Earth-Language

Somehow, a wild animal–a tacuache or bobcat, some thrashing taloned thing–had gotten trapped in Maria Vega’s belly; it tussled and clawed, ripping at her velveteen insides. She could do nothing as her bowels released. The smell, sharp and ripe, woke her younger brother, Guillermo, with whom she shared the twin-sized bed.

“What is that?” he asked, moving away from her in the darkness.

Maria rolled onto her side and hugged her knees to her chest. She pinched and twisted the sensitive flesh inside each arm to distract herself from the pain. When she opened her mouth, a sound like a chicken squawk emerged.

“Maria? Are you okay?”

Agile and quiet, Guillermo eased from bed and grabbed the flashlight they used when they needed the outhouse. Maria turned away from the light, but she heard Guillermo’s disgusted gasp.

“Don’t tell Abuela,” Maria said, shivering. “I’ll wash the sheets.”

“Don’t be stupid.” Guillermo was already directing the flashlight toward the bedroom door. He maneuvered around the mattress on the floor where their six-year-old twin brothers were still sleeping. “You’re sick and she’s a curandera. She’ll know what to do.”

For the next few hours, Maria felt her body ripple in the shimmering waves that rose from the pavement in the summertime. She couldn’t tell if her eyes were open or closed, if she was crying out or in. The only things grounding her to this world were the hands running a soaked sponge over her body, and she would later remember the awful moment of prescience just before being sick again, when time collapsed and there was not a second to warn her abuela, who calmly lifted her from the washbasin, drained the soiled water, replaced her in the basin, and ran the sponge over her again. Finally, when the animal had exhausted itself inside Maria, her abuela carried her to bed.

Abuela’s bed was also twin-sized, pressed against the wall, always with the colorful quilt she’d made as a girl folded and tucked neatly at the end, like a bright sock at the end of a thin white leg. Maria’s head reverberated with pain as Abuela murmured the Apostle’s Creed. The soft words Maria heard every Sunday at Mass banged hollowly in her ears. Then something cool and smooth rolled over her face and chest, followed by each arm. It was an egg. It traveled from fingers to shoulder, shoulder to collar; from collar to shoulder, shoulder to fingers. Then a downward path from her forehead to her belly. Back again. An egg making a cross of Maria’s body, her abuela praying in a fervent whisper. Gray hair, usually in a tidy bun, hung loose around her high-cheekboned face. Gently, she helped Maria turn onto her stomach. She rubbed the egg over Maria’s bare back and down each leg to the soles of her feet. The few times Maria opened her eyes, she could make out the shapes of Guillermo and the twins over her abuela’s shoulder. They paced the narrow hallway, paused at the doorway to the room, whispered, moved on. She fell asleep.

The next day, the weight of Maria’s head no longer felt unbearable. She woke to her abuela perched lightly on the bedside, hair pinned back. Her penny-colored eyes were calm and alert, and her fingers lightly scratched Maria’s scalp.

“Good morning, mijita. You’re feeling better?”

Maria swallowed, wiggled her dry cow-tongue in her mouth. “I think so.”

“Your fever is not so high anymore. Would you like to see the egg?”

The two sentences were strange, pressed up against each other. Maria nodded and groaned, pulling herself into a sitting position. “What happened to me?”

Her abuela reached for a glass that sat on the nightstand, filled with cloudy, grayish liquid through which Maria could make out the startling, sunflower-brightness of an egg yolk.

“Somebody gave you ojo,” her abuela said.

“Ojo?” Maria repeated, stabbed aware and almost excited. Everyone knew what ojo was. Maria’s friend Dianita had gotten it once. She stayed home from school for a week and came back hollow-eyed, her black hair lank and dry. She blamed it on the girl who sat behind them, who always complimented Dianita’s glossy curls but never touched them.

“Si,” her abuela said. “Look at how orange it is—no debe de ser ese color. And mira, look at the yoke. Do you see the shape of an eye?”

Maria took the glass and brought it closer to her face. At first it just looked like regular yolk disintegrating in dirty water, slimy white tendrils quivering. But the more she gazed, squinting, the more unusually bright the yoke seemed, like the sun spearing through morning haze. Almost cross-eyed now, she thought she could make out the crescent shape of an eye etched in the yolk’s surface.

“What does it mean?” Maria asked. “Why would somebody want to give me ojo?”

“Probably they didn’t mean to, but energy is powerful, and too much admiration is not so different from envy.” Maria’s abuela patted her shoulder. “Es temprano. Go back to sleep. I’m going to bury this in the yard.”

Maria didn’t hesitate. “I want to come.”

After a beat, her abuela smiled. “Bueno, pues. Get your chanclas and put this on.” She undid the snap buttons on her flannel bata, slipped off the housedress, and draped it around Maria. She stood barefoot in a thick-strapped ivory slip revealing the shape of her breasts and the line of her underwear where her skin folded over. Maria, unable to imagine her abuela going outside that way, tugged the end of the quilt from beneath the mattress and handed it to her.

They went to the backyard: Maria, her abuela, and the egg. The sparse yellow grass was wet with dew. The air smelled like the first bite of watermelon, juicy and crisp. Maria’s stomach was still cramping, pulling in and twisting itself, but she didn’t tell her abuela; she simply pinched the skin between her thumb and pointer until it hurt more than her stomach.

Beneath a techito, Maria’s abuelo had built years ago, sat his old toolbox. Rust flecked from the lip as Maria’s abuela pulled out a garden trowel. “Against the fence,” she said, and Maria slowed her pace to match her abuela’s as they tromped barefoot over the grass.

“Why are we burying it?” Maria asked.

“Eggs are the source of birth and life—they are how we all started in this world—and in their raw form, they are able to absorb the bad energies. Entonces we’re not burying the egg; we’re burying the bad energy. ¿Me entiendes?”

Maria frowned, coiling her fingers around the cool chain link fencing. “I think so. But will the neighbors get ojo, since we’re burying the bad energy so close?”

“No. Once it’s buried, it’s gone.”

The early morning sun slowly illuminated Maria’s abuela as she finished digging and then poured the egg yolk from the glass into its grave. She tossed dirt over it and smoothed it with the trowel. When she was done, she slapped the trowel against the fence. Wet soil fell.

“Now let’s thank Diosito for helping us heal you.” Maria’s abuela held out her hand, and Maria slid hers against it. Her abuela’s fingers were plump and warm and familiar as they drew Maria’s between them. “Padre nuestro, que esta en el cielo . . .”

Maria joined in the Our Father, but her gaze was on a tree in the neighbor’s yard. Surrounded by overturned children’s toys, the oak was young but tall, with slim graceful branches that reached languidly upward. In the spring breeze, the branches swayed in groups of three, four, five. It looked to Maria as if they were in conversation, women leaning toward one another, touching a shoulder or an elbow, confiding, confessing, and then, in big gusts of wind, bending at the waist to laugh until the breath in them was gone. Maria could hear that laugh in the rustle of leaves but didn’t understand the joke making the slim branches wave frenetically back and forth. She was on the fringes of their conversation, and she was focusing so deeply on it that she didn’t realize she had stopped praying.

“What do you see?” her abuela asked, watching Maria’s face. “What are you hearing?”

“I don’t know.” Maria pulled her hand from her abuela’s and again wrapped her fingers around the fence. She listened. “Something . . . something is different with the tree.”

“Do you understand what the tree is saying?”

“No. Almost.” Maria’s body felt more alive, more receptive, than it ever had, as though the world was on the verge of revealing itself to her. “Do you understand?”

“Diosito speaks through the earth, and I listen. Sometimes I hear Him right. Sometimes I don’t.”

“How do you know when you hear Him right and when you hear Him wrong?”

Maria’s abuela looked down at the trowel. She ran a finger through the dirt that remained, then rubbed that finger against her thumb. “Only He knows,” she said. “But when the people get better, I think I heard Him right. When they do not, I accept that I did not understand His language.”

“I want to know how to do it.” Maria finally looked away from the tree, to her abuela. The pain in her stomach had calmed. “I want to know how to do what you do.”

Maria’s abuela tightened the bata that Maria had let fall loose over her shoulders. “I was your age when Diosito gave me the gift,” she said softly. “Ven. Let’s go inside. We will see with time if the gift develops. If it does, I will teach you to be a curandera.”

 

Quickly, Maria became her abuela’s apprentice. She left school in eighth grade, the year of the egg, and accompanied her grandmother all over south Laredo and into Nuevo Laredo. They walked the cobblestone square, Maria’s abuela tracing a cross on the foreheads of children who scurried up to them, selling chicle and roses. (Maria thought they would have probably preferred pesos.) They visited the homes of people who had been given ojo or suffered from susto or who withered from illnesses that resisted every remedy the relatives knew to try. Maria watched her abuela soothe and cure sick infants, explain which yerbas to buy, how to pack them into little baggies and across which intersections to toss them. She marveled at how her abuela divined where in people’s homes and yards hexed photographs or dolls were hidden and listened to her pray over strangers with the same intimate ferocity as she had when Maria was sick. Her abuela believed that she was speaking directly with Diosito and that He was listening; and the conviction, Maria recognized, made it true.

From the day she started her apprenticeship, Maria awoke at five-thirty a.m. The early hour was special—a lush, secret part of the day before the world uttered its last luxurious yawn and concealed itself again. Without waking Guillermo or the twins, Maria slipped from bed and met her abuela in the kitchen. There, they shared one cup of black coffee, handing a glazed ceramic mug back and forth, an understanding passing between them that they were different; they were the ones with the don, the gift to heal, and they went to six o’clock Mass each morning to thank Diosito for His gift. Though her abuela advised against being ostentatious with her worship, Maria knelt the whole time on hard tile, enjoying the sharp pain and redness in her kneecaps.

After Mass came the daily lessons on clairaudience—earth-language. Maria learned how to sieve His words from the mundane and decipher them: a grackle’s strident cry was a warning, a shriek of caution; a moonless night was a long silence, encouraging Maria to be patient in awaiting changes ahead. She became an interpreter of sorts, known around the neighborhood as Little Vega to distinguish her from her abuela, who was also named Maria. By the time she was grown and her abuela had died, she was simply called Vega.

 

Vega was thirty-nine with three kids when she met Miguel Garcia, a married man who came to see her because he suspected he was the victim of brujería. He was weak and fatigued, with soul-numbing migraines, and had twice lost consciousness while operating heavy construction equipment. He’d also lost his appetite and all interest in anything but the military history books he’d collected since his discharge from the Army at twenty-one, right at the end of the Second World War.

“Both times,” he said, “right before I fell asleep or fainted, I heard voices. They sounded like children laughing, but there were no children around me. And then it was like I was looking through one of those . . . como se llaman? Those toys that look like binoculars that kids play with?”

 “Kaleidoscopes?” Vega suggested.

 “Si!” Miguel waved his hands before his eyes. “I saw these zigzags, bright colors. The next thing, I’m opening my eyes. When did I even close them? How much time passed? I was lucky both times. But what if it happens again? When I’m driving? What if I hurt someone?”

 Vega sat across from him in the backyard shed she used for consulting clients. They were separated by a small wooden nightstand she had inherited from her abuela. The only light came from a little table lamp, whose linen shade was covered with a burgundy silk handkerchief, and a homemade candle that smelled like spiced vanilla. In the strange combined glow, Miguel’s face was wan, his dark eyes feverish in a face chased by shadows.

“And what makes you think it’s brujería?” Vega asked.

“I’ve never been sick. Not even as a child, not even with the flu. This—the children’s voices, the visions . . . no.” Miguel shook his head. His mustache was thick and still dark, though his sideburns and beard glinted with white. “You’d think that un hombre, a veteran, wouldn’t believe in cosas como brujería. But all the things you see when you fight. You lose reason to pretend you can understand everything.” He added, “I need my work. Tengo familia, y necesitan comer—can you help me?”

The shed was long and narrow, tight as a jewelry box. On one wall, crimson velvet drapery hung from a shower rod Vega had bought at a garage sale. The other wall was papered with pamphlets and postcards from church: the Virgin Mary, Jesus with outstretched robed arms, patron saints and angels, instructions for how to say the rosary and make confession. An imitation Turkish rug, its sapphire color worn white in some areas, fit the shed from end to end, quieting it. In here was a world not entirely a part of the one outside.           

“Let me see your hands,” Vega said.

Miguel’s work-callused hands looked absurd on the nightstand’s lace doily. Vega closed her eyes as she ran her fingertips over the grooves on his palms. The lines that were faint on most people were deep on him, and she felt sweat spring to the surface of his skin. She imagined the sweat as a miniature flood swirling through the dried creekbeds of those grooves, and she lifted his hands to her mouth and pressed her lips against them. She opened her mouth slightly so that he would feel her warm breath, the hint of her tongue.

“Are you crazy?” Miguel asked sharply, pulling away. “What are you doing?”

Vega knew a good, hardworking man when she saw one. Good, hardworking men had fathered her three boys, but, one by one, they’d left and made her start over. She’d looked at Miguel and instantly understood that he was a good provider, a good father, a good husband. His resistance now was confirmation. She wanted him for her family.

“There is an hechizo against you,” she said. “Somebody has asked a brujo to put a curse on you.”

Miguel’s irritated expression slowly settled into one of crushed wariness: she was the doctor who had just confirmed his worst fear; he was the patient who, while not surprised, still wanted to fight the diagnosis. “Are you sure? How do you know?”

“Your colors tell me. The hechizo is sucking your energy, and everything is faded.” She pointed to a vase that held half a dozen roses, the petals shriveled and dry. “You see those flowers?”

Miguel nodded. 

“My son Marcos bought them for me at school. Earlier in the week, they were plump and soft with moisture, full of life. Now they are on the verge of death. The same is true with all of your colors, but your orange . . . ” Vega paused and shook her head, letting her words linger in the air.

“What?” Miguel interrupted. “What about my orange? What is that?”

“It’s the color in your aura indicating protection,” Vega answered. “Where it should be bright and strong, it is almost not there at all. You are vulnerable,” she added softly. “And you can feel it. Can’t you?”

Miguel swallowed once, decisively. “Yes. But why? And who?”

 Vega said nothing.

He stared back at her, then at the religious paraphernalia on the wall. “Are you Catholic?”

“Yes.”

“I go to Mass every Sunday. I make my confessions. I take communion. I pray.” He touched the silk handkerchief covering the lampshade, and for a moment Vega thought he was going to pull it off. But he just rubbed the material between his thumb and forefinger. “And still my ‘protection’ is almost gone? Still this ‘hechizo’ stays?”

“Brujería is powerful. Brujos are powerful.”

“More powerful than God?”

“It’s to do with energy,” Vega corrected. “Not faith. I can help you, though—will you let me?”

Miguel sighed and squeezed the back of his neck. He pulled out his wallet. “¿Cuanto me cuesta?”

Vega smiled. “Pay me when you’re feeling better.”

“No. You’ve got familia, too.” He jerked his chin to the right, where, beyond the crimson drapery and aluminum siding of the shed, a swing set dominated the backyard. “We both have the same needs.”

Vega reached for a small sewing pouch she kept beneath her chair. She extracted a pair of cuticle scissors. “For now,” she said, “I need you to clip your fingernails.”

             

Vega’s boys were sixteen, twelve, and nine. The oldest she had named Guillermo, after her younger brother, who, at seventeen, had taken the Greyhound to work the oil rigs outside Houston and never been heard from again. The other two were Jose Luis and Marcos, after their fathers. All three had the bright penny-colored eyes of Vega’s abuela.

She could hear them trampling through the house as she made dinner. Boys’ footsteps, so familiar to her—heavy and clumsy and bursting with machismo; the trail they left of stinking sneakers and dissected insects and heartbreak. She shook her head as she mixed fragrant chopped cilantro into a pan of shredded chicken, onions, and salsa verde. Steam rose, and Vega breathed deeply. Sometime between teaching her about curanderismo and earth-language, her abuela had taught her to cook. For a second, the smell of chicken encilantrada made Vega believe that her abuela was just around the corner, kneeling at her little altar to St. Gabriel, humming a psalm.

The first time Vega had cast an amarre del amor, her abuela had instantly known. Vega was in her early twenties, and the man was a gringo from Arkansas. He had strong freckled arms and a startled laugh and was educated; he was going to become a missionary doctor. Vega imagined boarding airplanes with him, learning new languages. She could practice curanderismo wherever they went, if she needed to. She would bear his children, and eventually they would settle in a large hacienda-style home with a kidney-shaped pool and a fountain where fat orange poi would swim. She saw their life so clearly, almost from the moment they met at the grocery store, that she was surprised when he eventually told her he was leaving in a week and didn’t invite her to go with him. So, after her abuela and twin brothers were asleep one night, she prepared a perfume. With mortar and pestle, she ground salt, sandalwood, rose petals, and orange blossom, then added droplets of alcohol to thin the paste. Quietly, she slipped out the back door and into the yard, and she placed the mortar in a little pool of moonlight beneath her bedroom window. Before returning to the house, she gazed at the leaning chain link fence against which her abuela had buried the egg all those years ago; the cement slab that served as a porch with two yellowed plastic lawn chairs; the dozens of clay pots where her abuela grew bergamot and sage, lavender and mint. Vega loved her abuela and her brothers, but she would not miss it here. She wanted more than this, and she did not feel guilty about her desire. Why should she? She listened, closing her eyes. The hot, dry summer breeze, the spirit of everything, agreed: Go, go.

The next night, Vega sequestered herself in the bathroom. She rubbed the perfume behind her ears, on each temple, and against the insides of her knees. She lifted her blouse and pressed it into her naval. Then she remoistened her finger, slipped it beneath her skirt and underwear, and, with a flush of guilty excitement, touched the perfume between her legs. She had a date with the gringo that night.

Her abuela was waiting for her in the hallway. She was in her eighties now but seemed an indeterminate age, lithe and unwrinkled but hunched by osteoporosis. She looked hard at Vega and took the mortar from her hands. “This is not what I have taught you,” she said, sniffing the perfume. “¿No tienes vergüenza?”

Vega grabbed the perfume back. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”

“You’re trying to make a man love you. No es natural. It is not what I taught you.”

“Well, maybe you should have. I’m late.” She brushed past her abuela and hid the mortar under her bed before leaving the house.

But she did the spell wrong. The gringo left anyway, and when he did, she was pregnant with Guillermo.

“Boys!” she called now, pulling plates from the cabinet. “Come help set the table.”

The boys clambered into the kitchen, and Vega shot Jose Luis a reproving look as he muttered, “Faggot,” to Marcos. Guillermo rolled his eyes at the younger two, grabbing dishes and clattering them before four of the five seats at the table.

“Watch it with those,” Vega said. “They’re breakable, you know.”

“Yeah, Guillermo,” Jose Luis said, tearing paper towels from the roll on the counter. “They’re breakable, you know.”

Vega sighed. Marcos, the sensitive one, patted her arm. She smiled back at him. “Will you serve the water, amorsito?”

Over the next half hour, as her sons bickered and scraped forks against their plates and rose for second helpings, Vega stared at the empty chair across the table. Boys weren’t supposed to grow up without a father. How would they learn how to be men? Good men, good husbands and providers? She thought of her brothers: Guillermo, frozen at seventeen with a chipped front tooth and rattail hair; the twins, Samuel and Carlos, now petty thieves and dealers, rough and showing little trace of the children who’d serenely slept on a mattress on the floor. Their abuela had done her best. She’d been a mother when their own mother had refused. But it wasn’t enough. That was why Vega had Miguel’s fingernail clippings, why she would intensify her own hechizos until he, like the good men before him, fell in love with her and, unlike the good men before him, stayed.

 

When Miguel next came to see her, she was wearing perfume. Not one that she made but Chanel No. 5. She’d bought it at one of the tiendas in Nuevo Laredo, where the same items cost half as much as they did a short walk over to this side of the bridge. She reserved the perfume for special occasions—the boys’ First Holy Communions and birthday parties, her rare dates—and she loved the heady scent, so perfectly manufactured. It filled the small shed like water, enveloping them, and Vega felt a smug burst of pleasure that Miguel would go home smelling like her skin.

“Tell me about your family,” she said to him, cupping one of his hands and spreading it flat with her other, leaving her fingers atop his. He held his hand straight and rigid, not allowing for a single curve of joint that might make their touch feel intimate. “Your wife . . . what’s her name?

Miguel’s cocoa-colored eyes narrowed. “Por qué?”

Vega’s answer was smooth. “You think you’re just one man and so the hechizo only affects you. But you are not one man. Once we bind ourselves to someone else through marriage, through children, we cease to be one individual. The hechizo may be against you, but you would be foolish to think it is not also against her. Against your whole family, even. So. What’s her name?”

“Sofia,” Miguel said, and the syllables of her name thrust the small space into silence. It was as if he’d summoned her, and now her presence felt heavy and accusing.

Vega cleared her throat, angry at the other woman. “And have you noticed her behaving strangely? Anything . . . out of the ordinary?”

Miguel shook his head. “No. Everything is the same as it has been.”

“And how is that?” Vega prompted. She smiled at him, a gentle, inviting smile. No teeth. “Tell me, what is your home like? What is the routine? The energy?”

Twin lines formed between Miguel’s brows. She waited patiently. He was the kind of man she adored: quiet, each word chosen carefully, reserved and stoic as a soldier. He was the kind of man she wished to crack open, take a chisel to the chest and persistently thunk, thunk, thunk it with a mallet until, with a sweet creak, his skin and bone butterflied open before her, everything glistening within, ready for her exploration.

“Sofia and I, we’ve been married thirty-four years. We are the way people are who know each other well,” he said softy. “Sometimes I realize with surprise that we have not spoken in three days, but not in a cold way, an unloving way. Just in the way that happens when you no longer need words like you did when you were younger, when you talked and talked, always trying to get somewhere. Do you know what I mean?”

Vega nodded. “It is much of what I do,” she said, though it felt counterintuitive, explaining in words. “Listening to unspoken language.”

By the end of their hour together, Vega had learned that his wife, that Sofia, was a seamstress, his son in the Marine Corps, and his daughter an English teacher who still lived in the house with her young son. She could tell that Miguel pressured himself to be a father to be the boy, in lieu of his jailed biological one, and could hardly restrain her excited agreement when he said boys needed strong male influences; wasn’t that exactly what she thought, too? When footsteps sounded outside the shed, Vega felt shaken from a trance. She had forgotten her next appointment, a regular who came to see her for spiritual consultation. She told Miguel, “Close your eyes.” He did, and she prayed for him in Latin, her whisper a soft hiss. Later, she would put an hechizo against his marriage, his peaceful wordless marriage, that it may soon be fractured so that her love, her boys, could seep into the cracks. Before he even realized it, his dreams, his unspoken words, would be messages to her. Sofia had had him for thirty-four years. Nearly Vega’s entire life. It was her turn.

As it happened, though, Miguel was the rarest of good men: his devotion to his family seemed untemptable. The only reason he kept returning to see Vega over the next year, she was certain, was because he worried about the effects his declining health was having on them. He had been let go from his job after again losing consciousness, this time while operating an excavator that was lifting a thousand-pound pipe. The children’s voices came on quickly, laughing as his vision filled with those colorful zigzags and his stomach swooped as if he was on a carnival ride. When he opened his eyes, there was a crowd of men yelling below him, surrounding the tractor-trailer where the pipe had crashed. I’m sorry, his boss said to him, nearly in tears. I can’t keep you. Por favor, go see the doctors in San Antonio or Houston. Figure out what’s wrong. But of course, without insurance, Miguel could do no such thing. He was stuck seeking handyman jobs, excavators and loaders and dozers replaced by paintbrushes and hammers, children’s tools. He was desperate. And the more desperate he became, the more cunning Vega had to be with her hechizos; if he sensed that she was acting in self-interest, even the strongest spells would be futile. So instead of casting amarres del amor, she made him ill in order to cure him; she made him first trust her and then need her. And finally, when he was at his weakest, tearfully gaping at the blood that mingled with yolk when she cracked an egg into a glass of water, she kissed him. She kept it short and tender, and he didn’t pull away. “I can help you,” she whispered. “Will you let me?” He nodded with hollow, deeply sad eyes, and she walked him to her bedroom.

Love. Could it be conjured? Yes.

Vega’s disappointment after her first failed amarre del amor had made her abuela soften. She’d sat at Vega’s bedside and run her ripe, plum-colored fingers across Vega’s scalp the way she had when Vega was a girl. “Mijita,” she sighed. “This is the most difficult lesson for anybody to learn, and it is especially hard for a curandera—remember the Corinthians? ‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.’ ¿Recuerdes de eso?”

Vega nodded. How familiar this was, her abuela softly reciting Bible passages, reminding her that healing was a gift and they only vessels. Vega disagreed. A vessel could not guide itself; Vega could.

“So you see, love must be at the center of curanderismo,” her abuela continued. “But not in this way. You can open yourself to love and open others to love, and you can help them recover their spirits after losing love, but you cannot control another person’s heart. ¿Ahora me entiendes?”

 Vega said yes, she did understand, but what she was thinking was that she would learn to do it better.

She knew that the perfume she had made to attract the gringo and the amares del amor she’d cast on the fathers of Jose Luis and Marcos were not part of curanderismo. They were brujería. She knew this, but then, as now, when she sifted inside herself during meditation, she found that she did not care. She deserved happiness. She deserved love. Everyone spoke of selfishness as if it was an evil thing. The most unforgivable of sins, to seek better for oneself, but selfishness was a natural state of being, primal and beautiful. And unlike most people, she had a gift she could use to her advantage; the true sin would be to squander it. Her abuela was wrong. The heart was as vulnerable to energy as the body; the path to it was simply more oblique.

 

The woman was young and forgettable the way many gringas were forgettable: straight nutmeg hair, pale eyebrows, skinny, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. She stepped into the shed stooping slightly, as though afraid her head would hit the ceiling. Vega gestured her toward the far chair and took a moment longer than necessary to turn the latch on the shed door. This subtle dramatic action always gave her a sense of power. This was her space, her confessional, her stage. Here, she could invite people into other lives. She could convince them that everything was fluid, no decision irrevocable. Or she could assure them of the infallibility of destiny. They all came to her with their private begging, and she answered the way they needed her to.This was also not what her abuela taught her.

This was also not what her abuela taught her.

They sat across from each other. Vega asked the woman her name.

“Sarah,” she said, sounding surprised at the question. “Isn’t that something you would just know?”

Vega fought a roll of the eyes; how many times had she been asked that, and always by the gringos? “This must be your first time.”

Sarah gave a quick smile and nod. She placed her hands on the table and then removed them, setting them on her lap. Her eyes darted around the shed, and Vega had the sense she could jump up and leave at any moment.

“Perhaps it would help you to know what exactly it is I do,” Vega said gently. She lifted the lace doily on the nightstand and retrieved a service menu, which she had typed and Guillermo had had laminated at Office Max. It was a new addition, and it made her feel more like a businesswoman and less like her abuela’s version of a curandera, carting yerbas and statuettes and cards across town in plastic bags like a homeless woman. She wondered what her abuela would think about the menu, with bullet point lists under categories like spellwork, spiritual consultation, spiritual cleansing (limpia), card reading, and ritual candle burning.

Sarah went through the menu slowly, flipping pages at the bottom right corner, as though she didn’t want to cloud them with her fingerprints. Her fingernails were creamy and oval-shaped, extending just beyond the pads of her fingers. She was not wearing a wedding ring, Vega noticed, or any jewelry, for that matter.

“My sister,” Sarah said softly, still looking at the menu, “has run away. She left everyone she said she loved—her husband, her two girls, our parents and me—without so much as a goodbye. It’s been months, and no one has heard from her. A friend of mine comes to see you—Amy?”

Vega nodded. Amy was one of her regulars, an eager young woman in search of some nameless thing, eyes as hopeful as a dog’s.

“Anyway,” Sarah said, “I just need to know why she left and if she’s okay.”

Vega nodded. “The worst thing for the spirit is to be left with no answers. But you should know that her reason for leaving and her current state of being are two separate questions, with possibly two very different answers.”

Sarah blinked. “Okay,” she said, almost defiantly.

“Do you have a photograph of your sister?”

“Oh. I’m—I’m not sure.” She leaned down, her fine hair covering her face as she reached for her canvas bag that had dropped on the ground. Vega contained her disapproval. Gringos never seemed to value their possessions. “I’m sorry,” Sarah said. “I should have thought . . .” Her hands foraged in the bag until they found her wallet, a long, packed leather pouch that burst open as soon as Sarah touched the button snap. She rifled through receipts, bills, and coins until—“Ah!” She smiled as she slipped a small photo from the mess around it. “It’s old, but I have one.”

It was a school photo. The girl must’ve been about fifteen. She wore a pale blue turtleneck sweater, stared into the camera with eyes that the small smile didn’t match. Her posture was awkward; she seemed to be sliding down in the seat, her right side lower than her left, though her neck was rigid. Vega looked more closely. The girl’s thick hair and turtleneck partly concealed a dark neck brace.

“She was in a wheelchair,” Sarah said. “This was after she’d gotten out of the hospital.”

“What happened to her?” Vega asked, transfixed and somehow almost shamed by the knowingness in the girl’s green eyes.

“Botulism, if you can believe it,” Sarah said. “Our mom tried home-canning beets, but she did it wrong, and Genny reacted to the bacteria. She was paralyzed for months and not completely well for more than a year. By that time, people had sort of given up on her.” She paused, the color rising to her cheeks. “I didn’t. But I guess that doesn’t matter to her.”

“I see,” Vega murmured. “I would like to do a ritual candle burning. But first, may I see your hands?”

Sarah held both hands out to Vega, palms upturned, fingers curved. An offering. Vega ran her fingertips lightly over the lines. She imagined them as a winding racecourse, her fingertip the car, careful on the turns. She waited, eyes shut, for the series of random images she knew would come. It was like the unguarded moments before sleep, when the mind works itself into a frenzy of disjointed pictures, one after the other. She relayed these pictures to clients who listened intently. Vega had found that once an image was implanted in people’s minds, they began looking for it in the world. Then, no longer would a certain awning or picnic table or restaurant be just an awning or picnic table or restaurant. It would be transformed into something with meaning. Import. Usually there was no harm in this..But today something was different. The red-velvet theater of Vega’s eyelids was blank. Instead, she heard a baby’s cry, as stark and wildly alive as if a child were in the room with them. Her eyes flew open and she dropped Sarah’s hands.

“What?” Sarah looked down at her palms and then back at Vega. Her gray eyes were wary. “Did you . . . see something?”

“Do you have children?”

Sarah flushed and then paled. “No.”

“Are you pregnant?”

“No—I don’t think so.”

“I’m sorry,” Vega said. “May I see your hands again?”

This time, she looked closely at each hand, angling the table lamp to better examine the lines. They were clear and well-formed, largely unbroken—but that baby’s cry . . . She closed her eyes and, for the first time in many moonless nights, concentrated the way she had as a girl, when her abuela had taught her about earth-language, about looking not just at blades of grass but at the dirt in between, and the insects in that dirt, and the almost imperceptible tracks they left behind and nearly inaudible sounds they made as they scraped and carried and worked. Now she heard Sarah’s breathing, soft and quick; the snap of the candlewick as it burned; the press of wind against the side of the shed. She smelled detergent on Sarah’s clothes, dust from the rug and drapery, paper. And the longer she held Sarah’s hands, the more she felt the unmistakable sensation of rope being twined around her wrists, tighter and tighter, chafing her skin. She felt a lurch of fear, searing hopelessness. She heard a chorus of women’s weeping.

A curandera must hold a deep awareness of others’ suffering, her abuela whispered.

“I’m sorry,” Vega said, pulling away. “I can’t help you.”

“What do you mean?” Protectively, Sarah touched her belly. “What did you see? Am I pregnant? Is something bad going to happen? What about my sister?”

Vega was shaken, near tears. She could still feel the rope. “Sometimes the answers we find are not the ones we seek. Please, just go.”

After a moment, Sarah stood. Her breath was louder now, and she shook her head, a hand still on her abdomen. She looked as though she was about to speak but, on second thought, hurried past Vega toward the door. Vega watched her fumble with the latch, and the shed filled with light as she rushed outside. She didn’t look back, and the door swung shut behind her.

Vega held her wrists under the lamp: they were smooth and unmarked. Espanto—soul losswas in Sarah’s future. Not just her future, but her daughter’s. Vega was certain of these things, and the certainty filled her with frightened awe.

Vega was still sitting on her folding chair when the shed door opened two hours later. The sun had lowered, and the smells of evening and rain startled her from silence. A man stood in the doorway. Vega knew, even in the absence of light, that it was Miguel.

“I’ve left her,” he said. “I’ve left them all for you.”

Vega walked to him and pressed her body against his. He was thin and shaky.

“Come in,” she said, taking his hand and pulling him into the shed. “Get undressed while I bring an egg from the house. I think the limpia will work now.”