A novel by Carmen Baca Somewhere in the void of nothingness where la Llorona had been keeping herself in secluded oblivion for the past decade, there was a spark of something. Almost as if the small ember beneath the kindling set to light the morning fire came to life with the breath of a breeze, something in the old ghost’s mind ignited and came alive once again. She couldn’t quite grasp what it was that sparked her to consciousness, but she knew it could only be one thing: Rosita or someone she loved was approaching the boundaries which kept her restrained to the southwest.
As the Tapias had made their home so far away from anything they ever knew and tried consciously not to think of the ghost who was the cause of their move, she lay dormant. Not moving, barely existing, but thinking, always thinking of her revenge and plotting different means to accomplish it when the time was right. She relied on the patience she'd developed over the 148 years of her eternal life.
From time to time, her own son came into her mind and had she been able to cry tears, she would have flooded her location with years of sobs. Instead, she tried minute after minute, hour after hour, and day upon day to reach the Tapia family with her thoughts. Searching everywhere for the boy who escaped her clutches and whom she longed to capture and never release, she did not give up her quest, even though she knew her boundaries limited her reach. In Rosita's old neighborhood, there was a house which held promise. There lived a young woman about the same age as Christino, and like clockwork every Sunday evening she sensed a connection between this girl and the young man though she could also tell there was some distance between the two. She felt that using this girl would enable her to get closer to her goal, and she bided her time until this something or someone crossed the southwest boundaries and fell into her hands. That's how relentless she was and how ruthless.
So, while one part of her mind acted like the ever-undulating snakes sprouting from the head of Medusa constantly using their forked tongues to feel for her prey, she used another part to entertain herself with the memories of contented times to pass her period of isolation. Of course, her chief enjoyment was recollecting all the instances she had encountered humans.
She recalled an occasion where she had just bitten into a succulent wild strawberry she found in an orchard when she spotted a trio of adolescent boys walking past. Sure they were up to no good—apple stealing, most likely—she moved to stand before them when they paused under the first large tree with fruit-laden branches which almost touched the ground.
Before they could move, she blew a strawberry-scented breath into their faces, first left to right and then back again, watching as their eyes opened wide and their mouths too in preparation to speak.
"Did you feel that—" "Oh, Shi—"
Thoughts did not quite make the exclamations complete so quickly did they take steps back. Each turned in all directions to figure out what it was.
"There's no wind," reasoned one.
Another, who began shuffling a foot through the fallen leaves and underbrush and looking at the growth, chimed in, "I don't see a single strawberry."
Then the last said what they had all been hoping none would voice: "La Llorona—it had to be!"
As if to prove him right, an apple fell from the tree they stood beneath and hovered before them in the air as though suspended from invisible string. María had it from the stem and allowed it to swing toward the boy who had said her ill-gotten name. Then the ghost let it loose where it struck him smack in the center of his chest. She didn't throw it hard; it barely hit with a small thump, but he fell back in a faint.
"Oh, my God! He's dead!"
"Quick, grab his arm!"
The other two took an arm and dragged the boy backward as fast as they could get away with tree limbs and shrubs in their path. No matter—though the boy's head got stuck in a large weed once and bumped into a small log on their way out of the arbolera, the three kept going until she could see them no longer.
The memory triggered more, and María retained her position where she lay, knowing the end to her self-imposed banishment was near. She need not waste what time she had to remain dormant in guessing what was to come.
# So, as the two travelers made their way down the Alaskan coast toward Washington, still far from their destination, the evil phantasm the older one wanted to avoid and the younger one knew nothing about kept her senses aware. With each mile that passed, she kept her patient vigil. The days of travel passed routinely for Thomas and Tino; as the number of miles beneath the car's tires grew, so did Tino's impatience to get to their final destination. The earthquake of 1964—ten years before—when he'd been five-years-old, bothered him. Sometimes, when any significant alteration of his daily routine occurred, he became so anxious that Rosita had to teach him how to ward off panic attacks and accept what he couldn't change. Marisol's leaving was an especially trying time for the boy, but the weekly phone calls and letters between the two kept him from experiencing too much anxiety. Rosita hoped the intervening years between Marisol's departure and Tino's reaching his eighteenth year would make him more amenable to change, and she worried about his leaving to college at all if he weren't able to adapt. But then Marisol's mysterious illness arose, and the defect in his character seemed to disappear from the moment he heard her mother's tearful voice say, "Oh, hito, I think our Mari's dying." Concern for the love of his life had done what nothing else, not even subsequent earthquakes brought by Mother Nature herself, could have made him do in all his formative years—accept change and move forward with it, rather than pretend it wasn't happening or worry himself sick over it. He had a quest at last, and a journey ahead that would prove his mettle. Like Odysseus, Tino would face dangers he didn't expect. Unlike the epic hero though, Tino had no idea. So Thomas and Tino traveled through Washington, the top right corner of Oregon, and the bottom left corner of Idaho without incident and made good time. Thomas gave the wheel over to Tino on the long, flat stretches of highway so he could rest his eyes to make the best time of the almost twenty-three-hour trip. Thomas needed no sleep, no resting of any body part, but he had to convince others he was human. And so he did human things he remembered but had no need for any longer. When they reached Utah, something happened which made Thomas well-aware they had reached the southwest. As he drove down the highway, Thomas began getting the feeling he always did when he sensed danger. He glanced at his passenger and saw Tino was awake, so he asked him to keep an eye out. "For?" "I don't know, but something feels off, like maybe a thunderstorm is coming." "I don't see—" Tino began, and left his statement unfinished when he saw it. A sudden dust devil appeared to their right off in the distance, which was strange because Utah isn't known for tornados. Tino called attention to it, but Thomas had already seen it and was debating either accelerating or decelerating to avoid it since it looked to be coming right for the road they were on. "What the heck—" Tino began when it shifted course and seemed to head right at them. It seemed Mother Nature wasn't finished teaching Tino lessons. "Hang on!" Thomas did speed up then, the car shaking and rattling as it shot over eighty miles per hour and the dust devil spun itself into a full-blown tornado. Rocks, gravel, brush, small branches, tumbleweeds, and who knew what else slammed into the vehicle on all sides as Thomas fought with the steering wheel which was shaking so badly Tino feared it would fly right out of his friend's fists. And just as fast as the twister hit, it blew itself out with a giant puff of dirt and dust behind them. Thomas looked at Tino; Tino looked right back. "Did you see that? What was that? Why did—" Thomas held up a hand as he began slowing the car to its normal pace but kept going. "I'm not sure why it happened just as we passed, but that twister must've caught a nice updraft to form as fast as it did," he offered a half-educated opinion and hoped he'd halted Tino's questions. He knew the young man was ignorant about his mother's plight with la Llorona, and he didn't think it was his place to set him straight. And though he didn't like not being truthful with Tino, he didn't know what else to do. Surely, he needed to have a conversation with Doña Sebastiana after all. After another period of travel, they reached a small town. Here was as good as anywhere, Thomas thought, to have supper and a short rest before continuing on. So the two stopped at a quaint diner with '50s memorabilia, and Thomas waited for the inevitable questions Tino was bound to have. The younger man surprised him, however, and spent the time waiting for their order by strolling along the walls featuring old black and white photographs of '50s stars and plugging quarters into the jukebox. When their food arrived, they ate as though they hadn't eaten in days and sat back when they finished, sated and lazy with the fullness of their stomachs. They didn't waste time, both anxious to get going again and left shortly thereafter. Before long, they crossed into the southwest corner of Colorado, and again, Thomas listened to his inner voice warning him of impending danger. Again, he asked Tino to keep vigilant. "Not again," he groaned, sitting up in his seat and sweeping his gaze from one end of the windshield to the other. Turning in his seat to look behind, he saw nothing amiss in any direction. He should've looked up. Everything happened simultaneously—just as they were passing an especially high cliff to their left with a precipitous drop to a canyon on the right, Thomas' acute intuition kicked in, and both he and Tino heard a rumbling from above. The older man floored the accelerator at the same time a boulder larger than the car crashed onto the highway behind them. Slamming on the brakes, Thomas jumped out of the car on his side, and Tino did the same on the other. "Did you know that was going to happen?" He looked wide-eyed at his mentor. Then he accused, "You knew that was going to happen. How, why—" "I heard the rumble before you did, I guess," Thomas interrupted. "I've always had exceptional hearing," he added as both looked back at the cars that were lining up one behind the other due to the obstacle in their way. "At least we're not trapped on the wrong side of that rock." He got back into the car, and Tino followed suit. When Thomas offered no more explanation, Tino remained quiet, vigilant eyes looking in all directions. As he drove, Thomas' thoughts took him back to the twister in Utah and the landslide in Colorado. He had a feeling in his gut the incidents had been orchestrated, not accidental. There was something more at play here, and he wondered if he should let Doña Sebastiana know. Then again, the ancient one knew almost everything, so he determined to be extra alert and keep his concern at bay unless more happened to cause concern.
Finally crossing the state line into the uppermost corner of New Mexico, the travelers were anxious to arrive. Thomas knew, though, that here was the most danger—and now he realized that the boundaries which held María in this land of enchantment were more of her own making than that of a higher power. Thomas had read up on the state, which he now entered. This land held so much more than beautiful vistas. It was home to a melting pot of peoples: several Native American tribes, Hispanics whose ancestors settled here from mainly Mexico and Spain, and many others of varied and many nationalities, races, and cultures who sought the peace and serenity of the diverse landscapes the state provided. From mountain ranges in the north and south-central portions, to desert like sections in the southwest, central and south eastern parts, with gorges and rock formations, cliff dwellings and caverns, the state had much to offer its residents and tourists alike. So many who ventured into the enchanted part of the southwestern United States fell in love with the varied landscapes and left their homes elsewhere for the fresh air and mystic mystery of the place. It was no wonder la Llorona and so many others of her ilk refused to leave it even when they passed. Haunting their favorite places, from hotels to individual houses, cemeteries, and churches, bars and brothels alike, like Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner, an unknown woman in white by the highway around Santa Rosa, and even a little boy haunting the Kimo Theatre in Albuquerque. New Mexico has always been a safe haven for ghosts. And they were spotted regularly enough that everyone believed in all of them.
The legend of la Llorona was, by far, the most widely known, however. She was the only one who had been spotted through the recent centuries in all of the south west states. Others, like el serpiente, were seen in specific locations. There were still others who were spotted in many places, but they seemed to be ghosts of different people. It was la Llorona, the Weeping Woman, who was spotted throughout the decades searching for her lost children as she wandered along both lush and nearly barren river banks from Utah, to California, to Mexico and the states between.
Just as Thomas approached the border at the top corner of the state, his intuition kicked in, stronger than at any time since his demise on the train collision. It was a punch to his mid-section that left him bent in pain as the hand not on the wheel pressed hard against his stomach. He inhaled with the intensity of the blow and sat up straight so fast his spine gave a crack.
And it was gone.
The moment the car flew past the state line dividing Colorado from New Mexico, he felt exhilarated—still concerned, wary, but not fearful—gee, had it been fear—he wondered, interrupting his own thoughts.
He shook his head and rubbed his eyes, alert like a watchdog to danger he senses in each bristle of hair on his spine, but not yet having caught the scent sufficiently to know what or where it was. Thomas opened his mouth to tell Tino once again to watch out for something, but there was a whoosh to his right—a blast of light from the window next to Tino as though something like a fireball had been flung from the sky into the forest with great strength.
"Ahhh!" The two pitches of baritone from older and younger man simultaneously would’ve been funny, especially when they turned to look into each other’s wide eyes before turning again to the woods. But what they saw was far from humorous.
Thomas floored the gas pedal for the third time and caused Tino to clutch what he could find to hold on. The trees caught fire, and within seconds the flames raced toward them.
Tongues of red, orange, yellow, and even white flames fluttered and reached for them. When the car shot forward, so did the fire. It was as though a giant had blown a big breath toward them right from the spot of the initial explosion. The danger was immediate; Thomas felt the heat of the flames as they shot over the roof of the car before it accelerated. When Tino, crouching still in the passenger seat, looked into the door mirror, he could swear the flames formed a giant face—the face of a woman who seemed to be crying fire. He rubbed his eyes with both fists, blinked several times, and looked again. The flames were gone; there was no fire. Only a plume of black smoke rose into the sky like a finger pointing ever upward. And as it rose higher, the black turned gray, then white, and then dissipated into the air into nothing. The forest was intact, the trees as green as they always were.
"I did not imagine that." Tino’s voice started with a quaver and finished with certainty. "What innocent explanation are you going to try to cover this disaster up with? At least with the avalanche you didn’t even try to explain, but with that tornado—when you tried to make light of it—nuh huh, no, no way. I need the truth, Thomas. Don’t try to pacify me anymore. There’s something up—something that’s been going on for a while, I can tell. I just don’t know what it is or why it seems to target us. This has to do with my parents' refusal to come back to New Mexico, doesn't it?"
Within a few hours, Thomas knew they’d reach their destination. He hadn’t changed his mind. He was not the one to tell the boy the truth.
"You need to go to sleep, son." "Whaaa—" "Hear me out." The hand he held up caused Tino to shut his mouth. "Because of what you’ve witnessed on this trip, you should trust what I’m about to tell you will work, and do as I say. The answers you seek will come to you in sleep. Only in a deep, genuine sleep. So force yourself to relax with the sound of the road beneath the tires and the silence of the air around you. Sleep."
He said no more, and Tino didn’t ask for more. Just as he had stopped asking questions about the matter through the years because his parents always refused to answer, he knew he had to stop now and do as his older friend said. He gave himself a shake, loosening his limbs from tense to relaxed, leaned back against his seat, and crossed his arms over his chest. With a deep sigh, he closed his eyes and gave sleep his best effort. For a few miles, nothing happened. His mind swirled with questions and answers he guessed at, and he didn’t think he could stand a moment longer trying to quiet his thoughts. And that was when sleep came and drove his consciousness down into blackness, nothingness, and left his mind open and malleable to the entrance of the ancient ghost’s thoughts.
Carmen Baca taught a variety of English and history courses from grades six through twelve and college levels over the course of thirty-six years before retiring in 2014. Her command of both English and Spanish enables her to write with true story-telling talent. Her debut novel, El Hermano, published in April of 2017 and became a NM-AZ Book Award Finalist. She has since published three more books and twenty-three short pieces in online literary magazines, women’s blogs, and anthologies. She and her husband enjoy a quiet life in the country, caring for the land and for their animals.