The Nuno of Cupertino
Late one night, after cleaning Building 17 on the sprawling Cupertino campus of the tech company, Chito Santos realized that he needed to piss. He was outside and had just dumped a stack of broken-down cardboard boxes into a recycling bin, when the urge became almost overwhelming.
The night was cold and clean, a half moon gave off a pale light, and Chito was very much alone, so he figured, why not? He half jogged into a sparsely wooded field, 100 yards behind Building 17, and quickly began to relieve himself against a small hill in a clearing.
After a few moments, he glanced at the ground that he’d been watering, and gasped in horror: He had been pissing on some kind of insect mound! Forcing himself to stop, he said, “Tabi tabi po! Tabi tabi po!” which means something like, “I beg your pardon,” just as he’d been taught as a child. But he started to panic.
Chito took out his cellphone and fired up the flashlight to inspect the scene. Aside from a few large, black ants dragging themselves through the wet muck of the mound, there wasn’t much to see.
What did he expect? A bearded, old dwarf, like in the stories? In fact, that’s exactly what he expected. He swiveled in place like a lighthouse, his heart thumping, looking for the nuno — not the sort of spirit who would easily forgive some oaf who had, intentionally or otherwise, disturbed his abode. Nunos were known to be the quintessence of old-man nastiness and spite. They could lay a curse on a person, and reverse their good fortune.
Chito’s accidental insult could not be ignored.
With his phone beam, he peered into the darkness. A gnarled tree trunk, with roots that thrust up from the ground in a shape that resembled a giant hand, gave him a start. But, upon closer examination, it was a trick of the mind. “Just roots,” thought Chito.
Had his left foot (the one that had been closest to the mound) not begun to tingle, he might have forgotten the matter. But the foot felt like it was going to sleep, with the pins and needles that usually accompany bad circulation. How long before it would turn black, his insides would jellify and he’d start pissing blood?
Shuddering, Chito buttoned up, muttered “tabi tabi po!” a few more times, then skittered back into the putative safety of Building 17. His heart was thrumming when he reached the Custodian’s Office. Breathless, he fell into his desk chair. What was he going to do?
His wife, of course, knew how to handle the crisis. Though she was employed in the Finance Department at the same tech company where Chito worked, she was something of an amateur arbularyo — an herbalist who served people in their community with ancient formulas that promoted healing. She also knew a thing or two about the spirit world.
“And you saw nothing unusual?” Juana asked him for the third time.
“No,” he said, shaking his head emphatically. He sat at the end of their bed and rubbed his foot, which was now unabashedly throbbing.
“And, at no time, did you feel any wetness, you said?”
“That’s right,” agreed Chito. “I would have known if I had been spit on.” It was believed that when one came too close to a nuno’s mound, he might spit toxin at the trespasser. Chito continued rubbing his foot.
“OK, let’s take a look,” she said. She removed his shoe. The foot, when laid side by side with the right one, seemed to be a tiny bit larger. But whether that was normal — they’d never studied his feet in this way before — neither could not say.
“Hmmmm,” Juana said. “Stand — and take down your pants — “
“What?” said Chito.
“Do it — this isn’t a game. I need to see your titi.”
Despite being married for 30 years, Chito blushed while, clinically, Juana inspected his equipment. Neither of them saw anything out of the ordinary and she waved, signaling that it was OK to put his pants back on.
“Now turn around, with your back to me. And take your shirt off!” she said sharply. “Sit beside me.”
Chito did as he was told.
Juana ran her index finger along a dark grove of bristly dark hair that ran between his shoulder blades.
“How long has this been here?”
“How long has what been where?” Chito asked.
“This,” she said, pulling a tuft of the back hair.
“Ouch!” said Chito, jumping to his feet. “Quit it.”
“Sit down,” Juana said. “I don’t like the look of this.” As he sat, she sprang to her feet, went into their closet and pulled out a wicker basket that was filled with an assortment of vials — dried sunflowers, sandalwood, smoke weed, incense, alum — and found a white, beeswax candle, an old, tarnished tablespoon, and a pint-sized tumbler. She half-filled the glass with water and set it on the night table. Then she lit the candle, and slowly dripped the wax into the spoon. When she had a spoonful, she held the match under it to re-liquify the wax.
Finally, she poured it into the tumbler of water to solidify. She and Chito stared into the glass, and Juana slowly turned it three times, clockwise, then 3 counter clockwise. Satisfied, she plucked the wax shape from the tumbler and held it in her palm so she and Chito could see.
“Hmmm,” said Juana, grimly.
“What?” asked Chito. The blob looked like nothing to him — a splat of wax. If he had to say what it signified, Chito would say that maybe it resembled a punctuation mark, an asterisk.
“Not good,” said Juana. “The sign is clear.”
“What does it say?”
Juana was silent for a moment. She traced the blotch of wax with her finger, and said, “It is, obviously, a full moon. You must make reparations to the nuno then.”
“But, how? What does one give a nuno?”
“That depends,” Juana said, emptying the tumbler, and putting the wax on the window ledge so she could bury it later. “We will start with money, and see if that sufficient.”
“And if it’s not?”
Juana shrugged and did not make eye contact with her husband. “Sometimes they want more. Some nunos can only be appeased with a woman — they like very fat women, in particular. Although where we would find a fat woman willing to be sacrificed in such a way…”
They pondered that one for a bit in silence, until at last Juana said, “Let us hope you didn’t offend one of the greedy ones.”
Chito’s foot seemed to swell along with the moon, and by the time the appointed night appeared, he had begun to limp from hurt. Though he was terrified, he could hardly wait for midnight — the hour when the moon would be at its fullest and when, according to Juana, he could make his peace offering.
The moon was very orange on this October night, what some people refer to as a hunter’s moon, and Chito grimly set out to find the nuno. He had an envelope in his pocket stuffed with $250, in $20 bills (and one $10 bill), as well as a letter that he had painstakingly transcribed, from Juana’s dictation.
The field behind Building 17 was bathed in a peculiar, almost amber light, which helped him, more or less, trace the route back to the insect mound. He didn’t need extra illumination from his cellphone — after a few minutes of tenderly dragging his aching foot through the lightly forested woods, he saw it: a foreboding whale hump, 25 yards ahead. He swallowed, and, slower now, pressed on.
But as he got closer, straining to see the old hobgoblin, he realized that he was quite alone — no nuno. Was he disappointed or relieved? Relieved at first, that was only natural. But then disappointment set in and Chito realized that he was surely doomed.
He could hardly leave the envelope of cash and letter on the mound — someone else might find it before the nuno. A kid perhaps, or someone else out for a piss in the woods. That might only make the old man angrier. This business of making a human sacrifice was out of the question. That might have worked for the ancients, but not here in this time and place.
As Chito got to the mound, his foot seemed to celebrate and burst into a brassy stab of pain. It felt like his toes were going to jump off his foot. He groaned in agony (and the hopelessness of his predicament) and involuntarily collapsed — landing on the very mound that had caused this mess.
He tried to recover, and get to his feet but just then he heard someone, or something, coming. He looked in the direction of the noise and saw a tiny, red ember, floating close to the ground — heading toward him.
“Oh my God,” Chito whispered and fell to his knees. He balled up his hands in supplication and wanted to close his eyes, but he couldn’t. He was paralyzed and could do nothing more than watch his fate unfold.
The nuno took the form of a tiny man smoking a marijuana cigarette. Chito could make out that he did not have a beard, exactly, but was nevertheless unshaven. What was left of his hair was cropped close to his scalp. He wore a black t-shirt and blue jeans and sneakers, in the common style of Silicon Valley. Chito had worked here long enough to remember when all the men wore chino pants and blue button-down shirts in honor of the man who had started Amazon. Now some of the younger ones had broken away and were wearing hoodies, shorts and sandals, as if dressing for a day at the beach.
But not this old, skinny nuno. Chito now found himself facing the horrible little man — the nuno had stopped in his tracks when he saw him on his knees, praying in front of his mound. Though the nuno wore round, silver spectacles, Chito could see his dark eyes narrowing in anger.
“Tabi tabi po!” said Chito.
The nuno glowered at him, then took a puff of his cigarette.
“I am so sorry,” Chito said. “So, so sorry that I pissed on your house.” Chito reached into his pocket for the envelope and held it out to the man, trying to recall the speech. “Here is some money, which I hope you will find acceptable. I want to right the terrible wrong that I have committed. I meant no offense. It was an accident.”
The nuno said nothing.
“Please take it,” Chito said, arm still outstretched.
The nuno didn’t move. He just stood there staring at Chito who, because he was on his knees, was eyeball to eyeball with him. The nuno took another hit of his joint, then slowly exhaled, making a few smoke rings at the end that sailed spectrally up into the orange night.
Then he said: “I don’t know who you think I am. I don’t want your apology or your money.” He started to back away.
Chito said, “But my foot! And the curse you put on me!”
“I don’t know you and you don’t know me,” the nuno said. “What you seem to be describing sounds like magic. Is there some kind of magic in this place?” He puffed his joint. “Maybe once,” he said. Then he shook his head, recalling something almost forgotten. “But no more.”
Again, Chito tried to press the envelope with his money on the nuno, but the little man held up his hands as if in surrender or denial and said, “Pretend I was never here.” Then he turned and disappeared into the woods.
Chito watched, hopeless and sad. Slowly, he limped back to Building 17 and considered the impossibility of finding a fat woman willing to appease the terrible nuno.