Tales From Santa Lucía

Santa Lucía is a village nestled in the green hills of Honduras’s interior highlands. Its church was built in 1572 and sits more than 3800 feet above sea level. Though the village is only seven miles outside Tegucigalpa, it’s a bumpy 30-minute bus ride along a winding mountain road from the town’s lagoon to Cerro Brujo on the outskirts of the capital city.

On Sunday the majority of the people in Santa Lucía are tourists, people looking to get away from the noise and heat and mayhem of the capital. Women and their daughters sell all kinds of handmade trinkets on the paseo that hugs one side of the murky lagoon where little kids chase the ugliest black ducks you’ve ever seen. The other streets are narrow and made of such uneven cobblestone that you’re not simply walking on them but either climbing them toward the church or descending on one toward the lagoon. Sunlight baths the church at the top of the hill and its ancient bell groans as worshippers pour out onto the front steps. Homes range from tiny shacks to simple two-story houses. At the alcaldía a 15-year-old girl wearing a white poofy dress is having her picture taken. She feels like a princess. Come nightfall the town is abandoned again, and wild sounds from the forest roll over everything like a fog.

There used to be silver in these hills, which is what lured the Spaniards away from the coast and into Honduras’s heart. Threatened with sticks that shot fire, the natives were forced to show the pale ghosts from beyond the ocean where the shiny metal could be found. Once the newcomers reached a spot, they dug up the earth until they hit a vein. Then they bled the mountain. The people of Spain would call the 1500s the “Siglo de Oro,” but for Santa Lucía it was the golden age of silver.

By the mid-20th century, however, the town had long since been in decline, as nearly all of the mines had dried up and people began moving to the capital in search of work and modern comforts. Electric light was still non-existent in the village, as was indoor plumbing, refrigeration and everything else we take for granted nowadays. It was around this time, during the regime of General Tiburcio Carías Andino, that my grandma was born — one of eight children, and the youngest daughter of the town’s mayor.

A few years ago, I asked my grandma to tell me about the village she, my mother and my aunts left behind. This is what she said:

“When my dad was young, his dad used to send him walking all the way to El Chimbo, which is on the way to Tegucigalpa, to bring stuff they needed from the capital. Papi was very strong and very brave and carried a pistol on his belt in case he encountered a snake or a jaguar. There were a bunch of those in the woods in those times. There was an old dead tree near the laguna that they said was haunted, and once during a thunderstorm the tree was struck by lightning and when the people went to go look at it there was a huge dead snake with horns on its head.

“One day when Papi was walking back from El Chimbo a hog attacked him. He managed to grab his pistol and give it a few shots before it could bite him. As soon it dropped, Papi went flying home. He didn’t even turn to see what it was, if it was dead, or what. When he got home he told his dad what had happened and his dad, wanting the meat, told Papi to show him where the hog was. My dad took him to where he’d shot the hog, but when they got there they found the body of an old lady. She had bullet holes.

“A lot of ugly things like that happened in Santa Lucía. There used to be a witch in the town who turned into an owl and carried messages to Nicaragua during the war. I didn’t believe it until I saw her one night change in the middle of street and fly away. That’s why you can’t call people crazy who tell you things that are unbelievable, because there are a lot of things in this world that we will never understand.

“Also there was a time in the village before I was born when nothing grew and the people went hungry. The father told everybody it was because they weren’t praying enough and giving to the church. So the people brought their most valuable belongings and laid it at the feet of the Virgen de Suyapa. But then all of the fish in the laguna came up dead, and the people panicked because they had been eating the fish for food and now they had nothing to eat. A man who was the teacher at the school said that all of the bad things happening was proof there was no god, and after a while people stopped going to church.

“Then one day the people looked up and saw a tall dark man standing in front of the church. He was so tall he had to bend all the way down to enter the door of the church. The people were shaking with fear but they wanted to know who the man was and what he was doing, so they ran up to the church to see. When they entered the church there wasn’t anybody, but when they looked at the virgen, blood was coming out of her eyes.

“And that’s not even the scariest thing that had happened in Santa Lucía. The scariest happened to my abuelo.

“My abuelo worked in the mine but when there wasn’t any more silver the owner fired him. My abuelo didn’t know what to do because my abuela already was pregnant with Papi and he didn’t know how we was going to pay for the terreno and buy food for his family. He was real sad until one night he awoke to something pulling on his toe.

“When he opened his eyes he saw a man wearing a white suit and one of those gold watches with a chain. The man pointed to the fireplace and said ‘There.’ My abuelo just stayed there looking, not knowing what to do or what the man was talking about. ‘If you want what’s there,’ the man said and then pointed to my abuela’s stomach, ‘you have to give me what’s there.’ By now my abuelo was trembling, but he nodded his head because he was desperate and didn’t know what to do. ‘Dig at midnight,’ the man said, ‘but don’t let anyone else see you, and don’t say nothing to nobody.’

“So the next night my abuelo ate dinner very quietly, staring at the fireplace and imagining what could be buried there. He went to bed with my abuela but stayed awake waiting for the time to come to start digging. At midnight he got out of the bed very carefully so that my abuela wouldn’t wake up and went over to the fireplace very slowly. He used a big knife and a spatula to dig up the dirt.

“After a little while he heard a sound as if he had hit something. There was a small chest buried there. My abuelo became very excited because he had heard stories of people finding silver left by miners who buried it so that they could keep it all and not give all of it to the man who owned the mine. Well, a lot of times they died without telling anybody where it was buried. Thinking he had found buried silver, my abuelo started trying to get the chest open.

“But he hadn’t noticed that my abuela was awake and was watching him from the bed. When my abuelo found the chest, my abuela saw a big black dog appear behind him. As he tried to pry it open, the dog bared his teeth and my abuela screamed. As soon as she did, a big blast of air came through the house like an explosion, and when they looked, everything was back to normal. The chest was gone and the hole was filled up again.

I know my grandma isn’t the only one with stories like these. Every person from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego can tell you about the time they had something eerie happen to them, or about someone who once had a brush with something they can’t explain. Personally, as a materialist, I don’t believe in such nonsense. I know a belief in ghosts and demons and all the rest is based on one thing we’re all born with: ignorance. Ignorance is a part of being human, and it’s our ignorance that fuels our fear of make-believe creatures.

Nevertheless, I’ve been to Santa Lucía, which even after all these years is exactly how my grandma described it to me. I saw the church, the lagoon, and beyond it the dead tree. It was like walking onto the set of a movie I’ve seen a million times. I was taken to where my mother was born — the same house in which my grandma was born, and her father, and so on and so on, going all the way back to the 1800s. A chill ran down my spine just looking at the house from a distance. I approached its large front window half-expecting to see the fancy-dressed man and the demon dog staring back at me. Of course I didn’t see them, only my grandma’s brother and niece who still live there. They invited me in with big hugs.

We sat at the kitchen table as my relatives asked about my life in Chicago. They also wanted updates on my mom, who hadn’t seen her uncle since she was seven. I answered their questions politely and smiled as much as I could, but my eyes kept coming back to the fireplace. It was still there, though I could tell it hadn’t been used in ages.

My grandma’s brother caught me staring, and I saw an uneasy look overtake his face, as if he were going to attack me or run out of the house. He looked down at his hands on the table and said “So my sister told you about what’s buried there, huh?”