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.