A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 32

It’s dark out there, between the seventh and eighth planets, where Voyager 2, now more than a decade into its mission, spent the last years of the 1980s. Its sister ship sailed away, too, on an entirely different course, and would encounter no more worlds. The country that launched both spacecraft had largely forgotten them.

It’s dark, too, in the Arizona desert between the cities. Pilar had never seen so many stars. On clear nights, Christian liked to drive out into the desert and sleep in a bedroll. He also liked to eat peyote and stare up into the heavens, identifying a few familiar constellations and making up his own stories about them. Pilar had puked the one and only time she tried peyote, but Christian could usually get his hands on some magic mushrooms, which produced a milder but similar effect without the nausea, and he always had a supply of weed and a flask of tequila. She liked to hear his stories of the mighty hunter Orion chasing the giant scorpion across the sky, and how Virgo the Virgin had ridden Taurus the Bull across the zodiac to meet the twins of Gemini, who took turns ravishing her until Leo the Lion came to her rescue. Pilar was pretty sure these tales deviated from the original ancient myths, but he had a deadpan face and a laconic delivery that made his renditions hilarious.

Christian was a Westerner, from his wide-brimmed felt hat to his well-worn cowboy boots. She had met him at a music festival in Austin; he played harmonica and knew a few of the musicians, and he was headed to a small Mexican town on the Sea of Cortez that was also a hangout and party spot for American college students on weekends and semester breaks. He was going to go to work as a cook for a friend who owned a cabana down there, and he told her he had a free place to stay. Living in Mexico was cheap, he said, and there were a lot of American artists hanging around, a few on trusts funds but most simply there for the experience and to meet like-minded wanderers. The timing was good for Pilar, who had recently fallen out with the left-handed guitar player over a chick singer with long legs and a mane of dark curls. Christian kept everything he owned in the world in the back of a yellow Nissan pickup truck with a camper cap, but he made room for Pilar and her stuff, and at the end of the festival they began driving west.

He had friends in Tucson, he said. He seemed to have friends everywhere. On the first night, they stopped in some little town in West Texas, where she had slept among his stuff in the back of the truck while Christian traded shots of tequila most of the night with a grizzled guitar player named William, who looked to be about fifty years old and lived alone in two welded-together trailers with a large mongrel dog name Tumbleweed.

Christian was twenty-seven, five years her senior, had never been to college, but he had traveled all over the United States and Mexico, by thumb until he could afford his first vehicle. Pilar suspected that he embellished many of his stories, but he had a self-deprecating sense of humor and a cat-landing-on-its-feet storytelling style that she found irresistible.

He wanted to be in Mexico by the end of October. It was September now; he knew a bar in Tucson where he could pick up some work for a month and put a few bucks aside, and maybe she could get a gig as a waitress. His plans were nebulous and grand, and Pilar, who had no plans, happily went along with them.

The drive across New Mexico and Arizona was a revelation. She had never seen such openness. The distances deceived her. A lone mountain looming beside the car turned out to be 30 miles away. The paucity of vegetation added to the immensity of the landscape. Christian didn’t like to stop at formal campgrounds, which he said were full of RVs and kids and the sounds of a hundred radios and televisions like mosquitoes in the night. Toward the end of their second day on the road he steered the truck off the highway and began scouting for a secluded spot where they could park out of sight of the nonexistent traffic and sleep out under the stars. In their makeshift encampment at the bottom of a small wash they made love and then watched the stars, and he began telling her his stories. In Tucson, where they would share a house that was small for two people, let alone four, they would discover other spots, just outside the city, to do the same thing.

“They keep a lot of the streets dark,” he told her, “on account of Kitt Peak Observatory. Look, there’s Orion coming up now. See that red star?”

“Betelgeuse,” she said.

“That’s right.” She heard surprise in his voice. “You know the stars.”

“A little,” she admitted. The great hunter lay on his side, the three stars of the famous belt standing vertically above the horizon. She couldn’t get over the clarity of the air. Stars close to the ground shone as brightly as stars overhead. The Milky Way split the sky like a freeway. “There’s the summer triangle,” she said, tracing the shape with her outstretched arm. “Vega, Altair, and Deneb. I know that one’s Vega, but I may be mixing up the other two.”

“I’m impressed.”

“My older brother’s an astronomer,” she said. His mention of Kitt Peak had made her think of Jeremy. What was he doing on this starry night?

She had absorbed the major constellations by a kind of osmosis, and she could still pick them out here, against the thousands of fainter stars that the desert air and the darkness made visible. Because he was the star of the family, Jeremy’s interest in the heavens had rubbed off on all of them.

She loved Tucson. The days were hot but not sweaty; the evenings were pleasantly warm, and the sunsets were spectacular. Christian’s friends turned them on to a Mexican diner where they were soon eating breakfast regularly. On a couple of afternoons they experienced thunderstorms the likes of which she had never seen on the East Coast. They watched the thunderheads build and blacken underneath until they could hold no more rain, and then, in a cataclysm of electrical anger, they unleashed it all at once. She had never seen it rain so hard. The washes – dry streambeds than ran through the city, where people tossed unwanted appliances, shopping carts, furniture and scrap – became rivers capable of swallowing a car. Afterwards rainbows came out over the mountains, and they went outside to walk in the cooled-off air and watch the waters recede. The next morning it was arid desert again.

At night, Christian tended bar at a place called Iguana’s, run by a stocky Hispanic dude named Felix, who looked a bit like an iguana himself. Felix liked live music, but not paying for it, and thus amateur musicians were encouraged to come in and play on the small stage near the window. Sometimes Christian got up with his harmonicas and jammed with them. Felix offered Pilar a few shifts on the busiest nights, Thursday through Saturday, but on many of her days off she went out into the desert and painted. Christian’s friends, a married couple named Carlos and Anita, worked odd schedules, and though they were nice enough, she felt odd about hanging out with them when he wasn’t there. The desert fascinated her. She had never known there were so many types of cactus. The saguaro looked just like the cacti in the old Road Runner cartoons, with their arms in the air like they were being robbed at gunpoint. But many other kinds she had never seen or heard of before. The paintings she produced were either close studies of desert vegetation, or broad landscapes, in which she concentrated on subtle variations of color.

Something else Tucson had in abundance: jewelry stores and crafters in silver and turquoise. Anita worked at one such store, and her slim fingers and wrists were adorned with multiple bracelets and rings. She was a tall, willowy woman with hair almost as long as Pilar’s, though because of her height it reached barely below her shoulder blades while Pilar’s fell nearly to her waist. Carlos was taller still, with wild curly dark hair that kinked its way down to his shoulders. He did something with computers that he was vague about; when he was home he smoked pot and listened to Bob Marley. It was unclear how he and Christian had met and become friends. Carlos didn’t talk a lot, but he seemed to like listening to Christian’s stories on the evenings when they were all home, sitting around the spool table on the tiled patio in the back, drinking wine and watching the stars come out.

They got along all right, the four of them, though the apartment itself was cramped, and Christian and Pilar slept on a fold-out couch in the living room. Carlos and Anita had friends; occasionally other couples or small groups of people dropped by with beer or weed and maybe musical instruments. Sometimes they went out and invited Christian and Pilar along. Three weeks went by. She began to wonder how long they were going to stay. Christian seemed in no hurry to get to Mexico.

When she asked him about it, he said that he hadn’t heard from his friend in San Felipe yet but would try to call him. He implied that phone service down there could be iffy. She doubted this but let it pass. She didn’t mind staying in Tucson a while longer. She was having a good time, making a little money, and living for next to nothing. The arrangement might be temporary, but so was everything else.

One Friday night they all piled into Anita’s Toyota Tercel (Carlos had a problem with his eyes, and didn’t drive) for a party about twenty miles out of the city, in the no-mans land of the Gadsden Purchase. The party was at the home of Juanita Mitchell, who owned the jewelry store where Anita worked. She had inherited the house from its owner and designer, her deceased husband Richard, who had been a dealer in gemstones and diamonds and purportedly other things, not all of them legal. The house, on a rocky hilltop from which you could see into Mexico, sprawled all over the ridge in thick-walled rooms of adobe connected by sets of two, three or four steps, each room on a different level. In places the ledge protruded into the house, creating outcroppings where couples could comfortably sit. A similarly dimensional patio area led to a small swimming pool and jaccuzzi; an upper level contained a home movie theater and an observation deck.

Juanita was a large woman, and she threw a large party that spread all over the hilltop, from the keg and barbecue pit down beyond the pool, to the deck where guests watched the sunset and later gazed at the stars. Her friends seemed to come from every walk of life. Over the course of the evening Pilar met a gregarious Texan banker with a belt buckle in the likeness of John Wayne; a female mud wrestler from Phoenix with 36 double-D boobs and a blonde crew cut that resembled Billy Idol’s, a black man about six and a half feet tall in African dress and dreadlocks, a young white couple in their twenties who lived across the border in Mexico in the shell of a Volkswagen camper, a well-dressed woman in her forties who taught elementary school in Tucson and came out to the desert to eat peyote on weekends, a Mexican woman her own age with whom she spoke haltingly in two languages about painting, and a host of mostly bilingual children ranging in age from about six to sixteen. Several of Juanita’s guests spoke only Spanish, while a rotating musical ensemble played an eclectic mix of instruments and sang songs from both sides of the border.

But the most unusual person she met was Magdalena the Medium, a Mexican woman of medium height whose long, straight dark hair reached past her waist. She was as thin as Juanita was stout, but the two women bore a facial resemblance to one another, and Pilar was not surprised to find out that they were sisters.

Most of the women at the party wore jewelry, but Magdalena displayed turquoise bracelets up and down both forearms, rings on every finger except her right thumb, dangly earrings that caught the light whenever she moved, several beaded necklaces, and a silver chain from which hung a lizard carved from some sort of red stone, about the length of a forefinger. It dangled by a ring in its nose, so that its tail tickled the small cleavage revealed by her orange, floor-length dress.

Among Magdalena’s purported gifts was the ability to talk to the recently deceased, and convey their messages to the living. “I don’t know what I would have done without her after Richard died,” Juanita said. “She helped me know that he is in a good place.”

“Do you think there’s life after death?” Pilar asked her.

But it was Magdalena who answered. “Honey, I know so. We are here for only a brief moment in time. But our spirit sheds the dead weight of the body and passes on to somewhere else. To some other state of being.”

Her English was almost unaccented, but when someone spoke to her in Spanish she switched effortlessly. Pilar noticed that people were drawn to her, but deferential at the same time, as though slightly afraid. Anita told Pilar that Juanita’s sister was a psychic whose talents were recognized enough that she had consulted with police on at least two murder investigations. She did Tarot readings and spiritual consultations from a small studio near the jewelry store. Anita said she had once helped her find a missing turquoise earring by holding its companion in her hand and describing the spot in her apartment where it could be found. Anita had gone home and turned up the corner of the distinctive carpet the psychic had somehow seen. Bingo.

Pilar watched the woman throughout the party. She moved among the guests and eventually settled at a table on the patio, away from the door but still out in the open, with a view of the pool and the desert beyond. She did not seem to be here with anyone, but she was rarely alone, for guests periodically came up to her, singly and in groups of two and three, and after brief introductions, sat and talked with her earnestly. Christian had ingratiated himself with the band, and Carlos and Anita had drifted off to the company of other friends, leaving Pilar to observe and converse with strangers and wander back and forth between the terrace and the punch bowl inside. She sipped the potent concoction slowly; it tasted sweet and smooth, but she knew from bitter experience that she got drunk faster than people with more bulk. When she saw a young couple get up from Magdalena’s table, she drifted in that direction – looking, she told herself, for someone to talk to, and not psychic advice.

Magdalena smiled when she saw her, and said a soft hello. Pilar smiled back and said, “May I sit?”

“Of course.”

Pilar took the opposite chair. She twirled a turquoise ring on the middle finger of her left hand; Christian had bought it for her when he had seen her admiring it at an open-air market a few days earlier. “Anita tells me you’re good at finding things,” she said.

The woman laughed pleasantly. “I have a few small talents,” she said. “Why? Did you lose something?”

“Not exactly,” Pilar said. “But I’m intrigued by what you said to me earlier.”

Magdalena raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

“About life after death,” Pilar prompted.

“Child, you must realize that death is only a passage.” She looked briefly down at her dress. “We inhabit these bodies for a short time; they grow, then they grow old, and wither and die. We use them up. But the life force, the energy that drives us – that can’t be destroyed. That energy is all around us, all the time.”

“I wish I could be as sure as you,” Pilar murmured.

“Sure of what, my dear?”

“That there’s life after death. That there’s something on the other side.”

Magdalena smiled. “Matter and energy,” she said. “That’s all life is. And they are really two states of the same thing – like water and ice. When we are alive, we have material form. We consume food to fuel out bodies. We breathe the air of this world. But our thoughts, our feelings, our spirits – pure energy. And when we die, that’s what we become. Energy never goes anywhere, child. It just changes.”

“Now you sound like my brother.”

The eyebrow went up again.

“He’s an astronomer,” Pilar explained. “He talks about matter and energy, and Einstein and all that. But he’s looking for life out there in the Universe, while most of us are more curious about life after death. I know I am.”

“Have you ever thought you might both be looking for the same thing?”

“No.” And why had she been thinking so much about Jeremy lately, anyway? Was it the stars in the desert? Or her presence in the American Southwest, only a few hundred miles from where he lived now? They had never been close. He had gone off to prep school when she was six – the year their father died. She had few childhood memories of him at all. He had been a looming but distant presence in her early life, though she did remember looking through his small telescope in the back yard at the rings of Saturn. In the years before he went to California – for good, as it now appeared – he had swooped in periodically like a bird of prey, never lighting long but always commanding attention. Like their father, he cast a long shadow over the family, even in his absence.

“The whole universe is inside every one of us,” Magdalena said. “We are separated from it by these physical bodies. When we die, we reconnect with the cosmic energy that flows through all things. We exist as individuals for but a short time. Then we go home.”

“But how do you talk to someone who’s crossed over?”

The woman smiled again. “I do not talk to them,” she said. “I communicate with them, on a spiritual level.”

“What do you say to them?”

“It’s not a conversation,” Magdalena said. “Not like the conversation you and I are having right now. It’s more like a connection, on a level higher than language.”

“But if they are no longer individuals…”

“Sometimes spirits need help letting go of this plane and moving on to the next level of existence. Perhaps they’ve left something behind in this world, some unfinished piece of business. Sometimes they have loved greatly and do not wish to let that love go. There are stories of spirits who linger in familiar places until their lover passes on, and then they cross over together.”

“How long?” Pilar wanted to know.

“Oh, some spirits can hang around for years. But most want to move on, and most do, pretty quickly. Why would you want to remain around the living, with all their joy and suffering, when you can go to a better and more peaceful place?”

“But can you talk to… I mean, communicate with, someone who’s been dead for years? And do you have to be in the place they died?”

“The answer to your second question is no,” Magdalena said. “The departed aren’t bound by the physical constraints of this world. I think they find this world tiresome and small, and perhaps a little bit painful.”

“But if they have a reason to stay? Some unfinished business, like you said?”

Magdalena sat back in her chair and studied Pilar’s face carefully. Pilar noticed the blue mascara around her eyes, faint against the light brown skin. “Child, do you have someone in mind?”

Pilar nodded. “My father.”

The woman’s expression did not change. “I see. And when did he cross over?”

“Seventeen years ago,” Pilar said. She saw Magdalena frown, and rushed to continue. “He died in a fall, an accident. We never got to say goodbye to him. He was in a coma for three days. I was six. But I remember seeing him lying there, and every so often the muscles in his face would twitch, like he was trying to say something. I don’t remember much else, but I do remember that – him lying there, not peacefully, but like he was struggling to stay with us, like he wasn’t yet ready to go.”

“People often die before they are ready,” Magdalena said, kindly. “Where are you from, my dear?”

“Maine.”

“You’re a long way from home. Was that where your father died, too?”

“Yes,” Pilar said. “But you said that didn’t matter.”

“It may not. But seventeen years is a long time. Perhaps he has made peace with it. Have you seen any manifestations?”

Pilar shook her head. “Only in dreams,” she said. “And dreams aren’t real, are they?”

“Do not discount the power of the unconscious mind. Dreams tell us things we may not wish to know, but they can also provide a glimpse into other planes of existence. A truly powerful spirit will find a way to reach your conscious mind. But you must be aware of how difficult this is for them, without a corporeal body. And I think it gets harder the longer they’ve been on the other side.”

“Then you’re saying there isn’t much chance.”

“No, child, I’m not,” Magdalena said, with a soft smile. “Perhaps your father has a strong spirit, and perhaps he is still invested in this plane, in spite of his physical separation from it. But just as an old person’s sight and hearing and sense of smell diminish as they age, so too does the spirit’s ability to reach into the realm of the living. Tell me, do you have anything of his? An object he may have touched?”

Pilar shook her head and looked down at her hands. “I don’t think I do,” she said. “I’m traveling light. Is it necessary?”

“Perhaps not,” Magdalena said. “But it can sometimes help.”

Pilar looked off at the darkening sky over the desert. What artifact of her father’s could she possibly have in her possession, after seventeen years and many miles of wandering? He was dead, that was all, and she would never see him again.

But it suddenly occurred to her that she did have something, buried in her backpack, back in Carlos and Anita’s living room. She traveled light, it was true, but she carried with her a small box of Christmas ornaments, culled from the family collection. Wherever she found herself on Christmas she managed to erect and decorate a tree. The collection of ornaments represented her connection to the past, and to her family. “I do,” she said to the woman across the table, a stranger only a few hours ago. “Not with me now, I mean, but I do have something he gave me. It’s back in town, with my things.”

Magdalena reached into a fold of her dress, and her thin, long-fingered hand produced a business card. She handed it to Pilar. “Why don’t you come see me, and bring it with you?”

Pilar glanced at the card, which showed a woman’s profile and streaming rainbow hair. Magdalena the Medium was apparently the name under which she did business; the card bore a Tucson address and a phone number. “How much will you charge me?” she asked. She was doing okay at the bar, but money was still tight.

“For you, nothing,” Magdalena said. “You’re a friend of Anita’s, and Juanita loves her. And you’re just passing through. And you are not convinced that I am on the level.”

Pilar said nothing. This woman knew a lot about her already.

She did not tell Christian about her conversation with Magdalena, and he had apparently been too busy to notice. She carried the card around with her for most of the next week, taking it out on occasion to look at it, but it was not until Thursday that she found her way to Magdalena’s place of business.

From the outside it looked like nothing special – one of half a dozen doors in a small strip mall, between an attorney and a pawnshop. The rainbow-haired logo on the card was replicated on the glass door, and “Magdalena the Medium” appeared in small gothic lettering underneath it. There was no other information: no phone number, no hours, no list of services – nothing, in fact, to indicate whether the business was open or closed. A filmy tie-dyed drapery hung on the inside of the window, obscuring the interior from view.

Pilar stood outside the door for several minutes. It was late September, but the afternoon temperature was still in the nineties, a dry heat Pilar had grown to like over the past few weeks. It felt nothing like the sticky discomfort of a New England heat wave. She wore a lavender tank top, sandals, and a loose paisley skirt that fell below her knees, and was quite comfortable.

She fingered the small wooden ornament in the pocket of her skirt, given to her by her father on the last Christmas of his life, which would have been 1970. Almost eighteen years ago. Was it possible that something of Elliot Sprauling’s spirit still inhabited the piece after all this time? Or was she indulging in quackery? At least she wasn’t paying for it, she reminded herself. A charlatan would have asked for money up front. What did she have to lose? Sucking in a deep breath of the hot, dry desert air, she opened the door and entered.

A melodic tinkling of small chimes greeted her. Tapestries of mostly blues and purples covered the walls. The lighting was equally soft, provided by bulbs encased in multicolored circular shades that hung at different levels from the low ceiling. There were no windows. As Pilar’s eyes adjusted, she could see that the space was busy but not overcrowded. There were at least three comfortable chairs, a wooden table with another chair behind it, and several cushions set about in various places where a person could recline. One set of shelves contained books; another, enclosed in glass, held figurines of glass and metal – spheres, a Buddha, the Virgin Mary, and various animals, real and mythical, including turtles, birds, centaurs and dragons. A Persian rug covered the floor. Instrumental music played softly from a pair of small speakers high in the rear corners; it sounded like a pair of flamenco guitarists on Quaaludes trading lugubrious licks. The place smelled faintly of sage.

A curtain at the back of the room parted, and Magdalena the Medium emerged. She was not dressed much differently than she had been at the party. Pilar noticed the pair of silver hoop earrings of the size and kind favored by the singer Linda Ronstadt, whose music she had grown up listening to, thanks to her older sisters. She saw recognition in Magdalena’s dark eyes, and the woman smiled at her.

“I had an inkling you might be in today,” Magdalena said, extending a right hand festooned with rings at the end of a slim forearm lined with bracelets. “Pilar, is it not?”

“That’s right,” she said, touching the outstretched hand, impressed that the woman remembered her name. But then, she would make a point of remembering names, wouldn’t she? . The business about expecting her visit – well, Pilar took that as a bit of benevolent bullshit, an easy throwaway line to enhance her psychic credentials in the eyes of a skeptical first-time client. Jeremy – there he was in her thoughts again – had been famously dismissive of anything that smacked of magic or the paranormal. Astrology, telekinesis, telepathy – it was all “mumbo-jumbo” in his book. That was his phrase. He’d had more influence on her than she cared to admit. Yet her logical, rational, empirical older brother had left the family and taken off to California for no reason other than love, and where was the scientific method in that?

Meanwhile, Magdalena the Medium smiled at her, and Pilar felt genuine friendliness. “Won’t you have seat?” she said. “Sit anywhere you like.”

Pilar chose an overstuffed chair nearest the table; Magdalena settled into the upright chair behind it.

“I came to talk about my father.”

“I know, child, I know. I remember our conversation.” Magdalena wore too much blue mascara, but her eyes were intelligent and alert. She smelled of some kind of perfume that Pilar did not recognize. Though she could detect no sign of an air conditioner, the day’s heat had not penetrated the building’s walls. Magdalena studied her face. “Can you tell me a little bit about him?”

Briefly, Pilar summarized Elliot Sprauling’s life and death, sticking, as Jeremy would have, to the facts. She told her what she knew of her father’s death, how he had been hurrying down the stairs to tend to a patient when he tripped and fell, and the three days he had lingered in a coma before slipping away.

Her memory of this was imperfect, she admitted – she had been only six years old, after all – but she remembered the scratchy feel of his face when he kissed her goodnight, and the smell of his aftershave in the morning, and how she had liked to run her hand over the top of his bald head. Magdalena listened mostly in silence, but she encouraged her to search her mind for other impressions, bits and pieces, however insignificant. She said that sensual memories – memories of the primary senses rather than the conscious mind – were often the most telling.

“He liked to toss me in the water, at our grandparents’ place on the ocean,” Pilar said. “He’d wade out up to his waist, where I could barely touch bottom, and he would pick up and throw me. I was always small, and he could toss me pretty high. He thought I liked it, but it scared me.”

“Did you bring me something of his?” Magdalena asked.

“I did.” Pilar reached into her woven purse and pulled out a small box, from which she carefully extracted the Christmas ornament. It was a wooden angelic cello player, less than an inch tall, one of a set of five in an orchestra that her father had found in an Ellsworth gift shop the December before his death. Jeremy had the violin player, Gretchen the viola, Madison the concertina, and Joanie the French horn. Only Everett didn’t have one, because he had not yet entered the world at the time of their purchase. They had hung together on the family tree until the siblings had started leaving the nest and breaking up other such sets, of elves and animals and abstract pieces of ornamental art. Their parents had bought a new set of ornaments for the children every Christmas, and Annabelle had continued the tradition after the doctor’s death, until Jeremy’s first Christmas in California. On the wooden base of the cellist, in pencil, was the letter P, to indicate that it was hers. The cello player sported delicate wooden wings that would break off if it were handled too roughly. Pilar held it in the palm of her hand and showed it to Magdalena.

“Please be careful with it,” she said. “It can’t be replaced.”

“I understand, child. This object holds meaning for you. Which means it might help me.”

“Do you really think this will work?”

“I can give you no guarantees. But if you will trust me with it for a few minutes, we shall see.”

With a twinge of reluctance, Pilar dropped the ornament onto Magdalena’s palm. She watched as the medium gently folded her fingers over it and closed her eyes. Magdalena did not move or speak for several minutes.

“Well?” Pilar said, finally.

“I’m getting something,” Magdalena murmured. Her eyes remained closed. “I am sensing something… unresolved.”

“What do you mean, unresolved?”

Another long silence. At last, she said, almost in a monotone, “Your father loved you.”

Tell me something I don’t know, Pilar thought, irritation creeping in. Of course he loved me. He loved all of us. Not that he said it that often, that she could remember, but then neither parent had been effusive in the expression of emotion.

“I never doubted it,” she said. “I wish he’d had a chance to see me grow up, though. I think all of us missed that. Well, except maybe for Jeremy. He saw Jeremy off to prep school, at least.” She uttered a small laugh. And missed all the trouble he caused later, she thought.

But Magdalena turned her head slowly from side to side. “I see something else,” she said. Her eyes remained closed. “I see a man falling, and two women trying to catch him. But they can’t. They can’t. They’re in each other’s way.”

“What?”

“I sense surprise, that neither woman can save him,” Magdalena said.

“What?” Pilar said again. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“I feel their presence,” the woman continued. “They do not trust one another. One is angry. And both are scared.”

“What are you talking about? My father was alone when he fell. One of the nurses found him on the floor, at the bottom of the stairs.”

Magdalena did not answer this. Her eyes opened, and then her hand unfolded slowly. The small wooden cellist had tipped over onto its face in her palm, the tiny wings pointing toward the ceiling. Magdalena inhaled and exhaled with deliberate slowness, and looked straight at Pilar.

“There is something he would have liked to share with you,” she said. “But he did not have the means to communicate before he crossed over.”

“What was it? What did he want to share?”

But Magdalena shook her head again. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That’s all I got. But he knows you. He recognizes you. And he loves you.”

“Yes, you said that. Can’t you tell me anything else?”

“Not from this,” Magdalena said. “We could perhaps consult the cards.” She nodded toward a shelf filled with figurines.

“A Tarot reading?”

Magdalena the Medium nodded. “It will take about half and hour. And it is only ten dollars. It might reveal something.”

Pilar plucked the angelic cellist from Magdalena’s palm and placed it carefully back in its box. “Thank you,” she said, “but no. I’ve wasted enough of your time already.”

“Are you sure? Often the cards can help clarify things.”

Pilar tucked the box back into her purse. She had encountered Tarot cards in college, in the hands of fellow students who imagined themselves in possession of some sort of sixth sense that was nothing more than pop mysticism. If this woman could not even accurately divine the circumstances of her father’s death – nothing more than a guess, after all, which turned out to be wrong – she wasn’t going to waste any more of her own time, let alone her money. Her inner Jeremy had been right, after all.

She closed the purse and stood to leave. “It was worth a try,” she said, hiding her disappointment that the woman had turned out to be just another faux fortune-teller. “Thank you for seeing me.”

“If you change your mind, give me a call, or stop by again,” Magdalena said, standing also. “I’m sorry I was not more help. I hope you find what you are looking for.”

“Thank you.” The chimes tinkled again as Pilar stepped out into the sunshine and the afternoon heat. She felt embarrassed about the entire encounter, and did not mention it to Christian or Carlos or Anita.

A week later, she and Christian left for Mexico, where they spent a winter alternately enjoying the simple life south of the border and squabbling over money. She painted and wrote poems and drank tequila with Christian and his friends and sent occasional letters to her mother and sisters. She hung the angel and her few other ornaments on a potted cactus that substituted for a Christmas tree. In the spring they crossed back into the United States at El Paso, where Pilar bought a bus ticket to Maine and bid Christian adieu. She did not think again of Magdalena the Medium, or of her father and his mysterious death, for a very long time.

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