makes us good or evil is a decision of the soul,
Amelia's hand shook slightly as she handed me the classified ad page ripped from the morning edition of the El Paso Times. She seemed to sense my frustration as I took the page, and she edged toward the door, just as she had done the first time she had made veiled references to her family problems.
Circled boldly by a yellow felt-tip pen was an ad nestled in the personals section, between 900-number solicitations for phone sex and people seeking lost relatives. The muted sound of my desk radio carried monotone news of another woman's body found in a field south of Juarez, Mexico just across the border from El Paso. She was number 320 of those victims killed and dumped over a nine-year period, according to the newscaster. The story was familiar, so I concentrated on the newspaper page in front of me.
The classified ad itself was puzzling:
"So, what has this got to do with you deciding to leave school?" As graduate assistants, we shared a communal office with three other master's degree students. Amelia and I had become close friends through shared classes, financial crises, and late-night study sessions during the past year.
"I told you before that education doesn't solve every problem like you think it can ." Her gaze was veiled under long-lashed eyes, her full mouth firm under a long, aquiline nose. She reached up and toyed with her luxuriant dark hair.
As a New Mexico native, I had grown up with Hispanics and was well aware of their unique and inflexible family systems. I knew her family would prefer that Amelia be married and raise a large family. "It's just a story like shape shifting and skinwalking in the Indian tradition."
Amelia smiled dismissively. "My grandfather is 119 years old, and I think he knows about what's happening to those women down there. How do you explain that?"
I tried not to chuckle in disbelief and rubbed my forehead instead. "We've known each other for about a year, and you never said anything like this before. Why now?"
"Maybe I really need your help."
"Oh, sure. Isn't that what your boyfriend is for?" I threw out the words with a twist of lemon. Amelia knew that I found her attractive but, as with most Hispanic women, she had a long-standing relationship with a boyfriend who had not finished high school and whose list of DWI charges and scrapes with the law were as long as a ristra of red chiles.
Amelia looked out the window toward the bright southern New Mexico sunshine. "You know I can't really talk to him. You're the only one I've ever met who could possibly understand. You've read so much, and you know these things are possible."
I shrugged and got up from my chair, walking over to her but without touching. Silently we both looked out at the campus on a warm October day. I had not told her about a night in the desert that haunted me even now.
It was midsummer two years ago, and I was taking one of the long late-night desert drives I loved so much that allowed me to encounter those creatures that hid during the blistering heat of the day.
It was after 10 p.m. as my 1990 Volkswagen Fox rolled slowly down one of the hundreds of miles of dirt roads that criss-cross the arid plains. Away from the light pollution of Las Cruces, the sky was deep and black, the stars brilliant. With the windows down, I peered fixedly at the pool of light thrown by my headlights, hoping to see a western diamondback rattlesnake crossing in front of me.
So intent was my concentration that I didn't see the glow from the fire until I topped a small rise. Just off to the side of the road I saw the flames of a large bonfire shimmering reddish-orange in the dark. It seemed strange to see such a large fire when the night temperature was still over 80 degrees. I had no fear of who I might encounter because I always carried my .45 automatic when I was so far from town.
My car passed by the impromptu campsite and I saw five men standing around the fire, moving slowly, arms lifting. They were unshaven and shirtless Hispanics, their hair shaggy and tousled. The ground around the fire was littered with beer cans, and even from 30 feet away I could smell the sweet marijuana smoke. I thought perhaps they were singing in low voices, but then I was beyond them, back in the darkness. I had not seen a vehicle, but there must have been one, perhaps hidden from view.
A half-hour later, I found the road too rutted for me to pass, and so I turned around and began my return. Suddenly a coyote sprinted across the road in front of me, a brown flash with glowing eyes. It was gone, but the unexpected encounter sent a wave of alertness through me.
Ahead I could see the glow of the fire I had encountered while I was outward bound. I slowed as I approached, I could see the blaze had diminished, now more reddish than orange. The litter of beer containers was scattered over the site, and the men were not visible. I slowed to a crawl, aware of the wavering shadows cast by the creosote bushes and mesquite.
I flicked my eyes back to the road and slammed on the brakes. In the glare of the headlights was a large coyote-it couldn't have been a Mexican gray wolf this far north-blocking the road, its head turned toward me. At the campsite to the right of the car, the men had disappeared, but I was sure I saw two other large animals loping into the brush beyond the fire. When I looked through the windshield again, the animal that had stood in my path was gone, and there was only the headlights, the dying fire, and the smell of burning mesquite coming through my open windows.
Why then did I panic? I still don't know, but I rolled up the windows as I stabbed the accelerator pedal, filled with a nameless dread whose memory has never left me. Those running shapes in the darkness, that abandoned campfire, were still with me now.
"Will you at least go to El Paso with me to find out about this? I'm afraid something terrible is going to happen." Amelia knew I wouldn't deny her.
"You know I'll help, but what will tattoo guy think about this?" My reference to her boyfriend and his jailhouse skin art didn't seem to faze her.
"Did you ever think that maybe he's part of it? His family and my family are connected all the way back to Ciudad Chihuahua in the old days, and my grandfather controls both families."
I agreed to drive the 45 miles to El Paso to follow up the classified ad that she was sure connected her family to this order of Marbas.
Amelia leaned against me briefly, "You know when
we talked about possibilities of the occult world and the hidden cults
that are all around us? Well, I should have told you more about my life.
We can talk in the car."
As we drove south on Interstate 10 toward the border city, Amelia told me what she knew of this order of Marbas. As she talked, she tore chunks from a piece of tissue and rolled each chunk into a little ball that she threw out the window, one by one. "You read books, but I learned these things from my grandfather. When I was only 12, we sat in our tiny kitchen in south El Paso and my grandfather read from an old book. Some of the words were strange, not Spanish, English or Latin, but I remember that he read from right to left. He described horrible things, but his face lit up, and he grinned as though each word was a delicacy to be savored."
I reached out and stilled her hands for a moment. "You don't like him much."
Amelia bit her lip and mumbled an assent. "But, I had-I have-no choice. My parents fear him and the order that has been part of our family history."
"Is Marbas some kind of street gang?"
Her laugh was stifled, almost helpless. "My grandfather was at the apartment last night, talking about the time being close and I could hear my mother crying in the bedroom. Then then he came into the kitchen with a bottle in his hand; his beard was sticky with tequila that had dripped from his mouth. He started touching me " She stopped, visibly ashamed that I should know the ugliness in her life that she camouflaged with perfect nails, and fashionable dress.
Fascination and revulsion wove a net of curiosity about me. "Maybe I should talk with your grandfather, and "
"No!" Amelia's voice was terror-stricken. "My grandfather is a powerful man. Even though he is never seen out of doors, he controls many people in south El Paso. I've always known something was wrong with him, some kind of evil sickness. His face, his legs and arms " She shuddered and gripped my hand with her own.
We had reached the outskirts of the city once known as Paso del Norte, and as we drove past the smokestack of the abandoned Asarco copper smelter I saw that division of worlds that never failed to make me thankful for where I was born. To the left of the Interstate was El Paso, with its modern infrastructure, broad ribbon of Interstate highway and prosperous homes and businesses. To the right was the channel of the Rio Grande and the sprawl of Ciudad Juarez in a pall of smoke and dust beyond the river. The rude adobe homes were crowded along dirt streets, only some of which had electricity lines. The city has no sewage treatment, but its 2 million inhabitants press ever closer to that riverbank separating them from the bounty of America. Here, the third world was just a short walk across the bridge on Santa Fe Street in south El Paso.
"My grandfather said it comes time to make me part of the order, and I only know there's a terrible evil connected with it, something the Church would forbid."
"Well, why doesn't macho vato protect you?" She was used to my sour grapes sarcasm.
"Because Tony works for my grandfather, and I'm somehow part of the payment. That offends your sense of righteousness doesn't it? Her eyes looked almost oriental in the afternoon light, but her gaze was intense. She told me that her grandfather's current wife was 38 years old, while Amelia herself had just turned 24 on October 12th.
I just nodded. It is not safe to park a car on the street in south El Paso and so we picked a public lot near the Santa Fe Street bridge to Juarez and walked three blocks to the address on S. Ochoa.
We walked together on crowded sidewalks where English was seldom spoken, effectively re-annexed by illegal Mexican immigrants many years before. Amelia's heels clicked on the concrete and the late afternoon sun was adding warm tones to the naturally sun-tinted faces of the natives. The older buildings in this oldest part of El Paso were constructed of red brick, and the address on Ochoa was a classic storefront from the 1930s with a large front windows and a full glass frame door. Sometime since the 1960s, protective black iron grillwork had gone up over the glass in these store windows to protect against vandals and burglars. The place appeared to be abandoned, but I tried the knob and the door opened noisily.
The storefront was indeed empty, the floor covered with dust save a track leading to a closed door to the rear. My vivid imagination conjured any number of horrible surprises waiting, but I knocked just the same and received a guttural "Vengese" command to enter. When we went through the door, we found this back room to be just as unkempt as the front. Only an old oak desk and straightback chair sat in the center of the room. Behind the desk sat a Hispanic man with long black hair that should have been tied in a ponytail. His feral eyes were too large for his head, and his mouth was puckered, revealing unusually sharp-looking teeth. Sitting before him was a bowl of stewed beef and green chile, a rolled flour tortilla was in his hand. The pleasant aroma of the food masked the stale, dusty smell of the vacant building.
With a brief glance at me, Amelia showed the man the ad and asked in English, "The Order will it will we meet here?"
As he answered her, he grinned with all his protuberant teeth and scribbled on a photocopied flyer. He looked at me directly, "I never see you before." It was then I noticed the length of the man's fingers and nails so long that they had started to curl. He seemed to be scrutinizing my arms and face.
Amelia tossed her head toward me and charmed him, "He's a friend of my father's."
The feral man handed her the sheet of paper while I wondered just how secret an order like this could really be. It would seem commonplace if it weren't for Amelia's discomfort. The date and time of the "meeting" were the most prominent words on the page. Obviously all of El Paso could find out about this secret meeting. This could hardly be more dangerous or secret than an underground rave party for adolescent drinking and drug use. I couldn't understand Amelia's fear.
We left the empty storefront and paused next door where a neighborhood store attended to dozens of customers. Behind the grimy windows were stacks of canned jalapeños and other imported Mexican products. From the ceiling traditional Mexican piñatas were hanging. We didn't plan to enter the store, but I saw something peculiar and I urged Amelia to take me inside.
In a rack near the cash register were a series of dog-eared paperback books, but not the Spanish language novels I would have expected. These were nothing but a collection of grimoires, mostly in Spanish, but some with covers in a mixture of Hebrew and Latin. I recognized The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, and the famous Albertus Magnus, and the Goetia or Lesser Key of Solomon, all of which I knew contained medieval spells for everything from gaining health and money, to transformations of all kinds. In one corner of the rack were several 8 1/2 x 11 stapled booklets, slightly yellowed, and which appeared to be old mimeographs. Hand-lettered on the cover sheet were the words Livro Marbas and a seal consisting of two circles with the letters MARBAS encircling a stylized tripod with tiny circles appended to the top and serving as feet for the three legs while with two stylized Maltese crosses angled at 11 o'clock and 2 o'clock connected to the outer legs of the tripods. I took one of the booklets to the cash register and paid close to $15.00 for a booklet that could not have comprised more than 16 pages. Given the date of the ceremony and its relationship to All Soul's Day and the Mexican Day of the Dead, I was beginning to think that Amelia was creating something frightening out of a large Halloween party of some kind.
On our drive back to Las Cruces for a late afternoon research methods class, Amelia told me more about her grandfather. He claimed to have come from Chihuahua 80 years ago, walked across the Rio Grande into El Paso and subsequently had become rich bootlegging in the prohibition era and smuggling aliens and drugs in more recent times. The legend of his wealth was whispered by Mexican-Americans everywhere on the border. It was peculiar that he claimed such great age and that he seldom came out of doors, particularly in daylight.
As she talked about her grandfather, with obvious disgust, she described him as almost goatish in appetite while he had abnormal amounts of body hair, particularly on his arms and legs. On the rare occasions that he walked the littered streets of South El Paso, he wore baggy pants whose cuffs dragged the sidewalks, and the sleeves of his shirts extended over his hands. He always wore a broad-brimmed black felt cowboy hat pulled down over his face, and he was always attended by at least three men who looked like the feral clerk in the abandoned store we had just left.
Back at the campus we were walking toward the class building when I spotted a large dog walking parallel to us behind a hedge that bordered the parking lot. When Amelia saw it, she gripped my arm and her dark eyes widened with panic. The dog, screened by the foliage, suddenly broke into a run, disappearing. I did not understand why Amelia was so distraught.
The class ran from 5 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. and the discussion
on statistical analysis of experimental data was prefaced by the professor's
favorite subject of how experimental science had effectively eliminated
superstition and his particular anathema of magic, something all scientists
seem to irrationally hate. After class I walked Amelia to her car in the
mild evening darkness. She said, "He's wrong, you know."
"Well, you have to admit that science has been pretty good for civilization."
She fumbled in her purse for the massive set of keys she always carried with her. "Isn't it obvious to you? There's nothing more powerful than belief. People believe in science and they seek chemical and surgical cures for disease when most doctors admit that they don't understand what actually causes healing."
"I'll give you that, but "
Amelia cut me off, "No, look at the hundred million fanatic Muslims who are willing to blow themselves up for their religion. Is there anything more powerful than that belief? People believe in alcohol, in money, and those things become their salvation. Where people believe in magic, it works."
I didn't argue with her as I had read books from Rudyard Kipling's era that had convinced me of the power of the fakir and how belief had an almost physical effect upon an individual and his appearance, susceptibility to pain and so forth.
"Anyhow, thank you for being willing to help. I know it won't be easy, but you're the only person I can depend on. I promise to meet you at the address on that paper."
I nodded, knowing I would be there on Thursday night
for the strange ceremony of Marbas, whatever it was.
Amelia opened the car door, then turned quickly and
her lips were gently on mine, tasting of warm, rich fruit. When she drove
off, I was still standing there in the night, feeling better than I'd
felt for a very long time.
I spent some time that night trying to read the mimeographed booklet, but my Spanish is poor, and all I could determine was that the cult was promising transformations and experiences offered nowhere else. There were tantalizing references to Cortez and Juan de Oñate, and a rudimentary drawing of the building in El Paso that was the home of the Order. At the end of the booklet was the name of the author, none other than Fernando Vallez, Amelia's grandfather.
The next day in the office Amelia was different, and I noticed a slight bruise on her cheek that makeup was unable to hide. I wondered if her low-grade boyfriend Tony Hinzo had suspected something between us.
"Maybe I over-reacted to all this. I don't think you should go down there tomorrow night." Amelia had a maddening way of not quite looking at me when she was lying.
"Look, I'm in this for whatever happens. This has got to be something like a gang initiation. It'll be all over by Friday morning, and you'll be safe."
Suddenly she exploded, "I thought you had a little more knowledge than that. Three hundred years ago, people believed in witchcraft-even in the United States-and some things happened to people that cannot be explained. It's even documented in court records. You saw all those books in that store. What if there are thousands of people in El Paso and south of the border who still believe in things modern science doesn't accept? They don't live in the world you know, but I grew up in their world. Terrible things happen down there."
"Hey, I believe enough to think you could be in
danger, even if I don't believe in the nonsense in those old grimoires."
My defense was only half-hearted. I wanted Amelia to look at me as she
had the night before.
"You said your grandfather knows something about those murders."
"What you should realize is that many of those killings are not simple murders. After our walk yesterday, you must know that south El Paso is like a sponge, soaking the poison of Mexico and Central America into its belly where it grows-never acknowledged, never reported. There's something else I haven't told you too."
I grimaced. "If you're pregnant, I don't really want to know."
"What if it's worse than that?" She wasn't smiling.
"Well, that would be pretty bad from my point of view."
"Believe me there are worse things. You know I told you about my grandfather being 119 years old, and his wife being 38. I didn't tell you the whole truth. The woman is my mother-she was 15 when she had me. And he is not my grandfather. Fernando Vallez is my father. He says that Marbas kept him from dying when his time came."
I was silent for a moment, doing the math. I wanted her to be deluded, but she was one of the smartest women I had met. Suddenly I knew she was telling the truth, even if she exaggerated the old man's age. "So you're really saying that the Order of Marbas is a one of those "
"You don't have to use the words. It is only in the last 50 years that the words have become ridiculed in this country. The bruja has not lost authority south of the border any more than has the curandera."
"But, Amelia, why you? It doesn't make any sense."
"It's just a matter of payment. In Mexico it is much easier to have your wishes taken care of by an expert than go through courtship. You see, Tony has performed some service for the man I call my grandfather, and the Grand Order of Marbas seeks to repay him. I am intended as the payment."
I realized that I still did not understand the Order of Marbas, but I realized that I was inextricably caught up in its web until the meeting of tomorrow night. "So the day is important to their purpose?"
Amelia talked to me as though I were a child. "All the foolish occasions and stories we play with today were once very serious things. This is the time when the ceremonies must be held. I think we would be terribly afraid if we knew how many still worship old gods and even worse things on that night."
"And what is Marbas?"
"He is one of the evil spirits from Goetia, one of those who should be evoked only from within a magic circle, but his disciples in the Order have no circle so they don't rule Marbas-Marbas rules them, and he transforms them."
It sounded to me like the old story of intimidation where the ignorant were exploited by unscrupulous men of more cunning and showmanship than they.
Amelia shuddered, a pained expression on her face as though she were remembering something; she plainly thought I was ingorant of the situation. Yet I knew the power of violence and threat, and though I wouldn't tell her, I planned to bring the business to the attention of the El Paso Police Department so they could deal with the situation of October 31 as they saw fit-if only they saw fit.
She stood and went to the window, looking out at the campus. Suddenly I heard her gasp. I bolted upright and went to the window just in time to see that same dog from the day before going around the side of the building out of sight. I didn't understand her fear of dogs, but I was more and more sure that her grandfather was hip deep in some criminal enterprise. Was it murder, smuggling, white slavery? It was my turn to shudder as I realized the commitment I had made for the next day.
Amelia said I could follow her down to El Paso the next afternoon, but I still spent a night of unsettled desire combined with a greater uncertainty than I could ever remember.
October 31st was sunny in the Southwest, but by 4:30
I realized that Amelia wasn't going to show up on campus. I was worried,
and I didn't relish venturing into that part of El Paso without her. Anybody
who lived in the region knew that you didn't go into south El Paso after
dark. Yet, I had made her a promise and I was foolish enough to redeem
At the downtown police station, I explained to a detective what I had heard about Fernando Vallez and his reputed connection to the Juarez killings. I explained the meeting that was coming up after dark, but the man in the suit told me they knew all about those strange meetings and that there was little they could do about them. As I went out the door, he warned me not to go into south El Paso alone.
The late afternoon sun was hazy and reddish as it sank toward the edge of the sky. I parked my car in the lighted 24-hour public lot at the Santa Fe Street bridge. Even though it was not cold, I was wearing a sweatshirt with a hood that I could use to hide my anglo face if need be. I then set out through the heart of south El Paso for the address on the flyer.
Almost immediately my imagination began to badger me. Pacing me, across the street was a large, ugly dog I could swear was the one that had frightened Amelia on campus. Its half-open jaws were drooling and it snarled at me. Two Mexicans saw the animal too. They crossed themselves and hastened across the street in my direction. Then the dog slunk into an alley as I walked on.
As the sun set, a cool breeze arose, blowing the smell of Mexico across the riverbed toward El Paso. There was a foulness in the smell that was redolent of raw sewage, wood smoke, and other indescribable industrial emissions. The breeze turned chill, and I pulled the hood up over my head, stuffing my hands into the slits in the front of the sweatshirt. Clouds had come up on the horizon, and the long shadows swiftly faded to the dimness of twilight.
I had expected the evening streets to be empty, but there were people everywhere. Children in brightly colored costumes and masks ran past me or into the streets as they looked for homes and apartments whose residents might be home.
Amelia had said that south El Paso was a sponge sucking up the poison of a hemisphere, and I could sense the surge of human flotsam that came across the Rio Grande wherever the fence could be climbed or ripped open, and then these shadowy figures filtered into the part of El Paso that Juarez embraced like a wanton prostitute.
In a narrow recess between building walls I saw a toothless old woman in a shapeless black dress trying to entice a giant alley cat to come to her; she proffered a dirty piece of raw meat and I could swear that her words were Latin, not Spanish. I quickened my pace.
The crowd moved aimlessly and a heavily bearded man passed me with coat drawn tightly about him, hat down over his face, shadowing all but his eerily bright eyes; perhaps it was the distorted camera of my imagination, but I felt that his entire face was bristling with hair.
Dirty yellow lights began to appear in windows, and I was certain that some of them were from kerosene lamps rather than electric bulbs. Two other men going in the same direction as I walked jostled me as they shuffled past, grunting. I did not speak. I wondered where Amelia was.
In the gathering dusk I saw the building I was seeking. It was a large two-story house with a two-acre park across the street from it, a park in name only because the dirt was beaten down in it, and the several trees at its perimeter were obviously gnarled and dead. Milling in the open park were seven members of a youth gang in baggy clothing, smoking marijuana and throwing empty Bud Light cans as they postured with their shaved heads and their hands flashing gang signs. These spiritual descendants of the old pachuco gangs had come as far as they would go, and they were as dead as the trees that surrounded them.
The crowd milled around the Victorian style house of red brick with a high porch and broad concrete steps leading to ostentatious mansion columns whose white paint mostly flaked off, but which stood like sentries in the dusk. No lights could be seen except for a dim bulb behind the orange stained glass in the fanlight above the front door.
At least a dozen men were lounging on the steps of the house, smoking and drinking. A group of four was hunched around a guitar player on the sidewalk, and they were singing Tex-Mex ballads. The restlessness of the people on the street was disturbing, and I watched the front of the house to see if anyone entered or left. Even as darkness inexorably grew, the glow from Juarez only a few hundred yards away outlined the tall, ugly border fence along the riverbed that formed only a temporary barrier to the polyglot invaders who were trying to enter the United States by any means possible. The smell and the squalor were sickening.
I walked on down the street, waiting for full dark to make my entrance to the house. It was no surprise to me that the police would only pass by this area in patrol cars with windows closed and doors locked. Parked automobiles scattered along the street were dead animals squatting at the curbs. I saw one or two coated figures enter the house of Marbas, and now I had to have the courage to walk past the loiterers and fulfill my promise.
The impromptu mariachi group paid no attention as I passed and walked toward the steps of the house. The yard was peopled with Halloween revelers, drinking and smoking, sometimes howling their approval. For all practical purposes this was Mexico.
Again, nobody paid attention to me, and I was ignored as I walked among them. Once I reached the concrete porch in the dim orange glow of the fanlight, I could see that the windows of the house were broken out and the rooms beyond were caked with dirt and detritus. The doorframe had once been painted white but was now gray with age. On the lintel above the door was a legend, partially effaced, in block letters painted long ago. I tried to read it as I shivered from the increasing chill in the stiffening breeze:
ARS OETIA ET THEUR IS MARB S.
The front door itself had once been hand-carved oak with inlaid woods. Neglect and weathering had done their work, stripping the original finish and leaving the wood to warp and crack, the fine grain turned dirty gray. Most unsettling to me was deep vertical gouges from chest high to the bottom of the door that looked like many years of animal scratches, some of which seemed very recent.
The aged door had no knob or latch, but there seemed no need. The throng of indigent drunks in the yard and on the steps stayed curiously away from the porch and the front door. I pushed the door open and entered the house.
By the light of the single dim bulb I could see two large rooms to the left and right of a hallway; both were exposed to the elements and the floors were inches deep in dust as were the heaped remains of what had been furniture. There was enough light to see the tracks in the hallway leading to another door. It opened soundlessly on oiled hinges. The blood was pounding in my head from the fear that now gripped me. I could not help but think of those 320 women whose brutal murders in Juarez had never been solved.
The moment I opened that cellar door, I was overwhelmed with fumes and nameless odors coming from somewhere below. There was no cellar. There was instead a ramp of packed earth that sloped downward into a cavelike tunnel. A kerosene lamp provided the only light. It was set into a niche in the wall that was roughly paved with cement while crude timbers shored up the roof. It could well be one of those border tunnels used to smuggle illegal drugs and aliens under the Rio Grande from Juarez to El Paso. Yet I knew it was something else.
As I walked downward, I was comforted
by something else I brought with me, the .45 automatic in my waistband,
something that El Paso city ordinances frowned upon. It was the only help
In the dimness of that charnel repository I saw above the niche with the lamp more letters painted on the crude concrete plaster, following the tunnel downward:
The words trailed downward into the descending tunnel leading to a bend 20 feet farther down. I did not know what the words meant, but I felt their hideous implication. My fear was as much for Amelia as for myself. I stumbled on one of the fang-shaped ribs attached to a decayed form that sent up a puff of noisome dust. The smell of decay was now muted by a fog of smoke that smelled of cloves, marijuana, and other sickly sweet incense. A dull cacophony of sound was coming from below. What I sought was around the corner in the tunnel.
The nightmare came to life as I edged around the corner. Suddenly I was inside a cavernous opening whose ceiling was obscured by billowing smoke from censers. I could not tell the extent of the underground room, but my terror distorted the evidence of my senses.
The enclosure was glowing a reddish-orange with vague shapes gesticulating in the bluish fog of incense smoke. My head was spinning from the contact high of the cannabis in the incense bowls. I know I saw them though.
They were either not fully human or they were hideously changed. Animal noises exploded from distorted mouths as they jostled in their nakedness, cloaked only by the smoky air, clothing trampled under the drumming of filthy naked feet.
In the swirling currents of smoke I saw him for the first time, standing on a raised dais, holding some kind of engraved sword in his hand. Behind him was a glowing torchiere lamp, and he was droning a ritual invocation that caused the throng packed into the cavern to respond to the peaks of his conjuration. Two bearded men, still relatively human, made cringing bestial obeisance to the altar as the sword gestured, creating currents in the smoke.
The thing on the dais had to be Fernando
Vallez, but the power of lifelong belief had wreaked a horrific change
in him. The voice was a withered, crackled thing of old secrets that rushed
from a sharp-toothed mouth. The ancient head was elongated, the jaw prognathus.
The crooked body was emaciated and covered with irregular patches of coarse
gray hair. It required both of his spindly arms to hold the sword he gestured
with; those arms were twisted and hairy, the fingernails dark and curling
in their unnatural length.
It was the legs that most astounded me in my revulsion. In the chaos of that ceremony I could swear that the knees were backward as in the canine, the haunches padded with a thick fur. He spoke phrases in Spanish and then read a conjuration composed of English and Latin, "In the name Beralensis, Baldachiensis, Paumachi, and Apologiae Sedes-of the mighty ones who govern spirits, Liachidae and ministers of the house of transformation "
Despite the dizziness, I could better see the cavern now, despite the coils of smoke boiling from the open braziers. A back wall was damp and nitre-covered so the cavern must have been somehow below the bed of the river dividing two countries.
And there was something else, another tunnel opposite to the one I had entered by. Perhaps it led to some nameless field in Juarez, maybe even where the bodies of hundreds of murdered women were found.
]The rapt congregation moved rhythmically as though one unnatural body. I understood none of it. There seemed no purpose, no reason for this abomination. Then, in the smoky currents I saw Amelia, clothes disheveled, eyes half-closed sitting behind that creature she called father and grandfather.
The conjurations grew in crescendo, and I knew my perception was being warped by the drugs, the noise, and the words of the magical imprecations.
I know I saw it, what must have been it. It was only a grotesque face forming and changing in the clouds of smoke from the incense, but I knew that I was looking into the bestial face of Marbas, who can change men into other forms, that demon of lycanthropy.
My restraint was gone in the frenzy of fear and loathing. Almost without conscious direction, I leapt onto the raised platform and even above the overpowering smell of the incense I could smell the foulness of that animal-man, the fur-covered legs caked with his own excrement. Amelia seemed to recognize me dimly, but my first motion was toward the infernal magus.
In one lunge, I yelled and wrested the ancient sword from his hands; its blade was dark from age, blood, and nameless infamies. Without a further thought I plunged it through the chest of the thing that had wielded it, then I grabbed Amelia's hand and yanked her to her feet.
Fernando Vallez fell from the platform into the congregation, and there was a sudden silence. In my altered state I could see creatures in the smoke, but all my will was trained on reaching the tunnel mouth from whence I had come.
Amelia stumbled, but my grip on her hand
was firm as we pushed past the confused semi-human creatures in the cavern.
As we reached the opening, one of the congregation blocked our escape,
uttering a desperate howl that was picked up and echoed by the dozens
who milled around in the smoke.
It was a simple motion. I drew the .45 and fired at him from five feet away. The thunder of the weapon discharging and the sight of the bullet striking the middle of his face immobilized the things in the cavern. The hollowpoint round made a large hole above his upper lip and sprayed the grayish-pink of his brains, and the back of his skull onto the wall of the cavern.
Now overcome with panic, I pulled Amelia
up the tunnel path that seemed impossibly long now. From the sound of
the howling below I did not have to guess that the things were just behind.
Then we were up through the cellar door and through the dirty hallway
to the front door. As we emerged into the chill wind of the Halloween
night, we saw the loiterers and drunks scattering, disappearing into the
As Amelia and I stumbled three blocks
toward the safety of my car, I realized that the El Paso Police Department
had answered the call after all, not with a patrol car, but with a team
of men wearing Kevlar helmets and camouflage fatigues. Even a block away
I could hear the sound of automatic weapons and frightened shouting.
When Amelia came back to normal consciousness,
I asked if she wanted to go home with me, but she wanted only to go to
her own place, an apartment in northwest El Paso. She had other family
there, so I didn't ask to stay with her. Then too, I was still disoriented
and reeking with the stench from the cavern. I was certain that I would
see her the next day. Whatever happened, I knew she would never have to
make the awful payment she hinted at.
The next morning a Channel 7 morning news
anchor reported an underground explosion somewhere in south El Paso the
night before but that, according to police, it was merely an army operation
at Fort Bliss detonating some outdated munitions. One south El Paso resident
was interviewed saying that she thought it was some Halloween prank, while
another video clip was from a storeowner who said he thought it felt like
a minor earthquake.
Yet I knew that the men in camouflage
who had come in the night had set charges in that hellish tunnel, collapsing
it along with the mouldering house and the changelings trapped underground,
unless they escaped through the south branch of the corridor that led
back to Mexico.
Despite my fond expectations, Amelia did not come to campus on Friday, nor on the following Monday. Tuesday I found a letter from her on my desk. I'll not forget the words of her brief note: "You gave me back my life, and my heart will be with you always. I have decided after all to leave the university and to marry Tony Hinzo. He truly needs me, and the needs of family overrule the wishes of the heart. Please be happy."
Life goes on, and it was a long time before
I appreciated the advice of my mother who told me that you don't just
marry the girl-you also marry her family.
And today El Paso is still a sponge on
the border soaking up the poison of the hemisphere, bringing vileness
beyond description across in the night and under the ground, with diseases
and practices ancient and loathsome beyond description. I for one will
never again question the power of belief, for I know that belief is stronger
than reason, for good or evil. Then there is the witness of my senses,
first in a deep desert night years ago when I saw wolf-like creatures
cavorting in the light of a dying fire; then that night in south El Paso,
my vision distorted by noxious fumes beneath tainted earth, when I saw
a dead sorcerer with a sword through his chest reverting to pure canine
form before my eyes.
Even now, despite my affection for animals, I am very careful when I drive at night in the desert, and I shoot without hesitation any large dog I see skulking around my property. For I opened the El Paso Times just the other day, and I saw a classified advertisement in the personals section: