A. Muia


A. Muia lives in Skagit Valley, Washington. “Las Salinas” is part of a novel-in-stories set in Baja California, Mexico. Other chapters from this collection have appeared in Image Journal, where she was named Artist of the Month; Zymbol Magazine, where her work was nominated for the Orison Anthology; and The Stockholm Review of Literature.


Las Salinas

The Bay of Five Hills
Baja California

Fr. Espín fled north along the Camino Real, a gaunt man in peón clothes passing the imposing Jesuit missions of stone in the south, and later the fragile Dominican adobes of the frontera. He slept in their ruins. At night he heard the mournful songs of long dead Indians and sometimes he wept for them, and sometimes he wept for the drowned boy he had forced to fish for pearls, and he hurried like a ghost away from the sanctuaries before it was light.

He skirted the towns, hiding in the brush when he spied a rider. Even in a poor man’s clothes I still have that look about me, he thought. They will want prayer, and blessing, and counsel. To kneel before me. To adore me without knowing anything of the one they are loving.

In Rosario the people had found him out. A telling gravity in his voice or manner. They pressed him unmercifully. Just a prayer, Father. You will hear our confessions? We’ve been so long without anyone. They brought their children. With burning soul he flew from them in the night. He thought of his brother’s house in the north, the brother of drink and pistol whose own past was littered with the dead. Poor unfortunates who might have been dried leaves blowing behind him, of no consequence. His brother would rejoice in his abdication.

He pushed on, crossing the foothills near San Juan de Dios, when a scrabbling in the brush startled him. But the sound was not like a man. It had the quality of something bound—a frantic struggle and a sudden stop. He moved closer. The mesquite trembled and ticked. He used his walking stick to part the sea of chaparral. The brush emitted a hoarse whisper that ended in a single plaintive note.

A donkey was trapped in the thicket. It was the gray variety called Jerusalem—a fog-colored coat with a dark cross upon the shoulders. It saw the priest and skittered, looking sidelong at him. Its ears were laid back and suspicious. The donkey wore a hackamore and the rope was caught in the brush. Fr. Espín looked around but there was no one about.

He pressed through the scrub. Spines cut the flesh of his legs. The donkey leapt sideways and pulled at the rope, eyes rolling. Its muzzle was bloody from the struggle. Drops of blood bloomed on the backs of the priest’s hands as he worked. At last he yanked the hackamore loose and the donkey felt its freedom and turned and bit him. Fr. Espín clung to the lead and the donkey’s hindquarters crashed through the brush. At last they stood free of the chaparral, trembling and sweating.

—I am also alone, Fr. Espín said. Perhaps we can go alone together. He gave the rope a gentle pull. The donkey resisted.

—Do not worry about a thing, the priest said. You are in good hands.

The donkey bobbed its head and clopped its jaws. It stood huffing in the morning chill and would not come. It watched those good hands and its bristled mouth stretched back from the teeth. The dark eyes brimmed with judgment. It seemed to know what he was.

The priest released the rope and the donkey kicked away, blustering at him and laying back its ears. Fr. Espín stood alone in the vastness and the wind, and the donkey looked very small under the sky.

—I promise I won’t strike you, the priest called out.

The donkey stretched its neck and bellowed.

—And I will not ask you to carry anything.

The donkey pawed the ground.

—Don’t go, Fr. Espín pleaded.

The burro remained fixed, regarding him. At last the priest began walking. He followed a coyote trail toward the coast and the trail led to a spring. He filled the deer bladder he carried and went on. The donkey shadowed at a distance, stopping when the priest stopped. Fr. Espín began talking to it as he went. The donkey shook its head.

Late in the day, from atop a small hill, Fr. Espín spied an abandoned corral of stone. His feet ached and the scratches burned. He went into the corral and sat down. There were two spines in his hand and he dug them free and cleaned the wounds with saliva. Then he peered over the wall. The donkey stood at a distance, watching him.

I wish I had an orange, the priest thought. I could lure you with an orange. Ay, Dios. It is a long way to walk alone.

He lay down and a coyote cried and he sat up and lay down again. At last he fell asleep. He dreamt of his vows. The bishop sitting florid upon the faldstool before him, and the oil of righteousness warm on his palm. Then the stone mission of Mulegé, and the impassive faces of the Cochimí, and pearls lay around him, the sole salvation from a grim and beautyless call. And then the boy. Much smaller than the priest had known him in life and the boy came to him bedecked with pearls about his throat. Fr. Espín opened his eyes and lay panting in the chill. Behind the dark drapery of the sky, the glow of heaven poured through tiny pinholes with a light weak and cold.

Sometime in the night he heard a clop and another clop. The donkey was standing in the corral. The priest got up carefully and pulled the wooden gate closed. He counted eight long hairless furrows across the donkey’s back, beginning at the withers.

—Pitiable puma who tried to eat you, he said. I imagine you kicked the very guts out of him.

He pulled back his sleeve and examined the bite that was going from red to black.

—I believe I will call you León.

The donkey rattled into the corner and folded his legs to lie down. He shuddered, sending flies into the air. His eyes closed and his ears drifted to the sides.

Some hours later the priest awoke in darkness, stiff from the hard ground and shivering. He heard León snoring. He thought of the donkey’s warm flesh and the softness of his flanks. The priest crept over and leaned against him. His head rose and fell with the donkey’s breathing.

All at once the animal startled. He whipped around and bit Fr. Espín on the shoulder and the night became a tangle of reedy legs and striking hooves and flailing hands. The donkey landed three good kicks before the priest could trundle away to the opposite wall. He felt one tooth go sideways and it came out in his hand when he tried to put it right. He spat blood and León stood huffing and unrepentant, a long-eared equine excoriator.

—At least you are no respecter of persons, Fr. Espín said, fingering his cheek. You would kick a priest as you would any other man. The thought gave him a strange satisfaction.

They spent the next day at rest and in the evening Fr. Espín saw figures riding from the south, along the coast. He thought of the people of Rosario; perhaps in religious desperation they pursued him. He looked about. This was open country, the vegetation small and spare. The riders would see the corral as he had seen it. With León he could not go quickly away. The donkey stood with ears alert. A man and woman were drawing near.

—Buenas tardes, the man called.

The priest saw with relief that they were unknown to him. He lifted his hand in blessing and quickly dropped it. Buenas tardes, he said.

The woman was pallid and drawn and she stared over the long horizon as if there were anything to see. The man asked if they might stay. They had food to offer, even limes for León. The priest thought to refuse them but he was hungry. You may, he said, and almost added my children but stopped himself.

The man helped the woman slip from the horse and led her to the cold circle of the fire and sat her before it. He put the horses in the corral and relieved them of the weight of their gear. He carried a pan and some wrappings to the fire and a bundle which he placed beside himself but did not undo. León in the corral stood at the wooden gate and watched the priest.

The man worked at making a fire. We are going to Santo Tomás, he said.

The priest was afraid to say anything. He knew only how to speak as an ecclesiastic; there was a certain lilt to the voice. The woman observed him with cloudy eyes and looked away.

—And you? the man asked.

—North. To the house of my brother.

—A close brother to you.

—Yes, the priest said. No.

—What happened to your face, the man inquired. Have you come upon rough men? Take care. There are many in this country.

Fr. Espín felt fearful then. The man knew that he was not rough himself and he wondered what else the man could learn of him so easily. He looked into the fire and put a hand to his jaw. The roughest of men, he said. My donkey.

The man covered his smile. He stoked the little fire and dished the food and set a plate before the woman and she looked past it and did not partake.

—Belén, the man said to her. Belén.

He whispered to her for a time. The priest busied himself with his meal and offered the rinds to León. The donkey snuffed them from his hands and the priest returned to the fire.

—You travel alone? the man asked.

—Yes, Fr. Espín said. With the donkey.

—Where do you come from?

The priest did not want to speak of Mulegé, or Guadalupe, or any place with a mission.

—From Jesús María, he said.

—Not far then. It is good to be with family.

At this the woman reached for the bundle and the man prevented her and she lay across him defenseless and keening with her palms turned toward the sky. The priest bowed away and without looking he saw what the bundle carried, saw into the coarse cloth and the dark folds wrapped with string, and he prayed only for the small consolation that the child be not a boy and he felt ashamed.

—We go to Santo Tomás to find a priest, the man said. For there was none to speak a blessing when our son was lost.

Fr. Espín lowered his head. The donkey looked from man to woman and back to the priest and bellowed like a grate of iron swinging shut. The woman pulled at the man’s clothes and entreated him to bury her with the boy. To put her in the ground and where the boy went she would go also. Then she lay across his lap as one already dead.

—Forgive us, the man said to the priest. We did not mean to bring sadness to your fire. But we have suffered alone.

Fr. Espín stoked the fire and kept his head low. The bundle lay on the ground where the man had pushed it from the woman and it burned vermilion in the firelight. The man soothed the woman’s brow and began to sing:

            Nana, nanita
            El chiquito dormirá
            en un ratito ya.

            Nana, nanita
            El niñito está
            a punto de dormirse,
            en un ratito ya.1

1Lullaby, lullaby, the little one will sleep in just a little while. Lullaby, lullaby, the boy is at the edge of sleep, but not just yet.

The moon came up and the coals burned low. Smoke passed before the man’s face. Have you a wife, he said.


—Have you never? the man asked.

The priest was fearful again that the man should guess. But the man did not await an answer and he looked at the woman lying so still and Fr. Espín saw that she slept.

—I fear for her, the man said. If we should find no Father to help us.

In the night the priest could hear them. The man’s low murmur, the woman’s protest. Their movements composed a sad refrain: the discord of limb and garment, the coda of a sigh. He heard the woman weeping and the man spoke a sotto and failed comfort and the priest went to the corral among the animals so that he would hear no more. The horses dozed with low-slung heads and León came to the priest and stood near.

He could not sleep. A pall of self-reproof lay heavy upon him. He could relieve their suffering in a moment. A simple prayer. A gesture or a word. But he was a minister of death and there was no absolution even should he seek it. He was no one to bless a child or man or woman and he could not abide the blind, miserable adoration that would come. He thought with shame of saving only himself from the abscess of a failed piety.

In the morning he helped them prepare the horses. The man secured the bundle behind his saddle and it might have been a bedroll or habiliment or gear and the priest would not look at it. The woman mounted and stared ahead with unseeing eyes to where they would go. The man shook the priest’s hand and said, Que Dios le acompañe. The hand was very cold. Fr. Espín did not know what to say, what a common man would have said or in what manner.

—The same to you, he said at last. He stood looking after them as they rode away.

He was left with León. He pulled the hackamore over the donkey’s ears and adjusted it. He looked at his hands, as dirty as the next man’s. Still, he thought, they would have kissed them had they known.

He continued north and León walked beside him. The donkey clopped his teeth and nipped and when he struck sideways with his hooves the priest did not prevent him.

The country was ironing out. Toward the coast the mountains had melted into foothills, and the hills flattened to low dunes. Scant vegetation grew by the sea and the land was empty of game. In hunger his body seemed to consume itself. He went slowly on. The sand was fine and kicking up in the wind, and the priest wiped his eyes and wished for the donkey’s long lashes. Toward afternoon a haze covered the sky and it became a gray country—gray sand and sea and heavens.

South of San Quintín, on the edge of the frontera, the priest spied the inlet called the Bay of Five Hills. Salt pans lay like shining white mirrors among soft gray dunes. The priest led León through the salt brush, stopping by lagoons thick with brine. The beach was long and curving and empty, the sand sculpted by the breeze into winding undisturbed furrows. The sea was restless, and he saw the black volcanoes rising from the earth like the rounded tops of men’s hats.

The priest could see figures ahead in the salt pools. The figures bent, gathering crystals with their hands, and their backs made dark islands in a strange white sea.

León’s ears pricked up at the sounds of the men. He stopped. Fr. Espín saw their camp with the low fire and his mouth watered as he thought of salted meat.

—Come, León. They may be willing to share with us.

The donkey would not go. The priest gave the hackamore a gentle pull. León anchored his hooves in the sand. Fr. Espín refused to strike him. At last he said, You have won. But if you miss a meal it will not be my fault.

He turned the burro’s back to the sand-filled wind and secured him with hobbles. The priest took the deer bladder and poured water into his hand. León gulped through velvet lips and bristles. He sighed and put his head down to nibble at the sea grass.

Fr. Espín took a kerchief from his pocket and tied it low over his eyes. The blowing sand and the whiteness of the salt pans could blind a man. By now the figures had seen him coming. One waded out of the brine to watch him approach and the man turned to the others and they all straightened up.

There was one white man in a short-brimmed hat, and one Indian in a long leather coat such as soldiers wore. There were two men in soiled short pants and tunics, just as the priest had. Their pitted faces were the same; he thought they might be brothers. When the priest came near, the men waded out of the brine and stood in a group. The man wearing the short-brimmed hat said in poor Castilian, Have you come for salt.

—No, the priest said.

—What are you looking for?

—I am going north. But I saw your fire.

The man’s trousers were rolled and caked with salt. His face was ashen, the color of one who drinks instead of eats. His ears protruded from under the hat, and one of the ears was notched in the manner of prisoners. He stepped close.

—And you thought it would be good to share our fire.

Fr. Espín felt very small among them. He did not like the look of the brothers, gaunt and loco-eyed and mean. He tried to speak as he had heard other men speak: And what of it, Cabrón.

The brothers laughed. The white man looked at the priest’s worn clothes and the matted hair and the beard and staff. Gather salt in payment, he said. And you may share our fire.

Fr. Espín looked back at León, small and gray in the distance. The donkey’s head was up, his ears turned toward the men. He was watching the priest. And the men were looking down the coast, watching León. I should take him and go, Fr. Espín thought. But hunger held him.

The sand, blown by persistent winds, made low garden walls that set off the marsh from the sea. The priest removed his sandals and rolled up the legs of his trousers. He took a basket and waded into the pool. The salt heaped itself into islands and isthmuses, pushed by the wind and tides, and where the pools were deep the color was green. In one pool the crystals looked like rice in the priest’s hand, but the grains were square instead of round, white and clinging to each other. In another pool, where the salt had collected over time, the crystals were large and resembled ice and burned like ice. The brine was so thick with salt that on the tongue even the smallest taste made a man shudder, even a confident man who tries to test himself.

Fr. Espín worked silently and the men kept looking at him, all but the Indian. The water was oily with salt and the wind needled his face. Fr. Espín’s palms began to burn as he filled the basket, and cuts opened in his feet and smarted. He hopped around like he had been stung.

In the evening he rinsed his legs in the sea and went to the fire with the other men. He did not know their names. He thought of the white man as Short Brim, and the pitted men as Brother One and Two, and the Indian as Soldier Coat.

Soldier Coat went to the sea to fish. He stood on the sand and cast his line into the waves. The sky was growing dim. The men sat in silence. They did not seem to like one another. The red sun broke through the gray at the last moment, rested on the sea, and went down. The sky began to clear. The moon was coming up, a bright, full moon of white. The priest watched pelicans descend into the surf, rising with glittering fishes in their beaks. The surf was wild; it pounded like drums and he felt the vibration against his back.

Short Brim walked off to urinate in the grass. He had a satchel that he kept close, even while working in the pool. Brother One lay back in the sand, and Brother Two smoked and looked out over the sea.

The men had a small cart but no animal. The cart was filled with salt baskets.

—Are you traders? the priest asked.

Brother Two looked over. Why, do you have something to trade?

—No, the priest said.

The man looked him up and down. And you, what do you do?

—Nothing, Fr. Espín said. I am just walking, going north.

Brother Two looked at him with vicious eyes. Fr. Espín was afraid. He thought again of taking León but the fear was like wine to him; the talk and the men and the world slowed to indolence and his thoughts eddied. He took the deer bladder and trembling he poured water over his stinging feet. Brother One came and sat beside him.

—Do you work for yourself or for other men?

—Just myself.

—Have you a ranch, then?


—A ship?

—No, only the legs I walk upon.

—What equipment do you have?

—Nothing, a little water, that is all.

Soldier Coat was coming back. He carried some fish. He squatted and began arranging them over the fire. Brother Two blew smoke and scrutinized the priest. Fr. Espín was glad that Soldier Coat was there. He moved closer to him. Soldier Coat said nothing, preparing the fish and whistling to himself. In his nervousness the priest whistled too, the song of the boy at the edge of sleep.

Short Brim came to the fire and said, Hurry up. I am hungry.

—Oye, I am sick of fish, Brother One said. He had a deep cut on his forearm and he cradled the arm between his legs. The edges of flesh were turning black. Short Brim held a bottle and he stood behind Brother One and splashed drink into the wound. He watched the man cry out and dance. Brother Two kicked at the dancing feet. Soldier Coat poked the fish and turned them.

Fr. Espín felt Brother Two’s dark eyes upon him. What kind of man are you, Brother Two said.

—Just a man. Like you.

Brother Two spat into the sand. You are a liar.

The priest looked up. What do you mean.

—You are not a man like me. You are afraid.

The priest did not want the men to know his fear. I am just an ordinary one, he said, looking away. The wind carried the smell of brine, salted like blood. He swallowed and stood slowly and slipped into his sandals.

—What is your hurry, Short Brim said.

—I must water my donkey.

Brother Two handed his half-smoked cigarillo to his brother. We saw your donkey down there, he said.

The priest shivered.

—Are you going to La Esperanza? Short Brim said.

—No, I am going north.

Brother One came close. Going north, you say.

The priest stood in the dark breeze. Sand peppered his legs, raising gooseflesh. He knew of La Esperanza, a place for gold-diggers. The men wanted to know what he might be carrying.

—Let him go, Soldier Coat said, looking up. He has nothing you want.

—I am not so sure, Brother Two said. Here we have a cart, and no animal to pull it.

The priest looked across the beach. He could see in the moonlight the gray fleck that was León, hobbled in the sea grass. The donkey lifted his head and looked at the priest.

—He is my only companion, Fr. Espín said. He rubbed his chilled arms. The men were silent, hovering. They could force me if they wanted to, he thought. They will kill me, and take León.

He stood before the men. He could bless the food. Or a phrase from the Mass. He had no idea of the white man or the Indian. But the brothers could never harm a priest.

The sky had gone dark. He was floating above, seeing himself as the men must see him, a small and dirty thing with strange voice and odd gesturing hand. A man who seemed at once greater and less than what he was. He closed his eyes. He felt that León, watching him, must know his thoughts. And he turned away to the fire.

Short Brim set out along the beach toward the donkey. The brothers crouched and began eating. They pushed pieces of fish into their mouths. They ate like men who have not eaten in a long time.

The wind chilled him. Fr. Espín saw Short Brim coming back and leading León. The brothers turned. The priest saw them nod to one another; he saw them signal with their eyes. The wind trilled in his ears, a high warning like a whistle through the fingers.

He walked away from the camp. When he had gone a short distance, he looked back and could see the low coals of their fire. He sat on the dunes, watching, and a single seabird landed beside him. The wind was thick with the smell of brine.

If they strike him, Fr. Espín thought. If they starve him. He felt a tottering resolve but stood trembling. I will stay nearby and see what happens, he thought. León may shake off his captors and God return him to me. Or perhaps tomorrow I will go with them.

Sometime in the late hour he fell asleep and awoke with cold. Clouds covered the sky again. He looked hopefully at the red dot of the fire in the distance. He closed his eyes and the red dot remained. He listened to the waves crash and suddenly he heard a loud bray of alarm and sat up. The note rose and rose and broke into short bursts of panicked cries and the final cry was chopped short and the note died away on the wind.

The priest flushed with dread. He stood squinting, wishing the moon might appear from behind the clouds so he could see. He stumbled over the dunes and the bunchgrass raked his legs. As he drew near, he saw the men bending near the ground. He saw the low gray form among them and the men with their knives.

León had died kneeling, with his nose just touching the ground. The priest shivered with cold and sorrow and the men did not acknowledge him. They continued their task of cutting. Soon León lay in pieces on the ground and the men were putting strips of meat across the fire.

Soldier Coat got up and came over to him. He held a foreleg and offered it to the priest. Fr. Espín stood trembling, his arms across the cold cavity of his chest, and Soldier Coat set the leg on the ground. He took off his leather coat and held it out. The priest took it and slipped it on. The man’s warmth was still inside it, the warmth of his exertion.

Blood trails wound serpentine through the sand. When the dark tendrils trickled to the priest’s feet, he turned and walked back to his fireless camp and lay down. He could see the bright red star of fire in the darkness and he closed his eyes. He woke only when a coyote came to sniff him and the animal startled and trotted down the beach.

At dawn, the new sky was a soft blue and blushed with red clouds. He looked toward the camp and could see a host of gulls and he heard the sharp cries. He got to his feet and brushed the sand from himself and walked toward the place, and at last he ran and sent the cloud of birds into the air. The men had gone. The sand was black with blood and the fire cold. The ground was covered with coyote pads.

Not even a hoof remained. He walked around the fire and saw the deliberate footfalls of men and the skittering round prints of hooves and the two long impressions of the dying, kneeling forelegs. He saw the trail of men going east. Their footprints lay deep in the sand from the load they carried.

The ground was scattered with clumps of hair. The priest knelt and hugged the coat around him. Gulls swarmed and darted down and looked at him with red-rimmed eyes. He gathered the gray hairs with rushing fingers, as an ordinary man might slip beads of prayer through earnest, work-worn hands, and he rose and continued north, holding the salvation of no one in his hands.