Myths Over Miami

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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.

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Lynda Edwards