Authors: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
She attempted to clean it off, wiping her hands on her nightgown, but the gold dust clung to her palms, it went under her nails. Golden dust swirled around her, and it lit up the room, bathing it in a soft yellow light. When she looked above, she saw the dust glittering like miniature stars against the ceiling, and below, on the rug, was another golden swirl of stars.
She brushed her foot forward, disturbing the dust on the rug, and it bounced up into the air again, then fell.
Suddenly, Noemí was aware of a presence in the room. She raised her head, her hand pressed against her nightgown, and saw someone standing by the door. It was a woman in a dress of yellowed antique lace. Where her face ought to have been there was a glow, golden like that of the mushrooms on the wall. The woman’s glow grew stronger, then dimmed. It was like watching a firefly in the summer night sky.
Next to Noemí the wall had started to quiver, beating to the same rhythm as the golden woman. Beneath her the floorboards pulsed too; a heart, alive and knowing. The golden filaments that had emerged together with the mushrooms covered the wall like a netting and continued to grow. She noticed, then, that the woman’s dress was not made of lace, but was instead woven with the same filaments.
The woman raised a gloved hand and pointed at Noemí, and she opened her mouth, but having no mouth since her face was a golden blur, no words came out.
Noemí had not felt scared. Not until now. But this, the woman attempting to speak, it made her indescribably afraid. A fear that traveled down her spine, to the soles of her feet, forcing Noemí to step back and press her hands against her lips.
She had no lips, and when she tried to take another step back she realized that her feet had fused to the ground. The golden woman reached forward, reached toward her, and held Noemí’s face between her hands. The woman made a noise, like the crunching of leaves, like the dripping of water onto a pond, like the buzzing of insects in the pitch-black darkness, and Noemí wished to press her hands against her ears, but she had no hands anymore.
Noemí opened her eyes, drenched in sweat. For a minute she didn’t remember where she was, and then she recalled she had been invited to High Place. She reached for the glass of water she’d left by the bedside and almost knocked it down. She gulped down the whole glass and then turned her head.
The room was in shadows. No light, golden or otherwise, dotted the wall’s surface. Nevertheless, she had an impulse to rise and run her hands against the wall, as if to make sure there was nothing strange lurking behind the wallpaper.
Noemí’s best bet for obtaining a car was Francis. She didn’t think Florence would give her the time of day, and Virgil had been absolutely irritated with her when they had spoken the previous day. Noemí remembered what Virgil had said about men doing as she wanted. It bothered her to be thought of poorly. She wanted to be liked. Perhaps this explained the parties, the crystalline laughter, the well-coiffed hair, the rehearsed smile. She thought that men such as her father could be stern and men could be cold like Virgil, but women needed to be liked or they’d be in trouble. A woman who is not liked is a bitch, and a bitch can hardly do anything: all avenues are closed to her.
Well, she definitely did not feel liked in this house, but Francis was friendly enough. She found him near the kitchen, looking more washed out than the previous days, a slim figure of ivory, but his eyes were energetic. He smiled at her. When he did, he wasn’t bad looking. Not quite like his cousin—Virgil was terribly attractive—but then she thought most men would have had a hard time competing with Virgil. No doubt that’s what had hooked Catalina. That pretty face. Maybe the air of mystery he’d had about him too had made Catalina forget about sensible matters.
, Noemí’s father had said.
That’s what that man has to offer
Apparently also a rambling, old house where you were liable to have bad dreams. God, the city seemed so far away.
“I’d like to ask you for a favor,” she said after they’d exchanged morning pleasantries. As she spoke she linked her arm to his with a fluid, well-practiced motion, and they began walking together. “I want to borrow one of your cars and go into town. I have letters I’d like to post. My father doesn’t really know how I’m doing.”
“You need me to drive you there?”
“I can drive myself there.”
Francis made a face, hesitating. “I don’t know what Virgil would say about that.”
She shrugged. “You don’t have to tell him. What, you don’t think I can drive? I’ll show you my license if you want.”
Francis ran a hand through his fair hair. “It’s not that. The family is very particular about the cars.”
“And I’m very particular about driving on my own. Surely I don’t need a chaperone, and you’d make a terrible chaperone, anyway.”
“Who ever heard of a man playing chaperone? You need an insufferable aunt. I can lend you one of mine for a weekend if you’d like. It’ll cost you a car. Will you help me, please? I’m desperate.”
He chuckled as she steered him outside. He picked up the car keys hanging from a hook in the kitchen. Lizzie, one of the maids, was rolling bread upon a floured table. She did not acknowledge either Noemí or Francis even one bit. The staff at High Place was almost invisible, like in one of Catalina’s fairy tales.
Beauty and the Beast
, that had been it, had it not? Invisible servants who cooked the meals and laid down the silverware. Ridiculous. Noemí knew all the people who worked in her house by name, and they certainly were not begrudged their chatter. That she even knew the names of the staff at High Place seemed a small miracle, but she’d asked Francis, and Francis had obligingly introduced them: Lizzie, Mary, and Charles, who, like the porcelain locked in the cabinets, had been imported from England many decades ago.
They walked toward the shed, and he handed her the car keys. “You won’t get lost?” Francis asked, leaning against the car’s window and looking down at her.
“I can manage.”
True enough. It wasn’t as if one could even attempt to get lost. The road led up or down the mountain, and down she went, to the little town. She felt quite content during the drive and rolled her window open to enjoy the fresh mountain air. It wasn’t such a bad place, she thought, once you got out of the house. It was the house that disfigured the land.
Noemí parked the car by the town square, guessing both the post office and the medical clinic must be nearby. She was right and was quickly rewarded with the sight of a little green-and-white building that proclaimed itself the medical unit. Inside there were three green chairs and several posters explaining all matter of diseases. There was a receiving desk, but it was empty, and a closed door with a plaque on it and the doctor’s name in large letters.
Julio Eusebio Camarillo
, it said.
She sat down, and after a few minutes the door opened and out came a woman holding a toddler by the hand. Then the doctor poked his head through the doorway and nodded at her.
“Good day,” he said. “How can I help you?”
“I’m Noemí Taboada,” she said. “You are Dr. Camarillo?”
She had to ask because the man looked rather young. He was very dark and had short hair that he parted down the middle and a little mustache that did not really age him, managing to make him look a bit ridiculous, like a child mimicking a physician. He also wasn’t wearing a doctor’s white coat, just a beige-and-brown sweater.
“That’s me. Come in,” he said.
Inside his office, on the wall behind his desk, she indeed saw the certificate from the UNAM with his name in an elegant script. He also had an armoire, the doors thrown open, filled with pills, cotton swabs, and bottles. A large maguey lay in a corner in a yellow pot.
The doctor sat behind his desk and Noemí sat on a plastic chair, which matched the ones in the vestibule.
“I don’t think we’ve met before,” Dr. Camarillo said.
“I’m not from around here,” she said, placing her purse on her lap and leaning forward. “I’ve come to see my cousin. She’s sick, and I thought you might take a look at her. She has tuberculosis.”
“Tuberculosis? In El Triunfo?” the doctor asked, sounding quite astonished. “I hadn’t heard anything about that.”
“Not in El Triunfo proper. At High Place.”
“The Doyle house,” he said haltingly. “You are related to them?”
“No. Well, yes. By marriage. Virgil Doyle is married to my cousin Catalina. I was hoping you’d go check on her.”
The young doctor looked confused. “But wouldn’t Dr. Cummins be taking care of her? He’s their doctor.”
“I’d like a second opinion, I suppose,” she said and explained how strange Catalina seemed and her suspicions that she might require psychiatric attention.
Dr. Camarillo listened patiently to her. When she was done, he twirled a pencil between his fingers.
“The thing is, I’m not sure I’d be welcome at High Place if I showed up there. The Doyles have always had their own physician. They don’t mingle with the townsfolk,” he said. “When the mine was operational and they hired Mexican workers, they had them living at a camp up the mountain. Arthur Cummins senior also tended to them. There were several epidemics back when the mine was open, you know. Lots of miners died, and Cummins had his hands full, but he never requested local help. I don’t believe they think much of local physicians.”
“What sort of epidemic was it?”
He tapped his pencil’s eraser against his desk three times. “It wasn’t clear. A high fever, very tricky. People would say the oddest things, they’d rant and rave, they’d have convulsions, they’d attack each other. People would get sick, they’d die, then all would be well, and a few years later again the mystery illness would strike.”
“I’ve seen the English Cemetery,” Noemí said. “There are many graves.”
“That’s only the English people. You should see the local cemetery. They said that in the last epidemic, around the time the Revolution started, the Doyles didn’t even bother sending down the corpses for a proper burial. They tossed them in a pit.”
“That can’t be, can it?”
The phrase carried with it an implicit distaste. The doctor didn’t say, “Well, I believe it,” but it seemed there might be no reason why he shouldn’t.
“You must be from El Triunfo, then, to know all of this.”
“From near enough,” he said. “My family sold supplies to people at the Doyle mine, and when they shuttered it, they moved to Pachuca. I went to study in Mexico City, but now I’m back. I wanted to help the people here.”
“You should start by helping my cousin, then,” she said. “Will you come up to the house?”
Dr. Camarillo smiled but he shook his head, apologetic. “I told you, you’ll get me in trouble with Cummins and the Doyles.”
“What can they do to you? Aren’t you the town’s physician?”
“The health clinic is public, and the government pays for bandages, rubbing alcohol, and gauze. But El Triunfo is small, it’s needy. Most people are goat farmers. Back when the Spaniards controlled the mine, they could support themselves making tallow for the miners. Not now. There’s a church and a very nice priest here, and he collects alms for the poor.”
“And I bet the Doyles place money in his contribution box and the priest is your friend,” Noemí said.
“Cummins places the contributions in the box. The Doyles don’t bother with that. But it’s their money, all the same, everyone knows it.”
She didn’t think the Doyles had much money left; the mine had been closed for more than three decades. But their bank account must have a modest balance, and a little bit of cash might go a long way in an isolated town like El Triunfo.
What to do now? She thought it over, quickly, and decided to take advantage of those theater lessons her father had considered a waste of money.
“Then you won’t help me. You’re afraid of them! Oh, and here I am without a friend in the world,” she said, clutching her purse and standing up slowly, her lip quivering dramatically. Men always panicked when she did that, afraid she’d cry. Men were always so afraid of tears, of having a hysterical woman on their hands.
At once the doctor made a placating motion and spoke quickly. “I didn’t say that.”
“Then?” she pressed on, sounding hopeful, giving him the most fetching of smiles, the one she used when she wanted to get a policeman to let her go without a speeding ticket. “Doctor, it would mean the world to me if you helped.”
“Even if I go, I’m no psychologist.”
Noemí took out her handkerchief and clutched it, a little visual reminder that she could, at any moment, break into tears and start dabbing at her eyes. She sighed.
“I could head to Mexico City, but I don’t want to leave Catalina alone, especially if there’s no need for it. I may be wrong. You’d save me a long trip back and forth; the train doesn’t even run every day. Will you do me this little favor? Will you come?”
Noemí looked at him, and he looked back at her with a dose of skepticism, but he nodded his head. “I’ll stop by Monday around noon.”
“Thanks,” she said, standing up quickly and shaking his hand, and then, remembering the fullness of her errand, she paused. “By the way, do you know a Marta Duval?”
“Are you going around talking to every specialist in town?”
“Why do you say that?”
“She’s the local healer.”
“Do you know where she lives? My cousin wanted a remedy from her.”
“Does she? Well, I suppose it makes sense. Marta does a lot of business with the women in town. Gordolobo tea is still a popular remedy for tuberculosis.”
“Does it help?”
“It’s fine enough for coughs.”
Dr. Camarillo bent down over his desk and drew a map on his notepad and handed it to her. Noemí decided to walk to Duval’s house, since he said it was nearby, and it turned out to be a good idea, because the path that led to the woman’s house would have been no good for a car and the way there was a little convoluted, the streets following no plan, growing chaotic. Noemí had to ask for directions, despite the map.
She spoke to a woman who was doing her laundry by the front door of her house, scrubbing a shirt against a battered washboard. The woman put down her bar of Zote soap and informed Noemí she had to go uphill a little farther. The town’s neglect was more obvious the farther you moved from the central square and the church. The houses became shacks made of bare brick, and everything seemed gray and dusty, with scrawny-looking goats or chickens stuck behind rickety fences. Some dwellings were abandoned, with no doors or windows left. She supposed the neighbors had scavenged whatever wood, glass, and other materials they could take. When they’d driven through town, Francis must have taken the most scenic of roads, and even then her impression had been of decay.
The healer’s house was very small and stood out because it was painted white and was better taken care of. An old woman with her hair in a long braid, wearing a blue apron, sat outside by the door on a three-legged stool. She had two bowls next to her and was peeling peanuts. In one bowl she threw the discarded shells, in another she threw the peanuts. The woman did not look up as Noemí approached her. She was humming a tune.
“Excuse me,” Noemí said. “I’m looking for Marta Duval.”
The humming ceased. “You’ve got the prettiest shoes I’ve even seen,” the old woman said.
Noemí glanced down at the pair of black high-heeled shoes she was wearing. “Thank you.”
“I don’t get many people with pretty shoes like that.”
The woman cracked another peanut open and tossed it into the bowl. Then she stood up. “I’m Marta,” she said, looking up at Noemí, her eyes cloudy with cataracts.
Marta went into the house carrying a bowl in each hand. Noemí followed her inside, into a small kitchen that also served as the dining room. On a wall there was a picture of the Sacred Heart and a bookshelf held plaster figurines of saints, candles, and bottles filled with herbs. From the ceiling there also hung herbs and dried flowers, lavender and epazote and branches of rue.
Noemí knew there were healers who made all sorts of remedies, gathering herbs for hangovers and herbs for fevers, and even tricks to cure the evil eye, but Catalina had never been the type to seek such cures. The first book that had gotten Noemí really interested in anthropology had been
Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande,
and when she tried to discuss it with Catalina, Catalina would not hear of it. The mere word “witchcraft” gave her a fright, and a healer of Duval’s sort was two steps removed from witchcraft, not only handing out tonics but also curing the susto by placing a cross of holy palm on someone’s head.