This is based on a story told by New Mexico storyteller Paulette Atencio, in the bilingual collection Cuentos From My Childhood: Legends and Folktales of Northern New Mexico. The story of dueling sorcerers reminds me of anecdotes I’ve read about Cebuano sorcery (both benign and malign) in Richard Lieban’s book Cebuano Sorcery, and in other sources as well.
In the village of El Nido, in northern New Mexico, there lived a woman they called Mana Márgara. She was a lone, surly woman, and her face and body were covered with warts. She wore nothing but black, and people often saw her gathering herbs along remote paths, out in the hills beyond the village. The villagers suspected her of being a witch; they feared and avoided her.
In this same village lived Mano Lencho, with his wife Corina and their beautiful daughter Sonia. I don’t know why Mano Lencho and Mana Márgara disliked each other, but evidently they did. One day, Mana Márgara awoke to discover that her beloved cat was dead. She accused Mano Lencho of having killed her pet. Mano Lencho denied it, but wisely avoided Mana Márgara, and his family did the same.
The next day, Mana Márgara brought Mano Lencho and his family some fresh-baked bread. Mano Lencho didn’t trust Márgara, and fed the bread to his dog. The poor animal fell ill and died the next day. But when Lencho confronted Márgara, she denied the whole thing.
A few days later, as Mano Lencho and his family sat at dinner, they heard a great racket from out in the barn. Rushing into the barn, they saw a giant owl terrorizing their cow — in fact, the owl had torn out one of the cow’s eyes! Mano Lencho knew that the owl was Mana Márgara, and he threatened to tear out one of her eyes if she didn’t restore the cow to perfect health.
Two days later, the family cow disappeared; another cow stood in its place. Good enough, thought Mano Lencho, and he soon forgot about the whole thing, as he busied himself with his affairs. But Mana Márgara still remembered, and she brooded on it.
Soon after the cow incident, Mana Márgara approached Lencho’s daughter, Sonia.
“I’m so sorry about all the misunderstandings,” she said to Sonia. “Please take some of these sweets as my apology.”
Sonia accepted. It was very yummy candy, and she ate it all. A few days later, a horrible abscess appeared on Sonia’s face. It was so disfiguring that people couldn’t help but wince when they saw her.
Sonia’s mother was inconsolable (I imagine Sonia wasn’t too happy either). Nothing they tried would remove the abscess. Mano Lencho was furious. He blamed Mana Márgara for this disaster. The family had noticed a black cat lucking around their home of late; Lencho was positive that it was Márgara, and he vowed to get even. You see, Mano Lencho knew a little something about witchcraft, too.
He went out into the front yard, and traced a large circle there, then hid behind some bushes to wait. Soon a black cat appeared on the roof, looking down on the yard. As it leapt down from the roof, it accidentally landed within the circle that Mano Lencho had traced in the soil. As the cat began to saunter away, it discovered that it couldn’t leave that circle. In a panic, it dashed round and round the edge of the ring, looking for a way out. Mano Lencho sat and waited. After an hour, the cat, exhausted, transformed back into human form — into Mana Márgara.
“I knew it was you,” yelled Mano Lencho, and he dashed into the ring and began to beat Mana Márgara viciously.
“Please, don’t kill me!” pleaded Márgara. “I’ll do anything you want.”
“Restore Sonia’s face!” Lencho ordered her. Márgara obeyed. She brewed up a concoction of herbs, which she gave to Sonia to drink. A few days later, Sonia’s abscess disappeared, and she was as beautiful as she ever was. Mana Márgara disappeared from the village soon after. Everyone assumed that she left in fear and shame, after what Lencho had done to her.
But five years later, on his death bed, Mano Lencho confessed that he had slipped some of Márgara’s own herbs into her food, poisoning her. On hearing this, some of the villagers went off in search of Márgara’s body. They found her skeleton, seated in an upright position, in a remote area of the hills. Meanwhile, Sonia and her mother hurriedly packed up their few belongings and fled the village, never to be seen again….
- The name of the original story in Cuentos From My Childhood is “El Gato Negro” (The Black Cat).
- The terms “Mano” and “Mana” are the honorifics used in Ms. Atencio’s original Spanish rendition. I’d never encountered the terms before; in Rubén Cobos’ English translation, he refers to Lencho as “Don Lencho”, and Márgara doesn’t get an honorific at all.
After a little thought, I realized that the terms must be short for “hermano” and “hermana” — “brother” and “sister”. But what’s interesting is that “Manong” and “Manang” are honorifics in Ilocano, a language spoken in the Ilocos regions of the northern part of Luzon, the Philippines (my father is Ilocano). In Bicol (part of the southern regions of Luzon — where my mother is from), the equivalent terms are “Manoy” and “Manay”. I’ve always used the terms to refer to my male and female elders — like “sir” and “ma’am” — but apparently, the original meanings are, in fact, “elder brother” and “elder sister”.
Is it coincidence? Well, there was a a bit of cross-cultural exchange between the Philippines and Mexico, thanks to the Manila-Acapulco trade route. For instance, Catholic Filipinos celebrate Day of the Dead with rituals and practices fairly similar to the customs in Mexico, where Dia de los Muertos originated. And it’s worth noticing that the (sort of) equivalent honorifics in Tagalog (the language spoken in the region where Manila is) are “kuya” (elder brother) and “áte” (elder sister) — completely different words. So it seems possible that the Ilocano and Bicolano terms come from the Spanish. Something to think about, anyway.
(I say “sort of” equivalent because I would only use “kuya” or “áte” to someone who was older than, but nearish to, my own age. For people much older I’d switch to something else — like “Manoy” or “Manay”.)
- The image at the top of the post is an 1894 illustration by Aubrey Beardsley for Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Black Cat. It was sourced from Wikimedia.