Elena flipped the picture of San Antonio de Padua on its head and placed thirteen coins before him. She split a coconut, bathed it in perfume and whispered his name. When neither worked, she phoned Mario. Five minutes later she was yelling at the receiver. My mother was shaking her head.
“She should have given him her menstrual blood to drink. Now there’s no way she’ll bind him. He’s out of love.”
“But they’ve had fights before. He’ll come back to beg her forgiveness before next week,” I said, and wished it true even though my wishes don’t count.
“Not this time.”
“Maybe there’s something you could do.”
“Ha,” my mother said.
The screaming stopped. Elena stomped through the living room and went to her room, slamming the door so hard San Antonio’s portrait fell to the ground and cracked.
Come morning cousin Elena’s door was open. She stood before her vanity, applying lipstick and humming. She looked specially nice that day, long lustrous hair combed back and high-heeled boots showing off her legs. Elena was the prettiest woman in town, and she knew it.
My whole family was filled with beautiful women. Black and white photographs, old Polaroids and even painted portraits testified to a lineage that gave way to the most ravishing beauties in the region. It also gave the women magic and an explosive temper. That temper had driven my great-grandmother to insanity, made my grandmother shoot her husband, and caused my aunt Magdalena to stab her boyfriend three times. They got back together after each one of those times, but nevertheless, a stabbing is a stabbing.
I had no beauty and little talent for magic. My mother assured me I was a late bloomer. I didn’t believe her.
Short, fat and pimpled, with hair that never stayed in place and crooked teeth decorated with braces: I was potato bug ugly. Like most bugs, I was in constant danger of being squashed. My cousins did not like me, abhorred the genetic joke that I was, and went to play hand clapping games by themselves. My schoolmates did not know spells, but didn’t enjoy my company either. My only two friends were Paco and Fernando. The reason why they walked me home some afternoons was so they could ogle my cousin when she danced through the living room wearing her leather mini-skirts.
It sucked because Paco was a nice boy with dimples and a good laugh. He always looked through me, like I was the Transparent Woman, you know, that anatomical plastic model I put together the year before.
The people who really looked at me were my cousins Jacinta and Elena. Jacinta was born with a bad eye and the others teased her about it. Her father was of our lineage, which meant she was destined for the maquilas: magic can’t go through the male bloodline. If you couldn’t spin magic, you’d have to bend over a sewing machine and make pants for a few pesos an hour.
Even worse for Jacinta, she was a bastard and we couldn’t recognize her as one of the bloodline. My mother had taken pity on her but come sixteen we’d chase her out of the house.
With such low prospects, it made sense that Jacinta would keep me company. It was more difficult to understand why Elena stomached my presence, since she was one of the brujas chicas. I think she enjoyed having me run around, doing her errands, crushing beetles for the spells, kneeling in the dirt to pick glass that could be made into bracelets. I was never going to be an important witch, but I made a decent assistant.
Plus I could read Latin, German and French, a feat Elena never achieved. She relied on spells passed through oral tradition, but I liked to pore over the old books and flip through my great-grandmother’s grimoire. It gave me a thrill to excel at one thing, even if I could only muster weak spells.
“You going out?” I asked.
“Just heading downtown. I got to do some shopping. I’ll be back before supper.”
“Can I go with you? I want to watch a movie.”
“Some other time,” she said flashing me a smile and putting down her lipstick.
“But if you’re heading there anyway …”
The smile turned sour.
I knew better than to push, so I looked for Jacinta. I found her playing behind the house. She was drawing with chalk on the wall, copying the symbols I traced over the bricks. Her marks had no power, so it was a waste of time for her to bother making circles and crosses. But she did it anyway to imitate me.
“Want to ride to the movie theatre on your bicycle?” I asked.
“It’s hot outside,” she said.
It’s always hot. At least the movie theatre had air conditioning. Inside our house we only had the fans.
“Come on,” I said. “You got money for the ticket?”
“Yeah,” she muttered.
“Then let’s ride.”
“Why doesn’t Elena take us in the truck?”
“OK, but I’m hungry.”
I sat behind Jacinta while she pedaled. She didn’t let me pedal. I didn’t blame her; she was afraid I’d damage the old bike. It was the only thing her shit father had left her before he hitched a ride to Guadalajara three years before.
We ate gaznates and watched a movie about aliens and then this lady killed them with guns and stuff. It was all right.
When we went out I saw Paco walking down the street, hand in hand with Patricia Espinoza. My heart took a tumble. I thought about cousin Elena, and how she must feel like she’s the Transparent Woman now that Mario doesn’t return her calls.
For her birthday, my mother took Elena to eat at the Chinese restaurant with the tank full of carp. Jacinta and some of my other cousins came along with assorted uncles and aunts.
Jacinta and I looked at the carps tapping our fingers against the glass, while the rest of our family was lost in conversation. They were so busy toasting, making jokes and chatting between themselves that none of them saw Mario and his new girlfriend walk in.
I did. Jacinta noticed and she also stared in their direction.
Slowly, everyone at our table turned their heads and the laughter stopped. Cousin Elena, who was holding her chopsticks in the air, watched the merriment die and her face grew pale. Finally, she turned.
She looked at Mario. Mario looked at her.
Mario stepped out of the restaurant, girlfriend in tow.
I thought Mario was an OK guy, event after he dumped Elena. I owed him one for that time he didn’t tell my mom I was sipping booze and smoking dope behind the factory with Jacinta. And overall, well, I thought he was harmless and charming despite his flaws.
But right then, I thought he was an ass for shuffling out like that with a fresh piece of arm candy, just weeks after breaking it off with my cousin.
I’m sure Elena thought the same. Her hand remained suspended in mid-air. Suddenly, she crushed her chopsticks with a flick of her fingers.
The tank behind us exploded, shards of glass flying through the air, water splashing our feet, dribbling across the red and gold carpets. The carp flopped on their bellies. Dying fish mouthed for air.
On an impulse, I grabbed one and rushed to the bathroom. I tossed it into the toilet.
I closed my eyes and wished it would live.
It twitched, then floated up to the surface.
Our magic can never mend broken hearts, nor give life. Spells are for taking, for subduing and stealing. Even if I could cast stronger magic, it would have never worked.
Grandma rarely visited us. She lived down the coast in an old white house that oversaw the beach. There she sat and watched the waves while she strung seashells together and made necklaces. Her eyes were not sharp anymore and her spells had weakened, but she made her necklaces and loaded them with magic nevertheless.
One wonders why having the power to weave a necklace of death, she once bothered shooting her husband.
Maybe it was more enjoyable that way.
They’ve got a bad streak, all of the witches in the family.
Anyway, grandma came that afternoon, looking like a hermit crab, loaded under the weight of her long grey hair and her years. Jacinta and I saw her walk in. We pressed our backs against the wall, hiding in the shadows.
We could hear the fan spinning in the living room. Soon we heard grandmother’s steady voice.
Cousin Elena tried to interrupt and there was a slap which echoed throughout the house. Elena might be one of the four brujas chicas, but she was no match for grandmother.
I know what Elena did was wrong. We don’t flash our gifts in public. In the old days, back when the family was still living in Europe, princes and kings hired our kind to cast spells for them. An invitation would arrive and a contract drawn. An infinite number of rules governed family behavior, including the day when a spell could be cast, as well as the materials employed.
Things changed. Guns and canons made spells with chicken bones archaic. The families sold their services to lower bidders: first merchants, then common folk. The spells, like the families, had lost their effectiveness, but when you are paying only a few coins even a mediocre spell will do.
Eventually the families traded Spain for the unknown coasts of America, and like other mercenaries before them, washed up on Veracruz. A few of them went south, off to Argentina and Brazil. Most spread through Mexico.
The luster and weight of the old customs had been lost, but rules remained. Key among them: do not show your magic in public. Spells are intimate things, sewn in private parlors among female relatives.
The slaps continued. Cousin Elena sobbed.
I couldn’t bear to hear her crying and I rushed to the living room door, ready to yell at grandmother. Jacinta pinched my arm and pulled me back.
“Don’t,” she said. “That’s grown-up stuff.”
I didn’t care what it was. But my valiant rescue was no longer necessary. The door swung open and out walked cousin Elena. She did not look at us.
Elena played her radio. She kept the door to her room locked. I knew she was stuffing a dead lizard with ashes.
I knew Elena would blame Mario for grandmother’s tongue lashing and the spectacle at the restaurant, even though he had no direct part in either incident. But I hadn’t thought she’d go so far until I saw her catch the lizard using an empty marmalade jar.
“Well, what’s the worse thing that could happen?” Jacinta asked.
“Death. Someone should warn him,” I said.
“Someone would be stupid.”
“Someone would be a coward.”
“She could just give him boils on his ass or something,” Jacinta said. “Maybe she’s not even going to try something real bad.”
“You think so?”
Jacinta shrugged. Elena was not going to be content with a mild spell. I would have been, but the power in me was weak; my blood was thin. Elena was a different thing altogether. Elena would kill an ant with a bullet instead of swatting it with a newspaper. She’d nuke it.
I rode the bus all the way across town to the colonia where the cars are shiny and there’s no broken glass bottles on the walls surrounding the houses. Mario’s house was a huge, two-bedroom concrete monster. I felt intimidated just ringing the bell.
The maid let me in and I waited in the game room, which had an enormous TV. It had been fun when Mario invited me and Elena over to watch the TV. He even invited Jacinta one time too.
I felt absolutely rotten when he walked and smiled at me. On the one hand I was thinking about Elena and on the other well. . . shit, I didn’t want him dead.
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“It’s going fine,” I said.
He nodded. I guessed he was wondering what I was doing in his house. I didn’t have time to waste, so I just let it out.
“You’ve got to get back together with Elena.”
“Um, says who?” he asked me, frowning.
“Look, you simply got to. She really misses you and, you know. . . hey, Mario, you know about my family, right?”
“You know. . . the thing,” I muttered. I didn’t want to say witchcraft. We never said it outright to outsiders. Oh, sure. People could whisper all they wanted, but none of the women at the maquilas who bought charms to punish their cheating husbands or get back at the greasy foreman making them work two extra hours said the word “witches”. Sometimes the adventurous ones, the women who came from the city in their fancy cars, called us “the ladies”. Anything more than that was trouble.
Mario stared at me like he had no idea what I was referring to. I wondered if he really was that thick-headed to haven’t realized Elena was a witch. Maybe he just wanted to believe it wasn’t true. Who knows.
“Mario, Elena’s going to get back at you if you don’t ask her to forgive you and take you back,” I said.
“Yeah?” He rolled his eyes. “Did she put you up to this?”
“No! She’d get really mad if she knew.”
“It’s sweet of you to worry about Elena and me, but we’re through. We’re not going to go out together again. Besides, I’m seeing someone else.”
“You and your girlfriend should get a cruz de caravaca and hang it on a red string,” I told him.
“Oh, Lourdes, the stuff you say.”
A long time ago during the Revolution, a woman in my family transformed her cheating lover into a chair. Three witches made the man who tried to rape one of them fall off a cliff. An aunt turned into a ball of fire at night and sat on the roof of a farm, cooing for the man who had shot her brother to come out.
This was the kind of outcome Mario would face. You didn’t toy with the family. You specially didn’t toy with the women. There were new witches and warlocks roaming the north of Mexico, doing work for the drug dealers and the polleros, killing each other and squabbling constantly. They didn’t mess with us. They knew to steer clear. Mess with the Arietas and you risk your skin.
Mario humiliated Elena. He’d gone out with her for a year and then he dumped her without ceremony. But Elena wasn’t like the girls at the maquila, sewing blue jeans and shirts; she could sew spells. She could take a needle and black thread and sew a lizard’s belly shut. Elena wasn’t going to show restraint. She was seething mad and I knew she would kill Mario and his girlfriend.
She was a bruja chica, after all.
“Mario, I’m warning you because overall you’re an OK guy and I owe you one,” I said, thinking about the time he didn’t tattle on me and putting my hands in my pockets. “Elena’s got a temper and she’s really pissed at you. She really, really loved you, do you know that? Other girls, they’ll cry it off. Elena will get even. When Elena gets even, you better be afraid. You get it?”
Mario did not answer. He only frowned but I could tell he finally understood.
“Take care,” I said.
By the time I got back it was dark. Jacinta was waiting with sweaty palms behind the house.
“You took a long time to come home,” she said.
“I went far.”
“Did you go to see Mario?”
I fiddled with my plastic watch.
“Hey,” said Jacinta. “You went, didn’t you?”
“Are you dumb?”
“Cut it out,” I said.
“Elena’s going to go apeshit.”
It was true. What the hell, I’d already fucked it up so there was no point in moping. I kicked a rock and nodded at Jacinta.
“Damn,” Jacinta whispered and bit her lip. “Maybe if we stick together the next few days she won’t dare to hurt you.”
“Yeah, I don’t know about it.”
“Or, if she tried to hit you and stuff, I’ll go run and get your mom.”
It didn’t make me feel any better to think about running behind my mom’s skirts to avoid Elena’s wrath because then I’d have to confess I’d gone to see Mario. I’d get a good lesson from my grandmother for that. Not only had I discussed family business with an outsider, I’d put a man’s safety before my cousin’s quest for justice.
Don’t get in a witch’s path. Especially if you are the weaker witch. If you do, be prepared to face her. That’s one of the first things you learn in my family.
Two days later, when Jacinta and I were reading comic books, sprawled on the hallway floor to keep our bellies cold, I knew I was screwed the moment I heard the click of Elena’s high-heeled shoes.
I stood up as she walked down the hallway. Better to face her than begin to run. She’d catch me and it would be even worse.
“You little traitor,” she said, jabbing a finger at my chest. “You told him. That lousy coward’s left town with his bitch of a girlfriend.”
At last Mario had grown a brain. That was nice. On the other hand, Elena was glaring at me.
“Elena, come on,” I said, not even pretending innocence. “You can’t just toss a maleficio into the air like that.”
“Says who? Mario lied to me.”
“What did the girl ever do to you?“
“Oh, so it’s that whore that matters instead of me,” she said, raising her eyebrows.
Jacinta glanced at me, then back at Elena, not knowing whether to hide or stay.
“No. It’s. . . Elena, it’s not fair. It’s not right.”
“Who the hell do you think you are?”
Elena’s nails were long, lacquered and red. She raised them and scratched my cheek, making me wince. Oh, she was pissed.
“I’m going to cast such a spell on you,” she said. “I’m going to make your fucking teeth fall out.”
She opened her purse and took out the dried lizard, pressing it against my face.
“Lourdes,” she whispered to the lizard and I shivered. “Lourdes, Lourdes.”
I’d never done a maleficio before, but I’d read about it enough times to recognize it and damn, the lizard reeked of concentrated rage and power.
“Don’t hurt her!” Jacinta screamed. She gave Elena such a shove that she tripped and fell to the floor.
Jacinta and I froze. We watched in horror as Elena lifted her head, blood pouring from her nose and tears in her eyes.
Elena wouldn’t have really hurt me, direct bloodline connecting us and all. But that shove had altered the balance. If she had been pissed before, now she was furious. If she had meant to take revenge on me, now she was aiming for Jacinta. Poor, little Jacinta who wasn’t even real family; just the bastard daughter of one of the men.
Elena stood up, the lizard cupped in her left hand. She looked like an illustration in one of the old books, a scary convolution of dark, rigid lines.
“One,” she muttered, wiped the blood from her nose with the right hand.
There had been a spell next to the illustration. It made me squint when I poured over the letters and tremble because it was not only a maleficio, it was my great-grandmother’s maleficio. They said it was the kind of spell that drove her insane.
“I’m sorry,” Jacinta said.
Elena pulled at a thread holding the lizard’s belly close. “Two.”
“I said I’m sorry. I’m really sorry!”
Elena pulled at another thread. Jacinta was trembling all over and her bad eye, always darting in the wrong direction, had gone white.
I kept thinking of the letters on the book: black on white. Spidery writing extending to the margins and the words so nitid they seemed to flip in my head; turned white upon black, searing the world around me.
“Four,” Elena whispered and a thread of saliva leaked from the corner of Jacinta’s mouth.
Elena gasped. She choked and began to cough. She bent down, pressed her hands against her belly and opened her mouth into an o, spitting a long, black thread. The thread fell onto the floor, pooling at her feet.
The words poured from my mouth, loud and blazing white, like the chalkmarks on the walls.
That’s the last thing I remember. My mother said she found Elena on her knees and me standing next to her and it took three of the women to stop me from killing Elena.
Which I suppose proves two things: my mother was right about the late blooming and don’t get in a witch’s path. Especially if you are the weaker witch.
Grandmother came into the city to see me afterwards and she nodded her head and gave me her blessing. It was all very odd, considering how happy everyone was and how much I’d hurt Elena.
As soon as I could I slipped out of the house.
I found Jacinta behind, drawing stars in the dirt with a stick.
“What’s up?” I said.
“Nothing,” she muttered and kept on with her drawing.
I watched her trace row upon row of stars.
“You want to read a comic book with me?”
I scratched my head. “Nothing’s going to change, you know.”
“It is going to change,” she said soberly.
Well, yeah. But I didn’t want to say it just like that. Now I would get invited to all the gatherings and I’d never have to set a foot in a maquila, not even to sell spells because there’d be better places to hawk my stuff. I could even hex Patricia and twist Paco’s dreams until he asked me to be his girlfriend.
“You’re going to be just like Elena.”
“No I’m not,” I protested.
Jacinta gave me a harsh look that made me feel like a cheat.
“Fine, crap,” I said erasing one of the stars with the sole of my shoe. “Look, maybe I will be like Elena. . .”
“And I’ll work at the factory and you’ll never talk to me anymore.”
“No. . . look, it doesn’t matter. This whole bruja chica thing, it’s inconsequential.”
“Only it’s not.”
She returned to her pattern of stars, head bowed. At this pace, she’d draw the entire night sky behind our house.
My mouth felt dry and my skin was cold. It wasn’t inconsequential and I already felt different. There was a feeling in the pit of my stomach that was half ache and half bliss.
“I’m always going to watch your back,” I said. “You’ll always watch mine.”
Jacinta did not look convinced. She raised her head a fraction, like a deer peering through the trees.
“You sure about that?”
“Even if we’re not bloodline?”
“We are bloodline,” I told her.
Jacinta smiled real big. She let me ride her bicycle that night while she sat in the back, holding on tight as I circled her mantle of stars.