April 25, 1908
It has finally happened, after literally years of persistence: My father has given me a slice of wild land north of town, a rambling stretch of brushy thicket, one hundred acres of promise. Here I can be actively adventurous, though my folks for the longest time have been dead set against such total independence. I had a hard time overcoming their opposition, certainly. They would not abandon the notion that I might renounce the wicked ways of a divorcee and return to Clyde Fletcher’s side. But our marriage, I made them understand, is irrevocably broken. What I need now is to erase all visible memories of that shattered covenant by rescuing this tract of arable land from the hungry grip of the south Texas desert.
May 17, 1908
Having no liquid money of my own, I have arranged to borrow funds for the development of my land as well as the construction of an office building in town on the west side of 6th Street, which will house my father’s La Blanca Land Company. The bank had no compunction about issuing me the money given my status and history of entrepreneurship with the boarding house. I’ve hired a foreman, Roberto Blas, who will be putting together a team of workers to clear the land and carpenters to build a small house. My excitement has my nerves a-jitter: I can hardly focus or sleep.
June 17, 1908
I’ve not written a word for nearly three weeks, so exhausted has each evening found me. Astride my pony, I have gone forth daily with a gang of Mexican laborers into that wilderness with its varied wildlife population of deer, quail, and turkey, its habitats of mountain lion and jabalí or wild hog. We commenced from the first day to chopping through mesquite, cactus, huisache, cat claw, etc. and after a while had hewed out a clearing large enough for a garden, flowerbeds, and the site for my little cabin. That home, where I have lived alone now for three whole days, is in reality a tiny, primitive shack hardly the size of a wood shed, bare of all modern conveniences, but it is my very own. I am immensely proud of it.
June 24, 1908
Today has been extraordinary. I look at the three nestling forms on my quilt, and I still have trouble believing what they are.
This morning I went out early upon my pony to greet Roberto and discuss plans for the day. Converting a brushy wilderness into a model farm is grueling, exacting work, and neither of us wanted to waste even a moment of the laborers’ time. Once we had marked out the area to be cleared, the team began their steady sweep across the monte, as they call it, machetes glinting in the slanting light of dawn.
Yapping voices came to my ears, and I dismounted to greet my four rat terriers: Trixy, Oke, Teddy, and Nkakwu. They had rushed into the scrub the minute I opened the door, off hunting field mice as was their custom. I petted them and kissed their noses, praising their bravery and skill at tracking.
Ah, I shall never be lonely on my farm so long as I have the companionship of animals, so long as the Green World surrounds me—tree and flower, herb and grain.
A hue and cry went up in the distance then, and I heard the retort of a rifle, firing once and falling silent. Mounting my pony, the dogs barking madly at its heels, I rode toward the commotion. The men were standing over some dying creature. Roberto dismounted from his gelding; I did the same and motioned for the workers to move aside. There, sprawled in the sandy earth, lay a very large wildcat of the sort the locals call jaguarundi. It had been shot through the chest, and its breathing slowed as it looked on me with eyes that seemed to plead. Then they glazed with death, and before our very eyes the beast transformed, twitching and stretching, pelt falling away to reveal a young Mexican woman, naked and dead.
“Look away!” I cried at once, wanting to preserve the deceased’s dignity. Roberto translated with a harsh bark, and the men complied, many of them crossing themselves and muttering bruja and a word I had never heard before: nagual.
As I stood, contemplating the body and wondering what to do, a plaintive mewling came from nearby. Striding into the brush, I found a hollowed-out den in a bramble of wolfberry and within it three newborn cubs, blind and helpless. I knelt, whispered a prayer to Ala, protectoress of living things. Then I saw it: the magical glow of chi that Aunty Hester had taught me to perceive when I was a little girl. These were not normal animals.
I felt Roberto standing nearby. “Ms. Hooks, this is deep witchcraft, ma’am. Please don’t go running off to tell your people. They don’t know nothing about this. Let me get Doña Gabriela. She is a curandera, a shaman. She can tell us what should we do with this woman and her babies.”
“Yes,” I said. Long had I yearned to speak with an illuminated soul from the local culture, and now a horrible tragedy would grant me that desire. “And send one of the men into town for bottles and milk. The cubs are hungry.”
When Roberto returned, I was sitting on the dusty ground, my skirt spread round me, the three squirming kits clambering over each other to get at the nipple of the bottle. I gave preference to the russet-furred one above his grey siblings, feeding him first. As he started suckling, I looked up at the old woman descending from a burro beside my foreman. She wore a simple white huipil blouse and blue skirt. Her head was covered by a purple-and-gold rebozo or shawl, and she went barefoot. Across her chest was slung a worn leather bag.
“Ms. Hooks, this is Doña Gabriela Rivera,” Roberto began, but the shaman first walked over to the body, which I had covered with a saddle blanket. Drawing it back, Doña Gabriela regarded the dead woman’s face, muttering quietly. Then she nodded and turned to me.
“So, you are the gringa that claims ownership of this land, yes? Let me see.” She stepped close and crouched. Her eyes widened slightly, and then a smile cracked her lips. “Dios mío, una gringa santera. Never knew your folk had magic. But I can see the teotl all over you, girl.”
“What’s teotl?” I asked, ignoring her presumptuousness.
“Divine spark. Flows from heaven to earth. It’s in everything, a little. But in you there’s more. And it’s focused.”
I nodded. “So it’s chi. That’s what Hester called it. She was a practitioner of Obeah…a santera, I think you would say. She was first a slave and then a servant for my family. But she was more than that. She was a holy woman and my teacher.”
“Bien. You have some knowledge and skill. That makes this easier.” Doña Gabriela gestured at the corpse. “That was a nagual, a shapeshifting witch. But she did a very stupid thing. She gave birth in jaguarundi form. Maybe she got pregnant and realized she had triplets inside. Hard birth. She decided to shift to make it easier. Or maybe there’s some other explanation. No matter. Her babies were born mitzon, shifted. They are trapped. Better we kill them.”
“What?” I was appalled. “If they are human children, we certainly cannot kill them, Doña Gabriela.”
She sighed. “Problem is they don’t know they are human. Right now their tonal, their animal soul, it’s in charge. How you’re going to get them to understand, gringa witch? How you’re going to awaken the human soul and get it to take charge? The older they get, the harder it’s going to be to put them down. Can’t release them: their personhood would twist inside them, make them mankillers. So what’s the solution, Miss Donna?”
I had no answer, but I refused to see the little things killed. I bundled them up and mounted my pony. Leaving Roberto and his shaman to give the nagual woman a decent burial, I returned to my humble home. Now here I sit, staring at the chubby little cubs.
I realize that Doña Gabriela was right. I have no idea how to awaken their humanity. But I must try.
July 6, 1908
I’ve taken to calling the grey female cubs Smoke and Ash. They are inseparable, waddling around on rickety legs, jumping at each other in play. Trixy has adopted the russet male, who struts around like he is a dog as well, so I have named him Nkita, which in Igbo means “dog.” Of course, I must nickname him Kitty and laugh at my own foolish little joke.
My experiments in dressing the young shifted babes availed me nothing. Nor did speaking to them as one would a child. Ill-equipped for casting glamours that would alter their form, I attempted repeatedly to structure a spell out of existing formulae, but I succeeded only in turning Smoke black for a day and a half.
I was thumbing through the Bible one afternoon, searching for inspiration, when I began to read a psalm aloud for my own edification. The jaguarundi cubs purred and chirped excitedly at the sing-song cadence of my voice, crowding round me the better to hear. The Pauline epistles and the prophets send them scuttling off to play, but any verse-like passage draws them like the Pied Piper.
This attraction got me to thinking, and so today I spent hours crooning lullabies and hymns, folksongs and spirituals. The three sat utterly enrapt, and when I had exhausted my repertoire, Ash clawed her way up my blouse and thrust her little weasely head at me, nuzzling my lips and mewling.
Their behavior is so startlingly human. I am convinced that music is the key to undoing their mitzon state.
July 23, 1908
For the last two weeks I have used every free moment to envelop the kits in a womb of melodic sound. Roberto has the work of clearing well in hand: we are very nearly ready to begin planting. So I have had my gramophone brought here from my parents’ home in the town they named for me, and I crank the handle over and over, slipping on a new 10- or 12-inch of popular and classical work. They are mad for the machine. I can see in their eyes both remarkable joy and the human need to understand, much deeper and meaningful than mere feline curiosity.
However, until today I felt my efforts would prove ultimately fruitless. Then Doña Gabriela paid me a visit.
“They tell me you have been singing to the gatitos, the kitties. That is well. For just having a month of life, they are very awake.”
“Yes, they are very alert and inquisitive for a trio of young wildcats, but they’ve shown no sign of transforming into human babies.”
“I figured as much,” she said, unslinging her leather bag. “The music reaches them, but there’s not much there to reach, yes? Must expand that intelligence. I bring the ingredients that can maybe help.”
She spread across my narrow table a variety of spices and herbs: cocoa beans, almonds, Spanish sage, sunflower seeds, myrtle grass. Next to them she set a stone mortar and pestle.
“Got to grind them down in molcajete, capture oil in phial. Three drops a night, then the singing and gramophone discs. Then, maybe, perhaps, one or two shifts into human form. If the Virgin smiles on us.”
She showed me the right measures for each element of the potion and then set me to twisting the pestle, commenting on my technique, correcting my stance. It was a little like having Hester back, God rest her soul.
We gave the cubs three drops each and then I sang my mother’s favorite songs to them, hugging them close. Doña Gabriela seemed moved, and she kissed the crown of my head before leaving.
“Your love is strong. I think you are maybe the final ingredient, Miss Donna. Find a way to mix yourself in.”
August 20, 1908
We sowed the alfalfa today, broadcasting my magicked seeds into well ploughed furrows, a dozen of us working in harmonic tandem. If only it were as easy to mix myself in to the transformative magic I have been weaving for my little nagual friends.
When I got back to the house, I was overwhelmed by excitement: a group of men were unloading from a wagon my new upright piano, just delivered from Goggan’s in Galveston. It scarcely fit through the door, and Smoke, Ash, and Kitty all immediately commenced to scaling its heights.
Before I could get on with the experiment of live music, however, Father trotted up on his mare, a look of genuine irritation upon his face.
“Donna, dear,” he began as he slid off his mount. “It’s bad enough that you insist on going into these fields with the Mexicans, standing shoulder to shoulder and working with them as if you were a man—but now tongues are wagging about gramophone music blaring through the wee hours, and you have dragged a blasted piano out here. I can only imagine the gossip: ‘The divorcee has started up a honky-tonk…she’s putting on hurdy-gurdy shows!’ Can’t you think of the reputation of this family for once, child?”
Twenty-nine years old and he still calls me child. Had he even an inkling of the green magic I wield, that for two decades I have studied and honed, his silly moralistic concerns would evaporate in a firestorm of righteous ire.
“Father, that’s hardly fair. I’ve done all I can to build up the reputation of this family. First postmaster in town, first notary public, founder of the Women’s Club at First Baptist, owner of the first boardinghouse…We are almost done with the construction of the first office building in Donna, which will house your business. Have I chosen a life unencumbered by the yoke of defective marriage? Certainly. But that doesn’t make me some Jezebel. Look.”
I gestured at the wildcat cubs, who had crowded at the threshold to my house and were staring at us with the quizzical looks of toddlers. “That’s whom the music is for. My wildcats. We killed their mother by mistake a month ago, and I am nursing them till they can be set free. Songs calm them, Father.”
This news appeased him to some degree, being a lover of animals himself. Warning me against all manner of iniquity and danger, he left before sunset. I pulled out sheet music for Bach’s inventions, and soon the trio of kits was purring loudly, mesmerized by the dance of my fingers and the melodies they drew forth.
September 9, 1908
At last. What peace I feel. What joy.
Between my caring for the sprouting crops and weaving potion and song into a transformative woof of chi, the weeks have gone by fast. I have seen the music working its way into their souls, pushing past tonal to get at the human core. But they didn’t know what to do. Gabriela told me that I was the final piece in this complex quilt of magic, yet I couldn’t see how to make myself fit.
But this morning, as the irrigation ditches spilled their precious moisture onto the seedlings, I thought back to my spiritual naming. We were sitting in the pine woods of East Texas, there near my childhood home. I was just 11, and Aunty Hester revealed my Igbo name: “Akachi. ‘Hand of the divine within.’ You will use your inner spark to help and heal, child.”
I understood in an instant that I had been holding back, so used was I to the delicate craft required to tweak seed and soil so plants reached their greatest potential. The babies needed more than that. They needed to be flooded with love, with chi, with—with me.
Rushing back to my house without a word of explanation to the men, I drew the napping cubs to my breast there on my bed and began to croon a lullaby that Hester had sung to me in the cradle. And as the words tumbled from my lips, I called up my reservoirs of love, love that had been dammed by an aloof husband, love that I had denied the children I refused to conceive, love that had trickled out of me in meager rivulets to nurture flowers and strangers, love that Hester and mother and siblings had poured into my heart but that I quailed before releasing. I channeled that flood of rushing compassion through my words, my fingers, my chest, and I felt it unfold within me, revealing even greater wells of untrammeled love that had no bottom for they tapped the very cosmos and drew up its power.
And the cubs—oh, they began to quiver and stretch and mewl and finally cry, wailing like babies bereft for that is what they are.
I was holding two very human baby girls, a few months old, with beautiful black hair and deep brown eyes that ran with human tears.
But Kitty, ah, Kitty is unchanged. Hissing, he has leapt atop the piano and glares at his sisters with naked ire. I am spent. I can barely stand. I’ll call to Roberto, have him bring Gabriela. The shaman will know what to do, whom to give the girls to, a good family that will love and guide them.
Kitty, I’ll try again when I can. For now, let me revel in this peace. Your sisters are free.
October 1, 1908
Today we began harvesting my alfalfa, that gorgeous sea of green stretching to the north of my humble home. Kitty crept along behind me, leaping at lizards and bugs with a ragged little snarl. Earlier in the week Doña Gabriela visited to keep me abreast of the girls’ progress. The family has baptized them Neblina and Ceniza (something like Smoke and Ash, I gather). They will grow up in a community that respects the old ways and reveres the magic of the earth, and when they are old enough, their true origin will be revealed to them.
This one, though, seems impenetrable. Twice more I have outpoured my soul into music, opening floodgates of power I never dreamed accessible, but the cub clings, stubborn, to his feline form. Thus have all the males in my life shown their obstinacy, refusing to be reshaped.
December 24, 1908
In the week that I have been back from my trip to Falfurrias to purchase Jersey cattle from the Lasater Ranch, Nkita has not let me out of his sight. Given that I treat him as protector and friend, this is not unexpected. My absence apparently caused him considerable grief. None of my workers could get near him—everyone is afraid of Kitty, and sensibly so, as he has grown to the size of a small cougar and uses his deadly claws at a moment’s notice. My return brought on such a spell of his rubbing against my legs that I could scarcely walk three feet without tripping.
Pampered beyond the dream of many a regular house cat, at night he usually curls up at the foot of my bed. The little lamb that went everywhere with Mary has nothing on Kitty, for he follows me all over the place, like a toddler clinging to his nanny’s apron. He plays outdoors with Trixy and the other rat terriers, but music still has such charms for Kitty that the moment I touch a key on the piano, he insists on coming inside and staying as long as there is music. He lays stretched across the top of the instrument, and his contented purr can be heard all over the house, made much bigger and prone to echoes since last month’s expansion. When I finally get a telephone installed, I wonder how he will react to its ringing?
Yet for all my yuletide carols, magic oils, and spiritual outpourings, Kitty grows more feline, more feral, with every passing day. I fear that in his case Gabriela’s warning was well placed. I have no idea what I will do if he becomes too vicious. I love him so, you see.
It’s Christmas Eve, so I have treated him to blissful herbs and a few hand-made toys with bells and strings. I hope they will keep him occupied while I spend the night with my parents and siblings. Strange. I am quite reluctant to step out the door and head for town. My family feels so alien, so distant: this farm, these workers, this wildcat—they dominate my heart and mind now.
March 4, 1909
For the last six weeks, Nkita has become a veritable terror to my little farm, stalking and harrowing the livestock to the point that Roberto demands I do something to curb him. My once adorable overgrown jaguarundi loves to eat chicken off the roost, though it isn’t hunger that sends him foraging. Looking at him with shaman eyes, I feel certain that, as Gabriela warned, his animal soul is twisting his humanity, making him eager for the kill.
At the start one fowl was enough to take the edge off his appetite. But as the weeks wore on, I believe he got a taste for blood. I have tried locking him indoors with me at night, but he is extraordinarily clever and light of foot. He always manages to prise open the shutters and escape.
I then sketched wardings into the earth, spells to contain him within a reasonable area, but he is magic to the core in his mitzon state, and he easily erases my runes. Driven by the killer urge, he keeps feasting on my geese, turkeys, and ducks at intervals whenever he gets out. Not only is my livelihood being impacted, but I fear what will happen once he’s slaughtered them all. Will my terriers be next? Will he attack the cows? Will he slink into town on the prowl?
I hold him in my arms, grappling with his wiry strength, humming to him, pleading with him. “Nkita, my child, my sweet little boy. Be calm. Sleep. Listen to my song. Momma wants to sing to you.”
But he cannot answer me.
September 13, 1909
Oh, God, what have I done?
All spring and half the summer, Nkita’s restlessness and hunger grew. I no longer could keep him indoors unless I played records over and over, an exhausting task, changing the discs or resetting the needle every four minutes. So I took to locking the dogs up with me and letting the wildcat roam, hoping to heaven for a change.
Doña Gabriela visited me in July, and her words gave me no comfort. “You started down this path when you let him live. I know you saved them girls. That was some mighty magic. But the male, he’s another story, and now you got to deal with it. He is past transformation, Miss Donna. He can’t be human. But he ain’t jaguarundi, neither. Between worlds. No hope because he can’t have freedom.”
I could imagine no solution, however, so I did nothing.
In mid-August, I was roused from my slumbers by a neighbor living a mile away, excitingly shouting into the telephone that my wildcat was rushing after and catching her chickens. I had to rush over and bring him home, a lariat round his neck like a noose, Kitty snarling and hissing the entire way.
For two nights I kept him tied up though he made a piteous racket until each dawn. But on the third night he got free.
That morning my father arrived in a wagon with several other men, all with rifles or shotguns draped over their arms. They had lassoed and lashed Nkita down, muzzled him. My hand went to my mouth as I rushed to his side.
“Donna,” my father said, “this can’t go on. Your pet slaughtered three good horses last night and nearly clawed Mr. Turner’s leg off!”
I wept, inconsolable, but I nodded my understanding.
“Listen, darling, my friend Archibald Palmer has started a zoo in Brownsville. I think a specimen this fine would make a great addition. He’ll be well fed—and contained. You can visit him whenever you like. But we can’t let him stay here any longer, dear. It’s either the zoo, or we put him down.”
And so I let them take my baby away, struggling uselessly in his bonds. As they trundled off, I called out in desperation:
“He loves music, Father! Tell them to play music for him!”
A month later I took a river barge down to see Kitty’s new home. Mr. Palmer walked me through the lovely gardens, and for a second I felt some relief. But then I saw that all the animals were caged. Enveloped by the Green World, but unable ever to touch it. It was torturous.
Finally we reached the iron-rod box that held my Nkita. He stood listless, eying the world with cautious hate. I covered my face with my bonnet: I couldn’t bear for him to see me. The thought of recognition playing across that defeated face was almost as bad as the possibility that he might not know me at all.
Seeing me so distraught, Mr. Palmer leaned closer and muttered, “We play him music, just as you asked.”
He gestured at an employee, who wound a hurdy-gurdy and let the carnival tune explode with undue gaiety. Kitty’s head snapped around, and he flung himself at the bars, scrabbling toward the wood-slat roof, yowling and gibbering, sounding a rough bark over and over and over again. I ran as far away from that voice as I could, boarding the barge and sailing back up the Rio Grande, trying to drown his call with the noise of water, birds, engines, the shouts of industrious river men.
At home, surrounded by the beautiful works of my hand, I hoped to find surcease. But I am haunted by that cry, night after night. Amidst a pitch black dreamscape, the wildcat climbs the walls of his cage, howling miserably. In my nightmares the call is quite distinct: two heart-wrenching syllables that reverberate with the pain of betrayal:
October 19, 1909
I did not believe I would have the strength. I imagined my mind would shiver and splinter with grief and shame. But I have done what needed doing, and somehow I will live with the memory.
I returned to Brownsville three days ago, telling no one of my business. Then, in the still of the night, I took up my Bible and shotgun and made my way to the zoological gardens.
A whisper of magic loosened lock and chains upon the gate. I pushed my way in and walked slowly through the darkness, feeling the entrapped life snuffling hoarsely all around. The moon was but a sliver that faintly glinted off wakeful, mistrusting eyes.
At last I stood before Nkita’s cage. I called to him softly, and he surged with panic to press himself against the bars. His plaintive mewling was nearly more than I could bear.
I opened the scriptures to the 23rd Psalm and began to recite in the sing-song whisper that had so often stilled the boy’s anxiety: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Kitty eased down the bars as I read by starlight and memory. Purring hitched like sobs in his chest. His kneading claws grated against the wooden planks beneath him.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” I concluded, my voice thick with emotion, “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Setting down the Bible, I sketched a gesture in the air. The door of the cage swung open. Nkita hesitated for a moment, testing the air with his muzzle, before leaping onto the gravel and shaking himself as if shrugging captivity from his back. His eyes met mine.
“Go, son. You are free. Go.”
He twitched his tail once, blinked, and then turned away, looking into the deep shadows which only vision like his could penetrate.
Biting back the cry rising in my breast, I lifted the shotgun to my shoulder. He waited a second more, a moment that stretched eternally in my aching heart, and then he burst into a run.
I aimed carefully despite my shaking hands. I fired. Without a sound, he sprawled in the inky pools upon the path. When I reached him, he was already transforming, his familiar pelt dissolving to reveal a lovely boy with thick black hair and wiry limbs.
As I knelt, weeping, to wrap his body in my coat, I saw his dark eyes were wide even in death, and a wild smile of freedom hollowed dimples in both his perfect cheeks.