That night, Orville’s sleep was hit and miss, which was unusual since his arrival in Guatemala and especially during his stay with the De León’s. Back in the States, Orville had intermittent bouts of insomnia, but in general they were initiated by stresses from the lab or a related influence in his life in which he simply could not get his brain to shut off for the night. But while he had been on this much needed trip down here south of the border, Orville had not once been bothered by this peculiar ailment of his. And he certainly could not blame his wakefulness on any noise as you might experience in a city.
El Zapote was as peaceful and relaxing as anywhere Orville had seen on this trip so far. Sure, it had the usual sounds of he jungle, but he had long ago adjusted and adapted to the new wildlife noises and if anything he had come to find them to enhance rather than interfere with his slumber. But as he tossed and turned yet again this night, Orville finally gave up and walked back out to the small porch where he and Francisco had shared that most interesting conversation just a few hours earlier. Orville had never been one to put much stock in beliefs of things that had no rational or scientific explanation before, but as he thought back on what Francisco had said earlier, it gave him pause.
Certainly the whole conversation had come about from that legend of La Mala Hora, but Orville still could not get his head wrapped around the idea that there might actually be more to it than just a story to entertain and frighten. Before meeting Francisco and before having developed the friendship and respect he had developed for the man in just a few days, Orville would have never given any more credence to the possibility that it was anything but a legend. But what if that was just his Western background talking? Who was he to say that what Francisco—and most likely a lot of his other friends here—believed did not have some validity?
In the short time he had been with Francisco, he had come to see that though the man had an obvious limited formal education, he was not an uneducated man by any means. In fact, Orville would have to say that Francisco possessed and demonstrated a wisdom and intellect that rivalled a lot of his so-called intellectual friends back home. It was a different type of intellect and wisdom, but you had to be a fool to not be able to see it there when he spoke and went about his daily life in El Zapote. As he looked out into the dark jungle surrounding the De León’s small home he felt especially blessed that he had had this experience that he might have otherwise missed out on had he gone a more traditional tourist route on this segment of his journey.
The jungle was alive at the moment with all the various nocturnal creatures that Francisco had told him of, and though he was curious, Orville remembered to heed his friend’s advice to not venture away from the house at night.
“It is not the large predator, that you should concern yourself with, Senor Orville. Though Guatemala certainly has its share of those…the jaguar, the puma, and the like. But when the night comes there are many more dangers of the jungle than the feline predator….many you would not know until you might accidently step on one and by then it would be too late for me to save you.”
Orville thought back to that speech he had gotten from Francisco when he had first arrived, and since he did not know Francisco well at that point, he wondered if it was maybe some overblown narrative to scare the Gringo. Orville had grinned as he said it, but when he saw that Francisco was not smiling at all, and that there was, as far as he could tell, no hint of deceit or deception or dishonesty on the man’s face, he stopped his inane grin and just nodded his understanding. In the time since, Orville had come to know Francisco as nothing but forthright and kind and genuine. Those negative characteristics, it seemed, were as foreign to him as could be. It simply was not in his nature.
Orville sighed as he looked out over the high canopy as some frogs began the nightly mating ritual he had come to get used to. When he had first arrived it had seemed loud and almost obnoxious, but now Orville wondered if he might actually miss the amphibian serenade when he went back to Laconia. Likewise with the plethora of bird life here. The birds definitely calmed after dark…to sleep, Orville figured….but during the day they were an ever-present companion. Back at his little cottage in Laconia he certainly had wildlife, but it would pale, he was sure, after this experience. A sliver of a half-moon peeked between some clouds and the tops of the canopy as Orville caught it reflecting off a small outbuilding just down a rough path leading away from the house.
He stood and stretched his back as he turned to go back to his room to try one more time to grab a couple hours of sleep before he would have to arise to go with Francisco as he guided him back toward the border and his ride over to San Ignacio in Belize. Orville was sad his time with the De León’s was coming to an end, but there was much more he wanted to see as he anticipated his trek north from Belize up into Mexico. But he knew he would take this experience with him in his heart and his mind as a vivid memory in the days and months to come. The generosity and warmth and kindness that Francisco and his family had shown him were like nothing Orville had know or expected. He hoped they felt the same about him.
But just then, a subtle rustle of some jungle undergrowth caught Orville’s ear and he looked in the direction from which it had come. It seemed to be in the general area of the little shed down the trail and as Orville narrowed his eyes and stared he froze in his steps. Coming across in front of the outbuilding where the moonlight was illuminating a small patch of loose gravel that had been spread at the entrance was a shadow that seemed to be moving as if hunting or at least searching for something. It was human-sized but the back seemed hunched over as if it were aged or maybe injured so that it could not stand erect.
However, the gait was not compromised and it slid along, almost giving off the impression that it was floating or hovering over the ground. Orville felt his heart thump faster as he stood unmoving and just looked on with a sudden feeling of unease. The humped over form began to enlarge and then shrink back in a display that baffled Orville until he recalled the words of Sergio Vásquez rom the gathering in the town square:
“If you are unfortunate enough to see La Mala Hora, it may appear to you as a large, black, amorphous lump though it will be constantly changing shape as it moves around. It can change size rapidly growing huge and then small……”
Orville felt his breath catch in his throat as he realized he was actually considering the possibility of La Mala Hora in the flesh….so to speak. Sure, he was just seeing things….trick of the night light or his fatigue….Orville sat again as he looked on. As the figure turned from the shed and into the light more fully, Orville saw what he would have sworn were loose tattered pieces of fabric flying away from the movement of the figure as if a wind was blowing, although the night air was completely still. And though the face was deeply set back in a hooded coat, Orville could see glimpses of ragged and stringy, very unkempt hair trying to make their way out of the hood. He could see no facial features, but again as he recalled Senor Vásquez’s tale, he felt a chill along his spine:
“ultimate shape of a wicked-looking old woman…..wears long, black tattered and ragged clothing and her hair is long, stringy and unkempt…. move over the ground, floating just off the soil, her feet free of Earth as the wind moves her along….”
When the figure was facing Orville, he felt a sensation, that in the aftermath, he was then hard-pressed to describe. It was like part hypnotic and part immobilization….as if he was being held in place against his will. A mysterious and almost caustic hiss emanated from under the hood until a louder crunch in the jungle interrupted the scene and the figure snapped its head away from Orville and flew into the jungle, disappearing through the vines and towering trees. Once it departed, Orville felt his ability to move and react return in a snap. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes vigorously and looked again. But there was nothing there. Just the old shed that leaned oddly to one side and the moon reflecting off its corrugated roof as before. An owl hooted overhead and some small, annoying insects buzzed about Orville’s face.
He waved them away and looked again. Nothing. What the hell had that been, then? He was feeling fine other than being tired, so he could hardly blame this on a hallucination of some ilk brought on by one of the many jungle infections he had been fortunate thus far to avoid. He did not do drugs nor had he had but a single beer to drink this evening. Had it even been real? Or was he so worn out from insomnia that he had either imagined it or maybe dreamed it? Orville had no idea but staying out in the night air any longer was not likely to provide any answers. He exhaled deeply and returned to his room and lay down, falling asleep almost immediately.