Moths Will Suck First
She saw the volcanoes no matter how far she might travel. The smoking mountains above Mexico City had both stirred and reduced her according to the tides as she knew them to be in herself, not necessarily rising or falling, but like the scorpions she’d known her whole life, appearing under a pillow or in the fold of a gown, a thing detached suddenly from the surrounding transience.
Though small scorpions in her house could be lethal, they were rare. If she took precautions the creatures inevitably exposed were collected and dried in Zapotec and Aztec ceramic jars she collected. Such earthenware wonders served as a reminder about her painting methods and how she might continue to draw courage and intelligence from the previous women who she felt were masters of this art.
Erina Avilar Castro remembered a close childhood friend, who at the beginning of her eighteenth year was stung on her right breast readying herself for bed. By sunrise the girl was delirious. By the following mid-day, dead. No one paid Erina for her skills then. No one, including herself, knew she had such skills.
She was only fourteen herself at the time of this death and for many months was torn by her revulsion over the final color of that breast wound and the growth of her own breasts. She had been allowed to visit that friend, whose parents prayed the encounter deliver their daughter the crucial step away from death’s still ambiguous grasp. In her final stages of suffering and thrashing astonishment the victim tore her sweat soaked gown and so revealed the site of the sting.
Erina was also repulsed more by another fact which amazed her and which she thought both violated the friend and herself. The color of the wound. The cruel blackish gloss which fascinated Erina with its inert heaviness.
The painter was in her 60th year in 1768 and felt the paint on her fingers as she rode in a carriage with her companion/servant Rebecca through the hills beyond their city. Mixtec cornfields stood in furrows, but barely. A three-year drought had gradually intensified and each felt the dryness sear edges of lips and ears as a cara-cara circled over dead goats across one of the narrow valleys they knew so well. Adults had not yet started to die but carpenters were already busy with small coffins of the young, wearied by sadness of having to use their tools for these things.
Twilight was difficult for Erina and Rebecca. They heard dull sounds of a hammer carried over wilted fields. Funeral processions and meager feasts were to begin soon. People danced in their masks of the living and dead. The two populations locked in a dilapidated, tenderly helpless embrace. Erina and Rebecca felt the two worlds ran yellow as hanging datura in their gardens. It was their favorite primary color. They began mixing Erina’s tones for each painting – yellow first and counting the hours, depending on the season, black beckoning with its various hues attended by journeys in their Oaxacan world to mountains, jungles, and seacoasts where they collected plants, birds, insects, and artifacts of pre-conquest worlds barely a scratch away from the thin veneer marking their own civilization. The veneer of Mary and Her Son with which Erina began her life.
The breast wound had changed it. After her friend’s death Erina began walking the ruins in hills above her city escorted by one of her father's vaqueros and the then new servant girl, Rebecca, brought from her village by a nun to live in Erina’s household. An ancient plaza with its huge pyramids, the silence of their climbs up steep eroded steps, swoop of vultures placidly veering and patient, surrounding dry hillocks which they knew were lesser pyramids, crumbled and scorched. Occasionally gold and silver things appeared; miniature spiders, birds, snakes, fish, frogs undefinably whimsical and luxuriant in their barbaric challenge. Once Rebecca found a pair of obsidian ear spools carved to so thin and masterful a transparency that both young women were left nearly breathless by its unearthing. These were the first objects they packed for their journeys. Neither felt without them they could even begin to mix the paints.
Many took note of these unusual motions, especially for a prominent, ready to emerge young lady like Erina. The sight of an old family carriage trudging toward a pre-Columbian ruin, along with Erina’s unhid curiosities, was an affront to haciendidos and priests. How could the scandal of it be contained? There was talk of a nunnery, an arranged marriage with a distant cousin in Spain, either one a preferred exile, and for her parents, a way to let any possible humiliation slide away without residue. Perhaps most glaring was the rumor Erina became interested in Mixtec and Zapotec, lowest of languages. Worse, as gossip curled, the Mazatec of a servant girl brought from distant hills. "Tongues of the conquered,” Erina’s father said to her mother, “and better left to join the emptiness of the land” in anguish over this only one born to them late.
Her parents knew their child was quick, uneasily so, and worried over barely submerged whispers about a “girl” who seemed to listen too fiercely and hear too clearly.
“No, not dangerous,” a powerful priest confided to her mother, “but still unsettling. And, of course, we wouldn’t want this to go further than it has.”
But it had.
Erina’s mother heard her daughter speak one morning. Not Spanish. And she remembered an unwanted sensation “of water cooling a hand” and being lulled for a moment of soft horror by her daughter’s audacities. Yet when she emerged from the shade of those always remarkably near yet alien sounds she was terrified, though she’d heard Indian languages spoken every day over peeling tomatoes, laundry, seasonal labors in which those unemerged women of her houseworld shifted almost imperceptibly, their hands and fingers and forearms and muscles used, as hers were not.
If not “dangerous” as the priest said, then what?
And how to hide it from a worrying father with his allergies and sun nausea in a climate that for months was more fire pit with unnerving winds and vaguely malevolent cypress or tule tree shade, old impenetrable things with trunks like shoulders of dead demons, petrified and gigantic. Irina’s mother was further afraid of avocado and chocolate. Both seemed, after her favorite parrots died from eating these things, far too suggestive and reckless. But it was sunset that made this parent feel her civilization personally widen and drip into coiled darkness escorted as it was by small flocks of short-tailed bats flying for wild and domestic fruit. Their slurping of fruit meat, their nightly cycles of feeding and sated sleep was like a vision of lust by which the waiting decompositions, checked only partially by an ever vigilant Saviour, would begin their reversal and wreckage.
One early fall day Erina’s parents noticed their daughter’s hands and wrists. Her skin pigment was a compelling intense scarlet. She delayed ridding herself of the color she and they knew was as an important treasure to one world as it was to another. The great Aztec monarch demanded as tribute from conquered cities at least 2000 spectacularly decorated cotton blankets representing the greatest achievements of those peoples who produced them. Erina felt by those losses one could stumble over the vast names of sorrow, and a violence more withering than war each year thriving as monumental destitution similar, she thought, to being gored by one of the prized bulls her father bred for bull fights in Ciudad de Mexico, City of Volcanoes where there were still found in the higher snow fields images carved from hardened lava. Two recently in her fifteenth year – a kneeling goddess, her fleshless face, empty eye sockets, hair of wound intestines. The other; a coiled rattlesnake, forked tongue hanging from an open mouth ready to strike. Erina heard of these discoveries from a friend of her parents, a deputy to the viceroy who told them over a formal visit of the finds in a voice nearly hushed with contemptuous fear, not quite sure, even after more than two hundred years of Spanish domination, what secrets or spells these things might hold.
“I suppose one can’t be completely sure,” Erina heard her mother say in response to this information as the three adults watched each other in confused silence which inevitably rose up whenever any repulsive reminder of the "Peril” as they called it, surfaced and weighed them down in temporary, though sickly bewildered drift. Montezuma also demanded forty bags of the dried insect substance derived from feeding on pads of cactus and its delicious nopales fruit. Cochineal dye was prized above both silver and gold. Erina’s parents, haciendidos who had held their wealth and position since 1570, regarded that pigment on their daughter’s skin as a sign she would be childless.
They did not want their world to unravel any more than this. This and no further.
There was however one starkly obvious tinge of somber hesitancy before what could have been considered a comely maiden and coveted prize for any future qualified suitor. Erina had a wandering left eye, and its glance, which occasionally frightened Christian and non-Christian, could not be ignored. Her eye turned outward, but as a child its destination was not permanent. Her parents prayed she would outgrow the problem, but fearfully, in the months of transition between her tenth and eleventh year, her retina intermittently migrated and then became a fixed, hopeless continent with a white sea lapping at it edges.
No prayers, no lighted candles could undo it though Erina’s mother never wholly gave up her own daily ceremonies. Erina became increasingly friendless and alone. Her peers, except for the one stung by a scorpion grew confused by the intensity and self-consciousness of any direct eye-to-eye exchange. A mark, not necessarily of Satan, they confessed among themselves, whose allotment was not, thankfully their own, and conclusion enough.
There was an exception, one Erina considered the central charm of a life that would otherwise have ended as a stupor of isolation and pity. Rebecca, the Mazatec servant who had attended her since her seventh year. She came from a poor village in the far mountains; initially did not want to speak Spanish, did not want those sounds emerging from her throat. Though barely a woman at that moment, she told her mother and grandmother about Erina when allowed the rare trek home. The older women who were masters of songs and secrets which could result in their murders if they were found out, listened carefully to this dearly missed daughter who brought them her “savings” and kept them and others not from cruel hunger, but from plain starvation.
And when Erina’s eye lost its anchor Rebecca noted the changes of those days, how the life-breath of the house became unrooted and transitory. Would the girl, otherwise considered beautiful, in becoming a woman, survive? And if survival meant isolation or subdued ridicule; hers the mark of a sinister and intolerable visitor finally crushing the barely touched mortal girl, who, though innocent, would be forced to breath her days in gathering repudiation? Those who previously knew the family were fascinated and repelled, then grew weary and angry of that burden, became something denser than strangers. Such deformity, though many openly felt themselves because of education and travel to Europe, to be superior to inflexible superstition, was considered a sign of not only an ever lurking dread, but the work of original fiends the Church could never completely crush despite its fiercest efforts.
There was no remove. The wife of another prominent local official, wanting a section of her garden redesigned, watched in shock as her peons unearthed the frightening effigy of a monkey carved in onyx, its physical expression so animated, the senora of that household took to her bed in a swoon, and as it was reported to Erina’s parents, needed the local bishop's reassurances before so unexpected an experience in the intimacy of her own home. A sudden reminder of European fragility and its toil. Conversion and destruction for three centuries which offered so solid an assurance, suffered paralysis in these moments. Were there any consolations, Erina sometimes asked herself while painting in old age, to sustain even those simplest household acts which became unsuspected vocations luring the devil, or, more uneasily, his elf-children like this superbly carved monkey, who had to be granted, if only for a nightmare aroused evening, its blood rotting silence.
These things commanded such pitiless irritation, and those like the senora of the garden, felt herself slipping toward noises of witches and needed the ancient string to escape the maze and lurid sexuality of the onyx monkey’s pose. Erina knew this friend of her parents partially shrank with the “sickness” of the unearthed savage object; withdrew in the twilight and rebirth of a new favored “Madonna” of the Church.
For herself, Erina came to quickly realize, after her iris stopped its wanderings, how firm and morose her position would be in this community of her birth. She, like the unearthed monkey, would also command a silence. No, not as curdling, but as spiteful in its precise exclusions.
The servant, Rebecca, learned what Spanish she needed, knowing any reluctance furnished her masters with a reason for exile, and to return penniless to her village, be the cause of further sufferings. Though homesickness tortured and often nauseated the Mazatec girl, she understood the one way to soften her own and Erina’s misery was a friendship. If she wanted to do this she would have to appear even more an unloving creature than she already was to this and other great households of their valley joined irremediably as it was to the ruined pyramids and plazas of the Older People. So she watched, noting how Erina shrank as from a wasting disease, averting her face and head, letting her shoulders droop and shuffling her feet with moderation enough to let visitors know she was about to walk into a room – give them a preparatory moment to cover their embarrassment.
Those whom she once thought admired adults were now like dull and hesitant children, solemnly nervous whenever this “once lovely girl” made her courteous appearances, then retreated into the noiseless, faraway odors of the hacienda with its scents of dry air and fountains, and horse gear. Rebecca noted too, how upon excusing herself from further intrusion, this done as if she were already partially transparent, the graciousness and manners carefully ministered for each occasion and its visitors, Erina returned to her privacy and isolation, suddenly stood erect, her walk not that of sickly ghosts, but a girl readying herself for the world without apology or hesitation.
During this period Rebecca’s mother and aunt made the dangerous journey from the remote, and to families like Erina’s, sinister hills of the Sierra Madre del Sur and its cloud forests. There was always the possibility of the many faces Death provides; hungry jaguars and lions, snakebite, heat exhaustion, murder, or the witches’ Double fooling even the most wary with impersonations these women knew were spun from earliest cocoons of disintegration so attractive and handsome to a human eye, and yet morbidly swarming at the point where that creaturely eye lurches and tilts in memories of its seeing. A region Rebecca’s mother and aunt knew a Double had to master or die, taking its human host with it. They were afraid for Rebecca and so walked and ran the hundred miles distance arriving under cover of the strident quietness that arose with the European belief they were only partially human. The quietness held its exorbitant prices, and for those, like Rebecca’s aunt and mother, there was a boatman going from one shore to another, similar too, yet less concerned than Death about the colors of morning and the shadows cast by certain trees at twilight. Small differences but in the dissolutions of seeing that comes with night, the breakages became swifter, dryer, wider and no strength of mind or dream could call these things to restoration. Rebecca feeling their nearness prepared tortillas, picked oranges, but stingily so the hacienda's gardener took no notice nor count. When she rode with her mistress and Erina to the market day in Oaxaca she saw them standing before the great and small baskets of seeds smiling in pleasure at such rich accumulation. They were able to mix their smiles with the joy of seeing Rebecca without being found out.
Two nights later they came when Venus seemed hottest to them.
They ate the tortillas first, then oranges. The girl had included fresh cool water with pitcher and cups she made herself as a kitchen servant assigned to replace any of the breakages in that household center. She required only minor instruction. Her plates, saucers, pitchers, bowls of differing sizes and needs were sought by other haciendas in the district. Her mother and aunt praised her for the taste and texture of the tortillas, for the relief of the fruit, and her potter’s skills. When done they asked about Erina.
“What changes are there?” her mother asked.
“She is one thing. Then another,” Rebecca answered.
“Is it of her own choosing?” The aunt added.
The two older women drank the water in long silence. There was no outward perplexity as they each held an orange, gotten for them, they knew, at some peril. At last the mother whispered,
“Is there more?” Rebecca wanted to know seeing their faces grow heavy and distant.
“Her lifelessness will become your own if you don’t.”
In the flood of Rebecca’s tears the two women were gone. All three understood what lingering could bring; a beating from other more experienced servants, foodless days to be gotten through, small but lacerating punishments meant to further break Indians like Rebecca, who for two-hundred years had been molded to life-long household routines. There were many who came back to their villages crushed with age by their mid-thirties; many too who died in ruthless solitudes and were buried.
It was Rebecca’s aunt who heard the three-year-old child singing one morning and saw she memorized ancient complicated songs of their village she heard as rituals and processions went by. She called the mother to hear as they sat on the bare earthen floor of their shared hut, one husband having been killed by thieves, a second dwindling with fever. They were frightened. A child so charmed like this could be taken by nuns hopelessly beyond them.
That same week they went to a local woman, one who lived similarly to themselves. They did not want priests and nuns of their district to know; the songs often referred to Gods other than the crucified Lamb, and though they loved the Jesus, there were visits and trouble from his emissaries. The woman was expert in herbs and teas and was, though gently somber in her ways, fearfully respected for her abilities to ease troubles and sufferings of hers and other villages and often did what the prayers of Christian officials could not. But it was a danger to come to her. To be too easily seen. So the sisters visited when Pleiades began their descent.
They brought Rebecca with them.
The woman was slight, face still drawn with terrible childhood hunger. More than half the villagers of their mountain world vanished from famine and disease. Though there was some food now, she still moved with cautions of that misery and smallness, her fingers and wrists partially crippled from earlier ravages. She wanted only an egg for the consultation. One of her two chickens had been attacked and carried off by a cara-cara.
“A sign,” she said, smiling shyly at her visitors. The smile holding no deadness or obliterating gloom that raged under indifferent shells of so many in these hills, which was often the only protection they had from prying priests and officials who wanted only to know there was no remnant pagan demon in their souls. They were never not listening for rumor or whisper. And they well enough understood Indian languages and dialects.
The sisters set the egg before her.
“Ah,” she said, “I can’t decide where to eat it or let it hatch for another cara-cara who needs it too. Both of you. I thank you for the egg.”
The dilemma of this was said with such gentle regard and unexpected humor the sisters were put at ease.
The woman then unfolded a straw mat and laid it between them.
“For the child. Place her here.”
She began by touching Rebecca's face, feeling her head, turning palms up, rubbing hands and feet.
"Intelligent, beautifully intelligent," she said in a supple whisper, the child laughing easily while this was done.
"Now we'll wait for the singing."
And wait they did. Through the night letting Rebecca have her time, exploring as children will, moon motes cutting darkness into criss-crossed lines, or a wayward moth coming to rest and flexing its wings. The elderly woman whispered twice near Rebecca's ear, her patience watchfully easy, nearly motionless in its soothing hush over those hours. The moon had begun its quickening descent when Rebecca began, her chant-like tones having an almost acrobatic quality in their rhythms:
In the place of rain and mists
We are made
In the place of rain and mists
We are cobwebs
In the place
Tastes like honey
The song was old, the old woman knew. The song was age-bent as some of the remote old tress in their wild mountains, the ones approached in secret for dreams and curses where snakes and birds and scorpions and spiders seemed to have ruins older than mankind. The girl sang it without flare. She let her tongue come to singing as to ghost sounds in search of lingering shade, as was proper the curer knew, to how humans might approach such gifts. Rebecca repeated the old sinew of words three times in succession then resumed her fascinations with what were now in pre-sunlit darknesses, unseen childish lures.
"You must watch for the day she will leave," the elder woman said after nearly an hour of wordlessness between them, adding, "the day she will never come back. Otherwise they will brand her face and make her into one of their beautiful worms."
They knew what the old woman meant. Nuns searched villages for ones like this. Stole children. Carefully, slowly drained them of all that had been. Turned them to dressed-in-black things, singing songs in languages of another world on days of Christmas and Easter. They saw it too as a more ancient transformation. The mystery double of fate for mortals and immortals dressed in flayed skins of previous selfs, singing of the soul's multiple identities full of awe and sacred danger and heart ache, more compelling than the tender Carpenter's agony.
When they heard of Erina's wandering eye they understood the "Day" had come. And as Rebecca watched, Erina's isolation began to increase. The girl who was once considered so desirable a future bride, began to walk the halls of her parent's estate at night, and often refused to eat.
"A shroud," Rebecca heard visitors sometimes whisper, "falling into powder, and for how much longer?" The question also held their desire to see Erina mercifully exiled to a proper nunnery so the shame of her would leak no farther.
A man arrived for the funeral of the scorpion stung girl, one Erina had seen on the streets of her small city, buying fruit or charms from local female Mixtec vendors, dressed in their white cotton dresses for market day. Erina noticed her parents and their company whenever they passed by him. They never nodded to this obvious gentleman. Their manners were mostly distant and vaguely wilted before this person; a sudden bonelessness she could almost smell and which framed the man in soft mistrust.
She wanted to know more but saw how carefully and exactly elders shut away the encounter, allowing no more of it to mar them. He was of their social class but it seemed they willed him to dissolve. And when he stood over the dead body of Erina's friend they greeted him with a quiet, "Welcome Senior" in tones of formal sanction nearly reverential rippling through the sorrow of the house. They directed their servants to fetch his easel, paints, a canvas ready on its stretcher.
And so he painted the dead girl quickly, skillfully, as if, Erina thought, he were tracing a dragonfly. Nothing more than the motion attended to with proper payment; his colors flat and vacuous, his "skill" a thing dried up and feeble, in accompaniment to its gruesome necessity.
Erina only glanced at this man and his work. It was late winter and the days had not yet filled their valley with any consistent heat. She remembered he readied his palette, his brushes, fixed the cloth drape for the dead girl's head, adjusted the necklace around her neck, touched her hands. She saw his lips move, but the whisper was inaudible as he walked in a tight circle around the body watching, hovering, turning up the lid of a dead right eye, pausing, studying the sightless thing there.
Erina at that moment was called away from the scene by her father's urgent tone, yet she knew where her own wandering eye had come to rest, but told no one. If her exile was to be inevitable, and she knew it was, then how could she apply herself to its possible fortunes rather than the carefully charted bitterness that would sweep her away.
Her late night journeys through arcades and gardens of her parent's hacienda were no longer merged with despair over her transformation. Her "eye" seemed secondary, the unreality of its rule over her life less stark, and the exaltation her parent's friends secretly felt over the disfigurement grew more narrow.
But where to start? And who to tell?
The image of that "painter" opening her dead friend's eye. Its violation left Erina feeling as if she were scratching in a glare of helplessness for months. In her nights of futility she began to think of herself as this kind of painter, applying her whole breath to another kind of shadow beyond the shadow she was slowly becoming.
She ordered paper, ink, various pens knowing this first act of extraction could draw no overt attentions. She had been crushed once for her wandering eye. To be crushed as a woman wandering, she understood, into forbidden acts would be to be twice robbed, the second thievery borne of her own possible carelessness.
She waited months. Her mother found these things in a delivery of fine linens from Mexico City. Erina arranged the placement of the items to seem an accident.
"Erina," her mother said, a few days after examining the expensive rare cloth she ordered, "there are some misplaced curios here. Do you want to see them?" The daughter was hesitant, knowing precisely how her life depended upon what her reply might attract.
"Yes. What is it?" Erina responded letting the edginess of her voice burn away into the heavier firmness of the gardens where she often sat.
"Some ink and paper. Oh, and some pens too." Her mother's surprise and tone offered the daughter a comfort that had lain dead for years.
"Could someone have sent them by mistake. Shouldn't it be sent back?" Erina asked.
"To whom. Or where? The loss is final." Her mother's words cold as a centipede, enveloping both of them in the riddle.
Erina waited. A season. It made no difference. Let the moment be nondescript, she thought; a mid-morning lull. In April the sun will fill and the artist's things be nearly forgotten in their preservation as her mother's store of clutter. Insects can flutter, lizards become curious and hungry. She knew the cupboard, the shelf.
Her first attempts at "drawing" were a misery for her. Nothing seemed to yield. Her fingers felt wrenched, wrists fused. Her eye "spineless"; the word matching her feelings of dry recoil against each gesture of labor. "The blood in my fingertips feels like swollen scabs," she wrote in her notebook, wondering how to hold these tools which further lamed and aroused her. How many hours? Years? She devised "lessons" for herself in a corner of her mother's large garden. Rather than drawing on paper, she drew directly on the ground with the sharpened edge of a twig she'd found, smoothed the dirt and concentrated on her immediate surroundings. What flew, grew, and died in that exact corner. Erasing, drawing, erasing with the palms of her hands, bulge of her forearms letting the coldness of the soil find her.
Weeks passed. Months. She noticed a beginning, as yet uncertain fact; she did not feel so condemned and ugly. Her hands were stronger, fingers no longer the ruins she thought they were. There was also an image in the dirt before her; a flower with its stem, a small lizard hiding under the umbrella of the petals. The tight instance recorded with a nervous line which didn't fill her with shame. It was spare, clear, a little ragged, but she couldn't remember having done it. "And what form of mockery is this?" Erina asked herself, stumbling upon this trick of mind, and letting it further inflame her.
Rebecca also watched. The Mazatec servant was told to water and weed, attend to the main adjacent kitchen, help prepare meals, gather herbs, observe the young "mistress" from a distance and report to the "cook." But report what of the apparently "broken" and miserable patrona who seemed to drift into unshrinkable increase, moving from an almost feeble twilight to a perch, as if a newly proportioned and hungry nestling.
In early afternoons Erina abandoned her corner for siesta, and migrated to household interiors. Rebecca waited, sometimes for hours, letting her labors dictate where and how she moved, pressing at Erina's corner lightly. The dirt was always smoothed over and Rebecca, though afraid to over-linger, drew water from the garden well, poured the nourishment onto the plants in that corner as if it were any other part of the garden. Erina in late afternoon hours of a September day in her mother's second storey sewing parlor turned toward her "Dirt Pile" as she called it, and watched the servant girl attend to the plants there and shyly look down at the erased ground. The girl's labor seemed ordinary. Erina turned away.
At the end of that month Erina saw the servant girl again. Saw her do the same things.
"Are these orders?" she asked herself, knowing what her parents wanted to know.
Each girl in her stealth began a watch.
Erina observed no visible patterns to Rebecca's visits. She listened for household rumors. There were none.
In a late twilight of the following July Rebecca filled ceramic jugs she made with water. The day's labors stranded her in exhaustion but she carried the heavy cool things to herbs and roses, careful not to whet leafs or expose tomatoes, peppers, various squashes to night rot. Orange, lemon, and fig trees demanded a similar care. She did not waste a single mid-summer drop. Though tired, she found in watering a sudden renewal. Birds came to watch and hover and she didn't have to dig far into garden dirt for insect larvae or worms she set out on garden walls for birds to eat. Her end of day moments provided a suspension and freshness that lingered for her even in the repetitive days of heat strain and blisters.
The temperature was heavy on this day. Night dissipated nothing of its hardness which also carried vagueries of a deep burning that comes when sun ravenously feeds on little edges, its odors tart and sharp and never to be ignored. Erina watched the thin girl, nearly breathless, but still lifting, pouring, managing yet a new pattern as she approached the "corner" and began to water there. She looked down, as always quickly, at the dirt, at an arrow drawn there pointing toward the house. Rebecca looked away, poured the remaining precious gallons of water, placed empty vessels on the ground below fine weeding and cultivating she'd done in each raised garden segment. She turned toward the arrow, toward the immediate wall of the house, and let her eyes move up to a second storey window where she saw a silhouette, then Erina's face.
Erina in those months watched too as Rebecca kept the garden, shaped it for birds and insects, light and air, saw this was not random or accidental; watched the servant concentrate on the small, the unnoticed and what began to emerge from those charmed, unhurried labors. She saw death was as everywhere in that garden as life. Rebecca took account of each dead thing and either left its space empty or brought chicken manure and mixed it with soil and let that place wait. Her care was not boisterous, drew no eye nor sucked breath of unwanted surprise.
"Whose corner is whose?" Erina asked herself, growing less weary.
On that day she drew the arrow. Nothing more. Knowing both their lives depended on it.
There was no single event. Nothing for attention to gather and produce its frame of whispers in that world. Erina let a weightless, trimmed suggestion loose, indistinct as the flit of a lizard diving for shadows.
"Mother. Can we take the carriage to market one day next week?"
"For why?" her mother asked.
"For seeds and flowers. See vendors like we used to?"
The mother remembered these things fascinated this daughter. Indian women coming from their far mountains and valleys, carrying, beyond their goods, their ancient arts of bargaining, old excited intelligences uncovered for those hours which Erina's mother thought repulsive, but harmless as she considered earlier excursions with the Mazatec servant, the one confined to kitchen, to garden because of her apparent aptitude. But more. Her passivity and faintness pleased the mother who did not want the thick hopelessness of other servants making her feel suspended in her own household, "Like a lemon," she thought, "in a bat's mouth," and shuddering in her own sensations.
She knew her daughter admired beautifully woven baskets of varying sizes, color patterns. Wondered aloud if these women were mathematicians hoarding catagories of numbers so peculiar, so complete that their coldness would allow only these appearances. Blind seed women, wrinkled female twins who counted seed and seed weight with fingertips so parched they seemed to outrace the intricate fears and murder lurking in the countryside. Butcheresses deftly and gracefully breaking necks of chickens, the birds hovering headless, squirting blood there in the women's hands. Sellers of orange and green, purple and brown chocolate with flavors of river beds.
"Maybe older than water, eh Mama?" the imaginative girl speculated in wonders her mother hoped could be delicately crushed for her daughter's sake, for the sake of future nuns and priests who would surely, she felt, grow scornful of a too obvious intelligence not properly nipped by a mother such as herself.
A servant was ordered to clean and ready a simple black carriage, prepare horses, reigns, bridles, a vaquero for escort; Rebecca told she was to go with the Matron and her daughter. A Saturday, September of 1728. Erina, twenty years old. Her mother planned to place her in a convent by the age of twenty-five in Mexico or Spain. The trouble of it had licked the mother's flesh half away. The father desired an earlier beginning of exile. "To lessen sorrow. Let the bleeding begin so it can end," he proposed to his wife one night in their quarters. The mother stiffened. Said hardly a word for over a month. The marriage curdled.
There had been yet another plague in the villages. The countryside looked like a spit up bone. Crops and soil nothing more than scabbed combinations; "Mud to dust. Dust to mud. This trickle of words," Erina thought as she looked out, "as easily ready to dry up," catching herself in mid-thought, shamed over her own perceptions knowing partially the burdens she was to her mother who had to explain this curious daughter to herself, then to friends and visitors, feeling as if each word were covered with lice, the back of her throat brackish and cracked.
Children in small clumps wandering river and stream beds stared at the simple carriage. One boy threw a stone at the two overly groomed horses, then seemed to partially collapse from his exertions. The horses flinched, steadied themselves. The three women watched other children gather over their suddenly fallen companion. Yellow Fever. The vomito negro? None of them could see properly from their distance. Or rabies? They saw two staggering cows in a previous arroyo, no more than two miles from this village. Was it the dreaded stage of paralysis for the boy which might explain his behavior? A nun who came to see Erina at the request of the father brought news of a previous outbreak to their household. "Watch the horses," she warned. "And bulls. If they become docile. Some say a child can be bitten and for almost a year nothing will happen. In others it can only be days. I have seen both" as she touched her cross, sucked lightly at her astonishment, recalling her years of service among the poor.
Erina found herself at ease with this elder. Her disciplined yet humorous charm lingered in their home after the woman left. One hardly recalled her limp. Rather her manners and self assurance were a gentle stimulant. Erina's mother became even more silent knowing her husband's subtleties and arrangements. The visit of this nun made her seethe.
As they neared Oaxaca roads were nearly choked with Indians a-foot, their foreheads strapped, balancing weight of heavy sacks, both women and men bent forward in a lean, concentrating on each foot, one misstep could mean broken ankle or leg, though they held themselves in a moist watchfulness against dust, against exhaustion and seemed to nearly dissolve. Erina's mother pulled herself away from her momentary stare at these pobrecitos, crossed herself quickly for she had told her daughter "the Infant runs but Dread comes as a wide, slow river." There were other carriages in front and behind, carts, horsemen. Erina's mother pulled the curtains to avoid dust, human and animal waves. She checked and straightened Erina first, then herself, tidied Rebecca as nothing more than a barren afterthought. Noises outside were muffled, but one could hear clatter, creaks of loaded wagons, straining horses, snap of whips, press of muscles. Bells of the cathedral began their chimes as Erina's mother directed the driver toward outer precincts of the zocalo where she knew her husband waited. There were men from the great bull ring of Mexico City who came to see their hacienda's legendary fighting bulls and horses. Though between the parents there was little talk, Erina and her mother knew the family business and traditions, adored the bulls and horses. She wanted to surprise her daughter with the spectacle of a sale. Purchase of an animal meant great prestige for their ganadera. Fierce blood and hard malevolence attracted emissaries even from Spain.
All three heard the father's approaching footsteps as his strained, dim-faced wife drew back the curtains. Their exchange of syllables was done, Erina thought years later, as if each had scraped a partially swallowed spider.
The mother directed her driver to the southern edges of the city into a maze of corrals planted there for sale and inspection of animals once every three years.
"Bulls, Mama?" Erina whispered.
"Yes, My child," her mother formally spoke, allowing her lips to change back from stone to flesh. Rebecca let her eyes fall on Erina's lap. The daughter let her fingers roll tight into small fists held forefinger to forefinger on her thighs. The servant bathed in anticipation and dark intensities of these matrons, felt herself begin to shudder. Might she be indentured to another household and if this were so, where? Vomit rose up and burned the back of her nostrils.
The older woman drew back the curtains once more. There were thunderheads rising behind the plateau of pyramids but the segment of sky above them was hard blue. As they approached the corrals they saw men riding savagely fine Andulusian mares, short tempered, fearsomely smart as their Arabian ancestors. The passage of their carriage made the horses stamp in near rage, the riders on them relaxed and superb fingering reins as if those leathers were flexing/unflexing snakes born of necks, jaws, defiantly bulging horse eyes.
"Blood smell" Erina spoke almost involuntarily, leaning forward to see the graceful, bold fury of these horses bred for bull rings, ready to bite, ready to kick eternity itself to a pulp, Erina thought, and let her gaze fall on the young woman whose dark skin was drawn taut over temples and chin. The wide face stern with loneliness, but unbroken, jarred Erina as the other woman returned her gaze.
"Your father. There he is!" The mother could not hold her rush of language as she waited for the driver to open the carriage door, allow them to step down. The horses seemed like spilled fire, combed to a sheen, nostrils flaring with stinging hatred over scents of men and bulls. They were corner crazed and nearly lathered at hearing bellows of still unseen tethered bulls and bull piss caught in air made the horses swirl and kick. Vaqueros, including Erina's father, were gathered and relaxed in their silver braided saddles pulse to pulse with enraged rhythms of the beasts underneath them. There were puddles of horse piss to be stepped around. Rebecca was frightened by the streamlined, terrible bulk of the Andulusians, especially the wild blood raw farts of a magnificent mare kicking and snorting not more than twenty feet from where they stood, the animal's malevolence and lust made Rebecca want to shrink in a current of abondonment.
The father refused to hide the world of the ganedera from either daughter or wife. The two women were composed and watchfully held their ground as riders and animals shredded air around them waiting for the appearance of the bulls. He felt helplessly proud as he watched the women stand, hard in their courage and full dresses, as the horses bit at each other, knowing their riders, wanting to feel the human rage in squeezing knees and thighs. To fight the bulls required this. No animal needed the spur, though metal there was to draw horse blood further, more elaborately. There would be no killing today. Only inspection and buying. Erina heard her father calling to his silver mare's temporary rider, saw him motion the vaquero to a corral built in the form of a bullring. The horse moving toward the enclosure spun, snapped its back and neck, eyes blared with cold murder, tail swishing, the grace of it sinister, viciously weightless, and as the animal and rider passed the threshold the horse's body flexed into a smooth, nearly awful prance, as if deliberately honing its own savageries, carrying the few spectators, vaqueros, and other horses with it, scouring the so far empty death arena as if it were no more than the tongue of hummingbird.
Erina noticed two well dressed strangers descend from a large carriage not far from her own. Both gone jowl heavy, were of medium height, and affected the latest fashion of Mexico City. They talked only to themselves, stood apart, had the accents of Madrienos, flaunted the syllables just enough to be heard as they moved toward the main corral to judge horse and bull flesh for possible inclusion either in the great arena of the Colonial capitol for the Viceroy's pleasure or to be seen in Spain as evidence of the limited but interesting breeding lines emerging out of the obscure provinces of the New World. But the three women and horsemen around them did notice, were alerted by the strained indifference of these visitors who wore their justacorps under the not yet too agressive sun, their dark grey coats narrow at shoulders and sleeves cut tight to arms. Erina's mother took a studied measure of the sleeve cuffs nearly folded to elbows; the hanging fabric of the coats descending as an open skirt to the knees. She looked even more carefully at the "gilet" or waistcoats buttoned down to waistline and there evenly flaring out as an inverted V extending around upper thighs and buttocks. She smirked at these too carefully polished meat buyers as she thought of others like them who came for the harvests her family had bred for nearly six generations and its traditions her husband married into. She appraised the flesh expertly; both the non-human and this other directing her gaze further to the buttonholes of the gilets embroidered with swirls of gold thread and the cravats of delicate lace studiedly twisted to emphasize male chins and necks, male skin pronounced as a complimentary frill which allowed her to snap open her fan, brush her face with just enough air. Both wore stockings, one pair blue, the other yellow, pulled over the hems of their knee-length breeches bordered at the folds by black silk hems.
Erina's father took his moment too to watch the strangers, so archly suave before piss puddle and horse shit, providing laughless comedy. They seemed like Inquisitors able to work a form of suffocation, so old after the piled decades. To him they were preening wasps cleaning their antennae as they stepped in their square toed high heels, but real.
And the mother moved her fan down over her breasts, fluttered the relieving wisps of air over her neck as she focused on the "allonge" of the heavier one, his large curly wig hanging below his shoulders with its two fattened wings rising nearly four inches above his hairline. She tightened her fingers with the increased motion of her fan. The other's wig was more in keeping with newest styles as she knew, distant as she was from the capitol. His was smaller, though equally curly, and hung just below ear-line. They both wore dark tricorn hats embroidered with expensive silver thread at the edges and assisted themselves with ivory and jade in-laid walking sticks. "Probably from China," the father mused to himself as he called for the vaquero, mounted his aging bull-killing mare, to better observe these men, who turned their eyes on the horseflesh underneath him which still had its taste for combat. The one missing and most announcable item: their swords which Erina and her mother knew would have been as the swirling gold threads of their waistcoats elaborately embroidered, advertising their importance. Neither one wore gloves, and as their audience knew, felt they had to.
One, who wore the larger allonge, stopped, turned in a haughty appraising circle and asked, "Senor Castro. Where is he?" He let the question and its varnished boredom drift, Erina thought, like a claw as she watched her father dismount from his dangerous mare, walk toward the visitors, and standing before them, wordlessly bowed.
The two, spent by mid-day heat, were taken to an open tent where they could more easily measure horses and bulls, be served refreshment. Fruit was brought to them on silver trays, oranges and grapes, cheese from the Castro ganadera; fresh baked bread, some water in a fine, hand-formed ceramic pitcher of Rebecca's to keep the water cool. The Mazatec, taking notice of the object, felt an involuntary chill of shame, folded her arms quickly over her breasts to still her alarm, then caught Erina watching her with so frank a reassuring gaze she nearly blushed.
At that moment three egrets swooped over their heads, startling men and horses; two cocks fighting for a hen, wing-grappled and luminous in their rigid bird angers and nearly crashed into the tent. The smaller more fashionable man in his surprised revulsion over the sudden taut-fleshed bird-storm fell over backwards in his chair and rose up sputtering in an over-elegant rage; waited for his friend to help straighten coat and wig and breeches, each flickering over the other in such smooth disgust Erina's mother had to check her own audible sneer.
Servants ran to the strangers, brushing crumbs and spilled food. The two waited sullenly for re-supplied trays in the harshening scents of the sun-grazed afternoon. In that narrow drift of scattered gazes and tensions Erina was able to stand next to Rebecca, take her hand. Both women grew breathless, their web of fingers tightened as they watched Senor Castro talk to the strangers, helping them with a thoughtful relieving ease to reclaim their possession of the afternoon, calling the least attention to himself. Senora Castro's lips flattened over her teeth in a fiery admiration for this man's natural gifts and both the younger women understood instantly how this mother and father had drawn themselves into each other's lives. And it was that moment, Erina knew, that freed her for Rebecca and the things to come, as the daughter knowingly eased her grip and stepped back to her mother's side.
The father signaled for his horse and an attendant vaquero. He spoke briefly, pointed, then remounted his silver mare and rode to the edge of the ring shaped corral, letting his horse rear and kick her front hoofs, its clutch of rage held to shoulders, curled ears, snort smoldered nostrils.
A bull bellowed. Both humans and horses turned in the direction of the heavy, low threat. There were four. Each was let into a separate corral. One was white with light brown patches. The remaining, black. Erina knew by their almost iridescent nervousness they'd just been brought from the wild barancas and arroyos of her parent's lands where they'd learned to survive jaguars and lions; but also wolves and rattlesnakes, here, depending on the seasons, deadly for even animals this large. The other great peril; older more seasoned bulls, unpredictable, gruesomely mean. The range, exacting in its mercilessness, was managed and driven by the vaqueros, both Aztec mestizos and indentured Spaniards who could ride horses, Erina reckoned into her advanced age, as if Death had bit out their eyes and given an extra blind lifetime to carve out their vengeance as maniacal centaurs she had loved to watch as a girl baiting each other in contests of skill with their animals even the Ancient Shadow Itself might pause to admire.
The bulls, entering their separate enclosures, whirled and stamped, twisted their fanged heads in murderous, stiffened rage, blew a shower of drool from their nostrils, lifted their tails and let go a loathsome fringe of shit to register their intolerance of even the nearest moth. These were the gestures that made the visitors stand up, brush away the crumbs of their too elaborate meals. The animals stamped, circled their enclosures with a violence so contracted and hostile Erina felt both her fascination and nausea rising to her shoulders. Each bull rose to a circling fury goring air and lumber, then as suddenly sank into a heavy, smothering stupidity. The blunted glare of it, Erina knew, made an animal even more dangerous, its savagery narrow and focused in an oblivion no one could afford to ignore.
Her mother had read to her, the story of the creature/beast, the one breathing in a labyrinth. Prison monster filled with madness and lust, stuck in some twilight between identities, dressing itself in murder, and scrupulously sensual lifelessness as she came to articulate it through her painting. She knew it wasn't the exact story, but she knew too she had to trick herself out of her own childhood and that her recurring dream about a bull filled her with more distant terror than the old story and what boiled in it. The dream had come early to her, maybe her sixth or seventh year after riding with her father for an inspection of the hacienda's lands. The journey had taken four days, though the father had wished it to be longer. She saw hills and rivers, arroyos and small flowered plains where bulls grazed for most of their lives in the wild. They were escorted by vaqueros and at night they stopped and she heard their stories and ate the feasts of meat cooked on open fires. On one leg of the "inspection" as her father called it, a wild horseman appeared in a mid-afternoon and there was a conference between her father and this man whose first words were "How beautiful the day." The whispers between the two lasted no more than a minute. She stared after him as he rode away, as if being swallowed by the land mysteries and so unlike anyone she'd ever seen.
After this she noticed the carriage moved faster as if now there was a destination, though her father ordered a halt and walked with her over bluffs, or through meadows, explaining where they were and how it related to their lives. She never saw and would never see her father again so happy. Toward twilight she saw a campfire on a distant knoll. There was the smell of smoke and burning meat. There were the drum-like sounds of Tule trees carried on early evening winds.
"Ah. The Noche Triste goes walking," her father said, smiling over the beat in the leaves. He told his daughter too, the great water resistant wood of the "Noche Triste" was used as piers to hold up Tenochtitlan; one of the first words she learned and loved all of her life to feel its syllables rise and fall away from her palette, as if in whispering, the Aztec city might be pulled back to life from either its own sound or a brush stroke.
Though the sun was at least an hour from setting the horseman waited. Their carriage followed him slowly into a wide ravine filled with "Little Skulls". The beautiful cactus whose seeds, Erina knew, were used for rattles and dancing. She thought it a lucky day to hear the drums of the old trees, to be in this ravine where the delicate skulls grow out of hidden twilight dust, and to see her father so happy. She recalled how the horseman climbed the slope of a bluff enshrouded with smells of chocolate from the tree with white flowers, "Rose of Funerals" as her father called it, the lush enwrinkled white of its petals so swollen in the falling sun of that afternoon.
When the horseman signaled a halt father and daughter walked to the top of the small rise. There were two bodies knotted there, their eyes locked in rage; a jaguar and a bull. The great cat had crushed the bull's throat, caught an eye with a claw, left it to dangle venomously at the edge of its socket. But still the bull had grown more precise in its fury, gored the jaguar in the chest, at the moment the great "Tigre," the horseman said, "Smelled its triumph." Both lay in the small lake of blood that had not yet been absorbed into soil. Erina remembered staring at the animals, then at the two men whose faces seemed to go almost corpse-smooth before the dilated final concentrations of the beasts. "Moths will suck first," the horseman said to Erina's father, not really caring, Erina knew, who in that emptiness heard, "then the others."
The aroma of chocolate reminded her of her single trip to Spain, as passengers with her mother and Rebecca, allowed a berth on the "Silver Fleet" from the New World. Seville, City of Jasmine, gardens, veiled women, and Velazques, master, as she came to know, of a nearly terrifying indifferent suspense of ordinary life caught in the "bodengon" as it was called. Rendering people and objects in the sudden plainness of their being alive and penetrated by nothing more than light. She was deeply awed by the artist's "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary." A kitchen scene presented as if it were nothing more than an old wives tale. Cloves of garlic, two eggs, a jug of olive oil, a single curling pepper. The young girl with her muscled, flexed hands, large peasant forearms, work-weary face. The old woman whispering from behind, touching the girl's large shoulder, heavy cloth of her drab brown dress, sparse and bereft, its creases and folds painted as if to catch living motions of the tired body crushing garlic cloves and the reflection in the upper right segment of the painting - Jesus and two females listening carefully to his preaching in a vacant room, light motionless and cold. The young, forlorn girl, seemed to Erina, unsure of the story and its lore, that her life of constant numbing labor will fulfill her as the act of worldly worship of the Son. Her eyes, her cheeks swollen with exhaustion hold a millenniums long skepticism each girl must bear or not, Erina noted for herself, as she stared at the artist's work full of lures and wincing anguish she recognized would re-shape her own life and could not escape.
Erina could not release herself from feeling the tale of the brutal repetition was held in the image of the four fish who in their deaths stare at the viewer as if their four aloof and inaccessible eyes are the trespass belonging to the sensualities of grief and delusion.
She knew this version of still-life. Its open evocation of spare, hidden dignities with their background of murderous seventeenth century Spanish melancholy ravaged her world. The haunted decay, plague, and starvation gave this King's painter a way to tell stories so unwanted in their unsuspected disruptions that they caused a seizure of murmurous curiosity, otherwise they might have been too unbearable. Erina was also deeply fascinated by the fact that this master made no preliminary sketches and had to create from nothing a looseness of brush strokes that made it possible to build up thin layers of light and contour never seen before.
And she wondered over the cracked cloves of garlic.
What did they invoke as she thought of the final hours of Philip III lying in his death chamber with piled desiccate bodies of dead saints whispering to him of the waiting graces or further horrors in the next world?
Both she and Rebecca marveled over the pearl worn by Queen Isabel as Velazquez painted her. The great bell-shaped jewel hanging from a long necklace which for them held uncomprehending motions of another story about the Americas; this seething thing found by an Indian slave in a miniscule oyster and nearly tossed back in to its American depths, yet saved for Spanish Queens from the 1550s onward as each successive ruling generation presided over more fevered disasters and impoverishments as if the luminosities of the gem exacted a cold putrescence from the conqueror who unknowing covered his royal off-spring in magical charms and wards against evil without once suspecting the beautiful little American comet which dangled from the necks of its Queens. This consort of Philip IV also wears the pearl. Her cruel, tight, yet attractive face, Erina remembered, betrayed her need for elaborate spiderish feedings. Her joys as she watched snakes being released onto the unsuspecting aristocratic audiences of the King's theaters, causing panic and tramplings, as the two young women shuddered beneath the painter's image.
But it was Court dwarfs who reminded these Oaxacan visitors most closely of their American valleys. Erina, as she was accustomed, spent time at a neighboring hacienda. The estate's patrona collected and kept ancient ceramic figurines in a separate room with stacked shelves for this purpose. There were things there which had frightened her - an urn with the head of a lascivious beast, part bat, part jaguar, its face contorted with leering rabidity, tongue distended, head arched with ancient insolence and ruin - the unspeakable revulsions that attend those who might be stolen and ravished. The "Murcielago" God of Night and Death who hears heartbeats of creatures, a small thing no larger than a knuckle, watching everyone and everything, panting. Or the human face she picked up, half flesh, half bone with still clinging but rotted skin, left eye about to burst with writhing maggots. The object rendered with such assured quietude over the fact of a human face, this fellow artist, as Erina had to, worked against death's appraisal, splitting what reality might hold, into this disinterestedly staring double. There was an acrobat too, more, a contortionist, body bent so that soles of feet press on head crown, elbows spread to exact body width, forearms extended as angled pillars holding a face which to her later shock resembled Velazquez's portrait of Francisco Lezcano, the mentally stunted dwarf, reading Tarot for amusements of the Royal Court, his smile holding invitations of broken prophecies and worlds, the one she understood who was a sex toy cobbling his secrets to the arch of his head, his lips, his hands distended with soft fat, bemused hopeless knowledge weighing his eyelids.
Surrounded by starvation and plague the Spanish Court amused itself with wigs, elaborate fashions and feasts, hunting expeditions, theatric spectacles and collections of cretins, dwarfs, hydrocephalics who were given as presents from one European Court to another. Erina saw their portraits as a kind of signal to herself; that painting be done quickly, allowing for the space of suggestion and tender animation not removed from the meticulous brutalities held so precariously in the artist's fingertips and registering the hovering disintegrations. The one painting which stung her, gave her nerve before the about-to-rot corpses that waited for she and Rebecca's attentions was of the court jester, Pablo de Valladolid. She studied the solitary figure that for her inhabited no reference to any world attached to any known fate she could discern. There was no suggestion of a defining space either up or down, or the recession of depth that might hold the eye or mind to its assurances. The hands of the figure were large, strong, repulsively flexed, and held nothing. The face stiff, impassive, coldly creaturely in its stare. The body held no form other than its intricate drapery of loose dark linens. Its feet were spread and the only support for the figure's weight or being was its own awkwardly grotesque shadow that appeared for Erina and Rebecca to be at once the projection of the body or a probing spider's legs searching for and stumbling in this abyss upon its prey. The sorrow of it so measured and precise she felt as breathless as the corpses she knew one day she would paint. The image's hands gesture in the same direction carrying the weight of the nothing which clusters, sinisterly or not, as the two women appraised those ambiguities, over fingers and wrists. The central bulk of the figure is captured in a flotation, its barren and nearly botanical purity reminded Rebecca of the Five Days of Bad Luck that leapt out of her own people's ancient calendar even to this "Madonna" who to her seemed, with his extended hand, to be pointing toward the early morning flowers his King picked to freshen those hours while half his city died of thirst and prostitution.
In the portrait of the King's personal dwarf, "El Primo" or Don Diego de Acedo, Erina and Rebecca wondered how Velazquez was able to hold this person's deep intelligence and the sense of possible shattered belief in either Creation or God haunting the sitter's eyes and mouth. He was very small and the two women were unsure of what pain his limbs might have given him, or the increasingly limited functions brought about by a dwarf's afflictions that they saw in the markets and rural villages of their native Oaxaca. The men and women who were never saved as "presents" with their skeletons festering, faces upheaved by too much warp of bone, limping or crawling because of leprosy, yaws, or nameless infection, each one as marked as Erina knew herself to be with molestations swarming and transitory. "Is this what Velazquez notes in this painting?" Erina recorded in her sketchbook. "This King's secretary: is he holding the Book of Flippant Negations or Evils in his lap as he stares up from a passage that stings him with an even more austere separateness and despondency?"
Neither Erina's mother nor Rebecca wanted her to see "Calabazas": the cross-eyed. But the daughter knew more tightly what kindled in her; what she belonged to. She studied the jester's collar and cuffs. The loose peculiar brush work, its contrast with the more disciplined modeling of the face created an enriched glare Erina had never seen, even a comment on the most hostile depths of mortality so quiescent and unmocking Erina felt herself without insulation. The phosphorescent expressive energy of the collar and cuffs gave the details of this drunkard's face and hands, his enrapt debauchery and breakage working his Queen and King for their cruel laughter, a tensely hesitant dignity resistant to the ridicule and bondage which ensnared his life. She was astonished too by the painter's command over the dwarf's hands; the left held palm up and relaxedly open on top of the bent right knee, fingers loosely splayed, and the right hand partially closed, laid to rest there as if unknowingly stuffed in a coffin. The presence of these hands, Erina thought, telling more than face or pose of body, as if these were foundlings, uneasy, semi-neglected, pretending to sleep; little phantoms resting from their browse among the living. "How will I," Erina recorded in her sketchbook, "portray the hands of the dead, edge of face or nose, place them in state, and then proceed to give them an intense a story as the one here; the freshly dead flesh, whetly cool and inscrutable, frozenly transparent as some ivory from an as yet unnamed and unrevealed creature?"
Erina's mother was able to glance only once at the painter's picture of Queen Mariana. She turned from the image, broke into tears and walked away spreading her fan over her face to hide, keep her quivering in check. Erina and Rebecca however, let their own eyes drift and be caught. The Queen with all her regalia, her fortune of birth, normality of limb and blessings of girlhood comeliness was the most powerless, and cruelly fate-ravished of any of the figures they were invited to or allowed to see. A poisoned, anvil-cold emptiness and boredom drowned her by the age of nineteen when the painting was executed. She was already five years into marriage. Her face at that moment lacerated in haggard resentment, sexual disgust and disappointment. Her magnificently voluminous hair and dress, the artist's invention of new brush strokes and hand-work to vivify the innermost extremes that adhere to the girl's collapsed lips, the dip of her nose. Erina knew in this Velazquez's dangerous poise and wondered how these persons of the Court trapped in the twilight of their riches could have ever allowed their precariousness to be so fiercely recorded.
"Who was Velazquez?" Erina asked. "to record these royal beings in their most remote helplessness and who showered him with rewards?"
It was the jaguar-slashed bull that re-occurred in Erina's dream. She was often frozen in the starkness of the image, hoping her own wandering eye would not accidentally settle in this region, the bull trapped too in the stifling dispossession of the dream, trying to gore its own never entirely disattached taunting eye and stalking her through wild ravines. The visitors from Mexico City had tossed their silver plates full of food on the ground, wiped their faces with silken handkerchiefs as they walked quickly to the corrals studying the bulls that coiled themselves in even tighter circles, the two men greedy for the rage-heavy animals.
The bulls in their separate spaces shook their heads, stamped the perimeters of their enclosures goring the air, eyes partially rolled back in hot panic. The air stunk of their sharp/luring musk, tongues dangling with froth, testicles weighted, swaying; their anger monotonous and sweet. Erina looked at her mother. Her mother's lips trembled. The truest daughter of the "ganadera" breeding bulls for the Plaza in Mexico City, each flank carrying the brand of their family; the head of a swan in simple outline, its eye a snake's rattle, the image it was said, drawn by one of the surviving Aztec sons brought to the legendary College of Tlatelolco, and who lived to be over a 100.
Erina watched as the two men appraised the flesh. One stood too close to the ring and was sprayed with flying drool. He shrieked, explosively wiped his face and chest, stammered in a display of gloating nausea. Erina and her mother touched hands, compelled themselves to make no overt gestures of contempt or to even partially smile as the father looked toward them, assuring himself their faces registered nothing but stone. He was proud of their careful self-mastery. It was his first attraction to Erina's mother, and in this second took his eyes off his mare, let the reins slide from his hands. The horse always testing, always blindly fierce, lurched away, stumbled for a second in its freedom, bucked the father into the dirt, then whirled, tried to shake the gorgeous saddle and leatherwork from its skull and body. It trotted, looked for an escape, and seeing none stared at the corral of the nearest bull. Men rushed to assist the father, but he was up, calling the horse's name, walking carefully toward his animal which at that point glared only at him as it backed up, nervously moving its head up and down in warning, even to this master, to come no nearer. Erina's father walked more carefully and the horse lowered her ears, stamped the ground with her right hoof, swished her tail, the pitch of horse rage sleek and vicious.
Erina, recalling the scene, couldn't remember her father's small gestures; his horse charged and the man was able to jump away, but not without injury. He broke his wrist. The horse stopped over the fallen body, shook its head from side to side, reared halfway on its hind legs as if to further mangle and ruin Erina's father. But the mare stopped, turned toward the small arena of the nearest bull, broke into a run and jumped the fence. Her father ignored his broken bones and ran after the animal as it steadied itself. The bull wasn't immediately aware of its sudden intruder. Its back was turned when the horse took flight and when it landed the bull was temporarily startled. It lifted its head, sniffed, focused for one deadly moment, then trotted in wayward circles before its visitor.
The two creatures let their hate grow.
The bull was first. It charged with its head down, horns ready to slash. The horse spun, jumped away, caught the bull in the face with a crushing kick from its back hoofs. The bovid shook itself as blood gushed from its nose and hanging lower jaw. The two visitors screeched a vulgar "Olay" at the combat as Erina and Rebecca followed the mother to the side of the injured husband who was watching the spectacle in hopeless pain; bones protruding from skin. The mother glanced down, turned away, could not stop a rush of anguish, though both felt the rupturous angers toward each other over their daughter; anger which had no names, destroyed their courage, and caused each to go narrow, as Erina realized in old age, in loneliness.
The horse watched its victim carefully now, having been trained by its master for this violence. The bull bellowed in agony and disbelief as it tried to corner the horse for a second charge. The horse waited, and in the final instance exploded over the bull's back and nearly tumbled on its side. Unable to check its momentum, the bull fell face first into the lumber of the ring. Its high pitched bellow was gaudy and grotesque as the injured beast turned toward its tormentor, this time with its jaw hanging by barely a thread, and flapping. But Erina could see the bull shaking blood and drool off of itself, watching her father's horse. It seemed to draw itself into a sturdy, certain lunacy, and though dazed, stood composed and untroubled as it watched the horse circling, trying to gain enough speed to jump the barrier once more, leave the victim aswim in its own wreckage.
Erina knew her father let this horse run their lands, but just enough to give it "the smell of the horizon" as he said "and the jaguars to give her permanent rage." The bull stared, scraped its front hoofs. Then it lunged for the horse who had also made its decision to jump, and nearly did, except for its right front hoof, which caught the edge of a board, caused the animal to flip back on the bull's waiting horns. The horse screamed as the bull twisted its head, the violence of the impact bursting guts all over the bull as it dropped to its front knees.
Erina's mother gathered herself as if she were the rightful daughter of this ferocity; its bravery and revulsion the exact business of her heritage. The two animals were breathing. Stench of exposed viscera flared up, knotted the air. She walked toward her husband through the nauseous sting, leaned down and helped him rise from where he'd fallen in a sudden despair. His mare was lurching against the throes of her death biting at the bull, blood gurgling from both their nostrils. The two visitors rushed to Erina's mother and asked it they could have both heads as a momento of the combat. "Both animals," they stammered, "a wonder." She whispered to her husband who was unable to concentrate on anything at that moment but the final waves of blood coming from his horse's nostrils and eyes. The animal was struggling to stand and somehow called out of itself a last surge, balanced on all fours, guts dangling, then it collapsed. And both animals were terrible and soft in their heap, their violence still dense with its purity, their bodies not yet completely settled in death.
"Vive Caballo" the two visitors clottedly yelled, not able to check themselves.
Erina's father turned to them. "The heads. They are yours."
He looked down then, focused on his injury. Understood for the first time his whole body was trembling.
"Erina. Make sure we have the ears and hoofs. Don't forget her saddle and reins."
Her father did not pass out as they thought he might. He ordered another horse, mounted it and rode the many miles back to his estate.
With the help of the horseman the duaghter did as she was told. He cut flesh and leather while the two buyers hovered, not hiding their impatience, then handed the daughter his obsidian knife with its straight oak handle and walked away.
No one could have anticipated the impact of this combat. The visitors presented a contract to the ganadera, to supply the family's bulls to the Plaza in Mexico City.
"As to the horse," they said, "none like it have we seen. None like will draw breath again."
To these words the mother sneered, remembering the priggish eagerness of these men for the violence, nearly shivering with glee over the sufferings, faces flushed and craning like their words.
Erina's father struggled. A doctor, one of the buyers sent from the capitol, examined his injury, pronounced it very dangerous and ripe for gangrene.
He could set it, "But wrist and hand can only wither and cripple."
He could amputate.
The father had become feverish. The deadness spreading up.
"There is little time" the physician told Erina and her mother.
It took months to recover. Intermittent fevers and nausea needed hourly attentions and the one most capable both in stamina and skill was Rebecca. Accompanied by Erina she collected and boiled herbs, cast a tone of gentle care and assurance and gradually the two women became companions, holding their secret, and the beginning of Erina's skills. The severed hand of her own father. She took it. Drew it carefully. Cast herself into the immediate study and labor. The theft done with Rebecca's help. The limb returned quickly without a cast of suspicion.
It was their life together and Erina became known in her world for painting bodies as if their last breath had not yet wholly been summoned into the exile.
Copyright ©2009 by David Matlin
David Matlin is a novelist, poet, and essayist. His collections of poetry and prose include the books China Beach, Dressed In Protective Fashion, and Fontana's Mirror. His first novel How the Night is Divided, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993. His nonfiction book Prisons: Inside the New America from Vernooykill Creek to Abu Ghraib, published by North Atlantic Books, is based on a ten-year experience teaching in one of the oldest Prison Education Programs in the nation in New York State. His most recent book is It Might Do Well with Strawberries (2009). David Matlin is an associate professor at San Diego State University and teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program.