In the fall of 1988, I was given a second grant for two months at the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico. The foundation owns several acres at the center of Taos, a few blocks from the Plaza. A dozen small adobe cottages are scattered across the property and are awarded to writers, painters, and musicians for short periods to do their work.
I was staying in cottage eight that fall, really a most pleasant home—bedroom, bath, kitchen, a quiet living room-study. And best of all, no phone to interrupt those moments of silence when work really flowed. For those two months I had reveled in the uninterrupted time, enjoying the other Fellows in the evening while writing hard all day.
On Halloween, toward the end of my time at the Foundation, I knew I would need candy for the trick or treaters. My cottage was the only one to face a public street. Though the nearest houses were a hundred or so yards away and set back from the pavement, I guessed that before the evening was over, I would be visited by youngsters in their costumes, so I laid in a supply of candy corn and chocolate bars. And, of course, I was right. By ten o’clock or so the bars were gone and I was sitting in my chair, reading a fine novel about the mystery of time, Time and Again by Jack Finney, finishing the candy corn myself.
At eleven or twelve o’clock, I finally called it a day, stepped out the front door as usual, glanced up at the sky, so black without a moon, and shivered a little in the night chill. Taos is at 7,000-feet elevation in the high desert, the dark night air cold, like ice, and I marveled as I always did at my street and how deserted it appeared, as a long tunnel with almost no houses and just a few lamps throwing pools of light into the darkness. The night even seemed to have weight, pressing down on the earth. I shivered again, a strange prickle running up my backbone. I wished, as I did on most nights, that I lived in a cottage in the compound behind me. I locked the door carefully, drew the chain, made sure the porch light was on.
Once that night, I went to the bathroom, so sleepy that, after washing my hands, I dropped the soap in the basin, started to pick it up, then left it lying there, under the spigot where it would slowly turn soft. My used razor blade was sitting on the lip of the sink. I knew that leaving it overnight would cause it to rust. But I was so tired.
Hell with it, I thought, I’ll get them in the morning.
And back to bed for what I thought would be a long night’s sleep.
The thud on the door came later that night, when the darkness seemed even heavier, long before dawn. The knock had, I remember with such clarity, sitting bolt upright in bed, an enormous authority, power, and strength.
A knock which must be answered, no matter my sudden fear and trepidation.
But answered most carefully, turning on both the living room lights and shouting through the front door, “Who is it? What do you want?”
“I’ve been hurt,” an old lady’s querulous voice, high and trembling, called back. “I need to go to the hospital. Can I use your phone?”
And instantly, I thought of the ten guys all eight feet tall with baseball bats, guns, and knives who would rush inside the house if I opened the door, overwhelm me, rob me, beat me.
Was this a trick to get me to expose myself?
“I don’t have a phone,” I answered through the door.
“Could I use your bathroom then?” The disembodied voice was insistent but tinged with some terrible uncertainty.
Well, what to do?
In the deepest sense of myself, I wasn’t afraid. Her voice was too weak, too tremulous for fear. Suppose she really was hurt? Would I wake in the morning and find a corpse on my doorstep?
“Would you step over into the light, please? So I can see you?” I called.
A short woman, five feet, five feet one? sidled from the door to my window. I saw a Latina face, black hair, possibly graying, hidden under a tam, her body bundled in a heavy woolen coat. She did not ask me again, but gazed up through the window at me, a particular intensity in her brown eyes. Intuitively, I decided that she wasn’t involved in a plot. Maybe it was the way she moved, almost crab-like, or maybe it was her pleading expression. She had come to my house alone along this deserted street on a black night, past the barking dogs that ran free and wild down Taos streets. For some reason, totally beyond rationality, I was … well, in the oddest kind of way, I felt I was supposed to be here for her. I opened the door.
She stepped into the house. We did not speak as I led her toward the bathroom. She walked with great difficulty. Her knees scarcely seemed to work, each step a great effort, forcing the leg ahead, the foot dragging behind her. I wondered how she got here, walked that far, alone in dense darkness.
She shut the bathroom door behind her. I expected a moment’s silence as she peed, then to hear the toilet flushing. But unexpectedly, I heard the water in the basin run. The noise astonished me. People seldom wash their hands before using the john.
“Are you alright?” I called through the door.
“Oh yes, oh yes,” she answered. The tremble had left her voice. “I’m better now. I washed the blood from my hands.”
“The BLOOD?” I cried. “What blood? I didn’t see any blood.”
“The blood… the blood… I fell down and hurt my knees. Do you want to see the blood?”
And before I knew it, I, at three-fifteen in the morning on the Day of the Dead in Taos, New Mexico, I, in my red plaid nightgown, was bending down to look at this little old woman’s terribly wasted, pale leg as she slowly lifted her skirt. And, suddenly, I stood. There was no blood. I saw no blood on her legs, her socks, none on her hands, none in the wash basin, none on the towel. This must be some craziness. I thought at any moment I would wake again, safe in bed.
“You don’t want to see the blood?” she asked.
“No, no,” I stumbled. “It’s fine. I believe in the blood.”
“Yes. The blood. When I wash my hands it is gone. And I forget. Yes, I forget.”
She paused and looked steadily at me and, in spite of the blood she insisted on, in spite of the insanity of this hour in this isolated house in this town of strangers, in spite of all of these things, I remember I felt sympathy for her, great sympathy as if she was in some constant pain I did not understand. I had no fear, only great puzzlement.
“The hospital?” I asked.
“I feel better now,” she said, “much stronger.”
And her voice was stronger. Much. There was now a particular demeanor to her, the way she moved and talked, a certainty I had not seen before.
“Thank you, sir.” She extended her hand and held it in that oddly stiff way common to Latinas.
At the door I asked her again about the hospital, told her how to get there if she so desired, but I sensed and knew with certainty that, now, she was well. She even walked with less awkwardness, her knees working with greater ease. She had not just washed her hands of blood I could not see; she appeared to have washed some stain from her soul, free of that pain she had first brought with her.
She stared up at me, thanked me again.
I closed the door behind her.
And for some reason I shall never understand, I knew I suddenly must also wash my hands—not that the handshake had been unpleasant. Far from it. Yet, I must instantly wash my hands, cleanse them of her touch.
I did not notice that the soap was now on the basin in the place I hadn’t left it. The woman had put it there, squarely on top of my used razor blade. I picked it up, vigorously scrubbed my hands on the wet surface. The blade sliced into my flesh. Now there was real blood, mine, in the basin, on the floor, splattered on the towel, so red, so vibrantly red, my life pumping out before me.
Then, I was afraid. Oh, not with normal fear, but with a fear of ice. Fear of something I did not understand, fear of blood, my blood, her blood, mixed and mingled in this bowl. Blood I had not even seen, yet somehow I sensed was real, until, at last, it coagulated.
I tried to sleep but it was cold.
I huddled under the bed, blankets pulled over me.
I heard dogs howling, as I lay and waited for the dawn.
I quickly learned that, in northern New Mexico, Central and South America, the tradition of La Llorona is an ancient one. The story goes that in the latter part of the sixteenth century a nobleman fell in love with a splendidly beautiful peasant girl. They loved each other and had two sons. He promised to marry her. At the last moment, he was forced by his parents to wed the aristocrat of their choice. In rage and retribution, she killed her two children with a knife and was just ready to kill herself when she was discovered. Tried, she was found guilty and burned at the stake.
Legend has it that she still suffers from her terrible sin. She returns to earth on the Day of the Dead, November 1st, and is even known to wash her hands of the blood of her children’s bodies.
What does it mean?
I’ve been asked if I hallucinated.
But she moved the soap and put it on the razor blade. I cut my hand on that blade. My blood reddened the towel.
She could have been really, honestly hurt. But, how in the name of God did she get to my house, walk down those deserted streets, past those dogs that prowled the night? Why did washing her hands revive her? This, simply, was preposterous.
She might have been involved in a Halloween joke. Behind her, parked in the darkness, was a car filled with young men, laughing at this great trick played on an old man. Yet, all intuition tells me she wasn’t the kind to be involved in pranks. She was hurting at first, virtually a cripple. Her years were too many for crude jokes.
Besides, a joke doesn’t work if it isn’t revealed at the end. Most of the fun lies in the embarrassment, confusion, or rage of the person tricked.
Which leaves…? An alternative I sometimes don’t even want to think about.
For it has blown my comfortable understanding of God and reality.
I do not want to accept it, a rational man, a practical man, a moderate man.
And yet…and yet?
I moved out of that cottage the next day, wildly, confusedly, chaotically, asking the Director if I could use a just-unoccupied cottage in the compound until I left for home. I know that for the next few days my body was always cold, chills on my spine, prickles on my neck. I know that my reporting of the event was taken most seriously by Taoseños to whom I talked. Even as I write, I sense such fear and mighty wonder over the meaning of the woman’s visit to my cottage on that deserted street in the early morning of the Day of the Dead.
That wonder is compounded, expanded, explored by the tradition of La Llorona. It stretches back far beyond the Middle Ages into ancient Greek mythology. Ino, after Hera, a Greek goddess, drives her mad, kills her two male sons. Medea, when Jason leaves her, also kills her two male sons. These myths carry forward into Spain, travel to Central America, incorporated into the tale of La Malinche who deserts her Aztec people in support of Cortez and his conquistadors. And even more mysteriously, one of the main characters of my unpublished novel was also betrayed by a man and, in her rage, seeks to destroy her two male sons.
Yes: what does it mean?
In the profoundest part of myself I slowly accept that, whatever happened to me that night, it marked a moment of immense change in my life. My interpretation of reality as it existed before simply no longer holds. Perhaps, I am such a product of the western world, that, in spite of my mild mysticism, an ingrained faith in rationality permeated my conscious being to the extent that I could no longer really believe in any event defined as “supernatural.”
I am no longer so confident that rationality controls so much as I thought it did. Living in northern New Mexico, one becomes aware of a marvelously spiritual environment, surrounding, encircling one’s being. There are no great cities to impose their order on each day. TV and the media so quickly lose all importance. The mighty Sangre de Cristo mountains tower above the Taos valley. The oldest continually occupied structure in the United States, the Taos Pueblo, sits just where mountains and plains hinge. Ancient adobe churches, of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, brood in the mesa’s splendid colors.
I search now for some reality that incorporates the experience of events beyond all rational understanding, a mysticism no longer mild and meek. I seek explanations that link life’s enormous potential for beauty, good, and justice with the same great potential for murder, suffering, and evil. I recognize at last, that for some there is no end to suffering, no “happy ending,” as our Hollywood would have it: suffering goes on and on and on, perhaps into eternity. I see with humble clarity how foolish I have been, defining reality by the rational, the system of technology and bureaucracy the West has erected, denying other meanings. At last I know that pain and beauty are linked in some way I do not understand, just as life and death are so merged: one does not exist without the other.
And, so, in my heart, this old and worn, this broken, bleeding heart, I thank the woman for what she has given me, a renewed and deepened sense of spiritual reality. I am glad that, at the moment of her visit, I knew no fear, only great puzzlement and deep concern for her broken body and pain. Whatever happened to me on the Day of the Dead I stand in awe and wonder at the event, certain I have received a great gift which, now, I must spend the rest of my days seeking to understand. ◆
Ray John de Aragon, The Legend of La Llorona (Las Vegas, New Mexico: The Pan American Publishing Company, 1980) pp. 27-30.
Edward Garcia Kraul, Judith Beatty, eds., The Weeping Woman: Encounters with La Llorona (Santa Fe, New Mexico: The Word Process, 1988).
This piece is excerpted from the Fall 2023 issue of Parabola, SAINTS & SINNERS. You can find the full issue on our online store.