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The Obsidian Fountain
by Lori B.

The fountain, jet black and as smooth as glass, stood partially hidden behind a low stone wall. A circle of wild violets grew at its base, and the soft moonlight filtering through the humid air created a halo around it. Two cardinals – one bright, the other drab – descended from a cedar tree and perched on the fountain’s rim. Together they dipped their beaks in the water and drank, and when they’d had enough, they opened their wings and returned to their tree. They’d mated for life, and they’d spent years – centuries, in fact – perfecting their nightly dance.

~

It was past midnight. Everyone in tiny San Andrés de la Cal was sound asleep – everyone, that is, except Julia. Her mind was racing. Maybe some fresh air will clear my head, she thought. Sighing, she rose from bed, wrapped a shawl around her shoulders, and stepped onto the tiled terrace behind her grandmother’s casita. Her casita now.

It had been four days since Abuela Rosa’s death, but with the flurry of events that followed, Julia hadn’t had time to process her grandmother’s passing. First, there was the wake, then the funeral. The entire village, it seemed, had attended the mass, walked beside her to the cemetery, placed marigolds on the grave. All of yesterday and today, people had been bringing her food, inquiring as to how she was doing, and asking when the flower shop would reopen.

And Victor wouldn’t stop pressuring her about the wedding. Now he was insisting on moving the date up. Thank goodness he still lived with his uncle in Tepoztlán, ten kilometers away. She desperately needed time alone.

She looked up, hoping for a sign. The Mexican sky was as black as a cast iron griddle, and the full moon reminded her of her grandmother’s tortillas – tortillas that Julia would never again have the pleasure of tasting. She thought of Abuela Rosa’s last words.

Sigue tu corazón,” she’d whispered. Follow your heart. Julia wanted to follow her heart, but she knew that wasn’t possible – not if what her heart desired was an impossible dream.

A wispy cloud resembling an angel floated across the moon. Are you there, Abuela Rosa? Abuela Rosa had indeed seemed like an angel, caring for Julia since the day she was born. Julia’s mother had died in childbirth, and her father hadn’t been around. Now Abuela Rosa herself was gone, leaving the eighteen-year-old to navigate life on her own.

A breeze stirred the wind chimes above the entrance to Rosa’s Florería next door. It had been in Julia’s family for years. She wanted to reopen it soon, but first she had a decision to make: marry Victor and keep the peace, or admit to him that she was in love with Rodolfo – who apparently did not love her in return – and face the consequences of a vindictive man.

Suddenly, she wanted to visit the fountain, whose secret Abuela Rosa had shared with her. A gravel path led through the garden to the fountain. Julia looked at the sharp gravel, and then down at her bare feet. It can wait until tomorrow. She turned and went inside.

Sitting on the edge of her bed, she lifted a framed photograph from her nightstand. It was a gift she'd received long ago from her grandmother, a Daguerreotype with “May 15, 1850” printed on it in faded ink. A young couple stood before an adobe building. The man had straight black hair and a slight build. He wore a loose-fitting shirt, dark pants, and a wide-brimmed hat. The woman was shorter, with a round face and braided hair. Her embroidered blouse matched her flowered skirt. In one hand she held a rose.

“She’s pretty,” Julia had remarked upon receiving it.

Gracias,” her grandmother replied.

“It’s you?” Julia exclaimed. “But this picture’s so old!”

Abuela Rosa simply pointed to the sign on the building in the photograph – Rosa’s Florería – and recounted the story of the obsidian fountain. Over the years, Julia had asked Abuela Rosa to tell the story again and again. Now that her beloved grandmother was no longer here, she leaned back against her pillow and told the story to herself.

~

Abuelo Pablo and Abuela Rosa were born in 1800. They’d met and fallen in love while Pablo was employed as a field hand at Rosa’s father’s hacienda. When they announced their intention to marry, Rosa’s father was mortified. How could his daughter wed a poor peasant? But after speaking with Pablo, he realized that the young man was a decent, hard-working fellow – and besides, there was nothing he could do to stand in their way. Rosa was a headstrong girl who would marry Pablo with or without her parents’ consent.

As a wedding gift, Rosa’s father gave the couple a small section of land on his property, and Pablo built the casita by hand. When they cleared the overgrown vegetation behind the house, they discovered a crumbling stone wall and a fountain, with water flowing up through the ground. The old fountain was mysteriously polished to a high gleam.

Obsidiana,” Abuela Rosa had said, explaining what that meant: volcanic stone, so smooth that the Aztecs used it to make mirrors.

Pablo bent down and squeezed the dirt at the foot of the fountain. “The soil here is rich,” he said. “We should plant a garden.” Soon they had an abundance of flowers. The ones that grew closest to the fountain, where the water splashed out, seemed to live forever. Even when cut and brought inside, they thrived as long as they were given water from the fountain.

“Should we taste the water?” Rosa asked.

“Maybe just a sip,” Pablo answered.

The crystal-clear water was refreshing. In fact, they felt rejuvenated by it, and they decided to continue to partake of it, allowing themselves only one cup per day.

After two years, Pablo built a flower shop next door for his wife. Rosa had always dreamed of owning a florería, and she created a charming jewel, a store whose adobe walls were adorned with colorful artwork, its aisles lush with roses, dahlias, and birds-of-paradise. When she started serving cinnamon cookies at the counter, Rosa’s Florería became the most popular meeting place in the village. 

It was also Rosa’s dream (and Pablo’s, too) to have children, but Rosa had not gotten pregnant, despite trying. Eventually they gave up this wish and devoted themselves to the flower shop, and to their now enormous garden, which they sprinkled with water from the fountain each day.

In 1850, they posed for the photo. By then, most of their friends had a few wrinkles, and some even had gray hair, arthritis, and failing eyesight, but Pablo and Rosa still looked and felt only twenty. Their friends wondered if the couple had made a pact with the devil. When Pablo and Rosa caught wind of these rumors, they realized the fountain’s blessing had become a curse. Still, the temptation to cling to their youth was too strong to relinquish.

Seventy more years passed, during which time Pablo and Rosa had seen friends come and go. They’d attended too many funerals, and they grew to realize they had a problem. What was the advantage of youth, they pondered, if it brought only heartache? They’d been young together. Now they wanted to grow old together, and they knew their love could become even stronger if they let nature take its course. So, in the year 1920, although they continued to use the fountain for the garden, they stopped drinking from it.

Two years later, Rosa gave birth to Placida. The little girl enjoyed a happy childhood, unaware of the fountain’s magic. She married and was expecting a child. However, the marriage was not a happy one. In 1944, just before the baby – Julia – was born, Placida’s husband disappeared. And then, unfortunately, a complication during childbirth took Placida’s life.

Pablo and Rosa’s grief was profound, but they were grateful to have Julia to brighten their remaining days. Abuelo Pablo passed away peacefully in 1960, when Julia was sixteen. On the day he died, he was 160 years old, but no one would have believed it. He didn’t look a day over sixty.

~

Julia had always been touched by this story of true love that had persisted despite obstacles. Rosa and Pablo had followed their hearts. But now, Julia was reminded again of what she didn’t have with Victor. She knew she could never love him; in fact, she despised him.

She'd first spoken with Victor about a year ago, when a pretty girl had dragged him into the flower shop, insisting that he buy her a bouquet of roses. Julia wondered what the girl could possibly see in him. She’d noticed him lurking around town before, and she'd heard that his uncle had taken him in when he was orphaned due to a devastating fire. Some suspected he’d set the fire himself.

He was handsome enough, she thought, but his attitude was anything but charming. He'd spent most of the time admiring his own reflection in the shop windows, when he wasn’t scowling about the price tags or staring at Julia in a most lecherous manner. Plus, whenever he'd walked past her, Julia could swear she smelled smoke.

When the young lady had taken too long admiring the delicate rosebuds in the shop – they were all perfect, not a wilted one among them – he’d grown impatient and rude, insisting they leave at once. On his way out, he’d complained about “highway robbery.” Julia had followed him outside.

“Our flowers are special,” she’d said, feeling a need to defend her grandmother’s store. “We have a secret ingredient.” The words had popped out of her mouth before she could take them back.

Victor stopped in his tracks and turned around, locking eyes with her. Then, dropping his friend’s hand, he spoke sharply. “And just what is your secret ingredient?” he’d demanded. Julia could practically see the dollar signs in his eyes.

“I can’t say,” she said, blushing. But she’d piqued his interest now, and he wasn’t going to forget their exchange. A few days later, while Julia was out running errands, Victor returned to the shop dressed in clean workman’s clothes and asked Abuela Rosa for a job, offering to work for free in exchange for learning about the flower business. Abuela Rosa had fallen for his ruse.

He became Julia’s shadow, watching her every move. Whenever they were alone, he tried to pry the secret out of her. Failing to do so with flattery and cajoling, he threatened to burn down the shop. “It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened,” he smirked, and suddenly Julia could picture him setting fire to his own parents’ home as a child.

Fearing reprisal of the worst kind, she finally gave in and told him the truth about the fountain, thinking it could do no harm. But the new information made him even greedier. Now he required something else: her hand in marriage. That way, he reasoned, the fountain would be firmly under his control. “As it should be,” he stated. “My good looks deserve to last forever, even if you don’t care about your own.”

Panicking, she’d pretended to accept his proposal, telling herself that if she actually had to go through with the marriage, it would be a mere formality. All he wanted was to own the fountain, she thought, and she knew he was capable of anything – even arson – to get it. If Victor kept insisting, she’d do it, she decided. But that was before she’d met Rodolfo.

She’d first seen Rodolfo while she was ringing up a sale. Victor was out back, probably admiring his reflection in the pond. Without Julia’s knowledge, Abuela Rosa had dragged a ladder to the entrance and was attempting to hang new wind chimes above the door. Rodolfo, the new grocer’s son, was across the road carrying a food delivery when he saw the ladder tip, with Abuela Rosa teetering near its top.

“Careful!” he cried, running to the rescue. Julia looked up in time to see him steadying the ladder with one hand. Abuela Rosa managed to hang the chimes and slowly descended, breathing hard. While Rodolfo continued to hold the ladder, Julia took note of his strong arms and pleasant face. Even more wonderful to Julia were his polite manner and the concern he showed when asking Abuela Rosa if she was okay.

Equally impressed by Rodolfo, and needing a dependable worker in the garden (not a lazy one, like Victor), Abuela Rosa invited him inside for a cookie and offered him a job as gardener. He was already busy at his father’s grocery store, but when he saw the beautiful, dark-haired woman at the counter, he said “yes” without a moment’s hesitation.

For Julia, it was love at first sight. For days afterward, she watched him in the garden and admired his calloused hands, broad shoulders, and the way he spoke to the plants while pruning them. She hoped for a chance to be alone with him, but the chance never came. He was always too preoccupied, it seemed, to take notice of her.

Nothing, however, was further from the truth. Rodolfo loved Julia’s soft voice, pretty face (so much like Abuela Rosa’s!) and dark eyes, which often looked sad. Even more, he loved her inner beauty. He wanted to tell her how he felt, but he was shy, and he knew she was spoken for. Weeks went by before he gathered the courage to speak to her, and then it was only to congratulate her on her engagement to Victor.

~

Four days ago, she’d left Victor alone with Abuela Rosa in the shop while she ran out to buy sugar. When she returned, to her shock, Abuela Rosa was being carried into an ambulance. Rodolfo was holding her hand, and Victor was nowhere to be seen. Julia and Rodolfo jumped into the ambulance, and on the way to the hospital Rodolfo explained what happened.

“They think it was a stroke. I’d just come in from the garden. She was watering violets when I saw her fall.”

“Where was Victor?”

“Well, he was chatting with a customer …”

“A pretty woman?”

“I wouldn’t say she was pretty …”

The picture was all too clear to Julia. Victor had been too busy flirting to come to her grandmother’s aid.

At that moment, Abuela Rosa opened her eyes and took Julia’s hand. “Sigue tu corazón,” she’d whispered. By the time they got to the hospital, she was gone.

~

Julia had fallen asleep with the picture on her lap. It was the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes just before dawn. Suddenly, she knew what she must do. She rose, dressed, went to her grandmother’s bedroom, and found the paper she needed: the title to the property. She returned to her room, tossed it into a suitcase, and placed a few clothes on top, along with the photograph of her grandparents. She knew she might not be returning for a while.

Her plan was simple. She’d take a bus to Victor's house in Tepoztlán and present him with an offer: the fountain and small bit of land it sat on, in exchange for their broken engagement. If he refused, she'd seek legal counsel and remain in Tepoztlán until the matter was settled. She wrapped her shawl resolutely around her, carried her suitcase outside, and closed the door behind her.

Hoping the fountain would bring her luck, she decided to stop there before leaving. The gravel path crunched loudly under her feet. Suddenly, a noise behind her startled her. Turning quickly, she tripped over her suitcase and fell. Then, raising her head, she saw Rodolfo, and behind him, Victor. Rodolfo had risen early to water the garden; Victor had come to fill a jug with water when he’d hoped no one would be around. When they’d heard someone on the path, they’d both come to investigate. Now, Victor stood staring at the suitcase with hatred in his eyes, while Rodolfo rushed to Julia’s side.

 “Are you alright?” he asked.

Julia’s heart was pounding. She sat up and pulled Rodolfo closer. “I love you,” she whispered in his ear, “but I must leave for a while. Beware of Victor while I’m gone, and whatever you do, do not drink from the fountain. It’s not a blessing; it’s a curse!” She stood and ran toward the bus stop.

“Where do you think you’re going?!” Victor shouted. “I’ll burn the whole place down!”

“You can have the fountain!” Julia screamed. “I’m signing it over to you today! I don’t want it anymore, and I definitely don’t want YOU!”

Victor let the information sink in. Then, with a sly grin, he sauntered to the fountain, filled his jug with water, and strutted over to the terrace as if he owned the place.

Rodolfo ran after Julia.

“What are you doing?” she cried, just as the bus to Tepoztlán pulled up and opened its door.

“Following my heart,” he replied, taking her hand and guiding her toward the bus. “Just like your grandmother said.”

Julia looked at the sky. The sun was just starting to rise. She turned to Rodolfo. “So am I,” she said, handing him her suitcase and watching with pleasure as he carried it up the bus steps ahead of her. In that moment, she saw her future clearly. She was confident that Victor would be satisfied with owning the fountain, and that she and Rodolfo would soon be returning to open the flower shop again. When they’d settled into their seats, she rested her head on his shoulder and said a silent “gracias” to Abuela Rosa.

~

That evening, as Victor stood beside the obsidian fountain admiring his reflection, a strong gust of wind blew through the yard, causing the fountain to topple over. As it fell, it took Victor down with it, just before shattering into a thousand glittering pieces. One knife-like shard pierced his throat, and his blood, along with every drop of the fountain’s water, slowly disappeared into the earth below.

High in an ancient cedar tree, a pair of cardinals called out to each other. Then they began to build a nest. 

 

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