To homeless children sleeping on the street, neon is as comforting as a night-light. Angels love colored light too. After nightfall in downtown Miami, they nibble on the NationsBank building -- always drenched in a green, pink, or golden glow. "They eat light so they can fly," eight-year-old Andre tells the children sitting on the patio of the Salvation Army's emergency shelter on NW 38th Street. Andre explains that the angels hide in the building while they study battle maps. "There's a lot of killing going on in Miami," he says. "You want to fight, want to learn how to live, you got to learn the secret stories." The small group listens intently to these tales told by homeless children in shelters.
On Christmas night a year ago, God fled Heaven to escape an audacious demon attack -- a celestial Tet Offensive. The demons smashed to dust his palace of beautiful blue-moon marble. TV news kept it secret, but homeless children in shelters across the country report being awakened from troubled sleep and alerted by dead relatives. No one knows why God has never reappeared, leaving his stunned angels to defend his earthly estate against assaults from Hell. "Demons found doors to our world," adds eight-year-old Miguel, who sits before Andre with the other children at the Salvation Army shelter. The demons' gateways from Hell include abandoned refrigerators, mirrors, Ghost Town (the nickname shelter children have for a cemetery somewhere in Dade County), and Jeep Cherokees with "black windows." The demons are nourished by dark human emotions: jealousy, hate, fear.
One demon is feared even by Satan. In Miami shelters, children know her by two names: Bloody Mary and La Llorona (the Crying Woman). She weeps blood or black tears from ghoulish empty sockets and feeds on children's terror. When a child is killed accidentally in gang crossfire or is murdered, she croons with joy. "If you wake at night and see her," a ten-year-old says softly, "her clothes be blowing back, even in a room where there is no wind. And you know she's marked you for killing."
The homeless children's chief ally is a beautiful angel they have nicknamed the Blue Lady. She has pale blue skin and lives in the ocean, but she is hobbled by a spell. "The demons made it so she only has power if you know her secret name," says Andre, whose mother has been through three rehabilitation programs for crack addiction. "If you and your friends on a corner on a street when a car comes shooting bullets and only one child yells out her true name, all will be safe. Even if bullets tearing your skin, the Blue Lady makes them fall on the ground. She can talk to us, even without her name. She says: 'Hold on.'"
A blond six-year-old with a bruise above his eye, swollen huge as a ruby egg and laced with black stitches, nods his head in affirmation. "I've seen her," he murmurs. A rustle of whispered Me toos ripples through the small circle of initiates.
According to the Dade Homeless Trust, approximately 1800 homeless children currently find themselves bounced between the county's various shelters and the streets. For these children, lasting bonds of friendship are impossible; nothing is permanent. A common rule among homeless parents is that everything a child owns must fit into a small plastic bag for fast packing. But during their brief stays in the shelters, children can meet and tell each other stories that get them through the harshest nights.
Folktales are usually an inheritance from family or homeland. But what if you are a child enduring a continual, grueling, dangerous journey? No adult can steel such a child against the outcast's fate: the endless slurs and snubs, the threats, the fear. What these determined children do is snatch dark and bright fragments of Halloween fables, TV news, and candy-colored Bible-story leaflets from street-corner preachers, and like birds building a nest from scraps, weave their own myths. The "secret stories" are carefully guarded knowledge, never shared with older siblings or parents for fear of being ridiculed -- or spanked for blasphemy. But their accounts of an exiled God who cannot or will not respond to human pleas as his angels wage war with Hell is, to shelter children, a plausible explanation for having no safe home, and one that engages them in an epic clash.
An astute folklorist can see traces of old legends in all new inventions. For example, Yemana, a Santeria ocean goddess, resembles the Blue Lady; she is compassionate and robed in blue, though she is portrayed with white or tan skin in her worshippers' shrines. And in the Eighties, folklorists noted references to an evil Bloody Mary -- or La Llorona, as children of Mexican migrant workers first named her -- among children of all races and economic classes. Celtic tales of revenants, visitors from the land of the dead sent to console or warn, arrived in America centuries ago. While those myths may have had some influence on shelter folklore, the tales homeless children create among themselves are novel and elaborately detailed. And they are a striking example of "polygenesis," the folklorist's term for the simultaneous appearance of vivid, similar tales in far-flung locales.
The same overarching themes link the myths of 30 homeless children in three Dade County facilities operated by the Salvation Army -- as well as those of 44 other children in Salvation Army emergency shelters in New Orleans, Chicago, and Oakland, California. These children, who ranged in age from six to twelve, were asked what stories, if any, they believed about Heaven and God -- but not what they learned in church. (They drew pictures for their stories with crayons and markers.) Even the parlance in Miami and elsewhere is the same. Children use the biblical term "spirit" for revenants, never "ghost" (says one local nine-year-old scornfully: "That baby word is for Casper in the cartoons, not a real thing like spirits!"). In their lexicon, they always use "demon" to denote wicked spirits.
Their folklore casts them as comrades-in-arms, regardless of ethnicity (the secret stories are told and cherished by white, black, and Latin children), for the homeless youngsters see themselves as allies of the outgunned yet valiant angels in their battle against shared spiritual adversaries. For them the secret stories do more than explain the mystifying universe of the homeless; they impose meaning upon it.
Virginia Hamilton, winner of a National Book Award and three Newberys (the Pulitzer Prize of children's literature), is the only children's author to win a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. Her best-selling books, The People Could Fly and Herstories, trace African-American folklore through the diaspora of slavery. "Folktales are the only work of beauty a displaced people can keep," she explains. "And their power can transcend class and race lines because they address visceral questions: Why side with good when evil is clearly winning? If I am killed, how can I make my life resonate beyond the grave?"
That sense of mission, writes Harvard psychologist Robert Coles in The Spiritual Life of Children, may explain why some children in crisis -- and perhaps the adults they become -- are brave, decent, and imaginative, while others more privileged can be "callous, mean-spirited, and mediocre." The homeless child in Miami and elsewhere lives in a world where violence and death are commonplace, where it's highly advantageous to grovel before the powerful and shun the weak, and where adult rescuers are nowhere to be found. Yet what Coles calls the "ability to grasp onto ideals larger than oneself and exert influence for good" -- a sense of mission -- is nurtured in eerie, beautiful, shelter folktales.
In any group that generates its own legends -- whether in a corporate office or a remote Amazonian village -- the most articulate member becomes the semiofficial teller of the tales. The same thing happens in homeless shelters, even though the population is so transient. The most verbally skilled children -- such as Andre -- impart the secret stories to new arrivals. Ensuring that their truths survive regardless of their own fate is a duty felt deeply by these children, including one ten-year-old Miami girl who, after confiding and illustrating secret stories, created a self-portrait for a visitor. She chose a gray crayon to draw a gravestone carefully inscribed with her own name and the year 1998.
Here is what the secret stories say about the rules of spirit behavior: Spirits appear just as they looked when alive, even wearing favorite clothes, but they are surrounded by faint, colored light. When newly dead, the spirits' lips move but no sound is heard. They must learn to speak across the chasm between the living and the dead. For shelter children, spirits have a unique function: providing war dispatches from the fighting angels. And like demons, once spirits have seen your face, they can always find you.
Nine-year-old Phatt is living for a month in a Salvation Army shelter in northwest Dade. He and his mother became homeless after his father was arrested for drug-dealing and his mother couldn't pay the rent with her custodial job at a fast-food restaurant. (Phatt is his nickname. The first names of all other children in this article have been used with the consent of their parents or guardians.) "There's a river that runs through Miami. One side, called Bad Streets, the demons took over," Phatt recounts as he sits with four homeless friends in the shelter's playroom, which is decorated with pictures the children have drawn of homes, kittens, and hearts. "The other side the demons call Good Streets. Rich people live by a beach there. They wear diamonds and gold chains when they swim."
He explains that Satan harbors a special hatred of Miami owing to a humiliation he suffered while on an Ocean Drive reconnaissance mission. He was hunting for gateways for his demons and was scouting for nasty emotions to feed them. Satan's trip began with an exhilarating start; he moved undetected among high-rolling South Beach clubhoppers despite the fact that his skin was, as Phatt's friend Victoria explains, covered with scales like a "gold and silver snake."
Why didn't the rich people notice? Eight-year-old Victoria scrunches up her face, pondering. "Well, I think maybe sometimes they're real stupid so they get tricked," she replies. Plus, she adds, the Devil was "wearing all that Tommy Hilfiger and smoking Newports and drinking wine that cost maybe three dollars for a big glass." He found a large Hell door under the Colony Hotel, and just as he was offering the owner ten Mercedes-Benzes for use of the portal, he was captured by angels.
"The rich people said: 'Why are you taking our friend who buys us drinks?'" Phatt continues. "The angels tied him under the river and said: 'See what happens when the water touch him. Just see!'"
Phatt insists that his beloved cousin (and only father figure) Ronnie, who joined the U.S. Army to escape Liberty City and was killed last year in another city, warned him about what happened next at the river. (Ronnie was gunned down on Valentine's Day while bringing cupcakes to a party at the school where his girlfriend taught. He appeared to Phatt after that -- to congratulate him on winning a shelter spelling bee, and to show him a shortcut to his elementary school devoid of sidewalk drunks.)
One night this year Phatt and his mother made a bed out of plastic grocery bags in a Miami park where junkies congregate. It was his turn to stand guard against what he calls "screamers," packs of roaming addicts, while his mother slept. Suddenly Ronnie stood before him, dressed in his army uniform. "The Devil got loose from under the river!" Ronnie said. "The rich people didn't stop him! The angels need soldiers."
Phatt says his dead cousin told him that as soon as water touched the Devil's skin, it turned deep burgundy and horns grew from his head. The river itself turned to blood; ghostly screams and bones of children he had murdered floated from its depths. Just when the angels thought they had convinced Good Streets' denizens that they were in as much danger as those in Bad Streets, Satan vanished through a secret gateway beneath the river. "Now he's coming your way," Ronnie warned. "You'll need to learn how to fight." Ronnie nodded toward the dog-eared math and spelling workbooks Phatt carries even when he can't attend school. "Study hard," he implored. "Stay strong and smart so's you count on yourself, no one else. Never stop watching. Bloody Mary is coming with Satan. And she's seen your face."
Given what the secret stories of shelter children say about the afterlife, it isn't surprising that Ronnie appeared in his military uniform. There is no Heaven in the stories, though the children believe that dead loved ones might make it to an angels' encampment hidden in a beautiful jungle somewhere beyond Miami. To ensure that they find it, a fresh green palm leaf (to be used as an entrance ticket) must be dropped on the beloved's grave.
This bit of folklore became an obsession for eight-year-old Miguel. His father, a Nicaraguan immigrant, worked the overnight shift at a Miami gas station. Miguel always walked down the street by himself to bring his dad a soda right before the child's bedtime, and they'd chat. Then one night his father was murdered while on the job. Recalls Miguel: "The police say the robbers put lit matches all over him before they killed him."
Miguel's mother speaks no English and is illiterate. She was often paid less than two dollars per hour for the temporary jobs she could find in Little Havana (mopping shop floors, washing dishes in restaurants). After her husband's death, she lost her apartment. No matter where Miguel's family of three subsequently slept (a church pew, a shelter bed, a sidewalk), his father's spirit appeared, bloodied and burning all over with tiny flames. Miguel's teachers would catch him running out of his school in central Miami, his small fists filled with green palm leaves, determined to find his father's grave. A social worker finally took him to the cemetery, though Miguel refused to offer her any explanation. "I need my daddy to find the fighter angels," Miguel says from a Salvation Army facility located near Liberty City. "I'll go there when I'm killed."
The secret stories say the angel army hides in a child's version of an ethereal Everglades: A clear river of cold, drinkable water winds among emerald palms and grass as soft as a bed. Gigantic alligators guard the compound, promptly eating the uninvited. Says Phatt: "But they take care of a dead child's spirit while he learns to fight. I never seen it, but yes! I know it's out there" -- he sweeps his hand past the collapsing row of seedy motels lining the street on which the shelter is located -- "and when I do good, it makes their fighting easier. I know it! I know!"
All the Miami shelter children who participated in this story were passionate in defending this myth. It is the most necessary fiction of the hopelessly abandoned -- that somewhere a distant, honorable troop is risking everything to come to the rescue, and that somehow your bravery counts.
By the time homeless children reach the age of twelve, more or less, they realize that the secret stories are losing some of their power to inspire. They sadly admit there is less and less in which to believe. Twelve-year-old Leon, who often visits a Hialeah day-care center serving the homeless, has bruised-looking bags under his eyes seen normally on middle-aged faces. He has been homeless for six years. Even the shelters are not safe for him because his mother, who is mentally unstable, often insists on returning to the streets on a whim, her child in tow.
"I don't think any more that things happen for some great, good God plan, or for any reason," he says. "And I don't know if any angels are still fighting for us." He pauses and looks dreamily at the twilight sky above the day-care center. "I do think a person can dream the moment of his death. Sometimes I dream that when I die soon, I'll be in some high, great place where people have time to conversate. And even if there's no God or Heaven, it won't be too bad for me to be there."
Research by Harvard's Robert Coles indicates that children in crisis -- with a deathly ill parent or living in poverty -- often view God as a kind, empyrean doctor too swamped with emergencies to help. But homeless children are in straits so dire they see God as having simply disappeared. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam embrace the premise that good will triumph over evil in the end; in that respect, shelter tales are more bleakly sophisticated. "One thing I don't believe," says a seven-year-old who attends shelter chapels regularly, "is Judgment Day." Not one child could imagine a God with the strength to force evildoers to face some final reckoning. Yet even though they feel that wickedness may prevail, they want to be on the side of the angels.
When seven-year-old Maria is asked about the Blue Lady, she pauses. "When grownups talk about her, I think she get all upset," Maria slowly replies. She considers a gamble, then takes a chance and leans forward, beaming: "She's a magic lady, nice and pretty and smart! She live in the ocean and comes just to kids."
She first appeared to Maria at the deserted Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, which Maria calls "the pink haunted house." A fierce storm was pounding Miami that night. Other homeless people who had broken in milled about the building's interior, illuminated only by lightning. Her father was drunk. Her mother tried to stop him from eating the family's last food: a box of saltines. "He kept hitting her and the crazy people started laughing. When I try to help her, he hit me here" -- Maria points to her forehead. "I tried to sleep so my head and stomach would stop hurting, but they kept hurting." A blast of wind and rain shattered a window. "I was so scared. I pray out loud: Please, God, don't punish me no more!"
An older boy curled up nearby on a scrap of towel tried to soothe her. "Hurricanes ain't God," he said gently. "It's Blue Lady bringing rain for the flowers." When Maria awoke late in the night, she saw the angel with pale blue skin, blue eyes, and dark hair standing by the broken window. Her arms dripped with pink, gold, and white flowers. "She smiled," Maria says, her dark eyes wide with amazement. "My head was hurting, but she touched it and her hand was cool like ice. She say she's my friend always. That's why she learned me the hard song." The song is complex and strange for such a young child; its theme is the mystery of destiny and will. When Maria heard a church choir sing it, she loved it, but the words were too complicated. "Then the Blue Lady sang it to me," she recalls. "She said it'll help me grow up good, not like daddy."
Maria's voice begins shakily, then becomes more assured: "If you believe within your heart you'll know/that no one can change the path that you must go./ Believe what you feel and you'll know you're right because/when love finally comes around, you can say it's yours./ Believe you can change what you see!/ Believe you can act, not just feel!/You have a brain!/You have a heart!/You have the courage to last your life!/Please believe in yourself as I believe in you!"
As she soars to a finish, Maria suddenly realizes how much that she's revealed to a stranger: "I told the secret story and the Blue Lady isn't mad!" She's awash with relief. "Even if my mom say we sleep in the bus station when we leave the shelter, Blue Lady will find us. She's seen my face."
Shelter children often depict the Blue Lady in their drawings as blasting demons and gangbangers with a pistol. But the secret stories say that she cannot take action unless her real name -- which no one knows -- is called out. The children accept that. What they count on her for is love, though they fear that abstract love won't be enough to withstand an evil they believe is relentless and real. The evil is like a dark ocean waiting to engulf them, as illustrated by a secret story related by three different girls in separate Miami homeless facilities. It is a story told only by and to homeless girls, and it explains how the dreaded Bloody Mary can invade souls.
Ten-year-old Otius, dressed in a pink flowered dress, leads a visitor by the hand away from four small boys who are sitting in a shelter dining room snacking on pizza and fruit juice. "Every girl in the shelters knows if you tell this story to a boy, your best friend will die!" she says with a shiver. When the boys try to sneak up behind her, she refuses to speak until they return to their places.
She begins: "Some girls with no home feel claws scratching under the skin on their arms. Their hand looks like red fire. It's Bloody Mary dragging them in for slaves -- to be in gangs, be crackheads. But every 1000 girls with no home, is a Special One. When Bloody Mary comes, the girl is so smart and brave, a strange thing happens." Bloody Mary disappears, she says, then a pretty, luminous face glows for a moment in the dark. The girl has glimpsed what Bloody Mary looked like before she became wicked. "The Special One," Otius continues, "is somebody Bloody Mary is scared of because she be so good, people watch her for what to do. And if she dies, she will die good.
"Boys always brag what they can do, but this is the job of girls and -- I wish maybe I were a Special One," Otius says wistfully. "Maybe one of my friends from the shelters are now. I'll never see them again -- so's I guess I never know."
Her name was first spoken in hushed tones among children all over America nearly twenty years ago. Even in Sweden folklorists reported Bloody Mary's fame. Children of all races and classes told of the hideous demon conjured by chanting her name before a mirror in a pitch-dark room. (In Miami shelters, the mirror must be coated with ocean water, a theft from the Blue Lady's domain.) And when she crashes through the glass, she mutilates children before killing them. Bloody Mary is depicted in Miami kids' drawings with a red rosary that, the secret stories say, she uses as a weapon, striking children across the face.
Folklorists were so mystified by the Bloody Mary polygenesis, and the common element of using a mirror to conjure her, that they consulted medical literature for clues. Bill Ellis, a folklorist and professor of American studies at Penn State University, puzzled over a 1968 Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease article describing an experiment testing the theory that schizophrenics are prone to see hallucinations in reflected surfaces. The research showed that the control group of nonpsychotic people reported seeing vague, horrible faces in a mirror after staring at it for twenty minutes in a dim room. But that optical trick the brain plays was merely a partial explanation for the children's legend.
"Whenever you ask children where they first heard one of their myths, you get answers that are impossible clues: 'A friend's friend read it in a paper; a third cousin told me,'" says Ellis, an authority on children's folklore, particularly that concerning the supernatural. As president of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, he's become an expert on polygenesis. "When a child says he got the story from the spirit world, as homeless children do, you've hit the ultimate non sequitur."
Folklorists have not discovered a detailed explanation for Bloody Mary's ravenous hatred of children, or her true identity. Today, however, shelter children say they've discovered her secret mission, as well as her true name. All of the secret stories about her enclose hints.
In Chicago shelters, children tell of her role in the death of eleven-year-old Robert Sandifer, who shot an innocent fourteen-year-old schoolgirl he mistook for an enemy. Cops combed the streets, shaking down gangbangers. In desperation Sandifer's gang turned to the one who could save them from justice. They sat in a dark room before a mirror and chanted, "Bloody Mary." The wall glowed like flames. A female demon weeping black tears appeared. Without speaking, she communicated a strategy.
That night, realizing his gang was going to kill him, Sandifer ran through his neighborhood, knocking on doors. "Like baby Jesus in Bethlehem -- except he was bad," explained an eleven-year-old at a Chicago homeless shelter. The next morning police found Sandifer's body, shot through the head, in a tunnel. According to the eleven-year-old, the boy was "lying on a bed of broken glass."
Bloody Mary commands legions. She can insinuate herself into the heart of whomever children trust most: a parent or a best friend. Miami shelter children say they learned about that from television. Salvation Army shelters offer parlors with couches, magazines, and a television. While their mothers play cards and do each other's hair, the children carefully study the TV news. They know how four-year-old Kendia Lockhart died in North Dade, allegedly beaten to death and burned by her father. Bloody Mary was hunting Kendia, shelter children agree. "Gangsters say that God stories are like Chinese fairy tales," observes twelve-year-old Deion at a downtown Miami Salvation Army shelter. "But even gangs think Bloody Mary is real."
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This is the secret story shelter children will tell only in hushed voices, for it reveals Bloody Mary's mystery: God's final days before his disappearance were a waking dream. There were so many crises on Earth that he never slept. Angels reported rumors of Bloody Mary's pact with Satan: She had killed her own child and had made a secret vow to kill all human children. All night God listened as frantic prayers bombarded him. Images of earthly lives flowed across his palace wall like shadows while he heard gunfire, music, laughing, crying from all over Earth. And then one night Bloody Mary roared over the walls of Heaven with an army from Hell. God didn't just flee from the demons, he went crazy with grief over who led them. Bloody Mary, some homeless children say the spirits have told them, was Jesus Christ's mother.
"No one believe us! But it's true! It's true!" cries Andre at the Salvation Army shelter on NW 38th Street. "It mean there's no one left in the sky watching us but demons." His friends sitting on the shelter patio chime in with Bloody Mary sightings: She flew shrieking over Charles Drew Elementary School. She stalks through Little Haiti, invisible to police cars. "I know a boy who learned to sleep with his eyes open, but she burned through a shelter wall to get him!" a seven-year-old boy says. "When the people found him, he was all red with blood. Don't matter if you're good, don't matter if you're smart. You got to be careful! If she see you, she can hunt you forever. She's in Miami! And she knows our face.