by Tracy Fells
The yellow laces of my running shoe slap against the tarmac. I stop and re-tie them. It’s always the left trainer and always at this spot on my route through Bosque de Chapultepec, the largest park in Mexico City. They come undone at the feet of La Fuente de Tiáloc. The fountain’s statue depicts a rain god. His sad stone grey eyes stare at the cloudless sky. He is oblivious to the spring blossom sticking to his static body like pale pink snow. I tie a double knot as Elida runs past, her pendulum plait swinging in time with her smooth, easy gait. This is my daily penance, trapped at the fountain by unruly laces to watch my sister race ahead.
Running is as natural as breathing to my tribe. I close my eyes and suck in a long breath. Altitude isn’t the problem. My lungs grew with me in the high copper coloured canyons of Barrancas del Cobre.
‘You okay?’ I can feel Santos’s hand on my clammy T-shirt.
‘I’ll be fine in a minute.’ I can no longer see Elida. I will have to sprint to catch her.
‘We shouldn’t run when the air is so poor,’ Santos scolds me as if I were still a child. ‘And we really shouldn’t be running today.’
He means before this evening, before our wedding. Tomorrow I will be back here, in the park, for my morning run and to race my sister. How can he not understand?
With oxygen back in my lungs I straighten, ready to set off again. Santos takes my hand, kisses the pale heart of my palm. ‘Gabriela.’ His voice is heavy. ‘Let her go.’
I surge forwards, my hand tugged free from his lips. ‘She can’t win, especially not today,’ I say.
Santos calls out but does not follow, ‘She always wins!’
Mama had always boasted that Elida was wisely named. With alas en los pies—wings on her feet—she lived up to her blessing as Elida meant the winged one. The fastest girl in our village, in the Rarámuri district even, she was set to marry the fastest boy: Santos. For two years she had easily beaten the rest of the girls in the harvest fiesta race, her future and marriage were destined. Elida didn’t need a third win to prove she really did have wings on her feet, she could relax into a jog and let another family take the glory for our village. That year it should have been Rosa’s turn.
Our grandmother worked the treadle, with toothless concentration, on the black and gold sewing machine to tidy the hem of my dress so it swung above my knees. At ten years old, it was my first fiesta race and Elida and I were to have matching dresses. Mama had chosen the cloth at a gathering before Holy Week. Flushed pink roses with emerald stems on a blue background, glinting like the jewelled plumage of the forest birds as we ran. Two sisters running for our family.
Elida stood a little too close to Santos while he tied a strip of pink material to the end of her plait, making an elaborate bow. His long black fringe flopped forward, shading his eyes, and he kept pausing to flick it away. At fifteen he was two years older than Elida; she was taller but always slouched against him to hide this. I tried to block out her silly giggles, concentrating on binding the leather straps of the huraches around my ankles. My dust-coated toes curled into the flat rubber soles, cut from old tyres Papa had won in a bet at some long ago fiesta. The huraches moulded to become the soles of my feet, better than any high-tech running shoe, carrying me every day along the canyon-edged paths. They were as good as wings.
Rosa, an older girl from our village, crouched beside me. ‘You need these tight for a race,’ she said and began to retie the thin leather straps of my running shoes. Like her two younger sisters Rosa wore a red and gold striped dress, a matching ribbon woven through her plait. ‘Run well, Gabriela.’
‘I will try to make my family proud,’ I said, whispering so that Elida could not overhear, ‘and I hope you win this year.’
‘I will do my best.’ Rosa slowly blinked spidery lashes, staring past me towards my laughing sister. ‘She can’t be allowed to win everything.’
On my second lap, Santos is waiting at the fountain. He hasn’t moved since I sped off in pursuit of Elida. A taller woman, in patterned Lycra shorts and a cropped top, stands behind him, hands on hips. Her eyes are hidden behind sunglasses, so round and large they mask half her face.
Santos steps out to block my way.
‘She’s getting away,’ I shout at him.
‘This has to stop,’ he says, gripping my wrist. ‘No more, Gabriela. This ends today.’ Santos nods towards the stranger. ‘This is the lady you race each day. She is not your sister.’ He goes on to tell me her name but I don’t hear what he’s saying. His words soar like eagles above the canyons, spiralling into the haze.
I know this is not my sister.
Elida is gone.
She disappeared when I was ten years old.
The fiesta had continued long into the night. The women fried pans of boiled beans, keeping an eye on the bubbling pots of goat meat, while the men shared stories, drinking their corn beer and swapping bets on the next day, when the boys would race. I dozed, my head in Grandmother’s lap as she stroked my hair.
Elida had passed me on her second lap of the race, her pace strong and steady while I snatched for every breath. Rosa trailed behind her like a faithful dog, but every time she drew close then Elida simply lengthened her stride and surged ahead. She won easily.
After the race Rosa sat with arms around her knees, her head bowed. She refused to eat anything and did not join the other girls when they started to dance around the fires. From Grandmother’s lap I watched Santos sipping his beer, smiling weakly as the men around him told old jokes that we’d all heard before. Finally, exhaustion closed my eyes, pulling me down to sleep. I dreamt of the future, when I would win the fiesta race and be crowned as the fastest girl in the district. In this dream, Santos took my hand and kissed it, making me blush as pink as the roses on my dress.
Once the races were done, training for the next fiesta began straight away. We ran every day, resting only on a Sunday. One morning I tried to keep up with Elida and Rosa but they soon left me behind on the mountain path, kicking up brown dust as I slowed to a walk. Almost two hours had passed when I jogged back into our village, the dogs were howling and the women calling for the men. Rosa stood crying, surrounded by her family. Elida had not returned. A search party was to be sent out, to retrace our route along the canyon edge. My sister was missing.
I followed Santos to Mexico City as soon as I was old enough to leave our village. Each morning we run together in Chapultepec Park. And now we are to be married, hundreds of miles from the high sierras of the Copper Canyon. We have not shared this with our families and only a few friends from the restaurant where we work will be present. There will be no fiesta feast, neither of us feel free of the past to celebrate in the old ways of our village.
The woman at Santos’s side watches me from behind her sunglasses. Her plait has slipped over her shoulder and I realise there is nothing tied to the end. Her skin tone is much paler than mine, her features rounder. This woman is not from my village.
‘I came here to forget Elida,’ says Santos. He is speaking quietly, his face is close to mine so only I can hear him. ‘Nobody knows what happened to your sister, but we all believe she is dead. You must let her spirit rest, Gabriela. You will never find peace until you do.’
Reflected in the stranger’s sunglasses I glimpse a flash of pink and blue, roses against a dazzling sky, the same dress that my sister and I wore for the harvest fiesta race all those years before.
The yellow laces of my trainers have come undone again, both shoes are loose. I take them off, my socks too, and hand them to Santos. ‘I’m sorry,’ I tell him and mean it. I can’t marry him. Not tonight. Not ever. I should have stayed in the mountains.
My sister’s body was never found, yet I buried her deep. Deep within myself, where she could keep running; free from my jealously and guilt. Santos believes I come to the park to race a ghost. Elida was older, stronger and faster than me. Stubborn. She demands resurrection. I come to the park to chase down the past. To remember my sister.
The memory of that day rises like air warmed by the sun, burning away the morning mist.
Poor Rosa had suffered the suspicions of our village, she finally left for the city a year ahead of Santos. The old women gossiped that Rosa must have known what had happened. She had been running that morning high on the canyon path. How could she have not seen Elida? Had she seen my sister slip and tumble to her death, did she somehow cause her to fall? At ten years old, they thought me too young, their questions were brief and they paid little heed to my answers, which were stilted and muddled.
The men and boys searched the cliff sides and pathways for days, but there were so many places where Elida could have fallen. When I passed Rosa that morning she had already given up trying to catch her. Sitting beside the path, resting her head on her knees, she merely pointed out the route my sister had taken. Finding a second wind, I stepped into Elida’s dusty footprints as I raced to follow her.
My lungs were exploding when I caught sight of my sister on the path ahead. Elida ignored my shouts, just as she had ignored my cries of pain when she lapped me during the fiesta race. When she ran, Elida lived only for herself. The stone hit the side of her head, much harder than I intended; I only wanted to make her stop and wait for me. She stumbled, her feet twisting awkwardly and then Elida fell forward, flying into empty space. Her arms whirled and clutched at the air. Then she was gone. It took me several minutes to work up the courage to crawl to the edge of the path. I could see nothing but the green and copper streaked sides of the deep canyon.
Again I tell Santos that I’m sorry. His mouth tightens into a thin line as the realisation of what I’m saying sinks in. I do love him, I say softly, but he deserves someone better. Barefoot, I curl my toes to soak up the heat of the paving slabs, already baked by the morning’s sun. He holds my trainers to his chest and now I see Elida reflected in his eyes. She stands at the head of the fountain’s statue, her hand is raised as if beckoning.
This time she waits for me. Together we run, side by side, our strides match, winged feet beating out a strong and steady rhythm. Above me I hear the screeching cry of an eagle.
Tracy Fells has won awards for both fiction and drama. Her short stories and flash fiction have been published in online and print journals including Granta, Brittle Star, The Nottingham Review, Spelk, Reflex Fiction, Firewords and Popshot. She was the 2017 Regional Winner (Canada and Europe) for the Commonealth Short Story Prize, and has been shortlisted for the Fish, Bridport, Brighton and Willesden Herald prizes. She tweets as @theliterarypig.