Всех Солнц - Source
of All Suns
КОЛДУНЬИ -- The Witch's Dream
Venezuela - Maracaibo
This page has been modified to be viewable on Mobile devices
Важное Сообщение - эта Страница теперь может быть просмотрена на
Страниц этого сайта - List of Pages of this site: List of Site Links (Sitemap)
work of Florinda Donner has a most special significance for me. It is,
in fact, in agreement with my own work, and at the same time it
deviates from it. Florinda Donner is my co-worker. We are both involved
in the same pursuit; both of us belong to the world of don Juan Matus.
The difference stems from her being female.
People of Venezuela have been escaping to Colombia
Map of European countries, where are shown different Inorganic Beings' strikes with different colors
Все Женщины - Dreamers,
некоторые - более одарённые, чем другие ! Dreamer - это человек,
который умеет себя гипнотизировать и поднимать себя на более высокую
вибрацию, зная или не зная этого. Обычно среди мужчин это : Колдуны,
первопроходцы Роберта Монро, маги, индийские гуру, некоторые монахи и
буддисты, т.д. У всех Женщин этот дар есть из-за того, что у них есть Матка (если
она не вырезана), но эта способность имеется у очень малого количества мужчин и
этот дар ещё должен быть развит огромным трудом. Dreaming-Awake -
означает быть в самогипнозе, т.е. сознательно или бессознательно
поднимать себя выше, на более высокую вибрацию, не теряя контроль над
собой и исполняя поставленные задачи ! В отличие от людей,
загипнотизированных инопланетянами или гипнотизёрами, людей, которые не
помнят, что они делают в этом состоянии!
Большинство Женщин Земли в
течение тысяч лет были поставлены в невыносимые условия для того, чтобы
заставить их улетать без физ. тел во время сна в Новую Вселенную и
создавать там новые миры (особенно миры Новой Планеты Земля)!
"К сожалению, Женщины должны собираться вокруг мужчин, если не хотят сами себя вести!" из книги Флоринды Доннер "БЫТЬ В ПОЛЁТЕ!" стр. 12.
об этом и речь! Не ждать когда мужчины поведут Женщин в Новую
Вселенную. Все Женщины (по одиночке, группами или все
вместе) просто обязаны уйти из Старой Вселенной (не в материальной форме, а в
своих Энергетических телах), и перейти в Новую Вселенную, например, в миры Новой Земли !!!
Время, чтобы оставаться в
Старой Вселенной, уже истекло и кроме ещё больших мучений, пребывание в
Старой Вселенной Женщинам ничего не даст!
ТО, ЧТО НЕГАТИВНЫЕ СУЩЕСТВА ДО СИХ ПОР ОСЕМЕНЯЮТ И ЕЖЕМЕСЯЧНО
ВЫТАСКИВАЮТ ЗАРОДЫШИ ИЗ МАТОК (МЕНСТРУАЦИЯ) ПОЧТИ ВСЕХ ЖЕНЩИН СТАРОЙ
ВСЕЛЕННОЙ (НЕ ТОЛЬКО НА НАШЕЙ ПЛАНЕТЕ), А ПОТОМ ИХ СЪЕДАЮТ, ДОЛЖНО
ВЫЗВАТЬ У ВСЕХ ЖЕНЩИН ГНЕВ И ПРОТЕСТ. ЭТО ДАВНО УЖЕ ДОЛЖНО БЫЛО
ПРЕКРАТИТЬСЯ, НО ЭТО ПРОИСХОДИТ ДО СИХ ПОР, МОЗГИ ЖЕНЩИН ДО ТАКОЙ
СТЕПЕНИ КОНРОЛИРУЮТСЯ, ЧТО ОНИ И НЕ ПРОТЕСТУЮТ ПРОТИВ ТОГО, КАК ИХ
РЕГУЛЯРНО ИЗУВЕЧИВАЮТ !
Женщин содержатся в заключении в подземных городах и в
генетических лабораториях инопланетных баз только чтобы рожать
одного за другим, и чтобы затем младенцы были съедены! Это происходит
не только на нашей Планете, но и на миллионах других планет,
астероидах, лунах, кометах Старой Вселенной ! Если все Женщины
покинут Старую Вселенную, то произойдёт колапс: потому что все миры
держатся на плечах Женщин !
Мучительный 3й физический Уровень
Сознания в Старой Вселенной перестанет существовать
! Произойдёт тот самый Переход, о котором столько лет так много
говорили, или скорее не Переход, а Перелёт из Старой Вселенной в
Новую, где Женщины воспрянут духом !
БЕСКОНЕЧНАЯ РОЛЬ ЖЕНЩИН - РОЖАТЬ И ВЫРАЩИВАТЬ ПОКОЛЕНИЕ ЗА ПОКОЛЕНИЕМ !
ПОРА УЖЕ ЗАКАНЧИВАТЬ С ЭТИМ ДЕЛОМ ! ЖЕНЩИНЫ ДОЛЖНЫ РАЗРУШИТЬ ЭТУ
МАТРИЦУ/ШАБЛОН/ШТАМП СВОЕГО ПОВЕДЕНИЯ И ПОЧУВСТВОВАТЬ СЕБЯ СВОБОДНЫМИ
ОТ ВСЯКИХ ОБЯЗАТЕЛЬСТВ В СТАРОЙ ВСЕЛЕННОЙ ! ЖЕНЩИНЫ НУЖНЫ В НОВОЙ
ВСЕЛЕННОЙ, ЧТОБЫ ТАМ СОЗДАВАТЬ НОВЫЕ МИРЫ И ДЛЯ ЭТОГО ИМ НЕ НУЖНА
ПОМОЩЬ НЕОРГАНИЧЕСКИХ СУЩЕСТВ ИЗ НАШЕГО МИРА- БЛИЗНЕЦА (ALIES) ! НО
МУЖЧИНАМ-КОЛДУНАМ В ЭТОМ ДЕЛЕ ПОМОЩЬ НЕОРГАНИЧЕСКИХ СУЩЕСТВ ИЗ НАШЕГО
МИРА- БЛИЗНЕЦА (ALIES) - НУЖНА !
СМЕШЕНИЕ НЕОРГАНИЧЕСКИХ СУЩЕСТВ ИЗ
НАШЕГО МИРА- БЛИЗНЕЦА С НАШИМИ ФИЗИЧЕСКИМИ МИРАМИ ПРОИСХОДИТ В ВИДЕ
МОЛНИЙ, СИНИХ ДЖЕТОВ И КРАСНЫХ СПРАЙТОВ, ОГНЕННЫХ ШАРОВ, ГАММА ЛУЧЕЙ и
т.д., ударяющих в : наше небо,
самолёты/вертолёты/ракеты/поезда/корабли/машины, здания как
нефте-перерабатывающие заводы или атомные станции и т.д., ударяют в
людей и в землю в любом месте, например в вулканы или мосты и т.д.
All Women are Dreamers, though
among them there are more gifted, then others. Dreamer is a person, who
can hypnotize herself and lift herself up, to a faster and higher
vibrational level aware of it or not. All Women are Dreamers, but
Dreamers among Men are usually: Sorcerers, Robert Monroe' s Institute
explorers, some magicians, indian gurus, some buddists, some
priests/cledgy and so on. All Women, because of their Womb (if it's
still inside), have this gift, but Men have to work a great deal to
develop this ability ! Dreaming-Awake is self-hypnosis,
means consciously or subconsciously raise herself to a higher
consciousness level (vibration), without loosing control and to perform
For thousands of years most Women of Earth have been
living under unbearable conditions in order to make them to fly without
physical bodies to the New Universe and create new worlds there (esp.
new worlds of New Earth).
"Unfortunately women must rally around them (men), lest (for fear) they want to lead themselves." Florinda Donner "BEING-IN-DREAMING", p. 12.
what I am talking about! FOR WOMEN : NOT TO WAIT WHEN MEN WOULD LEAD
WOMEN TO THE NEW UNIVERSE ! WOMEN THEMSELVES,
MUST LEAVE THE OLD UNIVERSE (alone, in groups or all together), AND MOVE TO THE NEW ONE (for instance, to
the WORLDS OF NEW EARTH) ! LEAVE NOT IN THEIR PHYSICAL BODIES, BUT IN
THEIR ENERGY BODIES. TIME FOR THE OLD UNIVERSE IS OVER, AND TO STAY
LONGER IN THE OLD UNIVERSE ONLY MEANS MORE TORTURES FOR WOMEN !
CREATURES STILL HAVE BEEN IMPREGNATING WOMEN AND SCOOPING FETUSES OUT
OF WOMBS OF TRILLIONS OF WOMEN EVERY MONTH AND EATING THEM !!! AND THAT
HAS BEEN HAPPENING TO WOMEN NOT JUST ON EARTH, BUT IN THE WHOLE OLD
UNIVERSE !!! THIS MUST MAKE WOMEN PROTEST, BUT WOMEN ARE SO
MINDCONTROLLED, THAT THEY DON'T REALISE, THAT THEIR BODIES HAVE BEEN
DAMAGED REGULARLY AND THAT THEY HAD RIGHTS TO PROTEST !
of Women have been kept in underground cities and in genetic
laboratories of alien bases with the purpose of giving birth to human
babies (or alien hybreds) one after another. Usually human babies are
eaten up by aliens or used as genetic material ! This situation has
been happening not only on Earth, but on millions of other planets,
moons, comets, asteroids of our Old Universe ! If all Women leave Old
Universe for the New one, then the dreadful 3d physical level of
in the Old Universe will collapse ! The reason: all
worlds exist onlty because of creative abilities of Women. Smooth
Transition from Old Universe to the New one will occur, where Women
would finally be respected !
ROLE OF WOMEN TO GIVE BIRTH AND RAISE GENERATION OF HUMANS ONE AFTER
ANOTHER MUST BE STOPPED ! WOMEN MUST BURN THE MATRIX/
OF SUCH BEHAVIOUR AND BECOME FREE FROM ANY OBLIGATIONS IN OLD UNIVERSE
! WOMEN ARE NEEDED FOR THE NEW UNIVERSE: TO CREATE NEW WORLDS THERE.
THEY DON'T NEED HELP OF INORGANIC BEINGS (ALIES) FROM OUR TWIN-WORLD TO
GET THERE, IF WOMEN HAVE ENOUGH OF THEIR OWN ENERGY. BUT MEN-SORCERERS
NEED HELP OF INORGANIC BEINGS (ALIES) FROM OUR TWIN-WORLD TO GET TO THE
MIXING OF INORGANIC BEINGS WITH OUR PHYSICAL WORLDS
ARE HAPPENING IN FORMS OF LIGHTNINGS, RED SPRITES, BLUE JETS, FIRE
BALLS, GAMMA RAYS etc. - hitting our skies,
trees, buildings like oil refineries or oil plants or atomic power
stations, ground like volcanos, bridges etc. (fotos below).
“The Witch's Dream: A Healer's Way of Knowledge” - 1985 by Florinda Donner- Grau
Foreword by CARLOS CASTANEDA
In don Juan's world,
males and females go in the same direction, on the same warrior's path,
but on opposite sides of the road. Therefore, the views of the same
phenomena obtained from those two positions have to be different in
detail, but not in flavor. This proximity to Florinda Donner under any
other circumstance would unavoidably engender a sense of loyalty
rather, than one of ruthless examination. But under the premises of the
warrior's path, which we both follow, loyalty is expressed only in
terms of demanding the best of ourselves. That best, for us, entails
total examination of whatever we do. Following don Juan's teachings, I
have applied the warrior's premise of ruthless examination to Florinda
Donner's work. I find, that for me there are three different levels,
three distinct spheres, of appreciation in it. The first is the rich
detail of her descriptions and narrative. To me, that detail is
ethnography. The minutiae of daily life, which is commonplace in the
cultural setting of the characters she describes, is something
thoroughly unknown to many of us readers. The second has to do with
art. I would dare say, that an ethnographer should also be a writer. In
order to place us vicariously in the ethnographic horizon he or she
describes, an ethnographer would have to be more, than a social
scientist: An ethnographer would have to be an artist. The third is the
honesty, simplicity, and directness of the work. It is here, without
doubt, where I am most exigent. Florinda Donner and I have been molded
by the same forces; therefore, her work must conform to a general
pattern of striving for excellence. Don Juan has taught us, that our
work has to be a complete reflection of our lives. I can't help having
a warrior's sense of admiration and respect for Florinda Donner, who in
solitude and against terrifying odds has maintained her equanimity, has
remained faithful to the warrior's path, and has followed don Juan's
teachings to the letter."
state of Miranda, in north-eastern Venezuela, was populated by Carib
and Ciparicoto Indians during prehispanic times. During colonial times,
two other racial and cultural groups became prominent there: the
Spanish colonizers; and the African slaves, that the Spaniards brought
to work their plantations and mines. The descendants of those Indians,
Spaniards, and Africans make up the mixed population, that presently
inhabits the small hamlets, villages, and towns scattered over the
inland and coastal areas. Some of the towns in the state of Miranda are
famous for their healers; many of whom are also spiritualists, mediums,
In the midseventies, I made a trip to Miranda. Being
at that time an anthropology student interested in healing practices, I
worked with a woman healer. To honor her request for anonymity, I have
given her the name Mercedes Peralta, and I have called her town
Curmina. As faithfully and accurately as I could, and with the healer's
permission, I recorded in a field diary everything about my relation
with her, from the moment I came to her house. I also recorded
separately what some of her patients told me about themselves. The
present work consists of portions of my field diary, and the stories of
those patients, who were selected by Mercedes Peralta herself. The
parts taken from my field diary are written in the first person. I
have, however, rendered the patient's stories into the third person.
This is the only liberty I have taken with the material, other than
changing the names and the personal data of the characters of the
began for me with a transcendental event; an event, that shaped the
course of my life. I met a Nagual. He was an Indian from northern
Mexico. The dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy defines Nagual as
the Spanish adaptation of a word, that means sorcerer or wizard in the
Nahuati language of southern Mexico. Traditional stories of naguals -
men of ancient times, who possessed extraordinary powers and performed
acts, that defied the imagination - do exist in modern Mexico. But in
an urban or even rural setting today, actual naguals are purely
legendary. They seem to live only in folktales, through hearsay, or in
the world of fantasy. The nagual I met, however, was real. There was
nothing illusory about him. When I asked him out of well-meant
curiosity what made him a nagual, he presented a seemingly simple, and
yet utterly complex idea as an explanation for what he did and what he
was. He told me, that nagualism begins with two certainties: the
certainty, that human beings
extraordinary beings living in an extraordinary world; and the
certainty, that neither men, nor the world should ever be taken for
granted under any circumstances (and what about Women? LM). From
those sweet, simple premises, he said, grows a simple conclusion:
Nagualism is at once taking off one mask and wearing another. Naguals
take off the mask, that makes us see ourselves and the world we
live in as ordinary, lusterless, predictable, and repetitious; and put
on the second mask, the one, that helps us see ourselves - and our
surroundings - for what we really are; breathtaking events, that bloom
into transitory existence once, and are never to be repeated again.
After meeting that unforgettable Nagual, I had a moment's hesitation
due solely to the fear I felt on examining such an imposing paradigm. I
wanted to run away from that nagual and his quest, but I could not do
it. Some time later, I took a drastic step and joined him and his
party. But this is not a story about that Nagual, although his ideas
and his influence bear heavily in everything I do. It is not my task to
write about him or even to name him. There are others in his group, who
do that. When I joined him, he took me to Mexico to meet a strange,
striking Woman - without telling me, that she was perhaps the most
knowledgeable and influential Woman of his group. Her name was Florinda
Matus. In spite of her worn, drab clothes, she had the innate elegance
of most tall, thin Women. Her pale complexioned face, gaunt and severe,
was crowned by braided white hair and highlighted by large, luminous
eyes. Her husky voice and her joyful, youthful laughter eased my
irrational fear of her. The Nagual left me in her charge. The first
thing I asked Florinda was whether she was a Nagual herself. Smiling
rather enigmatically, she further refined the definition of the word.
said, "To be a sorcerer or a wizard or a witch doesn't mean to be a
Nagual. But any of them can be one, if he or she is responsible for and
leads a group of men and women involved in a specific quest of
When I asked her what that quest was, she responded,
that for those men and women it was to find the second mask; the one,
that helps us see ourselves and the world for what we really are -
breathtaking events. But this is not the story of Florinda either,
despite the fact, that she is the Woman, who guides me in every act
I perform. This is, rather, the story of one of the many things she made me do.
women the quest of knowledge is indeed a very curious affair," Florinda
told me once. "We have to go through strange maneuvers."
"Why is that so, Florinda?"
"Because women really don't care."
"You say you care. You really don't."
"I'm here with you. Doesn't that speak for my caring?"
What happened is, that you like the Nagual. His personality overwhelms
you. I am the same myself. I was overwhelmed by the preceding Nagual;
the most irresistible Sorcerer there was."
"I admit you are right, but only partially. I do care about the Nagual's quest."
"I don't doubt it. But that's not enough. Women need some specific maneuvers, in order to get at the core of themselves."
"What maneuvers? What core of ourselves are you talking about, Florinda?"
there is something inside us, that we don't know about - such as hidden
resources, unsuspected guts and cunning, or nobility of the spirit in
the face of sorrow and pain - it will come out if we are confronted by
the Unknown, while we are alone; without friends, without familiar
boundaries, without support. If nothing comes out of us under those
circumstances, it's because we have nothing. And before you say you
really care for the Nagual's quest, you must first find out for
yourself, whether there is something inside you. I demand, that you do
"I don't think I am any good at being tested, Florinda."
"My question is: Can you live without knowing, whether or not you have something hidden inside you?"
"But what if I am one of those, who have nothing?"
that's the case, then I will have to ask you my second question: Can
you go on being in the world, you have chosen, if you have nothing
"Why, of course I can continue to be here. I've already joined you."
You only think you have chosen my world. To choose the Nagual's world
is not just a matter of saying you have. You must prove it."
"How do you think I should go about doing that?"
give you a suggestion. You don't have to follow it, but if you do, you
should go alone to the place, where you were born. Nothing could be
easier, than that.
Go there and take your chances, whatever they may be."
"But your suggestion is impractical. I don't have good feelings about that place. I didn't leave in good standing."
much the better: The odds will be stacked against you. That's why I
picked your country. Women don't like to be bothered too much: If they
have to bother with things, they go to pieces. Prove to me, that you
are not that way."
"What would you suggest I do in that place?"
"Be yourself. Do your work. You said, that you want to be an anthropologist. Be one. What could be simpler?"
later, following Florinda's suggestions, I finally went to Venezuela,
the country of my birth. On the surface, I went to gather
anthropological data on healing practices. Actually, I was there to
carry out, under Florinda's guidance, the maneuvers necessary to
discover, whether I possessed hidden resources, without which
could not remain in the Nagual's world. The agreement, that my journey
must be a solitary one, was nearly drawn out of me by force. With
strong words and decisive gestures, Florinda served notice, that under
no circumstances should I seek counsel from anyone around me during the
trip. Knowing, that I was in college, she strongly advised me not to
use the trappings of academic life, while in the field. I should not
ask for a grant, have academic supervisors, or even ask my family and
friends for help. I should let circumstances dictate the path to
follow; once I had taken it, I must plunge into it with the fierceness
of Women on the Warrior's Path.
I arranged to go to Venezuela on an
informal visit. I would see my relatives, I thought, and gather
information on any possibility for a future study in cultural
anthropology. Florinda praised me for my speed and thoroughness. I
thought she was humoring me. There was nothing to praise me for. I
mentioned to her, that what worried me was her lack of instructions.
Again and again I asked her for more details about my role in
Venezuela. As the date of my departure approached, I became
increasingly anxious about the outcome of it all. I insisted, in no
uncertain terms, that I needed more specific instructions. Florinda and
I were sitting in wicker chairs, comfortably padded by soft cushions,
under the shade of one of the many fruit trees growing in her huge
court patio. In her long unbleached muslin dress, her wide-
brimmed hat, fanning herself with a lace fan, Florinda looked like someone from another time.
"Forget about specific information," she said impatiently. "It won't do you any good."
"It certainly will do me a lot of good," I insisted. "I really don't understand why you're doing this to me, Florinda."
"Blame it on the fact, that I am in the Nagual's world; on the fact, that I am a Woman and that I belong to a different mood."
"Mood? What do you mean by a different mood?"
gazed at me with remote, disinterested eyes. "I wish you could hear
yourself talking. What mood?" she mocked me. Her face expressed
"I don't go for seemingly orderly arrangements
of thought and deed. For me, order is different from arranging things
neatly. I don't give a damn about stupidity and
I have no patience. That's the mood."
sounds dreadful, Florinda. I was led to believe, that in the Nagual's
world, people are above pettiness and don't behave impatiently."
in the Nagual's world has nothing to do with my impatience," she said,
making a humorous, hopeless gesture. "You see, I'm impeccably
"I really would like to know what it means to be impeccably impatient."
means, that I am, for instance, perfectly conscious, that you are
boring me now with your stupid insistence on having detailed
instructions. My impatience tells me, that I should stop you. But
it is my impeccability, that will make you shut up at once. All this
boils down to the following: If you persist in asking for details,
guided only by your bad habit of having everything spelled out, in
spite of my telling you to stop, I'll hit you. But I'll never be angry
at you, or hold it against you."
In spite of her serious tone, I had
to laugh. "Would you really hit me, Florinda? Well, hit me, if you have
to," I added, seeing her determined face. "But I've got to know what I
am going to do in Venezuela. I'm going crazy with worry."
right! If you insist on knowing the details I consider important, I'll
tell you. I hope you understand we're separated by an abyss, and this
abyss can't be bridged by
talk. Males can build bridges with their
words: Women can't. You're imitating males now. Women have to make the
bridge with their acts. We give birth, you know.
We make people. I want you to go away, so that in aloneness you'll find out, what your strengths or weaknesses are."
"I understand what you say, Florinda, but consider my position."
relented, dismissing the retort, that arose to her lips. "All right,
all right," she said wearily, motioning me to move my chair next to
hers. "I'm going to give you the details I consider important for your
trip. Fortunately for you, they are not the detailed instructions you
are after. What you want is for me to tell you exactly, what to do in a
future situation, and when to do it. That's something quite stupid to
ask. How can I give you instructions about something, that doesn't yet
exist? I'll give you, instead, instructions on how to arrange your
thoughts, feelings, and reactions. With that in hand, you'll take care
of any eventuality, that might arise."
"Are you really serious, Florinda?" I asked in disbelief.
deadly serious," she assured me. Leaning forward in her chair, she went
on speaking with a half smile about to break into a laugh. "The first
detailed item to consider is, taking stock of yourself. You see, in the
Nagual's world, we must be responsible for our actions."
reminded me, that I knew the Warrior's Path. In the time I had been
with her, she said, I had received extensive training in the laborious
practical philosophy of the Nagual's world. Therefore, any detailed
instructions she might give me now would have to be, actually, a
detailed reminder of the Warrior's Path.
"In the Warrior's Path,
Women don't feel important," she went on, in the tone of someone
reciting from memory, "because importance waters down fierceness. In
the Warrior's Path Women are fierce. They remain fiercely impassive
under any conditions. They don't demand anything, yet they are willing
to give anything of themselves. They fiercely seek a Signal from the
Spirit of things in the form of a kind word, an appropriate gesture;
and when they get it, they express their thanks by redoubling their
fierceness. In the Warrior's Path, Women don't judge. They fiercely
reduce themselves to nothing in order to listen, to watch; so that they
can conquer and be humbled by their conquest; or be defeated and be
enhanced by their defeat. In the Warrior's Path, Women don't surrender.
They may be defeated a thousand times, but they never surrender. And
above all, in the Warrior's Path, Women are free."
interrupt her, I had kept gazing at Florinda, fascinated, though not
quite grasping, what she was saying. I felt acute despair when she
stopped, as though she had nothing more to tell me. Without quite
wanting to, I began crying uncontrollably. I knew, that what she had
just told me could not help me to resolve my problems.
She let me cry for a long time and then she laughed. "You really are weeping!" she said in disbelief.
are the most heartless, unfeeling person I've ever met," I said between
sobs. "You're ready to send me God knows where, and you don't even tell
I should do."
"But I just did," she said still laughing.
"What you just said has no value in a real-life situation," I retorted angrily. "You sounded like a dictator spouting slogans."
regarded me cheerfully. "You'll be surprised how much use you can get
out of those stupid slogans," she said. "But now, let us come to an
I'm not sending you any place. You're a Woman in
the Warrior's Path, you're free to do what you wish, you know that. You
haven't yet grasped what the Nagual's world is all about. I'm not your
teacher; I'm not your mentor; I'm not responsible for you. No one, but
yourself is. The hardest thing to grasp about the Nagual's world is,
that it offers total freedom. But freedom is not free. I took you under
my wing, because you have a natural ability to see things, as they are;
to remove yourself from a situation and see the wonder of it all.
That's a gift: You were born like that. It takes years for average
persons in the Nagual's world to remove themselves from their
involvement with themselves and be capable of seeing the wonder of it
Regardless of her praise, I was nearly beyond myself with
anxiety. She finally calmed me down by promising, that just before my
plane left she would give
me the specific detailed information I
wanted. I waited in the departure lobby of the airline, but Florinda
didn't show up at all. Despondent and filled with self-pity, I gave
free rein to my despair and disappointment. With no concern for the
curious glances around me, I sat down and wept. I felt lonelier, than I
had ever felt before.
All I could think of was, that no one had
come to see me off. No one had come to help me with my suitcase. I was
used to having relatives and friends see me off.
Florinda had warned
me, that anyone, who chose the nagual's world, had to be prepared for
fierce aloneness. She had made it clear, that to her, aloneness did not
mean loneliness, but a physical state of solitude.
had I realized how sheltered my life had been. In a hotel room in
Caracas, alone and without any idea of what to do next, I came to
experience first hand the solitariness Florinda had talked about. My
parents were not in Venezuela at the time, and I was unable to contact
my brothers by telephone. All I felt like doing was sitting on the
hotel bed and watching TV. I didn't want to touch my suitcase. I even
thought of taking the plane back to Los Angeles. Only after tremendous
I begin to unpack. Neatly tucked inside a pair of
folded slacks I found a piece of paper with Florinda's handwriting. I
read it avidly.
"Don't worry about details. Details tend to adjust
themselves to serve the circumstances, if one has conviction. Your
plans should be as follows. Pick anything and call that the beginning.
Then go and face the beginning. Once you are face to face with the
beginning, let it take you wherever it may. I trust, that your
convictions won't let you pick a capricious beginning. Be realistic and
frugal, so as to select wisely. Do it now!! P.S. Anything would do for
Possessed by Florinda's decisiveness, I picked up the
phone, and dialed the number of an old friend of mine: I was not sure
she would still be in Caracas. The polite lady, who answered the phone,
gave me other possible numbers to call, because my friend was no longer
at that address. I called all of them, for I could no longer stop. The
beginning was taking hold of me. Finally I located a married couple I
knew from childhood; my parents' friends. They wanted to see me
immediately, but they were going to a wedding in an hour, so they
insisted on taking me along. They assured me it was all right. At the
wedding I met an ex-Jesuit priest, who was an amateur anthropologist.
We talked for hours on end. I told him of my interest in
anthropological studies. As if he had been waiting for me to say a
magical word, he began to expound on the controversial value of folk
healers, and the social role they play in their societies. I had not
mentioned healers or healing in general, as a possible topic for my
study, although it was foremost in my mind. Instead of feeling happy,
that he seemed to be addressing himself to my inner thoughts, I was
filled with an apprehension, that verged on fear. When he told me, that
I should not go to the town of Sortes, even though it was purported to
be the center of spiritualism in western Venezuela, I felt genuinely
annoyed with him. He seemed to be anticipating me at every turn. It was
precisely to that small town, that I had planned to go, if nothing else
happened. I was just about to excuse myself and leave the party, when
he said in quite a loud tone, that I should seriously consider going to
the town of Curmina, in northern Venezuela, where I could have
phenomenal success, because the town was a new, true center of
spiritualism and healing.
"I don't know how I know it, but I know
you're dying to be with the witches of Curmina," he said in a dry,
matter-of-fact tone. He took a piece of paper, and drew a map of the
region. He gave me exact distances in kilometers from Caracas to the
various points in the area, where he said spiritualists, sorcerers,
witches, and healers lived. He placed special emphasis on one name:
Mercedes Peralta. He underlined it and, totally unaware of it, first
encircled it, then drew a heavy square around it and boxed it in.
"She's a spiritualist, a witch, and a healer," he said smiling at me. "Be sure you go and see her, will you?"
knew what he was talking about. Under Florinda's guidance, I had met
and worked with spiritualists, sorcerers, witches, and healers in
northern Mexico and among the Latino population of southern California.
From the very beginning Florinda classified them. Spiritualists are
practitioners, who entreat the spirits of saints or devils to intercede
for them, with a higher order, on behalf of their patients. Their
function is to get in touch with spirits and interpret their advice.
The advice is obtained in meetings, during which spirits are called.
Sorcerers and witches are practitioners, who affect their patients
directly. Through their knowledge of occult arts, they bring unknown
and unpredictable elements to bear on the two kinds of people, who come
to see them: patients in search of help; and clients in search of their
witchcraft services. Healers are practitioners, who strive exclusively
to restore health and well-being. Florinda made sure she added to her
classification the possible combinations of all three. In a joking way,
but in all seriousness, she claimed, that in matters of restoring
health, I was predisposed to believe, that non-Western healing
practices were more holistic, than Western medicine. She made it clear,
that I was wrong. Healing, Florinda said, depended on the practitioner
and not on a body of knowledge. Florinda maintained, that there was no
such thing as non-Western healing practices. Healing, unlike medicine,
was not a formalized discipline. She used to tease, that in my own way,
I was as prejudiced, as those, who believe, that if a patient is cured
by means of medicinal plants, massages, or incantations, either the
disease was psychosomatic or the cure was the result of a lucky accident, that the practitioner did not understand. Florinda
was convinced, that a person, who successfully restored health, whether
a doctor or a folk healer, was someone, who could alter the body's
fundamental feelings about itself and the body's link with the world-
that is, someone who offered the body, as well, as the mind, new
possibilities, so that the habitual mold, to which body and mind had
learned to conform, could be systematically broken down. Other
dimensions of awareness would then become accessible, and the
commonsense expectations of disease and health could become
transformed, as new bodily meanings became crystalized.
had laughed, when I expressed genuine surprise upon hearing such
thoughts, which were revolutionary to me at the time. She told
me, that everything she said, stemmed from the knowledge she shared
with her companions in the Nagual's world. Having followed the
instructions in Florinda's note, I let the situation guide me: I let it
develop with minimal interference on my part. I felt I had to go to
Curmina, and look up the woman, that the ex-Jesuit priest had talked
I first arrived at Mercedes Peralta's house, I did not have to wait
long in the shadowy corridor before a voice called me from behind the
curtain directly in front of me, that served as a door. I climbed the
two steps leading to a large, dimly lit room, that smelled of cigar
smoke and ammonia. Several candles, burning on a massive altar, that
stood against the far wall, illuminated the figurines and pictures of
saints, arranged around the blue-robed Virgin of Coromoto. It was a
finely carved statue with red smiling lips, rouged cheeks, and eyes,
that seemed to fix me with a benign, forgiving gaze. I stepped closer.
In the corner, almost hidden between the altar and a high rectangular
table, sat Mercedes Peralta. She appeared to be asleep, with her head
resting against the back of her chair; her eyes closed. She looked
extremely old. I had never seen such a face. Even in its restful
immobility, it revealed a frightening strength. The glow of the
candles, rather than softening her sharply chiseled features, only
accentuated the determination etched in the network of wrinkles.
Slowly, she opened her eyes. They were large and almond shaped.
whites of her eyes were slightly discolored. At first her eyes were
almost blank, but then they became alive and stared at me with the
unnerving directness of a child. Seconds passed and gradually under her
unwavering gaze, which was neither friendly, nor unfriendly, I began to
"Good afternoon, dona Mercedes," I greeted her, before I started to lose all my courage and run out of the house.
"My name is Florinda Donner, and I am going to be very direct, so as not to waste your valuable time."
She blinked repeatedly, adjusting her eyes to look at me.
come to Venezuela to study healing methods," I went on, gaining
confidence. "I study at a university in the United States, but I truly
would like to be a healer.
I can pay you, if you take me as your
student. But even if you don't take me as your student, I can pay you
for any information you would give me."
The old woman did not say a
word. She motioned me to sit down on a stool, then rose and gazed at a
metal instrument on the table. There was a comical expression on her
face, as she turned to look at me.
"What is that apparatus?" I asked daringly.
a nautical compass," she said casually. "It tells me all kinds of
things." She picked it up and placed it on the topmost shelf of a glass
cabinet, that stood against the opposite wall. Apparently struck by a
funny thought, she began to laugh. "I'm going to make something clear
to you right now," she said. "Yes, I'll give you all kinds of
information about healing, not because you ask me, but because you're
lucky: I already know that for sure. What I don't know is if you're
strong as well."
The old woman was silent, then she spoke again in a
forced whisper without looking at me; her attention on something inside
the glass cabinet.
"Luck and strength are all that count in
everything," she said. "I knew the night I saw you by the plaza, that
you are lucky, and that you were looking for me."
understand what you're talking about," I said. Mercedes Peralta turned
to face me, then laughed in such a discordant manner, that I felt
certain she was mad. She opened her mouth so wide, I could see the few
molars she still had left. She stopped abruptly, sat on her chair, and
insisted, that she had seen me exactly two
weeks ago late at night
in the plaza. She had been with a friend, she explained, who was
driving her home from a seance, that had taken place in one of the
coastal towns. Although her friend had been baffled to see me alone so
late at night, she herself had not been in the least surprised.
"You reminded me instantly of someone I once knew," she said. "It was past midnight. You smiled at me."
did not remember seeing her, or being alone in the plaza at that hour.
But it could have been, that she had seen me the night I had arrived
from Caracas. After waiting in vain for the week-long rain to stop, I
had finally risked the drive from Caracas to Curmina. I knew full well,
that there would be landslides: It turned out, that instead of the
usual two hours, the drive took me four. By the time I had arrived, the
whole town was asleep, and I had trouble finding the hostel near the
plaza, which had also been recommended to me by the former priest.
Mystified by her insistence, that she knew I was coming to see her, I
told her about him and what he had said to me at the wedding in Caracas.
was quite insistent, that I look you up," I said. "He mentioned, that
your ancestors were sorcerers and healers - famous during colonial
times, and that they were persecuted by the Holy Inquisition."
flicker of surprise widened her eyes slightly. "Did you know, that in
those days accused witches were sent to Cartagena in Colombia to be
tried?" she asked and immediately went on to say, "Venezuela wasn't
important enough to have an Inquisitorial tribunal."
She paused and, looking straight into my eyes, asked, "Where had you originally planned to study healing methods?"
"In the state of Yaracuy," I said vaguely.
"Sortes?" she inquired. "Maria Lionza?"
nodded. Sortes is the town, where the cult of Maria Lionza is centered.
Maria Lionza is said to have been born of an Indian princess and a
Spanish conquistador, and she is purported to have had supernatural
powers. Today, she is revered by thousands in Venezuela, as a saintly
"But I took the ex-priest's advice and came to
Curmina instead," I said. "I've already talked with two women healers.
Both agreed, that you're the most knowledgeable; the only one, who
could explain healing matters to me."
I talked about the methods I
wanted to follow, making it all up on the spur of the moment: direct
observation, and participation in some of the healing sessions, while
tape recording them and, most important of all, systematic interviewing
of the patients I observed. The old woman nodded, giggling from time to
time. To my great surprise, she was totally amenable to my proposed
methods. She proudly informed me, that years ago she had been
interviewed by a psychologist from a university
in Caracas, who had stayed for a week right there in her house.
"To make it easier for you," she suggested, "you can come and live with us. We have plenty of rooms in the house."
accepted her invitation, but told her, that I had planned to stay for
at least six months in the area. She seemed unperturbed. As far, as she
was concerned, I could stay for years.
"I'm glad you're here,
Musiua," she added softly. I smiled. Although born and raised in
Venezuela, I have been called a musiua (moo-seeyua) all my life. It is
usually a derogatory term, but depending on the tone, in which it is
said, it can be turned into a rather affectionate expression, referring
to anyone, who is blond and blue-eyed.
and women with closed eyes were sitting beside me on old wooden chairs,
arranged in a circle. Startled by the faint rustle of a skirt swishing
past me, I opened my eyes, and gazed at the candle burning on the altar
in the semidarkness of the room. The flame flickered and sent up a
single black thread of smoke. On the wall appeared a woman's shadow
with a stick in its hand. The shadow seemed to impale the heads of the
men and women. I could barely stifle a nervous giggle upon realizing,
that it was Mercedes Peralta, placing big, hand-rolled cigars in
everyone's mouth. She took the candle from the altar, and lit each
cigar with it. Then she returned to her chair in the middle of the
circle. In a deep monotonous voice she began to chant an
unintelligible, repetitious incantation. Suppressing a fit of coughing,
I tried to synchronize my smoking with the rapid puffing of the people
around me. Through teary eyes I watched their solemn, masklike faces
animated with every puff, until they seemed to
dissolve in the thickening smoke. Like a disembodied object, Mercedes
Peralta's hand materialized out of that vaporous
haze. Snapping her
fingers, she repeatedly traced the air with the imaginary lines,
connecting the four cardinal points. Imitating the others, I began to
sway my head to and fro, to the rhythmic sound of her snapping fingers,
and her low-voiced incantations. Ignoring my growing nausea, I forced
myself to keep my eyes open, so as not to miss a single detail of what
was occurring around me. This was the first time I had been allowed to
attend a meeting of spiritualists. Dona Mercedes was going to serve as
the medium and contact the spirits. Dona Mercedes' own definition of
spiritualists, witches, and healers was the same as Florinda's; with
the exception, that she recognized another independent class: Mediums.
Dona Mercedes defined mediums as the interpreting intermediaries, who
serve as conduits for the spirits to express themselves. She
understood, that mediums were so independent, that they did not have to
belong to any of the three other categories. And they could also be all
four categories in one.
"There is a disturbing force in the room." A
man's voice interrupted dona Mercedes' incantations. Smoldering cigars
perforated the smoky darkness like accusing eyes, as the rest of the
group mumbled their agreement.
"I'll see to it," dona Mercedes said,
rising from her chair. She went from person to person, pausing for an
instant behind each one. I yelled out in pain, as I felt something
sharp piercing my shoulder.
"Come with me," she whispered into my ear. "You aren't in a trance."
Afraid I would resist, she took me firmly by the arm, and led me to the red curtain, that served as a door.
you yourself asked me to come," I insisted, before I was pushed out of
the room. "I won't bother anyone, if I sit quietly in a corner."
bother the spirits," she murmured, and noiselessly drew the curtain
shut. I walked to the kitchen at the back of the house, where I usually
worked at night
transcribing tapes, and organizing my gradually
growing field notes. Swarms of insects clustered around the single bulb
dangling from the kitchen ceiling. Its weak light illuminated the
wooden table standing in the middle of the room, but left the room's
corners in shadows; where the flea-ridden, mangy dogs slept. One side
of the rectangular kitchen was open to the yard. Against the other
three soot-blackened walls stood a raised adobe cooking pit, a kerosene
stove, and a round metal tub filled with water. I walked into the
moonlit yard. The cement slab, where dona Mercedes' companion
Candelaria spread out well-soaped clothes to whiten in the sun each
day, shone like a silvery puddle of water. The wash hanging on the
lines looked like white stains against the darkness of the stucco wall
encircling the yard. Outlined by the moon, fruit trees, medicinal
plants, and vegetable patches formed a uniform dark mass, humming with
insects and the strident call of crickets. I returned to the kitchen,
and checked the pot simmering on the stove. No matter what time of day
or night, there was always something to eat. Usually it was a hearty
soup made of meat, chicken, or fish, depending on what was available,
and an assortment of vegetables and roots. I searched for a soup plate
among the dishes, piled on the wide adobe shelves built into the wall.
There were dozens of unmatched china, metal, and plastic plates. I
served myself a large bowl of chicken soup, but before sitting down, I
remembered to scoop out some water from the nearby tub and replenish
the pot on the stove. It had not taken me long to familiarize myself
with the habits of that eccentric household. I started to write down,
what had transpired in the meeting. Trying to recollect every detail of
an event or every word of a conversation was always the best exercise
to fight off the sense of loneliness, that invariably came upon me. The
cold nose of a dog rubbed against my leg. I searched for leftover
pieces of bread, fed them to the dog, and then returned to my notes. I
worked until I felt sleepy and my eyes burned, strained by the weak
light. I collected my
tape recorder and papers, then headed toward
my room, situated at the other end of the house. I paused for an
instant in the inside patio. It was patched with moonlight. A faint
breeze stirred the leaves of the gnarled grape vine; its jagged shadows
painted lacy patterns on the brick courtyard. I felt her presence
before actually seeing the woman. She was squatting on the ground,
almost hidden by the large terra-cotta pots, scattered throughout the
patio. A wooly mop of hair crowned her head like a white halo, but her
dark face remained indistinct, blending in with the shadows around her.
I had never seen her in the house before. I recovered from my initial
fright by reasoning, that she must be one of dona Mercedes' friends, or
perhaps one of her patients, or even one of Candelaria's relatives, who
waiting for her to come out of the seance.
"Pardon me," I said. "I'm new here. I work with dona Mercedes."
woman nodded as I spoke. She gave me the impression she knew what I was
talking about; but she did not break her silence. Possessed by an
inexplicable uneasiness, I tried not to succumb to hysterical fright. I
kept repeating to myself, that I had no reason to panic, because an old
woman was squatting in the patio.
"Were you at the seance?" I asked in an uncertain voice. The woman shook her head affirmatively.
"I was there, too," I said, "but dona Mercedes kicked me out."
I felt relieved all of a sudden and wanted to make fun of the situation.
you afraid of me?" the old woman asked abruptly. Her voice had a
cutting, raspy, yet youthful sound. I laughed. I was about to say no
with a flippant air, when something held me back. I heard myself
saying, that I was terrified of her.
"Come with me," the woman
ordered me matter-of-factly. Again my first reaction was to follow her
boldly; but instead, I heard myself saying something I had not
intended. "I have to finish my work. If you care to talk to me, you can
do it here and now."
"I command you to come!" the woman's voice boomed. All the energy of my body seemed to drain out of me at once.
I stated, "Why don't you command yourself to stay." I could not
believe, I had said that. I was ready to apologize, when a strange
reserve of energy flowed into my body, and made me feel almost under
"Have it your way," the woman said, and stood up from her
squatting position. Her height was inconceivable. She grew and grew,
until her knees were at my eye level.
At that point I felt my energy
leaving me and I let out a series of wild, piercing screams. Dona
Mercedes' companion Candelaria came rushing to my side. She covered the
distance between the room, where the meeting of spiritualists was
taking place, and the patio before I had time to gasp for air, and
scream once more.
"Everything is all right now," she repeated in a
soothing voice, that seemed to come from far away. Gently, she rubbed
my neck and back, but I could not stop from shaking. And then, without
wanting to, I began to cry.
"I shouldn't have left you by yourself," she said apologetically. "But who would've thought a musiua would see her?"
any of the other participants in the meeting came out to see what was
going on, Candelaria took me to the kitchen. She helped me into a chair
and gave me a glass of rum. I drank it and told her what had happened
in the patio. The instant I had finished both the rum and my account, I
felt drowsy, distracted, but far from drunk.
Not only did Candelaria put me to bed, she also placed a cot alongside, so that she would be there when I awoke.
us alone, Candelaria," dona Mercedes said, stepping into my room. After
a long silence, dona Mercedes began, "I don't know how to say this, but
medium. I knew this all along." Her feverish eyes seemed to
be suspended in a crystalline substance, as she studied my face
"The only reason they did let you sit in the seance, was because you're lucky. Mediums are lucky."
spite of my apprehension I had to laugh. "Don't laugh about this," she
admonished. "It's serious. In the patio you called a spirit all by
yourself, and the most important spirit of them all came to you; the
spirit of one of my ancestors. She doesn't come often, but when she
does, it's for important reasons."
"Was she a ghost?" I asked
stupidly. "Of course she was a ghost," she said firmly. "We understand
things the way we've been taught. There are no deviations from that.
Our beliefs are, that you saw a most frightening spirit; and that a
live medium can communicate with the spirit of a dead medium."
"Why would that spirit come to me?" I asked.
don't know. She came to me once to warn me," she replied, "but I didn't
follow her advice." Dona Mercedes' eyes became gentle, and her voice
grew softer, as she added, "The first thing I told you when you
arrived, was, that you're lucky. I was lucky, too, until someone broke
my luck. You remind me of that person. He was as blond, as you are. His
name was Federico and he also had luck, but he had no strength
whatsoever. The spirit told me to leave him alone. I didn't, and I am
still paying for it." At a loss, as to how to take the sudden turn of
events, or the sadness, that had come upon her, I placed my hand over
"He had no strength whatsoever," she repeated. "The spirit knew it."
Mercedes Peralta was always willing to discuss anything, pertaining to
her practices, she had quite emphatically discouraged my curiosity,
regarding her past. Once, and I don't know whether I caught her unaware
or whether it was a deliberate move on her part, she revealed, that she
had suffered a great loss many years ago. Before I had a chance to
decide whether she was actually encouraging me to ask personal
questions, she lifted my hand to her face, and held it against her
cheek. "Feel these scars," she whispered.
"What happened to you?" I
asked, running my fingers over the rough scar tissue on her cheeks and
neck. Until I touched them, the scars had been indistinguishable from
the wrinkles. Her dark skin felt so brittle, I was afraid it would
disintegrate in my hand. A mysterious vibration emanated from her
entire body. I could not shift my gaze from her eyes.
"We won't talk
about what you saw in the patio," she said emphatically. "Things like
that pertain only to the world of mediums, and you should never discuss
that world with anyone. I would certainly advise you not to be afraid
of that spirit, but do not beckon her foolishly."
She helped me get
out of my bed, and led me outside to the same spot in the patio, where
I had seen the woman. As I stood there inspecting the darkness around
I realized, that I had no idea whether I had slept a few hours
or an entire night and day. Dona Mercedes seemed to be aware of my
confusion. "It's four in the morning," she said. "You've slept almost
She crouched where the woman had been. I squatted
beside her between the shrubs of jasmine, hanging down from wooden
lattices; like perfumed curtains.
"It never occurred to me, that you
didn't know how to smoke," she said, and laughed her dry raspy
laughter. She reached inside her skirt pocket, pulled out a cigar, and
lit it. "At a meeting of spiritualists, we smoke hand-rolled cigars.
Spiritualists know, that the smell of tobacco pleases the spirits."
a short pause, she put the lit cigar in my mouth. "Try to smoke," she
ordered. I drew on it, inhaling deeply. The heavy smoke made me cough.
"Don't inhale," she said impatiently. "Let me show you how." She
reached for the cigar, and puffed at it repeatedly, breathing in and
out in short even spurts. "You don't want the smoke to go to your
lungs, but to your head," she explained. "That's the way a medium calls
the spirits. From now on, you're going to call the spirits from this
spot. And don't talk about it, until you can conduct a spiritualist's
meeting all by yourself."
"But I don't want to call the spirits," I laughingly protested. "All I want is to sit in one of the meetings and watch."
She regarded me with a threatening determination. "You are a medium, and no medium goes to a meeting to watch."
"What is the reason for a meeting?" I asked, changing the subject.
ask questions of the spirits," she promptly responded. "Some spirits
give great advice. Others are malevolent." She chuckled with a touch of
malice. "Which spirit shows up depends on the medium's state of being."
"Are mediums, then, at the mercy of the spirits?" I asked.
was silent for a long time, looking at me without betraying any
feelings in her face. Then in a defiant tone she said, "They are not,
if they are strong."
She continued staring at me fiercely, then
she closed her eyes. When she opened them again, they were devoid of
all expression. "Help me to my room," she murmured. Holding on to my
head, she straightened up. Her hand slid down my shoulder, then to my
arm, the stiff fingers curling around my wrist like carbonized roots.
Silently, we shuffled down the dark corridor, where wooden benches and
chairs, covered with goat hide, stood rigidly against the wall. She
stepped inside her bedroom. Before closing the door, she reminded me
again, that mediums do not talk about their world.
"I knew the
instant I saw you in the plaza, that you were a medium, and that you
would be coming to see me," she affirmed. A smile, the meaning of which
I did not understand, crossed her face. "You have come to bring me
something from my past."
"I don't quite know myself.
Memories, perhaps," she said vaguely. "Or perhaps you are bringing my
old luck back." She brushed my cheek with the back of her hand, and
softly closed the door.
by the soft breeze and the laughter of children playing in the street,
I dozed all afternoon in the hammock, that hung between two soursop
trees in the yard.
I was even oblivious to the scent of powder
detergent, mingled with the pungent odor of creosol, with which
Candelaria washed the floors twice each day; regardless of whether they
were dirty. I waited until it was nearly six o'clock. Then, as Mercedes
Peralta had requested, I went and knocked on her bedroom door. There
was no answer. Quietly, I stepped inside. Usually at that time, she was
through with the people, who came to her to be treated for one malady
or another. She never saw more, than two a day. On her bad days, which
were quite frequent, she saw no one. On those occasions, I took her for
rides in my jeep and for long walks in the surrounding hills.
that you, Musiua?" dona Mercedes asked, stretching in her low-hanging
hammock, fastened to metal rings built into the wall. I greeted her and
sat on the double bed by the window. She never slept in it. She
maintained that from a bed, regardless of its size, one could have a
fatal fall. Waiting for her to get up, I looked around the oddly
furnished room, that never failed to enchant me. Things had been
arranged there with a look of purposeful incongruity. The two night
tables at the head and foot of the bed, cluttered with candles and
figurines of saints, served as altars. A low wooden wardrobe, painted
blue and pink, blocked the door, that opened to the street.
wondered what was inside, for dona Mercedes' clothes - she never wore
anything, but black - hung everywhere, from hooks on the walls and
behind the door, at the head and foot of the iron bedstead, and even
from the ropes, holding the hammock. A crystal chandelier, which did
not work, dangled precariously from the cane ceiling. It was gray with
dust, and spiders had spun their webs around its prisms. An almanac,
the kind one tears a page from each day, hung behind the door.
her fingers through her white mop of hair, Mercedes Peralta heaved a
deep sigh, then swung her legs out of the hammock and hunted about with
her feet for her cloth sandals. She sat still for a moment, then moved
to the high narrow window, facing the street, and opened its wooden
panels. She blinked repeatedly, until her eyes adjusted to the
late-afternoon light, beaming into the room. Intently, she gazed at the
sky, as if she were expecting some message from the sunset.
going for a walk?" I asked. Slowly, she turned around. "A walk?" she
repeated, arching her brows in surprise. "How can we go for a walk,
when I have a person waiting for me."
I opened my mouth ready to
inform her: there was no one outside, but the mocking expression in her
tired eyes compelled me to silence. She took my hand, and we walked out
of her room. With his chin buried in his chest, a frail-looking old man
dozed on the wooden bench outside the room, where Mercedes Peralta
treated people, who came for help.
Sensing our presence, he
straightened up. "I don't feel too well," he said in a toneless voice,
reaching for his straw hat and the walking stick, lying beside him.
Cantu," Mercedes Peralta said, addressing herself to me, but shaking
his hand. She led him up the two steps into the room. I followed close
behind. He turned around with an inquiring expression in his eyes, as
he gazed at me.
"She's been helping me," she said. "But if you don't want her with us, she'll go outside."
stood there for a moment nervously shifting his feet. His mouth twisted
into a lopsided smile. "If she has been helping you," he murmured with
a touch of helplessness, "I suppose it's all right."
With a swift
movement of her head, Mercedes Peralta motioned me to my stool by the
altar, then helped the old man into the chair directly in front of the
high rectangular table. She seated herself to his right, facing him.
could it be?" she mumbled repeatedly, searching among the assortment of
jars, candles and cigars, dried roots, and scraps of material scattered
on the table.
She sighed with relief upon finding her nautical
compass, which she placed in front of Octavio Cantu. Attentively, she
studied the round-shaped metal box.
"Look at this!" she cried out,
beckoning me to move closer. It was the same compass I had seen her
examine so intently the first day I walked into that room. The needle,
barely visible through the opaque, badly scratched glass, moved
vigorously to and fro, as if animated by some invisible force emanating
Cantu. Mercedes Peralta used the compass as a
diagnostic device only if she believed the person to be suffering from
a spiritual ailment, rather than a natural disease. So far, I had been
unable to determine, what criteria she used to differentiate between
the two kinds of maladies. For her, a spiritual ailment could manifest
itself in the form of a bout of bad luck, as well, as a common cold,
which, depending on the circumstances, might also be diagnosed as a
natural ailment. Expecting to find some mechanical contraption, that
activated the needle, I examined the compass at every opportunity.
Since there was none, I accepted her explanation as a bonafide truth:
whenever a person is centered, that is, when body, spirit, and soul are
in harmony, the needle does not move at all. To prove her point, she
placed the compass in front of herself, Candelaria, and me. To my great
astonishment, the needle moved only when the compass was in front of
me. Octavio Cantu craned his neck to peer at the instrument. "Am I
sick?" he asked softly, gazing up at dona Mercedes.
"It's your spirit," she murmured. "Your spirit is in great turmoil."
returned the compass to the glass cabinet, then positioned herself
behind the old man and rested both hands on his head. She remained that
way for a long time; then with quick, sure movements, she ran her
fingers down his shoulders and arms. Swiftly, she stepped in front of
him, her hands brushing lightly down his chest, his legs, all the way
to his feet. Reciting a prayer, that was part church litany, part
incantation- she maintained, that every good healer knew, that Catholicism and spiritualism complemented each other (Nonsense! LM) -
alternately massaged his back and chest for nearly a half hour. To give
momentary relief to her tired hands, she periodically shook them
vigorously behind her back. She called it casting off the accumulation
of negative energy. To mark the end of the first part of her treatment,
she stamped her right foot three times on the ground. Octavio Cantu
shuddered uncontrollably. She held his head from behind, pressing her
palms to his temples, until he began to draw slow, difficult breaths.
a prayer, she moved to the altar, lit a candle and then a hand-rolled
cigar, which she began to smoke with even, rapid puffs.
"I should be
used to it by now," the old man said, breaking the smoky silence.
Startled by his voice, she began to cough, until tears rolled down her
I wondered whether she had accidentally inhaled the smoke.
Octavio Cantu, oblivious to her coughing, continued to talk. "I've told
you many, many times, that whether I'm sober or drunk, I only dream one
dream. I'm standing in my shack. It's empty. I feel the wind and see
shadows moving everywhere. But there are no more dogs to bark at the
emptiness and at the shadows. I awake with a terrible pressure: It
feels like someone were sitting on my chest; and as I open my eyes, I
see the yellow pupils of a dog. They open wider and wider, until they
swallow me..." His voice trailed off. Gasping for breath, he looked
around the room. He no longer seemed to know where he was. Mercedes
Peralta dropped the cigar stub on the floor. Grabbing his chair from
behind, she swiftly turned him around, so that he was now facing the
altar. With slow, mesmerizing movements, she massaged him around his
eyes. I must have dozed off, for I found myself alone in the room. I
quickly looked around. The candle on the altar was almost burned down.
Right above me in the corner close to the ceiling sat a moth the size
of a small bird. It had enormous black circles on its wings; they
stared at me like curious eyes. A sudden rustle made me turn around.
Mercedes Peralta was sitting in her chair by the altar. I muffled a
scream. I could have sworn she had not been there a moment before.
"I didn't know you were there," I said. "Look at that big moth above my head." I searched for the insect, but it was gone.
was something about the way she looked at me, that made me shudder. "I
got too tired and fell asleep," I explained. "I didn't even find out
what was wrong with
"He comes to see me from time
to time," she said. "He needs me as a spiritualist and a healer. I
lighten the burden, that weighs on his soul." She turned to the altar,
and lit three candles. In the flickering light her eyes were the color
of the moth's wings. "You'd better go to sleep," she suggested.
"Remember, we're going to go for a walk at dawn."
that I had overslept again, I dressed quickly and headed down the dark
corridor. Mindful of the creaking hinges, I carefully opened the door
to Mercedes Peralta's room and tiptoed toward the hammock.
"Are you awake?" I whispered, pushing aside the gauzy material of the mosquito netting. "Do you still want to go for a walk?"
eyes opened instantly, but she was not really awake yet. She continued
to stare quietly ahead. "I do," she finally said hoarsely, brushing the
netting aside completely. She cleared her throat, spat in the bucket on
the floor, and then moved over a little to make room for me in the
hammock. "I'm glad you remembered our walk," she mumbled, as she
crossed herself. Closing her eyes, she folded her hands and prayed to
the Virgin and to a number of saints in heaven. She thanked them
individually for their guidance in helping her with the people she
treated and then asked for their forgiveness.
"Why their forgiveness?" I inquired as soon, as she finished her long prayer.
at the lines on my palms," she said, placing her upturned hands in my
lap. With my index finger I traced the clearly delineated V and M
lines, that seemed to have been branded; the V on her left palm, and
the M on her right. "V stands for vida, life. M stands for muerte,
death," she explained, enunciating the words
precision. "I was born with the power to heal and harm." She lifted her
hands from my lap, and brushed the air, as though she intended to erase
words she had spoken. She stared around the room, then
deliberately maneuvered her thin, fleshless legs out of the hammock and
slipped into a pair of cutout shoes, through which her toes
protruded. Her eyes twinkled with amusement, as she straightened the
black blouse and skirt, which she had slept in. Holding on to my arm,
she led me outside. "Let me show you something before we go for our
walk," she said, heading toward the working room. She turned directly
to the massive altar, which was made entirely out of melted wax. It had
been started with a single candle, she said, by her
great-great-grandmother, who had also been a healer. Lovingly, she ran
her hand over the glossy, almost transparent surface. "Search for the
black wax amid the multi-colored streaks," she urged me. "That's the
evidence, that witches light a black candle, when they use their power
to harm." Countless strands of black wax ran into the colored bands.
"The ones closer to the top are mine," she said. Her eyes shone with an
odd fierceness, as she added, "A true healer is also a witch." A
glimmer of a smile lingered on her lips for a moment; then she went on
to say, that not only was she well known throughout the area, but that
people came for her treatments from as far, as Caracas, Maracaibo,
Merida, and Cumana.
People knew about her abroad as well:
Trinidad, Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, and Haiti. There were pictures
somewhere in the house attesting, that among those persons had been
ministers of state, ambassadors, and even a bishop. She regarded me
enigmatically, then shrugged her shoulders.
"My luck and my strength
were peerless at one time," she said. "I ran out of both, and now I can
only heal." Her grin widened, and her eyes took on a teasing gleam.
"And how is your work progressing?" she asked with the innocent
curiosity of a child. Before I had a chance to take in the sudden
change of topic, she added, "Regardless of how many healers and
patients you interview, you will never learn that way. A real healer
must be first a medium and a spiritualist, and then a witch."
dazzling smile lit up her face. "Don't be too upset, when one of these
days I burn your writing pads," she said casually. "You're wasting your
time with all that nonsense." I became utterly alarmed. I did not take
kindly to the prospect of seeing my work go up in flames.
know what's of real interest?" she asked, and then answered her own
question. "The issues, that go beyond the superficial aspects of
healing. Things, that can't be explained, but may be experienced.
There have been plenty of people, who have studied healers. They
believe, that by watching and asking questions, they may understand
what mediums, witches, and healers do. Since there is no point in
arguing with them, it's a lot easier to leave them alone to do whatever
It cannot be the same in your case," she went on. "I
cannot let you go to waste. So, instead of acting like you are studying
healers, you're going to practice calling the
spirit of my ancestor
every night in the patio of this house. You can't take notes on that,
because the spirits count time in a different way. You'll see. To deal with the spirits is like entering inside the Earth."
memory of the woman I had seen in that patio perturbed me terribly. I
wanted to abandon right then all my quest and forget Florinda's plans
and run away.
Suddenly dona Mercedes laughed, a clear burst, that
dispelled my fears. "Musiua, you should see your face," she said.
"You're about to faint. Among other things, you're a coward." Despite
her wry mocking tone, there was sympathy and affection in her smile. "I
shouldn't push you. So I'm going to give you something you'll like -
something, that has more value, than your study plans; A glimpse into
the life of some personages of my choice. I will make them weave tales
for you. Tales about fate. Tales about luck. Tales about love." She
brought her face close to mine and in a soft whisper added, "Tales
about strength and tales about weakness. That will be my gift to you to
keep you appeased." She took my arm and led me outside. "Let's go for
Our steps rang lonely through the silent street, bordered
by high concrete sidewalks. In a faint murmur, obviously wary of waking
the people, sleeping inside the houses, we passed, Mercedes Peralta
remarked, that during her days as a young healer, her house- the
biggest one on the street- had stood isolated at what was then
considered the outskirts of town.
"But now," she said - the sweeping
gesture of her arm encompassing everything around us - "it seems I live
in the center of town."
We turned onto the main street, and walked
all the way to the plaza, where we rested on a bench, facing the statue
of Bolivar on a horse. The town hall stood at one side of the plaza,
the church with its bell tower at the other. Many of the original
buildings had been pulled down and replaced by boxlike structures. Yet,
the old houses, that still stood, with their wrought-iron grills, their
red-tile roofs gray with age, and their wide eaves, that permitted the
rain water to splash clear of the brightly
painted walls, gave the center of town its distinct colonial atmosphere.
town has not been the same since the day the clock in the tower of the
city hall was fixed," she mused. She explained, that a long time ago,
as if resenting the advent of progress, the clock had stopped at twelve
o'clock. The local pharmacist had seen to it, that it was fixed, and
immediately afterward, as though conjured up by an act of magic,
lampposts were put on the streets, and sprinklers were installed in the
plaza, so that the grass would stay green all year-round. And before
anyone knew what was happening, industrial centers mushroomed
everywhere. She paused for an instant to catch her breath, then pointed
to the shack-covered hills,
surrounding the city. "And so did the
squatters' shanty towns," she added. She rose and we walked to the end
of the main street to where the hills began. Huts made of corrugated
metal sheets, crates, and cardboard hung precariously on the steep
slopes. The owners of the shacks close to the city streets had boldly
tapped electricity from the lampposts. The insulated wires were crudely
camouflaged with colored ribbons. We turned onto a side street, then
into an alley, and finally we followed a narrow path, winding up the
only hill, that had not yet been claimed by squatters. The air, still
damp from the night dew, smelled of wild rosemary.
almost to the top of the hill, where a solitary saman tree grew. We sat
down on the damp ground carpeted with tiny yellow daisies.
hear the sea?" Mercedes Peralta asked. The faint breeze, rustling
through the tree's intricately woven crown, scattered a shower of
powdery golden blossoms. They alighted on her hair and shoulders like
butterflies. Her face was suffused with an immeasurable calm. Her mouth
opened slightly, revealing her few teeth, yellow with tobacco and age.
you hear the sea?" she repeated, turning her dreamy, slightly misted
eyes toward me. I told her, that the sea was too far away beyond the
"I know that the sea is far away," she said softly. "But
at this early hour, when the town still sleeps, I always hear the sound
of the waves carried by the wind." Closing her eyes, she leaned against
the tree trunk, as if to sleep. The morning stillness was shattered by
the sound of a truck winding its way through a narrow street below.
I wondered whether it was the Portuguese baker delivering his freshly baked rolls, or the police picking up last night's drunks.
who it is," she urged me. I walked a few steps down the path, and
watched an old man get out from a green truck parked at the bottom of
the hill. His coat hung loosely on his stooped shoulders, and a straw
hat covered his head. Aware of being watched, he looked up, and waved
his walking stick by way of greeting. I waved in return.
"It's the old man you treated last night," I told her.
"How fortunate!" she murmured. "Call him. Tell him to come up here. Tell him I want to see him. My gift to you begins now."
walked down to where his truck was parked and asked the old man to walk
back up the hill with me. He followed me without a word.
"No dogs today," he said to Mercedes Peralta by way of greeting, and sat beside her.
me tell you a secret, Musiua," she said, beckoning me to sit across
from her. "I am a medium, a witch, and a healer. Of the three, I like
the second, because witches have a particular way of understanding the
mysteries of fate. Why is it that some people get rich, successful, and
happy, while others find only hardship and pain? Whatever decides those
things is not what you call fate: It's something more mysterious, than
that. And only witches know about it."
Her features strained for an
instant with an expression I could not fathom, as she turned to Octavio
Cantu. "Some people say, that we're born with our fate. Others claim,
that we make our fate with our actions. Witches say, that it's neither
and that something else catches us, like the dog catcher catches a dog.
The secret is to be there, if we want to be caught, or not to be there
if we don't want to be caught."
Her glance strayed to the eastern
sky, where the sun was rising over the distant mountains. After a few
moments she faced the old man once more. Her eyes seemed to have
absorbed the sun's radiance, for they shone, as if smeared with fire.
Cantu is coming to the house for his seasonal treatments," she said.
"Perhaps little by little he'll weave a tale for you. A tale about how
chance joins lives together and how that something, that only witches
know about, fastens them into one bundle."
Octavio Cantu nodded his
head in agreement. A tentative smile parted his lips. The scant beard
on his chin was as white, as the hair sticking out from under his straw
hat. Octavio Cantu came to dona Mercedes' house eight times. Apparently
she had been treating him periodically since he was a young man.
Besides being old and run down, he was an alcoholic. Dona Mercedes
emphasized, however, that all his maladies were of the spirit. He
needed incantations, not medicines. At first, he hardly talked to me,
but then he began to open up, feeling more confident perhaps. We spent
long hours talking about his life. At the beginning of each of our
sessions, he invariably seemed to succumb to despair, loneliness,
suspicion. He demanded to know why I was interested in his life. But he
always checked himself and regained his aplomb, and for the rest of the
session whether an hour or an entire afternoon- he would talk about
himself as if he were some other person. Octavio pushed the flat piece
of cardboard aside, and edged in through the small doorlike opening of
the shack. There was no light inside, and the pungent smoke of the
dwindling fire in the stone hearth made his eyes tear. He shut them
tight and groped his way in the darkness. He tripped over some tins and
banged his shin on a wooden crate.
"Damn stinking place," he swore
under his breath. He sat for a moment on the packed dirt floor, and
rubbed his leg. In the farthest corner of the wretched shack,
saw the old man asleep on a discarded, worn-out backseat of a car.
Slowly, avoiding the crates, ropes, rags, and boxes, scattered on the
ground, he walked bent over to where the old man was lying. Octavio lit
a match. In the dim light the sleeping man looked dead. The rising and
falling of his chest was so slight he hardly seemed to breathe. High
cheekbones protruded from his black, emaciated face. His torn, dirty
khaki pants were rolled up his calves. His longsleeved khaki shirt was
buttoned tightly around his wrinkled neck.
"Victor Julio!" Octavio shouted, shaking him vigorously. "Wake up, old man!"
Julio's trembling, wrinkled eyelids opened for a moment. Only the
discolored white of his eyes showed before he shut them again.
up!" Octavio cried out with exasperation. He reached for the
narrow-brimmed straw hat on the ground, and pushed it down hard on the
old man's unkempt white hair.
"Who the hell are you?" Victor Julio grumbled. "What do you want?"
"I'm Octavio Cantu. I've been appointed by the mayor, as your helper," he explained with an air of importance.
Unsteadily the old man sat up. "I need no helper." He slipped into his
worn-out laceless shoes and staggered around the dark room, until he
found the gasoline lantern. He lit it. He rubbed the sleep out of his
eyes and, blinking repeatedly, regarded the young man carefully.
Octavio Cantu was of medium height, with strong muscles, visible
through his unbuttoned, faded blue jacket. His pants, which seemed too
large for him, bagged over his new shiny boots. Victor Julio chuckled,
wondering if Octavio Cantu had stolen them.
"So you're the new man,"
he said in a rasping voice, trying to determine the color of Octavio's
eyes, shaded by a red baseball cap. They were shifty eyes, the color of
moist earth. Victor Julio decided there was something decidedly
suspicious about the young man.
"I've never seen you around here," he said. "Where do you come from?"
"Paraguana," Octavio answered curtly. "I've been here for a while. I've seen you several times at the plaza."
"Paraguana," the old man repeated dreamily. "I've seen the sand dunes of Paraguana."
shook his head and in a harsh voice demanded, "What are you doing in
this godforsaken place? Don't you know, that there is no future in this
town? Haven't you
noticed, that the young people have migrated to the cities?"
all going to change," Octavio declared, eager to steer the conversation
away from himself. "This town is going to grow. Foreigners are buying
up the cacao groves and the sugarcane fields. They are going to build
factories. People are going to flock to this town. People are going to
Victor Julio doubled up with mocking laughter. "Factories
aren't for those like us. If you stick around long enough, you'll end
up like me." He put his hand on Octavio's arm. "I know why you're so
far away from Paraguana. You're running away from something, aren't
you?" he asked, staring hard into the young man's restless eyes.
if I am?" Octavio shifted uncomfortably. Octavio realized, that he
didn't have to tell him anything. No one knew about him in this town.
Yet, something in the old man's eyes unnerved him. "I had some trouble
back home," he muttered evasively.
Victor Julio shuffled over toward
the opening of the shack, reached for his burlap sack hanging on a
rusty nail, and took out a bottle of cheap rum. His hands, crisscrossed
by protruding veins, shook uncontrollably as he unscrewed the lid of
the bottle. He gulped repeatedly, heedless of the amber liquid trailing
down his scraggly beard.
"There is a lot of work to be done," Octavio said. "We better get going."
was young like you, when I was appointed by another mayor as a helper
to an old man," Victor Julio reminisced. "I too was strong and eager to
work. And look at me now. The rum doesn't even burn my throat any
longer." Squatting on the ground, Victor Julio searched for his walking
stick. "This cane belonged to the old man. He gave it to me before he
died." He held up the dark, highly polished stick to Octavio. "It's
made of hardwood from the Amazon jungle. It will never break."
Octavio glanced briefly at the cane, and then asked impatiently, "Is the stuff we need here? Or do we still have to get it?"
old man grinned. "The meat has been soaking since yesterday. It should
be ready by now. It's outside behind the shack in a steel drum."
you going to show me how to fix the meat?" Octavio asked. Victor Julio
laughed. All his front teeth were missing. The remaining yellow molars
looked like two pillars in his cavernous mouth.
"There is really
nothing to show," he said in between giggles. "I just go to the
pharmacist every time I want to prepare the meat. He's the one, who
mixes the beef tenderizer. Actually," he explained, "it's more like a
marinade." His mouth spread into a wide grin. "I always get the meat
from the slaughterhouse, compliments of the mayor." He took another
gulp from the bottle. "Rum helps me to prepare myself." He rubbed his
chin dry. "The dogs are going to catch up with me one of these days,"
he mumbled under his breath and handed the half-empty bottle to
Octavio. "You better have some too."
"No thanks," Octavio refused politely. "I can't drink on an empty stomach."
Julio opened his mouth ready to say something. Instead, he picked up
his walking stick and his burlap sack, and motioned Octavio to follow
Absorbed, Victor Julio stood for a moment and watched
the sky. It was neither dark nor light, but that strange oppressive
gray, that comes before dawn. In the distance he heard the barking of a
"There's the meat," he said, pointing with his chin to the
steel drum standing on a tree stump. He handed Octavio a bundle of
ropes. "It'll be easier to carry the drum, if you tie it on your back."
Octavio looped the ropes around the steel drum, lifted it on his back,
then crossed the ropes over his chest, and tied them securely below his
navel. "Is this all we need?" he asked, avoiding the old man's gaze.
some extra rope and a can of kerosene in my sack," Victor Julio
explained and took another gulp of rum. Absentmindedly, he stuffed the
bottle in his pocket.
In single file they followed the dry gully,
that cut across the cane break. All was silent, except for the fading
buzz of the crickets and the gentle breeze rustling
through the bladelike leaves of the cane.
Victor Julio had trouble breathing. His chest hurt. He felt so tired he wanted to lie down
on the hard ground.
He turned often to gaze at his shack in the distance. A foreboding feeling crossed his
mind. The end was near.
He had known for a long time that he was too old and feeble to do all the work he was
supposed to do. It would be only a matter of time before they got a new man.
"Victor Julio, come on," Octavio called impatiently. "It's getting late."
The town was still asleep.
Only a few old women on their way to church were about. With their heads covered by
dark veils, they hurried past the two men without returning their greetings.
On the narrow concrete sidewalks, seeking the protection of the silent houses, scrawny,
sickly looking dogs lay curled up in front of closed doors.
At Victor Julio's command, Octavio lowered the steel drum on the ground, and opened
the tight lid.
Using the long wooden pliers he had retrieved from his burlap sack, the old man picked
chunks of meat from the drum.
And as he and Octavio slowly made their way through town, he fed every stray dog they
came across. Hungrily, wagging their tails, the animals devoured the fatal meal.
"The dogs will feed on you in hell," a fat woman shouted before disappearing through the
large wooden door of the old colonial church at the other side of the plaza.
"No rabies this year," Victor Julio shouted back, wiping his nose on the sleeve of his
shirt. "I think we got them all well fed for the hereafter."
"I counted seventeen," Octavio complained, stretching his sore back. "That's a lot of dead
dogs to pull."
"The biggest one we won't have to carry," Victor Julio said, a sinister smile twisting his
face. "There is one dog that won't die in the street."
"What do you mean?" Octavio asked, turning his red baseball cap around on his head, a
puzzled look on his face.
Victor Julio's eyes narrowed, his pupils sparkled with an evil glint. His thin old body
shivered with anticipation.
"I'm all keyed up. Now, I'm going to kill the Lebanese storekeeper's black German
"You can't do that," Octavio protested. "It's not a stray dog. It's not sick. It's well fed. The
mayor said only stray sickly dogs."
Victor Julio swore loudly, then looked at his helper with a wicked expression.
He was certain that this was the last time he would have access to the poison. If not
Octavio, then someone else would be in charge of disposing of the dogs at the end of the
next dry season.
He could understand why the young man didn't want to cause any trouble in town, but
that was not any of his concern. He had wanted to kill the Lebanese's dog ever since it
had bitten him. This was his last chance.
"That dog is trained to attack," Victor Julio said. "Every time it gets loose it bites
someone. It bit me some months ago."
He pulled up his pant leg. "Look at the scar!" he muttered angrily, rubbing the purple,
knotty spot on his calf. "The Lebanese didn't even bother to take me to a doctor. For all I
knew that dog could have had rabies."
"But it didn't and you can't kill it," Octavio insisted. "The dog isn't in the street. It's got an
owner." He looked imploringly at the old man. "You're only asking for trouble."
"Who cares," Victor Julio snapped belligerently. "I hate that animal and I won't have
another chance to kill it."
Victor Julio flung his burlap sack over his shoulder. "Come on, let's go."
Unwillingly, Octavio followed the old man through a narrow side street toward the
outskirts of town. They stopped in front of a large, green stucco house.
"The dog must be in the back," Victor Julio said. "Let's have a look." They walked along
the brick wall encircling the backyard. There was no sign of the dog.
"We better leave," Octavio whispered. "I'm sure the dog sleeps inside the house."
"It'll come out," Victor Julio said, trailing his walking stick along the wall.
Loud barking splintered the morning stillness. Excitedly, the old man jumped up and
down on his frail legs, brandishing his walking stick in the air above his head. "Give me
the rest of the meat!" he demanded.
Octavio unfastened the ropes from his chest, and reluctantly lowered the steel drum to the
ground. The old man picked out the last pieces of meat with the wooden pliers, and flung
them over the wall.
"Just listen to that beast gulping down that poisoned meat," Victor Julio said gleefully.
"That vicious brute is as hungry as the rest of them."
"Let's get out of here fast," Octavio hissed, lifting the steel drum on his back.
"There's no hurry." Victor Julio laughed. A sensation of elation invaded his body as he
looked for something on which to stand.
"Let's go," Octavio insisted. "We're going to get caught."
"We won't," Victor Julio assured him calmly, climbing on the shaky wooden crate he had
propped against the wall.
He stood on his toes and looked at the raging dog. Barking furiously, the animal spat
foam and blood in an effort to wrench loose whatever had stuck in its throat.
Its legs grew rigid. It toppled over. Powerful spasms wheeled its body around.
Victor Julio shivered. "It's even hard to die," he murmured, stepping down from the crate.
He didn't feel any satisfaction in having killed the Lebanese's German shepherd.
In all the years of poisoning dogs, he had always avoided seeing them die. He had never
enjoyed killing the town's stray mongrels, but it was the only job that had been available
A vague fear filled Victor Julio's heart. He looked down the empty road.
He curled his left thumb backward and placed the walking stick between it and his wrist.
Holding his arm outstretched, he started to move the stick back and forth so rapidly the
cane seemed to be suspended in midair.
"What kind of trick is that?" Octavio asked, watching him enthralled.
"It's no trick. It's an art. This is what I do best," Victor Julio explained sadly.
"In the mornings and afternoons I entertain the small children in the plaza with my
dancing stick. Some of the children are friendly to me."
He handed the cane to Octavio. "Try it. See if you can do it."
Victor Julio laughed at Octavio's clumsy attempt to hold the stick properly.
"It takes years of practice," the old man said. "You've got to develop your thumb in order
to stretch it backward until it touches the wrist. And you have got to move your arm
much faster so the stick won't have time to fall on the ground."
Octavio handed him back the cane. "We better get those dogs!" he exclaimed, surprised
by the suddenness of the morning glow and the flame-colored blotches appearing on the
"Victor Julio, wait for me," a child called after them.
Barefoot, her black tangled hair tied on top of her head, a six-year-old girl caught up with
the two men.
"Look what my aunt brought me to play with," she said, holding up a German shepherd
puppy for the old man to see. "I named her Butterfly. She looks like one, doesn't she?"
Victor Julio sat on the curb. The little girl sat next to him and placed the cute, chubby
puppy on his lap. Distractedly, he ran his fingers along the black and pale yellow fur.
"Show Butterfly how you make your walking stick dance," the child pleaded.
Victor Julio put the dog on the ground, and retrieved the bottle of rum from his pocket.
Without drawing a breath, he emptied its contents, then dropped the bottle into his burlap
There was a desolate expression in his eyes as he gazed into the child's smiling face.
Soon she would grow up, he thought. She would no longer sit with him under the trees in
the plaza and help him fill the trash cans with leaves, and believe they would turn to gold
during the night.
He wondered if she, too, would shout at him, taunt him, like most of the older children
did. He closed his eyes tightly.
"Let's see if the stick feels like dancing," he mumbled. Rubbing his creaking knees, he
Mesmerized, both Octavio and the child watched the stick. It seemed to be dancing by
itself, animated not only by the swift graceful movement of Victor Julio's arms but also
by the rhythmic tapping of his foot and his hoarse, yet melodious, voice, as he sang a
Octavio put the drum down, and sat on it to admire the old man's skill.
Victor Julio stopped his song in mid-sentence. His stick fell on the ground. With a look of
surprise and horror, he saw the puppy lapping up the juice of the poisoned meat, trickling
from the drum.
The girl picked up the cane, caressed the finely carved head, and handed it to Victor
Julio. "I've never seen you drop it," she remarked concerned. "Did the stick get tired?"
Victor Julio placed his trembling hand on her head, pulling her ponytail gently. "I'm
going to take Butterfly for a walk," he said. "Go back to bed before your mother finds
you out here. I'll see you later at the plaza. We'll pick leaves together."
He lifted the chubby puppy in his arms, and motioned Octavio to follow him up the
The stray dogs were no longer curled up in front of closed doors, but lay rigid with their
legs extended, scattered around the dusty streets, their glassy eyes staring blankly into
One by one, Octavio tied them with the ropes Victor Julio had brought in his burlap sack.
Butterfly, her whole body shaking convulsively, sent a stream of blood down the old
man's pants. He shook his head with despair. "What am I going to tell the kid?" he
mumbled, fastening the poisoned puppy with the others.
They made two trips, and dragged the dead dogs to the outskirts of town, past the
Lebanese's house, past the empty fields, down into a dried-up ravine.
Victor Julio covered them with a layer of dry branches, then doused the heap with the can
of kerosene he had brought with him and set them afire. The dogs burned slowly, filling
the air with the smell of scorched flesh and fur.
Panting, their throats raw with smoke and dust, the two men climbed out of the ravine.
They didn't walk far before they collapsed under the shade of a blooming red acacia tree.
Victor Julio stretched out on the hard ground still cool from the night. His hands trembled
as he held the walking stick securely over his stomach. He closed his eyes, and tried to
still his breathing, hoping it would dispel the pain constricting his chest. He wished he
could sleep, lose himself in dreams.
"I've got to get going," Octavio said after a short while. "I've got some other jobs to do."
"Stay with me," the old man begged. "I have to tell the kid about her dog."
He sat up and gazed imploringly at Octavio. "You can help me. Children so soon become
afraid of me. She's one of the few who is friendly."
The wretched emptiness in Victor Julio's voice frightened Octavio. He leaned against the
tree trunk and closed his eyes. He couldn't bear to see the fear and the loss reflected in the
old man's face.
"Come with me to the plaza. Let everyone know you're the new man," Victor Julio
"I won't stay in this town," Octavio said gruffly. "I don't like this business of killing
"It's not a matter of liking or disliking it," Victor Julio remarked. "It's a matter of fate."
Victor Julio smiled wistfully and let his gaze wander in the town's direction. "Who
knows, you might have to stay here forever," he mumbled, closing his eyes again.
The silence was broken by the sound of angry voices. Down the road came a group of
boys led by the oldest son of the Lebanese. They stopped a few paces away from the two
"You killed my dog," the Lebanese boy hissed, then spat on the ground inches away from
Victor Julio's feet.
Propping himself on his cane, the old man rose. "What makes you think it was me?" he
asked, trying to gain time.
Victor Julio's hands shook uncontrollably as he searched for the bottle of rum in his sack.
He stared at the empty bottle uncomprehendingly. He didn't remember having drunk the
"You killed the dog," the boys repeated in a chant. "You killed the dog." Cursing and
jabbing him, they tried to grab his stick and his burlap sack.
Victor Julio backed away. Brandishing his cane, he swung it blindly at the jeering boys.
"Leave me alone!" he screamed through trembling lips.
Momentarily startled by his rage, the boys stood still.
Suddenly, as if they had only just noticed that Victor Julio was not alone, they turned to
"And who are you?" one of the boys yelled, looking from one man to the other, perhaps
measuring the consequences of having to deal with both. "Are you with the old man? Are
you his helper?"
Octavio didn't answer but swung the rope over his head, lashing it out in front of him like
Laughing and screaming, the boys dodged the well-aimed snaps. But when several of
them were stung by the rope, not only on their calves and thighs but also on their
shoulders and arms, they backed away.
They ran after Victor Julio, who, in the meantime, had fled toward the ravine, where the
dogs were still burning.
Victor Julio turned his head. Terror dilated his pupils as he saw the boys approaching so
close behind him.
They no longer seemed human: They reminded him of a pack of barking dogs. He tried to
run faster, but the searing pain in his chest slowed him down.
The boys picked up pebbles and threw them at him, just teasing him. But when the
Lebanese boy reached for a good-sized stone, the rest of the boys, eager to outdo each
other, selected even larger rocks.
One of them hit Victor Julio on the head.
He staggered. His vision blurred. The ground under his feet gave way, and he tumbled
down the precipice.
The wind carried the old man's cry out of the ravine.
Panting, their faces streaked with dust and sweat, the boys stood looking at each other.
Then, as though someone had given a signal, they scurried in all directions.
Octavio ran down the steep slope, and knelt by Victor Julio's inert body. He shook him
The old man opened his eyes. His breath came in spurts. His voice was only a faint
"I knew that the end was near, but I thought it was only the end of my job. It never
occurred to me it was going to be this way."
His pupils flickered with an oddly bright gleam as he stared into his helper's eyes.
Slowly, the light went out.
Octavio shook him frantically. "Jesus! He's dead!" he muttered, then made the sign of the
He raised his sweaty face toward the sky. A pale moon was clearly visible despite the
blinding brightness of the sun.
He wanted to pray but could not think of a single prayer. Only images came to his mind:
a legion of dogs chasing the old man over the fields.
Octavio felt his hands grow cold and his body begin to tremble. He could run away again
to another town, he thought. But then they might suspect him of having killed Victor
Julio. He had better stay for a while, he decided, until things cleared up.
For a long time Octavio just kept staring at the dead man.
Then, on an impulse, he picked up Victor Julio's cane lying nearby. He caressed it and
rubbed the finely carved head against his left cheek. He felt that it had always belonged
to him. He wondered if he would ever be able to make the stick dance.
Octavio Cantu had had his last treatment of the season. He put on his hat and rose from
I noticed how the years had caved in his chest, and wasted the muscles of his arms. His
faded coat and pants were several sizes too big. Bulging sharply on the right-side pocket
was a large bottle of rum.
"It always happens when she finishes my treatments, I put her to sleep," he whispered to
me, fixing his sunken and discolored eyes on Mercedes Peralta. "I've talked to you too
much today. Anyway, I can't figure out why you're interested in me."
A wide smile creased his face as he held his walking stick between his thumb and wrist.
He moved his arm back and forth so skillfully the cane appeared to be suspended in
midair. Without saying another word he walked out of the room.
"Dona Mercedes," I called softly, turning to her. "Are you awake?"
Mercedes Peralta nodded. "I'm awake. I'm always awake even when I'm asleep," she said
softly. "That's the way I try to stay a jump ahead of myself."
I told her that since I had begun talking to Octavio Cantu I had been plagued by deep,
nagging questions. Could Octavio Cantu have avoided stepping into Victor Julio's shoes?
And why did he repeat Victor Julio's life so completely?
"Those are unanswerable questions," dona Mercedes replied. "But let's go to the kitchen
and ask Candelaria. She's got more sense than the two of us together. I'm too old to have
sense, and you're too educated."
With a beaming smile on her face, she took my arm and we walked to the kitchen.
Candelaria, engrossed in scrubbing the copper-plated bottoms of her precious stainlesssteel
pots and pans, did not hear or see us approach. She let out a piercing, startled scream
when dona Mercedes nudged her arm.
Candelaria was tall, with sloping shoulders and wide hips. I couldn't tell her age. She
looked as much thirty as she looked fifty. Her brown face was covered with tiny freckles,
so evenly spaced they seemed to have been painted on. She dyed her dark curly hair a
carrot red and wore dresses made from bold-colored printed cottons.
"Well? What are you doing in my kitchen?" she asked with feigned annoyance.
"The musiua is obsessed with Octavio Cantu," dona Mercedes explained.
"My God!" Candelaria exclaimed. Her face expressed genuine shock as she looked up at
me. "Why him?" she asked.
Baffled by her accusing tone, I voiced the questions I had just asked dona Mercedes.
Candelaria began to laugh. "For a minute I was worried," she said to dona Mercedes.
"Musius are weird.
"I remember that musiu from Finland who used to drink a glass of urine after his dinner
to keep his weight down.
"And the woman who came all the way from Norway to fish in the Caribbean sea. To my
knowledge, she never caught anything. But she had the boat owners fighting among
themselves to take her out to sea."
Laughing uproariously, the two women sat down.
Candelaria went on, saying, "One never knows what goes on in the minds of musius."
They are capable of anything."
She laughed in spurts, each louder than the preceding one. Then she went back to
scrubbing her pots.
"It looks like Candelaria thinks very little of your questions," dona Mercedes said.
"I personally think that Octavio Cantu couldn't avoid stepping into Victor Julio's shoes.
"He had very little strength: That's why he was caught by that mysterious something I
talked to you about; that something more mysterious than fate. Witches call it a witch's
"Octavio Cantu was very young and strong," Candelaria said all of a sudden, "but he sat
too long under Victor Julio's shadow."
"What is she talking about?" I asked dona Mercedes.
"When people are fading away, especially at the moment they die, they create with that
mysterious something a link with other persons, a sort of continuity," dona Mercedes
"That's why children turn out just like their parents. Or those who take care of old people
follow into the steps of their wards."
Candelaria spoke again. "Octavio Cantu sat too long in Victor Julio's shadow. And the
shadow sapped him. Victor Julio was weak, but upon dying the way he did, his shadow
became very strong."
"Would you call the shadow the soul?" I asked Candelaria.
"No, the shadow is something all human beings have, something stronger than their
soul," she replied seemingly annoyed.
"There you are, Musiua," dona Mercedes said. "Octavio Cantu sat too long on a link- a
point where fate links lives together.
"He didn't have the strength to walk away from it. And, like Candelaria says, Victor
Julio's shadow sapped him.
"Because all of us have a shadow, a strong or a weak one, we can give that shadow to
someone we love, to someone we hate, or to someone who is simply available.
"If we don't give it to anyone, it floats around for a while after we die before it vanishes
I must have stared at her uncomprehendingly. She laughed and said, "I've told you that I
like witches. I like the way they explain events, even though it's hard to understand them.
"Octavio needs me to ease his burden. I do that through my incantations. He feels that
unless I intervene he will repeat Victor Julio's life detail by detail."
"It's advisable," Candelaria blurted out, "not to sit too long under anybody's shadow
unless you want to follow in his or her footsteps."
I was anticipating the loud sounds that usually reverberated through the house every
Thursday morning as Candelaria rearranged the heavy furniture in the living room.
Wondering whether I had actually slept through the commotion, I walked down the silent
corridor to the living room.
Shafts of sunlight filtered through the cracks in the wooden panels that covered the two
windows facing the street. The dining table with its six chairs, the dark sofa, the stuffed
armchairs, the glass coffee table, and the framed prints of pastoral landscapes and
bullfighting scenes on the walls were exactly as Candelaria had arranged them the
I walked out into the yard, where I found Candelaria, half-hidden behind a hibiscus bush.
Her frizzy, red-dyed hair had been brushed out of her face and was held in place by
bejeweled combs. Twinkling gold loops dangled from her earlobes. Her lips and nails
were a glossy red and matched the colors of her brightly printed cotton dress. Her large
eyes under lids that never opened all the way betrayed a dreaminess that was at odds with
her sharp angular features and her crisp, almost brusque manner.
"What made you get up so early, Musiua?" Candelaria asked. Rising, she tidied her wide
skirt and the low-cut bodice of her dress that revealed a generous amount of her ample
"I didn't hear you move the furniture this morning," I said. "Are you going out?"
Without answering she hurried into the kitchen, her loose sandals slapping on her heels as
she ran. "I'm behind with everything today," she declared, stopping momentarily to get
her foot back into the sandal that had slipped off.
"I'm sure you'll catch up," I said. "I'll help you." I lit the wood in the cooking pit, and set
the table with the mismatched pieces of china.
"It's just seven-thirty," I remarked. "You're only half an hour late."
As opposed to dona Mercedes, who was totally indifferent to schedules, Candelaria
divided her day into precisely timed tasks.
Although no one ever sat down for a meal at the same time, Candelaria fixed breakfast at
exactly seven. By eight o'clock she was mopping the floors and dusting the furniture. She
was tall enough that she had to stretch only her arms to reach the spider webs in the
corners and the dust on the lintels.
And by eleven o'clock the daily pot of soup was simmering on the stove.
As soon as that was accomplished, she tended to her flowers. Watering can in hand, she
first walked up and down the patio, then the yard, sprinkling her plants with loving care.
At two o'clock sharp she did the laundry, even if she only had one towel to wash. After
the ironing was done, she read illustrated romances.
In the evenings, she cut out magazine pictures and pasted them in photo albums.
"Elio's godfather was here last night," she whispered. "Dona Mercedes and I talked with
him till dawn."
She reached for the mortared corn cooked the evening before, and began to knead the
white dough for the comcakes we ate for breakfast.
"He must be over eighty years old. And he still hasn't gotten over Elio's death. Lucas
Nunez blames himself for the boy's death."
"Who is Elio?" I asked.
"Dona Mercedes' son," Candelaria murmured, shaping the dough into round patties. "He
was only eighteen when he died tragically. It was a long time ago."
She brushed a strand of hair behind her ear, then added, "You'd better not mention to her
that I told you she had a son."
She placed the corncakes on the grill spanning the cooking pit, then faced me, a devilish
grin on her lips. "You don't believe me, do you?" she asked, but stopped me from
responding by holding up one hand.
"I have to concentrate now on the coffee. You know how fussy dona Mercedes gets if it
isn't strong or sweet enough."
I regarded Candelaria suspiciously. She was in the habit of telling me the most outlandish
stories about the healer, such as the time when dona Mercedes was apprehended by a
group of Nazis during the Second World War and held captive in a submarine.
"She's a liar," dona Mercedes had once confided. "And even if she's telling the truth she
exaggerates it so much that it might as well be a lie."
Candelaria, thoroughly unconcerned about my suspicions, wiped her face on the apron
she had tied around her neck, then with a swift, abrupt movement, she turned around and
hurried out of the kitchen. "Watch over the corncakes," she cried out from the corridor.
"I'm behind with everything today."
Around midday, Mercedes Peralta finally woke up after sleeping through Candelaria's
Thursday commotion, which was noisier than usual because of the hurry.
Undecidedly, dona Mercedes stood at the door of her room, squinting her eyes to adjust
to the brightness. She rested against the door frame for a moment before venturing out
into the corridor.
I rushed to her side, and taking her arm, I led her to the kitchen. Her eyes were red. She
had a frown and a sad look around her mouth.
I wondered if she, too, had spent the night awake. There was always the possibility that
Candelaria had indeed been telling the truth.
Seemingly preoccupied, she studied the plateful of corncakes, but instead of taking one,
she broke off two bananas from the bunch hanging on one of the rafters. She peeled them,
cut them into slivers, then daintily ate the bananas, one sliver at a time.
"Candelaria wants you to meet her parents," she said, delicately wiping the corners of her
mouth. "They live in the hills, close to the dam."
Before I had a chance to say that I would be delighted, Candelaria came sauntering into
the kitchen. "You'll love my mother," she affirmed. "She's small and skinny like you, and
she also eats the whole day long."
I voiced the idea that, somehow, I had never thought of Candelaria as having a mother.
With a rapt smile the two women listened attentively as I tried to make them understand
what I meant by that. I assured them that categorizing certain people as the motherless
type had nothing to do with age or looks but with some elusive, remote quality that I
couldn't quite explain.
What seemed to delight Mercedes Peralta the most about my elucidation was that it failed
to make any sense. She sipped her coffee pensively, then looked at me askance.
"Do you think I had a mother myself?" she asked. She closed her eyes, and puckering up
her mouth, she moved her lips as if she were sucking from a breast. "Or do you believe I
was hatched from an egg?"
She glanced up at Candelaria and in a serious tone pronounced, "The musiua is quite
right. What she wants to say is that witches have very little attachment to parents or
children. Yet, they love them with all their might but only when they are facing them,
never when they turn their backs."
I wondered if Candelaria was afraid I would mention Elio, for she stepped behind dona
Mercedes, gesticulating wildly for me to remain silent.
Dona Mercedes seemed to be determined to read our thoughts: She first looked at me,
then at Candelaria, with fixed unblinking eyes.
Sighing, Dona Mercedes wrapped her hands around her mug and sipped the rest of her
coffee. "Elio was only a few days old when his mother, my sister, died," she said, looking
"He was my delight. I loved him as though he were my own child." She smiled faintly,
and after a short pause, she continued talking about Elio.
She said that no one would have called him handsome. He had a wide sensuous mouth, a
flat nose with sprawling nostrils, and wild kinky hair. But what made Elio irresistible to
young and old alike were his big, black, and lustrous eyes, which shone with happiness
and sheer well-being.
At great length dona Mercedes talked about Elio's eccentricities. Although he was to
become a healer like herself, he rarely spent any time thinking about healing. He was too
busy falling in and out of love.
During the day, he chatted the hours away with the young women and girls who came to
In the evenings, guitar in hand, he went to serenade his conquests. He hardly ever
returned before dawn except when he was unsuccessful in his amatory ventures. Then, he
was back early and entertained her with his witty, but never vulgar, renditions of his
failures and successes.
With morbid curiosity I awaited for her to talk about his tragic death.
I felt disappointed when she glanced up at Candelaria. "Go and get me my jacket," she
murmured. "It gets windy in those hills where your parents live."
She rose and, leaning against my arm, shuffled out into the yard.
"Today, Candelaria will surprise you," she confided. "There are all kinds of delightful
quirks about her. If you were to know only half of them, you would probably faint with
Dona Mercedes chuckled softly like a child trying hard not to give away a secret.
Laughter, excited voices, and the blaring sound of jukebox music spilled from the small
restaurants and bars that lined the street leading out of Curmina.
Beyond the gas station, before the street joined the road, large trees on either side
interlinked their branches to form arches, creating a dream-like stillness.
On the road we passed solitary shacks made out of cane plastered over with mud. They
all had a narrow doorway, a few windows, and a thatched roof. Some of the huts were
whitewashed, others just mud colored.
Flowers, mostly geraniums growing in discarded cooking pots and tin cans, hung from
Majestic trees aglow with golden and blood-red blossoms shaded meticulously swept
yards, where women were doing their wash in plastic tubs, or were spreading clothes to
dry on bushes. Some greeted us with a slow smile; others with a nearly imperceptible nod
of their heads.
Twice we stopped at a roadside stall where children sold fruit and vegetables picked from
Candelaria, sitting in the backseat of my jeep, gave me directions. We passed a cluster of
huts in the outskirts of a small town, and within moments a blanket of fog enveloped us; a
fog so thick I could barely see beyond the hood of the jeep.
"Oh Lord Jesus Christ," Candelaria began to pray. "Come down and help us get through
this devilish fog. Please, Holy Mary, Mother of God, come here to protect us. Blessed
Saint Anthony, Merciful Saint Theresa, Divine Holy Ghost, gather around to help us."
"You'd better stop it, Candelaria," dona Mercedes cut in. "What if the saints are indeed
listening to you and answer your prayers? How are we going to get them all into the car?"
Candelaria laughed, then burst into song. Over and over she repeated the first few lines of
an aria from an Italian opera.
"Do you like it?" she asked me, catching my glance in the rearview mirror. "My father
taught it to me. My father is Italian. He likes opera and taught me arias by Verdi, Puccini,
I glanced at dona Mercedes for confirmation, but she had fallen asleep.
"It's true," Candelaria insisted, then proceeded to sing a few lines from arias of different
"Do you know them, too?" she asked after I had correctly guessed the opera to which
some of them belonged. "Is your father Italian, too?"
"No." I laughed. "He's German. I don't really know much about operas," I confessed.
"The only thing he taught me about music was that Beethoven was nearly a demigod.
Every Sunday, for as long as I lived at home, my father played all of Beethoven's
The fog lifted as abruptly as it had descended about us, unveiling chain after chain of
bluish mountains. They seemed to extend forever across an emptiness of air and light.
Following Candelaria's directions, I turned into a narrow dirt lane angling sharply from
the road: It was barely wide enough for the jeep.
"Here it is," she cried out excitedly, pointing at the two-story house at the end of the lane.
The whitewashed walls were yellow with age, and the once red tiles were gray and
I parked, and we got out of the jeep.
An old man clad in a frayed T-shirt was leaning out of an upstairs window. He waved at
us and then disappeared, his loud excited voice ringing through the silence of the house.
"Roraima! The witches are here!"
Just as we reached the front door, a small, wrinkled woman stepped out to greet us.
Smiling, she embraced Candelaria, then dona Mercedes.
"This is my mother," Candelaria proudly said. "Her name is Roraima."
After a slight hesitation, Roraima also embraced me.
She was barely five feet and very lean. She wore a long black dress. She had thick black
hair and the bright eyes of a bird. Her motions, too, were birdlike, dainty and quick as she
ushered us inside the dark vestibule where a small light burned under a picture of Saint
Beaming with contentment, she told us to follow her along the wide L-shaped gallery
bordering the inside patio where a lemon and guava tree shaded the open living-dining
room and the spacious kitchen.
Mercedes Peralta whispered something in Roraima's ear, and then continued down the
corridor that led to the back of the house.
For a moment I stood undecided, then followed Candelaria and her mother up the stone
stairs to the second floor, past a row of bedrooms; all of which opened onto the wide
balcony running the length of the patio.
"How many children do you have?" I asked as we passed the fifth door.
"I have only Candelaria." The leathery wrinkles in Roraima's face deepened as she
smiled. "But the grandchildren from Caracas come to spend their holidays here."
Aghast, I turned to Candelaria and stared into her dark, guarded eyes in which a glimmer
of amusement was just discernible.
"I didn't know you had any children," I said, wondering if this was the surprise dona
Mercedes had hinted at that morning. Somehow it was a letdown.
"How can I have any children?" Candelaria retorted indignantly. "I'm a maiden!"
I burst into laughter. Her statement not only implied that she was unmarried but that she
was also a virgin. The haughty expression on her face left no doubt that she was very
proud of the fact.
Candelaria leaned over the railing, then she turned and looked up. "I've never told you
that I have a brother. Actually he's only a half brother. He's much older than I. He was
born in Italy. Like my father, he came to Venezuela to make his fortune. He has a
construction company. He's rich now."
Roraima nodded her head emphatically. "Her half brother has eight children. They love to
spend the summers here with us," she added.
In a sudden change of mood, Candelaria laughed and embraced her mother. "Imagine!"
she exclaimed. "The musiua can't conceive that I have a mother." With an impish smile
she added, "And what's even worse- she doesn't believe that I have an Italian father!"
At that very instant, one of the bedroom doors opened, and the old man I had seen at the
window stepped out onto the balcony.
He was stocky with sharp angular features that strongly resembled Candelaria's. He had
dressed in a hurry. His shirt was buttoned up askew, the leather belt holding up his pants
had not been fitted into the loops around the waist, and his shoe laces were untied.
He embraced Candelaria.
"Guido Miconi," he introduced himself to me, then apologized for not welcoming us at
the door. "As a child, Candelaria was as pretty as Roraima," he said, holding his daughter
in a warm embrace. "Only when she grew up did she start to resemble me."
Clearly sharing a private joke, all three burst into laughter.
Roraima, giving a satisfied nod, regarded her husband and her daughter with unabashed
admiration. She took my arm and led me downstairs. "Let's join dona Mercedes," she
The yard, bordered by a stake fence, was enormous. At the farthest end stood an open hut
with a thatched roof.
Sitting in a hammock fastened to the crossbeam of the hut was Mercedes Peralta. She was
sampling Roraima's homemade cheese. She congratulated Roraima on her success.
Guido Miconi stood irresolute in front of dona Mercedes: He seemed unsure whether to
shake her hand or to put his arm around her. She smiled at him and he embraced her.
We all sat around the hammock, except for Roraima who sat in it beside Mercedes
Roraima asked her questions about me, which dona Mercedes promptly answered as if I
were not there.
For a while I listened to their conversation, but soon the heat, the stillness of the air, and
Guido Miconi's and the women's low voices interspersed now and then by faint giggles
made me so drowsy I stretched out on the ground.
I must have dozed off, for dona Mercedes had a hard time making me understand that I
was to check with Candelaria about lunch. I had not heard Candelaria and her father
I went inside the house. A deep soothing voice murmuring an incantation came from one
of the bedrooms.
Afraid that Candelaria was entertaining her father with one of my tapes of a healing
session, I rushed upstairs. On a previous occasion she had played a tape and promptly
erased it by pushing the wrong button.
I stopped short at the half-opened door. Speechless, I watched Candelaria massage her
father's back and shoulders while she softly mumbled an incantation.
There was something about her stance- the concentrated, yet fluid beauty of her moving
hands- that reminded me of Mercedes Peralta. I realized then that Candelaria was also a
As soon as she finished massaging her father, she turned to face me; a glimmer of
amusement in her eyes. "Did dona Mercedes ever tell you about me?" Her voice had a
curious softness that I had never heard before. "She says that I was born a witch."
There were so many questions running through my mind, I was at a loss where to begin.
Candelaria, aware of my bewilderment, shrugged her shoulders in a sort of helpless
"Let's fix lunch," Guido Miconi offered, heading for the stairs.
Candelaria and I followed behind him. Suddenly, he turned around and faced me.
"Mercedes Peralta is right," he said, then bent his head and stared fixedly at the lacy
shadows of the guava tree on the brick patio.
For a long time he just stood there shaking his head now and then, unsure what to say or
He looked up, smiled faintly, and then began to walk about the patio, his hands lightly
touching flowers and leaves, his shiny eyes seeming not quite to take me in when they
focused on me.
"It's a strange story," he said to me in an excited voice that made his Italian accent more
pronounced. "Candelaria says that dona Mercedes wants me to tell it to you. You know
that you're welcome here. I hope you come often, so we can talk."
I was at a loss. I looked at Candelaria, hoping for some kind of explanation.
"I think I know what dona Mercedes wants to do with you," Candelaria said.
Taking my arm, she led me to the kitchen. "She likes you a lot, but she can't give you her
shadow because she's got only one and she's giving it to me."
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
"I'm a witch," she replied, "and I'm following in dona Mercedes' footsteps? Only by
following in the spiritual footsteps of a healer can you be a healer yourself. That's what's
called a junction, a link. Dona Mercedes has already told you that witches call it a
"Shadows are true for everything," she continued, "and there is only one heir to anyone
who has real knowledge.
"Victor Julio had real knowledge about killing dogs and made an unwitting link for
Octavio Cantu. I've said to you that Octavio sat too long in Victor Julio's shadow and that
dona Mercedes is giving me her shadow.
"By letting certain people tell you their stories, she is trying to put you, for an instant,
under the shadow of all those people so that you'll feel how the wheel of chance turns,
and how a witch helps that wheel move."
Unsuccessfully, I tried to tell her that her statements were throwing me into deeper
confusion. She stared at me with bright, trusting eyes.
"When a witch intervenes, we say it's the witch's shadow that turns the wheel of chance."
she said thoughtfully;
Then after pausing for a moment, she added, "My father's story would fit, but I shouldn't
be present when he tells his story to you.
"I inhibit him. I always have." She looked back at her father and laughed. Her laughter
was like a crystalline explosion: It reverberated through the whole house.
Sleepless, Guido Miconi tossed in the bed, and wondered if the night, made longer by
Roraima's peaceful sleep, would ever end. An anxious expression crossed his face as he
gazed at her naked body, dark against the white sheet, and at her face, hidden behind a
tangled mass of black hair.
Gently, he pushed the hair aside. She smiled. Her eyes opened slightly, shiny between the
thick, stubby lashes, but she did not wake up.
Taking care not to disturb her, Guido Miconi rose and looked out the window. It was
In a nearby yard a dog began to bark at a singing drunkard staggering down the street.
The man's steps and song died away in the distance. The dog went back to sleep.
Guido Miconi turned away from the window and squatted to reach under the bed for the
small suitcase he kept hidden there. With the key he wore on a chain around his neck,
along with the medal of the Virgin, he opened the lock and fumbled for the wide leather
pouch tucked in between his folded clothes.
An odd feeling, almost a premonition, made him hesitate for a moment. He did not tie the
pouch around his waist. He reached inside, retrieved a heavy gold bracelet, placed it on
the pillow beside Roraima, and put the pouch back into the suitcase.
He shut his eyes tightly. His mind went back to the day he immigrated to Venezuelatwenty
years ago- tempted by the opportunities for work and the good pay.
He had been only twenty-six years old. Certain that his wife and their two children would
soon join him, he had remained in Caracas for the first few years. To save money, he had
lived in cheap rooming houses conveniently close to the construction sites where he was
working. Each month he sent part of his savings home.
After several years, he finally realized that his wife did not want to join him. He moved
out of Caracas and accepted work in the interior. Letters from home reached him only
sporadically, and then they stopped altogether. He no longer sent money. Instead, as so
many of his co-workers did, he began to invest his salary in jewels. He was going to
return to Italy a rich man.
"A rich man," Guido Miconi murmured, securing the suitcase with a leather strap. He
wondered why the words no longer evoked the familiar excitement.
He glanced at Roraima on the bed. He was already missing her.
His mind went back almost a decade to that day he first saw Roraima in the courtyard of
his cheap rooming house, where he was heating his spaghetti on a Primus cooker. She
was hollow-eyed and wore a dress that was too large for her thin, slight frame: He
thought her to be one of the children in the neighborhood who were always making fun of
the foreigners, in particular, the Italian construction workers.
But Roraima had not come to mock the Italians. She had been hired to work at the
boarding house. And at night for a few coins, she shared the men's beds.
To the annoyance of his co-workers, she attached herself to Guido so devotedly that she
refused to sleep with anyone else, no matter how much money they offered.
One day, however, she disappeared. No one knew where she had come from: No one
knew where she had gone.
Five years later he saw her again. For some inexplicable whim, instead of driving out
with the crew to the barracks next to the site where a factory and a pharmaceutical
laboratory were being built, he took a bus all the way into town. There, sitting in the bus
depot, as if waiting for him, was Roraima.
Before he had quite recovered from his surprise, she called to a little girl playing nearby.
"This is Candelaria," she pronounced, grinning up at him disarmingly. "She's four years
old and she's your daughter."
There was something so irrepressibly childish in her voice, in her expression, he couldn't
help but laugh. As frail and slight as he remembered her, Roraima looked like the sister
rather than the mother of the child standing beside her.
Candelaria looked at him in silence. The veiled expression of her dark eyes made him
think of someone very old. She was tall for her age. Her face was serious as only a child's
She shifted her gaze to the children she had been playing with. When she looked up at
him again there was an impish gleam in her eyes. "Let's go home," she said, taking his
hand and pulling him forward.
Unable to resist the firm pressure of her tiny palm, he went with her down the main street
to the outskirts of town.
They stopped in front of a small house fenced in by a row of corn stalks waving in the
breeze. The cement blocks were unplastered, and the corrugated zinc sheets of the roof
were held in place with large stones.
"Candelaria finally brought you here," Roraima stated, reaching for the small suitcase in
his hand. "And to think that I almost stopped believing that she was born a witch."
Roraima invited him inside to a small hall that opened into a wide room, empty except
for three chairs arranged against the wall.
One step down was a bedroom partitioned off by a curtain. On one side beneath a
window stood a double bed on which Roraima dropped his suitcase. On the other side
hung a hammock in which the child went to lie down.
He followed Roraima along a short corridor into the kitchen and sat down at the wooden
table in the middle of the room.
Guido Miconi took Roraima's hands in his and, as though clarifying matters to a child, he
told her that what had brought him to town wasn't Candelaria but the dam that was going
to be built in the hills.
"No, that's only on the surface. You came because Candelaria brought you here,"
Roraima stammered. "Now you'll stay here with us. Won't you?"
Seeing that he remained silent, she added, "Candelaria was born a witch." With an
encompassing wave of her hand, Roraima took in the room, the house, the yard. "All this
belongs to her. Her godmother is a famous healer and gave her all this." Her voice
dropped, and she muttered the words, "But that's not what she wanted. She wanted you."
"Me!" he repeated, shaking his head sad and baffled. He had never lied to Roraima about
his family in Italy.
"I'm sure her godmother is a good healer. But being born a witch! That's pure nonsense.
You know that one day I will return to the family that I left behind."
A strange disturbing smile flittered across Roraima's face as she reached for the pitcher
and for the turned-down glass on the table.
She filled it, then held the glass out to him and added, "Miconi, this tamarind water has
been bewitched by your daughter Candelaria. If you drink it, you'll stay with us forever."
For a second he hesitated, then burst into laughter. "Witchcraft is nothing but
He emptied his glass in one long gulp. "That was the best refreshment I have ever had,"
he remarked, holding out the glass for more.
His daughter's faint coughing broke into his reveries.
He tiptoed to the other side of the partitioned-off room and anxiously bent over
Candelaria sleeping in a hammock that hung from two rings cemented into the wall.
A sad smile parted his lips as he peered into her little face, in which so often he had tried
to discover a likeness to himself. He saw none.
But oddly enough, there were times the girl made him think of his grandfather. It was not
so much a resemblance but rather a mood, a certain gesture made by the child, which
never failed to startle him.
She also had that same easy way with animals that the old man had had. She healed every
donkey, cow, goat, dog, and cat in the neighborhood. She actually coaxed birds and
butterflies to perch on her outstretched arms.
His grandfather had had that same gift: A saint, people had called him in the small town
Whether or not there was anything saintly about Candelaria, he was no longer sure.
One afternoon he had found the child lying on her stomach in the yard, her chin resting
on her folded arms, talking to a sickly looking cat curled up a few inches in front of her.
The feline seemed to be answering her, not with meowing sounds, but with short grunts
that resembled an old man's laughter.
The instant they felt his presence, both Candelaria and the cat leapt up in the air, as if
some invisible thread had pulled them. They landed right in front of him, a spooky smile
on their faces.
He had stood bewildered, as for a fleeting instant, their features appeared to be
superimposed on each other's: He had been unable to decide whose face belonged to
Ever since that day he had kept wondering about what Roraima always said, that
Candelaria was not a saint but a witch.
Softly, so as not to wake her, Guido Miconi caressed the child's cheek, and then tiptoed to
the small vestibule lit dimly by the dying light of an oil lamp. He reached for his jacket,
hat, and shoes laid out the evening before and finished dressing.
He held the lamp up to the mirror and studied his image. At forty-six, his gaunt,
weatherworn face was still filled with that indestructible energy that had carried him
through years of hard work. His hair, although gray streaked, was still thick; and his light
brown eyes shone brightly beneath his bushy brows.
Cautiously, without stepping on the dog whining and twitching its legs in sleep, he let
himself out the door.
He leaned against the wall and waited until his eyes adjusted to the shadows.
Sighing, he watched the early workers heading toward work like phantoms in the
emptiness of the predawn darkness.
Instead of going to the southern end of town where a truck waited to take the laborers to
the construction site of the dam in the hills, Miconi headed toward the plaza where the
bus for Caracas was parked.
The faint light inside the bus blurred the shapes of the few passengers dozing in their
seats. He moved to the very back.
As he lifted his suitcase to the rack above him, he saw a shadow through the grimy
window of the bus. Black and immense, the shadow stood out against the white wall of
He didn't know what made him think of a witch; and although he wasn't religious, he
quietly began to pray.
The shadow dissolved into a faint cloud of smoke.
The dimming of the lights in the plaza must have played a trick on his eyes, he thought,
Roraima and Candelaria would have explained it differently.
They would have said that he had seen one of those nocturnal entities that wander about
at night; beings that never leave any trace, but use mysterious signals to announce their
presence and disappearance.
The ticket collector's voice cut into his musings. Miconi paid his fare, asked about the
best way to go to the port of La Guaira, and then closed his eyes.
Rattling and swaying, the bus crossed the valley, then slowly ascended the dusty winding
Miconi sat up and looked back for one last time. The retreating rooftops, and the white
church with its bell tower kept swimming through his tear-filled eyes.
How he loved the sound of those bells. Now he would never hear them again.
* * *
It had been a month since Guido Miconi left Roraima and Candelaria.
After resting for a moment under the elusive shade of the blooming almond trees in the
plaza, he resumed his walk up the steep, narrow street that ended in a flight of crooked
steps carved into the hill.
He climbed halfway up, then turned to gaze at the port below him: La Guaira, a city
crowded in between the mountains and the sea, with its pink, blue, and buff-colored
houses, its twin church towers, and its old customhouse overlooking the harbor like some
His daily excursions to the secluded spot had become a necessity. It was the only place
where he felt safe and at peace.
Sometimes he had spent hours up there watching the large ships dropping anchor. He had
tried to guess by their flags or the color of their smokestacks to which country they
His weekly visits to the shipping offices in town had been as essential to his well-being as
gazing at the ships.
He was still undecided whether he should return to Italy directly or by way of New York.
Or, as Mr. Hylkema at the shipping office had suggested, perhaps he should see
something of the world first by boarding one of those German freighters that sailed to
Rio, Buenos Aires, across to Africa, and then into the Mediterranean sea.
But regardless of how enticing the possibilities, Guido Miconi had been unable to bring
himself to book his passage back to Italy. He couldn't understand why; and yet, in the
depths of him he knew.
Guido Miconi climbed to the top of the steps and turned into a narrow twisting path that
led to a clump of palm trees.
He sat on the ground, his back against a trunk, and fanned himself with his hat.
The stillness was absolute. The palm fronds hung motionless. Even the birds seemed to
be floating effortlessly, like falling leaves pinned to the cloudless sky.
He heard a faint laughter echoing in the silence. Startled, he looked around.
The tinkling sound reminded him of his daughter's laughter. And suddenly, her face
materialized before his eyes; a fleeting image, unsubstantial, floating in some tenuous
light; so pale, it seemed her face was surrounded by a halo.
With quick abrupt movements, as though he were trying to erase the vision, Guido
Miconi fanned himself with his hat.
Perhaps it was true that Candelaria was born a witch, he mused. Could the child indeed
be the cause for his indecision to leave? he asked himself. Was she the reason for his
inability to bring to mind the faces of his wife and children in Italy; regardless of how
hard he tried?
Guido Miconi rose and scanned the horizon.
For an instant he thought he was dreaming as he saw a large ship emerge like some
mirage through the shimmering heat. The vessel came closer, angling toward the harbor.
In spite of the distance, he clearly recognized its green, white, and red smokestack. "An
Italian ship!" he exclaimed, throwing his hat up in the air.
He was certain that he had finally broken the spell of Venezuela; and of Roraima and
Candelaria- superstitious creatures who read omens in the flight of birds, the movements
of shadows, the direction of the wind.
He laughed happily. This ship approaching the harbor, like some miracle, was his
In his excitement he stumbled several times as he hurried down the crooked steps.
He ran past the old colonial houses. He had no time to stop and listen to the sound of
water splashing in the fountains, and the songs of caged birds spilling out of open
windows and doors.
He was going to the shipping offices: He was going to book his passage home this very
A child's voice calling his full name brought Guido Miconi up short.
Overcome by a sudden dizziness he closed his eyes and leaned against a wall. Someone
gripped his arm. He opened his eyes, but all he saw were black spots whirling in front of
Again he heard a child's voice call his name.
Slowly, his dizziness subsided. With his eyes still unfocused he glanced into the worried
face of Mr. Hylkema, the Dutchman at the shipping office.
"I don't know how I got here, but I want to speak with you," Guido Miconi stammered.
"From the hill I've just seen an Italian ship approach the harbor. I want to book my
passage home this very instant."
Mr. Hylkema shook his head in disbelief. "Are you sure you want to go?" he asked.
"I want to book my passage home," Miconi insisted childishly. "Right now!"
Upon catching Mr. Hylkema's eyes on him eloquent with meaning, Guido Miconi added,
"I have finally broken the spell!"
"Of course you have." Mr. Hylkema patted him reassuringly on the shoulder, and then
steered him toward the cashier's counter.
Looking up, Guido Miconi watched the tall, gaunt Dutchman move behind the counter.
As usual, Mr. Hylkema was dressed in a white linen suit and black cloth sandals. A fringe
of gray hair growing on one side of his head had been carefully combed and distributed
over his naked skull. His face had been aged by the relentless tropical sun and, no doubt,
Mr. Hylkema brought out a heavy ledger and placed it noisily on the counter. He pulled
up a chair, sat down, and began to write.
"There are some of us who are meant to stay here," Mr. Hylkema said, then lifted his pen
and pointed to Miconi. "And you, my friend, are never going to return to Italy."
Guido Miconi, not quite knowing what to make of his words, bit his lip.
Mr. Hylkema burst into a loud, toneless laughter, which sprang from the depths of his
belly, and moved up with a rumbling painful sound.
But when he spoke again, Mr. Hylkema's voice had a curious softness. "I was just joking.
I'll take you to the ship myself."
Mr. Hylkema went with him to his hotel, and helped him gather his belongings.
After making sure he had a cabin all to himself, as he had requested and paid for, the
Dutchman left him with the ship's purser.
Still dazed, Guido Miconi glanced around, wondering why there was no one on the deck
of the Italian ship anchored at pier 9.
He reached for a chair beside a table on the deck, straddled it, and rested his forehead
against the wooden back.
He wasn't insane. He was in the Italian ship, he repeated to himself, hoping to dispel the
realization that there was no one around.
As soon as he had rested a moment, he thought, he would walk down to another deck,
and confirm for himself that the crew and the rest of the passengers were somewhere in
the ship. The thought restored his confidence.
Guido Miconi rose from his chair, and leaning over the railing looked down at the pier.
He saw Mr. Hylkema waving; looking up at him.
"Miconi!" the Dutchman shouted. "The ship is pulling anchor. Are you sure you want to
Guido Miconi felt a cold sweat. An immeasurable fear took possession of him. He longed
for his peaceful life, for Roraima and Candelaria; his family.
"I don't want to go," he shouted back.
"You have no time to get your luggage. The gangplank has been lifted. You must jump
now. You'll land in the water. If you don't jump now, you'll never make it!"
Guido Miconi vacillated for an instant. In his suitcase were the jewels he had hoarded
over the years, working with almost inhuman strength. Was all that going to be lost? He
decided he still had enough strength to start all over again and jumped over the railing.
Everything blurred. He braced himself for the impact with the water. He was not worried:
He was a good swimmer. But the impact never came.
He heard Mr. Hylkema's voice saying loudly, "I think this man has fainted. The bus
cannot leave until we take him out. Someone get his suitcase."
Guido Miconi opened his eyes. He saw a black shadow against the white wall of the
church. He didn't know what made him think of a witch. He felt that he was being lifted
and carried away. And then he had a devastating realization.
"I've never left. I've never left. It's been a dream," Guido Miconi kept repeating. He
thought of his jewels in his suitcase. He was sure that whoever grabbed his suitcase
would steal it, but the jewels no longer mattered to him, he had already lost them in the
Mercedes Peralta accompanied me on my last visit to Guido Miconi's house. When we
were about to return to town at the end of the day, Roraima took me by the hand, and led
me through a patch of canebrake up a narrow trail to a small clearing enclosed by yucca
plants whose flowers, straight and white, made me think of rows of candles on an altar.
"Do you like it?" Roraima asked, pointing to a seed bed roofed with a framework of thin,
dry branches that were held at the corners by slender, forked poles.
"It looks like a doll's vegetable patch!" I exclaimed, examining the ground covered with
feathery carrot shoots, tiny heart-shaped lettuce leaves, and curly, lacy parsley sprigs.
Beaming with delight, Roraima walked up and down the neatly ploughed rows in the
adjacent field. Pieces of dry leaves and bits of twigs clung to her long skirt.
Each time she pointed out the spot where she would plant a lettuce, a radish, a
cauliflower, she turned toward me, her mouth arched in a faint, ethereal smile, her sharp
eyes glinting between lids half-closed against the already low afternoon sun.
"I know that whatever I have is due to a witch's intervention," she suddenly exclaimed.
"The only good point that I have is that I know that."
Before I had a chance to take in what she had said, she approached me with her arms
wide open in an expansive gesture of affection.
"I hope you don't forget us," she said and led me to my jeep.
Mercedes Peralta, seated in the front seat, her head reclining on the backrest, was sound
Leaning out from one of the upstairs windows was Guido Miconi, waving farewell in a
gesture that was more a beckoning than a good-bye.
Shortly before we reached Curmina, Mercedes Peralta stirred. She yawned loudly, then
absentmindedly looked out the window.
"Do you know what really happened to Guido Miconi?" she asked.
"No," I said. "All I know is that both Miconi and Roraima call it a witch's intervention."
Dona Mercedes giggled. "It certainly was a witch's intervention," she said. "Candelaria
already told you that when witches intervene it's said that they do it with their shadows.
"Candelaria made a link, a junction for her father: She made him live a dream. Since she
is a witch, she moved the wheel of chance.
"Victor Julio also made a link, and he also moved the wheel of chance, but since Victor
Julio wasn't a witch, the dream of Octavio Cantu- although it is both as real and unreal as
Miconi's dream- is longer and more painful."
"How did Candelaria intervene?"
"Certain children," dona Mercedes explained, "have the strength to wish something with
great passion for a long period of time."
She settled back in her seat and closed her eyes. "Candelaria was such a child. She was
born that way.
"She wished her father to stay, and she wished it without a single doubt. That dedication,
that determination, is what witches call a witch's shadow. It was that shadow that
wouldn't let Miconi go."
We drove the rest of the way in silence. I wanted to digest her words. Before we went
into her house, I asked her one final question.
"How did Miconi have such a detailed dream?"
"Miconi never wanted to leave, not really," dona Mercedes replied. "So that offered an
opening to Candelaria's unwavering wish. The details of the dream itself, well, that part
had nothing to do with the witch's intervention: That was Miconi's imagination."
I sat up as something brushed my cheek. Slowly, I raised my eyes toward the ceiling,
searching for a gigantic moth. Ever since I had seen that bird-sized moth in the healing
room, I had been obsessed with it.
Nightly, the moth appeared in my dreams transforming itself into Mercedes Peralta.
When I told her that I somehow believed my dream, she laughed it off as a figment of my
I settled back onto my lumpy pillow.
As I was drifting back into sleep, I heard the unmistakable shuffle of Mercedes Peralta
passing my door. I got up, put on my clothes, and tiptoed down the dark corridor.
A soft laughter came from her working room. The amber glow of candlelight seeped
through the opening of the carelessly drawn curtain. Overcome by curiosity I looked
Sitting at the table were Mercedes Peralta and a man, his face shaded by a hat.
"Won't you join us?" dona Mercedes called. "I was just telling our friend here that it
wouldn't be long before you came looking for me."
"Leon Chirino!" I exclaimed as he turned toward me and pushed up the brim of his hat by
way of greeting.
During my unsuccessful seance participation he had been introduced to me as the man in
charge of organizing the spiritual meetings.
He was in his seventies, perhaps even in his eighties, yet his dark face had few wrinkles.
He had big black eyes and sparkling white teeth, which ought to have been yellow from
smoking cigars. There were white Stubbles on his chin, yet his white, short-cropped hair
was immaculately combed. His dark suit, wrinkled and baggy, looked as if he had slept in
"He's been working like a madman," dona Mercedes said as if reading my thoughts.
Although I had not been invited again to a seance, Mercedes Peralta had encouraged me
to visit Leon Chirino at least once a week. Sometimes she accompanied me; sometimes I
He was a carpenter by profession, yet his knowledge about the various shamanistic
traditions practiced in Venezuela was astounding. He was interested in my research and
spent hours going over my notes, tracing sorcerers' procedures to their Indian and African
He knew about all the Venezuelan spiritualists, witches, and healers of the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries. He spoke of them with such unaffected familiarity that he gave me
the impression he had known them personally.
Mercedes Peralta's voice intruded on my reveries. "Would you like to come with us to
fulfill a promise?" she asked me.
Disconcerted by her question, I gazed from one to the other. Their faces revealed nothing.
"We'll be leaving right away," she said to me. "We have a long night and a long day
ahead of us." She rose and took my arm. "I've got to prepare you for the trip."
It took her no time to get me ready. She hid my hair under a tight, knitted sailor's cap and
darkened my face with a black vegetable paste. And she made me swear that I would not
speak to anyone or ask questions.
Ignoring my suggestion that we take my jeep, Mercedes Peralta scrambled into the
backseat of Leon Chirino's old Mercury. With its crumpled fenders and battered chassis,
the car looked as if it had been salvaged from a junk yard.
Before I had a chance to ask about our destination, she ordered me to hold and take good
care of her basket, which was filled to capacity with medicinal plants, candles, and cigars.
Sighing loudly, she made the sign of the cross and promptly fell asleep.
I did not dare disturb Leon Chirino with conversation: He seemed to need all his
concentration to keep his car rolling. The dim headlights barely illuminated the area right
in front of us.
Bent slightly forward, he tensely gripped the wheel, as if he could thus help the car over
the dark hills. When it balked on the steep upgrades, he spoke softly to it, urging it
Downhill, he let the car go, taking the curves in almost complete darkness, and at such a
reckless speed, I feared for our lives. Dust billowed through the glassless windows and
through the gaps in the cardboard that concealed the rusted holes in the floor.
Smiling triumphantly, he finally brought the car to an abrupt halt. He turned off the
headlights. Dona Mercedes stirred in the backseat.
"We've arrived," Leon Chirino said softly.
Quietly, we got out of the car. It was a dark, cloudy night. Not a star shone in the sky.
Whatever was out there stretched in front of us like a black void. I staggered clumsily
after dona Mercedes, who seemed to have no problem seeing in the darkness.
Leon Chirino took me by the arm and guided me. I heard muffled laughter all around me.
There seemed to be other people, but I couldn't see any of them.
Finally, someone lit a kerosene lantern. In the faint, wavering light I was able to make out
the silhouette of four men and dona Mercedes crouching in a circle.
Leon Chirino took me a few feet away from the group. I felt totally incapacitated. He
helped me to sit down and then propped me against something that looked like a rock
protruding from the ground.
He handed me the lantern and instructed me to hold on to it and shine it on whatever I
was told to.
Then he gave me two canteens: The largest one was filled with water, the smaller one
with rum. I was supposed to hand them to the men whenever they asked for them.
Silently and quite effortlessly, two men began to dig the loose dirt with long shovels.
They deposited the dirt in a neat pile next to the hole.
At least a half hour elapsed before they stopped and asked for the canteen with rum.
While they drank and rested, Leon Chirino and another man began to dig.
Taking turns, the men worked, drank either rum or water, and rested. Within an hour they
had dug a hole deep enough for a man to disappear in it.
The instant one of the men hit something hard with his shovel they stopped working.
Leon Chirino asked me to shine the light inside the hole but not to look at it.
"This is it," said one of the men. "Now we can all dig around it." He and his partner
joined the others in the hole.
I was dying with curiosity but did not dare break my promise. I wished I could at least
talk to dona Mercedes, sitting not too far from me. Immobile, she seemed to be in a deep
The men worked feverishly in the hole. At least half an hour elapsed before I heard Leon
Chirino's voice telling dona Mercedes that they were ready to open it.
"Musiua, light a cigar from my basket and hand it to me," she ordered. "And also bring
me my basket."
I lit a cigar, and as I rose to bring it to her, Leon Chirino whispered from the bottom of
the hole. "Crouch, Musiua! Crouch."
I stooped and handed dona Mercedes the cigar and the basket.
"Don't look into the hole for anything in the world!" she whispered in my ear.
I moved back to where I had been sitting; fighting the nearly invincible desire to shine the
lantern into the hole. I knew with absolute certainty that they were digging out a trunk
filled with gold coins. I could hear the dull sound of the shovels hitting what seemed to
be a large and heavy object.
Fascinated, I watched dona Mercedes retrieve a black candle and a jar with black powder
from her basket. She lit the black candle, propped it on the ground next to the hole, and
then ordered me to turn off the lantern.
The black candle gave out an eerie light. Dona Mercedes sat on her calves next to the
Obeying some unvoiced command, the men stuck their heads out of the hole one by one
right in front of her.
Each time a head appeared, she poured some of the black powder into her cupped hands
and then rubbed each head as if it were a ball. As soon as she was done with the heads,
she smeared the black powder on the men's hands.
My curiosity reached its peak when I heard the cracking sound of a lid being opened.
"We've got it," Leon Chirino said, popping his head out of the hole.
Dona Mercedes handed him the jar with the black powder, another one filled with a white
powder, and then she blew out the black candle.
Once again we were engulfed by total darkness. The groaning and heaving sounds of the
men rising from the hole only accentuated the unnatural silence. I huddled against dona
Mercedes, but she pushed me away.
"It's done," Leon Chirino whispered in a strained voice.
Dona Mercedes relit the black candle. I could barely make out the shapes of the three
men carrying a large bundle. They deposited it behind the mound of dirt.
I was watching them so intently that I almost fell forward into the pit when I heard dona
Mercedes' voice telling Leon Chirino, who was still inside the hole, to fasten the nails
quickly and climb out.
Leon Chirino emerged right away, and dona Mercedes massaged his hands and face,
while the other three men picked up their shovels and filled the hole.
As soon as they were done, dona Mercedes placed the lit candle in the center of the filledup
hole. Leon Chirino threw the last shovel of dirt over it and put out the flame.
Someone relit the kerosene lamp, and immediately the men went to work: They arranged
the ground so perfectly that no one could have guessed that a hole had been dug.
I watched them for a while, but I lost interest, all my curiosity was focused on the now
visible bundle wrapped in a tarpaulin.
"No one will ever know," one of the men said and chuckled softly. "Now, let's get out of
here. It'll be daylight soon."
We all walked over to the bundle. I led the way with the light.
In my eagerness to find out what it was, I tripped over it. The tarpaulin slid a bit,
revealing a woman's foot clad in a black shoe.
Unable to restrain myself, I pulled the tarpaulin and shone the light on the exposed
bundle. It was the corpse of a woman.
My fright and revulsion were so intense I did not even scream- as I wanted and meant to.
All I could manage was a faint croak, and then everything went black.
I came to, lying on dona Mercedes' lap in the backseat of Leon Chirino's car. Pressed
firmly against my nose was a handkerchief soaked with a mixture of ammonia and rose
water. It was dona Mercedes' favorite remedy. She used to call it a spiritual injection.
"I always knew you were a coward," she commented and began to massage my temples.
Leon Chirino turned around. "You're very daring, Musiua," he said. "But you still don't
have the strength to back it up. You will though. Some day, you will."
I was not in the mood for comments. My fright had been too great for comfort. I accused
them of malice for not warning me about their doings.
Dona Mercedes said that everything they did was premeditated and that part of that
premeditation was my total ignorance. It gave them a sort of protection against the
desecration of a tomb. The flaw was my greedy interest to find out what was under the
"I told you that we were going to fulfill a promise," dona Mercedes said to me. "We have
done the first part. We have unearthed a corpse, now we have to bury it again." She
closed her eyes and fell asleep.
I scrambled into the front seat.
Humming softly, Leon Chirino turned the car onto a dirt road that led to the coast.
It was already morning when we reached an abandoned coconut grove.
Cued perhaps by the smell of the sea breeze, Mercedes Peralta awoke. She yawned
loudly, then sat up. Leaning out the window, she seemed to breathe in the sound of the
"This is a good place to park," Leon Chirino stated, stopping at the foot of the straightest
and tallest palm tree I had ever seen. Its heavy silvery fronds appeared to be sweeping the
clouds from the sky.
"Lorenzo Paz's house isn't far from here," Leon Chirino went on, helping dona Mercedes
out of the car. "The walk will do us good." Smiling, he handed me her basket to carry.
We turned away from the sea and set out along a well-trodden path that cut across a thick
grove of tall bamboo bordering a stream. It was cool and dark inside the grove, and the
air had taken on the green transparency of leaves. Leon Chirino walked way ahead of us,
his straw hat down over his ears, so that the wind would not carry it away.
We caught up with him by a short narrow bridge. Leaning over the rustic balustrade made
out of freshly cut poles, we rested for a moment and gazed at a group of women washing
their clothes, pounding them on flat river stones. A shirt slipped out of someone's hands,
and a young girl jumped into the water to catch it. Her thin dress swelled out like a
balloon, then molded itself to her breasts, stomach, and the gentle curve of her hips.
The straight dirt road on the other side of the bridge led to a small village, which we did
not approach. Instead, we turned onto a side road along a neglected maize field.
Hardened corn husks hung forlornly on withered stalks: They rustled like crumpled
newspapers in the faint breeze.
We came to a small house: Its walls had been recently painted, and the tile roof had been
partially redone. Banana trees, their fronds almost transparent in the sunlight, stood on
either side of the front door like so many guards.
The door was ajar. Without knocking or calling out, we walked straight in.
A group of men squatting on the brick floor with their backs against the wall lifted their
rum-filled glasses in greeting, then continued their conversation in low, unhurried voices.
Dust bars of sunlight beamed in through a narrow window, adding to the stale heat and
intensifying the pungent odor of kerosene and creosol. In the far corner, propped on two
crates, stood an open coffin.
One of the men rose and, holding my elbow gently, led me to the coffin.
The man was slight but strongly built. His white hair and wrinkled face indicated age, yet
there was something youthful about the graceful slant of his cheek-bones and the
mischievous expression in his tawny brown eyes.
"Have a look at her," he whispered, bending toward the dead woman lying in the rough,
unpainted coffin. "See how beautiful she still is."
I stifled a scream. It was the same woman we had unearthed last night.
I moved closer and examined her carefully. Despite the gray-greenish tint to her skin that
not even the heavy makeup could disguise, there was something alive about her. She
seemed to be smiling at her own death.
On her finely chiseled nose rested a pair of wire-rimmed, glassless spectacles. Her garish,
red-painted lips were slightly parted, revealing her strong white teeth. A red robe
trimmed with white had been wrapped around her long body.
To her left lay a staff, to her right, a red-and-black wooden devil's mask fitted with two
menacing, twisted ram's horns.
"She was very beautiful and very, very dear to me," the man said, straightening a fold in
"It's incredible how beautiful she still is," I agreed with him. Afraid he might stop talking,
I held back my questions.
As he continued fussing with the woman's red robe, he gave me a detailed report on how
he and his friends had unearthed her from her grave in the cemetery near Curmina and
brought her to his house.
Suddenly, he looked up, and realizing that I was a stranger, he examined me with
"Oh, dear me! What kind of a host am I?" he exclaimed. "Here I'm talking and talking,
when I haven't offered you anything to drink or to eat."
He took my hand in his. "I'm Lorenzo Paz," he introduced himself.
Before I had a chance to say that I could not possibly swallow a thing, he ushered me
through a narrow doorway that led to the kitchen.
Mercedes Peralta, standing by a kerosene stove that was perched on top of a waist-high
stone hearth, was stirring a concoction made from the medicinal plants she had brought
"You'd better bury her soon, Lorenzo," dona Mercedes said. "It's far too hot to keep her
above ground any longer."
"She'll be fine," the man assured her. "I'm certain her husband paid for the best
embalmment job available in Curmina.
"And to be on the safe side, I sprinkled the coffin with quicklime and wrapped strips of
cloth soaked in kerosene and creosol around her body." He looked at the healer
beseechingly. "I've got to be sure her spirit has followed us here."
Nodding, dona Mercedes continued stirring her concoction.
Lorenzo Paz half filled two enamel mugs with rum. He handed one to me, the other to
dona Mercedes. "We'll bury her as soon as it cools down," he promised and then went
back to the other room.
"Who was the dead woman we unearthed last night?" I asked dona Mercedes and then sat
down on a bundle of dried palm fronds stacked against the wall.
"For someone who spends most of her time studying people, you're not very observant,"
she remarked, laughing softly. "I pointed her out to you some time ago. She was the
"The Swedish woman?" I asked aghast. "But why...?" The rest of my words were
drowned out by the roaring laughter of the men in the other room.
"I think they've just found out you were the one holding the light last night," dona
Mercedes said and went into the other room to laugh with the men.
Unaccustomed to drinking liquor, I fell into a drowsy state not far from actual sleep. The
men's voices, their laughter, and moments later, the rhythmic pounding of a hammer
reached me as if they were coming from far away.
Late in the afternoon after the men had left for the cemetery with the coffin, dona
Mercedes and I went to the village.
"I wonder where all the people are?" I asked. Except for a young girl standing in a
doorway with a naked baby astride her hip and a few dogs lying in the shade of the
houses, the place was deserted.
"At the cemetery," dona Mercedes said, leading me toward the church across the plaza.
"It's the day of the dead. People are weeding the graves of their deceased relatives and
saying prayers for them."
It was cool and shadowy inside the church. The last threads of sunlight spilling through
the tinted-glass windows in the nave illuminated the statues of saints in the niches along
A life-size crucifix, with its ripped, twisted flesh and its drooping, bleeding head in vivid
color, dominated the altar. To the right of the crucifix stood the statue of the blissfulfaced
Virgin of Coromoto draped in a blue, star-embroidered, velvet cape. To the left was
the cross-eyed figurine of Saint John, with his narrow-brimmed hat at a rakish angle and
a red flannel cape, torn and dusty, flung casually over his shoulders.
Dona Mercedes blew out the flame of seven candles that were burning on the altar, put
them in her basket, and lit seven new ones. She closed her eyes and, folding her hands,
recited a long prayer.
The sun was only a glimmer behind the hills when we walked out of the church. The
crimson and orange clouds trailing across the sky toward the sea gilded the late afternoon
in a golden twilight. By the time we arrived at the cemetery it was dark.
The entire village seemed to have come out to commune with their dead. Men and
women praying in soft voices were crouched beside graves ringed with lit candles.
We walked along the low wall encircling the cemetery to a secluded spot where Lorenzo
Paz and his friends were resting.
They had already lowered the coffin into the ground and covered it with dirt. Their faces,
sculpted into abstract masks by the surrounding candlelight, could have been the ghostly
forms of the dead beneath us.
As soon as they spotted Mercedes Peralta, they began to pound the makeshift cross firmly
into the ground at the head of the grave. Then, the men disappeared, swiftly and
soundlessly, as if they had been swallowed up by the darkness.
"Now we have to lure Birgit Briceno's spirit here," dona Mercedes said, retrieving the
seven candles she had taken from the church's altar and the same number of cigars from
She stuck the candles in the soft ground on top of the grave. As soon as she had them all
lit, she put a cigar in her mouth.
"Watch carefully," she mumbled, handing me the rest of the cigars. "The instant I finish
smoking this one, you must have the next cigar ready for me, already lit."
Taking deep drags she blew the smoke into the four cardinal directions. She huddled over
the grave, and smoking uninterruptedly, she recited an incantation in a low raspy voice.
The tobacco smoke no longer seemed to come out of her mouth but directly from the
ground. Like a fine mist, it grew around us, enveloping us like a cloud. Fascinated, I just
sat there, handing her cigar after cigar, listening to her melodious, but incomprehensible,
I edged closer to her as she began to move her left arm over the grave. I thought she was
shaking a rattle, but I could see nothing in her hand. I could only hear the clattering sound
of seeds or, perhaps, small pebbles moving rapidly in her hand.
Tiny sparks, like fireflies, escaped from in between her closed fingers. She began to
whistle a strange tune that soon became indistinguishable from the rattling noise.
Out of the cloud of smoke emerged a tall bearded figure wearing a long robe and a
I held my hand over my mouth to muffle my giggles. I believed that either I was still
under the influence of the rum I had had earlier or the pallbearers were playing some kind
of trick, all part of the day's festivities for the dead.
Totally absorbed, I watched the figure move out of the circle of smoke toward the wall
surrounding the cemetery. The vision lingered there, a wistful smile on its face. I heard
soft laughter, so quiet, so unearthly, it might have been part of Mercedes Peralta's
Her voice became louder. The sound seemed to come from the four corners of the grave,
each side repeating the words like an echo. The smoke dispersed: It rose toward the palm
trees and vanished into the night.
For a long time, dona Mercedes remained huddled over the grave, mumbling softly, her
face barely visible in the light of the burned-down candles.
She turned toward me, the trace of a smile on her lips. "I lured Birgit Briceno's spirit here
but not to her grave," she said. Holding onto my arm, she stood up.
I wanted to ask her about the strange vision, but something in the empty expression of her
eyes compelled me to silence.
Lorenzo Paz, leaning against an enormous boulder, was waiting for us outside the
cemetery. Without saying a word he rose and followed us down the narrow path leading
to the beach.
A half-moon shone brightly on the bleached-out driftwood scattered about the wide
stretch of sand.
Dona Mercedes ordered me to wait by an uprooted tree trunk. She and Lorenzo Paz
walked down to the shoreline. He took off his clothes, then waded into the water and
vanished amid the rolling phosphorescent whitecaps edged in silver shadows.
He was gone for quite some time until a wave, shimmering with moonlight, washed him
up on the beach.
Mercedes Peralta retrieved a jar from her basket and poured its contents over his
prostrated form in the sand. Kneeling beside him, she rested her hands on his head and
murmured an incantation. Gently, she massaged him, her fingers barely touching his
body, until a faint halo appeared around him. Swiftly, she rolled him from side to side,
her hand describing oddly circular movements in the air, as if she were gathering
shadows and wrapping them around him.
Moments later she came up to where I was sitting. "Birgit Briceno's spirit was clinging to
him like a second skin," she said, sitting beside me on the tree trunk.
Shortly, Lorenzo Paz, fully dressed, walked toward us. Dona Mercedes, with a movement
of her chin, motioned him to sit in front of her on the sand.
Pursing her lips, she made loud smacking noises, and her rapid, drawn-in breaths became
muffled growls in her throat as she recited a long prayer.
"It will be a long time before Birgit Briceno's ghost will forget," she said. "Dying
continues long after the body is in the ground. The dead lose their memories ever so
She turned toward me and ordered me to sit in the sand beside Lorenzo Paz. His clothes
smelled of candle smoke and rose water.
"Lorenzo," dona Mercedes addressed him, "I'd like you to tell the musiua the story of
how you bewitched Birgit Briceno."
He regarded her with a puzzled air, then turned around and faced the sea: His head
slightly cocked, he seemed to be listening to a secret message from the waves. "Why
would she like to hear nonsensical stories about old people?" he asked her without
looking at me. "The musiua has her own stories. I'm sure of that."
"Let's say that I ask you to tell her," dona Mercedes said. "She's examining the many
ways through which the wheel of chance can be made to turn by human means. In your
case, an object turned the wheel for you, Lorenzo."
"The wheel of chance!" he said, a wistful tone in his voice. "I remember it all as if it
happened only yesterday." Seemingly bemused, he prodded a pebble with the tip of his
shoe and stretched out flat on the sand.
From his rocking chair behind the counter of the dim, smoke-filled bar, Lorenzo watched
the group of men leaning over the billiard table in the corner.
He shifted his gaze to the old mantel clock on the shelf, marking the time under a glass
bell. It was almost dawn.
He was about to rise and remind the men of the late hours, when he heard the
unmistakable sound of Petra's shuffling feet from back of the house.
Promptly, he sat down again. A wicked grin spread slowly over his face.
He would let his aunt deal with the men. No one in town escaped her admonitions: They
listened to her words regardless of how vile and outrageous they were.
"Those damn clinking billiard balls won't let a soul sleep," she complained in a croaky
voice as she stepped into the room. "Don't you have wives waiting for you? Don't you
have work to go to in the morning, like any good Christian?"
She gave the men no time to recover from their surprise but continued in the same
indignant manner. "I know what's the matter with you. You're already regretting that you
brought those pagan Christmas trees into your homes and that you permitted your
children to act in a Christmas play."
She crossed herself and faced one of the men. "You are the mayor," she said. "How can
you allow such things! Have you all turned Protestant?"
"God forbid, Petra," the mayor said, making the sign of the cross. "Don't make a
mountain out of a molehill. What's the harm in a tree and a play? The children like it."
Grumbling something unintelligible, she turned to go, then stopped short.
"Shame on don Serapio! He's more foreign than a true foreigner. And shame on that real
foreign wife of his.
"Thanks to them most children in town will not get their presents from the Three Wise
Men on the sixth of January, as every good Christian should.".
She reached for a pack of cigarettes on the counter. "Now they will get them on
Christmas day," she went on, "from some fellow called Santaclos. It's a disgrace!"
Leaning against the door, she stared at the mayor menacingly, oblivious that the ever
present cigarette in her mouth had fallen onto the floor. She reached for the half-empty
bottle of rum next to the billiard table and left the room muttering to herself.
Lorenzo, grinning behind the counter, clearly remembered the day when a truck loaded
with singularly fragrant trees arrived in town. Don Serapio, the pharmacist, had called
them Christmas trees. He had ordered them from Caracas, together with the appropriate
decorations and records of European Christmas songs.
Not to be outdone by each other, don Serapio's friends quickly followed his example and
paid a great deal of money for the brittle trees so that they could be prominently
displayed in their living rooms.
To the great chagrin of the older relatives living in those homes, the trees were placed
next to, and in some instances even in place of, the traditional nativity scenes.
With their windows wide open, so every passerby could see in and hear such unknown
tunes as "Silent Night" and "0 Tannenbaum," the women decorated the scraggly branches
with glass balls, garlands, gold and silver tinsel, and cotton snow.
The rattling of the beaded curtain shattered Lorenzo's reveries.
He waved to the men as they left the bar, then put the bottles back on the shelves. His
glance was caught by a mask crammed behind the cheap religious statuary of virgins,
saints, and mute-suffering Christs. The figurines had been given to him over the years by
his poorer customers to pay for their drinks.
He pulled out the mask. It was a devil's mask with huge ram horns. A man from Caracas
had left it behind. He, too, had been unable to pay for the glasses of rum he had
Upon hearing Petra clanking her pots and pans in the kitchen, he put the mask back on
the shelf. Instead of locking up the bar, he took his rocking chair outside on the sidewalk.
The wide branches of the ancient samans on the plaza stood outlined against the pale
Leisurely, he rocked himself back and forth. Through half-closed lids he watched the old
men who never slept beyond dawn. They sat in front of their doors, talking, recollecting
every minute detail of their bygone days in ever increasing vividness.
A melody floated through the stillness. Across the street, Birgit Briceno, the pharmacist's
wife, was looking out from her window directly at Lorenzo, her face resting on her folded
arms. Her radio was on. He wondered if she had also not slept or if she had simply risen
Her face was a perfect oval. And the corners of her small, sensual, beautiful mouth were
set in a gesture of defiance and boldness. Her yellow hair was braided around her head,
and her cold blue eyes seemed to sparkle as she smiled at him.
He nodded at her in silent greeting. He was always dumbstruck in her presence, for she
had been for him, since the day he first saw her, the picture of beauty.
She's the reason I've reached the age of forty and never married, he mused. To him, all
women were desirable and irresistible, but Birgit Briceno was more than irresistible, she
was indeed unattainable.
"Why don't you come and watch the Christmas play tonight, Lorenzo? Tonight is
Christmas Eve," Birgit Briceno shouted from across the street.
The old men, dozing in front of their doors, suddenly perked up and turned their heads
toward the bar owner. Grinning expectantly, they waited for his answer.
So far, Lorenzo had consistently declined don Serapio's invitations. He couldn't abide the
pharmacist's air of self-importance, nor his insistence in trying to convince every friend
and acquaintance that he was the most influential man in town, and that it fell upon him
to give an example of what civilized living was all about.
However, regardless of how insufferable he found the man, Lorenzo couldn't resist his
wife's summons. In a loud voice, he promised Birgit Briceno that he would come that
He then took his rocking chair inside and went to sleep in his hammock at the back of the
house, pleased and full of confidence in himself.
Dressed in a white linen suit, Lorenzo walked around his bedroom, testing his new patent
leather shoes. It was a large room crowded with heavy ornate mahogany pieces that had
once stood in the parlor, which his father had converted into a bar years ago.
Lorenzo sat on the bed, took off his shoes and socks, and put on his cloth sandals.
"I'm glad you aren't that vain," Petra commented, shuffling into the room. "There's
nothing worse than having uncomfortable feet. It makes a person downright insecure."
Her little dark eyes shone with approval as she examined his suit. "You'll never entice
Birgit Briceno by ordinary means, though," she pronounced, catching his glance in the
mirror. "That foreigner will respond only to witchcraft."
"Really?" Lorenzo mumbled, shrugging his shoulders with studied indifference.
"Isn't that the reason you went to see a witch? To get a love potion for that musiua?" she
challenged him, crossing her spindly arms across her flat chest.
Realizing that he wasn't about to answer, she added, "Well then, why don't you follow the
Lorenzo laughed and regarded his aunt thoughtfully. She had an uncanny way of
knowing what was on his mind, and her assessments were always accurate.
Petra had moved into the house upon his father's death. He had been ten years old then.
Not only had she taken care of him all these years, but she had also managed the bar until
he had been capable of doing so himself.
"Birgit Briceno will respond only to witchcraft," Petra repeated obstinately.
Lorenzo examined himself in the mirror. He was too short and stocky to look dignified.
His cheekbones were too pronounced, his mouth too thin, his nose too short to be
Yet, he loved women unabashedly, and he knew that women loved men who loved them
that way. But to have Birgit Briceno, he would need more than that. And he wanted her
more than anything in the world.
He had never doubted the power of witchcraft. The witch's recommendation on how to
seduce the foreign woman, however, was far too outlandish.
"Love potions are for people who don't have the strength to go directly to the spirit of
things," she had said to him. "Anything can grant you your wish, your most earnest wish,
if you're strong enough to wish your wish directly into the spirit of a thing. You have a
devil's mask; ask the mask to seduce Birgit Briceno."
He decided it was all too vague. He was too practical: He relied only on something that
"You know what?" he said, facing his aunt. "Birgit Briceno herself has invited me to her
"She probably invited half the town," Petra replied cynically. "And the uninvited half will
be there, too."
She rose and, before shuffling back to her room, added, "I didn't say you couldn't get
Birgit Briceno. But mark my words. It won't be through ordinary means."
He had discarded the witch's advice because he did not want merely to seduce the
Swedish woman: He wanted her to love him, even if only for an instant. In his moments
of euphoria he thought he would not be satisfied with less than one hour.
The front door and the windows of the Bricenos' house were wide open. The tall fir tree
in the living room, lit by a myriad of colorful lights, could be seen in all its splendor from
Lorenzo walked inside the house.
The place looked like a train station. Rows of chairs faced a raised platform that had been
set up in the patio. The stuffed leather armchairs, couch, and Moroccan stools from the
living room had been moved out into the gallery next to the willow furniture. Boys and
girls dashed about barefoot, their mothers in tow, trying to put last minute touches on
"Lorenzo!" don Serapio called out the instant he caught sight of him from the wide open
living room. Although he was tall and thin, don Serapio had quite a paunch, and
whenever he stood, his legs were slightly spread.
Don Serapio adjusted his thick horn-rimmed glasses and patted Lorenzo cordially on the
shoulder. "We're about to serve coffee," he said, steering him toward his guests, the elite
of the town.
Among them were the doctor, the mayor, the barber, the school principal, and the priest.
They all had the same expression on their faces: utter perplexity at seeing Lorenzo in don
The pharmacist seemed genuinely pleased to have the elusive bar owner among his
Lorenzo greeted everyone, then edged his way to the door, and almost collided with
Birgit Briceno as she stepped into the room.
"Well!" she exclaimed, her smile taking them all in. "We have the children ready to start
the play. But first, come and join your wives for cookies and coffee." Taking her
husband's arm she led the way to the dining room.
Lorenzo could not take his eyes off her. She was tall and strongly built, yet he thought
there was something vulnerable, almost frail about her long neck and her delicate hands
As though aware of his scrutiny, she looked at him. She hesitated for a moment, then
poured coffee into two minute, gold-rimmed cups and brought them over to where he
stood. "There is also rum," she said, wistfully eyeing the bottle at the far end of the table,
"to which only the men help themselves."
"I'll take care of that, right away," Lorenzo said, finishing his coffee in one gulp. He
reached for the bottle, filled his cup with the rum, then casually exchanged her empty cup
Grinning, she reached for a cookie, nibbled at it, and sipped her rum daintily. "There are
always surprises in store for me," she said, her eyes suddenly sparkling, her cheeks
Lorenzo was oblivious to everything except her. He had not realized that don Serapio was
talking until she made a subtle gesture of annoyance. "I'd better get back to the children,"
In a slow pedantic voice, the pharmacist was denouncing the Venezuelan tradition of
Christmas revelers, who each night played their drums and sang improvised Christmas
carols. Not only was it annoying, he stressed, to hear the incessant beating of drums, but
it was downright disgusting to see young men reeling through the streets from all the rum
they had been given as a reward for their songs.
An expression of pure mischief spread slowly over Lorenzo's face as he recalled his last
visit to the witch. "I don't believe what you're telling me," he had said, "because I don't
know who could grant me such a monumental wish."
"Trust me," she had replied. "There is no way to know who grants these wishes. But they
do happen. And when you least expect it."
She had insisted that he already possessed the item that would cast a spell on Birgit
Briceno: a devil's mask. "All I can add is that you must wear the mask in triumph, and it
will grant you your wish."
The witch had told him that it was vital for him to choose his time well, for the mask's
magic would work only once.
Certain that more than a coincidence was involved in his spotting the mask that morning,
Lorenzo walked casually out into the yard. He made sure no one saw him, then dashed
into a side street and slipped into his house through the back door.
He tiptoed to the bar, lit a candle, and reached for the mask on the shelf. Hesitantly, he
ran his fingers over its red-and-black-painted surface.
The carver had put something diabolical into his creation, Lorenzo thought. He had the
odd feeling that the eye slits, half-hidden behind bushy brows made from sisal fibers,
were accusing him for his neglect; and the mouth, with the long fangs of some wild
animal at each corner, grinned fiendishly, daring him to dance with the mask on.
He held it over his face. His eyes, nose, and mouth fitted so well into the mask, he almost
believed it had been made for him. Only his cheekbones rubbed slightly against the
smooth wood inside. He tied the rawhide straps behind his head and covered them with
the long sisal fibers, dyed purple, green, and black, hanging down the back.
Lorenzo did not hear Petra shuffling into the room. Startled, he leapt into the air when she
"You'll have to change your clothes," she declared and handed him a pair of pants and a
patched shirt. "Take off your sandals, the devil goes barefoot."
She looked around, afraid someone might overhear, then added, "Remember, the devil
commands without uttering a word."
Quietly, the same way he had come in, Lorenzo slipped out the back door.
He deliberated for an instant, wondering which way to turn when he heard a group of
revelers playing their drums down the street. Protected by the shadows, Lorenzo kept
close to the walls as he approached them.
"The devil!" one of them shouted upon seeing Lorenzo, then excitedly ran up and down
the street, announcing that the devil had come to town.
Four young men detached themselves from the group and surrounded the devil, their
hands moving loosely and gracefully as they began to beat on their drums. One of them
sang an impromptu verse, proclaiming that they were at the devil's command for the
Lorenzo felt a shiver run up his spine. It filled him with a restlessness he could not
control. Slowly, he lifted his muscular arms, and his feet moved, on their own accord, to
the rhythm of the drums.
Windows and doors opened as they cavorted through the streets toward the plaza,
followed by an ever increasing crowd.
As if the devil had requested it, the lights in the plaza and in the surrounding houses went
out for three or four seconds. The music stopped. Momentarily paralyzed, the crowd
watched the devil go into the Bricenos' house.
Lorenzo leapt upon the platform in the patio just as rockets, lit by someone outside, shot
up in the air. Red, blue, green, and white lights exploded against the sky, then fell dizzily
to earth, a shower of faint golden sparks.
Spellbound, the guests stood transfixed, their eyes on the devil and the drummers that had
followed close behind him.
As if hearing some silent music, Lorenzo danced in the middle of a circle of quiet
drummers, his body slightly stooped over, his red-and-black mask gleaming, his horns
menacingly pointing to heaven.
Then all at once like thunder came the sound of the drums, turning the prolonged silence
into a rumble that extended to every corner of the house.
The devil, seeing Birgit Briceno leaning against the dining-room door, jumped down
from the platform, grabbed the bottle of rum on the table, and handed it to her.
Laughing, she took the bottle, then proudly tossed her head back and drank.
Confident of his power, the devil danced around her, moving with consummate grace, his
back stiff, only a suggestion of movement in his hips.
With hands outstretched, her face rapt, Birgit Briceno responded to the drums as if in a
Don Serapio, his face contorted behind the thick, horn-rimmed glasses, sat huddled in the
depths of an armchair that suddenly looked too wide for him.
The guests, mingling with the crowd that had come in from the plaza, began to dance.
Slowly, their hips swayed modestly, their movements deliberately restrained.
Lorenzo, surrounded by an ever increasing number of dancing women, who all wanted to
hold him, to touch him, to reassure themselves that he was made of flesh and blood, lost
sight of Birgit Briceno.
He broke free from the women's eager hands and hid behind a door. Making sure he had
not been followed, Lorenzo dashed to the back of the house, peeking into every room he
The sound of joyful laughter brought him to an abrupt halt. Leaning against the arch that
separated the laundry area from the backyard stood a tall, corpulent figure clad in black
boots, a long red robe trimmed with white, and a red Phrygian cap fastened on top of a
Lorenzo moved closer to the oddly attired person. "Birgit Briceno," he mumbled under
his breath, gazing up into her clear, bold eyes framed by wire-rimmed spectacles that had
no glass in them.
"Santaclos!" she corrected, a wide grin parting her lips, hidden by a shaggy beard and
She reached for a burlap sack on the ground stuffed with packages and a staff leaning
against the wall.
"I was going to wait until tomorrow and surprise the children who took part in the
Christmas play with gifts," she explained, "but I can't pass up this opportunity."
Her smile took on a sly, conspiratorial edge. "You are with me, aren't you?" she asked,
and her eyes shone with a wicked gleam as she bent down to look into the slits of his
Lorenzo bowed to her, then reached for the burlap sack, flung it over his shoulder, and
motioned her to follow him.
He led her out to the backyard onto a side street toward the plaza, where a few old
people, several women, and their small children had gathered to watch the party at the
Bricenos' house from across the street.
"There goes the devil!" a little girl shrieked. Calling to the other children to follow her,
she ran toward the middle of the plaza. They stopped abruptly. Silently, the children
stood in front of the two figures, their eyes wide with fear and curiosity.
"That's the devil," the little girl said, pointing to Lorenzo. "And who are you?" she
demanded of the tall figure. "Why are you dressed like that?"
"I'm Santaclos and I bring presents," Birgit Briceno said, pulling out a package from her
burlap sack. Smiling, she handed it to the child.
"Do you have presents for us, too?" the other children asked, dancing around them.
Laughing, Birgit Briceno placed the packages into their eager little hands. A bewildered
little girl held a box tightly against her chest and shouted excitedly, "Santaclos and the
devil are going to dance together!"
The children's delighted shrieks attracted a crowd in a matter of moments. Some
musicians among them began to play their instruments and beat their drums.
"Let's dance away from your house," Lorenzo whispered into Birgit Briceno's ear. "And
when we get to a side street, we'll slip away."
Lorenzo looped a bandanna around her waist and held the ends firmly. Their bodies
twisted and trembled in a fiery, rhythmical embrace.
Afraid to loose his grip on the ends of his bandanna, he ignored the other women's
explicit invitations to dance with them.
In the eyes of everyone, he was engrossed in his dancing, but the moment he heard
another group of musicians coming down the street, he grabbed the startled Birgit
Briceno by the hand and pulled her through the multitude.
Before anyone realized what had happened, the devil and Santaclos had vanished.
They ran until they were out of breath. And when they heard the crowd laughing and
thumping just around the corner, Lorenzo lifted Birgit Briceno in his arms and walked
through the front door into the home of one of his friends and customers.
Lorenzo saw him in the living room amid a small group of people. It did not occur to
Lorenzo that he might be intruding upon a family reunion. All he could think of was that
he had to convince his friend to lend him his car.
"What a night," Birgit Briceno sighed, a beaming smile parting her lips. "That crowd
almost got us." Pulling off the wig, beard, and mustache, she threw them out the window.
She unfastened the cushions from under her robe and flung them on the backseat. "Where
are we going?" she asked, searching the darkness outside.
Lorenzo chuckled behind his mask and continued driving toward the small house he
owned near the sea.
Giggling, she relaxed in her seat. "I smell the sea breeze," she murmured shortly,
breathing in deeply.
"I was born in a Swedish fishing village," she said. "The people I come from have always
been buried at sea or by the sea, and the only regret I have in life is that I won't. Serapio
already owns a plot in the cemetery in town."
Puzzled by her odd concern, he stopped the car.
"Can the devil's mask grant me my wish to be buried by the sea?" she asked with such a
serious, determined expression on her face that he could only nod in agreement.
"A promise like that is sacred," she said. The look in her eyes made it clear that for her
their understanding was total.
She leaned back in her seat. She was still, yet a strange, almost mischievous smile played
around her mouth. "And I, on my part, promise to love the bearer of the wish-granting
mask all this night," she whispered.
He would have settled for an instant of love. Next to an instant, a night was an eternity.
For days on end, I had pondered the meaning of the stories I had heard. I thought I
understood what was meant by a link, or a witch's shadow, or the wheel of chance; but, I
still wanted dona Mercedes or Candelaria to clarify things.
I had accepted from the beginning that I was not there to interpret what I was
experiencing in terms of my academic training, however, I could not help seeing things in
terms of what I had learned in the nagual's world.
Florinda would have explained it all in terms of intent: a universal, abstract force
responsible for molding everything in the world we live in.
Being an abstract force, its molding power is ordinarily outside the reach of man, yet
under special circumstances it allows itself to be manipulated. And that is what gives us
the false impression that people or things grant us wishes.
Compared to Florinda- and I could not avoid making the comparison- dona Mercedes and
Candelaria were more simple pragmatists.
They did not have an overall encompassing understanding of their actions. They
understood whatever they did, as mediums, witches, and healers, in terms of separate,
concrete events loosely connected with one another.
For instance, dona Mercedes was giving me concrete examples of ways of manipulating
something nameless. The act of manipulating it, she called a witch's shadow. The result
of that manipulation she called a link, a continuity, a turn of the wheel of chance.
"It was certainly the mask that granted Lorenzo's wish," dona Mercedes said with
absolute conviction. "I've known other, very similar instances of things granting wishes."
"But tell me, dona Mercedes, which is the important factor, the thing itself or the person
who has the wish?"
"The thing itself," she replied. "If Lorenzo hadn't had that mask, he could've spent his life
panting over Birgit Briceno; and that would've been all his wish amounted to. A witch
would say that the mask, not Lorenzo, made the link."
"Would you still call it a witch's shadow, even if there was no witch involved?"
"A witch's shadow is only a name. All of us have a bit of a witch in us. Lorenzo is
definitely not a spiritualist or a healer, yet he has a certain power to bewitch. Not enough,
though, to make a link, to move the wheel of chance; but with the aid of the mask, it was
a different story."
A faint noise startled me. I tried to move, but my left arm, flung behind my head, was
stiff from lack of circulation. I had fallen asleep in Mercedes Peralta's room after
becoming thoroughly exhausted from taking an inventory of her dried medicinal plants.
I turned my head upon hearing a voice call my name. "Dona Mercedes?" I whispered.
Except for the sound of the knots of the healer's hammock, squeaking as they rubbed over
the metal rings, there was no answer. I tiptoed over to the corner. No one was in the
hammock. Yet, I had the distinct feeling that she had just been in the room and that
somehow her presence still lingered about.
In the grips of inexplicable anxiety, I opened the door, then ran down the dark silent
I crossed the patio to the kitchen and out into the yard. There in the hammock that hung
between two soursop trees lay dona Mercedes enveloped in tobacco smoke, like a
Slowly, her face emerged from the smoky dimness. It was more like an image in a dream.
Her eyes glittered with a peculiar hollow depth.
"I was just thinking about you," she said. "About what you're doing here." She pulled up
her legs to get out of the hammock.
I told her that I had fallen asleep in her room, and had been frightened by the sound of her
She listened in silence, a worried expression on her face. "Musiua," she said sternly,
"how many times have I told you never to fall asleep in the room of a witch? We're very
vulnerable while asleep."
Unexpectedly, she giggled and covered her mouth, as though she had said too much. She
signaled me to come closer and to sit on the ground near the edge of her hammock.
She began to massage my head. Her fingers traveled with an undulating movement down
to my face.
A soothing numbness spread across my features. My skin, muscles, and bones seemed to
dissolve under her deft fingers.
Totally relaxed and at peace, I fell into a drowsiness that was not quite sleep. I was halfconscious
of her gentle touch, as she continued to massage me. Finally, I lay faceup on
the nearby cement slab.
Silently, dona Mercedes stood over me. "Watch, Musiua," she suddenly cried out,
looking up at the full moon racing through the clouds. Hiding, rising, emerging, the moon
seemed to tear the clouds in its rush. "Watch," she cried out again, throwing a clump of
gold medals fastened to a long gold chain into the air high over her head. "When you see
the chain again, you'll have to return to Caracas."
For an instant the dark clump seemed to be suspended against the full moon emerging
from behind a cloud. I did not see it fall. I was too preoccupied wondering what had
prompted her to mention that I had to go back to Caracas.
I asked her about it: She remarked that it was foolish of me to assume I was going to stay
in Curmina forever.
The persistent sharp call of a cicada on the branch above my head was more like a
vibration punctuating the stillness of the hot and humid night.
I turned on my stomach on the mat in the patio and waited for the woman who had been
appearing to me at the same spot every night.
Dona Mercedes, dozing in a nearby hammock, had decided to keep me company that
night, breaking with her presence the singularity of those appearances.
She had established from the beginning that as long as no one else was with me or
watched me, my contacts with the spirit would remain superpersonal events. If, however,
someone else was present, the entire matter would become public property, so to speak.
I had acquired by then a certain expertise in smoking cigars. At first, I had expressed to
dona Mercedes my concern about the irritating effect of the heat on the delicate tissue
inside the mouth. She had laughed my fear away, assuring me that the smoke of ritual
cigars was actually cool and soothing.
After practicing for a short while, I had to agree with her: The smoke was indeed cool:
The tobacco seemed mentholated.
Dona Mercedes' decision to accompany me that night was triggered by Candelaria's
doubts that I was strong enough to hold a full seance by myself. To them, a full seance
meant that at one point the medium has absolutely relinquished all voluntary control of
her person and the spirit can express itself through the medium's body.
Earlier that day, dona Mercedes had explained to me that my presence in her house was
no longer tenable: Not because she or Candelaria were in any way at odds with me or
cross with me, but because she had nothing of value to give me.
She assured me that both Candelaria and herself felt nothing but the deepest affection for
me. Had she liked me less, she would have been satisfied with letting me watch her treat
the sick and pretend that I was her helper. It was her affection for me that forced her to be
What I needed was a link, and she had none for me. She could only make one for
Candelaria. However, since the spirit had chosen me to be an intermediary or, perhaps,
even a true medium, she had to honor that choice.
So far, she had helped me do so by indirectly helping me make nightly contacts with the
"The fact that the spirit of my ancestor has chosen you," she had said, "makes you,
Candelaria, and me sort of relatives."
Candelaria had told me then that she had had contact with the same spirit since
childhood. But, following a medium's tradition of total secrecy, she could not possibly
elaborate on that.
Dona Mercedes stirred in her hammock and crossed her arms behind her head. "Musiua,
you better squat and start smoking," she said in a soft, relaxed tone.
I lit a cigar, puffing at it in short even spurts and murmured the incantation she had taught
me. The smoke and the sound were definitely the agents that brought the apparition every
I heard a soft rustle. Dona Mercedes also heard it, for she turned at the same instant I did.
A few feet away, squatting between Candelaria's giant terracotta flower pots, was the
Dona Mercedes crouched beside me and took the cigar from my mouth. She puffed at it,
mumbling an incantation; a different one from mine. I felt a tremor in my body; an
invisible hand gripped me by the throat.
I heard myself making whizzing, gurgling noises. To my amazement, they sounded like
words said by someone else with my own vocal cords. I knew instantly- although I did
not understand them- that they were words of yet another incantation. The apparition
hovered over my head, and then it disappeared.
Next, I found myself with dona Mercedes and Candelaria inside the house. I was soaked
in perspiration and felt physically exhausted. And so were the two women.
However, my exhaustion was not a debilitating one. I felt extraordinarily light and
"How did I get here?" I asked.
Candelaria consulted dona Mercedes with a questioning look and then said, "You had a
"This changes everything," dona Mercedes said in a faint voice. "The spirit of my
ancestor has made a link for you. So, you must stay here until the spirit lets you go."
"But why did the spirit choose me?" I asked. "I'm a foreigner."
"There are no foreigners for the spirits," Candelaria answered. "The spirits only search
Mercedes Peralta sat hunched over the altar, mumbling an incantation.
Faint with hunger and fatigue, I kept glancing at my watch. It was nearly six o'clock in
I fervently wished that the large woman sitting by the table would be dona Mercedes' last
patient for the day.
There had been no explanation for her seeing more than two sick persons a day, but for
the last four Saturdays dona Mercedes had seen as many as twelve in one day.
They were mostly women from the nearby hamlets who took advantage of their weekly
trip to the market and stopped by to see the healer.
There were always those who sought help for such specific ailments as headaches, colds,
and female disorders.
The great majority, however, came to be relieved of their emotional problems.
Unrequited love, marital difficulties, strife with in-laws, growing children, and problems
at work and in the community were the most frequently discussed topics. Graying hair,
loss of hair, the appearance of wrinkles, and bouts of bad luck were among the more
Dona Mercedes treated each person, whatever his or her problem, with the same genuine
interest and efficiency.
She would first diagnose the ailment with the aid of her nautical compass or by
interpreting the pattern of the cigar's ashes on the plate.
If the person's imbalance was caused by psychological turmoil- she called it spiritual- she
would recite a prayer-incantation and give a massage.
If the person was suffering from a physical ailment, she would prescribe medicinal plants
and a follow-up.
Her artful use of language and her great sensitivity to each person's minute change in
mood prompted the most reluctant man or woman to open up and talk candidly about his
or her intimate concerns.
Mercedes Peralta's voice startled me. "You really messed up this time," she addressed the
large woman sitting in front of the table.
Dona Peralta shood her head in disbelief, and once again examined the cigar's ashes,
which she had collected on a metal plate on the altar.
"You're a fool," she declared, holding the plate under the woman's face, expecting the
woman to recognize in the soft, gray-greenish powder the nature of her ailment. "You
really are in trouble this time."
Rushing with apprehension, the woman looked from side to side, as if she were trying to
find a way to escape. She puckered up her lips like a child.
Dona Mercedes rose, moved to where I sat on a stool in my usual corner, and in a formal
tone pronounced, "I would like you to write down the treatment my client is to follow."
As usual, I listed first the prescribed herbs, flower essences, and dietary restrictions.
Then, I wrote out a detailed account of when and under what circumstances the patient
was to take the herbal infusion and the purifying baths.
With dona Mercedes' permission, I never failed to make a carbon copy for myself. And
finally at her urging, I read out loud several times what I had written.
I was certain that it was not only to reassure dona Mercedes herself that I had listed
everything correctly but mainly to benefit the patient in case she was illiterate.
With the instructions clutched in her hand, the woman rose and faced the altar. She put
some bills under the statue of the Virgin, then solemnly promised that she would follow
dona Mercedes' instructions.
Dona Mercedes stepped over to the altar, lit a candle, and kneeled to pray to the saints
that her judgments would be correct.
I mentioned that I knew doctors who prayed a great deal.
"What good doctors and healers have in common is abiding respect for their patients,"
she declared. "They trust the great force that is out there to guide them. They can
summon that power through prayer, meditation, incantations, tobacco smoke, medicines,
She reached for the carbon copies of all the instructions I had written out that day, then
counted the pages. "Did I really see that many persons today?" she asked, seemingly
uninterested in hearing my answer.
A faint smile parted her lips as she closed her eyes and leaned back in her uncomfortablelooking
chair. "Go and bring me all your notebooks on all my clients but not the ones on
the persons who are telling you their stories. I want to see how many people I've treated
since you got here."
She got up and walked with me to the door. "Bring everything to the patio. I want
Candelaria to help me," she added.
It took me almost an hour to gather all my materials. With the exception of my diary, I
carried everything to the patio, where dona Mercedes and Candelaria were already
waiting for me.
"Is that it?" dona Mercedes asked, eyeing the bundles of paper I had placed on the ground
right in front of her.
She did not wait for my answer but ordered Candelaria to stack the papers and index
cards by the steel drum at the far end of the patio. As soon as she had done so, Candelaria
came to sit beside me on the mat. We both faced dona Mercedes, who was once again
lying in her hammock.
"I've already told you that you are here under the auspices of the spirit of my ancestor,"
dona Mercedes said to me. "Since last night you are a medium chosen by that spirit. And
mediums don't keep papers about healing. The very idea is hideous."
She rose from her hammock and walked to where my bundles of notes were. Only then
did it dawn on me what she intended to do. She broke the string bindings with a knife and
dropped handfuls of paper into the steel drum. Mesmerized, I watched the smoke rise
from the drum. I had not noticed before that there was a fire inside it.
Eager to save some of my work, I jumped up. Candelaria's words stopped me from
running to the drum.
"If you do that, you must leave right away." She smiled and patted the mat beside her.
In that instant I understood everything. There was nothing I could have done.
After an entire day's work, dona Mercedes fell soundly asleep in her chair.
I watched her for a while, wishing I could relax that easily, then I quietly put back the
various bottles, jars, and boxes in the glass cabinet.
As I tiptoed past her on my way out, she suddenly opened her eyes. She turned her head
slowly and listened, her nostrils flaring as she sniffed the air.
"I almost forgot," she said. "Bring him in, right away."
"There isn't anybody," I replied with absolute certainty.
She raised her hands in a helpless gesture. "Just do what I tell you," she said softly.
Certain that she was going to be wrong this time, I stepped outside.
It was nearly dark. No one was there. With a triumphant smile on my face I was about to
walk back into the room when I heard a faint cough.
As if he had been conjured up by dona Mercedes' assertion, a neatly dressed man
emerged from the shadows in the corridor. His legs were disproportionately long. His
shoulders, in contrast, seemed small and looked frail under his dark coat.
He vacillated for an instant, then lifted a cluster of green coconuts in a slight salute. In his
other hand, he held a custom-made machete.
"Is Mercedes Peralta in?" he asked in a deep, raspy voice, interspersed by a harsh cough.
"She's waiting for you," I said, holding the curtain aside for him.
He had short, stiff, curly hair, and the space between his brows was creased in a deep
frown. His dark, angular face exuded an unyielding hardness, matched by the fierce,
relentless expression in his eyes. Only at the corners of his well-shaped mouth lingered a
He stood irresolute for a moment, then a faint smile spread slowly over his face as he
approached dona Mercedes.
He dropped the coconuts on the ground, and adjusting his pants at the knees, squatted by
her chair. He selected the biggest coconut on the cluster, and with three expert cuts of his
short machete, removed the top.
"They are just the way you like them," he said. "Still soft and very sweet."
Dona Mercedes brought the fruit to her lips, and in between her noisy slurps, remarked
how good the milk was. "Give me some of the inside," she demanded, handing the fruit
back to him.
With one sure blow, he halved the coconut and then loosened the soft, gelatinous pulp
with the tip of his machete.
"Prepare the other half for the musiua," dona Mercedes said.
He stared at me long and hard, then without a word he scraped the remaining half of the
coconut with the same meticulous care and handed it to me. I thanked him.
"And what brings you here today?" dona Mercedes asked, breaking the awkward silence.
"Do you need my help?"
"Yes," he said, pulling a cigarette case from his pocket. He lit a cigarette with a lighter.
After taking one long drag, he returned the case to his pocket.
"The spirit is all right," he said. "It's this damned cough that's getting worse. It doesn't let
me sleep. I also have this headache. It doesn't let me work."
She invited him to sit down, not opposite her where her patients usually sat, but on the
chair by the altar.
She lit three candles in front of the Virgin, then casually inquired about the coconut
plantation he owned somewhere along the coast.
He turned around slowly and gazed into her eyes. She coaxed him with a movement of
her head. "This musiua helps me with my patients," she said to him. "You can talk as if
she weren't present."
His eyes caught mine for a moment. "My name is Benito Santos," he said and swiftly
looked back at dona Mercedes. "Does she have a name?"
"She says her name is Florinda," dona Mercedes answered before I had time to say
anything. "But I call her Musiua."
She watched him intently, then positioned herself behind him. With slow easy
movements, she rubbed an unguent on his chest and shoulders for nearly a half hour.
"Benito Santos," she said, turning toward me, "is a powerful man. He comes to see me
from time to time; always for a headache or a cold or a cough.
"I cure him in five sessions. I use a specially made unguent and an eloquent prayer
offered to the spirit of the sea."
She continued massaging him for a long time. "Is the headache gone?" she asked, resting
her hands on Benito Santos' shoulders.
He did not seem to have heard her question. He stared with unseeing eyes at the
flickering candles. He began to talk about the sea and how ominous it was at dawn when
the sun rises from the dim lusterless water.
In a monotonous, almost trancelike murmur, he spoke about his daily noon excursions
into the sea. He had never learned to swim, only to float.
"Pelicans circle around me," he said. "Sometimes they fly very low and look directly into
my eyes. I'm certain they want to know if my strength is waning."
With his head bowed, he remained silent for a long time, then his voice faded to an even
lower, hard-to-understand murmur. "At dusk, when the sun is behind the far away hills
and the light no longer touches the water, I hear the voice of the sea.
"It tells me that someday it will die, but while it lives, it is relentless. 1 know then that I
love the sea."
Mercedes Peralta pressed her palms over his temples, her fingers spanning his head.
"Benito Santos," she said, "is a man who has overcome guilt. He's old and he's tired. But
even now he is relentless like the sea."
Benito Santos came to see dona Mercedes for five consecutive days. After finishing each
of his daily treatments, she always asked him to tell me his story. He never answered her
and totally ignored me.
Finally, at the end of his last appointment, he abruptly turned and faced me. "Is that your
jeep out there in the street?" he asked. Without giving me time to answer, he added,
"Drive me back to the coconut plantation, please."
We drove in silence. Just prior to reaching the coast, I assured him that he did not have to
honor dona Mercedes' request.
He shook his head emphatically. "Whatever she asks is sacred to me," he said dryly. "I
just don't know what to say or how to say it."
I paid countless visits to Benito Santos under the pretext of getting coconuts for dona
Mercedes. We talked a great deal. But he never warmed up to me.
He always stared at me defiantly until I turned my eyes away. He made it perfectly clear
that he was talking to me only because Mercedes Peralta had requested it. He certainly
was, as she had described him, hard and relentless.
Clutching his machete firmly in his hand, Benito Santos stood motionless in the hot noon
sun. It scorched his back, stiff from cutting cane for a week.
He pushed back the brim of his hat to cool his forehead. His eyes followed the group of
weary men walking across the empty, harvested sugarcane fields on their way into town.
For the last day and night everyone had worked without rest. Like him, the men would
have no jobs to go to on Monday. It had been the last sugarcane crop before the tractors
were to flatten and parcel off the land.
The owner of those fields had held out the longest. But finally, like all the other planters
in the area, he had been forced to sell his property to a land-developing company in
The valley was to be converted into an industrial center. Germans and Americans were
going to build pharmaceutical laboratories. Italians were not only going to construct a
shoe factory, but bring their own workers from Italy as well.
"Damn foreigners," Benito Santos swore, spitting on the ground. He didn't know how to
read or write, and he had no skills. He was a sugarcane cropper. All he knew was how to
wield a machete.
Dragging the long blade on the ground, he approached the hacienda's courtyard, then
turned to the small bungalow, where the foreman had his office. A group of men, some
standing, some squatting under the shade of the building's wide overlapping roof, eyed
him suspiciously as he stepped into the office.
"What do you want?" the short, potbellied foreman sitting behind a gray metal desk
asked. "You got paid, didn't you?" he added impatiently, wiping the sweat off his neck
with a neatly folded white handkerchief.
Benito Santos nodded. He was a taciturn man, almost gruff. It was hard for him to speak,
to ask a favor.
"I heard that the sugarcane has been transported to a mill in the next town," he
stammered, his eyes fixed on the foreman's massive neck bulging over the collar of his
starched shirt. "I've been around mills before. I'm wondering if you could hire me to work
Leaning back in his chair, the foreman regarded Benito Santos through drooping lids.
"You live around here, don't you? How would you be getting to the next town? It's more
than fifteen miles from here."
"By bus," Benito Santos mumbled, looking furtively into the man's eyes.
"Bus!" The foreman laughed scornfully, stroking his thin, neatly trimmed mustache.
"You know well that the bus only leaves when it's full. You'd never get there before
"I'll make it," Benito Santos said desperately. "If you give me the job, I'll make it
"Listen," the foreman snapped. "I hired anyone capable of cutting down sugarcane
regardless of age or experience because we had a deadline to meet. It was made perfectly
clear to every man hired that this was a six-day job.
"At the mill we already have more people than we need." The foreman began to shuffle
through the papers on his desk. "Don't waste any more of my time. I'm a busy man."
Benito Santos stepped into the courtyard, making sure not to trample on the tufts of grass
growing between the stones. The mill, at the far end of the yard, already looked
abandoned even though it had been in use only a few days ago. He knew he would never
see its like in the valley again.
The loud honking of a truck jolted him. Quickly, he stepped aside, lifting his hand for a
ride into town. He was enveloped in a cloud of dust.
"You got to walk, Benito Santos," someone shouted from the moving vehicle.
Long after the dust had settled he could still hear the shouts and laughter of the workers
on the truck.
His fingers curled tightly around the handle of his machete. Slowly, they relaxed again.
He pulled his hat well over his forehead to shade his eyes from the bright sun glazing the
blue of the sky.
Benito Santos didn't follow the main road into town but cut across the empty fields until
he reached a narrow trail. It led toward the southern end of town, where the Saturday
open-air market was situated.
He walked slower than usual, aware of the hole in one of his shoes and the flapping sole
of the other, which stirred the dust on the ground before him.
From time to time, he rested under the dark cool shade of the mango trees growing on
either side of the path: Dispiritedly, he watched the fleeting green outline of lizards
darting in and out of the bushes.
It was way past noon when he reached the market. The place was still bustling with
people. Vendors, their voices already hoarse, advertised their merchandise with the same
enthusiasm they had displayed earlier that morning. And the customers, mostly women,
haggled shamelessly over the prices.
Benito Santos walked past the Portuguese farmers' stands, where the now limp vegetables
lay in disarray; past the meat and dry-fish stalls, where flies swarmed around and mangy
dogs waited with endless patience for a piece of meat to fall on the ground.
He grinned at the hired children who were standing behind the fresh-fruit stalls, packing
rotten fruit in paper bags instead of letting the customers choose from the merchandise on
He fingered the money in his pocket: six days' wages. He deliberated whether he should
buy food for his wife, Altagracia, and their small son now or later.
"Later," he said out loud. There was always the chance that he would get a better deal if
he haggled with the merchants just before they were ready to pack up.
"Get your food while you have the money, Benito Santos," an old woman who knew him
well shouted. "The beans and the rice won't get any cheaper."
"Only women wait for the afternoon bargains," a merchant taunted him, making obscene
gestures with a plantain.
Benito Santos stared at the grinning faces of the Lebanese peddlers, standing behind their
gaudy stalls, advertising cheap dresses, costume jewelry, and perfumes.
Rage made the veins in his temples swell and stiffened the muscles on his neck. The
humiliating incident in the foreman's office was vivid in his mind. The scornful laughter
of the workers on the truck still rang in his ears.
The machete was as light as a knife in his hand. With tremendous effort he turned around
and walked away.
A cold sweat bathed his body. His mouth was dry. He felt a tingling in his stomach that
was not hunger.
He would have his rum now, he decided. He couldn't wait until he got home. He needed
the rum to dispel his anger, to dispel his gloom, his despondency.
Purposefully, he headed toward the main entrance of the market, where trucks and
packtrains of donkeys waited to be reloaded with the produce that wasn't sold.
He crossed the street, then stepped inside the small dark store at the corner and bought
three pint bottles of the cheapest rum.
He sat down under the shade of a tree, facing the trucks and the donkeys. He didn't want
to miss the moment the merchants began to pack up.
Sighing contentedly, he leaned against the tree trunk. He took off his hat and wiped the
sweat and the dust from his haggard face with his sleeve.
Carefully, he opened one of the bottles and downed the first pint in one long gulp.
Gradually, the rum dulled the tension in his stomach; it eased the pain in his stiff back
and sore legs. He smiled. A vague feeling of well-being drifted through his head.
Yes, he mused, it was better to sit there, enjoying his rum, than to go home and listen to
Altagracia's incessant nagging. He was slow to anger, but today he had had as much as he
Through drooping lids, Benito Santos watched the people gathered in a circle near the
market's entrance. It was the same crowd that came every Saturday afternoon from the
nearby hamlets to bet on the cockfights.
Drowsily, he let his gaze wander to the two men squatting beneath a tree directly across
from him. He wasn't much interested in cockfights, yet his attention was caught by the
two roosters the men held in their hands.
They bounced them up and down to strengthen their legs. With an oddly gentle gesture,
the men ruffled the birds' feathers and then shoved them against each other to rouse their
"That's a fine-looking bird," Benito Santos said to the man holding the dark rooster with
the golden-tipped feathers.
"He certainly is," the man agreed readily. "He'll be in the last fight this afternoon. The
best birds are saved for the last fight," the man added proudly, brushing the rooster's
feathers. "You ought to bet on him. He'll be the winner today."
"You're sure?" Benito Santos asked casually, taking out another bottle of rum from his
He took a long gulp, then meandered through the crowd of excited men squatting around
a sand pit. They made room without looking at him, their eyes fixed on the center of the
arena where two birds were locked in deadly combat.
"Your bets! Gentlemen, your bets!" a man shouted, his voice silencing the noisy crowd
for a moment. "Your bets for the last fight! For the real fight!"
Eagerly the men exchanged their dirty bills for the colored markers indicating the amount
of their bets.
"Are you sure your rooster is going to win today?" Benito Santos asked the owner of the
bird with the golden-tipped feathers.
"He sure is!" the man exclaimed, planting rapturous kisses on the bird's scarred crest.
"Afraid to bet, Benito Santos?" asked one of the workers who had been cutting cane with
him during the week. "You'd better buy some food for your old woman if you don't want
trouble tonight," he added mockingly.
Benito Santos chose a marker and without hesitation bet the rest of his wages on the cock
with the golden-tipped feathers.
He was certain he would double his money. He would be able to buy not only rice and
beans but meat and more rum. There might even be enough money to buy his son his first
pair of shoes.
Benito Santos, as excited as the rest of the spectators, shouted his approval as the owners
raised their birds high over their heads. They sucked the sharp, deadly spurs on the
roosters' legs as evidence that there was no poison on them. The men mumbled sweet
nothings to their birds, and then, at the command of the referee, they placed them in the
center of the sand pit.
The combatants viewed each other angrily but refused to fight. The crowd shouted, and a
wicker cage was lowered over the roosters. Excitedly the men goaded the birds to attack.
The roosters trembled with rage, and their plumage spread out beneath their shaved,
The cage was lifted. The cocks jumped at each other, skillfully avoiding pecks and blows
of wings. But soon they were engaged in a deadly wing-beating, head-thrusting, legkicking
explosion of fury.
The white cock's feathers were red with blood, either from its own wounds or from the
deep gash on its opponent's neck.
Silently, Benito Santos prayed for the bird he had bet on to win.
At a signal from the referee, the open-beaked, hard-breathing roosters were lifted from
the pit. With mounting anxiety Benito Santos watched the owner of the golden-feathered
bird blow on its wounds. Soothingly, he talked to the rooster, caressing and fussing over
At the referee's command, the birds were once again placed in the center of the circle.
The white-feathered bird instantly took a well-aimed jump and sunk its spurs into its
opponent's neck. Its triumphant crow shattered the silence of the audience as the goldentipped
rooster toppled over dead.
Benito Santos smiled bitterly, then laughed behind a grimace that struggled to hold back
his tears. "At least I've got my rum," he mumbled, then gulped down the rest of his
With trembling fingers he wiped his chin dry. He walked away from the crowd, heading
toward the hills: the empty cane fields stretching endlessly before him shimmered in the
bright afternoon sunlight. The yellow dust of the road raised by his shoes settled like fine,
golden powder on his arms and hands.
Slowly, he went up a steep hill. Wherever there was a tree, he crossed the road and rested
in its shade.
He opened his last bottle of rum and took one long gulp. He didn't want to see his wife.
He couldn't bear to look into her accusing eyes.
He scanned the hills around him and let his gaze rest on the green slopes on the other side
of the road where a high ranking general in the government had his farm.
Benito Santos took another swallow. The rum filled him with a vague hope.
Perhaps they might give him a job at the general's place. He could cut the green, irrigated
alfalfa grown specifically for the horses. Hell! He had a skill! he thought. He was a
sugarcane cropper. Cutting cane or alfalfa was all the same.
He might even be able to ask for an advance. Not much. Just enough to buy some rice
He almost ran down the hill, then up the newly paved road leading to the general's farm.
He was so excited by the possibility of getting a job that he didn't even see the two
soldiers by the wide open gate.
"Where do you think you're going?" one of them stopped him, pointing his rifle to a sign
on the road. "Can't you read? No trespassing beyond this point. This is a private road."
Benito Santos was so winded his throat hurt with each breath. He looked from one soldier
to the other, then addressed the second soldier, who was leaning against a large boulder
next to the sign. He looked older and friendlier. "I'm in desperate need of a job," he
Silently, the soldier shook his head; his eyes fixed on Benito Santos' stiff black hair
sticking through his torn straw hat. Benito Santos' worn, rolled-up khaki pants and shirt
clung damply to his tall, gaunt frame.
"There are no jobs in this place," he said in a sympathetic tone. "There isn't anyone
around here to hire you, anyway."
"There must be someone there with the horses," Benito Santos insisted. "Maybe I could
help. Just for a couple of hours every day."
The guards looked at each other, then shrugged and grinned mischievously. "Ask for the
German in charge of the horses," the younger-looking man said. "He might help you."
For a moment Benito Santos wondered what the soldiers could be laughing about. But he
felt too grateful to let it worry him.
Afraid they might change their minds and call him back, he hurried along the straight
paved road cut into the hill.
He stopped short in front of the general's house. Undecided, he stood looking at the twostory
building. It was all white with a long balcony supported by massive columns.
Instead of calling out, he tiptoed toward one of the downstairs windows. It was open, and
the air gently fluttered the gauzy curtain.
He wanted to have a quick look and see what it was like inside. He had heard that the
luxurious furnishings had been brought over from Europe.
"What are you doing here?" a loud, heavily accented voice asked from behind him.
Startled, Benito Santos almost dropped his bottle of rum as he turned around. Wide-eyed,
he regarded a wiry, middle-aged man with blond, closely cropped hair.
He must be the German the soldiers had told him to see, he thought, looking into the
man's restless eyes. They were the color of the sky and shone hard under fiercely jutting
"Do you have a job for me?" Benito Santos asked. "Any kind of job."
The man moved closer to Benito Santos and stared at him menacingly. "How dare you
come here, you drunkard?" he spat out, his voice cold with contempt. "Get out of here
before I set the dogs on you."
Benito Santos' gaze became unsteady, his eyelids twitched. He felt like a beggar. He
hated to ask for a favor. He had always worked the best he could. His tongue felt heavy.
"Just for a couple of hours." He held out his hand so the man could see the cracks and
calluses. "I'm a hard worker. I'm a cane cutter. I could cut some grass for the horses."
"Get out!" the German yelled. "You're drunk."
Benito Santos walked slowly, dragging the tip of his machete on the ground. The road
before him seemed longer than ever, as though it stretched itself deliberately to delay his
He wished he had someone to talk to. The monotonous drone of the insects made him
feel even more desolate.
He crossed the dry gully to his shack. He remained outside for a moment, deeply
breathing in the late-afternoon air, letting the gentle breeze cool his flushed face.
He had to stoop to enter his shack. It had no windows, only an opening in the front and
one in the back, which he closed at night with a piece of cardboard propped up with a
The heat was stifling inside. The sound of the hammock's ropes rubbing against the wood
and Altagracia's uneven breathing irritated him. He knew she was seething with wrath.
He turned to look at his son sleeping on the ground. He wore a discolored rag, which
barely covered his small chest. He couldn't remember whether the boy was two or three
Altagracia rose from her hammock, her eyes fixed on the bag in his hand. She planted
herself in front of him and demanded in a harsh, shrill voice, "Where is the food,
"The market was already packed up by the time I got there," Benito Santos mumbled,
moving over to the cot in one corner of the shack, the paper bag held tightly in his hand.
"I'm sure there are still some beans and rice left here."
"There is nothing here as you well know," Altagracia said, trying to grab the paper bag.
"You sure had time to get drunk." Her face with its yellowish, sagging skin was flushed.
Her sunken, usually lifeless eyes shone with anger and despair.
He clearly felt the accelerated pounding of his heart. He didn't have to give her an
explanation. He didn't owe anyone an explanation.
"Shut up, woman," he yelled. He lifted the bottle and drank the rest of the rum without
drawing a breath.
"I worked the whole night cutting cane. I'm tired." He threw the empty bottle through the
opening of the shack. "I want some peace and quiet now. I want no woman shouting at
me. Take the boy and get the hell out of here."
Altagracia grabbed Benito Santos by the arm before he had a chance to lower himself on
"Give me the money; I'll buy the food myself. The boy needs to eat." She ripped open his
pocket. "No money?" she repeated, in a daze, looking uncomprehendingly at him.
"Didn't you get paid today? You couldn't have spent six days' wages on rum." Shouting
obscenities, she pulled his hair and pounded her clenched fists against his aching back
He felt drunk, not with rum, but with rage and hopelessness. He saw the gleam of fear in
her eyes as he raised his machete.
Her scream filled the air, then there was silence. He looked at her still form on the
ground, at her tangled mass of hair soaked in blood.
He felt something tugging at his pants. His small son held onto his leg with such strength
he was certain the child would never let him free.
Possessed by an irrational fear, Benito Santos tried to shake him loose, but the boy would
not let go. The boy's eyes were those of his mother; dark and deep, filled with that same
Benito Santos' temples began to throb under the boy's unblinking stare. With blind fury,
he raised the machete once more.
Never in his life had he felt such an agonizing desolation. Never before had he been so
For a moment it was as if he had had another life, a more meaningful life- a life with a
greater purpose- and was now looking into the nightmare that his existence had become.
Then, more aware than he had ever been, he soaked some rags in the nearly empty can of
kerosene and set his shack on fire.
He ran as far as he could and then stopped. Motionless, he stood gazing at the empty
fields at the foot of the hills, at the faraway mountains in the distance.
In the morning those mountains were the color of hope. Beyond them was the sea. He had
never seen the sea. He had only heard that it was immense.
Benito Santos waited until the mountains, the hills, and the trees were no more than
shadows; shadows like the memories of his childhood.
He felt he was again walking with his mother through the narrow streets of his village
amid the crowd of the faithful behind some procession at nightfall with candles winking
through the darkness.
"Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
Amen." His voice drifted away with the wind and the thousands of small sounds
shrouding the hills.
He shivered with fear, and took off again in a wild run. He ran until he could no longer
He felt himself sinking into the soft ground. The earth was swallowing him: It was
soothing him with blackness; and Benito Santos knew that this was the last day of his
useless life. He had at last died.
He opened his eyes, seemingly to the sound of a woman's wailing, but it was the night
breeze, rustling through the leaves around him.
How he had wished to remain forever in darkness; but he knew that nothing would ever
be that easy for him.
He rose, picked up his machete, and headed toward the road that led to the mountains.
A clear light came down from the sky. It spread around him: It even gave him a shadow.
The clear light made the air thinner, easier to breathe.
He had no place to go. Nothing to look forward to. He felt no profound emotion. There
was only a vague sensation, a vague hope that he might get to see the sea.
"It's time for you to go," Candelaria said. "You shouldn't be working on Sundays." She
pulled the plug of my tape recorder.
At that very instant, dona Mercedes stepped into the kitchen. She frowned, noticing that I
was still in my robe. "Why aren't you ready?" she asked me.
"I know why," Candelaria said. Her voice held a curious softness, and a glimmer of
amusement shone in her eyes. "She doesn't want to collect Benito Santos' coconuts. She's
afraid of him."
Before I had a chance to deny her accusation, she was gone from the room.
"Is that true, Musiua?" dona Mercedes asked, pouring herself a cup of coffee. "I haven't
noticed that you held any ill-feelings toward him."
I assured her that I did not. However, I couldn't help feeling that what Benito Santos had
done to his wife and his child was abominable.
"His story has nothing to do with morality or justice," she interrupted me. "It's the story
of a violent, desperate man.
I protested because I deeply resented that he had looked after only himself. I talked
almost hysterically about the despair and the hopelessness of women and children.
"Stop it, Musiua." With her finger she poked me on my chest next to my collarbone. It
felt as if she were pushing me with an iron tip.
"Don't give in to your false sense of order. Don't be a musiua that comes from a foreign
country to find flaws: That kind of person would feel offended by Benito Santos and miss
what I am trying to show you.
"I want to place you under the shadow of the people I've selected to tell you their stories.
"The story of Benito Santos' last day of his useless life sums up all his existence. I asked
him to tell it to you with all the details he could remember; and I have also sent you to see
for yourself his coconut grove by the sea so you would verify that the wheel of chance
It was hard for me to explain my feelings to dona Mercedes without moralizing. I did not
want to, but I could not help myself.
She gave me an all-knowing smile.
"The value of his story," she said all of a sudden, "is that without any preparation, he
made a link himself: He made the wheel of chance move.
"Witches say that sometimes one single act makes that link."
Dona Mercedes pushed herself up from the chair she had been sitting on, and holding
firmly to my arm walked me out of the kitchen toward her room.
At her door, she stopped and looked at me. "Benito Santos killed his wife and child. That
act moved the wheel of chance; but what made him end up where he is now- by the seawas
his desire to see the sea.
"As he must have told you, it was a vague desire, yet it was the only thing he had after
committing an act of such violence and finality. So, the desire took hold of him and drove
"That is why he has to remain faithful to that desire that saved him. He has to love the
sea. He comes to me so that I can help him maintain his unwavering course.
"It can be done, you know. We can make our own link with one single act. It doesn't have
to be as violent and desperate as Benito Santos' act, but it has to be as final. If that act is
followed by a desire of tremendous strength, sometimes, like Benito Santos, we can be
placed outside of morality."
It was late in the afternoon when dona Mercedes and I left the house and walked up the
street to Leon Chirino's house.
Leisurely, we went past the old colonial houses near the plaza and peeked inside the open
The rooms were dark, yet we could make out the shadows of old women counting rosary
beads as they said their silent afternoon prayers.
We rested on a bench in the plaza, surrounded by old men sitting on crude wooden chairs
propped against tree trunks.
We waited with them for the sun to disappear behind the hills, and for the evening breeze
to cool the air.
Leon Chirino lived on the other side of town at the foot of a shack-covered hill.
His house, made of unplastered cement blocks, had an extensive yard and was encircled
by a high wall.
The small wooden gate in the wall was unlocked, as was the front door.
Without bothering to knock or to call out we went through a large living room and
headed straight for the back patio, which had been converted into a workshop.
Under the bright glare of a single bulb, Leon Chirino was sanding a piece of wood.
He spread his hands in a gesture of invitation and pleasure, and invited us to sit on the
bench across from his working table.
"I guess it's time to get ready," he said, brushing the sawdust off his kinky white hair, and
the wood shavings from his clothes.
Expectantly, I looked at dona Mercedes, but she merely nodded.
A secret light shone in her eyes as she turned to Leon Chirino.
Without a word she rose and shuffled down the corridor bordering the patio toward the
back of the house.
I was about to follow, when Leon Chirino stopped me short. "You'd better come with
me," he said, switching off the light.
He spat through his teeth, accurately aiming at one of the dried-up flower pots in the
"Where is dona Mercedes going?" I asked.
He shrugged impatiently, and guided me in the opposite direction to a narrow alcove that
separated the living room from the kitchen.
Against one wall of the small enclosure stood an earthenware water filter; against the
other, a refrigerator.
"Would you like one of these?" He held up a bottle of Pepsi he had removed from the
Not waiting for my reply, he opened the bottle and casually added, "Dona Mercedes is
making sure there are enough cigars."
"Is there going to be a seance?" I asked, taking the bottle from his hand.
Leon Chirino turned on the light in the living room, then moved to the high window
facing the street. He reached for a wooden panel, and before placing it in the window sill,
he looked back over his shoulder; his eyes shining, one hand stroking his chin. His smile,
slightly crooked, was devilish.
"There certainly is going to be one," he said.
Sipping the Pepsi, I went to sit on the couch by the window.
The lack of furniture made the room appear larger than it actually was.
Other than the couch, there was only a tall cabinet crammed with books, snapshots,
bottles, jars, cups, and glasses; and several wooden chairs lined up against the walls.
Mumbling something unintelligible, Leon Chirino turned off the light, then lit the candles
that stood on the carved ledges beneath the various pictures of saints, Indian chieftains,
and black slave leaders adorning the ochre-painted walls.
"I want you to sit here," he ordered, placing two chairs in the middle of the room.
"On which one?"
"Whichever you prefer."
Grinning broadly, he unfastened my wristwatch, put it in his pocket, then went to the
cabinet and took out a small jar.
The jar was half-filled with mercury: In his dark hands it looked like the giant pupil of a
"I understand that you're a full-fledged medium," he said, placing the jar in my lap. "The
mercury will keep the spirit from gravitating toward you.
"We don't want the spirit near you. It's too dangerous for you."
He winked and hung a silver chain necklace with a medal of the Virgin around my neck.
"This medal is guaranteed to be a protection," he assured me.
Closing his eyes, he joined his hands in prayer.
As soon as he had finished, he warned me that there was no way of knowing whose spirit
would visit us during the seance.
"Don't let go of the jar and don't remove the necklace," he admonished, pulling up the rest
of the chairs to form a circle in the middle of the room.
He blew out all the candles except the one burning beneath the picture of El Negro
Miguel- a famous slave leader who had headed the first slave uprising in Venezuela.
Then he said another short prayer, and silently left the room.
The candle had almost burned down when he returned.
Urging me to keep my eyes fixed on the jar in my lap, he sat beside me.
Overcome by curiosity, I looked up several times when I heard people come into the
room, and sit on the chairs.
In the uncertain light I failed to recognize a single face.
Mercedes Peralta was the last one to come in.
She removed the candle from the ledge and distributed the hand-rolled cigars.
"Don't talk to anyone before or after the seance," she whispered in my ear as she held the
flickering flame to my cigar. "No one else besides Leon Chirino knows you are a
medium. Mediums are vulnerable."
She sat down opposite me.
I closed my eyes, and puffed skillfully as I had done countless times in dona Mercedes'
I became so engrossed in that act that I lost track of time.
A soft moan arose from the smoky darkness.
I opened my eyes and saw a woman materialize in the middle of the circle of chairs, a
Slowly, a reddish light spread all over her until she seemed to be aglow.
The manner in which she carried herself, the way she was dressed- black skirt and
blouse- the familiar way she tilted her head to one side, made me think it was Mercedes
However, the longer I observed her, the less sure I was.
Wondering whether I was going through one of the inexplicable visions I had had in the
patio, I clutched the mercury jar in my hands and rose from my chair.
I stood transfixed as the woman became transparent.
I found nothing frightening about her transparency: I simply accepted that it was possible
to see through her.
Without any warning the woman collapsed in a dark heap on the ground: The light inside
her seemed to have been turned off.
I was totally reassured that she was not an apparition when she took out a handkerchief,
and blew her nose.
Exhausted, I sank into my chair.
Leon Chirino, sitting on my left, nudged me with his elbow, gesturing me to keep my
attention on the center of the room.
There, inside the circle of chairs where the transparent woman had been, stood an old,
She stared at me, her blue eyes wide open, frightened, bewildered.
Her head jerked back, then forward, and before I could make any sense of the vision, it
faded- not suddenly; but slowly, it floated about.
It was so quiet in the room that for an instant I thought everyone had gone.
On the sly, I glanced around me.
All I saw was the glow of cigars.
They couldn't possibly be smoking the same cigars dona Mercedes had distributed, I
thought: I had finished mine a long time ago.
As I leaned forward to attract Leon Chirino's attention, someone placed a hand on my
"Dona Mercedes!" I exclaimed, recognizing her touch.
With my head bent I waited for her to say something.
When she didn't, I looked up, but she was not there.
I was alone in the room: Everyone else had left.
Frightened, I stood up, and ran toward the door, only to be stopped by Leon Chirino.
"Frida Herzog's spirit roams around here," he said. "She died on the steps of this hill."
He moved toward the window and opened the wooden panels.
Like a ghostly apparition the smoke swirled out of the room, dissolving into the night air.
Leon Chirino faced me and once again repeated that Frida Herzog had died on the steps
of that hill.
He walked around the room carefully inspecting the shadowy corners, perhaps to make
sure that no one was there.
"Was Frida Herzog the old woman I saw?" I asked, "Did you see her, too?"
He nodded, then mumbled once again that her spirit was still roaming around.
He brushed his forehead repeatedly, as if he were trying to rid himself of a thought or,
perhaps, the image of the frightened old woman.
The stillness in the room became unsettling.
"I'd better catch up with dona Mercedes," I said softly and opened the door.
"Wait!" Leon Chirino stepped forward and grabbed my arm.
He lifted the silver necklace over my head and took the jar containing the mercury from
"During a seance, chronological time is suspended," he murmured in a slow, tired voice.
"Spiritual time is a time of equilibrium that is neither reality nor a dream. Yet, it is a time
that exists in space."
He emphasized that I had been plummeted into an event that had happened a long time
"The past has no time sequence," he continued. "Today can be joined up with yesterday;
with events of many years ago."
He fastened my watch around my wrist, and said, "The best thing is not to talk about
"What happens is vague and elusive, and not meant to be put into words."
Anxious to catch up with dona Mercedes, I agreed with him halfheartedly.
Leon Chirino, however, determined to keep me in his house, repeated again and again
that Frida Herzog had died on the hills right behind his house.
"I saw dona Mercedes turn transparent," I interrupted him. "Did you see that, too?"
He stared at me, as though he had not expected me to ask about her, but the next moment
he was laughing.
"She wanted to dazzle you," he said brimming with pride. "She's a perfect medium."
Half-smiling, he closed his tired eyes. He seemed to be savoring some treasured vision.
Then gently he pushed me outside, and without a sound, closed the door behind me.
For a moment I stood bewildered outside Leon Chirino's door.
I knew I had lost track of time during the seance, but somehow I couldn't believe that the
whole night had gone by, and that I had failed to hear the rain: Yet, it was dawn and there
were puddles on the sidewalk.
A parrot screeched somewhere in the distance. I looked up.
Across the street, standing like a shadow by the eucalyptus tree that marked the cement
steps leading up the shack-covered hill, was Mercedes Peralta. I ran toward her.
Anticipating my questions, she touched my lips with her finger, then bent low and picked
up a small, freshly broken branch lying on the ground.
It was still wet with the night's rain. She shook it: The scent of eucalyptus, imprisoned in
hundreds of drops, showered on my head.
"We better get going," she said, but instead of heading home, she led me up the hill.
The air smelled of mildewed cardboard. There was no one around. The shacks appeared
to be abandoned.
Halfway up, we turned onto one of the paths that spread like branches from the wide
steps; and stopped in front of a yellow-painted house roofed with sheets of corrugated tin.
The unlocked front door opened directly into what seemed to be a bedroom.
A narrow, neatly made-up bed stood in the middle of the room.
Hairy ferns growing in animal-shaped flower pots rested on stools.
Bamboo cages with canaries in them hung from the ceiling.
Pants, jackets, and crisply ironed shirts dangled from wrought-iron hooks fastened on the
A man emerged from behind a brightly patterned curtain that I first mistook for a wall
"Efrain Sandoval!" I exclaimed, wondering what the man from whose store I purchased
my notepads and pencils was doing in that place.
I was well acquainted with him and his German-born wife, who by speech and manner
was more Venezuelan than a born native. Together with their two daughters they lived
near the plaza above the stationery-radio-TV shop he owned.
He was in his forties, but his slight build and his delicately featured face made him look
much younger. His slanted dark eyes fringed by long, curly lashes shone brightly.
He appeared to be amused by some secret thought.
As always, he was immaculately dressed; but that morning, his whole being reeked of
"Were you at the seance?" I asked him in an involuntary tone of incredulity.
Gesturing me to be quiet, he invited us to sit on the bed.
"I'll be right back," he promised, vanishing behind the curtain.
Shortly, he reappeared, carrying a bamboo tray heavy with food, plates, and cutlery.
He cleared off one of the stools and placed the tray on it; and with the flamboyant
movements of a maitre d', he served us black beans, rice, fried plantains, spicy shredded
meat, and coffee.
In nervous anticipation I looked from one to the other, expecting a discussion of the
"The musiua is about to burst with curiosity," dona Mercedes announced, a devilish glint
in her eyes.
"She wants to know why you live up here, when you have such a nice home above your
store in town.
"I would like you to tell her why."
"You would?" Efrain Sandoval asked indifferently as he ate the last of the beans on his
He chewed slowly, stalling for time.
He rose, walked over to the window, and opened it.
For a second or two he gazed at the pale dawn sky then turned and stared at me.
"I guess you must have a good reason for wanting to know about me?" he added in a
"She does," dona Mercedes answered. "So don't be put off when she comes to your store
to pester you for your story."
Efrain Sandoval smiled sheepishly, tilted his stool, and leaned against the wall.
He let his gaze wander about the room: There was a remote expression in his eyes: He
seemed no longer aware of our presence.
"But what's the point of telling her?" he finally asked without looking at dona Mercedes.
"It's not an earth-shaking story. It's rather banal."
"That's the very point of it," she said. "The musiua has heard all kinds of stories by now.
Yours is of particular interest because you never did anything to make it happen. You
were just there, placed by a higher order."
"I still don't see how the story of Frida Herzog is going to help the musiua," Efrain
"Let her worry about that," Mercedes Peralta said dryly.
She rose from the bed and motioned me to do likewise.
Efrain Sandoval looked as though he was going to argue the point.
Instead he nodded. "As you already know, I have a large house in town," he said, turning
He opened his arms wide. "Yet, I also live here where I can feel the presence of Frida
Herzog, who unwittingly gave me everything I have."
He moved toward the window, but before closing it he glanced uncertainly at dona
Mercedes, and asked, "Are you going to give me a cleansing today?"
"Of course." She laughed. "Don't mind the musiua. She has seen me doing this before."
Efrain Sandoval seemed to vacillate for a moment, then, apparently afraid that there
might not be enough time, he promptly took off his coat and lay face up on the bed.
Mercedes Peralta retrieved a small bottle, a white handkerchief, two candles, and two
cigars from her dress pocket. Meticulously, she lined them up on the floor at the foot of
She lit one of the candles, then a cigar, and inhaled deeply.
Wrapped in smoke, the murmured words of her incantation tumbled out of her mouth
with each exhalation.
A wicked smile flittered across her face as she reached for the white handkerchief and the
little bottle, half-filled with a mixture of perfumed water and ammonia.
She poured a generous amount on the handkerchief, and folded it into a perfect square.
"Breathe!" she commanded, and in one swift, well-aimed motion she held the
handkerchief under Efrain Sandoval's nose.
Mumbling incoherently, he twisted and turned in an effort to sit up. Tears rolled down his
cheeks, and his moving lips tried in vain to form a plea. Dona Mercedes held him in place
quite effortlessly by simply increasing the pressure of her hand over his nose. Soon, he
gave up struggling. He crossed his arms over his chest and lay still, utterly exhausted.
Dona Mercedes lit a second cigar. Mumbling a soft prayer, she asked the spirit of Hans
Herzog to protect Efrain Sandoval.
The last few puffs of smoke she blew into her cupped hands, and then ran her fingers
over his face, his folded arms, and all the way down his legs.
Startled upon hearing a strange sound, I looked around me.
The room was filled with smoke, and out of that haze a form appeared, no more than a
shadow or a billow of smoke that seemed to be hovering beside the bed.
Efrain Sandoval's deep sleep, punctuated by loud snoring, broke the spell.
Mercedes Peralta rose, put all her paraphernalia, including the cigar stubs, into her
pocket, then turned to the window and opened it.
Pointing her chin to the door, she motioned me to follow.
"Will he be all right?" I asked once we were outside: I had never attended such a short
"He'll be fine for another year," she assured me. "Every year, Efrain Sandoval attends a
spiritualists' meeting to renew himself."
She made a wide sweeping gesture with her arms. "Frida Herzog's spirit roams around
here, Efrain believes it has brought him luck, and that's why he has chosen to keep this
shack while his family lives in town.
"It isn't true, but his belief doesn't harm anyone. In fact, it brings him relief."
"But who is Frida Herzog?" I asked. "And who is Hans Herzog? You definitely asked his
spirit to protect Efrain."
Dona Mercedes put her hand over my lips. "Musiua, have patience," she said, bemused.
"Efrain will tell you in time. All I can say is that the one who moved the wheel of chance
for Efrain wasn't Frida Herzog. She had no reason to. It was actually a ghost who did it.
The ghost of Hans Herzog."
Dona Mercedes leaned heavily against me as we walked down the hill. "I can hardly wait
to get into my hammock," she mumbled. "I'm dead tired."
Afraid that someone might tamper with or perhaps even steal his moped, Efrain pulled it
up onto the sidewalk and into the hallway of the new two-story building owned by his
employer, Frida Herzog.
The Finnish woman and her children who lived in the bottom apartment watched him
resentfully. They considered the hallway their front porch.
He shrugged his shoulders apologetically, and climbed the stairs to Frida Herzog's
He had worked for the Herzogs since he was an adolescent: It was Hans Herzog who had
bought him the moped.
The years he worked for him had flown by so fast, Efrain had not even felt them.
He had liked his job as an all-around helper and delivery boy in Hans Herzog's poultry
business, but what he had enjoyed the most was his employer's gentility and his grand
sense of humor.
Efrain never had the feeling that he was working, but rather that he went to the office
every day to get a lesson in the art of good living.
Over the years he had become more like an adopted son or a disciple of Hans Herzog
than an employee.
"I thank you, Efrain," he used to tell him, "a man of my nature needs, at a certain age, an
unbiased audience; a captive ear."
Hans Herzog had immigrated from Germany before the war, not to make a fortune, but in
search of fulfillment.
He married late in life because he considered marriage and parenthood a moral necessity:
He called them the controlled strains of paradise.
When Hans Herzog had a stroke, it was Efrain who tended him day and night.
Hans Herzog could not speak anymore, but he communicated with Efrain just the same
through the intensity of his eyes.
In his last moments, he made a frantic effort to say something to Efrain; he failed. So he
shrugged his shoulders and laughed. And died.
Now, Efrain worked for the man's widow, but not in the same capacity, and certainly not
with the same pleasure.
She had sold the poultry business: It reminded her of her husband, she said; but she kept
Efrain as an employee because he was the only one who knew how to drive the moped.
Noticing that the door to Frida Herzog's apartment was ajar, he pushed it open without
knocking and stepped into the tiny hall that led to the living room.
The room, cluttered with beige upholstered furniture, was divided from the dining area by
a grand piano.
Glassed-in bookcases stood on either side of an enormous fireplace, which Frida Herzog
lit once a year on Christmas Eve.
Efrain moved back a few steps so he could see himself completely in the gilded mirror
hanging above the mantel piece.
He was in his midtwenties, yet his small wiry frame and his boyish, somehow immature,
beardless face, made him look sixteen.
With painstaking absorption he combed his curly hair, and adjusted his tie and the
cologne-scented handkerchief in his breast pocket.
Being poor was no reason to look untidy, he thought, and he glanced over his shoulder to
make sure the back of his coat was smooth and unwrinkled.
Whistling, he crossed the room and stepped out onto the wide balcony.
Potted rubber trees, orchids, ceiling-high ferns, and bird cages partially hid Frida Herzog.
Stout and solidly built, she sat at her desk, a white wrought-iron table with a heavy,
opaque glass top.
"I've been waiting for you since nine o'clock," she said by way of greeting.
The angry expression in her blue eyes was magnified by the thick, horn-rimmed glasses
posted menacingly on her prominent nose.
"What peace! What coolness one breathes in this veritable heaven!" Efrain exclaimed in a
tone of exaltation.
He knew that flattering Frida Herzog about her jungle always put her in a good mood.
"Even at noon your canaries sing like angels."
Imitating the call of the birds, he took off his coat and hung it carefully over the back of a
"Never mind the birds," she said crossly, motioning him to sit across from her. "I pay you
a salary, and I expect you to be here on time."
"I was held up by prospective clients," he said importantly.
She regarded him doubtfully, dabbing at the tiny drops of perspiration on her upper lip
and forehead with a delicately embroidered handkerchief. "Did you take any orders?"
She gave him no opportunity to answer, but pushed several of the slender white boxes on
the table toward him. "Check these," she grumbled.
Undaunted by her bad mood, he cheerfully informed her that the orders were as good as
written up and signed.
Then, almost reverently, he opened the white boxes before him and gazed in awe at the
bulky, silver-plated ballpoint pens lying luxuriously in the dark blue velvet-lined cases.
He uncapped one pen, unscrewed its top, and carefully inspected a small rectangular
piece of metal and rubber resting on a minute ink pad. It was a seal.
To lift it out, he pressed the hollow end of the pen's cap on the perfectly fitting mount
projecting from the metal plate.
He stamped the box, screwed the seal back, and capped the pen.
He did the same with the other pens: He made sure this way that the customers' names
and addresses were spelled correctly.
"How many times do I have to tell you that I want no fingerprints on the pens?" Frida
Herzog snapped, grabbing the pen from his hands. She polished it with her handkerchief
and slipped it back inside the box. "Now wrap them!"
He gave her a hostile glance, and did as she ordered.
"Do you also want me to glue the address labels on them?" he asked as soon as he
finished wrapping the last one.
"Yes. Do that." She handed him six neatly typed labels from a small, metal filing box.
"Make sure to apply the glue evenly."
"What?" Efrain retorted irritably: He had not understood a word she said. Her accent,
barely noticeable under ordinary circumstances, flared up whenever she was angry or
afraid, making it difficult to understand what she was saying.
Frida Herzog spoke slowly, enunciating each word carefully as she repeated, "Apply the
glue evenly all the way to the corners of the labels."
She looked at him sternly and added, "I want the labels to stay glued."
"If looks could kill, I would be dead," he mumbled, bringing both hands to his head in a
mock gesture of agony.
Then he smiled at her entrancingly as he cursed her under his breath.
"What did you say?" Frida Herzog asked, her accent so thick that the words came out
"I said that it won't take me any time at all to do what you want."
He loosened his blue-striped tie and the collar of his stiffly starched shirt, then reached
for the gourd-shaped glue container on the table and squeezed a small amount of glue on
Meticulously, he spread it evenly with the rubber-tipped nozzle all the way to the corners
and then pasted the labels to the small, perfectly wrapped, marked boxes containing the
"That's nicely done, Efrain." A hint of approval momentarily played upon Frida Herzog's
plump, rosy face.
She never got over being surprised at the neat way he adhered the labels exactly in the
middle of the boxes. She couldn't have done it better herself.
Encouraged by her compliment, he decided to ask about the pen she had promised him
Although he had already given up hope of ever receiving one from her, he nevertheless
reminded her at every opportunity.
Each time she had a different excuse for not honoring her promise.
"When are you going to give me a pen?" he repeated, his voice high and urgent.
Frida Herzog stared at him in silence, then shifted forward in her chair and planted her
elbows firmly on the table.
"Haven't I told you before of the difficulties I have had in convincing the manufacturer of
the pens to give me the dealership for this area? Don't you realize that to be my age," she
never said how old she was, "and to be a woman is a great handicap?"
She paused for a moment, then with a touch of pride in her tone, added, "Just because I
am doing so well selling pens doesn't mean I'm in a position to give them away."
"One pen won't break you," Efrain insisted.
"Your pen! Your pen! Is that all you ever think of?" Indignation made her voice quiver.
She thrust her face forward, only inches away from his. Her eyes didn't even blink as they
held his fixed.
Mesmerized, he just kept staring at her blue eyes in which a glimmer of madness was just
Perhaps sensing she had gone too far, she shifted her gaze away.
Slowly, her expression softened.
In a coaxing tone she went on to say that she was certain that together they could sell
thousands of pens.
They would sell them not only in town and in the surrounding hamlets but all over the
"Be patient, Efrain," she entreated, leaning even closer toward him. "When business
expands, we'll both get rich!"
She slumped back in her chair, and ran her hand affectionately over the small, gray filing
"But all I want is a pen, you crazy old idiot," Efrain mumbled despairingly.
Frida Herzog didn't hear him: Dreamily, she gazed at her bird cages, a sad, faraway look
in her eyes.
"I work very hard," Efrain said in a loud clear voice. "Not only have I been delivering
pens for you, but I've gotten nearly all your customers myself."
He ignored her attempt to interrupt him. "And you won't even give me a pen."
"I'm not saying that you haven't done well," she said peevishly. "All I'm trying to do is
make you understand that at the beginning of any business venture, sacrifices have to be
She paced about the balcony, her voice rising sharply as she continued. "Very soon I'll
not only give you a pen and a commission, but make you a partner."
She came to stand in front of him. "I'm a businesswoman. I can envision these pens in
every household all over the country. Efrain, we'll sell a pen to every literate person in
She moved away from him, and leaned over the railing. "Just look at those hills!" she
cried out. "Look at those shacks!"
With a sweep of her arm that made the wide sleeves of her housecoat flutter, she took in
the whole panorama before her.
A radiant smile parted her lips as she turned to face him. "Just think of all those shacks in
the hills. What opportunities!
"We'll sell pens to the illiterates as well. Instead of having to make an X every time they
need to sign a document, they can instead stamp their name on any paper that needs their
She clapped her hands in childish delight, then sat beside him and reached into her
"This," she declared holding up her own gold-plated pen, "is the ideal answer for
Gingerly, she unscrewed the pen, hooked the tiny seal onto the cap's hollow end, and
stamped the back of each of the boxes on the table. Proudly, she read her name and
address printed in minute, purple letters.
"There are hundreds of people living in those shacks. I just know they'll all want one of
She touched his arm. "Efrain, as of today I'll pay you a commission on every pen you sell
in those hills."
"They can't afford one," he reminded her sarcastically.
"I'll do something I've never done before," she declared bombastically. "I'll let them have
the pens on credit." With a sweeping motion, she distractedly scooped the small pen
boxes- including her gold pen- into Efrain's worn leather satchel. "You'd better go now."
A look of sheer incredulity spread across his face.
He looked up at her, wondering if she had noticed her mistake, then he nonchalantly
reached for his satchel. "I'll see you tomorrow," he said.
"You only have six pens to deliver this afternoon," she reminded him. "I'll be expecting
you back by five o'clock. These pens have already been paid for. You won't have to wait
around for the money."
"It's the middle of the day," Efrain protested. "You can't expect me to go in this heat.
"Besides, I've got to eat first. I also need money to cover my traveling expenses."
Noticing her blank expression, he clarified, "I need to get gas for the moped."
She handed him some small change. "Don't forget to ask for a receipt," she said, glaring
at him over her glasses.
He shrugged with displeasure. "Stingy idiot. This won't even fill the tank," he said and
hissed under his breath.
"What did you call me?" Frida Herzog snapped.
He bit back the insult that rose to his lips. "This isn't enough to fill the gas tank," he said,
slipping the coins in his pocket.
He took out his comb and, ignoring her disapproving expression, ran it through his unruly
"Four of the deliveries are within walking distance," she admonished. "There is no need
to run the moped around town. I've walked those distances myself and even farther. If I
can do it at my age, I would certainly expect a young man like you could do it."
Whistling softly, he adjusted his tie and put on his coat.
With a casual wave of his hand he turned and walked out into the living room.
A loud sigh escaped his lips. His eyes widened, expressing both surprise and admiration.
Sitting in one of the bulky armchairs, her bare legs hanging over the armrest, was
Antonia, Frida Herzog's only daughter.
She didn't cover her legs, but looked at him with tender concern- the way women look at
babies- and then she smiled provocatively.
She was a small, pretty woman in her midtwenties; but her worn-out, haggard expression
and the air of despair about her made her look much older.
She was gone most of the time. Much to her mother's embarrassment, Antonia took off
with men every chance she got, only returning periodically to visit. No wonder the old
woman was in such a foul mood, Efrain thought. He felt a surge of passion for Antonia
and wished he could stay and talk to her; but knowing that Frida Herzog could hear them
from the balcony, he merely puckered his lips and blew Antonia a soundless kiss before
he walked out the front door.
Frida Herzog stood motionless by the balcony railing.
She blinked repeatedly: The burning sun and the vibrant air made her eyes tear.
Heat waves billowed in the nearby foothills, transforming the multicolored shacks into a
hazy flickering collage.
Not too long ago those hills had been green.
Almost overnight, squatters had transformed them into shanty towns. Like mushrooms
after a heavy rain, the shacks had just popped up one morning, and no one had dared to
pull them down.
Her glance strayed to Efrain's noisy moped sputtering along in the street below.
She hoped that he would first call on the two secretaries at the pharmaceutical laboratory
who had been so enthusiastic about the pens. Frida Herzog was certain that once the two
girls showed off their dazzling new pens to their co-workers, orders would be coming in
Chuckling to herself, she turned and gazed across the balcony into the living room where
her daughter sat.
Frida Herzog heaved a deep sigh, and disappointedly shook her head from side to side.
There was no way to make Antonia understand that she didn't want bare legs on the
beige, raw silk-covered armchairs.
She had had such high hopes for her beautiful daughter. Antonia could have married any
number of rich men.
It was beyond Frida Herzog's comprehension why the girl had married a penniless,
unambitious salesman, who one day just walked out on her. Frida Herzog couldn't
remember whether it had been during lunch or dinner when he got up from the table and
With an air of resignation, Frida Herzog stepped into the living room, forcing her lips
into a pleasant smile.
"Really! Efrain is getting more impudent every day," she said, sitting in the armchair
opposite Antonia. "I'm afraid that if I give him a pen, he'll quit work. That's all he's
"You know what he's like," Antonia said. She didn't look up but continued to buffer her
long, well-cared-for nails. "So, all Efrain wants is a pen. What's wrong with that?"
"He should buy one!" Frida Herzog snapped spitefully.
"Really, Mother," Antonia chided. "Those silly trinkets are way too expensive.
Obviously, he can't afford one."
"Don't make me laugh," Frida Herzog snorted. "I pay him well. If he wouldn't waste his
money on clothes, he could--"
Antonia's words stopped her in midsentence. "Those pens are only a fad," she stated, "and
Efrain knows it, too. In a few months, or perhaps only weeks, people will no longer want
Frida Herzog straightened in her chair as if her spine had been pulled up. Her face was
red with anger. "Don't you dare tell me that," she yelled. "This pen will go on forever!"
"Calm down. Mother. You can't believe that," Antonia said in a conciliatory tone. "Why
do you think you're selling pens in this godforsaken place? Don't you realize it's because
no one in Caracas wants them any longer?"
"That's not true," Frida Herzog shouted. "Some day I'll have the dealership for the entire
region, maybe even for the whole country. If I were the manufacturer of the pens, I would
be trying to expand internationally. That's what I would do. Create an empire."
Antonia laughed, then turned toward the mirror above the mantel piece.
Streaks of premature gray laced her dark blond hair. There were wrinkles on either side
of her mouth. Her large blue eyes would have been beautiful had it not been for their
hard, embittered expression.
Not age, but exhaustion and despair were beginning to rob her face and body of its youth.
"Efrain has skills you haven't yet discovered," Antonia said. "No one can equal him in
finding ways to make money.
"But to think you can get rich on pens! That's a joke. Why can't you simply use him in
what he's best at?"
A contemptuous grin spread over Frida Herzog's face. "Use him at what he's best at! You
think that I don't know what you have been up to in the last few months. I might be a
little deaf, but I'm not stupid."
Seeing Antonia was about to rise, she hastily added, "You never had any class: Making
out with Efrain! You should be ashamed of yourself. He's a mulatto, or whatever! He's
Her anger spent, Frida Herzog leaned back in her armchair and closed her eyes. She
wished she could retract her words, yet when she spoke again, her voice was still
querulous. "Isn't there anything you want out of life?"
"I want to marry Efrain," Antonia said softly.
"Over my dead body!" Frida Herzog yelled. "I'll disinherit you. I'll throw you out of this
She gasped for air. "Let me tell you, I'm going to take his moped away and fire him."
But Antonia no longer heard her. She had left the living room, slamming the door behind
For a few seconds Frida Herzog gazed at that door through which her daughter had
disappeared, expecting her to return at any moment.
Her eyes felt heavy with tears that would not fall.
Silently, she headed toward her bedroom down the hall.
She sat in front of the kidney-shaped dressing table.
With trembling fingers, she took off her glasses and examined herself in the mirror. She
ought to get a new permanent, she thought, combing her fingers through her wispy gray
hair. Her eyes, encircled by dark shadows, were sunken. Her skin, once as smooth and
white as fine porcelain, had aged inexorably, eroded by the relentless tropical sun.
Tears flooded her eyes. "Oh God," she said softly. "Don't let me get ill and die in this
She heard soft steps outside; no doubt Antonia had been listening by the door. She was
too tired to worry about it.
She lay on the bed and dozed in a half-pleasant sleep, lulled by the gentle sound of a
Mozart sonata. The thought that Antonia was actually playing the grand piano filled her
with intense joy. The girl had always played so well.
It was almost four when Frida Herzog awoke. As usual after a nap, she felt refreshed and
in good spirits.
She decided to wear the polka-dot silk dress and the matching shoes Antonia had given
her for Christmas.
The sun, already halfway down the sky, filled the living room with shadows. She looked
out across the balcony at the brightly colored shacks on the distant hills. They appeared to
be so much closer in the afternoon light.
She went to the kitchen and prepared her afternoon tray: coffee, sugar, cream, and a
plateful of poppy-seed pastries.
"Antonia," she called affectionately, as she sat down in one of the armchairs. She listened
for the familiar clicking of heels on the hard tile floor before pouring the coffee.
She called again, but there was no answer. She must have gone out, Frida Herzog
decided, unfolding a white linen napkin on her lap.
It was close to five when she checked the time on her gold wristwatch.
Efrain should be back any minute now, she thought.
Perhaps he had been telling the truth and had indeed found her a new client. Although she
never voiced it, she had long ago recognized that despite his lack of ambition, he was
good at dealing with people.
Too bad she would have to let him go. She would have a hard time finding a replacement
for him, but she couldn't possibly consent to having him around when she knew Antonia's
plans for him.
The thought that her daughter might have wanted only to upset her crossed her mind. She
couldn't really believe that Antonia would marry that boy.
By six o'clock Frida Herzog was so restless that she called the two secretaries at the
laboratory and the owner of the clothing store near the plaza. The pens had not been
Dumbstruck, she stared at the telephone, then stepped out on the balcony, and with
nervous hands, she turned over every item on her desk.
"He took my pen!" she shrieked.
She headed for the front door and hurried down the stairs out into the street. She neither
saw the startled faces of the neighbors gossiping on the sidewalk nor heard their greetings
as she dashed around the corner.
Only upon reaching the foot of the hill did she stop to rest. Wishing she had put on more
comfortable shoes instead of high heels, she slowly climbed the wide dirt path leading to
She had never been to Efrain's house, but she knew more or less where it was. She had
heard about the dangers of those shanty towns where no stranger dared to go. Even the
police were reluctant to pursue criminals that chose to hide in those hills.
She was not afraid. Who would want to harm an old woman? She felt quite reassured
upon noticing that not all the dwellings were shacks. Some were made of cement blocks,
and a few were even two stories high.
She paused frequently to catch her breath, to quiet her rapidly pounding heart.
People stared at her curiously. Barefoot, half-naked children stopped their games and
giggled as she walked by.
Just before reaching the top of the hill, she turned around and gazed at the town below. A
gentle breeze cooled her flushed face.
Bathed in the mellow, diffused glow of the twilight, still vibrant with the afternoon heat,
the town had never looked more beautiful.
Overcome by an odd, undefinable premonition of doom, her eyes searched for the
silhouette of her building.
A girl's friendly voice dispelled her feelings. "Do you need any help?" she asked,
regarding her curiously. "Are you lost?"
"I'm looking for Efrain Sandoval's house," Frida Herzog responded. So absorbed had she
been in locating her building, she hadn't noticed that it was almost night. "Can you tell
me where Efrain lives?" She repeated her question several times, while the girl kept
staring at her, a blank expression on her face. It was obvious that she had not understood
a word she was saying.
"You have gone too far," an old man squatting nearby informed her politely. He was
barely outlined by the faint light escaping from the unevenly hammered boards of a
"Go down a bit and turn left onto the walkway. It's the yellow house. You can't miss it. It
looks like a canary."
There was a worried look in his eyes as he watched her unsteady steps down the hill.
"You'd better go home though," he called after her. "There are a lot of drunks around at
this time, and they get into fights."
But Frida Herzog didn't hear his warning words: They were drowned by the angry shouts
of men and the sound of hurried, thudding steps.
Before she had a chance to turn and see what was happening, she felt a sharp blow.
The ground seemed to move underneath her, and she crashed through a makeshift railing
put up to mark, rather than safeguard, a vertical drop.
For an instant, she saw in horror how the rock-covered ground below advanced to meet
her. There were voices, some loud, some soft, and then there was only silence and
Efrain awoke with a start: He had had an uncanny dream.
As he had done so many times before in his sleep, he had again talked with Hans Herzog.
His friend was urging him to take matters in his own hands and marry Antonia. Together
they should take a tour around the world.
Efrain had laughed. He told his friend that he would rather hear one of his stories about
those foreign places.
Hans Herzog had refused, saying that it was time for Efrain to see those places himself.
Although Efrain was accustomed to the vividness of his dreams of Hans Herzog, this
particular one had been so suggestive: It had left a lingering sense of reality which Efrain
could not dispel.
To this day he had doggedly refused to admit that his friend and employer was dead.
After all, he saw him and talked to him every night in his dreams.
Efrain lit the kerosene lamp on the table by his bed and opened the bottle of beer he had
put on a stool. He poured it into a tall glass and blew the foam from the rim before taking
a long gulp. He didn't mind that the beer was warm.
"To taking matters in my own hands!" he toasted, removing the gold-plated pen from his
Chuckling contentedly, he unscrewed the seal, hooked it onto the cap's hollow end, and
stamped his arm repeatedly.
A week ago he had decided to take matters in his own hands and arranged with an
engraver at a jewelry store to make him an exact replica of the seal but with his name on
Efrain had no doubt that luck had intervened in his favor.
How else could he explain this startling coincidence: The day he was to pick up the stamp
bearing his name and address, Frida Herzog, by mistake, had put her own gold-plated pen
in his satchel along with the six he was to deliver.
He poured the rest of the beer in his glass and sipped contentedly. Perhaps some
unconscious part of Frida Herzog had wanted him to have the pen. He liked to believe
An insistent knocking on his door intruded on his thoughts.
"Efrain!" someone called, the voice urgent. "An old foreign lady who was looking for
you has been knocked down by a drunk."
"Frida Herzog!" Grabbing the satchel from the table he rushed outside toward the crowd
gathered at the bottom of the hill.
"It can't be," he repeated, pushing the people aside.
She was sprawled on the ground.
He kneeled down by her. The dim light of a kerosene lamp cast a yellowish gleam on her
He tried to say something, but not a word passed his lips. All he could do was stare into
her pale blue eyes.
Without her glasses, which lay smashed beside her, her eyes looked wide, watchful,
The suggestion of a frown hovered around her lips, slightly parted to reveal her white
teeth. He felt that there was something she wanted to say.
"I've got the pens," he said reassuringly, taking the six boxes from the satchel. He held
them close to her face.
"I couldn't deliver them today," he lied, "because I got involved with filling out some
order forms for you. We have four new clients."
Her frown deepened. Her lips moved, mumbling something about his being fired from
the job and about Antonia. Her eyes grew wider, her pupils dilated, and then life ran out.
"I work for her," Efrain said to no one in particular.
"Life is so strange. Only this morning she gave me this most beautiful pen," he explained,
removing the gold-plated pen from his pocket.
With precise, careful movements he hooked the seal to the pen's cap and pressed it
against his forearm.
He read his name and address in a loud clear voice,"Efrain Sandoval. The Canary Shack.
Curmina; and I can arrange for any of you to buy one of these precious pens on credit."
It was Sunday morning, and I was sitting with dona Mercedes in the plaza, waiting for
Candelaria to come out of church. Only an hour earlier, I had had my last meeting with
On a nearby bench was a well-dressed, dignified old man, reading out loud from a
He read in a grave voice, absorbed in what seemed important to him: He never noticed
the smiles of the people around him.
Across the street, a disheveled old man came out of a bar that was already open.
He put on his hat, and clutching a bottle in a plastic sack tightly under his arm, he walked
down the street, coughing and wheezing.
With an inexplicable feeling of sadness I glanced at dona Mercedes.
She was wearing sunglasses, and I couldn't see the expression in her eyes as she looked
straight ahead of her. She folded her arms across her chest and hugged herself as if
touched by a sudden cold wind.
She listened attentively as I tried to tell her how I had understood so far all the stories I
"You are showing me the different ways to manipulate that force that Florinda calls
intent" I said.
"To make it move is not the same as to manipulate it," she corrected me, still hugging
"And I'm trying much more than that. As I said, I'm putting you temporarily under the
shadow of those people so that you can feel the wheel of chance moving.
"Without that feeling, everything you're doing will be empty. You must follow the ups
and downs of the person who is telling you his tale: For an instant you must be under his
"How about Efrain Sandoval? He certainly had nothing to do with what happened to him.
Why should I be placed under his shadow?" I asked.
"Because the wheel moved for him. He didn't move it himself, yet it's his life that
changed. I wanted you to feel that change, to feel that movement of the wheel.
"As I've already mentioned to you, a ghost, the spirit of Hans Herzog, moved it for him.
"Just as Victor Julio, at the moment of dying, moved the wheel of chance and ruined the
life of Octavio Cantu, Hans Herzog moved that wheel after he was dead and enriched the
life of Efrain Sandoval."
Dona Mercedes took off her glasses and looked straight into my face.
She opened her mouth to add something, but instead she smiled and rose from the bench.
"Mass will be over any moment now," she said. "Let's wait for Candelaria at the church
"Musiua, are you there?" Mercedes Peralta whispered, opening the door to my room
noiselessly. Outlined by the weak beam of my reading light, she was the picture of a
witch with her long black dress and her wide-brimmed felt hat that hid half of her face.
"Don't turn on the light," she said as I reached for the switch. "I can't bear the brightness
of a bulb."
She sat on my bed. Her brow was set tightly in concentration as she smoothed out the
wrinkles in my blanket.
She looked up and fixed her unblinking eyes on my face.
Self-consciously I ran my fingers over my cheeks and chin, wondering whether there was
Giggling, she turned toward the night table and began neatly stacking my small, thin
"I must go to Chuao right now," she finally said, her voice low and grave.
"Chuao?" I repeated. "At this hour?"
Seeing her emphatic nod, I added, "We'll get stuck in the mud if it rains."
Chuao was a village near the coast, at least an hour's drive from Curmina.
"It will rain," she casually admitted. "But with your jeep we won't get stuck."
She sat hunched over the night table, biting her lower lip, deliberating whether to say
more. "I have to be there tonight by midnight," she murmured in a tone that betrayed
urgency rather than desire. "I have to get some plants that will be available only tonight."
"It's past eleven," I pointed out, checking the illuminated dial of my wristwatch. "We'll
never make it by midnight."
Grinning, dona Mercedes reached for my jeans and shirt hanging at the front of the iron
bedstead. "We'll make your watch stop counting the hours."
A faint smile lit up her face; her eyes, trusting and expectant, held mine. "You'll take me,
Heavy raindrops drummed on the jeep the moment we left town. Within seconds the rain
came in a solid sheet, dense and dark.
I slowed down, unable to see, irritated by the squeaking of the wipers clearing an arc of
glass that was instantly blurred again.
The trees fringing the road waved indistinctly beside and above us, giving the impression
that we were driving through a tunnel.
Only the intermittent solitary bark of a dog indicated that we had passed another shack.
The rainstorm ended with the same abruptness with which it had begun, yet the sky
remained overcast. The clouds hung oppressively low.
I kept my eyes glued to the windshield, intent on avoiding the frogs, which, momentarily
blinded by the headlights, jumped across the road.
All at once, as if they had been erased from the sky, the clouds vanished the moment we
turned onto the road that led to the coast.
The moon shone brightly upon a flat landscape where an occasional tree swayed gently in
the breeze, its leaves shining silvery in the unreal light.
I stopped in the middle of a crossroad and got out of the jeep. The air, warm and humid,
smelled of the mountains and the sea.
"What made you stop here, Musiua?" Mercedes Peralta asked, her voice full of
bewilderment as she got out and stood beside me.
"I'm a witch," I explained, looking into her eyes.
I knew that if I'd told her that I just wanted to stretch my legs, she wouldn't believe me.
"I was born in a place like this," I went on, "somewhere between the mountains and the
Mercedes Peralta frowned at me, then a humorous, delighted twinkle shone in her eyes.
Giggling uncontrollably, she sat on the wet ground and pulled me down with her.
"Perhaps you weren't born like a normal human being; maybe a curiosa lost you on her
way across the sky," she said.
"What is a curiosa?" I asked.
She regarded me cheerfully and explained that curiosas were witches who were no longer
concerned with the obvious aspects of sorcery: symbolic paraphernalia, rituals, and
"Curiosas," she whispered, "are beings preoccupied with things of the eternal. They are
like spiders, spinning fine, invisible threads between the known and the unknown."
She took off her hat, then lay on her back, flat on the ground, with her head precisely in
the middle of the crossroad, pointing north.
"Lie down, Musiua," she urged me, stretching her arms toward the east and the west.
"Make sure the top of your head touches mine and that your arms and legs are in the
same position as mine."
It was comfortable lying head to head on the crossroad. Although separated by our hair, I
had the feeling our scalps were fused together. I turned my head sideways and to my
great amusement noticed how much longer her arms were than mine.
Seemingly aware of my discovery, dona Mercedes moved her arms closer to mine.
"If someone sees us, they'll think we're crazy," I said.
"Perhaps," she conceded. "However, if it's people who usually walk by this crossroad at
this time of the night, they will run away in fright, thinking they have seen two curiosas
ready for flight."
We were silent for a moment, but before I asked her about the curiosas' flight, she spoke
"The reason I was so interested to know why you stopped at the crossroad," she said,
"was that there are people who swear they have seen a curiosa lying naked on this very
"They say that she had wings growing out of her back and that they saw her body become
translucent white as she took off into the sky."
"I saw your body turn transparent at the seance for Efrain Sandoval," I said.
"Of course you did," she retorted with an amused casualness. "I did that just for you
because I know that you'll never be a healer. You're a medium and, perhaps, even a witch
but not a healer. I should know it, I'm a witch myself."
"What makes one a witch?" I asked in between fits of giggles. I did not want to take her
"Witches are creatures not only capable of moving the wheel of chance," she replied, "but
also capable of making their own link.
"What would you say if at this moment we took off flying, joined at our heads?"
For a second or two, I had the most terrifying apprehension.
Then, a feeling of utter indifference invaded me.
"Repeat any of the incantations the spirit of my ancestor taught you," she commanded.
"I'll say it with you."
Our voices merged into a single harmonious sound, filling the space around us,
enveloping us into a giant cocoon.
The words rose into a deep continuous line, carrying us up and up. I saw the clouds
advancing at me.
We began to turn like a wheel until everything was black.
Someone was shaking me vigorously. I woke up with an unexpected jolt.
I was sitting behind the steering wheel of my jeep. And I was driving!
I had no recollection of walking back to the car.
"Don't fall asleep," dona Mercedes said. "We'll crash and die like two fools."
I stepped on the brakes and turned off the ignition.
The thought that I had been driving asleep made me tremble with fear.
"Where are we going?" I asked. My voice sounded an octave lower.
She smiled and made a gesture of exasperation, raising her eyebrows.
"You get tired too easily, Musiua," she said. "You're too little. But, I think that's your best
feature. If you were bigger, you would be unbearable."
I insisted on knowing our destination: I meant it in terms of physical locale, so that I
could drive with a sense of direction.
"We are going to meet Leon Chirino and another friend," she informed me. "Let's go. I'll
give you directions as you drive."
I started the jeep and drove in silence. I was still drowsy.
"Is Leon Chirino a medium and a healer?" I asked shortly.
She laughed softly but did not answer.
After a long moment she asked, "What makes you think that?" .
"There's something quite inexplicable about him," I said. "He reminds me of you."
"Does he now?" she asked mockingly: Then in a sudden serious tone she admitted that
Leon Chirino was a medium and a clairvoyant.
Lost in thought, I did not hear her directions and was jolted when she yelled. "You passed
it! You've got to back up now," she admonished, pointing to a tall bucare tree.
"Pull up there!" She smiled, then added, "We have to walk from here on."
The tree marked the entrance to a narrow path. The ground was covered with small
flowers. I knew them to be red, but they appeared black in the moonlight. Bucares hardly
ever grow by themselves: Usually, they are found in groves, shading coffee and cacao
Following a narrow, overgrown trail bordered by other bucare trees, we headed toward a
cluster of hills looming darkly before us.
There were no other sounds than Mercedes Peralta's uneven breathing and the crackling
of twigs being crushed under our feet.
The path ended in front of a low house bordered by a wide clearing of hard-packed earth.
Its mud walls, plastered over a cane frame, were badly weathered. The roof was partially
covered with zinc sheets and dried palm fronds. Deep eaves extended to make a wide
porch. The front had no windows, only a narrow door through which a faint light
Dona Mercedes pushed the door open. Flickering candles cast more shadows than light in
a sparsely furnished room.
Leon Chirino, sitting on a straight-backed chair, stared at us with an expression of
surprise and delight.
Haltingly, he stood up, embraced the healer warmly, and guided her to the chair he had
He greeted me and jokingly shook my hand. "Let me introduce you to one of the greatest
healers around," he said. "Second only to dona Mercedes herself."
But before he could continue, someone cried out, "I'm Agustin."
Only then did I notice the low-hanging hammock in the corner.
A small man lay in it. His body was half-twisted, one foot touching the ground, so that he
could rock the hammock back and forth.
He didn't seem particularly young, nor was he old. He was perhaps in his thirties, yet his
hollowed cheeks and sharp bones made him look like a starved child.
The most remarkable thing about him was his eyes. They were light blue, and in his black
face they shone with a dazzling intensity.
Awkwardly, I stood in the middle of the room. There was something eerie about the
uncertain light of the candles playing with our shadows on the walls, gauzy with
The Spartan furniture- a table, three chairs, two stools, and a cot, all meticulously
arranged against the wall- imparted an unlived-in atmosphere to the room.
"Do you live here?" I asked Agustin.
"No. I don't," he said, approaching me. "This is my summer palace." Pleased with his
joke, he threw his head back and laughed.
Embarrassed, I moved toward the nearest stool and screamed as something sharp
scratched my ankle. A hideous, dirty-looking cat stared up at me.
"There is no need to yell the place down," Agustfn said and gathered the scrawny feline
in his arms.
It began to purr the instant he rubbed its head. "She likes you. Do you want to touch her?"
I shook my head emphatically. It wasn't so much the fleas and the mangy bare spots
scattered over its yellowish fur that I minded, but its piercing yellow-green slitted eyes
that never left my face.
"We better go if we want to get the plants in time," Leon Chirino said, helping dona
Mercedes to her feet.
He unhooked the oil lamp hanging from a nail behind the door, lit it, and then signaled us
to follow him.
A low-arched doorway covered by a plastic curtain led into a back room that served as a
kitchen and storage area.
One side of the room opened to a large plot filled with short, stubby trees and tall shrubs.
In the faint light of the lantern, it looked like an abandoned fruit orchard.
We squeezed through a gap in the seemingly impenetrable wall of bushes and found
ourselves in a desolate landscape.
The hillside, with its recently burned underbrush and charred stumps, looked
frighteningly grotesque in the moonlight.
Without a sound, Leon Chirino and Agustin vanished.
"Where did they go?" I whispered to dona Mercedes.
"They went ahead," she said vaguely, pointing into the darkness.
Shadows, animated by the oil lamp she carried, zigzagged beside and ahead of us on the
narrow path leading into the thicket.
I saw a light in the distance, gleaming through the bushes. Like a glowworm, it appeared
and disappeared in quick succession.
As we came closer to it, I felt sure I could hear a monotonous chant mingling with the
distinct sound of buzzing insects and of leaves stirring in the breeze.
Mercedes Peralta turned off the oil lamp. But before the last glimmer died out, I saw her
billowing skirt settle near a crumbling low wall, about twelve feet from where I stood.
A glowing cigar illuminated her features. A diaphanous, shimmering radiance escaped
through the top of her head.
I called out her name, but there was no answer.
Fascinated, I watched a misty cloud of cigar smoke hover directly above me in a circle. It
didn't disperse the way smoke would, but stayed fixed in midair for a long moment.
Something brushed my cheek. Automatically, I brought my hand to my face and then in
utter astonishment gazed at my fingertips; they were phosphorescent.
Frightened, I ran toward the low wall where I had seen dona Mercedes sit down. I had
barely moved a few steps, when I was intercepted by Leon Chirino and Agustin.
"Where are you going, Musiua?" Leon Chirino asked mockingly.
"I have to help dona Mercedes collect her plants."
My response seemed to amuse them. They chuckled.
Leon Chirino patted me on the head, and Agustin daringly grabbed my thumb and
squeezed it as if it were a rubber pump.
"We have to wait here patiently," Agustin said. "I've just pumped patience inside you
through your thumb."
"She brought me here to help her," I insisted.
"Sure," he said reassuringly. "You have to help her but not with her plants."
Taking my arm, he guided me toward a fallen tree trunk. "Let's wait for dona Mercedes
Leaves hung from Mercedes Peralta's forehead, silvery green and shining.
Quietly, she fastened the oil lamp on a branch, then squatted on the ground and
proceeded to sort the plants she had collected into separate piles.
Verbena roots were prescribed for menstrual pains. Valerian roots soaked in rum were an
ideal remedy for nervousness, irritability, anxiety, and nightmares. Torco roots, soaked in
rum, cured anemia and yellow fever. Guaritoto roots, basically a male remedy, were
prescribed for bladder difficulties. Rosemary and rue were used mainly as disinfectants.
Malva leaves were applied on skin rashes, and Artemisia boiled in sugarcane juice eased
menstrual pains, killed parasites, and reduced fevers. Zabila cured asthma.
"But you grow all these plants in your yard," I said puzzled. "Why did you come here to
Agustin grinned gleefully. "Let me tell you something, Musiua," he whispered, bringing
his head close to mine. "These plants have grown out of corpses."
He made a sweeping gesture with his hand. "We are in the middle of a cemetery."
Alarmed, I looked around. There were neither tombstones nor mounds to indicate that we
were in a graveyard, but I hadn't seen any tombstones in the other cemetery either.
"Our ancestors are buried here," Agustm said and crossed himself. "On nights like this,
when a full moon alters the distance of graves and paints white shadows at the foot of
trees, one can hear a pitiful moaning and the rattling of chains.
"Men carrying their cutoff heads wander about. They are the ghosts of slaves who, after
having dug a deep hole to bury their masters' treasures, were decapitated and interred
with the gold.
"But there is no need to be frightened," Agustin hastened to add. "All they want is a bit of
rum. If you give them some, they will tell you where the treasures are buried.
"There are also ghosts of friars who died blaspheming and now want to confess their sins,
but there is no one to hear them.
"And there are the ghosts of pirates who came all the way to Chuao in search of the
He chuckled, then added in a confidential tone, "There are also the lonely ghosts, who
whistle at passersby. These are the simplest of them all. They don't ask for much. All
these lonely ghosts want is for someone to say an Our Father for them."
Mercedes Peralta, a root poised in one hand, slowly lifted her head.
Her dark eyes held mine in their gaze. "Agustin has an inexhaustible supply of stories,"
she said. "Each tale he garnishes to the limit."
Agustin rose. The way he stretched his body and limbs gave the impression that he was
He plopped down in front of dona Mercedes and buried his head in her lap.
"We better get going," she said, stroking his head tenderly. "I'm sending the musiua to
your place in a few days."
"But I treat only children," Agustin stammered, looking up at me with a sad, apologetic
"She doesn't need a healing." Dona Mercedes laughed. "All she wants is to watch you and
to hear your stories."
I sat up with a jolt: Something had plopped down on my bed by my feet with a forceful
The dog sleeping nearby raised its head, pricked its ears, but hearing nothing other than
my mumbled imprecations, put its muzzle back on its forepaws.
For a moment, I was totally disoriented as to where I was, but when I heard dona
Mercedes' soft, yet persistent murmur, I realized I was in the house of Leon Chirino's
brother, in a small town an hour's drive from Curmina.
I was on the cot they had set up for me in the kitchen. I had driven Leon Chirino and
dona Mercedes there in the middle of the night, for they had to conduct a private seance
for his brother.
Closing my eyes, I settled back on the lumpy pillow and abandoned myself to the
comforting sound of the healer's voice. I felt the sound wrap itself around me. I was
definitely falling asleep when another thumping noise woke me up again.
The musty blanket I was covered with was all bunched up around my neck.
I half rose to straighten it out and screamed upon seeing Agustin's cat perched on my
"Why do you always shriek when you see my pet?" His voice coming from the darkness
was full of gentle mockery. Agustin, sitting cross-legged at the foot of my cot, reached
for his cat.
"I've come to protect you from the dog," he explained, his dazzling blue eyes fixed on my
face. "Dogs don't really sleep at night. If you open your eyes in the darkness you can see
how a dog watches you all night long. That's why they are called watchdogs." He laughed
at his own joke.
I opened my mouth to speak to him, but no sound crossed my lips. I reached out, but
Agustin and the cat wavered indistinctly before my eyes until they finally faded away.
Perhaps they are all outside, I thought, and stepped into the yard, still shrouded by the
shadows of dawn. There was no one about.
I looked at my wristwatch. Only two hours had passed since dona Mercedes, Leon
Chirino, and I had arrived.
Realizing that I had had far too little sleep, I went back to my cot, pulled the blanket over
my head, and dozed off.
I awoke to the sound of voices and music and the scent of coffee.
Leon Chirino, bent over the kerosene stove, was listening to the radio as he strained
freshly made coffee through a flannel sieve.
"Did you have a good sleep?" he asked, motioning me to sit down by him.
I joined him at a big, square table covered with brand-new oilcloth. He half filled two
cups with coffee and added to each a generous amount of cane liquor.
"For strength," he said, pushing the steaming porcelain cup toward me.
Afraid to get drunk, I took a few hesitant sips. The cup had golden edges and painted
roses on its surface.
He replenished his own cup with more coffee and cane liquor.
"Dona Mercedes says that you're clairvoyant," I said. "Can you tell me what fate has in
store for me?" I hoped that my abrupt question would elicit a candid response.
"My dear," he said in that charming forbearance older people show when addressing
someone much younger. "I'm an old friend of dona Mercedes.
"I live with her ghosts and her memories. I share her solitude." He spat through his teeth,
then taking two cigarettes from the pack on the table, he put one behind each ear.
"You'd better go and see Agustin," he advised. "He starts early. Let me show you the way
"You really haven't answered my question," I said undaunted by his eagerness to get me
out of the house.
A sardonic, bemused expression appeared on his face. "I can't tell you what's in store for
you," he affirmed.
"Clairvoyants have glimpses of things they don't understand and then make up the rest."
He took my arm and practically pulled me outside. "Let me show you the way to
Agustin's house," he repeated.
He pointed to a trail winding down the hill. "If you follow this path, you'll reach town.
Anyone there will tell you where Agustin lives."
"What about dona Mercedes?" I asked.
"We'll come and get you in the evening," he replied, then bent toward me and in a
conspiratorial whisper he added, "Dona Mercedes and I will be busy the whole day with
my brother's business."
The twittering of bluebirds in the trees and the fragrance of the ripe mangoes,
shimmering amid the dark foliage like clumps of gold, filled the air.
A well-trodden path winding down the slope ran into a wide dirt-packed street and
branched off again into the hills at the other end of the hot, sunlit town.
Women sweeping the cement sidewalks in front of their brightly painted houses paused
for an instant to return my greeting as I walked by.
"Can you tell me where the healer Agustin lives?" I asked one of the women.
"I sure can," she replied, resting her chin on her hands cupped over the end of the broom
handle. In a loud voice- no doubt for the benefit of her curious neighbors- she directed
me to the green stucco house at the very end of the street. "It's the one with the big
antenna on the roof. You can't miss it."
She lowered her voice to a murmur and in a confidential tone assured me that Agustin
could cure anything from insomnia to snakebites. Even cancer and leprosy were not too
much for him. His young patients always got well.
I knocked repeatedly on Agustin's front door, but there was no answer.
"Just walk right in," a young girl shouted, leaning out a window across the street.
"Agustin can't hear you. He's way in the back."
Following her advice, I stepped through the front door that opened into the inside patio. I
peeked into each of the three rooms I passed, which also opened onto the patio.
Except for a hammock in each of them, the first two rooms were empty.
The third one was the living room. Calendars and magazine pictures decorated the walls.
A row of straight-backed chairs and a plastic-covered couch faced an enormous television
Farther back was the kitchen. Beyond the kitchen through an alcove was yet another
room. I saw Agustin there, seated at a large table.
As I approached, he rose smiling and stood scratching his head, his other hand thrust
deep into the pocket of his worn khaki pants. His white shirt had patches, and the cutoff
sleeves were frayed at the unhemmed cuffs.
"This is my working room!" he exclaimed proudly, extending his arm about in a circle.
"I've got everything in here. And I'm about to open. My patients come through the side
door. That door brings both of us luck."
The room, well lit and ventilated by two windows facing the hills, smelled of
There were rows of unvarnished, unpainted shelves on all the walls. On the shelves,
neatly arranged and all properly labeled, stood various-sized flasks, bottles, jars, and
boxes filled with dried roots, bark, leaves, and flowers. These items were not only
identified by their common names but also by their scientific Latin nomenclature.
The table was hand carved and faced the open windows. Bottles, bowls, pestles, books,
and two scales were lined up on the highly polished surface.
A cot and the three-foot-tall crucifix hanging in a corner with its votive candle burning on
a triangular ledge beneath it indeed confirmed that I had stepped into the working room
of a healer, not an old-fashioned apothecary.
Without much ado, Agustin brought in another chair from the kitchen and invited me to
observe him at work.
He opened the lucky side door he had pointed out earlier. There were three women and
four children in the adjacent room.
The hours passed swiftly. He treated each patient by first examining a jar filled with the
child's urine that had been brought in by the mother. Prompted by each woman's account
of her child's symptoms, Agustin proceeded to "read the waters."
The odor, the color, and the kind of microbes, or filaments, as he preferred to call them
and which he claimed to see with the naked eye, were all carefully considered before he
arrived at a diagnosis.
Fevers, colds, indigestion, parasites, asthma, rashes, allergies, anemia, and even measles
and smallpox were among the most prevalent illnesses Agustin claimed to recognize after
a thorough "reading of the waters."
In respectful silence, each woman waited for Agustin to invoke the help of Christ before
he prescribed the appropriate medication.
He mixed his own herbal concoctions. Being familiar with, and a believer in, modern
pharmacopoeia, Agustin was inclined to supplement his own remedies with milk of
magnesia, antibiotics, aspirins, and vitamins, which he had repacked and rebottled in his
Like Mercedes Peralta, he charged no set fee but left it to the judgment of his clients:
That is, they paid whatever they could afford.
Our late lunch of chicken and pork empanadas, brought to us by a woman in the
neighborhood, came to an abrupt end when a man carrying a small boy walked into the
kitchen. The child, perhaps six or seven years old, had cut the calf of his leg while
playing in the field with his father's machete.
In his calm, sure manner, Agustin carried the child to the cot in his working room and
undid the makeshift, blood-soaked bandage. First he bathed the deep gash with rosemary
water, and then with peroxide.
It was hard to tell whether the child was being hypnotized by Agustin's soothing touch, as
he massaged the anxious little face, or by his soft voice, as he recited an incantation, but
in a matter of moments, the boy was asleep.
And then Agustin began the most important part of his treatment. To stop the bleeding,
he applied to the wound a poultice of leaves that had been soaked in clear, sugarcane
Then he prepared a paste that, he claimed, would heal the wound in less than ten days and
leave no scar.
Invoking the guidance of Christ, Agustin sprinkled a few drops of a milky substance on
an abalone shell. With slow, rhythmic motions he began to grind the shell with a broad
wooden pestle. A half hour elapsed before he had little less than a half teaspoon of a
greenish, musky-smelling substance.
He examined the cut once more, pressed the wound closed with his fingers, and carefully
spread the paste over the gash. Mumbling a prayer, he expertly bandaged the leg with
strips of white cloth.
A satisfied smile lit his face as he handed the sleeping boy into the father's arms and told
him to bring him every other day to change the dressing.
Late in the afternoon, certain that there would be no more patients that day, Agustin gave
me a tour of his yard.
His medicinal plants grew in neat rows and square patches, arranged as carefully as the
jars and bottles were on the table and shelves in his working room.
At the far end of the yard, leaning against a tool shed, stood an old kerosene refrigerator.
"Don't open it!" Agustin cried out, holding my arm in a firm grip.
"How could I?" I protested. "It's padlocked. What secrets do you keep in there?"
"My witchcraft," he whispered. "You do know that I practice witchcraft, don't you?"
His tone was mocking, but his face was somber when he added, "I'm a specialist in
healing children and bewitching adults."
"Do you really practice witchcraft?" I asked incredulously.
"Don't be obtuse, Musiua," Agustin chided.
He paused for a moment, then in an emphatic tone, added, "Dona Mercedes must have
told you that the other side of healing is bewitching. They go together because one is
useless without the other. I heal children. I bewitch adults," he repeated, knocking on the
top of the refrigerator. "I'm very good at both.
"Dona Mercedes says that one day I will bewitch the same ones I healed when they were
children." He smiled at my startled face. "I don't think I will. But only time will tell."
Taking advantage of his expansive mood, I finally told him what had been on my mind
the whole day. That I had seen and talked to him when I was in a dreamlike state.
Agustin listened attentively, but his gaze betrayed nothing.
"I can't quite define what it was," I said, "but it wasn't a dream!" Exasperated by his
unwillingness to comment or to explain, I urged him to say something.
"I like you so much that I wanted to know if you're really a medium," he said, smiling.
"Now I know you are."
"I think you're humoring me," I said, even more exasperated.
Agustin's eyebrows raised in arcs of astonishment. "It must be horrible to have big feet."
"Big feet?" I stammered uncomprehendingly, looking down at my sandals. "My feet are
in perfect proportion to my size."
"They should be smaller," Agustin insisted, putting his fingers to his lips as though to
suppress a smile. "Your feet are too large.
"That's why you live in perpetual reality. That's why you want everything explained."
There was mockery in his voice, mixed with a tinge of compassion that did nothing to
"Witchcraft follows rules that cannot be empirically demonstrated or repeated, unlike
other laws of nature. Witchcraft is precisely the act of persuading reason to rise above
itself or, if you wish, to move below itself." He chuckled and gave me a push.
I stumbled over my feet, and he quickly grabbed my arm to keep me from falling.
"Do you see now that your feet are too big?" Agustin asked and then laughed.
I wondered if he was trying to hypnotize me, for he gazed at me without blinking. I was
held captive by his eyes. Like two drops of water, they seemed to spread wider and
wider, blurring everything around me. All I was aware of was his voice.
"A sorcerer chooses to be different from what he was raised to be," he continued. "He has
to understand that witchcraft is a lifelong task.
"A sorcerer, through witchcraft, weaves patterns like webs; patterns that transmit invoked
powers to some superior mystery.
Human actions have an endless, spreading network of results; he accepts and reinterprets
these results in a magical way."
He brought his face even closer to mine and lowered his voice to a soft whisper. "A
sorcerer's hold on reality is absolute. His grip is so powerful, he can bend reality every
which way in the service of his art. But he never forgets what reality is or was."
Without another word he turned and walked toward the living room.
Swiftly, I followed after him.
He plopped down on the sofa and crossed his legs the way I had seen him do on my cot.
Smiling up at me, he patted the place beside him. "Let's have some real witchcraft," he
said, switching on the remote control of the enormous TV set.
There was no time to ask any more questions. In the next instant, we were surrounded by
a group of giggling children from the neighborhood.
"Each evening they come here to watch TV with me for an hour or so," Agustin
explained. "Later on, you and I will have time to talk."
After that initial meeting, I became Agustin's unbiased admirer. Attracted not only by his
healing skills but by his haunting personality, I practically moved into one of the empty
rooms of his house.
He wove countless stories for me, including the one Mercedes Peralta wanted me to hear.
Startled by a faint moan, Agustin opened his eyes.
In a shaft of light, a spider suspended on invisible thread dropped from the crumbling
cane ceiling all the way to the ground where Agustin lay curled up like a cat.
He reached toward the spider, crushed it between his fingers, and ate it. Sighing, he drew
his knees even closer to his chest as he felt the cold of dawn seep through the cracks of
the weather-beaten mud walls.
Agustin couldn't remember whether days or weeks had passed since his mother brought
him to this dilapidated, abandoned hut, where bats hung from the ceiling like unlit bulbs
and cockroaches swarmed around in daylight and in darkness.
All he knew was that he had been hungry ever since; that the slugs, spiders, and
grasshoppers he caught never stilled the gnawing pain in his swollen belly.
Agustin heard the faint moan again. It came from the shadowy corner at the far end of the
He saw an apparition of his mother sitting on the mattress, her mouth slightly open as she
rubbed her naked belly. She was riding the mattress as though she were on a donkey, her
naked shadow moving up and down on the soot-stained wall.
Only a few hours before, he had seen his mother struggling with a man. He had seen her
thin legs, like black snakes, wrapped tightly around the man's torso, squeezing the breath
out of him. And when he heard his mother's piercing scream, followed by a silence that
had lasted for the rest of the night, he knew that the man had won the struggle. He had
Agustin's tired eyes closed with pleasure at the thought that he was now an orphan. He
was safe. They would take him at the mission.
Half-conscious of his mother's ghostly sighs, giggles, and whispers whirling about the
room, he dozed off again.
A loud groan shattered the morning stillness. Agustin opened his eyes and pressed his fist
against his lips to stifle a scream as he saw the same man from the night before sit up on
Agustin didn't know the man, yet he was sure he was from Ipairi. Agustin vaguely
remembered seeing him talking to his mother in the plaza.
Had the women from the small hamlet in the hills sent the man to take Agustin back? To
perhaps kill him? It couldn't be. He must be having a vivid horrible dream.
The man cleared his throat and spat on the ground. His voice filled the room. "I'll take
you away today. But I can't take the boy. Why didn't you leave him with the Protestants?
You know that they have a place for children: Even if they won't take him, they'll feed
When Agustin heard his mother's harsh reply he knew that he was wide awake: He knew
that she was not a ghost.
"The Protestants won't take any children unless they are orphaned," his mother said.
"There was nothing else I could do but bring the boy to this abandoned shack. I'm waiting
for him to die."
"I know of a woman who'll take him," the man said. "She'll know what to do with him.
She's a witch."
"It's too late now," his mother said. "I wish I had given Agustin to a witch when he was
"Ever since he was a baby, a witch in Ipairi wanted him. She used to feed him strange
potions and hang amulets around his wrists and neck, allegedly to guard him from
calamities and disease.
"I know she cast a spell on the boy. That witch is responsible for all my misfortune."
His mother was silent for a moment; then in a strangled whisper, as though she were
under attack by an unseen enemy, she added, "I'm terrified of witches. If I went to one
now, she'd know that I haven't been feeding the boy. She'd kill me."
Tears rolled down Agustin's cheeks as he remembered the days in Ipairi when his mother
used to cradle him in her arms. She would smother him with kisses and tell him that his
eyes were like pieces of the sky.
But when the women in the neighboring shacks forbade their children to play with him,
his mother became a different person. She no longer touched or kissed him. Finally, she
ceased speaking to him altogether.
One afternoon, a woman carrying a dead child in her arms burst into their shack. "Blue
eyes in a black face," she screamed at Agustin's mother, "that's the work of the devil.
That's the devil himself. He killed my baby with the evil eye. If you don't get rid of that
boy, I will."
That same night, his mother fled with him to the hills. Agustin was certain that it was that
woman who had cast a spell on his mother so she would hate him.
The man's loud voice cut into Agustin's reveries.
"You don't have to take him to the witch yourself. I can leave word with her to pick the
kid up tonight.
"We'll be gone by then. I'll take you far away from here, where no witch will ever find
you," the man promised.
His mother remained silent for a long time; then she flung her head back and laughed
She rose from the mattress and wrapped the dirty blanket tightly around her body.
Stepping around the broken table and the few crates scattered about, she made her way
across the room.
"Look at him," she hissed, jerking her chin toward the comer where Agustfn lay curled
up, pretending to be asleep. "He's only six years old, yet he looks like an evil old man.
"His hair has fallen out. His body is covered with scabs. His stomach is swollen with
parasites. Yet, he survives.
"He has no clothes. He sleeps without a blanket. Yet, he doesn't even catch cold."
She turned toward the man on the mattress. "Can't you see that he is indeed the devil?
The devil will find me wherever I go."
His mother's eyes shone feverishly bright under her disheveled hair. "The thought of
having suckled the devil at my own breast fills me with fear and revulsion."
She reached up to a niche in the wall where she had hidden the corncakes the man had
brought her last night. She gave one to the man, and nibbling on the other one, she
lowered herself beside him on the mattress.
In a monotonous, trancelike tone she recounted that Agustfn was a changeling.
"One of the nurses at the hospital changed my own baby for the devil," she continued, her
tone suddenly vehement.
"Everyone knew that I was going to have a girl. My pregnant belly was broad instead of
pointed. My hair began to fall out. Blotches and blemishes appeared on my skin. My legs
swelled. Those are the symptoms of carrying a girl.
"At first, even though I knew he was a changeling, I couldn't help but love him. He was
so beautiful and so clever. He never cried. He spoke before he walked, and he sang like
"I refused to believe any of the women in Ipairi who accused Agustin of having the evil
eye. Even after my stillborn pregnancy I didn't pay any attention to the neighbors'
"I just thought they were ignorant, and worst of all, envious of the boy's beautiful eyes.
After all, who ever heard of a child having the evil eye?"
She scraped out the white, soft center of the corncake and flung the dry crust across the
room. "But when my man died in an accident at the mill, I had to agree with the women."
She covered her face with her hands, and quietly added, "Agustin has never been ill in his
life. I should have left him to his fate in Ipairi. Then his death would not be on my
"Let me get word to the woman I've been telling you about," the man said, his voice soft,
yet persuasive. "I know she'll take him."
At great length he explained about his job at the pharmaceutical laboratory. He worked in
the storeroom and was on very good terms with his boss. He foresaw no difficulties in
convincing the man of his need for an advance.
"With the money, the two of us can go to Caracas," he said. He rose and dressed. "Wait
for me at the laboratory. I'll be out by five. I'll have everything arranged by then."
Agustin reached for the dry crust on the ground. On unsteady legs, he walked toward the
narrow, back doorway, which no longer had a door, and stepped out into what had once
been a yard.
He headed toward his favorite place, the gnarled, no-longer-blooming acacia tree
overhanging the ravine. He sat on the ground, his legs extended in front of him, his naked
back resting against a portion of the crumbling low wall that had once encircled the
The scrawny, sickly looking cat that had followed him all the way from Ipairi rubbed its
coarse fur against his thigh. Agustin gave it a small piece of the crust, then pushed the cat
away toward the lizards scuttling in and out of the crevices in the mud wall.
He would not part with another crumb. He was never capable of satisfying his own
relentless hunger; a hunger that filled his days and nights with dreams of food. With a
sigh on his lips he dozed off.
Startled by a gust of wind, he woke up. Dead leaves swirled in a circle around him. The
leaves rose high up in the air and then descended in brown rustling whirlpools into the
He could hear the murmuring stream below. When it rained the shallow water grew into a
seething river, sweeping along trees and dead animals from the hamlets in the mountains.
Agustin turned his head slightly and gazed at the silent hills around him. Thin columns of
smoke drifted up into the sky, melting with the moving clouds. Could the Protestant
mission be that close? he asked himself. Or perhaps the smoke was from the house of the
woman who wasn't afraid to take him.
He rested his cheek on his small bony hand. Flies buzzed around his open mouth. He
pressed his parched lips together, spread his legs, and urinated. He was hungry. He could
feel the pain inside him as he again fell asleep.
The sun was high when Agustin awoke. The cat was nearby, devouring a large lizard. He
crawled toward the feline. It snarled viciously, holding the half-eaten reptile tightly under
its paw. Agustin kicked the cat in the stomach, then reached for the slippery entrails and
swallowed them. He looked up and found his mother watching him from the doorway.
"Holy Virgin!" she exclaimed. "He isn't human." She crossed herself. "It won't be long
before he poisons himself."
Again she made the sign of the cross and, folding her hands in prayer, murmured, "Holy
Father. Get him out of my way. Make him die a natural death, so I won't have him on my
She went inside, lifted the mattress, and pulled out her only dress. She caressed it and
lovingly pressed the wrinkled dress against her body, then shook it repeatedly and laid it
out on the mattress with great care.
Curiously, Agustin watched her light a fire in the cooking pit. Humming a little tune, she
retrieved the coffee and the pieces of sugar loaf she kept in a crate nailed high up on the
Agustin wanted a piece of that sugar. He tried to stand up, but overcome by nausea he
crouched with his elbows against the ground and vomited unchewed pieces of lizard.
Salty tears dribbled down his sunken cheeks. He gagged repeatedly, foam and bile
spurting from his trembling lips.
He wiped his mouth and chin on his shoulders. With a painful moan he tried to straighten
up but slumped forward on the ground.
The sound of the murmuring ravine engulfed him like a soft veil. When the smell of
coffee filtered through his nostrils and he heard his mother say that she had made him
sweet coffee, he knew that he was dreaming. His dry lips grimaced.
He wanted to smile when he heard her laugh; that high, abrupt, happy laughter he used to
know so well. He wondered if she would put on her red dress and meet the man at the
Agustin opened his eyes. On the ground next to him stood a small tin filled with coffee.
Afraid the vision would vanish, he reached out and lifted the can to his mouth. Indifferent
to the burning pain on his lips and tongue, he sipped the strong, very sweet brew. It
cleared his head and stopped his nausea.
Dreamily, Agustin gazed at the slanted rain lines in the distance. Within moments dark
clouds, edged with gold, floated across the sky. The clouds stained the hills with purple
shadows and turned the sky a smoky black.
A cold wind, followed by a deafening roar, rose from the bottom of the ravine. The
rainwater from the distant hills gushed down the deep gorge with outrageous force.
Within moments large heavy drops burst from the sky.
Agustin rose, tilted his face skyward, and, with arms outstretched, welcomed the soothing
coolness that washed him clean. Driven by an inexplicable impulse, he went into the
house and picked up the dress on the mattress.
Clutching it with trembling hands, he hurried outside to the very edge of the ravine and
threw the garment into the wind. It flew like a kite, landing on a leafless branch of the old
acacia tree overhanging the steep slope.
"You devil! You monster!" his mother screamed, rushing toward him, her hair tumbling
wildly about her face, her arms extended. As if transfixed by the sound of the roaring
water, she just stood there between the boy and the fluttering dress, her eyes filled with
hatred, unable to say a word.
Then, holding on to weeds and exposed roots, she carefully eased herself toward the
overhanging branch of the acacia tree.
Agustin watched her from behind the gnarled trunk with fascinated interest. Her feet
moved with unerring agility on the steep slippery ground.
She will get the dress by any means, he thought. He felt anger and fear.
She was only a few inches away from it. She stretched her arm as far as she could. She
touched the dress with the tip of her fingers and then lost her footing and tumbled over
Her horror-stricken scream mingled with the sound of the roaring water was carried away
by the wind.
Agustin moved closer to the edge. His eyes shone with a hollow depth as he saw his
mother's body spin helplessly in the thick brown water on its journey to the sea.
The storm died away. The rain ceased. The wind dropped: All but the turbulent water in
the ravine regained its habitual murmuring calm.
Agustin walked into the house, lay down on the mattress, and covered himself with the
thin, dirty blanket. He felt the coarse, wet fur of the cat seeking the warmth of his body.
He pulled the blanket over his eyes and fell into a deep dreamless sleep.
It was night when he awoke. Through the open doorway he could see the moon entangled
in the barren branches of the acacia tree. "We'll go now," he murmured, stroking the cat.
He felt strong. It would be easy to walk across the hills, he decided. With each other as
companions, he had the vague certainty that he and the cat would find the Protestant
mission or the house of the woman who was not afraid to take him.
Mercedes Peralta came rushing into my room, sat on my bed, and shifted about until she
was comfortably settled.
"Unpack your gear," she said. "You can't go to see Agustin anymore. He's left for his
yearly trip to remote areas in the country."
She spoke with such certainty that I had the feeling she had just finished talking to him
over the telephone; but I knew there wasn't one in the neighborhood.
Candelaria came at that moment into the room holding a tray with my favorite dessert:
guava jelly and a few slices of white cheese.
"I know it's not the same as sitting spiritually with Agustin in front of a TV set," she
remarked, "but I'm all you have for the moment." She placed the tray on the night table
and sat down on the bed opposite from dona Mercedes.
Dona Mercedes laughed and urged me to eat my treat. She said that Agustin was known
in distant, godforsaken towns and visited them yearly. At great length she talked about
his gift for healing children.
"When will he be back?" I asked. The thought that I might not see him again filled me
with indescribable sadness.
"There's no way to know," dona Mercedes said. "Six months, perhaps even longer. He
does this because he feels he has a great debt to pay."
"Whom does he owe?"
She looked at Candelaria, then both of them looked at me as though I ought to have
"Witches understand debts of this kind in a most peculiar manner," dona Mercedes finally
said. "Healers pray to the saints, and to the Virgin, and to our Lord Jesus Christ.
"Witches pray to power: They entice it with their incantations." She rose from the bed
and paced about the room.
Softly, as though she were talking to herself, she continued to say that although Agustin
prayed to the saints, he owed something to a higher order; an order that was not human.
Dona Mercedes was silent for a few moments, looking at me but allowing no expression
to be read on her face.
"Agustin has known about that higher order all his life, even as a child," she continued.
"Did he ever tell you that the same man who was going to take his mother away found
Agustin on a pitch-black night, in the rain, already half-dead, and brought him to me?"
Dona Mercedes did not wait for my response but quickly added, "To be in harmony with
that higher order has always been the secret of Agustin's success. He does it through his
healing and bewitching."
Again she paused for a moment, looking up at the ceiling. "That higher order made
Agustin and Candelaria a gift," she continued, lowering her gaze toward me. "It helped
them from the moment they were born.
"Candelaria pays part of her debt by being my servant. She is the best servant there is."
Dona Mercedes moved toward the door, and before stepping outside, she turned to face
Candelaria and me, a dazzling smile on her face. "I think that in some measure you, too,
owe a great deal to that higher order," she said. "So try by all means to pay back the debt
Not a word was said for a long time. The two women looked at me with a sense of
expectancy. It occurred to me that they were waiting for me to make the obvious
connection- obvious to them: Just as Candelaria was a born witch, Agustin was a born
Dona Mercedes and Candelaria listened to me with beaming smiles.
"Agustin is capable of making his own links," dona Mercedes explained. "He has a direct
connection to that higher order which is the wheel of chance itself; and the witch's
shadow as well, or whatever it is that makes that wheel move."
Sharing the faint light of the bulb above us, Candelaria and I sat across from each other at
the kitchen table. She was studying the glossy pictures in the magazine I had bought for
her; I was transcribing my tapes.
"Did you hear a knock at the front door?" I asked, pulling the earphone from my ear.
Totally oblivious to my words, she pointed to the picture of a blond model. "I can't decide
which girl I like better," she mused. "If I cut out this one, I'll lose the one on the other
side of the page, the brunette walking down the street with a tiger on a leash."
"I would save the one with the tiger," I suggested. "There will be more blond models in
the magazine." I touched her arm. "Listen, someone's at the door."
It took Candelaria a moment to draw herself away from the magazine and another
moment to realize that indeed there was someone knocking.
"Who could it possibly be at this late hour?" she mumbled indifferently, as she shifted her
attention back to the glossy pages.
"Perhaps it's a patient." I glanced at my watch. It was almost midnight.
"Oh no, my dear," Candelaria said calmly and looked up. "No one ever comes at this
hour. People know that dona Mercedes doesn't treat anyone this late unless it's an
Before I had a chance to say that it probably was an emergency there was another, this
time more insistent, knock.
I hurried to the front of the house.
For a moment I hesitated outside the healing room, deliberating whether I should let
Mercedes Peralta know that there was someone at the door.
For three days Mercedes Peralta had been in that room. Day and night she had lit candles
on the altar, smoked cigar after cigar, and, with a rapturous expression on her face, had
recited unintelligible incantations until the walls vibrated with the sound.
Mercedes Peralta had never answered any of my questions, yet, she seemed to welcome
my interruptions when I brought her food or insisted she rest for a few hours.
Another knock sent me hurrying to the front door, which Candelaria always bolted as
soon as it got dark; an unnecessary precaution, for anyone wanting to come inside could
have done so through the open kitchen.
"Who is it?" I asked before unlatching the iron bolt.
"Gente de paz, peaceful folk," a man's voice answered.
Amazed to hear someone with a faint foreign accent reply in the archaic convention
dating from the days of the Spanish Conquest, I automatically responded in the required
manner, "Hail the Virgin Mary," and opened the door.
The tall, white-haired man leaning against the wall regarded me with such a baffled
expression on his face, I burst into laughter.
"Is this Mercedes Peralta's house?" he asked in a halting voice.
I nodded, studying his face. It was not so much that it was wrinkled but rather eroded,
ravaged as though by grief or pain. His watery blue eyes were sunken in wide circles of
age and weariness.
"Is Mercedes Peralta in?" he asked, looking past me into the dimly lit hallway.
"She is," I replied. "But she doesn't see people this late."
"I've been walking around town for hours, pondering whether I should come," he said. "I
need to see her. I'm an old friend or an old enemy."
Shaken by the anguish and despair in the man's voice, I invited him inside.
"She's in her working room," I said. "I'd better let her know that you've come to see her."
I stepped ahead of him and smiled encouragingly. "What is your name?"
"Don't announce me," the man begged, gripping my arm. "Let me go in by myself. I
know the way."
Stiffly, he limped across the patio and down the corridor. He paused for a second in front
of dona Mercedes' room, then climbed the two steps leading inside.
I followed close behind him ready to take the blame should Mercedes Peralta be annoyed
by the intrusion.
For an instant, I thought she had already gone to bed: But as soon as my eyes became
accustomed to the shadowy darkness, I saw her sitting in her high-backed chair at the far
end of the room, barely outlined by the faint light of a single candle burning on the altar.
"Federico Mueller!" she gasped, staring at him in total panic.
She seemed not to trust her vision and repeatedly rubbed her eyes with her hands. "How
can it be? All these years I thought you were dead."
Awkwardly, he went down on his knees, buried his face in the healer's lap, and cried with
the abandonment of a despairing child. "Help me, help me," he repeated in between sobs.
Hastily, I moved toward the entrance, only to halt abruptly when I heard Federico
Mueller fall on the floor with a dull thump.
I wanted to summon Candelaria, but dona Mercedes stopped me. "How extraordinary!"
she exclaimed in a trembling tone. "Everything is fitting into place like a magical jigsaw
"This is the person you remind me of. You brought him back to me."
I wanted to tell her that I saw no similarity between the old man and myself, but she sent
me to her bedroom to fetch her basket with medicinal plants. When I returned, Federico
Mueller was still lying curled up on the floor. Dona Mercedes was trying to revive him.
"Get Candelaria," she said. "I can't handle Federico Mueller by myself."
Candelaria had heard the commotion and was already standing by the entrance. She
There was an expression of disbelief, of sheer horror in Candelaria's eyes. "He's come
back," she murmured, approaching Federico Mueller.
Candelaria crossed herself, then turned to dona Mercedes and asked, "What do you want
me to do?"
"His soul is detaching itself from his body," she answered. "I'm too weak to try to push it
Candelaria sat on her haunches and swiftly moved Federico Mueller's inert body to a
sitting position. She gave him a sort of bear hug from behind. The bones of his back
cracked as if they were breaking into a hundred pieces.
Candelaria propped him in a sitting position against the wall. "He's very ill," she said to
me. "I think he's come back here to die." She left the room crossing herself.
Federico Mueller opened his eyes. He took in everything in one glance, then he looked at
me as if he were silently begging me to leave him alone with dona Mercedes.
"Musiua," she said in a weak voice as I was walking out of the room, "since you have
brought him back to my life, you ought to stay."
I sat down awkwardly on my stool.
He began to talk to no one in particular. He rambled on incoherently for hours.
Mercedes Peralta listened attentively: Whatever he was saying seemed to make all the
sense in the world to her.
A long silence ensued after Federico Mueller stopped talking.
Slowly, dona Mercedes rose and lit a candle in front of the statue of the Virgin. Poised
before the altar, she looked like an ancient wood statue, her face an expressionless mask.
Only her eyes seemed alive as they filled with tears. She lit a cigar and drew each breath
deep inside her, as if she were feeding a force within her chest.
The flame grew brighter as the candle shrank. It cast an eerie light on her features as she
turned to face Federico Mueller.
Mumbling a soft incantation, she massaged first his head and then his shoulders.
"You can do anything you want with me," he said, pressing both her palms against his
"Go into the living room," dona Mercedes said, her voice a shaky whisper. "I'll be along
shortly with a valerian potion. It will put you to sleep." Smiling, she patted his hair into
Hesitantly, he limped across the patio and down the corridor. The sound of his steps
echoed faintly through the house.
Mercedes Peralta turned once again to the altar but could not reach it. She was beginning
to fall, when I jumped up and caught her.
Feeling the uncontrollable tremor of her body, I realized how immense had been her
stress and her poise. She had comforted Federico Mueller for hours.
I had seen only his turmoil: She had revealed nothing about her own.
"Musiua, tell Candelaria to get ready," dona Mercedes said, stepping into the kitchen
where I was writing. "You're taking us in your jeep."
Certain that she was already asleep, I went immediately to look for Candelaria in her
room. She was not there.
The door of her wardrobe stood wide open, exposing the beveledged mirror on its door
and all her clothes. They were arranged not only by color but also by the length of the
Her narrow bed- a frame of laths, and a horsehair mattress- stood between two bookcases
filled with romance novels and photo albums containing cutout magazine pictures.
Everything was in immaculate order, nothing was rumpled.
"I'm ready," Candelaria said behind me.
Startled, I turned around. "Dona Mercedes wants you to--" She did not let me finish, but
propelled me toward my room down the corridor.
"I've taken care of everything," she assured me. "Hurry up and change. We don't have
On my way out I peeked into the living room. Federico Mueller was sleeping peacefully
on the couch.
Dona Mercedes and Candelaria were already waiting for me in my jeep. There was no
moon or a single star in the sky, yet it was a lovely night; soft and black with a cool wind
blowing from the hills.
Following Candelaria's directions, I drove the two women to the homes of the people
who regularly attended the spiritualists' meeting.
As was customary, I waited outside. Except for Leon Chirino, I had never met any of
them, yet I knew where each one of them lived.
I wondered if the two women were setting a date for a seance, for they did not stay long
at any of the houses.
"And now to Leon Chirino's house," Candelaria said, helping dona Mercedes settle in the
Candelaria seemed angry. Nonstop she rambled on about Federico Mueller.
Although I was bursting with curiosity, I could not pay attention to her seemingly
incoherent statements. I was too preoccupied watching the distraught look on dona
Mercedes' face in the rearview mirror.
She opened her mouth several times to speak, but instead she shook her head and looked
out the window, seeking aid and comfort from the night.
Leon Chirino took a long time coming to the door. He must have been sound asleep and
unable to hear Candelaria's impatient, loud banging.
He opened the door with his arms crossed, protecting his chest from the cold, humid
breeze spreading the dawn across the hills. There was a look of foreboding in his eyes.
"Federico Mueller is at my house," dona Mercedes said before he had time to even greet
Leon Chirino did not say a word. Yet, it was evident that he had been thrown into a state
of profound agitation, of great indecision. His lips trembled, and his eyes alternately
shone with rage or filled with tears under his white, bushy brows.
He motioned us to follow him to the kitchen. He made sure dona Mercedes was
comfortably settled in a hammock hanging near the stove, then he made a fresh pot of
coffee, while we sat in complete silence.
As soon as he had served Candelaria and me a cup, he helped dona Mercedes into a
sitting position, and standing behind her proceeded to massage the back of her head.
He moved down to her neck, then to her shoulders and arms, all the way to her feet. The
sound of his melodious incantation floated over the room, clear like the dawn, peaceful
and infinitely lonely.
"Only you know what to do," Leon Chirino said to her, helping her up. "Do you want me
to come with you?"
Nodding, she embraced him and thanked him for lending her his strength. A mysterious
smile curved her lips as she turned to the table, and leisurely sipped her cup of coffee.
"Now we have to see my compadre," she said, taking my arm. "Please take us to El
"Lucas Nunez?" I asked, looking from one to the other.
All three nodded, but no one said a word.
I had remembered Candelaria's comment about the godfather of dona Mercedes' adopted
son Elio: Candelaria had told me that Lucas Nunez blamed himself for Elio's death.
The sun had already risen above the mountains when we reached the small town along
the coast where Lucas Nunez lived.
The place was hot and salty from the sea and musky with flowering mimosa trees.
The town's main street lined with brightly painted colonial houses, a small church, and a
plaza ended at the edge of a coconut plantation.
Beyond was the sea. It could not be seen, but the wind carried the sound of waves
breaking on the shore.
Lucas Nunez's house stood on one of the town's side streets, which were not really streets
but wide paths covered with stones.
Dona Mercedes rapped lightly on the door and, without waiting for an answer, pushed it
open and stepped inside a dark, damp room.
Still blinded by the brightness outside, I could at first barely make out the silhouette of a
man reading at a wooden table in a small back patio.
He gazed at us with such a desolate expression on his face I wanted to flee.
Haltingly, he stood up and silently embraced dona Mercedes, Leon Chirino, and
The man was tall and bony. His white hair was cropped so close to his head that the
darkness of his scalp shone through.
I felt a strange anguish upon noticing his hands and realized why he was nicknamed El
Mocho, the maimed one. The first joint of each finger was missing.
"Federico Mueller is at my house," dona Mercedes said softly. "The musiua here brought
him to my door."
Slowly, Lucas Nunez turned toward me. There was something so intense about the man's
narrow face, about his shiny eyes, that I shrank back.
"Is she related to him?" he asked in a harsh voice, no longer seeming to see me.
"The musiua has never seen Federico Mueller in her life," dona Mercedes remarked. "But
she brought him to my door."
Lucas Nunez leaned against the wall. "If he is in your house, then I will kill him," he
declared in a strangled whisper.
Dona Mercedes and Leon Chirino each took him by an arm and led him into one of the
"Who is this Federico Mueller?" I asked Candelaria. "What did he do?"
"But, Musiua," she said impatiently. "I've been telling you during the whole trip about the
horrible things Federico Mueller did."
She looked at me baffled, shaking her head in disbelief.
Despite my insistence that she repeat them, she would not say another word about
Instead of going to rest in her hammock upon returning to her house, Mercedes Peralta
asked Candelaria and me to join her in her working room.
Mercedes Peralta lit seven candles on the altar, and reaching behind the folds of the
Virgin's blue mantle, pulled out a revolver.
Horrified and fascinated, I watched her caress the gun. She smiled at me, and pressed the
revolver into my hands.
"It's unloaded," she said. "I unloaded it the day you arrived.
I knew then that I wasn't going to need it, but I didn't know that you were going to bring
him back to me."
She went over to her chair and, heaving a deep sigh, sat down. "I've had that gun for
almost thirty years," she went on. "I was going to kill Federico Mueller with it."
"And you should do it now!" Candelaria hissed through clenched teeth.
"I know what I'm going to do," dona Mercedes went on, ignoring the interruption. "I'm
going to take care of Federico Mueller for as long as he lives."
"Dear God!" Candelaria exclaimed. "Have you lost your mind?"
A childlike look of innocent hope, a wave of affection, shone in dona Mercedes' eyes as
she regarded us intently.
She held up her hand, pleading us to silence. "You brought Federico Mueller to my
door," she said to me.
"And now I know that there is nothing to forgive. Nothing to understand; and he came
back to make me realize just that.
"This is why I'll never mention what he did. He was dead, but he's not now."
There were several empty rooms in the house, but Federico Mueller chose to sleep in the
narrow alcove back of the kitchen. It was just large enough for a cot and a night table.
Quite vehemently, he declined my offer to drive him to Caracas and get his belongings.
He said that nothing of what he had there would be of any value to him now; yet, he was
grateful, when at dona Mercedes' prompting, I bought him several shirts and a pair of
khaki pants, and toiletries.
And thus, Federico Mueller became part of the household. Dona Mercedes pampered
him. She indulged him.
Every morning and again every afternoon she treated him in her working room; and each
night she made him drink a valerian potion laced with rum.
Federico Mueller never left the house. He spent all his time either in a hammock in the
yard, or talking to dona Mercedes.
Candelaria ignored his existence: He did likewise; not only with her, but also with me.
One day, however, Federico Mueller began to speak to me in German, haltingly at first: It
cost him a tremendous effort to form the words.
But soon he gained a total command of the language, and never again did he speak a
word of Spanish with me.
That changed him radically. It was as though his problems, whatever they may have
been, were encased in the sound of Spanish words.
Candelaria was, at first, mildly curious about the foreign language. She began asking
Federico Mueller questions, and ended up succumbing to his innate charm.
He taught her German nursery rhymes, which Candelaria sang the whole day long with
And he repeated to me again and again in a perfectly coherent way what he had said to
dona Mercedes the night he arrived.
As happened every night, Federico Mueller woke up screaming.
He sat up in bed, his back pushed against the headboard in an effort to escape that one
particular face: It always came so close to him he could see the cruel mocking glint in the
man's eyes and his gold-rimmed teeth as he laughed in great guffaws.
Beyond him were all the other faces of the people who always populated his nightmares:
faces distorted by pain and fear. They always screamed in agony, begged for mercy.
All of them except her. She never screamed. She never broke her stare. It was a look he
could not bear.
Moaning, Federico Mueller pressed his fists against his eyes, as if with that gesture he
could keep his past at bay. For thirty years he had been tormented by those nightmares,
and by the memories and visions that would follow in a wave of dreadful lucidity.
Exhausted, he slid back under the covers.
Something palpable, yet unseen, lingered in the room. It prevented him from falling
He pushed the blanket aside, and reluctant to turn on the light, limped across to the
window, and pulled back the curtain.
Spellbound, he gazed at the white mist of dawn filtering into the room. He strained his
eyes wide open to reassure himself that he was not dreaming.
As it had so often happened, she materialized out of that formless haze, and sat by his
working table amid the stuffed birds that stared at him impassively from their dead,
empty glass eyes.
Carefully, he approached the figure. Swiftly she vanished, like a shadow that leaves no
The bells of the nearby church and the hurried steps of old women on their way to early
mass echoed through the silent streets.
The familiar sounds reassured him that today was going to be like any other day.
He washed and shaved, then prepared his morning coffee and ate standing at the stove.
Feeling decidedly better, he settled down to work on his birds.
A vague restlessness, some undefined dread, prevented him from finishing his work on
the owl he had promised a client for that afternoon.
He put on his good suit, and went outside for a walk.
The city still had an air of restful clarity at that early hour.
Slowly, he limped down the narrow street. The section of Caracas where he lived had
been bypassed by the frenzy of modernization that had swept through the rest of the city.
Except for a casual greeting, he never stopped to talk to anyone.
Yet, he felt oddly protected by these old streets with their one-story colonial houses alive
with the laughter of children, and the voices of women gossiping in front of their doors.
At first, people had talked a great deal about him, but he never gave in to the need to
explain his presence. He was aware that because of his aloofness, his neighbors
speculated and were suspicious of him.
Over the years, as was to be expected, people's interest in him finally waned. Nowadays,
they merely thought of him as an eccentric old man who stuffed birds for a living, and
wanted to be left alone.
Federico Mueller caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror outside a shop.
As always when he saw his reflection, he couldn't help but be startled to discover that he
looked so much older than his years could possibly warrant.
Not a vestige remained of the tall, handsome man with blond curls and a deep tan.
Although he had been only thirty when he first came to live in this section of Caracas, he
already looked the way he did now at sixty: old before his time, with a useless leg, white
hair, deeply etched wrinkles, and a death-like pallor that wouldn't disappear regardless of
how long he stayed outdoors.
Shaking his head, he resumed his walk toward the plaza and rested on a bench.
A few old men were already about, sitting with their hands between their knees, each one
lost in his own memories. He found something oddly disturbing in their unshared
He rose and walked on, limping through block after block of crowded streets.
The sun was hot. The contours of buildings had lost their early-morning preciseness, and
the noise in the streets intensified the dizzying shimmer of the haze hanging over the city.
And again, as he had done so many times before, he found himself standing in front of
the same bus depot.
His eyes caught a dark face in the crowd. "Mercedes," he whispered, knowing that it
couldn't possibly be her.
He wondered if the woman had heard him, for suddenly she looked into his eyes. It was a
rapid, yet deliberate glance that filled him with apprehension and hope.
Then the woman vanished in the crowd.
"Have you seen a dark, tall woman pass by?" he asked one of the hawkers roaming
around the bus depot, his tray of candies and cigarettes strapped in front of him.
"I've seen hundreds of women," the man said, making a wide circle with his hand. "There
are lots of women around here." He grabbed Federico Mueller's arm and turned him
slightly to the left. "See those buses over there? They are filled with women. Old ones,
dark ones, tall ones. Anyway you like them. They are all going to the coastal towns."
Laughing, the man continued weaving in and out of the waiting buses, advertising his
Possessed by an irrational certainty that he would find that face, Federico Mueller got on
a bus and walked down the aisle gazing intently at each passenger. They stared back at
him in silence.
For an instant, he thought that all the faces resembled hers. He had to rest for a moment,
he thought, and sat on one of the empty seats at the back of the bus.
A faint, faraway voice demanding his ticket roused him from his slumber. The words
vibrated in his head.
A drowsiness pressed heavily on his brow, and he had difficulty opening his eyes. He
gazed out the window. The city was far behind.
Puzzled and embarrassed, he looked up at the ticket collector. "I didn't intend to go
anyplace," Federico Mueller stammered apologetically. "I only came looking for
He paused for a moment, then mumbled to himself. "Someone I hoped and dreaded to
find on this bus."
"That happens," the man remarked sympathetically. "Since you have to pay the full fare,
you might as well take advantage of the ride, and go all the way to Curmina."
The man smiled and patted Federico Mueller on the shoulder. "There you can get a bus
that will take you back to the capital."
Federico Mueller handed him some money. "When does the bus come back to Caracas?"
"Around midnight," the man said vaguely. "Or whenever there are enough people to
make the trip worthwhile." The man gave him back his change, then continued down the
aisle, and collected the rest of the tickets from the passengers.
It was fate that I had to catch this bus without having planned to do so, Federico Mueller
A half smile flittered across his face. His worn eyelids closed with a feeling of hope,
quiet and deep. Fate was finally forcing him to surrender to his past. An unknown
peacefulness filled him as he recalled that past.
It all began at a party in Caracas, where he was approached by a high-ranking general in
the government, who asked him point-blank to join the secret police.
Believing him to be drunk, Federico did not take the man's words seriously. It came as a
surprise when a few days later an army officer knocked on his door.
"I'm Captain Sergio Medina," he introduced himself. There had been nothing sinister
about the short, powerfully built man with the copperish skin and the gold-rimmed teeth
that flashed in a strong open smile.
Convincingly, he talked about the excitement involved in the job they had in mind for
him, the good pay, the fast promotions. Flattered and intrigued, Federico accompanied
Medina to the general's house.
Patting him affectionately on his back, like an old friend, the general took him to his
study. "This job will earn you the respect and gratitude of this country," the general said.
"A country that, after all, is your own and yet isn't. This will be your chance to truly
become one of us."
Nodding, Federico could not help but agree with the general.
He had been sixteen years old when his parents had immigrated to Venezuela. Under the
auspices of a government program, they had settled in the interior to farm the vast
acreages of land allotted to them, which they had hoped to own one day.
After an accident that killed both of his parents, Federico, not in the least interested in
farming, apprenticed himself to a German zoologist, an expert in taxidermy who taught
him all he knew.
"I can't think how I could be of use to you," Federico said to the general. "All I know is
how to trap and stuff birds."
The general laughed uproariously. "My dear Federico," he emphasized, "your experience
as a taxidermist is the ideal cover for the job we have in mind for you."
The general smiled confidentially, and leaning closer added, "We have accurate reports
of a subversive group operating in the Curmina area. We want you to find out about
He laughed again, gleefully, like a child. "So far, we have been unsuccessful with the
men we have sent into the area. But you, my friend, a musiu trapping birds, will not
arouse any suspicion."
Federico was never given the opportunity to refuse the job. Within days, a brand-new
jeep equipped with the latest instruments and chemicals of a quality he had never been
able to afford were put at his disposal.
Federico was always careful when in the hills. One morning, however, upon seeing a rare
toucan in one of his traps, he leapt out of his hammock without first putting on his boots.
He felt a sting between his toes. He swore, and thought he had stepped on a thorn. But
when a sharp pain radiated from the small punctures- where two little drops of blood had
formed- and quickly spread through his whole foot, and up his leg, he knew he had been
bitten by a snake: A snake he had neither seen nor heard.
He rushed to his jeep parked nearby and rummaged through his gear until he found his
first-aid kit. He tied a handkerchief halfway up the calf of his leg, then expertly cut across
the two punctures and bled the wound.
But too much poison had already gone into the bloodstream. Flashing pains shot all the
way to his buttocks, and his foot swelled to twice its size.
He would never make it to Caracas, he thought, easing himself behind the steering wheel.
He would have to take his chances in the nearest town.
The nurse at the dispensary near the plaza calmly informed him that they were out of
"What am I supposed to do? Die?" Federico shouted, his face contorted with anger and
"I hope not," the nurse remarked calmly. "I'm sure you've already discarded the chances
of reaching Caracas in time."
She studied him, carefully considering her next words. "I know of a healer here. She has
the best contras, the secret potions to counteract a snake's poison."
The nurse smiled apologetically. "That's why we hardly ever stock up on serum. Most
victims prefer to go to her."
She examined the swollen foot once more. "I don't know what kind of snake bit you, but
it looks bad to me. Your only chance is the healer. You'd better take it."
Federico had never been to a witch doctor in his life, but at that moment he was willing to
try anything. He didn't want to die. He was beyond caring who helped him.
The nurse, assisted by two customers from the bar across the street, carried Federico to
the witch doctor's house in the outskirts of town. He was put on a cot in a smoke-filled
room that smelled of ammonia.
At the rasping sound of a match, Federico opened his eyes. Through the haze of smoke,
he saw a tall woman lighting a candle on an altar.
In the flickering light her face was like a mask, very still with high-molded bones over
which her tautly stretched skin, dark and smooth, shone like polished wood. Her eyes,
hooded by heavy lids, revealed absolutely nothing as they looked into his.
"A macagua bite for sure," she diagnosed, shifting her gaze to his foot. "That snake gave
you all she had.
"You were lucky the nurse brought you here. There is no serum for this kind of poison."
She pulled up a chair beside him, then examined his foot with great attention, her long
fingers soft and gentle as she probed the skin around the wound.
"You don't have to worry," she stated with absolute conviction. "You're young. You'll
survive the poison and my treatment."
Turning toward the table behind her, she reached for two large decanters filled with a
syruplike greenish brown liquid in which roots, leaves, and snake entrails floated around.
From one jar, she poured a certain amount in a metal plate: From the other one, she half
filled a small tin mug.
She lit a cigar. Inhaling deeply, she closed her eyes and swayed her head. Abruptly, she
bent over his foot and blew what seemed to be the accumulated smoke of the entire cigar
into the cut he had made with his knife. She sucked the blood, then quickly spit it out and
rinsed her mouth with a clear, strong-smelling liquid. Seven times she repeated this
Thoroughly exhausted, she rested her head against the back of her chair.
A few moments later she began to mumble an incantation. She unbuttoned his shirt, and
with her middle finger which she had dipped into the cigar's ashes, she drew a straight
line from the base of his throat down to his genitals. With remarkable ease, she turned
him around, pulled off his shirt, and painted a similar line down his back.
"I've halved you now," she informed him. "The poison can't go over to the other side."
She then retraced the back and front lines with a dab of fresh ashes.
In spite of his pain, Federico laughed. "I'm sure the poison spread all over my body a long
time ago," he said.
She held his face between her hands, forcing him to look into her eyes. "Musiu, if you
don't trust me, you'll die," she warned him, then proceeded to wash his foot with the
liquid she had poured into the metal plate.
That done, she reached for the tin mug. "Drink it all," she commanded, holding it to his
lips. "If you throw up, you're done for."
Uncontrollable waves of nausea threatened to bring the foul-tasting potion up.
"Force yourself to keep it down," she urged him, placing a small rectangular pillow filled
with dried maize kernels under his neck.
She watched him attentively as she soaked a handkerchief in a mixture of rose water and
"Now breathe!" she ordered, holding the handkerchief over his nose. "Breathe slowly and
For a moment he struggled under the suffocating pressure of her hand, then gradually
relaxed as she began to massage his face.
"Don't get close to pregnant women. They'll neutralize the effect of the contra," she
He looked at her uncomprehendingly, then mumbled that he did not know any pregnant
Seemingly satisfied with his statements, Mercedes Peralta turned to the altar, lined up
seven candles around the statue of Saint John, and lit them.
Silently, she gazed at the flickering flames, then with a sudden jerk, she threw back her
head and recited an oddly dissonant litany.
The words turned into a cry, which rose and fell with the regularity of her breathing. It
was an inhuman-sounding lament that caused the walls to vibrate and the candle flames
The sound filled the room, the house, and went far beyond, as if it were meant to reach
some distant force.
Federico was vaguely aware of being moved into another room.
The days and nights blurred into each other as he lay half-conscious on the cot, hounded
by fevers and chills.
Whenever he opened his eyes, he saw the healer's face in the darkness, the red stones in
her earrings shining like an extra pair of eyes. In a soft melodious voice, she sent the
shadows, the terrible phantoms of his fever, scurrying to their corners.
Or, as if she were part of his hallucinations, she identified those unknown forces and
commanded him to wrestle with them.
Afterward, she bathed his sweat-covered body and massaged him until his skin was cool
There were times when Federico felt someone else's presence in the room. Different
hands, larger and stronger, yet as gentle as the healer's, cradled his head while she urged
him in a harsh tone to drink the foul-tasting potions she held to his lips.
The morning she brought him his first meal of rice and vegetables, a young man holding
a guitar followed her into the room.
"I'm Elio," he introduced himself. Then strumming his guitar, he began to sing a funny
little ditty that related the events of Federico's bout with the poison.
Elio also told him that the day the nurse at the dispensary brought him to his mother's
house, he set out for the hills, and with his machete, slayed the macagua that had bitten
him. Had the snake survived, the potions and incantations would have been useless.
One morning, upon noticing that the purple swollen flesh had returned to normal,
Federico reached for his laundered clothes hanging over the bedstead.
Eager to test his strength, he walked out into the yard, where he found the healer bent
over a tub rilled with rosemary water. Silently, he watched her dip her hands into the
Smiling, she looked up at him. "It keeps my hair from turning white," she explained,
combing her fingers repeatedly through her curls.
Bewildered by the surge of desire welling up inside him, he moved closer. He longed to
kiss the drops of rosemary water trickling down her face, her neck, into the bodice of her
He didn't care that she might be old enough to be his mother. To him she was ageless and
"You saved my life," he murmured, touching her face. His fingers lingered on her cheeks,
her full lips, her warm smooth neck. "You must have added a love potion to that foultasting
brew you forced me to drink every day."
She looked straight into his eyes but did not answer.
Afraid she had taken offense, he mumbled an apology.
She shook her head, her raspy laughter starting low in her throat.
He had never heard such a sound. She laughed with her whole soul, as if nothing else in
the world mattered.
"You can stay here until you're stronger," she said, tousling his blond curls. In her veiled
eyes, there was a hint of mockery but also of passion.
Months passed swiftly. The healer accepted him as her lover. Yet, she would never let
him stay a full night in her room.
"Just a little longer," he pleaded each time, caressing the silken texture of her skin,
fervently wishing that for once she would give in to his demand. But she always pushed
him out into the darkness, and laughing, would close the door behind him.
"Perhaps if we stay lovers for three years," she used to tell him every time.
The rainy season had almost come to an end before Federico resumed his trips into the
Elio accompanied him, at first to protect him, but soon he too was caught up with
trapping and stuffing birds.
Never before had Federico taken someone with him. Despite the ten-year age difference,
they became the best of friends.
Federico was surprised at how readily Elio endured the long hours of silence as they
waited for a bird to fall into a trap; and how much he enjoyed their leisurely walks along
the cool, hazy summits, where one was easily overtaken by fog and wind.
Federico was often tempted to tell Elio about Captain Medina, but somehow he never
dared to break that intimate, fragile stillness.
Federico felt a vague guilt about the easy days in the hills and the secret nights with the
healer. Not only had he convinced Elio and the healer, but he himself had begun to
believe that Captain Medina was merely the middleman from Caracas who sold his
stuffed birds to schools, museums, and curio shops.
"You've got to do better than catch those damn birds," Captain Medina said to him one
afternoon as they were having a beer at a local bar. "Mingle more with the healer's
patients. Through gossip, one learns the most astounding things. At any rate, you must
finish your brilliant maneuver."
Federico had been surprised and, in turn, upset when Captain Medina had congratulated
him on his clever scheme: The captain actually believed that Federico had let the snake
bite him on purpose.
"It's the intellectuals," Federico said, "the educated people, who plan and plot against a
dictatorship. Not poor farmers and fishermen. They are too busy making a living to notice
what kind of government they have."
"Musiu, you aren't paid to give me your opinions," Medina cut him short. "Just do what
you're supposed to do."
Medina turned the empty beer glass in his hands, then looked up at Federico and added in
a whisper, "Not too long ago the leader of a small, but fanatic, revolutionary group
escaped from jail. We have reason to believe that he's hiding in the area."
Laughing, Medina placed his right hand on the table. "He left in jail the first joint of each
of his fingers. For that, he's now called El Mocho."
The rain had kept on falling since early afternoon: The sound of the defective gutter by
his window prevented Federico from falling asleep.
He went out into the corridor and was about to light a cigarette when he heard a soft
murmur coming from the healer's working room.
He knew it was not the healer. That morning he had driven her to a neighboring town
where she was to attend a seance.
Federico tiptoed down the corridor. Among the different voices, he distinctly recognized
Elio's excited voice.
At first, he could not make much sense of their conversation, but when the words
'dynamite', 'the proposed dam in the hills', and 'the dictator's unofficial visit to it' crop up
several times, he realized with disturbing clarity that he had unwittingly stumbled on a
plot to assassinate the head of the military government.
Federico leaned against the wall, his heart beating violently, then he resolutely walked up
the two steps into the dark room.
"Elio! Is that you?" Federico said. "I heard voices and got worried."
There were several men in the room: They recoiled instantly into the shadows.
Elio was not in the least perturbed. He took Federico by the arm and introduced him to
the man sitting on the chair by the altar.
"Godfather, this is the musiu I've been telling you about," he said. "He's a friend of the
family. He's to be trusted."
Slowly, the man rose. There was something saintly about his bony face, with the wide
cheekbones standing out sharply under his dark skin and eyes that shone with a chilling
fierceness. "A pleasure to meet you," he said. "I'm Lucas Nunez."
For a moment Federico stared at the proffered hand, then shook it. The first joint of each
finger was missing.
"I feel that you can be trusted," he said to Federico. "Elio says that you may be willing to
Nodding, Federico closed his eyes, afraid his voice and gaze would betray his turmoil.
Lucas Nunez introduced him to the group of men.
One by one they shook his hand, then sat back on the floor, forming a half-circle. The
faint flicker of the candles on the altar barely outlined their faces.
Federico listened attentively to Lucas Nunez's precise, calm arguments as he discussed
the past and present political situation in Venezuela.
"And how can I help you?" Federico asked him at the end of his explanation.
Lucas Nunez's eyes revealed a sad, reflective mood: His face clouded over, struck with
But then, he smiled and said, "If the others agree, you could drive some explosives into
the hills for us."
They all agreed instantly. Federico sensed that they had accepted him so fully and so
quickly because they knew he was Mercedes Peralta's lover.
It was after midnight when their conversation ceased, bit by bit, like the flapping wings
of an injured bird. The men looked pale, haggard.
Federico felt a chill as they embraced him. Without a sound, they left the room and
disappeared into the darkness of the hall.
He was stunned by the devilish irony of his situation. Lucas Nunez's last words rang in
his ears. "You're the perfect man for the job. No one will suspect a musiu trapping birds
in the hills."
Federico pulled the jeep over to a small clearing beside the road. A light drizzle swathed
the hills as with gauze, and the half-moon filtering through the misty clouds gave a
spectral radiance to the landscape.
Silently, he and Elio unloaded the well-padded box packed tightly with dynamite sticks.
"I'll carry the stuff down to the shack," Elio said, smiling reassuringly. "Don't look so
worried, Federico. They'll have the bridge mined by dawn."
Federico watched him descend the steep overgrown trail into the shadows below. Often
he had come with him to this spot, looking for wild pomarrosas, a peculiarly fragrant
fruit that smells like rose petals. It was the healer's favorite fruit.
Federico sat on a fallen tree trunk and buried his face in his hands.
Except for the vague guilt he had felt, at times, for accepting the generous pay- which far
exceeded the worth of even the rarest of birds he had delivered to Medina- he had
dismissed all thought regarding the implications of what he was doing.
Until now, it had all seemed to him like a make-believe adventure in a movie or in some
exotic novel. It had nothing to do with having to betray people he knew and loved; people
who trusted him.
He wished Elio would hurry: Federico had seen Medina's jeep parked in a secluded place
on the outskirts of town, secretly following him.
Federico had told Medina everything, and now it was too late to regret it.
He leapt to his feet as a dazzling flash of lightning illuminated the sky. Thunder broke in
a deafening roar, echoing in the depths of the ravine. Rain came in a solid sheet, so dense
it blurred everything around him.
"What a fool I am!" he cried out loud, running down the steep trail. With absolute
certainty, Federico knew that Medina had no intention of honoring his promise to spare
the healer and her son, that he had only given it as a means to get Federico to divulge
everything he knew.
"Elio!!" Federico screamed, but his shout was drowned by the resounding volley of a
machine gun and the startled cries of hundreds of birds rising up into the dark sky.
In the few minutes that it took him to reach the shack, his mind raced through a
nightmare. With devastating clarity he saw how his life, in one instant, had taken a fatal
Almost mechanically, he went through the motions of sobbing over Elio's lifeless, torn
body. He neither heard nor saw Medina and the two soldiers entering the shack.
Medina was shouting at one of his men, but his voice was only a distant murmur. "You
goddamn fool! I told you not to shoot! You could have had us all blown to pieces with
"I heard someone running in the dark," the soldier defended himself. "It could have been
an ambush. I don't trust this musiu!"
Medina turned away from the man and pointed his flashlight into Federico's face. "You're
dumber than I thought," he spit. "What did you think this was going to be? Make
He ordered the soldiers to take the box with the explosives up the ravine.
Federico brought the jeep to such a violent halt in front of the healer's house that he
pitched forward, hitting his head on the windshield.
For a moment he sat dazed looking uncomprehendingly at the closed door; at the closed
No light shone through the cracks of the wooden panels, yet the blaring sound of a radio
playing a popular tune could be heard for miles.
Federico went around to the yard, where he saw the army jeep parked on the side street.
"Medina!" he screamed, running across the patio through the kitchen to the healer's
Defeated, utterly worn-out, he fell to the ground, not far from where the healer lay
moaning in the corner by the altar.
"She doesn't know anything," Federico shouted. "She's not involved in this."
Medina threw his head back and laughed uproariously: His gold-rimmed teeth caught the
light of the candles burning on the altar. "To be a double-crossing spy, you have to be
infinitely more clever than I," he said. "I have practice. Being cunning and suspicious is
my livelihood." He kicked Federico in the groin. "If you wanted to warn her, you should
have come here first and not wasted time crying over the boy you killed."
The two soldiers grabbed the healer by the arms, forcing her to stand up. Her half-closed
eyes were bruised and swollen. Her lips and nose were bleeding. Shaking herself loose,
she glanced around the room until her eyes found Federico.
"Where is Elio?" she asked.
"Tell her, Federico." Medina laughed, his eyes shining with malice. "Tell her how you
Like an enraged animal unleashing its last strength, she pushed Medina against the altar,
then turned to one of the soldiers and reached for his gun.
The soldier fired a shot.
The healer stood still, her hands pressed on her chest, trying to stop the blood from
seeping through the bodice of her dress. "I curse you to the end of your days, Federico."
Her voice dropped: The words were unclear. She seemed to be reciting an almost
Softly, like a rag doll, she collapsed on the ground.
With a last surge of lucidity, Federico made a final decision: in death, he would join the
people he had betrayed.
His thoughts ran ahead of him. He would atone by killing the men responsible for
everything: himself, and his accomplice- Medina.
Federico unsheathed his hunting knife and plunged it into Medina's heart.
He expected to be killed instantly, but one of the soldiers only shot him in the leg.
Hand-cuffed, blindfolded, and gagged, Federico was carried outside into a car. He
wondered if it was already daylight, for he heard the mocking babble of a flock of parrots
crossing the sky.
He was certain they had arrived in Caracas when the car stopped hours later.
He was put into a cell. He confessed to anything his torturers hinted at: Everything, he
said, was immaterial to him. His life had already ended.
Federico had no idea how long he remained in jail. Unlike the other prisoners, he did not
count the weeks, months, and years. All the days were the same to him.
One day he was set free.
It was a morning of great agitation. People were screaming, crying, and laughing in the
streets. The dictatorship had come to an end.
Federico moved to an old section of the city and he began to stuff birds again. He no
longer went into the hills to trap them, however.
"Human nature is most strange," dona Mercedes said. "I knew that you were going to do
something for me. I knew it from the first moment I laid eyes on you.
"And yet, when you did what you were here to do, I couldn't believe my eyes. You have
actually moved the wheel of chance for me.
"I can say that you enticed Federico Mueller to return to the realm of the living. You
brought him back to me by the force of your witch's shadow."
My retort was cut off before I had time to open my mouth. "During all these months
you've been at my house," she said, "you have been under my shadow, in a minimal way,
of course; yet the usual would've been for me to make a link for you, and not the other
I wanted to clarify matters. I insisted that I had not done anything. But she would not hear
`For the sake of understanding, I proposed a line of thought: She had made the link
herself with her conviction that I was the one who would bring her something.
"No," she said, puckering her face. "Your reasoning is wrong. It makes me very sad that
you seek explanations that only impoverish us."
She rose and embraced me. "I feel sorry for you," she whispered in my ear.
Suddenly, she laughed, a joyful sound that dispelled her sadness. "There is no way to
explain how you've done this," she said. "I'm not talking about human arrangements or
about the shadowy nature of witchcraft, but about something as elusive as timelessness
She almost stammered, searching for words. "All I know and feel is that you made a link
for me. How extraordinary! I was trying to show you how witches move the wheel of
chance, and then you moved it for me yourself."
"I told you I can't take credit for that," I insisted and meant it. Her fervor embarrassed me.
"Don't be so thick, Musiua," she retorted in an annoyed tone that reminded me of
Agustin. "Something is helping you to create a transition for me. You can say, and be
thoroughly accurate in saying it, that you have used your witch's shadow without even
The rainy season was almost over, yet it still rained every afternoon; a torrential
downpour accompanied by thunder and lightning.
Usually, I spent these rainy afternoons with dona Mercedes in her room, where she lay in
her hammock, either bemused with or indifferent to my presence.
If I asked her a question, she would answer me: If I said nothing, she would remain silent.
"No patient ever comes after the rain," I said, watching the downpour from her bedroom
The storm was soon over, and it left the street flooded.
Three buzzards landed on a nearby roof. With wings outstretched they leapt about, then
lined up at the very ridge and faced the sun bursting through the clouds.
Half-naked children came out of their houses. They booed the buzzards away, then
chased one another across the muddy puddles.
"No one ever comes after the rain," I repeated and turned to dona Mercedes, who was
sitting silently in her hammock, one leg crossed over the other, staring at her cutoff shoe.
"I think I'll go and visit Leon Chirino," I said and got up from my chair.
"I wouldn't do that," she mumbled, her gaze still on her toes.
She looked up. There was a heavy brooding look in her eyes.
She hesitated, frowning and biting her lips, as if she wanted to say something else.
Instead, she rose and, taking my arm, led me to her working room.
Once inside, she moved with great speed, her skirt swishing noisily as she went from one
corner to another, looking over and over again in the same places, turning everything
upside down on the table, on the altar, and inside the glass cabinet. "I can't find it," she
"What did you lose?" I asked. "Perhaps I know where it is."
She opened her mouth to speak, but instead she turned to the altar. She lit a candle, then a
cigar, which she puffed on nonstop until it was just a stub, her eyes fixed on the ashes
falling on the metal plate in front of her.
She turned abruptly, stared at me still standing by the table, and went down on her
haunches. She crawled underneath the table and, reaching behind the bottles, dragged out
a long gold chain on which a clump of medals was attached.
I began, "What are you--"
I stopped in midsentence as I remembered the night she threw the chain high up in the
sky. 'When you see the medals again, you'll return to Caracas,' she had said.
I never found out if some kind of trick had been involved or if I had merely been too tired
to witness their fall. I had totally forgotten about the medals, for I had not seen them
Mercedes Peralta was grinning as she stood up. She hung the medals around my neck and
said, "Feel how heavy they are. Pure gold!"
"They really are heavy!" I exclaimed, bouncing the clump in my hand.
Smooth and shiny, the medals had a luxuriant orange tinge to them, characteristic of
They ranged in size from a dime to a silver dollar. Not all of them were religious medals.
Some bore the likeness of Indian chieftains from the time of the Spanish Conquest.
"What are they for?"
"To diagnose," dona Mercedes said. "To heal. They're good for anything I choose to do
Sighing loudly, she sat on her chair by the table.
With the chain still around my neck, I stood in front of her. I wanted to ask her where I
should put the medals, but a feeling of utter desolation rendered me speechless. As I
gazed into her eyes, I saw boundless melancholy and longing reflected in them.
"You're an experienced medium now," she murmured. "But your time here has ended."
She had tried for a week to help me summon the spirit of her ancestor: It seemed that my
incantations had no more power. We had failed to lure the spirit as I alone had done every
night for months.
Dona Mercedes laughed a little tinkling laughter that sounded oddly ominous. "The spirit
is telling us that it's time for you to move on.
"You have fulfilled what you came to do. You came to move the wheel of chance for me.
"I moved it for you the night I saw you at the plaza from Leon Chirino's car. It was at that
precise instant that I wished you to come here.
"Had I not done so, you would never have found me regardless of who sent you to my
door. You see, I, too, used my witch's shadow to make a link for you."
She gathered the boxes, candles, jars, and scraps of material from the table, piled them in
her arms, then carefully eased herself out of her chair. "Help me," she said, pointing with
her chin to the glass cabinet.
After placing each item neatly on the shelves, I turned to the altar and lined up the
"A part of me will always be with you," dona Mercedes said softly. "Wherever you go,
whatever you do, my invisible spirit will always be there. Fate has woven its invisible
threads and tied us together."
The thought that she was saying good-bye brought tears to my eyes. It struck me like a
revelation that I had taken her for granted, loved her carelessly and easily the way one
loves the old.
I had no time to express my feelings, for at that moment an old woman burst into the
"Dona Mercedes!" she cried out, clutching her folded hands against her shriveled bosom.
"You have to help Clara.
"She's had one of her attacks, and there is no way I can bring her here. She's just lying on
her bed as if she were dead."
The woman spoke rapidly out of the side of her mouth, her voice rising sharply as she
moved toward the healer.
"I don't know what to do. There is no use calling the doctor, for I know that she's having
one of her attacks."
She paused and crossed herself, and as she looked about the room, she discovered me. "I
didn't realize you were with a patient," she mumbled contritely.
Offering the woman a chair, dona Mercedes put her at ease. "Don't worry, Emilia. The
musiua is no patient. She's my helper," she explained. Then she sent me to fetch her
basket from the kitchen.
As I stepped outside I heard dona Mercedes ask Emilia if the aunts had been to visit
Clara. I took my time closing the curtain behind me so that I could hear the woman's
"They finally left this morning," she said. "They have been here for almost a week. They
want to move back here. Luisito came, too. As usual he was anxious to take Clara back
with him to Caracas."
Although I had no way of assessing what the information meant to dona Mercedes, I
knew that she deemed it necessary to include the house in her treatment, for she sent
Emilia to the drugstore to purchase a bottle of lluvia de oro, golden rain; a bottle of lluvia
de plata, silver rain; and a bottle of la mono poderosa, the powerful hand.
These flower extracts, mixed with water, are used to wash the bewitched as well as their
houses. It is a task the bewitched themselves have to perform.
The valley and the gentle slopes south of town- where sugarcane fields used to be- had
been claimed by industrial centers and unattractive rows of boxlike houses.
Amid them, like some relic of the past, stood what remained of the hacienda El Rincón: a
large pink house and an orchard.
For a long time dona Mercedes and I stood gazing at the house, the peeling paint, the
closed doors, and shutters.
Not a sound came from inside. Not a leaf stirred in the trees.
We walked through the front gate. The traffic noise from the wide streets around us was
muted by the crumbling high wall enclosing the property and by the tall casuarina trees,
which also shut out the direct sun.
"Do you think Emilia has returned?" I whispered, intimidated by that eerie silence; by the
afternoon shadows falling across the wide walkway.
Without answering, dona Mercedes pushed open the front door.
A gust of wind redolent of decay scattered dead leaves at our feet.
We walked along the wide corridor bordering the inside patio full of shade and humidity.
Water trickled from a flat dish held perfectly balanced on the raised hands of a chubby
We turned a corner and continued along another corridor past endless rooms.
Half-opened doors allowed glimpses of unmatching odds and ends of furniture thrown
together in the most haphazard fashion.
I could see sheets draped over couches and armchairs, rolled-up carpets, and statues.
Beveled mirrors, portraits, and paintings were propped against the walls, as if waiting to
Dona Mercedes, not in the least perturbed by the chaotic atmosphere of the house, only
shrugged her shoulders when I commented on it.
With the confidence of someone familiar with her surroundings, she stepped into a large,
dimly lit bedroom.
At the very center stood a wide mahogany bed draped with mosquito nets as delicate as
mist. Dark, heavy curtains covered the windows, and a black cloth was flung over the
mirror on the dresser.
The smell of burning tallow, incense, and holy water made me think of a church.
Books lay everywhere, piled carelessly on the floor, on the bed, on the two armchairs, on
the night table, on the dresser, and even on an upside-down chamber pot.
Mercedes Peralta turned on the lamp by the night table. "Clara," she called softly,
pushing the netting aside.
Expecting to see a child, I stood gaping at a young woman, perhaps in her late twenties,
propped against the raised headboard with her limbs all awry like a rag doll that had been
carelessly tossed on the bed.
A red Chinese silk robe embroidered with dragons barely covered her voluptuous figure.
In spite of her disheveled appearance, she was stunningly beautiful, with high slanted
cheekbones, a sensual full mouth, and dark skin burnished to a fine gloss.
"Negrita, Clarita," dona Mercedes called, shaking her gently by the shoulder.
The young woman opened her eyes with a start- like someone awakening from a
nightmare- then shrank back, her pupils enormously dilated. Tears flowed down her
cheeks, but no expression crossed her face.
Pushing the books onto the floor, dona Mercedes placed her basket at the foot of the bed,
retrieved a handkerchief, sprinkled it with perfumed water and ammonia, her favorite
remedy, and held it under the woman's nose.
The spiritual injection, as dona Mercedes called it, did not seem to affect the young
woman, for she only stirred slightly. "Why can't I die in peace?" she asked, her voice
querulous with fatigue.
"Don't talk nonsense, Clara," dona Mercedes said, rummaging through her basket. "When
a person is ready to die, I'll gladly help them prepare for their eternal sleep.
"There are sicknesses that bring a body's death, but your time to die hasn't come yet."
As soon as dona Mercedes had found what she was after, she rose and motioned me to
"Stay with her. I'll be back shortly," she whispered in my ear.
Uneasily, I watched her leave the room, then shifted my attention to the bed, and caught
sight of the deathlike stillness in the woman's face.
She did not even appear to be breathing, but she seemed aware of my intense scrutiny:
her lids slowly opened, flickering lazily, hurt by the dim light.
She reached for the brush on the night table. "Would you braid my hair for me?" she
Smiling, I nodded and took the brush. "One or two braids?" I asked, running the brush
through her long curly hair; over and over to get out the tangles.
Like dona Mercedes' and Candelaria's, her hair smelled of rosemary.
"How about one nice thick braid?" I asked.
Clara did not answer. With a fixed, but absent, gaze she stared at the farthest wall in the
room, where oval-framed photographs hung surrounded by palm fronds braided in the
form of a cross.
With her face contorted by pain she turned toward me. Her limbs began to shake
violently. Her face darkened as she gasped for air and tried to push herself up the
I ran to the door, but afraid to leave her all by herself, I did not dare go out of the room.
Repeatedly, I called for dona Mercedes: There was no answer.
Certain that some fresh air would do Clara good, I stepped over to the window and pulled
open the curtain.
A faint glimmer of daylight still lingered outside. It made the leaves of the fruit trees
vibrate with color and chased the shadows out of the room.
But the warm breeze drifting through the window made Clara only worse. Her body
shook convulsively: Heaving and gasping, she collapsed on the bed.
Afraid that she might be suffering from an epileptic seizure and might bite off her tongue,
I tried to get the hairbrush between her chattering teeth.
That filled her with terror. Her eyes dilated further. Her fingernails turned purple, and her
wildly racing heartbeat throbbed in the swelling veins of her neck.
At a total loss as to what to do, I clutched the gold medals, which were still around my
neck, and swung them back and forth in front of her eyes. I was not guided by any
definite thought or idea; it was a purely automatic response.
"Negrita, Clarita," I murmured the way I had heard dona Mercedes call her earlier.
With a feeble effort, Clara tried to lift her hand.
I lowered the chain within her reach. Moaning softly, she clasped the medals and held
them against her breasts.
She seemed to be drawing strength from some magic force, for the swollen veins in her
neck receded. Her breathing became easier. Her pupils went back to normal, and I
noticed that her eyes were not dark but a light brown, like amber.
A faint smile formed on her lips, which stuck dryly to her teeth. Closing her eyes, she let
go of the medals and slipped sideways on the bed.
Dona Mercedes walked in so swiftly that she seemed to materialize at the foot of the bed,
as if conjured up by the shadows invading the room.
In her hands, she held a large aluminum mug filled with a strong-smelling potion. Tightly
clasped under her arm was a pile of newspapers.
Pressing her lips firmly together, she gestured me to remain silent, then placed the mug
on the night table, and the newspapers on the floor.
She picked up the gold chain from the bed and, smiling, hung the medals around her
Mumbling a prayer, she lit a candle and again rummaged through her basket until she
found a tiny black clump of dough wrapped in leaves.
She rolled the dough between her palms into a ball and dropped it into the mug. It
dissolved instantly with a fizzling sound.
She stirred the potion with her finger, and after tasting it brought the mug to Clara's lips.
"Drink it all," she ordered.
Dona Mercedes watched silently, with an oddly detached expression on her face, as Clara
gulp the liquid down.
An almost imperceptible smile appeared on Clara's face. It quickly turned into a harsh
laughter, and ended in a terrified chatter, of which I did not catch a single word.
Moments later, she lay flat on the bed, whispering broken excuses and asking
Totally unperturbed by her outburst, dona Mercedes bent over Clara and massaged
around her eyes; her fingers describing identical circles.
She moved to her temples, then with downward strokes, massaged the rest of her face, as
if she were pulling off a mask.
Expertly, she rolled Clara toward the edge of the bed. Then, making sure Clara's head
was hanging directly over the newspapers on the floor, she pressed hard on Clara's back
until she vomited.
Nodding with approval, dona Mercedes examined the dark clump on the floor, wrapped it
in the papers, and tied the bundle with a string.
"Now we'll have to bury this mess outside," she said, and in one swift motion she lifted
Clara off the bed.
Gently, she wiped her face clean and tightened the belt on her robe.
"Musiua," dona Mercedes called, turning toward me, "hold Clara's other arm."
With the young woman in between us, we slowly shuffled down the corridor out into the
yard and down the wide cement steps that led to the terraced slope where fruit trees grew.
There dona Mercedes buried the bundle in a deep hole she made me dig. Clara sat on the
stone steps and watched us indifferently.
For six consecutive days Clara fasted. Every afternoon at precisely six o'clock, I drove
dona Mercedes to El Rincón. She treated Clara in exactly the same manner. Each session
ended under a fruit tree, where the newspaper bundle, smaller each day, was buried.
On the sixth and last day, hard as she tried, Clara did not vomit. Nevertheless, dona
Mercedes made her bury the empty, bundled-up paper.
"Will she be all right now?" I asked on the way home. "Are the sessions over?"
"Not quite, to both questions," she said.
"Starting tomorrow, you're going to see Clara every day by yourself as part of her
treatment." She patted my arm affectionately. "Get her to talk to you. It'll do her a lot of
"And," she added as an afterthought, "it'll do you a lot of good too."
Clothes and shoebox in hand, Clara hurried down the corridor into the bathroom.
She dropped everything on the floor, then took off her nightgown and admired herself in
the mirrored walls.
She moved closer to see if her budding breasts had grown a bit more overnight. A
satisfied smile spread over her face as she bent her head and counted her few pubic hairs.
Humming a little tune, she turned on the hot and cold water faucets in the enormous
shell-shaped bathtub, then went over to the dressing table and carefully examined the
various bottles arranged on the marble top.
Unable to decide which of the bath gels or salts to use, she poured a small amount of each
into the water.
For a moment she stood staring at the foaming bubbles.
How different it had been in Piritu. Water had to be drawn from the river or from the
newly installed municipal faucet by the road and had to be carried up the hill in tin cans.
Only a year had passed since her arrival at El Rincón, yet it seemed she had been living in
this large old house forever.
She had made no conscious effort to forget her life in Piritu. Her memories, however, had
begun to fade like visions in a dream.
All that remained was her grandmother's face, with the sound of her rocking chair
creaking on the dirt-packed floor on that last day in the shack.
"You're almost grown up, Negra," her grandmother had said, her face looking older, more
tired than it ever had before. The child knew at that instant that the only person she had in
the world was going to die.
"That's what old age does," her grandmother had said, aware of the child's realization.
"When a body is ready to die, there is nothing one can do but lie down and close one's
"I've already traded my rocking chair for a coffin, and this shack for a Christian burial."
"Hush, child," the old woman stopped her in mid-sentence.
She pulled out a handkerchief from her skirt pocket, untied the knot in one corner, and
counted the few coins she kept there for an emergency. "It's enough to get you to El
She ran her fingers over the child's face, then braided her long curly hair.
"No one knows who your father is, but your mother, my daughter, is don Luis's
"She left for Caracas right after you were born. She went to seek her fortune; but fortune
doesn't need to be sought...quot;
Her voice trailed off: She had lost her train of thought.
After a long silence she added, "I'm sure don Luis will recognize you as his
granddaughter. He's the owner of El Rincón. He's old and lonely."
She took the child's hands in hers, pressed them against her wrinkled cheeks, and kissed
the leaf-shaped mole in her right palm. "Show this to him."
The candle burning before the figure of a black Christ blurred before the child's eyes.
She let her gaze wander to the cot in the corner, to the basket stuffed with starched,
unironed clothing, to the wheelbarrow leaning against the wall in which she pushed her
For one last time her eyes rested on the old woman: Settled back in her rocking chair, she
stared with empty eyes into the distance, her face already shrunken with death.
It was dusk when the bus driver let her off right in front of the recessed arched doorway
built into the wall surrounding El Rincón.
She walked up the terraced hillside, where fruit trees grew all evenly spaced from one
Halfway up she stopped short and remained utterly still, her whole being taken over by
the sight of a small tree covered with white blossoms.
"That's an apple tree," a voice said; and then inquired, "And who are you? Where have
you come from?"
For an instant, she believed it was the tree that had spoken, then she became aware of an
old man standing beside her.
"I fell out of the apple tree," she said, holding out her hand in greeting.
Surprised by her formal gesture, he stared at her hand. Instead of shaking it, he just held it
in his, her palm turned up. "Strange," he murmured, his thumb moving over the leafshaped
"Who are you?" he asked again.
"I think I'm your granddaughter," she said hopefully: She had taken an instant liking to
He was frail-looking, with silver-white hair that contrasted sharply with his tanned face.
From his nose to the corners of his mouth ran two deep lines. She wondered if they had
been drawn by worry and hard work, or by smiling a lot.
"Who sent you here?" the old man asked, his thumb still rubbing over the leaf-shaped
"My grandmother, Eliza Gomez, of Piritu. She used to work here. She died yesterday
"And what's your name?" he asked, studying her upturned face with the wide, ambercolored
eyes, the fine nose, the full mouth, and the determined angle of her chin.
"They call me La Negra...," she faltered under his intense scrutiny.
"La Negra Clara," he said. "That was my grandmother's name. She was as dark as you."
To make light of his words, he led her around the apple tree.
"It was the size of a parsley sprig when I brought it back with me from a trip to Europe.
People laughed at me, saying that the tree would never grow in the tropics.
"It's old now. It hasn't grown very tall, nor has it ever borne any fruit. But once in a while
it dresses itself all in white."
Wistfully, he looked at the delicate blossoms: Then his glance came to rest on the child's
eager face, and he said, "It's just as well that you fell out of the apple tree. This way I'll
never take such a gift for granted."
Emilia's voice roused Clara from her reveries. "Negraaaaa," she called, sticking her head
through the door. "Hurry up, child. I heard the car down the road."
Hastily, Clara stepped out of the tub, dried herself, and still half-wet, slipped into her
favorite dress. It was yellow with embroidered daisies around the collar, the sleeves, and
Looking at herself in the mirror, she giggled. The dress made her look even darker, but
she liked it.
She had no doubt that her cousin Luisito would like it, too. He was to spend the whole
summer at El Rincón. She had never met him: Last summer his parents had taken him to
Upon hearing the sound of an engine, Clara rushed along the corridor to the living room
just in time to see from the open window a shiny black limousine pull up the driveway.
Amazed, she watched the uniformed chauffeur and a corpulent woman dressed in a white
smock alight from the car.
Somber faced, they unloaded an endless number of suitcases, boxes, baskets, and bird
Silently, they carried everything inside, disdaining Emilia's help when she ran out to give
them a hand.
Before they were quite done, a loud, uninterrupted honking echoed down the road.
Within moments a second car, just as large, black, and shiny as the first one, pulled up.
A short fat man, dressed in a beige guayabera, a Panama hat, and dark pants stuffed into
boots that creaked with newness, moved out from behind the steering wheel.
Clara knew it was Raul; a very important man in the government and her grandfather's
"Don Luis!" Raul shouted. "I've brought your daughters; the Three Graces!"
He bowed low, almost sweeping the ground with his hat, then opened the back door of
the limousine and held out his hand to help three women out of the car: the twins, Maria
del Rosario and Maria del Carmen; and the youngest sister, Maria Magdalena, Raul's
"Luisito," Raul called, opening the car's front door. "Let me help you with those..."
Clara, not waiting to hear the rest of his words, rushed outside. "Luisito! I've been
looking forward--" She came to a dead halt.
Bewildered, Clara stared at the little boy holding on to a pair of crutches. "I didn't know
you had an accident."
Glowering, Luisito looked into her dark face. "I didn't have an accident," he said matterof-
For being so slight and frail, he had a booming voice. "I had poliomyelitis," he explained,
and noticing her uncomprehending expression, he added, "I'm a cripple."
"A cripple?" she repeated with a quizzical, yet calm, acceptance. "No one told me."
His little white hands and dark curls framing his pale, delicately featured face made her
think of something unworldly. He reminded her of the blossoms on the apple tree.
She knew him to be thirteen, a year older than she, but to look at him one would think he
was seven or eight.
His lips turned up at the corners, twitching, as if he had guessed her thoughts, and was
suppressing his laughter.
"Oh, Luisito." She sighed with relief and bent to kiss his cheek. "You look like an angel."
"Who is she?" one of the twins asked, turning to Emilia. "Did you find someone to help
you in the kitchen? Is she a relative of yours?"
"I'm Clara!" the child retorted, planting herself between the housekeeper and the aunt.
"La Negra Clara, your niece!"
"My what?" the woman shrieked, grabbing Clara by the arm and shaking her.
"Negrita, Clarita," the boy cried excitedly. With the aid of only one crutch he limped
"Didn't you hear, Aunt Maria del Rosario? She's my cousin!" Taking Clara's hand, he
pulled her away from his startled parents and his aunts. "Let's see what's keeping
Before Clara could explain that Grandfather was in town, Luisito had turned to the wide
gravel path that led to the orchard behind the house. He maneuvered his crutches so
swiftly and skillfully, he made her think of a monkey rather than a cripple.
"Luisito!" Maria del Rosario called after him. "You have to rest after the long, tiring
drive. It's too hot to be outdoors."
"Leave him alone," Raul said, ushering the three women inside. "The fresh air will do
"Where is Grandfather?" Luisito asked, easing himself to the ground under the shade of
the mango tree growing by the wall.
"In town," Clara said, sitting beside him. She was glad she had not accompanied her
grandfather on his rounds as usual.
She liked going with him to the barber shop, to the pharmacy where he bought the latest
medicines which he never took, and to the bar where he had a glass of brandy and played
a game of dominoes.
But today, she wouldn't have missed Luisito's arrival for anything in the world.
"Let's surprise Grandfather. He didn't expect you until late in the afternoon," Clara
suggested. "Let's go into town without telling anybody."
"I can't walk that far." Luisito lowered his head and slowly pushed his crutches away.
Clara sucked in her lower lip. "We'll make it," she declared with fierce determination.
"I'll push you in the wheelbarrow. I'm good at that."
She held her hand over his lips to stop him from interrupting her. "All you have to do is
slide into the wheelbarrow and sit."
She pointed to the narrow arched doorway in the wall. "I'll meet you there."
She gave him no time to voice any objections but rose and ran to the tool shed halfway
down the slope.
"You see how easy it was." Clara laughed and helped him into the wheelbarrow. "No one
will know where we are." She placed the crutches on his lap, then pushed him along the
wide, newly paved road, past factories, and still, empty stretches of land.
Sighing heavily, she brought the wheelbarrow to an abrupt halt. The heat made the
landscape waver in the distance. The shimmering light hurt her eyes.
Her grandmother, although tiny and skinny, had certainly weighed more than Luisito, she
thought, yet Clara didn't recall having had such a hard time pushing her about as she did
now with her cousin.
"It'll take forever to get into town on this road," she declared, wiping the dust and
perspiration off her face with the back of her hand. "Hold on tight, Luisito!" she cried
out, steering the wheelbarrow down an empty field, green with weeds from the recent
"You're a genius," the boy said laughing. "This is better than anything!
"You make me feel very happy; and happiness is what makes people healthy. I know it
because I'm a cripple."
Excitedly, he pointed one of his crutches skyward. "Look, Clara. Look at those vultures
above us. They are so powerful, so free."
vHe grabbed her arm. "Look at them! Look at their open black wings, how their legs
stretch out beneath their tails. Look at their fierce beaks dripping blood. I'll bet you
they're happy, too."
"The slaughterhouse is nearby," Clara explained.
"Push me to that pack of vultures on the ground," he begged, pointing to a place where
the birds had settled like black shadows at the other side of the slaughterhouse.
"Faster, Clara!" he yelled. "Faster!"
The vultures hopped aside, then lifted lazily into the air and flew low in ever tightening
circles before descending again a bit farther away.
Watching his flushed face, his eyes shiny with excitement, Clara knew that she was
making him happy.
For a moment, her attention strayed from the uneven terrain, and she failed to maneuver
the wheelbarrow around a large stone.
Luisito fell forward amid a clump of tall grass. He lay so still he looked dead.
"Luisito," Clara called anxiously, kneeling beside him. He didn't respond.
Carefully, she turned him around. Blood trickled from a cut on his forehead, and the
weeds had scratched his cheeks.
His lids fluttered open. His eyes, round and puzzled, looked up into hers.
"You're wounded," she said. Taking his hand, she pressed it against his forehead, then
showed him his bloodstained fingers.
He looked so happy, so pleased with himself that she laughed.
"Let's see if you're injured anyplace else," she said. "What about your leg?"
He sat up, then lifted his pant leg and said, "The braces are fine. If the braces ever get
twisted, my father knows how to adjust them."
"But what about your leg?" she insisted. "Is it all right?"
Luisito shook his head sadly. "It will never be all right," he declared and swiftly pushed
down his pants.
He explained to her what poliomyelitis was. "I've been to many doctors," he continued.
"Father has taken me to the United States and to Europe, but I will always be a cripple."
He shouted the word so many times he became exhausted by his effort, and broke into a
fit of coughing.
He looked at her sheepishly. "I'll go with you anywhere you want me to," he said,
pressing his head against her shoulder. "Clara, are you really my cousin?"
"Do you think I'm too dark to be your cousin?" she retorted.
"No," he replied thoughtfully. "You're too nice to be my cousin.
"You're the only one who doesn't make fun of me or look at me with pity and disdain."
He pulled out a white handkerchief from his pocket, folded it into a triangle, then rolled it
and fastened it around his forehead. "This will be the best summer I've ever had," he said
happily. "Come on, cousin, let's find Grandfather."
Before opening the dining room door, Clara brushed a few loose strands of hair behind
her ears: Since the aunts' arrival from Caracas, her grandfather and she no longer had
breakfast in the kitchen.
Maria del Rosario sat at the far end of the table, arranging flowers in a vase, tweaking
them here and there with impatient gestures.
Maria del Carmen, with her head buried in her missal, sat silently beside her sister.
Luisito's parents, who had only stayed for a few days at El Rincón, had left for Europe.
"Good morning," Clara mumbled, taking her seat at the long mahogany table next to
Don Luis looked up from his plate, and winked at her impishly.
He was trying to provoke the twins; he went on dunking his roll in his coffee, slurping
noisily: They never ate before going to mass.
From over the rim of her hot-chocolate cup, Clara stole a glance at the disapproving faces
of the twins.
They no longer bore any resemblance to the oil paintings of the young beautiful girls
hanging in the living room. With their sallow complexions, their sunken cheeks, and their
dark hair pulled back in a small bun, they reminded her of the embittered nuns that taught
catechism at school.
Of the two, Maria del Rosario was the most difficult. Clara felt anxious and uneasy in her
Maria del Rosario had the nervous eyes of a person who does not sleep; eyes of
impatience and alarm; eyes that were always watching and judging. She was only
agreeable when she had her own way.
One hardly noticed Maria del Carmen, on the other hand. Her heavy-lidded eyes seemed
to be weighed down by some ancestral tiredness. She walked with noiseless steps and
spoke in a voice so soft it seemed as though she was only moving her lips.
Maria del Rosario's sharp voice intruded on Clara's musings.
"Won't you convince Luisito that you two should go with us to mass this Sunday, Clara?"
she addressed the child as if speaking to her was against her better judgment.
"No. She won't," Luisito answered for her. "We'll go in the evening, with Emilia."
Clara stuffed a fritter into her mouth to hide her smile.
She knew Maria del Rosario would not insist. She hated scenes on Sunday, and there was
no one like Luisito to get his way.
Aside from his grandfather, Luisito never heeded anyone's advice.
He used and abused the terror he inspired by his rages whenever his aunts tried to oppose
his wishes; rages expressed in such frantic banging of his crutches against any object in
front of him, obscene gestures, and foul language that it put the women on the verge of
"Clara, finish your breakfast," Maria del Rosario ordered. "The maid wants to clear
everything away before we leave. She, too, wants to go to church."
Clara gulped down the rest of her hot chocolate and handed the cup to the tall, gravelooking
woman the twins had brought with them from Caracas. She was from the Canary
Islands and had taken over the running of the house.
Emilia was not in the least upset, for all she had to do now was to prepare don Luis' food.
He absolutely refused to eat the vegetarian dishes the aunts were so partial to.
"Not even dogs would eat this food," he would say each time they all sat down for a
Clara wasn't particularly fond of vegetarian dishes either, but she thought it the height of
elegance when Maria del Rosario had the chauffeur drive her each morning to the fields
of the Portuguese farmers, so that she could pick the vegetables for that day's meal, and
pay twice as much as Emilia would at the open market on Saturdays.
The instant Clara heard the light tap of Luisito's crutches coming down the corridor, she
climbed out the window and ran halfway down the terraced slope to the mango tree
growing by the wall.
Unconcerned about her yellow dress getting dirty, she stretched full length on the ground,
and kicked off her shoes.
Unable to find a comfortable position she turned this way and that. She felt her blood
hammering in her temples, in her breasts, in her thighs. It filled her with a strange desire
she didn't understand.
She sat up abruptly upon hearing Luisito approach.
"Why didn't you answer?" he asked, easing himself down beside her. He placed the
crutches within reach and added, "They have all gone to mass, including Grandfather."
Smiling, she searched his face with tender admiration. He had a dreamy, soft-edged look,
sweet, yet daring.
She wanted to tell him so many things, but she could not express any of them. "Kiss me
the way they do in the movies," she demanded.
"Yes," he whispered, and that one word answered all her turmoil, that strange desire she
didn't understand. "Oh, Negrito," he mumbled, burying his face in her neck. She smelled
of the earth and the sun.
Her lips moved, but there was no sound. Wide-eyed, she watched him open his pants. She
couldn't shift her gaze away.
His face shone down on her with glowing animation: His eyes seemed to melt between
his long lashes. Carefully, so his steel braces would not hurt her, he eased himself on top
"We'll stay together forever," Luisito said. "I've convinced my parents that I'll be happier
at El Rincón. They are going to send a tutor out here."
Clara closed her eyes. In the last three months her love for Luisito had taken on
monumental proportions. Daily they lay together in the shade of the mango tree.
"Yes," she whispered. "We'll stay together forever." She wrapped her arms around him.
She didn't know what she heard first: Luisito's muffled sigh or Maria del Rosario's
The aunt shrieked. She moved closer and, lowering her voice, said, "Luisito, you are a
disgrace to the family. What you have done is unspeakable."
Her hard, implacable eyes never wavered for an instant from the red and white blossoms
hanging over the wall.
"And as for you, Clara," she went on, "your behavior comes as no surprise. No doubt
you'll end up in the gutter, where you belong."
She hurried up the steps. At the top, she halted. "We'll be returning to Caracas this very
day, Luis. And don't pull any of your tantrums. It won't work this time. No obscene
gesture, no foul language, could be worse than what you have done."
Luisito began to cry.
Clara took his pale face in her hands and wiped the tears from his lashes with her fingers.
"We'll love each other forever. We'll always be together," she said, and then she let him
Clara watched the evening shadows darken everything around her. Through a veil of tears
she gazed up at the tree above her.
The leaves, outlined against the starlit sky, took on unexpected forms, shapes she did not
A swift breeze erased the patterns. All that remained was the sound of the wind; a
desolate cry, bringing an end to the summer.
"Clara!" her grandfather called.
Torn between remorse and anxiety, she didn't answer.
The light shimmering among the fruit trees didn't waver. The certainty that her
grandfather would wait for her, even if it took her the whole night to answer, filled her
Slowly, she rose and brushed the leaves and the dampness from her dress. "Grandfather,"
she called softly, climbing the steps toward the light, and the love and understanding that
"Let's look at the apple tree," don Luis said. "Perhaps it'll bloom again next summer."
Two weeks later, on a Sunday afternoon, dona Mercedes announced that she had to go to
"Has Clara taken ill again?" I asked, alarmed.
"No," dona Mercedes said, rising from the hammock in her bedroom. "I want to make
sure she follows my instructions: She's a willful patient."
Dona Mercedes rested her hands on my shoulders. "Today, you and I will help Clara.
Together we'll move the wheel of chance for her."
She turned to the blue and pink painted wardrobe that blocked the door facing the street,
and fumbled with the key.
Before unlocking it, she looked back at me and said, "Gather all your clothes and put
them in your jeep.
"Seeing that you're packed, Clara will think you are leaving for Caracas. She may decide
to take advantage of the ride.
"In the depths of her, she knows that she will be well only if she leaves El Rincón."
I was really surprised at the scarcity of my belongings. I had brought much more, but
then I remembered that I had given away most of what I had to some of Agustin's young
"Clara's story is a sort of bonus to you," dona Mercedes said as she helped me put my bag
in the jeep. "At least I didn't expect it.
"It came out of nowhere, but it's very appropriate.
"I encouraged you to talk to Clara and to spend time with her. Under her shadow, I'm sure
you have felt the turns of the wheel of chance in her life.
"She's another person with a natural gift; a natural control over the witch's shadow."
Definitely, Clara was a very strong person. I felt that her emotional conflicts made her
rather somber: She seemed, at least to me, always preoccupied; reflecting on something
Dona Mercedes agreed with my assessment of Clara, and added that Clara needed our
"Let me put it this way," she said.
"Clara is so strong that she has now engaged your witch's shadow and mine to move the
wheel of chance for her."
"What is the meaning of that, dona Mercedes?"
"It means that you and I are going to help her leave, not so much because we're good
Samaritans, but because she is forcing us to do it."
There was a strong compulsion in me to disagree with her or, rather, to set the record
"Nobody is forcing me to do anything," I said.
Dona Mercedes peered at me quizzically, her glance half-pitying, half-mocking: Then she
lifted my bag, and gently placed it on the back seat.
"You mean to say you wouldn't move a finger to help her?" she asked in a whisper.
"No. I didn't say that. I merely said that Clara is not forcing me at all. I'd gladly do it all
by myself without her asking me."
"Ah, there is the link. Clara forces us without saying a word.
"Neither you nor I could remain impassive. In one way or another, we have been under
her shadow too long."
Through the rearview mirror I could still see Candelaria, a hazy lonely figure waving
farewell. She had fastened a yellow, blue, and red plastic pinwheel to the jeep's antenna.
It whirled noisily in the wind.
"Do you think Candelaria wanted to come with us to Caracas?" I asked dona Mercedes.
"No," she mumbled: Dona Mercedes had already settled in her seat to doze. "Candelaria
hates Caracas. She always gets a headache the moment she reaches the outskirts of the
As soon as I brought the jeep to a full stop in front of El Rincón, dona Mercedes, not
waiting for me to help her out, alighted from the car, and dashed into the house.
Swiftly, I caught up with her, and followed her toward the swishing sound of a broom.
It was Clara cleaning the patio.
She looked up. She smiled but did not speak to us.
She seemed to be sweeping the silence and the shadows, for there wasn't a single leaf on
Dona Mercedes lit two candles on the stone ledge circling the fountain.
She closed her eyes and waited for Clara to finish.
"I did all you told me to do," Clara said, sitting between the two lit candles.
Dona Mercedes did not look at her but began to sniff the air, trying to identify some
"Listen carefully, Clara," she said shortly. "The only thing that will keep you well is to
leave this house."
"Why should I leave it?" Clara asked, alarmed. "Grandfather left it to me. He wanted me
to stay here."
"He wanted you to have the house," dona Mercedes corrected her. "He did not want you
to stay here. Don't you remember he said that to you before he died?"
Seemingly indifferent to Clara's mounting agitation, dona Mercedes lit a cigar.
She smoked with slow, even puffs and began to massage Clara's head and shoulders.
She blew the smoke around her, as if she were outlining her form against the air.
"This house is inhabited by ghosts and memories that don't belong to you, Clara," she
went on. "You were only a guest in this house.
"You ruled this place from the moment you arrived because you had luck and strength.
These two forces were disguised in you as affection and a great ease with people.
"But there's no one here anymore. It's time to leave.
"Only ghosts remain here: Ghosts and shadows that don't belong to you."
"But what can I do?" Clara asked tearfully.
"Go to Caracas!" dona Mercedes exclaimed. "Go and live with Luisito!"
"Really, dona Mercedes!" Clara retorted indignantly. "How can you suggest such a thing.
It's downright indecent."
Dona Mercedes replied, "You sound like your aunts." and she regarded Clara cheerfully;
then flung her head back and laughed. "Don't be an ass, Clara.
"What's indecent is to pretend to be prudish. Have you forgotten what you and Luisito
have been doing since you were twelve years old?"
Clara remained silent, seemingly lost in thought. "I can't be rushed into a decision." She
smiled, tracing the cement cracks on the ground with her toes. "I can't just leave all this."
"You can if you have guts," dona Mercedes said. "The musiua here is also leaving today.
We will take you to Luisito."
"And what about Emilia?" Clara asked.
Dona Mercedes replied, "Emilia will be happy with your aunts.
"Your aunts have been wanting to come back to El Rincón for a long time. This place
holds all their memories; all their feelings.
"Here, the three women can set back the clock to an ideal time that never was. The
shadows of the past will dim the present, and erase their frustrations."
Dona Mercedes was silent for an instant, then she took Clara's hands in hers, perhaps to
communicate the urgency of her words. "Put on your yellow dress. Yellow suits you. It'll
give you strength.
"Change quickly. You need nothing else.
"When you came to El Rincón you had only one dress; you should leave the same way."
Seeing Clara's hesitation, Dona Mercedes pressed her point. "This is your last chance,
"I've already told the musiua that the only way for you to keep well is to love Luisito with
abandon and completeness, as you did when you were a child."
Clara's large eyes, bright with tears, closed in a hurt blink. "But I love him," she
murmured. "You know that I have never loved anyone but him."
Dona Mercedes regarded her thoughtfully. "True," she admitted and, turning toward me,
added, "She had dozens of rich suitors.
"She still does, and she still gets a malicious pleasure disappointing them. She's escaped
from more sure engagements than I care to remember."
Clara's laughter rang out loud. She put her arm around dona Mercedes' shoulders and
brushed her lips across her cheek.
"You always exaggerate everything," she said, her tone betraying how delighted she was.
"But in spite of all my admirers, I never loved anyone but Luisito."
Dona Mercedes took her arm and guided her toward her room. "You have to love Luisito
in the world the way you love him within the crumbling walls of El Rincón."
She pushed Clara inside, and said, "Go on and put on your yellow dress. We'll be waiting
for you in the jeep."
Clara's description of Luisito had not prepared me for the astonishingly handsome man
who greeted us at his apartment door in Caracas.
I knew that he was in his late twenties, but he looked like a teenager with black curly
hair, green-yellow eyes, and smooth white skin.
When he smiled, his cheeks dimpled.
In spite of his pronounced limp, there was nothing awkward about his movements.
His engaging personality and his self-sufficient manner did not allow for pity.
Luisito was not in the least surprised to see us; and when he served us a sumptuous meal,
I knew that dona Mercedes had arranged things beforehand.
We stayed until late: It was an unforgettable night.
I had never seen dona Mercedes in such an expansive mood.
Her flawless mimicry of the people we all knew in Curmina, her knack for recalling the
most absurd situations, her talent for dramatizing them, and her shameless exaggerations
turned her anecdotes into memorable tales.
It was shortly before midnight when, declining Luisito's invitation to stay for the night,
Mercedes Peralta rose and embraced both Clara and Luisito at the same time.
Then, with her arms wide open, she approached me with an exuberant gesture of
I said, "Don't embrace me like that. You're not saying good-bye to me, too. I'm going
back with you."
I laughed and returned her embrace.
I reached for the ignition. Wrapped around my keys was a chain.
With trembling fingers I untangled it. It was a long gold chain with a huge medal hanging
"You better wear it," dona Mercedes said, looking at me. "It's Saint Christopher, the
remarkable patron saint of travelers."
A sigh of contentment escaped her lips as she settled back in her seat. "You'll be well
protected. After all, you're a traveler who has stopped only for a moment."
Instead of heading for Curmina, dona Mercedes directed me along specific streets; clear
I had the feeling we had been driving in circles, when she finally made me stop in front
of an old, green colonial house.
"Who lives here?" I asked.
"My ancestors lived here," she replied. "It's their house. And I am just a leaf of an
She looked at me so intently she seemed to be imprinting my face in the depths of her
Leaning closer, she whispered in my ear. "A witch has to have luck and strength to move
the wheel of chance.
"Strength can be groomed, but luck cannot be beckoned: It cannot be enticed. Luck,
independent of witchcraft or human arrangements, makes its own choice."
She ran her fingers through my hair and over my face, feeling rather than seeing me, then
added, "That's why witches are so attracted to it."
I was filled with an odd premonition.
I looked at her questioningly, but she reached for her basket and pulled out a reddish
brown leaf shaped like a butterfly.
"Look at it carefully," she said, handing me the leaf. "The spirits of my ancestors told me
to always carry a dry leaf.
"I am this leaf, and I want you to throw it through that window."
She pointed to the house in front of us. "As you throw it, recite an incantation. I want to
know how powerful your incantations are."
Willing to humor her, I examined the leaf from every angle, turning it over and over. I
surveyed its surface and searched its depths.
"It's beautiful," I said.
"Throw it through the window," she repeated.
I climbed up the wrought-iron grill, pushed the heavy curtain aside, and threw the leaf
inside as an incantation flowed out of me.
Instead of falling to the ground, the leaf fluttered upward toward the corner by the ceiling
like a moth.
Alarmed, I jumped down.
Mercedes Peralta was no longer in the jeep. Certain that she had gone into the house, I
knocked softly on the door.
It was open. "Dona Mercedes," I whispered and stepped inside.
The house, built around a patio and shadowy corridors, was like a silent dark cloister.
Long rain gutters dropped from the dark roof, and metal rings dangled from the ancient
I walked to the center of the patio, toward a weeping willow shrouded in mist.
Like phantom beads, the tiny silvery dew-drops on its leaves slid soundlessly into the
A gust of air shook the willow tree, scattering fresh dry leaves all around me.
Gripped by an irrational fear, I ran out into the street.
I sat in my jeep determined to wait for Mercedes Peralta. I reached under my seat for a
box of tissue paper and felt my camera and tape recorder.
Puzzled, I turned around: I had no recollection of packing anything but my clothes.
To my utter astonishment, I discovered a box on the backseat. It contained my tapes and
Stuck to the box was an unsigned note.
I recognized Candelaria's bold handwriting.
It read, "A witch's farewell is like dust from the road; it sinks in as one tries to slough it
I returned to Los Angeles, and then I went to Mexico to face Florinda.
Upon hearing a detailed summary of my experiences, she found it quite extraordinary and
inexplicable that my life in dona Mercedes' world began with her own handwritten note,
hidden among my clothes, and ended with Candelaria's, hidden among my tapes.
Although Florinda made fun of what she called my compulsive thoroughness, she urged
me to see if I could use my numerous tapes to write my dissertation.
Working with the material, I became aware that in spite of the fact that I had had no
theoretical plan to organize my objectives, the events in dona Mercedes' house seemed
prearranged to introduce me to spiritualists, witches, healers; and the people they deal
with; and what they do in the context of their daily activities.
Having followed dona Mercedes' activities in healing, and having learned to use her own
system of interpretation, I sincerely believed that I had mastered, at least intellectually,
the way healers see themselves, each other, and their knowledge.
I was certain that my experience and the notes I had collected would suffice to write a
However, after transcribing, translating, and analyzing my tapes and notes, I began to
doubt my intellectual mastery of healing.
My attempt to organize the data to fit a meaningful framework proved to be futile: My
notes were ridden with inconsistencies and contradictions, and my knowledge of healing
could not fill in the gaps.
Florinda then made a cynical suggestion: Either alter the data to fit my theories, or forget
about the dissertation altogether.
I forgot about the dissertation.
Florinda has always urged that I look beneath the surface of things.
In the case of my experience with dona Mercedes, she suggested that I look deeper than
the possible academic value. She thought my academic bias blinded me to more
I read and reread the stories dona Mercedes had selected for me and finally understood
what Florinda wanted.
I realized that if I removed the academic emphasis from my own work, I would be left
with a document about human values- human values definitely foreign to us, yet perfectly
understandable, if we momentarily placed ourselves outside our usual frame of reference.
With those stories, dona Mercedes proposed to show me that witches, or even ordinary
people, are capable of using extraordinary forces that exist in the universe to alter the
course of events, or the course of their lives, or the lives of other people.
The course of events, she called 'the wheel of chance,' and the process of affecting it, she
called 'the witch's shadow.'
She claimed that we can alter anything without directly intruding upon the process; and
sometimes without even knowing that we are doing so.
For Westerners, this is an unthinkable proposition.
If we find ourselves affecting the course of events without directly intruding upon them,
we think of coincidence as the only serious explanation; for we believe that direct
intervention is the only way of altering anything.
For example, men of history affected events with complex social decisions.
Or in a more reduced scope, people directly intervene through their actions in the lives of
In contrast, the stories selected by dona Mercedes make us aware of something that we
are not familiar with.
The stories point to the incomprehensible possibility that without direct mediating, we
can be more influential than we think in shaping the course of events.
On the whole, Florinda was satisfied with the results of my journey to Venezuela.
She said that she had wanted me to get firsthand knowledge of my hidden resources.
Her idea was that I had to function effectively in an environment unknown to me, and
that I had to learn to adapt quickly to situations outside the boundaries of what I know,
accept, and can predict.
Florinda maintained that nothing could be more appropriate for bringing out those hidden
resources than a confrontation with the social unknown.
My life in dona Mercedes' house, and my interaction with her patients and friends was
that social unknown.
I admitted to Florinda that her admonitions about the woman-warrior philosophy- which
were quite incomprehensible to me at the time- actually became the basis for all my acts
while I stayed with dona Mercedes.
"There are many ways of behaving when one is in a normal setting," Florinda
commented, "but when one is alone, in danger, or in darkness, there is only one way: the
Florinda said that I had discovered the value of the warrior's way and the meaning of all
Under the impact of an unfamiliar life situation, I had found out:..
.. that not surrendering means freedom;..
.. that not feeling self-important breeds an indomitable fierceness;..
.. and that vanquishing moral judgments brings an all-soothing humbleness that is not
Страниц этого сайта - List of Pages of this site: List of Site Links (Sitemap)