Thursday, October 22, 2009

It Was a Dark and Creepy Noite

The season is upon us. Long shadows, short days. Our vision plays tricks on our minds. We even give way to superstitions of which we would otherwise pay no-never-mind. It’s Halloween, my friends. And if you have only recently found this little blog of mine, you should know that I traditionally take this opportunity to regale readers with a foreboding tale or two from my own life.

In 1992 I was serving a mission for the LDS Church. I had been called to teach and preach and work as missionaries do in the western European country of Portugal. I had been in the country long enough to learn by my own experience that the language was beautiful, the food delectable, the countryside to be like an oil canvas painting, and the people to be warm, opinionated…and intermittently…highly superstitious.

I saw things (and people) on my mission that were, frankly, inexplicable. I often chalked it up to A) being in a foreign land, B) having daily contact with hordes of people, and C) an unhallowed hand trying to disrupt missionary work. But for this particular yarn, I focus solely on the peculiar and dangerous nature of an eccentric, country peasant.

It was mid-summer and I was working in a more rural town called Caldas da Rainha, north of Lisbon and surrounded by a beautiful European landscape of fields and farmlands. We often traveled by train, but were generally on foot. As a leader in this region, I would occasionally travel to outlying areas to work with other missionaries and see how the work was going and what I could do to support them. On this particular occasion I made an overnight trip to Peniche, a charming beachfront town even smaller than Caldas.

It was my first occasion to visit this town, but I knew a couple of the missionaries assigned to Peniche from working together previously in other areas. I happened to be visiting on a night when the missionaries were holding a social activity for some of the church members and other locals that resided there. There were about 17 souls in attendance.

This activity was being held in a cozy gathering room in the home of one of the members. People were still arriving and while the missionaries were paying attention to some last minute details, I took a seat in the informal circle that seemed to be forming around the room. I was reading some scriptures in preparation for the meeting and wasn’t paying too close attention to what was going on…when I overheard an unsettling conversation taking place just within hearing distance from me.

“Tonight. Someone in this room…will die.”

I stopped reading and slowly looked up to my left. There was a portly but strong man in his mid-forties with a big bushy mustache and his right arm in a sling. He was staring straight forward, across the room, but at nobody in particular.

An older, semi-toothless woman with white hair leaned close to him and whispered, “Is it Helena?”

The bushy mustached fellow closed his eyes, slowly nodded once and said, “It has been spoken.”

I casually looked around to see if anybody else had heard these absurd and chilling remarks. Nothing. There was much hustle and bustle and people were socializing and nobody else had heard this menacing, violent threat. Except me.

Now, I don’t mean to brag, but my Portuguese was pretty awesome. (And since I’m bragging, I’ll also tell you that I got pretty tan in the summer, and people often mistook me for being Portuguese. Also, in more bragging news, I could eat my weight in Portuguese pastries.) At any rate, lest you are thinking that my Portuguese was not so great, and I misunderstood the conversation, I will have you know that I most certainly did not.

I watched this man throughout the evening’s activity. He was somber. Perplexing. Normally, such a conversation as I’d overheard would be preposterous. Nobody breathes out such casual intimidations as this. It would seem almost nonsensical. But not here. Not in a small, unsuspecting European town. Not when you’ve regularly been around people whose behavior is not always practical or sensible.

After the gathering had ended, I was visiting with the other missionaries and finally asked them what I had been wondering all night. “Who is Helena?”

“Oh,” said a missionary by the last name of Ebbert, “she was that pretty lady in her early thirties sitting over there (and he pointed to a seat directly across from where Mustache Man had been sitting). She has two young kids, they were sitting by her.”

“Married?” I asked.


“Hmm. Do you know why anyone would want to kill her?”

“WHAT?” asked all three missionaries.

“I heard this unfriendly man with a mustache over here quietly and solemnly announce that she was going to die tonight.”

“Ah,” said the missionaries. And then they went on to explain to me how this man had made several advances towards this woman. And oddly, they were all thwarted. I mean, sure, he sounds like a charmer. But I suppose not everyone can be into humorless, violent, death-threateners who stare into space and make pseudo-prophetic statements about the well being of fellow party goers. But I don’t know. I just see those two kids together.

“Would he actually do harm to her?” I asked.

“Oh, I think he could.” And all three of them nodded with conviction.

“Do we need to warn her?”

“We probably should,” said Ebbert. “I’m not really confident how stable this guy is or what he would do. Helena lives by herself, with her two kids…and he knows that.”

It was pretty late in the evening, and all public transportation was shut down for the night as Ebbert and I started to walk to Helena’s house. It was a warm evening, and while there was some moonlight, the empty cobblestone streets of the small town were dim. I felt my hairs stand on end. I had no idea what this man was capable of. I also had no idea of the layout of the town – where he could be hiding, what he could hit me with, and most importantly, if I’d ever be able to eat these delectable Portuguese pastries again, or if I’d be forced to enjoy them intravenously.

The street came to an end at a large, shoulder-high field. On the other side of the field we could see Helena’s apartment building. But Ebbert assured me there was also no quicker way to get to her than through the field. He also assured me that our Psychotic Mustached Friend knew that too…and could be making his own way through this field at the same time as us. A chance meeting? The werewolf movie previews began to run through my mind: An American Missionary in Portugal.

We decided we really didn’t want Helena’s death on our consciences, so we plunged into the field. My eyes were furiously darting in front of me, to the sides, over my shoulder – and I would occasionally turn all the way around to make sure it was just my imagination and not real footsteps behind me. Everything felt thick – the field, the air, the night, the silence, the tension. When we actually cleared the field, I felt like I had just cheated death.

We finally knocked on Helena’s apartment door. She opened it and motioned for us to come in, while she finished talking on the phone to her mother. Everything seemed okay. We made nice with the kids, who were in their pajamas, ready for mom to put them to bed, and I was trying to decide how to properly and almost-casually warn Helena to be cautious.

Helena hung up the phone and looked at us with a slightly concerned, puzzled look. I had never officially met her before, so I let Ebbert do the talking.

“Did anybody follow you home?” asked Ebbert in Portuguese, but more importantly, in a horribly awkward way to start any conversation.

“No….” she answered in Portuguese, but more importantly, with great trepidation.

“Oh,” said Ebbert, in Portuguese, but more importantly, far too carelessly, “because this guy at the party – the one with the mustache and his arm in a sling? – well, he said he was going to –”

“EBBERT… please shut up,” I said, cutting him off and breaking proper protocol by being rude and speaking in English in front of the non-English speaking local. “What are you doing? Are you actually going to tell her that somebody is planning to kill her? Why would you say that? Don’t say that. You stop saying words for the rest of tonight.”

But she was already holding both hands to her face and screaming. She had previously had concerns about Mustached Man and wanted him nowhere near her. Now she was threatening to pack, leave for her mom’s, and call the police. (I was hoping she would threaten Ebbert as well, for forgetting to use his brain.)

“Ma’am, he is not going to do anything to you,” I said, practicing my hostage negotiation skills that I would never use again. “He is upset and hurt, but he is not so brazen as to break the law.” (And no, I no longer know the Portuguese word for “brazen.”) I suddenly felt calmer. If this man hadn’t already stormed her, he wasn't going to. We encouraged her to call the police if it would help her feel better, and we listened to her lock the door behind us as we stepped out.

As we made our way back across the creepy field, I lectured Ebbert on the finer points of “breaking bad and/or scary news to somebody.” Honestly, was he raised by wolves? I suggest he was. Rude wolves, with no sensitivity to delicate matters.

Knowing Helena was safe, I felt less vulnerable somehow. Like, if this guy attacked us on the way back, I would have no choice but to get all crazy up in his mustache grill! But we arrived at the missionaries’ home to find that Mustached Man had actually paid them a visit while we were gone. He had tried to fight one of the other missionaries whom he felt had disrespected him, and in another pseudo-prophetic threat, had given him until 8 a.m. the next morning to take the train out of town.

I began to wonder how often this guy threw idle threats around like that. “You’re going to die tonight!” “You have ‘til sunrise to get out of town!” “Walk the plank!” “You can’t handle the truth!” “Show me the money!”

I never saw that man again. I received reports later from the missionaries that he had stopped frequenting any of their activities and had become somewhat of a shadow around town. Rarely seen, rarely heard from. I wonder, what drives a man to become so menacing? What alters your perception of reality to a point where you assume there are no consequences for your actions or words? And why do small, European towns seem rife with these people? And why doesn't Las Vegas have any Portuguese bakeries? We just don’t have all the answers to life’s peculiar mysteries, unfortunately.