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We have no legendary heroes – no Superman, no Batman, or Wonder Woman in my Spanish culture. But we have legendary ghosts, shapeshifters, cryptids, and monsters – curiously, most of them are women. In my early school days, I learned about Paul Bunyan, but no one included Trickster Coyote in the curriculum. Jack and his giant have nothing on the giants who inhabited the land 30 miles from where I live. Dick and Jane never had encounters with ghosts or boogie men or women, but María y José, my parents, ran into ghosts and saw witches who traveled as balls of fire.
I would’ve loved to have stories from my culture in schoolbooks when I was a child. Reading about my area, I could have pictured the woods with those dark deadfalls where el Serpiente, the legendary vivorón, slithered out in the night to hunt on our livestock every five years. I could have heard in my imagination the banshee cries of la Llorona, the Weeping Woman, when one of us came across her by the rivers or other water sources of the southwest.
Any whoosh of large bird wings overhead would have brought to mind la Lechuza, the shape-shifting witch who traveled as an enormous owl. Our folklore makes the Devil and Daniel Webster pale by comparison. On second thought, maybe that’s why I never found our stories in textbooks.
Those of us here in northern New Mexico who have seen any of our state’s legends share a certain distinction. Because sightings in the past were fairly common, we experienced a sort of notoriety. Many people we told believed us; the encounters gave us a sort of respect. The skeptics who shook their heads and called us locos didn’t matter. We saw what we saw, and whatever it was defied rational explanation; therefore, it had to be supernatural or paranormal.
Perhaps sightings of such ghouls as la Malhora, the Bad Hour, or cryptids, like the duendes seen by our ancestors, have become more scarce because our minds have closed against the possibilities. Our eyes no longer see what we no longer believe to be in the realm of possibility. So when the phenomenon presents itself, our eyes see what our minds interpret. The rabbit hopping beneath the brush can’t be a Jackalope – no such animal exists. We scoff at the improbability. When did we lose our imaginations or our abilities to accept that which is beyond explanation?
I don’t include myself in that generalization. I’m not one of the naysayers. When I go for walks, I often stumble over uneven terrain or rodent holes in my path because I’m always focused ahead, either above in the tree boughs or below in rocky crevices, hunting for the unusual, the unexpected, or the downright strange. I long to encounter one of nature’s peoples whether creature or phantom, some new entity I can claim for myself, like the ghost my father saw or the ball of fire my mother witnessed. Be careful what you wish for, my inner voice warns me when I venture out on my searches. The stories I heard as a child have a chill factor to them, an actual sighting of something clear – so vivid the witnesses remember minute details – those stories stuck with me.
They’re also the reason why I continued my search for the unusual, the unexplainable, the unique. I set out that summer morning into the forest north of my hometown. The woods held shallow caves where I sheltered from the occasional rainstorm, hot springs where I swam, and tall trees where I perched for hours observing nature below. When I was a child, my older brother taught me how to defend myself with objects available in the woods. My tree climbing skills came from him too. I didn’t worry overmuch about mountain lions or such predators, but I wore a whistle around my neck just in case. My cell phone functioned as my camera out here, nothing more. And I never shared photos of my favorite spots. This place was mine alone. There was something about the solitude of the woods I craved. The quiet and the peace of these mountains drew me. The search for the unexpected propelled me into the woods.
I followed a familiar path and spent some time in a few of my treasured places to observe the diverse species of birds. I followed a raccoon for a bit until I lost it in the underbrush. Close to noon, I started toward the springs. My stomach made louder noises than my footsteps, and the lunch I’d packed called from my backpack. An afternoon of lazy swimming afterward sounded like a great end to my day. Approaching a curve around a copse of wild oak, I heard a rustling among the green shadows and halted in my tracks. I hunted around for a weapon in case a wild boar or other creature attacked. I grabbed a couple of good-sized stones and retreated behind the wide trunk of a pine opposite the still-moving brush. Branches swayed, leaves swished, and I watched, waiting for whatever it was to emerge.
The movement stopped, and all went quiet. Too quiet. I noticed then the birds no longer tweeted, the bugs and smaller animals had stopped their chirping, chattering, and squeaking. Even the breeze which had been blowing with a warm and gentle touch went still. When the hot sun on my back got uncomfortable, I tossed the rocks one after the other into the bush just in case. Nothing.
“Wake up, everyone,” I called at the forest in general. My noise broke the stillness and the twittering, croaking, and cricking of the woodland residents started up again. I’d never had that happen before, but I hoped it was a precursor to something more. After all, seeing something memorable drew me here as much as my desire for solitude. I found a stout walking stick to lean on as I ascended a tall hill between trees, boulders, and other natural obstacles. The path continued to the left toward the river and a campground, but I went right and down a slope beneath a large deadfall. I didn’t think too many others knew of this direct route to my swimming hole. So the voices up ahead froze me in place.
“I told you the springs were close,” a high feminine voice said.
“Fine. Your memory is better than mine. Happy?” a lower-pitched voice conceded.
I wanted to hear more – to know whether I should retreat or go forward. I didn’t recognize either speaker. Knowing I’d give myself away from crunching leaves and cracking pine needles beneath my feet, I found a couple of large boulders to use as stepping stones. I hopped my way to the closest tree. I hid behind it as the conversation continued.
“Yes, I am,” the other answered. “I’m also famished. Maybe we’ll come across something to eat by the water.”
The voice reminded me of how cartoon characters like mice speak. It’s a small person, I thought. Maybe a child. They didn’t speak again. I heard them moving off. But instead of footfalls, I heard a whirring like electric toothbrushes. “Odd,” I muttered.
I took care to find stones and clear spots to step on as I followed. I stuck a few nickel and quarter-sized rocks into my pockets, just in case. I read too many murder mysteries and listened to too many podcasts to take chances. I heard the springs before I saw them. The trickling sound increased with my approach; I reached a thicket of oak, parting the thin branches with care. I stepped into the center and moved my head around to find a vantage point from inside. What the hell? ran through my mind right before I let the boughs go and covered my mouth with both hands. I tried to shush my breathing and slow it at the same time. The coincidence of my thinking about cartoon creatures and seeing two right in front of me had me wondering if I hadn’t fallen and hit my head. Maybe I was unconscious and imagining this vision.
Or maybe fate or, heck, some spell or time travel hole had opened up. I couldn’t believe what I saw, but there was no denying it either. I had calmed enough to let go of my mouth and opened up the brush again. If it was my imagination, it was in 3-D, like virtual reality, though I wore no goggles. Sitting with her legs in the water was a small creature of about seven inches high, a woman in a ragged-edged dress and a human-like head, though somewhat large for her body. Pointed ears high on the head made her look elfin.
She gave a big yawn, and my spine sprouted cold needles. Those were carnivore teeth, uppers and lowers all ending in fangs. She caught a bowl of water in both hands and splashed it over herself. I spotted movement behind her and almost gasped aloud. Wings! She had two sets of wings on her back. She fluttered them back and forth, butterfly-style, flicking drops of water everywhere. A movement to her left drew my attention. Another woman, this one wrinkled with age and silver-haired, probably five or six inches in height, wings fluttering as fast as any hummingbird’s, shoved the younger one into the water.
As she flew upward, the now soaking wet one spat water into the eyes of the elder. She flew off so quickly all I saw was an indistinct figure trailing water which drenched the other one.
When the older woman laughed, my mouth fell open again. Her teeth ended in fangs like the other’s, but several of them slanted unevenly where they’d broken off. I wondered what she’d bitten into to have caused such damage. Or maybe she’d gotten into fights. Another prickle of unease came over me – what if her food had fought back and lost the struggle? Those teeth were meant for flesh, and not the fruit or vegetable kind.
I reached into my shirt pocket for my cell but dropped it back in fast. That whirring sound came up from behind me and then flew overhead. I’d been too busy looking at the older woman’s teeth to notice the other one hadn’t returned to her previous location. She hovered right over me just long enough for me to look up. I watched her smile turn into a toothy grin.
Then her fingers latched onto my cheeks before I even registered the blur had been her body swooping down onto my face. The sharp and sudden pain from her teeth in my cheek
followed by an agonizing yank of my skin told me she had taken a bite. I screamed, letting go of the branches and flailing at the air around my face, but she had already risen and fluttered about a foot over my head. She spat my flesh from her mouth and held it daintily in two fingers as she nibbled on little bites. Her eyes closed and her tongue licked the blood from her lips. She moaned in the satisfaction of a connoisseur savoring a delightful meal.
“Oye, Fabiola,” she called. “This one’s tasty. She’s ripe, too. Come and eat.” She looked down at me with what I could only describe later as lust – but not the sexy kind – the kind that told me even as small as these things were, they could probably spend an entire week filling their stomachs with my flesh. Though my cheek throbbed and the blood dripped with the beats of my heart, I didn’t know when my fascination turned to wonder, then from horror to outrage, but a sudden surge of anger rose from my gut, unexpected but welcome. How dare she EAT me! I didn’t want to kill whatever this was, not unless I had to.
“Ay voy,” the older one called. “Don’t you dare let her escape before I get a good chunk out of her.”
When the buzz of her wings came up from behind me, I yelled, “Like hell you will!” I grabbed the branch closest to the one still munching away and swung it like a giant pendulum. It knocked her backward, and I saw her drop my skin right before she passed over me in a blur. I heard the thunk of her landing, but I didn’t stick around to see where or whether she was hurt.
Fear and self-preservation propelled me to turn and plunge from that thicket. The scratches of the sharp limbs were nothing compared to the razors protruding from both creatures’ mouths. The flying thing had taken a marble-sized hole out of my face. What could the other do? I didn’t want to find out. I leaped from the last of the leafy branches and fell forward to my hands and knees. I almost hit the ground with my face when one of them grabbed fistfuls of my hair and pulled. I hadn’t noticed how sharp their nails were, and I couldn’t see if they were claws or humanlike. But they had moved from my hair and now plunged into the flesh of my neck on both sides. When I felt the hot breath on my hair, I threw myself on my back.
The “oooof,” came out muffled against my backpack. I jumped to my feet and looked down at the older creature writhing on the forest floor. I kicked her aside, and she tumbled into a thorny wild rosebush. The motorized sound of the younger one got closer behind me, and I leaped again, this time into another bush in front of me. And then I kept running, stumbling, jumping from one thicket to the other to protect myself from attack as I flew out of that forest and into the clearing where I’d started my walk.
A storage shed for a construction company stood a few hundred yards ahead. I aimed for it like a missile on a target. But the door was padlocked. I spotted a portapotty to my left and ran for it next. I locked myself in just as a thump hit the door, followed by the sound of one of the flying creatures overhead.
“We cannot let her escape.”
“No, but how do you figure getting her out?” The elder shoved at the potty and almost unbalanced it. Her strength astonished me, but maybe these things got stronger with age.
The swirling of the toilet water made me gag with the thought of them knocking the thing over with me inside. There was nothing in here I could use as a weapon. I had escaped being eaten alive, but for how long? How long could I stay here before the hot sun made me sick? How long would my two new adversaries wait for me to come out? Not long, apparently.
“I’ll go look for a tool to pry the lock open,” the older one said, her voice fading as the buzz of her wings grew faint.
“I’ll look for something too, maybe we can light a fire and smoke her out.” The whir of the other one’s wings also receding in the distance told me she, too, had flitted off. But was this a ploy? Were they close enough to catch me if I opened the door and ran out? I had never been more grateful to hear the sound of an approaching vehicle. I shot out of that stinky latrine so fast the workmen getting out of their truck did double takes as I passed. I had a mile or more to walk before reaching the safety of my house, but I was on the outskirts of the city proper. I hoped my walking in public areas would keep me safe. Surely, the pair wouldn’t attack me in front of witnesses. Or would they? I slowed only once to grab a napkin from my pack to dab at my cheek when the pain reminded me I was dripping blood on the sidewalk. Then I renewed my flight, searching the ground for rocks as I jogged and walked and jogged again.
I’d passed a few of the more traveled streets and entered the residential area. I remembered the public library on the next block and detoured. I was exhausted, the rush of adrenaline wearing off, the shaking of my legs, the trickle of blood flowing down my face – it was too much. I felt my pulse in the painful wound, each beat reminding me I should get it taken care of. What infections could I get from the bite of a–a–. The library might tell me what those people creatures were; it had a bathroom where I could wash up, and it had cozy reading areas where I could hide a while, rest, and perhaps get some answers.
Entering the historical building from the rear, I got to the bathroom in the basement without being seen. I washed my hands and face, cleaned the wound, leaving a moist tissue inside and covering the outside with another piece. I let my long hair hang over that side of my face and slunk to a corner between shelves where an overstuffed armchair invited me to sit awhile. The cellar served as a reading room for documents and rare books which couldn’t be checked out or photocopied due to their historical value. If I were to find any information on local legends, creatures, or monsters, this room probably had it.
But I needed to rest my feet and stop the shaking of my body first, so I made myself comfortable in the chair, telling myself I’d close my eyes only for a moment. I awoke to pitch dark. Only the red exit sign in the front of the room shed enough illumination for me to see. I remembered where I was and grabbed my phone to check the time. It was dead. The big wall clock I spotted as I rose from the chair and stretched read 3:33. No way was I leaving the safety of this place and risk running into the fiends who had driven me here. I worried someone might be concerned about where I was. It was too late to call anyone though, and my battery was dead anyway. I was safer here than anywhere else right now.
I walked around and found an old computer in a corner. I turned it toward the wall so the light of the monitor wouldn’t be seen from the windows. Though the room took up the entire basement area, there were two small, long windows located about a foot from the ceiling on every side. For the next hour, I satisfied my curiosity about what the little monsters were. One article reported several sightings of fairies in Mexico that occurred as recently as 2011. Three photos of the little beasts, complete with those knife-sharp teeth, confirmed what I had seen. Measuring between five and eight inches in height, the bodies were lean, the legs and arms abnormally long.
The larger wings were bat-like while the set beneath was closer to those of a beetle. The flying women were Mexican fairies all right, though the question of what they were doing up here so far from Mexico remained.
I thought I’d found the answers I sought but, in the morning, when I snuck out as the first employee came in, I left that mausoleum with more questions. Long after that day, I told friends, family, anyone who asked, the truth about the round mark tattooed into my cheek. Whether they believed or not didn’t matter. What did is that I found what I looked for. Never mind I came as close to death at the hands of those who either should have been extinct or should never have existed in the first place.
Now I know why our New Mexico legends didn’t make the cut for the reading curriculum of our schools. The Land of Enchantment is filled even today with the real spirits, creatures, monsters, boogie men and women of our ancestors’ stories. They were as real then as they are now, but they are also just as deadly. I might be one of few people alive today who encountered Mexican fairies and lived. I got exactly what I wished for; I found my legend. It’s mine alone. In the many times I’ve gone back to the springs, I’ve not found anything else unusual or unnatural, but now I’m on a mission. As long as the chance exists that I might come across something or someone else like the fairies, I’m going to keep searching.
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 contributes to her story-telling style. Her debut novel El Hermano published in April of 2017 and became a finalist in the NM-AZ book awards program in 2018. Her third book, Cuentos del Cañón, received first place for short story fiction anthology in 2020 from the same program. Her sixth book will publish in a few weeks from Somosenescrito Press. Her short stories, articles, and essays can be found in ezines, journals, and anthologies.