The Arrival of the Swords
Miguel is the first one to see the arrival of the Swords.
He is coming down the stairs when he happens to glance out the landing window. Three girls have just stepped out of the small van and are standing in his driveway, looking up at his house. Their faces show the same dismay as Miguel feels looking down at them.
He should let his mother know. But Miguel wants to delay this female invasion as long as he possibly can. Out of three kids, couldn't at least one of them be a boy?
In the living room, his mother and Tia Lola are finally resting, their feet up on the coffee table. It has been a whirlwind week of cooking, cleaning, fixing up the rooms where Victor and his three kids will be sleeping. Victor is the lawyer from New York City who helped Tia Lola get permission to stay in the United States. And he didn't even charge her a penny. So letting his family stay in their big, roomy farmhouse for a week's vacation is the least they can do to return the favor.
Mami notices the look on Miguel's face. "Is something wrong? Remember, Miguel, you promised," she adds before Miguel can even answer her question about what might be wrong.
Miguel and his little sister have promised their mother that they will be good hosts. In fact, when Miguel spotted the girls, he had been moving the last of his things to the little attic room beside Tia Lola's room--so that Victor and his kids can all be on the same floor. But one thing Miguel is not giving up is his summer fun--even if it is only for one week. He has been so ready for school to be over. Fifth grade wasn't what Miguel (or his grades) would exactly call a piece of cake. And of all weeks to have visitors come! Their first big game of the season is next Saturday. He and his teammates will really have to practice if they expect to beat the Panton Panthers. Meanwhile, Tia Lola has yet to finish their new uniforms. She has been too busy helping Mami get the house ready for their visitors.
"I know I promised." Miguel lets out a sigh. "I gave up my room, didn't I?"
"Ay, Miguelito querido, you've been such a good sport, my dear Miguelito."
Miguel doesn't like it when his mother gets all mushy: my dear Miguelito this, my dear Miguelito that. Tia Lola has explained that in Spanish you add "-ito," meaning "little," to a name because you love a person a lot. So why call that person "little," especially when you know he does not like being reminded that he is one of the shortest kids in his class?
"Remember, this is the first time those kids have been to Vermont." Mami starts in on all the explanations Miguel has heard before. How when Victor flew up from the city to represent Tia Lola at her immigration hearing in April, he was impressed by the kindness of the people and the beauty of the state. How he's now thinking of relocating to Vermont, so he's bringing his three kids--twelve, eleven, and five--to look around. Miguel was actually looking forward to their visit, until he found out all these kids were the female kind.
Mami comes over to Miguel, takes his face in her hands, and plants a kiss on his forehead. Miguel has to admit that he has not seen his mother this happy since his parents separated a year and a half ago, a separation that turned into a divorce at the beginning of the year. "Miguel Angel Guzman," Mami pronounces his full name, something she does when calling attention to some behavior that needs improvement. But she is smiling fondly at him. "You'll survive. Just remember: some of the best people in this world are girls."
As if on cue, Miguel's little sister comes bounding down the stairs. "They're here! They're here!" She is screaming wildly like the house is on fire. Before Miguel can intercept her, Juanita has lunged past him and flung open the front door. "HI! Guess what? One of you is sleeping in my room, and the other two of you in the guest room, and Victor in Miguel's room, and Miguel is going up to the attic. . . ."
Miguel can't believe that Juanita is giving everyone their sleeping arrangements before they've even walked in the door. But more incredibly, Mami isn't correcting her. Instead his mother brushes past him, down the front steps, greeting everybody. "Can I help you with that, Victoria? You are Victoria, right?" The tallest one nods. "And you must be Esperanza." She hugs the middle one, who's about eye level with Miguel. "And sweet little Caridad." Mami kneels down and tries to give the littlest one a hug. But Caridad must be super-shy, because she runs off toward the back of the van, where her father is struggling with the door. "Hi, everybody," he calls out. "Be right there."
"And Mami said we can have a campfire and cook s'mores . . . and Tia Lola'll tell us the spookiest stories and we can all make pinatas. . . ." Maybe if Juanita keeps chattering madly, the other two girls will follow their little sister's example, race back to the van, take off, end of story.
But they don't run off. In fact, they seem happier than when they first disembarked. Miguel remembers their sullen faces, glancing up at the farmhouse as if it were a reform school or a haunted house.
"Right, Mami?" Juanita is confirming. "We can do all we want?"
"Within reason," Mami says, then adds, "Whatever the girls want," as if realizing that "within reason" sounds too much like a grown-up's way of saying no in company.
Miguel stands in the mudroom, gazing out at the happy scene. He better call Dean and Sam, his best friends, and see about relocating this critical week of baseball practice to some other place besides his back pasture. Otherwise, the team is bound to get distracted. Mami will insist that Miguel include their guests, even if it's only letting them watch the team practice. Girls screaming and clapping and jumping up and down. There goes his pitching arm!
Suddenly, a hand is squeezing his shoulder. "No te preocupes, Miguel." His aunt, Tia Lola, is trying to console him.
He should not worry?! Right! But then, Tia Lola loves everyone, boys and girls, so what would she know about girls getting in the way? "Baseball practice," he mutters. "The game Saturday, our new uniforms, my summer vacation ruined . . ." Miguel sounds delirious. It's as if he's back in Mrs. Prouty's classroom struggling with how to put a sentence together. All year, Miguel's self-confidence has been in the minus numbers, what with all his reading problems, his trying to get used to the idea that his parents are no longer married to each other. But with each passing day of summer vacation, his heart has bounced back, full of happiness and hopefulness and confidence. . . .
"You will have your uniforms, you will win many games, you will have the best summer vacation ever. Tia Lola will make sure." All of this is said in Spanish, which makes Miguel feel doubtful that Tia Lola will be able to work all these wonders in Vermont, where English is the rule.
"But what about the Swords?" he asks. Swords is what Miguel has been calling Victor's kids all week: The Swords are coming, the Swords are coming. It's his little joke, as Victor's last name, Espada, means "sword."
"I will take care of them," Tia Lola promises just as Juanita, three girls, their father, and Mami come tromping up the porch steps and into the house. As if that weren't invasion enough, out of nowhere comes a blur of golden fur, heading straight for Miguel. It jumps up, planting two paws on Miguel's shoulders, and gives him a slobbery lick on the face. Not a convincing start to the best summer vacation ever.
"Valentino!" the tallest one scolds in that pretend-stern voice owners use when their pets are doing something adorably wrong. It doesn't fool Miguel for a minute. "Valentino must really love you," she adds, as if this excuses everything.
Miguel wipes his face with his T-shirt. In part, this helps him hide his disgusted expression, which would earn him a scold from his mami, and not the pretend kind either. Meanwhile, Valentino lies down penitently at Miguel's feet, his wet mouth open, panting his "pardon me's." Miguel has a sudden vision that makes his heart sink: Valentino chasing after the baseball, getting in the way, delaying the team from honing itself into a well-oiled machine in time for next weekend's big game.
"Let me explain," Victor is saying to Mami. "Valentino is not staying."
"What do you mean?" Mami sounds as disappointed as if she were being denied her favorite thing in the world: to have Valentino stay in her house for the rest of her life.
"We're taking him to a local kennel--"
"Oh, Papa, do we have to?" the middle one pleads.
"Essie," Victor says in a tight voice. "Remember our agreement."
The little one, who has been hiding behind her father, is tugging at his pant leg. "What is it, Cari?" But Cari won't speak up, so Victor bends down to hear her secret. Even before he has straightened himself back up, he is shaking his head. "Absolutely not. A deal's a deal, girls. We're giving our hosts enough trouble with four of us--"
"But it's no trouble," Mami interrupts him. "There's plenty of room in this house for all of you and Valentino." She bends down and pulls playfully at Valentino's ears. "Yes, there is. Yes, oh yes," she coos. Talk about mushy. And Valentino is eating it up, wagging his tail, nodding his shaggy head. But all the while, Miguel notices, the dog avoids eye contact with his master, as even a pet must know a deal is a deal.
Victor is like a dog himself, with a bone. "Our intention was never to bring Valentino along. Sorry, pal, but it's the truth," Victor apologizes. "We were literally walking out the door when our sitter called. A family emergency. She was flying out that very morning."
"Her mother died in Florida," the middle one offers. "That's where we were going to go, too." A look from her father stops her. She bows her head but keeps muttering under her breath, "Well, we were. Instead we had to come to the middle of nowhere." With her foot, she starts stroking Valentino in a pouty, almost-poking way. The dog doesn't look in the least bit offended. A stroke is a stroke is a stroke when you're a pet, Miguel supposes.
Her middle sister's misbehavior must make little Cari braver, because she speaks up. "Our mother died, too, but in New York. That was a long time ago," she adds because the silence seems to be growing deeper, more awkward. "Right, Papa?"
Victor runs his hands through his hair. It is thick and black, with silvery strands of gray. He seems at a loss for what to say. Miguel starts to feel sorry for the poor guy. After all, except for Miguel himself, Victor is the only other male in the room--well, Valentino might qualify. Obviously, Victor has his hands full with three strong girls. No wonder he wants to move to Vermont. Probably if they stay in the city, that middle one will end up joining a gang like the one that roughed up Miguel during his visit to Brooklyn to see his father last winter break. "We were already late taking off," Victor continues with his explanation, "so we had a discussion and all agreed"--he looks at each of his daughters pointedly, reminding them--"that rather than try to hunt down a kennel in the city, we'd find one up here in Vermont."
"That way, Valentino can get some fresh air," Victoria adds.
"And exercise," Cari chimes in.
Both are the kind of argument no parent would refute. Miguel can't help being impressed. But then, with a lawyer for a father, these girls have probably learned how to be good arguers.
"We can't accept Valentino staying here," Victor says with finality, as if he were delivering his closing argument in court.
"No, we can't," Victoria echoes her father, who is flashing an SOS look her way. She is the oldest, and like Miguel, she probably has to set a good example. But Miguel can tell that Victoria would accept Mami's offer in a heartbeat.
"I just don't see why you'd put him in a kennel when we have plenty of room here," Mami points out. "We've got a big yard and a huge pasture out back."
Miguel can't believe Mami is offering his team's practice field to a dog who'd race around pooping everywhere. He's about to protest, but as if reading his mind, Tia Lola steps forward. "Valentino will stay with me as my personal guest."
Valentino barks his acceptance. Tia Lola claps her hands. As far as they are both concerned, the matter is settled. But Victor keeps shaking his head like one of those little dashboard dogs with a spring in its neck.
"Vamos a conocernos." Tia Lola changes the subject. She wants to meet everyone.
"I'm Victoria," the oldest says. She is taller than Miguel by several inches. Her long black hair is pinned back with two butterfly barrettes. If Miguel had to write a description of her for English, he'd describe her as pretty. She's not like a model or anything, but her big eyes are shiny and pretty, and her skin is a very pretty soft brown, and her smile lights up her face in a pretty way. Of course, if Miguel wrote all this down, Mrs. Prouty--whom he never has to have as a teacher again, hooray!--would circle the word "pretty" and write in the margins, "Repetitive. Can you think of another adjective, Miguel?"
"I'm Caridad, but everyone calls me Cari," the little one says. She has grown braver and perkier. But then, Tia Lola puts everyone at ease.
"Last but not least . . . tah-rum." The middle one sweeps out one hand. She would have to be the drama queen in the family, the one Miguel will have to attend to, since they're the same age, eleven. "I am the one and only Esperanza!" She takes a goofy bow.
"Victoria, Esperanza, and Caridad, ¡un placer conocerlas!" Tia Lola beams at the three girls, who must understand Spanish, because they all say back, "A pleasure to meet you, too."
After hugging each girl, Tia Lola announces: "Welcome to Tia Lola's summer camp!"
Summer camp? Miguel doesn't know what on earth his aunt is talking about! And by the looks on their faces, Mami and Juanita don't either. But they do seem delighted to hear that Tia Lola is taking charge.
Copyright © 2011 by Julia Alvarez. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.