Times of good fortune are few and far apart. More common are those of sadness and scarcity. Hence the importance of identifying the former, in our enduring the latter gathering strength from our good memories. Being able to seek refuge in your special place requires your having designed one, typically based on past experience.
I was going through one of the latter around 1997, when I was a student. My tiny weekly allowance could barely afford me two square meals a day. Any social event that required a monetary contribution on my part was forbidden, whereas one that included free food in reasonable abundance prompted carefully devised plans aimed at my
April 4th, 1997
Fortune seemed to start going my way when an interesting proposition fell on my lap, coinciding with the University's decision to close for a week in lieu of whatever religious holiday they deemed important enough to interrupt the education of thousands. How was I supposed to find opportunities for social-shopping? Not a problem! A friend had been summoned to his native Oaxaca, in south Mexico, to deal with some legal issues associated with his family's properties by the beach. In the country, real estate property rights usually favor those in the right end of the rifle. Physical presence is a requisite for those owning properties outside the inner city.
For the reasons mentioned, Nedib needed somebody to stay in his summer house, about 50 miles outside the city. He offered to provide me food and drinks if I just agreed to stay in it for the week. My only responsibilities, daily watering of the several plants he had and leaving the gas lamp on at least until midnight so that potential intruders knew there was someone there. Did I mention electricity has not yet arrived to this part of the country? Aside from some poor peasant trying to make his/her way to through the border, I was miles away from any human contact. A perfect environment for reading, writing and enjoying the absence of ever-annoying people.
April 5th, 1997. Saturday.
Hangovers aren't pretty. It is already 3:00 pm, and I just woke up. I fell sleep on the floor, just next to the dirty mattress I have slept on all semester. Nebid will be here any minute. And there he was, two hours later than he promised and also suffering from a bad hangover. I got some semi-clean clothes, a few books, a pen, some pieces of blank paper to write and jumped onto his 4x4 silver truck. It took him a few hours just to get out of the city due to traffic. Then, it turns our the highway was at least 7 or 8 miles from this so-called summer house (more like a decrepit ranch to me). After this additional inconvenience, I felt it was fair to ask for some further compensation. - Fine, $10 usd per day as I used to pay the caretaker - he said. I smirked - So, you had a caretaker? What happened? 10 bucks not enough for her? -. - It was a he - said Nedib. - The third one this year. They just don't make them like they used to. He left without saying a word a couple of days ago, not even taking his damn belongings. Feel free to throw them away or, even better, bury or burn them -. Why would he leave? - I asked. - I don't know. He complained a couple of times about strange events taking place in the house. Things disappearing, then appearing again in places he knew he hadn't put them at. Strange noises, occurrences... He once swore the devil himself found amusement in throwing stones at the semi-hollow wall of his bedroom, leaving him terrified until the morning. Another time he said something about a huge black dog howling like a wolf, but with a sort of demonic laugh at the end. He was from Veracruz. People from that part of the country can be quite superstitious -. Nedib is a practical man. He wouldn't let superstition get in his way. His love for Oaxaca wouldn't let him speak ill of the region's inhabitants, but I bet this was not the first time he had to deal with something like this with other employees at back at home.
Yes, I charged him the caretaker fee upfront. We are friends indeed, but my current financial situation made me dismiss any feeling of impropriety. Friendship takes the passenger seat when hunger shows its ugly face. Nedib knew this, and unsuccessfully made every effort to have the transaction take place in as swift a manner as possible to reduce the awkwardness.
Together with a grocery bag full of bread, fruit, seltzer water and canned goods, he dropped me at the summer house. He then showed me where he left the keys, the location of the plants and trees now under my watch, the gas tank to refill the lamp and the stove, the tools room, etc. There is no hot water in the shower, so I had to boil some on the stove and shower using a bucket. "Thanks for giving me a heads up Nedib!". Just for that, I am piercing some holes under said bucket and nailing it to the ceiling of the bathroom to make for an improvised shower. Nedib's truck hadn't yet left when I devised this devilish idea.
A few dogs barked in the distance, I enjoyed the chirping of some birds that decided to make a concert hall of the trees around the house and, before I knew it, the sun started to settle in the horizon. It was probably not a good idea to have gotten distracted this way before settling in the house. I wanted to get the gas lamp going and do some reading, but there was no gas in it. It had been left on by the previous occupant and fully consumed. With the last rays of light left of the day, I managed to find a flashlight by the let's-call-this-a-kitchen. Its low battery barely helped grab my one piece of luggage and drag it into the house without bumping into the broken down furniture. The bed was a mess. Despite the excitement of being left alone by the world, I was too tired to make it. I just jumped into it without even taking my clothes off and slept like a baby until early next morning. The house had large windows and no curtains; the perfect recipe for annoying sun drenched mornings. It was only then that I realized the meaning of Nebid's "not even taking his damn belongings" comment the day before. A worn out piece of luggage was laying in a corner of the bedroom, with some clothes neatly folded on top of it. A pair of old sneakers laid right beside. I thought - This is something one would arrange in order to quickly get dressed and leave in the morning -.
April 6th, 1997. Sunday.
The light of day revealed a few more interesting details. Not only had the gas lamp been left on; but the stove had enjoyed the same fate. On it, a large pot of what seemed like a poor attempt at a vegetable soup that with two large unpeeled onions burned before the stove ran out of gas, but at least the house didn't catch on fire. Fortunately, nothing flammable was close to the stove, save a dirty box of matches that remained undamaged. On the table, there were a hard half-eaten piece of bread and a cup that once contained coffee but whose contents had long evaporated leaving only the evidence behind. The kitchen drawers housed several cans of beans, tuna, olives, corn, deviled ham meat spread, higher quality albacore tuna, rancid crackers, canned tomatoes, hot sauces of different kinds, assorted spices... Not the best food in the world, but together with the bag of groceries much better than what I had at home (nothing). Another drawer contained mezcal, rum, whiskey, vodka, bourbon... I am saved. No ice to be found, but I am a professional drinker. I can handle this tiny inconvenience in my journey towards my special drunken state. With life going the way it is right now, and after losing the favors of Bernice, I simply want to be lost in oblivion. Ramones would be proud.
I continue to find evidence of the caretaker's strange behavior. He hung a large crucifix in the bedroom, placed a few small ones underneath the windows, covered the wall next to bed with images of saints, hung a rosary on pen of the bed's columns... This man was a religious freak! Clearly, a superstitious individual of the socially accepted kind. Perhaps he was seeking divine protection from the creatures of the night? The sole idea of a terrified God-monkey trembling under the bedsheets while anxiously waiting for the morning sunlight made me smirk. I can be truly fastidious about this topic of faith.
A few cans of tuna, rancid crackers and plant watering is all it took to keep me busy all day. I can be quite lazy when my spirits are down. I put together a hammock between 2 trees, slept on it until my back hurt and off to sleep again, this time on a tidy bed. I didn't even make the attempt of writing more than these few lines.
April 7th, 1997. Monday.
At this hour or the morning, I would be attending Business Law II. Why bother? Corporate lawyers will still find loopholes to allow them increased power to separate commoners from their hard earned cash. We can either know about it or live in blissful ignorance.
Nothing particular occurred today. All is finally back in order. Pots clean, stove and lamp full of gas, improvised curtains wrapped on the windows to protect my morning rest... The only thing bothering me now is the strange figure under the table that the caretaker had apparently made using wax from a candle. I scrapped it with a piece of sand paper from the tools room, but was unable to remove it entirely. Superstitious people can be quite the annoyance.
As I write to the light of the gas lamp, at this very moment, I just started hearing what can only be described as small pebbles thrown against the wall at random intervals. This may have been happening the other nights, but only today am I feeling good enough to not fall like a bag of potatoes in bed and become immediately unconscious. Is this real? There it is again. Somebody is out there throwing stones at the wall. Different sizes, different speeds, irregular timing. There is no pattern to help me hope it could be a machine or something more systematic. There is something of somebody literally throwing rocks at the house!
Refusing to believe my ears, I try to focus on my writing and on my drinking. I was going to have just a couple of drinks, but now I´m furiously dumping shots of vodka down my throat in the hopes that this will stop soon. I am getting goosebumps. My forehead starts to sweat. Drips go down my back. Oh my, what is happening? Are those steps I hear on the roof? That´s impossible! There is no ladder around the house, no tree close or robust enough to handle a person. The house is shaped as a plain cube, with nothing to hold on to if one was inclined to climb. This is not possible. It must be a large bird, dragging its claws on the loose gravel. Maybe the windy night is moving light items that Nebid forgot up there.
It has been almost two hours. Rocks are being thrown at the wall ever more furiously. I will go out and find out. Alcohol has given me the strenght to confront whoever this it is funny to play this game. There is a B. Searcy & Co. double-barreled rifle under the bed, and I will bring it with me even if I haven´t even practiced using it. Its sight should be enough. Let´s do this!
April 8th, 1997. Tuesday.
The sun is finally up. I feel like a bus run me over. I was in a very inconvenient state last night. I should really control my drinking. I remember some of the occurrences of last night, but must have inflated their relevance under the influence of alcohol. I had a dream last night, where a short dark guy with a mustache asked me to leave. He was saying something about a table, but the more I think about it the less solid my memories are. I remember stumbling into the room and crashing under the sheets in fear. Thanks to my good friend vodka, I fell sleep while waiting for more signs that there was someone or something outside.
I watered the plants, had some bread for breakfast and looked in shock at my notes describing yesterday's events. I then decided to walk around a little, looking for any physical sign of the events of last night. It is still too early for rain season. The dirt is very hard. If anyone walked around here last night, he wouldn´t have left any footprints. Even with my heavy boots, I need to really try if I want to leave a mark. Then I check the house from afar. Still, I cannot imagine how a man with regular strenght would have gotten to the roof without using the staircase. Maybe it was just that I was drinking bad vodka. An argument supporting this thesis would be how the more I drank, the worse things got, until they didn´t. But that only happened for some time before I pasted out. Still, there is no reasonable explanation for what happened last night.
Today I practiced using the rifle. There is enough ammunition in the tools room for protection and to distract boredom for a while. But as I get a problem solved, another one comes up. There is no running water. The mill stopped last night. Will I have to walk, bucket in hand, to the well? Nedib never told me about this. I should have charged him double! This is hardly funny. As I start walking, I remember something my father once told me about not drinking the water right off the surface. I was so deeply focused in my thoughts at the time I pushed the lid of the well to the ground that I failed to notice the presence of some inhabitants of said structure. About a dozen lizards, all different sizes as if they all belonged to the same family, jumped at and away from me. I clearly disturbed their peace. A 9 year old pampered princess wouldn´t have yelled this way. Enough emotion in 24 hours...
Upon looking down the well to assess the distance to the body of water, I noticed what seemed like two or three somewhat large onions floating around. In vain I tried to catch one in the bucket, but every time I pulled it out it would somehow avoid falling into it. I gave up on that mission, and just kept dumping water to the side in order to get some from further below the surface. The sun was at its highest. I was looking up and then to the well when I stepped in some of the mud that was being created around it. A little annoyed, I looked down. That´s when I saw the reflection of my face in the water. It made me jump back and throw the bucket away. Staring back was a person that looked very much like me, but with a horrific ear-to-ear smile that seemed to be mocking me. The eyes were also changed, as they were so penetrating I felt it looked into my very soul. My only reaction was to run to the bathroom and look at the mirror. This had to be a distortion of the light, and the mud, and the water. I got to the bathroom mirror and the smile was still there. It was not an illusion. It was frightening, and taking place in the middle of the day! I washed my face and looked again. The smile was gone, but my face was in pain. If I imagined this, how come my face hurts like I forced it into an unnatural expression? Maybe it is the heat, or the loneliness. I should have stayed in town with other people, instead of dealing with my brain on my own. It is clearly playing a game on me. But I am smarter. I am smarter than my brain, because I am aware. Awareness gives me the advantage. I can trick my brain into anything I want. Right now, I am telling my brain we are surrounded by friends, ready to watch a movie. With me are Pancho, and Ted, and Ruben and Paul. And we are well protected from the creatures of the night. I have a rifle! A powerful weapon is now in the hands of an excellent marksman.
April 9th, 1997. Wednesday.
I went to bed yesterday before the sundown. I cannot handle any more of this drama. I only want time to move forward fast. This was a very bad idea. In the excitement, I forgot to eat dinner yesterday. Wait, that cannot be. My peptic ulcer would have never let me forget to have at least some bread before bed.
Today´s headache is unbearable. These migranes are so bad, they cannot be described accurately unless suffering one at the very time you are being asked. Today, I will clean my body through water. I have been drinking nothing but water since this morning, and plan to continue doing so. Maybe the alcohol is making me paranoid. There is nothing going on in this place. It has all just been my very active imagination. I didn´t wake up to more steps on the roof and bigger rocks being thrown at the wall last night. It was probably nothing more than a dream. It was nothing else but a bad dream caused by the deviled ham on crackers and bread I had last night, which is probably what I ate judging by the empty cans and wrappers on the table. Otherwise, how could what I seem to have experienced have actually occurred? There is just no way my bed would turn around 360 degrees without my falling off of it. I saw it turn as if I was standing and no one slept on it. Clearly, I need to eat less and drink better.
April 10th, 1997. Thursday.
Oh my God. Oh my God...
I was only half-drunk yesterday, when I went to bed and closed the "sheet curtains". It couldn´t have been later than 7:00 pm, as the sun was still up. This morning, I woke up face-down on the kitchen table. I was drenched in sweat, and my teeth hurt tremendously. I went running to my bedroom and everything was tidy, but changed at the same time. The bed looks perfect, like nobody slept on it. But the curtains are gone, folded in triangles and on top of the caretaker´s luggage. And the religious images are all turned upside down. The crucifix is on the floor, broken, but the pieces have been swept against the wall. I did not do this. Or was it me? The rifle is next to the wall, about six feet from where I put it yesterday. I know because it made a small dent on the wall as I dropped it. The dent is still there, laughing at me. It is shaped as a perfect smile, if too wide.
That´s it. I am out of here. Tonight I am staying awake, while hugging my shotgun the way a shipwreck victim hugs a floating log in the middle of the sea. In the famous words of Robert C. Ruark, I am now ready to "Use enough gun". If anyone or anything dares to throw rocks at this house tonight, it better know how to dodge bullets too. I will surely not be throwing rocks back.
These are the last written words anybody ever read of Fernando Rosales, college student of business administration at the University of the Sacred Heart. His logbook and body were found in Nebid Mendoza´s summer house by the proprietor, approximately two days after his death. Mr. Mendoza informed the police department of the nearby town upon discovery of the body. Under the table of the house, beneath pieces of hardened wax possibly coming from discarded candles, there was the drawing of a strange figure similar to the star of David, but with five points instead of six. Mr. Mendoza tried to erase it when coming into the house with the police, the time he apparently noticed it for the first time, but was stopped and ordered to leave everything untouched for the investigators. The Department´s most experienced elements arrived promptly at the scene. Policemen and forensic personnel agreed in their conclusion that Fernando died by his own hand and of a high caliber shotgun wound that nearly severed the upper half of his head.
Nebid sold the ranch after being unable to find anybody willing to stay for more than a day. The house was later bulldozed and the land turned to agriculture. For that purpose, the well remained in use. Nebid died in a car accident weeks after these events. Paramedics rushed to the scene of the accident, but he died in the way to the hospital. One of the nurses swears on her mother´s ashes Nebid said the following words before dying: "I am so sorry. It is not his fault. I made a mistake, and now I am going to pay for what I did to him. May God have mercy of my soul, for no man would ever forgive me for what I have done".
Human skulls are known to float sideways on water, sometimes even upside down when brain matter hasn´t been properly drained. People from the Northeast region of Mexico have a diet that is rich in minerals, and quite heavy on the sweets. Tooth decay is so widespread that most have at least 10 metallic dental pieces by the time they are 40 years old. At the same time, high meat consumption of cattle raised in this type of dry land makes for strong yet stiff joints. Five metallic dental pieces are enough to change this floating dynamic. A body that is immersed in water would start to decompose quickly in the heat typical of this time of the year. Part of this process, corpses start to give up body parts very quickly when under water, contrary to the assassin´s intention that they stay at the bottom forever in the case of murders. The skull will float for weeks, while the lower jaw won't detach easily due to said strong joint matter. The abundance of violent crimes in the region makes for a curious phenomenon that could otherwise pass inadvertedly. The skulls of the locals tend to float straight, as the weight and density of the teeth challengues more typical floating positions. When the river is low, one can sometimes see what appears like a concert of white roundish balls floating down the current. Illegal immigrants that drown trying to cross the river provide for further data to evidence this phenomenon. The locals commonly refer to those sighting as "human bubbles" or "floating onions".
The Teju lizard, Genus Tupinambis, is commonly found in tropical parts of South America. Their skin is highly valued in the manufacture of boots, belts and hat bands. Commonly worn in this part of the country, these accessories can be sold at a very high price if made off this endangered animal. Therefore, locals with the means to travel to South America have been known to smuggle them into the country and breed them to later sell them to a manufacturer interested in lowering his raw material importing costs. Some of the problems in breeding these flesh eating lizards is the dry climate of this region, their irritable behavior and, indeed, their diet. They can sometimes be found living around humid corners of warehouses, near water mills and in wells, eating whatever small rodents, birds or discarded meat is tossed their way. Another problem is their excretions, which are known to contain nitrogen-based toxic agents in high concentrations, like ammonia. Unlike their amphibian counterparts, the Teju lizard's liver and kidneys are unable to transform ammonia into its less toxic cousin, urea. This already high concentration of toxins is magnified when water is scarce, as is the case of this region of the country.
Minutes or even seconds after a man's death, however violent, muscles tend to relax. That is why it is common for unattended corpses to be found with their mouth open, arms resting on the nearest surface, their head down on its own weight... To date, no medical professional has been able to successfully explain how a dead body could maintain the horrendous smile found on Fernando´s severed face. The locals speak of a demonic spell, called "The Smile". Supposedly, it can only be put on an lonely and unloved person with a heart too mild to enter either heaven or hell. Perhaps a man of the likes of Jack-o'-lantern. The person starts to smile involuntarily, to an inhuman extreme and for extended periods. The pain can be excruciating. The fear, unbearable...
Small town people live and die by their folk superstitions, uber-religious spiritualism and legends of the paranormal. They can be quite stubborn in their beliefs. They see ghosts where there are shadows and demonic possessions where behavior points undoubtedly to mental disease or outright insanity.
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