A New Mexico writer looks back on the the mysterious power of women in her neighborhood
by Karen Vargas
Last week, some vatos on a job site in Talpa were working on an old adobe. They said, “The squirrels in Talpa are witches.” Hmm. I’d never heard that one before, but it seems plausible.
For as long as I can remember, everyone has said that most of the witches lived in the village of Talpa. I assume they still do. I don’t think all of the witches lived in Talpa because where my family’s from in Canon, there were witches living there too. I know this because my grandmother told us never to go to one woman’s house because she was a witch. She was very serious about this. The woman’s name was Aurelia. My mom and my aunt would sneak over there and have Aurelia read their cards, and they’d drink beer. My grandfather used to go over there and party with Auralia, and they’d drink beer too. Auralia’s daughter is buried next to my grandfather in our family’s Camposanto. I’ve always wondered about that, but not much: the girl looked just like him.
I don’t have any proof of this, no DNA test, but one afternoon I was standing in front of my grandfather’s grave, contemplating it, when all of the sudden a huge swarm of bees came up behind me. That forced the thought to leave my head and forced me to quickly leave the graveyard.
There was also our sobadora, Mana Maga, but no one ever called her a witch; she was a healer. I remember that when she worked on my mother, my mother would cry for no visible reason. My mother had no broken bones, no visible physical ailments, only a broken heart. She was always a little better after visiting her.
The Pueblos have their stories of the owls and so do we. There is a story of another woman, Mana Luz, who was a witch too. My grandfather said that Mana Luz turned into an owl at night. She used to live in the llano behind the house, so we should never be out there after dark or she would materialize and attack us, he said.
The story goes that my Mano Belisandro, who lived down the road, used to work for Mana Luz. He would go and work for her in the daytime. She wanted him to stay later one evening and have dinner with her, but he wouldn’t; he had a wife. The next day he went to work for her and she tried to entice him again, but he refused. The same thing happened on the third day when he finally said, “I can’t work for you anymore; I’m faithful to my wife.”
Each of those three nights, an owl came to the shed where Mano Belisandro would stay up late carving the saints, and each night the owl would swoop down and try to attack him. Mano Belisandro ran for cover on the first two nights, bolted the door, listened for the owl, and didn’t come out until he was sure the owl had gone away.
On the third night, as Mano Belisandro was inside his little shed carving and stoking the fire, he heard the owl again. It was screeching at him, clawing at the door, trying to get in. Finally, he grabbed his gun and went outside. The owl swooped down, struck at him with its claws, marked him, and flew back up into the night sky. As it ascended, Mano Belisandro shot at the owl and hit the wing, and the owl fell to the ground, but when Mano Belisandro went to the field to look for the owl, it wasn’t there.
The next day he decided to pay Mana Luz a visit. He needed work, so he went to apologize, and ask if she needed any help. He knocked at the door, but no one answered. He continued to knock, but Mana Luz didn’t answer. Finally, sensing something was wrong, he broke down the door. There she was, lying on the floor. She had been shot in the shoulder and had bled to death.
Her spirit still lived out in the field behind the house though; that’s what my grandfather said.
I have an image from the Farm Security Administration Archives taken in the 1940s of the Five Midwives from Talpa. Apolonia Fernandez was my friend Catalina’s great-grandmother. Cleofas Romo was my friend Clint’s great-grandmother and is seated on the bottom row smoking a cigarette that we all want to believe was marijuana. There are two Tafolla women as well, possibly related to me. All of the women are dressed in black, easily mistaken for witches.
When I was little, I used to see in town the women who dressed in black with their black lace mantillas. They were the widows, and they always covered their faces. It seemed every last one of them was hunchbacked because they had to do the man’s work after their husbands had died. They weren’t witches, but more like saints and you could easily take pity on them.
The prominent stories and myths about women of this place are witch stories. These mysterious women were either witches or animals or both, and it never seemed to end well for any of them, no matter how good, or bad they were. It was as if they were all cursed, just for being women.
Now that I’m an animal and a witch too, I’ve decided that I’m going to write different endings to all of these stories. All of the women will win something big, like houses and cars and trips, and by the time I’m done, you can be sure that we will own this entire town.
Karen Vargas is a native of northern New Mexico. Her poetry and short stories have been published in Epoch, Catamaran Literary Reader, Drinking from the Stream, La Palabra: The Word Is A Woman series and a number of other books and literary journals. She has been the recipient of a Taos Resident Writers Award and a Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation Residency.