la guadaña amorosa
by Samir Sirk Morató
I was thirteen years old when Daniel “Ardilla” Peña and Sonia Peña asked us to cure the germinating lovesickness of Martín Green. Ardilla was Martín's lifelong best friend, but he had just produced a colicky baby with Sonia, so he couldn't tend to his friend for longer than a few days. Ardilla was just shy of twenty-three and eons away from good handwriting, but abuela and I could read his note well enough:
Martín was bedridden beneath a love enchantment. Because of his wife and baby, Ardilla could not take care of Martín. He needed us to step in. Could we come right away?
Though the handwriting was Ardilla's, I sensed Sonia's presence in the correct spelling of “enchantment,” the pointed mention of a wife and baby, and the bloody fingerprint on the paper's edge. But her strange one-sided hatred of Martín carried concern now. That stirred my curiosity. If Sonia was worried about Martín, something was very wrong.
Let's go, mija, Abuela said.
It was early summer then, and the brittle outlines of the desert softened beneath evening yucca blooms and fine combs of cholla spines. Abuela bundled me onto her horse with grave urgency. She packed her satchel with a sage bundle, a candle, a novena card, a rosary, and a scarlet Santa Muerte figurine before handing it to me, then leaping onto our horse. We trotted off in a tizzy. A half chewed sunflower seed still stuck in my cheek. I spat its shell into the dusty road as we set off.
Though I longed to step into abuela's boots in every way possible, and I duplicated her twin braids, spells, voluminous shawls, and gruff, tobacco-stained ways of wording, I did not understand the stress that gnarled abuela's time-tanned hands. Some girl had enchanted Martín. So what? That concept seemed sweeter to me than the tin of bonbons abuela had packed in her skirt pockets; the perfume of it bathed my nose and excited my imagination.
A secret sliver of me wished that I had cast the love spell instead. If Martín Green loved me, it would mean endless trinkets, stupid bromas, piggyback rides on a broad back, and pounds of Mexican wedding cookies at our union. I wouldn't need to share him and his nice lashes with the rest of the kids in the pueblo; I wouldn't need to turn in early like a little girl or obey older Señoras. As Mrs. Gata Constanza Green, I'd know my magic was strong and my husband was kind and I'd get to wear an old wedding ring the way abuela did.
But Martín always laughed and ruffled my hair when I sat on his shoulders and I proclaimed that I was grown, and I couldn't do more than purify rooms, beg Santa Muerte for guidance, and bless herbs, so it was some other, older girl who had slipped the snare around Martín's ankle.
As our nag kicked up piñon dust, I toyed with the cracker jack ring hung around my neck. I loathed that we were on our way to vanquish a dusk-soft spell that did not need vanquishing. Any small envies I carried drowned beneath my fondness for Martín. Now that the veil of grief had lifted from his shy face and deft, clay golden hands, he seemed ready for love. But we were about to steal it from him. That was no way to repay the generosity of someone I adored.
Why are we going to ruin this spell? Martín should be happy someone shot one at him. He's got no family. He's lucky a girl wants him this bad. Ardilla acts like he's dying.
Because he is, mija.
Abuela jammed her ancient, crimson cowboy boots into the stirrups. The nag's crooked back swayed, as did the junipers cloaking us. My own red boots, now a size too small, squeezed my feet. I chewed at my lip and vowed to keep telling abuela they fit. No other pair in the zapatería right now looked as similar to hers.
He can't be dying. It's just a love spell.
Abuela shook her head.
You're too young to understand how agonizing love can be, especially in the hands of a lonely bruja. Power in empty hands makes tears the choice from love, which makes it poison. This is not one of your schoolyard crushes, Gata. But you're about to learn.
We rode until the gnarled woods turned to brush, to sunset-streaked sand and the fallen leftovers of barbed wire fence crushed into sagebrush, until the lechusas called from the mountains and the Green's adobe hut came into view. It squatted on the desolate ground, laid low by pain. Even when Señora Green had been alive a year ago, the house had always looked that way. The sagging barbed wire fences and chicken scratch scabs around it caked the house in a lonely sort of leprosy. Nothing but the Greens had grown here. I thanked Niña Dorada that the house abuela and I had radiated hope from its slanted stoop and garden, that our footsteps gave the adobe a heartbeat instead of haunting its walls. More than anything, I felt sad for Martín.
Ardilla waited for us in the yard. He flew to us the instant abuela's toe touched the ground. His twisting hands fluttered around him. Sweat pinned a loose curl to his forehead. It stained all the crevices of his shirt too. Fascinated fear pricked me. I had never seen a man so aged by his own wetness. Whatever spell had Martín in its grips was squeezing his life juice out for the desert to drink.
I'm glad you're here, doña. Martín is doing poorly.
Did you do as I asked? Do you know who cast their eye on him?
Ardilla shook his head. No. I wish I did. But--
Martín wasn't close to many people. Ardilla swept a wet curl off his forehead. Not besides me.
What a lie! I was close to Ardilla! All of us pueblo brats were. Maybe Ardilla was too out of his mind to realize he was being self-centered. Something about the way he tucked his hair back reminded me of the many ways hands arrowed and looped between Martín and Ardilla when they were drunk on warm beers and talking so close it verged on conspiracy, but I couldn't place what. I just knew that Sonia would have hated it. Tension continued wringing my guts.
Do you know who did it? Ardilla rasped. Do you have any idea, doña?
He continued juddering around her until he saw me watching, then hooked his thumbs into his belt loops and tried to straighten. I almost told him not to puke. The close presence of his friend and the distant beacon of his family stretched him across coals. Abuela hmm'd.
I have an inkling. He's close to Trina Sanchez, isn't he?
Ardilla looked as if she had named a bug. I didn't know why she was mentioning Trina either. Trina Sanchez barely held space in my mind. She was a twiggy loner with a big bust, a sun-stained migrant grape and cherry harvester that cycled through with the seasons, always living in shacks outside of town and tending to a reclusive grandmother who spoke no Spanish. Trina was a clumsy girl with thin, piercing eyes and sandpaper palms. We all knew Martín; none of us knew Trina.
His mother hired her. Sure. He worked near her. That's it. But that kind of woman… can't love.
Ardilla looked like he wanted to spit out a word that he couldn't. Not in my presence. Abuela restrained a flex of her jaw and cast the bonbons from her pocket into my awaiting palms.
So we have nothing then. Come, mija. We must try and work.
Ardilla loped behind us as I loaded Abuela's bags upon my back. He wanted to grasp us in his terrified talons, but we were Martín's sole help and his wife needed him. That made halting us unbearable. Out here, there was only him, Martín, and the hot wind. Martín's cracked doorstep had not felt another tender foot for years beyond his mother's, or maybe Ardilla's. Ardilla licked his lips as Abuela and I strode towards the door.
Are you really going to take your granddaughter in? A child shouldn't see someone like this.
She won't be a child much longer. Abuela swept her skirts around her with finality. Dignity. As a curandera and a woman, she'll have to learn how to deal with these things. With me, she can take it.
Ardilla shuddered. My heart trembled in trepidation as he fell away, leaving us to march into Martín's tiny home.
Take care of him! Ardilla called, small and far away.
The adobe walls funneled us through a paltry living room, then to two closed bedroom doors. I smelled prickly pear, sickly cloying and sweet, outside the first one before we even stopped there. The fragrance turned my stomach. Abuela cast me a look to exorcise my fidgeting.
Whatever you see, no matter what happens, you must behave. Be strong. Be good. Loving skins us all, especially when it's malformed. Don't humiliate Martín while he is in great pain. We have all been fools like this.
I imitated her even tone, but I didn't understand. In her eyes, I saw that she knew I didn't. But I was here today to learn. Abuela knocked on the door. It creaked open. Together, we entered.
Martín Green was gigantic, a teenage farmer meant for wrestling disobedient burros and slinging six-foot ristras over his shoulders without them brushing the sand – a man in my eyes, back then – but when I saw him that day, he was a fallen pillar. A huffing, sweating boy that lay crumpled in sheets. He took up such little space horizontally.
Abuela limped to his bedside, her heels clacking. Martín's hazy pupils followed her. His shirt lay open across his breast. An expanse of bruises littered his collar in bright, swollen knots. Stiff, vertical needles swayed on Martín's chest with every one of his ragged inhales. I couldn't understand. Had he fallen into a cactus patch? Were those chest hairs?
You're in trouble today, Martín. Abuela palmed his forehead. Your father's good looks may be the death of you.
Martín chuckled. The sound emerged wet: the sound of skinned nopal petals squishing together. His breathing seesawed. As I watched, another needle popped through his skin. Again, the smell of sweet, rotten prickly pear clogged the room. My guts twisted. I fumbled to unpack abuela's bags and set up the Niña Roja altar for her on Martín's barren nightstand.
Nothing new there.
Abuela's hand drifted to his trembling wrist. She pinched his pulse between her fingers, frowning. I wished the sage smoke I spread around the room would stop clouding my vision. In another sense, I was grateful. The purified curtain it cast around me kept me from seeing the tall boy who bought me candies and glass bottle sodas laid low the way he was.
Martín, do you know who cast this on you?
Martín closed his eyes. His gurgled breathing continued. I finished my cleansing prayer and hurried to put Niña Roja and candles on the new altar.
Yeah. I do. Lied to Ardilla about that. Didn't want him to get in a fight or nothing. Sonia's stressed enough.
Who bewitched you?
Can't tell you.
This is a serious spell. Abuela pointed to his chest. It's not just taken root in your body, it's blooming. The Peñas should've sent for me a week ago. If you don't tell me who did this, you may die. Is your tongue tied?
Not by magic.
As I unpacked the bonbons for Niña Roja, I struggled not to ogle Martín. Agony stifled every heave of his chest. It toyed with the twitching joints of his fingers. How could the boy who did not cry at being spurred by a rooster or turning his ankle in a topo's hole look this way now? His diminished presence was a crime against nature.
Trina did this, Martín confessed. Was partially an accident. She didn't mean to cast something this mean.
I bit on the surprise between my teeth. It tasted of copper. Abuela's expression stayed unchanged.
Don't hurt Trina. Please. We grew up together. She and her grandma always stayed with us during the harvest season. Trinita helped me bury mamá. I helped her feed her grandma. We shared wages and secrets and chicle ever since we were seven. I love her.
His sigh was a rustle of rain-soaked cholla rattling together. Tears glossed his lashes.
I don't want the town to punish Trina. She's got no one now. It'd kill her. Don't hurt her, doña. I'm begging you.
Gata, start praying, Abuela commanded.
I swallowed my fragile trepidation, took the rosary and novena into my hands, then slid to my knees. My overalls did not cushion my bones from the floor. Martín quivered now, sinking deeper into the bed.
Oh Niña Roja, I murmured, my elegant, lovely Sister, you hold the powers of passion and hatred in your heart, and death and deliverance in your hands...
Abuela assessed Martín.
If you succumbed to this spell, it would save your life, she said. All you need to do is confess your love to Trina and have it reciprocated. Obviously, she'd accept your confession. Then your lungs would clear. Why die instead of marrying and producing children with her? Is she married? Is it because she's an immigrant? A migrant? I know how your mamita felt about those.
Prayer and sticky breathing rattled against the adobe walls. I climbed to the next rosary bead. Monsoon season came and went before Martín whispered a reply.
I don't want to say it while Gatita's in here. I don't want her to think of me differently.
I faltered in my second prayer. Tears threatened to ruin my vision. Martín was everyone's gentle, goofy favorite. I owed him all my summer entertainment. He was the pueblo's primo. If he confessed to murder right now, I wouldn't adore him any less. I did not want whatever horrible power I had over him that made him look so small, so scared. Abuela's glare was unneeded.
I won't think differently of you, Martín. I promise. I fumbled with my rosary, pulse whining in my ears, hot and urgent. I promise on the cracker jack ring you gave me last summer.
That ring stuck like a burr between my shirt and overalls. It burned against me. Martín lingered in his silence longer than a drought before he spoke, tender and fragile.
I don't love women the way Trina wants me to love her.
Abruptly, I thought of Ardilla and Martín loading bags of feed into their boss' truck together, both slick with evaporating sweat and laughter, their dark eyes and dark hair brimming with sunlight, only four years between them. Sonia had watched from the soda fountain stairs then, a distant shadow. It had taken years for her to get closer. Abuela took Martín's quavering hand.
She didn't know. What's done is already done. Trina's the only person I have left. I won't hurt her.
You'll hurt her and Daniel alike if you die.
That's a price we'll all need to pay. Martín heaved. They'll bury me before I do what Ardilla did. I'm not marrying someone to hide; I'm not making another Sonia out of anyone. My mamá didn't. I won't either. I'd be worse than dead if I did that.
My gasp broke my third prayer to Niña Roja. The candle extinguished. No one had offended her into abandoning Martín, but there was nothing more she could do. In his last soaking breath, Martín bloomed. A riot of blossoms exploded from his mouth in an incoming tide, then his cleft throat: yellow prickly pear blossoms, tall-stemmed sotols, pink wildfires of cholla, globs of scarlet gilia. They mounted higher than Sierra Blanca then kept climbing.
Martín's breast split across his heart to free the next flood of flowers. Bone-white fleabane, fat-and-bruise-colored feather dalea, enamel-shiny white peppergrass, vein blue penstemon, and tender-flesh globe mallow all burst from his body, all covered in a filmy shroud of birth, cloaked Martín's bed. They swayed in the wind of his final breath, beautiful, fresh, and glimmering with bloody life. Offal stench blended into their perfume.
I could not cry, or shield my eyes, or clean the blood flecks from Niña Roja or my cheeks. I didn't have time to. The desert blossoms when watered – never slowly, never gently, always after a passionate downpour – and it had done the same here, too. My sole blessing was that I couldn't see Martín beneath all he had grown. Love, in its truest form, was fertile soil.
Abuela wiped my face. When my shock came down from the high, high tower of flowers, she held me while I sobbed.
Cherry season had failed to come this year. So had the rain. The land stayed as hard as the shriveled fruits on orchard trees. It bore elk ivory and brown grass at the sky as dry pits peered from slits in desiccated cherry skin. Abuela warned me not to be hasty, but I still crept out of my room at the witch hour and took off for the low skeletons of the orchard.
The loose ends of Martín's death all became candle wicks in my belly, burning from every fray, forcing me to walk. I threaded through coyote song and centipede-laden rocks to reach the cherry trees. All the while, I prayed to the Niña Negra figurine in my pocket for vengeance and counted off prayers on my rosary. The sixth prayer hallowed my lungs as the orchard came into sight. Trina Sanchez would explain her crimes to me even if it killed her.
I found Trina sprawled in a thistle patch on the outskirts of the orchard, her hair tangled around her neck, her torn shirt around her shoulders. When I saw the moonbeam sliding off her stung, sunburned nape, I slowed. My anger curdled into fear. She looked no more alive than the round headstone beneath her hands.
Minutes or hours passed through the thistle murmurs around us. I wasn't sure which. The thistles towered above us at Martín's height. Trina spoke about the time I realized I couldn't.
This is no place for a little cat.
Hearing Martín's nickname for me in Trina's mouth reignited my ire.
I'm not a little cat, or a girl. I'm a woman and a witch. But not like you. I clenched my fists. You murderer.
Trina arched, a snake trying to step from the ground on feet it did not have, before her weight fell on the headstone again. She twisted to face me. I loathed the tear tracks I saw on her cheeks as much as the lacerations on her skin and the purple petals tangled in her hair. I would not feel sorry for her. How could she grieve like this after murdering Martín? She was no self-flagellating saint.
I know that Martín's death is my fault. I'm sorry for it. I'll be sorry for the rest of my life.
Sweat beaded on the rosary in my hand. I was ready to pray my seventh prayer to the Niña Negra in my pocket, ready to chew black licorice for her and beg for Trina's expulsion from the pueblo at the end of a pitchfork or exorcism, but when I looked at crumpled Trina I could not do it. Not for Martín or abuela.
How did you mess up this badly? I thought you loved him!
Prove it. I bet you know nothing about him.
Sonia's proud voice echoed through my head, describing Ardilla's favorite candies and little gestures to conceal the pathetic emptiness under her collection of baubles. Despite Martín's rambling, I bet that Trina was the same. If she really loved and knew him, she couldn't have done this. I sucked air through my teeth to cool the flush plaguing my face.
Trina studied me from where she lay. As weak as grief kept her, it did not sap the corded muscle from her arms, or vanish the hard pears of her calves. All of Trina's softnesses beyond her breasts stayed tucked away under bars of overworked flesh. She had a body meant for caging itself. If Trina wanted to break me against a trunk of a cherry tree she could. She glared at me. I glared back at her. Inside, I trembled. On the outside, I stood tall. Constanzas were always supposed to stand tall.
Trina's gaze broke. Its shattered halves slid into the thistle and vanished from sight. She wrapped her arms around the headstone in a hollow cradle.
Martín isn't even cool yet, but you're already asking for his innards. Are you vultures ever satisfied?
Before I could explode, Trina began whispering.
Because I love Martín Green, I know that until he was sixteen, he had nightmares unless I slept on the floor next to him and held his hand. I know he worried that his violent conception had tainted him, so he was always kind, even when he didn’t want to be. Martín bandaged my scrapes for years but never mocked me for tripping. He held me behind the cholla while I cried over my grandmother’s worsening mind, or the attention drawn to my horrible, ripening body. He sent me letters when I was traveling. He encouraged my brujería. He taught me how to defend myself.
Trina’s splintered nails combed at her locks. I fought the horrible confusion thrashing in my heart. Now Señora Green’s shape hung heavy in there too, moaning in pain from the invisible wounds in her mind, casting worried, hateful looks at any outsiders who dared to enter her home. Trina’s unseen abuela writhed in her shadow.
Together, Martín and I held our rage deep inside of us so neither of us destroyed our ill, broken old women. We whispered about our guilty longing to let their languages die in revenge for the ways they hurt us. We unearthed each other’s ugliest roots. That’s what love is, Gata Constanza. Love was me nursing Señora Green for Martín while she cursed me. Love was Martín comforting me when he couldn’t bear me. Love is a merciless yoke you choose to carry.
I did not want to look at Trina. She knew what Martín looked like naked, but I hadn’t, and she had undressed Martín in front of me. All of these bleeding secrets shamed me. Trina’s lips curled back, showing her daffodil teeth. Her self-evisceration reeked of victory. The headstone crouched beneath her in silent judgement.
You may be a witch, but you're no woman.
By now, I gripped Niña Negra in one hand and my plastic ring in the other. I held on for dear life.
This still doesn’t make sense. You were all Martín had and he said he was all you had, the way my abuela is all I have. You don't kill people you love like that by accident! You’re lying about something!
Yelling doesn't change what happened. You're still too young and wrapped in a homeland that cares for parts of you to fully understand how I loved Martín. Trina's voice dropped to a stinging mutter. You haven't felt a thousand embers under your skin when someone's eyes light on you. You know nothing of being the last pine cone under a blighted tree, waiting for wildfire hands to open you, to caress you into a different shape so you can take root. Love like that is desperate. It breaks. It tears. It binds.
Trina tipped her chin up at me and rested it on the headstone, the hunger in her destroying her all the while.
The blooms told me you prayed to Niña Roja. I bet you know little of the things she oversees beyond love in a trinket ring.
My face flushed with tears and humiliation. I didn't know which was hotter. All that Trina alluded to sounded filthy and forbidden. They felt even more so because of my partial understanding. The shame that my ignorance fueled raged above my fury, then far above Trina, who stayed shattered on the earth. Her sorrow kept her so low I couldn't even spit on her. She looked girlish to me – even younger than Martín. But all those sordid words had still sprung from her lips. Confusion wracked me.
You should've told your flowers to stop when Martín mentioned... men. Or were you going to force him to marry you anyway?
Trina's howled laugh made me trip backward. I bristled in terror. Trina smashed a fist into the carpet of thistle heads around her, spiking lacy sprawls of cuts into her hand.
If Martín had confessed that to me, I would have let him go. I would've eaten my heart and let the flowers bind us as siblings. He would have lived. But my flowers need to hear words in my ears to stop, and Martín's mother had him convinced that all other people do is steal. That they could give, but no one else could, so they needed to guard themselves. I was stupid. I believed Martín thought I was different.
Trina pointed a broken finger at me.
Your people instilled that fear in her when they drove her tribe into school tombs and onto broken bits of land. When they took from her even as they planted Martín in her. I bet your abuela didn't tell you that. You do work with death.
My people! All I knew was that "my people" spoke Spanish; that my people made bridges of their bodies. Uncertainty twisted my nerves. Abuela had never mentioned such hereditary intricacies to me. But she would never keep such a thing secret. Would she? My trust in her turned me inside out.
At least my grandmother is here! I cried, frightened of Trina's accusations, frightened of my inability to call her a liar. Where's yours, huh?
Trina cupped the headstone. All at once, her wild gaze sobered. It looked like a dark joke had fallen on her shoulders. The moon bled onto us.
My grandmother is dead. An unwilling smile yanked at Trina's mouth. If she could see me now she would feel vindicated. I worked myself raw at orchards, vineyards, and altars to feed us, but whenever I cursed or consecrated anything, she always said the same thing. 'Oni mo jiu-kachi azami no hana.' Even a devil is pretty at eighteen.
I thought of the rough, leering men that worked the orchards, and how developed Trina Sanchez had been as long as I'd known of her. I thought of Señora Green resentfully supping on out-of-season poppies and yarrow to soothe the unseen sickness in her, and the strength it took to heal a beloved who hated you. In that moment I saw Sonia in Trina's face, and how far away the men they loved stood, even when they were together. Against my will, I convulsed in pity.
When Trina rose from the ground with immense effort, no longer broken onto her belly, I clutched Niña Negra close and hung back. I did not want to learn more about love from Trina. Nor did I want to hurt her. Even if I despised her.
Are you going to die too?
Trina's wretched expression and raw, grief-eaten body scared me. What if she died before Martín's funeral? What if she didn't come at all? I couldn't bear the idea of the Peñas attending Martín's wake while looking seventy miles away. At least Trina's love would keep her on the canyon rim between Martín and us. At least she would stand next to me there.
Trina pushed back a stream of her hair. Her fingers left bloody streaks on her temple. The moon dressed her wounds.
No. I want to die, but I won't. It would be a waste of Martín's memory. He wouldn't have me in death anyway. I must carry him with me. Trina smiled, almost alive. I'll see you when the cholla blooms, little cat. Don't look for me.
Before I could say that I knew Martín would have her, even if it wasn't the way she wanted to have him – because all of the tender desert blooms proved it, because I knew what love looked like, even if I wasn't grown myself – Trina was gone. The dead orchard took her shape and broke it into pieces of lonesome, scattered light. Then there was only me, Niña Negra, and the moon-kissed thistles, whispering the last secrets among themselves that I didn't understand.
I was no longer thirteen.
Samir Sirk Morató is a mestize scientist and artist. Their recent field season in New Mexico made a big impression on them. Some of Samir’s work can be found in The Hellebore Issue #5, Catapult Magazine, and The Sandy River Review 2020 edition. They are on Twitter @bolivibird and on Instagram @spicycloaca.