The most bizarre, close to supernatural ability we found in Aunt Isa was her eyes.
To verify it, once on coming to visit her, I brought with me a torn rag, so worn out no one in our group but me could tell its original colour. It had faded into a grey-brown hue, the colour of mud, due to stains and dirt. That piece had been my old shirt before it became a rag.
When I handed it to her, waiting curiously for her response, she took the rag close to her squinting eyes and said in a casual voice, “Why! This rag used to be bright blue, the colour of the sea on a sunny day.”
The room grew quiet until someone whispered in a suspicious tone that this might be a coincidence. Then Aunt Isa asked one of us to go cut two fresh rosebuds of different colours from her garden. And before the two rosebuds were given to her they had to make sure her eyes were blindfolded tightly so not a flicker of light could penetrate.
“Mimi, are you cheating?” we heard Aunt Isa cry in mock indignation. “Both have the same colour. I remember I told you to pick two different hues.”
This time, puzzled, the girls exchanged glances. It was impossible; one lowered her voice into a whisper again. How did she know? They had watched her closely. They had seen Aunt Isa put each of the rosebuds close to her nose and smell them while sitting blindfolded. The mystery, emanating from her presence, began to fill the room.
“So, what colour do you reckon?” Sonia braced herself for the answer, her voice a half whisper.
“I’ll say both are crimson, the colour of a drop of blood.”
As the girls sat speechless, Aunt Isa took the blindfold off and smiled in triumph. Yet I was hardly surprised. Deep down, I knew no matter how many blindfolds they added to keep her from identifying colours, it was useless.
They were still unable to find a good explanation for the strange ability she possessed. Aunt Isa kept it a secret, seeming to enjoy our astonishment. So they assumed there could only be one possibility; she must have an extra sense in perceiving things.
Giovanna, now a medical student in her third year, suspected Aunt Isa might have a case of synaesthesia; whoever was born a synaesthete had a rare and peculiar ability to perceive and discern colours from senses independent of visual function. In other words, the person was able to identify colours simply by touching or smelling or by hearing the sound vibration from that object.
This proved that the deepest of mysteries lay not beyond the outermost edge of the universe that would take millions of light years for men to reach. It existed inside us humans as close as a heart was to ourselves.
Let Giovanna believe whatever was written in her medical textbook. My gut told me otherwise. Aunt Isa was not what she seemed to be. She was simply a witch, a witch whom I had been searching for since I could remember. And this isn’t figurative. Not like a case where an awful woman is dubbed a witch. I mean a real, genuine witch capable of casting spells and turning emptiness into life.
When I was small, I had a wish that I kept secret from my family: a wish to find a witch, or at least a creature whose other-world attributes could match the eeriness of a witch. I was brought up in a family where hard facts, data, numbers and statistics were as sacred as Holy Scripture. To my father, any belief, news, occurrence or anything at all presented without facts would be considered nonsense and of no value.
When I was young, I loved to look out of the window in awe at the last ray of light before sunset. Once while I was drinking in the fiery bursts of colour in the sky, my father stormed in and yelled, “No more spacing out. Fill your empty head with substance.” Then he started “enlightening” me with some scientific fact about the natural phenomenon of “the scattering of light” which, he said, caused long wavelengths, in the spectrum’s range of red and orange, to dominate the evening sky.
On another occasion, he insisted I pay more interest in biology. That way I would learn solid facts about nature. I would learn that a bunch of sweet honeysuckles in my arms, as well as other kinds of flowers, were in fact “reproductive organs” of the plants. I blinked. I had no idea what that really meant. I guessed it must be something repulsive, because I remember his laugh as he taunted me to the brink of tears, “But you still enjoy smelling flowers, don’t you? That proves ignorance is bliss.”
But what made me stop asking him for good happened after I ran to him and earnestly wondered aloud whether a witch was a real or mythical creature. He rolled his eyes and gave me a strange look, “Why! Can’t you tell your mother is definitely one?” He added, “And also the most wicked, of course.” My mother had left us and remarried. I was so young at the time I had no memory of her whatsoever.
As I grew up, I realized this world had long been dominated and ruled by the laws of reality; its weight was choking us, compressing humanness into a mere living organism shaped by genetic code while leaving the soul at the mercy of serotonin, a chemical that supposedly feeds you happiness. You had to free yourself from that kind of stark reality, to bring in something few believe in to fight such a reality. And a witch fit into that. Her emergence from oblivion could challenge the authenticity of reality itself – a reality my father embraced and wanted me to follow. If a witch could be found walking in the midst of billions of ordinary people, her presence could more or less turn reality off balance.
Yet the first time I met Aunt Isa, her appearance was no different from any elderly Mexican woman in her mid-sixties. She was just someone who had moved some years ago to San Diego, the Southern Californian town near the Mexico border, whose full name on her ID card was Senorita Isadora Gonzalez de Santa Ana. And if you lined her up with a bunch of Mexican folks you could scarcely single her out from the crowd.
She shared the distinctive features of Latino folks: straight and thick black hair, tan skin, short and plump body, and a triangular face with strong cheekbones and jaw. You could also tell that her full lips, prominent hooked nose and her slanted, almond-shaped dark eyes were characteristic of the native Indians who, in pre-Columbian times, had owned the vast land now known as Central and South America
But once you looked closer into the shining black beads behind her eyelids, you felt you were peering down an ancient bottomless well. So dark and deep, so impenetrable they rendered nothing but your own reflection. Those eyes must be sheltering some secret beyond my reach. It intrigued me so much my childhood wish began to be rekindled. I was drawn to her strangeness, wondering whether this homespun old Mexican maid could be the other-world being I had long been looking for.
It had begun when four of us from different places came to study as foreign students at the same college in San Diego. Sonia was from the Philippines, Giovanna from Brazil, Mimi from the Dominican Republic and I from the city of Bangkok. We not only shared a dormitory in this unfamiliar place but also the deep-seated loneliness of young women who had recently left home to spend a new life across the world for years to come. Because of the circumstances we developed a camaraderie among us in no time. We took turns to take care of whomever was in need of emotional support.
One night, Giovanna and I came to Sonia at her bed after I heard her crying her heart out. On another it was Mimi who appeared at my bed after hearing me sobbing in my sleep over homesickness. She rushed to comfort me, to remind me time would fly like a high wind if I didn’t keep counting the nights and days. But ironically that ended with an outburst of tears as her own homesickness came flooding in.
I was grateful to find myself in this southernmost town on the Pacific coast. The weather was dry and warm. The sun shone everywhere. Sand beaches were within walking distance, and vibrant flowers took it in turns with the season to dapple the sidewalks year round. The whole county was charming, with hilly terrain, cliffs, valleys and vineyards. Along those gentle slopes, we found rows of cottages sprawling like dollhouses along descending terraces that overlooked the blue ocean lying placid in the sun.
In the late afternoons after school, the whole gang usually ventured out into the neighbourhood. We loved to walk past one quiet, peaceful corner where a quaint yellow bungalow lay half-hidden behind dense clumps of trees and shrubs, giving us the heart-warming and welcoming atmosphere we had been yearning for.
Every time we strolled past that bungalow in the shade of trees, we couldn’t resist laying our eyes on dense clusters of brilliant red bougainvillea climbing to cover the sunny side of the bungalow roof. A pang of nostalgia hit me at the sight of the bougainvillea. Back home, those vines were a common sight – so abundant on roadsides we usually forgot to appreciate them. But here, the first glimpse of their familiar beauty almost brought us to tears as if being greeted by a long-lost friend.
A soft breeze carried another scent from nearby, so familiar it lifted our spirits. We recognized it as the sweet scent of some kind of citrus blossom. We looked around but couldn’t spot the tree. The scent grew stronger and sweeter as we edged near the low fences of the house. It had to be coming from behind the fence. To sate our curiosity, we agreed to sneak in and take a quick glimpse, then to rush out again once we spotted it. I opened the unlocked gate and we tiptoed inside as if under a spell.
Near a fig tree stood a lush tangerine tree in the middle of the stone-paved back courtyard. The tree was speckled with small white blossoms from which the sweetest aroma dispersed into the air. And on its branches hung clusters of young, green citrus fruits that would soon ripen into golden orbs. Sunlight filtered through the lush foliage and dappled a fat black cat lying on a wooden table under the shadow of that tree. It perked up its ears and watched our approach with intense gleaming green eyes.
The atmosphere was eerily quiet. The only sounds that penetrated the silence, besides our whispering, was the dripping of water on brick walls and the faint tinkle of a wind chime.
The spell of silence was broken by Mimi’s excited shriek. She pointed breathlessly to a long row of rosebushes by a high window of the house. The roses’ hues in bright reds, blazing yellows and brilliant pinks radiated an intensity that out-charmed their own intoxicating fragrance. Besides their enormous size, I’d never seen more vivid colours in roses anywhere. It was as though someone had painted this small garden with a touch of magic.
This small domain had to belong to someone I had long been dreaming to find, a soul who couldn’t live without being surrounded by colour. Perhaps I was placing my feet in a fairy tale, a world unto itself. Like Hansel and Gretel in Grimm folklore. Whoever owned it had cast a spell on the aroma of tangerine blossoms to lure me into a place where the bright yellow walls of the house were made of gingerbread. And unripe tangerines in the garden were in fact green balls of gum and candy. I wondered if I broke off one of the wooden roof shingles and put a chunk in my mouth whether it would taste of rich chocolate?
In this atmosphere, reality was powerless. Reason and logic were kept at bay. They couldn’t cross the boundary to intervene in this realm where the impossible was allowed. Just like how things could exist logic-free in a dream. Thank God this sanctuary was not tainted and contaminated by the rules of reality. It was left pure and intact and thus safe and comforting enough for a witch to live in.
I had come to find that place.
There was evidence of the presence of a witch – that black cat with its shimmering eyes. It must be a witch’s pet. It was there to guard this place. As we snooped around in growing excitement, the feline sprang to its feet and hissed and growled at us. Its back arched. Its black fur stood up on end, a sign of its wild fury. The cat leapt off the table and its jump startled us. But it didn’t attack anyone. The critter sprinted past us towards the bungalow steps. It landed on the floor of the front veranda and jumped into the arms of someone who had emerged from a dark interior corner of the bungalow without warning.
My eyes met the intense stare coming from the shadowy figure.
“We … we didn’t mean to trespass…” I began to stammer. “But your place…”
“Shush…” A voice stopped me short before I had a chance to excuse myself. The shadowy figure turned out to be a fat Latina in her sixties. She was wearing a long and wide skirt with colourful embroidery in bright floral patterns, a traditional Mexican dress. She began to walk towards us as a cluster of silver bangles on both arms jingled. The weight of her large body made her waddle as she climbed down each step, with that black critter snuggled on her enormous bosom.
“Don’t you know I saw enough? Yes, I did. You, you, you and you are tramping on my place.”
She pointed her finger at each of us, starting with me, while we hung our heads in remorse, re-emerging into reality.
We were naïve enough to believe that if caught, our spontaneous act would be perceived as a minor mischief driven by childish curiosity. We hardly thought we were committing a crime intruding on someone’s property. We could face charges of attempted burglary. And if we were found guilty, it would result in a fine or being detained or, in the worst case, deported.
An impish smile lit up the lady’s face, followed by hearty laughter that caused my heart to lift a little. Instead of calling the police she beckoned us to come closer.
“Come, come sit on my porch and have a cup of coffee, you girls.”
I couldn’t imagine what consequences we would have faced had we been caught by someone other than this odd and whimsical lady – some righteous proprietor who couldn’t wait to take legal action.
Aunt Isa told me later that she peeked through a window blind when she heard unfamiliar footsteps approaching the house. Her eyes caught four grown girls floating into her garden like butterflies looking for nectar. That moment, she knew she had found some souls who needed colour as badly as they needed breath. How else did we expect her to react if not welcoming those hungry hearts with arms wide open, to let us drink in what a human soul needed most?
And after that, our friendship flourished.
We changed from strangers to her guests and learned that Aunt Isa was unmarried. Her only companion was that black cat, Chiquito, who followed her like a shadow. On most Sunday afternoons, after she had finished work at her church, she would ask us to spend time at her house. Aunt Isa had been a soloist leading congregational singing at a Roman Catholic church in her community, where the church members were mostly Mexicans.
We loved to sit idly on her couch listening to unfamiliar Spanish songs she sang while playing her piano. But who needed the lyrics? Her singing made a sound 10 times more powerful than words. It was hard at first to believe an elderly woman weighing twice the average could have such an uncanny voice. Her voice disarmed the mind and empowered the heart. We felt fire and thunder blaze and burst and boom out of the ripples of her singing, carrying our feelings from the pit of sorrow to the rise of the spirit and the peak of joy.
But the power of her voice met its match in her words. If she didn’t sing, she loved to tell stories. Her ancient stories came alive with strange depictions of her ancestors, the Mexicah people of the Aztec empire who walked the earth eight centuries ago. The stories had been passed down verbally to many generations of descendants to the present day. They kept the heart of the stories beating and bleeding with glory and doom, as if those lost spirits of ancient Azteca were still breathing to this day.
I found myself hanging on every word while she spun a larger than life yarn she claimed was truer than the truth…
“Since those ancient days, our life needs to feed on beauty. We found beauty in the smell of earth. In the howling of wind. Through a touch of cool rainfall and the heat of fire. And in every existence that renders colour. From glowing gold to bright red blood dripping from our fatal wounds. Maybe this is the blessing, or maybe the curse, the way we are, I don’t know. But we will starve to death without that sublime beauty. Or if we’re still alive we will live a lifeless life…
“The Aztec was once one of the greatest empires on earth. The capital, Tenochtitlan, was said to be the world's largest and richest city of that era. Whenever earthquakes occurred they believed the cause was the wrath of Mictlantecutli, god of the underworld, thought to have a boundless appetite for human flesh and souls. Human sacrifices and cannibalistic rituals were offered to ease his thirst for blood. My ancestors didn’t know the real cause of the churning earth was their gold treasures. Later they came to learn they had become so wealthy their quantity of gold had to be separated into countless different hiding places. Had the empire’s gold been kept together, that spot of earth under the gold’s weight could have triggered a tremor and extended to nearby villages, causing many lives to perish. Can you see now how rich they must have been, the Azteca people with their gold?
“The gold was indeed a curse, causing this invincible empire to fall to the evil force of the Spanish conquistadors. Six hundred years ago, we greeted the arrival of the first gringo ship from the other side of the world without knowing that ship would bring eternal doom to our people. Soon we discovered that their greed had no bounds. They brought more fleets to plunder our land, looted our gold, destroyed our glory. After their conquest they dehumanized our people into cattle so they could enslave, slaughter and rape us, if not massacre us at their first encounter, all for the sake of gold.
“Oh, there’s a story of one little boy whose life was spared by fate during the most savage massacre. The conquistadors knew the Aztecs had more gold than all the world’s kingdoms combined. They raided the boy’s village in search of gold. They not only wiped out every man, woman and child in his village but also slew the livestock. They cut and slit open every belly in search of the gold they believed must be kept hidden inside each body, human or animal.
“The drip of blood first made a small puddle. As more blood was shed, the puddle turned into a larger pool. In no time, the blood that was spilled that day flooded the village and drowned the rest who had not yet been slaughtered. That boy was the sole survivor. While he was being swept down the current of blood and nearly drowned, his hands grabbed a chunk of wood floating by. But his family was not that fortunate. He witnessed his father, mother and all his siblings disappear under the red whirlpool.
“Before the day was done, the blood reached up to the rooftops, they said. But at least that boy was safe. He climbed up to the highest treetop and waited for his people’s blood to recede. It took three to four days until the ground below dried out so he could climb down to meet the sea of dead bodies that stretched to the horizon. When the boy looked up at the sky, he saw no sun. The whole sky was as dark as night, not from rain clouds, not from the storm, but from an army of vultures coming to the feast. Some swooped down and encroached on the dying boy and waited for his last breath…
“Before he let go of his soul to the hungry vultures – to die now seemed easier than to live – an urge to defecate overtook him. It changed the course of his life. His faeces emerged with a few gold coins. His mother had earlier forced him to swallow them. The boy brought his coins in exchange for food during his long and lonely journey across the stretch of unknown land.
“You may doubt if that story has a grain of truth. Believe me, the boy is as real as you and me. Though his name has been lost over time, my father told me that heroic Azteca boy was of my own blood. He is the great-great-grandfather of my great-great grandfather. Our old saying is that a coward chooses death to escape life but only a brave heart has no fear to live and face the worst. That’s what we were born for. To live if we can.”
The bizarre and heart-wrenching story Aunt Isa claimed was truer than the truth moved us to tears. I cried shamelessly, and so did the other girls. But she frowned at our tears. She said the eye was a miracle meant for cherishing beauty, not for lamenting the ugly side of life. So strange that since we got to know her we’d not once seen her tears.
That was the moment we came to find out how Aunt Isa treasured her eyes as she valued life.
To be continued...