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.”