“Consuela!” The woman greeted herself as she had done every morning for the past few years by shouting her name and scaring the mice that scurried beneath her cabin. She needed a daily reminder of her existence as those who once sought her cures now took their pains, illnesses and sorrows to a place called pharmacy. Consuela reached for the abalone shell where she kept the silver combs from Mexico, the land of her mother’s birth. With them she fastened her long gray hair into place and headed down the hill to Berkeley. As a child she had lived on the coast with her tribe, but moved to the hills as more and more people came to the place they called California. Like her friend Isaiah, who told tales of slavery, everyone brought a story. Soon their stories replaced the stories of her people.
Only Isaiah was old enough to remember her as La Curandera. He had called on her to remove a curse placed on him by Adelphos, the Greek man who once pastured his goats on the land the train now ran through. Isaiah worked for the train company, but he was not responsible for the coming of the train that forced Adelphos to move to Oakland. But whenever Adelphos came to Berkeley, he brought along a stinking bag of goat horns and chicken feet and put them on Isaiah’s porch. Then he said words that filled Isaiah’s back with pain and immobilized him on his cot where he moaned and cried out for Consuela. Soon Isaiah would move to San Francisco and live with his son who drove a horse-car.
Consuela passed Indian Rock Saloon. The two coyotes tied up in front of it snarled at her. Her father’s people were descended from the coyote and the eagle. But these coyotes had never met the spirit of the eagle. “Bruja,” drunks shouted at her.
* * *
“Constance, Constance. Pick up.”
Constance recognized The Trembler’s voice on her answering machine.
“Can you come today? I’ve got the shakes.”
“Too much chocolate and caffeine. As usual,” Constance said to herself. The Trembler’s flower stand was located between a gourmet coffee shop and a chocolatier. She could resist neither coffee nor chocolate.
Constance pinned a cluster of plastic purple grapes to the band of her sturdy Milan Straw hat. A long time ago, before the war that required her father’s intelligence to create the atomic bomb, her parents had lived in Europe. Here and there, scattered throughout her dead mother’s belongings, she had found remnants of that life—letters written in languages they’d never spoken with her, currency minted in countries that no longer existed. The hat. Something worn by the woman her mother was before she became a drunk in the mountains of New Mexico waiting for the universe to crack. Constance snapped on her lime green tights, laced up her lilac high tops and threw over her shoulders a black lace shawl that smelled of dried leaves and smoke. She shoved her dayglo REALITY signs into a backpack and headed out the door, waving at her tenants, a couple of millionaires who invented a microchip to ward off the Y2K disasters that never materialized.
The Y2Ks owned a house in Silicon Valley where they entertained their kind. But they derived pleasure from sometimes living in the house of a deceased scientist famous for his powers of destruction. Constance was not sure they appreciated the irony, but she was happy to collect the exorbitant rent she charged and live in the maid’s quarters. But now that the dotcoms had crashed and the Twin Towers fallen, the Y2Ks weren’t sure they wanted stay in the Bay Area. They considered moving somewhere with no significant architectural structures. Less vulnerable to terrorism, they believed. Iowa, maybe Nebraska. Flat. Open. Safe. Stationed in front of the large bay window, ears plugged, the Y2Ks chugged away on twin treadmills, eyes trained on the Golden Gate Bridge.
It was people like these, with their web sites and e-businesses, who had whittled away at Constance’s clientele. Whereas once people called upon her for company and advice, now they went online. Constance was no Luddite. She had a computer; she surfed the web. A lot of sites offered good tips on health and wellbeing, her area of expertise. She considered blogging, but absent the presence of an actual human being to advise, she found she had little to say.
Her informal counseling practice had begun back in the ‘80s when she heard a man cry out in pain as she passed a park. She went to see if she could help. He had pulled a muscle going for an ace. She told him to use ice, then alternate hot and cold packs. The next time he saw her, he thanked her with an antique lace shawl he thought suited her. A woman with several young children overheard their conversation and asked about her back pain. Constance suggested getting rid of the snugglesack. Hanging two infants around the neck was bound to stress something. After that her clientele had grown by referral. Only two remained: the Trembler (who paid in flowers) and Mrs. McGee, mother of the tennis player. He paid Constance to sit with his depressed mother who refused to see a therapist.
* * *
“Consuela,” Isaiah called from his chair. Even before he saw her, he knew she was there. The scent of dried leaves blew in on the breeze. “Did you come about the job?”
He was almost sorry he had told her about it. He doubted she’d be a good nanny. His sister cooked for a family that needed help with the new baby, and the position would provide Consuela with food, shelter and a small salary. He wouldn’t have to worry about her once he moved to San Francisco. “I will take you,” he said. “But first.” He motioned for Consuela to follow him to the place where they had buried the chicken feet and goat horns. “What shall we do about that?”
“The curse won’t return?”
In answer to his question, Consuela sang a song that was part Spanish and part Miwok, the language of her father’s tribe. When she finished, Isaiah made one last pot of tea from the chamomile that grew like a weed at the side of his house and shared it with his old friend.
* * *
Constance climbed Indian Rock, breathing the way she’d been taught by Buddhist priests in the mountains outside Kyoto. She’d spent several years in Japan studying the four basic brush strokes of sumi-e painting. She made paper from plant fibers and fabric, adding textured collage to her landscapes. Critics called her work eerie, surreal, primordial. She donated money from her sales to a Pacific Rim consortium that provided care for hibakusha, survivors burned by Fat Man and Little Boy, her father’s other two children.
Constance began her mantra. When she could hear coyotes howling, she pulled out her sketchbook and re-imagined the Y2Ks’ view. She turned the art deco towers of the Golden Gate Bridge upside down, sent a tsunami into the Bay. Bewildered fish flopped and sputtered as they gasped for air. Colorful sailboats and surf gliders crashed and splintered on the shore. Satisfied with the scene, she closed her sketchbook and continued down the hill to UC Berkeley’s north entrance where one of Berkeley’s many NUCLEAR FREE ZONE signs was posted. She took a neon pink REALITY sign out of her backpack and pasted it over the word Nuclear. REALITY FREE ZONE. This, she believed, was a far more accurate statement about the place where Oppenheimer had begun his work and where, until the early ‘90s, a nuclear reactor had been housed on campus.
Constance checked her watch. She’d have to skip The Trembler to be on time for her appointment with Mrs. McGee, an annoying woman whose stories Constance needed. Not that there weren’t plenty of stories in Berkeley: The Bubble Lady blew soap bubbles and filled People’s Park with poetry. Hate Man wore a dress and a scowl and sometimes carried a spear. Scab Dude had survived something unspeakable. Psycho Skater Chick could aciddrop for miles. But Constance was drawn to the history Mrs. McGee had lived.
When city planners decided to build BART tracks through the neighborhood where Mrs. McGee had raised her children, they demolished several blocks of Victorian houses. Then they changed their minds and put the tracks underground. In place of the old Victorians, Berkleyans now had Ohlone Park, named after the area’s original inhabitants. Mrs. McGee wept at the sight of children and dogs romping across what had once been her formal dining room.
“I was about five when the old woman came to live with us,” Mrs. McGee told Constance. “A black man, the brother of our cook, brought her to our house. What a sight they were.” She chuckled. “Old, much older than I am now. Him in his overalls and flannel shirt, leading the woman in her black lace shawl and long skirt up to our house on his horse.”
Mrs. McGee coughed as a group of teens passed, and a cloud of marijuana smoke enveloped them. Constance got up and pasted an astro red REALITY over the word drug in the park’s DRUG FREE ZONE sign. When she sat back down, Mrs. McGee continued.
“We called the useless woman Nanny. If she hadn’t disappeared in the big fire, Mother would have dismissed her. It came so fast we had to leave everything behind. Nanny would not come when Father called her. My brother claimed he saw her hiding in one of the fireplaces. Three charred chimneys. That is all that remained of our beautiful home not far from Indian Rock.”
* * *
“Consuela!” She shouted her name at the little girl who grabbed her shawl and called her Nanny. The baby cried. The little boy threw a book at her. Consuela ran to a quiet room called a den.
* * *
Finished with Mrs. McGee, Constance hiked home, past the Y2Ks still treadmilling, to the three chimneys choked now with wild chamomile and blackberry bushes. She had played in them as a child. Ignoring the thorns that cut her hands, Constance cleared a path to the hearth and crawled inside. She pulled the Milan Straw hat down over her face and relished the dark draw of the chimney.
* * *
As old REALITYs succumbed to the elements—faded, flaked and disappeared—Berkeleyans, accustomed to bright new REALITYs, wondered what had happened to Reality Woman. In her absence, Berkeley became once again Nuclear and Drug Free.
Years passed before the first neon bands of light began to glow over the hills. Some thought it an advertising gimmick. Others declared it performance art. “Far out,” said Hate Man, shaking his spear. The Bubble Lady began writing Psychedelic Smoke, a poem that would be published in The New Yorker.
The lights kept no regular schedule, but when they did appear, people were ready with camera phones and other devices. Various apps and platforms filled with images of #REALITYSKY. Some people sealed their doorways and windows with masking tape, fearing chemical weapons or spills from Lawrence-Livermore Labs.
Photographs of the old REALITY FREE signs became valuable. To remind themselves of the good old days in Berkeley, the Y2Ks purchased a few on eBay and hung them on the walls of their undisclosed location. On the Facebook page You’re So Berkeley people described sightings of the neon mirage that had become more famous than the Marfa Lights. Some reported the howling of coyotes. Only infants fretted and cried as strange landscapes remade the sky.
Adults shushed them, assured them that what they saw was not real. Told them they were safe. Promised them there was nothing to be afraid of.
Jane Hammons: "I am the recipient of a Derringer Award for flash fiction from the Short Fiction Mystery Society. My writing appears in several anthologies, including Hint Fiction (W. W. Norton) and The Maternal is Political (Seal Press). I have published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of journals and magazines: Akashic Books; Alaska Quarterly Review; Columbia Journalism Review; Contrary Magazine and Southwestern American Literature. After thirty years of teaching at UC Berkeley, where I received a Distinguished Teaching Award, I retired to Austin, Texas, where I write, take photographs and listen to a lot of live music."