The patio door at The Wild Detectives banged open behind me. I sipped my happy hour red wine, a Thursday tradition since I’d moved to Oak Cliff. A book with pages wrinkled by weather hung like an ornament from a string of lights above my head. I strained to read the text to see what type of book it was.
River water baking in the sun filled my nose as a young Mexican woman with long, messy black hair passed by. I recognized the smell immediately. She wore a black tee and jeans and sat down with a beer at the picnic table in front of mine. Her face was smooth, a single shade of golden brown with red undertones, like mine used to be. I was 63 now. She hadn’t aged a day.
My sunspotted, wrinkled hand shook as I took a large gulp of wine. I must have made a noise because her eyes flicked to my stiff shoulders and jaw. She regarded me with a mix of disdain and curiosity. “I never see the same person twice.”
“It’s been 46 years.” My tongue felt like the sandy bottom of a dried riverbed.
In 1976, when I was 17, I accompanied my Uncle Dodge on a motorcycle ride from California to Utah and south to Arizona. He was on a drug-selling run for his one-percenter motorcycle club, and I was testing out my 1972 Ironhead on the open road.
We pulled our motorcycles off the highway and made camp near a river. That night, I woke to a woman’s cries. I unzipped the tent door and peeked out at a black void from a moonless sky. The cries transformed to lamenting wails that shook the tent. Dodge didn’t stir from his drug-induced slumber. I hunkered inside my sleeping bag, tormented by the despair of a woman unseen, wishing it would end.
The next morning, I woke to silence. I left Dodge asleep and walked to the river to splash water on my face. There, a young woman with skin as brown as mine and unkempt black hair slept with one foot in the water.
Since my parents died when I was 4 and I went to live with my uncle, I’d been surrounded by white people. Neither he nor his all-white motorcycle club liked Mexicans—or any other race—which made for some uncomfortable experiences as a half-Mexican girl with dark hair and brown skin. If I’d had a sister, would she have looked like this woman?
What are you afraid of,” I asked, “if you can’t die?”
I nudged her with my boot. “You OK?” She groaned awake and stood slowly. I stepped back. She smelled like river water baking in the sun.
“Am I near a town?” she asked gruffly.
I shrugged. “You need a ride? I got room on my motorcycle.” Dodge wouldn’t like it, but I didn’t care.
She grimaced. “I’ll walk.” Then she muttered, “as always.”
I touched her arm. She flinched.
“You could be killed,” I said, “or bitten by a snake.”
“If only,” she scoffed. But then her face softened as she looked at mine.
“Wha—” I stopped. Dried streaks of salt ran down her cheeks. I stepped back. She smirked and turned, following the curve of the river into the desert.
A decade later I heard the legend of La Llorona, the weeping spirit who has been wandering rivers for 500 years in search of the children she drowned. Now on the patio of The Wild Detectives, La Llorona downed her drink and said, “Night is near.”
She left the table and walked inside like a spry 20-year-old. My joints creaked in unison with the wooden steps as I followed her into the converted house where twenty- and thirtysomethings clacked on laptops.
On the front porch, I touched her shoulder. She flinched.
“Want a ride?”
La Llorona studied my face. Did she wonder what it would be like to age, for wrinkles to appear around her lips and eyes, for her freckles to turn into sunspots that makeup couldn’t hide?
“Fine, but buy me a drink on the way.”
Minutes later, her face paled when we approached my motorcycle.
“What are you afraid of,” I asked, “if you can’t die?”
La Llorona sat stiffly behind me. “The pain.” Her hands wrapped tightly around my stomach as we sped away. Moments later, she yelled, “Alcohol now.” I bought her tequila from a liquor store. She drank as we rode. When I cut the motor in the empty lot next to the Trinity River, she hopped off, cursing.
We sat by the river in silence as the sun set. I had questions, but I feared if I asked, she wouldn’t share. When night fully arrived, La Llorona threw the empty bottle into the brown river.
“Do you have to … ?” Go or wander or be cursed hung between us, unsaid.
“I deserve this.” As La Llorona stepped into the trash-filled waterway the Caddo called the Arkikosa, the curse took over. Her shoulders shook with cries and sobs as the water reached her chest. The lights of downtown Dallas lit her path as she wailed for her children. I watched her search for something she’d never find, cursed to stay at an age when it’s hard to let go of mistakes.