study. The wealthy grey-haired rancher sat smoking behind his mahogany desk. Her father smiled as she approached and asked her to take a seat. He asked which offer of marriage she had considered. Elena averted her gaze and blushed heavily behind her silk fan. She timidly told him that she did not find any of them satisfactory. Her father listened patiently, yet in the back of his mind considered sending her to a convent, but quickly changed his mind. A fortuitous marriage was a much better choice for Elena and for him. He then demanded to know why she was refusing the three young men.
Slowly, the story began to unfold. Elena was sitting in the living room or sala one afternoon sewing when two men, father and son, entered the front door and were escorted to her father’s study. The youth was carelessly dressed, and his wild untamed dark hair fell around his face. He was wearing a white frill shirt and brown jodhpur riding pants. He passed Elena and captured her gaze with his flashing dark eyes. When he smiled, the young girl was mortified as unwelcome feelings of warmth coursed through her body. After a brief silence, he had bowed deeply and followed his father to Senor Rodriguez’s office, leaving Elena dumbfound. Facing her father now, she nervously explained to him that she was in love with this youth.
Her father scolded her furiously. For her information, the young man was Antonio de Silva, son of Alfonso de Silva, his business associate. Everyone knew this was a youth of bad character, who liked strong liquor and loose women. Were it not for his family name, he would have become an outcast to New Mexican society. Have you been seeing him secretly, Elena? he demanded. Have you given yourself to him?? Elena tearfully denied this.
“But Papa, I do love him, she cried. My heart flutters when I think of him, and I want to marry him. Would you please talk to Senor de Silva for me?”
“I will do no such thing,” retorted Rodriguez. Senor de Silva visits my home solely for business reasons. I would not welcome his son into my family if he were the last man on earth. You will cease this right now, daughter. Go to your mother, and I will not hear any more of this disloyalty. Go!!” Tearfully, the young girl ran to her mother’s room. Maria Rodriguez was sitting in front of a wide mirror while an austere maid combed her long chestnut hair. Upon seeing her distraught daughter, she dismissed the maid and pulled Elena down beside her. After hearing the tearful story, however, she struck her daughter angrily on the cheek and forbade her ever to speak of Antonio de Silva again.
Two weeks passed, and Elena stayed in her room. Food trays were returned untouched. She lay abed most of the day and paced the floor at night. Her adoring father deferred visiting, and her mother looked in once a day. One day there was a knock at her door, and there stood her handmaid Aurelia. Beside Aurelia was a handsome young priest a few years older than Elena. She brightened at seeing the young man, who seated himself beside her bed while Aurelia waited discretely in the outer room. He was Father Miguel Zamora, an apprentice to the old Franciscan in the village. Her mother had asked him to visit Elena, noting that she was troubled and might benefit from counseling and Confession.
Elena poured out her youthful heart to Father Zamora, declaring that she loved Antonio de Silva although she had not even met him. I am a sinful daughter, she noted, and I will pray to the Blessed Mother for guidance. Father, do you understand the human heart as well as you understand the Immaculate Heart? God knows I am a woman, and Antonio is the only one that stirs my heart.
Father Zamora listened sympathetically. He promised to help her any way he could. The Rodriguez and de Silva families were both wealthy patrons of his church. Surely there was a peaceful resolution to this situation, and he would find it. There would be a joining of these families, the holy Sacrament of marriage, which HE would perform. He would invite Elena and her two aunts to visit the church and Antonio de Silva would also bring his mother to Mass on the same day. A few days later, the two parties attended Mass together at the church of St. Clare, and Elena stared again into the eyes of her future husband. After that time, she stole out of the house several times. Aurelia would cover for her, yet Alejandro Rodriguez was no fool. He ordered a servant to follow his child. The loyal man was to watch from a distance. The two lovers would meet in a wood or other secluded place. Rodriguez would demand news of the hapless messenger. After all, the de Silva family had wealth that rivaled his own, and a marriage could be beneficial. He would overlook his disobedient daughter’s defiance and his future son-in-law’s reputation. Let God judge them. Two weeks later, Alfonso de Silva and his son visited their home, with Antonio asking for Elena’s hand. Rodriguez, ignoring his wife’s tearful protests, asked Father Zamora to announce the wedding bans. The two were married the following spring at St. Clare’s church, with Father Zamora officiating. Elena was radiant in a white lace gown and mantilla veil covering her golden-brown hair, her dashing groom by her side.
Elena gathered the skirts of her wedding dress and seated herself in her husband’s carriage, and they rode through streets lined with drunken merrymakers. They soon arrived at a villa on a hill surrounded by orange trees overlooking the winding Santa Fe River. Antonio helped her down from the carriage and together they walked into the great house. Alfonso and Lydia de Silva received them in the great ballroom, with the matriarch regarding Elena with thinly veiled scorn. A grand wedding reception was being held for the married couple, and Elena became giddy as she was spun around on the dancefloor. She imbibed of fine wine. Finally, at 2 a.m., she collapsed, exhausted, onto a velvet sofa. Antonio was nowhere to be found. Finally, she noticed him in a corner of the room, laughing drunkenly, surrounded by several women. Just then Lydia de Silva ordered Elena to her feet. She was to go immediately to the bridal chamber.
The exhausted young woman stumbled up the stairs. She turned into a large hallway, passing many indifferent doors. At the end of the massive hall, she came to a door beautifully decorated with rose garlands. This must be the bridal chamber. A tall servant bowed and opened the door. To her great joy, Aurelia was waiting for her inside. Her maid explained how Lydia de Silva had forcibly attempted to prevent her from entering the house, but Elena’s mother had angrily taken Lydia aside, and it was agreed that Aurelia would serve as maid and confidant to Elena in her new home. Aurelia led Elena into the huge bedchamber. A huge bed with brass bedposts dominated the room. A heavy golden velvet bedspread complemented the massive golden curtains with red velvet tasseled ties. The glass chandelier flickered overhead. A delicate lace nightgown lay on the bed. Elena felt as small and insignificant as this garment, yet Aurelia helped her undress, and she slipped on the gown. The two sat on the bed talking for a long time. Finally, Elena crawled beneath the covers and Aurelia retired to a maid chamber nearby. Elena was just drifting into sleep when the door flew open. It was not her bridegroom Antonio, but his mother. She burst into the room and stood defiantly at the foot of the bed. Elena was deeply afraid but managed to ask the older woman what the problem was. Lydia, her eyes blazing with drunken hatred, grabbed Elena’s wedding veil from the nearby chair and rent it to pieces. She ranted that Elena was not a fit bride for her son and that as long as she lived, she would make Elena’s life a living hell. She threw the ruined veil to the floor and thrust a silk package at Elena. When she had gone, the bride opened it with trembling hands. The package contained an indigo widow’s veil.
Elena’s wedding night was not happy. When Antonio finally visited the bridal chamber, he was heavily intoxicated, and performed his marital duties roughly. She could smell strange perfumes mixed with the spirits. He collapsed on top of her for several hours until she managed to free herself and spent the night in Aurelia’s small room. Antonio was not present at breakfast that morning, leaving Elena to face her belligerent mother-in-law. The matriarch regarded her with scorn while sipping her chicory coffee. A maid brought a sumptuous dish of fried tamales and scrambled eggs, but Elena had no appetite. Lydia ate heartily. She commanded Elena to eat. She must have a healthy body if she were to bear healthy sons. Elena took one bite of the eggs and excused herself, making her way into the elegant drawing room. The matron did not follow her but instead began shouting orders to the servants. This daily breakfast ritual continued for some time. One day Antonio came to breakfast. After perfunctorily kissing his mother and his wife, he announced that he was leaving for awhile to help his father oversee the cattle herds. Do not worry about my meals, he remarked to the two women, because my servant will provide our food. After wolfing down his breakfast, he bowed sarcastically and left the room.
His trips away from the villa were frequent and his visits to the marital bed were infrequent. In time she became accustomed to his roughness; it did not bother her anymore. One day she felt nauseated and dizzy, asking Aurelia to bring her some chamomile tea. She sat in the huge gold armchair and sipped it, but her stomach would not settle. Then she knew she was with child.
Elena spent much time in her room, sewing. She wrote continuous letters to her mother and received mostly reprimands. She stopped writing. In this hostile land, Aurelia became her only friend. But when Antonio found out she was pregnant, he spent much time by her side, and she came to believe that he really loved her, yet he would sing to the unborn baby as if Elena were not even present. When her time came, she was surrounded by women of the household. Lydia de Silva stood arms akimbo by the bed awaiting the birth of her grandson. Elena looked up and burst into a joyous smile. Maria Rodriguez had joined the group. A physician was present as well as a midwife. Antonio de Silva came squalling into the world and was placed at Elena’s breast. Lydia remarked snidely that Elena finally had value to the family until she was silenced by Maria’s stern gaze. Just then her husband burst into the room, snatching the infant from Elena and holding him aloft in arrogant offering to heaven.
Fourteen months went by, and little Antonio was walking. Lydia doted on the small child, and his father scooped him up whenever he ran by. Elena found that motherhood did not suit her well. She became deeply depressed after giving birth, and Father Zamora visited frequently, believing in his mind that the child would one day become a wealthy patron of his church. He listened scornfully to Elena’s tears, all the while comforting her.
The beautiful woman soon became pregnant again and endured her confinement with resigned acceptance. She stayed in her room most of the time, comforted by Aurelia, but sometimes seated herself on the second-story veranda in the sunshine. On a bright morning in April, she felt her water break, and sent Aurelia running to alert the female attendants. Soon her room was filled with women. Lydia held court at the foot of the bed again, and a swift courier was sent to notify Maria Rodriguez of the upcoming event. Soon little Tomas de Silva was born, a frail infant with curly brown locks, the image of his mother. Elena’s husband Antonio pushed his way past the women, again snatching his son and holding him aloft, declaring that his wife had finally done something for him, and continually bragged about his prowess to his friends.
Elena was now the mother of two fine boys and appeared in public as the perfect wife and mother. The boys were often dressed as two little gentlemen, and occasionally the three of them would be driven to the river so the children could begin to experience the outside world. Sitting booths had been set up along the river, and huge parasols put in place so that the wealthy could enjoy the outdoors and the riverwalk. One day the young wife dressed her two boys up, herself in a dark blue dress somewhat unbecoming for a young woman and set out for the river. The driver deposited them underneath a graceful desert willow tree. He removed his hat, bowed and departed, promising to return in two hours. Elena smiled consent. She spread blankets on the ground and set the boys up with stick toys. She sat back in a wooden chair, closed her eyes, and relaxed for the first time in months. Her reverie was interrupted when she heard Antonio call “Papa” in his baby voice.
Elena sat up quickly and turned around. Most of the people were absorbed in conversation or other pursuits. She caught sight of Antonio, swaggering along the Riverwalk, hat in hand, a strange woman holding his arm. A blonde tart brandishing a fan, hiding her flirtatious countenance. They were laughing aloud. Elena screamed and lunged at them. Antonio moved quickly to protect his paramour. “How dare you make a scene! Who do you think you are?”
Elena found her voice and yelled in helpless anger: “Your wife, reprobate. You are disgracing the marriage bed!!” People were starting to congregate around. “Papa was right about you!” Antonio moved in and raised his hand, but regained composure just before he landed the blow. He grabbed his companion’s arm and stormed away from Elena. All eyes were fixed on them.
Furious, Elena hurried back to her children. She courteously replied to bystanders’ polite inquiries about her welfare. Soon all appeared calm. She felt very peaceful, raised her face to heaven and uttered a prayer that God would forgive her. She gathered Tomas into her arms, took Antonio’s hand and strolled quietly down the Riverwalk, away from other people, away from the cares of this life. Just she and her children. She opened her small bag, drawing out the indigo veil that Lydia had thrust at her such a long time ago. She put it on. Clutching her children tightly, she leapt off the riverbank into the cool, rapidly moving water. She sunk down into blissful, peaceful oblivion. Several strong swimmers dove in but were no match for the indifferent coursing river and lost their lives. Word was sent downriver, but no sign was found of the mother and sons. The men searched for hours, finally coming across a calm pool, with willows blowing above it in the breeze. They found an indigo veil floating in the calm water.