Thelma Lumpkin is one of PKA’s Advocate’s finest writers. Please read her story in its entirety and see what I mean.
BY THELMA LUMPKIN
Motionless on the highest peak of the red hills, a figure spills its shadow down the mountainside to the valley below where lizards and pig-like javelinas scramble for a place in its shade. His mane flies in the updraft, and his tail lashes the air. Nose skyward, nostrils spread, he tastes the wind for uncommon scents, and in the glittering afternoon sun, his white coat is as white-hot as the sky.
Abandoned as a foal by the last of the would-be farmers who judged that he was not worth the feed it would take to build muscle and bone, he was left in one of the rusty valleys to survive– or not– the meanness of the elements that had driven the farmers away. The one who abandoned him suspected what he was when his white hooves appeared from the birth canal, and as his head followed, the pink skin and glassy blue eyes gave him away entirely, and he was pronounced useless.
The farmers believed that an albino was a liability prone to ailments and diseases, and the breed– if that's what it was– never filled out enough to be worked. The white hooves would be soft and weak, prone to abscesses, the blue eyes– small, rimmed with white and encircled by brown-spattered pink skin– meant poor sight, and the white, surprisingly long curly eyelashes were not beautiful, they were ghostly.
Worst of all, the albino was believed to be a carrier of bad luck, and when the elements let loose their arid wind and searing sun on the farmers, turning the red clay they had wheedled into soil back into red clay, the farmers knew that the albino was to blame. He was what turned their pockets inside out, exhausted their souls, and broke their spirits, and they left the red hills and valleys, cursing the white foal they left behind.
The foal lay panting where they left him, no more than a white mark on the red dust, too newborn weak to fight, too strong to surrender, and so it seemed that the elements adopted him. The sun burned away the birth fluids, and the wind brushed his coat silky and clean then blew him onto his feet and toppled a barrel cactus for him.
Driven by instincts he knew nothing of, he nibbled the soft inner belly of the split cactus, then sucked its milky pulp and made it his mare.
Once his legs turned straight and firm, he ran the valleys where they had left him, looking for something, not knowing what, until the sun and wind rattling through the empty canyons told him that the three of them was all there was, and when hunger drove him beyond barrel cactus, he found fruits and flowers smelling sweet enough to taste and then to eat, needing only a slashing blow of a hoof to cut them neatly away from their cactus spikes.
Against all odds, he flourished, grew full and powerful having learned the natural order of things, accepted the harshness of it, and made a place for himself among the elements that had saved him then put him to the test and dared him to survive. When cactus fruit was not enough and hunger became desperation, gusts of wind pushed him up the sheer sides of the red hills to find forage at the top, sent him clambering down again to drink from the barrel cactus, made him fight for every breath against perpetual gales that howled down the valleys and whipped him with stinging whorls of sand. But it was something more than survival that gave him the right of reign over the hostile hills.
Miguel Hacinas lives in a village that has no name in a crater-shaped place that some say was formed by a meteor that smashed down among the hills, disintegrating into pulverized earth ten miles wide and stopping the progress of time for any who chose to live there. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the village became a magnet for vagrants, thieves, gamblers, and criminals of every type seeking anonymity and a place to practice their art– since what they were was all they knew– among indigenous basket weavers and rug makers.
Miguel was a child of vagrants who came to the village, stayed for a short time, then disappeared, leaving the child behind with only his name to keep him company. Eventually, Miguel learned an art of his own, the art of begging.
Although he is a grown man now, he is small and spindly and his left toe scrapes the ground as he walks. Because of this, his sandals wear unevenly– a moot point since they are not a match anyway– the left having a shredded toe, the right, other than being a different color, showing traces of red desert clay but otherwise intact. He has black eyes and black hair as long as a girl's. His nose is flat and too broad for his small face, and his cheeks are oddly rosy, since his skin– compatible with his eyes and hair– is dark. But his hands are a puzzlement. They are white.
When Miguel walks the streets to beg for money or anything else that's offered, sometimes a tomato from a young lady's grocery bag, sometimes a shared sandwich, he keeps his hands in his pockets, depending on his black eyes to make an entreaty for alms to be tucked in his shirt. And if that's not enough, he asks in his crackly voice, "Something? Something?"
As he had first practiced his art with an outstretched hand, he saw that people grimaced and turned away. He tried wearing gloves, but saw that the grimaces turned into suspicions probably of some communicable disease hidden under the gloves, or if not that, it might be that people chose to avoid a small peculiar person wearing gloves in the heat of the day. Whatever the case, once Miguel kept his hands in his pockets, the practice of his art improved, even though his rank as outcast of the village did not.
There has been no rain in the crater village for months. Plants and people alike seem to be shriveling up. In the marketplace, anything that is moist or juicy is sold out early in the morning and nothing more comes in for days. Today, Miguel is too parched to walk the streets. He decides that it's time to search for relief even if it's only temporary. He needs to find a source of water somewhere else.
Slipping a jackknife into his pocket, he reaches for a long stick to be his cane, and lifting the length of woven grass that covers the doorway of his one-room wooden hut, begins his walk to the edge of the crater which is a crater only when viewed from the air where its round shape puts some truth to the story about the meteor.
The hills outside the crater village are steep and high, a daunting climb to any man but especially to a small spindly person with a lazy leg. But Miguel's cane has a sharp point that can not only bite into the hard clay to help the weaker leg but it can also become a spear to spike snakes and small animals whose flavor can be tolerated if roasted over a fire long enough. The javelina is Miguel's favorite, but that animal is quick and clever, and most often when Miguel hunts, he settles for a squirrel or an iguana.
He reaches the first of the hills in forty minutes, a fact of no importance to Miguel since he has no watch and time to him is where the sun is in the sky or how many people are left still buying their lunch at the food stalls in the marketplace. His cane is not a spear right now. He will hunt on his way back to the crater village so that the sun has not enough time to spoil his kill.
Although Miguel with his small frame and smooth tan skin seems boyish, he is middle-aged, but he has no idea of his age in years. The concept of weeks, months, and years is of no concern to him. For as long as he can remember, he has lived in the crater village, letting the light of day and dark of night determine where he will go and what he will do. From his earliest recollections– whenever he chooses to think about them– he has no memories of parents or any connection to others. All he knows is what he does and that he has done it for a long time in an unwelcoming place that, even so, he does not question is his home.
Occasionally, Miguel's name will be mentioned by the basket makers as they work together in groups, or by the weavers who pause at their looms to rest their fingers, and it's always with a shake of the head and a scowl. Why doesn't he work at the stands in the marketplace selling something, they say, or come here and work with us… do some honest work instead of asking us to support him? And then they remember his hands.
Who would want to take food or work next to someone with hands that don't match the rest of him? Those pasty bleached hands would make anybody shudder.
When Miguel first appeared in the village, there were rumors that he was hexed because of his white hands and that his parents never wanted him and that he had crawled through the valleys until he found his way to the crater village and that he stayed there because no one ran him off. That last thought is followed by mumbles of regret that they hadn't run him off. The longer Miguel stayed in the village, the less the villagers grumbled about him until finally the passage of time diluted their resentment, and like flora and fauna, he became melded– if not accepted– into the village scenery.
He's climbing the first of the hills now, placing his sandaled feet carefully on jutting rocks and in shallow crevices and pulling himself upwards by digging his fingers into whatever "give" he can find in the wall-like rock. As he climbs, loosened rocks and shale tumble past him, leaving puffs of red dust that settle on his hair and shoulders and color his hands and feet. It's a slow climb that tears his fingernails and starts him coughing from the red dust that fills the air around him. He has no choice but to breathe it in and try to cough it out. The wind takes the human sound, swirls it away, sweeps it above the hill, across the next valley, up the sheer rock walls of a parallel hill, and releases it there.
The grasses that grow on the hilltop are tough and sparse, but the albino has no trouble cutting through them. Because the grass is prickly, he rolls the blades together with his lips many times, flattening the rough edges and softening the toughness with his viscous saliva, then cuts the blades in a swift sideways jerk, sending them back to the grinding teeth as he goes on to gather the next bunch.
This grass does not give up its nourishment– skimpy as it is– easily. Its battle with drought and wind and the searing sun have made it hostile to foragers who would make short work of its long struggle to mature and scatter seed. But the albino, ruthlessly persistent in his hunger, knows how to graze on unfriendly growth, and as he gathers and chews, he leaves enough of the plant to grow back and make another meal.
His browsing is suddenly interrupted. He lifts his head high, grass blades trailing from the sides of his mouth, eyes open wide, ears sharply held, glaring across the valley for the source of the foreign sound that came on the wind. He hears it again and knows that it is not an animal sound or the sound of dislodged rocks growling their way down the hillside. It is a sound he has never heard.
Pale scatterings of dust begin to rise on the other side of the valley, and in the next moment, the albino sees– even with his fragile sight– movement at the top of the hill. The movement translates to a figure, and the figure grows larger until it stands tall at the peak… bold, immobile, confrontational. The albino spreads his nostrils and breathes deeply to catch a scent, but the wind has diluted it, and the taste of the air, although unfamiliar, tells him nothing.
The figure is moving. It has come toward the edge of the hill, and now it is sliding down the steep slope toward the valley at the foot of the hill where the albino stands. He jerks his head up and snorts loud and long, then picks up a front foot and sends it crashing down again in a fierce declaration of engagement. This is his domain and something has intruded.
The vision on the mountain top across the valley from him startles Miguel. Did he really see what he saw? What is a horse doing here in the desert? Where did he come from? Does someone own him? Is there a herd somewhere? Does anyone else know about the horse?
His slide down the mountain starts slowly. Upright, on his feet, he lets his sandals take the scraping, but increasing momentum overwhelms his balance, throwing him into a sitting position, and in that painful way he slides over rocks and stubble all the way to the bottom of the hill and into the valley.
Sprawled in the grit and dust at the foot of the hill, Miguel's eyes flick to where the horse was a few moments ago. The hilltop is bare. Nothing there at all. He blinks and rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands and looks again. Nothing. Has the heat of the sun fried his brain, given him hallucinations, created a mirage? No. He saw what he saw: a horse, alive and real, standing on the hill facing him. A white horse, huge and powerful.
How could a horse just disappear?
He pulls himself to his feet and begins to slap at his trousers and shirt to rid them of the red dust. It starts him coughing again so continuously that he does not hear the rhythmic three-beat drumming or the accompanying explosive bursts of breath or feel the ground shaking under his feet or see the huge dark shadow rising high above his head until finally the screaming whinny comes.
Almost too late he swirls around to see the horse's pink belly stretching high over his head. The albino is standing on his hind legs, with his front hooves slashing the air above Miguel's head. Miguel shouts, not words but an animal-like roar, at the same time running backwards and off to the side. With a thump, the albino lands on all fours, his eyes never leaving Miguel.
In all the years the albino has lived among the valley and hills, no person has come into his domain, nor was he able as a newborn to recognize as people those who had abandoned him, much less to relate them to this. Since the farmers fled, his reign here has been uncontested and until now his primacy has been secure.
They face each other. Miguel, in spite of the fearful encounter, studies the albino's heavy chest and fine head with admiration. The albino, snorting with lowered head, studies a new enemy. Slowly, Miguel extends his hand, palm up, toward the albino and takes a small step toward him. For a few seconds, the albino holds his ground, lowering his head even more and tucking in his chin to watch Miguel with both eyes, then without preamble, in an explosive leap the albino twists in mid-air and lands at a gallop, disappearing into the rippling heat waves.
Miguel whispers, "Madre Dio! Un aparecido!"
There's nothing more to do now except head back to the village, hunting as he goes for any kind of edible creature for his next meal. But first he cuts into a barrel cactus, squeezes its water into a leather sack, drinks, squeezes more to fill the sack again, then turns to retrace his footsteps. Why does the walk home always seem shorter than the walk out, Miguel says to himself. But that thought is soon replaced by many more, all about the white horse.
The white horse is strong for sure, but wild. He could tame him, maybe, but first he'd have to catch him. But if he could catch him, and if he could tame, him, what wonderful things he could do… if he had that horse.
He would never beg again. He would have property if he had a horse. He would be the man with the horse, not the beggar with the white hands. He would hitch the horse to a cart, and charge money to anyone who wanted to use his horse and cart. He'd be rich. He'd build a real house for himself. He'd be very kind to anyone in trouble. But how to catch a wild horse, a horse that can disappear into the heat of the desert air? How to catch un aparecido?
The albino gallops to the top of his hill again to watch the figure climb away. Invisible among a stand of Joshua trees, he stares until the figure is halfway up the side of the hill, then losing interest, he noses among the Joshua flowers. They're not his favorite food. Their foul odor makes his nose turn inside out showing neatly aligned front incisors, still white and baby-short. He prefers the fruit of the Joshua, but that won't come for another month, and so he nibbles on the acrid flowers.
From there he wanders to another cactus, low growing with flat oval leaves and purpley-red fruit. Eating this will stain his pink skin and white coat with bloody colored juice, but that doesn't matter to him. What does matter is the challenge of trying to eat the fruit in spite of the short thorns on its skin. He dips his nose carefully toward the fruit, letting the hairs on his muzzle guide him around the prickly spikes. Once he finds a clear space in the skin, he begins to roll his lips over it as though smoothing hair, which in a way is what he's doing to the thorns. After many passes over the skin, he pulls the fruit into his mouth, snips it from the cactus, and chews. The red juice sloshes in his mouth and leaves its mark on his chest and neck. Two or three more, and he's had enough for awhile.
Behind him, there are rocks jutting up from the top of the hill. They are too steep to climb and too ragged at the top to support anything four-legged, but there is a large cleft at the base that offers respite when the sun is directly overhead or sliding down the westerly sky as it is now. Having satisfied hunger and thirst at the same time with the leafy flowers and watery prickly pear, the albino fits himself into the shade of the cleft, leaning on the inside wall. He drops his head, and lets his eyelids close over the blue of his eyes.
Safe and supported, the albino sleeps. Does he dream dream? And if he does, what does he dream? Does he dream of things he has never seen? Grassy fields stretching to the horizon, soft turf under his hooves, flying through meadows that never come to an end, running with a herd because he is one of them?
Does he crave to be with his dam, the dam he never saw before he was pulled away from her and left alone to survive– or not? Does he wonder if there's anything beyond these red clay mountains? Does he crave to trot away and see for himself? Does he know that he was abandoned? If he does, does he wonder why?
Or does he sleep the sleep of natural regeneration, the enforced necessity of the body to refresh itself, prepare for the coming hours when the stored energy of sleep will be spent away? Does he give in to it willingly, or does he fight until he loses?
Around his hooves, horned lizards have burrowed into the red dust, leaving only their heads exposed, ready to snatch ants, beetles or any lowly passerby careless enough to forget its place in the food chain. A striped king snake slides down one of the Joshua trees, his glare eye clamped on a kangaroo rat burrowing into the sand to escape the midday heat. The albino's lips twitch and his long white eyelashes flutter as he sleeps.
Pitiful reward for a hunt, an iguana skewered on a stick hangs over a pit filled with glowing chunks of dried cactus that sizzle every now and then as iguana juice– if there is such a thing– drips down on them. Miguel sits by the fire braiding the tough leaves of the desert spoon into a long rope. Hard enough to handle when they're wet, the dry leaves are impossible to work with even freshly cut from the plant. The leaves Miguel is weaving have been soaking overnight softening up for basket makers to buy– those who do not choose to hunt for them outside the village. But these leaves, once Miguel finishes braiding them into a rope, are intended for a more artful purpose than basketry.
Every now and then, Miguel glances at his roasting iguana, occasionally turning the stick to burn off the spines along its back. Each time he does this, he mutters to himself about the indignity of eating iguana, having tried and failed to spear a javelina, which is what he really wanted, or even a squirrel. Quick as the iguana was, running for its life toward its burrow, Miguel with his pointed stick was quicker, so why, he asks himself, if he was that quick, why couldn't he outrun the javelina?
And if he had outrun the javelina and had speared him right behind his ears so that he would bleed out on the way home, he could have been a hero. In sight of the village, he could have slung the dead animal across his shoulders and strode past Ziantha's house whistling to make sure she saw him with the javelina. Then she would know what a good hunter he was, and she would stop covering her eyes every time she saw him. Well, at least she didn't see him bringing home the lizard, which, as he turns to look at it now, has caught fire and is splitting out of its armored skin.
He drops the rope he's braiding and snatches the stick with the flaming iguana away from the fire pit and rolls it on the ground until the flames are out. Now his dinner is covered in red dirt, but at least the skin and spines have burned away. He brushes off most of the dirt that covers the lizard, snaps away the brittle tail and the head with the burned eyes forever locked inward, and washes away the last of the sand with a little of his precious cactus water.
What's left is grudgingly edible, and as he gnaws on the tough remains, a movement in the doorway of the house some 200 feet away– Ziantha's house– makes him freeze with the iguana half in and half out of his mouth. Ziantha is in the doorway, one hand high on the door frame, the other resting on her hip. When Miguel looks up, she straightens and drops her arms, then covers her eyes and disappears into the house.
Miguel's appetite is gone. He throws the rest of the iguana into the fire pit and snatches up the unfinished rope of spoon leaves. He will finish this rope, and he will tie it around the neck of el aparecido tomorrow. Then let her try to cover her eyes when he rides into the village like a king. And if she smiles at him, he will glare at her and then he will cover his eyes. But what if she takes offense at that? What if she becomes angry and won't ever look at him again? He will have to think about this some more, he decides, as he braids the last few feet of rope.
Awake from a pre-dawn nap, the albino yawns and stretches like a cat, his front legs out straight, his rump high and round outlined against the walls of the rock cleft where he slept through the night. He shakes first his head then his body, spraying red dust in a wide aura, snorting as it settles in his nostrils. At a trot, he weaves his way through the Joshua trees to the edge of the hill as the sun begins to define the horizon line. Wide eyed and alert, his gaze sweeps across the western valley, past the northern peaks of the parallel hills and to the valley on the eastern side.
In the distance a dark spot is moving, but true to the lore of the albino, his blue eyes cannot make it out. Turning to the north again, he trots to a path that leads down the northern slope of the mountain. Whether for hunger or sport, he breaks into a run and half gallops, half slides all the way down, scattering dirt and stones that roll along with him, landing in a field of yellow desert flowers. He shakes again, then lowers his head and in sideways swipes nips off mouthfuls of the blooms. After a few mouthfuls, he buries his head in the foliage to graze there. He does not see or hear the approach of what was a dark spot in the distance.
The long woven rope is looped over Miguel's shoulder, and his pockets are full of hard chunks of bread soaked with fermented sugary sap from the tough stems of the desert spoon. The villagers call it sotol, and Miguel hopes it will calm the albino enough for him to be captured and held with the woven rope. He knows first hand that sotol works with the villagers when they spend the night drinking it, and if it works half as well with the albino he'll find himself in a new place tonight.
Don't rush, Miguel tells himself. Don't take any chances. You have all day to do it right. Let him think he is of no concern to you. You're just passing by. But the thought of actually capturing the albino and riding him back to the village has him breaking out in a sweat of excitement. Forcing himself to stand quietly, he watches the albino grazing alternately on the yellow flowers and then on the foliage, and when the albino raises his head momentarily to assess his surroundings he is such a regal picture outlined against the red hills, his legs buried in yellow flowers, that Miguel's eyes fill up and spill over.
Wait, some secret part of himself says. Think about this. Think about what you're doing. You're going to take a beautiful wild thing that belongs to no one but himself and turn him into a prisoner who will work until he dies in harness. Who says you can do that? Who gives you the right to do that?
He argues with himself.
But he'll be taken care of. I'll take good care of him. Out here, anything could happen to him. Wild animals could attack him. He could fall off the mountain and break a leg. He could eat the thorn-apple and die a horrible death with no one to purge his stomach. With me, he'll be safe. I'll feed him good things. I won't work him too much. He'll live in my hut with me…
In the next moment, his eyes soften and lose focus as his thoughts turn in a different direction. Ziantha, he says to himself, and he can see her at the back of his eyes. She'll have to look at him when he brings the white horse home. Ziantha will look at him and see that he is not just a beggar. She will see the real Miguel, the man who can hunt and plan and accomplish what seems impossible. She will see that he is somebody to be… he hesitates, reluctant to allow himself to think that next word and instead whispers almost soundlessly, "Somebody to be… appreciated."
Now he can take the white horse. Now he has incentive. No, now he is driven to do what he came to do. He's doing it for her. He will share the white horse with her.
They will ride it together. The whole village will come out to watch Miguel and the beautiful Ziantha ride the white horse. He sees himself on the white horse with Ziantha, and his eyes fill again. With the back of his arm he dries his wet face and clears his eyes then makes a loop at the end of his woven rope, takes a head scarf filled with bread soaked with the sweet syrup, and crouching low, moves toward the grazing horse.
For all the time the albino has lived among the hills and valleys, no one has disturbed the sanctity of his domain, and he strolls and grazes at a leisurely pace through the field, unaware and unwatchful.
Close enough for the next step in his plan, Miguel, now in the field just fifty feet from the albino, squats among the flowers, hardly breathing, eyes fixed on the albino.
The albino lifts his head, chewing on foliage that dangles from his mouth. A sudden movement catches his eye and instantly he thrusts his head up high and clenches his body ready for flight. An intruder is rising, it seems, from the ground. Miguel stands motionless, unwavering, staring directly into the albino's wild blue eyes. The albino ducks his head once, twice, three times, keeping his eyes on the intruder, snorting and blowing heavily, making a sound oddly like an elephant trumpeting.
You don't frighten me, Miguel says to himself. I know your tricks. You think you can scare me away by looking so tall and making all that noise. It won't work. I'm staying right here because I've got something for you. Something you're going to like.
He bends slowly, never breaking from the wide-eyed stare of the albino. That's good, Miguel is thinking. He's paying attention. He's interested. That's good. Miguel empties the scarf, placing the bread on the ground under the flowers. He'll come. He wants to know what's here. He'll smell the sweet sotol. He'll come. Miguel turns away and without looking back walks out of the field and disappears behind a large pile of fallen rocks. Through a crack in the middle of the pile, he will watch and wait for el aparecido to eat his way into captivity.
Her toes are kicking up dust as she scuffs her bare feet along the dry footpath that leads to the marketplace.
"You can't keep going barefoot, Ziantha!" her brother tells her, "There are vicious insects and snakes all around here. What if you get bitten? What will I do with you then? For some bites there is no cure. What will I do with you then?"
Brothers! What do they know? Does he think I am so dumb that I don't know a rattlesnake or a scorpion when I see one? Does he think I walk around with my head in the clouds, paying no attention to anything?
She blows her answer to that through pursed lips and kicks up more dust. She's not a child. She doesn't need a big brother to keep telling her what she very well knows. It's because I care about you, he tells her. Well, if he cares about her why can't he see that she can very well take care of herself?
No, he'd never figure that out. He's too busy with his friends, sitting around in the heat of the day drinking sotol, laughing and talking about nothing, about silly things; how a lizard bit him and he picked it up and bit it back; how he caught a javelina with his bare hands and wrestled him till he squealed for mercy; or the time he scaled the rockiest hill and stood on the top and saw a ghost with four legs looking at him from the next hill; about how he chased after the ghost and it disappeared into heat waves. Imagine that!
Who's the one with the head in the clouds? Who's the one who needs looking after?
Still scuffing her bare toes in the dust, Ziantha is on her way to the marketplace, swinging a straw basket that holds four sculptures which she hopes to sell there. She made them of red clay dirt mixed with goat's milk and dried in the sun until they were hard as the stone hills. There's a goat, a very fat woman with a bird on her shoulder, two children sitting on a bench, and the newest one which is difficult to name since all she had to guide her was her brother's description of the white ghost.
Her expectations about selling any of them are not very high. Three have gone to the marketplace many times and although there are compliments on her work, there are no sales. Today, she has high hopes for at least the white ghost, or rather the red clay horse which she calls the white ghost. Looking at it now, she smiles at the flying mane and arched tail, and the beautiful blue eyes which she made from papaya seeds and painted with larkspur. Her brother laughed when he saw the blue eyes and said that ghosts don't have blue eyes, and Ziantha turned away to hide her smile. That was what she wanted to hear. Now she knew that blue eyes were exactly right.
The marketplace is not very busy, but it's still early for the afternoon shoppers. Most of the villagers come early before the heat sets in or wait until well past noon when the hills block the sun and shade the aisles that wind through the stands.
Ziantha has a special place at the far front corner of the canopy. Her table is already there, probably set up by Vashtoh who will probably ask to walk her home after the market closes. How many times does she have to tell him no before he finally stops asking? He's as bad as that Miguel always wanting to catch her eye, walk somewhere with her… Vashtoh the giant, and Miguel the puny one. Ziantha giggles. What a pair.
They should walk somewhere with each other and stop bothering her.
She sets the sculptures on the table, the woman with the bird in the center– she is the tallest– the goat on one side, and the two children on the other. She holds the horse in her hand for a while. She's not sure where to put him. Perhaps he should be in front of the three. Perhaps alongside but separated from them. Perhaps… she thinks for a while as she looks at the sculpture… perhaps she won't put him out at all. Perhaps he will go back into her straw basket and she will keep him by her cot so that she can see him before she sleeps and when she wakes. He is so beautiful, she says to herself. She wonders if her brother really saw him on the hilltop, if there really is a horse with blue eyes.
The albino watches every move as the small figure bends and stands, once, twice, then faces him with a hard-eyed, unblinking gaze. Head lowered, ears sharply forward, muscles taut ready to run, the albino returns the gaze until the figure turns and walks away, disappearing, it seems into the rocks. Head raised now, the albino catches a scent on the air, spreads his nostrils and tastes the acrid odor of the figure, and something else, a faint sweetness. It's there, in front of him, not too far off, and tentatively he steps toward it.
When his cautious steps bring him to a place where the scent is strongest, he dips his nose into the foliage and touches a chunk of something soft. It's spongy and wet with a sweetness that clings to his muzzle and fills his nostrils. He lips it, rolls it back and forth, presses his nose on it a few times, and finally rolls it into his mouth and chews. It disintegrates quickly, hardly needing the heavy-duty grinding of the back molars. He swallows and reaches for another chunk of the sotol-soaked bread, and when that disappears in his mouth as quickly as the first he gathers up all that's left and in seconds many chunks of the numbing syrup are on the way to his stomach.
Behind the rocks with his face pressed against the crack, Miguel smiles as he watches the albino swallow the bread chunks. Got him! Miguel says to himself. Now all he has to do is wait until the horse's head droops and his ears flop, then he'll use his woven rope. He checks the loop, making sure that it will slide into a noose easily, and pulls at it to test its strength. Everything seems good.
He presses his face against the crack in the rocks again and looks for the albino. There he is, grazing on the yellow flowers. But he should be almost dozing by now. Maybe he didn't eat enough of the sotol-soaked bread. Maybe sotol doesn't work with a horse. No. It's got to be. The sotol will work. Just give it time. He's a big animal. Bigger than that stupid Vashtoh who falls asleep over his first drink! The horse needs more time to feel sleepy. Be patient, he tells himself. Just wait and be patient. The white horse will soon…
"Ah!" Miguel suddenly hisses from a throat tightened to quiet the sound. There! There he goes! The sotol is working! It's working!
The albino has stopped grazing and stands immobile with his head and neck straight out from his body, his jaws unmoving, not even his tail working to whisk away the insects buzzing around him.
Miguel tells himself that now he must be careful. Sotol does not affect the eyes.
The albino will see him when he comes out from behind the rocks. He'd better wait a little longer. Wait until his head goes down. Better to wait and be sure.
Vashtoh seems to be picking through the fruits and vegetables piled on a table at the back of the tent, except that he glances regularly from the side of his eye toward another table at the opposite end of the marketplace where Ziantha sits with her sculptures. Finally, in an exaggeratedly casual stroll, he closes the distance between them and appears at her table. Fingering the sculptures, he clears his throat.
"Sold nothing yet, eh Ziantha?" he says.
She shrugs and looks away.
"How about if I buy one. How much they cost?"
"You're not going to buy anything, Vashtoh. Go away."
"How you know I buy nothing? Maybe I get big inheritance or something. Maybe I got plenty money now. What you think?"
Ziantha makes backhanded brushing-away motions at Vashtoh and takes the blue eyed horse out of her basket, concentrating her attention on it.
"Hey! What you got there? That's pretty good horse! You make him?"
"Yes, I made him."
"Let me see."
Vashtoh reaches out expecting Ziantha to put the horse in his hand. Instead, she holds the horse close to her, looking angrily at Vashtoh.
"Go away, Vashtoh! You're taking up space meant for real customers! Just go away!"
Bending closer to look at the horse, Vashtoh suddenly bursts out laughing. "What kind of horse is this? Blue eyes? Blue eyes?" His laughter bursts out again. "Never was such a thing! Blue eyes!" More laughter.
"Be quiet, Vashtoh! What do you know about horses? You never in your life even saw a real horse!"
"What do you know of my life, Ziantha? Hah? What do you know of anybody's life? You're just a kid!"
From two tables away, Helios, manager of the marketplace, hears Vashtoh's loud conversation and sees Ziantha's angry face. He strides to Ziantha's table and stares, hard-eyed, at Vashtoh. "What's going on, Vashtoh?"
Spreading his hands and turning penitent, Vashtoh says in a drawl, "Nothing, boss, noth-ing. Just talking with the people, you know, making..." He snaps his fingers, looking puzzled "…what is that? Making? Ah! Making chat. You know what is chat, right?"
With the same backhanded brushing-away motion as Ziantha's, Helios steps closer to Vashtoh, forcing him to step back. "Do what the lady says, Vashtoh. Go away. There's plenty of other things to see here today. Go look somewhere else."
Backing away, Vashtoh grumbles, "Everybody pushes. Everybody says go away. Is free marketplace or no? I look at sculptures here. Maybe I was buying, but not now. No more. I just go away." He looks pointedly at Ziantha. "You lose, you know, Ziantha, you lose."
"Okay," says Helios, "Okay, Vashtoh. Nobody's losing anything. Just go somewhere else, okay?"
As he leaves, Vashtoh throws one last curve. "Hey, Helios, you ever see horse with blue eyes?"
He leaves with a roar of laughter, pointing at the horse Ziantha holds against her chest. Before Helios can look more closely at the horse, however, Ziantha quickly puts it back in her basket.
"That troublemaker!" Helios says to Ziantha, shaking his head and scowling. "Never gives up. He's more trouble than the rest of his buddies all put together, them and their floating crap games. Go on all night, then they sleep all day when they ought to be out making an honest dollar." He bends over Ziantha's table and in a low voice says to her, "I know he bothers you a lot, Ziantha. You just let me know if he gets too far out of line, and I'll get after him real good!"
Straightening again, he points to the basket with a smile. "So you got a horse in there, a horse with blue eyes?"
Ziantha nods, but she doesn't want to bring out the sculpture for Helios' amusement. Her beautiful horse is not a subject for laughter. "He's really not for sale. I just brought him for the display."
Helios smiles and nods, walking back toward his booth, talking over his shoulder as he goes. "Nothing wrong with that, the blue eyes, I mean. Seen lots of horses with all kinds of strange marks. I can believe the blue eyes."
Stopping and turning back, he adds, "You just let me know about Vashtoh. Let me know if he bothers you again, okay?"
"Okay," Ziantha calls. "Thanks, Helios. I appreciate it."
In a back corner of the marketplace, Vashtoh has heard it all, and smirking he shoves his hands in his pockets as he strolls toward the fruits and vegetables stands again.
Some smart talk from that big shot Helios, he says to himself, but smart talk is just talk.
His large hand closes around a pomegranate which in his grasp becomes the size of a plum. He holds it up and asks the man behind the stand for the price while his eyes wander over his shoulder to Ziantha sitting at her table. His eyebrows mesh together. His eyes narrow to slits. He stares at Ziantha's back, nodding slowly and smiling.
The waiting seems interminable. Miguel's knees start to cramp from bending over with his eyes at the crack in the rocks, watching for signs of sleepiness in the albino. But the albino grazes and rests, grazes and rests, and every time he rests, Miguel is sure the head will go down, and he will be groggy enough for the rope, but it's not happening.
Finally, unable to tolerate the cramps in his knees any longer, he straightens and shakes his legs one at a time, and while he's distracted, the albino's head sinks beyond half-mast.
By the time Miguel's eyes are pressed against the crack again, the albino's nose is deep among the flowers.
"Ai!" Miguel says in a frustrated whisper. How long will the albino stay half drugged? If he were Vashtoh, it would be all day, the stupid drunkard! But a horse, who knows? Got to act now. Got to do it fast, but got to be quiet. Can't let him run away. If I frighten him, he might never let me have a second chance.
He plays out the long woven rope, coiling it on the ground in a wide enough circle to fit over his shoulder. He holds the noose end in his free hand, and when all the rest of the rope is played out, he slides the coil over his shoulder and takes a last look through the crack. The albino hasn't moved. Good. He steps out softly from behind the rocks and walks toward the albino, crouching so that he might be seen as just another desert creature.
The albino sees him. Miguel's sure of it. The horse hasn't moved his head, but Miguel can see that his eye is on him, that blue eye shaded by those white lashes… the eye of a ghost. That's what he is, Miguel whispers to himself.
Careful now. He's just twenty feet away. Slowly now. Stay down. Don't let him see a two-legged beast. Got to look like something that lives here just like him.
Fifteen feet. He's not looking this way anymore. Maybe he'll go down. But if he does, what then? Can't pull him up. Can't get on his back if he's on the ground.
Eight feet. Maybe this was a bad idea. What made him think he could do this?
Suddenly, there's a sound in the distance, faint, then instantly louder. The albino's head jerks up. Miguel forgets his crouch and straightens, apprehensive, then he sees it.
Falling rocks. That's what it is. An avalanche of huge boulders is crashing down a nearby mountainside, the sound growing louder as it triggers other rock slides. Thunderous echoes crisscross the hills. Thick dust explodes from the path of the avalanche. The mountain is submerged in great billows of red.
Miguel watches it, open-mouthed for what seems hours but actually is only a few seconds until the explosions stop and the dust begins to settle. He shakes his head to clear his mind, at the same time remembering his goal, twisting his head around in every direction to find the albino again. The field of flowers is empty. The albino is gone.
"Madre Dio," Miguel mutters. "He disappears."
This time, the way home seems longer than the way out. Dragging his now useless woven rope, Miguel climbs back over the mountain and heads for the village. He kicks rocks and small lizards out of his path. This is not over, he tells himself. Just a little bad luck. Bad timing– not his, the mountain's. It was the mountain that had bad timing.
Why just at that moment a rock slide? He had it all figured out. He made the rope himself to be sure it was strong enough. He planned the time of day when the horse would be looking for a place to graze. He had guessed right that he would be in that field of flowers. Then the mountain ruined his plan. He didn't deserve that. He deserved to catch that horse today. An eerie thought comes into his head.
Suppose the mountains are protecting the albino? Suppose the albino is some magical thing that appears and disappears and nothing can touch him? Suppose if something tries to harm him, the mountains will get their revenge? And if all that is true, what will the mountains' revenge be?
The marketplace is closing, and Ziantha collects her sculptures, ready to walk home. There are still four sculptures. She puts the three that were on the table into the basket with the blue-eyed horse. In a way, she's glad she didn't sell any of them, especially not the horse. She's almost convinced that she won't sell him at all. Once she finishes a sculpture, it's hard not to feel attached to it, like family or something. She remembers what she was thinking as she worked on each one, how the sculpture seemed to become her thoughts made real.
She never wanted to sell any of them. It was her brother who told her to sell them.
"Bring some money into this house," he had told her.
She knew why he wanted money, to buy sotol for his friends so they could drink while they played cards. Well all right, she would sell them, or at least try to sell them. It wasn't her fault that no one wanted to buy them.
"Cute," Melinar had said when she picked up the sculpture of the children. She didn't know they were portraits of the Kingos children grieving after they found their mother's dead body all swollen up from a snake bite. And the sculpture of her own mother– dead and gone now– with the wild crow she had tamed. Teehaas had laughed at it. Worse yet, he had called it a fat lady with an ugly bird, and then he said, "Why don't you make something pretty?" He's lucky she didn't hit him.
With the sculptures packed away in her basket, Ziantha pulls off the bright scarf she had spread on her table to show off her work and begins to fold it.
Her brother is not going to be happy when she tells him that she didn't sell anything. She doesn't care. He's always unhappy about something anyway, and she'll go back to the market tomorrow and the next day and the next. Some day she will sell one of them, and then…
She stops folding the scarf and thinks about the actual act of selling her sculpture, handing it over, taking money for it, maybe never seeing it again. It will be in someone else's house. They may not even know who or what the sculpture is. She'll tell them when they buy it, but will they care? Will they remember? Where will… An annoying voice interrupts her gloom.
"Hey, Ziantha, you going home now?"
She doesn't answer. She knows who it is, and she knows what he's going to say, and he says it.
"I walk you home, eh? Don't want nothing bother you while you walk, you know. See how I take care of you, think of you all times?"
Her answer is a hard look with a tight mouth and a scowl, and she brushes by him, holding her basket close with both arms folded over it.
Vashtoh steps in beside her and keeps pace with her, hands jammed in his pockets, head bent down toward her as though listening to something she's saying, but she is saying nothing.
"So, you sell something today, Ziantha?"
"Was good market today. Lots of people. Somebody should want those things you make. Nobody stop to look, Ziantha?"
Ziantha begins to march more quickly, head down, hunched over her basket.
"Hey, Ziantha!" Vashtoh suddenly grips Ziantha's arm, twisting her to face him.
"Who you think I talk to, hah? The tree? The rock? Those stupid things you got in there?" He pokes her basket with a thick, long-nailed forefinger. "Hah?"
Jerking away from the too-close Vashtoh, Ziantha glares at him, her eyes wild and furious. "Get away from me, you ugly beast!" she screams, "I don't need you to walk me home! I don't want you to walk me home! Now get away!"
Vashtoh's face turns a purpley-red, and he squints his eyes into black slits that sink behind thick, shaggy eyebrows. He bares his teeth and raises his arm with a clenched fist high above Ziantha's head. A guttural animal sound loud and long streams out of his mouth, and the fist starts to plunge toward Ziantha's head, but before it is halfway there Vashtoh is suddenly hurled to the ground.
Ziantha backs away and sees the loop of a woven rope over Vashtoh's raised arm.
Vashtoh is on his knees, then back on his feet, snarling and fighting to get loose. At the other end of the rope, Miguel is walking toward Vashtoh, twirling the rope around Vashtoh's body as he walks, wrapping Vashtoh's body in loops of the rope, mummifying him, until Vashtoh falls thrashing and cursing on the ground again.
Witness to the whole episode is Helios, the marketplace manager, who was already on his way to deal with Vashtoh after he heard Ziantha shouting. With Helios are four of the village's officers, all young and eager to wrestle anyone, anywhere. At a signal from Helios, the four officers hoist Vashtoh by the shoulders and feet.
"Okay, Vashtoh," Helios says, "What'll it be? We carry you out all tied up to the middle of the dry lake bed and leave you for the fire ants and the rattlers to enjoy, or you quit bothering Ziantha for the rest of your miserable life? You name it. What'll it be?"
More guttural sounds come from Vashtoh, but nothing intelligible.
"I'm telling you, Vashtoh," Helios says, leaning over him nose to nose, "I'll do it right now! These guys will take you to the lake bed right now if you don't swear to leave Ziantha alone from now on!"
"All right! All right!" Vashtoh finally shouts, spittle spraying out from his beard.
"All right what?" Helios says, giving another signal to the four men holding Vashtoh. The men roll Vashtoh over and over as though he were speed roasting on a spit.
After five fast revolutions, Vashtoh shouts, "I swear! I swear! I'll leave her alone! I swear! I'll leave her alone!"
"Good," Helios says, "Now you can go back to whatever you do when you're not perpetrating criminal acts! "
The four young men set Vashtoh on the ground and stand back.
Vashtoh sputters and wriggles in the ropes.
"Well untie me!" he says, "Get these ropes off me!"
"Hell no," Helios says, "Get out of them yourself! Just make a fist. That'll do it!"
He winks at Ziantha and salutes Miguel, then walks back to the marketplace with the young men.
Miguel doesn't dare look at Ziantha, but neither can he walk away from her. He stands dumbstruck, looking at his frayed sandals. He doesn't want to see Ziantha cover her eyes and walk away, and yet he can't walk away from her.
A voice sounds softly in his ear. He's not sure where it's coming from. It's saying his name, quietly at first, then more loudly, then finally he hears a shout.
His head jerks up, and he looks around to see who has called him in such a commanding voice. Ziantha is still there. She hasn't walked away. She hasn't covered her eyes, and now he hears his name again, and it's Ziantha. She's speaking to him. She's speaking to him!
"Are you listening to me, Miguel?" Ziantha says, "Miguel?"
In a soft voice that he didn't know he had, Miguel says, "Yes, Ziantha. I am listening to you. I am very happy to listen to you."
Ziantha says, "I am sorry that I covered my eyes all this time not to look at you. Now, forget all that. Today you are a hero. Come take my arm. Walk me home. I will let you carry my basket. Will you do that, Miguel?"
Hardly brave enough to answer, Miguel says a barely audible, surprised and happy "Yes" as he takes the basket. Arm in arm, they walk away from the marketplace, Miguel walking firmly with no sign of lameness, head high, smiling. A hero. That's what Ziantha called him. A hero! Life is good.
Their height is evenly matched, and they walk head-to-head, Miguel's white hand resting on the dark sleeve of Ziantha's dress. Never having looked directly at Miguel, Ziantha studies, first, the white hand on her arm. Interesting, she says to herself, and makes no more of it than that. Then with a sidelong glance, she studies Miguel's profile.
Feeling her prolonged stare, Miguel turns to her with a smile, and Ziantha catches her breath. His eyes are dark and deep and beautiful, and they look back at her with… what is that look? It seems to have in it some kind of pleasure or fondness, she decides, and it pleases her. She will sculpt him. Yes. She will definitely make a sculpture of him– white hands and all– looking out at the world just the way he looks at her now.
"Have you ever seen my sculptures?" Ziantha asks.
"No," Miguel says, "I didn't know you made sculptures."
Stopping and taking her basket back from Miguel, Ziantha says, "Here. I'll show you my favorite."
From the basket, slowly and carefully, Ziantha lifts the horse with the blue eyes and holds it up for Miguel to see. If he laughs at the blue eyes, she'll kick him. She will definitely kick him, hero or not.
Miguel stares at the sculpture, then looks from the horse to Ziantha and back again twice, three times
"How did you know?" he says, amazed, "Did you ever see him?"
"El aparecido. The albino with the blue eyes."
Now Ziantha is amazed. "There really is a horse with blue eyes?"
"Yes! Yes!" Miguel says, excited, "I've seen him. I've been close to him. I almost caught him."
Ziantha thinks about that, then turns serious and says, "You must not catch him. That would not be right. Don't try to catch him, Miguel. Leave him where he is. He is where he belongs. Promise me. Promise you won't try to catch him."
"But I wanted to ride him one day. We could ride him together, you and me, Ziantha, if I caught him and tamed him. Why don't you want me to catch him?"
Stopping and pulling Miguel's sleeve to turn him toward her, Ziantha says, "You saw him, where? On the hills, in the valleys over there?" She motions toward the hills, and Miguel nods and says yes. "Then that is his home, Miguel. You cannot take him away from his home. And why would you tame him and keep him prisoner just to amuse yourself? Why would you do that?" She waves away any answer that Miguel might have made. "It's not right, Miguel. I don't want you to do it."
Slowly, she links arms with him again and takes back the horse sculpture, holding it up to him. "Look. Here is your horse with the blue eyes. Be satisfied to look at him now, and let the other be free."
Miguel nods a slow agreement, but Ziantha sees that his face is sad.
"We can go visit him. You can take me to see him, Miguel. Will you do that, take me to see the real horse with the blue eyes?"
Miguel's face lightens. Yes, how happily he will take her to see the horse with the blue eyes. He glances back at the hills, and for a flash of an instant he thinks he sees a pale four-legged creature rearing high in the air, blue eyes locked on him, but then, of course, it disappears.
The sun has lost its struggle with the horizon and is being swallowed down. In the last of the day's light, the albino trots down the hill and stands head into the wind as it rushes down the valley bringing scents from everywhere: musky animal scents, heavy sweet scents of over-ripe cactus fruits and wilting flowers, cool scents from an oasis somewhere, even the arid air of the valleys has its scent. He knows them all. They are his.
Copyright 2012 Thelma Lydia Santoro-Lumpkin