Sometimes, The Best Medicine Is Desert Heat.
When I'm under the weather, I get this clammy feeling inside my body. It is followed by an urge to be cured by the heat of the Sonoran sun, cured by the hands of some sun-dried elder, cured by a faith in notions beyond the immediate understanding of my one-track mind. It is then that I search to recover part of me that may have been left on the other side.
I knew this ancient, bent-over, teetering, white-haired woman who lived in a small pueblo miles past the line, whom I believed to have the wherewithal to help me. She had grown up on the Chihuahuan side of the Big Bend along the Rio Bravo, where she raised a big family. She moved to Sonora a decade or so ago, after her husband, a physician and faith healer, had passed on. In Sonora she settled beneath a hill she planted full of her medicinal plants--aloes, magueys, nopales. She fixed up an old adobe and reared loads of herbs in recycled Nido formula cans that lined her patio and hung from the rafters. There she commenced to minister to the many walk-ins who sought her out, in much the same way her husband had done east of El Paso.
I had been suffering from a burdensome fatigue and soreness in my ankles for several months, and had gotten no decent help from highly schooled medical doctors. The day I decided to look her up, I drove miles through creosote flats to where she lived on the edge of a dry riverbed. It was the dead heat of midsummer, and the rains were still nowhere in sight. Storm clouds were starting to pile high over nearby mountain ranges, but there in the valley the little humidity simply kept us all rumpled and sticky. A cloud of dust followed me into her farmyard, passed me as I slammed on the brakes, and descended upon the curandera's plants. I got out, dusted myself off, and walked into the fierce midday sun.
When I stepped onto her patio, sheltered by a makeshift roof and a hundred hanging herbs, the temperature dropped a dozen degrees. A pleasant mustiness hovered in the air. In the shadowy calm of her little oasis, I could take my sunglasses off for the first time all day.
"Buenas tardes," I announced to no one in particular. Soon, a young man in his twenties--her grandson from town, an apprentice, I later learned--appeared at the screened doorway to her kitchen and curing room.
"Me gustaria obtener la ayuda de la viuda. La viejita. La señora de la casa..." I said, fumbling. I didn't want to use the word curandera, even with her family members, for in these parts it still carries with it the curse of brujería, wicked witchcraft. He looked me over, up and down, wondering why in the hell some Hombre Blanco might show up for his grandmother's help. He had seen only Mexicans and Indians come around before, and wasn't even sure that her curing worked on white people. "Abuela, un señor, pues, un Yori, le gustaría platicar contigo."
"Donde está el?" A faint voice arose from the inner rooms of the adobe farmhouse.
"Atras, en la sombra. Sería mejor platicar en el patio, o aquí en la cocina?"
"Pues, en el patio, míjito. Un momento, por favor..."
Soon, the white-haired woman teetered out onto the patio and let her eyes adjust to the shadowy light there. She spotted me, offered me a bench, and took a seat on another beside it. She put me through a rather formal interview, I suppose so she could decide whether it was possible to help me. Although a few of her terms were obscure to me, we proceeded mostly in Spanish. I learned later that she had some rudimentary English that did her little good in curing rites.
I mentioned that I had come once before, bringing an old arthritic man from an O'odham village a hundred miles away, a man who had heard she could relieve his arthritis, and who had been satisfied by what she had done. I also knew a daughter of hers who lived in a nearby town.
She smiled politely, then touched my hand. "Well then, why do you come here now?"
I explained to her my affliction, rubbing the places where the vagrant inflammation arose, underscoring the bags beneath my eyes, and admitting that Western medicine had left me less than confident that I had the malady under control.
She listened carefully, her eyes wide open, looking into mine the entire time I was speaking. I noticed something striking about hers: they had a sky blue outer ring, but toward the retina, they turned an earthy greenish-brown. They were penetrating, but not in an aloof, analytical way; they meant to me that she was searching me out to see if her skills would even work on someone from another culture.
She sat quietly for a minute, her pale, wrinkled hands clasped in her lap, her gaze reaching off into the distance. She sighed and turned to me, feeling my wrists, ankles, and chest with her hands. There was a kindness to her touch.
"I believe I can help you, as long as there are no clouds building up above the house..."
I assured her that the only visible clouds were over the mountain on the far eastern horizon.
"Well, that is good. I require the sun's energy to help me with my work. For some reason, this gift of healing that has been given me is weakened on cloudy days."
She's living in the right place, I thought. Eight inches of rainfall, fewer than thirty overcast days the entire year. She sighed again and stared me straight in the eyes.
"My gift, it came before I was even born. When I was still in my mother's womb, some wild animal came howling outside our house on the Río Bravo. Wolves or coyotes, I don't know. They say I heard them, and shouted from the womb three times! When my mother told this to my grandmother, who was also a curandera, she said it was an omen of the gift I would have."
I must have looked unsettled, for she touched my hand again.
"Some say that I must be a bruja, bewitched, for that to have happened to me, but I am not. I simply believe that with faith, anything is possible: we can purge the pain and evil out of lives. That's right! Smoke it out! That's what I do! I have had to help my people who were hurting so badly they were carried into my kitchen. When they left my care, they were walking and smiling. Still, I cannot take full responsibility: the sun, the full moon, the saints, the herbs, the stones...all assist me."
"There are still no clouds...but is there anything else we need today?" I asked.
"Alcohol to burn! I am out of alcohol with which to make the smoke. Could you go get some...any kind...aguardiente, mescal, sotol, or plain cane alcohol. Yes, that might be best. La Victoria brand. Find it in a pharmacy or liquor store, and return here within the hour before the clouds come."
I returned forty minutes later with some bootleg bacanora mescal in hand, as well as a store-bought bottle of La Victoria. The widow looked at both, smelled them, set the mescal aside, and chose La Victoria for the tasks of the day. She had placed a chair between the stove and the kitchen table, parallel to them; it faced a frying pan on the floor, another on the edge of the table, a menagerie of saints on her hutch; her working area was surrounded with additional pictures of baby saints, candles, bottles of cologne, and now, two kinds of alcohol. She poured some cane alcohol into each frying pan, paused, then began looking around for something else.
"May I help you, señora?"
"I can't find the little stones..."
"Are they alone?"
"No, I believe they are together in a little bowl, but I don't see it. You need to hold two piedras in your hands while I cure you, or else..."
As she tottered around the kitchen, I imagined that I had come upon a Méxicana version of Merlin, prone to forget the magical formula of the day, or worse, mistake it for another. Both of us looked around the kitchen for the bowlful of pebbles for another few minutes, with no luck. Then I heard something, and peering out the screen door, saw her daughter drive up--the one I had met before. So I went out into the yard and asked if she knew where the stones were. She came into the kitchen and found a bowl full of translucent rocks above the stove. Relieved, we proceeded.
"Dos piedras por cada mano." She poured into each of my hands two pieces of rock salt. "Hold them tightly, and then when I command you--'¡Burn the sonababichís!'--throw them into the flames. Afterwards, we'll see what shapes they have come out of the burning and melting, okay?"
"Okay..." I was uncertain that I would understand the symbolism, but of course, that's why I came for the help of an elder. I never have been able to figure out much of that stuff on my own.
She had me sit down in the chair, facing the saints, the herbs, the candles. She put out the lights in the room, except for two candles. Then she stepped behind the chair in which I was sitting, put her hands on my shoulders, and began calling on the presences in the room, beseeching them, I guess:
"Most powerful, with you, with faith, nothing is impossible to cure. So please help cure this one who has come for our guidance. Please purge from him those who have made him sick, and leave him well again."
Then she began with the laying on of hands, all the time reciting creeds and dichos she knew by heart. She pressed her palms firmly against the top of my skull, my forehead, eye sockets, cheeks, chin, mouth, throat, shoulders, forearms, upper chest, and finally, against my heart. She stood before me, looking straight at me with her gentle, bicolored eyes, and repeated her laying on of hands. I remember the feel of her hands upon me. They surprised me with their firmness and strength as she pressed them into my shoulders, back, and chest, but they were also soft and warm when she touched upon my eyes, mouth, and heart. As she patted me, praying, I fell into a deep, relaxed state.
It was then that I had a muscle spasm in my lower back; I leapt a little in the chair. A sudden jump.
She stopped for a moment, drew back, and looked at me curiously. "Did I touch a soft spot in you?"
"There was no pain, if that's what you mean. Sometimes when I relax, after running for instance, my back jumps like that. It might be from an old injury--when I was thrown from a horse..."
"No," she said, laughing softly. "This was something different I think, something good. Did you see the woman shoot out the door when you jumped? She left you when I caught her out of the corner of my eye. She's been making you feel uneasy, no?"
"Some female spirit left my body?" I said, flabbergasted.
"She left this room altogether! Didn't you hear the screen door slam? Let's continue..."
She stood before me, holding my wrists and crossing my arms back and forth upon my chest, all the while maintaining her incantation, "Con fé, todo es posible..."
The curandera then instructed me to stand up and placed me before the frying pan. She had me roll up the pant legs of my dungarees, then she rolled down my sweat socks and held my ankles for a moment. "Now it will be easier to smoke out the pain," and with a flick of her wrist, she lit a wooden match and launched it through the air. It cascaded into the pan on the floor, where the alcohol burst into flames. "It's time for you to cross the barrier of fire," she spoke, and she stood on the other side, motioning me to come.
I went bowlegged, duckwalking over the flame and smoke. My temperature soared. I sweated and trembled. The heat waves rose up before me, my view of the viuda wavered. I reached her, and she took my shoulders, turned me around, and commanded, "Cross over to the other side, again and again. Hold the stones tightly, and let them suck up all the pain that is being smoked out of you."
I moved slowly across the flames that lapped up around and between my legs, gripping the rock salt in my hands, and suddenly, a cool breeze wafted over me. It then occurred to me why I was there.
It had been a fuzzy notion in the back of my mind until that time. But now it was burning clear. I had to rid myself of a residual sadness about past failures with others, failures that had been clouding my life. To absolve the guilt and disappointment that had plagued me, to disperse nagging preoccupations I had about what I had done to make myself sick, I crossed the flames five, seven, maybe a dozen times--trying to burn the clouds away--before the widow pulled me from my reverie.
"Shake the pain out of you! Toss it into the fire! Flick it off you like this!" She motioned for me to rub it off of my clothes and skin, to wring my hands out and dump the residue into the pan of flames. I brushed myself as if I was taking a whisk broom and clearing dust and debris from my pants and shirt, and letting any gunk that came off me feed the fire in the pan.
"Now take the little stones in your hands--they have taken up the remaining pain--and throw them into the flames! Cry out! Burn, you sonababíchis! Git outa here, you sombrábagun! Tell them to leave and never come back!"
I don't know how loud I shouted, or for how long, but soon the stones were gone. I blinked as their melting salts sizzled in the pan, and another wave of relief came over me. I stood next to the viuda and watched the flames die down. She asked me to pick up the pan with a pot holder, and bring it to the stove so that she could see what residue was left.
"Oh, see how they've burnt. We've gotten them, no?"
She peered into the pan from different angles and laughed quietly to herself.
"Yes, we may have gotten them all..." and then she said a word I could not have understood--it sounded like vinotellos, the yeast-laden residue left over after wine making. I repeated it, but she shook her head. So she tried to explain. "Inside of you are little beings--like pichilingis--I don't know what you call them in English. But they try to take charge and play tricks on your body. They are who we are after! To purge them from you so that you can recover!"#
She then splashed some rosewater into my hands. She had me dab my eyes, neck, throat, and wrists with it, until its perfume pervaded the air.
"Lift up your shirt now, and apply this to your belly and chest!" I cupped my hands, and she shook some herbs drenched in cologne into my palms. I splashed it all over my upper body, then dried my moist hands on my calves and ankles.
"Good! Now, don't bathe or wash for a day. It will take some time for the rest of them to depart, but don't you worry, they will go. Thank you for coming. You know, I haven't had too many patients lately."
I tried to hug her.
"No, ahorita, no. I am a little weak. Not now. Anyway, you're still curing. ¡Vaya con Dios!"
"Igualmente." I left her some pesos under the bowl of rock salt and handed her a necklace full of milagros--little copper ex voto effigies of hearts, legs, eyes and ears. If family members were hurting, my Sonoran friends would often put these trinkets in the care of the saints who stood around their shrines. They decorated the statue of Saint Francis in nearby Magdalena, and adorned the shrine of El Tiradito in Tucson. The old lady was clutching the effigies against her breast as I left.
With that, I went back across the border. Getting home, I felt so drained that I could hardly stand up--punch-drunk, I think they call it. I went to bed and slept a good twelve hours--a deep, painless sleep, no dreams, no fits, no spasms, no aches all night long.
I awoke the next morning to the sound of the whole desert dawning outside my window: Gambel's quail, cactus wrens, Gila woodpeckers, gilded flickers, curve-billed thrashers and white-winged doves hooting up a storm. I sat up in bed and felt the sun and still-cool morning air filter through the window screen. That was the morning when the two sides of my life began to congeal. Something had begun to cure me deeply. Like hides tanned by being steeped in a dark infusion of oak or acacia bark, then pulled to dry in the full sun.
Excerpted from Desert Legends: Re-storying the Sonoran Borderlands. Copyright © 1994 by Gary Paul Nabhan. Published by Henry Holt and Company and reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.Nabhan will sign copies of the book at Coyote's Voice Books, located in Broadway Village Center, Broadway and Country Club, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. January 14. For more information, call 327-6560. Also, landscape photographer Mark Klett will exhibit his black-and-white photographs from the book at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum's Ironwood Gallery January 18 through March 6. Nabhan will present readings from the book at 4 p.m. on January 19, also in the Ironwood Gallery. John Thompson, a local songwriter, will add musical accompaniment to Nabhan's presentation. For more information call 883-3018.
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