For Plato the only reality was the universe of ideas. Thus, the material world was but a distant reminiscence. In the history of art, the references to this “non-being” are continuous. They emerge, as in Plato’s parable, from the shadows of the underworld. These hybrid beings – half human and half beast – stalk us but also reveal much, our darkest nature. Franz Roh, the historian and art critic, coined the term “magic realism” at the beginning of the twentieth century. It has been used to define much of the Latin American pictorial and literary art stemming from a mestizo (mixed culture) mythology. Inscription found in the Instituto Cultural Cabañas, Guadalajara, Mexico
The book is for sale on the Think in the Morning website via PayPal, at Gallery Bookshop and The Book Loft in Mendocino, at The Book Store & Vinyl Cafe in Fort Bragg and as an ebook or paperback at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online outlets.
This is the second of a few excerpts we will be posting to pique your interest.
Chapter 3: Itandehui
A Remote Mountain Village Outside Tijuana
A tiny creek trickles along a canyon, winding its way down through the thick jungle that nearly blocks the narrow trail. Small but determined, an old woman treads upward, against the creek’s flow, collecting obscure flowers and herbs that others might discard as weeds. Occasionally she stops to rest and listen. She approaches a small farm, a muddy enclave of sticks and tin and rags sitting near the mouth of the canyon. The road here shrinks to a rough trail heading up the mountain. As she draws near the farm, she smells the pigs long before she sees them playing in the mud with two young brown-skinned children, completely naked. No adults are in sight. The mother is in the back, cooking and washing. The father is out collecting sticks for fuel and dragging back the small trees he’ll add to the pile next to the hovel they call a home.
The old woman trudges on, past the gaping dark holes that once marked the openings to the now-abandoned silver mines, up to a shallow pool where the butterflies come to collect nectar from the flowers that grow there. The butterflies are everywhere after an early morning summer thunderstorm. Stopping by the pool, she surveys the bank on her side of the stream and spots the tailfeather of a red-tailed hawk. The spirit God, Maayhaay, often leaves her special gifts by the pool.
As a little girl she found the severed limb of a black jackrabbit. It was a sign from Maayhaay that she was to be a healer. He sent this amulet to her from the desert island in the south because it contained the power of the shamans who lived there long ago. From that day her knowledge grew with her curiosity. She learned about the wild plants on the mountain. The rabbit’s energy propelled her on her walks. The rabbit’s spirit taught her to freeze when danger was near.
She approaches the hawk’s feather carefully and with respect. It embodies the spirit of the hawk. She grasps the feather and gently raises it to her lips, her eyes, and above her head. Then, into the basket it goes with the rest. As she touches the feather, a shimmering light appears in her mind’s eye, dazzlingly bright, and grows instantly into a massive arch that contains the entire heavens. A hawk circles under the arch in brilliant waves of color.
The woman sits on the bank to catch her breath. The vision subsides. She’s not surprised by the visions. She accepts them as they come, and learns what she can while they’re with her.
Sometimes she collects the Indian foods she knew as a young girl. The last time she was here, she discovered a bee’s nest in the tree by the pool. It was full of the little white worms her grandmother showed her how to prepare. They’re filled with grease from the wax they eat, and taste just like nuts when they’re roasted. She likes these familiar foods of her childhood better than the food at the stores in town. She watches the broad bands of yellow sunlight filter through the tall trees and dance around the pool chasing the Jesus bugs that skip across the surface. She sits quietly. Under the colorful designs on the cotton huipilthat covers her shrunken breasts, she feels a familiar energy. The spirit guides have messages, but she is not ready to receive them.
The trail becomes steep ahead as it weaves back and forth toward the sky. It is seldom used this time of year. There is no time to make the long journey up to the top of the mountain. Ana Luisa is arriving in the Jeep today with supplies and medicines. The old woman must turn back even though her basket is not yet full. Few in her village were bold enough to walk alone all the way to the top of the mountain. They believed it was haunted with the lives it had taken. Some who lived in the village said that when the wind blew down from the mountain, they could hear the wailing of those who had died. Bad things can happen on the mountain. It’s alive and powerful and can read thoughts. The mountain watches all life unfold. If you climb the mountain with bad intentions, you will be harmed. It depends on the purpose of your visit. If you go for a good reason, there will be no trouble. If you pray sincerely, something positive will happen. That’s how the spirit of the mountain manifests itself. Itandehui had heard about the power of the mountain from her grandmother when she was a little girl, soon after she’d discovered that Maayhaay had given her the gift of healing.
Back down she trudges, retracing her steps, thinking of who will replace her when Maayhaay calls her home. So far there were none in the village who showed the signs. She was old, and her time was short, but she knew one would arise for her to train before it was too late. Even if the people angered Maayhaay, he wouldn’t leave them without a healer. They were his people, after all.
Walking down the mountain along the stream, Itandehui hears a scream. Kee-eee-arr! Kee-eee-arr! The red-tailed hawk is telling her that a man will arrive, someone she must teach to be a healer. Kee-eee-arr! Kee-eee-arr! Kee-eee-arr! He will not be a man from the village but from far away. His ways will be strange to her, but his heart will be pure. She will know when she sees him.
She freezes in her tracks, sensing the presence of an animal. She cannot see it, but she knows it’s in the bush close by. She closes her eyes. A shape moves forward through the mist patiently, silently. The vision finds its way through the chaos of the jungle and brings a surprise, a rare black jaguar, the keeper of circular time. The fierce cat stares at her, eyes gleaming green and gold. She stands firm, undaunted. The jaguar idly stretches its lean forelegs with its sharp claws exposed. Its downturned mouth opens slightly, revealing a row of fearsome teeth. Itandehui stands completely still as if in a deep sleep. She understands the jaguar’s thoughts. The gatekeeper to the unknowable has a message.
The jaguar’s eyes burn brightly in the shadows. Itandehui communicates through an ancient thought language that all living creatures understand. Spears of sunlight pierce the thick green foliage hanging high off the trees. The jaguar brings an urgent plea from yet another stranger, a young man who needs her help, someone who speaks to her from far away. She will wait for him to come to the village, but she can reach out to him in a dream through the jaguar. She sets the plan in motion. Agile as air, the jaguar leaps upward and is gone. Itandehui turns and walks slowly down, down, down. She’ll wait. She’ll be ready when the stranger comes.
The only time people in the village ever go up the mountain is late in the summer at the time of the pine-nut harvest. Itandehui never goes with them. She goes alone to the mountain to protect the secret and magical places where she receives her gifts. The people of the village pay little attention to Itandehui until they get sick. Then they appear at her door to ask her help.
It was long before Itandehui’s time when the silver mines flourished and the mule trains tore through the jungle and the forests. The great wealth of the mines ended up in the hands of the Spaniards. The local Indians, Itandehui’s people, worked deep inside the earth, squeezed into narrow holes carrying heavy buckets up and down ladders and across little passageways, sometimes in stifling heat and sometimes in bitter cold. The wealthy built the beautiful stone buildings with the tile roofs and the cobblestone streets. Even now the beauty of the village, though worn and faded, takes away the breath of the few visitors who come. The Indians who did the work lived on beans and corn and hard tortillas that were almost impossible to chew with the few teeth they could keep in their heads over their short lives.
On and on Itandehui walks, past the caves where she goes to capture bats to help those who are going blind or bald, past a wide spot in the creek where the men from town pulled out Father Jordan’s truck last year after he got it stuck. Sometimes she sees her grandmother smiling her toothless smile up in the trees along this creek. It makes her feel safe as it did when she first came here and learned from her grandmother how to use her special powers. Grandmother had had tattoos all over her face. In those days they believed that the tattoos helped the women from getting wrinkled and gray and to have good health and happy babies. Her grandmother had two husbands and nine children. None of them lived except Itandehui’s mother. She too died at childbirth.
The power of the tattoos was not weak. Her grandmother told her that the power of death is sometimes too strong. The bad things happened to their family because her grandmother’s first husband went up the mountain before being properly initiated as a shaman. He mistreated the mountain and brought back things without Maayhaay’s permission. In its wrath, the mountain killed everyone in the family except Itandehui. She was spared because Maayhaay had chosen her to become the next healer. When Itandehui was young, the women no longer put girls through the fasting ceremony or gave them the tattoos. She would have gone through with it if they’d asked her. She believed in it, but they didn’t ask.
Smoke comes from a fire at the crude farm where Itandehui picks up the road back to town. The man is burning trash, and the smoke wisps around in the air like dirty ghosts rising above the mud; it spreads out among the trees and gives everything a horrible smell. Itandehui shakes her finger at the man. He keeps on feeding the fire, and she keeps on walking.
* * *
She arrives back at her small hut outside of town just as Ana Luisa and Carlos pull up with the supplies. Carlos coughs and coughs as he unloads Frieze’s serum and the other medicines. Itandehui tells him he needs some tea. He says there isn’t time because there are many more deliveries of food and supplies around the village, plus the long journey home. Itandehui gives him some yerba santaleaves and tells him to chew on them and swallow the saliva to get rid of his cough. Chewing the leaves, he walks to the Jeep and drives away with Ana Luisa.
After they leave, Itandehui stores the jugs of serum under a shelf along one wall. Later she will pack the serum up the mountain to be stored by the sacred pool where she keeps many of her remedies. When she handles the jugs of serum she notices a peculiar moldy smell like wet fur. She looks outside and sees only the sunflowers waving in the garden. The sound of flutes fills the air. Vision and time become distorted. She looks through a sheer curtain blowing in the wind. Through the curtain she sees a young man, his face hideously distorted, going up the trail. She sees a monster, its face multiplied millions of times, reflecting off the jugs of serum stored along the wall. This terrifies her. Reeling with fear, she turns away. She has a vision of Frieze in his shop where the serum is prepared. The monster together with Frieze is an ominous sign. Itandehui turns back to the sunflowers until things return to normal.
She carefully separates and places all the cuttings she has collected into fruit jars and places the jars on top of the shelves. She sets aside a few wild cherries, Manzanita seeds, and edible flowers and roots. She stores them in dried gourds and little bags made of agave fiber.
A mother and young girl appear at her door. There is a tick inside the girl’s ear, which is painful and swollen. Itandehui pounds and boils a bunch of sage leaves until the liquid is strong and thick. She puts a drop in the girl’s ear. The warm syrupy liquid deadens the pain. It tickles the girl and makes her laugh. A few minutes later Itandehui puts in another drop. The girl feels the tick crawling out, and there it is, big and ugly. The mother is pleased. She gives Itandehui some dried fish and some sea snails her husband brought from the coast. Itandehui tells them the story of the olivella shells. They are babies that fall from the stars. When the Big Dipper gets too full, it dumps them out. The small shells fall all around near the ocean. The girl and her mother laugh at the story and leave.
Itandehui puts the fish and snails into a reed basket and covers it tightly to keep them fresh. Tired from her walk and satisfied with her treatment of the girl, she lies down on a reed mat in the corner. Sleep comes quickly. Her tiny body, withered and wrinkled, twitches imperceptibly as the spirits navigate in the darkness. Each plant has its own spirit form that does the healing, just like the animals have their own spirit guides. They enter her dreams and tell her what she must do—how to remove the evil spirits and the bad spells of the witches, the right incantations and singing to encourage the healing process. Her body shakes but she sleeps soundly. The spirits surround and enter her body. They cleanse her and open her mind and renew her healing powers.
The tailfeather of the hawk sits on the shelf over her bed. The hawk’s spirit circles above as the black jaguar glides through the jungle. Itandehui’s body stops shaking and the dream abruptly ends. A short time passes while nothing happens. She is awake, rested and refreshed.
Without spirits there can be no magic. She has seen the spirits in the herbs and flowers she collects. She has heard the souls of the animals. In Frieze’s serum, Laetrile, there are no spirits. She wonders how the serum can work without spirits to guide it.
The play of the shadows in the afternoon light calls forth a presence. She recognizes the familiar healing power of nature. She submits to its positive energy, absorbs it, and gives her own strength in return.
She walks into the garden to urinate. She feels danger all around. The face of the monster emerges from a patch of weeds. It isn’t animal or human, or insect, bird, or reptile. It’s an improbable combination of all these life forms. When she was young, she saw such a chimera in the sacred rock paintings on the mountain. She has seen it also in the dreamworld and just now lurking around Frieze. It is the harbinger of sickness and bad luck. Once, long ago, an ancient medicine woman visited her grandmother and showed her how to fashion the dreamcatcher from the willow hoop to chase away this evil spirit, but the monster is powerful, and the dreamcatcher cannot always stop it. She spits at the face. It shrinks away. This time she was lucky.
She goes inside and makes a cup of tea with chia seeds. Everything is very quiet. The sun has begun to sink behind the terracotta tiles on the rooftops of the white-plastered buildings in town. A dog barks in the distance. When Itandehui closes her eyes she sees the three men of her visions, men she does not know. She will do what Maayhaay tells her to do, but she fears it will be useless. Everything she teaches the young fades with the bliss of youth. Tears form in her eyes. It’s always the same. Grief follows wisdom and the wise die as fools. Far from the village, high up on the mountain, the black jaguar walks slowly, silently on its journey, and fades into the fog.
The book is for sale at my Mendocino office (45051 Ukiah Street, above Mendocino Market), on the Think in the Morning website viaPayPal, at Gallery Books and The Book Loft in Mendocino, and at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online outlets.
This is the second of a few excerpts we will be posting to pique your interest.