Fiction: Malorga

Carmen Baca
Carmen Baca

“The mind is its own place and, in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” Satan’s rationalization became my solution. I had made my mind a hell. Confined to the walls of my cell or within the fenced courtyard, I couldn’t escape the vicious and circular playback of what brought me here. It occupied my thoughts day and night and would have made me the loca they say I am. I wanted a different outcome, like one of those stories with alternate endings.
When my teacher assigned Paradise Lost, I had no idea Milton’s statement would strike me so profoundly. Having been cast from heaven, Satan sought to escape hell any way he could. His solution became mine. It was up to me to make it a heaven for as long as I was confined to this hellish place. That was the last time I relived my final day of freedom. The last day I saw my best friend. Twenty-two months, fifteen days, and seven hours ago.  
“Ah, crap, c’mon,” my cousin Victoria grumbled as she rose from the towel where she’d been sunbathing and slipped into her flip-flops. She took off toward the barn a short distance away.  
Standing knee-deep in our uncle’s pond, I waded to the water’s edge. Victoria and I had ridden our bikes to Tío Chano’s place at the south edge of town. One of our favorite summer activities was swimming in the heat of midday and then lying beneath the shade of enormous cottonwoods. The cool breeze turned into wind, a strong one that caused the water to ripple and pushed me hard enough I had to brace myself. This natural change to the weather would alter the tone of our day, too, and I wondered if a rainstorm would send us packing.
“You’re gonna get slammed,” Victoria shouted from the barn door.
I wondered if she’d seen lightning, so I turned, looked behind me, and saw what she did. Clouds of fluff formed and floated off the cottonwood branches swinging high above. Every year from spring up until early summer, the cottonwoods shed their seeds. They looked like the ghosts of cotton balls or those fuzzy dandelions all of us have blown into the wind. They differed in shape and size like snowflakes, but the texture was downy. Los Gallos where we lived was right in the middle of the season of the Malorga. I’d just slathered tanning oil over my body, and I knew that cotton would stick to me everywhere. I didn’t stop for my sandals, just ran for the barn like I fled from the legendary monster of the same name rather than from an act of nature.
When I reached the barn, we went inside and leaned against the feeding trough to wait it out. I shivered a little in the shade, but I didn’t know if it was from the coolness on my still damp skin or because I scared myself. I tended to do that, too many horror movie monsters haunting my imagination. We stood waiting for the wind to subside, looking back at the meadow we had raced across. The seeds flying past became an endless veil Mother Nature threw over herself—meadows and gardens, orchards and earth—all covered.
I moved to the doorway, looking at three more cottonwoods towering along the irrigation ditch in front of us. They had to be eighty feet tall at least, with trunks of no less than five feet around. Their uppermost branches flung themselves forward and back with the velocity of the wind that high up. The seeds, shaken loose and flying everywhere, brought an aura of fantasy to the land for some. For me, the air turned close, smothering, and I imagined I was looking at life through the funeral shroud.
“You know what the cotton fluff reminds me of?” I asked Victoria. She glanced up and then returned to studying a ladybug on her palm, so I told her. “A burial shroud.”
“Geez, Roberta, that’s so morbid.”
“I can’t help it. My mind goes to dark places before I can guide it to the light ones.”
“You need help,” she laughed and then joined me, leaning against the door frame. “Remember for Halloween when we ran into that gang in the street? You had us all convinced they were rapists and murderers. We ran for our lives right into an alley and actually had to fight off that drunk dude with the knife.”
I thought about the memory she’d called up. There was another one before the Halloween incident which had also gone wrong. The billy goat attack. I had scared Victoria and two of our friends that night. We’d been walking home after the movies when I saw glowing eyes in the dark. We’d been passing over the pedestrian bridge across Pajarillo River that time. My first thought was la Llorona, our most famous legendary ghost who haunts rivers and streams, so I’d screamed, “La Llorona,” and taken off. When Vic and the others caught up, I caught hell and punches from all directions. They’d run after me, but only because I’d scared the goat which chased them across the bridge. Took them a while to forgive me, too. I don’t know why I lived with a sense of dread, a foreboding of danger around every corner, but there it was. That was me in a nutshell, a gallina horrified by my own imagination.  
“You should make a horror movie. You see monsters on every corner. Seriously, Berta, think about it. Maybe we can both get extra credit from Mrs. C.”
Ms. Chavez, our drama teacher, sometimes allowed that. I thought about it; and as ideas came to mind, I convinced myself I could direct Victoria in a one-woman thriller. I visualized the scene: Victoria, an athlete, had long legs which carried her fast and far. Running from danger with her shoulder-length hair flying behind her in a ponytail, she’d turn, her eyes wide with hysteria, her shrill scream infecting the audience with her panic… She was the perfect scared teen most likely to be murdered in a horror flick. Those minor characters in movies who have to die, their sacrifice giving the protagonist purpose. But this time, she’d be the exception, the femme fatale the audience would weep for because of her All-American appeal. Spanish-American, anyway. We both have brown skin, but hers is more gold while mine hints at my Native American roots. Vic didn’t need a co-star. Now, to convince her we could do this alone.
“No one has to see the villain,” I argued my case. “That might make it better, actually.”
“What if we make it a monster then,” she proposed, pointing with her chin at the flying puffs everywhere. “La Malorga. When the cotton piles up, it might be possible a big blob might form depending how the wind blows it. I can imagine someone thinking it’s Malorga.”
I thought about what we knew of the legendary Malogra. It’s supposed to be a monstrous ball of cottonwood seeds, a living, pulsating mutant, like something from a horror thriller. The Blob came to mind. But more cream-colored instead of crimson. Made it appear more innocent than it was. No one survives an attack from Malorga. Yet no one’s ever seen one to prove it exists. It would make a nice campfire story. The giant cottonwoods rained more of their fluff as I thought about Vic’s proposal.
          “Aaargh.” The strange noise broke into my thoughts, and I saw Victoria spitting. “Got one of those clusters in my mouth. Someone probably could choke on a big clump of that. It turns into a hairy blob when it gets wet. Ugh.” She turned her back to the wind, spat again, and faced me, adding, “Maybe Ms. C will give us double credit since we’re weaving our culture’s folklore into the project. You know how she always wants us to use our creative skills to educate others.”
I looked at Vic, ready to add my agreement, but a strange and unexpected sadness washed over me like I was missing her, and she wasn’t even gone. I wondered if she would miss me, her counterpart. She was gregarious; I was introverted. She made friends just walking into a room. I cowered in corners hoping to go unnoticed. Then, I met Victoria, the life of the party. She dragged me along to every activity which involved her. Most often, I was spectator. Like to her volleyball practices. Until the coach asked me if I’d like to be their manager, and I became one of the crew, just like that. Those things happened to me all because I was friends with Victoria. Everyone loved her. So did I. Surely, this melancholy had no basis.
She must have seen some effect of the dark turn of my thoughts. She frowned at my silence and then stuck her tongue out while crossing her eyes. I laughed. “C’mon, let’s go lay out and plan,” she threw over her shoulder as she started back to our towels by the pond. The gloom passed, and I didn’t remember that moment until a few weeks later.
We’d gotten a yes from Ms. Chavez, so for our last day of movie-making, we had biked to one of the city parks by the location we’d chosen. A gas station across the street provided our lunch. Afterward, we walked our bikes across the highway to the nearby roundhouse, an abandoned semi-circular structure previously used by the railroad for storing and servicing trains. The huge doors were all locked, but we found a place where boards were loose enough to give us a good peek inside.
“We should’ve brought a hammer,” I said, hunting for a flat rock I could use to nudge a loose board from rusted nails.
Victoria had her face glued to a peephole, moving her head one way and then the other to get a better view. “This is going to be perfect. It’s huge in there. The ground’s covered in fine dirt. We can make a lot of dust if we drag our feet when we ru—ahhhhh!” She pulled back from the wall and stumbled backward a few steps. I pressed my hands to her back before she ran into me.
“What the hell, Vic?”
“Some—someone’s in there,” she whispered. “Quick, let’s go.”
I didn’t need to see for myself; Vic had already disappeared around the edge of the building. On the other side was a large cleared area that made up the circle with the roundhouse like a crescent moon on the left. The wind picked up as I reached the clearing. I saw a terromote form and grow from a small whirlwind into a vertical column of brown, swirling dirt, spinning faster by the second. I grabbed my phone and set it to video. Rubbish and debris spun around the exterior and flew high into the sky. Mesmerized, I watched the phenomenon. The tallest limbs of the cottonwoods on the outside of the building swayed, releasing their seeds which were caught up in the dust devil. The funnel turned a dirty white with the cotton and slowed its spinning until it formed a giant blob—a large cluster of cottonwood fluff moving toward Victoria. She jumped on her bike, prepared to escape real danger.
“We have to get out of—,” Vic’s voice faded as the thing overtook her and swallowed her up. I watched everything, a silent spectator to something I couldn’t believe. Until gravel and dirt particles stabbed my skin, and I tried to turn away but couldn’t. It felt like my feet had been glued to the ground. I crouched and hugged myself, head down, eyes closed. My brain closed down too. Everything went black. I felt nothing then, but I heard the rest of the horror as it transpired that summer afternoon. Ghost sounds, I described to one and all afterward. At first, the sound rose and fell in pitch and tone, gravelly, animalistic. A snap like a branch breaking, followed by a hideous growl and a scream cut short, ending the noise. The slurping and crunching that came next made me retch with what I imagined.
Then all was silent. The dust settled, and the sun returned. I opened my eyes and surveyed the aftermath. I stood. Everything, including me, was covered in fine dust and cottonwood puffballs. The ground where the little twister had traveled bore a long, snakelike pattern around to the outside of the roundhouse. My face and body stung from nature’s attack. When I touched an especially throbbing spot on my cheek, I found blood where my skin had peeled off in the assault of flying debris.   
I remembered I’d had my phone in my hand. After a brief search on the ground around me, I found it and put it in my pocket. Victoria was not where I’d seen her last. Her bike lay at the end of the trail.
“Vic,” I called out. “Victoria? Where are you?”
The atmosphere had turned eerie, too quiet; not even the birds chirped or flew overhead. The sun bore down as if intent to burn the evidence of whatever had transpired here. I moved forward along the path carved into the dirt and turned the corner of the building. I didn’t go any farther. That became my downfall afterward. I should have kept going until I found her, but I didn’t want to. That much blood splatter on the bike and puddled on the ground beneath already
seeping into the earth told me I didn’t want to see what Victoria looked like now. My dark imagination gave me enough images. I ran.
I did a double-take as I reached my bike. I thought I’d seen someone dart behind the roundhouse. Something unthinkable had happened here. I knew I should call 9-1-1 but I couldn’t stay a moment longer. The panic rising in my spine and the hysteria coming up my throat would make me scream in a second. Whoever had done something with Victoria might still be around. I abandoned my bike and ran some more.  
Back at the gas station, safe among people, I slowed, halted, huffing and hunched over, my hands on my knees, retching, coughing, and gasping. I didn’t need to call the police. I had pits and scratches on my skin everywhere. I also bore macabre dots and splotches of Victoria’s blood on the front of my body. Plenty of gawkers made the calls, bringing several cruisers, the sheriff, and an ambulance screeching into the parking lot. The questions flew from so many voices around me all at once and hands on all sides reached out to touch my back, so I straightened up to take a deep breath and get help for Victoria…
Consciousness returned. For a moment, I didn’t have a clue how, why, or when I got wherever I was. Lying in a soft, warm bed, I looked around a spartan hospital room. Medical equipment beeped or buzzed around my head. The illumination from a streetlight beyond curtains told me it was night. My memory returned with a pang I felt throughout my body. Victoria—was she alive? All that blood. Through the door’s narrow window, I saw a police officer standing close. I swallowed the yell I had been about to let loose. I had to think things through before I had to answer questions. There would be so many of them.
I muffled a cough in the collar of my gown. My stomach fell. My clothes. I would be vindicated or found guilty because of the evidence on them and on my body. Something had happened to leave me like that. In my backtracking through the moments before, I remembered what set Vic off running in the first place. She’d seen someone in the building. Had I caught a glimpse of her murderer? My phone would have evidence. I had faced Malorga, or a dust devil, or a murderer hidden behind a fluke event—I didn’t know what the truth was.
The video condemned rather than vindicated me.
I don’t know that I’ll survive the asilo, but I’m sure I won’t survive prison. As long as they think I’m insane, I’m in the forensics unit of the mental institution in our town. The day I’m deemed sane, I’m moving to prison. Either way, I’ve lost my freedom before I even graduated from high school. I think back to how I thought middle school was hell on earth, and I sometimes laugh. The laughter staves off the real hysteria.
Of course, no one believed my story, not my court-appointed lawyer, not my jury. My parents’ eyes showed only pity, so I didn’t know what they believed. Still don’t. The prosecution planted the seed that either I had lied or had some kind of breakdown, a blackout, perhaps caused by what I had done. No one believed the black out occurred because of or during the event.
 My body was Exhibit A. All those marks—all that blood—turned into evidence of my having fought off Victoria’s struggles for survival. The dirt devil left only debris in my clothes and hair, more evidence of a physical altercation. That was the argument that sealed the jury’s decision.
My lawyers claimed I had fought Victoria in self-defense, but their hearts weren’t in it. Afterward, jurors revealed in interviews they were convinced I murdered my best friend precisely because of my appearance in the video of that day. I wore my guilt. No explanation necessary.
I guess I dropped my phone when I had crouched, so the entire video displayed dirt, but the audio caught that scream. That sound no one ever wants to hear—something alive on the edge of dying. “It’s indescribable,” one juror had muttered, receiving a loud banging of the judge’s gavel and a verbal reprimand. The break, the prosecution said, was the sound of bone forcibly breaking, something big, something deadly since no more screams broke the silence. What followed was unmistakably something or someone eating, slurping, chewing, grunting. That had to have been me committing the unthinkable though neither lawyer wanted to articulate what they thought the noise was. That would be speculation, after all.
I had motive, witnesses for the prosecution admitted when pressed. Victoria was the popular one. My jealousy was to blame. Either a violent impulse or a moment of insanity propelled me to kill my best friend. To my credit, it couldn’t be premeditated, the prosecutor admitted. Unless I had an accomplice, and there was no proof of that.  
My defense didn’t have a chance. The words of witnesses on my behalf offered the prosecution more ammunition against me. They proposed to the jury that Ms. Chavez suspected I was capable of murder to make our movie project realistic. All she’d really said was that I would stop at nothing to get an A. Her next sentence, that I was a good student, was dismissed as irrelevant.
Of vital relevance, the prosecutor reminded the jury, was the location of the body. Since I didn’t know what happened to Vic, I didn’t know that either. So I was sentenced to the maximum imprisonment for a sixteen-year-old tried as an adult. I have no chance of parole unless I one day lead them to the remains. I don’t think there are any.
The more I’m in here, the more I have to fight for my right to exist. Now, I live with real terror every minute and long for those days of innocence when all Vic and I worried about was growing up because we’d have to stop playing. I escape my reality by remembering those summers with Victoria and how we enjoyed the small moments, even those fearful ones caused by my over-active imagination. At least in my mind, I can see us happy and free. And remember the feeling I’ll never know again.
I can sometimes forget what I saw. I’ve disregarded the Malorga as folklore. I’ve stopped thinking, too, that perhaps a freak of nature annihilated my friend. Uncertain whether I’d seen anyone at the roundhouse at all, I’ve concluded I’m the obvious choice. I was there. Though not even hypnosis has broken through my memory loss, I’m not at all sure I want it to.    
I must accept I am Malorga. Like a sleeping creature, the evil had lain dormant somewhere deep inside of me. What woke it that day I’m not sure, but I’m at fault for letting it free. I spend my time here coming to accept I killed Vic. After all, logic dictates evil lives in every one of us. Who’s to say it’s not the Malorga of our folktales and all our lives we had been listening to an allegory?

Bio: Carmen Baca taught high school and college English for 36 years before retiring in 2014. Her debut novel El Hermano published in 2017 and became a finalist in the NM-AZ Book Awards program in 2018. Her third book, Cuentos del Cañón, received first place for short story fiction anthology in 2020 from the same program. She has published 5 books and over 50 short works in literary magazines, journals, and anthologies. Her next book is scheduled to publish in 2020. She and her husband live a quiet life in the country caring for their animals.

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