Shaman in the Sagebrush; the trickster and the campesina

By spring I had my hut up in my “spot”.  It wasn’t as expansive as Ben’s hogan and porch, but it had a rain-resistant top, and back and sides of interwoven dry agave flower stems.  Ben would walk up to the fire pit from time to time to give suggestions for the construction. 

The spring rains left several “lakes” in low spots in the arroyos where a proper bath could be taken, and after a hard day of scrubbing me and my belongings, I was once again odor free, if not sparkling.

The rains had also made travel in the desert difficult if you didn’t know the lay of the land.  Only the most rural of the locals figured out how to get to Ben’s house, and they would show up in the mornings in knots of two or three family members who often brought ailing children and adults with them.

As a medicine man, Ben was mostly a snake-oil salesman, and knew it.  He had a few native nostrums in his herb satchel that would relieve minor maladies, but he was of no use to someone who was seriously ill.  I watched the parade of peasants who brought fevered children to him for healing.  Proper medical care was not available to them, and even though there were drug stores in Mexico that sold drug without prescription, most of the drugs were beyond the finances of the people coming to Ben.

Not all, though.  From time to time, well dressed and comparatively wealthy people would come and take Ben to their homes to cure their sick.  I didn’t go with him on those trips, but I knew they would reward him with cash instead of blankets and food.  He always showed up afterwards roaring drunk.

One late spring morning an old man, a young man carrying a tiny old woman on his back, and a young woman walked into the camp.  The Ben had been gone a few days, and I would tell anyone who walked into the camp that they would have to return another day.  I was a curiosity to them.  Ben’s gringo.

Vendrá otra vez otro día.” I told them in my broken Spanish.

The older man replied in undecipherable Spanish

I shook my head and said, “Ben no está aquí. Vuelva usted mañana” Ben is not here. Come back tomorrow. 

The young woman spoke to the old man in Spanish, then turned back to me and said, “My grandmother is dying and cannot speak.  My grandfather wants to know where she hid the money before she dies.  You are the aprendiz de chamán.  You can help, no?”

The young man helped his grandfather lay the old woman down opposite the fire pit like they did when they approached Ben’s hogan.  The fire was almost out, and I put a couple of pieces of mesquite on the coals and fanned them alive, and sat back on my heels to ponder this turn.

The old woman was so frail.  I don’t think she could have weighed over 80 pounds. Her skin was a dark wrinkled leather, time worn and weary.  It was hard to tell the age of campesinas in Mexico.  She could have been 40 or 80, but I assumed that she was probably about the same age as her husband.

Finally, I got up and walked over to the woman and knelt by her head, and put my hand on her forehead. The skin felt dry and papery.  I could feel the young woman’s gaze, but avoided catching her eye.  The old woman was a goner for certain, her breaths coming at 15 to 20 second intervals.  A slight movement caught my eye from across the clearing.  A healthy coyote sat on its haunches watching me, which is odd of itself, because coyotes are wary creatures.

Then a movement from the grandmother made me look back at her.  Her eyes were wide open, and were a shocking light blue that was wet with life.  A thought came suddenly.  I knew that she was a dying woman, but I knew also that she was going to rally for a short time.

I heard myself saying to the woman, “Your grandmother has been given more time.  You must treat her very kindly.  You must tell your grandfather to treat her kindly.  You must feed her only the boiled fat from the chicken skin, and the water it is cooked in.  Then you may ask her where the money was hid, and she will tell you.”

The coyote stood up and trotted off, giving me a backwards glance.  I also noticed that Ben had returned and was standing on the opposite edge of the clearing, watching the activity.  I didn’t want Ben to think I was cutting into his trade, so when the grandfather offered me two peso coins, about 20¢ back then, I refused.

They bundled grandmother up and put her on the back of the younger man, were she began scolding him in Spanish.  He rolled his eyes and said, “aie aie aie aie!” and the four of them disappeared into the creosote bushes.

Ben hung his pack up on the post of the porch, then walked over to me.  “So, mi acólito, you are a healer]  I thought he would be angry, but he seemed more amused than anything.  “Be careful, though.  Mescalito is a trickster.”

“I didn’t do anything to that old woman.”

“You touched her.”

“And my touching her healed her?”

“No. You commanded her alma, her soul, and it returned to her.  She will send her granddaughter back to with more money because you disrespected the payment.  Her alma cannot leave until the debt is paid.”

“She doesn’t owe me anything.  I didn’t do anything.”

“You commanded her alma to remain.  It is time for her alma to leave.  She must pay you to release her alma.”

“How much should I charge her to release her alma?”

“Whatever you want.”

“I didn’t do anything.  I just played on the grandfather’s guilt.”

“Just like your spirit-guide, Mescalito.  You are a trickster.”

I did not believe then, and I do not believe now that I had anything to do with the recovery of that woman.  But my sudden confidence that she would rally was unnaturally strong.  And the coyote did seem to be laughing at me.

And that night I dreamed of the young campesina, with her long black hair combed to glistening sheen.

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