Part I : The Minor Miracle
I suppose this is a preface to a story. I am holed up in my house in the middle of a heat wave. Too much time on my hands has always set my mind to brooding. For the past two weeks, my thoughts have gone back time and time again to something that, I guess still haunts me. A dusty incident of long ago that mostly sits on a dark shelf in some back room of my head. So, this is what wandering about inside myself leads me to. I know the story well. Too well. I guess the problem has always been knowing how to tell it. I am hoping that if I make a beginning, if I only try, I can work through it in awhile, and then put it away forever. So, with that said, I take a deep breath, and begin.
It took a long time for it to come to this, and a lot of Chinese take-out. Countless crumbled fortune cookies trailing a hopelessly tangled paper string of failed dreams. My own intractable Gordian knot of things that didn't come true, or were too vague to matter.
It all sounds dismal and bitter, I know; but that was long ago. That was before Preita. This is the story of her. And about the day we met. 'Met' is not the right word, I suppose. I was 20 then. She, was 14. A child, in the eyes of the law. But out there, in the desert, some 100 miles south of Tijuana, the law is what you make it. Let's just say that when I regained consciousness, my head was on her lap, and she was running her fingers gently through my hair. And I had no idea of who she was, or what she might soon become. I was only aware of the wonderful amber light in her eyes, and of the shadow looming over us. The dark figure of her mother shading us both from the blistering sun, and her dangling silver crucifix. This is how the story began, the story of Preita's Magic Fingers.
Where is the best starting place for such a story? I suppose the things I experienced in my life, and in the lives of others around me in the five years or so preceding Preita, might explain a lot. But, you can read such cultural commentary in countless explanations of what the '60s were all about. Right now, two things come to mind, as I try to explain how I got lost in the desert and stumbled quite literally, into Preita. I don't really remember that moment. But, Preita told me later, she saw me stumbling just before i fell, seemingly dead, to the desert floor. I do recall seeing a slender young girl making her way barefoot along a faint trail through a grove of mesquite bushes. She was carrying a primitive twig birdcage full of what appeared to be Mexican sparrows. And, I vaguely remember how the sky, the girl, the distant mesas, and the ground in front of me had suddenly become a whirling blur that quickly faded into blackness.
As a small child, I remember how young mothers with sick babies would come to the house seeking out my grandfather. He was a faith-healer, of sorts. As I recall, he would gently lay the baby down upon his lap. He would recite a biblical scripture. He would then cup his open fist over the baby's mouth, bend down, and blow his breath into the baby. As a child, you can witness many things that don't seem extraordinary until years later, when you think about them. When you ask yourself questions about your past. What was that, exactly?. What made that ritual work? I remember grandaddy alway had a jaw full of chewing tobacco. He was always spitting on the ground or into a can. Maybe it was the tobacco on his breath, or such brown saliva that was the curative agent. Or, maybe something else.
So, now let me move forward in time, to get closer to the story at hand. I was sitting in a Cultural Anthropology class at a university in San Diego, California. I was listening to one of the many fascinating lectures about the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Spanish Conquest, the supplanting of ancient beliefs by Catholic missionaries, and so on. How, in that epic period, much information of these early cultures was lost. Well, not lost, but deliberately eradicated. And how, despite all that, certain traces of an earlier mentality, even a wisdom, still persist today. And how south of the border, an oral tradition still passes along many of the insights of an ancient time. When the professor began to go on about Curanderismo, by way of example, I felt a shiver of my own history run through me. It seemed that this practice of healing by looking at the balance between health, nature and religion was at its core. This all reminded me of my grandfather. The professor went on about the currently emerging trends in areas of holistic healing, herbalism, faith-healing, and ecstatic religious experiences. But, I only took all that in, peripherally. I was already planning a trip south of the border to try to understand this myself. I realize, I haven't even gotten to the story yet, but I am getting closer. Try to bear with me. I told you up front, its complicated.
I talked to my professor about writing a paper on Curanderismo based on first hand accounts I would gather in a field trip of sorts, down into rural Mexico. He liked the idea, and even wrote me a letter of introduction on university stationery that I could show to any authorities who might question why I was out in the desert talking to people about Curanderismo, and gathering herbal specimens.
The drive down through the sprawling city of Tijuana was tedious. Road blocks here. Detours there. And most peculiar was how each detour taken seemed to take me down squalid streets of waving whores in hot pants. In fact, I was beginning to think those detour signs I was following may have been put up by pimps themselves. Finally though, I was headed out on a seemingly empty highway into the desert. I had seen on the map a place called Demon's Brow. There had to be a story there, and I soon found out I was right.
On each side of this endless highway there was only desert as far as the eye could see. All along the way however, you could make out the occasional shack, or small adobes, set well back from the road. Most conspicuous, were rusty barbed wire fences. They seemed forever adorned by plastic bags. Plastic bags in the desert are the modern equivalent of the tumbleweed. They get rolled about along the ground until they are at last hopelessly snagged along the fence rows. I was more than an hour now south of Tijuana. I pulled off at a deserted gas station where I had spotted a local farmer drying chili peppers on the hot asphalt. I asked him if he knew of Demon's Brow. He nodded, and pointed to a mesa in the distance. It looked to be about three miles away. I asked if I could leave my car there, because I wanted to make my way to the mesa on foot. He looked at me as though I was crazy. I smiled and nodded, as though to assure him that I was, in fact, crazy. I handed him a 10 dollar bill to watch my car. His eyes got quite big. I guess 10 dollars out in the middle of nowhere is a lot of money.
I grabbed my gear, and a couple of bottles of water out of the trunk, and took off. It only took me about ten minutes to realize it was hot as hell. I sat down a few times to take a drink of water. Nothing like a big gulp of hot water on a hot day. I felt a certain light-headedness after awhile. At first, I took it as my giddy happiness to be out of the city. Later, I realized I was on the edge of a stroke. I was captivated by the yuccas in bloom, the cholla, the mesquite and creosote shrubs, and a plant known locally as the devil's claw, witch seemed to be everywhere. It bore, and dropped to the ground below it, strangely beautiful seed pods. The fact that the pod had two devilishly long curved thorns is where it got its name, I suppose. I had heard of this plant before. It was the bane of charros and farmers because of the way its thorns would so easily latch on to the foreleg of a horse, or a burro, or a goat passing by, or any other damn animal. It would then go along for a ride on the frightened beast until it was pawed off. I think it was as I was stooping down to collect a couple of these claws that I saw out of the corner of my eye, someone walking along. That was the last thing I saw. I collapsed. The lights went out. Later, I learned that It was Preita, of course, making her way home with her cage of birds.
When I awoke, with Preita and her mother looking down at me, I was quite confused as to what had happened. Her mother knelt down beside me, and took my hand.
"You died, my son. But my Preita brought you back to life."
"But, but, that's not possible!" I said. I looked up at Preita who was still gazing serenely down at me, still caressing my face with her hands. For a moment, she turned to look up at her mother.
"But, but, mother..." Preita stammered.
"It's true, my child", the woman said to her daughter, reaching out to cup the girl's face in her hands. "Today, our precious Savior, has anointed you with His healing powers. You have been chosen Preita. My little Preita. My angel."
"But, mother..." Preita said, her eyes filling.
I walked wearily along with them, down a narrow goat path to their home. It was a small deteriorating adobe shack. A single room. It was like stepping into night as we entered. But, as my eyes adjusted, I saw candles everywhere. The air was pungent with the complicated fragrance of herbal plants hanging in bundles from the primitive lodge poles overhead. And crude crucifixes made of sun-bleached mesquite twigs, laced together with some kind of animal hide, adorned the walls everywhere. Preita led me to a small mattress in the corner, and told me to lie down. My head was spinning again. The pillow smelled like Preita. Once again, she was caressing my face.
"Preita, I didn't die. I passed out. It was the heat." She pressed a forefinger to my lips.
"Shhh...shhh...I know. Sleep now."
I awoke to the strange sensation of something moving up and down my back. Preita seemed to be brushing my skin with some kind of branches. And I could feel her thumb pressing down just above my tailbone, and moving in a small firm circle.
"Don't worry," she said. "I am taking care of you." Two men had appeared. They were busy at the table, stripping the meat off of the head of a goat.
"Preita, I didn't die, Preita."
"Shhhh..." she said softly. I drifted off to sleep again. I had a dream about my grandfather. And how he got trapped beneath a slab of coal deep in a collapsed mine in West Virginia. And how he never spoke of God after all that. He was down there for three days. He, to me, had become God. He had somehow, been resurrected. He had more broken bones than bones that were whole. And he never spoke of God again. He became a recluse. Maybe that is why I had become so intent on ignoring the prevailing winds of the times. A realization that I am here from some known date I was born, and some unknown date when I will die. And, the only real question then, was what makes the most sense to do in the meanwhile?
I awoke the next morning with Preita snuggled up against me. Her hand seemed to still be tracing my body, even though she was sound asleep. Outside, there was the sound of roosters crowing. And there were voices. I was far, far away from a telephone. But, somehow, news gets around in the desert. And the news was of how Preita had raised someone from the dead. There was the smell of chorizo cooking. Her mother at the wood stove. The air was smoky, but smelled sweet somehow. Preita awoke, and put on a simple white linen dress. And I stood at the doorway sipping some strange green tea, as one by one, I watched people approach her. She embrced them each and every one. Her mother stood by her side reciting some scripture. I felt my skin prickle, as I realized she was reciting the same verse my grandfather had spoken so many years ago. It was from the Old Testament. From Ezekiel. Ezekiel 16:6, to be precise. Preita reached out and ran her fingers through each one's hair as her mother chanted.
"And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee, when thou wast in thine own blood, Live. Yes, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live."
Part II : Curious Angel of Demon's Brow
I left Demon's Brow and Preita, after spending another several days there. Before I left though, it became clear that this recent event had a few consequences that seemed to be kaleidoscoping out at the speed of lies, or blind faith. Like the expanding concentric circles on the water of a placid pond, in the aftermath of a thrown pebble, word of Preita's 'miracle' seemed to have spread for miles out into the desert. People seemed to be coming from far and wide to feel Preita's healing touch. They came sometimes, 3 or 4 at a time, in rusted out sedans with peeling paint, or in sputtering, coughing old trucks. They came on foot. In primitive sandals cut and formed from the black rubber of old tires. Or, they came shoeless. There was a family who arrived on burros. Most came with maladies of one kind or another, although some came just to catch a glimpse of Preita. To see 'The Angel of Demon's Brow', as she would soon be referred to.
And then, there were the offerings. As poor as these people were, they did not arrive empty handed. People would stoop and lay a peso or two at Preita's feet, as she ran her fingers through their hair and her mother mumbled the 'healing verse'. Or they presented her with produce they had farmed. One tired old man humbly laid a solitary potato at her feet. Another, brought her two goats. One to milk, and one to eat.
Preita seemed bewildered by it all. And she got little rest. She mostly sat in the shade of a blossoming chinese elm tree at the corner of the house, and 'healed' people as they came and went. I have pictures of Preita in my mind that, I guess, will be there forever. The image of her sitting there on an old sun-bleached wooden box, barefooted. Her simple, hand-made and quite wrinkled, white linen dress. Her hair, a childish dark tangled mop. Her amber eyes, full of questions when she glanced at me. The drab desert ground at her feet colored by the occasional fall of a long and lovely feather of the peacock that sat in the branches overhead, lazily preening. She had become a vision. An apparition. A dream. And, I could have lived in such a dream forever, except for her haunting glances, and the helpless shrugs of her lean and lovely brown shoulders as she ran her fingers through yet another, stranger's hair.
Preita knew as well as I did, what really happened that day she found me. But her mother kept insisting that I had died, and Preita had miraculously brought me back to life. I don't think her mother really believed that herself. In fact, I am convinced it was an invention inspired by certain motives that were becoming increasingly apparent. She seemed more like an entrepreneur designing a business around the needs of people to believe that God is real, and that He cared about their desperate lives. The shrewd embellishment of a lie can become a grand scheme in a short amount of time. Preita's mother seemed adamant in her assertions as she talked to her daughter, and to me. The Lord had given Preita this gift of healing, and with it, a mission. A calling. And she said that the Lord would richly bless Preita for her service to Him. And that many bad things happen to those who disobey God. I tried to tell her, that I was not dead when Preita found me. That I had passed out from the heat of the mid-day sun. But the woman just shook her head 'no', and turned to toss two of Preita's white linen dresses into a galvanized tub of soapy water, and sat down in the wooden chair next to it.
"No, my son," she said, as she swung her bare feet into the water. " You were dead. I am old enough to know a dead man when I see one. You were dead." She looked over at her daughter as she stood, and began to stomp up and down on Preita's dresses. "Preita, get the bottle of bleach, please. You gowns must be as pure as snow. My Preita must radiate the glory of God in her appearance," she added, as though lost in a dream of a deepening scheme. She sat down in the chair, her feet still sloshing up and down in the foamy water. She turned to reach for a small wooden box on the table behind her. She opened it, and called Preita to her side. She reached down into the box and rummaged about for a moment, and then produced a pair of dangling silver crucifix earrings.
"Preita put them on," she said, as she rummaged down into the box again. This time she came up with a long delicate silver chain. A necklace. It had three red garnets dangling from it. They were beautifully formed in the shape of tear drops. She cupped the garnets in her palm. "Look, Preita. The tears of Jesus. I give these to you, Preita, my child.....my angel." Slowly, but surely, Preita was being transformed. From the diminutive little bare footed girl standing by the highway, waving her cage of birds at the occasional passing tourist, she was morphing now into an angelic butterfly for God. And, for her mother. She was beginning to look stunning it's true. Her mother had brushed her mop of dark hair back, and into a long braid down her back. Her face, no longer obscured by her hair, was a perfect oval, the silver earrings dangling freely. Her amber eyes looked bigger than ever. Nevertheless, her glances toward me were full of her helplessness, and her sense of obligation to obey her mother. I found it difficult to look at her, yet, impossible not to.
I returned to my studies at the university, reluctantly. Preita began crying as I prepared to leave. I was torn on the drive back to school. Something very deep in me, felt something very much like cowardice. Very much like betrayal. In the following days, I couldn't get Preita off my mind. Studying was difficult. I kept writing her name down over and over in my journal. And it was difficult to fall asleep at night. Not to mention replaying over and over in my mind, that moment I awoke in Preita's arms. Then, one day I got a letter from her. My hands were trembling as I opened it. A lovely lock of her hair fell into my lap as I unfolded the paper. It was one simple sentence, carefully penned. A question. "Will you ever come back to me?" Beneath that, her charming signature. "Preita, Curious Angel of Demon's Brow."
Part III : To Demon's Brow and Points Beyond
It took me several days to figure out what to do, but even as I pulled out of San Diego and headed south again, I wasn't sure what kind of scenario would play out. I only knew that one way or another, I was going to be with Preita. If I had to kidnap her, then, so be it. Even if I had to kill her mother. I was horrified to think of that, I have never killed anybody, and don't want to. I would be killing my self in the same blow. Who could live with such blood on their hands? So, my non-homicidal plan was quite simple. I would pull up to her mother's house. They would be happy to see me, and I would be cordial. I would take a walk with Preita. I would lead her eventually to my car. We would quietly get in, and I would snatch her away.
And then what? Try to smuggle her back to the states? A young girl, at that? A minor, beyond that. The consequences of getting caught would be severe. I could do jail time, and Preita could be deported home, to return to her entrapment by 'God', or her mother's self interests. Those were really dark, and ominous clouds in my mind, as I got closer and closer to Demon's Brow.
When I pulled up, there were a half dozen or more people milling about in front of Preita, beneath the chinese elm. It seemed the ritual had evolved. She was no longer running her fingers through the hair of kneeling believers, she was lightly running a peacock's feather around the person's face and across their shoulders. Her mother stood at her side reciting the verse. The wooden bucket at Preita's feet was filled with coins. And other offerings were scattered all around, like they fell out of a passing plane. A woven blanket. A red plastic can that appeared to be a gas can cut in half, holding an armful of cut flowers.. And then there was a box with holes punched into it, that seemed to hold a restless chicken making lots of noise. There was a burlap sack that seemed to be squirming about. Four rabbits, soon to be a stew. A pair of black sunglasses with little red stones all around the lenses.
And then, there was the falcon. Yes, someone brought Preita a falcon. He perched on a nearby post, and seemed a bit spooky to me. He was chained to the post with a tiny metal collar around one leg. And, he had a black hood on his head. Add to that, the fact that the peacock was nowhere to be seen. I didn't have to ask why. There was every kind of peacock feather scattered all around on the ground. Miracles come. Miracles go. And then, there's only nightmares.
Preita stood when she saw me, and ran toward me. We embraced. The mere, faint scent of her hair turned me into a junkie, on the spot. It was just that easy, that instantly, to know for real. I had fallen in love. Then she returned to her post, and I stood watching the parade of people in a line, waiting patiently to see Preita. It was a scam, no doubt. Nevertheless, people walked away smiling, though they were clearly in one kind of agony or another upon their first arrival.
It seems people need something to believe in. Something stronger than themselves. The longing to experience something special. Something inexplicable and wonderful. Something to take their grief away, even if only briefly, and replace it with hope. Here, in Demon's Brow, they had the curious angel, Preita. They came with an expectation. A belief. Or, at least, a suspension of disbelief. They performed along with Preita, a ritual, enacting and re-enacting the miracle of healing, again and again. Somehow, they each went their way feeling better, stronger. The magic wasn't in Preita's fingers at all, nor in the peacock's feather. It was in their own minds, and in what they chose to believe. That is what seemed to empower them. And it is the same with beliefs that enslave. Like Preita, in her mother's cage, feeling unable to fly away, even if the door was opened. And, her mother has trapped herself, as well. Corrupting and bankrupting her own soul, with self interest and greed destined to some day, eat her alive. I suppose that if I should take Preita away from here, I might be also freeing her mother from her own self-destruction. A rationalization, I suppose. Another form of belief, enabling me to plan what to do here. Now.
As sunset neared, Demon's Brow became silent except for an occasional cluck or cackle from the chickens strolling about. And even they, were drowsily waddling to the fence. There, they would flap their wings, as though they just suddenly realized they had wings, and clumsily fly to the topmost rail, From there, a mere hop onto the branch of a nearby tree and they were settling in for the night. The sun's last rays were creeping up the face of the mesa, I looked toward it, and the fall of light and shadow on the steep and rocky slope had painted the reddish face of Satan. It seemed to glow and glower there on the mesa wall, then slowly fade away as the sun dropped lower.
Preita's mother fixed some scrambled eggs, and chorizo, with piping hot tortillas. We ate quietly outside at a flimsy weathered card table, as the sky deepened, and the silence all around us became palpable. It was pleasant and hard to bear, in the same breath. Some pregnant aura seemed to encircle us. The feeling of things yet to come. The labor pains of how to make it be.
Finally, Preita's mother looked over at me and spoke.
"Tomorrow, my son, you must go before the people, and tell them of how you died, and of how Preita restored you with her touch. How she snatched your soul from the clutches of death. How she...." I nodded, and stood up from the table, and stretched. She was pretty damn good at this business of making things up.
"Tomorrow will a big day. An important day." I replied. Somehow, I knew that the hour had arrived. I turned to Preita, and extended my hand. "Come, Preita, let's walk about, and watch the night unfold." As I felt the touch of her hand in mine, in that instant, I knew it would be a long time before Preita's mother saw her daughter again. Behind us, as we walked out toward the mesa, I could hear the clattering of clay dishes as her mother cleared the table. The conversation was simple, as we stopped and turned to each other. I heard the muffled sound of a door closing behind us. Preita's mother went in to the house to get ready for tomorrow.
"Are your ready to go with me, Preita?" She nodded in reply, and pressed her face to my chest. We turned, and walked more quickly then, to my car, and pulled away. We never said goodbye to her mother, and Preita never looked back. Neither did I.
All that was some time ago. I teach at a small college now. Most of my courses are about the sociology of religion. Preita is happy enough for now, to mind our three children. But she says she wants to go to school herself some day. And that is fine with me. To this very day, I still like to lie on the couch and lay my head on Preita's lap, and feel her fingers running through my hair. Each time she does, I feel as though born again. I suppose that is the power of love. As for Preita's mother? Last time we went to visit her, it looked like she was figuring something out about herself, or about life in general.