Cottonwoods on the Banks of Sonoita Creek. Photo by author.
Mama Panchi Returns to Sonoita Creek
Panchi’s eyes flew open, and she spun around to see for herself. Yes. All around her, in every direction. She was really here. Blue Haven, the people called it. A spot on Sonoita Creek off Blue Heaven Rd, just southwest of Patagonia. This place where the people of the Arizona-Sonora borderlands picnicked and came for reunions and cookouts. This place where lovers snuck off for a first kiss or a roll in the grasses. This place on the migratory paths of birds from the distant stretches of the continents. This place whose spirits had called to the old ones of the O’odham over 10,000 years ago. This place now named one of the last riparian oases of this desert. She was in this place again.
Panchi stepped fully into the creek. The flows ran cool, their currents sending ripples of goosebumps up the length of her body. She shivered in the dappled light.
“Is this death?” Panchi whispered, bending down to greet the waters with her fingertips.
She received an immediate reply to her question. A bird with the most brilliant vermillion feathered cap leapt off a branch and flew in a loop right in front of her. Panchi followed the bird’s loopity-loops with her eyes. In that moment, she saw a fly surrender its short life to the bird’s beak. Panchi’s feet tingled. Ah. A visitation from La Santísima Muerte herself, this time wearing wings and a feather crown.
“I hear you Santísima!” she called out to La Muerte disguised as a little bird. “No hay vida sin tí, Santísima! You are married to life itself. Next time I’ll ask a better question.”
She shook her head with a laugh and shrugged, “Since I’m here, I might as well walk, no? Why bother with asking whether I’m dead or alive. Regardless, aquí estoy.”
So she walked and let the babbling waters guide her. If this was, indeed, where her lifetime would come to a close, this place made sense. This place held the greatest joys and deepest aches of Panchi’s life. The creek, the trees, the hillside—they knew it all.
Panchi came across a stand of willows where the grasses grew in soft, feathery bunches. She startled briefly as she narrowly missed stepping on a ratsnake stretched out long and languid in the sun. The snake was such a bright green that the color reminded Panchi of ripening mangos. She smiled and apologized for the disturbance:
“Disculpe,” she said bending over to watch the snake slowly disappear behind the willows.
As she straightened up, Panchi saw the trees with different eyes. These willows. She almost hadn’t recognized them. The creek had changed shape. The currents and plants had resculpted the land. It’d been almost ten years since Panchi had been out here, since her vision had grown too cloudy and her hands too shaky to make the drive down the winding two-lane highway. She might have walked right past them if it hadn’t been for the snake.
“Papá,” Panchi breathed.
She ran her hands up one of the trees and placed her forehead on the trunk. She slid down to the ground and nestled herself into the bodies of the willows.
This was where Panchi’s Papá had brought her as a little girl. It was usually on a Sunday, during those coveted days when he was home in between surveying jobs for the mining company. He’d pack a picnic and bring along a blanket. He’d remind her to grab her hat on their way out. This spot under the willows was tucked away enough from the world that Papá’s serious countenance would dissolve, and they’d both let themselves sink into the soft earth, warmed by the sun, cooled by the waters. Papá’s voice would relax, and Panchi—a child no older than nine—would watch this otherwise reserved man turn into a storyteller, a weaver of epics.
Papá would tell Panchi all about the journeys he’d taken, the lands he’d traveled and rivers he’d followed. How he’d worn a soldier’s uniform that took him far far away from a place called “Georgia,” where he was born. Panchi would feel the odd syllables of this foreign land in her mouth, and try pronouncing the name just like Papá, but she could never quite get her sounds to match his. Papá would squeeze her shoulders and tell her that he loved her Spanish-flavored English. That he would always be grateful to Spanish for giving him the loves of his life.
It was only in this private shelter of these trees that Papá ever dared speak of Mamá to Panchi. He’d grow wistful and smile in that way that someone smiles when they just can’t help themselves. The lines around his eyes would deepen, and his mesquite-hued skin would shimmer like the cottonwoods.
“Tu mamá es una mujer inteligente y fina,” he’d say looking right into Panchi’s eyes. “By my estimation, you’ll be able to see into people’s souls, just like she does. Perhaps you do already. You have her eyes, mihijita.”
Memories of Mamá transformed Papá into a poet. Never uttering Mamá’s name, never producing a photo, Papá would tell Panchi that Mamá was a mixture of Mayo Indian and Spanish. Her hair was as black as night, and her eyes shone like fiery stars. She could heal hearts and change minds with a single glance. No matter where she was, she could listen to the plants of the land and understand what they were saying. Although she was baptized Catholic, she prayed to beings the priests would never see. She smelled like morning dew, cool dark earth, and canela. She was unforgettable.
“And that,” Papá would sigh, “is the problem.”