On the other side of Costa Rica, I discovered another restless forest spirit. On vacation from school, I traveled to Puerto Viejo, a beautiful, small village on the edge the sapphire–colored Caribbean sea. There I met Celia and her sisters living in a house on stilts, wedged between the rainforest and the shore. Between them, the three sisters have fifteen children who play and run freely in the yard, dashing in and out of the sea, squealing with delight while flailing wet arms and legs. Celia makes her living braiding hair, so I voluntarily subjected myself to the six–hour torture of getting my short hair braided with waist–length extensions. My secret motivation, of course, was to persuade Celia to tell me, in her soft, lilting voice, about the duendes. In a mixture of Spanish, Patois, Italian (her husband was a Milanese ex–patriot), and a few English words, Celia related stories about La Mica (the Monkey–Woman), another dangerous creature of the forest.
La Mica has the body of a large female howler monkey, but with human breasts and a human face. She emerges from la selva, the rainforest, and perches on the roof of a house. There, her eyes burning red as coals, she waits for an unfaithful spouse who has yet to return from a night's carousing. Upon seeing him staggering up the path, La Mica swings down from her perch and confronts him as he fumbles drunkenly for the keys to his door. Dancing and jumping, she confuses the poor sap, whose impulse is to lurch towards the tantalizing sight of her bouncing breasts. Gradually, La Mica leads him astray in ever widening circles, farther and farther away from his house until he is lost forever in the forest.
Tugging a little harder on my hair as she braided the long extensions, Celia told me archly that if a man decided to be that way and stay out all night long, it would be wiser not to return to his home. She cast her eye over the shrieking hoard of laughing children and nodded with satisfaction. "Not my children," she told me, "they know the danger. They won't grow up to be those kind of men."
As I continued to live in Costa Rica, I became much more aware of the hidden possibilities lurking in the rainforests. I looked with new eyes at every leaf, listened intently to the distant animal voices calling in the darkness. I learned that although most Costa Ricans choose not to talk about the duendes with strangers, they believe the forest and mountains are bustling with faery activity. During the two years I was there, slowly becoming a member of the community, friends and other people from all over the country related more and more tales about their personal encounters with the duendes of the selva.
The elderly men in the local cantinas began to regale me with stories about their "close calls," the times they got away from the duendes. These usually ended in the storyteller buying a round of tequila for whoever had the patience to listen until the end of the story. (Usually it was only I that remained attentive). But the men's embellished tales (that included a fair share of harmless flirtation with a young American woman) could not compare to the serious nature of the tales told by the local women. Those stories were like the secrets to survival that we, as women, all shared. The women's storytelling sessions reaffirmed a sense of sisterhood, and the protection that comes with sisterhood, and provided the encouragement needed to not merely survive a hard life, but to enjoy it.
The feminine faeries of the women's tales were fierce and scary, yet understanding and necessary. Although startling in their appearance, with their horses heads and howler monkey bodies, they were protective spirits — honorary grandmothers of a deeply rooted sisterhood, with the fantastic power to act for girls and women when we could not. Women told men these cautionary stories, they told their sons and husbands and neighbors. I, in turn, told the stories to my family, my schoolmates, and my boyfriends (once I had the storytellers' permission to do so).
The majority of storytellers that I met in Costa Rica were women, connecting to each other through their fantastic experiences and heroines, connecting to their communities through their deeply personal and localized stories. I felt honored to be entrusted with the tales, and I also felt alerted by them: alerted to the mythic language of the rainforest, to the standards of behavior between Costa Rican men and women, and to the possibility that I, too, might one day encounter these dangerous, magical grandmothers — whether in the forests of Costa Rica, or on my home turf in the American Midwest. I like to think that I shall now recognize them, whether on a forest path or a city street. . .waiting and watching. . .their knowing eyes scanning the faces of those who pass by. . . .