by Ellen Steiber
About a week later at three A.M. on Sunday morning, Patrick wakes me up. "The police are downstairs," he says. "They need to ask you about Nonie."
I get up, my heart locked with dread. This is it, I think. She’s gone.
And she is. The police are responding to a call from her mother. Nonie went out with Miguel on Friday night. She never came back. In fact, no one can find Miguel either. The police ask me if I think they might have run away together. Or could it be another one of those crazy suicide pacts?
I tell them I don’t know. They ask me where I’d look for her. And I see all the places we used to go together — the park when we were little and mad for the swings, the vintage clothing boutique where we both bought antique silk slips, the hill behind the school. And I know they won’t find her in any of those places.
Forty–eight hours later Nonie and Miguel are both officially declared missing. It comes out later that week that everything Miguel gave them was a lie. The address he gave the school was false, along with his phone number. He had no driver’s license or insurance,and the state didn’t have a record of his truck. His locker at school was empty. It was like Miguel Alvarez was someone we all imagined.
But Nonie. . .Nonie was real and was really gone.
Two weeks later they dragged the quarry. Nothing in the water except an old, rusted Corvette that a drunk college boy drove in there years ago.
So Nonie’s mother declared that her "no–good daughter and that Spanish boy" had run away. That one day Nonie would be back, probably pregnant, and then she’d better pray for Jesus and Mary’s mercy because her parents weren’t going to have anything to do with her.
I was the only one who was certain Nonie was no longer alive. Until they found her body in the woods that led to the quarry. Her neck was torn open. The rest of her body was untouched.
* * * * *
I miss her so much. I’ve been screwing up in school, fighting with my folks. I keep wanting to talk to Nonie and I can’t. It is months before I’m finally able to open the box with Nonie’s journals in it. I start with the most recent one. It begins like this:
Today I saw Miguel for the first time. We recognized each other at once. He scared me at first — until I saw the warmth in his eyes. He took my hand, led me outside, said, "You know who I am, don’t you?"
I just nodded. My voice was gone. I’d been expecting something. I just never dreamed it would be in the shape of someone as beautiful as Miguel.
"Don’t worry, I will make it easy for you, querida," he told me. "There is nothing to fear."
We walked up to the hill behind the school and sat down in the place where Cam and I always sit. Then he said,
"In my mother’s village, in Guatemala, they know that certain people are born with powers. You already know this for yourself, querida. They believe that when we are born into this world, there is also an animal, a nagual, born into the underworld,and we share the same spirit with that animal.Some people, the ones with powers — one minute they are human, the next they become their animal spirit. You understand?"
I knew what he was telling me. I said, "You have an animal inside you." I couldn’t see the shape of it yet. But I sensed it there, its heartbeat matching his, its strength and wariness coursing through his body.
He ran a hand down the side of my face and let me look into his eyes for what seemed a long time. I still couldn’t quite see it. So he went on. He said that sometimes the nagual is more than nagual. It is characotel, the one who shifts shape to carry the spirits of the dyingto the Dueño de Muerte, the God of Death.It is the suerte, the fate of the characotel, that every twenty days he or she must journey to the Dueño and tell him how many people are going to die.
Then he told me this story —
There was a woman characotel, and she married a man who didn’t know her true nature. But he soon noticed that she was sick all the time. This was because she wasn’t bringing enough spirits to the Dueño of Death. The characoteles feed on the bones of the dead, and she wasn’t getting enough of these bones.She was wasting away. The husband tried to get her to eat, to give her medicines, but she wouldn’t take a thing. This made her husband very sad.Finally, a neighbor asked what was wrong; was he fighting with his wife? No, the man answered. His wife was getting weak and thin and she refused to eat with him. That is because she is a characotel, the neighbor said. She goes every Wednesday and Friday night to eat bones at the cemetery. You must follow her and you will see for yourself.
So the husband did as the neighbor advised. He followed the woman at night to the cemetery. And he heard her speaking to the Dueño of Death.
The next morning the husband told his wife they were going to eat breakfast together. She refused, and he accused her of being a characotel. So the characotel turned her husband into a dog. That Friday night the dog followed her to the cemetery. And the wife explained to the Dueño of Death that she punished her husband so that he would not tell anyone about her.The Dueño said that he would change the dog back into a man, but he warned the manthat he would die if he told anyone what he had seen. The man agreed, but he returned home deranged, unable to work or even dress himself. The woman characotel soon sickened and died. The Dueño took her life because she was not a good worker for him. It was only after the husband told the people of his pueblo the whole story that he was cured.
"So do you know why I told you that story?" Miguel asked.
I thought, I know why every three weeks you disappear from school. . .every twenty days the characoteles report to the Dueño of Death. But what I said was something dumb, like, "You’re warning me that you’ll turn me into a dog if I tell on you?"
And he said, "No. I want you to know that with my kind — it is possible to stop us."
"And then you’ll die instead of me," I said.
He shrugged. "I will take my chances with the Dueño."
So I took his hands in mine and I looked into his eyes again. They were so dark. From another place, another time. Below us, on the road, I could hear the sounds of the traffic. But in his eyes I saw forests. I could smell the damp earth after a rain. I could hear birds calling, feel lizards scuttling along the leaves.And I could feel him moving through the trees, not as a human but as a nagual with the soft, rippling tread of a jaguar.
"No," I told him. "I’m not like that man in the story. I’m not frightened of you."
"Bueno," he said. "Then we will have some time together before I take you."
So I am going to have time with Miguel. . . .
* * * * *
I read more of the journal. And I see how she snuck out of her house nearly every night to be with him. It amazes me that I never knew. I mean, I knew they were lovers. I never guessed at what he truly was. But Nonie saw the shape inside him. And he saw all that was inside her.
Nonie’s very last journal entry is a short one:
Miguel says it won’t be long now. And that’s all right. I’m ready. Eager, even. I worry about Cam, though. I don’t know how to take away her fear. But I think that maybe, like the husband in Miguel’s story, if she is able to know the whole truth and then tell it, she will be all right.
So, Cam, if you are reading this, remember: what’s inside us can take so many forms, and there is beauty even in the ones that seem most frightening. Know that when I’m gone I’ll still be there for you. In certain songs. In the shadows. Whenever you see the shape of things.