Herrera reached for the first of the golden irises growing before her when a Micomalo leapt from the trees. She scrambled to get away, but the monkey-like, white-furred Mágico grabbed her by the shoulders with its grey-skinned hands, knocking over her basket as it did, and threw her to the ground.
Her back and neck throbbed from the impact, but she hauled herself backward with her hands, trying to put distance between them. The Micomalo moved in like a predator on its chosen prey.
“Foolish to come here, human,” it said, raising its barbed tail over its shoulder. “And you’ll pay for it.” It reared back its tail, a wasp preparing to strike.
Herrera raised her arms in front of her face, awaiting the sting’s impact, when a whistle pierced the air. The melody sounded like a lullaby her mamá would’ve sung to her as a baby. A heavy thud sounded in front of her, and, frowning, she lowered her arms.
The Micomalo’s human-sized bulk lay facedown before her, snoring. The mane of white fur framing its grey face fluttered like downy feathers with its every breath. Its barbed tail lay motionless behind it, and its previously clenched long-fingered hands lay open and relaxed at its sides.
Herrera raised an eyebrow. Had the whistling sent it to sleep?
She glanced around, trying to find the source of the song in the surrounding stretch of cloud forest, when something tapped her shoulder. Eyes wide, she spun where she lay, her hip disturbing the leaf-litter beneath her. The whistling face of Tata Duende greeted her.
On reflex, she bowed to the Grandfather Imp. “Did you do this, Don Tata?”
He nodded, but did not stop whistling his tune. She wanted to ask him more, but he held a green thumbless hand before her, and she understood. Now was not the time for questions. He urged her back to the golden irises with his cat-like yellow eyes, and she heeded his silent advice.
Herrera got to her feet and stepped around the sleeping Mágico. She righted her knocked-over basket, knelt before the iris patch she’d come for, and started picking frantically. A terrible outbreak of gripe had come to her pueblo of Campo Verde, with many afflicted with the disease. Her maestra, Curandera Santos, taught her that only its petals, ground and steeped in hot water, could cure the gripe.
But her maestra had also warned of the Micomalo, the inhabitants of this patch of the cloud forest. When the pueblo expanded several decades ago to accommodate the nomads from other parts of Delacinco, the people of Campo Verde cleared away many acres of cloud forest. For that, the Micomalo had sworn to kill any from the pueblo who dared step beneath its bows evermore.
Herrera had had no choice, though. It was either sit around and wait for the gripe to kill everyone, or do something about it.
Soon her basket brimmed with all the iris blossoms it could manage. She picked it up and turned back to Tata Duende, who hadn’t stopped whistling the whole time. The Grandfather Imp waved her over.
He pointed to his puckered lips.
Herrera frowned at the gesture. Clearly he wanted her to do something, but at first she didn’t understand what. He kept whistling and pointing, whistling and pointing, until at last she realized why and what he wished her to do. If he stopped, the Micomalo might awaken. More so, he wanted her to whistle, too.
She wetted her lips and, after a few stumbles and sour notes, she picked up his tune. Tata Duende smiled a sincere smile that reach the corners of his cat-like yellow eyes, and waved for her to follow him. Slowly, the two made their way out of the cloud forest, Tata Duende in front, leaning on his stick, and Herrera behind him.
To keep her mind off the growing ache in her cheeks, Herrera looked through the trees lining their trail. From several of them hung other Micomalos, all of them dozing. Several even dangled by their tails from branches, swaying slightly as they snored.
At one point in their trek, Herrera stopped whistling to catch her breath and rub the ache from her cheeks. The Micomalos in the trees started to stir awake. Tata Duende turned and gestured at his lips again. Immediately she resumed, and the Mágicos stilled.
Finally they emerged from beneath the trees into open field, the hard border between the world of humans and the world of Los Mágicos. Herrera stopped whistling, and, leaning forward on her knees, rubbed her cheeks again and took a deep breath.
“Thank you, Don Tata,” she said. “You saved me back there.”
“Yes, Tata did, Doña Herrera,” said Tata Duende. “But this will be the last time. Understand?”
Herrera frowned. “Why?”
Tata Duende brushed his long silver beard with a green thumbless hand. “Tata has given you the secret to make sure you never need his help again.”
Herrera’s eyes widened. “The whistle?”
He nodded. “It’s a song to calm the Micomalos.” He doffed his scarlet sombrero to her and headed back beneath the branches of the cloud forest. “Teach it to all the people of Campo Verde so they may pass safely too, should the need arise again.” A gust of wind and mist blew over him, and he was gone.
Herrera, basket dangling from her arm, headed back to the pueblo. As she went, she whistled the melody, embedding it into her memory. Halfway home, she started to consider words one might marry to the notes, so the soothing song could become more memorable.
— Ian Martínez Cassmeyer