Jim Sagel


Afterwards, I wondered.

Do those who are about to die transmit subtle signals, a high frequency pitch heard only by the inner ear, the screeching the soles make as they start peeling off the planet? Or is it a scent that the dead-in-waiting secrete, a slurry of rain and crushed leaves, perhaps, smelled solely in the stem of the brain? No sign that anything is wrong, and the next instant the person you know becomes someone you knew. Yet, the greater shock is the fact that, somehow, you are not surprised. That's how it was with the Virgin.

When I learned she had shot herself, I immediately remembered how uneasy I had felt the month before when I watched her cradling her new born infant in her arms on the altar at the Sacred Heart Church. There was something otherworldly about her that went beyond the role she was playing that evening in the Christmas pageant. I was struck by an unsettling sense of absence in her presence even though I was seated several rows behind the Ben-gay bancos where the black-veiled viejitas fingered their rosaries and kept their gossiping eyes peeled.

The Virgin never took her eyes off her sleeping baby, as if she were unable to hear the sour singing of the choir accompanied by the atonal guitars, or see the clumsy choreography of the cotton-bearded Wise Men leaving gifts at her feet. It was almost as if she were alone with her child under the wooden crucifix and the fifteen-foot spruce hanging with icy blue lights. As I looked at her, I, too, felt as if I were somehow alone. There, packed in the pew with my fellow parishioners--the sawmill operators with their missing fingers, the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory security guards, the arthritic old rancheros holding their battered stetsons in their laps, and the darkeyed jovencitas with their black hair moussed in spikey crowns--there, on that cold Christmas Eve, I experienced a strange epiphany, part awe and part voyeurism. I was, in a sense, truly gazing at a "holy family" in that closed circle of mother and child. Later, I realized that had I been able to look the Virgin square in those motionless eyes, I would have seen the pupils had already caved in.

After we had properly adored the Christ Child with a basketful of crumpled dollar bills and spare change, we emerged into the star-splattered night, walking past glowing farolitos and the smoldering remains of luminarias. There's the "Santa loco" blinking frenetically in the foggy window. Open the door shouting, "Mis crismes!"--louder if not faster than the cuñada waiting in ambush on the couch beneath the snapshots of the grandchildren and the plastic-framed portraits of the last three Popes. A roaring piñón fire in the fogón, empanaditas and freshly percolated coffee in the crowded kitchen, posole and red chile and besos all around, jokes about Father Juan still threatening to leave the priesthood for mama's frijoles, shots and cervezas and everybody talking at once. A holy night, perhaps, but hardly silent. All the silence of that Christmas Eve, it seems, had trailed the Virgin like a train of dark pearls as she had walked home, for her family, like ours, lived in the shadow of the church. The Virgin's family, no doubt, also spent that evening sharing gifts and laughter and prune and apricot pastelitos without a clue that the young mother sitting fragilely in their midst would end her life with a gunshot in less than a month.

Actually, I'm not sure the suicide came within thirty days. It may have happened in February or March, or even as the peach trees began to detonate with blossoms in the arboleda. I remember it, though, as taking place in January, that horizontal month when the imagination whites out and even the ravens leave tentative tracks in the snow. The truth is, I've been trying for so long to fictionalize the sad trajectory of that bullet that the only span of time I can be sure of is the three years that have passed since I began writing the story. In those three years, the Virgin has gone through several name changes; her stature and build, the length of her hair, even the color of her eyes have all varied over the years. Modeled as she has been on a number of women I have loved from both near and afar, the Virgin who lives in my memory probably bears little resemblance to the real woman who died at her own hand.

Did it tremble--that hand--nearly falter at the fatal instant? Who am I to make such a judgement when I can barely recognize what my own hands were producing three years ago?

Hard and calloused from gripping stories like the handles of a horse-pulled plow, those hands that used to belong to me were less complicated. Truth was a straight furrow from one sun to the other: the earth could always be relied upon to turn up fertile. But, in all the frenzy of the harvest, I ignored the seed stubbornly sprouting inside like a translucent bean shoot in a Hopi kiva. Full as I was, I was starving for my own sustenance; I was in need of my own ceremonies. I had to follow that pale figure calling me from the opposite side of the ditch.

Now that I have, it doesn't seem to make much difference whether I can remember the actual name of the Virgin or not. The Virgin in my imagination, this woman I have grappled with these three years of false starts and lost chapters, is more real in my heart than any being of bone and blood, which, after all, is only a temporary configuration of carbon. I know and love her as intimately as--well, myself. Yet, it may be exactly that identification with the Virgin that does not allow me to finally write the novel of her death. In the end, I am unable to participate in her demise. I cannot provide her with the weapon and the sad motive to pull the trigger--I cannot, in essence, kill her again, and with ever greater finality, on this page.

For, in the real world, memory intervenes, projecting miles of home movies in the mind that reel the eyes away from the closing frame of horror. Though it may take years to paint in the missing colors, we ultimately are able to soften the image of our dead with the posthumous pastels of recollection.

The written word, however, is an inky infinity, the period at the end of the sentence a black hole consuming all light beyond the margins and signalling a halt to every verb. In its printed form, the word is a bird flattened in mid-flight.

Now I realize that the pain I felt as I tried to fictionalize the Virgin was not caused by the story itself but, rather, by the fact that I was writing it in shackles. My hands literally were tied. As a fiction writer, I had no choice but to lead the Virgin to her inexorable death. I was condemned by my craft to work backwards, predeterminedly burrowing into her past in order to build the motivation for her final act, that single moment that would overshadow the millons of others in her life, that would reduce her entire existence to a hollow pretext, a pointless hopscotch into despair. From the beginning, I, like the Virgin, was stuck at the end, my words turned on themselves, no way out.

But there is a way out, both for her and for myself. By opening my eyes and staring into that cold barrel, by directly confronting the suicide of the Virgin and telling the simple truth, I can finally move beyond her death and into the limitless possibilities of her life. Rather than being driven into ever deeper fictions by my avoidance of her self-immolation, I am now free to create a future for the Virgin, to imagine the life she would have imagined for herself. I can give her a home in the mountains, a kitchen full of granddaughters, a fire opal ring, an Arabian horse. She can travel to Spain, cross the Straits and see the pyramids, learn how to play the saxaphone, dye her hair, finally take the ballet lessons she dreamt of as a child. She can spend an entire afternoon walking through the bosque with her lover, lying with him under the mountain ashes in the September sun. They share a mango and a lime Calistoga while they write each other rambling letters with their eyes, laughing with a single voice as their sticky fingers intertwine and their clothes melt away and they make love again and again on a bed of fallen leaves while the scandalized birds fly away with their names.

Now the Virgin can become any outrageous or frivolous thing she pleases, even a poet. In fact, she has no choice but to be a poet because the love she would imagine for herself must be unattainable. It can never work out, for the dull routine of a lasting relationship would be a daily suicide. The only love the Virgin can imagine is the one that never reaches consummation, a love that is always sharp and consuming, hope whetted on the edge of hopelessness. So, she would have to write poems to him, and she would write them en español, for Spanish is the tongue of love--and death, of course. They would be poems from the labyrinth of her heart, poems of exquisite frustration, like this one (the translation is mine, not hers):

Lo que los dedos quisieran saber

Me toco los labios con los dedos anhelosos

que sólo conocen el amor de la pluma--

dedos envidiosos que entregarían todas las palabras

que escribieran en una vida

sólo por saber lo que mis labios entienden--

estos labios que hace unas horas temblantes

saborearon los tuyos--

labios que si pudieran escribir

escribirían un poema que besaría los dedos descorazonados

que ahora están escribiendo.

What my fingers would like to know

I touch my lips with my longing fingers

that know only the love of the pen--

my jealous fingers that would give up

all the words they might write in a lifetime

just to know what my lips understand--

these lips that only a few trembling hours ago

tasted the sweetness of yours--

these lips that, if they could, would write a poem

that would kiss the sullen fingers

that are writing these lines.

Everything in the Virgin's life would be transformed by her hunger for her impossible lover: even her meals would devour her with desire.

Cena para dos

Sola, preparé dos platos para la cena.

Los dos filetes de pescado pudiera haber pensado comer

pero el par de papas asadas no.

Una era tuya--desde el principio era tuya

y se quedó en la mesa

ese terrón luminoso de luna

papa tuya que con ansias pasó la noche esperando

la caricia de tu quijada

el arrobamiento de tu lengua--

papa que quería empaparse

con la saliva enloquecedora de tu boca.

Allí se quedó en el plato mi corazón arrancado

papa solitaria y vulnerable.

Dinner for two

Alone, I set out two plates for dinner.

I might have imagined eating the two fillets of fish

but not the pair of baked potatoes.

One of them was yours--

yours right from the beginning

and that luminous lump of the moon

remained on the table

your potato that spent the night craving

the caress of your jaws

the ravishment of your tongue--

potato that longed to melt in the mad saliva

of your mouth.

There on the plate lay my naked heart

a lonely and fragile potato.

All told, however, the moon would end up receiving more poems than her lover. Only the moon would know the full radiance of her pain.

Luna salvaje

Luna salvaje

devoradora del sueño

redámame tu luz ácida--

disvuélveme esta cicatriz

que por tanto tiempo me ha privado

de mi dulce herida.

Luna lunática

bésame con tu ardiente insomnio.

No quiero dormir nunca

para jamás despertarme

a ese mundo penumbroso que me espera

sin él.

Wild moon

Wild moon

sleep-eating moon

spill your acidic light over me--

dissolve this scar

that for so long

has deprived me

of my precious wound.

Mad moon

kiss me with your fiery insomnia.

I never want to sleep

so I will never again awaken

to that shadowy world that awaits me

without him.


The moon, of course, also has a dark side, and in honestly confronting the death of the Virgin, I am likewise forced to face my own. At bottom, it's my death that drives this story. Why else the obsession with this woman I hardly knew, this character who has taken up permanent residence in my imagination, refusing every attempt at eviction and weathering even the worst droughts of inspiration. In the headlong race from tomorrow to tomorrow, it is the Virgin who pulls me to a dead halt, the Virgin who forces me to balance my sixteen thousand sunrises against a single dark moment. That moment in which she abandoned her child for the rest of his lifetime is equal to the lifetime I will live without a child. Like a mirrored image that is reversed but exact, her decision and mine both add up to death. The only variables are those of time, but in terms of the universe, the difference between eighty years and eight-tenths of a second is so infinitesimal as to be absurd.

Simply put, I know no part of me will survive. Certainly, there are these words, but they are, in the end, no more than words. No protein from my protein will live on, no blood cell from my own unique blood will continue to circulate through this wild world after I am inanimate. Yet, I continue to scratch away with my pen, chaining together ever-tightening language like a DNA spiral of metaphor that, once sprung, might catapult me off the page and out of my skin. For, like every conscious being, I have experienced flashes of forever: our simultaneous climax on the creaking bed as the light from dead stars streamed through the open window--the horseback ride through the jaras and sway-backed cottonwoods lining the río, our low talk mingling with the snapping branches as we crossed over to the other side--the green look in your eyes on the beach south of Guaymas where we wrote poems to the dreamy fetus in our souls and cooked beans over a driftwood fire in your great-grandmother's clay pot.

Though they sputter and lurch at takeoff, these paper images are all I have to fly in the face of death. These words--and Christmas, which I continue to commit on the page, for it is the symbol of our birth, our rebirth, the image of life blasting through the dead ice of winter, though, of course, even the healthiest baby is doomed to extinction. Thus, our need for a soul. Our reason and our fear coalesce in the absolute need to know we don't simply cease to exist. Yet, after all the theological arguments have died out and the last shovelful of dirt has been thrown on the grave, there is only one immortality we can be sure of, the immortality of the story.

So long as there are new ears to hear it and fresh eyes to read it, our story--especially our collective story--is eternal. And the most universal and enduring story of all is the story of birth, the archetypal "Christmas" that knows no boundaries of time or place.

Of course, we New Mexicans, like all traditional peoples still not cut off from the earth by concrete and computer E-mail, are convinced we live at the center of the universe. The Pueblo Indians, in fact, take that metaphor quite literally, a feat of consciousness possible only in a culture that has not split the world into living and dead categories. For the Pueblos, everything is alive in the circle of life demarked by the blue mountains on the horizon of the spreading sky, all beings are a part of the cycle that is timeless because it recognizes no human measures of time. The "sipapú" is simultaneously the symbolic and the actual center, the real and imaginary point of emergence, the earthly "birthing hole" around which all the sorrows and joys of this life ripple in expanding rings of inexpressible beauty.

Here, in the center of the world, we take our Christmas traditions seriously, which is to say personally, passing them down with the same care a partera might use to place a new-born infant in her mother's arms. I remember the first time my wife and I participated in "Las Posadas," the nine-day reenactment of the homeless Holy Couple's search for shelter. We went bounding up the Chimayó road in a chilly schoolbus, Father Luis at the wheel. Recently arrived from Spain, the Catalonian cura may have been compensating for his constant urge to drive on the wrong side of the narrow state highway, or, perhaps, he was just learning to drive. Still, the neck-jolting ride only served to raise our spirits as we wound up a gravelly arroyo and finally heaved to a stop in the yard of the family who had gone to the effort of hand-raking the bare earth in front of their doorstep in honor of our arrival, but who were obligated by tradition to keep us all locked out.

Huddled against the bitter night, our words rose in musical clouds that floated in the frozen air as we sang the versos from centuries ago and an ocean away, trying to convince the warm ones inside with the cold hearts to let us in. "Posada te pido, amado casero, por sólo una noche la Reina del Cielo--We ask for shelter, kind owner of this house, just a single night of shelter for the Queen of Heaven," we sang to the halting accompaniment of our numb-fingered guitarrist. "Pues, si es una reina quien lo solicita, cómo es que de noche anda tan solita?" the answer filtered through the glowing cracks of the door--"Well, if it's really a queen who's asking to stay, why is she wandering around all alone at night?"

Eventually, the homeowners came to realize, just as they have down through the millenia since the first walls went up, that is it really they who are locked up inside their loneliness. The doorknob turned and we all poured into the house, eyeglasses fogging over and laughter choking up in the sudden surge of heat from the opening of the heart. We ate bizcochitos and drank hot chocolate as the guitarristas continued to play and the adolescent Virgin radiated a light that seemed to come from somewhere inside her and beyond her at once. Poor San José, meanwhile, tottered nervously as her side, stuck in his itchy woolen beard and his pointless role.

The father of Christ with a small "f" plays an even less important role in the traditional folk drama of "Los Pastores." He is the only actor who doesn't have a speaking part, except for the Virgin who, naturally, has no need to speak. Even the lowliest of the shepherds, el Cojo and el Bacirio, have more to say and do than the immobile carpenter whose fate it is to pay the bills and shut up. The character who gets the most laughs in the play is Bartolo, the diametric opposite of the hardworking and self-effacing breadwinner with the beard. The lazy shepherd, Bartolo is the wise-cracking "everyman" that every one of us would like to be--"Gila," he cries out, "roll another tamale my way; sorry I can't gather wood at the moment, but my zalea is calling me to sleep." On another level, Bartolo is exactly who we are, which is the reason his legendary lack of initiative evokes such derisive laughter from the audience. When given the choice, we, like Bartolo, will opt to sleep right through the miracles of our lives.

"En Belén está la Gloria, Bartolo, vamos allá--The Glory of God is in Bethlehem, Bartolo, let's go and see," his fellow shepherds shout as they try to rouse him from his comfortable sheepskin.

"Si quiere la Gloria verme, que venga la Gloria acá," Bartolo replies--"If Gloria is so hot to see me, have her come over here."

Hilarious as Bartolo is, it is the Diablo who steals the show. As William Blake once said of Milton's "Paradise Lost," it is the Devil who gets all the best lines, in spite of the blind poet's own intentions. There is nothing unconscious about the Devil's role in "Los Pastores," however. That gordiflón in the red suit and the twitchy tail is an unadorned and unfettered expression of the devil in us all. Lust, greed, envy and treachery--it's all there, prancing and snorting up the aisles for us to hiss and boo at and recognize in ourselves.

In the first and best production of "Los Pastores" I ever saw, the actor portraying Lucifer played him to diabolical perfection, clutching his undulating gut in glee after successfully tempting the Hermit to abduct the shepherdess Gila, and rolling his eyes and wagging his tongue mickjaggeredly as he poked his pitchfork at the pesky angels singing in the firmament--"Chu! Chu! Angeles malditos que vienen a perturbar!"

The one who got truly "perturbing," of course, was San Miguel, and as the old archrival of the Devil appeared in his white robe and gold-glittered wings, I couldn't help but notice the theater company had cast the blondest Chicano among them for the role of the archangel. Whether done knowingly or not, that casting decision dregged up in my mind the countless stories I'd heard over the years equating lo güero con lo bonito (fairness of skin with beauty). How many abuelas have perpetuated that mythology by remarking, ""Qué blanca--qué bonita!" when the gachupín genes surface in their grandchildren's mixed blood? But it's a different story when the indigenous tones are reflected in the face: "Trigueño, pero buen muchacho," they cluck their tongues, as if those with darker skin are in need of a good personality to compensate for their lack of looks.

The Devil, however, would not be so easily cowed by the washed-out words of the oxthodox hierarchy he had rebelled against so many ages ago. And so there was a fight--high drama and low comedy all balled up in a rollicking battle that began with the Demon crossing his Halloween pitchfork with the Archangel's rubbery sword in the classic Errol Flynn style, but which soon degenerated into a wrestling match reminiscent of the antics of the blubbery barrigones on Lucha Libre. San Miguel, of course, emerged triumphant as always, and we all cheered right on cue as the red-faced vivorón writhed on the stage steps where he would be safely chained up for a thousand years.

But I turned reflective, thinking of how saddened we would be had the Devil never shown up to turn things on their heads for a time. Life would be a boring play, with all the angels in their scripted places and God in His utter aloofness. It's the Devil, after all, who forces the Creator's hand--it's the presence of evil that makes our impulse for doing good descend from the comfortable clouds of our intentions. That impulse to love when it makes more sense to hate is the most wonderfully reckless act we are capable of as human beings. Once it is born in our hearts, we cannot escape its presence, even if we try, and, of course, we do, for the more primitive instinct of self-preservation is imprinted in our marrow. But, having seen the star of our divinity--which is no more than our ability to think beyond the limits of our own flesh--we can never forget it. That damned star will haunt us, visiting our dreams and planting confusion in the deeply rooted selfishness of our private sleep. It will force us to leave the safe circle of our family and home where we are permitted to be as empty as we want; it will drive us into the desert to search for water in the rocks. And though we may go mad with thirst, it's a far better madness than satiation, that catatonic satisfaction we would suffer without the Devil. In his absence, we'd be unable to know desire and the fulfillment of desire, that release that blows us out of our egocentric corpuscles and makes us, if only for an instant, godlike--or whatever word one wishes to use in order to name the unnameable.

There is another ancient Christmas tradition in which a "devilish" character plays a central role. I am speaking of the figure of the "abuelo" in "los Matachines," the enigmatic dance of uncertain origin that unites indigenous and Hispanic elements which, by definition, includes seven centuries of Moorish influences. As the violinists scratch out a repetitively hypnotic melody, the costumed dancers with elaborate, jeweled headdresses covering their faces perform a highly ritualized dance. Scepters in hand, they pay homage to the monarca, the king interpreted by some as el Rey de España, and by others as the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. Dancing alongside the monarca is a young girl dressed in white known as la Malinche. Though she is innocence personified in her First Holy Communion dress, la Malinche is also historically "la chingada," the Indian interpreter for Cortez and the image of the virgin continent raped by the European conqueror.

The argument over whether the dance of "Los Matachines" symbolizes the triumph of the Spanish over the Moors or Cortez over Moctezuma or Moctezuma over the enemies of Tenochtitlán only serves to reflect the cultural prejudices of the observor. The dance is far more elemental than that, which is why it is performed so universally in the Americas, from marimba-playing Quichuas in Guatemala to middle-class "Hispanics" in the United States who practice the timeless steps in their perma-press slacks and white Reeboks. The "battle" implicit in "Los Matachines" is the eternal struggle between light and darkness, birth and death, procreation and disintegration. It is a dance as mysterious as sex.

Which is the cue for the entry of el abuelo. Outrageous and obscene, the abuelo is all decked out in his grotesque and often transsexual outfit. He galavants along the fringes of the dance, on the outskirts of society itself, challenging all mores, crossing boundaries of sex, class and culture, and breaking every social and spiritual law he happens to stumble across. Like the Native American chifonete, the abuelo is the uncontrollable king of the day who taunts the crowd, ripping off cameras and purses, pulling shrieking adolescents out for a spontaneous two-step in the dirt, and generally humping the world. Yet, when he is not scandalizing the ancianas or flipping off the mayor, the abuelo is busy keeping the dance in order, straightening the lines and helping the monarca reposition his pearl-studded crown when it slips out of place. He is the pícaro, the trickster, the escape valve, the balance. He frightens us and fascinates us at once; we want to run away but we are entranced, for the abuelo has swallowed up our distance and made us, too, a part of the dance.

Until about the middle of this century, the abuelo used to literally make the children of the small pueblitos of New Mexico dance, as well as correctly recite their rosaries and their Padre Nuestros. Or else. In their homemade masks fashioned out of cowhide, feathers, canning lids or even the raw masa from the morning's tortillas, groups of abuelos would go from house to house during Christmas, cracking their whips and scaring the holy shit out of the children. The point, of course, was to frighten them into virtue, but every veteran of an abuelo visit that I have ever talked to only remembers the fear.

Y cómo no? It was surely the first time in their lives they were exposed to absolute terror without the protection of their family, for even their parents seemed to be powerless against the whooping boogiemen. Now the children were unequivocably cut off from the umbilical cord. They would never totally trust their parents again, a hard lesson to learn at so tender an age, but an essential one in this life of loneliness.

Once in awhile, though, the abuelo must have wished he had left a particular child alone, as was the case with the Indian from Cochiti Pueblo who was playing the role of an abuelo one Christmas. He ran up against a sassy kid who probably was just showing off in front of his siblings, but who, nonetheless, needed a realignment in his behavior. Grabbing the malcriadito and slinging him over the shoulder, the abuelo started out the door in order to scare him into showing a little more respect. Unfortunately, it was what the abuelo scared out of the terrified boy that started dripping down his shoulder as he strode into the night.

That abuelo-back ride into the darkness, no doubt, had a lasting effect on the boy. Likewise, at the end of "Los Matachines," the abuelo makes an enduring impression on the torito, the young bull who scampers around the dancers in the closing moments of the dance. Though he is said by some to be the embodiment of evil, the torito is simply an untamed boy. He is all of us in the exurberant bloom of our youth when we never worried about the consequences of our actions which, of course, is an innocent enough attitude until you have to move out of the garden and grow up. And so, as the violins grind down with the sun, the abuelo captures the torito and symbolically castrates him. Now we are socialized, pacified for good by the larger forces of the universe. Howling with laughter, the abuelo scans the crowd for the prettiest girl. With a ceremonious bow, he presents her with a pair of plump grapes which she dumbly eyes in her palm. Good Catholic or not, this young lady is no longer a virgin.


Like the abuelo, I, too, have looked for the most beautiful woman in my imagination to cast in the bitter role of the Virgin. For more than three years, this immaculate lady has lingered at the threshold of her own death, glancing back all that time at her sleeping baby as she inexorably opens the paper door. Her hands have clawed their way through the hundreds of thousands of processed words of four different manuscripts, always rising off the page at the last moment to wildly clasp my own. Our hands, by now, are exactly the same size.

Perhaps that's why I, hardly the praying type, found myself kneeling in front of the Santo Niño that afternoon with my matching hands clasped together. In all four versions of her story, the Virgin has also shifted her weight uncomfortably on the splintery kneeler at the Santuario de Chimayó. It was inevitable she end up in the cave-like womb of the Santuario where every wounded soul eventually comes as a last resort, back to the beginning, to the hole in the earth that might work one more miracle. The irony, of course, is that the Virgin has already been beyond miracles each time she has knelt in waxy silence before the green satin-robed Baby Saint. No number of votive candles can light her inner darkness; no amount of sacred earth can dam up the tears she sheds inside her eyes. And, yet, because she has come, I have made a pilgrimage to the Santuario as well.

It's not my first, nor my last trip to this center of faith in the northern mountains of New Mexico. I have been coming here ever since my VW bug first sputtered into this stark and healing land. Some twenty years ago, I found myself on this serpentine state highway every morning at 7:45 am as I drove to my teaching job at Santa Cruz High School. The first parochial school in the valley, turned public by court order in the fifties, Santa Cruz High School served the people of the mountain villages that, except for the electrical lines and television antennas, looked much as they had a century before--Cuartélez, Córdova, Truchas, Las Trampas. The road that connects all these untouched pueblitos was, and still is considered one of the deadliest in all of the state. It's not so much the fact that it writhes and rattles around so many blind curves. The real danger is the drivers themselves who maintain such wildly differing relationships with the internal combustion engine. Some come burning down the hill, matándose, as we say in Spanish--"killing themselves" and laying rubber on both sides of the highway in their daily running of the Chimayó 500. Other batos in their lowslung, smoky-glassed carros bajitos crawl along in single figures on the odometer, their oilpans mere millimeters from the potholed pavement.

I've had countless close calls on this highway where you must drive as though you were defending your honor. Every morning on my way to work, I would shake my head and slow down even more as I passed by the adobe house with the caved-in wall where some borracho had made an unexpected and fender-crunching stop. That plundered wall, whose toppled adobes were already on the verge of melting back into the earth, remained in that sad state at the side of the road for years. But, then, those clay and straw walls must have been standing long before that hot ribbon of tar was poured only a car-length from the casita. After all, Santa Cruz itself, with its fortress-like church at the center of the old plaza, has been in existence for nearly three hundred years, and that isn't even the original settlement. It was in 1685 when the first families founded the village which they named with considerable flourish, "La Villa Nueva de Santa Cruz de la Cañada de los Mexicanos Españoles del Rey Nuestro Señor Don Carlos Segundo." Not long after, however, the Santa Cruz River washed everything away but the regal name when it flooded out of its banks and forced the relocation of the villa to its present site on higher ground.

Happily, the viejita who lived in that battered house had recently moved her cuarto de dormir to the back, so she escaped being buried alive on her bed when that car came careening off the road. By now, though, she must surely have been taken by that dark driver who was coming only a few quick years behind. Gone, too, are many of the gentle ancianos I personally knew who lived along that road lined with apple-bright fruit stands, drive-up liquor windows, crushed dogs, fragrant patches of alfalfa, arching willows, rusty carcasses of Chevy Impalas blooming with wild sunflowers, mountains of split firewood, and the silty irrigation runoff from generational plots of green chile and sweet corn.

Some of the kindest people I have ever known grew that chile and harvested that corn which would make enough dried chicos to get a dozen families through the winter. There was doña Beroniz in her white gorrita and her starched white apron with a rosary permanently in the pocket. After her morning prayers had assured that none of her extended family of hijos, nietos, bisnietos, sobrinos and ahijados would roll off the road or fall in the ditch or plunge from the sky on their way to school, work, or that weekend vacation on the other side of the world in Las Vegas, doña Beroniz would greet the breaking sun in her garden where she grew flowers for the Virgin. I still see her surrounded in my memory by the hush of her zinnias and portulacas.

And down the road was don Juan Borrego, white-haired caballero from another time, his eyes remote as Utah. His death prompted my first bilingual poem, as I had begun to learn what would become the language of my heart even while I was coming to realize what a loss the passing of this proud generation of elders represented.


y ya se fue el señor Borrego

with his gentle sheepherder's memory

that stretched back a los días mágicos de antes

if it would make any difference

I'd say he simply went riding over the still llano

on the broken old yegua y desapareció

tal vez queriendo recoger un borreguito


pero ya comió la familia

y se fue

and already his memory evaporates into the grey skies

over Los Angeles and Dallas

Yet, even while reflecting here on don Juan's death, it is not his death I remember as I strain to load the leaden chunks of black walnut wood my father-in-law and I are cutting at the rear boundary of the old sheepherder's property. Afterwards, as the oily smoke from the chainsaw clears, we stand in the shade of the one-ton Dodge flatbed while my suegro and don Juan talk about the horses neither of them will ride again and those tiempos de antes when the land was so fertile and the people so united that ristras of chile ringed every house up and down the river and no one ever went hungry even though the weather was biblical in those times, so cold during the winter, in fact, that the Río Grande froze solid enough to allow teams of horses to cross the ice.

And, so, to travel up the road to the Santuario is to pass through several time zones that cut across centuries. That passage of timelessness is all the more obvious if one walks, which is the tradition, especially on Good Friday when tens of thousands of peregrinos come slogging through the sandy arroyos and swarming over the wind-chiseled hills to converge on the Santuario. Some struggle along in penitent isolation, dragging visible and invisible crosses, while others pull on their joggers and lace up their Nikes, taking along a guitar, gatorade and a half-dozen buddies in order to throw a party on the way. There are children in wheelchairs, electrical engineers on bicycles, bronze-chested boys on horseback, altar society women praying a new Mystery every five hundred feet, giddy junior high girls, camera-lugging turistas from San Bernadino, Vietnam vets still limping from their wounds, the Albuquerque Eyewitness News camera crew, and even Archbishop Sánchez himself with his singing entourage of the faithful. Though some come solely for the exercise, many walk in search of a miracle or in fulfillment of a promise made to the Virgin in a time of crisis.

The Virgin herself, of course, would never make the pilgrimage on Viernes Santo surrounded by all the boom boxes and barullo, nor did I when I went to find myself in her place, squeegeeing a few drops of holy water from the limp sponge in the font at the rear of the Santuario where I had entered through the massive door handcarved in 1816, according to the inscription, by one Pedro Domínguez, "esclavo del Señor" (slave of the Lord). My first sensation was viseral rather than visual, as I felt the cave-like coolness enveloping me in the main chapel with its thick, jasper-coated adobe walls peopled with saints. As I adjusted to the darkness, I began to make out that legion of wooden figures with the martyred eyes, from Nuestro Señor de Santiago on his Moor-bashing horse, to Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, whose unending pain it is to outlive her son who hangs in the middle of it all on the main altar, the gaunt cristo known as Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas in whose honor the Santuario was built nearly two hundred years ago.

Though scholars speculate that the builder of the Santuario, Bernardo Abeyta, must have been familiar with the healing patron saint of Esquipulas, Guatemala, it is the legends that are more convincing to the heart. According to the most popular of the tales, don Bernardo was praying in the hills above Chimayó during Holy Week when he noticed a strange light emanating from a hole in the ground near the river. Digging on the spot with his bare hands, the devout penitente unearthed the crucifix of Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas. In a state of awe, don Bernardo gathered his vecinos who carried the cross in procession to the Santa Cruz Church some seven miles away. Though Father Sebastián Alvarez placed the crucifijo in the main altar of the church, by morning it had returned to its hole by the river. Don Bernardo promptly organized another procession to take the cross back to the church, but, again, it miraculously travelled back to its pozo. After the stubborn cristo made a third return trip (for everything in the old stories happens in threes), the people finally got the point and set to work constructing a shrine for the santo over the hole next to the river.

Arresting as the stories are, especially within this company of saints, it was the smell, as always, that possessed me as I walked up the center aisle of the chapel over don Bernardo's bones. It was the smell of sorrow, the marrowing incense of spoiled bodies and crushed spirits, the acrid pang of lives gone sour, mingled with the smoky echo of untold promises ignited in faith or desperation, or both. A few people prayed in scattered pews, I'm sure--there is always somebody murmuring to the Almighty in the Santuario, even when it's locked up for the night and the saturated walls themselves continue to sob. As usual, I nearly cracked my head on the squat lintel over the passageway leading from the main chapel to the side room where the Santo Niño resides next to the sacred hole. As I ducked under the doorway, remembering the thunking blows I had given myself over the years as well as those I had witnessed countless pilgrims deliver to their own craniums, all in spite of the "WATCH YOUR HEAD" sign prominently displaced above, I reflected that the skull-splitting lintel might have been placed that low on purpose in order to enforce a little humility and maybe even inspire a spontaneous vision or two. Perhaps it explained why the diminutive Father Roca had been the pastor of the Santuario for so many years, as any taller priests soon would have been knocked out of commission.

Inside the dim room, the pudgy Santo Niño sat in a stifling glass case. I didn't know if it was he or I who was short of breath as I knelt before the chubby figure choking with the burden of several rosaries slung around his neck and scores of yellowing petitions and prayers taped to the dark walls surrounding him. High school yearbook photos and blurry family snapshots of the sick and the lost and the miraculously cured filled those walls hanging with crutches and canes abandoned by those who had hobbled home on the strength of their faith. Unaccustomed to kneeling on my own volition, I searched at first for words to explain to myself what I was doing in front of this waxy figure with the cherubic cachetes and the worn-out shoes. But, then, I realized it was my own words which had led me to this place in a search for no one but myself, for my wordless self that cannot be spoken, nor much less written.

Rising and rubbing my dreaming knees, I walked into the sunny adjoining room and squatted down to scoop up a business size envelope of holy earth from the hole that never empties. I had nothing to heal but the wound the Virgin had inflicted on my writing when she shot herself. But before I could leave the room and slip outside where I knew the huge cottonwood by the stream would still be stretching into the clear sky, two concha-belted women asked me to take their picture, one on either side of the sacred hole. Like so many things I do, I did it without wanting to, feeling a touch sacrilegious as I snapped the shutter on the beaming turistas. For miracles do happen within these adobe walls, just as they did long before Catholicism lifted this mud towards the heavens. A millenium ago, the Tewa Indians came to this place to heal themselves with the mud that, according to their legends, was formed when fire erupted from the earth and dried a primordial hot spring. Even the name "Chimayó" is derived from the Tewa "tsimayo," which means "good flaking stone," or obsidian of superior quality. So, in the timeworn Spanish tradition of constructing cathedrals on the ruins of indigenous temples and transforming Tonantzín into La Virgen de Guadalupe, don Bernardo Abeyta and his ever-widening family of heirs have extended the ancient string of miraculous cures attributed to the mud that has mended limbs and broken marriages and even beaten back cancerous tumors and the terminal curses of brujas.

I cannot outline specific cures on this page nor give names and faces to particular miracles, for I did not go that day to the Santuario in order to gather "material," but, rather, to collect myself. Were I still trying to fictionalize this story, I would go back today and collect some of the actual stories written on the walls before writing another word myself. But, since I have decided to tell the simple truth, I must create these miracles as my own imagination dictates. I must speak from the heart as I did when I was interviewed on National Public Radio one Holy Week several years ago. I probably should have known that in agreeing to discuss the annual pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayó, I would be pressed to comment on the healing earth. How, the interviewer insisted on knowing, could that small hole in the side chapel never empty when thousands of people trooped through on Good Friday to dig out their personal ration of holy dirt? I answered her question by questioning its very relevance, and when she wouldn't take that for an answer, I told her again that it didn't matter--no importa, it's not the refilling of the hole that is the miracle, but the bottomless faith of the thousands of people who walk all those unforgiving miles past reason and doubt to at last arrive at that absurd point in the mountains where the unbelieveable can be believed, the moment when, kneeling, the creative spirit forms a new body out of the raw clay. As you can imagine, I might just as well have been speaking in Nahuatl, or beating two rocks together over the air. Her questions drove the radios of America right past the real story and deadended in the dirt, as the mystery went bounding off the blindly spinning satellite and dissolved into static.

Later, the mayordomo of the Santuario found himself face to face with a young local journalist who also wanted some straight answers about that hole. George Chacón must have surprised her when he broke with the longstanding tradition of allowing the story of the pozo and all the other legends associated with the Santuario to live their quiet mythological lives next to the stream. In the forty years that he and his wife had been caretakers of the Santuario, George had seen his beloved shrine go from a place of prayer and spiritual healing to a hot spot on the tourist map. He had finally had it. "A lot of people think that hole fills up with dirt all by itself, that it's a dirt spring," the eighty-year-old man told the reporter from the Albuquerque Journal. "I'm the one who keeps that hole filled, and it's kind of hard on me. From here until Sunday, I'm going to carry a lot of dirt to that hole."

Father Casimiro Roca, the small but feisty priest who had been pastor of the Santuario nearly as long as George Chacón had been mayordomo, and who was equally exasperated with the annual siege at Holy Week, also broke the unwritten code of silence about the dirt and, in essence, threw it in the faces of those tens of thousands who came tramping through the hills out of curiosity or boredom, or for no other reason than to get a little exercise. Speaking to the same reporter, Father Roca said:

It's gotten completely out of hand. Every year it becomes wilder....This is an invasion....It used to be that this was one hundred percent a religious visit, with people in general praying and saying the rosary, staying here in silence and prayer. But these people who come with the idea that hiking is healthy for the body, who don't care about the reason for this, or just come to see others hiking--I'd like to see them hike up into the hills and stay there until the day after Easter.

Those words could not have come easily to the priest with the welcoming face whose grin was always inviting you in. It occurred to me, as I read, that the horde of hikers who had eroded the cordiaility of that rock of a priest could have done with a little Roca-style penance. They should all have been made to sit through one of his noontime masses when he happily droned on for what seemed like purgatories of time in his Spanish-accented English, homilying on such an elementary level that you could almost feel your feet slowly swinging free of the floor as you shrank back into your six-year-old self. And when he would at last reach the conclusion that sin was still bad, the crew-haired padre would start the whole sermon over in his Catalonian-accented Spanish, repeating what he had just finished saying in the English version with probably even the same number of grins thrown in.

Naturally, we knew that once our minds were as numb as our nalgas, we would have our reward. And we weren't waiting to get to heaven in order to collect it. Scrambling into the car, we'd take the short drive up the road to the Ranchos de Chimayó Restaurant where we would eat a lunch of chicken flautas and carne adobada while sipping on margaritas and drinking in the dignified hospitality of the Jaramillo family. As the sharp angles of our bodies gradually softened in the glow of the corner fireplace, we would pass our favorite family stories around the table with the honey and sopaipillas--how this tía used to show up at every funeral and wedding with a different color of hair, how that primo collects wives like so many cars though he's beginning to run out of room in his garage. We'd talk the way my father-in-law used to irrigate the timothy hay on his ranch above Coyote--no sudden rushes of words but, rather, a gentle flow fanning out in all directions, eventually covering everything. Outside the window, the land would be shimmering in the delicious sun, the trees hanging with apples or grandmotherly birds gossiping on icy branches about the coming of the equinox.

I realize there is a smell of April in the words I write on this cloudless morning miles of months away from the Santuario in spring, but that is the weather in my head whenever I think of Chimayó. Always, I come back to the earth, the fertility, the fruitfulness of this earth that George Chacón once wheelbarrowed to the healing hole, the sipapú, George himself now crumbling into earth, the same earth that nurtures the chile and breaks the baby's fever, this dark earth that swallowed the seven people killed by Ricky Abeyta in an inhuman rampage that transformed these arroyos filled with pilgrims' footprints into a minicam backdrop for hell on the ten o'clock news, this mother earth that feeds the body and sustains the spirit like Sostenes Trujillo inviting you into her bright, minty kitchen--sit down, siéntate, acabo de echar tortillas, let me make you some alucema for that cough, hace mucho que no te miro, sit down, eat.

Though she has no state permit to treat people, Sostenes is licensed by the older tradition of curanderismo, by her generational knowledge of herbs and remedios, and by her own irrepressible faith. Gracias a Dios Todopoderoso!--the stocky, silver-haired woman declares when describing the neighbors and relatives she has cured with her yerbas and back-snapping sobadas. But, if God gets the credit for every arthritic cojo who walks home without a limp, it's the Evil One who usually dominates the conversation around the yellow formica-topped kitchen table. Like a verbal tight-rope walker, Sostenes shudders along the thin story line between fear and fascination, spinning brujerías, those ageless tales of witches who go crackling through the night on wings of fire. Whether it's bolas de lumbre dancing over the tombs in the camposanto or la Llorona howling in the Russian Olives, Sostenes has known them all, wrestling with every owl-eyed and goat-hooved manifestation of evil in these mountains named after the blood of Christ. Such an elemental struggle leaves little room for debate over the reality of the stories: all is accepted, from the appearance of the devil at Red's Steakhouse to the apparition of the Virgin on a freshly-plastered wall in Mora. Goodness, in the end, is only possible when one confronts every possibility for evil in the human heart, though Sostenes would hardly think of herself in such fleshless terms. To her, the existence of witches like the one who hooted outside her window the other night in the form of a tecolote is simply an occupational hazard, part of the territory, the price she pays for living on the frontera between darkness and light.

The story that for some reason has stuck with me the most is the one Sostenes tells about the ranchero who, after spending the day hunting for lost calves in the pasturelands of the merced, ends up at the choza of a witch. As is the case in so many of the stories, this gnarled vieja is widely suspected of trafficking in brujerías, so the ranchero is understandably wary of accepting the tortillas she offers him fresh off the comal. In spite of his hunger, he repeatedly refuses to sit down and eat with the old woman whose rats-nest stench overpowers the aroma of the tortillas browning on the wood-burning stove. At last he takes a couple of the tortillas with him which remain warm in his hand as he gallops away on his mare. When he arrives home, something more primitive than hunger compels the ranchero to tear open one of those thick tortillas. Choking on his own stomach, he drops the tortillas writhing with worms.

What makes this story so horrifying, I suspect, is the fact that the bruja used the staple of life as a vehicle for her deadly deed. Messing with the masa strikes at the heart of every mexicano, tied up as the tortilla is with the home, the mother, with life itself. Silly as it may have sounded in newspaper headlines, the appearance of the face of Christ on a tortilla in Lake Arthur made spiritual sense to the people of New Mexico. What more appropriate place for the Lord to show up than on the surface of the unleavened bread we eat every day in His memory, which is to say, in celebration of the mystery of consciousness that translates carbohydrates into thoughts and proteins into love.

The dough, la masa, is the stuff of creation, our mother at the kitchen table, floured hands twisting off a glistening ball of dough, her bolillo rhythmically flattening the masa, extending it into a perfect sphere, a world ready for the heat of the comal, the first Mother who gave birth to the first God, La que era antes del Principio, flipping galaxies over the eternal fire so by the time we awaken, there is already a stack of solar systems steaming on the breakfast table in a towel.

The creator of the universe, though, is also slave to her creation, feeding the life she has created with her own lifeblood. There is probably no more potent symbol of servitude in this corner of the world than the woman who dutifully rises every morning of her life in order to make tortillas for her husband and family. Freeing oneself from the yoke of tortilla-making, in fact, is the surest measure of liberation, at least in traditional families. I always remember what a close friend told me his mother had said on the evening after her husband's funeral. Calling her half-dozen daughters into the kitchen, the matriarch announced: "Vamos por 'hamborgues', nomás nosotras--Let's go for burgers, just we women."

And then there's the story, also true, about a viejita in one of the northern villages who had a debilitating disease. In spite of her slow deterioration, her husband wouldn't lift a finger to help do any of the "women's work" inside the house. The friend who told me the story said once she arrived at the house of the viejitos to find the old man actually holding his wife up in front of the stove so she could cook his dinner! But the tale has the kind of classic ending that life writes only on the rarest of occasions. The viejo panzón, who seemed to be in perfect health, suddenly took ill and died. What's more, his widow not only outlived him, but actually recovered from her long illness, living the last years of her life in relatively good health and the sense of personal freedom that alone makes life worth living.

The Virgin, too, may outlive her own son on this page. Here, she is free to dream for good in ten-point type, while he, like the Santo Niño, must follow his feet down an endless dirt road. Will he spend a lifetime on his way to someplace else, always looking after others with his motherless eyes? Will he wear out his shoes like the Santo Niño in his glass cage; will callouses well up through the holes in his days? I see him caught in the traffic of a restless life, but, rather than following him into dust, I always go back to that Christmas Eve when I watched him sleeping in his mother's arms. I remember how she pulled at his toes as the pageant played itself out around them, though I'm sure I must have imagined that scene in my memory. And, yet, the Virgin must have played with her baby's pudgy deditos at some point, singing a nonsensical rhyme her grandmother learned from her grandmother. Did she, I wonder, come back at night after she was dead, despidiéndose de él in legendary style, her invisible fingers tugging at his toes the same way my fingers tug at the invisible toes of the child we never had?

I have no answer, of course, for that or any other question I've posed myself since I began writing my novel of the Virgin. All I know is that these three years have led me, in the end, to my own empty arms, to this very moment on a blustery February morning when my words finally embrace the child we created in our hearts but never held, the child I would have healed with the old versos: Sana, sana, colita de rana--si no sanas hoy, sanarás mañana. But now it is he who pens verses to heal me, for he is the child who comes out in me, my night vision, the world blaring in primary colors as I stand on my head, the bullet whizzing back into the chamber. He is always with me, ready to race outside in the rare evening rain, he is

sitting ticklishly still in the corral as the roan filly named Asia licks the sweat off my bare chest

making up jokes about cats in my sleep as you lie beside me in the laughing darkness

losing my hands as I play the guitar until there is only the music fluttering like crisp, metallic birds in my ears

panicking when my eyes snag on yours across the table and my breath gets tangled up in your hair

dancing under a sweat-drenched moon in the parking lot as Flaco Jiménez pumps Tex-Mex polkas on his electrified accordian

smoking Velvet roll-your-owns on a late night walk through the ghostly streets of Fresno, a necklace of white houses suspended in the midnight mist

playing rondita for hours at the kitchen table with a dogeared deck of playing cards, betting chickens and cracking piñón while we cheat shamelessly and are cheated upon

laughing all the way home from the Sea of Cortez with an icechest full of skipjack and a secret joke on the world

climbing the Flatirons in Boulder in May in love with a woman who instead of her love gave me a dog named Faith who scrambles up granite ledges after pinecones and noses at my solitude in the celibate night

kneeling to tie my new tennis shoes inside the rock walls of a thousand-year-old ruin in Chaco Canyon and discovering a pottery shard whose painted stripes match the lines in my open palm

twirling a merry-go-round full of children in front of the screen at the Starlighter Drive-in in the thickening twilight, my arms still aching from a hatless day in the sun making adobes for the house we were already plastering in our dreams

taking a crisp bite of a yellow delicious apple after the first frost, the golden veins of sugar clearly visible, sweeter still in my memory now that the grower of the apples has vanished.

Though he is now free, I am still locked in language, caught up in poetry again when I should be finishing this story that I hoped would finally put an end to my obsession with the novel that I cannot write. All I've managed to do, however, is work my way back to the beginning, back to that paradoxical altar at the center of life where the Virgin mother holds an infant whose every breath brings him one breath closer to his death. But, if this mystery has no beginning or end, how can I