San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

An Area Halloween Story: The Cart Without Oxen

LIKE all cultures, Costa Rica’shas its share of legends. Thesetales are meant to be scary to keeppeople in line. Who’s going toventure out for a little mischiefknowing that the headless man, thebeauty who turns into a beast, thedevil dog, witches or creatures whosteal children are out there?Many legends cross borders.The Zegua and the Lorelei bothlure unsuspecting fools to theirdeaths. The headless priest and theheadless horseman share the sameproblem. Cadejos, the devil dog, resembles the werewolfand all the other nasty wolves that populate folk tales.But there is one story that is uniquely Costa Ricanbecause it is about an ox cart, the national symbol. Thisparticular ox cart propels itself along rural roads only in thedarkest part of the night. It has been reported aroundAtenas, northwest of San José, and Escazú, on the southwestside of the city, and myriad lesser towns. None haveever seen it, but many people swear they heard it pass,going traca, taca, tarata . . . traca, taca, tarata.The repetitive sound is exactly like that of wooden oxcarts, the way they used to rumble along in the old dayswith the chunky wooden wheels rubbing on their axles.But who could it be? It’s not one of the area farmers haulingsugar cane to the mill or a load of pineapples to themarket while they are still dew fresh because all the farmersnow have pickup trucks and don’t get up until 6 a.m.And why don’t we hear the sound of hooves? Eight hugeoxen feet would make a lot of noise pounding the asphalt.Nor do we hear the beasts snorting as they pull their load.And where is the boyero or teamster? We don’t hear himcalling commands or coughing or snoringor whatever. Just the traca, taca,tarata as it approaches, passes the house(phew) and goes on its way, the soundnow cushioned by the distance.THE cart without oxen began itsstrange lonely journey in the early1700s when San José was just a smallvillage and new. The people wanted tobuild a church, the most importantbuilding for any community in that erabecause it was prayer and the saints thathelped them survive in what was aprimitive wilderness. For that reasontoo, all towns had patron saints to watchover and protect them and San José, orSt. Joseph, was wisely chosen for thisone.At that time the Cuesta de Moras, where the NationalMuseum now stands, was a wooded area, almost a forestand that’s where the men from the village went to cut downtrees for the church, the altar, the statues and pews. Theycut the wood in the menguante, or waning moon, naturally,because they knew that’s when the sap isn’t flowing. Thefallen logs lay on the ground overnight waiting for the mento return in the morning to claim them.But an unscrupulous, neer-do-well wastrel from Escazúseized the opportunity to steal the lumber when no one waswatching and with the spoils built himself a house, a stable,a mill, a bench and a fancy, new cart.He hadn’t counted on St. Joseph,watchman on high and retired carpenter,who also enjoyed close connectionsin the heavenly hierarchy. As aresult, the scoundrel sickened and diedand was condemned to ride the roadsforever, snug in his casket, in his fancynew cart – albeit now faded and creakyafter 300 years. The oxen, innocent ofall misdeeds, were freed from punishmentand the cart, with its gruesomepassenger, rumbles along on its own.URBAN dwellers are exempt fromhearing the phantom phaeton, it beingstrictly a campesino conveyance. Butout in the country, where houses arescattered and nights are dark and silent, it is still possible tohear traca, taca, tarata as the old wooden wheels rotate andthe cart, operating on celestial remote control, continues itsendless wandering.And we, trembling under the covers in the pre-dawnchill, with twitchy nerves and galloping hearts, know thatthe cart without oxen has just gone by.

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