Tis the season for all things scary. So I humbly request that you grant me the opportunity to partake in the festivities by recounting an old family legend as told to me by my grandmother when I was a wee pup, and how that family tale became all too real to me. You see I grew up in a family that was choc-full of what you might call ghost stories. Only that for my family, both from my mother and father side, these stories weren’t told around campfires in order to have a bit a fun at their frightened children expense, but as honest to god accountings of actual events, meant to pass down on unto their children a healthy respect for things not of this world.
This belief stemmed from the fusion of two of the most central religions on the islands that make up the Antilles. One being Catholicism, that was brought over by the Spaniards, and the other being the Yoruba religion, brought over by the captured and enslaved Yoruba people hailing from present day Nigeria. When the newly enslaved Yoruba people made the cross Atlantic trip to the new world one of the only things that they were able to bring with them was their old gods; however since Spain was a card carrying member of the Catholic church, they were less than keen on the idea of the slaves practicing their pagan religion openly. So the slaves were forbidden to praying to their gods or risk extreme punishment. On top of that, many slaves were forced to convert to the religion of their masters, which was catholicism. But a funny thing happened while the slaves were preparing to make their conversion. They found a striking similarity between many of the catholic saints and the old gods of their ancestors. As the centuries progressed, the two religions became so intertwined that it became a hybrid religion known as Santeria. My great grandmother was a Santera. People from all around the island of Puerto Rico would go over to her house to seek advice, cure for diseases, and to act as a medium for the ancient gods and spirits. I also had two grandmothers, who may not have been full fledge Santeras, but I got a sense that they dabbled. Because Santeria and Catholicism’s were so deeply rooted in our family history, everyone in the family grew up with this underlying belief that there was another world that was just outside our view. It was a world where our ancestors resided once they passed on, as well as the home of all manners of spirits and dark forces that were always trying to encroach on the land of the living. And from time to time the vail that kept that other world hidden from our gaze would lift momentarily, showing some poor unexpecting soul to a glimpse into a world he or she was never meant to see. Once such example of this was told to me by my grandmother as I sat with her one quiet afternoon on the backyard steps of her century old house.
As the story goes my great grandfather lived with his mother in the very same house that my family and I were staying at the time. The house, which is no longer standing, was built virtually in the middle of a sugar cane plantation. This fact was hard for me to imagine because by the time my family and I came to live in the old house in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, all I could see was rows after rows of dilapidated houses that were decades old. But my grandmother insisted that once upon the time her house was the only house for at least a mile in almost every direction. My grandmother explained to me that the house at the time was more of a shack, and that it was only after several decades worth of additions that the house eventually took the form I came to remember. There was no running water or electricity to speak off. Just a series of dirt pathways fenced in by acres of sugar cane fields that my great grandfather and his mother would use to get to the town for supplies, attend church and to see family and friends. My grandmother explained that directly behind the house, there was a big mango tree. The large tree was ancient and she heard several old stories connected to it when she was a little girl. Stories like how the local Taino indians used to camp and worship at the base of the tree, and there were one or two vague stories about a couple of men being hanged to death from one of its thick branches.
One early evening, my great grandfather told his mother that he was going into town to have a few drinks with some of his fellow macheteros or cane cutters. The day was coming to the end, and the setting sun was getting ready to bid the waking world a goodnight. My great great grandmother, being the wise tough lady that she was advised against it. It was getting late she told her son and that it would not be in his best interest to venture out alone at this hour. She felt something was amiss while working on the sugar cane field earlier in the day. The land felt wrong. The sound of the sugar cane made as they hit the ground after a few whacks from her machete seemed muffled. The sound lacked crispness. It was as if the entire world had suddenly had been muted to a lifeless shade of gray. But my great grandfather being the brash 19 year old that he was, full of vigor, had failed to notice anything different that day and playfully brushed off his mothers concerns. “Don’t you worry mija” said my great grandfather, flashing a playful earnest smile. “I will only be gone for a little while.” His mother was not pleased with his insistence for she understood that the night would only serve to intensify the oddness of the day. But she knew all too well that her protest would be falling on deaf ears and in the end be all for not. She relented and resigned herself to whatever fate awaited them. She walked up to her son, grabbed his hand tenderly, as she had done so many times, before he had grown into the strapping young lad that she saw before her that day, and gave him her blessing, “May Saint Anthony Padua safely guide you. May Eshu, protectors of travelers bring you back to me”. My great grandfather could not fathom why his mother was so concerned this evening. This was just like any other night trip that he had taken into town. Perhaps the oppressive heat from the day got to her. “I’ll be fine mija. Don’t you concern yourself one bit. Rest easily. I’ll be home before it gets far too late” the young man insisted. His mother watched as my great grandfather was about to make his way towards the door with his old trusty oil lantern in hand to light his path. It was at that moment that she felt inclined to bid him one final warning, “Nothing good is to be found outside one’s home once the sun goes down.” My great grandfather stopped, walked back towards his mother, smiled and kissed the old lady on the cheek, “It will all be fine mija”, he repeated, before turning around and started out on his journey into the dark.
Even though the young man had put up a brave front and had not shown his mother a glimpse of worry, something in his mother’s tone had unnerved him slightly. He wasn’t sure why, but he did look around feeling a little uneasy as he carried his oil lantern down the dirt path surrounded by tall sugar cane stalk. The night was still and the only sound that could be heard from every direction was the croaks of hundreds of coquis; small native frogs that are named after the sound of the croak that the make. After a relatively long walk my great grandfather arrived at his predetermined destination, where several of his macheteros pals had gathered to sing old songs from another time. The mood was jovial. Jugs of moonshine sugar cane rum where being passed around, as the friends talk about the things that young men have always discussed—young women.
Well as luck would have it, the so called short visit became an overdrawn affair. And before my great grandfather knew it, it was the middle of a moonless night. He had been having such a good time of it that his mother foreboding words had almost entirely escaped his recollection. He was full of liquor and song and was probably wishing that the night would go on forever. But alas he knew that was not to be. His mother most surely would not rest easily until he had made it back to the relative safety of their abode. With a heavy heart, and having his fill of sugar cane rum, my great grandfather bid his friends farewell and started his long journey back hom with only his lantern to serve him as a companion.
All was well. He laughed and sang to himself as he and his lantern made their way through the darkness. It was then that something grabbed his attention. An odd feeling came over him. Something did not feel right. But with all his might he could not fathom what possibly could it be. The world itself felt unfamiliar, even though he had walked up and down this path all his life. He said to himself and his lantern out loudly,”Perhaps I allowed my mothers silly superstitions to unnerve me?” But it was only once he got quiet that it dawned on him that something was absent. There was a lack of sound. No wind. No sugar cane stalks ruffling, no crickets, or coquis. Nothing but deathly stillness. There was something dark and ominous about the quiet in the night. It was if the world around him was holding it’s breath with anticipation for what was to come. Putting on the bravest front he could muster, partially fueled by one part liquor and two parts fear, my great grandfather yelled “Guess all the coqui’s finally have gone to slumber. Sleep well sweet coquis. You loud little bastards!” But his false bravado stirred something in the darkness. Something shadowy, and ancient that cared little for false bravery.
My great grandfather sensed it. He couldn’t see it, he couldn’t see anything besides the rows of sugar cane that was blending into the nothingness that was the dark. He didn’t hear anything. But he sensed it out there. Watching him. Like a cat patiently stalking it’s prey. He felt defenseless and exposed. An urgency rushed over him. The young man realized he need to get home with great haste. He moved down the dirt path with an ever growing sense of irrational fear. It was then that he heard the first sound that was not emanating from his hurried movements. Something else was out there that night with my great grandfather. It was stirring within the stalks of sugar cane. Something big, and inexplicably gloomy. He looked all around hoping and yet wishing he wouldn’t catch a glimpse of whatever it was that was keeping pace with him. But no figures or forms could be seen. Just the darkness that was now all around him. A darkness so deep and oppressive, that even the light from his oil lamp could barely keep it from encroaching on them.
My great grandfathers legs grew a mind of their own. They sped up moving forward with ever increasing velocity. The heart in chest was beating with great force, pumping his body full of the oxygen rich blood needed by his muscles to push on beyond their normal capacity. It was at that moment that it dawned on him that his breathing seemed abnormal. It was powerful and deep. More like a beastly creature, like a powerful bull, than a young man scared out of his wits. That was then that he realized that the breathing he was hearing was not emanating from his lungs. Something else just outside his view was taking deep breaths in a violent fashion. Something big. Impossibly big. Whatever it was that was in the darkness felt so big that even though my great grandfather could not see it, he felt he was being enveloped by it.
The house was not to far off. He knew this. And for some reason, which was not at all understood by him, he was aware that what lurked in the darkness knew this as well. He tightened the grip on his rusted old lantern that had accompanied him on so many uneventful nights. Nights that were unlike the one he was experiencing at this moment. My great grandfather believed that the faint light flicking from the lantern was the only thing keeping the darkness from devouring him. My great grandfather ran. He ran with purpose. All he wanted at that moment was to be in the safe confines of their little home. Sitting side by side with his dear mother. He lamented the idea that he might never again hear his mother tell tall tales of legends passed down since before the island was a speck of sand. Stories about the days before there was a moon. Stories about what life was like before the great fall. He thought to himself how much he regretted mocking his mother for her prayers and rituals from a superstitious land that no longer seem to have a place in an ever increasing industrialized world.
He prayed. He was not a religious man mind you. Never had been. But his mother was a righteous, god fearing woman. She prayed to the saints and the old gods. She knew all too well the kind of things that lurked in the darkness. In his mind he repeated the words he had heard many times before, but had lacked meaning. That was until this darkest of nights.
“Dios te salve, María, llena eres de gracia,
el Señor es contigo.
Bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres,
y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesús.
Santa María, Madre de Dios,
ruega por nosotros, pecadores,
ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte.
“Hail Mary, full of grace,
our Lord is with thee,
blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God,
pray for us sinners, now, and in
the hour of our death.
He could make out the house at the end of the dirt path. My great grandfather was mere moments away from finding sanctuary from the black mass that was pursuing him. It was at that moment that he heard the void spring forth from the dark field that masked it’s true shape. It crashed loudly just mere steps behind him. The darkness. The beast. The ancient force that had prowled the lands long before any Spaniards, or slaves, before any Taino indians had ever stepped foot on the island was now fully exposed for him to see, but my great grandfather dared not look back. He pulled the last remaining ounce of strength that his now aching muscles could muster and pushed forward. He knew all to well that if he took one glance back to see the visage of his pursuer, all would be lost.
The house was now there before him. Steps ways from the door. The ancient spirit made a blood curdling howl that cooled my great grandfathers blood. He felt his legs grow weak and he stumbled forward. He thought to himself what a shame it would be to die so close to the shore. In one last desperate act my great grandfather flung back the lantern blindly, momentarily distracting the beast that was on the verge of clutching the desperately tired young man. That tiny little instant was all the time my great grandfather needed. He regained his footing and lept forward reaching out for the door of his mothers home. My great grandfather pushed the door open violently and he immediately turned to close the door behind him. It was at that instance that he caught a glimpse of the dark being that gave chase. The dark mass had no face, yet he knew it could see him. The beast had no form, yet he could sense an indescribable power. The shapeless void was like a thousand moonless nights. It was creation before God had commanded for their to be light, before the world was given shape. The void was nothing and yet everything. My great grandfather gazed upon the abyss and like Niche warned, the abyss gazes back into him. It robed all warmth and color from the world. And it filled my great grandfather with a primal fear. A fear that was as ancient as the thing that stood before him. He slammed the door shut.
My great grandfather, exhausted and overwhelmed crashed forcefully onto the floorboard. His mother hearing the commotion rushed out of her room where she had spent the better part of the night praying to Obatala in the form of Our Lady of Mercy to disperse the foulness that was filling the air. She dove on top of her weary child. “What has become of you my dear boy?”, his mother asked as she held her exhausted son in her arms, like Mary once held her son Jesus after being brought down from the cross. My great grandfather barely had the strength to speak, all he could do was weakly point towards the door. It was then that the mother heard something large move at greats speeds from the other side of the door, towards the back of their small home, coming to rest somewhere around the old mango tree.
His mother felt a sudden surge of anger rise from deep within. She had no sense of dread at that moment. Someone or something had dared harass her child. It mattered not that he was a man. For in her eyes he was still the sweet little boy that she had raised not so long ago. She stood up and walked into her room again. And when she emerged she had two sharpened machetes in hand. Tools of a humble macheteros trade. My great grandfather still weary from his ordeal saw this and with his mother’s help used the last remaining bit of strength to stand up upright. They could hear the branches of the old mango tree ruffling about and what sounded like some of the large, juicy mangos falling from the tree and hitting the ground with a discernable blop. The moving abyss that had chased my great grand father seemed to be making its way up the old tree. His mother gave her boy a determined look and said “Well son if you are man enough to step out on a moonless night on your own, then you will be man enough to accompany your mother to confront whomever dared to set foot on this land.” My great grandfather had never seen that look on his mothers face. He dared not contradict her on this night. He took hold of the machete that his mother handed over to him and together they stepped outside to confront whatever it was that choose to inflict so much torment.
Together, they made their way around the back of the house where the old mango tree resided. The night was still pitch dark, but there appeared to be a glow emanating from atop of the tree. My great grandfather and his mother looked up at the unearthly site. The darkness that had been felt and momentarily glimpsed just moments prior had been replaced by something that had taken the shape of a man. It was dressed all in white in simple peasant garbs that would be familiar to anyone that toiled all day working on the sugar cane fields. The stranger sat playfully on a thick branch, barefoot with his feet dangling freely. On top of his head he wore a simple straw heat. But of all the strangeness of this otherworldly apparition, the thing that stood out the most was the cold grin on the strangers face. It looked down at the pair. It never uttered a word. Just smiled contently peering deep into the mother and son’s soul. A chill ran up my great grandfathers spine. His mother, without removing her gaze from the ghostly apparition, simply said “Let it be my son; this is something de otro mundo, from another world’. Without saying another word the pair made their way back inside and closed the door behind them. They spent the rest of the night quietly praying to Osain and Saint Joseph the patron saint of laborers and protector of houses.
I remember looking up at my grandmother as my 9 year old mind tried to make sense of the fantastical elements of my grandmothers story. I asked her, sitting on the cool concrete steps, if they ever again came across the other worly being that had visited my ancestor that night. She smiled and assured me, that had been the last that anyone had ever heard or seen of that ancient spirit. My grandmother further explained that several nights after the frightening encounter, my great grandfather and several of his macheteros friends prayed to Osain at the base of the old mango tree and with St Josephs blessings tore the tree down. In time more and more houses were built in the area. Then came the progress of electricity and running water. Eventually the last acre of sugar cane was burned down, and with it the only remaining vestige of an old world passed on along with it. I felt a sense of both relief and disbelief. For there couldn’t be anyway that story could be true. You see I was around that age when the world begins to lose its sense of magic for a not so young child. Where science and fact replace the over active imaginations that is so prevalent in a child’s mind. But the story made enough of an impression that it remained somewhere lurking in the back of my mind.
About a year after hearing the story of the dark thing that chased after my great grandfather, I awoke in the middle of the night. My younger brother was resting peacefully at my side. I looked around suspiciously at the dimly lit bedroom that was barely being illuminated by my trusty night lite. Something was amiss. There was a dark oppressive weight to the air. And like that fatefull night that my great grandfather had experienced nearly a hundred years earlier, the world seemed devoid of all color. It was then that I heard it. Emanating from the bedroom window, just inches away from the aluminum panels that act as hurricane shutters; I heard a loud heavy breathing coming from what sounded to me like largest pair of lungs I could ever imagine. The sound was deafening. I was frozen in place by the overwhelming sense of fear that came over me. It felt as if I couldn’t take a full breath. I had a sense that something immense, and dark, an endless abyss of nothing was standing just outside my window, declaring it’s presence to me.
How could this be possible? I knew the layout of the house like the back of my hand. The house was fenced in by a 7 foot tall concrete wall that went around the length of the property. When I would turn the handle to open that very same window during hot summer months, the only thing I could see looking out was a handful of tall plants, and the 7 foot wall that stood about a foot away from the window. The space was so narrow that hardly a child, let alone a dark massive beast, could fit within the confines of the space. Yet there I was hearing the beastly breathing of an entity larger than anything I dared to dream up. It was then that I recalled the story, and just like my great grandfather did long before me, I prayed.
“Hail Mary, full of grace,
our Lord is with thee,
blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God,
pray for us sinners, now, and in
the hour of our death.
By the time I finished with my desperate plea, I felt the oppressive weight that had befallen on the room lifted, like a fog being dispersed by a steady wind. I found I had had regain control of my limbs. and I found that it no longer took any great effort on my part to breath. And the large dark presence that I was sure had just been standing waiting for me on the other side of the window, was gone. Gone back to the place where it belonged.
I’ve had almost 25 year to explain away the things that I felt that night. Perhaps I was just suffering from a case of sleep paralysis. Maybe I just dreamt the entire experience up. Or perhaps they were the last hallucinations of an over active imagination. However there is a part of me that still believes that there is something to the old tales that I heard in my youth. About a world just outside our view. One that was never meant to be seen. Perhaps the modern world still possesses a touch of that old world magic. And that there is still a place where ancient things and old Gods still roam, and have no use for logic amongst its ranks.