Vestige to Visage
Copyright © 2009 by Juventino Manzano. All rights reserved.
El Chivo (The Goat) El Coyote
The first time I saw Her I was 15 and it was at a deal my papa took me to in southern Nuevo Leon in order to introduce me officially to the mechanics of the family business. This wasn’t just some “deal,” this was a big deal; my papa was buying tons of marijuana and we were going to inspect and approve the transaction which his regional patron had set up. My papa always carried a nickel plated Colt Combat Commander in .38 super, shiny as the moon seen through a hand lens. It had, until before this deal, silver cachas or grips, but now was decked out in ivory grips with Her carved in bas relief, wielding scythe and wearing Her cassock get up — a gift from a connection in Michoacán. Everything was normal — just another day hanging with my papa even if it seemed unusual to be taken to a major deal. It was life. The sun was high, the mountain woods closed in around us, and the air smelled of dried cannabis.
Suddenly I could see us, the men with us, and the men from the other cartel all appearing as Her, but in different vestments — cowboy boots and hats, Levi’s and shirts with fancy embroidery. My handsome papa, neatly trimmed black goatee, his brown eyes hiding layers he’d saved only for himself, his shirt with the marijuana leaves embroidered around the buttons open throated, anchor Christ necklace on his curly haired chest; Colt tucked into his belt — only the grips with Her visible. As we toured the tonnage, I felt Her gaze on me from all the eyes around me — all the macho narcos fingering AK-47s and Colts, their gold marijuana leaf necklaces, customized trucks parked idling, dual exhaust grumbling behind the shipment. It was a moment of revelation being able to see through Her eyes — understanding we were all as able as Her to wield the scythe without a second thought, reduced to reflex-ruthless. I remember it stronger than my first orgasm given to me by Angel in his pick-up truck — him on the floor between my legs, tongue tapping a door I had not known existed — crying out “Epiphany” and “Angel” — a pleasant, perfect, continuous memory.
Money was exchanged; I was not introduced, just accepted without question. The narco‘s daughter, standing to his side, my long hair in a bun and my eyes behind shaded Ray-Bans. The farmer’s representative, an old acquaintance of my papa, Don G, smiled when he saw me.
“Mijita, you are now a man.” He grinned and I felt his eyes grope my breasts beneath my blouse.
My papa grinned ironically at his joke. “So you know who you will eventually answer to.”
“I never thought I would be someday answering to a woman, but as you say Don Puentes.”
“It is not as I say; it is as it will be, never forget that.” My papa patted his shoulder. “She will be majestically ruthless in my own fair way, as she is my reflection.”
I felt myself blush under the gaze of my father, so full of love for me. I could feel his pride in waves coming off his hand resting lightly on my shoulder.
Don G looked at my papa then at me, raised his eyebrows, shook my hand, and kissed my cheek, too long.
He waved towards the neat bales of marijuana flowers.
What could I say? Of course.
Being with my papa answered for all else, all internal questions. There was no mistaking who he was. Times were good back then; the law had been corrupted and she was on our side. Our cartel threw its share of once pointing-finger-floaters into the river and they would turn up like corks in a fruit bowl of sour champagne — eyes eaten out by fish, body bloated, filled with gas from the heat of the Northern Mexico Border sun which boiled them in the stagnant water, raising their warning of death to the slow river’s surface.
Everyday he and I would pray to Her at our altar in the garden, light incense, leave cigarettes that would always be butts the next day, and pray to the Virgen de Guadalupe for my mother — lost during my entrance to the world.
My papa married his business after my mother’s death, only attended to various mistresses, never bothering with another child as he said I was more than he could hope for from any child. I could never view their subtle attempts at motherliness as anything more than attempts to transcend the fear they seemed to feel around me, knowing they could never compete with the love a papa has for his only child.
The dreams began not too long after that first big deal. The first one came after doing a lot of coke with Angel and letting him take me to orgasm over and over again until I was a moaning-no-more-satiated-nymph-ravished-by-my-own-personal-Pan.
La Santa Muerte appeared to me in Her-grim-reaper-skeletal-glory asking for help. I was standing in a field of sunflowers-girasoles. She stood in dark contrast to the bright flowers, motionless in Her presence.
“Help you?” I asked.
“Yes, help me. I miss my fleshly visage. I want it back again-not this hideous skull, so frightening to so many, but my beautiful face that I so foolishly lost.”
I felt no fear. I tried to look at Her face, in particular Her eyes, but all was in shadow, even in this field lit so brightly by the namesake flower’s friend.
“I will show you my true beauty when you work for me to regain the flesh I have lost. I need more blood to run; I need to regain the respect of those who pussyfoot around me thinking that incense will satisfy my appetite.”
“I don’t know what I can do.”
“Oh yes you do.”
The sunflowers started spinning on their stems — a mass of brilliant windmills spinning with no wind to spin them. That was the first time. I woke heart beating, still seeing the spinning flowers before my half opened eyes. I waited for my heart to calm and returned to a static, dreamless sleep.
I asked my papa about the Santa Muerte. He explained that like so much of the religion of Mexico, She was a cover for the worship of ancient gods; in Her case, it seemed to my father, She was the present “incarnation” of the Aztec god Mictlantecuthtli who was “Mr. Death” of the Mexica, shared a similar countenance, and seems to have been more attentive to his followers than the weak gods of the Spanish, at least until the conquest when all the old gods seemed to have fled in fear of the paper sky god of the Spanish. I remarked that she/he must have been well fed during the Conquest. Perhaps she enjoyed the decimation of her worshippers by the bloody steel-horsed Spaniards who inadvertently fed her/him well through inquisition in the name of their bloody God and his tortured Son — better than Her worshippers ever had. It seemed to me that She had let them perish; perhaps they had tried to appease Her with incense. She was a vestige of something older than what we knew — a terrible truth that the Spanish had destroyed when confronted, had risen once more, no longer afraid of the gaze of the Christians and ready and willing to receive blood again instead of Christ’s weak metaphorical wine for Her sustenance, and that of Her worshippers. My Papa hugged me and said that I was always asking questions instead of just accepting. It was not a woman’s place to question a man, but being his daughter, he said, allowed me the right to be more than any man.
The dreams haunted me as I grew older. Eventually I went to the States to study at university, and She was quiet while I investigated philosophy which confirmed there were no answers to any of my existential questions and while I learned that the belief system of me and my fathers was not something to be discussed with the typical watery brained American. I made the mistake of talking honestly with my dorm mate about what I knew of Santa Muerte, Kali, Vishnu, the Virgin, and the other supposed mythos my father had instilled in me, and the conversation ended with my brutal punctuation mark of a slap on the young woman’s face after she said my father had poisoned and perverted me, and that without the words of Christ, I was lost. I told her to have her soggy, weak savior come and wipe the blood from her face. I had wanted to crush this gringa, but her bloody nose sufficed. I ended up with a new roommate.
I realized upon my return to my father’s hacienda with my ineffectual B.A. in philosophy and logic, She had been with me back when Angel, my too cute, cokehead boyfriend, would drive around wired out of his mind, listening to corridos super loud in his yellow customized “coke” truck with an AK-47 in the gun rack. And I, a bit timid around him, would sit next to him — too sweaty, his satin shirt sticking to him, his arm around me telling me to hit the vial of coke left wet with his mucus, until he took us somewhere to garner more experience together in the pleasures of the flesh — and I wondered if She missed those things.
She was with us when I accompanied Angel and two of his goons, Ram and Gary, wasted on marijuana, tequila, and cocaine, on a scare-the-shit-out-of-’em-drive-by-AK-47 ranting rapid Kalashnikov broken words of warning leaving broken windows and blood splatters behind like an audience that had fainted headfirst in the afterglow of its immense, cigarette-lighting, muzzle flash. Angel drove off laughing into the night, the hot brass from the rifle a trail of crumbs behind us. I laughed numbly, feeling Her without knowing what I was feeling.
I realized She had been with me when Tiva and I had taken massive quantities of mushrooms during a stupid Spring Break celebration at South Padre Island before we became wise to the stupidity of all those inane frat boys and beer bonging sorority girls getting blasted on the beach, and how we almost wandered into a gang-bang, but we felt Her, and even though the boy that Tiva was talking to was really cute, there was no way we would go into the condo where the light from a porno movie on a big screen TV blasted its pale fleshy light out into the night. We spent the rest of the night at one of those open 24-hour American restaurants, eager to fill our bellies with fattening, greasy food. We drank coffee and smoked instead, ducking into the restroom to blaze a one-hitter, hoping the boy did not follow us.
So uneven in her appearances, yet there was always the thread of death in all those scenarios — of either me or someone else in my path. I often wonder how many people lived in fear of my father and his cartel and how they responded when they felt Her presence. Did they sit and think of those bullets hitting the walls and windows or their house and realize that they were Santa Muerte‘s nails running down Her lover’s back?
During the time I was in America, Santa Muerte became almost mainstream, as mainstream as a skeletal goddess worshipped by criminals and narcos could become. There were comics about her, books legitimizing Her worship, shrines feeding Her ego, and offerings given up daily from various cartels throughout the country, leaving their mark on the world of violence — echoing yet transcending the crimes of those we admired — those prohibition gangsters and the corrupt government agencies from the roaring twenties and the time of concrete shoes and St. Valentine massacres, and as Her offerings increased, She gained power, fed well by all of us, She entered more lives as though She had always been the dominant force behind them. And the irony was that She was.
The narco business had changed too. It had started with the hippies and their weed, trying to change the world in their idealistic way, thinking that turning everyone on would suffice. A noble attempt — they were mind manifesting — but now it seemed the North Americans had developed a heavier appetite for less mind manifestation and more mind removal — as though the way of life they led, so devoid of family, culture, even good food, took a tremendous toll on their happiness. Yet they persisted in pursuing the worship of things while they drowned themselves in heroin, cocaine, speed and lots and lots of pharmie drugs — the new favorites in order to live a numbed and nullified existence. On those pills one could put up with anything and it seemed to make television, which I personally shunned, even more bearable as an escape for the unhappy gringos.
She appeared in my room one night shortly after I had returned to my papa’s house, wearing Her robe without Her scythe. No words were spoken . . . She was now a visage of flesh, not bone, and was quite beautiful. Over Her cassock She wore a medallion of Kali, a Christ on an anchor, a marijuana leaf in silver, and a coke spoon. She rattled as She walked to my bed. Empathy in waves came off of Her — I could feel nothing but silence-stillness. She wanted to keep this fleshy face. I needed to feed Her; I needed to do what would give Her what She wanted — a face of Her own, always. Her eyes were felt but not seen as they were hidden in the dark from falling shadows of Her hood and hair, yet they still managed to rake mine, leaving me to contemplate the feeling She imparted.
It was like being a woman was what She knew; She smelled me, breathing in my scent. I did not succumb to Her without a grimace, and She nodded touching my head. I knew Her from somewhere besides Her iconic image at the altar, and I recognized the feeling as the one I felt when I cried out to Angel and when I detected the look of Her in those long ago men at that inaugural deal.
“Do you see what I could bring you every night?”
I did not say anything, but let Her continue touching me.
“This without the demands of the men, those demands that are for their own selfish means. They use; I only give and only demand my favor is returned in blood. That is all.”
I let Her take me again and again. And She did. And I never saw Her eyes, all I wanted to see.
Later I awoke with the moon streaming in my window. My curtain blew inward and then like a lung breathing filled with air, went outward into the night. The moon, bright as muzzle flash, seemed to sigh. I went back to sleep after masturbating, dreaming of my papa’s .38 super.
How Freudian it seemed to me, but then I realized that it was like a king’s scepter. The ruled dream of the scepter, the ruler dreams to be rid of it. I would gladly take it if it would result in the visage retaining flesh and not simply bone. It seemed flesh I would like to see every day, and Her eyes — just the thought of them on me, gazing into mine, were enough to drive a person crazy. One could not see them, yet even unseen I felt I had seen them and they were silent, vast as the universe, as known as the back of your hand, but one could not be sure.
“He’s going after Michoacán first. What a surprise. I wonder how Don G will handle things. How many of his own networks is this bastard betraying?”
My father was letting questions fly as we watched the TV showing federal troops in military issue Hummers peering over machine guns, inadvertently blaring the message of La Santa Muerte all over the screen as their fellow troops kicked in a door or searched a car or set up a roadblock where, perhaps, they themselves, the troops wired on speed, stoned, and drunk could have a private party under the authority of the state.
We watched as the newswoman, a tall blond Aryan type with large breasts, smiled as she relayed how a major cartel boss had been captured at his mistress’s house in his underwear. It was quite the hoot.
“They have no balls, these federal pussies striking as we sleep.”
“No papa, they have no honor.”
My papa looked at me and reached over and kissed my cheek.
“My daughter.” He stroked my hair. “You make me so proud.”
“Papa, I only speak what I know is truth.”
My papa smiled and sat back in his chair.
“This bastard is using his troops, lackeys really, as a private police force to shake down the cartels that must not have paid tribute or knew too much about him to allow them to stand. Don’t you think it is funny it is his home state he hits first? Could have been favors that needed repaying but this was more convenient.”
The blond woman had been replaced by a commercial for some breakfast cereal covered in sugar from the States. A large menacing tiger sprinkled what looked like cocaine on the flakes of corn and a young white girl smiled eagerly as she pushed a spoonful of entirely synthetic crap into her mouth.
We both knew, as did everyone else in the cartels, that it was not about getting tough on narcos — it was just about power for this new president and assuredly some sort of monetary grant from the Norteamericanos for fighting the “war on drugs.” Which every narco knows is what keeps us in business. Cartels fear legalization, like vampires garlic.
My father said this man would be the undoing of the relative peace that existed as long as things were kept in balance: no one nor group could have all the power — it had to be spread about — intermingled with money and position and family. But when you try to put ideology on what has always been the way, you end up on the lap of the pretentious-self-righteous-talking-of-crusades-and-wars-against-things-he-could-not-comprehend-president of the States, to be turned into a tiny lap dog poodle stroked by bloody, money-covered hands, and we had to engage in war with the cartels the president had deemed loyal to his agendas. While we were cursed by seeing through the transparent words that he spoke, words simply vindicating him as our new capitalist savior and stoolie for our neighbor to the north that provided so much of our business.
My dreams of Santa Muerte during this time had been increasing in intensity and made me more insistent than I could have been without them. I would wake shuddering, feeling as though I’d come-nervous, anxious — and then returned to sleep seeing shells ejecting from my father’s .38 super, its muzzle flashing brighter than a camera flash, leaving imprints on my eyes.
My father gave in to Angel and his father’s insistent appeals that together we would be stronger; there would be more profit for both, and we could expand on all fronts, controlling all aspects of the narco trade, at least along the northern states, in particular our home state of Nuevo Leon. We would also be able to cause more death to those who would oppose the normal order of things. We became even better armed and more ruthless towards the police who got in our way. We even broadcast our murders on the internet — warnings seen worldwide.
One night not too long after we started to move cocaine and heroin, She came to me and showed me She was pleased with the direction we were going now but still insisted I could do more for Her to insure Her the face. She knew I desired our affair to continue, and She promised I would even get to see Her eyes. She showed me in a nightmare inside a dream what She wanted of me:
I shot my father and dumped him as a floater. He was found two days later with the front of his face missing, quite bloated. It was not as difficult as it sounds since my papa had complete trust in me, even in whatever was left of his consciousness at the impact of the bullet. He imagined it was a sniper and hoped I made it out. The only witness was me and the Colt, her image on the grips in my calm, detached, caressing-her-hand. Even blindfolded I would have seen, and even with my hands over her eyes I know she saw the muzzle flash; it burned my eyes like a lightning flash freezing, leaving it ringing, like my ears, that oddly myopic moment in my mind.
I kept the empty shell that ejected. I picked it up from the river bank, my chintzy dime store prize brilliant as the tears that I left in the dirt bursting in prisms through my waterfall eyes. Blood speckled my blouse sleeve — delicate red filigree lace encircling my murdering hand. I knew this would not be all, in the end, and his body’s splashing entrance into the river announced my own descent.
I awoke shaking. I could never do that. Could I? I could be the queen of it all. I could kill my father and start a war as our world had never seen. I did not think I could do so, but La Santa Muerte said I must.
I wanted to insure the gaze of those eyes would be mine, though. Like a basilisk I intended to have that as mine so that I could now tell this story to you. I could dwell with the fleshy visage in Her reign even greater than my papa’s.
As the war picked up, Angel’s father was killed, and on that night She came again, resplendent in Her wedding gown. She had changed from hassock to this and She was beautiful, but no eyes could be seen on Her. Even with no hood a shadow covered Her face, and there was no doubt that the new president worked for Her and made Her smile grandly, that floaters made Her smile, that the dead cops made Her grin, and even our own who wrought the same as we wrought and ended up heading to that great silence made Her laugh, but I knew what was wanted of me after Her taking me to the brink over and over until She left me writhing weak and worn out. I was to wield the .38 super with the authority of Zeus if I was to take it from my father. I woke the next morning with a whole set of luggage under my eyes which I covered with makeup, something I abhorred wearing, but I knew then that I must take my father’s pistol from him. His stainless steel Colt Combat Commander .38 Super — his life.
I was not prepared to do that. Give Her myself, even though I had — Her touch kept me going. Angel wondered why I no longer sought him out but did not seem too disturbed; in fact he was not as insistent in making love to me as he had been and only murmured that it did not really matter if he showed his love in this realm or not.
To me, his love was pale in comparison to Hers. But I knew She lied to me, that She would never show me those eyes She kept hidden, instead reverting to Her fearful image and telling me that I was not the only one. I knew it then: She lied to me, and every time I dream of Her since the death-of-my-papa dream, She smiles and bites me on the hand that holds the Colt, telling me to do it and then take what is ours to take and with misplaced wrath our cartel will wipe out all rivals, leaving blood and tears on the mourner’s faces and sweat on the back of pall bearers who were being called in at a professional capacity to fill in the gaps of our rival’s loses and Her face would be more youthful, eyes still hidden in shadow.
It was all about Her ego. It seemed that She transposed Her own desires onto me — that She would have the fleshly face She so demanded, now — and it now seems She asked all of worshippers the same thing, extended the same cards to all, keeping it secret that they were not getting the unique deal they thought they were and that no matter what, She would be the winner in Her cosmic card game. This realization came too late to inspire anything more than the hope I would leave this dream quickly — and so in the end, I ironically begged Her to even so, please, make me come quickly.
My father and I went to see Don G, and on our way back from touring the plants he grew so well, I told my father I brought extra shells and wanted to pistol shoot — see if I am still as good a shot as I once was. He had once told me before I had gone to university that I was not only a wonderful poet but a fine shot. A child any papa would be proud of, and here we are shooting Tecate beer cans that had been floating around in the back of my papa’s pickup here on this beautiful beach outside of Matamoras, the gulf infinite — no telling where the sky began and the ocean ended.
“Here, Epiphany, shoot mine. I will shoot yours.”
I had a .45 Colt I had bought with financial aid money and smuggled back to Mexico.
“Oh, papa, I would love to.”
“Epiphany, you know mine is yours.”
I nodded and took his pistol. He went and set up cans towards the retreating morning ocean, his back to me. I aimed his shiny pistol at him. I had his inverted triangle back in the combat sites. I lowered the gun and pointed it at an innocuous seashell residing on the sand.
“Are you ready?”
My voice nearly broke. “Yes, papa.”
When the cans were set up, my father stood behind me as I fired instinctively, knocking over all eight without a glitch, loving the milder recoil of the .38 super.
“Beautiful, you still are my poetic gunslinger. Go again.” He went back to set up the mutilated cans again. The sun was getting heavier above us. Seagulls rushed away. Over his back, She appeared big as the Virgin of Guadalupe resplendent in Her wedding dress, eyes obscured by the sun, above my papa, outlined in an aura of purple and black. She beckoned with Her finger, inciting me to shoot my papa as he set up the cans whistling a narcocorrido.
I reloaded the .38 super’s magazine, expertly dropping the empty to the sand. I fired all nine rounds into the image of La Santa Muerte above him, who recoiled, growled, and disappeared in less than the three seconds it took to fire off the magazine. My papa had dropped to the sand, pulling out my own .45 in less than the time it had taken me to empty his gun.
Mijita! What the hell are you doing?” my papa cried out, waving my .45 towards me.
“There was a big ugly seagull about to poop on you.” I giggled.
My father looked around him. “I see nothing.”
“What else would you expect from your poetic-gunslinger-only-daughter, my dear papa?”
“Next time warn me, my dear. You scared the proverbial shit out of me.”
“Sorry, Papa.” I had a rock of love in my throat. “Papa?”
He stood up, dusted sand off his pants, and put the .45 back in his waistband. “Yes, hija?”
“I want to go to grad school back in the States.”
That was the last time I saw La Santa Muerte. I have been back to visit my papa, who still runs the show, and we have had great times. I no longer dream of Her. My cartel found out later that Angel had his father killed in order to escalate the violence, and he could not say why he choose to do such a thing even as he was tortured to death by members of his own cartel. But I think I know why.