by Shaiti Castillo
Listen to Shaiti Castillo perform "Garden People"
My grandmother would tell me about the little bug people that would roam her garden back in her small pueblo deep in México. This was only when Mamá wasn’t in the room because she’d scold her from spreading tales of brujería in a house that worshipped God. Even as the disease ate away at what was left of my grandmother’s brain, her stubbornness had continued to grow. Rooted deeply within her like an oak tree. I would trade cups of cafecito for tales of the little bug people while Mamá was out running errands.
“Who were they?” I would ask in a whisper, as if Mamá would barge in at any moment and catch us exchanging sins.
“They didn’t have names. They didn’t speak either.” She would reply. I’d sit there patiently, processing the information before asking another question. Time with her was precious. The more questions I asked, the more lost she seemed to get.
“How do you know they weren’t just normal bugs?” I’d ask. She would sit there for a moment and take a small sip of her hot coffee, surely burning her tongue.
“Because they looked like people.” The answer was simple, but it wasn’t enough for a curious child like me.
“How so?” The slight tapping of my feet against the tile floor exposed my growing impatience. She didn’t seem to notice.
“They had faces. Eyes, a nose, a mouth…” She would go on to list general anatomy. I bit my lip.
“Bugs have faces.” I interrupted and she stopped speaking. Then a hoarse laugh escaped her thinning lips. It was an unpleasant sound, like tv static. Her childhood spent working in factories had caught up with her lungs.
“Smartass,” She said just loud enough for me to hear in her thick accent. It caught me by surprise.
“Nana!” It was my turn to scold her. She never cursed, always said it wasn’t very lady-like.
“As I was saying,” She paused to let me settle down. “They had faces. But not bug faces. They looked like you and I. Except they were little.”
She slightly pinched her fingers together to show me an estimated size of the bug people. I nodded.
“They had the body of the bugs, but they all could stand on two feet. Like you and I,” she explained, pushing herself off her seat. I scrambled next to her in case she fell but she swatted my hands away. She set down her mug and proceeded to put her hands on her hips. Stretching her back just a bit to stand proudly. I couldn’t help but giggle at her display.
“How’d you find them?” I asked as she slowly sat herself back down. Retreating back to her caffeine.
“They were stealing,” She shook her head in a feigned disappointment. “I had planted some sweet grapes for the summer and I caught them in the act!”
“Maybe they were hungry, Nana.” I said in defense of the bug people. It’s not a crime to be hungry.
“That is no reason to steal.” She sighed. “I forgave them, of course.”
“Then what?” I began to grow eager. This was the most I had gotten out of her in a while.
“Then we became friends. I would visit them every day after work and bring them whatever I had left over. Even if it was a few beans.” She smiled to herself. “I would make them little chairs and tables out of sticks and leaves I found around the yard. I would sew together little dresses using paper magazines. I left them gifts, and they would leave me some as well.”
“What did they bring you?” My hands were resting under my chin. Eyes wide like an owl at midnight.
“Random trinkets they would find. Shiny stuff. Sometimes it’d be silverware, sometimes jewelry. Sometimes it’d be a coin or two which made a big difference at the time.” Her smile grew, but stayed closed. Her wrinkles stretched themselves across her face, but the glossiness in her eyes brought a sense of youth.
“Then what, Nana? Where are they now?” I jumped up a little in excitement which startled her. She dropped the mug and it shattered across the floor, spilling what was left of the brown liquid. She stayed silent.
“I’m so sorry! Be careful and stay there while I clean it up, there’s glass!” I stood up immediately. She sat there, unfazed. I slipped on the sandals that were beneath my chair and stepped out back to grab the broom. When I slipped back inside, Mamá had made her way into the kitchen.
“What happened?” She let out a dramatic breath. Throwing the groceries she had carried inside onto the counter. She ripped the broom from my hands and began to sweep. “¿Estás bien, Ma?”
There was still no response from my grandmother. She sat there, frozen in time. Her frail hands still shaped around the non-existent mug.
“What did you do?” Mamá turned to face me and I stuttered. “Her mind is very fragile right now, you know this.”
“I didn’t do anything, I swear! We were just talking.” I aimed to defend myself but the weight of guilt sat itself like rocks, heavy in my stomach. I had asked too many questions. “I’m sorry.”
My grandmother spoke a few words for the rest of the day. Simple responses that would please Mamá. I had refrained from speaking to her in fear of only hurting her more. She would trade sweet glances and small smiles with me over dinner. Her way of letting me know things were okay.
That night I joined my grandmother in her bed. The window was open and it let a cool enough breeze in that encouraged us to be under the covers. I laid my head on her shoulder, adjusting my weight so as to not crush her feeble body. We laid there in silence as we usually did. There was a full moon out and the sound of crickets chirping lulled us to sleep. As my eyes grew heavy and my breathing became steady, she spoke.
“I’m going to die,” She faintly said. My eyes became watery saucers at her sudden statement. When I gained the courage to look at her, she had already fallen asleep. Her eyes were closed, thinning lashes falling over her cheeks. Paired with the same small smile she had given me earlier. To her, everything was going to be okay.
She didn’t wake up that morning. The doctor said she had died peacefully in her sleep and that in her position it was the best way to go. I stood at the doorway as Mamá wept at the foot of the bed. A blanket had been thrown over my grandmother’s body as we waited for someone to take her.
My puffy eyes looked out the open window. The sun was bright and it was a beautiful day. Something that my grandmother would have appreciated dearly. She hated sad events. The sounds of chirping crickets had transitioned into the chirping of sparrows. Light and airy.
At the corner of my eye, I noticed a pop of color. I tilted my head in curiosity, walking over to hover over the windowsill. Sitting there were two red grapes. Perfectly ripe and gleaming. I looked up to the sky and smiled.
Beyond the Cave
by Kevin M. Casin
Bran arrived at the cave. The shadows held by the chalky stone frame played with him, shaping into the fairies from his dreams. Maybe they were eating the travelers.
Nic grunted as he climbed onto the shale slab. He rolled and lithely sprung to his elvish feet.
“Why the gods thought to bring us together, I will never understand,” he grumbled. He tossed his loose brown hair. His brown hands brushed charcoal dust from his caramel leather vest and adjusted the bow and quiver on his back. “Bring me to my death, he will. Just watch…”
Bran wrapped a fleshy arm around Nic’s slender shoulders and said “see, it wasn’t so bad!”
“Be careful, Bran,” Nic said. “Your research won’t save up. We slipped past the guards. No one is coming if something goes wrong.”
“Oh, stop worrying. What’s the worst that could happen? We’ll look around and go home.”
Bran looked around for bone, carcasses, anything that might show signs of a feast. He found none. If they weren’t eaten, then maybe captured and held against their will?
“Since you’re so worried, I’ll go in first,” said Bran. He took his birch staff into his brown hand and slipped the vine band off his chest. He looked back at Nic with a smirk, “and make sure everything is safe before you come in.”
Darkness washed the world from Bran’s skin. He held his staff tight with both hands. A tingle entered his fingertips. It felt like magic. Maybe there were fairies. But he wanted to see them. In the shadows, he searched for the portal to their world, the one he had traveled to in his dreams since he was a child. He hoped to find the glass structures that pierced gray clouds.
Was the silver-eyed man there, and his haunting robotic speech? How about the orange man with green tendrils, the one who soothed him?
“Maybe some light will help.” He set his hand over the branches of his staff. He felt them curl under his palm, but he before he could speak the spell, Nic interrupted.
“Bran! Come look at this!”
Bran rushed to the near end of the cave—he realized was more of a tunnel. Nic gently cupped a pale, orange hermit crab.
“That’s not from the Otherworld!” Bran huffed.
The crab scuttled into its shell, bunched into a fist.
Nic laughed. “They never did like you. Maybe there’s something to learn here. Not everything has to be otherworldly. Sometimes a crab is just a crab, and that’s okay. Pay attention to what’s real, Bran. The rest will always work itself out.”
Bran rolled his eyes. “When did you get so old and wise?”
A chilled breeze knocked Bran’s thick, black curled hair onto his face. The roar of the great sea called to him. He looked out over the cliffs beside Nic.
“What is that?” Bran asked.
Perched on crags, Bran saw a castle. Pointed towers, like fangs biting into unfurling storm clouds. Thick, dreary walls sprouted from the algae-green rocks and stabbed the central tower. An eerie chill seeped into his skin and pinched his nerves. He hated the feeling of insects creeping over him.
A crack came from the cliff behind him. The rock under his feet tore away from the mainland. Nic knocked Bran down, hoping to carry them over the fissure. But he failed. Bran braced for another sensation he hated—the thrill of falling. He waited for the hands juggling his intestines. It never happened.
Bran rose to his feet with Nic’s help and the cliff faded away. Bran realized they were gliding toward the castle. Nothing but air and certain death lay beneath the levitating boulder. Bran balked at the vacuum. He hugged Nic. As he fumbled at the weight, Bran prayed to the fairies, pleading with them to carry them safely over the carnivorous sea.
The cracks aligned perfectly. It hovered in place as Bran and Nic stepped off, then pulled away, drifting back to the cliff. As they climbed a stone-carved staircase, Bran felt the vibration generated from the thrashing waves crawl up his bones. He peered over the rough edge and realized they were swaying.
Bran glanced back at Nic and said, “I think a good wind will knock this whole place back into the sea. But I guess we’re stuck here for now.”
Bran stood before a wrought iron door with bolts about his size. On its own, the door creaked open slightly. The castle exhaled stale air, like the musk of a thousand-year tomb. The breeze lifted dust from the stone slabs, taking hazy human forms, like meandering ghosts looking for their true home.
“Fairies,” Bran exhaled enthusiastically.
People—some human and others alien—skittered around him with apathetic faces and in clothes outside the custom of Ulamar. Men in long-sleeved tunics with a cloth folded over their chests—"suits,” the word came to him, but its origin was a mystery to him. One of these men strolled up to him.
Bran shuttered. His youthful face carried silver eyes that held the weight of ages. He didn’t seem as scary as he had in his dreams. Bran had power here. He wasn’t going to be intimidated.
“I am Bran, protector of Ulamar and heir to the throne. I don’t recognize you, or any of these people as my subject. Where are you from?” Bran assumed a regal voice, dropping his tone by an octave.
The man opened his arms and said, “welcome to the House of All Worlds. I am ARI: Alternate Reality Integrator.” Though his sentences ended with a flair, his smile was empty and strained. “I am tasked with carrying out our company motto: All things are possible. Is this your first time?”
Bran glanced back at Nic, who surveyed ARI with an incredulous eye.
“Are you…a fairy?” Bran asked, stepping close and examining ARI’s hazy aura.
“Fairies? Oh no, sir. I’m afraid you may be experiencing Envoy sickness. Oh, not good. Must decontaminate quickly. This way, please, right away.”
ARI extended his arm and guided the way into the dilapidated structure.
Bran looked to Nic, whose eyes held worry, but nodded as if to agree the way seemed safe enough and this was there only way out. Their only option was to find a way out that was different from the way they came. Bran walked into the castle, hoping it held some answers.
Though the decay faded as they entered, the gloom never left. Sunlight fell from the ceiling—the only light source—down a well-formed by a spiraling white staircase. Beyond the stairs, glass cages scaled the curved heights. Like an egg, or a gherkin. People scurried around, vanishing behind metal doors that slipped into dark, bland walls.
A lonely banner draped from the far wall with a symbol—a cat sitting on its hind legs, a small “S” on its chest, and a giant “U” behind it.
They reached the center of the space.
“Welcome back to Ulamar. Here, in the House of All Worlds, we can take you anywhere you want to go. With our convenient and affordable prices, we can help you visit any multiverse.” ARI spoke with an unnatural enthusiasm.
Bran considered it strange how the name of this place was the same as his kingdoms, but a nearby man caught his attention. Green roots dangling from his carrot scalp over broad shoulders. A silver uniform intimately shaped his beefy torso. The cat emblem on his peck. A scowl pinched his oily cheeks. He tapped an invisible pane, each yellow symbol vanishing with a flash under his fingers.
The man’s jaw dropped. He recovered quickly and returned to his work.
Bran thought the reaction was strange. And slightly insulting. Bran wasn’t aware of any orange people in Ulamar. He let it go.
ARI guided them through a broad doorway at the back end of the egg-shaped space.
Aisles of glossy, white saucers encased in cylindrical glass sprawled away infinitely.
“What are these?” Bran said.
ARI led them along a corridor, then stopped beside a vessel. He raised a hazy hand.
“The sickness…correct. Memory triggering may help.
“Here we keep out state-of-the-art Quantum Envoys. An array of our safe, proprietary krypton-xenon lasers vaporize customers into elementary particles and funnel them into our Alternative Reality Capacitor. By tapping into the quantum strings, we can digitally recreate you and your loved ones anywhere in the multiverse. Then—thanks to our wonderful technicians, of course—we can bring you right back home with the push of a few buttons.” ARI pointed to an orange-skinned man beside a nearby Envoy.
The same man from earlier. Now with an inquisitive grin.
Bran smiled at the familiar and attractive technician. At twenty, traditionally men in the kingdom found a wife, but he never felt that life suited him. He’d settled the reason on his insatiable need for adventures. Now, as he stared at the man, he reconsidered.
“Could this be some type of magic?” Nic asked. Bran tensed as he approached the Envoy and the technician.
“Yes,” ARI replied, “in this world, I believe the natives would refer to this work as ‘magic’. Ulamar knows this as physics. Are you familiar with Schrӧdinger’s Cat theory? No? Well, never mind then. Now, here are your neural networks from the moment you entered the House…”
With an opaque hand, ARI swatted the air. Lines webbed into circles across a hazy brain. Bran fought back tears, recalling the day his father slaughtered a sheep right in front of him. He wanted to teach his son to fend for himself, to be a man. So, he set the brain in Bran’s hands. Hypnotic green and red waves intensified as they reached the circles and distracted him from the memory.
“Obviously magic,” Bran concluded in his head.
“These two quadrants are unlinked,” ARI traced a line between two circles. A black hole broke the currents. “The memory centers of your brain. The informational flow is either impaired or repressed. A common side-effect of the transport. Not to worry. When the brain lingers in another universe it must adapt and form new connections, synapses, like these,” ARI marked another line with intense, red swirls.
A hand rested on Bran’s arm. Nic guided him away and whispered, “I don’t see any way out, but I say we try to make a run for it. I have a bad feeling. We need to go.”
“I’m afraid we can’t let you leave in this condition, Nic.”
Nic twitched and held ARI in a deadly glare. ARI stared—his calm, faux-jovial expression unmoved.
“I believe your syndrome is severe,” said ARI. With a wave, a new network appeared.
The map is framed on the memory center. Red waves flowed naturally into the two circles. No black hole.
“Connection found…Memories missing… Deleted. No leaving, I’m afraid.” ARI quieted for a moment. His hollow, silver eyes scanned the network.
The technician stepped away from the Envoy. His pace slowed as he neared Bran.
Suddenly, ARI shot erect. His head thrashed and his voice changed. Like iron rasping a metal drum. “House breached…execute…sterilization protocol.”
The technician wedged between Bran and Nic, then grabbed their arms and said, “we’ve got to go now!”
ARI’s hysteria faded as Bran raced down the corridors, guided by the mysterious technician. He passed through a new door and burst into a hallway. Glossy pale walls with silver lines slicing down the corridor greeted Bran with a meek, yet more lively welcome than the lobby. Here, the light came from strange, luminous ropes in the ceiling corners. The hall curved and as he turned the corner, he clashed with an orange woman.
He knocked down unknown objects from her metallic trays. Bran tried to frown as he swept by her, but he wasn’t sure if she caught it. He heard the objects crack as Nic’s heavy steps smashed against them.
Bran followed the man, who brought them to an elegant staircase of sterile white that coiled around a tiered, crystal chandelier. Lanky creatures with cerulean skin clothed in white silk, beaded with grey pebbles seemed to hover over the steps.
“Water fairies clad in eroded limestone,” he recalled from the old stories.
An orange woman in a silver uniform barred their path to the stairs. Bran grinned in fascination, disregarding the odd metal object in her hand and her threatening grimace. The technician yanked him away, through yet another sliding door. This time, Bran came to a cold, metal room.
A terrible place to hide, he knew, but before he could offer his thought, the technician tapped on the wall and the doors closed instantly. They were moving. Almost falling.
“What is going on?” Nic slammed the technician into the wall and held his forearm on his neck. The man didn’t fight back.
“You have to leave. A native can’t be in here. They will kill you.” The words dripped like fresh cream from his lips.
“I’ll kill you first.” Nic drew an arrow and held the sharp edge by his throat. He pressed enough to draw blood.
Bran tensed and threw his arms over Nic, pulling away. The wall caught them, but Bran didn’t let go. The embrace comforted him, and he sensed it helped Nic.
A sea flashed in Bran’s mind. A vision.
Still waters. A weight pinned his hands and body to pearl sand. Passion on his lips. Braids tickled his cheeks. Green. The face. Duran.
Bran snapped back to reality.
“I don’t think he wants to hurt us, Nic. I know him,” Bran whispered. He felt the calm air from Nic as his breath deepened. Bran held onto him. Like he might lose him.
“We do know each other, but more of that later. I’m Duran, Senior Quantum technician. In all my years with Ulamar, no native and customer have bonded so much. Every time Nic looked at you, the map turned red. He was thinking of you, Bran. Your memories together.”
“He’s been my best friend since we were kids.”
The room jerked to a stop and knocked everyone to the floor. Duran shot up, waved his arm over the wall, and yellow symbols appeared. They faded as he tapped them; replaced by more.
“Damn! They turned off the elevator. Luckily, we stopped just under the 100th floor. We’re close to the tunnel.”
He swatted the characters away and produced a slim rod from his pocket.
“Step aside, guys.” He aimed it at the ceiling and a light beam shot from the tip. Bran watched in amazement—it melted the metal into a ring. It fell with an empty thud.
Duran tucked away the rod. He set his hands on his knees and lunged. “Come on,” he said to Bran.
He sprang through the hole with Duran’s help. He landed in a dark, musky well. He followed a thick chain holding the metal box as it curved along the walls. Nic appeared, startling Bran, then helped Duran. He patted away the dust away. His hands caressed his grey clothes, moving from his chest to his waist. Bran followed with his eyes, memorizing each space.
Still waters. Pearl sand. Passion. Greece. More visions.
Bran stood before a broad door the exact size of the metal box. He hoped it might open for him, but it didn’t. Was the fairy magic even real? Or did they take it back out of spite for running away?
“Step aside, Bran. I got it.” Duran carved a hole about his height. He nudged the slab and it fell away. Once through, he held out his hand, waiting for Bran to take it. But Nic came between them.
As he drew his bow, he glanced at Bran and said, “Brawns before brains.” He winked and went ahead. Then, he signaled for Bran.
The bright light bathing the glossy walls blinded Bran. Squinting, he scampered down the empty, doorless hallway. No, it had one door, Bran noticed. At the end.
Beyond the door, a rusted staircase descended into a sewer. Footsteps echoed faintly. Bran examined the stairs, hoping to glimpse the source of the noises. The flights curled to a point, like a black hole in the sky.
“Down here, Bran. Just a bit more and we’re out of here,” Duran insisted.
Bran stepped close to Duran. From afar, his face held a spry youth, but now, wrinkles crept into the corners of his eyes. Each line is a story. Piece of Bran’s story.
He met Duran’s emerald irises, consumed by a swirl of anxiety and despair. Yet, peering from behind those emotions, hope. Life. Fairy magic set into his nerves, sparking a bulb. One thought extinguished. Now, teething with new life.
“Duran,” Bran whispered. “I loved you, didn’t I?”
A smile pinched Duran’s oily cheek. Bran stroked the dimples with an olive thumb as he welcomed another vision.
Bran awoke, desperate to experience the latest in Ulamar technology—the Envoy. He threw what semi-clean clothes he had on the floor and headed to the newly built House of All Worlds in New London.
The House—housed in the repurposed Gherkin building—was the final wonder of the world. He declared no one should bother looking for another because none stood a chance. Until a Karian took his admissions ticket, ripped it in half, and smiled.
“Welcome! I’m Duran, I will be your tour guide today. Looks like it’s just us for today, shall we get started?”
Bran nodded speechlessly.
Duran walked ahead, gesturing at captivating machinery, except Bran never looked at any of it. His attention fixed on Duran—and resisting the urge to survey the uniform revealing his beefy form. When the tour was over, Duran brought Bran to the employees’ lounge, insisting it was the final stop. After he gathered his belongings, he turned to Bran and asked,
“Are you asking me out or what?”
Bran mustered a warble and a nod. Duran laughed and led them back to an Envoy.
“You are going to talk to me on our date though, right? You’re cute and all, but I need some conversation.”
“I’m sorry. I’m just nervous. I’ve never done this before.”
“Date? With a face like that? I find that hard to believe.”
“Spend so much time with someone so unbelievably beautiful. Like a fairy.”
Duran laughed. “Lucky for you, I like fairies. So, I’ll take that as a compliment. Come on. Let’s go somewhere special. My treat.”
The Envoy sears the flesh from Bran’s bone. A prick, then nothing. Light as air, a sea breeze, his essence, his molecules, his form, condensed on a beach. “In 20th century Greece,” Duran explained, “before Columbo buried it in ash, before the Human Reconstruction after the Nuclear Wars, before the Karians ever stepped on Earth, before the Quantum breakthroughs.”
Bran laid on the pearl sand. Basked in Duran’s sun-kissed glow. Passion on his lips. And Duran in his arms and heart.
Bran believed a life, a world, a whole galaxy without Duran seemed impossible. In those days. Before he ended up here. Now, Duran was a stranger, a kind stranger, but nothing more. Though his heart told him differently.
A boom came from above.
Bran descended and arrived at a long, damp tunnel. Like the cave he now questioned. Was it real? Was anything in the last twenty years of his existence real? He felt a hand on the bend in his lower back. Nic offered a reassuring glance. Nic…was he real?
Another boom echoed.
Bran slowed as he ran down the tunnel, avoiding a fall on the slick, sandy mud. He focused on a growing light. It banished the shadows. It revealed the truth. It held the roar of the sea.
Sunlight beamed intensely as the afternoon bloomed in a cloudless sky. It warmed Bran as he emerged onto a stone table, jutting over the raging sea. Nic and Duran ran ahead and peered over the platform, each searching for something. Nic almost crushed a hermit crab.
It hopped back into its orange shell. Like the one on the cliff. He doubted if it was the same one. Was it following us on this adventure too? Bran sat beside it, feet under his thighs, and observe the little crab reappear.
Its eyes wiggled, studying Bran, judging his potential for harm. Bran wondered that too. Nic didn’t belong in the House. He belonged in Ulamar. Bran belonged there too. His heart told him so, but his mind urged him to reconsider.
Bran picked up the crab. He set its curled legs on his hand and waited for it to emerge.
“What do you think? Go with Nic or Duran. What would the fairies want me to do?”
A leg twitched.
“Bran! Come look at this!” Duran waved.
Bran sauntered over with the crab gently cupped. Duran pointed to a winding stone staircase. It ended at a pale patch of water—a sandbar. A hand rested on Bran’s shoulder and turned him toward Duran.
“Tell Nic he can climb down and swim to shore. They won’t follow him and risk revealing more to the other natives.” Duran grinned. Licked his lips, prepping for a kiss that never came. Bran didn’t meet his gaze.
His head shook gently.
“My world is so much better with you in it. I thought I’d never find you.” Duran presented his plea.
“Couldn’t I just travel with the Envoys? I can be part of both worlds.”
“They’re tearing this place down. A native, unfamiliar with this technology, entered. Even with Nic gone, they’ll destroy it. If he can find it, so can others. They might even rebuild on another part of this world. Business is business.”
Bran’s heart fluttered with debate. He felt love for Duran—at least his mind told him he loved Duran—but his feelings for Nic were different. Blood brothers. Bran just couldn’t leave him. His heart wouldn’t let him.
“He’s just some guy you met here. Those memories aren’t real. They’re just replacing old ones, like double-exposed film. I’m real. Look. Feel.” Duran set Bran’s shaking hands on his chest.
“We grew up together. Those memories are real. I think I remember what happened. The day I left New London, heading back to Greece, something happened with the Envoy. I felt the sting of the lasers, but I didn’t feel like air. It felt like water. I woke up in my mother’s arms. I was born here…twenty years ago.”
Bran glanced over at Nic, turning through pages of memories, every story refreshed. The crab tickled his palm. He peered through his fingers. Its legs were moving.
Suddenly, Nic jerked toward the tunnel. Bran looked up. Blood spattered from Nic’s chest. He dropped the bow. His hand cradled his shoulder. Bran set the crab in his pocket and rushed to help. While Duran ran to stand before three, armed silver-uniformed agents.
“Stop, wipe his memory, and let him go. He won’t hurt anyone.”
A wisp of sea spray twisted into a human.
“Hello, I am ARI: Alternative Reality Integrator, and spokesperson for Ulamar, Incorporated, where all things are possible. Unfortunately, your request for memory deletion was denied. For the safety of our customers and employees, the native must be eliminated. Please stand aside.”
Blood covered Nic’s pallid hand, pooling under him with each drip. Bran felt shallow breath beneath his hands.
“But this whole place will be destroyed. He can’t follow anyone,” Bran pleaded.
“No negotiations authorized. Please stand aside.”
An agent approached Duran and pressed the gun barrels to his chests. Resigned, Duran followed her behind ARI. Another came for Bran, but he refused to step aside.
Bran slipped an arrow from Nic’s quiver, lunged for the bow, and with a fluid twirl, he killed the agent. Bran had never killed anything or anyone in his life. Was he a man now, like his father wanted him to be?
The other two averted their aim from Nic. Each held the triggers under their fingers. Each glared in vengeance.
“Murder is not permitted on Ulamar property. Surrender or be terminated.”
Bran rolled, but his hands failed to pinch an arrow. He rose to his feet, chin high, and stared into ARI’s dead, silver eyes. With a cold grin, he said, “Fire.”
“So much for fairies.” Bran thought his last words as he closed his eyes.
One shot…a second…
Death didn’t sting. Each bullet shoved him back until the platform slipped away. Heavy, but painless—was he carrying something?
Falling again. Like the elevator. Hopefully, the sea was just as kind.
A stab woke him up. Bran reached for his leg. A bulge twitched and he remembered the crab in his pocket. He pulled it out, then set it on the pearl sand. A foamy ripple tickled his fingertips.
Bran sat up. Alive. He studied his body, searching for wounds, but he found none. But they shot him…right? This day was full of surprises.
The crunch of crumbling rocks captured his attention. It gazed out at the crags. The pillars supporting the castle snapped, devoured by thrashing waves. Unpulverized chunks of the tower fell into the sea. The castle fade into memory. Nothing more than eroded rocks.
“Good riddance,” Bran cursed.
Bran looked down. The hermit crab was gone. He followed its foot pricks to a patch of bloody sand, to Nic on his back dying.
Bran swept away lumps of coagulated blood. Three bullet wounds festered. He tore away his shirt, tearing the fabric into pieces. He bandaged the holes, hopelessly.
Nic wasn’t bleeding any more. He couldn’t.
His eyes opened slightly, and he mouthed something. His lips were too weak to understand. He felt the sentiment though. He knew Nic well enough to know he was sending his last drops of love in his direction.
Bran laid a kiss on Nic’s forehead. He rested his head on Nic’s cheek and felt the feigning air caress his chilled skin. Nic was beyond saving. He returned all the love Nic always gave him.
“Maybe it will help him, wherever he’s going,” Bran muttered.
He prepared the grave away from the voracious sea. It would not take Nic for as long as Bran lived. His promise to Nic as he laid him in the shallow grave—never forget. In its fulfillment, he would devote a day each week to visit, to tell me all about his adventures, to bring him a rock to place on the grave—a tradition to remind the dead they are remembered.
He searched for the hermit crab. He wanted to set it on the grave, give it a chance to remember Nic. It knew him too, after all. He saw the bobbing orange shell a few meters away. It wasn’t crawling away.
Bran strolled to it. The crab was nipping at a white box nestled in the sand and nudged by the ebbing waves. A message carved onto the lid:
In the box, Bran found a syringe between the black foam. The label read Mendflouramide. Bran recalled the medicine, its miraculous ability to mend bones and wounds. Many credited it with saving countless lives in the Great Pandemic. Others believed it sparked the Nuclear Wars.
Bran grabbed the box and the crab and raced back to the grave, furiously shoveling the sand with his hands. Hope in his heart. He stabbed Nic, watching the blue liquid ooze into his pallid arm. He sat on the sand like a rag dog and marked the passing time with the swash. With each beat, he prayed it wasn’t too late. It had to work.
Paralyzed in disbelief, Bran watched water trickled from his mouth with each exhale—the wounds were gone. Scarred by fresh skin and bullet shells sprawled on the sand. He didn’t dare move. He avoided any disturbance of the cruel dream. But after observing Nic heave the last drops, he knew nothing was more disturbing and he didn’t care if it wasn’t real.
Joy burst into Bran’s face. With all his weight, Bran threw his arms around Nic and wrestled him to the ground. He squeezed the renewed life from Nic, determined to never let him go and return all the love Nic ever gave him. Nic howled with laughter.
Bran let him go. He laid on the sand beside Nic and together, they watched clouds drift in peaceful silence. Bran thought one looked like a man with silver, aged eyes.
“So, what happened with the castle? It’s gone…” Nic rolled onto his side. He picked up the hermit crab, letting it rest on his palm.
Bran rolled over, his head in hand. “The fairies in the rock took it back to the Otherworld. That’s all we need to know.”
Nic rolled his eyes with a head shake. “Still with fairies. I guess they were real after all. Are we going after them again? That was kind of fun.”
“Nah. Pay attention to what’s real, a wise man said to me once. And everything will work itself out.”
Bran reached for the crab. It didn’t recoil. It tickled his hand and crawled into his palm. He held it to his face. The shadow of Nic’s smile in the background.
“It’s not afraid, I guess. You’re growing up.”
Bran enjoyed their new time together. As the sun faded, they gathered themselves and headed back to the mystic gate and the Kingdom of Ulamar.
Kevin Casin is a gay, Latino fiction writer, and cardiovascular research scientist. His fiction work is featured in If There’s Anyone Left, From the Farther Trees, and more. He is Editor-in-Chief of Tree And Stone, an HWA/SFWA/Codex member, and First Reader for Diabolical Plots and Interstellar Flight Press. For more about him, please see his website: https://kevinmcasin.wordpress.com/. Please follow his Twitter: @kevinthedruid.
A Stay in Mayami
by Matias Travieso-Diaz
The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.
Eufemio Pérez Pérez was very unhappy with his name. As a youth growing up in Cuba in the nineteen forties, he rankled every time someone referred to him—whether in jest or seriously—as “un Pérez cualquiera,” a derogatory phrase that branded him a member of the lower classes, a pariah of society. The multiple “Pérez” in his surname tainted him even more—twice as common, cheapest among the cheap. Eufemio reacted to his perceived stigma by making his purpose in life to become a somebody, a man of fame, stature and accomplishment.
In High School Eufemio exhibited a decided lack of distinction. He flunked more courses than he passed, and ultimately dropped out without ever graduating. He was unemployed for a while until he was able to enroll in a trade school where he received training as a draftsman. He was hired by an engineering firm to help prepare technical drawings for a number of projects, and his performance was barely adequate. He was kept on the job mainly because he had learned to be obsequious with his superiors. Nonetheless, he saw no possibilities of advancement and bemoaned how his vulgar name kept holding him back.
Things took a turn for the better in January 1959. The country’s ruling gang fled and a new team of bearded rebels came to power. Soon, drastic changes to the Cuban society began to take place, and industries and commercial concerns were seized by the government. Nationalized enterprises were put in the hands of apparatchiks with no qualifications other than loyalty to the Revolution. The engineering offices that employed Eufemio were seized and a minor “comandante” was put in charge.
Eufemio saw the changes as an opportunity to advance himself. He proclaimed: “I’ve been a true revolutionary from day one,” and formed one of Havana’s first “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution” (a network of vigilantes whose function was to spy on other citizens and foil potential anti-government activities). He marched in all the parades, attended all mass rallies, and went to the countryside on weekends to cut cane and help with the sugar harvest. He spied on his co-workers for potential counterrevolutionary infractions, and reported several people to the Interior Ministry for prosecution and incarceration. He was secretly branded by his co-workers as a “chivato” (informant) and universally despised. He defended his snitching on others by arguing: “It’s their fault for not getting in step with the Revolution. Al camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente” (The shrimp that falls asleep is carried away by the current).
By late 1961 he was well connected within the government and had become a promising low-level member of the ruling class. He was then offered a position as personal assistant to the manager of the Matahambre copper mines in the western province of Pinar del Río. The job required him to move to the village of Santa Lucía, a hamlet ten kilometers from Matahambre. Santa Lucía was nowhere: a shabby village of under a thousand inhabitants, mostly mine workers.
The town’s main attraction was a little harbor built for mined ore transport. When he was not busy helping the manager ride herd on the miners, Eufemio sat on the harbor’s pier to do a little fishing and coordinate contraband deliveries of copper ore to Mexican smugglers who resold the mineral in the American markets. He also went frequently to the only bar in Santa Lucía; there he met Cecilia, a buxom, good natured country girl who waited on tables and fraternized with the miners. Eufemio courted Cecilia and soon turned her into his common-law wife. He did not love Cecilia, who he felt was beneath him in every respect, but availed himself of her favors. He felt women were weak creatures whose only virtues lay in their orifices capable of receiving a male’s attentions.
In October 1962 a new face was seen in Santa Lucía. The man, one Miguel Angel Orozco, identified himself as a researcher from Oriente University, come to Matahambre to study the varieties of copper ore found at the mine for comparison with those from the El Cobre mine near Santiago de Cuba. Eufemio met Orozco by chance at the bar, and after a few beers concluded that Orozco’s knowledge of copper mining was not much greater than his own. Eufemio found it hard to believe that the government would allow someone so ignorant of mining matters to travel from one end of Cuba to the other analyzing ore.
As he had done to his some of his neighbors years before, Eufemio felt no compunction about turning the stranger in. He made a quick call to the security police to report potential counter-revolutionary activity. Agents arrested Orozco and another man, Pedro Vera Ortiz, who was Orozco’s accomplice. A large quantity of weapons and explosives was discovered in Orozco’s rented quarters.
The government said the captures smashed a plot to blow up the Matahambre and Nicaro mines in the Pinar del Rio and Oriente provinces. Under interrogation, Orozco admitted that he and Vera had landed clandestinely in Cuba, sent by the CIA to carry out acts of sabotage. For starters, they planned to destroy the aerial transport system at the Matahambre mine. Four hundred miners could have lost their lives if workers operating the aerial link cars had not seen the explosives that Orozco intended to detonate at the base of the towers anchoring the cable railway.
Eufemio was interviewed many times by the Cuban and foreign press and did not miss the chance to play up his alertness and revolutionary zeal. In the interviews, he proclaimed himself a revolutionary hero and stated for the record that his name was “Eufemio del Cerro,” a name under which he had chosen to be known in the future. His change in name was noticed by the state security but acquiesced to--it was not the first time that a revolutionary figure had found it desirable to adopt a new name to improve his image.
Thanks to his unmasking of the Yankee saboteurs, Eufemio del Cerro was promoted to assistant general manager of the Matahambre mine, and helped preside over an operation that, at its peak, produced 50,000 tons of ore a year and gave employment to more than 1,000 workers. Eufemio pocketed the proceeds of selling 1,000 additional tons to the Mexicans on the black market, an activity for which he grossed--after sharing with his partners in the enterprise--$100,000 a year. Half of this he had to kick back to his superiors at three levels of government to be allowed to continue with his scheme but the balance, $50,000 a year, allowed him to live as a prince in a country where misery ruled most of the population.
The good times at Matahambre came to an end in 1997 when the regime, citing increased costs of production and the drop of the price of copper in the international market, closed the mine and laid off all the workers. Eufemio was forced to return to Havana, but given his rank he was given the opportunity to move into a nice apartment in a building that had been the mansion of a now-exiled sugar baron. He left Santa Lucía one night, without saying goodbye to Cecilia. She was three months pregnant and the child was probably his; he never contacted her again.
Once in Havana, Eufemio was appointed secretary to one of the Vice-Ministers of the Ministry of Basic Industry, which oversaw the mining enterprises in the island. Since Matahambre was shut down, Eufemio was switched to support the nickel industry, one of the most important sources of foreign income for the country.
Eufemio was still working at the Ministry of Basic Industry when a negotiation was started in 2010 for the expansion of a major nickel and cobalt processing plant in eastern Cuba, the Pedro Soto Alba nickel facility —a joint venture between the state-owned nickel company Cubaniquel and Canadian mining company Sherritt International Corporation. Soon, several Government officials, including Eufemio’s boss, arranged to receive bribes in exchange for the timely deployment of qualified personnel and other project support. In a related scheme, the officials demanded kickbacks from contractors supplying equipment for the project. Eufemio received under-the-table payments from his boss for his help in carrying out these illegal transactions.
It was all fine and dandy until the government launched a corruption investigation in 2011, leading to the conviction a year later of three Vice Ministers and nine other defendants. Eufemio’s boss was among those given jail terms. Eufemio pretended he was not involved in the criminal enterprise of his superiors, and gave critical testimony at the trial about their “secret meetings” and “commercially unjustified actions.” This testimony was instrumental in the convictions of his boss and some of the other defendants. His cooperation with the investigation saved him from the same fate, and it was conveniently determined that there was no concrete evidence of his involvement in the corrupt schemes. But a file on Eufemio del Cerro (aka Eufemio Pérez Pérez) was nonetheless opened in the Interior Ministry. The Revolution welcomes Judases but does no trust them.
Given the Ministry of Basic Industry’s involvement in the Pedro Soto Alba plant scandal, the Castro government disbanded the Ministry and replaced it with a new agency, the Ministry of Energy and Mines. Eufemio del Cerro became an employee of the new Ministry and tried to keep a low profile, for he feared that sooner or later he would be called in to account for his past misdeeds.
The Canadian head of one of the companies involved in the supply kickbacks had been in prison without charges since 2011, but three years later he was brought to trial and convicted of bribery, fraud, and tax evasion. Among the documents in the massive dossier used to convict him was a receipt for a payment in 2010 to Eufemio’s former boss, which was actually signed by Eufemio because his boss was on vacation.
Eufemio learned of the existence of this incriminating document from a contact in the office of the prosecuting attorney (who was a friend of Eufemio’s imprisoned boss), and was told that the prosecutor intended to initiate a new criminal proceeding directed at Eufemio, among others. Eufemio was irate at being “singled out” for punishment, decided he had no friends left in power, and felt things were becoming too hot for him. He had to get out of Cuba.
Finding a boat to take him out of the country was not difficult; several of the people he knew in the government had yachts moored at the newly refurbished Marina Hemingway, which they took on fishing and pleasure trips to Mexico and the Bahamas. However, he could not find anyone who was willing to risk prison to help him escape. Finally, one of his acquaintances, while refusing to transport him, offered to put Eufemio in contact with a fisherman who might be willing to take him to Florida. Eufemio contacted the man, who demanded an outrageous sum of money for the job, but Eufemio was not in a position to haggle. He emptied his bank account and turned most of the proceeds over to the man. The fisherman picked him up outside his building, drove him west to Pinar del Río, boarded him on an ancient shrimping boat, and carried him away in the dead of night. Just before dawn the following day, Eufemio was dropped at Smathers Beach, near the center of the city of Key West.
He had left Cuba not a moment too soon: he later learned that a squad from the Intelligence Directorate (the dreaded G2) had been to his apartment seeking to arrest him the day after his departure. “That will teach them” he told himself. “I’m too smart for those amateurs.”
* * *
Eufemio was reluctant to seek political asylum in the United States, for he was certain that the CIA was aware of his involvement in quashing the Matahambre operation. He decided to drop out of sight for a while and lose himself in the amorphous Latino community in Miami. As most Cuban government officials of rank, he had spirited thousands of dollars away from the country and deposited them in a Miami bank, with the account under his birth name to better hide the assets. Ironically, he had to become again a Pérez Pérez in order to retrieve his money. “I’ll get my good name back as soon as I am legit” he promised himself.
Eufemio was already in his mid-seventies and had intended to keep a low profile for the rest of his life. However, his need to restore his public image made him become involved with the Cuban Republicans in southern Florida, a motley group that included among its members individuals once associated with the pre-Castro Batista regime, former businessmen and property owners who had been dispossessed by the Communists, and people who still resented the failure of the Democrats under John F. Kennedy to provide military support to the Cuban expeditionary force that was decimated in the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster. Joining this group represented a complete reversal of Eufemio’s political allegiances, but he was never much of an ideologue and was able to adapt easily to the beliefs of his new friends.
In the presidential election of 2016, Eufemio did some campaigning for Donald Trump among the Cuban expatriate community and welcomed Trump’s victory. He was hoping to get tapped for some work in the new administration, but his being an undocumented alien was a major obstacle that had to be overcome.
He sought to enlist the help of the Florida Republican Party to regularize his legal status. He bragged: “I’m an expert on Cuban politics. If you can get me admitted legally into the United States, I’ll give you the Cuban vote, which is wobbly these days.”
The party leaders offered him a trade: they would get him political asylum and maybe even a “green card” if he would campaign widely among the general Latin population in South Florida, not just the Cubans. He would extol the virtues of the President and his administration and excoriate the deep state, the lying press, the corrupt intelligence agencies, the illegal aliens, and the liberals that wanted to keep the country on its knees.
In early 2018 Eufemio was invited to give an address to a group of non-committed Latins in the social hall of a Catholic church in Little Havana. His remarks were intended to sway the audience and bring them into the Republican fold. He defended the President, which “every patriot should do, no matter what who he is or where he comes from.” He acknowledged the man’s faults, but pointed out that the country had been brought down by his predecessors, and “he is the only one who can get us out of this mess.”
Eufemio had just finished giving his speech when there was a disturbance in the back of the room. A dozen burly men wearing black jackets that displayed the initials “ICE” burst into the gathering and ordered: “Everyone remain where you are. You are all under arrest!” The organizer of the meeting cried out in protest: “What’s this? Why are you breaking into a lawful meeting?” An agent responded curtly: “This church is known to give sanctuary to illegal immigrants. Anyone who is a U.S. citizen or a legal resident will be released as soon as his status is confirmed.”
Two buses were parked outside the church. Eufemio and several dozen people were herded into the buses, taken to a police station, and interrogated. Most detainees were released after several anxious hours; Eufemio and half a dozen Guatemalans and Salvadorians were kept in custody due to their inability to demonstrate their lawful presence in the country.
Efforts by Republican Party officials to free Eufemio were thwarted by the intelligence agencies. They leaked to the press Eufemio’s true identity and his role in defeating a covert U.S. operation to overthrow Castro. The attendant notoriety made Eufemio’s release a difficult public relations task for the politicians, who had little interest in protecting a tainted Latino.
At his deportation hearing, an FBI agent confirmed that the man who called himself Eufemio Pérez Pérez was in fact Eufemio del Cerro, a member of the Cuban Communist Party who had foiled efforts to restore democracy in the island and had infiltrated the United States for nefarious purposes. He was a prime candidate for deportation.
Eufemio was flown back to Havana on a cold February morning. Police and Cuban intelligence agents were waiting for him as he deplaned, for his deportation had been well covered in the media on both sides of the Florida Straits.
Three months after his arrest he was found guilty of corruption and multiple acts of theft of public property dating back to the sixties. He was given a thirty-year sentence and sent to a prison farm in a remote area of eastern Cuba. His enfeebled condition spared him the back-breaking work on the fields, but he was assigned to carry out sanitation duties throughout the camp. Watching his figure, bent with age and humiliation, as he mopped around urinals and cleaned filthy toilets, some of the inmates would question who the wretch was. The invariable response, accompanied by a shrug, was “bah, es un Pérez cualquiera.”
Matias F. Travieso-Diaz, is a Havana-born engineer and attorney, currently residing in the Washington, D.C. area. After over four decades of practice, he retired and turned to creative writing. His short stories have been published in numerous publications, including the New Reader Magazine; the Dual Coast Magazine; the Dream of Shadows MagazineCzykmate Productions - How HORROR-able Anthology; the New Orbit Magazine; the Clarendon House - Maelstrom: The Inner Circle Writers’ Group Literary Anthology 2019; and Selene Quarterly Magazine.
To Grow Young
Old Simeón’s right hand was permanently clawed. His curled, yellowing nails converged towards each other in a longing gesture, as if he were trying to grasp the last strands of something long gone. Sometimes Vanessa wondered why such a particular fate had infested Old Simeón’s phalanges. She hypothesized that the clawing probably happened gradually, like the shrinking of a flower’s petals as water breathes itself out. But another, much more grim possibility had come to her one night as she was falling asleep on her unshared bunk bed. She envisioned that fatal agglomeration of blood obstructing Old Simeón’s left brain, and his extremities instantly recoiling at the evaporation of half a life.
Every morning, when Vanessa took it upon herself to massage Old Simeón’s wrinkly fingers, she felt a piercing worry that her body would betray her in that same way. She thought of all the inexcusable curses she had directed at her limited limbs when her feet couldn’t bear two days of walking after crossing the Venezuelan border. At the time, driven by impatience, she had collapsed on the side of a jungle-ridden highway, where only blades of dried grass had pierced her back into consciousness. She had asked God why none of the passing cars acknowledged her stretched out thumb, and jerking her damp sneakers out of her feet, she asked why her throbbing toes wouldn’t allow her to reach a couple kilometers further, where maybe she would find a hospitable town.
After many years, Vanessa found herself able to take pride in some things again. Small things. For instance, she claimed all credit for the slight tremble of Old Simeón’s fingers whenever his wife took his stiff hand in between hers. She took pride now, in his ability to juggle up a pair of dice and throw them on a parqués board, with the help of his left hand, which was spared by some impossible bifurcation of the brain’s connections.
The dice clinked against the glass board and showed a pair of six dots protruding from the white cubes.
“How much is that, Don Simeón?” Vanessa said, lifting his arm from the table to prevent him from accidentally pushing the pawn-shaped pieces off.
Old Simeón let out a brief growl and stared at the blank air behind Vanessa’s curls.
“Twelve,” she answered herself. She took Old Simeón’s red pawn and hopped through the boxed trail. “One, two, three, four…” Vanessa then took advantage of her turn and threw the dice on the board. They spun around until the odds settled for two and four dots.
A prolonged sigh coming from the other side of the room stopped Vanessa from killing one of Old Simeón’s red pieces. Doña Rosario’s glasses reflected the blue light coming from a box-shaped TV. The bulging screen showed footage of flooded streets and fallen palm trees, brown heads peering out of hills of roof tiles and window frames.
“Not one house is still standing, can you believe it?” Doña Rosario said, noticing Vanessa’s shared interest in the news report on hurricane Iota.
“The island will need a full reconstruction, they say,” Vanessa had been following the case from a blue radio that she kept in her room. The numbers were most astonishing. 1600 families, 98% of infrastructure. Still, she found it hard to sympathize with the victims. She couldn’t help but think that her people had probably gone through worse, just nobody had bothered to quantify it.
“Providence Island is a beautiful place,” Doña Rosario said, in her unusually high-pitched tone. “You know where my last name comes from? Abraham Robinson, my grandfather, immigrated from Britain to Providence Island.” The way Doña Rosario pronounced every one of those words with utmost pride kept Vanessa from coming up with any reasonable response.
Doña Rosario had a way of talking. When she had given Vanessa the keys to her recondite bedroom, Doña Rosario made it clear that she came from a long tradition of landowners who knew how to manage helpers in the household. “Your nursing title does not make a difference,” Doña Rosario had said. “I still expect obedience and respect in your care for my husband.” Throughout the many months that Vanessa had worked for Doña Rosario, she had come to realize that behind her harsh words stood her unconditional love for Old Simeón, but also her self-remorse for having married a man 15 years older in age. The old man’s life was coming to an end, and he was swallowing Doña Rosario’s own life along the way.
From beneath the open windows, not only moonlight leaked through the iron bars, but also the flickering lights coming from a neighbor’s balcony. Behind linen curtains, dark silhouettes danced to the congas in Rodolfo Aicardi’s La Colegiala. It was only late November, but the people of Acacías were already playing New Year songs over indecently loud speakers. At least in that respect, Acacías wasn’t all that different from back home, Vanessa thought. She had also noticed they had the same tradition of making a dummy filled with gunpowder and setting it on fire just as the clock struck midnight. Old Simeón and Doña Rosario never engaged in such activities though, because no matter what day of the year it was, they always went to sleep promptly at 8 p.m.
Old Simeón tapped Vanessa’s shoulder with a poignancy that disoriented her. He pointed at the color-lit balcony.
“They must be having a party, Don Simeón,” Vanessa said, assuming that was the information that Old Simeón was requesting.
“And you?” Old Simeón responded, his words as clear as they ever got, carrying the rasp of an underused voice.
Vanessa was not entirely sure what Old Simeón meant. Perhaps he found it strange that someone of her age was playing parqués with an old man instead of curling her hips to tropical beats, or he was wondering why the neighbors had not invited her. Vanessa smiled at the thought of these possibilities.
“None of us are supposed to be partying,” she said. “There’s a very bad virus out there, so we have to stay home.”
In some corner of the world inside Old Simeón’s mind, he knew it was the pandemic that had insulated his days so much. But Vanessa was not aware of this. She was rather excusing her situation, considering that maybe once it was all over, things would be different for her.
“You heard that, Simeón?” Doña Rosario said, projecting her voice to make herself audible to Old Simeón’s almost deaf ears. “Our last years of life, at home.”
By the time the news broadcast was over, Old Simeón had already fallen asleep on his wheelchair. His nightly routine consisted of Vanessa and Doña Rosario collaborating to strip him of his clothes and tie his diaper around his waist. The diaper was rather an ornament, since Old Simeón would wet his bed sheets every night, and every day Doña Rosario would replace them with a new set.
Vanessa had little to complain about. Her salary, although less than legal minimum wage, was enough for her personal expenses. Since Doña Rosario and Old Simeón provided her with a place to sleep and three meals a day, she also had enough money to send to her family in Venezuela every month. She planned to keep saving up to bring her mother with her too, away from a dictator’s injustices and a husband’s infidelities.
There was a catch to her living arrangement, though. Some days, Doña Rosario would wake her up particularly early and ask her to make breakfast. Vanessa could tell that Doña Rosario did not like her cooking, as she always complained that she put too much salt on the eggs, or not enough cheese in the arepas. Therefore, Doña Rosario’s request took place only when strictly essential, like when she had to go get fresh milk at the plaza on Saturday morning, or when she attended early morning mass.
This time, Doña Rosario had woken her up with a phone pressed against her ear. Doña Rosario had learned to pick up calls, but never to make them, so when some relative or friend called her, she made sure to catch up with them for at least an hour. However, when Doña Rosario had tapped on Vanessa’s door, her furrowed eyebrows and trembling lips suggested that this was not one of her usual bubbly phone calls. Instead, she was quiet, while a female voice at the other end of the line spoke in mechanical shudders.
As Vanessa walked up to the kitchen, Doña Rosario took a seat on the adjacent dining table. Old Simeón, his eyelids still struggling to stay open, sat on his wheelchair in front of the TV at the end of the room. In between the whisking of eggs and the patting of arepa dough, Vanessa managed to catch some slivers of Doña Rosario’s conversation—“What do you mean?”, “Hmph,” “God Bless,” “Why don’t you come over?”
Judging by Doña Rosario’s choice of the pronoun Tú instead of Usted, the person at the other end of the line could only be her daughter, Nadia. She was Old Simeón’s and Doña Rosario’s only daughter, even after 60 years of marriage. Less often than Doña Rosario would’ve liked, she took her Chevrolet Swift down the narrow road between Villavicencio and Acacías to visit them. When Old Simeón’s pension fell short, her teaching paychecks would pay for the house bills, as well as Old Simeón’s medicine.
Vanessa knew rather little about Nadia, but what she’d heard pushed her to garner utmost respect. She heard that Nadia had been in the house when Old Simeón had gotten his first thrombosis attack. He’d fallen on the floor, shaking and salivating as if being possessed by an evil spirit. Doña Rosario had stood frozen, covering her eyes away from the sight of her convulsing husband. But Nadia had been the one to pick her father up from the floor and place him on a chair, before calling every relative in town in search for an after-hours doctor. She was the reason he was still alive.
Once Vanessa was done helping Old Simeón eat his breakfast, Doña Rosario gestured for her to sit at the dining table.
“Nadia is coming later this afternoon,” Doña Rosario said, but she wouldn’t meet Vanessa’s gaze. “Vanessa, I need your full discretion on what I am about to tell you.”
Before making breakfast, Vanessa had tied her black curls into the shape of an onion. The pull of the low-hanging bun tugged at her hair as she nodded.
“Simeón’s brother Alberto passed away last night,” Doña Rosario said in a soft voice. “He caught that damned virus.”
Even though Vanessa had never heard of said brother, she made sure to state her condolences as politely as possible.
“You know he can’t know, right?” Doña Rosario briefly glanced at Old Simeón. “He’s not in the proper state to hear this.”
In spite of the prolonged coexistence of the three members of that household, Vanessa was the only one who made an effort to converse with Old Simeón. Sometime after Old Simeón had become speech impaired, Doña Rosario had lost all her patience, seeing that her only companion could no longer reciprocate her interactions. Now she limited herself to short words, and the warmth of touch. Vanessa, instead, would talk to him about the warm weather, the dogs barking outside; anything that crossed her mind. His answers consisted of low groans, unintelligible mumblings, and the occasional phrase that one could judge as either gibberish, or the enigmatic findings of a mind sorting through an extensive past. Vanessa liked to think it was the latter.
Whenever Vanessa heard Nadia and Doña Rosario talking to each other, she couldn’t help but wonder how it was possible that she sounded so different from them. She was puzzled by their ability to give every syllable a distinct tonality. They seemed to have every unit of sound recorded in a dictionary, that they would parse through in every uttering. They took no shortcuts, unlike Vanessa, who could not find the time to bring her tongue to the roof of her mouth swiftly enough to whistle her words—her ‘s’ sounds would descend into brief sighs. However, she had learned to minimize her vocal sloth during her time in Acacías. Doña Rosario had told her that not everyone in that town would be as kind to her people as she was.
Nadia and Doña Rosario sat on the dining table, their short coffee cups steaming next to their fidgeting hands. Vanessa glanced at them intermittently through the windows, as she pushed Old Simeón’s wheelchair around the house. She could tell that at one point Old Simeón had made a habit of walking around the house, because he seemed to have picked favorite spots to glance at throughout the perimeter. At the back of the house, he liked to look at one of the columns that held up the clay roof where the white paint had peeled off in a shape resembling a trail of mucus left by a slug. At the right side of the house, the edge that faced a living fence which separated their neighbor’s house from theirs, he liked to look at a patch of red ground where grass had refused to grow. From the turning of the soil, Vanessa could only assume that a tree had once stood there, and she imagined it to be as high as the neighbor’s balcony.
At the front of the house, Old Simeón usually stared at the plastic bowls filled with brown cat food that sat next to the front door. They owned three cats who spent more time on the streets than at home and would only let themselves be petted by Old Simeón. Today, there were no cats to be seen, and Old Simeón was instead looking through the window, towards where Nadia and Doña Rosario were sitting. Vanessa could tell by the disparity between Nadia’s age and the number of wrinkles that crisped around her eyes that she had a tough disposition. Her downturned lips were unphased by both the taste of black coffee and Doña Rosario’s slow tears.
“You must’ve been a really good man, Don Simeón,” Vanessa said, pushing the wheelchair into motion away from the window. “You raised a very strong daughter.”
The feeble white hairs on Old Simeón’s scalp trembled with the gush of the wind. Otherwise, he remained motionless to Vanessa’s words. She continued.
“I think that’s what matters. Knowing that you’re leaving this world having created something good,” Vanessa said. “Is that more or less right, Don Simeón?”
This time, Old Simeón let out a deep mumble and twitched his head in a manner that could’ve been a nod, or an attempt to shake away a mosquito’s itch. Vanessa noticed that Old Simeón seemed particularly light on the wheelchair today. One of the reasons why Doña Rosario had hired her was because of her big arms and thighs. She could manage the weight of pushing Old Simeón’s chair down Acacías’ unpaved roads and steep bridges.
“I’ve got a lot to learn from you, believe it or not,” Vanessa continued, ignorant to Old Simeón’s droopy eyelids. “I’ve been thinking about what comes next. For me, you know. I’ve been thinking that maybe after all of this virus thing is over, I could move to the city. Work for a retirement home, maybe? And meet some people. Build something of my own. Wouldn’t that be good?”
Old Simeón’s clawed hand suddenly stiffened around the wheelchair’s armrest. He sat with his spine straightened out, fighting against a decade-old hunch.
When the clock struck 2 p.m., the designated time for Old Simeón’s daily stroll was over. Doña Rosario and Nadia were still sitting at the dining table, but their urgent whispering had stopped and transformed into vociferous complaining about why the chicken delivery had not arrived yet. Doña Rosario instructed Vanessa to heat up some of the leftover rice from the day before, so she wheeled Old Simeón’s chair to the dining table and secured the brakes before walking up to the kitchen.
She had just struck a match alight when the squeak of sliding wooden chairs called her back into the dining room. Back there, Old Simeón was still sitting in his wheelchair, and Nadia and Doña Rosario were kneeling at each of his sides. His expression was twisted so that every one of the creases that time had encroached on his skin were sunken in, and dense tears were running down the labyrinth of his face.
“You told him.” Doña Rosario said, turning towards Vanessa’s newcomer presence. She took a step back and kneeled to Doña Rosario’s height.
“I swear I didn’t. It must be something else that’s troubling him,” Vanessa said, the sighs in her speech as heavy as ever.
Doña Rosario stood up and the folds on her long skirt swirled wind at Vanessa’s face. “He fought in the military, for God’s sake. He doesn’t just cry.”
Vanessa continued to excuse herself while she picked herself up from her kneeling trance. Behind Doña Rosario, Nadia took a pack of Kleenex out of her bag and handed it to Old Simeón. He folded his once clawed hand around the tissue and groaned into the white cotton. But all Vanessa could notice was the tightness of the tendons on Doña Rosario’s neck, which pulled her entire face into a murderous stare.
“You Venezuelans can’t keep your mouth shut,” she said.
That night, Nadia left without saying goodbye to Vanessa, but she found a funeral invitation wrapped in violet ribbons sitting on her lower bunk bed. After writing down an event reminder on her phone, Vanessa turned on her blue radio and pulled out the long antenna to tune in to the nighttime news broadcast. She fell asleep to the sound of a clinical female voice announcing the hopes for a successful vaccine against COVID-19 in early December.
Laurisa Sastoque is a student of Creative Writing and History at Northwestern University. She was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and currently resides in Evanston, Illinois. Her poetry work has been previously published in Somos en Escrito and the Helicon Literary & Arts Magazine. She is the winner of the Mary Kinzie Prize in Nonfiction for her essay "Contradicting Home; Anecdotes and Aphorisms." She is excited to make her short fiction debut with "To Grow Young," a piece about complicated family dynamics in rural Colombia. In addition to writing and reading, Laurisa likes to spend her time researching Latinx and Latin American history, and taking pictures of her favorite cities.
The Extravagant Stranger
Excerpt from Not Your Abuelita's Folktales
By Maria J. Estrada
She smiled coquettishly at the baker’s son. Rosa Maria couldn’t remember his name, but she lingered on his gaze. He blushed, and she swung her hips one last time as she
entered the local mill. The smell of corn filled her lungs; she wasn’t partial to that odor. Still, her smile widened, when she spied Mr. Sanchez working alone. He was sweating profusely, his simple shirt clinging to his thick muscles.
He was young, maybe five years older than Rosa Maria, and he had inherited his father’s maize mill at the young age of 23. He averted her gaze.
“How many kilos?” he mumbled.
She paused, forcing him to look up. “Five, please.” She handed the large bowl over, which he filled expertly with a mixture ground maize, lime, and water.
She cocked her head and asked sweetly, “Don’t you need to use the scale?”
He grew irritated his upper lip curling upward. “You doubt me, señorita?”
He grabbed the bowl and dumped the meal into the scale. It read five kilos exactly. He put the mixture back into her bowl and handed it to her, pushing her away in the process.
“Thank you so very much.” She said, “I pray for you and your family every day, for the repose of your dear father.”
He turned his back and added more water to the corn as he began to grind another large batch. She turned walking provocatively, until her neighbor Elena marched in with a large bucket.
“Hello, Rosa Maria.” She smiled. Rosa Maria tried not to grimace. The old woman’s two front teeth were missing. Rosa wondered why in God’s name the woman just didn’t go to a dentist in Durango. After all, in 1960, there were plenty of medical advances, or so she thought. Still, she prayed with all of her might not to look that awful when she grew old. In fact, she would give anything to never grow old.
Just then, the shop windows opened letting in a rush of air. The old woman crossed herself and advised, “Get home. The wind is picking up, and you don’t want to catch a cold.”
On a search for sweets, Rosa Maria walked to the local shop. Ricardo was working there, and he always gave her a few hard candies for a kiss on the cheek. She continued home, hoping to catch another young man’s attention. Instead she spied a beggar on the street, an abandoned old man most people ignored. She handed him a couple of candies and one last peso she hid in her cleavage.
He smiled at her and gave her a heartfelt blessing, “May the hand of God rest on you.”
Rosa Maria squeezed his shoulders and wished she owned the means to find him shelter.
On the way down the cobbled street, the hairs on the back of her neck stood. Someone was admiring her rear end. She looked back towards the mill, which was just a couple of blocks away. But it was not Mr. Sanchez.
His loss, she thought.
FROM THE ROOFTOP, he looked down at her. She was an exquisite specimen, his Rosa Maria. Her impertinence and arrogance were especially alluring. He loved how she swayed her hips and turned her neck, just so, to catch the weak men’s adoration in her small town of Las Nueces, Durango. Las Nueces was a sleepy little town where most people worked hard, but there was always a gem to be acquired, just like her.
Today, she wore a red bow in her hair and a pretty white lace dress, too fancy for common chores. From a distance, he thought he could smell her scent. He smiled as she flirted with a man carrying Coke bottles. He stumbled when she said hello, the poor man dropping half of his wares.
The stranger chuckled and slicked his own hair back. For good measure, he shined his shoes one more time. Tonight, he would introduce himself at the town dance, and he had no doubt that she would dance with him. And only him.
BY THE TIME SHE GOT HOME, her mother was nagging her.
“What took you so long? Your uncle will be here soon!”
Her mother wore a black skirt and dark buttoned blouse. She glanced at her daughter who dropped the bowl on the table. She scowled. “What are you wearing?”
Rosa Maria smirked. “It is so hot, and this is the only thin dress I own.”
“Take that off and put some decent clothes on!” said her mother as she chopped a carrot, almost nicking her index finger.
She did as commanded, only because she wanted to wear the dress later that night. She changed into a thin cotton housedress that clung to her body. Rosa Maria admired her long hair in the mirror and loved the flush of her cheeks. Her curves were the envy of most women, and she cherished her small waist.
She would never have children and ruin her figure. That was for certain.
The banging in the kitchen mirrored her mother’s stress, which pulled her out of her reverie. Rosa Maria regretted not having any lipstick because her mother said only whores wore lipstick. She longed for nail polish and mascara. She was about to curl her hair, when her mother bellowed her name. Last time her mother had gotten so angry at her, she had burned Rosa Maria’s best dress because some nosy neighbor lady said she thought she had seen Rosa Maria at the dance, unchaperoned. She went back to the kitchen.
“Start mixing,” her mother commanded.
Rosa Maria scoffed, but her mother was in no mood. The girl took what she thought was a decent amount of salt, a large handful, and mixed. She worried about her nails and winced at the next part. She grabbed a handful of the disgusting mess and was about to add lard, when her mother slapped her hand.
Rosa Maria did. “It’s too salty.”
Her mother rolled her eyes and pulled out some cornmeal from the cupboard. It was just enough to make the tortillas acceptable. “We have to impress your uncle.” Her mother frowned at the amount of lard.
Her mother said, “You don’t need that. You’re making tortillas, not tamales.”
Rosa Maria scowled as she put half of the lard back in the container. Her greasy fingers repulsed her. “Come on,” her mother said.
“What’s the point?” Rosa Maria asked and swayed her body.
“I will marry a rich man and have maids. I’ll never have to cook a day in my life.”
Her mother laughed and watched as Rosa Maria struggled with a basic task. “If I ever die, you’re going to starve.”
Her mother added warm water and nodded, approving of the job. “Go wash your hands and get me some mint from the garden.”
“I need to curl my hair!”
Ross Maria left in a huff.
Out in the small garden, she looked at the plants and had to smell them before she found the mint. She plucked what she thought was an acceptable amount, and then she spotted him.
He wore a dark suit made of shiny material and beneath his fine jacket he wore a trendy white silk shirt. Rosa Maria had never seen such a refined gentleman. What could he be doing here? she wondered.
He rode a black horse and tipped his hat at her, giving her a warm smile. Rosa Maria licked her own lips as she stared at his perfect white teeth. His skin was sublime, even better than hers.
She tried to pretend not to be interested, but she couldn’t help but search his eyes.
This is the man I’m going to marry, she thought. In that instant, that was all it took to fall in love. He grew near her and was just a few feet away. He looked beyond to the horizon, and Rosa Maria was perplexed that he would not speak to her.
On impulse she said, “How are you this fine morning?”
He rode away without saying a word to her. Men didn’t usually ignore her. She stared at his back longer than she should have. Rosa Maria crushed the mint plants in her hand and went back to her mother.
Her mother took the leaves and put some in the stew.
She said, “Go sweep the floors.”
Rosa Maria raised her hands and spat back, “I am not doing more work. The floor looks fine, and I have to go curl my hair!”
Quickly, Rosa Maria left to her room. She had a brand-new curling iron that plugged into the wall. It had been a present from one of her admirers who owned the local furniture store and had been to the States in Mississippi. He had bought it for his wife and then on a whim, gave it to her. The gift caused divisions in his marriage, but Rosa Maria hadn’t promised him anything in return.
She was sure it cost a fortune. It was better than the iron rods people used which often singed her girlfriends’ hair.
Rosa Maria curled each ringlet perfectly. When she was done, she pinned the upper left and right corners like she had seen in the American movie. She put on a decent blue dress and went to the living room. She had spent a good forty minutes curling her hair, but her uncle was still not there.
Without thinking, she grabbed the broom and quickly swept the small house. She sneezed at the cloud of dust, and then yelped as a small scorpion ran from under a chair. She killed is swiftly and did a better job of sweeping under all the sofas. She swept the dirt out of the front door and put the broom away.
Her mother finished setting the table and kept staring out the window.
Riding the old mare her father had given him, Uncle Thomas arrived soon after. He was a brusque man and offered a gruff greeting. She went to him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He reeked of cows and noticed that he still wore his work clothes.
Rosa Maria smiled and had him sit at the head of the table.
Her mother served him, while they exchanged pleasantries.
Her uncle was a man of few words; but he mostly answered her mother’s questions. After he was finished eating, her mother waited expectantly. Rosa Maria was certain she was asking for another loan. Since her father died a year ago, she struggled to make ends meet as a seamstress. And though Rosa Maria finished high school, she was not the brightest student. There was no work she could do and wanted to be taken care of as she deserved.
He looked at Rosa Maria and at her mother. “Well, it’s settled.”
Her mother clasped her hands. “Praise the Lord!”
“What is settled?” asked Rosa Maria.
Uncle Thomas gave her a side glance and explained, “Don Sebastian’s oldest son saw you at the plaza a few Sundays ago. He wants to marry you.”
Rosa Maria sat dumbfounded. Yes, she was eighteen years old and needed a steady suitor, but she had heard rumors of this eldest son. He was well to do, the son of a rancher a few towns over, but he had been burned in a fire recently. She also recalled he was an avid gambler and drinker. She had no idea what he looked like, and she would be damned if she married an ugly man with bad habits. She was about to object, but her mother gave her a stern look.
“He will come to meet you this Sunday, after church,” he concluded and said his goodbyes. He was about to leave and added, “Look, I hear the rumors. Be on your best behavior when he visits, Rosa Maria.”
“Oh, Uncle,” she said unabashedly, “I haven’t even kissed a boy yet.” Of course, that was not true. She had kissed plenty of men, but she hadn’t been stupid enough to do more than that. Even when the mill’s dead owner tried to put his hands up her skirt in exchange for a few kilos of maize.
He went to leave as her mother gave him a sack full of gifts for his wife and three daughters. All of whom were goody two shoes.
No doubt she’s giving them each an ugly dress fit for a nun, Rosa Maria thought.
When her uncle left, she ranted about not wanting to marry the Sebastian boy. “I can have any boy I want! Why am I going to marry some rancher’s son?”
Her mother slapped her and said, “I barely make enough for us to live on. You’re a fool if you think anyone decent in the village is going to want to marry you! You think I don’t hear the stories? What were you doing with that idiot who runs the local shop last week?”
Rosa Maria smiled and was about to get another one, when her mother admonished, “And don’t even think about going to the dance tonight!”
It was Friday night, and her village held a dance every month. Rosa Maria often snuck out and managed to make it back before midnight but always made sure a couple of her trusted friends walked her home. After all, it was one thing to kiss boys and quite another to have rumors of her being a slut—which she wasn’t. Not really.
IT WAS 9:00 P.M. AND LIKE CLOCKWORK, her mother fell asleep at the chair doing some extra sewing. Rosa Maria quickly touched up her hair a bit and put on her lace dress. She wore simple flats her father bought in Texas. One last gift for his princess. Of course, she wanted high heels.
She had no red lipstick but managed to put on some white powder. She looked virginal, her upturned nose delicate. Her face was Hollywood perfect—light-skinned and the envy of most girls. She admired her full lips, but wished her eyes were blue.
They were honey brown.
Rosa Maria took a black shawl and snuck out of the house. She walked speedily to the town hall, and outside was her best friend, Tila.
“Just look at you!” Tila was nineteen years old. Tonight, she wore an orange dress that covered most of her curves and showed no cleavage. She also had a crush on Mr. Sanchez, the mill owner. But he married her cousin a couple of months ago. No one could tell if he was happy or not.
When they entered the dance, it was already full of people dancing a fast-paced dance. She went with Tila to grab a drink.
Heads turned towards them. A young man just turned seventeen was going to ask her to dance, but she averted him, putting Tila between them. They grabbed their drinks and sat at the table. Rosa Maria gave her a glum look.
“What is it?” asked Tila loudly.
The song changed to a slow waltz, so they lowered their voices. Three people asked her out to dance, but she declined politely saying her stomach hurt. Rosa Maria explained her predicament, and her friend squealed with delight!
“A son of Don Sebastian!”
Rosa Maria shushed her as a few girls turned to look at them. “Be quiet!” She leaned in close.
“I heard his face is badly burned,” Rosa Maria continued.
Tila shook her head. “Nonsense—”
The music stopped as he walked into the hall. He was wearing the same clothes as before, but Rosa Maria’s heart stopped along with every girl of marriageable age and even some married ones. Tila also held her breath then exhaled. “Who is that?”
The stranger held her gaze and walked towards her table, as people parted the way. He extended a hand without even asking.
It was a magical moment. She breathed in his scent as another melancholy waltz began. It was Pedro Infante‘s “The Nights of October”, a song Rosa Maria wanted played as her wedding song.
She looked deeply into his eyes as he spun her around effortlessly. Rosa Maria thought they were made for each other. He had light skin and dark curls. What struck her the most were his blue eyes. Every time he smiled at her, she wanted to swoon, but she was too strong for that.
“What’s your name?” she finally asked.
“Nicholas,” he answered and added no other details. Other men glared at the stranger, but none dared to cut in. They danced for over an hour, but Rosa Maria was so enveloped in him she did not notice the passing of time. Round and round they went without taking a break. She was delighted at his grace. He never missed a step and knew how to dance the twist on down to a ranchera without sweating all over her. He was a man of few words, but she didn’t care as long as she was his universe.
Near midnight he asked, “Do you want to go for a ride?”
The question of course was complex. Leaving with him would cause the town to buzz with rumors of a love affair, and she wasn’t sure if he would steal her away to some remote location and deflower her. Rosa Maria thought about her uncle and her mother.
Then, she scrutinized his left hand. He had no wedding band, but on his pinky was a gorgeous gold ring with a large emerald.
“Are you married?” she asked point blank.
Without skipping a beat, he answered, “No.”
Rosa Maria calculated. He could be lying of course, but he did not seem to be conniving. Nicholas was suave and graceful, but he wasn’t a liar. She could usually tell when someone was lying to her, as she was an avid conniver, when she needed to be.
She looked towards Tila who gave her a worried look as she walked to get her shawl.
“Don’t,” Tila said grabbing Rosa Maria’s arm, but she shook it off and went with him anyway.
Nicholas was an absolute gentleman. He sat her on the back of the horse behind him, as a lady should ride. She had ridden like that many times before with her father, and she was not afraid of horses. They rode past the mill towards the river.
“Where are we going?” she asked but got no answer.
The horse began to pick up speed. The wind was blowing through her hair, and she found it exhilarating. He curved past the river and sped away down a rocky path. She had to grip his back, and almost fell off. He took a sharp turn, and she lost her shawl.
The horse rode faster than any beast should. She turned back. The town was too far away for the minutes they had been together.
Nicholas then raced up to a strange place filled with thorns and brambles.
The horse was just as nimble when raced.
She cried, “Can you please stop?”
The horse raced up a steep mountain Rosa Maria had never been to before. The horse sped up an impossible vertical incline. She clung for dear life, and then, they entered a large cave. It was pitch dark.
Rosa Maria was relieved when the horse finally stopped.
Through the darkness, the horse continued down a series of tunnels descending downwards. They stopped finally at a level place. Nicholas dismounted and grabbed her and threw her down on the ground. The fall knocked the wind out of her, but she fought striking at emptiness.
He gripped her wrists and tied them painfully. He lifted her up brusquely. Her feet trailed, dancing above the ground. She was suspended high, unable to wrest free.
SHE STRUGGLED until she fell asleep from exhaustion. He traced his fingers down the curve of her neck. In her sleep, she gave a small cry. Nicholas turned her back towards him and began.
First, his nails extended themselves into flawless instruments, exactly one inch each. He stroked her back, all the way down to her perfect waist. He raked his nails down her back enjoying every second.
THE BURNING PAIN in her back awoke her. She screamed as he raked his fingers down her back again, from the nape of her neck to her buttocks. He spun her around and kissed her. Rosa Maria felt like coal entered her mouth. The pain was excruciating—radiating through her whole mouth—outside and inside.
Even as she was tortured, she was worried that her mouth would be permanently scarred and that the blood would stain her shoes. She wondered if her mother could sew the dress back or cut the back out, somehow.
As if he was reading her mind he said, “I can offer more than rags.”
She whispered, “I don’t want anything from you, you piece of filth.”
He smirked and was about to kiss her face, but he stopped.
“I’m not touching your pretty face. I’m not supposed to leave any area unscathed, but your face is so lovely.”
Bile rose from her throat, and the pain grew worse. He took a dirty finger and ran it around her lips soothing them. Then, he stuck his thumb in her mouth. No man had ever done that to her. It was sensuous, but repulsive. She wanted to gag, and at the same time moan in contentment. The pain lessened.
Five surrounding torches lit simultaneously. She spat at him and when it landed on his face, it sizzled.
“Who are you?” she cried, but deep down, she knew who he was.
WHO WAS HE? The truth is he didn’t know anymore. Centuries ago, he had been a devoted father, but small pox killed his wife and five children. He had been tempted, as he was tempting Rosa Maria now, but he chose poorly.
She was strong. Perhaps stronger than he had been, even though she was so young. He smiled at her. She cringed. He kissed her again, this time doing so gently without heat.
She bit his tongue, drawing blood, and his laughter echoed through the cave. He brought a tin of water, and she drank against her better judgement. She wanted to spit it in his face but was too parched. He caressed her cheek and was pleased to see she did not flinch.
“I do care about you,” he said softly and meant it.
He unhooked her and lay her down on the dirt. She fell asleep in due time, and he went to get some dry jerky. He turned his back and reached for his satchel. Suddenly a sharp pain on the back of his head made him yelp as Rosa Maria kicked him and ran down a dark passage.
“Clever girl,” he said rubbing the injury. He marveled that she outwitted him, if for a short spell. He walked listening. He couldn’t let her get too far, or she might be killed. He found her a few minutes later, crawling on her hands and knees.
Nicholas picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. She fought and scratched and pulled his hair. He tied her hands and feet and placed her in the exact spot.
She screamed, and he jammed the jerky in her mouth. She wanted to curse, but instead chewed methodically. Rosa Maria was plotting, he was certain. He bent over and kissed her forehead which raised a tirade of insults.
She fell asleep after a time, as he watched over her, making sure nothing disturbed her peace.
WHEN SHE WOKE, she was hanging on the hook again. This time, he scratched her arms and legs, always being careful not to touch her face. He looked pained every time he clawed her. The pain was unbearable, but her rage was stronger.
Suddenly, he stopped, and like magic, he soothed every wound. He worried she would scar.
Why did he care so much? he asked himself.
Thirteen hours had passed, and she was still awake. She glared at him and tried to spit, but her mouth was dry.
He flinched, when she sneered at him. At first, he couldn’t understand what she said. He grew closer.
“So, you weren’t man enough to get a woman, so you have to steal stupid girls away.”
She kicked and impacted his penis. He bent over as she laughed for the first time in a long time since her father died.
“Wretched girl!” he howled, and she fainted in terror. The transformation had been a reflex. First, his eyes went back from a glowing amber to a sky blue. His fangs receded, but his pointed ears were stubborn.
It took thirty minutes for him to go back to normal. He caressed the curve of her neck. She was truly beautiful. She woke with a start and began to fight.
He sat there watching her until she calmed down. Normally, he would wait another day, but her stubbornness was unlike any he had seen in centuries.
Out of nowhere, two tables appeared. One of them was laden with jewelry and a rich red dress, like the one she always wanted. At the center was a set of high heels. They were a fantasy come true.
To the right were ordinary rags. A metal basin with a washboard and a coarse apron.
“You can have a life of luxury,” he said pointing to the table with elegant articles. “You can stay young forever. Have any man you want.”
He saw the light in her eyes as she stared at the shoes. He knew she would love them but realized the adoration in her eyes ran deep.
“Or.” He paused gesturing towards the other table. “You can have a life of drudgery. You will marry a simple man, but never be rich. Ever.”
THE SHOES SHIMMERED in the fire light. They were exquisitely curved and the heels the perfect height. The dress was the material of dreams. She stared at the alluring table, then the drab table.
“Well,” he asked again and added, “As soon as you make your choice. This ends.”
She would not choose. Most people would have been screaming one way or the other, but she was weighing her options. He smiled. “If you choose this life,” he continued pointing at the life of boredom, “You will always have to be obedient, always do good.”
“Or what?” she asked.
“Or this will seem like child’s play.” He ran his fingers against a wall making a grating noise.
“If you choose the other life,” he said, “you will never want or suffer. You will never grow old.”
There was no way she could be obedient forever, and she dreaded the thought of growing old like her neighbor. She looked down. By now, her dress was rags, and she hung, naked, but he never touched her. Not there.
Rosa Maria thought long about what she wanted. She screamed as a burning pain ran up her left thigh. It was his hands that were burning her. He was no magician. In fact, she had figured out who he was. He ran his hand down her right thigh. That same look of pain on his face made her shout.
“You don’t want to do this! Stop.”
He hesitated but spun her around and proceeded to burn her back, then traced his fingers all around her.
This went on for what seemed like an eternity, but then, she thought about her father and how much he loved her. She thought about how much her mother struggled. Surely, no one would want her now, but the promise of youth. That made her pause.
“Stop!” she said finally, “Stop, devil.”
She looked at him, as a small smile curved his lips. He grabbed her by the hips, this time without burning her. He grew close to her face, so he could hear and breathed in her scent of sweat and pain, as she whispered into his ear.
HE LEFT HER in the middle of the desert. It was Sunday morning, and he knew they were near. Then, he spied them, a group of five men. Her choice had surprised him, no doubt, but he was secretly glad of it.
He saw as a young man on a chestnut horse pick her up gently. They rode away, and Nicholas gave her one last longing look. He would never see Rosa Maria again.
THE NEXT DAY, she walked in the plaza arm in arm with Sebastian.
Two months had gone by, and she was still wearing long-sleeved clothes and a long skirt to cover her scratches and burns. She looked at his straight brown hair. He would steal a glance every now and then and smile. Nicholas had lied to her; he was not a plain man. There were burn marks on his neck that his collar could not hide, but that didn’t matter to her anymore.
He sat on the bench with her and asked her if she wanted something from the vendor. She shook her head. The last few weeks she had slimmed down. The doctor said she was dehydrated and had suffered a shock. The day she was returned, her mother brought the priest, but all she said to him was that she had been punished.
Now, as she sat by her suitor, she admired his strong hands.
“They weren’t always like that,” he said.
“I used to be a gambler and alcoholic,” he said. “I don’t remember everything that happened, like you can’t remember everything. I still have nightmares. I guess you don’t really forget.
For me, it was a gorgeous woman named Isabella. She offered me a career in the states away from all of this boredom, but then. . . .” He pointed at his back.
Her mouth dropped.
“I made the right choice, as you did,” he said, “You know what saved me?”
She shook her head.
“The image of my mother crying over my absence. I couldn’t break her heart.”
Rosa Maria breathed in and confessed, “For me it was my father. He loved me so much. I also thought about my mother who works so hard. I think he, Nicholas, promised me youth and riches, but I don’t recall exactly. Just that the temptation was awesome.”
He laughed. “Ah yes. Well, I can’t give you youth.” He kissed her hand, and she blushed.
He added. “You will never want for anything.”
She laughed, which perplexed him. “He lied to me.” Rosa Maria looked down, appreciated how shined and clean his boots were.
“I’m a terrible cook,” she admitted.
“Your mother told me,” he said and smiled. “I have my flaws. I can’t stand disorder, and I struggle with anger.” She flinched.
“I won’t ever hurt you,” he stammered. “It’s just my cross to bear.”
She turned to him and asked, “Why me?”
“You are very pretty, to be sure,” he said, “but that is not why I noticed you.”
Sebastian explained that when he saw her in the plaza, she had given the local beggar her last change. It wasn’t the first time he had seen her. That was the third time.
Another time, he spied her giving nuts to a little girl and another seen her give a mangy dog some tortillas. Sebastian saw what few people rarely saw in her, kindness and compassion.
“Besides,” he said, “I have no room to judge. It took me a while to figure out how to plant corn. Horses, no problem, but when it came to actual hard work, I was a joke. You will figure it out, and my mother and sisters will help you. I will as well.”
A life of drudgery, she thought.
“Besides, I was thinking our village needed a new dress shop. Your mother could help you,” he said. “I’ve seen her handiwork.” He pointed to his elaborate shirt.
Nicholas had been lying as had all the town gossips.
Sebastian was offering her a dream she had never thought of and her mother a means to live.
In the end, she accepted not for the riches he offered. She accepted because he shared her pain and was more than she could imagine in a husband. He saw the best in her and didn’t judge her.
Since she had returned, most of the men in the village said she had been raped and that she deserved it. A lot of women agreed. For the rest of her life, she would always wonder what life would have been like had she chosen youth and riches, but deep down, she knew she made the right choice.
MARIA J. ESTRADA is an English college professor of Composition, Literature, and her favorite, Creative Writing. She also runs her union chapter with amor and pride. She grew up in the desert outside of Yuma, Arizona in the real Barrio de Los Locos, a barrio comprised of new Mexican immigrants and first-generation Chicanos. Drawing from this setting and experiences, she writes like a loca every minute she can—all while magically balancing her work and union and family obligations. She lives in Chicago’s south side with her wonderfully supportive husband, two remarkable children, and two mischievous cats—one of whom has killed at least one laptop. You can learn more about her writing happenings and favorite books on her YouTube channel Radical Books and Politics.
She is Founder and Editor-in-Chief at Barrio Blues Press.
Rinconcito is a special little corner in Somos en escrito for short writings: a single poem, a short story, a memoir, flash fiction, and the like.
Surco por surco
Gloria Delgado, born and raised in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, is the daughter of a Mexican father and a Hawaii-born Puerto Rican mother. She and her husband live in Albany, California. One of her stories, “Savanna,” was included in the Berkeley Community Memoir Project’s recently published collection, “A Wiggle and a Prayer.” This is her fourth story for “Somos en escrito.”
Día De Muertos
Extra Fiction Contest
New Mexico History
Novel In Progress