Spotlight: The Mason Jar

I thought of my mother as I waited for the museum’s copier to do its work. I watched the green light scan across my retinas and remembered leaning into her, folding myself small into the space between her chin and her lap, feeling the raspy rumble of her voice as I stared into the fire until my eyes swam with spots.

The stories she told. I can remember how they felt when they wrapped around me. I sat as she told folk tales, her rhythmic Spanish becoming the chant of a sorcerer, conjuring worlds and plucking each word out of the air as easily as song. She even told me of La Llorona in her husky whisper, not barring the scariest of stories from my ears.

Pero, no te preocupes, mija,” she always added. “Te tengo.” She had me.

The copier beeped and I collected the papers wearily. I was underemployed. Studies showed that most recent graduates were, that very few got jobs in their fields, and that life was tough. It’s all about experience, they said. To get into grad school, you had to have experience working in a museum. To get experience working in a museum, you needed a degree from grad school. The paradox.

In the winter, I worked at a ski shop, too. In the summer, I tried to spend as little as possible.

The good thing about being less challenged was the noticing. In a city like Santa Fe, there’s plenty to see. Even the buildings have personalities, which says something about the people themselves. I noticed the Navajo woman who came to the museum every single week on the free admission days. She didn’t wander through like the tourists did. Every time, she would pick a single room, going around and reading every word on the placards. Then she’d sit in the middle and just look.

In the days, I thought of friendship and firelight. In the nights, I dreamt of coyote howls and La Llorona, coming to devour my soul.

I noticed the old couple who still kept up with the latest fashions who ate at my typical lunch spot, a Mexican restaurant (a fusion of cultures! they boasted) with bright colors, round tables, and low ceilings. I noticed the young man who ate there almost every day–the way he always loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves to the elbows, the fact that he read Dostoevsky while he waited for his food, the way he joked with the waiters. I was eighty percent sure that he lived in my apartment building, but I never asked.

Noticing wasn’t enough, though, to atone for the stifling pressure of ritual and monotony. My life was a sparse collection of nights and days, of repetition and missed connections. Sometimes I thought about buying a dog. We used to have one when I was younger, a terrier named Lucita. She ran away.

In the days, I thought of friendship and firelight. In the nights, I dreamt of coyote howls and La Llorona, coming to devour my soul.

I left work with a desire to wander. I walked along the shaded streets in the direction of downtown Santa Fe, down Canyon Road, peeking into the galleries of artwork I would never afford. I wound my way toward the city’s center, past “Trading Posts” and sculpture gardens, squat, rounded Adobe buildings and restaurants, and found myself at El Portal—The Palace of the Governors. It’d been there since the 1600s and looked like something out of an old Western. As usual, the Navajos sat beneath the colonnade, leaning back in their lawn chairs and Yankees caps with their blankets stretched out before them. Each handmade treasure occupied a specific, organized space. Silver, copper, turquoise, coral. Hand-hammered, shaped into pendants, guitar picks, bookmarks. The sun winked off it all, making it look like a heavenly city, ethereal and alive.

I picked my way in silence through the colonnade. It was congested with tourists who crawled around, bargaining, holding up jewelry, a humming chatter of accents, laughter, and crinkling cash. Somewhere nearby, a crow squawked at me. I paused to look down at a few belt buckles–hammered silver, set with turquoise.

“It represents the sun,” came a deliberate voice. “Fours. New life.”

“I know,” I said, quiet, flickering my gaze to hers. “The Zia.” You couldn’t be a proper New Mexican if you didn’t recognize the Zia symbol–it’s on the flag.

“Where are you from?” she asked politely. I now recognized her as my chronic museum-goer. As I met her eyes, I wondered that she hadn’t already recognized me.

“I’m from here. I know you,” I said, tilting my head. “You come to the museum every week. I always see you there.”

She smiled. “So you do. Here, take a closer look.” She rubbed the silver with a cloth and I squatted down, balancing shakily, resting my forearms on my jeans.

I studied her. She pretended to be busy with the belt buckle, but I could tell she felt me watching. She was at least fifty or sixty, but it was hard to tell. Her eyes were startlingly lucid, lambent with an odd sort of light. Wrinkles crossed her brown skin, scrunching the corners of her eyes and mouth. Her nose curved down at the end in a question. She wore her hair loose. It fell nearly to her waist and had almost been claimed by white, a few stubborn strands of black still holding their ground.

“Do you like art?” I asked.

Her eyes flicked up, dark and warm. “Not particularly,” she replied. I didn’t know what to say to that. “Do you?”

“I…” my lips pursed. “Of course I do. I love it. That’s why I’m working there. I mean, it’s not ideal, but I’m around the thing that I love.”

“Good. You can never be too sure,” she returned. “Too many people are cornered into being what they are not. And there’s great tragedy in being what you are not.” She handed me the buckle.

I ran my thumb along the hammered indentations, each dip a tiny fingerprint. “So what do you come to the museum for, if it’s not for the art?”

“I like to learn, and I like to watch the people there.” She quirked a smile. “Have you ever had the pleasure of seeing someone look at something they love?” she asked. I nodded. “There’s nothing like seeing a person’s face in awe. Most people will give something a cursory glance and nod, already focused on the next thing. But it’s worth it for the few who are truly moved. It’s lovely, watching someone love.”

I grinned. “How much for the belt buckle?”

“Thirty,” she replied, matter-of-fact.

“Twenty-five?” I asked.

She gave me a look. “This stuff isn’t easy to make…”

“I’m a starving recent graduate?” I tried.

She considered. “Twenty-five, if you come back and see me.”

I was surprised. “I’ll take it,” I said, doling out the cash. I offered a hand. “Julia.”

“Alice,” she said.

I returned often. I didn’t really mind that my only friend was an old Navajo woman. We chatted about a lot of things, and although I sometimes felt that I should tell her about my odd dreams, I didn’t want to bring them up. She told me some about herself but usually turned the questions back on me. It was a kind gesture, but I continued to brush off her more serious inquiries, and so we continued in this sort of dance.

My apartment complex splayed itself out like a fat, pale lizard in a dingy part of Santa Fe. It was hidden enough that the builders had forgotten to style the building into something “authentic” and tourist-pleasing and simply covered the squat, concrete building with washed-out adobe. My location was nice, though, because past the muddy streets and chain link fences, a sea of desert awaited.

I pulled on my boots and hauled my garbage outside one night, dumping it out front. None of my far-off friends believed me when I told them how cold the desert got at night, flipping quickly to a darker extreme. That night was especially cold, and the dark air seemed to cling wetly to my skin. I was heading back inside when I felt a shiver run up my back. I turned.

A coyote huddled a few feet away, shuddering. A car drove by on the road, and instead of reflecting the light, its eyes seemed to suck it in, cavernous and deadened. It shrank away from the beams. I took a step back and it met my eyes directly. I froze. It took a step closer, onto the pavement, and I couldn’t move or look away. Its form seemed to grow, and for a moment it shrieked into a human shape. I blinked, too paralyzed to scream, and it was a coyote again.

I heard a bark and the coyote hesitated. A dog trotted up, leash trailing behind, growling low in its throat. When I looked back the coyote was gone, and a single crow croaked off into the desert. I let myself breathe, slouching down and wondering if I’d dreamt once too often of La Llorona.

The dog’s demeanor changed immediately and it grinned good-naturedly at me, floppy ears twitching. I scratched behind them and its tail began to thwack against my shins.

“Max! What are you doing?” I heard a man shout. The aforementioned Max looked up at me, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.

“He’s just saying hello,” I said, glancing up to see my neighbor. He was the one who ate lunch at my restaurant, who read Russian novels as he loosened his ties. He was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt now, bouncing up on the balls of his feet. Now that we were face to face, I noticed a smattering of freckles across his upturned nose and a scar that spanned his cheek. He smiled at me, tilting his head. “Do you…?”

“Do you have lunch at The Shed?” I asked.

“Yes!” he grinned. “You sit in the corner booth.”

I nodded, smiling, and introduced myself. I didn’t think he’d noticed.

“Well, you’ve already met Maxwell.” He grinned, thrusting a hand out. “I’m Gabe. Well, Gabriel, but you know.” He paused, looking at me. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I thought…well, there was a coyote over there—you know, forget it.”

He frowned. “What happened?”

“It’s really nothing,” I returned. “It’s just an old story, it isn’t even real.”

His eyebrow shot up, and I tried not to laugh at his expression. “There isn’t anything more real than a story,” he said.

“Really,” I said. “What if I punched you in the face?”

He laughed. “Then I’d have a fantastic story to tell! And I bet you’d pack one hell of a punch.”

I smiled. “Forget art history, I should take up boxing. Redecorate your face and such.”

He raised his eyebrows and pointed. “Artistically.”

“Always,” I laughed.

He snorted. “I like you. You know, I should have introduced myself a long time ago,” he said. “Max! Get back here!” he retrieved the dog’s leash from the heap of garbage that the dog had started to root around in.

“I’ll let you go,” I said. Gabe was still outside when I reached my apartment, throwing a stick for Max. He waved his arms at me and shouted, “Goodnight, Julia!” I shook my head. Maybe sometime soon, I could ask him about the story behind his scar. I counted the cracks in my ceiling as I drifted off to sleep that night, and despite the scratching at my window, I did not think of La Llorona.

*     *     *

I did not see Alice for several days. I wandered over to El Portal after working late one day. The sky looked different. The clouds hung low, elongating, scattered across the deep, deep blue, foam on the surface of a never-ending ocean. Heaven and earth seemed closer, the warm orange of the dust against the cool blue of the sky. I was afraid they would close in, crash down, and smother the city that reached to meet them. But the sun was relentless, and I let the soft light trickle down, touch my face, and melt into my skin.

Without all the vendors, the colonnade looked abandoned and ancient. Alice sat in her fold-up chair, with her white hair, silver jewelry, and long skirt. She was the last one there, and she’d started to pack up her things.

“Where’s everyone else?” I asked.

“Good to see you, dear,” she said. “It’s been a while. I think they’re waiting for me in the parking lot.”

“I’m sorry. Let me help you.” I bent down to put the jewelry into the boxes and fold up the blankets. Alice only objected when I put something in the wrong spot. I heaved one of the boxes, and she took the other and her folding chair. Her bracelets jingled as she set off, and I followed. When we arrived in the parking lot, it was empty. A plastic bag blew past, filling and emptying, tumbling over itself as it breathed in and out. Alice looked up at me and shrugged. “I suppose they’ve left. Would you like to go on an adventure with me?”

“By adventure, do you mean me driving you back home?” Alice only smiled at me. I sighed. “How far is your house?”

We walked to my apartment, lugging Alice’s wares. We must have looked an odd pair. “Thank you,” Alice said. I told her not to worry about it. “This happened once before, when my daughter came up here with me. We’d sold most of the jewelry already that day, so we decided to spend the money on a night in the hotel. Instead of bringing the boxes, we decided to wear as much of the jewelry as we could, and by the time we walked in through those doors, we were positively jangling.” I grinned at the image of Alice and her daughter, gypsy-like, dragging their feet with each metal-laden step.

“You remind me of my girl,” Alice said with a sidelong glance.

“Do I look like her?” I asked.

Alice laughed. “Hardly. But you’re very much like her.”

“Where is she now?” I asked.

Alice paused, collecting herself. “She’s not on this earth anymore, dear. She hasn’t been for a very long time.” My understanding of Alice shifted a little bit, thinking of her coming to El Portal every day by herself. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered, swallowing hard.

“Thank you,” Alice said, smiling thinly. “Don’t think I’m alone. But I do miss her.”

The car was locked when we got to the lot of my apartment. I offered to run up to get my keys, but Alice wanted to see my “home.” We hauled the boxes up the stairs. The chair, we left.

I watched from the threshold as Alice bustled in. It was strange seeing her there amidst all my personal belongings. It could not yet be called a home, but everything I owned lay in that tiny space. I looked for something in the fridge to give my visitor, pushing aside a few empty glass jars, but she clucked her tongue. “Just the mason jars, Julia. Sit down, dear, and tell me about your family.”

I didn’t ask why she wanted the jars. They had long been scrubbed clean of my mother’s leftovers, her hogao and, more often, the ajiaco that she would carefully ladle out, reheated until the potatoes burned my tongue and the broth trickled down my throat, warming me from the inside. I sat down at the old, knotty table, clinking down the containers and meeting Alice’s gaze.

“My parents are from Colombia,” I said. “They came here years before I was born. Papá was an engineer back there, but he had to take a job as a waiter because he didn’t know English. ‘I know math,’ he told me. ‘Las matemáticas, la lengua universal!’ But he still had trouble finding a job here. And my mother, ah…” I bit my lip. “She did odd jobs.”

Alice waited for me to continue. “She…she’s dead. She died, ah, very recently, actually.” I wedged my feet between the rungs of the chair and cleared my throat, trying to will my hair out of my braid to cover my face. Alice didn’t say anything, but she held my hand. That was almost worse. “Anyway, that’s about it. My grandparents are still in Colombia, and I don’t get to see them very often.”

“Ah,” Alice said gently, letting me change the subject. “So the blood of conquerors runs in your veins.”

I shifted. “And of the conquered. I’m a strange mix. I don’t quite fit.”

“Neither do I,” she said. “It seems we’re both between cultures here.”

“Belonging to neither.”

“Belonging to both,” she said. “And we both come from storytellers. I’m sure we’ll have plenty to talk about as we drive.”

My mind flashed to firelight and phantoms, and I reached for my keys. On my way to the parking lot, I nearly dropped the case before someone reached out and caught it. “Let me help you with that.”

“Gabe!” I accepted, and he loaded the boxes into my trunk. “This is my friend, Alice.”

He laughed as he shook her hand. “We’ve met, actually. I bought earrings from her.”

“Did you?” I teased.

“For my sister!” he exclaimed. I noticed that his tie hung slack now, swung to one side, and one of his sleeves was rolled up farther than the other. “Where are you headed?”

“Taking Alice home,” I said. “She lives thirty minutes from here.”

“Do you want to come?” Alice cut in. She squinted. “Yes. Julia, Gabriel needs to come.”

Gabe shrugged. “Why not? I had a feeling something important would happen today. This has to be it!” he grinned, bringing his hands together in a single, dramatic clap. “A prophecy!”

I looked between Gabe and Alice. “Well,” I chuckled. “Get in, then.” The three of us piled into my Jeep Cherokee and drove.

And then the first drop of light fell.

The sun was just beginning to set. Once we got outside the city, it was straight desert, deep yellow-brown scrub dotted with green, gold, and rust sprinkling the earth in every direction. Alice peered at the horizon, murmuring something beneath her breath. She let out a tiny gasp, and a smile spread across her face.

“Turn right!” Alice yelled.

“There’s no road!”

“Turn anyway!” I met Gabe’s eyes in the rearview mirror and he raised his pale eyebrows at me. I yanked the wheel around. Gabe clung to the handhold above the window. “Alice!” I yelled.

She swapped my panicked gaze with an even one. “I have to show you something.”

We rolled to a stop well off the road, the car crushing a cluster of Indian Paintbrushes. Alice got out, put on her backpack, and began to trek through the brush, glancing over her shoulder at us. “Well?” Gabe and I stared at each other for a moment before following.

Neither of us asked where we were going because it didn’t matter. We just followed Alice over the uneven ground. My boots kicked up little puffs of dust with every step I took, and Gabe’s black work shoes transformed into a ruddy brown. As we walked, we told stories. I traded a fable of two children in a magical boat for Gabe’s fairytale of the Little Mermaid, where she turns into an air spirit. Alice told us of the creation of the worlds, of a Holy Wind and a Holy People. Of twins and monsters, floods, stars, and mountains, creation and death.

And we were there. We had reached the top of a low plateau, not the tallest in the area by any means. Alice pulled the two mason jars out of her backpack and handed them to me and Gabe.

“What—” I tried to ask. Alice hushed me with a gaze and we waited silently for the sunset.

The sun sank closer, closer, the sky awash with oranges and pinks. The clouds swirled down, and it seemed as though the sun was coming toward us, faster, going to run into us.

And then the first drop of light fell.

It was slow at first, lazy, moving like white hot glass poured into a mold at a glassblower’s studio. It landed on the ground and the dust clouded it, dappling the light as it sank into the rocky earth.

I dropped my mason jar and it bounced in the dirt. I stared up at the sun as the light fell faster, harder. It was coming down all around me now, and I couldn’t do anything but watch. It trickled over my bare arms, gentle, less heavy than it looked. It nosed around me, danced in front of my eyes, and giggled away. Through the spots that swam in front of my eyes, I looked at Gabriel, with his arms spread wide, white shirt untucked and flapping, laughing into the rain of sunlight. It swirled around him, fell onto his skin, and sank into his body. Every detail of his face was illumined, shining in the light, and his blonde hair had transmuted into a gold purer than an alchemist’s. He was angelic.

I tried to keep looking at the light, but my vision wavered. I squinted at the light puddling on the ground instead, swirling, dripping. I kicked it and it flew into the air, a thousand glittering specks, motes dancing in the evening air. It sprinkled down around us, dusting our skin. Gabe looked at me with the biggest smile I’d ever seen, reached into my hair, and dusted off the light that had embedded there.

I cupped my hands and the light poured in, dribbling out around the crevices in my fingers and pouring out onto the ground. It flowed through my fingers like honey. Gabe did the same, trying to catch it, pack it into a ball of consolidated, blazing energy. He lobbed it in my direction and it slowly broke apart, globs of molten sunshine touching my face and showering down around me.

As the storm continued, the world outside darkened, making the light brighter and its drumming on my skin warmer and more comforting.

And Alice. Alice stared straight at the source of the light unblinded. Unhindered emotion played across her face, and tears rolled down her cheeks, mingling with the light and evaporating into the air. The light made its way through her skin, taking hold somewhere in her chest, in her core, radiating out through her pores. She glowed, and the light whirled her around, faster, lifting her off the ground until I couldn’t tell what was light and what was Alice.

The light began to lessen, fat drops gliding to the ground. I remembered the mason jar and fumbled for it, holding it above my head and letting the light fall into its wide mouth. Gabe did the same, and we stood like that until the light slowed to a sprinkling.

And then it was dark, and we three stood, facing each other, bathed in light. I dusted a few drops from Gabe’s collar and he rubbed my shoulder. Alice pulled us close, whispering, “That was only the surface, dears. Only the start.”

We laughed breathlessly at one another, because what could we say?

We walked back in the darkness, Gabe and I clutching our mason jars. The light swirled around inside, whispering, pulsing. I shook the jar and the light sloshed around inside, slow-moving, bringing out the harsh lines of our faces.

Alice guided us back, a beacon herself. She still glowed with traces of the light, the brightness gently permeating her clothing.

I felt the shift in the air before I heard something, from cool to darkly clammy A scream ripped through the comfort that the lightstorm had left us with, and I halted, trembling. Alice looked at me in alarm. It came again, echoing off the rocks, half coyote, half woman, a thousand screams, screeches, and croaks in a single voice. I drew close to Alice, a child again in the presence of the Weeping Woman.

La Llorona,” I whispered. The light in my jar swirled faster, pressing against the lid.

Alice looked at me, serious. “We call them yee naaldlooshii–skinwalkers. They have to do unspeakable things to get the power to shift like this.”

My heart felt like it would beat out of my chest. “Like drowning their children?”

“That would do,” Alice returned. “She wouldn’t come here, though, not unless…” She looked at me. “Julia! Have you seen her before?”

“I don’t know, I…” My breathing was shaky. “Yes.”

“That night we met, this is what you saw, isn’t it?” Gabe let out in a rush.

“Does she want my soul?” I breathed. Gabe was wide-eyed, fearful.

Alice regarded me sorrowfully. “It already belongs to her.”

I stumbled back. Another screech came, closer, echoing death. “I didn’t know…” Alice breathed, shaken. Then I saw her.

I could make her out in the darkness. She was shrouded, once beautiful, wet, stringy hair hanging over her dead eyes. They glowed a sickly yellow, pupil-less, not at all the way the light had glowed moments before. Her form flickered, suddenly feral, shuddering between woman and coyote. She growled at me, and I froze. The light screamed at me.

Gabe hurled his mason jar down in a sudden crash, glass and light exploding outward. The light reflected off the pieces a thousand times, casting prisms on the dusty earth. Gabriel was thrown to the ground. The light spiraled into the air, consolidated, and flew at his prostrate figure, soaking into his skin as it had Alice’s. He shuddered, rose to his knees, and flung his arms out. Light leaked out from his skin, and I feared for an awful moment that it would break him into pieces from the inside out. He put his face in his hands, wavered, and lifted his head, a lazy beam of light threading out his mouth.

La Llorona lunged at him with a hissing, Stygian screech, but she could not hold him. She reached her hand into his chest and pulled it back, shrieking, burned by the light within him. I sighed relief, and she turned her lifeless eyes on me.

I screamed, scrambling away, but she caught hold of my throat. In that moment I dissolved into darkness, terror’s freezing hands reaching inside to still my heart. I could feel her reaching inside, occupying my soul, groping around in the depths of my being, violating me. Her demonic face flickered into a thousand terrors, finally resting on the dead, waxy face of my mother. No, I thought, no, no eres ella, no eres mi madre, you aren’t la mujer que me crió, llena de amor, llena de cuentos, you are despair, desesperanza, desesperación de salvación, death por siempre, por eternidad…

Gabriel tried to throw her off, but she tossed him back. I met Alice’s radiant eyes, and as she looked at me with resolution, I suddenly realized what she planned to do. “No,” I croaked, trying to dissuade her. Tears muddied my face as I filled with darkness again, drowning in it.

“I have to,” she whispered. “I love you, mija,” she said clumsily. The Spanish word didn’t fit right in her mouth, and that made me cry even harder. “Don’t fear the light,” she said.

She glowed, brighter and brighter, and threw herself at La Llorona. I fell to the ground, gasping for air as the light exploded before my eyes, too bright for me to look upon. It intensified, and I shielded my eyes with my arm. The screams of the skinwalker pitched higher and higher until they were gone, and the light snuffed out.

I looked at Gabriel struggling to his feet. I could still make out a light flickering within him, shining out a heartbeat. His white, button-up shirt was torn and dirty, turned orange with dust and sweat. I don’t know how I must have looked. But none of that mattered now. Because Alice was gone, and Gabe and I were alone in the middle of the dark New Mexican desert with nothing but a mason jar.

*     *     *

I went to work. Now, I ate lunch with Gabriel, and we talked of stories of light and darkness. There were moments of heavy silence when we’d just look at each other and carry the other’s burden, if only for a moment. I still hadn’t opened Alice’s crates. I didn’t know what to do with all of the jewelry she’d so carefully made. I passed the Palace of the Governors every day, scanning for Alice, but I knew I would not find her there. Between that and the museum, all I could see were empty spaces.

The mason jar sat in my bedroom. I would wake up some nights to find the light playing through my hair, nuzzling my shoulder, nosing itself under my arm. I would push it away and it would return to the mason jar, swirling, pulsing, waiting.

It would take time. Months, years. But one day, I would creep out of bed, take the lid gently off the jar, and watch the light stretch, curl outward, and wait. I would breathe deeply, tremble, and whisper, “Confío en ti.

Kristen O'NealKristen O’Neal was dropped into a family of transplanted Northerners in the great state of Texas, nurtured by heat, story, and the grace of God. She attends Washington University in St. Louis and will be spending her upcoming junior year at Oxford. She writes with the knowledge that true things must be spoken. You can visit her at her blog, http://theparadigmshifts.wordpress.com/