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Carmen Baca

 

is a regionalist author with five books and over fifty short publications since 2017. Living in the mountains of New Mexico with her husband, she spends her days writing and caring for feral and adopted cats.

La Curandera

     She came, she saw, she conquered. That’s how Alberta Alirez described her recent marriage to my best friend, Rudolfo. The calculated seduction ended with the result she wanted: the hasty wedding. She had taught Rudolfo the oldest dance known to man, and he accepted his responsibility for dancing too enthusiastically. The new bride seemed to think I was heartbroken over her union with my dearest amigo, especially when two women whose lifelong hobby was to make my life hell fed her gossip which she swallowed with ease. Three of a kind, Alberta, Christina, and Laura relished in their torment of me. I took great pleasure in thwarting them.


     As the only curandera in the community, I catered to patients who came from a forty-mile radius to see me or who provided transportation for me to go to them when necessary. I tended to any and all who trusted me to heal whatever ailed them. I was not college-schooled like a médico, but I apprenticed with the greatest healer of our region, la Señora Conferina Romero. Like doctors we, too, took a vow to help those we could, and though I would have rather cut off my right hand, I held my tongue and attended to the three women when I had to. 


     I hadn’t been the community healer long, a couple of years, and so I was still in the learning stages and perfecting my skills. The community was of two minds about me: half thought I was doing a good job, despite several misdiagnoses which taught me more about identifying illnesses or discomforts I could treat and those I couldn’t. The other half downright dismissed me as too inexperienced to call. I hadn’t proved myself yet, even with only a handful of mishaps. Once, I got the recipe for a healing balm wrong, and the patient developed a rash. Nothing major. I was learning from my mistakes. I redeemed myself after that by sending old Señor Cruz straight to the hospital when his appendix was about to rupture. Time was crucial when dealing with emergencies. We were twenty miles away from any hospital. But the zapatos I needed to fill had been those of a renowned curandera with decades of success stories. She was irreplaceable in the eyes of those elders whose word meant something in our valley.  


     Emulating her, I lived with one foot out the door, ready for any emergency, eager to make myself indispensable. One afternoon when Rudolfo’s car rumbled up my driveway, I grabbed my bag of supplies from the little table by my kitchen door and thanked my stars I hadn’t been wrist-deep in masa. I had been adding ingredients in my holla to make tortillas. A minute later and I would have wasted another five cleaning the sticky dough from my hands with dry flour before washing them. I ran outside and leaned in through the passenger door of Rudolfo’s car. He and Alberta resided in Terromote, a rural community known for the dust devils originating there routinely. Since it was seven miles north of Cañoncito where I lived, I knew if there was an emergency, we needed to hurry.

 
     I had assured Rudolfo’s wife from the moment we met I had no designs on her husband; we had grown up together and were best friends. But she didn’t think a man and woman could or should be friends at all, especially with a spouse in the picture. Taunting me became her favorite
pastime. Annoying as I found her, she was my patient now that she was expecting, and no matter I was no doctor, I couldn’t be a curandera without honoring my own oath to do no harm and to help where I could.  


     “¿Que pasa, Rudolfo? What’s wrong?”


     “It’s Alberta. She needs you. Ven, pronto. C’mon, hurry,” he repeated as I fumbled with the door handle. 


     “Unlock the door.”


     “Sorry, sorry,” he apologized as he reached over to lift the lock button. 


     I jumped, bracing myself when Rudolfo slammed his foot on the gas pedal, and we tore downhill in reverse. After he got the car on the straightaway, we sped off with the dirt of the road rising behind us like a plume. I held on to the door handle with my right and my bag with my left hand and prayed we wouldn’t have to make any sudden stops or I would most likely eat the windshield. No matter how many questions I threw at him during the few miles to his house, he stared at the road and didn’t reply. Berta was seven months pregnant, so if she needed me, she needed me fast. I attributed his silence to worry or perhaps dread.  


     Of course, when we arrived, I jumped from the car before Rudolfo stopped. I ran right into the bedroom at the back and prepared for the worst. I halted in my tracks, and my mouth fell open. This I did not know until I heard it close when my teeth came together. I clenched them then. I had to, or I would have let loose the vilest expletives I knew. All along the speedy drive, I had imagined Alberta’s labor had started. The anxiety she’d caused me by demanding my presence fell off me like a cold shower, replaced by the heat of anger at the sight of her.


     The very pregnant Alberta reclined on multiple pillows in her bed, popping piñon into her mouth in a regular rhythm of pop, crack, spit out shells, chew, swallow, pop another…my jaw started hurting. I unclenched my teeth. This was no emergency. Her face rouged, her brows painted so black they shone, her lipstick red enough to attract hummingbirds, she smiled at me like I was supposed to be impressed. Or bow. She wore a lavender gown with a bed jacket like some movie actress of the big screen. All she needed was one of those black, shiny cigarette holders held in a casual pose since there were still some women who smoked and drank during pregnancy, despite my objections and explanations. 


   She wasn’t alone either. Christina and Laura sat on the lounger to her right. Their faces wore smiles that didn’t reach their eyes as they turned toward me with a cold and civil “hola” instead of the “buenos días les de Dios” with which more respectful people greeted one another. 


   I took a breath. “Are you experiencing pain? Spotting? Any issue to explain why I’m here?” 


   “Christina told me you predicted the gender of her children. I want you to do the same for me.”


   “Oh, for shi—” I took a breath. Took a mental count to calm myself. “Rudolfo made me think you were having an emergency. I have more important things to do, Berta.” I swung my bag over my shoulder and turned to leave. 


   “He’ll pay you double your fee, I promise.”


   Since I had come out here for nothing, I felt no guilt at the couple compensating me. Served Rudolfo right for the part he played, too. Unless she made him think it was an emergency, which I wouldn’t put past her. He worshiped her like his life depended on keeping her happy. I wondered if he was embrujado, under a spell of a bruja or if he were truly in love.

     Since it wasn’t my business and since he lived on Nube Nueve, his version of Cloud Nine, who was I to interfere in their attempt at making a good marriage. I set my bag on her dresser and rummaged inside for what I needed. 

    “Slide down lower in the bed, flat on your back, so your belly sticks up straight.” Alberta did what I asked. Laura struck a match to light a cigarette, but I leaned over and put it out. “I don’t care if you don’t think smoke is bad for Berta and the baby. I know it to be true.” 

 

    Laura’s response was to reach for another match, but when I grabbed my bag again, Alberta snapped her fingers, saying through teeth it was her turn to clench, “Do as Elvira says.” I knew she hated that I called her Berta, but if she made a big deal of it, she could count on my using her shortened name even more. I could play her game. While she set out to make me feel incompetent and inferior, my intent was to put her in her place. She was no better than I, and I reminded her when opportunity presented itself. 

 

     Curanderismo heals holistically; the spirit, the mind, and the body work together to keep the body in a balanced heathy state. In Spanish the word means curar, to cure or to heal. As a healer, it was my duty to influence her to be a charitable person. Though all of us were in our early 30s, I sometimes felt ages older. 

 

     Christina, Laura, and I had been schoolmates. But they came from modest upbringings while I had barely escaped the orphanage. The three amigas were now home-makers, having been raised by their madres to be good wives and mothers in their adulthood. I had no mother, no family to speak of. Raised by a distant cousin as a criada, I had earned my keep by cleaning and cooking until I was fifteen and then begged Señora Romero to let me apprentice with her. Being a sort of poor relation and free housemaid came with its own burden, like a birthmark, a stain upon the orphan who bore the title. I could have let my situation drag me down, make me an introvert or worse. Part of my resiliency came from the Señora’s tutelage and the other from my own stubborn nature. I knew my worth; these simpering women needed me more than I needed their money.


      As adults, they prided themselves on having achieved something I had no interest in, for the moment, anyway. The three had married well—Christina, the self-satisfied hen with her two chicks, and Laura, married for almost two years—now joined by Alberta, the new bride. She had confessed to me her firstborn was coming two months early, despite her insistence to everyone else that there had been no premarital sex. All three of them so smug because I was yet unattached. Since I didn’t give a damn about their opinions of me, I didn’t bother telling them two of their three husbands had asked for my hand in marriage first. I smiled inside, but I was business on the outside. 


     The superiority they felt over me came from their fear that my fate could have become their own if circumstances had been different; Señora Romero had made me see that. While I enjoyed putting them in their places when they deserved it, my mentor’s training made me temper my words, my attitude, and my actions toward them. I had to be the better person to do what I did as a curandera. I reached a hand to Berta and asked for her wedding ring. 


    “Oh, rats,” she groaned. “Christina, get it, would you? It’s in that jewelry box over 
there on top of the armoire.” Chagrin colored her explanation, and she fussed with her bedspread rather than meet my eyes. “I took it off when it started getting too tight.”


    I turned back toward the dresser to hide my smirk. Since when did she say ‘armoire’ instead of ropero. She should’ve watched her diet like I warned her months before. I had a feeling the birth would be difficult since it looked like she had grown double her size. Eating for two had made her look more like she had been shoveling in food for a family of four. 


    I had cut a piece of thread about two feet long and now slipped one end over the ring. I wrapped the ends of the thread around my forefinger. Then I mumbled a few words over them with my back turned to the trio. Sometimes I had more fun with my gullible patients than I should. My prayers were for myself, for God to forgive my having fun with Berta and her cohorts than they were for the act I was about to perform. 

 

     I held the thread with the ring hanging from it directly over Alberta’s protruding stomach, stilled its movement, and waited. Christina and Laura sat forward, and Berta strained to see what was going on from her vantage point. The ring began moving, spinning slowly and then faster. 


     “What’s happening? What does that mean?” Laura asked.


     “I forgot,” Christina said. “Elvie, tell us.”


     “The ring is spinning, meaning you’re having a girl,” I explained. “If it had moved in a line rather than a circle, it would mean a boy.”


     I’m pretty sure they didn’t hear my second sentence with the squeals and yells my prediction evoked. I waited while Berta struggled to sit back up against her pillows, taking a moment to fluff her hair and adjust her robe before holding her hand out to me. I handed Berta her ring before grabbing my bag once more. “Don’t call for me again unless it’s a real emergency,” I told her with my most serious lock-eye frown. I waited.


     “Rudolfo, honey,” she yelled, breaking our stare-down to turn toward the doorway. 


     When her ‘honey’ hurried to her side, she cajoled my fee—doubled—and held the bills out to me. I waited a moment. The last time, she had snatched the payment back and laughed like I was a beggar. If I weren’t the only curandera in the area, I wouldn’t have attended to her at all. But I was, and so I did. I wasn’t going to swallow my pride for her amusement though, especially not with the other two as her audience. I retrieved my payment with civility and then left to wait for Rudolfo by his car. 


     Riding in silence, I ignored the hen-pecked husband’s apologies with rambling explanations about attending to his wife’s orders to keep peace in the house. I wondered once more at the accuracy of the ring test. It worked every time, and I’ll be damned if I could figure out why. It confirmed the physical appearance of every pregnant woman I had ever cared for though. Alberta carried her baby high, a sure indication it would be a girl. That didn’t have a bearing on the ring test passed through generations of wives’ tales. Or did it?


     The summer passed fast, most likely because the months were furious with activity, especially right before and during the Fourth of July holiday when the monsoons came. Weeding the jardines took time and back-breaking effort to ensure crops would yield enough for the winter to come. Livestock needed as much attention as the harvest, and I was busy with accidents from minor cuts to severed fingers and toes from farm equipment mishaps. Most of my skills covered the little things which didn’t need further attention by doctors, and I sent off those which did posthaste to the city.

 
     Toward the end of July when Alberta was due, I stayed close to home as I’d promised her husband. He made me believe love is truly blind. I didn’t know whether to be joyous for my former best friend or whether to assure myself he hadn’t drunk from a love potion. Señora Clara, from a village forty miles away, was rumored to sell such things. After all, what did we really know about Alberta? She came in to our lives like a terromote—the personification of the village where she now lived in marital bliss. She blew right into Rudolfo at first sight and launched a direct attack. There had been no escape, no resistance. Rudolfo allowed himself to be swept away on their first date. He had confessed to me later, when he informed me we could no longer be friends. He told me exactly why their union had to proceed with haste.  


     On the last day of the month, two months before she was supposed to be due, Alberta began her labor. Though the timing was just right, I suspected the secret was well-kept because she very much enjoyed being the center of attention. A life-or-death situation from a pre-mature birth would make her the focus of the community. I didn’t understand such selfishness, but I put it out of my mind. I had work to do.


     “Dammit, Berta, why didn’t you go to the hospital?” I yelled at her when Rudolfo confessed Alberta had been in labor for so long they forgot to count the hours. When I checked her progress, I could see the baby’s head. She had waited longer than she should have, and now I had no choice but to deliver it. La niña arrived on the first of August. I hoped the curses and screams coming from the mouth of her mother hadn’t rendered the infant deaf in the process. As it was, the baby was huge, the largest I’d ever delivered. Ten hours or more for a ten-pound babe. Premature, my ass. 


     If Berta had been eager for a female child who would be her petite twin, she was in for a disappointment. Her daughter looked more like the husband’s side of the family, complete with a full head of red hair, not to mention she was the size of a four-month-old. The mother had screamed her way through the birth; the baby greeted the world in silence. I could swear that infant’s eyes took every one of us in and assessed our worth, finding us all unworthy. Something about the baby bespoke a difference from any other I’d delivered, but I couldn’t pin down what it was. I handed her over to Alberta’s mother-in-law to bathe while I wrapped up the afterbirth to dispose of it through ritual for the sake of both mother and child. About an hour later, I departed with the father-in-law for home and slept like the dead after locking myself in my casita. 


   The baby thrived and grew stronger; I had checked in on her twice since her birth. Each time I was again struck by the infant’s gaze on me as I poked and prodded, measured, and assessed her growth and her health. She studied me like a student focused on an intriguing specimen. I found myself avoiding her eyes. The last thing I needed was to make a bond with the daughter of my adversary. When she was a few months old and Rudolfo sped up the road to my kitchen door again, I grabbed my bag as I had done before and ran outside to the car’s passenger side. 


   “¡La niña!” I heard his wail even with the window raised and opened the door, jumping in and then slamming it shut behind me in a flash. As before, we tore down the drive, Rudolfo maneuvering onto the road, his rear tires spewing small rocks and dirt behind us before we shot forward. During the ride, I tried to discover what the problem was so I’d know what to expect 
when we got there. 


   “What’s happening with Marianna?”

 

    “She cries and cries and curls into a ball as if she’s in pain. She doesn’t eat, she doesn’t sleep. She’s been like this for hours. There’s nothing wrong. Alberta checks her diaper, makes sure the broches aren’t pricking her. There’s no mark on her from the pins. Nothing. We are at our wit’s end.” 


   “Who has been to the house to see her?”


   “You’re joking, right?”

   I threw him a hard look which I hoped conveyed I was dead serious. He glanced at me and then back at the road. “Who hasn’t?” he replied. “Every vecino, every primo, everyone we know has been by the house to bring gifts and to hold her and kiss her and—”


   “I get it,” I interrupted. “Now think, this is important, Rudolfo. Did her discomfort come after anyone in particular came by?”

 

    The car was silent for a half a mile at least while he gave the question some thought. I could almost see his thinking process as he mumbled. “Well, the last few were el vecino Tafoya, Doña Lucia, la vieja Dominguez, y Prima María…” the list of neighbors, old women, and cousins visiting even months after Marianna’s birth was a long one, until he finally came to the one I needed. “Wait, the last one, the very last, was Nicanor’s prima, that cousin from Denver who came to visit last week. Ahhh, what was her name? I don’t remember, but Mari got sick right after the woman’s visit. And she’s gone now. She left yesterday on the train from town.” 


   I shook my head. Why hadn’t they done as I asked and kept the baby’s contact with others confined to the household members for a while? Why had they not protected her with coral? Their eagerness to show off their firstborn may well kill her still. I didn’t know if I could affect a cure. I never knew until the moment came. I could heal only what my knowledge of mind, body, herbs, and spiritually allowed. It wasn’t magic, and I was no fortune teller. 

 

    As before, I leaped from the slowing vehicle and ran to the back bedroom, finding family members in the cocina and the parlor. I shouted, “Alguien traime un baso de agua y un huevo crudo. Pronto,” as I passed.  

 

     Someone came into the room with a glass of water and a raw egg as I’d requested. I ushered everyone out but the parents and shut the door. Thinking only of relieving the baby’s distress, I disrobed Mari and did my usual prodding and poking. Nothing—there was as Rudolfo had said, no visible cause of her discomfort. But only extreme pain could produce an anguish like this. Those helpless cries, already growing weak, her constant squirming, clutched fists, and curled toes, there was something seriously wrong.  

 
     The concept of the evil eye is centuries old. The expression “if looks could kill” came from mal ojo, and on rare occasions, acted like a curse which did kill the victim. When a person who admires another, usually babies or children, with ill intent, such as through jealousy or envy or through coveting the other, the curse manifests in physical affliction. I knew from what Rudolfo described of Marianna’s symptoms this was probably what had occurred. There are various methods of curing the sufferer, so I went through those I was taught. 


   “Great,” I muttered when I thought of the person I suspected had caused the vile act. The first method involved whoever had cast the spell, whether by intent or by accident. Since the woman was gone, I went with the second choice: a Juan or a Juana. “Go bring Juan Torres right now if you want your Mari cured.” I lay the baby on her back and massaged her belly to try to relieve her discomfort in the meantime. 

 

    “Can’t. He’s gone to town.”

 

    I would have told him to go get Doña Juanita from Rociada, but that would take too long. She was only about seven miles away, but time really was short. I went with a sure-fire cure. It was a good thing I’d asked for what I needed and had it ready. I passed the egg all over the body of the baby first, performing an act similar to a limpia, a cleansing of negativity. Then I broke the egg into the water, spoke the words I was taught, and set the glass under the crib. Since there was nothing more I could do, I placed a chair close to watch over the infant and ushered the parents out of the room. I grabbed Alberta’s arm as she exited and told her no one, not even she, would be allowed back until morning. When she opened her mouth to argue, I asked if she wanted her daughter to live. She turned away and stalked off, trying to maintain her composure and I’m sure hating me for needing my services. 


   Moments later, Marianna stopped crying, sniffled a few times, and fell asleep. I sat in the chair, tucked an afghan around me and rested beside her. I knew nothing more would happen until morning. The baby and I both slept the sleep of the truly exhausted. I didn’t need her mother disturbing either one of us for the rest of the night; that had been my main reason for shutting her out. Before Rudolfo’s arrival, I had been making remedios, remedies, and poultices from dried herbs and healing plants since early morning. I could have inspected the egg right then, but I wanted sleep almost as much as I wanted Marianna’s mother to learn a little humility. I only hoped she loved her child more than she loved herself.   

 

    In the morning, I checked on the baby. Mari lay in her crib, eyes wide open with that intense gaze on me. They say we can see entire worlds in other people’s eyes, we can see all the way into their souls. The baby’s pupils grew dark, like swirling liquid, a coffee or a panocha mixed in an holla by the hand of the cook. Round and round the twin whirlpools sucked me in, and I could not find the strength to look away. As though they consumed me a bit at a time, I fell into them. Into a world where I watched the baby grow from infant to child, from child to teen, and from adult to old age. The last vision I had was of Marianna wrapped in the shroud of death devolving into a skull and bones, all that was left of the tiny human looking up at me in the present. I witnessed her entire life passing in that moment. Then she made a sound deep in her throat and blinked. The spell was broken. The giggles and gurgles from the mouth of a babe had never resulted in chilling me like the sounds coming from Marianna in that instant our eyes had locked.

 
   I shook myself of the escalofrío and bent to retrieve the glass. The egg should have been black with the negative energy it had sucked from the baby, but it was the red-black of blood after it has congealed instead. It swirled like Marianna’s eyes had done only a minute before. I didn’t know what to make of this; I had never experienced such an anomaly. As fast as I could, I pulled a jar and a coral bracelet from my bag. I placed the bracelet around the baby’s wrist without looking at her face again. I emptied the egg into the jar. I would dispose of it within 24 hours as I did customarily and hoped that would break whatever spell or curse still held the baby in its grasp. I roused the sleeping couple from the adjoining room and bade Rudolfo take me home as the sun rose in the east. My work here was finished, and I was exhausted again as if I hadn’t slept a wink the night before. 


   Back at home once more, I dropped my bag on the mesita by the door, locked myself in, and slept the sleep of the dead. I had no concept of time when next I woke. Something wasn’t right. I tingled as though a jolt of electricity had struck and held me in a perpetual state of electrocution. I wanted a glass of water badly, but when I tried to rise, my body didn’t cooperate. Something was very wrong with me. My mind functioned; my body did not. I couldn’t call out, and with my nearest vecino hundreds of yards away across fields and forest, even if I were able, no one would hear. 

 

    I lay in my bed, lost track of hours, lost more track of days, hoped someone needed my ayuda and would find me. I, the healer, needed healing. In the time I’ve lain here, I remembered one thing I had failed to do when I first handled Marianna. Something which I knew better than to have done, something which would now be the death of me. I had failed to protect myself before performing the ritual. In healing the child, I had been infected by her mal ojo. The egg had past its deadline for disposal, too. I could feel myself wasting away, and I knew now the vision I had in Marianna’s eyes was not of her growing from infant to corpse.


     The distant rumbling of a vehicle came closer but then faded as it passed my house. My hope dwindled with the sound, and I succumbed to the sleep from which I knew I would not wake.

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