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El lobo pierde los dientes más no las mientes,
The wolf loses his teeth, not his nature.
Like her sister, Bettina San Miguel was small, slender woman in her mid-twenties, dark-haired and darker-eyed; part Indio, part Mexican, part something older still. Growing up, they'd often been mistaken for twins, but Bettina was a year younger and, unlike Adelita, she had never learned to forget. The little miracles of the long ago lived on in her, passed down to her from their abuela, and her grandmother before her. It was a gift that skipped a generation, tradition said.
"¡Tradición, pah!" their mother was quick to complain when the opportunity arose. "You call it a gift, but I call it craziness."
Their abuela would nod and smile, but she still took the girls out into the desert, sometimes in the early morning or evening, sometimes in the middle of the night. They would leave empty-handed, be gone for hours and return with full bellies, without thirst. Return with something in their eyes that made their mother cross herself, though she tried to hide the gesture.
"They miss too much school," she would say.
"Time enough for the Anglos' school when they are older," Abuela replied.
"And church? If they die out there with you, their sins unforgiven?"
"The desert is our church, its roof the sky. Do you think the Virgin and los santos ignore us because it has no walls? Remember, hija, the Holy Mother was a bride of the desert before she was a bride of the church."
Mamá would shake her head, muttering, "Nosotras estamos locas todas." We are all crazy. And that would be the end of it. Until the next time.
Then Adelita turned twelve and Bettina watched the mysteries fade in her sister's eyes. She still accompanied them into the desert, but now she brought paper and a pencil, and rather than learn the language of la lagartija, she would try to capture an image of the lizard on her paper. She no longer absorbed the history of the landscape; instead she traced the contours of the hills with the lead in her pencil. When she saw el halcón winging above the desert hills, she saw only a hawk, not a brujo or a mystic like their father, caught deep in a dream of flight. Her own dreams were of boys and she began to wear makeup.
All she had learned, she forgot. Not the details, not the stories. Only that they were true.
But Bettina remembered.
"You taught us both," she said to her abuela one day when they were alone. They sat stone-still in the shadow cast by a tall saguaro, watching a coyote make its way with delicate steps down a dry wash. "Why is it only I remember?"
The coyote paused in mid-step, lifting its head at the sound of her voice, ears quivering, eyes liquid and watchful.
"You were the one chosen," Abuela said.
The coyote darted up the bank of the wash, through a stand of palo verde trees, and was gone. Bettina turned back to her grandmother.
"But why did you choose me?" she asked.
"It wasn't for me to decide," Abuela told her. "It was for the mystery. There could only be one of you, otherwise la brujería would only be half so potent."
"But how can she just forget? You said we were magic--that we were both magic."
"And it is still true. Adelita won't lose her magic. It runs too deep in her blood. But she won't remember it, not like you do. Not unless…"
"You die before you have a granddaughter of your own."
* * *
Tonight Bettina sat by the window at a kitchen table many miles from the desert of her childhood, the phone propped under one ear so that she could speak to Adelita while her hands remained free to sort through the pile of milagros spilled across the table. Her only light source was a fat candle that stood in a cracked porcelain saucer, held in place by its own melted wax.
She could have turned the overhead on. There was electricity in the house--she could hear it humming in the walls and it made the old fridge grumble in the corner from time to time--but she preferred the softer illumination of the candle to electric lighting. It reminded her of firelight, of all those nights sitting around out back of Adelita's house north of Tubac, and she was in a campfire mood tonight. Talking with her sister did that, even if they were a half continent and a few time zones apart, connected only by the phone and the brujería in their blood.
The candlelight glittered on the small silver votive offerings and mad shadows dance in the corners of the room whenever Bettina moved her arm. Those shadows continued to dance when the candle's flame pointed straight up at the ceiling once more, but she ignored them. They were like the troubles that come in life--the more attention one paid to them, the more likely they were to stay. They were like the dark-skinned men who had gathered outside the house again tonight.
Every so often they came drifting up through the estates that surrounded Kellygnow, a dozen or so tall, lean men, squatting on their haunches in a rough circle in the backyard, eyes so dark they swallowed light. Bettina had no idea what brought them. She only knew they were vaguely related to her grandmother's people, distant kin to the desert Indios whose blood Bettina and Adelita shared--very distant, for the memory of sea spray and a rich, damp green lay under the skin of their thoughts. This was not their homeland; their spirits spread a tangle of roots just below the surface of the soil, no deeper.
But like her uncles, they were handsome men, dark-skinned and hard-eyed, dressed in collarless white shirts and suits of black broadcloth. Barefoot, calluses hard as boot leather, and the cold didn't seem to affect them. Long black hair tied back, or twisted into braided ropes. They were silent, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes as they watched the house. Bettina could smell the burning tobacco from inside where she sat, smell the smoke, and under it, a feral, musky scent.
Their presence in the yard resonated like a vibration deep in her bones. She knew they lived like wolves, up in the hills north of the city, perhaps, running wild and alone except for times such as this. She had never spoken to them, never asked what brought them. Her abuela had warned her a long time ago not to ask questions of la brujería when it came so directly into one's life. It was always better to let such a mystery make its needs known in its own time.
"And of course, Mamá wants to know when you're coming home," Adelita was saying.
Usually they didn't continue this old conversation themselves. Their mother was too good at keeping it alive by herself.
"I am home," Bettina said. "She knows that."
"But she doesn't believe it."
"This is true. She was asking me the same thing when I talked to her last night. And then, of course, she wanted to know if I'd found a church yet, if the priest was a good speaker, had I been to confession…"
Adelita laughed. "iPor supuesto! At least she can't check up on you. Chuy's now threatening to move us to New Mexico."
"Why New Mexico?"
"Because of Lalo's band. With the money they made on that last tour, they had enough to put a down payment on this big place outside of Albuquerque. But it needs a lot of work and he wants to hire Chuy to do it. Lalo says there's plenty of room for all of us."
"That's right. You should have come to one of the shows."
But Bettina hadn't been speaking of the band from East L.A. Those lobos had given Lalo's band their big break by bringing them along on tour as their support act last year. The wolves she'd been referring to were out in the cold night that lay beyond the kitchen's windows.
She hadn't even meant to speak aloud. The words had been pulled out of her by a stirring outside, an echoing whisper deep in her bones. For a moment she'd thought the tall, dark men were coming into the house, that an explanation would finally accompany their enigmatic presence. But they were only leaving, slipping away among the trees.
"Bettina?" her sister asked. "¿Estás ahi"
Bettina let out a breath she hadn't been aware of holding. She didn't need to look out the window to know that the yard was now empty. It took her a moment to regain the thread of their conversation.
"I was just distracted for a moment," she said, then added, "What about the gallery? I can't imagine you selling it."
Adelita laughed. "Oh, we're not really going. It's bad enough that Lalo's moving so far away. Chuy's family would be heartbroken if we went as well. How would they be able to spoil Janette as much as they do now? And Mamá…"
"Would never forgive you."
Bettina went back to sorting through her milagros, fingering the votive offerings as they gossiped about the family and neighbors Bettina had left behind. Adelita always had funny stories about the tourists who came into the gallery and Bettina never tired of hearing about her niece Janette. She missed the neighborhood and its people, her family and friends. And she missed the desert, desperately. But something had called to her from the forested hills that lay outside the city that was now her home. It had drawn her from the desert to this place where the seasons changed so dramatically: in summer so green and lush it took the breath away, in winter so desolate and harsh it could make the desert seem kind. The insistent mystery of it had nagged and pulled at her until she'd felt she had no choice but to come.
She didn't think the source of the summons lay with her uninvited guests, los lobos who came into the yard to smoke their cigarettes and silently watch the house. But she was sure they had some connection to it.
"What are you doing?" Adelita asked suddenly. "I keep hearing this odd little clicking sound."
"I'm just sorting through these milagros that Inés sent up to me. For a…" She hesitated a moment. "For a fetish."
"Ah." Adelita didn't exactly disapprove of Bettina's vocation--not like their mother did--but she didn't quite understand it either. While she also drew on the stories their abuela had told them, she used them to fuel her art. She thought of them as fictions, resonant and powerful, to be sure, but ultimately quaint. Outdated views from an older, more superstitious world that were fascinating to explore because they jump-started the creative impulse, but not anything by which one could live in the modern world.
"Leave such things for the storytellers," she would say.
Such things, such things. Simple words to encompass so much.
Such as the fetish Bettina was making at the moment, part mojo charm, part amuleto: a small, cotton sack that would be filled with dark earth to swallow bad feelings. Pollen and herbs were mixed in with the earth to help the transfer of sorrow and pain from the one who would wear the fetish into the fetish itself. On the inside of the sack, tiny threaded stitches held a scrap of paper with a name written on it. A hummingbird's feather. A few small colored beads. And, once she'd chosen exactly the right milagro, one of the silver votive offerings that Inés had sent her would be sewn inside as well.
Viewed from outside, the stitches appeared to spell words, but they were like the voices of ravens heard speaking in the woods. The sounds made by the birds sounded like words, but they weren't words that could be readily deciphered by untrained ears. They weren't human words.
This was one of the ways she focused her brujería. Other times, she called on the help of the spirits and los santos to help her interpret the cause of an unhappiness or illness.
"There is no one method of healing," her grandmother had told her once. "Just as la Virgen is not bound by one faith."
"One face?" Bettina had asked, confused.
"That, too," Abuela said, smiling. "La medicina requires only your respect and that you accept responsibility for all you do when you embark upon its use."
"But the herbs. The medicinal plants…"
"Por eso," Abuela told her. "Their properties are eternal. But how you use them, that is for you to decide." She smiled again. "We are not machines, chica. We are each of us different. Sin par. Unique. The measure given to one must be adjusted for another."
There was not a day gone by that Bettina didn't think of and miss her grandmother. Her good company. Her humor. Her wisdom. Sighing, she returned her attention to her sister.
"You can't play at the brujería all your life," Adelita was saying, her voice gentle.
"It's not play for me."
"Bettina, we grew up together. You're not a witch."
"No, I'm a healer."
There was an immense difference between the two, as Abuela had often pointed out. A bruja made dark, hurtful magic. A curandera healed.
"A healer," Bettina repeated. "As was our abuela."
"Was she?" Adelita asked.
Bettina could hear the tired smile in Adelita's voice, but she didn't share her sister's amusement.
"¿Como" she said, her own voice sharper than she intended. "How can you deny it?"
Adelita sighed. "There is no such thing as magic. Not here, in the world where we live. La brujerí only for stories. Por el reino de los sueños. It lives only in dreams and make-believe."
"You've forgotten everything."
"No, I remember the same as you. Only I look at the stories she told us with the eyes of an adult. I know the difference between what is real and what is superstition."
Except it hadn't only been stories, Bettina wanted to say.
"I loved her, too," Adelita went on. "It's just…think about it. The way she took us out into the desert. It was like she was trying to raise us as wild animals. What could Mamá have been thinking?"
"That's not it at all--"
"I'll tell you this. Much as I love our mamá, I wouldn't let her take Janette out into the desert for hours on end the way she let Abuela take us. In the heat of the day and…how often did we go out in the middle of the night?"
"You make it sound so wrong."
"Cálmate, Bettina. I know we survived. We were children. To us it was simply fun. But think of what could have happened to us--two children out alone in the desert with a crazy old woman."
"She was not--"
"Not in our eyes, no. But if we heard the story from another?"
"It…would seem strange," Bettina had to admit. "But what we learned--"
"We could have learned those stories at her knee, sitting on the front stoop of our parents' house."
"And if they weren't simply stories?"
"¡Qué boba eres! What? Cacti spirits and talking animals? The past and future, all mixed up with the present. What did she call it?"
"La época del mito."
"That's right. Myth time. I named one of my gallery shows after it. Do you remember?"
It had been a wonderful show. La Gata Verde had been transformed into a dreamscape that was closer to some miraculous otherwhere than it was to the dusty pavement that lay outside the gallery. Paintings, rich with primary colors, depicted los santos and desert spirits and the Virgin as seen by those who'd come to her from a different tradition than that put forth by the papal authority in Rome. There had been Hopi kachinas--the Storyteller, Crow Woman, clowns, deer dancers--and tiny, carved Zuni fetishes. Wall hangings rich with allegorical representations of Indio and Mexican folklore. And Bettina's favorite: a collection of sculptures by the Bisbee artist, John Early--surreal figures of gray, fired clay, decorated with strips of colored cloth and hung with threaded beads and shells and spiraling braids of copper and silver filament. The sculptures twisted and bent like smoke-people frozen in their dancing, captured in mid-step as they rose up from the fire.
She had stood in the center of the gallery the night before the opening of the show and turned slowly around, drinking it all in, pulse drumming in time to the resonance that arose from the art that surrounded her. For one who didn't believe, Adelita had still somehow managed to gather together a show that truly seemed to represent their grandmother's description of a moment stolen from la época del mito.
"Not everything in the world relates to art," Bettina said now into the phone.
"No. But perhaps it should. Art is what sets us apart from the animals."
Bettina couldn't continue the conversation. At times like this, it was as though they spoke two different languages, where the same word in one meant something else entirely in the other.
"It's late," she said. "I should go."
"Perdona, Bettina. I didn't mean to make you angry."
She wasn't angry, Bettina thought. She was sad. But she knew her sister wouldn't understand that either.
"I know," she said. "Give my love to Chuy and Janette."
"Sí. Vaya con Dios."
And if He will not have me? Bettina thought. For when all was said and done, God was a man, and she had never fared well in the world of men. It was easier to live in la época del mito of her abuela. In myth time, all were equal. People, animals, plants, the earth itself. As all times were equal and existed simultaneously.
"Qué te vaya bien," she said. Take care.
She cradled the receiver and finally chose the small shape of a dog from the milagros scattered across the tabletop. El lobo was a kind of a dog, she thought. Perhaps she was making this fetish for herself. She should sew her own name inside, instead of Marty Gibson's, the man who had asked her to make it for him. Ah, but would it draw los lobos to her, or keep them away? And which did she truly want?
Getting up from the table, she crossed the kitchen and opened the door to look outside. Her breath frosted in the air where the men had been barefoot. January was a week old and the ground was frozen. It had snowed again this week, after a curious Christmas thaw that had left the ground almost bare in many places. The wind had blown most of the snow off the lawn where the men had gathered, pushing it up in drifts against the trees and the buildings scattered among them: cottages and a gazebo, each now boasting a white skirt. She could sense a cold front moving in from the north, bringing with it the bitter temperatures that would leave fingers and face numb after only a few minutes of exposure. Yet some of the men had been in short sleeves, broadcloth suit jackets slung over their shoulders, all of them walking barefoot on the frozen lawn.
She didn't think they were men at all.
"Your friends are gone."
"Ellos no son mis amigos," she said, then realized that speaking for so long with Adelita on the phone had left her still using Spanish. "They aren't my friends," she repeated. "I don't know who, or even what they are."
"Perhaps they are ghosts."
"Perhaps," Bettina agreed, though she didn't think so. They were too complicated to be described by so straightforward a term.
She gazed out into the night a moment longer, then finally closed the door on the deepening cold and turned to face the woman who had joined her in the kitchen.
If los lobos were an elusive, abstracted mystery, then Nuala Fahey was one much closer to home, though no more comprehendible. She was a riddling presence in the house, her mild manner at odds with the potent brujería Bettina could sense in the woman's blood. This was an old, deep spirit, not some simple ama de llaves, yet in the nine months that Bettina had been living in the house, Nuala appeared to busy herself with no more than her housekeeping duties. Cleaning, cooking, the light gardening that Salvador left for her. The rooms were always dusted and swept, the linens and bedding fresh and sweet-smelling. Meals appeared when they should, with enough for all who cared to partake of them. The flower gardens and lawns were well-tended, the vegetable patch producing long after the first frost.
She was somewhere in her mid--forties, a tall, handsome woman with striking green eyes and a flame of red hair only vaguely tamed into a loose bun at the back of her head. While her wardrobe consisted entirely of men's clothes--pleated trousers and dress shirts, tweed vests and casual sports jackets--there was nothing mannish about her figure or her demeanor. Yet neither was she as passive as she might seem. True, her step was light, her voice soft and low. She might listen more than she spoke, and rarely initiate a conversation as she had this evening, but there was still that undercurrent of brujería that lay like smoldering coals behind her eyes. La brujería, and an impression that while the world might not always fully engage her, something in it certainly amused her.
Bettina had been trying to make sense of the housekeeper ever since they'd met, but she was no more successful now, nine months on, than she'd been the first day Nuala opened the front door and welcomed her into Kellygnow, the old house at the top of the hill that was now her home. Kellygnow she learned after she moved in, meant "the nut wood" in some Gaelic language--though no one seemed quite sure which one. But there were certainly nut trees on the hill. Oak, hazel, chestnut.
There were many things Bettina hadn't been expecting about this place Adelita had found for her to stay. The mystery of Nuala was only one of them. Kellygnow was much bigger than she'd been prepared for, an enormous rambling structure with dozens of bedrooms, studios, and odd little room-sized nooks, as well as a half-dozen cottages in the woods out back. The property was larger, too--especially for this part of the city--taking up almost forty acres of prime real estate. With the neighboring properties ranging in the million-dollar-and-up range, Bettina couldn't imagine what the house and its grounds were worth. Its neighbors were all owned by stockbrokers and investors, bankers and the CEOs of multinational corporations, celebrities and the nouveau riche--a far cry from the bohemian types Bettina shared her lodgings with.
For Kellygnow was a writers' and artists' colony, founded in the early 1900s by Sarah Hanson, a descendant of the original owner. She had been a respected artist and essayist in her time, a rarity at the turn of the century, but was now better remembered for the haven she had created for her fellow artists and writers.
The colony was the oldest property in the area, standing alone at the top of Handfast Road with a view that would do the Newford Tourist Board's pamphlets proud. There was a tower, four stories high in the northwest corner of the house. From the upper windows of one side you could look down on the city: Ferryside, the river, Foxville, Crowsea, downtown, the canal, the East Side. At night, the various neighborhoods blended into an Indio traders' market, the lights spread out like the sparkling trinkets on a hundred blankets. From another window you could see, first the estates that made up the Beaches; below them, rows of tasteful condos blending into the hillside; beyond them, the lakefront properties; and then finally the lake itself, shimmering in the starlight, ice rimming the shore in thick, playful displays of abstract whimsy. Far in the distance the ice thinned out, ending in open water.
The view behind the house was blocked by trees. Hazels and chestnuts. Tamaracks and cedar, birch and pine. Most impressive were the huge towering oaks that, she learned later, were thought to be part of the original growth forest that had once laid claim to all the land in an unbroken sweep from the Kickaha Mountains down to the shores of the lake. These few giants had been spared the axes of homesteaders and lumbermen alike by the property's original owner, Virgil Hanson, whose home had been one of the cottages that still stood out back. It was, Bettina had been told, the oldest building in Newford, a small stone croft topping the wooded hill long before the first Dutch settlers had begun to build along the shores of the river below.
Adelita had never lived in Kellygnow, but before moving back home to Tubac and opening her gallery, she had studied fine art at Butler University and some of her crowd had been residents. It would be the prefect place for Bettina, she said. Let her handle it. She would make a few calls. Everything would be arranged.
"I'm not an artist or a writer," Bettina had said.
"No, but you're an excellent model and in that house, one good model would be more welcome than a dozen of the world's best artists. Créeme. Trust me. Only don't tell Mamá or she'll have both our heads."
No, Bettina had thought. Mamá would definitely not approve. Mamá was already upset enough that Bettina was moving. If she were to know that her youngest daughter expected to make her living by being paid to sit for artists, often in the nude, she would be horrified.
Bettina had thought to only stay in the house for as long as it took her to find an apartment in the city. She was given one of the nooks to make her own--a small space under a staircase that opened up into a hidden room twice the size of her bedroom at home. There was a recessed window looking out on the backyard, overhung with ivy on the outside and with just room enough for her to sit on its sill if she pulled her knees up to her chin. There was also a single brass bed with shiny, knobbed posts and a cedar chest at its foot that lent the room a resonant scent. A small pine armoire. A worn, black leather reading chair with a tall glass-shaded lamp beside it, both "borrowed" from the library at some point, she was sure, since they matched its furnishings. And wonder of wonders, a piece of John Early's work: a gray, fired-clay sculpture of the Virgin wearing a quizzical smile, blue-robed and decorated with a halo of porcupine quills cunningly worked into the clay and painted gold. In front of the statue, that first day, she found a half-burned candle--someone had been using the statue as the centerpiece for their own small chapel of the Immaculata, she'd thought at first. Or perhaps they had simply enjoyed candlelight as much as she did.
Either way, she felt welcomed and blessed.
The one week turned into a month. Adelita had been right. The artists were delighted to have her in residence, constantly vying for her time in their studios. They were good company, as were the writers who only emerged from their quarters at odd times for meals or a sudden need to hear a human voice. And if their intentions were sometimes less than honorable--women as well as men--they were quick to respect her wishes and put the incident behind them.
The one month stretched into three, four. She needed no money for either rent or board, and had barely touched the savings she'd brought with her. Most mornings she sat for one or another of the artists, sometimes for a group of them. Her afternoons and evenings were usually her own. At first she explored the city, but when the weather turned colder, she cocooned in the house, reading, listening to music in one or another of the communal living rooms, often spending time in the company of the gardener Salvador and helping him prepare the property for winter.
And she began to trade her fetishes and charms. First to some of those living in the house, then to customers the residents introduced her to. As her abuela had taught her, she set no fee, asked for no recompense, but they all gave her something anyway. Mostly money, but sometimes books they thought she would like, or small pieces of original art--sketches, drawings, color studies--which she preferred the most. Her walls were now decorated with her growing hoard of art while a stack of books rose thigh-high from the floor beside her chair.
The few months grew into a half year, and now the house felt like a home. She was no closer to discovering what had drawn her to this city, what it was that whispered in her bones from the hills to the north, but it didn't seem as immediate a concern as it had when she'd first stepped off the plane, her small suitcase in one hand, her knapsack on her back with its herbs, tinctures, and the raw materials with which she made her fetishes. The need to know was no longer so important. Or perhaps she was growing more patient--a concept that would have greatly amused her abuela. She could wait for the mystery to come to her.
As she knew it would. Her visions of what was to come weren't always clear, especially when they related to her, but of this she was sure. She had seen it. Not the details, not when or exactly where, or even what face the mystery would present to her. But she knew it would come. Until then, every day was merely another step in the journey she had undertaken when she first began to learn the ways of the spirit world at the knee of her abuela, only now the days took her down a road she no longer recognized, where the braid of her Indio and Mexican past became tangled with threads of cultures far less familiar.
But she was accepting of it all, for la época del mito had always been a confusing place for her. When she was in myth time, she was often too easily distracted by all the possibilities: that what had been might really be what was to come, that what was to come might be what already was. Mostly she had difficulty with the true face of a thing. She mixed up its spirit with its physical presence. Its true essence with the mask it might be wearing. Its history with its future. It didn't help that Newford was like the desert, a place readily familiar with spirits and ghosts and strange shifts in what things seemed to be. Where many places only held a quiet whisper of the otherwhere, here thousands of voices murmured against one another and sometimes it was hard to make out one from the other.
The house at the top of Handfast Road where she now lived was a particularly potent locale. Kellygnow and its surrounding wild acres appeared to be a crossroads between time zones and spirit zones, something that had seemed charming and pleasantly mysterious until los lobos began to squat in its backyard, smoking their cigarettes and watching, watching. Now she couldn't help but wonder if their arrival spelled the end of her welcome here.
"You might not know them," Nuala said as though in response to her worries, "but you called them here all the same."
Bettina shook her head. "I doubt it," she tried, willing it to be true. "They are spirits of this place and I am the stranger."
But Nuala, la brujería less hidden in her eyes than Bettina had ever seen it before, shook her head.
"No," she said. "They are as much strangers as you are. They have only been here longer."
Bettina nodded. The shallow rooting of their spirits said as much.
"How do you know this?" she asked.
Nuala hesitated for a long moment before she finally replied. "I recognize them from my childhood. They are spirits of my homeland, only these have been displaced and set to wandering after they made the mistake of following the emigrant ships to this new land. They watched me, too, when I first arrived in Kellygnow."
Bettina regarded her with interest. "What did they want?"
"I never asked, but what do men ever want? For a woman to forsake all and go running with them, out into the wild. For us to lift our skirts and spread our legs for them."
Bettina tried to imagine Nuala in a skirt.
"But they grew tired of waiting," the older woman said. "They went their way and I remained, and I haven't seen them now for many years." She paused, then added, "Until you called to them."
"I didn't call them."
"You didn't have to. You're young and pretty and enchantment runs in your veins as easily as blood. Is it so odd that they come like bees to your flower?"
"I thought they were part of…the mystery," Bettina said.
"There's no mystery as to what they want," Nuala told her. "But perhaps I am being unfair. As I said, I've never spoken to them, never asked what they wanted from me. Perhaps they only wished for news of our homeland, of those they'd left behind."
Bettina nodded. Spirits were often hungry for gossip.
"Sometimes," she said, "what one mistakes for spirits are in fact men, traveling in spirit form."
"I've never met such," Nuala told her.
Nuala might not have, but when she was younger, Bettina had. Many of them had been related to her by blood. Her father and her uncles and their friends, Indios all, would gather together in the desert in a similar fashion as los lobos did in the yard outside the house here. Squatting in a circle, sharing a canteen, smoking their cigarettes, sometimes calling up the spirit of the mescal, swallowing the small buttons that they'd harvested from the dome-shaped cacti in New Mexico and Texas.
Peyoteros, Abuela called them.
At first, Bettina had thought it was a tribal designation--like Yaqui, Apache, Tohono O'odham--but then Abuela had explained how they followed another road into the mystery from the one she and her abuela followed, that the peyote buttons they ate, the mescal tea they drank, was how they stepped into la época del mito. Bettina decided they were still a tribe, only connected to each other by their visions rather than their genes.
"Where I come from," she told Nuala, "such men seek a deeper understanding of the world and its workings."
"But you are no longer where you come from," Nuala said.
This was true.
"And understand," Nuala went on. "Such beings answer only to themselves. No one holds you personally responsible for their presence. I'm simply making conversation. Offering an observation, nothing more."
"And perhaps a caution." Nuala added. "They are like wolves, those spirits."
Bettina nodded. "Los lobos," she said.
"Indeed. And what you must remember about wolves is that they cannot be tamed. They might seem friendly, but in their hearts they remain wild creatures. Feral. Incorrigibly amoral. It's not that they are evil. They simply see the world other than we do, see it in a way that we can never wholly understand."
She seemed to know a great deal about them, Bettina thought, for someone who had never spoken with them.
"And they are angry," Nuala said after a moment.
"Angry?" Bettina asked. "With whom?"
Nuala shrugged. "With me, certainly."
Again there was that long moment of hesitation.
"Because I have what they lack," Nuala finally said. "I have a home. A place in this new world that I can call my own."
The housekeeper smiled then. Her gaze became mild, la brujería in her eyes diminishing into a distant smolder once more.
"It's late," she said. "I should be in bed." She moved to the door, pausing in the threshold. "Aren't you sitting for Chantal in the morning? You should try to get some rest yourself."
"Good. Sleep well."
Bettina nodded. "Gracias," she said. "You, too."
But she was already speaking to Nuala's back.
What an odd conversation, she thought as she went over to the table and began to put the milagros back into the envelope she had taken them from earlier. Nuala, who so rarely offered an opinion, little say started a conversation, had been positively gregarious this evening.
Bettina's gaze strayed to the window. She couldn't see beyond the dark pane, but she remembered. After a moment, she took down someone's parka from the peg where it hung by the door and put it on. It was far too big for her, but style wasn't the issue here. Warmth was. Giving the kitchen a last look, she slipped out the door.
It was already colder than it had been earlier. Frosted grass crunched under her shoes as she walked to where the men had been watching the house. There was no sign now that they'd ever been. They'd even taken their cigarette butts with them when they'd withdrawn from the yard.
She considered how they would have gone. First into the trees, then down the steep slope to where these few wild acres came up hard against the shoulders of the city. From there, on to the distant mountains. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they made their home here, in the city.
She closed her eyes, imagining them loping through the city's streets. Had they even kept to human form, or was there now a wolf pack running through the city? Perhaps a scatter of wild dogs since dogs would be less likely to attract unwanted attention. Or had they taken to the air as hawks, or crows?
Knowing as little as she did about them, it was impossible to say.
She walked on, past the gazebo, into the trees where, in places, snow lay in thick drifts. The cottages were all dark, their occupants asleep. A thin trail of smoke rose from the chimney of Virgil Hanson's, the only one of the six to have a working fireplace. She regarded it curiously for a moment, wondering who was inside. In all the months that she had been living here, that cottage had stood empty.
Past the buildings, the trees grew more closely together. She followed a narrow trail through the undergrowth, snow constantly underfoot now, but it had a hard crust under a few inches of the more recent fall, and held her weight.
There was no indication that anyone had been this way before her. At least not since the last snowfall.
There was a spot at the back of the property, an enormous jut of granite that pushed out of the wooded slope and offered a stunning view of the city spread out for miles, all the way north to the foothills of the mountains. Bettina was careful as she climbed up the back of it. Though there was no snow, she remembered large patches of ice from when she'd been here a week or so ago. In the summer, they would sometimes sit out near the edge, but she was feeling nowhere near so brave today. She went only so far as she needed to get a view of the mountains, then straightened up and looked north.
At first she couldn't tell what was wrong. When it came to her, her legs began to tremble and she shivered in her borrowed parka with its long dangling sleeves.
"Dios mío," she said, her voice a hoarse whisper.
There were no lights from the city to be seen below. None at all.
She felt dizzy and backed slowly away until she could clutch the trunk of one of the tamaracks that grew up around the rock. For a long moment, it was all that kept her upright. She looked back, past the edge of the stone where normally the glow of the city would rise up above the tops of the trees, but the sky was the dark of a countryside that had never known light pollution. The stars felt as though they were closer to her than she'd ever seen them in the city. They were desert stars, displaced to this land, as feral as los lobos.
Myth time, she thought. She'd drifted into la época del mito without knowing it, walked into a piece of the past where the city didn't exist yet, or perhaps into the days to come when it was long gone.
"It is easier to stray into another's past than it is to find one's way out again," someone said.
The voice came from the trees, the speaker invisible in the undergrowth and shadows, but she didn't have to see him to know that he was one of los lobos. "We are wise women," Abuela liked to say. "Not because we are wise, but because we seek wisdom." And then she'd smile, adding, "Which in the end, is what makes us seem so wise to others." But Bettina didn't feel particularly wise tonight, for she knew what he'd said was true. It was not so uncommon to step unawares into myth time and never emerge again into the present.
"Who's to say I strayed?" she said, putting on a much braver face than she felt.
With a being such as this, it was always better to at least pretend you knew what you were doing. Still, she wished now that she'd taken the time to invoke the protection of Saint Herve before going out into the night. He would know how to deal with wolves--those who walked on two legs, as well as those who ran on four.
El lobo stepped from out of the shadows, a tall, lean form, smelling of cigarette smoke and musk. There was enough light for her to catch the look of mild amusement in his features and to see that he was indeed, oh so handsome. After all those nights of watching him from the window, his proximity, the smell and too-alive presence of him, was like an enchantment. She had to stop herself from stepping close, into his embrace. But she had enough brujería of her own to know that there was no enchantment involved. It was simply the man he was. Dangerous, perhaps, and far too handsome.
"Ah," he said. "I see. And so it was simple delight at your success and not surprise that made you dizzy."
"And now?" he asked.
"Now, nothing. I'm going home to bed."
He leaned back against a tree, arms crossed, smiling.
Bettina sighed, knowing that el lobo was now waiting for her to step back into her own world, confident she wouldn't be able to. And then what? When he decided she was helpless, what would he do? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps he would bargain with her, his help in exchange for something that would seem like poquito, nada, yet it would prove to cost her dearly once he collected. Or perhaps his kind had other, less pleasant uses for las curanderas tontas who were so foolish as to stumble into such a situation in the first place. She remembered what Nuala had said about the wolves who'd come to watch her, how they were waiting for her to lift her skirts, to spread her legs. Handsome or not, she would not let it happen, no matter how attracted to him she might be.
She stifled another sigh as the quiet lengthened between them.
He could wait forever, she knew, amused and patient. ¿Pero, qué tiene? She could be patient, too. And she could find her own way home. All she needed was a moment to compose herself, enough quiet for her to be able to concentrate on the threads of her spirit that still connected her to the world she'd inadvertently left behind. She needed only the time to find them, to gather them up and follow them back home again.
Behind el lobo there was movement in the forest, a small shape that darted in between the trees too quickly for her to see clearly. There was only a flash of small, pale limbs. Of large, luminous eyes. Here, then gone. A child, she thought at first, then shook her head. No, not in this place. More likely it had been some espíritu. Un deunde--an imp, an elf. Some creature of the otherwhere.
Eh, bueno. She would not let it bother her.
She unzipped the front of her parka and let it hang open.
"It's warmer here," she said.
El lobo nodded. His nostrils flared, testing the air. "The air tastes of autumn."
But what autumn? Bettina wanted to ask. Though perhaps the true question should be, whose autumn? And how far away did it lie from her own time? But then a more immediate riddle rose up to puzzle her.
"You're not speaking English," she said.
"Neither are you."
It was true. She was speaking Spanish while he spoke whatever language it was that he spoke. It held no familiarity, yet she could understand him perfectly.
He smiled. "Enchantment," he said.
She smiled back, feeling more confident. Of course. This was myth time. But while he might appear mysterious and strong, in this place her own brujería was potent as well. She wasn't some hapless tourist who had wandered too far into uncertain territory. The landscape might be unfamiliar, but she was no stranger to la época del mito. She might find it confusing at times, but she refused to let it frighten her.
El lobo pushed away from the tree. "Come," he said. "Let me show you something."
She shrugged and followed him into the forest, retracing the way she'd come earlier, only here there was no snow. There were no outlying cottages, either. No gazebo, no house with its tower nestled in between the tall trees. But there was a hut made of woven branches and cedar boughs where Virgil Hanson's original cottage stood in her world, and further on, a break in the undergrowth where the main house should have been--a clearing of sorts, rough and uncultivated, but recognizably the dimensions of the house's gardens and lawn.
Bettina paused for a moment at the edge of the trees, both enchanted and mildly disoriented at how the familiar had been made strange. She could hear rustlings in the undergrowth--los mitos chicos y los espíritus scurrying about their secret business--but caught no more glimpses of any of them.
El lobo took her to where, in her time, Salvador kept his carp pond. Here the neat masonry of its low walls had been replaced by a tumble of stones, piled haphazardly around the small pool water, but the hazel trees still leaned over the pool on one side. Lying on the grass along the edges of the pond was a clutter of curious objects. Shed antlers and posies of dried and fresh flowers. Shells and colored beads braided into leather bracelets and necklaces. Baskets woven from willow, grass, and reeds, filled with nuts and berries. On the stones themselves small carvings had been left, like bone and wood milagros. Votive offerings, but to whom? Or perhaps, rather, to what?
When they reached the edge of the pool, her companion pointed to something in the water. Bettina couldn't make out what it was at first. Then she realized it was an enormous fish of some sort. Not one of Salvador's carp, though she'd heard they could grow to this size.
The fish floated in the water, motionless. She had the urge to poke at it with one of the antlers, to see if it would move.
"Is…is it dead?" she asked.
Bettina blinked. Did fish sleep? she wondered, then put the question aside. This was la época del mito. Here the world operated under a different set of natural laws.
"What sort of a fish is it?" she asked.
She glanced at him, hearing something expectant in his voice, as though its being a salmon should mean something to her.
"And so?" she said.
El lobo smiled. "This is a part of the mystery you seek."
"What do you know of me or what I might be looking for?"
"Of you, little enough. Of the other…" He shrugged. "Only that the older mysteries play at being salmon and such in order to keep their wisdoms hidden and safe."
Bettina waited, but nothing more was forthcoming. Fine, she thought. Speak in riddles, but you'll only be speaking to yourself. Ignoring him, she leaned closer to look at the sleeping fish. There seemed to be nothing remarkable about it, except for the size of it in such a small pool.
"If it were to wake," el lobo went on. "If it were to speak, and you were to understand its words, it would change everything. You would be changed forever."
"In what you were, what you are, what you will be. The mystery that you follow could well swallow you whole, then. Swallow you up and spit you out again as something unrecognizable because you would no longer be protected by your identity."
Bettina lifted her gaze from the pool and its motionless occupant to look at him.
"Is this true?" she asked.
As if he would tell her the truth. But he surprised her and gave what seemed to be an honest answer.
"Not now, perhaps. Not at this very moment. But it could be, if you bide here too long. We should go--before an bradán wakes."
An bradán. She understood it to mean the salmon, but whatever enchantment had been translating their conversation passed over those two words. Perhaps because they named the fish as well as described it?
"Would that be so terrible?" she was about to ask.
For she found herself wanting to be here to see the salmon wake. To call it by name. An bradán. To watch its slow lazy movements through the water and hear it speak. To be changed.
But the question died stillborn as she turned back to the pool. On the far side of the water, a stranger was standing--a tall, older man, as dark-haired and dark-skinned as el lobo, but she knew immediately that he wasn't one of her companion's compadres. Los lobos were very male and there was something almost androgynous about the angular features of the stranger. He seemed to be a priest, in his black cassock and white collar, and what might be a rosary dangling from the fingers of one hand. There was an old-fashioned cut to his cassock, his hair, the style of his dusty boots. It was as though he'd stepped here directly from one of the old missions back home. Stepped here, not only from the desert, but from the past as well.
His gaze rested thoughtfully on her and for a long moment she couldn't speak. Then he looked down at the water. She followed his gaze to see the salmon stirring, but before it could wake, before it could speak, el lobo pulled her away from the fountain and the priest, out of myth time into the cold night of her own world, her own time.
They stood beside Salvador's carp pond, the water frozen. From nearby, the windows of the house cast squares of pale light across the lawn. Bettina shivered and drew the loose flaps of her borrowed parka closer about her, holding them shut with her folded arms.
"Who was that man?" she asked.
"I saw no man," el lobo replied.
"There was a padre…standing across from us, on the other side of the pool…"
Her companion smiled. "There was no man," he said. "Only you and I and the spirits of the otherwhere."
"Bueno. Then it was a spirit I saw, for he was nothing like you or your friends."
His smile returned, mildly mocking. "And what are we like?"
Bettina merely shrugged.
"You think of us as wolves."
"So now you read minds?" Bettina asked.
"I don't need to. I can read eyes. You are wary of us, of our wild nature."
"I'm wary of any stranger I meet in the woods at night."
He ignored that. "Perhaps you are wise to be wary. We are not such simple creatures as your Spanish wolves."
Bettina raised her eyebrows. "Then what are you?"
"In the old land, they called us an felsos, but it was out of fear. The same way they spoke of the fairies as their Good Neighbors."
They were no longer in myth time, so there was no convenient translation for the term he'd used to describe himself. She still spoke Spanish, but he had switched to an accented English. She hadn't noticed until this moment.
"What do you want from me?" she asked.
"I could be a friend."
"And if I don't want a wolf for a friend?"
Again that smile of his. "Did I say I was your friend?"
Before she could respond, he turned and stepped away. Not simply into the forest, but deeper and farther away, into la época del mito. Bettina had no intention of following him, though his sudden disappearance woke a whisper of disappointment in her.
She stood for a long moment, looking down at the frozen surface of the pond, then into the trees. Finally she shook her head and began to make her way back to the house. As she crossed the frozen lawn, she caught a flutter of movement in one of the second-floor windows, as though a curtain had been held open and had now fallen back into place. It took her a moment to remember whose window it was. Nuala's.
She kept on walking, eager for the warmth inside. In the few brief moments since el lobo had brought her back into her own time, the bitter cold had already worked its way under her borrowed parka and was nibbling deep at her bones. But she was barely aware of her discomfort.
There was so much to think upon.
Qué extraño. How strange the night had turned.
Copyright © 2000 by Charles de Lint