The dream catcher, by Janice Levy

A short story by Janice Levy

Illustration by Marlon Griffith

“Dona Rosa is a bruja,” I say. “A witch.”

My mother slaps me, then makes the sign of the cross.

“She’s got a moustache,” I say, and duck under the table.

My mother pounds tortillas. She hands me the good dishes and points with her nose. I place Dona Rosa’s tea-cup upside down and poke a hole through her napkin.

“Ay, Virgencita,” my mother sighs, straightening the lace doilies under the statues of the Virgen de Guadalupe. She prays for me to grow up right and be a proper señorita, without killing her first with worry. My mother says I will wear myself out as well, that too much wanting is not good.

“Resignate,” she says. “Accept things as they are.” She says I do not need to be the best, the first, the strongest.

Over the years her collection of statues has grown. Countless candles have been lit.

My mother once tried to scare me with tales of La Llorona, who drowned her children, then ran off with her lover. She showed me pictures of the ugly crone, dressed in black, who prowled the riverbanks. When it rained at night, the howling wind was said to be the suffering of La Llorona, being punished by Dios for her sins.“Cuidate,” my mother said. “La Llorona kidnaps niños who misbehave.”

But, when the sky was at its darkest, I waited at the riverbank with a flashlight. A black figure arose, with a light blinking above its head. I ran towards a moaning, whining sound. What happened next was kind of blurry, as if my head was being held under water, or as if I was passing through a cloud. Pressure on my chest, fingers pinching my nose, and this smell, this terrible smell. I jumped like a frog, belching out water until puddles slapped at my feet. I opened my hand and a square of black cloth glowed and zipped into the sky like a shooting star.

“Mama,” I said. “I held her power. Here in my hand.”

Padre Martin said I had smelled the charred bodies at the entrance of hell. When I left confession, I spun in four directions, raised my arms and called down a rainstorm.

Only Dona Rosa could explain the rash on my palm and the black eyes I gave to my classmates. She placed pennies soaked in agua bendita on my forehead, balanced lit candles on the coins and covered them with a glass.

“I held her power,” I repeated.

“No, Charito,” Dona Rosa said. “She held yours.”

When my mother was pregnant, she caught the mal de ojo, the evil eye, from a jealous woman whose husband was sterile. I was born a month early, one nostril pinched, my lips twisted in a sneer. Dona Rosa hung a garlic wreath over my crib, then snipped and poked and bathed me in scented water. She untwisted my lips, but left a scar. To remind me, she told my mother. That what came easy in life did not count.

“Dona Rosa is a busy woman,” my mother says now, boiling water for tea. She touches the scar above my lip. “You should be thankful she has offered her help again.”

Even Papa thinks Dona Rosa’s a witch,” I say.“What did you tell him?” My mother grips my elbow.

“Nada,” I shrug, and make my eyes go blank. I think of La Lolita and the mangos she threw in my mother’s face while my father swore none of it was true.

Dona Rosa’s advice was written on heart-shaped paper dipped in cologne. Mama took my father’s sock and stuffed it with two bolillos from the bakery. The birds pecked at the sock, their beaks breaking through to the hard rolls inside. The ants carried away bits of its soft middle dough away. My father lost his energy. His shoulders slumped. His pants sagged. La Lolita came with a sack and dumped my father’s clothes on our porch.

When Dona Rosa learned the news, she whispered, “Illusion is the first of all powers.” Then she scratched my scar with her thumbnail.

The front door opens. My mother hugs Dona Rosa, her words coming out in one breath.

“It’s Charito.” My mother pushes me forward. “For two weeks she has roamed the house in her sleep, banging on the walls, her words turned inside out. Last night she stood on the porch and screamed.” Dona Rosa smokes a cigar. Her head is wrapped in a red bandana.

“Take your shoes off,” she says. “Bad spirits leave through your feet.”

I throw my shoes over my shoulder without looking. My mother hushes me with her eyes.

Dona Rosa flicks ashes on the floor. The tip of her pinky is missing. “You must sleep with the windows closed and your bedroom door locked. Dreams can turn into smoke, float out the window, and be dreamt by someone else. Good dreams can be stolen. And the bad ones,” Dona Rosa inhales deeply, “Why be responsible for the nightmares of a stranger?”

I watch my toes wiggle until my mother clears her throat. “Tell me your dreams.” Dona Rosa’s voice is husky. “Spirits often dance with another’s desires.”

My mother bites her lip. Her hand shakes as she pours tea.

I fold my arms over my chest and tighten my lips. Dona Rosa grabs my chin with her hand. She stares into my eyes and pops the secrets from my skin as if piercing a boil with a steaming cloth. She snatches at them and curls her fingers, one by one, squeezing, squeezing, her eyes dark knots in her face. Then slowly she stretches out her fingers and rubs her palm down her thigh. Her eyes become calm and empty, like the unblinking stare of a cow. Stripped of my secrets, I feel weak and chilled.

“Now we are ready to begin,” she says, and wraps her shawl around my shoulders. Dona Rosa reaches into her bag and pulls out a red candle. She lights it with the tip of her cigar, then waves it above my head.

I take a step backward and feel a wind behind my knees. My voice sounds hollow, the words shifting slowly, like wet sand.

“I am in a car — ”

“In the backseat,” Dona Rosa interrupts. “You are not in control. Who is driving?”

“A man with a hat — ”

“You see only the back of his head,” she says. “He doesn’t talk, but his power reaches you from miles away.”

“The car is speeding — ”

“You have big hopes.”

“We are going down a road — ”

“That is bumpy,” Dona Rosa says. “Your future is filled with highs and lows.” Her hands move like waves.

“In the backseat are rats and they — ”

“Bite you,” Dona Rosa shows her teeth. “They chew on your shoes. Something is eating your soul.”

“We see a house on a hill.”

“It is your spirit. You travel up and up, but it is out of reach.”

“As I try to get out,” I say, “the car slips backwards. We fall down the hill — ”

“So fast you can’t breathe. You climb over into the driver’s seat to grab the steering wheel.” Dona Rosa makes a fist.

“But I can’t hold it. It burns my fingers. Then I wake up.”

Dona Rosa lights another cigar and closes her eyes. The room is like a gray cloud. I cough and my mother steps on my foot.

Dona Rosa touches the delicate webs hanging from the bulb above her head. “See the spider? It’s web is the circle of life. She grows older and wiser, spinning faster and stronger. The web gets bigger, yet a hole is always left in its centre.”

Dona Rosa reaches into her bag. She takes out a metal hoop strung with feathers, bells, and beads. “This is a dream catcher,” she says. “Hang it over your bed and it will sift your dreams. Good dreams will pass through the centre hole. Evil thoughts will be trapped to perish in the light of dawn. Now, your dreams will lead you where you want to go.”

Dona Rosa tightens the bandana around her head. She kisses my mother on the cheek. “El que adelante no mira, atras se queda. Not to look ahead is to stay behind. Charito will be fine. You must let her do — so you can be.” She erases the frown from my mother’s forehead.

Dona Rosa’s eyelids look as papery as petals pressed in a book. She places her hand over my heart. “Your power,” she says. “It comes from here.”

My mother walks Dona Rosa to the door. “Suena con los angelitos,” she calls to me. “Dream with the angels.”

After Dona Rosa leaves, I clench my fists and feel my muscles tighten. My heart beats as if I have run with the wind. I stare through my mother’s back until she turns around.

“Mama?” I say.

My mother doesn’t answer. She closes the kitchen windows. Then she gets a hammer and takes the hoop from my hand. Our laughter flies up into the air and wraps around each other like rings of smoke.