The Ghost of Milagro Creek

A Novel

by Melanie Sumner

Paperback, 267 pages, Workman Pub Co, List Price: $13.95 | purchase

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The Ghost of Milagro Creek
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A Novel
Author
Melanie Sumner

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Book Summary

Sumner presents the story of Ignacia Vigil Romero, a full Jacarilla Apache, and the two boys, Mister and Tomas, she has raised to adulthood in a barrio of Taos, New Mexico—a mixed community of Native Americans, Hispanics, and whites.

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Excerpt: The Ghost Of Milagro Creek

The Ghost of Milagro Creek

A NOVEL


ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL

Copyright © 2010 Melanie Sumner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56512-917-7

Contents

PROLOGUE  Taos, New Mexico, 1995..............................................11. Spy Wednesday, April 11, 2001 (morning)....................................52. 1986.......................................................................143. Spy Wednesday, April 11, 2001 (afternoon and evening)......................284. 1989.......................................................................455. Maundy Thursday, April 12, 2001 (morning)..................................666. Maundy Thursday, April 12, 2001 (evening)..................................917. My Garden, 1990............................................................958. Police Report: In the Matter of the Mondragón Fatality.....................1169. Congratulations, Raquel O'Brien!...........................................11910. Good Friday, April 13, 2001 (morning).....................................12511. Interview with Yolanda....................................................13912. Good Friday, April 13, 2001 (afternoon)...................................14513. Fax.......................................................................15114. Good Friday, April 13, 2001 (evening).....................................16915. Writing Sample #3.........................................................17616. Holy Saturday, April 14, 2001.............................................19117. Ramona's Witness Statement................................................20918. Easter Sunday, April 15, 2001.............................................21419. The Day after Easter, April 16, 2001......................................23020. April 20, 2001............................................................24121. Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.........................................24422. Quasimodo Sunday..........................................................246EPILOGUE  Taos, New Mexico, 2001..............................................255ACKNOWLEDGMENTS...............................................................257

Chapter One

Spy Wednesday April 11, 2001 (morning)

When I passed away, some people swore that Padre Pettit would refuse me a proper Christian burial. Only in Taos, New Mexico, they said, would you hold a wake for a witch. In the barrio at the edge of town, my neighbors called me Abuela, which means grandmother, but behind my back, their tongues snapped like flags in the wind.

She's not a real curandera, they said. Don't be fooled by her teas and salves. If you want to know how she cures her patients, look up at the sky and watch her fly away on her broom. They said this even after I cured Baby Lucy's colic by holding her upside down under a full moon. When I popped the skin on Jesús's belly three times to move his bowels, he swore I was a saint. Ramona's bunions disappeared after I sat her beside a sink of running water and rubbed a white onion on her foot. These were trifles compared to their real problems, but I was just a country witch. The bruja they needed probably could fly on a broom.

All the same, on that slate-colored Wednesday in April-Spy Wednesday, the church calls it-Our Lady of Guadalupe was packed. In an open casket, with twelve tapers burning at each end, I lay like a doll on puffed satin, with painted lips and rouge on my cheeks. My sister-in-law, Zarita, had dressed me in my wedding clothes: a turquoise velvet blouse and a long black skirt embroidered with silver flowers. She bought some stockings at Wal-Mart and picked up the patent-leather pumps, like new, from Second Chances Thrift Store. I had never looked better.

Padre Pettit draped a rosary over my hands-the one given to me when I was thirteen by the missionaries at the Indian boarding school in Santa Fe. There I learned to speak English and pray like a white-eyes. Every night, when my empty belly began to growl, I knelt on the cold floor and asked Jesus and Mary to burn the school to the ground.

My son, Teo, the actor from Los Angeles, paid for the service. Teo, or Ted as he called himself, was not a handsome man, but he acted like one. He had the liar's gap between his big white teeth and a head full of hair. His sport coat was made of a fine black cashmere, and it hung just so. "Where is my son?" he asked, caressing the casket with his long fingers. "Why isn't Mister here to say good-bye to his grandmother?" Then, in a voice that carried out to the Plaza, he recited the Réquiem Aetérnam. People thought he might make it all the way in the Latin, but he got stuck on "perpetual light" and had to finish in English. He ran his hand through his hair, then let his fingers rest briefly on the lapel of his jacket, near his heart.

I wanted to smack him, but my eyes remained shut, and my lips did not move. Not a bead moved on my rosary as I said thirty Hail Marys and thirty-one Our Fathers, one for every year of his life.

During the Glorious Mysteries, Diputado Ernesto staggered forth and dropped a crucifix on my chest. Even a corpse could smell the whiskey on him. My little brother Ernie had never been able to hold his liquor, and when his knuckles brushed against me, I was afraid he would fall right on top of me. He shuddered at the touch of my cold hand.

When I was a girl, I had thin spidery fingers, and sometimes, to scare Ernesto, I pretended to be a tarantula. La araña, I whispered as my fingers crawled along his chest. La araña is crawling! La araña is creeping! Once, he fainted. I didn't know how else to make him mind.

Over the years, my hands grew gnarled. Two springs before I died, when I planted my last garden, my fingers were like old yellow parsnips. As I pressed potatoes and carrots into the cool ground, with the March wind blowing dust devils all around me, I had a vision: I died and was born again. In years that seemed like minutes, as my casket crumbled and my hair grew into long weeds, I curled up like a baby in the womb. With my long fingernails and toenails, I clawed and scraped through the bottom of my grave, going down, down, down. Sometimes I moved as slowly as a root, but I dug all the way into the belly of the earth where I was formed so long ago in the hands of Black Hac·ct´cin.

"Mi Dios ... mi Dios," Ernesto prayed, lurching over my casket. With his pocketknife, he sawed off the tip of the braid that hung over my shoulder-a thick, gray rope that grew shorter during the service as people snipped off pieces to put on their altars at home. Whatever I was: Spanish or Indian, nurse or nutcase, dead or alive-I would be remembered.

How they talked about me! In voices that rumbled under Padre Pettit's booming prayers, the mourners reminded each other of the mysterious disappearance of chickens and the way dogs and goats had wandered into my yard-as if they had been called. When I was alive, the women in my barrio did not insult me for fear that their hair would fall out. Storekeepers counted back my change twice since cheaters were known to lose their erections. I've swept every house in the barrio with a snakeweed broom, but the evil spirits always return, and you have to blame somebody.

What bad thing can you say about a dead old woman? It's true that I got naked with a crazy old man, more than once, and with pleasure. If borrowing your little brother's car can be called stealing a law enforcement vehicle, I'm guilty. As for the chickens and the rabbits, they came to me. My neighbors can say whatever they want about me; I like a good story, but I have no mercy for the fool who darkens the name of Mister Romero, my only grandson.

* * *

In the parking lot of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the wind was picking up. Across the low adobe wall that separated the church from the school, the steel snaps of a halyard rang rhythmically against a flagpole.

"Rattling bones," moaned Ernesto, who had braced himself against the police cruiser to keep his head from spinning. The cruiser, known around town as El Auto, was a 1995 Ford Police Interceptor with 168,000 miles. It had been on fire twice and underwater once. The transmission slipped, and it burned three quarts of oil a day, but the real problem was the police radio. Money was tight in Taos County, and after the ten-dollar-per-hour salaries had been shelled out, there wasn't much left in the pot for equipment.

"I think you're one of those people who just shouldn't drink," said Popolo, who stood close enough to be helpful but far enough away to avoid a spray of vomit. "Remember the Fiesta de Santiago y Santa Ana? When you had to wear that bucket around your neck?"

"I was off-duty."

"You've got some puke on your tie."

Ernesto opened the back door of the car and reached for the diaper wipes his wife put under the seat. Police cars could get messy. The tails of the white dress shirt she had ironed for him that morning caught the wind like two ghosts. When the dispatcher's voice squawked over the radio, he jumped.

"Ten-one," Popolo said into the mic. "Come back." The voice returned in a hiss of static. Several jars of jam had been stolen from the backseat of an unlocked car at the Super Save Food store. There was no update on the two guns that had gone missing from Ernesto's locker yesterday.

"Move that yellow wire over the red one," said Ernesto. "Now jiggle it."

Popolo fiddled with the wires, counted to three, and slapped the box. Then he stepped out of the car, and turning his back to the wind, lit a cigarette. Flames of red dust whirled across the parking lot, and he sucked in grit with his smoke.

"¿Qué pasa, Diputado?"

"Nada," said Ernesto, wiping his mouth.

"I'm sorry I couldn't give you a ride this morning. I had a call."

"Yeah, that's okay. Zarita had to have the car, you know, because she was doing everybody's hair. Padre picked me up." Pushing his hands into his pockets, Ernesto absently fingered the silver earring he had seen glinting on the floor of Manny Pettit's Jeep. "Do we have any leads on the Glocks?"

"Not yet. Nice turnout today."

"Ignacia always drew a crowd."

"Is she really a witch? You don't have to answer that."

"I won't."

"We're missing a few guests. You know who I would like to see? I'd like to see that old boyfriend of hers, the crazy one."

"They've got Chief locked up now at a place in Santa Fe."

"What did he do this time?"

"Used the toilet in a hardware store-a display one."

"Nice place?"

"Running toilets," said Ernesto, holding his stomach. "You seen Mister or Tomás around?"

"I'm still looking," said Popolo. Where you see Mister, you see Tomás, the saying went around Taos, and where you see Tomás, you see trouble. There was a third party - Raquel O'Brien, but Tomás had run her off just before Christmas. People still talked about it - two men in love with the same woman.

The sheriff had run into Tomás's mother earlier in the vestibule, where she was checking her lipstick behind the black cloth that hung over the mirror, but the informal interview had not gone well. He and Ramona had been seeing each other on and off for over a decade, and these situations could be dicey.

She'd had her hair done for the wake; it was piled up on her head and sprayed to hell and back. Stepping up behind her, he nearly choked on the fumes as he touched a ringlet hanging stiffly over her ear and whispered, "Bueno, sexy lady." In the corner of the mirror, he saw the stringy, weathered man he'd become, not coyote-ugly yet.

"Hello, Sheriff," she said, without turning around.

She licked her teeth and smiled. When she shrugged, her dress slid down her shoulder, revealing one wing of a blue butterfly tattoo.

"I thought you had to work this morning."

"I came to pay my respects," he said. "Lou Gehrig's disease-a terrible way to die. They say she wasn't paralyzed until the very end."

"She lost her voice early on," said Ramona, "and you know how she liked to speak her mind."

"Don't we all," said Popolo. Then, looking down at his feet, he cleared his throat and said, "I was wondering if you'd seen Tomás this morning. We're missing two guns down at the station."

"My son didn't steal no guns."

"I just wanted to ask him a few questions."

"No está aquí," she said with a snort.

"So I guess Mister is not on the premises either," he suggested, but she ignored him. It was hard to believe that they had been intimate only hours before, but females could be that way. He hung around for a minute to see if the butterfly would fly out again. When it did not, he gave Ramona a little salute and walked out to check on his deputy.

In the parking lot, Popolo watched the half-staff flag whip around the pole and wondered if God had made women meaner than men, or vice versa.

"It's hard to believe she's gone," said Ernesto. "I mean, really gone."

"She raised you, didn't she?"

"Oh shit."

"Ernie?"

Awkwardly, Popolo slung one arm around the deputy's big shaking shoulders. "I don't know what to say, man. You know I'm no good at this stuff." A paper cup rolled toward his feet, and he kicked it away.