La Profe, Dulcia de Mendoza, paces in front of the children, her long hair a swaying pendulum, her name a fitting tribute to her inherent sweetness. Aileen wondered if the dark smudge on la Profe’s cheek would be hereditary. She would pass it down to her daughters for sure, but to her sons, well, the sons were the offspring of the devil as Buela used to tell Aileen. Who the devil was, Aileen did not dare to ask, but she knew it wasn’t good. Buela used to rock in her wooden chair at night, each creak followed by a word. A mystic tale of preposterous proportions, but told with an undeniable craftiness that claimed veracity. Aileen would lie in bed listening until her eyelids shut, but her mouth, still in awe-struck position, swallowed in her sleep the seed of words that germinated, unacknowledged, in the shadow of her belly.
La Profe didn’t have her usual smile on. Recess had been cut short for everyone; three boys had thrown rocks at a three-legged dog, which didn’t sit well with La Profe’s stomach. Other teachers didn’t make a big deal out of it, but La Profe â€¦ La Profe was of a sensitive kind. Her ardent tone asserted to the class that such behavior would be tolerated no longer. That animal life was to be respected as if it was your own. An idea that was new and odd to Aileen, no one besides La Profe would have given the matter much thought. She insisted that dogs can feel the same that you do. That they have a soul â€¦ like MamÃ¡, Aileen thought. Yet she doesn’t say where souls go. Aileen nudges Rafaela and passes her a note: Where do souls go?
Depends on the soul
If they was a good soul or a bad one
a good one
how do I go there?
You die and hope that you was good
sÃ, sÃ â€¦ but now, without dying
The kids that stoned the dog-said La Profe-had been sent home. She stops pacing, lets out a long sigh, and taps her forehead. She does this often; when a kid cheats in class, when one repeatedly misses school, when another stops coming back. That’s what La Profe did when Aileen’s older sister, Nola, stopped coming, but that time, she shook her head, too. A paper airplane hits the blackboard, and Aileen can just see La Profe growing into a speech again about how paper is indispensable, how the school has so little left, how last month they had to spend their days counting with their fingers instead. Of how irresponsible, of how rude and unnecessary that is â€¦ but she doesn’t, her voice has wearied, her mouth dried. She simply goes to the blackboard and writes down some numbers. It’s a subtraction and the number is big, so Aileen copies it down: eight hundred and eighty-six, minus fifty-four. La Profe’s hair is silky, and Aileen is hypnotized by its swaying motion. It looks like that of her MamÃ¡, so thick and black. Will she let me braid it, like MamÃ¡ used to? Six minus four-two. Maybe she’ll tap her forehead if I ask her to let me braid it. Eight minus five-three. Maybe it’s not a good idea. Eight hundred andâ€¦
“Aileen, will you tell the class what the answer is?”
Aileen’s throat tingles, her lips open, but nothing comes out.
“It’s ok to get it wrong, we are here to learn.”
Her answer is right but she can’t tell La Profe. Everyone but Rafaela giggles. Someone behind Aileen says softly but mockingly that La Tonta is rubbing off on La Muda, and giggles some more. La Profe taps her head and then asks somebody else to answer; a boy confidently calls out a number, yet gets it wrong. La Profe’s cheeks grow red; it’s not from anger, it’s from frustration. It’s been well over a week with the same kind of subtraction, the same homework, the same problems â€¦ over and over. Whose failure is it?-the kid’s, hers? No, it’s the rampant poverty that’s beheading education, that’s beheading, well, everything. “Does anybody know the answer?” She asks. Rafaela looks at Aileen’s paper and shoots her hand in the air. “Eight hundred and thirty-two,” Rafaela says. La Profe nods and writes it in the board. She wants the children to practice more at home, she says that she knows it might be hard for some of them but that â€¦ If I can’t go to Heaven, then â€¦
Can a soul visit me?
I don’t know. Who you wanna see?
La Profe dismisses the class for the bell has stopped working months ago. The books get shuffled in the backpacks, and they all hurry to leave. The patched hole in Aileen’s backpack is giving out, so she holds the backpack in her arms instead of on her back, carrying the weight with her hands. A chorus of kids from class follow Rafaela and Aileen –La Muda and La Tonta, La Muda and La Tonta, La Muda and La Tonta. “Don’t pay attention,” Rafaela whispers, saying it more to herself than to Aileen. Aileen doesn’t mind being La Muda but Rafaela minds being La Tonta, even if it isn’t true. Rafaela is older and taller than her classmates; she has repeated the same grade level twice-math just isn’t her thing. Rafaela grabs Aileen’s hand, forcing her to hold the heavy backpack with her right arm only, and she pulls her forward. La Muda and La Tonta, La Muda and La Tonta, La Muda and La Tonta. They giggle and laugh in between chants while the girls’ feet scurry down the stairs.
Rafaela’s mother, Soledad, sits under the tree’s shadow that hits the low stonewall which surrounds the school. That’s where she waits for Rafaela on the hotter days, but lately, that’s every day. Aileen scuffs a piece of gum stuck to the floor with her shoe while Rafaela kisses her mother on the cheek. Her MamÃ¡ also used to pick her up and Nola from school, but Tito, well, he didn’t have to wait; he was un chico grande and could walk home by himself. Nola and Aileen had to wait, but they didn’t mind: MamÃ¡ would hold both of their hands, and on hotter days like this one (if it was Friday), she would buy them both a raspadito â€¦ how long it had been since she had had that ice-fruited cup, each time a new flavor-mango, guanÃ¡bana, fresa-so refreshing, so tasty, so-
“How’s your â€˜buela?” Soledad asks Aileen. Another lady with a befitting name; abandoned by her husband and of deceased parents at an early age. And, as spilled by Rafaela, she is still lonely at heart even if she has a “sugar daddy” to look after her. Aileen isn’t sure what a sugar daddy is exactly, but she knows its un hombre con plata, and an owner of a butchery. Pero, bien feo, peludo y gordo as Rafaela had described.
Aileen stares at the gum, it’s almost scraped off. Rafaela tells her mother that Aileen’s Buela is not doing well. But she doesn’t tell her that she no longer leaves the bed, that she barely moves, that sometimes it’s hard to tell if she is asleep or awake. But, how could Rafaela know? After all, Aileen hasn’t told her. Soledad caresses Aileen’s hair, which makes the girl look up at her to see lashes batting away at flabby eyes. “I’ll find time to drop by, okay?” Soledad says. She was a good friend of her MamÃ¡, that’s how Rafaela and Aileen had met. The stories the girls had both heard about their mothers running around each other’s houses, playing Cinderella; Buela was always the evil stepmother, and whoever had raced from school faster got to be the princess-the deserver of the prince’s love, the other was the fairy godmother. Yet the prince never came for either one.
“‘Tas flaca mi’ja,” Soledad says, and she is right; Aileen is now as feathery as a dry leaf, easily blown by the wind. “Want to come home with us tonight? Rafaela has been driving me crazy about asking your â€˜buela to let you come over.”
Rafaela jumps about and pulls Aileen’s hands, “Dale, dale.” She says. But Aileen knows that Nola would get worried and shakes her head.
“Tomorrow,” Soledad says. “Come tomorrow.”
The two walk away hand in hand, the smaller one a perfect fit for the lighter, bigger hand. The bodies shrink to pocket-size figurines and mingle with all the other things-the trees with their waving leaves, the pony-tailed girls jumping rope, the man who sells raspaditos and his four-wheel cart-that eventually Aileen can no longer see them. She keeps staring in case she’ll see another glimpse of the happy jumps Rafaela makes every now and then.
Even in the shadow, the rock is fairly hot, and Aileen pulls her skirt to cover more of her legs. Yet it won’t budge, she has outgrown it. And Nola said there’s no way they can get another soon. Maybe, she could ask Rafaela to lend her one? She swings her feet, each heel alternates to hit the stonewall she sits on. Tito hasn’t arrived yet, and that’s no surprise. The days that it’s his turn to pick her up result in her waiting by the stone wall, swinging her feet. Yet, today, he is unusually late. Her tummy prickles in a way it never did when her MamÃ¡ was around. She needs to see her, to tell her, that without her, things are not going well.
Nola had been clear that MamÃ¡ wasn’t coming back. That she couldn’t. That’s why they had to dress in black (although they had to mix what few black clothes they had with those of another color-“just find something without holes,” Buela had said) and sang and prayed and cried. If she couldn’t come back to stay, then maybe she could come visit every once in a while.
The tree’s shadow moves and Aileen with it. She has done it a couple of times now, and the worry sets in. Sweat trickles down her temple, her neck, her armpits. Her fingers are restless. It’s the first time he hasn’t come get her but â€¦ I can be a chica grande, too. She jumps off the stonewall but isn’t sure if she can climb the steep hill to her house. She has no one to hold her hand or take her a cachipo-to ride the world on the fastest stallion. A stallion with green eyes and sleek, tanned skin. Tito would place her on his shoulders and back then, when his hair was long and not shaved, she would pull it-left, right, left-indicating where she wanted to ride. But it doesn’t matter, really, Tito hasn’t carried her like that since MamÃ¡ had â€¦ But she can do it. No hand, no cachipo. She’s a chica grande.
The air is still and dry. A fly flaps around the room, lands on the wall, on the corner of the bed, on Buela’s arm. Aileen whisks it away with a quick hand. She sits on the bed with her feet in front of her, like a dirty porcelain doll forgotten by her owner. She hasn’t heard her â€˜buela breathe or snore. She presses her ear to her back and listens; a deep stream of air moves inside Buela’s body, and suddenly she lugs a sigh. It startles Aileen. She wonders how it is possible to stay in the same position so long, without moving. Buela still wears the same black clothes.
The first month after the funeral, she would roll to the end of the bed, drag her feet to the kitchen, then back to the room to use the bathroom, and then return to bed. She would eat a little, talk a little. Nothing more. But as the days passed, she did less and less of everything. Nola had tried to convince her to wear something else, but Buela wouldn’t budge. No matter that the mourning clothes had ripped here and there. No matter that she had other patched-up clothes. She just wouldn’t budge.
Nola changed her religiously; washed her clothes, dried them and put them back on. But only when Tito was home and willing to help, which wasn’t often. It was routine. Buela didn’t move and hardly ate. Just grunted and coughed. She had ceased to speak, in a way, much like Aileen. Although this spurred from the same loss it was governed by different mechanics; the one who wants to cannot, and the one who can does not want to.
A screech sounds as the tin-sheet door opens. “Leen, am here,” Manola says. Aileen remains on the bed and doesn’t come out to greet her as always. “Leen â€¦ nena?” Manola enters the room, walks around the bed, and sits next to Aileen. Aileen doesn’t look at Nola; she stares at the big pee stain in the mattress. She peed last night, again, in the same spot. Was that why Tito slept less and less at home each night? Was that why he didn’t ride her a cachipo no more? She had never peed herself when MamÃ¡ slept next to them before. She had felt safe, even in her dreams.
“You ok?” Manola’s hand reaches Aileen’s chin to raise it.
She isn’t. How could she be? A sullied face in which dried tears had made grooves down her cheeks.
“You are hungry, I know, I’m sorry. I have a loaf of bread. It’s yours.”
Aileen shakes her head. Hunger, strangely enough, isn’t bothering her right now. She doesn’t really feel her tummy; its emptiness is almost familiar, bearable. Like a leech, that sucks the life out of you and sometimes, when you are not paying attention, you don’t feel it leaving you.
“Eat a little, sÃ?”
Another shake of the head.
“Bueno, I’ll eat half, and leave you the other for later.” Manola combs Aileen’s hair with her fingers. “Where’s Tito? Did he leave already?”
A hunch of the shoulders.
Aileen doesn’t tell Nola that she had to walk by herself. That she did so rapidly, and her eyes hardly left the street. That some boys yelled out something and she wasn’t sure if it was at her or not, but she knew better than to answer, and pretended to be deaf. That she saw the rock on which Tito, Nola and her used to stand, and make shapes with their bodies that resembled that of the clouds-a frog, an elephant, a dog. She feels the mattress rise and then sink, time has stopped and, at the same time, merged; Nola has already left and returned with a damp cloth and a bucket.
Manola cleans Aileen’s face and says, “Remember what MamÃ¡ used to say?” Two black eyes the size of a walnut shells stare back. “Being poor is no excuse for being dirty.” She dips the cloth in the bucket and moves over to Buela. She touches her skin lightly with the wet cloth, trying to alleviate her sweaty skin. She moves Buela’s shirt here and there. Aileen’ taps Manola’s shoulder then points at two dark, red spots in Buela’s lower back and flanks. Puzzled looks between the two sisters. They hadn’t seen those before.
Children ran during recess like disoriented bees, chasing one another, stumbling on each other while playing tag. Loud laughs and shrill cries of amusement echoed in the closed patio. A few boys tossed and bounced a ball, some girls sat on the floor singing and clapping their hands. It was Rafaela’s turn to jump the rope, and so she did. They had picked the letter “d” for her, and so she sang: “Daniel te quiero mucho,” and jumped once, “poco, nada, para nada,” jumped a second time, “para pura vacilada,” at the third she landed away from the rope. Another girl entered, “j” her letter â€¦”Jorge te quiero …” And so they kept, while Rafaela went to sit near Aileen.
“Dale, let’s jump the rope together,” Rafaela pleaded for the third time.
Aileen felt she had no strength left, her body had sunk in the wall and it wasn’t quite capable of moving yet, much less ready to jump a rope.
“Did you ask your ‘buela to let you come over today?”
Aileen had forgotten to ask.
“El gordo”-Rafaela meant the butcher-“snores at night, he’s a pretty heavy sleeper. Bet you we can put lipstick and eye shadow on his face, and he won’t wake up!” Rafaela laughs and Aileen with her.
“You know who snores way too loud? My pops,” says a girl sitting across them, her clothes clean and without patches. “Mom had to go to this Santera’s house to get an ancient remedy that combined with her spells made him stop snoring.”
“So, it worked?” Rafaela asks.
“SÃ, sÃ.” The girl with carefully braided hair answers. “Mom can finally sleep all night long. This woman, she does all sort of things â€¦”
“Bueno, she can cast a bunch of spells. She can make any boy you want fall for you. Anything you want-the high spirits talk to her, she speaks to the dead, too. She passed a message to my mom from my dead aunt.”
Aileen pulled on Rafaela’s shirt. That’s it, La Santera, that’s what they needed-she could help them. She pulled on her shirt briskly.
Rafaela turned to Aileen, a wide smile on her face. A boy had walked near them and had heard them talk for he said, “Yeah, Yeah, La Bruja-” Crouching in front of the girls. “She’s quite insane, too, she eats children.”
“No, she doesn’t!” called out the braided-hair girl.
“There’s a bunch of skulls in her room, bloody guts everywhere, she’s a savage,” countered the crouching boy. “A Bruja.”
“She’s not a Bruja. It’s different.”
“Is it now? Not her. She’s a Bruja.” He drew a skull in the dirt with a stick. “You haven’t been there, a qué no?”
The braided-hair girl shook her head.
“They call her La Bruja ever since two boys from my street went there and only one came out.” He drew an “X” across the skull.
Aileen stopped pulling on Rafaela’s shirt. The braided-hair girl got mad, stood up and left. The kid was about to leave as well when Rafaela asked, “Where does she live?”
“I can take you there if you like.” He got up. “But I won’t go in.” He motioned them to follow him and said in a low voice, “We can jump the stonewall when everyone starts to go in. That’s when I always do it, â€˜cause teachers are too busy getting everyone in order.”
Rafaela nodded, Aileen wasn’t so sure anymore that she wanted to go, but paced after them. The swarm of jittery bees clustered and dispersed as the teachers tried to gather them in. The boy helped the girls jump the stonewall and then jumped himself. They ran a block or two, but Aileen felt her breath leave her. She panted; her hands on her bent knees. They let her rest then kept walking. They were school-zone free.
“It’s not far from here,” the boy said.
They had arrived at a barrio similar to that of Aileen’s. Huddled tin clad homes shaped a narrow path. They had difficulty walking because it had rained all morning, and the mud smeared their toes and heels. A sticky sound, followed by the flap of their sandals marked their every step. They climbed till they could see the end of the path; a small brick house that was painted blue crowned the hill. The boy pointed at it, “That’s it. Don’t get eaten!” and laughed as he strolled back down the path.
Rafaela took Aileen’s hand and walked towards the blue house. Aileen pulled back a bit.
“He was full of it I bet you.” Rafaela asserted. “Nothing to worry about, I promise. Besides, you wanna see your MamÃ¡ or not?”
An old lady opened the door at the third knock and led them to sit on the sofa. “She’ll be right out,” she said and proceeded to rock herself with the tip of her toes on a white wooden chair. To the girls’ surprise la casa de La Bruja wasn’t scary. The sofa’s color faded from a dark green to an olive green with a few holes in between the loose threads. Another room separated by brown and orange columns of beads. A small television set parked in the corner stood dormant. A few old, torn, and doodled magazines were scattered on a scratched table. Rafaela turned and smiled to Aileen, “See? Nothing to worry about,” she said as low as she could. Aileen returned a feeble grin.
The curtain of beads moved as a woman’s gaunt head, black as charcoal, peeked out. With an “Adelante” the girls stood up and went after the woman who had already disappeared from sight. As they moved past the beads, an amalgam of smells swirled up their noses; cigar, alcohol and something phosphorous. A large altar covered in white cloth exhibited pots filled with seeds and cakes. Baskets full of apples, watermelons, pineapples and breads. Large and small carved statues of saints were ordered in the altar’s center. It was embellished with floral necklaces, bird feathers and many scattered lit candles. Tall, hand painted crucifixes guarding its four corners. Single cattleyas stuck out from the abundance of yellow and white roses of every bouquet. A statuesque black Virgin Mary wore a crown of flowers, and was surrounded with marigolds. The windowless room was stalked by a penumbra, in each corner a plate with salt and mustard-tone bone structures-skulls. Aileen twitched and Rafaela did so too, they gave a few steps back, but La Bruja had come up behind them and softly pushed them forward. She laughed, “Don’t be scared,” and sat them at a red, circular table in the middle of the shadowed room. Aileen grabbed Rafaela’s hand, the sound of banging drums in their ears.
La Bruja’s hair was wrapped in a white scarf, her neck adorned with shell and bead necklaces, a single gold ring on her index finger. A voice that seemed to scrape her throat came out, “It is not often I get niÃ±as to come by.” Her eyes, black glossy pearls that looked beyond them, demanded, “Tell me, what do you seek?” Rafaela uttered a broken word, she tried again, and even though not broken it was inaudible. Aileen stared at the skulls, something was moving inside the black holes, slithering in and out. “Tranquila,” said La Bruja, “they aren’t of niÃ±as.” Aileen could hear herself swallow. A chirpy laugh escaped La Bruja’s mouth. Aileen was sure the skulls had laughed with her, she squished Rafaela’s hand.
“Bueno, bueno â€¦ let’s start with a reading, sÃ?”
In a swift pace La Bruja brought a bowl of water. She traced an oval with chalk, sprinkled some agua bendita, and rhythmically hummed a prayer. Her hand emerged from the bowl with cowrie shells, and without breaking the chants she touched the feet, arms, shoulders and heads of the girls. Right after La Bruja had done so, Aileen felt a pressure on her head as if an iron hand was pressing down. La Bruja took a sip of rum and sprayed it from her mouth, then inhaled a cigar. Her shadow rose higher and higher, merged with the smoke, danced and twisted. Its mouth opened to exhale a cloud of fumes that swirled around La Bruja’s body, which made La Bruja spin in circles, her dress undulating as it flew. La Bruja’s chanting became raucous, and resonated in the room, piercing Aileen’s ear. The shadow peeled itself off the wall and gained girth, becoming fatter and fatter, climbing La Bruja’s back, raising above it, nearing the girls. Sharp teeth as those of serpents grew from the shadow’s wide mouth, which opened large ready to swallow them. Aileen trembled and her eyes with her, sweat dripped from her brow. Its open-mouth face darted towards them; Aileen shut her eyes and embraced herself. The loud chanting stopped, the sound of shells hitting the table followed. She dared to half open an eye.
“Look what we got here,” La Bruja said with a slight, continuous wiggle of her body. The cloud of smoke had vanished, the shadow evaporated. All of the cowrie shells lay face up. “That hasn’t happened in a long time â€¦ You are both here, but it is you”-she looked at Aileen’s pale face-“who needs the answer.”
Rafaela’s hand was sweaty and cold, but Aileen wouldn’t let it slip from her grasp.
“I am told that your life changed drastically at exactly four months ago. Is that so?”
“That an old lady fell ill? And you wonder if there is a cure, but there isn’t one, she is sick of heart, a broken one that cannot be fixed. She lost her most precious thing â€¦ what was it?”
Aileen wanted to say MamÃ¡, but her throat burned and without water she was not sure she could muster the words out.
“Bueno, I am also told that your future can be better, will be better â€¦ Oh yes, but a betrayal from a close male to a loved one must happen first, for it will set things in motion. Wait â€¦ I am told, I am told that you are followed,” the last word echoed in the air, followed, followed, followed. Aileen shivered.
“Followed?” Rafaela blurted out. “By what?”
“Yes, followed”-her eyes fixed on Aileen -“You seek something that already walks with you,” La Bruja said. “An Egun.”
“And what is an Egu-” Rafaela tried to finish.
“An Ancestor spirit, that’s why you are here, no niÃ±a?”
Aileen wanted to nod but her face was frozen, Rafaela nodded for her.
“She wants to bring back her MamÃ¡’s soul.”
“Look niÃ±a, she is already here, you just can’t see her.”
But Aileen wanted to see her. And, was her MamÃ¡ able to hear her? Aileen waited for Rafaela to ask another question, one that would luckily resemble her own.
Rafaela’s valor shuddered for she voiced no more questions. There was something about not being able to see a being that shared your walking space, which made her arm hair stand on end. She looked about her, hoping to see the unseeable.
Aileen pulled out from her backpack a notebook.
How can I see her?
“uhm â€¦ well, there’s something you could try. It’s an old enchantment. Based on the raw power of the name. It must be done in front of a mirror, when the room is dim, but not too dark. Find something of hers, something that might still bear trace of her being-a hair on a brush, an unwashed shirt, perhaps a lipstick. Look at the mirror, think of her face, of her eyes â€¦ and call out her name three times. But no more than three times.”
With the comb in hand, Aileen could feel a little tickle underneath her nails from the hairs. She held it tightly, thinking that the more she pressed, the more connection she would get. Her MamÃ¡’s shirt a dress on her. Her lips scarlet, yet she was told to not concentrate on anything but her MamÃ¡’s features. And so she thought of her MamÃ¡’s thick lips, her broad nose, and the little space between her lower teeth when she smiled. And of her bright green eyes-just like those of Tito’s-with the yellow surrounding her black pupils, a sunflower, she liked to boast. She had a sunflower in her eyes. Aileen stared intently at the mirror; a dark shadow taking form. She had to call her MamÃ¡’s name. It wasn’t that long of a name either, for she had no middle name. A named that meant hope. A name that made the tongue quiver if allowed to linger a little longer against the teeth’s wall, like the maraca of a rattlesnake.
“Es … pe-”
” â€¦ “