Eva had been dead for twenty years before Joaquin got to La Tierra Sangre. By the time he got there, she was nothing but a bare, yellowed skeleton, leaning against the top of her husband Castaneda’s piano in their old bar called Nirvana, across from the town water tower. Castaneda put small wreaths of flowers on her head and wrapped her shoulders with the same shawl she had been buried with, the same shawl that had the small black hole seared into the back of it. It was illegal in that county to exhume the dead but nobody ever ratted Castaneda out; the sheriff who came in for a drink more often then he took his gun out of the holster never even brought it up.
Joaquin was the first to mention it. He had started working at Nirvana in December and through the winter, he said nothing. He watched Castaneda change the flowers and fix the shawl, whisper to the skeleton when he sat at the piano yet never played, stare at the holes broken into the skull from the time and the weather; Joaquin just watched until one evening in March when he asked Nicandro. Nicandro was a local who seemed to be close to Castaneda and spent more money and time then he should have in Nirvana. When Joaquin brought up the skeleton across the room, Nicandro looked over at the piano then back to the mirror above the bar.
“What bones, kid?’ Nicandro drawled. “All I see over there is Eva.”
“There’s a skeleton, lying against the piano. You don’t see it? How much have you had today?”
Nicandro leaned forward. “I’m telling you this now because I like you some. Don’t bring this up no more. Ya hear? All I see over there is Eva and after a little while, that’s all y’all see too. Just good ol’ Eva.”
Joaquin left it at that and went back to pouring drinks. He wasn’t happy with the answer but Nicandro knew everything and wasn’t going to tell him any of it. Castaneda was the worst person to ask since all he seemed to do was speak in vibrations and nod to the loyal customers who praised his mescal. Joaquin was sure he was a drunk too though he never saw him go behind the bar but Joaquin knew that men like that just had to be drunks, that’s how they made it through life. Same for the workers and farmers he saw everyday; they don’t know any better, he figured. They were simple to him.
Eventually, Joaquin got the nerve to ask some other customers about the skeleton. All of them either warned him not to say anything about it around Castaneda or they made a joke and told him to pour them another.
One man said, “Why ya askin’ about her, kid? Think she’s pretty?” The man laughed boldly. “Eh, too skinny for me.”
As Joaquin was cleaning up, he noticed the man walk over toward the piano. He looked around quickly as if searching for ghosts then whispered to the skeleton, “I didn’t mean no disrespect by that, mi moreno. I was only playin’.” Then he touched the bones that he had undoubtedly once felt through tissue and ropes of veins.
Joaquin watched this, sensing something tighten in his chest. He was a logical young man, he had gone to school and learned about subjects these rural work mules couldn’t even pronounce so this made no sense to him, this was simply crazy superstition of some kind. Even still, with all his logic and his schooling, Joaquin felt goose bumps crawl up his back.
The man left presently, letting go of the yellowing ivory, staggering out the door, whose hinges were broken, leaving the golden and red painted wood hanging at an angle. Joaquin thought about fixing it for Castaneda, maybe getting a whole new door instead of one with peeling patterns that looked like a bloodstain on the surface of the sun. I’ll surprise the old man, Joaquin figured. Then maybe he’ll talk to me a bit.
He got some new hinges from the hardware store and bought a door that would swing when someone pushed it. As he was starting to take the old one down, Nicandro walked up and leaned against the carved sign above the bar.
“Fixing the door?”
Joaquin nodded. Nicandro took a flask out of his pocket and unscrewed it. “Best damn mescal around.” He offered it to Joaquin who refused it. “Dios mio, ya got no idea what you’re missin’.”
“I don’t need to know. I’ve got no use for any of that.” He managed to get the first hinge off. “I don’t need altered states.”
Nicandro took Joaquin’s arm quickly. “Kid, don’t take down that door. I’m pretty sure you’re trying to do something nice here but it ain’t gonna work.”
“What are you talking about? I’m fixing the bar to help-”
“No, I know ya think ya are but it’s gonna get you in a whole lotta trouble. Listen to me, niño. Castaneda wants this door to stay.”
“But it’s broken.”
“He wants this door to stay.”
There was a sudden rush of air out of the bar, a river that blew dust against legs and shook the hair next to Joaquin’s face. Joaquin tried to take a breath but he could get nothing in him. He felt a vacuum where his lungs were supposed to be then mounting pressure as Castaneda appeared out of some shadowy corner in the back, dark skin visibly burning, his shoulders straight, mouth frothing. Joaquin dropped the hammer by his foot as Castaneda got closer, and for the first time, he looked his boss directly in the eyes.
“What the hell are ya doing?” Castaneda shouted. “Who told you to take this door down?”
“Nobody,” Joaquin said trying desperately to breathe in. “Nobody told me to. I was trying to help.”
Castaneda’s voice sent shocks into the ground. The dirt under Joaquin’s toes turned to dust and a snake breeched the land between his legs. It stared up at him for a moment then curled over his foot and moved away.
“Don’t touch this door, ya sonofa bitch. Ya hear me?” Joaquin nodded. “Ya got something to say for yaself, ya li’l bastard?”
“I didn’t know you had blue eyes,” Joaquin stammered. He recoiled, waiting for Castaneda to hit him but the man just walked away, back into his shadows.
Nicandro laughed. When Joaquin had stopped shaking, he glared over at him. Nicandro laughed harder at the wide-eyed expression. He picked up the hammer and put it back in Joaquin’s hand.
“I told ya, kid, just leave it be.”
Joaquin walked back inside, his spine stiff and straight. He was too nervous to speak or cough. He was behind the bar before he took another breath.
“What was that? What did I do?”
Nicandro took a seat at the bar. He waited for Joaquin to pour him a shot of mescal before he started talking.
“Ya know what this place was, probably before you were born, years and years ago? We used to do peyote in here. The whole damn town did. Then again, town back then was a whole lot smaller.” He drank the mescal and smiled. “Castaneda always had the best peyote too.”
“He used to serve people peyote?”
“Well, he opened this place before there wasn’t much else so he grew hisself a garden of peyote that the chicanos and the Indians around here were always trying to get into so he started selling it to protect it. I musta been younger than you first time I came in here. Hell, I musta been about fourteen, I guess.”
“Castaneda opened this place when you were fourteen? How old is he? I thought you two were the same age.”
Nicandro leaned back into his stool. “Listen, kid, ya don’t get to ask questions.” He glanced over his shoulder. “I gotta say, I dunno if ya’ll ever get this place. This might just be a waste of my breath.”
“What wouldn’t I get?”
Nicandro folded his chapped hands together, closed his eyes, lined and tired, and leaned his head against the pyramid of his fingers.
“There’s a lot here that can’t be explained, there’s a lot here that I don’t even understand. Now, I know kids like you and ya just ain’t gonna believe the sights we seen. Ya just too damned smart to believe in a buncha horseshit stories.”
Joaquin turned his back to Nicandro, frustrated and still sore from being yelled at by Castaneda. He began to rearrange the bottles that leaned against the mirror. Something out of focus crossed his vision and he raised his head. Beyond his own reflection, he saw the empty eyes of Eva staring back at him. She had her elbow bent against the piano and her chin propped up against her hand. Joaquin could swear she was smiling but her loose jaw dangled open, a full mouth of teeth bared. He spun on his heels, hoping the mirror was reflecting light, playing games on him, but when he faced Eva, she was still gazing with open orifices, directly at him.
“Nicandro, what the hell is going on? That skeleton is looking at me.”
Nicandro glanced over at Eva. He didn’t laugh the way Joaquin had hoped he would. Instead, he walked to the piano and lowered his face to the skeletal eyes.
“Hello there, mi moreno,” he sighed. “I knew the kid wouldn’t get this place.” He stood upright and crossed back to the bar, talking over his shoulder as he went. “You look very lovely today, Eva. Some of your friends should be coming by soon.”
Outside, clouds the color of wine began to gather, casting crimson shadows along the ground. A young girl in a pale pink dress stood underneath one and reached her hand upward.
“What is she doing?” Joaquin pointed out the window. Nicandro walked toward the door and leaned out to her.
“Mi corazon, chiquita, it’s too early for that!”
The girl shook her head rapidly. “It’s March, Nicandro. You’re always telling me what to do. Since the day I met you, viejo.”
“Fine then. If you won’t listen to reason-”
The girl smiled and stood up on to her tiptoes. With one long finger, she punctured a low hanging cloud above her then stepped off to the side as a stream of scarlet flooded out into the ground. The dirt and sand swelled as the clouds deflated, rivers of red beading and snaking through the granules next to her feet. When the last of it had been absorbed, she looked at Nicandro and smirked.
“I know better than you do, viejo.” She pointed at her chest, right above her heart. “This is me. Go get drunk!”
Joaquin was standing next to the window, face to the glass, following the valleys and brooks the bright downpour had traced under the sand. He had seen that girl around before, the town was pretty small, but this was the first time he noticed her. She was darker than anyone else he had seen, black hair and skin that looked like the center of flame. Her eyes were light, he had never gotten close enough to see what color they were. As she walked away, Joaquin was aware of how old her steps were, every footprint looking a little too big for her.
This was not the first time he had seen something in that town that took him by surprise but this was the first time that he couldn’t deny it. In January, after the New Year, he could swear he saw an old man sitting on top of the water tower, hugging his arms around himself and singing a lullaby. Later, when he looked up to see if he was still there, he saw a baby on all fours perched above the town. He called the other people in the bar over to the window but the baby was gone as they looked out.
“Hey, niño, this might be too strong for you,” Nicandro told him, raising his flask. “How’s a baby get on the water tower?”
Joaquin convinced himself he saw some sort of mirage or maybe someone had slipped him a little liquor when he wasn’t looking. Either way, he ignored the doubt he suddenly felt and the urge he had to buy a train ticket home. It was too late to go back; that bridge had been burnt.
It had only been a few months but Joaquin knew that his family was done with him. The night he left, he passed his sister sitting on the porch on the way out. She was rolling a cigarette and staring off into the city in the distance. She could see the shadows of the buildings, the fading lights, the sin, the excitement, all the terrible and wonderful things that could happen to her there. As her brother stepped off the porch, she hardly even turned to look at him.
“He’ll probably find you.”
“No, he won’t even look for me.”
“They found me.”
“It was different.”
His sister licked the cigarette then leaned toward the candle next to the window and lit the end.
“He had to look for his daughter. What the hell does he care about his son?”
She shook her head. Her shoulders sloped, she looked older than he had ever seen her. Two years before hand, she had run away to New York and in less than six months, their father had tracked her down, had her arrested, and brought her home.
“He doesn’t even have to care. He’s going to look for you because he spent so much money on you, you’re his, you’re property.” She inhaled. “That’s all we are to him.”
As she exhaled, those stories she had held in her lungs and under her tongue seem to curl out with the smoke, snaking away from her lips, trying in vain to reach someone else’s ears. The scent of her cigarette dissipated into the blackness, the darkness, falling short of the metropolis they could watch still pulsing slowly. Joaquin saw everything inside that smoke, he saw her running from the police, drinking, tearing off her dress, and jumping on to trains. He saw a man who must have loved her and he saw his sister refusing to be what he expected her to be. He saw her vitality, her energy, and he saw it dissolve into the broken girl keeping watch over the sex and the sin of the cities, her guard station, her lookout, her fetters.
Without addressing her, he said goodbye. He left her there, left her as nothing but a shell, silent and shattered. But Joaquin thought he had it figured out. He didn’t want the wild nights, the debauchery and the insanity his sister had searched for. He was looking for an escape out of his father’s plan for him. He just didn’t want to exist in that house any longer.
But the reality of the world he had entered slipped through his fingers as he watched the sand shift and the sun burn red and yellow on to everything, the people around him eyes glowed and changed and more and more, Joaquin felt his ability to think and to reason run out of him like blood.
He attempted to rationalize everything he saw, the woman who seemed to raise the ground when she inhaled or the man who cried clean water when he sat in a mud puddle that slowly dried up around him. Joaquin pretended not to notice any of this.
Nicandro acted like Joaquin was crazy whenever he brought anything up. He would shrug as the questions came then say, “I thought ya were supposed to be smart. Go figure it out.”
Joaquin, embarrassed that he was being ridiculed by a common laborer, decided that everything he saw was just a side effect of fatigue or the dryness of the desert. Back at home, he never worked and the city didn’t seem as hot as that little town. They were in areas less than an few hours apart by train, separated by a handful of army outposts, a river, and a sense of the absurd. At some point, Joaquin assumed he had inhaled enough fumes from the mescal that he was starting to see things.
There was more to that town then he could explain; he knew that. One evening, a woman sat down at the bar and stared over Joaquin’s head.
“Castaneda here?” she asked, her voice so thick and smoky it shocked Joaquin when he heard it.
“Yes,” he answered lowly. “But he’s in the back.”
The woman locked eyes with him. “Go get him. Tell him Esperanza’s here to see him.”
Joaquin didn’t move. The woman looked old, her face heavily lined, her hair gray but her eyes were clear and pure and they absorbed Joaquin’s energy into them. He felt paralyzed, his body out of his command.
When he didn’t move, the woman leaned forward and snarled, “Go, you li’l bastard.”
“Don’t say that to him, Esperanza,” came the vibrations from behind her. “Who taught you to be so rude?”
Esperanza turned to face Castaneda, standing with his arms crossed over his chest. His expression was strange, endearingly bothered by her presence. She smiled at him gently and stood up. When they were side by side, Joaquin realized how much older she looked.
“Hi papa,” she said. “You’re not too happy to see me, huh?”
Castaneda put a hand on her shoulder but didn’t move toward his daughter. He nodded slightly then told her, “you’re practically an old woman now.”
“Not all of us are as lucky as you, papa,” she replied then stepped forward to hug him but Castaneda pushed her away.
“I haven’t forgiven you yet. She needed you, Esperanza.”
“But I couldn’t have stopped it, why don’t you understand that? You were here, you saw it happen. You were supposed to be the muscle of this town, the mighty Juan Pedro and even you couldn’t stop it.”
Castaneda took his hand off her shoulder. “That’s how you talk to your father? Look at me, Esperanza. The muscle of this town? If I could die right now I would but I haven’t even got the muscle in my hand to pull the trigger.”
“I don’t want to have this fight with you. I wanted to talk to you again. Before…” She trailed off.
“Before you die,” Castaneda finished for her. “See now, we’ve talked. You can rest easy if your guilt will let you.”
Esperanza turned back to the bar and sat down. “Never mind then, forget it. I’m gonna get good and drunk if you don’t mind.”
Castaneda watched her for a moment then nodded. “As long as you can pay.” He walked away as Esperanza started to cry. Joaquin gave her a shot of mescal. She laughed through a whimper then downed it.
“Do you know what that man used to be like?” she asked. “Do you know how much he loved me and my mother?”
Joaquin shook his head. He ignored the fact that Eva sat up. She was listening to her daughter, leaning forward with each word.
“Can I get you some more?” he asked.
Esperanza threw a handful of bills on the bar. “A lot more actually.” She looked over at Eva who stared back at her. Somehow, their eyes connected; Joaquin could see that. “Look at my mother. Look at what he’s doing to her. Do you know why he hates me? Because her blood ran through my fingers. I tried to hold it in but I couldn’t.”
“You tried to hold her blood in?”
“My mother was shot one night,” she explained, running her fingers around the rim of the glass. Joaquin refilled it promptly. “No one from this town did it, they were just Indians running through here. Everyone in this town used to fear my father.”
Eva put her head down on the piano. Joaquin pretended a draft had shaken her and caused her neck to bend.
“How can he be your father? You look older than he does.”
Esperanza paused. She took no offense to the statement. She smiled almost coyly. “You haven’t been here long, have you niño?” Her hands folded into her lap, she straightened her back. “That man hasn’t aged a day since my mother got shot.”
As delicate as crystal and as weathered as her skin, Esperanza stood up and went to Eva’s side. Eva didn’t move. “I tried to bury you, mama. He wouldn’t let me.” She wrapped the shawl tighter around Eva’s shoulders. “Dios mio, he won’t even take down that door.” She pointed to the entrance of the bar. “See niño, that’s where she got shot.”
Joaquin shuddered as he stared at the rust colored blemish, hoping that she was lying but knowing she wasn’t.
“The men who shot her. Did Castaneda catch them?”
Esperanza didn’t answer. She let go of Eva. Joaquin pretended he couldn’t see that Eva’s hand tried to hold on to her daughter for just another moment.
“Thank you for the mescal,” Esperanza said to Joaquin though she couldn’t take her eyes off Eva. “I don’t think papa wants to see me here anymore.” She kissed the top of Eva’s skull then walked toward that door that hung crooked off the hinges. She walked heavy and old, disappearing into the desert like a glint of sun against the glass in the sand.
Castaneda never said a word to Joaquin about Esperanza showing up that day, desolate and tired. Joaquin wondered if he had imagined the entire thing. He was beginning to doubt his senses, his sanity seemed strangely finite.
The first night that he really thought he was hallucinating was also the night Castaneda actually addressed him, man to man. It was raining a lot more than it was supposed to and the customers were watching it thoughtfully. Castaneda was sitting at the piano, sending vibrations into Eva’s absent marrow.
“Hey Castaneda,” a young laborer called from the bar. “I heard this place used to have the best peyote.”
Castaneda raised his head to face the man. The other customers were still staring out at the rain. Castaneda stood up, and Joaquin could swear he felt the entire room contract into itself then release.
“This place had peyote so good, you’d talk to god, niño,” one of the older men told the laborer. “I met my wife because of his peyote.”
“I’d have to say that’s a damn lie,” the laborer said back. “I’d love to try some though.”
“Damn lie? Boy, you don’t know a thing about it. I was sittin’ right here and it was raining right out there and there were so many people in this place, you couldn’t get a breath in. See, before then, I would never set foot outside in the rain ‘cause I’ve seen it come down red and I don’t give a damn what that little girl says, it ain’t good, it looks wicked.”
“You’re a bit soft, viejo,” the laborer interrupted. “Me, I work in the rain, no matter what the color.”
“I don’t care about you, I care about me.” The older man leaned toward the young laborer and stared into his eyes. “Red rain just ain’t good. But I went outside because the peyote made me feel like nothing could hurt me and all of this-” he motioned to everything inside and outside the bar- “this was something I was a part of, understand niño? I was connected to it like veins and muscle. Outside, everything was pulling me in so many directions I was sure I was goin’ to tear apart into pieces then I heard a girl whisper to me. I heard it, through the rain and the crowd, I heard it like she had her hand on my shoulder but she was kneeling in the street, out there in the mud and do you know what she was doing?”
“Tell us viejo. What was the girl doing?”
“She was praying. She wasn’t praying for strength or to make peace with god. She told me she was praying to her lungs, thanking them for workin’. Just thankin’ her lungs for filling with air. Married that girl a week later.”
“Horse shit,” the young laborer replied. “That story ain’t true.”
Castaneda approached the bar. He leaned over it, his sights locked on to Joaquin’s. “There’s a silver box under that floor board. Get it.”
Joaquin hurriedly pulled up the board and lifted a decorative box up onto the bar. Castaneda took it then pointed to a tea kettle against the mirror. “Give that to me.” Joaquin did as he said as Castaneda turned to the group, watching the rain.
“Is that it?” the older man asked when he saw Castaneda walking toward a room in the back of the bar with the box and the kettle. “Is he goin’ make some of that tea?”
“Tea?” Joaquin inquired but the older man was all ready running across the room, throwing open the door, and shouting into the downpour.
“Castaneda’s making tea! Castaneda’s making tea!”
Joaquin watched as people appeared out of the rain, their faces slick and glowing as they stepped over the threshold into Nirvana. Some look haunted, lost, as if they were formed from the mist that grew over the sand when it rained, spectral as fog. Others melted out of their skins, threw wrinkles and arthritic joints to the floor below them, stepping brightly, younger than they had in years. Still, a few were simply silent, leaning against the bar, watching as Castaneda brought a tray filled with tiny silver goblets then paused in front of the mass that materialized in his bar. His eyes opened wider than Joaquin thought they could as he took the first goblet off the tray and raised it above him.
Each person stepped forward to take a glass. They all faced Castaneda as if waiting for their signal. Their hands and cups were raised.
“To Eva,” Castaneda toasted, and the crowd applauded it. Joaquin felt the energy in every hand push the heat in the room and spark waves of electricity in the air. Dozens of mouths opened, the goblets were emptied.
Through the tangle of limbs that were crowded together, Joaquin saw the movement of a once ivory digit, of a bone that had started to yellow but was folded in a lap politely. Eva’s face appeared from between the bodies, appeared in the vibrant barrage of fervor and verve that poured into the spaces absent of the corporal, filling the cracks so that no one among them would have to stand for a moment outside of the overwhelming current that pulsed from lips to lips, hand to hand, skin to skin. A ring formed around her, standing so still, watching her own image in the mirror above the bar. No one seemed to mind, no one seemed to notice.
No one except Joaquin.
Eva’s hand unfolded to him, her arm stretched out but she didn’t move any closer. Joaquin was frozen, terrified and curious, unable to reach back to her, unable to find out what she wanted or who she was. He could feel a draw to her, as if she was asking him for something that no one else there had. When he didn’t move, Eva sat back down, leaned against the piano, put her hands back in her lap. The crowd radiated colors and sound between the two of them. Bodies grasped one another, consuming the brilliance they felt pushing out from each other.
A young girl with crystalline eyes and thick brown hair held the last little goblet out for Joaquin.
“It’s okay,” she told him, her lips coarse and sensual. “Castaneda wants you to try it.”
“I think I’m going crazy,” he whispered though not to her. “I see things every where in this town. Nothing makes sense here.”
The girl moved closer. She put one hand along the side of his face and pressed the goblet into his lower lip. “It’s okay. Just try this.”
Joaquin watched her face as she poured the liquid over his tongue. Her mouth opened with each contraction of his throat, her hand pushed a little harder as his head tilted back. She lowered the cup to the bar.
“I saw that skeleton stand up,” he said, feeling a few small drops of peyote run down his lips. The girl caught them with her own swiftly. “Am I going crazy?”
“She’s only trying to welcome you,” the girl answered, pulling away from his mouth. “She says you’ve never even said hi to her.”
Then a rapid torrent of blood rushed to Joaquin’s head, and his eyes suddenly hurt from the zeal and the light. He felt every muscle in his body tighten as the girl took him by his hands and led him forward. Her fingers traced up his arm then up to his neck, half teasing his goose bumps, half coaxing them into existence.
Joaquin drew the girl into him. Under his palms, tissue twitched and throbbed, the strongest evidence of life he had ever found. He was fascinated with the fact that each and every day until he was dead, there would be an entire world of life and energy inside of him, working without him ever thinking about it, invisible, unseen. Now he could feel hers, through her skin, he traced the bones he could find, dug his fingers into muscle that braced, pushed his palm against her chest to watch the rising of her lungs.
“I think I need to lie down,” Joaquin whispered to her as his face flushed red and he felt so carnal and ethereal all at the same time. He felt ready to shed his skin yet he had never been so close to it before, so aware of its presence; it breathed and moved as he did but it didn’t belong to him.
The crowd that encircled him shook raw and uninhibited. There was no noise anymore. There was no toasting or applauding. Lips moved; throats expanded. No one said anything.
Joaquin turned the girl’s arm upward so that the soft underside, rivered blue with veins, reflected the warmth he could see emanating from her face. When she moved, he followed; when she breathed, he breathed. He felt life in no other form but her breath and her blood.
“I think I need to lie down.”
The room around him grew and shrank rhythmically; the people near him sweat intensity through flesh. Without his permission, his hand wrapped as tightly as it could around the girl’s wrist. He was afraid that he would lose his balance and not be able to fall.
Castaneda was sitting next to the skeleton when it stood up and walked toward Joaquin. There was no logic in his mind any longer, there was no rhyme or reason, everything once physical was made of smoke and radiance. When he turned to face the crowd and saw Eva standing behind him, he shouted a noise that sounded animal and instinctive, a noise that vibrated viscerally in his stomach. He put a hand out to protect himself but he moved with force he didn’t know he had, and he struck the side of Eva’s skull.
The bar went silent as Eva crumpled to a pile of dust and shards of a frame. Castaneda rose. The room contracted. Joaquin became aware of how fragile his body was, how he was no less meat than an animal, a creature, and he was sure that’s what Castaneda saw too. Just a piece of tissue who had broken apart what was left of the woman he had forced life on to for so long.
“You sonofa bitch!”
The crowd parted to let him through. Joaquin took a step backward and ran into Nicandro who just shook his head gently.
“Nicandro, oh god, tell him I’m sorry. Please, tell him I didn’t mean to.”
“I’m gonna kill you, you devil. I’m gonna kill you!”
Nicandro pushed Joaquin closer to the door and moved toward Castaneda. He kept shaking his head as he did.
“Give the kid a head start,” he said. “Castaneda, let him run first.”
Castaneda pulled the top off the piano and yanked a gun from between the strings. Joaquin’s body convulsed violently and took off running out into the street. The rain had dried up but there were puddles everywhere, filling his shoes with red clay and water. Each step got slower, heavier. There was a force, a noticeable change in the air, as Castaneda charged out of the bar after him.
Joaquin couldn’t move his legs fast enough. Every time he looked over his shoulder, Castaneda was gaining on him, backed by unfurling clouds that rippled in layers of crimson and amethyst. Castaneda had nature on his side.
The desert rose out of the horizon so abruptly that Joaquin forgot that that’s where he was headed. Cacti twisted out to him as he brushed past, their needles catching him briefly then releasing as Castaneda approached. The sand buckled underneath his feet, trapping his footing as the anger closed in on him.
Vibrations coursed through the grains. Joaquin felt the bullet break his skin before he heard the shot go off. His right leg began to cramp and twitch as he fell forward into a cactus that stood like a man. He reached to the back of his thigh where the pang rose, spit, then fell. The bullet missed the bone and burrowed into the thick of the muscle.
“Oh god!” Joaquin cried as he brought his hand up to his face and almost fainted at the sight of his own blood. He turned as well as he could but the cactus seemed to be holding him as Castaneda stepped closer, closer.
“You’ve done wrong by me, baboso,” Castaneda growled as he loomed in front of him, his gun resting against his hip. “You’ve done wrong by my wife too.”
“This is a dream,” Joaquin wondered out loud. “This isn’t really happening.”
“No dream,” Castaneda said, raising the business end of the gun to the minute, exposed spot in between Joaquin’s eyes.
“Oh god, please, don’t kill me. Castaneda, I didn’t mean to, she frightened me.”
“What did you say?!”
“She appeared out of nowhere.” Castaneda touched the barrel to the spot. “Oh god, she’s been beckoning to me, she’s been trying to talk to me. Castaneda, please don’t kill me. I think I’m going crazy.”
“What are you talking about?”
“She keeps looking at me in the mirror, she keeps reaching her hands out to me. Castaneda, I swear to you, I didn’t mean to hit her but she wanted me to. Jesus Christ, don’t shoot me. She told me to, I swear, she told me to. Please don’t kill me.”
Castaneda lowered the gun. The undulating sky stilled and ran together as one color. Joaquin’s eyes were shut tightly. He heard something settle in the sand, and the cactus released him. When he opened his eyes, the gun was next to his foot and Castaneda stood there with his arms at his sides.
“I’m not going to kill you, Joaquin,” Castaneda said. “Tell me what she told you.”
“She didn’t tell me anything in words but I-” Joaquin stopped, bit his tongue, and took a breath. “I just knew that she…She didn’t want to be here anymore.”
Castaneda extended his hand. Joaquin took it warily. He let Castaneda bring him upright. They stood as men, as equals for a moment then Castaneda took a breath and the sky, the ground, the air constricted and discharged.
“It’s okay, Joaquin,” Castaneda said. “I think you may have done something right today.”
Joaquin’s body quivered. Castaneda turned back toward the town and walked away. Joaquin followed a little behind him, carefully stepping in Castaneda’s footprints, each one getting older and older. For a second, he paused and tried to laugh as he clasped his hand to the back of his thigh and staggered back toward Nirvana.