It’s a simple tradition: for every night you receive a gift throughout the week of the fall equinox, you must leave a wildflower in exchange. This is what my sister, Kate, told me when I came to visit her in late September. She’d been living in a small town in Panama for six months, and she’d already picked up a lot of the local superstitions.
The very first night I was there, I noticed a brass tray on every porch, each containing a bundle of flowers wrapped in old, faded ribbons. Most of them were red, or had been in a past life, but there were a few blues scattered among them. I was the one who’d asked about it, so when my sister went off on a tirade about “las malvadas” –as well as something that loosely translates to “the culling of souls”–I listened politely and didn’t tell her how ridiculous she sounded.
Back in Michigan, she’d never been the gullible type. We’ve both always liked the idea of ghosts and ghouls, but we know that sort of thing doesn’t actually exist. Or at least we did.
The whole thing made me kind of uncomfortable, just how serious she was about. But at the end of the day, I figured it was harmless enough. I even helped her pick some wildflowers behind the house to put in the offering tray.
In the morning, there was a little figurine carved from wood, wrapped in another ribbon. My sister was relieved to see that the ribbon was red, but she brushed me off when I asked her what it meant to get a different color. By that point, I actually thought the tradition was kind of cute. I imagined little old women going out at night and leaving trinkets for the neighborhood, taking only flowers as payment. It was a shame the whole thing was based on fear, but the gesture itself seemed kind of nice. In a quaint sort of way.
Over the next few days, we traveled all over the city and kept busy until the evening. I would have forgotten about the offerings completely if it weren’t for my sister making a point of putting those flowers out each night.
Eventually, she had to go back to work, but I was able to entertain myself well enough. I hit up some of the local markets, and I brushed up on my Spanish while getting plastered with strangers. My sister was usually back in time to have dinner with me, but one night, she called to let me know that she’d be working late. She didn’t expect to be home until the wee hours of the morning, so I thought I’d hit up another nearby bar to pass the time.
“Don’t forget to put out the flowers,” my sister told me before we hung up. “I’m serious. They need to be on the tray by midnight.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I replied. “I’ll put them out.”
“I’m not kidding, Matt,” she said, all uptight and somber like when she’d first explained it to me.
“I’ll put them out!” I said, trying to hide the annoyance from my voice. It was one thing when she wanted to take part in this silly thing, but I shouldn’t have to be dragged into it.
Still, it was a simple task. Nothing worth arguing over.
We said goodbye, and I got ready to go.
I stumbled in around 1:00 and fumbled with my keys way longer than was reasonable. All I could think about at that point was getting to bed. I plopped down on the futon and was almost out completely when I remembered the flowers.
It took every ounce of strength I had just to sit up. I faced the front door, and it suddenly seemed fifty miles away.
I had promised my sister, and I didn’t want to go back on that. But the more I thought about it, the more pointless it all seemed. She wouldn’t even notice that I hadn’t put out the flowers, since whoever was picking them up would have grabbed them by then. Maybe she wouldn’t get a gift because of my failure to follow through, but I didn’t have the energy to worry about that now.
With a twinge of guilt that quickly turned into irritation, I flopped over and passed out.
In the morning, I thought about what my sister would do if she found out. She’d been making a huge deal over it from the start, and I really didn’t want this to sour my entire visit.
I checked the alter as soon as I got up, and much to my relief, there was another gift on the tray. No harm, no foul.
This time it looked sort of like a doll made of twigs and animal hair. Honestly, it was pretty creepy. I decided to let my sister deal with it herself, then went to the kitchen for breakfast.
I thought it was over from there, but the moment my sister stepped outside, she started freaking out.
“What did you do?” she screamed.
My stomach twisted, but I tried to play it cool. “What? What’s wrong?”
She held up the gift, thrusting it into my face as if it were damning evidence. I still didn’t understand the problem, so she pointed at the ribbon tied around the doll’s middle.
“If you put the flowers out like you should have, this would be red, not blue!” I felt guilty for a moment, but the more upset she got, the more it started to freak me out. I was afraid she might be unwell. Like maybe this wasn’t just superstition, but an underlying mental illness that was only surfacing now. There was no way to justify the way she was acting.
“Look, Kate, I’m sorry,” I said, trying to calm her down, but she wouldn’t let me finish.
“Do you know what we have to do now? We have to bind the flowers in blood.”
I let that hang in the air between us for a moment, before I offered an incredulous, “What?”
“You put a target on this household, and the only way to appease las malvadas now is to spill your own blood.”
I stood there, dumbfounded, as she ran to the kitchen. I was seriously getting scared. This wasn’t like her, getting all worked up over a local myth. I would have thought she was messing with me if she weren’t so genuinely distraught. When I finally followed her to the kitchen, though, I could no longer pretend that it was no big deal.
“What are you doing?” I asked, hovering in the doorway. Kate had the knife against her wrist, staring down at it over the sink. Below her arm was a saucer, strategically placed beneath the area she was about to cut. “Stop it, Kate. You’re scaring me. Please stop this.”
She looked over at me, tears rushing down her face, and I was torn between wanting to comfort her and wanting to take her to the emergency room.
“Kate, you’re sick. We need to get you to a doctor.”
“Don’t patronize me!” she screamed, and I pressed my back against the wall. She’d never shouted at me like that before.
Kate turned back to the sink, then wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I know you don’t get it. You think I’m crazy. That’s because you’ve never seen it.”
I swallowed. “Kate, come on. Just put down the knife.”
Kate shook her head and turned to me again. “We have to make this right.”
I took a tentative step toward her, watching her hands intently. “Making yourself bleed isn’t going to fix things.”
She shook her head again, more persistently. “I know,” she murmured. “It has to be you.”
I froze again, afraid to get any closer. “…Kate, you’re freaking me out. You wanna hurt me now?”
“No!” she shouted. “I don’t want to hurt you. I want to protect you. And I thought maybe if I did it myself, you’d be safe, but I just feel it in my gut that it’s not true. You were the one who screwed up. It has to be your blood.”
“Whoa, hold on,” I said, backing up. She gripped the knife harder and took a step toward me.
“Matt, I know you don’t believe me, but I have to do it,” Kate said. “Please don’t fight me on this. I don’t want to see those things happen to you.”
At that point, I had no clue how to react. Despite what she was saying, she sounded like my usual, rational sister, only more tearful. I just couldn’t reconcile the fact that she thought that cutting me would stop some evil witches from retaliating against us.
“What things?” I asked, almost afraid to find out. Had she seen something happen in that isolated town? Trauma could do things to a person’s psyche, make them believe stuff they wouldn’t have otherwise. I think they call it a coping mechanism, trying to make sense of the unfathomable.
Kate’s eyes locked with mine, desperation in her gaze.
“They don’t have bodies of their own,” she said, the hysteria fading into a rueful calm. “They have to gestate in a chosen vessel. If you don’t fix what you did, she could pick you to be her vessel. Or worse.”
“Kate, let’s just go,” I said. “Let’s go into the city and get a motel. Then we don’t have to worry about… malvadas or curses or… any of that stuff.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, holding up the knife. “They’ll find you, wherever you go. It’s too late. You only have one option.”
She reached out and grabbed my wrist with more strength than I’d thought she could muster.
“Kate, stop it,” I said, pulling back.
“All you had to do was put out flowers, Matt,” she snapped. “It wasn’t hard! But you couldn’t even do that much, and now I have to spill your blood.”
I clenched my jaw at the accusation and ripped my wrist from her grasp. Now I was getting mad. I’d indulged her up to that point, but she was being ridiculous. I wasn’t risking getting tetanus over some backwoods superstition.
“Enough, Kate! You’re acting crazy!”
“I don’t expect to change your mind,” she said. “But you need to do this for me.”
She stared at me, bristling at my stunned silence. “You need to do this for me, Matt! Give me your arm!”
“Why are you doing this? Since when do you let folklore control your life? That’s not the sister I know.”
“Well you won’t have a sister at all if you don’t give me your fucking arm!”
The room fell silent again. Though she didn’t move away, I could see the hint of regret on Kate’s face, realizing what she’d said in fear and anger.
My eyes burned and blurred my vision. “What are you saying? You would seriously cut me off because of this shit?” I asked through gritted teeth. Kate wouldn’t look at me now.
Rage bubbled up inside me.
“Fine!” I snapped. “You have to fucking cut me for your bullshit superstitions, do it! Apparently that’s more than—”
Kate grabbed my wrist again, and before I could finish my sentence, she’d swiped the knife over my arm, leaving a shallow, but painful, wound just below my wrist.
“Holy fuck, Kate!” I cried, gripping my arm and doubling over. “You fucking cut me! I can’t believe you fucking did it!”
“I’m sorry!” she said, even as she grabbed the saucer and held it below my dripping gash. Blood poured out onto the plate, spilling from between my fingers, until she set the saucer on the counter and got me a rag.
“Put pressure on it,” she said, her tone low and defeated. Which was surprising, considering she’d gotten what she wanted at my expense.
“What the fuck, Kate,” I said, my voice much softer now, tear-choked. She turned and left the room, heading into the backyard where I assumed she’d be picking wildflowers. I stayed where I was for a long while, pressing down on the cut and breathing through the agony until Kate finished binding the flowers and helped me bandage my arm up.
From that point on, a weighted silence hung between us. Kate seemed back to her old self, maybe just relieved. I couldn’t bring myself to face her, still feeling betrayed. Once more, I considered trying to get her to go to the ER, but I was afraid she might attack me again. Whatever was going on with her, I wasn’t equipped to handle it.
When Kate finally spoke to me, it was to tell me she was staying with a friend tonight. She felt we both needed some space from one another. I was grateful for that much, as I wasn’t particularly enjoying her company at the moment.
Kate left without saying goodbye, and I spent the rest of the evening watching TV and fiddling around on my laptop.
I couldn’t get the things Kate had said, had done, out of my head, and I briefly considered going out to the bar again to drown my sorrows. However, considering how getting wasted had caused the conflict in the first place, I decided not to press my luck.
My anger toward Kate slowly faded back to concern. I didn’t know how we were going to handle this. Was there any coming back from that kind of insane fight?
I headed to the kitchen for some water, and as I passed the living room window, I noticed someone standing across the street, not moving. I confess, my initial reaction was akin to emotionally wetting my pants, and a choked, involuntary sound escaped me like I’d been punched in the gut. But once my stomach stopped doing somersaults, I carefully approached the glass, peering out into the night.
The street lamps were just bright enough fr me to make out an old woman, dressed all in black. I could only see her profile from my angle, but she was fairly distinct in her dress. There were heavy rings and bracelets on her arms and hands. A series of chains dangled from her neck. Her frock was so long that it dragged on the ground, and she wore a scarf over her hair, mostly hiding her features. However, when she turned back, I could clearly see her red, leathery face.
“Ah, the malvadas have arrived,” I said to myself, chuckling darkly. Part of me wanted to go out and confront the woman, as if it were her fault that my sister was losing it.
Instead, I watched from the living room as she loitered across the way. She hovered around the stoop for a while, looking back and forth, before she pulled something from her pocket. A gift, most likely, confirmed when she picked up the bundle of wildflowers that sat in the stoop’s alter.
Right then, I wished my sister could see it. I wanted her to confront the thing she’d built up in her mind, so that she’d be able to put a face to her irrational fear. Merely a little old lady, who made the swap, then wandered off into the night without looking back.
Just the one house, apparently. I wondered if she’d return for the rest of the flowers, or if perhaps different folks were involved in the process. Either way, I turned off the living room light so as not to spook any other elderly women who might come by. I was still bitter about the whole thing, but I really didn’t want to have another huge blowout with Kate.
I lazed about for the rest of the evening, appreciating the time to myself. It was nice until, somewhere around midnight, I noticed it had become unnaturally quiet. No insect chirps, no hum of civilization. It unnerved me a little. However, the peacefulness allowed me to relax and really get into a mystery novel I was reading, so I pushed it from my mind. I even started to drift off, book in hand.
A sudden crash cut through the eerie silence and had me halfway to my feet before I could even process it. My heart thudded in my chest from the scare, but after a moment, I caught my breath and tiptoed to the window.
I looked back and forth, at first seeing nothing on the street to explain the noise. But before I turned away, I saw a figure near the end of the block. Beside it, a garbage can had been tipped over, spewing trash along the road.
Well, that explained it. Some guy had upended the bin, and the lack of crickets or sounds of traffic had made the fall especially loud.
I watched the man for a moment as he continued swaying at the end of the street, a bloated silhouette. He was a large individual with a massive gut, bigger around than he was tall. Drunk off his ass, I assumed. He stood in the darkness like that for some time, rocking back and forth, before he took his first unsteady steps onto the sidewalk.
I noticed then that most of the street lights had flickered off. The moon was bright enough, though, to track the man as he lumbered from porch to porch, leaning over the alters. It looked as if he were taking the bouquets, but it didn’t look like he was putting anything back.
“Damn,” I murmured. A lot of people were going to be upset in the morning. I wondered what sort of blood bath that would entail.
I froze as the man neared my sister’s place, slinking back so that I was mostly hidden by the curtains. He glanced around, his head jerking in a strange, unnatural manner, then he waddled to the porch from before. The street light flickered on again, just in time for me to see the man projectile vomit all over the stoop.
I gagged and recoiled, until I noticed that it wasn’t typical bile he was heaving. He was throwing up blood. Thick, heavy, seemingly endless amounts of blood.
I put a hand over my mouth as I watched the guy stumble toward the door. He ran a bloody palm down the front of it, leaving a red streak in its wake. Then he reached for the handle and tugged. Once, twice, a third time, before he lifted both arms and began to pound on the door with all his might. He slammed his fists against the wood, frantic and enraged.
It was at that moment that I realized I should be calling the cops. If nothing else, the guy needed medical care. I went to dial 911, then it occurred to me that that might not be the emergency line in Panama. Flustered, I tried looking it up on my phone, when the guy outside drew my attention once more.
He’d wandered away from the porch and was now convulsing in the street. The noises he was making were primal, like a feral animal, and I found that I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look away. I just watched as the man fell to his knees, heaving again before throwing himself backward.
Still kneeling, he twisted until his shoulders pressed into the asphalt, jutting his large abdomen out into the light of the moon. His body had bent so sharply, so abruptly, that it appeared as if he’d snapped in two. And that’s when I saw the movement.
It was easy to miss at first, but soon there was a distinct ripple beneath the man’s skin. Something was shifting around in his gut. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t, trapped in my fear and morbid fascination. The ripple grew stronger, and the man’s skin began to distort as something pushed out from the inside. It reminded me of a balloon being stretched out as wide as possible, thin enough to see through. Pressure as it was pulled to its limit.
Then it snapped.
A hand shot out of the man’s gut, thrusting into the air like a strained rubber band released. The man continued to convulse as his belly tore from the other side, and another hand ripped out, wriggling its fingers in the cool, night air.
The hands flexed, then reached down to plunge their long nails into what skin was left. They tore the man open, freeing more of whatever was inside, as a thick head of hair emerged, then the beginning of a skinny, crooked body.
Steam poured off of the man as the thing broke free, his entrails spilling about the street. As it stood, pale and naked, facing the other house, I could see it was a woman that had crawled out of him. Well, some semblance of a woman. More like what a woman would look like if designed by a person who’d never actually seen one before.
She stood at about three feet tall, hunched over, her wrinkled skin sagging, hanging from her bones. There was shockingly little viscera on her, and she seemed unbothered by the cold. The man was still twitching in his pile of guts as the woman, the malvada, approached the house.
I couldn’t see her face. I could only partly see what she was doing. I could, however, make out her deformed shape, her jagged movements as she pressed against the outer wall of the home, right beneath a sealed, covered window. She was resting her head on the wood, arms splayed as if embracing the structure.
Had she made a sound, I wouldn’t have heard it, as my heartbeat was pounding in my ears. Stricken, I watched. Watched as she stretched her arms out unnaturally long. Watched as she began to slide into the crack of the closed window. Watched as she disappeared entirely.
The second she was out of sight, I was dialing. My Spanish is limited, but I did my best to describe what I was seeing, and the woman on the phone promised that the police would be there soon.
I ran around the house, double-checking the locks on all of the doors and windows. Not that it mattered, did it? Not that anything could keep her out.
I swallowed back the bile in my throat and locked myself in the bathroom. Then I did something I hadn’t done since high school—prayed.
All I know is that I fell asleep somehow, despite everything. I woke in a cramped, achy position, briefly disoriented over where I’d woken. When I came out of the bathroom, it was 6:00 in the morning. If the police had come earlier, I hadn’t heard them, but I could see flashing lights outside the living room window now.
I called my sister, and she got home around an hour later. We didn’t discuss what had happened between us. We didn’t say much of anything. Instead, we joined the rubber-neckers surrounding the area and watched as the police taped off the house and removed several body bags.
“Murder,” a woman whispered in Spanish. She and her friend spoke too quickly for me to catch most of what they were saying, but I was able to gauge that the family in that home had been brutally slaughtered. As of yet, there wasn’t enough information to guess as to why.
Among the nosy crowd, I noticed the woman I’d seen the previous night, chattering excitedly with some other bystanders. A local busybody, I later learned. Not a witch at all. Just a bad neighbor. Though I never did find out what she’d been doing on the porch that night.
I left a day early, with no argument from my sister. Despite everything, we still hugged and said, “I love you.” The flight home felt even longer than usual. In a sense, it was like I’d left some part of me back in that village, but I couldn’t pinpoint what or why.
I’m in the states now, haven’t talked to my sister much. For the most part, the nightmares have stopped, but sometimes I still hear scratching on my bedroom window. I guess I’m a little paranoid these days.
Lately, it’s hard to gauge what’s in my head and what’s really happening around me. I just keep questioning my own memory of events. Was it some sort of temporary psychosis? Did I hallucinate the things that I saw? Or did I really witness that scene from hell? Did I really see, without a doubt, that all of my greatest fears could be true?
I try not to think about it anymore. I spend much of my day just pretending like it never happened.
Of course, I do keep a large roll of red ribbon in my desk now. I know the equinox has passed, but I still leave flowers on my porch every night.
Just in case.
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