That morning when Isabel woke, she paused a moment before pushing the night away from her eyes. She had been dreaming of her grandmother for whom she was named, Ysabel Salazar. The dream was actually more like a memory of childhood.
In it, she was helping her abuelita plant corn. Abu, as Isabel called her grandmother, took her small hand in her own and carefully guided it to the ground, treating each seedling as precious gift.
As they worked, Abu shared stories, folding them in between the rows of corn. Abu had moved to this village and as they planted, she shared her own memories of the village where she was first taught how to plant corn. Isabel carefully watched Abu’s lips as she called upon the name of her natal village, “Abiquiú,” and even in pronouncing it and telling her of it, it felt sacred. It was nearly one hundred miles away from this village of San Antonio del Rio Colorado, but that day it felt as close as the earth beneath Isabel's feet.
“Amanecí con memorias de mi Abu y oliendo tierra,” she said aloud, opening her eyes and, giving thanks for being able to wake to beautiful memories of her grandmother and the smell of dirt surrounding her.
The sun had not yet risen when she raised her head from the pillow. Her perita, Sombra was waiting for her to place her feet on the ground for quick lick.
The morning unfolded like a ritual. It began as it always did, with prayer, but it flowed into a day full of activity and before she knew it, it had passed.
“Se me perdió el dia,” Isabel said as her cousins, the Gonzaleses rose from the kitchen table where they had been visiting, calling forth memories of those they had lost and loved still.
As she caught sight of the mountain through her window, Isabel remembered her responsibilities. The sheep and goats had been grazing all day, gradually moving deeper into Cabresto Canyon and into the heart of what had become known as Midnight.
Isabel walked the Gonzaleses to the door, not quite feeling anxious, but knowing that she was running behind. She pulled them in close knowing that it had been too long since they visited and not knowing when and if she would see them next, since they had come from a distance. She remembered her mother, who always told her that maintaining these familial relationships was so important.
But she also recognized that that there was almost no time for relaxation and remembered that her flock of sheep and goats was vulnerable and that she needed to go up and gather them, even if the afternoon sun had begun to shift.
"Yo me voy sola," she whispered, even as she heard the voice of her brother, Pedro, in her mind caution her about how quickly the night could fall. As she was thinking about this, her dog, Sombra, brushed up against her leg and she knew she would be in good company.
"Hoy Sombrita me guía, "today," she said, "Sombra will be my guide."
She had become increasingly self-reliant, particularly after the passing of her husband, who had left her a relatively young widow in her fifties. She was now only fifty-five years old. Although she was still young, her children were already grown, with families and business ventures of their own. Two children had not survived to adulthood, and she thought of them as she walked down the road.
“Teresa and Juanito,” she said their names out loud, as if inviting them to join her on her walk up Kiowa Trail, taking her into the mountain.
Isabel’s other five children included four sons and one daughter. She was thinking of each one of them as she approached the sheep that day, gathering them. She also noticed that some of the goats were missing.
"Malditas cabras, those goats are always wandering off," she said as she moved deeper still into the valley looking for them. She located them in the distant meadow, though by the time she reached them, dusk was upon her.
As she turned to guide the goats back, she realized that she had somehow become turned around in the effort to find the missing goats and was lost. Night had now fallen as well.
“¿Cómo es posible que me haya perdido?” She wondered how had she become lost, knowing this land so well. Was it her distracted mind? Her memories of others who had passed that had been pulling at her all day and now, she questioned, if there was some reason for that.
She remembered the dream of her Abu and wondered why Abu had come to her now.
She also recalled in that instant that when she was in morning mass, as she turned to leave the church, the image of her mother, Dolores, sitting in the pew caught her eyes. She closed her eyes as if wiping the image away, but she knew what she saw.
Later, as she was baking some bread that she wanted to take to her comadre, as she turned from the horno, she saw her husband Francisco sitting by the tree. He motioned for her to come to him, but she resisted, knowing that it was a bad omen.
With her eyes tearing up, she tried to push the thoughts of these spirits away.
"Agua bendita," she said, as she prayed aloud. But in calling forth the water, she remembered the wisdom of ‘following the river.’
Unfortunately, she had not brought a lantern, and though her sight had begun to adapt to the night, what lay before her was a challenge.
Isabel had not realized that she had already been gone now for hours, but was happy that she had taken the loaf of bread baked earlier in the day and pulled it from the wrap on her back.
Back in the village, her youngest son, José Albino, who was a young man and father in his 20s, just starting his own business, walked over to his mother's home. It was late, but he knew she would be home. He was thinking of following his father into the business but he wanted to ask Isabel for guidance.
“Mama,” he called out as he stepped into the dark of the house. He felt the chill of the adobe run into his spine as he realized where she must be.
“Esta en la Medianoche,” he called out, as he ran to the coral and quickly saddled his horse to ride into the dark canyon.
His cries into the mountain sounded like the bleating of a young lamb who had been separated from its mother, "Mama, maaa maaa, maaaaa maaaaaa.”
José Albino eventually found the sheep, which he moved past, but there was no sign of his mother.
His was a singular drive that day—to find her. Eventually, with his eyes full of emotion, he realized he could not do it alone and he rode back to the village to inform others of the situation.
As he entered the village, the despair that cloaked him was obvious, but so was the urgency. As his older brothers and other men gathered around him, saddling their own horses, he recounted where he had been.
He had failed to notice that he had ridden so hard and so long that once he removed the bridle and saddle, his own horse collapsed and breathed its last breath. He would remember that moment for the rest of his life.
But there was no time to spare. A new horse was brought forward and the search party ventured into the mountain, even as the dawn of a new day had already come.
As they moved into the night, many whispered the name of the village saint, "San Antonio," asking that, "what was lost, be found," the same prayer that was already being folded into the rosaries in the hands of those back in the village.
Isabel had walked a very long way, up through clearings and trees alike, tracing the spine of the mountain's ridges.
She had never been this deep into the mountain, but with sunlight she eventually found the river, though by then, it was not the tributary that would take her back into the village, but in a different direction, north.
At one point, she realized how tired her legs were beneath her and she found a spot to rest.
Although the evening was warm, she gathered kindling and made a fire, reasoning that it would provide comfort and perhaps protection from the night.
She had already been praying without it, but as she stopped, she reached into her pocket and realized that the rosary she had taken to the church earlier in the day was still with her.
“Santa María Madre de Dios...,” her lips quivering with each word and with each recitation, and her now trembling fingers rolling over the beads. She was afraid, but knew she had to be strong.
These prayers were more than a spiritual reach connecting ground to sky, but a meditation providing respite, calming her. Each rosary Isabel prayed soothed her more and eventually she leaned her head against the tree. With the lull of her own voice and with Sombra at her feet, she felt safe and before she knew it, she had fallen into the sleep she needed.
As she opened her eyes, the brilliance of the sun was already all around her. She gathered herself up. The fire had long died out, but she stomped on it, expressing gratitude to the ground and tree that held her, to the wood and rocks that surrounded it and to the flame that had soothed her through the night. She remembered that her Abu taught her how to express thanksgiving to the natural world, something that never left her.
She followed this routine for two more nights. Each day brought a new adventure. The wisdom that had been passed down to her was as much a guide as was Sombra. Although she had not done it in many years, her father Manuel had taught her how to hunt for small rabbits and he had taken her fishing several times. Although she did not like to fish, she was good at it and those lessons of childhood, long since passed, nourished her in these days.
Each passing day seemed more challenging than the last. Although the men had spread out and fresh horses were provided daily, they never once encountered signs of Isabel’s presence upon the land. Even the most skilled at tracking and hunting could not understand the absence. It was if she had completely disappeared. Some of the men began to whisper that survival was impossible, even in good weather, which was the only blessing.
One by one the party began to give up after it had been several days. But Isabel’s sons and her nephews would not give up. Guillermo was the oldest of the sons, followed by Epimenio, then Solomon with José Albino being the youngest. These brothers were unbreakable and as one grew weary of despaired, the other would raise him up by telling stories about how strong their mother was.
“Ella es de los Gomezes, ya sabes que son fuertes,” she is stong because she is a Gomez each would tell the other, trying to convince one another that she was okay. But as the hours and days wore on, even they began to doubt.
On one of the mornings when Isabel woke up, she stood and looked into the clearing before her. For an instant, she thought, "como llegue a Apishapa”? She remembered that decades before she and her husband had lived near the Apishapa River in what had become known as the Valley of Animas in Colorado, and for an instant, what surrounded her looked not like the mountains she was in, but that valley of souls.
She had been missing her husband Francisco, and she knew how much he loved that valley near the Plaza de los Leones. Although she had been traveling for days, and recognized that while she had journeyed north, she reasoned that she could not have traveled that far.
Already, she had witnessed the rise and setting of the sun multiple times, her steps though the mountain were taken now with purpose. While she may have begun this journey in fear, she looked down at her Sombrita and knew that she would be okay and whispered, “Sombra, last night I dreamt that I would see more grandchildren, so we are going to be fine.”
The night before she had dreamt of new generations. In the dream she could see some grandchildren that she knew, and others that had not yet been born. These images comforted her and encouraged her to keep moving.
On that evening, as she continued to navigate through the dusk of evening light, knowing that she had to find a safe place to shelter, she felt hopeful and thus kept a stride. As she moved over the hill, set into the tops of the pine trees, she saw light, a house in the distance.
Tears formed in my eyes and she crossed herself, a sign of praise.
Isabel had gone into the mountain, but on that night emerged on the other side, even more fortified, finding her own way through and out. She had emerged on the other side of the mountain in a village that was called Pina/ Amalia.
Isabelita was my great grandmother. I have heard a version of this story all of my life.
Her children and grandchildren never let her venture into the mountain alone again. But they passed the story down from one generation to the next, to remember that no matter how challenging the journey, they all came from a woman who had been into and through the mountain and had survived.
The stories and memories of our ancestors are not only to bring them to life, but also to serve as guides for us in the present.
The story of the village of Questa itself is one of resilience, a place where the spirit of its people has long reflected strength and tenacity. While narratives vary from family to family, and details have faded, some memories remain, including one of a woman, Isabelita Gomez Rael, whose wisdom, faith and drive to survive is remembered still among her many descendants.
Copyright 2018 Estevan Rael-Gálvez