The jungle was dark. Overhead the highest branches of the trees thinned against the sky. The stars were shining brightly against the backdrop of the full moon. Not a single leaf moved in the thick foliage around us. The narrow road seemed endless. The air was sweltering. Spring nights in the Guatemalan jungle are humid and still, filled with the exotic noises of mating insects.
When we are twenty, sometimes we come up with certain ideas that are worth trying:
At the start of this trip, we had agreed to leave our wristwatches at home in order to experience, according to us, the magical side of time. Somehow, it worked. That day, we had no idea what time we had woken up, and from the moment we left, we could not accurately determine the passing of the hours. How long had it been since sunset at the top of the Temple of the Great Jaguar in Tikal? We didn’t know. We only knew that when we came down, the afternoon seemed to have evaporated. Darkness had enveloped the magical Mayan history with a bluish thin veil.
After a stretch that felt endless, we reached a town that wasn’t on our maps. It was completely deserted. It should have been about half past nine at night, I guess. The heat was building up, and we were tired and hungry.
We stopped to get some things from the trunk. Out of nowhere, we saw the figure of an old woman walking with a cane and carrying a bundle on her back. Carol and I went to ask her if there would be another town down the way, or someplace to eat and spend the night. Beto and Elías stayed behind removing the thick dust from the windshield of the car.
“Well… no, not a town. The next one is still a little far away; but just a bit ahead there is an inn: La Hacienda de la Casona,” the ghostly woman replied with a hollow voice.
A noise that sounded like the flapping of heavy birds distracted us. It seemed to be coming from all directions at the same time. A heap of buzzards flew out from behind a half-collapsed limestone wall, behind the mysterious woman. In an instant, the vultures disappeared into the night. An eerie silence befell. We could almost hear the distant throbbing of the stars. When we looked back, the old woman had vanished. Only the weak cane was left behind, leaning against the crumbling stone wall.
Astounded, with a feeling I still cannot describe up to this day, we continued on our way. We drove slowly for a few minutes. We couldn’t decide whether to leave the car windows open and drown ourselves in the dust, or roll them up and suffocate from the heat. We arrived at a rickety entrance gate. Carol and I got out of the car. We knocked several times with our knuckles, and then with a stone, on the small, peeling black metal door.
We thought that no one had heard our knocking. Behind the gate, we could hear a huge riot. It seemed to us that a coven was going on: screams, howls, turkeys shouting, eerie cries. We were about to leave when the door opened hesitantly, with the typical creak of rusty hinges. At that very moment, the sounds stopped. All became disturbingly quiet. A plump, short woman with bright black eyes came out wearing an impeccable white apron.
“Good evening, ma’am. We need a room.”
“Good evening, kids. Yes, yes, come on in, my name is Maria de la Asuncion: ‘Chonita.’ I’m the innkeeper,” said the woman, while fixing her hair.
The narrow-cobbled driveway led to a large rectangular courtyard. At the end, there was an old L-shaped whitewashed adobe house, lit by the weak flickering light of several oil lamps.
“Good night,” said three men and two women, all oddly dressed, who were leaving the house, apparently in a hurry.
“Good night,” Carol and I replied.
In the courtyard, under the eaves of the house roof, there were a couple of square metal tables with bottles of beer stamped on the tops. To one side of the door were two dogs sprawled on a grey concrete bench. I was surprised that we couldn’t find a single turkey anywhere.
“Didn’t you hear turkeys?” I asked Carol.
“Of course! loud and clear,” she answered.
“Good evening!” we greeted four men who were playing cards at one of the tables. At first, we thought they hadn’t even noticed us, but then one of them, lowering his head, touched the brim of his hat and said, almost with a yawn, “Hello, kids.”
In the corner of a room that served as a living room, dining room, and kitchen, an age-old woman dressed in what seemed to me a shiny purple gown was sitting in a rocking chair. She had a thick, broad, ancient book on her lap. As she turned the pages, they would rustle with a poignant sound, as if awaiting death. It looked as though they were cracking at that very moment, and would become dust. As if they were dry leaves, several bits of paper fell slowly to the ground, shifted softly a couple of times, and vanished. I kept walking, as in a state of heightened awareness, hypnotized by the scene.
“Good evening, ma’am.”
It seems the old lady didn’t hear. She didn’t answer. The rocking chair kept swaying lightly with a gentle rhythm.
Next to a clay jug of water, I could hear a petroleum stove smoking on top of a bare concrete slab, which served as a table. The pulsating light from the oil lamps made the room look larger and spooky. There were several closed doors, going who knows where, bolted with wooden planks. When we passed in front of one them, I felt that the whole house was being inundated with the smell of old books. Chonita grabbed two oil lamps in order to light our way into a large room with two beds and a rickety cot. She carefully placed one of the lamps on top of a dirty stool covered in several layers of paint, and she asked us what we wanted for dinner.
“Listen, Doña Chonita: why do they call this place the big house on the grove? La hacienda de la casona. The house is not that big, I’d say.”
“Oh, children! If I just told you,” she said with a sigh as she pulled something out of a tall, narrow wooden cabinet with a piece of broken mirror on the door.
“Is there a bathroom?” Carol asked.
“Not in here, but out there in the backyard, there is a latrine.”
“We just need to bathe,” I said.
“Sure. Back there you can also bathe in the cistern. But watch out—there are scorpions. And…beware, legend has it that ghostly beings appear, especially in the dark of night.
“Do scorpions appear only at night, ma’am?” Beto asked. He only heard Chonita’s last sentence, as he was just entering the room.
“No, not scorpions! What people say is that ghosts come out back there at night.” Chonita crossed herself. “To tell you the truth, I have never seen them, but I sure have heard their voices.”
Once, the backyard must have been part of the old grove. It was huge, and although it had been neglected, it still had a certain charm under the moonlight. We could still smell the sweet aromas of fruit trees, especially orange ones. The scent was deep, exquisite. When we returned from bathing, we noticed that the concrete bench where the dogs had been sleeping was now full of pots holding poinsettias and tulips. A peacock with iridescent plumage paced slowly around the courtyard, no sign of the dogs. The moon was already high in the sky when we sat down to dine. The card players were still drinking cane schnapps in total silence.
“Cheers, gentlemen!” Elías told them, raising a bottle of beer.
The four of them raised their glasses slightly. The eldest one touched the brim of his hat with his index finger, but said nothing. Their movements seemed mechanical, and their elusive gazes had a dull, frightening glow. For some reason that we couldn’t explain, we felt threatened by an invisible, malignant force.
“These guys don’t exist. They are dead!” I whispered.
The fat man, who was wearing a black woolen vest, raised his head a little and gave us a diabolical grin.
Terrified, we turned to see each other. After a pause, which felt eternal, Beto said very quietly in a doubtful but sarcastic tone, “So, I guess this table doesn’t exist either, right?” He hit it gently with the knuckles of his left hand. The man who had touched his hat half-raised his face and gazed at us with a ghastly look.
Carol dug her nails into my leg, and looking down, she whispered:
“It is true, these guys are weird!”.
“They are not here,” I repeated quietly.
“No, seriously! This is weird,” said Elías, pushing his chair back. The chair creaked with a sound like the howl of a wounded animal. The card players winced and quickly covered their ears. Without turning to see us, and with awkward movements that seemed rehearsed, they slowly resumed their previous postures.
We straightened up and settled into our chairs, glancing hesitantly at the neighboring table.
“Are you guys okay?” Doña Chonita asked, as she served a bean stew on chipped pewter plates.
“Yes, of course,” said Beto.
No, we were not okay! We felt threatened and couldn’t define the precise reason for our anxiety. We struggled to keep our cool. We kept talking, often checking the table beside us out of the corners of our eyes. Something was happening that night that we couldn’t figure out.
We got up and moved away from the oil lamps’ light. We raised our faces: above, the stars continued on their silent journey. We noticed that Cassiopeia seemed farther north than “she” usually did, especially for Carol, who lived in Canada.
“Those guys aren’t here,” I said again, as I looked up to the sky.
We walked for a while about the patio and the cobbled path. When we came back to the table, the stars had already wandered a long stretch toward the west.
A gentle breeze blew from the back yard, carrying scents of orange and coffee. Suddenly, from above the house, thousands of soap bubbles appeared, illuminated by bursts of moonlight, like a broken reflection from the unknown. We were elated. Carol got up to chase them. We followed her.
“Oh, you guys!” said Doña Chonita with a small, hollow laugh.
The men at the next table continued playing cards and drinking in total silence. They didn’t seem to have noticed the bubbles or us running after them. They seemed to be in another world. All of a sudden, they put their cards down on the table, got up at exactly the same time, looked up at the sky and sat down again. At that moment, and only for an instant, we managed to see their faces. They looked dry, ashy, and emaciated, as if they were made of a different substance than that of their hands. The men’s sunken eyes were clear, almost white. An eerie chill ran down our backs; a cold anguish overwhelmed us. We knew we were in the presence of the supernatural.
We did not dare to look at them in the eyes. We thought about talking to them, asking them for the time or for a cigarette, but we couldn’t articulate a single word. Something that we have never been able to explain prevented us from speaking to them. Totally confused and perplexed, we did nothing.
“See you tomorrow, gentlemen,” we muttered in fear.
With a mechanical, synchronized motion, the four men touched their hats. In very low voices that bounced off the walls, they said in unison, “Seeee youuu!”
Our fear was not rational. It was a basal sensation running through our whole bodies. We stood up, terrified and in a hurry, and grabbed the oil lamp and an ashtray from the table. We turned to see the men once more before running away.
We went to our room and opened the windows wide. The heat was unbearable. We chatted a bit. In spite of everything, and in some strange way, we felt happy. The experiences of the past days had been intense and comforting: Chichen–Itzá, the sacred cenotes, Tulum, the Caribbean, the jungle. The experience of having been, that very afternoon, at the top of the Jaguar pyramid in Tikal had been engraved in all of us forever. Ah! And the hawk flying for quite a while, right in front of our eyes.
“When we were bathing, I saw various naked women dancing and playing with soap bubbles among the trees, in total silence… just like the men playing cards,” said Carol in a somber, pensive tone.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“Because I couldn’t speak, and even now I can only remember it as if in a dream.”
“We heard voices and noises, but we didn’t see anything,” Elías said, juggling a cigarette between his fingers and looking up at the ceiling.
“I tell you; those guys don’t exist.”
“How can that be? They’re out there!”
“Well… I don’t know. Are they?”
It started to rain. The sound of thunder and the water hitting the window panes, mixed with the laughter and howls that began again in the courtyard, kept us awake for a while. At last, totally exhausted, we fell asleep.
For the remainder of the night, I dreamt a dream that I had had very often as a child. A recurring nightmare like a broken record that ends just to skip back to the beginning, over and over, repeating endlessly the same dreadful song.
In my dream, I dream that I have a nightmare: I see myself on a dusty, winding, deserted road. An old woman with a wrinkled face and curled hands walks towards me as if she were floating. I want to ask her something, but I can’t speak. There are many hens, many men, many dogs. A black shawl hung from nowhere, with endless threads dripping blood, covers my face. I can’t see; I can only feel the old hag’s presence coming closer and closer. I try to scream, to run: I cannot. My knees hurt. I can’t wake up. Then, I see myself from a distant, elevated place waking up trembling, with chills. I see the hair on my right arm standing up. I dream that it scares me to death to go to sleep again. I am terrified by the possibility that I could dream again of a deserted road, an old hag floating, a bloody black shawl hung from nothing…
The smell of coffee, the intense heat, the bright light, and a muffled conversation coming from the kitchen woke us up about dawn. Chonita was alone, opening the curtains in the large room and tending the pots on the fire.
“Good morning. Excuse me, Doña Chonita, who were you just talking to?”
“Nobody, kids. I have been alone in this house for many years. How did you sleep?”
“Fine, thanks. Were not you talking to the lady who was here last night, in the rocking chair?” I insisted.
“Last night? No, you must have seen an apparition. For sure it was Jovita; she died when I was a child. She was the granddaughter of Don Arnulfo, an old scoundrel who was the owner of the hacienda. Some say that he suddenly disappeared in the high mountains one afternoon while walking through his coffee plantations. Others say that Armandina Limón’s brothers killed him when they found out that Don Arnulfo was sexually abusing her. Legend has it that Mr. Arnulfo’s soul comes back out there in the backyard, chasing little girls. This chair was his granddaughter Jovita’s rocking chair. Sometimes, it moves all by itself, even without the slightest breeze.”
We felt a slight chill, which would soon turn to sheer panic.
“Seriously, Doña Chonita, who were you talking to, just about nine minutes ago?”
“Nobody. I already told you, nobody! Come on now, kids, come on. Go sit down; breakfast is almost ready.” She went to the backyard and came back with a bunch of oranges. She went back and forth to the patio several times. We heard voices and laughter, as if she was talking to someone. Carol, in her broken Spanish, asked her shyly:
“When did the noisemakers leave? They didn’t let us sleep.”
“Who? What do you mean, noisemakers? I didn’t hear anything.”
“The four men in hats who were playing cards at that table,” said Beto.
Doña Chonita interrupted him: “Are you boys trying to tease me?”
“The fellows who were drinking moonshine and never spoke,” Elías explained.
“The ones who left that pile of cigarette butts,” I said, pointing down to the floor around the table. Chonita seemed surprised, but after a long pause, she murmured slowly:
“Last night? …Last night my only guests were… you.”
We froze. For a few seconds, we did not know what to do. We just kept staring at each other, lost. We were terrified, but at the same time, we were fascinated by what was happening.
“Oh, my children! Out here, the night indeed twists things, but not that much,” she said with a crooked smile, and disappeared.
We stood up with a jolt, left our dishes half full, went to pick up our backpacks, and took off in a hurry.
While running for the exit, I seemed to see (as in an out-of-focus photograph), the silhouette of Jovita reading in the rocking chair by the window. Chonita was gone; we only heard her distant and hollow voice:
“Have a nice trip, kids.”
The road to Guatemala passed by in a fog. The journey seemed endless, as if space and time had widened. We hardly talked; we were pensive, afraid to say anything. We weren’t sure what had happened. It was almost as if it hadn’t happened. We followed the road in sunny silence that licked at the jungle. There was not a single cloud in the sky.
The day turned gray. It became a sad, desolate afternoon. It rained a little. As the evening grew wider and deeper, darkness hid the landscape. The night cooled down. A gentle breeze carried more rain—a heavier and thicker kind of rain. We were exhausted. We didn’t even know anymore if the day was still Wednesday. We went off the road looking for a place to rest. We stopped in a wasteland of scrubby bushes, which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.
When we woke up, the moon was high in the sky, nurturing the starry night. We got out of the car to stretch our legs. Oddly, the landscape was very familiar. It still smelled of rain, and the air had a sweet flavour. Darkness walked by the bush.
We heard footsteps. The silhouette of a tall, slim woman dressed in white slowly emerged from the chaparral. She had a light but jittery gait. She tried to tell us something that we never understood. Her voice was distant and oblique; it sounded like an echo that never repeated itself. She came closer. We felt a blow in the pits of our stomachs.
“Do you know if there is a nearby town down the way, or some place to eat and spend the night.?” Beto said, stuttering with fear.
“Well… no, not a town. The next one is still a little far away; but a little bit ahead there is an inn: La Hacienda de la Casona,” she replied with a hollow voice.
A noise that sounded like the flapping of heavy birds distracted us. It seemed to be coming from all directions at the same time. A heap of buzzards flew behind the ghostly figure…
We arrived in Guatemala City at the edge of sunrise. We spent the day dealing with the hangover of fear. We were taciturn, and ate nearly nothing. We strolled around and watched the sunset in the Plaza Mayor. By nightfall, we decided to tell the story to some local people. They all seemed surprised, and uttered exactly the same words:
“La Hacienda de la Casona was destroyed in a fire over a hundred years ago.”
Mexico City, 1952 Deeply in love with beauty and love, since he was a child, Víctor has been immersed in various fields of art and knowledge. His innate curiosity and his searching spirit have led him to explore the nature of humans through the philosophies, sciences, and works that they have created. But above all, he has dedicated himself to exploring the stuff of art, within which he has learned and practiced in various disciplines: architecture, music, poetry, painting, and photography. He has lived in Canada for the last thirty years. Today, Víctor continues to live in Toronto with his wife, his son, and his granddaughter. He keeps watching time go by as he does his favorite things: singing, writing, drawing, walking, watching the rain, and loving.