Jean McKinney

Strange Stories for Strange Times

Tag: witchcraft stories

“Three Feathers” – A Soledad City Story

Toward sunset, after the thunder stops, Henry Joe takes Bobby’s pickup. It’s a fine big truck, never mind the dent on the side where the old roan kicked it, and the slit in the seat where Bobby’s woman had the knife that time.

In the old days, Henry Joe would’ve put on his paint and his feathers, and slung a leg over the back of a sleek red horse. But that was before the white man pushed the people onto the rez, took their horses and their pride, and so tonight he makes do with Bobby’s king cab. He’s got a handful of bills in his pocket and the sound of Jadie’s voice in his head, and the City has the only cure he knows.

Bobby’s out with the stock, so Henry Joe asks Sam Bass to come along.

“Goin to get me a drink,” says Henry Joe. “Goin to get me so drunk I’ll forget my name. Goin to forget how Jadie walked out for a white man and how I never got my check.”

Sam squints at the clouds dragging sunset on a wild wind, and he squints at the light that pours like blood on the wet sand and the saguaros .  “I don’t know, man,” he says. “Changes comin with the moon.  Old men can feel it. Raven’s spreadin out his wings on the wind. . Goin to make his choice tonight I bet.”

Henry Joe leans his elbow out the cab window.   Against a sky gray as velvet, a rainbow stretches from one corner of the horizon to the other. Underneath it like a ghost stretches a second rainbow, and beneath that, another, fainter yet.

A chill dances up Henry Joe’s spine, because the triple rainbow means Sam Bass is right. Raven’s walking in the world tonight, looking for his chosen one. But because his heart feels full of stones, and he’s already got the loan of Bobby’s truck, he forces a laugh.

“Old men got to talk about somethin. Don’t tell me you buy that old time bullshit.” Henry Joe lifts his face to the western sky. “Don’t care if Raven is scoutin for a medicine man tonight. It ain’t goin to be you. And it sure as hell ain’t goin to be me. We’ll be too drunk for him to care about us.”

Sam Bass shrugs. “Nothin we can do about it anyhow I guess.” He swings open the passenger door of Bobby’s truck. One foot on the floorboard, he looks at Henry Joe. “But I got to make a stop first, all right?”

Henry Joe raises an eyebrow. “I already got us some beer for the road.”

Sam Bass doesn’t laugh. “No. I got to go by my auntie’s. I promised her, next time I go up to Soledad –”

A tightness begins in Henry Joe’s stomach. “You’ll be back before she ever knows you’re gone.”

Sam slams the door harder than he needs to. “No. She’ll know.”

Sam Bass’ auntie Nettie Chubai is a witch and a healer, and she scares the living piss out of Henry Joe. That eye of hers, the one that doesn’t look straight, always seems to follow you like a knife in your back.

As long as Henry Joe can remember, people have whispered and muttered about Nettie and the magics she works in that little house at the end of the Horn Pipe Road. How she said a word one night and all of Jackie Juan’s cows turned up their heels and died, just because he’d called her a witch to her face. How she woke the sleeping saguaros and made them warriors once again, to save the soul of her own granddaughter.

Nettie Chubai is both crazy and mean, and she has more magic in her little finger than most folks gather up in a lifetime or two. So Henry Joe hunkers down in the cab of Bobby’s truck with his hat pulled low over his face, and waits for Sam Bass to come out of the house.

Five minutes and done: Sam clatters down the porch steps and dives into the truck, dumping a bulging paper sack onto the seat next to Henry. Behind him, Nettie Chubai stands watchful on her porch, toadish in her pink flowered muumuu and plastic thongs.

“Let’s go!” blurts Sam. Henry hits the gas.

And so they mount up: new warriors of the People in their good jeans and bolas and diamondback boots with no horse shit under the heels. Sam Bass has a feather in his hatband, and Henry Joe’s hair is tied back with a braided leather thong.

The bag rests, too heavy for its size, on the seat between them. Ignoring it as hard as they can, they roll their way down the Interstate toward Soledad City. Henry Joe eases them off the snakes’ nest of interchanges, aiming for the neon alleys back behind the River Walk, when Sam Bass speaks.

“Turn off at Spring Street.”

Henry Joe opens his mouth, closes it again, glances at the bag with sudden understanding. Wordlessly he shifts lanes.

South of downtown, where all the signs are in Spanish, Sam Bass points at a white cube of a building on the corner. The windows are barred with wrought iron in the shapes of flowers, and painted roses curl around the arching letters above the door: La Curanderia, the healer’s shop.

“Won’t be but a minute,” says Sam Bass. “OK, Henry Joe?”

Sam’s face is sheened with sweat, and his eyes flicker between Henry Joe and the Curanderia. Henry Joe’s heart jumps a beat or two, but he pulls over to the curb. Sam reaches for the bag,, but his fingers curl and a queasy look passes over his face.

“You come too,” says Sam.

Henry Joe lights up a smoke and shakes his head. “I’m just the driver. You’re the messenger boy.”

Sam Bass touches Henry Joe’s sleeve. “Maybe Raven don’t care who we are. Maybe he does. But my auntie sends a gift to Mama Silva. And she’s sure as shit goin to care if it sits out here gettin – ah, gettin . . .. ”

Stale?  Cold?  Hot?

Sam’s hand hovers over the bag, trembling.   “Come on, Henry Joe.   You got to help me.”

Henry Joe squints through the smoke at the little white storefront. Who hasn’t heard of Mama Silva? Catty corner from the boarded up liquor store, Mama Silva’s open all the time, working fearsome magics in her back room behind a curtain made of beads . Crack heads and knife fights and sirens in the night: Mama Silva just goes on. She’s older than the mountains and wiser than the moon, and she plays with people’s lives like they’re puppets on strings wet with blood.

Henry Joe keeps as far away from magic as he can. Before she died of drinking, his mother told him how the night that he was born, the wind cried till the dawn came, and when the sun came up, there were three feathers on the windowsill: one black, one barred, and one grey like a dove’s. She carried her newborn boy to the window, she said, and when he saw those feathers his tiny little hand reached out sure and strong, and picked up that black feather by its quill.

She spent her life convinced her fifth-born one had been touched by the Spirits, and Henry Joe’s spent his whole  life running from the thought.

If that’s possible, Mama Silva scares him more than Nettie Chubai.   So he and Sam sit staring at each other, at Mama Silva’s front door, at anything but that damn sack. They could be here all night while Sam screws up the nerve to pick it up, and Henry Joe can’t stand that crawling dread any longer.

“Ah shit,” he says, and swinging open the door, he grabs the thing from the seat. The sudden weight of it, far more than its size should allow, drags his arm to the ground. Sam’s eyes roll; he flings open the door and starts down the sidewalk, never looking back. Henry Joe hauls the sack up into both arms, ignoring the squishy shifting of the contents, and follows Sam to Mama Silva’s door.

Sam Bass eases open the carved front door and they step into a little room full of golden lamplight and the smell of incense. Shelves along the wall hold votives and little pots labeled in Spanish. Crucifixes and statues of the Virgin fill a glass display case in the front. By the window two old women dressed in black and silver whisper, heads together, over a box filled with bundles of dried herbs.

Beads rattle like mesquite beans. Henry Joe glances up, mouth suddenly dry. Lamplight fractures like tiny rainbows on the crystals hanging from the doorway of another room in back. They part, and a small woman in black steps through.

She has silver hair piled high with combs and the hard proud face of a Mayan queen, and with a smile she holds out her hand to Sam Bass.

“Welcome, mijo. And how is your tia keeping?”

Sam casts a wild eye at Henry Joe. His voice creaks. “She’s, well, she says, uh, hello. She sends this.”

Cued, Henry Joe leans around from behind him. The contents of the bag sag moistly against his chest. His arms ache from the weight. “Where do you want it?” he hears himself say.

“Give Nettie my thanks,” says Mama Silva, and reaching up, she plucks the sack neatly from Henry Joe’s grasp. Lifting it in one hand like a grocery bag full of feathers, she gestures the two of them into the curtained room.

The two old women by the window glance up from their herbs. Smiling, Mama Silva tells them something in rapid-fire Spanish; they beam at Sam and Henry Joe.

That smile sends a worm of fear across the back of Henry Joe’s neck. He clears his throat. Mama Silva turns her black-ice eyes upon him.

“Come in, querido, and have some tea. I knew your mother, once.”

Down at the place on South Dorado Street, tired rockabilly blares from the jukebox in the corner and clubhoppers dance the cat dance of attraction late into the night. Henry Joe just sits at the bar, watching them all and nursing another Red Eye all alone.

Sam Bass bought the first round and then he vanished to the pool room with a chica in tight white pants, leaving Henry Joe on his own. Never mind his faithless Jadie. Never mind the business about the late check for the stockyard job. Now all Henry Joe wants to forget is ten minutes in the candlelit back room of Mama Silva’s shop.

Tea, amber in a white china cup; the rich dark colors of the altar to the Black Virgin and the tapestry on the wall; the sad eyes of the Son of God, meeting Henry’s own as he listened to Mama Silva’s voice: Henry Joe’s stomach twists just thinking of it.

“So here you are,” Mama Silva had said. “What is your name?”

Henry Joe sipped tea, though he usually hated it; thought it tasted like dirty water. But Mama Silva’s tea left a taste of cinnamon and honey on his tongue and warmth in his veins. “Henry Joe Rubio. Ma’am.”

Mama Silva smiled, and Henry Joe thought of snakes in the sun. “Not that name. The one that came with the feathers, the night that you were born. Do you still have the feathers?”

Henry Joe blinked. Yes, he did, one of the few things his mama made him swear to keep. She’d tied a red thread around the quill of that black one. Reading the answer in his eyes, Mama Silva leaned across the table.

“The wind said, he is coming. The rainbow said, tonight. When that name comes, you will know it.  And you must answer to it, whenever Raven calls.”

Her lips, dry and cool, brushed his cheek. ”Welcome to the true world, brujo mio.”

Brujo: witch, magician, sorcerer.  Him? Oh no no no.   The tea rose bitter in the back of Henry Joe’s mouth and a chill washed down his spine. And to his burning shame, he’d flung himself out of that room and into the refuge of Bobby’s truck without another word.

Coming out a minute later, Sam had nothing to say. He’d looked hard at Henry Joe, eyes full of awe and something like sadness, and slammed the door.

“God damn, man,” he said.  Henry Joe’s stomach clenched tight and he gunned that pickup down Spring Street, barreling through the traffic just as if he could outrun Mama Silva’s voice in his head.

Later:

On the bar the dancers sway, bare breasts defying gravity. Henry Joe drains his glass and beckons for another. A woman stalks past, glitter and ice in pale pink satin. She trails a hand across his shoulder. Henry Joe squints. Behind her bronze blushed cheeks and indigo eyes hangs, ghostly in the flickering light, the face of an owl. She smiles, and the owl face vanishes.

He glances around. Down at the end of the bar, a tall thin man stands talking; his face, turned half away, is the face of a rabbit. Clutching his glass like a lifeline, Henry Joe scans the room.   Horse, Hawk, Snake . . . the spirit faces shimmer, drifting in and out over the faces of the people dancing, talking, drinking all around him.

A short man in a checkered Mexican shirt ,muscling past, bumps his shoulder, and he glances down into the eyes of Coyote. The man grins a toothy grin and nods: You got me, son.   Henry Joe sets down the glass and launches himself toward the door, booze and corn nuts rising in his belly.

                      Outside:

 The parking lot is blacktop and ashes. The moon, riding high on the last of the clouds, leaches away all color from the brick walls and gleaming asphalt. Deep in the shadows by the alley mouth, Henry Joe folds up sourmouthed and dizzy, wondering where the hell Sam is. Where the truck is. Where his brains are.

“How about it, babe?’

“Not here.”

“Come on, come on … nobody gonna see.”

Henry Joe raises his head. The voices are real. Down at the end of the wall, where the alley meets the mouth of Dorado Street, stand a man and a woman.

Moonlight gleams on plastic: the barrel of a syringe, the edge of a baggie.

“He will,” says the woman, and Henry Joe knows she’s looking at him.

“Goddamn Injuns.” The man’s voice is hard with contempt. “Always drunk. Can’t see his own shoes much less us.”

Henry Joe lets the voices wash over him.   His head droops to his chest and he drifts away on a tide of tequila and beer.

“No! Leave me –” The woman’s voice, rising to a full-bore scream, slices through his fog. There’s a thump and a scuffle, muttered curses.

“Fuckin whore –” Glint of a knife at the alley mouth: the black bulk of the man’s body presses the woman into the wall. Moonlight catches the rhinestone glitter of one high heeled shoe; gleams on the blood that runs down one white arm.

Henry Joe’s stomach seizes up; he presses his arms tight against it to hold the contents down and curls himself into the shadows by the wall.

Something jabs his eyelid. He squints at a gleaming curve of beak inches from his face. All around him, black wings stretch as wide as this city sky.

“It’s time,” says Raven. “Tell me now. What’s your name?”

Henry Joe’s stomach heaves up again. He leans his cheek against the cool gray brick and realizes he’s not drunk enough yet.

“Henry.”

Raven’s jet eyes burn in the flickering lights of Dorado Street.   “No. The real one.”

Henry Joe thinks of feathers in a cloth bag under his bed. Thinks of triple rainbows and Mama Silva’s lips on his cheek. Thinks of another name, carried hidden all his life in the deepest corner of his mind. He moans.

“The one I gave you,” says Raven. “The one I’ve been calling all fucking evening.”

The name tickles on the edges of Henry Joe’s brain, but it doesn’t come. Henry Joe curls up against the wall, the concrete gritty against his forehead. A hand seizes his hair, jerks his head around. He stares into the cold black eye of a tall sharp faced man in a black T shirt, leaning over inches from his face.

“Did I make a mistake? Better hope I did not. My choice is my choice. Claim it. Walk out a witch and a warrior,” hisses Raven, jerking his head at the struggling figures in the alleyway. “Or die here in your own puke with no name at all.”

Blackness falls around Henry Joe, the spreading of wings wider than the world, and then he’s all alone under the chinaberry trees, gaping at the moon.

Time starts running again. The name, the one Raven gave him before he was ever born, flares in his mind like a beacon, driving away fear and rage and drowned dreams. He hauls himself up and stumbles toward the alley mouth.

The man with the knife–skinny, Anglo, drug-eyed –swings around, flinging the woman to the pavement.

“You want it? Come on, Tonto.” He closes on Henry Joe, aiming a kick at his knees.

  Henry Joe’s spent his whole life wrangling cattle and shoeing horses.   With Raven’s words hot in his mind, he rolls and grabs, and the man goes down, the knife arcing from his hand. The Anglo grapples, slamming Henry Joe face down on the pavement.

Henry Joe tastes oil and ashes; he scrambles for the knife, fingers closing on it as the other man pounces on his back. But Henry Joe slips sideways and swings up the blade. Blood like hot rain spatters his face. On a sobbing breath, the other man lurches to his feet. Running footsteps clatter down the alley.

The world narrows down to darkness and the pounding in Henry Joe’s head.   Hauling himself to his knees, he looks up.

By the alley wall the woman stands sobbing. He picks himself up and eases an arm around her thin shoulders. She’s a little thing, wispy blond barely up to his shoulder, and a bruise is blooming on one sharp cheekbone. She clutches her arm; blood oozes through her fingers.

“It’s OK,” says Henry Joe. “It’s OK.”

She glances at Henry Joe, glances into the silent blackness of the alley.

“Holy shit,” she says.

Down the front street, sirens start to wail. The woman’s eyes flick back to Henry Joe. Red and blue lights flash, bouncing off the wall behind the Hotel Marley.

“Lemme help you –“ Henry Joe begins. “ You oughta get that cut looked at –“

She shakes her head. “No. I got to go. But hey –“ she pops up on tiptoe and kisses the corner of his mouth, light as the touch of a mothwing.

“Thanks. What’s your name, man?”

Henry Joe, he starts to say. But his head fills up with stars and the beating of great black wings. Beyond the neon, beyond the black towers of the downtown banks, the sky is full of moonlight. A long dark feather drifts across its face and spirals down, brushing his face. The woman glances at him, at the flashing lights, at the alley mouth, and takes off running around the corner as fast as her sequined heels will go.

Henry Joe  plucks the feather from the pavement. His name, the name that Raven’s been calling all evening, falls easy into his mind. His head is full of thunder, and lightning dances all along his nerves. He starts to laugh.    Welcome to the true world.                       

                       

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