Marcy Rae Henry


Marcy Rae Henry is a Latina born and raised in Mexican-America/The Borderlands.  She is a resister and an interdisciplinary artist with no social media accounts.  Her writing has appeared in World Haiku Review, Chicago Literati, The Chaffey Review, Shanghai Literary Review, Beautiful Losers and Damaged Goods Press/TQ Review: A Journal of Trans & Queer Voices.  One of her short stories was longlisted for the Fish Publishing Contest in Ireland and another was a semi-finalist for the American Short(er) Fiction Contest.  Her publication, The CTA Chronicles, received a Chicago Community Arts Assistance Grant and her collection of stories, Cumbia Therapy, received an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship.  The first story to be published from the collection will be published by The Acentos Review.  Ms. M. R. Henry is currently seeking publication of two novellas.  She is an Associate Professor of Humanities and Fine Arts at Harold Washington College Chicago.

Charley, Chacha and The Curse

My Tía Charley, who was christened Carlota Isabela Salcera on the day my Great-Grandmother Rosa put a curse on the women in our family, despised the name Carlota and started calling herself Charley at age four.  After that, she’d attack anyone who called her by her given name and my mamá, despite being four years older, found ‘Charley’ far too masculine and was often at the receiving end of this. 

Mamá and Charley never played together.  Charley imprisoned bugs in jars, chopped off lizards’ tails and came in after a day outside looking like she’d been making mud-angels in arroyos—because she had been.  Mamá was always apprehensive about anything with a tail and, as a child, didn’t want to do anything that could result in getting dirty.  Fun for her was walking around the block in her Sunday best, her hair done, her dress pressed, a matching purse in her hand and her shoes as shiny as dimes. 

My Abuelita Soledad named mamá Verónica, but the familia has always called her ‘Chacha.’  While Tía Charley maintains it’s short for ‘muchacha,’ my abuelita says it’s a testament to mamá’s love of dancing.  The only person who didn't call mamá ‘Chacha’ was her paternal grandmother, Rosa.  The sobriquet annoyed her.  Among other things.  She complained about the colors her grandkids wore, the games they played and the way they sat in church.   

When mamá and Charley had to spend the night at Rosa’s she’d force them to drink buttermilk and eat cilantro.  Then, thoroughly disgusted, they’d soak in milky potions in the tub while Rosa scrubbed their knees with stones.  She’d yank mamá’s hair with a brush until mamá feared it might all fall out.  Everyone knows you don’t comb curly hair once it dries, but Rosa tried this wet or dry and called mamá disobedient when her hair went wild.  Charley said the nights they spent with Rosa were like being in prison and she couldn’t imagine anything worse than prison.

She would know.  She ended up working at the penitentiary, or in her words, ‘El State Pene.’  And like all the people who work there, she’s been harassed, obsessed over and threatened.  Por ejemplo, ‘Blue Eyes,’ a guy who robbed three 7-11s that, despite the name, stay open until 2 a.m.  Before he was captured he shot two policemen.  Unbelievable considering he suffered from exotropia so badly it affected his depth perception. 

As he repeatedly propositioned and insulted my tía, she continually wrote him up.  Too many write-ups meant solitary confinement and when he got closer, Charley started asking him, ‘Hey, Blue Eyes, do anything interesting this weekend?’  Or, ‘¿Qué pasa, Blue Eyes?  How’re you celebrating Christmas?’ 

The first few times he let the remarks slide, but one fine day, being that he saw the world through brown eyes, he said, ‘Alright, Salcera, why you always calling me Blue Eyes?’

‘Look at you,’ she told him, throwing a thumb in either direction, ‘One eye blew east, the other blew west.  This is your only warning—leave me the hell alone or I'll blow you to Solitary so long you’ll forget your own name.’

Mamá works in the courthouse not far from The Pen and though Charley has frequently gone to pick her up for lunch, mamá has never set foot in The Pen.  They work in different worlds just like, in many ways, like many siblings, they seemingly grew up in different worlds.  Not only do they have distinct experiences and recollections of their childhood, Charley claims they had different rules.  For instance, despite mamá being older, Charley could never understand why mamá’s curfew was later than hers.  So Charley would frequently break her curfew then gripe that she was punished more harshly than mamá when she got grounded for weeks at a time and mamá was sent to her room for talking on the phone too long.  Mamá says their punishments fit the crimes.  But Charley can’t appreciate that.  And when they have arguments about how certain things went down, they often resort to making Rosa insults. 

‘You know you got your brown skin from her, Chacha.’

‘Sí, sangrona, just like you got your perpetual discontentment from her.’

‘Sorry to tell you this, but your lips are starting to look like Rosa’s—like dehydrated mushrooms.’

‘Cuídate, Charley.  You might be getting that watery-eye thing she had.  It could cloud your whole view of the world.’

At the end of the day, one of the few things the two have consistently agreed upon is Rosa.  Mainly that their abuela was evil to the core and that she, her house and everything in it scared the hell out of them.

Rosa owned the largest house on the block and she filled it with sorcerous accoutrements including image candles shaped like humans that she ordered in seven different colors and burned on saucers placed throughout the house.  The kitchen cupboards were stocked with brown medicine jars filled with mineral oils and herbs that floated briefly before sinking to the bottom.  The jars had to be brown so sunlight couldn’t penetrate and damage the herbs.  And her cat had to be black if it was to serve as protector of the witch. 

In our desert people have always practiced witchcraft or, as we call it, brujería.  And there have always been two types of practitioners: brujos who cursed and curanderos who cured.  If they didn't advertise or admit their abilities, it was difficult to distinguish between the two.

Though the latter gave her some sick pleasure, Rosa didn't need to do either.  Decades before worshippers of la Santa Muerte would come out of the closet, her altar visibly displayed a figurine of the female Grim Reaper carved by a local santero.  Alongside numerous santos and a shot of tequila, she placed an image of the Seven African Powers.  She read hagiography, fascinated that, unlike indigenous American deities overwhelmed by the Spanish cross, some gods and goddesses in the African pantheons survived by figuratively hiding behind Catholic saints.  Cacodemonic journals cheaply printed in red or blue ink and books about Santería, the Orishas and the Eggun sat stacked in her oppressive bedroom where some of her drawers held locks of people’s hair. 

She herself never drank and although everyone around her was terrified to touch much less imbibe something from her altar, she refilled the frequently, albeit mysteriously, empty shot glass.  No one was as convinced as Rosa that la Santa Muerte had both earthly powers and earthly appreciation of a tequilita.  And yet, it was rumored that she bought tequila by the case and kept it in the crawl space. 

It wasn’t uncommon for people to come begging the diminutive woman to remove a spell someone had put on them.  She wouldn’t admit whether she herself administered the maldición, but sometimes she’d appear to comply.  Other times she’d extort money from people or admonish them, telling them they deserved what they got.  She recited incantations in archaic Spanish and read long, underlined passages in thaumaturgical books aloud.  Because her body temperature ran lower than most, she wore black shawls knitted to perfection and hefty black shoes, no matter what the season.  Everyone knew she was approaching just by the sound of her heavy sighing walk. 

As a child I never saw a picture of her, because I didn’t know of anyone who had one, but whenever I thought of her, I imagined her hair.  Black, slicked back and pinned up in a bun with dozens of bobby pins.  Wasted hair that had never had strong fingers run achingly through it, catching at the base of the neck in a momentum of lust.  Luscious locks that she refused to let her children or husband admire as she only took them down for a bi-weekly wash before brushing them fiercely and pinning them up again.  I envisioned her eating undercooked meat, drinking oceanic potions and, despite her propensity for cleanliness, smelling of the contents of a trunk sent overseas.  Her family never suspected what she was enduring, and only her son, my Abuelo Lorenzo, could bring light to her world.  It was his curse.

She doted on him as if her happiness was dependent upon his.  And, feeling indebted for all her sacrifices, my abuelo couldn’t stand up to her.  He wanted to elope with Abuelita Soledad, who, not wanting to disrespect Rosa, refused.  Nevertheless, Rosa thought it was my abuelita’s idea and hated her at first sight.  —In truth, Rosa wouldn’t have approved of anyone for her son much less a woman like abuelita who was as respected for her character as for her beauty. 

Though quiet, Abuelo Lorenzo was poised and popular and, before becoming affianced, he’d accompanied a different señorita to the weekly dance.  After he married, Rosa encouraged him to continue doing so and she conversely kept a strict, watery eye on my abuelita, telling her daughter-in-law she didn’t put enough salt in the frijoles and cleaned the toilet the wrong way. 

When mamá was born, Rosa tried smearing lipstick on abuelo’s collars and starting arguments about how mamá was being raised.  The night Charley came into the world, in addition to Rosa’s disappointment that abuelo’s family was growing, she had a premonition that one of her granddaughters would have powers stronger than hers and she went berserk.  She spent hours smashing up santos and candles before deciding to head to the cemetery. 

She covered her head with a dark shawl and, as if hiding from the heavens, she slid into the cemetery like a shadow.  Most people would be afraid to wander around a cemetery alone, especially at night.  But not Rosa.  She always said it would have simply been an interesting battle of wills had she encountered someone that night.  And her telling of that night never changed, even though she apparently only told it twice, to my abuelita.  

When she found a soft spot in the earth she knelt down and buried John the Conqueror Root with nine pumpkin seeds, parchment paper and some personal effects of my abuelita.  The moon sailed through the clouds like a boat on the sea.  When it emerged from the clouds, unobstructed and full of light, Rosa saw it as a sign that the curse had been granted a universal blessing.  So, in illuminated darkness, she recited an invocación to complete the curse. 

Then she snuck into my abuelita’s hospital room and pointedly told her, ‘Soledad, tú no mereces Lorenzo como marido and your daughters don’t deserve him as a father.  I warned you, pero no me escuchaste.  So, know that I just put a maldición on all of you.  A maldición that, if not resolved, will only grow stronger with time, affecting any more daughters you may have.’


Mami tried to keep me ignorant of the curse for as long as possible.  I was almost nine and Rosa had been dead for years when I eavesdropped on mi abuelita’s sisters discussing the maldición, saying they should’ve dealt with Rosa themselves.  I took it my abuelita discouraged them from doing anything and immediately ran to mamá with questions. 

She replied, ‘We don’t discuss things like maldiciones in this house.  The curse is just a vulgar, unfounded rumor and you needn’t concern yourself with chismes.’

‘It’s unfounded that we’re truly cursed or that Bisabuela Rosa tried to curse us?’

‘What did I just say?  ¡No vamos a tener una conversación de eso!  You worry about what you do.’

Worried about what Rosa really did, I went to spend the weekend at my abuelita’s where I knew she’d ask what I wanted to cook and share stories while we prepared something sabroso.  I chose chiles rellenos and, luckily, she had everything we needed.  So, we separated egg yolks from whites and blended the latter with a mixer.  Then we sliced open long chiles verdes and removed the seeds.  Abuelita stopped me before I scratched my nose.

‘Be careful what you touch, corazón.  Los chiles are good on the tongue, but they burn elsewhere.’

I took her dichos and stories literally and, as my favorites were of her colonia, I asked her to tell me one.

‘Back in la colonia one of the hottest commodities was milk.  During the Depression, no one had enough money to keep animals other than chickens and rabbits.  And because you had to feed them, even those were rare at times.  Of course, una familia had just a bit more than the rest of us and, one day, they bought a cow.  Chingao if that cow wasn’t disturbed nightly!  As soon as the moon became brighter than the sun, the vecinos started to sneak into the family’s tiny yard with bowls and buckets to try milking the cow.  Oftentimes they’d leave without so much as a drop.  One night, two men arrived at the same time and got into a fight over who would get the milk should there be some left in the poor cow.  At first they whispered to each other about whose family was more destitute and deserved it more. 

One said, ‘Bueno, cabrón, let’s just share the milk.’ 

The other answered, ‘No, let’s take turns.  You can come tomorrow.’ 

Soon their voices, like their language, got harsher until they started shaking fists under each other’s chins. 

‘Yo te voy a dar if you don’t turn around and walk away!’ 

‘Pues, órale, pendejo.  I've always wanted a reason to smash your face!’ 

They got so loud that they woke up the owner of the cow who came out promptly—con pistola.  No one could believe esa familia had both a cow and a gun.  Who knows if the gun had any bullets, pero de todos modos the pistolero pointed the gun at the two squabblers and said, ‘Escuchenme bien…’  Ay, no, he didn’t say that, he was americano.  He said, ‘Listen to me good.  Both of you get the hell out of my yard or you're gonna get a bullet.  And don't you let me catch you out here by my cow again.’

The men left and the americano was vigilant after that, but that cow was still very nearly milked to death.  You can’t just stay up all night watching a cow.  And people were desperate.  You may not like leche, Elena, pero te digo, nearly every poor person in that colonia lost or had their teeth pulled by sixty. 

As for the cow, one day it disappeared.  La colonia smelled of meat for days.  Rumor had it the familia hacked the cow up and sold half the meat to the general store in exchange for milk and other food.  Muchos in the colonia got a taste of that meat.  At first, no one could afford to buy it and, as the store owner neglected to cure it, minutes before it went bad he was forced to sell it at an unbelievable price.  Sí señor, I can still taste the taquitos we made with that poor cow.

Anyway, ten paciencia with people, mija.  You never know what someone may be suffering from.’

‘Is that why you were patient with Bisabuela Rosa?’

She hesitated.  ‘Well, I suppose so.’

‘Did you think you’d eventually win her over?’

‘Sí.  And so did your abuelo.’

I grated a pile of sharp Cheddar that I nibbled on until abuelita motioned to me to fatten the chiles with it.  I paid close attention while she made the pink salsa she bathed the rellenos in; the one that made hers better than anyone else’s.  When she heated the oil and added the yolks to the batter, I dragged a stool over to the stove to watch as she dipped the chiles in batter and carefully placed them in hot oil.  I used a blue metal spoon to pour oil over the rellenos until they began to get crispy and then placed them on paper towels to soak up some of the oil that fried them.  I ate two and a half rellenos, scooping up the remaining salsa in the pan with tortillas. 

When I made a move towards the couch abuelita said, ‘Why don’t we play some canciones?’

She had a parlor guitar in her parlor that she bought to teach her grandkids to play.  We started with ‘Una Estrellita Lloró,’ then I surprised her by crudely playing ‘Un Rinconcito en el Cielo.’  It took me forever to figure out the chords and my parents were sick of hearing the record by the time I got them. 

She applauded, saying, ‘Let’s conclude with ‘Las Hijas de Don Simón.’ 

Halfway through, abuelita put down her guitarra and sang with one arm out and the other at her waist, as if  dancing with someone. 

When we finally fell onto the freshly washed sheets on her big wooden bed, a candle filled the room with shadows and the scent of vanilla. 

I took a deep breath and whispered, ‘Will you tell me about Rosa’s maldición?’

‘You've heard people discuss it, no?’

‘Mainly whether or not they believe in it.  Pero what is it I should or shouldn’t believe?’

‘Bueno,’ she put her arm around me and began, ‘Bisabuela Rosa tried to put what’s called a ‘root curse’ on the familia.  It’s something she learned from the cubanos with whom she used to trade maldiciones.  Some people trade recipes, hija, your great-grandmother traded curses with Cubans.’

She checked my face for a reaction before continuing.  ‘You know, if you suspect you've been cursed, you should go to a curandera and ask her to remove the curse.  Ask her to do a proper limpieza.  Of course, if the curandera suspects there’s a root curse, she’ll tell you neither she nor a proper cleansing can be of much help.  The actual items used in the curse need to be found.’ 

‘What did Rosa use?’

After abuelita listed them, I said, ‘I only know what half those things are.’

‘Bueno, if you're counting my personal things among them, those were only known to Rosa.’

Horrified, I cried, ‘So, that makes it impossible!’

She nodded and pulled me closer.  ‘Don’t worry about that for now.’

‘Ok, so what did she want to happen to us?’

‘She thought no one deserved el amor del Abuelo Lorenzo, God rest his soul.  So she cursed me, my children…’

‘¿Y sus nietos?’

‘Bueno, not all grandchildren—only the girls.  I guess she wanted us to be unlucky in love, experiencing deep loss and haunted by true love all of our days.’’

‘So…she didn’t want to stop us from falling in love.  She wanted it to ruin us?’

‘Well put, mija.  Pero you know what the best remedy for her curse is?’

‘No sé.’

‘Continuing to love.  No te preocupes—trust in el amor and in your familia.  Don’t think for a moment we’d just sit back and let her curse an entire family tree.’

Though she didn't confirm what, if any, magic she’d worked, from that moment on I was certain she had a bit of the curandera in her.  And that I shouldn’t ask about it yet.  But that night, before we slept, abuelita gave me one more story.  The unbelievable tale about mamá and Tía Charley attempting to communicate with the dead.


On one of the hottest summers on record, the newly divorced sisters met at the cemetery to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Rosa’s death by requesting she remove la maldición.  The sky was choked with clouds and the little blue showing wasn’t very inviting.  The breeze carried hot air and people were advised to stay inside and drink water.  In some parts of the desert people worried about fires.  In other parts they fretted over the viejitos who didn’t have air conditioning.  Flowers wilted.  Tempers rose.  The grass on the grounds appeared scorched. 

Mamá and Charley trimmed the golden grass that had grown around Rosa’s headstone and arranged a vibrant bunch of florecitos in the vase at front of the stele.  They had to pull up a hot metal ring so they could flip over an attached metal vase underneath it and Charley went to her car to get a protective cloth so they didn't burn their fingers.  Once it was pulled out and turned over, they sat it back in the hole and poured water on it.  After a bit, they put in fresh water and flowers.  Then, raising their eyebrows at each other, they kneeled in silence. 

Charley never went to church—wasn't an Easter Catholic and hired people to clean her floors—but she got down on her knobby knees and wiped away beads of sweat on her face with the back of her hand.  Mamá used a handkerchief pulled from her purse and wished she’d worn waterproof mascara.  Charley thought of ice cold beer in a frosted mug and cleared her throat. 

Mamá asked, ‘Should we should offer up some prayers?’

‘Ándale, go ahead.’

After softly reciting en español mamá said, ‘Anything you want to add?’

Charley shook her head.

‘Ok…shall we ask her?’

‘Claro.  You first.’

Heat emanated from the headstones, the steles and the earth, like lingering souls. The light was so strained that the trees in the cemetery appeared to be fading.  Charley shifted on her knees and mamá started, ‘Abuela Rosa, through the years we’ve wished you peace and kept you in our prayers.’  Charley rolled her eyes.  ‘Con todo respeto, we’ve come to ask you today, on the 25th anniversary of your death…’

‘Ay, por dios, Chacha—it’s sweltering and we don't have all damn day!  Listen, Abuela Rosa, you either take that goddamned curse off us or I will personally see to it you don’t get a moment’s rest!’

‘No!’ cried mamá.  ‘¿Qué te pasa?  That wasn't the plan.’

‘The plan is now to get outta here prontísimo.’

‘Then speak to her quickly, but civilly!’

‘Like she did to us?’

‘Charley, we’re not here to air our grievances.  We’re here, Abuela…’

‘We’re here to tell you that you're no longer running the show.’

Exasperated, mamá threw her hands up in the air.  ‘Do you want it to linger for three more generations?’ 

‘No.  That's why I hope she hears this.’  Charley stood and pointed at Rosa’s stele.  ‘If I even suspect the pinche curse persists, I am marching down to 13th and San Pedro to speak to unos brujos stronger than you about interrupting your eternity.  After that I’ll buy every brujería kit I can find and hex you myself!’

With that mamá stood as well and, without looking at each other, the sisters walked to their respective cars.  Mamá blasted the air con and Charley, the radio.  Shaking her head, mamá said, ‘Ay, Carolta…’ under her breath and checked her makeup in the mirror on the visor before driving away.


© The Acentos Review 2018