La Luna by Carmen Baca


Carmen Baca taught a variety of English and history courses, mostly at the high school and college levels, over the course of thirty-six years before retiring in 2014. Her command of both English and Spanish enables her to write with true story-telling talent. Her debut novel El Hermano, published in April of 2017, and became a NM-AZ Book Award Finalist. She has also published two more books and twenty short pieces in online literary magazines, women’s blogs, and anthologies. Her fourth and fifth books will publish this year as she works on her sixth.

         In Spanish we refer to the moon as la luna. She was the guide that lit our way at night, the midwife who told us when to breed our livestock and when they would give birth, the reaper who told us when to plant and when to harvest. We farmed, planted, and lived according to her cycles.

         So on the night the moon was supposed to rise and didn’t, we knew there would be hell to pay. We just didn’t know it would be more literal than metaphoric.

         Could it have been a fluke of nature? you ask. Um, no. No, that wasn’t it. How did we know? you ask. Because back in the early 1900s when this cuento takes place, we followed las Cabañuelas, a system that predicts the weather for the year. Our forefathers did it, and it worked for them. We trusted it to work for us too. But that May fifth on the day the new moon was due to appear in the night sky, it failed to show up. The following day we realized we had seen signs from nature, but we had ignored them. The flowers that should have opened their blossoms and tilted them toward the sun turned the other way and held their heads down as if in shame, or regret, or sorrow. The trees drooped, and their sap fell as though they cried. Even the dogs ceased their barking and the pups their horseplay; all walked with heads lowered to the ground and their tails pointed downward as though already lifeless. Nature had caused flora and fauna to turn into a kind of one-foot-in-the-sepultura type of existence from the moment the sun’s rays had touched the earth.

         But we didn’t notice. Immersed in our quehaceres of the day—some of us worked outside in the fields, the jardines, or the arboleras to assure both animal and human had crops come harvest time. The rest of us worked inside—doing the tasks of the trades, of which there were many, or general housework, which was a category that never ended. Either way, entertained by our baking or concentrating on our cabinet-building, no one in the community paid attention to the animals after we fed them and exchanged “good morning, go have a good day” greetings. Not on the fifth of May, anyway.

         Later, after it was all over, we wondered whether if we’d noticed something peculiar we’d have been able to do anything about it anyway. But I get ahead of myself. Usually, the first one to notice anything that happened in our valley was Don Cruzito Reyes who lived at the very end of the canyon. But not that day. That day it was his wife, Euphenia, or Eppie, as most of us called her. We should have known then that something was up, but life teaches in hindsight most often and now we know there was more that we should have noticed.

         Before that day when there was any news about anything at all in the community or the surrounding villages and the two towns thirty miles away to the east and west, Don Cruzito was the one to ask. The way it worked was he told his nearest neighbor who told the next and so on until all the seventy families living down the winding dirt road knew and didn’t need to ask unnecessary questions in the first place. Just as often, by the time Doña Cleofes at the opposite end of the camino heard whatever it was, the message was colored with so many adjectives, adverbs, and misinformation that it vaguely resembled the original.

         Let me begin at the beginning. The day didn’t give any hint to what the night would bring. The sun rose as it always did, poking its rays into the Reyes house like fingers parting the drapes. As it did every morning, it moved a bit tentatively as though checking to see if it was welcome, then proceeded into the kitchen in increments over intervals of time until it was all the way inside and the room lit up with its light. The cocina with windows to the east was the first of the two-room house to appreciate the warm intrusion. The green apples left in a bowl on the wooden table had begun turning pink, then red, every day they sat there, ripening on the sides facing the window through the hours the sun shone on them. The kitten waking in the corner of the kitchen floor where it lay curled upon a cushion yawned and rose to turn its back to the sun for warmth. The house was still, and the humans wouldn’t rise for a while, the cat knew. There was a while to snooze before feeding time.

         The old couple whose bedroom was at the other side of the house rose by rote shortly after, not because their room was as brightly lit as the east one. They performed their morning tasks—he lighting the fire in the kitchen stove—she dressing and making the bed before leaving the bedroom. They passed one another in the doorway—he on his way back to dress for the day—she going to ready the coffee and fill the basin by the door to wash the sleep out of her eyes and run her finger over her teeth.

         Eppie began preparing breakfast while Cruzito left the house with a pail and basket. When he returned minutes later, the meal was ready except for the fresh eggs he’d brought back with him. He set the pail half filled with milk in the icebox for his wife to decide what to do with it later. Butter, cheese, whatever she decided, he knew none would go to waste.

         Eppie had the eggs cooked in no time, and they sat at opposite ends of the table to eat.

         “What’re you doing today?” Cruzito asked.

         “The usual.”

         “Think I’ll go up to check on the cows today,” he replied after sipping his hot coffee.

         “Take the rifle,” she cautioned, making little spoons, we called them cucharitas, out of her tortilla pieces to scoop up her egg.

         “Plan to.”

         “Better not run into el Serpiente up there.”

         He scoffed. “Woman, we’ve lived here for how many years? Thirty? Forty? Have I ever seen it?” He finished his coffee and rose, chuckling, “Besides, you know the valley where it supposedly lives is miles from here.”

         That was the extent of their conversation most mornings. Married for forty-three years, they knew one another so well one look into the other’s eyes told them how each one fared on any given day. The gray hair, the wrinkles, and the age spots did nothing to diminish their deep love for one another. He was thin as a rake and she was plump as a gourd, but they still fit together comfortably when he folded her into his arms and gave her a peck on the cheek before he departed every morning.

         She smiled and began the quehaceres of the day, thinking of the myth of the forest several mountains over and whether it lived on even if no one could prove the giant snake ever existed at all. It had become a legend parents scared their children with when they wanted to make sure the little ones didn’t decide to go exploring on their own. That several children had gone missing in wooded areas over the past centuries was not a folk tale, but it had happened decades before, and those were no doubt instances of children wandering off, getting lost, and becoming swallowed by the forests because no one ever found them. Had any snake swallowed them, surely their bones would have been discovered by now, we reasoned. Nothing mythical about those disappearances, only children following their curiosity and careless parents suffering the consequences of their own neglect.

         The sun began to rise in the blue sky, dispersing its warmth equally on the land below. No clouds gave even a spot of shade to human or animal that day, and the sun went from warm to hot in no time at all. Cruzito and his horse, Cinco, felt the heat, oppressive and all-enveloping even as they rode through the thick forest, upward, ever upward for over a mile until they reached the flat and fertile mesa where the herd of cattle foraged for food in the summer months. As man and horse ventured farther into the meadow, he began to call, “Chica, Cuernuda, Bole,” the names of the three eldest which led the herd there and back every summer. When he heard the distant thunder of their running hooves, he knew the ladies were on their way. Before long, all the mothers and their children were standing all around him, and he was able to ascertain they were sound. He checked on their water source and then stretched out under a large pine for a while with the cows and calves milling about around him.

         The community he’d left behind, meanwhile, went on with their day until about noon when

the earth shook. Then a dark cloud, like a wave, began moving in from the south—most unusual—and covered the sky, shutting out the sun about as effectively as if giant hands had tossed a gray mantel over the cañón. But even the manteles the women wore over their heads to mass on Sundays were made of silk or lace and transparent. This veil the clouds wove was opaque and thick. The denseness made breathing difficult. We felt we were under a quilt of dry dust and struggled to inhale the previous, precious life-giving air that simply was no longer there. Now we knew what our forefathers had undergone during the Dust Bowl, we thought.

         Humans up and down the cañón grabbed up as many small animals as they could. Some families reported later that they had roped and led their prize milk cows or goats or beloved horses inside their casas because surely they were going to die if left outside. After most were safe indoors, humans and animales were startled by the sound of rocks falling on the roofs of their houses, barns, wherever they had taken shelter. Don Raul reported later he had only had time to duck into his own perro’s house, he and his black Labrador fighting for room in the crate the dog called home. He confessed he had finally curled up in the fetal position with the shivering pooch in the crook of his body like a mother protecting her child so they would both fit in the small shelter. It was a good thing the dog had pushed his house out of the hot sun and left it under the big cottonwood. Yes, the dog did this daily. But I get ahead of myself.

         The rocks, some the size of rubber balls and some the size of bricks, fell from the sky with such force that when the larger ones crashed on the ground, they broke. Yet, none of the large ones fell on the casas and none caused injury to those caught outside. In the houses people began crawling under the mesas and camaltas and whatever they could hide under because the noise was deafening. Children screamed and mothers bit their tongues not to join them. They tried and failed to put on brave faces while hoping their offspring didn’t feel the shivers that kept the mothers from holding them with any confidence.

         Some of the older women, those with no children at home needing to be held, grabbed either knife or saint, whichever was closest, and performed the act known as “Cortando las Nubes” like their own mothers and grandmothers had taught them. Standing in the center of the house was best, but since Eppie’s house had only two rooms, she stood on the kitchen side close to the wall dividing the cocina from the bedroom. She clutched Saint Medard, the patron saint of storms, aloft in her right hand, her left hand, palm-up, holding him as if on a platform. The saint rose and fell, bobbed and weaved, as she made the sign of the cross with him in the four directions, saying, “Santo Medardo, santo de protección de las tormentas, le pido…Saint Medard, saint of protection from storms, I ask…” She recited the four verses so rapidly it’s a wonder the saint understood the request. Those women who had grabbed knives held them two-handed and made the sign of the cross with the knives as though cutting through the air, hence the expression “cutting the clouds.” Women still use this method to this day in Hispanic households of northern New Mexico to ward off the bad weather, and they attest to its veracity, too. No amount of scoffing and protestation from the non-believers can tell us it doesn’t work: we have borne witness to tell our accounts.

         Eppie was beginning the prayer for the second time when the storm stopped as suddenly as it had started. The cloud lifted like it had never been, the evidence it left behind proved the entire valley had not been sharing a communal pesadilla. For nightmare it was indeed, but even stranger was that the damage left behind by the rocks was minimal. It was as though they had been thrown to purposefully miss humans and animals.The phenomenon did not last longer than a few minutes, like an earthquake, and it was over. The sun beat down as though with great concern to give warmth and life to what had been at the brink of meeting death only moments before.

         Seconds after, lloridos y gritos, cries and yells, traveled on down the valley, started by Doña Epiphenia first, taking over for her husband. “¿Están bien? ¡Aquí estamos bien! Are you alright? We’re alright!” The refrain echoed down the valley so loud and clear that even Doña Cleofes heard correctly when it reached her. There were no casualties as there are in any disaster, thank God. The houses, outbuildings, and automobiles bore the brunt of the attack by the rocks. Large craters on all of them were the worst of the damage. It was as though a giant had decided that day to rain a handful of pebbles down on the community.

         Cruzito, meanwhile, had fallen asleep as the cattle and his steed grazed around him. Nothing happened in the monte where he was, and so he was unaware anything had occurred back at his beloved cañón. He awoke and gave a good stretch, drank from his canteen, and bade good bye to the cows. Funny, he thought to himself, in my dream I encountered Saint Medard in the sky

coming down and a group of many men covered in something gray rising all around him as though I had been flying and just bumped into them all… When he arrived at his house, he heard the yelling echoing up and down the road and called for Eppie in alarm.

         She waved and whistled him over to where she stood next to their closest vecina, their cousin, Raquel. Both took turns telling Cruzito what had just happened, and he decided to go down the road and see for himself what his other neighbors had to say. He urged Cinco into a canter after the women assured him they and their animals were all fine. He didn’t want to admit in front of their prima that he had slept through the whole thing. But there had been no evidence of anything unusual until he came down the small hill behind his house and saw the earth covered in gray and the pockmarks on the roof of his home. So, whatever this was had not happened where he had been.

         He stopped at every house and saw for himself the evidence strewn all over the valley: baseball-sized rocks were everywhere, the random basketball-sized ones broken apart and scattered amongst the rest. Every resident stood outside their homes inspecting the dents in the tin roofs of buildings and vehicles. Few windows had been broken, even fewer cars had small craters in their sides or doors. The ground suffered the most, with large cavities everywhere from road to field and garden.

         After Don Cruzito assured himself everyone was safe, he rode back home while wondering what it could all mean and whether the pummeling would begin again. But, no, the rest of the day remained normal and the residents began doing what they could to return to their routines. After supper, Cruzito went outside to check on Cinco before going to bed, and that’s when he noticed the new moon that was supposed to rise was not in the sky to the east where it usually rose. He scratched his head and went back inside, pulling his ledger from his bedside table and returning to the kitchen to go over his notes on las Cabañuelas. The month of May corresponded to January fifth, twentieth, and the morning of the twenty-seventh. None of those days indicated any unusual activity had occurred to foretell rain of any kind, much less an anomaly of a rain of rocks. There was nothing to predict why the moon was absent from their night sky.

         “Hazme un favor, mujer,” he asked Eppie who was seated by the kerosine lamp patching holes in the knees of a pair of his pants.


         “Do me a favor and go look for la luna,” he repeated.

         She put the calzones down on the table top, looked at her husband as if she could figure out what was wrong with him by scrutinizing his face, shrugged when she saw nothing different, and walked out the door.

         “¿Estás contento?” she asked when she came back. “Happy now that I’ve gone and confirmed she isn’t there. And how does this help? Maybe you got the date wrong.”

         “I do not,” he grumbled. “And I’m afraid something else is going to happen like today. I have a feeling.”

         Eppie remained quiet. Her esposo had had feelings before, and they had always portended something significant—every time. They went to bed since talking was not going to bring them any answers and hoped their prayers for a peaceful night of rest would reach their Maker. Word reached them the day after the rocks had assaulted the earth, and part of the mystery was solved. The truth was unwelcome and brought pain rather than peace, but the people of the canyon accepted it as part of life and did their duty because that was all they could do. La luna did not appear that night either, and farmers who counted on the almanac and las Cabañuelas scratched their heads in confusion. Communities all over the northeastern sections of the state which had not received the news wondered if the world was going to end. The churches in the cities and the capillas in the villages filled with record numbers of those who wanted to cleanse their souls because surely the end was near.

         But then the word spread, and everyone knew why la luna stayed away. The mining camp to the south of where the rocks had fallen had suffered an accident. The earth had shaken with the explosion and subsequent cave in which had trapped an entire crew of miners beneath tons of rock. There were those who would try to explain that the rocks falling from the sky were the result of the blast, but the people of the canyon knew better. For one thing, they were miles from the mine—why didn’t the other communities closer get the pelting of stones as they had—thirty miles to the north? No, they knew that the seven sons, brothers, husbands, uncles, and fathers—the most casualties of the catastrophe who resided in one location, their beloved cañón—had thrown the rocks down onto their community as they left the earth and rose into the heavens. Los Despedidos—the dead who announced their departure by bidding their loved ones good bye in the only way they could—had been careful to shower their farewells without taking any of their family, friends, or pets with them.

         Like the historians of the past had documented strange phenomenon when great men fell, the inhabitants of the cañón attributed what had happened to them was caused by the passing of the great men in that mine. Their leaving had left a such void in their insulated universe, the gente said, that those seven souls departing so suddenly had even shocked the moon. They were convinced la luna had stayed away out of respect, mourning in those first nights.

         After the initial shock to the community and after the wakes and the funerals were past, the moon came back. As though she knew the time for mourning was over and she needed to guide la gente forward, she returned, joined by seven new stars that now shone right over the canyon all around her. As she made her revolutions around the sky from east to west, the stars accompanied her, visible only to the people of the cañón.

         The rains soon followed her return. On the spots where the larger rocks had fallen and broken into pieces, the most royal purple flowers sprouted in clusters. They came back year after year to remind the people that Los Despedidos were living in the heavens with the King himself. Instead of fearing the wee hours of the nights most called la Malhora, the Bad Hour, the gente del cañón trooped outside as one on the nights the moon was full. Those were the times the purple flowers bloomed and stayed open until the first rays of the sun caused them to close again. As though blooming only for la luna, the purple flowers lifted their petals in supplication or in gratitude to her light. And the people watched in silence as the flowers trembled with their appreciation of the moonbeams on their delicate blossoms until the break of day.


The Acentos Review 2019