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When I was very young, a neighbor lady told me a Mexican fable, which asserted that a gossip can do what the devil cannot. The pointed significance of the story was that in a time and place of more simplistic thinking, where jealousy and envy might play a part, an old woman with a wagging tongue could do more damage than the devil himself. Such a person was said to have ‘the tongue of the devil’.
The Quest and the Acquisition
It was June, and the year was 1776. It was in the little pueblo of Cruceros, in the region some people were calling El Território de Nuevo Mexico (The New Mexican Territory). The large bell rang in the little church shortly after sunrise. Yes, it was a Christian community, Catholic, to be exact.
It was hot but breezy, and the surrounding desert displayed its mantel of color for the moment, as different clans of uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends celebrated the wedding of Juanito Sinfuentes and Rayo del Sol Barrandales. The story of their love had become legendary in the neighboring communities.
Juanito had grown up in the pueblo of Las Limas, which was north of Cruceros, about three to four hours’ walk. Some months ago, he had gone on a vision quest of sorts. He walked south, arrived in Cruceros, and rested a while. But he had set out early, and there still remained three quarters of the day.
The people of Cruceros informed him that there was another village farther south, Milmelones, of similar distance to Las Limas. And so, he continued, and he arrived in Milmelones later that day.
In those days, it was always of interest to see a stranger coming through town. Just as it had happened in Cruceros, children came running up to him from all directions. They shouted greetings and laughed and tagged along playfully. And they reached out to touch him, taking his hands and leading him to the public well in the plaza. There he splashed water on his face and arms, he drew in fresh breath, and then he turned around to find the townspeople gathered about him, with eager eyes and smiling faces.
Some people made their way through the crowd, bringing him food and different beverages, but they were all mostly eager to hear him speak. In Cruceros, when he had identified himself and his family, he had been met by a distant cousin. But no one came forth in Milmelones. When he spoke of going through Cruceros, a couple of people asked if he had met their relatives there, which he remembered, of course, because those relatives had sent their regards as well.
He told the people about the twists and turns of the road, for they had not been made by man. He told them about a turtle that he had allowed to cross his path, and they all nodded to one another and whispered blessings upon him. He had paused by a little creek to listen to the water for a while, and had been gratified by all the other sounds he heard there. He had seen a cluster of saguaros that looked like people dancing, and a couple up in front of the crowd told him that, under certain conditions, he could actually see them dancing.
And then he related the antics of the two camaleónes (horned lizards) that he had happened upon as they were mating. It was during that moment of levity that Juanito let his eyes wander over the faces, and they fell upon one face and a pair of eyes looking straight back into his. For a moment, it was all he saw.
When Juanito asked Rayo del Sol’s parents for her hand and for their blessing, it was already presumed that they would say yes and that she would joyously accept his proposal. In the long months of their courtship, he came to realize that the matter of distance presented a hardship for him and for the two families. And when the time would come, his beloved, who was bound to follow him anywhere, would nevertheless be saddened to be so far from her family.
And so, it was decided that they would have the wedding in Cruceros, and they would live there. This would alleviate the hardship for both families, and Juanito and Rayo del Sol would share more equally in the feelings of estrangement and in the efforts of adaptation.
The people of Cruceros were touched by the romantic story that had unfolded around them. They felt as if they were at the heart of the matter. For days, it seemed as if people were flocking in from all around. The large bell rang in the little church that morning, but the wedding took place in the plaza, as white clouds drifted slowly across a bright blue sky and the sun was gentle for the moment.
The throng of relatives and new friends filled the little square and spread into the surrounding streets. Many climbed up on the roofs of their houses so as to have a better view of the wonderful wedding. And when the wedding was over, the festivities ensued … and they continued for two full days.
Gradually, everything wound down. As some people were picking themselves up from benches and cots and patches of grass, others were breaking camp. While the business of cleaning up the streets was under way, the long goodbyes were also taking place.
Two or three days later, a semblance of normalcy began to be seen – at least in Cruceros – and Juanito and Rayo del Sol found themselves in a little house, which was cuddled in between their neighbors’ houses, the Carpinteros on one side and Señora Dosríos on the other.
The Coming of El Diablo
The Carpinteros were a mature couple that still had a daughter at home, who was close to Rayo del Sol’s age, and the two soon became close friends. The five of them found pleasant company in one another and spent many evenings visiting.
Señora Dosríos was an elderly but sprightly widow with a short wiry frame. She always had her hair tied in a bun that resembled the tail of a wasp. This feature and her other traits had earned her the local moniker of L’avispa (the wasp). She would spend her hours going from house to house, spreading news, sharing peoples’ thoughts and utterances, hearing news from some and spreading them to others. Although everyone in town knew her and everyone liked her, people had learned to be careful about what they disclosed to her. And her arrival always meant a little break in one’s chores and some jocularity.
Juanito and Rayo del Sol were extremely happy. They were young and profoundly in love, they had three communities in which the people were very fond of them and supported them. They had vision and hope.
The long days of summer led into the hot days of August. Then the days began to shorten, as they got more comfortable. Before long, El Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) was approaching. It was in those days that el diablo came to town.
He’d had his day before the arrival of Christian Europeans. And while things weren’t all that bad yet, he had found himself losing face in many places. He had heard of the new couple and their perfect love, how it had spread among the people and inspired them, how it held three communities bonded in fellowship and goodwill … … and it gave him indigestion … it made him angry.
He rode in on a sun-colored horse one day. He chose the appearance of a handsome young man, about Juanito’s age but with a more mature and confident visage. He rode in quietly and slowly, completely unnoticed, halted the horse about 30 yards from the young couple’s home, and watched Rayo del Sol doing chores out in the yard. He allowed the primary inklings of lust to the serpent within, and then he had to check and wipe his drooling.
He clicked his spurs just loud enough for her to hear and led the horse up closer. As she raised her head, a lock of hair fell across her face, and as she moved it out of the way, he saw the sweetness and innocence in her eyes … the goodness … it was like a sharp glare to him. And then he noticed the faint lines of aging, already beginning to show on her face, no doubt from a lifestyle of toil. She smiled but said nothing, and he read a trace of apprehension, which the serpent soaked in like a drink of water.
He said he needed a room and a place for his horse. She tried to explain that she was still unfamiliar with some things in town. She glanced around at the houses of her neighbors, assuming they would know something. And sure enough, Señora Dosríos came out of her house abruptly and full of answers.
The handsome young caballero tipped his hat to the two women and proceeded on his way, but he gave the pretty young one a lingering smile. Señora Dosríos watched him ride away and muttered quietly, “Ay, si yo fuera más joven...” (Oh, if I was younger... ) And the two of them shared a giggle.
In the days that followed, rumors started going around about the stranger in town. It was peculiar that his arrival had not been noticed except by a few. The palomino in the town’s only corral drew a bit of attention. Not many men could own a horse like that. It was speculated that the gentleman might be an emissary of some sort. But he was never in the places they expected him to be. And no one seemed able to engage him in a conversation anywhere or at any time.
No one noticed that, on those occasions when he strolled around town, neither the children nor the town dogs were drawn to him, as they usually were to others. And when the stranger had been in town for nearly a month, no one thought it unusual that he still wasn’t known by any name.
For all of six weeks, the devil tried different tactics to appeal to the base instincts of the young couple. He would appear for Rayo del Sol and leave impressions of himself to linger in her mind—shirtless and glistening in the sun, muscular and commanding in stature, and looking back at her with desire in his eyes.
Juanito would hear the voices of his friends in the fields, telling him that he was cursed by his unworthiness and that his happy world was destined to collapse... but there was never anyone there when he looked. On a couple of different occasions, when Juanito was returning home from work, he thought he saw the stranger leaving his house. But nothing was ever said about it, and he didn’t pursue it.
Nothing of the devil’s attire, his noble manner, or his masculinity seemed to have any effect on Rayo del Sol. It was beyond his comprehension that she would prefer to be with someone of such meager prospects. And the notions of suspicion and paranoia that he kept trying to plant in Juanito’s head had no effect either. He simply could not get through the essence of whatever it was that held them together.
The Devil’s Decline
One day, the devil was sitting in a dimly lit corner of the shambles they called a cantina, nursing a nearly empty bottle of tequila. From his position, he had an annoying view of the little church across the plaza. Then he spotted Juanito and Rayo del Sol walking hand in hand toward the church. His tail almost slipped out as he sat up hastefully.
They were laughing and cavorting frivolously. They paused by the church steps, and Juanito put his arms around her waist, lifted her and swung her around jubilantly. The devil watched with narrowed eyes as they embraced each other, kissed wholeheartedly, and then they dashed up the steps and into the church.
The devil felt himself awash in feelings of envy, jealousy, lustful yearning, and perverse desire. Although it was painful to bring his awareness into the abode of his nemesis, he listened in from his dimly lit hole across the way. They were telling the priest that Rayo del Sol was pregnant!
The devil felt a consuming rage go through him. He got up and walked out with long heavy strides. Some people in town heard something that sounded like a man screaming out in pain, but it was unnatural and directionless. And some people, when the sound distracted them and they looked around, saw an unusually large and ominous whirlwind rising up and out of the plaza.
The old man who minded the little barn that served as a stable heard the sound, and he came outside to take a look. He saw the sun-colored horse suddenly vanish in an instantaneous and vaporous ball of fire, and he stood there dumbfounded and resigned to sadness, for he knew it would be futile to divulge what he had just witnessed. Who would ever believe an old man who was already known to have suffered bouts of dementia?
The devil was done in Cruceros, and he was starving. He craved fear and despair. These and the other failings in people, on which he fed, were not to be found here. He retreated to a mesa in the distance, and there he sat and pouted. He looked towards Cruceros and desired its annihilation with every fiber in his heart. But the devil’s heart, of course, is his weakest component.
The devil lifted his head and sniffed the air, and he turned his eyes eastward. Soon, there would be boatloads of people in distress, full of fear and terror, hungry and sick. They would be whipped into submission and humiliated, subjected to the whims of men’s perversions, and forced into servitude. And he let out a laugh and leapt into a current of air.
The Power of the Wagging Tongue
It was a few days later that Juanito and Rayo del Sol were enjoying the company of their neighbors, the Carpinteros and Señora Dosríos, in the shade of their backyard. Rayo del Sol was aglow in her condition.
Señora Dosríos couldn’t help but notice how, every time Juanito or Rayo del Sol went to get something, there was always a physical exchange of some sort between them. He would kiss her on the forehead, or she would brush her hand across his back, or they would linger in a handhold. It seemed a little much she thought, and it began to annoy her in a somewhat narrow manner.
Before the end of their visit, it was inevitable that the subject of Rayo del Sol’s pregnancy would come up. This elicited a great deal of excitement, and they happily shared their hopes and dreams. Rayo del Sol stroked her abdomen lovingly, and the two leaned towards each other and touched heads for a moment.
Señora Dosríos’ invidiousness grew. The fibers of envy and jealousy twisted themselves into resentment. Her conscience tried to maintain an attitude of goodwill, but she was remembering her days of youth with her departed husband and the passions they used to share. Words and images led into feelings, and feelings led into thoughts, which led into other feelings.
It was also inevitable that talk of the now absent stranger would arise, upon which Señora Dosríos turned to Rayo del Sol and casually asked her if she had not known him in Milmelones. After all, she added, there had been those times that he had come to visit. And, in a jocular manner, she implied how it might raise the question as to who the father of her child really might be.
Everyone chuckled uncertainly… uncomfortably… but her laughter carried in the breeze, shrill and piercing, false and ugly, and it drifted away into the desert, like some vermin refusing to die. Juanito tried not to react, but he remembered seeing the stranger leaving his house on two occasions, and now made note that nothing had ever been said about it. The seeds of suspicion and doubt had been planted.
The following day, Juanito found an opportunity to take the Carpintero girl aside, and he asked her if Rayo del Sol had ever confided anything to her about the stranger. The young woman tried to reassure him that he had nothing to worry about. Rayo del Sol’s fealty was beyond question.
But later, with only the best of intentions, she told Rayo del Sol about the conversation. And Rayo del Sol was deeply hurt that Juanito had not addressed his concerns to her.
Almost everywhere she went that day, Señora Dosríos chattered about "what was going on at the Sinfuentes household" and "the speculations which now existed about Rayo del Sol’s baby." She wasn’t actually trying to be malicious; she just had a penchant for talking carelessly. And this happened to be the news of the day, news that she herself had fabricated in a moment of unsuppressed resentment.
By the next day, the whole town was talking. And by the end of the day, all sorts of venomous ideas and implications had reached the ears of Juanito and Rayo del Sol. As much as they tried, they could not escape the feelings that came with the smirks and the whisperings of their neighbors and friends.
A few more days of glances and murmurings, and it was all over. To the devastation of the faith and hope of three communities, the element of binding had been compromised. And, their hearts broken and their minds confused, Rayo del Sol and Juanito returned to their own home pueblos.
And the devil, perhaps, never knew… and Señora Dosríos sat alone in the dimness of her little adobe house and sipped bitter tea.
r. nuñez, 7/2012