THE GRAND ORDER OF MARBAS
Frank Thayer ©2016
All Rights Reserved
"What makes us good or evil is a decision of the soul,
not an accident of circumstance."
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 office door, just as she had done the first time she had made veiled references to her family problems.
Circled boldly by her yellow felt-tip highlighter was a classified ad nestled in the personals section, between 900-number solicitations for phone sex and people seeking lost relatives. The classified ad itself was puzzling and vaguely sinister:
Esoteric Order of Marbas—Magnes potestas venient. Oct. 31. Instructions 1890 E. Ochoa. Muchos son los llamados. Many hear the call.
"So, what has this got to do with you saying the other day you might have to leave school?" In those years of the early 1990s, before I found a teaching position at the university, Amelia and I shared a communal office with three other master's degree students. She and I had become 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 the waves of her luxuriant dark hair.
Maybe she was right. The muted sound of
my small digital clock/desk radio carried monotone news of another
woman's body found in a field south of Juárez, Mexico, just
across the border from El Paso. As of Oct. 24, 1991, the woman was
number 314 in that chronicle of victims killed and dumped over a
nine-year period, according to the newscaster. The story was
familiar, and I dug out my copy of the Times from last week’s
stack. With a rustle of pages, I found the Borderland Section and
spread the newspaper page in front of me, displaying the two-column
story beneath the photo of a garbage dump being searched by uniformed Federales
Three more slain women found in a Juárez field Sunday afternoon
by Jorgé Sifuentes
JUAREZ—Three young women were found murdered in a field south of this border city Sunday afternoon, bringing the total to 311 since the early 1980s.
Federal Police said that investigation was ongoing, but that no evidence had surfaced to link the deaths to the drug cartels or to possible serial killers.
police source said that the killings were the
work of a “misterioso psicópata.” The idea of a crazed serial killer has spread fear throughout the city and leaking across and into the Borderland.
Authorities are quick to quash some rumors of satanic cults, and say that no evidence found at the body site show an signs of ritual abuse. The same officials decline to describe how the victims died or in what condition the bodies were found.
(see “Women” 3-B)
The story, though chilling, had become familiar to residents of southern New Mexico and West Texas. As a New Mexico native, I had grown up Anglo in a strongly Hispanic environment and was well aware of their unique and inflexible family systems. I knew her family would prefer that Amelia be married and raising a large family rather than pursuing higher education. As I folded the newspaper again, I considered the classified ad and tried to reconcile it with the story of the murders across the border. "I still think it's just a story like shape shifting and skinwalking in the Indian tradition. Nobody ever proved that either." It was not the first time Amelia had mentioned the superstitions of South El Paso.
Amelia smiled dismissively. "My grandfather is 119 years old, and I think he knows what's happening to those women down there. How do you explain that?"
I tried not to chuckle in disbelief at that number 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 could really use 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 stood at the bank of tall, steel-framed windows, looking out toward the bright southern New Mexico sunshine blanketing the campus. "You know I told you 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— not just academic stuff, and you know strange things can happen."
I shrugged and got up from old swivel chair with its ripped leather seat, walking over to her but without touching. Silently we both looked out at the campus basking in the warm October day. Students ambled in t-shirts; girls were uniformly dressed in shorts and flip-flop sandals. I was thinking, however, about a terrifying night experience in the desert that haunted me. While I had an urge to reveal it to Amelia, I held back and stood, thinking.
It was the midsummer of 1989, and I was taking one of the long, late-night desert drives I loved so much. As an amateur naturalist, I spent as much time as possible in solitary after-dark searches to study those desert creatures that hid during the blistering heat of day.
It was after 10 p.m. as my light blue 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit rolled slowly down one of the hundreds of miles of dirt roads crisscrossing the arid plains. Away from the light pollution of Las Cruces, the sky was deep and black, the stars diamond bright. With the windows down, I peered fixedly at the pool of light thrown by my headlights, hoping to see a western diamondback rattlesnake or perhaps a tarantula crossing in front of me. My camera was on the passenger seat beside me. I had just passed a metal sign post painted with a fading “D23” labeling one of the county’s maintained dirt roads. The sign was recent enough that there was only one bullet hole damaging it.
So intent was my concentration on the road 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 bonfire flaring and shimmering reddish-orange in the dark. It seemed strange to see such a large fire when the temperature was still over 80 degrees at 9:30 mountain daylight time. I had no fear of whom I might encounter because I always carried my .45 automatic when I was out in the desert.
I was passing what appeared to be an impromptu campsite. Roaring flames illuminated the stark landscape of ghostly mesquite and creosote bushes. Five men were standing around the fire, moving slowly in a circle, arms lifting, oblivious to my passage. They were unshaven and shirtless, their hair shaggy and tousled. The ground around the fire was littered with beer cans, and even from 30 feet away I could smell cloying marijuana smoke. I thought perhaps they were singing in low voices, but then I was beyond them, back into the darkness. I had not seen a vehicle, but 20 miles from town, there must have been one hidden in the brush, unless perhaps they were illegal aliens who had walked the 45 miles of desert from the porous southern border.
A half-hour later, I found the county road too rutted for me to pass. Summer rains had cut through the track, leaving an unrepaired gash that was not passible except to a 4-wheel drive vehicle. I turned around and began my return. Suddenly a coyote sprinted across the road just in front of the headlights, a gray-brown flash with glowing eyes. It was gone, but the unexpected encounter sent a wave of alertness through me.
Ahead I could again see the glow of the fire I had encountered while I was outward bound. I slowed as I approached. The blaze had diminished, now more reddish than orange. The litter of beer containers was scattered on the trampled sand, and the men I had seen were no longer visible. I slowed to a cautious crawl, aware of the wavering shadows cast by the desert brush and cacti.
I flicked my eyes back to the road and slammed on the brakes. In the glare of the headlights was an animal almost as high as the car hood—it couldn't have been a Mexican gray wolf this far north—in the center of the road, its lupine head turned toward me, jaws open in a snarl, eyes luminous, shoulders hunched and bristling, confronting me rather than running for the dark. At the campsite to the left of the car, I was sure I glimpsed two or three other large creatures loping through the mesquite beyond the fire. The engine stalled! I looked down as I twisted the ignition key, and the reliable VW 4-cylinder motor caught immediately.
When I looked through the windshield again, the wolfish animal that had stood in my path was gone, and there were only the pale headlights lancing into the dark, the dying fire, and the sharp fragrance of burning mesquite coming through my open windows in wisps of dirty smoke.
Why then did I panic? To this day I don't know, but I rolled up the windows as I shifted into low and stabbed the accelerator pedal, filled with a nameless dread whose spectre looms whenever memories of that night are recalled. Those shadowy animal shapes in the darkness, that abandoned campfire, the vanished human figures, were still with me now as I stood beside Amelia at the window.
She interrupted my unintended reverie, "Will you at least go to El Paso with me to find more about this? I have this feeling 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.
She pursed her lips, trying not to smile, and slapped me on the shoulder. "Oh, stop it! Seriously, 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 has a lot of power with both families."
Of course I agreed to drive the 45 miles down to El Paso with her the next day to follow up the classified ad that she was sure connected her family to the vaguely sinister Marbas.
Amelia leaned against me briefly, "You know when you were talking about possibilities of the occult world and the hidden cults that could be all around us? Well, right then I should have told you more about my life. We can talk more tomorrow." We then went back to our work as teaching assistants, work that occupied us from Mondays through Thursdays. Fridays offered relief, aside from the usual graduate assistants meeting that had thankfully been canceled this week.
The next day, we rendezvoused on campus and got into my car for a drive down Interstate 10 toward the border city. Amelia began to tell me for the first time what she knew of this order of Marbas and why she was so anxiety filled. The landscape of desert with boundaries of jutting hills lay around us, with the Rio Grande valley to the right and the memorable craggy peaks of the Organ Mountains to the left. The warmth of a New Mexico October day was pleasant and sun-soaked. An overpowering manure smell closed in on the car as we passed the dairy farms to the west next to the highway, and I wished my 1984 car had been equipped with air conditioning
As she talked, Amelia tore chunks from a piece of tissue and rolled each chunk into a tiny ball that she threw out the window, one by one. "You read books, but I learned awful things from my grandfather. When I was only 12, we sat in our tiny kitchen in south El Paso and my grandfather read out loud 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 roll around on his tongue."
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." She was quiet for a moment, moving her hips softly in the bucket seat of the car as she tried unsuccessfully to get comfortable, her thoughts causing her to squint.
She rolled another tissue ball, and she twisted in the seat. “You don’t like it, but you know that reality isn’t just physical…”
I laughed as I interrupted her, “Yeah, I think I read all the Carlos Casteneda’s books back in the ‘70s. I think it was the mushrooms that made him so wordy. Ah, the brujas…”
Amelia socked me on the bicep, smiling for the first time on the trip. “My grandmother could tell you something about brujas! She never told second-hand stories, but more than once she told me about being young in Vera Cruz and going with a friend to the plaza there on certain nights when the witches gathered to dance and cast spells. The people there feared them, and she says they are still there.”
“Were they good looking.”
“You’re impossible.” She shook her head trying not to laugh. “Something else my grandmother told me about shape shifters—this is too strange to be a lie. She had a friend when she was about 12, and one day they were arguing whether people could change into animals. My grandmother told her friend it was impossible. The friend stared at her and said, ‘turn around, querida,’ which mi abuela did. In a few seconds she heard the sound of a turkey gobbling—don’t laugh—and she turned around to see a large bird standing before her, its feathers fanning out. As she told me, her eyes were wide and frightened, even decades later. She ran away and never spoke to her friend again.”
I listened, staring straight ahead at the traffic flowing sporadically around me. Amelia was speaking from her heart, I knew. The soft hum of the engine seemed louder.
After a few seconds, I broke the silence. "Is Marbas some kind of street gang like the South Side Locos?"
Her laugh was stifled, almost helpless, and I could sense tears being held back. "My grandfather was at the apartment last night, talking about the time being ‘close’—cerca— 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 and lime juice that had dripped from his mouth. The corners of his mouth were all crusted with salt. He started touching me…" She stopped, visibly ashamed that I should know an ugliness in her life that she camouflaged with perfect nails, elegant makeup and fashionable dress. She turned her head to look out the window, avoiding my glances.
Fascination and revulsion wove a net of curiosity about me. "Maybe I should talk with your grandfather, and…"
"No!" Amelia's voice sudden and almost terror-stricken. "My grandfather is a powerful man. Even though nobody hardly sees him 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 suddenly gripped my hand.
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, wrapped around the Franklin Mountains, 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 Juárez in a haze of smoke and dust beyond the riverbed. Mostly rude adobe homes were crowded along dirt streets and slopes, only some of which had electricity lines. Most of the city had no sewage treatment, but its two million inhabitants pressed 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 something very bad 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 has done many things for my grandfather, and I'm given to Tony. That offends your sense of righteousness doesn't it?” Her eyes looked almost oriental in the afternoon light, her gaze intense. She told me that her grandfather's current wife was 38 years old, while Amelia herself had just turned 24 on Oct. 12.
I just nodded. It is not a good idea to park a car on the street in south El Paso, so we picked a commercial lot near the Santa Fe Street bridge to Juárez and walked three blocks to the address on E. Ochoa. Amelia never told me where her family lived, though I knew she had an apartment of her own somewhere in the northwest section of the city.
We walked together on sidewalks where English was seldom spoken, effectively re-annexed by Mexican immigrants, legal and illegal, many years before. Amelia's heels clicked on the concrete, and the late afternoon sun painted the buildings sepia and added tint to the naturally tan 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 plate glass and a full length glass in the door whose white painted wood frame was flaking. Sometime since the 1960s, protective black iron grillwork had gone up over the glass in these store windows to protect against vandals and burglars. Discolored brass numerals were nailed above the door frame and read “1890.” The place appeared to be abandoned, but it was the number in the newspaper ad, so I tried the knob and the door opened noisily.
The store was indeed empty, the floor covered with dust save a track leading to another closed door at the rear. My vivid imagination conjured any number of horrible surprises waiting, but I knocked just the same and received a guttural "Venga" 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 straight back chair sat in the center of the room under aging and flickering fluorescent ceiling lights. Behind the desk sat a lone Hispanic 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 in his hand. A bottle of Carta Blanca Cerveza stood open beside the bowl, its colorful label the only life in the room. The pleasant aroma of the food masked the stale 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, Ese." 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 with her Libra smile, "He's a friend of my father's."
The feral man handed her a 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. And yet I wanted to get out of that arid and dirty enclosure as quickly as possible.
We left the empty storefront and paused next door where a neighborhood store attended to several 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 cheap paperback books, but not only the Spanish language novels I would have expected. Next to the current editions of El Fronterizo and El Diario newspapers were the books. Most of these were nothing but a collection of grimoires, mostly in Spanish, but some with covers in a mixture of Hebrew, Latin, and even one in English. I recognized The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, and the famous Albertus Magnus, and a poorly printed paperback of the Goetia. All of the books I recognized as containing medieval spells and nostrums for everything from gaining health and money, to curses and 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 concentric circles with the letters M.A.R.B.A.S. 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 Dia de los Muertos, I was beginning to think that Amelia was perhaps creating something frightening out of a large Halloween party of some kind. No, I was just hoping that was the sum of it. I planned to read the text or have Amelia translate parts of it for me.
On our drive back to Las Cruces where she planned to spend the late afternoon and evening in the university library working on her thesis, 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 brow, and he was attended by at least three men whom Amelia said looked the same as the feral clerk in the abandoned store we had just left. It was an uncomfortable mental image she sketched for me. All the while, the crude mimeographed booklet with its discolored fly-specked pale blue cover lay between the front seats, separating us, with the pages sometimes ruffling in the breeze that coursed through the open car window.
We spoke little on the return trip, and back at the campus I matched steps with her as we were walking toward the library when I spotted a large dog walking parallel to us on the other side of a hedge bordering the parking lot. When Amelia saw it, she gripped my arm and started, her dark eyes widening with panic. The skulking dog, screened by the foliage, suddenly broke into a run, disappearing. I did not understand why Amelia was distraught.
Shortly after I left Amelia at the library, I was walking back toward the parking lot when I heard my name being called, and I turned to see Bruce Dearing bearing down on me with his usual energy, a Nikon F4 hanging around his neck.
I greeted him, “So, how is it with the tenured elite?” Because I also was a decent photographer with my own darkroom, I admired the accomplishments of Dearing’s documentary work and photojournalistic successes. His restless hands and dancing eyes translated to credits in media across the state, and even occasionally in The New York Times. Some of his friends affectionately named him “the Great Brucini.”
Always up for a gripe session, Dearing raised his head as if to look down at me from under the rim of his glasses, “You sure you want to go into the servitude of the professor? I’m telling you that most of the people on that bus are bozos—probably including me.” His hair was slightly greying, but his energy was contagious as was his laugh.
“Yeah, I guess I’m a masochist at heart or at least I can’t get the kind of assignments you seem to get.” As I talked, we walked toward the parking lot, as he was no doubt ready for his own daily trip back to his downtown El Paso residence.
“Teaching is a blast, you know, but the rest of it usually sucks. I’m tired of driving 45 miles to get here and then driving back during rush hour on I-10.”
“Then why don’t you buy a house here in Las Cruces? Makes sense, doesn’t it.”
He shook his head and sneered amusingly, like the Chicago street kid he still was at heart. “I’ve been in that 2nd floor El Paso loft for almost 20 years. I hate to move, but…”
I stopped and looked at him, squinting in the powerful late afternoon sun. “But what?” Suddenly there was something I wanted to ask him.
Dearing scratched the back of his neck and wrinkled his brow, “Ah, I don’t know. The place has changed. There’s something…” Then he shook his head as though he had bitten into something distasteful.
“I was down there in your neck of the woods today—except there’s no woods in El Paso. There is something down there, and it’s bothering my friend Amelia…”
Dearing grinned and threw his head back, “Oh, that hot babe! How are you doing with her?”
“The score is zero, just like the last time you asked me, but she’s got some sort of superstition about South El Paso. Her family’s there.”
As we reached the parking area, Dearing looked at the sky, debating in his head, then back at me, and said, “Let me buy you a beer, and you can tell me the story. I know a few things.”
He drove west, up University Avenue to the bar of the Holiday Inn, where we ordered chips and salsa along with Tecate, a beer served with a slice of lime. The squeeze of lime juice was followed by a dash of salt that added foam to amber liquid in the tall glass. I told Dearing about the strange tale surrounding the Marbas notice and the feral store clerk, along with describing Amelia’s very real fear.
Dearing made a sweeping gesture with his hands and rolled his eyes. “That’s a new one on me. Jesus, you have no idea what goes on in that part of town. We’ve got the Santos worshippers, Penitentes, Brujas, Curanderas, even some practitioners of Santeria with their goats and chickens. Hell, I even met some crypto-Jewish Mexicans hiding out this side of the border. What you’re telling me is a new one, though.”
I took a deep breath, not wanting him to think I was one taco short of a combination plate, but told him what I had seen in the desert two years before.
He squinted his right eye and leaned back theatrically with one of those “You’re a loon” looks, then smiled and shook his head. “You’re behind the curve, Guy. You don’t know this, but when I first came out here from Chicago, I landed a job as photog at the Gallup Independent—you know, up there plop in the middle of Navajo territory.”
My nod was sufficient. I had barely touched my glass.
“They’re real, you know.”
It was my turn to screw up my face in disbelief, knowing what he was alluding to.
“You can believe me or not, but I’ve been out on the rez, and I’m telling you that they made me believe in skinwalkers. The people there are terrified when there is a walker out in the night, killing their sheep or taking one of their children. They say there’s no way during the day that they know who has the skinwalker power, but if you cross the wrong person, he or she just might shift into the body of a wolf, an owl, or something worse. They catch you after dark.” Dearing did his one-eye squint, daring me to rebut him.
I must have been smiling indulgently, because he leaned toward me. “Next week I’ll bring you a photo. The Independent didn’t use it with the story, but I was there when the reporter interviewed old Joe Begay inside his double wide out there. The skinwalker attacked him one night—hey, it really gets dark outside of Gallup, let me tell you—and he was lucky to survive. It happened two days before we did the story.”
“That’s pretty creepy. What else did the guy tell the reporter?” It seemed unthinkable, but Dearing had high credibility in the field, especially his photos in The New York Times.
“It could have been bullshit, but I looked into Joe Begay’s eyes while the reporter scribbled notes and knew he believed what he was saying. Not only does the skinwalker change into an animal at night, but he has the power to project his consciousness into animals at will to spy on his enemies or his victims.” Dearing cocked his head and stared at me to judge my reaction, but my mind was suddenly on stray dogs.
Of course I respected Dearing as a photographer, but he could have been taken in by a wild tale. We let it drop, but I wanted to see the photo anyway. Right now the weekend beckoned, and he did not seem to know anything specific about the strange group that was so disturbing to Amelia.
After a weekend of studying and writing, I was eager on Monday, more to see Amelia than to attend our experimental research methods class. The class ran from 5 p.m. until 7:30, 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 to magic, something all academic scientists seem to irrationally hate as the enemy of empiricism.
As I looked at Amelia in the chair next to me, I was not thinking about statistics, but wondering if what I had been told years before had to be true, that romance can never be stronger than culture. Are we always prisoners of our upbringing, or is it a choice we make from day to day? I watched as she crossed her legs, though I was sure she was not aware of my sidelong glance.
After class I was walking 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, the one with the whistle and university logo key tag. "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.
We were so busy talking that I didn’t hear Bruce Dearing gaining on us from behind. We both started when he said “Hi there!” in his enthusiastic tone. I returned the greeting and formally introduced him to Amelia.
Dearing held up a 7x9 manila envelope. “Maybe she’ll be interested in this photo too. Remember, I promised you. Let me know what you think.” With that, he strode off purposefully, headed for his own vehicle.
I could tell that Amelia was curious, and when we reached her Nissan 280 ZX, she opened the driver’s door and we leaned over together in range of the dome light. I pulled out a semi-gloss 5x7 color print. Amelia gasped, and I could sense her shudder.
The photo showed the back of an older man whose black and grey hair was woven into a braid that pointed below his dark tan shoulder blades. The arms were raised, but the focus of the image was on three cruel parallel gashes, still blood red, that raked his back from his pigtail to his lumbar region. There were two inches between the furrows.
Amelia put her knuckles to her lips. “The skinwalker.”
“How did you know?”
She just smiled. “It goes with our conversation. Put that thing away.”
I backpedaled mentally. “OK, so what does this have to do with South El Paso?”
"Perhaps more than you know. Anyhow, thank you for being being there. I know it won't be easy, but you're the one person I can depend on. Meet me at the address we got from that guy on Ochoa?"
“It’s a date,” I said, nodding, perhaps trying to put more meaning to the word than she would. Perhaps it was the photo, but despite our light conversation, I felt a faint sense of foreboding, remembering the strange man in the vacant store.
Amelia moved get into her driver’s seat, then stood again, 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. The foreboding was gone.
While I was supposed to be studying from Borg & Gall’s text on educational research methods, I had another book I had found in the university library, wondering how it got there. Of course the library did have Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine, so why not? I read somewhere that Albert Einstein found Blavatsky’s work one of his favorites. This little book in my hand was edited by the early 20th Century occultist Aleister Crowley, and it was Goetia: The Lesser Key of Solomon, or book of evil spirits— a grimoire without redeeming academic virtues. Perhaps that was why it had been checked out at least 21 times as shown by the sectioned card in the standard envelope pasted inside the book’s front cover.
In the Lesser Key, I read of all manner of things I didn’t really understand: how to use the magical rod, the sword, the incense, the magic circle, the conjurations. While the intricate instructions seemed impractical, I sensed a connection with what I had seen on Ochoa Street.
Thus I turned to the mimeographed booklet Livro Marbas. Just the look of it was unpleasant, and the 60-pound rough cover stock of pale blue was faded and indeed dotted with what could only be insect droppings. I recalled that mimeograph disappeared with the rise of Xerox, but it was common in schools and offices when I was younger. The process included typing, writing, or drawing, on a stencil that was then wrapped around an inked drum that turned as pages were fed through the machine.
I peeled back the cover to reveal the 16 musty-smelling pages of yellowing cheap, pulpy paper, streaked with discoloration, the stenciled words still clear. The first page was typed with overstrikes and irregular spacing. I used my computer to transcribe the first section of words that I could read only haltingly:
aulladores en la oscuridad, los bebedores de sangre. Tomamos la
comunión de los espíritus.
Buscamos la casa de cadáveres sentir el poder de ese espíritu del mal. Promete que nunca podemos morir. En los cañones de Sonora somos bautizados. Hemos pisado los escalones de la pirámide y juró obediencia eterna en el cráneo de Quetzalcóatl en los lugares secretos del azteca. Nos convertimos en el jaguar y el lobo. Vamos a violar esta noche, vamos a matar esta noche. Caminamos con la sombra y desgarrar la carne de los vivos.
Traemos terror en la noche. Las ovejas del mundo se arrastrará por ante el poder de nuestra magia.
Tales son las palabras:
BEBER LA POCION---
EL ESPIRITU DE LA LLAMA---
CON LA ESPADA, QUE PERFORAN LA OSCURIDAD Y LLAMO A SU TERRIBLE MAJESTAD
The hour had turned late and the pages blurred before my eyes, but I knew enough now to pronounce the book as hellish, not merely unpleasant. It was typed and scrawled by one either insane or truly evil.
The pages were dry, and one of them tore slightly as my fingers leafed through the book. The next pages were inscribed by stylus onto the stencil and almost impossible to decipher. The script was shaky and fragmented. I could make out the first three words, “Los ancestros hablan—The ancestors speak,” but the rest was frightening.
From my reading, I knew of what is termed “the barbarous names of evocation,” that are meaningless, multisyllabic words and gibberish: shouted, growled, screamed, sung, muttered, in rhythmic sequence. They were sometimes accompanied by drums and flute music. The goal is to alter consciousness and usher in the magical phenomenon desired. Of course in black magic, drugs and hallucinogenic incense speed the effect, as the soul spirals downward, plunging into the depths below Tartarus.
I could make out some of the tangled letters, and I know they were not Spanish. I transcribed a few of those rambling and disturbing conjurations:
These disjointed, stylus-scrawled words went, line after line for two pages but, in my fatigue, I saw no point in transcribing more of what appeared to be repetitive nonsense. Still, I felt a revulsion as my eyes followed the string of letters, words—if words they were— and spaces between them. In my mind I found myuself sounding out the syllables. I did not dare voice them aloud.
Then followed pages of crude sketches, including the sigil of the evil spirit Marbas. Respecting the grotesque and arcane design of that sign, those who can locate the 1916 DeLaurence edition of The Lemegeton, sometimes titled Goetia: The Book of Evil Spirits may find in that octavo edition a dissertation by Aleister Crowley, though signed only by his order name from The Golden Dawn society, explaining the diagrams of the many evil spirits. He wrote that each diagram of an evil spirit is designed to affect a different part of the human brain so that, when the eye contemplates the symbol, the ritual environment overwhelms the subject. Now, all these years since those frightening events, I searched again for this book in the university library and was told it has disappeared, even though it was transferred to the rare books collection not long after I checked it out.
Two or three of the drawings in Livro Marbas were captioned in Spanish. There was a rough outline of a tall house with pillars at the front with the caption “Entra en la casa,” as well as another drawing—this one assisted by a straight edge— showing a stage or platform with the magic symbol in the center and a pulpit with an “x” drawn in the center and with devices in the corners that appeared to have tiny lines emerging to represent smoke. The diagram was labeled “La Plaza” or The Square.
Another page presented a mass of curved lines and spirals, with jagged lightning-like strokes coming from each of the four corners of the page toward the mass of lines that appeared to represent clouds or smoke. At the center of these random lines were two narrowed ovals that formed eyes with vertical pupils, made black by deep strokes of the author’s stylus on the stencil as though they were emerging bodiless from the clouds.
At the end of the booklet appeared the scrawled name of the author, none other than Fernando Valles, Amelia's grandfather. He was the damnable sorcerer, the wizard who was somehow intimidating the superstitious residents of South El Paso.
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.
"I have to tell you that maybe I over-reacted to all this. Maybe you shouldn’t go down there Thursday night after all." Amelia had a maddening way of not quite looking at me when she was lying.
"Look, I'm in this for whatever happens. Maybe it’s something like a gang initiation. It'll be all over by Friday morning, and you'll be safe."
Suddenly she exploded, eyes flashing, "I thought you were smarter 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.” Her hand was flailing, and a perfectly manicured finger pointed south through the office windows. “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’m skeptical of the spells in most of 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.
She pursed her lips and spoke with her eyes closed. "Mexico festers with the recipes in those old books, printed and reprinted in Spanish, Latin, English. Maybe you do not know, but children are still sacrificed at rituals in the hills south of the border. Oh, and you think it is just random crime when hundreds of young women are being killed just across the border from El Paso and nobody can do anything about it?" Her hair-trigger temper was suddenly exposed.
"You said your grandfather knows something about those murders." I tried to mollify her.
"You have to know that many of those killings are not simple murders. After our walk Friday, you saw that south El Paso is like a sponge, soaking up 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, querido, 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. My mother says that Fernando Valles is not my grandfather—he is my father. He says that it was Marbas who keeps him from dying."
I was silent for a moment, doing the math. I wished her to be deluded, but she was a very smart woman. 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 power 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 the payment, only after la noche del ritual. Most gringos are still ignorant of the culture, especially you—especialmente tu!" She said the last with a soft grin as she slapped me gently on the shoulder.
I realized that I did not understand the Order of Marbas, but I was somehow inextricably caught up, feeling enmeshed in the strands of a silky web that was leading to a possible horror beyond my experience. "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, that’s all I was ever told, one of those who should be called from inside a magic circle, but my grandfather’s followers have no circle, so they don't rule Marbas—Marbas rules them, and he—it… changes them."
It sounded to me like the old story of intimidation where the ignorant were exploited by unscrupulous men possessed of more cunning and showmanship than they.
Amelia shuddered, anger now gone, a pained expression on her face as though she were remembering something; she plainly thought I was in over my head. 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 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 the dog I recognized from the previous week loping around the side of the building out of sight. I was no expert on canines, but it appeared to be a mixture between a husky and a wolf that should not be wandering loose. Animal control was like the police—never there when you needed them.
I didn't understand Amelia’s 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 inwardly as I realized the commitment I had made. All the infamies running through my mind were commonplace in Mexico. Someone once said that Mexico is not just another country—it is another planet.
Amelia had told me earlier that on Thursday, I could follow her to El Paso, but I still spent a night of anticipation in unsettled desire combined with a greater uncertainty than I could ever remember.
October 31, 1991, 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 as long as I had known that you had to be very careful in south El Paso after dark. Roving youth gangs protected their precisely divided turf with mindless violence Yet, I had made a promise, and I was naive enough to redeem it. It was fortunate for me that Prof. Dearing still made his home in that neighborhood.
I made a call to Dearing, and he invited me to drop by his place if I insisted upon following through with a risky venture. He said he knew I was involved only because of the “babe,” and that I should be careful what I was wishing for. I pretended that I didn’t know what he was talking about as I wrote down directions to his loft apartment, using the Sacred Heart Catholic Church as the landmark. Somehow the confirmation that traditional religion still had a firm base in El Paso was calming.
Driving down, I thought about stopping at the EPPD, but I knew the police would just tell me they knew all about those strange meetings and that there was nothing illegal about them. They would then warn me not to wander about South El Paso alone at night.
The disc of the late afternoon sun burned copper orange through dusty haze as it sank toward the edge of the sky. This time I turned left from Santa Fe Street to find the Oregon Street intersection. I parked the car near the front of the Sacred Heart Church as though its facade would offer protection from auto burglary. Also, I could find Dearing’s residence easily from there. It was not yet cold, but I was wearing a sweatshirt with a hood that I could use to hide my anglo face if need be. I then set out for Dearing’s apartment and darkroom.
It was a walk of two blocks, and I found the entrance to his stairwell next to a Carnaceria that was closed but whose interior fluorescent lights dimly glowed, illuminating meat counters emptied for the night. I opened the clattery window door next to the shop, walking up the hollow-sounding dark wooden stairs and touching the wobbly bannister whose rail varnish had worn down to the pale tan of cheap pine. The stairs were lined with ribbed black rubber treads under a dim ceiling bulb, and on the second floor landing I found only one door. Dearing responded to my knock, and I was ushered inside.
I was not surprised to find a spacious interior with a high ceiling that covered the area over the business downstairs. The walls were adorned with framed photos documenting Dearing’s photojournalistic career, and at the back of the apartment, next to the kitchen area, a door stood open, revealing the darkroom where strips of negatives were hanging to dry like limp eels on a line. The faint smell of fixer mixed with the fragrance of bratwurst being grilled on his stove.
“How about sausage and potatoes for dinner?” He grinned, but I declined, being too concerned with my goal.
“No thanks. I just need some guidance to find the place I’m looking for.” I showed him the sheet of paper where I had written the directions.
Dearing sliced a chunk of sausage with a steak knife, speared it and blew on it before popping it into his mouth. “What about your chica? Thought you were here to see her.” He flexed his eyebrows Groucho Marx style while he savored the chunk of meat.
“She’s not my…never mind…you know, but I don’t where she lives—only the address of the meeting place she was afraid of.” I hid my anxiety, wondering what had changed Amelia’s mind. She was so determined that I help her. Why hadn’t I heard from her?
Dearing swallowed and grabbed the piece of paper. “Ah, no problem finding the place, but you don’t want to go there, and I don’t either.”
“I know that, but I promised her.”
With a sweep of his hand, he pushed his cameras and flash units to one end of the kitchen counter; they were hooked up to chargers whose colored indicator lights winked; then, he invited me to sit on one of the bar stools. He pointed at me, squinting. “There are good people down here. I’ve lived here for a long time, and we’ve got problems that grow every day. It’s not just the drug dealers. My friends may be poor, but they’re honest and most have a respect for the religion they were brought up in. Then, there are ‘others’.” Dearing’s emphasis had an ominous sound. We both knew the potential of underground cults and criminal organizations on the border.
I just nodded, thinking about Amelia’s fears and her resignation to that secretive family and its unspoken directives.
His sudden laughter was almost braying. “Remember, I’m from Chicago, so I know about real evil. Once you’ve seen the Daley political machine in action, you’re not scared of anything after that. In that toddlin’ town, unless you are a registered Democrat, a 9-1-1 call won’t even get you to a pizza delivery service.”
Dearing jumped up and grabbed a stack of 8x10 prints from a shelf in the living room area and shoved them at me. I looked at a survey of El Paso images, his documentary style juxtaposing settings with the faces indigenous to the old part of the city and recognizable locales across the bridge in Juárez. There were pretty young girls, business people, viejos, illegals, all weaving the fabric of a culture. When I uncovered the seventh print, he stabbed his finger onto the high contrast black and white late afternoon scene. “That’s the place.”
I was looking at a residential block not far away, with unassuming houses on the south side of the street, a small park on the north side, and two stooped figures striding along the pavement, walking away from the camera, their black shadows jack knifing away from them at a 30-degree angle on the cracked, grey pavement. As I stared at the photo, I wished it were still late afternoon.
As Dearing offered simple walking directions, I stared at the photo. He said, “I don’t think you should go there, but if you have to do this, I’ll just say if you don’t show up here in an hour, I’ll drop a dime and send the cops after you.”
“Hey, I grew up in New Mexico, and I can handle it.” Of course I wasn’t as sure as I sounded.
“Then you know you don’t walk around South El Paso at night unless you live here. You just have a thing for that hot babe.”
I started to protest, but realized I would appear even more foolish trying to deny it. We shook hands, and I headed almost reluctantly for the door. He was looking at the photo when I closed the door behind me.
Back on the sidewalk, I breathed the mixed cocktail of city smells, and immediately my imagination began to badger me. I walked east to the next street, then south for a block. Padding along at my pace, across the street, I saw a large, ugly dog so similar to the one that had frightened Amelia on campus days before. Its half-open jaws were drooling and it snarled at me. My remembered fear from the desert night came suddenly back to me.
Two Hispanic youths in baggy pants were walking on the other side of the street. They saw the animal at the same time as I did. They crossed themselves and hastened across in my direction. Suddenly the dog slunk into an alley as I walked on.
With twilight thick and darkening, a cool breeze set up, blowing the smell of Mexico across the riverbed, over the Border Highway into El Paso. There was a foulness in the smell that was redolent of raw sewage, wood smoke, and indescribable industrial emissions from the maquiladoras. 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 with 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, and I could sense the surge of human flotsam that came across the Rio Grande wherever the fence could be climbed, ripped open, or tunneled underneath. These shadowy figures filtered into the part of El Paso that Juárez embraced like a wanton prostitute.
As I passed a narrow recess separating two buildings, I saw a toothless old woman in a shapeless black dress trying to entice a giant orange alley cat to come to her; from the darkness, she proffered a shiny wet piece of raw meat, and I could swear that her words were Latin, not Spanish. I quickened my pace.
The words from the Goetia echoed in my head, “Thou shalt know and observe the Moon’s Age for thy working.” The book was specific in that magical ceremonies should be done when the moon was 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, or 14 days, and at no other time. I had no idea how old the moon was, but the moon had been full more than a week earlier and it had not yet risen tonight.
The light crowd moved aimlessly, interspersed with masked trick-or-treaters, and a heavily bearded man passed me with a 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 bristled with hair. He was making sounds deep in his throat.
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 my direction jostled me as they shuffled past, grunting. I did not speak. Now I admitted to myself that, were it not for Amelia, I would still be safe in Las Cruces.
The gathering dusk silhouetted the building I was seeking. It was a two-storey house with a one-acre park on the north side, across the street—the location in the photo. The park was in name only, because only a few brown patches of bermuda grass remained, the dirt beaten down in it, and the several trees at its perimeter were obviously gnarled and dying. Milling in the open park were seven members of a youth gang in baggy clothing, smoking marijuana and throwing empty Bud Light® beer cans as they postured to each other with their shaved heads, their hands flashing gang signs. These spiritual descendants of the old pachuco had brought them as far as they would go, and they were as doomed as the trees surrounding them.
The crowd milled around the almost-Victorian style house of red brick with a high porch and broad concrete steps leading to ostentatious wooden doric mansion columns supporting a roof overhang, and whose white paint mostly flaked off. They still stood like sentries in the dusk. No lights could be seen except for a dim bulb behind an orange, stained glass panel 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 ballads whose lyrics I recognized as the popular Mexican narco-corrida—songs romanticizing Mexico’s drug dealers. The restive attitude 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 dirty glow from Juárez only a few hundred yards away outlined the tall, ugly border fence along the riverbed that was only a temporary barrier to the polyglot invaders who were trying to enter the United States by any means possible.
I walked on down the street past the house, feigning nonchalance, waiting for full dark to return and make my entrance. It was no surprise to me that the police would only pass through 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, and now I had to have the courage to walk past the loiterers to fulfill my promise. Fear made the blood thunder in my ears, but I could see Amelia’s oval face before me, imploring, frightened.
The impromptu mariachi group paid no attention when I came back and walked toward the steps of the house. The yard and sidewalk was peopled with a handful of Halloween revelers, some wearing deathshead masks, drunkenly howling their approval to the music. For all practical purposes this was Mexico.
Again, nobody paid attention to me, and I was ignored as I walked among them, the hood shielding my face. Once I reached the concrete porch in the dim orange glow of the fanlight, I could see that the front windows of the house were cracked, and one pane was newly shattered. The doorframe had once been painted white but was now gray with age as though a thousand filthy hands had left residue caked on it. On the lintel above the door was a fading black legend, partially effaced, in block letters painted long ago. I tried to read it as I shivered from the stiffening breeze:
ARS OETIA ET THEUR IS MARB S.
The front door itself had once been hand-carved oak with scrolled artistic inlays. Neglect and weathering had done their work, stripping the original finish and leaving the wood to warp and crack, the fine grain lined and gray like an old man’s face. Most unsettling to me were the deep vertical gouges from chest height to the bottom of the door that looked like many years of animal scratches, some of which seemed recent.
The aged door no longer had a knob or latch, but there was no need. The throng of indigent drunks in the yard and on the steps stayed curiously away from the porch and the front door. As some of them stared, I pushed the door open and entered the house.
By the light of a single 40-watt ceiling bulb I could see the doors to two large rooms left and right of the center hallway that bisected the ground floor. The wide hallway had been exposed to the elements and the floors were dirty and naked, bordered by the remains of two sofas whose filthy stuffing was exposed as a result of savage slashes to their dingy upholstery. The doors to the left and right down the hall were padlocked behind rusted hasps, and I presumed that behind them could be stairways to the second floor. There was enough light to see the worn track in the floor leading to another door at the end of the hall. This one had a large knob that 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 314 women whose brutal murders in Juárez had never been solved.
The moment I opened that cellar door, I was overwhelmed with fumes and nameless odors coming from somewhere below, along with a jumble of noises. There was no cellar. There was instead a ramp of packed earth, hard as concrete, that declined straight south into a cavelike tunnel. A kerosene lamp provided the only light. It was set into a nicha in the left wall that was roughly stuccoed with cement while crude timbers or vigas shored up the ceiling. It could well be the entrance to one of those border tunnels used to smuggle illegal drugs and aliens under the Rio Grande from Juárez to El Paso. Yet I knew it was something else.
As I walked downward, I was comforted by something else I brought with me and had not mentioned even to Dearing. The .45 automatic in the waistband of my jeans was covered by the bulk of my sweatshirt, and I knew it was an accessory that El Paso city ordinances frowned upon. While New Mexico state law allowed the open carrying of weapons, Texas law was less forgiving if one did not have a concealed carry permit. The pistol was now my only lifeline as I entered an alien world.
I edged down another 25 or 30 feet, my back against the wall as I approached the wan glow of a second lamp set into the wall. The kerosene smell of lamp oil combined with something else— a foetid stench rising from below that caused my stomach to convulse.
The ramp was about five feet wide but the tamped earthen walkway had narrowed because of what was now piled along the walls as I sidled past. Bones and pieces of bone—vaporous with the smell of decay still clinging to them. I leaned down to look, close to the faint glow of the lamp, and my stomach lurched again. Many of the ribs, skulls, and pelvic bones appeared human, though hideously scored and cracked, but there were other fragments of animal bones, even the remains of rodents suggesting a ravenous appetite belonging to some kind of animal that had been living in the tunnel.
In the dimness of that charnel repository I saw above the niche with the lamp additional black letters precisely painted on the crude concrete plaster, following the tunnel downward:
The words trailed in a single line downward into the descending tunnel leading to a bend 20 feet farther down, from which a glow was emanating. I knew only vaguely what the words on the wall might mean, but I felt their hideous implication. My fear was as much for Amelia as for myself, and I could feel tremors in my limbs as my stomach convulsed, the rancid sweat pooling in my underarms. I stumbled on one of the fang-shaped ribs attached to a decayed form, and it sent up a puff of noisome dust. The smell of decay was now muted by an upward drifting fog of smoke that smelled of cloves, assafoetida, and other sickly sweet incense. A dull, throbbing cacophony welled upward from below. What I sought was just beyond the bend of that intestine-like nightmare tunnel. Fear was joined with claustrophobia as I realized I was 75 feet, maybe deeper under El Paso.
A nightmare came to life as I edged around the corner, my back still feeling the roughness of the wall. I was inside a cavernous opening whose ceiling was obscured by billowing smoke from four ornate dark bronze shoulder-high thuribles standing at the compass points and each four feet high, glinting dully in the flickering light of candles and torchiers. I could not tell the extent of the underground room, and perhaps my terror distorted the evidence of my senses. It seemed to be oval shaped and at least 95 feet wide and perhaps 125 feet long. I could not see the ceiling, but it was at least 15 feet high, hiding its recesses in the fog of incense.
The entire grotto seemed to glow and throb a ghastly, dirty orange. Vague shapes gesticulated and gyrated in the bluish fog of incense smoke whose tendrils were weaving like serpents. My head was whirling with an inexplicable surge of arousal and rage from some hellish substance burning within those incense bowls. Yet I saw Them.
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, their cast-off clothing trampled under the drumming of filthy naked feet. How many? I could not tell but there seemed dozens of them—a congregation of the damned, chanting, jostling, shoving, crouching, and clutching in pandaemoniac abandon.
In the swirling currents of smoke, I saw Him for the first time, standing on a raised ebony dais, holding some kind of engraved sword in his hand. Behind him was a glowing torchier lamp, its peripatetic flame waxing and waning. I thought of the “la plaza” sketch in the damnable Livro Marbas. He was bent over, droning a sonorous ritual conjuration that caused the throng packed into the cavern to move and sway in response when his alien words that reached rhythmic peaks. The words…some of the words were those painted on the tunnel wall and some seemed to be words I remembered reading from the book: “RGAHCULHUACAN…NGLORGAHAHUITZTL…AMIQUI…NGAYTILY.”
Two men with bristling beards, still relatively human, made cringing bestial obeisance to the altar as the sword glinted in sweeping arcs, creating currents in the smoke.
The creature on the dais had to be Fernando Valles, but the power of lifelong belief had wreaked a horrific change in him. The voice was a withered, crackled thing of old secrets that cascaded from a sharp-toothed mouth. The ancient head was elongated, sparse strands of greasy grey hair like a sardonic diadem, and the jaw beneath it was hatefully prognathous. The crooked body was emaciated and covered with irregular patches of coarse grey 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. He wore a cassock that scarcely concealed his abnormality, and the hairy body was naked below the waist.
It was the legs that most astounded me in my revulsion. In the chaos of that ceremony I could swear that the knees of the gesturing madman were backward as in the canine, the haunches padded with a thick fur under the skirt-like cassock. He spoke phrases in Spanish and then read a jumbled conjuration mixing English, Spanish, and Latin, "En el nombre Beralensis, Baldachiensis, Paumachi, and Apologiae Sedes—of the mighty ones qui regere spiritus…who govern spirits, Liachidae and ministers of the house of transformation…el señor de la transformación."
The smoke from the thuribles—the choking, hallucinogenic smell of that underground tabernacle. A wild thought raced through my brain about how dogs come to look like their owners over the years or maybe the owners came to look like…No, it can’t be, but Amelia told me the wizard was over 100 years old. My God! A nighted congregation filing down, down the tunnel into that filthy cavern, even as the waning moon commanded at times known only to them, year after year, for decades, and with every orgiastic ceremony their bodies were twisted and swollen in varied stages of change, evolving into a phantasmagoria of hideous physical shapes that I could see only dimly through coils of smoke. My brain was swimming. Were they changing before my eyes? Or was it the narcotic fumes of the incense deluding me?
And there was something else, another smaller midnight cavity 100 feet from me behind the dais and seeming to continue beyond the cavern I had entered. Perhaps it led through a Stygian labyrinth to some nameless field in Juárez, maybe even to the place where the bodies of hundreds of murdered women were found. Then, for all I knew, it could descend into unimaginable depths below the earth.
The rapt congregation moved rhythmically as though one unnatural body. I understood none of it. Here was howling, there was snarling, and some of the figures turned on each other, clawing and biting. There seemed no purpose, no explanation for this abomination. I hesitate to record what I was seeing, as the fog of incense was dizzying, but the figures stumbling, growling, and clawing at each other seemed to actually be changing before my eyes. Was it a hallucination directed by the sonorou evocations from the wizard standing on the dais or were these humans actually growing hair, their limbs changing and becoming lupine as they responded to the chants, their faces elongating in the swirling clouds? Then again, reality itself was shifting, amorphous, my senses overwhelmed by an undreamed of horror. Such things could not be, but my eyes saw cruel teeth, twitching fur-covered ears.
Nothing in the author Casteneda’s drug-fueled separate reality could match what played out before my eyes in this smoke-filled nightmare realm.
Then, through those smoky currents flowing like turbulent grey rivers through the air, I saw Amelia, eyes half-closed, seated on a high-backed oak chair placed at the center of the dais behind the torchier and behind that creature she called father and grandfather. The waves of her hair flowed onto her soft, naked shoulders, and she wore a low-cut red satin gown that accentuated her figure as though she were dressed for her senior prom. I had no time to stare at her, and she seemed to be in a state of mild hypnosis or, more likely, shock.
The conjurations grew toward crescendo— “Tentatore! Soignatore! … (unintelligible muttering)” Then a gravelly shout: “DEVORATORE!” I knew my perceptions were being warped by the drugs, the noise, and the words of the magical imprecations. There was a humming in my ears like the powerful feedback from stereo speakers.
Yes, I know I saw it—what must have been IT. Hovering near the fogged roof of the cavern, it was a grotesque amorphous 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, whose power changes men into animals. It was the horror of a being who must rule the skinwalker, the man-beast, and he was present this night in the howling chaos of a cave deep below the city, evoked by the sorcery of an evil ancient creature. I saw with my own eyes that infernal demon, the Lord of Lycanthropy. The narrow lambent eyes and snarling jaws of shifting smoke burned into my brain. It had no body, and the parody of a face distorted, devilish and animalistic. The hairy jaws extended and snapped at the smoke while the eyes were one moment reddish and illuminated, then black as the outer Chaos.
My restraint was gone in a frenzy of fear and loathing. Almost without conscious direction, I leapt onto the raised platform from among the throng of milling bodies. Even above the overpowering smell of the incense I could smell the foulness of that animal-man, the fur-covered legs caked with excrement. Amelia looked up and seemed to vaguely recognize me, but my first motion was toward the evil magician.
I was never given to impetuous violent acts, but 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, and he collapsed on the dais. For a moment I stared at the twitching body and saw it convulsing… as it yelped, shrieking like an animal.
No time to waste! I grabbed Amelia's hand and yanked her to her feet. Even in semi-consciousness, she rose gracefully, yielding to me.
The ancient Fernando Valles rolled spasmodically from the platform into the milling congregation, wheezing and gurgling in a death rattle, and there was a sudden silence punctuated by muttering growls. In my altered state I could see hideous creatures in the smoke, surmounted by that swirling, smoky image of the demon whose eyes now burned with an infernal glow, but all my will was concentrated on reaching the tunnel mouth whence I had come. Even as I turned, pulling Amelia with me, I saw some of the creatures, no longer erect, scurrying to the inky hole behind the dais. It seemed that they were running into the blackness on all fours.
Howling, three creatures—they were no longer men—picked up the bleeding corpse of Fernando Valles and shambled, hunched over, dragging the dripping burden back toward the dark hole. where they disappeared.
Amelia stumbled, but my grip on her hand was firm as I pulled her past the confused semi-human creatures still stumbling about in the smoke of the cavern; their guttural sounds filled the air. They were repeating the barbarous words of evocation as they howled at the face of Marbas. We reached the bend in the cave where the ramp began, and suddenly one of the congregation was in front of us, blocking our escape and uttering a desperate howl that was picked up and echoed by at least a dozen creatures lurking in the smoke.
The naked, hairy creature ran toward us, and it was young, muscular, the eyes still human despite the hair on his body and the sharpness of the teeth in his slavering mouth. His clawed hands were reaching out…
It was a simple, desperate motion. I yanked up the sweatshirt, drew the .45, firing at the attacker as he lunged. The thunder of the pistol shot was deafening in the cave, and the sight of the bullet striking the middle of his face immobilized the other things in the cavern. The 210-grain hollow point round made a large hole above his upper lip and sprayed the grayish-pink of his brains, and fragments of his skull, onto the grey wall of the cavern in obscene colors. He collapsed backward, no longer howling.
Now shuddering and overcome with panic, I clutched Amelia’s bare arm, but she resisted suddenly, trying to escape.
She was screaming over the din. “You killed him.” Her lovely face was twisted in horror and anger as she came out of what must have been some kind of hypnotic state. “Qué estas…What are you doing? I hate you.” She tried to free herself.
Confusion battled with adrenaline inside of me as she looked at me, tears starting to streak her perfect makeup. I couldn’t believe she wanted to be here, and I stood for an eternity that lasted only two or three seconds. The impulse to leave her to her fate was only momentary, and then I resumed my grip on her arm, overcoming her resistance, pushing her ahead of me with one hand, my other holding fast to the .45. She struggled fitfully, balancing on high-heeled pumps, but she was moving again—up, up the tunnel path that seemed impossibly long and dark, the air stinking and smoky. From the sound of the howls below I did not have to guess that the creatures from below were following, just behind us. As we passed those frightening words on the cavern wall, Amelia stopped once, turned, crying, as she hit me in the chest with her fist. I shoved, and as she heard the chorus of hideous voices underneath, she kept going, now driven by fright more than anger.
Two hunched over, snarling things were gaining on us, almost shapeless in the cloistered near darkness of the tunnel. I pushed Amelia up the seemingly endless inclined path, my breath exploding with emotion and exertion.
In my fright I imagined I could feel hot stinking breath on the back of my neck, and I loosened my hold on Amelia for a moment, spinning around. Because I was so unsteady, I took the crouching two-hand stance, aiming for the luminous eyes lunging toward us.
The .45 bucked in my grip—once…twice…three times, the explosions pounding my eardrums like hammer blows in the enclosed space. Grunts and howls were followed by the sound of something kicking the wall as ill-defined shapes twitched and rolled downward, hairy limbs thrashing. The baleful eyes had disappeared.
Finally, we staggered to the cellar door, panting, and then through the dirty hallway to the front of the house. As we emerged into the chill wind of Halloween night, there was no time for relief. We saw the loiterers and drunks clustered around the front steps, the few Dia de los Muertos skull masks ominous in the dark. They must have heard the shots, and all eyes were on us. We stopped, my arm around Amelia as the huddled group advanced menacingly up the steps toward us. The pistol was in my hand, but there would be no time to jam another magazine into it before they were on us.
Suddenly. strobe flashes exploded from the sidewalk. Shouts and epithets filled the air as a motorized Nikon camera recorded the scene to the accompaniment of brief bursts of white light. Almost instantly the crowd dissolved, racing in all directions north into the park across the street. There was Bruce Dearing, grinning with his camera and powerful flash units. He was standing in the street.
“Happy Hallowe’en,” Dearing shouted, more at the scattering crowd than us, as Amelia suddenly threw her arms around me. “Ah…Guys, we’d better get out of here. I made a phone call, and those sirens you hear in the distance are headed to this address.”
The three of us walked or stumbled to the end of the block as I saw the El Paso Police Department screaming down the street, not just with a patrol car, but with a SWAT team vehicle. A squad of officers wearing Kevlar helmets and camouflage fatigues boiled out of it, racing up the steps of the house. Even from a block away I could hear the rapid staccato of .223-caliber automatic weapons and frightened shouting, guttural howls, and the rasp of orders on intercoms.
Three Hallowe’en revelers walked too casually away from the chaos, one man bedecked with camera equipment, one wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt, and the woman between them draped in an elegant evening gown. I was almost breathless in fear as we moved, and Dearing assured us with his characteristic braying laugh that he had told the police a “good story,” but I couldn’t help but imagine that he was prescient.
It was a palpable relief to go up the stairs and be back in the safety of Dearing’s loft apartment above the butcher shop. Amelia gradually returned to full consciousness, assisted by a hot mug of the green tea Dearing prepared. I asked if she wanted to go home with me, but she shook her head and said she needed to be in her own apartment in northwest El Paso. For caution we allowed another half hour before we said good night to the photographer who had saved us, and we walked to the church where my car was parked. I drove as slowly as possible northwest on Mesa Street, and Amelia directed me to the apartment complex on the side of the Franklin Mountains where she lived with a roommate. She said she had other family or friends there, so I didn't ask if I could stay with her. She was hugging herself as we walked to her door, my arm around her waist. She smiled at me and touched my cheek before we parted. Despite the streaks of her mascara, I thought she was more lovely than I had ever seen her.
Then too, I was still disoriented and reeking with the stench from the cavern. I knew I would see Amelia the next day on campus, so I reluctantly took my leave. Whatever happened, I knew she would never have to make the awful sacrifice that had terrified her, and I shuddered with the realization that her satanic father/grandfather had almost sacrificed her to a fate that would have condemned her to a darkness beyond description. The 40-mile drive to Las Cruces seemed endless and the night was black.
The next morning, I was watching the El Paso Channel 7 morning news anchor reporting an underground explosion somewhere in south El Paso on Hallowe’en night but that, according to police, it was merely U.S. Army operation at nearby Fort Bliss detonating outdated munitions, the sound mistakenly appearing to come from the border area. One south El Paso resident was interviewed saying that she thought it was some Hallowe’en prank, while another video clip was from a storeowner who said he felt a minor earthquake. The prelate of Sacred Heart gave his usual Dia de los Muertos statement while remonstrating critically about some of the pagan practices of Hallowe’en.
Yet I was certain the men in camouflage who had assaulted the house on Halloween night set charges in that hellish tunnel sometime after midnight, collapsing it along with the mouldering house and the changelings trapped underground—unless some had escaped deep, deep, through the farthest reaches of the corridor that I knew led back to Mexico.
Despite my fondest expectations, Amelia did not come to campus on Friday, nor on the following Monday. When I came to the office 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. He has a job now. He truly needs me, and the needs of family overrule the wishes of the heart. Please be happy." She signed it with an inked heart.
I wondered—was her boyfriend one of the shape-shifting creatures in the underground cavern? Could he have been one who scuttled through the dark hole, and in Stygian darkness, found temporary refuge in Mexico at the other end of a tunnel? Or was he absent from the diabolical conventicles of Marbas. I was not destined to know.
Life goes on, and it was a long time before I could appreciate the advice of my mother who told me that you don't just marry the girl—you also marry the family. I recall that it was Dearing who told me later, perhaps in a flash of brilliance, “Romance is the refuge of fools and drunks.” At least I don’t drink.
A week later, the Sunday edition of The El Paso Times described the demolition, according to city plans, of an abandoned house in south El Paso that was completed late in the week.
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 belief is stronger than reason, for good or evil.
As with all media stories, the chronicle of the murdered women slipped into the past with a rise in indiscriminate murder that for years turned Juárez into one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Stories of murdered women disappeared as the journalists who reported crime were themselves shot down in the dirty streets and dumped in fields outside of the city. That drug-fueled bloodbath eventually subsided, but even the drug cartels are known to practice the most disgusting black arts and superstitions, making obeisance to hideous gods and demons. Do they not even today dig tunnels foul, dark, and deep?
As for those barbarous names of evocation I had transcribed, I never made any sense of them, but once I showed them to a professor of linguistics at the University of Colorado, and he identified two or three of the words as “Nahuatl,” the language of the ancient Aztecs. That is unfortunate, because in the wake of the trauma we lived through that Hallowe’en night I took the sorcerer’s hellish Livro Marbas into the dirt yard of my small adobe house and burned it into a pile of noxious smelling ashes.
Finally, there is the witness of my senses. Indelible in my mind are the images of wolf-like creatures cavorting in the light of a dying fire in the desert long ago; then, that evil night 25 years ago in south El Paso, with my vision distorted by incense fumes deep beneath tainted earth, where I saw a sorcerer with a sword through his chest as the spasms of his dying body seem to revert into lupine form before my eyes.
Even now, despite my affection for animals, I am cautious when I drive at night in the desert, and I will shoot without hesitation any unfamiliar large dog I see skulking around my property. For I opened the El Paso Times on Friday, and I saw a classified advertisement in the personals section:
Esoteric Order; magnes potestas; D. Vargas, Gen. Delivery El Paso, TX 79905. Muchos son los llamados.
FROM THE LIVRO MARBAS:
(Trans.) Howlers in the dark--- drinkers of blood. We take the communion of the spirits.
We seek the house of corpses (to) feel the power of that spirit of evil. It promises we can never die. In the canyons of Sonora we are baptized. We have trod the steps of the pyramid and sworn eternal obedience on the skull of Quetzalcoatl in the secret places of the Aztec. We become the jaguar and the wolf. We (will) rape tonight, We (will) kill tonight. We walk with the shadow and tear the flesh of the living.
We bring terror in the night. The sheep of the world (will) crawl before the power of our magic.
Such are the words:
Drink the potion---
Breathe the spirit of the flame---
With the sword, I pierce the darkness and call forth his terrible majesty.