After the Flood: The Reckoning
From where I now sit in my small second story “crows nest” (or should I say “vulture’s roost?") at El Zopilote, I look out the open window through the pine boughs at the pinnacles and cliffs of the high sierra, rising perennially beyond the Cañon de la Tahona, two thousand feet below me. The new sun: that glances off the far rocky spires has still not dipped its bright spokes into the sleeping shadow of the canyon, whose blue slumber breathes a hush of tranquility so deep it almost calls. Now is the most beautiful time of year, in late October. The violence of the long rainy season is past, yet its vital gift remains. The streams yet dance and sparkle with abundant clear water. The soil is still laden with moisture. But the clouds have gone.
All green things thrive: drink in the water of the earth, breathe in the fire of the sun, and, through some miracle that men of science and clergy pretend to explain, grow and create new life! The mountainside, so barren during the springtime drought, is today a tangled jungle of manifold vegetation, scrambling and climbing over itself in its urge to reach skyward and bloom. In the barrancas of the Sierra Madre the colors of autumn are not those of dying leaves, but of myriad new blossoms shouting youth and life. And among this maze of foliage and flowers, a million trillion insects leap, creep, gnaw, mate and sing. No wonder the birds come south!
This morning these eyes would tell me the world is all beauty —and I long to believe. But the mind looks a little farther forward than the eyes . . . and farther back. There lingers in the Cañon de la Tahona a darkness darker than the shadow that slumbers now so peacefully, a forlorn memory that neither sleeps nor lets sleep, but whispers in the hours of stillness, to me and to all who listen.
A natural catastrophe as unmerciful and unexpected as the flash flood in La Tahona last month is enough to make any thinking man stop short and take his bearings.Something seems to be cosmically off course when forces beyond man’s control make victims of innocent beings, for no apparent reason other than that they exist. There is so much Beauty and Order in our Universe that we are tempted to believe that there must also be some ultimate Justice, perhaps even Compassion. But is there? We lull ourselves into believing what we prefer to believe . . . until some flood like the one in La Tahona whisks the feeble foundations of our beliefs out from under us. And suddenly we find ourselves alone in space; small, thinking organisms with no other love to guide us than that which we feel for one another.
In a certain way, I envy those persons who can accept even the most unmerciful natural catastrophe as being “God’s Will”, who insist that we are not wise enough to question His reasons, and who are, thereby, content to let the matter rest. In my own mind I am unable to accept the tragedy of last month’s freak flood as an “act of God”, lest my heart demand an accounting for such action. I would prefer to consider it just plain bad luck, that is to say, an “act of fate”, and by so doing exonerate God entirely. For surely, misfortune is easier to tolerate than injustice. If this be a denial of Divine Will, so be it. If it must come to such, I would rather deny the Lord outright than lose respect for Him. I would rather refute His Power than His Love. I would rather beat my tom-tom for a less than Omnipotent God than count my beads for One who is Almighty but Unfair.
Enough said for my own meager thoughts. What about those of the villagers. How do these rugged mountain people —whose ancestors believed in gods of Sun and Rain, but who learned from their conquerors to have faith in a personal, all powerful God of Love who mercifully watches over His flock—account for natural catastrophes such as the flash flood in La Tahona? How do they reckon with the violent sacrifice of those innocent children? How do they regard the suffering of Victor? And how does Victor, himself, regard his ordeal? Certainly his story has a familiar ring:
Here was a young man in the prime of life, peaceful, honest, hard working, kind to his aging mother, good to his wife and children. Then one night there fell a Great Rain from the Heavens and stripped him of just about everything a man can be stripped of and survive. It stripped him of his mother, of his wife, of his children. It stripped him of his home, of his livestock, of his poultry, of his orchard. It even stripped him of the clothes on his back and of much of his skin. It left him battered and rank with infection. But it let him live!
And in spite of all this, in those agonizing days of treatment which followed, each time his putrid leg was opened and cleaned and the pain was unbearable, he would cry out, “Diós! Ay Diós!” Occasionally, when it was too much he would wail, “Diós, déjame morir! " (God, let me die!) and rarely, “Ay Diós, tan ingrato!” (ingrato translates as ungrateful, cruel or harsh.)
Surely, if the Story of Job had not been recorded in Gods testimony long before, the Story of Victor might do as well. The only —and perhaps most crucial - element that would at first appear to be missing is the major role of the Forces of Darkness, in other words, the Devil: that most precious angel who chose to sacrifice his own grace by falling from ;leaven in order to free from blame, the God he loved.
It has been fascinating to note, in the month that has passed since the Great Flood in La Tahona, how the local version of the “forces of darkness” have been gaining popularity in the villagers' accounting for the tragic event.
The local dark forces here in the barrancas are witches anal evil spirits, but it is understood. that the Devil is behind them; a witch can hex only if she has made a “compromise” with the Devil, i.e. sold him her soul.
In the days immediately following the La Tahona tragedy, there was little talk of witchcraft. The villagers spoke of a cyclone, and shrugging their shoulders a little uncomfortably, supposed it must have been “la voluntad de Diós”. No one dared ask why it was God’s will —at least not out loud —but I suspect that inwardly the question arose; for in spite of the fact that María Nuñez and her family had been well thought of by most of their neighbors, I heard numerous murmurings such as, “That’s what happens to troublemakers!” and “They must not have wanted to escape alive.” Yet such comments were usually made quizzically rather than righteously, as if the speaker were trying to convince himself.
Then, little by little, the role of witchcraft, and specifically “the old curse” began to gain favor as an explanation of the event. This was perhaps to be expected, as it not only allowed God to be merciful once again, but it provided an avenue of righteous recourse and a potential means to avoid repetition of such natural —or now, unnatural- catastrophes: destroy witches!
Fortunately for the present day witches in the area —and several have been named —the disaster in La Tahona has been securely pinned down to a witch who was already brutally murdered 22 years ago: Chana Cebreros. The evidence is convincing:
Firstly, Chana Cebreros was María Nunez’s closest neighbor; the eroded remains of the but where she lived so strangely and died so violently still stand, like an omen, above the site where Doña Maria’s house was swept away by the flood.
Secondly, Doña Chana did not get along well with Doña María (which is not surprising insofar as she apparently got along well with almost no one).
Thirdly, Doña Chana was not just a run of the mill witch; she was horrendous. She had reputedly hexed to death over a dozen persons between La Tahona and Verano. Many of her most dreadful feats of black magic would be hard to believe, had there not been so many witnesses. Alberto Meráz of La Quebrada swears to this day that Doña Chana transformed his genitals into those of a woman, and that when he pleaded with her, she changed him back to normal again. Doña Chana’s son, Melchór, still relates how several times when he was a teenager and left for a Saturday night dance in Verano against his mother’s will, that he had suddenly encountered her, hanging by her long black hair from the branch of a giant fig tree in mid-trail, terrifying him so that he turned around and ran home. There are many rumors that Doña Chana had “harnessed” the Devil and that she of-ten rode him piggy-back to her streamside garden and home again, but I have met no one who will swear that they actually saw this. However, there are more than a dozen witnesses living today who will swear that they saw Doña Chana slowly rise from the cot where she lay in atrance and “fly” to the top of the cliff face at the head of the canyon (the very cliff face that landslided into the arroyo the night of the fateful flood.)
Fourthly, and most importantly, shortly before Doña Chana was murdered, in one of those strange “attacks” of hers during which she lost consciousness and a “Voice” not her own, but a man’s, spoke “from her navel” —her “Voice” warned that a great curse had been laid on La Tahona, that the village was doomed to perish and that the curse would be lifted only when the last house fell to ruins.
At first the villagers were disturbed, to say the least, by this prophecy of doom, but in the long run they gave it little more heed than Californians who live along the San Andreas Fault give to the prophecies of the geologists or than we Christians (who charitably stockpile the means of total destruction by fire) give to the Book of Revelations.
Who can `say whether Doña Chana’s “curse of doom” be valid or not? However, the village of La Tahona has dwindled from 28 occupied casas at the time of her death, to five which are left standing today. I ‘do not know the stories behind the end of each of those houses and their families, but certainly an uncanny number involved some incidence of violence, whether on the part of man or nature.
Ironically, the first household to perish —and only a few months after Doña Chana’s Voice prophesied doom —was that of Doña Chana, and for reasons which had nothing to do with her directly (unless, of course, the devil set the stage). It so happened that Doña Chana’s son, Pedro, and another young man named Pascual, son of Doña Cecilia, also reputed to be a witch, fell in love with the same girl while in Ajoya… The not-so-friendly rivalry ended by Pedro’s killing Pascual. For some reason (possibly because she is not that kind of witch) Cecilia did not resort to black magic to avenge her son’s death, but called on the help of her cousin, “El Güerito " (The Paleface). El Güerito is a professional killer who resides in La Noria, north of Mazatlán and (thanks to a few neat jobs endorsed by public funds)‘has unofficial government protection. To date he has more than 100 assassinations to his credit.
When El Güerito arrived in Ajoya, Pedro was naturally nowhere to be found. Reluctant to disappoint Doña Cecilia, El Güerito and his band of gunmen rode to La Tahona and descended on Pedro’s family in the night. In cold blood they murdered his father, his mother (Doña Chana), four of his brothers and his 12 year old niece, a total of seven. The only survivor was Doña Chana’s son, Melchor, a, young man about Victor’s age. Although badly wounded by a bullet in the leg, Melchor managed to break past the killers and escape into the night. El Güerito’s men pursued him up the mountainside with torches, tracking by the blood spilled from his leg.. Disabled by the wound and weak from loss of blood, Melchor struggled to keep ahead of his pursuers; he dragged himself through thorn thickets and let himself tumble and slide down almost vertical slopes. Returning to the arroyo, he hobbled downstream some distance, then hid in a deep pool until El Güerito’s men passed, combing the banks for traces of bloody tracks. When they went by, Melchor, his whole body torn and battered from his wild flight through the night, dragged himself from the water and bound his leg with a tourniquet to check the bleeding. He then limped to a hiding place some distance above the arroyo, where he collapsed and remained for the next two days.
Though probably coincidence, the circumstances of the two “massacres” in La Tahona have sufficient parallels to give room for puzzlement. Two houses, side by side; seven persons innocent of the cause, were inhumanely killed in each house at night. One son from each household was severely injured in the leg, was pursued unmercifully through the night but escaped to tell the tale and to suffer the loss of the rest. Combine all this with Doña Chana’s —or her Voice’s —curse of doom, and it is not too surprising that the villagers should equate a demonic link between the two events.
And so, with a sigh of great relief, it is now decided: El Diablo and Doña Chana are to blame for the recent tragedy in La Tahona. It was not “la voluntad de Diós” after all; peace between heaven and earth can be graciously restored, and the villagers can sleep peacefully once again. However, no man, woman or child would be caught alive or dead along the arroyo at night:
As for myself, I still sleep poorly. I hope that God is not too hard on Doña Chana. Frankly, I don’t see how He would have explained things without her.
But then, who asked Him to? . . . I guess I did.