The coyote follows Ana and her baby from inside a shroud of dust, swallowing the distance between them down into his empty belly. Over her shoulder, she can see how his indolent lope matches the frantic, foam-lipped canter of her tired old mule stride-for-stride. He would catch them even if she hadn’t drawn back on the reins and told the mule to slow his pace. That’s what she says to herself, trying to slow the thud of her heart in her throat as the mule comes to a halt. “This won’t be more than a moment, mi querida,” she tells little Sylvie, who is oblivious and half-asleep in a makeshift sling. “We’ll just see what he wants.”
Already she knows what he’s after; how could she not? But she wearies of pretending not to know, of his tracks in figure-eights all around their old aluminum-roofed shack, of his shadow stretching out long on the sand, of his hot breath at her back now as she dismounts to face him. Only an animal, she’s been saying to herself; she can’t yet force herself to call him by that other name. In all the stories her mother told, no scabbed, hideous creature stole the living into the land of the dead. The nagual were wise and noble and only came once the deceased were wind-whispers laid into graves.
“You should not be still running with the little girl,” says the coyote.
“Why do you chase after us?”
“She belongs in the land of the dead,” says the coyote.
“She is not dead yet.” Ana can hardly even speak that word, dead.
“But here is the river,” says the coyote.
And there now is the river. Ana has lived all twenty one years of her life in half-starved flatland and never seen such lush endlessness, ink-colored and wreathed in spiny grasses. She might think it beautiful if she did not know: across the river there is no return.
She should climb back up on the poor tired mule and dig her heels into his sides and kill herself outrunning death, but instead she says, “Take us to the other side.”
The coyote cocks his head. “You will be in the land of the dead. Do you realize that?”
“All right. So we will cross the land of the dead. And we will come out the other side. If we can do that, you have to let her live.”
The coyote smiles open-mouthed. Here is a game he knows how to win. He trots ahead, dragging a tail of thorn and goldenrod, then waits at the riverside for them to climb astride his back. He is a towering creature—his head comes to her chest—but somehow they both mount comfortably, Ana and her baby, swinging bare legs over his hoary sides. When he swims across the river and Ana is submerged up to her chest she feels coldness but not wet. After months in the desert, shivering is unfamiliar and magnificent.
Sylvie’s sickness was only a cough at first, a small scuttling sound that whistled when she slept at night. From the dust, said one of the other women at the labor camp. There was too much dust. So Ana fashioned a little mask from twine and cloth to protect Sylvie’s lungs.
While summer wore on and Ana got sunburnt and hollow-eyed and strong, Sylvie got weak. Her breathing grew shallow and red tendrils of snot cobwebbed in her throat. When she cried, Ana couldn’t always make her stop. For hours she would pace the dirt floor with her face buried in Sylvie’s curls, promising someone—was it Sylvie? Maybe it was herself—“We will not always live here, mi querida. One day we will go north. We will be safe and happy, and the grass will sparkle green.”
And all through those long ember-colored nights, the creature skulked past their shack on tawny, bone-thin legs. How did she never guess what he wanted?
Ana thought the land of the dead would be empty, but it is full to bursting. With gods’ turquoise bones, with small grimacing golems fashioned from maize and bone-thin fellow travelers wandering across the desert on their hands and knees, with temples so black and shimmering that she can’t quite make herself look at them. The coyote plods along ceaselessly, nose to the ground and tail flung high. Up through the ash-colored landscape they go, snaking around heaps of coal and green-eyed idols. At last they reach a hilltop. The coyote lets them off his back and they look out, standing side-by-side on the precipice.
“First there are mountains,” says the coyote.
They are towers of red stone, close to one another as twins in a womb. They shudder and palpitate, and beneath her feet Ana can feel their joined heartbeat. Kissing the crown of Sylvie’s head, she sets out down the narrow canyon path which divides the peaks. The coyote trots at her side, silent save for the soft scrape of his tail on the sand.
“They are not only mountains,” says the coyote.
She bristles at the sneer in his words. “What are they, then?”
“They are the remains of some ancient storm that sent boulders hurtling down over the gods, and beneath the land of the dead their roots still wrap around the wrists of gladiators.”
He says those words like they are memorized; probably he has said them before, to someone else, perhaps someone whose baby also coughed and convulsed for three long summer months. To Ana they sound suspiciously like poetry, and she will not heed them. She climbs over the outcropping of rock, steadying herself with one hand and cupping Sylvie’s scrawny tailbone with the other. Closer now, she sees how the mountains bow toward each other in slight, almost imperceptible flinches of movement. Where she steps might not be where her foot lands.
“I can’t cross this,” she tells the coyote.
“Then you will live here, among the ashes and the golems. No further than most of the dead have ever gotten,” says the coyote.
“But I am not dying.”
“Then your living spirit will be meat for something ravenous,” says the coyote.
She wishes he would say what he means: he is hungry, and intent on devouring her. He has been licking his chops outside their shack for months, and Ana wonders now if it was not only Sylvie that he was after. Eyeing the mountains distrustfully, she crouches down low and shelters Sylvie’s head in the crook of her arm. Slowly, she crawls forward. When the rocks shift once more, her hand is crushed between two boulders. Ana fears a lash of pain, but she only feels the solid weight of stone all around her. Prying her hand out of the crevice, she finds her fingers crumpled and covered in blood. Still she feels no pain. She can be hurt and unhurt here, torn and yet still standing like a barren stalk of corn after the harvest.
She stiffens. Says, “It doesn’t hurt a bit.”
The coyote looks on disapprovingly as she wades deeper into the mountains. He seems displeased that she has not conceded defeat, but she can tell already that he is patient. Earlier, he said that he has a thorn in his paw but cannot pry it out, for his teeth are made of briars and he lodges a new complaint in his foot whenever he tries to remove the old one. That is to say, he told her slyly, he is well-practiced in shoving the same boulders up the same old hill. Ana doesn’t guess he’ll congratulate her when she reaches the other side of the mountains.
He doesn’t. He lowers himself down to a crouch and they mount again, Ana wrapping bruise-mottled arms around Sylvie, tangling her fingers in the coyote’s wild thatch of fur.
“Many others did this before you, better than you,” says the coyote. “And they never made it out alive.”
“Lead us further down,” says Ana, and he obeys.
Sylvie’s father was Ana’s husband for a year and a half, from the morning of the Catholic service in the ramshackle camp chapel to the night when he snuck out of bed and fled a pile of gambling debts. Ana had never seen so much money in her life as the amount that the lenders wanted from him. No one ever had any cash at the labor camp, so they made promises on tattered scraps of paper instead. Ana couldn’t read English, and she had to take their word for it when they banged on the shack door and showed her the stack of promissory notes that Arturo had written.
“Fifty four dollars,” said the towering man who crowded out the others. There were four in all, big white men with knotted shoulders. They were untouched by dust and their shoes had no holes. Not farmers, then. They wouldn’t be under the camp’s authority; she couldn’t ask the foreman to deal with them. They could strike her dead, if they wanted.
“I don’t have the money,” she said, though they must have known already she couldn’t pay. No one worked for wages in the labor camp; they worked for food rations and, twice a year, new dresses, and, after five years, documentation papers. Glancing across the grizzled landscape of their sunburnt faces, she said, “I’m sorry,” and tried to shut the door.
The man stopped the rust-eaten aluminum frame with the toe of his boot and shoved closer. “We need the money. Your husband, where is he?”
“Gone,” she said. “I don’t know. I think he’ll be back, come morning.” A lie: he’d been gone a month and probably would never come back. If he’d been gone this long, he’d found work somewhere else—on the railroads maybe, or digging canals and holes for telegraph posts in some city. She never made any effort to resent the abandonment. He’d kissed her forehead with something like reverence as he’d gone.
The man shoved past her. The scents of clay and machine oil clung to him. A thorn was stuck in his mud-crusted shirt, and she felt the strangest impulse to brush it from his shoulder before it sank into his skin. He crossed the room in three steps to reach Sylvie’s cradle and produced a shining pistol from a holster at his side.
She’d never come so close to a gun. She heard herself whimper the word no, and then she said shakily, “Don’t you touch her.”
“We will come back tomorrow morning for our money. And if we don’t get it,” said the man, pressing the pistol to Sylvie’s forehead, “she will get a hole in her little head.”
When the men shut the door, she was already adding up how many miles she could put between herself and the camp before dawn. Maybe she should not have left the camp, maybe she was stupid to flee the only place where Arturo would ever think to find her, should he come back, but she found that she cared only for Sylvie. So she stole a mule and abandoned everything besides her dying baby, cutting through a hole in the barbed wire fence to reach the open desert without detection. Before her, the landscape stretched out endlessly. She had not left the camp in close to a year, but she knew secondhand that the road to the city never forked. She thought only endurance was asked of her.
Over her shoulder, she remembers, she could see nothing of the fields or shanties. The dust silhouetted only what she expected: a single figure, four-legged and ridge-backed, lean and ravenous.
When the boulders become a crush of stones underfoot and the heartbeats of the mountains fade deeper into the earth, Ana and Sylvie and the coyote emerge onto a plain which is bare and crowded. Ana has known no desert so full of lifeless, twisted things: dead cactus, burnt and black; dead rams buried up to their heads with their curled antlers sticking savagely out of the ground like ivory flowers; dead crow’s skins, stuffed and mounted upon posts. The crows are the corpses of great explorers, the coyote says, brave intrepid men named Cortez and de Gama whose bodies the gods used to line the road to the valley.
Ana tries to imagine a valley in the land of the dead. “With grass?” she says. “With trees and water?”
“Grass and water do not make a valley,” says the coyote.
Further down the hillside, the land flattens out. The coyote stops to gnaw at the thorn in his paw, and they slide down from his back onto the hard-packed earth. Ana’s breath catches to see how the valley resembles the labor camp after harvest-time, when the fields are lush carpets of withered grapevines and rotten peppers. She can almost see the women moving along the rows, uprooting the last survivors. She is fearful of what secrets the desert might hold, for nothing that looks so ordinary can possibly be safe, but being timid does no good in the land of the dead. Where there were corpses fashioned from maize, she had to see herself broken and crumpled; here, among the bodies that beckon ahead, perhaps she must point her own way.
“There is sometimes rain in this valley,” says the coyote.
“Rain?” She can hardly remember the meaning of the word in the midst of whisper-thin gray dust and featureless sky. She is suspicious: “What sort of rain?”
The coyote trots ahead, panting. His tongue is the color of cactus, and spiny all over. When tiny knives begin to fall, they glance off him. Ana is not so fortunate. She doesn’t feel the little blades when they strike her, but blood runs down her arms in hot rivulets.
She hitches her dress up to cover Sylvie, even knowing that neither of them feel any pain. For herself, she is not much concerned. No matter if the gods bury knives in her chest; as long as she has hands and knees, she will crawl out of their pit. The wind drives the knives sideways, blinding and deafening her, but she does not stop. Bereft of the landscape ahead and the coyote’s taunts in her ears, left with only the scent of the dust, she never stops, never slows, never lets her direction change. The valley must end sometime, and then they will ascend back into mountains. She might still be confined in her sightlessness, but at least there she will feel the roughness of the rock beneath her hands and know she has made progress.
She cannot describe what she feels when she comes down hard on her knees in a well of mud. All that surrounds her is unsharp, soft and wet and wonderful. She wrestles Sylvie out from underneath the cover of her dress and presses mud into their foreheads and cheeks and lips. When she tears the knives from her eyes and ears with mud-covered hands, her sight comes groggily back to her; her ears open. With her new sight she glimpses miracles: Sylvie’s fingers splayed in the pit of mud, her dark eyes full of laughter, her lap full of dirt. Across from them the coyote sips delicately at the well, a creature perfectly accustomed to living off a land of death.
The valley lies at their backs now, Ana sees. They have crossed. She is so stricken by her relief that she forgets herself and whispers, “Is it real?”
“Because it doesn’t hurt you, it can’t be real?” says the coyote.
“Not here,” Ana says.
“No,” says the coyote. “Not here.” He licks the mud from his lips and beckons for them to climb astride his back. Ana mounts gracelessly, buries her fists in his coat, and yanks with such force that clumps of fur come out in her hands. The coyote says nothing, but he is still licking his lips hungrily. She can feel his ribs beneath her thighs.
The natives of the dead land, the coyote says, have abandoned the rhythms of birthing and feeding and getting deathly sick. Only the imported dead feign life, and they do so clumsily.
“Not even you?” Ana says to the coyote. “Were you not mothered and brought up?”
“I am unliving and undying,” says the coyote out of swollen lips. He is attacking a beehive that has fallen from some dead land tree, and so the hive is attacking him, covering his canyon-colored snout with white wings and tiny, sprawling black legs. When he tears the mass of honeycombs open, the bees collapse dead in a heap at his feet. “Feed the child,” says the coyote, nudging the hive towards her.
Ana obliges, though her daughter does not seem to be much hungrier than the natives of the land of the dead. She hasn’t tried to nurse since they arrived. While Sylvie licks honey from her fingertips, she persists: “Tell me the truth. Not even the gods can be unborn.”
“We are all unborn here,” says the coyote. “All forged. All made. I asked to be made a nagual because I, like you, was alive when I followed someone else into death. Five hundred or five thousand years ago, I cannot remember. Either way, I have been unchanged ever since. Time is not the same here, you’ll find. I’ve been starving for a few eternities and getting no thinner.”
“You look,” Ana says, “very thin to me.” And she reaches out, her fingers covered in honey, to nourish one sickly creature as she nourished the other. The coyote regards her suspiciously as he lowers his mouth to her hand. His cactus tongue raises welts on her skin, but she does not feel them.
“Don’t imagine,” says the coyote, “that you can ever flee death.”
“I would never try.”
He aims a caustic look at her and then at Sylvie, who has lost interest in the honey and is blithely tearing the wings off the dead bees. “Everything is an exchange here, you’ll see. I had to kill a nagual to become one. You or her. It’ll come to you or her.”
“It already has,” Ana says. She wrestles the wingless bees from Sylvie’s fists and sets out across the desert. Moving in insubstantial increments towards another river, another dead cactus-studded land. If she didn’t have a daughter, she might have a pistol and a will to live instead.
In labor with Sylvie, Ana swallowed a sour-tasting draught of morphine and sobbed inconsolably over an old superstition that had been buried many years ago beneath a Spanish baptismal font.
“I won’t belong with you anymore,” she said over and over again, clutching at the tails of her husband’s shirt. “Please, don’t let the child come.”
He was an unsturdy and beautiful man, Arturo, and he didn’t know how to comfort her. “Stop thinking on those other worlds,” he said, speaking under his breath so the midwife across the room wouldn’t hear him. “It’s just heaven and hell and purgatory.”
“Heaven for the warriors, the mothers, and the drowned ones,” she managed, though her tongue felt thick from the morphine, and the pain of labor was deafening. “Purgatory for the rest. Didn’t they preach it that way, once?” It was true, they had. The camp chapel was prone to sacrilege, inducing velvet-clad Catholicism to shake hands with those ancient dust-streaked truths which everyone with even a speck of Aztec heritage knew.
“I’d drown before I’d leave you,” said Arturo, and she knew even then that he was lying but she let him say it, let him tangle his fingers in her sweat-soaked hair and prop her head up on the adobe wall that served as the headboard for their frameless mattress. “And they dabbed a bit of holy water on my forehead, didn’t they?”
“You know that’s not what it means,” she sobbed. “Please–”
She bit down on an iron crucifix while the midwife drew Sylvie from her womb, pushing her screams to the back of her throat and watching Arturo through a rose-colored morphine haze. How heavenly he looked. How impossible. She hoped her child was nothing like him, that Sylvie would instead be branded with the inexorable mark of that savage, ancient heaven where mothers and warriors and the drowned feast upon their enemies.
The land of the dead does not frighten Ana now that she has learned all its rules. Small gods with stars for faces sometimes try to make good on their reputations as tricksters, but they come away disappointed by her invulnerability to cuts and bruises. Other trespassers attack–longtime wanderers who have lost their guides and resent that she should persist when they have lost all hope—but the coyote kills them and buries their bodies in the sand. “When they rise, they will be aspen trees and their branches will anchor the wind,” he says.
There are many meanings of the word dead, Ana has realized. Many intermediate stages between being and not being alive. She finds she can no longer name the stage where she subsists, nor the one where Sylvie has landed.
The second river in the land of the dead is nothing like the first. The shore is not exposed to the wilds of the desert but hidden in a cave where stalactites protrude from the slick rock and armored starfish writhe in pools. Poised elegantly at the lips of the water, enormous cats with golden skin look out over the horizon. They are the guardians, the coyote says, of the threshold to the other world.
“We’ve crossed the land of the dead, then,” says Ana.
“Not yet,” says the coyote.
“Not yet,” she concedes. Then, kissing Sylvie’s head, “But if we cross, we’ll both be safe? She won’t die?”
“You won’t die,” says the coyote.
“It’s not me that I care about.”
“She belongs here,” says the coyote. “You are marked for another world, and you have known it since before you arrived.”
Ana knows he does not mean the world of labor camps and documentation papers. The warriors, the mothers, and the drowned ones, she mouths through heat-cracked lips. Beneath her, the coyote feels swollen with hunger.
“I can’t leave her,” she says, looking across the vast shining expanse of the river.
“Then make her suitable for the other world,” says the coyote.
She slides off his back, holding Sylvie close to her chest. Atop a creature forged from deathlessness, the thought of drowning her daughter is too awful, too tempting. “Don’t say that. I want her to live. I want her to live with me. I don’t want to spend fifty years in another world while she’s in the land of the dead—I don’t care which land of the dead.”
“You have no other choice,” says the coyote.
How terrible that would be, if she believed him. Is there anything she would not do for Sylvie now? Any boundary she would not cross, any impossibility she would not make possible?
“I want to become a nagual,” she says. “Like you.” At her back, the river beats against the shore. The other side is close, but she wants nothing of it if her daughter is not beside her.
“That, you cannot do,” says the coyote. Beneath his peeling skin and rust-colored fur, she sees, he is only a spindly frame of bone.
“You told me how.” She tears a stalactite from the sand and approaches him. Her hands shake but she is calm with Sylvie tucked up against her heart in a makeshift sling. “You said that everything here is an exchange.”
Loping across the land of the dead with Sylvie on her back, past the aspen trees, the crow’s skins, the golems, Ana counts up the dead and includes herself among them. There are candles lit in skulls beside the road at night now and sparse stalks of sugarcane sticking out of the barren earth. Sometimes she wonders if the sheer force of Sylvie’s life might resurrect the dead land. Certainly, it is not the force of her own deathlessness.
She has not yet found the boundary between surviving in the land of the dead and becoming one of its inhabitants. With her ridged spine and fangs, she might well have lost her citizenship to the other world already. But she is not the most savage creature here. The monsters would frighten her if she did not see the potential in them. She teaches her daughter how to put on their costumes, to wrap herself in their pelts and imitate the cries they make when hunting. Their power will be Sylvie’s inheritance when she no longer has a monster for a mother. Because Ana knows she has not really secured deathlessness for herself. Someday there will be another desperate woman with a gun to the head and a mule that won’t go on running, another blood-covered hand and knife-pierced eye and, at the riverside, another killing blow.
They are scavengers of death, the nagual. It would be foolish for them to think they will not be picked off by some equally formidable predator.
Return to Issue #174