Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Short Story by Ricardo Segreda

"La Llorona," or "The Crying Woman," is a Central American folk legend of ghost in a state of perpetual remorse over children she sacrificed, almost like a Medea with a guilty conscience. In Ecuador, it is conflated with the legend of the "Sihuanaba," a pretty maiden who seduces men, only to shock them when her head morphs into that of a horse or human skull. In Ecuador, the "llorona" has male travelers on horseback feel pity and rescue her, only for her to reveal herself as a howling, skeletal demon. This is a modern-day reinvention of the legend.

2:00 AM. It was nearing the end of Pablo’s shift in Quito, and after 14 hours, he was eager to be back home, with his warm bed, as usual, being his only respite from a hard life, supporting an ex-wife, and though she thought Pablo didn’t know, her current boyfriend, who was living with her. But he knew, and it made Pablo, 33, bitter about women. Thus, he hadn’t dated since the divorce three years ago. His cat, Sinchi, was his only respite from loneliness, and he agonized all day because he forgot to leave food in Sinchi’s dish before he left for work.

His day’s tally came to 47 dollars, a little better than his daily average, but at this rate, he wasn’t going to make enough to replace his timing belt at the end of the month like he was planning to. But he hoped, or more specifically, he tried to hope, that fortune would smile on him again. After all, he still remembers the time he was almost evicted from his last place of residence, due to being three months behind as well as unemployed, and how that $5,000 lottery ticket he bought came through and not only freed him to compensate his landlord, but make a down payment on a used taxi which had been his principle income for the last three years.

Pablo applied a little more pressure on the accelerator than he knew was legal, but on this stretch the Velasco-Ibarra highway, he also knew officers rarely cared if you went over the limit by a few kilometers. Sinchi was hungry, Pablo was tired, home was only ten minutes away, and nothing else mattered at the moment. 

He saw her at a distance, off the side of the highway, a dark silhouette at first, her arms outstretched, frantically waving. At once Pablo felt bewilderment, pity, and an edge of resentment. It was always after midnight, when most of the city’s citizens were asleep, and after he had decided that his day’s work had come to an end, that these distraught, often inebriated, stragglers would emerge in the shadows begging to take them from point A to point B, point B usually being their home. This always left Pablo divided between his exhaustion and his monetary needs. 

Usually he relented for the sake of a few extra dollars, as long as they didn’t take him too far out of his way back, but there were the occasions he sped on. But as he approached the silhouette, the timing belt began to tick, and tick - an unwelcome reminder of his priorities. He cautiously slowed down, to make sure she was alone, and not with others, which carried with it the risk of robbery, which he lived through once before - albeit with bruises and cuts.

She was maybe 18, 19 years of age, and with her aquiline nose and otherwise soft features, bore an odd resemblance to his ex when they first met as teenagers. Her eyes were swollen and red; she had been sobbing. The young lady was also trembling. Seeing his ex-wife and how she’d often breakdown in tears to have her way, a spasm of anger surged in Pablo, and prompted him once again to judge women as too emotional. “Do you need a ride?,” he asked, coldly. 

This disconsolate stranger wept again before she let out a quiet groan. For a fleeting instant Pablo was going to press hard on the gas pedal and forget that he ever stopped for her, but the timing belt wouldn’t stop ticking. The fear of losing his livelihood overwhelmed him. He thought of not being able to provide for Sinchi, whom he had found a dumpster. Once more he asked, “Do you need a ride?”

She continued to cry. “What do you want?” he asked, his irritation a little less covert. There was a pause, another cry of pain, and finally, she spoke: “Don’t leave me.”

“What?,” his eyebrows arching as he asked. “Are you on drugs? Marijuana? Ecstasy?” 

“I’ve been hurt! Please, señor, please help me!” 

Now his anger turned inwards; he now thought maybe she had been assaulted, and suddenly he hated himself for been so quick to judge, for not being the gentleman he once was - proud of a tenderness towards women that in the last few years, he only expressed towards Sinchi. He pulled over the shoulder, turned off the ignition, got out, walked around his vehicle and opened the rear door.

“I can take you to the police if you like, or a hospital.”

“Thank you,” she said through her tears and sobs. 

He restarted the engine as she climbed in. “Do you want me to take you to the police?” He was already imagining himself taking her by the arm and talking to the station, the admiration he’d feel for being a good citizen, the gratitude the officers would express, and especially, the gratitude that she would offer. He’d even offer to take her back to her house or apartment at no cost.

“Just take me home, señor,” she responded. “I only want to go home, to be with my father.”

“But if somebody hurt you, if somebody attacked you...”

“I can’t, señor, I can’t say anything, I can’t do anything, oh please take me home!”

Pablo struggled to think of something to say that would make her give the right answer, the response that would give him reason to act like a hero, no matter how small. For the first time in years, he would have a chance to feel good about himself. But he didn’t know what to say, other than: “Where do you live?”

“I live by the Plaza de San Diego.”

“Near the cemetery?,” he asked.

No answer, but rather more keening and wails. His anger came back as Pablo now felt played for a fool. “At this hour, it will cost you four dollars.” She nodded. “You can pay, right? And I need exact change.” She nodded again before burying her face into the palms of her soft hands. His needing exact change was a lie, but a lie that he hoped let her feel his resentment.

At the least, Pablo thought, the Cementerio de San Diego was not too far from his home, and as soon as he let this strange young woman out of his taxi, there would be Sinchi waiting for him, although he’d have that pang of regret knowing that he left Sinchi’s food bowl empty.

He turned on his radio, but even though the digital dial said 92.1, his favorite reggaeton channel, church music -- specifically organ church music, the sort he heard at funerals -- came from the speakers. Bewildered, he changed to another station, but it was the same: Bach’s Organ Toccata. Pablo didn’t actually know who Bach was, or the name of the melody, but he had heard it played at his church when his grandmother died, and it also turned up in on a scary television program about ghost hunters in Ecuador, that he used to watch when he was a boy against his parent's protests, being that they warned him the show would give Pablo nightmares, which it did.

Pablo changed the station...and the Organ Toccata continued, on every station he turned to, including the news and weather station. What was going on?

Giggles. Coming from the back seat. She was giggling. Why? He switched the radio off and looked into his rear-view mirror. “What’s so funny,” he asked.

The giggles became chuckles, then one loud guffaw, followed by silence as she grinned, baring yellow teeth. Of its' own accord, the radio came back on and once again; Bach’s Organ Toccata.

A singular thought overtook Pablo; he had to get her out of his taxi. But when he stepped on the brake, the vehicle did not slow down. He was doing 60 kilometers per hour, and now he couldn’t even stop his vehicle. In fact, it began to accelerate, even though he was not pressing on the gas pedal. As the Organ Toccata continued, the volume in his speakers intensified. He looked at the rear-view mirror; as she maintained her grin, skin began to slide off her face, revealing a crimson skull, and her eyes flashed bright green like traffic stop lights. Out of her "mouth," came a wild, coyote-like scream.

The taxi accelerated to 120 kilometers per hour. Pablo began to lose control of steering as the vehicle veered into the opposing lane and towards oncoming traffic. The presence behind him continued to scream. He was now heading straight towards an ambulance that had come out of a tunnel. One word - “God” - occupied Pablo’s mind as he summoned every measure of physical and spiritual strength and forced the steering wheel to the right. The last thought however, just before his taxi slammed into a concrete wall, was “Sinchi.”

It took firefighters 30 minutes to put out the smoke and flames. By dawn, clean-up crews removed what was left of Pablo's taxi. What was left of Pablo was burned beyond recognition, though he was eventually identified by his dental records. However, the tabloid, “¡Extra!,” had a field day showcasing his charred skeleton on the front page of the next day’s edition, on the left side, of course, being that on the right side the daily always featured a buxom nude woman.

Late the next evening, in a pit deep below the buried coffins of the San Diego Cementerio, the lloronas, the “crying women,” all fifty of them, gathered for their monthly reunion. Their elected leader, Maria Victoria, a veteran llorona with 362 years experience, began the gathering with high praise for their success this past year, with a 15% increase in union enrollment, and especially, record number of “accidents” reported in the press, variously attributed, or more specifically, misattributed, to worn timing belts, faulty axles, drunk driving, and other causes.

Still, not everyone was satisfied Juana Fernanda, active in the union since 1908, stood up to protest that lloronas weren’t given enough vacation time -- only two weeks -- even as the number of hours they worked per week had risen. She was met with chorus of applause from her sisters. Isabel, the most ideologically militant of the lloronas in attendance, stated that she has been in communication with sister-chapters of the lloronas in Mexico, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, and Colombia, and stated they not only get vacation time, but time-and-a-half overtime.

Maria Victoria was quick to respond that she has been negotiating with management on this issue, and was even prepared to organized a strike if need be, though she warned that there were more than a few non-union immigrant lloronas out there, ready to work for less. Maria Victoria then shared the good news that for Christmas, they will each be receiving a $200 gift shoe shopping certificate from De Prati at the Quicentro Mall, provoking a round of “oohs” and “aahs.”

Finally, Alicia, the youngest and newest llorona (now in her third year) stood up and asked if their will ever be any flexibility in terms of fraternizing with their intended male targets. Alicia, responsible for Pablo’s demise, stated that the last guy she did was kind of “cute,” and wouldn’t have minded “spending some time” with him before following through on her contractual duty as a llorona.

“No, Alicia,” Maria Victoria stated firmly. “Once you become a llorona, there are rewards, but as we told you, there are also sacrifices. You can’t get everything you want, either in life or death.”

And with that, the Quito chapter of La Llorona, Amalgamated closed their meeting.