Atop a gleaming white console table stood several bottles of expensive tequila, flanked by two breathtaking arrangements of calla lilies and snowdrops accented by red berried holly. Artfully scattered across the table were quarters, several crisp dollar bills and a sparkling glass of water. At center stage stood a two foot tall skeleton with a shriveled looking face, it’s expression somehow knowing and accusatory at once. It wore a white wedding dress and veil and stood regally amidst its offerings, a sharp-looking sith in it’s left hand.
The altar was at odds with the otherwise minimalist surroundings. The family room had an uncomfortable looking white couch, a plexiglass coffee table and a Scandinavian looking set of chairs but nothing else save for a large piece of driftwood that served as a focal point above the spotless fireplace. No art, no throw pillows, no television. Large windows and a sliding glass door bathed the room in light and offered a view of pine forest. We were close to Morses Pond in a home set back from the road, nestled at the edge of the forest.
The couple stood next to me, obviously anxious for my reaction. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do or say.
“That’s her,” Kelli said.
“Oh,” I replied doing my best to sound impressed. Biddy stood at the threshold behind us, I could feel the disapproval coming off her in waves.
Lisa nibbled at a hangnail for a moment, then said, “We’re hoping that you understand why we’ve chosen to tell you our story.”
Her wife added, “We are cautious about who we share this with, but we thought that maybe you might-”
“That you might enjoy hearing the story since you are so interested in the supernatural,” Lisa finished, pointedly.
The women watched me. I glanced between them and the altar. “Sure, yeah, I’m very interested.” I said.
Lisa turned, “We’ll have tea,” she said as she walked past Biddy.
“Let’s sit in the dining room,” Kelli suggested. Biddy and I followed her through an archway to an adjoining room with a long white lacquered table and nothing else, save for the wire and light bulb mess of a light fixture that hung over the table.
Biddy and I faced the family room which provided a good view of the strange altar. Kelli sat facing us and the picture window at our backs. She had long brown hair that she wore in the top knot their generation had perfected. Her glowing youthful looking skin couldn’t hide obvious exhaustion. Lisa returned with a white tray loaded down by white napkins, white tea cups, a white tea-pot, small white plates, and a white platter lined with those grocery store cookies with the sprinkles and frosting whose color changes every holiday. The morning was looking up.
I reached for a napkin, a plate and a cookie. The frosting was light blue, it’s sprinkles white. It was sweet enough to power the strange light above our heads and it left a distinct chemical aftertaste. It was delicious.
“So you’re praying to Santa Muerte,” Biddy said plainly as I took another big bite of cookie.
The couple exchanged a guilty look. They were young, not even thirty. Lisa had the cool chin length wavy highlighted haircut that I was always showing pictures of to my hairdresser even though I knew my hair wouldn’t ever get there. She was tall, at least six feet and angular. She was a spin instructor at bSpoke, someone had told her who I was and she’d introduced herself after class one day, asking if I might have time to listen to a story. She stressed that she and her wife Kelli weren’t have a problem or anything, they’d read the blog and thought their situation might “interest me and my friend Biddy.”
“Who’s Santa Muerte?” I asked, covering my mouth with the napkin.
Lisa and Kelli glanced behind them to the shrine. I followed their gaze. From here it looked like a hodgepodge mess, completely out-of-place in the zenned out home.
Kelli forced a smile and explained, “Santa Muerte is sort of a patron saint.”
“How in the world did you get mixed up in this?” Biddy asked.
“We went to Mexico on our honeymoon and we took a couple of days in Mexico City before going on to Acapulco. We hired a guide to show us around and she was really keen on giving us an authentic experience,” Lisa said.
“Acapulco?” Biddy said in disbelief.
“Yeah, we didn’t realize,” Kelli said, shrugging. Not wanting to appear like a dumb American I didn’t ask for clarification here but later that day I Googled “Acapulco.” The first article that came up was titled, “Acapulco, Mexico’s ‘murder capital,’ sees steady tourism despite increasing danger.”
“We should have gone to Cabo, but we got a deal,” Lisa explained.
“I’ll bet,” Biddy snarked.
“Anyway, we thought ‘authentic experience’ meant cool local restaurants or shops, but she took us to a Santa Muerte procession. It was really cool, if a bit intense. It reminded me of those Catholic festivals they have all summer in the North End. Worshipping this Santa Muerte is a sort of offshoot of that, but instead of carrying around a statue of the Virgin Mary the people we saw on our trip were honoring a skeleton. ”
“What’s the big deal?” I asked.
“That’s not a saint and even if it were you’re not supposed to worship saints.”
I gave her a look to say I didn’t follow. The truth was, even though I was raised Catholic I’ve never understood the whole saint thing. God seemed to get all worked up about worshipping false idols like that calf but was apparently cool with people praying to Saint Joseph if they needed to sell their house or St. Anthony if they misplaced their car keys.
“People pray to Catholic saints for intercession,” Biddy explained patiently. “They ask the saints plead their case to God, it’s like giving your prayers an extra little oomph. But when you pray to Santa Muerte, you’re asking her to answer your prayers.”
“Isn’t it basically the same thing?” I asked.
“No,” Biddy, Kelli and Lisa said in unison.
“Because when you pray to Santa Muerte you’re asking her to do something for you or to get you something you want. God isn’t involved at all. The Catholic saints are considered holy, you can ask them to pray for you and to ask God to grant your prayers, but they don’t have the power to grant those prayers.”
“But Santa Muerte does?”
“Santa Muerte does,” Lisa affirmed.
“And people don’t feel comfortable asking God for the things they ask Santa Muerte for,” Kelli added.
“Such as?” I asked, curious and still a little foggy on the notion of saints.
“Well,” Lisa said slowly. “Lots of things. Like a good parking spot, or a leg up when your boss is considering a promotion. Stuff like that.”
“Hold on,” Biddy said. “You still haven’t told us how you’ve ended up with a Santa Muerte altar in your family room.”
“It was during that trip, to Mexico. The procession of Santa Muerte was so, you know, moving. It was our honeymoon and we were looking to bring back a souvenir, something special to remember the trip.”
“The statue doesn’t really fit in with your aesthetic,” I commented, helping myself to another cookie.
“We thought it would be fun to add a touch of kitsch,” Kelli replied.
“The Holy Death is not kitsch,” Biddy admonished, “Would you do the same with a menorah or, shit, I don’t know-”
“A cross?” I supplied.
“You’re right,” Lisa said quickly, glancing behind her at the statue. “It was disrespectful to treat it like some sort of tourist-y souvenir. Nevertheless, we bought the statue from a vender at the procession. Our guide explained how to pray to it, how she liked offerings of alcohol and money and that we were to provide her with water and fresh flowers. But that’s all she told us, she didn’t explain everything properly.”
“She should have told us, at the very least she should have mentioned how important it is to be consistent with the offerings,” Kelli complained.
“What did you ask her for?” I asked, beginning to feel nervous. I hadn’t felt or heard any ghosts in their home which was rare for me as of late, but not completely strange. But I could feel the pull of that statue. As unsightly as it was, I kept wanting to look at it.
“It was a complete fluke,” Kelli explained. “Our first flight to Acapulco was delayed and Lis [Leece] made a joke that we should ask the skeleton. We were going to be stuck in that airport for eleven hours waiting for the next flight out. I was just kidding around, you know, I said something like, ‘Oh, Santa Muerte, bless us with speedy travel and an upgrade.’ The thing is, that’s exactly what happened. The next thing you know, our names are being called over the loudspeaker and we’re sitting in first class seats on the next flight out of there.”
“There had been a medical emergency,” Lisa said quietly.
Kelli nodded in agreement. “We laughed it off, but when we landed there was this brutal taxi line and we tried it again. And it worked again.”
“It might have been a coincidence, but the third time…” Lisa trailed off.
Kelli said, “Yeah, um, so that night at the hotel we were hanging out by the pool and these guys were sort of harassing us, you know? Like they wouldn’t take the hint that we weren’t interested. I said to Lisa, ‘Maybe our friend could help us.’ We laughed and Lisa said-”
“I said, ‘Santa Muerte please make them go away.’ One of the guys heard me and he looked scared. Then out of nowhere his friend, who’d been going to grab another beer at the bar, tripped and fell. He sliced his hand really badly on his beer bottle.”
“They left to take him to the hospital,” Kelli said as she reached over to hold Lisa’s hand.
“But that could still be a coincidence though, right?” I suggested.
“I suppose so, but then our luck turned.”
“I got food poisoning the next night and Lisa’s passport went missing.”
“You didn’t make an offering,” Biddy guessed in a low voice.
The women shook their heads in reply.
“I was digging through the luggage for the tenth time hoping against hope that I’d find my passport and that’s when I saw the statue and, it sounds crazy, but I remembered the instructions our guide had given us. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try. So I took it out and put it on the dresser in the hotel room. I placed a couple of those mini bottles of booze in front of it and then Kelli remembered that she liked to have a cup of water.”
“I felt better almost immediately,” Kelli said. “I’d been so weak and nauseous and all of a sudden I felt, well, better.”
“I checked my purse again, for like the fourth time, and there was my passport,” Lisa added. “We were still thinking that maybe it had all been a string of strange coincidences, but when we got back home we put it to the test.”
“Lisa was just finishing her training to be a spin instructor and I was working as a barista and babysitting on the side. We were making rent, but the wedding was more expensive than we’d planned and things were really tight. We set Santa Muerte up on our tiny kitchen table and surrounded her with offerings. Then I asked for money.”
“A lot of money,” Lisa corrected.
Kelli nodded. “A week later I got the letter. My parents have both passed and I don’t have much family left but apparently my mom had an estranged cousin I’d never even heard of. She didn’t have children and for some reason she put me in her will. She left me seven million dollars.”
“Holy shit!” I exclaimed. “Where the hell did she get seven million dollars?”
The couple exchanged another guilty look. “We didn’t ask.” Kelli said quietly.
“Well, all that doesn’t sound so bad. I mean, a couple of bottles of liquor and some pretty flowers isn’t too steep a price to pay for all this good luck, right?”
I gave her a look.
“What?” She asked.
“Be nice,” I admonished.
Biddy sighed and looked at the women across the table. “I’m sorry. You’ve just gotten yourselves caught up in something…” she trailed off before saying, “I don’t know if we can get you out of this.”
“Oh, no!” Kelli exclaimed. “We don’t want out of anything. Santa Muerte has been wonderful to us. Too generous, really.”
Lisa looked terrified. She’d begun nodding her head vigorously and nibbling on a hang nail.
“I mean, how else could we ever afford a home like this? We are truly blessed.” The words were right, but Kelli’s tone wasn’t convincing.
“I was twenty pounds overweight not six months ago and now I’m a head spin instructor at the best cycling studio in Boston,” Lisa pointed out.
“And I’m managing people twice my age and my marketing firm just landed Amazon,” Kelli pointed out.
“It was what we thought we wanted. We were planning to start a family,” Lisa said sadly.
“But we’ve put that on hold for now,” Kelli said with finality.
“Just for curiosity’s sake, what would happen if you stopped providing offerings?” Biddy asked.
“We went away for the weekend in October, to visit some college friends. I completely forgot to put out fresh flowers that Friday and refill her glass of water. When we got back home on Monday the flowers were wilted and her water had run out. It was a rough few days before things got back to normal. Actually, things didn’t really clear up for a few weeks.”
“I woke up the next morning with this weird rash that ran down the side of my face, across my neck and sort of wrapped around my torso. Our dermatologist couldn’t do anything to stop the itching, she thought maybe it was shingles, but, I knew it was a punishment.”
“That’s when we went out and bought that tequila, it’s very rare. And now I have a standing order with Winston’s, they send two seasonal arrangements every week and we are sure to keep her water glass topped off.”
“Her crystal water glass,” Lisa added with a sad smile.
“And you haven’t had any trouble since then?” Biddy asked, skeptically.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Lisa said seriously. “We’ve had some warnings when things haven’t been up to the saint’s, uh, standards. We’ve had to learn as we go along. For one thing, it’s best for us to stay close to home. She doesn’t like to travel and it’s too nerve-racking to leave her home alone for an extended time. We can’t be sure that everything is as it should be.”
The saint sounded to me like a vindictive toddler. I kept the idea to myself.
“Has there been anything else? Has she manifested at all?” Biddy asked.
The women looked at her as though they were shocked at her guess.
“We’ve begun to hear things down here at night, but we’ve been too afraid to come check,” Lisa admitted.
“I’ve been getting these ideas in my mind, these, like obsessions but they aren’t mine. It feels like if I don’t get the things I all of a sudden want I’ll go crazy. It doesn’t stop until I ask her for them and make an offering,” Kelli said in a whisper.
“What are you asking her for?” I asked.
Kelli looked down at her hands in her lap. “It’s like good isn’t enough, we have to ask for perfection. We have to be the best. I have to be the top salesperson in my firm, Lisa has to be the lead instructor, the house has to be decorated flawlessly, I must drive a BMW,” her voice cracked. “I fucking hate that car.”
“She just wants what’s best for us,” Lisa pointed out quickly in a loud voice.
Choosing my words carefully, I said, “I’m not sure what you want us to do for you, but if you wanted I’m sure there are other people who would love to hear how powerful your saint is. We could put you in touch with them. Right?” I looked at Biddy. She nodded.
“Sure, I could arrange for you to meet Father-”
But she was interrupted by a loud crash. All four of us jumped. My eyes went straight to the altar. It looked exactly the same. But the large piece of driftwood that had been bolted over the fireplace was gone. It had fallen in an unlikely way, it lay halfway across the room at an odd angle.
Kelli opened her mouth to speak but quickly closed it.
Lisa stood abruptly. “You should go. You should both go now. I don’t know what we were thinking.”
Biddy stood and pushed her chair back into the table, I followed.
“I’ll email you the-” I began to say.
Lisa held up a hand. “No. Thank you. Thanks so much for coming, um I’ll see you at spin in the morning, right? Great.” She spoke quickly as she ushered us towards the front door. I looked back at Kelli to say goodbye. She was sitting very still, staring out the picture window in front of her.
Biddy and I slipped on our jackets and stepped through the front door. “Just forget this, okay? It’s just a story.” Lisa said, her voice steady, her arm on the door ready to close it.
‘I’ll do my best for you,” Biddy said.
We heard another bang come from inside the house and immediately heard Kelli give a little shriek. Lisa looked behind her and slammed the door without saying goodbye.
Biddy and I walked to my car in silence. Once inside she asked, “Did you hear anything in there?”
Pulled from my thoughts I said, “Oh, no. Weird story though, right?”
“They’re fucked,” she said, pulling her seat belt across her chest.
“Isn’t there anything they can do?”
“Oh sure, but they’ll lose everything and I’d be willing to bet at least one of them would get really sick in the process. It’ll be easier for them to just maintain the status quo at this point.”
I was silent, lost in thought as we pulled out of the driveway.
“What are you thinking?” Biddy asked.
“Oh, just that I love my spin class and I don’t want to have to change gyms, again.”