She didn’t see the fist slamming into her face. She didn’t feel it either. She didn’t get the chance to even wonder why someone would do something like that. What she did know was that she was dead. Why else would Santa Muerte be standing next to her?
Santa Muerte, impartial in conducting her duty, fought the emotion which arose in her when she had found the young woman’s body lying in the dark alley leading to the crowded plaza. She knew Mina Silvestre was the darling of the community, would have become famous in the near future, had been on her way to becoming the next Rita Moreno of musical fame. Her entrancing voice and lovely features only enhanced the sweet personality which made everyone fall under her spell. Such a waste, Santa Muerte thought with a shake of her head. She would never allow the collateral damage of the harvest if her powers were greater. But they weren’t, and she had a job to perform as the reaper of the dead. She bent over the prone figure, intending to raise her from the ground and place her in the carriage she used to transport souls. She would have blinked in surprise had she any eye lids, or eyeballs, for that matter. But Mina was not yet dead, a tiny second of awareness shone in her eyes before she ceased being capable of thought or speech. This had never happened.
She burst into tears, “What happened to me? How did I die?ˮ
“You were murdered,ˮ Santa Muerte blurted. “A young man who swallowed a piece of bad advice did you in for kicks. You have my sympathies if that means anything to you.ˮ
Mina gave a serene smile as her eyes glazed and then closed with the peace of what came over her. Santa Muerte embraced her and placed her gently into the black carriage. “Vámonos,” she said to her four equally black steeds, and they flew upward.
The date was October 31, 1967, el Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, the first of three days in celebration of the dearly departed. Santa Muerte saw it as a celebration just for her. But the days and nights also allowed for Evil to walk the streets of any city he could, and like any proficient serial killer, he collected his harvest every year, happy to increase the population in Hell. He now walked the streets of Tierra Sagrada as the Saint returned from Heaven where she had taken the young woman. The irony of the name wasn’t lost on him.
“Ha! Sacred Land, indeed. Perfect name for a town that’s about to get plucked like ripe fruit from the arbolera,” he thought. Santa Muerte caught up to the killer and followed. Hundreds of people had no idea who walked amongst them or how their futures would be affected on this, the first, night of the festival.
Halloween was here, and I was ready for an evening of celebration. It was the only time of the year I allowed myself to leave my confinement and enjoy freedom amongst the townspeople of my choice. This year I chose the small village of Tierra Sagrada. What the people would experience this night on their holy piece of dirt would keep me satisfied with my memories until the next Days of the Dead.
My red garb wouldn’t stick out from the countless others dressed for trick or treating. Dressed as the Devil, I emerged from a dark alley and joined the large crowd of people on the plaza. Strings of multi-colored lights between the Chinese elms lit the sidewalks where the townspeople walked and stopped to enjoy the treats of vendor stalls lining the street. Their owners hawked loudly as I passed about getting your churros here or your burgers over there. Cotton candy and candied apples vied with corn on the cob and turkey legs. If I were capable of a break maybe I would stop and inhale the aromas later. Once my mind had a purpose, though, I knew I was like a hell hound with a scent to follow. All sorts of souvenirs, handmade products, art, and photography attracted viewers and occasional buyers. The Day of the Dead curios were going fast since many would serve as decorations for the graves later. The entire event was a bazaar to raise money for the parish. Everyone in town and from the surrounding communities attended. It was one of “the” gatherings people came from miles around to enjoy. Which is why I chose it for my three-day annual excursion.
Costumed in characters of the horror, the macabre, and even the folk tales of the Hispanic community, la gente of all ages enjoyed the festivities. I strolled amongst the revelers, my red cape swirling around my calves. My crimson flesh with patches of black soot gave me an authentic look. The frightened eyes of the children I passed made me chuckle. I was enjoying my freedom when I was knocked aside with no warning. I caught myself and turned.
The man who had run into me was drunk or high, I was sure. When he staggered back and saw my red face looking down at him, he chuckled and then looked at me from top to toe while struggling to keep his balance. I was at least a foot taller than he, my hair jet black and slicked back like the proverbial vampire. My eyes bore right into him; perhaps because he was inebriated, they did not seem to faze him in the least. My black eyes have been compared to those of a rabid beast. I always smile at the memory of hearing that comparison for the first time. The person who said it had no idea how much like the starving brute I really am. Not until he took his last breath.
The man laughed. “¡El Diablo! Al fin me llevas al infierno.” Then he turned to the people nearest us and shouted, “Miren, look, it’s el Diablo! He’s finally taking me to Hell!”
I smiled at the onlookers, shook my head in dismissal, and began walking away. It was one thing if I wanted to call attention to myself, but to be made a spectacle by an intoxicated old fool was not my plan this night.
I meandered through the crowd, closing in on another alley between two tall buildings and entering it when I realized the old man had been following me. I had taken about three long strides into the darkness when the fellow caught up. I saw him coming, of course. The broken mirror leaning against a trash bin and his noise gave him away.
“Oye, Satanas, turn and face me, you coward. Let us see who will take who to Hell.”
His steps came faster, running to gain momentum for when he would attack from behind. I steeled myself, and I didn’t feel a thing. He did. He felt the crack of both wrists when they broke with the impact on my back. His yowls would soon bring crowds, so I silenced him and left him behind a dirty mattress standing against a garbage bin. He could sleep off whatever had made him so high he mistook the feeling for bravado. His awakening would bring him more than pain, I would see to that before the night was over. “I will see you in Hell,ˮ I always had the last word. “Later.ˮ
I exited on the other side of the alley and emerged on the midway where the lights were brighter, the crowd denser, and the noise greater. A carousel turned to its loud music. The Ferris wheel towered over the tilt-a-whirl, the Scrambler, and many other rides between stalls where men played games of chance to win stuffed animals for their ladies or children. I smiled with anticipation and went looking for someone else to engage for my amusement. After all, this was one of three nights of the year when I could almost be myself.
Santa Muerte had followed evil to the small town called Sacred Land for a reason.
As much as she looked forward to the fiesta in her honor, she knew it was also one of the most busy holidays of every year. Evil came to reap a bountiful harvest. This killer spread hate and instigated confrontation with pleasure, knowing those who succumbed to his influence would increase his numbers. Bigger than Jack the Ripper, he used Halloween as a means to an end. He was free to stroll with undisguised blood lust among those he would make his victims.
Santa Muerte saw the moment Satan stopped in the center of the plaza by the gazebo and looked at the throng of people passing him as they strolled. Something caught his eye or came into his mind, some slight by someone maybe; she saw it when his face changed. He was the one the papers in this region would later call Satanas, el Asesino del Sur Oeste. The media never knew how right they were with his moniker: Satan, the assassin of the southwest. In other locations he was known by other names. But no one knew it was the same culprit. All these people around, and not one of them knew they had a killer in their midst.
My disguise was also my undoing. No one knew who I was. Where was the adoration? Where was the respect I deserved for being the monster of their nightmares? The bloodlust in my mind festered and grew into a rage. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, humans passing on either side, crossing in front or back as I stood there. The rage boiled in my gut and began rising through my body. If I were not careful, I would give myself away right here, instead of during the grand finale I planned for the last night of this fiesta. I closed my eyes and tried to calm myself, breathing deeply of the scent of cotton candy, the candied apples, the delightful treats— and the people, the sweat, the perfume, the breath of the people around me—I was intoxicated by them, and more so by the fear I would smell later. The anticipation of the havoc I would wreak would have to sustain me until dark.
I left the park and went to an alleyway to calm down. At dusk, the people would go in a procession to the nearby cemetery to pay their respects to the dead and to lay out their altars. There would be feasts at gravesites, families and friends in a celebration with their departed and dearly beloved. That was when I planned my grand entrance. What better place than a graveyard on Halloween to unleash the appetite I had built up since my last harvest. Fresh blood, that was what I needed. The last thing I needed was to explode in anger and go off like a bomb annihilating all the inhabitants. I focused my ire instead on a young man approaching me, heading toward the side street from the plaza. I was following an equally young woman who had entered the alleyway in front of me. This was where Santa Muerte came into the picture. I have a feeling she is to blame for how the night ended.
It had gotten dark enough by now where I walked because the buildings cut off the setting sun, so I slipped into an alcove to watch the encounter. I must have channeled my own dark thoughts into the man’s mind. The next thing I knew, the man’s fist shot out with no warning. The one blow killed his victim instantly. He didn’t even glance back when she fell. He did not see Doña Sebastiana, the sainted celebrity of the Days of the Dead takes the young woman up in an embrace and then carry her off to her carriage. But I did. And when I saw the upward direction the four horses pulled it; I knew Heaven would be gaining an angel. The fury rose out of me. The man had extinguished the life of one I could have taken for my own with a little finesse. When I did the same to him, I desecrated the body to appease my need to cause pain. My rage at la gente of this Tierra Sagrada was boiling over, and not even I knew what I might do next. In my haste and my frustration, I did not do a great job of disposing of the bodies, but the people would be preparing to go in procession to the cemetery soon. I did not worry overmuch that the two would be discovered or that the first man would rise from behind the mattress either.
I disappeared into the shadows and waited. An hour or so passed when I heard the most pure, the most appealing feminine voice singing as though directly to me. My anger diminished, and I found myself in the magical grip of the cantora and the canción. Drugged by the melody weaving into my senses, I experienced the euphoria of a pleasant sensual experience. I felt the music run right through me, tasted each note as though savoring fruit, saw the colors of the rainbow glisten in my vision. I had to find the girl who was responsible for making me feel a taste of the heaven I knew I would never inhabit.
The elusive singer’s notes wafted through the fall breeze, fading for a moment and then gaining in strength as though she were flitting amongst the trees, the crowds, even around the buildings surrounding the plaza. I moved in and out of the groups, snaking my way along the sidewalks, through the grass, on the streets, and in the alleys in pursuit of the voice that never got any closer. Forgotten was any prey I had been seeking, forgotten was the harvest.
The gente joined in the singing and followed the heavenly voice through the center of the road leading to the graveyard a few blocks away. When they got to the cemetery, the sun had reached the horizon over the mountain tops and began lowering her face behind them while the moon raised her own on the opposite sky. The people split into groups. Soon, most of the graves had families gathered around them, all still singing along with the angelic voice and setting up altars for their loved ones. Blankets and rugs were flung on the ground for the family to kneel and pray, then share a meal, leaving plenty out for the dead to partake of when the living left for home later.
The voice never faltered, the notes clear and perfect of pitch, entrancing humans and the spirits beneath the gravestones in equal measure, I was sure. I passed among those little congregations of family and friends of the deceased around their gravesites, each a little community—a village—communing in prayer and retrospection about what life had been with the person lying beneath them. I came to a lone tree, a bare-branched apple tree someone had planted over their loved one’s sepultura years past, so long ago it appeared petrified and skeletal. Decorated with white paper ghosts and flower garlands, it served as a festive yet dignified testament to death standing over life. It was the perfect backdrop for the appearance of a young woman who looked vaguely familiar.
She stopped singing, and I begged, “Do not stop. I miss the pleasure of listening to such beauty; it is as if the colors of the rainbow have turned to musical notes.”
“You killed me.”
Her words had me puzzled. I had killed a lot of people, why did she expect to stand out? Oh! It came to me: she was the young woman earlier who had dropped dead from the blow to the face, the blow struck by the young man who had swallowed my rage and taken it as his own. Whatever frustration or desire came over him to perform the act had been strong. His own demise had come upon him swiftly for his sin.
“Inadvertently, yes.” I had to agree. I spread my feet apart, crossed my arms, and got ready for a good confrontation. Clearly, she was not yet an angel, merely a ghost still stuck on earth for whatever reason. So I asked her.
“Why are you still here? Surely you’re sinless enough to enter the gates of heaven.”
“It’s your fault. I was struck down without a chance to atone for my sins. I have done that, and I will reach my journeyʼs end soon. But I wanted you to know that I forgive you because I know well that you know not what you do. Let my words comfort you in the years to come. The one responsible will fail to reap the harvest he envisioned in Hell on this night.”
As she finished her piece, her body began turning into a vaporous figure which sprouted a set of perfect wings and rose until my vision was filled with white. I felt a breath expel from my mouth. That is all I remember.
Santa Muerte had been watching from behind the tree. She witnessed Satan exit through the man’s mouth, a snaking vapor that took to the breeze as though in no hurry to enter his next victim.
During the trial, the killer’s lawyer pled guilty by reason of insanity. The Saint sat in the gallery and listened to the testimony of the survivors of that Halloween night in the graveyard. The man had seemed in a trance when he struck out and began a murderous bloodletting that took many victims from the cemetery, almost one from every family, until he was struck down by someone and held down by many until the authorities arrived. The throng was about to hang him from the dead, decorated tree when the sheriff put a stop to the process. And here they were, at trial. They say the man claimed he had been overtaken by Satan or he would never have done what he had. The prosecution argued a one-time murder might have swayed the jury of his insanity, but to have murdered so many victims, no. Crazy didn’t account for that.
No one but the Holy and the unholy Trinities knew the real story; the man was neither insane nor a psychopath. He had served as a vessel for the prince of Hell until the Devil moved on and into someone else. For 362 days of the year, Sin was determined to wreak havoc under Satanʼs direction; for the three Days of the Dead, Satan enjoyed gathering as many souls as he could himself. Hoping to beat last year’s record, he had sought to entice enough humans to reap a bountiful harvest. He relished that each decade brought more souls through the gates of Hell than those of Heaven. It was up to the Saint to clean up after both Sin and Satan. She had come to Tierra Sagrada for a purpose: as part of the trio who were irrevocably tied together for eternity, she was the Harvester of the souls she deposited in Hell as her impartial duty.
But this year, because of the angelic singer who had been sacrificed in Satanʼs reaping, Santa Muerte had found the means by which to stop him on the first of the three-day feast, and so she took it. She had used the young woman as her own mouthpiece before sending her from a kind of purgatory on to her eternal home. Mina Silvestre had pardoned the innocent killer, himself a victim of Satan. And like so many in prisons worldwide, the man would spend his life incarcerated for crimes he had committed under the control of the dark prince. It was only right that the innocent young victim told him she forgave him before her heavenward ascent. He had known not what he had done, and he needed all the comfort and consolation of her absolution for the endless days and nights of the maximum-security prison where he resided until his death. Fifty-eight years passed before he, too, joined the numbers of the harvest Santa Muerte delivered to Hell.
Carmen Baca taught a variety of English and history courses, mostly at the high school and college levels over the course of thirty-six years before retiring in 2014. Her command of both English and Spanish enables her to write with true story-telling talent. Her debut novel El Hermano, published in April of 2017 and became a finalist in the NM-AZ. She has also published 32 short works in online literary magazines, women’s blogs, and anthologies. She and her husband live a quiet life in the country caring for their animals and any stray that happens to come by.