Hace mucho tiempo, there was a young father who left his country for El Norte after his beloved wife died. Gio’s last promise to her was to find a better life in a green place for their only child, Nina. Their village had suffered from drought for ten years during which Gio slaughtered every goat and pig they owned before they both died of starvation. When he’d wrung the last chicken’s neck, it was time to leave.
He walked for months, more than a thousand miles with his eight-year-old daughter, and nothing went right. They lost all their money to bandits who tied them up and left them to die, they got sick from the dirty water they drank, and when they crossed the border, they couldn’t find any work except at a poultry farm on the edge of the desert collecting eggs and shoveling chicken shit, un trabajo duro.
One morning, after nine years of working on the farm seven days a week, Gio gasped at the face staring back at him in the outhouse’s cracked mirror. It was a stranger with lines on his face as deep as crevices and a beard of snow.
“Nina, this no way to live.” He cradled her face gently between his rough hands. “We only exist and grow old. Once I find us a better life in a green place like I promised your mother, I’ll send for you.”
“Papi, you must make a promesa sagrada you’ll come back for me,” said Nina, clutching him like a drowning child. Her tears made her last glimpse of her father blurry.
Gio, sobbing the whole way, trudged ten miles to the nearest town where he applied for work at every restaurant, gas station, grocery store, and hospital, but no one needed a former chicken farmworker. He slept behind the sagebrush at the side of the road and slogged to the next town, and the next, and the one after that. A few months later, a scorpion who’d spent the night in his boot, bit his toe, and he died alone. A red-tailed hawk circling above saw it all.
Nina worked twice as hard to make the time pass until her father returned. The chickens and turkeys sensed her lonesomeness. They’d sit near her feet and didn’t run when she gathered them into the coops at night or nip at her when she took their eggs. Now her heart always ached since she’d lost both her parents—one to death, one to distance. She fell asleep holding the comb her father left behind and clasping her mother’s Virgen de Guadalupe medal. She feared she’d forget their faces.
Gio’s soul fought to dwell inside the hawk, who thereafter soared across the desert sky for a hundred nights looking for Nina. Gio, the man, had wandered the land like a hungry bee searching for nectar, so Gio the hawk didn’t know which way to fly to find Nina. The land looked so different from above—sometimes sprawling and barren or green and lush with little ribbons of water.
He found her one evening crying outside. Being mindful of alarming the chickens, he waited until she was alone. He perched on the porch rail and gazed at her first with one eye, and then the other. She was thinner and had purple moons under her eyes, but was still beautiful.
“Nina, it’s your Papi,” the bird whispered so as not to frighten her.
She looked all around until she noticed the bird. Something in the tilt of his head reminded her of her father.
“It’s me. I came back for you.” Gio the hawk opened his wings to hug her, but she was too startled to understand.
“Papi?” Nina leaned closer to the bird. “I’m surely imagining this. Hawks can’t talk.”
“Usually not, but I’m special, a father’s promise.”
Nina sank to her knees. Her father must be dead. In an instant, she lost all hope of ever hugging him again. Nothing would save her from her lonely life. If only she could return to that awful day, she’d beg him not to go away. After all, their life wasn’t so bad. They had a job, a cozy shack, and a few coins under the floorboards.
“I want my real father back. I don’t mean to offend you, but what can you do to help? You can’t hold a shovel or carry a basket of eggs.”
Gio the hawk considered her question. True, he couldn’t assist with the chores, but he had great eyesight. He could find things like the tiniest vole from high up in the sky. There must be something he could do for Nina. He tucked his head under his wing to think.
“Okay, mija. Can you put a basket on the roof that I can drop things in but won’t be noticed?”
“How about the picnic basket Papi bought years ago? He always said we’d go for picnics, but there was never time.”
“I remember. Perfecto.”
The next morning, Gio the red-tailed hawk took flight. He scoured the land for hour after hour, all day long. He found rings, watches, wallets, silver key fobs, bracelets, gold chains, and earrings that people had lost and brought them one by one to the basket. Each week, Nina would sell the items at the pawnshop.
In a few months, she’d saved enough to quit her job and take a bus to the city. She got a job as a waitress at Lucy’s Café, and the owner let Nina have her daughter’s old room above the shop. After unpacking, she rested on the grassy backyard while Gio perched in the cherry tree until dark.
Gio continued soaring to search for treasures for Nina. They enjoyed many picnics and spent evenings together talking while Nina smoothed his feathers, and Gio nuzzled her chin. Years later when he died in Nina’s arms, she buried him as she’d promised under the tree in the basket, his gift of love to her.