From some of the elective courses that Orville had needed to take when an undergraduate at Ohio State to fulfill what the administrators deemed a “well-rounded” academic experience, he had gotten this side interest in Latin America. At the time it had annoyed him to no end, as all he saw it as was a distraction from his primary concentration in engineering and physics. But as time went by and he got exposed to more and more of the culture through literature and history courses, the more Orville was drawn to the land and the people there. It was so vastly different from anything he had ever grown up around and seemed so much more vibrant and rich and varied than his life in the southeastern US. It got into his brain so secretively, that Orville even found himself enrolling for some introductory Spanish classes just out of curiosity over the language itself. Never in a million years did he ever think he would actually have an opportunity to avail himself of the language.
But as he passed from country to country, Orville found even his rudimentary grasp of Spanish was much appreciated even when he knew he was butchering—though certainly with no malice nor intention—the pleasant-sounding dialect as he traveled along. It was as he got closer and closer to Mexico that his interest moved beyond that of what he assumed the average tourist experienced. In particular, Guatemala drew him in. As pedestrian as it was, his trip out to the ruins at Tikal left him speechless, even as mainstream of a tourist excursion as it was. The people were warm and open and genuine and his last night there where he was fortunate enough to spend in the small village of El Zapote, just east of Lago Peten Itza as he moved back toward Belize before going north to Mexico was the icing on the cake.
There was a traditional Mayan family there that he got connected with through an agency in San Ignacio, Belize where he had arranged his excursion out to Tikal. It offered a traditional and authentic experience with a Mayan family to get a real taste of life there…not sanitized by some Western tour operator. And Orville had to admit that the advertisement lived up to its promise. These were simple people living as far as he could tell mostly off the land, and quite frankly right on the edge of day to day survival. They were patient with his broken Spanish and he even managed to pick up some of his lost vocabulary with their help. But most memorable during his time with the De León’s was his inclusion with the patriarch, Francisco, to attend an annual event in the center of town recalling and commemorating their heritage.
Part of this event was a story telling segment from an elder named Sergio Vásquez, who was well known and revered, so Francisco told him, for keeping the old legends and folklore of their people alive as the world around them changed and sped ahead. On this particular evening, Sergio had chosen the legend of La Mala Hora. It was a traditional tale of ghostly haunting used to entertain and scare children, Francisco had explained.
“In recent years it has been attributed to your country… in Nuevo Mexico in the Estados Unidos. But if you look far back into our culture you will find this legend had its actual roots in Guatemala. You understand the name ‘La Mala Hora’?”
“With my very rusty Spanish, I think, ‘the bad hour’?”
Francisco nodded and chuckled.
“Very good, my friend…yes, literally that is correct. But to help you understand the legend and appreciate it more, a more accurate translation might be, ‘the evil hour or the evil one’….sometimes in your country , La Malora or La Malarga, the evil-doer’….I will translate for you as Senor Vásquez tells the story…”
Orville nodded and sat back as Sergio stood and paced gracefully back and forth around a small flickering fire in the town square, all eyes glued to him, and frozen in their seats, as he adopted a very serious grave expression and spun the tale of La Mala Hora:
“La Mala Hora has been known to our people for generation after generation as a wicked spirit or if you prefer, an evil demon that wanders the lonely and deserted back roads and abandoned byways of the countryside. She will not appear until well after midnight and her sole purpose is to terrorize any who dare to travel alone in those areas. She awaits in the darker shadows of the edges of roads, often at a crossroad intersection awaiting to accost an unwary traveler who might dare to cross her path. She is, some say…..to be feared more than the Devil himself….”
Orville looked around to see children cling tighter to their parent’s clothing and snug in tighter as Sergio’s voice went low and was colored with a theatrical twinge of menace and danger. He grinned at the man’s delivery, but at the same time had to admit it was having a chilling effect on him too, even though he knew it was just a legend.
“If you are unfortunate enough to see La Mala Hora, she may appear to you as a large, black, amorphous lump though it will be constantly changing shape as it moves around. She can change size rapidly growing huge and then small…back and forth as she roams the land. Our forefathers say she looks like a ghostly black shroud blowing in billows and wavering in the wind or even as a large pulsating ball of cotton as she begins to manifest and take a more definitive form.”
Children were now actually beginning to cry and hide their faces in their mothers’ clothing as Sergio began to gain momentum and elaborate. He saw why the man had been chosen for this event….he was an amazing storyteller and Orville found himself suddenly rivetted and hanging on every word.
“If any of you should be so unlucky enough to actually set your eyes on La Mala Hora, you run the risk of being driven mad! She can hypnotize and even paralyze anyone she should encounter at this time of night. And when this occurs and she does finally attack, she will rush upon the unwary victim, enveloping them while she draws the life breath from them! In the morning, it has been said that the poor wretches who have fallen under the spell of La Mala Hora have been found dead, their bodies laying as if merely discarded by the side of the road.”
He punctuated these last phrases expertly, and there was gasping and squealing from the audience….and not just from children, Orville noticed.
“In other parts of our country, this emanation has been said to have taken the ultimate shape of a wicked-looking old woman, the ultimate personification of evil. Much like the wispy La Mala Hora I have already described, she wears long, black tattered and ragged clothing and her hair is long, stringy and unkempt. She will move over the ground, floating just off the soil, her feet free of Earth as the wind moves her along. And like the traditional La Mala Hora, she should be considered an omen of death. Encountering La Mala Hora along the byways or at a crossroads certainly means you or someone you know is doon going to die!”
Sergio Vásquez drew his coat about himself and returned to his seat as some local musicians took over the evening, perhaps Orville mused, to try and alleviate some nerves and worries from this tale of cultural horror. He sat with Francisco and listened to the guitars and flutes and other homemade instruments as the simple traditional melodies filled the night air. After a few more minutes, the crowd began to break up and all filtered away to their individual homes for the night. Orville walked with Francisco in silence for a few moments, but then he could no longer stand it.
“That’s quite a tale….your La Mala Hora…”
Francisco nodded but said nothing.
“And Senor Vásquez is certainly a skilled storyteller…”
“Si, Senor Orville….that he is…”
They had reached the De León home before Orville realized it and he sat with Francisco just outside the front entrance and looked up into the clear night sky as stars were everywhere.
“Could I ask you a question, Senor Orville?” Francisco asked after some silence.
“Please forgive me if I am prying. I mean no harm, but I get the feeling you do not consider the legend of La Mala Hora to be authentic.”
Orville felt suddenly self-conscious, hoping he had not insulted his host nor done anything to invalidate how much he appreciated the time he had spent with him and his family.
“Oh, no, Francisco….I am sure it is an authentic Guatemalan legend.”
“Yes….but I sense you think it is just some story to scare small children and entertain adults, but nothing more.”
Orville wanted to select his words carefully now as it seemed the legend meant much more to Francisco than how he had taken it. Until just this moment, he had indeed thought it nothing more than what Francisco had said.
“I am just a visitor here, Francisco. It is not my place to make judgements on your culture. I have loved my time with you and your wife and your children. If I have offended you, I am sorry.”
“No, Senor Orville…..nothing like that. It is just that…well…sometimes even though a story sometimes becomes labeled a ‘legend’ that does not mean it is a…how do you say in America….fairy tale.”
Orville got his meaning.
“Are you saying that La Mala Hora is more than just a story, Francisco?”
“There are many things in this world, Senor Orville, that defy a simple and easy explanation. Things that cannot be comprehended with just our earthly senses…no?”
Orville had never given these things much thought before, but he supposed anything was possible. Also, he definitely did not want to leave here giving Francisco the impression he thought he was some uneducated, backward, superstitious person.
“I suppose that is true, Francisco. As to La Mala Hora specifically, though, are you saying you have seen it…or her…with your own eyes?”
“That I cannot say with great certainty, Senor Orville, but I have seen things in my life that I cannot explain with my eyes….my ears….my nose. And many of my people here have indeed reported something that might have been La Mala Hora. But those who did see her? They did not hang around to confirm it.”
Orville nodded not knowing what else to say. They sat in silence once again until the cool mountain air forced them inside and they both retired for the night.