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Mal Ojo la Mató

Carmen Baca 

Carmen Baca taught high school and college English for thirty-six years before retiring in 2014. As a Chicana, a Norteña native to New Mexico, she keeps her culture’s traditions alive through regionalism to prevent them from dying completely. She is the author of six books and multiple short publications from prose to poetry in a variety of genres. She is also a recipient of New Mexico Magazine’s 2023 True Hero award for preserving her culture through story telling.

The birth grew troublesome after about the tenth hour. It was touch and go for several serious minutes when I found the umbilical cord wrapped around the baby’s neck. I manipulated my fingers around it and the body, finally disentangling the cord and helping the newborn out the rest of the way. The silence made a tense situation worse. Even the mother, Lydia, froze. I wasted no time breathing life into the niña’s lungs and tearing up when a deep intake of breath and a cry emerged. My knees almost buckled when I placed the child into Lydia’s arms. I remember thinking that was close before saying gracias a Tata Dios for keeping los espíritus at bay.

Ah, but we have been here all along, I heard a familiar voice in my mind.

We came the moment la madre went into labor, another voice chimed in.

Nomás viendo, nada más, a third voice confirmed they had done nothing more than watch.

You might not need us much longer, my abuela said in a resigned but proud tone.

Ever since the last of the Montenegro matriarchs passed, they had been coming into my mind, especially when I was in the act of delivering children. I had been apprenticed to my grandmother and my Tía Rosabella, but the others had passed before I was born. I only knew them now, in death, when they came to check on me or to offer guidance if I needed it. Harsh criticism sometimes accompanied their visitations, too. Even at my age, las mujeres made me feel more like 13 than 32.

Leave me be, por favor, I asked them now. I know what I need to do.

My priority as midwife was the safety and health of mother and child. I took my time gently maneuvering the placenta to expel it from the body. Every aspect of the birth had meaning and for  an optimal outcome, each needed to be accomplished with ritual and care. All involved, including me as la partera, must come through this both intact and equipped to put the trauma of the event behind us. The infant had to forget its unwelcome passage from the womb to freedom. The dark, pulsing, purple-red blood tingeing the journey inspired horror, not something the child should remember. The mother must forget the pain of labor if she were ever to become a mother again. And I must ensure the success of the entire procedure while protecting myself from negativity, whether in thought, word, or deed.

I protected myself once more as I washed my hands before reaching for the niña. While I bathed her, I sent positive communications through my thoughts and fluttered my fingers over the tiny body from head to toe, visualizing placing a protective bubble around her. I studied the baby; the baby studied me. I knew I probably registered as nothing more than a blur in her vision, but strangely, her eyes focused right on mine, and her forehead wrinkled with scrutiny. I experienced a sensation like never before after delivering babies. As though I shared some special connection with the child. A collective gasp filled my head and chatter from las mujeres started up, but before I could tell them again to leave me alone, they shushed each other and went silent.

I broke eye contact and dried the baby off before swaddling her. I made the sign of the cross over her face and then over her chest before tying a bracelet of coral around her wrist to ensure she would be protected from harm, especially from mal ojo. The feeling of having bonded with the child made me acutely aware that I could give her the evil eye without intending to if I didn’t take precautions. The protective properties of the coral would ensure this wouldn’t happen—with me now, or later, when visitors came to pay respects and bring gifts.

After setting the baby in her cradle, I gave Lydia a sponge bath since custom demanded she avoid bathing for 40 days, a period of quarantine called la cuarentera. Tradition also dictated I dispose of the afterbirth and the umbilical cord. The family’s future depended on my doing this ritual correctly.

As I wiped the warm washcloth over Lydia’s skin before she fell asleep, I asked, “Bueno, Lydia, what name have you chosen for your first child?”

“Alysia,” she whispered. “It came to me when I held her for the first time right after her birth.”

I blinked. That was my middle name. I wondered if Lydia knew. It meant entrancing; I wondered if Lydia knew that, too. The serendipity of it, the significance, the child’s enchanting gaze on me earlier contributed to a vague unease rising in me. I would’ve asked Lydia more, but seeing how exhausted she was, I figured I’d leave the question for another day. Instead, I asked, “What are your wishes for el par?”

“Do what you think is best,” she managed through a yawn.

The umbilical cord I would drape over a limb of the thick piñon tree in the family’s backyard to protect the baby from fear, thus warding off susto, shock. Explaining to Lydia, I looked around. “Good thing you have dirt floors. I can bury the afterbirth in the corner by the fogón. That’s a good spot opposite your bed. “What I need from you is the placement, face up or face down, and how deep.”

But Lydia only mumbled “cansada” and fell asleep. I covered her with the heavy quilts and took the initiative based on my intuition and my desires for all involved. In the cocina, I buried the placenta face-down so the couple would have a boy next time.

Bury it at least a foot down, Tía Rosabella instructed.

I know, I know, I rolled my eyes, reminding her I wasn’t her apprentice anymore.

I buried it deep to ensure the next pregnancy would be far enough away to allow the new mother to forget the pain and to recover fully. I took a deep cleansing breath, wondering whether the niggling feeling I had came from negative energy that had latched onto me during the birthing process. I settled into a rocker in the corner by the estufa and closed my eyes in meditation. Then I went back over the past 23 hours and 17 minutes of labor Lydia suffered to give birth to the little girl.

For the entire nine months since the day Lydia and I had figured out the delivery date, I walked on cascaras de huevos. Even though she’d been healthy throughout, I prayed her baby would arrive early, any other day except November first, el Día de los Muertos. I hadn’t told anyone of my concern, no one living, at least. I did, however, tell the Montenegro healers and midwives going back centuries. Inducing labor became the subject of our conversations and heated debates arising from the day—the most dangerous date to deliver a new child into the world. I smiled as I recalled the many arguments I’d imagined.

Really, Lucía, if we needed advice about empacho, your opinion would be welcome. Pregnancy does not equate to indigestion, so…, I heard my Tía Hortencia tease her sister, a well-known curandera in her day.

You’re no expert, Rosabella. How many stillborns did you deliver? Weren’t you the record holder in your lifetime? Hmmm?

Sometimes, the voices got downright feisty, and I marveled at how my imagination brought my favorite mujeres to life. Closer to Lydia’s delivery date when a premature birth wouldn’t cause issues for mother or child, they argued about how to bring on early labor.

Dale chile colorado o verde, lo más quemoso que halles, my Abuela Augusta suggested.

¡Embah! Spicy, hot chile of either color won’t work. Make her walk an hour a day, prima Corina had piped up.

I used to know the remedios to make the perfect tea, Tía Rosabella boasted. It worked the two times I used it. Too bad I didn’t write the recipe down somewhere.

Then why bring it up? Corina spat. ¡Sonsa!

My vivid, audible daydreams comforted me though I alone was responsible for experimenting with any of the methods the matriarchs reminded me about. I tried everything until Lydia’s patience ran out.

“No more teas, no more walking, no massages, no hot soaks in the cajete. ¡Ya basta! Enough already! If the baby comes on the first of November, so be it.” She waddled her very pregnant body to the bed and sighed as she let herself fall in. I stepped away as I crossed myself and prayed once more for a Halloween baby.

I hadn’t told Lydia I feared her newborn would be taken by the spirits of the dead who come into our world on the first day of November. They did that sometimes. While most of the dead took advantage of the times heaven’s gate opened to allow them to visit their loved ones, others had been known to take the living back with them from time to time. If the baby didn’t live, everyone would suspect why. It was common knowledge, after all. I muttered, “To everyone but Lydia and her husband, I guess. Maybe it was a godsend. If she had known….” I hated to think of the undue stress and worry she’d have gone through for the entire pregnancy.

I almost insisted on staying at her bedside overnight because of my concern about damage to the baby’s lungs or throat. I was also more than a little anxious about los espíritus who could still take her before midnight. But the poor couple only had the one bedroom connected to a small kitchen. Seeing how worn out they both were, I asked Samuel, Lydia’s husband, to take me home even though it was still a few hours before sunrise. I gathered my things and placed the mother and child into God’s care. I had done all I could. Whether Alysia lived through the Day of the Dead was out of my hands. As I bade Lydia goodbye, the niña’s eyes locked onto mine once more with the same intense concentration. I tore my gaze away from her face, checked her wrist for the coral bracelet, and made the sign of the cross in her direction as I sensed her eyes still on me. Then I left.

Samuel drove me home. The unease I’d been feeling took form and a discomfort in my gut arose, getting worse the farther from the Padilla house we traveled. Back at home, I made a fire in my fogón, took a hot bath, and put on my nightgown. I was prepared to sleep the rest of the day. But I wanted a light snack first. I’d drunk a little salarata in warm water. The baking soda settled my stomach temporarily, so I took advantage and ate a bowl of caldito with saltines. Lying in bed a short time later, I gasped. My stomach roiled. It growled and churned as though something alive writhed inside. I’d never encountered this issue after assisting in a birth or at any other time. Nothing in my repertoire of holistic healing or midwifery provided a clue as to what this could be. Similar to empacho but for the ball of something growing, swirling in me. I spent more time in the outhouse behind my casita than I did in bed. Once inside, I spent the rest of the time bent over the basín, retching my guts out.

¿No estará empachada? Tia Rosabella asked as las mujeres gathered in my head.

That’s Lucía’s territory. Pregúnatale tu. Abuela muttered, If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re the victim of mal ojo, mi’ja. If you can’t expel that hairball in your belly, I don’t know. I caught mutterings between the matriarchs; some sounded concerned, but a couple struck me as covert—as if they knew something they weren’t sharing.

Abuela trailed off and I finished what all of them thought …we don’t know what happens if I can’t.

Acutely aware of the few hours left before the end of November first, I might’ve tried some of the remedios I’d used to cure mal ojo on others on myself, but I grew too weak  after my last bout of nausea. The one time I tried to rise, I fell and hit the floor so hard that I didn’t attempt it again. Several hands reached out and put me back into bed, tucking blankets around me. For a minute, I thought I was delirious, but then my grandmother spoke.

We have never been figments of your imagination, hija, she said. We have been with you all along.

, prima Corina, interrupted, and we all hoped you would live long, find love, have children of your own

Shhh, another voice shushed the prima as a kind of mist surrounded my camalta, and before my eyes, las mujeres formed, grouped around my bed. Las tías, prima Corina, abuelita. They looked as they had in life or in photos except each of them wore their Sunday best, the clothes they’d been buried in.

I’m so sorry, my grandma continued. We’re all sorry to be bearers of bad news. It’s all in the mind though—you might think of what’s about to happen as a blessing in disguise. She explained how they had indeed come to take someone with them to the spirit world. Recruited by Santa Muerte, one of two entities who knew the when, how, where, and why of any earthly death, they had come to take the life of the mother, Lydia. They didn’t question; they did as they were told on the Day of the Dead when the saint asked.

They debated for a while, gathered around me while my eyes shot from one speaker to the next in a juggling of fast-paced dialogue until I got the gist of the solution and what it meant for me.

Ay Diosito, is there no other way? Tía Hortencia moaned. She wrung her hands until Tía Lucía put her arms around her.

Taking a life is not our choice, is it? Tía Lucía’s voice conveyed resignation. We do as we are told. No one says no to Nuestra Santísima Muerte.

How were we to know the niña would be born with such powers? Tía Rosabella added.

Well, that’s the conundrum, isn’t it? Abuela said. I don’t think Santa Muerte will object to our solution though.

The spirits had accompanied me at this birth as they had all the others, but this one was unique since they would be taking the mother. The singularity of the situation shifted again when they had all fallen under the baby’s spell at the same moment as I, despite my efforts to protect myself. The gasps I’d heard had been theirs. They hadn’t expected to be encantadas either. Shocked they weren’t immune to mal ojo, they deduced the baby’s innate power made her special. She needed her mother to survive. Celestial intervention called for plan B.

I had already been cursed. I was the one they would take. But their collective dismay at taking me before my time prompted them to leave something of me behind, and the baby’s gift decided the matter. They put the idea of naming the niña after me into Lydia’s head. Las mujeres Montenegros are my ancestors, after all.

Death knocked at the door right before midnight….

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