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By Sylvia Castañeda

The men from Rancho Chacuiloca knocked on Susana’s door bearing the news of her husband, Santiago.

In an attempt to defend his friend from a grave accusation made by the Federales, he received a blow to the head with a .30-30 rifle.

It was the 13th of November, 1913, three years into the Mexican Revolution; Zacatecas had become the battlefield between the agraristas – land reformers who believed that the land belonged to those who labored it – and the 34-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. A bloody civil war would last seven more years.

At 26, Susana buried her husband and was left alone with her five children.

Weeks passed. One morning, Susana left her adobe one-room house to fetch water from a nearby well; she instructed her children to remain, under lock and key. Susana never returned. Doña Petra, Susana’s mother, received word that the soldiers had left the region, but had snatched her, taking her by the waist as she walked home and forcing her onto a horse.

Susana’s children were cared for by their grandmother, Doña Petra, until each of them was sent to live with different relatives.

Six years passed, Susana found her way back home with an infant in her arms but had left her soul behind.

Although Susana knew the whereabouts of her children, they remained with relatives as she attempted to start anew with the son that reminded her every day of her reluctant relationship with his father.

As she made her way through the streets of town making her daily food purchases from the vendors, voices rumored of her illegitimate son and how her charming beauty captured the men’s attention and menaced the women of the town. No one was willing to offer her work.

She found solace in memories. She summoned the nights when the neighboring ranchos and towns were never without fairs and fiestas. The wind and string ensembles lured the town folk to dance. Susana and Santiago were drawn by the music that called to them deep into their valley between el Teúl and Tepechitlán. As Susana wrapped her rebozos around her younger children much like the cornhusk around the tamales, she thought about the chotis she would dance with her husband up until the wee hours of the night. They left their children asleep – locked the door – and embraced each other as they walked toward the music.

About town, she offered her laundering services to families; many slammed the heavy wood door after cursing her to the devil. She was not deterred. A few households welcomed her services in exchange for tortillas and frijoles for the day and a few pesos.

Work became steady and made her days ordinary. As she carried her child on her back wrapped in a black and white cotton rebozo, she balanced a basket of laundry on her head and walked toward the river. She laid her son on a bed of broad, smooth leaves as she kneeled along the shore. Her curved back rocked back and forth as she pounded the smooth stone against the clothing extended atop a flat rock.

One day, a tall dark man followed her path to the river and admired her from afar, standing with his back to a tall tree. The sun was directly above when Susana finished folding the clothes that were spread on the bushes to dry. She wrapped her child on her back and balanced the basket of freshly laundered clothes on her head and headed into town.

He followed her until their steps paralleled each other and introduced himself as Santos. She hurried on, looking forward without a word, and gripped the basket rim more tightly. Susana had spied him once before along the river. Once they reached town, he bid her good-bye and disappeared into a dusty road. She was relieved that she had not responded to him.

As days went on, Santos continued, each time approaching one step closer to where she washed clothes. Each time he’d compliment her beauty or give her a wild flower. Months passed before she looked him in the eye and smiled and accepted his assistance with the basket. At the edge of town, they would part ways. She walked into town with a feeling of hope.

Torrential rains announced the end of the summer in 1920, making it difficult for Susana to do her work. She had back pain and nausea. Without work, she only had enough frijoles to feed her 15 month old son for the next couple of days and she desperately wanted to speak to Santos.

The next morning, at sunrise, Susana picked up the laundry from her patron’s house and made her way to the river with her toddler in tow and the basket on her head. Frequently, she paused to sniff a mint leaf to curb her nausea and give her back a rest, then went back to work looking out for Santos. As she set the clothes to dry on the shrubs, he appeared before her. Their eyes met.

In a whisper, she announced that she was with child. Santos embraced her. Then he rejected her.

“I cannot accept the responsibility of your carelessness. I am an honorable family man; a married man; the father of two.”

In the spring of 1921, another son, Pablo, was born.

* *

Tlaltenango, Zacatecas

Pablo was the last of her children to marry – three months after his 22nd birthday. He walked out of his sister Lola’s house where he and Susana had lived the last 10 years. Lola was Susana’s 2nd child. She was married, pregnant and rearing six children. She had buried two toddlers in recent years and was caring for her mother Susana who wanted nothing to do with an ordinary day.

Daily at dusk, an owl, perched on the avocado tree branch, guarded the entrance to her room accessible through the courtyard. Susana would shriek, “Here comes the old hag.” Its loud, sharp whistle made her uneasy; she pleaded with it to stop its laughter. With trepidation, her grandchildren entered her room to deliver her meals. Susana faced the wall with her arms extended; her long greying hair fell over her white cotton nightgown as she howled in a rage.

“Get out of here.”

Someone had put an evil spell on her, the family voices murmured.

Night fell. Susana paced the small room, stopping to fling the wooden chair. In a moment of calm, she’d stare out the window, gripping chunks of her hair and yanking it out as the owl remained perched on the avocado branch. Emilia, her 10-year-old granddaughter, was the only child that Susana would allow in; she stood by the door keeping Susana from being lured by the river spirits. The sleep spirit lulled Emilia to a slumber. Then the rooster crowed. Emilia startled, rose from the floor. Sunlight came through the doorway; the owl was gone and so was Susana.

The news of Susana’s disappearance spread quickly. Neighbors joined the family to search the Xaloco River nearby, up and down stream, until the owl was spotted on a mesquite. Huddled, rocking back and forth, Susana stood in a small, dark cave nearby glaring at the screeching owl.

Doña Lola- Emilia’s mom– gathered lanolin from lambs’ wool to cure the severed patches of scalp and the stomach sores her mother, Susana, developed. But she couldn’t rid her of the black lice that infested her body.

“The evil spell won’t go away.”

Susana’s body deteriorated. The priest was summoned to rid her of the evil within.

“There is no cure,” he told them.

She withered away in the spring of 1944. Doña Lola prayed the rosary over Susana’s body, supplicating the Virgencita.

* *

1966, Tlaltenango, Zacatecas

Twilight enveloped the valley. Doña Lola’s youngest daughter, now a teenager, walked past the locked and abandoned room toward the kitchen. While Carmen Alicia made tea, she wondered, as always, about the woman her siblings whispered about – the one who climbed walls like a spider; who was hexed with mal de ojo; the one under the owl’s watch.

Carmen Alicia made her way through the courtyard, carefully sipping her tea. The window to the room was now open and the light of a candle illuminated a shadow of an old woman sitting. She murmured undecipherable chants. Perhaps it was her mother praying. Then she heard coughing coming from another room. There, Carmen Alicia found her mother and asked if she had been praying in the bewitched room.

“No. It wasn’t me.”

An owl screeched in the distance.

“My mother’s spirit has returned.”

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By Jasmine De Haro

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1] never lived in the same home as my father. Or at least, when I did, I was too young to remember. My mom removed my siblings and me from his home when I was 10 months old. What remains of my life with him are bizarre moments.

For example, my father had a safe word when we would go out. He would tell me, “If I’m not around and you’re in danger, yell Abraxas.” I was a child and found this strange. Why Abraxas and what did it mean? I never asked my father. My mother later told me that “Abraxas” was the title of Santana’s second album.

My father never had a sense of humor, at least not one that you would find traditionally funny. He wasn’t good looking; he was short in stature but muscular. He had fair skin and dark black hair.

He looked me straight in the eye that day.

“Say Abraxas and I will know.”

“Okay, Dad.”

I chuckled nervously. He wasn’t amused.

When I was 13 and it was Halloween day, my father came to visit me, as he often did on Fridays after work. He worked in a commercial print shop. I had gone there once. It was this dark cold warehouse, with a giant machine in the middle of it. He turned it on. The noise from the machine radiated throughout the building. We almost had to shout to hear each other. Still, it was a nice moment.

He was later fired from the job, mostly due to his drinking. At the time, he lived in a duplex in Rosemead. This place always gave me the creeps. It was a two-bedroom, one-bath house that seemed frozen in the 1970s. I never wanted to go in one of the bedrooms. It was cold and dark. The difference in temperature was so significant that it would immediately raise the hairs on my arms. When we would play ping pong on the kitchen table, all we needed was a net across the middle and a couple of paddles. I always used the same one. It was red on one side and had a picture of the band Kiss on the other. I owe my moderate ping pong skills to those moments.

After he was fired, he lost his place and moved in with my grandmother. She had abused him when he was younger. She was short and stocky with black hair with a few strains of white throughout. She had a partial mastectomy and chain-smoked. I was unsure if he knew who his father was. If he did, he never mentioned him. Moving in with her seemed to take a toll on him. After that, he graduated from Budweiser to Vodka, and his decline came quickly.

“Do you know what today is?”

I replied that it was Halloween.

“No, this is our day.”

“Okay, Dad.”

He then told me in great detail how I was a witch, my sister was a witch, my mother was a witch and how he and my brothers were warlocks. So the statement “this is our day,” meant something far more than I could have imagined. My father was into the occult and often referred to himself as a Pagan. He had paintings and books with images of devil-like creatures on them and kept a wooden ouija board on his coffee table. So the importance of this day shouldn’t have come as a shock to me.

Still, up to now he hadn’t mentioned we were witches. Why on this particular Halloween day did my father decide to reveal this information? Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. It falls 13 days after my birthday. The leaves change colors, the weather turns cool and I would stay up late nights watching scary movies. This Halloween, I went to school dressed like a hippie with bellbottoms and a peace sign painted on my cheek. Most of my friends decided to dress up like the movie Dead Presidents that year. The film chronicles the life of a young black man before and after his time organizing a group of friends to rob a bank. My friends were dressed in all black, painted white faces with blacked-out eyes and black beanies.

That Halloween day was overcast and continued on that way into the evening. Maybe it was the dark skies, or the fact I was now old enough, but my father went on to say that my mother knew all along; that she didn’t want to recognize that part of her life but she knew of her powers. My mom at one point was a tarot card reader. I guess that’s what he was referring to. He said my brother knew what he was and used it to his advantage. My sister knew, he said, but didn’t believe it to be true and she wasn’t ready to see it for what it can be. As for me, he said, I was now old enough to know the truth. When I was ready to embrace my powers, that I should let him know. We never spoke about it again after that day.

The last week I spent with him consisted of daily visits to the county hospital. The hallways were dark, scary, and quiet. The walls screamed of old memories and death. I hated walking through those halls alone. It was like being in a horror film.

He was sedated for most of the visits. Most of his internal organs had shut down but the blood transfusions and ventilators were keeping him going. He had aged so quickly. His body was now feeble and had a yellow hue. We had to decide the next step. My relationship with my father had been minimal but now, at this moment, his life was in my hands. Before he drifted into the sedation, my father kept talking about a ship. He kept saying, “My ship’s coming in, you’ll see.”

I didn’t understand. I figured it was the morphine talking but during these moments, he believed it was true.

“Okay, Dad.”

It was a Tuesday afternoon in June, another gloomy day. My sister and I walked into that hospital one last time. My grandmother, whom I mostly refer to as “my father’s mother,” was also there. After we made the decision to remove him from the machines keeping him alive, she had banned us from seeing him. She was upset about our decision and thought she should have had a voice in it. The law, however, said otherwise. Nevertheless, she had convinced whoever was in charge that we were upsetting him. She was an old shrew that manipulated her way into my last moment with my father.

He was now in a different room, with no tubes in his throat, no machines or transfusion to keep him going, just a morphine drip to keep him comfortable. But she never let us near him. She tried to shield his body, hugging him around his waist as she told us to get out. He was alert, but he could not speak. He made moaning sounds, as if he was trying to say something. He hated her and now she was with him alone, torturing him in his final moments. We said goodbye.

“I love you,” my sister said, “and we will see you tomorrow.”

She and I walked out of there angry. This old horrible women who used my father up to his very last day was his last memory. He was the only child.

He had never remarried after he and my mother split up. A year before he passed away, I remember that he mentioned a woman to me. He said he met her at a clinic while taking my grandma to her appointments. He told me he really liked her. This was the first time he ever admitted to having feelings for someone other than my mom. He said he would be afraid to admit to her that he was a pagan. She was Catholic. I could see the conflict in his eyes. I told him to tell her how he felt. I never asked him if he did. Besides my grandma wouldn’t have liked his focus on someone new. I believe his only escape was to drink himself to death.

In the middle of the night, the phone rang and I knew. His cousin called to tell us he had passed.

“Okay,” and hung up. I walked to my sister’s room. She never opened the door.

“Is it Dad?”

I just replied “yes” and that was it. I heard her cry out as I walked back to my room.

My father died at 52 years old from cirrhosis of the liver. An alcoholic from before the time I was born. He died when I was 20. I would be a liar if I said we were close.

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