The short story contest finalist “Una Ofrenda: For I Too Am a Holy Child” is author Julian Toscano’s “offering to the trans ancestors who have bravely lived their lives as authentically as possible despite existing in spaces that deny our humanity.” The story features a young narrator attempting, with the help of local healer Gonzalitx, to undertake a spiritual journey inward, but bumping up against an all-too-common obstacle: Family.
My second spirit, mi nagual, stalked me through the obsidian mirror last night. The mirror, smoked volcanic glass cut in a symmetrical circle seven inches in diameter, rested on the altar within the stone chimney inside of Gonzalitx’s dark kitchen. Earlier, Gonzalitx had instructed me on how to wait in silence, cross-legged, staring into the whirlpool of polished stone until a reflection appeared. When my reflection did appear, it did not mirror the one that I had become accustomed to seeing in everyday mirrors or in any pools or puddles of water in the town of Las Flores. My brown eyes transformed into silver ripples of an ocean wave undulating beneath ripe moonlight. In one of the clothbound books that Gonzalitx had also instructed me to read as preparation for my initiation, I had read that ancient sorcerers in Mexico forged blades from obsidian in order to cut through the chest of a sacrificial offering to remove a human heart: the ultimate offering to the god Tezcatlipoca. Tezcatlipoca served as lord of the sorcerers, the underworld, and of the smoking mirror: obsidian. Other sorcerers, like Gonzalitx, used the mirror as a portal that gifted them the ability to shape-shift into both terrestrial and divine forms.
Despite the panic I felt as I looked at the entity in the obsidian mirror, I broke eye contact and lowered my gaze to see if my second spirit also possessed a body. It did. While I wore a faded black crew neck T-shirt, my second spirit wore no shirt. My eyes focused on a thick, jagged scar that cut into the torso’s heartspace that delineated both pectoral muscles. My second spirit smirked, almost enthralled by my discovery. What is my offering? I touched my hands to that same space on my own chest, enchanted, as my second spirit disappeared in the mirror.
Gonzalitx’s face, seventy-three years old, round and overflowing like a spoonful of cajeta, appeared next to my reflection in the stone. Even though they are not the mami who bore me, they have birthed my spirit and have always kept me safe. Gonzalitx told me that in a previous incarnation, they had birthed my flesh and blood; they cast a spell on their deathbed so that I may once again find them in this lifetime to continue the task of maintaining our ancestral bloodline divine. Since their arrival in Las Flores in 1923, with only one suitcase, which contained four silver coins, a Virgen de Guadalupe gold pendant, and a hand-drawn tarot deck wrapped in a red handkerchief, Gonzalitx has blessed, cursed, and healed the families of Las Flores with various herbal potions, spiritual limpias, and tarot card readings.
In 1935, according to family stories, Gonzalitx had revealed to my great-grandmother Estela and her husband, Justo, the identity of the individual who had stolen their fattest pig on the night before Christmas Eve. The next day, the thief had returned the pig to my great-grandparents and told them he had found the pig in his backyard. When I was three, Gonzalitx had been petitioned by my mother to coax a susto out of me. The susto, a powerful fright, uprooted one’s spirit after experiencing a traumatic event. My mother always claimed to forget the tragedy, but I remembered the way Gonzalitx rubbed my bare back with the cool edge of a raw, unbroken brown egg and then cracked the egg in a glass of water in order to release the susto. Since that day, Gonzalitx has taught me how to summon the ancestors with an offering of dehydrated hummingbird hearts; how to petition Yemaya for a lover by anointing the ocean waters with pomegranates, white rose petals, and honey; and how to shape-shift into a white owl who once swooped down to pluck hairs from the head of an ex-lover slumbering in the arms of a stranger. This week, Gonzalitx had revealed to me that we had reached the end of our apprenticeship and that their spirits had confirmed to them that there were other teachers who now demanded to teach me. My initiation rite: my offering to Tezcatlipoca in the smoking obsidian mirror.
“You heal others with your shame. Soon you will know what your offering is, but right now, give me mine,” Gonzalitx commanded. I complied, dipped my hands in a yellow cloth sack and handed them those items the spirits had requested: three sticky tamarind pods, two brown eggs laid by a black hen, a potted rue plant, a bunch of fresh chamomile, a dried rattlesnake rattle, and a neon-pink Santa Muerte glass candle with the image of the Holy Death printed in blue ink. Gonzalitx, with their nails still filed sharp and lacquered black like jaguar claws, arranged the items slowly, while they hummed the words in tonan in tota… in tonan in tota… in tonan in tota. They placed the ragged homemade broom they used as a cane against the soot-colored wall. They lifted both plump arms, palms upturned. I lit a stick of copal incense and watched the sweet incense smoke engulf the items on the altar and room.
“Do I raise my hands too?” I asked. Gonzalitx nodded, and I raised my hands as they were doing.
“Tezcatlipoca, the smoking mirror, only protects us or shows us who we are. I too prayed and prayed on the night of my initiation. The drunk stranger who found me after all the porch lights had been turned off told me I was bleeding. He told me to wait there, under the mesquite tree, because he was going to find his brother Tiburcio to help carry me to the doctor’s house. Before he walked away, though, he squatted, stared at my face, and asked if I was a woman or a man.”
“How did you know?” I felt a familiar sense of shame burning inside of my chest.
Gonzalitx took my left hand in their leathered, warm palm and slipped a sharp, teardrop-shaped stone in it: an obsidian arrowhead. “You will know what your offering is.” After the smoke cleared, I helped them sweep ashes off the floor. On my way out, Gonzalitx took three small avocados from a wicker basket on the kitchen table, put them in a clear plastic bag, and handed the bag to me. “For protection.”
I gently kissed their wrinkled forehead. “Te quiero.” I opened the door and walked outside.
Gonzalitx lived next to an abandoned field, overgrown with weeds, where my classmates and I played soccer on our way home from school. After I opened the door, I walked by various ceramic pots filled with red geraniums on their porch and stepped over a couple of empty tin serrano pepper cans that marked the fenceless boundary of their front yard. I put the obsidian flint in my left short pocket and picked up my lilac steel road bike that I had left on the ground near the mailbox. I mounted the bike and pedaled hard in order to be able to return home before anyone had realized that I had taken way too long at the market. As I pedaled, I passed numerous children with gold ribbons in their hair who wore white, starched school uniform shirts. One child screamed in joy as an horchata-colored goat chased them. Outside the house that is three houses west of mine on the same side of my street, a clay-colored girl with thick, dark curls tossed tiny orange blossoms into the air, stuck her tongue out, and caught some of the tiny blossoms in her mouth. I had seen her many times before in her front yard, usually alone, sitting in a white wicker chair, staring into a magazine or a book. Mesmerized by the sight of the girl and by the thick perfume of the orange blossoms, I took my gaze off the path and looked at her. Our eyes met.
“Ey tu flower papi!” she shouted. “I had a dream about you last night.” I pedaled faster, the papi reverberating through my mind. She saw me.
As I approached my house, I saw a coil of gray smoke coming from the outdoor chimney that stood in the center of the yard. My father, who always grilled on Sundays, also popped open frosty cans of lager beer: one beer before he gathered the kindling, two more beers while he chopped mesquite wood with his steel ax, and six more cans by the time I opened the gate to my house. I entered the house through the side door and walked directly to the kitchen to place the bag with the avocados on the table. I felt the obsidian arrowhead press against my skin through my shorts. I walked to my bedroom. In the bedroom, I opened the top drawer of my chestnut dresser, the one where I kept my black leatherbound sketchbook and my socks. I took out the sketchbook, placed it on top of the dresser, and opened it to a sketch I had drawn of myself earlier that week. I pressed the arrowhead’s tip hard into the paper and traced over the scar that had been drawn on my figure’s chest.
None of the rooms in my house possessed doors. My mom rushed into the room, carrying a pair of metal tongs. “Why doesn’t anyone ever help me in this house? You could have already cut the avocados by now instead of just leaving them on table.”
“Sorry, I’m going now to help.” I did not move. The obsidian arrowhead seared into my fingertips.
“The food is ready now.”
“I will be right there.” I still did not move.
“What are you doing here, anyway?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I was just drawing some orange trees. I saw some on my way back from the market.”
“An orange tree?” She pointed the tip of the tongs at the sketchbook. “What’s that, then?”
“What’s what?” I felt convinced for a moment that my second spirit still stalked me. I tried to remember the words to a forgotten protection prayer to San Sebastian and Psalm 91 but could not remember any lines. My mom took four rapid steps toward the dresser and grabbed the sketchbook. The tongs and the arrowhead both fell on the tile floor.
She looked at the open page. She said nothing. I held my breath. Then she slowly and silently flipped through the rest of the pages. I knew exactly what she looked at. I had drawn myself nude on every page: not the body that I mourned daily in this existence but the body I knew I had once possessed. I had been trying to conjure that body since the instant I remembered it: I had walked through the plaza one afternoon when I passed a magazine shop and caught a peek of an erotic Wild West comic book cover. I blushed when I saw the cover and remembered that I had once been that mustached cowboy. After that day, I gave myself permission to imagine myself sliding on top and inside of the girl with the orange flower blooms. I had drawn us on our honeymoon night on the third page of the sketchbook.
“Go outside before your dad comes to look for you.” She looked at me again. Her tired eyes had started to water. “I’m going to throw this into the trash.” She turned around and walked out of my room with my sketchbook. My rage vibrated through my veins and I felt the same way I had felt last year in the summer, when I was hungrier than usual and had become accustomed to eating four, sometimes five hard-boiled eggs for breakfast. My great-aunt Lupe, in her eighties, never married, took my mom aside one morning and whispered to her that I would become too masculine if my mom continued to let me eat too many eggs. For the rest of the summer, I stopped eating eggs and instead ate, and still eat, papaya with lime every morning.
When I walked outside to eat and join the family, my sister Estela, brother Mario, and my dad, Justo, were already seated around the concrete table with an array of fajitas, beef ribs, guacamole, grilled onions, lime wedges, and green and red salsas on their plates. They ate silently. My mom stood in front of the flames and silently flipped tortillas on the grill with her bare fingertips. After I took a seat and served myself food, my dad, face bloated, slid a can of beer in front of my plate. “Take a sip.”
I looked up at my siblings and then toward my mom, wanting to be saved by someone, but no one made a sound.
“I’m not thirsty.” I gnawed at a rib. A rooster crowed in the distance.
“Te crees bien macho, eh?”
“I am.” I looked down at my hand and examined the arrowhead as it glowed in my fingertips. I closed my eyes and, in my mind’s eye, I saw Gonzalitx’s smile at me through the mirror. Then their smile dissolved. I opened my eyes and saw only myself in the reflection. What magic am I invoking, Lord Tezcatlipoca?
“What is your offering?” my second spirit asked me.
“I am your offering. I am offering myself to myself.”
Julian Toscano on writing “Una Ofrenda”:
This story is an offering to the trans ancestors who have bravely lived their lives as authentically as possible despite existing in spaces that deny our humanity. During the summer, I was writing to process some personal and collective trauma that was amplified by the quarantine. One night, I took a break from writing, and I went to my altar and gazed at my reflection in the obsidian mirror. Obsidian is a significant stone for me as a person of Mexican descent; the Aztecs revered it as a powerful protection stone. As I meditated with the mirror, Gonzalitx, one of the main characters, appeared to me as the trans ancestor I wish I’d had while I was growing into my identity. I meditated with the mirror every day I was writing this piece, and after each session, Gonzalitx would reveal more details about this story. As a future trans ancestor, I also offer this story as a reminder to other trans readers that we have always and will always exist.
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