Like many of you, the first storyteller who entered my life happened to also be related to me. My grandfather – from whom I get my name – told a story that resonates with me to this day. However, originally told in Spanish, its haunting feel gets lost in translation. This isn’t the first time I spoke of this story, and it probably won’t be the last. I’ve retold it countless of times – at times only hitting the bullet points of the story when it comes to sharing familial urban lore and campfire stories.
Every Latino/e/x family has its lore, and most of them comprise familiar characters. Stories of the wailing woman – la llorona – have been passed down from generation to generation with a little something added or subtracted from the tale. (See Gloria Anzaldua’s Prietita and the Ghost Woman/Prietita y la llorona, Xavier Garza’s Vincent Ventura and the Curse of the Weeping Woman, and Stories that Must Not Die’s The Sobbing Woman – to name a few.)
To this day, I have not heard a single tale that comes close to my grandfather’s. Whether it was an original story, or something he carried over to this side of the border. In any case, I present to you my grandfather’s story as I remember it.
My grandfather, like most first generation Mexican-Americans, moved to the United States for opportunity. He married my grandmother and he worked the fields. While they had several children, only three made it into adulthood. And like most immigrants to this country, my grandfather found work in the fields.
From various stories and photographs that my mother shared with me, I know my grandfather helped pick the first cotton bale in Donna, Texas at the mid-point of his life. But this story takes place before that time. Before my grandparents started their family.
My grandfather had been working and getting ready to pack up for the day. The other fieldhands were gathering along the road, sharing stories and updates about their families, laughing at jokes shared between men. And some scattered took a seat beneath the mesquite trees that comprised the monte that bordered the far end of the field.
Grabbing some tools left behind by a friend, my grandfather made his way to the tool shed that stood in the vacant area in the middle of the field. As he locked up, he heard the crunching of steps coming from behind – although he saw no one approaching or walking away when he turned.
“Hello?” he called out. When he received no response, he shrugged it off and began his way back to the street where his truck was parked.
But the footsteps continued. Grandfather turned just in time to watch a figure turn toward the back of the shed. The figure’s pants were dirt stained; his flannel shirt sweated through. Jamie, his friend, had been wearing the same thing that day.
“Is that you, Jamie?” he called out, but received no response.
He followed his friend’s steps and came to a halt a few feet behind. Jamie just stood there, staring off into the monte.
“¿Estás bien, Jamie?” grandfather asked – field work had its disadvantages with heatstroke being one.
As grandfather approached, the man took two more crunching steps forward and pointed to the ground ahead. Thinking his friend wanted him to have a look, grandfather stepped closer. A small patch of grass marked the land before giving way to the tilled earth of the field.
“What is it? What’s there?” grandfather reached out and grabbed his friend’s shoulder. He pulled his hand away just quickly, the chill he felt ran up his arm. His friend, cold to the touch, turned to face him. Where Jaime’s face should have been, just rot and skeleton remained.
Fear took hold of my grandfather, rooted his feet to the ground. The creature he mistook for his friend took two steps backward and vanished into the dusk. And just as soon as he could recover from the shock, grandfather sprinted to his truck and drove into the settling night.
As he sped down the rural roads, he dared not look in the rearview or the passenger seat for fear that the creature had followed him home. As soon as he arrived at the house, he ran into the house and recounted the story to his worried wife.
“It’s an unsettled spirit,” grandmother said. “He is wandering the earth looking for someone to uncover his secret.”
The two discussed it, weighing both sides of the matter. They could ignore it and my grandfather may have future encounters or they could return to the scene and uncover what lay beneath. And they chose the latter, not wanting to meet the same fate in the end.
The sun had gone down, leaving the field in a blanket of night. My grandfather drove and maneuvered his truck in order for the headlights to illuminate the place where he saw the creature vanish. He pulled two shovels from the bed and both walked toward the spot and began to dig.
Not thirty minutes passed when they struck something. Wood, rotted from age and elements. They both exchanged a look and without much effort, broke through the barrier and continued to dig. Nothing but soil lay beyond until they reached another slab of wood.
“This one is not as bad,” my grandmother noted.
Though weathered by the elements, this board appeared less rotted through. Almost as if it had been buried for months, not years. My grandfather inspected the wood with his shovel before stabbing through it. Nothing but soil beneath.
Exchanging a look with his wife, he decided they should continue. Another hour passed when his shovel hit something. He swept aside dirt and found another slab of wood. He sprung from the small pit they had created, taking his wife with him.
The wood had been newer, fresh. Almost as if buried that same day.
And here is where my grandmother would speak up, her voice deep with concern and worry.
“We placed the soil and broken wood back into the earth and left that day. Neither of us knew what waited for us beneath that final board, but the dread filled our hearts. Either something evil awaited, or the earth would devour us, plunging our bodies into whatever hell that laid beneath.”
- Border Lore Folktales and Legends of South Texas by David Bowles
- Scary Stories From Mexican Grandmothers by Diane Willsey
- Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
- Stories That Must Not Die by Juan Sauvageau