Starlight Dreams

 

 

 

Chapter Two  

New Life

Navidad, 1826

 

Diego stood outside his room, leaning on the balcony, his body tense, his heart fearful.  A high-pitched scream broke the quiet of the night.  He cringed, wishing he could be in the room holding Conchita, comforting her.  He wished he could take away the pain of their child’s birth.  Pacing below was Conchita’s father.  Nearby, pacing on the balcony was his father.  Both men, from time to time, glanced at the door, trying hard to hide their anxiety from the already anxious father-to-be. 

His mind wandered back to the previous week, to a time during the early morning hours when they were both lying quietly enfolded in each other’s arms, her head resting on his shoulder, her stomach a huge mound rising under the thin coverlet.  The rhythmic beating of his wife’s heart, the soft feel of her skin, reassured Diego.  Uncomfortable on her back, Conchita rolled over, her legs across his, her swollen belly pressing itself against him.  He felt the movements of their child changing position in its cramped quarters.  Gently he caressed her stomach and then he massaged it from top to bottom.  The baby kicked and rolled, and he let his fingers rest quietly against her skin, wishing for the time when he could hold their little boy, caress his cheek with his fingers. 

Conchita sighed lustily.  “That feels so good, Diego.  Mmmm.  She is active tonight, my love.” 

“You mean he, don’t you?” he teased.  It had been a running joke throughout her pregnancy. 

“No, I mean she,” Conchita had replied, laying her hand on top of his. 

Diego pulled his hand away and gently stroked her cheek.  “Whatever it is, it will be a beautiful child like its mother, with dark and lustrous eyes, soft skin and black hair.”

Conchita had giggled then, clearly embarrassed at the praise being heaped upon her.  “Oh, Diego,” she murmured, taking his hand and kissing the palm.  “And she will have her Papá’s long and sensitive fingers, his perfectly formed nose and lips and ready smile.  I have so enjoyed your smile this past year.  It has been like a light on a stormy night.”

“Querida,” he murmured, kissing her softly and then with more passion….

 

Another scream, louder this time, more strident with raw and biting pain.  Diego bowed his head in a quick, but fervent prayer, asking for intercession from the Blessed Mother for his wife and child, pleading for a quick end to her agony.   He remembered a time further back, when Conchita had only begun to show.  Again, it was early in the morning.  He had been out most of the night, rescuing a peon from the edicts of an overzealous new capitán, being chased by lancers until just before dawn.   He and Tornado both were exhausted.   

His near sleep was interrupted by a soft cry beside him.  Sitting straight up, Diego stared anxiously at his wife.  “What is wrong, Conchita?”

“The baby moved.”

“But the baby has moved before,” he reminded her.  The quickening had occurred some weeks before, but whenever he had put his hand on her belly, he had not felt anything.

“But it was so strong!” Conchita told him.  She took his hand and laid it on her stomach.  Lying there, his hand gently spread across her slightly rounded abdomen, he waited for an indication of the new life they had created.  So still were they that he was dozing when he felt a slight movement under his hand.   A short while later there was another.  His eyes shot open in surprise.

“Did you feel that?” Conchita asked happily.

“Y…yes.  Yes!  I did,” he answered.  He lay there quietly for a while longer, awed at the life that was growing inside her, grateful that he, too, could feel it now….

 

Another scream, followed almost immediately by another.  Diego could hear the murmuring voices of the midwife and her assistant, and he wondered where the doctor was.   He had been sent for some time ago. That was when Diego had first begun fearing, when his stomach and heart began knotting themselves together in anxiety. 

His father continued pacing back and forth, but stopped for a moment next to his son.  “Soon, Diego, it should be soon.  Your mother had a hard labor.”   The words were meant to be reassuring, but they didn’t sound that way to the expectant father.

“It has been so long.  She began having her pains this morning,” Diego reminded him as another agonizing scream rent the brief stillness that had followed the previous one.   He bowed his head in another quick, but fervent plea and felt his father’s strong hand on his shoulder.  Diego remembered Conchita’s face at moments throughout the pregnancy; it was filled with so much happiness, such peace and serenity.  She was so looking forward to this child.  Oh, Conchita!  If I had known it would come to this…  But what, what could one know of such things?  How can someone stop what is to come, or know the moment when an action might turn what is good into a tragedy?

No!  Everything will be all right! Diego chastised himself, pushing such morbid thoughts out of his mind.  However, he couldn’t excise the thoughts out of his mind.  The screams continued, one after the other, loudly at first, then more hoarsely as Conchita’s voice began to give out.  The throaty cries became loud moans and then softened even more until everything going on in the room, the midwife’s instructions and Conchita’s agony, became muted murmurs.  Diego continued to pray, hoping that the surcease of pain-filled sounds was an indication that things were well.  It was only when he heard the reedy, mewling cry of a baby that he jerked his head up, hopeful at that new sound, anxious for word from Conchita’s attendees.  Even though he wanted to burst through the door, he waited, custom dictating his patience in this matter of women.  Ai!  Is this baby not of my doing, too? 

He began pacing, as had his father before him.  A large full moon rose majestically over the roof of the hacienda, bathing the patio in soft light.  The silence began to grate on his nerves more than the screams had.  It was the not knowing.  Finally Dr. Avila came through the patio door.  Bernardo hurried him up the stairs and past the anxious men.  As the door opened and the doctor stepped in, Diego followed, determined to see his wife and his new baby, unwilling to wait any longer. 

“Doctor, she is…” the midwife began and then saw Diego behind the newcomer.  Dr. Avila nodded and turned to Conchita.  Diego did as well, horrified at the scene that greeted him.  She lay unmoving on the bed, her face paler than the pillow on which her head rested.  The lower half of the bed, sheets, coverings, everything, were red-stained, as was the water in the basins and bowls nearby.  The metallic smell of blood permeated the room, almost causing Diego to choke at the implications of the scene before him. 

“Señor, you must leave until we are ready for you,” the midwife’s assistant said, laying her hand on his arm.

Diego pulled away.  “She is my wife.  I have a right,” he answered brusquely, realizing that he was watching his wife’s last moments of life.  Quickly walking to the opposite side of the bed, he ignored everyone, including the doctor examining her across from him.  His finger gently pushed damp, unruly strands of her raven black hair off her face.  There was a cloth next to Conchita’s pillow and he used it to wipe the sweat from her brow. 

With a soft sigh, Conchita opened her eyes.  She gazed at him without comprehension for the briefest of moments and then she smiled.  “Oh, Diego,” she whispered.  “They told me . . . that we have . . . a girl.”  She looked toward the other side of the room, as though searching for the baby and then she sighed again, even this action seemingly too tiring for her. 

At this moment, the baby was not on his mind.  Diego could only concentrate on his wife, could only feel the dull anguish rising in his chest that he was about to lose someone else he loved.  He opened his mouth to reassure her, but nothing came out.  Finally, he murmured, “You are beautiful, querida, so very beautiful.”

“Take care of her, Diego,” she said, her eyes pleading.  Her voice seemed to strengthen as she continued.  “Take my love . . . and combine it with yours.  Let her be the most . . . loved child in California.”

“How could it be otherwise?” he answered, his heart filling with sadness and grief. 

“You have grieved.  Your heart has been filled . . . with guilt and pain,” she said.  She paused, as though gathering strength to say more.   “You have let it consume you.”

Diego could not deny it.  She had spent the first year of their marriage watching and feeling the pain and anguish he had inflicted on her.  “I love you, Conchita.  Do not leave me,” he finally choked out, his anguish almost more than he could bear.  Not again!  Dios, not again!  He looked up and saw that the doctor and the midwives had discreetly left Conchita’s bedside and were hovering over a cradle in the corner near the secret door.

“Diego, do not grieve.  Think of the little one.  Give her everything that is inside you . . . your love, your tenderness, your giving heart . . . your passion for all that is good.”  Another pause and then she continued, “Do not let her see the hurt and pain....”   She closed her eyes, her words seeming to take the last ounce of strength from her.  Her breath began to come in soft, uneven gasps.

“Oh, Conchita . . .”

“Promise me, Diego.  And promise . . . you will find someone else.  Someone who . . . will love . . . both of you,” she wheezed.  Her eyes were the only thing that seemed alive about her; they bored into his soul, begged him for his assurance.

“Yes, I promise.  I promise to give our little one the best that can be given her,” he finally whispered.  Someone else?  No, never again, he thought.  Never would he go through this pain again.

“Just . . . give her your heart . . . that is enough,” Conchita whispered, as though understanding his thoughts.  He grasped her hand, and noticed that there was not enough strength in it to hold onto his.  “I . . . love . . . you, Diego . . . my hero.”   Her eyes closed and her struggling breaths ended. 

Diego knew that she was gone.  He brought her lifeless hand to his cheek.  He closed his eyes, savoring the feel of her flesh without seeing the look of death on her face.  Her fingers were already cold, but the touch of her flesh reminded him of the wonder and happiness of the past year and what he had now lost.  “My love,” he whispered softly, “You gave me so much of yourself to have received so little in return.  Forgive me.”    He laid his other hand against Conchita’s cheek, his touch as light as a feather.  “Our life was just beginning, querida, why did you have to go?”

But you are already in my heart, my love,’ his own voice came back to remind him of what he had said a year ago. 

I will be with you forever,’ he heard Minta saying from his past.

“But you are both gone.  Gone!” he said, his voice low and harsh.

Behind him, the baby made soft cooing cries.  Promises are one thing, Conchita, but reality is another.  You have given me a child, but I cannot raise her alone, he thought in anguish.

A tiny voice answered him in his head.  You have made the promise, Diego.  It can be kept.  If you can give yourself to the people of California, you can surely give your heart to this child.  Teach her to love life, as I know you do.   Surprised, Diego opened his eyes and looked hard at his wife, but she had not moved.  She was truly dead, but her voice still echoed in his mind.

A soft mewling cry came to his ears.  The baby.  Laying Conchita’s hand gently on her chest, he turned to his wife’s attendees.  The midwife was holding his child.  Little fists waved in the air.

“Your daughter, Don Diego,” the woman said softly, holding out the squirming little bundle. 

Walking toward her, he gingerly took the baby in his arms, cradling her against his body.  She seemed so tiny, but she was warm and alive.  Her dark eyes gazed at him; her soft, black hair lay half-down, half-up on top of her head.  The chubby cheeks were slightly rosy and each tiny fist seemed determined to find a place in her mouth.  One of them won and the baby sucked noisily on it for a minute.  She looked perfect to him, like an angel.

“She is a fine, healthy girl, patrón,” the midwife said, knowing from experience what the fathers wanted to know first.

“She is so tiny,” he said, gazing raptly into her face.  My daughter.  Oh, Dios, a beautiful little girl! Gracias, he thought, charmed by this little one who had come into his life in the midst of such sorrow and suffering. 

“She is really quite a large baby, Don Diego,” the doctor said.  “All babies seem small at first.”

Diego said nothing, his eyes continuing to drink in the beauty of his child.  Remotely, he heard the sounds of the women moving toward the bed. 

“Diego, take your child down to the library.  It is warm there and you can hold her while the women clean up in here.  I will wait for the priest,” the doctor told him. 

Tearing his gaze away from the baby, he looked at the doctor and then nodded.  Carefully, with the fear of one handling a delicate vase, Diego carried his child out the door, past the two grandfathers waiting with complete impatience, across the balcony and down the steps into the sala.  Bernardo preceded him, opening doors, and watching him and the child in rapt wonder.  Ignoring everything except his child, Diego carried the baby into the library and sat down in front of the fire. 

“You do not have a mother, my darling, not even for as long as I had one,” he murmured softly to the baby, remembering the times he had sat in his own mother’s lap before she had died and left him, “But I will love you for your dear mother, as well as for myself.”   The words were an echo of his promise and he looked thoughtfully into the fire for a moment.

“I am sorry, my son,” his father said from behind him.  Diego tore his gaze away from the child and looked up to see both older men behind him.  Tears flowed down the leathery cheeks of Joaquin Miguel Alvarez. 

“As am I,” Diego answered, looking directly into the eyes of his father-in-law.

“Ah, Diego, Margarita Isabella is a beautiful child,” his father said referring to the name that had been selected early in Conchita’s pregnancy. 

Diego once again gazed into the fire.  He no longer desired the name he and his wife had chosen.  Instead, he wanted to name this baby after the two women who had made him happy, even for a very brief time, the two women who had loved him unconditionally and had given him everything.  “Her name will be Minta Conchita,” he said, looking back down at the round-faced cherub in his arms.  Again, the baby stuck a fist into her mouth.  Behind him, Diego heard his father-in-law suck in his breath raggedly.  He had been especially proud that the baby was going to be named after his dead wife.  At this point, though, Diego did not care. 

“What?  Are you sure, Diego?  The name had been picked,” his father said.

“I want this child to be named for those who gave me the most happiness, Father,” he said, looking back up at the two older men.  “My mind is made up.”

His father nodded, Don Joaquin still looked stricken.  “Diego, if this change is to be, then why do you not name her after her mother,” Joaquin asked. 

Why, indeed, Diego asked himself.  The reasons were tenuous, but there was one that was foremost.  “I want this child to remind me of two very special women, but Conchita is too close to my heart right now.  I do not want the child to remind me so much of what I have just lost that I feel that loss every time I say her name.  Minta Conchita is enough.  The name will keep them both alive.”  After a few minutes both men asked to hold the baby and for the next two hours, all three took turns holding Little Minta Conchita, only relinquishing her when a nurse maid arrived, her own child held tightly against one hip.  By that time the child had begun fussing, crying for something which none of the three men could give her.

The woman made no pretense, seeing the baby’s needs immediately.  Diego watched for a moment as the peon woman shyly nursed the newborn babe in the corner of the room, and then he returned to his seat by the fire.  He pushed out of his mind the thoughts that Conchita should be doing that.

The next day, Diego watched over the baptism of his daughter.  He smiled in satisfaction as Father Felipe pronounced Minta Conchita to be her name.  That same evening, he returned to the mission with many others, mourners at the burial of Conchita Innocencia Maria Alvarez.  Tears flowed freely, but on Diego’s face was only determination, the resolve to protect and care for his daughter and to fulfill the promise that he had made to the woman who now lay buried at his feet.      

 

 

Chapter Three
Chapter One
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