Saturday, July 04, 2015

MOTH MADNESS - a short story

A clear New Mexico day, the sky mimicking polished turquoise pierced with veins of crystalline quartz. At the Palace of the Governors, Navajo artists sold malachite rings and squash blossom necklaces. Across the street, non-native artisans expressed their own vision in a more contemporary fashion.

The old town was alive with color. Morning glories and hollyhocks lined the street. Pastels clashing with orange berries of mountain ash and chocolate adobe. Sunflowers, pumpkins, and sacred corn crowned flat roofs.

A message on an old car painted in a splashes of bright, freehand colors, said, “Never pet a burning dog.”

Two couples meandered down the sidewalk, stopping to examine silver baubles and turquoise rings. Finally, Pamela said, “What now, gang?”

Pamela’s husband Don winked at Raymond his male counterpart and said, “A drink at the nearest bar?”

“Honestly, Don,” Pamela chided. “Has the town’s ambiance not caught up with you yet?”

“Just the gas from last night’s frijoles,” he said.

Raymond added, “So spicy, there’s a fart in every bite.”

Pamela frowned and walked ahead in silent protest. Don winked at Raymond and Julie, puffing his cheeks in Dizzie Gillespie fashion to show his distaste for the local fare.

“Slow down, Dear,” he said, words dripping with mischievous inflection. She didn’t, and they hurried after her.

After lunch at a courtyard restaurant, Julie pushed her plate aside and asked, “Where to?”

Don stretched in his chair and yawned. “A nice nap?”

Pamela sipped her mineral water and smiled. “It’s the last day of our vacation, Don.”

“So what?”

“This is the center of New Age. We can’t leave without at least visiting a channeler and summoning a lost spirit.”

Don grinned, playing with his gray mustache. “Dear, you’re crazy.”

Pamela ignored him, turning to Julie and Raymond. “What do you two think?”

Julie glanced at Raymond, “I don’t know. Sounds silly to me.”

“It’s not silly,” Pamela shot back. “If you think it is, Don and I will go alone.”

Don glanced at Julie and Raymond. Then, winking at Raymond, he asked, “How will we decide which channeler to consult, Dear?”

“We’ll ask the waiter.”

Don grinned. “Sounds logical.”

Pamela ignored him. Raymond glanced at Julie and smiled. When the waiter with the Brooklyn accent returned Pamela asked, “Can you direct us to the best channeler in Santa Fe?”

“Depends,” he said.

Her curiosity piqued Julie asked, “On what?”

“How much you’re paying.”

His terse reply raised Pamela’s eyebrows. “Are there some that much better than others?”

“No, but for the right price, I’ll do it myself.”

This time, no one stifled their laughter. Pamela folded her arms, sat up straight and frowned.

“I wasn’t making a joke,” she said, reprimanding the young man.

“Well,” he paused, “If I’m not good enough for you, you might try the Wolf.”

“The wolf?”

“Steinhart, Wolf Steinhart.”

Bob chortled, “Wolf Steinhart?”

“Who’s Wolf Steinhart?” Julie and Raymond asked in unison.

“If you want to know about New Age, Wolf is your man.”

Don leaned back in his chair, folding his big hands behind his head. “Where might we find Mr. Steinhart?”

The waiter glanced at his watch. “Right now, he’s at the Pagan Bar.”

Don’s pale blue eyes widened. “He keeps a schedule?”

The waiter grinned. “Nah, he’s there most of the time.”

***

They found the Pagan Bar empty and eclectic, even by Santa Fe standards. Small dragons hung from the ceilings. A tree grew behind the bar. Louis Armstrong’s picture decorated the wall, along with crosses, lizards and stained glass dragons. A sign said, “This is the year of the dragon.”

A lone man occupied a pink stone table, his head resting on his arm. As they stood in a semi-circle around him, he began snoring at a level that would have made a tic on the chart at the nearest seismic station.

Don grinned and tried to rouse him. “Ahem!”

A louder snort erupted from the man’s nostrils and Pamela suggested, “Maybe we should come back later.”

“Not on your life,” Don said.

Raymond grabbed her elbow to prevent her exit. “He’s right. Let’s wake him.”

Raymond shook the man’s shoulder. Steinhart brushed away Raymond’s hand like someone swatting an annoying fly. A voice startled them. “You wanna talk with the Wolf.”

A dark-skinned lady wearing a bright red dress draped low over her shoulders stood looking at them, hand on her hips.

“Why yes, as a matter-of-fact.” Don said.

“Then waita minute.”

She disappeared behind the bar, returning with a shot of tequila which she placed beside the man’s head. The Wolf snorted and opened his red-rimmed eyes, glancing up at the five people standing over him. He drained the shot in one gulp and tossed the glass into the adobe kiva behind him. When it shattered, he winced and massaging his left temple.

“Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

“I’m Don Brabham, and this is my wife Pamela. These lovely people are Julie Hamilton and Raymond West.”

The man stretched himself to his full, impressive height. Don was tall but this man taller, at least six-six.

“Wolf Steinhart,” he said, extending his hand. “At your service.”

Steinhart’s spoke with a clipped British accent, khaki shirt imparting the appearance of a big game hunter. A red stain on his shirt dispelled this initial impression. When Pamela edged to the back of the group and eyed the door, Don grabbed her arm.

“We understand you’re an expert in New Age philosophy,” Don said. “May we sit?”

“How rude of me,” Steinhart said, pulling out two of the red lacquered chairs and raising a finger to the woman in the red dress. “Ramona! Tequila and five glasses.”

The dark-skinned woman ignored his request, continuing to polish a glass. “Who’s gonna pay?”
Steinhart glanced at the group until Don raised his hand. “My treat.”

“Then make it Cuervo Gold, pretty senorita,” Steinhart said, popping all five fingers on both hands. He bent over and placed his palms on the table’s pink surface. “Ladies and gentlemen, you have found your man.”

Still beaming, Steinhart plopped down between Pamela and Julie on the pink-cushioned bonco. They wrinkled their noses and edged away as Ramona brought the tequila and five shot glasses.

“I’d rather have a glass of Chablis,” Pamela said.

Julie said, “Make mine a Coke.”

“Well, gentlemen,” Steinhart said, refraining from breaking the glass in the fireplace. “More for us.” He smacked his lips like a contented bovine and added, “My friends. You have arrived at the pith of the maelstrom, the mouth of the volcano, the eye of the needle.”

“The tail of the ass,” Don said.

Unperturbed, Steinhart continued. “Exactly what is it you wish to discover?”

“The address of a good channeler,” Don said.

Wolf’s chin dropped. “Is that all?”

“No,” Pamela said, becoming enthusiastic. “We need a guide through the mysteries of New Age.”

Wolf perked up at Pamela’s words. “A broad and demanding subject. I require a fee.”

“That’s no problem. . .” Pamela began.

Don interrupted. “How much?”

“Thirty dollars an hour and residuals,” Steinhart said.

Don squelched Pamela’s reply. “Residuals?”

Steinhart held up the bottle of tequila. Don glanced at Raymond and Julie. They smiled and blinked.

“You got it, old man,” Don said, taking the initiative.

Steinhart filled Don and Raymond’s glasses and poured another for himself. “As you mentioned,” he said, looking at Pamela. “This is the hub of New Age. The place where everyone’s karma hits the fan.” He chuckled. “In Santa Fe, experts perform diverse functions."

"Such as," Pamela said.

 Synovial fluid equalization, aura balancing, crystal healing, vibrational healing. Need I continue?"

"We're all ears," Pamela said.

 "Connective tissue polarity therapy, colon cleansing, clear light therapy, and bio-energetic synchronization.”

“More like bio-energetic money detachment,” Don quipped.

Pamela ignored her husband’s levity. “And channelers?”

“My dear lady,” Steinhart said, “There are hundreds of mystics, gurus, and spirit channelers in Santa Fe.”

Julie sipped her soda and Raymond fidgeted in his red lacquered chair. “Every waiter in town is a mystic,” Raymond said. “I'm sure most of these people are fakes preying on unsuspecting visitors.”

When he glanced away from Pamela’s glare, Steinhart nodded. “What you suggest is true, but they are here for a reason.”

Raymond asked, “What reason?”

Steinhart poured another shot and answered, “The Native Americans.”

Pamela leaned forward. “You mean Indians?”

“There are fifteen thousand Pueblo in New Mexico, along with the Navajo and Hopi. The Pueblo believe they are here, now and always. This is a fundamental view they keep because it reveals their feelings for bahana.”

“Bahana?” Don said.

“Whites. You and I. The original people have occupied this region for almost eight thousand years. Their culture is quite defined; more so than any in North America. There are things we bahana will never know.”

Julie asked, “Such as?”

“Koshare. . .”

Steinhart’s word died on his lips.

Don glanced at Raymond, then at Julie. “Koshare?”

“Powerful secret societies. Magic, both white and black. The so-called New Age practitioners gravitated here. To the Pueblo this is the center of the universe.”

Pamela’s face glowed with anticipation. “You mean these people could summon a demon, or heal a cancer?”

Wolf Steinhart nodded. “These people, as you call them, are quite capable of almost anything.”

“Then this is for real?”

“As real as you or I,” he said.

Pamela asked, “Can we experience this mysticism, or witness the summoning of a spirit?”

Don turned in his chair. “Dear, this is getting ridiculous. Let’s go back to the hotel and take a nice nap.”

Pamela glared at her husband. “You go, I’ll stay.”

Don frowned but remained seated, pouring another shot from the bottle. Raymond and Julie cast nervous glances at each other. Steinhart folded his arms, silent as he contemplated Pamela’s question.

“It’s possible,” he finally said.

Pamela glowed. “We’ll pay whatever it costs.”

“Dear lady, it’s not a question of money, though there is the matter of my small retainer.”

Don opened his wallet and handed Steinhart a Benjamin, asking, “What else is it a question of?”

“Belief,” he said, finishing his shot. “Where are you staying?”

“La Fonda,” Don said.

Wolf Steinhart glanced at his watch. “If you’re serious, I’ll pick you up in front of the hotel at five.”

***

The two couples waited, Pamela beaming, Don fidgeting. Julie looked bored as Raymond paced the sidewalk. “This is stupid, Pamela,” Don said. “Steinhart already has our money. He isn’t coming.”

“Of course he is. He’s just a little late.”

An old Land Rover pulled up to the curb, allaying Don’s doubts, Wolf Steinhart at the wheel in the same outfit as before. A broad-brimmed hat completed his big game hunter look. Raymond noted with relief he had at least changed shirts. Steinhart leaned across the front seat and opened the door with a smile.

“Pile in, good people.”

Because of his height, Don sat in the front seat. The others crowded into the back on the narrow bench. Steinhart pulled away from the curb and headed out of town.

Don asked, “Where are we going, old man?”

“First to Taos to secure a guide, and then to visit the witch.”

Julie sat in the back seat, arms folded and toe tapping. “I thought you were our guide.”

“Unfortunately, this excursion requires more than I.”

Pamela was ecstatic. “We’re visiting a witch, a real witch? Please tell us about it.”

“A practice passed through successive generations. Spanish monks introduced Catholicism to the region. Since then, the native’s belief in the spirit world has become intertwined with the Catholic view of god.”

Raymond said, “Such as?”

“The evil eye. The Pueblo and Navajo believe wizards and witches own the power to harm by gazing at you. The power of the evil eye. They wear amulets and talismans, Catholic crosses or votives to protect them from this power. They commingle Catholicism with their beliefs when they invoke spirits of the earth and moon.”

“And our visit to the witch. . .”

“A demonstration,” Steinhart said, finishing Raymond’s question. “It would take our combined lifetimes to understand this region’s mystical culture.”

Purple shadows engulfed the highway. They blended with a hazy orange sunset as they continued north to the Taos Pueblo. Steinhart entered through the back gate. In the encroaching darkness, they approached two pueblos separated by a clear creek. Both structures looked like ancient apartment complexes.

A church bounded the west end of the coyote-fenced enclosure. Steinhart crossed the narrow bridge, careful of the roaming horses and mongrel dogs. He stopped by the largest adobe structure, opened the door and stepped out.

“Wait here. I won’t be long.” Steinhart started away, but returned, as if forgetting something. He removed four crucifixes from his safari shirt and handed one to each of them.

“Wear these,” he said.

They watched him climb a ladder to an upper entrance, disappearing inside. Don glanced at the crucifix, saying. “You think this will work for a Jew?”

“Honestly, Don,” Pamela said. “Just put it on.”

Raymond nudged Julie and she bit her lip to keep from laughing. When Steinhart returned, only the stars and moon illuminated the surroundings. He wasn’t alone.

“This is Sam,” he said, introducing the young man. “He’ll lead us the rest of the way.”

Sam rode on the Land Rover’s fender to his own vehicle, an old pickup truck. Steinhart shadowed him out of the enclosure and into the darkness. They followed the highway several miles before exiting to a dirt path. It jutted into the desert, following a dry arroyo for five more miles.

Julie, Raymond and Pamela held on to their uncomfortable seats as Steinhart shadowed Sam’s truck. At the end of the arroyo, they found a single adobe cubicle, light radiating from its windows. Steinhart helped Pamela and Julie unwind from the uncomfortable back seat. The two couples waited in chilly bleakness, Sam and Steinhart soon returning from the house with a smiling boy. Steinhart took a bag of fruit from the vehicle, handing it to the lad.

“We’re just here to observe,” Steinhart said. “Please don't ask any questions.”

They followed him into the stucco house, finding a young woman standing beside a kiva fireplace. Two little girls giggled, playing ball, and jacks on the earthen floor. When they spotted the sack of fruit, they rushed with pigeon-toed gaits, demanding their share.

Peculiar objects decorated the walls. An old chrome hubcap, several jawbones of indistinct origin, and some shells. Lateral vigas supported the ceiling. Bits of hay in the walls suggested real adobe formed them, not the cement-variety used by local builders.

“This is Rachel Kucate, her daughter’s Verla and Natalie, and son Chester.”

Don, Pamela, Julie and Raymond, followed Steinhart and Sam to a room in back. An old woman sat alone in a rocking chair, a black cat at her feet. Sam closed the door behind them, a dim coal oil lamp illuminating the room. The old woman continued rocking.

The cat arched its back as it moved beneath her legs and the rockers of the chair. Though she looked the picture of antiquity, the brightness and color of her garments clashed with this notion. Withered as a corn stalk ruined by too much sun and lack of rain, a blue flowered bandanna capped her silver hair. Turquoise and silver draped from her earlobes. A flowered shawl cloaked her pink wool sweater. Twisted turquoise graced her gnarled wrist.

“I have brought visitors, Grandmother,” Sam said.

The old woman opened her eyes, one dark and old, the other green and alive. She studied the visitors as Sam brought a small table from the corner, placing it in front of her. He sat on the floor and began chanting and beating a drum he’d brought from the truck. When the old woman spoke, her almost inaudible voice quivered, and she looked straight at Don.

“You brought somethin’ for Grandmother?”

Startled by her question, Don reached for his wallet. Steinhart touched his wrist and shook his head. “She’s not asking for money.”

Confused, Don fished an old gold watch, attached to a length of frayed chain, from his pocket. Without understanding why, he placed it on the table.

“Bring me the cloud blower, my son,” she said.

Steinhart handed her the ceremonial pipe which she lighted with a thin piece of wood in the flame of the coal oil lamp. Acrid smoke of wild tobacco billowed from its bowl. After several puffs, she handed the pipe to Don. Don puffed it, coughing as the harsh smoke filled his lungs. The old woman took it from him, placing it on the table beside the watch.

Soon, her shoulders began to quake. The tremble continued up her neck until her eyes closed and head tilted backwards. Her wrinkled lips parted and emitted a moan that sounded like wind whistling through branches. Trembling enveloped her, and she shook in a wild paroxysm of movement. Her head slammed against the table so hard, Raymond thought she must have killed herself.

When Don moved to help, Steinhart’s upraised palm signaled him back. Her head thrashed against the table before finally surrendering to a few feeble palpitations. Finally, she was quiet, her motion ceasing completely. A voice spoke, her lips unmoving. The voice, coming from the bowels of her soul, sounded masculine and tinny, as if awakened from a long sleep.

“I plunged from the sky, embraced by icy blue water. Now I am free and can say goodbye little brother. Live your life in peace.”

The voice died away like an echo in an empty cavern as they watched, mollified and frozen in place. Sam stopped drumming and filled a ladle with cool water. He and Steinhart helped the old woman back into the chair and held the water to her lips until she opened her eyes.

Steinhart hugged the old woman and gave her a pouch of tobacco, then exchanged a silent farewell as he motioned them to leave. Raymond was the last out, stealing one last glance at the old woman before shutting the door behind him. He noticed the cat beneath her feet had only one eye, green and alive. In the cheery outer room, Steinhart gave Sam and Rachel twenty dollars each. Sam nodded and faded into the darkness.

“That’s the strangest experience I’ve ever had,” Pamela said, returning along the dirt path to the Land Rover.

“Amen to that,” Julie said.

Raymond asked, “What’s the story on those people?”

“The old woman is a witch, as is her granddaughter Rachel and the two little girls. They suffer from genetic epilepsy, and the foot abnormality you noticed. Navajos call the epilepsy moth madness—witch frenzy. This is because in the throes of a seizure, they move their limbs like the wings of a moth near a flame. The Navajo believe women possessed by moth madness are magical and able to converse with spirits. What you saw is its own explanation.”

“Fascinating,” Pamela said. “Whose voice did we hear and what did the message mean?”

“Maybe you should ask your husband,” Steinhart said.

Confused by the Wolf’s reply, Pamela put her hand on Don’s shoulder. “Don, are you all right?”

His usual joviality had flown out the window. “The watch I gave the old woman was my older brother’s, a tail gunner during the war. His plane crashed over Germany, his body never recovered. We were close, and I never told him goodbye when he left to go overseas.”

Pamela started to comment. Caught instead between reality and a dusty desert road, she reclined against the bouncing seat of the Land Rover. With his arm around Julie, Raymond gazed at the sky. As he did, a shooting star lighted the darkness before disappearing forever behind a distant mesa.

END


Eric Wilder is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series. If you liked Moth Madness, please check out more of his writing on his AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages

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