Encounters with Death
By: Carmen Baca

"You did not ask for this lesson on this night, I know," the skeleton–faced specter looked down on the young man lying on the ground. "But you are going to get it anyway." The black–cloaked figure cackled in self–satisfaction, the jaw cracking open and shut inches above his face. From his position, the man watched as the stranger glided away on feet that didn't quite touch the earth.

Being a smart–ass had been part of Raul's persona since he'd been old enough to learn to run when his father unbuckled his belt. The old man had made it fly from the loops of his Levi's so fast it was like watching one of the three musketeers pull out his sword. Pain caused his mouth to voice his thoughts with no filter rather than squelch them like his father intended. But as he lay on the cold pavement with frozen bits of slush digging into his back and felt the gentle flakes of snow fall on his face, Raul had a funny feeling there was something more wrong with him than having his ass kicked by someone dressed as the most dreaded saint of his family's religion. His meeting with Santa Muerte had not gone well, not at all…

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An hour earlier, a group of ghouls, ghosts, and goblins carrying flour sacks filled with Halloween treats strode down the middle of the residential street of Santa Rita. In truth, it was a large gathering of older boys, probably aged twelve to eighteen. But it numbered at least twenty, much too large for anyone to think were not up to something. Parents with small children kept to the sidewalks and approached each of the stately homes on both sides of the street, watching from short distances as their own little witches, warlocks, and wizards went up to the decorated front doors in search of sweets.

Shouts of "Trick or treat!" in unison could be heard up and down the blocks of the streets in the town center where the wealthy lived. This was prime country for the best candies to be found. Only the poor stayed on the other side of the tracks where the treats were apples or the cheapest penny candies those residents could afford. That's the way it was.

The group in the middle of the street was rowdy and rambunctious. Loud laughter preceded catcalls with false lunges at the smaller kids in their path. The faked attacks sent the little ones scrambling for the safety of the sidewalks where there were adults. Small groups of kids and the parents with their children dodged the group since no one knew if there were any ruffians in their midst who were quick to start a fight. It was the sixties, and in northern New Mexico just like in many other locations, the groups of pachucos had grown into formidable sizes. Being rough and tough individuals, they were better off avoided. Especially when they traveled in groups.

One skeleton–faced individual dressed in a long shapeless black gown and matching cloak watched from across the street. "Halloween," the specter muttered. "What better opportunity to see how the living celebrate the dead."

The stranger stepped off the curb onto the street, the clomp of the staff the only sound as if he or she walked on air. The group moved as one, and the stranger approached, which was something they never expected. They knew they were feared which to them was a form of respect, so how was this person actually making his or her way right into their path? The young men in the front passed the skeleton by. But one tall, thin youth brushed past the black–cloaked figure brusquely with such force the stranger was buffeted aside. The stranger struck out with the large staff, tripping the young man and making him fall forward into two other young men. Though none fell all the way to the pavement, they were caught off their guard and spun in their tracks to confront the skeleton–face.

"What the hell—"

"Who the fu—"

"Watch it, man! Who do you think you are?"

The entire gang had formed a circle around the young men and the stranger, who stood tall and still, unmoving and unfazed. The young man, Raul Ortega, took off his rubber mask and moved closer, chest puffed like a cock prepared for battle, nostrils flared and breathing heavy with ire. "I asked you a question." He snarled into the stranger's face.

"I am Santa Muerte," the stranger replied in a voice reminiscent of someone very old.

A few of the boys scoffed or laughed, a couple of larger ones spat outright. "Yeah, right, and I'm Superman."

"Si, and I'm the King of Sheba," another proclaimed holding his sack of dulces high like a scepter.

"Sure, you are," Raul sneered, crossing his arms over his chest and spreading his legs in a confrontational stance. "So, Doña Sebastiana," he added, using the formal name of the saint everyone feared. "Should I be scared?" When some of his companions began their catcalling and false fearful crying, he held up a hand, and they ceased as though his motion was a verbal command.

"A todos les llega su momento de gloria," the specter said with a quiet certainty. "To everyone comes his moment of glory. Your moment has arrived." Santa Muerte raised the arm holding the staff and in a fluid movement struck Raul's head. He fell in a heap on the pavement, and the group found themselves frozen like statues right where they were. Unable to move, incapable of speech, they could only watch as Santa Muerte faced them and locked eyes with the boy who had proclaimed himself royalty. With quiet authority, the saint said, "A rey muerto, rey puesto," meaning a dead king is replaced by another. "¿Entiendes?"

The young man felt the threat in Santa Muerte's voice like a palpable blow, found his voice, and said, "I understand."

That was when the saint leaned down and spoke to Raul and left him and the entire gang standing in the middle of the street in a circle which had concealed the strange event from the rest of the passersby and trick–or–treaters. As though her leaving brought them to life, they moved to pick their friend up from the ground and took off down the block to their homes across the tracks.

Santa Muerte strolled along as snow fell lightly and observed the community with the patience gleaned from centuries of people–watching. Having kept her eye on humanity since her inception, the old woman knew her evening had just begun, and there was more to be done on this night of festivity. She came upon them in an alley behind the church no less.

"Give it here!" a gruff voice demanded. The voice belonged to a large youth grabbing at the flour sack of a boy half his size.

"No! Leave me alone," the little boy cried. "The dulces are mine!" He struggled to keep his grip on his bag as the larger boy struck him with a fist in the gut. It was a good thing the night was cold, and the boy wore a heavy jacket and probably layers beneath because the blow didn't seem to faze him as much as the other boy hoped.

Santa Muerte raised her staff, and both boys froze in the midst of the fight. She approached with silent steps and tapped the little boy on the back, releasing him from her hold. He yanked the flour sack from the grip of the other boy and looked up at her. Her cloak was over–sized and protruded over her face, so none who encountered her that night actually glimpsed more than a portion of the skeleton–face they all presumed was a rubber mask.

"Go home," she whispered.

"Th—thank you," he replied and ran.

The older boy stood before her, his eyes moving frantically from her to both entrances of the alley in hopes of being saved. She touched him with her staff, and he was freed. But his feet remained locked where they were, and as she watched, the front of his trousers turned dark with liquid.

She cackled a bit before saying, "Not so brave after all, are you?" She blew into his face, the putrid, rotting odor of the sepulcher surrounding his head like an aura. "Why were you stealing that niño's candies?"

"Oh, pl—please, don't hurt me, Señora Muerte."

If the ancient saint had had any eyelids, she'd have blinked or opened her eyes wide that the boy recognized her and actually acknowledged her. She felt almost human in the pride that swept over her. "Well, well," she croaked. "While I am pleased you know who I am, I am still awaiting your reply to my inquiry."

He swallowed and the tears began to flow as he spoke. "I—I wanted the candy for my little hermanita. My little sister is bed–ridden, and Mamá says she will be gone soon. I was afraid she would die before I could get dulces on my own, and I saw the little boy, and—and…"

"You did not need to steal, my son," she reproved him quietly. And you do not need to fear death—me—if you live a good, moral life. Remember que quien teme la muerte no goza la vida. He who fears death does not enjoy life. You must live a good life to experience a good death, and committing any kind of sin will not make that happen. ¿Entiendes?"

"I understand," the boy sniveled.

She pulled a full paper sack of candy from her cloak and sent him on his way. Following from a short distance, she watched him enter his home, closed her eyes, and visualized him entering his sister's room, giving her the candy. She saw the chiquita's eyes open wide with happiness and smiled as the girl savored the small chocolate mint she accepted from her brother's fingers like a communion wafer. Santa Muerte could see the disease slowly eating its way through the child's organs, and she called upon the Almighty to ask for His intervention. As sure as she was about life and death, she saw in her mind's eye the chocolate melting down the little girl's throat, vaporizing the disease in every part of her body as she swallowed the final bit of dark liquid.

Doña Sebastiana smiled to herself and sent her prayer of gratitude to the one entity more powerful than she. This night was not a total waste of her time. She continued down the street, turning her white–boned face to the falling snow and wishing she had a tongue she could stick out to catch the clean flakes. She gave a deep sigh and turned her head slightly to the right from where she thought she heard a whimper. She walked toward the sound and heard the rustling of clothes in a vehicle parked on the street.

"I said no, Chuck," came a girl's voice. The windows were fogged from the inside, and Santa Muerte gave a short chuckle as she smiled inside. She knew what activity happened in automobiles to fog windows, but the word "no" told her something would be going very wrong shortly.

"C'mon, babe," a youthful male voice answered. "You can't leave me like this."

"Yes—yes, I can." The girl protested. "You promised we could stop when I said no. I'm saying no."

The sound of flesh hitting flesh told Santa Muerte she was in time to stop something that would change the life of the couple.

"You hit me," the girl whimpered. Then the sound of another slap. "You don't get to hit me!" Her voice was assertive then, and the saint knew the girl had hit him back.

She knew when the man's fist closed beside the girl's face that no was not going to be an answer he would accept. She raised her staff, and he found himself unable to move though he didn't know why. She opened the passenger door. "Get out, young lady."

The girl was stunned at her reprieve and got out of the car. "Who—who are you?" She shoved her arms into the sleeves of her coat and backed away.

"I am your savior tonight," Santa Muerte rasped. "Next time you are alone with a man you had better remember what almost occurred on this night and do not allow the heat of passion to lead you astray."

The girl was appalled by the vision that came into her mind of what she would have endured had she stayed in the car with the young man, and she ran down the street and around a corner out of sight. Santa Muerte loosened her grip on the man enough that he was able to exit the vehicle and stand before her. He wore no jacket, and his shirt was open, exposing his bare chest. His unbuckled belt over his unzipped jeans gave proof of his intentions with the girl. His body shook from cold, fear, most likely both, as he stared into the black hollows beneath the top of the saint's hooded cloak.

"I am sorry…"

"You are not," she interrupted. She saw his memories and the dozen other young women he had assaulted with no consequences. She watched the way he had intimidated each one and made them believe their reputations would pay the price of their promiscuity; after all, he was just sowing his oats with willing partners. They would be shamed by the community and marred for future marriages, and he would be free to prey on more innocent women as he desired. Santa Muerte growled, "Sorry you were interrupted, yes; sorry for your actions, no. You are not." She gave him a small nudge with her staff and began walking away. "You will be though. Quien mal anda mal acaba; whoever walks with malicious intent comes to a bad end."

Santa Muerte walked away and found a park on the next block. She sat on a bench under the shelter of the gazebo in the center. Watched the snow as the flakes got larger and began covering the earth in white—the color of innocence, the tint of purity, the symbol of peace. Her mind's eye showed her the boastful boy from earlier in the evening who found himself dreaming of the eternal flames of hell where she would send him if he did not change his ways. She saw him wake and kneel at his bed to pray the rest of the night for forgiveness and smiled that she had saved yet one more soul on her night's adventure.

She saw the second boy, the would–be thief, as he sat reading a book to his little sister. Neither knew just yet how their lives had changed this night and that they had plenty more to enjoy together because of his encounter with Death and his sincere change of heart. She saw the young woman who lay in her bed and wrote in her diary of her close call with being a victim, and the saint knew she would value herself more preciously as she grew into adulthood. Then she saw the would–be rapist and gave a nod of satisfaction that his member had shriveled to the size of a large caterpillar and would never rise again. There was hope for him yet, hope that he would indeed go to a better afterlife in the end because of the night he met Death face to face.

She rested on that bench as the snow grew to two feet and sighed with satisfaction that this day through the next two days would allow her to roam the earth in search of more souls to save. The towns and cities with names inscribed on little slivers of papers waited in a huge copper pot in her little kitchen. She chose them at random right before any occasion which allowed her to walk among the living. Holidays, feasts, parties where humans dressed in costumes allowed her to masquerade as one of them and influence those who crossed her path to live scrupulously, moralistically. She much preferred delivering humans to the afterlife in heaven rather than in hell, and thus felt her evening's work had been worth her coming to Santa Rita. Who knew where she would go tomorrow.

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