(Picking up from where we left off….)
Once inside the house, I was shown to the kitchen where I met Maruja, the cook, housekeeper, and unofficial nurse for Beltran. She kept the house clean and running, made sure my uncle got fed and saw to his personal needs. She was short, and had long black hair, like my aunt, but that’s where the similarities stopped. She was of a browner skin tone and had a rounder, endomorphic body type. She looked to be in her mid thirties and not entirely unattractive, but rather plain when compared to Lupe, who was so striking. She was friendly and polite to everyone, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that behind that obliging smile of hers was a scorpion ready to strike at the first sign of weakness.
After a quick tour around the rest of the house I was shown to my room, where I was encouraged to unpack my bags and freshen up a bit before dinner. Later, as I sat on the chair by the antique vanity in the southwest corner of the room brushing out my windswept hair, my aunt suddenly appeared behind me and gently wrapped her arms around my neck; peering over my left shoulder into the mirror, she smiled sweetly and told me how glad she was to finally have me in her home.
“I have always wanted a daughter of my own,” she said, “but because of both your uncle’s health issues and my busy life, we decided it would be best not to bring a child into this world that we would not be able to devote all of our time and attention to. When I saw you at your mother’s house though, I realized what I was missing and what I could have had if things were different with us. You will be loved and appreciated here and you will have everything you need to get you on the right track to success in your young life.”
Here she got a little sad then quickly composed herself and after a quick peck on my cheek said, “El baño está en el pasillo.” Upon seeing the look of confusion in my reflection she smiled indulgently and translated for me, “The bathroom is down the hall,” quickly adding,”and dinner will be served on the terrace, by the garden. Hurry up and come downstairs, for we have so much catching up to do!”
After she left, I put my hair in a ponytail then skipped down the stairs and went quickly into the kitchen where I was shown outside to the covered patio in the back of the house, which looked out onto the gardens below. Beltran and Lupe were there, seated at a big metal table with matching chairs. The set had an ornate design involving a sun face radiating tentacle-like beams. On the table, which was about 40 inches in diameter, this design was centered and took up most of the table. Surrounding the sun was a rim which contained a pattern of smaller designs alternately repeating around the circumference of the table. There were two smaller suns, smiling at the northern and southern ends of the circle, a crescent moon, which appeared five times on either side of the suns, interspersed with an eight-pointed star. The chairs featured large sun faces on the backrest, and the rest was just filigree. Little cushions were placed on the seats as the metal, though sturdy wasn’t the comfiest of places to sit on. I commented on how pretty the set was and asked if they were iron wrought. Lupe smiled indulgently and chuckled a little to herself before thanking me and saying that they were aluminum cast.
The first few weeks at my aunt’s house were wonderful. It was June, and although it was a little warm outside, the temperatures hadn’t quite reached the infamous triple digits common of the Arizonan summertime. It probably helped that the house was at an elevated plateau in the mountains, where the climate tends to be cooler than in the valley, where I had come from. Lupe and Beltran were excellent hosts and I was enjoying my newfound freedom away from the prying eyes and stifling rules of my well meaning but suffocating parents.
My days were long but very fulfilling; I would awake most days around 8:00 am (my mother would never believe this of me since I’ve been a night owl most of my life) and meet up with Lupe in the kitchen to have a light breakfast of cereal with soy milk, which Tío Beltran would procure for me specially from some Asian market in Califonia since, at that time, it was difficult to find anywhere in Arizona. Lupe would usually have a cup of chocolate and some sweet bread which Maruja would purchase weekly, along with tortillas and sundry other specialty groceries, from a “mom & pop” bodega in the area. On weekends, we would all get together and have a family breakfast where Lupe and Beltran would have eggs, beans, tortillas, chorizo, and some fresh squeezed fruit juice, followed by big cups of coffee and some Mexican cookies. Since I was a vegetarian, I would just have my usual breakfast and a cup of tea.
Between 9 o’clock and noon, I would go exploring the local flora and fauna with my camera and my walkman headset playing my latest mixed tape, after which I would return for lunch and usually if he wasn’t busy, my uncle and I would talk music. It so happens that Beltran was a rock & roll connoisseur with an extensive LP collection, which he would let me peruse as he told me tales of concerts he saw back in the 70’s. We agreed on certain artists, like David Bowie and Led Zeppelin, but he drew the line at Morrisey and the Smiths and I at Peter Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator.
As the weeks went by I got to know the house as well as its denizens. Lupe’s house was a weird mixture of traditional Mexican and local Arizonan styles with a heavy dose of the Gothic thrown in for good measure, sort of like Frida Kahlo meets the Addams Family. They had lots of handmade wooden furniture, intricately bordered door frames, painted tile kitchen walls, shell-crested windows, and the occasional calaca; but then there were rooms and passages which were quite dark and foreboding, some of which I wasn’t even allowed to go into. Most of these rooms were located in the casita, or little house, where Lupe saw her clients.
This casita was known as Casanegra, or Blackhouse, which is technically a misnomer because the house was actually red. It was a simple adobe structure containing a meeting room and hallway of rooms that consisted of the library, the meditation room and Lupe’s office-cum-storage room, all of which were portioned off from the rest of the house by an ebony door, beyond which everything was painted in black; the walls, the floors, the ceiling, all were black. Even so, if one were to look at the building from a balcony of the main house, its red exterior would appear to have been branded onto the barren physiognomy of the arid plain. In the buff brown desert, accented on its corners with jagged-leafed cowhorn agave plants, it stood out like a glowing gleed in the sand or a beacon from Hell.
Initially, what little time I had spent inside Casanegra was exclusively confined to the foyer, where Lupe saw her clients. After an unspoken probationary period, I was eventually allowed past the ebony door, but only when accompanied by my aunt or uncle and even then only to replenish the incense burners or candlesticks from the storage cabinet in Lupe’s office. On one such occasion Lupe briefly showed me her meditation room, which was rather small and housed a large wall-length mirror set into the wall itself; the only other items in the room being a legless reclining chair that was bolted to the carpeted floor, behind which stood a small table. My aunt explained that this room was specifically built for meditation and mirror-gazing and that she would place her dark lantern upon the table and stare into the mirror until she received communications from the hereafter in the form of symbolic visions. She said that she used a lantern instead of a candle because she could focus the beam with the shutter to only shine on the mirror. Through this method she could dispense with the distracting candle flickers as well as the fire hazard that the open wick flames and melted wax of a naked candle presented.
On the day prior to her meditation, my aunt would alter her diet, eliminating dairy products and caffeine from her daily regimen. She would share my vegetarian meals, eating no meat until after her meditations were done and she had recorded her visions, immediately upon her emergence from the dark room. She would spend hours in there without a peep coming from within.
Beyond the aforementioned door were some of the less visitor friendly decorations and rooms where Beltran and Lupe pursued their darker interests. The first time I ventured beyond it into this sunless hallway (there were no windows and the only light was provided by a few sporadic oil lamps which looked like something out of the Victorian age) was when Lupe had gone into town with Maruja to do a compra. I was sitting in the kitchen drinking a cup of epazote tea to help soothe an upset stomach, which not only tasted rank, but smelled something awful. After a few tentative sips, I decided that I would deal with my stomach on my own and maybe just find something to distract myself from my discomfort.
Since the day was mild, I decided to go outdoors for a walk in the garden, which eventually brought me to the casita. Entering the foyer, I breathed in the incense laden atmosphere and scanned the room taking in its imposing ambience.
As I stood there, looking around me for something to do, my eyes fell upon the doorway which led to the library and meditation rooms. I knew that Lupe had cautioned me against going in there without permission or accompaniment, but I thought that since Lupe was out and Beltran was napping in their bedroom, I had a perfect opportunity to see what was there worth being so protective about. Steeling myself for whatever I might find on the other side, I grabbed the wooden latch and slid it aside. Upon entering, I was taken aback first by how dark it was. Once my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, I began to walk down the hall.
On the right side were three rooms. The first being the meditation room, the second being the library, and the third being what seemed to be a tiny chapel of some kind. On the opposite wall, alternating between the rooms were two small alcoves. The one nearest me had a portrait of Lupe. Surrounding the painting were deep red draperies tied on each side with black ribbons. Below the portrait was a wooden chest with a black cloth draped over it. Illuminating the portrait was a small lamp like the ones used in a museum. This was the only electric light in the gloomy hallway. As I looked at the painting I was surprised at how sinister Lupe looked; not at all like the sweet beautiful woman who had taken me into her home and under her wing. The woman in the portrait had a cruel smile and piercing eyes. There was something almost feral in her gaze, which burrowed into the spectator no matter which way one looked at it. I know she wasn’t entirely happy with the painting and Beltran used to say that he didn’t know the person in the portrait and was not sure what the artist saw in his lovely wife when he did it. Just the same, they paid him for his efforts and hid it here in the darkness of the hallway.
Turning to my right, I decided to sneak a peak in the library. Upon entering, I was hit by the smell of old books. If you’ve ever been to a musty old second hand bookstore, you know what I am talking about. All it needed was a cat slinking between the aisles of books. Approaching the shelves cautiously I wondered what sort of wicked secret tomes might be stored here. Much to my dismay, there wasn’t anything spooky or controversial that I would recognize, like the Satanic Bible or the Necronomicon, but rather just a bunch of dry old books with weird names like “The Black Pullet”, “The Red Dragon” and “The Black Screech Owl”, to name a few, or texts in Spanish like “El Libro Supremo de Todas las Magias”, “El Libro de San Ciprian,” and something called “Picatrix”, which sounds Latin, but when I picked it up I found that the text was in Spanish .
Deciding that the library was a bust, I went back to the hallway, where I came upon the second alcove. This one had always been a bit of a mystery to me since it too had a drapery, but this one was black and was drawn closed any time I’d ever been in the hallway when helping my aunt prepare for one of her meditations. This time I was going to find out just what was behind there. Like Lupe’s portrait, this alcove had a wooden chest covered in a black cloth. Sitting atop this one, however, was a candelabrum with three candles in it: one black, one gold, and one purple. Pulling my lighter from my pocket, I lit the candles then pulled the drapes apart with both hands. Stunned, I stood still holding the drapes as a shiver ran up my spine and caused the hair on the nape of my neck to stand at attention. Smiling down at me was a skeleton; I am not sure if it was real, but it was definitely life sized, and dressed in a black robe. In its right hand it bore a tall wooden scythe, which rose up to the tip of its hood, and in its left hand it held a crystal ball. A red sash was tied about its waist, upon which was laced a plain chain which bore tiny figurines of an hourglass and a scale, and a globe, rather like an over-sized charm bracelet. At its feet was a stuffed owl, artificially perched on a hunk of wood and staring straight ahead with its big yellow eyes. In the foreground were what seemed to be offerings: an incense burner with a white sticky resin, a cigar, a red delicious apple, a pan de muerto, a one hundred dollar bill, and a shot glass of what I assumed to be tequila.
My eyes were drawn to its tenebrous gaze and mirthless smile, effectively freezing me in place and drawing me into a trance-like state, devoid of sense or sound save for the throbbing of my heart palpitating against my rib cage like a prisoner pounding on cell bars. That is until I heard a familiar voice which snapped me back to reality. It was my Tió Beltran, speaking to me in a very calm and measured tone.
“I see you’ve found La Señora de las Sombras.”
“Who?” I replied, as I shook my head and slowly and dropped my hands to my side and turned my head to look at my uncle’s kind face, a vision in white amidst all of this darkness.
“La Huesuda, la Pelona, la Flaca, la Catrina, la Santa Muerte, the patron saint of outcasts and sinners. She is an aspect of Mictecacihuatl, Aztec queen of the underworld, syncretized by the Spanish through time into this image somewhere between the Grim Reaper and the Virgin Mary. She protects us from those that would wish us ill will or do us harm, and grants boons and wishes for things the other saints normally frown upon. When I was lost as a young man, before I became a successful businessman, and no one would help me because of my unusual countenance; not even our local church would help me or my family because they saw my albinism as a punishment to my parents from God, I heard of the Lady of the Shadows and how she was just and did not judge one for their apparent failings. I heard how she helped those in need who were ignored or shunned by others and so I took a bus to Tepito and saw her in all her glory at the Romero shrine. I prayed with the other supplicants and procured what few meager offerings I could afford and true to Her word, within a month I found a job and, more importantly, I found my heart’s contentment, your lovely Tía Lupe.”