They came today. Not with a grand entrance, they didn’t need one. The Rodadora didn’t feel entitled: they simply took what was theirs, and it all belonged to them.
The night before, the wind had blown fiercely, and lightning had streaked across the sky. Many believed the Rodadora used lightning to find their next town. In our village, the lightning reader Miguel sat outside during such storms. His aged fingers, crippled and knobby, traced the sky as he followed the light.
While the wind howled, the people of the land huddled beneath their blankets. Some recited prayers, fingering their rosaries. Those who didn’t believe tried to think of other things.
When I was a young boy, Papa told me the Rodadora had once been tumbleweeds at the mercy of the wind. That is until the half-human son of La Lechuza, the witch owl, got trapped in one. As the half-breed struggled to be free, he pricked his finger on a long thorn. Red blood sprang forth and gave life to that weed as the son lost his. From that first Rodadora, others came, forming a horde that remembered: blood brought life. Consumed with a thirst for it, the Rodadora troubled the land.
As I listened to the wind, I heard Papa. Not one to rely on prayers, he was up, pacing. One, two, three, four, I counted. Then the reverse: four, three, two, one. His steps reminded me of his stories about grandpa beating the ayoti, a turtle shell drum, at Papa’s el Primer Vuelo del águila, the eagle’s first flight ceremony. Five moons ago, Papa told me my ceremony would come next year. “But I’m a man now.” He smiled and said, “Soon, Roberto, soon.”
Our adobe’s dirt floor and mud-packed walls had withstood many storms, but I worried about this one. Usually, storms brought me music. Our home’s mud walls had small holes. Papa always promised to patch them, but I think he liked them as much as I did, for the wind would slip in through those gaps to sing us to sleep. Wind cantares, I called them – the ghost songs.
I knew Mama would soon get up. She’d see Papa’s pacing as a sign her day should begin. Soft footsteps told me I was right. I couldn’t see my parents. Mama had hung old bed sheets from the ceiling to serve as room dividers. My brother Pedro and I slept on a straw mat with a red woolen blanket Grandma had woven. As I lay, I could tell our wood stove had gone out. The cold air nipped my nose and cheeks, and dampness caressed my arms. I pulled the cover up as the wind intensified its assault. Tree branches pounded the wooden outhouse like a teponaztli, a log drum. I listened as the beat groaned, straining to talk to me. I covered my ears.
Yawning, I returned to Papa’s pacing. Now he sounded like a cat stalking a mouse. I knew he had already lifted the burlap curtain and wiped the window’s condensation to look for the Rodadora. He stopped to whisper to Mama. However, in such a small home, nothing remained a secret. I sat up, leaning forward to capture bits of news.
“We should leave before the storm ends,” Mama pleaded.
“Go where?” he said. “We’ll meet them on our way out. No, mi amor, the little ones must stay inside.”
Crying, Mama agreed. Soon, Papa put logs, one by one, in the wood stove. A match was struck, and the house warmed. The wood stove flickered to cast shadows on the hanging sheet. Many nights, such a shadow show had entertained me. Not now. Long disfigured fingers splayed across the sheet, threatening to grab my throat.
Three nights ago, I had seen Papa with his forehead pressed against the wooden post on the chicken coop and heard him whisper, “The blood men.” His eyes glistened.
“Are you sad?” I had asked.
“Something got in my eye.” He rubbed it before adding, “You’re a good son, one who can do what’s needed.”
Such a response was odd for Papa. He had said something similar two weeks ago before he left with Miguel and the other men. They went to the mountain to drink the hojas, the diviner sage that gives men visions. Papa came back with a heavy heart. He didn’t say much. Not even after Mama asked him late one night. He told her, “We all have burdens – me, you, and even the boys. Some we keep to ourselves.” When I heard this, I felt a loss without knowing why.
I moved closer to my brother, seeking comfort since Papa had started pacing again. Then, I heard him at the window. Several neighborhood dogs howled and a horse trotted by. Closing my eyes, I tried to drift off, tired after a long day of chopping wood. As I shifted, I knew someone was near. The blanket had moved, and a hand touched my forehead. I lay still and kept my breathing even, knowing Papa was checking on my brother Pedro and me. His hand smoothed my brow, and his breath held a hint of cilantro as he gently kissed my nose. He then left, returning to Mama.
Soon, I smelled fried potatoes sizzling on the stove and heard the slight patting as Mama made tortillas. Papa could eat anytime. He was a large barrel-chested man with black, wavy hair, a broad forehead, and a droopy left eye. It made him look scary, and many of the neighborhood children called him “de miedo.” He wasn’t mean, but he wasn’t kind. He just did what he had to do to take care of us all. Pedro stirred, so I patted his arm, and his breathing deepened.
I twisted on my side and stared at the hanging sheet. The shadows seemed to have so much imagination. Monstrous faces winked at me. One blew me a kiss. I watched until my stomach kicked in; I wanted tortillas. Pushing the cover aside, I rolled off the mat and frowned. The mat held my body shape, reminding me of a grave. Lifting the room divider, I saw Papa sitting at the wooden table, enjoying a plate of Mama’s work. A fat tortilla stuffed with red chili dripped onto his plate.
“Son, it’s too early to be up.” He drank some coffee.
Mama agreed. She felt my forehead. “You, okay? Sick?”
“No, I hear the wind. Will the Rodadora come today?” I stood with my arms crossed over my chest, daring them to lie to me.
“No, of course not,” said Papa. “Go to bed; you’re safe.” He stared at Mama. She looked away, wiping her hands on her red apron.
Shaking my head no, I sat on the wooden bench next to him. I snatched a corn tortilla, laid it on a plate, and ladled some red chili on the top, adding fried potatoes. I folded the tortilla up, and from its ends, chili seeped like blood, splattering my plate. Leaning forward, I bit the tortilla, and its spiciness burned my tongue until a bit of potato smothered the heat. I enjoyed some peace until Papa sighed. Mama stood and removed Papa’s empty coffee mug. Her grip slipped, and the mug almost fell.
Papa raised his eyebrows and asked, “Are you okay?” She nodded and left. Soon she brought fresh coffee. Sitting heavily on the wooden bench, Mama grabbed a tortilla and took mindless bites. From time to time, she sighed, and Papa eyed her. She reached into her pocket and brought out an egg. She rubbed it on Papa’s arm, performing the Limpia, the egg cleansing ritual. Papa winked at me, putting up with Mama’s beliefs. She then cracked the egg on Papa’s plate, and its dark yellow yolk held flecks of blood. Mama got up and said, “I’ll get another one. It can’t be right. It’s from an old hen.” She got another egg, rubbed it on Papa’s arm, and cracked it on her plate. It too spread out, but this time it had a pale yolk like a winter’s sun. She smiled at Papa, saying, “We’re lucky. Everything’s fine.”
Papa’s black eyes crinkled as he patted her back, saying, “I can hear your grandma: ‘Pale yolk means good luck.”’ He whispered in her ear, causing Mama to blush. She appeared happy, but I kept looking at the bloody yolk.
An abrupt knock interrupted our broodings. The wooden bench shook as Papa stood and also Mama. She stooped and finger brushed my hair.
“Go back to bed, now,” she said.
“No, I can’t sleep. The Rodadora is out there. I heard you.”
“Roberto, I won’t tell you again. Go!” She bent to hug me. Pushing her away, I ran to my bed before the tears spouted. Pulling the cover up, I waited for Papa to answer the door.
Mama asked, “Do you need the gun?”
“No, the Rodadora don’t knock, and what is a gun to them anyway?”
Heavy footsteps lumbered to the door. A sharp squeak came as the door opened. A moment of quiet before Papa said, “Beto, what is it?”
“Miguel says the lightning shows they will be here soon. He wants you and the other men.”
I heard Mama gasp. The door opened wider; its squeak lingered before exiting into the night. Leaving the bed, I lifted the room divider. Papa had his arm around Mama’s waist. She leaned into him, and one of her fingers twirled a strand of black hair. Beto, much shorter than Papa, shifted near the door. He wore a black jacket with a belt of twine. His neck had a red scarf he’d used to keep dust from blowing into his mouth and nose. He gripped a matted straw hat that I’d seen him wear in his garden, hoeing his potatoes. His face willed my papa to talk.
“What did he say, Beto?”
“It’s time to dig the ditch.” He cast a glance at Mama and added, “Perhaps we can burn the Rodadora.” Beto shrugged his shoulders, and his right foot began toeing a piece of the fraying doormat.
A harsh laugh escaped from Papa. “I’d love to see them burn. Where?”
“Sunrise at the south end.”
They both nodded at each other, and I saw pain in Beto’s eyes.
The door closed, and I ran to my bed. Pulling the cover up, I slowed my breathing. Papa started pacing, and a sob came from Mama.
“Marco, you can’t go. You know we need you.”
“Mi cielo, it’s something I must do. I can’t just wait.”
“Let me get the red string.” Mama’s soft steps went to the kitchen, and I knew she would tie the scarlet thread on Papa’s right wrist to protect him.
Papa laughed and said, “A pale yolk and a red thread, I’m a lucky man. Come here, Amorcito.” His soft tenor voice sang to her about fields of desert lavender where lovers met. Listening, I closed my eyes to fragrant purple fields. When I awoke, I was alone in bed. Sitting up, I called to Mama, “Did Papa come back?”
Footsteps came as she lifted the sheet.
“No, he’s not back.” She looked at the floor and added, “Go eat breakfast; then do your morning chores.” She stared a moment before leaving.
I rubbed my eyes, angry I had fallen asleep. Putting on my trousers and green shirt, I decided to fight with the men. I stood a moment watching a lizard crawling along the mud-cracked walls. Its tongue darted in and out like a knife stabbing. Dim sunlight peeked through a hole, landing on Pedro’s wooden blocks scattered on the floor, hiding my pocketknife. I picked it up and put it in my pocket, pleased I had sharpened it yesterday. I lifted the sheet divider and saw Pedro eating leftovers at the table. He grinned and patted the bench for me. Sitting down, I made myself another tortilla, overflowing with red chili. I took a bite, but it reminded me of Papa and the Rodadora. I dropped it on the plate.
As Mama swept, she kept looking at the door. Dirt scattered, as she made harsh sweeping movements. I got up, opened the door, and looked out. Dark storm clouds hovered over the town. I went outside to the woodpile and saw the chickens huddled in the coop. Wind blew leaves and litter across the yard like demon dancers, and dirt scurried across the ground. Small tumbleweeds twirled like folklórico dancers in the yard. As I bent to pick up the wood, I heard the howling shriek of silbato de la muerte in the wind, The death whistle. A year ago Grandpa had shown me one before he died. I dropped the stick.
“It’s scary,” I had said, holding the jade whistle in my hand. Its carved skull face and pointy teeth grinned, delighting in my fear.
“Put your mouth here,” Grandpa said, pointing to the mouthpiece. He then placed my fingers on the holes. I took a deep breath and blew. A high-pitched shriek came forth, and I jumped and stumbled backward, tossing it to Grandpa.
“Be careful. It’s not mine. It’s Miguel’s. He wanted you to see it.” He wiped the mouthpiece with his shirt.
“Why?” I stared at it, wishing it would break.
“Long ago, our people used it with blood sacrifices.”
“We shouldn’t have. Right?”
Grandpa ignored me and added, “For a blood-debt.”
“Not now, right? Mama says the priests ended it.”
Grandpa glanced over his shoulder and said, “Let’s put it away for now.”
I listened to the wind again, closing my eyes. It now held the chickens’ squawking. Shaking my head, I stood with the wood and went to them. Grabbing a handful of corn, I tossed it in the coop, saying, “Only give Mama pale yolks.” As the shriek intensified, the chickens gave the warning cackle: “Kuh-kuh-kuh-kuh-KAC.” My throat tightened, and I pulled the wood against me, knowing the shriek demanded something.
I threw more corn to the chickens and listened again. The whistling strengthened, getting shriller. An owl hooted. I looked up and saw it on our roof, watching me. Grandpa called an owl the death sign when he had seen one before Grandma died. A pale yolk and a red thread didn’t matter. Papa needed me now. Returning inside, I laid the wood by the stove. Pedro washed the dishes while Mama cleaned the table. I went out again, leaving for the south end.
A bit of dust entered my mouth and nose, causing me to cough as I passed the yard of my friends, Maria and Josefina. As they fed their goat, they told me their father had gone to fight the Rodadora. Shrugging, I passed them. Their father Ernesto most likely hid while the others fought. Two summers ago, he refused to fight when a drunk called him “chorra,” stupid. Instead, he ignored him. I would’ve knocked that drunk down. I fingered my pocketknife.
Soon, I saw the men. They dug in a shallow trench. Only five men from the town had come, one of them Papa. Hardly anything had been done. Although sweat poured from their faces, they shoveled the dirt without effort. I didn’t understand. Miguel sat across a small clearing from the men, his eyes scanning the dark clouds. Wind blew his long gray braid like a swishing horse’s tail. As the oldest man in our village, he had seen them before. He stood, moving away from the men. I approached him and asked, “Miguel, who taught you to read the lightning?”
With his face pointed skyward, he waited a moment before looking at me. “My father taught me, and his father before him, and so on. I know it in my heart.”
“Who’ll do it after you die?” I asked, knowing his son Jorge had passed two winters ago.
“Perhaps you. Would you like to become the lightning reader?” He touched my shoulder, and I shifted away.
“I’ll ask Papa.” I squatted and grabbed a small twig and began twirling it. “What did the lightning show?”
“The blood-debt sacrifices.”
“What?” I stood, dropping the stick and continued, “But Mama said…” I turned to look at Papa.
“They come for five men. They give their blood and then become like them.”
I stumbled, seizing Miguel’s hand. “No, that’s not right! Papa wouldn’t…”
Miguel placed his hand on my shoulder, pulling me closer. “Ask your papa. He knows. That’s why he and the others wait. They do it for their families. Five or many.”
I heaved and vomited red chili, splattering Miguel’s shoes. Its heat burned my throat and mouth as much as the lies scorched my heart. These men dug without hurry. Papa and the men tossed their shovels as if they didn’t care about the ditch. The wind’s drums and death whistle spoke truth, and the owl confirmed it.
The arrival of rushing wind like galloping stallions frightened me. Lightning cracked the sky like a horsewhip, and thunder burst in my ears. Dirt in the distance flew up as clouds of dust raced toward us. I ducked as a stick flew by, missing me by a fingerbreadth. I heard the death whistle’s shriek and the log drum’s pounding. The sky darkened and bushes uprooted forming tumbleweeds. A tree fell, almost hitting the men. Dirt devils danced and hail pelted the area. Papa and the others held hands. I now knew the priests had not ended it and wanted Papa to get away.
“Papa, no!” Tears flooded my eyes.
Papa’s body stiffened when he heard me, and his hand went to his face, covering it. Then, he said, “Roberto, go home now.”
Crying, I reached for Papa, but Miguel pulled me back and held me against him. He said, “Don’t struggle with what must be.” His arms kept me captive, and tears splashed my neck as Miguel cried too.
I couldn’t catch my breath. Blackness began to descend, and I feared I would pass out. Massive tumbleweeds arose in the near distance, imprisoning countless figures of what had once been men: elongated bodies, disfigured limbs, and expressionless faces. As they neared, I saw their bodies covered with swollen nodules and bleeding tumors, as if hundreds of assassin bugs had bitten them. Pus oozed and their blistered faces had gaping holes. One had a bulging red eye paired with an empty socket. I gagged and vomited again. Each one shrieked like death whistles, and they leaned forward, eager for their meal. I didn’t know what they were, but they had thirst, and it couldn’t be quenched. Papa and the other men had left their homes knowing their end.
I watched Papa. It felt wrong to be proud, but I was. He stood while the others dropped to their knees, praying. Even now with such fate before him, Papa refused to kneel. One man fell forward, and two others pulled him up. As the howling increased, the others stood with Papa. They linked their arms together, forming a chain. When the wind pulled them apart, they relinked. Ernesto, Maria and Josefina’s father, cried but stood straight. I felt foolish to have thought him weak. Papa turned his head and stared at me. His eyes, hopeless orbs, memorized my face. It didn’t matter; he’d forget me, his love replaced by bloodlust. He mouthed the words, “Be a man.” I nodded, determined to do so.
Papa turned and faced them. I screamed, but no one heard. The Rodadora stretched over the men. The sounds of screaming, crushing bones, and slurping made me close my eyes, a cowardly act. It seemed to last forever. Then silence.
Miguel patted my arm, and I opened my eyes to see blood puddles. I heaved again.
After a moment, Miguel let go, but I stumbled. He steadied me and said, “They don’t have feelings. The blood they take only feeds them.”
I couldn’t respond. Papa and the others were Rodadora; they would spill blood. They wouldn’t care. “Why, Miguel, why?” No matter how often I wiped them away, the tears fell. My throat felt raw, and I tasted red chili again.
“They go willingly, so the Rodadora leave the town. Five or all.” His hand smoothed my face, and he lifted my chin, forcing me to look in his eyes. He added, “The men have a pacto, a covenant for the blood debt made with the first horde.”
“We would give them men’s blood, and they would let our wives and children live.”
“We could fight.” My face neared his, and my hands clenched.
“Three generations ago,” Miguel said, “the men fought, hiding the women and children in a mountain cave. Every man died except my great grandfather, who was the lightning reader, and his two sons. Those women raised their children by themselves. My great grandfather taught his sons and the other boys the song, ‘Los Hombres de Sangre,’ The Blood Men.”
What Papa had said at the chicken coop.
“Your papa says you hear the wind music.” Miguel stared at me.
“Sometimes the wind sings to me.”
“What does it say?”
“I don’t know. I think it tried to tell me about Papa, but I didn’t want to hear.”
“I also hear the wind speaking. I too didn’t want to know, and Jorge heard it too.”
“Why do we hear it?” I looked at the blood puddles.
“The lightning reader hears the wind and knows when the lightning maps will come. Many years can go by without the wind bringing the death whistle’s shriek. A month ago it came. I told the men, and we went to the mountain. We drank the diviner sage, and I blew the jade whistle for the visions to reveal the sacrifices. Your Papa and four others had visions of themselves in the horde. The lightning confirmed this. That’s why Beto came for him.”
“Why did they want Papa?” I wiped my eyes again.
“I don’t know. I am the lightning reader, not the chooser.”
“How can I tell Mama?”
“The women and children can’t know.” He shut his eyes and wiped one with the back of his hand. Then he continued, “It keeps them from much pain. And, the Rodadora doesn’t want them. We men get the visions and keep the pacto.”
I looked in the distance, straining to see Papa. He was gone, only the stench of decay remained. Papa did what he had to.
Miguel touched my shoulder and said, “You must become the lightning reader to know when the sacrifice is due. I’m old, and the wind sings to you. We start tomorrow.”
Papa and the others kept the covenant. I would too – for now. But some day I would find a way to break that pacto, setting Papa and the others free.
Hours later, I returned. I opened the door and saw Mama praying. She held the rosary, and its crucifix dangled from a small chain, swinging back and forth. She glanced up. Near her, Pedro played with his blocks.
“Mama,” I stopped and took a breath. “Papa …” I waited a moment before blurting, “The Rodadora killed them. They fought hard…”
Mama screamed and collapsed on the floor. The rosary fell nearby. Pedro swiped his tower, causing the blocks to scatter. He too screamed and fell to his knees. I went to Mama and squatted. I pulled her to me, hugging her. Pedro came, and we held each other. Crying, I wiped the tears from her face. I trapped her eyes with mine. She stared but couldn’t see. I then said, “I am the new lightning reader.”
I remembered Papa’s words, “Be a man” and looked toward the window. I stood and went to Papa’s room and got Grandpa’s turtle shell drum. I took Papa’s red sash, the one Grandpa gave him at his eagle ceremony. I tied it around my waist, making sure the beaded turquoise eagle hung straight. Returning to Mama and Pedro, I waited for them to stand. They nodded, and I began to pound the drum and dance. As I twirled, I sang about the eagle’s flight. I sang it for myself since Grandpa and Papa couldn’t do it for me.
Helen Gallegos Evans
Helen Gallegos Evans is an English tutor in Los Angeles. For seventeen years, Helen has encouraged students to read and write with enthusiasm.
Artwork: Alexandra Khitrova, “Sky Demon”