Way back in 2015 I was invited to contribute a story to Kurt Fawver and Joe Zanetti’s anthology Monsters, Rebuilt. The idea was to pump fresh blood into the arteries of classic monsters, reinterpret them through the lens of those writers who were considered members of the recent wave of weird fiction. I believe the likes of Simon Strantzas, Clint Smith, CM Muller, S.P. Miskowski, Jeffrey Thomas, Scott Nicolay, Damien Angelica Waters, Ian Rogers, John Claude Smith, Michael Wehunt, Kristi DeMeester, Jordan Krall, Orrin Gray, Laird Barron, John Langan, and Anya Martin had already contributed stories, or were in the process of doing so (apologies if I’ve forgotten any others who may have been involved). A Kickstarter was instigated and the intent was to publish via April Moon Books. But the fundraiser floundered, and the project never saw the light of day.
I’m not big on the classic monsters, and don’t often write much about flesh and blood beasties, so the project was a bit of a deviation from my usual fare. My first story for the antho’ was “Loveliness Like a Shadow”, which obliquely touched upon the Gorgon in sculpture, in loneliness, in sorrow. But somebody else had already planned on writing about the Gorgon, so I trunked that finished story and started another which tackled South American mummies. I titled it “Justo’s Mummy Magic Capac Cuna Medicine Company”. But as these things happen, Monsters, Rebuilt folded shortly after the story was accepted.
So “Loveliness Like a Shadow” ended up in my first collection, Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales, while “Justo’s Mummy Magic Capac Cuna Medicine Company” was left in limbo. It was accepted a few years later in a Weird Western anthology, but after lingering a year or so with the publisher, I decided to remove it and trunk it once more.
It didn’t fit well with most of my writing, and felt too much like a Joe Lansdale tribute story, which, all things considered, I will now loudly proclaim the story is most definitely a tip of my sombrero de vaquero to the greatest living storyteller. It’s still a Slatsky story, and while it may wear its influences on its sleeve, I always wanted to write at least one California Western about mummies. It doesn’t stand much of a chance of being accepted for any anthologies, and I’m sure as hell no Lansdale, so I decided to give it a home here on my site. Here goes…
JUSTO’S MUMMY MAGIC CAPAC CUNA MEDICINE COMPANY
I am not sure that God always knows who are his great men; he is so very careless of what happens to them while they live.
—Mary Hunter Austin
I drove my first vehicle in 1910. A Moon Motor Car shiny and new as a penny. Outfitted with a California Top—what you’d call a convertible these days. Steered that flivver into a deep ditch outside of Pomona. Stole a bottle of Thompson’s Straight Whiskey from under the seat. The car’s owner was 12-miles behind when I wrecked it, so he wasn’t any worse for the wear.
I was alive when New Mexico, Arizona, and Alaska became states. Even survived the Great Depression. Took some hard work, begging, and more than a fair amount of criminal doings to get by.
But get by I did.
Saw Birth of a Nation in a theater the week it opened.
But it was the summer of 1898 I remember most. That was the time that changed me, that made me what I am today. For better and for worse. More worse than better I imagine. The year that ruined me. The date that set up all the following decades like a cursed set of dominos.
That’s the summer me and my sister saw the stranger’s wagon and horse in the distance, a cloud of dust trailing it like a companion.
Taking a break from our chores, we waited for him to pass over the distant hills, hands held to brows to block the sun’s glare. We knew the wagon was headed towards what little water remained besides the well at this time of the summer. Lured by the stream’s sweet drizzle that satisfies thirst like no other drink can satisfy on this parched yet vibrant soil.
I was born in those parts four-years after my sister, Concepción. Dropped wet and squealing on the packed dirt floor of our home in a country where lung scalding air was more important in shaping a newborn than any family or church. Parents named me Santos.
Here, my father, mother, Concepción, and myself took root. There were farms about the San Fernando Valley back then, mainly wheat and barley, but father opened the first mercantile store in the region. Sold canned foods, livestock feed, matches, all manner of sundry goods. Mother tended house, husband and children. Concepción and myself grew up with little schooling. Passed most of our time watering and feeding and cleaning up after the horses and chickens we owned. But mama saw to it that we knew how to read and write and work numbers for the store.
She taught us Spanish, but Pa discouraged that as he was loathe to raise us with any knowledge of mother’s Mexican heritage. It was an odd notion— I don’t doubt he loved her, but he certainly didn’t love where she came from. Did he love us? I don’t know. Fathers can be rough, their affection absent until looking back on the times beatings was a little less aggressive than usual, lashings done with a gentleness uncommon when disciplining brats. Pa didn’t seem to notice he had a daughter and a son unless we made a mess of something. I was ok with that. Lessened our chances of him taking his frustrations out on us. Maybe that was love enough.
Despite all this, mama secretly taught us enough of her native language we could manage to communicate behind his back. I think this little act of rebellion tickled her.
I loved books and acquired a particular knack for poetry and nature tales. Concepción was more interested in roping and riding, wrangling horses and collecting lizards. She was far more brave and daring than I ever was. Had the scars to prove it too.
We grew up in a cruel landscape, made more so by the trials and tribulations that came with abject poverty. But I did my part. Stood tall with straightened back, blood blistered feet and a jaw set so tight you couldn’t wrench a smile out of me. I was a serious kid. But I was happy when me and Concepción gathered lizards and dumped them into mama’s laundry basin. Never failed to make us laugh and mama to shriek. Highlight of my childhood. If I could go back, it’d be to those moments. Concepción and me was best friends, content as long as we had each other in that forgotten portion of God’s country.
We also had my pup Artemis as a companion. That helped some.
So we watched that strange wagon with great interest as it intruded on papa’s land. Concepción pointed towards where it’d passed, then looked at me with a sly grin. We both knew immediately what we had to do without exchanging word one. I felt like Captain Kodak on one of his adventures as we raced over the hill, Artemis nipping at my heels to urge me on. Tiny brown mice scattered before our feet. My big sister moved at such a pace I choked air while she glanced back at me, her face not even shiny with exertion. It took awhile to pass over that much ground, and by the time we clambered up the rise plenty of time had transpired for the stranger to set up camp. I was panting as if fit to die. We crept as close as we dared and laid down on our bellies like cougars eyeing prey. The bristles of grass hid us well enough, but we could still see down the slope where the stranger tended his horse next to the shallow creek. Artemis was quiet. She hopped onto my back and watched attentively like a good guard dog.
I always carried mother of pearl opera glasses my mama got from the Barton Opera House in Fresno. She loved her music big and loud. She gave me the glasses ‘cause I liked studying all manner of critters in the desert. Concepción made fun of me for lugging them around instead of something useful like a knife, but they was my prized possession.
I adjusted the lenses, saw the stranger was a tall thin man. Wore a plaid shirt, loose fitting white pants, surprisingly bright given all the dust they must’ve encountered. Boots scarred by travel. Hat bleached by the sun. He sat on a small stool, tinkered with a strange device the size of a pack of cards. I thought it looked like the insides of a music box I once found out in the desert, probably fallen off a wagon transporting a family to the City of Los Angeles.
He could a been young or old— his weathered skin was softened by large dark eyes, the eyes of an inquisitive boy just discovered the wonders of telescopes and steamer automobiles. JUSTO’S MUMMY MAGIC CAPAC CUNA MEDICINE COMPANY was sloppily painted across his beat up wagon’s canvas side.
Concepción wrestled the glasses out of my hands and took a peek. She whistled low. More vibration than pitch.
“Think he’s Chumash or Salinan?”
“Hell if I know. Never heard of no Capac Cuna Indian.”
“Let’s go ask ‘im, perezoso!”
With that Concepción leapt up and ran down the decline, dress bunching around her ankles, though she managed to make it to the bottom without a hitch. Her passage kicked up a haze of insects. I followed as quickly as I could, Artemis at my side, but in my haste swallowed a mouthful of bugs. When I reached the bottom, Concepción grinned as if she were a pocket hunter just stumbled across a rich mine. I didn’t smile because my teeth were spackled with bug paste and didn’t want to make a poor first impression to this stranger.
The man turned and observed us with a tilt of his head. His beautiful horse whinnied, stamped the ground. She had a creamy red coat the shade of Western Juniper bark.
“Who do we have here?” He spoke in a hard to place accent, neither Mexican like mama nor Chumash nor any Indian tongue I’d ever heard. That accent carried with it nations far to the South, touched by the many cultures he’d passed through from years of traveling northwards. That flavor spread through every word, like a drop of blood in cream. It was a voice that insisted on being remembered, like them singers mama enjoyed listening to on the nickel-in-the-slot machine our Dutch neighbor Mr. Heijmans had spent a considerable sum on acquiring for his saloon business.
Of course my big sister was the first to speak up. Girl never had a spot of shyness in her,
“I’m Concepción. This mute is my little brother Santos. You Indian?”
“My name is Justo. I am Kaqchikel, from Comalapa.” He said, dropping to a knee to pet Artemis. She grinned like the stupid dog she was and wagged her tail.
“Thought you said your name was Hoo-stow?”
“That it is. That it is.” Justo laughed in that operatic voice.
“I like your horse.” Concepción was captivated.
Justo said his nag was Lakota trained. An animal so smart it could braid her own mane and count to a hundred by stamping a hoof if given proper incentive. I was a bit ashamed, as our horses, chickens, and Artemis were barely capable of much more than eating, drinking, and shitting. He spoke of his long trek from Guatemala into California, and how he was only passing through this region to present his Mummy Magic Capac Cuna Medicine Company exhibit in Los Angeles for the wealthy folks at the Monte Vista Hotel. His horse and he were weary and he hoped to set up camp for the evening. Then the conversation took a turn.
“You two strike me as curious kids. Ever seen a mummy?”
Of course I’d heard about mummies. Read all about how some thought that Egypt was the mother civilization and America the definitive conclusion of that African ideal society. I’d read Poe and Louisa May Alcott. I knew about mummy unwrappings held in lecture halls and universities where the bitumen and yellow dust coated everything. I didn’t believe what Justo had painted across the side of his wagon was anything but snake oil nonsense, but my curiosity made me bold.
“I know all about the Pharaohs and Egypt and mummies!”
Justo squinted, set his mouth in a firm slash, rocked back and forth on that stool as he contemplated what I’d said. He balanced that weird square machine on an open palm. “There are mummies from places other than the African continent my young friend.”
Concepción butted in. “Where else?”
“Sun drenched Peru, Chile, Ecuador—many lands boast a wealth of mummified specimens. Would you two like to see?”
I didn’t know about any of those exotic places, but any wariness I possessed was brushed aside by Concepción’s impulsiveness. “You have momias on that wagon?” I asked.
“Says so on the side of my wagon, yes? Many. Mummies I have. Momia men, Momia women. Momia children. Might say I have a momia family.”
Concepción’s pupils swelled wide, her smile wider.
“Normally requires a small viewing fee of ten cents. Either of you have any coin?”
We looked at each other, said “nada” at the same time.
“Well, I haven’t travelled all this way to deny knowledge to inquisitive folks like yourselves. Step on over.”
Justo tucked the strange machine under his belt, walked to his wagon, and opened the cloth flap at the rear. He stepped inside, rustled around the items stored within. “C’mon up.” He held his hand out and helped Concepción in, then myself. Artemis stayed outside.
The spacious interior of the wagon was cluttered with clockwork devices and lined with six boxes of various heights and widths. Crude wooden coffins. I wondered why they were all held closed with thick leather straps and fat metal buckles.
“You kids ready?” Justo asked.
We nodded like seed heavy heads of sunflowers in the wind. Justo undid the buckle on one coffin, lifted the cover with a reverence reserved for the unveiling of something most rare.
It was a dead girl.
I guessed she’d probably expired around Concepción’s age, shy a birthday or two. Hard to tell a person’s chronology what with them turned to leather.
She wasn’t wrapped in dusty linen like Egyptian mummies, but wore a bright red and green wool shawl, a purple cap on her head, two long braids of hair the color of rotten corn silk touched her shoulders. Her skin was all dried out. Like air-cured salmon meat, or something pulled from the earth, root vegetable complexion. And that awful smile. Small round pearls of barley teeth, ribbons of gray flesh woven between the gaps. Mouth locked in place like a child done wrong and they were doing their damndest to placate an adult.
Her body was clenched up. Fists touched chin, knees drawn against chest as if she were hiding something and took this position to disguise the fact. She smelled floral, of sweet flowers and honey.
I didn’t like it one bit. But Concepción said what I was too afraid to say,
“Dulce y soleado Jesús! That a real dead girl?”
“Sacrilegio! Don’t blaspheme Concepción”, I said with little pious conviction.
A shadow passed over Justo’s brow. He cocked his head as if he heard someone approaching. There was something I could only identify as abject terror in the shape his face took. This shook me. We’d just met, but he didn’t seem to be the type to get easily spooked. I made up my mind right there that Justo was a wanted man. Just what he was wanted by didn’t avail itself to my attentions until later.
He hastily leaned out the wagon, turned back to us and asked,
“I’m assuming that’s your jefe headed this way?”
“Suppose he is, but I ain’t gotta like it.” I mumbled quietly, though I’m pretty sure Justo heard me.
The three of us hopped to the ground much to Artemis’ delight, and sure enough, pa was hoofing it down the hill with a gait suggesting this inconvenience had best be worth his time. He held his rifle with both hands. Justo waved at him.
Father strolled up an’ placed that weapon’s barrel against Justo’s throat without even any how-do-you-do.
Concepción shouted, “Papa, there’s no need for that!”
Fear made my feet grow roots. I was grounded, couldn’t budge an inch. I knew pa itched to put a hole in Justo’s throat.
“Don’t appreciate no fuckin’ gut-eater trespassin’ on my property”, pa said.
“Don’t think he ain’t no Indian”, I said, no longer as intimidated as I’d been.
“Mind your business, son.”
Pa didn’t like when I interjected, and was likely to reprimand me severely when he got ahold of some horse reins from the stable later on.
Justo pulled his shoulders back, feet shifted a smidge, knocked the stool over with a puff of dust. He leaned his neck into father’s rifle, gave the impression he was more threatening, like the spread hood of a cobra. I admired that. Always hated my pa, and seeing just how brass Justo’s balls were pleased me to no end. That gentle smile never slipped from Justo’s face as he spoke confidently,
“If I may be so bold as to make a proposition. Hear me out. A demonstration, numeration free, and in turn you graciously provide a stable for my horse, shade for my wagon, and a roof over my own head until sunup tomorrow.”
“Then you’d best move your savage ass on as I can’t provide none of that. No interest in any snake oil bullshit.”
“On the way past I saw your barn. It looked mighty inviting. My horse is fastidious, and I myself require little as I have a copious supply of food on my wagon, and this stream is more than sufficient to quench our thirsts. I’ll pay to rest under your barn roof one night, and one night only.”
“Then allow me to stay here on your land, far way so as not to—.”
“You seem to be unaware of my previous fucking stand on the matter.”
“Then I offer you ten dollars to rent this bare patch of ground for the evening, and a free viewing of my mummy traveling companions. That’s a generous offer you must admit.”
Father hesitated, locked his gaze on Justo’s wagon. After what felt like hours, but was likely only seconds, he lowered the rifle from Justo’s neck. But he gently cradled the weapon in the crook of his arm in case it was necessary to introduce it again.
“Don’t care one fuck’s worth about no mummy bullshit, but I’ll accept that generous proposition of currency.” He slung the rifle against his shoulder, barrel now pointed harmlessly at the sky.
Justo reached into the front of his wagon and retrieved a lacquered box. He removed a treasury note, handed it to pa who snatched it away quick as a rattler suppin’ on field mice. Justo reached out to clinch the deal with a handshake. Father didn’t feel obliged to partake, but stuffed the note in a pocket. There was an ugly gleam in his eye when he saw that Justo had trouble closing the lacquered box lid for want of its excess of contents.
“One night. Do your little exhibition bullshit ‘cause the others might like to be entertained. Then you’d best be a memory this time tomorrow.”
Within half an hour mama joined us along with Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, the Heijmans with their four brats, and Mr. Horcasitas. Even pa stayed put. We gathered in front of Justo’s wagon to await the display of his mummy show as promised. Justo was busy inside setting things up just so. I held Artemis in my arms so she wouldn’t get into any mischief during the show.
There was a lot of murmuring among us of “red-Indian mummy” this and “red-Indian mummy” that, and speculation about how different the South American dead were from the Egyptian dead. But we all shut up and paid attention once Justo started in with his oration from behind the wagon’s canvas, voice booming and authoritative.
“From the deepest darkest grottoes of Venezuela! From the hoary wastes of Peru’s insurmountable mountaintops! Prepare yourselves to meet the incorruptible dead!”
Justo built suspense by keeping the wagon’s curtain closed and lecturing us about an underworld realm called Ukhu Pacha, where the dreaded Supay lorded over all. He spoke of ancestor worship, and how Supay’s demonic army loved nothing more than to disrupt funereal rites so as to disorient souls to cause them to lose their way. Apparently mummification of the physical corpse was a means to protect the deceased’s soul from them demons, though it was no guarantee of safety on their passage to the paradise of Hanan Pachua. When Justo finished his speech, he slid the wagon’s canvas sheets aside to reveal all six caskets lined up, tallest to shortest.
“Behold the immortal remains of a bygone race!”
The coffin straps were unbuckled, lids removed. Dead occupants grinned their yellow-toothed grins. Besides the girl we’d already seen, there was another delicate thing, like the ashy remains of a campfire log ready to collapse into powder. Three mummies looked to have been made by hand, their skin hardened clay, human pottery dressed up in shawls and hats. Another was jerky meat shaped like a man.
Words came from their mouths, jumping from one to another. Maybe Justo was throwing his voice like some carnival entertainer. Or he’d placed a wax cylinder or some such mechanism inside the wretched corpses. I thought about that strange machine he was tinkerin’ with when we first saw him. Maybe it was a sort a music box that mimicked voices. I was smart enough to know that the ancient places these mummies came from would’ve spoke something other than Spanish, but it was still an uncanny thing to hear.
A satisfactory explanation was not readily apparent. Black magic and weird talking machines were both foreign to me. Barely understood the Dutchman’s nickel-in-the-box dingus. This was weird and exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure.
Justo stepped down from the wagon and asked everyone to form a single-file line. We did so, and he led us up to view the mummies one by one. Allowed us to touch their linen, their wizened bodies, the exposed stained skulls. He gave little details about each, how one had dyed the alpaca fur for their shawl, another wore the burial tapestry called an asku. Described the process that’d withered them up by removing their guts, drying them out next to campfires, then stuffing them with grasses and fur. I’ve seen many exhibitions since, but that was certainly the first and the best.
Justo let us gawk for a good hour before the sun rolled behind the hills and the long shadows made the corpse limbs and torsos lengthier than what I wanted them to be. It was a ghastly sight.
Justo closed the curtains and we all parted ways. We walked home discussing just how macabre Central and South American dead were compared to their Egyptian brethren, and just how nifty that voice trick was as well. When I looked back I saw Justo in his campfire’s light, busying himself with locking up those coffins tight. Again, I saw that look of worry on him and wondered what in the hell this man could possibly fear.
We woke up the next morning to discover several torn up chickens.
A beak count came up eight short, their fate writ in a trail of feathers and blood that led to the hills. Mrs. Heijmans informed us that Mr. Heijmans had gone missing too. All four of her kids were squawking like abandoned chicks.
Father, Mr. Johnson, and Mr. Horcasitas rounded up Justo at gunpoint. There was no hemmin’ or hawin’ on their part; everyone was convinced the traveler was some kind of evil sorcerer who’d killed the chickens in an ungodly ritual then topped off his Devil’s mass by slitting Mr. Heijmans’ throat and burying him in parts unknown. No other explanation satisfied the dead birds and Mr. Heijmans’ absence and talking mummies. Pieces fit close enough for them to declare that as evidence enough. Artemis was too small and timid to kill chickens, but the obvious alternative that coyotes had done this was disregarded.
Justo knew they were coming, but father hit him in the back of the head with his rifle butt before he could defend himself properly. They hog tied him with several strands of rope, and dumped his sorry ass inside the barn. Ironic given his previous willingness to pay to stay under said roof. I think Concepción and I were the only ones who found this worth noting.
Mr. Horcasitas led Justo’s magnificent horse and not-so-magnificent wagon behind the barn. He tied the nag to a post. The others unloaded the contents of the wagon inside, leaning the coffins against the wall nearest the hay bales. The horses stamped in their stalls and snickered nervously.
The rest of the clutter of blankets and provisions were piled in an empty stable, all in the pretense they wanted to confiscate hidden rifles and pistols or find evidence of Mr. Heijmans’ murder. But Concepción and I knew pa just wanted to hunt down that overstuffed box of treasury notes.
To their credit, they didn’t kill Justo outright. Father told Mr. Horcasitas to take Justo’s horse and ride to Santa Susana del Rancho Simi to fetch the law. I say to his credit, though Concepción had more sinister thoughts on the matter.
“Pa is gonna hurt Justo. Beat him until he tells where that money be at. With Mr. Horcasitas away until tomorrow, they won’t have to split the money with him. They’ll say they found nothin’. Una gran mentira.”
I didn’t like what my big sister was saying, but I knew it was the truth. Pa had meanness branded onto his heart, and it didn’t take much imagination to think he’d inflict great harm to satiate his greed. I couldn’t help but keep glancing at those mummy coffins. I’m not ashamed to say they spooked me.
Later that night, when everyone was asleep, and we were snug in our room, Concepción came up with a scheme to sneak on over to the barn and see if we could release Justo. I tried to talk her out of it,
“What if pa and Mr. Johnson are in there killin’ him right now?”
“Pa drank enough for 10-men tonight and he’s snorin’ in bed right now. You know he’s an early riser, Santos. I imagine he’ll be up just before sunrise to see to Justo. Needs some rest before he goes breakin’ up a man.”
I relented right quick. Didn’t like what we thought pa had planned for good ol’ Justo, and I wasn’t gonna win this argument anyway. So we sneaked away, leaving Artemis snoring in her bed in our room.
The night was darker than I remembered nights normally being. The deep blue sky was starless yet still lessened the gloom in some unusual manner.
We tiptoed up to the barn door, looked between the space where the doors didn’t quite meet. I could see Justo’s outline, still bound and tied to a support beam so there was no need to secure the entrance. Took a moment for my eyes to adjust to make anything else out.
When they did, I didn’t like what I saw.
Splintered wood lay all over the barn floor.
Each and every coffin but one had been wrenched open, leather straps and buckles twisted up in a heap before them. Only the girl mummy all curled up into a ball was still in her coffin. The others were empty.
Somehow Justo knew we were there. He turned his head— a great ordeal given the way he’d been strapped and confined.
“Untie me! They’re here! They’re on the way and they mean to do wrong!”
The panic in his voice was devastating, like when a child realizes their parents will grow old and die. I knew there and then that Justo wasn’t talking about pa and Mr. Johnson.
Concepción started to say something but stopped when we heard a woman screaming over near the Johnson’s home.
“Mrs. Johnson don’t sound right,” Concepción whispered.
I didn’t know what was going on. Didn’t think that Justo had anything to do with anything, but I still wasn’t confident enough to release him. And why were those other coffins empty? Better yet, why’d they leave the one girl momia behind? I didn’t feel too good about any of this.
Concepción was though. She opened the barn doors just enough to slip through and ran to Justo’s side. She used a rusty sickle to slit the cords around his ankles and wrists without any further persuading.
I slipped inside too and crouched down next to my big sister. “Maybe we should think things through before you go and do somethin’ like that?”
“Seemed the right thing to do given the circumstances.”
I couldn’t argue with her on that.
We heard raised voices and boots strike the hard ground near the barn. I recognized father’s cursing in the bunch, but couldn’t tell what was being said. I’d have had more luck translating the angry hum of a hornet’s nest.
“Dammit. That woman screamin’ must a woke everyone.” Concepción said.
I winced at the pop of rifle fire. A portion of the barn door exploded inwards. Panicked horses circled in the confines of their stalls.
Justo shouted out, “There’s children in here! Hold your fire you degenerates! Hold your fire!”
But they didn’t take heed. I heard papa yell that sonuvvabitch brought devils with him! but I wasn’t sure my ears heard that right. Couldn’t believe our own father was so intent on getting that money he’d shoot through his own kin. I was skeptical he’d listen to reason if I explained that killing Justo would guarantee that money remain hidden.
Another scream from outside. This time a man screeched like something done him wrong body and soul.
Then Concepción said to Justo what we all assumed was going on,
“Your damned mummies got loose and is killin’ ‘em!”
She grabbed Justo’s sleeve and tugged on it, trying to shake the truth outta him. But Justo just looked at her as if disappointed she hadn’t figured it out yet, and spoke softly,
“You don’t have to worry about any mummies. Best worry about what scared the mummies off.”
Concepción released Justo’s arm, then sat down as if she couldn’t accept all that was happening at once. Justo took this as his cue to run over to the occupied coffin. He reached into a slit inside the mummy’s side, removed a pistol and a leather bag I assumed was full of ammunition.
He crouched behind the slightly open barn doors, leaned out and fired two shots in succession. Don’t think he aimed at anything, but meant to scare his attackers, give himself some breathing room until he had an opening to slip away. He turned to us, eyes all moist, voice warbling a bit.
“You two need to run out the back. Don’t want you kids hurt.”
I didn’t want anyone to die that night either, but I understood that Justo was only trying to defend himself. I looked to Concepción to see what course of action she wanted to pursue. She moved herself so she was between the barn entrance and me, shielding me from any potential violence. She started to speak.
I heard an explosion.
My big sister’s face and blouse was suddenly spattered in blood and chunks of matter thicker than blood.
My heart broke in two.
I grabbed her shoulders to keep her from collapsing. But she still sat up, her hands moved over her chest and face, seached for where that bullet had entered then parted. But there was no wound to be found.
Justo’s body slumped to the ground. The top of his head was gone.
Pa had always been a crack shot. On realizing what’d happened, Concepción grabbed handfuls of straw and began to frantically wipe Justo’s brains from her skin.
Things went silent for a moment. I looked over at the scoop of Justo’s cranium near his open head. I thought it looked like a bowl of red milk left out for the feral barn cat.
I scuttled over and pulled the pistol from Justo’s still hand. Didn’t know why. Didn’t think what I’d do with it. I was made of anger and sorrow and instinct at that moment, prepared to protect my sister and my own self if need be in any way I could. Even if it meant killing our pa.
But he and the others must’ve realized there was nobody left to return fire, so they started talking again. I saw pa press against the barn door, duck his head between the gap real quick to assess the situation.
“What the holy fuck were you two thinkin’ in releasin’ that man? You realize what kinda things that bastard let out here tonight?”
I’d no control of my arms. They rose before me like I was a marionette. Justo’s surprisingly heavy pistol shook in my grip.
Up. Slowly, but higher and higher. Up to chest level, aimed at my papa’s head. I was burning with righteous rage. Revenge driven. All the rational bits of my brain chased away by raw hatred. I began to squeeze the trigger.
“You ain’t gonna do that, boy.” Papa said.
Then I saw what made them mummies turn tail and run.
Something I cannot to this day describe leaned out of the loft, spilled across the barn floor and coagulated into a shape I can only describe as a seething whirlpool of black blood.
It lopped our father’s head clean off his shoulders.
What I can only assume was a face turned towards me. Deep, dark pits I can only guess were eyes burned with the lightless fires of something from long ago birthed in regions far below. It may have hissed, but that would only be a failed approximation at what sounds it made as it crawled through the air like dye poured in water.
I fired twice, opened my mouth to shout a warning to Concepción to run away. But my voice froze when I looked over at the coffins.
That girl mummy was gone.
I heard fingernails swiftly scrabble through straw, scratch the planks of the floor, tap tap tap. I turned to the sound but a cold, meaty mass hit my chest, pushed me away from that shadowy demon approaching like a starved mountain lion. The pistol slid from my hand into the straw.
That little girl mummy. she embraced me with a terrible strength.
Her wizened mouth was puckered like the orifice of a sea creature left out in the blazing sun. She croaked a sorrowful speech in a tongue I’d never heard before, but was translated in my head by some unknown means of comprehension,
Oh me duele.
Thin scar tissue lips didn’t shape themselves around the words in the manner of actual speech, but her mouth dropped open and a thingamajig wound up inside her hollow body was activated— a plucked resonance, like the tines in a music box. Those cold, smooth as oiled-saddle-leather hands cradled my face and suddenly I was a child crying my heart out. I was now abandoned on a cold mountaintop, frigid air burning my skin, sharp and clear like inhaling boiling water.
I was drugged. Disoriented by a concoction of cocoa leaves and maize beer I somehow knew was called chicha.
Numb to my impending death.
A blunt weapon struck me above the right eye. My skull fell in, eye socket collapsed. Blood filled the cavity and pushed against my brain.
A man slit my side open from hip to armpit. Removed the intestines but left the rest, stuffed plant fibers and animal hair in the cavity. The edge of an abalone shell scraped across my forearms, skin and muscle peeled away in fatty layers. Exposed bone was slathered in black and blood-red mud. They built fires around me to set the new flesh.
Family visited as time passed. Not mama and papa and Concepción, but a family from long ago who I’d yet to meet. They patched me up, stitched and filled in the distress the occasional scavenger and weather inflicted on my corpse.
I felt nothing.
Then the fever arrived. A painful heat took over, filled me up with an ache and a sting. Wind tightened what was left of my skin, made bones brittle and hair to whip like tiny switches. All I wanted to do was hug my knees and allow the weather to put me to sleep forever.
Drugged slumber became eternal.
I lay untouched, pickled by the elements. My remaining innards shriveled yet stayed intact, preserving the contents of my stomach forever. Last meal memorialized.
I missed my family so much. But I didn’t know if I missed mother, father and Concepción, or the family that had participated in my sacrifice.
I missed them all.
Loved them all.
They’d left toys. Dried feathers lashed to a corncob with red twine, a human-shaped figurine sculpted from soft gold, a macaw from silver, ivory hair pins.
I woke up.
I was running into the desert night. My clay arms heavy, desiccated limbs creaked. Concepción’s cries followed me like a bitter balm. The landscape had gone all spectral by a silvery moon that’d transformed each rock and pebble into a gleaming nugget, every crevice into a deep dark passage to unexplored regions of Ukhu Pacha. I could see every constellation as if they were etched on my pupils. The planets moved slow and pondrous. Stars gleamed swift and sharp.
At night the desert becomes another country, like a distant dead planet turning in undiscovered places, its secrets alluring and dangerous as the pattern on a Red Diamond rattlesnake. There’s a dreary beauty to this villainous arid soil the Chumash call home, but I never felt I was anything but a stranger in a foreign land who just happened to be born in this geography by circumstances beyond my grasp. Concepción kept yelling my name, but I didn’t want her to know what I’d become.
Didn’t know what world I belonged to much less what world I was fleeing from that night. I ran and screamed until my voice became hoarse and my soul turned to dust and my conscience atrophied and I took that first step towards becoming something mean and remorseless.
The ground was pitted, as if a giant’s hand had scratched and gouged the itchy surface. I stepped into one of the holes. Foot came out with the sound a piglet makes sliding from a sow. My wrinkled leg was covered in a black wet froth from toe to mid-shin.
The pits were filled with coagulated blood. I didn’t dare stare down into those tunnels to Ukhu Pacha, for fear of what majestic Creations I may have glimpsed.
The pores of this planet opened, released gouts of red which nudged hundreds of that very same shadowy creature in the barn onto the bloody surface. They leapt out of those holes and stampeded across the desert. Supay’s minions were stupid, but animal stupid, cunning when it came to wreaking mayhem in their desire for mischief.
I suffered a vicious thirst. The land sponged moisture from mouth and brow. The occasional deluge was most welcome in winter, for the skies in these parts was a sharp blue nine-months out of the year. When the clouds did appear they were usually wisps, like torn hanks of cotton. But this was August.
I was oh so thirsty.
I ran until my legs felt thin as porridge. Then I continued to run more. I drew strength from a newfound hatred of this fucking world. I saw dozens of those demons lope ahead of me into the hills, but cannot for the life of me remember what they’d looked like. All I recall is that if any of them had turned back to glare, nothing of me would’ve survived that night.
Heaven wasn’t above, nor hell or Ukhu Pacha or whatever else below. The geography of my faith was no longer the map I once knew it to be. I was on a planet that never should’ve allowed life to scuttle across its face. Every building an abomination; every dam an insult; every footprint a blasphemy.
Concepción cried Santos! And it sounded so tragic, so lost, it made me stop running. I stood still on the warm ground under that cold night sky. My pant leg was heavy with blood, but my skin felt right again, soft and warm like it should. Blood shuddered in my veins. I was no longer one of them. I recognized my surroundings.
I ran back to the ranch, heart heavy with dread on what I’d find, praying the whole time that Concepción hadn’t attracted that demon’s wrath. As I neared the barn I smelled hay, heard the chickens making their stupid chicken noises, the horses snorting and fussing and farting.
I came across Mr. Johnson’s shredded body. The only reason I recognized him was from the bits of overalls he always wore. Mrs. Johnson was nearby, pretty much intact, but with a terrible tear that ran from shoulder to waist that’d removed enough of her vitals to guarantee a quick death.
Mrs. Heijmans’ corpse was apparent by the funny purple shoes she always insisted on wearing. The rest of her was raw and red and didn’t look human. Her brats were nowhere to be found.
The first thing I saw just inside the barn was that mummy girl. Lower half of her was gone. Nothin’ but tatters. Yellow rib bones and spinal column trailing like a diseased tail.
It was a sad state of affairs. I didn’t understand what’d happened, but I certainly knew it wasn’t right for any party involved. This poor creature may or may not have been resurrected by the Devil himself, but she’d most definitely saved my life by tacklin’ me and performing whatever witchery had cast me into that other place. I knew she’d done so to protect me from certain death from Supay’s minion. I knew and understood little else.
I didn’t want to contemplate what sort of hungers and desires burned inside Supay’s wicked shadow beasts, much less what they needed to do to satiate their needs. I for one consider my ignorance a blessed thing.
I found mama and Concepción leaning over papa’s corpse, mama crying, Concepción too stunned for tears. Someone had covered pa’s decapitated head with a horse blanket. Grief held my hand, though not as tightly as it would have if mama or my big sister had been killed.
Concepción asked if I’d been hurt. Told her I didn’t know whose blood was on my leg, but was damned sure it wasn’t mine.
“Saw you runnin’ out there but it wasn’t you. It was someone used to be you.”
I told her that pretty much captured what I thought of the ordeal myself.
“That shadow thing ran off into the night,” she said.
“I saw them. I saw all a them.”
I fell to my knees, threw up sour stomach slop, lost count of how many times I emptied my gut. Concepción patted my back to console me. But consolation was a lost cause after that night.
We buried Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Heijmans, Justo, and papa. Never did find any hide or hair of the Heijmans’ kids.
I dug a shallow grave for the girl mummy and dragged some heavy stones over to hold her down just in case she wasn’t yet done with this world. We burned Justo’s wagon and the broken coffins.
When Mr. Horcasitas arrived back with the law the next morning we blamed Justo for the carnage. Said he got the bloodlust and took it out on innocent folk. We insisted the Heijmans’ boys were so scared they’d run off into the desert and couldn’t be found.
Convinced the Sheriff. He was all too willing to believe that a foreign man had intruded our humble land to drink the blood of innocent Christian folk.
Felt something awful lying to the law. Degrading Justo’s memory like that. None of this was fair. None of this was right. I couldn’t help but admire Justo’s tenacity; he was as stubborn as them Yokuts during the Tule River War.
Turned out that Mr. Heijmans was fine. He’d been off to dally with a lady in Saticoy and forgot to come home. He gnashed his teeth and cried a bit on learning of his family’s grisly demise, but didn’t seem much worse for the wear the next day. I suspect he had a replacement wife and kids in town.
Mr. Horcasitas kept that beautiful Lakota trained horse. That bothered me a bit, but I couldn’t do nothin’ about it.
More importantly, Justo’s money never turned up either. Neither did Justo’s weird little box machine of unknown origin.
My sister and I explored the hills, mother of pearl opera glasses glued to my eyes, but we didn’t find a trace of the mummies and whatever else hunted them that night. Years passed, and any chance of finding mummy or demon wilted.
Artemis got old and died. My heart was so broken by that dumb mutt’s passing it never really felt like it’d healed correctly.
Concepción and I grew up, left home. Mama stayed behind on the ranch and managed the store. Concepción turned her rough and tumble nature into a career. Starred in a traveling show where she did horse tricks, fancy shooting and all manner of daring acts. Lucille Mulhall had nothin’ on her. Studios eventually got wind and she ended up collaborating with Helen Gibson and Harold Lloyd to design and perform dangerous stunts for films. She became quite the celebrity ranchera.
I moved to central California, took up writing, published a handful of poems and essays on the San Gabriel Mountains’ flora and fauna in the Sacramento Nature Journal. Mary Hunter Austin read a few and liked them enough to send a kind letter stating, amongst other things, “You’ve managed to portray the divinity of the loneliest land that ever did come from God’s hand”.
I replied back but never received another piece of mail from her. So I folded up her letter and kept it in my wallet all these years.
Mama died 28-years after our grand adventure. Expired from a tarantula bite. She’d gone frail and weak and I think she was still too heartsick all those years later over what happened to father to fight the infection.
Concepción and I inherited the land but we didn’t want to go home again. Sold the ranch for a pittance.
Not too much later Concepción was injured in a botched stunt while filming Ghosts of Rampage Canyon. She never walked again. Never really did much of anything else again. I moved down to Los Angeles to stay at Concepción’s house and care for her. I don’t know how she felt about such, ‘cause she only spoke in grunts. Never really got my big sister back.
Nursed her for 3 months before she killed herself. I was passed out from a vicious bender; she’d managed to draw a warm bath and grab my straight razor. Slit both arms in the tub. Wrist to elbow. Guess there was more of the tough girl left in her than I thought.
I was never what you’d call a straight and narrow kid. Wasn’t a model citizen and wasn’t too concerned about obeying the law, but her death made me angrier day by day. A hair-trigger drunkard ready to pull at any moment. I hated everything, and I took it out on the world. I wandered through Mexico, then circled back through Arizona. Nevada, and up to Oregon where I hurt a man in a gambling related incident. I like to think he survived. I didn’t stick around to find out. I think I lost mama’s mother of pearl opera glasses in that fight. Fell right outta my pocket.
I hurt women. Hurt men. My hands were so much scar tissue by then and my heart so black I knew the time to make amends had passed long ago. Life moves as swift as a desert flash flood, no matter how beautiful or ugly, how cruel or kind, or how monstrous the living may be.
Change was on the wind. The Monroe Doctrine was up and running though I was too stupid to know it. Over the years Honduras, Panama, and Justo’s people would see invasion after invasion. Guatemala was tore up by the CIA’s Eisenhower backed coup d’état and the United Fruit Company’s aggressive lobbying. I could hear American boots a marchin’ over the decades. I don’t know why Justo travelled with mummies. Maybe he felt sorry for them sacrificed little children. Maybe he was protecting them from Supay and his hordes. Maybe they was his only family.
An old man turned into an older man. Cancer snuck up on me. Grabbed my guts and did all sorts of terrible things as it spread.
These days I ain’t convinced that meeting up with loved ones at the pearly gates is to anyone’s advantage. If that bump on my big sister’s noggin turned her into a drooling idiot who couldn’t wipe her own ass, well, then I can only imagine what damage the travails of death inflict against a soul. Maybe that explains why ghosts are always shakin’ chains and moanin’, with no real ability to communicate their needs. Incident like death ain’t inclined to make a dead thing’s intellectual needs much more developed than a lizard’s desire to pilfer a hen’s egg.
Heaven must be chock full a simple folk.
Heaven or not, brainless or not, God or not, Supay or Yahweh, I feel it’s best to remember Concepción roping cattle and performing all of her derring-do in front of the cameras. Better than my memory of her face-down, rump-up in pink bathwater.
Cancer can strike me down whenever it wants to now. Any day I say every day. The young pretty nurses here are attentive and hang onto the tales of a dying old man reminiscing about the untamed West, including the one I just told. I know they don’t believe me. Maybe it’s best they don’t. I’m content with that.
Still got that letter from Mary Hunter Austin to appease this writer’s ego. Nothin’ to sneeze at there.
And I still got the beauty in the mystery, the poetry in the unknown. I suspect something still wanders the hills. Something dead-but-roamin’ for 400-years ain’t about to stop being dead-but-roamin’ all these decades on. No idea if what the earth spit out that night was Incan myth made flesh or something else. Maybe those demon things are best forgotten, relegated to the dusty attics of the past, watered down through repeated tellings around campfires. Maybe there’s art in not knowing everything. Maybe the mystery of the mummies and their shadowy hunters was never meant to be explained.
I thought all that until one of them shadow demons decided to visit me in the hospital.
Sat at the foot of my bed like a dog knowed he done wrong by dirtying up my sheets. Dropped by, oh, five nights ago?
Keeps returning too.
I don’t really care too much. It’s no hallucination. No nightmare. Told it to cut my goddamn head off and be done with it.
But it just sits there. I think it whispers something in its ancient language, but my hearing works as well as my liver and pecker, so I can’t be sure.
I wonder how it tracked me down.
What I think is a head turns my way, eyes darker than its space-black face burnin’ with something I can’t describe as anything but aberrant. A Biblical kind of wickedness. Its expression twisted up with promises of Old Testament calamity and violence.
I appreciate its company late at night. I truly do. It seems agitated, like it knows something is on the way. I’m ok with that. Let it come. I think of that dead lonely child sacrificed on that mountaintop from centuries ago, that child whose family slit it open and surrounded the body with precious toys and baubles. That innocent creature didn’t want to go into the Night alone. Neither do I.
Our old home, the land I grew up on, is all orange tree farms and tract homes now. Santa Susana even has an airport. It’s like all the livin’ we did there wasn’t worth a damn since nobody will remember us when we’re gone. I don’t much like what anything has become in my lifetime. I’ve accomplished nothin’. The writing never became a career, and all I done since was hurt people. Please kill me. Let me go. Oh how I just want to be done with all this. But that demon son of a bitch won’t do what I know he wants to do.
I want to see mama and my sister and Artemis one more time. If there be an afterlife, let them be there waiting for me, all healthy and happy and joyous. Hell, I’d be happy to see some a them stupid chickens or horses too. I’ll take what I can get.
But I suspect that when I die and go into that eternal blackness I won’t be reunited with mama or my sister or Artemis or any earthly thing I loved ever again. Maybe at that point I will have written the most goddamn powerful poem imaginable. Maybe dying will be the greatest artistic achievement of my miserable life. That’d be good too.
I like to think that way when the morphine fails to dull the pain of my dying cells, and that demon bastard stares into my eyes and sings something in that weird tongue I don’t like the sound of.
Thinking that way blocks out its voice and brings the image of Concepción’s smile to my mind. It makes me long to be back collecting the fattest, longest lizards you could imagine and plopping them in mama’s laundry basin and laughing until the world left us alone and all that remained were two siblings happy to be brother and sister. I can be certain of that much if nothing else.
It’ll have to do, ’cause that’s all I got anymore.