Alejandro led Orville to a long wooden bench that sat between two of the houses and sat as Orville dropped his pack to the ground.
“Did something happen to Francisco and Marta and the children?” Orville asked uneasily.
Alejandro nodded but said nothing immediately. He inhaled once and then let it out slowly looking as if gathering his thoughts.
“He is gone, Senor Orville.” Alejandro said softly looking up at Orville with sad eyes,
“Gone? You mean died?”
“We do not know. It is feared so by the villagers here, but all we know for sure is that Francisco is gone.”
“I am not following you, Alejandro,” Orville replied as he looked into the man’s obviously troubled face. “Maybe you should start from the beginning?”
Alejandro nodded and sat back looking as if he was trying to gather his words so his English would not be misunderstood.
“Back after you left us before and we got the money you sent to begin making some things better for us here, Francisco went with some of the elders to the church to offer their gratitude to your generous gift. After, so I am told, they stopped off at the crossroads just east of the town square to celebrate as well.”
When Orville heard the mention of the word “crossroads” he felt a dark stab of anxiety fill his gut.
“From the one man who did return from the group that day, he tells us they lingered a bit too long and before they knew it twilight had fallen and they decided to just stay put as this odd mist or fog or something came over the entire place they were in and they could not see past the lane that led them back into the jungle to our village.”
“Fog?” Orville asked, “is this a common occurrence here?”
“No, Senor Orville,” Alejandro replied, “in this part of Guatemala this type of thing is just not heard of. At least not in my lifetime.”
Orville was suddenly overcome with a dark grip of dread coming over him. He was hoping he was wrong, but he had this sinking feeling he knew where this story was leading.
“Anyway, to their regret they were also in no real shape to try and walk back. They celebrated with Guaro. You know of that?”
Orville shook his head no.
“It is a clear liquid distilled from sugar cane juices here. Not as strong as the vodka in your country normally, but Francisco has this friend who makes it more potent than most in our village. Anyway, as the night moved on the fog grew thicker and this sound like an animal emerging from the brush woke them. But when he awoke, it was not a normal creature of the jungle. That, he said, would have been bad enough, but what stood before them was this towering black mass.”
Despite the warm and humid day, Orville felt a chill come over him.
“This man, Manuel, roughly woke the others and they drew back as the mass took the shape of…well, Senor Orville…please forgive me if this sounds mad, but…”
“Of La Mala Hora?” Orville said cutting him off.
“So you know of the legend?”
“Yes. Francisco took me to the gathering in the square of El Zapote when I was here before and I heard Sergio Vásquez tell the legend.”
“You believe it is real?”
“I was not so sure back then when I first heard it, Alejandro. Just thought it was one of these things that gets passed down from generation to generation as a folk story. Do you understand that?”
“But after talking at length to Francisco he convinced me that perhaps, despite how it might seem, that La Mala Hora could indeed be much more than just a tale to scare the children. He gave me this.”
Orville pulled out the medallion that Francisco had given him from his last visit here.
“Ah…” Alejandro said, “the Tijax. For your protection on your travels?”
“I suppose partly. At the time I thought it was just a nice gift from my time here with him and his family. But there was this incident back in my home in America.”
Orville looked fixedly into Alejandro’s eyes as he said this.
“You…you have seen La Mala Hora in America?”
“I am not sure. I was having this medical problem at the time and it may have caused me to imagine her.”
Alejandro nodded weakly.
“But what do you feel inside, Senor Orville…right here?”
Alejandro tapped his chest where his heart was located.
“It felt real. Despite what my doctors tell me about this condition, I did not feel like it was in my imagination.”
“And the Tijax? It was with you then?”
Orville nodded as he replace the pendant inside his shirt.
“I have never taken it off since Francisco gave it to me. Continue, Alejandro…”
“Manuel scurried into the jungle and watched from afar as the mass took her form and engulfed…is that the right word for surrounding them?”
Orville nodded impressed at his command of English.
“She engulfed the men as they stumbled to their feet. Manuel said once she was around them, just hovering over them like a cloud, they stood frozen in place as if they could not move. The fog then got much thicker as she grew larger and larger. Manuel was terrified from the legend he had heard since he was a young boy and did not know what to do. He wanted to flee back to the village and get help, but he was afraid if he had shown himself that she would have come for him as well.”
Alejandro paused and took a quick drink from his water bottle.
“Then with no warning, the fog cleared and Manuel saw nothing where they had been just moments before as La Mala Hora rose higher off the ground and drifted away into the jungle. It was, he said, like she had never been there at all and it had been some sort of horrible nightmare.”
“But it was not, right?” Orville asked.
“No, Senor Orville…it was not.”
“And Francisco and his friends?”
Alejandro shrugged as he winced in what looked like pain.
“That is the thing, Senor Orville. Like I said, Manuel said there was just nothing there. La Mala Hora faded away and he was left alone looking back to where the group had been just moment before. Just the jungle and an empty road.”
Orville did not know what to say. In his rational mind, it seemed like just another wild tale from the jungle, but after what he was sure he had seen back in Tennessee at RMD just before he collapsed, he was not so sure now.
“And they have not been seen since?”
“No, Senor Orville. No one here has seen any of the men since.”
“Everyone believes it was La Mala Hora?”
“Other men from the village searched for a long time, Senor Orville. They never found even the slightest sign of any of them anywhere. And as I am sure you can imagine, the legend of La Mala Hora is held in high regard here.”
Orville nodded feeling the sudden loss of Francisco in his heart for the first time. He was thankful that he had had the opportunity to be with his friend way back when, and he felt this deep sadness and sorrow now that he would not see him again. It had been a long time since Orville had lost anyone close to him, and despite his short time with Francisco, it felt as horrible as any loss he had ever encountered.
“What about Marta and the children, Alejandro?”
“When Manuel came back and told of what had happened, and then there was no sign of Francisco or the other men anywhere, Marta fled with the children to Comapa. Do you know Guatemala well?”
Orville shook his head no.
“It is a small town in the south not too far from the Salvadoran border. It is where Marta’s family still lives.”
“Was she afraid La Mala Hora would come for her as well?”
“I do not know, Senor Orville. I think not so much that as just not knowing where else to go or who to turn to without Francisco. She was just scared for herself and her children.”
“Yes, Senor Orville…” Alejandro replied sadly, “many have followed her example. They just felt our village is…I don’t know…maybe cursed is too strong, but my English is not good enough to describe it.”
“That’s OK, Alejandro. I get your meaning. And your English is way better than my Spanish.”
They both smiled weakly at Orville’s attempt to lighten the mood.
“Is this why El Zapote seems so…empty?” Orville asked hesitantly.
“Yes, Senor Orville. Many have followed Marta’s example. That is why you may not recognize a lot of the people here now.”
“Well…this is certainly sad news, Alejandro, but I appreciate you telling me. Is there anything I could do?”
“No, Senor Orville. You have been very generous towards us. But right now I cannot think of anything that might help. It will just take time I am afraid for this dark cloud hanging over El Zapote to go away.”
They stood and walked back to the village where Orville embraced Alejandro warmly and made his way back through the jungle with a heavy heart to try and find Carlos or some other means of transport back to Belize. There was nothing more for him in El Zapote now.