It was thrilling to leave the big city behind to visit the rustic province, even if only on vacations. We'd exit the northernmost part of Mexico City to reach our first destination within the state of Guanajuato. This agricultural small town of cobbled, narrow streets and dim lampposts that seemed to be stuck in time was the entrance hall to the incredible landscape from which we wouldn't come back for the next 15 days. It was a mandatory stop though since it was the place where my father had been raised, and in whose cathedral is now interred along with his entire generation. But at the time everyone was well and alive and my uncle, who resided there, joined our excursion of the old hacienda of which he was an administrator.
After a brief stay, dry-mouthed due to dusty air but with surplus joy and emotion we'd start on the rustic path that´d take us away from everyday life and into an utterly mysterious and fantastic one. Following the back road that seemed endless, we got to see tiny rustic villages along the byway lined up with rocky fences and tall organ pipe cacti. They looked uninhabited for no human life could be seen anywhere although we knew they were no ghost towns. And only after several hours of traveling the bumpy ride and now sweaty and covered with dust, we'd finally arrive on the sandy straightaway avenue where the imposing hacienda loomed up ahead.
Awed and goose-bumped, we'd solemnly enter this immense farmhouse usually as deserted and quiet as a Jesuit convent looming magnificently at the center of an arid valley at the foot of the mountain range. Long aisles of red tile under ample arches of quarry rock encircled the stony patio from where it could be seen, abandoned and in decay, the small church still standing. At the front, a great wooden gate led to the cool and dark foyer by the guard's post, aligned with the frontal facade, site of the ample and gloomy quarters of the masters, banned to everyone.
Artistic and vaunted French doors led to that antique enclosure filled with patinated furniture and deep, pent-up smell due to heavy velvet curtains that made for severe isolation along with large windows always shut. The extra-high and thick white walls of adobe populated by inextricable religious art held the wooden roof beams that, if already dark in day time, at night the dim light from candles and oil lamps only conferred them a look downright macabre. In the evening you got to be fearless if you were to traverse the long corridors lit only by starlight or a flickering candle that went out at the worst moment.
Granted, during the day we were daring and valiant horseback explorers with no limits to do mischief throughout the village starting from the main square down to the plan, site of sown fields, and pastureland for cattle. Either galloping the hills or wading the river we knew had choices galore in the outdoors. Yet indoors, the hacienda wouldn't stop yielding interesting surprises; the endless rooms and warehouses had always something new in-store like an antique 78 rpm phonograph here, or a pair of authentic silver spurs there, although some rooms were always mysteriously locked perhaps hiding treasures that we could only imagine.
At nighttime it was a different story; no one dared to visit the dark corners of that immense enclosure and much less go out to the village. There was something both mystifying and terrifying in all that. So much that even the bravest ones grew mute and bewildered when supernatural activity was suspected, which happened more often than not. We stuck together at every one of the three kitchens illuminated by kerosene lamps and even a trip to the restroom required always company on the lookout for a nagual, La Llorona, or some demon stalking from the shadows.
Adjacent to the main patio and boasting a heavy wooden gate, the corrals were colossal barns, granaries, and haylofts walled with roughly chiseled rock perhaps bigger than the living quarters and infinitely more lugubrious and unsettling. Beyond the farthest wall at the dead-end ran a river of big slabs and a handsome waterfall that functioned as the orchard's border. During the day the farmyard and corrals saw great ruckus of farmhands and cattle with the hustle and bustle typical of the trade. But at night the livestock slept in absolute silence, and the place was left so lone and dark that even the weakest noise could be heard. No one dared to prowl at that hour as darkness fell so majestic and imperious that it was only comparable to a rigid black mantle dictating a different reality.
That, we were to attest pretty soon: close to midnight after dinner at the bottom kitchen in which Angelita sat us, she decided, perhaps to lower our level of energy or maybe as punishment for being so naughty, to put us on a test. Nate, my eldest brother, and I were commissioned to shut the main gate at the extreme opposite of the patios. It was like going to the cemetery to exhume a corpse! We were to traverse the monastic like, dimly lit aisles across myriad menacing shadows to the frontal section of the hacienda. Nonetheless, even though our hearts were beating outside our chests as we linked our arms out of fear, we valiantly resolved to start our expedition still looking forward to engaging in an exciting adventure as colophon to a day plethoric with mischievous action. Never we imagined as to what extent!
Not without fear, we secured the gate, and instead of heading back to the kitchen as expected, drunk with adrenaline went for a detour to the corrals perhaps just to challenge the rule that banned us from there. Oblivious to the surprise awaiting us at almost midnight, headed for the asoleadero door, an immense roofless room where big mounds of grain and chili peppers were laid to dry. Nate, the most intrepid and irreverent of the trio proceeded to open the heavy door and when he did, the time came to a stop: an entity made of fire stood motionless under the door header one meter across from us! It was tall, maybe 8 feet by 5 wide and the fire of its body sounded like if being fanned by gusts of wind although not even a weak breeze blew at the time.
Petrified, open-mouthed, and wild-eyed we stood on our places unable to move in disbelief. What seemed an eternity had lasted only five seconds. The entity wouldn´t move or attack us; it just stood there: a shapeless form the size of a dresser made of cool fire staring at us with unblinking big eyes looking surprised and curious, perhaps amused by the innocence and stupidity of those kids whose blind bravery and indiscipline had gotten them in such trouble. Although it appeared to be upset for having been caught unaware by some curious brats, nevertheless it reassumed quickly its role of “monster” to blurt out with a masculine, stentorian and cavernous voice – what are you doing here? – Which broke the hypnotic trance and brought us back to reality.
We neither answered nor waited for another question. Took off terrified tripping down the uneven steps falling to the tile floor and getting up instantly to keep running oblivious to pain, unable to speak or scream or cry; focused only in keeping our mad race aiming to hit the lit kitchen as if it were the harbor that´ll spare us from a diabolical storm. The color of paper without turning our heads to peek, sick with the terror we finally made our quarters. Angelita, who seemed to know what had just taken place didn´t let us speak; she ordered to keep quiet and led us to bed without uttering a word.
And it was like that for the next 60 years; not a word ever mentioned and I still don´t know why. It all was so incredible and absurd that we probably wanted to spare ourselves from looking like crazy or abnormal if we ever mentioned the topic. Until the day came when I asked my brother if what I recounted here had actually happened or if it was just a dream; I narrated to him the whole story and he just stared at me quietly until I finished talking. He didn´t hesitate in reassuring me that everything had happened exactly the way I had described it.
In retrospect, I no longer think it was a demon since it didn´t chase us down or harmed us in any way; it´s safer to assume it was a nagual because of the extended practice of sorcery all around Mexico. The truth is that we may never know what it was and why it was lurking in the dark behind a door that wasn´t supposed to be opened.