It was just past sundown when Doña Dolores reached her home. The sky, pink and orange like an overripe peach, had started rotting into darker colors and the evening still felt warm. The insects in the woods began their nightly concert, playing so loud it seemed that all the sound atop her hill could be drowned out by their drone. Beside the entrance to her hut, the woman’s aging mutt lay with her muzzle on the cool ground, napping in the heat. When she heard Dolores approaching, she lifted her eyes and let out a low bark without moving from her spot.
The old woman bent down, slow so she could bear the pain in her joints, and scratched behind the dog’s ear. Her light-brown fur was thin and patchy, her skin was full of rashes, and she was covered in dirt and encrusted cow manure. Dolores didn’t mind.
“Candela,” she said, “I’ve brought food.”
The dog let out a grunt and sighed.
Dolores smiled and walked into her house. She took the bags of grain, coffee, rice, and beans out of her satchel and placed them in the wooden pantry in her kitchen. Then she shuffled to her cabinet, pulled out a nice china dish—an old wedding present—and served herself rice and beans from pots she had left cooking on her stove. She sat down at her table and began eating. Dolores’s dinner table was a square, hardwood table her husband had built long ago along with four matching chairs. The four chairs still stood around the table, but Dolores only ever used the same one she used to sit in when her family was still alive. She cherished this moment each week—eating on a peaceful Sunday evening, far away from the villagers of Santa Cruz, kept company by her dog and the sweet memories of a simpler time, of a life well-lived.
When she was half-done with her meal, Dolores stood and took her plate and walked out to where Candela rested. She placed the plate down on the ground. The dog looked up at her.
“Eat now,” she told her.
The dog got up on shaky legs and began eating her fill. By then the night had turned dark and Dolores decided it was time to sleep. She left her companion to her meal, changed into a sleeping gown, braided her wispy silver hair, and slipped under her blanket. As she lay facedown with her head on the cool pillow, she listened to the insects and the chickens clucking softly in their coop. She listened to the breeze blow through the thick, protecting woods. She listened with her eyes closed, until her mind started to drift away from that hill, away from the valley and the townsfolk of Santa Cruz, and off to a nicer place, off to the borders of a dream…
The dog was barking. Dolores opened her eyes. It was a different bark—a savage sound. Someone was there. The old woman listened—she could make out footsteps approaching her house. Candela snarled and Dolores’s heart raced. She sat up in the pitch-black room. Outside she heard a man’s voice.
“Get—get off me!”
A thud sounded against the wall and Candela whimpered.
Dolores got up from her bed and rushed to stretch the blanket back out. Candela kept on barking outside at the intruders. The woman tried her best to make the bed look unused. Her hands shook, her chest was heaving—
Then a gunshot echoed through the house. The dog’s barking ceased. Two men outside started laughing.
Tears began to fog whatever forms the old woman could make out in the dark. She stumbled over to her closet, hands stretched out to try and guide herself, and opened the doors.
In the kitchen, cabinet doors flew open and her china dishes shattered on the ground.
She grabbed a blanket, tossed it over herself, and dropped down to the ground inside the closet. Her joints cracked. She winced. Footsteps coming for her sounded in the house. She pulled the closet door closed.
“Is she here?”
“She has to be.”
Tears ran down Dolores’s cheeks. She tried to keep her breathing steady, tried to hide her presence.
“Maybe she’s not here. Doesn’t look like she’s been here.”
“Better, then. Check those drawers, I’ll check these.”
The hag sat shaking in her closet as the two men wrecked her room. She could hear drawers crashing on the wooden floor. All the things she’d saved—mementos from her bygone family—scattered.
“Just a chain—and a piece of candy. They’re mine.”
“And who’s this woman, anyway?”
“Nobody. An old woman who likes to bother townsfolk.”
“And you thought she had anything.”
“I thought she had gold.”
“She doesn’t have anything.”
A silence followed. The men kept rummaging.
“And if she’s hiding?”
“Then kill her.”
Dolores felt her stomach sink.
“Christ—actually kill her?”
“She’s disgusting. She scares the children.” The man paced on broken glass. “Nobody would care, anyways. At best she might have a golden tooth—”
One of the men walked up to the closet. Dolores held her breath. Her bones ached. Her face was wet with tears and sweat—she wanted to cry, but she fought to swallow her voice, to suppress all sound.
“We haven’t checked in here.”
The closet doors slammed open. Dolores clasped her hands over her mouth and sat dead still. Her heart felt like it might escape her chest. Any moment, she thought. Any moment and she’d be gone, and it’d be real black, and the last thing she’d hear would be a gunshot.
The man tossed her dresses and some blankets, and turned around.
The other man sighed. “Forget it. Let’s go. This place is disgusting.”
The two men left Dolores’s home. The old woman, shocked, kept her silence well after she stopped hearing their footsteps. Then, after a long wait, she started wailing.