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Ariel's Crossing
 


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Ariel's Crossing


  Ariel’s Crossing

  Bradford Morrow

  For Martine

  and the Rochesters of Nambé

  Contents

  Part I

  Stranger by the Gate

  Part II

  Critical Mass

  Part III

  Jornada del Muerto

  Part IV

  The Forever Returning

  A Biography of Bradford Morrow

  De la tierra fui formado,

  La tierra me a de comer,

  La tierra me a sustentado,

  Y al fin yo tierra a de ser.

  From the earth I was created,

  The earth will eat me,

  The earth has sustained me,

  In the end the earth I’ll be.

  —Chimayó valley hymn

  Part I

  Stranger by the Gate

  Nambé

  1820–1993

  DOÑA FRANCISCA DE PEÑA never believed in ghosts, and even after she became one herself she couldn’t help but have her doubts.

  When she was young, Francisca already wore a weathered look in her dark eyes. Stronger than her brothers, she rode better than they did and worked the fields with a grown man’s stamina. Her father, Trinidad Otero de Peña, a pioneer ranchero who settled three dozen hectares in Nambé valley before the midcentury pueblo land grants, taught her the names of animals and plants and stars. Showed her how to irrigate summer pastures and graft pear trees. Her mother, Estrella, schooled her in reading, writing, and numbers. They sensed Francisca was not like other children. Quicker, more awake, but at the same time given to curious reveries. Maybe she was a gentle bruja, they thought, a benign witch. They nicknamed her Francisca esparaván, little sparrowhawk.

  On her seventh birthday, Francisca had a dream in which she swam Rio Nambé like some underwater bird, feathering her way with ease through its cold currents. When she awakened, a mysterious change had visited the world around her. Paralyzed in bed, she saw her room was not the same. Sun billowing in her window seemed more like liquid than light. Her cane chair wavered toward invisibility. The book on her table was translucent, as was the willowy table itself. Her room was in the river, it appeared, the universe of her dream having merged with what she witnessed here, awake. Then slowly her alcove regathered itself, and the girl arose into her morning.

  Throughout that day, while doing chores on the rancho, a tract of scratchland at the western edge of the pueblo not far from where it bordered Pojoaque, Francisca was tormented by the fear she might never be able to visit her dream place again. For though she liked working the horses and stoking the piñonwood fire in the mud oven where her mother baked their bread, nothing matched the ecstasy of that dream. But she needn’t have worried. That very night she sat on one of the moonlit blades of the wooden windmill, feet dangling as she rode round and round on its spinning face in a carnival of her own devising.

  Many different birds visited her dreams. Magpies that squealed like lusty cats in rough basket-nests high in their catalpa trees. Strutting crows dressed in black like debonair hangmen. Roadrunners that zigzagged the open barrens. On her ninth birthday, Francisca dreamed she spread her arms and stretched her fingers and flew above the treetops of Nambé basin. The desert wind combed her blue-black hair and made her pluming skirts flutter against her thighs. When she gazed below she saw herself asleep in her rope bed, another girl who was Francisca de Peña, she supposed, an earthbound creature for whom she felt a certain pity.

  This was the dream that marked her continuous consciousness. It was so viable, so very true, that when she awoke to find herself not in the sky but on the ruddy floor, soaked in sweat, coughing and clawing at the air, flinching in her mother’s arms, the girl opened her eyes awestruck to discover that her mother seemed more fantasy than her spectral flight.

  Dreams flowed through her with progressive fury. Looking at another dawn over the Sangre de Cristos, or gazing toward the Jemez Mountains coppered by sundown, she dismissed the temptation to confide in anyone. Who would understand these night visions that caused her to mistrust if she ever really slept? Who would believe she sometimes knew in the morning what afternoon would bring? That this year’s frijoles would grow under generous rain, while next year’s crop would fail? That a cousin living near Santo Domingo was pregnant with twin girls who would survive the hour of their birth even as their mother perished? Francisca herself scarcely believed the things she saw.

  All the while, the waking world of mother and father and brothers who’d been christened with good adamant names out of the Bible—Mateo, Santo, Teofilo, Pedro—moved on. Mateo, born scrawny, became a strapping buck. Santo had long sable hair and an eye for the women. Hardworking Teofilo wore a bright-red kerchief tied around his head beneath his hat. Pedro, who lived in the kitchen, grew round as an armadillo. These brothers matured, as did the ranch. More sheep and cattle in the pastures, more horses. The orchards flourished. Her father took a fall off his favorite stallion and walked forever after with a proud limp. Estrella’s gray eyes got grayer, and her hair went white. Crops were sown, harvested, cellared, eaten. Seasons migrated like sandhill cranes.

  While she never ventured off the place other than to make the wagon ride across the gritty, shadeless trail to La Villa Real de la Santa Fé to attend mass at San Miguel, Francisca found that she could journey across centuries and converse with people in many languages. She met saints and rogues and angels who reminded her of the brilliant painted reredos at the cathedral. She met harlots in beaverskin and virgins white as the snow-crowned Truchas. She walked beside blessed Bernardo Abeyta and caravaned with whimsical Santo Niño. She was the very penitente carved from orangewood and balsam whom they crucified as El Cristo Negro of Esquípulas. She became the stuff of myth, a question whose answer was another question. Had she not loved being awake and alive, she’d have thought how wonderful it would be to sleep and dream always. As nights glided into days, days into nights, it became harder for her to tell the difference anyway.

  Francisca never married, proved herself to be alone among the de Peña children capable of running the ranch after the deaths of her parents. She outlived them all, each of those brothers with their saintly names. Under her aegis, Rancho de Peña continued to thrive. A grand hacienda was built on the rise overlooking the ranchlands, replacing the small adobe fieldhouse beside the river. Every stretch of earth was put to use. Her vines bore the richest fruits, her fields the best produce. No one had finer livestock or better-trained horses. The first guitar in Nambé pueblo was heard under the portal of the new hacienda, strummed by none other than Francisca herself. Dances were held, both secular and sacred, hoedown and corn dance. For a time, her world was a desert utopia.

  Then the day arrived, 9 February 1880, when Francisca de Peña left her flesh behind. She was cremated—a sinful annihilation in those times, but enacted on her strict instructions—by the man to whom she’d willed the de Peña holdings, a man for years rumored to be her lover, certainly her dearest friend, and the sole person with whom she shared her bruja’s secret.

  Juliar Montoya built Francisca’s bier along the stony shoal of Rio Nambé, near the fieldhouse that fronted her favorite pasture. A snowy morning. Crows cawed overhead. Cottonwoods, some of whose recalcitrant leaves had failed to fall, rattled above as the wind gusted through. Pellets of ice hissed when they struck the fiery coals. Montoya did his work alone, watching over the fire while her legs and arms burned and curled and her beloved face flamed, blackened, collapsed, and her bones pushed forth from the searing skin that once hid her heart but did no more. Having blazed throughout the long dank day, fed with cedar branches and lengths of poplar, the fire finally smoked down to char, and Montoya broadcast with a shovel her gli
ttering ashes in that field her feet had known so well. Blinding benevolent snow soon enough buried Francisca’s remains, and as it continued to fall in thick waves it whitened the terrain, softening everything visible so that the world momentarily forgot itself. Montoya shouldered his shovel and walked back up to the main house. As long as he lived, he would never forget the sweet perfume of that funeral fire.

  Journeying on in her vivid dream, Francisca kept mostly to herself. She walked barefoot the dry pebbly bed of Rio Nambé in autumn and smelled the sage that bloomed alongside it in spring. Sometimes, when the moon was new, she lay in bed beside Montoya, wrapping her arms around him after he’d fallen asleep. She admired the way he carried on the work she had begun. Itinerant workers who drifted onto the ranch were treated as confreres. A fair wage was given for a fair day’s work. And Montoya, who deplored peonage—Indian slavery practiced by local friars—took in refugees even as he managed to avoid trouble with militia and traders who passed through on their way between the Taos and Chihuahua markets.

  After Nambé reservation was established, the old de Peña ranch, along with others—Ortiz, Garduno, Sena, the precious ditches still bear their names today—became islanded within its borders. Of all the Tewa pueblos, Nambé would prove to be the most peaceful and the poorest. Seasons ascended over the valley and veered away. There were dry years and wet ones. The wind blew, and then came days when the air was so still fans could not push it along. There were sick animals and those it seemed nothing could kill. Violent men ranged at every periphery, and some who were less violent, and a rare few who weren’t. All the while, Nambé watched the mountains abide and monumental clouds wheel above their summits.

  At the center of all this passage was Francisca. Her nephews and nieces—Mateo’s children; Santo’s—departed the valley to seek their fortunes elsewhere, the boys having felt slighted by Montoya’s inheritance which they thought might better have been their own, the girls marrying into other families in Yuma and up in Gunnison. They never accused Juliar Montoya of stinginess. He offered them a stake in the land, on the condition that they work together with him and share. None of the nephews was ever seen again, though the girls sometimes sent a letter.

  Montoya married a gaunt handsome woman from Oklahoma, had children, and died one year shy of the start of the twentieth century. Francisca was saddened that on his death he didn’t join her in the fieldhouse, but she understood her dream was not his. He was buried in Chimayó, three hours’ walk northeast of Rancho de Peña. Every year following his death, his widow, Emily, made the Good Friday pilgrimage to the santuario there. Even in the last year of her life she dug sacred healing dirt from the posito in the mission, then anointed herself and her children with it in the hope it would cure them of illness that loomed about the valley.

  Emily Montoya succumbed in 1918 to the Spanish influenza, the same plague that took all of Montoya’s children but one, a kid named Gil, who had in 1895 been born with a clubfoot but was otherwise healthy, an able rider and hardworking rancher. Gil always fancied horses and kept them on the spread not only for traditional work beneath a rider or before a plow, but for breeding. He married, had two children. The elder, Carl, was his particular pride, but Delfino was well loved, too. Carl and Delfino stayed on the ranch working for their father—though Delf, never very prudent, would in later years move south to Tularosa to homestead some of the most broiling, bony, difficult acres anywhere in the desert West. As these generations went about their routines, Montoya’s land changed little beyond its slow conversion from subsistence ranching of the old days to horse ranching.

  Coyote fences were woven and laid up along the boundaries of their property. Paddocks were built. A new barn was erected, bigger than the last, then a newer one was raised after lightning set the other afire. Irrigation ditches were dug and redug, cleaned and re-cleaned. Spillways were rebuilt, sluice gates refitted. The tawny land went white in winter and greened again in spring when big Navajo willows brightened like lime explosions among the leafing elms and box elders. Naked cuestas and hogbacks and spires out toward Chupadero were resculpted with magnificent delicacy by the slow hand of weather.

  The visions that followed Francisca in her continuous dream were so richly whole as to make her unaware of time’s presence. One thing she missed, however, was the raw tactility of her former waking life. She never bruised or bled now. Drought didn’t make her thirsty. Winter frost failed to chill her. She walked the fields unable to feel the sharp stalks of corn or bulbs of purple garlic. Raindrops in their hurry to reach the ground passed through her body. Amazed, she would extend her arm and watch the drizzle penetrate her palm as if she were not there at all. How she wished she could feel the holy clay of Chimayó, its grainy coolness. But over time she learned not to wish for more than flight and fragrances and the remembrance of touch.

  Doubt is a ghost’s most dangerous adversary. Hoping she was somehow not a ghost had kept her going, but after decades gathered themselves and fell behind the arc of the new century, even Doña Francisca de Peña began to wane. Lately, daybreak exhausted her, and she crouched in shadowy corners of the crumbling fieldhouse, wondering if a dreamer could dream within her dreams other dreams. She began to venture more often into the murky world of doubt, only to return feeling worn down, bereft as some cleric who had lost his calling. She told herself that this unfinished presence, this separating spirit that seemed the furtherance of a life led, was probably some fond but spurious dream that one small part of her heart had wished into being, even though it lay as dust on the ground. Could it be that a single speck of her waking or dreaming self had simply refused to die and, as a result, was now caught in a fantasy? That she had misunderstood her death, and all this was a prophecy of a future that hadn’t come to pass?

  There really were signs she was wasting away. Sometimes she forgot how to ascend the veiled staircase of air. How to smell or see. Sometimes she had to work to convince herself she was the same woman, animated and full of opinions about everything, just as she always had been when this land was hers, and the name Doña Francisca of Nambé carried a weight of authority and respect throughout the valley and outlying lands.

  It wasn’t until this boy saw her, this boy christened Mark but nicknamed Marcos by those who worked on the horse ranch—Rancho Pajarito, they called it now—that she began to believe in herself again. She’d wandered these fields for so long that she hadn’t noticed that no one noticed her after Juliar Montoya cast her ashes here, in the century before the advent of electric power and telephone lines and cellular towers, before cars ferried people in from and out to the highway where the school building had been converted into a shining sad new Indian casino down at the junction of the roads to Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Taos, and Chimayó village.

  With a look of terror and skepticism tailored by reverence in his squinting eyes, Carl’s son, Marcos, confirmed for her the prospect that she was there, a figure, a shape, a vision in someone else’s mind, not just the spectral issue of her own weird genius. The question was, how could she express the gratitude she felt without frightening off her only witness?

  A quiver of excitement stirred the air around her. Marcos, then thirteen, reminded her of her father, Trinidad: strong, rangy, carven-faced, shy yet with a stubborn cast in those midnight-blue eyes. Like her father, he bore a scar on his left forearm. Even as the boy was shocked to see her floating above the field, he wore the same determined frown of Francisca’s father.

  Marcos’s mind was racing, What the hell?

  Reaching out toward him, head tipped, she gestured, beckoning him to understand that she was the same deliberately tenacious woman as ever, possessed of the same hardness as the earth beneath them. She tried to tell him that though time had worn her down a little, and that she’d been roughened by its voluptuous desolation, she was—she was, she existed. How else could she extend her arm and open her fingers like this?

  Marcos stared.

  Heavy wind rolled slow over the des
ert past Tesuque, down what used to be Kit Carson Highway, past Cities of Gold casino whose name chides Coronado even as its gamblers pantomime his weakness, up the reservation road past Pojoaque cemetery where a fresh grave was decorated with pink plastic carnations and a wooden crucifix painted white. It meandered, this wind, along those same lands where Old World conquerors came, brutal Don Juan de Oñate in 1605, Don Diego de Vargas who retook the pueblos after the Indian rebellion at the end of the seventeenth century, alongside hundreds of other souls whose names were also scratched into Inscription Rock but who are now known only as icons, as words, letters, flourishes of the nearly forgotten. It meandered where explorers had worked their way into these domains and, circling as wind and humans and history will do, it blew over barrancas and came down into this valley and rushed right through her. The cottonwood leaves rustled on their numb winter limbs. This was the end of February 1981, the evening when Marcos first saw Francisca. She’d lost her sense of smell but keenly remembered the perfume of greasewood, of piñon smoke and grayblue juniper berries crushed between her fingers, the smell of rainripe droppings left by animals domestic and savage. She knew she couldn’t touch the amber bark of the cottonwoods that smelled like vanilla on hot summer days, but drew in breath—air breathing air—and ran her hand over the trunk of the great tree if only to show him she could, prove to him she was more than some desert draft.

  She tried to speak, a wispy gracías, but intuited by the way his jaw tightened and his cheekbones knobbed out, and his mouth twisted into a scowl of confusion, that he couldn’t hear her. Or didn’t understand. Stubborn as ever, Francisca tried to tell him stories about all the freedoms she enjoyed. Told him that, being lighter than pollen, she could balance herself on the anther of a desert hollyhock. And on the tip of her finger, at that. Told him how she could swim up the heartwood center trunk of any of these trees, counting its rings as she went, then pass the rest of the night listening to an embryo’s heart beat in a hawk egg high in its branches, without ever disturbing the nesting mother.

 
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