26

The Bruja

The next morning, before I went home, I drove to Agua Azuela. I hoped Regan could help me figure out what the Penitentes had to do with all the other strange events that had been occurring. But, once again, Regan was not at home. When I got to her house, I saw that her Toyota was not in the garage, so I backed down the drive, turned around, and drove back across the bridge over the rio. At the intersection between the bridge and the road, I stopped to check for traffic. Ahead and to the left of me, several cars were parked in the wide dirt turnout in front of the ancient church. Regan’s Toyota was among them. The local villagers were probably conducting their lay services in place of mass. I pulled my Jeep across the road and drove to the back of the lot near the arroyo, thinking I might snooze in my car until the service was over and then see if I could talk with Regan. But as I started to settle back in my seat, I remembered the old woman who had approached me in the churchyard after mass, insisting I come for tea.

“Why not?” I said aloud. I would go visit her and have a cup of tea while I waited for my friend.

The old woman’s strange instructions proved to be precise. After I rounded the boulder with the hand on it, I climbed up the goat path on the south slope of the mountain, and above me a few hundred yards I could see a brush arbor and an adobe casita. As she had predicted, the crone who had demanded an audience two days ago after mass was waiting for me on the portal. We had not set a date, nor had I agreed even to come, but nonetheless, she seemed to be expecting me. She waved a dish towel in her hand, motioning for me to approach. The path was steep and the morning sun was just rising over the other side of the canyon. Frost on the sage scrub sparkled like thousands of stars.

“Come! Come! I made you tea,” she said, again waving the dish towel as I stepped onto the portal. She trundled through the doorway of the adobe, and I followed. The opening was small and I had to stoop to enter her one-room dwelling. A table, crudely made from a slab of wood, with deep scars and four crooked limbs for legs stood in the center of the room, and two similar slab-and-stick chairs were placed on opposite sides of it. There was no other furniture.

In one corner, a large, deep nicho was carved into the adobe, and this housed at least a dozen santos, before which at least as many votive candles were lit. Braids of dried sweetgrass, fat cigar-shaped smudge sticks, ancient-looking green glass jars of herbs and twigs, and several dried skink pelts, which the natives used to store a baby’s umbilical cord after birth, lined an inset shelf in the earthen wall.

A shepherd’s bed grew out of the long wall, over the fireplace. These old-fashioned sleeping berths were found in many old rural adobes: a massive fireplace, used for both cooking and heating the home, was built with an adobe slab over the top, and a bed was made on this slab to keep the occupant warm at night. The bedding looked to be crude cotton bags of straw, but there was a thick, woven wool blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rumpled bags. There were no pillows or sheets.

Flanking the fireplace on the low adobe hearth stood cast-iron pots, pottery cups and bowls, and an olla-a pottery water jar-filled with water, to which a waxed dipper gourd had been tied on a thin hemp rope circling the jar’s neck. In the fireplace itself, a metal grate supported a small pot of simmering liquid, and a huge cast-iron teakettle hung from a hook, emitting contrails of steam.

“Sit! Sit! I made you tea,” she squeaked. Again I was reminded of bats when I heard her shrill, high-pitched voice. Her plain sackcloth dress and worn, curled-up-at-the-toes men’s wing tips without laces were the same as the day I had first seen her at the church.

“How did you know I was coming?” I pulled out one of the chairs and sat down so that I faced the fireplace, where she was ladling liquid from the simmer pot into a cup.

“What is your name?” she asked as she brought the cup to the table.

“My name is Jamaica Wild. But how did you know I was coming?” I could smell a lovely lemon fragrance from the tea as she pushed the cup across the table and directly under my face.

“It is not important. You are here. That is what is important. Drink! Drink! It is hot now, but it will not be if you talk until your tongue is tired.” She turned back to the hearth and poured dark liquid from the teakettle into a second cup.

“What is your name?” I asked.

She turned and looked at me with a mischievous grin that made her look as if she were just a child, an effect considerably contrary to the deeply lined face, bushy white brows, and fewer teeth present than missing. She turned her chin up and her ear down, so that her face lay sideways on the hump that extended from her neck to her shoulder on one side. She ambled over to the table with her own cup and sat down. “My name is Esperanza,” she said, “but the people over here call me Tecolote.”

I took a drink of the lemony tea. It had a slightly bitter taste but was not unpleasant. “This is good tea. What kind is it?”

“Hush! Do not insult me! Do I ask you what you serve when I come for a little meal with you? This is what you need, that’s what kind it is. If I told everyone what I was giving them, they would not need a curandera at all, and I would be out of business. Now drink!”

“So you are a curandera? I guess I should have known. I’m not sick, though. I don’t need-”

She stood up with astonishing speed, given her twisted frame, and the chair made a loud scraping noise across the adobe floor. “You don’t think you need help? What about la carreta de la muerte? I have seen you on it!”

“The cart of death?”

“You do not see that the Black Spirit hovers behind you? You stuck your bare bottom out for men to look at and the Black Thing almost devoured you! And you don’t think you need help!” She slapped one twisted hand on the tabletop and shook her head back and forth in disbelief. “You better drink up, little Mirasol. You better drink up while you can.” She stared at me, then pointed a bony finger at the cup and raised it up as if to will it to my lips.

I picked up the cup. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. How did you know about-”

“You are always wagging your tongue, asking foolish questions, while your taza sits waiting for you to empty it.”

I drank from the cup. It tasted good now, the bitterness having the effect of cleansing my palate. The warm liquid felt good in my stomach.

She watched me intently, her face moving up and down each time I lifted the cup to my lips, drank, and then set it back on the table. Her eyes were two black pin lights. “Lucky for you there is a bruja like me, and also an ?ngel to help you. You are going to need a lot of help, Mirasol. You are not finished with the thing that tries to devour you!”

I felt drowsy, very tranquil, and slightly drunk. “I don’t understand. I don’t understand anything you are saying. What is ‘mirasol’?”

“The flower with yellow petals that grows so tall, as tall as a man, with all the seed for the birds in the center. The flower that grows where you grew.”

“Sunflower? Sunflower? How did you know-”

“No more of your questions!” she snapped. “This is not a social visit here. I did not tell you to come in order to ask me foolish things, Mirasol. I told you to come because you need help!”

My eyes were wide with a combination of anxiety and disbelief. How did this old woman know about the fashion show, and about the attack on Nora?

“Tomorrow, you will need to go to the velorio-the wake, you know? You will need to be in Truchas early in the morning to honor your friend the father. So we must work quickly so this cura has time to work and also time to leave you before morning. You will not be riding on la yegua tonight, Mirasol. You will not be strong enough.”

“I didn’t know that Father Ignacio’s funeral is tomorrow. I’ll go, but I have to ride tonight.”

“You will not ride tonight, I assure you. You will need to go to the corral in a minute. We will talk until you do, and then when you go to the corral, you will need to leave after. I will put something for you on the stump by the horno, and you will take that with you when you go. Now you must listen to me. There is an old sad story here that is not finished. There have been very bad feelings about something that happened a long time before, and no healing has been done, even though many winters have passed. You must look into the past, look at los ni?os. Any answers you want will be there. It is the only weapon you have to defend yourself against this Black Thing. You cannot stop now, or go back. You can only go to the next place. The people over here do not like it when their secrets are unfolded, but your heart is clean, so you have been given protection. It is the Black Thing-the one that hunts for you-that the people over here fear. That is the thing that will end it all. The people know this, but they are in the time of La Cuaresma-you know, Lent?-they cannot raise their hands at this time. This is a very tender time for the people, and they are convinced that you mean them no harm. That is why you have been given protection. You have an ?ngel, and that is who has brought you the gift that I will leave for you by the horno. Do you have to go to the corral now?”

All the while she had been talking, my gut had been growling, and now intense cramps threatened to make me lose control of my bowels. I felt dizzy and weak. I was sweating and cold at the same time. I stood up and felt the world shift. The room was sitting at an odd angle, and all the lines were distorted. The table was undulating. I moved for the door and felt as if I were wading in chest-high water.

“Down beyond the willow there.” She pointed as she followed me out on the portal. “Watch out for the macho cabr?o-he doesn’t like strangers! And don’t come back to la casa. I have another cura to do now.”

I made for the willow, saw the corral with the goat and the privy just beside it. The door of the outhouse had a cutout shaped like an owl. I sat on the splintered seat until my insides were empty. The goat pawed at the side of the privy time after time, his sharp hooves making a thunderous sound on the old, dry wood. Finally, I stopped sweating and felt my belly relax.

I left the privy and went to the horno. At first I didn’t see the stump Esperanza had spoken of, or any gift I could recognize as such. The world still seemed to be wavering and sitting at strange angles, the tea having had a hallucinatory effect on me. A large yucca behind the horno moved as if it had been stirred. I heard the rustling of its razor-sharp leaves, but I saw nothing that might have brushed it. I looked at it again, and the sword-shaped leaves of the plant seemed to rise up, as if to open its arms to welcome me. Oh, boy, Jamaica! You’ve tied one on with a teacup!

Again the yucca shifted its leaves, and then I saw the low stump behind it, and on the stump… my book!

I approached with a strange mixture of awe and trepidation. What if the yucca is feeling territorial about the book?

I could feel the plant as an intelligent presence. There was a strange but exciting heaviness to the air between us, thick, sweet, like a celestial stew-a heath of infinite life possibilities ready to pop into form-the plant palpably breathing and emitting an energy field into which I was about to intrude. I held my breath and moved my palm, open and extended as if in friendship… slowly… slowly… toward the yucca.

Again, the leaves rose slightly, almost so slightly that I might have imagined it, except for the rustling sound and the faint trace of purple tails of light trailing the leaves like the sheer wisps of Salome’s veils in ultraslow motion. I kept moving my hand, my pace crawling, the plant still breathing, its scimitar fingers rising… and falling… rising… and falling… I could hear it breathing now: low, erogenous, carnal, quivering, and reverberating a message beyond the comprehension of a mere two-legged being, something about life: sweet-loss-sacred-death-gift-fear-pleasure-pain… not this, more than this… something about harmony: love-joy-holy-all… not this, more than this… something about presence: Now, Only now. Only. One. Not this, more than this… none of this.

May I have my book?

The leaves relaxed. I picked up the book, its cool deerskin cover a living thing in my hand, the eyes of the deer in my mind, deer looking through my eyes, then one with my eyes, the buds of my antlers sprouting in sweet spurts of pain from my head. As I willed the book toward my chest, I kept my pace snail-like, solar, tidal, seasonal, millennial, my arm having swung out into the yucca’s world like a pendulum and now coming back as evenly and as languorously, as calculated and measured as Moon’s slow cycle of death and resurrection as she plods across the night skies from one month to the next.

The yucca was finished with me.

I took the book into my arm and held it next to my chest. No deer there. I felt a sweeping sadness that our interlude-mine and the yucca’s-was over, that I didn’t fully understand what it was relating, that I could never understand.

I turned and went down the slope toward my Jeep, which waited near the arroyo, light-years from where I had just been.

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