Los Angeles, CA, Summer 1854
The smiling, desperate-eyed husband and his glowering, corseted wife, newly
arrived in the Pueblo, bore bags of cattle feed from their relatives, the seed and feed
merchants, as an introductory gift to their hostess; stalemated in the worst fight of their
twenty years of marriage, as his last desperate maneuver to change her mind before she
left him, Joseph Newmark had bought his Rosa to see a garden.
The hostess, Doña Maria Encarnación Ávila, knowing nothing of her unexpected
guests, welcomed them as the gracious queen of loving pleasure might cosset most
treasured friends in her home. She showed it off with pride, knowing it was said to be one
of the finest in the Pueblo, a wide L-shaped building made of mud-brick walls and hard-
packed dirt floors. Doña Encarnación told her guests, “My first husband, Francisco Ávila
built this house, during his first marriage. He had things imported from all over the world,
from Boston, New York, Europe and China. Good times for cattle ranching; hides and
tallow buy more here than American dollars.” She pointed out special treasures, noted the
provenance of crafted Italian and German furniture, and insisted that Mrs. Newmark
smooth her fingers over the fine Chinese silk on the French bedroom set.
Rosa Newmark, long-time resident of New York City, from a comfortable
London childhood before that, saw only the hard-packed dirt floor underneath so much
laughably misplaced finery. This was a high standard of luxury in this godawful place,
they’d been told. For this, she’d given up her comfortable home back on Wooster Street.
Joseph had outwitted her again. Anger held her stiffer than her corset, and she could not
take her husband’s arm, even for show.
A river of sweat boiled in the layers of corset and petticoats under the sturdy
traveling dress. Her clothes were as unsuited to the weather’s dry-heat assault as she was
to this place her husband had dragged her to. Joseph had written that California had the
golden stamp of the Divine working all through it, that her gardener’s heart would be
delighted with what she found there. The lying meshugeneh fool.
For two days, she had looked around her, incredulous that she was expected to
build a new home here, in the place reputed to be the most lawless in all of the USA.
Where outlaws, gamblers, and desperadoes of all descriptions took refuge between
devilments, when they’d been driven out of everywhere else, a settlement most
inappropriately named in another language for the messengers of Heaven: Los Angeles.
The wide dirt streets interrupted at random intervals by a few mud-brick buildings
were not even a town yet, dirty and rough. The crime rate worked out to one murder a
day. Drunkenness and gambling were public and prevalent. There weren’t even carriages
in the pueblo, except for mass travel; you rode a horse, or rode in a wide rough wood cart
pulled by oxen, or you walked. The worst roads she had ever known. The day before on
the way to the pueblo, chains and boards had had to be attached to the stage coach, to
slow a headlong flight down a long slope; she’d thought for sure they’d all be killed.
The gaping, smelly ruffians outside the so-called Bella Union, the low two-story
box that served as hotel. The window’s view of dirty criminals and drunks hanging about
in the empty baking street. The primitive conditions, the things she’d endured traveling
here, the empty desert he’d stranded them in, all these were nothing to Joseph. This
“fine” house had only convinced her that Joseph was indeed too crazy to put up with any
Then, they turned through a wide doorway to an inner courtyard, a wide, ragged
rectangle of dirt, surrounded by little verandah porch roofs off the walls of mud-brick. A
tangle of plants in the middle – including two citrus trees, a lemon and a lime, both heavy
with fruit, yellow and yellowing green. Sprawling things and flowers of many colors.
Roses white, yellow, and pink, intertwined with the purple flaming bouganvillea. Tall
leans of cactus ran up along one of the porch pedestals, and climbed along the roof, the
twiggy cactus spines sprouting wide hairy bloating buds, looking almost ready to burst
open. Rosa caught her breath. She recognized the cactus species. Her botanist father,
years ago when she was a child, had taken her with great pride to the Royal Gardens at
Hampton Court, to see one of these much-written about plants perform its once-a-year
wonder, by blossoming. Cereus, Queen of the Night.
“You have come at just the right time, if you want to see one of God’s garden
miracles.” Dona Encarnación pointed to the severe cactus with fat buds swelling. “It
blooms only one night a year. Would you like to join me here for it? It would be so kind
of you; I have no one to share it with.” She said nothing of her servants. “My husband is
back at the rancho, looking after the cattle. My cattle, actually, but he does all the
managing. Meanwhile, who’s looking after me? You’re so fortunate to have your
husband so anxious for your pleasure.” When this light compliment failed, douring Mrs.
Newmark’s new glow from the sight of the cereus, Dona Encarnación smiled a winning
smile, lightly placed a plump, warm hand on Rosa’s sleeve. “Tonight will be the biggest
night for blooming. The ones down the hill were last night, and those by the grape vines
will probably be later this week, but these by the house. Tonight!” she coaxed.
Joseph left; Rosa stayed. It was an excuse to be away from him for a few hours,
sitting and waiting for twilight when the blossoms would open, and a few hours watch
through the start of the night to appreciate the rare blooms.
Now, without her husband, Rosa found it to be blessedly less broiling in the shade
of the rough porch. Shade. So simple. Air moved just a bit slower, less frantic constant
pelting of the broiling air against skin. The few feet of flat roof out from the adobe wall
over the dirt patio floor made the only cool-shaded place in the roasting world.
They sat facing the courtyard garden, and small slope of vineyard behind it. They
sipped water flavored with slices of lemon, ladled from a terra cotta water vase, an olla
that hung suspended from the porch roof. A table held a plate of fresh made tortillas
cooling between them.
Her hostess had asked about where they’d be living. Hearing it was the building
next to the blacksmith’s shop, she nodded knowingly. “They used to smoke pigs there.”
Mrs. Newmark’s eyes squeezed tight for a moment. This her husband wanted
scrubbed kosher clean so they could sell their groceries and kosher meats there? How was
the holy Reb explaining that one to the children, as they scrubbed the walls of their new
home together in her absence?
“What an amazing journey you’ve had!” Doña Encarnación said. “I must say I
envy you that. I’ve never been outside of Alta California, myself. By ship from New
York! How long did that take?”
“Four months.” Two months of it seasick herself. To follow Joseph’s latest
dream, to rally Jews to the traditional worship, bringing God’s blessed laws and ways, to
the farthest frontiers, she’d brought their six children by ship down the East coast of the
Americas, rounding Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America (Chile), sailing up
the West Coast to San Francisco.
“But how marvelous! You have shown your children already the world. What a
gift you’ve given them, being willing to travel, seeing something of the world. Es verdad.
That’s means, it’s the truth!”
Rosa unbent a little. Her own early travels had given her a sense of the world,
and she’d wanted that for her children. “We’ve lived mostly in New York City, but we
lived in St. Louis, Missouri for several years; my husband’s children from his first
marriage are both settled there now, with families of their own.” Rosa’d thought St. Louis
had been rough, and knew that Matilda too remembered the dark winter night in that
freezing log cabin where little Caroline had been born, no other women to attend Rosa,
just brave little Matilda and Rosa’s useless, well-meaning husband. She’d meant for her
children never to have to endure such primitive conditions again. Joseph had outwitted
All her sacrifices had been in vain. Giving up home, months of seasickness, loss
of Matilda’s marriage prospects, little Harriet’s first steps being taken on a ship, all of it.
The horrors of the last 48 hours especially. Pointless.
Doña Encarnación, guessing at her guest’s trouble, knowing they had hours still to
go in their cactus bloom watch, picked her way delicately through the conversation. “My
first husband was very social, hospitable,” Doña Encarnación had said, “always the open
arms for others. We’ve hosted many here. I was born a Sepulveda. We have been here
since the beginning of the Pueblo, more than seventy years.” She glowed; clearly it was a
glorious thing to be a Sepulveda. She rambled gently to her silent, seething guest, talking
over the business of being step-mother and mother, rancher and business-lady. “I was just
fourteen when my husband came courting. He needed someone to look after his children.
My father was certain, and I had little say. We made it work though, very successfully.
Was yours an arranged marriage?”
“No.” Rosa said. “I was twenty-seven and chose to marry, decided for myself. I
suppose one can never know what you’re walking into, you can never guess what will
really come to be your life, but I thought I did. We’ve been very fortunate.” Choosing for
herself, having had a life as a person before being someone’s wife, that was a treasure
that this kind lady had never had.
Unwillingly, Rosa twisted her wedding ring. Her hostess must have had much to
put up with from her first marriage of unequals, a girl and a grown man. Joseph drove
Rosa crazy sometimes, had betrayed her too far this time, but prior to the last 48 hours
during which she wouldn’t let him touch her, the physical respect between them, the
shared generosity to bring each other joy, had been part of their partnership’s success for
all of their years. His devotion to the sacred law regarding husbands’ duties to wives
made him a kind and passionate lover, with a robust attention to satisfying her desires,
especially as a ritual part of the Sabbath.
Not so for her hostess, that first time around.
As the day lengthened and Rosa adjusted and maybe it cooled just a tetch, and she
drank glass after glass of lemon-flavored water, cool cool water, she unbent further,
found herself telling her stories to her hostess.
They admired the strengths of each other’s clothes. Doña Encarnación’s nearly
sleeveless, elegant cotton dress respectably did credit to her body. She wore no corset,
and not a single petticoat. Only unseen underthings. Elegant sandals protected her feet
but left her brightly colored toenails open to the air.
When Doña Encarnación remarked on the beauty of her coiffure, Rosa told the
story of the wife wig, made of her own hair in her bridal days, worn to tell the world she
was a married woman, in the orthodox tradition. Her unbound hair (which was in fact
beautifully attractive, and had helped draw her husband’s eye in her direction, twenty
years ago) was for her husband alone. Her hostess asked questions and fanned her face
with a painted fan, apparently fascinated at a new view of relations between the sexes.
Doña Encarnación complimented the handsomeness of Rosa’s stained, matronly
travelling dress, overlooking sweat-stained, too-heavy material, undergarment layers of
corset, petticoats and skirts to the ankles, a heavy burden intended for a different weather,
a different woman. “And the so many petticoats,” she said, “so lovely.”
Rosa gestured to her hostess’s skirt and asked, “The styles are different here; you
Doña Encarnación pursed her lips up and wrinkled her nose for a moment. “For
parties, sí. But a day at home? In summer?” She shook her head and smiled. “Unless
we’ve been travelling.”
“As I am.”
“Ah, but Señora Newmark, you are done travelling. You have arrived.” She
winked at her guest, pinching at her waist to show the dress with no corset, waved her
hand down toward their skirts, inviting a change.
The women shared plant cultivation wisdom. It seemed that anything could grow
here, and there were no snowy winters or frost to lose plants to. Water, though, was very
expensive, as it had to be hauled to places without close access to the irrigation ditches,
the zanjas. “Make it part of your household budget,” Doña Encarnación had counseled,
“an allowance for water beyond your family needs, for a few plants. It can make such a
difference, to gardeners, like you and me.”
“Es verdad,” Rosa said, smiling in using the new words. “Our ketubah, our
wedding contract, states that I must have a garden anywhere we live. That’s why we
came to you, Doña Encarnación; my husband wanted to prove that I could have a good
garden here. We’d been told that yours is the loveliest in the Pueblo.” She smiled at the
other woman. “And it is. Es verdad!”
They compared and roasted crazy husbands, those know-it-all know-nothings who
needed everything done for them. Men. Restless, hard-working trailblazers who needed
the confidence of the younger partners they’d taken time to learn to respect. Husbands.
When Rosa visited the primitive privy behind massive flowering bushes they used
as outhouse (in place of a watercloset), lifting the petticoats away from her body she felt
so much cooler, so much saner, so much more herself. It shifted her. She decided to take
the opportunity to slide part way out of her dress and loosen her corset, wipe away some
of the sweat. She could breathe again. It felt so much better, that she found herself
undoing the whole corset. If women didn’t always wear them here, why should she? And
the petticoats were easily unhooked. Less burdened, she rested for a moment breathing
easily, enjoying having her body back to herself, standing in the shady bushes around the
privy, and studying the red flowers that dangled thickly from them. These she had never
been able to grow, because they could not live through frost. It never snowed here,
Rosa’d learned; no frost, harsh winters here, ever. Rosa rearranged herself, stripping off
corset and petticoats, bundled them together, and shoved the whole thing under the
flowering bushes, hidden. When she returned, her hostess said nothing of the
At dusk, the hairy, sharply pointed, oval buds of the cereus swelled, parting
petals, showing extraordinary big white blossoms like pearls within dark, rough outer
shells. Each like a wide, exquisite mouth, slowly slowly pulling back, almost falling apart
to open, expanding out in every direction, a round crocodile’s mouth, growing wider and
wider. The most exquisite scent – such sweetness relaxing the nostrils, making each
breath richly delicious. The atmosphere infused with the perfumes of dozens of opening
flowers, transforming the night into a slice of paradise.
For a moment, Rosa was a girl again, full of wonder at her father’s miracle plant.
She was her whole self, child and woman, her father’s daughter, and her children’s mom.
Somehow, Rosa had been brought into her husband’s golden Eden, newly discovered, at
long last, only half-oasis, but she was her whole self within it, beloved plants in full-
flowered opening, in this place where the desert queen bloomed entwined with summer
Later in the perfumed night, when Joseph returned for his wife, children in tow,
Rosa said nothing of leaving, of San Francisco or New York, but smiled and kissed them
all. The grim glower was gone. Joseph said nothing about Rosa’s also missing corset and
petticoats. He could not turn his eyes from her face at first. Had she really returned to
him? His Rosa, who could put heart into you with the magic of her glowing eyes, could
stir you and reassure you at once with the lightest brush of even a gloved finger against a
He’d shaken hands with other guests, introduced with, “Mr. Maurice Kremer and
Don Solomon Lazard have a very successful dry goods business in the Row, the most
important mercantile block here,” two Jewish gentlemen in clean suits with properly tied
ties, the first he’d seen here, and wondered that Rosa should have begun his work
already, gathering local Jews toward community.
As handsome, mustached Mr. Kremer bent over Matilda’s hand, fourteen year old
Myer had sidled up to his mother and whispered in her ear, “Husband hunting, Mama?”
Rosa had smiled and whispered back, “Doña Encarnación invited them. To see the cactus
Rosa tucked Joseph’s arm around hers, and gave his hand a warm squeeze, shared
joy at another fierce try. He brushed his other hand across her back, his fingers finding
her spine beneath the dress. Grateful for the well-known body he’d missed, for the
strength that flowed from her into him, he knew they’d be a success here. They’d bring
people together to reverence the Divine here, and a new synagogue would blossom and
thrive. With Rosa on his side, anything was possible.
Fifth generation Californian D.H.R. Fishman began this story with some family history
about his great-great-great grandparents’ arrival in Southern California. His work has
appeared in print and online in places including San Diego Poetry Annual, Poppy Road
Review, Lucidity, and The Walrus.