Casandra Hernández Ríos

Hernandez Rios, Casandra


Casandra Hernández Ríos received her MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, from CSU Long Beach. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the same school. She is Senior Managing Editor at The Offing magazine, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Fiction Editor at indicia. Her work has appeared in Verdad magazine, the Santa Ana River Review, and American Mustard. She teaches at Golden West College and East Los Angeles College. 

La Curandera


         The owl's large brown eyes burst open when the sound of a door slamming broke the night. But she didn't flinch. From where she was perched, the owl studied the figure below. It was a boy, now pacing in the Curandera's patio, gravel crunching under his white sneakers.

         The owl had watched the healer welcome the visitors through the back door earlier; dusk was beginning to turn the day. From a low branch, the owl had heard the muffled whining of the child pressed against the woman's bosom, his thin legs wrapped around her waist, his head resting on her shoulder. Another boy trailed behind. The woman, no doubt both their mother, held the door open for the lingering boy. She called his name. Her voice was firm and impatient. The boy gave in and crossed the threshold.

         For the rest of the night, the house had remained dark and still, except for a room whose light had grown and spilled over the windowsill through the space between the curtains. Behind the white curtains, the owl could see the Curandera's silhouette leaning over the whining child.

         It was the Curandera's nature to heal. She was indebted to the art and the tradition, something the owl was beginning to learn. The house, which was planted on the toes of the Sierra Nevada, was her only possession, a possession she would eventually have to bestow to another, along with her knowledge and obligation. Her pupil had found her, just as the Curandera had found her teacher many years ago. It couldn't be explained, one just found the other.

         The owl had been drawn to this place, had felt an overwhelming sense of relief when she found it, the way someone who had traveled many miles would have felt when arriving home. The owl had been searching for home, without knowing it, all of her life.


         The sound of gravel cracking below Antonio's steps rippled into the night. He hadn't noticed how quiet it was in this part of town. He could hear the buzz of electricity running through the wires and the breathing of the woods. He wasn't scared to be alone in the middle of the night. It wasn't dark, although it was close to midnight. The moon hung high above, large and unwavering.

         He could feel the woods watching him. His mother had warned him against búhos. She said they were witches who turned into owls and lured children from their homes. “Stolen children,” she called the town children who went missing. Antonio didn't believe it was the búhos, but the missing children never returned to tell their stories.

         Antonio was ten, old enough to know when he was in danger, old enough to care for himself and his little brother, Evan. Evan was three and sickly. That's why they were there. Evan was sick again. Small white pimples had grown on the brim of his eyelids. He had cried for three days and two nights. No one had gotten sleep, not even the neighbors, who begged Antonio's mother to take him to the Curandera.

         Antonio's father didn't want to involved those people. Instead, he said he'd take Evan to the city doctor, but he needed time to save enough for the bus fare and their accommodations. They didn't have relatives in the city and the bus ride was four hours long, forcing them to stay at least one night in the city. Antonio would have to stay behind. They had made arrangements.

         That morning, Antonio had heard his parents hissing at each other from behind the bedroom door, their sound one decibel above Evan's whimpers. Antonio's parents rarely fought, but this time, contempt for each other ruptured their thinning patience. Antonio was at the kitchen sink rinsing a cup still warm from hot milk when he heard his father leave for work without breakfast. When his stomps became inaudible, his mother emerged from the room and asked Antonio not to go to school and she asked him to go with her. She didn't say where, but Antonio knew. The three of them trekked their way toward the edge of town toward the Curandera a few hours later. They had never left Texcoco, México, without his father.  Evan was wrapped in a shawl, asleep for the time being. Antonio made a point to walk slower than his mother, even though he knew he was only prolonging the inevitable.

         When he first saw the Curandera, he was surprised that she didn’t look evil. Her smile was kind and the wrinkles on her face reminded him of an old leather belt, thin and worn. He felt he could get lost studying the history on her face, but he looked away because he knew they weren’t supposed to be there. He left his mother’s side when she wasn’t looking.

         Once outside, Antonio sat below the window belonging to the room where Evan, his mother, and the Curandera were. He outstretched his legs and the warm light seeping from the space below the curtains and windowsill seemed to cover his legs like a blanket. He leaned his head against the pimpled stucco. He could fall asleep there for a while before his mother noticed him gone. His brother's whining diminished, as his body relaxed. The cool night had numbed the top layer of his skin, but he wasn’t cold. He was too tired to feel anything.

         A quick snap of a twig turned his senses on alert. He opened his eyes, but remained still. He surveyed the ground, as far as he could see into the beginning of the woods.

         The owl was behind a tree. She knew the boy had sensed her watching. There was a garden bench below the canopy of a tree where the Curandera sat most evenings, but the boy had decided to sit with his back against the house, facing the forest. That's how the owl knew.

         “Who's there?” Antonio said.

         Before she had landed on the ground, the owl had decided to speak to Antonio, but she hadn't figured out how she would approach him. Her curiosity for the boy had grown. She entertained the idea that she might be able to help him, but she didn't know how or for what purpose. H looked very sad and worried.

         Antonio grabbed a few pebbles near his legs and began to throw them in the direction of the sound he had heard, aiming at the darker areas of the forest. He didn't know if he would hit something, but he hoped that he might at least scare the creature.

         “Don't throw rocks, please,” said a small voice.

         “Who's there?” said Antonio, standing up. He looked around him, but saw no one. He turned to face the house, but the window was closed and no one stirred inside. Evan's cries had subsided.

         “It's okay, Antonio. It's me, Gabrielita,” the voice said.

         “Show yourself,” Antonio said. The dark figure of a small girl emerged from behind a tree, but didn't move toward him. “Come out from there,” he said, “so I can see your face.”

         Gabrielita stepped into the moon's light from the forest's embrace. She looked down at her bare legs and feet, her white dress, the color of the moon, flowing. Only once before she had taken this shape. The first time was the day she arrived home, at the Curandera's.

         She had always felt strange in her owl body. Her life before age eight was muddled. She couldn't recall her mother or where she had come from. The only thing she knew was that she had woken in the middle of her life with an unceasing thirst to find where she belonged.

         Antonio took a few steps toward the girl. Her face was round, dominated by two large almond-shaped eyes. Her nose was small and pointy and if Antonio had known her better, he would have asked her why she was so skinny.

         Their eyes met and she began to walk toward him, her bare arms hanging at her sides. She wore a light sleeveless dress with an embroidered pattern around the neck. Antonio began to feel the cold.

         “Who are you? And how do you know my name?” Antonio said.

         “Gabrielita,” she said. “I saw you when you arrived with your mother.”

         “From where?” Antonio said.

         Gabrielita turned slowly and pointed toward the top of a tree behind her. “From there,” she said.

         Antonio frowned at her. “I bet you're the Curandera's granddaughter. What are you doing out here? Shouldn't you be inside?”

         “I could ask you the same question,” Gabrielita said.

         “It's different. I'm a boy,” Antonio said.

         “So?” she said.

         “Boys are braver than girls,” he said, lifting his head and crossing his arms.

         “Your brother doesn't seem brave,” she said. “He's been crying for hours.”

         “Leave him alone,” Antonio said. “He's sick.”

         “What's wrong with him?”

         Antonio frowned again. He didn't want to tell her anything about his brother. She had called him a coward. “Nothing,” he said, and he walked over and sat on the garden bench near Gabrielita.

         “You're here for a reason. What is it?” Gabrielita said. She walked over to him, but didn't sit down.

         “You ask too many questions,” Antonio said. He looked at the house. It was still.

         “You can ask me questions, too,” she said.

         “You'll just lie,” Antonio said. “I hate it when people lie.”

         “I haven't lied to you.”

         Antonio didn't look at her. There was a chance that she was telling the truth, but he couldn't believe she had climbed down from a tree barefoot and in a dress.

         “So, why haven't I ever seen you in town or at school?” Antonio said.

         “The Curandera is my teacher,” she said. “I learn my lessons here.” She pointed at the bench before sitting on one end.

         “Oh,” he said. He couldn't think of anything else to ask her.

         “You don't like her, do you?” she said.

         “Who?” Antonio said, although he knew who Gabrielita was referring to.

         “Are you afraid of the unknown?” She moved closer to Antonio.

         Antonio tried to move away, but he was already at the edge of the bench. “How old are you?” Antonio said, looking at her with suspicion.

         “I'm eight. And you?” Gabrielita could spend the night asking Antonio questions, but she knew their time together would be short.

         “I'm ten. But I'm old enough to know that things like spells and magic aren't real.”

         “Okay, so you don't believe in magic. What do you believe in?” she said. Gabrielita was curious. Her head was filled with dreams and hopes about the future. The more she learned about the world, the tradition she would inherit, the more curious she became about life. And it saddened her to think that Antonio had given up on dreaming so soon.

         “I believe in things that are real,” he said, and looked at Gabrielita with a proud smile on his face. He was beginning to sound like his father and it he liked that.

         “I think magic, different from how you understand it, is real,” she said. “It's like energy.”

         “Magic isn't real. I'm talking about things that I can see and feel, like this bench, the sweater I'm wearing and you. Those things are real,” Antonio said.

         He was proud of himself. No one had ever listened to him or allowed him to talk this way. He found it exciting to be able to disagree with Gabrielita because she seemed confident about what she believed. Their conversation made him feel grown up. He wasn't afraid of the night nor the forest's creatures. Witches didn't turn into búhos and didn't kidnap children. But adults told these stories to scare children and keep them indoors. He was too smart for that.

         Gabrielita was quiet for a moment, trying to decide how to respond. She wanted to share with him all the things she had learned from the Curandera, the philosophy of healing and spiritual counseling, but curanderas weren't allowed to impose their will on another.

         “What about love?” Gabrielita said. “Do you believe in love?”

         “Of course. That's something I can feel,” he said.

         “But it's something you can't see. Why is that different?” Gabrielita said. She truly wanted to understand. She didn't know much about love, only understood love for life. It was her duty to protect life, as she was beginning to learn from the Curandera. But she was sure love for a parent or a sibling was different and she wanted to know how.

         “Well,” Antonio began. He looked around for an idea of how to explain it. He thought about telling her how it feels to love someone, how it physically hurts when you feel you may lose someone you love. But Antonio didn't want to tell Gabrielita about how much it hurt to watch his brother fall ill time after time. It made his chest hurt. And if God was real, he would have asked God to give Evan's illness to him. But God wasn't real. And Antonio was only ten years old. He wasn't grown up, he wasn't a doctor, and he didn't have money to take Evan to the city.

         Instead, Antonio thought about electricity. “See the power poles over there?” he pointed in front of them, past the house, to the poles sticking out into the skyline.

         Gabrielita moved closer to Antonio and leaned in to see where he was pointing. “Yeah, I see them,” she said.

         “Well, there's electricity running through the power lines, but you can't see electricity only feel it. And you know it's there because if you touch it, it shocks you and you see sparks fly,” Antonio said.

         “How do you know that? Wouldn't the shock kill you?” she said.

         “I saw it in a movie,” he said. “But love can kind of kill you, if you let it.”

         “I'm not sure I understand.” Gabrielita said.   “But all this just means is that you've never felt magic, or experienced something that couldn't be explained by science, right?”

         Antonio thought for a second. Gabrielita was right in a way. He knew ghost tales were only meant to scare kids so that they wouldn't disobey their parents. Would his opinion change if he ever experienced one of the stories his parents warned him about, like if he ever met a witch that turned into a búho? Maybe.

         “Yeah,” Antonio said, smiling at Gabrielita. He really liked talking to her and if she asked about his brother again, he would tell her this time.

         “Did you hear that?” Gabrielita said. Antonio couldn't have possibly heard his mother calling from within the house, but she did. Their time was up. “I think I heard your mother calling.”

         “I didn't hear anything, but we should go inside,” he said. He hopped off the bench, excited that he had made a friend.

         “I'll go inside in a few minutes,” she said and smiled.

         “Okay,” Antonio said. “I'll be back, then.”

         Gabrielita nodded. She waited until Antonio was close to the back door before leaving the bench.

         Antonio flung the door open before looking over his shoulder to smile at Gabrielita, but she was gone. Maybe she had left something behind in the forest or returned to the tree where she had climbed down from earlier.  She would have to show him how she climbed up barefoot.

         He turned toward the door and caught a glimpse of something moving in the sky. He heard the light flutter of wings, but nothing else. The night had returned to its stillness. He stood there for a moment with his left hand on the doorknob, hoping to see the thing in the sky, but found the moon instead. It was lower than before, but still large.

         It didn't startle him when he saw a large bird, maybe a búho, split the moon in half as it soared across it, with wings outstretched.


© The Acentos Review 2016