None of us remembers a time before her. She had with her three spirits we could not see or feel or imagine; they were with her, the shaman said, to protect her.
“Shall I send them away?”
“Only if they are ready.”
“They are. Finally.”
I AM WRITING in front of the church—parked here in the first rays of morning sun—that, many years ago, my abuelita and I would attend, every day for morning mass. Most days we would make the short pilgrimage, five blocks on foot, where I would sit by her side, impatient, lost in the Spanish voices, their whispered and fervent cadence like a trance, a portal to some communion that neither of us could see but understood nonetheless. Her home on the edge of town bordered an irrigation ditch I would play in as a boy; it flowed east, out of Antonito, toward the distant Sangre de Cristo range, toward the farms of barley, alfalfa, and potatoes. Spring and summer were times of joy; autumn a respite from the endless chinook winds of spring and the incessant mosquitoes of summer.
Winters are always difficult. Days like today, mid-January, made our walk more difficult. The morning sun would do little to warm our bodies as we made our daily journey to receive the body and the blood, to commune with our ancestors, those silent and those heard in the prayers we recited from memory—custom and a grace we sometimes mistake for survival. That is why I am writing, for the ancestors, the kin who carry us, lead us, follow us, linger just beyond the visible so that someday they may guide us to the home we hold in our hearts but have not visited for some time.
That is why I am writing, for the ancestors, the kin who carry us, lead us, follow us, linger just beyond the visible so that someday they may guide us to the home we hold in our hearts but have not visited for some time.
The tecatos are walking by. It is cold out, eight below zero as the sun barely creeps over the Sangre de Cristo. They are moving quickly, not from the cold but for their morning fix at the drug house on Eleventh Street. Two days prior there was a blizzard, winds at sixty miles an hour, and the snow blew horizontal to the Earth. Twin calves were born in the bosque. Such a birth is rare. Both of the newborns perished in the blizzard.
This, too, is why I am writing.
So much is about faith and survival here at eight thousand feet. Last night, it was twenty below. I don’t wish to oversimplify things. For instance, I am not sure I remember how to write anything that is good, but something makes me seek the silence and resolana of my vehicle outside the church where years ago my abuelita would pray, perhaps to the same ancestors who now watch over me and my family. Here, I am with my family, their spirit; their eternal parts make their way toward me in a procession of voices, and together we write this, me their conduit of past struggles and occasional triumphs.
The road in front of the church leads to the drug house on Eleventh, where every morning—in the thinnest slivers of dawn and the most impenetrable of cold—the emaciated tecatos make their way for their morning fix. Later, the day will warm to twenty-three degrees and the sunlight on snow will shimmer. The sunken eyes of the hopeless will make their way back toward their own homes; theirs is a darkness and desolation deeper than abandoned wells. Their despair is not a different loss than the others on display here in my hometown, pieces of all of us sold in desperation and necessity. I sometimes pray that one day we will all not be left landless, without possessions, on foot.
I am called to write about kin. I cannot help but think that what I am really being asked to consider is not kin but protectors. Here is another prayer. That my ancient protectors stay with me until it is safe for them to leave, their work done, lessons bestowed upon me and those they follow or guide out of faith, protective love, and eternal hope.
None of us remembers a time before her. She, the tiny child, with a presence that fills rooms, sent to us para sanar corazones heridos, sent to erase time—the faint and fading markers of sadness etched into our memory—the time before you, dear child of ancient and potent medicine who was sent to heal us.
Our daughter came to live with us on April 1, 2012, readopted from her previous home, a chamber of literal hunger, abuse, and pain. We knew instantly, the day we first met her, that we would love her forever. We knew, immediately, that she was indomitable. Her body was so tiny; the family that endeavored to break her used food as their tool of choice, the absence of which left her, despite having lived in the United States for over two years, without growing an inch or gaining a pound, all while the others in the family thrived, ate well. For some reason they tried to break her, first her will and then her body. She was so diminutive, five years old yet uncowered. None of us remembers a time before her. She, the tiny child, with a presence that fills rooms, sent to us para sanar corazones heridos, sent to erase time—the faint and fading markers of sadness etched into our memory—the time before you, dear child of ancient and potent medicine who was sent to heal us.
Her protectors followed her to Antonito. They crossed oceans with her. They lived beside her, guided her, there in that house that looked east from a high hill, overlooking Denver and Golden to the east. Perhaps it was the hands of her ancient kin, their voices guiding her—telling her where to hoard the crust of bread, where to hide dog food and crackers to eat later when the hunger was beyond what many can or will ever imagine. There were three of them, spirit protectors, that must have told her when no one was looking so she could steal bits of food from the plates of her so-called family.
This, then, is kin. Kin, not of blood necessarily but of time, of longing, of human necessity—and these, all of them, these spirits, are your family, the word upon the soul’s ear that is made kin.
These addicts moving north on River Street, toward Eleventh, where are their kin? Have they stopped arriving? Protecting? What losses, forces of assimilation, ache, keep them at bay? Why do some kin haunt and others heal? These are the questions. Why I write.
My daughter’s kin were sent to her some six hundred centuries before. I believe this.
MY WIFE’S FAMILY has received their DNA results via email, a world map of arrows, centuries at a time of lingering, settling, of blossoming maternal and paternal lines and then migrations set in motion by marriages, famine, war, human longing. The email results from the National Geographic ancestry kit state: “The origin of our species lies in Africa: It’s where humans first evolved, and where our species has spent the majority of its time on Earth. We have since migrated to every corner of the globe, a journey that is written in our DNA.” The results indicate that my wife’s ancient ancestors “started to leave the Ethiopian Rift Valley of Africa between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago.” There, they begin their millennia-long pilgrimage to Antonito, some 8,500 miles distant.
Our daughter, born in Mekele; adopted out of Addis Ababa; relocated to her hunger and neglect in Golden, Colorado; now, finally sitting across from us in a living room in Antonito, sits in silence as we laugh and joke about my wife’s love of gymnastics, suddenly illuminated by the results of the report, which claim that she and her family are 19 percent Romanian. We turn to Rut, our daughter, she of the elegant features, of the jawline of unconquered ancestors, of eyes more ancient than all other human existence, and we ask what she thinks of the fact that some sixty thousand years ago Michele’s family came out of Ethiopia.
“Did they know me?”
We all laugh, except her.
Now, as I ponder this question of hers, I know it must have been so much more than childish naïveté. This, then, is kin. Not of blood but of ancient and connected time.
The shaman asks Michele if she knows of the three spirits that accompany Rut. To protect her, we are told. To see if, finally, someone can be trusted to love her and look after her.
“Shall I send them away?”
“Only if they are ready.”
“They are. Finally.”
I would like to think of myself as a person of faith, not just religious faith but learned and handed-down faith, the antidote to anguish. I know our ancestors do not give up on us. They do not leave us because of human choices. They once were human, frail as reeds, broken as a winter dawn, where even the sun cannot bring forth the warmth of its own promise. Sometimes our kin are taken from us. Stolen. First, by whatever force or forces bring ache and loneliness into the world—colonialism, loss of language, betrayal, assimilation, and poverty that is the direct descendant of the aforementioned. The ancestors do not leave us. They survive. They survive on the smallest morsels, the crumbs left scattered on the table, the spiritual food overlooked by failure, doubt, and the already broken. The broken do not wish us harm. They seek in their own despair and longing, not out of malice or cowardice, to bring others with them, a seemingly final and desperate attempt to capture their own redemption, a chance at feeling less than alone.
I would like to think of myself as a person of faith, not just religious faith but learned and handed-down faith, the antidote to anguish. I know our ancestors do not give up on us. They do not leave us because of human choices.
Somehow, despite all our failings, our ancestors survive, lingering in the deep and almost-forgotten parts of our being. They subsist on whatever bits of our true human selves remain. They wait, patient as spring beneath frozen earth. They await our call, to be summoned to our aid, their portal to Earth, born, ultimately, of hope. They wish us well, to cast away misery. They arrive unseen, again and again, to help us overcome whatever longing that has gathered them to us. This, then, is faith. Not of blood but of kindness, of error remedied, of path restored, of loss redeemed.
My daughter asks, at five years old, if some six hundred centuries prior, this family, her new family, knew her. This time we do not laugh. We linger on what we know to be profound.
The addicts are moving south now, their blood no longer craving, their brains spinning in a false and temporary joy. The sun has warmed the day to thirteen degrees. There is no wind. There is no blizzard. Everything born today, both rare and ordinary, should survive. The snow glimmers in the sunlight. The thin edges of ice at the roadside are beginning to melt. The day shimmers bright, cold, diamondlike. I squint against the glare. I imagine that in the brilliant light, where my eyes cannot penetrate, that the ancestors, the kin of the tecatos, linger near. Following. Protecting. Their ancient form rendered nearly invisible but made evident, always, by a longing or a hunger only they can apprehend or alleviate.
This, then, is kin. Waiting at the edges of our lives, feeding us, patient, protecting us from peril. Perhaps we cannot yet name them; they remain constant sentinels. They wait so that, finally, they may be sent away.
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