PART I: CHAPTER UNO
THE SPIRIT OF THE SPRING
A mockingbird called from the bushes. Ramón Caballo Guiterrez, known to his friends as `Macho', unfolded from his comfortable rest atop a dawn-lit boulder and hoisted the courier pouch into place before resuming the trail.
The morning air remained chill as he swung along a lane worn smooth by many feet, near the ravine and over the crest of the next hill. Bracing the strap of his pouch, he leaned down and picked up a rock to shy into the ravine. How many rocks had he and his compadres chucked into the deep ditch? No way to know.
But the ravine would never fill up, for the rains every winter would wash the rocks away. Then the boys would chuck some more. The supply was inexhaustible.
It was several miles to the village. Miles. That was one of the words he had learned at the school, and he had learned by pacing it off about how far it was. A yard was so long, and a furlong was so long, and a mile was this many furlongs. Papá had said he was too lazy or too impatient to learn anything. Mamá had said - well, Mamá was going to be proud of him whatever he did - Mamá had said he would be the best student in the school.
In the distance, several rises away, he could see the cultivated fields surrounding the village, and nearby a few scrawny cattle foraging in the Spring grass. Mamá would have breakfast ready, about now. Some tortillas and honey, and eggs, if the hens were laying. She would give him an extra helping, since he was just come home from school. And maybe he could ask Papá why he had been called home so early.
Someone was on the trail ahead, coming toward him, and he stopped to rest until they could pass. The person looked familiar, somehow, but Ramón could not be sure.
Then the other spoke, half a hill away, "Hey, Macho! ¿Que pasa?" His best friend Gordo still had a baby face, but he was taller than a year before, and more slender.
"Gordito? Is it you? Hey, hombre, you ain't fat no more!"
"Naw, I grew out of it. Except around my face," he mugged for Ramón, "How about you? You still deserve your nickname? You still Macho?"
"More and more worthy every day," grinned 'Macho'.
"Betcha got soft in that city school!" Gordito hunched down in a mock attack, arms spread as if to grapple. Ramón slid off his pouch and ran at him, and they tumbled across the grass.
"How was the big city?" Gordito quizzed him, "Were there plenty of chicas? Did they have the bull fights? Did you get laid?" They wrestled laughing in the dust until Gordito cried that he had had enough. "You still got it," he laughed as he caught his breath. They sat on a hummock by the trail, watching the sun climb the heavens and the birds flit amongst the scarecrow trees.
"You are lucky, hombre," sighed Gordito.
"In what way?"
"Don Pedro likes you, he thinks you are some kind of nice person. You get to go to the big school. You get to go away from this place."
"The city and the school was just a place. Just like this one. And I worked hard, cleaning the buildings and tending the horses."
"Ahhh... There's more to life than a place. There's food - I oughta know that! There's girls. There's things to see, the stores and markets and entertainment. And there's more fun in the city. And better food. Did I mention food? All we have here is corn. Fried corn. Boiled corn. Baked corn at night. Ground corn for breakfast. I get sick of corn."
"You're old enough to leave. Go to the big city, get a job."
A strange look came over Gordito's face, and he seemed close to tears as he looked away from Ramón. "Not me," he said, "I'm never leaving this country." He climbed to his feet and reached a hand to help Ramón up.
"Might as well come on," he said, "I was sent to take you to your Papá."
"But I am going home!"
"Not yet. Your Papá has something he has to talk to you about."
"You can't tell me what he wants?"
"No," Gordito smiled in an attempt to soften the harsh word, but he would not meet Ramón's eyes. As he started away, he added, "Besides, you are really gonna like your guide."
"Guide?" But there was no answer. He hurried to get his pouch and follow Gordito as he marched toward the hills away from the village.
THE SPIRIT OF THE SPRING:
There was nothing outstanding about the grotto. It was just a cave, a dimly lit widening with a hot spring bubbling out of a basin. There was a chill breeze that played tricks with the ear, whistling about the deposits hanging from the ceiling and chuckling over stones in the water.
He stopped on the promontory, a stone shelf which jutted out into the basin and hesitated. Papá said to speak his name, loudly, and ask for guidance. His throat was dry; Ramón had to swallow a couple of times.
"Hello?" he said.
The water gurgled and chuckled in response. The wind made a lonesome whistle through some hidden orifice. In the dim light, mists floated above the bubbling water.
What was he doing here? Papá was adamant - he had to present himself to the 'spirits of the spring', to prepare himself for the next step of his manhood.
This was just like Papá, however. The boys of the Azuma village were given a week-long ceremony when they became men. "Papá gives me a short lecture on 'being mature' and makes me stand in a dumb cave for my 'trial of manhood'. Next he'll probably tell me I'm supposed to spend the night on the desert without food to prove I can stand deprivation."
"I'll just stay here a little while longer. That should satisfy him." Echoes of his voice filled the grotto briefly, then quiet returned. Somewhere, perhaps outside, he heard the faint cry of a hawk calling its mate. When he shifted his feet the clatter of misplaced stones filled the room.
Gradually, he became accustomed to the rustle and murmur and all sound seemed to fade away. He was alone in the silence. It seemed he heard, not the wind, but a human voice singing sadly beyond the farthest depths. "Is someone there?" he called softly. Then he did hear a voice, behind him, someone calling for help. Glad for an excuse to quit his vigil, he turned to go.
"Stop," the gurgle and mutter of the spring seemed to say. Yes, he assured himself, the spring had spoken. Or perhaps the mists had spoken. Ramón hesitated for a moment.
"Stay," said the voice - a hissing, whistling, chuckling noise.
"That sounded like the person who guided me in here, calling for help," said Ramón.
"What do you want?" The spirit of the mist demanded, ignoring his statement.
"My father has sent me here to ask..."
"We did not ask why you were here, impertinent child," whispered another misty voice, "What do you want?"
"My father has told me to ask for a blessing," faltered Ramón.
There was a shifting murmur to the bubbling waters, as though the spirits were muttering to themselves. He started to believe that the voices were in his ears, tricked by the gurgle and splash of the springs.
"I am to tell you my name and ask for guidance," his voice echoed damply in the chamber. Silence was his answer, a murmuring hissing silence where he thought he heard voices. He listened with all his might, and far off there seemed to be someone calling. Someone asking for help. "I am wasting my time, here," he said, "I have to go find who that is and help them."
"Wait," hissed the voice, "You dare to turn your back on us?"
"I have to go," he insisted.
"You are impertinent. Who are you to disobey us?"
Ramón drew himself up to his full sixteen years of maturity, "I am Ramón Caballo Guiterez, my friends call me 'Macho', and I am no puny girl to be frightened by wind and noise," he said, and the mists swirled about him.
COYOTE, THE TRICKSTER (1):
It's not nice to fool Mother Nature... or even one of the spirits at the hot springs. Especially not one of the spirits at the sacred hot springs.
Ramón struggled to keep on his feet. He had not eaten since the morning when he had met Gordito, and he felt dizzy with hunger. The pines seemed different, somehow, more forbidding, as he searched for the trail which led out of the canyon. Long shadows filled the sheltered crevasses beneath the huddled trees, and he was sure he had seen movement out of the corner of his eye more than once.
His guide had vanished, perhaps finding another way out, perhaps even now waiting for him at the cave entrance. At least he hoped that this had happened. The alternative was too ghastly to consider. Perhaps the sight of his guide also being dragged into the pool was an illusion. No matter what, he was not returning to the scene of his humiliation to find out.
"I will not admit that I am frightened!" he swore softly, "I must be `un hombre', as my name says. I must be brave."
Easier said than done, since the white mist had risen and choked him as he mocked the sacred rites at the hot spring, and he was flung into the water. Perhaps Coyote was watching, or had heard his joke and decided to do him one better. Perhaps it was First Woman, and the hot springs were indeed sacred and not merely haunted. Either way, he had made a grievous error and would have to find someone with strong medicine to correct it. Assuming he could find his way back to his father's village.
He felt ill, his head spun, and he staggered as he hurried along the trail. He lost his balance and fell again. His vision cleared for a moment and the trail swam into view, leading through a thicket and into the cave.
"Why do I fall?" he wondered, "What has happened to my balance? Has Coyote stolen my skills as well as my vision?"
He splashed through a stream warm from the springs, heedless of the noise, hurrying for the mouth of the cave and freedom. The inside of the cavern was cool and damp, but not entirely dark. There was movement ahead, where the other end opened onto the side of the mountain. Someone was there? "Hello?" he called, hoping, "Papá? Anyone?" But noone answered.
The opening was a narrow crack, making it necessary to slip through sideways, barely wide enough for his slim hips when he had entered earlier that day. Now, for some reason, he seemed to stick partway through. His chest and his buttocks scraped, and he finally fell through on the outside feeling much abraded. He had laughed at his companion earlier, now this. Dusting off his bottom and his chest, he felt something odd, and stopped in rigid terror. His chest. Felt. Odd. Unusual. Like...
And the cave entrance looked higher, as though he were a child looking up, or... as if he were about two hands shorter than he had been when he went in. His cheeks. No downy hairs... the faint trace of a moustache he had prized was not on his upper lip, and his chest. Felt... odd ....
"Madre de Dios," he breathed.
And he fled as in fear for his very existence.
Father, who should have been waiting, was nowhere to be found. Ramón would have to find the village, and his mother, and try to piece together what had happened.
"I must face my mother, and tell her that I..." he had run as far as he could, and had fallen to the grass and lay in still despair for hours, and nothing had come to make sense. "Tell her that I..."
Earlier that day, he had returned to the village when his father had sent word that he must attend to an `obligation'. His mother had not seen him for a year, and his father, instead of taking him home, had taken him to ... this...
"I must go to her and tell her..." His breath came in great gasps, and he realized that tears were coursing down his face and his mouth was silently forming the bawl of a calf.
"What am I saying?"
And he huddled unto himself, gathered his arms about his knees, and enclosed himself in silence and sobs. Even so, he was conscious of little things; the looseness of his pants about his waist, yet tight around his hips, and how his blouse was loose in the sleeves and tight around the chest. And the place where he was smooth when he shouldn't be. Which made him sob all the harder.
Eventually, the tears stopped, and he went... home...
(1) Among certain tribes, Coyote was considered to be a mischievous god, forever pulling pranks and practical jokes on people. You might compare him to Loki, of Norse religion.
It was not the homecoming he had expected. It had been a year since he had left to go to the school Don Pedro had arranged. It was a rare honor. What had his mother and father been like? He remembered strong warmth from his Mamá and a bluff, severe patience from Papá. Now, he was back from the city, and he was almost grown, but he feared to face his mother. He had changed. His father had changed, and perhaps not for the better.
"Mamá?" he called at the entrance to the adobe house.
"I am not your mother, little one," said a warm, strong voice, but it was indeed his mother who emerged from the door, "Have you become lost from your family?"
Despair crowded Ramón's heart, as he realized that Mamá did not recognize him. "I have become twisted and ruined," he mourned, "And there is no hope for me in this world. Why would Coyote the trickster do such a horrible thing to me?"
"I do not know," said his mother, and Ramón realised he had been speaking aloud, "But that is one name we do not speak in this house. Especially if we do not wish to see him."
"Lo siento," apologized Ramón, remembering the many times Mamá had argued with Papá about his choice of religion. "I would not wish to bring him into this place by calling his name."
"I understand," his mother said, "You are upset, is this not true? And what terrible thing has happened to upset such a lovely child?"
[Boy, am I EVER upset!] thought Ramón.
"I have come home to see my family, and now I don't know what to do," said Ramón, "And strange things have happened. I do not know where to go."
"Then you will stay here," said Mamá, "Until you find your family, you are welcome. You will be as one of the family, along with my daughter. Her name is Lucita but we call her 'Gentle Rain'. And we must do something about those clothes. They are not suitable for a girl to wear."
Ramón eventually became aware of the other person in the room. She sat quietly in the shadows at the end of the lodge, a fragile flower of youth, brown eyes as observant as the gaze of a fawn, a lock of pitch black hair straying rebelliously across her brow.
He had no sister. Why would his mother claim this girl?
Her name was Lucita. Gentle Rain, Ramón remembered, was a pet name his friends from father's village had given her. And the last time he had seen her was at a neighbor's house. She had been in blankets at her mother's breast.
Now she watched him with the wariness of a small deer as Ramón huddled by the doorway and considered his options.
Mamá did not recognize him... not as her son.
Papá was not here. Would he explain? Ramón debated this. Papá would not endanger himself. Papá valued his life too much to stand before Mamá and tell her the truth.
Better to pretend to be a stranger, live a lie until he could find some answer to the puzzle. That meant he would have to learn to live as a... a... He could not complete the thought.
He became aware of a presence close by, and looked up to see Lucita standing beside him, peering closely at him as though to penetrate his falsehood.
Mamá returned with garments; to Ramón's dismay they were dresses. He stammered his thanks but bolted for the door as soon as she turned her back. On the path from the shack, he hurried for the shallow river. Then as was his habit, he went to wash in the cool waters of the river.
And pandemonium broke loose. He had not noticed that he had been joined by several young maidens in the shallow bend, and had knelt to splash water onto his face. They had swirled about as though he were invisible until the cold water hit his face and he felt a momentary disorientation. His clothes fit once more. He was a boy again. His elation was short-lived.
The girls had been removing their skirts and tops and splashing each other playfully when he stepped down to the water, and one of them saw him immediately after his change from a girl to a boy.
"Heyo, strange boy!" she shrieked, "Are you so bold that you would join us in our bath?" And they began to pelt him with rocks and sticks until he ran from their midst.
Ramón beat a hasty retreat up the bank. He examined his clothes, which seemed to fit once more as they should. "I am once more a man," he said, though he could not explain it.
However, he was beginning to see a pattern. Get wet with hot water, turn into a girl. Cold water made him a man. He began to feel a tiny bit of confidence returning as he neared the village. That seemed safe enough. Simply stay away from cooking fires and hot springs, and he could quit worrying.
Too late, he looked up to see a stream of steaming fluid cascading toward him.
"Oh, I am sorry," apologized the old woman, "I did not see you on the trail, senorita."
Ramón disgustedly brushed the dishwater from his face and headed back to the river, to a secluded bank, and splashed himself again.
He came upon a campfire, with two men drinking coffee. It would be awful tasting coffee, for he recognized his abuelo (grandfather). This meant that the man sitting with his back to Ramón would be Papá. That person turned and spoke.
"Machito! It is good to see you, my son!"
"Papá! Where were you? Did you know what would happen to me at the spring?"
"Of course! You received your secret name, and you were told of your animal guide. You are now a man! Normally, of course, you would have been better prepared, but we figured since you had been fasting on the way here you were ready for this step."
"Wrong! Do you want to know what really happened?"
"Such an attitude!" admonished Grampa, "Manuel, you must speak to your son about his lack of respect for his elders."
"What about me?" cried Ramón, "Don't you care what happened to me?"
"It is the young generation," mourned Papá, "They are so infatuated with the Españoles they have lost all sense of our past and traditions."
"That is no excuse. You have not taught this boy well enough."
"Is anyone listening?" Ramón said, "I have a problem!"
"You are now a man!" replied Papá, "You must learn to deal with your own problems. You cannot come whining to me for every little cut and bruise."
Ramón clenched his fists and waited until he could speak. "I am not cut and bruised," he said, "It is much worse than that." He picked up the coffee pot and poured coffee on himself, yelping in pain because it was so hot.
"They have given you a sacred form!" Papá stared at him, then realized the implications. "That's your sacred form?" he asked, "But how can you hunt and scout if you are...?"
Grampa's reaction was a little less subtle. "Gah!" he cried, and he sit down with a thump, crabbing backwards away from Ramón.
"Now that I have your attention," Ramón said as he gingerly felt the scalded spot, "How do I get out of this?"
"We will think of something," Grampa said, warily easing to his feet and inching closer, "You must get help from the tribal medicine man."
"Better that we tell no one," mourned Papá, "Oh, the shame of it! My son, a female!"
"You must make the most of it," opined Grampa, as if that settled that.
"Yes. I will try. Now, Ramón, it is important that you remember the name of your sacred form, but tell it to no one," said Papá.
"So what is your name, when you take the sacred form?" asked Grampa, testing him.
"I don't know! Why should it have a name?"
"The spirits always give a name to the initiate!" snapped the old man.
"We must be talking about different spirits. These just jumped out of the water in a white mist and pushed me in! They didn't say anything!"
"What could possibly have caused this? You spoke the words we told you to say, asking them for a blessing and a guide, didn't you?" Papá stiffened as he sensed Ramón's hesitancy, "Didn't you? What did you say to them?"
"They said nothing that made any sense," Ramón insisted, "I thought it was all a big joke. I thought you were just trying to scare me."
"I do not joke with these spirits! What did you say!?"
"I said..." Ramón gulped, "I said I was not a mere girl to be intimidated by all this trickery. Then they pushed me into the water. But they didn't say anything sensible! You said they would ask me my name first!"
"Argghh! My son, the mouth!" groaned Papá.
"Your son, the daughter," cackled Grampa, "Oh, this is rich!"
Ramón morosely headed for the river again.
HOMECOMING, PART II:
Again, he approached the door, and again he called, and when the darkhaired woman came out and looked at him with curiousity, his heart sank. Then, she spoke.
"Machito! It is you! My little Machito!" and she grabbed him with so much force that he was nearly thrown from his feet, "Machito, you are here! Oh, I am so happy!"
She shepherded him in the door, examined him from head to toe, told him how long she had been waiting to see him, and sat him at a low table laden with bowls of tortillas, vegetables, and flowers, all without releasing him from her affectionate grasp.
Papá sat at the table, somehow seeming to shrink visibly whenever anyone looked his way. Lucita watched him silently, her observent fawn's eyes never blinking.
"Machito, this has been the most interesting day! There was this girl who had lost her family, and..." she hesitated, frowning. "She was wearing pantalones and a jacket that looked a lot like yours."
"Perhaps she came from the same city where our son was at school," suggested Papá.
"It is possible. But enough of my visitors. Tell us about your days in the white man's school."
"It was okay, but I do not wish to go back," declared Ramón, picking at the avocado.
"But you must continue your school! It is so important, Machito!" Mamá served the dishes heaping full, as always, and added a little extra to Ramón's plate. "Don Pedro has done so much for us, to send you to this school, and now you do not want to thank him?"
Ramón chewed the tortilla in agony. It was delicious but his throat was so dry that it stuck. "I do not think I could finish it," he finally said.
"Nonsense! You wanted it so much, and you have done so well! What could possibly have happened that would make you change your mind?"
When Ramón did not answer, she prodded, "Have you met someone at school who has made you want to do something else with your life?"
Ramón shook his head.
"Aahhh, then. Someone here at home?" she asked, with a half smile.
He could not meet her eyes as he shook his head again.
"Macho, something is wrong. Tell me, what has happened?" Mamá was worried, now, and she would not let the matter settle. "Hijo, I am happy to see you, but I did not expect you home before winter. Why did you come home early?"
She saw Ramón glance furtively at Papá.
"Mamá..." began Ramón.
But Mamá seemed to have something else on her mind. "Unless, perhaps, you intend to forsake the new ways and return to the wild, as did your grandfather." The thought burdened her mind for a short while, then lifted. "But, of course, to do that you would have to take up the ways of power, but they are too unpredictable and dangerous, and your father would never allow you to..."
"That tone of voice..." Mamá said, "She said it in exactly that same tone..."
"That is her," said Lucita, helpfully.
Mamá sat straight up, staring at the door as if thunderstruck.
"La niña," she breathed, "The girl..."
"¿Que?" Papá said around a mouthful of tortilla.
"The girl with your clothes," said Mamá.
Ramón wished desperately that he could sink through the floor. He wanted to slink out the door and disappear, but Mamá was watching too closely.
"...Husband of mine, what have you done?" she demanded.
"It is an affair of the men... " began Papá pompously, but was silenced with a withering glare.
Mamá had reached down a bonehandled skinning knife and held it in a white-knuckled grip.
"There is something here that I do not understand. Take your bowl to the horseshed," she ordered, "You can finish your supper there. I will have words with your son."
And after she had sent his father away and sent Lucita to her aunt, his mother turned to him and said, "Tell me I have nothing to worry about, Machito. Tell me I am wrong. Tell me the wolves are in the sheep pen, or tell me the clouds are free in the sky. Tell me I am a silly old woman with butterflies for brains. But do not tell me you have followed your grandfather into the darkness."
Ramón hung his head, unable to meet her gaze.
"Madre de Dios," she whispered.
"But Mamá," he said, "I am not bad. I have done nothing wrong... except..."
She pulled his face up, "Tell me."
"At the spring. I - I made the joke..."
"Spring? What spring could this be?"
"At the sacred spring, Papá called it, in a canyon beyond a cave. The cave was very small to get into. We almost could not fit. I fell into the spring and..."
Mamá's eyes were welling with tears. "Mi bebito!" she cried, gathering Ramón into her arms and crushing him to her breast. Her sobs grieved Ramón horribly, he wanted to comfort her. To tell her there was nothing wrong with him. But he could scarcely breathe, and what could he tell her? That he was deformed, that he did not know what he was?
"I am not following anyone!" he finally said, when she eased her grip on his neck. "I did not even see Grandpa!" he added, "Until after..."
She traced the line of his cheek, with its faint promise of down, and whispered, "What have they done to you, my Machito? You are my little man, my promise of the future. What has happened to you?"
"Errr... I become a girl," admitted Ramón.
Mamá's eyes grew round with horror. "Mi bebito!" she cried, "Mi bebito es un... un... emasculado!"
"No, Mamá, no!" Ramón hastily tried to correct her, remembering all too well the shattering convulsion he had felt when he first discovered that his other form did not come equipped with certain accustomed features, "Not emasculado... a girl."
"¿Una niña? How... what...?"
"Let me get some hot water and I will show you," said Ramón, and he did. When he splashed his face with warm water, his mother gasped.
"It was you! You came to the door, and called me Mamá, and I thought you were lost..." she declared, and froze, torn between relief and anger. Finally, she clutched the girl who was her son to her and wept anew.
It was difficult to speak around the lump in his throat, "It was me," he finally said, "I came home because I did not know what to do."
"But how?" Mamá drew back, wanting to hold him but suddenly afraid, somehow, that holding him only made things worse. Afraid that he had become something unclean. Ramón squeezed back the tears that forced their way to his eyes.
"I do not know. But I change. It was because I made the joke at the spring. Because I laughed at the spirit of the spring."
"So you became a girl, for punishment?" This was something Mamá could understand, even if it was powerful stuff.
"And now it is over, no?"
"Oh, I wish so, Mamá... but I am afraid that it is not so."
And again Mamá clutched her to her bosom, "Mi Bebita!" she wailed.
"What a terrible tragedy!" she finally sobbed, "And yet... and yet..."
"Yet... you are such a pretty girl..."
"Mamá!" Ramón pulled away from her, "Do not joke about this! I am disfigured! I am a freak!"
"Mi bebita... I was not joking. You are beautiful."
"I would sooner be ugly and strong... and male," declared Ramón.
"But you are not. At least not now," a discomforting thought creased her brow, and she added, "You can change back, can you not?"
"With cold water. Here, I will show you."
Mamá gently held Ramón back. "In a minute," she said, "Let me look at you. You are such a pretty girl!"
"Mamá!" Ramón felt his face warm and knew he was blushing furiously.
"Es bueno, mi machito," sighed Mamá with a faint smile, "Let me see you turn into the boy again." After this deed was accomplished, she said, "You must go with me to get your sister."
"But Mamá," objected Ramón, "I have never had a sister!"
"Shhh, don't say this when there are listeners around. Lucita came to us when the soldiers took her mother away."
"When I came through the town everyone acted afraid. And you tell me the soldiers come and take our neighbors. What is happening here, Mamá?"
"Oh, it is bad, Machito. The Alcalde does not govern the land as did the Commandant, he only wants slaves to work in the mines. When they found that Arturo was a goldsmith they tried to make him tell them where he got his gold, and then they took him and Elizabeta to the mines. Before they came, Elizabeta begged me to hide Rain, so I brought her to our house."
"Una hermanita. I never had a sister."
"You must never say to anyone that she is not your sister. Somewhere, her mother trusts us to protect Rain. You must be a strong man and keep this secret."
"A sister," Ramón repeated. He liked the idea. Someone to protect. He imagined himself beating up the soldiers who came to kidnap her. Yes, he could do that.
"And don't do anything foolish like fighting the soldiers!"
"Yes, Mamá," sighed Ramón.
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