I left Maria Delorda’s home as quickly as I could. I had already imposed on her a great deal and hoped not to increase my burden for a further length of time. When I asked what I could do in return for the care she took towards me in my sickness, she asked only if I had written of her in my letters home. Confused and hoping not to anger her, I replied that I had written of her by name. She nodded then and answered that it would be payment enough. Not understanding, I implored for some additional means of assisting her—some other form of payment I could give. Dear reader, I felt greatly indebted to her. She asked me if I thought I was the first wayward traveler she’d nurtured back to health. I replied that no, I did not think that. And that was the end of it.
Before I left, Maria Delorda confirmed a suspicion I already had: that I was not yet entirely well. Out of the danger I once had been in, yes. But I could claim no sincere health. I had noticed slight peculiarities in my person: a taste of salt perpetually about my lips, a weakness of eyesight, and a twitch to my hands when I sat down to write. Undoubtedly, I was not well. There was little more she could do to help me in my recovery. Of this she was certain. She told me of a place I must go to recover entirely from The Seclusion—a place known as The Sanctuary of Hidalgo.
Hidalgo, she explained, was a natural rock formation that appeared as a short human figure sitting on his knees with his face turned up towards the sky. Hidalgo had appeared over 300 years ago near a natural hot spring. The twin brother and sister who had discovered the form recognized its healing aspects, and christened him ‘Hidalgo.’ The Sanctuary was always open, but only those who truly required their services for treatment were admitted.
Towards the Sanctuary at Hidalgo I traveled for three days. I won’t write of the journey to this place, as it was largely uneventful. After all, I have much stranger things to tell.
When the landscape changed once again to verdant forest, I quickly reached an age-old stone path that wound up the mountainside and was hugged on either side by dense foliage. Up this path I went. I was careful, for Maria Delorda had warned me to disturb the greenery as little as possible. I noticed many mockingbirds flying between the trees above my head. They seemed to watch me as I continued along.
Although the path was steep, I thought that it wasn’t as taxing as it ought to have been. I found myself neither sweating, nor needing rest. The air was clean, crisp, and almost soft about me. I could hear water running against rock somewhere in the distance. This, coupled with the sounds of the birds, gave me a lightness of mind that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
I soon reached the end of the path, near the peak of the mountain. Here, Hidalgo stood sandwiched between two large rocks at the edge of a pool of water. Steam was rising from the waters, rolling over the rocks, and obscuring a small bridge. Everything was still.
I approached Hidalgo: his face was rubbed smooth by time so that he was featureless except for a small, upturned peak where a nose would be. Nonetheless, his face was undoubtedly looked upwards. His shoulders and neck had become one unit, his legs were laid back behind him, and his knees still hit sturdy upon the ground.
It was after studying Hidalgo that I noticed two shadowy figures making their way across the bridge. I stepped back from Hidalgo and sat on the grass, not knowing what to expect, but hoping to please.
The figures stepped off the bridge, helping each other hand in hand as they crossed. Once on my side, they sat silently near the water’s edge. They were thin, fair-haired, fair-skinned, and obviously twins. Maria Delorda had told me they were brother and sister, but I could not tell which was which.
They asked me what ailed me in voices that gave no indication of entirely masculine or feminine virtues. I told them calmly of The Seclusion—of the howling, the sweating, and the visions. I told them of Maria Delorda and her suggestion that I come here. I told them of my travels, as best and honestly as I could.
One of the twin’s cheeks was wet with tears when I finished my story, though I had not heard them crying. The twin rubbed it’s face with the back of its hand and looked at me with a solemn, steady gaze. They asked me to follow them.
We went over the bridge and into The Sanctuary of Hidalgo, a cluster of small, stone buildings built around the hot springs. They showed me the kitchen, and they showed me where they took their meals. which was open to the hot springs and had only one small, wooden table. They showed me the bedrooms, each of which was barren but for a mattress and oil lamp. They showed me the gardens that threaded through the spring. Various herbs and vegetables were planted haphazardly among the rocks, but all were in the peak of their growth. I saw a figure crouched in the dirt wearing a sunhat that obscured their face. I supposed this was the gardener, but we walked past without mentioning it.
That night I ate alone and went to sleep with a sense of ominous foreboding.
I slept through the night peacefully and was awoken at dawn the next morning by the twins. They led me, breakfast-less, down to the water, where I was made to disrobe entirely. I plunged into the water, which went up to my chest and frightened my bare skin with the intensity of the heat. The sensation of stepping from the dewy chill of the morning air to the rolling, thick heat of the water is one I will not forget. It was as if my body was not one entire living organism, but each part of me was crying out separately in the absolute and sublime liveliness of the feeling. It was as if my body had just at that moment truly come alive. Once acclimated to the water, my body eased into itself and was calm.
The siblings followed me into the water, but asked me to look away as they unrobed and sunk themselves into the water. With just their collars, necks, and heads protruding from the spring, I could still tell little of their thin bodies. “Undo your hair,” one commanded of me. I acquiesced and discovered that it was long—much longer than I remembered. When had my hair grown so terribly long? One began to undo the tangles with their fingers, dragging the strands through the water The other sibling surveyed us at a distance. This cleansing lasted either for minutes or for hours. One can’t be sure. The sibling across the water broke the slowly condensing silence by declaring that my diagnosis was final.
“Your animus. It is crooked within,” the twin said, pointing a long finger towards me.
I asked what this meant, and the sibling told me that it meant we must cut my hair.
That morning, upon the rocks and with the sizzling fumes of the spring broiling against my wintery skin, they cut my hair. They cut my hair high and close above my ears. The hair dropped onto the rocks, into the water, and was gone. They brushed my shoulders of the loose hairs, but gave me no mirror to survey myself. After this, they left me alone on the rocks to make my way back to my room.
When I arrived, I found new clothes set aside for me—the same genderless, formless white robes that the siblings wore. I put them on as I ought to and wandered about the Sanctuary, looking for the twins. I needed them to tell me what to do next. I was feeling better, I must admit. But still—I mustn’t be done. I went to the kitchen, through the hallways, and wandered about the garden, without finding either. Among the herbs I found the same gardener, and inquired if anyone had passed by. The gardener lifted his head—a man. He seemed impossibly old—his face sunken with deep-set wrinkles. He was cavernous. He said nothing, but looked at me with a mute stare. I decided to move along.
I wandered back to the kitchen and ate lunch alone. While watching the steam rise from my soup, I heard footsteps out the door. The gardener came in and approached me. Without speaking, he handed me a piece of paper. After discarding it into my open hands, he left.
The paper instructed me to go to the largest tree in the garden, climb it, and stay there until I was called for.
I found the tallest tree in the farthest point of the garden. It was a variety I was unfamiliar with: slender, bark-less, and covered with small green pods. I pulled off a pod and peeled it open with my fingernail. There was nothing inside. The branches were such that to get to the first one was quite a task. I was just able to pull one foot up and jump to grab on to the next highest. In that way, I started my climb.
At first, I felt no fear. I scaled the tree effortlessly, rising higher and higher, as if I was made for just such an activity. I had no thoughts and no desires outside of to continuing to climb. I was not even thinking of the end, such that by the time I had reached the highest branches and pushed my head through the highest leaves, I was startled to see the sky breaking out above me. I was surprised to see that night was falling quickly. I could see the whole of the forest, its edges dropping like a curtain and opening into the marshland before it. The tangerine sun was falling on the horizon, sending fleeting bands of orange, yellow, purple, and red out around it like a halo. The sky was peppered with stars. Below me, the earth stretched down and away, away, away. Impossibly far and getting farther. Was the earth receding? I noticed that my hands hurt—they were red, raw, and rubbed with dirt. I felt I was larger than life. I took a deep breath and almost hurt with it. I felt healed.
Looking down, I saw a human form on the way below. From my removed position, it seemed just a pin-point on the flat of the earth, but an unmistakably human one. I began my descent. Night was quickly caving in, and I began to feel afraid. I could see less and less, and my hands appeared less parts of my body, and more like crooked white spiders crawling along the tree. I noticed I was thirsty, hungry, fatigued, and disgusted with myself. I made the mistake of looking down, and that is when I fell.
When I next awoke, I was in the field with the bridge, water, and Hidalgo in front of me. The gardener was sitting on the grass beside me, but looking past me. As I turned toward him, he grabbed me by the wrist. I felt a hand on my other wrist and looked to see one of the twins on my other side. I panicked and asked what was happening. The twin asked me with soft sounds to relax.
Dear reader, much is unclear, but this moment, I remember. When I repeated my question, the twin holding my wrist told me I fell from the Tree. “Yes, but I did not die,” I said both to assure myself, and to assure the world around me. “No. You did not die. You were caught by Hidalgo,” the twin responded, and looked towards the gardener. “Hidalgo?” I asked, looking towards the statue. The twin shook its head. “No, Hidalgo,” and gestured towards the gardener.
I heard footsteps moving quick over the bridge. Turning to look, I saw the other twin walking towards us with a basked in hand. I asked if this was part of my recovery, but no one answered. The twin kneeled in front of me and opened the basket, plunging a hand inside. Pulling it back out, a black snake was twined around his arm, flicking its tongue. The twin pressed his thumb behind the snake’s head to open its jaws. Again, I implored what was going on.
“Your animus is crooked. You are afraid of the snake,” someone said, though I could not catch who this came from. I tried to rip free but could not break free of their hold. I began to beg the old man to help me. The twin pushed up my robe and thrust the snake’s two long porcelain fangs into my thigh.
The blood stained everything. It was everywhere and I saw it. I turned my eyes away, looking up towards the sky. When I looked up, there was only the gardener’s stoic blue eyes looking back at me.
My thigh burned. And then my leg burned. I thought that surely my leg would fall off and break free of my body. Then I thought that my leg would become the snake and it would bite me again and the pain would never end. I screamed and cursed them and cried and still I saw Hidalgo’s eyes. I looked again at the snake, which shriveled against my leg and died—its fangs still within me.
After the pain came a great calm like a wave. I fell asleep and the next time I awoke, I was in bed. I was in bed, and I knew I was healed. I write this letter and my hand does not twitch.