Eclipse



Four days remained until the thirty-first, which would begin the Days of the Dead. Much of the day's work was mundane. I resumed transcribing a Nahuatl interview on shape-shifters I had recorded in San Luis Potosí last year. José shelled low-grade maize to sell as livestock feed. He rubbed cuts on his back with a fresh aloe slice. María unfastened a white hen whose ankle had been tied overnight to a kitchen table leg and released it into the yard. From their milpa the couple brought bundles of pahpaatla leaves, commonly wrapped around squares of cornmeal and saucy meat for tamales, to sell at market. By afternoon simmering heat, stomach cramps, and constant mosquitoes stymied my work. I wasn't used to the end of October feeling so ... tropical. But finally, in the evening, María's illness would come to a showdown. José had gone to bring a curandero to neutralize the magics that had been wreaked upon María. They would at last face the witchcraft to banish it. And it was then when, for somewhat different reasons, many of Altepetl would likewise assemble to confront the forces of darkness befalling them on this night. A full lunar eclipse was approaching. Black powers emerging from the recesses of the world shadowed the moon above and José's house below and cast their doom. But the people were not impotent against it, for in costumbre they had the ability to deter such damage. This Nahua vision of witchcraft fundamentally differed from mine. Where witchcraft was the culprit of José's and María's direst crisis, it was witchcraft in another form that had saved me from mine.

...

Quarter to seven. Night had already come to Altepetl when José returned to the house accompanied by the Chiltitla healer Tavo, a bald elder with a robust physique and a preference for sweatshirts. Tavo had come to cleanse the house of witchcraft. As this was my first acquaintance with him, I introduced myself and described my research interests in Nahua concepts of costumbre, tonalli, and shape-shifters. So ... "If this will be a cleansing," I asked, "could I record it?"

"This is different from Tlamanas," he grunted, "so it should not be taped. What kind of work do you do?"

"Me, I'm an anthropologist." That is all.

"In that case, go to Xalapa. The kinds of recordings you're looking for end up there. Are you going to sell away yours, too?" To many Tlamachiliz Nahua, anthropologists were still another group of people poised to exploit their lands and imaginations.

"No, for now this is only for my doctoral thesis." I didn't have thought of writing this book for another two years.

For now, Tavo tolerated my presence in the central room, for I was a guest of José's. "Envy," he told José. "Someone worked sorcery upon you out of envy."

Despite a few similarities in motivation, sorcery radically differs from witchcraft. While witchcraft is innate, sorcery is learnt. Witchcraft needs only a mental impulse, even a subconscious one, to activate, but sorcery requires ritual workings. But to the Nahua neither was of any good.

The Nahua curandero continued. "Up in the mountains the people are lazy. They don't want good work to earn their living, so they do the bad work of sorcery for money. Sorcery is all over the world." He produced a polished set of metal scissors from his sisal sack. José gave Tavo sheets of black, orange, green, and yellow tissue paper from which the healer folded and cut out sets of humanoid tlatekme effigies. Those from colored sheets represented nefarious spirits. I felt a chill of amazement as I saw these invisible creatures take color and shape.

An Altepetl mother and son arrived at the house. The boy, Chuy, was twelve. It was as if he stepped out of a colonial Aztec painting. His straight hair hung to his shoulders in the back and covered his upper brow in the front. He smiled with large white teeth. I showed him my new video camera and how it streamed into the laptop.

The curandero lit two glass votive candles and set them upon the altar table.

Young women suddenly shouted from the distant outdoors, and I darted outside to identify the commotion. The surrounding trees formed a tangle of silhouettes against the darkening night sky as a black stroke crawled over the lunar orb. Loud fireworks and a cacophony of percussive metal and glass rang from all directions, to drive off the great, omnivorous vulture devouring the moon. For the lunar eclipse was metstli kwalo, 'the moon being eaten.' I joined Chuy at José's yard as we awaited the vulture's passing--or the moon's annihilation.

"No one should be at the milpa then, for it was a time when insects swarmed," Chuy's mother said. "Pregnant women made their infants vulnerable by exposing them to the fright of the ebbing moonlight. If the moon were to finish, man-eating beasts would descend upon the world and vanquish humanity." I was amazed how Chuy's mother's folktales echoed the calamities that befell the previous four solar ages and adumbrated the current fifth of the Aztec cosmos. As the full shadow enveloped the moon--for that moment the penumbra faded the moon in a pale copper hue--raucous noise swept over Altepetl. Then the shadow passed away. The moon was restoring itself.

I returned inside José's central room. The air contained a fragile ether of the spirits drawn to the room's porch-side exit. On the baked mud floor in front of the exit, eight colored effigies lay in a file upon a folded sheet of gray industrial paper. A lit black candle and an opened beer bottle flanked the row. Facing the altar, Tavo prayed in rapid Nahuatl as he held together the legs of a small grey turkey chick, pitifully peeping and beating its pinions. After presenting the bird to the saints at the altar, Tavo brought it over the nearby effigies on the floor. He severed its neck in three short twists and scattered the ensuing blood upon the effigies with matter-of-fact professionalism, followed by a dashing of beer from the bottle to slake the spirit effigies' thirst. Because I had already seen so many of these fowl sacrifices at Altepetl, I thought little of it. In the costumbre of the Tlamachiliz Nahua, blood offerings weren't animal abuse or murder; they were a certificate of the exchange sought between the human and spirit worlds. I accepted it because it was at least no longer the human sacrifices of their Aztec predecessors. Now those were spectacularly horrific by intention.

Tavo returned to the altar and sounded the paternoster and the credo in a Nahuatl glissando. He and José then went to the Chikomexochitl altar room at the corner of the house and prayed further in both Nahuatl and Spanish. The curandero importuned to the maize child on behalf of the afflicted couple, whose tonalli life-force had been blocked and inhibited by witchcraft.

The dangerous spirits had been finally sated and expelled from the house. Tavo listed for José the formula for a potion to cast about the house's various rooms and its outdoor perimeter over the next few days. He also gave us garlic cloves that we rubbed along our faces, necks, and limbs--for the cloves powerfully symbolized the seven sections of a rattlesnake's tail.

For a couple that routinely awoke by six every morning, the night had gotten late. It was eleven when Tavo finished his work, and he left for the hour and a half return to his home in Chiltitla.

The eclipse was undone. The witchcraft was countered. I packed my laptop for a run to Tlamachiliz and concluded my day.

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