‘Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.’
— Virgil, Georgics
‘What’s the most fucked up thing that’s ever happen to you?’ Jorge asked me.
We were at Aarón’s birthday party, out on the living room balcony. It had just turned four in the morning. The wind was whipping up the coastal palm trees, which were visible – together with the steel stands from carnival that had been set up along the esplanade since January – above the rooftops of the Flores Magón neighbourhood.
‘The most fucked up thing that’s ever happen to me?’ I repeated, to buy some time.
I was twenty-four. Back then, the most fucked up thing to have happened to me was the fight I’d had with my father a year earlier, before I’d walked out of his house for good. It was 2005 and we’d been left on our own: Julio was studying in Ensenada, and Mamá… well, let’s just say my mum was on a permanent holiday somewhere up in the north, from where she’d call now and again to talk about things that made less and less sense over time. Dad had already got rid of her things: her clothes, her papers, her perfumes. One day he bagged up the whole lot and put it out on the street. He’d been on one long bender ever since, and I’d had to get a job just to be able to eat and put myself through school.
But why would I tell all that to a guy I barely knew? It was one thing sharing his beer and letting him look at me with those black, beautifully downturned eyes, but quite another explaining how, during that fight, I’d threatened my father with his own gun (a 45 Automatic that he had hidden on the makeshift mezzanine where I slept) because his crystal meth ramblings and electronic music had been keeping me up for days.
‘I don’t know. I really don’t know,’ I eventually replied, feeling the pressure of that gaze, which managed to be both intensely piercing and dreamy at once. ‘How about you?’
I sensed his answer was going to outdo mine, but something happened, something interrupted our conversation on the balcony, and Jorge didn’t end up telling me the most fucked up thing that had ever happened to him until three months later, on our first date.
He was already two beers in by the time I arrived at the bar, late and a little sodden from a sudden May shower. I sat down at the table he chose, on the pavement. A warm breeze was blowing and I quickly dried off. I let him lead the conversation because the truth was I’d forgotten his first name. It had been three months since Aarón’s party and I could only remember his last name, his nickname – Metallica – and his way of holding your gaze.
That night, after a few more beers, he told me for the first time the story of what had happened to him and a group of friends at the Casa del Diablo, The Devil’s House. It took him several hours to get to the end, in part because he was recounting in great detail events that had taken place over a decade ago, and in part because he had to keep making long digressions to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. Jorge’s way of telling stories fascinated me: he wove together snippets of dialogue, gestures and his own views, both past and present. A typical Veracruz guy, I thought, captivated; a raconteur of manly exploits, trained within a culture that mocks the written word and dismisses the archive, preferring testimony, oral and dramatic accounts – the joyful act of conversing.
Three hours later, I’d still barely said a word and Jorge was reaching the devastating conclusion of his story. By then, I was already in love with him. It took me several years to work out that, in reality, I’d fallen in love with his stories.
The horror, as Jorge called it, began one day in June in the early nineties, with a call from his friend Betty.
‘Hey, Jorge, we’re heading to El Estero…’
At the other end of the line, Jorge could hear Evelia, Karla and Jacqueline tittering in the background.
El Estero. They want go back to that fucking house, he thought, snapping right out of his four pm stupor.
‘I can’t, I’m skint,’ he replied curtly, hoping to put them off.
‘Oh, come on, Jorge! We’ll get the booze…’
Jorge looked over at his grandmother’s sleeping face, her half-open mouth, the bedcovers pulled up to her chin. The phone was in the old lady’s room but she never heard it ring. She always slept through the day because she spent her nights awake. She said Jorge’s aunt, her daughter who’d died years earlier, would appear at the foot of her bed and touch her legs.
‘I’ve got nothing, not even for the bus.’
‘It doesn’t matter, we’ll shout you!’
Jorge was tempted to give them a piece of his mind. It was true that Betty and Evelia had never been to the abandoned house, but Karla and Jacqueline had, and they should’ve learned their lesson. Or had they already forgotten what’d happened the previous Sunday? Had they not seen the look on those cadets’ faces? Had they not noticed there was something living inside that house?
‘Come on, Jorge, don’t be lame. We’ll wait for you at Plaza Acuario,’ Betty said, and she hung up.
Jorge dialled Tacho’s number.
‘Hello?’ his friend answered.
‘Hey, man. You’re not gonna believe those fucking girls…’
‘Yeah, they already told me.’
‘What’re you saying? Shall we go?’
Tacho was silent. Jorge twisted the phone cord impatiently. Leaving the decision of whether or not to go to the abandoned house up to Tacho was like tossing a coin.
He was there last Sunday, he saw the look on the cadets’ faces, Jorge thought. He hoped with all his heart that his friend would say no.
‘Let’s go and see what happens, I guess,’ Tacho said, after a long silence.
Overruled, Jorge hung up and went to take a shower. He was in no hurry; if the girls really wanted to go, they could just wait for him. He perked up when he looked out of the bathroom window and saw the sky was swollen with black clouds. He got dressed and left the house without waking his grandmother.
He’d barely made it ten metres up the street when the downpour began. Fat raindrops flooded the pavement but Jorge didn’t bother trying to shield himself. They won’t want to go now, it’s the perfect excuse. Man, he loved those late spring storms!
But by the time he reached Tacho’s house, it had stopped raining. His friend was waiting for him outside under a tree, smoking. He was ready.
‘Shall we go?’ Tacho asked, as uncertain as Jorge.
The sun was once again shining in the sky and brilliantly illuminating the fronts of the houses. The neighbourhood kids were trooping home from school. Some of them were carrying paper boats which they sailed down a little stream that had formed in the street gutter.
In less than an hour, all this water will be hot air again, Jorge thought with a sigh.
The sun’s rays were so fierce his clothes dried on the short walk to Plaza Acuario.
They were going back to the Casa del Diablo and he felt as if an invisible fist were crushing his heart as they approached the spot where the girls stood waiting for them.
There are countless myths surrounding the Casa del Diablo, but none very original. They usually combine nineteenth-century Veracruz popular legends with classic eighties horror movie plots: ritualistic killings had supposedly taken place in that half-built edifice, now home to foul-mouthed spirits. It was said, for example, that the construction was originally destined to be a hotel with a restaurant on the top floor, but that it was never finished because the nightwatchman went on a rampage and hacked his whole family to death before eventually killing himself. According to Veracruz folklore, which associates all violent deaths with the appearance of ‘restless’ spirits, the souls of the victims of that heinous crime languished there and would scare off any morbidly curious types who dared set foot on the property. Another legend went that the house was the headquarters of a satanic sect whose members performed dark ceremonies in its basement, a myth only stoked by the relative proximity of the Casa del Diablo to the so-called ‘mansion’ of the Countess of Malibrán, a part-historical, part-mythical character seen by the locals as the tropic’s answer to Elizabeth Báthory, the sadistic seventeenth-century Hungarian serial killer. And then there was a third legend that said that the house had seven basement rooms that could be accessed via a closed steep stairwell on the third floor. If anyone managed to reach the furthest of these, they would come face to face with Satan himself.
What was clear was that the house and its ample grounds – located on the banks of the canal known as El Estero, whose brackish waters came from the Mandinga lagoon, the smallest in the Alvarado lagoon system – was in one of the most sought-after areas of Boca del Río and belonged to a local entrepreneur who wasn’t interested in either selling or renting it. A wrought-iron gate kept out the snoops, mostly teenagers from the city looking for a place to drink, take drugs and get their adrenaline pumping with some supernatural shenanigans. Custom dictated that whoever visited the house must enter the property via the gate, bribe the watchguard on duty, and then make their way around each of its three floors, one by one. The passing years and the tropical climate had not been kind to the house, which by the nineties had already lost its windowpanes and was permanently covered in a thick carpet of rotten leaves. The Ceiba growing beside the house stretched its branches parasitically across most of the second floor.
Of course, Jorge knew the rumours, and as a boy he’d been desperate to go inside that strange house, the outline of which he would glimpse through the thick undergrowth that fringed the water’s edge, when the bus he used to take with his grandmother to Antón Lizardo would cross the El Estero bridge. And the chance to visit the house finally came when he was fifteen and a member of the Scouts. One Sunday he managed to sufficiently intrigue his troop and convince them to make an expedition to the house, to uncover its mysteries and confirm, once and for all, whether it was haunted or not. And so that very afternoon they headed to El Estero. They entered the property via the wrought-iron gate and went into the house through a sort of vestibule. Then they made their way in turn through each of the dark, fetid rooms of that labyrinthine structure. Giggling nervously, they reached the third floor, which had separate areas for a bar, kitchen and a large dining area with a terrace and toilets. All of it was littered with dry leaves, bat droppings and lizard remains.
The strangest thing they found, behind the bar of the unfinished restaurant, was a passage with a stone doorframe leading onto a narrow stairwell that spiralled down into the pitch darkness.
That day they left without descending the stairwell; they didn’t have any ropes on them, and they didn’t dare risk going down without one. But the following Sunday they were back – a scout is obedient, disciplined, and never gives up – equipped with lengths of rope, torches, emergency light sticks, enough food and water for a couple of days and an anti-panic strategy that Jorge insisted on forming in case something out of the ordinary happened and they all froze.
So they meticulously planned their adventure, even deciding in advance the order in which they would descend. Leading the way would be Puma, who, at nineteen years of age, was seen by the troop as a fully-fledged adult, which meant he also held the long wooden Scout staff. Next to go down would be Jorge, then Adán, and finally Lilí. Roxana would hang back next to the doorway. She’d be responsible for keeping an eye on the rope that they anchored first to a column and then wrapped around their waists, like mountain climbers, before making their descent.
The stairwell reeked of damp and rotten animal. The stone steps crumbled beneath their feet. It wasn’t long before they needed more light.
‘Turn your torches on,’ Puma ordered.
None of the four torches worked.
We tested them up there, though, and they’ve all got new batteries, Jorge thought. But he didn’t want to say it out loud and make them even more nervous than they already were.
The group took the light sticks from their pockets and snapped them to produce a fluorescent green glow that barely lit the way, and they descended like that for another few feet. It was unpleasantly hot and their sweat soaked through the rough fabric of their uniforms. Ahead of Jorge, Puma felt around on the floor with the staff; behind him, Adán was breathing against his neck and Liliana’s teeth were chattering. Jorge was scared too, but weakness was something he needed to overcome if he was going to one day fulfil his dream of getting into the Military Academy, joining the Mexican Army Parachute Rifle Brigade and finally, once he was an elite soldier, deserting to join the Foreign Legion. At fifteen years of age, this, essentially, was his plan to escape from both Veracruz and his grandmother.
‘Wait,’ Puma muttered.
Jorge walked into the back of him.
‘What is it? Why have you stopped?’
‘Someone’s just taken the staff out of my hand.’
Jorge inhaled deeply. There was almost no air down there.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t know, someone just pulled it out of my hand…’
‘What’s happened?’ Lilí whimpered.
Puma’s voice faltered; he didn’t want to say anything else.
This is it, thought Jorge, this is panic, the moment everything goes to shit. His chest was a bellows. Faced with Puma’s stunned silence, he cleared his throat and gave the order to retreat.
They scuttled up the stairs like crabs. Nobody wanted to turn their back on that void, which was now filled with the sound of the staff being violently struck against the walls. Jorge was still taking deep breaths in and out with his mouth open, trying to control his breathing to slow down his racing heart. It’s probably just a junkie, he thought, one of those crackpots who squat in abandoned houses. But that thought didn’t calm him down, because what kind of madman would choose to live in that hole, what kind of being would wait who knows how long down there, in the foul-smelling darkness, for someone to turn up so they could…?
He had to concentrate on not thinking, on feeling his way up the slippery stone steps and propelling himself into the light, into the air, away from the darkness, away from that rasping sound that he couldn’t tell apart from his own breathing, or Adán’s, Puma’s, or someone else’s entirely.
Once out, they found Roxana crying with her head between her knees. For several minutes the girl couldn’t even speak, she just pointed at the length of rope they’d use to secure themselves to the nearby column. The official Scouts rope, guaranteed to support a load of up to a ton, had snapped a few inches from the knot.
‘I noticed it tighten, as if you were pulling it from below,’ the girl explained. ‘I thought you’d fallen. I thought something had happened to you, and I started to pull and then it just snapped…’
The palms of her hands were covered in rope burns.
Roxana had called their names, over and over, into the shaft. When they didn’t respond she’d burst into hysterics, terror-stricken. The strange thing was that, down in the darkness of the stairwell, they’d never heard her shouts.
The diligent Scouts fled from the house before it got dark. Puma led the way, and even once they were back on the other side of the gate, he continued to grip Adán’s hunting knife tightly in his hand.
That was the first precursor to the horror. There was another: the incident with the cadets that had happened the week before Betty’s call. Jorge couldn’t help but think back to that evening as he waited with Tacho outside a local store in Boca del Río. Betty, Evelia, Karla and Jacqueline were inside buying brandy, mixers and cigarettes for this latest expedition to the house.
Just a few dozen feet from where they stood was the bridge that crosses the Jamapa River. Jorge gazed at the horizon. There, on the other side of the bridge, the road forked: turning right you would come to the municipality of Paso del Toro and the old highway to Córdoba; on the left was the road to the fishing town of Antón Lizardo and its Naval Academy. To reach the La Casa del Diablo you had to take the road for Antón Lizardo and turn off – or get off the bus – just after crossing the El Estero bridge. From there you had to go another few hundred metres along a path, following the water’s course to a spot between a seafood restaurant and a luxury white mansion, where you would find yourself before the rusty gate of the Casa del Diablo.
Jorge felt sick. He didn’t want to smoke, let alone drink alcohol. He couldn’t help thinking it was a mistake to go back to that house after what had happened the previous Sunday, when he, Tacho and Jacqueline had taken up Karla’s invitation to go. On that occasion they arrived much later in the day, at almost seven in the evening, just as night was falling, and they had to use Tacho’s pocket torch to guide them along the path. Karla and her friends were already inside; Jorge, Tacho and Jacqueline could hear shouting and laughing as soon as they went through the gate. They entered the house and made their way up to the top floor. Karla’s friends were there, chatting in the dark; they were all cadets at the Naval Academy in Antón Lizardo; they had buzz cuts but were in civilian clothes because it was their day off. Jorge was looking around for the bar and the doorway to the passage with the stairwell when he felt someone grab him by the neck. It was one of the cadets; his face was hidden behind a gorilla mask and he was carrying a gun, which he was trying to hold to Jorge’s temple.
The cadets howled, trying to scare them.
‘Get that thing out of my face!’ Jorge yelled. He elbowed the cadet, dislodging his mask and knocking him to the floor.
‘We’re only messing around, dickhead, it’s not loaded!’ the kid grumbled.
Jorge wanted to kill him, and it crossed his mind to pull out the knife he always carried on him. He was no longer a fifteen-year-old boy scout, but a twenty-two-year-old thug, a school dropout, Army deserter and veteran street fighter. He didn’t care that there were nine cadets or that they were armed; they were a bunch of homo daddy’s boys. He and Tacho alone could take the lot of them.
But before Jorge could give his friend the signal, Jacqueline had already jumped in between him and the cadet and was pleading with them not to start fighting. After that Karla’s friends went down to the ground floor and Jorge and his crew went up to the flat roof to watch the lights of Boca del Río. They spent a long time up there, chatting and cooling off, and when they finally made their way downstairs, they discovered that Karla and the cadets were still there. They were standing by the river, in total silence, like troops lined up for inspection. Tacho shone his torch on them; the look on their faces was one of sheer terror.
Karla appeared from out of the darkness to give Jorge a piece of her mind.
‘For fuck’s sake, Jorge! If you’ve got a fucking problem with my friends, tell them to their face, don’t throw fucking rocks at us from up there!’
Karla’s pretty face was a snivelling mess.
‘What are you talking about?’ Jorge replied. ‘What rocks?’
‘Don’t be an asshole, you threw rocks at us from that window! It was you guys!’
It made no difference that Jacqueline swore to God before her cousin that it hadn’t been them; no one wanted to believe it. And Jorge left the Casa del Diablo vowing never to return.
But barely a week had passed and he was back. And he felt like the house knew it, the whole of Boca del Río knew it, and all the people driving over the bridge and giving them disapproving looks knew it. On the other side of the road, a homeless woman was standing in the middle of the pavement pointing at them. That was already a bit much.
‘Look at them, off they go!’ the old lady shouted, poking her grubby finger towards them.
Her hair fell in greasy locks around a dirty, puffy face. She opened her toothless mouth and burst out laughing.
‘There they go! These kids have had it now!’
‘Fuck me,’ Tacho muttered under his breath, visibly shaken.
But that was all he said.
Jorge stared intently at his friend. He wanted Tacho to look him in the eye and admit that the whole thing was a terrible idea. Tacho had been there the week before, he knew about the cadets, he’d seen the look of horror on their faces. But he didn’t say a word; he even seemed offended when Jorge held his gaze. Tacho’s gaunt, sullen face was a silent reproach that seemed to say: Don’t say a word – you’ll only make it worse. You don’t talk about these things.
‘There they go!’ the beggarwoman was still yelling. ‘Would you look at these idiots!’
The girls didn’t notice the old woman and, in a sort of tacit agreement, neither Jorge nor Tacho mentioned her. They got on the bus when it came, as planned, and jumped off it at the path covered in sand and crushed shells. To their right flowed the chocolate-brown water; on the left stood the white luxury mansion. Seven Dobermans were peering down from its numerous terraces, barking and baring their fangs as the six of them walked past. The rusty gate was just ahead of them now, and, to their surprise, it was wide open.
The sun was still baking hot; it was past five in the afternoon.
(Jorge drank the whole way through telling me his story. He would talk for a few minutes, pausing just long enough to down half his glass – and grimacing as he contained his burps – before finally resuming his story. I still didn’t know what to make of it all. Unlike most of my fellow Mexicans, I didn’t believe – as I still don’t today – in ghosts or apparitions, ‘energies’ or ‘bad vibes’. The only supernatural experiences I’d had up to that point all belonged to a period of my life largely devoted to sucking on LSD tabs like they were sweets.)
As they approached the gate they noticed that a section of the land was overrun with thick, knotty undergrowth and shrubs. Just as they were about to cross the threshold, out of that very tangle of plants emerged the face, torso and finally the entire body of a young man, who smiled as he darted ahead of them and shut the gate in their faces.
‘You can’t come in here,’ he said. ‘This is private property.’
He was a short little man, light-skinned, a nobody.
(Years later, whenever I made Jorge retell the story of the Casa del Diablo, I would ask him to describe the mysterious guard in more detail or give his rough age, but Jorge would always say: ‘You could line up ten men in a row and tell yourself “I’m going to remember every single one of them” and you’d remember every single one apart from him. He was completely unremarkable, without a single distinguishing feature.’)
‘But we were here last week,’ Jacqueline whined. ‘Go on, let us take a look around.’
‘Well, I wasn’t here last week, and now I am,’ the man replied. ‘And I’m telling you you’re not coming in.’
The girls pleaded with the guard. They even tried to bribe him with a fifty-peso note, but the man just shook his head.
‘The answer’s no. It’s me who’ll have to listen to your screams later on,’ he said, still smiling.
The girls appeared to have missed this last comment and they continued whining at the man. After twenty minutes of futile begging, Jorge, still feeling sick, stepped forward and squared up to the guard. He’d had enough and wanted to be done with it.
‘Look, why don’t we just leave it up to fate?’
The man’s eyes lit up.
‘What do you propose?’
‘We flip a coin,’ Jorge said. ‘If it’s tails, we go in.’
‘And if it’s heads?’
‘If it’s heads you decide if we go in or not,’ he replied.
He tossed the coin. It landed on heads.
The guard let out a snort.
‘It’s your call,’ Jorge said.
The man opened the gate and stepped out of their way.
‘Fine, come in. It’s not like I have any authority around here…’
And so, chuckling to himself, he disappeared back into the bushes. They didn’t see him again, not even later, when the screams began.
Jorge led the group up to a terrace on the top floor which he considered to be safe, essentially because it hung over one side of the house, near the parasitic ceiba. He didn’t want to drink any alcohol; he felt like he had to stay alert. With his back against the stone balustrade overlooking the water, he kept his gaze fixed on the entrance to the terrace and, just beyond that, on that godforsaken bar leading back towards the stairwell. The girls, on the other hand, worked their way through the entire litre of brandy they’d bought, and by nine they were tanked-up and ready for a game of Truth or Dare.
Jorge couldn’t relax; his friends berated him.
‘Jorge, crack a smile, it’s your turn,’ they said.
He spun the bottle. It landed on Betty. He dared her to go and stand on the stone bench at the edge of the terrace and do a striptease, even though he felt absolutely no desire to watch her wiggling her ass. The girl took the dare and giggled as she danced. She turned around as if to take off her t-shirt, but immediately let out a scream and leaped off the bench.
‘Someone’s coming! Someone’s coming!’ she said.
Jorge sprung to his feet. He looked over at the entrance to the terrace: a shadow slipped past the doorway. A shadow that didn’t rise and fall like the silhouette of a person walking, but instead seemed to glide to the far end of the building. A shadow so dark it stood out against the darkness, even denser than the pitch black of the empty house.
It’s heading towards the bar, Jorge thought. Towards the hidden stairwell.
He told the girls to lie flat on the floor and instructed Tacho to stand guard beside the doorway. And so, planted in the middle of the terrace with his fists clenched and his stomach in knots, Jorge waited for the intruder to make his appearance.
Ten minutes passed. Ten minutes of unbearable tension in which the only sounds to be heard were the girls’ breathy whimpers and the murmur of crickets and salamanders. No footsteps, no shouts, nothing. Then Evelia started groaning, which snapped them out of their trance. Jorge gave the order to withdraw and they all stood up, all except Evelia.
‘Jorge, something’s wrong with her,’ Betty said.
Evelia was curled over in a ball on the terrace floor, heaving and jerking with her head between her knees. More than crying, it sounded like she was laughing to herself.
‘Evelia, stop fucking around. Stop it now,’ Jorge barked.
But she didn’t stop. Jorge grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her roughly.
‘Hey, I said stop it!’
He wrestled with Evelia’s petite body and managed to unfold her arms. The girl raised her head and opened her eyes.
‘Were you looking for me?’ she asked in a deep, rasping voice. There was an unfamiliar glint in her eyes that made Jorge instantly drop her. ‘You were looking for me, weren’t you? Well, here I am!’
That’s not her, was Jorge’s first thought. That’s not Evelia. It’s some other shit.
He had goosebumps all over his body.
‘Stop messing around, Evelia,’ he shouted, grabbing her by the arm.
His voice came out shakier than he’d meant it to.
Evelia effortlessly slipped from his grasp. He tried to grab her again so he could pick her up off the floor, lead her back through the house, and get the hell out of that place, but the girl wouldn’t let him near her. She started lashing out and spitting at her friends, and when Betty leaned over to try to calm her down, Evelia kicked her in the face with such force that Betty, a tiny little thing, went flying all the way into the terrace’s stone balustrade. Jorge needed Tacho’s help putting Evelia in an arm and leg lock so they could carry her out.
‘Stop, let me go, I’m okay now,’ she began shouting, as Jorge and Tacho picked her up off the floor. ‘Let’s carry on playing, let’s stay,’ she moaned.
But with that glint in her eyes, she wasn’t fooling Jorge.
‘No fucking way,’ he replied. ‘You’re not okay, Evelia. You’re not you.’
Between them, Jorge and Tacho carried her through the house. With only their dilated pupils to help them, they eventually found the exit. The girls were whimpering, hanging off Jorge’s shirt.
‘You really thought you could come looking for me and then just leave?’ Evelia laughed, once more in that guttural voice. ‘Well, you’re not going anywhere. And as for her, she’s coming with me!’
They reached the gate and Evelia, who had not stopped writhing like a furious snake in Jorge and Tacho’s arms, suddenly broke free from their grasp and fell to the floor. With nothing but her bare hands, as if paralysed from the waist down, she began to drag herself across the ground back towards the entrance of the house.
If she goes in there, I’m not going after her, Jorge thought in horror. And if I don’t get her out, nobody else will. He threw himself on top of her just a few metres from the entrance, flipped her onto her back and slapped her several times in the face, exactly as he might have done to a guy to humiliate him. Evelia burst out laughing.
‘You really think you’re hitting me? You really think you’re hurting me?’
‘Shut up!’ Jorge shouted.
Evelia’s face was red and raw. Her sneering expression slowly faded, the strange glint in her eyes went out, and she broke down in floods of tears.
‘Jorge, don’t hit me, it’s me!’ She shouted. ‘It’s me, I’m back.’
Jorge threw his arms around her and held her tightly. He thought the danger had passed.
(Years later Jorge told me exactly how they got back to Boca del Río, how they ended up pounding on the doors of the Church of Santa Ana with Evelia, who kept switching from sobs to sinister laughter in cycles of less than a minute. That night, the first time I heard the story, the first time Jorge and I went out on a date, he only told me they’d hitched a ride from a driver who happened to leave them on the doorstep of that particular parish in Boca del Río. He didn’t mention how long he, Tacho and the girls had stood rooted to the spot under one of the lampposts along that sandy path, unable to make out the lights of the main road, petrified of going the wrong way and accidentally heading back in the direction of the haunted house. Nor did he mention the verses he began to recite, lines from the psalms he’d learned by heart as a teenager when he’d joined a local evangelical church for a few months, and which only made Evelia bellow twice as loudly:‘But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.”’ The girl vomited with rage as Jorge recited the prayer. She struggled and squirmed, kicked and spat. It’d been Jorge’s idea to bring Evelia to the Santa Ana parish priest, but he wouldn’t admit it until years later, and only because I kept on asking him.)
They made it back to the centre of Boca del Río in a VW Caribe, which picked them up in front of the seafood restaurant on the path. They had to sit on top of Evelia, who was thrashing about like a wild cat. The driver of the Caribe, who was horrified by the scene, dropped them off in front of the church. Jorge ran over to the sacristy and banged on the door. A fat woman opened it and asked him what he wanted. Jorge pointed to the kerb and to Evelia, who was lying across her cousins’ laps, sobbing. The woman disappeared and returned with the parish priest. He was dressed in shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and flip flops, and had almost certainly been sleeping when they’d called for him. Tacho and Jorge told him what had happened at the Casa del Diablo. The priest went over to Evelia and examined her. He brushed the sweat-drenched hair from her face. The girl growled and shuddered at the priest’s touch, but she said nothing.
‘No, boys, this girl here is high, she’s overdone it on the pills,’ the priest concluded. ‘And she reeks of alcohol. Either she took a narcotic or it’s some sort of schizophrenic episode. You’d be best off taking her to the Red Cross.’
He walked back into the sacristy and closed the door behind him.
(‘Exactly, a case of hysteria, of suggestion,’ I interjected, unable to contain myself. I’d read William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist, on which the movie was based, about ten times, and I remembered the narrow-mindedness of the doctors who assessed the Reagan girl, and her parents’ scepticism.
Jorge admitted that in that moment he’d believed it, too. What he could never get his head around was how quickly the priest washed his hands of the matter.
‘And you know what, for the first time I actually understood those movies where they make it seem like the world is falling in on the characters. I felt like I was in an alternate universe; passers-by stared at us as if we were some sort of spectacle. We didn’t know what to do, and that was only the beginning.’)
In the meantime, Evelia had started shrieking again, rolling around on the dirty pavement every time she broke free from the others’ grasp.
It was barely eleven at night.
A man who’d witnessed the scene with the priest went over to them. He was a taxi driver.
‘Listen, I’ve been watching you kids for a while. What’s wrong with the girl?’
They told him everything.
‘I know a healer, a good one. I’ll take you if you want, he’s right here, in El Morro,’ he offered.
The neighbourhood of El Morro was ten minutes away. They decided to get in the car. They drove past La Tampiquera, up on the hill, and along Via Muerta until they reached a fenced residential plot, in the middle of which stood a rickety yet smartly painted wooden house. They got out of the taxi and knocked on the door, but no one was home.
‘That’s strange,’ the taxi driver said, ‘He’s always here at this time…’
The man flagged down a fellow taxi driver and struck up a conversation. The two men kept glancing over at Evelia, who was still struggling in her friends’ arms. The second taxi driver got out of his car and walked over to them. He had a potbelly, grey hair and the face of someone with minimal patience for time wasters.
‘Listen up, missy,’ he told Evelia. ‘You can quit your little scene now, don’t you think?’ He leaned over her and started slapping her face. ‘You like your pills, don’t you? Like your thinner, getting baked? He squeezed the girl’s chin until her teeth were showing. ‘That’s enough of this bullshit, get up…’
Evelia opened her eyes and started laughing.
‘Guess who’s here with me!’ she said to the taxi driver. ‘The old bitch María Esperanza!’
The man’s light brown face turned green. He took three bewildered steps back.
‘You know who I’m talking about. You know she’s here with me! I’M FUCKING HER!’
Jorge was standing a few metres away, smoking. He watched as the man ran back to his taxi, took something hanging from the rearview mirror, then quickly waved Jorge over.
Why me? Jorge thought. But he knew the answer: Because you knew what was in that house and you didn’t speak up. If anything happens to that girl, you’ll be to blame.
‘That girl’s in real trouble,’ the taxi driver said to him. ‘You’d better take her somewhere fast or you’ll lose her.’ He handed Jorge a rosary. ‘God help you all. I can’t come with you.’
It was the first taxi driver who explained to Jorge that the other man was an old friend of his and that María Esperanza was the name of his mother. The woman had died only a few weeks earlier.
(‘That’s really fucked up,’ I said to Jorge. ‘It’s one of the things I still can’t explain to this today,’ he replied.)
The taxi driver told them he knew another healer, much more powerful, but who lived on the far side of town, on Avenida Revillagigedo behind the Church of la Guadalupana, on the other side of the train tracks. He offered to drive them there free of charge, in a show of good faith. In their desperation, they accepted.
They lost Betty along the way: when they drove back past the housing estate of El Morro, she asked the driver to stop. She got out of the taxi, crossed the avenue, and entered a building. Jorge guessed she must live there, and it occurred to him that he didn’t know where Evelia or her two cousins lived either. Betty came back out carrying a book.
‘My mum won’t let me go with you,’ she told them.
She handed the book to Jorge. It was a Bible.
‘She told me to give you this. I don’t know what for, but take it.’
It took them an hour to cross Veracruz and reach that other neighbourhood, with its single-storey houses and potholed streets. The taxi pulled up in front of an unassuming entrance to a housing tenement, where several where several individual houses surround a central patio. A chubby woman sitting on the pavement outside appeared to have been waiting for them, because when the taxi pulled up, she immediately opened the rear door. She had a round, friendly face. Her hair was short like a man’s and bottle blond; she couldn’t have been older than thirty.
‘Welcome, kids,’ was the first thing she said. ‘We’ve been expecting you.’
She led the group inside the vecindad. The central patio had a dirt floor and in the middle of it stood a very rustic wooden shack.
‘This is the Healer’s house,’ she explained. ‘I am the Clairvoyant.’
She led the taxi driver with Evelia in his arms into the shack and lined the rest of them up by the door.
‘You can come in,’ she said to Jorge. ‘And you,’ she told Karla. Then she turned to Tacho and Jacqueline. ‘Not you two. Yours is on your back,’ she told Tacho, ‘and the girl’s on her leg. You two stay out here.’
Jorge remembered then that they both had tattoos: Tacho, a gargoyle on his left shoulder, and Jacqueline, a coiled snake on her ankle.
(‘But how did she know?’ I interrupted Jorge again. ‘What were they wearing? Could she have seen them?’ Jorge ignored me and carried on telling the story.)
The Healer’s shack was full of candles. Row upon row of them shone from every surface in the room. Three portraits hung on one of the walls: in the middle, Christ dressed in a white tunic, without his crown of thorns, smiling and relaxed as if he were posing for a photo. He was sandwiched between the images of a very beautiful woman, who Jorge assumed was the Virgin, and a dandyish gentleman with an enigmatic gaze, white skin, long sideburns and a full moustache.
The Healer was a stocky older woman with very dark skin and long hair down to her hips. As soon as she walked in she ordered Jorge and the taxi driver to seat Evelia in an armchair in the middle of the room and keep hold of her arms. The woman took a bunch of herbs from a table and began thrashing Evelia’s body as she invoked a long list of Catholic saints.
All the while, Evelia kept on as before, spitting and howling and bellowing in a thunderous voice.
The Healer took an egg and ran it over Evelia’s temples, but the egg broke the moment it touched the girl’s clammy skin. A second egg met the same fate. The Healer then took a lemon and a pair of scissors; she scored a cross into the green lemon rind and smeared it all over Evelia’s body. The fruit soon yellowed, then turned brown in patches, as if it had rotted.
By now, Evelia was shaking with such force that Jorge had to use all his strength to stop her slip of a body from rising off the seat. She was no longer laughing or crying; she was baring her teeth and dark gums, trying to bite Jorge and the taxi driver, and even the Healer herself. The veins and tendons in her neck looked like cables about to snap.
‘She was looking for me! She came looking for me and here I am!’ she raged.
The Healer doused Evelia in holy water. The girl screamed as if someone were stabbing her.
‘Out, foul spirit, in the name of Christ Jesus, in the name of his baptism, in the name of his crucifixion, in the name of his resurrection!’ the Healer intoned. They were the only words Jorge could make out among the wailing, until Evelia began shouting again.
‘She called me! She came looking for me! THIS BITCH IS MINE!’
The flames of the candles – of which there were hundreds, their wax all melted into the tabletops and the shelves on the walls – guttered savagely with every syllable Evelia spat. Each time she shouted something, the candle wicks hissed and let off sparks, as if they’d been sprinkled with dust.
(Years later, when Jorge and I were already living together, I asked him to repeat the story of La Casa del Diablo. We bought some beers and got settled on the tiny sofas that had come with our rental house. Two of the walls in the living room had floor-to-ceiling windows; with the interior lights switched on, we could see the reflection of the room and our own faces, and not the dark of night, which was somehow unsettling.
‘And it never occurred to you that it might all be a trick?’ I asked. ‘The candles could have contained something that made them spark, or maybe the women secretly threw something on them…’
‘And the lemon, I probably just imagined it, right? Or maybe they switched it when we weren’t looking, I know…’ Jorge conceded. ‘But all those other things… How did Evelia know about that second taxi driver’s mother? How come we could barely restrain her between us, a girl who can’t have weighed more than forty kilos?’
‘The strength of the demented,’ I said. ‘Maybe…’
‘And the streetlights?’ he said, cutting me off. ‘The lights that kept coming and going?’
‘Someone outside the house could have done that,’ I suggested.
Jorge shook his head.
‘“Do you know what I thought during the ritual? I imagined the Healer as one of those tech engineers, the guy you call in hysterics because your computer suddenly turned itself off and he says: “Have you checked to see if it’s connected to the power?” What I mean is, there was a progression: basil, eggs, and then she gradually turned it up a gear. Even her prayers got more and more intense. In the end she was speaking in tongues and I couldn’t understand a word…’
‘Glossolalia,’ I said, calling on my memory of the books I’d read to help contextualize the story.
‘Yeah well… what about the rain shower at the start? And the mad beggarwoman? And the thing down the stairwell? And the weirdo by the front gate? How do you explain all that?’
I realized he was offended I was doubting him, so from then on I kept quiet.
‘One of the last things I remember from being in that shack, holding on to Evelia, is the fire: the Healer began moving in circles around us, sort of dancing, and then suddenly she threw something on the floor and the taxi driver, Evelia and I all found ourselves in the middle of a ring of fire, a ring of flames that came right up to here, to my hips. The Healer jumped into the flames, moving through them as if it were nothing at all, then walked straight over to Evelia, grabbed her by the hair and began screaming in her face. It looked like she was trying to eat her…’
‘And what were you thinking at this point?’
‘I was in shock,’ he said. ‘Shocked at reality. You know, that’s the worst part: when your mind start to surrender to that shit, that shit you don’t understand, and it begins to take over your thoughts. Because if you surrender to it, that shit’ll worm its way into you and fill every last space. That shit gets into your head and you start accepting it as real.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said.
‘It was like an internal conflict, a constant battle between reason and perception.’
I asked him about Evelia, what she looked like by then.
‘If I could take that shit and put it into a movie, it would look a lot more like The Exorcism of Emily Rose than The Exorcist: the screams, the faces she made, the voices and her eyes, like she’d dropped ten pills…’
‘And what was the demon called?’ I asked.
In order to perform an exorcism you need to know the name of the entity controlling the victim. It’s a key piece of information, there in all the literature on the subject, from the Roman Ritual to the medieval grimoires, which instructed readers on how to perform demon-summoning rituals. No name, no contract.
‘Not now,’ he said, his face serious and those beautiful eyes shining with cold, contained fury. Or maybe just fear. ‘I’ll tell you another time, when we haven’t been drinking.’)
After the spectacle of the fire, the healer stepped out and Jorge saw an opportunity to leave, too. Back in the patio, he threw up pure bile. The lights inside the tenement were flickering on and off as if the power kept cutting. Tacho, Jacqueline and Karla were still there. Betty had arrived with her mother. It was one in the morning.
‘The Clairvoyant’s been calling other guides from Catemaco and San Andrés, asking them to help from there,’ Tacho explained.
‘On the phone?’ Jorge asked.
Tacho shook his head. He knew better than most what a ‘guide’ was. His mother, Doña Ana, was a regular attendee of the ceremonies that took place all over town at spiritualist centres of diverse denominations. Some people even said she possessed some ‘powers’. In those rituals they purged the ‘patients’ of ‘bad vibes’ that circulated in Veracruz’s persistently foul atmosphere, or reversed acts of witchcraft – known as ‘works’ – performed by unscrupulous brujos hired by the victims’ enemies. These ceremonies were – and still are – so popular among the people of Veracruz that even the Catholic church began offering regular ‘healing and deliverance masses’ (advocated by the Catholic Charismatic Renewal apostolic movement) to hold on to its parishioners.
‘Have you told Evelia’s parents?’ Jorge asked.
‘Yeah, they’re on their way,’ the girls said.
A few feet away, the Healer, the Clairvoyant and a small group of women who had just arrived were discussing the ‘treatment’.
‘Have you “cleansed” her?’
‘Yes – and nothing,’ the Healer replied.
‘The ring of fire?’
‘Has he told you his name yet?’
‘He’s very strong, he doesn’t want to leave. He’s threatening to take her, at two minutes past four.’
‘In that case we have no choice: we have to summon him,’ said the Clairvoyant.
‘I’ll do it,’ the Healer replied. ‘He owes me a few favours.’
Jorge chose not to go back inside the shack with the Healer. He watched from the doorway as the women stripped Evelia and dressed her in an alb, then thrashed the Healer’s body with bunches of herbs, to ‘purify her’. Praying and chanting in a strange tongue, the Healer began to rock on her feet, spinning in increasingly unsteady circles until finally she burped loudly, fainted and fell to the floor. The women quickly ran to help her, but before they could take her by the arms, the Healer was already on her feet. She adjusted her clothing as if she were wearing an elegant dinner jacket and started to march around the room in long, sure-footed strides. Her energy was manifestly different now, masculine.
‘A very good evening to you all,’ came a booming voice. ‘My name is Yan Gardec and I am here to help our young sister.’
He turned towards the sofa where Evelia was sitting, watching him.
‘I know you,’ he said, pointing at her with his index finger.
Whatever it was living inside Evelia growled.
‘You and I have clashed time and again,’ Gardec went on. ‘It’s time you left this girl in peace.’
‘She came looking for me!’ bellowed the thing inside Evelia. ‘She’s been calling me for months! And I’m taking her!’
‘NO!’ Gardec thundered. ‘She doesn’t belong to you! She is God’s child! Get out of here and don’t come back!’
‘I’m not leaving empty-handed!’
Yan Gardec crossed his arms and twisted the tips of his invisible moustache between his fingers.
‘You must want something in exchange for the girl. Ask and it shall be yours.’
The thing inside Evelia began snapping at the air with excitement.
‘How about a billy goat?’ Gardec suggested, condescendingly. ‘A pure black kid, born of a black doe under a full moon…’
At this point Evelia, or the thing inside her, began reeling off her demands in that guttural, gravelly voice, but Jorge didn’t want to hang around to listen. He walked out of the tenement and onto the street. He was dying for a cigarette, dying to fill his chest with something other than pure terror.
A taxi pulled up and Ana, Tacho’s mother, stepped out of it.
Jorge gave a sigh of relief. It was good to see a familiar face.
But Doña Ana didn’t greet him; she stormed over to him and pushed his back up against the wall.
‘Now you see what you get for fucking around, you idiots: you come face to face with him.’
(On another occasion, in 2010, we thought we’d try to find the spot where the exorcism had taken place. First we headed to the Church of La Guadalupana, and after plenty of asking around we eventually found the tenement. Both the shack and the Healer had gone. The Clairvoyant too. The neighbours gave us vague directions – sufficiently vague for us not to be able to follow them – to the new address of what they referred to as ‘The Temple’. We searched for a good while, but couldn’t find it.
I’d read a few books about the presence of spiritist and spiritualist sects – also known as Marian Trinitarian Spiritualism – in Veracruz. It wasn’t that I believed in those things. I was interested because of the sheer amount of people in this city who accept that the spirits of dead people can return, either to help the living or to harm them, depending on said spirits’ character or temperament.
‘Jorge,’ I said on our way home. ‘That Yan Gardec wouldn’t be Allan Kardec, would it?’
I told him that Allan Kardec was the nom de plume of the French writer Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail, who founded Spiritism in the mid-nineteenth century. The Veracruz Library and Historical Archives, where I’d done my social service, held the first two editions of Kardec’s most important works: The Spirits’ Book and The Book on Mediums. In fact, the archives were full of material on the subject of spiritualism: novels, ‘text books’, newspaper articles in French and Spanish written with the aim of spreading this philosophical doctrine, which had been fashionable among intellectual circles towards the end of the nineteenth century. How Allan Kardec had ended up becoming a big player in Veracruz’s spiritualist pantheon more than a century after his death was something I couldn’t make sense of. Just thinking about that level of symbolic reworking made my head spin.
When we got home, I raced to my computer to show Jorge all the images of Kardec I could find on Google. I asked him if any of them matched the dandy he’d seen on the Healer’s wall.
Jorge looked at the images for a second.
‘It’s possible,’ he said.
I asked him again the name of the demon.
Again he found a way to evade the question.
In my notebook I had made a list of the names of the demons that appear in the Grand Grimoire, a book of spells dating back to the eighteenth century, which I’d had no trouble finding online. This text – like the works of Saint Cyprian of Antioch, Pope Honorius, King Solomon and Merlin the wizard – contains codes and magic formulas to summon demons, speak to the dead, win the lottery, make a person dance around naked against their will, and make glue for porcelain, among other useful practices.
I showed Jorge the page where I’d written down the demon’s names.
‘This one,’ was all he said, pointing to a name that he didn’t want to say aloud: Satanachia, hell’s ‘great general’, Lucifer’s right-hand man and the superior of Pruflas, Aamon and Barbatos. His main power, according to the Grand Grimoire, is to make people younger or older, but he can also subjugate girls and women, making them submit to his will.
A few days later, having already begun writing this story, I asked Jorge if we could go to Tacho and Doña Ana’s house, both to talk to them and to try to locate the other witnesses from Evelia’s exorcism. Jorge tracked down his old friend, but I was disappointed to learn that neither Tacho nor his mother were willing to discuss it. They did, however, tell Jorge that Evelia had ended up marrying a kid from Flores Magón. His name was Rubén, but in the neighbourhood he went by the name of El Sapo, the Toad, and he was famous for only ever dreaming about people who were going to die.
‘I’m not surprised Tacho won’t talk,’ Jorge said. ‘Seeing the devil is no fucking joke. We all saw him that night.’)
In the months that followed the horror at the house on El Estero, Jorge didn’t hang out with his old friends. It wasn’t a conscious decision; he just started moving in different circles and spending more time at home with his grandma.
He later found out from Jacqueline that Evelia’s parents turned up after the exorcism and refused to believe what the Healer told them about their daughter. They thought the whole thing was a scam because the woman demanded a fee of five thousand pesos to complete the deliverance ritual, which included sacrificing a goat within a few weeks. According to Jacqueline, Evelia was fine for a while, until one day, out of nowhere, she locked herself in her room and refused to come out. She attacked her parents and cut herself with broken shards of objects that she’d smashed up. Her family took her to doctors and psychiatrists, but nothing helped. One of them even suggested having the girl committed to a psychiatric facility.
Jorge later heard, this time from Betty, that Evelia’s parents, unable to cure their daughter and at their wit’s end, eventually caved to the pressure put on them by family and friends to take Evelia to one of the deliverance masses in Puente Jula, a village with a population of around three thousand, a few miles outside of Veracruz. The village is famous for the exorcisms performed by the Catholic priest, Father Casto Simón, in the Parish of San Miguel Arcángel. The ceremony takes place every Friday at three pm; a mass is given in Latin and Aramaic, culminating in a ritual of demonic expulsion that goes on for several hours.
According to Betty, Evelia was always the first among Puente Jula’s possessed to start squirming and falling to the floor. It was soon clear to Father Casto and the congregation that the girl required a special exorcism, which her parents, in their distress, finally agreed to.
‘Apparently they took Evelia to the edge of a cliff somewhere near Rinconada and tied her to a pig in preparation for the exorcism,’ Betty told him the last time they saw each other. ‘People say that after a while the demon came out of her and entered the pig, at which point the others untied the animal, picked it up between them and threw it into the abyss.’
On that first date they kicked us out of the bar when Jorge finished telling his strange story. We made our way to my house; I walked alongside the buildings, Jorge next to the kerb. I’d never met a guy who insisted that we walk along like that: he did it to protect me, he explained; so that anyone looking at us wouldn’t think he was ‘pimping’ me. I was intrigued and also pretty drunk. Jorge carried on posing his big questions:
‘What’s your life philosophy?’ he asked me at one point.
If I’d been the age I am now (thirty at the time of writing, the exact age he was when we met) I would have cracked up laughing. But I was only twenty-four, so I really meant it when I said: ‘I have no fucking clue.’
I wanted to ask him something I’d been thinking about all night.
‘So you really believe in the devil?’
‘I can’t tell you he doesn’t exist,’ he said. It started to rain again. ‘It would be extremely arrogant to say he doesn’t: we live in a vast universe, driven by immeasurable, inconceivable energies. We humans are just specks of shit in the universe, we’re nothing. What we know is nothing compared to all the things we don’t know, all the things we can’t control.’
At the time I didn’t understand that Jorge and I lived in different worlds; I suppose I was too busy trying to send him the right signals so he’d kiss me. I only worked it out later, when it was already too late, when the differences between us had grown too big and painful to ignore; when he moved out and I was left on my own with the cat, the dog and half of all the things we’d bought together.
But on that evening in May I didn’t know any of that. On that evening in May it rained on us as Jorge walked me home. And before I opened the front door and went in, we hugged, stopping short of the kiss we both wanted, and said goodnight.
And that’s how I met my first husband. That’s how I fell in love with the stories he told.
Photograph © Evelyn Berg