“But there are neither maps nor exercises to help us find the duende. We only know that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned…”
—Federico García Lorca, from “Play and the Theory of Duende”
The knocking was aggressive, but Paloma heard uncertainty filling its pauses. Its impact shook the waxy purple leaves on the avocado branch that grew through her kitchen window, twirling into the ceiling network of hanging plants and skeleton figures and knotted fibers and chunks of glass. Her client, Hannah Lusk, was early.
The preparations required ingredients she didn’t like clients to see. Most disliked what they saw. Some of them shouldn’t be allowed to see. Not all. The young punks, like Sarah Quinn and her friends, whose hangovers and curiosity about their own minds made them regulars, they liked this shit and Paloma liked that.
The garden’s living canopy glinted with nightflowers that shed bioluminescent dust. As Paloma took the scarlet hen’s fertile, scab-colored egg, she almost wanted to apologize.
Four more knocks.
“Is this Paloma Pah-lenzia’s house?”
Plascencia. Paloma hammered the egg once with her fist, splitting it into three even sections. Threading her fingers in its juices, she flicked them into a tumbler, poured rose-and-cactus water over it, and carried it to the front room. She re-knotted her sweatpants, adjusted the small bird skull in her massive black knot of hair, and opened the door.
It wasn’t five minutes before Hannah was fidgeting in her seat, pointing herself toward the door. She had only imbibed a third of the beverage prepared for her.
“I was expecting something different,” Hannah said, pushing her moist eyes away from the glass. “I don’t trust doctors. Some man my husband works with told me to see you instead. But I like to do my own research.”
“No big deal. My methods aren’t for everybody,” Paloma said. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think you have a hormonal imbalance.”
“I eat very clean,” Hannah gushed. “I used to sell organic essential oils when my hubby was stationed at Travis Air Force Base. Now he’s busy at the construction site all the time…”
A pair of small finger-like appendages pushed up beneath the hem of Hannah’s loose batik blouse, wiggling. Hannah could not see this—nobody saw sickness like Paloma.
The fingers curled and uncurled from Hannah’s belly. Perhaps a low-level STI. Hardly anyone came to her for that. If Hannah were going to be a real patient, Paloma would need to inspect her husband’s body, which she supposed Hannah would not like. The husband probably would. She took Hannah’s fifty dollars for the consultation and urged her to see a regular doctor. Through the peephole Paloma noted the barbed, hungry stare as she looked back.
How different from her first patient, the unborn baby Sarah Quinn and the older mother needlessly worried by her age. The baby inside so verdant and singleminded in her hunger for life that Paloma saw pulsing fruits, like tunas, sprouting from her mother’s belly. This one’s fine. Tiene musica. Paloma had prepared herbal teas and rubs throughout the pregnancy and the mother paid in songs by her folk-singer husband.
As a child Paloma had sometimes seen pictures on people’s skin. For a long time Tío Baltasar was the only one who believed her. It felt like she was pulling her braids through her teeth to get through school with money for college, anywhere, because Tío did his best (landscaping, fortune-telling, dancing in secret bars) but couldn’t afford it, and her gringo daddy hadn’t been seen since that bit of chisme came around that said maybe he wasn’t Paloma’s daddy, and her mother? Probably dead, they kept saying. It was Tío who taught her about growing medicine, about listening to pictures and bodies, about planting and watering by the old rhythms. But even he knew she couldn’t learn enough in a town like this. After finishing K-12 school she’d catapulted to the Bay without blinking.
Now, Paloma almost never felt peace outside her garden. A few days after her visit, Hannah reappeared as Paloma was making her way to a patient at the shantytown of tents and broken-down bike trailers by the river. She flapped Paloma toward her, raising dust with her feet. Peeking between the shirt and waistband of Hannah’s jeans were the fingers, waving from her belly skin.
Paloma half-smiled and said, “How are those symptoms you were feeling?”
Another set of three, four fingers pushed out from the corners of Hannah’s mouth, fleshy whiskers that probed for Paloma and stretched Hannah’s smile—or maybe it was a snarl—wider.
“Worse, which is why I’m really curious what you gave me,” she said.
“It’s safe, Hannah,” Paloma all but spat. “My professional opinion is you need a hobby. More oils, maybe.”
Hannah was following her to the river community. Paloma delayed, not wanting to betray her patient’s privacy.
“It’s been hard,” Hannah huffed. “My husband and I moved here to be more off the grid, but I didn’t know that meant phone service, too. At least the Church of the Belowdown has a decent setup. Some of us might go shooting.”
“Of course you’d start hanging with those people.” Paloma looked past her to the patient’s tent.
“Is it true there’s a well in your garden? My new friends mentioned it, but I didn’t see that part of your house.”
Paloma’s neck hairs stiffened. The protrusions that Hannah couldn’t see stretched like a child’s eager hands from her body.
“I bet there’s a lot about you that people don’t know.”
In Paloma’s third year of college, Tío began insisting in letters and calls that he saw duendes con orejas de murciélago in the garden. Concerned, she left school and returned to Los Suelos, finding the town even worse than when she’d left, filled with strangers occupying the new USGS facility like termites in a mound. She wished she knew more about the great-great-great-grandmother who lived here long before it was called Los Suelos and who was a healer, or bruja, or priestess, depending who you asked. It was supposed to be her hands that dug the well and laid its stones.
Tío said the duendes made trouble for other people in town, but not him, and that they spoke of a secret path to the Hills. Paloma wasn’t sure if she believed him, but neither could she tell if he was sick. He begged her to finish her degree, said she needed to bounce, mija, even the duendes want you to. Emphasis leapt from his well-waxed white mustache.
So Paloma bounced to Los Angeles. She avoided the earliest models of the Hannah Lusk types back then, the flossy new age blondes who ate macrobiotic and the small business owner ku klux klan wannabes inland of them. She studied psychiatric nursing and public health, grew weed with a bathrobe-shrouded curandera in Lynwood and slept in a Valley squat filled with dancers who did odd jobs for some pinche producer in Beverly Hills. If she was lucky, she managed to forget her hometown even in dreams. The weed helped.
Having shaken Hannah loose, Paloma delivered tequila, dyed fuschia by the pit of one of her purple avocados, to her patient’s chainlink-fence-and-discarded-yuppie-camping-tent home. She instructed the patient to rub it into the infection on her leg, a cut whose origin she wouldn’t reveal but which Paloma guessed by the Church of the Belowdown pamphlets shoved beneath the sleeping mat and the spelunking gear in the corner. The guess was all but confirmed when the patient proudly offered a crisp ten-dollar bill in return for the medicine.
“That’s too much,” Paloma protested.
“It’s cool! The new side gig pays a little extra if I get hurt. To make up for it.”
Unwilling to fight the glimmer in the patient’s eyes, Paloma accepted the money and handed the woman a ziploc bag of pink tamales. It felt like shit. She was going to give her the tamales, anyway.
Pony’s was almost empty when Paloma walked in. Thank fuck. Marc Enriquez was alone at the bar and half out of his work uniform already, the jumpsuit’s sleeves knotted at his waist over a sweaty t-shirt. Paloma and Marc, the sole age-appropriate member of Sarah Quinn’s band the Fluppies, had found each other here on similar frustrated nights.
“I don’t know about some of these new people,” she said to him over her namesake drink.
“You’re warming up to me okay.”
Paloma rolled her eyes at him because he was right.
Marc said, “Who’s bothering you?” and flattened his empty beer can under one palm. Paloma thought about the soft bed in the upstairs room Marc rented and how he hadn’t made any drummer-esque insinuations about his good rhythm in a while. But Hannah’s question about the well hovered, and unease pulled her away.
Halfway out the door Paloma saw Hannah Lusk, arms crossed, berating a man smoking outside. No mames. She withdrew her head, but Hannah had seen her. Marc’s broad body was in the doorway, blocking Hannah from entering, before Paloma could ask.
“Sorry, the bar’s closed,” he said.
“I am so done with this,” Hannah whined. “She made me sick! She’s probably doing it to you, too!”
“You’re not sick because of me,” Paloma said through her teeth. “You’re sick because you have a fucking STI.”
Paloma saw Hannah drowning in her words.
“Your husband is probably cheating,” Paloma said. “Go tell him to knock it off and get some antibiotics. I have nothing else to give you.”
Hannah’s lips thinned. She stared hard, but soon the thin tubers were poking out of her skin again, twitching, pink. Marc shut the door and the low noises of the bar swelled behind Paloma, pushing Hannah out.
As they finished their drinks and went to his bed above the bar, Paloma focused on the even warmth of Marc’s eyes, its smooth rise an unbroken sun spilled over the dirt, just on the honeyed neon air that poured from him and not on the black threads that crackled in and out of his chest from wounds like tar-encrusted mouths. Heavy smoker. Marc was not seeking her treatment, and he couldn’t see these things, or even feel their presence. With his jumpsuit kicked to the floor, she could feel what he needed. Spidery threads danced from him, trailing phantom electric shocks across her skin, and she stoked his heat with her breath.
When Paloma finally moved back to Los Suelos, Tío Baltasar was bad. He wasn’t planting so much as he was playing with the dirt, and in his moments of clarity he told her the duendes chirped worry for him from the thirsty branches of the purple avocado tree. Even in the temperamental local soil, by Tío’s hands the garden usually flourished with obscene, pulsing bounty. But now the well was dry, and Tío wouldn’t use the new water pump Paloma bought. He called it a hideous anal plug the dirt hadn’t asked for.
Paloma fed Tío deep purple tea made from avocado leaves and blue fungus. This slowed his digging, but then he wandered. He’d leave the garden gate open and she’d follow his dusty footsteps. She found him standing in the middle of the street, swallowed by the shadow of the old USGS facility. Movement flickered at his ankles and beneath the falsa wrapped around his shoulders. Duendes?
She searched the caves for weeks. The man who’d recently purchased the empty USGS building, some lifestyle guru calling himself Hibiscus Bernard, offered to help. He had resources, he said, besides the fact that he now owned every publicly-known entrance to the network of caves in the Hills.
“Truthfully, I like to dig,” he told her at the mouth of the hole where they’d found Baltasar’s green falsa. “You do too, don’t you?”
Paloma didn’t know if she did, not in the way he meant it. When Mr. Bernard’s offers to buy the house started rolling in, with delicate emphases on its dry well that grew with each successive zero, she rooted herself to the spot and thought This is how you’re supposed to dig; no further than you need to plant yourself. She felt more than knew that Tío was alive in the Hills. The letters burned in her fireplace and through their smoke she glimpsed a pair of bat-like ears.
With Marc breathing evenly, Paloma crept from his sheets to the front porch of Pony’s, where she found a teenager with a rough mop of dark tangles to rival her own, leaning against the stickered and name-carved rail.
“Oh shit, it’s Sarah Quintero,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh shit, it’s Paloma,” Sarah Quinn said. “I just came from your place, actually.”
“Ah ha. Trying to score some tequila?”
“Maybe. But uh, there was this blonde woman I’ve never seen before, hanging around back by the garden. I started to say something, but she left when she saw me. Seemed weird.”
Paloma felt sick.
“Where did she go?”
“I’m not sure.” Sarah fidgeted, tucked her hair behind one ear and said, “Hey, is that Marc’s t-shirt?”
Pounding across town to her house, Paloma thought if she could see her own sickness it would look like gleaming new bones branching, spiking through her skin. As she ran she thought she saw a distant figure beneath a streetlight, wandering as her Tío had wandered.
Crossing the river, she rushed toward her own red door but stopped at a pale flash of green behind the agave. Thinking ¿Tío?, she said “¿Eres un duende?”
Another sharp and glittering movement by the garden’s back entrance was followed by a high, almost staticky growl. Her invisible bones jabbed at the gate, half hanging on hinges and the other half battered on the ground. Fury stabbed from her. She inhaled.
The hens clucked velvet chuckles. Deeper inside, a low whimper issued near the avocado tree.
“It’s bad fucking news if you’re in my garden, pendeja.”
A trail of shattered jars and pulpy crushings led her to Hannah, curled in the avocado’s faded purple roots and nursing a bleeding wrist. The falling pollen-light laid a cold blue edge to her skin. From the branches came a chorus of garbled shrieks and then a camera plummeted down, shattering at Hannah’s feet. A sledgehammer’s loose head followed, bouncing just over her shins. She yelped. Delighted snarls and alien laughter echoed.
When the noises coming from the tree quieted, Paloma said, “What outcome were you hoping for, here?”
Waving like little patches of seaweed, the fingers budded up around Hannah’s mouth, across her belly, on top of the foot whose shoe had come off. Now bending and reddened, they seemed agitated. Hannah didn’t meet Paloma’s gaze.
“Look, believe me or don’t, but you should really suck it up and go see a doctor.”
“Hibiscus is right about you,” Hannah hissed. “You’re poisoning the whole town with your lies. You’re a parasite.”
With a sound like rapid whispering, the sledgehammer’s long handle fell through the purple leaves, clocked Hannah on the side of the head, and dropped to the ground. She slumped against the tree with a small gasp, awake but stunned. Paloma saw the pointed ears of the duendes framed by lavender-colored twigs above.
Marc and Sarah came through the broken gate minutes later. Marc offered to drive Hannah to the nearest urgent care and insisted on staying at Paloma’s when he got back, in case anything else happened. A fierce chittering erupted from the canopy as he exited the gate with Hannah under one arm. Sarah stooped to the ground to collect the smashed peyote and aloe, careful of the jagged ceramic shards.
“Leave it,” Paloma said. “Help me get this gate back in place and I’ll open the good mezcal for us.”
After they had leaned the gate back over the hole and dragged a low onyx bench in front of the entrance, Paloma sat down with Sarah and two silver cups, the bottle between them.
“Sorry about that psycho bitch,” Sarah said. “Here’s to another happy Belowdowner.”
“Maybe,” Paloma said. Then, “Did you know you were my first patient, before you were born?”
Sarah’s eyes were red. “Yeah, sure. My dad swore you could see what was wrong just by looking.” She swallowed her tequila and said, quieter, “Do you see anything? Now, I mean?”
Paloma took in the teen’s face and knew the tender panic that this town could grow into a body-swallowing nightmare.
She’d know it with her eyes closed.
Featured image by Klayton Harmon.