A serialized novel and podcast by Andrew Leo Lovato
(This is part two of a serialized novel. Listen and read Chapter One.)
During the long, warm months of summer, the kids in my neighborhood played hide and seek, tag and invented elaborate games. One game that we never tired of consisted of boys chasing girls and holding them captive inside the jungle gym. The girls pretended to be horses and the boys played the role of cowboys with the most successful hombre being the one that possessed the largest harem of stomping and snorting ponies.
After the sun went down, our favorite pastime was telling scary stories. We never became bored with the tales that we recycled over and over again. We sat in circles on the green grass of a host family’s lawn as the nightly ritual commenced. Girls shrieked and the boys laughed nervously when the story-telling began.
Ghosts and witches were popular topics of conversation along with devils and graveyards. However, as far as terrifying characters were concerned, none rivaled the queen of terror, “La Llarona.”
La Llarona was a name that evoked fear in the hearts of all Santa Fe youngsters. Her legend had several variations but the basic theme went as follows:
La Llarona was a beautiful woman who married a rich nobleman. She was very happy and she gave birth to three radiant children. One day her husband left her for another woman and she was so crazy with anger that she took her children and drowned them in an arroyo filled with water. After she realized what she had done, she went mad with remorse and drowned herself. Since that day her ghost had wandered the arroyos of northern New Mexico wailing for her dead children.
The story went on to warn that if any child happened to be near an arroyo at night and he or she was unfortunate enough to run into the weeping ghost, a horrible fate would await. Some storytellers claimed that her victims first saw a mysterious red light that hypnotized them. These unfortunate souls were not able to move and La Llarona did away with them like she’d done with her own children. If she felt merciful, she might take an unlucky child prisoner and lead her captive to a demented fortress where she made the poor creature her eternal slave. These prospects were unnerving and we fidgeted and cringed at the idea of running into the weeping woman.
Needless to say, we took special precautions to avoid arroyos after dark which pleased our parents greatly and they did little to discourage the legend, often telling some of the most terrifying tales themselves.
In a twisted way, getting scared was so much darn fun. We never felt as alive as when our hearts were pounding and we were peering around nervously looking for a glint of supernatural light or the sound of a grieving woman in the distance.
One typical Santa Fe summer evening in late July, as dusk fell and the stars began to peek out near the horizon of the Sangre de Cristos, all the kids in the neighborhood grew weary of tag and kick-the-can and we all headed over to Floyd’s front yard to see if we could muster up the thrill of delicious fear for the hundredth time. Of all the neighborhood kids, Floyd told the best stories.
“If you look in a mirror while you hold a candle in a dark room, and you say three times, ‘El Diablo is my Padre,’ the devil’s face will appear over your left shoulder. I’m telling you the truth. You can try it yourself but remember when you see his face, make the sign of the cross and say, ‘In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, be gone!’ If you do not do this right away, the devil will go down your left shoulder and into your heart and you will have a heart attack and die instantly and go to hell and become the devil’s slave for all time.”
We all sat quietly contemplating this fate and not a sound could be heard except for the incessant chirping of the crickets.
“Let’s call the devil tonight,” Ramona suggested.
Floyd looked startled at the challenge but then he upped the ante. “Let’s call La Llarona instead. We can head over to the arroyo and do a ceremony and make her appear.”
He had done it again. We shivered and felt a cold sensation crawling up our spines just when we’d thought we were too jaded to have it happen once more.
Our numbers began to diminish quickly as soon as it was decided that the plan for the night was going to be conjuring up La Llarona. Several kids remembered that either their parents wanted them home early or some mysterious chore was still left undone and needed immediate attention. In the end there were only four of us left; Floyd, myself, Sandra Jaramillo who was never afraid of anything, and my ever-loyal friend Rudy.
The nearest arroyo lay across the neighborhood park near the school. The park was pitch black at night so Sandra ran home and returned a few minutes later with a flashlight and our brave troop began our quest.
“Did you guys check out the moon?” Rudy asked.
I looked up and it was a thin, silver sliver in the dark sky.
“It’s a witch’s moon” Floyd whispered. “It’s a sign for sure that she’ll be out wandering around the arroyos tonight.”
We trudged silently in a tight pack following the slim ray of light that shone on the grass in front of us until we had crossed the park and had reached the bank of the arroyo.
“What do we do now?” asked Rudy breaking the silence in a solemn voice.
“We wait,” said Floyd. “We wait and listen for the sound of her sobbing. Sandra, turn off the flashlight and we’ll all sit in the dark and ask her to come. If anybody hears crying or sees a red light that means she’s here.”
I suddenly felt sick at my stomach and had an unbearable urge to jump up and run for the safety of home. The only thing that kept me sitting there was the stronger fear of leaving the company of my friends and exposing myself to the evil spirit somewhere in the blackness of the empty park. I shut my eyes tightly and my breath came out in short, shallow puffs.
Floyd continued, “Remember not to stare at her red light or you’ll become paralyzed and you won’t be able to run away when she comes for you. Stick your fingers in your ears so she doesn’t hypnotize you with her voice and make you fall asleep. Just make the sign of the cross and say Hail Mary’s as loud as you can so she can’t possess you. It’s your only hope.”
Sandra responded to Floyd’s warning in typical Sandra fashion, “I’m not afraid of no puta, La Llarona. If she has the huevos to show up, I’ll stick this flashlight up her ass!”
Somehow Sandra’s bravado did very little to reassure me. I looked over at Rudy and he was holding his head in his hands and I could hear him moaning softly. We sat on the edge of the ominous arroyo for what seemed like forever and waited for our impending fate. The minutes dragged on but nothing out of the ordinary took place other than a couple of wandering dogs that came by and sniffed at us once or twice and went on with their business, whatever that was. Rudy had calmed down and as our eyes adjusted to the dark, the terror we had felt began to ease away.
Floyd let out a fart and Sandra exclaimed, “Damn, cabrón, that smell is the scariest thing that’s happened tonight.”
We laughed in relief as we realized that she was probably right and that our reputations would be greatly elevated when we returned to the neighborhood in one piece. Already we were each privately elaborating our experiences in our own heads to make it seem like we had escaped from the evil clutches of the weeping woman by the skin of our teeth.
We scrambled to our feet anticipating the warm tortillas and soft beds that were awaiting us, when an unmistakable wailing sound arose from the dark arroyo. It was the most mournful cry imaginable. Rudy let out a terrified whinny and for the first time in my memory I heard a tone of vulnerability in Sandra’s voice as she cried out,
“Mama, mama, I wanna go home to mama.”
We stood frozen in terror. Floyd grabbed the flashlight and pointed it waveringly in the direction of the heartrending shriek. We held to each other tightly, contemplating our doom when suddenly out of the darkness a pair of glowing eyes appeared and rushed toward us. Then another pair of iridescent eyeballs flew out of the arroyo. Near our feet, two huge alley cats tumbled in a chaotic ball of flying fur and exposed claws.
Screaming at the top of our lungs, we ran like the wind across the park and straight to the safety of our own homes. It was several days before we sheepishly brought up the subject of that night and by consensus we agreed it was best forgotten.