The beguiling story of a young journalist whose investigation of a murder leads her to the most legendary healer in all of Mexico, from one of the most prominent voices of a new generation of Latin American writers
Paloma is dead. But before she was murdered, before she was even Paloma, she was a traditional healer named Gaspar. Before she was murdered, she taught her cousin Feliciana the secrets of the ceremonies known as veladas, and about the Language and the Book that unlock their secrets.
Sent to report on Paloma’s murder, Zoe meets Feliciana in the mountain village of San Felipe. There, the two women’s lives twist around each other in a danse macabre. Feliciana tells Zoe the story of her struggle to become an accepted healer in her community, and Zoe begins to understand the hidden history of her own experience as a woman, finding her way in a hostile environment shaped by and for men.
Weaving together two parallel narratives that mirror and refract one another, this extraordinary novel envisions the healer as storyteller and the writer as healer, and offers a generous and nuanced understanding of a world that can be at turns violent and exultant, cruel and full of hope.
Witches is available now from Catapult.
My grandfather Cosme didn’t talk to me again after I told him that this was my path, that the path of God is mine. I healed the people who came to see me and they began to talk about how I healed them, more and more people came when word began to spread that I healed illnesses of the body and the soul and they began to come from the next towns over and people who spoke Spanish began to come, and then people came who spoke other tongues, foreigners began to come to San Felipe asking for me, they came on horseback and on mules, they cut paths with machetes to come, the foreigners came however they could, with people from town as their guides. Back then there were no highways or even paved roads, the mayor put those in when he saw all the foreigners coming, he wanted to make a good impression on the foreigners, the mayor heard that a gringo banker came because he saw the movie they made about me and he said that’s a powerful man and he even invited the banker to his house. Back then, to get to my house by the milpas you had to travel four or five hours on horseback or mule, and on foot sometimes, and cut your way through with a machete if branches had come down with the last hailstorm, and even so people came, so many came that I had to say to them, Come back tomorrow, my child, come back another day, and you, come back later, but of all the people who came to see me, the one I most wanted to hear say that what I was doing was good was my grandfather Cosme, he was the one who told me I was doing men’s work.
One day, my grandfather Cosme showed up at my door and he said, Feliciana, I hear you’re a famous curandera, I hear you have the Language and I’ve come to give you my blessing. That’s how he was, he was slow to say things but then when he did say them, his door was wide open and it was a very big door. My grandfather Cosme opened his door to me just two times and that was the second, the first was when I married Nicanor. I was around fourteen when I married Nicanor, I don’t know the exact number, they don’t make papers when people are born here in San Felipe or in San Juan de los Lagos. When I had my first daughter, Aniceta, that was when my grandfather opened his door to me the first time, because he held his spites in until they came out. My grandfather Cosme showed up at my door with the rag doll I’d made when I was a little girl, the one I’d named María and he’d called Tola, and he said to me, Feliciana, this belongs to your daughter Aniceta now, but take it from her when she plays so she can find her way, just like I taught you how to work. And I knew that my grandfather Cosme was opening his door to me, when I married Nicanor and had my daughter Aniceta. I knew that he loved me even though he never said it, and that he respected me as a curandera, I knew those things the second time he opened his door to me. My grandfather Cosme never loved Paloma, he spoke to her with words like machetes, people loved Paloma but my grandfather Cosme was hard with her. He never said thank you when Paloma who was still Gaspar raised my grandmother Paz from her sickness because he’d seen the feathers on him, and if he ever heard someone say something about Paloma he’d say that he walked like he had feathers.
Before Nicanor’s family, three other families came to see if my grandfather Cosme would give me to them, but the families didn’t bring the boys, you weren’t allowed to see the boy before the wedding, no, no I never met them, but I met their families. Nicanor’s family was the biggest and kindest, they had goats, hens, a few pigs, and my grandfather gave his approval and I met Nicanor later, a few days before our wedding in the town church. I thought he was very serious. He came with a bride price of a few pigs and goats that my grandmother Paz looked after. My grandfather Cosme slaughtered a goat and my mother made atole for everyone, and Nicanor’s big family brought liquor and turkey in mole. On the day of the wedding, Nicanor told me that he could read and write because they’d sent him to the community school. Nicanor’s family also gave the music at our wedding, the Montes Band was the sound of inns and parties in San Felipe and traveled to other towns in the region, you know the kind with dancers and all and, well, the Montes Band brought music to our wedding because one of them was a relative of Nicanor’s and his family was all there. Paloma didn’t have men yet, she didn’t go with men she loved at night or with men she didn’t love, she was still the boy Gaspar, still a curandero, and that night Gaspar danced with all the women in Nicanor’s family, and they all liked him, he was good to be around and great at parties, and all the women in Nicanor’s family liked him, he got them all to laugh and to dance while my grandfather Cosme went around saying that Gaspar wasn’t part of his family, that he was from my father Felisberto’s side and what a shame it was that he was the last of the long line of curanderos. At the dance, my sister Francisca came to me and said, Feliciana, I don’t want them to marry me off, and she spent the whole wedding silent like an owl, her eyes wide and watching, caring for the children in Nicanor’s family, who were many.
I was frightened during the first days of my marriage with Nicanor, partly because I had always slept on the same mat with my sister Francisca, partly because Nicanor liked to eat a big breakfast and we weren’t used to that, and partly because I didn’t understand what was happening when he climbed onto me on our wedding night. I accepted it, I thought this is the life of a married woman, but I didn’t understand why people like to climb onto each other, that was something it took me time to understand in my marriage with Nicanor. I thought, this is the custom between men and women, people like this, I thought, so I should just follow the custom. My sister Francisca asked me what I meant that Nicanor climbed onto me, she was frightened her own wedding day would arrive and said she didn’t want my grandfather Cosme to marry her off, because he was already talking about it, in the plaza he would talk about his granddaughter Francisca with people who already knew her as tall and a beauty. It took me time, but then later I understood why some people climb onto others and enjoy it, it took me time to realize it was nice. Nicanor was a boy then and he didn’t drink, but he had to drink the liquor his family brought on our wedding day, we both drank the liquor because they made us, but what we both really liked was working. Back then I didn’t know and had no way of knowing that Nicanor would give himself over to alcohol the way he did after being a soldier, he gave himself over to it until they hacked him to death with a machete when my son Aparicio was taking his first steps.
At the beginning of our marriage, I saw that it was nice to be married with Nicanor, I married him before I knew him, I met his family first so we started knowing each other and later we saw that it was nice to be married. When I told him I was pregnant, he was neither happy nor sad, it was like I’d told him storms follow mornings that the sun clears, Nicanor said nothing when I told him I was pregnant, it was like I’d told him it was morning and he said to me, Feliciana, make me some sweet coffee like I take it, and that day I told him I was pregnant he took the news like he took the coffee I made him before the sun came out of its mountain.
When I birthed Aniceta my grandfather Cosme came and opened his door to me, and Gaspar came to me also and said, Feliciana, I’m not clean, I can’t heal people anymore. And so people started going to One-eyed Tadeo who read kernels of corn and took advantage, telling people what they wanted to hear, he tossed his seven kernels and told the future, he took advantage of people who believed he could see the future because he had one eye, and Gaspar came to tell me that he’d gone at night with a man who had a family, a politician from the city who had children and a wife and who came to work with the mayor, he’d gone to the pulquería somewhere no one he knew would see him to pick up a boy, and there was Gaspar, who was still a boy, and I saw death lay its egg in Gaspar for the first time, before he was Paloma, death laid its egg in Gaspar not because the politician had children and a wife, but because he went from town to town going with boys and he carried a disease that he gave to Gaspar. Gaspar came to see me then and said pus was coming out of him instead of urine, how could he get rid of it, he said, Feliciana, help me with the herbs you bless. We went to the hillside to bless herbs and over time they cured Gaspar’s sickness from the time he went with that politician at night. I was carrying Aniceta in my shawl and Gaspar said to me, Feliciana, dear, that little girl and that smile of hers will put everything right. He loved Aniceta ever since she was born, later he got along well with Apolonia but he loved Aniceta, he came to see me because of her, and that’s how we came to see each other more, Gaspar came to our house and worked alongside us. Apolonia was born quickly, and Aparicio was born quickly when I was in my marriage with Nicanor.
In those days, Nicanor went off with revolutionaries to ride horseback and carry a rifle, first they put lead in his arm with a rifle, then in his horse, then they put lead in his belly. He sent me messages through different people and sent me coins so I could take care of things. In those days my grandmother Paz died, and not long after my grandfather Cosme followed her. He couldn’t bear the sadness without her, I saw it that day we had a hailstorm. My grandfather Cosme died because my grandmother Paz had gone, he was healthy, death laid its egg in his soul, not in his body, because death is like that, my grandfather Cosme went not long after my grandmother Paz. And not long after that, my mother joined them, too, the three of them went like fire spreads in a hard wind, the three of them went in the rainy season, in one rainy season the three of them were gone. My sister Francisca was relieved that my grandfather Cosme hadn’t married her off.
And so there are deaths of companionship, there are people who die so they can follow the one who went before them, then death lays its egg in a person’s soul because they ask it to and if it doesn’t they try to take its egg the way people snatch things in the market, but death is always there to trill its song. Because death listens to people, just how life listens. My grandfather Cosme stopped talking when my grandmother Paz died, he went mute, his mouth sank in because his words were gone, he didn’t want to use his mouth, not even to eat with, it sank in the way your arm falls asleep if you don’t use it, my grandfather Cosme stopped talking as if that was his way of leaving the earth and then one day it was morning and his body was cold. I can’t say my grandfather Cosme died, he stopped talking because God stopped giving him words, he stopped talking after my grandmother Paz died and then my sister Francisca came to tell me grandpa Cosme was with God. And she looked relieved because she didn’t want my grandfather Cosme to marry her off, he had already received one family interested in my sister Francisca, but they didn’t have cattle for the bride price, and the other week, after my grandfather died, another family was supposed to go see him with the bride price but then they didn’t appear.
My mother had a sickness of the heart that put her out like a candle that burns down in the night while everyone is asleep. Only my sister Francisca and I were left, me and my three children Aniceta, Apolonia, and Aparicio, and Nicanor who was with the revolutionaries in their war. Gaspar, who wasn’t yet Paloma, came to help us with our work.
From Witches by Brenda Lozano, translated by Heather Cleary. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2020 by Brenda Lozano. English translation copyright © 2022 by Heather Cleary.