Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Chapter Fifty

It was nearly ten o'clock before Alma Red Wing arrived. The compound was thick with the assembled neighbors of the valley. so when the children, who now numbered close to a dozen and were staking out the road, came dashing up the drive shouting, everyone milled around the low wall that marked the property line and pressed against each other to watch the cloud of dust on the horizon. Slowly the cloud resolved itself into a little party of Indians on horseback. In the lead was a short brown woman with deeply lined skin. Tassels and feathers were woven into her graying braids, and she was decked in layers of heavy turquoise jewelry, her shoulders wrapped in a bright red shawl. She sat her palomino easily, with a pride that gave her plain features an air of dignity. Beside her rode a tall man in a black velvet shirt and strings of animal bone necklaces. His face was weather-lined, but his hair still hung glossy and black below his shoulders, held in place around the forehead by a broad band of red cloth. He carried a drum strapped to his back, and out of respect to Doña Alma, he rode his horse a step behind hers, his mount's neck even with the withers of her palomino. Behind them both rode a little girl in blue, solemn and acutely aware of her own importance as she struggled to match the easy dignity of her elders.

As the party turned in at the gate, the assembled crowd fell silent, bowed their heads and crossed themselves. Carina joined in unabashedly, but Amalia and Donovan stole glances at each other.

Alma led her party to where José and his family were assembled in front of a table covered in a red and green Indian blanket with bowls of food and cups of coffee laid out in offering. "Bienvenidos, Doña Alma," José said. "Mi famila les doy a usted y a su ayudantes bienvenidos y toda la hospitalidad de mi casa. Por favor, usa lo que tenemos como lo suyo. Dios les ha guiado a ustedes a este lugar."

"Do you know what he said?" Donovan whispered in Amalia's ear as José and Doña Alma ritualistically handed a cup of herbal tea back and forth.

Amalia nodded, watching the little welcoming ceremony with a hint of bemusement. "He says he and his family welcome her, for her to use whatever she needs, God brought her here, that sort of thing."

"And what are they doing now?" Doña Alma and the Montoya family were engaged in a complicated little ritual of bows and greetings.

Amalia shrugged. "Beats me. My father used to say there are no authentic Indian ceremonies left in these parts, so I suspect most of this is made up, just like the dowsing ceremony will be." Catching the look of disappointment on Donovan's face, she added, "I'm sure they aspire to make it as close to tradition as they can, and of it puts people in the right frame of mind, it serves its purpose."

"I thought you didn't believe in that sort of thing."

"I don't. But there's a big difference between not believing it works for me and not believing it works for anyone else. If it works for them and it doesn't hurt me, I'm for it."

Doña Alma and her attendants had by now dismounted and handed their horses to the Montoya children, who took them to the paddock. Meanwhile, José and his wife led the Indians in an improvised procession to the rocky and windswept area around the well, with the neighbors following in silence. When they were all gathered in a circle around the well, Doña Alma shooed the Montoyas away. She murmured a few words in a language only the Indians understood, and the little girl in blue handed her a leather pouch. The pouch contained blue cornmeal and Alma began sprinkling it in a broad circle around the old well, chanting in her native language as she went.

After she had gone around three times, the girl built a fire inside the circle and the man sat down on the ground and began tapping on his drum with the tips of his fingers. The drumbeats became louder as the fire fed off the sticks and herbs the girl fed it. She added some bundled sage, which gave off a pungent smoke, and now Doña Alma came over to the fire, chanting as the drumbeats increased in volume and tempo. She threw a handful of cornmeal into the fire, then some herbs and a powder that popped and made green sparks. Then she stood in the smoke, swaying and chanting.

This went on for awhile, the curandera standing over the fire while the drum beat its steady rhythm. The Montoyas and their neighbors found themselves lulled into a trance, swaying like the curandera to the rhythm. Then Doña Alma began a stomping dance around the perimeter of the cornmeal circle, first slow, then faster, throwing herbs into the fire as the drums beat louder and louder. Then suddenly all sound stopped and Doña Alma was left swaying and muttering over the flames, before the drums took up a beat again, soft and steady like the heartbeat of a feral beast.

For an hour this went on, Doña Alma alternating between frenetic dancing and solemn chants, the drummer keeping pace with her moods and the little girl feeding the fire, handing the curandera the items she needed without her having to ask. Finally, at no signal the crowd could discern, the girl moved away from the fire and knelt in a prayerful attitude. Doña Alma remained by the flames, chanting and moaning, but it was clear this time that she intended the fire to go out. Thirty minutes later it was reduced to glowing embers. From a flask hanging by a cord at her waist she slurped a mouthful of a local moonshine and spat it onto the coals. The flames leaped up a final time, then died.

The little girl now brought Doña Alma a Y-shaped stick and the curandera rubbed it in the ashes of the fire. The crowd scattered as she prepared to leave the magic circle to find water. Across the field she went, chanting softly, trailed by the little girl, both of them following the direction indicated by the divining rod. Back and forth, they wandered through the parched stubble of cornfields, bean fields and hay pastures. Finally at what seemed the most unlikely spot of all, the rod appeared to jerk downward. The girl handed Doña Alma a bit of cornmeal and she tossed it on the spot. Then, just to be certain, she walked a circle around the area, holding the stick steady, alert to any signs of life. Again it twitched at the spot and again she drizzled a little corn. At the third time, she gave José, who had hurried over at such promising signs, a steady look.

"Su agua está aquí."


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Chapter Forty-Nine

The sun was low in the sky before they had Jimmy and his rickety wagon back on the road. Carina had checked the mule and pronounced him healthy but dehydrated and undernourished. This led her to stuff every empty nook in the wagon with animal feed, much to Amalia's annoyance. Carina thought Jimmy should spend the night, but he swore he was expected home that evening and Amalia and Donovan supported him in this. "He's a big boy. He'll be safe enough out there and it's not like the mule doesn't know the way."

They sent him off with a wagon loaded down with water, hay and corn. Will and Tasha begged to know when they would see him again. "Why don't you come to the water-witching?" he said. "You can see Doña Alma do her ceremony and there will be a well digging and a feast after."

The children turned eager eyes upon the grownups. "Can we?"

The adults exchanged glances. "Sure," Carina said. "We really should go and help with the work."

"Neighbors help each other," Amalia said, although there was a timbre to her voice that suggested she wasn't thrilled about it. "Let us know when Doña Alma is coming and we'll be there with food and shovels."

Jimmy grinned. "I'll tell Papá. I knew you'd want to help." He reached his arms toward Carina for a hug. "You may be the farthest away, but you're my favorite neighbors."

He flapped the reins on the mule's back and started the slow, plodding way toward home. The jugs and canisters didn't rattle this time, full of water and bolstered as they were by bundled hay. Will and Tasha ran a little way down the road, shouting their good-byes, and then they were alone again and everyone trooped back inside for dinner.

* * *

A few days later, Jimmy was back, this time on a pony. He had only enough time to relay the news that Alma would be doing her witching ceremony on Sunday, and then he was off to give the news to other neighbors.

Sunday morning everyone got up before dawn, fed the animals, milked the goats and had a cold breakfast of cornbread and milk. Amalia hitched Goneril and Regan to the large market cart and Donovan loaded all the tools they could think of.

Everyone was dressed for a festival, Carina in her usual blue, Donovan in his nicest summer slacks and shirt, the children in their only summer finery. Even Amalia had bowed to necessity and put on a yellow shift with a swirling hem that showed off her neat calves. The adults tucked bundles of work clothes into the wagon, in case they should be called upon to help dig the new well. They loaded the children in, then headed out as the sun streaked orange across the morning sky. The children soon fell back to sleep, nestled on grain sacks. The adults rode up front, saying little as they watched the valley come to life with the dawn.

It was a long way to the other side of the valley, past the expanse of the Peterson ranch, past the Garza estate, and onto another road through a neighborhood of abandoned homes, the remains of a trailer park and a gutted gas station. Then there was a pasture dotted with anemic-looking sheep, and finally some larger estates once again. Unlike the ranchos on the creek side of the valley, these were in dire straits, but only the Montoya's, near the end of the road, was on the brink of ruin. Everywhere the fields were parched and dusty, the animals thin and few in number.

Will and Tasha woke up, and on seeing their friend Jimmy, scrambled out of the wagon. After a quick introduction to his brother Carlitos, the children were off to parts unknown.

The adults smiled indulgently as the kids ran off, then Carina hurried to embrace each of the Montoya women in turn while Amalia and Donovan shook hands with the men and made inquiries about the nature of the well-digging and the tools that would be required.

"We'll know when Doña Alma gets here and finds our water," said José, the patriarch. "She'll not only tell us where it is, but how far down we'll have to dig to find it. Then we'll go a little lower than that as insurance against the next drought."

"We have an auger, so it won't be all shovels and sledgehammers," added Pete, the oldest son, who was in his teens and lived in terror of the military draft. "It's hand-powered, but the Garza boys think they can find a way to hitch the mule to it and save us all some sweat."

The Garza "boys" were all men in their forties, bachelor sons of petite Chata Garza, widow of Simón, killed years ago during the fighting in Tehran. Emotionally shredded by the war, the men were all on one form of medical discharge or another and lived in their childhood home. Their stated reason for not having married was that they wanted to help their mother with the ranch, and they were so helpful in times of need that no one dared hint that there could be any other reason for it, even as local daughters grew up and pined for husbands.

The Garzas were busying themselves with the drill, a pole and a set of harness straps when the Montoyas led Amalia and Donovan over. The men greeted Amalia, then welcomed Donovan and shook his hand. "Always nice to have another man in the valley.”

"Is Doña Alma here yet?" Amalia asked.

"No," José said. "She should be here soon, though. It's what, a little after eight?"

Amalia looked at her watch. "Past eight-thirty. Closer to eight forty-five."

Pete shrugged. "She said she'll come, so she'll come."

"We're forgetting our manners," José said. "My wife and daughter have made coffee and breakfast. Please go have some."

Knowing the Montoyas' poverty, Amalia and Donovan demurred, but when he insisted, they agreed that maybe some coffee would be good. As they walked toward the house, Donovan asked, "Can they really afford coffee for everyone?"

"It doesn't matter if they can afford it or not. It's part of their hospitality. They've asked us for a favor and this is the favor they're doing for us in return. Even if this is the last coffee they'll ever see, they'll give it to us because it's good manners."

"Are all country people like this?"

"Like what?"

"You know, generous."

"Of course, if it's their neighbors. When these are the only people you can count on in times of need, you make sure to treat them right." She gave Donovan a quizzical look. "Aren't people that way in the city? I mean, not total strangers, but don't people in gangs help each other?"

"Not really. We're sort of feral, actually.”

"Well, out here we make sure to let our neighbors know we appreciate them, even when it's inconvenient or just a big pain in the ass."

Donovan laughed and suddenly Amalia laughed, too. "Yes, it is a pain in the ass sometimes. There. I've said it."

"Sounds like it needed saying."

Amalia stopped and sniffed the air. "But sometimes a little inconvenience pays off. That smells like real coffee, not the kind that's made out of chicory and dandelions."

"I wonder where they got it. Coffee’s getting hard to find in town."

"Maybe they have a stash of beans they roast up on special occasions. Let's hurry and get some. Everyone here is insatiable for good coffee, and there might not be enough to go around."


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Chapter Forty-Eight

Tasha headed down the hallway in search of the boys, and Amalia followed her with her eyes. "You wouldn't know she's such a tough little thing, as shy as she is."

"Strangers can be cruel. Being wary of them isn't such a bad thing for a girl," Donovan said.

Carina took some spoons out of a drawer and began setting the table. "Donovan, could you go get an extra chair? And Amalia, how about we mix up a pitcher of that powdered lemonade?"

"What is this, a party for the Montoya kid?"

"We haven't seen anyone from the north side in a long time, and it will be fun for the children."

Amalia raised her eyebrows. "Anything for the children, of course. Do you need me to get the lemonade out of storage or do you keep a can out here?"

"I have some here. I just thought I'd ask so you wouldn't say I never consult with you on anything."

Carina took a can out of a cupboard and started mixing lemonade powder with some cool water from one of the big kitchen crocks. Amalia, after watching the preparations in silence, went outside. Minutes later, she was back with a handful of herbs, weeds and grasses. Just then Tasha wandered back into the kitchen, a puzzled frown on her face. "Didn't find them back there, did you?" Amalia asked.

Tasha shook her head.

"Listen." Everyone in the kitchen stopped what they were doing. They could barely make out the sounds of water and laughter from the far side of the garden.

Tasha's eyes widened. "Are they playing with the shower?"

Carina strained to look out the window but could see nothing. "I told Jimmy he could have a bath..."

"Well, I think it's turned into a water fight, but since it'll save us watering the garden, I suppose it’s okay."

While Amalia was saying this, Tasha slipped out the door. A minute later the whooping increased in volume, now clearly audible over the adults' voices.

"It sounds like they're having a good time." Carina set the lemonade pitcher on the table and began rummaging in the cabinet for matching glasses.

Amalia tried to arrange her grasses decoratively in an old vase she found under the sink. "They better enjoy it while they can. At this rate they'll be out of water in another minute or two."

Sure enough, the laughter soon died down and was replaced by excited whispering. A few minutes later, three damp children, two clad in towels, one wrapped in shirt of marginal cleanliness, trooped in the front door and scampered into the children's bedroom. Donovan caught a glimpse of them from his position near the pantry. "Looks like we're going to have a few puddles in the hallway."

"There's worse things to have in the house than happy children," Carina said. After a quick glance at her party preparations, she announced that she was going to fix herself up, too, although her ordinary work attire was hardly unkempt.

"Oh, no," Amalia mumbled. "We'll be waiting until next Thursday for you to be done primping."

"I heard that!" Carina called from down the hall. "It'll only take a second!"

Amalia and Donovan looked at each other. "Should we dress, too?" Donovan asked.

"Are you kidding? My sister seems to have forgotten there's some real work to do around here, in addition to getting the Montoyas their water. Why she has to turn a simple bit of food and water into some sort of ghastly social event is beyond me."

They waited, sipping lemonade and fidgeting until a storm of running feet heralded the arrival of the children. They trooped in, hair still damp, but neatly dressed. Jimmy and Will were both wearing clean work shirts and cut-down pants, and Tasha was in a sleeveless silk blouse that had belonged to Amalia and Carina's mother, which with the addition of a sash made a passable party dress.

The boys scooted into chairs while Tasha climbed into hers in undignified fashion. Amalia poured them some lemonade. "Drink it slow because that's all we've got for today," she told them. "And don't eat until Carina gets here. It's bad manners to eat before your hostess sits down."

"Hostess?" Tasha frowned at the unfamiliar word.

"The lady who fixed up this party for you," Amalia clarified.

The children cast regretful looks at their desserts, but waited. "Where did she go?" Jimmy asked.

"She wanted to get dressed up, too."

"Why didn't you get dressed up?" Will wanted to know.

"Because there's still a lot of work to do. We're going to enjoy Carina's party, but after that we all need to get back to work, okay?"

All three children nodded and Jimmy added, "They're expecting me back tonight, so I guess I need to start filling those cans soon."

"We'll help," Amalia said. "But what does your father plan to do about the long term? You can't collect water in cans all summer."

"He's going to dig a new well any day now. He sent Carlitos to the reservation last week with a message for Alma Red Wing to pick a spot for us, but she was busy doing healing ceremonies so she couldn't come right away. Papá is hoping she can come find our water in a few days."

"Who is Alma Red Wing?" Donovan asked.

"She's a curandera. The best wise woman around." Jimmy said.

Amalia nodded slightly. "She lives on the reservation on the other side of the mountain. She does things for people, some of it real like midwifing, some of it magic like banishing the evil eye and such."

"She can cure susto." Jimmy added.

"Uh, yes. She can cure susto, a sort of jinx."

"I see."

Amalia went on. "They say what she's best at is water witching, and people around here have used her before. For the price of a goat or a few chickens she'll come out with her divining rod and tell you where to dig your well."

"Divining rod? That's a stick that points to water, right? Couldn't anybody do that?"

"You'd think so, but as much as I hate to admit it, Doña Alma is the only one I've ever known to have any success at it. You don't have to believe in magic, just your own eyes."

Donovan was getting ready to ask a question when Carina breezed into the room in a flowing blue dress, her hair loose, lips rouged, bangles jingling on her wrists. Tasha clapped her hands and was rewarded when Carina took off her locket and put it around the girl’s neck. As the girl examined the locket in wonder, Carina beamed at the assembled group. "What are we waiting for? Let's not let good food go to waste."


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Chapter Forty-Seven

It was another hot, cloudless afternoon. The dry winter had been a portent of a rainless spring and summer. With the well water lower than the women had ever seen, they decided to clear an irrigation line from the creek that had been clogged with silt for several years. Although the distance wasn't far, it was difficult work because the ground had hardened in the sun to the consistency of baked clay. When Donovan and Will hit a particularly bad patch they would pour a little water on it to accelerate the process, but with water so precious they preferred to muddle along as best they could in the dust.

One afternoon, a clop of hooves and rattling of metal canisters caused Donovan to stand up from his work and look toward the drive. Will looked up at the same time and dropped his pick. "Who's that?"

The visitor was a dirty, brown-skinned boy driving a bony mule hitched to the most uncertain-looking vehicle Donovan had ever seen. It wasn't even a real wagon, just a raft of boards attached to what appeared to be a couple of old truck axles, complete with wheels and balding tires. The wagon bed had a hastily-built rim of stakes and baling wire around it to keep its cargo of covered plastic pails and old metal canisters from falling out as they bumped against each other on the rutted road.

"I'll go see what he wants," Will said, noticing the driver was about his age.

"No, you go tell Amalia someone's here and I'll talk to the boy," Donovan told him, but it was too late. Will had already run off. Donovan laid down his shovel and walked over, taking off his gloves and stuffing them in a pocket. The boy had parked his cart just outside the kitchen door. Donovan saw the boys exchange a few words. They fell silent as he approached.

"This is Jimmy Montoya," Will told him. "He says he lives on the north side of the valley."

"You've had a long drive. What can we help you with?"

"My dad said I need to talk to Miss Amalia or Miss Carina."

Donovan glanced at Will. "Go see if you can find one of them."

"I'll be right back."

"Are you the new hand?" Jimmy asked Donovan.

"Not all that new, but I guess compared to the rest of you, I am. How are things on your side of the valley?"

"Everything's burning up— the alfalfa, the beans, the chiles. We had no corn this year, the kitchen garden is ruined, the goats and cows are low on milk and we're afraid to plant our squash and pumpkins. Don't want to throw seed away, you know. But we got to eat and now the well is bringing up sludge, when it brings up anything at all."

"I take it you don't have a creek on that side."

"We have an arroyo, but it’s only full in the winter. This last winter, it never filled at all and we weren’t able to store any water in our tanks. We've been filtering the sludge from the well, but it ain’t enough, so we was wondering..."

"Jimmy!" Carina came running from the goat shed, with Will darting ahead like a calf. "Look at you, handsome! You're getting to be so grown up. Miles had better get home quick or I'll be getting me a new husband, I think."

Jimmy accepted Carina's hug and teasing with passive goodwill. "Hi, Miss Carina. I was just telling your new hand here—"

"Donovan," Carina corrected him. "And he's not just a hand, he's family."

"Okay. I was just telling him our well's almost dry and we could sure use a little creek water."

"Of course," Carina said, motioning Jimmy down from the wagon. "Take as much as you need. It's not running real high this year, but when times are tough we help each other out, don't we?" She hitched his mule to a nearby post and herded him toward the door. "But I've got conditions on my water. No one can take it without first coming inside, having something to eat and giving me all the news."

Jimmy's shoulders sagged in relief. "It's sure hot out and I wouldn't mind a little rest before heading back."

"You'll get that, plus a bath, and maybe we can find you some clean clothes, too."

"I bet he'll fit something of mine," Will offered, following them into the kitchen.

"Good idea. Why don't you two go do that while I see about making us something to eat? Will you be needing a meal, Jimmy, or just a snack?"

"I ate my lunch in the wagon about an hour ago," Jimmy said. "I ain't really starving or anything."

"Sounds like you just need dessert, then."

The boys took off down the hall and Carina started bustling around the kitchen.

"You seem to like that boy,” Donovan observed.

"I like all children. If they hadn't shipped Miles away, we probably would've had a dozen."

Donovan poured a glass of water. "I wonder how come the boy came all the way over here. The Petersons are closer. There must be other families on his side of the valley. If he goes far enough down this road he'll eventually come to where he won't have to ask anyone to take creek water."

Carina set out some dessert bowls. "The Montoyas probably got water from the Petersons last week and didn't want to bother them again so soon. They're a very proud family. They hate to look like they can't take care of themselves. As for why Jimmy didn't drive to the end of the property lines, take a good look at that mule and you'll have your answer. He's thin, poor thing, and the trip to get here was probably as much as he could bear. I'll have to take a look at that creature before I let Jimmy drive him back."

She was about to say more when the screen door burst open. "What kind of rogue contraption is that outside?" Amalia asked, entering the kitchen with Tasha at her heels. "Looks hardly sturdy enough to get here, no matter where it came from."

"It's Jimmy Montoya's cart," Carina said. "They're low on water up there."

"And the boy is going to fetch it back in that? With that bag of bones pulling it?"

"It's probably sturdier than it looks."

"I guess we'll see, won't we?"

"Yes, we will." Carina stepped back and admired the desserts she had prepared. "What do you think?"

Amalia and Donovan nodded noncommittally at the six little bowls of layered nuts and preserves decorated with mint sprigs, but Tasha pulled a chair up to the counter and examined them. She did a quick calculation on her fingers. "Do we each get a whole one?"

"You sure do." Carina set the girl on the floor and moved the chair back to the table. "Now, tell the boys to come eat. I think they're in Will's room." When Tasha hesitated, Carina urged her on. "It's okay. Will has a friend with him, that's all. Go on and he'll introduce you."