Disclaimer: I don't own 'Stories of Eva Luna', Agua Santa, Riad Halabí or the school teacher. These are all the creation of Isabel Allende.

Night-Bird

Itzaé de Egaña had, little by little, sold every bit of herself since her arrival in Agua Santa. It had been thirty years since she had come from Mexico, her small, dark eyes throbbing like twin heartbeats in her pale, moonlike face, a battered suitcase at her feet in the dust, as the bus departed over the desert, red dress decorated with splendid black lace. Why she had come was the subject of much gossip throughout the town. Itzaé had never responded to such questions, except to have her delicate smile flutter across her face like a butterfly wing and to ask gently why it was anyone needed to know. Agua Santans disapproved, in public at least of her slender lily arms, the curve of her legs through black stockings, the scent that clung to her wrists and under the soft line of her jaw, the way her skirt rose and fell with her thighs as she crossed the dusty streets in the burnt orange moments before the sun died at her back. For Itzaé was rarely seen under the full-burning light of day; only emerging as the sky became a silky blue, dark as the underwing of a passing bird. She left a trail of twilight in her wake, a line of whispers, fading as her red skirt fluttered around a corner. Itzaé was not interested in the chatter that ran about after her, foreseeing the way in which these rumours would drop away like sap off a newly plucked fruit, until they became tales more of legend than ridicule. Men would visit Agua Santa merely to catch a glimpse of Itzaé's disappearing shadow under the sepia street lamps in Piazza del Marco, one of her stockings joining the light of hidden houses in lost alleys, before a door closed and cast all vision aside. Nobody cared to guess what the mysterious night-bird might do during the daylight hours. It was enough to say that she had never been seen by any person when it was not night. Perhaps she was not human after all. She had come to Agua Santa with only her suitcase, not a single centimo do her name, but she had never been seen in the poorer quarters, among the retards and the retches who begged with their dusty hats in the brown heat of summer mornings, nor with the inform or the insane. Her mystery had lasted thirty years and did not seem destined to halt soon.

Pelayo san Narciso had beaten the roads of the land beneath his heavy boots for years now long past counting. Most could see, from his cynical lips and well-trimmed beard, that he was not a believer in the folk tales of old, in fortune-tellers of peddlars' myths. He prayed to no saints and worshipped none above himself. But the word had reached him of Itzaé de Egaña and the desire to find her had seized him, conquering even the desire for gold in his heart. He came to Agua Santa with his soldiers and the mayor woke in the night, believing the revolutionaries had come for his head. Before dawn, he had departed the twon with his family in three cars, the servants following on horseback. Quietly, Pelayo san Narciso and his soldiers occupied the mayor's house and set about uncovering the mystery of Itzaé de Egaña.

By morning, the townspeople had been gathered, the old and the young, the frail men and pregnant women, drawn together under the hot sun in Piazza del Marco with their scared faces turned towards the cold burning eyes of Pelayo san Narciso. He walked through their irrelevant forms, head held high, a pompous swagger taking him around the crowd while his long words echoed in the dry air like a death sentence ringing out through the town's small court house. The night-bird was nowhere to be seen amongst the people, her face hidden or lost amid the quailing frowns and wailing, toothless mouths of infants who were frightened. Riad Halabí was ushered forward to exchange words with Pelayo san Narciso, and when he returned, his face was ashen grey, his mouth drawn in one long line of worry. The verdict was clear: Itzaé must show herself before the sun set, or the people would see their town burned down around them, their possessions looted and their animals rounded up to be slaughtered. In the meanwhile, they must wit in the square, with the hot sun beating upon them.

Hour by hour, as the sun grew higher, the heat too began to rise up from the dusty ground and beat white against the walls of the buildings, then back down to the crowd and their whimpering children, now thirsting and perspiring into the windless air. Itzaé de Egaña had not appeared. Pelayo san Narciso stalked through the mass, examining the roselike faces cowering beneath the black mantillas, his eyes glinting yellow like those of a leopard. Nothing. She was nowhere to be seen in the web of star-like eyes. She was not hidden in the houses where, since dawn, some of the soldiers had crept and searched, uncovering only large-eyed children folded away like baby birds in their nests. The people began to burn, the elderly women bowing their heads and uttering prayers through tight lips that the cursed woman would appear. The school teacher passed a canteen to the children and the sick, but soon that water had dried up entirely, and still the sun beat upon their black heads with the eyes of Pelayo san Narciso growing ever angrier, until his rage against Itzaé de Egaña's arrogance threatened to burst from his temples in a bright spurt of red blood. As the sun lowered in the sky, he made his final declaration. Itzaé had only ten more minutes in which to appear in Piazza del Marco. He called on whoever was hiding her to come forward.

At this point, Riad Halabí stood and begged Pelayo san Narciso to see reason. "She must have gone away with the mayor and his family," he said.

But Pelayo san Narciso was merciless and proudly shook his head: At sundown, he ordered the townspeople to stand and to walk with the soldiers' guns glinting pink in the fading light. Ancient old ones, their skin folding over their eyes, the young ones with their glassy smiles and the clever ones who muttered that Itzaé de Egaña had flet the town along with their cowardly mayor.

In the moment that the sun slipped over the horizon, there came the sound of hoof-beats through the town. Bewildered, Pelayo san Narciso spun to see the handsome beast that must be making these sounds. But there was nothing in the street unless, as one searched through the shadows of Piazza del Marco, a flickering of black lace or of a red skirt could be seen. He ran down to the hotel and there, standing tall just beyond the threshold, was Itzaé de Egaña with her lips curling into a knowing smile, her eyes burning black as a sparrow's and her hands clasped about her suitcase. As he watched, she laid the case carefully on the table and, holding him in breathless reverence, she opened the case in a series of fluid movements and revealed to him its contents. Dusty gypsy cards and a tiny icon of Mother Mary, her face mournful and her hands held upwards in supplication, gazed back at him in silent condemnation. Pelayo san Narciso watched as Itzaé drew out, one by one, the tarot cards and placed them on the table. He sat down and listened to her voice weaving around his ears to tell him all of the things he had ever done, the bad far outweighing the good, and reminding him that he was an arrogant man who had never known passion, except that for gold. But now a new passion had been born and he realised as he looked into her eyes that they seemed to lead through to the universe, the moons and planets moving so far away. He knew he was almost an old man. Then, when she had told him anew of all his deeds, Itzaé de Egaña leaned towards him and whispered with a voice like the hint of rain, something he would never forget and yet never quite remember, stayed in his mind like a half-forgotten melody, melting into the rhythm of his heart. He rose when she did, his eyes staring and his lips drawn tight. When he turned around after leaving the hotel, the scent from Itzaé's neck lingered inches from his tongue.

Itzaé de Egaña collected herself. She made no farewell, but disappeared in that night from the town of Agua Santa, after thirty years of waiting. Some of the cynical Agua Santans guessed that she had been raped, and in shame had cast herself into the town's well, though no body was ever found. Others suggested that she had faded away into the air and become the wind of relief that had rescued them from their suffering as the soldiers departed. Some, nonetheless, will say that, as Pelayo san Narcisso marched away, a small, shadowy figure darted through the twilight and over the horizon to join him, a small suitcase clutched in one hand.