Kelly Moe - School of Architecture & Planning
“No problem, tía,” said Miguel, kissing his aged great-aunt on the forehead. “I took care of the floor in the morada. Don’t worry about it anymore. Todo por la familia, que no? Everything for family.”
“Pués, claro que sí. Gracias ‘jito”, Ana said, “You are a good boy; so helpful to an old woman”. He is a good boy, she repeated to herself, like a son to me, as he climbed into his truck, talking about family matters. All of my nieces, and nephews, and their children are good to me, she thought. Someone in the family is always there to help me get groceries at the market, take me to the clinic, or fix a leaky pipe. They know how to respect their elders. Not like that ‘huera’, that outsider…
“….see the smoke from the fire?” she heard Miguel say, breaking into the wanderings of her mind.
“Did I see it?” she asked. He nodded, pointing. “Oh, yes, yes. I saw it this morning when I came out to feed the chickens.” Then throwing up her hands, remembering something, she exclaimed, “Are you sure you won’t take some posole to eat? You’ve worked so hard.” But no, he had no time, and with a final wave Miguel drove away, leaving Ana alone by the door of her old adobe house. Taking a seat in the cool shade of the portal, Ana looked across the expanse of the town plaza, past the torreón and the cottonwoods to the billowing smoke from the southwest. Towering above the Pajarito Plateau like the ancient volcanic eruptions whose lava and ash had built the unique terrain of the río arriba and of Castillo, her village, the darkened clouds descended now all around in a light fragrant fog of burnt piñón, juniper, and ponderosa pine. Like incense to God, Ana considered as she breathed deeply, contentedly. Gracias a Dió’ – thanks be to God.
Though the fire that Ana Raquela Carvajal y Durán could see and smell from her portal had begun less than 48 hours before on a forested slope of the Manzano Mountains, it had already exploded into the fastest growing wildfire in State history: the Vallecitos Complex Fire. Soon, due to record drought and high winds, it would become the largest such conflagration ever seen in New Mexico, a hellish inferno immediately dubbed “the Beast” by local news media. Containing and defeating it would require three months, the combined efforts of hundreds of hotshot crew members, local firefighters, and sheriff’s deputies, and millions in state and federal funds.
No official cause of the fire would be released for some time, but local authorities already knew a little. Preliminary investigation had determined that the cause was man-made: a lone female camper on a private in-holding within the National Forest had apparently suffered some sort of deadly accident result, allowing her untended campfire to spread. Further investigation at the scene, and forensic testing of the nearly incinerated remains of the victim – whose name was withheld pending notification of family – would eventually indicate that she had somehow tripped, impaling her neck on a branch sticking up from a pile of collected firewood which had cut into her carotid artery, causing a quick bleed-out and death – a freak accident. This scenario would be deemed consistent with the testimony of witnesses regarding the known whereabouts and activities of the victim, the position of the body, the injury it had sustained, the detectable remains of burned blood in the soil, and the lack of evidence of smoke inhalation in what was left of her lungs.
At noon, Ana watched the local newscast on her little TV, the Vallecitos Fire being the lead story, taking up most of the program. “Enough of that,” she said aloud to herself as she turned off the set, “Time to get busy.” She still needed to sweep the floors, finish the cooking, wash-up, change clothes, and set the table before sunset. Tomorrow would be Saturday, el sabado, and it was tradition. Traditions were important. And, she remembered, I have to see to the morada. It, too, was important. The morada, or family chapel, had been built by her grandfather, Salman, at the back of the rear courtyard, or placita, around which the house and its out-buildings were arranged. He had been one of the most acclaimed santeros, or traditional folk healers, in Northern New Mexico, having learned the craft from relatives in the village of Córdova. Her father, Jacobo God rest his soul – had followed in his father’s footsteps, and had always kept his woodworking tools in the morada, in the presence of God and the saints, so that they would be blessed, and the blessing flow through them into the bultos and retablos, or scuptures and paintings made on traditional wood, that were his life’s work.
“Thanks to God that I have Miguelito and the others to help me take care of things,” Ana said aloud, raising her eyes to heaven, as she began cutting the chicken for dinner. She prepared the Friday meal as her mother had taught her, moving quickly while singing snippets of tunes from her youth. I like to eat chicken, thought Ana as she sang. Is it so strange that I like chicken, and lamb, but not pork? My mother didn’t like it either. It gave her indigestion, and it gives me indigestion too. Doing her work – the comforting routine of a lifetime – quickly and proficiently, Ana finished by putting a new white cloth on the table, placing the candlesticks, and setting the table for herself and her brother ‘Mo.’ Since her parents died, Ana had lived with and kept house for her brother. Las Solteronas – the two old maids – some jokingly called them. Neither had ever married, but they stayed together, mimicking a conjugal life neither had ever known, acting-out a memory of bygone traditions and meanings.
Now, to check on the morada, Ana thought, removing her apron and hanging it on the hook by the kitchen door. She paused for a moment under the rear portal, a flash of memory rooting her in place as she recalled the afternoon two days before: the young woman, who had been with her then, had been so insistent, so sure of herself. Ana could see again the bright eyes, the animated mouth, the grand gesticulations – all the brash impertinence of youth. How had it started?, pondered Ana. Aí, now I remember:
“…I’m conducting post-graduate research on possible crypto-Jewish families and practices in New Mexico. If I could have just a bit of your time, I have a few questions….” In fact, the young woman had many questions, and at first Ana was delighted to answer them and to relate stories of her family. She was proud of its history and traditions. ‘Los Carvajal y Durán’ were descended from two of the founding families of New Mexico. Her Spanish ancestors had come north in both the ‘Entrada’ and the ‘Reconquista’; they had been hidalgos, patrónes, defenders and caretakers of the people of Northern New Mexico for four hundred years. But Ana became irritated when the questions led to more questions, and more questions led to comments – alarming comments. Ana suddenly realized that the huera was horribly mistaken: she seemed to believe that her illustrious family were judíos! This made no sense. Wasn’t she listening, questioned Ana. What does it matter that it’s our tradition to do certain things on Fridays? Or that our names can be found in the Old Testament of the Bible? That we like to eat ‘this’, but not ‘that’? Or that we use ‘Adió’, rather than ‘Adiós’, when saying ‘goodbye’?
“You don’t understand” Ana insisted, her blood and voice rising, her finger wagging at the ignorant outsider, “my family is a good family. We have always been good Catholics. Somos de pura sangre, de pura fé – we are of pure blood, pure faith.” Ana stood suddenly, her head proud, her voice imperious: “Don’t speak those lies again. You should listen to what you are told by those who know better.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” the young woman apologized, “I meant no disrespect.” And then, seeing Ana visibly relax and knowing that she should close the interview, she added, “Perhaps, before I leave, you would be so kind as to show me the carvings in the morada that you mentioned were done by your father and grandfather. I would be honored to see them”
Ana nodded, somewhat curtly, and gestured for the woman to follow, thinking: I will show her, and then I won’t hear any more of these malas mentiras – these evil lies. Passing down the long portal, the two women entered the morada through a wooden door of faded ‘Taos blue’, Ana’s favorite color. Inside, cool air was a relief from the summer warmth of the placita, and soft light from the side windows shone against the white walls, emphasizing the warm brown of the aged vigas on the ceiling, the brilliance of the multi-colored reredos against the rear wall, and the simple altar table in front of it where her father’s tools lay. Proceeding through the room, the researcher commented wonderingly at the stations-of-the-cross done in retablo-form on the side walls, and at the carvings, paintings, and bultos – figurines – of the reredos: museum-quality all, she was sure. Stopping suddenly near the end, gazing at the top of the altar screen beneath the dim light of the ceiling, she gasped: “Oh, my gosh. Do you see it!? That blue symbol near the top, like two interlocking triangles – it’s the Star of David!
Ana squinted to see the odd six-pointed star she had known since childhood – it was painted her favorite color too; she had always liked it – then turned a blank face back to her inquisitor as if to say: So?
“Well don’t you see – it’s a Jewish symbol. More precisely, it’s the Jewish symbol. It means your father or grandfather placed a sign of their Jewish faith here,” explained the younger woman, bending down to search for other clues.
“No!” challenged Ana. “It’s a lie!”
“I think perhaps, just there…,” the woman began.
“Basta – enough!” fumed Ana. To be insulted again – and before the holy altar! – by this nobody who knew nothing, was more than she could bear. Reaching for something to punish the liar for her insults and blasphemies, Ana laid hold of her father’s chisel and struck down the offender, just as the woman turned her head at the perception of Ana’s movement. Still sharp as he had left it, the tool nicked the woman’s artery, and she collapsed, frantically grasping at her throat as her life’s blood spewed forth in streams upon her clothes and the floor below. Within moments she lay still, her breathing stopped, her pupils fixed and dilated. Unfazed, but her body trembling from the surge of adrenaline, Ana marched the chisel back to the kitchen, carefully cleaned, dried, and oiled it, then returned to the morada and placed the tool back in its proper place on the altar. Looking down at the body, her anger subsiding, she scolded: “I told you not to tell any more lies. Now look what you’ve done. You’ve made a mess!” Contemplating what to do with the mess, Ana realized the woman was too big for her to take care of on her own. She would need help. She would call Miguel – he would know what to do.
“What did you do vieja? What were you thinking?” exclaimed Miguel, when Ana showed him the body, keeping his voice low. Thinking – I didn’t think, she thought. I acted – for the family. Todo por la familia. “It was an accident, an act of God, a…” was what she said aloud.
“You’re loca, old woman!” interjected Miguel. “You can’t go around doing these things nowadays.” After pausing for some seconds, he commanded, “Go into the house now, and stay there. And don’t tell anyone about this – not even the priest in confession – do you hear me tía, grandmother? You’ll go to prison if anyone finds out. The family will have to figure out what to do next.” And the family did figure out what to do: they quickly removed the woman’s body and her vehicle, transporting them to a parcel of land owned by a cousin in the mountains, staged an accident, and then quietly fled the scene as the sun set. Placement of the victim on a private in-holding ensured that local officials, not state or federal investigators, would process the scene and handle the body; the fire would obliterate any incriminating trace evidence. Miguel, the local County Fire Chief, and his brother, the County Sheriff, agreed: the matter was contained.
Ana broke from her reverie of the past days’ events. No, it is too late to see to the morada now, she thought. The light is fading. I’ve been daydreaming, and now ‘acabará de caller el sol’ – the sun is about to set. I must light the candles! Turning to go inside, she looked toward the west. “Dio’ mío!” she gasped. The sky was a dark brownish-gray and the sun hung like a blood-red disk in the swirling haze. Like the blood of Christ, Ana thought. It was a sign: she would be forgiven – though she didn’t feel very guilty. After all, ‘se lo hizo el fierro’ – the chisel did it – not me, she said to herself. It was the will of God. “But tomorrow I will go to confession for my unkind thoughts and words to the huera,” she said aloud.
Hurrying inside, her brother Moisés already in his place at the table, Ana quickly lit the candles and waved their light over herself; then covering her face, she began the prayer she had learned a lifetime ago from her mother, Rebekah. After all, traditions were important.