I. Carmen, Seeking
Dark skin scars darker.
If she were darker brown, might she disappear into the shadows altogether?
It’s a thought she’s often had, even wished for on occasion, but it’s never felt so distinct a possibility as here, now, jostled by the white crowd crammed under the revival tent; never mind it’s pitched in Carmen’s uncle’s empty field, that her kin—with the same bemused amiability they show when she frets over her spotted skin—have granted permission to these sweaty, fervored folk to gather in their town. Some come from counties away, so parched are they for a sip of possible salvation. Carmen is ignored, like the slivers of night peeking between canvas flaps into the lantern-lit throng of people praying slit-eyed and rocking to the cacophony of squeezebox, cajon, and tambourine as they await the preacher. So many promises on splotchy broadsides... enough to lure dyspeptics and apoplectics; parents of spindly, listless children; blood-coughing elders; the dandruff- and drink-cursed; the wild-eyed and invisibly anguished. Enough to lure Carmen, despite the sturdy pragmatism of sus parientes, the cheerful godlessness residing in their robust bodies; all brown, all beautifully complected, except for one.
The preacher burns too bright to look at, bright as summer sun spearing the tin-framed mirror in Tía’s parlor, and Carmen cowers before his gaze, as she does before all mirrors, feeling the shadows shrink around her, every supplicant incited. With eyelids scrunched against the blue-blazes brilliance but arms raised, fingers grappling for grace, they push Carmen out of their way, inadvertently propelling her forward. And though she came here seduced by the same promises, Carmen panics, resists the tide, fights not to join the spittle-flecked front of the crowd. Too like teetering on a cliff’s edge, too great the specter of wish fulfilled or failed.
The preacher turns his head. His eyes scour the crowd, and just as his focus threatens to fall on Carmen’s pock-marked face, a shadow intervenes. A narrow haven, not wide enough to shelter Carmen’s arms or hips but a relief nevertheless. Shielded from the preacher’s gaze, she adjusts her armor (Mami’s sunset-colored rebozo) over her shoulders now clammy with dread sweat. Jasmine scent still wafts from the wool-and-cotton weave, seven years since Mami’s death. Thus fortified, Carmen lifts her chin to smile her thanks, blinks back damp gratitude to see her savior.
Blue-gray eyes in a gray face... or maybe she sees gray because her pulse pounds behind her eyes, dimming her vision as he studies her face. To her amazement, this tall man neither shrinks from her scars nor feigns, as her kinfolk do, disregard for appearances (even as their attention skates from each imperfection to the next, seeking safe place to rest).
Even more amazing, the stranger leans in to ask, “Are you well? May I escort you outside?”
The music stops. There is no room for melody anymore, nor even notes. The tambourine merely rattles beneath the preacher’s sibilants. The cajon strikes in time with each bald-eyed exclamation, and though the preacher holds only a well-worn book in hand, the way Carmen’s heart pounds in her chest he might as well be brandishing knives. She can’t speak for her panic, so breathlessly she nods to the question read from the stranger’s lips. Hand under her elbow, he helps her squeeze through the crowd and out, into the lung-stinging relief of starshine and open air.
Quickly as propriety demands, the stranger releases her arm; seemingly still concerned, he follows her to Tío’s well. Carmen means to dampen her hot face and remember herself. Was she not the youngest of her family ever to work the sugarcane burn? Didn’t she, age eight, catch in her burlap sack as many snakes fleeing from that fiery harvest as some grown men? Why then does she cower from a self-appointed soothsayer?
Her rescuer declines a drink from the proffered ladle but rolls up his sleeves—Carmen is relieved he’s civilized (enough to know the ritual)—but mid-ablution she notes the welts, red as chilis de monte, around his wrists. When he lifts his arms to scrub face and neck, his sleeves slide higher to reveal elbows equally inflamed. Maybe these marks are his reason for attending the revival. Has her quailing kept him from catching the preacher’s eye? Has it cost him a chance at cure?
The stranger betrays no resentment as Carmen blots droplets from her face with the fringed edge of the rebozo. He only asks if it’s her first time at a meeting.
“But not yours?” she asks and studies the shade of his gaunt cheek—gray indeed, not an error of her addled mind or a matter of moonglow. Different though it is from her people’s, his facial structure suggests a certain regality, she thinks. She admires the angles of his face, the prominence of his bones.
He confides he’s been following the preacher for some time.
“Yet never been summoned to the stage?” She thinks he must be strong indeed, to court more than once the awful spotlight of the preacher’s gaze.
The gray man winks without innuendo, the way her primos shrug, and brushes down his sleeves to hide his reddened wrists. “Might be,” he says, “that Preacher knows something I don’t.”
“Might be...,” Carmen repeats, but she doesn’t believe it. The terror she felt in the tent has subsided, and her common sense aches to redeem itself. There’s no call for rudeness, especially when this stranger has been so kind, so she attempts the close-lipped smile Mami wore when biting her tongue.
“Or maybe,” she says, failing, wanting to kick herself, “Preacher feeds off hope.”
She braces for rebuke. Too often her words are sharper than Mami’s, and she lacks the ribbons ‘round her tongue to prettify pettiness. Instead, to her amazement, the gray man chuckles.
“Maybe he does,” he says of Preacher. “Hope or desperation. They’re close enough.”
Carmen’s relief is so profound, it must be blazoned on her face, because the man laughs again. His laughter sounds a bit frayed, closer to desperation than hope, but that he laughs at all, Carmen chooses to see as a gift.
III. Healing, the First
That night, the preacher summons to the stage a woman with a withered left arm locked at the elbow. Her gnarled hand knots in her long hair, a cruel caricature of coquetry. The squeezebox emits a mournful chord as her sister explains the damage done in a button factory: workers forced to clear jammed gears without shutting down the almighty machines.
Carmen, squeezed in again at the back of the tent, canvas cupping her rump at every breeze, cannot see the stage until the preacher commands the crowd to pray, whereupon nearly half fall to their knees and the tent fills with the rattled-hive hum of some memorized petition they repeat in unison, so many times that Carmen starts learning it; could join in, were she so inclined.
Looking at the preacher straight on is too hard, so Carmen stares at the injured woman as the preacher gently turns her, folds her to him like a fragile bouquet. Her faded calico dress pleats under his embrace. Carmen doesn’t see his lips moving, doesn’t hear him speaking until his hug fiercens, until the floorboards creak under his violent rocking. This is not the laying on of hands that Carmen’s cousins mock. This healing involves much hollering and “hugging” that might be mistaken for wrestling, except it’s so one-sided. The preacher does not chant the same prayer as his congregation. He brays the names of his many gods, or the many names of his one god.
Whatever the case, he concludes in a roared AMEN! and, holding the woman’s right hand, he spins her out across the stage like a square dancer. In instinctive sympathy, Carmen flings one arm out to keep her balance and, onstage, the woman does the same. The look on her face when her once-withered arm suddenly obeys, swinging free on its rusty joint!
The tent thunders with applause and AMENS!, enough to test the tent poles jammed deep in the earth. Carmen half expects the whole affair to rattle off the horizon like raindrops bouncing off oilcloth.
The next day, she ignores the shower of questions from the ranch hands’ children about the revival, instead urging the youngsters to help her hammer in place the last boards of the new chicken coop (“chicken palace” Tío teases, albeit with pride). Despite her feigned indifference, the marvels are never far from Carmen’s thoughts, and at day’s end, after a hot soak to soothe sore muscles, she follows her wonder back to the tent.
That night the preacher heals an old man whose eyes are so occluded, his companion must lead him to the stage. The thudding cajon underscores every epithet from the preacher’s mouth. The tambourine hisses every time he yanks the blind man this way or that, the sounds chasing each other faster and faster until the preacher flings the old man off the stage. In the second he looms over the chanting crowd, Carmen sees the old man’s eyes, cleared, are two different colors: blue and brown. Then he falls into the rough embrace, the humbling holleration of true believers.
During the musical interlude, Carmen slips out to catch her breath and soon finds the gray man at her side.
“You’re back.” His voice is gritty but lowered to be gentle, even courtly. “You seek a cure?”
“I did,” Carmen admits, cheeks warming with embarrassment. “But now my care seems such a trifle. And you, sir?”
The gray man shakes his lowered head. “There’s no cure for me, but I had hopes Preacher might ease my troubles.”
Perhaps that is why she thinks his countenance regal: his head is always bowed, as if under the weight of an invisible crown.
“You’d better step back inside then,” she says, not unkindly, “whereas I will walk to clear my mind.”
“If he’s not noticed me by now...”
Somberly the gray man winks, and Carmen thinks again the gesture is like her cousins’ shrugs, not flirtation. They share names (his, Swift) before walking her uncle’s field, the noisy light of the revival on one side, subtle stirrings in the thorn forest on the other. Swift stays always one step behind her, and at first she doesn’t notice; her cousins Pánfilo y Casimiro have done the same since she was thirteen, when she broke the nose of a bully who’d been flicking scorpions at them. Carmen finds the man’s deference odd but convenient. She needn’t hide her smile, wondering if he’s as pleased by her company as she is his.
“Are you sleeping in the Velasquez barn?” she asks. The Velasquez family are yet more cousins, so she knows that most of the other revivalists have boarded there.
“I have no money,” Swift says, “but the creatures don’t seem to mind I’ve made my bed in the brush.”
“Truly?” Aghast, Carmen cannot contain her anger, though Swift has spoken serenely. “I’m shamed by their inhospitality! My cousins, so smug with suddenly stuffed purses, that they turn away gente decente. I will tell Ezti he must give you shelter—”
“Thank you for your kindness,” Swift says, palms pressed together. “But I would not be comfortable there, however gracious the accommodations. I prefer to be alone.”
“Some solitude! Sleeping amongst rattlesnakes and scorpions,” she says, still incensed. “Fetch your bedroll this moment. I know a place for you.”
When, cowed, he reemerges from the wilderness of mesquite and hackberry, she leads him to Mami’s casita, the house Carmen painstakingly keeps but where she can no longer bear to sleep. After washing by the ewer in the tiny entry, she insists he take his comfort while she hurries to Tío’s house to fetch gorditas and anacua jam.
When she returns, however, Swift asks so many questions that she never tastes the refreshments, nor notices if he does. Coaxed by his curiosity, she describes her chores on the ranch and eventually her work in the town archive, setting type for a new edition of Mami’s finest poems. Soon she’s confessing her own fumbling efforts at verse, warm under his appreciative eye, warmer still under his gentle touch.
The next night, Swift asks Carmen if she might be willing to skip the tent revival. In Carmen’s childhood bed, they perform a ritual more ancient than prayer.
Mornings after, tales of Preacher’s deeds spread among the ranch hands’ children. Since Carmen refuses to be their spy, the children pick straws to see who will sneak peeks through the seams of the revival tent.
Carmen hears their chatter as they breakfast on the large back porch. Preacher heals a girl gone doll-limp and mute from fever, crushes her between him and her mother until the girl cries out and kicks him in the gut. Another night, Preacher rights the crooked spine of a mill worker who then dances until the lamps are blown out. On the fifth night, it’s a six-year case of the hiccups and a goiter vanquished.
The last night, Preacher hugs a young woman’s lungs clear and unites in marriage the mill worker and the sister of the factory worker with the healed arm. The ensuing celebration is so raucous, Carmen can hear it from the casita.
She whispers against Swift’s cool, bare shoulder. “I guess you’ll be moving on now, following the revival?”
Swift sighs. “I’m tired of running after promises, praying for Preacher to see me when you already do.”
So the revival pulls up stakes and leaves town. Swift stays.
Quick as his name suggests, Swift aims to earn his keep. Though he’s the son of shopkeepers in a town Carmen’s never heard of, he accepts the only ranch work he’s qualified for: brute and scut. Capable of eerie silence, he sometimes sneaks into the forest at the hottest part of the day to snatch white-winged doves straight from their nests, thus contributing to family dinners he never attends despite Carmen’s requests and her relatives’ dubiety.
At first she assumes his refusal to eat or drink in her presence is a cultural quirk. When she asks, however, he confesses it’s part of his unnamed illness. Embarrassed, she vows never to speak of it again.
But her family’s questions do not stop. Over cafecitos, Tío wonders aloud how Swift, inscrutably shy, will ever fulfill his communal responsibility. Even children must contribute; according to age and ability, they sweep town sidewalks or wind yarn for elders or read to the youngest.
“He’s not been here that long,” Carmen says. “Perhaps he can work with me in the archive until he grows more comfortable.”
A week later she still hasn’t urged him into town, but at least he seems comfortable with her closest cousins. Or so she thinks. Then one afternoon Casimiro y Pánfilo return to the main house after a morning spent scouring pastures for jimsonweed, coyotillo, any plants toxic to cattle.
“Where is Swift?” Carmen asks, for he was supposed to help her primos.
The young men shrug, clearly uncomfortable tattling, but Carmen drags facts from them: Swift never arrived that morning at the appointed spot, nor met them in the field. She hurries to Mami’s casita, fearing her lover might be sick in bed, but only echoes answer when, forehead damp from hurried ablutions, she calls his name in empty rooms. Perhaps he went into the forest to gather nopalitos for his secret breakfast. And stepped on a copperhead? Or startled a javelina protecting babes?
Carmen runs outside, and lizards scatter like fire at her feet. Before she reaches the forest’s edge, a raspy voice snags her flight. Whirling so fast her rebozo flares, she finds Swift slouched behind a huisache, his gray face grayer than ever beneath a slick of sweat, his shirt cuffs black with what looks like blood.
“He found me,” Swift wheezes.
Carmen falls to her knees and reaches, trembling, for his shoulders. Fear lowers her voice to match his. “Who, my love? Who did this to you?”
“He found me,” he repeats, panicked gaze raking the brush. “I thought, if I stopped following the preacher, he’d lose the trail. But he must have doubled back.”
Up close, Carmen sees his sleeves are not bloody but scorched and the skin under them blazing with fresh red welts.
“What did this?” she demands. “Who’s following you? The preacher? Why?”
Swift’s head still swivels in search of attackers. “I got away,” he pants, as if reassuring himself. “No, not Preacher. Another. I lost him in the forest but didn’t want to lead him to you. So I stopped here, but he never caught up and then I was too weary to go on.”
Promising she’s seen no one, Carmen pulls him to his feet, only to discover his ankles have been injured, too, as if wrenched by a cruel lasso. Together they hobble to the casita, toppling the ewer as they struggle through the entry.
Gently as she can, Carmen cleans his wounds and applies aloe vera to the welts undeniably shaped like restraints. Feigning calm she asks, “Is the law after you? Or vigilantes?”
He struggles in the chaise to sit upright and insists, “I’ve broken no laws of man.”
What other laws exist? she almost asks, before remembering he’s religious and she—despite the mind-stretching events under the preacher’s tent—is not. Two and a half decades lived by logic and proof easily outweigh a handful of healings. Flukes.
Carmen grips her rebozo’s fringe in frustration. “Then tell me of this man who pursues you. Why does he chase you? What does he want?”
“Once he controlled me, kept me in chains. And he’ll not rest until I’m in chains again.”
Where was this wretched place Swift had lived, that he could be held prisoner?
“We must tell my family at once,” she says. “They will protect you. My cousins—”
“No! I won’t endanger your loved ones,” Swift exclaims. “This pursuer, he is not a man but a devil! Ruthless. Feared even among his own kind! You can’t imagine his power!”
Swift’s terror sends thorned tendrils into Carmen’s heart, but she heads for the door. “Then we must go to the town council. They will guard your life until they can nullify the slaver’s claims.”
“It’s too late,” Swift says, catching her rebozo. “He has my scent. He can infiltrate any sanctuary, any prison.”
Carmen nearly wails in frustration. “Then you must run from here! My family and I will delay him—”
“I could never leave you,” Swift insists.
“You must. You can send word and I’ll catch up. But I’ll not let you stay here to be hurt again—or worse. I’ll not have your death upon my head!”
Swift blinks at her. “But, Carmen, don’t you know? I’m already dead.”
V. Swift’s Story
Sickness came to my town. Not so unusual in winter, when the ground’s frozen solid so it can’t absorb mal vapors. If anything was strange, it was that the catarrh came on so mild. Small sniffles and a snag in the throat weren’t enough to keep anyone from daily tasks, so the illness spread like rumors after church. One day I was delivering groceries and stocking shelves with holiday fare, the next I was bed-bound, fevered, hacking, feeling foolish to be bested by such a trifling malady.
Some days later, I wondered—astounded, really—if this catarrh might actually kill me. Later yet, I begged my brothers to carry me outside, despite the cold, so I could see the sun one last time. They bundled me against the chill and set me in a chair in the garden, though by then they were coughing into their collars, as well.
The next thing I knew: a dapple of drops on my head.
Through doubled vision, I saw I was no longer outdoors. The rough-hewn walls of our shop’s storage shed surrounded me. To my bafflement, I lay on the shelf usually reserved for the overflow of jarred preserves from an orchard the next town over. Two shadows hunched on old crates, drinking from fancy flasks. One figure had his back to me, and every time he guffawed, he flung out an arm for balance and his flask doused my head with fresh drops. I couldn’t complain for I couldn’t speak, nor move at all, as if I were tied at elbows and wrists, knees and ankles.
I struggled to lift my head, hoping to dispel the only explanation I could think of for why I lay on a shelf in the vermin-proofed shed, in the middle of winter. Meanwhile, the fellow nearest me bragged, “I’ll collect more souls this season than any in business. Just you wait and see.”
His cohort nodded indulgently. “Certainly your take is impressive already. Not merely old and weak but young, sturdy stock, the like of which we hardly see. Tell me your secret?”
The rowdier shadow chuckled. “It almost feels like cheating, I concede, but I’ve cobbled together a spell so powerful—”
He caught himself.
“But really,” he hedged, “the best part is the binding. Souls stay attached to bodies until I, and only I, choose to collect. Thus I can venture into other villages to sow the sickness without worry that some wretch will sneak in to reap my rewards.”
By now I’d nearly wrenched my head from my neck, straining to assess my situation. Despite the cold, a mere bedsheet—a shroud, my panic insisted—was wrapped ‘round me, shoulders to toes. More disturbing, I saw myself times two, as if through water or warped glass. The paler of my selves was nearly see-through and floating. I was one of those the shadow spoke of, my soul strapped to my body and my body gray as death.
How long I lay in horror I don’t know. Long enough that the braggart emptied his flask, then badgered his friend for more, soon slipping off the crate and into a snoring stupor.
But they weren’t friends, after all. Maybe colleagues, definitely competitors, as I learned when the second shade crept to my side and, brandishing scissors filigreed with fire, snipped the air between the drunk and me. I think now he must have severed the invisible tether that held me, for suddenly my soul dropped into my body and I could move again. Truth to tell, I trembled so hard, I nearly shook myself off the shelf.
Then the faceless figure leaned over, and a gleaming crescent emerged where I imagined his mouth to be, and with that heresy of a smile he whispered, “Run.”
And barefoot I did, right into winter’s icy grip. I ripped through my shroud and ran past my childhood home, past my parents suffering inside, past my brothers’ doors, where worried wives paced the floors, and I never stopped running. Even after Preacher, I was running, chasing him from town to town. ‘Til you, Carmen. I don’t want to run anymore. ‘Cause your love’s caught me tighter than the reaper did before.
Carmen’s legs, tucked beneath her through Swift’s story, have gone numb. Bloody half-moons mark the meat of her palms. She blinks, on the cusp of panic, like when the preacher’s powerful gaze almost caught her. Swift saved her then; who will now?
“Impossible,” she says, struggling to stand. “You walk and talk.”
Swift nods but adds, “I don’t eat or drink.”
“Not in front of me.”
“We’ve kissed. We’re lovers.”
“Have you ever heard my heart beat? Or felt the rise and fall of breath in my chest?”
Despite her tingling legs, Carmen stumbles toward the door. “I have to go, discuss this with mi familia. Tío y Tía will know what to do.”
Swift follows, begging, “Carmen, wait! Don’t be afraid, not of me.”
“I’m not afraid!” she snaps, but she wraps Mami’s rebozo tighter ‘round her.
Swift staggers outside after her. “The reaper never found me while I trailed the preacher. I might be safe on holy ground.”
“Well, good luck finding that in this town,” she yells over her shoulder.
“What about your uncle’s well?”
Vágalme! And she’d thought him civilized! “It’s a well,” she says, whirling on him. “Water, simply water. Because we like being clean! Because we respect our guests!”
Running footsteps behind Carmen chill her blood, but when she dares a glance, she sees her primos. Concerned by Swift’s earlier absence, Casimiro y Pánfilo have hurried in the direction of Carmen’s shouts. She turns back to warn Swift not to follow her, and that’s when a dark shimmer, like heat rising from a well-seasoned comal, turns the corner of the casita and seizes Swift.
Carmen lurches forward in spite of herself, in spite of the pain that spears behind her eyes when she looks at the malicious shadow. She reaches for Swift, but part of the shadow swirls outward, as if it is cloak and villain in one. It cuts across her fingertips, and Carmen cannot tell if it freezes or burns, but she jerks away with a hiss.
“What’s happening?” asks Pánfilo.
“Can’t you see?” she says, cradling her blistered fingers in her rebozo. “It’s got him!”
“What’s got him?” asks Casimiro, but his question is lost in Swift’s scream.
The shadow has yanked one of Swift’s wrists behind his back. Now Carmen understands the permanent welts marking his skin.
“Don’t let him take me!” Swift cries, reaching for Carmen.
The shadow expands. Arcs of darkness slash the space between lovers. The cold fire has raced from her fingers to her shoulder, spreading a leaden ache. Carmen dares not risk her bare skin again; a second jolt might sap her strength, perhaps even incapacitate. But neither will she permit Swift to be dragged away, so she tears off her rebozo and wraps it around her arm. She then orders her cousins to hold her by the waist, anchor her to ground.
They do not understand but, forever awed by their nose-breaking hero, they obey. Each locks his arms around her and ducks when she swings her rebozo like a lasso through the air.
The wool-and-cotton panel splits the shadow, clean as sunlight through a parted curtain. The scent of jasmine spikes the air.
With the shadow throttling him, Swift misses his lifeline the first time but snatches it the second.
Carmen focuses on the fabric connecting them—it’s easier than looking at Swift’s terrified face—but her vision blackens at the edges. Her chest aches as the shadow sucks air for a roar that doesn’t come. Instead, Swift staggers several steps back and Carmen and her cousins stumble to keep their grip. Carmen twists the rebozo around her forearm and tugs with both hands. She’s wrestled a sack of panicked snakes at every sugarcane harvest since she was eight. Sometimes possums, too. She can do this. She can reel him in.
Swift is almost within reach when the shadow does howl. Carmen’s hair flies in stinging whips about her face. The cousins start babbling about the nearly visible “something” flapping before them, but Carmen barks “Concentrate! I need you to pull me back when I tell you.”
She loops the rebozo’s slack around her arm and yanks again, straining with all her might, calling her cousins to do the same. Swift’s toes cut ruts in the dirt, as do Carmen’s heels, but the lovers hold fast. Carmen’s eyes blur at the shadow’s ever-blooming blackness. She’s never fainted before, but it’s like what Tía has described.
Her cousins falter a moment, too, breath expended on profanities for the hardly-seen enemy. Then they pivot, turning to push rather than pull Carmen away from the ruction. Despite aching arms and benighted vision, she tows her lover in turn.
The shadow loses its grip, leaving a scarlet mark on Swift’s neck. The cloak of darkness swirling between Carmen and Swift begins to peel away in scraps.
“Keep on,” Swift begs. “You’re hurting him. He doesn’t want be hauled into the light!”
Carmen would laugh if her cousins weren’t driving the last breath out of her. Swift thought this thing some kind of demon?! As if she, a mere human and nonbeliever, could overpower a supernatural being, even with her primos’ help. She knows not what this shadow is, only that she’ll never let it have Swift.
With a final surge of defiance, Carmen wrenches her rebozo so hard, Swift flies toward her. The veil of darkness crackles, raising goosebumps on her skin, but it lacks the blistering fire or frost of before. Rather than be crushed between the lovers, the shadow flees so fast Carmen actually hears suction, a popping, as the dark dissipates in defeat.
Then Swift crashes into her, and, all resistance vanquished, the four humans fall in the dirt, sweaty and bewildered.
VII. Healing, the Second
Back at the main house, Carmen insists on extensive ablutions.
Afterwards, at the kitchen table, Tía applies aloe vera to Swift’s wounds. Then she bandages his wrists and neck.
“Ahora, pareces un juez,” Tía tells him, smiling as she gestures at the bandage cuffs and collar.
Carmen scoffs but says nothing lest Tía treat her blistered fingers with less than loving care. Casimiro y Pánfilo, regressing from excitement, reenact the battle for their mother, crashing into cupboards and upsetting crockery until Tía chases them outside.
Carmen declines to have her fingers bandaged. Too much fuss for her dominant hand, and anyway the blisters are already shrinking.
Tía, though skeptical of her sons’ story, goes in search of her husband, that he may know of the commotion before rumors reach him. Left alone with Swift, Carmen removes her rebozo and spreads it out on the table, searching for snags or scorch marks. There’s no sign of their struggle, but the scent of jasmine is stronger than it’s been in seven years.
“You saved me,” Swift says, voice husky from his strangling. “I can’t begin to repay you, dear Carmen.”
“I’m only glad I was there. If I hadn’t been, if my cousins hadn’t come...” Carmen can’t suppress a shudder.
“You believe me now?”
“You were chased by something,” she concedes. “It hurt you. It would’ve taken you against your will.”
“Something?” Swift straightens in amazement. “Can you still not accept it was a reaper? A demon of some kind?”
Carmen cards through the rebozo’s fringe, untangling strands. “I don’t know what it was. I don’t need to. It meant you harm, and I could not allow that.”
“Your cousins will tell the tale. What will they call that thing they battled? And what will your neighbors think?”
Carmen sighs. “I’m sure mis primos will choose the most dramatic name possible. The neighbors will think what we always have, that nature is immense. That, although knowable, it cannot be known in its fullness by anyone now alive.”
She stands and shakes frustration from her shoulders. Does he expect conversion from one encounter?
“I’ll fetch you a cobija and you can rest in the parlor until dinner. From now on, you will join the family for meals.” Before he can object, she adds, “You’ll not be forced to eat, I’ll make sure of that, but your hosts must begin to see your true nature, whatever that may be. You may stay in the casita tonight and for however long you like, but I will remain here.”
She starts for the hallway, but his cry holds her back.
“Carmen, I’m afraid! What if it comes back and you’re not there to save me?”
Carmen turns. Swift’s blue-gray eyes are terror-wide and blinking as if to hold back tears that do not—cannot?—form. Can she be so cruel? To the man who sensed her fear and sheltered her at the revival? The man whose curiosity warmed her, whose eyes saw her as she was, inside and out? Who now fears for his life, such as it is?
Carmen changes direction and walks to the kitchen drawer where Tía keeps her shears.
“I don’t know what’s happening,” she says, grabbing the scissors with her good hand. “Or how we prevailed. I don’t believe it was I alone that saved you. My cousins, mi rebozo, all played a part.”
She returns to the table where her rebozo is spread and hands Swift the scissors.
“Perhaps one of mis primos will stay with you at the casita. But if not, this should make you feel safer.”
Swift frowns at the shears. “You would have me stab the shadow?”
Carmen sighs again, points at the rebozo. “No! I want you to cut a tassel from the fringe. I can’t because my fingers hurt.”
“Are you certain?” Swift’s gray brow crinkles with doubt. “Wasn’t it your mother’s?”
But at Carmen’s insistence, he obeys and, with his help, she knots the tassel around his wrist. “There, now you’ll always wear a bit of my armor.”
Swift’s smile is forced and small. “I’m still who I was days ago. I haven’t changed at all.”
Carmen nods, tears rippling her vision. “Please understand. My head must catch up with my heart. Or maybe it’s the other way ‘round.” She wishes she had Mami’s clarity, her gift of felicitous phrasing. “Whichever way it is... can you give me time?”
Swift winks, and she thinks she really must show him how winks work among her people, and her presumption that flirting is still in their future eases the ache in her throat.
“Dear Swift,” she says, “if there are, in fact, miracles, I believe you’re mine.”
He strokes her spotted cheek and replies, “I know there are. Because you’re mine.”