Fall 2021, Volume 31

Fiction by Casandra Hernández Ríos

Abuelo Castro

Once the road became rough and the gravel grumbled below, Eduardo knew that they were close to Abuelo and Abuela Castro’s home. The family made the trip to Tlaxcala from Ciudad de México every September for Eduardo’s grandparents’ anniversary and spent the weekend en el pueblo with them. Eduardo’s mother had related stories about growing up in the pueblo chasing fireflies at nightfall, feeding chickens in the morning, and cranking dried corn through the grinder in the afternoons for masa. She hadn’t lived there since she left for the Universidad.

Eduardo had slept through most of the trip, an impossible thing since his sister Carmen hated long car rides and would often be fussy. Eduardo would have to entertain her by letting her watch him play on his PSP.

He rolled the window down and stuck his head out as far as he could without unbuckling his seatbelt in search of something familiar: the sign that read “Zapateria,” or the junkyard that had a standing giraffe statue made from car parts and pipes. Maybe he had missed them. He noticed the beginning of a thick wooded area ahead and had to unbuckle himself from the seat for a better look, but his mother, who was sitting in front of him, scolded him.

“Be patient. We'll be there soon,” she told him.

He looked above him, noticing trees hanging closer, their low branches almost reaching for the roof of the car and then Eduardo heard the chanting of rushing water from the ravine below that was familiar to him. The sound was near, but so faint that it made him wonder if he had actually heard the water in the ravine or if he had simply imagined it; the pueblo had played tricks on him before. But Eduardo decided to focus on his last adventures chasing after slimy frogs and of moving clumsily between smooth black rocks and buried logs to avoid falling into the rushing water. The town boys had teased him for not being able to catch one sapo and had called him a niña for rolling-up his jeans so he wouldn’t get wet. He was determined to catch a frog this time.

When his father parked the car at Eduardo’s abuelos’ house, it was nearly dark. There were no streetlights leading to the house, and the remaining daylight had just been enough to guide them there; these days, the sun set early.

A pit formed inside Eduardo’s stomach when he saw his grandparent’s house through the dark. He was able to make-out the house’s square edges, and the way they cut through the night frightened him a little bit. Something about this visit felt different.

Abuelo and Abuela Castro had always been kind to him, but their attentiveness had sometimes overwhelmed him and made him nervous. Their gaze lingered on a little too long and when his eyes locked with one of theirs, his abuela would simply smile and offer him food or something to drink. Even when he played outside, he felt the weight of their watchful eyes.

“Mamá? Papá?” Eduardo said with a tinge of fear in his voice. He wanted to go home.

Eduardo’s father had just turned the engine off, and his mother had stopped fidgeting with the navigation app on her phone; both turned their heads from their seats to face him.

“Que pasa?” said his mother.

His father looked tired. They had had this conversation before, and Eduardo didn’t know how to explain what he was feeling.

“Is it the darkness?” his mother asked. “It’s different here, I know, pero te prometo that everything will be okay. Okay?”

“Let’s go inside,” his father said, stepping out of the car and closing the door in one swift movement.

When Eduardo stood in front of the car, his abuelos were below the porch light, holding the front door open, the glow of the warm kitchen behind them darkened their appearance.

His mother, father, then Eduardo, gave them each a hug when they greeted them at the door. Carmen, who was in her mother's arms, was waking from a nap and seemed a little grumpy. Their abuelos were used to leaving Carmen alone since she had never really had a good time there. One year, she had cried the entire weekend; another year, she had had a fever and didn’t want to be held by either one of them.

“Looks like no one will be getting any sleep this year either,” Abuelo Castro said under his breath, as he closed the front door behind him. Though Eduardo heard him, he pretended he hadn’t.

“Vengan, sit at the table,” Abuela Castro told them. “You can get your luggage later.”

It was warm inside the little casita. The family sat at the kitchen table quietly, as if they sat for dinner every night. Carmen was still in her mother's arms. Abuelo Castro pulled out a chair from another room, its seat and backrest made of dried corn husks; it crunched like a long sigh of relief when he sat on it. Abuela Castro poured warm milk in red, clay mugs and served him pan dulce—conchas—that she had prepared especially for them. She served Eduardo’s parents café con piloncillo. They ate in silence because they were hungry and tired, except for Carmen, who had begun to whine loudly over Abuelo Castro’s news playing from the radio.

The inside of their abuelos’ house had never made Eduardo uncomfortable, though it was different from his home in the city. The casita was a simple, but spacious with large rooms and sparse furniture. There were three bedrooms with large wardrobes and robust bed frames but were always dark because the rooms had small windows and their curtains were always drawn. Dark gray stones were laid to cover concrete floors in various intentionally broken directions. Spanish style rectangular picture frames of different sizes lined the walls of every room. Inside gilded frames were black-and-white portraits of family members Eduardo had never met. Enclosed in thicker, more detailed wooden marcos were paintings of holy saints, ángeles, La Virgen de Guadalupe, and of “La Última Cena,” all in color.

From the kitchen table, Eduardo stared at the backs of two green armchairs, both facing Abuelo Castro's console radio, his most prized possession. The rest of the room’s decor — lamps, rugs, and picture frames — were arranged around the radio and its two chairs.

Besides pots, pans, and large spoons, nothing else hung from the kitchen’s walls; in fact, nothing adorned the kitchen. He didn't know why but thought that it had something to do with abuela's wood-fired oven. His father had called it dangerous, once. Eduardo’s parents had offered to replace it for a gas stove, but Abuela Castro refused the gift.

With a taza in one hand, Abuelo Castro rose from his crunchy seat to change the radio station and probably get away from Carmen’s crying, Eduardo thought. Grainy static faded in-and-out as he turned the largest knob to find a station. The host announced the night’s broadcast, a show called "La Mano Peluda: Stories of the Supernatural." Eduardo had heard his friends from school talk about the show, but he had never been allowed to listen to it at home. His parents said it was too scary for a ten-year-old.

“Change the station, Papá, por favor. Your grandson will have nightmares,” Eduardo's mother said in a low voice, as she rocked Carmen in her arms to hush her.

“The boy is old enough,” Abuelo Castro said. “Ghost stories don't scare you, verdad mijo?"

Eduardo didn't know how to respond. A part of him wanted to hear the show so he could tell his friends that he had listed to “La Mano Peluda” with his abuelo when he returned to school, but another part of him didn’t want to disobey his mother.

“Fine. But if you're too scared to sleep," she said, looking at Eduardo, "Just don't wake your sister."

He shook his head, promised he wouldn't have bad dreams, and rushed over to sit on the chair next to Abuelo. Out of the corner of his eye, Eduardo saw his mother disappear into another room, probably to lie down with Carmen. His father sat at the kitchen table with Eduardo’s grandmother, both speaking in low voices.

Eduardo turned to the radio, the host was introducing the caller, and was asking him to relate his story:

In 2007, I died in my sleep. I heard a strange voice, a man's voice, tell me that he was taking me somewhere. Suddenly, he pulled at my arm, and I felt my spirit peel from my body, and I saw my body lay still on my bed as we left. I looked like I was sleeping, but I knew I was dead. The voice, whose face I couldn't see, took me from Earth. And at the entrance of a different universe, he asked me to choose between seven tunnels…

With wide eyes, Eduardo turned to Abuelo, who only grinned back at him before settling into the chair. Eduardo was excited, a little nervous, but he inched closer to the radio’s speaker. The caller continued with his tale:

I told him that I didn't understand. He told me not to worry, that I would be safe with him, but that I needed to choose. So, I pointed at a random tunnel, and he guided me into it. It was terrifying and dark inside. I could see nothing, only feel. One of the first things I began to feel were my companion’s firm grip on my left arm, and the warm stench of sulfur meeting my face. He told me not to let go. I felt bodies—limbs— along the tunnel walls, wailing and groping at me, begging to take them with me…

Eduardo wondered if that’s what Hell was like, a place where those who enter it could only ever dream to escape. He had heard conflicting stories about Hell in Sunday school, but one thing he knew for sure was that it was a place he didn’t want to go.

At the end of the tunnel, there was a woman inside a pit of fire. She screamed in pain. When she saw us, she pleaded for mercy. I was certain we were in Hell. At that same moment, I realized that I was digging my fingertips into my companion's hairy flesh. I could make out more of his form. He had horns, the kind of horns you only imagine on demons. He didn't seem to find pleasure at the sight of all this suffering because he pointed away with his other arm, and I knew it was time for us to go…

When the radio host interrupted, Eduardo realized he had been holding his breath. “Hold that thought, amigo. I'm sorry, but it's time for a commercial break. We'll pick-up right where you left off when we return.”

Eduardo took a deep breath and turned to ask Abuelo if he thought Hell was real, but his grandfather had fallen asleep, his chin resting on his chest. He looked behind him, to the other side of the room, but his grandmother and father were no longer sitting in the kitchen and he wondered when they had left the room. The house was quiet, as if uninhabited. Because it creaked, Eduardo stood from the chair slowly, so as not to wake his grandfather. He decided to take a closer look to make sure that his grandfather was still alive and had not died in his sleep like the uncle of one of Eduardo’s friends from la primaria. He had tuned out the radio’s commercials but heard the show’s distinct eerie theme return. Eduardo didn’t know how long they had been listening to this episode, but he knew that he couldn't finish listening to the rest of the show alone.

Somehow Eduardo knew he was the last person awake in the house. The stillness of everything made him nervous, so he left the light on in the living room for when his abuelo woke up. Eduardo ran to the bedroom to find his Papá. Both his mother and Carmen were asleep in one room, and in the other, was his father. Eduardo kicked off his shoes and climbed into bed next to him, still wearing jeans and the knitted sweater his mother had chosen for him, and pulled the covers over his head. He told himself that Hell wasn’t real and that stories on “La Mano Peluda” were just fiction. He tried to clear his head and instead imagined fluffy white sheep jumping over the moon. Eduardo counted the sheep like his father had taught him and when he got to sixty, he fell into a restless sleep.

Eduardo wasn’t sure how many hours he had slept when the sound of a slow, but steady rattle woke him. He held his breath and listened, trying to remember where he had heard the sound before. He was relieved when he remembered what it was, a sound he had heard many times before during the early hours when it was still dark outside and his abuelo and abuelita were beginning the tasks of the day.

Excited, Eduardo climbed out of bed, slipped into his shoes, and walked to the front of the house to look through a window. He found Abuelo Castro’s tall shape standing over the pozo, the moon illuminated the well, but obscured the details that made-up his abuelo’s face. The chair where his grandfather had fallen asleep in earlier was empty and the lights in the living room had been turned off. Eduardo had been asked to fetch water from the pozo once before but had never seen his abuelo do it before dawn. The pulley was old, and it squeaked and rattled when the rope ran through it. Eduardo opened the front door and walked toward his grandfather.

“Abuelo Castro?” Eduardo said, when he was a few feet away. But there was no answer. “Abuelito, you fell asleep on the chair while we were listening to the radio. I got scared and ran to bed. Don’t tell mother.”

“I'm tired,” he said, with a faint voice that kept being drowned out by the insistent rattling of the pulley.

“If you're tired, why are you out here?” Eduardo replied. Abuelo continued to tug at the rope, the pulley continued to squeak and rattle.

Eduardo stood, watching his grandfather for several minutes, as he pulled for the pail.

“I think it's broken. The bucket's not coming up,” Eduardo said, but there was no reply. He moved closer to his abuelo until he stood by the mouth of the well. He leaned in, but the pozo was unnaturally quiet and hollow.

“I don't think there’s any water in the pozo, Abuelo Castro. Let’s go inside.” But there was no reply from his abuelo; he just continued to pull at the rope.

Eduardo looked behind him, toward his abuelos' house and wondered if he should wake his father. The house seemed farther away than he remembered it.

Eduardo started back toward the house, but he heard his grandfather say something.

“Estoy. Cansado, pero. It's almost here.”

“What, Abuelo Castro. What's almost here?”

“The pail of water.”

Eduardo walked back to the mouth of the well. Abuelo continued to pull at the rope, as the pulley squeaked and rattled. He heard the echoes of wood scrapping along the well’s stone wall and caught the glimmer of the bucket’s metal handle emerge from the dark mouth. Eduardo felt relieved. They could finally go back inside. He reached for the handle, lifted the heavy bucket clumsily and placed it on the stony ledge to untie the bucket. The knot was too tight, and he knew he needed to get help. Abuelo stood to Eduardo’s left, his shoulders hunched and his arms hanging by his side; he remained motionless. Even this close, it was too dark to see his abuelo’s thin face and greying eyebrows, and Eduardo knew something wasn't right.

He turned toward the house, but as he let go of the handle something grabbed his forearm. Though it caught him by surprised, Eduardo knew he had to free himself from the grip of a whatever had him. He felt the hairy flesh of a hand that had emerged from the pail. For some reason, the image of the woman in the pit of fire from “La Mano Peluda” returned to him. The hand pulled Eduardo’s arm toward it. He felt the water’s cold boil near his face.

Eduardo closed his eyes, preparing himself to be swallowed whole. Something told him this was the way to Hell. He felt another hand take hold of him and he closed his eyes. Both hands had him now. Eduardo held on to the pozo's ledge with his free arm and leaned backwards, hoping the whole weight of his body could save him.

The two hands pulled, they tugged, and began to climb up Eduardo's arm. Slowly, they made their way up his forearm, past his elbow, and over his shoulder. He realized that the thing wasn’t pulling him in, but rather, it was pulling itself out.

When both hands had reached his shoulder, they held on. Eduardo was too afraid to open his eyes. He couldn’t look into the face he was sure had surfaced. He felt a body too much for him to carry and then heard the bucket tip over the ledge and the sound of water spilling. He lost his balance and fell back, and then heard nothing. Eduardo opened his eyes, as he fell on his backside. Now free, he tried to get a glimpse of what had climbed out, but it was too dark to see anything.

Eduardo remained on the dirt ground trying to calm his heart and catch his breath. His left arm tingled as it regained feeling. He began to crawl away from el pozo, but when his palm touched soaked dirt, he jumped up from fear. He had forgotten that the pail's water had spilled.

“Eduardo? Eduardo. Me escuchas?” a man's voice said. “Are you okay?”

He turned around to see his abuelo rushing toward him from the house. His shape dark against the light behind him. Eduardo noticed that the kitchen’s light illuminated a warm path toward the well.

“Yo. . . ,” but Eduardo didn't know how to begin explaining.

“Did you have a bad dream?” his grandfather asked, as he held on to Eduardo’s small shoulders.

Eduardo began to cry. Emotions poured over him like cold water, leaving him breathless. He felt the chill of the night, heard the slow chirping of crickets, saw the moon's glow on his Abuelo's face, and then hugged him. Eduardo felt his grandfather's bony body tense. After a moment, Abuelo wrapped his rigid arms over Eduardo and attempted a hug. His grandfather's body felt distant, a reminder that they only ever hugged for goodbyes. He looked up at his grandfather ready to tell him his story.

“Abuelo Castro,” he began, but he was too spent. Eduardo looked into his abuelo’s face, noticing his thick eyebrows were raised and his squared jaw, slack.

“Don't tell mother.”

Abuelo sighed and forced a smile. “I won't.”

The two walked back to the house, their backs toward a stillness that lurked in the night.




BIO: Casandra Hernández Ríos received her MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, from CSU Long Beach. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the same school. Her fiction has been recognized by Glimmer Train Press with honorable mentions, and it has appeared or is forthcoming in alternaCtive publicaCtions, In Parentheses, The Acentos Review, Golden Streetcar, Spectrum Literary Journal, Two Sisters, and the Santa Ana River Review.