La elotera swung by the brown condos, the ugly ones by the 101 freeway in So Cal, flanked by decaying but still fragrant eucalyptus trees. It was night as she figured that was the best time for her to make a sale. Her shopping cart with dual blue Igloo coolers and a shiny aluminum tamalera pot rising like Medieval towers from its interior squeaked into the noisy complex stifled with chants of playing children and tamborazos of ranchera music.
Two squeezes from the rubber ball from the horn attached to her carrito salute the complex and the murky night. A gust of wind quivers the leaves of the eucalyptus trees, making a resonance like a flow of a river. The aromatics of the suddenly alive leaves smell like Vicks VapoRub. It opens the tamaleras nostrils, expands her lungs. She inhales deeply.
La elotera opens the lid to the cheap swap meet tamalera pot liberating a vapor of sweet corn scent that swirls and embraces the complex in a heavenly fog like a kiss from the marine layer. The familiar smell of boiled elotes attracts her first customer.
A cholo, todo pelón, wearing a Dallas Cowboys E. Smith 22 jersey, with two purple bullet holes to the dome materializes like a Vegas show hologram from aside a dry manzanita shrub embedded in crusty cracking soil. The cholo stagers towards her like a drunk. La elotera sees the entity approach but doesn’t seem frightened. She seems pleased and welcomes the pelón with a smile. Her first sale of the day!
“¿En qué te puedo ayudar joven?” the older elotera asks the spirit as she irons her brown checkered mantil with her hands. Pues, she is a classy lady.
“I can’t rest. I need something to go to sleep,” complains the cholo with his brains blown out. La elotera can see his tired white eyes floating in a sea of black like lifeboats waiting to be rescued by the Coast Guard.
“I have something that will help you rest,” she responds in English. She reaches deep into the tamalera pot, pulls out a steamy white and yellow corn on the cob. The vapor expelled from it swirls and rises to the heavens like a serpent in retreat. The elotera slaters the corn with mayonesa using her wooden pala, sprinkles crumbling white cheese all over that stinks like patas. All while twisting the palito she jabbed at the bottom of the sweetcorn. She then spritzes the corn with artificial neon yellow butter from a farting blue plastic jug, sprinkles earth red chile piquín until the elote is covered with a red furry blanket.
“Ya mérito, mijo,” she tells the lost soul. La elotera reaches for a mason jar with a sticker of the Virgen Maria on one side and La Santa Muerte on the other. She tightens the lid with the tiny nail size holes to make sure the valuable greenish-black powder inside doesn’t spill out. She sprinkles some of the unprocessed-looking emerald powder onto the elote and hands it to the cholo ghost. He takes a bite.
Three miles away in the neighborhood beyond the tracks, the vatos Sleepy and Chato are sitting in rusted lawn chairs drinking cheap beers and listening to ‘80s style corridos on their ‘80s style boombox. The big grey ones with twin woofers in the front and a cassette deck serving as the hocico. The grease from their too full grease collector on their grill steadily drips grease to the dirt, accumulating into a thick viscous puddle. That is unless the wind carries a rouge drop here and there to the neglected lemonade grass.
“Hey, carnal. You’re burning the tri-tip,” warns Sleepy lazily pointing to the flare-up charring the piece of meat. “And you’re going to set the grass on fire, just like the carne.”
“What grass foo’?” Chato unzippers his fingers from on top of his head and displays the backyard with a flat hand like a model from the Price is Right. “Y la carne está bien. No pues que you like it well done.”
Suddenly the back gate explodes open in a squall of splinters and rusted bolts. “Get the fuck down,” barks a gabacho cop with a nervous trigger finger. He points his Glock at the brothers, nervously alternating between all four of their concha bread eyes. Four more swat officers rush in like Clint Eastwood from Dirty Harry, .40s in hand. One of the police officers tosses the back door breaching a battering ram onto the dirt. It rolls and knocks down the BBQ. The mesquite embers splash out like neon rubies when the asador hits the ground. The tri-tip lays in the yellow and scorched grass like a slaughtered rhino in the African savanna.
“We’re taking you guys in for murder,” says the lead swat officer holstering his hand cannon. The brothers get zip-tied by the wrists and are taken away to an idling Ford Explorer police car. The detectives that figured out who were the perps watch from their Crown Vics a block away. Cigarette smoke rises from the half-open windows like a grey aura. It gets swept up by a gust.
Back at the brown complex, the cholo is finishing his corn. He is so into it; he doesn’t notice the white goo building up in the corner of his mouth like yeso. He takes his last bite of the corn.
“Man. That was the best corn I’ve ever had,” he says yawning widely like a lion that has cemented his future cubs with his pride of pussies. “I feel sleepy now,” he tells la elotera. He raises his arms into the heavens, begins to stretch his thin torso. El cholo begins to fade and turns into dust. His powder conforms to the laws of the wind and is swept up in the gusty breeze. La elotera sees his purplish blueish particles fly between the dancing eucalyptus trees, twisting and dodging bug-eaten leaves. His hue shoots into heaven like blue smoke from a vape.
“Ojalá que ya puedas descansar, mijo,” la elotera whispers starring at the crescent moon. She sees her next customer materialize from under the stairs of the crumbling second floor of the complex. An older lady, not too old, with a cord around her stretched-out neck, a swinging plancha at the end of it like a pendulum, walks up to la elotera. Her tight black leather pants let go of a chirrido every step she nears la ex curandera turned corn entrepreneur. Her round and too big for her small frame tits hit her chin like dribbling basketballs.
“Hola Doña.” She kisses la elotera’s bony, spotted brown, and loose-skinned hand. “¿En qué le puedo ayudar?”
“Mi marido. Ya no me quiso and cheated on me. Look at my clothes.” She raises her arms and whirls like a slutty amateur ballet dancer. The plancha almost bangs la elotera in the hips when she twirls. “He wanted me to dress like this. Like a hoochie. He stopped looking at me the same way. He didn’t touch me the same. Y yo ya estaba harta y cansada.” She cups her hands, places them on her face, and wails into them like an Irish banshee.
“No llores, criatura,” says la elotera. “Eres preciosa. You should never have to change who you are. Y menos por un puerco.” Like an ‘80s homicidal movie killer, she busts out with a huge chef’s knife from underneath the shopping cart and the blade shimmers like platinum in the sharp moonlight. She reaches into the pot; pulls out a sweaty elote, begins shaving the kernels of the cob with the blade too big for a viejita. The kernels tumble into a short but wide Styrofoam bowl. She wields her trusty wooden pala in the direction of the mayonesa jar and drops a big spoonful of the white oily condiment into the white bowl. She farts out artificial butter again from the farting blue bottle. Following her method to a tee, she sprinkles stinky pata cheese on top. But this time reaches for a Ziplock baggy containing crushed red hot-Cheetos. She sprinkles some of the jagged neon-red rocks on top. One last ingredient. She sprinkles some of the emerald powder gingerly on top of the esquite she lovingly constructed for the older fox. Wha-la, her pièce de résistance.
“Tome,” she says handing the resented lady her esquite. She takes it in her right hand, grips the plastic fork with her left, tight. The nails on her thumb and index finger bleach to white from the death pinch she has on the fork. She begins to scarf down the esquite like she hasn’t eaten a meal in a lifetime.
Meanwhile on the other side of town, at a grimy motel where the rate could be paid by the hour or the day, lays her husband on a lumpy mattress with its fitted sheet unfitted. His half-naked mistress sits on the edge of the bed with her arms behind her back hooking her bra back up.
“That felt incredible,” says the cheater laying with his hands behind his head as an extra pillow layer. “When can I see you again?” The sancha gets up and sparks up a cigarette next to the window overlooking the freshly repaved parking lot. She stares at a rouge cheeseburger wrapper kite in the gusty wind.
“Hey. Is that your S-Class on fire?” she casually blurs out pointing at a car engulfed in flames with her smoldering menthol frajo. She takes a long puff of her cigarette como si nada pasara.
“What!” the cheater roaringly shouts out. He lunges the sheets clinging to his sweaty body like saran wrap, jumps up from the bed as if a compressed spring on the mattress was liberated from the weight bearing down on it from above. He runs to the window. He sees red-orange and blue flames ravaging his interior. The flames flicker with tormented life. “My car!” he yells gripping the last few hairs he’s got on his head with his shaky fists. He pulls them out. His sancha takes another menthol drag, como si nada pasara.
The cheating husband runs out of the motel room tying his robe to make sure his wrinkled balls don’t make an appearance. He stops dead in his tracks upon walking outside to the parking lot. He can’t believe what he’s seeing. Between red flashes and the buzz of a neon sign advertising vacancy, he sees his adult son holding a red plastic gas tank. His daughter hugs numerous road flares. She waves to him with a road flare. The S-class blows up in a spectacular release of kinetic and chemical energy behind them. The bubbling hood lands in front of the cheater. A tire rolls by minding its own business.
“That’s for mom,” says his son with savage eyes. They are more alive than even the fire.
“I hate you,” spews his daughter with a scowl. “Mom killed herself because of you. You bastard!”
Meanwhile, in the complex’s courtyard the fork the neglected fox was holding falls through her grip. It lands in the dirt. The mayonnaise and butter concoction on the fork is like a magnet to the pebbles of dirt que se comportan como nails. The lady with the plancha around her neck begins to dematerialize. Her aura turns into floating spheres that in-ribbon la elotera for a moment, go over her head like a flyover from the Blue Angels at a ball game, and disperse into the heavens.
La elotera has enough time to check her cell phone when a señor walks up dragging his feet. He’s wearing a tan cocodrilo suit ready for the baile. He floats through a tirade de empty beer bottles and decomposing couches and mattresses with yellow stains left for dead in the complex and trash.
“Señora,” he cries bringing his hands together as if rezando El Padre Nuestro. “I need your help. I can’t stop thinking about my daughter’s quince and the father daughter dance I’m going to miss.”
“Ya ya, joven,” responds the old lady to the ghost of a gordito, ya middle-aged señor. His chaleco can barely contain his Mexican beer belly.
“I will give you something to calm your thoughts and guide you to the light.” La elotera fixes up an elote, but not a normal elote. A blue one. She puts the usual fixings on it but instead of putting chili powder on it how she usually does on corn on the cobb, she dredges it with crushed Taquis. She sprinkles some of her emerald powder on it but this time before handing the specter the mouthwatering elote, she hands him a pickled jalapeño. A dark green veiny mean-looking motherfucker. Cosa de maravilla!
“Toma,” she says handing him the jalapeño. Then the elote. “Take a bite of the chile first. Then the corn.” She turns her back on the ghost in the cocodrilo suit, begins rearranging her messy carrito, confident the elote will do the trick.
“Oh, shit this thing is hot,” dice el specter, fanning his hand towards his burning mouth trying to induct oxygen from the cool night. He makes duck lips, sucking in air like a vacuum.
“It’s supposed to be hot. To get all the endorphins going,” says the elotera leaning on her now organized carrito with her elbows.
Dela is nervous about her quinceañera dance. Her dad was her pillar of granite, her cheerleader, her guiding light. Y ya no está. “You were supposed to be here to dance with me, dad. You promised me,” she mutters starring into her glossy eyes in the mirror. A door bursts open from behind her. A lady wearing a purple ruffled cocktail dress sticks half her body into the dressing room. Dela wipes the tears from her cheeks and chin. Sniffs a little.
“We’re ready for you, mija” the lady with the ruffled dress announces to the down quinceañera. She shuts the door gingerly. Dela pulls down her white princess dress that keeps riding up. She takes in a deep breath, grudgingly gets up. She heads for the door of the salón’s dressing room, steps out, and shuts the door behind her.
“Your attention please, ladies and gentlemen,” announces the spiky orange-haired DJ. “Your aplausos to the pista, por favor.” The chatter fades to a whisper. The lights go black except for a spotlight in the middle of the dance floor. “Tennesse Whiskey” bumps out of the JBL speaker set up by the DJ. Dela and her chambelán, her older brother, begin their choreographed walk towards each other, like marching soldiers. The fog machine makes them look like they’re floating on wispy clouds. They reach each other and Dela’s brother takes the lead. He holds her by the hips, she puts her arms around his neck. She begins to cry.
“No llores, Delita. I’m here like I promised.” Dela lets go of the hold she had on her brother’s neck and shoves him in the chest.
“You mother fuc...,” she begins saying but is unable to continue her tongue-lashing because before her eyes are not her skinny brother but her deceased thick father in the tan cocodrilo suit they had picked out together for her day of transformation from a girl to a woman. “Apa,” she half whimpers. She rushes to her dad and hugs him; he picks her up and spins her around as he used to when she was only to his knees.
“Un aplauso para la quinceañera y su hermano, por favor,” the obvious DJ advises the uncaring crowd. “Que bonito. ¡Que bonitas memorias!” Dela rests her head on her dad’s shoulder.
A beam of light resembling the glare from the transporter in Star Trek begins to dematerialize the man in the cocodrilo suit enjoying his elote. A police officer rushes into the courtyard with a beaming flashlight that punctures the dark of the night like a knife versus skin. What was left of the spirit gets skewed away by the coned LED light of the flashlight. The half-eaten elote falls to the floor.
“What are you doing here?” the jura questions la elotera with the tenacity of a junkyard guard dog. He shoots his beam of LED light at her face. Then without letting her respond, illuminates her shopping cart with Medieval towers. “This place is off-limits. This is a crime scene. Can’t you see the crime tape up?” He shines his light on a unit with yellow crime scene tape tacked to the door. “What are you doing here? This place has been abandoned for years.”
The elotera grips the rubber handle to her carrito tight. The playing children’s laughter and cries and the tamborazos of music fade like a distant memory.
“No hablo pitinglish,” she says, looking into the blue of the cop’s eyes. “Well, it don’t matter. This place is off-limits. Get your cart and get out of here before I give you a ticketo,” he acts like he’s filling out a phantom ticket in his phantom ticket book with his phantom white right hand,” for not having a seller’s permit.”
“Sí, sí,” the elotera responds, shaking her head up and down like a bobblehead. She begins to push away from the center courtyard. She looks around the complex and there are broken windows and tagged-up walls and empty syringes and sliver spider webs and a few abandoned rusting shopping carts with tall grass growing from between their steel mesh. The cop finds the half-eaten elote and holds it from the palito. He looks at it, scrutinizes it.
La elotera stops at the end of the abandoned property. She looks back at the brown condo complex. She sees the bouncing white light from the cop disappear and reappear behind the corners of the dead complex. She takes one last deep Vicks breath and mumbles, “All cops are assholes.”
Chicano. Lisiado. Storyteller. Enrique C. Varela hails from Oxnard, California, the land his parents immigrated to from the state Guadalajara, Jalisco, in Mexico. He holds a BA from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Writing minor to accompany it like a solid friend. Two of his short stories have been published in Chiricú Journal & The Acentos Review, respectively. His upcoming memoir, twisted: Tales from a Crip(ple) is slated to be published by Between the Lines Publishing in the coming year. He is beyond excited. His ethnic background is Mexicano. Though his skin pigment tells another story.
Mamá is ripping weeds from vegetable beds, her focus deep between the stalks of the tomato plants—her trance, as Pablo calls it. I monitor her from the side of my vision, knowing better than to look at her directly, but she knows I am watching, perhaps because my hands do not move as quickly as hers do, not as deftly. I work faster to compensate, and not just because her brown eyes flash for a moment over mine in silent command; it is summer and every hour the jungle encroaches on our clearing, sending its tendrils into the garden, the wood pile, between the very boards of the house if it could. Mamá has completed her side of the patch and turns her attention to the soil in front of her while she waits for me to finish.
The dirt rises in mounds between her palms, and I don’t need to watch to know what she is making. She continues as I yank at weeds, the small stingers of the melon vines sinking into my fingers as they accidentally collide with one another in my haste. Mamá pinches the soil between her fingers, attaching a smaller mound and four appendages to each of the twin mounds. She pats their surfaces, smooths them.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” she begins, and my mouth forms around the next verses while I work. We recite it together, our voices barely above a hush.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them,” she says, then rests her knees in the dirt. She doesn’t need to finish the story; we both know how it finishes. And we both know how she will finish it.
“God gave us a second chance,” she concludes, looking down at her creations. “He gave us a second chance.”
She smiles out at the line where the bare dirt succumbs to a wall of green, of fronds and vines and leaves alive with the hum of insects, of birds calling to one another through the gloom.
“And why you and Papá called me Edén,” I add for her.
“That’s right,” she chuckles, nodding. “That’s right.”
I have been expecting this ritual since just before dawn, when Mamá’s groans woke Pablo and me and stirred the younger children, and Papá had to shake her awake, rocking her in his arms.
“You’re safe, woman, you’re safe,” he whispers, and I can hear her sharp breaths ease into sobs. “We made it.”
“We made it,” she repeats.
“We crossed the wilderness,” he says.
“We crossed the wilderness,” she says.
“We crossed the sea,” he says.
“We crossed the sea,” she says.
“And we arrived in the promised land. We are in the promised land.”
Her voice is calm again. “We are in the promised land.”
Pablo and I see the whites of Papá’s eyes through the twilight as he returns our stares, and without a word we push the blankets off us, dress ourselves, and go outside to ready the firepit. He lights the lamps and the fire, and I fumble in the darkness to hang the pot over the burgeoning flames. Pablo’s eyes roll toward mine, and mine to his. And I think of Mamá’s cracked hands and dirtied nails, fashioning the soil after her own image.
These fits come like freak storms, but I learned early that they almost always come when I ask questions, when I invite the past to come creeping in from its hiding place just beyond the tree line. Suddenly, my vision fills with white light and I am small again, not much older than the twins, the top of my head just barely reaching Mamá’s hip. She has given up on coaxing me to help her shell the peas and instead smiles, allowing me to embrace and kiss her swollen womb. Juana. Pablo plays with something on the floor, barely able to walk.
“Mamá, do you got a mamá?”
“I told you: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…”
“But that was Adán and Eva. And they had to leave the Garden. And they had Caín and Abel, but Caín killed Abel, and then he and his family wandered the earth.”
She says nothing, her smile unwinding at the edges.
“How’d we get back?”
“Why you ask so many questions?” She’s trying to be playful, but there is a command behind her question.
“Are we the only ones here?”
“Go play with the doll Papá made for you,” she says as she gestures to the wooden doll on the floor with her knife.
That was the first time I remember her screaming in the night, Papá cradling her, chin atop her head.
The next morning, Mamá perches me in a chair beside her at the table and makes me watch while she makes bread with the flour she bought from the trader. She pulls at the dough, rolls and unrolls and rolls it again into a perfect orb. Finally, tearing off a handful, and then another, she makes two human forms on the table in front of us.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” she begins.
I don’t understand, and wait for her to continue.
“Say it with me. ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…’”
“‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…’”
We recite it all the way to when God sent Adán and Eva from the Garden, and cursed Eva with the pains of childbirth, my eyes roving over Mamá’s distended belly.
“We got back. And that’s all that matters. You understand?”
“Everything that happened before—it doesn’t matter.”
But still I find ways to ask my questions in the years that follow, sprinkle them in among the scratch while I help her feed the chickens, drop them into the holes she makes in the soil with her fingers when we plant for the new season.
“Mamá, why you and Papá got brown eyes, but I got green ones?”
“Mamá, why is Papá’s skin darker than ours?”
“Mamá, where does the trader get all our flour and seeds and…”
Mamá grunts and holds her back. She leans back onto her haunches. At this point Juana is about five, and her successor, Diego, four, and Mamá has begun to show again, her belly like a squash growing on the vine. I count out on my fingers like Mamá taught me: There are one-two-three-four of us, and this one will make five. Mamá blows air through her lips, but then leans forward again and returns to gardening.
“Is the baby coming?”
“No, it’s too soon. My back must just be cramping.”
But she wakes early in the night, in the grips of one of her bad dreams, and Papá carries out their ritual. But this time, it is not enough; her breaths continue fast and sharp in the back of her throat. Papá rises and dresses, then plops me into the bed next to her.
“I gotta go get help for your mother,” he informs me, “take care of her while I’m gone.”
Mamá pulls me into her, takes my hand into hers, but it is hot, sweaty. Pablo watches from our bed, his eyes shiny in the candlelight, and she opens her other arm in invitation to him too. We sit on either side of her, but soon she breaks free from us, screaming. Papá returns with the woman who delivered us. She strokes my cheek in recognition before handing me to my father, who returns Pablo and me to our own bed. But we do not sleep, cannot sleep over Mamá’s agony. By sunup, Papá orders us to feed the animals, and we do it in a rush so that we can return to our vigil. But he tells us to stay outside, shuffles Juana and Diego out with us. We sit on a cluster of stumps not far away, swinging and hitting their bark with our heels, stomachs empty and livid. Finally, the commotion in the shack subsides, and the silence is filled with the sound of insects. No one opens the door for a long time.
When Papá lets us back in, Mamá is sleeping while the woman still tends to her. Papá summons us around the table. A wadded rag is the only thing on top of it, wetted with what looks like dried water and blood. He removes a corner so that we can see the face, its unformed features.
“This was your sister,” he tells us. “We’re gonna give her a name before we put her to rest.”
“What about Mamá?” I ask. “She gonna make it?”
Papá looks at the woman, who glances back at him and nods. He relays her nod to us.
We named her Petra. Papá digs the hole extra deep so the animals cannot get to her and carefully places her inside. We place stones over the scar in the earth as we pray. I feel a hot tear wind down my cheek.
Mamá’s womb remained empty for years after that, but when it was ready to accept life again it was blessed twofold. Aurelia and Pía. It is slaughter season, and Pablo and I shadow Papá as he kills, drains, and cleans the pigs. Juana and Diego, still too young to help, play in the clearing. Papá disappears around the back of the shack to find something.
“Edén,” Diego calls out to me.
“What?” I reply.
“Why does Papá walk like that?”
“Walk like what?” I know what he means, but hope he will catch my disinterest.
“Like he’s hurt.”
Pablo’s eyes roll toward the shack, where Mamá is working, seemingly every part of her swollen with the new lives she is about to bring forth, then meet mine. I stomp toward the two of them and cover his mouth with my hand.
“Don’t ask questions like that.”
“Let me go!”
“You’ll upset Mamá.”
He bites my hand, and I send him backward into the dust. He cries, holding his bottom, and tears off toward the shack.
I think Mamá’s latest nightmare has something to do with the visit from the trader the day before.
He and Papá are standing outside the shack, arms folded across their chests and their voices low, as I bring in the water. Both regard me for a moment and stop talking as I make my way toward the front steps; for a moment, I note their curious differences. They share the same dark hair and dark skin, and yet Papá’s features are softer, his hair a net of curls while the trader’s sticks out in straight, jagged tufts from under his hat. I noticed the same differences between Mamá and the woman who delivered us, who is the trader’s sister or cousin or some other relation, her sheets of hair always wrapped round and round into a knot at the back of her head. I hasten up the steps.
The murmurs begin again as the door closes behind me. Mamá has propped open the flap of wood that serves as our only window, and stray words leak in. “War.” “English.” “San Agustín.” “Cuba.” I recognize only the first, think about Jericho and Josué and his trumpets. A sound disrupts my sprawling thoughts. It is a sigh, almost a whimper, and I turn to find its source. Mamá has been sitting at the table, taking a break from her work, and she stares at the wall—in her trance—as if she is looking through it, to the trees just beyond it.
Tonight, I think I have seen a spirit. It was only for a moment, before it turned away and slipped between the trees, but it was a man, his skin pale and translucent. But he looks like no man I have ever seen, that is, he looks nothing like Papá or the trader or the other men Papá says are the trader’s kin, who I see hunting from time to time in the forest. Papá and Mamá have taught me that spirits are as much a part of the landscape as the creatures who dwell in the forest and in the swamp that rings our patch of land, though this is my first time seeing one. They are from the time before we returned to Edén, they explain, people who never accepted God or who were condemned to purgatory for their sins. My heart thumping, I scurry up toward the path to the shack before the sun goes down for good.
The fire is still going, though dinner was more than an hour ago. Mamá sits off to the side, the flames illuminating her face. Papá is silhouetted, his back to Mamá and the fire, and he glowers out on the trees. He does not look at me as I approach.
“Go find your siblings and get them ready for bed,” he commands.
“I saw a spirit,” I mention, my excitement somewhat diminished by the shortness in his tone. His eyes drop to the ground, but he says nothing, does not move. He and Mamá remain outside some time; their whispers awaken me as they grope through the darkness toward their own bed, some hours after the girls and I fell asleep in a tangle on our mattress, Pablo and Diego on theirs. I smell the smoke on their clothes as they pass.
I lay awake afterward, too hot and my mind too restless. Papá has left the flap open to allow in the fresh air, but it is just as stifling and heavy as that inside the shack. It is furious with the sounds of frogs and insects. Twigs snap as something moves through the trees at the edge of the clearing. Perhaps it is a deer or some sort of scavenger, or maybe even a puma attracted to the smell of the animals tucked safely away in their huts. The ruckus continues, and I roll to my side, trying to bury one ear into the pillow, press my fingers over the other. I hear Mamá or Papá turn over in their own bed as well.
My body lurches upward, and I realize I had drifted off, for how long I do not know. Papá and Pablo are sitting up too, and Mamá grasps onto Papá’s elbow, asking him what is wrong.
“I heard a voice,” I whisper to them.
“Me too,” Pablo says back.
“Stay where you are,” Papá orders as he tosses off the thin blanket covering him. Mamá remains paralyzed in her spot on the bed.
Papá prepares a lamp and edges toward the flap. He lets the orange ring of light spill onto the ground just outside the shack, moves it from left to right, opens the flap as far as it will go to gaze further into the darkness. Suddenly, he startles and drops the lamp, breaking it. The flap slaps shut.
“What is it?” Mamá hisses. “What did you see?”
“Boy, grab a knife,” he barks at Pablo, who complies. He selects one of the machetes hanging near the door, next to where Papá keeps the knives he uses to kill the pigs.
“What is it?” Mamá repeats.
“It’s them,” Papá utters, and there is panic in his voice. “They found us.”
My mouth is agape, wondering who he means, but Mamá must know for she hurries to the knives and selects her own. The younger children are awake now and squeak like baby birds over having been woken, asking their own questions about what is happening, but Mamá shushes them and herds them into her and Papá’s bed. I at last rise to my feet and grab my own knife, one of the ones I’ve seen Papá use to cut through bone, and shuffle back toward the other children, feeling stupid and helpless as I hover next to the bed, not quite sure how to wield my new weapon.
We hear it again, a voice, but this time there is another, and another, and still yet another—a whole chorus. Suddenly, all four walls of the shack begin to clatter with the sounds of fists and rocks and sticks against the boards. It stops just as abruptly. Laughter. I can hear them talking to one another, but I cannot understand them.
A high-pitched whoop pierces the thick air. One of them calls out in a strange chant, one that sounds like when Papá summons the pigs to their slop. The banging and cackling begin again, until I think the shack will come down. Mamá is praying under her breath, the knife clutched between her palms. Papá and Pablo have barricaded the door with the table and chairs, and hold them in place as the boards rattle around us. Papá glances back at Mamá, who opens her eyes and stares back at him. It is like they are communicating.
“Come on, now,” Mamá says, and she starts pulling boards from their place in the floor, as if by some god-like strength. Papá nods at Pablo and he joins her. Finally, when they have removed about half a dozen boards or so, she gathers all of us around her.
“Pablo, Edén—take your brother and sisters and follow the swamp south. Just stick to the water, and you’ll find Cesar’s village,” she tells us, referring to the trader.
She pushes Pablo through the hole and under the house first, then me. Papá has built the shack up so high on its stilts in case of a flood that I can almost stand my full height under there. Mamá begins to toss the smaller children to us, who lay down in the dirt on their stomachs and wait for directions. I can feel spider webs on my skin and I am certain that their occupants have crawled into my hair and clothes. My skin begins to itch. All six of us in the hole now, we look through the panels; torchlight seeps from the front of the shack, and all of the commotion now seems gathered around the door. I crawl over and peer between the panels: there are one-two-three-four-five-six figures hovering just behind the torches. Their skin is illuminated, pale—spirits. I gasp.
Pablo carefully removes a panel on the furthest most corner from the noise and ushers us through it, and we run into the darkness. We stumble through the forest toward the swamp, tripping on roots and fallen branches and bushes, until we can hear the voices no more.
We drift so far into the forest that not even the slightest of light can pierce through the canopy, and we must wait until dawn before we can continue. The younger children sleep in the branches of a drooping old oak. Eventually, we follow the blue haze of twilight toward the water. My head floats with hunger. The sun has reached its highest point when we find a gathering of shelters near the marsh, and filled with a newfound panic, we shout and run toward them. Their inhabitants meet us as we approach, bewildered. We collapse at their feet, panting and sobbing and still shouting.
“Cesar,” I say again and again, hoping that we have found the right place.
It is some time before I see him rushing toward us, some of the other villagers having gone to fetch him. Some of the women have managed to calm us and now sit with the twins in their laps, holding food for them as they eat. The rest of us sit in the dirt, still shaking, partaking in our own meals. We tell him what happened, and he wipes a hand over his face.
Cesar invites us into his family’s home, and it is days before I am able to rise. Later, Cesar’s wife will tell me that I slept for some three days. Diego and the twins soon develop fevers, and they remain that way nearly a month, as the first illness begets another.
Some of the men, led by Cesar, go to look for Papá and Mamá. But the shack has been burned, the animals run off, our parents vanished.
A couple weeks after we fled, Cesar summons Pablo and me to his boat, but offers no explanation as he pushes off from the shore. Some half-hour into our journey, more shacks rise from the marshes, and surprise and dismay and even a sense of betrayal wash over me. The inhabitants look like us, and a few wave to Cesar as we pass. We disembark and he takes us to a home near the center of the settlement, where a man stands outside waiting for us, arms crossed. Cesar introduces him as Señor Padilla.
“Come on,” Padilla says, “We got a lot to talk about.”
Padilla invites us to sit on a couple of logs he has converted into seats around his family’s firepit, then takes his own. His wife pushes a couple of clay bowls into our hands, fills it with some sort of rice dish.
“I knew your father,” he tells us. “We served together, over in San Agustín.” He reviews the blank expressions on our faces. “But I gather he never told you about any of that.
“He still came here, once in a while. I told him he should move here with the rest of us, that it would be safer, that we could protect one another, but he refused. He and your mother thought they knew a better way to protect you.”
“From what?” Pablo asks.
“The truth,” Padilla snorts, “the past. Their past. I thought they were crazy.” For a moment, I remember Mamá and her dolls made from dough.
His eyes pass from my face to Pablo’s. They are sharp, impatient, yet read of pity.
“Look, I don’t know what all your parents told you, but we—all of us,” he gestures to the other shacks, “We were born into bondage. Up in South Carolina. That’s a colony up north, belongs to the King of England.”
I think about Hagar and Moses and the exodus and the destruction of Jerusalem and the re-enslavement of the Israelites…
“But the King of Spain, he said that if we ran away here to Florida, we’d be free, so long as we became Catholic and served in his military. That’s how I met your father—doing my military service, over in San Agustín. It was our job to defend the city against the English. He got hurt, during one skirmish. I’m sure you saw how he walked. But we did our job, and then we were free. And most of us, we came and settled out here, but your parents, they went out even further. They didn’t want anything to remind them of what they left, didn’t want you to know about a time we were anything but free. Not til you were older, anyway.”
He trails off, taken over by his thoughts. We continue to eat. Finally, he takes a deep breath, as though he’s been holding it this whole time, and shifts in his seat.
“The English. That’s probably who attacked you all. They made an agreement with the king: they get San Agustín, he gets Cuba. I’ve seen a few of them the last couple of weeks, sneaking around the marshes. Probably fixing to take us back up to South Carolina or Georgia. We don’t intend to stay to find out. We’re going down to Cuba. All of us. I think you all should come with us.”
Pablo finishes his meal and sets the bowl down beside him, and leaning forward, he looks into Padilla’s eyes as if it hurts him, as if he is starting into the sun. “Our people—we got any people here?”
Padilla pauses. “Not that I know of. Your father, he made the journey by himself. I don’t know much about your mother, except that she came here from South Carolina, too. They met at church, there in San Agustín.” He stretches his legs out in front of him, inspects his boots. “But we’d look after you. Make sure you all have what you need.”
I am hollow as Cesar takes us back to his village. I mull Padilla’s revelations. Renacido—that is our family name, we learned, one Papá gave himself after he crossed into Florida. And I think about Padilla’s proposal, about Cuba. Maybe Mamá and Papá escaped and are already headed there.
Or maybe they are out wandering in the forest, like Adán and Eva, exiled from their beloved garden. Maybe they have been taken back to South Carolina, like Padilla said would happen to us. Or maybe they are dead. And maybe the way to honor them is to return to their land, land they owned, and rebuild the shack and pens and gardens, or if not there, then in the jungle that surrounded it, feral. Or maybe it really is to go to Cuba, to tend our parents’ legacy like an ember until its flames are full. To not merely survive. I close my eyes, and I see Mamá’s hands forming figures in the soil. “God gave us a second chance.”
C.L. Martín is a descendant of farm laborers who first arrived in the United States from Mexico in the 1920s. During the Great Depression, her Arizona-born grandparents were forced to settle in Mexico as part of the so-called “repatriation” of more than one million people of Mexican descent, sixty-percent of whom are believed to have been American citizens. They permanently resettled in California in 1961, where Martín was born and raised. She went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in English and History, with a focus in creative writing, from Mills College. She currently lives in Washington, D.C., where she works as an attorney and continues to write short fiction. This is her first time getting published.