Cathy checked her earbud and its corresponding data server, pinned between the white cotton layers of her jungle jacket. "Are we ready?"
"I've been ready for weeks. I still can't believe it took us so long to find a contact," Greg bitched. "If I have to face chemo one more time, I think I'll die just to get it over with." He pried himself out of the dingy hotel chair.
"Hey, hey, don't badmouth my science," Dr. Allman said jauntily as he helped Greg straighten up. "I have all the bottled water we could drink in a day, Cathy has the bribes, so we should be good to go." He pounded his earbud deeper with the end of his finger. "I can't wait to hear the translations. Are you sure you have the right dialect?"
"Yes, the Center dialect of Nahuatl, straight from the Universidad de Guerrero. We should both be able to receive the simultaneous interpretations." She kissed Greg and helped hold him up, as Dr. Allman's arm went around them both.
They met their contact, Miguelito, at the outskirts of the village. Grateful that he spoke Spanish when so many villagers didn't, Cathy asked in her limited Spanish, "How far will the car take us to the curandero?"
"It's almost all paved," Miguelito assured her, bright black eyes shining with interest as he tried to see the 'gifts' in two large bags. Cathy wondered how old he was; despite his small stature, he seemed wise in an odd melange of ancient and Western ways. When he offered to drive, she figured he was at least sixteen. She pointed to Dr. Allman, and he wilted, so perhaps not much older than sixteen.
She got in the back as Miguelito bounced into the passenger's seat and cheerfully tried his broken English out on Greg's best friend. Snuggling up to Greg as if to cuddle and whisper in his ear, she checked the position of the tiny transmitter, sewn unobtrusively into his collar button, as Miguelito gave directions for half an hour.
Sure enough, by 'paved' Miguelito meant 'accessible by car', because she would surely never call a dry dirt road paved, especially not one with such heavy ruts. Dr. Allman saw that their rental handled it, though, for he had traveled to many foreign countries during college.
The road ended not much further on, and Miguelito helped Dr. Allman carry the cooler of water and gifts about 200 feet to the curandero's shanty. Approaching from the side, Cathy could see a sloped roof covered an airy, open porch hung with herbs and snake skins, and a bench and two chairs framing a single door. She pointed out a rain barrel in back to Greg, as well as a work table under the back awning.
The curandero didn't come out of his house, but he stood in the doorway as Miguelito introduced them all in Spanish. The young man told them he couldn't give the curandero's name so he could 'keep his power'. Greying black hair tied back neatly, the expressionless man seemed ancient yet barely wrinkled, wearing a typical drab peasant's garb and sandals. He nodded at the introductions and said something briefly.
The phrase, Examine the gifts, came through Cathy's earbud perfectly. She looked at Dr. Allman, who ducked his head as if hiding a smile. Miguelito took the sacks to a small table and lined up the goods: four different bottles of liquor, two cartons of cigarettes, a basket of fresh fruit, and a case of canned meats they had been told would please him.
Face still neutral, the curandero murmured, and the language program interpreted, "I'll take the booze. Give the cigarettes to Nochtli and have him trim back the yard again and put more mulch on the path. You can have the fruit, and give the dog food to your mother. I suppose she's the one who keeps telling visitors it would make the perfect gift."
Stunned, Cathy was glad she didn't gape at that revelation, or it would have given away her audio set-up. Miguelito gave the man his bottles of booze, and he entered the hut to put them aside. Cathy, Greg, and Dr. Allman made to enter, but the curandero was right in their path once more, pointing at Greg.
Miguelito said, "He only wants the sick man."
"But I'm his wife!" Cathy held out her hand and wedding ring as proof.
The curandero shook his head. "Naked," he grunted in English.
"I'm his wife. I've seen him naked," she growled with determination.
"She is my power right now," Greg added, holding his fist clenched to his heart.
After a pause, the curandero shrugged and turned to his inner sanctum. "I guess I'll stay out here, then," Dr. Allman said with good humor, dragging the cooler to a chair and making himself comfortable.
Cathy looked into Greg's eyes again. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Anything for more time with you." He kissed her wedding ring in emphasis, and they crossed the threshold. The curandero closed the door behind them.
Although it was difficult to see with only two end windows for lighting, Cathy could tell the planks of the porch ran the length of the house, unfinished and about two feet off the ground. The walls had rows of bottles, jugs, jars, trinkets, masses of herbs in baskets, and more herbs hanging from a few roof beams in the back. There was a second room, but this room held a bed in the center, freshly made with a stiff, white sheet. The curandero was examining the alcohol and pulled out the vodka with an approving nod.
Cathy got Greg settled on the bed and began removing his shirt, determined not to let the microphone get occluded for this next, most important part. Not only did she desperately want to know why these 'healers' always spoke mumbo-jumbo, just getting the data alone would be a major coup for the Anthropology Department and her best friend Denise. She folded the shirt over her arm, microphone-out, when the curandero touched her and gave her a 'stop' gesture. Glancing around, she found a stool beside a work bench, crowded with mysterious tools and gadgets, and seated herself cautiously. If only they could have managed video...!
Greg sat with both hands propping himself up in exhaustion. The curandero put his own hands to Greg's head, turned it left and right, moved his hands to his neck, shoulders, and arms, then took his hands, staring at both palms and backs for quite a while. He moved to the side and gently ran his hands over Greg's back and grossly swollen abdomen before nodding.
Taking some long herbs out of a sack, he began shaking them over Greg's head, swishing them down the sides as if he were combing invisible hairs, and began his monologue. "Always hypnotize the subject first. You may not see the fungus spores on the chia leaves, but they are there, not quite an anesthetic and yet not quite a sedative. I'm sorry your wife is going to get a dose, but she insisted on being here. I've been working with it for fifty years, so I can pretty much work through anything."
As the numbness crept up on Cathy, she was glad she could sit there looking like a zombie, because she would probably be rolling on the floor with laughter right now. The curandero helped Greg lie down, and took up an odd yellow stick from a side table. "The healers all say that disease is caused by two things: your thoughts and your diet. This is magnesium chloride, straight from the sea...." He drew two lines along Greg's carotids down to his Adam's apple. "...mixed with coconut oil and beeswax so it doesn't sting, and hopefully it will be absorbed into your bloodstream and thyroid within an hour."
He lightly massaged the mixture to each side until it disappeared. "I need to get down to the cove to make some more, soon. I go through a lot of it, since magnesium is the single most important element needed by the body besides water, and you Americans suffer the most grotesque deficiencies, probably because of your terrible food."
He reached for a jar of salve and began rubbing it over Greg's torso. "You're pretty bad off, but this tlamatini paste is just the thing for burns. I have no idea how your people manage to burn a person's insides without burning their outsides, but it's a horrific thing. Tlamatini root is good for burns, fevers, inflammation, spider and snake bites; observe the patient for five hours to determine if a second dose is needed."
Cathy realized curanderismo truly was an oral tradition, for he had subtly dropped into a sing-song kind of chant. He next picked up a long, narrow log, quite like a rolling pin, and began to roll it lightly over the salve. "Your pupils showed good responsiveness, but your hands showed signs of deadly anemia. I would say stomach cancer, though it could have seeded from your liver or pancreas. I'll mix some kapok sap into some of that vodka and have you take a sip; if you can hold it down, you can take it home. If not, I don't think you will recover. Sometimes I think you Americans eat poison every day, like it is honey."
He next stood and ran his hands about a foot above Greg's body. "There, I feel a change. Now if I can keep you from protesting while I examine your prostate, I'll be able to tell if this is the only problem or just the most severe problem." He glanced at Cathy before turning back to his leaves. "I should hypnotize you both again, though, because if your wife is going to watch, she will likely scream."
Shaking the leaves over Greg's body, he wafted the fungal spores in Cathy's direction, while Dr. Allman could be heard giggling on the front porch. "Crazy Americans. Who knows how they do anything right? Poison food, now they have a system of poisoning the water called fracking so they have to drag their safe water around. What will they think up next? A way to poison the air?
"I just hope they don't bring the police down on me. I hate men of authority; all they think of is dominating you to get your money. If they only knew what wielding real power was like! Maybe I should have kept the dog food for them."
Grateful she could not respond, Cathy could only think Denise would end up Chairman of the Anthropology Department. And if this curandero did cure Greg, she would have Miguelito tell her the very best gifts she could buy for the man. Minus the dog food.