Of the dozen stories published in 2019, this may have been my favorite. Atmospheric and eerie, it tells quite a complex tale in about three-thousand words. First published by Eternal Haunted Summer in their Winter Solstice issue.
by DL Shirey
Veta barked. As dog breeds went, the bone-thin hound would have been hard to identify. Jorge claimed she was purebred, but as underfed, filthy and beat up as she was, Veta looked more like a stray gone wild.
The dog trotted on the sand and gravel in the shade of a four-foot barranca. The edge of the streambed seemed to defy gravity, standing firm against the wind from the Chihuahuan Desert, each gust kicking off bits from the brittle layers of sediment. Sprouts of sour grass clung magically to the walls, out of the direct rays of the harsh, low sun.
I waited in the shadows.
Yesterday this stream was full, but the flash flood had quickly washed through and dissipated. Jorge used his walking stick to pry up a large, flat rock on the streambed to inspect the moisture that remained. His fat belly impeded a full bend at the waist, so Jorge dropped to one knee and felt the sand under the rock.
Veta stopped and sniffed below a stand of manzanita perched precariously atop the edge of the barranca. With help from the walking stick, Jorge regained his feet.
“Veta. Stay,” Jorge warned, demanding obedience.
The dog hunched at her master’s voice, glanced at Jorge and began to pace frantically back and forth. She appeared skittish, like she couldn’t stand still, wary of Jorge’s approach.
“Don’t do it, dog.” Jorge raised the walking stick.
I floated away from Veta, moving deeper into the shadows.
The hound froze for a moment, then defiantly stood on her back legs, clawing at the roots of the manzanita. I could see the thumbnail-size mushrooms only inches from the dog’s mouth. Then Veta haunched down, preparing to jump and the fat man threw the walking stick. It barely missed. The dog yelped, scampered a few meters away and turned to watch.
“They are here,” Jorge said to the sky, “Teonanáctl. From God’s flesh.”
The mushrooms looked like blisters, almost colorless. They appear for less than a day and only after water filled a stream, high enough to drench the roots of the manzanita. Even then the mushrooms will only grow in shade, sprouting two or three caps on slender, pale stalks. If touched by the sun, they instantly shrivel and die.
Carefully cutting the stems with a sharp blade, Jorge let the plump caps fall onto his palm. Their potency was as fragile as the papery yellow spokes underneath. They must be used within six hours, no more. Jorge pulled a plastic box from his back pocket and tucked the prizes between moist balls of cotton.
Jorge held the box up to the darkening sky. A lone vulture circled very low.
“They are here,” Jorge repeated, in case the bird hadn’t heard him the first time.
The vulture alighted, not far from the manzanita. The wary bird settled its wings and cocked an eye toward Jorge and Veta. As man and dog retraced their steps down the streambed, the vulture hopped to the edge of the barranca. She waited for me to climb aboard and then took wing.
There was no twilight in this part of the desert. Minutes after sunset, the sky already sprayed with stars, there were but a few lights on in the tiny town of San Michelito. It was from this village that Yoanita walked. Her room was there, but her home was in the desert. By day she tended to the crumbling Catholic church and its aging priest. In her 81 years, Yoanita only went to church to cook food and clean. Her true God would be found a long walk west from San Michelito.
From the edge of town Jorge saw Yoanita leave the church. I watched him watch her. Jorge’s eyes patiently followed the old woman as she walked toward the rising orb. There was a full moon every month, each one with a different name. In March she was the Worm Moon, La Luciérnaga. In a voice like the evening breeze, I spoke the moon’s name over and over. My whisper came to Jorge first, then drifted over to Yoanita. It caressed their ears like a meditation.
“La Luciérnaga.” There were no voices other than mine.
The old woman shrugged off her blouse, folded it and set it atop her skirt. For her age, Yoanita still had a sturdy walk and straight shoulders. Like a pendulum, the long, thick, white braid brushed her naked back. All she wore were sandals. As the moon humped up over the far horizon, cold light illuminated Yoanita. Her brown skin absorbed the moonlight but it made her unshaven body hair look like gray feathers. Like the underbelly of a vulture.
Jorge summoned the man who had been told to remain out of sight. Donalo was a middle-aged, handsome actor. Had the town of San Michelito been able to receive a TV channel, Donalo would have been well-known there.
“You pay me now, señor,” Jorge said. “The woman is tiny and the desert is large. Do not lose her. And do not approach her until she tells you to do so.”
The actor sighed.
The whites of Jorge’s eyes grew large when he touched the money. He slid the fold of bills into his pocket. He pulled out and opened the plastic box.
“Hold them loose, do not squeeze. This one goes in your right hand. It is for the woman. This one goes in your left. For you. Do you remember what to say?”
“La Luciérnaga,” Donalo said in a flat tone. His deep voice, known to millions, could barely form the words. They were impeded by doubt, by too many moments like this that had come to nothing.
He was losing faith. I knew Donalo’s mind and he was going through the motions, waiting for the ruse to reveal itself. He still believed in the afterlife, hoped for a way to speak with his wife, but his heart was calloused. Charlatans—and there had been many—eventually showed their hand. I saw a dozen faces roll across Donalo’s mind and the trickery they’d used. In the Dominican Republic, he painted his face and drank a special tea mixed with his own blood. On the anniversary of Alondra’s death he hiked to a high pass in the Andes and looked for her reflection on a glacial lake. He chased his ‘spirit animal’ through the jungle and the only thing he caught was yellow fever. Each time, money had traded hands. Each time, Donalo came back disappointed.
Yet here he was again, hoping to speak to our beloved, departed Alondra. I could see sadness crease his face and his shoulders slumped as he listened to Jorge.
“Walk slow, señor, and repeat the words with every step.” Then Jorge turned and went back to the village.
“Remember Argentina,” I whispered. My voice came to him like the sweet smell of cactus flowers.
Two weeks ago, Donalo was filming a telenovela on a sound stage in Buenos Aires. A man approached, dressed in an ill-fitting, white suit. The clothes looked new, but the man was unshaven and his face reflected an oily sheen. He had a five-year-old girl in tow.
“Señor Zonaras, I’m sorry to bother you,” the man said. “I heard you were filming in town and I wanted to meet you. My name is Santos and this is Mariela.”
Donalo was usually quite patient with his fans. “It’s nice of you to come, but it’s been a long day. I was just about—”
“I would not be here except for my daughter.” Santos paused. “I too lost my wife and I was sorry to hear about yours. Alondra, wasn’t it?”
It was a subject Donalo never talked about in public. “I appreciate the sentiment, but if you don’t mind—”
“You don’t understand. Like your wife, mine was taken from me along with her, I mean our unborn child.”
That stopped Donalo. Only his family knew that Alondra was pregnant when she died. The man in the white suit scooped up his little girl and sat her in the crook of one elbow. He straightened her crisp pinafore.
“Yet here she is, that very same child,” Santos said. “If you knew my Maria, you could see these are her eyes. I have no doubt, señor, that this is our child, Maria’s and mine.”
“But how?” Donalo looked about and lowered his voice, “I must have misunderstood. You said both your wife and child died.”
Santos made the sign of the cross. “It’s true, both did.”
Donalo had a thousand questions, but he didn’t want anyone from the film crew to hear this conversation. He walked his visitors over to the food table, letting Mariela find a treat. She took a cup of fresh blueberries and followed the two men to Donalo’s trailer.
“Are they good?” Donalo asked as the child settled onto the couch next to her father.
Mariela smiled and nodded, then popped another blueberry into her mouth. Donalo pulled up a chair and sat, almost touching knees with Santos. It seemed neither knew where to begin.
“How much?” asked Donalo. He frowned, angry with himself. “I apologize for being abrupt. I am quite tired. And these stories, they always come with a price.”
“You misjudge me, señor. I want no money.” The man removed a piece of paper from his coat pocket and unfolded a child’s drawing. “Mariela saw you on the television and drew this for you.”
The paper crinkled as Donalo smoothed it against his leg. On it were three stick figures drawn in crayon: one tall, one small and above them, the unmistakable figure of a bird.
Santos explained, “The brown man is you, in purple is your daughter. The bird will deliver her back to you.”
Mariela set down her cup of blueberries and pointed to the little purple figure in the drawing. “Katarín.”
“What did you say?” Donalo was dumbfounded.
“My friend. I met her in the before time. Katarín.”
It was the very name Donalo and Alondra had chosen when they first found out their baby would be a girl. A fact no one on earth knew except him and his dead wife. Donalo swallowed hard, refolded the paper and handed it back.
“Keep it, señor. It is yours,” Santos said. Then after a long silence, “The before time is where the lost children wait. The bruja of San Michelito can bring yours back to you, just like she did my little angel.”
Then Santos explained everything that had happened to him and where to find Yoanita. “The only thing is…”
This was the moment Donalo had been expecting— when he would be asked for a favor, for money, or both.
“The only thing is, you must do anything she asks. Even if it is the opposite of everything you know to be true.” The man looked hard into Donalo’s eyes. “What seems impossible, is not. It is a matter of faith, señor, and because I did it, my Mariela is back with me now.”
The memory evaporated and I drifted closer to Donalo as his attention returned to the desert. Nothing moved and the old woman was nowhere in sight. He walked toward the moon, repeating the name he had been told to say.
There was no worn trail for us to follow, yet the route was easily seen. Desert plants, the cholla and ocotillo, seemed to lean away from her passage as if afraid to grow where Yoanita had walked. The moon had not fully risen, it still touched the earth, but the enormous blonde disc blotted out the low stars. The path ran directly into the shining face.
A silhouette stood before us. Yoanita was standing at the edge of a mesa, high above a purple-black stretch of canyonlands. Dozens of smooth riverstones described a circle on the very edge of the precipice. Within ring the ground was scorched, as if a thousand fires had burned there. Outside, where Donalo and I stopped, were Yoanita’s sandals.
“Remove your clothing and enter,” she said to him. “Take off everything but the crucifix.”
Donalo immediately touched the gold cross in reaction, but did so gingerly because each hand still held a mushroom. His fingers fumbled as he attempted to unbutton his shirt while trying to balance the fragile caps against his palms. Yoanita seemed to sense his plight and ordered him to place the left-hand mushroom in his mouth.
“Do not chew,” she admonished, her face still toward the moon, “Savor it. Gently. You will know when to swallow.”
As it touched his tongue, it was like a light flicked on; I could sense what Donalo felt. And as the mushroom began to melt, Donalo winced at the bitter taste. Saliva flooded his mouth until there was nothing left but greasy pulp. The texture and rancid flavor made Donalo want to spit. Instead, he gagged it down.
“Clothes,” Yoanita reminded, impatience in her voice. She turned and watched Donalo until the last piece of clothing dropped at his feet.
Donalo entered the circle and handed the old woman the second mushroom. Yoanita closed her palm, mumbled some words and faced the moon. I paused at the boundary of riverstones, waiting and watching. From far away a coyote called, its voice sustained like a distant trumpet. Another, closer, joined in harmony. And from the desert came specters only I could see; the other lost infant souls who had found their way here. They floated in as if moved by a breeze, joining me. They were sad, for none of them would be going, yet they were smiling for me. We all joined hands like old friends.
“Close your eyes,” the old woman said to the man.
Donalo didn’t. Instead he asked, “Will I be able to speak to my wife?”
“Better. She will be with you. No more talk, now.” Yoanita held the mushroom firm and raised it to the moon. “Do you remember, señor, the very moment your child was conceived?”
“Yes, on our honeymoon. We—”
“Silence,” she hissed, “The mushroom will take you there. Teonanáctl is from God’s flesh. Under this moon you shall again be joined.”
As Yoanita bowed her head, so did Donalo. The bitter taste still fouled his mouth and the thing he had swallowed felt like a lump of ice in his stomach. I felt it too; so cold it was hot, the sensation radiating outward. It was like a million freezing fingers clawing and burning their way to his skin. His legs and arms went numb, and as the fiery coldness reached his eyes, Donalo had no choice but close them.
In an instant he was back on that tiny island, with its narrow spit of sand, a few palm trees and a makeshift jetty to dock the boat. Donalo lay on the beach, billows of clouds lazed across the sky above him. A gentle breeze blanketed his skin, all but forgotten compared to Alondra’s touch. She was astride him, the sun accenting the glow of perspiration on her dark skin. The perfume from the sea and sand mingled with the lavender scent of Alondra’s black, luxurious hair. A tiny gold cross and chain around her neck danced and swayed to their rhythm; frantic now as the two became one.
Alondra. She felt so real. The memory was so vivid, Donalo could not hold back, shouting his ache and pleasure out across the canyonlands. And before the echo of his passion returned, the temperature of the desert around us dropped to freezing.
Donalo gasped for air, then fogged the frigid night with great gusts of breath. He opened his eyes. Yoanita had caught his semen in her hand, and the mushroom she held began to dissolve. The old woman chanted a prayer, rubbed her palms together and caressed her naked belly; first a clockwise circle with one hand, then in the opposite direction with the other.
La Luciérnaga was higher in the sky, and in the light I could see Yoanita cradle her stomach, showing it to the moon. At the same time I felt myself moving, being drawn toward the old woman, knowing there was a new home for me inside her. I turned and waved goodbye to all my friends, who waited behind the circle of riverstones.
“Katarín is with me now. I will bear her for you and Alondra, as I have done for many others.” Yoanita smiled, her voice happy with expectation. “But there is one more thing, señor. A show of faith.”
With her words, a rhythmic sweep of wings filled the silence. From out of the canyon, an enormous vulture pushed up, effortlessly gaining altitude. It rode a thermal of air to the crest of the mesa, a breeze that had the delicate but unmistakable scent of lavender. And as the bird rose to the rim of the purple-black gorge, warmth followed, washing away the cold.
Yoanita reached out to Donalo and slid her fingertips under the delicate gold chain, admiring the crucifix. “It was your wife’s, no?”
Donalo nodded, then the old bony knuckles pulled into a fist. Before he could stop her, Yoanita ripped off the chain and flung it out over the void. It didn’t fall, but undulated weightlessly, drifting on the same current the vulture rode. The bird broke its lazy glide, flapping up and over to the necklace, grasping it in one talon. As the vulture flew away, the tiny cross separated from the chain, spinning end over end, still buoyant. It winked, reflecting the light from La Luciérnaga far above.
“A show of faith, señor,” Yoanita repeated. Her wrinkled palm swept out over the canyonlands. “The bird, she will catch you, too.”
Moments later, her voice gentle, “It is for Katarín, this sign of trust.”
Donalo exhaled, nervous and forceful. He stepped to the brink of the cliff and threw back his shoulders. Yoanita waited. I waited. Donalo looked up at the moon and took a deep breath.