An Attempted Escape

At last the sight of the Stranger watching me from the shadows, his eyes telling me that my dreams of the horrors he would visit upon my person would in time become all too real, was too much. I had to escape San Sebastián and Cuzco and fly as far away as possible, so I set about to craft a plan. Normally I would have used the night to shelter my escape, but the aid it offered me was negated entirely by the presence of the Stranger and his terrible powers. That he had managed to survive our earlier confrontation told me that he was not a man in any sense that you or I would use, but rather a devil incarnate with all the magic that a demon might have upon this earth. I could not hope to defeat him, and certainly I could not evade him along with all the others who maintained the siege. Instead I determined to flee during the day, though it offered me little protection. But the Stranger was not present among the watchers, as near as I could tell, during the daylight hours so, by necessity, it offered my best chance. But how to slip by the guard without attracting notice when I did not have darkness and obscurity as my ally?

I turned instead to my allies of blood and flesh within Cuzco, those friends who I knew I could trust and would not turn from me, no matter the threats and blandishments Don Lope and the Alcalde might offer. Here Diego was invaluable, for I sent him to my friend Don Mariano and a few others to ask for their aid and to explain what I had in mind. They in turn brought word to others they trusted and, when all was prepared, sent word through Diego to that effect. Here I acted quickly, for I suspected that Don Lope had his men following Diego and I needed to set things in motion before they realized what was afoot.

I chose the following Sunday, for the church would be at it’s busiest that day and the crowd would offer me greater cover. Don Mariano had sent me a new suit through Diego, which I wore in the hopes of providing a moment’s distraction from the watch, who had no doubt grown used to the usual frock which I had been forced to wear for the two months I had been under their gaze. As the church filled with parishioners and mass began I hid myself amongst them, my hat pulled low. I spied a few of Don Lope’s men among the worshipers and saw, to my delight, that they were scanning those gathered for a sign of me, knowing that I normally took mass at this time.

At the conclusion of mass the crowd began to let out into the street where the watch was kept and I put plan into action. Don Mariano had engaged two harlots to create a disturbance to draw the attention of the crowd. One of them, a lovely morenasa named Teresa, had spent the morning on the streets around the church selling candies, while the other, a mestiza named Geronima, arranged to pass by Teresa as she was selling her wares to those let out from the service. Teresa feigned to notice Geronima in turn and immediately confronted her, calling her a whore and all manner of things. Geronima responded in kind and they fell upon each other, scratching at each others faces and pulling their hair, creating a tremendous racket.

This had the desired effect, for the crowd exiting the church was drawn towards spectacle. The result was that the street was filled with a milling group of people, trying to make room for the two combatants, mingling with those keeping watch against me. The guards could not resist turning to watch what was happening as well, for most of them were now two months into the siege and they had long since grown bored with their uneventful duty. In the midst of the crowd, having attended mass, was one Pablo Vallojil, an Indian from Guamanga, and a servant of Don Mariano’s. He was the ostensible cause of the battle between the two women and when he had announced his presence to the assembled they both turned and set upon him as one.

Pablo drew his sword, saying that he would see an end to them both for so dishonoring him before the home of Our Lord. There was great deal of nonsense said back and forth between he and the ladies, with members of the crowd joining in and choosing their side of the dispute. Pablo declared he would suffer these harlots’ insults no more and took after them, brandishing his sword. They both fled, towards the Alcalde’s watch, and these honorable men responded by raising their swords against Pablo. A flurry of threats were uttered back and forth as Pablo demanded to be given the satisfaction of punishing these recalcitrant women, while the Alcalde’s men dismissed him as an Indian who had passed beyond all reason and sense.

It was then that Don Mariano and two of his friends happened upon the scene and came to Pablo’s aid, demanding the arrest of Teresa and Geronima. The Alcalde’s men refused, saying that by rights Pablo and Don Mariano should be arrested. Further insults were traded and soon everyone’s swords were drawn and a melee resulted that sent the still gathered crowd into a seething turmoil, as those nearest to the fight tried to get clear of the blades, while those at the back tried to get nearer to better see what was taking place.

I was in the midst of all this, having exited the church with the crowd at the end of mass. As the incidents had developed I had stayed towards the back of the gathering, nearer the church, but when the fight between the guards and Don Mariano broke out I seized my chance and began to slip through the crowd, hoping of course to make a break while the Alcalde’s men were otherwise preoccupied. I kept my head low and had my cloak drawn up high over my shoulders, so that between it and my hat little of face was shown. Moving at an angle away from the fight, but staying within the assemblage I went, neither slowly nor quickly, being careful not meet anyone’s gaze, until the crowd began to dissipate and I could see the open streets before me. Though every fiber of my being demanded that I flee then and there, I kept my wits and walked steadily on, a man about his business..

Just as I thought myself free a hand seized my shoulder and spun me about, nearly yanking my arm free from my torso and I found myself face to face with Don Lope himself. I gave a shout and he snarled at me: You are the devil himself.

From the City of the Vanished

Down the Backroads

The empty cans of beer had joined the other detritus on the floor of the truck, gathered over the past weeks of endless travel, a rodeo nearly every day. There were empty bags of chips and chocolate bar wrappers, bottles of Orange Crush half filled with Copenhagen spit, unopened packets of mustard and ketchup, along with napkins and coffee stir sticks and the other accoutrements of a life on the road. Emma had always complained about the smell of the truck, but Dane and Colton no longer noticed. They spent so long in there, days and nights crossing the Canadian prairie and down into Montana and Wyoming and further south on the rodeo circuit, that the state of the vehicle had simply become normal to them both, as natural as the vast open expanses they drove through.

They drove in an uneasy silence, Colton glancing over from time to time at Dane, who did not take his eyes from the road. He stuck to the back roads and secondary highways, though it would add time to their journey, but there was little chance of their meeting a cop on patrol. They encountered no one as they went and after a time Dane put the truck in the middle of the road so that the headlights illuminated both ditches. The only other lights came from the farms and ranches they passed by, flickering beacons in the darkness.

They stopped once to take a leak on the side of highway, each of them instantly surrounded by a swarm of mosquitoes and bugs. Colton looked at Dane sideways as they stood there. At last, judging that enough time had passed to cool his friend’s temper Colton spoke.

“What the hell is going on man?”

Dane zipped up his pants and walked towards the truck, not looking at Colton. “It’s nothing. It’s Emma is all.”

“Bullshit nothing. Christ, why are we running around in the middle of the night then?”

Dane got in the truck without another word and Colton followed. “Get the stuff. I need a hit.”

“You sure man?” Colton said and Dane glared at him. Colton reached for the glove compartment, clicking it open and rummaging through the papers within. “This doesn’t seem like the best idea if we’re driving.”

“I’m tired man, I need to focus.”

“Well I could drive for a while.”

“Just get the shit,” Dane said.

“Alright, alright. Calm down now,” Colton said, retrieving a baggie and pipe. While he put some of the crystal in the pipe, Dane rolled down the windows, looking out morosely at the night.

They took a couple of hits each and then sat in silence as the high washed over them.

“Emma was with another guy,” Dane said at last.

“Holy shit,” Colton said, coughing. “You saw her?”

“Yeah,” Dane said slowly, taking another hit. “Yeah. Couldn’t find her. Went to look for her and she was in the trailer with this dude.”

“Man,” Colton said, returning the pipe and the baggie to their spots in the glove compartment. “Can’t believe she’d do that. What’d you say to them?”

“Nothing. I just walked in and heard them in the back and bailed. Didn’t trust myself, you know.”

Colton reflected on this for a moment. “So you didn’t see her?”

Dane looked at him. “Pretty obvious what was going on man.”

“I was just thinking, maybe it was Marcie, right? Could have been her too. They came together right?”

Dane worked at his lower lip with his teeth. “Nah, nah it was her. Where else was she, right?”

Colton nodded, “Yeah I guess.”

Neither of them said anymore and Dane put the truck back on the road. They were flying soon, the darkness beyond the headlights seeming almost to blur as they passed by. Colton glanced over at the speedometer and then at Dane but said nothing, though he shifted uneasily in his seat. Dane slowed down when he had to turn on Highway 21 for a few miles, though it was as empty as all the other roads they had been on. He kept the truck in the middle of the road, drifting every now and again to one side or the other so that his tires ran across the warning strip at the center line, which shook the whole truck with a droning vibration.

He kept the truck there even as a pair of lights from a semi-truck blinked beyond a pair of hills in the distance. The lights disappeared, reappearing a moment later as the semi went down one hill and started over the next. They disappeared again as their own truck started up a steep hill, the engine working hard, and then appeared in a blinding flash atop the hill as the semi came down upon them. Dane flinched at the lights but made no move to pull the truck into the right lane.

“Hey man,” Colton said, in a quiet voice that barely sounded over rumble of the straining engine. Dane gave no sign that he had heard, or that he noticed when the trucker sounded his horn and flashed his lights as the two vehicles moved perilously near, one upon the other. Only at the last moment, the semi nearly upon them, the horn sounding louder and louder did he pull the truck over and out of the way. The semi hurtled by, its passage shaking the truck so violently that Dane momentarily lost control of the vehicle.

“Fuck me man,” Colton said after a few moments.

“What?”

“I think maybe I should drive.”

“No,” Dane said, as he turned off of 21 and onto the 570. The tires squealed as he made the corner and started to speed up again.

“I don’t get it man,” Colton said with a shake of his head. “You’re losing your shit over a girl for fuck’s sake. So she cheated on you. You either dump her or you live with it. Either way you move on, you don’t go fucking batshit.”

“Like you know shit about women, man.”

“I know she’s way the fuck out your league.”

Dane slammed his fist on the dashboard. “Yeah, yeah. That’s right. Way the fuck out of my league. That’s the fucking problem right there. This is a goddamn game too her, this whole thing. You and me, we don’t get day money, we don’t fucking eat. She and Carl, they just call Daddy.”

Colton didn’t say anything, reaching into his back pocket and snapping his can of Copenhagen before taking a dip.

“One of these days she’ll get tired of this and then she’ll go back home. Everything will work out just fine for her no matter what. It always does. Me, I gotta go crawling back to the padre.”

Dane could feel his lower lip quivering with emotion and stopped talking, knowing if he wasn’t careful he would start crying from rage and hurt.

Colton laughed under his breath, though he glanced at his friend. “Fucking sucks, no doubt.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Dane said. “If he knew what we were doing tonight he’d probably re-baptize me.”

“You sure they can get the holy water close enough to you without it boiling or something.”

“I just turn it to piss.”

They drove for a time in silence, both of them watching the road. Dane had not spoken to his father in months, not since the last time he had been home. His father had refused to give him any more money, saying that if Dane wanted to continue with the rodeo circuit and the life he was leading on it he could do it on his own with no help from him. It was all Keith’s fault really, he thought. They had grown up together and Keith’s family had gone to his father’s church. When they had first started going to amateur rodeos and the n later on the circuit their parents had insisted that they travel together. They had for a while, but Keith still prayed before each ride. He didn’t chew and he didn’t drink, didn’t chase girls, and Dane did all those things. Soon enough they had fallen out and Keith had informed Dane’s father just what his son was up to on the road.

Several arguments had followed, each time Dane returned home, his father insisting that he give up his ways and Dane refusing. For a time his mother had managed to convince his father to continue to give him some money to help him out when the day money didn’t cover everything, but eventually some final line had been crossed and his father had refused to extend a further hand. He had not even told either of them about Emma, not that it mattered now.

“Yeah, I don’t know how much longer I got man, quite honest,” Colton said.

“Yeah,” Dane said his voice dull.

“Got to grow up sometime, I guess. Dad wants me back home helping out and I don’t know. Can’t really fool myself anymore that I’m going to amount to something doing this.”

“Yeah.”

“Anyway.”

Dane glanced down at the gauges and said, “We gotta get gas.”

“There’s that truck stop on the number one. It’ll definitely be open still.”

“Right,” Dane said and at the next intersection he turned left heading west.

from Drifting

An Encounter With A Stranger

My luck did not hold for it never does.

On one such occasion ten of us gathered, with four or five always at a table in our cards, while the rest mingled about talking and drinking. Aside from myself and the generous Don Antonio, there was the treasurer Lope de Alcedo and several friends of his, including one strange looking fellow I had never set eyes upon before. He was dark haired and dark skinned but with the most piercing blue eyes I have ever seen. I sat at the table most of the night, as was my habit, and acquitted myself well, accumulating a generous pile of reales. Several times, especially as I began to take the treasurer’s coin, I caught the stranger gazing at me from the corner of the room when he thought my eyes were on my cards.

I wondered at his interest and, deciding that it could hardly be friendly, I made a great show of getting full in my drink, talking loudly and unsteadily, all the while keeping a careful eye on the man. Fortune stood by me that night and I kept up my winning ways, which led to much dark muttering by Don Lope and the others at the table. This kept on for some time, as we played deep into the night, the others cursing me and their ill luck, the hours growing heavy on everyone’s faces.

My mood, which had been as bright as my fellow players’ had been foul, turned ugly when, after losing a hand, I reached into my purse to pay into the pot and found it lighter than it had been. Though I had no proof, beyond my own native instinct, I immediately turned and locked eyes with the blue eyed stranger. He returned my gaze, the smallest of grins touching his lips. I marveled at his ability to steal up beside me and take the coin right before my eyes where it sat on the table. Had the others noticed? Unlikely, they were all too consumed with me and their own gloom with the play going against them.

I had no sense of when or how he might have pulled his trick. As I have mentioned to you before, all my senses are very keen and on this night, though I had been acting quite the drunkard, I had taken only a cup or two of drink. And yet he had slipped past my guard, stealing right from under my eyes, without my even noticing.

I vowed then, as I paid out my debts and settled into the next hand, that I would not allow him to succeed in his game again. I slipped my dagger out from my belt and kept it in my lap, my left hand clenched around it, within easy reach of my purse on the table before me. And there I kept my eyes, even as I played on through the next hands, never glancing again towards the newcomer, though I knew he was watching me like a falcon studying its prey from afar. I know only too well the charlatan tricks that can be played, the deception of appearances, where one is there and then not there. No fool am I, I recognized a fellow traveler.

When he came next to lighten my purse I was well prepared for him. As he reached out, making a show of passing by the table, I brought my dagger down upon his hand, the blade gouging right through his flesh and lodging itself in the table trapping the stranger there. He let out a yell that quietened the room and I leapt up from chair, snatching my purse from the table, calling him a devil and a thief.

My strategy was poorly thought out though, for he was a friend of Don Lope, the treasurer, as were most of those there that night. My only friend in the place was our host Don Antonio and he did not dare risk his friendship with the treasurer over someone as inconsequential as me, a decision I cannot blame him for. He did step forward and plead for peace, to no effect, as Don Lope and his friends drew their rapiers against me.

I drew my blade as well, thinking only of how I might engineer an escape with my vitals intact. Before the mob could come at me I brought my rapier down upon the stranger’s still-trapped hand taking off two of his fingers. He snarled at me, more like a beast than a man in that moment, and then pulled my dagger free and came at with the rest of them. Though I parried furiously I was unable to stop them from raking me with their blades. I managed to fend them off only enough to allow me to exit the house, little good it did me, for I was still menaced at all sides by Lope de Alcedo and his companions.

Leave his guts on the street, Don Lope said to his friends, his voice heavy with drink.

I shall still have more stones than the lot of you, I told him with a sneer. You are as unpaved as any village.

This caused a general uproar among the half dozen or so men brandishing their weapons in the darkness. They were advancing upon me when Don Antonio, Lord bless him, came round the corner with the Alcalde of the city, who he had roused from his bed at that late hour. That man called a halt to the proceedings and had me arrested, calling on all the others gathered to follow him to give their statements as to what had occurred.

Strangely, the newcomer with the blue eyes was nowhere to be seen among those who trailed behind me and the Alcalde, cursing and muttering at their poor luck in being unable to finish their task. I, of course, was infinitely grateful that they had failed in that, but something else was troubling me. I was certain that the stranger had come out with the rest of the mob in pursuit of me as I had made my feeble retreat, but at some point in between the ensuing scrum and the arrival of the Alcalde he had vanished. If his fellows had noticed they made no comment on it, either among themselves or to the Alcalde. Where then had the man gone, and to what end?

I had plenty of time to dwell on that, for I was thrown into jail, clapped with irons, and set in the stock. I passed a cold and miserable night, bleakly pondering the terrible state I now found myself in. The next day the sun rose and with it came my friend Don Antonio, as true a gentleman as one could wish for, and my master Don Tadeo, who spoke with the Alcalde, a man he knew, and had me let out of the stocks and irons. The Alcalde would not free me, though, for the witnesses had all sworn statements against me.

Surprisingly, no mention was made of the stranger, the harm that had come to him, or the theft which had precipitated all the events. It was as though he had never been present. I protested to the Alcalde that I wished to press charges against this man, but he waved me away. Neither Don Antonio nor I knew the man’s name and the Alcalde had not seen him when he’d come upon the scene, so for all intents and purposes he did not exist. The charges against me had nothing to do with the stranger. It seems that in the scuffle that had broken out I had, while making my frantic defense, landed a blow on the face of one Mendo de Quinones, which required some seven stitches.

As they were unable to secure my release, in spite of their many and considered pleas to the Alcalde, both Don Tadeo and Don Antonio left me to my fate in the jail, promising to return with what help they could muster. In spite of their cheerful bravado at our parting, I knew my situation was bleak. Neither of my friends had the standing that Lope de Alcedo did in Cuzco and that, combined with the fact that all the witnesses spoke against me, meant I was almost certain to be facing a penalty, no doubt a few years with the army in Chile battling the savages that roam there.

So began my first spell of imprisonment, though it would not be my last. At the time, the specter of unending days lying before me, filled with poor food and miserable conditions, as the case ran through its gauntlet of appeals, left me in a state of dread and despair. Those nights did not pass easily. Neither do these nights before me now, though I have had ample time to grow accustomed to them.

from The Accursed Necropolis

What Lay Within

It was during that fall that his mother’s illness became inescapably apparent to David, the strange pallor that he had noticed that summer now a permanent feature of her face. There were other changes as well, though little noticed by him. His mother was always tired, often going to bed early in the evening when he and Eric did, and on particularly bad mornings it was their father who would rouse them get their breakfasts and send them off to the bus for school. Sometimes their usual after supper games, crib and rummy and kings on the corner, would be left to he and Eric alone.

The dim concern David felt for these developments, more a sense that this was unusual than any true understanding of what they implied, was offset by the arrival of harvest. It was his favorite time of the year, filled with bustle and activity, given greater meaning by the race to get the crop off before the weather turned.  This year his excitement was magnified by the addition to the proceedings of the new hired man, a fellow named Jim from Enchant.

The hired man and his father worked from dawn till dusk, so long as the weather held and there was wheat to harvest. When David came home from school he would take the two lunch pails his mother had prepared, full of sandwiches, sliced cucumber and tomatoes with some cookies for desert, and two thermoses full of tea out to the grain bins where Jim was unloading the truck. Jim would give him a ride out to the field, keeping up a friendly chatter that to David’s ears sounded worldly and wise, and then David would run one of the pails and a thermos over to the tractor and combine his father was driving.

He would sit beside his father, nestled precariously on the armrest, with the various unfathomable gear sticks threatening to jab him in the back, as he made his rounds in the field and ate his supper. He enjoyed watching the swath disappearing into the combine, transformed into kernels of wheat straw that would be spit out the back of the machine. His father did not really say anything in these moments, focused on his supper and the task at hand, but David did not mind. It was enough to watch, to hear the throttle of tractor and the rumble of the combine as they worked. Sometimes, if his father allowed it, he would stay out on the tractor until his eyes grew too heavy and then Jim would take him home for bed.

On the weekends they would all eat lunch in the fields, sitting in lawn chairs out on the stubble in the shadow of the machinery. The talk would be on the progress of the harvest, how this field was going tougher than the last, how the equipment was holding up, and how the weather might threaten or bless in the days to come. David would listen to these conversations with fascination, feeling a part of some monumental task, the import of which he could not quite grasp.

One day, Jim seemingly tired of all the talk of work, asked about the Faulkenbourg Place.

“Why do they call it that?” he wanted to know.

His father finished the bread he was eating and said, “Albert Faulkenbourg homesteaded that quarter. He bought the house and put it up there in twenty two or twenty three I think.”

“What happened to him? Get moved out in the Thirties?”

“No. The year after he built it he was killed. He was disking a field and something spooked his team. He was thrown off his seat and the discer went right over him. Dad found him the next day.”

“That’s a hard thing.”

“Yes it was.”

“Your family bought it after that?”

“No, it went through a few hands,” here his father paused tantalizingly, as though there were much more to be said. “Bit of a bad luck place I guess you could say. Land’s a bit sandy too.”

Jim stayed on through the winter and into the next fall as well. During the summer, when more of his time was his own and he had much more freedom to navigate, David would often make his way over to the Faulkenbourg Place to chat with the hired man, who didn’t seem to mind the company. He taught David how to throw a proper curveball and told him about the time he had batted against Satchel Paige when the Negro Leaguers were barnstorming through Saskatchewan.

As much as he enjoyed the Jim’s company, the larger purpose of his visits was to be within the house. It was a compulsion, deeper than any understanding he was capable of. The thrill he felt as he stepped from the entryway, to the kitchen or the living room, to sit across from Jim and talk was something near ecstasy, especially now that he knew what had happened to Albert Faulkenbourg. To be in these same places where a dead man had sat and done the same things he had was an incomprehensible and new thing to David.

Jim left in the middle of the next winter, a particularly harsh one, even by the standards of the Canadian prairies. The first snow had fallen a week after Thanksgiving and stayed on through November and into the new year, accumulating into vast drifts that hardened into immovable dunes, reshaping the landscape entirely. The drifts in the yard were so large and solid that the cattle could walk out of their pens and the tractors were unable to break through them. The temperature offered no reprieve, staying well below freezing so that even the slightest breeze was cutting.

It was in January, when the days were at their shortest, the sun setting before five, making the cold seem to set in the bone all the more, that Jim came by their house to announce his leaving. David was at the kitchen table playing cards with his mother while his father finished his tea and read the paper. Jim looked sheepish as he unbundled himself on the porch and apologized for disturbing their evening. His father waved away his concerns and poured them both a glass of whiskey. They retired to the living room to talk.

Though David made a great show of playing his hands, he lost three games in a row as he tried to play and listen to what was being said in the living room between the two men.

“I’m just here to give my notice,” Jim was saying. “Sorry to spring it on you like this.”

“You’ve got something else then?” his father said, in that even tone he used to indicate disapproval.

“No, not exactly yet.” Here Jim stammered. “I know some folks in Maidstone.”

There was a pause where David could imagine his father taking a measure of the situation while he took a sip of his whiskey. “Is there a problem, something you’re not telling me?” he said. “I think I’ve been fair in all our dealings. I could understand if you had something better lined up. Lord knows you don’t want to be doing this your whole life.”

Jim’s discomfort was plain in the way he spoke. “It’s not anything you’ve done. You’ve done right by me Walter. I can’t thank you enough for the opportunity. Just time to move on I guess.”

“There’s not something else wrong is there?”

“No, no,” Jim said and there was a long silence. “It’s the house, if I’m being honest. There’s something about it doesn’t sit right.”

“How do you mean?” his father said, sounding confused.

“I can’t explain it really. I just don’t feel right in it, like there’s something else there with me.”

“A ghost you mean?”

“No. I know what you’re thinking. Jim’s gone crazy. I swear to you, it’s nothing like that. I can’t explain it. I know there’s nothing there. Can’t be. But it just doesn’t feel right.”

They left it at that, his father thanking him for his help and wishing him the best. Later David would overhear him talking about the situation with his mother, saying that maybe it was a blessing that he had gone when he had. “He can’t be right in the head, thinking there’s something in that house with him. Who ever heard of such a thing?”

David knew what Jim had tried and failed to tell his father, that sensation that escaped all words yet sunk deep into the center of his being never to be shaken free. Jim had been afraid of it, though he had tried to hide it in front of his father. David, though, felt no fear, only a longing that somehow he imagined would be made whole by the place itself and whatever lay within.

From Smeagol Blues by Clint Westgard

Forthcoming April 2013

Under the Shadows

I hardly know where to begin in a task such as this. I have not written much since my youth in the convent, although then I flattered myself with thinking I was quite skilled at the practice. There was some writing when I was in the employ of Don Tadeo, but it was not of this kind. I have never been interested in stories—beginnings and middles—one has to arrive at an end from which to gain a vantage point to scan the whole proceedings. I am not the kind to look back or dwell on past moments and their significance.  That sort of thing is always changing anyway; the morning has a different hue come evening.

So it is a foreign thing I am doing here, and I beg your forgiveness should the telling go poorly. But you have insisted and I shall comply. I owe you that much anyway. Owe you that and so much more, but these inadequate phrases shall have to suffice. Perhaps you can understand something of this burden that shadows my every step.

I was born into a family of some standing in the year of Our Lord 1585 in Lima whose name I will not mention, for their honor will have suffered enough from my various transgressions. We had a large estate in one of the finer neighborhoods of that fair city, surrounded by towering walls that sheltered us from any prying eyes. Those walls delineated the universe of my childhood, for I rarely left the estate and my only time out of doors was spent in the crafted and manicured gardens of the grounds.

My childhood was one of shadow and darkness. The sunlight gave my mother severe headaches and she spent most her days in bed. The windows in her wing of the estate had to be shuttered and covered with blinds in case she should happen to emerge, leaving most of the house off-limits to her. I was her only child and, with no real friends or companions among the rest of the household, I spent most of my days near her quarters in the, often vain, hope that she would be well enough to invite me into her chambers. There I would listen as she recounted tales of our family’s remarkable history.

My father I remember as a distant, pained figure who rarely strayed to my mother’s rooms. I cannot recall more than three words that he said to me directly. My very presence seemed to wound him. He had two other daughters, both older than I, who the servants and my cousins doted on. Me they avoided, whispering to each other when I would pass them in the hall.

One of my clearest memories of that time is of a conversation I managed to overhear in my father’s quarters. I cannot call to mind how I came to be there, hidden in the cove beneath his writing desk and behind the desk’s chair – no doubt I was in the midst of some childish game, for I was no more than ten – but there I was as two of the house servants stole an embrace and then shared a confidence.

That woman is a seductress. She has used sorcery on the Don. This from the woman, a scullery girl and a mulata, who should not have been in my father’s quarters, though the same could have been said of me.

Yes she has clearly done evil to him with her spells. This was one of my father’s servants, an Indian boy.

And that child is of the same kind. Those words have never left me; they come to my thoughts unbidden, in those moments when I am unguarded from drink or despair. That was the first I became aware I was different from others in some fundamental way and that this was the reason for the unkindness, the whispers and the evil glares. How they feared me! Their hatred gave me strength which still carries me through my days, even as my steps have grown heavier with each year.

Mother was never long for this world, so it seemed to me. I have been told she was once one of Lima’s most beautiful women, but she had faded from that glory by the time I can remember her. Her skin was always a spectral shade, her breathing labored and her eyes unfocused. In her last year of life she was rarely coherent, subsiding often into a fever-like state where she would rave about those in San Sebastién, who had conspired against her and condemned her to this exile. She told me, in one of her final lucid moments before she succumbed to the pox that swept through Lima that winter, how sorry she was that she would not have more time with me. Though I was young I understood what her meaning was.

There was so much I was going to teach you, she told me. So much you needed to learn. The world will be difficult for you. It was for me. That is our lot. I only hope you do more than I have with what you have been given.

I do not know if I have succeeded in this regard. My life has been a series of wrong turns, each leading me farther astray. Who knows what the future offers, though I fear you will have more to say in that regard than I. Perhaps that is for the best, given all I have done.

I fear my thoughts have overwhelmed me, this pen, so burdensome; it has dragged my spirit down to a step before damnation. What a punishment you have devised for me! You would say it is no such thing, that it is for my and your edification. I have not thought of these times in many years. They were not kind to me, though few times have been, as you shall see. Onward.

Following my mother’s death I was sent to pass the remainder of my days in Convent of La Encarnación. I was eleven or twelve perhaps and my father had long determined that I was not suitable material for marriage. His family name was at stake. I would have been sent to a monastery earlier, I am certain, had my mother not opposed it. I was her only true companion in those last years. With her gone there was nothing left for me in that home and there had been so little happiness, even when she was alive, that I went to the convent gladly. Our family was important enough that my dowry was easily paid for and I was ensconced as a novice in its enclosure…

From Maleficio in the Cloister by Clint Westgard

Forthcoming March, 2013