Written by: Joseph D. Stirling (2013)
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.
“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.
Maria Guadalupe ran to her front door and yelled to her neighbor who worked as a nurse in the small clinic in town. She came running and helped to move Francisco into the living room, laying him on the couch.
“Can you watch my nieto, Ana Maya? I must go, it is muy impotante.” Maria Guadalupe dug into Francisco’s shirt pocket for his keys. “Tell him I have his truck and not to worry when he wakes. I thought he could do this with me, but I fear this must be done alone.”
“What are you talking about, Maria?”
“Do not worry yourself. All will be fine,” said Maria Guadalupe.
She pulled a shawl around her shoulders and pinned it with a simple brooch. Maria took her cane from where it rested against the wall and made her way out the door. She passed one final look back to where her grandson lay unconscious on the couch and crossed herself with her free hand. Then she shut the door and hobbled down the two steps to the street and walked the short distance to Francisco’s house. She climbed into his truck and started it.
She gripped the wheel for a moment. Tonight, as it was forty years ago, she would see the monster. It would be in the same place that it had taken her son so many years before. Maria only hoped she could stop it before it took any more children. She dropped the lever into drive and stepped on the gas, the truck jerking forward as she sped out of town.
In the fading light of the day the countryside was aglow with orange and red from the setting sun. Swathes of shadow spread over the mountainous desert. The trail of dust from the truck rose into the air and danced with the breezes. Maria found herself thinking back to that night as the truck bounced down the dirt road. The eyes of the old man who was no old man. The scaled wrists buried in those thick gloves. The long dusty coat and the wide hat pulled low over it’s face. She shivered slightly as she rounded a bend in the road.
Maria Guadalupe pressed hard on the brakes. Down in the shallow valley she could see the truck. The faded sign in blue and red with chipped gold lettering. The spirit was there too. It lifted the section of wall from the stage platform in the back of the pick-up truck. The tattered curtains were pulled shut but Maria knew what was behind them. The missing children, their spirits trapped in the puppets that made up the monsters tiny circus.
Maria glanced to the horizon, the sun was just beginning to touch the edges of the world. Soon the people would be here to watch the puppet show, to watch the marionette children. She would have to act quickly.
Maria stepped on the gas and the sand and rocks scattered beneath the tires of the truck. The old man, the ghastly spirit, looked up from placing the coin box as Maria rocketed down the low hill. Without warning, Maria smashed her grandson’s truck into the circus truck. Steel screamed, steam hissed, and puppets flew through the air as the wreck slid through the dirt. Pedro simply stood holding the coin box and watched.
Maria slowly eased herself up in the seat, reaching for her cane as she tried to push the door open. With a groan of hinges it moved and she slid from the seat. Maria hobbled from the truck praying quietly, her eyes fixed on Pedro.
“Tell me your real name monster,” she said. “You are not Pedro. I know that. You’re not even a man, you have no machismo. What is your real name?”
From beneath the brim of the hat, a toothy smile and a flash of bright yellow eye. Pedro set the coin box down and moved closer, whispering softly.
“I have a connection to your grandson. The things I could make him do to that poor Nurse you left him with. Or maybe I will just take him too.”
Maria pulled out her rosary and wrapped it around her free hand. She moved with her cane through the sand of the dirt road with purpose. She still did not know quite what she was doing but knew that if the spirit was still here then the idol that bound it could not have been damaged in the collision. She had to find it.
“You cannot have him spirit. You cannot keep the other children. You are not of this world and so you must go! You must go spirit!”
Maria could feel the pain in her hip starting to scream at her, and she saw that Pedro knew. She hobbled to the trucks and leaned, the evil spirit calmly watching. Maria tried to peek into the cab, but she could nothing other than old clothes and newspapers, empty food cartons, and dirty plastic bottles.
Pedro slipped the hat from its head and let it fall to the ground. Next it pulled off the wig, the white of the skull gleaming in the setting sunlight. Its bright yellow eyes were unblinking, lidless, and shone with a light like a jack-o-lantern. It peeled the cracked leather gloves from its hands revealing the claws of an eagle, black talons sparkling.
Maria’s breath caught in her throat. She had known from pictures how it would look, but the reality seemed to her far more gruesome. She clutched the rosary to her chest and hobbled towards it, forcing herself with a renewed strength. As she glanced around at the scattered marionette puppets, she thought only of the children.
Pedro stepped ever closer, taking its time as a cat would sneak up on an unsuspecting bird. It seemed to smile, a strange expression on the boney face. Maria saw then what it was doing, how it was moving, but she had to be sure. She moved to her left with the aid of her cane, moving again towards the circus truck.
She made ready to lunge at the evil spirit but something caught her eye. It was one of the marionettes, the look on the small painted face was the look of her long missing son. She gasped and knelt to pick him up from the dirt road. Her hip protested but she could not help herself, it was her Juan Carlos. Pedro only laughed, a dry cackle.
“Take him and go, but leave the others. They are mine,” it said. Then whispering in that papery thin voice, “I love them so.”
Maria gently kissed the puppet and laid the tiny bundle back on the road.
“No, they all go home tonight,” said Maria.
Maria moaned softly as she stood, the crash had aggravated her already painful hip. She looked into its yellow eyes, a smile of her own forming. Quickly she looked up the low hill letting her eyes widen.
“They come! And you have lost your disguise!” Maria yelled.
Pedro turned its head and saw nothing on the top of the hill, it was empty. No people. But it was enough. Maria lunged forward as fast as her weakened sore joints would let her. She swung her cane and hooked the coin box, pulling it hard to the ground. There was a heavy thud from within, a chip of stone clattering as the old dry wood splintered. Pedro shrieked, its body flickering like a dying light bulb.
“I am Maria Guadalupe Chavez y Ruiz, these children are going free spirit!”
She limped to stand before Pedro as it dropped to the ground wailing. Sweat was beading on her forehead and cheeks as she gripped her rosary tightly, leaning on her cane.
“Padre nuestro que estás en el cielo, santificado sea Tu nombre, hágase tu voluntad así en la tierra como en el cielo. Danos hoy nuestro pan de cada día, perdona nuestras ofensas, así como perdonamos a los que nos ofrenden. No nos dejes caer en la tentación, y líbranos del mal. Amén,” she crossed her chest as she finished the prayer.
Maria left the thing as it faded away. She gathered every marionette from truck and surrounding area, making sure to count them until she was sure she had every one. Maria dug an old duffle-bag from behind the seat of her grandson’s pick-up truck and placed the puppets inside. As she slung the bag over her shoulder, breathing heavy, she began limping her way up the low hill. As she reached the top she looked back down on the ruin of Pedro’s Tiny Circus. All that was left was empty clothes and a broken stage amid the wreck of two trucks.
Maria smiled as the apparitions of dozens of children blinked into the road. Their transparent glow lit the dirt road around Maria, each child laughing and dancing. Maria wiped tears of joy from her eyes as the spirits of the children lifted into the air. Her son Juan stood before her and reached out to hug her before joining the other children. As the sun set, the children were gone. Maria knew they had found their place by the Lord’s side. She turned back to the road back to town and began her slow walk home.
©June2013 Joseph D. Stirling