Darkness of the God – beginning

posted by amber

BEGINNING OF DARKNESS OF THE GOD

 

1. Keja, September 12, Capilla de Chacal, Mexico

            The drought had lasted two years and so the campsite, called Hermosa Playa or Beautiful Lakeside, looked out over a parched chalky depression that once, according to the motel and campsite manager, had been Lago Verde.  But it didn’t matter, they weren’t

there for the scenery.

            Keja, working from a small bucket of water, finished washing her side of the family’s re-fitted school bus.  Mitch, her big brother, had finished his side nearly half an hour ago but she took longer, being shorter and needing to stand on a ladder to reach all the way up.  The water evaporated as soon as she wiped it on, but it did the job.  No longer covered with yellow dust, the deep blue paint job looked nearly as beautiful as when it was first done.  The airbrushed designs glowed – stars and moons and imaginary planets, some of them with rings, the landscape with pyramids and Jesus, walking across the desert, his light blue robes billowing out behind him, with a magic eye gazing calmly from the cloud-filled sky above.  Best of all was the bright golden sphinx which blazed across the front of the bus, with the words “Psychic Advisor,” printed in reverse lettering so people driving in front of them could read it clearly in their rearview mirror. 

            Keja never complained about having to wash the front of the bus, with all the ground-in bugs, while Mitch got off lightly with the back.  All the back had on it was a silly-looking hand, the one thing that her father’s assistant, Valentin, had allowed Papa to paint.  She much preferred the Sphinx.

            Keja poured her soapy water out on the dry dirt next to their campsite, hoping Mr. Clean wouldn’t prove harmful to the small cacti struggling to grow there.

            She’d heard a vehicle pull in next to theirs while she was working on the other side and now, having a chance to check it out, she was pleased to see that – unlike all the other campers at the Hermosa Playa – these people had children. 

            A ragged little girl, very unhappy looking, jounced a small baby while two older men set up a tent beside the beat-up dust-colored van.  It was some kind of military tent, thick canvas painted with camouflage colors.  Another man, dark-skinned and oddly passive, stood near the tent while two women and several more children waited inside the van, barely visible through the half-open sliding door.

            She could tell it was hot in there, sweat shone on their faces, but perhaps it wasn’t as hot as being outside under the Mexican sun nearly at its noonday height.  Keja stood in a small patch of shade cast by an awning over the kitchen window of her family’s bus and wondered how so many people could travel in one small almost-windowless vehicle.

            Everyone in the campsite was watching.  The old people in the motor homes on the other side of the lane were peering out their windshields while the manager of the motel stood on his vine-shaded terrace and stared.  They’d even attracted the group of Mexican children who’d appeared earlier, as if by magic out of the baking landscape.  Her father had chased them away, telling them in his excellent Spanish that they would get no handouts.  Normally he’d give them candy or fruit, since he loved children and the good will never hurt their business.  But they had nothing to spare.

            Hearing the bus door slam, she went around to see who’d come out.  It was Papa, dressed in black with a red sash and a big cowboy hat.  “Hippies,” he sneered, nodding in the direction of their new neighbors.

            Her uncle, sitting at a picnic table with his guitar, said, “Yeah.”  He was dressed much as her father was but he didn’t look as good because his stomach hung over his belt and hid the shiny silver buckle.  His motor home was parked next to their bus, backed into the site so that their doors faced each other and the awnings touched, providing the two families with a sheltered common space for eating and socializing.

            “We should see if they want us to knock those dents out of that van, maybe put on some paint,” Uncle Sandor said, but Papa replied, “They can’t afford it.”

            She wanted to watch the people some more, maybe talk to the little girl, but her father called, “Let’s go,” and she had to climb into Valentin’s truck with everyone else and drive into Capilla de Chacal, the nearby town, to put up posters for their cine ambulante, their travelling show of cowboy movies.

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            When they got back, it was siesta time, the campsite quiet and without activity, even the brown van and the tent.  Everyone in her family lay down for a nap.  They were tired because they hadn’t finished working last night until after 2 a.m., taking down their big tent and the folding chairs and putting away the movie equipment, then they’d had a late dinner at last night’s campsite, slept for a few hours before getting up to drive here to be in time to promote tonight’s movie.

            She wasn’t tired so she went outside to sit beside the bus.  She’d slept through the drive, jostled back and forth comfortingly in her bunk.  Mitch always complained when she did that.  His bunk was the top one and the ride up there was too rough on Mexican roads with the bad suspension of their old bus.  When he complained, Mama would scold, “Well, you can’t have the bottom bunk.  It wouldn’t be proper for Keja to sleep above you,” by which they all knew, to Keja’s embarrassment, that she’d already started her periods, although she was only eleven. 

            A hot gritty wind blew through the campsite, rattling their awning and momentarily pressing the wrinkles out of the green and gray tent.  Keja checked her watch.  It was just after three.  She thought about going inside to get a snack but before she’d decided what she wanted to eat, she heard the baby start to cry.  A moment later, a small brown hand carefully eased the tent’s zipper up, then the girl emerged from the tent, holding the baby.

            She squatted down in the shade of the van, jiggling the child, trying to soothe its cries which were loud and high-pitched, more like screaming than crying.  She gathered the baby close against her chest and calmly closed her eyes, despite the baby’s shrieking and struggling.  In a few seconds, to Keja’s surprise, the baby stopped crying.  The whole campsite suddenly seemed quieter.  The only noise she now heard was the buzzing of flies and the dry whisk of grasshoppers, plus the soft rumble of Papa’s snoring.

            The girl knocked quietly on the side of the van.  The door slid open and she handed the baby to someone inside.  The door closed.  Once relieved of the baby, she was at a loss, kicking rocks around the campsite, tugging at her tattered skirt.

            “You can come sit over here,” Keja called, in Spanish.  “It’s shady.”

            The girl came over, shyly keeping her eyes averted.  Keja thought she was only five or six, but as she got nearer she saw that even though the girl was small and slight, she was probably older than that.  Her face had a look of maturity, of adult difficulties faced and childish play put aside, reminding Keja of the way she’d felt when her periods began and her parents decided it was time for her to quit school, no matter how much she’d loved it, and start contributing to the family livelihood.

            “Hi, I’m Keja,” she said, in English.

            “O, mi nombre es Ana,” the girl replied slowly, in strangely accented Spanish.  At last she looked up and Keja saw she had startling green eyes, pale and beautiful against her light brown cheeks.

            Keja knew Spanish – it was a necessary language for fortunetelling in Miami, useful when she helped Mama in the ofisa, welcoming clients, offering tea or lemonade.  What Spanish her parents taught her had been augmented by her schoolmates, many of them from Puerto Rico or Mexico or Cuba.

            “Are you Mexican?” she asked in Spanish.  “We’re from Miami.”  She saw the look of puzzlement on the girl’s face and added, “That’s in the United States.”

            “Oh, the United States.”  The girl nodded.  “We might go there.”

            “Where did you come from?”

            “Um . . . Argentina.  We came from Argentina.”

            If Keja had been telling Ana’s fortune, she would have said this was a lie, since the girl looked right into her eyes when she said this, not even blinking.  Mama told her that was always the sign of a lie.  More than ever Keja had the feeling this little girl was in trouble.

            “How old are you?” she asked.

            “Six,” the girl replied, and lapsed into silence.

            Aware that the burden of keeping the conversation alive was entirely hers, Keja commented, “You sure have a lot of people in that little van.”

            “Yes,” Ana said and, for once, returned with a question of her own, almost as if she was trying to deflect Keja’s curiosity about her fellow travellers.  “How many are there on your bus?”

            “Oh, not too many.  My brother and me, plus Papa and Mama.” 

            Something about this answer brought quick tears into Ana’s green eyes.  Mama always said that if the client starts to cry, you know you’re near the heart.  Ana wiped her face with a grimy hand and demanded bluntly, “Why are you dressed like that?”

            Everyone in the family was outfitted in Western dress, the better to promote their movies, except for Mama, Aunt Pavlena and her cousin’s pregnant wife, who’d all be dressed for reading palms that evening.  Keja explained the cine ambulante to Ana.  Some things she had to repeat several times – Ana’s knowledge of Spanish had big gaps in it, as did her knowledge of the world.  Amazingly, she’d never been to a movie and had only seen TV at a neighbor’s place.

            “That’s John Wayne on that poster and the one next to it is Clint Eastwood.  They’re both really big movie stars,” she said, pointing to the advertising on the side of her uncle’s motor home.  “Papa’s really handsome.  Sometimes people think he’s a movie star.  They ask for his autograph and want to know which movies he was in.”

            All the time Keja had been watching Ana, she hadn’t seen her smile or laugh.  Now, at last, she was rewarded with a slight brightening of the girl’s expression.

            “What’s all that stuff painted on your bus?” Ana asked. 

            “That’s for the fortunetelling.  We’ll drive the bus into Capilla de Chacal tonight and Mama and my aunt and my cousin’s wife will read people’s palms.”   

            As Ana didn’t understand what this meant, Keja explained in greater detail.  “They look at people’s hands and tell people things about themselves – their problems and their hopes, plus what’s going to happen to them.”

            Frowning, Ana asked, “Do they touch the people?”  She seemed excited.

            “Yes.”

            Aware she was at last impressing her new friend, Keja went on, “I can do it too.  Do you want me to read your palm?”

            “Oh yes,” Ana breathed and held out her hand.

            Keja took Ana’s palm, suddenly aware she’d have to wash before she touched anything else, especially food.  Being a gaji, Ana naturally wouldn’t know how to keep clean, even if she looked clean, which she didn’t.  Granny always used to scold Keja for being friends with gaje, as if they were deliberately dirty, which Keja knew wasn’t true – they just didn’t know – and as if she’d had much choice. 

            Visiting Granny in the hospital before she died, Keja had asked forgiveness for all the times she’d worried her and promised she’d live properly, obey her husband when she got one, and teach her children all the things she’d been taught by her Granny.  She planned to get married younger than Mama had done and have lots of children.  That way, none of them would be as lonely as she often was.

            Granny hadn’t understood her loneliness, and she’d never believed that Keja was always careful not to go too far in her friendships with gaje children, to keep from revealing family secrets.  This game, fortunetelling, she’d played many times and never let her friends know about the tricks she used, the things she’d learned from Mama.

            Most fortunetellers could figure out lots of things about their clients, even before speaking to them, but her mother was the best.  Other Roma sometimes came by the ofisa in Miami just to hang around behind the curtain and listen while her mother worked.  She saw and interpreted small details of dress and manner, but most of all she smelled things.  She could smell if the person had a new baby at home, or what kind of medicine they were taking, what they liked to eat and drink and smoke, if they drove a new car or exercised a lot, all sorts of things.  When Keja learned about Sherlock Holmes in school, she’d thought of Mama.  Like Mr. Holmes, Mama developed theories that astounded people – clients and Roma both – with their accuracy. 

            The only way she could be better would be if she could really read peoples’ minds, but nobody could do that.

            Keja told her friends’ fortunes for fun and sometimes schoolmates would talk their mothers into going to see Mama, which brought in welcome money.  In Ana’s case, Keja agreed with Papa, she didn’t think the people in the van were a source of potential income but maybe, by reading her palm, she could get Ana to tell her what her trouble was.

            “This is your travel line,” she said.  “It’s very long – you’ve come a long way but you still have a long way to go.”

            Ana sighed, as if with boredom or disappointment at such obvious revelation but Keja was only getting started.  She added boldly, “But you didn’t come from Argentina.”

            Ana snatched her hand back.  “How do you know that?” she demanded.

            “I’m a Roma.  We can see things.  I’d be able to tell you more if I had a crystal ball, like Mama does.”

            “Your mother can read people’s minds?”

            Nodding confidently, Keja said, “Yes.”

            Those green eyes now held a strange expression – doubt or speculation, or both.  “Let me try to read your palm.”

            “If you like.”

            Ana took her hand, palm up, but instead of looking at it or even at Keja, she held it between both her hands and sat back, eyes closed, looking the way she did when she’d quieted the screaming baby.  After what felt like a long time, Keja uncomfortable to be on the receiving end for once, wondering what her fidgeting would reveal about her, Ana let go and said sadly, “No, you can’t read minds.  And I don’t think your mother can either.”

            With a deep sigh and a determined look, she went on, “Keja isn’t really your name.  You have two other names – the one your family calls you – violin or something – and your real name, it starts with ‘s’.  And there’s something wrong with your lungs.”

            She dropped Keja’s hand, asking earnestly, “If I helped your mother read people’s minds, would she pay me money?  We need to buy milk for Bini, but we haven’t got any money left.”  Then she began to cry, her face contorted, tears leaving tracks through the dust on her cheeks, her thin chest heaving convulsively.  Keja, shocked by Ana’s knowledge, aware at last how those awed clients of Mama’s must feel, was overcome with pity.  She hugged the smaller girl, stroking her long black hair.

            “Don’t cry,” she crooned.  “I’ll see if my Papa can help you.”