Diana bent over the cluster of spiny cactus pads, searching for the best one. “Best” was a relative term. Not only were the nopales a detestable food that she hadn’t liked even before it became this summer’s staple, but this patch was particularly poor; the pads were thin and wrinkled, with black spots of spreading rot. She selected one that was less pock-marked than the rest, sliced it off and dropped it in her bag.
She stood and stretched her aching back. Around her, the other girls worked listlessly. They were thin and dispirited after a long summer stationed at this remote site, waiting for the invading armies of Texas and Mexico to make the next move. In the meantime, food had run scarce and game died from drought.
Diana adjusted her thick gloves and bent back over the cactus. In spite of the weak rumble of her stomach, the nopales didn’t appeal. Her thoughts drifted to a cache of lizard eggs she had found a few weeks ago. She had been less hungry then, and the soft-boned proto-lizards had sufficiently repulsed her that she hadn’t tried to eat them. Now she would gladly eat a lizard in any stage of gestation, goo and all. But as she scanned the dusty, rock-strewn field, she saw no sign that anything lived here other than the wretched nopales.
“Think we got enough?” One of the girls removed a glove and fanned herself. “Maybe they’ll let us have some of that soup before the boys get back and eat it all.”
“Caldo de huesos,” Diana’s friend Sachi muttered as she examined a pad for rot. “My favorite.”
Diana silently agreed. The weak broth of nettles and boiled rabbit bones was hardly anything to look forward to. “Better than nothing.”
“But not better than posole.”
“Or roast chicken,” another girl said.
“Or a thick goat stew with potatoes and carrots, and—”
“Stop that,” Diana said, tying off her bag. “You know what Harley said. No talking about food we don’t have.”
“Well if he’d let us take what we needed from that ranch on the other side of the arroyo, we wouldn’t be so hungry,” Sachi pointed out. “It’s not like they’re going to miss one of their skinny cows, anyway. They’re probably all gristle and will die before the summer is out.”
The other girls murmured in agreement as they headed back to camp to turn over their nopales to the camp supporters who would strip them of spines and cook them.
As Diana gave her sack to Aunt Amalia, she averted her eyes and shied away from the hand that reached to comfort her. For the last several days Auntie had been looking at her strangely, as if hunger was a visible thing etched in her face. And last night as Diana snuggled against Will for warmth in the cool desert air, he had run a hand across her hip and expressed concern at the way her bones jutted sharp underneath her skin.
“They’re not very good,” Diana said of the nopales, hoping to avoid a personal discussion.
“Just don’t overcook them,” Sachi said to no one in particular. “I hate it when they get slimy.”
“Don’t worry,” Amalia told her. “We’ll roast them. And Harley got a snake for the soup pot.”
“A big one?” a girl asked hopefully.
Amalia picked up Diana’s sack. “We take what we can get.”
Diana and Sachi exchanged a glance. Where there was one snake, perhaps there would be others. “Where did he find it? We’ll go see if there's more,” she said.
“Just be back in time for your turn on watch. And bring some Russian thistle for the horses.”
Sachi and Diana headed out on foot. Once they were beyond the immediate camp environs, they drew their guns and began scanning the ground for signs of life. They tracked west for half an hour without seeing anything. When they came to one of the arroyos bordering the nearby ranch, they slid down the bank and began following its twists and turns. After a few minutes they came across boot prints and their hopes fell. If the boys had already passed this way, it wasn't likely there would be any game.
They were about to turn back when they heard voices.
“You look like a fucking cannibal, man.”
“And what do you think you look like?”
“Hold it steady so I can get another piece.”
Around the bend Will and two other boys huddled over the carcass of a spotted calf. Blood soaked the parched soil and flies buzzed over a glistening pile of entrails.
The boys looked up. Their hands and mouths were dripping red and they tightened their grip on their knives. But seeing it was only Sachi and Diana, they relaxed and waved them forward.
“It would've died anyway, so it's not really rustling," Aguilero said. "But still, don’t tell."
“Oh, God, no.” Sachi cut a strip of bloody flank and shoved it in her mouth. “I’ve been wanting to do this for weeks.”
“Harley’s got the right idea about principles,” Will said, “But there’s gotta be limits.”
“I don't want to starve over someone's idea of right and wrong,” Boeing agreed. He dug into the calf’s open belly and sliced off a piece of liver. “Here you go, baby.” He dangled it in front of Sachi’s lips. “And if you come by my tent tonight, I’ll have some other organ meat for you.”
While the others ate and teased each other, Will drew Diana away. In the shade of a rock was an oozing leather pouch. “I was going to bring you this.”
Diana opened it and stared for a moment at the quivering mass of raw meat. Her mind flashed back on her other life, on who she had been before the Guard destroyed her home and killed her family. She had a fleeting impression of eggs scrambled with chiles, of beans and summer squash, and of honey drizzled over corn cakes hot from the oven. How had she come to this?
A wave of dizziness hit her. She scooped a handful of the bleeding flesh and devoured it.