The bruja turns her rain stick upside down.
Rain drops patter one by one,
then fall , faster and faster
until her bamboo sky
fills with the welcome
sound of rushing water.
An autumnal whirl of sun-dried cactus
beats against its wooden prison walls.
As I look heavenwards,
rain falls in a wisdom of pearls,
cast from dark skies.
The scales fall from my eyes
and land on the marimbas,
dry beneath the arches
where wild music sounds,
like this rainstorm
released by the bruja’s
(bruja: witch, witch doctor)
Comment: Every afternoon, in the rainy season, as regular as clockwork, the clouds build up and by five o’clock, the rain comes tumbling down. Nothing can describe the welcome smell of cool rain on dry dust and hot sand, the sound of raindrops pittering through the trees to splash on dry leaves, or the hiss of water on hot cobbles.
When the rain doesn’t come, then the Oaxacans who believe in the ancient traditions resort to sympathetic magic. They ask the brujos for help and the witch doctors bring out their rain sticks. Sympathetic magic: the sound of the sun-dried cactus thorns falling through the hollow rain stick imitates the sound of the rain falling on the rain forest leaves. The clouds gather in sympathy and, sooner or later, the skies fill up with clouds, and down comes the rain.
… hard baked loaves of stone … hot cobbles beneath the feet … the burning street forced upwards through the shoe leather to scorch the feet … the sun’s orb an irresistible hammer beating the strength out of the sweating body … the heart sucked dry … the lungs shriveled … a man dehydrated … already dried up by the baths … from the inside out …
Everything seemed different to his distorted vision. Translucent people, pale ghosts of themselves, passed before him and wandered across the street, shadows in a dream cast against a cave wall. Tim walked to the central square and entered the cathedral through the same carved glass doors in which he had seen his father’s image, but his father was no longer there. Wary of flames and flickering candles, Tim stood in the dust-laden beam of sunlight that fell from a stained glass window high in the roof.
Wave after wave of colored light broke across his face and played fragmented games upon his hands. He inhaled sunshine and felt the sea-surge of a body being reborn. A new man, he emerged from darkness into light, a spiritual being, neither of this world nor yet of the next. The colored light danced its chiaro-oscuro upon the surrounding walls and he felt soft sunlight flooding into him.
… inside massive stone walls … candles … crucifixes … paintings of saints … statues … carved wooden images … outside in the sunlight … alebrijes … staring eyes … wagging tails … protruding tongues … their spirits breaking through the wood … turning from darkness into light … within the man’s head … once open doors slowly closing … keys no longer turning in locks … unwound clocks no longer ticking … cobwebs gathering in forgotten rooms … flowers on the altars… nochebuenas with their single and double petals … crimson and cream … cempasúchiles … marigolds lighting a golden walkway to guide the dead … loved ones returning to visit the living …
Standing in the cathedral, drenched in a rainbow shower of light, Tim’s mind drifted in and out of sun and clouds. All around him he saw secret worlds opening like oysters before his eyes. Flames through the candles made hard, crisp sounds, hissing and sharp, like the inside of an apple when strong teeth penetrate the outer skin. Candlelight brought an unexpected peace as its yellow bees’ wax light wandered over the altar.
Tim went to the chapel dedicated to La Virgen de la Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca. A girl knelt in front of the altar with a basket of flowers upon her head. With a click, wheels turned in his head and Tim realized that he had seen her that morning in the square in front of St. James. He didn’t want to disturb her prayers, so he tiptoed to the far side of the altar rail and started to kneel. As he did, the flower girl turned her head towards him.
“Señor: I am so glad you have come. Please, I need your help.”
“My help?” Tim stood up and moved towards her. “Of course, what do you want me to do?”
“These flowers, I must place them on the altar. But the basket is caught in my hair. I cannot remove it. Could you …?”
“I saw you with a boy, this morning outside St. James, didn’t I?”
“Perhaps. My cousin walked with me until he slipped on the cobbles and could walk no more. He would have helped. Now there is nobody.”
“I’ll help. What must I do?”
“Take the weight of the basket and try to see where my hair is caught. You must untangle it, if you can. Then I can place the flowers on the altar as I have vowed.”
She knelt, motionless, an animal frozen in a trap. Tim lifted the basket and its weight shocked him: the stones within must have weighed at least twenty pound. As he lifted the basket, she winced and he saw where her hair had caught in the basket’s wickerwork.
“Can you hold the basket now?” he asked her.
She raised her hands and held it aloft. As she did so, Tim began to untangle her hair from the weave, a slow, difficult task. At last, the basket came free and the girl’s black hair fell smoothly into place.
“I hope I didn’t hurt you when I pulled your hair free.”
‘”Thank you and no, it didn’t hurt,” She took the basket in her hands and he opened the altar rail for her. She mounted the steps and placed the basket of flowers on the altar at the feet of La Virgen de la Soledad.
“There,” she bowed her head, crossed herself, and muttered a prayer. “My father will get better now.”
The girl returned through the altar rail and she and Tim knelt side by side in front of Oaxaca’s patroness.
“They say she will answer your prayers,” the flower girl looked weary and distressed. “She has worked many miracles for those who have walked the road. My cousin walked with me for a bit, but he was in great pain, so I sent him home.”
“Surely you could have finished the pilgrimage another day?”
“Oh, no, señor, it must be completed between the hours of six and twelve. My cousin should have helped, but I did it on my own. Señor, I must go now. It is time for me to change. I have completed my pilgrimage and now there is work for me to do.”
“Perhaps I can walk with you a little way?”
“Oh no, señor, that wouldn’t be right. I must go alone. But thank you.”
Tired, but full of grace, she got to her feet and walked backwards, away from the altar, not taking her eyes off the Virgin’s face. When she got to the chapel’s entrance she turned and left.
Tim knelt there in silence and thought of the strange things that seemed to happen in Oaxacan churches. Last Sunday he had gone to mass in La Consolación. The lady in front of him had opened her blouse and offered her breast to her youngest child who sucked there, greedily, throughout the service. The old man at the back held a roll-your-own smoke in the palm of his hand and closed his eyes in ecstasy as he inhaled the drug. Three dogs, tongues lolling, were pursuing a bitch in heat and she came into the church for sanctuary. The dogs chased her up and down the aisles as the high priest doggedly murmured the blessings that uplifted the hearts of the faithful: a bored acolyte passed the anointing oil and presented the sacred wine to the priest. Flowers and candles adorned the altar. When the old man from the back of the church stubbed out his smoke and knelt for communion, night breath lay whisky thick on the high priest’s tongue.
La Virgen de la Soledad stood tall on the altar wearing a black kirtle. Silver stars and planets swam through the dark night of the velvet that flowed down from her waist. Beside her, a young man with open, staring eyes hung from a rough, wooden cross. He recognized Tim and called him by his baptismal name, but Tim no longer knew how to answer. The young man had the jewel eyes of a flayed Mexican god, living forever, and never quite dead. Black blood flowed down the carved face and formed a river of coal dust waxed with carmine. The heavy smell of incense mingled with the smoke from the candles and transported Tim to an internal world in which time rolled on and on and lost all meaning.
… impressions … a nose here … a pair of eyes there … long black hair … a tree swaying to the music … a nose wrinkled in disdain … a black bible banged on a wooden table … a thin girl … a Cubist nightmare of female body parts … multiple pin balls released in a rush by an errant slot machine … light falling from high windows … stained glass … reds … blues … greens … smoke from a candle twisting in the air …
… where Alonso waited for them.
“Good morning,” Alonso limped towards them.
“Still hurting, I see,” El Brujo placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder and Alonso grimaced. “But don’t worry, it won’t be long now.”
“That’s easy to say. You’re not the one who’s suffering.”
“Not visibly, no; but underneath the surface I am a volcano, about to boil over,” El Brujo sighed and turned towards Tim. “Are you ready?”
“I suppose so. But I’ve brought nothing with me.”
“Don’t worry. Everything will be provided.”
They walked into the bath house and the attendant behind the desk greeted them.
“A new friend,” said El Brujo, pointing to Tim. “He’s on my account. And he’ll want a massage.”
The attendant gathered soap and towels, then signaled for them to enter the baths.
“Follow me,” said Alonso. He limped forward and Tim walked after him.
“Tonight,” El Brujo whispered to the attendant as soon as they had gone.
“You’re not thinking of …” the attendant raised his eyebrows.
“I’m not thinking of anything yet,” El Brujo silenced him with a gesture. “Here, take these herbs and add them to the herbal mixture in the baths, will you?” El Brujo passed a small packet to the attendant. “And don’t let us be disturbed. As for tonight … I think we’re running out of time … who knows?”
“I’ll close the doors when you’ve gone in,” the attendant smiled. “Nobody will disturb you.”
“Thank you, my friend,” El Brujo shook the attendant’s outstretched hand and followed the others into the Baths.
Tim undressed and folded his clothes with care. Then he forced his watch, his wallet, and the medallion into the toe of his left shoe. Clad only in the paper-thin, skimpy towel and grasping his bar of soap, he opened the door of the cubicle and stepped out into the unknown.
He looked down and saw a line of painted footprints and a hand that pointed … just like the codices he thought … and followed the footprints to a door from which steam leaked. He opened it and stepped into a room as warm as a greenhouse that smelled of herbs and flowers. A thick steam circulated and Tim thought of cool summer tides rising over sun-warmed sands. Indistinct figures floated through the mist and one of these lurched towards him.
I knew it was you,” the figure drew closer. “Come and join us.” Alonso took Tim by the arm and presented him. “Here he is.”
El Brujo, stripped naked, with his long black hair hanging dank below his shoulders, loomed out of the steam and embraced Tim.
“How do you feel?”
“I’m okay, I guess.”
“In here we are all the same,” El Brujo proclaimed. “There are no secrets. We are as naked in body and soul as we were when we abandoned our mother’s body.”
… soft warm air … moving delicate fingers of scented mist over the belly … floating on air … drifting across the room …the return to a surrogate womb cradled in an ocean of amniotic fluid … steam and herbs filling the lungs … reaching relaxing tendrils deep into heart and chest …
In what seemed another life, a door opened in the herbal mist and a man stepped through.
“Who wanted a massage?” he called.
“This one,” said El Brujo, pointing at Tim. “Here, grab your towel and your soap, and off you go,” El Brujo pushed Tim towards the masseur who led him out of the darkness into a brightly lit wide-awake room. The masseur, squat, dark-skinned, and scarred, looked like a judoka from the old school built for close in body-work. He pointed to the hooks on the wall and Tim hung his towel on one of them.
“Soap,” the masseur had the voice of a parade ground sergeant major and Tim snapped to attention and handed him the bar of soap. Then the masseur pointed to the marble slab in the middle of the room and Tim climbed on to the slab and lay there face down. The masseur began by soaping Tim’s body; then using the tips of his fingers, he moved across his back, digging in deep at any sign of resistance. Next came a series of karate chops and the remaining hardness in Tim’s body started to break down. The masseur hummed as he moved and drove each note home with a pounding that made his patient feel that he was the piano and the masseur was the maestro, rippling the keyboard with manipulative fingers.
This is what Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony must feel like, in the Liszt transcription, Tim mused, as the pounding accelerated and he was swept away, a rudderless ship on a stormy sea of carnal music.
“There, you’re done,” the masseur made one last sweeping movement across Tim’s body and moved away from the massage table. “Stay as long as you want and get up in your own time. There’s no hurry. I’ll tell El Brujo you’re on your way.”
Suspended in space, somewhere between earth and heaven, Tim lay motionless on the slab as images flashed through his mind.
… a face from the crowd … lighting up in sudden recognition … a man in a blue suit lying in a coffin … hands folded on his chest … eyes closed … a woman … somewhere … running … with a baby in her arms … snow falls like interference on an old black and white television set … a bridge now … and a river … snow falling into the river … a young girl … three old women … two standing between her and the river … one holding out her hands … the child transferred from young hands to old … the young girl … tears streaking her face … her face as cold as stone … as hard as obsidian … the young girl … an arm waves above the waters … the dark closes in … close up of a snake skin … slither marks in the dust where the snake has slipped away …
Tim tumbled down from a high blue sky and returned to the normal world. After a little while, still dizzy and dreaming, he got to his feet, stumbling and disorientated. Then his sense of balance returned and he walked out through the door and back into the steam room.
“Now it’s time to meditate and dream,” El Brujo greeted him. “Here, this slab is reserved for you. Don’t worry. We won’t be disturbed. There’s only you, me, and Alonso.”
Tim climbed onto the slab and lay on his back. Herbs, magic, mists and healing powers: they wafted their way through his lungs, filling him with a strange and languid lassitude. The lower half of his body unwound and the knots in the muscles untied themselves one by one. He felt as if his body no longer belonged to him.
“Now,” El Brujo lowered his voice until it was scarcely more than a whisper. “Just lie there, without moving. Try to empty your mind of all thoughts and feelings. Just imagine the herbal mist filling your whole body with the lightness of clouds.”
Tim did as he was told and felt himself filling with a peace that he hadn’t felt in years. Weight fell away from his body, and light, he wanted to float away on the air to be dissolved into streamers of mist.
… wrapped in a cloud of unknowing … drifting in cotton wool… damp and grey … clammy … hot spots … cold pools … a ray of sunlight almost piercing the cloud … light fading … shadows … at the eye’s corner … half-glimpsed shapes … sounds … half heard … a grey sea on a cloudy day … movement … a dull glow … distant lava flowing warm from a subdued volcano … a wild beast slinking … chained within the mist … a kaleidoscope of colors … fists over the eyes … pressing … two eyes … fierce … smoking … the stuff of nightmares … a cold hand seeking … eyes like gimlets … piercing the body … examining the soul … dragging the heart upwards into the mouth … figures walking a tightrope of tapestry thread … a life spun out … too distant to make out … knots and tangles … a skein of memory … shanks of thought … fire and blood … the mist stained … a deep male voice … not now … not now … but soon … cold ice … hot fire … the slash of Huitzilopochtli’s obsidian knife …
… the mists buck and twitch … an ancient movie with no soundtrack … a dusty road winds across a flat plain below a high mountain … a black figure … a man striding along the road … four Golden Eagles circle … they spiral upwards in ever increasing circles … feathered stones cast in an aerial pond …
… a dust path … a man walking towards an old village … houses slumbering beneath the sun … cast shadows … open doors … villagers calling out to him as he passes through …
.. . an upright man young with no limp … the heart of the village … he sits below the central cross … flowers, pink roses play where Christ’s body should hang … time passes … three old women walk towards the man … they greet with an affectionate embrace …
… thunder clouds build … a bolt of lightning descends and strikes the cross … the cross splits in two halves … one half falls to the ground … lightning stabs like a spear … wounds the young man in the right thigh … plunges its electric sword deep into his flesh yet leaving no visible scar … the light fades swiftly … when it returns … mounds of rubble and dust … the young man limps away … one half of the broken cross lies heavy on his shoulder …
…two hands grip the mist and tear it apart … a painted face emerges … striations … alternate black and yellow bands … the wasp god … Tezcatlipoca bares his teeth …. a fierce all-devouring smile … teeth … sharp and filed … stars surround the god of the night sky … words celebrate the god of ancestral memory … he is the embodiment of change through conflict … discord … enmity … sorcery … strife … words flow effortless from his mouth … “I am he for whom you must die.”
… this is the god of the smoking mirror and of the broken foot … his feet are shrouded in mist … an obsidian mirror hangs from his chest … snakes of smoke writhe within it … within the mirror is movement but no face and no future …
… words and images lick at Tim’s chest like tongues of fire … smoke straggles up from where his chest hairs sizzle and burn and he knows that he is doomed … yet he still has something to do and some time to live … he stares into the smoking mirror and sees his own reflection… in his hand he holds his broken medallion and then he sees, suddenly, at the edge of his vision, the other half held in someone else’s hand … the other medallion swings like a pendulum poised to hypnotize …
the image fades and Tim is left stranded in the darkness of the mis … an unspeakable hollowness fills him and he knows that something terrible and fierce has entered his life … the mists thin to reveal a barren inner city landscape … snow streaks white lines against black clouds … three old women emerge from the darkness …one carries a bundle, wrapped in a blanket … she peels back the edge to reveal the tiny face of a new born child … the lady with the scissors snips the frail, thin thread of red wool that binds the infant’s wrist … the lady with the spindle spins a longer thread … the lady with the measuring rod measures it then twists the thread round and round the baby’s wrist … scissors snip it … fingers tie the loose ends into a bow …
the lady with the spindle kisses the child then leaves it wrapped as well as she can in a cardboard box on a set of steps leading to a massive wooden door … she steps up to the door and tugs at the doorbell … lights appear … a nun opens the door and sees the cardboard box … her eyes open wide and her arms fling upwards as she discovers the child abandoned there on the doorstep … she puts her hand against her forehead and squints into the night … three sets of footsteps lead away from the door … but nobody is there ….
the scene changes … a river and a bridge … a young girl poised on the parapet … she flings herself into the water and disappears into the night … snow continues to swirl … a set of footsteps leads to the bridge … but none return …
“Come back to us when you are ready,” El Brujo’s voice penetrated the illusion. “Take your time. Sit up slowly, then get up when you are done.”
Tim got to his feet. The mist seemed thicker now, and heavier. Memories of all he had seen tumbled through his mind as he tried to maintain his hold on reality.
“Whatever you saw belongs to you and is yours and yours alone,” El Brujo snapped his fingers and Tim shuddered. “Treasure it. Interpret it as you will. The more you perform this exercise, the clearer the visions will become and the more they will speak to you. We cannot live in those lands but we can visit them at will. When we are skilled enough, we can interpret their meaning. Until then, the visions are just signposts.”
“How long was I dreaming?”
“What makes you think you were dreaming? Time has no meaning in the other land. Objective time, the time that runs by in the real world, rarely changes. But the subjective time of the mist is different for each one of us,” El Brujo had a dreamy expression on his face. “Sometimes, it feels as though it can last for years.”
“I’ll see you tonight then?” Alonso turned towards El Brujo.
“Tonight it is.”
“And I’ll see you this afternoon,” Tim said to Alonso. “We’re going to Mitla this afternoon, aren’t we?”
“That’s partly why I’m here,” Alonso looked troubled and, eyebrows drawn together in a frown, he weighed his words with care. “I’m sorry, I can’t make it this afternoon. I’ll send one of my assistants around in the car. Don’t worry, whoever I send will know as much as I do, if not more. And I’ll be there this evening. Don’t forget, then,” Alonso patted Tim on the arm. “1:00 pm sharp, at your apartment. Just wait outside the front gate and someone will drive by and pick you up.”
“How will I know which car it is?”
“Don’t worry. It’ll be an official car and I’ll tell them to honk the horn. Come along now.”
The three men left the steam room together. Behind them, the mists gathered into little groups that vibrated with energy and life.
Tim walked up the street towards the centre of town, moving slowly, from window to shop window, still hesitant to go to the baths. A craft shop packed with bric-à-brac and old curiosities caught his attention. The shop held an irresistible sense of mystery and he tried to look in but couldn’t see much through the dust and cobwebs. He opened the door and copper goat bells jangled. An old man, dressed in an artist’s smock, emerged from a room behind the counter.
“Are you looking for anything in particular?”
“I’m not sure. May I look around?”
“Of course you may.”
The old man’s eyes followed Tim as he walked from shelf to shelf and examined the dusty objects. A figure of the Spanish knight, Don Quixote, built from scrap metal sat on the reinforced toe of a workman’s boot. Tim marveled at the artist’s innovative use of recycled materials: valves soldered together with nuts and bolts and springs.
“Did you make this?”
The artisan nodded and smile. Tim took the medallion out of his shirt where he had hidden it next to his skin and showed it to the shop keeper.
“Have you ever seen anything like this before?”
The artisan’s eyes narrowed and he shook his head.
“I’m looking for the other half. Could you make one for me?”
“Why?” Tim offered it to him for closer inspection, but the artisan threw up his hands and backed away.
“I don’t need to look closer. I can’t help you.”
“I need to repair the medallion.”
“I can do nothing for you.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“Go to El Brujo. He’s the only one who can help you.”
Door bells jangled and the shop door opened.
“Speak of the devil ….” the artisan looked relieved. “It’s the man himself.”
“My ears were burning,” El Brujo‘s eyes held a mischievous twinkle.
“Here he is,” the artisan turned to Tim. “You can ask him yourself now.”
“Ask me what?” El Brujo stared at Tim who turned red in the face as he pushed the medallion back under his shirt.
“It’s nothing,” Tim readjusted the buttons.
“You won’t find it here.”
“The other half of your medallion; have patience, my friend. It knows that you are searching for it. It will be drawn to you, never fear. The baths are across the road, incidentally. Alonso told me you might go there this morning. I’ll go with you.”
“But I thought you were going to Yalalag; I saw you on the bus this morning. You spoke to me.”
“Indeed I was and indeed I did. But I got off the bus, didn’t I? And you didn’t understand me when I spoke to you, did you? So I’m here, now; where I’m needed. Come along. Let’s go.”
He nodded to the artisan.
“Adiós, Pepito. Thanks for calling me. By the way, have you thought about that offer I made you?”
“I have indeed.”
“And your answer?”
“I think you know what I will say.”
“I do. But you must make up your mind quickly. The circle is broken and we must rebuild it.”
“When I am needed, I will be there.”
“You will be needed tonight.”
“Then I’ll be there.”
El Brujo and Tim exited the shop together, crossed the street, and walked towards the baths …
Tim headed for the mescal sellers who inhabited little shops in a long line over by the market and went straight to his favorite stall. The shop seemed empty, so he rang the little goat bell that dangled there for customers. The owner, an old lady with greying hair, emerged from the darkness at the rear. She looked at Tim, blinked, gave a half-smile, turned it into a scowl and announced: “It’s not here.”
“What’s not here?”
“What you’re looking for, of course. I know you’re looking but ….” she stared at Tim examining him with great care. “You don’t know what I’m talking about do you?”
Tim placed his hand on his chest but the medallion wasn’t there. He felt its absence like an open wound and remembered that he had left it on the table in his apartment.
“Of course I do: I am looking for some mescal, that’s what you mean, isn’t it?”
“Of course that’s what I mean,” the old lady smiled. “ And that is why I am here, to sell you some mescal. How much do you want?”
“Just a bottle.”
“I have no bottles prepared this early in the morning. There’s some in the barrel. I can always siphon some off and give that to you. You know that ours is the purest and the best. Even El Brujo says that. We come highly recommended. It won’t take a moment,” she shuffled away and returned with an empty four litre wine bottle that had once held Donini. She held it up. “Will this be enough?”
“That’s much too much,” Tim shook his head. “I’ll never drink all that.”
“And a good thing too,” she added. “We don’t want you ending up like Alfredo.’”
“The man you saw in the street this morning. Now: this is what you need,” she held up a two litre plastic bottle that once held Coca-Cola. “How about this?”
Well, I, uh …”
“That’s all right,” the old lady nodded her head. “I’ll just siphon the mescal out while you’re making up your mind.”
She took a thin plastic tube, inserted it in the top of a large tin container, and sucked up some pure white liquid. Then she pinched the tube, lowered its end below the level of the barrel, and carefully placed the tube in the bottle’s neck.
“There,” she said.
Tim watched as the pale colourless liquid filled the bottle. When it was full, she handed it to Tim.
“That will be ten pesos, please.”
“Aren’t you going to seal the bottle?”
She looked at Tim as if, like the guajalotero of recent memory, he had just made some nasty and indecent smell. Then she searched behind the counter and held up a bright red rubber band. She twisted it on her fingers to make it smaller. Then she tore a piece of plastic from a long roll and placed it around the bottle top. She stretched the rubber band over the plastic and handed Tim the sealed bottle.
“There aren’t any worms,” he complained.
“Worms are expensive this year,” the old lady frowned. “You want worms, I sell you worms. But I sell them separately. How many worms do you want?”
“How much are they?”
“Three for five pesos,” she replied.
“Give me five,” Tim said.
She smiled at him, showing gold teeth, and produced a packet from beneath the counter. There were five worms in it, not three, not six.
“Just what I thought you’d say,” she smiled. “You foreigners are all the same. I had them waiting in this packet, all ready for you,” she took the plastic wrapper off the bottle, opened the packet with the five worms in it, counted them out, and dropped them one by one into the mescal. Wrinkled and yellow, they had a life of their own, and they came alive as they sank and through the liquid, leaving faint yellow trails behind them.
“Your mescal will now turn yellow,” the old lady said. “But don’t worry about that. Also it will taste slightly different as the gusanos age and work their magic.”
“How much do I owe you?”
“10 pesos plus 8 pesos and 34 cents,” she does the reckoning in her head. “That will be 18.34, please.”
Tim gave her a twenty peso note and told her to keep the change. She smiled at him and bowed. He said farewell and left the shop wondering how many more times that day he would come across the witch doctor by deed or name.
Tim felt the day’s heat starting to build as he walked to the newspaper kiosk. Cloud castles rose in the air and the sun’s kiln fired the clouds with warmth and color. On the sidewalk, the shadows grew stronger and a knife-edge, like a military crease, sliced a razor-sharp junction between light and dark, sun and shade. An occasional face smiled at Tim with its white streak of lightning flashing across the nut brown skin.
Musicians and jugglers lurched towards the central square to earn their daily bread and a circle of admirers surrounded a man who ate fire for breakfast, breathing it out in great gouts of flame. The music grew louder as Tim approached a musician who stood in the shade playing a danse macabre on sun-polished marimbas. Beside him, a heart of fire burned in an iron barrel and a young woman, her baby wrapped in a hand-woven rebozo slipped around one shoulder, prepared quesadillas and offered them for sale. The mother sniffed with suspicion when her baby wailed. She moved away from the fire, unwrapped the baby’s soiled nappy, wiped her child with a cloth, put on a new nappy, and threw the old one into a garbage can where the flies pounced upon it. Then, hands unwashed, she returned to her cooking.
An old half-ton, returning from the market to its home village, chugged by emitting a cloud of black smoke. People clung to the outside of this vehicle waving their hands and grinning at their friends. In the back of the battered pick-up chickens roosted on an old bed stead while a young man, astride a shining porcelain toiled bowl, strummed his guitar and sang to entertain the passengers. The intrepid travelers hung on for grim life as the truck rattled its way down the street. It almost ran Tim down as it clattered, half on, half off, the sidewalk, avoiding this and that, the donkey in the road, the old woman crossing, the policeman with his whistle who directed traffic. Tim jumped out of the way. El Brujo, with one arm around the old man he had rescued, sat in the front seat, next to the driver. The witch doctor punched the driver on the arm, ordered him to stop, put his head out of the truck window, and called to Tim.
“You have forgotten how to walk in the woods. You have forgotten how the dead leaf separates from the tree and tumbles earthward in its longing to be free.”
“I don’t understand you,” Tim said. “You speak in riddles.”
“Then here’s a riddle you must solve,” El Brujo scowled at Tim. “You must look for a young girl who will wrap your heart in laughter. She will feed you milk and honey. Your heart will grow roots and begin to flower. When the Bird of Paradise calls your name, your heart will grow wings and fly. A sunbeam on its plumage will fill you with glory. Your tears will disperse and turn into feathers; sun people will chase you through the clouds and crown your heart with a rainbow crown.”
Amid a cacophony of horns and hoots, bystanders bowed and raised their hats as they recognized El Brujo. The witch doctor included them all in a generous wave and a shouted ¡Adiós!, then punched the driver of the guajalotero in the arm. The engine revved and the old truck rumbled away, shooting a cloud of filthy black smoke out of its exhaust, and backfiring with a vicious last fart as it turned the corner and vanished out of sight.
Tim stood at the roadside for a moment, shrugged his shoulders, and went to the newspaper stand where a young girl offered him a paper. He thanked her, counted out the change, and exchanged the handful of coins for the piece of newsprint. As Tim gave her the money, their fingers touched and sparks flew at the point where his skin met hers. She jumped back and Tim stared at her. He was sure he’d never seen her before.
“I’m so sorry,” Tim said. “That was quite a shock.”
The paper-seller had dark brown eyes, almost black, with the enormous depths so typical of the native born.
“El Brujo spoke to you?”
“He’s mad, raving mad,” Tim told her.
“Don’t say that,” she said. “He’s a good man and a poet. They say he has visions and can predict the future as well as read the past.”
“You mean he’s a fortune-teller?”
“No, not a fortune-teller, not in the sense I think you mean. He told me this morning you might be passing this way about now. I came to see if he was right,” she gave Tim the shyest of smiles and cast her eyes down.
“Nonsense,” Tim waved the paper and brushed away any trace of magic that might be lingering in the air. “You don’t expect me to believe that, do you?”
“No,” she kept her eyes down. “He said you were an unbeliever and would need much convincing.”
“Well, thank you for the paper anyway. It was a pleasure talking to you.” Tim crossed the road and hurried away from the paper stand.
“Well?” said the girl’s uncle, emerging from the inside of the kiosk where he had been listening to the exchange. “Is he the one?”
“I don’t know,” the girl’s eyes clouded over. “He might be. I’m not sure. I didn’t sense anything special about him and I couldn’t sense any medallion. But we’ll soon find out,” she put her hand to her chest. Her eyes lost their focus as she gazed into a distance of time and space.
“Could you get close to him?” the man asked.
“I doubt it,” she replied. “He’s not meant for me.”