Jul/Aug 2012 Nonfiction


by Jascha Kessler

A tale in The Thousand and One Nights tells of a caravan resting at noon beside a stream. One merchant tosses a date-stone over his shoulder. Whereupon the ground cracks wide, and out leaps a djinn roaring, You must die! When asked, for what crime? That pit you threw so carelessly went into my son's eye and killed him! That the child was not visible is no excuse. The hapless fellow's life is forfeit.


At the beach one summer, I lay drowsing behind my sunglasses when a stocky Chicano plopped himself down and woke me. Tattooed arms; broken nose; scarred face. Introducing himself as Roberto Medina, he thrust out his left hand to exhibit a big gold ring on his middle finger and asked me what my sign was.

—Sign? Like Mobil's winged red horse?

—No, your birth sign.

—Um, Sagittarius.

—Good for you: a philosopher cat. Far-sighted. Me, I'm Libra. Scales, you know? The Libra balances ideas, suspends judgment, compares this with that before he makes his move. So, last night I'm playing poker—I lays down a double sawbuck and this Chink guy, he throws in his ring, calls me—and turns over kings and jacks. Tough! I'm holding three queens. Three queens, man! Real jade! Sagittarius—man, we should play poker together! What do you think?

Medina rattled on about thriller movies: earthquakes, tidal waves, skyscraper infernos, godzillas, zombies, alien folks who look like us, invaders from beyond the Beyond.

I had nothing to say except that I'd never even seen Jaws. I finally hauled myself up and trotted down to the waterline and plunged into the calm Pacific's surf.


Recently I was introduced to a lady well on into that certain age. My hostess had tipped us off beforehand: Mary's a healer. She's learning how to work her hands. She lays them on; she strokes; she massages; her aura cures by relieving congested paths in the patient's limbs—joints, trunk, neck, head. She drags their feeble electric juices along; she gets them flowing again: your tennis elbow, your yanked sacroiliac or compressed vertebra; your blocked ureter or locked pylorus. Hers is the electricity that heals. Or so she said, fluttering over Barbara's sore knuckle and index finger, bruised a week ago trying to restrain her Malamute bitch from tearing off the mailman's balls.

—Aren't you undertaking serious responsibility? I asked.

—How so?

—If her doctor knew you were practicing without a license...

—Wouldn't he just like to try psychic surgery! Last month some girl called me after midnight. She had colonic bleeding again. She was afraid of cauterization in a hospital. That's so painful.

—What did you do?

—Told her to come over. She trusts me.

—And you did her ... ?

—It's quite simple, my dear. Oh, it might feel painful. But it's no shock like those steel surgical instruments. First, I made her lie down. I sensed her trouble: jammed upper intestine. I tracked that soreness down her lower gut to where it started her bleeding.

All that time Mary was holding Barbara's hand between her palms, kneading, "wiping" the "obstruction" into her fingers and flinging it away. Spitting ptui! she tossed away ineffable clots, as though she abstracted a bug from each swollen knuckle. Barbara smiled dreamily. It wasn't rheumatoid arthritis?

—I felt her belly, her lower back. Nastily swollen, a black aura, know what I mean? Then I called in my helpers. Psychic surgeons. I told her it might seem to hurt—we were going to cauterize her colon and stop the bleeding.

—What's that? Barbara asked.

—Bowel, dearest, colon's lower bowel. My helpers bring their psychic tube, which we insert together.

—A psychic tube, I said. —Into the colon.

—I guide them with my hands. It goes in and up, just as a doctor does it. With this difference: I see into her body with my hands. They see vital the current, and follow it into her organs. Like tracing. Even without surgical tools, it's painful. I don't use anesthetics. Of course I don't need to. That's another plus. I admit it was hard keeping her quiet until my helpers sent their force in and up.

—Up the tube?

—Invisible tube. It is there. Then my helpers cauterized. No two, three hours strapped to the operating table. Over in minutes. Astral time's not our time. You see what I mean?

—I see, I said. —Yes.

— In psychic time it takes only minutes to cauterize a colon. My job's serving as connector. Electric. These two hands. Magnetic linkup. How's that, Barbara?

—Feels good, croons Barbara. —My hands are so warm now!

—The flow's coming back. Naturally. It'll take a while. Anyway, the girl's bleeding stopped right then. She'd have spent weeks in the hospital, plus god alone knows whether they would have stopped it for good.

—You did.

—It's a month now, my dear. She's alright.

—Remission? Clotting? No ulceration?

— No no, and no! She's cured, my dear. With these hands. Oh, what power's out there!


—Isn't it?

—Mind over matter, I murmured. What immortal hand or eye … ?

Mary took to Barbara's shoulder, "stroking the flow" to her elbow, pressing it to her wrist and out through the gnarled fingers.

—Before I tried that colonic heal, Mary said, —they helped me perform my surgery on a set of gallstones. Big ones. All gone!

—Gallstones! Your subject's X-ray revealed no gallstones?

Mary hesitated. I stared at that plump, bottle-blonde Hollywood healer who sat with one leg supported on the sofa cushion, its bare foot showing bandaged below the hem of her caftan. A burned foot. Her oven caught fire a week ago and she'd slopped hot oil getting the chicken out. Now she was curing that bad burn by stroking to pull out its heat through the ankle.

Noticing my pondering that black wound, she turned to Barbara. —I'm not giving you my full heal-strength, of course, because I've been working on myself. I'm tuckered. She came back to my question: —Yes, of course. All gone.

I didn't believe her patient was X-rayed after surgery: the pain may have ebbed momentarily. The next attack could seem more like death; then she'd be trundled off to the hospital. Mary was a fibber. Asked a question directly, these plump ladies grow quiet when it threatens their pose; their eyes wander off glazed; then they smile brightly—and lie bravely.

—Those gallstones are gone, so that's that, said Mary.

I hoped the surgeons wouldn't come after her. They have their Cal 50's to maintain. Lawyers, too.

—No, my dear, they won't. She's cured.

I shrugged. Mary admitted her new technique was complex, that much was to be learned. She was at the beginning really. She wished she'd been told years ago she's a healer. She's studying acupuncture charts, intending to do the nodes without needles. She's mastered seven chakras and is almost able to collect and concentrate auras out of thin air. Not that hard because everyone radiates an aura as much as two feet around them.

—My hands can feel an aura. It vibrates its magnetic heat. Of course different healers do it different. My power's in my hands. Though, if you have a bad pain somewhere inside and can't tell me where I might have to use my body.

—How do you do that? asked Barbara.

—Well, your patient lies down on a table or the floor. Then I lay myself down them.

Barbara smiled. Mary smiled. Single women. I remarked that was the way Jesus brought a boy back to life.

—Really? How interesting. I must look that up. Would I find it in a Bible?

—You could make a lot of money, Mary. Like some healers in Italy who're prisoners in their homes surrounded night and day by crowds standing in the street. No one who's not unconscious will commit to an Italian hospital.

—Some do make money, she said vaguely.

I wondered whether she was on the take from her friends' friends. She yanked on Barbara's arm, tugging at vital juices, Barbara's swollen wrist still blocking them.

Studying Mary, Barbara mused. —You know what? What with your little helpers you could go in for face-lifting. How about that, darling?

Mary smiled shyly.

—In fact you do look younger.

—I was wondering when you'd notice.

—Marvelous. How does it work?

—I use cream. I massage like everyone does … except my electricity is my hands, and that powers through because it never ages.

—How divine, Barbara crooned.

Mary's plump, smooth face was marred above the upper lip by the inherent creases of a 55-year-old. What engaged me was her vanity. Harmless if she's just massaging. Curing angina? Dangerous. Watching her complacent smile as she worked Barbara's poor fingers and nattered about her psychic helpers, I began to wonder about mana, that sub—or super—force native to shamans.


Three years earlier my wife lay supine on that same sofa where Mary and Barbara now sat facing each other that evening. End of May, dinner concluding, Julia at the one end of the table sways and catches herself. Silent, pale, she rises, eyes unsteady in the candlelight. She murmurs an excuse, tells us to go on with dessert, and slips from the room. Barbara gets up to follow and soon returns: Julia's barely conscious, forehead clammy, hands iced. Old Fred jokes as we troop out, Goody goody! I get to play doctor. It wasn't funny. She seemed almost comatose. We lifted her head, wet her lips with rum. Her eyes opened and she croaked, —Take me home. I feel awful.

That night she slept like a stone. Talking to our doctor, I was surprised when he asked about her stool. When he learned it was black, he said get her to the hospital now. By noon she was at Century City Hospital. Tests showed she'd lost more than half her blood bleeding internally for a week. Transfusions to stave shock were indicated. But our doctor intended to try bringing her body-fluid up to par by intravenous feeding. She might start making up blood lost in a day or so. Meantime, they'd monitor vital functions. Not to worry.

I worried. When I got home that afternoon, I found Maria still there. Not much done: vacuum parts strewn along the hall as usual, mop laid wet on the kitchen floor, broom idling in one corner, laundry strewn all the way from the hamper in the bathroom to the service area next to the kitchen. When that woman cleaned she seemed to create cobwebs and collect dust. Mirrors were cloudier after she wiped them. She'd been working like that for six months, and Julia had wanted to dismiss her after the first month because Maria didn't or couldn't clean, or cleaned smearing film from a dirty cloth over countertop and table, left dustballs under beds, neglected gummy patches on floor tiles, which she mopped aimlessly, shuffling here and there in unlaced sneakers as if she was sleepwalking.

From the first hour, she complained our house couldn't be done in a day. So we offered two. Which vexed us, because our former Maria, a Russian woman of seventy who'd ruefully told us her husband preferred her at home, worked wonders in seven hours, never needing to be told where to start or what was to be looked after, and left the place shining.

Who was this Maria? A Guatemalan, stocky, dark and narrow-eyed, thirty-odd. She said she'd left a twelve-year old son home with her mother after her marido—a malhechor—deserted them. Bitterly spoken. She lived-in next door, sent by one of those agencies in the barrio specializing in illegals. She struck us as surly and suspicious. After our Russian Maria with her little granny hump and twinkling blue eyes and efficient old woman's bustling, this Maria was simply disagreeable. Her hairy calves in broken-backed sneakers, her blouse half out of her skirt over a protuberant belly, her baggy breasts in a tight jersey, the left one hung lower than the right—no, it was not a reassuring body that stepped in after rapping loudly at the kitchen door. There she stood challenging us at our coffee, asking where to start.

—Wherever you like, my wife would say.

Then Maria dragged stuff from the broom closet: mop, pail, waxes, polish, glass-cleaner, broom, vacuum, brushes, and whatnot, scattering them about. She would delay, returning to glare at us as we tried to finish breakfast over the newspaper. Julia always looked for some pretext to go out whether she wanted to or not.

At the outset we'd thought it would be helpful when Trudy suggested our taking her Maria one day a week. She didn't need her daily, since she lived-in. She meant to boost her income, with our subsidy of course.

—You don't like pushing when you're paying the good dollar, I said to Julia.

—I resent the having to. Our Maria was an old lady who never needed to be told what was needed.

—The Russian peasant keeps a spotless home. Maybe this Maria's too farsighted to notice layers of dust?

—When I show her, she scowls. She's not stupid; she can't pretend to be ignorant. Trudy runs a busy household there. So why not here?

Nothing to be done; we were tied down subsidizing a rich neighbor, paying her peon $120 a month for four days, whereas Trudy shelled out $250 for the other 27. What was Trudy's opinion?

—She asked me over to see her new kitchen. Spotless. Trudy's one complaint is Maria plays TV too loud. But she doesn't mind, it keeps her company.

—Keeps us company too.

When I returned from the hospital, there stood Maria, six hours into the day and nothing much done so far as I could see: the usual debris of cleaning tools, the kitchen floor puddled with gray suds.

Donde esta la Senora...? Fists on hips, belly out-thrust. A sloven, a sour woman. She half-smiled, as if she knew all about it.


—Okay, la Senora?

—She's okay.

Shrugging, she resumed her cleaning-our-house pantomime. I went out to my study.

Hectic days followed: hospital visits, teaching, picking children up and distributing them through the carpooling network that sustains families in Los Angeles: schools, friends, after-school activities, marketing. Julia maintained herself at rest. The peculiarity of her case was she lacked symptoms: no pain, no indigestion, no headaches from severe anemia. We'd been readying for a flight to Budapest in July. Here was a setback —unless she recovered. Still, replenishing half the lost red blood cells needs time. We'd have to wait and see. An X-ray survey was scheduled for Saturday morning, after which our doctor would decide how to proceed.

Resting all day was tedious, but Julia didn't fail herself. When I reported all was in order at home, she was relieved she didn't have to watch that witch drag herself around.

Friday night I rang Claire, an old friend. When she heard the situation, she said she knew now why we'd nagged at her mind lately.

—After this awful week, I had to call.

—I'm glad you called, Claire said in her calm way. —I'll work before I go to bed, and think again in the morning.

I understood she'd devote some time to Julia during her morning meditation. "Hold her in the light." That meant she "lifted" her to a "level" of "higher energy." Those words denote little meaning. Coming from Claire, they signify. I was glad to find my pillow.

In the early morning Julia was taken to Radiology. When I arrived, I found her in good spirits if tired. She'd had to wait her turn for the barium cocktail. She mentioned two coincidences. Chatting with the woman radiologist, she called to mind Claire and joked that if her distant friend only knew where she lay helpless here, she might work a cure. Mentally, that is. The radiologist smiled and replied that medical science notwithstanding she too "worked" with a circle tackling hard cases, routine in this medical specialty. She'd focus on Julia at tonight's session—to reinforce Claire.

—I actually spoke to Claire last night. Your technician will find a welcome in their Wherever.

—That is strange! I thought about Claire while I was waiting. It was almost as though she stood in that waiting room. I thought I was dreaming. I was awake—but there she stood ….

X-rays revealed no lesions. Our doctor explained that whatever the case five days ago she was healed. It could have been hairline scratches, imagine a toothbrush scraping the duodenum. Enough for hemorrhage in the intestine. Things like that happen, he said. A couple of glasses of wine oughtn't cause something like that blood-loss!

Once home, Julia kept to bed and finally boosted the erythrocyte count sufficiently to condone takeoff for London and Europe in three weeks. On waking in London, however, she experienced that burbling sensation; she found signs of bleeding. Our doctor in Los Angeles advised heading on to Budapest where, given their cuisine, savvy ulcer specialists abounded. In Hungary, two-days' rattling through clinics and labs showed no drop in the red count, slightly still anemic. The bleeding had stopped. So we managed a month while I worked translating post-war poets. She was forbidden to drink the least glass of "Bull's Blood" wine. At least we were at half-a-world's remove from a Guatemalan.

On our return in late August, Julia considered it best to neglect asking for Maria. That woman, whose guttural chatter we still heard from our garden, must never again set foot in our kitchen.

One morning that fall, we stood out front condoling with Trudy. Her mother, in her mid-fifties, had recently dropped dead, face down during a bridge game as it happened, in the middle of bidding no trump.

—Heart, said Trudy.


—Not at all, she said, remarking that Maria picked up work elsewhere while we were abroad.

Not that we minded.


A year passes. Julia recovers. All's forgotten, wine graces our table. A new woman cleans, intelligent, young. One of those needing no minding, who comes and goes as she likes, her own key, and does our place well in six hours. July 2, and I am returning from the monthly jaunt to Costco, car filled with bags and boxes. My little son waits at the door. The phone's been ringing. Accident. I am to go to Santa Monica Hospital where mother and sister are in ER. His sister called—they were okay.

It could easily have been far worse than what I found at the Emergency Room. They were struck by an Oldsmobile from their left at an intersection, at 1:30 in bright sunlight. A well-known sports announcer just flew through the Stop. He repeated to Julia as she was cut out of our totaled wagon and strapped to the ambulance's gurney that he was so sorry—how he could have missed that familiar Stop! Apart from my daughter's banged-up knee, the glass slivers in Julia's left eye and an inch-long gash on her upper left arm, now stitched, she seemed not much damaged. Fortunately no concussion, broken ribs or dislocated vertebrae. A swollen knee. Contusions on her shoulders. She'd be sore some weeks, her left side having taken the impact of the crushed-in door.

She described to me while the surgeon finished binding her arm the shocking sight of that huge red Olds slowing down but then accelerating into the intersection. She'd whipped her wheel to the right, and they were struck at forty-five-degrees, their momentum absorbing some of the Olds's force. Twenty-five years' driving without a mishap. She went over those moments for weeks.

I went down to the repair shop. The wagon's door was stove in fifteen inches, the wheel and floor-shift had been cut away, the seat torn out in extricating her. On the floor I found one lens of her sunglasses. An accident. Flowers came from Lennon with a note: how truly sorry he was. And he telephoned to wonder how it could have happened when he'd driven daily down Idaho Avenue for thirty years, stopped at that 17th Street Stop daily for thirty years. The more he went over it, the more it seemed as though his foot somehow had been forced to tromp on the gas pedal. How was that possible? Those seconds were a blur in memory.

Trudy was rear-ended a few weeks later by some elderly fellow, her SUV totaled. She would go about most of the year sporting a whiplash collar. The voice of Maria singing toneless snatches came from their kitchen window. Cars were replaced; routine filled the days. The inconscience in which one lives persists only so long as one's not forced to notice coincidence. And harmful coincidences set one to looking about after quitting the breakfast table. Anxiously. What can avail before that thread is cut, the sword drops?

Julia's mother died in her sleep, calmly, first of December. Seventy-seven. She'd been in diminishing health; it nonetheless came as a surprise. Some days later, driving home with her sister from a mournful afternoon at their mother's apartment packing things to save or discard, a steel beam fell from out the sky, piercing and crushing the road not ten yards in front of the car. Had she not been slowing for a yellow light, its cold tons would have killed them.

She came in trembling. Her older sister, a saturnine woman, smiled grimly. I happened to be writing a letter to an anthropologist friend working in Tanzania and added by way of postscript that close call as well as the broadsiding months earlier. Sally wrote back that were we living where she was on the coffee-terraced sloped of Kilimanjaro, much like one of her tribesmen she'd have surmised witchcraft in it. Half-joking. Still, the other half arrived coincidentally the day her letter came.

We had the new car. And then, late on a clear afternoon, Julia driving back from the dental surgeon with our younger son was rear-ended. The child was stuporous following extraction of four milk-teeth, and Julia had belted him into the front seat. Then some girl exited bolting onto San Vicente Boulevard from out the Westward Ho lot. My wife braked and avoided broadsiding her, but another tailgated our new Peugot. Dreaming in heavy traffic? Distracted? I entered an empty house whose phone was ringing. Smash Palace redux: Santa Monica Hospital Emergency calling: ambulance, fire truck, police car, tow truck. Julia insisted Reception must keep calling. I remember shouting, What the hell's going on here! The operator thought I insulted her. Our poodle slunk off as if he were scolded.

The scene at the hospital was not as bad as my gut feared. The boy's face was bloody, crusts of blood smeared on his lips and cheeks, his shirt spattered with bloodstains. The aide told me the cotton plugs had popped from his mouth when his head jerked forward with the impact. Now he slumped against his mother as they waited for X-rays. I saw only a bandage on a lacerated knee. If those plates showed no traumas to their skulls and necks, things might not be too bad. The car was a mess, what she'd glimpsed as they were strapped down for the ambulance. She laughed, recalling the paramedic's compliment for cooperating with rescue procedure, police report, disposition of car: she must be a fan of the new serial, EMERGENCY! Wrong! she'd said. Lately I've had enough of my own. Well, he'd rejoined, so now you know we do it just like on TV!

Back home, I settled our little guy in bed and sat Julia down to a light supper. She reviewed the sequence of that accident abstractedly. The second time round, she suddenly looked up, crazed.

—What have you been up to? What helluva jinx are you putting on me?


Some months later, I was on my Saturday morning rounds outside, checking out orange blossoms, seeing if the iron-poor clay of our lot needed chelates, noting the glister of snail tracks on the walk and lawn, examining the increase in sowbug and centipede life beneath the strawberry leaves. On the foot-wide strip of earth below our bedroom windows where I intended to plant a muscat grape, I noticed a creature I'd not yet seen in our Los Angeles arid climate. At first I hesitated, supposing it was one of those gummy monsters my kids cast, black tarantulas or goopy chartreuse alligators or cocoa bats. I stooped to pick it up and stopped. It was alive—a fat, green, spotted toad. There it squatted, immobile, its bulbous eyes rolling up meditatively, its lumpish back dappled in the dwarf lemon-tree's shade, its sides puffing gently in and out. It was bigger than my two fists joined. I thrust the dog's inquisitive nose aside and called the boys.

—Don't touch!

They ran in to fetch their mom. I thought it would stay put: the driveway was hot.

—What's that, a frog?

—A toad!

—Where could that have come from? she said, turning away disgusted.

—Maybe some kid's terrarium?

—What are you going to do with it?

I said we'd leave it alone to fatten on larvae and slugs and sow-bugs and flies. I told the boys not to mess with it.

I welcomed that fat toad to our garden. How obtuse can one be? Call it rationalization, sangfroid, call it enlightened stupidity—in the end, it is the darkness of reason.

I checked after lunch. Gone. Not a footprint, no glister of slime to show where it hunkered down below the dripping hose. I assumed it came for that wetness. Was that adequate?

In April I flew east for some readings. Julia was taking the boys to the desert for tennis and mineral baths over the weekend. After three days in Cambridge I went down to friends in Washington. Barely had I arrived and washed for dinner when there was a call from the Department's secretary. —By the way, she said, Julia told me not to mention the accident because she didn't want to spoil your week.

I called home. Julia had had a fall at the hot springs. Bicycle.

—Oh hell, what happened?

In pain, she yet managed to laugh at my dismay. Her right arm was in a cast; elbow fractured, ulna too. Clean breaks. She couldn't explain it. Pedaling slowly up a slight grade, she'd looked back for the boy—when the front wheel was somehow wrenched aside, and she was flung forward. She threw herself to one side and landed on turf—elbow first. Skinned her knees. At least she'd have matching scars. They'd gotten back to L.A. by commandeering a bellhop to drive them. Not to worry: only her right arm. A lefty she, an inconvenience at worst. I should finish my trip. Friends were driving her to the orthopedist and doing the marketing.

The third accident in a year! People do fall off bicycles. Chausson going downhill ran his bike into a brick wall in 1899 and that did it for him. Still, as she said, she was going slowly uphill—the way those handlebars wrenched themselves from her grip was puzzling. Coincidence? Back home, I found her smiling sadly by day, groaning with pain at night. One morning she went to the bedroom for her sweater because we were taking a walk with the dog. I heard her cry out and scurried down the hall. The carpet was rucked, the glass door to the deck open. Our older son was rooting around outside with an excited poodle.

—A lizard!


—In my sweater, in the sleeve!

—How could it ... ?

—How should I know! I felt this squirming and scratching on my arm! Out pops that black thing kicking and snapping. My god!

I never saw a lizard in the thirteen years we'd lived here. Plenty of them in chaparral in the Santa Monica Mountains and the bluff over the Bay. Not only was this fellow here in town—but in our closet. Not only the closet but in a folded sweater. And not only in the sweater, as Julia cried, but asleep in its sleeve!

Forgetting Mr. Toad in the garden, this visitation was absurd. Coincidental?  Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan would have pronounced it ominous.

Was some unseen cloud of malevolence hovering about us? I reminded myself: cars smash into cars twenty-four hours a day: accidents. Motorcycles and bicycles skid and keel over at speed. Two wheels. Girders drop from building sites. But what was happening seemed focused on Julia: a scarred upper left arm and scarred knees; a fractured right elbow and ulna, damaged bursa and twenty-five percent loss of rotation (bad for swimming and worse for tennis); daughter's scarred knee; two totaled cars. Deaths on both sides of the fence between us and Trudy. Be ready, I thought. For what? Within the week an answer came.

Evenings I take our bagged trash from the pantry out the kitchen's side door, three steps down to the bins alongside the house. One night I thought I made out marks on the concrete. Blurry. I'd noticed them for some days, but hadn't seen them. Maybe the kids cleaned their paintbrushes. Odd? At midnight, I slipped out with a flashlight. Tarry black marks by a heavy brush; not smudges, not smears—a diagram? I squatted as my old torch faded, and studied it. It resolved into a design—a crucifix pointed west, at its foot a circle of five thick dabs. Five is the number of our family.

In the morning I scraped at that sign with steel wool and turpentine. Julia stood at the kitchen door watching.

—What're you up to now?

— Nothing, I muttered.

I poured a cup of turpentine, lit a match and let it burn smoking. She waited. Finally, it was cleared.

—So what was that?

—No one has to know what I know.

— And that is … ?

—What was painted there.

—What? Who?

I shrugged.

That happened in June. In August, Julia flew to Austria, rapporteur at a conference of anthropologists hosted by the Wenner-Gren Foundation at its Burg Wartenstein. When she returned in September, she told me she'd talked with the famous Victor Turner one night. The group had been swapping tales of tribes, Bushmen, the Pygmy forest-folk, etc. A paper on "primitive" magic had been delivered that morning. By way of anecdote, Julia rehearsed last year's events. Turner regarded her awhile and said, You're lucky you're sitting here. Lucky to be alive. You must have a powerful guardian. Have you ever quarreled with a maid? Guatemalan, say?

Maria! Julia described the antipathy, the uncomfortable feeling the woman aroused by her mere presence. Not that we'd dismissed her; just never asked her back. But Maria had remained at Trudy's, TV blaring from 7:00 a.m. till midnight, louder when the family was off on a weekend. Our windows were sure to be hosed as she watered flowerboxes on the fence. Little things. At the end, she mentioned my having obliterated with fire some peculiar symbols painted on our walkway.

Turner shook his head. —Damned lucky you're alive. Thank your guardian angel.

When I heard that, my patience ended.

—I knew I shouldn't have told you. I was warned to take care. God knows what you'll try.

I proposed asking a lawyer friend with political clout to check Maria's status. If illegal, she could be deported.

—Wait a while. Suppose she has her papers?

—Okay. I'll ask Claire.

—Nothing more, please?

I wrote Claire, reviewing the vicissitudes from first crash to Victor Turner's warning. She responded promptly, enclosing a drawing of a pentangle (arrows showing how to trace it in air between oneself and the malignity). I was to describe the figure in a single sweep, uttering whatever execration I thought could ward off or block the source. That was for my own relief. For her part she in Eugene 1500 miles north would "work" to break the "energy matrix" enclosing Julia. ("Matrix" wasn't Claire's word, just my sci-fi jargon.) She wrote, "energy built up and directed against us." She admonished me: attempt nothing on my own, certainly no such force like deportation action. I should understand it mattered not one iota whether Maria was in Guatemala, Calcutta, or Cape Town: she could "do" whatever she does from anywhere. Further, even holding my letter she felt my rage: its compressed "negative charge" was a force that endowed Maria with greater power than she commanded alone. Keep that in mind!

Claire's warning calmed me. Though I sensed nothing of that "energy" she referred to, I certainly was aware of violence pent-up.

A few weeks passed in the calm of anguish. Early morning and late night I faced Trudy's wall behind the fence, breathed deeply summoning my untrained-to-prayer thought, and drew a pentangle, my right index and middle finger extended like some priest over his Eucharist, and muttered imprecations. I felt no force flow from me, but I persisted.

About that time my wife met Trudy on the street one morning and asked after Maria. It seemed she'd found work elsewhere and moved out ten days ago. Julia had sensed a diminution of "pressure" from Trudy's home. That was all.

Or not quite. That day a letter came from Claire. Something dramatic occurred. After her morning meditation and "work," she'd gone upstairs to comb out her hair. As she stood before the bathroom mirror thinking of Julia, a shock rattled the house, the plastic cover over the vanity light burst, raining shards into the sink. As she put it, it was a "release," as though an astral entity exploded and dissipated its force. She believed our ordeal was over. At an end, that concatenation of "accidental" coincidence. I hoped Claire was right.

Except, that week Trudy's twelve-year old son was knocked off his bike at the corner. The kid insisted he was just pedaling alongside that car when somehow he felt himself shoved over. Not too hurt—collar bone reduced, arm to be held by a sling, neck braced for a month.

The parting swipe of La Bruja's claw?


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