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A young curandera, a medicine woman, intent on uncovering the secrets of her past is forced into a life-and-death battle against an evil Archbishop. Set in the mystic land of Aztlan, The Unholy is a novel of destiny as healer and slayer. Native lore of dreams and visions, shape changing, and natural magic work to spin a neo-gothic web in which sadness and mystery lure the unsuspecting into a twilight realm of discovery and decision.
A chilly autumn morning wind swept over the grounds of the Ecclesia Dei Psychiatric Hospital. Claire Sanchez walked along the red brick path to her office in the administration building, where she had worked as director of Mental Health Workers and Natural Therapeutic Services. She stopped for a moment to gaze over the more than two thousand acres of high-mountain desert three miles south of the plaza in the region of Aztlan. Homeland to generations of peoples whose ancestors once crossed the Mesoamerican border to settle what is now the American Southwest, Aztlan was considered by natives to be the axis mundi, navel of the world. Aztlan was the Land of Herons, of the Seven Caves, of the mystic beauty of horizon-to-horizon turquoise blue skies, arid desert mountain air, and great swells of earth like reclining nude goddesses. Aztlan was home to the katsinas, rain spirits, Tlaloc, the lightning god, and the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl, who unites earth and sky, eternity and the death-defined world.
The turquoise blue sky arching overhead was an ocean of delight and refreshment for Claire. She enjoyed the sight of eagles as they glided effortlessly across the cloudless expanse, the piñon and aspen trees, with clusters of loping sagebrush dotting the arroyos and mesas, the rolling hills sprinkled with Indian paintbrush, columbine, and cornflower leading the way to the base of the Sagrado Mountains that encircled the city.
Claire glanced at the granite megalith rooted in the middle of the courtyard with an inscription that read, “Dedicated to the Faithful Hispanic and Native Americans of the Ecclesia Dei.” The Ecclesia Dei was a wealthy, centuries-old church in Aztlan that prided itself on charitable care for its members, particularly the natives that populated Ecclesia Dei Hospital. Few, if any, of those admitted due to mental distress were ever discharged from it, remaining ministered to for the rest of their lives. Claire’s passion was to alleviate people’s physical and mental suffering, which she had the chance to do during the last two years at Ecclesia Dei Psychiatric Hospital. The hospital was full, the patient need great, Claire single-minded, intent.
That morning, after her regular four-mile run and shower, Claire had looked into her bedroom mirror and noted that her five-foot-three, one hundred-ten-pound body appeared healthy and strong, inspiring her to get to the hospital to try to help her first patient’s health. On some days, the sadness pervading the hospital seemed overwhelming to he. But when Claire felt most worn out and discouraged she’d remember the reason she had taken this job—her dedication to her people, the natives of Aztlan.
A month prior to her graduation the hospital’s administrator, Karl Himmel, had written to the School of Natural Therapeutics. As there was a shortage of health-care practitioners in Aztlan, especially those qualified to treat psychiatric patients, Himmel hoped the school would assist him in placing suitable practitioners with the hospital. The letter announced an opening for a licensed natural therapist with a background in mental health services to work with Hispanic and Native American patients. This was an unusual combination of skills to request since few natural therapists were trained in psychology, focusing instead on healing the body through massage as the primary course of therapeutic intervention. The fact that Claire had supported herself during her professional training in natural therapeutics by being a mental health worker at the Turquoise County Mental Health Center and also was a mestiza—Hispanic and Native American—prompted her to immediately inquire about the position. Her teachers’ glowing letters of recommendation along with her personal and professional qualifications made her competitive for the position.
Claire anxiously waited a number of weeks before finally hearing from the hospital’s administration. After driving to the hospital to be interviewed by Mr. Himmel, she was promptly offered the job at a higher salary than expected. Although she had been surprised by the immediacy of his decision, she didn’t hesitate to accept his offer, even though her colleagues and teachers had cautioned her about taking on too much too soon. Mr. Himmel had made clear from the outset that the patients in the Ecclesia Dei Psychiatric Hospital were “the worst of the worst,” many dangerously psychotic. But something about their helplessness and hopelessness stirred Claire, making her want to work with them. And this passion and drive had never left her since her first day on the job.
Arriving at the door of the brown stucco building, Claire took one last breath of the crisp mountain air, then opened the door, prepared for the pungent odor of disinfectant that she knew would assault her senses the moment she stepped inside. It never failed to momentarily daze her. Even though she’d been traversing this corridor with its dull green linoleum and sterile white walls every morning five days a week for the past two years, she was never prepared for the stench. Each of the compound’s four pueblo-style structures—the administration building, the locked ward, the open ward, and the cafeteria and gymnasium facility—smelled the same, like an overturned bucket of ammonia and water. After the initial shock, she always had to shake her head and steel herself before moving on down the corridor to her office.
Approaching her office at the end of the hallway, she unlocked her door and stepped inside the room, which, although small, met the requirements of her patients and her own need for privacy. A year after being hired, she’d been promoted to her current position, the chief attending physician, believing she was the perfect employee to bridge the gap between mental health workers and natural therapists. Without hesitation, she had accepted the position since it would permit her to more effectively care for patients. She directed clinicians to engage in more clinical services, to minimize meetings, committees, and bureaucratic dealings. Her leadership skills were noted and respected throughout the hospital.
Claire hung her wool cloak on an antique brass coat rack next to her old pine desk. The scent of piñon, from incense she’d burned the afternoon before, lingered in the air, a soothing scent that she associated with her childhood. Raised in the culture of the medicine women of northern Aztlan, Claire understood the healing properties of natural fragrances such as pine, cedar, piñon, sage, and wild chamomile. To the Aztlan medicine women, the comforting smells of the earth cleansed people and places of bad temper and foul energy. The evils of life, the medicine women taught, often caused the best of people to go down a bad path and need help. Medicine women in this tradition were said to be Women of Lozen—the name of a renowned nineteenth-century Apache woman warrior and healer who had fought with Geronimo and healed with intuition and caring. These healers had helped raise Claire when she had become a huerfana, a child orphaned by a mother’s untimely death.
After pulling the charts for the day from the steel file cabinet in the closet and laying them on her desk, Claire went to the storage bin where she kept sealed bags of yerba buena, the healing tea she offered each of her patients. She had been instructed as a child to give yerba buena to those in need of healing, for the drink of steaming mint leaves settled the stomach and opened the rest of the body to healing.
Opening one of the bags, she inhaled the bouquet of damp earth and mint. As she pressed the herb into a tea strainer, memories of her mother, Lucia, the great woman who had loved her for the first five years of her life before she had been killed, flashed through her mind. Tears welled as Claire remembered her mother placing the delicate leaves into a ceramic pot of boiling water, stroking her head, and telling her that medicine women used the herb to soothe the stomach and heal the nerves but that the true healing came from within the heart. After drinking her mother’s tea, and sharing their dreams and nightmares to ease their burdens, people inevitably left her childhood home looking younger and happier.
Recalling those days also reminded Claire of how she used to nestle close to her mother’s warm body and how helpless she felt when she saw her from a distance being struck without being able to do anything. Shaking her head, she quietly brought herself back to the present, filled a glass decanter from the small sink next to the closet, and in less than five minutes had a steaming pot of water. After dunking the strainer in, she opened the file of her first patient, Elizabeth Gonzales, a severe woman made so by a life riddled with disappointments and secrets. Claire read her notes from the session with Elizabeth two days before, a depressing reminder of how draining Elizabeth could be:
Elizabeth yelled and accused me of being a sellout, a mestiza made white by the “man.” Her hatred was intense. I needed to find a way to help her to talk about her anger and work through it rather than acting it out through outbursts of temper. As I remained calm and listened to her, she eventually stopped yelling and sat quietly for the last five minutes of the session, rocking back and forth with her arms wrapped around herself. I was careful not to say anything or make any move to touch her. She would have found either far too threatening. At the end of session, she stood up, glared at me, then, without saying another word, walked out, slamming the door behind her.
Claire closed the file and looked at her watch. Elizabeth was due in five minutes, at 9:00. She was always on time and did not tolerate Claire being even a minute late.
Claire took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and quieted her mind so she could focus on the day’s work ahead. She noticed the unease that came with anticipating Elizabeth’s grating voice and demanding presence, knowing it was a signal that the work with Elizabeth would be demanding. Soon, a mild sense of heat went up her spine to the center of her forehead, the place of the mystic third eye, and into her hands and fingertips. Claire meditated on this feeling, which gradually became stronger, softer, and kindled empathy, an ability to feel what her patients felt, to understand their pain, to help them to heal. She had learned about the mystic third eye as a young child when her mother had taught her to respect the world of invisible realities. After her mother’s death, Claire had continued to learn from the medicine women who had been friends of her mother, one in particular who had assumed responsibility for her care and instructed her well in the art of healing and natural magic.
Seconds later, Claire was startled by a sharp, demanding knock at the door. Silently and slowly, she removed two ceramic tea mugs from a nearby shelf. There was another, more demanding knock accompanied by Elizabeth’s harsh voice saying, “Hurry up, Claire. I know you’re in there. I saw you walk in.”
“Good morning, Elizabeth,” Claire said, smiling as she opened the door and motioned her patient in, grateful for the morning’s brief meditation and its grounding effect. It helped now, as it had many times before, to keep Elizabeth’s grating manner from getting under her skin before the session had even begun. “How are you doing this morning, Elizabeth?” Claire asked, feeling a surge of concern for the woman, who seemed more anxious than usual.
Elizabeth, a brown-skinned woman in her early fifties with shoulder-length graying brown hair and at least a hundred pounds of excess weight, scowled and walked to the massage table, sitting down on the edge. “I don’t want to be here, Claire,” she said, her voice aggressive but also betraying a faint plea for help.
“You don’t want to be here for your session?” asked Claire.
“You know what I mean,” answered Elizabeth, her eyes sharpened with irritation. “I don’t want to be here in the hospital.”
“But you are, Elizabeth. So let’s put your session to good use. Besides having to be here what else is angering you?” Claire inched her way in. She had to be especially sensitive with Elizabeth since she could retreat into silence for sessions on end if she in any way felt pressured. Work with Elizabeth was demanding. A misstep here or there meant therapeutic disaster, at least for a time.
Elizabeth’s countenance darkened as she added, “I don’t want to talk anymore.”
Claire remained quiet, trying to sense what it was in Elizabeth’s voice that concerned her. After a few moments, Claire recognized that Elizabeth’s voice had the quality of a suicidal person standing on a ledge. Softening her own voice, she said, “It’s all right, Elizabeth. We don’t have to talk right now.”
Elizabeth stayed sitting near the end of the massage table as Claire fixed two cups of tea. She put Elizabeth’s on a small wooden stand next to the massage table. The warm glow of the morning’s meditation stayed with Claire as she took a sip of tea and stood near Elizabeth, silently, patiently waiting.
Elizabeth cradled the cup in her hands as she sipped. Claire had just begun to feel settled into the session as Elizabeth finished her tea, set her eyes hard on Claire, and threw a poison dart, in her gravelly voice, asserting, “You are a medicine woman—of Lozen—like your mother, Claire.” The words were hate-filled, meant to wound. Despite the culture in which she had been raised, Claire considered herself a natural therapist not a medicine woman, the distinction a matter of life and death. In her mind, she had long ago made the decision that being a medicine woman like her mother meant exposing herself to evil and injury and, potentially, death. Years ago, when handed the five-foot oak staff that had belonged to her mother, Claire had angrily rejected it, refusing initiation into the way of the medicine woman. Back then, she had often had fearsome memories of being a young child in the forest, an ominous black-cloaked man assaulting her mother, and hearing her mother’s screams—a child’s nightmare.
The words of her adoptive mother, her mother’s closest friend, reverberated in her mind: “You are of Lozen—-a medicine woman. A time may come when only the staff can save you.”
Claire’s stomach churned. None of her patients had ever attacked her so personally. She felt the blood draining from her head and a sharp pain shooting through her eyes.
Elizabeth was trying to stop her from asking any more prying questions. “Are you all right, Claire?” she asked after a minute, her tone laced with sarcasm and a sneer on her face, expressions Claire was sad to see.
“You did what you wanted to do, Elizabeth. You shut me down,” Claire replied evenly, holding her gaze. She felt compassion for Elizabeth, realizing that all that she had locked inside of her must be nothing short of terrifying.
Elizabeth didn’t let it go, though, saying, “You are of Lozen just like she was.” This time her sneer was even more etched into the sunbaked lines that streaked across her face.
“I’m a natural therapist, Elizabeth, not a medicine woman,” Claire replied firmly.
“If you say so,” said Elizabeth, snickering as she slipped off her shoes to prepare for her massage.
Despite Claire’s assertion, she continued to feel the assault of having been thought of as a medicine woman, which caused a lingering fear. In her experience, medicine women ended up dead. She was seized by the memory of her mother falling to the ground as quickly as a tall ponderosa struck by lightning. Dread bore into her as though she were a child again. She flashed on the image of an evil man hidden in the darkness of the forest howling and looking her way, his blues eyes cutting through the midnight dark like lasers. Claire shuddered. She hoped Elizabeth hadn’t noticed.
Elizabeth, face down on the massage table, turned and ordered tauntingly, “Well, let’s get on with it. Unless you’re not up to it.”
Claire struggled to keep her professional distance, calming herself by closing her eyes, taking a deep breath, and briskly rubbing her hands together, generating heat in her palms to ensure a warm touch for Elizabeth’s tense and aching body. Elizabeth had regularly complained that her body was racked with unimaginable pain, and Claire had no doubt about this since the muscular tension over her frame seemed like mounds of stone.
Claire felt her mind clearing, energy moving through her hands, and was ready to begin treatment. As her warm hands touched Elizabeth’s back, Elizabeth let out a sigh, an obvious expression of relief. There was no resistance coming from her, no sense of meanness, her tension dissipating by the second. For the next thirty minutes, Claire massaged Elizabeth’s neck, back, and legs, enjoying the silence between them. Silence allowed the patient to drift into a timeless realm and the natural therapist to focus undisturbed so that maximum energy was directed to the healing process.
As she massaged Elizabeth, Claire’s thoughts drifted back to her childhood, when her mother was still alive and the three of them would sit at the kitchen table eating red chile, beans, and warm tortillas. She would listen while Lucia and Elizabeth talked about people in the village, their aches and pains, their rages and fights, and how herbs and their dreams could be used to heal them. Elizabeth had visited regularly, and Claire remembered anticipating with great enthusiasm the conversation she would hear between the two, their words seeping into deep places of her being and their friendship nourishing her.
When Claire had asked her mother why she and Elizabeth spoke so much about so many things, Lucia had explained that because Elizabeth knew the way of the medicine woman they could help each other by discussing their patients who came seeking healing. Lucia had also told Claire that Elizabeth was a seer who knew how to heal through the voices that spoke in the deep mind. This did not seem strange to Claire since from a young age she had experienced both visual and auditory psychic impressions that informed her about people, situations, and problems. Lucia had instructed her to listen to and follow deep feelings and instincts, visions and dreams, for through them she would gain wisdom and guidance during dire times.
As the massage went on, Claire wondered what tragic experience had turned Elizabeth into the disturbed woman she was today. She had become a woman as different from the one young Claire had known as day was from night. Yet Claire felt cariño for Elizabeth, a deep affection for the woman who, in her right mind, had been her mother’s friend.
Claire moved her fingers over Elizabeth’s neck and said, “You’re finally relaxing.” The effects of the massage were not always so evident. The knotted muscles in Elizabeth’s back that sometimes created grotesque formations seemed like demons that had buried themselves within her. Now it was evident she had less tension and that the real Elizabeth, beneath the anger, was nearer and closer.
Elizabeth sighed and agreed, “Yeah, I guess so.” Her voice had lost its hostility, sounding more like the Elizabeth of Claire’s childhood. Now the closeness between them seemed palpable to Claire.
Wrapped in the warmth of the therapeutic mood, Claire closed her eyes as she continued stroking Elizabeth’s body from head to toe with the tips of her fingers before gently finishing the massage. The ending of a treatment was as important as its beginning, drawing together its healing benefits.
“Feeling better?” Claire asked, sensing the ease and openness in her patient.
Elizabeth hesitated, as though reluctant to break the spell, then said in a hushed tone, “There are things I have to tell you, Claire.” Her voice, even though almost a whisper, still was that of the sincere woman of years past.
Suddenly, images flashed into Claire’s mind of Elizabeth, a few years younger than her present age, screaming with pain as a man cloaked by shadows, a rogue with occult powers sanctified by the masses, forced himself on her, then grazed her face with his fingers, shattering her mind, leaving her desperate and crazed by a long-held secret.
Claire’s heart raced so quickly that her breaths became shallow and every muscle in her body tensed. She felt the room spinning, and she reached out to the edge of the table to steady herself and regain her composure. Elizabeth looked at her, knowingly. Her pallor was ashen gray. All light was gone from her eyes.
At that moment, a howling wind came up. Through the window, Claire saw dust devils swirling outside, their dance frenzied, grit and grime spewing every which way as they crisscrossed an endless expanse of desert. As the window began rattling like a bag of old bones, both women looked up and saw a large black crow perched on the ledge outside. It stared at them, then cawed defiantly, unaffected by the winds.
Elizabeth bolted upright, eyes wide. “I have to go,” she said, fingers trembling as she slipped on her shoes, more frightened than Claire had ever seen her. Claire thought of trying to help her settle down, but held herself back, not wanting to risk upsetting her further.
“What’s wrong?” Claire asked, trying to disguise her own sense of unease. Her words went unanswered.
As Elizabeth reached the door, she glanced back at the window where the crow had been. The wind had died down, and the crow had vanished; yet the dark force of moments past crackled through the atmosphere like sparks of electricity jumping wildly from shorted wires.
The hairs on the back of Claire’s neck stood on end. She clenched her teeth in anticipation of something worse about to happen. A chill swept through the room as if a ghostly presence had made itself known. Involuntarily, Claire shook her head as though waking herself from a bad dream.
“Get out of here while you can, Claire,” Elizabeth stammered. Her eyes were wide as the full moon sitting low across a midnight desert landscape.
“What are you so afraid of, Elizabeth?” Claire asked, moving forward to calm her. “Please, talk to me about what’s going on with you.” Carefully, she placed a hand on her patient’s taut shoulder.
Elizabeth shrugged it away, saying, “Let go of me.” Claire knew that Elizabeth could turn on her, becoming violent.
Still, Claire inched a little closer and said, “Elizabeth, I could help if you’d let me.” But the words seemed futile.
“Help me? Help yourself! Face what is yours to face,” Elizabeth hissed. She yanked the door open then forced it to slam behind her.
Claire stood still for a moment, feeling as if a tornado had swept through the room. Elizabeth’s demand had left her shaken. She drew a deep breath, then went to her desk and picked up her tea, noticing her trembling hands. Turning toward the window, Claire saw a muscular orderly accompanying Elizabeth to the locked ward at the far end of the hospital compound. A flock of crows circled high overhead, seeming to follow the two receding figures. As they arrived at the outer doors of the locked unit, the orderly reached for his keys. The crows circled while the two crossed the threshold of the unit, Elizabeth suddenly pausing, turning, and looking outside, her gaze riveted on the flock of birds.
All but two flew off, disappearing into the piñon-covered hills. The two that remained came to rest on the red brick wall adjacent to the locked unit, their black eyes boring into Elizabeth. She looked panicked then enraged and, shaking a finger at the creatures, yelled something. Her frantic gestures told Claire that she was screeching curses to ward off evil.
Claire took a step back from the window, from the impact of Elizabeth’s rage.
The orderly grabbed Elizabeth roughly by the arm and pulled her inside.
The crows waited, watched, then flew away.
* * * *
Late that afternoon, after a day of report writing and meetings, Claire caught a glimpse of herself in the small mirror hanging over the old porcelain sink in her office. Shocked to see herself looking haggard, her shoulder-length auburn hair disheveled, her usually sparkling brown eyes dull, Claire couldn’t help but think that she appeared twenty-five going on forty-five. The session with Elizabeth had taken its toll. Not for a while had a patient had been that demanding of Claire’s inner resources.
She sensed that there was more to Elizabeth and their therapeutic relationship than she could yet fathom. Claire wanted to help Elizabeth, but there was too much Elizabeth kept locked up inside. And Claire knew that revelations of secrets was the only path to healing.
She bent down over the stained white porcelain sink and splashed cold water on her face. As she straightened up, a fleeting image crossed the mirror, the face of a little girl abandoned in the forest, crying for her mother, angry that she had been taken from her. Claire grasped the lip of the sink and tried to steady herself, forcing herself not to look again at the haunting image.
Soon after, she hurried out of her office, eager for dinner with Francesca, her spiritual guide and foster parent, the person to whom Claire turned during times of crisis. The thought of Francesca’s cozy adobe home nestled in a forest of piñons brought her some peace. She longed to sit and talk to Francesca, her ever-present source of wisdom, guidance, and loving assurance. Since Claire’s childhood, Francesca had always listened to her concerns calmly, from her rocking chair beside the fireplace, the cedar and piñon fire providing warmth and soothing fragrance.
Claire whisked by the night guard at the front of the administration building as images and memories continued to flash through her mind like lightning across a mesa: a funereal pyre; herself at age seven watching the cremation of Alejándra, one of the last medicine women; Francesca touching Claire’s shoulder, whispering, “You are the last in the lineage”; black wings flapping wildly in the night; evil eyes searing aspens and ponderosas; a child, anger buried deep, frozen by fear.
Quickly walking across the gravel parking lot to her car, Claire glanced over at the locked ward and saw Elizabeth’s face in a second-floor window. Motionless, Elizabeth stared at Claire, the windowpane reflecting the desert darkness, lit candles in Elizabeth’s room flickering like spirits on the watch. Yet Elizabeth exuded a familiar sense of warmth and sincerity that seemed to cut through the chilly desert night.
As Elizabeth waved, Claire shuddered, spotting a flock of crows cawing and circling overhead, then flapping their wings erratically and flying at the window, Elizabeth motioning them away to no avail. Finally they left the window, scattering into the night sky, their distant cawing sending an eerie message.
Elizabeth glanced at the window ledge and startled as she noticed, lying there, a white dove, bloodied and dead.