To wrap up the Mexican Monstresses mini-series: a rather unusual version of the famous legend.
Once upon a time, there was a woman with three children: one was two, one was four, and the eldest was six. The woman’s husband had died, and she was lonely, so she took a lover.
But her lover got tired of her, and one day he left. The woman became angry and depressed. She blamed her children for her lover’s abandonment, and she stopped taking care of them. She wouldn’t kiss them, or hug them — or feed them, or bathe them. Her little children, frightened and confused at their mother’s anger and neglect, cried all the time. This made her angrier, and she would whip them and scold them, and scream at them:
“It’s all your fault that my life is so unhappy! Why did I ever have you?”
One day, enraged and out of her head, she picked up a butcher knife and hacked her poor children to death. She cut them up into little little pieces, and threw them into the river. The swift current swept the remains of her babies out to sea.
As she threw the last piece into the water, she suddenly realized what she had done.
She cried as she ran along the river’s edge, pulling her hair, tearing her clothes, weeping and wailing — but it was too late. Grieving, the woman dragged herself back home, calling her children’s names. The house met her with only emptiness and silence. Overcome, and not knowing how else to relieve the pain in her heart, the woman picked up the fatal knife and plunged it into her heart. Straight away, her spirit came out of her body and went to face God’s judgement.
As punishment, God pronounced on her a terrible curse.
“I will send you back to earth,” He said. “You will wander all the rivers of the earth searching for the pieces of your children, until you can find them all and put them back together again. But if you can’t put them back together, then you are doomed to kill any child over the age of six that you meet.”
And so it was. The woman wandered along all the rivers of the world, up to their sources and then down to the sea, and she wandered the seashores, too, weeping as she searched for her children. Her wailing could be heard for miles, as she followed the water’s edge. But she never found so much as a single piece of any of her children.
One day, as she searched, she came to a castle on the banks of a rushing river, where there lived a king and a queen with two children: a boy of five and a girl of four. The woman cried when she saw the little prince and princess, and told the king and queen how lonely she was, and how much she missed her own lost children. The king and queen felt sorry for this poor bereaved stranger, so they took her in to be a nurse to their children.
And so the woman lived in the castle, where she showered the little prince and princess with affection, and cared for them tenderly like she was their own mother. Everyone in the castle called her La Llorona, because tears fell constantly from her eyes.
All went smoothly for almost a year, until the day before the prince’s sixth birthday. The little prince was excited for his birthday party, and so was his sister. Everyone in the castle hurried around joyously, getting ready for the celebration. Except La Llorona, who sat in a corner and cried, wailing loudly.
“Why are you so sad?” they asked her.
“Because I had a son exactly this age,” La Llorona said. Then she ran to her room and wailed louder than ever.
At midnight of the prince’s sixth birthday, La Llorona crept into the boy’s room, and stabbed him in the heart! Then she took the lifeless body away, and hid it in a dusty, deserted attic room.
When the servants came in the morning to wake the birthday boy, they found the bed empty. They raised the alarm and searched everywhere in the castle (well, almost everywhere — they must not have checked the attic) and out in the gardens. But they never found a trace of the little boy. The king and queen were heartbroken, and the entire countryside mourned with them.
So now La Llorona had only the little princess to care for, until the queen gave birth to another son, not too long after the tragedy. Another year or so rolled around, and soon the castle got ready to celebrate the princess’s sixth birthday. And things happened like they did the year before: La Llorona took the little girl’s dead body and laid in the dusty attic room, next to the body of her brother.
The king and queen seemed to age twenty years on that tragic morning. Amidst the crying and mourning that echoed through the castle, La Llorona’s wails sounded the loudest of all.
The years passed, and soon it was the eve of the youngest prince’s sixth birthday. This time, the king set guards over his young son, hoping to avert the tragedy. It seemed to work! On the morning of his sixth birthday, they found the little boy safely in his bed, ready for his cake and presents.
The king and queen had a double reason to celebrate, this time, and the festivities went on the whole day long. Towards dusk, one of the prince’s guards noticed La Llorona sneak away from the party. Curious, he followed, and saw La Llorona slip into a room next to the prince’s bedroom and hide something behind a bookshelf. When she left, the guard looked, and found a knife! He ran to the celebration with the knife in his hand and told the king and queen what he had seen. The queen gave a little scream.
“But La Llorona just took the prince to bed! He said he was sleepy.”
Everyone rushed back to the prince’s bedroom, in time to see a figure slipping out of the room with the sleeping prince in her arms. Up the stairs she went, into the dusty attic. The king and queen and guards and servants followed. They found La Llorona in the dark corner room, crying her heart out and cradling the sleeping prince in her arms. The remains of the other two children were on the floor nearby. Just as she was about to smother the child with a pillow, they all rushed in and snatched the boy away.
The guards tried to seize La Llorona, but she slipped away and hurled herself out a nearby window, which overlooked the river. Her scream seemed to go on and on as she fell, until she dashed against the rocks below, and her wails blended into the voice of the wind, as the waters washed her body out to sea.
This story is based on one told by Conrado V. García, U.S. Navy, and collected by Calvin Claudel in San Diego, California, in the 1940s. García heard the story in Tolleson, Arizona, near Phoenix; Claudel gives García’s version verbatim. It’s a really good rendition. I’ve embellished on it in the retelling — I once read somewhere that you should always add your own touch to a folk tale when you share it, that’s the whole point.
The original version is in:
Claudel, Calvin. “Tales from San Diego,” California Folklore Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Apr., 1943), pp. 113-120
You can get the paper from JSTOR if you belong to a subscribing institution or sign up for a free MyJSTOR account. There are three other stories in the paper, all about snakes, which are also pretty interesting. Enjoy.
Illustration: Woman By the Sea, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1887. Source: WikiArt