THE CUCUY CLUB
by Erik Bosse
Jaime jumped out of my truck before I even had time to set the parking brake. We’d spent the last hour on a rutted dirt road and I never managed to get above second gear. A grinning man in his forties — a contemporary of both myself and Jaime — walked out of a large stone building. This must be Carlos, the caretaker of the ruined city of Guerrero. As I walked up, Jaime was shaking Carlos’ hand. I offered mine, and Carlos shook in the manner of la gente, with a soft and gentle touch. Jaime had been in communication with some sort of cultural administrator in this region, and we were expected.
Antigua Guerrero, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, lies on the border with the US. Established in 1750, it once boasted a population of 25,000 people. The was before the Falcon Dam was built. But by the 1950s, as the Falcon Reservoir began to fill and swallow up the towns and farms on both sides of the Rio Grande, Guerrero had to be abandoned. And with the great flood of 1954, almost all of the city slipped beneath the waves. Today, the sunken city is only partially submerged. The area now dry is a ruined depopulated colonial city of hundreds of crumbling sandstone block buildings overgrown with cactus, mesquite, and palo verde.
Carlos introduced us to his five lively and devoted dogs. He then took us inside a solidly built cube of sandstone brick with twelve foot high ceilings. It was part museum, part his home. Slipping between Spanish and fractured English, he explained that the local government was working to make the ruined town into a historical park. I gathered he thought we were journalists. And I suppose, in a sense, we were.
There were photos on the walls of the city from the first half of the 20th century. Crowded streets with bustle and commerce. And then Carlos proudly turned to a wooden plank with a rattle snake skin nailed to it. It must have been five feet long.
“He’s a boy,” Carlos said, tapping at a withered piece of reptilian anatomy. I took his word for it.
We followed him back outside. He tossed several items in the back of my truck. A plastic gas tank of diesel fuel, a scorched tin can with a loop of bailing wire through it, and an old single-shot 22 rifle, “for snakes,” he added enthusiastically. We piled into my truck. It was a tight fit. Jaime in the middle and Carlos in the passenger seat, pointing ahead.
As we drove through the ordered grid of stone-paved streets overgrown with spindly weeds, we marveled at the endless flat-roofed stone buildings built from the native sandstone. Carlos’ dogs trotted along in our wake. The buildings were impressive. Fifteen foot structures, mostly, though there were a few with second stories. Some were intact. Others had lost their roofs. Some had even lost the integrity of their walls, and had spilled their great stone blocks, effectively closing off some side streets from any access from vehicles.
“This is fucking amazing,” Jaime said with a big smile.
Carlos flashed us with a grin. Suddenly we were his kind of people.
And from that moment on it was “pinche” this, “pendejo” that, and all conjugations of “chingar.” Jaime had dropped an instant bond on us all.
He has a way of doing that.
Soon we pulled into the old plaza. Carlos pointed to the ground and said something in Spanish I didn’t get. I quickly realized that this is where I was to park — because he was opening the door and stepping out.
I hit the breaks and shut off the engine. Jaime followed Carlos over to the church. It was the only restored building in the whole town. It had a Franciscan-style facade, the exterior had been plastered and painted, and, as I drew near, I could see that the roof had been rebuilt.
The plaza over-looked the waters of the Falcon Reservoir. There was still much of the old city beneath the waves. I walked to the center of the plaza. What had at one time been a fountain was now built to have a circular platform with a little curving staircase leading up. I walked up to look around. The surrounding plaza was just a grassy square with half a dozen stone sidewalks radiating out in measured spokes. I leaned my elbows on the heavy concrete balustrade surrounding the platform.
True to his word, Jaime had dragged me to a weird and wonderful place. His endless quest for the elusive cucuy had us in an extraordinary environment, which was claimed to be haunted. “Though,” Jaime had told me on the drive down, “at the risk of defaming my people, all the places we inhabit are purported to be haunted.”
The plan was to stay overnight and interview the caretaker about the local folklore. It was the tale-end of October and should not get too cold at night. We’d brought along bedrolls, and I supposed we’d just sleep in the bed of my truck, up above the ants and the scorpions.
Carlos and Jaime climbed up to join me. Jaime handed me a can of Modelo cold from the cooler we had picked up in a drive-through shop in Guerrero — the new town of Guerrero. We all cracked open the cans and touched them — “Salud!” — and watched the sun move towards the water of the reservoir.
“I see you’ve found the perfect camp site.” Jaime slapped me on the back. “Up above even the mosquitos. And it’s a full moon tonight!”
We had maybe an hour before sunset. Jaime sat down and began scribbling notes into a composition book with his mechanical pencil. Carlos busied himself building a bonfire out on the edge of the plaza. And I unpacked my digital SLR and hiked around snapping pictures of the ruins. The place possessed a beautiful stillness. A low flung chunk of shadow placed me in cool darkness on a fantastically decayed road with the stone walls of empty buildings pressed close on each side, their foundations bristling with cactus and squat shrubs which had more las espinas than leaves or flowers. In an oak tree at the next intersection a lone cicada pulsed its mechanical song tirelessly as had its kin been doing for millions of years. A swarm of bees were dipping in and out of the white blossoms of a stunted oleander. It’s a non-native ornamental, and must have survived the exodus of gardeners as well as the inundation of the flood waters.
I pushed at a huge warped wooden door and entered one of the homes. The plaster on the walls was white — a bit dusty, but otherwise unblemished. The lone decoration was a photo of Pope Pius XII the size of an LP cover which had been varnished to the wall. All the color of the image had been washed out into various shades of pale blue. Light came in through open double doors that led out to a large walled courtyard. An earthy, ammonia smell made me look to the floor. There was a low mound guano back toward the side wall. I stood still, and then I heard it. A high-pitched clatter like a dozen grocery carts with squeaky wheels. I looked up and saw in the spaces between the wooden roof beams and the plaster ceiling maybe 25 Mexican freetail bats roosting, awaiting the setting sun. That reminded me that I should get back and begin unloading our meager camp gear while we could still see what we were doing.
By the time I reached the plaza, it was deep into twilight. I saw that Jaime had already rolled out the sleeping bags up on the platform above the defunct fountain. He pulled the cooler over to where Carlos was dousing the bonfire with the diesel fuel. I could see from the empties that the two of them had been busy hitting the vast stores of Modelo we had transported in. I had some catching up to do. As I fished a beer from the cooler, Carlos walked up to me. He handed me the scorched tin can and motioned me to follow. He was lugging the can of desiel. We walked to the lone tree in the plaza — a dead skeleton — which was halfway between the bonfire pit and the central fountain.
At the tree Carlos put down the diesel. He took the can from my hands and filled it about a quarter full with dirt. He handed it back to me. I took it and watched as he picked up a thick flat chunk of the local sandstone. He raised it over his heads and threw it down onto the one of the paved paths of the plaza. It shattered into half a dozen pieces. He took hold of the largest, about the size of a plum. He put it into the tin can I was holding. With the dirt beneath, it poked up above the rim. Carlos told me, in English, to keep still. He opened the desiel can and lifted it up and poured the stuff over the rock and into the can. Maybe about half a cup of diesel. Carlos pointed to the can I held and he pointed to the tree. He said a word in Spanish I didn’t recognize. But I understood. Using the baling wire attached to the can, I walked over and hung it from a branch on the tree.
Over at the bonfire I heard Jaime open a beer. And then he shouted something about was it really up to him to get this fucking party started? And he tossed a match into the stack of diesel-soaked branches. At that point it was almost full-bore night. The violent rise of flames was wonderfully spectacular. A white-tailed deer, startled from her hide-away too near the bonfire, bolted, running across the plaza. Her shadow, cast by the fire, proceeded her for the entire gallop, and when she rounded to the safety hidden behind the church, everything suddenly became ominously silent. Until, two beats later, the buoyant laughter of three drunken pyromaniacs warmed the night. And then Carlos lit a match and touched it to the tip of the sandstone plum in the soup can hanging from the tree. It flashed alive with a jittery tongue of flame playing up, quite bright.
Carlos called it a Mexican candle. I asked how long does it last. He shrugged, and said he guessed three hours. Something he learned, he said, in the army.
We had brought along a couple of folding camp chairs. I took my seat on the stout plastic cooler. And the three of us roasted hot dogs on green mesquite branches, and we placed them in flour tortillas and smeared them with ketchup.
Carlos told us that he’d been the caretaker of this amazing ghost town for two years. He said that there was a treasure hidden under the property of the ruins of the old hotel, and this was obvious because of the flickering blue lights you could often see over the ruins at night. He explained that when you saw a rattlesnake you whipped off your hat and you tossed it on the creature. He went ahead and did this for us as an example with his baseball cap. The idea was that the snake would strike at the hat, thereby discharging all its venom. At that point you could safely kill the snake. Carlos retrieved the hat and let us examine it for all the holes from previous snake deployments. I confess I could discern nothing resembling fang marks. He made a few comments about the little anglo boy who haunted the church. And then he pointed out three stars in the heavens. They point to the north, he told us, and when you learn these stars, you can never get lost on a clear night.
I understand we’d been drinking, and Carlos more than I, but I was pretty certain that there is no way that one can use the three stars that comprise Orion’s belt to navigate to the north.
Jaime seemed to find all this talk delightful. But eventually he gave me a nod. I pulled out my video camera. As Carlos and Jaime each fished beers from the cooler I was no longer sitting on, I set up my tripod and then attached the camera on to it. I have a small but powerful LED light that perches atop my camera, drawing power from a battery belt which I slung over the tripod arm. I framed Carlos so that the bonfire was just over his left shoulder. I moved Jaime’s chair around so that the camera would get a bit of his shoulder in frame, slightly lit by the Mexican candle. I clipped a wireless lavaliere onto the lapel of Carlos’ denim jacket.
When I hit record, I nodded to Jaime. He began the interview process, seemingly suddenly sober … sort of. The two of them were speaking exclusively in Spanish. And I know I should damn well learn the language. Hell, I live in Texas, where the language is increasingly dominate. But as they moved deeper into the information we’d come to collect — the ghost stories, the weird folktales — I began to tune it out and turn to the beer in the cooler. Actually, I was waiting for the moon to come up. It wasn’t truly a full moon. A bit late for that. But when it pushed up over the horizon (washing out that beautiful swath of the Milky Way), I was so beguiled by the beauty of the night here in this forgotten place, that I gave up on even the pretext of trying to follow the interview. The audio feed was strong, and the video frame was wide. I was tempted to walk away and tour the ruins in the light from the moon. But before I could fully contextualize my place in this project, I saw Jaime stand, brush back his hair and offer Carlos his hand.
Carlos shook both our hands. And he walked away into the night with his dogs. I had no doubt he could find his way back. Jaime nodded to me with a serious air. In his book, it had all gone fine. I watched him walk to the center of the plaza and climb to the raised platform. It was bedtime. I dismantled and packed away the camcorder, tripod, and audio equipment.
I caught up with Jaime a couple of nights later at the Cucuy Club. It’s his hangout, no more than a leisurely walk from his apartment. The place is an ice house on Roosevelt where you can buy beer to go, or, as do most of the habitués, grab one of the mismatched chairs and enjoy a cold one while watching the traffic go by. The Cucuy Club is run by a corpulent woman named Norma who rarely talks but is always quick to respond to her longwinded beery clientele with a deep laugh sure to display her few remaining teeth. At least three nights a week one of her sons would cook up a mess of barbacoa or tripas in the firepit out through the back door.
Jaime sat bent over at one of the picnic tables, his face aglow from the screen of his laptop. I took a seat across from him, and he didn’t look up until Norma sat a Lone Star tallboy in front of me and cracked the top. She gave me a little cursory hug and ambled off to sit with her gaggle of regulars who held court in a line of rusty folding chairs that faced the Whataburger across the street.
“See what you think,” Jaime said, turning the computer around so I could read what was on the screen. And he headed off, I presume to see what Norma’s boy might be cooking up.
The essay was titled, “El Niño de Antigua Guerrero Viejo.”
This would be going into Jaime’s blog, also called The Cucuy Club. It’s his current obsession, which he’s been working on for almost two years now. He’s been chronicling the folktales of San Antonio and south Texas. The ghost stories, the cucuys.
El Niño de Antigua Guerrero Viejo
This isn’t the first variant of La Llorona mentioned in this blog, and it certainly won’t be the last. It’s one of the top five creepy folktales from my boyhood. If you were to take the downward pointing isosceles confined by Zarzamora, Nogalitos, and Guadalupe Streets, you would be hard pressed to find a family that does not have their own twist on this Latina Medea tragedy. And whether the roots extend all the way back to La Malinche or just a generation back to the sister of the neighbor of your great uncle Silverio, the legend is used the same by parents all over: “Shss, children. Did you hear that? It sounded like La Llorona. You’d better be quiet. She might hear you and take you away with her.”
Last week I decided to go further afield then I normally do in search of these cucuys. A friend had alerted me to an incident that happened not so long ago where a little boy had died because of the influence of La Llorona. And so I decided to take to the road, as a rather aggressive collection agency was wearing me ragged. So, I with my lap top, and my research assistant, Rico, armed with his video camera, headed down to the Rio Grande Valley.
At the river road, we headed north, just passed the town of Roma. And we crossed over into Mexico across the dam of the Falcon Reservoir. The Mexican town of Nueva Ciudad Guerrero was a powerful indication we were on the right trail. We were in search of the ruins of the old city of Guerrero — Antigua Guerrero. When the dam was built back in the 1950s, that city was sacrificed, and much of the citizens and commerce was relocated downriver where the dam spanned the two countries.
It took us two hours in Rico’s truck from the new Guerrero to the old Guerrero. Most of the time was over a rutted dirt road through desolate ranch land where we never saw another human being, and only, at most, five cows.
Finally, we arrived. The caretaker of the place instructed us on where we could set up camp. The original church, in the heart of a maze of ruined buildings, was the only structure which had been restored. We settled down there, and as the sun set we enjoyed a little a barbecue, and then Rico wired our host up for sound and rolled camera.
We were told the story of El Niño de Antigua Guerrero.
First he gave us the old town’s particular take on La Llorona. She was a poor girl named Marta who lived “long ago.” And when a rich rancher from Durango who was in town buying cattle began to lavish attention on the girl, her father, a baker, was overjoyed. The couple were soon married. They lived in a large house in the middle of town. And throughout the spring, the rancher visited all the farms in the area buying the best cattle. Finally, he hired some men from town to help him drive the cattle back to his hacienda far to the south, explaining to Marta that he would send for her.
Weeks passed and finally the men the rancher hired for the cattle drive returned. They told of the enormous wealth and huge holdings of the rancher’s hacienda. They also mentioned his wife, a beautiful and grand woman reported to be connected to the Spanish aristocracy.
Marta refused to believe these rumors. But as she waited, she never heard from her husband. It soon became apparent she was pregnant. The landlord of the large house the rancher had rented eventually had to ask her to leave when the rent money ran out. Marta’s father could not refuse to take her back in, but the family clearly felt the weight of shame. When Marta gave birth to twins, the local priest declined to baptize the children until he could confer with the Bishop. Despondent, Marta drowned the children in the river. She returned to her father’s house without her children. The town was scandalized. She was asked over and over where they were, and finally, three days later, she took her own life.
The story takes a bit of license when we find her ascended to heaven. God asks her where the children are. She still refuses to answer. He banishes her soul back to Earth, instructing her to gather up her children before she can return to Heaven.
And so her ghost roams the river, calling for her children; and actually, any children’s bodies will do, so she’s also trying to coax living kids into the waters.
And that is a fairly typical La Llorona telling, made so wonderfully authentic in that we were gathered around a campfire. Well, most of it was lost on Rico, as he doesn’t really understand Spanish.
And then our host launched into the historic part of the tale.
Back in the mid ’50s, most of the city was under water, including the church — only the curved vault of the roof poked up, as if gasping for air. And for the next couple of years the waters subsided. There was a time, before the church completely emerged. A motor boat of rich Americans on a fishing holiday came into the drowned town. They were two brothers from Houston, and one of them had his little boy. Just the three of them. They tied the boat to the side of the church and climbed up to the roof. Half of the roof had collapsed and they looked down and saw a school of catfish lazily nosing through the muck around the sunken alter.
They assembled their fishing poles and dropped their lines into the waters inside the church. They were very successful and spent two days on top of the church. On the second night, the father of the little boy awoke because he heard a woman crying loud and sorrowfully. Suddenly he heard what sounded like a boulder dropped into the waters of the church. Then, silence. The woman cried no more. The bedroll next to him was empty. His son. They found the boy at first light floating above the alter.
And when the waters finally pulled back for good, the ghost stories began. People would hear a little boy weeping. And when they saw his spirit, the little anglo boy was barefoot in jeans and no shirt. No one ever heard La Llorona crying in anguish in that region. Just the little boy.
Our host, when asked if he had ever seen the boy, answered without hesitation. Of course. And all the workers, throughout the years, who had been involved in the reconstruction of the church, they, too, had their stories to tell.
I went to bed that night sleeping beneath the stars on the old plaza, and I wondered how I would go about trying to verify the name of the little boy. If, indeed, he existed. But isn’t the story enough? Sometimes I wonder.
I should add here that at 2:37 (I know this, because I looked at the time on my cell phone), I awoke because of some sound. Remembering the story of the boy, I strained for the sound of crying. But it was this great rush of a massive wind. But that couldn’t be. I looked to the trees on the edges of the plaza. They were all brightly lit by the moon, and they were motionless. The sound of wind was at hurricane force, but I felt nothing on my face. I turned to peer at the church, solid and silver under the moonlight, and I noticed a flickering blue light issuing from the opened doors and the upper windows of the front facade. It was like there was some powerful chemical fire in there with that beautiful unnatural light one expects from the dials of a car stereo. And, like a light switch turned off, the sound vanished. The blue light flickered low, it flickered lower, and it was gone. Nothing. Just the soft snoring of Rico, bundled in his bedroll beside me. I waited, watching and listening intently, and eventually, I guess, I fell back asleep.
“Rico” would be me. That’s how I appear in all of the blog entries. I don’t know why. And, thankfully, Jaime never calls me by that nickname.
I looked up and realized that Jaime had placed a plate of carnitas in front of me. There were four store bought corn tortillas draped over the meat. I could tell they had been heated over hot coals. I blew the ash off the one on the top and I made myself a taco. Jaime pushed a plate of chopped onions, cilantro, and limes cut in half across the table.
“Well?” he asked, pulling his laptop back to his side of the table.
“It’s good. But, um, did you really hear all that shit?”
“Artistic license. Wouldn’t you?”
“Good. ‘Cause I know I don’t snore.”
“Okay,” he said with a smile.
One of the reasons Jaime frequented the Cucuy Club was because he was able to clandestinely highjack the wifi signal belonging Marco Ruiz, a wildly successful local chicano artist who enjoyed slumming in his southside apartment on the second floor of the pool hall just across the railroad tracks from the Cucuy Club. “You know, he sends his kid to a private school,” Jaime will often grumble, thus justifying his wireless poachery.
I watched as he opened a browser window on the computer, uploaded the text to his blog, and then, with a flourish, he clicked on the “publish” button.