The Lone Rider from the Land of the Magic Quileli Bird
The sun had just hidden under the western ocean. He had lingered slightly before his fatal plunge, and he had blown us a farewell kiss of cool breeze. While quietly enjoying the pacific moment, we spoke of the way the scissor-tailed tijeras had hovered over the two tailing marlin, and of how their black blades of death had sliced through the blue sea. Suddenly we noticed in the south, along the old Baja road, a faint wisp of white dust. As dusk grew older, the dust came closer, and soon from the cloud emerged the figure of a lone horse rider. And in the moment that dusk died and night was born, arrived at the rancho solito a gray mare, and the yegua stopped finally in front of our fire, and down from the saddle stepped the rider, and by the light of the flame, all could see, that wearing goatskin and flannel and a wide brimmed hat, stood erect and assured, a noble old woman.
Seeming to not notice us, she swept her hat from her head, and long gray hair fell to her shoulders, and she brushed dust from her flannel skirt. Then the vieja turned to tend her mare, and she worked intently, placing her alforjas and her saddle against the wall of the ranch house, and hanging her sudadero and goat skins over the wooden fence. She went to the well and dipped a bucket to fill it with water, and the old woman led the yegua to the corral and urged her in, and there she removed the bridle and hung it on a fence post and set the bucket on the ground, and the mare began to drink. The vieja closed the corral gate behind her and strode back toward the ranch house and stood before us. Calmly she spoke. “By what do you swear?”
Being surprised, as well as not knowing how to reply, we hesitated. “By the bones of Loreto,” she answered for us. “Buenas noches.” And we responded “Buenas noches.” We offered drink and food and a stool and she accepted all, but she said not a word more, rather she examined each of us carefully as she chewed and swallowed and sipped, and by the flame of the campfire, we watched her, too. After she had ceased to eat, she held only her water cup, and she drew it to her lips and drank it empty, and then placed it in the sand and looked at us and said sadly, “Se brotan de tus dedos los gusanos ociosos.” The idle worms are sprouting from your fingers.
Again we did not know how to respond, so after a moment we asked, “¿De donde es, Senora? ¿Quien es usted? Tan tarde es, y tan solita viaja.” The vieja reached for her cup and extended it toward us. “Another cup of water for the old woman, Señor. She comes from Quileli, where live the magic birds. Her name is Chisera. And it is late and lonely only for those who refuse circles.”
We continued to sit in silence. The vieja seemed content to stare at the stars. Once she rose and walked over to the corral to pet her mare, and while she was away we threw some more wood on the fire, and when she returned, the flame cast enough light to see her smiling. “Quizás le gustaría regalarnos cuentos la viejita.” Chisera looked surprised and smiled slyly. “What makes you believe that the old woman knows stories to tell you?” We pointed to the fire and told her that in our land the flame warms the tongue as well as the body, and that also it calls the spirits. Chisera nodded faintly and reached again for her cup and extended it to us and said that being as stories warm the tongue, the old woman would need an occasional cooling. So we filled her cup again with rich water from the well at the rancho solito in Arroyo Guadalupe de la Herradura, and as the surf murmured in the distance and fireflies sparkled in the cactus forest, the lone rider from the land of the magic birds began to tell.
“For the Gringo most certain it is that magic is ignored. So Chisera will tell about a Peninsular who thought as does the Gringo. This Spaniard came to La Baja just after Padre Salvatierra established the first mission at Loreto. Because of his crossed-eyes, he was called Bizco and he arrived a poor man in flight of the authorities. In Loreto, Bizco found many comrades amongst the undesirables then living there. But after awhile, he tired of that petty crowd and wandered out into the sierra to seek freshness.
“One evening Bizco happened upon a stone casa, and there he found two women living, and he asked permission to spend the night. Such was granted. After all had gone to bed and Bizco had slept a little while, he was awakened by the two women leaving the house. He rose and watched them go near the corral. There they disrobed and began to rub each other with a silver powder they had shaken from a hollow gourd. Once covered, each woman began to flap her arms, and to the astonishment of Bizco, the two hechiceras changed into owls and flew away into the night.
“At first Bizco was terrified. He ran out of the house and into the desert. There he found a large boulder and put his back to it and breathed heavily until he calmed himself. With calmness came courage, and then curiosity, and Bizco crept back to where the gourd lay on the ground. He emptied some of the powder into his hand and smelled it, and then he tasted it, and finally he decided he too would try to become an owl. So he rubbed his body with the powder, and he flapped his arms, but nothing happened. Disappointed, Bizco thought to give up, but when he looked to the ground, he was surprised to see that around his neck hung a crucifix. Curious, he removed the idol and rubbed on a little more powder and flapped again his arms. Instantly Bizco became the body of an owl with the awareness of a man.
“The following morning Bizco found the hechiceras gone. Near his boots he found the gourd. It was filled with silver powder. Bizco wondered if he could have suffered a dream. This thought was quickly dispelled when he looked at his arms and legs and saw many long cat scratches. Bizco took the gourd and walked out of the casa and into the sierra.”
Chisera paused and drank deeply from her cup. Then she extended it toward us for more water. During this pause, the ringing of the desert insects grew loud with anticipation before abruptly snapping into silence when the old woman continued her story.
“Cockeyed Bizco marched steadily for three days, without rest. Near the end of his journey, he reached the mouth of a wide arroyo, and the air suddenly turned fetid. As he walked eastward up the rocky dry stream bed, the air became more sour, and the stillness was broken by the hisses and rattles of hundreds of snakes. Bizco could see the serpents slither between rocks and see them sitting under ledges and in cactus shade. He was careful where he stepped and where he placed his hands. Only a few times did snakes strike at him, and he easily avoided them. Others had not been so fortunate, for at least a dozen human skeletons lay scattered over the rocks. At the head of the arroyo, Bizco arrived at a sheer cliff, over which during times of rain cascaded a waterfall into a wide circle of rock that formed a deep natural well. The tinaja was known as “The Place Where the Devil Awaits.” Bizco climbed down into the well and enjoyed a long drink, and then he found a shady spot, and there he sat for months contemplating what had happened that night at the rock casa.
“During his stay at the tinaja, Bizco sometimes watched the snakes and studied their habits and so became knowledgeable regarding serpents. On his way out the arroyo and back into the world of men, Bizco was not bothered by the snakes. Nor did he find the air to be fetid like it had been upon his entry to “The Place Where the Devil Awaits.” Bizco departed the well as a changed wanderer, and he carried only a deer bladder full of drinking water and the gourd containing the silver powder.
“One day Bizco arrived at a stone casa where lived a goatherder. It was his first contact with humans in almost a year. He found it difficult to talk, so mostly he listened to the man tell of his goats. At times Bizco would walk into the desert with the goatherder. On one of these walks, the two men came upon a small rattlesnake and the goatherder raised a stone to kill it. Bizco stopped the man from so doing, as Bizco knew snakes and saw this one to be harmless. The goatherder became angry, declaring that snakes killed his goats, and he stormed away from Bizco, ordering him not to return to the stone casa. So Bizco found shade and sat down to contemplate the strange world of men.
“Suddenly beside him, Bizco saw the small rattlesnake. The serpent surprised him by speaking in a human voice. The cascabel explained that she was a bruja, and that she wished to thank Bizco for helping her. The witch said that she would reward Bizco by bestowing upon him the ability to understand the language of animals. He agreed to accept the reward. The bruja told Bizco that they must touch tongues, the idea of which caused Bizco to shudder. But he trusted snakes, and when the cascabel flicked out her forked tongue, Bizco lowered his face to the rattlesnake and their tongues met. After they separated, Bizco found that his tongue was burning, but the bruja comforted him by speaking to him in the language of snakes, which Bizco found that he understood. The snake witch then slithered away into the rocks, and Bizco was left with his deer bladder and gourd, and with his new knowledge.
“For several days Bizco sought all forms of animals, and he found that he could understand all of them. During his drifting, he came beside the sea, and he delighted in knowing that he too could comprehend the language of fish. As he strolled along the beach one afternoon, he overheard two seagulls speaking about him. They were wondering if he was a treasure hunter, and they were laughing because he was looking in the wrong spot. They jabbered that the beach had been in a different place during the time of pirates, that it had been much further inland. The two laughing gulls chuckled that Bizco would be surprised to know that a pirate ship full of treasure lay buried in the desert some fifteen kilometers inland near Cañada del Toro. As Bizco eavesdropped on the gaviotas, he decided that he would go to seek the treasure.”
Chisera stopped talking and drank from her cup. Then she asked, “Do you know the old Baja road between El Refugio and El Medano? Well, there it crosses a wide salt lake and becomes very smooth. This lake was once part of the ocean. On the north end of the lake is Arroyo Cañada del Toro.” After this explanation, Chisera sipped dry her cup, and it was refilled, and then she proceeded with her telling.
“Bizco walked to Toro and began to look for signs of a ship. One evening as he rested under the shade of a tall cardon, a group of jackrabbits loped nearby and paused to look at him. Some of them spoke to each other, and they, like the seagulls, wondered if he had come seeking treasure. The liebres remarked it too bad that Bizco could not understand them, as they could tell him that the old oak ribs of the pirate ship lay just under the sand at the base of the large dune in the distance. Bizco waited until the jackrabbits galloped off, then he started toward the golden dune. There he passed the night, and, the following morning, he scraped around in the sand, and there his stick hit something solid, and he dug with his hands to uncover a long wooden plank, and he knew he had found the ship. Four days later, Bizco had exposed the captain’s quarters and inside had located two copper chests. When he breathlessly opened them and saw their contents, he rubbed his crossed-eyes in disbelief, for inside the chests he found pearls and gold coins and jewels. In celebration, Bizco danced wildly around his fortune. That night he slept with his deer bladder and his gourd and his treasure.
“Of course Bizco became rich. He carried the loot to La Paz and with it bought land and a house and all the finest things merchants had to offer. He put away his deer bladder and his gourd and forgot the language of animals. Women sought his hand and men sought his favor. He became fat and lazy and he began to attend church. He became short of temper and selfish. He found that he desired even more than he already had. He allowed some of his old acquaintances from Loreto to move into his house. He and they began to drink continuously and to fight first with words and then with fists and finally with knives.
“One night Bizco was returning home from a tavern. He lumbered in a drunken stupor and fell clumsily to the ground and passed out. While unconscious he was robbed. In his dreams he heard two ravens cackling and was surprised when he realized that he was understanding them. The cacalotes were making fun of him. When Bizco awakened, he recalled his dream and walked home in shame.
Later that day, two women dressed in black appeared at his door. Thinking them beggars, Bizco ordered them away. But, rather than leave, the two black figures began to speak in the language of ravens, and Bizco motioned them inside and stood still as they spoke to him. The human ravens reminded Bizco of all that had happened since his finding of the pirate treasure. They admonished him that he had traded his deer bladder and his gourd for unhappiness. The ravens proposed that Bizco make yet another exchange. If he would leave his rich world behind, they would provide him three pieces of wisdom with which he could live a happy life. The desperate Bizco agreed to the trade.
“The ravens asked Bizco to bring his deer bladder and gourd and to follow them out of La Paz and to be prepared never to return. Once out of town, they would pass to him the three pieces of wisdom. Bizco did as requested, and the three figures soon walked alone outside La Paz. The ravens then spoke three sentences to Bizco. Never leave the well-traveled road for the path. Never ask about what does not concern you. Never jump to conclusions. Once they had spoken, their forms instantly changed from human to bird, and they flew away and left Bizco standing alone.
“At first Bizco was tempted to return to La Paz. But after an unsettled moment, he decided instead to head for the sierra. Stepping off the road, he remembered the first sentence the ravens had spoken, so he returned to the well-traveled route and began walking. Each time he came to a faint path, he was tempted to travel it, but he followed instead the main road. When other travelers would stop to visit, Bizco would be tempted to ask them questions, but he minded the ravens and did not ask about what did not concern him. When he saw strange things along the road, he did not make judgments, thereby adhering to the ravens advice and not jumping to conclusions. In this way, Bizco wandered for several years, and he learned much about the world of men, and he discovered that he was happy because he was complacently traveling the smooth road of minding his own business and not judging others by his standards.”
Chisera ceased telling and sipped from her cup. The sounds of the desert night spilled into the quietness she left behind. We added a piece of wood to the fire and the flame leaped up to cast our shadows against the wall of the old ranch house. Chisera stared out into the darkness for awhile, and she did not ask for more water, but rather abruptly, she picked up again her story.
“Eventually Bizco drifted to Mulegé. By then possessing great understanding of men, he was invited into the house of a wealthy merchant, and there he stayed for many months. One day the merchant asked Bizco to carry a bag to Misión Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. The bag was said to contain gold and a magic amulet and secret papers of the merchant. Bizco was told that to lose the bag would bring great harm to the merchant and his lovely family. Only because Bizco had respected the privacy of the family and had never expressed judgment had he been deemed trustworthy of such a mission.
“The following day Bizco departed Mulegé along the main road to Guadalupe. At the junction with the short cut to the mission, Bizco chanced upon a group of three travelers heading there. He was asked to join, but following the teaching of the ravens, he declined their invitation and remained on the well-traveled road. Just outside San José Magdalena, Bizco came upon two men beating a lone woman. As Bizco watched, the woman broke free and ran into the dense cactus thicket. The men hollered to Bizco to help them go after the wench. Though tempted to ask to what the matter pertained, and sensing that the woman was desperate, Bizco adhered to the teaching of the ravens by minding his own business and not asking about what did not concern him.
Later, while Bizco was in the Cañada de Don Julio, he passed a ranchero who invited him to stop at his ranch house for a cool drink. The ranchero told Bizco to go ahead to the casa, that his wife would be there, and that he would come along shortly. When Bizco walked up to the house, he startled a young priest and a woman in embrace. Bizco backed away from the scene and returned to find the ranchero. Following the teaching of the ravens, Bizco did not jump to any conclusions, and so did not mention to the ranchero the scandalous situation he had witnessed. When Bizco and the ranchero arrived together at the house, the ranchero expressed surprise to see that his wife’s brother had arrived unexpectedly. After a cup of fresh well water, Bizco traveled on to arrive in the late evening at Misión Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. There he delivered the important bag to the Padre.
“The priest warmly received the cargo. Bizco was invited into the presidio and served oranges and figs. Then the bag was opened before the crossed-eyes of Bizco. It held only plain stones and a single piece of paper. The Padre unfolded the paper and read a single word. Honor. Then he told the puzzled Bizco that three traps had been set for him, but that Bizco had eluded them all. Had the short-cut been taken, the three men would have stolen the bag. Had the woman been chased into the cactus, Bizco would have found men hiding to rob him. Had Bizco leveled false charges against the wife of the ranchero, the Mulegé merchant would have been humiliated and tarnished. The Padre declared to Bizco that honor is the bond of life, and that anyone who loses it can never regain it. The priest revealed that the Mulegé merchant was a great philanthropist. To satisfy himself that his judgment of Bizco was correct, the merchant had purposely challenged Bizco, and the reward to Bizco for proof of honor was a fortune in gold and silver.
“When Bizco returned to Mulegé to accept the generous reward from the philanthropist, he told the merchant of his experience with the pirate treasure he had once discovered, and he asked to place his new fortune in the vault of the philanthropist. The merchant accepted the request, and Bizco took only enough gold to buy a small casa in San Ignacio. To that date palm oasis he carried his deer bladder and gourd, and there he continued his life in modest comfort.
“Now there are many caves around San Ignacio, and eventually Bizco began to frequent them. During one of his visits to the Sierra San Francisco, he was surprised by the ghost of Saint Peter. The spirit asked Bizco to share his vaulted wealth with the Church. After considering the request, Bizco responded that he would not do so because the Church did not treat equally the rich and the poor. The spirit of Saint Peter left sadly. On his following visit to the cave, Bizco found awaiting him the ghost of the Virgin Mary. She made the same request of Bizco and he responded to her in the same way, citing the unequal treatment of rich and poor.
Several uneventful trips to the cave ensued before Bizco was again visited by a ghost. This time it was Death herself who solicited the wealth of Bizco. She wanted it buried in the desert to keep it from everyone. In return, Death would award Bizco with the powers of a curandero. After long thought, Bizco agreed to her proposal, telling Death that she treated everyone equal, regardless whether rich or poor.
“Bizco collected his fortune from the vault of the Mulegé merchant and carried it into the desert. There he found Death, and she watched him bury the gold and silver. She then anointed him with the powers possessed by a curandero. Afterwards she admonished him to use his magic to heal, but that should ever Bizco see Death at the head of the bed of a sick person, he should not heal that person, as death had been willed. The new curandero agreed to respect the decree of Death. And therewith the two parted, and Bizco began his new work.”
Chisera glanced about her circle of listeners and she could see that she held us all in her spell. She threw a glance toward the corral and her mare and finished the last of her water before extending her cup to be refilled. Then with moist lips she brought us all together again and told more.
“The power of Bizco became famous. He was sought by the sick from all of La Baja. During his healing, he often saw Death standing at the foot of a bed, but he ignored her. Many times Bizco was offered payment for his healing, and always he refused. Then one day to him was brought his benefactor, the Mulegé merchant. Strangely the generous man had become deathly ill, and in Bizco he placed his last hope. So Bizco began his tireless work on behalf of an old friend. His oils and powders and herbs were blended and used in the established manner, but the old philanthropist became sicker. It was then that Bizco saw standing at the head of the bed Death. Her black figure cast no shadow and no one saw her save Bizco. Silently and secretly he pleaded with her to spare his old friend. Yet she wavered not from the head of the bed.
“On a chest in the room burned two candles, one tall, the other short. Toward them pointed the long finger of Death. She told Bizco that he was the taller candle, his friend the shorter. Should he like to exchange places with the Mulegé merchant, then he should continue the cure, and she said that she would return the coming morning to learn of his decision.
“After Death departed, Bizco pondered not long before his mind became set. Quickly he prepared the potions he knew would heal, and he poured them down the throat of the old man. Onto the chest of the benefactor he rubbed curing oils. Between the toes of the merchant’s feet, he placed cleansing roots. When all was completed, he gathered his deer bladder and gourd, and he blew out the tall candle, and Bizco vanished into the night.
“Now it is said that all the dogs of San Ignacio began to howl that night. And unexpectedly began the ringing of the mission bell, even though no one could be seen in the tower. What is known for certain is that Bizco never returned to the oasis. The knowing appreciate that he fled into the desert toward Sierra San Pedro. But a short time he had, and he ran obliviously through the cactus to Cerro Cadipa. There atop that lonely peak he disrobed and rubbed his body aglow with the silver powder he had carried so faithfully in his gourd. And when he was done, he cast the remaining powder into the sky, and he flapped his arms, and he rose with the silver dust toward the heavens. And in that instant burned down to the chest the short candle, and its wick expired, and the tall candle abruptly ignited, and a suddenly young philanthropist sat up in bed and beheld through the window, rising in the southern sky, a great glowing quileli bird surrounded by a swirling band of sparkling silver powder.”
The lone rider from the land of the magic quileli bird paused her telling and looked into the night sky. She pointed toward a broad band of twinkling stars that passed through Scorpio. Softly she spoke. “The Milky Way is the powder from the gourd. The two stars very near one another in the tail of the scorpion, the stars that appear as one, yet are two, the fifth stars from the head, one bright, the other very dim, are the candles used by the curandero. The rain that falls on cloudless nights is water poured from his deer bladder. And Bizco, of course, is seen on bright nights, before storms and earthquakes and deaths, and one knows to look upwards to find him when cries in the night the magic quileli bird.”
After the telling, the darkness became a well of silence. Only reluctantly did the songs of the night finally return to drive hush away. Birds cooed and surf coughed and breeze swooned. Chisera rose and stretched and started toward her mare. She stopped momentarily, as though she had forgotten something, then continued on to the corral. We watched her pet the yegua on the neck and speak quietly to her before returning to our fire. As the last coals glowed, we all sat still and silent and let come into us the night.
Without warning Chisera spoke directly and shattered the stillness. “It is told that Bizco buried his fortune near San Ignacio. This legend arises because of his living there at the time he conspired with Death to become a curandero. But this is false. The place of the treasure is between the horns of the tecolote. For it was the owl who first gave the magic to Bizco, and to the bird of darkness the curandero has returned the treasure.”
That was all she told us. Before dawn the lone rider and her gray mare had vanished. None of us had heard her leave. There was no sign that she had ever existed save for the lonely bucket left standing in the empty corral. When we walked over to recover it, there inside lay a single brown gourd, and when we stooped to grasp the bucket handle, we noticed on the ground a few sparkles of silver powder.
Rancho Arroyo Guadalupe de la Herradura