PseudoPod 723: Silver as the Devil’s Necklace
- Author : Isabel Cañas
- Narrator : Sandra Espinoza
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
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PseudoPod 723: Silver as the Devil’s Necklace is a PseudoPod original.
La Llorona Wiki Page
Old Gods of Appalachia
La Llorona Folk Song
A black wail of wind curls around the house, la Llorona’s cold embrace, as Ruth opens the dresser drawer and takes her father’s pistol. Its weight is an old friend, the handle nestling into her palm like it was made for her. It was already an heirloom when Da brought it to Montana, when he immigrated from the old country in his youth.
It is strictly off limits.
Ruth slams the drawer shut with her free hand. Damp wood scrapes and sticks; the flick of the hurricane candle shudders. The waxy complexion of la Virgen glowers at her as she clicks the pistol open and checks the chamber with trembling hands.
A silver bullet gleams in the flickering light of la Virgencita’s flame. Silver, Da said, was for killing the devils that lurked in the wetlands of the old country. Or so the superstition goes.
Ruth snaps the pistol shut, checks the safety, and shoves it into the pocket of her oilskin. Giving la Virgen a glower of her own, she blows out the candle. She slips out of her parents’ room, past dark, rain-slicked windows and down the stairs, wraithlike as she moves through the lodge. It is empty. Her parents drove to Big Timber to talk to the police an hour ago, and won’t be back until late.
Jo is missing.
Yesterday she asked Ruth to go with her to check on the bay yearling with a limp after dark. When Ruth asked why, Jo said she’d seen an unbranded stallion past the western edge of the corral, a stallion who vanished into the darkness of the pines like a shadow. Ruth scoffed. Told her she was seeing things, and refused.
So Jo went alone. And she never came back.
Anyone who knows the Crazy Mountains, with its rebellious rivers and sheer valley walls, knows that a day is a long time for a girl to be missing.
Anyone who knows what sort of creatures live in rivers knows a day is far too long.
Ruth stops in the mudroom—barely more than a covered porch at the back of the lodge—and shoves her feet into mud-crusted boots. Rain pummels the tin roof as she laces them with shaking hands.
Ruth had lied to Jo. She’d seen the stallion two weeks ago, standing beyond the fence of the corral at dusk, too still to be a part of this world. She watched it stare at Jo’s back as Jo walked the path back to the lodge, humming to herself. She watched the stallion’s silhouette bleed into the mist. Vanish on the air like smoke.
Ruth and Jo were raised on stories slick with rain and churning water: water horses from Da’s old country, devils ancient as salt on the west wind, and la Llorona, the Weeper of Mamá’s village, the spirit of black rain and lost children. Ruth soaked in every legend, retelling them to herself over and over again until one bled into the next and she could no longer remember which language it was told to her in.
Despite this, Ruth told Jo she’d imagined it. That she didn’t believe her, that clearly Jo was spinning tales for attention.
Perhaps Ruth spoke sharply because she didn’t believe Jo.
But perhaps it was because she did believe Jo, and knew that if she admitted it, the dread that curled heavy as a chain around her throat would grow strong enough to strangle her.
Either way, Jo’s cheeks flushed with shame. She turned her back on Ruth and strode to the mudroom. The yellowed light bulb gilded the soft frizz of her black hair as she pulled on her boots, grabbed a flashlight, and stepped through the door into the dark.
And then she was gone.
Ruth sets her jaw as she wrenches that same door open and stares down the black September storm.
They’d searched for hours. That night and the following morning. Up and down the riverbank in rain so thick she felt like she was drowning. Her boots sank into the mud of the bank, tears and rain slicking her cheeks as she screamed Jo’s name, screamed over the churning river. The wind howled back la Llorona’s refrain, her plea for her drowned children:
¿Has visto mis hijos? Mis hijos, mis hijos . . .
Have you seen my children?
Deep in her marrow, Ruth knows it was the devil. But that isn’t a story she can tell her parents. That isn’t a story to take to Big Timber to tell the police. Because she isn’t sure she fully believes it herself.
Or does she?
All Ruth knows is that she can’t sit in the empty house, waiting, listening to the rain. Not now. Not when her anger is pulling her to the door, pulling her into the night. Not when she has a silver bullet.
Not when this was all her fault.
She grabs a rope from the hooks behind the door and lets the door slam behind her, not bothering to lock it.
Her plan is simple: if there truly is a water horse, a river devil, a dark stallion with no ranch’s brand, she will tempt it out of the river using the best bait she has.
And then she will kill it.
Ruth soldiers through muck and sheets of rain. The horses are huddled beneath their lean-to, far from the western edge of the corral, as far as possible from the river. In this knife-slim valley hours from town, the night is perfect black, and it takes until Ruth reaches the bank for her eyes to adjust. Below her is the river; swollen, bloated, spilling gluttonous over its banks. She curls stiff fingers around the rope. The wind whips at her oilskin.
Mis hijos, mis hijos . . .
Mamá used to warn Ruth and Jo about playing too close to the river, especially without the wolfhounds. She wove her stories thick with la Llorona’s wails to frighten her daughters away from the dark water. It worked for Jo. Every howl of night wind sent her skittering across their shared room to Ruth’s bed, convinced that every shadow that sent shivers up her neck was the whisper of the Weeper’s cloak.
Ruth was more agnostic. The Weeper wasn’t real. The story’s purpose was to keep kids away from arroyos; therefore, that ghost of a woman driven mad by grief probably saved many children from flash floods. At least that must be true for Mamá’s village. Though Mamá claimed that ghosts knew no borders, that they followed their pueblo wherever they went, Ruth is certain la Llorona knows nothing of Montana pines, of rain turning to sleet as it lashes faces and freezing hands. If she did, if her territory reached this far north, she would have saved Jo from the river, and Ruth wouldn’t be standing in the rain, soaked to the bone, because she was convinced a devil took her sister.
¿Has visto mis hijos?
Ruth’s shoulders ache from hunching against the cold. She curls her toes in her boots. This is stupid. She should have never left the house. Da’s water horse is no more real than la Llorona. She will find no answers to Jo’s disappearance out here.
She wavers on the edge of turning back when movement from the water’s edge catches her eye.
Her attention snaps to it. Is it a trick of the rain? Thick shadows cast by the pines? She stares at the riverbank, deafened by the roar of the swollen current. She wants to rip the rain aside like a curtain, she wants to see clearly so badly her throat aches.
The shadow moves toward her.
The air vanishes from her lungs.
It’s a horse.
Her pulse thrums in her ears: run, run, run.
Instead, she tightens cold fingers around the rope as the horse walks up the riverbank toward her.
Its eyes are fixed on her. She shouldn’t be able to tell that in the dark, but God, she knows. She knows. It is as big as a draft horse, but moves light as a cat up the muddy bank. Its coat is blacker than sin, blacker than hate, blacker than a devil’s shadow.
Jo wasn’t spinning tales. One of their parents’ legends holds water. So to speak.
And it isn’t la Llorona.
The horse’s hooves fall silent in the mud. Ruth cannot even hear the rain as it draws up before her. It is no longer her resoluteness that anchors her where she stands but something more, something that hums along her bones and makes the hair on the back of her neck stand on end.
La cuerda, mija.
A voice—like her mother’s and unlike it—winds through the fog, settling behind her eyes. The rope. She loosens her frozen fingers and counts inches of lasso like a reflex, every movement drilled into her for years by Mamá. Her stiff muscles snap to life. The rope is a part of her as it sings against the wind and snakes around the horse’s neck, as she shifts her footing and yanks it taut.
The world stills. The wind shifts, the rain striking her face first from one direction and then the other.
The horse has vanished. Before her now stands a youth with ottersleek black hair, his complexion river silt, dressed in marsh grasses from the waist down. The rope hangs useless around his neck.
Ruth, he says. His lips don’t move. Ruth. Won’t you come out of the rain?
His words hum along her bones. They beckon to her, coy as the curl of a finger, brushing soft as breath on skin. Warmth blossoms in her belly at his voice, a tender ache that winds up behind her ribs like rising smoke. Rain droplets adorn his bare skin like beads of sweat, delicate gems. What would it be like to step into his embrace, to lay her head against his chest and let him sweep her away?
Her mind swims; her eyes can’t focus through the rain.
A feral grin steaks across the devil’s face, lightning against the storm.
Ruth’s eyes fall to his throat. He has a silver necklace.
Da’s stories are etched on her soul, carved to the rhythm of his pine rocking chair. In every story where the girl survived the water horse’s seduction, it was because she stole the devil’s necklace.
Again that strange voice rings in her mind, sharp as the strike of a farrier’s hammer on iron. Tómalo, mija. Tómalo.
Ruth’s muscles scream against the effort of lifting her arm. Swift as a rattler, she snatches the necklace from the devil’s throat.
It snaps. It is hers. She has no idea how the silver pieces—bones, her stomach turns when she realizes they are silver bones, needle-thin and delicate as a birds’—came off so easily, but now that the necklace is in her hands, the devil cannot shift to his stronger form. So the superstition goes.
His eyes flash with sudden hatred. His lip curls, baring sharp, dark teeth with a noise that curdles the acid in Ruth’s gut with fear.
She knows two things down to her bones: this devil took Jo.
And she will never get Jo back.
Jo is dead. Her heart stumbles from the blow, slamming against her ribs. Her chest is an empty cavity and it is aching, her ribs laced with pain so sharp, they might curl in on themselves to the point of snapping.
She shoves the necklace in her pocket and pulls out the pistol. Presses it into the devil’s smooth skin, against his ribs.
Instead of fighting, instead of trying to writhe free of the rope, the devil steps close to her, leaning into the end of the pistol. He reaches up and caresses her hair with a cool and heavy hand. Gooseflesh crawls under Ruth’s oilskin as memories float to the surface of her soul, drawn out by the devil’s touch, by the devil’s will. But the memories are of swimming in the glittering river with Jo last August, of creeks, of the slip of river bottom pebbles beneath toes, and they lull her. Soothe her. Soften her her grip on the pistol.
Mija, despiertate. That voice. It snaps like branches on a brittle wind, clearing her vision sharp and sudden like the shattering of a dirty windowpane.
She cocks the pistol with a cold click.
The devil goes unearthly still. As if he can sense the bullet in the barrel is as silver as his necklace.
I am the river, he says. I am the silt. I am home. Dance with me.
His voice is summer showers on tin roofs. The percussion of iron-shod hooves crossing streams. Ruth sees Jo’s black hair gleaming red in the dappled sunlight of the fir grove, riding one of the chestnut geldings, trotting just a few yards ahead of her. Jo’s lifting her hand to wave at her to hurry up.
Ruth’s mind is the rush of water, a heady current. It pulls, dragging her hand and the gun slack, dragging down, down and away from the devil’s ribs.
Give in, the devil says. I am home. Come dance with me.
The pistol hangs heavy from her hand, heavier than a corpse. This was a fool’s errand.
Ruth sees Jo’s back, her long black braid vanishing into the mist. Jo is gone because she could not fight the devil. Because she went into the night alone. Because Ruth let her go alone. And now Ruth will face the same fate, because she was arrogant enough to believe she could put a bullet between the devil’s eyes. Superstitions be damned. Mortals cannot fight devils older than stone.
The devil is backing away from her now, step by step down the bank. Step by step, Ruth’s heavy boots follow through the mud.
Mija, mija, ¿por qué me olvidaste?
That voice—quieter now, but no less sharp. Didn’t la Llorona want to keep her children close? Snatch them safely away from the thundering rush of flash floods? If this devil is flesh before her, could la Llorona be real as the wind whipping her oilskin? Could la Llorona sweep her away from the river’s embrace?
These thoughts fade away as a heaviness settles like silt over her mind, sinking into every crevice of her memory. The weight of the devil’s will smothers her resistance, the dying sparks of panic in her chest, wearing them down with the inevitability of a steady current. With her last ounce of strength, Ruth forces her tongue to form a single word:
“Ayúdame.” Her lips are cold, stiff as a corpse’s. “Ayúdame.”
Shadows slip around her, soft and whispering responses to her plea for help. They sweep into her mind, clearing it of silt, rinsing it clean so she is again aware, aware of the fact that she is following the devil as he backs down the riverbank, aware of the pistol slack at her side.
A whisper in her ear. That voice.
Aquí estoy, mija. ¿Por qué me dudaste?
La Llorona curls Ruth’s fingers tighter around the handle of the pistol, holding it tight against her palm. The weight of the ghost’s hand is an old friend, reminding her that a bullet as silver as the devil’s necklace is still in the pistol’s chamber. That the devil cannot change, that he does not know the Weeper’s cloak is draped around Ruth’s shoulders, clearing her mind and showing her what the devil did:
Jo’s black hair sticking to her wet face. Struggling; the snap of bones. Jo, pallid, face-up, staring blankly into the dark as the current drags her body down the swollen river.
The water slicking Ruth’s cheeks is warm now. Tears blur her vision.
Mi hermana, mi hermana . . .
The Weeper’s whisper lifts Ruth’s chin, clear and sharp above the rush of the river. Steel certainty chills in her chest as she plants her feet in the mud.
She will never get Jo back.
But she can sure as hell avenge her.
Ruth looks the devil in the eye and lifts the pistol.
“¿Has visto mi hermana?” she asks, and pulls the trigger.