By Jeff Couch
It was the beat that woke the man up. Not that it took much to wake him these days. He tossed and turned most nights and never felt like he actually got any sleep. He thought about opening his eyes but didn’t want to use the energy the effort would take. He focused instead on what his ears were hearing. Nothing. He started to fade back asleep.
There it was again. That incessant beat. Boom, boom, boom. He reached over to see if Amanda was awake. His hand fell onto the cold sheets of the empty bed next to him. Right, Amanda wasn’t there. He hated when he forgot. His eyes felt like someone was carving them out with a spoon as the tears began to well up again. He wouldn’t be sleeping for a little while. He lay there trying. It was no good. Frustrated, he wiped his cheeks dry and opened his eyes.
This time he was waiting for it when it came. Boom, boom, boom. Flat on the bed, he couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Might as well sit up. The cold air raked its fingertips across his bare shoulders as the blanket fell to the mattress. He sat on the edge of the bed waiting. He was way too old to be afraid of the dark, but the empty blackness still spooked him. He felt like one of his prehistoric ancestors waiting for the predator in the darkness. He sat there trying to ignore the feeling that there was something creeping up from behind.
This time he could tell it came from out front, just the other side of the wall. He grabbed some slippers and a shirt. He didn’t bother to button it; he would just be a moment. Just had to see what that noise was. He paused at the door, wishing he had gotten around to installing the peephole. Amanda had asked him to a million times. He had always meant to. So many things he had meant to do. So many things he had meant to say. There had been so much time… and then there wasn’t any more. He pressed his head against the cold metal of the door and took a breath to steady himself. No more tears. Not tonight. Just a few hours. Just a little break. No more tears. Please?
With his head against the door, he could hear more. It sounded like little children singing. What were they singing? It sounded vaguely familiar. Then it came again. Boom, boom, boom. But it didn’t stop there. He had heard it before, but the melody was just out of reach. Quietly, so as not to startle them, he opened the door.
The night was quiet, bright, and crystal clear. The moon shone radiant and nearly full. The stars were intense and sharp. It was as if someone had carved the night out of a block of black ice. He was standing on his lawn looking up at the stars when he heard it again. This time the high-pitched voices rang out sweetly in the crisp air.
“Veinticinco de diciembre, fum, fum, fum,
Veinticinco de diciembre, fum, fum, fum.”
It wasn’t “boom, boom, boom,” it was “fum, fum, fum.” That was it. The most creepy of all Christmas carols. He hadn’t heard it for years—probably not since his teens. Where was it coming from? He stepped off the sidewalk and started to walk down the middle of the street.
“A la tierra rutilante que relumbra con su luz,
Y a la paz del firmamento celebrando el Nacimiento, fum, fum, fum.”
He couldn’t see anything, but the kids had to be right here. The song was so clear. He remembered now. He remembered the radio, with all the strange music. No “Frosty the Snowman” or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” No, their songs, their… “villancicos”—that’s what they were called, they were all hundreds of years old. They weren’t some marketing scheme by a downtown department store. No, these songs had been birthed in an ancient monastery somewhere by somber monks trying to instill the fear of God in the village children. They had seemed so strange and ominous when he was little. Now they just reminded him of home. A home he hadn’t lived in for 30 years.
“Veinticinco de diciembre, fum, fum, fum.
Veinticinco de diciembre, fum, fum, fum.”
With every “fum” his heart leapt into his throat. It bumped against the knot lodged there. That knot had been stuck in his larynx for months. He didn’t know if it would ever go away. He wandered down the black road in the black night, looking down every side street. How could there be children caroling ancient Spanish Christmas songs in the middle of an American Midwestern city in the middle of the night? He was so confused. He half-expected Amanda to shake him awake and tell him he was only dreaming.
“Venid con la pandereta y castañuelas al portal,
a adorar al rey del cielo que ha aparecido en el suelo, fum, fum, fum.”
So many Christmas memories were flooding back. The hard crunch of “turrón” from Alicante, the soft sweetness of the one called Jijona. And the “polvorones,” the powdery dry cookies that melted in your mouth. Whenever he had tried to describe them to someone, no one ever understood how they tasted so good. His descriptions never made them sound like the dreamy delights they had been. Amanda hadn’t really understood either, but that hadn’t stopped her from going online one year and ordering all of them, boxes and boxes of them, as a special Christmas surprise. He had come home from work and there they all were, stacked up on the table. She was standing beside the pile, beaming. It had taken a month to eat it all.
He gasped and bent over at the waist. That memory had hurt. Why did the good memories hurt so much more? He tried to straighten up, but there was a cramp in his chest. He looked down and saw what looked like a giant shriveled-up fruit sticking out of his chest. It was dark and leathery and looked like it had been left to rot. It was big, though. He wasn’t sure how he could stand upright with this giant, rotted mass hanging down his left side with his shirt flapping against it. He looked at it. That’s when it opened its eyes and looked back at him.
“¡Oye tío! How’s it hangin’? Oh, I guess I am. ¡Ja, ja, ja, ja!” It laughed a raspy, hacking cough.
Dumbfounded, he realized that it wasn’t a fruit hanging there but rather something like a gargoyle with its arm buried in his chest. He just stood there and stared at the thing. This night was very strange. Very strange indeed.
“Um, hi. Who are you?” It wasn’t clever, but it was all he could think of to say.
The creature opened its mouth to speak. The thing was a foot from his face and the voice coming out was harsh and raspy. It sounded like its lungs were on fire from some terminal disease.
“¡I’m El Duende, tío! ¡And you…are not! ¡Ja, ja, ja, ja!” It started its hacking, burning laugh again.
“Um, could you get off me please? This is kind of uncomfortable.”
“No way, tío! That’s what I am here for. It is supposed to be uncomfortable. No, I’m not leaving at all.”
With that, the little creature twisted its arm, the arm piercing the man’s chest. He realized now that the creature had a hold of his heart. He gasped with pain as the little monster squeezed it.
“Get off me now!” He tried to push it off.
“¡Uh, uh, uh!” The creature squeezed his heart again.
This time, the squeeze came with a memory.
He was in the back of a large group of teenagers. He was excited because this was the first year he had been invited to come along. It was midnight and they were standing outside the house of some important family. They were all trying to be quiet, but there was so much giggling and pushing and good-natured jockeying for position that they were failing terribly at being surreptitious. The brave one in the front rang the doorbell and they waited for someone to appear. The door opened, and they all burst into song. It was the worst version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” he had ever heard. They were all more concerned with volume than value. After a verse in Spanish, they all switched to English. The accents were awful, but nobody cared. They were all having a good time. For once he felt like he was a part of the group, like he really belonged. He wished he could stay connected like this forever.
The memory faded, and the pain hit him hard. He gasped as his heart ached where the little demon grasped it in its hand.
“Now you see, tío. And remember, there is more where that came from. You play nice with me and maybe I go easy on you. Then again…¡Ja, ja, ja, ja!” Sandpaper on a chalkboard. That was what its laugh sounded like. Or something equally as awful. The man was starting to hate that sound. He stumbled forward. Maybe if he could just keep moving, the thing would fall off. All thoughts of the children’s choir were gone. Just keep moving. One step, two steps, three steps. The night had turned silent. He looked down and the imp smiled up at him with a fiendish smile. Oh, no! It twisted its arm and squeezed.
He was supposed to be watching for Santa, but instead he was in a room packed with people. He barely knew these grown-ups and they were all speaking quickly, so fast he couldn’t understand them. They were all very loud and there was a lot of laughing. He thought they were acting a little strange and it probably had something to do with the weird-smelling liquid in their glasses. They had offered him a sip and he had spit it out. It was gross. That just made them laugh harder. He looked and saw that there were platters of cheese and meat and bread all over the room. There was even a box of individually wrapped cookies. He glanced around to see if anyone was looking and then grabbed one. It said “Roscón de vino” on the plastic. He had no idea what that meant but it looked like a little powdered donut. He loved those, and he’d hadn’t seen one since they moved here. He carefully tore the plastic off and bit into it. To his surprise it wasn’t soft and fluffy; it was hard and crunchy. At first he didn’t like it, but then he realized it was delicious! He quickly grabbed another one before someone told him to stop. It was way past his bedtime, and he figured he’d better eat as many as he could before someone realized he was still up and sent him away. Maybe this was better than waiting up for Santa.
He let out a yell. “Ahhhh!” He didn’t mean to say anything, but that memory had really hurt. “Mr. Duende sir, do you think you could stop with the twisting my heart thing?”
“¡Ay no! ¿What is wrong with you, tío? First of all, it is EL Duende, not mister. Second of all, you are lucky. You get a visit from me. ¡Felicidades! I’m not going away for a while. You see, tonight is the solstice, el solsticio, the longest night of the year. It is MY night, mi noche eterna. ¡You are mine tonight, tío! ¡Ja, ja, ja, ja!” It laughed like a wool afghan on a sunburn. The sunburn you get after playing all day at the beach in the tropical sun with no lotion because none of your friends needed any, but your skin was always as pale as leche frita, fried milk—or at least that is how the cute girl put it. Yeah, that was what its laugh was like.
The man continued wandering down the street. He was in a daze, barely able to tell where he was or when. The physical ache in his heart matched the emotional one. The night stretched out before him, dark and endless. He didn’t even notice when the beast twitched again.
Christmastime was finally here! Mommy had said he could order anything he had wanted off the menu. He had asked for hot chocolate, but this…this was nothing like any hot chocolate he had ever had. It was so thick he could almost stand his spoon up in it! On the plate next to the chocolate was a loop of warm cinnamony pastry. It was crisp on the outside and light and airy on the inside. He broke off a piece and dipped it in the chocolate like the waiter had said to. The chocolate clung to the pastry and melted in his mouth into a rich, dark, sweet…his young mind ran out of words. It was amazing and like nothing he had ever tasted. He didn’t know how to describe it; all he knew is that he wanted more. He quickly broke off another piece and plunged it into his mug. Christmas in this country was delicious!
Now he could taste the memory. When was the last time he’d had chocolate con churros? He remembered the time Amanda had tried to make some for him. She had failed so miserably. The chocolate had been gluey and clumpy, and the churros had been hard and dense like scones. She had been so upset, but it had meant so much to him. She hadn’t really understood, but she at least tried to. She had wanted to give him a little of what he was missing. And now she was missing, too.
He was starting to have trouble breathing. The ache had crept up into his lungs. He wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take. He looked down at the misshapen thing crouched above his belly. Its rheumy yellow eyes looked at him, unblinking. “Please, no more. El Duende, sir, I beg of you. Please! I don’t think I can take any more!”
“¡Tonterías! You speak such foolishness. I know you have the capacity for so much more suffering. I am sure of it, tío. I don’t even know why you are so upset. Those memories you are having, they don’t even belong to you. Those are from otro país, that is not your cultura. You are a Yanqui, tío. You have no right to miss those things. No te pertenecen, tío. They don’t belong to you. ¡Ja, ja, ja, ja!”
Ay, mi madre! He hated that laugh! Hated it! What was worse was that the fiend was right. He wasn’t Spanish, he was born in America and, except for a few years, had lived there for most of his life. At best his ancestry was…Welsh maybe? How could he claim these memories? They were not his cultural birthright. Then it came. Another twitch, another twist.
They were all inside, while he stood on the balcony watching them. All of his friends, the family he had made. They were laughing and having fun with the Christmas gift exchange. It was always so sweet; everyone handmade their gifts and tailored them to each recipient. No one had much money or, if they did, they pretended not to so that no one would feel left out or insufficient. Some of the gifts were sentimental, some were funny, but they were all heartfelt. That was real love in there. That was a family of friends. That was the sound of home.
Tomorrow he would get on a plane. Tomorrow he would leave. Who knew if he would ever come back? He had tried to stay, but he wasn’t really old enough to make that decision, was he? Besides, no one understood what the problem was. He was going home, wasn’t he? He was going to where his family was, to where his heritage was, his country. He would make new friends. He would forget this place and be happy back where he belonged. He was just being immature. He was nearly grown now, he needed to act that way. If that was so, then why did he feel like he was leaving behind everything he cared about? Why did it feel like he was leaving home and going to a foreign land? He looked out over the edge of the iron railing one last time and tried to cement the view in his mind. He would never forget what home looked like.
He had thought he would never find home again; he would never have that kind of family. But then he had found Amanda. They had built a family, just the two of them. He had forgotten the pain of leaving it all behind. Forgotten it, until last year, December 29th.
Another twist and with it, another memory.
He was looking down at Amanda lying in a hospital bed. It made no sense. She was the one that had so much to offer the world. She was the one with the loving smile. She was the one that cared and loved and gave until there was nothing left. He was the selfish one. She was the one that made the world a better place. Without her, who would remind the sun to rise in the morning and the birds to sing?
This was a mistake. He needed to let someone know that they were making a mistake. Someone in charge who could fix things. But there was no-one who could fix this. As he sat there, people came into the room and went. They said, “Be happy,” and, “She is going to a better place, she is going home.” They didn’t understand. She was home. She was his home. Without her, where would he go? Without her, where was home? This was all wrong. Nothing about this was right. He reached over and brushed away the hair from her face. He took another look at her, so he could remember what home looked like.
The man stumbled. He had reached a flight of stairs in the middle of the city. If this were Europe it would be in the central plaza. But this was not Europe; it was a city in the middle of America, and this was some monument in the middle of a traffic circle in the middle of the city in the middle of the night. He kept walking forward, falling up the steps until he collapsed at the top. He bent over, gasping for air. The pain was in his whole body now. It radiated out from his chest and every muscle ached. He could no longer tell what was emotional, what was physical, what was present, what was past. Every part of him hurt. Every breath hurt, every pause between breaths hurt, his eyes open hurt, his eyes closed hurt, his throat hurt, and his heart hurt, and it all rose up in him until he opened his mouth and out came the sound of a man drowning in sorrow.
One long note, held for longer than breath could be. Again.
It rang out in the clear air. The ache shifted to his belly, his diaphragm. It now needed words.
“No te vayas de mi lado” Don’t leave my side
“No puedo vivir sin verte” I can’t live without seeing you.
To his right a ghostly figure of a man appeared. He was dressed in a white, blousy shirt and straight black pants. He was holding a guitar that he struck like a drum as often as he strummed it.
“Sin oír tu dulce canto” Without hearing your sweet song
“Sin sentir tu dulce amor” Without feeling your sweet love.
To his left appeared a ghostly lady. Her hair was pulled back into a slick tight bun. She was wearing a tight red dress covered in large black polka dots that flared at the bottom into a long train. She was dancing a fluid, stomping, extremely elegant dance. Her feet hit the ground in dramatic rhythms and her body was rigidly upright while her arms formed precise angles and shapes. One hand held the train of her long dress and she moved it as if it were another part of her body, dancing along with her.
“No te vayas de mi vida” Don’t leave my life
“No puedo seguir sin tenerte” I can’t go on without having you.
Five men in blousy shirts and straight black pants with flat-brimmed hats appeared all around him. They began dancing with the same stomping pattern. They had their hands raised at right angles and were clapping in time to the beat of the guitar and the stomping of the feet. The music rose to a fever pitch.
“No te vayas de mi lado” Don’t leave my side
“No te vayas de mi” Don’t leave me
“No te vayas de mi” Don’t leave me.
“No te vayas de mi…”
With that, it felt like he had squeezed every ounce of anguish from his soul. He had pushed it and carved it out of his body. The dancing continued as the guitar played on. Then, as the music ebbed, the dancers and musician slowly faded away. The man looked down. El Duende was still there. It smiled. Nothing about its appearance changed, but the shriveled little thing with the oversized nose and haunting eyes looked strangely kind and gentle. As sunlight began to creep over the edge of the buildings, the little goblin gave one last twist of its arm, smiled its strangely sweet smile and, just like the music, faded away.
The man sat there with tears streaming down his face and watched the sunrise. He didn’t know how he was going to make it through tomorrow, but he knew that he would. He had done it before, and he knew he would do it again. He would miss a home that could never be found again. He would go on to find a new home. It wouldn’t be a substitute for the old one. The ache would always be there, and when it got too bad, El Duende would come and squeeze his heart until he cried out his pain. And then, somehow, it would be better for a while. Somehow, he would take one step, and then another.
He stood up and began to walk back to his house. Maybe he should invite some people over for Christmas brunch. There were still a couple of days left before the holiday. Or maybe he could find a charity that needed some new volunteers. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but he knew it was time. It was time once again to start building a new home.
Jeff Couch has lived everywhere from Colorado to The Canary Islands. He now resides in Indiana with his family and their beloved dog. He is working on perfecting his Spanish hot chocolate recipe and is looking for easy turrón recipes. His book of interconnected children’s stories, “The Nicholas Tales”, will be available next Fall. You can read his blog at Couchsview.blogspot.com and his Facebook page can be found at Facebook.com/Quillnib