Last Updated on March 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1389
New Mexico is filled with the “pungent, nostalgic aroma of roasting chiles” the month Fe marries her “true fated love,” Casimiro. The smell will come to remind everyone of how Fe finally achieved her dreams—marriage, a home in the suburbs, respectability—only to die just after her first wedding anniversary.
Casey was born into an “old, prestigious” family of sheepherders whose descendants have been forced to find careers better suited to the modern economy. Casey is a “hard worker [who makes] a decent income” as an accountant, and he and Fe “settle into a three-bedroom, two-car-garage tract home in Rio Rancho with option to buy.”
Fe, too, has found work in a new field. Her boss at the bank had been unwilling to place her in a public-facing role on account of her screaming-induced speech impairment, and she left after being passed over for two promotions. It was one of her former coworkers who had told her about Acme International, a new subcontracting company that paid well and promoted quickly. What the coworker did not say, maybe because of “the migraines clogging up her sense of reason,” was that many of the women working for Acme International seemed to be developing a peculiar set of symptoms.
Fe has always been a reliable, efficient worker, but never before Acme International has her dedication been rewarded. She excels at each manufacturing task and is quickly promoted from assembler to materials dispatcher trainee to “specialty person.” Within each “station," she uses “some nasty smelling chemical or another” to clean pieces of plastic and metal that will ultimately be used to build high-tech weapons for the Pentagon.
Within months of beginning her new job, Casey begins to notice a sweet smell on his wife’s breath, “like glue.” When Fe is later assigned to a project in the basement isolation room, a job given only to her on account of her being a specialist,she does not want to sound ungrateful, but between her breath, the red ring around her nose, her increasing lethargy, and her terrible headache, she feels entitled to know what kind of chemical is in the unlabeled bottle she will be using. “Ether,” her foreman says. He assures her that it may make her sleepy, “but that’s all.” She discovers that the ether eats through not only her gloves, but also her fingernails.
Sofia is alarmed by the state of Fe’s health. When the couple visits Tome, she notices that her daughter’s legs are covered in dry patches and that she is popping indigestion medication into her mouth “like candy.” Casey adores his wife and is glad to find “an ally in this mysterious struggle he [is] having with Fe and her loyalty to Acme International.” Sofia insists that they see both a doctor and a lawyer right away. At the hospital, they discover that Fe has multiple advanced cancers, inside and out, “which no amount of Rolaids would have ever helped.” They also learn that she had melanoma before she took the job at Acme International, which means she cannot sue the company for the subsequent malignancies so clearly caused by chemical exposure. Fe responds poorly to her agonizing treatments, but she continues to work whenever she is able.
Fe is subpoenaed by federal agents whose case holds her personally responsible for the use of an illegal substance, the chemical she had been told was ether, which she had unknowingly poured down the drain and into the water table, where it “worked its way into people’s septic tanks, vegetable gardens, kitchen taps, and sun-made tea.” They show no concern...
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for what had been absorbed into the “lungs and liver and kidneys” of the woman in front of them, turning her insides to “acid.”
When Fe dies at home in Tome at age twenty-six, she does not “resurrect” like La Loca or “return ectoplasmically” like Esperanza. She is just “plain dead.”
Francisco el Penitente cannot stop thinking about Caridad, a woman as “chaste and humble” as the Virgin Mary, a “blessing” first revealed to him on the long road to Chimayo. He had been carrying a wooden cross on his bare back like Christ when he saw her making the pilgrimage with his godmother, doña Felicia. He continues to believe the sight of her body was given to him as a reward for his suffering.
A year after that Holy Friday and shortly after Francisco and his Penitente Brothers find Caridad in her cave, he feels that he has become “powerless to his desire.” Convinced that he and Caridad have a spiritual connection, he begins stalking her. He lies in the dirt near her trailer each day, hidden behind the agaves, looking for a sign. He finds it in a pair of hummingbirds building their nest above Caridad’s doorway, “an omen of true love” that inspires him to return later that night for his first stakeout after sunset. When he arrives, he is distressed to discover that Caridad’s truck is gone, and she doesn’t return until morning.
The next night, he arrives earlier and follows her to a small house in the South Valley. There are lights on inside, and a VW Beetle sits in the driveway, but Caridad does not go in. She repeats this ritual every weeknight, holding vigil in her truck until dawn. Desperate to learn who lives in the house, Francisco sneaks closer while its two female occupants are away. He asks doña Felicia to tell him about Maria and Esmeralda, the names on the mailbox, and learns that Esmeralda is “kind of a friend of Caridad’s.”
Francisco, his mind going “haywire,” decides he must never let himself look at Caridad, the object of his obsession, ever again. Caridad, for her part, is less inclined to surrender her “own obsession.” She wants to give her heart to Esmeralda, the Woman-on-the-wall, but “everyone and everything Caridad had ever given her heart to had gone away.” Instead of telling her how she feels, the shy Caridad watches over the little stucco home Esmeralda shares with her partner, Maria. It makes Caridad feel good to be near Esmeralda, just as it makes Francisco el Penitente feel good to be near Caridad. She knows that he has been following her. She can feel his “nearby yearning for the impossible,” which is “so akin to her own.”
Francisco makes it his business to learn more about Esmeralda, like how to get to the rape crisis center in Albuquerque, where she works as assistant director. She, too, lives in a “constant state of the willies,” feeling like she is being followed, “because, of course, they all were.” But Francisco does not try to hide the fact that he has followed her to work that day, and rather than calling the authorities or taking any of the other advice she regularly gives to women at the crisis center, Esmeralda confronts Francisco in the empty parking lot after work, where he abducts her.
By the time Francisco drops Esmeralda off in front of her house that night, it is implied that he has raped her. She and Caridad flee to the historical Sky City in Acoma, where Esmeralda’s grandmother lives atop a mesa. Francisco el Penitente pursues them in his truck, but he is not permitted to continue in his own vehicle once they reach the reservation, so he buys a tour bus ticket and attempts to blend in. Caridad waits outside while Esmeralda tells her grandmother about what has happened to her. Caridad herself does not understand the situation until she is suddenly struck, as if by a “terrible lightning bolt,” when she unintentionally overhears their conversation.
Esmeralda goes outside to check on Caridad, who is crying, but is herself stricken when she looks up to see Francisco watching them. Startled but not scared, she begins to sprint toward the edge of the mesa, Caridad running closely behind. Holding hands, they take a great flying leap of the edge, having been called back to the “soft, moist earth” by the goddess Tsichtinako, “where Esmeralda and Caridad would live forever.”
That evening, Francisco hangs himself on his uncle’s land, “dangling sorrowful-like like a crow-picked pear from a tall piñon,” calling out for Caridad.