Friday, October 9, 2015

Dream Warrior by Phil Slattery

Phil Slattery's powerful revenge epic about a man who visits his Mexican grandfather for spiritual guidance after a violent crime results in the death if his fiancée.

Laid out on the crude wooden table in front of Miguel were corn tortillas, roasted rabbit, a large bowl of pinto beans, and something unrecognizable made of dried corn. The old man sitting across the table from him seemed as anachronistic as the meal: long, thick, silver hair; narrow slits for eyes; leathery skin that seemed more fit on a shrunken head; a dirty headband; and a serape. Through the light of the kerosene lanterns and the logs burning in the fireplace, Miguel looked around at the objects hanging from the walls of the cabin: skulls of cattle, rattlesnake skins, coyote hides, a Bowie knife, bunches of dried chiles, ceremonial rattles, and paintings of human sacrifice that looked like they had been copied from Aztec temples. The flickering firelight made the figures seem alive, as if the priests were slicing and stabbing their prisoners over and over.

Miguel struggled for something to say. He had seen the old man only a few times in his life and the last of those was twelve years ago, when Miguel was eight. "So, great-grandfather, Dad tells me you're a sorcerer?"

"Some call me a sorcerer." The man's voice was cracked and hoarse. "I am a Nahuatl priest."

"Nahuatl?"

"They are called Aztec these days, but the Aztecs were only one of several Nahuatl peoples. Pass me the goddamned corn, please."

"Oh, sure." Miguel picked up the bowl of dried corn and handed to the old man.

"And don't call me great-grandfather. That makes me sound too old. Just call me grandfather... or sir. I like sir." The old man scooped out some corn onto his plate with a wooden spoon. Then he licked the spoon, left it in the bowl of corn, and passed it back to Miguel. Miguel set it to the side while the old man spoke with his mouth full. "You don't speak Spanish?"

"A little. We don't need it that much in Corpus Christi."

"English⎯the language of goddamned interlopers. They will be gone one day and the land will revert to the natives."

Miguel did not understand, but felt it polite to agree. "Uh, yeah. Okay."

"So you got in trouble in Texas and like any other gringo you came to Mexico. What did you do? Kill someone?"

"Well, no. I tried to kill someone, but -

"What's the matter? Couldn't you shoot straight? You should have used a knife." The old man picked up a butcher knife lying on the table and jabbed it toward Miguel as if he were sticking it into an unseen enemy's ribs and twisting it. "It takes more guts to use a knife and get his blood on you. You actually have to get close and touch the son of a bitch. It makes you a warrior. Where did you screw up?"

"I, uh, missed, and hit a tree next to him."

"That's the bad thing about guns. You can miss with a gun. You can't miss with a knife though. Unless you're a complete idiot, you'll hit something. No, I can't say that. Unless you're an idiot, you'll hit something. A complete idiot will fall on his own knife. What did this pendejo do to you?"

"Well, it's hard to talk about." Miguel paused, holding back some tears and keeping his voice from cracking. "My fiancée, Cristina, knew this guy, Sonny, from high school. I knew him too - at one time - but that's not important now. She goes - went to Texas A&M, and he's a real sleaze bag, but she went to buy some grass off him for her and a couple of her girlfriends. She knew he was a piece of shit, but she never expected him to harm her. Well, anyway, when she was at his apartment, he offered her some iced tea he had laced with some kind of date rape drug. Then he called his friends, Paco and Stevie, out of the back room and they gangbanged her and beat her up. She was in the hospital for a long time, a lot of it in the psycho ward. She wouldn't let anyone touch her. She would just start screaming. She wouldn't talk to the cops, because the shitheads told her after they had finished with her that they would rape her and her friends until they all died, if the cops ever came around asking questions. After the hospital released her, she told me all about it, and then, a few days later, she killed herself with sleeping pills." Miguel fought hard to hold back the tears.

"Then next night I hid in some bushes outside a strip joint and when Sonny and his buddies came out, I emptied a Beretta at them. They weren't far off, but I was so nervous I didn't hit a damn thing. They recognized me and shouted my name. They chased me for a while, but I got away. Dad said I should come down here and stay with you until things cooled down some and I could get a grip on myself."

"Qué pinches cabrones," muttered the old man. "You are doing the right thing by not weeping like a little girl. Don't ever cry. Be a man. Be macho. Get revenge. Make those pendejos weep."

While Miguel was regaining his composure, he looked at the distant wall behind the old man and saw a photo of Geronimo kneeling and holding a rifle. "Mom says you actually knew Geronimo."

"Naw, I didn't know him. Met him once. At the Saint Louis World's fair. He autographed that picture on the wall behind me. He killed my uncle before that. Killed him slow. Tied him to a wagon wheel, poured tar on him, and lit it. Geronimo hated Mexicans more than he hated the gringos."

"How old are you, grandfather?"

"My mother told me I was born in eighteen eighty-four. She lied a lot though. Wait here."

The old man rose slowly and unsteadily from his chair. Miguel stood and reached across the table to steady him.

"Get your hands off me," the old man snapped. "I can still get around. Hell, I still go to the cathouse in Chihuahua at least once a month. Ask the whores."

"What keeps you going, grandfather?"

The old man smiled and turned to look out the window at the moon rising in the night above the silhouetted pines lining the ridges. "There are some plants even better than peyote, if you know how to use them. Maybe I will teach you." The old man's smile slowly vanished and he let his head droop toward his chest. He lifted it again with a somber expression. "But first, I must teach you how to kill and not be caught. If I can give nothing else to my only great-grandson in this life, I will give this. With this way, you cannot miss."

The old man walked over to the refrigerator and pulled out a couple of limes and then went to the cupboard near the stove, opened it, and pulled out two shot glasses and a clear gallon jug containing some dark twisting object, like a large coil, immersed in an amber fluid. He came back and set the limes and shot glasses next to the saltshaker on the table. When the old man set the jug down, Miguel saw that the coil was a rattlesnake almost two feet long and preserved in tequila. "But tonight," said the old man smiling for the first time that night, "I shall teach you how to drink." As the old man poured two shots, he looked into Miguel's eyes and saw fear mixed with bewilderment. "You are afraid."

"No, sir."

"You're lying more to yourself than to me. This time, I do not mind your lying to me. A man should never let anyone know that he is afraid, but you should never lie to yourself. If you lie to me again, depending on the lie, I may beat you or throw you out of my house. Agreed?"

Miguel was too frightened to say anything but a respectful, "Yes, sir."

"Good. Understand there is nothing wrong with being afraid. Fear is the gods' way of telling us not to do something stupid that will get us killed. But you must master your fear. And before you can master someone else you must master yourself. That is what killing is: mastering someone else. Understand?"

Miguel felt he should agree, but also felt that would be a lie. "No, sir."

"Good. You did not lie." The old man sliced up a lime and pushed a few pieces over to Miguel with his knife blade. Together, each rubbed a slice on the back of his hand below the thumb and sprinkled salt on it as the old man continued to talk. "I shall teach you to be a dream warrior and to kill with sorcery. Are you afraid?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. You should be. Sorcery can kill you as easily as it can kill others. Sorcery demands complete mastery of yourself, because you must master not only your thoughts, but also your dreams." The old man raised his shot glass in a toast. "Salud."

Miguel returned the toast. "Salud."

Each licked some salt from his hand, downed the tequila, and bit a slice of lime. The old man poured another round. "You drink well," he said. "If you cannot master alcohol, if you cannot drink and not get drunk, you cannot master yourself." They did another round and the old man poured two more shots. "The final test will be hell. For that you must have mastery over your actions, your thoughts, your dreams, your emotions, and your desires. At that point, you must ask yourself how badly you want to be a sorcerer. To pass the test, you will have to make a great sacrifice that will change you forever. Are you afraid?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Very good."

"What is the final test?"

"You will find out if the time comes."



Two years later Miguel was sitting at home with his parents over a dinner of tamales, charro beans, and guacamole. It was his first night back.

"You're lucky to have gotten to know your great-grandfather," said Miguel's dad. "Not many people get that chance."

"It seems that everyone I love in this life dies."

"Everyone dies. That's part of life," said Miguel's mom. "Everything changes. Why, look at yourself. You've changed. You're tan and lean and healthy and there's something else -"

"He's quiet," said Miguel's father looking at him and thinking hard. "He's more contemplative. He thinks more - a lot more than he used to. He thinks things through⎯not impulsive like he used to be. He's more confident too. Those are signs of maturity."

"Great-grandfather taught me a lot. More than anyone will ever know. The mountains taught me a lot too. Life is very different without TV or radio or electricity. You learn what is important." Miguel paused. "I think I'll go for a walk."

"Will you be gone long?"

"Probably. I'm still thinking a lot about great-grandfather." This was true, but Miguel knew the task he had to accomplish would take a few hours, and if he told his parents that, they would ask questions he did not want to answer.

"We'll probably be in bed by the time you get back. Good night, Miguel."

"Good night, Mom. Good night, Dad."

"Good night, son," said his dad.

As Miguel started out of the kitchen, he looked through the glass in the door of one cupboard and saw his dad's Mezcal with a gusano worm in the bottle. "I don't understand why anyone would drink anything with a worm in the bottle," he said to his parents. "The only good stuff contains a rattlesnake."

Miguel went up to his room, picked up a red backpack, and headed out of the house. The night was warm and clear and Miguel could see many of the brightest stars, though the city lights blocked out most. He walked a couple of blocks to the end of the street, where he started upon a short path that led into a park. At the juncture of the path with a broad, paved trail, Miguel looked around. The park was empty and lit only by a single streetlight a short distance away to the left on the edge of a small, empty parking lot. Miguel followed the trail a few feet to the right, where it turned sharply left and led over a low rise into a small wood of mesquite, palmetto, and a few short ash. To his right, a sign stated: "Park curfew 10:00 p.m." and several yards beyond that lay the broad expanse of Oso Bay lit only by the lights of Texas A&M University on the opposite shore about a mile away, and by the lights of the naval air station beyond that. A hundred yards into the woods, Miguel came to a short square post labeled "ASH" to the right of the trail under a short ash tree on the edge of a large open area bordering the bay. Miguel opened his backpack, took out a small flashlight, and turning right into the weeds and tall grass walked several yards off the trail. He had chosen this spot earlier in the day, because it was a good distance from the paths, where the pairs of lovers of all sexual orientations normally strolled or made out. Also, it almost always had a breeze, which he felt to be important not only to his state of mind for the ritual, but because one of the Nahuatl gods he would be praying to was Tezcatlipoca, the god of the night and of the wind. Miguel turned off the flashlight, took a seat among the glasswort in the edge of the mudflat bordering the bay, and opened his backpack. He felt around inside it. He felt the obsidian mirror and then found the maguey thorn he would need. He also took out a bag of ololiuqui seeds, a gourd of pulque liquor, some resin known as copal, a few sheets of paper, and a cigarette lighter. He rose to his knees, took a deep breath, and began chanting a long prayer in Nahuatl.

Miguel finished the ritual about four hours later. He looked at the cuts he had inflicted on his forearms with the maguey thorns and wondered how he would explain them to his mother. Long sleeves could cover them for the next few days while he searched for an apartment. After he got a job and moved out, the wounds would cease to be a problem. He wouldn't need to do the ritual much longer anyway - just until Sonny and his friends were dead.

Miguel rose and started to walk back to his home. The interesting part of the murder would begin after he went to bed, he thought, but he was so excited about it, yet nervous at the same time, he didn't know how long it would be before he could fall asleep. He would have to use the tricks for falling asleep his great-grandfather had taught him. He wouldn't be able to use sleeping pills. "No gringo medicines," his grandfather had said, "only the roots and herbs I have shown to you; anything else will only interfere."

Miguel missed his great-grandfather. It had taken a long time to get used to his personal habits and even longer to understand where he was coming from, but with time he had come not only to respect the old man, but to love him as well. Ironically, Miguel had had to overcome that love in order to pass his final test and earn the respect of the old man.

When Miguel arrived home the lights were out. He decided to enter through the kitchen so as not to awaken his parents. He opened the back door and started across the linoleum floor, when a shadowy figure sitting at the kitchen table moved and startled him.

"Relax," said the shadow. "Have a seat and talk for a minute." It was Miguel's father. He switched on the lamp above the table. Miguel's father was in his undershirt and pajama bottoms. He had three empty cans of Tecate in front of him along with a saltshaker and slices of lime.

As Miguel took a seat his father reached into the refrigerator behind him and pulled out two more cans. He pushed one over to Miguel and together they added salt and lime and took a drink. "Son," said his father, "I am guessing your great-grandfather Guadalupe taught you some of his magic."

"He taught me all of it."

Miguel's dad let out a deep breath as he thought for a moment. "Grandfather taught it to my dad, but something in it terrified him and he quit before he learned everything, and he never taught it to me. He talked about it very little. All I know about it is that anyone who knows it can kill with impunity. That is a tremendous responsibility, because, if you want to, you can kill on a whim and no one other than another Nahuatl sorcerer can do anything about it. To be honest, I am afraid the temptation might be too much for you, son. I don't want to see you turn into an evil man - a monster."

"Don't worry. I won't, dad. Grandfather hammered self-control into me constantly and a big part of the reason he did so was to prevent that. In his way, I think he loved me and he tried to teach me everything he could to help me live a good, long, happy life."

"Do you have any qualms about killing?"

"Sometimes. It's not because of the hurt I'll inflict on them though. It's because of the suffering their parents and relatives will go through because of their deaths. They're not guilty of any crime, but they're going to hurt."

"Yeah. I remember how grandfather suffered when dad was killed."

"Killed? You never told me he was killed."

"He was killed by a man named Benny in an argument over a poker game. The police caught Benny that night and locked him up. I suspect your great-grandfather killed him, because the next night Benny was sleeping in his cell when he suddenly screamed and died. The coroner never could find a reason why he died." Miguel's dad took a long drink of beer. He let out a sigh as he set the can down. "I never thought I would see the day when it would come to this between you and Sonny. You two have known each other since second grade. You used to play cops and robbers with him in our back yard. What happened? Where did you two part ways?"

"I don't know, dad. I guess we just grew apart. Sonny just kept getting more and more involved with the wrong people."

"I was always glad you didn't. You were starting to become wild yourself. Your mother and I used to lay awake at nights wondering if we were going to get a call from the police or the hospital. But then you changed. We were never so happy as when you stopped hanging out with Sonny and his crowd."

"Cristina changed me. After I met her, I never wanted to do anything that would separate us. You know what I mean?"

"Yeah. I do. I feel the same way about your mom. If what happened to Cristina happened to her, I don't know what I would do. I can't pay a visit to my grandfather." Miguel's dad took a long swig of beer. "Didn't Sonny know Cristina was your girlfriend?"

"Yeah. Maybe that's why he did it. Maybe he has something against me."

"Like what?"

"I have no idea. He's become really twisted in the last few years since he's been dealing drugs. It must be the drugs he has been using. They can screw someone up fast."

"You knew the other guys involved too, didn't you?"

"Yeah, they were a couple of years behind me and Sonny in high school. But I didn't really get to know them until a few years ago. We used to visit them at their homes, got to know their families. All that stuff."

Miguel's father nodded and said, "Well, I guess I'll go to bed. Good night." He downed the last of his beer, rose, and went upstairs. Miguel sat thinking about what his dad had said. When he finished his beer, he went upstairs to bed. Once Miguel was in bed, it took about half an hour of using his grandfather's techniques of emptying his mind and relaxing his body until he fell asleep. Tonight he would go after Stevie as his spirit animal, a jaguar. He was not certain what Stevie's spirit animal would be, but guessed it would be like Stevie: lean and muscular, opportunistic, clever, a scavenger of sorts, with sandy, shaggy, short hair.

In Miguel's dream, he was a jaguar running through the grasslands on Padre Island. Suddenly he emerged onto the two-lane highway and stopped. The terrain was flat, broken only by the cattails surrounding a marsh or an occasional grass-covered dune. There was no traffic on the highway. In the distance to the left the jaguar saw a coyote bolting down the remains of a deer that had been killed by a car. The coyote was facing away and upwind. He could neither see nor smell the jaguar.

The jaguar sprinted forward silently on his padded feet all the while thinking that he wanted the coyote to die slowly. When the jaguar was less than a yard from him, the coyote turned his head and saw him, but it was too late. The jaguar hit him at full speed catching the coyote's right rear leg in his jaws and crushing it. The coyote yelped as the pair tumbled together past the deer. The coyote tried to bite, but the jaguar was faster and batted his muzzle away, his claws raking down the side of the coyote's face, tearing out an eye and leaving huge gashes from his ears to the tip of his nose. The jaguar jumped back from the coyote and watched. The coyote ran as best he could on three legs down the highway, yelping and whimpering. When the coyote was about a hundred feet away, the jaguar rose and sprinted. Again, the coyote turned his face just in time to see the jaguar clamp his jaws around the remaining rear leg and crush it as the pair once again tumbled down the asphalt. Again the jaguar jumped back and sat and watched as the coyote dragged himself away whimpering and yelping. In a few minutes, the jaguar charged again and crushed the right front leg. The coyote lay on the asphalt and tried to drag himself with the remaining leg, but could not stand. The jaguar walked over and stared into the terrified coyote's eyes. The jaguar then slowly lowered his jaws and crushed the fourth leg. The jaguar looked up into the sky. The sun was directly overhead. "Now," he said to the coyote, "I shall let you lay there and, when the sun touches the western horizon, I shall kill you. Now you understand what it is to be helpless and at the mercy of an attacker. Now you understand rape."

The coyote lay whimpering as the sun slowly dropped, turning ever-deeper shades of red. Just as it touched the horizon, the jaguar slowly lowered his head, took the coyote's yelping head into his mouth and slowly crushed it, savoring the blood spurting onto his tongue.

At that moment, Stevie awoke screaming in his bed, frightening his girlfriend, Anita, who was sleeping by his side. She tried to hold his arm and tell him it was only a nightmare, but he screamed again, thinking her hand was the jaguar's mouth closing on one of his limbs. He backhanded her, knocking her off the bed and onto the floor as he jumped out of bed to cower in a corner of the room.

Anita stood shaken and holding her now black right eye and screamed at Stevie, "You son of a bitch! I was only trying to help you!"

Stevie trembled uncontrollably.

"Jesus, man, what's wrong with you?" she asked, her contempt now turning into concern.

"I - I was a coyote and some big cat - like those you see in a zoo - it broke my legs one at a time and then bit my head."

"You mean like a lion? A tiger?"

"No, no. One with spots!"

"Like a leopard?"

"Yeah! Yeah. Like a leopard! One of those you see in the books - with the Aztecs."

"A jaguar?"

"Yeah! A jaguar!"

"Calm down, honey. It was only a dream and dreams can't hurt you, can they?"



A few days later, Miguel was standing in line at the movies when someone behind him tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and saw it was Tim, an old friend from high school that he had not seen in years. As they caught up with each other's lives (Miguel glossing over the years he spent with his great-grandfather) and news about their old classmates, Tim asked, "Say, man, did you hear about Stevie? It's all over the news tonight."

"No, I haven't seen the news. I've been getting things for my new apartment."

"They found him dead out on the island. The news is only saying his death was gang related, but I got a cousin who was the first cop on the scene, and he said all Stevie's arms and legs had been broken and his skull was crushed, like with a vise. They found him along the road and figure he had been laying there since yesterday about sunset."

"Did they catch who did it?"

"Yeah, some guys he had done time with. They found one of their driver's licenses at the scene. When they arrested him, he gave them all up. It was all about some drug shit."

"Were Sonny and that other guy they used to hang with -

"Paco. No, they weren't involved."

"What a shame. I thought the three of them would end up in the same grave or cell or something. Oh, well. All I can say is that it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy." As Miguel sat watching the movie, he felt a wave of satisfaction and he smiled as he thought about how beautifully the spell had worked. All Miguel had to do was to kill Stevie in the dream, and the gods would kill him in a similar fashion in the real world. Just what is the real world? thought Miguel. If I kill a man in his dreams, and he dies in this world, isn't that just as real as if I killed him in this world and his dreams die? Miguel took a bite of his popcorn and thought, next time I'll try something different.

A few nights later Paco lay sleeping in his bed with his girlfriend Trish, when, in his dreams, Paco saw them lying together in bed just as they had fallen asleep. Paco believed he was awake and could not understand why he could not get to sleep. He lay there for several minutes trying to fall asleep, but could not. Then Trish rolled over to lay her head on Paco's shoulder. Paco brushed her blonde hair back from her face and saw the black eye he had given her the day before, when she had come home from the supermarket with the cheap beer he hated instead of the expensive beer he loved. Trish opened her eyes and stared at him with a smile.

"What? What?" he asked. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

Trish crawled forward until her face hung directly over his and then gently and slowly bent down until their lips touched and pressed together. She then ran the tip of her tongue down the side of his cheek and flicked it up and down his neck while her hand felt for his crotch.

"Oh! Oh! I know what you want! Yes!" Paco grinned, placed his palm against the back of her head, and pressed her face toward his groin.

Trish slipped her head from under his palm, gripped his shoulders, and rolled onto her back, pulling him on top of her.

"Oh, okay. Tonight we do it this way. But in the morning we do it the way I want." Paco lay on top of her, his weight pressing her small frame into the mattress, and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her tighter and tighter to his chest as he pressed his face against hers and, closing his eyes, forced his tongue into her mouth. As they kissed, Paco noticed Trish's tongue became huge and her teeth became long and pointed. He opened his eyes to find he was kissing a jaguar.

The jaguar growled and hissed and raked his claws down Paco's back and across his cheeks. Paco yelled and tried to push himself away, but the jaguar gripped tightly and refused to let him go. Paco reached up and gripped the jaguar's throat with both hands strangling it as he tried to pound its head into the mattress. The jaguar clawed furiously. Paco pushed back hard, but the claws were too much to endure. He released the jaguar's throat, rolled across the bed, and fell onto the floor, bumping his head against his nightstand as he fell. He jerked open the nightstand's top drawer and grabbed his Glock. He stood, but as he pulled the trigger to fire the first round, the jaguar disappeared. Paco, in a panic, continued firing until he had emptied the magazine. He awoke and found he was standing beside the bed, his Glock in hand, the smell of gunpowder in the air, and Trish's bloody corpse lying on her side of the bed.

The next night Miguel and Tim met at the Club Culebra for a couple of beers. As they sat at the bar, Tim asked Miguel, "Hey, did you hear about Paco?"

"Yeah. I saw something about him on the news. He murdered his girlfriend, didn't he? Did your cousin manage to be first on the scene again?"

"No, but he was in, like, the second or third car there. A neighbor reported shooting at Paco's place and the police had half a dozen squad cars there in no time. They found Paco sitting on his porch swing in nothing but his shorts and just staring off into space still holding the pistol. My cousin said he was muttering something about a big cat and that his back and face looked like they had been clawed to pieces. Anyway, they could see the gun was empty because the slide was back and so they took it from him and hauled him off. Inside his house, they found he had emptied the magazine into his girlfriend. They figure he tried to rape her and she put up a fight, because they found his skin under her fingernails. There was blood everywhere."

"Well," said Miguel, "all I can say is that they deserved each other. Neither was worth a damn and, from what I hear, they were running a crystal meth lab out of that house."

"That's what the cops found. The garage was one big meth lab. With Paco dead and Stevie dead, I wonder how long it will be before Sonny is dead."

"Probably not long."

Miguel and Tim drank for a while at the Culebra until closing time and then parted, Tim walking south along Chaparral Street and Miguel walking north. As Miguel approached Darla's Bar along a dark section of street, he saw a large, muscular man with a thick neck and stooped shoulders lumber out, staggering a little with his head down, and coming toward Miguel. Miguel kept walking ahead thinking that, considering how much he had changed and with his face toward the ground, Sonny would not recognize him, if he could recognize anyone, considering how drunk he appeared. Miguel found he could not keep himself from staring at Sonny as he drew closer. He felt a combination of morbid curiosity, intense hatred, and unspeakable contempt kept his eyes focused on Sonny. He wanted to look away, but could not.

When Miguel's feet appeared within Sonny's field of vision, Sonny snapped his head up at Miguel and shouted, "What the fuck are you looking at?" Miguel remained silent and continued to walk on, but could not tear his eyes from Sonny. Sonny suddenly lunged at Miguel, gripped his throat with both hands, and pinned him against the wall of a parking garage in the darkness where a small tree blocked off the sickly glow from the nearest streetlight. Miguel grasped Sonny's wrists and tried to break his grip, but Sonny was too strong and his thick forearms felt like wire cables. Sonny moved his face so close to Miguel's, that Miguel could see the capillaries in Sonny's eyes and he could smell the beer and jalapeños on his breath and the sweat on his face and hands. "I asked you, what th'fuck are you looking at?"

Sonny's meaty hands were beginning to crush Miguel's throat and Miguel's breathing was becoming more labored and raspy and shallow. Miguel tried to answer, but his words came out only as a series of gurgles. Miguel slipped his right hand into his front pocket. He found his ballpoint pen and pushed its cap off with his thumb. He pulled it out and held it in his fist with its point toward Sonny's heart. Miguel moved the pen forward as far as he could in his fist so that he could plunge it as deeply as possible into Sonny's solar plexus. If he angled the pen just right, he figured he might be able to stick it at least partially into Sonny's heart.

A puzzled look came across Sonny's face, and he asked, "Hey, don't I know you?" Just then someone down the street broke out into loud laughter and Sonny jerked his face toward the sound. Miguel glanced as far as he could toward the laughter as well and just beyond the laughing man he saw a police car slowly cruising in their direction. Its lights were not flashing and so the officers inside had not yet seen Sonny choking Miguel. Either Sonny had seen it clearly enough or something else entered his drunken mind so he decided to let go of Miguel. He put his hands into his pocket, and walked away from the approaching cruiser with his head down.

Miguel leaned against the wall and tried to catch his breath. He knew Sonny's grip would leave bruises around his neck. He rubbed the areas Sonny's hands had gripped, and tried to work out the remaining pain and stiffness. "Yeah, you know me, you son of a bitch. I was best man at your wedding. It will be interesting to meet your spirit animal."

As he was able to breathe again, Miguel knew he would have to be more careful in his dream battles. That was the danger in dreams, his grandfather had taught him, not only could you kill them in their dreams, they could also kill you. Now he had experienced that for the first time. Paco had gripped Miguel's throat in last night's dream and now Sonny had gripped it in this world.

A few nights later, while entering Sonny's dream, Miguel felt as if he were entering a kaleidoscope made of fragments of neon, black lights, strobe lights, raging fires, and shards of warped and blurred memories of childhood abuse, fistfights, blood, hatred, fear, terror, shock, and a hundred petty crimes. Sonny's mind was a constantly spinning jumble of nightmares. Miguel assumed his jaguar form and cautiously stayed in the background of each scene, searching for Sonny's spirit animal. As of yet, he had not seen Sonny in the dream. He had seen only Sonny's subconscious. The scenes were so fragmented and changed so rapidly that even though Miguel recognized himself in many, he did not have the time to pinpoint the events. Then the nightmares gradually became fewer and did not change as rapidly. The roulette wheel of Sonny's mind was slowing. Miguel began to recognize bits and pieces.

Miguel saw the day they first met in second grade. He saw the nights during grade school when he stayed over at Sonny's home and Sonny would sneak cigarettes after his parents had gone to bed. He glimpsed the day Sonny and he tried out for high school football. He relived the evening Sonny cried on Miguel's shoulder when his first girlfriend broke his heart and when Sonny called him to say he had been arrested for stealing a car. He saw himself and Sonny rolling bums for change and selling dope. There was Sonny dating Julie and then there was Sonny cheating on Julie and hiding Polaroids in his garage. He saw the first time they sold a kilo of pot and then a kilo of cocaine. Miguel relived Sonny's wedding with Julie, when there were only a justice of the peace and two witnesses: Miguel and Julie's sister. Sonny continued to cheat on Julie and to hide photos in his garage. Then came a series of increasingly vicious crimes, fear of being caught, anger once caught, more fear in front of the judge, terror and more anger in jail, and frustration at no one hiring him once out. Julie became involved in the drug dealing and fencing stolen property and all the time Sonny cheated on her and hid more photos. He also hid money from her as well as love letters to other women in a toolbox in the toolshed. Miguel saw the day he had told Sonny he was going straight to keep Cristina. He saw Sonny becoming increasingly violent and beating or knifing people who cheated him. His crimes grew in intensity and viciousness until, finally, the rape.

Miguel hid his eyes and tried to shut out the sounds of the rape, but it did no good. He wept on the outside while raging inside. He sickened and felt his own hatred and anger would rip him apart. Then the rape was over. It was night and Stevie and Paco were carrying Cristina out to Stevie's car while Sonny stood in his doorway and said, "Dump her on Leopard Street with the other whores. I'll teach Miguel to tell me to fuck off. I'll be doing the fucking and I'll fuck anyone I want."

That was the reason. The week before the rape Sonny had asked Miguel to come along as added back up when he was going to buy a kilo of cocaine from a guy downtown. He wanted Miguel to take a rifle and to hide in some bushes near the meeting spot. Miguel told him no, that he had given up that life because he didn't want to do anything that would cause Cristina to leave him. Sonny insisted again and again and Miguel had refused each time until he became fed up and had told Sonny to fuck off. Sonny only stared at Miguel in reply, turned his back, and walked off. Miguel knew that was when to fear Sonny most. When he was about to avenge himself, he never threatened anyone, so that no one could ever testify that he had made a threat and so that no one could prepare for what was about to happen. Sonny simply let his actions speak for him and that would be the threat for the next poor bastard. But Miguel never expected Sonny to take out his anger on someone uninvolved. He thought he had known Sonny, but he was wrong. Sonny had become more evil than Miguel had ever suspected.

Each scene became progressively darker as Sonny aged. Soon Miguel found himself in complete darkness. But with his jaguar eyes, darkness did not prevent Miguel from seeing what was there to see. Then he heard crackling and popping from the ground to his left. He looked over and saw that a large section of the surface on which he was walking had dropped away and formed a high cliff. At the base of the cliff flames sprung up from what appeared to be a lava bed. Sonny's dreams had shifted from fragmented memories to the current state of his soul.

Miguel heard something shuffling across the ground behind him. He turned and saw a pair of eyes sparkling with the reflections of the firelight coming from the pit. They stood a few feet off the ground at the top of a hazy, monstrous silhouette. Whatever Sonny's spirit animal was, it was big and stood on its hind legs. The creature shuffled forward quickly and his eyes moved up and down, back and forth, right and left. Miguel recognized the outline of a charging gorilla and crouched, hissing and snarling.

The gorilla swung at Miguel with his open palm, but Miguel was faster and ducked under the blow and sprang behind Sonny. Sonny spun with his open hand extended, trying to backhand Miguel, but Miguel ducked again and once more sprang behind Sonny. This time however, he saw his opportunity and leapt upon Sonny's shoulders, digging his in claws to hold on as Sonny flailed and twisted trying to grab him. Miguel then opened his jaws and clamped his teeth into Sonny's skull, trying to crush it as jaguars normally kill their prey, but Sonny's skull was too big and Miguel could not fit it into his mouth as he wanted. He chomped down and Sonny howled, but did not die; he only flailed and spun more furiously. Suddenly, Miguel felt Sonny's thick paw grasp his tail and yank. Miguel let go of the shoulders to prevent his tail from being torn out and was flung toward the edge of the pit. Miguel hit the cliff's edge, but twisted around and grasped onto the upper surface with his front claws just as his body fell over the edge. He pulled himself up and over as Sonny charged again. Miguel tried to spring behind Sonny once again, but Sonny anticipated the move and backhanded Miguel in the ribs and sent him flying out of control into the darkness. Miguel lay on his side with several broken ribs, snarling at Sonny. Then he rose and dodged to the left as Sonny charged again trying to grasp him in a bear hug. Miguel crouched as Sonny turned again. But as Sonny charged once more, Miguel realized he would not win this fight and vanished.

Miguel entered the dreams of Julie. In her nightmare, she woke in her brass bed and could feel Sonny's weight in the bed beside her. When she turned onto her side to put her back against Sonny's, a jaguar sat by the side of her bed staring at her.

"Follow me, Julie," said the jaguar. "It is alright. I will not harm you."

Miguel led her first to the high shelf in the garage, where Sonny kept his shoebox of Polaroids of sex with hookers and with some of Julie's friends. He then took her to the toolbox in the toolshed, where Sonny stashed thousands in cash from drug deals he had not told her about and also where he stashed jewelry intended as gifts for girlfriends, inscribed with their names. Inside the box, was also a love letter to a woman named Natalie, in which he promised undying love and to get a divorce, as soon as "the stupid bitch cheats and gives me a good court case". Inside was also a silver necklace with the name "CRISTINA", which Sonny had taken as a souvenir. Julie had heard rumors Sonny had been involved in the rape, but had not believed it until now.

The jaguar then led Julie back into the garage and sat between a long rope and a five-gallon can of gasoline. The jaguar spoke. "Look at the scars he has given you, Julie. Every time you glance at another man you take a beating. He is not worthy of the love and sacrifice you have given him. But if you leave him, he gets what he wants and he is free to terrorize more women. Do what you have to. Have the strength. Do not fear. Put aside all thoughts of anything or anyone else and do what you have to do."

Julie awoke from her dream sweating. She looked at Sonny laying spread eagle on the bed, one arm over her head and one leg across hers. She carefully lifted Sonny's leg, swung her feet onto the floor, and placed the leg gently upon the mattress. She crept into the garage and found the shoebox of Polaroids. She went to the toolshed and found the toolbox with the cash, jewelry, necklace, and letter. She then went back to the garage and found the rope and gasoline.

In a few minutes, Sonny tried to roll over in his sleep, but found he could not move. He awoke and discovered he was tied hand and foot with rope to the brass bed. Julie stood above him holding a can of gasoline. Before he could ask what she was doing, Julie began pouring the gasoline upon Sonny's face and chest. He squeezed his eyes shut tightly, but gasoline had already gotten in and he screamed. Gasoline flowed into his mouth and he choked. The minute it took Julie to pour the gasoline seemed to last forever, but it was not long enough, when Sonny felt the bed go up in flames.

When Miguel awoke the following morning. He did not know what to feel. He had accomplished the task he had set for himself, but he knew he would pay a price for it. He also thought about Sonny and how things change. When they were kids playing in a sandbox, Miguel would never have thought about burning Sonny alive. Miguel thought about those days, and missed the Sonny he knew then. Then he realized the Sonny he knew then had faded out of existence long ago, and the new Sonny was a Sonny the world was better off without. Miguel thought about this the rest of the day, and he thought about it deeply as he sat in a downtown bar at happy hour watching the six o'clock news report Julie's arrest and how her lawyer was already preparing an insanity defense. Miguel became so lost in thought about it as he crossed the street to the next bar, that he did not see the speeding pick-up coming toward him.

Later that night, as Miguel lay in his hospital bed waiting to fall asleep, he remembered the last time he saw his grandfather. They had finished their supper and were sitting on the old man's porch looking at the stars, puffing on a couple of cheap cigars, and listening to the coyotes yip in the distance.

"Miguel," said the old man.

"Yes, sir."

"The time has come for the final test."

"Tell me what it is and I will do it."

"Will you? Do not be certain until you have heard what it is."

"If you tell me I need to do it, I will do it."

"I want you to kill me."

Miguel was stunned. His initial reaction was to ask why, but the old man had taught him that to question the judgment of someone is a sign of disrespect. He knew the old man must have contemplated his death for some time and that the decision to die must have been well thought out. He did not want to see the old man go, but to protest would have been futile, because he knew the old man took great pride in keeping his word. If he said he would do something, he did it. For that reason, he rarely promised even trivial things. Miguel flicked the ashes from his cigar and said, his voice cracking slightly, "I will do it."

"You do not weep," said the old man.

"You have taught me well."

"I have. That is true."

"How do you want to die?"

"How do you think I want to die?"

Miguel nodded slightly several times. "Of course. When?"

"Tomorrow night. After the tequila has left our bodies." The old man flicked the ashes from his cigar and spit on a scorpion he saw crawling across the porch. "This will be a hard task for you. It would be a hard task for anyone. I am proud that you accept it."

"The hardest part will be to wait for you to die the next day."

"That will not happen. I have spoken with the ancient gods and they will allow me to pass quietly in my sleep when I die in the dream."

Miguel nodded. "Why now?"

"I am over a hundred and twenty years old. I love this world more than I have ever loved anything else: women, rifles, knives, whores, cantinas, even horses. But I want desperately to see the next. I want to be with my ancestors and the friends I have not seen in decades. I want to be with two of my wives again. The third can keep rotting in hell. Now that I have passed on my knowledge to a man I can respect, I can go to the next world in peace."

"Thank you for passing on your wisdom."

"Do not thank me until you are ready to go to the next world and you have seen if that knowledge has helped you. Do you know why I have chosen this as a test for you?"

"I think so. If I can overcome the love I have developed for you, and I can kill you in the ancient way, I will have mastered myself and will be able to kill anyone."

"That is right."

Throughout the rest of the evening, Miguel thought constantly and deeply about his grandfather's chosen means of death. But he controlled his emotions tightly and did nothing that he did not do every other evening he had lived with his great-grandfather. That night, he visited the old man in his dreams, taking along a bottle of tequila with a rattlesnake coiled inside. He went to the side of his grandfather's bed, where he slept with the covers pulled over his head because of the cold night, and said, "Wake up, old man. We are not finished saying farewell."

The covers moved and his great-grandfather rose, but not as an old man. When he stood, he was a young man of twenty. They talked long that night as any two young men do about the things young men enjoy: women, guns, liquor, tobacco, and the accomplishments of which they were most proud. Miguel also spoke of the things he had decided he would accomplish in this life, and his great-grandfather gave him the benefit of his years and advised him on how to achieve his goals. In their shared dream, they fell asleep together with Miguel's head on his great-grandfather's chest.

They went about their usual chores quietly the next day, each thinking about the night to come and each speaking very little, each striving for control over his emotions. When evening came and they had finished supper, they went out to the porch, where they once again smoked while listening to the coyotes and talked about the stars. When the moon rose above the trees, the old man rose and went to bed. Miguel stayed on the porch until he heard snoring. He went into the cabin and gathered the maguey thorn, ololiuqui seeds, pulque liquor, copal, paper, and a cigarette lighter, and went out to a point several yards from the cabin, where he began the ceremony. When he was finished, he went to bed, and fell asleep thinking that would be the last time he would ever hear the old man snore.

In Miguel's dream, he was an Aztec priest in full ceremonial regalia standing atop the Great Temple in Tenochtitlán long before Cortez set foot on Aztec soil. A few puffy, white clouds skirted the horizon and a gentle breeze blew feeling good as it cooled the sweat on Miguel's skin. At the base of the temple, thousands gathered and gazed up at Miguel. Then a young man in a loincloth came out of the crowd and slowly, solemnly climbed the steps to the top. When he arrived, Miguel could see it was the young form of his great-grandfather. He looked Miguel in the eyes and said, "thank you." He then proceeded over to the altar, where he lay down spread eagle. Miguel tied down his wrists and ankles and from underneath the altar picked up an obsidian knife. He chanted a ceremonial prayer to the Aztec gods, and then, turning, looked down at his grandfather's eyes and for a moment thought that he could end this now and wake up. He then thought about how that would disappoint his great-grandfather. But he put those thoughts out of his mind. He knew what the old man would advise in this case: to put aside all thoughts of anything or anyone else and do what you have to do. Miguel then touched the knife to his great-grandfather's skin just below the ribs to the side of the solar plexus, made a quick and deep incision while the man squirmed, reached up inside the chest, tore out his heart, and flung it into the sun.

5 comments:

  1. quite literally a rite of passage, mystical and with an interesting payoff, one which Miguel may have to reckon with in time. some very good writing and characterisation.
    well done

    Mike McC

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  2. I agree with Mike, this is a rite of passage, complex and rich with significance.The cultural invocations are vivid and intense, the work of a writer in his/her full stride. The future for Miguel, who knows? The readers interest is fully engaged with what is to come..... Thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  3. Really enjoyed the story-kept me up past my bedtime reading it!

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  4. I loved the concept, was fascinated by the almost hallucinatory detail of legend with its fatal shadowlands.
    B r o o k e

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  5. Interesting idea. I think you could have developed how it felt to take someone's life in the dreamworld and reality a little bit more, and the consequences for Miguel's conscience.

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