The Maquila Queen by Anna-Marie McLemore

Anna-Marie McLemore, a third-generation Mexican-American, writes from her heritage in the Southwest. A 2011 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction, her work has been featured in CRATE Literary Magazine’s cratelit, A Priceless Wedding (Voyageur Press, 2012), and on the website of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West

Bruja Licha says the day my sister died, the air in our village was so bad that Death had to wear a gas mask just so he could get close enough to take her. The maquiladoras ran day and night shifts all that summer. The heat stripped the exhaust off the blowdown stacks like thread off a spool, and the wind carried it until it crowned our ring of houses. Our jefes, the men who watched us burn our hands soldering the circuit boards for the new washing machines, or catch our fingers in the punch presses, told us it was all safe, made of water. But the doctor from Tijuana who came to our village every six months told my father it was estireno. The gringos call it styrene, he said.

Estireno was why, the doctor told us, sometimes my aunt and I could not remember our own names; the letters muddled on our tongues and would not become sounds. Estireno was why my mother barely left her bed, and my father had headaches so bad he banged his head on the sink until he slumped to the floor, temple bloody. Estireno was why my sister's pancreas ate itself, and she could not take sugar anymore.

And estireno was why even Death himself, San La Muerte, needed a mask to come near us. I didn't see Him myself, so I don't know. But Bruja Licha says she saw him, holding the kind of leather briefcase we made at the maquiladora. And Bruja Licha never lies, so I know it's true.

My sister was nineteen when San La Muerte took her. She started working at the washing machine factory when she was sixteen. The maquiladoras like that age because a girl's hands and eyes are the best at sixteen. I wondered if I had worked on Death's briefcase, if I had done the stitching with the awls, and attached the handle with the glue that made my eyes tear.

Almost a year after San La Muerte came for her, a man selling hairpins and pink chewing gum stopped at our village. He looked hungry, so my mother got up from her bed to make him a tortilla and frijoles with three poblano slices. He noticed our one picture of my sister on the kitchen wall, and said he had seen her before. My mother told him the girl in the photograph was dead, and she thought the heat and the estireno had cooked his brain already.

But the man insisted. He said he'd seen a picture in la Ciudad de México, a color photograph of two figures riding a camel through a desert. One of them, he said, was a man wearing black, and the other a girl so beautiful he remembered her shape and what he could make out of her face through the film's grain.

My mother did not believe it. But I followed him to the edge of town so I could ask him. He gave me a piece of pink chewing gum and told me there had been pyramids in the background, four of them, and a sky as blue as a guera's eye. The sand was smooth and round as breasts, he told me, holding his cupped hands in front of him. He just knew it was my sister. He'd had to squint to see anything of the girl's face, but he'd remembered. It was the same girl on my mother's kitchen wall.

I don't know how the word got around. I didn't tell. But over the next week our village made itself drunk on the story that San La Muerte had made my sister his bride, and that everywhere he went to claim a life, they made the trip a honeymoon. They only knew of this one photograph of the two on a camel in the Egyptian desert, but there must have been more, they said. Maybe there was one of them in a canoe on the Río Amazonas, my sister reaching over the side to pet the pink dolphins, or another of them crossing the blue ice of a glacier, or another of my sister twirling her skirts in the pampas grasses.

Sometimes I pretend Bruja Licha saw the photograph herself. Bruja Licha never lies. Some nights I want it so much I can feel my body crumbling in the same places as my sister's, like packed dirt in the dry season. My head fogs over with the same rust-color as our village. I forget my name, and remember hers. I think that if the estireno eats me alive, Death will come with his leather briefcase for me too, and my sister and I will be his twin wives.

I'll never get jealous because I know she's the beautiful sister, the maquila queen even now that she's left us. I won't blame San La Muerte for looking at her more, liking her better, stroking her hair free from its braids. He will lift her onto that camel, and I will walk alongside, the sand hot on my bare feet because I do not want shoes my aunt and my mother had to make. I'll watch our maquila queen, riding the desert under a sky so blue our whole village couldn't buy the indigo to dye it.

I wish we knew what San La Muerte looked like, if under that mask he is young and handsome, or if he still has an        esqueleto head, all bones. The man selling the hairpins and the chewing gum was no help. He said that in the        photograph, the figure in black had his head turned away, his face hidden from the camera as he counted
       the pyramids.

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