The Mexican-American war begins and the U.S. conquers its first foreign capital: Santa Fe. Three sisters on the brink of life and love contend with the avarice of the occupiers and the superstitions of their own people. The Sandoval sisters did exactly what they wanted while living on a rough frontier. When Alma flees with her young lover to Texas to escape an arranged marriage to a much older man, the sisters are forced apart and their legacy is endangered. Pilar, her 14-year-old tomboy sister, is offered as a replacement bride. Racism, war, former lovers, and black magic cloud their marriages. Oratoria, the eldest, studies the ancient Sandoval diaries for the key to their destinies. Each sister tells her own story of love and loss — a husband, a friend, a lover, a child — until the secrets of the old blood can guide them back together.
Estevan had no time for Alma and Pilar and left them completely in my hands. I taught them to read the Sandoval diaries and to keep their own. The latter you have before you; what we wrote during the innocent time before the war years, and an accounting of what happened when we lost love and land. We wrote as we lived through the events, and we wrote what we remembered later. Which are the more true, the memories then or those simmered over time?
The diaries afforded an extensive education all on their own, one that included many generations and the experiences of both men and women, but my sisters and I also studied history and languages, including English. We were the Sandoval sisters to the world, even though I first entered their compound a barefoot slave.
Estevan had traded for me—a bag of flour for a ragged peasant girl of five—after I had been captured by Apaches in Mexico. He brought me to this high mountain desert, to Santa Fé, the City of Holy Faith, as a wedding present for his bride. I became doña Teresa’s favorite, who was sixteen and far from her family in Mexico City.
She taught me to read and to cook, and christened me Oratoria because of my skill with languages. When I came to her, I spoke only the native language of my village, but the Sandovals spoke the cultured Spanish of their Castilian ancestors. Because of their overland trading expeditions, they also had a command of English, and a smattering of French, as well.
I rode to Santa Fé in the back of a wagon loaded with reeking buffalo skins. It was the last wagon in a caravan of six. It rumbled along and I stared out at where I’d been: lost in a savage wilderness. A whirlwind of dust kicked up by the wagons made me cough and my eyes water. They watered more at night when I felt the most alone.
One man cooked for all the others. He shoved a plate of food at me every morning and night, but he and all the other men ignored me. Estevan commanded them, and I feared him. I didn’t know what lay ahead and began to forget the life I’d left behind.
Another day wore on and I continued my vigil in the back of the dead buffalo wagon, but shouts and whistles from the men signaled something new. Crawling over the skins, I peeked out the front. The land was flat, but in front of us a huge wall blocked our way. A double gate swung open, and men and women appeared. Women! I pressed my face into the bison fur beneath me, afraid I’d imagined them. Looked again. The women were laughing.
A large house lay behind the gate, and Estevan entered it. The other men remained outside the compound unloading the wagons. One of the women led me to a trough from where the horses drank and motioned me to get into it. I sat in the water and stared at all the comings and goings of the people in the compound. After the woman scrubbed me and gave me a change of clothes, I entered the Sandoval hacienda. Estevan frowned down at me, but a small woman, a girl really, laughed and stepped around him. She knelt in front of me and squeezed my shoulders.
“She’s mine,” Teresa said.
She took my hand, and wonder replaced fear as Teresa led me around my new home. There were many rooms and unfamiliar objects, but Teresa taught me what she knew. She was lonely, patient, and talkative. I learned her language fast, and thus began my immersion in the Sandoval mysteries.
“My father was eager for me to marry a rich man, even if his family was disreputable,” she told me. Rich in land granted to them by royal decree centuries ago, the Sandoval luck remained strong and they had increased their holdings in the usual way: through marriage, gambling, theft, murder, and prayer.
“I don’t understand why they choose to live on the undesirable side of Santa Fé,” Teresa said. Many months had passed since I’d joined the household, and we often sat together in the library. She looked up from the Sandoval diary she’d been reading, a leather-covered tome, its pages scribbled in fading ink. “We could build to the north, around the plaza, where the other ricos live.” She returned to the book. “It’s their own contrary decision to live here. Our old Spanish blood makes us stubborn . . . and different. It says so right here.”
Of course, I didn’t understand about the blood when I first came to live there.
“Old blood marries old blood,” doña Teresa said.
She was a cousin, also a Sandoval, although from a poorer branch of the family, and her children with Estevan would bear the rare Sandoval y Sandoval surname. Some celebrated the joint mastery of the name, while others feared the awakening of dark powers for which the Sandovals had always been suspect. Not only had they acquired wealth in a desert frontier, they had survived Indians and epidemics while others perished.
They could read, too, and their home was sumptuous with white marble pier tables, Brussels carpets and wood floors. This, while many New Mexicans lived in one-room adobe hovels alongside their goats. To make matters worse, they were handsome people. All good reasons to fear and respect them.
“My mother told me to ignore the gossip and concentrate on being a dutiful wife,” doña Teresa told me.
This meant cooking, managing the household of servants and never criticizing her husband, her adored one, who left her alone while he caroused in town. Oh, to be sure, Estevan made love to his wife, loudly and often. All the rooms opened onto a large central patio, so the entire household heard him. But not a peep escaped from Teresa, who conceived and miscarried one baby after another. And then, even the pregnancies stopped.
It would be ten years before she was able to bring a child to term, and in the interim I became her pupil, her plaything, and her daughter.
Many of the books in their library were written in Latin, and Teresa arranged for the priest who had baptized all the servants of the household to tutor me. Like all the others, bought and paid for, the baptismal record listed only my first name. Had they asked for a last name, I could not have given one. I no longer held a memory of my former life. To their credit, Estevan and his father did not begrudge the childless Teresa’s affection for me, and if anyone else thought it unusual, they said nothing . . . to the Sandovals.
Over time I became the sole expert on those forgotten tomes. Since I’d also shown a talent for cooking, Teresa had a desk made for me and moved to a corner of the kitchen. It set next to the patio doors so the light was good all day. I could cook and read and stare out at the birds.
“This is yours, Oratoria,” she said, waving her arm toward her gift. It was smaller than Estevan’s unused desk in the library, but not so tiny that I’ve outgrown it. Delicate floral carvings, painted turquoise and red, graced the locking doors underneath the tabletop. A shelf above the desk held a few of the diaries. She handed me two keys. One was large and unlocked the doors, but the second key, tiny and delicate, was for a secret compartment concealed behind the shelves below.
“My mother said a woman must have a secret treasure,” Teresa said.
She encouraged me to read the ancient diaries of the Sandoval heiresses, said to contain delectable recipes guaranteed to whet a husband’s appetite and keep him at home. The recipes were there, but so were their fears and ecstasies, their seductions and adulterous affairs. The diaries were cookbooks of love.
I transcribed the recipes and Teresa made her choices. The savory aromas and tasty dishes I cooked assured don Estevan’s presence at supper, but he usually left for town when he’d finished, and did not return until the morning. Sometimes he remained away for days. Teresa turned to prayer. She filled the niches in the hacienda with santos and set up altars in every room.
Making our household rounds required a stop before each martyr. I followed her, kneeling and making the sign-of-the-cross when she did. I mumbled fervent prayers for God to make my benefactress fruitful. Teresa drank teas made from foul-tasting herbs guaranteed to make her womb fecund. She sought the advice of a bruja, a witch, who instructed her to smear honey and lard on her nethermost region and mount her husband from above. I held Teresa’s hand while the witch spoke and felt her pulse quicken.
“I read about doing that in the diaries. It sounded foolish,” Teresa said. “I’ll ask Estevan’s permission, of course.”
The bruja drew her lips back and showed her teeth—not a smile, more the kind of mirthless leer I’d seen on Estevan’s face when he’d been drinking. This witch was not what I’d expected. She was young and plump, not the toothless, desiccated old woman children were told to avoid.
“Yes, ask Estevan,” the bruja said, speaking as if she were talking to a child. She held out her hand to receive the coin Teresa had promised.
The prayers continued, as did the teas, and honey and lard were hidden beneath her mattress, but there was no sign of a pregnancy. One day, Teresa led me to the library.
“How do I keep him home all night, Oratoria?” She glanced at my bare feet, but ignored my transgression for the moment. “The Sandovals know about such things. The recipes for charms are here, but we must be careful. Not all of them are for love. That is why la gente fear us.” She pulled two books out at random, handing me the thickest. “Ah! Providencia Sandoval. She had three husbands. She must have been beautiful, or a talented cook . . . or a knowledgeable lover.” Teresa raised innocent eyes to mine. “She may reveal something, or nothing. One never knows with the Sandovals.” She opened the book in her hands. “I’ll read this one. Epiphenia Sandoval was known to be pious. Almost a saint.”
She left me in the library, thumbing slowly through the diary of a murderess. If Teresa had read Providencia’s recipes for poisoned pie, instead of Epiphenia’s directions on proper self-flagellation, who knows how the Sandoval history might have changed? The charms and formulas devised by lusty and daring wives were beyond my ken. They awaited the true hand of a blood Sandoval.
The secrets of their line were revealed in those journals, entire lifetimes recorded. A community of blood, the curtain drawn aside, allowed my voyeuristic peek. Human dreams had been written in archaic Spanish, and terrible sins described in faded brown ink on whisper-thin paper. The entire spectrum of love was examined: practical jokes and puns, recipes for desperate wives and artistic poisoners, centuries of words put down for those who followed.
“What does Providencia advise?” Teresa asked one day when I was reading.
My head snapped up and I stared at her, confused, pulled out of the intrigues and conquests of that formidable Sandoval. “You must keep his seed,” I said. The lie sprang to my lips easily, though Providencia’s advice had concerned pleasure only. “When he spills, hold him tight within you. Clench your womb.”
Teresa’s face brightened, and she nodded. “Yes,” she said, no doubt already planning to ask Estevan’s permission. “Yes, this makes sense. Thank you, my lovely, for wading through her diary. It is by far the weightiest.” She kissed the top of my head, and turned to leave, but not before she kneeled and signed before the altar. I continued reading.
The Sandoval blood was not mine, but I felt their stories had been written for me, my fate intertwined with theirs. The ancestral voices rang true in my ear. Their ecstasies and petty misfortunes became my catechism; they were now my family. Perhaps my improvised advice worked, for Teresa became, and remained, pregnant. In her joy, she took me to the priest and had me baptized again. This time she added Sandoval to my name on the Church rolls, a precious gift, usually earned only after years of dedicated service.
My fervor renewed, I studied the diaries and wrote what I learned in my own journal. I cooked for the family, and was a loving daughter. Then, a true daughter of the blood was born in 1827. I watched Alma come into the world. I was also there, three years later, at the delivery of Teresa’s second daughter, Pilar.
“Take care of your sisters,” Teresa said, as she lay dying from birth fever. “And try to wear shoes.”
And just like that, I became Oratoria Sandoval, the elder sister.
Before Teresa was in the ground, the whole town arrived to pay their respects. Instead, they witnessed a drunken Estevan destroy the altars his wife had set up. He tossed the wooden saints and rosaries into a bonfire he’d started in the yard.
“All that praying and what does she leave me? Daughters!” He spat on the ground.
Estevan’s drinking friends laughed, and said, “The Sandovals have no fear of God.”
Their laughter gurgled to a choking stop, as if their throats had sobered up before their minds. They crossed themselves and hurried away, followed by the other townspeople, who cringed at their close brush with such satanic activity. A few uttered prayers for us, the motherless Sandoval sisters, shaking their heads, sure that we were doomed to perdition.
My sisters became my life. I read the diaries for guidance and learned that in every other generation of Sandovals, the burden of old blood, thick with family secrets, flowed into one person’s soul. The truth of the blood made itself slowly known, and that individual’s destiny was cast. Past recipients of the Sandoval secrets had become wily political raconteurs, owners of vast land grants, goatherds, or insipid priests. Tradition held that the blood flowed solely to the Sandoval males, but it was suspected that an occasional dotty old aunt hoarded secrets.
Estevan Sandoval thought he was the chosen one. He was lucky at cards, and always bet on the fastest horse in a race. But he was an ordinary man who’d had a few good hunches. It was his daughter, Alma, who inherited the telling blood. At fourteen it thickened in her veins, and saturated her senses with its heat. Ancient memories unraveled and revealed themselves to her. I had only to lean close to Alma to hear:
“Hidalgo Sandoval, sadist and hypocrite, in the year of our Lord, 1484, puts to the rack seven Jews and confiscates their property,” she might begin. “He disembowels a crone who practices midwifery, and takes her virginal daughter by force. He keeps her as a mistress and loves her deeply, though she continues her mother’s line of healing arts. Providencia Sandoval, murderess and cook, 1563, poisons three husbands with ground castor beans. A recipe book written by her is treasured by generations of Sandoval women. Jesús Sandoval, swindler and incidental murderer, 1735, salts a mine in the Manzano Mountains with gold, and sells it to his cousin. The cousin later kills his family and himself when he discovers that he has squandered his fortune on an empty hole in the ground.”
It would go on, a continuous reel, like the player piano in the parlor. When she reached the end, she would begin again. With each recitation a new secret would be added to the never-ending list of Sandoval sins and misjudgments. Her lips moved incessantly, as if in prayer, and the people of Santa Fé, la gente, thought she recited novenas for the repose of her mother’s soul.
The caballeros sang Alma’s praise: “What a prize your daughter is, Estevan, so beautiful and pure.” She was the most obedient of daughters, and read the Sandoval diaries as if they were parables, unlike Pilar, who laughed at the ancestral stories. She called the diaries lies, and made jokes, and ran wild, doing as she pleased, even secretly riding her father’s stallion bareback. But she wrote in her diary like all the Sandovals who came before her. Pilar was a handful, but her father ignored her completely, focusing his attention on Alma, the daughter of marriageable age.
Sandra Ramos O’Briant grew up in Santa Fe, and spent her summers in Texas. She pursued a career in business before her transition to author. Her work has appeared in Café Irreal, Flashquake, riverbabble, In Posse, LiteraryMama, Whistling Shade, La Herencia, latinola.com, Label Me Latina/o and The Copperfield Review. In addition, her short stories have been anthologized in Best Lesbian Love Stories of 2004, What Wildness is This: Women Write About the Southwest (University of Texas Press, Spring 2007), Latinos in Lotus Land: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature, (Bilingual Press, 2008), Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery (Arte Publico (2009), and The Mom Egg (Half Shell Press, 2010).
http://www.thesandovalsisters.com has a complete listing of published works and more info on The Sandoval Sisters.
Links: http://thedarkphantom.wordpress.com/2012/10/07/interview-with-sandra-ramos-obriant-author-of-the-sandoval-sisters-secret-of-old-blood/ for a pic of the book cover and a pic of me + an interview you may find helpful.
Praise: “An outstanding family saga.” Historical Novel Review and History and Women
. . . Ramos O’Briant successfully blends the components which mark Latin American novels: passion, love lost, adventure, romance, erotica and sacrifice. Pa’Lante Latino
. . . [The] three extraordinary Sandoval sisters . . . are both fascinating and disturbing.” Claire Carmichael, author of Leaving Simplicity, and twenty other novels.
“This story of love, mysticism and betrayal tests the ultimate boundaries of sisterhood. I loved this brave, lushly written tale of life in old Santa Fe.” Jill Smolinski, author of Objects of My Affection and The Next Thing on My List.