With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
Cherokee had worried that Johnny’s top hat might attract terrorists, but they were lucky. He rode out of Lima with money in his pockets. He even gave Cherokee a fifty to hide in her bra. By the time the red-and-blue bus had crawled out of the gray city, the money had become a secret part of her skin. She decided she would lose the bill in case she needed it later, even though Johnny might interrogate her body inch by inch, trying to find the money. Flame, she reminded herself, not Johnny. Johnny was his name before he discovered magic. But Flame was his true name, his aura name, just as hers was Cherokee. It was the name she should have been born under, he told her when he discovered her at the Stop-N-Go in Lockport, New York. Even to think of their old names indicated a lack of faith, and she needed that fifty.
In the United States, the old red-and-blue bus they were riding would have been crushed into beer cans. But it was exciting to ride this wreck as it shimmied its way up the Andes, past Lake Titicaca. The higher they went the more exotic the landscape. There was an immense amount of mud and rock, and miles of high sky. The llamas were humpless camels. The high-plains Indians were mysterious; they moved their bodies as if they were hiding secrets no privileged, backpacking gringo could ever learn. They hulked when they walked, and when they sat in the dirt guarding the little pyramids of oranges and batteries and contraband soap they had for sale, their shoulders bent toward the earth.
Flame had a theory about the strangeness of the land. “You can’t expect things to be logical or rational the way you would in Gringolandia,” he explained. “The Industrial Revolution killed the magic up north. But the Andes are pre-Industrial Revolution. The magic is still alive down here, Cherokee. All we’ve got to do is wash the shit out of our polluted eyes so we can see it.”
He had been talking about the Andes for months. He was always reading books on magic, and she figured he got the idea to come to South America out of one of them. At first, Cherokee didn’t believe he took any of it seriously. She figured it was just the private nonsense he needed to stay in character for the next show. At least once during every performance he conjured up the Andean magic men, who read coca leaves and burned ceremonial llama shit. But one night when she heard him talking about the Andes in his sleep, she realized he believed what he was saying. They were lying in a patch of grass beneath an overpass on a superhighway west of Chicago. The grass was brittle and stiff with road dirt — the filth of the Industrial Revolution. Cherokee listened in awe to Flame’s naked, unconscious voice as he communicated with the Andean magic men. For the next week she watched him more carefully and was moved when she realized that she had taken up with a zealot, a man who believed his own rap. She felt, if not honored, a little lucky to find herself still inside his glow.
It was his glow that first attracted her at the Stop-N-Go. Flame believed in glows; he called them auras. He said if she was capable of sensing his aura in a convenience store, without training, she must be capable of understanding magic.
When he found her she was stacking cans of dog food on shelves. Outside the city there were ducks invading family picnics, flowers wilting in the woods, a million things she would never see, but the air conditioning in the Stop-N-Go enclosed her in a cool cocoon of unreality as she stocked the cans. He materialized next to her and asked where the natural foods section was. Cherokee’s idea of natural food was jalapeño taco sauce.
Flame was skinny. He wore a black T-shirt decorated with a silver moon and a ring of stars looping like flowers. His hair — and this gave her a little start — was exactly the same shade of yellowy blond as hers. The long shape of his bones was hers, too. They could have been brother and sister. On the back of his left hand, a small green snake was tattooed. Its tongue was a red knife. The plain silver hoop earring he wore seemed neither defiant nor effeminate but simply a necessary decoration. It was summer, and his small feet wriggled in his sandals the way a child’s would. Later she thought it odd that she hadn’t noticed the peculiar green of his eyes, clear as a cat’s.
He didn’t want taco sauce. He explained how the chemicals in processed food jam up the body’s pores and cause spiritual depression. He asked if she were married.
“Sort of,” she told him.
“You’re sort of married?”
“We’re living together, but we’re going to get married in the fall. He works at Harrison Radiator, but he might get laid off.”
“That’s not what you really want to do, is it?”
“You mean get married?” Getting married would be fine. Getting knocked around was not. She had done nothing to justify Eddie’s beating her.
“What’s his name?”
“They call him Slow Eddie. It’s a joke.”
“Don’t tell me your name,” he said. “I’m going to give you your aura name. Even if you don’t come with me, I want you to have your aura name. It’s a present from me to you. From Flame to Cherokee.”
But of course she went with him. She was twenty-three and sad, and she left the cans half stacked. It was four o’clock and Eddie worked afternoons, so she went to their apartment on High Street and took clothes and half the cash — three hundred dollars and change. Flame waited on the street, explaining that it was bad luck to step into the absent man’s field of force. At the time she thought he was either lazy or afraid. Much later she realized he had believed what he told her.
Flame traveled light, carrying only a leather backpack filled with what he needed to perform: the black top hat, a black silk cape, a Lone Ranger mask, and his magic paraphernalia. Thumbing and busing, they headed north while the weather was still good. She was happy enough to help him do his street magic, making a few bucks and seeing the country. Even diesel dirt and concrete were better than the Stop-N-Go. She never regretted running out on Slow Eddie, who was probably knocking around another woman within a month. And Flame was a better lover than she had ever expected to find, imaginative and not nearly as selfish as she suspected he really was. Lying in the grass and looking at the stars, she thanked herself for having left.
From the beginning, though, Cherokee had noticed that Flame’s regular manner was very different from his show self. It wasn’t that she expected him to entertain her when he wasn’t working, nor was it just a question of charm. She knew he had to beguile his audiences, and she did not begrudge them the power of his green eyes or the spooky writhing of the snake on his hand or the words that came out like poems or stories capable of transfixing dozens of people at once. But when the two of them were traveling he could go a hundred miles on a single word. He read and reread his magic books, silently practiced his tricks, burrowed into himself to collect his powers and his imagination, leaving her entirely behind.
The first time Flame hit her, she forgave him. She was used to forgiving. Besides, even at his most sullen, Flame was nowhere near as bad as either her father or Slow Eddie. With Flame it was never regular, and sometimes two weeks would go by when he was as gentle with her as a movie star. She knew that there were men who didn’t hit, and she figured she would find one eventually, but she had lived with much worse than Flame, plus he had the magic.
When the weather turned cold they went south, starting their tour in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she worried about the Ku Klux Klan; if they hated blacks and Jews and Catholics, they must surely hate magicians. But no one bothered them. After the southern tour, Flame told her to get a passport.
Just before they crossed the border into Mexico, Cherokee called Slow Eddie. She only said hello but he recognized her voice and began cursing her out. After a minute she dropped the receiver and let it dangle at the end of the jointed metal cord.
“Ex-fucking-zotic,” Flame said as the bus creaked into La Paz.
“Maybe there’s a revolution,” Cherokee said.
“Nope,” he told her confidently. “I read about this in a book. It’s June twenty-third, the Night of San Juan. The Bolivians say it’s the coldest night of the year.”
To warm themselves, the townspeople had lit bonfires up and down the walls of the canyon, at the bottom of which lay the city. There were dozens, maybe hundreds, of bonfires, around which people in ponchos sat drinking. By the time the bus arrived, the fires had been burning for hours, and the canyon valley was sealed in smoke. Rolling down the twisted road into the city made Cherokee dizzy. She knew there was a drop-off to the side though she couldn’t see it. This was how it would be when the world burned up, she thought: just hanging smoke pocked with a thousand orange fires, and the world falling away as you went blindly down. “Ex-fucking-zotic,” Flame said into her ear again.
Bolivia had always occupied a central place in Flame’s theory of magic. In the old days, he told Cherokee, there was magic everywhere in the world. But after the Industrial Revolution the magic went away, and now it could be found only in places sufficiently far, like Bolivia, sufficiently poor, like Bolivia, sufficiently ex-fucking-zotic.
It was two days before the smoke cleared from the city. The first morning, the streets and walks were full of ashes from the bonfires, around which wove a few weary Bolivians. The spectacle made Cherokee nervous. In such a place, she thought, anything could happen. Flame took a more expansive view. “It’s like burning away the illusions and the dross of Western rationalism,” he said.
“Dross is the trash you think is real and think you need, but it’s not real and you don’t need it. When the smoke clears, watch — we’ll be able to see the magic. We’re here, goddamn it.” His excitement was as contagious as a cold she didn’t want to catch, but what choice was there?
While the smoke cleared they lay in a dark hovel of a hotel called the Palace of the Incas, letting their bodies adjust to the high altitude. Flame chain-smoked joints, swallowing the roaches for security, and Cherokee closed her eyes and remembered things. By now she had traveled far enough that everything that came to mind was worth recalling.
The afternoon of the second day the sky was clear, the mountain sun so bright her eyes hurt even behind sunglasses. She followed Flame to old San Francisco Church, up Sagarnaga to the witches’ street. Indian women in black skirts and striped fabric slings and cocked bowler hats owned the little hilly thoroughfare. Inside one-room adobe sanctuaries and out on the cobblestone street on upturned fruit crates, they sold their magic: dried llama fetuses, their empty eye sockets the shape of pathos; potions and herbs in packets, or heaped loose on mats; little plastic bags of colored rocks. Cherokee had no idea what they were for.
Flame was transfixed. He almost trembled. “We’re here,” he told her in a hushed voice. “But how do we get in? These women are the guardians of the gates. I can sense that much. They’re in on the magic, and their job is to keep out people who shouldn’t get in.”
“Inside what?” she asked him.
Her question so irritated him that she knew he’d have hit her had they been in their room.
They spent the afternoon on the witches’ street. Flame bought nothing. It was too soon. In the women’s presence he was reverent. He would not offend. The eyes of the llama fetuses followed Cherokee as she walked by. She hated Flame’s excitement. In an unguarded moment she allowed herself to remember her pre-aura name.
That night Flame went into his shell without even a joint for company. The intensity of his brooding drove her out of the room, and she wandered the streets around Sagarnaga watching Indians and European backpackers hug inclines on streets as steep as the Andes. Dross, she told herself, and the sound of that unnatural word in her mouth made her laugh. A man in an elaborate costume of beads and spangles and mirrors walked past, carrying an oversized devil’s head mask under his arm. Maybe he’s a messenger, she thought.
In the morning Flame explained his plan. It wasn’t a question of knocking on doors in the right neighborhood and asking where the magic men lived, he told her. What he had to do was ascend to the necessary plane. Cherokee hated it when he talked like that; it meant he was excluding her. To get there, he’d have to fast, he said. He could smoke joints, the more the better, but he could have no food, only fruit juice and water. No alcohol, not even ceremonially. Meanwhile he had to perform; the money from Lima wouldn’t last long, even at the Palace of the Incas.
So they worked. Mornings they performed in the broad brick plaza before San Francisco Church. An Argentine fire-eater and a Bolivian selling acne medicine and fundamentalist tracts were working the same space, but Flame was disdainful of what he called their “street shit.” His own performance was superior, Cherokee acknowledged. He had picked up a little Spanish for his act, but most of what he did demanded only the eye’s appreciation. In the afternoons they moved through the poor neighborhoods of the mountain city, and they made a little money. She hoped he had forgotten the fifty.
After several days Cherokee thought Flame might be approaching the necessary plane of consciousness. Their life was intense. To keep up with him she smoked some joints herself and ate sparingly. In the thin air, colors happened, time bent around the crumbling adobe corners. Best, Flame’s magic got better. It had always been good, smooth and confident. Now it began to seem almost supernatural. The smoke from the joints and the dry air burned their mouths, their throats, their lungs. They stopped talking, saving their voices for performances. Besides, talking only got in the way.
Once they made love, and Cherokee allowed herself to cry. After that, her dreams got loose and stayed with her when she was awake. One had the shape of an unborn llama with those miserable eyes. She disciplined herself to stay tough, to stay with Flame as he moved upward. Her true and only name, she repeated, was Cherokee.
But her doubts remained. Maybe she wasn’t clearheaded enough or committed enough or discerning enough. She did not want to be left behind by Flame. Yet she worried, when her mind let her, about cause and effect. There were all kinds of causes, all sorts of effects. The effect of so much dope and no food happened one night during the second week. They were resting in their cave of a room at the Palace of the Incas. She could see the dreams running around Flame’s head and could have reached out and touched the colors, but they would have burned her hand. Then, without warning, he began to beat her. In perfect quiet, which she would not betray by screaming, she took it, expecting him to stop. But he beat her a long while, and her body did the screaming her mouth would not. When he stopped for breath, collapsing face up on the bed, she took her backpack and ran.
In the street she bought a piece of bread and a bottle of Coca-Cola, a beverage Flame disdained. It made her sick, but she kept it down. Her legs had begun to tremble, so she sat on a curbstone, planting her feet on separate cobbles. The nighttime traffic of La Paz flowed past noisily. When the trembling stopped, she bought another piece of bread and a second bottle of Coke.
Flame would not come looking for her, she knew, because he would assume that she’d eventually come back to the hotel. She was a woman, he would decide, without options. She threw up on her third piece of bread.
One of the side streets off Sagarnaga was crowded with little shops selling musical instruments: drums and pipes and guitars and funny, fur-backed things that looked like hairy mandolins. On the stoop of one shop sat a Bolivian man in a striped poncho playing a long pipe. She stopped to listen. While wandering with Flame she’d seen the man before, but she refused to consider whether she’d purposely looked for him now.
“What do you want to buy from me?” he asked her finally. His cheekbones were high, his skin dark red, his voice singsong. He reminded her of a picture in a grade-school history book of an Indian filling a room with gold to appease a Spanish invader. His forehead wrinkled at her. He was handsome.
His name was Ernesto. He owned the music shop, and he also had a band that played in a local club. He gave her a windowless room in his house. It was even smaller and darker than the one at the Palace of the Incas. No window, but no Flame either. Ernesto brought her food three times a day: hot soups, chewy bread, sweet, unrecognizable vegetables shaped like fingers and toes. She recovered slowly and tried to force her dreams back into her sleep where they belonged. The night Ernesto crawled into the bed with her, she was not resigned, or resentful, or even particularly sad. Cause and effect, she explained to herself.
When she felt better she joined Ernesto’s band. She had always been intrigued by the masked arrogance of musicians on stage, their cultivated distance, the way their mouths made fun. It pleased her to stand on a stage and look out into a faceless audience and be just as aloof as the guitarist with his proud, fast fingers. She played a tambourine, she refused to speak, and she sensed that she was popular with the crowd. She never saw Flame.
Cherokee knew she wouldn’t remain here forever, but she had no wish to move on right away. Ernesto took her into his room, which had a window overlooking the sloping city. She scrubbed the glass in the window and put a small spider plant on the sill. She still loved the soups and the strange vegetables, and it bothered her only occasionally that Ernesto gave her no money from the band’s performances. In the toe of an extra sneaker in the bottom of her pack, she had taped the fifty, folded inside a sheet of paper. Ernesto would not even think to look. She was, after all, a welfare case, tranquil in her absolute dependence.
She had never been good at guessing when a man was going to hit her. Not with her father or Slow Eddie or Flame. Least of all with Ernesto, who had brought her food on a clean wicker tray. They were in the street. Her tambourine shivered lightly in her hand. Ernesto had been happy-drunk all night on stage, lover-of-the-world-in-all-its-weaknesses drunk. She told him she would meet him at home, that she wanted to walk a little. Would he take the tambourine with him? Suddenly, he punched her. The inside of her mouth bled. It was the moment she hadn’t known she was waiting for. She took his arm to forgive him, but she saw him only from a distance. In an instant, without trying, she had reached her own necessary plane.
“OK,” she said in slow Spanish, “I’ll go home with you.”
“I’m sorry,” he said sincerely. “I was just drunk. But I’m OK now. I’m sorry.”
At home he was asleep in three minutes. Cherokee rose and dressed. She felt for the spider plant on the windowsill and carefully pulled its roots from the dirt. She placed the naked plant on the bed at Ernesto’s feet, picked up her pack, and left his house.
She wasn’t tired, so she sat on the steps of San Francisco Church all night in the chafing, dry cold, until oblique rays of light spilled down the canyon wall into the city. When people began to appear on the streets she exchanged her fifty for Bolivian currency. From a hardware store on Sagarnaga she bought a wooden case with a handle. On the witches’ street she purchased a small llama fetus dried in the position of a bucking bronco, a few vials and packets, a bag of dried coca leaves, and a bag of colored rocks. In the market she found a violet paisley kerchief and a gypsy gown decorated with colored whorls, and she changed in a public bath. Then she bought a piece of heavy paper and a pen and made a sign.
For luck, she began at San Francisco Plaza. She didn’t see Flame there, and for the moment there were no hawkers. She sat on the ground, arranged her gown, and opened her case. In one corner of it she stood the llama fetus. She arranged the vials and packets in a way that pleased her eye and looked like art. She opened the bag of coca leaves on her lap so her nervous hands had something to play with. She propped up her sign, which said Fortune Telling in Spanish and English in attractive letters.
A tourist was her first customer. Not an American but a European, though she did not venture to ask which country. He spoke pretty good English.
“How much for my fortune?” he asked politely. He was wooly, brown haired and brown-bearded, like a civilized sheep.
“Two American dollars if you don’t like it. Whatever you want to give me if you do,” she told him impassively. A small group of Bolivians had gathered behind the tourist.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“My parents were Americans,” she explained. “They came down years ago as missionaries. They went into the jungle up north of Santa Cruz near the Brazilian border. I was born there, in the jungle.”
“What’s your name?”
She didn’t want to give a name this soon; it would be bad luck. “Do you want your fortune told or not?”
“Do it, please.”
“You have to believe in the magic. Only if you believe in the magic will the coca leaves tell me what they really think.”
“Do your parents know what you’re doing here?”
“My parents are dead. They were killed in the jungle looking for the magic men.”
“What magic men?”
“I don’t want to talk about them. After a few years in the jungle, my father began to see how the magic worked. He stopped believing in the Christian god, and then both he and Mother were killed looking for the magic.”
It didn’t feel like a lie, just the imaginative embroidering of certain original circumstances. The tourist unharnessed himself from his backpack and set it on the ground. He hunkered before her, and she took his soft, white hand. She traced the lines with absorption, felt a tremor of response in his palm. Holding his weak, willing hand in hers reinforced Cherokee’s sense of power and independence. After reading his palm, she consulted her coca leaves with the same concentration. She cradled the unborn llama, and she saw the man’s actual future. She told it to him. Pleased, he gave her three dollars.
Bolstered but still nervous, she accepted a Bolivian customer, for whom she was sure she must be ex-fucking-zotic. The man looked hammered-down poor, his shoulders rounded, so she lowered her price for him. Holding his hard, brown, trusting hand to read the lines of his life, she knew that no man would ever hit her again.
The Bolivian left satisfied, knowing his intimate future like a warning, and Cherokee had a few free minutes in which to collect herself. She imagined Flame with the Andean magic men practicing their hustle, their quick tricks, and she felt forgiving. If Flame hadn’t led her here to the mountains, she might be back in Lockport getting knocked around by Slow Eddie and stacking dog food. She tried to control her rapid breathing, felt dizzy because of the altitude, and closed her eyes against the flat bars of bright sunlight in the plaza. She was free. It was easy to put away her aura name for good and remember that she was Sarah.