Just the other day my dad reminded me of one of my favorite childhood folklore tales. It got me thinking about the true definition of “lore”, a story with a lesson. Folklore is about traditional beliefs and local customs. I was curious about what these stories are trying to tell us and why some of these stories seem so “hyper local” and yet have universal elements. Why do we seek out these places and want them to be real? I grew up in the highly superstitious culture of San Antonio; my family told ghost stories of family members haunting our homes, of mal de ojo, and local legends. Many of the stories had similar themes. They were all tragic: revolving around the untimely death of children and undesirable or wayward women. They often took place near bodies of water. Most importantly, the ghosts or legends of these stories interacted with the non-cursed living.
The story my dad reminded me about was the tale of the “Donkey Lady”. The supposed location of the story happens to take place barely a few miles from my parents house in south central Texas. The Donkey Lady lived alone in a house along a creek, near some woods, and a bridge. She was trapped in her home as it burnt to the ground. Miraculously, she survived, but emerged from the rubble with a disfigured face, so long and distorted that she looked like she had the face of a donkey. It is also said that her feet and hands were deformed and fused by the heat of the fire and looked like hooves.
Because she no longer had a home, she moved under a nearby bridge. Everyone in the neighborhood was horrified at the sight of her. No one helped her. Groups of kids teased her and attacked her. After days, weeks, and possibly months of taking their abuse, she killed them in a defensive rage. She remained for the rest of her days under the bridge. If you stand on her bridge long enough, you will hear the sound of hooves approach, she will emerge, scream, and chase you away.
One story that seems tied to the Donkey Lady is the classical Mexican tale of La Llorona (“The Weeping Woman”). This is a story about a woman who had two children from her first marriage. She meets a new man who wants to marry her but doesn’t want to deal with taking care of her kids. She decides to drown her two children in favor of her new fiancé. After doing so, she tells her lover. Instead of embracing her, he is horrified by her actions. He rejects her and she kills herself by drowning in the same river. She is forced to spend eternity wandering the banks of the local rivers wailing and searching for her lost children. Some people also say that she was a very pretty woman and in order to pay for her misdeeds, she is forced to have head of a horse in the afterlife. There is a body of water in Texas called “Woman Hollering Creek” that is said to be named after her. Supposedly, if La Llorona catches up to you, she will kill you, and force you to wander the banks looking for her children.
Another “hyper local” story from my youth is about a bus full of school children that stalled on train tracks, again not far from my parents house. There was a horrific accident when an oncoming train was unable to stop and slammed into the school bus, killing all of the children and the bus driver. In memory of those who died that day, many of the nearby streets are named after the children who perished. They are names like “Sally” or “Mary Lou”.
The legend is that if you stop your car over the tracks, turn off your engine, and put your car in neutral, the ghosts of the dead school children will push your car uphill, off the tracks, and into safety. People report that they can make out the outline of little handprints on the backs of their car, when they douse their bumpers with flour or baby powder before attempting this spiritual tow lift. Unfortunately, I have never witnessed this phenomenon because the time we tried to do this, there were so many people trying to do the same thing, that it really lost its allure.
Of course, one of my favorites is about the beautiful woman who learns that one night she literally danced with the devil. The devil is said to visit San Antonio, only once a year, on the night of Halloween. He is a handsome man who is charming and a ridiculously good dancer. He decides to frequent the diviest tejano bars looking for the most beautiful woman he can find. Once he finds her, she is entranced by dancing with him until she looks down and notices that he has the feet of a chicken. Upon this discovery she screams so loudly that he disappears in a cloud of smoke, among the confusion.
There’s something about listening to these stories and retelling them to the unacquainted that still gives me a thrill and ignites the wonder and curiosity that I retain from childhood. I feel a connection to not only the ancient art of storytelling but also an insiders view of my local history. They make me feel loyal to and proud of my hometown. They are part of my love of narratives involving the strange or macabe. Ironically, they fuel my thirst for scientific knowledge and ignite my skepticism. They teach me that truth isn’t always necessary for a good story. In fact, it’s probably best that none of the facts are true or perhaps, that there is a small kernel of truth to the legend. For me as a writer, reader, and storyteller the longevity of a compelling tale, passing it along to the next generation, has become increasingly more and more important to me.
[Thank you to the writers of Weird Texas, which I used to verify the stories from memory.]