In Santa Cruz, the border is only a breath away. On summer nights the searchlights of la migra stitch the mountains and the road spins out snakebelly white between Tombstone and Nogales. Taking those empty curves through the grasslands you lean hard on the gas because
You’re looking for the Virgin with the cracked feet and the poppy smile. You saw her once, high on a hill: eyeblink glimpse from the back seat of a car bound for Mexico. She was framed in white stone and dead flowers, and offerings of broken dolls and stuffed animals filled the mouth of her cave.
You’d thought she vanished under the weight of the years between then and now. But this midnight squirms with nerves and heat lightning and a roadside prayer might cool your fevered soul. She was somewhere along this two lane. You’ll know her when you see her.
South of Patagonia, bats drift against the stars like burned paper. Your high beams snag a bullet-chopped sign that says Quarantine. In Santa Cruz, rabies always simmers in the blood of the land dwellers. Cinder-eyed on the fringes of the light, ibex watch you pass. They never have rabies.
But there’s no Virgin in these parts. Maybe a mad bat bit her one of these glassy nights. At Lochiel, bronze plaques declare the place a historical site, but you push on. You know the story anyway: doomed boys in blue, cavalrymen dropped by cholera before the Apache ever got close. They never knew your Virgin anyway. She prays for sorefooted travelers begging with dime store candles and drifters with frayed hearts.
She has to be close now. You can trust a hill Maria. She won’t take her broken toes to Nogales where the music fills up the empty spaces in the night.
Up ahead, trees get thick and moths ride the headlights. You round a skinny curve and river smells rise up around you. This is it; she’s here. Cottonwood trees lean on their shadows as you pull over under her hill. Crowned in white stone she waits in plaster silence while you climb the little path worn down by many feet.
You breathe in the scents of her sanctuary: dying carnations and candlewax and dust. A ceramic pig and a one-legged doll lie inside her circle. With no other offering than your own fractured heart, you wait with them for the mercy she holds in that one chipped eye.