When I was a boy, I lived in a Mexican town whose name sounds like music, and means Place of Many Singing Frogs in Water: Guanajuato. One day when I was very young, my father’s house became deathly silent. My twin brother had passed away. Grief-stricken, my mother would not leave his coffin. Days after the funeral, she lingered beside his grave in the cemetery.
The family doctor thought that I—Dieguito Rivera— looked sickly and might also die if I were not taken out into the country. Then my father asked Antonia, my Tarascan Indian nurse, to take me away to her own hut in the mountain range called Sierra of Guanajuato. Here I would have sunshine and fresh air under the watchful eyes of the Tarascan Indian.
Antonia was not an ordinary nurse. My mother and neighbor women who came in search of her said she was a “curandera.” This means, in Spanish, that she was part doctor and part witch. She cured many types of illness with simple remedies like herbs that grew in the mountains. Antonia also knew, and this is where she differed from the ordinary country doctor, all the secrets of magic that had been practiced by her Tarascan Indian ancestors hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
Before she came to my father’s home, Antonia had lived in the Sierra of Guanajuato. When her two-year-old son died because she had no power over natural blood-ties, Antonia left the mountains and came to our town. Since my own mother could not nourish my twin brother and me, Antonia took care of me after I was born. Oftentimes, the Tarascan Indian thought of me as her child.
I regarded Antonia as my second mother. Although she could be domineering and headstrong, she always let me do just as I chose. My mother used to shake her head, click her tongue, and say in rapid Spanish, “Mai genio! Bad-tempered Diego and fiery Antonia.”
Perhaps the bond of friendship between Antonia and me sprang from our temperaments. When my mother scolded Antonia for her wilfulness and shook her head at my bad disposition, the friendship between Antonia and me became greater. We felt like culprits who must rely upon each other for support under the watchful and critical eyes of my mother.
A few weeks after my brother’s death, Antonia and I set out for her mountain hut in the Sierra of Guanajuato. We rode on a mule whose hooves clicked against the cobble-stoned road hemmed by spreading oak trees, pines, cactus plants, and overhanging rocky cliffs. Antonia sat up very straight on the mule’s back and I rode behind on its rump, with my arms clasped tight around her waist. A second mule loaded with corn, beans, rice, dried meat, chili, candles, and other provisions walked behind us.
We rode along in silence. Antonia’s face was turned sideways from mine. In my imagination, I drew pictures of her long nose, thin lips, and high cheekbones. Since I was a little boy and had never seen a Tarascan sculpture, I did not associate Antonia’s nose, lips, and cheeks with the faces that had been modeled in clay by her Indian ancestors hundreds of years ago; but when I grew up and saw clay sculptures of Tarascan faces, they had my nurse’s cheeks, lips, and nose.
Antonia braided her long black hair around her small head. Like other Tarascan Indian women, she carried baskets of fruit and jugs of water atop her braids. Even while sitting on the mule, Antonia tilted her head as though she were balancing something very precious on it. Her shoulders were thrown back and her wide hips swayed in rhythm to the mule’s walk.
A red wool skirt fell to her small slim feet that had grown hard and brown from the contact of the earth with her leather sandals. Around her neck, she wore a purple rebozo. When the sun went down and night came on, she wrapped the rebozo around her head and shoulders. Purple covered her bright necklace, yellow blouse, and green girdle.
The long, cobblestoned road that led to Antonia’s mountain hut stretched in front of us. It was deserted of human beings and vehicles except for an occasional carriage drawn by one or two horses. As they trotted down the road, their hooves made a sharp rit-a-tat sound against the stones. When the carriage had disappeared and Antonia and I were alone once more, I imagined that soldiers stood on either side of the road.
The soldiers who watched over us and the road were cactus plants whose guns were long sharp thorns. Sometimes, I fancied, the soldiers drank blood-red colonche wine made from cactus fruit. When the long road stretched in front of us and the hot sun beat down on our heads, the soldiers became very drunk from the wine. As sleep rilled my eyes, hundreds of drunken soldiers bobbed up and down.
A rabbit leapt across the road in front of our mule. Antonia was angry and began to swear. “Cochino!” she cried after the rabbit as it disappeared behind a cactus on the other side of the road. Out loud, Antonia asked “What if I had killed it? An innocent rabbit. What if the mule’s hooves had wounded it?”
We reached the pass, a road so narrow that I could touch the rocky mountain side by stretching out my left arm. With the fingers of my right hand, I could stroke the leaves and branches of oak trees that lined the other side of the road.
The path wound around and around the sides of mountains hundreds, then thousands of feet in the air. Once I turned my head and gazed down. The huts of peasants in the valleys down below seemed to be dots and the Indians themselves were black ants.
The mountain pass suddenly ended. We had reached a forest. Huge trees surrounded us on both sides. A mountain river flowed before us. By taking a quick turn to the right, Antonia skirted the river. Then she followed a narrow path that was sometimes littered by rocks which had fallen down the mountain side during a storm. The mules did not slip once.
We could go no farther. A mountain cliff jutted out and covered the path. To our left was a lone hut. Clumps of bushes, tall slim pine trees, and gigantic oaks encircled the hut on the side opposite the mountain cliff. The bushes and trees led into a forest where I would later play among birds and animals. I never missed the sheltered patio of my father’s home in Guanajuato.
The hut was built of rocks laid with mud to keep out the rain and cold. It had one window that was really a wood shutter door. The roof was made of light tree trunks held together by strong climbing vines. Bamboo piled high with mountain grass covered the tree trunks. Back of the hut lay a small corral encircled by a rock wall. Branches with long spined thorns covered the top of the wall.
Our mules would sleep in the corral at night. The branches with dagger-like thorns kept out mountain animals that roamed wild in the small hours of the morning. Adjoining the corral were a rustic chicken house and storeroom that served as kitchen. The chicken house would remain empty until Indian peasants brought hens and turkeys to Antonia in payment for her magic cures.
I watched Antonia unpack the second mule and carry provisions on top her braids of hair into the storeroom. Immediately outside, in the open air, stood an urn twice as tall as an ordinary man. The urn had been made from bamboo woven into a basket and covered with thick layers of mud. Its sides were supported by four strong wood poles. A ladder stood against its right side.
Antonia climbed the ladder with a heavy sack made of maguey fiber on her head. A pile of mountain grass covered the urn so that insects could not crawl inside. Antonia pushed the grass aside and emptied the sack full of corn-ears into the urn. After she had dismounted the ladder, she tapped the small stone door at the foot of the urn to see if it were closed tight.
When Antonia had carried the last sack of provisions into the storeroom, she went inside the hut. From its roof hung snake skins, dead lizards, old spiders, armadillo shells, turtle-backs, tree bark, sacks of nuts, bunches of herbs, withered flowers, and dried fruit. Hundreds of large and small earthen pots were neatly arranged on rows of shelves that lined the four walls of the room.
I knew that Antonia would crush the herbs, nuts, flowers, and fruit into medicine powders to cure a simple illness. But the snake skins, dead lizards, and old spiders fascinatedme. Why did Antonia hoard them?
The one room of the hut was very clean. Its hard earth floor was covered by a petate or straw mat. Bare of furniture, the room contained like every Indian hut, a small altar. This consisted of an ancient religious painting that rested on a wood rack meant to hold a gourd of holy water, wild flowers in an earthen vase, and a burning candle in a wine crystal glass.
The background of the painting was deep brilliant blue. Silver crowns were in the corners at the top of the picture. The sun and moon were in the bottom corners. A landscape of mountains and flowers lay between the sun and moon. In the very center of the painting was a crucifix. The horizontal bar of the cross symbolized earth and the vertical bar, water.
Hundreds of years ago in Mexico, the ancient Indian kingdoms worshiped Tlaloc, Lord of Water. He made corn turn gold, filled lakes with fish and blanketed fields with rich crops or made rivers swell and flooded the land, spreading cold, death, famine, and despair in his wake. The Indians were converted to Christianity by the Spaniards when they conquered Mexico. But Lord Tlaloc was neither/ forgotten nor forsaken. The Indians worshiped Tlaloc while they prayed to the Christian gods.
Centuries after the Conquest, altars of the new gods were disguises of Tlaloc. In the center of Antonia’s painting was a crucifix arched-in by carmine red draperies with white ends, These curled and made Tlaloc’s mustaches. Above them were three ornaments. Two were round with black centers like Tlaloc’s eyes. The other was long, white, and shaped like a nose.
I watched Antonia hang small figures below the pictures of the sun and moon. They were silver effigies of men and - women in prayer or sick people healed by her.
She disappeared into the storeroom and returned with a candle, a crystal wine glass, and a bundle shaped like a head. She lit the candle and set it in the glass beside the gourd of holy water on the rack. Then she carefully lay the bundle that was wrapped in an old gray cloth and bound with heavy cords beneath the pictures of the sun and moon.
“Antonia,” I said, pointing to the bundle, “what’s in that?”
She pursed her lips and would not answer.
Although I was persistent in my questions, she would not talk. It was unlike Antonia to keep secrets from me. Days passed before I discovered what the bundle contained. Until then the secret haunted, even obsessed me.
That night, Antonia slept on the straw mat that covered the floor. My bed was a basket made of bamboo with a small petate inside. When I woke up, she prepared breakfast and I helped her. She took several ears of corn from the small stone door of the urn. Then she sat down on the floor of the storeroom that also served as kitchen. Stretching her legs in front of her, she grasped a cob in each hand and rubbed one against the other. I was seated a few inches away from her. As the kernels fell off the cobs, I stacked them into small pyramids.
Three large rocks lay in the corner of the kitchen. Antonia made a fire by placing narrow sticks of wood crosswise among the rocks. Then she filled an earthen pot with the corn we had shelled, water, and lime. When the skin burst off the kernels, Antonia took the pot from the fire. Kneeling before a slab of stone, she patted the dough into thin cakes. These she lay on the large round earthen tray or comal to cook over the fire, together with our drink of corn atole.
We ate breakfast and hurried to the forest in search of firewood and leaves. Opposite a mountain stream, we met a shepherd watching a herd of goats. Antonia bargained with him for a she-goat. When they finally reached a price, she pulled a handkerchief in which money was knotted, out of her blouse. Tying a thick vine around the neck of the she-goat, Antonia let the animal caper ahead of us as we wandered deeper into the forest in search of firewood and leaves.
When we returned to the hut, Antonia tied the goat to a post in the corral and milked it. On winter days, our bodies would be kept warm by its milk. Although the goat became my pet, Antonia and I never gave it a name. We called it simply “La Cabrita.” Later, the animal gave me her breasts to suckle, and it was no longer necessary for Antonia to milk the goat.
Antonia piled the leaves we had gathered in a corner of the hut. That night and succeeding nights, we buried our bodies in oak leaves up to the chin. While the wind blew outside the hut, Antonia sang Tarascan Indian melodies. The sad beautiful songs lulled me into slumber while their rhythm gently rocked me to sleep.
At noon when the sun was hottest, we bathed in the river. I liked to stand in the water up to my chin. Spurting water, I shouted mirthfully all the while. Oftentimes, my cries were in Antonia’s native tongue. Days passed before we spoke to each other in Spanish. Perhaps the last bond needed to strengthen the affection between us was provided by Indian words.
When it was not too cold at night, we sat on a tree trunk outside the hut and talked. Antonia pointed out the different positions of the moon and explained its influence over animal and plant life. She said that the strength of herbs depended upon the position of the moon. Then I knew that Antonia attributed much of her healing power to her knowledge of the moon.
Animals prowled around the hut when the moon was cloudy and the stars not very bright. Some of them, like the coyote, jaguar, and wild cat, were fierce. Antonia taught me to recognize them by their eyes and not to be afraid. Then I felt that the animals’ eyes, their cries, and the noise of the trees were part of the same space occupied by the stars that lay not far away.
Oftentimes, Antonia sent me out in the forest to play alone. She told me there was nothing to fear since no human beings were around and animals only harmed people who disliked or feared them. One day, La Cabrita insisted on going into the forest with me. Once clear of the hut, she ran ahead of me.
I followed her deeper into the forest. The birds sang about me. Although I had no ear for music, I began to whistle. When I heard a raucous echo of my whistle, I looked up. A parrot was imitating me in a very hoarse voice. It flew off the branch, onto my shoulder. Hours later, when I arrived at the hut, it was in the company of La Cabrita and the parrot who became our second pet.
Late in the Fall, some Tarascan Indian peasants came in search of Antonia. They were a young girl, her sweetheart, parents, and grand-parents. The parents and their’ parents carried a turkey and two chickens. When they had greeted Antonia, the mother pushed her daughter forward and said “Her rival put the ‘mal de ojo’ on her.” Antonia nodded. “Jealousy?”
The mother jerked her thumb at her future son-in-law. “Jealous of him. So she put the curse on her.”
The lather pointed to his daughter’s very pale but beautiful face and said “She will die. She neither eats nor sleeps.”
Antonia said “Her rival cursed an image of her. It was cut from the bark of the amate tree.”
The parents knew little or nothing about black magic, so they did not reply. While Antonia was talking, the grandmother took the chickens and turkey out of their hands and disappeared into the chicken house. My mouth watered. Whether or not Antonia cured the girl, we would feast afterwards on chicken and turkey.
Antonia pursed her lips thoughtfully and said, “We must wait for the moon.”
The day slipped by in conversation. The peasants talked about the corn they had grown, the beans they had raised, Now and again, they slipped in a few words praising Antonia for her talents as a curandera. Then I knew that they were slyly but shrewdly flattering Antonia in the hope that she might effect the best cure possible on their girl.
The moon rose. Antonia clasped the girl’s wrists and pulled her before the altar. Then she bent the girl’s head and slipped over it a necklace of deer eyes. While the candle burned steadily in the wine crystal glass, Antonia fetched two eggs and a snake skin. Wrapping an egg in the skin’s tail-ends, she carefully rubbed the girl’s body with them.
Antonia knelt on the floor. Resting the palms of her hands on the head-shaped bundle wrapped in gray cloth, she mumbled words of magic in Tarascan. Then she rose to her feet and cracked the eggs in the gourd. They sank in the holy water and with them, the evil spirits.
I thought: The bundle must contain a stone image of Tlaloc’s head inherited, together with the magical words, from Antonia’s Tarascan ancestors.
Minutes passed. Antonia went to the chicken house and returned with a wood tub in one hand and the chickens and turkey in the other. She placed the tub at the foot of the altar. Then she lay the throats of the animals on cone-shaped rocks in the corners of the receptacle. With a flint knife, she cut the fowls’ throats and blood dripped into the vessel. Like her Tarascan ancestors, Antonia was offering the blood of sacrificed animals to Lord Tlaloc.
Dawn came. We followed Antonia into the storeroom. She laid sticks of wood crosswise among the three large rocks. When the fire was burning, she hung the fowls over it. Fat dripped off the chickens into the hissing flames. Antonia handed me a drumstick and I took a large bite off it, unaware that I was the only person in the room who was eating.
Antonia, the parents, grandparents, and sweetheart were gazing at the girl. If she had been cured of the curse, she would eat. The girl’s face was white as stone. Suddenly it flushed. Her lips stretched and she began to speak. The words came out very slowly because she had not spoken for days.
Everybody in the room laughed. The girl had asked for food. While she munched hungrily on chicken breast, the parents and their parents spoke loud praises of Antonia. They said she was the best curandera in the Sierra of Guanajuato and for that matter, in Mexico. I did not doubt their words.