Mexico City, 1882
The specter that sent twenty-year-old Edmundo Dawson running from the city of his birth was an enormous, pale-eyed, raven-haired Mexican woman of Welsh extraction named Maruja Rhys. A rumored diabolist and a certain nymphomaniac, she was known as “Maruja la Bruja,” or more prosaically in English, “Maruja the Witch.”
For no apparent reason, she conceived a passion for Edmundo on his first day of work at the Mexico City Herald, the English language daily where she was a veteran copywriter and he but a mere cub reporter. Much to the merriment of his colleagues, she continued to follow him about every day thereafter, gazing upon him as if moon-struck, inventing endless flimsy excuses to confer with him.
To complicate matters, Maruja la Bruja lived directly above Edmundo in a company-owned building next door to the newspaper premises, and every night she leaned out her window to fling clanging centavos onto his laundry terrace, beckoning to him lasciviously when he stepped out to investigate.
At the risk of stoking his own vanity, but in the interests of clarity, Edmundo reminded himself in the journal and sketchbook he kept that this was not the first time a woman had trailed him about, stalking him like a hunted animal. Several times in the past, he had been hounded in a like manner — and by far younger and more attractive huntresses than Maruja la Bruja. Some of them had even managed to fell their beleaguered prey in what he described in his daily personal record as “the tangled forest of their intentions.” For the longest time, Edmundo could not imagine why he had become such sought-after game, till one of his most fervent pursuers, a former art teacher of his from the British International School named Mrs. Candice Thatcher, bid him confront his mirror with a fresh eye, as if he had never cast a glance there before. What he saw in the glass before him then suddenly explained it all, for although he was cursed with the thin sandy hair, humdrum hazel eyes and pasty skin of his ungainly English father, he had been blessed with the classical facial symmetry of his beautiful Spanish mother. Edmundo was so taken with this new impression of himself that he whipped out his pen, ink and sketchbook and did a quick self-portrait on the spot. When he was done, Mrs. Thatcher, an amateur artist of some talent herself, pronounced it an amazing likeness.
Yet Maruja, as it turned out, was even more passionate and pertinacious than Edmundo’s former stalkers, and she chased him relentlessly for nearly a year. The more he ignored her advances, the more frenzied were her appeals, to the point where he feared she might tie her bed-sheets together some inky night and, “with her sooty mane flying like some Druidic handmaiden,” slither down and ravish him while he lay sleeping.
Home one evening, home from a lengthy, frustrating encounter with Encarnacíon McGinnis — a comely Catholic colleague from Mexico City’s large English colony whose misguided religious fervor rendered her impervious to the charms that others had found so irresistible — and flush with too much cheap Spanish wine, Edmundo threw himself down on his bed fully clothed. Just as he was drifting off into an alcoholic stupor, Maruja la Bruja started tip-tip-tipping her coins on the tiles of his terrace again. There was quite a substantial pile of them by then, for out of fear that she might take him wrong he had left them to rust where they lay.
“Come up here, Eduardo, up here!” she coaxed, in the faux-friendly tone one uses to beckon a wayward pet, as he stepped out onto his terrace and looked up to where she stood leaning, long-haired, out over her flower planter. Yet the instant she had his attention, the veil of geniality died in her eyes, replaced by something akin to the optics of a carrion crow. An eerie blue fire blazed up in their depths, seeming to wither the flowers before her and flare through the darkness. “Come here, my little one, here!” she chanted, crooking a purple claw at him, and he felt himself “wilting,” as he would put it later, in the word-besotted alliterative style that was the bane of his editors at the Herald, “wilting to her wicked will like the pansies in her planter.”
Slipping out his door, creeping up the open stairway above the patio where the sports editor and his cronies played cards every night, fearing discovery and the ridicule it would provoke in the newsroom, Edmundo cursed the virtue of Encarnacíon McGinnis. Cursed the fever it had ignited in his loins. A fever that now – perversely – rendered him defenseless in the face of the powers of darkness.
Whereupon, Maruja la Bruja flung open her door.
Naked as the night she was born, her vast, black, feathery V flaring nearly to her navel, she clamped onto his waist with talons of steel. Swept him up like a fetish doll. Bore him into her foul-smelling nest. Fell backwards on her rancid straw pallet. Dragged him down. Then with an “antediluvian, raptor-like shriek that shook the rafter beams,” she opened her mouth, arms, legs and nether parts to enfold him in a smothering embrace. Instantly, he found himself plucked apart, ingurgitated, churned about in some sour, fermented substance, and just as quickly spat out.
In brief, she tupped like a teenage boy.
Having had her way with him, she was no longer interested, and tossed him out on the landing like a pecked bone.
Not three minutes after Edmundo had crept up the stairs, he found himself slinking shamefully down them again, above the laughing men in the courtyard, who all seemed to be pointing up at him.
For the next week, just as he had feared, he was the butt of endless jests at the Herald, especially from “that self-righteous proto-Papist,”Encarnacíon McGinnis. To make his humiliation complete, he found that everyone in the newsroom was in on the joke. Encarnacíon had put Maruja up to the whole thing with hints that Edmundo reciprocated her feelings. Even worse, his “succubus” had resumed her nightly habit of tipping tinkling coins upon his terrace.
One night, at the end of all tolerance — and with none but the most desperate hopes of redemption — Edmundo patiently awaited the rumble of Maruja la Bruja’s thunderous snores. When finally his walls began to quake and his bedsprings to reverberate, he knew the time was nigh, but he hesitated for a moment in spite of himself. Convinced that she was an adept in the satanic arts, he trembled in fright, and his heart began to palpitate. Yet somehow, dreading the moment when one of the “heady snuffs and snorts that punctuated her insufflations” might signal an abrupt awakening, he managed to gather what little remained of his manhood, throw his few belongings together, scrape her rusting coins from the terrace, and flee his room.
The next day, after soliciting and failing to obtain a small loan from his only living relative in Mexico City, a “penny-pinching pederast named Dr. Poncio Peña” who had once been married to his great-aunt Paloma, Edmundo hopped a wagon train heading north.
He had left the Herald without giving notice, without a word of farewell to anyone in the newsroom. He had not even bothered to collect his last week’s salary, although he would sorely miss it on the road, where four hundred and forty-seven weathered centavos represented the total sum of his fluid assets.
Like many of his generation, in both Mexico and the United States, Edmundo was fascinated by the phases of the moon and the significance of each month’s unique full moon. He and his peers had inherited the predilection from the indigenous peoples of the continent, who had several names for each moon, to be employed according to one’s mood or the mood of the times. In Edmundo’s case, the inclination was so pronounced that when he was on the road and had no access to a more conventional Gregorian calendar, he could fix a date by the moon with equal precision. He knew, therefore, that he had left Mexico City on the second night of the waning Honey Moon, the sixth full moon of the year.
As he made his way northward, Edmundo filled his sketchbook and journal with wide-eyed impressions of the places and people he encountered, and vivid tales of his many and varied adventures as a penniless vagabondat the mercy of Good Samaritans along the road.
Only after he had put three moons, four Mexican states, and five hundred kilometers between himself and Maruja la Bruja did he dare risk her “necromantic ire” and state in clear black and white that he had never regretted for an instant his decision to flee her snare. Nor did he shirk to remind her in his journal, that her “beastly machinations” had had unintended positive consequences.“While frightening me half out of my wits,” he wrote, “you actually did me a great favor, Maruja la Bruja, for you inspired me to renounce my timid, mundane, urban existence and set out upon a life at the very frontiers of adventure and romance.”
Later on the road, when with the perspective of even more time and distance Edmundo began to have suspicions that his flight might have had more to do with shame and embarrassment than black magic, he confessed to himself that Maruja la Bruja was probably less a witch than a product of his overheated imagination.
Sitting outside in a village plaza one market morning, surrounded by a gawking crowd of Huichol Indians, he did a series of drawings of Maruja la Bruja from memory. The first one he did, while he was still frightened he might be in danger of humanizing the woman a bit too much, made her look like a creature from Hell, with a black mane of tangled hair, fiery eyes, a hooked beak, a turned-own mouth, and an expression of the most extreme malevolence. When finally he admitted to himself that he had exaggerated the portrait and it conformed more to his fear-inspired mind-set than to reality, he did another sketch from memory. In this one, there was nothing witch-like about Maruja la Bruja. He depicted her, in all her human frailty, as a rather homely middle-aged professional woman, a spinster with loads of unsatisfied yearnings. In his third and final rendering, he combined the two approaches and portrayed a visage with aspects of both the previous drawings. His hope was that he’d created an accurate visual representation of Maruja la Bruja’s character, one that showed how her unsightly physical aspect had made her feel weak and insecure and how she had compensated for these insecurities by crafting a strong and fearful doppelganger. In the end, however, he was not quite happy with his work, for he felt he’d missed something important, something he could not quite put his finger on. His crowd of Indian onlookers, on the other hand, seemed most impressed. Typical of their race, they did not show their approval by clapping, smiling, or saying anything. They showed it by following him silently and reverently from the plaza and all the way back to his current benefactor’s tumbledown lodgings, as if he were some important chief or medicine man. Smiling to himself, Edmundo felt sure that his untutored Indian admirers were misguided in their admiration and that his work, although perhaps technically accomplished for a young man his age, was flawed in some essential way. Yet he had never felt so honored or grateful in his brief but eventful life.