Dear Reader, Woe be unto thee if you are attempting to join us at this stage. You will have a dickens of a time working your way back to the beginning and then coming forward. This will be very much like doing archeology. If you want to just enjoy this section, you probably need to know that this is the history of a village collected and transcribed by a plucky old anthropologist named Henrietta. Henrietta is the “I” in the story. She spent many summers in Solución but only dared to collect her work from those summers into a single volume when she was her dotage. In fact, she did not publish these stories. Her journals and notes were found in the drawer of her long abandoned desk.
While the children were small, and while the little family lived together in their house on the plaza, Sophia’s kitchen must have been a place of delight. Its ever well stoked and kindled stove warmed it. The space within it always smelled of hot bread or tortillas, or green tomato pie, or smoked fish, people told me. Its walls were lined with heavy, deep wooden shelves and on the shelves were jars and jars of canned deer and elk meat, pickled salmon, pears and peaches, guava jellies, and apricot preserves. You see, Sophia traded chilies and beans for fruit and meat with people all over the region. She traded with cousins in the northwest. She traded with uncles in the mountains. She traded with aunties who traveled to Panama. Moreover, in her work as midwife and healer, people often paid her with food. Sophia did not ask for or require or in anyway expect to receive payment for her work. She had become a gifted healer and midwife and did what she did out of love and in gratitude for and honor to her gift. But nevertheless, the people whose babies she saved and children she nursed to health gave her what they could. Some never stopped giving. Some brought her a jar of jam on the anniversary of a birth or a healing. Others brought loads of split firewood or mesquite kindling and left it on her doorstep They called her “sister” or “auntie” or “grandmother,” titles that changed according to the age of the customer and Sophia’s own age. “Here, sister,” a man would say, arriving with a sack of beans, “I’ve brought you a little gift for your help with my arthritis. See how I can bend and stretch?” And he would put the bag down and touch his toes with his fingertips. “Oh, Auntie,” a woman would say as she stepped over the threshold. “Oh, Auntie, here is a fresh bunch of onions from my garden. And look, here is little Sophia already three years old and healthy as a young colt, thanks to you.”
Not all of Sophia’s shelves were stacked with jars. Some of them had books. Sophia had learned her healing craft from her own mother and grandmother and aunties. She knew many “traditional” remedies. But Sophia was a person who enjoyed learning. She studied medicine from many sources and delved into the mysteries and new discoveries of the art when stumped by a symptom or when new epidemics came along. Volumes of reference materials were stacked in bookcases and squeezed tight between jugs of vinegar and sacks of dried corn.
She joined the Eclectic movement, a group of doctors and health practitioners who were interested in all manner of alternative healing methods. She avidly read all the publications and research bulletins that came out of the movement’s headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio. In fact she contributed to the Eclectic movement’s periodic journals when she came up with a new theory or brew.
In truth, her kitchen was not so much a kitchen as a laboratory and in it hung bunches and bunches of drying plants for use in her medicines or poultices. These hung there always seeming to be drying and always ready: scouring-rush for women with menstrual difficulties (although these plants were rarely to be found anywhere in the region and had to be sent from relatives who lived elsewhere), the rhizomes of licorice fern to ease labor, leaves of dock to stop heavy menstrual flow, several species of lupine for headache, heath leaves for the purification of the blood, bellflower and silvergreen for boils, coltsfoot for sore eyes and swelling reduction, and bracket fungus for deodorant. There were also, hanging or stashed in cupboards, dried freshwater eels and strings of dried clams and smoked baby oysters from family on the northwest coast, and large bunches of oregano, fennel, hops and dill.
The wood burning kitchen stove was quite large and next to it sat an enameled hod filled with neatly cut lengths of piñón pine and a trimly stacked pile of pitchy mountain cedar starter twigs torn from fallen limbs. The stove was pulled well away from the wall and behind it and between it and the wall was room for large metal water well so that water could be heated for baths while Sophia cooked. She kept basins of water on top of the stove, too, to humidify the house or bath Epiphany or Hermes when they were still babies. She sometimes had several pots of teas or infusions cooking or steeping at once. Lovely packages arrived by post from China and Japan and India with blocks of black tea or Ayurvedic soaps or roots of ginseng. These were placed in the hot water on the stove and heady infusions were made of them.
Later I learned, through the wife of a clerk in the office, how the postal workers ooohed and aahed at the stamps on these packages, the tidy but indecipherable return addresses, and the smells that filled their workroom whenever one of them arrived. “Look at this, George. Look, will you, at these stamps. Elephants, I tell you. And an old gentleman with a turban and moustache!” “Smell this, James. What can be in here? It makes me dream of naked nymphs and plump thighs.” Sometimes they had to put the packages outside their little workspace until Sophia came to fetch them lest they fall into deep, dream filled trances from the vapors the boxes emitted. They could hardly wait until the end of the day so that they could go home and tell wives and children (if they were lucky enough to have them) about the billows of visions they received from the packets and about the mysterious stamps that had conveyed the packages hence from hard to imagine places.
Oh, Sophia was a student of the healing arts and known by everyone around. And babies there were who knew they owed their little lives and beings to their Aunt Sophia. They came to name their own babies Sophia and that is why there came to be so many Sophias all about in the hills and valleys and beyond far beyond the village. At first they were numbered, as in Sophia 3 and Sophia 4. But soon that system was impossible to maintain. When someone called for Sophia, ten or twelve little girls ran helter skelter across the plaza and the original appeared at her door with a spoon in hand or a pot on her arm wondering what the fuss was about.
Sophia did more than deliver babies of course. She had taken heroic measures to help the people during influenza epidemic of 1899 as we have seen. She was renown among the villagers and the Indian people who lived nearby for her work during the pandemic of 1918. Yes, Sophia was loved by everyone and was loved because she was reliable in her love and selflessly remained engaged in learning about things that might ever be useful to the peoples’ well being.
Here it was, in this house with the kitchen that produced wonders that Hermes lived when he was a baby and young boy. There he was with his mother, Sophia, and his sister and her baby Epiphany. Here it was that Hermes, the boy in a never really growing body, dressed in a walnut dyed suit and eating peas and gruel and ripe peaches and strawberries in season lived. Here he lived and ate and sat looking all about but mostly straight forward. Here is where the tiny baby Epiphany snuggled and cooed.
The Significance of the Leaky Roof: 1915 A.D
But perhaps I have gone on too long about Sophia and her brood. There is the matter of the leaky church roof and how it came to have significance. This is a story often repeated to me and told in many versions.
But there is information you, reader, will need in order to understand this story. First, it is important to know that flat adobe roofs leak more than pitched tin ones. This particularly disastrous leak about which I will tell you occurred before the church had a tin roof. That new roof that one might have seen in photographs was put on the crumbling old building during the mid nineteen sixties.
No, this leak came in the old days. The pre-tin days. The leak occurred with regularity once it started because once adobe begins to leak it will not patch itself. The leak will get worse. The adobe will become soft.
This particular leak occurred because in those days when it began the women were still occupied with their fantastic dreams and ever-present fears rather than with their duty to keep not only their own homes but also the community in good repair. They spent so much time enjoying being piled into one house together that often large groups of women could be found chatting in great knots not just at bedtime but throughout the day. The conversations seemed endless. How could they find so much to talk about?
It seems from what I was told that not all of these convivial gatherings were necessitated by fear in spite of what the women told the men. Fear became more and more a convenient explanation for their behavior from what I can tell. In fact, it was never clear to me from the stories I heard whether there was much fear at all by around nineteen fifteen, the time when the leak came to have significance for the lives of the villagers. Not that the voices and ghosts didn’t come around, but just that the women were accustomed to and largely unbothered by them. The ghosts were just something that happened to be part of living in Solución. “What can you do? It’s been like this for as long as anyone can remember.” They said to each other. Still, the women gathered and snacked and read and neglected some necessary tasks. Some things in their households and in the village suffered more than others on account of their snacking and lounging.
For example, the women had not gotten round to plastering the church for two or three years. Remember this church was of historical and spiritual importance for the people. This was the church that was associated with the founding priest and his miracles. His image was prominently displayed there. The roses still bloomed fresh there every day.
And, still, priests refused to serve there. So no one was really in charge of care taking it or taking notice of it though the women were by tradition and habit supposed to at least clean and plaster it. Most people who entered had heads bowed and eyes closed in prayer. So nothing was seen. And now, the women neglected it. They just never got around to even thinking about it, though they did manage to break off their slovenly habits in order to get to mass and serve tea to whatever visiting priest was officiating.
But the plastering, alas, was not accomplished. It should have been done each year. It should have been done by the women. That is how it always had been. What’s more, the men were so preoccupied with amulets and glass eating and trying to care for their own needs given that the women were seldom available to them except in the daylight hours, that it certainly wouldn’t have occurred to them to plaster a roof. Certainly it did not occur to them at mealtime. They had come to associate meals with the one time of day that they might be with their wives or lovers. An embrace before a quick tortilla and beans, a snuggle before a sopapilla, or a violent roll about under a soft Rio Grande blanket made of the wool of the churro before a chili relleno was all that could be hoped for.
“Hernando, dinner is on,” a woman would call. Hernando, having been nearly unable to contain himself during the previous hour, sprang from his bench as if jerked upward on a string by a giant puppet master. He dashed from his bench on the plaza to his house. “Gabriela, my darling, I love you.” Gabriela, now used to this dinnertime routine, allowed herself to be grabbed and danced into the bedroom. The couple made certain that the door behind them was locked for the sake of the children. There amidst the fluffy, ruffled bed coverings the pair tumbled and rubbed bellies and delighted one another. In a little while, they straightened themselves, pulled hair back into respectable places, opened the bedroom door, and walked out with as much dignity as they could muster. They sat themselves at the table and began to eat their now cold dinners. Curious children and grandmothers hardly looked up when the shyly grinning couple joined them. This was the way of the villagers.
The call to dinner and the smell and look of hot beans became so associated with sex for the men that most had erections throughout their life whenever they saw sacks of dry beans in the local general store or green beans ripening in their gardens. Even later generations of males had trouble when they passed the little sacks of beans in plastic bags at the Furr’s super market in Purgatoria. In fact, sons and grandsons learned from their fathers that beans and sex went hand in hand and they grew up associating legumes with desire. And none of the men ever, ever, after about nineteen hundred, could stomach a hot bean. Cold beans, yes. But something other than eating always had to happen for them, even if by their own hands, when the beans were fresh and hot.
Thus men did not notice that the women were neglecting their duty to the church
So during the fourth year of the women’s complete disregard of responsibility to the church, it rained so hard and the roof was so undone that a great sheet of water ran down over the altarpiece.
The church was one of the buildings in the square of buildings that surrounded the plaza. The houses about the plaza and were adjoined one another to make long rows and form this square. There were just a few openings in the square, purposely left here and there for footpaths to the fields and orchards. Around the outside of the square of houses, set back about one hundred yards so that each house had room for a corral and kitchen garden, was an adobe wall. Irrigation ditches surrounded the village and one was dug through the wall, and between the openings to the plaza so as to water the trees and gardens planted within. There was a single lane wide enough for the passage of carts and buggies and wagons. The lane led through the largest notch between houses and ended at the edge of the plaza proper. Much later this lane was widened for the use of automobiles and motorcycles and trucks.
All the houses faced into the plaza and had a view of the founding twin’s grave and the site of the Little priest’s trance, thus the village history was easily kept alive. The original jumble of grave goods had long since disintegrated into a great mound of organic matter. Apple trees had been planted just next to the grave and they did well for many years, producing large quantities of fruit and providing shade for those who sat there most of the day. Juanita’s and Sophia’s original houses faced the plaza and the apple trees.
On the side of the plaza directly opposite from where Juanita raised Consuelo in the walnut sprouting cradle and from where Hermes sat and Ramona lived with Epiphany, was the ancient church. And though it was a humble structure, its altar was grand.
It had four great wooden pillars or posts. They were gently tapered upwards, smooth as a baby’s bottom and cleverly painted and marbled with sullen pinks, quiet reds, and compelling greens by craftsmen whose fathers had seen the grand alabaster and granite and serpentine pillars that held up the domes of the grand cathedrals of Europe or the Haggia Sophia in Istanbul. These much smaller pillars in this humble church had been made to resemble, from a distance, those of the finest churches. They rose the full height of the altar screen and were capped with great finials that resembled peaks of soft ice cream sundaes.
Framed between the pair of left posts was a painted image, touched with gold leaf purchased at great expense by the villagers, of a winged saint bearing a crown of stars. He held a serpent in one hand and wore a cloak covered with great wet tears of heaven. The borders of his cloak were made of mirrors that caught light and reflected strange crooked, unintelligible images back to worshippers. In front of the saint, guarding a path that sloped up toward him, were two mangy orange dogs with large, bared fangs. The allusion to the esoteric and specifically to the mystic Tarot escaped all but one or two itinerant Roma who stopped in the village once or twice to repair copper pots and sharpen knives.
Between the right two posts was a painting of a winged messenger holding a large sunny orb in one hand and a bloody clock in the other. The hands of the clock were set at midnight. The messenger’s wings were made of overlapping bits of broken glass. Behind the messenger were two burning towers. Look closely, above the image of the towers, and you would see the lion of Mark, the eagle of John, the calf of Luke. These images all proclaimed to the worshippers the mysteries therein to be revealed with proper prayer and attitude. Again, only the Roma really understood the significance of any of this.
In the center of the pairs of posts was a gilded portrait of Christ himself. In his right hand, he held a scepter made of roses and wore a gilded crown as tall as his own Middle Eastern face was long. In his left arm he embraced a tiny version of himself, a simulacrum Christ in every detail. On almost every other available surface of the screen were painted roses. Where they were not, there were saints.
Oh, yes, there was a crucifix painted here and there, but these seemed beside the point. There were so many other miracles recorded on the screen and present in the church that a reminder of a mere resurrection seemed inconsequential or a grand theological afterthought.
On the ceiling just above the altar and the screen was a great painted rainbow flanked by a quarter moon and a bright orange sun. Both orbs bore benign faces. There were brightly painted stars, streaks of lightening on both margins, and wonderful, floating clouds in the dark, bright sky.
Each image on the altar screen and on the ceiling above could be read as surely as one could, if schooled, read a Tarot deck. Here was a representation of one’s journey through life.
But though these images were barely understood, worshippers scanned the screen looking for signs as they knelt before the altar to receive communion. They watched to see where the light hit the screen, if on a crown or near a streak of lightening. The altar, in this way, spoke to the people of the village. It told stories and entertained children. It insisted on being noticed and commented upon. In its magnificence it overwhelmed even the magic roses that appeared each day. For most religions, the presence of these flowers would have been miracle enough. But not here in this village.
Before the altar screen was a plain unpainted wooden plank that stood on four sturdy oak legs. On top of that were two hammered and punched tin candlesticks with candles and a bowl of fruit
One fine day, Consuelo, around sixteen years of age, went across the plaza, singing to herself and stepping lightly with a little skip. It was a lovely, sunny day, welcome after a week of rain. The hills were turning green with the fresh moisture and little budlets of promised flowers appeared here and there about the plaza.
As she entered the church, she dipped her fingers in the holy water by the door and anointed her forehead. She curtsied to her Lord and crossed herself. Then she strode down the aisle and placed herself just in front of the altar, crossed herself again, and got onto her knees. Why, you might ask, did Consuelo pray? Her life was so perfect, why would she feel a need for prayer? She prayed for the old lady who had brought her to the village. “Holy Mother,” she began, “Thank you for the life I have by the grace of your holiness and the abundant gifts of God the Father.” She prayed for all the women who feared. “Holy Mother, be with us always in the dark fears of the night. Be with those who do not know thy salvation.” She prayed for the doñas in the canyons. She twisted her beads in her hands and prayed for little Hermes and Epiphany. She prayed with an innocent belief that all would benefit by her prayers and that the world would be a better place on her account. She prayed to be a force for good.
The flat roof of the church had been made with a gradual slope and there were gutters of a sort in each corner of the roof to help guide rain to the ground below. But the joints were weak now and where the leak had first begun, a great crack had opened just over the altarpiece. As Consuelo prayed on this particular day, a sheet of water came from the place where the adobe had weakened all along where the back wall met the back roof. This was not so much a sheet of water that came down but something more aptly described as a waterfall. When the water came rushing down the wall and onto the altar, the altar and all of the many mirrors and glass bits and images came crashing forward. And there, just at the moment, in front of that great golden altar with all its fanciful, magnificent posts and hand carved railings and gold leaf covered santos, there, just at that moment Consuelo, now a young woman full of joy and hope, was praying on her knees.
It is important to realize that nothing in this village was ever believed to happen by chance. There is no such thing as a mere accident. In retrospect, in fact, the neglect that the church had suffered was seen as entrancement by some villagers, more evidence that they were cursed and the target of some bewitchment. The neglect was certainly seen as a “cause” of the great rift that enabled the cascade that made the altar tip forward.
However, not only was the neglect of the church believed to be brought about through entrancement, but that Consuelo was in front of that altar in that little church in the plaza at the moment when the rain poured in and the altar fell was not, they believed, a mere coincidence.
Consuelo was, of course, crushed under the weight of the great altar. No one knew if she would live.