Pagar el Precio

(To Pay the Price)

by Kier Neustaedter

The sun baked the ground and the vibrating heat waves blurred the road. The dust puffed and settled in the footprints of a woman who hurried along the ruined streets. Her sandals, strapped tight around instep and ankle, made little sound. Her heavy cotton huipil stuck to her back with sweat and she pulled her rebozo over her head, at once shading her eyes and concealing her face.

She hurried, keeping to the edges of the streets, near the crumbling walls. Her honey brown eyes marked, as always, the inexorable deterioration that was overtaking the town. Once thriving with as many as 10,000 people and with a total population of 60,000 in the valley and surrounding townships, today it was reduced to less than a fourth of that. The ravages of time and two centuries of the unexplained appearance of the soul-eating, serpent-armed Zi-més had destroyed the country of Mexico, the state of Oaxaca, and the county of Atoyac as well as the towns. The woman shivered as her heady excitement abated, and pulled her rebozo closer over her dark brown braids. She had to force herself to walk. Running could be fatal, if she were seen.

But, hard as she watched, she could see no movement in the light of the shimmering tropical sun. As she went down dead streets and around crumbled corners, she saw neither the swift blur of the Zi-més, nor the more prosaic and yet, to her, more dangerous shadows of the goons who patrolled the town.

She gasped in relief as she came around the final corner and disciplined herself to walk sedately towards the iron-barred gateway set in a high stone wall. She loosened her hold on her rebozo, letting it lie easily over her head, and climbed the broad stairs below the wall. She walked with the proud gait of the Costeña women, her striped wool enaguas swinging as gently as the wavelets that lapped the coast to the west.

She pushed the gates open and walked slowly up the tree-lined path to the old parish church. The great, worm-eaten oak doors stood ajar. The tall nave was dim and cool and smelled musty. She paused to bend a knee and cross herself. Then she turned left and walked down the further aisle. A series of capillas lined this wall, each with altar, patron saint, prayer kneelers and a high window. The woman arranged her rebozo more decorously over her long braided hair and slipped into the third capilla, dedicated to Mary, Mother of God. The Virgin stood at her altar, smiling with infinite compassion at the young woman who knelt before her. The woman let out a shuddering sigh and buried her face in her arms as she tried to pray. All she could formulate was a desperate plea, "Please, please, show us the way to happiness!"

"Ehh! Licha! Licha!"

Alicia, better known by her nickname of Licha, spun off the prayer kneeler and started at the sight of her friend, Conchita. Fragile Conchita was pallid. Already by far the fairest in the town, her skin was colorless at this moment. "Qué pasá?" asked Licha anxiously.

Conchita's lip's were pressed into a tight, pale line and she tugged nervously at her straight black braid. Her green eyes shifted away from Licha's. "What is it?" asked Licha again, her heart thudding uncomfortably.

Conchita jerked her head. "Padre Horacío wants to talk to you in his office."

Licha frowned. Her hands felt very cold. "What about?" she asked cautiously.

"Vámos!" snapped Conchita. "He didn't say what for."

Licha drew in a deep breath. Conchita never snapped. Something was seriously wrong and Conchita was lying. With the same courage that had come to her aid outside the walls, Licha stood and walked softly out of the capilla, pausing to turn, kneel, and cross herself. The smaller woman bobbed in respect and led Licha further down the far aisle to a door near the altar. Their sandaled feet made soft whispering sounds as they genuflected again at the main altar and then went through the door.

In stark contrast to the large, dim church, the sacristy corridor was whitewashed and brilliantly lit by numerous high windows. Licha blinked in the sudden light and followed her friend down to the well-known third door: Padre Horacío's office.

She put back her rebozo as she entered and kissed Padre Horacío's hand before sitting in front of his desk. Conchita twisted her fingers in the bright red fringe of her rebozo as she sat next to her friend. Licha bit her lip, recognizing the signs of worry in Conchita. "Qué pasá, Padre?" she asked, trying to control the trembling that centered in her stomach.

The priest, young and caring, looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Where have you been, hija? Today and other days when you go missing for hours?"

"Is this confesión, Padre?" asked Licha, to gain time.

Conchita leaned forward, her pale, fragile hand slapping the desk with surprising force. "I am not playing games!" she shouted. "I am risking my life. Decí!"

Licha started uncontrollably and, seeing Padre Horacío begin to frown, answered hurriedly, "At the Capilla de Nuestra Señora de los Socorros. The one on the road to Pinotepa. It's ruined, but, since Raul has gone ... We used to go there and plan our wedding ..."

Licha felt her eyes blur with tears. Her prayers in the deserted chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Aid had gone unanswered. She went often to the chapel to pray, and secretly, once a month, to meet the Zi-mé who had been her betrothed Raul. She remembered Raul's thin face as she had seen it only an hour before. He had said, "Finding Gentes is no trouble, Macías keeps us well supplied."

And she had asked curiously, regretting what could not be, "And the babies? Do they have baby viboras on their wrists? Surely you have many women and babies with you."

But Raul had turned away from her, frowning, and said, abruptly, "Not as many as you think. Only two women have borne babies and we lost one mother. The babies are babies, just like the ones born here."

A sharp shake broke Licha's thoughts. Conchita was scowling ferociously. "Are you a traitor?" she demanded.

"Traitor?" asked Licha, dazedly.

"What else would you call a woman who tells the soul-eating Zi-més where to find our muchachas and muchachos?" asked Conchita scornfully.

Padre Horacío rose from his place and motioned Conchita back to her chair. "Hija, Conchita tells me that her father, Coronel Macías, is looking for a traitor who has been helping the Zi-més find our youngsters. Conchita says that last night her father had his guarruras in and made lists trying to discover the person responsible. In the end there was only you. You are the only one who disappears often for a long time."

Licha shook her head, trying to think. Had they lost many--too many--to the Zi-més? She thought back over the past six months, since Raul had gone through él cambio. There had been Manuel and Toño and Horacío, and Martita, Julia, Elidé. They had each been brought to the central plaza, the Zócalo, their dead Zi-mé bodies displayed for all the village to see. And there had been ... Licha counted on her fingers, four muchachos and ten muchachas who had disappeared. For each one she could remember hearing Coronel Macías loudly proclaim that they had gone through él cambio and run for él monté, the dry jungle that covered the hills against which the town rested, where the Zi-més made their temporary camps. Ten young women! Yet Raul had said that they didn't have many women."

But Licha grabbed at an elusive thought. They used to find the soul-eaten bodies, contorted and grimacing. There hadn't been a soul-eaten body brought to the Zócalo for months, though many people had vanished. Why? Why were only the young disappearing now? Before the adults had also been taken by the Zi-més.

Licha looked up and caught Conchita's eyes on her. There was the shadow of a bruise along her left jaw line. Licha knew perfectly well that there were more bruises on Conchita's body. Coronel Macías had married Conchita's mother for her blue blood. When Doña Imelda had only the one girl child, Macías had been enraged. Mother and daughter were still paying for his anger sixteen years later. Licha shook her head in irritation and forced herself to concentrate on the problem at hand.

Why had Raul said that the villages kept them well "supplied"? She knew that he must have killed just the last day or two. She only saw him a few days in every month by his wish. Who had he killed? Magalí? She had gone missing four days ago.

Conchita moved impatiently. "Well, are you the traitor?"

"No." Licha frowned. "Conchita, do you still hear the muchachas scream at night from the guarruras' barracks?"

"What has that to do with ..." began Conchita, but Padre Horacío was quicker on the uptake. It was hard to see if the blood rose to his face because his skin was the darkest in the town, but his eyes glittered with anger and his teeth flashed.

"You think that the disappeared youngsters have been taken by the guarruras and then disposed of?"

"Yes," said Licha slowly. "I have been seeing Raul. We love each other." Her voice challenged them but they ignored it. "I have never helped him find Gentes to soul-eat and he has never asked me. But today he told me that the Macías supplies them. And I know that Magalí was never near the edge of the village. Her mother left her to go to the mill and I was watching the house. Magalí never left through the front door. But the back of her house joins to the back of Gerasimo's mother's house. They could have stolen her that way."

Conchita drew breath, a sudden sharp gasp. Padre Horacío swung away from Licha. "What is it, hija?"

Conchita shuddered, as pale as she had been earlier. "Last night, and the night before and the night before it was always the same girl. I tried not to listen as she screamed and cried." Conchita massaged her left arm ruefully. Padre Horacío and Licha nodded. When Conchita had been very young she had tried to stop her father from raping her nana. The brutal Caciqué of the town had flung his daughter down the stairs, then finished his business with the maid and flung her after Conchita. Conchita's arm had never healed properly and still ached when the weather was cold or her father shouted at her.

Padre Horacío nodded, convinced that Licha had not been playing the traitor to the town. "What do they do with them after they are finished?" he asked.

Licha fought the heave of her stomach and whispered, "No entiendes? It is so easy to see ... They stake them out for the Zi-més: the muchachas and muchachos they rape; the men and women who defy them; the ones who think; the ones who protest.

"What better way to dispose of those who could tell tales of you than to give them to the Zi-més and leave the disposal problem of the bodies to them? That is why Macías and his goons have not brought back bodies in so long. The Zi-més don't hurt or rape their victims. If the bodies suddenly appeared beaten and raped as well as soul-eaten, people would start to ask questions."

Horacío jerked as though she had knifed him and Conchita started to cry. The horror of a Gente, a person, actually helping the soul-eating devils, by sacrificing their enemies to them, was close to incomprehensible. Licha felt the slow burn of anger in her veins. No wonder Raul never spoke of his new life in él monté! How terrible to be obliged to kill to please your enemies!

Padre Horacío shook his head. "We must get you out of Atoyac, hija! Justice will not be served if Macías plans to cover up his own evil activities by using you as a scapegoat. Go to Padre Cesar in Chayuco. He can keep you or send you on to Hermana Matilda in Tetepec."

Licha nodded and picked up her rebozo from the floor. "As you say, Padre. I am not safe here. They have probably already told the whole village that I am a traitor."

Conchita hugged her tightly, but Licha was already making plans in her head as she gently put off the smaller woman and ran out of the office, through the light-flooded sacristy corridor and into the dim, musty-smelling, old church. She walked swiftly up the side aisle and froze. There were men standing outside the tall doors. Their shadows stirred briefly and were still. Licha shrank back and heard the sacristy door slam open. She could hear Padre Horacío protesting as she doubled back.

She would have to hide behind the altar. She quickly genuflected before the altar and scrambled up the broad steps. Macías ran through the door to the corridor, flicking his whip as he came. The thong wrapped round Licha's ankle and spilled her to the cold tile floor.

"Sanctuary--Sanctuary!" yelled Padre Horacío, running through the door. Two of Macías' goons grabbed him from behind and began beating him. Macías picked Licha up and threw her over his shoulder.

"Leave the Padre alone," he shouted to his goons. "We have the traitor. Vámos!"

Licha lifted her head and saw Padre Horacío subside into a limp, bloody heap by the altar. Conchita was nowhere to be seen. Licha tried to think coldly and logically in an effort to keep from panicking in spite of her upside-down position. Naturally, Conchita would keep out of sight of her father. He might just kill her. Licha understood her friend's fear.

Macías dumped her on her feet by the horses outside. "Put the traidora on a horse," he said. "We'll take her to court at once to be tried. By night-fall she'll be hanging for her crimes."

Furious, Licha yelled, "I am not a traitor. You don't believe that. You are the traitors. You are giving our youngsters to the Zi-més. All you want is to convince the people of the town that I did what you really did. You can kill me, but if you don't stop raping the girls and boys and setting them out for the Zi-més later, people will realize that you lied. I know that no Zi-mé took Magalí ..."

Macías cut short her accusation by sinking a heavy fist into her stomach. Licha whoofed, gasped and swallowed sour bile. A guarrura picked her up and tossed her on her stomach over one of the horse's withers. "We can't take her to the courts. She knows too much," said Macías. "Gag her. I'll take her to the Hacienda, maybe I can save something out of this mess.

"Gerasimo, go tell the judge that I think she has an accomplice and I'm going to interrogate her."

The guarruras did as they were bid. Licha was tied by the waist to the saddle. She cursed herself. Had she kept her mouth shut, she could have accused them in front of the entire town. Then, maybe, the town would have united against them. Now she had lost her chance. Licha turned her head against the smelly, scratchy horse-hair and hoped that the horse wouldn't step on her dangling braids. She could see the tree trunks and Conchita, peeping around one corner of the church. Conchita placed her hands together in a prayerful attitude and then slipped through the overgrown cemetery towards the Pinotepa road.

Licha sighed and tried to pray, but the blood was pounding in her head. Instead she watched the horse's hooves slip and slide on the cobblestone street before gaining a better purchase as the road changed to dirt. Then she watched as the sticky yellow dust of tierra caliente puffed up under the horse's hurried steps and coated the white hocks and roan legs. As they passed the Zócalo, Licha could hear angry people shouting and winced as rocks, offal, and dog turds hit her back and hair. She realized that Macías' rumor mill had already condemned her in the eyes of most of the town.

They soon came to the Hacienda that Macías occupied by virtue of his marriage to the last daughter of the house.

Licha had never been in the grounds of Hacienda Covarrubias before. She had a confused impression of pirulí trees, jacarandas, boganvilía, and tulipanes, all flowers that could only live where there was enough water. In this parched pueblo, perched precariously on the mountain range of Oaxaca, water was scarce and the Coronel's extravagant use of it caused as much anger against him as his heavy hand in patrolling the town.

One of the goons pulled Licha off the horse and removed the gag. Licha staggered, dizzy and nauseous from her unconventional ride. The goon pulled her back against his body. He immobilized her with one arm, and used the other hand to explore her breasts. Macías cursed and the whip curled around the man's hand. "Dejá en paz!" he ordered curtly. "You can have her after I'm finished."

The man stopped and argued, "You always get them first. By the time we get them, all they'll do is lie there and cry. That's no fun. Let us have this one first."

The whip flicked again and the man squirmed away. Licha staggered and felt renewed anger. Had she held her tongue she would have been in the courts and protected. Now, Macías and his goons would be able to do anything with her. Licha tried to regain her balance, but she still couldn't even see straight.

The Coronel shouted, "Puta! Imbecil! If you weren't too smart for your own good, you'd have died tonight, sentenced by the courts. I wanted them to believe that you are a traitor. Instead I'll tell them you died here in interrogation. We'll kill you after we get tired of you." Macías, his plan in shreds, hit her.

Caught off guard, Licha stumbled and fell into the stable sewage ditch. As she dragged herself up and stood, wiping her face free of the muck with the end of her rebozo, the Coronel hit her again, this time on the right side of her face.

She fell backwards, into a tulipan bush, the harsh, sturdy twigs piercing her clothes. The bright pink hibiscus flowers nodded crazily in front of her eyes to the time of the men's laughter, while the branches caught and held her as she struggled to get free.

She was so preoccupied that she didn't hear the exact moment when the laughter of the guards turned to screams. Instead she saw a sudden blur of motion and a Zi-mé flashed past her. They were all over the gardens grabbing the guards. The monsters were terribly quick and the screams died.

A yard from her one of them caught Macías, the thin arms easily holding him immobile while tentacles lashed around his wrists, and a ferociously grinning mouth pressed against the man's lips in él beso de la muerte. Macías writhed and contorted his body in a macabre imitation of the way he would have had Licha writhe under him. It was to no purpose; the Zi-mé dropped the dead body in seconds.

Licha stared, paralyzed by the corpse lying at her feet. It was one thing to believe that Raul would never touch her or eat her soul, another to see the actuality of the death from soul-eating before her eyes. She clamped her teeth together, sudden doubt pervading her mind. Maybe going to see Raul wasn't as safe as she thought!

As Licha struggled to free herself, she wondered whether this raid was coincidence or if Conchita had had the presence of mind to go for Raul at the Capilla on the Pinotepa road. She was suddenly plucked free of the bush and lifted by a familiar person.

"Conchita just barely caught me before I left. Are you alright?" asked her lover.

"Raul!" she gasped. Licha pulled back on the verge of kissing him and swallowed. She realized that the lips she loved could deal death. This was a new Raul, the Zi-mé she rarely saw. She remembered that he was now a monster who lived only through eating other people's souls. She felt fear creep over her as she wondered if she was being taken to her death.

"Stop it!" shouted Raul. Licha jumped back. He was clenching and un-clenching his hands. A small corner of Licha's mind noticed that the tentacles curled and uncurled, too.

Raul said, "Never, but never, fear me. Fear is what kills the Gente. If you fear me, I feel it and want to make you more afraid, to hurt and kill you."

His voice softened and his amber eyes caught hers. "And I am afraid, too. Afraid of what I could do if your fear seems too attractive to me. You must believe that I will do nothing to hurt you. I love you and I will take care of you, and you will be able to return to Atoyac. Promise me never to fear?"

Licha nodded hesitantly. She bowed her head and prayed for courage and strength and trust and confidence and thanked Our Lady of Aid for answering her prayers.

Raul gasped. "Ay! When you pray, you feel even nicer than when you are afraid." He laughed a bit and said, amused. "As a Zi-mé, I lost what faith I had, very quickly."

The next half hour passed in a blur. The Zi-més quickly sacked the house, looted the kitchen and store rooms, hitched or saddled every horse in the stables, then tied up every Gente on the Hacienda and dumped them into the carts. The only exceptions were a few servants and Doña Imelda. Then Raul mounted and reached for Licha's hand. Without pause for rational thought, she put her hand in his and felt the tickle of tentacles as they slithered around her wrist. She put a foot over his and swung up behind him.

They headed down the road towards Cacahuatepec. Licha wrapped her arms around Raul's waist and he put one hand over her wrists and twined his tentacles around them. After an hour Raul waved and turned off the road, leaving the rest to continue on their way. "Adondé?" asked Licha.

Raul shrugged. "To a river I know of. We can't take you with us, but Macías has made the town too hot for you now. I packed food for you. You can stay there while I rejoin the band. I told Doña Imelda to tell the Gentes that we wanted more prisoners staked out, that we didn't have enough. I told her where to find the stakes and the dead bodies." Licha felt him shudder.

"Díos! It is hard to take and kill a poor kid who has been tortured so badly that they aren't human anymore. To let them live or return them to the town would be foolish, since they are always set out so close to death that they would die on us long before we could help. It is revolting to kill a person like that, yet, one must live. Still, Imelda and the rest will surely refuse to give us any more Gentes, so that will be stopped and they will see you had nothing to do with it and you will be able to return to town."

In a short time they came out to a promontory. Far below Licha could see the valley and the villages scattered through it. "Se muere," said Raul softly. Licha nodded. The valley was indeed dying. More and more children were being struck by él cambio and fewer and fewer children were being born and living out their first year. Ever since the first Zi-més had appeared, way back in her grandmother's grandmother's time, Licha knew, more women had started to die in childbirth, more children had died early and fewer women got pregnant.

Her grandmother blamed the loss of the Républica for all the things that had gone wrong. As the Républica dissolved so had all the benefits of being part of a centralized country. Clean water, sanitation techniques, agriculture, and medicine, and slowly, literacy were being lost. Licha could see all the ruins that surrounded the villages; ruins that had once been a part of them. Even today her grandmother could name the houses, the people and their eventual fate.

Raul sighed. "Esta tierra, it's getting barren; too much erosion. All the Zi-més are headed North, to Guadalajara. There are a lot of Zi-més there; they have lots of Gentes, too. No need to live like bandidos. You and yours, all the Gentes, must leave this land. Go east, towards Veracruz. It's a long journey, but you can survive it. There are fewer Zi-més there, I have heard."

Raul sat up and looked into Licha's eyes. With a sigh he kissed her and said, "Destiny has separated us, but I have loved you well and truly."

Licha shook her head. "I won't leave you. I don't care if you eat souls; I'll still be your love!"

"We don't eat souls! It is an energy--life--a force that you have, but it is not the soul!" Raul's voice scaled up and he turned away abruptly. "Besides, I don't believe in souls any more."

Licha felt her heart contract and she repeated, "I won't leave you."

"You might stay for a week, two, three even, maybe," said Raul sadly. "But every month, I must kill. I'd be afraid of killing you when need hits me."

Licha bit her trembling lip. She was determined to have her way now, whatever the price. "Then a week, Raul, give me a week."

And Raul turned and kissed her gently on her bruised lips. "A week, then. We'll have a week. Then I must follow the rest up to Guadalajara."

They went east now to the small river Raul had mentioned. Licha lost herself to the rhythm of the horse's measured strides and laid her cheek against Raul's back. The sun was westering by the time they came out into a small river glade. The river came down a low waterfall and made a deep pool. It was a luminous pale green, glowing like a moonstone in the early evening sun. Water spilled out of it over a series of broken white rocks, crossing the lime valley and vanishing over the mountain side. It was a cool oasis in the parched mountains. Licha helped Raul unsaddle the horse and led it to a rivulet where it would not be able to drink too much at a time.

Licha walked to the pool side and knelt, washing her hands in the cool water and splashing it on her face. She could feel Raul standing nearby, watching her. The blood climbed to her cheeks.

All her clothes were dirty from the two rides, the horse smell, and falling into the sewer. She stood and lifted the heavy cotton huipil to her waist. Carefully she worked out the knot in the belt binding the enaguas to her waist. It came loose and she pulled it off and let her huipil drop back. She picked up the stiff, heavy wool rectangle of coarse cloth that served her as blanket at night and skirt during the day. She dropped it and the belt at the edge of the water to soak. She unknotted her rebozo and put it over the belt. Then she knelt and unstrapped the sandals from her feet.

She refused to look over at Raul. When he had gone through él cambio, they had lost their chance at marriage. Tonight she was going to take what she could and pray that her union with him would be fruitful. Turning her back to Raul, she swallowed as she carefully untied her hair ribbons. She raked her finger through her thick long brown braids, fluffing her hair out over her shoulders. The muck from the sewer she had fallen into had dried hard, making tangles.

Her breasts felt enlarged, tight and hot. A path of fire seemed to trace from her nipples down through her stomach to her womb and end in a flame-burst between her legs. With a last prayer to Mary, Mother of God, she pulled the dirty huipil up and off. She made a small ceremony of placing it for washing, before walking into the water, trying to control the tremors running down her legs. She turned towards the waterfall so that Raul could see her profile. The little glade was very silent and her skin burned as it felt his greedy gaze. Then a rustle of cloth told her that Raul was removing his camisa and calzones; thuds as his sandals were kicked off came to her ears. He walked into the pool, put his hands on her shoulders, and pressed his body along the length of her back and legs.

His fingers stroked her collar bones and his tentacles drew fine patterns on the flesh of her shoulders. Licha swallowed as the slender vines traced trails of fire on her breasts. The back tentacles tangled in her hair, tugging gently. One came up and brushed her lips. Raul turned her to face him.

"Do you know what you are doing?" he asked, his color heightened.

Licha nodded. "I'm telling you that I am your woman and you are my man, no matter what happens later." The red rays of the sun highlighted their skin and Licha took comfort in the sudden vulnerable expression on Raul's lips. His amber-flecked eyes dropped to her breasts and his hands rubbed up and down her back. Licha looked down as Raul stirred. He moved back, looking suddenly uncomfortable and Licha watched his rising flesh, fascinated. It looked very dark against the pale water. Raul's body trembled and his hands slid down from her shoulders to meet around her waist. Licha stepped forward, a hot burning in her groin and her nipples tightening. The two fumbled in the water, trying to accommodate their bodies, before relaxing into the most primitive of movements.

In the morning Licha woke to find Raul frowning down at her. "Bruja," he said, without heat. "You are a witch and my heart!"

Licha smiled at him, feeling the glory of love fulfilled. Raul kissed her and kissed her and they ended up having love for breakfast. Afterwards, Licha found rocks and built a small fireplace and Raul hauled dried branches over. Exploring the glade, Licha found a loofa vine. She twisted the dull brown-black pods free of the stubborn vines and carried two back to their makeshift camp. She spent an hour carefully husking the brittle skin from the abrasive insides and shaking out the seeds.

An avocado tree, two orange trees, wild carrots, and potatoes as well as zucchini, graced the perimeter of the river valley. Raul had packed beans and corn for her as well. Licha was satisfied that nothing would interrupt their idyll.

The days passed swiftly and quietly. Licha, counting days again and again, dreamed of a union, a new beginning. She found new reasons to sing each morning, scrubbing their meager dishes out by the pool. The small core of doubt shrank with each day. She knew in her heart that Raul could not kill her. By the week's end she was sure in her heart, that her gamble with luck and fate had paid off. She anxiously waited for Raul to notice the small changes already taking place in her breasts and habits and breathed a small prayer of thanks that she wasn't nauseous like her cousin had been.

Raul was concerned about something, however, and by the end of the second week Licha managed to find out what. "You could have my baby I'm afraid for you. Childbirth is hard on our women. And if you return to Atoyac pregnant, no one will believe that you escaped us and wandered about until you found your way."

But Licha had had ample reason to think of the story she would use when she returned to the town. "I will say that Macías did manage to rape me before you Zi-més arrived. That will be the story that I can give them. I will tell them that I have escaped a corral that the Zi-més use to hold the Gentes and that I was raped there, too. Besides, I don't need to tell them you have left él monté. Indeed, if I do say that they will never leave for Veracruz."

Raul nodded slowly, but didn't seem convinced. "I don't want you to leave me if you're pregnant."

Licha shrugged. "I'll follow wherever you say, Raul. Do you really want me to go with you to Guadalajara?"

Raul shook his head and wandered off to look at the horse. Licha sighed. He was getting very moody. She lifted the lid on the clay pot where the beans were gently bubbling. The bean broth was black and thick and Licha inhaled it greedily. It made her mouth water. Already she could feel the effects of her condition as she ate more at every meal and slept longer and deeper every day.

She picked up the carrots and onions she had found growing wild and scrubbed them down with her loofa. She sliced them up into the broth, feeling the living tides of the glade move around her. The waters chuckled as they flowed past, the birds whirred by calling and dancing the mating dance. In the underbrush, little animals rustled and peeped at this strange new thing. Once or twice she had seen deer come to the clearing to drink and be startled by the smell of smoke. The sun was slanting west as she reached for the other pot where the corn was soaking. A convenient rock served as her metate and she ground it into a coarse meal.

Much later Raul returned and ate the tortillas and beans. After dinner he lay back with his head in Licha's lap. "Amor, soon it will be time to go."

Licha giggled. "It has been two weeks, mi vida. Can we not wait another two weeks?"

Raul sat bolt upright and began to count the days off on his hands. He shook his head in wonder. "No. Maybe one week, but only if I don't feel bad about it."

Licha nodded and pulled his head back down to her lap. She smoothed his unruly hair and spoke softly to him. "I am going to have your baby."

Raul froze. He turned and slowly sat up. Licha found it hard to meet his incredulous gaze. She hoped that he would be pleased.

"De verdad?" he asked.

Licha nodded. "It can be a pledge, a promise that someday, somewhere we--Gentes and Zi-més--can learn to live together."

"Together?" Raul twisted away and frowned. "We, Zi-més and Gentes, don't belong together."

"You die without Gentes to kill," observed Licha neutrally. "Would you rather suicide or learn a way to live together?"

"Suicide doesn't help!" exclaimed Raul. "It won't stop él cambio. I have heard that not all babies born to Zi-més become Zi-més. Some become Gentes."

"Es lo que te digo," said Licha with some asperity. "Gentes and Zi-més are human. Like men and women are human. We are meant to live together."

Raul looked startled. "If only you didn't fear so much ..." he said softly.

"I don't," Licha asserted. "At least not now. But if you were to try and take my life force and it hurt, I probably would fear. But, couldn't I learn not to fear? Maybe by practicing it?"

"Maybe," said Raul hesitantly. "But I am not going to practice with a pregnant woman bearing my child."

Licha snorted. "When I go East, you must look for me again, meet your child. We must not let this just be the only time that Zi-més and Gentes meet. Instead, we should build a tradition. Maybe it will take as many generations to learn how to live together as it has taken to fall apart. Let us keep a tradition of the name 'Esperanza.' Hope; it is such a beautiful name."

Raul nodded and presently they slept.

The next days passed with unexpected speed. There didn't seem to be time enough to say and do all that had to be said and done before saying good-bye for as long as it would take Licha to go East and start a new life. Licha felt despair well up in her body every time she thought about leaving Raul. But there was the comfort of her baby. The baby whom she would name "Esperanza," Mario or María Esperanza. Hope; their child who would carry their hopes and dreams into the future.

When she woke the final day, Raul was staring up at the tree above them. He smiled wretchedly at her and said, "I almost wish we hadn't done this. If only there was a way that we could live together without my being afraid I'd kill you!"

But there was nothing they could do to stop what they were. Very late that day Raul left Licha at the edge of the village. She didn't turn to watch Raul go. Instead she trudged between the old ruins to the dusty streets, up to Padre Horacío's crumbling stone church.

Padre Horacío was sitting on the steps. "Ah!" he exclaimed. "Imelda hoped you would be sent back. Where have you been, hija?" he asked quietly. Licha looked at him and winced. His dark skin couldn't conceal the myriad of half-healed scars on his face and hands. His abundant hair had been shaven and was growing back prickly. One eye was concealed behind a black patch.

"Oh, Padre, you should not have tried to save me!" she exclaimed.

Padre Horacío smiled, a queer distorted grimace that pulled his lips sideways. "Jesus has said, 'For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.' I could not stand aside in fear of my life when yours was at stake."

Licha sighed. "Did Doña Imelda find the execution stakes?"

"Yes." Padre Horacío frowned. "Don Alberto has married her. He is saying that we should flee to Veracruz. Neither will come to confession. What do you know of this?"

Licha suddenly felt very tired. " 'Let this cup pass from me,' " she mumbled, remembering the Savior who had also tried to back out with those words, too late to be effective. She sighed and sat down on the step below Padre Horacío.

The Padre shook his shaven head. "Los Gentes look to me to lead them. I am the good shepherd. But I will not take them into death or to a trap. You know a Zi-mé, have spent some days with them, so I must ask you to tell me why they want us to go east. I must know that the Zi-més are not going to decimate us if we run."

Licha buried her face in her hands. Doubt assailed her. Had she been wise to get pregnant by Raul? Should she believe his promise of Veracruz being relatively free of Zi-més? He didn't believe in souls, so how could he assert that he didn't eat them? She moaned in despair.

"They are gone, Padre," she whispered.


"Gone to Guadalajara. They could see that the pueblos are dying. If they had stayed, we would have all died that much sooner. They were only seven altogether. Seven and two babies."

Licha could feel Padre Horacío towering over her. A movement caught her eye and she looked up. Padre Horacío had taken out his stole. It was a relic of the good times, the old times; a heavy cream-colored silk length, embroidered in tarnished silver and gold thread. Padre Horacío touched it to his lips and put it around his shoulder. He prayed silently, his face lifted to the clear blue sky.

Then he sat down and said, "Bajo sello de confesión, tell me all."

Licha chewed on the end of one braid. But her doubts were too great for her to handle this alone. She told the Padre everything. How Raul had hidden after killing the first time and found her. How they had made a custom of meeting in the ruined capilla. How he had always insisted that he wouldn't kill her and how he had scorned the idea of soul eating.

"But he no longer believes in souls, Padre, so how can he be sure?"

Horacío was staring at her open-mouthed. He shook his head and asked, "And in the past days?"

So Licha told him of her idyll in the woods and the baby she bore. If Horacío had been amazed previously, Licha's admission of her deliberate attempt to get pregnant left him revolted.

"Are you sure?"

"I am a week overdue, and I have never missed before."

That seemed to convince him and he nodded for her to continue.

When she had finished Horacío began to pleat the stole nervously in his fingers. "As you say, how can he know that it is not the soul he eats?" Horacío meditated a while. "Has anyone ever survived?"

Surprised, Licha nodded. "Yes, once or twice they will survive the first time, but it--Raul called it, burns them. They get hurt very badly and die in pain later."

"But they are still people until they die?"

Licha understood the direction of the questioning. "Yes! They still talk and remember and fight. They are whole in that sense! And, Raul!" Licha gasped in eagerness. "Raul, he is still Raul, a person. Haven't you taught that once they eat a soul, they do so because they have lost their own souls?"

Horacío nodded hesitantly, not following her thoughts now.

Licha rushed on. "Don't you see? A soul is not like a rebozo or a pair of calzones. Each person is what they are by what their souls are! If Raul had lost his soul and had to eat other souls--then I would have spoken to Magalí or América, or Juan, or one of those who have been lost!"

"You mean that you think that Raul is still a person, a gente?"

"I don't think! I know. I lived with him for twenty days. I would have known if he were a living dead that had to have a new soul each month! But think of Macías! He was defiled. But you know because we always talked about it how Zi-més never did more than kill, and always in the same way. Not torture, not terror, not oppression, not rape, not like Macías!"

Licha saw, with a qualm, that Padre Horacío found her arguments disquieting. Every time she spoke Raul's name, he would pale and wince. Padre Horacío shook his head slowly. "But still, they kill. Every month they must take another life."

Licha concentrated. "And we hunt them down as they do us. Padre, we are giving evil in return for evil."

Horacío shook his head ruefully. "Mi hija, this is all very fascinating to discuss, but not now. Now, my trouble is to understand why Raul wants us to go East."

Licha felt puzzled at his obtuseness. "But, I have said why. Because we will die if we stay here. The land is going bad on us and it encloses us. We are locked between the mountains and the sea. We can only spread north and south. If we die, then so do the Zi-més. Somehow, someway, there must be a way we can live together. But if we all die, we will never learn it."

Padre Horacío's face went slack. After a few quiet minutes he asked, intense revulsion in his voice, "Do you truly believe that we are meant to live with such hell-spawn?"

"I did! I lived with Raul for twenty days!"

Horacío nodded; as if this had presented a new idea to him. But he said, "And he has gone to eat another man's soul."

Licha beat her fist against the step he was seated on. "Yes, but it doesn't have to be that way. If we could understand why Gentes hurt and die when the energy is taken, maybe we could control it."

Horacío shook his head. "I will lead the pueblos to Veracruz. Raul and his hell-spawn are right about the land dying. But what will happen to you, mi hija, when you bear a baby Zi-mé?"

"The babies are just like our babies. They have no mark and Raul says that some become Gentes and some have él cambio. Padre--" Licha faltered as Horacío shook his head, a sad, grieving movement.

"You, too, have been corrupted, hija," he said. He stood painfully and folded away his stole. "I cannot grant you absolution. I will tell no one, you must make up your own story as to how you escaped. When we reach Veracruz, I want you to find another village of Gentes and live away from us. I will not allow one who believes that the Zi-més could be good to corrupt my sheep."

Licha started to her feet, a dagger thrust into her heart, but Padre Horacío turned away from her outstretched hand and painfully limped up the last two steps and vanished through the iron-barred gates. They clanged shut and Licha was left standing forlornly on the hot stone. The closed gates danced before her tearing eyes. She had chosen to bring a child of the warring halves of humanity into the world, but she hadn't understood the cost to herself. It had cost her the love of her mentor, the land where she was born and had lived, and the people she knew. All was dissolving and vanishing before her. All in the name of Hope.

Licha knew that should any learn of what she had done it would cost her her reputation and possibly her life. The thought of bowing her shoulders to public opinion stiffened her spine. Once, less than a month ago she had spoken out of turn to Macías and nearly been raped and killed. Today she had spoken to one she trusted only to be rejected. Truth was an expensive commodity and the truth-speaker paid its price.

Setting her jaw, she turned. It was time to go home and lie to her mother and her father, to Imelda and Antonio. To Conchita, perhaps she could tell the truth, though she risked losing even her. Licha carefully descended the broad steps and walked into the hot sun, holding her shoulders pridefully erect.

End of Story


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