Manzano Mountain Review is an online New Mexico literary journal affiliated with UNM-Valencia.

Mother-Eaters


by Autumn Cahill

Nueva Vizcaya, New Spain
1616
 
There were spirits here.  True spirits: some humanoid in appearance, others animalistic, and still others bearing only the slightest suggestion of some organic form.  No ghosts here.  I watched them, as they amalgamated and cycled clockwise over the gathering, rounding out the 360 backdrop of the sierras in a steady preterplasmic swirl.  A few of them “looked” my way in invitation, but this being a ceremony with the intent of laying level a path for clarity for those on the ground, ones such as I--a defector? a subaltern? certainly an agitator--did not belong.

I took no offense at the exclusion.  Knowing the difference between prosecution and persecution, it is my job as Ha-Satan to build cases where cases are to be found, not to be a dick.

When Juan Calderón stumbled away from the gathering circled round the fire, however, he left his safe house, and I pursued.

Calderón, confused, melting pot embodied: bastard offspring of a Spanish officer and a Rarámuri woman.  Originally conscripted for labor in the mines, and then spared that shaft for another, she died in labor of another sort, nonwife to a nonhusband who spoke her language no more than she did his, dropping dead on her feet not so many years ago.  In between those feet: a squalling baby boy, the burden of empire on his shoulders, and the sensitivity to it pierced like lances through his heart.  Unsure how to contextualize himself, young Calderón’s recent absence from his father’s footsteps as a soldier may be best described as a matter of disaffection rather than true desertion--subaltern more than defector--and when he so happened upon the pocket in the mountains, peopled with heathens, it was quite by incident.  These people sparked some withered root of maternal consciousness within him.  He had acquired some maneuverance of their tongue from their converted counterparts, and they had brought him into their circle, given him their communion--fermented maize, mixed with something else more potent--and set him dancing with them around the roaring Eye of God, which widened and narrowed, looking up into the nightscape.

Someone followed Calderón in the dark.  I’d call him my friend, but “charge” could be more practical.  Certain audiences know him as well as me, better than me, conflate him with me, the shadow cast by his so-called light. 

Someone followed me as well.  I’d call him a cousin, a distant relation like those ones that danced over the fire’s vision.  While the ring in the air and the ring on the ground each turned one way or the other, he dislodged himself from the brush and slowly made his way round to me, looking very much like one of the mortal celebrants but for his yellow eyes and prominent canines.  When Calderón broke from the others, he gave pursuit with the gusto of a hunter for prey.

But he only wanted to play a game.  Calderón was mine to take home.

“Hey,” said the one with the yellow eyes.  The soldiers and the priests and their afterbears would mistranslate his name, but for now he went by Coyotl.  “That one dancing back there…”

“Which one dancing back there?”

“Your wife, is she?”

My Lilith fair.  “What about her?”

“You’re just going to leave her back there?”

He was baiting me, to what point I wasn’t sure.  Jesters jest, I suppose.  “She’s her own person.  I have work to do.”

Meanwhile, Calderón knew he was being followed, even if he didn’t detect the two desert spirits tracking his steps.  When he looked over his shoulder he saw only the other interloper, the same man who had stood beside him by the fire, my charge, a grand rubio who wore colorful clothes on his back and colorful feathers in his ears.  In Calderón’s mind then, he must have been a Spaniard (though in truth, he’d landed far further east of Iberia) who had gone feral and switched sides long (long, long) ago.  The Spaniard’s blue eyes stared into and beyond the fire as he drank, as he danced. 

Calderón would make such observations.  He started with his eyes moving around to take cue from the others, as the proselytized at the mission did during the exercises at Mass.  However, he soon abandoned this, and anxiously cast his gaze downward.  He was having trouble discerning his feet from the ground, suspected they were melding with the ground.  He stared wide-eyed, unblinking, to ensure they stayed solid, separate.  During this ordeal, he bumped into the Spaniard incessantly.

Now the jelly in his sockets did take offense to the acrid smoke, and protested by tearing and blurring his vision until he blinked.  He surrendered, and when his vision cleared again, it was to the terror of his foot splitting into a series of exaggerated toes, which in turn, turned downward into the soil.  Rooted in the hot glare of the Eye of God, he felt his insides churn.  He flinched, and this seemed to free his limb; lest he linger and the transmogrification revert, remain, he turned and ran.

The Spaniard followed. Calderón knew it was the Spaniard, even though he hadn’t turned around once since fleeing, for fear of making eye contact with the fire again and it being the last thing he ever saw.  Not once did the Spaniard call after him or beckon him back, and Calderón began to suspect that the other man was not a man at all, but a golden vision of himself, perhaps, a projection of himself, reminding him that despite his appearance, despite what he had emerged from, he did not belong there, he should not have dabbled, he should not have abandoned his post.

He certainly should not have taken their communion, because now his senses writhed and played tricks on him.  Though he wandered in the night, the way was lit by that rock above, which doted like a mother on the rock below.

Perhaps he had died, and blasphemy being his last act, now wandered the wastes of the next world.  The need to purge rose within him, which he swallowed down.

Glimmer of hope as he saw moonbeams reflect back off of a white shaft of stucco and stone.  It was not his mission, he was a hopeless navigator in the dark, but it was nonetheless a place of refuge.  Dreamily, he pushed open the weathered doors and entered the sanctuary.  No water in the basin, no footprints in the dust, no use in a while.  Diffidently, he approached the nearest altar, which housed the Madonna, heedless that he was flanked on either side by myself and that other spirit.

“Is it time?” Coyotl asked.

“Not yet,” I answered.

Heedless that my intoxicated friend followed in his footfalls.

“What are we waiting for?”

“You ever fish?”

“Sometimes.”

The quietude was corrupted by my friend’s coarse laughter. 

“He’s anchored in time and space,” I reminded Coyotl.  “He’s a good lure.”

Calderón started at the noise and turned, and beheld, not the Spaniard as expected, but what appeared to him as a clouded prism faintly shaped as a man.  He jumped backwards, and in so doing, collided with the Madonna.  Her open arms offered little comfort, psychic or physic, and he tilted his head up and rolled back his eyes, which he widened as he saw her face increasingly segment with what seemed to him to be thousands of tiny cracks.

It was then that Coyotl and I started in, paraphrasing the catechism that Calderón’s clergymen made when extracting native neophytes’ confessions:

“Do you adorn with flowers places where idols are kept?”

“Hast thou eaten the flesh of man?”

“Do you suck the blood of others?”

“Hast thou eaten the peyote?”

Poor Calderón, who felt much lonelier than he was in that chapel, could only produce an exhalation akin to a high-pitched death rattle, as the cracked face of the woman looming over him ruptured, first in an outpouring of plaster shrapnel, then with the teeming propulsion of multitudinous, infant spiders.  Similarly, the rattle in Calderón cracked, and hatched seeds which rooted in his chest and esophagus, blossoming into a scream of garishly smeared reds and yellows, as the writhing, crawling wave glittered darkly and descended upon him, as many crawling mother-eaters as there were grains of sand.
 
~
 
Morning dawned paler than Calderón’s scream.  He and my friend slept now in the church, while my cousin and I rested in its shadow.  The shadows of horsemen erected darkly on the pastel horizon.

“That one dancing last night,” Coyotl revisited.

“Lilith.”

He held up a pouch that was braided to his belt.  “Know what’s in here, cuz?  Two frog vulva I got up north.  I can have my way anytime, without the lip.  But you’re the opposite.  Look at you, you have a lovely wife, and you spend all your time with that headache in there.”  He lolled out his tongue.  “What’s the incentive? 
Does he fry up some mean rabbit livers, or apostates, or whatever it is you like to eat?”

I don’t “like” to “eat” anything.  My sustenance comes from the smoke of burnt offerings, the dust of pulverized mortar, the heavens-aspirant offspring turned up by rain penetrating earth.  I am a traditionally boring spirit, if somewhat bougie.  “I wager he wouldn’t mind frying up some coyote livers,” I replied with a shrug.

My cousin bared his teeth humorously.  “Is the spirit two-spirit?”  He pressed on accusingly: “Is it because your wife used to be human, and you want to marry up?”

“The devil say you, dog?”

My friend stumbled out of the church.  His features blanched and shrank in the light, upon which he doubled over and let fall on the dirt a steaming deposit of what looked akin to gelatinous sapphires, translucent fruit gone bad.

“Won’t Jim Morrison say ‘Drugs are a bet with your mind’?” Coyotl stepped away from the mess.  “How much do you have left to gamble on?”

“I think you’re getting ahead of yourself,” I said to him.

“Nonsense: time and space are an intertext.”

“What is an intertext?”  My friend panted, wiping his mouth.  He screwed and unscrewed his face, peered slit-eyed at the world, bit the air.  “Never mind.  I know better than to ask a djinn anything and expect a straight answer.”

I changed the subject.  “How does your mouth taste?”

“To hell with you,” he hissed, screwing up his eyes and turning his face away from the encroaching sun, unfurling on that point where celestial and terrestrial kissed.

Coyotl tsked.  “Not for our kind, the realtors there always say the schools are bad.  There, and most other places, too.”  He smiled, sunny and bitter as lemons.  “Mother’s usually a better teacher anyway.  More substantial, less preachy.  Even if her children only sustain scraps of her nourishment, and spit back the rest into her face, ingrates.”

“As she spewed all those little poison pustules in there?”  My friend glanced back at the church, laughed.

“Did she?”

My friend darkened.  “Doesn’t matter either way,” he answered.  “I have no mother.”

“Poor orphan,” cooed Coyotl.

“I will make this chapel your tomb.”

Now Coyotl laughed.  “Mission unaccomplished!  You wouldn’t be the first to try, or the last.  Spider was a light-bringer too, did you know?  Webs are paths as easily as snares, and all poisons are antidotes also.”  The trickster sniffed the air, and yipping, unhinged his knees and scurried into the brush faster than any man.  His tail beat my friend in the face en exeunt.  Cursing, my friend crouched low against the foundation of the church, holding his head with one hand and picking tawny hairs out of his nostrils with the other.  I alone showed myself to the new presence, those horsemen that speedily approached.

One of them, the priest, greeted me.

“Was this your mission?”  He considered the dilapidated building behind me.  “It’s been given over to us.”

No doubt he took my appearance for a Jesuit.  I looked at the entrance of the church.  “There’s a sick man in there,” I said to him.  “He might be one of your parishioners.”  I turned away from the horsemen to tend to my friend.  One of the soldiers made to follow me, but the priest pulled back his reins.

“What did you laugh at?” I asked my friend, who painted with his fingers designs of blue mucous and coyote hairs in the dirt. 

“Eh?”

“Last night, before the altar.”

My friend thought a moment, and then smirked.  “That.  Your little apostate.  He changed in my eyes.”

“What did he change into?”

Self-righteously: “A great lump of coal, badly rendered as an angel.”

Inside the church, the priest knelt by Calderón, who lay covered in the dust of disintegrated flowers and crushed plaster, and offered him water.  Calderón accepted, gratefully at first, but then he sputtered, agitated, choking on the seeds left by that primal scream from those hours preceding, and spat everything up.

“Father,” muttered Calderón inside the church, forever banishing the maternal lexis from his tongue.  “I sought the heathens in the mountains, not far from here, and participated in their rituals.”  He cringed.  “Father, I fear I might have walked with the devil last night.”

“The devil you know,” grumbled my friend outside the church, hacking, and decorating the cross he’d scratched into the earth with a hairy sapphire.  “Idiot.”
“Cabrón,” growled my cousin in the brush, trying out la lengua that would be thrust between the peyotists’ teeth as the soldiers advanced on the mountains.
Calderón heard none of these replies, nor even the priest’s, as he stared down at the mess in which he sat.  Here and there some half-alive quiver of vomit writhed, scores of tiny mother-devourers, dying in the acidic juices of his weak stomach.
 
    

Autumn Cahill's uncle likes to tell people that she was born in the back of a station wagon at a Renaissance festival, but this is mostly a lie. She may be the one depraved soul on Earth to opine that Melville's "Pierre" is a genuinely good read, and can and will take the floor at the bar to talk about such hot topics as postcolonialism, the diplomatic skills of Josip Broz, and the humanity of Vince Neil. She currently resides in Kansas City with a menagerie of creatures, and is at work compiling the further misadventures of Satan and Company.