I based the story loosely on an El Salvadorian folk tale I read in a book while I was traveling there. It was a collections of local legends, oral tales, etc. retold by different people from the area. The one I based “A Learned Man” on was about a page and a half and very spare.
Here’s the reference:
“La Leyenda de Bolsa Salgado.” El Salvadorian Folktale from Ozatlán, Usulután, El Salvador. Retold by Maria Irene Rivera. Espíritus Mitológicos de El Salvador. Ed. Gloria Mejía Gutierrez and Refugio Duarte de Romero. San Salvador: Concultura, 1997.
Here’s what I wrote about it in my story notes:
I’d been travelling on a shoestring through Central America for quite a while. One day in a small town in El Salvador, tired of sight-seeing and ready for something “normal,” I found a little library where signs warned in no uncertain terms that you must not touch the books. After I explained what I was looking for, the librarian warily found me a collection of local folk tales, which I quickly devoured. My favorite was “La Leyenda de Bolsa Salgado” from Ozatlán, Usulután, retold in one bare page and a half that sparked my imagination.
When the librarian kicked me out for siesta, I sat in the town square and wrote about three quarters of the rough draft of “A Learned Man”–one of the fastest first drafts I’ve ever written.
I’d like to thank Maria Irene Rivera, who retold the local legend, and Gloria Mejía Gutierrez and Refugio Duarte de Romero, the editors of the collection Espíritus Mitológicos de El Salvador ( San Salvador: Concultura, 1997). I’m also glad the librarian let me touch the books.
A Learned Man
by Melinda Brasher
I hated her father. It wasn’t fair, really, because he’d been nothing but kindness to me. When my hens all sickened one afternoon and died together at midnight, he hitched up his wagon and brought me half of his own brood so I could start again. With them he brought an amulet Lottie’s mother had made to ward off the curses of the old lady who lived down among the reeds behind the mill.
“The Marsh Witch” everyone called her, as they tiptoed around trying not to offend her, letting her steal cabbages and herbs from their gardens. I worked too hard to let a lazy woman who’d never done a lick of good for anyone take what was not hers. The night I caught her stealing carrots, I picked her up by her scruffy collar, threw her out onto the street, and warned her never to come back. All the neighbors crossed themselves when they heard and pressed me to go ask forgiveness before she called on all her dark powers.
“What powers?” I scoffed, to everyone’s horror. She was no witch. Witches didn’t exist.
But a week later, at the full moon, all my hens died, and that confirmed the villagers’ fears of her dark powers.
Lottie’s father came with his chickens and amulets, and I thanked him, but I hated him for it. I was a working man, and I didn’t need his charity. I could have sold some sheep, bought new chickens, consulted one of those city doctors who could cure sicknesses in all creatures. There had to be a scientific explanation and a scientific cure.
Her father always deferred to me in matters of “book learning.” After all, he couldn’t read and admired me for the library of seven books I’d worked so hard to collect. It was uncomfortable, his deference. When he talked about how his precious daughter deserved a man of science, of knowledge, of deep thoughts, I wondered if he was somehow mocking me. He expected great things of me, he said, and I expected them too, never doubting I would achieve great heights. But not for him. For me and Lottie.
He realized how much I hated all the tedious ceremonies of courtship—evenings of pleasantries and gift exchanges that so rarely involved Lottie. He was a man of tradition and wouldn’t let his beloved daughter go without following the correct path, the path that would bless our union. He knew I hated it, and would rather spend my time with my books or on my land, so he kept the ceremonies short and gave me ample time to see Lottie, even alone sometimes.
I had nothing to reproach him for. No valid excuse for my hatred. At least not one I could admit to anyone.
But the thing was, Lottie loved him to distraction, worshiped him like a hero. She did nothing without his approval, said nothing that would disappoint him. She obeyed him to the letter, canceled plans we’d made if he so much as suggested some other use of her time. To be fair, I don’t think he was ever aware that she left me alone to spend time with him. And though she claimed to love me, she clearly loved her father more. If I met her at the village market and wanted to take her for a stroll, she’d ask her father first. He always agreed, but I resented this control he had over her. She’d never fully be mine, I realized, and that tortured me because I loved her desperately.
For five years we’d been promised to each other, while I built myself a living, while we took the courtship ceremonies step by perfect step. For five years I hadn’t touched her in any way her father wouldn’t approve of, but the wedding was nearing. Midsummer, it would be.
Then she’d be mine. I could satisfy this fiery need I felt when I thought of her. I had spent too many years alone. I needed conversation in the evenings, a hot meal when I arrived home, tender hands and lips and skin to wipe away the years of solitude. I’d worked hard, doubled my lands. I had money hidden away to buy her fine dresses so I could show to the world how well I had done. I’d make her happy, happier than she’d been in her own house, trapped by her need to make her father proud.
But it was not to be. The wedding was only three weeks away when her father died. Dropped dead in the fields with a shovel still clutched in one hand. I heard the news from a neighbor. “John Otero is dead,” the woman cried, thunderstruck that such a strong, healthy man could have disappeared so suddenly from this world. “John Otero, gone above,” she wailed, and my first reaction was relief. He was all that stood between me and Lottie. With him gone, she would give herself fully to me—her love, her attention, her everything. We could be happy now. I scolded myself for my reaction and tried to be appropriately mournful, but it was hard.
I saddled my horse and rode the three miles to her house, across the river, through the village, all the way to her farm in the shadow of the Great Mountain. Only when I saw her weeping in the flower patch he’d planted for her did I understand how much this would hurt her. That grieved me. I didn’t want to see her in pain. For a while I, too, grieved. Now that he was safely dead, I could admit he was a good man and a good father. I told her how generous he’d been with me, how understanding. She thanked me for my words and sobbed into my chest.
I brought her flowers and sweet cakes every day, but her tears wouldn’t stop. After they buried him, she slept most nights in a blanket at the foot of his grave. She went through her days pale, in the same black dress. The sweet cakes remained untouched, until her little brothers scarfed them down when no one was looking.
It was two weeks before I dared mention the wedding. She looked at me, patted my hand absently, and said, “Yes, it’s a shame we’ll have to put that off.”
“Put it off?”
“Of course. We can’t marry while we’re in mourning for Papá.”
“But…but it’s next week. I’ve already hired the cooks, bought the extra cows to slaughter.”
She looked at me as if I were a bug she’d rather like to smash, if only she had more energy.
Her mother walked in then with a basket of eggs.
“I can’t wait a year, Lottie. I love you,” I got down on my knees in front of her and begged. “I’ve waited five years. I can’t wait any more. I’m a man. A man who needs a wife. You’ll be happy with me. It will help you—distract you from your grief.”
She pulled away. “I would never disrespect my father so.”
“It’s not disrespect. He would want you to marry me. Remember how he always said he was so happy you had found a man like me, who could take care of you? A good man, a learned man, he called me. He told me once that he could rest easy once we were married, because he knew you’d be taken care of. So let him rest easy.”
She started to cry again, as had become so natural for her the last two weeks. “But it’s not right.”
“It’ll curse your life together,” her mother added softly.
“Curses, curses, there are no curses,” I fumed. “You make your own future. And we can do that, together. It’s as he would want it.”
Lottie shook her head. “I can’t.”
“Do you love me?” I demanded.
“Yes,” she sobbed. “Please, I love you so much. Don’t be angry.” I softened. She’d never been so passionate in her declaration of love. “It’s only a year.”
“Two,” said her mother, from where she sat cracking eggs one by one into a bowl.
“Two?” Lottie asked in a dry whisper.
“Two,” her mother repeated. “He died with a tool in his hands. That means his soul is not easy because he was not finished with his work in this life. He needs more time to complete that work, before his soul finally rests with God, and he disappears from our memory. Two years. It is written.”
“Where is it written?” I demanded. “You couldn’t read it even if it were written anywhere.”
The egg in her hand broke under the pressure of her grip. “I know what I know, young man. Two years.”
“Superstition,” I cried. “He died with a tool in his hand because the tool was in his hand when he died. Nothing more.” Why did these ignorant fools have to make signs out of everything?
She stood up, her hands wet with egg. “My husband tolerated your Godlessness long enough. But I won’t. You respect our mourning, the traditions of our people, and the will of God, or you walk out of here and never come back.”
I took Lottie’s hand and kissed it, then walked resolutely out. I heard Lottie cry after me, but I kept going. In this age of printing presses, of schools for even the poor, of scientific discoveries every day, how could people live mired in these superstitions? These beliefs of ghosts of the deceased with work still to be done? This adherence to arbitrary periods of mourning the dead? All mourning accomplished was to make the mourners unhappy and disrupt the course of their lives. It did nothing for the dead.
I ranted to myself all the way home. I’d walked today, and the three miles back flew beneath my feet as I formulated a plan. I was a learned man, just as her father—an unwitting nemesis in death as well as in life—had called me. A learned man knows that to succeed, you need not just the will. Not just muscle. You need the right tools. You need to attack the problem where it’s weakest. Fight fire with fire. Fear with fear. Superstition with superstition. I smiled. I would have my way after all. I would always have my way.
I waited a month. What discipline that took. I kept feeding the cows intended for the wedding feast. I told the cooks I would send for them when I needed them. I worked long hours on my lands, so I would be too tired to miss Lottie’s presence in my house and in my bed, where she should have been.
Then one night, six weeks after his death, I put on my dark coat, wrapped a bit of black cloth around my head, so only my eyes were bared to the moonlight, and saddled my horse. I rode the three miles to her house. It was midnight when I got there, just as planned. Midnight was when my chickens had all died, as one, and that more than anything had convinced the townspeople it was a curse, not some natural disease. Stupid superstitions: symbols and omens and curses.
I tied up my horse out of sight in the woods, then crept to the window where I knew Lottie’s mother slept, alone now that her husband was dead and buried. Or so she thought. I smiled.
I began soft, with a moan, a murmur, a low cry of desolation. Something stirred inside. I could imagine Lottie’s mother lying awake, straining to hear whatever had awakened her. I let loose a heart-wrenching wail, followed by the growl of a man angry with his fate. A light appeared behind the curtains, weak and flickery, as if the hand that held the candle were shaking. I moaned again, louder, but this time I added a simple word. “Why?” I drew it out for long moments. “Why-y-y?”
From inside came the terrified voice. “In the name of God All Knowing, are you from this world or the other?”
“The other,” I moaned, holding the cloth over my mouth to muffle and disguise my voice.
“Who are you?” she cried out.
“I am John Otero.”
Half a scream turned into a choked sob. “I buried you. Why are you here?”
“My soul is trapped between this world and the next, trapped in eternal nothingness. Until my work is finished, I cannot rest.”
“I know, I know,” she sobbed. “I tried to tell them. But what is it you need to do?”
“I need to see my daughter safely married, protected. That is my duty as a father. But you, woman, have forbidden them to wed. I have failed in my duty because of you, and my soul lies in torment.”
“I’ll go tomorrow, husband. I’ll beg him to marry our Lottie as soon as possible.”
“Then I will be free to rest in the lands of our Maker above. Bless you, my wife. Bless you and the union we all desire.” I sighed loudly, contentedly, and repeated, “Praise be,” more and more quietly, as if the spirit of John Otero were fading away into the eternal peace of above.
I heard her cry softly in her room, the candle still lit. I listened for a few moments, then crept silently away, with a grin so big it hurt. Hah. That’s how a learned man conquers ancient superstition. When I was far enough away, I started to whistle. Lottie’s backward mother would come to me in the morning, begging me to marry her daughter. I’d hesitate, which would only drive her into more desperate pleas. Then I’d consent. The wedding would be as soon as I could hire back the cooks and announce the date. Then Lottie would be mine, and we would be happy.
When I found the place where I’d tied up my horse, the fool animal was gone. He did that sometimes, when I didn’t tie him up well enough. He thought he was clever, getting free, but he always came home later, sheepish and hungry, unhappy with the wild grasses he found. The night was clear and I was in too good a mood to get mad.
I kept whistling and skipped like a boy down toward the village. The path curved ahead of me, by the boulder shaped like a pumpkin, and I leaned for a moment against the cool rock. I looked back toward her house. That’s when I saw it. A black shape in the distance, like that of a man wrapped from head to foot in a winter cloak. One of the other villagers, probably, one of those who hired themselves out to richer farmers. Maybe he’d been helping with a late calving, and was headed back now to his home in the village.
A cold breeze whooshed past my ear and blew off the black cloth around my head. I leaned down to pick it up, and when I straightened, the black figure was much closer. There was something odd about his walk, something too smooth, too fast. As if he were skating on ice, like boys did when the river froze over. Another gust of cold air blew past me and I set my sights on the village. I no longer whistled as I walked. Something heavy in my chest made it hard to breathe. That was just because I was walking too fast, I told myself. But I didn’t slow. At the hanging tree I glanced over my shoulder. The figure still followed the path. I couldn’t make out a face, or a hat even, but it was the right height for man. Besides, what else could it be? It was then I realized how quiet everything was. None of the usual night sounds surrounded me. No insects hummed in the dark. No bats squeaked above. No rodent claws rustled in the grass. No owls hooted in the distance. I heard my own heart, my own footsteps, and nothing more. The night was so still I should have heard the footsteps of the man behind me, far away though he was. I stopped and listened. Nothing. He must have stopped too. I glanced back, but he was still advancing, silent and smooth.
“Ho, neighbor,” I called out. My voice sounded hollow.
No response. Maybe he couldn’t hear me. Because none of the villagers would ignore a friendly call like that on a deserted road.
I turned on my heels and headed for the village.
The village gate was closed, but they never actually locked it. It took me a moment to get the latch open. The night had turned cold and my gloveless hand shook. The alehouse was closed, everything dark. Every last window. I thought about knocking on a friend’s door, but that was ridiculous. What would I say? “There’s a silent stranger following me. Can I hide in your house?” Never would I lower myself to such a womanly act. I was a man. Men don’t hide from things they don’t understand. Not learned men. So I wove my way through the dead streets, and out past the well toward the river—and home.
I began to breathe easier. The figure must have been a villager, because there was no sign of him on the road. He’d now be climbing into his bed, beside his wife, with the children asleep on the floor. He’d have been too exhausted by his day’s work to notice me. That’s why he hadn’t responded.
The night was still so silent that I began to hum softly to myself. It wasn’t far now. My muscles felt tight, and I wished I’d tied up my horse better. The road curved ahead around a stand of trees, and then it would open out onto the old bridge that spanned the river. I was humming a cradlesong my mother used to sing to me when I turned the curve and the tune stuck in my throat. There on the bridge was the black figure. How had he gotten ahead of me? It was him all right—no hat, no face I could see, just the black cloak. He stood still, and because I couldn’t see a face, I didn’t know if he was looking straight at me, or in the opposite direction. I stopped. He didn’t move. There was nothing to be afraid of. He must have bypassed the village, taken a shortcut I didn’t know. Now he was simply resting in a pleasant spot. I strode forward. He still didn’t move, but I somehow knew he was looking at me.
“Good evening neighbor,” I called out.
No response again. Who did he think he was, to ignore a friendly greeting not once but twice?
“I don’t know where you’re from,” I said, “but in these parts we say good evening back when someone greets us on the road.” I was close enough now I could see from his body under the cloak that he was indeed facing me, but the cloak covered his face entirely. “Are you deaf, man?”
“I am not deaf,” said the figure, and my legs went stiff.
I knew that voice. That voice had once called me a learned man. When I gained control of my legs again, I backed away.
“I am John Otero,” said the figure.
He knew what I had done. He knew what I had said to his wife. But he was dead. I’d helped bury him. He couldn’t be here. Yet somehow he was, and he knew everything.
“You’re a fake,” I said shakily. “John Otero is dead. You’re some village troublemaker. You envy me my lands. You envy me my wife to be.”
At that, the figure leapt at me, so fast I could only stumble backwards half a step before he knocked me to the ground and pinned down my arms with his bulk.
“I am John Otero,” he repeated, his voice still low and calm. “I am John Otero.”
I wrenched a hand free and punched at where I figured his face was, but I hit nothing. His fist, however, found its target, and I smelled blood. I struggled, swinging my arms with all the force my working man’s muscles could muster, but I could never find his body in the dark. The blows he gave me were only too real, and I began to feel dizzy with pain. Finally I broke free and stumbled away. He blocked the path to the bridge, so I flung myself down the bank and into the river. I knew he didn’t swim. Lottie couldn’t either, because he thought it was dangerous. The water was so cold it hit me like something solid, but I let it carry me downstream, away from the creature with John Otero’s voice.
Finally I found my way onto the opposite bank, a good distance downstream. He couldn’t have run across the bridge and all the way down the rocky bank in that short time. I headed straight for the woods. Once there I could lose myself in them. He could search all night and not find me in those thickets I knew so well.
My right leg hurt like the devil when I put my weight on it, so I half limped, half crawled up the steep bank toward the first line of trees. I was almost there when a hand closed around my ankle, and pain shot like lightening through my body. I kicked and clawed but could never find the thing that beat me until the blackness came as a relief.
I remember the burning, like the fires of Hell the villagers always talked about. Burning everywhere. Maybe that was the fever they tell me I had, the fever that made me rant and rave like the lunatic they thought I was when they found me bruised and half frozen on the banks of the river. They told me I screamed out that I was John Otero. I mumbled of flames and souls that would never rest. I don’t remember any of that.
All I remember was the tea they made me take by the cupful when I started to get better—tea so bitter it made me thirstier. The Marsh Witch’s brew. In my delirium I apparently demanded a doctor, then another when the first shook his head and said there was nothing he could do. The second and third tried, and the priest with his prayers and incense and sacred readings. But it was only the witch’s brews and candles and incantations that brought me around.
I remember the taste of that tea, and I remember the voice of the specter—hollow like a gust of air. “I am John Otero.” He’d repeated that, a ceaseless wind of words as he dragged me down the banks back into the river, as he pummeled me under the water. I remember the rocks in my back, the water closing over my head. I remember choking, gagging, trying to fight back, my fists unable to find anything to make contact with.
I still hear that voice in my dreams even though I sleep with wards the Marsh Witch makes me. Mostly I stay inside. I kept the hens Lottie’s father gave me, though they don’t lay many eggs anymore. The pigs are all gone, and the sheep. My lands have fallen into disuse. The money I had saved for Lottie goes now for new amulets and crosses blessed with holy water. I wear garlic around my neck, even when I bathe quickly in the stream at midday. I don’t leave the house at night. If I do, he is there. A black-robed figure that hides at the edges of my vision. The wind carries his words, though no one else can hear. Even in the day I see him sometimes in the shadows. He follows me, haunts me, this John Otero. Sometimes I think I’m as crazy as they all say I am. But he’s there waiting for me, as real as the river, as real as the scars I have from that night, white lines where the rocks cut me in my desperate struggle to get free.
I’ve tried to banish his dark figure. I’ve gone to see the Marsh Witch more times than I can count, but she says she can’t send a soul back to where it belongs until the soul is ready. I’ve taken to carrying the scythe I no longer use at harvest time, but he never gets close enough. Even if he did, would the scythe have any better result than my useless fists that night by the river? I’ve tried to lure him into traps I set surreptitiously in the daylight hours, but he never takes the bait, and the neighbors tear down my useless contraptions in the evenings, as they murmur to themselves and cast me looks of pity as I hide within my walls.
I can’t go north of the village, where Lottie’s house lies, without him barring the way, dark and shadowy in the distance. I don’t speak to her. When I see her in the market, I just hold tighter to my amulets, my garlic on a string, and look around for the familiar dark shape. It’s always there. Behind the butcher’s stand or around the corner where the women gather to gossip by the well.
It’s been almost three years now. Lottie’s to marry a farmer, one who can’t even read. My neighbors told me the news. I rage inside when I think of it. But maybe this illiterate yokel will take care of her as her father always wanted. Maybe John Otero will be able to rest easy. Maybe the dark figure will disappear, his soul and mine both at peace. Because God and the devil know I’ve tried to rid myself of his specter.
But it’s not easy to kill a man who’s already dead.
About the Author
Melinda Brasher spends her time writing, traveling, and teaching English as a second language in places like Poland, Mexico, the Czech Republic, and Arizona. She loves the sound of glaciers calving and the smell of old books.
You can find her short fiction in Timeless Tales, Nous, Ellipsis Literature and Art, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and others, or in Leaving Home, an e-book collection of some of her favorite published stories and travel essays. For something a little more medieval, read her YA fantasy novel, Far-Knowing.
Visit her online at http://www.melindabrasher.com