THE WOODCARVER AND THE WITCH
FROST PERMEATED TAOS VALLEY
one late spring morning as Patrociño got up from his homemade bed with metal springs and a wool-filled mattress. He sipped his coffee, scooped up his calabacitas with his tortilla, and thought about his garden. He would have a supply of dried squash, posole, beets, carrots, turnips and other delicacies to enjoy during the long winter months.
Later he noticed that the two ripening squash he had seen earlier were gone. Someone was stealing his vegetables! That night he walked to his garden and lay down by the acequia to keep watch. Soon after he detected movement. Someone dressed in black was picking through his carrots, beets, and turnips. He jumped up and ran toward the person yelling as loudly as he could, “Oye, cabrón!” Startled, the thief immediately ran, jumping over a barbed-wire fence with ease. As he gave chase he saw it was a woman, his neighbor Doña Clara — but fast as he was, he couldn’t catch her. She seemed to fly over the barbed-wire fences in her long black dress.
The next morning, he walked to Doña Clara’s. When she opened her door, he said, “Buenos días. I came to ask why you were stealing my vegetables. I saw you last night, and the evidence is on your table — the tops of the carrots and beets.”
“How dare you. Are you crazy, accusing me of being a thief? Get out of my house!”
Patrociño’s parting words were, “You’ll have to convince the justice of the peace. I’m taking you to court!”
From Doña Clara’s he walked to town directly to J.P. Flores, the justice of the peace, and lodged his complaint against Doña Clara. Five days later, at trial, J.P. Flores in his heavily accented English asked Dona Clara, “Guilte or not guilte?” Doña Clara mimicked the judge and replied, “Not guilte!” Patrociño related the story of the night of the full moon and his chase of a woman he recognized as
Doña Clara, dressed all in black, who seemed to fly over a barbedwire fence, and that he went to her house early the next morning and saw the same kind of vegetables that were missing from his garden. J.P. turned to Doña Clara for her defense. She said she had purchased the carrots and beets from Pete Sahd at the Ranchos Trading Post.
The judge called for a brief recess, went to his kitchen, and called Pete Sahd. He asked Pete if he knew Doña Clara and if he had sold her beets and carrots. Pete said he knew Doña Clara — “Doesn’t everyone?” — but he did not have carrots or beets yet and could truthfully state that Doña Clara had not been at his store for many months.
J.P. Flores then returned to the bench and promptly found Doña Clara guilty of the theft. She denounced the finding as an outrage and cursed the judge: “You shall pay for the injustice you have
perpetrated against me.” Under her breath, she uttered: “Y que te lleve la chingada, viejo cabrón!”
Everyone who believed in witchcraft knew Doña Clara was a witch. J.P. Flores did not believe in such nonsense, but that night at midnight, and every night thereafter, he was awakened by a hooting owl on top of the ponderosa pine near his window. Every night J.P. took careful aim and shot at the owl, but it would fly away. It kept coming back, night after night. It was his friend Belisandro Mares who suggested that the judge consider putting a cross on the bullet. Witches often assumed the form of an owl, and the only way to get rid of such an owl was to carve a cross on the tip of the bullet.
The next night, J.P. Flores was waiting with his .22 and two bullets with a cross on their tips. He took careful aim, squeezed a round off, and immediately knew by the “thud” that he had hit the owl. The next night J.P. Flores slept soundly.
Two days after J.P. Flores shot the owl, Juan Joker was walking by Doña Clara’s house and noticed a broken kitchen window. He walked up to the window and looked inside. He saw Doña Clara splayed out on her kitchen floor, covered in blood, and the walls splattered, as if a giant bird in its last throes had flapped its blood on all the walls. After that experience, Juan Joker stopped drinking, albeit for only a week. Doña Clara was returned to the earth at the Campo Santo de Cañon, in the community where she had been conceived and where she had lived her life. And life went on in the little community of Cañon.
This November morning a hummingbird rests at the very top of the leafless sycamore, a green iridescence that should have flown long ago to lands of scarlet flowers and winter warmth. Perhaps her tiny sun clock has failed her. One morning soon, her infinitesimal feet frozen to a branch, it will be too late.
Humans — one greasy meal, one slide on a slick road, one shovelful of heavy snow, one invasion, one election too many — are always surprised when disaster overtakes us, but I had thought birds lived steady in the rhythm of the world outside our hubris.