by: Carmen Baca
A bewitching take on the Dance of the Devil, based on a New Mexican folk tale the author’s grandmother used to recount…
The nineteen thirties were lean years. People were recovering from the Depression, which brought with it despair mixed with anger, frustration, and sadness. So when any opportunity for a baile—a dance—became available, the small community of Las Nubes1 in northern New Mexico rejoiced. Now, what happened during the Lenten season in 1937 wouldn’t have occurred in any of the surrounding rural communities; only in the sinful city of Las Nubes would this dance have been held during such a sacred season. The outlying villages were governed by societies of particular brotherhoods of men who took it upon themselves to care for the spiritual and communal needs of the people. Known as los Hermanos Penitentes—the Penitent Brothers—these brotherhoods wouldn’t have allowed such a blasphemous activity as a dance to be held during Lent. But the city was full of godless people, those whose only concern was to have a good time, and the devil be damned. Don’t get me wrong, Las Nubes wasn’t a bad place. There were good folks abounding, God-fearing church goers. But what transpired one night in Las Nubes during this dance was felt by all the city’s sinners, those who were entirely unprepared to become unwilling participants in a lesson the Devil had planned for mankind.
The dance hall was called Blue Light City. It was colorfully decorated in bunting left over from the mayor’s election campaign. Blue lights hung from the ceiling and turned the red, white, and blue streamers a kind of drab purple. Almost every person who walked through the dance hall’s double doors that night snuck in mula, or moonshine. It was a crowd interested most of all in drinking, and if the mood and the liquor struck them, dancing. After such carrying on would come fornication, as the body and mind gave way to desire, or possibly puking. Or so the attendants of the dance believed. As the events of that fateful evening began, the musicians set up their instruments, the women set up the refreshment table, the men set up the chairs against the walls, and the townspeople arrived in droves. Then the conversations began…
“How goes it, Bob?”
“Eh, holding on by a thread here, Joe. Spring better bring the rains ’cause I ain’t got no more hay to feed the livestock.”
“¿Tienen suficiente para comer?” Louisa asked her vecina, her closest neighbor, Anne, if they had enough to eat.
“Si,” Anne replied as she blinked back a tear. “Por ahora.” Yes, for now. The community of Las Nubes had enough food, just barely, to feed its inhabitants. Both women headed for the moonshine as they conversed, intent on drowning their mutual worries in drink as literally as they could.
When the musicians began to play, drowning out the conversations, most folks rose from their chairs to dance, forgetting, if only for a few moments, that they were poor, and letting go of their struggles for the evening, if they could. The people filled their cups with moonshine and lost themselves in inebriation.
An hour prior to midnight, those in attendance began to slowly notice that they had been joined by a stranger, someone no one recognized dressed all in black from head to toe. The next day, not a single person had remembered seeing the man in black slip inside the dance hall.
The women were the first to come under the man in black’s spell. The fairy tale tall, dark man with the high cheekbones, square jaw, and Roman nose was handsome and charming. He possessed the physique and good-look’s women dreamed of encountering. When his dark, piercing eyes locked with those of the men, they found themselves looking away first, cowering like dogs when they meet the leader of the pack. Then, each backed away with tails tucked between their legs as they accepted his dominance. One by one, all the men turned their faces away as the stranger approached their women. Wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters all sighed with bliss as he kissed their hands and led them away to dance. The men stood back and watched, unwilling or unable to protest as though enchanted by a spell.
The stranger audaciously seemed intent on making the men even more envious of his actions.
“¡Que viva la fiesta!” the man in black yelled occasionally, stomping his booted foot on the wood floor to punctuate his exclamation for the festivities to continue despite the late hour. “Another song!” he yelled when the musicians paused to take short breaks. Yet he never spoke directly to any of the men, and only the women knew what he said as he bent close to their cheeks to whisper sensual intimacies. No one noticed him ever taking a break of his own, or indulging in a drink of refreshment. The man in black danced to every song the musicians played, occasionally rearing his head to howl “¡Ay!” before pirouetting his dance partner in a dizzy whirl.
The spectacle of the stranger dancing the night away went on, dance after dance, a new dance partner each time, until finally, the last woman — of a young age — remained. It just so happened that right before the stranger turned to head the young woman’s way, something else was happening a few blocks away, something that had the potential to end the evening’s’ festivities and the stranger’s conquest of the last — and most innocent — women in the city.
“You must do something, Padre!” The Mother Superior of the local nunnery pleaded her case to the only priest in Las Nubes, having heard the gossip regarding a dance being held during the holiest of all weeks in the Catholic faith. Unfortunately, the priest wasn’t the bravest of souls, having answered the call of the cloth solely for the life in a protected environment it provided. Poor Padre Pete, as he was known to the townsfolk, was short and stout of stature, a passionate bookworm, and a victim of bullies for most of his formative years. There just wasn’t a single brave bone in the holy man’s body.
“What do you expect me to do, Mother Mary Clara?” Padre Pete begged her in response. “The gente of this city pay me no mind when they have a drink to fortify their own courage. They defy me, they disrespect me, they—”
“For once in your life stand up and show them you care for their souls, Padre. Stand up to them, especially now that they are drunk and weak in their faith. Be a leader and follow Christ’s example. Save their souls, Padre!”
Wringing his hands before him as he paced in nervous anxiety, the little priest shook his head and mumbled under his breath.
Losing patience, Sister Mary Clara raised her hands and clapped for attention. “I’ll go then, but at least go with me to show them we’re in agreement. You can hold the flashlight while I pray the rosary for fortitude along the way.” She left the priest no room for argument, no room for protest. She grasped his arm well above the elbow and propelled him out the door before her, thrusting a flashlight into his hands as he tripped over the church’s threshold on his way out.
“Now see here…”
“Now nothing, Padre. Let’s go, or I’ll spread the word that I had to make you do this instead of sharing the credit when this is all over. Now, go!” And so they went, both praying to the Lord and His Mother as they fast-walked toward Blue Light City. Sister Mary Clara kept a brisk pace, pushing or pulling the priest along, despite his attempts to slow her down.
Back at the dance, the musicians played on, and the man in black danced with the last young maiden. Round and round the dance floor they glided with such grace that the crowd stood mesmerized. In truth, they were all in some sort of hypnotic trance, unable to voice a single protest and unable to move. Suddenly the stranger cocked his head to the side in mid-dance step, pulled the young woman even closer in his embrace, and kept dancing, all the while looking around the dancehall for something no one else could see. It was in that moment that Mother Superior and the Padre arrived, standing just before the Blue Light City’s double entry doors, the two of them having stopped to catch their breath and fortify their nerves before entering into what would be an unruly protest at the very least, or a riotous crowd intent on pushing them out. Looking one last time at the priest as though to bolster his courage with her eyes, Sister Mary Clara put her left hand on one door handle and nodded for Padre Pete to grasp the other.
When they stepped inside it was immediately clear that something unnatural was occurring. The dark stranger started snorting, making a sound similar to that of a startled bull preparing to charge. The musicians, as though they had no control over the music, increased the tempo of the polka, each verse becoming more and more rapid as the stranger and his partner tried to keep up. What none of the townsfolk knew was that the moment the Lord’s servants touched the door handles, the stranger’s keen intuition told him danger had arrived. As the crowd watched, the dark man’s countenance grew even darker, as though someone had smeared soot on his features without being seen. He shook his head the way a person does when assailed by a hungry mosquito or an angry bee. The young woman in his arms was powerless to escape the tight grip of his hands despite her struggles. Slowly, as the priest and the sister steeled their courage, the people began coming out from whatever fugue state they’d succumbed to, and a buzz of muttering started up as their senses returned to normal.
“Are you ready?” the Mother Superior asked the Priest. Padre Pete nodded nervously, and together they began to pull the double doors open.
In that instant, a horrific scream rose up, at first slow and low and then getting progressively louder. The scream emanated from the mouth of the beauty caught in the stranger’s grasp. As the man in black’s grip tightened on her supple frame, she glanced downwards, watching in horror as the stranger’s hand changed into a cloven hoof. In that moment of transformation, the young woman was able to break free of the stranger’s clutches. Stumbling back a few steps, she stared in disbelief as his coal-black eye stared back at her. Her hands rose to her mouth in an attempt to stifle her fear. The townspeople gaped in unison as the stranger’s feet too transformed into hooves, and a long tail slithered out from beneath his suit coat, undulating across the dancefloor like a snake preparing to strike.
Outside, in unison, the nun and the priest yanked so hard on the doors they flew back against the sides of the tin building with such a racket it sounded as if a double-barreled shotgun had been fired. The man in black threw back his head, howling like a mad dog as the blessed couple crossed the threshold. As they walked, smoke rose from the floorboards and the dancehall grew unbearingly hot. Angered, the man in black roared, “I’ve marked you, gente. I’m coming for all of you, one by one!”
“What’s happening here?” Sister Mary Clare roared, grabbing the crucifix from her prayer beads and holding it high as she began to make the sign of the cross. At the moment she began raising her arm, the dark stranger covered his face, and with a loud crack, he disappeared, his presence replaced by a strong odor of sulphur. Almost immediately, the heat subsided and the smoke began to dissipate, and the people, as a group, began to come to their senses. Some shook their heads, others seemed to lose the ability to stand and sank to the floor in heaps of sobs, and still others fell to their knees in immediate supplication for having sinned during the most holy of weeks. The women were in the worst shape. Every single one of them had danced with the devil, had been under his spell, and had hell to pay—literally, since he promised to come back for each and every one. The last victim, the poor beauty who was the Diablo’s final dance partner, looked down in her despair, screaming again when she saw the black mark of the Devil’s lips on the back of the hand he’d kissed. Fainting, she fell to the floor as the rest of the women, one by one, cried out when they saw the mark on their own flesh. And because their hands had been held by the men who’d been powerless to protect them, the men also wore the mark, as if it had been transferred through their touch.
Time passed, and the people who’d attended the dance went back to their daily routine. Some turned to alcohol to forget, while others waved the entire incident off, pretending it had been the stupefying effects of the mula and that it never really happened. However, some were affected so deeply that they became almost fanatical in their religious fervor to atone. The padre and the sister welcomed their lost sheep back into the fold, convinced they had kept the wolf at bay from their flock like true shepherds. Through the years, one by one the marked townspeople met with untimely deaths, via freak accidents, wrong time and wrong place occurrences, alone or cumulatively. For the Devil had kept his word. No plan, no such as moving away, changing one’s name, or trying to remove their marks surgically or otherwise—fooled the Devil into taking someone other than the one for whom he came. At least their demise was swift, leaving no time to repent, which is why the Devil was easily able to take take them all.
All except the young maiden, his last victim. She was never the same after that fateful evening at Blue Light City. She became a resident of the town’s mental institution in the very same city where the Devil had come to dance. It was only many years later, when she was an old woman, that she was able to live on her own again, hiding herself in a rural community which grew to accept la Lunatica, the Lunatic, into their midst to avoid one last dance into oblivion. But that’s another story…
Carmen Baca taught a variety of English and history courses, mostly at the high school and college levels, over the course of thirty-six years before retiring in 2014. Living on the land left to her by her father, she and her husband enjoy a peaceful county life in northern New Mexico.
- Las Nubes is a fictitious name. [↩]