1 Timothy 4:14 — Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the elders laid their hands upon you.
The Cover Story
The first thing I remember is a horse. I remember her teeth, and her hot spit on my leg, and her hot breath everywhere else as she nudged me and I came to. She startled me, but I did not cry out. Instead, I extended a flat, filthy hand—and popped it down on her snout. She let out a whinny, shaking her head at me, laughing at a child who didn't take too kindly to being awake. But it was then that I realized there was nothing to laugh at for miles. For miles. There was nothing left of my village but ash and smoke. And me, in the center square, with a tall white horse by the fountain. There was nothing funny but the smell.
And she pushed me to my feet, even though I was too tired to stand. And she helped me on her back, even though I was clumsy. And she carried me home, even though there was nothing of mine left.
I was too little to be afraid of kindness, but I shied from that night’s rain.
They were an older couple who had never been blessed with children of their own. Tia Chencha and Tio Salvador, may God rest their souls. They opened their home to a miracle on their doorstep, and their miracle watched a white horse walk away satisfied that her work was done. I watched for her from every window. I lit candles for her, because she had made me happy.
For years, I wondered if she had been a dream. There were many dreams, strange and beautiful, but it was not my place to ask.
Fed and clothed and loved, I was educated at the church. The priests taught me to read and write the scripture in four languages. After my lessons, I passed a viejita every day on my way home. She spoke to me in each of these tongues. I answered her with a prayer and a long, pale look at her longer, paler hair. The nuns taught me to sing, but never to laugh; to give, but never to ask too much. And after my lessons, I passed a viejita who pressed talismans into my palm that tickled and buzzed. I gave her the brightest laughter a boy of eight strict years could manage and still keep his faith. I knew at that moment, with a grin in my face and Tlazolteotl in my hand, that faith means nothing without the joy of being alive. It would be the last time I believed this.
We spoke in Latin, mourned in Spanish. We wove palm blessings in silence. She taught me the uses of herbs and the weight of the soul, and warned me I must never speak of dreams.
Tia Chencha died first. No more than sixteen hours passed between the first sign of sweat on her brow to her last, jagged breath on our dirt floor. My distress shattered windows, plates, and trust. I left our house to find a priest while Tio mourned en gritos and in fear. My bare feet, black with old filth, left prints through white tile halls. And in my wake, as I pleaded with el padre, they mentioned a village too sick to save: they whispered that a miracle burned it down. Tio Salvador barred the doors and blocked the broken windows before I returned. And I wailed at the doorstep until hot breath pressed my arm, and teeth like headstones pulled me home before the deluge.
Blanca lived outside of town, but everyone knew where to find her. You could follow the hooves or the maguey. You could follow the feeling of knowing into the blackest of nights, and you would find her. But only if she wanted you to. It was known that la viejita Blanca, Doña Blanca, was gifted, and though she was respected, she was also intensely feared. She cultivated her image like her maguey path to wisdom, and guarded her abilities with a kindly smile or a pounding hoof. Some called her curandera. Others called her bruja. Both, of course, were right.
She tempted me with rare meat and rich champurrado, her payment for services to the people in the town. I reached for my quivering soul and I indulged. Where had she been for Tia Chencha? Blanca was poor but for the riches of others, and I was glad in my confusion and resentment to take it— with a palm cross clutched tightly against the filthy totem of my patrona.
The world outside was no longer safe. They knew who I was, and I would learn to know them too. I said nothing of the night on fire, of the saint among the smoke.
I went out the next day, and at fifteen years of age, I demanded with faith falsely renewed that I be given seminary instruction. I would give my life to God in exchange for miracles at my fingertips. Miracles and a mask.
Ask and you shall receive.
Days were long, nights were lonely. I had much to prove; to the town, to the priests, to myself. There were fires in the night that must have been memories. There was thunder in the earth that waited. And the storm hung heavy above me. I had to be clean. So on Saturdays, I went to Blanca’s for limpiezas. And on Sundays, I confessed— everything but that. There were rituals to both, sacred and purifying. And after I had earned my ordinance, had learned all that I could of oraciones, of charms, of prayers on a rosary of bones, I learned one more thing. You must never speak of—
It rained that day, and the sound of the open heavens was the voice of God in a confessional. I don’t remember much else.
I watch myself move through the grey, going home; Tia Chencha y Tio Salvador estaban allí, y lo que quedaba era puro en mi mano, palmas puras— and as my black feet returned to the sand from the threshold of my salvaged youth, in the square by the fountain was a white horse, all red and washing away. I saw that they had found me out. Bruja, said her life as it leaked through the grout. Bruja, rang the bells on the hour. Brujo! screamed the congregation when they found me in the street. And with bones in my pockets and blessings like iron, I ran. And on my feet, I dreamed. They had found me out.
Meaning only to reach the next town over, I came to the border somehow. I don't remember having crossed the river. I stumbled into a bar, the first place I found, to beg for help.
“What’s a-matter?” the gringos demanded of me in that harsh Southern bark. “Who are you?”
Of the four tongues I learned, English was not among them. Helpless, I shook my head, and I pointed home. “Blanca—” I choked. “Muerta.” As if they could help.
They didn’t know anything about her, but in their derision I became el Blancamuerte in that town, and the next, and the next after that. And I healed their sick like a pale shadow. Blancamuerte. And so I will be until I understand. I am forbidden to speak of fire and rain. But I know I must move on.
Rafael is cool and relaxed, and if he doesn’t disturb with his eerie aura of disquietude, he can be quite pleasant company. Kind but very formal, company is all you will receive from the curandero. He takes himself and his work very seriously, and insists that he has very little time for personal relationships that do not consider the betterment of his interests. Somewhat businesslike in that manner, Rafael exudes an air of subtle authority that occurs in his distance more than his actual demeanor. Closeness, he has found, has rarely done him good. It is for your own protection as much as his own.
Though his demeanor can come off as cold and harsh, he has great compassion for the struggle of being, both inherent and informed by his studies. Rafael’s prurience for peace and forgiveness are tantamount to his tendency toward superstition: two sides of the same amulet, more or less. The patience he possesses may itself be soothing to those seeking guidance, for the comfort of a good listener and a soulful presence is the first step to health. But God help you (literally) if you do anything to threaten that peace. He believes in bad luck, in personal curses, in very real folk illnesses that strike on mistakes and weakness. Rafael may lose his constant cool to stop a transgression, and can become agitated if he is unable to correct it. His moralistic base offers as much serenity as it does stress.
Though he is generally a very reserved person, Rafael takes initiative to address problems and to finish work. He will not hesitate to help, to take over jobs that others cannot or will not finish, and works dutifully to complete everything that is asked of him. He does not shirk duties or shy from challenge. Rafael cannot be called confident, for he lacks the ego to act in self-importance, but instead possesses a strong sense of what must be, and feels obliged to work toward it, no matter his feelings at the time. He is, however, a very quiet and private man, and his good intentions can be easily overlooked or misunderstood, as he goes to great lengths to avoid revealing too much about himself. His compulsive lying habit probably doesn't help that.
As both a healer and a man of the cloth, it comes too naturally to assume that there is always something wrong with people; whether the state of their body or soul, people would not approach him if there wasn’t a reason. Humanity is fragile, but Rafael is resilient and reliable, able and willing to bear secrets of others as well as his own. However, because of his own durability, it would not be uncommon to earn an indelicate and sterile remark when discussing an issue that may be of great importance to someone but very little to himself. Though Rafael may be willing to offer his attention and consideration, he is not always careful.
Asceticism was never something Rafael could manage. He is indulgent, enjoying small luxuries on as regularly as possible, never turning down an opportunity to engage in something excessive. He is rarely happy, however, if it cannot be shared. Unless it's cake. He doesn't share cake.
He does not long for that which he has lost, but he does not forget it. The events in his life where his memory is thin drives him to sore curiosities in the interest of always moving on. Despite all his patience for people, he is restless within himself.
Rafael suffers from undiagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and refuses to acknowledge that he has a problem. His Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder disallows him from admitting there is anything wrong with him to the contrary of his unrelenting standards.