María Concepción, a hardworking young bride, is on her way to deliver food to her husband, Juan, and his boss, Givens, at an archaeological site on the outskirts of town. María is entirely contented in her work, her marriage, and the coming birth of their first child. Careful to avoid the thorns along the path, she ignores the live chickens swung across her back, concentrating only on her task. The reader soon discovers that María has done much to rise above the circumstances of her early life. She is a Christian and, unlike other members of the community, was married in the church. She can drive a hard bargain and always has money to pay for what she requires. She does not believe in the old ways of medicine, even though she cannot read the directions on the bottles of medicines she purchases from the drugstore. All of her accomplishments cause the townspeople to respect her but simultaneously to suspect her of having too much pride.
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Ironically, it is a sudden superstitious craving for honey that begins María Concepción’s troubles. Although she does not believe in the old ways of medicine, she does believe her child will be marked if she does not obtain the honey she craves. So she journeys out of her way to the house of the old medicine woman, Lupe, and the fifteen-year-old beekeeper, María Rosa. When María Concepción arrives, she is met by silence. She peers through the cactus into the small yard, then hears the sound of laughter, first a girl’s, then a man’s. María Concepción smiles to herself at the thought of María Rosa’s having a lover, only to discover that it is Juan de Dios Villegas—her own husband.
María Concepción is overcome by learning of Juan’s infidelity, yet manages to make her way back to the road and continue on to the archaeological site, where Givens awaits his noonday meal. Givens is Juan’s patron and often saves him from trouble, referring to his frequent infidelities as “pickles.” From this moment, María Concepción becomes increasingly divorced from her own emotions, perhaps because they cannot exist inside the civilized world that she has created for herself and her family without destroying it. Although her anger at Juan disappears by the end of one day, it is transferred to María Rosa, and she hears herself saying that María Rosa should die for what she did. She is now her enemy. Even Givens, who often thinks of María Concepción as royalty in exile, takes note of the ease with which she cuts the head off of the chicken that she prepares for his lunch.
Juan and María Rosa leave the next day so that he can join the army, and María Concepción’s child is soon born but dies. Again, she does not react emotionally. She rejects Lupe’s offers of charms to preserve the infant, and instead continues with her routine of hard work and visits to the church. Before long, the townspeople, who assume that María Concepción is being punished for her pride, regain their admiration and respect for her. Even Lupe begins to side with María Concepción over María Rosa, now that the abandoned hives no longer prosper. Despite this communal approval, however, María Concepción grows more and more gaunt, and her butchering knife is seldom out of her hand.
One day, Juan and María Rosa return. Juan is arrested for desertion, and María…
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