Carmen Baca taught high school and college English for thirty-six years before retiring in 2014. Her command of English and her regional Spanish dialect contribute to her regionalistic story-telling style. Her inclusion of traditions, customs, superstitions, folktales, and other facets of the culture is deliberate and calculated to keep the reader in the story while learning about the Hispanos of New Mexico. She has 6 books and close to 70 short publications to date.
An Unexpected Visitation
Santa Muerte left the World of the Forgotten that November day, pleased to have a reason to fly to Earth other than for her intended purpose. Delivering the dead to their eternal homes left the Saint with rare moments to herself. Having stopped to check on the inhabitants of the Forgotten World on her way back from Heaven, she discovered one had come down to Earth. For days, she tried and failed to bring the shapeshifter known as Lechuza back. As a last resort, Santa Muerte did something she’d never done before: she enlisted the help of the only human who’d ever seen her and lived. She zeroed in on Bella Montoya, the girl she had enticed into the Forgotten World a few months prior.
Santa Muerte created the world between Heaven and Earth as a stopping place for the spirits who had yet to reach their eternal afterlives. To move on, the inhabitants needed someone to keep their stories and, thus their memories alive or face oblivion. Santa Muerte’s machinations put Bella into the role of savior. The girl spent a little over a week in the other world where the spirits of the dead welcomed her, and the ghouls of the night educated her. She would be their story collector and keeper of their memories.
When Bella returned from el Mundo de los Olvidados, she didn’t expect to see Santa Muerte again, not for a long while, anyway. The Señora had told her on their way back they wouldn’t meet again until Bella’s death day. But the Señora was Doña Sebastiana, Santa Muerte—the highest saint of them all, after all. She pretty much did as she pleased. So when Bella looked up from the tree trunk where she’d been seated on what she called her mountain and saw her unexpected visitor, she did a double take and shot to her feet.
“Oh,” she cried, “I’m dying today?” Her body language and her tone changed from alarm
to reluctant acceptance, “I’m dying today.”
What? No, no, it’s not what you think. Santa Muerte held a hand up and rushed through her explanation as she glided closer. I know I told you the next time you would see me would be the day of your death, but this isn’t that. I’m here for a different reason; no cause for alarm. I need your ayuda.
No cause for alarm, uh huh, Bella thought but asked instead, “My help?” The day had turned from ordinary to bizarre, effectively scattering her thoughts. She’d forgotten their telepathic communication worked both ways.
Give me a minute came first from behind a thicket of oak, and then the Saint appeared.
Bella remained standing in deference to the Doña. Her initial shock had vanished, and she watched her visitor approach.
Anyone else seeing a cloaked skeleton floating toward them would probably die on the spot from shock or flee thinking they could outrun Death. Fifteen-year-old Bella did neither. She’d seen the Doña in the flesh, so to speak, in the wee hours of the night in the other world. She had experienced an aura of security and familiarity in the company of the Saint then.
Santa Muerte was an aging Catrina, la Mera Mera. Though she wore the title of the most high of saints, a hint of youth lay beneath the time-worn exterior. As she drew close, Death threw her calavera back with a laugh, then quickly raised her hand to clutch her jaw. It tended to fall off in mid-cackle. It did not occur to me, truly, that you would think today was THE DAY. I’m sorry for the espantada. I could have scared you to death.
Bella said nothing. She took a deep breath instead and lost herself in the Doña’s eyes. Empty hollows, jet black without eyeballs, they created a strange effect, a light against an opaque depth—like looking at a universe with one bright star at the center. Bella looked into the face of Death and found comfort there.
Santa Muerte lowered herself gradually until she stood before Bella. Only the hands and
feet extended from her black dress, so the Saint’s bony fingers and toes drew attention. Her bones, yellowed and darkened with age, bore nicks and scratches tinged with soot from the storms of her travels between Heaven, the Forgotten World, Earth, and Hell. Too late, Bella wished the Saint had found her in the comfort of home. She knew how much a soft resting place for her skeletal frame pleased her.
No worries, Bella heard in her thoughts. I thought of that too late when I came up with the idea to call on you. I was halfway here.
Waving an arm behind her, Bella moved to one side and offered the S-shaped trunk of the pine she’d been sitting upon. I call it my serpentine tree after el Serpiente, Bella said in her thoughts. She took off the melon-colored vest she wore, a gift from one of the people from the Forgotten World, and folded it to form a cushion, albeit a bit thin.
Gracias, the Saint said as she moved with care to sit. She spread her legs out before her, placed her hands on both sides, and leaned back with a series of satisfying cracks from her spine. Ay, that felt good. Have you made any advancement on your assignment?
What? I thought you needed my help, Bella countered. When she received no reply, Bella answered, it’s only been five months. I’ve been writing the stories in detail before I forget, collecting cuentos from my mom and dad, and learning by asking questions at school. My eyes are opening to more facets of my culture. My collecting phase isn’t over. Neither is my recording of information. I’m not ready to speak up on subjects I’m barely discovering.
Santa Muerte had known before she asked, but she wanted confirmation. Her primary
objective for seeing Bella today could be lurking amongst the trees surrounding them. Then that is what I will report when I return to el Mundo de los Olvidados, she said, adding, and I do need your help. Lechuza, the one who saved you from Coco in the other world, is here.
Here? Here where? Bella glanced around, turning in a slow circle.
I don’t know exactly, but if I get a sense of her, I’ll pass on the information. I haven’t been successful in getting her to come back, so I’m asking you to try. It can’t hurt. You’re the only human she knows. Perhaps, she will seek you out…
Bella remembered the Lechuza she had encountered twice in the Forgotten World. The first meeting showed Bella the shapeshifter had a sense of humor. The second revealed her empathetic and protective nature when she saved Bella right before she returned home. The gigantic owl had counseled Bella before adding remember me as a parting goodbye.
Is she dangerous to me here?
As much as she was in the spirit world. But you’re the only human I know who had an encounter with her and lived. Santa Muerte tried to shrug and lost her balance in the process.
Bella caught her arm and steadied her until she sat back again. Thank you. I was going to add that she needs witnesses, not victims. You should be safe.
True, Bella thought. But she can also take a victim while attracting witnesses. Showmanship, you know? When you tell me where she is, please make it so I can escape from her if I have to, if you don’t mind.
What? You think I didn’t come up with that first?
Despiénsame, Señora, Bella apologized. I didn’t mean to sound like I…
Santa Muerte waved a hand, saying, Never mind, stay alert. I’ll be close.
A loud pop and a bright flash blinded Bella for a moment. Blinking like the owl she was supposed to be hunting, Bella didn’t move until she could see again. With her hearing more acute, she picked up the fading voice of Death as she departed. As much as I would have enjoyed returning the way I arrived to enjoy the floresta longer, I see the need for a speedy result to my search. Buena suerte.
“Good luck to you too,” Bella called as she started down the mountain toward home. The sooner they got the owl back to the other world, the sooner she could feel safe, at least from an otherworldly entity if not from her peers. She did not want to encounter the Lechuza here alone. Better to get back to town and stay in public or inside the house than to disappear from the forest without a trace.
A few days passed before Santa Muerte reported on Lechuza’s location. The owl had found a lair in an underground garage of the industrial district. The place was a good couple of miles from Bella’s house, but she sometimes went that far on bike rides. There were enough businesses, warehouses, and residences on both sides of the highway. Besides, she wore a whistle on a lanyard for emergencies, like alerting owners of loose dogs. She lived in a small city not known for high crime, surrounded by even smaller villages and communities. Everyone practically knew everyone, so she didn’t worry about human predators other than Rusty and his friends. She made sure people were near anywhere she went, and she didn’t go out of the city limits alone, either.
As she rounded a curve in the road and kept going behind a heavy equipment garage, Bella heard a whoop, whoop sound and recognized too late it was the flap of very big wings. When one brushed the top of her head, she lost her balance. Her handlebars wobbled, and she swerved before diving for a grassy hill beside the sidewalk where she landed and rolled a couple of times. Lechuza wrapped a soft but sturdy wing around her, preventing a third roll.
Like Santa Muerte and the creatures of the Forgotten World, Lechuza spoke in Bella’s thoughts. Do I have to save you in both worlds now?
Bella brushed herself off and then scowled at the bird. She took a shoe off and shook out the dirt before slipping it on again and doing the same to the other. She stood and having failed to tamp down her indignation, blurted, Wait just a minute. Bella also forgot who she was addressing, forgot the decorum when speaking to legends. I didn’t ask you to save me in this world. If you hadn’t come up behind me the way you did, I wouldn’t have fallen. You caused the fall, and you felt obligated to save me.
Of all the contrary and ungrateful…I should’ve let you keep rolling into the highway. They turned to look down at passing traffic before looking at each other again. Seeing the expressions mirrored on each other’s faces, albeit one more bird than human, struck Bella funny.
Bella forgot to be afraid of this deadly creature and laughed like she hadn’t in a long time. Lechuza transformed into a woman and joined with a hearty chortle that gave Bella hysterics until she cried, “St—stop laughing. I—I can’t catch—my—my breath.”
The Lechuza spoke out loud as she hadn’t done with Bella before, so she had never heard the woman’s voice. It was the voice of a big bird, not the high twitter of a songbird, but the deep, resonating voice of a raptor. Instead of threatening, however, Bella found it hilarious. Impressive, though, was the creature’s size. The owl in human form was the tallest woman she’d ever seen, easily about seven feet tall. Her arms and legs unusually long she looked malformed. Her nose resembled a beak in its curvature, and her beady eyes were amber marbles, huge behind the short-lashed lids which closed and opened with deliberate movement. Bella marveled at how much of the tecolote remained in the human. The combination of comic and malignant now that she’d seen the beast up close kept Bella in stitches. The woman cackled and crowed, settling down after a few unsuccessful attempts.
“You were looking for me,” Bella said when she could speak.
The woman in black nodded.
“What do you want with me?”
Lechuza turned a beady eye on Bella with a cock of her head. A single tear fell and
sobered them both. “I feel myself fading,” she whispered, “I am fading; look at me.”
Bella did. “Oh,” she cried when she saw through the woman’s body. Her solidity turned translucent and then back again. She was in the process of becoming invisible, no longer physically solid. “Was my remembering you not enough?”
“That, my child, is why I’m still here, what’s left of me, anyway.” She gave a forlorn smile but took a stance, straightening her back and raising her head to show her resolve. “I’m handling this while I still can. I’m showing myself to a few humans who can verify my existence. The more of your kind who remember me and tell others about me, when some magic number is reached, I will be able to get to my eternity. I can’t wait for you to reach the next stage toward your goal. I don’t have the time.”
“Let me help. Tell me what to do.”
They hatched a plan, those two—deadly creature and young girl, to make the legend immortal. It didn’t take much effort. Bella rode her bike until she found an elementary school where a group of boys played basketball. She stopped to watch, noticing too late one of them was Rusty, the bully of her nightmares. Their eyes met across the court, and he yelled, “Hey, wait up. I wanna see your bike.” She had found out the hard way what “see” meant, having lost her bike on the day she got it to a kid on the sidewalk who asked to “see her bike.” Her parents marched her right back out to the streets to search for the boy and get it back, or she’d have no bike at all.
She took off before Rusty could reach her, but the rock he threw got her in the middle of the back. “Ssss,” she sucked in her breath with the pain but kept pedaling, aiming for a steep hill ahead. She couldn’t afford to lose control. The whoop, whoop of Lechuza flying overhead in the opposite direction made her skid to a stop. The giant bird aimed straight for Rusty; eyes focused on her prey. Her claws grasped his shoulders, and she flapped her wings with deliberate power, rising to about ten feet in the air. Onlookers gasped or called out, some running for shelter, while others froze in place. No one fled the scene though, all eyes focused on Lechuza and Rusty. He slithered out of his jacket, fell to the ground, and jumped to his feet.
Rusty took off. He didn’t get far before the owl, in two long strides, caught up and kicked him in the back with both feet before she rose to circle the playground from the air. He hit the ground face down, his forehead striking a rock that carved a star-shaped hole in the middle of it. He ran again, wiping the blood from his face and then stumbling when he looked back to see whether she followed.
Lechuza knew how to steal the limelight; she didn’t follow. She preened. Like any seductress, she opened her wings to their immense length and fluttered her feathers. She rivaled the Vegas showgirls Bella saw on TV. Lechuza made sure all the onlookers’ attention focused on taking in the details that made her a legend. Then, her voice roared and echoed down the streets. “You leave her alone, Rusty Montoya, or you’ll find out what it is to meet with a grisly end. I will spare no mercy plucking your eyes out of your face, boy!”
That marked the day Rusty doubled his torment of Bella, and she doubled her efforts to
avoid him. His shouts of “…your fault I have this scar…” followed her home too often for her comfort. She almost felt the same panic when la Llorona had pursued her in the other world. She didn’t think he would be averse to causing her extreme pain or worse, but she didn’t want to find out. Word spread about the sighting. Lechuza got the recognition she wanted, and witness stories multiplied until they made the national and then the world news. Her inner light shone bright again in the Forgotten World, and she found eternity not long after. Lechuza’s plan worked in her favor; for Bella’s, not so much. And for Santa Muerte, it backfired.
Lechuza’s success started a stampede of spirits and creatures, cryptids, and more legends from the World of the Forgotten, all seeking to achieve what she did. The rebellion was not on the scale of the fallen angels, but Santa Muerte nevertheless found a rebel missing from the fold too often. She had herself to blame; she had opened a portal that should have closed after Bella returned.