“You can never trust a nahual,” her mother said, “because you cannot be certain if you are speaking to the animal or the man.”
When the chickens disappeared her mother placed her scissors under the bed to ward off the nahual. Her four brothers were more practical, and after consulting with their uncle, their father having passed away the previous summer, they grabbed their rifles and set up watch next to the chicken coop every night.
Even though Teresa was fifteen and a girl she was allowed to keep watch during one of the nights. Unlike her older sister Asuncion who liked to help out in the kitchen and tidy their home, Teresa preferred to go hunting with her brothers. She was a good shooter and an even better rider Because of this Teresa did not scream and run away when she saw the nahual.
She spotted a fox creeping in the shadows. Teresa pretended to be asleep while keeping a strong grip on her firearm. When she was sure she could get a good shot she spoke.
“If you move I’ll kill you,” she said.
The nahaul stared at Teresa with bright eyes, and she stared back.
“Please, do not hurt me,” said the fox, with a voice that was much too human and made her pause.
“We’re tired of you stealing our chickens. We’ve got enough to worry about with the soldiers to have a nahual also taking our food.”
“But what is a chicken once in a while?”
“It is too much.”
“If you put your gun down and let me go I’ll give you a gift.”
“What kind of gift?”
“A little golden medallion with the image of the virgin. Very pretty. But it’s for a girl and I have no use for it. If you let me go I‘ll return in a week and bring it to you.”
“You’re just trying to trick me.”
“No. I give you my word I’ll return.”
“I ought to call my brothers and let them beat you and cut your pelt,” she said, but she’d already felt sorry for the bony fox with its ratty coat. “Don’t steal any more chickens from us or I will shoot you next time.”
The fox trotted away and Teresa sighed, feeling she’d been tricked.
* * *
There were rumours that soldiers were moving through the area and this had her whole family in a constant state of alert. If soldiers were indeed nearby they’d have to take the animals and hide them in the caves. Her older brothers, Asuncion, and Teresa would also have to hide in the caves. The soldiers not only stole food and valuables; they took any young man of fighting age with them and the women they hauled off to serve as soldaderas. They said that’s exactly what had happened to their cousin Esteban, that he’d been taken by some soldiers. There had also been some rumours that Esteban had been shot by one of Villa’s firing squads.
People could be killed just because they were related to the wrong person and neutrality was key to survival. Their mother was not taking any chances. She denied both stories and told everyone in Nogalera, the nearest town, that Esteban was away in Mexico City with some relatives. As a result, Esteban’s name had become a taboo and a precise protection system had been established. If soldiers came to Nogalera, all the older children would run away and hide while their mother was left behind with the younger boys and girls.
“God damn pelones,” Teresa’s uncle would say on those occasions and claim that the federal soldiers were the worst of the lot.
To Teresa they were all the same and here in the middle of nowhere the only thing that mattered was that men would come to try and steal their pigs and rice and guns. Their little farm was located far from Nogalera and that was good because it spared them from much trouble. Still, they waited for word of any approaching soldiers. But nothing happened and Ramon came over to tell them the rumours had been unfounded, no soldiers had made their way to town.
Ramon was courting Asuncion. This meant their mother immediately invited the young man to stay and eat with them. It did not please Teresa as she was required to be on her best behavior and wear her nicest outfit in front of their guest and it was very hard to be good and proper when Ramon was such a bumbling, cross-eyed fool. Asuncion insisted his eyes were fine but when he was nervous, and he was nervous whenever Asuncion walked by, Ramon’s eyes would clearly cross.
“Don’t make fun of him,” her sister had told Teresa. “It’s not polite. I may marry him one day.”
Teresa did hope Asuncion would get married and go live with Ramon. The sisters shared a bed and Asuncion was always kicking and squirming. When she was not asleep, Asuncion would sigh and read silly poems or sad love stories about dashing highway robbers who fell in love with beautiful young heiresses.
It was very upsetting and it had gotten worse since Ramon started coming around the farm. Asuncion would blush, Ramon would stammer, and Teresa would make a brilliant joke that had her brothers laughing and her mother glaring at her.
Teresa was on night duty again when the nahual came, this time in the shape of a young man. He was bony thin even as a human and when he moved it was with a fluid, liquid quickness.
“I keep my promises,” he said handing her the medallion.
* * *
“What if it is not gone? What if it comes while we are asleep?”
Teresa was braiding Asuncion’s hair. It was a part of their nightly routine that also included prayers to the virgin and their guardian angel, even though Teresa usually skimmed over the prayer part.
“Don’t be silly,” muttered Teresa. “The nahual has left us alone.” Their mother attributed their successful battle against the creature to the scissors under her bed and the fragrant romero she had placed throughout the house, thus ending the need for their nightly watches.
“But what if it comes to eat us tonight?” Asuncion said.
“I’d grab the gun and shoot it in the face. That’s why I keep it under the bed.” Teresa did in fact conceal a firearm under their mattress. It was a necessary precaution, the revolution also making it necessary to hide money behind loose bricks.
“Don’t say that. You wouldn’t.”
“Of course I would.”
Teresa did not mention that she had already been presented with chances to kill the nahual. It would have been embarrassing if anyone knew that. After all, Teresa was the brave girl, the machorra, the proud antithesis of Asuncion and the bane of their mother’s existence.
“If it comes we’ll yell for Alvaro,” her sister muttered. “I think it would be a bad thing if you killed a man, even if it’s a nahual.”
Teresa shrugged. Men were getting killed left and right all over the country so what did one more matter.
Their mother’s birthday was nearing and Asuncion was busy embroidering a handkerchief as a gift. Teresa was also trying to embroider little yellow flowers that she thought would look much better than her sister’s pink roses. She sat under a fir tree and looked at the flowers but the results were botched. She pulled and cut threads once more.
“That looks very boring,” said the nahual, standing tall before her in his human shape.
She’d seen him during the past few weeks, slinking around in his fox form and sometimes looking as he did right now, a normal man with a wide grin. Teresa did not know his name. He must have one yet she had not asked about it. It was already bad that she knew a nahual and it would only make it worse if she actually knew his name. That would mean they were friends.
“I have chores to do. Unlike you.”
“I have chores.”
“Running in the fields and stealing chickens?”
“You should come with me some time,” he said.
“To steal chickens.”
“No, to run in the fields after dark.”
“My mother wouldn’t like me running outside at nights with a man.”
“I’ll show you how to shed your skin and that way you won’t be a woman and I won’t be a man. There is an animal inside all of us wanting to be free.”
Teresa frowned, looking at her embroidery. “That’s a lie.”
“Go away. I’m busy.”
He obeyed, slipping out of sight quickly. But he’d be back and even if Teresa told herself she didn’t care what happened to the strange man who also happened to be a fox.
* * *
Teresa guarded the secret of the nahual, knowing her brothers would shoot him and her mother would beat her bloody if the family ever found out she spoke with a nahaul. But Asuncion’s pretty, curious eyes followed Teresa and one time when they lay in bed at night and by all rights Asuncion should be asleep, she started talking.
“I saw you with a boy near the noria yesterday. Who is he?”
“I don’t know. Some man who was lost,” Teresa said. “He was asking for directions.”
“I thought he was good-looking.”
“I didn‘t pay attention.”
“Teresa, tell me,” Asuncion pinched her sister’s arm. “Tell me.”
“It was no one. Go to sleep.” She would be rather upset, Teresa thought, if she found out there was no secret admirer but just a fox that came to beg for scraps and sometimes sit at her feet.
So when the nahual appeared, scratching at her window shutters late at night, Teresa immediately panicked. At first she thought Asuncion must have heard the noise and would discover the truth. But Asuncion lay fast asleep.
Teresa hurried out to the stable were the nahual awaited her in his human shape. He was sitting in a corner holding his arm and she saw that he was hurt, blood staining his shirt.
“What happened?” she asked.
“A farmer tried to catch me with a clever trap. It didn’t work but I am injured.”
“You were stealing from him?”
“Please get me some bandages.”
She cleaned his wounds and bandaged them as she had done before for her brothers.
“You should stop turning into a fox and get an honest job and work for your living like everyone else does.”
“The world is very dangerous for a man these days. There’s too many eager soldiers. I’d rather take my chances as a fox.”
“You’re going to get shot if you continue like this. And over what? Poultry.”
“Not poultry,” he said, producing a pair of pearl earrings from his left pocket with an exaggerated flourish and a smile. “Your neighbors hide their valuables in the chicken coop.”
“You take it back,” she said, holding her hands up and refusing to touch the pilfered goods.
“What? After all the trouble I went to get them? I thought you liked these trinkets.”
“When they’re not stolen.”
He seemed to be puzzled and held out his hand towards her again, but Teresa shook her head. She wondered if she was a hypocrite, having taken the little golden medallion but refusing this new offering. It was not the source of the earrings that made her pause. Rather, that she would be indebted to him.
“I’m not returning them,” the nahual said, the earrings still resting on his open palm. “I’ll throw them away.”
“Give them to charity then. Take them to Father Macia’s parish.”
“To the fat priest? He’ll eat them.”
She glared at him and he rolled his eyes, stuffing the earrings back in his pocket.
“Fine,” she echoed.
She thought this punctuated the end of their conversation but he was suddenly standing closer to her, closer than any decent man should have been.
“Come run in the fields with me tonight. I’ll teach you magic and show you the secret places where I hide.”
“Magic is nonsense.”
“No, magic is like a dream. It makes everything possible and beautiful.”
“You are such a liar.”
A funny little smile tugged at the corners of his lips. She stared back. Asuncion would have blushed as she always did when any man happened to glance at her but Teresa glared back. If he tried anything she would punch him in the face like she had done to Roberto, the youngest of the Contrera’s boys when he had attempted to kiss her the previous summer. When the nahual kissed her Teresa did not pull away, did not kick and scream or mock him, kissing him back instead. Perhaps despite all her protestations there was an animal inside her too, for Teresa thought she felt something claw at her chest. But this feeling was gone quickly and when they looked at each other again Teresa closed her fists. This was the Teresa who was quick with the rifle and quicker with words, sharp-tongued and sharp as steel.
“Don’t come back. I’ll shoot you if you come back,” she whispered and headed towards the house.
* * *
The next day Teresa knew she was evil. She was as bad as Nogalera’s infamous Ana Marina, or as her mother preferred to call her, that “buscona.” All day she expected her mother to yell and tear all her hair out. But night fell and Teresa’s indiscretion remained a secret, no one the wiser. Her hair was still in place and all was well.
And nothing was well at all.
This time it was her turn to toss and turn and kick in bed, finally poking Asuncion awake.
“I need to ask you something.”
“Can you go to hell if you kiss someone?”
“Teresa,” her sister muttered, now wide-awake.
Asuncion was the one who always said her prayers right and spent her days in the shadow of their mother and so Teresa figured that if someone had the answer it should be her.
“Well? Yes or no?”
“I don’t know. Don’t think so. Not if you’re in love.”
Teresa frowned wondering why in Asuncion’s world everything had to end in love.
“Is it that boy I saw you with?” Asuncion whispered.
“He is not a boy.”
No. He was a nahual, a fox, a dirty warlock-animal slithering through the corn fields with pockets full of stolen goods. Perhaps Asuncion might have even found that romantic.
“Who is he?”
“Is he from Nogalera?”
“Go to sleep.”
“You were the one who woke me up,” Asuncion said.
Teresa turned away from her sister, towards the window and closed her eyes.
“Don’t tell mother,” she said.
“Of course I won’t tell mother.”
Teresa knew that her sister would have told everyone the next morning if she hadn’t been warned not to say a word. Unlike Teresa, Asuncion did not keep secrets.
* * *
A month, then two went by. Her eldest brother got into a terrible fight and hurt his arm and mother screamed at him for being such a fool and then cried because she feared he would die just like their father had died.
Stories of the war crept here and there and Ramon came every week to sit next to Asuncion and blush. He would blush and then she would blush and they would continue like this for so long that Teresa wanted to scream at them both. Then her mother would call for Teresa and tell her to help in the kitchen, scolding her for some reason.
Day after day she waited and day after day the nahual did not come. She was glad. Teresa was not Asuncion. He was probably shot and gutted, and deservedly so. Except there was this nagging feeling inside Teresa and it made her count the days.
* * *
They had hanged three men in Milpa Vieja. Alvaro and their uncle went to look at the corpses dangling from poplars; the bodies were mangled and pecked by crows. The rumors were true. It was Cousin Esteban hanging from one of those trees.
Where he’d been and why he’d died remained a mystery as no one could recall who had ordered the hanging. People paid little attention to executions these days and Alvaro did not want to attract much attention with needless questions.
After this incident, Teresa worried even more about the nahual’s fate. He’d never taken this long before. She dreamt of blood one night and woke up crying for no reason.
* * *
When the nahual appeared, thinner it seemed, she rushed foward to hit the man, not embrace him.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
“I thought I wasn’t wanted around here anymore after our last meeting,” he said.
“My sister is getting married,” she said, as she might to a neighbor who has stopped by for a drink and some gossip on a hot summer day. “Ramon finally asked for her hand in marriage and mother said yes.”
“I always love a good wedding.”
“I’ll bring you a slice of wedding cake then. Unless you’d prefer to go to the wedding itself. Of course, as a man.”
“I don’t think so. Crowds make me nervous. It comes from being an animal for too long. Sometimes you even start to forget you were ever human.”
“I didn’t think you’d return this time.”
It seemed to amuse him, these words but he said nothing in return. Teresa remained silent, for once shyly studying her feet and hard as she might try she wasn’t able to pretend this was some random neighbor, that this was some detached, polite conversation.
“Do you have a name?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said. “But that’s a secret and I can’t tell it to you while you remain a human.”
“I like being a human.”
“Run in the fields with me tonight. In the dark, the stars talk to you and the trees bend down to whisper secrets. The world is different and we are different too.”
“I won’t go with you.”
“And I won’t come back after this time. The wind is changing and I must head to other places. This is the last time I’ll see you. Run with me tonight.”
“Teresa, if you remain you shall be unhappy. These are dangerous days to be human. It is best to run free in the fields, far away from men.”
“I can’t just leave.”
She wanted to go. She did. A part of her was ready to cast all wisdom away and escape with this stranger. The other part remembered her mother, her brothers and Asuncion. The sound of the farm in the morning and the laughter of her uncle at nights as he told stories.
Teresa was no Asuncion dreaming of highwaymen to steal her away. She was rooted to the ground, practical and determined and she was old enough to know the romantic stories you read in books are fabrications and wise enough to understand the trinkets the nahual was offering would turn to dust in the morning light.
“Then I must say goodbye.”
Teresa pushed up on her tiptoes and this time was the one to kiss him. Quickly, almost an afterthought, but nevertheless a kiss.
Her brothers and her uncle had gone hunting and only Alvaro remained behind, his arm still not good enough to hold a rifle. It was unbearably hot and Teresa muttered and wiped the sweat off her brow with the back of her hand. She was supposed to feed the chickens but instead she sat next to the little pond that was near their house. She was angry because she had not been allowed to go hunting with the boys and in retaliation she was attacking the water, hurling twigs and rocks like a small child might do. Soon her mother would come looking for her and pull her into the house.
When she heard a noise behind her Teresa sighed and turned, expecting the iron figure of her mother.
“Teresa. Come quick,” said the nahual, hurrying towards her, no mother in sight.
“What are you doing? You’re not…”
“Soldiers. Teresa. It’s time. Come, run with me.”
She looked at the fox and then back at the outline of the house against a clear blue sky.
“Come quick,” he insisted. “This is my final offer. Come now.”
The house. Mother. She must be cooking and Asuncion would be watching the little ones and all the men were off hunting except Alvaro, sitting in his room.
“Death is waiting for you there,” the nahual said, grabbing her chin, making her look away from the farm and straight into his eyes. “Forget it and run with me.”
Instead, Teresa grabbed her skirts and ran towards the house.
“Teresa!” yelled the nahual.
She did not listen, scrambling through their backyard and as she made it to the parlor, bumping into Alvaro, she discovered it was too late. The men were already there, taking what they could and making a mess. The small children huddled against their mother’s skirts. Asuncion, pale as a ghost, held on to Teresa.
Teresa thought about Cousin Esteban swinging from the poplars and Father murdered on the road to the capital and the bad dreams filled with blood. She bit her lip. Asuncion’s fingers were digging deep into Teresa’s flesh and Teresa wanted to yell that she should let go, that Asuncion was hurting her, the half-moon’s of Asuncion’s fingernails making imprints against her skin.
The captain, grabbed Asuncion and pulled her aside like a rag doll, hurling her towards one of the bedrooms.
For a moment she just stood there, unable to understand what had happened. Understanding came quickly and she turned to her brother.
“Alvaro!” Teresa shrieked.
But a man, he raised his gun, pointed it straight at her brother’s face and her brother swallowed hard.
“If you move I’ll kill you,” said the soldier.
Just like Teresa had told the nahual. Only she hadn’t meant it, not really, and this man was aiming with all the joy and intention in the world.
“Don’t move. None of you move,” said her mother and she had never heard her mother use that tone of voice before, a hushed iron-whisper.
Teresa remained still, turned to stone and frozen until she heard the gunshot. She tore herself from her mother’s side then and ran rushing towards the sound. Another gunshot made her jump and Teresa stepped into the room.
“The bitch killed the captain!” someone was yelling.
Indeed, a man lay turned into a tangled bloody mess upon the floor. But on the bed, her dress pulled, thighs and chest smeared in red lay her sister with her eyes staring at the ceiling. Her limp hands cradled a gun.
Teresa screamed and kicked and scratched at the soldier standing by the door and he hit her hard, splitting her lip. She did not care and continued to scream.
* * *
In the span of a single day her family had become pariahs, eyes evading them as Teresa and her brother walked through the streets. She knew that they were whispering behind closed doors and that through every street and every miserable alley the story of Asuncion’s death had been repeated many times. That they would have killed Teresa and Alvaro, had their mother not fallen to her knees and offered her wedding ring and her own body, must also have been cause of much whispering. Oh, how they whispered and the whispers followed Teresa as she walked behind her brother.
Father Macia refused to perform the service. He was afraid, as was everyone else in Nogalera. Nobody wanted trouble and nobody was willing to help.
When Teresa reminded Father Macias how many contributions her family had made to the little church and all the chickens, pigs and goats father Macias had enjoyed at their expense he rolled his eyes and said there was nothing he could do. Asuncion could not be buried in the church’s graveyard. There was no space for suicides there.
They dug a hole near the house instead and wrapped the body in some old sheets, a makeshift cross to mark the grave. They had no money left to pay for a coffin, everything of any value stolen.
That night their mother said they must pray the rosary. Teresa’s mouth felt dry and she forgot the words.
* * *
When she woke up it was raining, the first storm of the season. Barefoot she walked out, her body wandering on its own. Dirt, water and wind mingled with her skin.
Teresa stared at the darkness and from the darkness melted a figure, a man with yellow eyes. For once those eyes were not smiling.
“Go away,” she said.
Teresa found a jagged rock and flung it hard. The man evaded it easily.
She hurled another rock. This one hit home on the arm and he grimaced. Teresa found satisfaction in this, already reaching for another rock.
“You knew, didn’t you?” she muttered as she threw the rock hard. “You knew they were coming, you knew and you didn’t do anything to stop them!”
“Sometimes animals can sense things before humans can.”
“Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you say something?”
“Because you cannot tell everything to a human. And because it would have done no good.”
He was very close now. Teresa clutched a rock and held it up in the air, ready to bash it against his head.
“I should have killed you that first night I saw you.”
“You still can.”
She wanted to. She wanted to hurt him. She wanted blood and she wanted death and she wanted nothing because there was nothing left inside her except a vague numbness.
She sat down, covering her face with her hands. Eventually he slid his arms around her and Teresa pressed herself against the nahual.
She listened to the rain and his breathing and just lay there in silence.“You should come with me. The land is hard and life is harder here,” he said, at length.
“I won’t leave,” she whispered.
“You will. Curiosity will get the best of you and you’ll want to know my name. You’ll shed your skin and follow me into the night.”
“You sound very certain. Can you sense that too? Is that your animal magic telling you so?”
“No. That’s just my hope. Plain hope.”
Teresa didn’t know if she had any hope left. It was difficult to tell if beneath the layers of muscle and bone there still lay anything inside or if she’d been left hollow and pitch black.
She didn’t reply and he shifted, rising and then helping Teresa to her feet. She was tired, drenched and wished nothing more than to return to bed.
“I should go,” he said.
She might have attempted a decent farewell, an appropriate shake of hands but her throat was dry and she was shivering.
“Come back soon,” she whispered despite herself and it was the first time she had said such a thing to him.
“I always do, don’t I?”
He smiled confidently and she thought that in some vague way perhaps she’d never said it out loud but she had willed him to return nevertheless, some silent magic slowly woven between them.
“I know,” she replied.
He nodded, his fingers briefly finding her own in the dark.
Silvia Moreno Garcia lives in Vancouver with her husband, son and two cats. She writes fantasy and magic realism. Her stories have appeared or will appear in Fantasy Magazine, Shimmer and Reflection’s Edge.