Jan 11, 2013
44 Min read time
Mota studied the map as the viceroy’s plump, pink finger traced the line of peaks into the far reaches of the northwestern frontier.
“Here,” the viceroy said, stopping his finger in a wide stretch of empty parchment. “This is where he says it is.”
The viceroy was sitting in his sedan chair, held above the greenest lawn in all of New Spain by a pair of smooth-skinned Guinea bucks. Women in meringue-pale dresses strolled past, followed by dandies with needle-thin swords at their waists. Parrots and quetzals squawked in brass cages hung among the trees, stretched their feathers against the wire bars.
“And you believe him, Excellency?” Mota asked.
“He gave me proof,” the viceroy said. “Listen. Ninety pesos to the quintal, sixty thousand marks of silver a year. The mine is too rich to ignore.” He leaned farther out, causing the front bearer’s knees to buckle, and tapped Mota on the chest. “I want you to claim it.”
• • •
Mota had been an inspector of mines for the Royal Audiencia for ten years. It was not the career he had intended for himself. At Salamanca his sole friend, the third son of the Duke of Córdoba, had fed him stories of the New World: ribbons of ore, impatient Creole virgins, the moon hanging low above a hacienda. So he had come, securing a minor post copying letters in the Audiencia and envisioning a future that already seemed set. He would become rich without thinking and live out his days growing fat in a Creole palace, tickling his mistress each night while his wife whelped a child a year. Debarking at Vera Cruz, he had bribed the customs men and the men from the Holy Office—whose long, spidery fingers handled every passenger’s books—so that he might hurry toward this new life in the city of Mexico.
He’d started off well. Within six months he’d made a good match, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a wine merchant, Maria Isabel. He’d seen her at a ball, standing behind a knot of protective old women, and her dark eyes, her willowy figure, her quiet manner had seemed to hold the secret to his happiness. He wrote letters and had them spirited to her room, spent nights hunched beneath her window. One evening a servant bumped into him in the street and pressed a handkerchief in his hand. It was Maria Isabel’s, and it contained a note in which she confessed that his constant, sorrowful figure had unlatched her soul.
More letters were exchanged. Mota saw Maria Isabel at other balls, trailed her during her afternoon walks. He pleaded with her father, and after a month of pressing his case secured the man’s approval. Then, a week before they were to marry, Mota bribed the cook to sicken Maria Isabel’s duenna, so that he might climb through his waiting love’s window and claim her virginity. He and Maria Isabel lay together in her great bed with its silk-trimmed sheets until the hour before dawn, giggling as they listened to old Rosita curse and retch. A day later, though, Maria Isabel broke into sweats, and by the morning set for their wedding she was wrapped in lace and laid in her grave. The surgeon said the disease had risen from the lake in a fume, but Mota blamed himself. He was 22. Locked in his tiny, rented room for five days, he wept until he felt his heart turn brittle. Then he went to the president of the Audiencia and begged for a job that would send him from the city, and the president gave him a mine to audit at Cuencamé.
• • •
The viceroy had told Mota he would find his guide waiting at the pulqueria Hijas de Hernandez, and it was there Mota went after he left the Alameda. The pulqueria stood alongside a canal in the southeastern quarter of the city, behind the Convent of La Merced. Indian bargemen and idle Creoles sat in its court, shaded by lemon trees as they watched leaves float toward the weir. Their watching was intense, punctuated by shouts—wagers had been placed on each leaf’s progress.
Inside the pulqueria most of the tables were empty, and those that weren’t were occupied by slouched loners or whisperers craned over their drinks. One of Hernandez’s gawky daughters leaned against the bar, her face lit by a feeble shaft of sun. Alongside the far wall sat a man with the distinct look of a freshly bathed vagrant, his clothes new, his hair washed and combed, yet a nimbus of filth staining his person. His hand rested on a half-empty carafe.
Mota crossed the room toward him. “You are Father Pascual?” he asked. The previous morning, so Mota had learned, a man in tattered black robes calling himself by this name had taken the viceroy’s arm as he was leaving the cathedral. He had claimed to be a fugitive from Tayopa, said he had lived in hiding for two years, and offered, for a sizable sum, to guide a party back through the wilderness.
“I am,” the vagrant said, and gestured to the table’s empty chair. The man looked no older than Mota, but he was balding, his skin callused and burnt, and he had mummied, claw-like hands. Mota sat and, keeping his voice low, said, “I will get straight to it. You say you come from Tayopa.”
Father Pascual bowed in acknowledgement.
“Do you have a map?”
“Here,” Father Pascual said as he tapped the left side of his forehead.
Here beat the true pulse of the New World. Here its promises of happiness were given the lie.
“Tell me, then, are the stories true? You Jesuits, your Yaqui slaves, bells struck in silver and gold?”
“Much of it is true,” Father Pascual said.
Mota took the carafe of pulque, tipped some into one of the spare glasses sitting on the table, and sipped. His throat burned.
“Why did you leave?”
“I had my reasons.”
“All right, so tell me how.”
“By night, by accident, and by terror.”
Worry swelled like a cloud beneath Mota’s stomach. The man shifted, turned, refused him even the slightest hint of solid truth. “You must give me a reason to trust you,” Mota said.
Father Pascual looked at him for a moment, then took a silk bundle from his pocket, laid it on the table, and unwrapped a dull, dung-colored rock streaked with the purest vein of silver Mota had ever seen.
“You could have gotten that from anywhere,” Mota said.
“Please. You know there’s no silver like this left in the New World. Except, of course, where I took it from.”
Mota felt his mouth turn dry. “Dawn,” he said as Father Pascual put away the rock. “The western causeway. I’ll have a mule ready for you.”
• • •
Mota had arrived at Cuencamé just four weeks after Maria Isabel’s death, steeped still in his sorrow, the memories of Maria Isabel continuing each day to leach into his blood. A branch of the mine had collapsed, and the low, steady toll of the church’s bell summoned coffin sellers to the mine’s iron gate, where already a horde of desperate men clamored for the dead men’s places. They shoved against widows, and two of the strivers toppled an unclaimed corpse. Mota watched with a mixture of fascination and disgust. Here beat the true pulse of the New World. Here its promises of happiness were given the lie, here the earth opened, loosing the upper chambers of Hell, and stripped men of all falsity.
When, a month later, Mota returned from Cuencamé with his audits, he asked the president of the Audiencia for another mine.
• • •
After his meeting with Father Pascual, Mota spent the evening rousing men for the expedition. Among the few in the city he trusted, he found three willing to go. The first was Baltazar, a half-Chichimec with a bull neck who’d once guided conductas through the Yucatán and had a skillful way with mules and the various necessities of camp life. The second was El Sepo, a hulking, muscled mulatto who wore gold rings etched with skulls, wrote poetry in a little pigskin book, and was an expert tracker and fighter. The last was Fernando, a young, bespectacled Creole scholar who always brought with him a satchel of brass instruments fashioned in Leyden and a large sketchbook complete with inks and watercolors for the making of maps and prospects. Mota hadn’t seen any of the three for months, and when he told them where they were going, each one laughed and shook his head until Mota showed him the viceroy’s order with its promise of pay. Now all three waited with him at the end of the western causeway. Baltazar fiddled with the packs and hummed a tune from the city’s most recent mascarada, Fernando tested one of his Dutch glasses, and El Sepo frowned and crossed out lines in his pigskin book. Already the sun had risen an inch over the low eastern mountains, and Father Pascual was nowhere to be seen. Mota sat his horse, attempted to stifle his nerves as he watched the city. It seemed a storyteller’s vision floating in the middle of its lake, lashed to the land by narrow bridges and causeways, its bell towers and palms and poplars caught in the blue smoke of morning. But then Mota caught sight of a street cleaner pulling his cart of furred corpses; he turned away, remembering the feel of Maria Isabel’s cold, dead hand.
When Father Pascual at last arrived, jogging across the causeway, he shouted his apologies. The man was wearing the same clothes as the day before and carried nothing but a sackcloth bag, stained and worn to a shine at its folds. At Mota’s command Baltazar gave the ex-Jesuit a mule, and the party set out.
• • •
The first stage of their journey, from Mexico to Zacatecas, was the easiest. The road was a smooth, tended highway that ran northwest through long-settled country, passing tidy villages, each with its bell tower and public garden, and taverns with bright wooden signs. Farmers in carts trundled by, forced aside at times by guard wagons hauling ore. Outside one village an old man sold boiled eggs and cupfuls of milk, and outside another a pig drover and his animals, caught in their cloud of dust, appeared like a spirit army on the horizon.
Mota had taken the Zacatecas route dozens of times. Lulled by its familiarity and by the easy tread of his horse, he let his mind open, caught and followed every memory, every thought: the morning his mother helped him dress for an interview with the priest to see if he had a vocation, the eight long days spent tracking a smuggler in the mist-swaddled mountains south of Oaxaca. He’d become so lost in memory’s thicket that when, four days out of the city, Father Pascual began talking, Mota at first didn’t notice.
‘The country is empty and twisting. You could search for a dozen years and not find the mine.’
“It is not one mine but several,” Father Pascual was saying to the others, “that run along a single rich vein in a box canyon deep in the mountains.”
Mota had pressed Father Pascual for details of Tayopa ever since they set out, but the man had refused to speak. All he knew were the rumors—that it lay beyond the farthest edge of Nueva Vizcaya, that the Jesuits who’d found it had worked it in secret so as not to pay the royal fifth, that the Indian uprising that had engulfed the northern provinces two years before had supposedly begun when the Jesuits’ Yaqui slaves revolted. For years stories had circulated throughout New Spain, filigreed by each teller’s imagination. That the Jesuits were building a grand desert city reached by flying boats was one of Mota’s favorites, delivered from the tooth-scarce mouth of a coffee seller in Mérida as he trudged through the street beneath his urn.
“The country is empty and twisting,” Father Pascual continued. “You could search for a dozen years and not find the mine. As much for secrecy as for fear of getting lost, no one was allowed to leave the canyon once he entered, except two of our brethren, who took the silver—only a fraction of it, mind you—to a mission near the coast, where it was packed in shipments of pilgrims’ sandals bound for Rome.
“My third year at Tayopa I became attached to a youth of sixteen. I taught him our language, and when we were discovered we were punished. One night he and I escaped together. I planned to draw a map as we fled and sell it to the governor of Culiacán, to fund our new life. But my youth was killed by one of the Tepehuán guards who patrolled the outer paths. I had not been seen, and I ran in terror, blindly, through country I had crossed only once before. One month later the Yaqui rose and slaughtered the other Jesuits and the Tepehuáns. I hid in a mangrove swamp along the coast, getting provisions and news from a fishing camp of friendly Mayos, then made my way to Mexico. Two years have passed since that Tepehuán guard took my happiness, two years during which I mourned and hid in fear of the Society, and I care for nothing now except that I get my pay and can flee this country.”
For a few moments the five rode in silence. Then El Sepo spat. “He is a bugger. He admits it.”
Mota looked at Father Pascual. He remembered the slender, dark-haired courtier’s son who moved from bed to bed during his Salamanca days, thought of the rustlings he sometimes overheard in the camps. Such pleasures occurred, but one never spoke of them. “Are you?” Mota asked.
“I am,” the ex-priest said. “And I suppose you could kill me.” Here he paused, as if granting them the opportunity. “But then you wouldn’t find the mine.”
• • •
Five days later they reached the shallow valley that was Zacatecas. The city lay sprawled below, spread before them like a felled giant, dormant in the late afternoon sun. The mines, the camps, the stamping mills—all were silent, abandoned. In the refining yards, where normally teams of men stood in the quicksilvered sludge, chanting as they turned it with shovels, weeds now grew and piles of rusting tools awaited buyers. Mota had not visited the city in some time, but he had heard of its troubles. Two years ago the crown had called in the miners’ quicksilver debts, and immediately a third had gone bankrupt. Then four of the mines flooded, and not a month later came the worst calamity: the Santa Maria, the last of the rich mines, lost its vein.
Once they passed the emptied mining works they gained the city proper. Half the houses were shuttered, and those that weren’t were flung open, flashing their gutted insides like a poor man presenting his turned-out pockets to a thief. Even the beggars had gone. And yet people still lived here: the thin smell of wood fire slipped through the air, and before the tread of their horses two dogs paused in the street, whined, and trotted on.
After a few hundred yards the Plaza de San Agustín opened before them, squared by four oak trees whose overburdened limbs knelt to the ground. Mota halted, the others pulling up behind him. The lodgings he had counted on were boarded up. As he contemplated the wide, blank wall of the convent that formed the plaza’s west side—it, at least, was in good repair—he drank from his water skin. Then, without an exchange of words, Mota guided the others up the next street, toward the Plaza Pública, where he remembered a tavern. They were halfway there when a man in a dusty velvet coat and dirt-stained shirt shot out in front of them from the large stone house on their right. The man waved his hands for them to stop. It took Mota several moments before he recognized him as Don Ignacio Peñafiel, the town’s alcalde. Two years before he’d been fat, his lace cuffs like the traceries of powdered sugar decorating a pastry. Those lace cuffs, blackened with grime, now sagged from bony wrists.
“Don Juan,” Don Ignacio said to Mota. “I almost don’t believe my eyes. What brings you here?” The alcalde looked at the others, his jowls and neck loose with lost flesh. “You must be hungry, tired. Please, do me the honor of a visit. All your party are welcome to my home.”
As soon as Mota accepted the offer, Don Ignacio turned and whistled, and two sour-faced Tepeque servants ambled from the house and guided the horses and mules into the courtyard. The animals stabled, Don Ignacio invited the white men to his second-floor parlor—Baltazar and El Sepo, Indian and mulatto, were to stay behind with the beasts—and begged them to sit while he busied himself at a broad, creaking credenza along the back wall, unlocking one of its cabinets with a key tied around his neck. Mota looked about the room. At first glance, it seemed in order, but on closer inspection he noted pale beards of dust hanging from the walls, holes in the curtains where insects had gnawed unchecked.
Clapping one hand over the man’s mouth, he brought the dagger point to his throat with the other.
A pleased sigh emerged from the credenza, and, inching back out, Don Ignacio brought forth a half-emptied bottle of madeira. After he stood he straightened his loose trousers and coat, then poured precise, small volumes of the madeira into four glasses. He handed Mota the first.
“I hope you have not come to tax us more,” Don Ignacio said.
“Don’t worry,” Mota answered. “My business is to the north.”
“Is it?” Don Ignacio asked, then moved away to hand round the other glasses.
“Far to the north,” Mota said. He sipped his madeira. “But I confess,” he added, “I never expected to find Zacatecas in such straits.”
“Temporary, temporary,” Don Ignacio said. “The vein will be found. The mines will be drained. The crown will show mercy. I’m sure of it.” He sat in the high-backed, spindle-legged chair he’d saved for himself, then looked at Mota, Fernando, and Father Pascual in turn. “Come now. I have heard a story. You are seeking Tayopa.”
Mota shifted in his seat, turned his glass in his fingers. “It is just that,” he said. “A story.”
Don Ignacio grinned. “I’ve heard slabs of silver were left there, sitting out, waiting to be taken. I have two daughters in the convent. They send me tear-stained letters. Their habits give them rashes. They freeze at night and the nuns take away their blankets. One slab—just one slab—would see them married off.”
Mota looked at the man. He remembered Don Ignacio’s daughters, two egg-shaped creatures stuffed in silk. The last time he had visited, they had sat at the end of the room, large-eyed and silent as they snuck strips of ham from their handkerchiefs into their lapdogs’ mouths. Then the shatter-thump of the stamping mills had resounded through the valley, reached even the alcalde’s curtained parlor, and Don Ignacio had been trying to distract him—with false protests and complaints—from the assay office accounts.
“The mine is fantasy,” Mota said, and at this Don Ignacio remained silent until, some minutes later, a bell summoned them to a dinner of meatless stew.
Later that evening, past midnight, Mota woke to a rustling. He’d slept lightly, uncomfortable in Don Ignacio’s house. Now, leaning his head up, he saw a figure crouched before his spilled packs: one of the Tepeques, turning papers over in the moonlight. Mota took his dagger from beneath his pillow and crept up to the Indian. Clapping one hand over the man’s mouth, he brought the dagger point to his throat with the other. At the touch of steel, the Tepeque stiffened in his arms. Mota thought about pulling the dagger closer, feeling it slice into flesh, letting the Tepeque’s blood stream over his fingers. He’d awoken clenched by a sorrow, and he hungered for whatever alchemy the Tepeque’s blood might work in his heart. But instead, after holding him a little longer, he dragged the Indian to the door and with a kick set him free. Then he roused the others and within fifteen minutes they were riding out of town on the northern trail.
• • •
His brief time with Maria Isabel, Mota had long decided, had simply been an aberration from his life’s regular, solitary course.
While a boy in Seville, he’d often sat in the corner of his father’s study, alone, and watched the other children in his quarter with a cold eye. They sometimes played beneath the study’s window, and after they had left, in pursuit of some other pleasure, Mota would slip into the street to pick up the pig’s bladder they had abandoned—he would blow it, as they had, and marvel at how it stretched—or hide where the cleverest had hid during their last game. Sometimes the children found him and invited him to play. He would run with them as they made faces at the wandering Capuchin mendicant, stole a cone of sugar from the grocer’s cart, halted with a hush before a bearded, iron-chested soldier on his mount. But always he felt a shadow between himself and those who were briefly his fellows.
The shadow had returned once Maria Isabel was put in the ground. During the years following Cuencamé, when Mota performed his work, assaying ores and checking ledgers, he shut himself from others, and as his story was learned the people of the camps treated him with a careful respect, believing him to be in the grip of a melancholy that in time, as his injured heart healed, would be sloughed off. But he remained unchanged, and eventually their respect turned to disdain. They said he was like a spoiled child fed only on sweets, that he let pain rot within him. When Mota overheard this he agreed: he could feel the rot just beneath his skin, viscid and black, lying in wait since his youth.
• • •
In Durango, cattle filled the streets, lowing and raising a dust that dimmed the sky while vaqueros circled and struck them with tasseled whips, readying them for the drive to the great mining camps at Parral. Two days beyond the town they crossed mud flats and wide salt marshes, then switchbacked up a rocky gap in the Sierra San Andres. During the uprising, Father Pascual told them, a band of Conchos had set up in the gap and waylaid refugees from the coast. After the Conchos returned to the north, he’d heard, a presidio captain’s daughter, a girl of thirteen, came out of the hills, belly round with child, tongue clipped from her mouth.
Six days later Mota and his men reached the ragged settlement that was Tamotchala, a single street of tents and half-finished adobe houses. In its fly-filled market Indians sat with vegetables and twists of rusted tin on their blankets, gathered from who knew where, while scrawny mules stood roped together, avoiding sale. It was a desperate, dreary place, but Mota, despite himself, felt a muffled fluttering in his gut. He had been to Tamotchala just once before, to inspect the nearby Ojo de Dios mine, a pit worked by a handful of Creoles and half-bloods living beneath stick shelters. But he’d never been beyond the town. Few had. Above Tamotchala spread the blank parchment of the viceroy’s map.
• • •
A sandy Indian track led north and cut through a forest of dry, tangled trees choked with cactus. Mota and the others picked it up just across the river from Tamotchala and for days followed it without event. They passed two abandoned settlers’ clearings, cabins burned and corrals torn down during the uprising, and after the fourth stream they crossed they came upon patches of tilled bean fields, a village of dried mud, and a square of ash and blackened timber. Indians in the fields and in the mud houses stopped their work and looked.
“These are the Mayo,” Father Pascual whispered in Mota’s ear. “That”—he nodded discreetly at the ashen square—“was one of our missions.”
The Mayo watched as Mota and the others passed through. It seemed to satisfy the Indians that the party wasn’t stopping but continuing on.
They said Mota was like a spoiled child fed only on sweets, that he let pain rot within him. He agreed.
Over the next days the forest began to thin. Their third day from the village, they rode past bleached bones, and the sixth day out they arrived at the grassy edge of a wide river. Mota saw a mud-break in the distant reeds, the track continuing on the river’s other side. But before he could ford the river Father Pascual stopped him. They had entered Yaqui territory, and this was the river they must follow east.
“First to the village of Bacom,” Father Pascual said, “and from there to Cocorim, and then into the mountains.”
Cottonwoods grew along the river, but soon gave way to another bean field, at the end of which was a village much like that of the Mayos, with mud houses and a few old stilt huts of mat and cane. As they approached the village, Father Pascual hung at the back. Since leaving Mexico, he had grown out his beard, and now he pressed his hat low on his head.
Just as in the Mayo village, they were watched from hut and field, but here an old man in a long cotton shirt waited for them in the middle of the track. He didn’t move as Mota approached, and when Mota halted, the old man asked their business in piecemeal Spanish.
“We’re riding into the mountains,” Mota said. He had worried there might be trouble when they reached this part of the journey. It was from here, the country along the river, that the Jesuits had taken their slaves. But the soldiers had been cruel when they came north to put down the rebellion, and Mota hoped the memory of that cruelty would be fresh in the Yaqui’s minds, make them wary and timid. He listened to the dull slide of metal against leather, El Sepo drawing his ivory-handled stiletto.
The old Yaqui spat. “Nothing good in the mountains.”
“We go under orders of the king. We have no dealings with the Jesuits.”
“Mountains empty,” the old Yaqui said. “You turn back.” He watched Mota with flinty eyes, but when Mota spurred his horse, the man got out of his way.
Messengers must have sprinted through the bean fields with whispers of their arrival, for in the next village—the one called Cocorim—Yaqui lined the path. No one tried to stop Mota or the others, but one Yaqui danced before them as they rode, contorting to show the curdled skin of his burnt shoulder, the ridged lash marks along his back, his broken, twisted arm. He yelped and turned, and as Mota watched him turn again he saw the vacancy in his rolling eyes, the absence of a reason long since lost.
• • •
After Maria Isabel, Mota had made formal court to no other woman. At times on his journeys daughters were presented to him like goods at auction; he would politely confess their charms and keep a committed bachelor’s distance. Beyond the occasional camp woman and the more common stretches of solitude, he’d confined his desires to the widowed sister of the baker from whom he rented his room in Mexico, and the skinny, untended wife of a Pueblo horse-dealer, who preferred to meet him in the stable and wear a blindfold while he took her from behind. Like the beasts, she insisted—she would have it no other way.
But in the last year the baker’s widowed sister had cut off their liaison, as she was being courted in earnest by a pastry maker, and the horse-dealer’s wife had suddenly turned pious, pretending to not know him the last two times he had visited. Without their comforts, he’d felt the rot spread through him unchecked. New Spain, that great mill to which the unhappy and disappointed of the world came to be stamped anew, had left him ever as he was.
Then the viceroy had spoken the name Tayopa, and Mota’s heart had beaten briefly within his chest. He cursed himself as a fool, but such discoveries had transformed other men. He often saw them racing their pasteled carriages through the streets of Mexico, laughter and feminine squeals escaping from their windows.
• • •
Within two days they were beyond Yaqui lands. Now the river bent, flowing from the north, and they kept alongside it, riding into craggy foothills grown with sparse stands of oak and pine. Mountain Indians—Opata—were said to live here, but there was no trace of them, and blended in with the regular tick of nature’s chatter, there seemed a particular silence.
After another day’s ride they passed through a scattering of abandoned stone huts, and four days later they came to a bottleneck too narrow to lead their mounts through. Without speaking they backtracked, and when Mota spotted an animal path they walked the horses and mules up it until they reached a small plateau, which gave onto a new canyon. They halted there while Fernando penciled their trail and El Sepo looked through the spyglass. Mota took a piece of biscuit from his pack. He was picking out weevils with the point of his knife when he heard El Sepo whisper, “Cattle.”
Putting the biscuit in his pocket, Mota took the spyglass from El Sepo and looked where he pointed. In the canyon below, four mottled cows stood in a clump of dried grass. Their ribs showed through their hide; they looked lost, half-wild, and Mota wondered how they had gotten here. Then he moved the spyglass, and the air caught in his lungs. On a rock, watching over the cattle, sat a woman. Long hair hung loose over her back. Mota goaded his horse over to Father Pascual.
“I thought this country was empty,” he said, keeping his voice low.
• • •
They rode down. Their path took them through several knots of pine, blocking their view of the woman’s rock, and when they reached the bottom of the canyon she was gone.
Mota sent El Sepo to track the woman while he and the others waited by the stream. Perhaps they should ignore her and travel on, but he’d seen through the glass that she wasn’t an Indian and he was curious. Besides, she might know something of the mine.
When El Sepo returned, he reported that the woman was hiding in a cave. He told too of a hut further up the canyon—likely the woman’s—and Mota sent the others there to wait. Meanwhile he followed El Sepo up a path and then a ledge into a blind hollow high above the canyon. Here the cave opened atop a slope of red dirt. Mota motioned for El Sepo to stay where he was while he climbed. A few feet from the cave’s mouth, he stopped. The sun was directly above, and no light fell into the cave’s interior. “Don’t be frightened,” Mota shouted. “We only want to talk to you. We’ve come from Mexico. We can take you there, or to any city on our path.”
There was no trace of them, and blended in with the regular tick of nature’s chatter, there seemed a particular silence.
There was no answer. Mota looked down at El Sepo. El Sepo shrugged.
“I’m coming inside,” Mota said to the cave, and stepped in.
Beyond the first, penumbral feet, the cave’s void was entire. Mota fumbled over a blind jag of rocks, then stopped and listened. Silence. She was there, somewhere before him, behind the darkness. He strained his eyes, willed them to adjust. They refused, flooded black, liquid and numb. Mota moved forward, then stopped again when he heard the scrape of bare feet.
In an instant she was on him, a tangle of limbs pulling him down, and just as quickly he felt a sudden, sharp pain in his side. He caught her by the waist, held her squirming body to him. She struggled, but he kept her close and pulled her toward the sun. Once they were out of the cave she clawed at him, grunted and screamed, and El Sepo rushed up and took her by the arms. She kicked and stomped, but the mulatto carried her down the slope with ease. Free of the woman, Mota inspected his side. She’d stuck him with a cactus needle. He removed it—it slid easily from his flesh, drawing a bubble of blood—and dropped it among the brambles.
A different path led out of the hollow, and as they took it the woman traded her kicking for hanging lifeless against El Sepo’s grip, dragging her feet into a stumble. Still, she barely slowed them, and when they arrived at the hut Mota whistled at Father Pascual and gestured for him and Fernando to join them inside. El Sepo had already taken the woman there, and Mota could hear her shouting. As they entered she turned and made her address general. “Go ahead. Rape me. See how you like it. I’m stuffed with glass and quills.”
The woman sat on a rickety stool and El Sepo stood over her, his arms crossed. Her brown skin was reddened from the sun, and her body was animal-lean save for the loose breasts that swung beneath her shift as she twisted toward each of them. She might be a quarter-blood, but Mota wasn’t sure.
“Please,” the woman said. “It would be such pleasure.”
“Enough!” Mota said. “None of us will harm you.”
This quieted the woman, though she continued to tremble.
“Just a few questions and we will leave you, if that’s what you wish,” he said. “We’re looking for a mine. Do you know anything about a mine?”
“When the Yaqui came, hammers and picks in their hands, I learned.”
“Have you been to it?”
“Do you know where it is?”
Mota glanced about the ramshackle cabin. It was little over three varas on either side. Dried plants and a pair of rust-bitten pots hung from the ceiling. On the far side of the room slumped a narrow bed. Maize leaves and feathers wriggled from its split mattress.
“How long have you been here on your own?”
“I’m not on my own.”
Mota laughed at the thinness of her lie. “How long?”
She looked away. “Two years,” she said.
• • •
Before Mota finished questioning the woman, he learned her name was Beatriz and that she had been married at fifteen to a rancher named Tomas, who had brought her here and been killed by the Yaqui—an event over which she showed little regret. She had nothing else to tell them, and after they bartered with her for a string of dried sausages, they rode away from her hut. Mota had offered again to take her with them, but she’d only stared at him.
That night they made camp near the top of a ridge. As Mota was talking to Fernando and examining the maps, he spotted Father Pascual with the sackcloth bag he’d had the morning they left Mexico. Throughout their journey it had remained hidden. Mota watched as Father Pascual unknotted the bag then stuck his hand inside and pulled out a bull’s horn. Fernando made to get up, but Mota reached out to stop him. Holding the horn, Father Pascual scrambled to the top of the ridge and, once he’d steadied himself, blew. The blast shot across the dusk, echoed against the slope that faced their camp, then fell away.
Father Pascual blew the horn again. After the last echo, again from the slope, he came back.
Mota was baffled. When he asked Father Pascual what he was doing, the ex-Jesuit said he was listening for Tayopa. Mota felt a flash of sickness—they’d come all this way with a madman. He ordered Father Pascual to explain himself. “There’s a particular echo,” he said. “One of the mountain Indians, who led Father Xavier to the mine, told him of it. Once we left the woman’s canyon, I could tell we were near. When you hear the echo, you’ve found the valley.”
‘The search is everything,’ he said. ‘Leave me with provisions and a pistol.’
“What does it sound like?” Mota asked, the sickness gone, replaced instead by something rarer, something like wonder.
The sackcloth bundle returned to the pack, Father Pascual pulled out his bedroll. “No, no,” he said. “I tell you, and then what am I worth? I don’t think so. I am not in the mood to have my throat slit.”
For the next three days they continued east while Father Pascual climbed every slope and promontory and blew his horn. Mota’s fascination quickly dulled, and in the length of these days his mind refused to wander. He monitored the dry passages of his bowels, thought of the slight, pinkish mound that remained on the side of his belly, where he had been stuck with the cactus needle. At times it throbbed and he touched it. Pressing it made the throb sharpen then disappear.
He’d been fingering the needle wound when he was thrown by his horse. As they were riding across a gully, the horse stepped on a rattlesnake. Bit, it reared, and Mota landed in the gully’s creek bed, his leg catching against a rock. For a moment he lay dazed, trapped still in his thoughts, thinking the fall had happened there. Then a sharp pain streaked up his leg.
The others were shouting, and as Mota tried to sit up El Sepo pinned his shoulders. Baltazar’s impassive face, a frowning moon, hovered above him. He was their bonesetter, and as he felt along the leg, a new, dizzying pain cut through Mota’s flesh.
“Is it bad?” Fernando asked.
“An even break,” Baltazar answered. “It could be worse.”
Mota ignored the pain as he listened. He wanted to apologize, but was too ashamed to speak. Had he not been distracted, he might have checked his horse or at least landed better. The last thing they needed was yet more delay. He stared up at the sky, blue, distant; at the gnarled finger of an oak where a jay chirped and twitched its head. He counted days on his fingers. Tamotchala, the nearest town, was over two weeks away, and it was half lean-tos and tents. Mota tried sitting up again. He wanted to stand on his leg, to punish it, to let the pain surge through it, but El Sepo kept his hold on his shoulders. All the while his horse snorted in mad bursts. Its tackle jangled as it shifted and danced. It thought it could cast off the snakebite, but it was mistaken. It would have to be killed.
Baltazar, who’d left, now returned with branches and rope. He knelt over Mota and worked the bone, twisting and pushing it into place: Mota bit and groaned as the pain flashed then settled then flashed again. Above him was the sky’s clean blue, the undisturbed jay. At last the bone was set, and Mota lay there a moment, sweat dripping from his skin, then said, “The search is everything. Leave me with provisions and a pistol.”
“Don’t be foolish,” El Sepo said. “We can make our camp here.”
“This is already slow work,” Mota said, then jerked his head at Father Pascual. “He has to blow that cursed horn forty times a day. If you stay here, it’ll slow the search even more.”
“But we can’t just leave you,” Fernando said.
“I agree,” Baltazar said. “Besides, you need shelter.”
“Take him to the woman’s hut,” offered Father Pascual, who’d been silent the entire time. “It’s not far.”
At this the others paused. Their search had been slow, and they could make the hut by nightfall. Fernando and Baltazar quickly took up the idea, and as they talked Mota remembered the feel of the woman’s body—beating, warm—as he’d dragged her from the cave. Since they’d left her, the image of her feral body in its thin shift had pulled on his mind.
• • •
When they arrived at the hut, at dusk, the woman was not to be found. Mota was not surprised. He had assumed she would startle at the first noise of their coming. The others carried him from the mule they had balanced him on to the bed, then brought in his pack and a pair of crutches Baltazar had fashioned. They sat with him for an hour and played cards. Mota thought he should say something, but he’d never encouraged intimacy, rarely inquired of his companions’ lives beyond the trail. El Sepo suggested, for the third time, that either he or Fernando stay with him, but Mota shook his head. “The mine,” he said.
In the morning, the woman still hadn’t appeared, and at this Mota felt a pinprick of sorrow. Father Pascual was already on his mule when El Sepo and Fernando took their leave, standing over him awkwardly, and Baltazar gave the leg a final inspection. Then they put on their hats and left, and Mota was alone, the wooden hut empty save for a pair of flies that traced a crooked path above him.
The hours crawled alongside the doorway’s shifting portion of sun. Maize leaves poked through the mattress and gave him sweat rashes. Mota stood only to piss and defecate into a bowl. Baltazar had cautioned him against using the crutches overmuch in the first days, and, his leg still throbbing, it was all Mota could do to make it to the door and scatter his waste.
• • •
A week passed, a long, slow week. The woman never came to the hut, but, after the first days Baltazar had warned him of, Mota began hobbling around the clearing outside, then wandering farther up the canyon, working the crutches over roots and stone. His third day out he found her. As before, she was with the cattle. They stood in a rocky clearing, and she sat in the shade of a knobbly pine.
“Hello,” he called.
“You are walking,” she answered without looking up.
He hobbled closer, saw that a small red carcass lay at her side. Before her was spread the animal’s skin.
“I am,” he said. Though he hadn’t admitted it to himself, in his wandering he’d been looking for her. He thought to get nearer, but stopped himself, lest he rewake the mad fright she’d displayed when he pulled her from the cave. “I’m sorry to have forced you from your bed,” he added.
Others would speak of him as the man who had found Tayopa in the wastes.
“It is no matter,” she said. She scraped at the skin.
“I’d be pleased if you returned,” he said. “I promise you, I am harmless. As you see, I’m slowed.” He tapped his leg and grinned. “I have books with me. Reports from Mexico. I could read to you, if you like. Surely, after so much time alone, you want for companionship.”
Her eyes remained down, on the skin, as if she did not hear him. But Mota knew something in her was curious. Otherwise she would have fled before he appeared, as she had done when he and the others had first ridden down toward her rock.
“Or poems—I have pamphlets left with me by one of my men. Winners from the city’s last competition and other such things.”
She hesitated in her scraping, then picked up the skin and, without meeting Mota’s eyes, retreated beyond the pine tree and into a clump of others. Mota’s leg ached from standing, and so with an unanswered farewell he pivoted on his good leg and swung himself back toward the cabin.
• • •
The next morning he went looking for Beatriz but she did not allow herself to be found. The curiosity he had detected had been pure illusion, he decided, the sad imagining of a withered heart. But in the night that followed he was woken by breath on his face, an elbow sharply pinching his chest. His eyes opened to darkness, and in that first startled terror he flung out a hand. It struck a shoulder, ribs, the curve of a back. Beneath his palm, flesh stretched against bone, surprisingly smooth. Fingers wrestled with his trousers and he helped, pushed the trousers down. The night phantom was astride him now, and, his leg stiff and awkward in its splint, the creaking bed’s maize leaves poking his back, they coupled, the woman’s grunting nothing like Maria Isabel’s dutiful cries. She held him at the shoulders, either to anchor herself or keep him pinned, and he bit his lips shut for fear of frightening her away. She groaned when he loosed himself, then waited for him to lengthen again.
The next morning Beatriz was still there, asleep and curled against him. With care he negotiated his way over her and out of the bed, then went to the door and cleared his bladder. When he turned around she was sitting up, yawning with arms stretched, and he tried to decide if she was beautiful. “Read me some of those things you brought from Mexico,” she said when she finished her yawn. He grabbed the satchel of books and went to the bed. Whenever he stopped, pausing after a mascarada song or an account of a sea battle with the English—all the stuff and trash of life for which he had no taste—she said, more, more. She dug herself into him with her backside, pulled his arm over her, and he indulged a fantasy of bringing her back to Mexico, presenting her to the viceroy as a marvel, a wild woman tamed. He would live with her in a fine palace bought with his earnings from the mine; though dressed in silk, she would keep her wildness and bear him a string of cubs. Others would speak of him as the man who had found Tayopa in the wastes, who had rescued a near savage from the lands beyond the frontier, and he would be changed—no longer the man who had let ten years silt away into nothing, the man who had buried himself in a lead coffin and joined himself with the dead.
His mouth tired of so much reading and he begged a respite. Beatriz said she would allow it, and as he lay back she told him scraps of her life: that her mother sold her for a year’s worth of meat, that she had begged her husband not to take her from their village outside Querétaro, that he had beaten her when the midwife pulled a daughter, stillborn, from her. They had been lured here by the Jesuits, she said, who had told them they were supplying missions in the far north and forbid them to leave their ranch. She had hidden in her cave when the Yaqui had come, had refused to weep when she found her husband and the other ranchers slaughtered. As she spoke she shifted at random to whispers, covered her eyes, made crosses on Mota’s arm—traces of the small but important something in her that had long been rattled loose. After, she fed him a mash of corn and dried meat. When he mentioned the city to her, said he wanted to take her there, she answered that she wanted to go.
Two days later, they heard the shuffling hoofbeats of a horse in trot. Mota was in the bed, resting his leg, and Beatriz was lying beside him. She startled, and he held her. The hoofbeats drew closer, and soon after they stopped Fernando appeared in the doorway and looked down at them. “We’ve found it,” he said.
• • •
Fernando had grinned at the woman, and at Mota’s insistence that they bring her with them. Such a demand, Mota knew, was much unlike the self he had long presented his fellows. But Fernando quickly swept the grin away and said, “Of course.” When they left, Mota and Beatriz sat atop Fernando’s horse while Fernando walked it and told Mota of the mine. It was a three days’ ride away, he said, and they hadn’t actually seen it—as soon as Father Pascual identified the canyon they’d turned round, believing Mota, as inspector, should be with them. But the ex-Jesuit assured him there could be no doubt. He’d recognized the country, and the horn’s echo was unmistakable.
The others were waiting for Mota at a camp not far from the canyon. They betrayed the same muted astonishment at the woman’s presence as Fernando had, but otherwise kept their distance from her and avoided her gaze, as if fearing she might be ill luck. Once Mota was helped off the horse Baltazar poked his fingers inside the splint. “Better,” he pronounced. “But it’ll need at least six more weeks.” Meanwhile, El Sepo launched into his own version of how they found the mine, telling how he had danced a quick jig and Father Pascual had refused to smile. Mota seemed to miss every other word. Night had fallen, and on the far side of the fire, where its light bled into darkness, Beatriz was bedding down, away from them. The distance ached. When El Sepo finished his story, Baltazar leaned over to Mota and said, “I bet she was hungry for it, she ride you cross-eyed?”
• • •
Two days later they came to a shelf of rock beneath which the country flattened. Mota and Beatriz had shared a mule, she mounted in front of him as he kept his hands on the reins, his arms around her. The country from atop the shelf of rock looked no different from anywhere else they’d ridden through, but here they stopped and Father Pascual took his horn from his pack and blew. The first echo was faint, but the second came back louder than the original blast.
“Tayopa,” Father Pascual said, pointing to a break in the valley’s far side. The last echo had come from there.
They crossed the valley, halting at a stream that purled out of the break, which, Mota saw now, was the mouth of a narrow barranca. Alongside the stream led a trail covered with broken shale, disappearing as it bent. A breeze coursed out of the barranca’s mouth, fluttered over Mota’s face. In front of him Beatriz shifted as she cursed the mule’s backbone. They rode in.
After 40 varas a red shoulder of rock forced path and stream into a tight embrace, and once they eased around the shoulder they came to a round, two-story building.
“The first guardhouse,” Father Pascual said.
Past the guardhouse the trail and the stream twisted north. The walls of rock began to widen and the bunchgrass and the madroños, which had granted the narrow path a dappled, green light, started to thin, giving way to ropy thornbushes. Then the trail swiftly mounted several layers of rock, and Mota and the others found themselves in the wide, barren bowl of a box canyon—Tayopa. In the middle of the bowl, attached to the roofless skeleton of a church, stood a bell tower, its sides licked with soot. Machinery from a smelting works lay broken and half buried, and patterns of mud and stone rubble were scattered between the bell tower and a circle of kilns. Beyond loomed the dark piles of slag, and all around, in the basin’s walls, watched the black, hollowed eyes that were the entrances to the mines.
Mota tightened his grip on Beatriz—she had shuddered, at what he wasn’t sure—and took in the brown and red slope of the far ridge. The air smelled of dried, flaking dirt, and the wind coming over the ridge carried an empty sound. Mota closed his ears to it, buried his nose in Beatriz’s matted hair, erected once more in his mind the vision of their return. “Shh,” he said to her, “we will only be here a little while, I promise.” Then, with the aid of his crutch, he slipped down from the mule. They would be weeks, assaying samples from the mines and the slag heaps, logging troves, scouting new routes from the mine. The sooner they started, the sooner they could leave.
January 11, 2013
44 Min read time