“¡Puta!”—whore—her brother called, laughing, from the incandescent doorway against the sunset as his house in Taxco, Mexico came into her view. Miriam and Juan had come from Huejutla in a bus called Mi Burro, a hard trip because she was thirty-five weeks and looking way past due.
“I kill it,” said her brother. “It's a demon or changeling. Or we go to the witchdoctor. What a curse, this jorobado, this—hunchback.”
Miriam took the child while the others slept, hobbling off, bleeding some, and holed up in a barn they'd seen on the road in. Juan found her there.
“We keep the child,” she said.
“We can't even take care of ourselves. Leave it, amor, we return to Huejutla.”
She shook her head. “We keep him.”
He covered his face, then ran his hands through his hair. “Está bien.”
“He isn't yours,” she said, now crying.
“He's a monster's child. I don't betray you, not willingly.”
“I don't. I want you to know, but we must keep the baby.”
He was silent. “What shall we call it?”
“No. Not for this one, it is blasphemy.”
“He needs a lucky name.”
Those years they traveled the volcanic sierra, hiding the child, finally settling in Popocatépetl's skirts in a poor pueblo of flower fields at Zaragosa's edge called Omexochitla. They worked hard, earning fine farmland for marigolds, a field alongside an aqueduct.
One afternoon, the priest found the boy in the chapel bell tower. “A climber, ¿eh? What's on your shoulders, under the burlap?”
The boy stepped back, almost falling.
The priest held out his hands, palms forward. “No importa. What's your name, boy?”
When Jesús was sixteen, well-dressed men came to speak with Juan. The three pulled up their marigolds and planted poppies. Soon, they weren't so poor, but the pueblo sweat fear. Juan saw this too and he burned the poppies in their fields. One night the well-dressed men returned to burn up Miriam and Juan in their beds.
Now, in these troubled times, all the pueblo's fields grow poppies.
* * *
The nearby city of Zaragosa reels in the cartel's coming, with crooked high-rise casinos and murders moving down from the north, in from Veracruz, up from Oaxaca. In the churchyard, cartel capo Pablo Vargas talks with other men under a bright waxing moon.
A silent hulk in a hooded duster watches, perched above the highest bells of the massive Zaragosa Cathedral on the saffron-tiled cupola. Vargas swings the rear car door open and the jorobado atop the cathedral shakes, violently unfolds immense iridescent black wings, and leaps after him into the night air.
The black Mercedes speeds down the Heroes of the Cinco de Mayo. The driver looks up again, but sees nothing now.
“Pull over at the Oxxo,” Vargas says. He runs in to the convenience store while the driver scans the sky. Vargas returns and they pull out onto the boulevard.
“There it is! You see that bird? It's huge. ”
“What bird? A raven or something?”
It flashes again at the top edge of the windshield, a black silhouette against the indigo sky, this time bigger than a man.
“¿Que diablos?” What the hell? The driver accelerates. The bird drops something featureless and elliptical—“¿Que..?”
The windshield and steering wheel splinter from the flying manhole cover. It shatters his arm. He pushes it off in spite of the pain, but bone pierces the skin and he passes out with a heavy foot on the pedal. Vargas leaps forward for the remnant of the wheel, yanking it hard to avoid oncoming cars. A street shrine falling from above impales the roof head-first and the Virgin's steel halo slices Vargas' flank. The weaving Mercedes slams through the guardrail and plunges into the Anáhuac River.
In Omexochitla, another cartel is moving in. At the next sunset, armed men spray fields with kerosene as if it were insecticide. Finally, one plucks a wilted poppy, applies a glowing cigarette tip to its petal and tosses the flaming flower into the field.
Vargas limps from a warehouse by the river and hails a taxi. He studies the driver’s hat, a fur ushanka outlined in darkness. The taxi pulls onto the highway.
“Kavork, is that you?”
In a Slavic accent came, “A philosophical question. I often ask it to myself.”
“You gonna kill me?”
“Don't piss on my body like you did on Lopez.”
Kavork laughs. “A sublime moment. I thank you for the reminder.” The doors clicked broken-off locks. Vargas shakes his door and withdraws a gun, pointing into the back of the driver’s head.
“A hundred thirty kilometers per hour, my friend. You want another accident already?”
“That was you? Why do you work for Los Equis?”
In one fluid motion, Kavork grabs the gun, bounds over the driver's seat and pummels Vargas with a riveted steely hand, hammering like a steam piston. A metallic bladder at the wrist, like a birthday balloon, inflates and deflates with each blow. The car careens on. Kavork hammers Vargas even as the taxi crumples into and under an oncoming eighteen-wheeler.
* * *
Jesús returned to an Omexochitla alight in the dark with flames. From atop the aqueduct he landed below to watch. A young woman in black approached the hunchback.
“Who can save us?” she asked, startling him. His wings flared and she gasped at his silhouette, back against the flaming fields, wings spread. “¿Miguel? ¿Gabriel?” She crossed herself.
“Jesús,” he said.
She gasped again. “But not with wings—”
And then the rains burst, running down her face and over the course of the night, quenching the fires in the fields.