rowing up in South Texas, it was not unusual for a child to have near brushes with the Mexican folk healing tradition known as curanderismo. Children were always visiting a curandera (faith healer) for maladies such as "mal de ojo" (evil eye), empacho (stomach problems) or susto (fright or shock). We saw faith healing as an art, a "don" - a calling or a gift - that gave these special people a relation with the supernatural to help cure illness, calm fears and restore faith among the Mexican population.
Closely related to that was the relationship to the occult, at least in my view. Growing up in the South Texas brush country, we all knew that certain people had special powers. There was talk of lechuzas (male withces), brujas or brujos (withces) who would cast magic spells on people and "make things happen." Some of the conversation on the occult was related closely to the old 13th century Spanish "barajas" or card deck used widely in Mexico, especially during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The deck used in Mexico consists of 48 cards and has four suits. The four suits are bastos (clubs), oros (literally "golds",or golden coins), copas (cups) and espadas (swords). According to legend, the four suits are thought to represent the four social classes of the Middle Ages in Europe. The suit of coins represents the merchants, the clubs represents the peasants, the cups represent the church and the swords represent the military. The cards are numbered. Thus, you would have "el seis de copas (Six Cups)", and so on. In the traditional Spanish card deck used in Mexico, the last three cards of each suit have pictures similar to the jack, queen, and king in an Anglo-French deck, and rank identically. They are the sota, which is similar to the jack and generally depicts a page or prince, the caballo (knight, literally "horse"), and the rey (king), respectively.
Each card has powers, according to legend, if you know how to use them. The suit of spades, in particular, is a powerful one. Spades, according to lore, make reference to the health or mental state of a person, perhaps the one being analyzed. They are almost always negative and related to accidents, illnesses or uncomfortable things occurring in one's life. In the suit of spades, one of the most powerful figures is the "Knight of Spades or Caballo de Espadas."
This card, came to visit our house one night.
José Ángel Flores, the man I referred to "abulelo (granpa)" was an expert when it came to "working with" the Spanish card deck used in Mexico. And, he taught us all to play games like malilla, la malilla platicada and conquián, to mention a few. But he would also dabble into the occult. Some times, late at night, he would brew a pot of coffee on the old wood burning stove and "work with" the cards for what seemed hours. He would mumble words in Spanish which, to an 8 or 9-year-old just learning English, resembled the scary mutterings of the witches in the movie Snow White, where the witches were boiling water in troubled waters as they hunched over a pot of green steaming stew. I was never allowed to see him to do this. He was in the kitchen of the four-room house. I was relegated to one of the bedrooms or living room. At times, he would get visits from the townspeople who would ask him to "leer las cartas (read or work the cards for them). The sessions would last 15 to 30 minutes and they would talk very low. It was very private stuff, I figured. I could hear him shuffle the deck of cards, ask a couple of important questions to the person seated across the kitchen table from him and then, as I said earlier, mutter some words (I don't know if they were Spanish) that sounded more like incantations. The person would soon leave. He would always tell them "Vaya con Dios (Go with God)," which I thought was strange because what he had just done did not seem to be a religious ceremony. As I grew older, I wanted to learn more about this.
One particular night, when my Tía Mage (Aunt Maggie) was visiting, I somehow managed to sneak into the bedroom next to the kitchen by telling Nana (my grandma) that I was sleepy and wanted to go to bed. I was not sleepy. I wanted to hear what was going in the next room. There were no doors. As was the custom back then, a sheet served as the only barrier between rooms. I laid down and Nana sat besides me on the bed, suspicious of what I was plotting.
Again, I heard the conversation in Spanish. I could hear the concern in Tía Mage's voice. José Ángel, my grandpa, sounded very serious. I could hear my Tía Mage sob slightly. Whatever it was they were talking about, it was serious. Then I heard her say, "Tenemos que llamar al Caballo de Espadas que nos venga ayudar (We must summon the Knight of Spades to come help us)." There was reluctance on my grandfather's part to do that. There was a voice of concern which I had not heard before.
Nana would tell me later that the image of the Knight of Spades is very strong in the Spanish card deck. It represents strength, valor and resistance to things that threaten to harm a person. However, it also represented approaching danger and only the Knight of Spades could stop the impending doom if he were asked to do it in the right way. She told me that, according to lore, the Knight of Spades was the defender of just causes and would defend a person who would fight for things that were good.
She said The Knight of Spades could save a person's life, save him or her from alcohol or drug addiction or help him or her overcome an evil spell or a bad romance. It all depended on the person's needs or wants or circumstances, she told me on another night, her breath getting heavier as she explained. But she also said the Knight of Spades could just decide that the person was not worthy of his help and just decide to take fate into its own power and bring an end to the dispute or matter at hand. "En veces, es mala noticias, espcialmente si recibís un mensaje malo de una mujer (Sometimes, the Knight of Spades brings bad news, especially if the word is being delivered by a woman)." She stopped and made the sign of the cross and glimpsed toward the picture of La Virgen de Guadalupe (The Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron "saint" of Mexico and Mexican Americans) on the bedroom wall.
Now, some of the things I had heard and seen on the previous night made some sense. On that night, when my Tía Mage was visiting José Ángel, I heard the strange sounds and utterings coming from the kitchen. With the smell of coffee brewing and mesquite wood burning permeating the small frame house, I heard a horse galloping at a distance. I thought it was strange, because even in my rural town, very few people rode horses in the dead of night in the 1950s. The gallop got closer and closer. My grandfather's incantations grew louder and louder. "¡Ven, Caballo de Espadas, ven! (Come, Knight of Spades, Come!), he said in a loud voice which I could have heard easily in any of the house's four rooms. Nana got closer to me and embraced me saying simply, "No tengas miedo, niño. Todo va estar bien (Don't be frightened child. Everything will be all right)."
The galloping got closer. I could distinctly hear the horse approaching on the dirt road that led to town and then I heard a horse neigh right outside the bedroom window where Nana and I were. My grandfather's voice got louder. "Ven ayudarnos con nuestros problemas (Come help us with our problems). Salva la vida de nuestro hijo (Save our son's life). Guárdalo del mal (Keep him out of harm's way)."
I could hear Tía Mage's breaths get quicker. Excitedly she said, "¡Ay viene. Ya va llegando (He's coming! He's almost here)."
Just then I swear I heard galloping stemming from the kitchen. I could not stand it any longer. I jumped out of the bed, escaped from Nana's grasp and pulled back the sheet that was keeping me from seeing what was going on in the kitchen. I couldn't believe my eyes. I was in shock. The actual card of the Knight of Spades was circling the table. It was as if it was being held up by strings, like a titere (puppet) in some nightmarish side show at a carnival. But, there were no strings. The horse was neighing, my tía (aunt) was smiling from ear-to-ear and saying in between her joy, "Ya llego. Ya esta aquí. Nos va ayudar (he has arrived. He's here. He is going to help us)!"
Then, they saw me. Nana covered her mouth with both hands and José Ángel shouted, "Manuelito, no!"
Almost instantly, the card fell harmlessly off the table. The galloping sound and the neighing stopped. Tía Mage let out a plaintive screech that echoed through the night air and frightened the dogs outside. As the dogs barked, Tía Mage said, "No va a trabajar (It's not going to work). Espantamos al Caballo de Espadas causa de este niño (We scared the Knight of Spades away because of this child)."
The last thing I saw was Tía Mage storm out of the room. The door slammed behind her as she wrapped her black lace shawl over her neck and walked furiously away from the house. Then, I don't remember the rest. I fainted. My next recollection was of me lying on the bed with my mom and dad and Nana cowering over me. Nana had a bottle of alcohol she had presumably used to get me back to my senses. My mom had a bottle of Mentholatum which I could tell she had rubbed on my chest.
My grandpa, José Ángel , was in the next room mumbling in Spanish "No trabajo (It didn't work). ¿Que vamos hacer, hijo? (What are we going to do, son?). He was talking to my dad, who had walked into the kitchen and had this very concerned look on his face. My dad, a World War II veteran who had survived four years in the Eurpean Theater and earned a Purple Heart and several combat megals, put an arm around my grandpa's back and said, "No te mortifiques, 'apa (Don't worry, dad). Son nomas cuentos de viejas (They are just old wives' tales."
I could hear my grandpa sob slowly. "Pero dijo que te ivas a morir en un acidente (But she said you were going to die in a accident). . . y, Manueltio espanto al Caballo de Espadas (And, Manuelito scared of the Knight of Spades)."
About a month later, my father was killed in a horrific car accident in Oilton, Texas. I was in the car. In my left hand was a Spanish card deck we had purchased in Mexico earlier that day on our trip to Nuevo Laredo. Perhaps it was the Knight of Spades who was with us that fateful day? No se (I dont know).
Was it my fault? Was it fate? I wonder to this day if my father's death had something to do with the visit from El Caballo de Espadas (The Knight of Spades) that night.
One thing I know, I will never forget the visit from El Caballo de Espadas (The Knight of Spades) to our house in the outskirts of my hometown.In this case, his visit was mala noticias (bad news). Did he take matters into his own hands? Or, did I interrupt his interceding with the destiny of my father's life? No se (I don't know).