The caballero came into Flores along the lakeshore from the north, riding a magnificent horse and leading two others laden behind him. The sun, glinting from a silver helmet slung on the pommel of a spare saddle, projected images in air: spectral men in frayed white robes strolled ahead of him along the path and out across the lake.
He met some of the women of Flores returning from market with baskets on their heads, children and half-wild dogs at their heels (Doña María, to save her joints, had not gone with them; later she would regret this). The dogs fled into the jungle, barking. The children ran among the spectral men, vying to catch their attention, splashing in the warm shallows where the lake had risen across the path, only for the floating figures to disappear as the caballero led the horses into the furred shade of a cigarette tree.
He asked the women where was the safest place on the lake to bathe, where he could find cooked food, clean water, and a dry place away from the insects to sleep, but they couldn’t understand his speech. Yulia sent Paquito, a skinny boy with turkey-legs, running ahead to find Doña María.
She was at the fountain, washing clothes in boiled water. By the time Paquito reached her, he had already told his news to enough of the others that the whole of Flores laid aside work and came to witness the caballero’s arrival. Doña María frowned at this; it was close enough to rest time that she supposed it didn’t matter, but she kept on in her own rhythm, scrubbing, wringing out and hanging, telling Paco and his crowd to bring the caballero to her.
The caballero was youthful of face but gaunt, impossibly tall even after he had stepped from the saddle. The horses’ eyes were waxen and bright like ripe chiles, and a spike-headed commbird rode among the jumble of baggage, squawking out bursts of disjointed information in a rapid series of encodings, some of which Doña María remembered enough to catch and which made her shudder.
He repeated his predictable requests.
Out of courtesy, but with a look of reproach for the villagers, she laid aside her work. “No part of the lake is safe,” she told him, using the tongue of the conquerors as she had learned it as a child—filled with archaisms, as she surmised from his expression. “Your horses may bathe in it, but take care not to let their lips break the surface. The current is fastest at the mouth of the aqueduct on the west shore outside of town; there you may best avoid the parasites and aberrations. The land around Flores is tainted. The fish are bad. You may have noticed how many of our children are deformed.” She didn’t see it necessary to mention that the older people had been crippled and scarred by other side effects of conquest—nor to call attention to her own toeless foot. “The only clean water is kept in a cistern underground. We filter it daily from the fountain for drinking—but if anyone were to wash in it, others must suffer from thirst. The people will share the best of their hospitality—we have a garden grown with fresh earth carried down from the volcano from which the food is safe to eat—but you must forgive our limitations. A place away from bugs we can provide—but dry? Not in this season.”
Doña María’s wash fluttered, strung from the awning of the fountain to the thatched eaves of her hut. The folk of Flores crowded; the hot-eyed horses flipped their tails at flies and suffered themselves stonily to be touched.
The helmet flared at a sunbeam breaking between Doña María’s wash, and the insubstantial robed men spread fishing nets across the mud-caked cobblestones; their catch was first famine, then feast.
“I must be clean,” said the caballero. “My horses must be clean. Will you gather wood for a fire, heat lake water to boiling, find soap? Will you share food with me from your clean gardens? Will you kill of your turkeys for me? Great toil lies ahead of me. I mean to make this part of the forest livable again.”
Doña María felt pity more than awe for this latecomer demigod. The old gods could have . . . but they were gone.
She alone among the town recalled the strife that had led them to these straits. This man’s arrival, carrying, disguised, the trappings of their fall, could only make things worse. But she knew her people well enough to recognize she could never convince them. They had lost the capacity to fall back upon the literal except under duress. She’d encouraged it.
It would have been so much easier just to forget.
The folk of Flores, overcome at the promise and magic of him, did as the caballero asked without question, expending energy gained from clean food they couldn’t grow again for a season, letting their own tasks, the work of survival, go undone. They brought forth their cooking pots and filled them from the lake. They fetched cigarette, ceiba, chocolate, and cloud maple wood from the forest to feed the coughing flames. They scrubbed man and horses with coarse palm brushes, and the brown soap bubbles and mingled blood of slaughtered turkeys rolled down over the muddied cobbles into the lake. Under the caballero’s close direction and María’s, they scoured the pieces of his armor and what tools he’d permit them to touch. He himself cleaned the terrible, night-colored gun, too gigantic and worn for his slightness or his youth. “Scrub hard,” he told them through Doña María. “Infection at times is invisible.”
It was Paco’s small sister, Cresencia, on hands and knee with her head to the ground, who discovered that the horses’ hooves did not quite touch the earth. Doña María saw no reason to translate the caballero’s hasty, jingoistic explanation. The miracles of the new gods Flores could do without and would only bring him to ill end. The proof of it was everywhere.
Later, when the caballero caught Cresencia trying on the shining helmet, passing her fingers through the gleam to see the robed men jump and flicker, he said, “Let her keep it. I’ve a better.” The bird crackled, its spiked plumes fluctuating with the signal, and Doña María wished the caballero gone.
When all that could meet his satisfaction had been seen to (he had turned down the best hammocks they could show him, claiming he preferred no rest at all to the diminished sort he might achieve in limited accommodations), when he had feasted, complimented Doña María’s cooking (though she hadn’t put a hand to spoon), girded his loins and reassembled his steely invulnerability about his chest, he gathered Flores to him once again.
“One of my horses, Rosinand, is damaged. He has grown too weak to follow me on the trails I must travel. Will you care for him until I return?”
The pueblo cheered. They’d never seen a horse, much less a thing like red-eyed Rosinand. They saw this as a gift—a reward. They thought he could wash the hills clean.
His provisions loaded onto one spare horse instead of two, the caballero followed the aqueduct west into the tainted forest, never to be seen again.
Doña María debated whether to scold her people, to threaten what this horse might do to Flores if its sickness were to spread—what the caballero’s well-intentioned efforts would undoubtedly do in the forested hills surrounding the lake and their village. But what could the pueblo be made to suffer that they hadn’t suffered before? The children fawned over Rosinand; the adults grew quiet, even reverent, in the horse’s presence. And the way Cresencia wore that helmet prancing in the sunlight. . . . It made them happy. The oldest gods knew they deserved that.
Creature of flesh and blood though he was not, Rosinand, whether truly sick or simply depleted from journeying, remained docile despite the attention. Paco and his friends goaded each other into climbing astride him until it became clear he would present no challenge; when Adán, the oldest man in the village—barely half María’s age, if she counted right—warned them to stop lest they wear the poor beast to exhaustion, it seemed the first it had occurred to anyone that Rosinand was not divine.
They let Rosinand rest in the turkey yard under the shade of the chocolate tree, where the only sweet grass in the village grew; Paquito brought him a pot of clean water. But the horse wouldn’t touch the grass, and he wouldn’t drink.
The children, debating this, came to Doña María. “What do horses eat, great-grandmother—not people food, surely?” The peaceful giants cast by Cresencia’s warlike helmet glided among them, appearing, though silently, to join in the debate. The broken horse’s chile-eyes, their shapes flickering from spheres through a variety of myriad-sided polyhedra, studied María balefully through the sparkling threads the girls had braided in his mane.
She didn’t know. If she had, she wouldn’t have told them.
The next day her porridge was thinner than usual, noticeably lacking in breadnuts and dried fruit. As she’d expected, her people had given the best they had to the caballero.
After the night’s fog dissipated, but before the daily deluge of midmorning, a swath of barren, fire-blackened earth could be seen on a hillside to the west where yesterday the tainted cloud forest had thrived, as though the volcano had fired its nevermore through the sky like a cannon. Paco and a few other boys wanted to investigate this phenomenon; Doña María forbade it. It was just as possible they would arrive and find the forest intact, as though nothing had happened, as that the scorched ground would splash up like hard rain from a puddle and char the boys’ flesh from their shins. She consoled them that instead, so long as they obeyed their elders, they could run with the grown men of Flores up the flanks of the volcano to help fetch new earth from the ashfield’s edge.
The boys accepted this, to her relief. Having learned of the existence of horsemen and horses, and that their great-grandmother had known this but never revealed it, somehow they still trusted her—though not enough to save any fruit for her breakfast. She burned a piece of incense at the shattered altar in the swamp and gave thanks for the small things.
By midday, the rain passed, making way for sweltering humidity; the scorched patch moved uphill, leaving its previous location occupied by a rippling green blanket of maize. This elicited significant excitement, particularly when a few claimed to have seen, for a brief period during the heaviest downpour, a lake, sparkling blue against the muddied-cotton sky. “Don’t go,” Doña María warned Paquito for the second time, “or you’ll find—like the wild dog who barked at his reflection in the lake and discovered it had stolen his bone—that more has been taken from you than what you hoped to gain.”
In the afternoon, she held school in the plaza, trying to teach sums to those who would listen. Cresencia sweated beneath her helmet, the embroidered billows of her handed-down dress nearly concealing the misshapen crook of her shoulder, her beautiful face screwed up in thought, until she was struck by an epiphany: “His feet don’t touch the ground—not even the clean ground. He won’t eat grass or ground maize or even tortilla. He needs to be washed in hot, boiled water, but he won’t drink hot chocolate, coffee, or even sweet milk.”
“And what does all this lead you to conclude?” snapped María, interrupted in the act of demonstrating twenty twenties on her knuckles.
“I believe”—Cresencia said this quietly, with excessive expenditure of breath—“I believe Rosinand is a creature of the sky.”
Magical thinking, thought María with regret. No sums would Flores learn today.
The afternoon rest was interrupted again, this time with running about in search of anything that might share Rosinand’s affinity with air and fire. Bromeliad flowers, plucked at great risk from the treetops. Fork-tongued orchids from the swamp. A comb of honey. A cup of the fiery spirit Adán and his brother distilled from anything and everything the village could spare.
To everyone’s surprise, the horse suffered itself to be fed.
Only when Rosinand opened his lips to accept that first bromeliad blossom did it become clear he was truly sick. Beyond the sharp and broken teeth, a landscape opened out of him, red, smoke shrouded, shot with stars, more vast than the insides of even so mythical a beast should be. The angular planes of it bisected the bodies of the people who crowded around him, the slender trunk and plump yellow fruit of the chocolate tree that shaded them, the moisture-dark posts of the garden fence. For a moment, María found herself encased within the surface of another world—a clumsily rendered, definitionless world of shearing fault lines, jagged peaks, and gaping fissures. Then Rosinand closed his mouth to chew.
“I saw through him,” breathed Cresencia, who’d been feeding him and had the best view. “I saw Flores through his belly! It was changed—”
“He can’t stay in the garden anymore,” said Doña María. “We should never have allowed him into Flores.”
She personally banished the ugly, dangerous, broken machine masquerading as a living being from the village, hobbling ahead of the horse with one finger through each of his nostrils, leaning her weight on him for balance whenever she took a step with her toeless foot. With a length of rope sawed from her clothes-drying lines, she tied him to the cigarette tree where the swollen lake spilled over the market path.
As she sloshed back to solid ground, stooping with one arm extended to keep from toppling into the contaminated flood, she squinted into the haze over the forest, if only to avoid being obliged to acknowledge the quarter-inch of air between the water’s surface and Rosinand’s hooves. The burned-black desert of the scorch had moved again; it had expanded to cover an entire hillside, cut with gouges that laid bare the earth’s limestone bones. In its former location, there now appeared a glowing villa with orange terracotta roofing tiles and a lawn strewn with spike-headed topiary.
She forbade anyone in Flores from visiting the horse or feeding it.
Their precious patch of clean garden displayed no sign of having begun to resemble the angular doomscape of the horse’s gullet: the cloying scents of mango and bougainvillea susurrated among waxen leaves; the avocados’ flesh was buttery and chartreuse; the bees pursued nectar with a single-mindedness only the daily threat of deluge could provoke. Doña María said a prayer, burned sage outside the garden gate, and anointed with oils the roots of the chocolate tree. She congratulated herself on having caught the threat in time and saved her village from starvation, despite the fact that the people of Flores now looked the other way when she passed.
She could permit them not to love her, so long as they did as she asked.
The caballero’s spike-headed bird flew across the lake at suppertime, disappearing into an oily hole in the sky that healed before Doña María could begin to dread. It had left this world for another, which she interpreted to mean the caballero’s death. At least it had left no gap behind.
She breakfasted on hot milk with flaked maize and sweet rice.
The gatherers of virgin dirt from the volcano sent word that the flow of water from the aqueduct had turned from clouded yellow-brown to black. She brushed this off as no great loss—the condition of the lake could hardly get worse.
During the downpour of midmorning, Yulia came to Doña María soaking and distraught, begging her to do something. Cresencia and Paco had gone to see the horse at sunrise—though she hastened to point out that they had obeyed Doña María’s wish by not venturing near it—and Cresencia was inconsolable with fear that Rosinand would waste away.
Doña María asked for time to think.
Adán arrived as the rain slackened, wearing a giant palm frond like an ancestor’s plume to fend off the heaviest drops. He poured two tiny cups of his homemade spirit from a bat-headed jug, and they sipped, contesting to retain the stoniest expression. “Let them care for the beast,” he advised. “They believe it a god. Even if you know otherwise. . . .” He waited. She cupped the drink before pursed lips and offered nothing.
“If the caballero returns and finds we neglected his charge—or even in the event of some unrelated catastrophe—if it dies, and there are consequences, they may blame you. No other in Flores has the wisdom to take up your mantle.”
The volcano barked in the distance, its vocalizations causing tremors in her bowels.
When the sun boiled through the clouds, the chocolate tree in the garden where Rosinand had been tethered sprouted faceless black jewels. Doña María ordered it cut down and burned. Certain cobbles in the plaza, where the infected horse’s weightless hooves had passed, projected spikes into the air that when touched proved immaterial. The earth-carriers returned from the volcano with the news that Paco and two other boys had ventured into the tainted forest and never returned. They were last seen heading for the villa, which overnight had sprouted a field of solar cells, a skewed antenna tower, and a maze of dark cracks snaking up from its foundation.
Cresencia, when she heard what had happened, only wailed harder. Huge, clean tears rolled down her cheeks, mingling with the sweat from beneath the caballero’s helmet in the rain-damp cloth of her handed-down dress. The spectral men seated themselves on absent benches; dwarfing her tiny, misshapen, shaking form, their faces radiant, they feasted on fish, wine, and bread.
María instructed the earth-carriers to begin a new garden on the far side of town from the first; the old one, she told them, had been tainted with Rosinand’s contagion. Then, leaving behind the support of Adán’s still-firm shoulder, she retreated to the altar in the swamp to cry.
She had brought neither incense nor anointing oils, and she couldn’t find the words to pray. The old gods were gone, killed by the new gods. Her prayers to them had always been more a matter of comfort than hope. The new gods—the gods of the commbird, the submachine gun, and the magic horse—they still had power, but listened only to those like the caballero and brought only suffering. As for the oldest gods—they were chaos, the wind, and the rain, too vast and ancient to attend the cares of any mortal being—the oldest gods required sacrifice more potent than incense and prayer.
Her wisdom, her memory of eighty years of change, had failed Flores. It had failed before, but this time it would starve and kill them, force them to eat again of tainted fruit, deform their children. They would no longer listen when she spoke.
After eighty years—if she counted right—it was easy to forget that change never ceased. Nearing the end of so long a race, it was easy to rely on what had worked so many times before. But her wisdom, her stern mothering and paranoia, had failed. It was time she tried something new.
Her people deserved better—better than she, better than the caballero. If all that the gods could provide was blind hope inspired by a dying construct dressed in a thin disguise of divinity, who was she to deny that?
She went to visit Rosinand, to try to see him as the people did.
On that section of the market path where the lake overflowed into the swamp, he waited, docile and silent atop the flood, suffering the stings of mosquitoes with barely a switch of his tail, his red eyes glossy and shallow, the ill-sketched shapes of ribs standing out from his skin. The cigarette tree where she had tethered him was fruiting out of season. A few small fissures had opened in the flooded path at the horse’s feet; foul water spilled ceaselessly down through them into some other reality. A pack of half-wild dogs moved restless at the lake’s edge, lapping poisoned water with their long, black tongues and barking fearfully. María flapped her arms and hissed at them until they fled.
It was nearing the end of rest time. She let Flores sleep until the bell.
“Let’s visit Rosinand,” she said at open doors, under the plastic-roofed pavilion of the village market, and in the maze of hammocks strung in avocado orchards that now must all be burned. “It’s not his fault he’s sick. Nor does he deserve to suffer for what he is. We should throw him a feast.”
With flower garlands, terracotta drums, and flutes, they marched in the sweltering afternoon along the lakeshore, bringing the best of everything Flores had left. For the sake of the dying god, they celebrated like they had something to celebrate.
Rosinand ate and drank only sparingly of honey, orchid blooms, and spirits, but he raised his head, shook his tail, and gave his attention to all that went on around him. Once or twice, he let out a feeble whinny. Cresencia wiped her tears and fed him by hand, enduring the horror of the horse’s open maw with a stoicism that put Doña María to shame. That black landscape opened and decayed around her until only scattered polygons remained in shades of fire and darkness. The land, the cigarette tree, and the tainted waters of the lake turned stranger, crystallizing into aberrant forms. Flies and mosquitoes pierced by the shards of collapsing polygons swelled to the size of grapes and burst; sunlight separated into glimmering spectra; mouths made moues and irises contracted in the surfaces of ripples. The revelers, musicians, and dancers of Flores backed slowly away—all except for Cresencia, moist cheeked, quietly urging on Rosinand another mouthful of bromeliad petals, another sip of fiery spirit.
Yulia wrung her hands. “Do something! Save her!”
Doña María set aside her bowl of steamed squash with cardamom and mole and put down her tiny cup of drink. She looked around appraisingly at the people of Flores, her pueblo. They were fearful but awed—as they had been of the caballero, and of the lake and the volcano before him, and once, long ago, even of Doña María. She noted the conspicuous absence of Paquito and his friends, the music of flute and drum, ritual and solemn, the sweet, familiar smell of cornhusks glowing red and curling over coals.
She hobbled forward into the anomaly, stooping, arms extended to balance her toeless foot. She caught Cresencia tenderly about the waist, the flesh and bones fragile and soft beneath her hands, but still intact, still here. The twisted shape of Cresencia’s malformed shoulder brought tears of sympathy to María’s hard eyes.
The fraying construct that was Rosinand, from so close, became still less coherent. The red eyes dissipated into empty sockets; the fleshless ribs were near-transparent; the floating hooves had disappeared below the knees. Beyond and through the horse-thing’s lipless, gaping mouth, the flute players of Flores swayed, the lake reflected volcano and sky, the thatched roofs of the village steamed—but none of it was the Flores Doña María knew.
She turned away, shuddering, unable to deny but unwilling to countenance what she had seen, clutched by the choking terror that this Flores—with its black lightnings, lightless fires, and flimsy half-solidity—was the true one, and their own just a convenient dream.
“We’ve done our best by him,” she whispered to Cresencia. “Let him go.”
Teetering, she carried the distraught Cresencia in her arms across the widening gap, the flood water boiling, pricking at her ankles, the air unyielding, a viscous fog of acetone and chainsaw gas.
Breaking free into the solid world beyond the flood, she pitched to her knees, joints shrieking, and released Cresencia into Yulia’s embrace.
The drummers ceased. The flute players shrilled, then trailed off into silence. Rosinand toppled into the overflowing stream, now no more than a half-liquid skull and a set of broken teeth.
Under the direction of Adán, the villagers of Flores erected a shrine to the memory of Rosinand, in a style evocative of the new gods but reminiscent of the oldest ones. They placed it on the plaza adjacent to the fountain; by a clever artifice, a streamer of clean water was drawn up from the cistern to spill from the stone horse’s mouth, and it became a daily ritual to strew red bromeliad flowers at the statue’s base and say a prayer for the prosperity of Flores and the health of its people.
Over the next days, creepers overran the villa on the distant hillside, even as the cracks in its foundation propagated up the glowing stucco to the orange terracotta roof and at last brought it crumbling down. Paco and his friends never returned—but some claimed to have seen a few small figures moving on the villa’s grounds among the stands of solar panels and at the edges of the maize fields. Others held that these were tainted monkeys from the forest the caballero had persuaded into service with his honeyed tongue.
Doña María remained in her hut, weak and feverish, for many days after Rosinand’s death and Cresencia’s rescue; when at last she emerged, it was to a world less real than the one she remembered. She never forgot the vision of Flores, the lake, and her people as she had seen them through the horse’s mouth. Indeed, the older she grew—the closer to death—she saw it more and more.
As she had feared, a new plague of deformations spread among the villagers—limbs whole at dawn that were shriveled and useless by the time the rains had passed. A shortage of untainted food forced many to go hungry. Infants wasted away on their mothers’ thin milk; children’s bellies took on the bloat of malnutrition.
Among these tragedies, however—which, Doña María feared, failed to concern her as deeply as they ought—there were miracles. Foremost among these was the change in Cresencia. She climbed from her hammock one morning to find her twisted shoulder straightened of its own accord, her constitution no longer sickly but strong. And the things she had seen—the same that had caused this great change in María—had wrought in Cresencia new wisdom, a pragmatism beyond years that somehow retained the exuberance of youth, thus unshadowed by cynicism.
María never understood this, but she was grateful. She’d always known the time would come when she could no longer care for Flores, when they must care for her. The change had been sudden, and she hadn’t seen the signs—but now that it was here, she realized she’d been ready long ago. It meant she could slacken her efforts, perhaps not worry quite so much, and try—though unsuccessfully—to forget.
There was always more clean earth to fetch from the volcano. And at rest times, when the afternoon sun had burned away the rain, Cresencia would sit among flowers heaped at the stone horse’s feet, interpreting, for the people of Flores who gathered to hear her, the actions of the spectral men cast by the gleam of sunlight from her helmet.
Michael J. DeLuca‘s short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex, Interfictions, Jabberwocky, and elsewhere. Two of his first efforts at translation appear in the World Fantasy–nominated Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic. He’s working on a novel about Guatemala.