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.