I made my way among the crowd, feeling the eyes of the villagers on my black cloak, and reached Mercedes.
“Are you all right?”
She ignored my concerned look, keeping her face cupped in her valid hand and peering in the distance until my shadow obscured the brown seems of her dress. Her lips were swollen on one side, and a black bruise ran down under her right eye. I heard myself apologising in front of her vacant stare, and I knew right then that I was only twisting the knife. Still something pushed me on. There was nothing to be done against the desert. The worm and other beasts would have destroyed them anyway. Her daughter had stepped between me and her, and the glares that surrounded us were becoming unbearable. But before I could retreat, something flared up in her eyes. She placed her hand on her daughter’s shoulder.
The girl flinched when she heard the tone of her voice, and slipped out of sight in an instant. I found myself suddenly confronted with a woman whose resemblance to the Mercedes I had met was little more than physical. Her posture and her face had acquired a sort of feral intensity. She spoke between her clenched teeth in a low hissing voice.
“So what? What is left for us?”
I did not move. Somehow, despite the violence of her tone, I felt that the words she spoke were more intimate than anything she had told me before.
“You take our hope away. Every time we build something, you come to destroy it. What is left then?”
Her throat contracted, and her voice died down to a whisper.
“What is left but to die?”
I stammered. Somehow I fumbled for something to answer, though I knew perfectly how weak and meaningless it would be. Then another voice rose behind me, declaring in a matter-of-fact tone:
“Don’t blame us for your mistakes. That hope was fake, and you knew it.”
Mercedes winced. Salvacion stood there, glancing round at the bystanders, indifferent to their reaction.
“You wished away the problems you should have faced, and you fell for a cheap trick. That’s not tragic, just pathetic and dull.”
She stepped up to Mercedes, who seemed ready to jump at her throat, and looked directly into her wild eyes.
“This is the way it works down here. Only children look at magic and think that it’s free just because you don’t see the strings attached. Everything has its price. And eventually, someone has to pay.”
By that time, tears were rolling down Mercedes’s eyes. She remained frozen, her face disappearing under the shadow of Salvacion’s cloak in the blaze of the afternoon sun. Raising her eyes to the sky, Salvacion broke into a little bitter laugh.
“When will you all finally stop wanting miracles?”
A moment elapsed. Then she glanced at me and walked back to the temple, while the acolytes led the people out of the city, into the desert. I gave one last look towards Mercedes, but I could find nothing to say.