English translation by Tanya Huntington
For years, my family used to celebrate Christmas at a villa in Desierto de los Leones. Built on top of a cliff in the early 1970s, it was three stories tall: on the top floor were found the bedrooms of my uncles, aunts and three cousins; in the middle, the living room, dining room, breakfast nook and kitchen; and down below, a blend of recreational and work spaces: a semi-circular area for gathering around the fireplace, a bar with a sink, and a study with green carpet and wood paneling where my uncle, who was an accountant, would retreat to pore over invoices. Glass sliding doors led to the back yard, which offered a pleasant view of the valley. Down a spiral staircase was the final and strangest part of the architectural layout: a triangle of leftover property, bordered by a chain link fence and filled with overgrown grass that would forever engulf any ball that landed there.
I spent long stretches of my childhood and adolescence in that house, and in time it came to form part of my personal mythology, filling my adult dreams with images as enigmatic as they were disturbing. Whenever we had summer or Christmas vacations, I would travel from Guadalajara to Mexico City and settle into the guest room, then spend the rest of the time playing with my cousins: soccer, Dungeons & Dragons on the Playstation, hide and seek, whatever we felt like. We also listened to music. I can still recall with a blend of nostalgia and shame how we’d pass around the album cover from Grease and take turns kissing Olivia Newton-John’s face. But best of all was supper time. The two live-in maids would prepare tasty treats for us: sopes, gorditas, or quesadillas accompanied by salsa made fresh with a mortar and pestle. Back in Guadalajara, I had to make my own supper, so these delicacies made me feel like a hotel guest. Another special thing about the villa was the spiral service stairway that led from the roof all the way down to the backyard. We would use it as if it were a secret passageway in the games we invented.
Years later, as I was drinking beer and reminiscing in downtown Tlalpan cantina with my cousin Claudio, he told me a few things I didn’t know about the villa in Desierto de los Leones and the lot it was built on. After the Revolution, the cliff was a seedy area where whorehouses and casinos proliferated for years, frequented by thieves, highway robbers and assassins. He told me that in that neck of the woods, there had been plenty of coursing blood, pain and death.
Plunking his bottle down on the table, he added in a disturbingly normal voice, “And that’s why there were so many Subhumans and Vapors in the house.”
His confession knocked me off balance. I have never seen anything not of this world, but I know, as the famous line from Hamlet goes, that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Besides, I write horror stories for a living. It’s my job to scare other people. And I was just now finding out that the villa where I used to stay as a boy was haunted.
As usual, when something major happens, I’m the last to know.
It’s no coincidence I’m remembering all of this now. It’s December 24th, and I’m packing my bags to return one last time to the villa in Desierto de los Leones. The property has been sold. Soon, it will be demolished and replaced by a huge tower of condominiums. My aunt and uncle, who have lived in Cuernavaca for a long time now, summoned a family gathering to celebrate Christmas like we used to in the old days. A farewell party of sorts. I do the math and realize that it has been over a decade since I last set foot in the villa, which gives me mixed feelings. It will be the first and only time I’ve gone back since I found out it was haunted. I feel both excited and scared. But it’s not the ghosts I’m afraid of. The residence in Desierto de los Leones contains something even more disturbing: happy memories. I’m 50 years old, with two divorces under my belt and a literary career that hasn’t quite taken off. I don’t know how it will make me feel to enter that great wooden gate one last time. Probably as if I were just another ghost, like all the rest.
I’m scared I won’t want to leave.
Gazing into the bathroom mirror as I groom my beard, my reflection offers a scathing notion: maybe you never left, Bernardo.
I’m always the last in line because I’m the youngest of seven siblings. The last one to graduate, to get married, to have kids. As a child, I would watch my brothers play soccer in the street from my bedroom window. I attended their weddings as a page and was served soda at the receptions while I watched the other guests get drunk. I grew up suffering from a time-space dislocation of sorts: all the best things always happened to other people, in other places. That’s why I considered the villa at Desierto de los Leones, where my cousins were the same age as me, my home away from home. My parents were aware of the problem and let me stay for weeks on end. They felt guilty about having me so many years after their next-to-last child. I was what they called in those days a pilón, or an extra: one last unplanned pregnancy. My siblings changed my diapers and grounded me when I misbehaved; I had plenty of parents, but no playmates.
I grew up like a ghost under my own roof.
Now it’s time to tell the story of the incident in the caverns.
Below the cliff at the villa in Desierto de los Leones was a small valley with a creek running through it. Rising up at the end of this valley was a hill, where a handful of houses lined a single street. To one side of this incipient urban sprawl were three caverns: tunnels left behind from an abandoned sand mine. We had a clear view of them from the balcony of the television den. My cousins and I liked to spend hours gazing out at them, imagining what we might find inside.
One morning in early December, after the winter cold had started to seep in, Claudio launched a challenge:
“We’re going to the caves. Don’t be pussies!”
In addition to my cousins, a couple of friends of his were there. They all reacted enthusiastically. I, on the other hand, declined. I was scared, and moreover, I felt adventures were supposed to take place inside the imagination. I believed it then, and still I believe it today. I made up an excuse about feeling sick to my stomach and stayed home. The group left just after the big midday meal. I watched them from the balcony; saw how they climbed over the triangular fence into the second backyard, then disappeared among the trees. Abandoned, there was nothing left to do but watch a game show. As it grew dark, I regretted not having tagged along. I was a coward.
My cousins and their friends returned four hours later, just in time for supper. Their clothes and faces were splattered with mud. They were as exhausted as they were hungry. It had truly been an adventure getting there, they told me, devouring one sope after another. Their story described in detail the obstacles they had confronted: the creek that suddenly grew wide, the wild dogs that had chased them in the valley, the hill’s rocky terrain. In comparison, the caverns had turned out to be a disappointment. All they found were some rusty tools and rotten ropes, the smelly mattress of a homeless guy. They hadn’t stayed long, because the sun was starting to set.
After supper, the friends went home and my cousins turned on the Playstation. Later on, when I was about to fall asleep, Claudio entered the guest room, sat on my side of the bed, and told me something had happened to him in the caves.
“Swear you won’t tell a soul,” he demanded.
“I swear,” I replied, intrigued.
He told me he was the one who had gone farthest in their exploration of the caverns. He discovered that they were all connected. He wasn’t carrying a flashlight: he used a cigarette lighter to illuminate his path, but it burned his fingers and he had to let it go out every time it heated up. As a result, he became disoriented and got lost for several minutes, moving from one tunnel to the next, unable to find the way out. At some point, he saw a figure coming towards him and thought it was one of his companions. When he got close enough, he saw something that surprised him: it was me.
“I thought you had changed your mind and caught up with us after all,” Claudio said.
Then, in the faint glow of the lighter, my cousin realized something else.
“It was you,” he added. “But older: you had a beard.”
A draft blew out the lighter flame. When he lit it again, there was nothing there.
My cousin managed to get out of the caves, but didn’t tell anyone about the incident.
“What do you think it might have been?” I asked him, my voice quavering.
Claudio stood up, headed for the door of my room, and remained there on the threshold, pensive. Before he left, he said:
“There are only two possibilities: either I’m crazy, or I saw your double.”
Both were disconcerting. That night, I slept with the light on.
In ancient times, they used to describe haunted houses in a special way. In a parable from the book of Leviticus, the Bible describes a law suggesting houses could be infected, not unlike people’s skin or their clothing. It was called leprosy on walls. Once this happened, the priest would enter the home and examine the stains that had appeared. “He is to examine the mold on the walls, and if it has greenish or reddish depressions that appear to be deeper than the surface of the wall,” according to verses 37 to 38 of Book 14, ” the priest shall go out the doorway of the house and close it up for seven days.” An exorcism that was complemented with a ritual: two birds were carried to the house; one of them was sacrificed and its blood, spattered on the affected walls. Then the living bird was released outside the city, in the countryside. “In this way he will make atonement for the house, and it will be clean.” A modern interpretation might relate those stains to moisture or mold, however, I couldn’t help but find it interesting that a haunted house was considered to be a living thing, one that could suffer from illness.
An exorcism had been performed at the villa at Desierto de los Leones. That afternoon in the Tlalpan cantina, Claudio told me he had brought in a medium to perform a cleansing. The woman lit copal incense and votive candles. Prayers were recited. She was the one who told them that there were Subhumans and Vapors; terms that in esoteric language are used to refer to demons and ghosts. What had brought on the medium’s visit? Strange things had started to happen at the villa: jars flew into the air and crashed on the floor, objects were lost and never found, echoes of conversations were heard. They grew louder at daybreak. And worse yet, a presence lurked in a corner of the breakfast nook, where it was not unusual to feel inexplicably cold, while glimpsing a silhouette out of the corner of one’s eye. The maids described it as an old man wearing a hat.
After the cleansing, the Subhumans disappeared. But the Vapor remained, until one night, Claudio decided to confront it.
The villa at Desierto de los Leones appears constantly in my dreams. In them, the inside of the residence is much larger than it actually is, and different time periods tend to blend together: I see myself in shorts, playing ball, or sipping wine with one of my ex-wives. In the most commonly recurring dream, I am an adult. Alone, I descend the spiral staircase that leads downstairs to the service room, where a door opens out onto the backyard. But instead of the room where the maids sleep, there is a dark, vast corridor: a tunnel that runs from one end of the house to the other. I explore that passage, filled only with dense blackness and a moisture that emanates from the walls. I know I am in the villa and at the same time, someplace else. It is a threshold or a portal —a womb, perhaps. As I walk, a growing sensation of anxiety overpowers me. The tunnel seems endless, and my unrest is derived from an absolute certainty: turning back is not an option. I must move on. On the other side there is something, someplace I have to go, where a presence awaits me. The most unsettling part is that I can never get all the way there. I always awake with the uncomfortable sensation that a part of me has been left behind in that dream, and that I won’t get it back until an understanding—one that for the time being, has been denied me—is revealed.
My cousin Claudio is a musician. After his parents moved in Cuernavaca, he transformed the ground floor office into a recording studio. He makes a living writing jingles. Back in the day, he used to play with his rock band at a bar several nights a week. When he got home, he would go to his studio and work for a few hours; it helped him control the adrenaline, reconcile sleep. One night just before dawn, while he was composing a chorus about gastritis medication, he took a break and went upstairs to the kitchen for a snack. While passing through the breakfast nook, he felt the presence of the Vapor: the hair on the back of his neck stood up and a sudden, sticky coldness enveloped him, as if he had put on a damp sweater. He remembered the medium’s advice, and decided to confront it. YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE, he shouted. GET OUT, and he recited the prayer the medium had taught him. After a tense silence, he decided to return to the studio.
A few minutes later, he started to hear a strange noise. At first, he thought it was a kind of interference, a sound that had filtered into his headphones. But after he removed them, he realized that the noise continued. He looked around and discovered something that made his jaw drop: a cascade of water was falling from the studio ceiling and rolling down one of the walls. Alarmed, he ran to the stairs only to find more water; he had to splash his way up to the next floor. The breakfast nook had flooded. The water came above his ankles. Claudio was overwhelmed by a situation that was as unexpected as it was urgent. After a few moments of paralysis, he reacted and sought out the source of the trouble. He found it in the kitchen: the plumbing under the sink was leaking. He located the valve and turned it off. He had to awaken his siblings to help him bail out the standing water. Dawn came upon them as they finished mopping the floor dry.
“Nothing like that had ever happened before,” Claudio told me at the bar in Tlalpan. “Not so much as a drip.”
A major coincidence: right after confronting the Vapor came the only flood the villa had ever experienced during its forty years of existence. But Claudio and I knew nothing happens by chance.
“What happened to the ghost?” I asked.
My cousin took a long swig from his bottle beer.
“We never felt it again,” he said. “After that night, it disappeared.”
Dawn. Dinner is almost over. The menu, a tribute to all the family Christmases we had ever celebrated: turkey, codfish, ham, romeritos, apple salad, plenty of wine. I hear the conversation, the laughter that emanates from the dining room, as I descend, wavering—the aftereffects of alcohol—the stairs that lead to the ground floor of the villa. I took the time to assess my surroundings before heading down. The parquet on the floor is swollen, and several sections have come loose. The walls are crumbling and covered with moisture stains. The carpets are dirty and worn. I find the deterioration of the villa unbearable. It looks more like the place that appears in my dreams than the one from my childhood memories.
If these were Biblical times, the house would be considered infested by the local priests. That’s how I saw it: a leprosy of the past.
Some household items remained: lamps, bookshelves, tables. My uncle and aunt were giving them away to interested relatives over dinner. They have a month to clear out what’s left before the heavy machinery arrives and the demolition process begins. Then, bulldozers and wrecking balls will pulverize the place that houses my family’s memories. It occurs to me that not everything that has taken place inside the villa can be destroyed: it will be liberated, like the contents of Pandora’s box.
I open the sliding doors that lead into the backyard overlooking the cliff. The icy wind strikes my face, reanimating me. I corroborate what I already knew: the valley has disappeared, making way for a super highway of concrete that runs beneath the villa and connects the second tier of the beltway to Santa Fe. They named it the Avenue of the Poets. The hill is still there on the other side, but with many more buildings and streets.
I have always been the last one to arrive. This is a curse when things are good, but it can be a blessing when they’re bad. I don’t know what’s in store for me this time. I walk out into the yard and head for the stairs that descend to the triangle of overgrown weeds, on the farthest end of the property. I hesitate on the first step. I can feel the presence of the villa at Desierto de los Leones behind me, a dying entity that now seems to loom over me, urging me onward. I won’t turn back. Just like in my dream, I know I have to move on.
I scan the horizon. The caves with their black, gaping holes are still out there on the hillside, waiting for the moment to swallow me whole.