La Muerte

by Carmen Baca

mexico-1568215_1280
CC0 Creative Commons.

 

“Doña Sebastiana, turn this way!”

“¡Mira pa’ ca!” another voice called from the crowd of parade watchers from the sidewalks. “Look this way!” The flash of a camera followed.

The regal woman sat up more erectly when she realized they were yelling for her attention. Inwardly she smiled as her thoughts echoed her emotions. Me—they’re calling for me! It’s as if I’m queen for the day, and all these people are my subjects! She marveled at the idea that this parade, the decorations of the main street and the plaza park, even the costumed skeletons were all in her honor. The float, decorated with multicolored paper flowers surrounding the throne at the front, made her feel like royalty. All along the parade route, people called out to her as cameras clicked and flashbulbs blinded her vision.

When the parade was over, the fire truck pulling her float went back to the fire station and two firemen helped her down and sat her in a corner of the office. Soon she spied them leaving with her throne in the back of a pickup and wondered why she’d been left behind. When after a short time no one returned to apologize for forgetting her, she realized she wasn’t going to be included in the rest of the festivities. That’s when the anger set in, burning a hole where her heart would’ve been if she had one.

She rose stiffly, for she was very, very old. She made her slow and steady way toward the plaza only a block or so away. Passing costumed festival goers along the sidewalks paid her no notice. This, too, made her anger boil more hotly in her gut. Just a half hour before they’d called to her as though she was their ruler, they’d all waved for her attention, and they’d gone to great lengths to take her picture from every angle. Now, only a few glanced at her as she walked toward her final destination.

Her skeletal face partly hidden beneath the black shawl seemed whiter than usual. Those who passed her didn’t find it strange that in place of her eyes were deep hollow holes. Nor did anyone say a word to her about the realistic-looking bow and arrow she carried in her bony grasp. That she was dressed in black was also nothing to those who did glance at her as they passed. Black was the color of the day for all the witches and vampires just as white dominated those who dressed as ghosts and mummies.

#

Because Las Nubes is in New Mexico, the citizens were used to celebrating Halloween; however, because the town itself is comprised of a primarily Hispanic population whose ancestors were the founding fathers, a group of citizens approached the town council about starting a new tradition: a celebration of El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Normally celebrated in Mexico, this would be a new addition to already established feast days honoring saints. Because the townspeople were thrilled to have yet another occasion to drink, to gorge on the best Spanish dishes, and to make merry, the festival was in full swing on the day of October 31 in the year of our Lord 1934.

The celebration began in the morning with the parade, then after lunch all the business owners along the main street and around the plaza gave out candies to trick or treaters. Mothers and fathers with kids in tow, all dressed in their Halloween best—from the usual ghouls and ghosts to warlocks and devils—walked along the sidewalks or lounged with their bags of candy on the lawn of the public square. It was a family affair and a memorable sight of carefree celebration on that sunny fall day.

So when the skeletal woman sat on the plaza bench to observe the festivities, no one paid her any mind. They barely glanced at the way her teeth smiled in a perpetual grimace for lack of lips. They failed to notice that her fingers of one hand twitched on the glossy black bow or that the fingers of the other hand tapped upon the arrow on her lap. Listening to the conversations around her, the old woman dressed top to toe in black seemed both innocuous and unobtrusive.

“Did you see La Muerte up on that float earlier?” a little boy asked another as they passed.

“Yeah, she always scares me,” his friend replied with a pretend shudder. “I’d hate to run into her in a dark alley.”

“Oh boys,” a lady who might’ve been their mother turned to usher them closer. “You know Doña Sebastiana is only an effigy, she’s not real so you needn’t worry about running across her anywhere.” The lady glanced back and happened to lock eyes with the hollow sockets of the old woman. Realizing who she was looking at made her mouth gape for a second before she shook herself in a real effort to dispel the shiver that ran down her spine and turned to walk away with the boys.

Angered by what she heard, Doña Sebastiana realized she’d only been at the head of the parade as a prop, not as the queen of the day. She stood and looked around her. Multicolored lights and papeles picados, lovely, intricately cut flags similar to snowflake patterns, hung from strings attached to the branches of the trees which lined the outskirts of the park and the sidewalks of the plaza. Food and drink vendors in their colorful stalls hawked their wares to the passing townsfolk; it was a good day for business. Turing in a slow circle to look around her was a bad idea; a glance to her left revealed the fiesta reina, the queen of the feast, seated on her throne in the place of honor at the back of the gazebo which also served as the bandstand. All those handsome men with guitars, violins, and every orchestral horn and brass piece, stood around and before her, singing as if only to her. Oh, Doña Sebastiana was livid! One fist clenched her bow tight enough she heard her knuckles crack with the effort while the other hand closed so forcefully on the sharp arrow it split in two.

The lovely young girl who wore the virginal white fiesta dress of ruffled hand-embroidered layers also wore the most intricate silver crown with turquoise and coral stones set in the center. And Doña Sebastiana’s jealousy consumed her. The crown should’ve been placed upon her head; she deserved the honor. This whole festival should’ve been entirely devoted to her!

It was truly a small town, main street atmosphere, the sight worthy of gracing any national magazine with an advertisement of the festive New Mexico Hispanic culture on a Mexican feast day. No one anticipated what was to come, what would become their own personal horror story that would pass down through generations as a folktale, a legend only those who were there firsthand or those descended from the actual attendees would believe.

Doña Sebastiana turned from the bandstand and began what looked like a leisurely stroll as if searching for a particular treat from the many vendors along the sidewalk. In fact, what she was in search of was a retribution, a reparation, of sorts. If anyone extended a kindness, any kind of deference toward her, they would be spared. Otherwise, she planned to take advantage of the situation and punish any who disrespected her outright. She caught the gaze of a portly gentleman who stood with a cigar between his teeth and walked up to him.

“Good day,” he bowed slightly, “may I interest you in a bag of freshly roasted piñon?”

She gave one faint nod of her own, ever the lady behaving with the best of manners.

When the man scooped the warm nuts into a small paper bag and handed it to her, he said, “That’ll be five cents, please.”

She reached for the package, but the man pulled it back and thrust his other hand toward her, palm up, and repeated, “Five cents, por favor.”

‘How dare he!’ she thought. ‘How dare he require payment from me—me! I’m royalty!’

If she’d had lips, the poor man would’ve seen her sly smile; if she’d had eyelids, he would’ve noticed they’d narrowed. Because her skeletal countenance looked much like most in the crowd, he didn’t even glance at her face. Intent on making a profit with which to feed his family, his gaze remained on her bony fingers, waiting for her to reach into a pocket or a small coin purse, perhaps, to give him his money. Instead, she shook her head only once and began to pass him by. He shrugged and took the cigar from his mouth to bid her good bye before turning away. He didn’t even feel the prick of her arrow when her hand shot forward so suddenly that the sharp point penetrated the flesh on the back of his arm just above the elbow.

As Doña Sebastiana walked away toward another stall with fruit drinks, the man became slowly aware of a prickling sensation on his arm; he began to sweat profusely, and his limbs grew weak. The small woman at the juice stand smiled as the elderly Sebastiana approached. Waving her hand behind and to her left, the woman tried to entice her customer.

“Here we have aguas frescas, fresh pomegranate juice, and that one is orange, followed by lemon, and that one at the end is apple. Which would you prefer?”

Doña Sebastiana merely gave a single nod, giving the shopkeeper a chance to treat her customer like the royalty she truly was. But when the woman only recited the price for the small or medium servings and held her hand ready to receive her money like the other seller, Doña Sebastiana felt her ire rise once more. Lifting her head regally, she began to walk by the smaller lady and heard, “Skinflint, cheapskate,” mumbled under her breath. The shopkeeper made a move to return to the interior of the stall and shoved a bit rudely past the elder one. That was the last straw for Doña Sebastiana. Moving deliberately as if past the stall, she reached out just enough that the point of her needle sharp arrow penetrated the skin on the back of the woman’s neck. Then Doña Sebastiana did move away toward yet another vendor.

Meanwhile, the man who didn’t give her the piñon had gone into the back of his stall where he had a cot, intent on resting for a moment and leaving his son in charge of the sales.

He could see nothing on his skin, but he felt it prickling all over, from head to toe, almost like static electricity was coursing through his body. In reality, everything, from veins, to organs, to muscles, and skin were slowly succumbing to a deathly poison. Not even five minutes had passed since the prick of the arrow, but his skin and everything beneath, except his bones, began dissolving as if some kind of acid was eating away at him. In a matter of a few more moments, the human form melted onto the blanket covering the cot, and his skin sloughed right off—every little element of his human body turned to a black dust and rose like a small terromote, which rose and blew away in a sudden but fast-moving dust devil, leaving only his skeleton in a pile atop his clothing on the cot.

As the juice seller also began experiencing the same prickling of her skin, she too went to the back of her stall to sit for a moment and wait for the feeling to pass. And Doña Sebastiana meandered down the walkway, satisfied with her work thus far. No one took notice of a sudden gust of wind which blew from the bottom of the juice seller’s tarpaulin-covered stall. No eyes watched as it rose upward in a small black whirlwind into the sky. When a child toddled past followed by the father trying to catch up, the old woman looked up and caught the eyes of la Reina, the girl who’d been crowned Queen of the Day, walking toward her without her entourage of princesses. Now here was a target worthy of her deadly accurate arrow, depending on how their encounter went.

Doña Sebastiana maintained eye contact with the young beauty as both came to a slow stop in front of one another. The younger woman looked down her nose at what appeared to be an elderly one standing in her way. Smiling smugly (at least it appeared that way to Dona Sebastiana), she spoke. “Buenos días, I’d like to ask a favor.”

The elder one gave a short nod of acknowledgement.

“I was wondering if I could borrow your bow and arrow for a bit? Its glossy, black paint makes a great contrast to my white dress.”

“So you want it for decoration? Is that it?” Doña Sebastiana asked in almost a whisper so the queen had to lean in and down to hear. “The answer is no.”

No further explanation came, so the young woman merely shrugged and lifted her shirts with one hand as she moved past the older one. Under her breath she murmured, “Old bat. How rude!” and didn’t even notice when the point of the deadly arrow pricked the fleshy part of her upper arm.

As Doña Sebastiana wandered slowly down the sidewalk, the Reina began to experience discomfort and slipped into the back of a nearby parked automobile to lie down for a bit. Not five minutes later, no one noticed a puff of black inside the car which emerged through an open window and rose like a small tornado to dissipate only after rising high into the sky. Had anyone bothered to look in the back seat, they’d have run screaming at the sight of the lifeless skull and 184 bones which lay on a pure white fiesta dress.

Doña Sebastiana was feeling a bit tired herself. She’d over extended her efforts to be polite, and it cost her much energy to use her arrow on her three victims who were less polite than she. Finally reaching the fire station from where she’d begun her little journey, she sat back in the same chair where she’d been placed by the firemen earlier and fell asleep.

#

It was full dark when she awoke and through a sliver of moonlight coming from a window to her left, she realized she’d been taken from the firehouse and placed in her usual location: the local museum where she’d been housed for the past hundred and forty years. She had served for most of her youth as the effigy of the local Brotherhood of Hermanos who held her in esteem, paraded her in their processions, and often prayed to her to give their families and friends a quiet death and safe passage to heaven. When the Brotherhood disbanded, she was donated to the museum where she reigned in her place of honor amongst historical artifacts.

 

 

Carmen Baca taught a variety of English and history courses, mostly at the high school and college levels, over the course of thirty-six years before retiring in 2014. She is a member of the Las Vegas chapter of the New Mexico Association of Educational Retirees. Her command of both English and Spanish enables her to write with true story-telling talent. Set in the early nineteen hundreds, her debut novel El Hermano provides historical insight into the life of a rural community which embraced los Hermanos and welcomed their selfless acts of charity. Since launching her book, Carmen has published two short stories, “Word Play” in Prodigal’s Chair, “Baile de Diablo” in Across the Margin, and one article “Using Nuestra Cultura in Romance” in ALBSALBT (A Little Bit Sweet, A Little Bit Tart)—a woman’s blog. Living on the land left to her by her father, she and her husband enjoy a peaceful county life in northern New Mexico.
http://amazon.com/author/carmenbaca  link to Carmen’s book
http://acrossthemargin.com/baile-7 link to “Baile de Diablo”
http://www.prodigalschair.com/ link to “Word Play”
http://wp.me/p2PzGm-2zV link to “Using Nuestra Cultura in Romance”
https://www.facebook.com/hermano1928/   Facebook author page
Twitter @bacacarmen1
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