Okay the jury summons
blindsided me, I'll admit it. With one thing after another—the remodel, Cara
being expelled from private school even as we struggled to pay that semester's
tuition, Scott's slow sales at the gallery—I just didn't concentrate enough
on taking care of the thing.
Two months before the
trial date, I sat at the kitchen counter, scratchpad in hand, generating excuses.
My grandmother is sick in the hospital. Scratch. My mother is sick—scratch.
I'm sick in the hospital—and writing to you from my sick bed. Who's your
doctor? Scratch. I've moved to another state. I want to move to another state.
My car is broke. Take the bus! I'm broke. Scratch. The summons sat on the table
in the entry hall while I agonized foolproof excuses to get taken off. This
after I was refused any more six-month deferments. I kept assuming life
circumstances would somehow take care of the reasons. Instead life only managed
a slow snowfall of other mail to bury the summons until it was too late to do
anything but ... go.
So there I was at eight
in the morning, lost in some super-structure concrete building in the
labyrinthine bowels of civic center downtown, struggling my purse and
cappuccino through the metal detector. Then sitting in an auditorium in the
semi-dark, watching a film about the pride of fulfilling your civic duty. A
text message came in from our contractor, who had neglected to pick up the rojo
alicante tile for the bathroom shower so that now the man hired to lay tile
and his assistant were at this very moment on my back patio on an extended,
paid coffee-break on our time. Can you swing by State College and pick it
texted, can't help you. I'm at jury duty.
Why, he texted
back, don't you say you have root canal done? That work for me. I say the
vicodin stringing me out.
This was the
fastest response time I had ever had from him since he demo-ed our house ten months
before. After he received our deposit, he then settled into a lethargic,
pot-smoking sloth. Dimitri had forgotten that he told me that he was
serving jury duty several months back. When he returned after two weeks, he had
an even darker tan than usual and a new tattoo of a bird on his calf.
Pick up the tile,
I texted. Before I fire you, I continued in the privacy of my brain.
They were calling badge
numbers over the intercom system like at a bingo parlor for the unlucky.
Volunteers were requested for a grand jury that would likely be sequestered for
months in a downtown hotel. For a moment, it was tempting to take this cowardly
way to flee my problems, but instead I escaped to the sunny concrete terrace
where smokers and cell phone users were sequestered.
I asked a redheaded,
teenage girl with creamy white skin, reading Anna Karenina, to wave at
me through the window if my number was called. It's good to see youth reading
serious literature, but when I looked at her more closely I see a piercing through
her eyebrow that looks like a safety pin. I wondered if she had her heart
broken and was indulging in morbid fantasies.
I had a scheduled
teleconference with the vice-principal, Mrs. Rowley, at the private school
where Cara's tuition was past due, even though at the moment she had been put
on detention for smoking a joint in the girls' bathroom. A joint probably
procured from Dimitri. I wondered if secretly the registrar hadn't communicated
our slow payments to the VP. That in addition to a waiting list of paying
students wanting to get in, Cara, although smart, was lazy and rebellious to
authority, a troublemaker with slipping grades. Instead of groveling, I'm
tempted to tell Mrs. Rowley off, call out the vampire country club for the
over-privileged she was running, and throw Cara into the wild seas of Southern
California public schools. Sink or swim. I myself am a product of the public
schools, but that was decades (ages beyond reckoning) ago and in the rural
Midwest, to boot. Although the elitism offends me, I'm frightened of the
stories of drugs and guns I hear from other parents who've tried this route. So
"I think Cara is upset
lately. Difficulties at home."
"Yes, she told me."
"What?" I said,
surprised, paranoid. "What did she tell you?"
"That Cara's father is
seeking comfort outside the martial relationship."
I was stunned, not only
to hear my pain from a stranger's mouth, but the fact that Cara couldn't leave
me the smallest amount of privacy, pride. Just like her father.
"We're remodeling a
house for resale. Lots of tension. You know what they call remodeling—the
"About Cara ... "
"But I always loved
him. Even with his flaws. He's my husband. We were high-school sweethearts."
A light coughing on the
other end. Did I mention that I'd done a little acting in my early twenties?
"Would you like to talk to the counselor here? It's a bit unorthodox, but I
could arrange it."
I simply burned with
embarrassment, with sunstroke and the fumes of fifty lit cigarettes in close
proximity. I was appalled.
"Could I?" Because,
after all, my health insurance was just cancelled since I quit my job as a
decorator to work full-time on the remodel, this before finding out that my
one-and-truly was involving himself with a brunette plein-air painter.
"Why don't you come
over this morning and talk with her?"
redhead was frantically waving Anna Karenina at me through the window.
"They just called my
"Where are you?
What had Cara told this
woman? "Jury duty."
"Why didn't you just
get off? Tell them you're self-employed. Works every time."
The courtroom was up
the elevator on the twelfth floor. A long wall of green-tinted glass. A row of
oak-veneer double doors, leading to eight separate courtrooms, with trials
going on simultaneously. The elevators let off a chaos of people trying to get
where they belonged. Disappointing, assembly-line justice compared to the TV
A pool of over two
hundred people to weed down to the dozen jurors. I was called to come in before
the judge in a batch of twenty-five. That's when the real circus started. We
were asked if there was any reason we could not serve, and that was just the
key to open up the whole litany of human misery. The most popular reason was
that the juror didn't understand English well enough to follow the trial. This
from a French woman who was a college professor. I heard another woman claim
this in pidgin English while outside in the hallway she was cutting a mean deal
on her cell phone for a supply of kitchen products for her restaurant. Healthy
men complained of shingles, of panic attacks, and erectile dysfunction (what
did that have to do with being on a jury?), of phobias related to
Federal buildings. Women complained of breast-feeding schedules, incontinent
elder care, alcoholism, and Prozac-related depression.
When it came my turn,
the judge tiredly asked if there was any reason I could not be of service.
There was nothing else that I could do but acquiesce to the truth: "No. There
is absolutely no reason I can't serve." The judge's eyebrows shot up, and he
looked at me for the first time as if he were watching the birth of some rare,
stupid creature never before seen in the confines of the courthouse.
The winnowing process
continued the rest of the afternoon while I hated myself for being so spineless
not to lie. I lied about my age regularly; I lied to the neighbor why we
couldn't attend their party; I lied to my hairstylist when I went to someone
else for a cut. A beautiful Philippine woman in a white mini-skirt said she was
a singer and had to prepare an audition for a reality show. Dismissed. I sat
there fuming and appalled. What was this country coming to? And what was wrong
with me that I couldn't come up with the lamest excuse?
Now the nature of the
case was revealed to the remaining pool: child molestation. My stomach
cratered. With horrific stories from the local news of abuse cases that made
you want to hang your head in shame for the behavior of your fellow human beings.
A young Hispanic man said that he had young children at home and did not think
he could be objective because of that. Dismissed.
Everyone jumped on that
like flies on honey. Even people without kids claimed deep emotional attachment
to nieces and nephews. Sure, I had Cara, and the very thought of anyone
touching her made me want to tear them apart limb by limb. Five people before
my turn, the dismissal rate ran so high, the question was rephrased: Even
though you are outraged by child molestation, are you capable of being fair to
a person perhaps unjustly accused?
Call me juror number
I was told to
report the next morning at eight o'clock sharp. I wondered if the Philippine
torch singer was at that very moment in a piano bar somewhere, toasting her
freedom with an iced martini.
The next morning I
arrived bleary-eyed with a coffee spill on my blouse, courtesy of a large man
who bumped me from behind going through the metal detector. I had brought a
novel, Maugham's Up at the Villa, to while away the interminable periods
of waiting that we would now be subjected. I daydreamed that I was the widow
living in the hills above Florence at that moment. Both jury parties spoke only
Spanish so court-appointed translators joined the prosecutor's and defendant's
tables, making it a full house, and slow going.
Dimitri had decided on
his own that a slate-blue tile, resembling the inside dark of a coffin, was
preferable to the red tile that I had picked out. Half the shower wall was done
when he sent me the picture over my email.
Not on your life,
I texted back.
At last the defendant,
Santiago Pancho Sanchez, was brought in. From the moment I laid eyes on him, I
was certain he was guilty. I wanted to tear him apart limb by limb.
Medium height, he
weighted upwards of two hundred pounds. His stomach bulged over the belt of his
pants and strained at the shirt he wore. His face was pudgy, the skin rough and
pocked, his brown hair ragged as if cut with a pair of dull kitchen scissors,
in the dark, while drunk. What struck me the most was how he did not look
anyone in the eye, especially not us, the jurors. He kept his eyes down on the
table in front of him, and nodded to the whispers of the translator in his ear.
An elegant, middle-aged woman wearing heels and a skirt-suit, I wondered how
she could stand to sit near this human vermin. Now I watched his hands —
stubby, fat hands that were really more like mitts, fingers like sausages, with
black under the fingernails—how he folded them on top of the desk. His hands
made me nauseous.
We were informed by the
judge that there would be two days of testimony and then our decision. Each of
us mentally ticked off Wednesday, Thursday, a quick look at Mr. Sanchez—it
would be over before Friday at five. The prosecutor, a pale, librarian-type,
with brown hair pinned up tightly in a bun, started with the rather startling
information that the defendant had already confessed to the crime. Decided, I
thought, the rest is just housecleaning.
Once the interrogator
began to give testimony for the prosecution, I doodled palm trees in my
assigned notebook, and stole glances at Santiago, who appeared not to be
listening, appeared to be in another world, totally unconcerned with what was
going on right in front of him, his fate in the scales of our not-blind
justice. Pay attention, man, I thought, then remembered he did not
understand a word of English.
Santiago had gone to
the "victim's" house to shine shoes. That is what he did for a living, went
through the Hispanic neighborhoods door-to-door. The victim's four adult
brothers and her father were outside on the lawn drinking beer and watching a
soccer match on a TV brought out on the porch for that purpose.
The mother said that
she didn't have money that day to pay him for shoes, but Santiago said he was
hungry and would work for food. She didn't really need shoes cleaned, but she
was a Christian woman. She agreed.
The attorney for the
defense got up with a sigh. He was a thin man in a shiny suit, but his face was
kind. He went over his client's confession with the interrogator. I thought, What
a waste of time this is. Dimitri picked BLUE tiles. Put the poor guy away and
throw away the key.
the attorney asked: "So you told the defendant, Mr. Sanchez, a man with no
formal education and no knowledge of English, that you had evidence of black
shoe polish on the girl's body?"
"On her belly, on her
abdomen, on her private parts?"
"And that he would go
to prison for a long time?"
"And that night, the
defendant tried to commit suicide?"
"With his shoelaces?"
"That's in the report.
I had nothing to do with that."
"And all your
statements about the shoe polish evidence were false?"
"Yes, sir. That's an
approved interrogation technique."
We were told to come
back the next morning at eleven because of scheduling conflicts: a verdict in
another case had been decided. We were given five-dollar coupons to use at the
cafeteria, courtesy of California taxpayers. Santiago never looked up as we
filed outside at the end of the day.
That night, I sat
on the bathroom floor and stared into the shower, thinking of Santiago in his
cell. My shoelaces looked like dirty gray stays. Why was I wasting my life
worrying about bathroom tile? Why was I living blinded? I put a Post-it on the
shower door saying to tile it half in blue, the rest in red, like the circles
of Dante's Inferno.
The next morning,
we heard quick, cursory testimony by the examining nurse at the hospital (no signs
of sexual trauma), by the social worked assigned the case (child was
emotionally upset), and by the arresting officer, who explained how someone
hired to shine shoes in the front yard ended up alone with a twelve-year-old in
the living room. The story was that the girl had a stomachache and did not feel
well. Which later turned out to be her first menstrual cramps. The mother, who
was from an isolated rural area, Chiapas, in Mexico, was complaining of a
migraine to Santiago while he ate leftover rice and beans from the night
before. He offered that he was the son of Carina, a famous healer from the same
region, and he would try to help her. He gave her a tea from dried leaves he
carried, then laid his hands on her head for five minutes.
The two attorneys stole
exasperated glances at each other across the aisle. Law school had not prepared
them for this.
"Did he cure your
headache?" the defending attorney asked the mother when she was on the witness
"Si," she said
to the interpreter, refusing to look at the attorney as if he were the devil.
"And then you asked him
to cure your daughter?"
During the fifteen
minute afternoon break, a fellow juror, a law student from the nearby
university, and I split a candy bar and a coke.
"No need for Tylenol
anymore, with stuff like that," she joked. "Just a laying on of hands."
I turned my phone on to
see about a zillion frantic texts from Dimitri. I turned the phone back off.
"Diet be damned. Let's share a corn dog."
After the recess, the
child was to be brought for the first time into the courtroom. A victim of too
may TV series, I was picturing a slight, waif-version of Selma Hayek. The girl
who came in was a large, beefy twelve-year-old. She smiled and beamed at the
over fifty people gathered for one reason or another in this room with her the
center of attention. Carefully she avoided the table where Santiago sat. She
had a horsetail of thick, blue-black hair down her back, the only thing vaguely
adult and sexualized about her. She wore a cartoon T-shirt and jeans. On the
stand, she giggled and wagged her feet back and forth under the seat.
attorney came up and said sternly, "Alicia, you understand why you're here and
that this is very serious?"
The girl's face fell.
She told her mom that
she didn't want the man to touch her. She told her. That he was ugly. That he
smelled funny. That his hands looked dirty even though he washed them again and
again at the kitchen sink. His fingernails were stained a permanent, glossy black
like the hooves of some animal. "My stomach ache is going away," she said,
hopefully, pleadingly, but her mom ignored her.
She told her mom she
was spending the night at Sandra's house, but really they were going to a party
at Alejo's. The biggest night of hr life, and her mom forced her to waste time
with this fake medicine man.
Her brother, Robert,
was in the living room with his beautiful, Maria, of the white teeth and curvy
hips, and their baby, little Miguelito, between them on the sofa. They were
unwrapping tamales from cornhusks, steam rising off the crumbly mixture. The
food smelled so good, Maria caught both Santiago and Alicia looking and so
offered them some. Santiago greedily gobbled down two in a few bites. Alicia
refused although she wanted them frantically, but she was trying to lose weight
and would only eat one apple for the whole day, even if she passed out. Which
would be better, come to think of it, because then she wouldn't know how hungry
she was. Then Santiago told Alicia to lie down on the sofa. Robert and Maria
moved away as he covered Alicia's eyes with the napkin he'd just wiped his
"It's greasy," she
complained, grossed out but hungry too, and Maria laughed and went to get a
clean towel from the bathroom.
"Use this," Maria said,
handing Santiago a hand towel.
He folded the towel
into thirds the long way, then laid it over Alicia's eyes. "Can you still
She nodded, blinded.
The dark felt good. Like velvet. And the crowded, small room now felt like a
huge empty room, but in the dark. Sounds came to her sharply: the soccer game
on the TV outside, Miguelito's slap of hands and suck of breath, the healer
mumbling his chants. She forgot all about him and daydreamed about Alejo from
her homeroom class. Even though he was a little cross-eyed and got worse grades
than her, he was the bomb. A friend of a friend had asked him if he liked her,
and he had said maybe. Being Alejo's girlfriend would be a BD, big deal, since
none of her friends had a BF yet. He had told a guy friend that he thought that
she was maybe sexy. Did he understand what the word meant? Alicia had the
forced innocence of homeliness.
So she had to go to
Alejo's party even though he hadn't invited her specifically, but instead said
anyone could come who brought beer. Which she and Sandra couldn't.
The healer was
talking to her mom, who had come back into the room, but Alicia felt drowsy and
didn't pay much attention to their words. All of a sudden there was something
cold and hard and heavy on her forehead, and she bolted upright, frightened,
and a big, rock fell into her lap.
Her mother swatted her
shoulder. "Lie down, stupid girl. He's trying to help you."
Alicia blinked in the
light and was disappointed to see the same small living room as before—dirty
dishes stacked on the coffee table, Maria changing Miguelito's diaper on a
blanket on the floor—unchanged.
The healer had grown
puffed up and important in his role, bossing everyone around, not shy like when
he was outside shining shoes. Ignoring Alicia, he talked only to the mom and
Maria, explaining that the rock was a river stone from the sacred Usamacinta
river. That its healing waters created a magnetic power in the stones that
would realign the magnetic field in the girl's body. Alicia hated when people
talked about her in the third person.
"I do not know," he
said, "where she's been, but I feel her energies are scattered, and this could
be the cause of her stomach ache."
"It's America," her
mother said, making that noise, tsk, tsk, that irritated Alicia.
"McDonalds is the evil."
"Not so simple as
that," he snapped.
"I'm sorry. No insult
intended. I'm just a plain village woman."
Alicia again lay down,
this time gratefully letting the towel's darkness envelop her. Her mom always
got taken by these phonies from Mexico. She thought maybe she'd do this more
often—cover her eyes and block everyone out. Again, her mind returned like a
homing pigeon to Alejo, while the healer placed his hands firmly on each side
of her skull and made small, circular motions, raking his fingers up to the top
of her head as if he were dragging something out. It felt like that, as if he
were the magician down at the fairgrounds, pulling scarf after scarf out of the
top of her head. She worried briefly if there was any chance he could see what
she was thinking: if he could and told her mother, she would be grounded, like
forever. Again the weight of the stone on her forehead. This time she felt
light and happy and empty. What would it feel like for Alejo's lips to be
against hers? But no way would she French him, ever, though her friend Sandra
said you had to do that with a boyfriend, or he dumped you. Do that and more,
A crash, and Alicia
bolted upright again, the towel falling, the rock banging her thigh. Miguelito
had charged the side table and toppled the plaster of the Virgin of Guadalupe
from on top of it. The Virgin lay broken, the head snapped off at the neck, on
the floor. Maria swept Miguelito up in her arms, sheltering him under the dark,
perfumed curtain of her hair as he bawled, frightened by what he had done.
"Sorry, Mama," Robert
said, but their mother merely shook her head and motioned for them to move so
she could sweep. The statue was one of the only things she still owned from her
abuela. The Virgin breaking could only be taken as a sign. Since they
had come to America twenty years ago, the family had done nothing but break
apart. Half the relatives wouldn't talk to each other. Alicia knew it would be
a Sunday of praying and mass.
"Let's take the baby
outside," Maria said, and the three of them left, slamming the screen door
behind them. Robert had Miguelito out of wedlock with that beautiful simpleton,
Maria, and they just told her that morning another baby was on the way.
Alicia's mother crossed herself and looked from the broken virgin to Santiago.
"What should I do?" she
He stared at the statue
for a moment. "Glue it?"
Her mother crossed
herself and then carefully picked up the head in one hand, the body in the
"It's a miracle," she
said. "A clean break. One could pretend it never happened."
The healer ignored her
mother, and Alicia plopped herself down on the sofa again, putting the towel
over her own eyes. How many years until she was old enough to marry Alejo and
live in an apartment with him alone? But then she'd definitely have to kiss
him. She loved Maria, who was like the best older sister, teaching her about
cigarettes and diets and low-cut jeans, telling her what it felt like to go all
the way with a boy, and what his private looked like. Alicia hadn't told Maria
yet that at Sandra's birthday party, all the kids played dare, and Alicia had
gone into the bathroom alone with Alejo, and he had pulled down his pants and
made her touch it. She had been so scared of being caught and so nervous to
finally be alone with Alejo that she had closed her eyes after catching a look,
but she was surprised how soft it felt, like the soft, bare part of a dog's
belly. She wasn't sure of the exact way it worked, except that it was a kind of
wand, and when it touched the secret place, a baby came out. Alicia loved Maria
but didn't want to end up like that, sixteen with a baby, living with her
The healer was moving
his hands down each side of Alicia's neck and then rounding her shoulders with
speed till he flipped his hands away, like a bird taking flight. It was like he
was brushing away dandruff, she thought, if she had any, which she definitely
did not. She squirmed, remembering how Alejo grabbed at her breast, and she ran
out the bathroom door.
"Be still," the healer
His hands moved down
her sides and kneaded her stomach. She was getting a warm, tingling feeling
under the velvet darkness of the towel, and she pretended it was Alejo, not the
healer, touching her.
Her mother came in the
room, and the healer's hands drifted off her, and she found herself impatient
for them to come back. Without their heat, her skin was goose-pimply and cold.
When Alicia got home from Sandra's party that night, she felt a little ruined,
and she let her mom sing her to sleep like when she was little.
The healer whispered to
her mother to bring back white food for the ceremony: bread and an egg. Then as
she walked toward the kitchen, he made an added request of a small glass of
tequila, if she had it. Alicia knew that her dad hid a bottle behind the flour
in the pantry.
When the noise of
cabinets being banged open and shut started, his hands came down on Alicia's
skin differently. The fingers dove and caressed, they touched and squeezed. Her
body turned like a hot coal.
In the courtroom, the
prosecutor brought out a big poster with the outline of a girl. The eyes of all
the people turned on Alicia in a different way, and she didn't feel so good.
Like her friends looked at her when she ran out of the bathroom, and Alejo
followed her. If he didn't ask her to be his girlfriend at his party, they
would all think she was a slut. Her face burned as she studied the stick-figure
of the girl on the poster and saw that the outline of her waist did not curve
inward, like an hourglass, but outward, like a balloon. Do they think I'm
fat? she wondered.
"You and your mom have
special names for the parts I point to with my stick. Is that right?"
She nodded. When she had
failed to show up that night at Alejo's party, Veronica, her frienemy, had made
a move on him. Sandra told her she saw them kissing. But it didn't matter
because Monday morning the whole school found out about the healer and the
police coming and all. Alejo wouldn't even look at her. She had gone from
anonymous to freak with no stop in between.
The stick went to the
chest. "What do you call these?"
"Birds," she said. The
burning in her cheeks tortured her.
The stick moved to the
V between the poster girl's fat thighs, which also bulged out like small moons.
"And where did that
man," the prosecutor said, her voice raising in an ugly way, like when
Alicia's mom was mad at her after the police came and she got confused, "touch
Alicia thought she was
supposed to stand up and touch the points on the fat, poster Alicia. She sucked
in her stomach.
"Say it out loud so
they can write it down."
"My bird and my shell,"
she whispered, closing her eyes, dizzy from sucking in her stomach. Her bird
and her shell were supposed to be where Alejo touched her when they married,
and she was his wife, even though her friend Sandra told her that maybe Alejo
had already moved away, he hadn't been in school the last two weeks, and
someone else thought he had seen him at another school across town. But she
had touched him. When the healer put the stone on her forehead and then it
fell off, hitting her thigh, Alicia had felt a ping deep inside her
belly, like a guitar string being plucked, and then there was a warm whoosh of
liquid between her legs so that she thought she'd peed herself, but then she
thought maybe she'd by accident gotten a baby from touching Alejo, maybe it was
coming out. Later with relief she saw her first blood on her white panties. My
bird and shell, she said, to everyone, to no one.
You are her. The stars
overhead and the dust of them created you. A long, white stem that stretches
farther and farther away, until all memory of the black space, of the gaseous
fluid of stars, is gone. Rumors that your father was the devil come in disguise
as a jackal. You are a baby living in a one-room, mud hut, high in the
mountains. You remember suckling on your mother's breast, the dry wind blowing
her long brown hair in coils, an umbilical cord. Her breasts are bared in the
sunlight because there is not another human being anywhere around for hundreds
of miles. Your first memory of another human voice is not until your eighth
Those early years you
cannot tell the difference between your mother's existence and your own. You
touch her breasts with the same unashamed wonder as you touch yourself. She
calls this lack of guilt, Eden. Together, you walk the red dirt hills,
collecting leaves and roots, collecting bits of rabbit and possum bone, skins
of snakes. At night your mother burns a fire, spread her legs before it, and
divines the world.
It is not till the age
of understanding that she tells you that she is the modern Virgen Morena, the
brown-skin Virgin, and that you are the incarnation, but the people, having
lost their faith, do not believe. The anger over her swelling belly exiled her,
and you inside her, to this abandoned hut in the hills, where she says her real
life began. Only when the people have exhausted every remedy do they call on
her, and then she combs out her long tangled hair, pulling out twigs and
flowers, feathers, coiling it into a bun, and puts on a shirt, jeans, and men's
boots that are too large, and you wonder if they are meant for the feet of your
father. She goes to heal, walking on foot, never for money. She ties you to the
table in the center of the room with a long, white unfurled cloth, so that you
can wind and unwind around the room like the angry arm of a clock. Sometimes
she leaves you for days like this.
Only after healing is
there food, and you feast once every two or three weeks. The rest of the time,
the two of you live on air. She teaches you the chants, you collect the leaves
and the roots, the bones and the skin, rain and clouds, you sit on top of the
mountain and join the birds in their flight. There are rumors started that
people have seen the outlines of your mother and you sitting, unmoving, for
weeks at a time. You do not know this, but your reputation grows. You have left
your bodies; you are reeling in freedom. Imagine—air, feathers, speed,
freedom. The journeys back to the reluctant body are harder and harder to make.
As your mother's hair
turns white and you turn into a man, people begin the long climb to the
one-room, mud hut to seek you out. There has been a miracle in the village, a
woman has spotted your image in the reflection deep inside a well, a ballad has
been written about the sad life and miraculous powers of Santiago Pancho
Sanchez. You are shy of them, but they ignore your mother, an old crone now,
and ask for you to heal them. You cure a man of jealousy, a woman of
barrenness. You heal boils, blindness, tumors, rotten teeth. News spreads, and
now there are always chains of people coming up the mountain, camping out in
the nearby trees, waiting.
Parents offer their
nubile daughters for you to implant your seed. You have never seen another
woman's naked body but your mother's. She stares at you, jealous, red-eyed,
wild. She wants the people to go away, she doesn't care about the food, she
wants you to stop healing.
You tell her you
cannot, even though you yourself do not know why. Even though you miss the days
of solitude, the flying.
Your mother takes to
screaming at the people, throwing her own feces at them, walking around naked
outside the house, her breasts like empty bags flat against her chest, so that
the men turn away in shame at her old woman's body. She no longer sleeps, and
now, refusing the piles of food, she is gaunt from not eating. She tells you she
has had a vision and is ready for the afterlife. Clear that the vision is a
lie. She twirls a knife. She wants to cut out her own heart, and she wants you
to join her. The two of you will become one body again as this will complete
the cosmic journey.
La bruja, people
now call her.
In the new world, you
experience loneliness like a wound. It is a surprise, how it hollows everything
out. Finally you understand all the people who have been coming up the mountain
to you for problems that did not exist, in a way you couldn't understand them
before. It is the one ailment you cannot cure.
The white people
look through you as if you were already invisible. So you stick to the
brown-skinned neighborhoods, where you can detect life as you are familiar
with. Warmth in their skins, and hair, and eyes. In the soft syllables of their
voices. In the movement of their bodies. Rumors follow like the flight of birds
that you heal, but mostly you are left alone.
You live in a small,
thin-walled room in a neighborhood where all the grass has died. No matter the
time of day or night, there is never quiet: the pounding of music, the pounding
of feet on stairs, the pounding of voices raised in happiness or anger, it is
sometimes hard to tell which. Your mind can never rest, cannot take flight.
You realize that you
have never loved a woman as a man does. Your love has been the love of healing,
a disinterested, abstract love, like God's maybe, the only kind your mother
told you of. The only thing you can remember is her warning you of the filth of
copulation between a man and a woman. Treacherous thought—could your mother
have been crazy, jealous of you having love without her?
Weeks pass without your
exchanging more than simple requests with the people around you: How much
for the tortillas? Do you have any day-old ones for half? Clean a pair of shoes
for five dollars, for two, for fifty cents if you give me food. No one
cares what is in your heart. Hardly anyone even looks in your face after the
first glance. But you feel their illness, a constant wind of poison as you move
through a crowd. All of their pains and aches, the disease and heartache and
insanity, everything shows itself to you, unbidden, until it exhausts you. You
get rid of the telephone, have the electricity disconnected. When darkness
falls, you light a single candle. You are the one who needs a healer.
You have been waiting
for a sign, a revelation, of what to do. You hold on this existence is growing
attenuated. When people speak directly to you—Anything else, sir? Would
you please move? No work. Where's the rent?—you have to remind yourself
that you exist. Santiago Pancho Sanchez. If only you had the strength, you
would return to Mexico, back to the small village, back up the mountain to the
one-room mud hut. Even your mother's madness is preferable to be forgotten.
You walk down the
sidewalk in a swoon. The wooden box of your cleaning tools is as heavy as lead.
Your head is spinning with hunger. This morning you left your rooms for the
first time in four days, hunger driving you out, like an animal from his hole.
You haven't washed, your clothes stink. The sun beats into your eyes, and you
half-close them, but it's no use—the pain of the bright light is killing you.
You who were once one with the light. Inside the chain-link yard, you see a
squat Indian woman with a long, thick braid that reminds you of the village.
"Por favor, Señora,
do you have some work for me?"
You close your eyes and
sway. If she says no, perhaps you will lay down on the sidewalk and sleep.
"No, no. Nothing
today," she says, but then she turns to make sure you are leaving and sees your
knees buckle. You are kneeling on the sidewalk. She comes to the chain-link
fence. "Are you sick, son?"
"I haven't eaten in
"My God, come in. I
have food ... ."
You shake your head
because the dignity of the healing must be protected even at the cost of your
small life. "No charity."
"Stupid me, I forgot.
My husband's shoes need mending. And my son's. And a pair of my daughter's."
Inside the house, you
have never before suspected the happiness people lived in. You have only seen
the confusion, the illness, but never the other side. The woman is from the
same area that you are from, not more than fifty kilometers apart. A sign. When
she, who reminds you of the village women, complains of headache, it is all you
can do to offer the healing.
When next the young
girl lies under your hands, you are already feeling stronger. It is clear your
own people nourish you. Her skin is like warm electricity, and now you, too,
are tingling. You put one finger on the girl's shoulder and already know the
story—the thing that had formerly eluded you and that you now know is
loneliness, why she was frightened to have her eyes covered. When you touch her
stomach, you smile—deep inside like a tendril unwinding, her womanhood
pushing to the surface. She would be fine. You close your eyes and are back in
the one-room mud hut, close your eyes and you are beside your mother on top of
the mountain. The warmth of the sun is like mother's milk pouring down your
throat. The eagles are circling, catching an updraft of wind current, they
spread their wings in wide sheaves of iron, spiral up, the mountains and canyon
falling far below. You are one with them. You are blinded.