A miniature carillon announced her entry as Maryflor cautiously crossed the threshold of the dubious looking storefront which bore a sign in the window that read Lectura de Cartas. Upon entering, she found the store to be a sort of Mexican New Age shop, but with less emphasis on Wicca books, crystals and pewter fantasy figurines and more on herbal remedies and sincretized Mesoamerican folk-magick and Catholic mysticism. The shelves were stocked with a rainbow array of candles, many in tall, slender glass containers, embossed with white lettered phrases and descriptive pictures or images of saints or the Virgin of Guadalupe. There were racks with little plastic envelopes of herbs: echinacea, flor de manita, yerba del sapo, ajenjo, and diente de leon. There were booklets on saints, and powders like the intriguingly sketchy polvo esoterico contra la ley!
Maryflor took all of this in a panoramic scan of the room as she clutched a shoebox in her hands which she had brought with her to be examined. Awash in a wave of anxiety and not a little fear, she began to feel like she’d made a mistake in coming, and was just about to turn on her heels and go when she was startled by a voice behind a partition screen declaiming “Vienvenidos a la Yerberia Fenix; diga!”
Maryflor froze in her tracks, unsure of how to respond. Her Spanish was rusty at best and there was no way she would be able to converse with anyone on such an esoteric subject as what brought her hither. “Diga.” the voice insisted, with no hint of annoyance, nor yet would it brook any hesitation in being answered.
“Hola…desculpe pero, hay alguien aqui quien habla Ingles?” “I can help you!” called a young voice from the back room. Turning towards the source, Maryflor saw a terra-cotta colored woman with a dimpled smile which pierced her chubby cheeks at both ends. She couldn’t have been more than five foot and three inches, and her sleek black hair hung heavily down her back to her waist. Behind the counter Maryflor could only see her torso, which was draped in a plain turquoise blouse which stood out against her reddish-brown skin. Her sparkly black eyes were welcoming and her voice small and sweet when she explained “Don’t mind my mother, she forgets her manners when she’s ‘in the zone’.”
“Oh, thank you! No worries, I just wasn’t sure how to respond…my Spanish is a little rusty, I haven’t spoken it since I was a girl when my abuela passed. My parents insisted we become Americans, so we were only allowed to speak English in the house from that point on….anyway, you don’t need to know all that! Sorry.” The young woman behind the counter patiently smiled and continued, without judgment, “How can I help you today?”
“Um…sorry…to the point, right…um. I opened my front door this morning to find a shoebox which contains this little skeleton statue and I was worried it might be some devil thing and I’m already stressing because my brother has gone missing and …ugh…oh my God, I’m so sorry…” Placing the box on the counter-top Maryflor broke down into tears.
“Oh no!” yelped the young girl in surprise. From behind the partition emerged a short, squat woman in a purple sleeveless dress exposing her chubby arms which reached out towards Maryflor in an embrace. “Ven aca mija, come with me and we’ll get you some te de manzanilla to drink and some tissues to wipe those tears away!” The two little women looked almost comical as they helped the shaky tall and lanky Maryflor walk into a break room in the back, where they sat her down in a folding chair and made her some chamomile tea with honey and handed her a box of tissues. “The basura is behind you, if you need to toss a dirty tissue.” Said the older woman. “I have to go back up front to finish clearing my cards, but you can stay here until you feel better. My daughter Jacinta will take care of you.”
Wiping her tears with a tissue, Maryflor squinted through puffy eyes at a tapestry of the Virgin of Guadalupe which covered a door across the way. Something was off about it, but with her glasses off and her eyes swollen and blurred from crying, she couldn’t tell quite what. Dismissing it as inconsequential, she looked away as Jacinta closed the door to the break room. Taking a couple of healthy sniffles after blowing her nose, she inhaled the scent of cheap perfume left behind by the woman from when she had embraced her, which made Maryflor smile, albeit briefly.
“What’s your name?” Jacinta asked as she took another folding chair for herself. “Maryflor.” she responded faintly, as she sniffled again and cleared her throat and crumpled a damp tissue in her fidgety hands. “Maryflor, I want you to tell me what has happened to you which might have caused someone to contact you in this way. You mentioned your brother…what happened to him?”
“Lazaro, my brother, he always wanted to get back to his roots. When he got old enough he studied Spanish and got involved in social work that benefited the immigrant community. He decided that in order to understand the plight of the migrant workers he should join them for a while and see what conditions were like and what hardships they went through so that he might be able to fix them later. He started picking fruit in an orange grove, which opened his eyes. Once he had done that, he decided to try his hand tagging along with some of the day laborers who stand in front of hardware outlets in hopes that someone might hire them for a project. He left to do this a week ago and no one has seen him or the other men since. “I have tried reporting his disappearance to the police, but they don’t seem to be doing much. Some of the people from the neighborhoods Lazaro did social work in have tried to organize search parties and stuff but they don’t seem to be getting any headway. Some people tried enlisting me to talk at political rallies, but I declined, that’s not my thing. I just want someone to find my brother and bring him home. Then I found…this…on my doorstep and I wasn’t sure if someone was mad at me for not getting involved, or maybe it was just a mean prank…”
“May I see what’s in the box?” Jacinta asked. “Sure, help yourself.” Maryflor, opening her hands in a fanning gesture then pushed the box across the small folding table with the palms of her hands toward the young woman, who received it gently and carefully opened the lid to reveal a statuette of a skeleton in a green hooded robe, holding scales in one hand and a scythe in the other. Pausing for a moment’s reflection, she then turned her gaze to Maryflor and said, “Does this frighten you?”
“Yes, yes it does.” Maryflor replied, curtly, then raising her voice a bit, edging on hysteria she implored “Is someone trying to put a hex on me? Does someone want me dead?!”
“No, sweetie–please try to relax–I think someone is actually trying to help you find justice for your brother. This figurine is of La Santa Muerte. She helps those whom the Law and the Church usually ignore or refuse to help; the disenchanted, the lost souls. In this guise she stands for justice. You see that she holds scales in one hand…?” Here Jacinta raised the statuette to Maryflor, who recoiled before nodding her head in assent. Then looking a little uneasily at the young woman she asked “So am I supposed to pray to this thing or make sacrifices or something? I was raised Catholic and I don’t worship the Devil or anything.”
“No, nothing like that!” Jacinta replied then, placing a reassuring hand on Maryflor’s corresponding appendage, she continued “La Santa Muerte is not evil, she is the patron saint of society’s outcasts and misfits. She will, however, grant favors which your average saints will not, which is one of the reasons the Church will not officially recognize her.
“I tell you what: there is a young woman in town, a medium of sorts, who has a special connection with our Lady of the Shadows. Some call her Feretrina, and she is known to help people reconnect with their loved ones both here and on the other side. Perhaps she can tell you where your brother is. Come here tonight after we close, around 8 o’clock, and I’ll see if I can squeeze in a private audience with her for you.”
Against her better judgment, Maryflor agreed, then rising from her seat, she gingerly closed the lid of the shoebox, making a point of not looking at its contents as she did so, then placing it under her arm, she whispered “Gracias” and hastily walked back to the front room and out of the store.