I keep having this dream. I’m sitting alone in the middle of my living room floor cross legged and listening to Van Morrison and scratching Galadriel behind the ears when suddenly the music stops; I look around, wondering where the music has gone, but as I stand up, bright lights shine out of my window, with all the force the sun can possibly have, blinding me momentarily. I hear a shuffle and a click and the couch side table’s drawer flies open and my cards shoot out like missiles, surrounding me and enveloping me. I blink and the floor beneath me is gone and I’m just falling down, down, down, way down, to the center of the earth and back perhaps, into the unknowable void, my cards surrounding me again and again and again and again…
Ten of Swords…complete and utter destruction, death, death, death, DEATH…
I’m blinded by the dark and the only thing I can hear is Rocio Durcal singing Amor Eterno, and then I watch Mother, smiling brightly at me through the dark void, swaying to the song and singing with tears down her face and then everything is black; I am blind again.
And I hear the sounds of chains, thick, horrendous chains whipping out and being dragged against the street, followed by the CLAK-CLAK of hooves, mechanical, inorganic, horse, perhaps, or otherwise, and then laughter.
I awoke this morning screaming, Abuelita taking me by the shoulders, shaking me awake. The sheets were twisted around my torso, one sock on, one sock off…she peered at me, her big, dark eyes searching, searching, and handed me my glasses.
‘Thank you,’ I said, putting them on. I quickly notice pain, sharp and fleeting, around my elbows, as though I had broken a fall, along with a dull soreness on my front teeth; I checked to make sure I haven’t drawn blood from inside my lips in case I bit down too hard in my sleep.
Abuelita kept looking at me, almost like a cat, silently taking in everything unsaid. Finally, she gently places a fresh cup of coffee into my hands. ‘What did you see?’ she says, almost a whisper.
I tell her what I can remember, but for some reason, I neglect to mention Mother dancing to Rocio Durcal; it sounds too strange and too close to home to acknowledge. Abuelita listened intently, nodding every once in a while, but when I got the part about my story when I heard the chains and hooves pounding against the street, her face twisted white with pallor; she stood up, walked calmly to the living room closet by the bathroom, and pulled out a black, unnamed book, ancient and frayed, its pages yellowed with age and the tips eaten by moths. She blew the thin film of dust off, waved it in the air a few times, before coming over, flipping through the pages until she stopped, furrowed her brows a bit, and then handed the book to me.
‘You heard chains and hooves?’ she asked, carefully.
I nod, looking down at the page she left off on. A rough sketch, dark, black pencil lead, almost charcoal, of two bony, skeletal oxen pulling a metal and wooden caravan, with a robed, hooded figure holding the reigns, riding down an empty, cobblestone street in the dark.
‘I don’t,’ I begin, but Abuelita brings a finger to my lips.
‘Shh,’ she says, quietly. ‘Did you see anything? Did you see where the noises were coming from?’
I shook my head. ‘No, Abuelita. I didn’t.’
‘Did you see where the laughter was coming from?’
I could feel my eyes widen past their normal size. I didn’t tell her about the laughter, either. ‘No,’ I said, stunned. I could feel my heart thump heavily against my ribcage.
She sighed, straightened herself out, and nodded, looking out of the window. Night was dying, and the first few rays of the morning sun were peaking over the horizon, shining dimly over the houses across the street. ‘La Carretanagua,’ she began, her voice shaky but her tone firm, ‘is a sign of evil coming to collect a soul. Death being pulled by oxen in the middle of the night. The person who hears La Carretanagua must not look at it; your soul will be taken before the morning light.’
‘How do you know this?’ I asked.
‘It is an ancient story Abuela Christie used to tell me when I was a little girl. La Carretanagua is the manifestation of Death, made up of all our slaughtered people, full of anger and hate at the cruel world. Anger that they were taken from this earth by the settlers, hate for those in the land of the living. Vengeful against everything that the light touches.’
I sat blinking at her, trying to figure out what she was trying to tell me, wondering if I should mention Mother and Rocio Durcal…it still seemed too strange, too nebulous, to bother. And then, there was that card, Ten of Swords, a man lying face down, with ten swords stabbing him to death. Total and utter complete destruction.
‘You had a dream about Death,’ says Abuelita. ‘Have you had this dream before?’
Yes. But she doesn’t need to know.
‘You should be very careful the next time you enter the land of dreams,’ she says, quiet but firm. ‘Ah-Puch, el Dios de Xibalba, has sent you a message. Heed the message carefully.’
I looked down at my coffee, cold and tasteless, and I could see the oil separating from the liquid along the surface. ‘It’s only a dream, Abuelita.’
A dream is a dream is a dream is a dream.
It had been a little over two weeks since the last time I had seen her smile, the near-silver bob cut bouncing effortlessly as she walked, and from the moment I entered The Pourhouse, I know she recognized me.
‘Lucas!’ exclaims Aleah over the sounds of people chatting and laughing and the pinball machine dinging and over the jukebox in the corner playing a Kid Rock song. She smiles, her eyes flickering between me and the Tito’s and soda she’s pouring for a tall, dirty blonde college kid, and I approach the bar top and take a seat on a stool.
I sigh and feel a familiar feeling. The wind outside carries the sweet expanse of the night sky on its breeze through the open door of the bar, taking bringing an air of infinite possibilities, of magic, and of stale, spilled beer. Comforting, homie, sweet. Warm. The bar isn’t as dark as most, but dim, with surfboards and deer with antlers sticking out of the walls. A large, glass container of pickled eggs sits next to the register behind the bar, and a pool table, used and abused, with too familiar felt scuffs and scratches along the wooden frame, stands close to the back end of the bar.
‘You remembered me,’ I say, as she approaches me after placing the drink in front of the college kid. His light blue eyes don’t leave her for a few moments, waiting for something I don’t quite recognize then, but as his eyes fall on me, there’s a blue accent to his shadow; his shoulders drop and he stares back into his glass of vodka, wondering where he went wrong.
‘Of course, I did,’ says Aleah, grinning toothily. ‘You made an impact.’
It’s funny when you think about who makes an impact in your life or not. It could be the random stranger who says good morning to you, or a drink with a fast friend at a bar, knowing that when you two part you will never see them again. Or it could just be a conversation about a salt shaker and a candle. And just a touch of the arcane.
‘What can I get you, love?’ she asks.
‘Jameson and ginger ale,’ I say. My regular. My usual. Nothing like the sweet taste of Jameson to quell the nerves.
‘You got it,’ she replies, raising her hand as she grips the green bottle. It flows like amber into the glass of ice, thick and woodsy and smooth, before she takes the beverage gun and shoots a few splashes of a golden colored liquid. She tops it off with two tiny red cocktail straws and places it on a napkin in front of me.
‘Thank you,’ I say, taking a sip, closing my eyes.
‘Rough day at work?’ asks Aleah, leaning towards me.
‘Rough day in general,’ I reply, shrugging. ‘It happens.’
‘Yeah,’ she says, nodding. ‘It happens.’ She turns to pour a few glasses of beer from the tap for the guy next to me, a guy wearing a green plaid shirt, reeking of too much cheap cologne, sour and harsh against my throat. He pays her and she smiles, waving at him, before turning back to me. ‘So, I heard from a little bird that you’ve lived many lives.’
Many lives, sure. In many towns, many far off places, many worlds apart. I’m nowhere and now here; life has a funny way of looking at you. ‘What can I say, I ride wherever the wind carries me.’
‘Where do you think that will be next?’ she asks.
I don’t reply immediately. ‘I have no idea, to be honest,’ I say, casually taking another sip. The carbonation tickles as it goes down, leaving an aftertaste of leather and burnt orange. ‘I’m here until I’m not.’
‘I used to be like that,’ she says, sighing. The music changes; Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles is playing, and there’s a wistful exhalation from the crowd in the bar. A song as old as time, maybe not quite so old, but at least the concept itself. Anyone and everyone can relate.
She shrugs, smiling, her eyes bright with tears unwept, and for a moment, I can catch a glimpse of something maybe she isn’t ready to share…a ventilation machine, wires plugged up, a wide, gaping mouth of an older woman, flesh gentle and delicate, like tender meat falling from bone…everything taking on a dull and grainy sort of look, the smiles, the laughter, through pain and misery…lots of love and vows…Will you leave me one day, Aleah? – Never, mom – Are you sure? – Never in a million years…
Funeral rites, Forest Lawn, a hot, sunny day on the eve of an unruly summer…
‘Things change,’ she says to me, offering the best smile she can muster.
I nod and watch her turn back to a few people at the end of the bar, and as I stare into my drink, the scene continues to play out along the surface of the alcohol like a short film…a bright red umbrella among a sea of black ones…ruined mascara…the look of a tired and worn-weary priest, with a face that doesn’t entirely convey a convincing sorrow for the loss of the woman…
A door appears in my mind’s eye…I feel myself reaching for it…I must know why…
Like electricity, static electricity, the air between us snaps, like a rubber band pulled too far. I nearly stagger out of my chair, stunned. Aleah gives me a long, startled look.
‘I’m, uh, I’m sorry,’ I say quietly, more to myself but loud enough for her to hear as I adjust myself on the stool. For a while none of us speak to each other, too wrapped up in our own private thoughts, still unsure of the air between us. I had pressed too far.
We spent the rest of the night chatting about cheap, B-Movie slasher films and The Rolling Stones, about the dirty beach two blocks away, and of the neighborhood’s local clientele.
‘Most are very friendly,’ she said, quietly, as she described the fellow denizens seated on the other end of the bar. ‘The guy over there in the baseball cap and the pouty looking lips, do you see him? That’s Stewy. He runs a club.’
‘Oh? What sort of club?’
‘The medical kind.’
I keep forgetting that these days marijuana is legal to be consumed and sold. I feel as though I’ve fallen through the looking glass sometimes when I think about it.
She sighs, raising her arms to tie her hair up in a loose ponytail, when something catches my eye. A tattoo on the inside of her left arm, a black center, a nucleus, with about eight black arrows of different sizes shooting out of it, like an explosion in suspended animation. Though it was done what looks like a few years ago, maybe more than five, it still has an ethereal glow.
‘What is that?’ I ask, reaching over. I touch the tattoo briefly, my index finger against warm, buttery skin, and the tattoo lights up before my eyes. It’s gone when I blink, and the tattoo is black again. ‘I feel like I’ve seen that before. Is it from a book?’
Aleah, looking at the tattoo, smiles as she glances back at me. ‘Chaos,’ she says, calmly.
‘Theory?’ I ask, laughing. ‘Or like the primordial Greek Titan?’
‘Maybe. Close enough.’
‘Well,’ I say, and then I feel a rush over my head. ‘What is Chaos?’
She sighs, looks at me, and smiles. ‘All the magic in the air.’
I suddenly understand exactly what she’s talking about.
I left the bar not too late because I promised Mother I would be home soon after work. I got home a little after midnight, and as soon as I kicked off my shoes and lay my head against my turquoise blue throw pillow, I instantly fell asleep. I dreamed of the same tattoo on Aleah’s arm, the black, pointed arrows shooting out at me, wrapping around me like a snake, then turning into snakes, all the arrows, emerging in the darkness like a starved Gorgon ready to feast, and then I’m falling again; an explosion of confetti sounds above me and my cards rain down on me, floating and falling slower than I am but nevertheless still chasing me down my plight…
Ten of Swords, Wheel of Fortune, Reversed, Judgement…
I hear a scream and everything is pitch black again, and out of the darkness emerges skeletal oxen, their monstrous hooves scampering towards me, sounding like a stampede; their eyes are red and they breathe fire, the heat is enough to nearly break my skin…that same cart from the drawing Abuelita showed me…the robed figure, hooded, turns its head as the cart stops, and as it turns to look at me, I see nothing but darkness under the hood.
Amor eterno…e inolvidable…tarde o temprano…
That same song…Rocio Durcal’s angelic voice, descending upon the scene before me…
I wake up with my head splitting the tiled floor, and I bolt up, gasping, feeling a throbbing pain in my temple. I check my watch – not even three in the morning yet – and reach to touch my head when I hear a gurgling noise coming from upstairs…followed by a scream.
I rush up the stairs, three at a time, and throw Mother’s bedroom door open to see Abuelita and Percy kneeled over Mother, collapsed on the floor, eyes rolling to the back of her head, laying on her side as she shakes violently.
‘Lucas!’ shouts Percy, looking up at me.
Foaming at the mouth…the bedside lamp flickering on and off…broken glass along the bed and blood along her wounded hand…
‘Pack her some clothes,’ says Percy, her arms around Mother, keeping her still. Abuelita held her feet down as they struggled to pin her on her side, leaving her head resting on a pillow as she resisted. ‘The ambulance is on its way over right now.’
Terror tearing at my heart…beads of sweat along my forehead…
‘She’s having a seizure…’