In Folktales of Mexico, compiled by Américo Paredes (one of the founding fathers of Chicano studies in the U.S.), I read a story about a man who discovered that his wife was a monster. Any night the man was away, the wife stripped away her skin and flew through the air as a skeleton, terrorizing the people of the town and stealing infants to eat; to defeat her, the man poured salt on her abandoned skin, thus killing her and saving the town. I thought about who was the true monster of the story, then took the story’s skin and turned it inside out, so to speak.
Rosario was not the prettiest young woman on Rancho Buenavista, nor even the prettiest of her sisters; she was too aloof, too dreamy to be useful in a hardworking home. But that did not change the fact that her suitor Beto, Antonio’s cousin, was the most envied man. See, Rosario had secrets. Secrets have a way of drawing moth to flame, and Rosario’s lit her like a lamp.
Antonio worked himself sick watching the lovers. His was the kind of envy that gorged itself on shattering things; convinced he could ruin Beto if he proved Rosario’s glow came from the attentions of another man, he watched Rosario as a coyote stalks the chicken coop. Rosario began covering her hair and face, darting skittish across shaded courtyards, even crossing the rancho bat-like, with unpredictable, looping routes, but Antonio was always watching.
The moon waxed. Rosario’s temper waned.
That night, Antonio lay on the cool banks of the creek. The moon was lopsided, drunk on its own light; it perfectly illuminated Rosario emerging from the oaks in her pale nightdress, dried leaves crackling under her bare feet.
Imagine how victory flushed Antonio. He would catch Rosario in the act and crow at Beto come morning. Beto would be crushed, and—
Rosario’s eyes found him in the dark. Maybe she waved at him. She reached for her nightdress and slipped it over her head.
Antonio’s heart stopped.
Then Rosario reached for her throat, sank her fingers into her skin, and pulled.
Her flesh split: between her breasts and down her belly, up her neck over her face. It kept splitting, revealing the web of dark veins over wet organs, the wink of something bright. The skin of her face fissured and peeled away, taking lips, taking nose, taking eyelids and lashes and eyes, her long, heavy mane of dark hair leading her skin’s fall to the grass.
A silver skeleton stood before Antonio.
It stepped toward him.
Antonio thrust himself to his feet and fled. Across the creek, soaking his boots, blood pulsing in his temples and eyes so wide he feared they might pop out like Rosario’s had.
His cousins were roused by his screams that there was a monster on the rancho. It’s Rosario, he howled, inconsolable, as dawn broke and thickened. She would steal babies and breathe curses on their sleeping women unless they found salt, they needed salt, more salt than anyone had imagined was possible, barrels of it to pour on the monster’s skin and separate her from it . . .
Everyone says Antonio would have become the town crazy if he ever got the chance. But as he raved, a soft foam formed at his mouth. As he cried salt, salt, salt, the foam thickened. Globs of salt dropped from his lips to his boots; his spittle turned to salt, then his tongue, then his throat, his skin, his guts.
A statue of salt stood in the pale sunrise, a pillar, until a breeze from the east lifted and it crumbled gently to the earth.
Fíjense, there was no saving him, Beto said to the cousins later. They clicked their tongues, a circle of funereal black around the salt lick. They would have to check the cattle dogs for rabies, for naturally there were no monsters on Rancho Buenavista.
From where they stood, they could see the casa mayor of the rancho, where Rosario sat demurely on the patio with her sisters, needlework gilded by quiet morning. She lifted her head, smiled coyly at the oaks by the creek, and returned to her stitches.
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