I heard this story around a campfire in Carpinteria, CA in 1997. I was unable to find a written record of it so I am re-telling it here to the best of my memory.
In the early 1990s a nineteen year old woman of Mexican descent lived in a small, border town in Texas. Her family and community held very traditional values, and in accordance with those practices, she was promised in marriage to a young man who lived on a farm on the other side of the county. In keeping with custom, she had not met the young man until her wedding day, when she peered at him closely through the thickly crocheted veil. “This is who I will learn to love,” she tried to tell herself, her hands shaking. But on their wedding night, she had to close her eyes as the awkward, skinny man with sweaty skin pushed his way into her most intimate places and relieved himself in a few, quick thrusts. They had barely exchanged more than a few sentences. Day after day and week after week, she had no love for him, but felt bound by the duty of her promise. She tried to be good, drying and grinding the chiles for mole, hand washing his clothes and scrubbing the floors with a stiff brush. She paid attention to her mother-in-law’s ways, living on their farm, but often found her efforts met with disapproval. Day after day and week after week she spread her legs, though it caused her revulsion. Her spirit and her hopes of happiness seemed to dwindle away.
So when the news came of the terrible accident that had killed her husband, the young woman felt nothing. He had been thrown from a horse and was found splayed on the ground, his neck at an odd angle. After the services, her mother-in-law gave her the black arm-band that she was to wear for her seven years of mourning. She obediently put it on her left arm and returned to her own family.
Within three months, a handsome vaquero had moved onto the young woman’s ranch. He had a long muscled body, strong hands, and wise eyes. She felt pulled to him and very quickly they fell in love. They had to steal moments behind the barn or make excuses to take long rides into the desert because all around her she felt the gaze of disapproving eyes. But a secret fire had been ignited in her heart, and when her clothes lay in a pile all around them in their coupling, she felt like a beautiful flower in full bloom. But each time she dressed and re-attached the black arm band, her spirit seemed stolen from her piece by piece. She rode these waves with every encounter, until soon, she felt so badly that she cut off the relationship and took to her bed. The townspeople believed that she was saddened by the loss of her husband.
The young woman fell deeper and deeper into despair, refusing to eat or bathe. Her family and friends came by to cheer her up, but to no avail. When she was just a ghost of her former self, her parents took her to a psychologist. This gesture began a series of interventions both medical and psychological, which all failed. She was put on anti-depressants and required to go to counseling, where she would sit facing the wall and refuse to talk. Eventually, she was hospitalized and exposed to electroconvulsive shock therapy, magnetic therapy, a vagus nerve implant and continued experimentation with psychopharmaceuticals. The woman was completely non-responsive and finally written off as the case that could not be solved. She was released to her parents to die at home.
A curandero from a neighboring town heard the story of the young woman who had become a skeleton. She approached the family and humbly asked if she could see the girl. The medicine woman spent five minutes with the dying girl, made a quick assessment, and gave her very specific instructions: “You must drink a weak broth of bone marrow until you can take some solid foods. When your strength is back, you must go to the farm of your in-laws. There you will find the fastest chicken. You will catch that chicken by yourself and break her neck with your bare hands. Then, you will tie the chicken’s legs to a rafter in the barn, remove your clothing, and stand naked under the chicken until she has bled out. When you have been washed with all the blood of that chicken your sins will be cleansed and your spirit will return to you. You only have one, full moon’s cycle to complete this task or death will come and take you gently by the arm.”
The young widow did exactly as she was told, and death no longer waited by the foot of her bed. Last I heard, she had been in contact with her handsome, young vaquero and they were seen riding in the desert—the fire in her heart, re-ignited.
Kim Bateman, Ph.D. is the author of Crossing the Owl’s Bridge: A Guide For Grieving People Who Still Love (Chiron, 2016) and “Symbolmaking and Bereavement: The Temples at Burning Man” in And Death Shall Have Dominion (Interdisciplinary, 2015). She presented a TEDx talk called Singing Over Bones (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3hibkFcld0) and serves as the Executive Dean of the Tahoe-Truckee Campus of Sierra College. Visit her website:http://www.kim-bateman.com for information on speaking/workshops, blog, and client services.