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Excerpt: 'The Ghost Of Milagro Creek'

The Ghose Of Milagro Creek

When I passed away, some people swore that Padre Pettit would refuse me a proper Christian burial. Only in Taos, New Mexico, they said, would you hold a wake for a witch. In the barrio at the edge of town, my neighbors called me Abuela, which means grandmother, but behind my back, their tongues snapped like flags in the wind.

She's not a real curandera, they said. Don't be fooled by her teas and salves. If you want to know how she cures her patients, look up at the sky and watch her fly away on her broom. They said this even after I cured Baby Lucy's colic by holding her upside down under a full moon. When I popped the skin on Jesus's belly three times to move his bowels, he swore I was a saint. Ramona's bunions disappeared after I sat her beside a sink of running water and rubbed a white onion on her foot. These were trifles compared to their real problems, but I was just a country witch. The bruja they needed probably could fly on a broom.

All the same, on that slate-colored Wednesday in April --- Spy Wednesday, the Church calls it --- Our Lady of Guadalupe was packed. In an open casket, with twelve tapers burning at each end, I lay like a doll on puffed satin, with painted lips and rouge on my cheeks. My sister-in-law Zarita had dressed me in my wedding clothes: a turquoise velvet blouse and a long black skirt embroidered with silver flowers. She bought some stockings at Wal-Mart and picked up the patent leather pumps, like new, from Second Chances Thrift Store. I had never looked better.

Padre Pettit draped a rosary over my hands --- the one given to me when I was thirteen by the missionaries at the Indian Boarding School in Santa Fe. There I learned to speak English and pray like a white-eyes. Every night, when my empty belly began to growl, I knelt on the cold floor and asked Jesus and Mary to burn the school to the ground.

My son Teo, the actor from Los Angeles, paid for the service. Teo, or Ted as he called himself, was not a handsome man, but he acted like one. He had the liar's gap between his big white teeth and a head full of hair. His sport coat was made of a fine black cashmere, and it hung just so. "Where is my son?" he asked, caressing the casket with his long fingers. "Why isn't Mister here to say goodbye to his grandmother?" Then, in a voice that carried out to the Plaza, he recited the Requiem Aeternam. People thought he might make it all the way in the Latin, but he got stuck on "perpetual light" and had to finish in English. He ran his hand through his hair, then let his fingers rest briefly on the lapel of his jacket, near his heart.

I wanted to smack him, but my eyes remained shut, and my lips did not move. Not a bead moved on my rosary as I said thirty Hail Mary's and thirty-one Our Father's, one for every year of this life.

During the Glorious Mysteries, Diputado Ernesto staggered forth and dropped a crucifix on my chest. Even a corpse could smell the whiskey on him. My little brother Ernie had never been able to hold his liquor, and when his knuckles brushed against me, I was afraid he would fall right on top of me. He shuddered at the touch of my cold hand.

When I was a girl, I had thin spidery fingers, and sometimes, to scare Ernesto, I pretended to be a tarantula. La arana, I whispered as my fingers crawled along his chest. La arana is crawling! La arana is creeping! Once, he fainted. I didn't know how else to make him mind.

Over the years, my hands grew gnarled. Two springs before I died, when I planted my last garden, my fingers were like old yellow turnips. As I pressed potatoes and carrots into the cool ground, with the March wind blowing dust devils all around me, I had a vision: I died and was born again. In years that seemed like minutes, as my casket crumbled and my hair grew into long weeds, I curled up like a baby in the womb. With my long fingernails and toenails, I clawed and scraped through the bottom of my grave, going down, down, down. Sometimes I moved as slowly as a root, but I dug all the way into the belly of the earth where I was formed so long ago in the hands of Black Hacct'cin.

"Mi Dios...mi Dios," Ernesto prayed, lurching over my casket. With his pocketknife, he sawed off the tip of the braid that hung over my shoulder - a thick, gray rope that grew shorter during the service as people snipped off pieces to put on their altars at home. Whatever I was: Spanish or Indian, nurse or nutcase, dead or alive --- I would be remembered.

How they talked about me! In voices that rumbled under Padre Pettit's booming prayers, the mourners reminded each other of the mysterious disappearance of chickens and the way dogs and goats had wandered into my yard --- as if they had been called. When I was alive, the women in my barrio did not insult me for fear that their hair would fall out. Storekeepers counted back my change twice since cheaters were known to lose their erections. I've swept every house in the barrio with a Snakeweed Broom, but the evil spirits always return, and you have to blame somebody.

What bad thing can you say about a dead old woman? It's true that I got naked with a crazy old man, more than once, and with pleasure. If borrowing your little brother's car can be called stealing a law enforcement vehicle, I'm guilty. As for the chickens and the rabbits, they came to me. My neighbors can say whatever they want about me; I like a good story, but I have no mercy for the fool who darkens the name of Mister Romero, my only grandson.

Excerpted from The Ghost of Milagro Creek by Melanie Sumner. Copyright 2010 Melanie Sumner. Excerpted with permission by Shannon Ravenel, Workman Publishing.

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Melanie Sumner