Cheating Santa Muerte
By: Carmen Baca

Flor awoke in that startled way that makes one's body jump and leaves the mind and the gut upset. What a way to wake up, she groaned and rolled over onto her side. The only detail she remembered from her nightmare was that she had died and was lying in her coffin somehow able to hear fragments of mourners' sentiments about her as they gazed down upon her. In the hour or more it took for her to sigh, stretch, and rise from the bed, Flor had convinced herself the nightmare was a vision of her impending death.

"I can't die," she moaned as she readied for her daily chores. "I'm getting married in a month. I'm supposed to pick out my bridesmaids' dresses this weekend. Twenty-four is too young to die." Try as she might, the only distinct words she remembered was a mourner saying, "…what a tragedy; the pobrecita passed on what should've been her happiest day…" Well, that was no help: would she become known as "the poor thing" on her wedding day? On the day she became a mother? A grandmother? For the next few nights, Flor tried to make herself dream the scene again, to no avail. What do to, what to do? It's not like she could fool death.

Or could she?

Flor, her matron of honor, her mother, and her three bridesmaids traveled the 200 miles to Albuquerque the following Saturday. Flor hadn't planned the coincidence, but her choice of bridesmaids, all cousins, fit perfectly with her wedding day plan to cheat death if it was indeed the happy day foretold in her nightmare. Flor knew her proposal would be met with arguments, so she gathered the cousins around her in the parking lot of the first bridal shop they'd found and made her proclamation without preamble.

"I have a request," Flor's eyes went from one to the other as she amended, "no, more like a demand. I will wear the same dress as all of you." She held up her hands to quiet the gasps and interruptions. "Hear me out. You can't change my mind. I have my reasons for my decision. The color doesn't matter, but the style does. They will all be the same, so choose something flattering to us all."

"M'hija," her mother cried and eyed her daughter with suspicion. Had she gone mad?

"You can't be serious!" Concha, her madrina, gasped.

The others shook their heads, snickered, shot either daggers or bewildered looks at her. Flor knew they thought she'd gone loca. But she also knew they would do as she asked. No one moved. She figured they expected more explanation she wasn't planning on giving, so she walked into the shop without waiting for them. Bickering amongst themselves, the wedding party couldn't settle on any one style. Flor smiled inside. They all had almost the same build, so what one liked they most likely all would, too. Only Donna wanted a full-skirted ball gown.

"Not fair," the thirteen-year-old wailed. "You all have hourglass figures. I'm still a pencil."

Flor smiled and then shrugged, muttering, "Not our fault…," and the search continued.

Finally, at the third shop, Flor's mother exploded. "That's it, I've had it. You have several dresses in front of you. You have three choices, ladies." She held up three fingers and counted down, "Choose a dress—or wear your best Sunday dresses—or go naked, I don't care. We are leaving in thirty minutes with or without them. It's a two-hour trip, and I refuse to drive at night." She went out to the parking lot, and Concha followed, throwing back over her shoulder, "Decide amongst yourselves and do it fast. I'll wear whatever you select. Call me when I have to come pay."

When Flor excused herself to the ladies' room, the two older bridesmaids, who had been about to scream like over-boiling kettles, plotted their revenge against the demanding bride. Flor had always gotten her way and lorded it over all of them; it was past time she got her comeuppance. They disregarded the most lovely garments and insisted instead on the maroon dress they had all agreed was the ugliest color but the most flattering to their shapes. The material shone like a burgundy satin in the light, but it looked more like dark, congealed blood in the folds.

"This is so wrong," Donna whined. "The style is A-line. We'll look like votive candles standing in a line at the altar."

"Quit your crying." Eighteen-year-old Brenda cuffed her young cousin on the shoulder. "It'll serve Flor right. If her ridiculous demand makes us all look like white ghosts wrapped in bloody, shapeless funeral shrouds, that's what she gets."

Claire nodded. "Yeah, so we have to show her we really love the dress for this to work."

"Here she comes," Brenda warned. "Oh, girls, this maroon gown is perfect. Look at the style," and she held it in front of Claire. "See," she grinned, "it suits your shape just right."

The cascades of gushing over the hideous dress were on the verge of becoming a flood that would backfire against them. Flor was spoiled, but she wasn't stupid. She saw the rolling eyes the frowning Donna cast on their two older cousins. She caught the smirk Claire wore and the pursed lips which always indicated anger or disapproval from Brenda. They thought choosing the most horrid dress would ruin her wedding day, but they were wrong. With Brenda's pale complexion and Claire's sallow one, the shade of red would make them as ugly as the dress. Flor would do Donna's make-up herself and make sure the young girl looked better than any of them, excluding her, of course. She shrugged and yanked a dress in her size from the rack. "Bueno, fine, let's go then."

The transaction was completed, and they returned home in emotional silence. No amount of prodding, cursing, or tearful pleading could get Flor to reveal her reasoning over the next weeks, and at last, her wedding day was upon them. The gossipmongers had spread various versions of the original dress story, and the suspicions turned vicious. Some thought Flor wanted her wedding to be the talk of the town. She had always been one to draw attention to herself at every opportunity. Others ventured to suggest perhaps the young woman was not a virgin and chose this cock-eyed plan to avoid wearing white. While half the guests attended in anticipation of the reception and dance, the other half went out of curiosity.

Donna was right. From the rear, they did look like crimson candles lining the altar on one side and their counterparts, the groomsmen, black ones on the other. The packed churchgoers shuddered and the mutters about the union being cursed made their rounds from pew to pew.

"Oh, my, I feel like a guest at the devil's wedding," one guest observed.

"What a scandal," her pew mate whispered back with a nod. What a scandal, indeed.

The ceremony passed quickly, the photo session right after also. The parade of tissue flower-decked cars and guests' unadorned ones snaked with honking horns through the main streets of the town. Since no shade of red tissue could be found anywhere, the paper flowers of an incongruous pink fluttered all over the exterior of the vehicles while the interior exuded a more somber, angry atmosphere from the females dressed in the color of gore.

Passersby waved, whistled, and shouted well wishes as they passed. Flor had waited for this moment. It was even better than when she had run for Reina de las Fiestas two years before. Hours later, not winning the title of Queen of the Fourth of July Fiestas had ruined the entire holiday. But today she was queen, the blushing bride being paraded around town. She hid her face in her new husband's shoulder until he pushed her chin up and scolded her. Was she ashamed to be his bride, he asked? I need to blush, she fumed silently. She had ducked to pinch her cheeks. The onlookers wanted a blushing bride, after all. Flor knew all those people thought she would lose her virginity tonight. She smirked with the memory of that accomplishment. A thirteenth birthday present from herself to herself with her cousin Jorge's best friend, Carlos. His willing participation and experience taught her a few things she had to pretend to learn later with her spouse. Yet, this damned traditional wedding custom made her feel obscene.

Their motorcade through the town ended when they arrived at the dancehall on the outskirts. They piled out of the cars and then lined up behind the los padrinos, the best man and matron of honor, who led them into the hall in step to the music which signaled their entrance. Every couple that could fit onto the dance floor joined them in la Marcha de Boda, the Wedding March. Normally, the wedding party entered in procession, then sat at their long table and rested for a while before the traditional dance. But Flor wanted this day over as fast as possible in case it was the one from her nightmare, so she had requested they get the dance out of the way first, followed as fast as she could arrange by the remaining rituals. As the padrinos led the line of guests through the intricate patterns of the traditional wedding dance, Flor laughed and acted the part of blissful bride, but she wished she could speed up time and rest easy until her next "happiest day" arrived. By the end of the procession, the couples resembled a winding snake so closely coiled together they could barely move. The padrinos broke apart from the conga line, signaling the others to claim their partners and dance until the musicians' increased the tempo for as long as they could and ended the cancion to take a much-needed break.

Flor danced every baile after that; every cousin, uncle, family friend, and friends of friends had to dance with the novia. Even before the Money Dance, her red veil had grown heavy with the number of dollar bills the males pinned to it. Flor's greed made her relish this particular custom until she caught her reflection in a window while twirling in the arms of yet one more partner. Her satisfaction at seeing the bills on either side of her face gave way to a sudden realization. What was she doing? Surely, her plan to fool Santa Muerte from taking her on this night wouldn't work if she looked different from the other crimson-dressed bridesmaids. "Pardon me," she cried, untangled herself from the man's arms, and ran to her mother. "Get it off, get this thing off my head right now," she demanded. The shock on her mother's face made her add, "Sorry, Mamá. It's gotten heavy and is giving me a headache.

Santa Muerte had arrived at the dance and now sat in a comfortable armchair she had found unoccupied in a shadowy corner. The ancient spirit relished any opportunity to rest her old bones in cushioned contentment. "Ignorant girl," she muttered when she caught sight of Flor. How could anyone hope to fool her into taking other than the one whose turn was coming up? She had peeked into the church and seen the red-garbed bride and her entourage. Her burst of laughter alerted a few women in the last pew by the door, and she had retreated. She resumed her duties for another hour, fighting the giggles at Flor's poor attempt to escape her clutches.

The best man had borrowed a cowboy hat from a friend and was preparing to make his way around the room to collect the ransom for the bride. Three traditional rituals remained: the first called Robando la Novia, stealing the bride, was upon them.

Two of her male primos had planned to kidnap Flor, but she intercepted them first and asked them to please take Donna instead. "Take her somewhere for ice cream or something. I want to prepare a surprise for my new husband." She gave her young cousin a little push toward them and swore the three into secrecy. She had no surprise, but she did intend to take a break at the back of the sala where she had spotted some padded chairs. Turning down several requests to dance, Flor begged off, asking for a few minutes to rest her feet.

A shadowy figure sat closest to the dark corner by the chair she plopped herself into with a heavy sigh. She kicked her shoes off.

"Tired?"

Flor glanced at the speaker but could discern only black. Movement indicated someone was there, but the shadows swallowed any identifying features.

"Yes," she replied. "Honestly, I'm a bit anxious for all this to end."

The night was almost over, only two rituals remained and she was safe until the next joyful event of her life.

The laugh which emerged from the figure came at the same time a white hand reached out from beneath the darkness. The sound and the sight chilled Flor to the bone, even more so when she realized the hand was fleshless. She knew who it was in the armchair, and she also knew she had not cheated death.

"You have indeed reached an end," the saint said through her laughter. "And a beginning of a time to reflect upon your underestimation of me."

Santa Muerte gave no warning. She wrapped her strong arms around Flor and carried her out onto the dance floor like she would a child. The occasional shouts of "que viva la novia, long live the bride" gave way to the people's gasps and screams and simultaneous moves to the exits. But the guests flailed and fought for balance when they couldn't lift their feet. Glued to the floor, their dressy shoes made them captive witnesses to a sight from which the town would not recover.

Death proclaimed, "Take heed! Nothing, not even a disguise can fool me." The black hollows of her eyes scrutinized the wedding guests one by one as though reaching into their very souls for a measure of their moral worth. All present felt la Muerte's assessment upon them and experienced a taste of what awaited them. While a few saw visions of their heavenly home, the majority envisioned their endless burning in the dark fires of hell. As the saint and her charge disappeared with a burst of red flames, a sulphuric greenish fog fell to the floor of the dance hall. Freed, the guests stampeded to escape, but those who were in the presence of Death that night bore her mark the rest of their lives. A scarlet hourglass on the back of their right hands reminded them and those who encountered them to live morally in the time they had. None would forget the proverbial words of Santa Muerte echoing through the building:

"Cuando les toca, les toca—when it's your time, it's your time."

THE END

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