Pine trees, cold religion, and a black death from coal—these are the riches of the village of Madrid. It did not take long for the stench of death to blow out the broken windows of the Rodríguez house, the stink fanning across the Turquoise Trail. The smell of death spun like a web of spiders, crept up the stucco walls of neighbors’ houses, swept down their chimneys, and covered their breakfast tables with a tablecloth of fine, black lace. Within the hour, that her parents found Marcelina slumped over her uncle, news spread and death was digested for breakfast everywhere in Madrid.
By the next hour, a wagon wobbled towards the Rodríguez house, the bed filled with lumber cut from trees growing in abundance in the Ortiz Mountains. Atop the lumber lay a skeleton, its bones rattling with each movement of the wagon along the dirt road.
Two harsh looking men, their faces blackened by coal dust, walked beside the wagon. The men were members of the Penitentes, a religious fraternal society that always arranged for the burial of the dead. Their focus was the death of Jesus Christ. Every Easter the Penitentes re-enacted the crucifixion, even going so far as to nail one of their own members to the cross.
Behind the wagon followed a procession of wailing women, dressed in black capes, billowing in the wind, making them look like crows, come to feast on the dead. The leader of the women waved a bell in front of her.
Pacheco Sandoval, the driver, jumped down and tied the horse to a post. He stood bow-legged on short legs, with his fists on his hips, surveying the Rodríguez property with a sneer of revulsion on his face. He may have been small in stature, but he was a giant when it came to self-righteousness because he was the Brother Mayor of the Penitentes, selected for life, the most powerful Hispano in Madrid.
Marcelina peeked out from the living room at death’s arrival at her door. She did not hide so well. Pacheco raised his black hat to her, bowing mockingly, as if she was a grand lady and not just an eleven-year-old girl with breasts promising early womanhood.
To Pacheco, big breasts in such a young girl were the mark of the devil. Women were given breasts but for one reason—to tempt men. He narrowed his eyes at the curtains and the sweaty fingers of the girl pinching at the material.
He was always watching.
Sin consumed him. He was the self-appointed moral conscience of the village, its jury, judge, and executioner.
She wondered what sin she committed for him to acknowledge her so openly.
Did he know the witch, La Llorona, had come looking for her last night?
Did he know she knew her name?
Did he blame her, Marcelina, for her uncle’s death?
Would he order Marcelina buried alive for her sins, as he had others in Madrid?
So, the village rumored.
She had difficulty catching her breath, unable to tell by looking at Pacheco what the Mayor of the Penitentes was thinking. His face was unlined because he never smiled, and rarely spoke. His complexion was tinted a swarthy hue, his face pores appearing like open sores of mud puddles. The most distressing feature he possessed was his eyes the color of a dead fish. His eyes bugged out from bones on the sides of his head, almost as prominent as the skeleton waiting for him on the wagon.
Overwhelming pity washed over her for the skeleton, rumored to be Agnes. There had only ever been one Agnes in Madrid, a nice lady who two years ago dried Marcelina’s tears when she ran skidding across the Turquoise Trail, falling and skinning her knees. Agnes had been pregnant then, and Marcelina rubbed her belly where the babe nestled safely within. “I want a little girl,” she had said, patting Marcelina’s hand. “See. She’s kicking because the baby likes you.”
She wondered what happened to the baby. She wanted to yell, “Run Agnes,” when Pacheco walked around to the back of the wagon. He lifted the skeleton, whose limbs were lovingly pinned together.
He then carried the skeleton from the back of the wagon to the vacant seat. Sitting the skeleton upright, he carefully crossed the legs, folding the hands on the boney lap.
The skeleton’s head tilted, looking down at Pacheco.
“Who is the skeleton who always travels with Pacheco?” Mama once whispered to Bíatriz, Papa’s sister. Mama had looked around her, in case Pacheco’s ears were as big as his head.
“His dead wife?” Aunt Bíatriz whispered back.
“Agnes vanished. No one knows for sure if she is dead.”
“But Agnes fornicated with Pacheco’s brother, Alfonso.”
“I hear he put the child in her womb that Pacheco was unable to give her.”
“Ah, no. Then the unborn babe was an innocent victim of the Penitentes.”
Mama and Aunt Bíatriz quickly crossed their chests in the Catholic way.
Marcelina now crossed her chest, reciting a clumsy prayer for the skeleton, Agnes. Marcelina was not yet a good Catholic, even though her indoctrination began at birth. She so wanted to believe in the Church. Catholicism was not just religion for her people, but an integral part of their culture. This was her biggest secret—she doubted the Church. Every Sunday, while walking with her family to the Church of San Cirilio, she hoped this would be the day true faith would come to her.
This Sunday she would not let her mind wander.
Today, she would gladly suffer on her knees, instead of wanting to scream at the priest to be quick about it, because she saw no difference between this and any other Sunday, other than his costume was orange instead of green.
However, every Sunday, the church walls suffocated her, as if her lungs were in a vise, the heavy statues of the saints crushing her.
If Pacheco should ever find out, he would devour her so she might pass through his soul and come out cleansed.
He did not devour his wife for her sins—he murdered her.
So, the villagers rumored.
Pacheco lifted a boot, resting it on the wagon. He simply stared for some minutes into the vacant sockets of his wife’s skull. He spoke a few words to Agnes, who grinned back at him with a lipless face, making her teeth appear huge.
When the one-sided conversation was over, he ran his hand down her skeletal face. He patted her folded hands, as if to say, do not worry, I will be back soon.
The skeleton seemed to grin broader, as if to say, with any luck, I will be gone when you come back. Meanwhile, Marcelina still spied from behind the curtain, plotting how she might help Agnes escape. It seemed as if Agnes looked at her. Perhaps there was a way to communicate with the dead.
Unaware of the conspiracy going on inside the house, Pacheco distributed lumber and nails to the other men, who paid no notice of his odd behavior. The Penitentes, with their rigid beliefs, were brothers in the faith, a tie stronger than any bloodshed. If Pacheco seemed odd, well, many of the saints had been oddballs, loners speaking to visions seen only by them, hearing voices heard only by them, and communicating with animals. Let Pacheco have his idiosyncrasy, even if it was living with a skeleton. At least his wife did not nag him. Most important, Agnes was now a dutiful wife, following his every move with empty eye sockets. She was always grinning. Agnes was the perfect wife. She did not talk a man’s ear off. She was cheap to keep, and did not eat a man out of house and home.
This was Pacheco’s well known perspective. The girl spying from the window had other ideas as she rubbed the scar on her knee from her fall on the Turquoise Trail where Agnes helped her. She wished she were braver but feared coming between Pacheco and his wife.
Agnes moved! Her boney hands were no longer folded in the lap but hung at her sides; her delicate shoulders slumped in defeat. The bones of her face shone with a glossy sheen. Agnes was sweating, almost as much as Marcelina.
It was late morning and the day already warm from the New Mexico sun teetering atop the mountains. The Penitentes, excepting Pacheco, removed their shirts, exposing identical tattooed chests embedded with an ink drawing of a cross, designed to look like two tree trunks tied together.
Gauzy looking material draped around the crosses in gray ink, where the figure of Christ would have normally hung.
There was nothing normal about these men. Marcelina grimaced at their bare backs criss-crossed with raw-looking scars, most self-inflicted. Their fellow brothers of the Order had lashed a few of the scars. The Penitentes, their name derived from the word penance, was a religious order of flagellation.
“Make the coffin no bigger than this,” Pacheco said, holding his hands out to a length of about four feet. “Claudio Rodríguez can be folded like an accordion. A witch has gutted and deboned him. Save the lumber for the next one.”
Save the lumber for the next one.
“Marcelina. Marcelina, come to me,” the witch had sung.
Marcelina made a stiff face, her lips contorted into a square. She cuffed her hands to her ears to drown out Pacheco driving nails into her uncle’s coffin, which was the size of a child’s, just her size.
She was ashamed that last week she had been feeling sorry for herself because Papa was angry with her for hiding and not helping Mama peel the potatoes for dinner. Mama bawled her out for dirtying her dress. She had thought then, they will be sorry if I am dead! She even imagined them crying at her funeral, sounding a lot like the women with the Penitentes. As the men worked, the women sang the alabado, a religious ballad sung at wakes. The women howled, beating their breasts with their fists.
The wailing of all eight of the women together did not sound as horrible as the wailing of La Llorona.
The witch who killed my uncle.
Odd, when she closed her eyes, it was not the witch she imagined gutting her own stomach, but Pacheco.
Pacheco, who has the dead-looking eyes of a fish.
She touched her chest, feeling as if his cold blade was poking between her ribs.
Pacheco was not poking, crying, nor singing. He stood in the shade watching the men work.
Papa stopped his painting of the front door of their house and walked over to Pacheco. He bowed his head before him, speaking more to the dirt than to Pacheco.
She could not hear what he told Papa, but it seemed to upset Papa. He wrung his hands, pointing to the front door, partially painted blue.
Pacheco crossed his arms in front of his chest and looked back at his workers, dismissing Papa with a snort.
Marcelina ran outside and threw her arms around Papa’s waist. She peeked around his shirt, spying on her uncle, still laid spread out on the kitchen table. Though it was late morning, Marcelina had not eaten. She wondered if she would ever feel hunger again to sit with her family around the table. Mama’s rear end was draped in black the size of a bedspread. It looked windy in the kitchen because her dress swayed. Aunt Bíatriz held onto Claudio’s head while Mama tried to uproot the black rose from his mouth. The procedure was delicate because the thorns burrowed inside his cheeks, the rose stem buried beneath his skin. It seemed the witch had planted the flower in his cheek and the rose now grew from his mouth.
The bottom half of Bíatriz’s red face was wrapped with a black scarf, so was Mama’s, but they still turned their heads away from Claudio.
Marcelina pinched her nose at the stink drifting out the window.
Mama and Aunt Bíatriz jostled Claudio back and forth, releasing his rotting smells even more, yet the black rose in his mouth remained fresh, as though it hung from the vine. The more he dried up like a prune, the more the rose sparkled with moisture, as if growing in a dewy field.
Mama quit working. She slumped her shoulders in defeat. “We’ll have to rip his face open, if we are to pluck the rose from his head.”
Bíatriz sobbed. She and Claudio were two roses sprouted from one stem—twins.
Mama picked up a knife.
Bíatriz grabbed onto her wrist to stop her.
There was to be a war of the rose in the kitchen.
Marcelina buried her head in Papa’s belly. She did not want to see her uncle’s head roll from the kitchen table.
Rise of the Black Rose, Book 3, is now available!The Witch Narratives Reincarnation is a First Place Winner of a 2013 BOOKS INTO MOVIES AWARDS. The book, also, won a an international award for BEST FANTASY and was a BEST FANTASY New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards Finalist. A touching novel about loyalty, friendship, and the depth of love, about the unlikely friendship between a devout Catholic and a reluctant witch.
The Land of Enchantment Trilogy shines with the little-known world of Native American and Hispanic magic, which gives this series a compelling twist, and a refreshing breath of originality.
"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but humanity will never break me," -- so claims the witch, Salia, but she was born with a soft, all too human heart that even being an outcast won't harden. She is a sister, granddaughter and daughter of witches. And she is a half-breed. But the last thing Salia ever wanted was to be a witch.
There is a portrait in the house at the bottom of Witch Hill. Salia looks out of the picture with haunted eyes. She is pale because her mother pinches her arm, but it is Salia's Native-American grandmother who dominates the picture. She is 110 years old but appears to be a teenager, holding out in her hand an ordinary-looking rock, a rare shape-shifting stone, allowing her to bathe like in the fountain of youth. All lust after the magical rock for different reasons – to be beautiful or thin, powerful, or to live forever. Salia just wants the rock to become someone else. She longs to be ordinary like her only friend, Marcelina.
A FEW INTERESTING FACTS - Did you know that?
>>>About 80% of the magic in The Land of Enchantment series is practiced by Southwest witches.
>>>Witches in the Southwest flash into fireballs and soar across the sky, as recorded by witnesses in witch trials.
>>>La Llorona is a legendary witch called "the weeping ghost", who is known throughout the Americas by tens of millions. She has been seen by many as she haunts the rivers, lakes and drainage ditches.
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Genre - Fantasy
Rating – PG-13
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