Hernando’s right leg came off in a cannon shot but his brother Pedro was there to catch him as he fell. The grapeshot ripped through his bone and muscle at a high arc, fired inexpertly by the Mexicans’ own forces, and it cratered the cold December earth nearby. Pedro screamed as he clutched Hernando, but Hernando was calm, caught in the miracle of seeing his father, his leather physician’s bag and his dark brocade tie knotted high against his throat, his wavy brown hair grayed with the dirt of the exploded shell.
Papa, he said, and he raised a shaking finger, but Pedro shouldered Hernando into the ground and wrapped both hands around Hernando’s thigh, his grip strangling the blood but his voice like black velvet as he spoke.
Hush, brother, hush. Pedro spoke fast and he said everything twice. It’s delirium, Hernando. The delirium of shock, Hernando. You need to breathe, just to breathe.
Hernando watched the last of the battle as it moved on from them up the Rio Grande. The bugle calls and shouts of men and the soft drumming of hoofs would soon abate. He was glad of it, for he was hot despite the winter and wanted now to hear nothing but the nearby chatter of the river in its marshy banks. He closed his eyes and he could smell the water. On this side of it Mexico, on the other side Texas, a line decided by the war their father had died in. But the river belonged to both countries and so was no line at all, a broad stroke of suggestion, each nation sifting into the other like sugar and milk dissolving in tea. He decided that Mexico was the milk.
He opened his eyes to explain this to his brother but his brother was no longer there, and he was in a bed, and it was night, his breath fogging in the dark though his flesh felt hot and his hair was damp with sweat. He heard a coyote snarl and he trembled in the bed. Then someone snored in a shadowed corner, and Hernando began to wonder if he had really heard a coyote or just this other man sleeping. Soon he discerned a quiet symphony of heavy breathing, and he smelled the stench of seared flesh and drying blood. He caught his breath and held it, listening to his heart jump, but there was a comfort from knowing he was in an injury ward, for perhaps his dream of his father hadn’t been a dream but a vision. Perhaps the spirit of his father was here with him now. Hernando eased back into his bed and pulled his wool blanket beneath his chin and slept.
He woke late the following afternoon, as the sun arrowed through the cool dust to light the beds opposite him. His forehead was wet with a washcloth and he opened his eyes hoping to see a beautiful nurse but it was his brother.
He explained that his leg ached, that his feet felt restless and he wanted to walk. Pedro rubbed his thigh and said, I am sorry, brother. Your leg has walked off without you.
He watched, confused by the misshapen ridges in the blanket, one so much longer than the other. He shifted to straighten his right calf but the blanket did not fill. He kicked at the blanket as Pedro held him against the mattress and cried.
After a few moments, Hernando stilled, and when Pedro eased off him, he pushed against the mattress to sit upright. He looked at his leg where his knee should have been. He said, Oh. Oh, I see.
Pedro wept against Hernando’s shoulder but Hernando only stared at the blanket.
Finally he said, Is Papa really dead?
Yes, Pedro said. For many years. He would not have been here with us anyway.
Hernando thought about this for a moment. No, he said. Papa fought for Mexico. We fight for Cortina. And who is Cortina?
He is just a man, Pedro said, and he is on the other side of the river now.
He has invaded Texas?
No, brother. We have.
The Rangers had gone in pursuit of Cortina’s men and were unconcerned by the wounded and deserters, for that was what they each had become. When Pedro explained all this, Hernando stopped him.
One cannot desert what one was never loyal to. He looked at his missing leg and then at Pedro. Would Papa be very disappointed in us?
I don’t know, Pedro said. I don’t know.
Drunken bravado and revenge, Hernando said. It was a good fight to start, but I am glad it has left us. He looked at Pedro, the brown cheeks damp in the cold air, his black eyes small. Hernando laughed and said, You need to wash. You smell like a wet dog.
* * *
When Pedro was very young and Hernando not yet born, their father, Dr. Alejandro Jimenez, had timbered a honey mesquite behind their large house, and when Pedro cried at the loss of the tree his father told him to be patient. Then their mother brewed pitchers of herbs and mulch and manure to feed the tree and it soon new trunks grew, sprouting from the roots and rapidly spreading wide like a hand opening from within the earth, and it became the family’s favorite place to gather for the shade it offered. So it was to this tree that Dr. Jimenez called the family to announce he had decided to go to war against America.
Pedro and Hernando were fifteen and thirteen respectively, their three sisters all younger save the eldest who was already married and gone. Their mother held tiny Juan in her lap to calm the infant son while their father explained that he would be leaving for the army.
Pedro shouted and kicked a thick divot from the grass and complained that he could not join his father in the glory of war. But Dr. Jimenez smiled sadly and put a hand on Pedro’s already-broad shoulder and explained that there would be no glory, that he would serve as a medic and would see no action.
Their mother smiled and handed little Juan to the eldest girl, Lucita, and their mother stood to touch her husband’s face. No, she said, the action will come to you and you will see plenty. You are bold and strong-hearted, my grandmother saw this. You are a jaguar, my husband.
Hernando asked what she meant and their father told them to hush but their mother knelt in the cool spring grass and pulled her sons close. My grandmother, the Spanish one from Louisiana, she had a gift, my sons. She knew the animal hearts of men. Your animal heart directs your fate, and your father the jaguar is strong.
Your grandmother was wrong, Dr. Jimenez said, and I am a healer. Sons, you’re too old now to hear these children’s stories.
But after Dr. Jimenez had gone, their mother told them anyway, how her grandmother was a healer in old Spanish Louisiana, not a doctor like their father but knowledgeable, and she could name the animals of men. And Hernando asked for his animal and she told them both: Pedro was the wolf, Hernando the bobcat. They laughed at these and pretended to fight, the dog against the cat, circling each other on all fours. They asked about their sisters and their mother winked at them and said the hearts of women were not for men to know, so they asked about their infant brother and she said he was the tortoise, and they laughed as tortoise Juan crawled across the parlor floor.
Their father died four days before the United States had even officially declared war. The newspaper headlines and the letter from the army arrived on the same day. The American cavalry and their new flying artillery had routed the Mexicans and chased them to the river, where their father had drowned in the Rio Grande.
Their mother read the letter aloud to the family. Then she folded the letter and looked at the children and—the only words she ever spoke on the subject—explained to them: Your father was a jaguar. But cats cannot swim.
Hernando dreamed a midday sunrise formed of his own blood misting red among billowed yellow dirt, a drumming of horse hooves, the flapping wings of great birds he could not see. How he knew this noon light was a sunrise rather than a sunset he could not say, but he knew red sunrises were an ill portent and this vision brought no delight. Still he found the light shining in his own blood comforting, relieved to know with certainty that someday he would die.
On the second day of the new year, the doctors spent hours checking Hernando’s sheets, the wrappings on his stump, the contents of his bedpan. They said that Hernando remained weak and unable to leave the hospital because he was losing blood, but they could not explain why or where the blood was going.
But Pedro knew the solution. We have to go home, he whispered to Hernando when the doctors had gone. We have to go to Mama. She is like her grandmother, she knows our animal hearts and will know how to cure you.
I don’t want to leave, Hernando said. I’m scared.
Of going back. Papa said he wouldn’t come home until Mexico was safe and he didn’t, he drowned in Texas. He is here still, in spirit, and now we’re here in Texas with him. I fear if we try to return we will drown too, perhaps not literally but somehow.
You’re being a child, Pedro said. Look, look what I have made. He left and when he returned he carried a broken musket, at least fifty years old, the barrel stripped and the black walnut stock reinforced with an oak pole. Hernando laughed to see it. Who’s the child? You bring me a play gun?
The hospital is short on crutches. I have been salvaging discarded weapons from the field, making a kind of business in trade. They call me “the legs dealer,” which I think is a joke in English. But the butt will fit your armpit as well as it would a shoulder.
Hernando stopped laughing and looked at the premature dip in his blanket. He held out his hand and took the musket from his brother, hefted it a few times and spun it lengthwise to fit the butt under his armpit. It’s short, he said, and when he looked at Pedro he saw how he had wounded his brother. But it will help. It is good. When I am ready. Then he set it stock-down to lean against the bedframe and he said, But I am still too weak to walk.
You will heal, Pedro said.
The next night Hernando woke to a woman with her hands under the blanket, her fingers climbing his thigh. His prick stirred and he thought he might be dreaming but then she smiled at him and whispered, Your brother sent me.
She was brown and her black eyes shone like glass, her teeth too white in the darkness. Hernando looked around the ward but everyone else was asleep or pretended to be.
Thank you, he said. Her fingers descended his thigh and rounded his stump, and only then did he awaken enough to realize which leg she worked with her hands, and he knew she was not a prostitute but something else. He swiped aside the blanket and she withdrew from his leg. He saw that, through the blanket and in the dark, she had somehow unwrapped the bandages from his leg. His scars wormed white and ropey along the stump.
That’s better, she said, and she bent toward a shallow bowl by his bed and in the starlight through the window he saw that she wore a fine net of dried yellow flowers over her black hair. She dipped her hands into the shallow bowl and returned to work on his leg, but he gripped her wrist and leaned toward her ear.
What are you doing? What is that? Her hands, like the bowl, smelled strongly of garlic and he had the strange idea that she might be seasoning him.
It’s a remedy, she said, to bring back your blood and heal your wound. It’s okay, it’s mostly birch sap and hen weed. I have also brought you some palm flower tea.
You’re a bruja, Hernando said, more loudly than he’d meant to, and a man two beds down stirred and rose up on an elbow.
I am, she whispered. Your brother wants you strong for your journey home to your mother.
The man in the other bed gave a soft whistle. When you’ve finished with him, come give me a tug, he said.
Hernando told him to be quiet and in his distraction the bruja pulled free her wrist and began massaging a thin oil onto his bare thigh. He reached to stop her but she slapped his hand and then reached to pass him a cup of tea.
It isn’t very warm anymore, she whispered, but drink it. You will feel less anxious.
He watched the shriveled flowers swirl and dance in the lukewarm tea. They smelled like his mother, and he remembered how she would always make herself a special tea when she felt angry or frightened. How she drank this very tea on the day they learned their father had died. She had brewed the tea in a large soup pot and ladled it into mugs for Pedro and Hernando, for all three girls, and for herself. She had even soaked a cloth in the tea and given it to little Juan to suck.
Hernando held the mug under his nose and closed his eyes while the bruja rubbed his leg. She refilled his mug once but he never finished the second cup, and she left him as he slept.
* * *
Neither Hernando nor Pedro ever mentioned the bruja during their daily visits. And Pedro did not raise the question of crossing the Rio Grande again, though as they played cards he would ask how strong Hernando felt, and when he read from the novel Ambrosio de Letinez his voice grew louder and more deliberate during any passages about the river.
Each night the bruja came with tea and the garlic-scented unguent, and other oils and rubs as well. She left various flowers by his bed and occasionally chanted prayers or spells over his leg as she worked on it. Hernando tried to speak to her, to learn her name or to discover what she was doing to him, but after the first night she would not reply. She only smiled and exhorted him to drink his tea. Once, he reached to stroke her hair but she seemed to sense his intent and when his hand arrived at her head, her head was no longer there, though he hadn’t seen her duck from him.
One night she brought him a new tea made from pepper leaf, and she did not unwrap his leg. Instead she leaned over him, smelled his stump, and moved her hands in the empty space below his knee as though massaging his absent calf. She put her ear to the bed to listen. Then she took his emptied teacup from him and whispered, Soon, you will be ready.
For what? he said.
You will know, she said. I cannot tell you. It’s for you to see.
Other men left the hospital, some in the company of family or friends, some alone on their musket-crutches or with their handless wrists limp at their sides. All on their own terms, under their own power. Hernando had yet to find his power, and he lay awake nights and lolled sweating in the warming days waiting for the bruja to return to him, but she never did.
His brother, too, came less frequently, and when he arrived he seemed preoccupied, often making lists in the margins of the score sheets to their card games. Hernando did not ask what Pedro wrote, but he could sometimes read the lists upside down. Two large tents, saws and broadaxes and steel traps, bolts of canvas and sacks of nails.
I am making some money, Pedro finally explained one day. The crutches brought me other goods, which I traded until I’d built a stock and now I run a kind of store in the town. Out of a tent.
You agree then, Hernando said. We will stay here in Texas like our poor papa.
No, we must go back! Our mama will know how to fully heal you, how to make us both strong! But this is a thing I can do to support us until one of us can go to medical school.
I am not returning, Hernando said. His voice was calm, and he hoped he sounded like his father but he knew that he never had, that he had too much of his mother’s voice in him. He touched his brother’s face the way his mother might have. I can never go back now.
Pedro did not return for four days. On the second day Hernando received a note in his brother’s tight, neat handwriting, the thick ink unblotted so some of the small letters bled into the page like the tiny legs of insects. The letter stated that Pedro had found a ship, an Anglo captain who owned his own yawl and ferried people all along the Gulf Coast, from New Orleans to Galveston to Matamoros. Sometimes farther south, where they might hire a cart. They would not need to cross the river—they could go around it.
Be ready, the letter said. Captain Brewster arrives in two days. Their journey south from there would take only a day more.
But he was not ready.
* * *
He lay awake in the night for many hours, watching the moon rising through the eastern doorway. He thought of his mother and the stories she had told them. Her mother, and her mother’s mother, who had come from a place in the east. The LeBleu Settlement. A French name for a Spanish settlement on an American lake. He could see the maps she’d shown them in the small library their father had kept. He could smell the waters, deep and blue under the briny saltmarsh sky. He could hear the quiet lift of a great blue heron as it lifted from the bank and soared low over the water, heading south along a shallow river. He had never seen a heron before this moment, which was when he knew he had fallen asleep. He woke with a start to discover his leg made whole on the bed. He raised on his elbows and stared at it, a miracle born of a dream.
He reached a hand to touch his regrown leg and it moved on its own, startling him into a wide grin until his leg lifted from the bed and turned to face him. It wasn’t a leg at all—it was a skinny dog, its wiry hair near gone in a mange, its bony legs wobbling. It looked at him in silence and he looked back at it. Then the dog shook itself and yawned and stepped down from the mattress, pranced out the door to the east.
On the morning before Captain Brewster was due in Matamoros, Pedro arrived to collect his brother and take him to the coast to meet the ship. He found Hernando sitting up on the bed, his one leg over the side with his foot on the floor. He was packing.
You are nearly ready then?
I am, Hernando said, but we are not meeting the ship tomorrow.
You will cross the river with me?
No, brother. We will meet the ship in two days, on its return journey. Mexico is finished. Even Texas is finished, if indeed it has ever been separate from Mexico. Louisiana was Mexican, too, or it was Spanish when Mexico was also Spanish. You were right to send the bruja. You were right all along.
Pedro did not understand and he said so, and Hernando smiled at him and touched his brother’s face again, that gesture of their mother’s.
Louisiana is our heritage, Pedro, a heritage of such power that even the women possessed it, even the women exercised authority. Our mother was strong, and her mother, and her mother’s mother. Look, he said, I have asked the doctors here to bring me this map. Look.
He reached into a pack and lifted a rolled map to the mattress, where he spread it and pointed along a coastline.
Here is a town called Leesburg, at the mouth of a river called the Calcasieu—Hernando tried twice to sound out the name though he wasn’t sure he had it right. At the other end of that river is a lake, where we will find the LeBleu Settlement, where our great-grandmother was from. We cannot go back to Mexico, to mother, but we can go further back in our heritage. We will find our strength in Louisiana, where the brujas of our family come from.
But our mama? Pedro said. What will we tell her?
What would we tell her now, failed as we are here? We died in Mexico the same as Papa.
Hernando swept a hand over Pedro’s head as though petting a dog. He smiled at his brother and he said that everything would be all right. Go, he said. Pack your tent, pack your goods for trade. We will go to Matamoros, and then to Leesburg, and then to our true home. We will go east, brother.
Pedro repeated the words.
We will go east.
This is a reprint of work originally published in SOL: English Writing In Mexico.
Samuel Snoek-Brown is the author of the novel Hagridden and the short fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of literary magazines, and he serves as production editor for the online literary magazine Jersey Devil Press.