Here we are on another Tuesday, and it seems to be story time once again! I have a ghost story for everyone this week. Set in Mexico where the spirits of the dead are sacred. Once again I have broken the short story into two parts so as not to flood your screen with a huge post. The second half will be posted as usual on Thursday. Also on Thursday I will post the story complete on the Short Fiction Page with the others.
I hope everyone enjoys the ride and please feel free to comment. Thanks for stopping by!
The brazen riffled call of trumpets crackled through the old worn speakers in the cab of the truck. The guitar fluttered wildly, a mariachi tune that playfully accompanied the the merriment of the circus. The volume was turned up to the point the speakers belted squawks of static through the open windows. The owner of the dusty old truck stood near the covered bed knocking dust from the faded sign. The once bright colored words were now dull and the wood was chipped from years of neglect. Though still the name Pedro’s Tiny Circus was plainly visible in faded gold paint.
The owner, Pedro as he was called, always wore a heavy long coat of dusty brown, with thick matching leather gloves now cracked and dingy with wear. The broad brimmed hat was pulled low over what looked like a shaggy wig, his real hair lost long ago. The truck’s bed was covered with a poorly built plywood frame, though old curtains hung inside. As they parted the children gathered before it smiled in wonderment at the miniature trapeze and puppet that swung over the top of the small three ring floor. Tiny uni-cycles with marionettes rode around one ring. Another had what looked to be a series of jugglers tossing multi-colored balls into the air, none bigger than a pea. The third ring had a puppet on a bicycle with balancing pole riding across a thread thin high-wire. And the children watched as if they saw real people, tiny and held by string.
The parents stood farther back, watching the glow of their children’s faces. Pedro chuckled softly as he lifted the small wooden box and moved it into the cab of the old truck as the sun began to set. The box clunked and jingled quietly from the pesos it held. The rough desert countryside of Mexico was beautiful in the dying daylight of the setting sun. Thirty miles outside of Oaxaca with a backdrop of mountains in the small town of Santo Domingo. The show was coming to an end, the children cheered as the tiny marionette performers bowed to the audience. They ran laughing back to their parents as Pedro closed the curtain and lowered the wooden wall frame, latching it shut. No child was left to wonder who had masterfully controlled the marionettes, and no parent asked.
There was a sudden commotion among the parents. A woman clutched her young daughter looking frantically about at the faces of the other children.
“Juan! Where is my Juan!” She screamed, searching for her son, her eldest child.
He was nowhere to be seen. The woman, Maria Guadalupe, ran to Pedro. “Please, have you seen my son Juan? He was right here! Where did he go?” Then turning towards the other people gathered, “Juan!”
Pedro only shook his head, never lifting his face to meet her eyes. “I did not see him,” he said in his old ragged voice.
“You must have! He was the first to pay for the show! You have his pesos in your box, I know you do! You must have seen him! You must have!”
But Juan was gone, there was no trace of him. As the other parents took hold of the hysterical Maria Guadalupe, she saw the glint of Pedro’s old yellow eyes watching her. The ashen white of his skeletal face. As Pedro reached up to pull the hat lower over his eyes she could see the scaled bird like wrist from beneath the heavy glove.
“Enorme!” She cried. “Monster!”
* * * * *
Forty years later.
Francisco Domingo Mendoza Ruiz rubbed out his eyes as he looked at the blinking red clock face. It was 5:30 in the morning. He swung his legs out of bed and made his sluggish way into the tiny space he called a kitchen. There wasn’t much room for anything else aside from the small stove, refrigerator, and sink. Two small cabinets held what few dishes he had, and the cupboard had to share space with dry foods. He filled the four-cup coffee maker and lit a cigarette, waiting. He knew his grandmother would call soon, as she did every morning despite the fact he had been to see her every morning since his father died four years ago. His mother had sadly passed when he was born.
Francisco looked down the small hallway to his room. 5:45 am. The phone rang.
“Buenos dias Abuela,” he answered.
“Francisco? Is Francisco there?”
“Yes Abuela. It’s me, I’m the only one who lives here, remember?”
“Francisco, you have to get up for church. And you can’t be late for work. I’ll see you for church.” She was persistent.
“Si, Abuela. Ten minutes, okay. I’ll be right over.”
Francisco stepped back into the kitchen and splashed some coffee into a cheap plastic cup, taking it with him to the room. He threw on a clean pair of jeans and a button-up shirt, tucked in, and a well polished pair of cowboy boots. As he snubbed out the cigarette and finished his coffee he grabbed his keys from the dresser and walked out the front door, locking it behind him. It was a short walk to his Grandmother’s small house halfway down the dusty road. The church bells were just starting to ring as he met her at her door. She leaned on her cane as she hobbled down the two steps to the road and took Francisco’s arm.
“Your mother would be proud that you take me to church every morning Francisco. Such a good nieto,” she said.
Francisco could feel the tension in her voice. It came every year around the same time. Today was the day her son, who would have been his uncle, went missing forty years ago. Francisco’s Grandmother, Maria Guadalupe Chavez y Ruiz, swore her Juan Carlos had been stolen by a monster. She claimed to have seen the monster and had said that the devil took her son. She had been searching for it since that day. But today, the tension lighter and a glimmer of something else held her eyes.
“Tonight, after you come home from work, I am making your favorite, Chili Relleno. We have much to talk about Francisco. I need you to help me with something very important.” She gently squeezed his arm. “I have found the Cihuateotl, the demon that took your Uncle. I know what it is and I know how to destroy it. But I will tell you tonight. Now, it is time for church. We must pray hard today Francisco, we will need the help of God today.”
Francisco helped her up the steps and into the old adobe church. He did his best to smile and shake hands with the people he passed, but it was difficult. He worried for his Grandmother, she had never been so intent about anything, or so delusional before this day.
All that day at work, Francisco was distracted. He repeated what his Grandmother had said over and over in his mind. It made for a long day, staying focused on his task was nearly impossible. He worried that his Grandmother was loosing her mind, a touch of too much age. One of his friends had moved away when his Grandfather had gone senile. It was sad to think that now it was happening to his Abuela.
Despite his distraction, he finished his day and found his way home to shower. Francisco redressed and walked the short way to his Grandmother’s house in the cooling afternoon. He felt as though it should be a darker day, perhaps rain, something that would more fit his mood. He rapped quickly on the door and let himself in. The aroma hanging in the air was mouth-watering. The scent of the Chili Relleno, the beans, the rice, the fresh made tortillas. But mingled with the smell of dinner, there was something else. Something earthy with a hint of burnt wood.
“Abuela? I’m here,” he called into the house.
Francisco stepped into the kitchen and found it empty. Steaming pots left unattended. The table was set with three plates. Francisco hoped that his Grandmother wasn’t trying to marry him off again to one of her friends’ daughters or granddaughters.
“Abuela? Where are you?”
The house grew dark, though wasn’t it dark when he had entered? The scent of heavy sugar filled the living room, like syrup hanging in the air. There was a strange sound in the bedroom at the back of the house. He slowly walked towards it, the hallway stretching before him. Francisco heard his Grandmother cry out and started to run, though the faster he ran the longer the hallway grew. At the far end there was a bright golden light shining out from the doorway. There were shadows playing through the light.
Francisco was shouting then, screaming for his Grandmother. He could hear her strained cries and he let out a terrible howl as thick red blood sprayed across the floor. It glistened in the light from the door as it slowly spread across the hall. Then the thing rose up before him. A gleaming white skull with cloudy yellow eyes. It reached out for him with the claws of a great bird. Scaled hands clutching at his clothes, blood dripping from the thick black talons.
He screamed out again and his Grandmother jumped back, nearly falling over the small table in the living room. Francisco was drenched in sweat where he sat in the recliner.
“Francisco you were crying out in your sleep, my nieto. You are safe here,” she said.
“Dios mio, Abuela,” he said. “I had a terrible pesadilla. There was a monster and you were-” Francisco shook the sanguine image from his head. “It was awful.”
“Nightmare or not, you watch your language Francisco. I’ll not have you take God’s name in such a way in my house.” She wagged a finger at him. “Put it from your mind, nieto. You only fell asleep in the chair. I am fine, you are fine. And dinner is ready!”
She spun on her cane and hurried into the kitchen calling out behind her, “Wash your hands before you come to the table!”
After eating, Francisco helped clear the dishes from the table as Maria Guadalupe made some coffee. She put the leftover food away, making sure to leave a heaped plateful for Francisco to take home with him and began washing the pots and pans.
“Now, I must tell you about your Tio. About the night he was taken, and about the spirit that took him.” She sounded very serious as she scrubbed away in the sink.
“Abuela, that was so long ago. I wasn’t even born yet. Maybe you should let it go,” it hurt to say but Francisco felt he needed to.
“No! I cannot Francisco. I think I may have found a way to save him.” She dropped the wash rag in the sink and turned to face him. “I can save my Juan Carlos, and all the other children,” she said stepping towards him and taking his hands. “There is something I need you to see, nieto.”
She led him down the hallway to the small second room, the room that was his mothers when she was young. She pushed open the door and walked in. Francisco stood in the hall starring. The walls were covered in newspaper clippings. Articles about missing children going back at least forty years, maybe more. Another wall was covered by a large map of Central Mexico with red thumbtacks pressed in across the desert and mountain towns.
Francisco slowly stepped in and turned, looking at the pictures in the newspaper scraps. Every one had a tiny picture of a child and most had pictures of the last location they were seen in.
“Abuela, this is going too far.”
“No, nieto. It is not going far enough! Step closer and look at them. Look at all the children here! Look at the pictures of where they went missing, what do you see?”
Francisco looked. “I see Policia. I see crying parents.”
“I will tell you what you also see, but refuse to notice. Look in the background of every one of these pictures. It is there!”
Francisco looked closer. In every picture of the last location the children were seen was an old man in a long coat and hat standing next to a an old pick-up truck. A tiny faded sign read: Pedro’s Tiny Circus.
“Abuela, the marionette circus truck? I’m sure the Policia would have checked. This man Pedro was probably a suspect, no?”
“Of course he was. And the Policia looked through his truck each time. There was no trace of anything. No children, no evidence. But I know better, I remember what I saw. It was his eyes, nieto. Those old yellow eyes and the grey skin with scales like a lizard or a bird.”
A chill ran up Francisco’s back then, standing his hairs on end and covering his body in goose flesh. How could she know? He had said nothing of his pesadilla, made no mention of the nightmare at all. He was beginning to feel a bit light-headed.
“I know what I saw Francisco,” she said gravely. “And I know how to kill it. That is the only way to save the children and let their souls be free to go to Heaven. The evil spirit must die, nieto.”
“Let’s say I believe this Abuela. How would you kill a spirit? How do you kill a- what did you say it was called?”
“Cihuateotl. They are known as Divine Women, but also malign spirits. The Azteca treated these women who died during childbirth with great reverence, like they were fallen soldiers. Their physical bodies gave strength to the warriors, but their dark angry spirits were feared and became Cihuateteo and they followed the setting sun to the west.”
Maria Guadalupe took an old leather bound book from a small shelf and handed it to Francisco. She opened it to a marked page displaying an ancient picture of a woman with a skull face and bird claws for hands wearing a flowing gown and headdress adorned with feathers.
She continued, “They haunt crossroads at night, nieto. They steal children to replace the child they could not keep. They spread sickness and madness. They seduce men into misbehaving. You must be especially careful when we go to kill it Francisco. Wear your rosary, and let the Cihuateotl see you are wearing it!”
Francisco found himself believing. “But how can it be killed, Abuela? Why are we going after this old man if the spirit is a woman?”
“The old man from the circus is a disguise, nieto! It hides itself from us. We must find where it has hidden the one thing that ties it to our world. It will be in the circus truck, it has to be! It will be an ancient stone statue. An idol of the Azteca goddess, Tlazolteotl. We must destroy it! It will send the spirit back to the land of the dead and the children will be free to join God! We cannot fail, nieto! Los ninos are counting on us to succeed!”
Francisco closed the book and set it back on the small shelf. It felt as if his head was spinning, the walls closing in around him. He tugged at the collar of his shirt trying to breath. And then everything went black, his twitching body dropping to the floor.
* * * * *
Tune in Thursday for the exciting conclusion!