Her neighbor Lupe’s rooster began to crow. Maria Elena folded back the blanket, swung her cracked old feet and skinny legs to the floor, and shrugged her arms into her everyday dress. It was dark in the room except for the tiny flicker of the candle burning beneath the crucifix. She crossed herself and turned on the television and the light. She went to the sink and filled her pot with water. Plants like to drink in the morning.

The television news was telling something about a baby. She gave water to the ficus in the corner, and glanced at the screen. They were showing a picture of a baby. It looked dead. Then they showed the parents being interviewed. She watered the basil under the window and looked back at the screen. She had the sound turned low, but she could tell the whole story without listening to the words. The dead baby told everything, while the mother sat silent and the father’s mouth moved. It must have been they who put the dark purple bracelet of bruises around the tiny neck. It must have been they who made the dimpled sunken cut in the baby’s chest.

Maria Elena came closer to hear. The television said they sold the baby’s heart for a lot of money, on the black market. There was a market for hearts! The father’s lips trembled, but his darting eyes showed his greed. The mother’s face was frozen. She did not look into the camera. She looked off sideways into the shadows so you could not see her eyes.

Lupe’s rooster crowed again and a dog began to bark. Maria Elena put down the pot of water. Her dried old breasts ached to feed that baby. What would the doctor say if she told him that?  She would never tell him. Doctors shouldn’t know everything. Her arms ached to hold that television baby.

She had held eight of her own. She had not held one of them long, the daughter who died. Their pictures were all on the wall, with her husband’s, who had gone to heaven ahead of her. Her arms had ached then to hold that baby. They had let her sit with the body. Her breasts were so full of milk they leaked onto her bodice, and her tears fell and diluted the milk drying there. God had protected her from temptation, for she surely would have struck a deal with the devil himself to have that baby alive at her breast. She had been crazy with grief. They had had to take the body from her by force.

Now she was 84, and there was not a thing wrong with her. She was a lucky woman, not all of her children had crossed the border. Some lived close, here in Santa Teresita in the middle of the city.

She picked up the pot again and watered the fern sitting by the sink and the violets on the marble window frame, put the pot in the sink, wrapped herself in the black shawl hanging from a hook by the door, took her broom and pan, and stood half in and half out of the open doorway.

Every day she swept the sidewalk and street in front of her house. She liked to do it at just this time, when the sky was brightening, when the roosters were crowing, telling sinners to stop sinning. At what market, Maria Elena was thinking, standing there, did they sell dead babies’ hearts? Did they sell them at a booth, or push them around on a cart? Deep in the dark mountains, before the Spaniards came, they had taken hearts. Perhaps those times had come again.

Behind her, the television switched repeatedly between the still picture of the dead baby, and the living faces of the parents. They were still being interviewed, by someone in a living room instead of in a prison, which bothered Maria Elena, and her heart beat faster and faster. She wished they would explain why the parents were not in prison. The camera liked lapping at the mother’s face. She sat as still and heavy as some stone statue of the cruel old gods. She did not speak and her husband could not stop speaking. Maria Elena remembered Chac, the old god of Rain and Thunder, with a drinking cup in one hand and a human heart in the other. Yes, that is what the mother looked like, Chac with her baby’s heart in her hand, drinking his blood from the cup.

Maria Elena was La Raza. Her blood was made of many rivers. She was the daughter of the short, brown, hook-nosed Mayans and of the tall, pale, hook-nosed Spaniards, with a tributary from Africa that made her own nose softer and rounder but whose blood boiled as hot as the others. Her old, hot blood had begun to boil. It made her head spin and she had to reach out and hold onto the doorframe. She thought the worst possible thing was going to happen. She was going to sin and then drop down dead right there in the doorway, her soul falling straight to hell.

Maria Elena had sinned before. She had had a wicked tongue, she had it still. But this was different. This sin was anger. This sin had teeth. It could burst the little rivers in her brain, and she could be dead before she had time to repent it.

But, oh, taste how sweet it was. If the interviewer would only do what they did in the old, cruel days! Maria Elena would make that face crumble! She would paint that baby killer blue and lead that mother who was no mother into a stone room a little less comfortable than a living room, and the feathered priests would hold her arms and legs. Then Maria Elena would take the heavy stone knife and she would split the woman’s chest like she would split a chicken, and reach all the way in and pull out her beating heart. The priests would take it. The priests would drip the blood onto the special prayer papers and carry them to the altar and they would burn them there so the smoke could go up to the gods.

Then the priests would spread the dying woman’s legs wider and Maria Elena would take the knife still slick from the heart’s blood and stick it into the woman’s private parts and stir it around and around. Then a priest would take the knife from her and would wipe the blood from the knife on the face of the god at the altar. And then they would skin the woman, and the chief priest would wear the skin, dancing around and around until he fainted.

Maria Elena felt faint herself. Faint with longing. It was like hunger. That is what she would like to do to the woman! 

But it was a sin to kill another sinner. We can hate the sin, but we must love the sinner. Father talked about that Sunday. The gospel was Jesus at the well with the sinful woman, and Jesus had been so nice to her. She imagined him leaning close to that dirty woman, like a friend, whispering the hard truth in her ear, No daughter, you have not had one husband, you have had five.

Father said this was very hard to hate the sin and love the sinner. Father said it was “deceptively simple.”  He said we tell ourselves we love the sinner and hate the sin, but we really don’t. We pretend. This is a grave sin against charity, a mortal sin.

Yes, but! Maria Elena rebelled. But, Jesus, you took an easy sin! A woman’s easy sin, too much love, it’s easy, really easy, to forgive. Could You lean in so close to that television mother and forgive her? Ah, Maria Elena suddenly saw it: to put His arms around such a sinner, they’d have to nail them open first.

Maria Elena understood. That’s what it took to keep you from killing them, to nail your arms open and nail them down. In her mind, now it was not Christ’s crucified face she saw, but the mother’s, who turned away from the shadows and looked into Maria Elena’s eyes. Maria Elena saw infinite misery there, a woman who had had no mother of her own, a woman whose husband hurt her. Maria Elena stretched her own arms out in the doorway until the bad shoulder flamed, and forgave her.

She stepped all the way outside. The fresh cold air of the street hit her like a little slap. She could still hate the sin. Father said. That was good. That was wise. God was merciful.

She began to sweep. She could hear other women sweeping in the dark, her friends, her enemies. Maria Elena swept faster. Leaves, a plastic juice bottle, a tissue, a scrap of newspaper flew in front of her broom. Two dried up oranges fallen from the tree that grew by her front door, and a broken hair comb. Maria Elena paused to take a little plastic bag of trash someone had thoughtfully hung on the tree, and tossed it in the pile. As the pile grew, her blood cooled.

Every day was trash day in Santa Teresita. The giant trucks would prowl through the streets and the driver rang a little silver bell to tell the people to bring out the trash. Every day the streets were defaced with piles of trash bags, and every day the trucks came, and the trash was gone, and the neighborhood was clean again. Every day Maria Elena swept her portion of the street and the walk in front of her door. Every day for all these years. And her neighbors the same. Leaves fell, cars leaked parts, sinners tossed the wrappings of their appetites, and the meek swept them away. It is hard to love and sweep, but she wanted God to love her, and so she tried.

Maria Elena reached her usual boundaries, but she swept on. The headlights of the early cars caught her in their cold light, an old woman bent almost double under her shawl, her crone hands clutching the huge straw broom and sweeping for all she was worth.

She ignored the cars. She was praying while she worked. She snatched a weed sprouting between the cobblestones and muttered a scrap of a psalm from the Bible, Each morning I will destroy all the wicked of the land, and uproot from the city of  God all evildoers. She flung the weed into the tangle of trash. She unstuck a wet flyer from the stones, advertising a television sale with a woman’s half naked body. I will walk in the integrity of my heart within my house, she prayed; I will not set before my eyes any base thing. When she reached the other side of the street, she made a neat stack of it all and stuffed it into the garbage bag she carried in her pocket.

Lupe came out of her door, carrying her own broom. “Buenos Dias, comadre.

Caray, what did the doctor tell you! Are you going to sweep the whole street this morning, Maria Elena?”

“Yes,” Maria Elena said, and held her tongue about the doctor.

Then she leaned on her broom and watched the sun rise on a rosy, vapory throne. It promised to be a fine day. There were not many clouds, it would be clear until afternoon. Everyone could hang the wash. This was her favorite time of year, the end of the rainy season. She would miss it when she went to heaven.