She’d occupied the same house for many years, rising with stiffening joints and creaking bones more rigid and noisier every time she had to leave its safety to fulfill her duty. The dark and quiet stillness of the dwelling suited her, and she moved out of doors only when she was called for by those whom she awaited. Her task wasn’t a difficult one either. It only involved finding the one who beckoned her and seeing to the person’s needs in one of two ways.

The morning she heard her name called, she tested the joints in her feet first, moving each toe and feeling the relief when each gave a small but audible crack. She lifted each leg from the knee down while still seated on her stool and gave a faint smile with each little pop of her joints. Next, she flexed her fingers, her wrists, her elbows and her shoulders before sighing with satisfaction that this day her body would cooperate and she could accomplish her chore. Moving her head back and forth and up and down, the Lady finally rose slowly until she was assured of her balance and began stepping forward out of the little fenced enclosure which kept her safe from any who might wish to abduct her, or worse—to do her harm.

She adjusted the black shawl which had slipped from her head and smoothed her black ankle-length dress as she reached the door and prepared to exit. ‘Ay, apúrale, mujer, help me, woman,’ echoed in her mind as if the person pleading for her help were standing right next to her. She knew he was miles away, but it wouldn’t be long before she would arrive at his side. So confident was she in her own abilities, even with her fragile skeleton. Had anyone seen her exit the house and mount her horse-drawn carriage, they’d have been stunned at how lithely she moved and how quickly she stirred the horses into action with only a gentle touch of the reins.

Sometimes, depending on the person who asked for her, the Lady rode toward the sun; at others, she steered beneath as though going into the earth rather than on it. The last person who’d called for her was an old man who’d led the most devout life he could as a member of the brotherhood of los Hermanos Penitentes; he lived his life to serve his fellow brothers and his community, and never did he stray from the word of the Lord. This man lived a full life on earth and only began to look forward to entering his eternal one at the age of eighty-four. His health had begun to decline, his muscles to atrophy, his joints to swell and stiffen due to arthritis, and his overall joie de vivre began to fade. To him the Lady provided peace and comfort as he fell into the last sleep from which he would not awake. Therein lay the ultimate paradox she remembered from one of her favorite poems, “Easter Wings,” by George Herbert. The Hermano’s declining health would advance his upward voyage to Heaven, his final home which he’d been promised for having lived by emulating Christ and His teachings.

However, on this occasion when the Lady went to answer the desperate pleas of the one who called her, she knew she would be moving downward and wasn’t too keen about it either. This man who needed her hadn’t lived a good Christian existence. Instead, he’d chosen a life of crime and didn’t let empathy or sympathy enter his heart for the victims of his thievery. He relished getting away with the material goods he took from them. Never mind that those who’d paid for their possessions with their own labor would only have to work harder to replace what he stole. Now, suffering from a disease which weakened him daily, he wanted a quick end to his pain.

Because the Lady was both compassionate and neutral, she knew it was her place to deliver this person from his suffering. But she didn’t feel compelled to hurry to his aid. She took her time, breathing the early morning crispness of the air and feeling the sun’s warmth on her face as she moved between the green meadows of alfalfa covered in dew. The sun rose over the Sangre de Cristos, purple-hued in the distance, and a flock of Canada geese flew in front of them, headed toward Storrie Lake or McAllister. Their honking echoed over the valley and the small mountain village began to come to life as she passed. Several roosters crowed to welcome the sun, and a few cows lowed on their way to the creek to drink. Some of the chiflones on the houses’ rooftops began to spew smoke as the dwellers inside started their morning fires in preparation for cooking breakfasts.

Before too long the Lady reached her destination, a dilapidated adobe house which leaned to one side as though tired and preparing to fall for a much-needed rest. She entered the home with silent steps and sat beside the ill man. His eyes were closed and his breathing shallow; it wouldn’t be very long now. The Lady passed a palm over his face as she closed her eyes and gave in to a quiet repose while her patient stirred in his sleep. The vision of hell from Milton’s Paradise Lost came to her mind’s eye, which she telepathically sent to the man: a lake of fire from which there was no light, and him eternally fighting to stay above the fires devouring his body. One gasp emerged from his lips, and only moments later he breathed his last, his final exhalation leaving his open mouth like a mist and rising to enter the mouth of the woman who sat beside him. A moment later she heard her name called again, but this time the Lady felt a touch of apprehension though she didn’t understand why. She completed her ritual with the man and continued to where her next charge awaited.

The girl in the bed couldn’t have been over thirteen; the Lady remembered she was the same age when she became what she was. The memory struck her, and she trembled as though from a physical blow or from fright when neither applied. She knew this girl was special, had been chosen just as she had. Her own time to rest had come.

Old Lady Sebastiana, known also as Doña Sebastiana, La Muerte, Saint Death, and by many other names, was finally too worn to continue taking the dead to their final destinations. For 137 years, she did her duty, bringing a peaceful end to the devout and the faithful. But she delivered a troubled vision of the future to the unrepentant and the faithless. The realization of the sinners that because of how they lived they would now see where they would spend eternity was enough to drive them mad right before they drew their last breath. The sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of their future were enough to make the worst villain cry, and most did to no avail.

She was returned to the place where she’d dwelled her entire life by the girl, a younger version of herself.

“It’s time,” the younger woman said.

“I am ready,” the elder replied.

She closed her eyes and gave in to the thought which came into her mind from “Holy Sonnet 10” by John Donne: Be not so proud, for you shall die just as those before you. The paradox of her dying brought a smile to her lipless mouth as she succumbed to sleep only moments before the younger one took her apart, bone by bone, and filled the wood box in the big wood stove until it roared and even the chimney pipe glowed red.

The younger donned the elder’s shawl and attire, lowering herself onto the stool in the corner by the altar of the morada where she would sit and wait for those who called her for as long as her own bones held together.


Carmen Baca is a new Hispanic author with one published novel, released in April of 2017. El Hermano is a historical fiction based on her father’s induction into the Penitente society and his subsequent rise to becoming El Hermano Mayor. She is an NMHU alumni and a retired high school/college English teacher, living north of Las Vegas.