"Lucy's not home yet?" I asked with eyes on the snare of sinister clouds over the hills.
"She will never come home again, Noni."
"Oh Papa," I said and laughed. "Lucy went to a party with Tomas and his brother. It's not even late yet." I watched lines form in my father's face as he paced the kitchen floor. "You're worried about the man, aren't you?"
"Oh, not so much. He's in bad shape and will probably die anyway. I'm more worried about your grandma. She's too old to perform the ceremonies anymore. Sometimes I think she's too old to even get out of bed."
At the sound of the screen door slapping against the frame, I watched him revert back into a private place in his head reserved for old memories. From the window, I could see my grandmother leaning over her tomato plants, her large, round behind brazenly aimed up toward the sky. Her fingers picked dead leaves off of the stalks, combed back the healthy ones and loosened the soil. She mumbled words, chants and songs to them in her own mix of Mexican and European Spanish. I could tell looking at her face that she had been beautiful once. The wedding picture over her bed showed her young in her twenties, ripe with the blossomed glow of fresh womanhood. When I looked at it in the mornings as I passed by her bedroom, I wondered what I would look like when I was twenty. If I made it that far.
My father's tall shadow waded through the thick pomade of hundred-degree heat and stopped when he got to the garden.
"Mama," he begged, "you're too old to be a healer."
Usually she pretended not to hear him, using one of the few advantages of extreme old age. But with a quickness I didn't think possible, she jerked around and put her outstretched finger in his face. "Don't you tell me what I'm too old for, Alonzo. Until you get to be ninety-six years old, you can't say what I can or cannot do."
Papa bent his head down to say the next part. I moved closer to them from my vantage point on the porch. The door creaked when I barely touched it. "Let the man die. We don't even know him."
"We don't, but we should. We're all here to take care of each other. If I can stay alive long enough to save a man's life, I will die right with God."
Papa wrung his hands the way he did when he felt defeated, like when Lucy bragged about her boyfriends.
The sound of rubber tires skidding down Flatbush Lane gave Lucy away. I could hear her laughing above the sound of rain hitting the tin roof. And it wasn't her real laugh, either, the carefree full-of-life authentic laugh that showed the joy she could feel sometimes when the world wasn't pressing in on her. This was the affected laugh she gave to strangers, to boys she wanted to impress by sounding older than she was. One time when she was thirteen and I was ten, she flirted with one of the Klein's older grandsons and got him to give her some beer. Even though we were in the barn together, the three of us, I found myself oddly cloaked in some invisible jacket where they couldn't see or hear me. Only each other. As I watched the older boy touching Lucy in all the places boys shouldn't, a cold terror froze me solid. I tried to block my ears from the crackling of zippers and the rustle of clothes against skin. They squirmed around like two animals, as if one had gotten a claw stuck in the other's hide. But with her head leaned back against the wood of the barn walls and the moaning, it seemed as if she liked what he was doing and knew exactly what it was all about. I couldn't imagine she could enjoy something so crude and grotesque. It wasn't until a month later when Momma made the doctor come to the house that we found out she was faking after all and had been even more terrified that me.
Violette was born nine months later.
I could hear Papa's deep voice trying to scare away the boys in the truck now as I moved from the porch to the front room that we called the parlor. Younger than Lucy, I was forbidden from looking at the dying man. Papa and Ignacio found him lying in the dirt near the east gate of the ranch where they had gone to fix a part of the fence. I could hear him breathing, or panting or wheezing or whatever it is people do when they're trying to cheat death. It was just after six o'clock. Grandma would be in to see him after she took her teeth out.
The all-day healing ritual proceeded in three stages: pouring liquids into bowls, mashing up roots and leaves into powder, and assembling tools. Arranged in neat perfect lines like surgical scalpels, she laid out rattles, drums, chimes, bells, and huge fans made out of owl feathers, all selected for their unique healing properties. I knew this from watching her start to finish once last summer, when baby Violette had a fever and almost died. I had to stay perfectly still, since the presence of another person was strictly prohibited during the ceremony. I'd been standing in the prickly brush out by the window all day; by sunset my bare legs were scratched, bleeding, and about to fall off from exhaustion.
Grandma Lena's ceremonies arose out of ninety-six years on earth and a mishmash of Sioux and Hopi blood on her mother's side, Andalusian blood on her father's and having spent fifty years in Chihuahua, Mexico. She came to live with us in west Texas when I was eight. I heard her approach by the sound of shuffling feet against the wood floors and her characteristic labored breathing. It was hard to distinguish hers from the dying man's wheezing. I flattened my body against the wall to keep myself from being detected as she walked by. It was a little game we pretended to play. My father didn't want me anywhere near her backward, old world hocus pocus, as he called it, so she pretended to keep it from me. I could always tell when she was aware of my presence. When she turned toward the closet door where I customarily hid, there was a trace smile on her lips as if she were thinking, "I know you're in there, Mouse."
The chanting started in sync with far off claps of thunder. I heard Lucy's voice arguing with Papa on the porch. Grandma Lena didn't blink an eye at their argument or the weather outside the parlor windows. Right now and for the next day, she was somewhere else.
"Aaaahhhh maaahhhh," she began in a low, natural voice as she moved all around the man. When I squinted my eyes, I could see the red, swollen features on his face and the horrible blue-cast skin on the rest of his body. Stripped down to his underwear, he was naked but for a thick gold chain hanging down past his sternum. His right eye was clamped shut with what looked like Frankenstein stitching, and a bulbous swelling had started in the corner of his mouth where a cut had opened, bled, and dried into a black crust.
Lena regarded the man with her hand in a bucket. It was the same one Papa used to catch water dripping through the roof slats in the barn when it rained. She took a soft, wadded up cloth, plunged it in the water and squeezed it over the man's body letting the water drip off the bed and onto the floor. He didn't move an inch. She started at his head and face and went all the way down till she squeezed the last drop of warm water onto his feet. Instead of drying him off with a towel, she walked to the windows and cranked them both open all the way. I felt a draft on my toes that were sticking out from under the closet door. I could feel her looking at me. Not with her eyes, but from all her other senses. She took some of the long feathers and fanned them over the man's body until most of the water had dried up. How her arms didn't fall off amazed me. I was tired just watching, and she was almost a hundred. She's a Shaman, I reminded myself. This is what they do.
She was mixing two of the powders together at the table by the foot of the bed when the man twitched. Like an insect, she jerked to his side to lay her arthritic palm across his forehead. I saw one of his eyes flutter and his chest rose up and down in even, heavy movements. I was sure he was about to die, but Lena took her hand away and calmly returned to the foot of the bed. She poured a milky liquid into a mixture of two of the powders and stirred this with a heavy spoon until it was an even consistency. I could smell its pungent, stinky odor from four feet away and through a heavy wooden door. With a turkey basting brush, she took some of the herbed paste and painted it on the wounds - the ones on his face, shoulder, calf and ear. On his stomach, she placed a warm rag that she'd dipped first in the milky substance. I could see steam coming off it when she took away her hands. It was getting cold; my bare feet and toes were like the miniature ice cubes I got in my Shirley Temple at the restaurant in Amarillo. It was summer but the rains had cooled down the sky and when the wind blew it made goose bumps all over my body. I would have done anything, at that moment, to have that soothing warm cloth on my belly, but other than that I didn't want anything to do with the man. I learned this mistrust from her. Lena never trusted strangers. Papa told me a story once about how when she was a young woman, she made every man in Malaga who wanted to take her out stand outside her bedroom door every night for a month. A banker's son stood for ten days, and then started dating one of the other girls in the neighborhood who said yes the first time he asked. Then there was the older boy who drove a boat around the harbor for tourists. He made it to two weeks. But my grandfather was the only one who lasted all thirty days of September. He came back on the night of October 1st and asked for another thirty days, since towards the end of the month they had started sitting on the balcony together and holding hands. Lena agreed until her father caught them kissing on the porch swing. He sent my grandfather home and forbade him from coming back. But he did come back. Like always, love found a way. I loved the way Lena told that story, or maybe I just loved the look in her face when she talked about my grandfather. I wanted so badly to jump out from the closet now, let her wrap me in a warm blanket and ask her to tell me the story again. It was getting dark, already cold, and I was in a room with an old witch and a dead man. My whole body shivered.
I knew what part came next. The salve. It smelled worse than any of the liquids or poultices she put on the wounds. The salve was darkly colored, almost black, and thick like the Bag Balm we used on the cow's teats after milking. Lena warmed up her hands by briskly rubbing them together and laid them flat on the man's bare chest where she held them steady for several minutes. After a moment she did the same thing to the bottoms of the man's feet, and then to the crown of his head. I saw his eye twitch again and his left knee jerked. She returned to his chest and laid one hand on it while the other scooped up a mound of the salve. She covered all of his wounds with a thick layer applied with her gnarled fingers, and put a dab of it on the center of his forehead and the soles of his feet. She then spread it on his lower abdomen and covered it with a thin cotton cloth. A teapot was boiling water on the hotplate in the corner. Every so often she'd take a tiny spoonful of the ground up herbs from one of the bowls on her table and stir it into the brewing mixture.
Lena held the man's nose as she poured the hot tea down his throat. I couldn't imagine why, because in his state he'd never be able to taste it. Lucky for him, I thought as I gagged from behind the door. She slipped out of her shoes and walked along the bed to put her palms all over the man's body. Without wiping off her hands first, she grabbed two rattles and shook them at his feet while chanting and mumbling in her secret language. The ritual was over and now we had to wait.
I thought I could see him moving from the thin glow of moonlight folding in from the window. The toilet flushed in the bathroom off of Lena's bedroom. Ah, I thought and opened the closet door. A sticky, herby substance touched my bare feet as I moved near the bed. It was the soiled, dirty water that Lena poured off of him when she washed his wounds. Oddly, its sensation failed to make me flinch. I stepped further into the little pool on the floor and placed my small palms over the man's chest the way Lena did. I knew my connection to this stranger came from two distinct places in my heart. I was Lena's granddaughter, and I had inherited her innate talent for healing. But from a more primal place, I was drawn to the mystery of his past. To his battle scars, to the wrinkles in his forehead and the smoking lines on each side of his mouth. If life was a body of water, I could tell the man hadn't sailed gently on its smooth surface but had weathered all of its most treacherous storms. To someone else, these would be considered flaws. To me, they were beauty. I felt an insistent urge rise in my body to speak to him and, even stronger, to call him something. I didn't know his name. None of us did. When they first found his body, Papa and Ignacio told the neighbors and the merchants but nobody came to claim him.
"Dead man?" I whispered in a feather voice with my lips close to his ear. I said it again and then pulled away to look at his eyes. They were moving but still closed. Lucy told me that when boys do that it means they're dreaming about sex. Somehow I failed to imagine this man thinking about anything so energetic. Not that I knew anything about sex other than what I'd seen in the barn and the stories the older girls told at the bus stop.
The dead man breathed gently out of his nose now and occasionally twitched his right eye or his toes. Some part of him was trying to live, though it was obvious death had already commenced its cool, delirious dance through his fragile body. Only moonlight allowed me to see him now. The milky stain coming from the window illuminated a sliver of his contorted face. I tried to imagine what he looked like once, before this, before someone found him and beat almost the whole life out of him. I tried to think of what kind of sin this type of punishment could have avenged. Had he lied or stolen something that wasn't his? Or someone?
"Dead man?" I whispered again, this time as a question that I expected him to answer. As I started moving away from the bed, I heard a moan come from down low in his body. When I turned around, his eyes were still clamped shut to the same degree, but he seemed more coherent somehow, like a part of him were trying to talk to me. Did he feel the same connection? Was he curious about me, about what I might look like once I grew up, the same way I was curious about what kind of man he had been once? Maybe we were the same, this dead stranger and myself. Both wandering around looking for something to grab onto to keep us from the quicksand of nothingness. Was he looking for meaning in his life? Is that what got him in trouble? Or did he look for meaning and find trouble instead?
"My name's Noni," I said in a regular voice, uncaring at that moment of whether Grandma Lena or Papa or Lucy heard me. I was going to help this man the same way Lena did. Except I didn't have any rattles.
The next day it was ninety degrees out by eight in the morning. Papa had already taken the boys into town to meet with a man who was going to buy some of our cattle. It was a slow year and we needed extra money. When he got back, I was afraid to tell him that Grandma Lena hadn't gotten out of bed.
"Is she dead?" Lucy asked me pacing nervously in the hall.
"No, stupid, she's sleeping."
"I don't see her breathing," she said leaning into the doorway of Lena's room.
"I saw her chest moving. She's just tired, that's all."
"The dead man's getting better."
"I know. I've been reading to him in the mornings. That's when he seems most awake." Little did she know I'd been reading him parts of my algebra homework rather than the more customary choices for inspiration - Frost, Longfellow, Keats. I scanned all the bookshelves in the house and didn't find a single book of poetry. Only books on auto mechanics, a 1985 Farmer's Almanac, American Livestock Magazine and the Louis L'Amour novels Momma used to read when she first got sick.
"You see what's happening, don't you? Noni?" Lucy repeated as if I hadn't heard her the first time.
But I heard her. I glared with a fierceness I didn't wholly recognize, as if I knew what she was implying and wanted to defend the man in the bed two rooms away. Anger made Lucy's finely sculpted features pointy, her red lips contracted into a tiny pink dot. Violette, in her crib in the corner of the kitchen, started crying.
"Lena put whatever life was left in her into the dead man. Now's he's getting better and she can't get out of bed."
"It's only nine o'clock!" I hissed.
Lucy clenched her fists and whisked Violette up into the pink terrycloth of her bathrobe. "What time does she get up every other day?"
"How do you know this?"
I thought about it before answering. She'd woken up without any alarm clock at five a.m. for as long as I could remember. I was starting to get the picture now. Without looking back at either Lucy or Violette, I ran outside to get Papa. I looked in the two barns, up in the loft, the garage, the shed and the rest of the out-buildings. I was terrified, suddenly, that something was about to happen in my life that I wasn't prepared for. Oddly, I looked at the sky for an answer. When I returned to the kitchen, panting, Lena was sitting at the table with Lucy and Violette, smiling with her three yellowish teeth and rows of pink gums. I kissed her cheek and tried to act casual.
"Morning Grandma. You had a good sleep?"
"Oh yes," she said. "I stayed up till one o'clock with our patient. He's starting to wake up, and that means he's starting to feel the pain of his injuries. I anesthetized him with one of my balms and made him some tea with bourbon in it. That seemed to put him to sleep for a while, but he kept waking up."
Maybe what Lucy said wasn't true after all. I looked into Lena's bright, dancing eyes and the wrinkles set deep in her dark complexion. When I sat down beside her she held both of my hands. They looked like tiny rose petals inside her palm, and that was just how I felt around her. Lena was the sheet I'd been hiding behind my whole life. I couldn't imagine carrying on without her. Lucy, with Violette suckling her breast, nodded knowingly at me as Grandma Lena went outside to the garden.
"She seems fine to me."
"You can think what you want, Noni. You always were stuck in never-never land."
I didn't care what Lucy said or thought about me. The fact that she couldn't keep her legs together for more than five minutes at a time gave her the intellectual credibility of a circus clown. In a way, though, she was right. She had always been the sensible one, street-wise and educated in the crudest of ways, and I was the intuitive idealist. In my head, things were supposed to proceed a certain way. If they didn't, I found a loophole or technicality to make them fit my conception.
On my way to the parlor, I caught myself looking at my own reflected image in the hallway mirror. I had looked at myself before, but not with any sense of judgment or critique. Today, as I prepared to visit the man, I wondered if I should have put my hair back in a ponytail or pulled it off my face with barrettes. I was no longer too young to wear makeup, so Lucy had said. Looking down at my clothes, I took stock of my appearance. My pants were clean and pressed but frayed at the hem, my sandals were equally worn, but the short white cotton blouse made up for these deficits because it was somewhat see-through and showed a hint of what would one day be perfectly adequate breasts. Lucy's were large and pendulous like momma's were and like Lena's were still, though Lena's hung down towards her knees they were so big. I couldn't imagine having any that big. I'd need a harness just to walk around town. I pinched my cheeks the way Scarlet O'Hara did in "Gone With The Wind" and walked slowly down the hallway toward the man's room.
The vision of him sitting on the edge of the bed caught me entirely by surprise. I slapped a hand to my chest and smiled accidentally. I could tell right away that he wasn't ready for talking. Whether he could or not physically wasn't the question. His body was healing but his mind wasn't right yet. His dark, deep set eyes looked slightly crossed as if someone had tampered with the circuitry in his brain. He looked up at me and then quickly looked at the floor. I stood perfectly still for a few moments, waiting. I waited while Lucy's car sped down the bumpy dirt road of our long driveway, waited for the "blap" of the screen door as Lena came in from outside and waited a little more for good measure. The man moved his hands and fingers slowly; his chest rose and his jaw moved back and forth as if he were breaking in a new body. He looked at me again and I knew he needed water. I poured some into a glass from the blue pitcher on Lena's side table. When his hand didn't reflexively reach out for it, I was sure he was a lost cause. So I lowered the glass near his hand and molded his fingers around it. He gulped down three throatfuls and then coughed it all up. The glass fell to the floor and rolled a few inches under the bed. Water splattered on my shirt, my face and my neck, but I didn't mind. I put my warm hand on the back of his shoulder and rubbed it as he regained composure. The intuitive part of me knew just how he felt. Pathetic, humiliated, and small. They were the three things I had felt my whole life so far.
I helped him back into bed, and pulled a small, wooden chair with one broken leg over to the bed from the vanity table. My algebra books were just in the other room, but I could tell he wanted to be alone now. While his bare back was towards me, I saw a roadmap of scars and discolorations. This made me wonder about the rest of his body, about how far he could throw a bale of hay, and how many wheelbarrows full of bricks he could haul across the backyard in an afternoon. I wondered what his voice sounded like and how he liked his coffee first thing in the morning. Papa took his black, and Lena drank hers with two teaspoons of honey. That night, I decided his name was Victor Genari. It wasn't stealing because it wasn't the name of anybody I knew. Victor was a manly, charismatic name, the kind of name given to movie stars. And Genari was a mixture, I supposed, of names from my childhood and adolescence. It suited him.
I went to school now in the mornings and ran home from the bus stop to check his progress. On Thursday, he was standing in the back doorway with a cigarette burning between two fingers. He had on some of Papa's old clothes: a tan pair of pants and a white, collared shirt. His skin and hair looked clean like he'd had a shower. Had I been home to witness his metamorphosis, I could have helped him. As I approached the house, I tried to be clever about my movements the way Lucy had taught me. Flirtatious, but distant. But I knew what my face and my smile betrayed. Any man, even a dead man, could read these signs. And again, he looked at me and looked away. Was he trying to protect me from something? Was he afraid of hurting my feelings, or of hurting his own?
I opened my mouth to speak, but in a moment of brute horror no words came out. He shifted his feet in the awkward silence. After three deep breaths, I tried again. "How are you feeling?"
Victor chuckled and coughed slightly. "One of these days I'm going to run out of lives."
"How many have you had already?" I asked stupidly and then cursed myself.
"Too many. You don't need more than one if you know what you're doing."
The voice was gritty like he needed ten gallons of water to get his blood moving through his whole body again. Watching him move from the doorway to sit on the steps, he still moved like a dead man. I bravely looked in his eyes and kept my gaze on them for a full two seconds. I saw life in there, the lively ticking of thoughts and processing of raw impulses and emotions. Like a seer, I could read everything. He wanted to find someone he had lost and more than anything wanted to get well, not to exact revenge on anyone but so he could feel normal again even for a day or an hour. He looked back at me with a daring smile.
"I will be better with money, now, you know."
I had no idea what he meant. "Why?"
"Because you read me your math homework. It helped my brain start working again."
I blushed. "I wasn't sure if you could hear me or not. Lena told me not to disturb your sleeping."
"I was far away, like I had twenty blankets over my head. But I heard everything."
Papa knew I had gotten too attached to Victor. So like a traitor he helped him leave in the middle of the night while I was still sleeping. I would blame him for this transgression for the rest of my life. I skipped school the next day and stayed with Lena all day helping her weed the garden. She told me stories of her childhood in Spain and, occasionally, answered questions about the man. I asked where he lived.
"He told your Papa that he lived in Silverton, not too far from here. He said his business partner stole all his money, so he went to his house to try to get it back."
Lena looked at me with laughing eyes, as if to mock my innocence. "He said he left something for you in the parlor."
I'd never moved so fast in my life. I looked on the little table beside the bed in the front room, on the dresser, in the bed sheets, but there was nothing anywhere. Fat tears spilled down my cheeks as I tried to comprehend this thing that had happened to me in a matter of two weeks, or what I was beginning to see as the breaking of the human heart. I put my head on Victor's pillow and stretched out in the sheets he had laid in. I still smelled his scent and the odor of Lena's disgusting medley of herbs. He was gone. Gone! How could this be? How could a girl my age be subjected to such betrayal? Then it occurred to me that I never picked up the glass he had dropped when he coughed up the water I gave him. I crouched down and, under the bed next to one of the legs, was the small drinking glass tipped on its side. I pulled my sleeve down over my hand to pick it up, since it had his lip marks and fingerprints on it. When I pulled it to me I saw that it had his gold chain in the bottom of it. I put it around my neck under my shirt and was aroused by the sensation of it touching my bare skin. And, in that moment, I was no longer twelve. I was a woman.