Juana Catarina

by Robert Kostuck

November. Morning light. The riverbank crumbles beneath the edge of the house, the river sings lullabies twenty-four hours a day.

“Give me a cigarette,” says Juana Catarina. “And keep that hijo’eputa out of the room for an hour or two. I’m not finished yet.”

Tila, the curandera, flicks her thumbnail against a match, holds the filter tip to Juana Catarina’s lips. Death crosses his arms and leans against the door frame.

“You hear that?” says Tila. “Come back later this afternoon.”

“Why should I?” says Death.

“What’s a couple more hours? She’s not going anywhere. Come back this afternoon, and bring some yerba maté leaves and some figs.”

“A few more hours,” he says. “Sure. I have all the time in the world.” He turns, hat pulled low, spurs chiming, poncho reeking of electricity and wood smoke. The house tilts slightly, a door slams.

“Holy mother, he went out the back door,” says Juana Catarina. “God willing, he fell in the river and sucked in a lungful of water. We can only hope. It’s the fish I feel sorry for.”

“Only Death can never die,” says Tila. “Sometimes it’s a blessing.”

“You’re not the one with a bad heart and rotten stomach.”

“Your house is what’s going to fall into the river.”

“You’ve heard that? It’s only a matter of time.”

“I will be far away when that happens,” says Tila.

“Would you leave me alone with that stinky vaquero?”

“I’ve sat beside him many times. He’s not a bad sort. He’s just doing his job.”

“Does he pay you a commission?”

“Nobody pays me.”

“But you accept donations,” says Juana Catarina, “like a priest. Speaking of, where is that skinny little so-and-so Father Rufio?”

“Hush!” says Tila, but she’s laughing. “He’s here now.”

Another door slams, and the house tilts back onto its foundation.

“Was that Death riding away?” says the priest.

“I told him to come back later,” says Tila.

“The world grows old, and traditions fade. Centuries ago he’d have ridden that horse right into the house and snatched her up. And how is our patient?”

“I’m hours away from God,” says Juana Catarina. “I haven’t time to confess all the sins of eighty years, so please, prepare my soul. I’m ready.”

“As am I.” He holds bottles of olive oil and wine to the light.

“I’ll make us some lunch,” says Tila, stepping away.

“Beans and rice,” calls Juana Catarina. “Corn tortillas, and coffee. And a little pulque.”

“Some appetite,” says Father Rufio. “Hard to believe you’ll be dead at this time tomorrow. Maybe though, he’ll get lost on his way back, give you a few more days.”

“Ha! He’s got a map of the world tattooed on the inside of his eyelids.” She lights another cigarette.

“Please. Your part is to lie still and look contrite. Do you think they will let you smoke and drink in heaven?”

“I’m taking some with me,” she says. “See this sack I’ve had Tila pack? Tobacco, ripe oranges, a Bible, some pecans, the silver crucifix I received at my first communion. Clean underwear and socks. Bread that was baked only this morning. I’ve heard the journey to heaven takes but a moment.”

“Some believe heaven is only a breath away.”

“I have three children and eight grandchildren.”

“They should be here, praying for you.”

“No, Father,” she says, “when I die so much will die with me. As if I never existed.”

“Nonsense,” he says. “Ready? Bendito sea nuestro Dios, siempre ahora y jamás y por los siglos de los siglos—”

Juana Catarina smokes, coughs, nods her head. Lights another cigarette. When he’s finished Father Rufio takes the cigarette from her mouth, drops it in a tin can with other cigarette ends. It starts a small fire that smells suspiciously of sulfur and cinnamon. He sets the can on the window sill and the smoke curls in a thin stream along the river, swirls above tiny cemeteries grown over with cottonwood and willow: a blaze for Death grown forgetful and hesitant over the years.

“Ay!” she says, “that smell! It’s an engraved invitation—you and the curandera—it’s like you want him to take me.”

“There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death.”

“I was born under an evil star—in this very house. The astrologer said sorrow would follow me all my days, but there are ways around predictions—it’s not like I’m trying to escape the fulfillment of God’s plans, but you see, I’ve transferred all of my bad luck into the timbers of this old house. It’s cursed—haunted. The attic contains all my bad luck from birth to the day of my first catamenia. The extra bedroom on the second floor that was never slept in? Bad luck that tried to attach itself to me during fifty-one years of marriage. The pantry, the water closets—there are two, you know—parlor, porch, roof, garden shed, the ramada—everything soaked in bad luck. It gives off an awful smell of bitterness and mold. Even the spiders and mice won’t live in this house. That’s the secret of my long life, shaving away the bad luck and tucking it into rooms and corners and drawers—”

“God put the planets and stars in motion,” says Father Rufio. “Will we argue again about destiny?”

“I’ve given up seeing things in black and white,” says Juana Catarina. “Some things are meant to be; others we have the power to change. Like this.” She holds up her traveling bag. “When we meet again, you’ll see me smoking and eating oranges. They’ll let me bring my possessions to heaven, you’ll see.”

“So you say. Please, let me finish.”

The house creaks toward the river, a door slams. A cool gust of wind precedes Tila through the labyrinth of corridors; behind her, Death leading his horse. They bring trays of food: a pot of beans, tortillas, salt, shriveled jalapeños, half a dozen lemons, a wedge of sweaty white cheese, a pitcher of strong coffee.

“No pulque? No rice?” says Juana Catarina. “And what’s he doing here? And why is a horse walking through my house?”

“This is all the food left in the house because this is the last meal,” says Tila. “It’s enough for the four of us. He’s here because he’s here. I told you: it’s his job.”

“Hey you!” says Juana Catarina, “I’ve got some luggage to go with me.”

Death scoops beans onto a tortilla and folds it into his mouth. Crushes a lemon above his upturned face, swallows the tart juice.

“Is this the way of the world,” she says, “sharing my last meal with you?”

“You know,” he says, “I can’t taste any of this.”

“Why are you eating it?”

“It’s the polite thing to do. Here’s the yerba maté leaves and the figs you asked for.” He holds out a cloth bag.

“Excuse me.” Father Rufio nudges Death. “Are you going to finish that piece of cheese?”

“Please, here, take it.”

“See?” says Tila. “Not such a bad sort after all.”

“My heart is slowing down,” says Juana Catarina. “I’d like a cigarette and a cup of coffee, very hot, with four spoonfuls of sugar.”

“Allow me.” Death pours out a cup.

“You smell like a devil.”

“And what smell is that?”

“The smell of these wooden matches. The river in late winter when the water is low. Electrical storms. Coyotes. Fine particles of dust blown from the past into the future. Ay! What’s that sound?”

The house rocks back and forth on its toes and heels. Doors slam, oak whines and pine creaks. The manic laughter of children, dogs barking; a warm breath of bubbly yeast and chocolate. A guitar and a sad echoing voice, singing: volver, volver a la tierra. A mouse runs across the floor.

“You said mice and spiders shunned this house,” says Father Rufio.

“They’ve returned,” says Juana Catarina. “But what is that horrible whining sound?”

“It’s your bad luck finally leaving this house,” says Death. “The boards and beams are pocked with white ants, a forgotten silver spoon tarnishes in a drawer, curtains crumble at a touch, beeswax candles slumped to the side—”

Tila stands. “I’ll leave the dishes here,” she says. “I’ll come by tomorrow and finish up—tidy a bit—if there’s anything left—”

“Leave me your cigarettes,” says Juana Catarina. “And thanks for the food and the herbs. I’m sure they helped.”

“I’ll be saying goodbye also,” says Father Rufio.

“Well there’s nothing more for it then. Padre nuestro que estás en los cielos santificado sea tu Nombre venga tu reino hágase tu voluntad en la tierra como en el cielo—”

His horse is a sad gray gelding. He stows her sack of food and relics in a saddlebag; takes hold of her hand and whoosh! she’s crammed in behind him on the saddle, arms wrapped around his stinky poncho.

The horse trots along the main corridor, turns at the kitchen, the door flies off its hinges. They pause on a hillside and watch the house tumble into the river: ethereal, blameless, shorn of memory.

“I guess there’s no going back,” says Juana Catarina.

“Methuselah only knows one path,” says Death, “and he never stumbles.”

“You know, my bowels feel normal again. The pain is gone.”

“In this world you can see and hear and sometimes smell things; but not feel or taste.”

“Coffee? Cigarettes, oranges, figs?”

“We’re meeting other people now,” he says. “Don’t make eye contact or wave. It’s considered impolite.”

The road is crowded with donkeys, buses, bicycles, pedestrians; mountain spring water and peculiar songbirds. Days or hours pass and the trail decays into precarious narrow ledges above steep canyons: stunted juniper and bristlecone pine; lilies and columbines in faint shadow; cumulus clouds scud beneath wispy stratospheres.

“Some are coming down the mountain,” she says. “They’re leaving heaven?”

“People continue to practice compassion or sin. Sometimes their place in this world changes.”

“How much further?”

“That gate up ahead? That’s the entrance.”

The double cottonwood doors swing open. They ride through and the gates close. No one is around.

“I’m always expected,” says Death.

“It looks the same as what’s behind us.

“Almost. Look there.”

A two-story house with yellow siding, a stiff veranda, octopus eye dormer windows, a curl of blue chimney smoke. A river—

“¡Buenísimo!” she says. “Like I remember—so long ago—”

She slides from the saddle. He hands her the traveling bag and turns to leave.

“Wait! What about—”

“This is your home now. Our time together is over for now. But if you need me, burn this.” He gives her an old tobacco pouch reeking of ash and spice. Methuselah breaks into a gallop; dust, fog, the shiver of November leaves. A long silence, then, faraway, a train whistle.

“Where there are trains, there are people,” she says. “Uh-oh, I’m talking to myself. That can’t be good. And there’s a river here, almost exactly like the river of my childhood. The house—so close to the water—that can’t be good, either. I’ll put a garden over there, roses and beans and tomatillos—I’ll need firewood for the stove—”

She walks around the corner of the porch and sees the neat pile of firewood, a garden swollen with fruit.

“—ice for the icebox—”

The tin panel on the front of the icebox is cold to the touch.

Tatted antimacassars draped over horsehair-stuffed cushioned chairs, a spinet in the parlor, framed daguerreotypes on the mantle. A brass spittoon beside a desk, cured hams and bundles of herbs hang above a squat iron stove, two fat cows in a pen outside the back door. She pauses before a vanity in the bedroom, adjusts the tortoiseshell combs in her hair, touches the worn bible on the nightstand.

Juana Catarina cuts slices from a ham, warms fresh milk on the stove; but there is no taste. Rolls a cigarette and peels an orange: nothing.

She blows smoke into the still air, tugs the laces on the pouch—dried leaves, bits of bone and hair, crystal shards. She sprinkles a pinch of it above a candle flame and a trail of cinnamon and sulfur smoke trickles out the open kitchen door. Methuselah pounds the ground.

“It’s only been a few hours,” says Death.

“I think there’s been a mistake. This is not my home—it’s from another century, another city—there was never a house like this in our town. Even the mayor lived in a modern little palace with window screens and a gas stove.”

“This is a nice house and you’ve got it all to yourself. You should see some of the things people live in on the north side of the mountain.”

“I don’t care. I feel like I’m living in an old photograph. I’ve heard nothing so far except a train whistle. Where are the other people?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he says. “I have a little influence here—not much, but some. Give me a few days.”

She scatters hay for the cows, picks pole beans and lettuce, slices more ham for dinner. The pendulum in the hallway clock grows heavy and dull. Juana Catarina readies herself for bed but night never arrives. A crepuscular light coats the southern slope of heaven. She smells roasted chilies and caramel, hears the subtle creep of termites—weren’t they left behind? She reckons a couple weeks have passed since her house fell into the river, gathers all of the bad luck accumulated since that day, wraps it in a clean linen serviette, locks the bundle in a worn steamer trunk in the attic.

The garden and cows are a cornucopia, the cured hams in the kitchen never disappear, her cache of oranges and figs might as well be loaves and fishes; tobacco is plentiful.

“Is it magic?” she says aloud. “No, it’s heaven.”

First day of the rainy season. Two disreputable characters turn up on the porch, muddy boots, soggy trousers. They pound at the door, brush imaginary motes from greasy lapels, clutch stained suitcases.

“I’m Harmon and this is Poe,” says the tall one. “Passing through and seeking a dry corner out of the rain. A stable, a shed, a—spare bedroom?” They wriggle their way into the house. “Very quiet here. You’re all alone?” His laugh is harsh and sudden.

She thrashes them with a rug beater, drags the bodies to the edge of the river, hides the suitcases in the attic.

Two weeks later she finds a trio of identical fully-grown children beneath cabbage leaves in the garden; feeds them ham, oranges, and milk non-stop for a few days; encourages them to stay. The wander down slope toward the gates. She burns the cabbage leaves, hides the ashes in the fireplace.

A few days later a waterspout shrieks above the river. She disarms the whirlwind, coaxes it into a pewter mug, seals it with beeswax and places it in the steamer trunk.

Tendrils of poison ivy in the garden, a wolf’s howl, the number thirteen on her lottery ticket, a book of infinite pages, fireflies hovering above her bed in the middle of the night. The steamer trunk overflows. She packs the odds and ends of unwieldy circumstance helter-skelter in the attic, spare bedrooms (there are four), root cellar, indoor privy, pantry—endless time passes: the house creaks, pliable and organic.

Tila and Father Rufio stop in for afternoon tea.

“You,” she says to Tila, “look the same. You,” she squints at the priest, “look thinner than ever.” She offers ham sandwiches on coarse bread, oranges, boiled cabbage with pepper and salt. “Eat!” she says. “It never runs out. What’s wrong with her?”

“Tila stopped talking when the influenza epidemic reached the river. One after another—almost everyone dead in the space of a fortnight. For the first time her herbs and knowledge failed her. Now, she’s becoming transparent. I’ve no idea what that means. Two people were unaffected—strangers passing through—it was anticipated that they were sorcerers and they were put to death by the strongest of the doomed.”

“A tall one and a short one? Muddy bombachas and bad breath? They left these behind.” She places a pair of horn-handled facóns on the table.

“Harmon and Poe,” says Father Rufio.

“I’m only sorry I couldn’t get to them sooner,” says Juana Catarina. “You’ll stay here with me?”

“Our place is further up the mountain. We were both exhausted from saving bodies and souls. Then the epidemic—we’re following many people from the town. Some of course, went down the mountain—I did my best to save them—”

Days pull her into the future.

Winter arrives with opaque storms, icicles, sleet, owls: she opens the leather sack of dust, sprinkles a pinch into the crackling fireplace; a moment later hears the thump of Methuselah’s hooves breaking through ice-crusted snow.

“Coffee?” She sets a plate of sugar cookies on the table.

“You’ve gotten used to living here?” says Death.

“Eh—I’ve forgotten what came before,” says Juana Catarina. “A house, a river. One is much like another.”

“And the tribulations you’ve faced since arriving?”

“Well, listen.”

The house sways precariously. A breath of spring rain in the warm, stuffy parlor. The abrupt laughter of Mr. Harmon, whispering garden changlings; the whine of mosquitoes and the click of beetles, gray and white curls of tobacco smoke. A mouse runs across the floor.

“¿Volver,” he says, “volver a la tierra?”

“You’re kidding,” she says. “Again? I’m getting used to living alone. Nobody every stops by to visit—I thought that would make me crazy; turns out I like it.”

“There are some people on the east side of the mountain I’d like you to meet—maybe you’re ready to return to the world you knew so well. And this house—well, others will be arriving—”

“You wouldn’t believe how much bad luck I’ve had since moving in! I hid some things here and there—”

“The new will be built on the foundations of the old.”

She gathers tobacco, fresh oranges, a bible, a silver key to a lost treasure box, underwear and socks. A chunk of salt-cured ham, an earthenware jug of fresh milk, hollyhock and cabbage seeds.

“The next arrivals,” she says, “will they care for the cows?”

Methuselah trots along a snowy road she’s never noticed before.

Behind them the house collapses like origami and falls into the river.

“Such a waste,” she says. “Was it because of the bad luck? Old habits are hard to change.”

“Heaven’s resources are infinite,” he says.

“That sounds heretical.” She’s afraid to ask what happens to the bad luck. Does it flow downstream and enter the netherworld? She shivers.

The top of the mountain is barren and undistinguished. There is a hut made of stone and thatched with gray limbs and moss. Wood smoke curls above a tin chimney pipe.

“Smells like supper,” says Juana Catarina.

“Our Mother-Father’s house,” says Death.

“God is a married couple?”

“God is two halves of a whole.”

“That’s not what the nuns taught me.”

They ride down the eastern flank of the mountain. Almost everyone they pass is on foot. Perfumed smoke swirls through her hair.

“They’re not Christians,” she says. “What kind of heaven is this? What’s that humming sound?”

“Yet rivers figure greatly in their spiritual literature,” says Death. “The Ganges, the Indus—that sound is their word for God.”

Juana Catarina dismounts, clutches her sack of oranges and figs. It feels heavier, filled with once familiar objects: a handful of stolen sweets, seething anger that stopped at a river’s edge, bridal bed sheets, the two kilometer walk to the old cemetery, lightning striking a tree, spiders—carpetbaggers with bolos and daggers, the slow fade of personality over many decades, bee stings, a leather pouch of spice and ash—housefuls of bad luck fill her cupped palm.

She throws everything into the sacrificial fire.

“Yajña,” says Death.

“I’m a good Catholic,” she says. “I’ve seen a brush fire burn away everything in its path. I’m sure you understand.”

“Devapujana, saògatikaraña, and dána,” he says. “Worship, unity, and charity. Your prayers are good. The next time we meet will be on Earth. I wonder, will you remember me?”

They ride further down the side of the mountain into a twilight desert, cross a swamp, reach a rutted dirt road. Ahead is a town.

“Ah! I smell food!” says Juana Catarina. “Which house will be mine? Why are you turning toward the river? I want to live near the corn and agave fields.”

A crescent moon, a glistening morning star.

Inside the house a woman’s shrieks dissolve into  moans. A curandera staunches the flow of blood with handfuls of cotton, an astrologer records the time on a circular chart. There is warmth and milk, the fading sound of hoof beats.

A baby cries.

The house tilts at the edge of the river.

Robert Kostuck is an M.Ed. graduate from Northern Arizona University. Recently published fiction, essays, and reviews appear in many print journals and anthologies. He is currently working on two novels, short stories, and essays; his short story and essay collections seek a publisher.