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Malditos Maldiciones

Carmen Baca 

Carmen Baca taught high school and college English for thirty-six years before retiring in 2014. A native New Mexico Norteña and regionalistic author, she incorporates elements of her regional Spanish culture into most of what she writes. She is the author of 6 books and a wide variety of short prose and poetry publications in multiple genres.

Flor laughed at her sister’s silly qualms. “So what if a bird hit the window? It doesn’t have to mean someone’s going to die.” She muttered, “malditos maldiciones,” as she resumed washing dishes and told ten-year-old Marisol to go play before the endless questions started up again.

Their abuelita had schooled them well in their Spanish culture’s traditions, customs, and rituals. Superstitions, too. Old wives’ tales and damned curses had made little Marisol mouse timid. Simply put, she believed. She obsessed over so much, no matter how insignificant, to the point of being annoying. Like the boy who cried wolf. But more maddening because she had to point out every little omen—verbally. And then acknowledged.

“Mira, Mama,” or “Mira, Flor, mira,” she’d announce, “el gato’s bathing, and his tail’s pointing east. Who lives that way?”

Everyone knew when cats groomed themselves, company came from the direction the tail was pointing. Exasperation drove mother and sister to desperation trying to remember who lived east or north or wherever to appease Marisol and end her ruthless pursuit of answers, for the moment, at least. Strangely enough, more often than not, visitors did arrive from the predicted direction hours later. Mother and daughter always rolled their eyes at Mari’s smug smile. The “told you so” the three of them said in unison. Every time—the child, in triumph; the two adults, in defeat. A family ritual exclusive to them.

Her mother and sister succeeded, however, in using the child’s superstitious nature to their advantage once in a while, like when they wanted her to adopt good habits. They’d convinced her that bathing before bed would keep duendes at bay. Those pesky elves who were thought to live in the walls of the house wouldn’t have reason to cut off her toes. They only targeted children who got into bed with dirty feet.

The rest of the family, on the other hand, had contributed to the child’s active imagination with their cuentos about witches and goblins and such in their encounters or in those of others they knew. They realized too late that they’d made a monster out of their mouse. They’d created her obsession to protect against so many malditos maldiciones in the event any appeared and made it their unintended cross to bear.

She placed crucifixes over doors to stop witches. Not just the exits, every door had a cruz, most handmade, some resembling Xs. Comadre Marta proved it worked when she took one step inside their house and choked on the piñon she’d popped into her mouth as she crossed the threshold. Imperfect timing, that’s all it was. She hurried right back outside, swallowed the offending nut, shell and all, and stalked off without explanation.

Convinced the woman was a bruja, Marisol ran in the opposite direction from her after that. The few times she and her mother met up with la comadre, she’d forced herself to surrender into the tight abrazos of the witch. After, Marisol retreated as fast as she could to her mother’s altar in a corner of her bedroom where she kept a small bottle of holy water. She created her own cleansing ritual involving multiple signs of the cross and “amens,”  and started wearing a coral bracelet on each wrist for protection against evil. The woman had previously exhibited a nasty habit of stopping by unannounced . But she never came over again, confirming Mari’s suspicions.

She believed in mal ojo and the cure, cortando las nubes, too. She’d seen for herself how the vecina, Señora Romero, had cursed the newborn with a kiss and a covetous gaze without blessing him in the sign of the cross. Almost immediately, the baby’s crying and discomfort told everyone he’d been given mal ojo, and someone went for Doña Eloisa, la curandera. She’d cured the infant of the evil eye, susto, and empacho all at once for good measure. And twice, Marisol had performed the ritual called cutting the clouds with the sign of the cross in the four directions to ward off storms. The old methods worked. She didn’t waste time trying to sway others to her way of thinking. She knew what she knew, and they couldn’t convince her otherwise.

The same went for the boogie monsters and ghouls of her Chicano culture. For her, they were real. She could tolerate the duendes living in her house since she didn’t mind bathing. Besides, meeting a real elf would be kind of cool. Encountering the other maldiciones in animated form would be downright terrifying, maybe even deadly.

She knew la Llorona, the weeping woman, was a restless spirit who haunted the waters. Grampo Tony had seen her at the river—twice. Malhora, the hypnotic beauty who ensnared prey before turning into their worst nightmare, occupied their region, too. The ghoul had been responsible for Tío Claudio’s death. Leaped from a high cliff at her bidding, they said.

Besides the mujeres, monsters, and cryptids inhabiting their woods, she knew almost firsthand of the legendary and deadly Viborón. Every five years livestock went missingand wildlife disappeared from the area because el Serpiente had awakened hungry. Insufficient evidence didn’t matter. She didn’t have to see it face to snout to believe it existed.

Much of what others discounted as folly Marisol counted as truth. So, because of the bird incident that morning, she fully expected a death. A couple of days later when Death visited la familia, Marisol cried real tears of sorrow mixed with fear inspired by the omen of the bird.

“Les díje,” she announced through sobs, “I told you someone was going to die. El pájaro no miente.”

“Give me a break,” Flor muttered, finding something that needed doing in her room. Her mother only shook her head. Coincidence wasn’t in her youngest daughter’s vocabulary. No need to waste a breath.

Mari’s terror that Death might still be hanging around sent her outside where she paced, thinking how to ward it off while patrolling the perimeter of the house.

“What’s Mari Mouse doing now?” Flor had brushed aside a curtain over her desk and spotted the girl marching soldier-stiff, broom in hand, sweeping it up into the air occasionally.

“Guarding against more bird strikes, looks like,” her mother laughed from behind her.

Las tías arrived next door just then, flying into Tía Clofe’s house and ending Mari’s sentinel duties. The nieces of the deceased reminded her the rituals for the three-day wake started now. The initial shock of her great-aunt’s passing faded, and the genuine fear that perhaps Death waited for another, she ignored as best she could. Mari’s few remaining tears turned crocodile fast. Secretly glad to see a real wake and all it involved, she followed las tías, wide-eyed at every little detail. Grabbing black mantos, they first covered the mirrors in every room.

“Por que?” Mari asked.

“No one wants to trap the soul of the dead between the other side of the glass and eternal peace,” explained Tía Ane.

“No one wants to be the next to go either,” added Tía Rosa. “That’s what came of a woman we knew when she looked into the mirror before Doña Julia’s entierro a few years ago. I was there but outside at the time.”

“¿Qué pasó?”

Tía exchanged a glance with her sister and shrugged. “She needs to know. We wouldn’t want her to fall victim to the curse ¿qué no?” Then she turned to Mari and said, “That’s how Primo Mateo’s madrina passed. She took the covering off an espejo during the wake to apply fresh lipesteeke, and poof—dropped dead right there. En el suelo, right in front of a full-length mirror. Lipesteeke made a streak down the glass, looked like blood.” She shuddered.

Marisol eyed the mirrors in the house for the next three days, tiptoeing and lurking, peeking at them from one side or another as though looking head-on would provoke the black coverings to fall of their own volition. It was like watching a bomb, not wanting to set it off, but fascinated none the less. Close enough to witness the explosion, that’s all she wanted. A story of her own to tell.

During her surveillance duty, she observed the rituals for the dead performed by the family, who allowed her to help with small tasks. She wanted no part of readying the corpse for the wake, so she stood at a distance as the aunts bathed and dressed the dearly departed. Later, she watched as Tía Clofe received the last rites from the padre. The man hadn’t even made it out of the yard before the nieces grabbed a jar of holy soil they’d collected from the Santuario and rubbed the aunt’s feet with it. The new pastor had scoffed at their explanation for covering mirrors, so they’d waited to perform this final reverent act on the body. Throughout the process, Marisol’s inquisition—every who, what, how, and why—prompted the frustrated mujeres at last to call on Flor for help. She none too gently pushed her little sister outside, shoved a basket into her arms, and told her to go gather something—eggs, wild strawberries, anything she could find to feed the mourners. Marisol stuck her tongue out at her when she heard the lock click for good measure.

“I fit through the windows,” she shouted.

“I locked them all,” Flor yelled back.

The women left la difunta lying in her pine box, lovingly made by her hermanos and set between cloth-covered sawhorses in her own parlor. Las mujeres cooked each day and cleaned when they could between visitors, taking shifts to join in prayers and rosarios led by many of the men, members of los Hermanos Penitentes. The brotherhood took over religious services in rural communities far from any church. Los hombres also supplied the leña for the wood stoves and the well water for the cooking, taking turns with their ranch and farm chores which didn’t stop for death.

Conducting her impromptu Q&As and skulking around all the covered mirrors in the house took their toll on young Marisol. An hour before the funeral mass, she sat back on a cozy divan in the dining room adjoining the parlor. She focused on the black cloth covering the mirror attached to the bufé against the opposite wall until exhaustion closed her eyes.

She awoke abruptly to a thump and a polite but muttered, “dispénseme” to the sideboard. Tío Tuerto, blind in one eye, apologized to everyone and everything he ran into as a matter of routine. Shuffling into the next room, he moved in slow motion as the black manto fell from the espejo. Marisol tossed aside a light afghan someone had placed over her. She jumped up from the sofás, quick to act. To cover the mirror and save them all from the unknown. The cobija had other plans. Mari’s feet tangled in the knitted throw. Stumbling forward, she hit the sharp corner of the heavy buffet, temple first. Primo and las tías heard the ruckus and found her sprawled little body. With their shocked attention on the blood pooling beneath Mari’s head, no one saw her soul fluttering out in a wisp to vanish through the mirror. They didn’t see the silver maw open wide to receive it before it swallowed her with mercurial effect.

News spread fast—how sweet little Marisol had passed in time to follow her Tía Clofe through Heaven’s gates. Of course, mitote spread and grew as rumors do, and her death took on a life of its own. Witnesses had shared how the child’s eyes had been almost impossible to close, open wide like her mouth as though fear had left her face frozen in a mask of horror.

“Pobrecita,” they remarked. “Bet she finally saw one of those malditos she wished for.”

“Too bad whatever it was, killed her. She wanted to have a cuento of her own to tell.”

“I always said something bad would come from her being such an entremetida.”

“Cállate, sonso,” someone scolded. “She wasn’t a busybody. She was too curious for her own good is all.”

And so, the plática went. Of course, many bit their tongues when what they really called the often-bothersome child came to their mouths. Speaking ill of the dead, especially so soon after their departure didn’t bode well. None wanted to know whether curses could strike from the Beyond. While they prayed for Mari’s soul for the next three days, finishing the leftovers from the Tía’s wake, she peered out at them from a corner of the mirror the manto exposed. Her silent screams and scratching from behind the espejo too indistinct to discern didn’t last long. Little Marisol, often precocious, sometimes infuriating, but always beloved, despaired of ever being heard. She knew very well she was on the inside, one of the dead, looking out.

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