Turning toward the ruined house in flames, Ev brought to mind one special day. Boughs of fir and pine, rain glistening upon their branches, appeared within her view. An old house in disrepair and children playing upon the lawn with their dog, she recalled with joy, and smiled. Hopes and dreams stirred within her heart. They were as fresh as the rain in her memories. Returning to the present, and the great loss taking place, her strength wavered. She could not find the will to leave.
They waited for her, looking one to another, knowing how difficult it must be for their aging friend. Though they gave her time in silence, the sun would not. It rose behind the mountains to the east, climbing its high arc across the sky, to eventually reach beyond the gathering clouds and begin lowering behind the mountains in the west. They needed to go before stars appeared in the autumn sky. All the daylight hours were needed to make the first day’s journey toward their destination.
“Come on, Ev.” Ev’s young friend lightly pulled on her arm, urging her to come with them. Becoming impatient and irritated with the old woman, she tugged again. “It’s time to go.”
Defeated and unable to look anymore, Ev walked away.
Pioneers, they once were called, the older residents of Pine Way by the younger ones in Edenville. Ev’s mother told her stories about the real pioneers. They traveled in long wagon trains, like a narrow stream. Her mother, Estefana Garcia, was among them, a young girl with a dream. “Goin’ out West,” she said.
Ev remembered her mother telling the story. They were always talking and planning, preparing for months. Their restlessness spread like a prairie fire of excitement, the dream ignited. But, the story turned tragic. Her mother’s eyes grew big and stared upward toward the sky as she shared the experience with her daughter.
“They came on horseback, the men, with torches burning. We heard the thundering of hooves. The dust raised all around the settlers’ cabins. They came in a sudden sweep of anger, flames alighting onto rugs and cushions as they flung their torches crashing through the window panes!”
Her mother said she heard someone scream. Later, sitting in the wagon while the families were departing, she realized the truth. It was she who screamed, for no one else in her family was left alive. Her brothers died from the fever and her parents were killed. At this part of the story, her eyes filled with tears, telling Ev, “I was alone and merely movin’ on.”
When Ev’s mother told the story, Ev envisioned herself on the wagon train. She could almost feel the rocking and clunking kind of rolling along of the wagon’s big wooden wheels. She saw the tall grass flowing in the wind. Her mother said the prairie was so flat you could see far, far away. Huge flocks of birds startled and took to wing in a flutter of yellows and golds. It was a grand adventure across a new land. Their dream kept them going, toward some distant place over the great mountains.
“Pine Way,” Ev whispered softly to herself. “Pine Way.”
She leaned over to get a pine branch from the ground to use as a walking stick. Tapping one end, she tested its sturdiness. Delighting in the memory her mother’s story nurtured in her long ago, she pretended to be on the wagon train. When the real pioneers first saw the valley, her mother said, they paused to admire the forested view, more peaceful than they dreamed. Pine, fir, oak, and great maple trees drew them onward, gradually descending the last mountain ridge. The sweet scent in the air smelled fresh and calmed their restless spirits. Climbing down off their wagons, others who arrived the year before, rushed to greet them. The reality of their long trek came to Ev’s mother especially, because her parents, her brothers, her entire family lay buried far away. She had no family.
Maria Evangelica Theresa Garcia became Ev Mendoza when she married. Ev believed she knew something of what her mother’s story revealed. Her house also burned down, her family’s treasures and belongings destroyed. She embarked upon a long trek, ignorant of their destination. The small group of people she agreed to join, “Chicanos,” they called themselves, were supposedly marching to the state capital on behalf of all her people, not Mexican, though not American, either, somehow. She failed to understand. Marching, protesting, activism? You work hard, save your money, pray for a decent job, take care of your family! What else is there? Reaching to pick up another pine branch she spotted along the way, she used it for a walking stick instead, laying the other aside.
The people with whom she walked had a faster pace, youngsters to her. They kept stopping to wait. She wore an old-fashioned housedress, reaching well below her knees, and braided her long, gray hair. To protect against the cold, she wore a bulky, drab brown sweater, buttoned up to her chin, with huge cuffs on the sleeves. Tired already, she kept going, regardless, even as they reached the edge of town. She could have encouraged them to go on without her. Something compelled her to keep going, so she remained quiet.
They asked her daughter, Candelaria Hart, who lost her husband years ago. She declined going on the march but urged Ev to participate. Walking out of town, onto the highway, Ev wondered how far they would walk that day. Asking her companions, they said miles. So, she said a prayer. Not long after dark, they finally reached their night’s encampment, where supporters met them. Everyone was busy preparing for the next day’s walking.
Seeing Ev so tired and drawn, some grew concerned. Helping her into the house, a woman who lived there gave her a bed, so she could rest for the next day. Others talking amongst themselves agreed it was best she stayed behind, while someone hastily tossed the pine branch into the weeds by the door.
Ev vaguely heard gasps of astonishment about her house burning down that morning. Why did she leave? Who allowed her to come? She could hear them bickering.
Her young friend surreptitiously glanced toward her. From where the young woman stood in the dimly lit kitchen, arms folded in front of her, she looked on as someone covered Ev with a blanket and gave her water to drink. Ev refused food, turning her head away when they put a spoon to her mouth. Someone carefully dabbed Ev’s face with a damp cloth, her scattered whiskers springing back when her wrinkled chin was wiped.
Their voices grew distant as Ev drifted to sleep. Among the last things she heard was the screen door thump shut and her young friend striking up a match to light a cigarette.
Exasperated, another woman scolded the girl. “Tsk! Why don’t you quit that dirty habit?!”
The young friend, coughing, replied impatiently, “I know! I know!”
A man sang “La Paloma” outdoors, accompanied by a softly played guitar. Another song followed, a song of empowerment, uniting them toward their cause. Hopeful, distant voices joined in, singing to lift their spirits, to keep them going, and to strengthen their resolve.
That night, Ev dreamed her house was new again. Walking through the front doorway, everything looked like when she was young, her husband so handsome and her children only babies. By morning, she had grown weaker, her breath faint and her body still. While not asleep, her eyes were closed, busy watching a river flowing past, a river of her life and accomplishments, now behind her. Up she went to the ceiling, and thought it funny, wondering why, until her parents came to her as though from a dream. When she reached for them, she saw her arms, young and smooth. Her mother and father were happy, both of them so beautiful.
“Come on, Ev.” They put their arms around her waist and turned to walk across a green field. “Let’s go home.”
She told them, “No. Let me see my daughter one last time.” They released her. Strangely, she was back on the bed, knowing she still had time.