Grandma Elena and the Cadejo,
an excerpt from the novel No Way Back
Claudia pulled on her red sweater, the one that fit snug around her body. Looking at herself in the mirror, she felt good. The sweater showed off her figure, its bright color contrasting against her dark hair. She curled her eyelashes and put on lipstick. She was old enough now to know she was attractive, desired. When she was younger, she found it difficult to interpret the puzzling behavior she provoked in others, but now she was fully aware that she was an attractive young woman. She also knew well what this fact entailed: that for one fleeting moment, with the whole world’s scrupulous gaze bearing down on her, a woman is capable of achieving anything she wants.
Claudia pulled on a pair of knee-high boots and grabbed her bag, tossing inside a book she’d try in vain to read at the restaurant. It began, “The aquifer systems of the Valley of Mexico represent a complex network of natural infrastructures,” but her concentration faltered, and instead she read the first line over and over without being able to grasp its meaning, her eyes routinely darting up from the page to the restaurant’s door.
“Were you waiting long?”
“No, not at all,” she lied.
Sitting down awkwardly across from her, Joaquín rolled his shoulders up and down, stalling to take off his jacket. He smiled, then took it off. Claudia made small talk about the weather and the university, trying to coax him to relax and it appeared to work, he’d stopped drumming his fingers on the table. They ordered lasagna and iced tea.
“Yeah, I live with my girlfriend, Sandra. She’s an osteopath.”
“Yeah, a doctor, writes prescriptions and all that. She does pre-natal work in a holistic clinic on this ranch out toward Cuernavaca. Hummingbird House, it’s called.”
Joaquín sipped at his tea and smiled again. Claudia noticed the kiss her lipstick left around the rim of her glass.
“When I was a girl, I always liked the lipstick print my mom left on cups. I’d think to myself, if you leave a kiss on your cup, it must mean you’re a grown-up. Now I do it too, but I still feel so far away from where my mom was at my age. I’m as old as she was when she had me.”
“My grandmother never used lipstick, so she wouldn’t dirty her precious china.”
“Do you have fond memories of her, your grandmother? Did you get along?”
“Not really, she was crazy. The only thing that made her seem human was how much she loved my grandfather. She thought he was an angel. She’d say, ‘Paco is an angel, a God-given angel sent down here to help us.’ They were engaged in secret. Well, I mean, it was Spain during the Civil War, and my grandfather was a communist and an architect. So, you can imagine, when my grandmother’s parents found out about their relationship it was strictly forbidden, and my grandfather went on his merry way with his secret revolutionary life while she shut herself up in their big Andalusian house, resigning herself to sewing clothes for her cousins. It wasn’t long before my grandfather married someone from the party, a comarada. But they weren’t together long because they both got thrown in jail, and she died there. In the most dramatic versions of the story—which my grandfather refused to confirm—they say she was pregnant at the time of her death. What is true, is that once my grandmother found out she died and that he was locked up in a dark cell, despairing, wasting away from hunger, she paid a bribe to have him released. Story goes, as he was sitting in his cell, his head leaned back against the wall waiting to die, he heard her high heels clicking down the cement hallway and he knew immediately, ‘It’s Isabel.’ There was no mistaking those heels, so he says.”
“Were they happy?”
Joaquín glanced down at his watch.
“For the sake of the story, let’s say sure, why not.”
At home Claudia fell onto the bed with her boots still on. Thinking about her dinner with Joaquín, she felt an unremarkable sort of joy radiating from her stomach up to the back of her throat. Back then, she thought happiness could be found in the accumulation of small pleasures like this one: the comfort of a hot meal in the company of another.
She thought of his long, bony hands, the way he covered his mouth when smiling. It all seemed so far away now. What was she doing here anyway in her grandmother’s old house? “Taking advantage of the peace and quiet to write my thesis,” she’d told her parents. Her father gave her a bit of money and said be careful. He never asked about it, though he’d heard secondhand about her professor’s suicide. Rather than pry, he offered to take her out for a cup of coffee by the park. It was drizzling that day.
They sat down together. He wore the llama skin jacket he bought while once in Peru, and it fit him well, made him look younger. He was a consultant for food manufacturing companies, paid handsomely enough to forget about the marches and union organizing of his youth, those days of activism were far behind him. But despite how much everything had changed, he still held onto his political beliefs, the books of Marxist theory on his shelf, his kind eyes always looking to forgive. It was plain to see how devastated she was, but he would never dare ask her about the details of what happened, he could guess most of it anyway. He’d hold his tongue even though they’d managed to form a friendship over the years, or at least, something as close to friendship as a father and daughter can have. Among their many shared interests they both had a love for tango.
“Papi, did you know that Carlos Gardel never pronounced the N in his songs but switched them for Rs because of recording methods in those days? Here’s how it worked: the singer’s voice made the membrane vibrate which pushed down on the needle that carved into the vinyl paste. The singer practically had to stick his whole face into this speaker box and then the sound travelled through a tube until it reached the needle. Can you believe that?”
People in the plaza began to scatter as the misty rain fell harder, turning into heavy, cold droplets that pelted the cars, roofs, pedestrians, everything.
Rain in the mountains was an everyday occurrence, and it always misted in the evening as the fog settled, cushioning the valley. The rain now was steady, a nearly frozen, silent rain. The kind of rain that wet her face and the bluish leaves of the crops in the mornings when she walked through the coffee fields, rustling the plants as she passed between the rows, the droplets slipping down the leaves like glinting slivers of glass, shattering and sinking into the soil.
Maybe it was because of the icy rain, or because little by little the people had retreated from this insignificant corner of the world and the looming shadow of the mountain had begun to conquer the plaza, but nighttime here had a mysterious feel about it. There was something unsettling about these long periods of dark. First, the lukewarm sun would dissolve in the sky, turning pink and effervescent. Then, the fog would blot out everything like a specter. According to Jube, it was the time of day when the Cadejo appeared, lumbering across the mountain trails, massive and imperious.
Over the years Claudia had heard her grandmother tell time and again about the night she arrived at the ranch where she was to be married. About how the fog had been thick, pendulous, as she walked with her grandfather from town, dragging along her little suitcase. It was a night Doña Elena would never forget because it was the night she saw the Cadejo in the flesh. At dusk, just as the night-blooming jasmine was pitching its fragrance over the mountains, they noticed the fresh, deep tracks of an enormous beast pressed into the trail before them.
“I didn’t feel scared, but I suddenly couldn’t move a muscle. Grandfather was drunk off his ass and my stomach was growling I was so hungry, and that’s when I remembered my mother’s warning about the Cadejo. Keep your legs closed-up tight so it can’t crawl inside, and that’s what I did. I said to myself, ‘you’re not getting in here, you bastard,’ squeezing my skinny legs shut, and it was right in front of me, like a dog, but bigger, huge, with burning red eyes. It started panting when it saw me. I kept my mouth shut, but my grandfather drew his pistol and aimed. No one had ever told him you’re not supposed to point a gun at a Cadejo, never, that’s why he died so soon after, may he rest in peace, because he aimed his gun at it and in return it made off with his soul.”
This is the story Grandmother would tell Claudia and her sister Gladys over the years, the two young girls listening wide-eyed and intent, petrified, but with each retelling their fear eventually lost its luster and grandmother stopped telling the whole story. But she never stopped repeating the part about how she saw the Cadejo that night, standing in the road, an omen of what was to come.
Her mother had always warned her never to go anywhere with her grandfather, “he’ll sell you off first chance he gets.” However, one day, he came to get her. She was at school practicing writing her name on her little chalkboard.
Just as soon as she finished forming the letters, she heard it spoken aloud by a man wearing a white suit, leaning in the doorway. She wiped the chalk dust on her uniform and stood to meet him.
He said he was her grandfather and that he’d come to pick her up. Ever since her mother passed away, she’d been living with her aunt, and their evenings were devoted to sewing outfits to dress their baby Jesus doll in. At that time of day, Aunt Teresita would have been setting out her afternoon snack of atole and warm panela sugar cookies. Grandma Elena never saw her again, but years later, after she’d been made both a mother and widow, she learned that her aunt died in her hometown in the same house where she and her sisters were born and raised. She hadn’t been able to hold it together after the disappearance of her niece. She also found out that after that day, her aunt renounced her religion and became an Adventist who lived in fear of the devil until her last moments on earth.
“Why didn’t I ever look for her?” Grandma would ask aloud each time she retold the story.
But she wasn’t sure of the answer, no matter how much time she spent pondering it. Why had she decided to go with her grandfather that day if she had no idea who he was, and her mother had explicitly and repeatedly told her never to do so? Strangely, what Grandma Elena remembers most vividly from that afternoon, was being drawn to the look of his crisp, white suit. That’s the part she would dwell upon years later, without ever fully understanding why she packed up her school supplies that day and followed him.
First, they stopped at the fair the next town over. She was cold and hungry, but didn’t know how to communicate with this tall, distant man. She’d never felt hungry at home because Aunt Teresita always fixed her a plate with fruit she’d cut up into little pieces, and if she didn’t finish, her aunt would sit down next to her until the plate was clean. With her grandfather it was different. He had no clue how to talk to her, or to children in general. What he did know was how to talk to adults. He ran into acquaintances constantly, and everywhere they went someone recognized him, offering a manly hug and a handshake, only some pausing to ask about her:
“What’s with the girl?”
He’d nudge her to say hello, but she’d stay quiet, gnawing at her lip and squeezing her eyes shut.
“Say hello, do it, girl,” he’d repeat, not caring very much whether she did or not. Aunt Teresita, on the other hand, always made her say hello, always. “Say hello Elenita, go on,” she’d say, gently pushing her forward.
The only time her grandfather insisted she extend her clammy, trembling hand to a stranger was when she met don Vicente in the park in Tapachula.
Don Vicente must have been an important man, because her grandfather whistled a cheery tune from the radio as he shaved that morning. She had a feeling that the money had run out a few days before, as they’d vacated the big, clean hotel downtown where they’d been living for several months, relocating to a cramped inn next to the train tracks. Over the last several days, he’d forbidden her from asking for hot chocolate and panela cookies, which is why Elena was dizzy with hunger that morning. She woke with a hollow stomach and a light head, her thoughts scattered. Grandfather ordered her to put on her white dress, the new one, which she did, and then braided her hair. They left the inn and outside the train station was bustling as a carnival, not unlike the fairs where grandfather went to gamble month after month.
The people crowded around the train that was snorting steam onto the rails in a loud, melancholy way. It was rusted as an old jalopy, and Elena had heard they’d be switching it out for a new electric model, but she didn’t understand what that meant really. She’d never lived in a house with electricity.
Feeling disoriented and overwhelmed among the rabble of the departing and the plaintive prayers of those saying farewell, she could hear someone playing a marimba. She reflected on the fact that she had no one to say goodbye to, or anywhere to go for that matter, though she would have liked if someone played a farewell song for her on that long, twinkling instrument. And then that person, whoever they might be, teary-eyed and filled with the particular loneliness that afflicts those who don’t depart, but stay, would return to their empty house and lock the door behind them.
Elena had no clue then of all she would experience during the years to come. First, her daughter would board that train to Mexico City, never to return. Then she would say goodbye one by one to her five sons, watching as each one stuck his head out the window, smiling, exhilarated by the prospect of going far away. Her youngest was the last to go, but even that was long before the rails were abandoned, and the passenger lines disappeared from that area altogether.
The only train that would remain then would be the rattling, dilapidated freightliner. As it rumbled past, she’d stand transfixed by the shoes dangling over the edge, all of them worn through at the soles. Shoes belonging to groups of continuously new passengers fleeing their homes with the dream of crossing to the Other Side. Throughout the years, Elena would witness all of this on the very same platform where she met don Vicente that fateful afternoon long ago, when her grandfather had harbored her in a damp inn with walls that shuddered every time a train pulled into Tapachula station.
Her grandfather called out among the din to a woman carrying a wooden tray on her head. She came over and recited the passenger menu: chiles rellenos, fish and rice, quesillo and chipilín empanadas. Elena ordered the fish and rice which was handed to her wrapped in a banana leaf. She devoured the contents of the package standing up, hardly noticing the grease rolling down her forearms to her elbows, though she would be conscious of this later when grandfather ordered her to shake don Vicente’s hand.
After eating, they walked through Tapachula. The sun fell squarely on the plaza like a punishment, the shadows of the trees contorting across the benches. Grandfather quickened his pace, and she doubled her step to keep up.
Under an ahuehuete cypress, a man was waiting for them wearing a khaki-colored shirt and a wide-brimmed felt hat that covered his face.
“Don Vicente, I’m sorry we’re running late, the girl had to eat. Here she is, have a look.”
As the man observed her, Elena saw that his skin was tough and weathered, the puffy ridge of a thick scar traversed his face from nose to chin.
“Well, look, I don’t buy used and my wife is pretty particular. She finds out you’re pulling one over on us, she’ll cut your head clear off.”
“No, not at all. Girl’s never been left out of sight in her life. She’s a señorita. Used to live with her aunt, Doña Teresa de Miramar, a god-fearing woman.”
Don Vicente stuck out his hand and looked squarely into Elena’s face with his small black eyes.
“Say hi, shake,” Grandfather commanded.
She felt the warm chapped hand of don Vicente firmly envelope her own. “Sounds fine then, bring her by the ranch at the end of the month.”
“I was so scared,” Grandmother retold, “I must’ve been about thirteen. I packed my little suitcase and I remember bringing a doll. Did I ever tell you about how I saw the Cadejo on my way there? It was getting dark, and the smell of night jasmine was so strong, white flowers, little button-sized white flowers were sprouting all over the mountain like a carpet on the trail. Grandfather was drunk as hell and the fog was settling in for the night. That’s when I saw its tracks and then the beast itself, right at the fork in the road. If you girls ever come across a Cadejo, only thing you must remember is to squeeze your legs shut tight so it can’t get inside. That’s exactly what I did, I said to myself, ‘you’re not getting in here, you son of a bitch,’ and I screamed at it, pressing my skinny thighs together. It was right in front of me, like a dog, but big, huge, with red eyes, blazing. I think it must have been a sign of what was to come.
“We arrived at the ranch late that night. It was freezing, and I remember I didn’t have my sweater. An old, hunched woman wrapped in a shawl came out with a candle to meet us and she held the light near my face, making the sign of the cross over my body. ‘Come, it’s time for you to meet your husband,’ she said, leading me into the kitchen. I sat near the wood stove because I was shivering uncontrollably. I leaned my head against the wall and fell asleep, but soon the little old woman came back for me, gently shaking my shoulder, and that’s when I saw him. The one and only, wearing a long beard and stinking to high heaven of aguardiente.”
“Grandma, was he handsome, grandpa?”
“Girls, you’ve never seen a more handsome man in your life. If he hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have been able to put up with it—all that suffering—the way I did.”