Perla and the Obsidian Man

A Short Story by Melanie Lamaga

Once there was a poor farmer. His father had been a successful farmer, and his grandfather a rich one; but since those days, the great river that irrigated the family’s land had gone completely dry.

The people of the North Country were siphoning off the water, and the delta, once lush with birds, jaguars, and antelopes, had been swallowed by the desert. The marshes and lagoons, once full of fish, had dried into white salt flats where not even sage scrub grew.

Though the farmer loved his home, he knew it was time to leave. Weakened by years of fruitless work and heartbreak, his wife and sons had died of flu. Only he and his daughter, Perla, survived. He blamed himself for not recognizing sooner that the river was gone for good and that no amount of skill, prayer, or hauling well water would ever be enough to grow the crops.

The best opportunity for a better life lay in the North. The border was nearby, but patrolled by guards with guns. Worse, a fierce desert stretched for hundreds of kilometers in either direction.

The size of the desert meant that the guards could not be everywhere all the time, so many citizens of the South sneaked through, hoping to make their way to a farm or town and find work. Some succeeded, but many died.

The farmer would have been willing to take this risk for himself, but not for Perla. Nor could he bear to leave her behind with relatives. He chided himself for being selfish, but since his wife and sons had died, he knew if he lost Perla he would lose the best part of himself, too.

Perla was much younger than her brothers—born delicate, with a feathering of dark hair, and magic in her eyes. The family always gave her the largest portion of food, the easiest jobs, and the warmest spot by the fire on cold nights. As a result, even as her mother and brothers wasted away, Perla had blossomed into a beautiful young woman with lustrous brown skin and long, thick hair that flew behind her when she ran. Sadness now tinged her beauty, however, for she missed her mother and brothers terribly.

“I didn’t help them,” she sobbed to her father, night after night. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Shh,” he would say, holding her. “They know you love them.”

This did not comfort Perla for she knew the truth: her family had treated her like a princess, so she’d believed herself to be one. When her father had been lucky enough to kill a jackrabbit, she’d snatch the biggest piece of meat for herself. Often, although her parents and brothers had worked all day in the fields hauling water from the well, trying to coax green shoots from the dry ground, she’d refused to cook even a pot of beans for them. Now these memories haunted her.

Meanwhile, the ghost of the future haunted her father. He wandered the dusty gray fields, trying to think of where to get money to hire a guide to take them through the desert. Sacks of beans and rice were all he had. Nothing to sell, just enough to stay alive.

#

One morning, after another sleepless night, the farmer went walking, half in a daze, insensible to the beauty of the shell-pink sky.

As the white sun rose above the bones of dead trees, he stumbled into a dry arroyo, seeking shade beneath the low willows and oaks. There he saw a dusty group trudging along with bundles and packs. They told him they were going to the North, guided by the tall man with a long black ponytail and black cowboy hat who loped ahead of the group.

“He knows where to find water and the best places to hide,” they said. “They call him the Coyote King. But be careful how you speak. He is without mercy.”

Ignoring the warning, the farmer ran to the head of the line. “Take us with you, please. My daughter and I need to start a new life.”

“Sure, friend,” said the Coyote King, without breaking his stride. “If you can pay my price.”

“I have no money,” the farmer said. When he saw the look on the Coyote King’s face, he added, “I have something better than money!”

“Nothing is better than money,” the tall man growled. “It was for money that the men from the east invaded our lands. It was for money that the men from the North Country stole our water. It’s for money that I walk these people through the desert now.”

“My daughter can turn tumbleweeds into gold,” the farmer blurted. He was an honest man and didn’t plan to lie, but he felt as if some power outside him had spoken.

The Coyote King stopped walking and looked down at the farmer with a fierce gaze. “This interests me, but I warn you. If you’re lying, I’ll kill her.”

The farmer knew he was taking a great risk, but he told himself he would think of something once they’d reached the other side. Irrational, desperate hope had fallen over him like the shadow of a dark wing.

He ran home, collected his daughter, some water and food. Two hours later they crossed the border into the North Country.

The desert on the other side of the fence looked just the same: arroyos thick with tangled bushes and low trees, bordered by dusty sage scrub. Above them the sun blazed just as hot.

The farmer began to regret his lie, sick with fear for his daughter’s life. With each step his sickness grew until he lagged at the back of the line. He wanted to grab Perla and run, but the Coyote’s men watched with sharp eyes.

“Father, what’s wrong?” Perla asked, again and again.

“I’ve done a terrible thing,” he whispered, finally, and told her about the lie.

“Oh, Father,” she said, sadly. “I have no skill. I couldn’t save my mother or brothers, and now I’m going to die.”

Her father straightened. “I’ll confess to the Coyote King. I’ll beg him to kill me and spare your life.”

Perla grabbed his arm to stop him. “No! I can’t lose you, too. Please. Let me try. Maybe you were right, after all. Maybe I can do it.”

“No.” He shook his head. “The risk is too great.”

Perla began walking again, swinging her arms as she strode through the soft sand of the arroyo. “If you die, I’ll kill myself, too.”

Horrified, Perla’s father begged her to reconsider but she was resolute. “I’m not a little girl anymore. We live together, or die together. That is my decision.”

That night the group stopped in a rocky canyon. As the others searched for spots to rest, the Coyote King sent Perla into a cave with a tumbleweed and a lamp. For hours she sat and stared at the weed, praying it would turn to gold. In the light, so yellow, sometimes she imagined, almost believed… but when she looked closer she saw only worthless twigs.

Eventually, exhausted and afraid, Perla began to cry. It was then that a tiny man with skin that shone like obsidian hopped into the cave.

“Why are you crying, girl?” he asked.

“I must change this tumbleweed into gold,” she said. “Or else in the morning I die!”

The little man cocked his head and winked. “What will you give me if I do it for you?”

“All I have of value is my mother’s necklace with a silver moon,” Perla said. “But would you take the only thing I have to remember her by?”

“I like shiny things,” said the obsidian man. “As for you—wear your memory in your heart, it will serve you better there.”

With that Perla fell fast asleep on the floor. When she awoke the next morning, the tumbleweed had been transformed into a roll of pure gold wire, and the Coyote King stood over her with a smile.

“Well done, girl! I’m impressed.” He held out a hand and helped her up. She noticed he was handsome when he smiled. Her spirit lifted until he said, “Tonight I’ll bring you three tumbleweeds!”

And so, after walking all day through the hot desert, Perla found herself in another cave, three tumbleweeds before her, and no idea what to do. For hours she stared, hoping an inspiration would show her how to change them to gold. Eventually, exhausted and afraid, she began to cry. As soon as her tears dripped to the floor, the little obsidian man appeared.

“Thank goodness you’re here!” she said. “I must change these tumbleweeds into gold, or else in the morning I die!”

“What will you give me if I do it for you?” the obsidian man asked.

The girl looked down at herself. “My hair is the only thing of value I possess. But would you take the only beauty I have?”

“I like soft things to make my bed,” the obsidian man said. “As for you—wear your beauty on the inside, it will serve you better there.”

With that the girl fell fast asleep on the floor. When she awoke the next morning, her hair was short, the tumbleweed had been changed into pure gold wire, and again the Coyote King stood over her with a smile.

“You are the most amazing girl I’ve ever met,” he said. “Tonight I’ll bring you all the tumbleweeds I can find. If you turn them to gold, you’ll be my wife. You’ll have a mansion in the North with a pool, servants, and all the best food.”

“Only if my father can come, and we can send money back to our relatives in the South,” she said.

He shrugged. “Of course.”

“And I will go to school and study environmental science,” Perla blurted. She hadn’t planned to make this demand, but it was as if some power outside her had spoken.

The Coyote King narrowed his eyes. No one had dared to tell him how things would be, not for a long time. But there was something about this girl: perhaps the hope shining from her eyes, perhaps her quiet resolve. She reminded him of Pedro, the fisherman’s son he once was, before he became Coyote King. Looking at her, he remembered standing tall in his boat, singing to the sky, his net full of fat, silver fish.

He would never be that boy again. He had met the darkness in himself early, and had cultivated it the way others cultivate love. But the shadow of all he’d seen and done hung heavy on him. He could find no pleasure in being the strongest or meanest, or indeed, in anything. But with all that gold he could retire from smuggling humans—start a family, make a new life.

When Perla was alone that night, in a cave filled to the top with tumbleweeds, crying with all her might, the small man hopped in again and said, “What will you give me if I spin all this into gold for you?”

“I have nothing more to give,” she said. “But you must help me, or else in the morning I die!”

“Then promise me, if you marry the Coyote King, you’ll give me your firstborn child.”

“Yes, yes, I promise,” said the girl. She couldn’t imagine being a mother, or think of anything beyond that night and the rolls of gold that would save her life.

#

A year and a day later, Perla gave birth to a daughter. Pedro had kept his promises. He had shed the skin of the Coyote King and made Perla his wife. She went to school, and her father spent his days by the pool drinking good coffee and writing the history of his people.

Then one night, as Perla nursed her new baby, the little man with obsidian skin hopped into her room.

“You must give me what you promised,” he said.

“No!” she shrieked. “I didn’t know what I was doing. This baby is my life.” Perla clutched her daughter tighter, baring her teeth like a Coyote wife.

The obsidian man nodded his head, approvingly. “I see you’ve grown fierce like a mother should, but that won’t save your child. A deal is a deal.”

Perla cocked her head and considered. “A new bargain, then?”

“Very well,” the obsidian man said. “If, in three days, you find out my name then I’ll let you keep your child. If not, you’ll give me this one, and the next.”

Perla didn’t want to agree, but felt she had to take the chance.

While Pedro and the baby slept that night, she wrote down every name she’d ever heard. The next day she searched through every book she had and wrote down all the names she found there, too. When the obsidian man came back she read whole list, but to each he answered, “That is not my name.”

On the second day Perla sent the cook, the gardener and the maid out to gather all the names they could find. Luckily, she had learned not to act like the spoiled princess she once was. She treated her servants with generosity and kindness, so they gladly did all they could to help her.

The servants talked to everyone they met and scoured libraries for books in all the languages of the world. At the end of the day they brought her a list with more than a thousand names. When the little man came back she read them all, even the most absurd. “Belcher? Kluckribs? Poofoot? Fartfluffel?”

But to each he answered, “That is not my name.”

By the third day Perla was losing hope, and depression fell across her like a dark wing. She sat, numbly staring out the window of her grand house at the pool and gardens, rocking her baby in her arms.

“I think I’ll take a walk,” her father announced as he came into the room.

A fat tear slid down Perla’s cheek, but her father didn’t seem to notice. She wanted to tell him about the obsidian man, but she was too ashamed to admit that she’d made such a horrible bargain.

That night as the sun went down, the servants returned one by one. They hadn’t found a single new name between them. Perla, still in the rocking chair with the baby, barely seemed to hear their reports.

Then her father came in. “Perla! I was walking today, and you’ll never guess what I found.”

“Papa, can you tell me some other time?” Perla whispered. The obsidian man would be coming soon, and she knew that when she lost this child she would lose the best part of herself, too.

“Listen now.” Her father stood in front of her so she would have to look at him. “I know of your bargain and I understand your shame. But have you forgotten I am the one who put you in this impossible situation to begin with?”

Perla rocked gently in the blue-black shadows of dusk. “You did what you had to do to save me. I don’t blame you.”

“Well, I blamed myself, but now I see that perhaps impossible situations require improbable solutions.”

“What does that mean?” Perla said with a sigh.

“Just this. I didn’t know what to do, so I went walking like I used to. I walked every street of the city and then into the desert. It was getting late but I decided I would walk until I thought of something, no matter if it took weeks, or years, or even the rest of my life. That’s when I saw a tiny house, no bigger than a toy, way on top of a rocky hill.

“So I climbed like a goat, quiet and steady. When I got close, I saw that outside the house a fire burned and a little man jumped around, singing, ‘Today I hop, tomorrow I rise, and the next I’ll have the Coyote child. Lucky me, no one knows, Rumplecrowskin makes me fly.’”

“Oh Papa!” Perla leaped up and kissed his cheek, and for the first time that day, hope shimmered in her eyes. “Thank you.”

In response her father just smiled and bowed to her. Then he left her alone.

#

As soon as the sun’s last rays had dissolved, the obsidian man appeared in Perla’s room, singing, “Now is the time, today is the day, tell me my name or else you must pay.”

“Is it…” the words caught in Perla’s dry throat and came out little more than a croak. “Rumplecrowskin?”

“Aaak, aaak! How did you know that?” the obsidian man squawked. He began to jump up and down and flap his arms. “Aaak, Aaak!” he squawked again, and then he shrank smaller, turned into a crow and flew away.

“Well!” Perla said, and heaved a sigh of relief. Then she looked into her baby’s dark eyes and stroked her feathery black hair. Up until now she had not been able to settle on a name. “I will call you Obsidiana,” she decided, then kissed the girl and went back to studying her books. After all, she had a test the next day.

In the years that followed, Perla became an environmental engineer specializing in water conservation. Pedro became an immigration lawyer. Perla’s father married the cook and they both sat around the pool discussing books and telling stories to Perla and Pedro’s many children. They all had plenty to eat, so no one had to make any more impossible bargains.

Despite her good fortune, Perla never forgot the obsidian man who saved her life by changing tumbleweeds into gold. Whenever the shadow of a crow’s wing passed overhead she smiled. And to this day, Perla and her children feed corn to the crows to show their thanks.

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