Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Legend of La Llorona

I am deeply fascinated by ghost stories.  It's all about allowing yourself that healthy dose of fear, that suspenseful moment where your pulse is racing and every tiny sound suddenly becomes menacing.  There's something universal about the way we tell ghost stories.  You turn off all the lights except for a candle or a flashlight, you sit in a close circle, huddled together to keep out the evil spirits (or just to get some moral support from your friends) and in your best "spooky" voice you whisper a story about death. 

This past week I was given an assignment in a class I'm taking called "Directing New Work."  We were to bring in an "experiment"--some sort of theatrical experience we've been meaning to try but have never really gotten the opportunity to attempt.  So this Tuesday, on the day of my presentation, I asked the class to gather in a circle on the stage, turned off all the lights in the theatre (except for a flashlight I grabbed from the glove compartment of my car), and told a ghost story.  Before I came to class, I carefully planned out what I would say.  I wrote down the results and, while it's really best to hear this sort of thing told in a properly creepy tone of voice in a properly creeky room, I thought I'd post the results here so that wherever you are, you can enjoy a good ghost story.  Just do me a favor.  Before you read this, turn out the lights.

 The Legend of La Llorona
     There are as many different versions of La Llorona's life and death as there are people who claim to have seen her.  Some claim she was the innocent victim of a man's betrayal.  Some claim she was a harlot who seduced and killed her lover and then drowned her children.  There is only one detail on which these various stories agree:  Her name was Maria.  This is just one version of Maria's story, but it is the version that was told to me by someone who truly believes this woman existed and that her ghost still roams the earth.
     Maria was a young woman from a small pueblo in Mexico, but her beauty was a legend that spread far past the edges of the village.  Men traveled miles and miles just to court her, but to all of them, Maria would say, “My heart belongs to another.”  You see, when Maria was young, her father had hosted a wealthy man from the city.  Maria fell in love with him in the short days he stayed in her house and no other man could measure up to his handsome looks and worldly conversation.  Maria spent her days pining for the man she had met so long ago, and though her friends told her he would never return, she couldn’t help dream of him.
     Perhaps the stars shone down on Maria, perhaps it was the devil bringing temptation, but whatever forces were at work, one starstruck day, the man of Maria’s dreams returned to the village to stay at her father’s house.  He became captivated by Maria's beauty (as so often happens in stories such as these) and remained in the village to court her.  In a year’s time, Maria bore him a child, a young son.  She was so overjoyed by the perfect child, she turned a deaf ear to her family’s horror and the town’s condemnation.   Maria expected that her suitor would ask her to marry him, now that she had borne him a son, but days went by and he said nothing.  Finally, one day he disappeared and even Maria’s friends whispered that he had gone to the city, never to return. 
    Time passed and Maria raised her son as best she could, but it was a constant struggle for her, and she never forgot or forgave her lover for abandoning her.  One twilight, Maria was wandering on the bank of the river that ran through her pueblo, her young son in her arms, when she heard the sound of an approaching carriage.  She felt a deep shudder, like a premonition, running through her body as she stepped closer to the road to see who it might be. 
    The horses’ hooves never faltered, the carriage's wheels never caught on the rocks or the potholes in the country road, passing Maria by as if she were already a ghost, standing invisible by the side of the road.  Maria’s heart broke to pieces as she watched her former suitor ride past, holding his new wife’s hand.  He never spared Maria a second glance.
    Maria fell into a wild rage, motivated by hate and fed by grief.  In her anger and sadness she threw her son into the river.  The child was far to young to swim, and by the time Maria realized what she had done, he had already disappeared, carried away by the strong current. Maria cried “Ay mi hijo, mi hijo” and her sobs were heard around the world.
    No one is really certain what happened next.  Some say Maria killed herself, throwing herself into the river that claimed her child.  Some say nature itself killed her, dissolving the bank beneath her feet and tumbling her into the river.  Still others claim that Maria stood staring at the churning water for days, weeks, and months refusing to eat, drink or sleep until she wasted away and became a spirit.  And today, at twilight, you can see her wandering the banks of the rivers of the world, looking for her child. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

On the Pleasures of Armchair Travel

Well, today is the last day of Spring Break.  I’m back home in Austin, having spent most of the week with my family in Phoenix, and trying (in vain) to catch up on all the work I SHOULD have been doing.  Spring break is always like this (at least for me.)  You set yourself all of these goals and then achieve none of them.  This break, my goal was to read a few Jose Cruz Gonzalez plays, in preparation for a paper I’m writing this week comparing his work to Suzan Zeder’s work.  You can imagine how well THAT turned out.  So far, my thesis is both authors have a number of Z’s in their names...

I did manage to achieve one goal (of course, the one that was completely un-work-related.)  I read a pleasure book.  A whole book!  Actually, I read one and a half. I managed to finish Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street, a novel I’ve been working on since August.  I highly recommend it.  If you’re the sort of person who enjoys  character-centered stories filled with quirky, humorous personalities and just enough plot to keep the whole thing interesting, Alexander McCall Smith is your man.  He’s written several series, but the Scotland Street novels are definitely my favorite. They come with the added bonus that they’re written in an episodic manner, so you can read a few chapters at Christmas and return to it over Spring Break without needing to remember exactly which plot developments you read 2 months ago.

The main book of the break was Calvin Trillin’s Travels with Alice.  This book has been at the top of my “read me” list for years now, and I finally got around to reading it.  I’m so glad I did.  Calvin Trillin strikes me as the sort of person I’d really like to have a meal with, maybe wander through a European market remarking on the annoying presence of non-edible items like mops and gathering cheese, bread, and olives for a picnic by a lake in Tuscany. 

Dan Cryer from Newsday describes Trillin as, “The sophisticated traveler masquerading as the innocent abroad,” but I don’t think this fully captures the odd mix of sophistication and insanity that Travels with Alice seems to hold at its heart.  Anyone who can eat about 8 fast-food burgers and french fries in one afternoon (in the name of “assessing the authenticity of French Fast Food restaurants), enjoy a game that essentially involves tricking a bull into standing in a paddling pool, play a rousing game of fooseball (called babyfoot in France) in the local bar, and then trot off to the local market to sample fresh fruits and vegetables, pastries, and cheeses all in the same trip is definitely insane in a fantastic sort of way.  He’s exactly the sort of person I’d love to go on a trip with.

There’s something paradoxically sophisticated and simple about the way Calvin Trillin describes his vacations abroad.  He’s one of the few writers I’ve ever encountered that would seem equally at home in a dive-bar that just happens to have the best seafood this side of the atlantic, and a restaurant in Paris that won’t let you in unless you’re wearing a tuxedo.  I really admire that kind of flexibility, and it definitely makes for an interesting read.  It also helps that Calving Trillin is HILARIOUS. (For proof I point you to the chapter entitled “Beach Picnic” where Trillin contemplates bringing an entire ham, which at the time was hanging from a peg in the ceiling of his living room, to a trip to one of the British Virgin Islands, known for its beaches, but not for its food.  He ends up leaving the ham at home, at the behest of his wife, but they do bring an entire suitcase full of provisions.) 

The best thing about this book is that it got me thinking about some of the places I’ve been.  Calvin Trillin tells his stories in such a natural way you feel like you’re sitting in his living room (under the ham) hearing stories about his family’s latest exploits, and gearing up to tell a few stories of your own.  His tales of exploring the Mercato Centrale in Florence reminded me of my own experiences there (he even mentioned the incredible, overpowering smell of meat that hits you when you enter the market, one of my chief memories of that place), and his stories about France actually invited me to fantasize about returning to Paris, even though my experience there wasn’t always positive (not being able to speak french makes it difficult to enjoy France.)  If you’re looking for a book that will take you on a journey, that will make you laugh, and that won’t take you long to read, Travels with Alice should definitely be on your “read me” list.