"El Duende" by Casandra Hernández Ríos
The day a duende appeared in Emilio's room, he ran to tell his mother and father, but they looked at him with disappointment and shook their heads. They told him it was just his imagination, but Emilio insisted. He tugged at his father's sleeve until he gave in and agreed to look under the bed, where Emilio had seen the small, child-like creature run into. His father lifted the twin mattress from its frame and slid the wooden slots out of the way for a better look, but no duende. His father repositioned the slots, fit the mattress back, and sat on the edge of Emilio’s bed.
It hadn't always been this way, but for the past year, Emilio's father spent a lot of time explaining that gnomes, monsters, or creatures from his grandfather's stories couldn't be dreamed into reality. “Your abuelito told me the same bedtime tales when I was your age, but they’re just that—tales and stories,” his father said. Emilio caught himself beginning to re-explain, but he could see his father's patience had thinned by the way he looked and spoke at him. Both his parents looked at him differently, but he couldn't remember when it first happened. He just knew they had two ways of looking, the one they had for him and the one they had for Carmen, his baby sister.
Weeks passed and with each sighting, Emilio came to know the duende. He had a mischievous laugh, the kind of laugh Emilio had heard at school, a laugh shared by playground bullies. But Emilio didn't feel intimidated by the creature, he felt at ease, actually, when in his company. The mysterious creature had become his guest and Emilio tried to feed him, but the duende never ate the pan dulce or milk Emilio left for him. Emilio only caught glimpses of the duende, but was able to put together mental images to form a complete picture. The duende ran on skinny legs, the pant hems were closer to his knees than his ankles, and his large belly prominently featured its belly button. If Emilio had been more brave, he would have tried to capture him to clothe him, but like him, the duende was doing just fine on his own.
Most afternoons, he spent them in his room flipping through story books his grandfather had left behind for a clue as to why the duende had chosen Emilio, or he'd imagine being able to have a conversation with the duende and be able to ask him himself. Other times, when his mother didn't push him to leave his room for dinner, Emilio would sleep through afternoons. There were some days when he was overcome by an unexplained exhaustion and he'd tell his mother he couldn't eat or go to school because he was tired. It wasn’t a lie; he was tired. He thought the weight of keeping quiet about the duende had exhausted him. But he didn't want to get rid of the duende, for when Emilio wasn't home, all he could do was look for the duende in quiet corners, in the depths of shadows. He yearned for his company and the warmth he felt by being near the creature.
Winter and summer break always brought his grandfather back to Emilio. His grandpa lived in Guadalajara, six hours northwest from where Emilio's family lived in México City. Because his grandfather lives so far away, he'd stay a week or two at a time with the family. He had always looked forward to his grandfather's visit, even if it meant having to go to church on Sundays and having to sit on rigid pew benches. The awkwardness he felt, as he sat among people wearing their best clothes and best behavior, while they prayed or spoke softly to an invisible entity Emilio knew nothing about, would cause him to feel small. When his grandfather asked Emilio how he wanted to spend his domingo, the ten pesos his grandfather gave him after church to spend that day, he'd say “Xochimilco!”
Lake Xochimilco was Emilio's favorite place in the world. He had grown up hearing stories about the people his grandfather had met when he worked there on a chinampa, growing flowers and selling them to tourists, and about how during that time of his grandfather, he spent more time floating water than on land.
Before the duende, getting up on Sundays wasn't difficult. His grandfather would always knock on Emilio's room and Emilio would open the door, wearing a long sleeve shirt and pants his mother had picked out for him the night before. But this morning, Emilio's mother had had to drag Emilio from bed and helped him into his clothes because his grandfather was waiting for him.
“I'm really tired,” Emilio said, dragging his feet as they made their way from his room toward the front door. “Please let me stay home.”
“What's wrong with you?” she said. “You love going with your grandfather. It'll do you some good to leave the house for once.” She crossed her arms.
He plumped on the front steps, surrendering to his fate. He felt his shirt's collar tightening and the sweater, suffocating. He unfastened the top buttons and pulled his clothes away from his neck.
“Oh, it's okay,” his grandfather said, as he emerged from the house. “Let him stay. I can come back after church and take him to Xochimilco.” He smiled at Emilio and began to cross the yard toward the main highway.
His mother shook her head in disappointment. Emilio remained on the front steps, as he watched his grandfather disappear around a building.
His grandfather returned after church for Emilio, as he promised, and collected him and Carmen for the trip to Xochimilco. Emilio wanted to oppose Carmen's company, but he knew that it wasn't up for discussion. Now that the three were on the main pathway into Xochimilco, that morning's events felt silly. Emilio watched his grandfather and Carmen walk hand-in-hand several feet ahead of him. He felt better and was relieved to know that his grandfather wasn't mad at him. He had also managed to get the duende off his mind. But he couldn't leave him behind, not completely, because every now and then, Emilio thought he heard the duende's laugh. Every time he heard the sound, he turned and look around him, but no duende in sight, just other children running circles around their parents.
“Look at the pretty flowers!” Carmen said, bouncing in place. She turned to look back at Emilio. Her face was glowing. He hadn't noticed how pretty she looked in yellow, the color of the dress she was wearing, but he wouldn't tell her. She was three, but her features had sharpen, and Emilio could already imagine what she would look like when she turned his age. She had captured their parent's gaze and soon his grandfather's.
“Emi, Emi, look at the pretty flowers!” His sister was pointing at a woman in a chalupa, selling flowers.
“Yeah, yeah, I see them,” he said and rolled his eyes. He wasn't in the mood to put up with her. She had already ruined the day by tagging along. Couldn't she just leave him alone?
They continued walking until the part when the road forked, one side leading to a docks where trajineras, draped in red, yellow or blue paint, were anchored. The other path returned them home. Normally, they took a ride on the canal, but today was different. His grandfather stopped and thought for a moment. He looked at Emilio.
“Let's get some raspados and rest for a bit,” he said. Emilio nodded. Carmen pointed at a man grating a large block of ice and pulled their grandfather toward him. They ordered a lemon-flavored raspado for each and then walked over to a bench facing the edge of the lake. Emilio found the sun's reflection on the lake's wavering surface and wondered if the light was strong enough to blind someone.
“Abuelito? Do you believe in duendes?” Emilio said, afraid that his grandfather would snap at him for asking. Emilio raised his brows expectantly. His grandfather was eating the raspado with a plastic spoon.
“Sure,” he said, and took another spoonful of lemon-flavored ice.
Emilio looked down at his cup filled to the brim, the grated ice melting into the green-colored juice.
“Carmen, sweetie, why don't you go see if there are fish in the lake. You don't have to get too close to the water,” his grandfather said, pointing with his chin toward the edge of the water.
Carmen smiled and began walking toward the lake, taking small, steady steps.
“There. That's close enough, sweetie” his grandfather said. She stopped and bent her knees to lean in for a closer look. Emilio watched her. For a moment, he imagined her falling, face-first, into the water. The thought startled him.
“I'm going to tell you a story, but it has to stay between us. Do you understand? Your mother mentioned your duende and she was pretty upset,” his grandfather said.
“Okay, I won't tell her, or anyone else, I promise,” Emilio said. It seemed like his grandfather believed him and Emilio felt relieved.
“When I was about your age, ten or so, I saw two small children playing in the fields from the tree I had climbed that morning. They wove their dancing between the maguey plants, their one-piece gowns were the same color, as the dry soil below their bare feet. I wouldn't have noticed them if I hadn't heard their laughter. It was light and musical, like watercolors. I could have watched them all day from behind the curtain of leaves and branches.”
“And did you?” Emilio said, leaning in.
“I took my gaze from them for a second when I heard my mother calling. And then they were gone. When I told my mother what I had seen, she said they were duendes, and warned me to stay away,” his grandfather said. “Have you seen any fish, sweetie?”
“Not yet, abuelito,” Carmen said.
“Why did she say that?” Emilio asked anxiously.
“Because she met them when she was a child. They tried to take her, but she knew their tricks.”
“Well, they convince children to play their games, and sometimes these games last for days. They invited my mother into the forest to see their house, but she said no and ran as fast as she could, leaving the sound of their laughter behind. They're naughty little things,” his grandfather said. “Come on, Carmen, it's time to go.”
“I don't believe it,” Emilio said, crossing his arms. It was the first time he didn't want to believe one of his grandfather's story. He couldn't imagine duendes as evil. Maybe the duende hid Emilio's shoes or spilled all of his Legos on the carpet, but the duende would never harm anyone. Besides, the duende never left his room, and was too shy to even show himself. He'd never trick anyone.
His grandfather shrugged and led Carmen around the bench by the hand. Emilio stood from his seat and followed them. He was feeling better, his feet were light, and he wasn't as tired as before. He hadn't liked his grandfather's story, but at least he believed that duendes were real.
They took the path home and walked for some time along the rim of the lake, until the path began to narrow and ascended. Their grandfather let go of Carmen to walk in front because three of them didn't fit. Emilio was still holding Carmen's hand. She kept looking over the edge, down at the deep irrigation channels that veined from the lake.
He knew it was a bad idea when he let go of his sister's hand to tie his loose shoestring, as soon as he did it. Carmen began pointing at something over the edge that Emilio couldn't see from where he was. He heard her say, “Flower. Look at that flower,” softly, as if whispering to herself, and continued to lean closer and closer over the edge.
Emilio started to tell Carmen to wait for him, when she fell forward without a sound. She didn't scream, nor cry. She was only a few feet from him. It all happened fast. He shuffled toward her and found her, hanging from the side of of the channel, the murky water below, with nothing to hold on to. He lay on his stomach, to be as low as possible to the ground, and reached for his sister's hand, but she was out of reach.
That was when saw it, the flower his sister had been pointing at. It was a bright color blue, a strange, but wonderful contrast to the dark greens and browns of Xochimilco's wetlands. The flower was beautiful and captivating. He heard music in his ear say, Hold on to the flower and Emilio repeated the words: “Hold on to the flower.” He waited for Carmen to begin to reach for the flower's stem. “I'll go get help, just hold on,” he said.
Emilio wasn't sure why he waited for a nod or for her to say something. Tear's raced down her cheeks, but she didn't make a sound. She looked frightened. Emilio couldn't see the girl who had captured their parent's gaze and now his grandfather's anymore. When he saw her take hold of the flower's stem, Emilio rose to his feet. He saw his grandfather in the distance. It was strange how far he was from them. He would have to yell or run after him to get his attention. He began to take a deep breath to call for his grandfather when he heard it, the dunde's laugh, but it was different, it was tinged with something Emilio couldn't recognize, but he knew it wasn't good.
Emilo's heart fell into his stomach. He looked back at his sister, hanging from the channel's slick sides from a single stem, and realized what he had done. Through foggy eyes, he watched as the stem snapped, dropping his sister into the water. The splash didn't sound, but if it did, he didn't hear it. He stood there, watching the water calm from where it had been disturbed, cradling the blue-petalled flower.
© 2016 Casandra Hernández Ríos
About the Author:
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. She is fiction editor at indicia: a journal curating literary arts, and is former Senior Managing Editor at The Offing magazine. Her work has appeared in The Acentos Review, the Santa Ana River Review, Verdad Magazine, and American Mustard. She teaches at Golden West College and Long Beach City College.