Melinda was not like the other children in her village. She was a bright-eyed, adventurous girl. Only Melinda would climb past the mossy ravine to jump from highest end of the waterfalls. She plucked berries from the bushes and popped them into her mouth without qualms. Melinda loved to explore every sandy beach, dip her toes in every lake, and hike every mountain. She loved the feeling of wet dirt under her feet. She loved the caresses of the wind on her cheeks and the way that waves escaped her hands when she tried to grab the sea foam.
Her grandmother, Abuela Lisa, worried about the dangers that her free-spirited granddaughter could invite. In her own youth, she had left the dullness of village life, to stow away on a pirate ship, La violeta. Only when she had seen enough of the world had she chosen to go back. Melinda had grown up listening to these stories, and she yearned to find the same thrills in their sleepy town in the mountains. She dreamt of someday leaving the numb routine that her people lived in. Abuela Lisa now spent her days leading community meetings and managing the season’s crops for the village.
One day, as she passed the forest by her house, Melinda decided: she would camp out in the forest. She knew the every single one of the forest’s crevices and hideaways. She had climbed every tree and explored every cave. She knew which berries were edible and which fruits she should not even touch.
At dinner, she told her grandmother.
“Melinda, please. You know you can explore the forest all you want. But during the daylight...and as long as you don’t don’t run past our siembra of avocado trees, mija; you don’t know what you might find. You know that we expelled El Cuco to the caves that lay beyond there, so don’t give it a reason to torment us once more.”
Melinda sighed and just shook her head. This was a story she had heard many times.
For centuries, the town had been terrorized by a creature called El Cuco. No one who saw it remembered what it looked like; it was such a horrifying sight that people forgot what they had witnessed. People turned to stone at the sight of it, and children disappeared--but that was before her time. In the eyes of El Cuco, people found their deepest fears. It hid in the shadows of the night, stalking villagers who were naive enough to leave their houses after dark. The town had been terrified for centuries, until brave Abuela Lisa, returned from the sea, came up with a plan to expel it forever. “If we all gather outside at night time, the creature will know that we are not scared anymore, and it will leave us alone.”
Women made garlands from amapola flowers and silk paper. Boys chopped wood for the huge bonfire. As the sun fell, the town began to dance. Not a single villager slept that night. Children chewed hard coconut tirijala candy, pulling it into long white strips. Old men played chess around the fire. The village musicians did not stop playing. When El Cuco slid from the forest, hidden by the veil of the night, it was surprised at the sight it found.
Abuela Lisa had told the story to Melinda since she could remember. “It did not dare advance into the streets,” she said. “It’s hiding there waiting for a weakness in the village. Looking for a crevice to crawl into our minds again.”
Now she said: “My answer is no. Explore with your friends during the day, but don’t put yourself in that danger.”
Melinda stayed silent while clearing the kitchen with her grandmother. She then retreated to her room, and began to prepare for her newest adventure. She packed her wool blanket for the mountain top, a pillow, and a change of clothes. She ran down to the kitchen, made a buttery grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich and stood in front of the door.
Melinda had never sneaked out of her house before. Though she was the most daring girl in her class, she had never hidden anything from her grandmother. Still, Melinda slipped out the door without making a sound and dove into the depth of the night.
The young girl slid through the streets of her village, avoiding all townspeople. She didn’t want to be recognized. She walked for hours. The moon lit paths she had been familiar with all her life, but couldn’t recognize under the stars. Melinda arrived to the village’s siembra of avocado trees. In the dark hours of the night, they looked like huge giant that were ready to stomp her into bits at any second. She hesitated for a second; beyond the avocado trees, there would be no escape.
As she stood contemplating the legendary avocado trees which her village had owned for generations, a shiver suddenly ran up her spine. She felt cornered. Instinct took over, and she began to run, and run, and run towards the darkness. She knew she was being chased, and she knew that there was no going back At least, not until the sun came up. She spotted a climbable tree and quickly crawled up its trunk. It was pitch black inside the treetop. Fruit bats were circling around her, and she tried not to scream as she heard them squeak in the darkness- until she felt one crawling at her elbow. Melinda shook and waved her arms--and toppled.
She cursed the avocado trees she had seen on the way home from school and the way that they had made her think about what was beyond them and then her grandmother saying no and her deciding to sneak out and no everything was going wrong and it was all her fault...
Melinda fell. She rolled into a bed of dry leaves and recited her Ave Marias. If only she could stay this way until morning, she’d be able to race back to her house and she would apologize to her grandmother for ever having left. She breathed in and out, just like her grandmother had taught her. Suddenly, she heard the rustling of leaves. She felt the shivers again. She tried to scream, but no sound came out. She heard leaves crunching, but it wasn’t the wind.
Melinda saw its shadow grow, and grow, and grow until she was completely in the darkness that she had feared so much. She had never faced it before, but she knew the creature that had haunted her village so long ago was watching her now. It slid towards her, and she froze, but she refused to turn to stone. Courage surged through her. Melinda knew what to do.
Melinda stood up and extended her hand to the amorphous darkness that was creeping towards her.
“I’m Melinda. Nice to meet you.” She smiled at the monster.
El Cuco stood 7 feet tall. He wore a dark blue cloak over his skeletal figure. His eyes glowed red. But In his face Melinda saw a deep confusion.
“It’s like you came out of thin air. Are you talking to me?” - El Cuco asked.
“Yeah. What’s your name?” - She said.
“People around these parts call me El Cuco, so that’s what I go by. Or just Cuco for short. It’s a nickname for José.”
“José? Your name is José?” Melinda asked in disbelief.
“Yeah, but it doesn’t really strike as much fear into people- so I just go by Cuco. Not that I like terrifying humans. But after a while, you embrace the reputation.” El cuco sighed and sat down on a fallen log. He put his bony hands on his lap. Melinda sat next to him and patted him on the back.
“You- you aren’t afraid of me?” El cuco asked.
“Why would I be?” Melinda replied.
“Well, your whole village drove me away.” El Cuco responded.
“You did eat children for dinner!” Melinda said in a know-it-all voice.
“No! I invited them for dinner. Common misunderstanding- This is how rumors start. None of the villagers could look past my appearance, and I started to believe that I really was evil. Most people just took a look at me and started screaming.” The creature said to Melissa, in a saddened whisper.
“Why didn’t you ever show your face? I mean, I think you’re scary, but I’ve seen scarier.” The young girl reasoned with the monster.
“ I don’t know... I’m shy! Do you know how much fun the chupacabras makes of me? I was trying to prove myself in front of other monsters.” El Cuco said.
“Well, we’ll change that. Tomorrow, you’ll come with me to the village again! You’ll be the bravest monster of them all.”
“No!” El Cuco was horrified. “ I’d rather stay here, where I don’t bother anyone.”
“You’ll be fine! I promise you. You’ll be with me. I’ll even introduce you to Abuela Lisa” She replied. Melinda couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t a scary monster. He was an insecure one.
“Well, alright. If you insist.”
Melinda and her new friend explored the forest together that night. El Cuco showed her through the grounds beyond the avocado trees. The creature took her to a waterfall that was also a natural rock slide. They spent hours sliding down, not minding the scraped knees that resulted from doing so. El Cuco showed her the treehouse that he had built from scratch in the highest flamboyán of the entire forest. He had hollowed out the trunk to make a staircase that led to a two story residence. It was the prettiest house Melinda had ever seen. He Cuco had woven tapestries out of palm tree leaves and painted on them scenes of the forest with tempera he had made from mashed berries. It had a big bay window- from it, you could see as far as the peak of the mountain ranges that surrounded the valley where Melinda and El Cuco lived. The creature and the young girl then gathered kindle and made a bonfire that burned until the sun rose in the colorful Caribbean sky. They discovered stories in the morning clouds.
Melinda was relieved. The creature that had haunted every corner of the minds of her people was in fact, a charming monster who wanted to be friends. He had been misunderstood by the townspeople, who had never even thought about giving him a chance. They began the long journey. They walked, and walked, and walked, until they reached the avocado trees.
“Are you sure about this?” Melinda asked Cuco.
El Cuco nodded his head, and they proceeded to walk towards Abuela Lisa’s home, hand in hand.
Syra is a poet who was born in Greece and raised in Puerto Rico. She loves working with children and has spent lots of time tutoring children in public schools, as well as being a camp counselor. She teaches Spanish through ACTION, a tutoring program in West Philadelphia that focuses on teaching Spanish and promoting bilingualism. Syra is “not funny” and self- deprecating, plays tennis, and loves watching Netfix after classes.