According to my grandmother, the cucuy (pronunciation: coo coo ēē) recognized a kindred lost soul when he saw one and would abduct the bad child at night. He had eyes that gleamed in the dark and had fangs that tore through young flesh as if it were cake. No one would miss the bad child the next morning. They would be too busy celebrating good times and lavishing all their love and attention on the good children the cucuy left behind.
On days when I was exceptionally bad, I slept with one eye open, knowing the cucuy was waiting for me to fall asleep.
I have used the cucuy on my own kids but not to the extent it robbed them of their dreams. My children had their own bouts with night terrors. As a little boy, my oldest tried to escape his by sleep walking. I was always on the alert and followed him around the house until I could steer him back into his bed. My youngest swung punches and kicked at his brother and sister in his dreams. We had countless family meetings about not bullying their little brother.
It was my daughter, the middle child, who suffered the worst dreams. A ghostly specter, she said, floated out of her closet every night and tried to steal her soul. Similar in description to the Dementors in Harry Potter, her ghoul was all white – long white hair, gown, and fingers. The five-year-old begged to sleep with us but her father refused, so I sat guard in her room with the lights on every night. I promised her I would not leave her alone. At first she startled awake several times during the night, making sure I was still there, so it took her a while to believe me that I wasn’t going anywhere. I slept sitting up in a rocking chair for over a month until she got over her fear.
It doesn’t take a genius to see why we are afraid of the dark. Humans are diurnal animals, not nocturnal. At night our vision and spacial acuity is limited. It heightens our other senses and our imagination makes up what we cannot see. We feel out of control, defensive, and vulnerable. Emotions like loneliness, sadness, grief, stress, and depression double in weight, and the span of one night feels like a lifetime.
The moment we cycle back into the light, we regain our footing. If we were to encounter the cucuy, we would take a club to it and finish that child-stealing sucker off. If not, we would call 911 or raise a posse and hunt it down. In the daytime, we solve our problems, face our bullies, react with reason. We find hope in the sunlight and laugh at our insecurities.
We certainly would not drive into the spooky woods in a car that needs a new battery or is running low on gas. We would not trek through the mud at night toward the creepy house that sits abandoned by the dilapidated cemetery. And we certainly would not let something with a baby-sounding name like “cucuy” to scare the daylights out of us.