by PHILLIP JONES
Teresa’s father is keeping company with the santo he is carving, San Juan Nepomuceno, martyred for not sharing a queen’s confession, now the patron of secrets and silence. A gentle man who married late, Filemón has little patience left for the world, or for his young daughter. He works quietly at the side of the front porch, trying not to trample the remnant of his wife’s sunflowers, hollyhocks, and geraniums.
When Teresa misbehaves, her father will offer a reward if she can be good or do a helpful task by dinner time. But she often makes a mistake—sometimes by accident, other times on purpose—and he withholds the reward. Teresa then runs from home, usually barefoot, off somewhere into the hills surrounding their village. When she is very upset with her father, like today, Teresa goes to the morada, a small adobe chapel, a half-mile up a winding path, on the mesa overlooking Trampas.
Once the sound of her father’s voice fades and she tires of playing imaginary games and of looking at the mountains miles and miles away, Teresa slides the wooden bolt from the jamb and opens the door to a small room attached to the chapel. She knows that it is safe to enter as Doña Sebastiana, the pale figure of death almost hidden in a dark corner, is blindfolded and cannot see her come or go. Teresa cannot bring herself to touch any of the sacred objects kept in the storeroom—rattles; a drum; two disciplinas, the strips of cactus braided into whips; and a madero, a cross carried by los hermanos, this one painted black and decorated with three silver nails on one arm, a hammer and a pair of pliers on the other. Teresa remembers watching her mother, Asuncionita, wrapped in a black rebozo, walk in processions for María. The girl turns and runs, without securing the door, to hide behind a large section of red rock jutting up out of the mesa. Gusts of wind slam shut and fling open the storeroom door. Teresa peeks out from the rock and sees a rope hanging down, tied to a bell mounted on the flat roof of the morada. After pushing the storeroom door to, Teresa gently tugs on the bell cord, just enough to release a soft, metallic tone.
“Niña,” she hears in a hushed voice, which she mistakes for the whistling wind.
“Niña,” the voice repeats. Teresa looks back in the storeroom, where Doña Sebastiana stands still and quiet. Behind the narrow chapel, however, she finds a child, a girl her own height standing near the calvario, the three crosses lodged into the edge of the mesa, visible far to the west. The girls have seen each other before—in the village, on opposite sides of the creek running between Teresa’s house and the foot of the mesa. Like all girls in and around Trampas, she has long dark hair, darker than Teresa’s, pulled back and her ears are pierced with small golden rings. Teresa refuses to dress like other girls in Trampas, the way her father wants her to, so her light brown hair hangs loose, and the only jewelry she wears is a medal for Santa Teresa de Ávila, her namesake, who her mother said also preferred to run barefoot.
“What’s your name?” Teresa asks.
“Me llamo Rosario,” she answers. And then says, “Ven,”gesturing toward the morada.
Together, the girls pull open the door to the storeroom and step back.
“La Muerte,” says the other girl, pointing to the figure standing next to a miniature ox-cart.
“She looks scared,” Teresa tells the girl. “And she looks unhappy.”
“Necesita sol,” Rosario says.
The girls lift the foot-tall figure into the cart, setting her between a rock, a rope, and an ax-head, tools La Muerte uses to trap her victims.
“Yes, she’s pale, so the morning sun can help her,” Teresa says.
“Claro,” says Rosario. “Pero, también más colores, aretes, cosas lindas.”
Teresa nods. In her own house, her father prefers Spanish, but her mother spoke only English. “Colors, earrings, beautiful things,” she says.
The girls sit next to the cart and plan how to make Death happy.
Both girls rise and share the handle of La Muerte’s ox-cart. From the west side of the mesa, they slowly descend a switchback trail and then cross the pasture leading to Rosario’s solitary house, nearly hidden behind a tower of red rock.
After Rosario goes inside, Teresa can hear through the closed front door the muffled voices of the girl and a woman speaking Spanish. She finds a stick and pokes at a large bowl of table scraps on a crate near an outside corner of the small, square house. Teresa has heard her father talk about this house on the far side of the mesa, where a woman, who pays no attention to the ways of the village or of the church, now lives with her daughter. When the voices cease, Rosario comes outside and carries the bowl to a fenced portion of the pasture, emptying it into pens for their chickens and goats. When she returns to the house, Rosario sets the bowl where she found it and says again, “Ven,” and opens the front door.
Teresa steps over the threshold, from the dusty path to the pounded, dark red floor of the front room. Teresa wipes her feet on the braided rag rug just inside the door and bends to look more closely at the cool, earthen floor, wondering if its color has come from animals’ blood, a custom her father has said some people outside the village still follow.
“No es sangre. Es mora,” the woman tells her. “I took the color from berries and gave it to the floor.”
“You speak English,” Teresa says.
Teresa steps onto the floor and looks up to find the woman smiling with narrowed eyes; she is squinting as she has never gone to Taos for the glasses she needs, preferring instead that mysteries are forever revealing themselves through shapes and shadows, like the barefoot child before her.
“You girls have brought Death to my door.”
“Mira,” says Rosario, holding out a red hair ribbon, and the girls set to work.
They undress La Muerte, washing her wooden skeleton in a metal tub in the kitchen, scrubbing her hair, a horsetail stiffened by years of dust and soot. Afterward, they wrap her in a towel and dry her in the sun, her hair combed free of tangles and her black felt robe laid across a round red rock. All of La Muerte’s other belongings—a silver tin crown, a belt of stars, and her bow and arrow—have been wiped and placed in her ox-cart.
The woman brings a blanket outside, carefully spreading it on the ground, before disappearing back into the house. Each girl holds one of La Muerte’s oversized hands, rippling pieces of cottonwood root, with carved and red-painted lines separating the fingers. Rosario’s mother returns with small ceramic bowls containing different colors of paint, her dress pockets stuffed with strips of white rags.
“Miren, mis niñas,” the woman tells the girls. She takes a piece of white rag and dips it into a bowl and dabs the bright red color on one of La Muerte’s fingernails.
“Y aquí, también,” she says, adding a lighter red to one of the figure’s cheeks. “Bueno,” she says, standing and gesturing toward the half dozen colors of paint she has made from dyes: yellow made from clay, brown from walnuts, dark gray from lampblack, and red from the cochineal bugs found in cactus. She gives the girls two paint brushes, one made from chicken feathers, the other bought at a store on the square in Taos.
Rosario pulls back La Muerte’s clean hair and braids it into a single thick strand, which she ties with the red satin ribbon; Teresa adds two red barrettes to keep the shorter hair in place. Through the rest of the morning, the girls thin her eyebrows, add eyelashes, and give her muted pink cheeks and bright red lips. They rub her rough-hewn body with files and scraps of screen and then paint her with a light brown yeso, for a shade of skin somewhere between their own. The woman helps the girls trim the long robe into an ankle-length dress; they tighten the collar to cover her elongated neck and shorten her belt, making pendants and earrings from stars that had dangled to the ground.
“I wish we could close her mouth,” says Teresa, pointing to the figure’s handful of widely spaced wooden teeth.
“She is an old woman. She should not look like you, or even like me,” says Rosario’s mother. “But you have made her smile.” Pointing to the slightly upturned ends of La Muerte’s mouth, she adds, “Eso es lo importante.”
As they finish, the woman takes La Muerte inside the house while Rosario and Teresa begin to gather the bowls, rags, and blanket. When she returns, La Muerte is resting in Rosario’s mother’s arms like small child. “Miren. She is even more beautiful,” the woman tells the girls. “And happy.” A layer of white lace is now draped over the skirt of La Muerte’s black dress, and her braided hair is covered in a veil of the same fine lace.
“Y la corona?” Rosario asks.
Retrieving the silver, punched-tin crown from the ox-cart, Teresa holds it up, against the blue summer sky. “The crown is beautiful, too,” she says. “Look how it shines.” Teresa returns the crown to La Muerte’s oval-shaped head.
“Bueno. We do not have to fear Doña Sebastiana any longer,” the woman says.
The girls nod and watch Rosario’s mother drop La Muerte’s ragged yucca blindfold into the bowl of table scraps.
Before stepping inside to prepare the midday meal, she adds, “Teresa, por favor, will go home now, and Doña Sebastiana return to the morada.”
Teresa looks back toward the mesa, to the three crosses, where she sees a figure move quickly away from the edge. The girls pull the ox-cart back up the long trail, but when they reach the morada, there is a padlock on the door and large footprints in the dust surrounding the building. Teresa walks from the ox-cart to the edge of the mesa and peers down to the village below. There, she sees her father leave the trail, step over the waist-high tapiaaround their home, and go inside.
Teresa looks back to Rosario and begins to cry. She does not know why she did not tell Rosario that her father, one of the village’s santeros, carved the Doña Sebastiana they took from the storeroom. And she fears that her father saw them working outside Rosario’s house.
“We’ve made La Muerte happy, but my father will be very angry with me.”
Both girls look at the clean, tastefully dressed figure in the ox-cart. La Muerte has slid to the back on the journey to the top of the mesa; both her hands hang over the edge of the cart, as if she, too, wants to run away.
Rosario pushes the ox-cart by herself back down the mesa. She knows that her mother will want to keep Doña Sebastiana in their house, somewhere open, like a shelf in the kitchen, where they can see her, where she can see them.
As Teresa walks slowly home, down the familiar east-side trail, many of her barefoot steps fall into her father’s deep shoe prints. She does not want to lie. She knows that when she arrives home, her father will tell her to wash for dinner, both her hands and her feet, and that he will turn and look away, his anger settling into silence and disappointment. Her mother told her once that when upset, her father withdraws inside himself, somewhere away from other people, as if retreating to a moradaor a temple or even a castle. Teresa will take her seat at the pine table her father made the summer she was born; she will lean on the wide, wooden backrest of her chair and rest her head among the blossoms he carved there—sunflowers, hollyhocks, and geraniums.
“What have you done to La Muerte, Teresa?” he will ask after the meal, using the English her mother would have. “You can’t change her.”
“But we can, papá,” Teresa will tell him. “And she’ll treat us better now,” the girl will say, echoing Rosario’s mother, wanting to believe the words herself.