While doing research for an article I’d hoped to write about the history of the relationship between Texas, Mexico and Spain [ with the scathingly brilliant title “TEXAS; WHO STOLE WHAT FROM WHO” ], I quickly fell into my favorite error ; burrowing so far into the forest that it becomes impossible to see the trees. The collection of facts and figures, dates and numbers began to wind themselves into a maze that I became hopelessly lost in. The five hundred years of nobility and knavery, kindness and cruelty, courage and cowardice of the story finally overwhelmed me and I pulled back from the whole bloody mess and chucked it into my SOMEDAY file.
As my breathing returned to normal, and I half-heartedly straightened up the debris from my latest fiasco, my thoughts returned to one little nugget I’d come across in my aimless wandering through the past
I offer it here as a lite snack to tide you over ’till my twenty course feast of an article can be ground out.
There is a ghost story told in Old Mexico called La Llorona-The Weeping Woman. It has as many versions as it does tellers, but they go something like this;
There was a beautiful young women named Maria who lived by the river with her two small children. They were very poor. Maria worked hard all day to feed and clothe her two small children, but when the sun went down and the cool of the evening brought every-one out of their houses, she would put on her best white dress, and join the other villagers in their pasear around the square. Whenever a dance was held Maria would leave her children at home and whirl the night away in the arms of admiring suitors.
Marias children often played along the bank of the river when she was away; playing tag among the brush and vines that grew thickly on the water’s edge. When she could not find them , she would pick up two stones and click them together sharply Click-Click-Click and call out “Mi hijos”, and they would soon come running, laughing and yelling with delight into her arms.
One day her two small children were found face down in the river. Some said she had left them alone to go party one too many times; some hinted ,darkly, that she had rid herself of an unwanted burden. Maria did not respond to the rumors and questions; she went into her shack by the river and closed the door. No one ever saw her open it again.
At night, when the last strollers had left the square and all the villagers had bolted their doors, the people who lived near the river would hear quiet footsteps walking along the bank and a choked voice crying “Ay, mis hijos “. Those brave enough to peek out their windows would see a slim figure in white glide past. The voice was heard each night for a week, and then, silence.
The Alcalde led the concerned villagers to Marias shack, and finding the door latched from inside, ordered it broken down. Inside they found Maria, in her tattered, mud stained white dress, laid on her children’s cot. Her once graceful feet were swollen and torn, caked with mud. Her arms were folded across her chest and in each hand was a stone from the river. She was dead.
The women of the village began to talk, arguing over who should prepare the body for burial, what they should dress her in, when an old woman cried;” You must not touch her!”
With all eyes on her the old woman continued;
” Leave her just as she is, but wrap her children’s blanket around her, their smell will comfort her, and two men who have no children must do this, and carry her to the grave.”
The old woman raised her stick and glared at the assembled villagers; ” If you do not do this, the mother will wander among us forever, looking for her lost children.”
The Alcalde consulted with the old men of the village ,then sent a rider to the hacienda of a nearby ranchero where he was told there lived two old vaqueros who had never married and had no children. When the horsemen arrived they were briefed on the situation. They looked at each other for a moment, then each pulled gloves from their belts and donned them. Taking off their hats and crossing themselves they entered the hut and moved quickly to either side of the bed. Together they gently lifted the edges of the blanket and laid them tenderly across the poor girl. With a nod and a whispered word they lifted the bundle and carried it out the door, laying it down carefully on a stretcher the town folk had hastily put together. Picking up their burden they started up from the river toward the old church, the villagers falling in behind in a silent procession.
They buried her in the old churchyard and covered her grave with stones from the river. Later some would say that was a mistake, but no one said so at the time.
The children gathered wildflowers and tied them up in pretty bouquets to lay on the stones. An old cabinet-maker put up a cross with her name, the date and Requiescat in Pace carved on it.
The villagers all thanked the two vaqueros. The Alcalde insisted they grace his table before they left. The people thanked the old woman for saving their village from much trouble. She received their thanks graciously and nodded with satisfaction and said they were all safe now. By twos and threes they took leave of each other, went to their homes, and settled in for the night feeling secure.
But the old woman was wrong.
As the vaqueros camp fire, under the cottonwood in front of the church, died down; and the last lights in the village casas were snuffed out;from the river came a sound that the oldest villager had never heard before. A moaning wail that grew and rose until it was like the scream of a dying animal that awakened the deepest sleeper in the village.
The vaqueros threw off their blankets and hurried down to the river, one of them snatching up a brand from the dying fire as he went. On the rocky bank of the stream they gathered what wood they could find and thrust in the brand ,fanning with a sombrero until the fire blazed up high, lighting a good stretch of the river. They stood with pistols drawn on either side of the fire, scanning the water. A half-dozen of the villagers along with the Alcalde soon joined them. Two lanterns were brought out and lighted.
The men stood silent and motionless around the fire, peering into the dark, straining to hear. From the middle of the stream, where the water was shallow, the river made a rippling sound as it ran over the rocks. A clicking noise came from the river, like rocks being struck together.
“What was that?” some one asked.
“The water moving the rocks in the shallows” another replied.
“No”, the fist voice responded, ” It came from upstream”.
All their faces turned upstream, the sound came again; clearer and louder.
Like two stones being tapped together. Under the sound of the rippling water came a womans voice–“mis hijos-Ay mis hijos”– and then a woman weeping.
“La phantasma”. An arm raised and pointed upriver and across to the opposite bank.
Each man gave a different description of what they saw that night on the river, but all agreed ; it was Maria, or something that would have passed in broad daylight for Maria. Like smoke on a faint breeze it glided across the water towards them; clicking the stones and moaning “mis hijos-Ay mis hijos “. As it passed, one hand, with the fingers curled around a stone, stretched out to the frozen men, imploring. The other hand with its stone rhythmically striking her pale breast with a sound like dead wood.
When it passed the last man in the group it turned back to the river, slowly drifting towards the far bank, clicking the stones and calling, mournfully, hopelessly. Gliding silently, it crossed to the other bank, into the trees and was gone.
The men stood for a long minute peering into the darkness between the trees on the far bank. Then, as if on que, the tableau broke up. The Alcalde turned on his heel, walked three or four steps toward the village, turned abruptly and returned to his spot. He took off his hat and put it back on. The older vaquero stepped to the fire, bending down he pulled a cigarro from his vest with one hand and reached for a brand with the other. He noted with surprise that his gun was in his hand. Holstering the pistol he pulled a burning twig from the fire and lit the cigarro; drawing deeply he slowly exhaled the smoke; it drifted lazily upstream.
The Alcalde removed his hat and pointed to the river with it;
“It was the moonlight, on the water.”
His eyes fixed on the river, the vaquero replied;
“Alcalde, there is no moon tonight”.
In the days and weeks that followed, from people and villages downriver, came stories of a strange light on the water; of footsteps heard in the night passing windows; an unseen woman weeping hopelessly; and the stones clicking. People began to call these encounters ” La Llorona–The Weeping Woman”
The phantasma never appeared again to the village, but the dread of it returning was too much for some. The men who had stood on the river’s edge that night moved away first, one by one. The old priest died, full of years. The river came out of its bed the year of the heavy rains and washed half of the village away, even the old church finally crumbled to ruin. The old vaquero sometimes came by the deserted town after every one had gone, chasing stray cows. He always stopped by the river to smoke a cigarro, gaze at the waters, and wonder. But even vaqueros die, and then no one was left who knew the whole story.
A road runs along the river where the village used to be, and if you aren’t looking for it you will pass right by the spot and never see it. But if you watch for a vine-covered mound a little ways off the road with a lone cottonwood nearby, and stop and park under the tree, you will find the ruins of the old church. Behind the church, and up a slight rise, is the graveyard. All of the markers are gone, but in the corner closest to the river, you,ll find one spot, the only one among the graves, that is covered with smooth stones from the river. From there walk straight toward the river and you will come to the spot where the men stood that night so many years ago. Sit down on the bank, be still and make no noise. Soon your ears will tune themselves to the surroundings and you will hear things most are too busy to hear. The rattle of the dry cottonwood leaves, crickets in the brush, and the ripple of the water across the smooth stones of the riverbed.
If you sit there long enough and quietly enough, the sound under the ripple will begin to be heard–a weeping that never ends – a call that is never answered.
Shed a tear in sympathy if you will, breath a prayer if you like; but whatever you do, do not answer her.