To truthfully tell this story, I have to start with an explanation of why I was there in the first place. In 2011, I decided to join the Peace Corps and was relocated to Nicaragua. I spent two years in a small community named La Quinta that had roughly six-hundred people in it and it was in the Esteli region. The first few months, I was relatively shy. I spoke to the kids in my community and the family I lived with, but did not have enough confidence in my Spanish abilities to talk to other people. It was during these first few months that my Nicaraguan grandmother, Rosalia, first told me the story of the carretanagua.
To be perfectly honest, the first time she told me the story. I just nodded and pretended to understand. I didn’t know enough Spanish to properly understand her and she spoke with an accent that only other campesinos, a slightly derogatory term for people that lived in poorer villages, could understand. It wasn’t until halfway through my two-year service that I understood enough Spanish to ask her to tell me the story of the carretanagua. It turns out, she told me this story because of my tendency to walk around at night while the rest of the village was asleep. She meant it as a cautionary tale.
It is worth noting that my Spanish skills were not and are not the most adept in the world. What I have heard that night may not be perfectly translated. I will have some phrases in Spanish, which I will translate, but I find it necessary to include them to tell the story properly. It is also worth noting that she believed this story whole-heartedly. She truly believes that in her younger days she was actually visited by the carretanagua and after hearing her story and having my own experiences, I do not know if I would be right in assuming that her story never happened.
When my Nicaraguan grandmother was younger, she lived with her family. Like many families at that time, she had ten brothers and sisters that lived in their small house. One day, over seventy years ago, her brother fell ill. She didn’t tell me what sickness he had, but from the symptoms of fits of shivering and extreme sweating. I can make an educated guess that he had contracted malaria. He was bed-ridden and because they lived in a small community, there was no hospital. He continued in that condition for a few weeks.
Eventually her parents decided that they needed to go to the hospital and get medication for him. The only problem was that they would both have to go in and leave the children by themselves for a day. They decided that this was the best course of action and put my grandmother, Rosalia, in charge of the other children. They left the ailed Chepito (Little Chepe.) under her care as well because traveling to the hospital would prove too strenuous for him.
They left that day and she set to taking care of her brothers and sisters, feeding them, keeping them in line and out of trouble, and sending the older boys up the mountain to tend their crops of beans and rice. The day passed and night fell. Rosalia made sure all of her brothers and sisters were in bed and she had just blown out the candles and was getting ready for bed when she first heard the sounds of someone approaching her house in a cart.
The cart’s wheels groaned in protest as they traveled the dirt road. This groaning was joined by the rattling of chains that were dragging behind the cart. The cart came to a stop by the side of her house and the driver of the cart went up to her front door and knocked. She opened the door to see a shadowy figure standing on her steps. Since she had blown out the candles and it was the night of a new moon, she couldn’t properly see the man.
At first she thought it was her father, but then he spoke, “Hay un Chepito aqui?” (“Is there a Chepe here?”)
She couldn’t recognize the voice, but something about his tone set her on edge. She lied and told the stranger that he was still up in the mountains working.
The stranger was silent for a moment before he responded, “Vamos a ver.” (“We shall see.”)
He left and my grandmother closed the door. She listened to the cart ride off with rattling chains and groaning wheels. She went back to their shared room and checked on her little brother. He was hot to the touch and sweating despite the fact that he was in his underwear. She told me that he felt so hot to the touch that it felt like she was touching a stone that had been left in the sun.
She was worried, but decided to try and get some sleep. She was drifting off to sleep when the sounds of chains and creaking wheels returned to her house. There was more knocking on the door. She got out of the bed and answered the front door. The shadowy man was there again. A few feet away she could make out the shape of the two oxen that pulled his cart. They were extremely thin and looked as if they were wan and sickly.
The man spoke again, “Fui a las montañas, Chepito no estaba alla. Digame donde esta, chavala.” (“I went to the mountains, Chepe was not there. Tell me where he is, girl.”)
Something about the man chilled her blood. Once again she lied to him and told him that he wasn’t in the house.
The man returned in a cold manner, “Mentirosa. Deme la verdad o va a darte su golpes. El es muribundo, demelo.” (“Liar. Give me the truth or I am going to give you your hits. He is dying, give me him.”)
She knew that this man had ill intentions for her brother so she said, “He is sick and went to town. Go there.”
The man turned and hopped onto the cart. He whipped the oxen and they left.
She tried to go back to bed, but could not sleep. An hour later she heard him return. This time the sound of groaning wheels and rattling chains tore through the night air. It was almost deafening. As she listened to the groaning wooden wheels, she wondered if her mind was playing tricks on her. The groaning wheels almost sounded like the lamentations of men and the rattling chains didn’t sound like they were being dragged behind the cart, but were actually the sounds of people struggling against their bonds. She lit a candle and carried it to the front door. She opened the door before he could knock and when the light hit him, she instantly regretted lighting a candle.
Before her stood what remained of a man. His flesh had rotted away in places and his lips had decayed long ago, leaving him with a sardonic, skeletal grin. His bones poked through what remained of his flesh. The candlelight illuminated his fiendish smile and the cart behind him. The oxen were not thin, but were actually made of bones. It was in this moment that she realized that this was the carretanagua and it was here for her brother’s soul.
What was once a man spoke, his words sliced into her like a sickle, “Me sabes… Y yo se que su hermanito esta aqui. El va a morir este noche. Traigalo a me y su familia no va a sufrir.” (“You know me… And I know that your little brother is here. He is going to die this night. Bring him to me and your family is not going to suffer.”)
Rosalia was paralyzed with fear, but managed to tell the skeletal man that he could not enter her house without her permission.
He blew the dead air from what remained in his lungs through his exposed jaw and spoke, “Bueno pues!” (“Very well!”)
He stomped his right foot on the step and the sound of bone striking stone echoed through the village. After that he left. Her brother didn’t die that night.
My grandmother finished the tale and went to bed. I decided to visit my neighbors and get a little more information about the myth of the carretanagua. They told me that the carretanagua was a Nicaraguan myth that matched perfectly with my grandmother’s depiction. They told me that he visits houses of those who are dying to bear away the bodies. He takes the dying people somewhere and returns before the sun rises. The carretangua deposits their broken bodies on the steps of the houses he bore them away from and states, “Aqui lo deje!” (“I leave it here!”) He cannot cross roads that intersect in the form of a cross and he cannot enter houses without permission and instead must convince people to let him in or come out to meet him.
The part about being unable to cross roads that intersected in a cross formation seemed ridiculous because after all, doesn’t every road intersect like that? It wasn’t until I realized that many communities only had one road or path and never crossed another path. The carretangua was given free reign to travel through the villages and communities. The most disconcerting part was the part left unmentioned. What happened to the people? Where did he take them and what did he do to them to leave them broken and destroyed? We talked a little more and when I mentioned my grandmother’s story, her son who was my neighbor sighed and said, “It is a shame what happened to them.”
I inquired further and he revealed that Chepe died five years later in the Contra-Sandinista war. He caught a bullet in the stomach and spent his last hours in agony waiting to die. Not only that, but Rosalia’s other family met tragic ends. Some died in accidents, some from heart attacks, some from drink, and some committed suicide by drinking insecticide. Almost every single one of her siblings were dead or dying from cancer and inoperable tumors. I thanked him and went to my room for the night. The story didn’t scare me as much as the fates of her siblings. Could it just be a macabre coincidence or something more sinister like a curse?
I never did talk to my grandmother about her story again. I let myself be convinced that it was all just a story and it worked for a few months. The moment where my faith in that lie was shaken one night as I was taking a walk around my village and breathing in the night air. As I wandered around aimlessly and looked for a place to sneak a smoke, I sat on a stump by the side of the road. It was a quiet night and seemed like one of those moments where the chaos and entropy of the world didn’t seem to exist. As I sat there smoking my knock-off Belmont Suave. (An ironic name because smoking a Belmont ‘smooth’ was the equivalent of smoking a cigarette composed entirely of hair and rubber in taste and smoothness.) It was on that road that I became aware of the sounds. Clink, clink, clink.
There are a few carts in my community so I didn’t immediately make the connection. I listened as the sound grew and something came into my view down the only road that cut through my community, dividing it in half. My adjusted eyes could make out someone driving the oxen forward. It wasn’t until I was able to discern that the oxen were pallid that I really began to get concerned. It plodded along at a methodical pace and as the clink, clink, clink grew louder, I decided that I had had enough. When the sound of wood groaning and straining like the sound of a creaky casket swinging open, reached my ears, my resolve completely broke.
I am not easily spooked, but something about the similarities between my grandmother’s story and this cart really freaked me out. As it drew closer to me, I decided not to test my luck. I stubbed out the smoldering half of my horrible cigarette and returned to my house with the sounds of groaning wooden wheels and rattling chains growing ever louder behind me. I almost sprinted the last part of the way home. I closed the door and locked it.
In that moment, feeling relief wash over me, I had never felt so foolish in my life. How could I let a little old lady’s words get under my skin? I wanted to smile at myself for being so worked up, I wanted to laugh at myself for believing her, I wanted to cry. I want to say I was able to brush it all off, but to this very day, months after her story, the sound of wood groaning and chains rattling sets my heart racing and turns my blood cold.
Written by EmpyrealInvective