• David Lane Williams

Say Hello to Xochitl

Choosing names for novel characters is consequential. I have a dog-eared baby name book I've used for years in search of just the right signature for this or that person. A name in a fictional book should mean something, and while only a few readers may "get" it, those who do share a wonderful moment with the writer, a shared secret, a wink.

For example, the Reverend Enoch Sadler is a hypocritical hellfire and brimstone minister in my novel, Snake Oil on Snow Cones (currently out on query, so if you're a publisher feel free to pop over and read the first chapter). The complicated reverend is one to use biblical verse to control others and have them bow to his whims and obsessions. This is especially true of the women in his life, whom he sees as inferior and servile.

Enoch means "dedicated," and it is fair to say the reverend is as dedicated as they come; though his dedication to God and faith have become twisted and self-serving over the years. His last name, Sadler, means "maker of saddles," and this name is also fitting when we see him as a person who lives to ride on the backs of his flock and prod them to his purpose.

I first learned the name Xochitl during the last campaign cycle when a woman named Xochitl Torres-Small ran for and won a U.S. congressional seat. It matters not a whit if your politics match hers, but that name...! I'd been looking for a unique one to christen a character in my latest work, A Duel of Glass and Mud, something foreign-sounding and pleasant to the ear.

The character in the book is a naïve nurse who must develop some savvy if she is to survive a humanitarian mission delivering Spanish Flu vaccine to Puebloan villagers in a still-wild 1918 New Mexico. She's lovely, yet strong, a desert flower, if you will, and in a coincidence I can only attribute as a small miracle, I came to learn Xochitl is an Aztecan name meaning "flower."


With that, I introduce you to Nurse Xochitl Muñoz. Scene Two, Draft Two of A Duel of Glass and Mud. I hope you love her.

Nurse Xochitl Muñoz made her rounds through the halls of the Northern New Mexico Tuberculosis Hospital, cheerfully greeting each staff member and patient she passed. She took pride in the spotlessness of the facility, the whiteness of the walls, and the absence of artwork, all critical details in the never-ending fight to prevent bacteria from taking up residence. Banisters shone and windows gleamed. Pristine tidiness—that was key to beating back disease.

Custodial staff members were in constant motion, wiping trim and door handles with diluted bleach, and carrying piles of laundry out of ward areas. Nurses and orderlies bustled about taking trays of vitamins to patients, and the entire facility hummed with gentle efficiency. All of them wore bleached white from head to toe, a stark contrast to the raven-black mane piled and pinned beneath her nurse’s cap.

“This is a building full of people getting well,” Nurse Muñoz called out to them. “And that is due in no small measure to your efforts.” Most answered with a proud smile or a thankful nod.

Nurse Muñoz paused outside a door and dutifully donned her Johnson & Johnson Epidemic Mask before stepping into one of the men’s wards, sealing the cloth mask tightly about her nose and mouth by tightening the draw strings behind her ears. She’d long since learned the skill of smiling with her eyes to diminish patient worries, and she greeted each man in the twenty-four-bed ward with a lilt to her voice and a warmth in her demeanor.

The men in the ward did their best to sit up as she walked in. Many could not muster the strength, but even the weakest tried to finger-comb their bed-matted hair and smile bravely. She was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary environment filled with days of coughing and dread. They came mostly from the east coast, responding to advertisements in such esteemed periodicals as the New York Times and the Boston Globe which touted the healthy air and sunshine in New Mexico. Some would heal and go on to productive lives; many would not. Yet, every one of the men in various stages of tuberculosis wanted nothing more than to catch the eye of this angel of mercy and to do something, anything, to please her.

Nurse Muñoz’ first duty of the morning was to open each window in the ward. Poor ventilation was the ally to consumption, and she had no intention of keeping the tuberculosis germs trapped within the ward any longer than necessary. “Fresh air and sunshine, gentlemen,” she called out to the men lying in two long rows down each side of the dormitory-like corridor. “Fresh air and sunshine are our allies in health.”

“Good morning, Mr. Patrick, and how are we feeling today?” she asked of a man whose medical chart indicated was thirty-eight years old but who appeared to be in his sixties due to grayness and frailty. He answered with a spasmodic cough so hard he retched, followed by a shy grin. She stepped back three feet while he coughed in order to avoid sharing Mr. Patrick’s breath, as recommended in her nursing journal literature.

“I’m doing much better, thank you,” Mr. Patrick replied hoarsely as she took his pulse and felt his forehead for fever.

“Wonderful,” she said, as she moved back in and fluffed his pillow to help him sit up straighter. She then poured two ounces of liquid into a paper cup and held it out for Mr. Patrick.

“I’d rather not,” he said. “The taste is simply too harsh.”

“We’ve spoken of this before. Listerine is a wonderful agent, chock full of bacteria-killing ingredients. Keeping one’s teeth and gums free of bacteria is quite healthful. Now, please.”

She helped Mr. Patrick tip the contents into his mouth, and he swished compliantly until she held out a bowl for him to spit. “Very good. The orderly will be by shortly with your vitamins. How about you take your milk in the veranda? It’s a lovely day out, and the fresh air would be beneficial.”

Mr. Patrick nodded before launching into another coughing fit as Nurse Muñoz moved on to the next man’s bed. Within the next half hour she’d checked on every patient and charted each one’s progress. She paused at the doorway before bidding them a good morning and venturing on to the women’s ward, smiling back once more with almond-shaped hazel eyes each man in the ward had grown to love.

“Remember, gentlemen to avoid worry, fear, and fatigue. This is of paramount importance as you pursue a new, healthful life. I’ll see you all on the veranda shortly.”

Each did their best to smile back despite their misery. A few waved feeble goodbyes, and two of the men took the opportunity of her exit to reach for bedside urinals. All of them nodded and murmured at the sage wisdom of her medical advice, setting off a coughing maelstrom in all twenty-four beds.