ORGULLO LATINOReading time: 4 minutes
In Costa Rica, un buen susto keeps young and old on the right path.
What I'm about to tell you may seem like a fantasy, but it is entirely true.
And this event taught me that the most important lessons in life often come in guises that defy explanation or logic.
I had just put adolescence aside, excited to enter the world of grown-ups, where I thought freedom and maturity were a given.
I come from a humble family. We never had any extras but neither was there ever a shortage of bread or coffee, even they served to merely fool the belly into thinking it was full.
At the time, I lived on top of a hill "donde el diablo perdió la chaqueta", as we Ticos say. One of my favorite things about the place was that, because it was so remote, the city's artificial lights did not affect us there and we could clearly see the stars at night. Full-moons were spectacular there.
My house, the last in a row of seven, adjoined a large coffee farm belonging to Don López, a famous landowner in the area.
The start of my third decade was somewhat unruly. So curious to discover all there was, my friends and I began to frequent the neighboring town's only bar – about 20 minutes away.
There, I tried my first beer and became good friends with guaro, the local liquor.
The music was magical, with salsa and merengue playing on the old radio, a turn-of-the-century relic that somehow still worked.
Predictably naïve, we listened along and laughed until the alcohol in our veins made it hard to differentiate between music and gossip.
The Mysterious Antonio
On one such night, a man appeared. A thin man, pale as fresh milk, he had dark, deep-set eyes that made it difficult to distinguish the pupil from the iris. His name was Antonio.
Antonio wore a white button-down shirt, which seemed old and somewhat worn, and black slacks that hung loosely as though he'd bought a size too big. And he had a noticeable limp on his left leg.
What peaked our interest, however, was his particular routine at the bar. He would arrive at around 8pm, sit in the corner of the bar and drink a transparent liquid from a tall glass. Whether it was water or something stronger, we didn't know.
We always left at around 10pm and, as we glanced back over our shoulders, Antonio remained seated, sipping slowly at his mystery beverage.
When I returned home, my worried mother greeted me with her ritual of prayers and a scolding. Of course, she disapproved of my outings and often regaled me with stories of strange men in dark corners who were out to get young blood such as myself.
But then, one evening, everything changed. Antonio was there, as usual, haunting his favorite corner. But the moon was full, the music particularly melodious, and the drink particularly fiery. It was as though our senses had been fine tuned.
None of us noticed when the clock struck ten.
It was only when I saw Antonio's empty corner that I knew we'd outstayed our welcome. I checked my watch. Midnight.
Concerned for mother's potential state of distress, I left the bar.
El Cadejo Appears
Once outside the bar, the ground seemed to shift beneath my feet. Perhaps from the drink, I thought. As I continued unsteadily, the cold air nipped at my neck and ears.
The early morning fog made it even more challenging to see ahead and I stumbled. It was then, when I looked up, that I saw it for the first time.
It was shaped like a large dog, about half the size of a man, on all fours. Its fur was pitch black and its red eyes shone like two rubies. Long, prominent fangs gleamed in the light of the full moon.
Thick white mist curled around its enormous paws and large iron chains were tied to its hind legs, which dragged behind it when it walked.
As I watched, frozen in terror, I noticed a limp on its hind left leg.
My mom had warned me of this creature. They called him El Cadejo, the dog of the underworld, the devil's pet itself.
And here it was, just a few meters from me. The shock was enough to pull me out of my alcohol-induced fatigue.
In my newfound clarity, however, the huge dog didn't seem so frightening. In fact, I realized that he was not trying to attack me. He was waiting, waiting for me to get home to safety. His moan was not to threaten, but to express pain.
I looked the mournful dog in the eye and saw Antonio staring back at me, knowingly.
The silent, mysterious man was the human form of El Cadejo and he was there to guide those who had lost their way after a few drinks.
That night, El Cadejo accompanied me to the door of my house and then, in the blink of an eye, he disappeared into the cold mist.
My mother, who was waiting anxiously for my return, said she had seen it too – the dog from hell.
But I understood that it was something else, El Cadejo was there to show lost souls the path again, to lead them safely to their destination.
The years passed and I kept my friendships but I never visited that bar again. Eerily enough, the neighbors say that the mysterious Antonio was never seen there again either.