Thursday, August 27, 2009
When I was a kid, Phoenix had not expanded to the size it is today; my house was near the edge of town. The fields that stretched to the West and South of us were owned by farmers who grew cotton, and they irrigated their fields the same way the ancient Hohokam Indians did a thousand years ago, with a series of canals. Back then, most kids who lived in my area were Anglo, but some were Mexican American, and the Anglo kids who hung out with Latino kids heard some strange stories about a monster, the ghost of a woman who drowned children in canals. The Anglo kids mangled the Spanish name of this creature, they called her Mano Loco. Later I realized her name was probably La Llorona.
The story I heard was that Mano Loco liked to drown children, she was sort of a female boogeyman. If you wandered near the canals at night, she might come after you. The kids who talked about her did so with such dread, you couldn’t help wondering if it was all true.
And then my brother David saw her.
He was about twelve at the time. This was during the summer, and David declared he couldn’t stand to travel around with us on vacation any longer, he had stuff he wanted to do at home. My mother decided to give him the benefit of the doubt (partly because he was such poor company on those trips), so she asked an adult friend to look in on him regularly and gave him a food allowance. David actually took care of himself just fine, he only had one scare the whole time. This was the night in July when he and his friend Duane were setting off fireworks in the back yard.
These were small fireworks, not the kind that could blow your arm off, and they were both experienced at handling them. It was getting dark when they started, and David actually started to feel a little uneasy as the light died. We had an above-ground swimming pool, and by that time of year we always lost our battle to keep it clean. It had turned into a murky swamp, and David was beginning to wonder if he should just drain it and take it down. That was a lot of work, and he kept putting it off, so now it was horrible and even kind of scary at night. David didn’t want to be outside with that pool when it was dark.
But he wanted to set off a few more fireworks, and the arcadia door was just twenty steps away. Duane said he was ready to go in, and David told him he’d be right there, he just had a couple more he wanted to light. So Duane slid the glass door shut and David lit the last fireworks, thinking I'm outta here, because he was beginning to feel like something was watching him from the pool. In fact, as he turned to go in, he thought he saw a shadow there, like something might be hovering over the water.
David hurried to the arcadia door. Duane stood on the other side, looking at him through the glass, grinning. David tried to open the door, and that’s when he realized Duane had locked it. David wrenched at the door, pounded on it, called to be let in. Duane just laughed. And then he looked over David’s shoulder. All the humor drained out of his face, along with most of the color. David screamed for him to open the door, but Duane turned and ran, leaving David locked outside with something just behind him.
We had a locked gate at the side of the house. David broke the sound barrier getting to it. He doesn’t remember climbing it, he thinks he may have actually jumped over it. It was six feet high. He was moving so fast, he actually bumped into Duane in the driveway, even though Duane had a head start. The two of them ran across the street and crouched under a street light, watching the back gate.
Her head topped the gate, and she stared at them. "Mano Loco," choked Duane. (Yes, he actually choked it, just like in a comic book.) She looked like a dead woman, like someone who spent all her time rotting underwater. She pinned them in her glare for several seconds, and then she sank out of sight again.
They ran all the way to Duane’s house. It was two miles away, and they made it in record time. They spent the rest of the night there, and David stayed at Duane’s for every night afterward, until we came home again. The pool was drained shortly after that, and we never put it up again.
Years passed, and the cotton fields were sold to developers. Phoenix grew far to the West and the South, the canals were filled in. As the Hispanic community has grown here, Anglos have learned to pronounce more Spanish words, including the names of monsters like la Llorona. Some legends say she hangs around under trees, others repeat the legends about canals or other bodies of water. But no matter where she hangs out, she always kills children. That part of the story never changes. We don’t have many canals she can haunt anymore, but our summers get extremely hot, and swimming pools have proliferated here.
My brother and I are too old to see Mano Loco now, but children drown in Phoenix all the time, and many of these drownings seem suspicious to me. Plenty of other cities in the U.S. have just as many, if not more, swimming pools. Why do we have more children drowning than they do?
Maybe it’s bad luck. Maybe it’s inattention.
Maybe it’s an old monster. Maybe the Hohokam had a name for her, too. And if our civilization eventually dies out, maybe she’ll still be here, watching for the next wave of settlers, waiting for their children to wander near the canals.
I wonder what they’ll call her then.