I. Shadow Dancing
The Dominican cats call it fukú but we call it fufú. An incantation said to be a curse. A medley brewed with a nip of postcolonial flavor, left behind in the Caribbean. Inherited through the dead and the living, even family members get in on the spell-slinging. Some say in order for a fufú to work, it needs a vessel. Something beyond the uttered words, a familial scar, or a melody as dark as a tormented bolero performed by a strung-out salsero.
Ma once told me that she cast a fufú on Pa, in case he ever got any funny ideas. All those sheets and good-fortuned shirts Ma anointed with her brujería, and Pa so proudly wore, carried the stains of fufú. This was when my parents preached maintenance of family traditions. Before Yamil grew old enough to keep a memory. Most fools didn’t buy into our old master spells, talk of slaves and overseers be damned. We boricuas chalked it up to old curses and legacies. Yet Ma was convinced she could hold on to all of us with her fufú after Tío Raul croaked. Pa, Yamil, me.
El cementerio municipal of Lares was where all of Ma’s family was buried. The gravesites were cement plots, heated past boiling point when the sun showed up, slippery when wet. Tío Raul’s funeral was set for a Saturday. It was summer and humid. The Sahara dust felt like tear gas used to suffocate and drown lungs. I fussed when Ma commanded us to get ready for Raul’s funeral. I was busy roleplaying in our yard. Star Wars mania had finally graced our small town and all I wanted to be was the scoundrel, Han, off on one of his schemes.
Ma wore a white Sunday dress and a pink-laced summer hat, her small face hidden behind large round sunglasses. She looked as though she was headed to a Communion, something uplifting. The contrast of the dress against her skin gave her a radiance that haloed around her. Even the changos stopped their scavenging to catch a glimpse. It all masked a frustration. An anger that moved the gravel she walked on. Something about Raul’s funeral arrangements had set her off and we were going to the velorio with ulterior motives.
Pa contradicted her look. His curly Afro and lighter skin made Ma stick out more. Even though he was dressed sharp as a knife, next to Ma, he brought down her cachet. So she stomped a good two feet away from him. I’d decided to sport the expected black-on-black tie and shirt. Black casual from top to bottom made it unnoticeable when the sun decided to shoot strong heat our way.
Our dying Corolla backfired its way up the steeping hillside and we parked slanted, among the cars barely able to maintain their friction with the road. Yamil didn’t make the trip. Ma said he was too young and was safer at home in Santana, in case we got caught in a stray deluge. Ma never enjoyed driving through Lares because of the rain.
In Lares, there was a known fear that shit could get real slushy in a storm—the ground would easily sink beneath you if it rained for more than two days. Village soothsayers (aka town drunks) never grew tired of the Hurricane San Felipe II prophecies. Said it was bound to happen to Lares any day. God’s retribution for fighting against our master. Contrition for El Grito a little over a century ago. And the people of Lares would welcome it with open arms. “Let us sink right into the ocean, better to float dead and free than to serve a life in chains.” That was Raul’s song and dance. No surprise how happy his friends were to bring him all the way home when he died. These were all the talks. How important he was to the public because he was an artist. How he needed to become a spectacle for all to see as if his body became one of his paintings set up to auction. Those same friends chanted with conviction, “Get him out and away from San Juan, from that Muñoz Maríne–loving city. La ciudad del traidor.”
We walked into the boxed building where they held Raul. A narrow corridor led us to the room he was in. Outside the door, Tío’s picture was atop a gold painted podium next to a notebook registry and a black pen. And next to his portrait stood a trifold picture frame with photos of him dancing. One different in each frame. But in every one of them, he waltzed with a toddler. I couldn’t help but feel cold. He was smiling there, his hips contorted beautifully. The child clutched against his ankle in fear.
“That’s you, Paqo,” Pa said. “A year after you were born.”
How close we seemed there, frozen in motion. I must’ve held on to him tightly, as if the music playing in that room was urgent. If it ended, I would fall to my clumsy knees and be left abandoned.
“Why do we have to sign our name in, Pa? Tío’s not keeping count.” Pa looked down at me through his sunglasses. He grabbed me by the shoulder and took me aside. He didn’t say a word. Just knelt down and pointed his finger at me. Ma made her way through the door after signing her name. Pa shoved me into the room as he signed his name and mine. There were velvet curtains lining all four walls. At the front of the room sat an open coffin and a white veil covering the wooden casket.
I noticed my cousins and Tía Carmen—Ma’s sister—speaking to each other next to the coffin. Her tight dress was hugging her love handles, her square face caked with makeup. I walked over and kissed her cheek. Then I saw him: Raul. He was clasping a crucifix and his skin was a dark green rust color, his smile forced into place. The AC vents were directly overhead and it was cold. Ma was standing over Tío with her sunglasses still on.
“Say hello, Paqo,” Tía Carmen said. She swept me forward. I looked around and wanted to disappear. Ma turned to Tía Carmen and said something softly, her hands pointing at Tío, then outside.
I snuck behind Ma and hurried to the seats in the back. Pa entered the room and let out a sharp whistle.
“Family sits in the front, mijo,” he said.
“I don’t want to sit there. It’s cold.”
“Move it. Don’t make me drag you.”
He pinched my thigh but I didn’t budge. My eyes watered. He moved close to my ear.
“If you want to act tough, we can play that game outside. Go and pay your respects, mijo,” he whispered. I shook my head. “I’m not going to ask you again, Paqo.”
All of those strange people near me tried giving me sympathy grins. Pa placed his hands on my shoulders and escorted me next to Ma. She didn’t move once. Stayed speaking incantations to herself.
I didn’t know Tío much. The stories told of him were said in snippets, incomplete songs on a transistor radio. His eyes were painted on. His long lashes resembled the strokes of a pincel detailing a woman’s exaggerated stare. Some of his paintings were framed and hanging on a panel next to the wooden casket.
Ma jolted out of her trance and petted my hair before moving next to Tía. I wanted to leave but Pa sunk his talons into me and forced me next to Ma. He leaned into the plastic face of Raul and said a few words under his breath before walking to the entrance. He stood there and looked over everyone. I glanced at him to see if I could make a sly escape like he had but he quickly lifted his finger.
Tía Carmen was difficult to talk to, she would listen to you if you spoke, but it was superficial. She’d play along, banging her head in absent approval and let out forced grins until her boredom reached its tipping point. She’d interrupt you just to start her rants.
“Monsy, I spoke with Pedro. The undertaker. As soon as we arrived. He wanted to know if we were going to pay for the service with the installment plan.”
Ma tried to brush off her comment but Tía poked at her shoulder.
“Monsy? I don’t know about you but . . .”
“Ya, Carmen!” Ma snapped back. “You know why I’m here. This is not how we do things. This is not what Raul wanted. I’m here to clean up your mess.”
“What mess? To think, you had it easier . . .”
The people around us stopped talking.
“I’m not paying for any of this. This ceremony. Tú sabes como se hace esto. En familia! En casa!”
“Now you’re all into traditions and customs. Qué bonita, Monsy. La más tradicional.”
Ma tromped her way to the door.
“Not here, Carmen!”
“And where are you going to put him? Hmm? Does Paquito know about your beautiful Raul?”
The way she said it made Ma stop in her tracks. Tía had something up her sleeve. Something on Ma, or Pa, or Raul. Maybe it was all that fufú. Fufú misfiring? Ma’s spellbinding falling out of tune?
“I’m leaving soon, you know. Laly and me want to go to La Brava and play la Loto. See if tonight is the night,” Tía said. Another one of her power moves. She pampered her hair and winked at me.
“Go ahead. We’ll do the velorio in the trunk of our car if we have to,” Ma said. She pressed her hand to the door and on her way out said her final piece. “Don’t ever throw that in my face again. Never use Raul against me.”
Tía eyed Ma as she left the velorio. Pa quickly shadowed her out of the room.
Tía then sat on a chair and tugged me to the seat next to hers.
“Wonder what’s up her chocha? Let me tell you something, Paqo.” I shuffled in place because I didn’t want to be there next to her. Tía Carmen—the type that didn’t give two fucks what occasion she found herself in. You could always depend on her to spew her thoughts without a strainer.
“Raul was as good of a man as he could be, Dios lo bendiga. He really was. But you don’t get very far with all that he got himself involved with. And I’ll tell you something else. Your madre better set you straight. That locura runs en tu sangre.”
“No. No it doesn’t.”
“Yes, Paqo! Yes it does. That locura can make anyone go crazy. Look at him. He lost so much weight. Started talking all tecato and sleeping around with many women. Those putas got him hooked on perico. After that, all he did was scratch himself raw. His skin became as coarse as a nail file. It’s your family curse, Paqo. Look at what it does. He lost hair too. You see him now?”
She pointed at the casket in front of us. I glanced over, trying not to make eye contact with Tía.
“That is not his hair,” she said. “He looks like a freaking payaso. Qué barbaridad.”
The threads on his head were glossy and silver. Against his dark skin the wig glowed in the same way Ma’s white dress glowed. Raul was peaceful now. With a full head of hair. For some reason, I started to tremble.
“Looks stupid, doesn’t it?” Tía whispered into my ear.
“He looks handsome,” I said defiantly.
“Well. That’s not the word I would use, but that’s cute you think so.”
There was a long uncomfortable silence. We both stared absently at Tío. He could hear us there talking. Pa never talked about the dead. And when everyone seemed to embrace stories and exchange any good tales about the deceased, Pa was the first to leave. Said nothing good comes from dwelling on people that can no longer breathe.
I tuned in to some of the surrounding tales about Raul. His mystical side steps. His merengue rhythm whenever he fell hard for the sway of a lady. How he painted to boleros. Especially to his famous cousin Felipe “La Voz” Rodriguez, who reigned supreme on the airways and in live shows with his smash hit bolero, “La Última Copa.”
“You know, Paqo, he killed her,” she finally said, jolting me back to the present.
“Raul. He killed her. Celia. One of his putas. It was the locura, Paqo. She couldn’t keep up with him. He washed up in front of my door one night covered in dirt and dripping in blood. A man possessed by esa locura can do anything, Paqo. I told him that he couldn’t go to the police. That would’ve been the end of him. He wanted to go to your mother and ask her for help. I told him he was making a mistake.”
Tía said it with such matter-of-factness. She didn’t even lean in to tell me. I felt as though she was saying it more for herself. Her body as petrified as Tío’s.
“There was so much blood . . . So much. I just didn’t know what to do. So I helped him. We left her alone with only a canción de cuna. I sang it for her after we buried her . . . we took her to . . .”
I waited for her to finish. I wanted to know. But she didn’t continue. She froze.
“You’re the crazy one, Tía.” I said, hoping it would trigger her to finish the story. She just sat there mesmerized by her own words, by Raul’s casket.
I got up from her side and left her there. The air suffocated me when I stepped out into the narrow corridor. I scanned each registry as I glided by the podiums. Some of the rooms were vacant. I searched for Ma and Pa. You could hear the priests conducting sermons; the Catholic rites were dreary and melancholic. I wanted to cry but the tears wouldn’t come. As if the priests were casting a counterspell that didn’t let me have the release I needed. Their own fufú hurled onto me. Something was coming for me.
Outside, the mountains circled the cemetery. They encased the ridge where the cement plots rested, their marble crosses and Bible inscriptions warding off lingering spirits. Dark graying clouds, pregnant with rain, were speared by the green summits. The sun shone only on the isolated funeral home and cemetery. I started to get worried that Ma and Pa had run off on foot.
I stumbled to the far end of the parking lot. There was a large wooden shed hidden by many sprouting bamboos. Crickets screeched and a pair of changos pecked at some old garbage. Their jet-black feathers and hollow yellow eyes scanned my face. I crouched closer to them, closer to the pile of garbage they zealously grazed in. They pecked and dug out the remains of an old paloma; its guts were hooked on one chango’s beak, the small intestine dangling like a bloody earthworm. The other chango tucked its entire head into the inflated breast of the paloma, in search of its heart. They were unmoved by my presence.
I could hear music—boleros—playing into the air. I squeezed through some of the tough dull husks of bamboo and tried glaring through the corroded window of the shed. It was too scratched up and clouded by moisture. I moved to the front of the shed, a large steel door was open. A young man’s voice was singing with the radio.
Something in me told me to go back. In Lares, the muse of El Grito can speak to you through the sounds caught on dry leaves. If the whistling cuts at you in such a way that cools every hair on your face, you know it’s time to step. And if the muses of Ramón Emeterio Betances or Segundo Ruiz Belvis find you, the rain, which has only one allegiance—to continuity—will send you squirming back into your rathole. Like any good and defiant boy unblemished by that historical burden, I went against the breeze, against the gods, Atabey, and Emperor Palpatine himself. No amount of force lightning would move me elsewhere. I was terrified but I was drawn by the sway of the violin, the voice of the man. I poked my head into the space. There were stacks of Pinaud Clubman bottles lining the walls; their green glow mixed with the white excess talcum residue on the floor and gave the shed a pastel dusting. A long rack of black suit jackets and generic white shirts decorated the room’s interior. And the bare bodies of dead men were piled next to each other on a silver surface.
A boy was dressing a young cadaver. He sang to the bolero in the backdrop and swayed his hips. He stuffed the dead body into a loose black jacket and powdered its stoic, gray face. He dabbed small amounts of powder on the body’s thighs and dug out some makeup from a brown knapsack.
The dead body resisted the boy’s attempt at moving it to another table, and I began to tear up. I felt my eyes heavy but the fufú cast by the priests didn’t let me cry. I wished to feel closer to their synchronized steps.
The boy tussled with the dead body as he picked it up from the table and danced with it to the back of the room where the caskets were. The dead limbs flapped against the sides of the boy. He reached the crescendo of his hymn, his singing stirred the milky glass windows, and the shed shook with his voice.
He tried his best to find a spot in the shed that could hold the dead body upright. Then the boy caught my eyes and stopped humming to himself.
“You can’t be in here, cabrón!” he barked at me. I didn’t budge. The pale body was thin. And I could make out slits on the backs of its legs. They were calloused over and delicately manicured. Its forehead was cut in all sorts of places, as if a crown of thorns had been placed over its head.
“You hear? Get out!” He struggled with the weight of the body. The head snapped back and I saw its eyes glossed over, half open, shyly revealing themselves like pearls just excavated from a dirty clam. Its jaw opened and the bolero that scored the air was magnified. The same notes Felipe “La Voz” Rodriguez crooned. The dead told me to run. Far away from the spell. From that place. A storm was collecting. It was cold. A black mass caught in the cadaver’s open mouth. I could only make out the patterns of feathers; black feathers compacted into one bulk and used as a microphone.
“Who was that? What happened to him?” I asked the boy.
“Get out, cabrón! You are going to get me in trouble. Get out!” the boy repeated and shouted and the dead shook in his embrace. Both of their mouths growing wider and wider and their voices trembling against every surface.
Until it suddenly all stopped.
The spell broke. I caught sensation in my toes and ran out of the shed and out through the small thicket of bamboos before running into the warm sun of the parking lot. The fat gray clouds were still stranded on the tips of the mountains. The pale body hung over me while its eyes kept shouting.
I found Ma seated on the crystal bench in front of the funeral home; the imposing cross stitched with the lettering NUESTRO DIOS cast a long shadow over her.
“Paqo, come here,” she said to me. I rushed to her and sat on her lap, trying to force her to cradle my stiff body.
“Paqo, you’re too old for that. You’re too heavy. Get off. What would your father say,” she shoved me from her lap and sat me next to her.
“You look like you’ve seen a fantasma, mijo.”
I wanted to cry. To spark some sympathy from her. But the sun dried my eyes. I held my breath in hopes that she would notice my face scribbled with emotion but she didn’t pay attention and kept asking about my clammy forehead. She petted my hair. She ran her sharp nails over the back of my neck to calm me down.
“Paqo. We have something to do. Something that’ll help your Tío out. He needs guidance. We all do after we die.”
“Ma. This place is haunted. This place is going to kill us. Tía Carmen says it’s the locura. It’s the curse.”
“Don’t say that. Pay respect,” she swatted my forehead with the palm of her hand. “We are going to have to move him.”
“Tía Carmen agreed to host el velorio.”
“Because that is what he would’ve wanted. El velorio de familia. De casa.”
“It’s what he would’ve wanted.” She paused. “To be close to family. To be close to you.”
We were headed farther into the heart of Lares. To Tía Carmen’s house. To witness Tío’s heavy shell.
II. A Dead Sleepwalker
La Iglesia Parroquia San José of Lares is the overseer of the town. It sits, plain and picturesque, on a central hill. Its tall domed bell tower tipped with a cross connects to the church’s worship dome. Across from it in La Plaza Revolución, you have the giant bust of Ramón Emeterio Betances. Sculpted a bit ambitious as far as beards go. El cabrón was modeled more after Zeus than the moreno himself. His large head, the size of a cannonball, garnishes a cement Lares flag.
Walk farther away from the church and you’ll come up to a fifteen-foot-tall cement obelisk painted in white and adorned with a fading copper plaque. The names of the Dons: Manuel Rojas, Venancio Román, Manolo El Leñero, Joaquín Parrilla, and company are there as evidence that something historical happened.
Pa was driving much slower than usual. His mind drifted.
“How are they bringing Tío to Tía Carmen’s?” I asked.
The radio tuned to Zeta 93, Pa’s boleros scored the car ride.
“Pa, do people grow older after they die? Pa, is Tío going to get wrinkled?”
“Take it easy, Paqo,” Pa snapped.
“Pa, Tía said Tío Raul had locura. Why does she keep repeating that?”
“Leave it alone, Paqo.”
“I just wanted to know.” I began to draw on the car window with my finger, hoping to distract myself.
“Pa! I was thinking we could stop and get some helado. Please. Pa, I really want the carrot . . .”
“Cállate! We are only here for one reason. Not wasting time stuffing our faces.”
A soft rain started thumping against the car. Ma turned her head toward him and pinched his hand.
She was protecting me from his canines. How he salivated at the chance to bite into my heart and teach me the proper ways of being a man. That something he wasn’t telling me wanted release, wanted to see the air. But Ma, she grew larger and her eyes shimmered a yellow that shook the colors of the sun. She was trying to cover my potential scars with her black feathers.
“No!” He shouted. “I’m sick and tired of you, Paqo. You are no longer an only child. You need to stop con la inmaduréz and learn to think of others. There is no eating maldito ice cream during your . . . during your uncle’s funeral.”
“Take it easy, Ignacio,” Ma jumped into the ring with her pecho paloma. Her voice shrilled as loudly as a chango’s. “This isn’t the place or time.”
“Tu hijo needs to grow a pair. He has his head up his ass! Just like Raul . . .”
“Ignacio! Qué te pasa? Don’t start this. Not now.”
Pa pulled the car to the curb of the sinking road and parked. The rain started to fall harder. He opened the door and walked straight for the bush as if he needed to piss. I couldn’t see him through the gray wetness. The windows of the Corolla were fogged. Ma turned to me.
“Don’t worry, mijo. Your dad is just tired. He’s resting. Yes”—she turned her head back to the front—“resting.”
She opened the car door and stepped out into the falling rain. She left the door ajar and water soaked into the upholstery. The raindrops mimicked firecrackers going off into the air, each droplet grew louder as it started to plummet harder, Ma’s open door magnifying the noise.
I tried moving in my seat. I didn’t unbuckle my seat belt. After ten minutes Ma and Pa came back. They didn’t speak to each other. They were drenched. Drops streamed down Ma’s wet hair. Her breasts were visible through her white dress. Her legs were visible through her white dress. Pa shut his door and wouldn’t drive off, rather he stayed staring at Ma without speaking. He finally set the car to gear and we drove to Tía Carmen’s.
Tía Carmen was standing post when we pulled into her driveway. Her house was on tall zancos. The cars parked in the open first level between the cement stilts. The crumbling stairs that led to the main floor were slicked wet.
She gave us a weak wave. Her large umbrella shielded her produced hair from the lather of rainwater.
“Nice shower, huh?” Tía said. “You should probably consider una sombrilla next time. They sell them at el colmado really cheap.”
She started laughing. Pa stood over her, heavy with water.
“You could have showered here. We weren’t going to charge you,” she jested.
Ma lifted her wet finger up to Tía Carmen’s face and walked up the crumbling stairs. I wanted to jump into the puddle next to Tía just to get her back. Pa read my mind. El viejo took me by the arm and dragged me into the house.
There, in the kitchen, was Tío Raul. Hanging loose in his casket. The veil concealed his face. His gray wig had been removed and was resting on one of the dining room chairs. Ma walked over to him and smiled. She placed her hand on his shoulder and leaned in and pecked him on the forehead. I wanted to laugh. But Ma was happier seeing Raul there, in his natural setting. And all his close friends seemed happier too.
There were two six-packs of Medalla and a crate full of cheap pinot grigio. Tía Carmen had pinned the original Puerto Rican flag in its baby-blue glory against a bare green wall. Next to it, the flag of Lares. And next to it, the good ol’ American flag. How patriota of her. The hypocrisy of Tía Carmen. She did it as a joke. Because all of her actions revolved around keeping everything at least fifty degrees cooler than serious. The weight of those flags lined together, in that household where Raul would’ve gone full zombie and bitten Tía Carmen’s brains out if he could. In that household, in that town, on this island. Yet even so, I felt an inclination, a desire to march right up to her and spit in her hair, to drop a nice thick gargajo so it could seep through that black mane. Must’ve been the ghost of Raul trying to act out his own frustrations through me. Ma’s fufú.
“Take Paqo to his room, Ignacio,” Ma said to Pa. Tía huffed and puffed up the stairs.
“There’s no space for little Paquito in the bedrooms,” Tía said flapping her arms like the wings of a pitirre. “We are all booked up for the night.”
“You have to be kidding me, Carmen!” Ma barked at her. “You make us drive all the way here. You arrange Raul to have his rites done in the funeral home even though you knew it was supposed to be in his home. Somewhere he could be comfortable.”
“Qué casa, Monsy? Hmm? Was I supposed to buy your macho a home just to satisfy his spirit? Should I go out and buy Paqo a new father too?”
“Carmen!” Ma shouted.
She started to fidget there, standing over me trying to shield me from Tía Carmen’s venom.
“Ma?” I said. “What is she talking about?”
I tugged on her white dress. Carmen wore a long smirk on her face. Pa was scanning the floor, looking pathetic, pretending no one existed.
Ma grabbed my arm and dragged me into the bathroom. She shut the door behind us and propped herself up against the wall. And there it happened. She leaned into her knees and started crying. Her skirt wrinkled from its dampness. I’d never seen Ma break before.
“I’m sorry, Paqo.”
“Ma, what’s going on?”
Pa knocked on the door and inched it open.
“Monsy. Let’s just spend an hour here. Then we’ll leave.”
“No. We need to stay.”
She tried swiping the streams from her face. She stood there crying but all I kept thinking about was the dead body. About fufú. About Raul.
After a minute she collected herself, took me by the hand, and walked us back to the living room, where Tía was now seated in her recliner like Jabba the Hutt.
“Can we stay, Carmen? We’ll sleep on the floor. Paqo will sleep on the floor.”
Tía let out a cough and grunted.
“Fine. Diego stays on the couch, though. He’s come from Villalba. He needs rest for the drive back tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Ma conceded.
That night I couldn’t sleep. Ma and Pa were wrapped in a red blanket the color of blood. I needed to use the bathroom but I didn’t want to tiptoe through the darkness. A candle was lit at each end of Raul. The light did not spread evenly and the hallway’s darkness was not extinguished. But I needed to pee. I crossed my legs hoping I could pinch the feeling away but I couldn’t. I wiggled to my feet and made toward the bathroom.
Then came the scratch. I felt long nails cut into the back of my neck. I jumped in terror. Nothing. The candles flickered, then danced with each other. Raul’s hands were elevated in his casket. I thought Tía was at it again. Another one of her ill-fated jokes.
A fear so cold and deep struck me. I kept remembering the strange songs that Ma used to chant as she cleaned our home in Santana. Hoping they were counterspells. Things she’d sing to protect us from evil. Not bothered by the possibility that they could’ve been, in fact, new curses, new parasites looking to feed. There I was, trying to run from a past that no one wanted to rediscover. Even if it was through a dead man. The only thing that brought me comfort was the hope that fufú, in its all-encompassing complexity, would save me.
Then Raul’s hands twitched. I tried convincing myself that it was the movement of the candles. But the shadows that pierced out of the candlesticks were flat and still. And Raul’s hands started to bend.
I was immoveable. The hallway was pitch black. All the doors from the bedrooms were shut.
“Hola?” I whispered. I expected a return hello. The fans in the living room circled over Ma and Pa. Each click as the dangling metal strings tapped against one another provided the only comfort.
“Hola?” I repeated. This time a little louder.
I saw him move his fingers again in the air. I felt pushed back against the wall with all the flags and watched as Raul trembled out of his casket. He pressed through the cotton veil. His eyes were an orange that stood out against the shadow of his outline. It couldn’t be him! No way! I rubbed my eyes and pressed my back in retreat against the cool wall behind me. He swayed with every floating step and his hands extended in my direction.
I watched him inch closer. Sensation returned. I turned and bolted through the black hallway toward the bathroom. I locked the door and crawled into the dirty tub. It was grainy and there were patches of dark black and green mold all over the footing. It wasn’t him, I repeated to myself. It wasn’t him. All the damp and cold that anyone could consume, I was consuming it in the tub, curled and waiting for the heat of the morning sun. I wouldn’t move from that position. It was the safest I had felt since before the boy danced with the pale dead body in the wooden shed of the cemetery. It had to have been the music. Fufú reborn.
I chanted as confidently as I could at the door. I slowly moved my lips as I waited for Raul to come through. That shadow transformed and I saw Pa in its dark drape. I wanted to dispel that power—his power—over me. To kill him.
I remembered Ma. How certain she was that Raul’s spirit needed guidance. But our fufú chained us together, chained us to her and kept him grounded and uneasy. He became the changos pecking into the guts of the paloma. Into me.
Pa’s knocking woke me.
“Paqo, open this door. There are people that need to use the bathroom. You are making everyone late,” he said. I was drenched in water. Felt as though the ghost of Raul had sat on top of me the entire night. My skin was scrapped by the rust from the tub. The mold stained my shirt green.
“Paqo!” he repeated.
“Okay!” I shouted back. I opened the door and the entire crew was standing there.
“You take a shower all night?” Tía asked.
“Paqo. Why are you wet?” Ma asked.
I poked my head out of the bathroom door, scanning the kitchen. Raul’s casket was shut, the white veil folded over its center.
“He’s there, he’s awake,” I said.
“Qué?” Tía asked.
“Raul. Is . . .”
“He’s dead, mijo. The dead don’t walk. They don’t need to,” she responded.
“Vamos, Paqo. Let’s get you dressed,” Ma interrupted. She took me by the hand but I yanked back.
“Ma, he was walking. He was. Last night. He got out of there.” I pointed at the casket. “He used the light from the candles as a channel. A way out.”
“Paqo. Y esta locura?” Tía said. She put her hand over her mouth and tried holding back a laugh. It burst open and she started cackling, then coughing. Then cackling. It was true Huttese. I wanted to cry. Every person there was eyeing me with their judgment. Este niño. Este loco.
“Carmen!” Ma yelled. “Don’t!”
Me, the fallen Solo frozen in carbonite, and Ma, the rescuing pincess.
“Nena, cálmate. He’s a tough kid. Even if he’s picked up some of his father’s locura.”
She leaned against the wall of her house with the same confidence as Jabba. Ma broke. She stomped toward her. In front of everyone. She smacked her across her face, the snap rung through the entire house and chimed off the plates in the kitchen, off the metal stirring spoons and pots that were latched and hanging on the ceiling rack near dead Raul.
Tía wiped the shame from her cheek. In disbelief that Ma would be so bold as to embarrass her in front of all her people. It was the same reaction you’d expect from a child reprimanded in front of all the cool kids. She patted her cheek without saying a word to Ma. Ma didn’t need to say anything to her. Pa acted as if he hadn’t seen a thing. He walked up to me and grabbed my small hand and escorted me out.
III. Treading Water
A couple of days after the burial, Pa received a call. We were in Santana. We hadn’t left the house because by some galactic force, the tropical depression that was supposed to come and go decided to camp out over the entire island. Puerto Rico was on terminal lockdown and the flood warnings were buzzing through our transistor radio. It was unexplainable—Noticentro had a field day covering the mayhem.
Ma was rocking Yamil on her lap. He coughed and smiled as Ma blew on his stomach. He let out these tiny growls. I wanted to hit Yamil. I felt like hurting him.
“Monsy,” Pa said into her ear. It was so quiet in our home, I heard every word he spoke. “Carmen called. We need to rush to Lares. We need to rush to el cementerio.”
He moved his lips over Yamil’s forehead and gave him a soft kiss. Then he let out a commanding whistle at me, the same shriek from the funeral home.
“Now? Ignacio, it’s impossible to drive in this,” Ma said.
“It’s bad. We need to go.”
She hesitated. Yamil tugging on her dangling silver hoop earing.
“Okay. Let me call Ramona.”
Ma treated our Yamil with such delicacy. Pa moved in to smother him. He kissed his small hands and grinned whenever he let out tiny chuckles. Ma waited an entire hour until Doña Ramona—our neighbor—came to babysit Yamil before we jetted off in the Corolla.
Rain and rain. We saw the clay slide from the side of the mountains like from a pierced gut, the green banks bleeding out thick red rivers of mud. Pa knew the danger in driving yet he still pushed forward, Zeta 93’s boleros soothing him through the haze with the screech of trumpets. Ma frequently turned to me and smiled as reassurance. Her smiles bothered me. I wasn’t scared. Maybe because I too wanted to know. I needed to see it. In the vortex outside, I saw the changing of season; I saw how the raw trees that wanted to withstand the deluge needed to bend and mold together, the men on the sides of the road pleading for help. The houses clogged with water and the women holding high above their heads their farmed yucca and ramos de platano. They scrounged to find any possible fruit of their labor, trying to save anything that could be sold later. Even though they knew it was all going to be washed away, they still tried.
“We should turn back, Ignacio,” Ma whispered to him. “No creo que vale la pena.”
“We’re almost there,” he said. “We need to help them if they need it.”
“Okay, okay,” she said.
“Ya, Paqo. Leave your father alone. We are trying . . .”
“Pa! Hurry! Pa! Hurry!”
They didn’t respond. We kept crawling up the mountain. I started chanting to myself, chanted all possible incantations and soon felt my eyes glow. Maybe it was more about performance. The sound of the changos plucking into the dead pigeons, the screech of the violins from the bolero, the growing thunder and wind collecting outside.
“Paqo?” Ma said.
I ignored her and chanted louder hoping they all heard me, hoping Raul heard my song.
I could make out the church at the center of town. I could see the cemetery and the cars parked along the sides of the thin road because they could not see in front of them. Our Corolla inching closer to the slanted gates of the cemetery. The bamboos snapped outside, a cluster of them bent so far down, the green tips swept the roof of the car.
We reached the edge of the hill, and the entrance to the cemetery gates was closed off. A Mack truck blocked the road and two National Guard MTVRs blended in with their green calico patterns against the mountain backdrop. Pa parked next to one of the trucks and got out. My chants reduced to an inconsistent mumble.
You could make out Tía’s fat body in the gray setting. I watched Pa and Tía there. Ma watched them. They spoke with one of the uniformed men. Their hands flailed in the air. Pa then pointed to the cemetery. They all looked in that direction. I wanted to get out and see but Ma must’ve felt my impulse and reached her hand back. She affectionately tapped my knee. Cool down. Cool off. Her eyes met mine and she let out a forced smile.
He returned to us as expected, sagged by the water that collected on his jeans. He tapped on Ma’s window and she rolled it down.
“They are out. It’s bad, Monsy,” he said. “The rain broke them and now there’s a mess.”
“What are they planning on doing?” she asked.
“Right now, they can’t do anything until the rain stops.”
“So what do we do now, Ignacio?”
“Stay here. Best to hold on to your last images as long as you can. You don’t want to see any of this.”
It didn’t matter that I would get soaked. It wasn’t as if the water would melt you if you stepped into it. I felt the voice of Raul chanting in my ears and his extended hands, his shadow pushing me against Tía’s wall a few nights before. How I hid from the world in that porcelain tub waiting for sleep to take me because I knew Raul would get me. It was all reflex, a jolt in my fingers that pulled out the lock of my passenger door. I opened it.
“I want to see, Pa,” I said.
“NO! Listen to me, mijo! Close that door.”
“I want to see, Pa,” I repeated.
“Listen to me! I am your father . . .”
I started kicking my feet against the seat.
“Stay in the car, Paqo. Monsy, grab your son.”
“Ma, I want to see!” I repeated.
“Cálmate, Paqo. Everything will be all right. Hold on to me. Everything will be fine.” She grabbed my foot before I could sling my body out of the car.
“Let go, Ma! I want to see!” I flailed my foot in the air, a fish desperate to return to water, desperate to feel the moisture run through my coarse hair and my dark skin lathered by its soft coldness.
“Paqo!” Pa yelled.
He ran around the car in an attempt to stop me. I loosened my shoe and fell to the ground. I hit my shoulder on the watery asphalt; the splash of water met my face, the particles of sand and mud mixed into my hair. Pa helped me up from the ground. Ma got out of her seat and rushed to me in panic.
“Paqo. You are all right. You are all right,” she said and bear-hugged me. She tried petting me, clawing her nails down my spine, but I shook her off me.
I thought Pa would flip into a fit of anger but he didn’t. He picked out some of the grains and small rocks from my head.
We stood there, drenched, as if posing for a family portrait. The rain didn’t let up. We watched as the National Guard worked in their sodden clothes, the weight of water slowing down their movements. They tried shoving some of the plant debris off the road. You could see the entire cemetery, every fissured grave, every plot and oval prayer circle, every alabaster mausoleum crumbled or crumbling by the wayside. The ground had split right down the middle of all the colorful plots. The black marble crosses that crowned the graves were cracked. Some of the heavy cement slabs that were meant to cover the tombs where the caskets dwelled were removed and shattered down the ledge of the pouring mountainside. You could see the tubing from the ground that was designed to drain excess water; its exposed lines were bleeding veins from a severed limb.
But the caskets. Some were floating on the makeshift lake that grew and grew as the water fell. And there were cadavers. Neatly dressed with their guayaberas or black suits strewn atop gravesites, atop the brown and red mud and blended with the uprooted trees. Some were tossed down the side of the mountain in maladjusted positions; the head of an older large woman was bent backward and her thin, long, and gray hair was woven with the roots of a fallen tree. It looked as if she were being hung.
And there he was: Raul. He had escaped his wooden home and was swimming down the banks of the mud river, no longer wearing the prized wig that was bought to make him appear younger. His thin hands stroked the rain all mariposa, or freestyle. His head took two more breaths before he reached the edge of the cemetery, where the land splintered into two divides. Pa grabbed me and tried covering my eyes. But I pushed him away. I ran.
“Paqo! Paqo, get back here!” Ma started pleading. I didn’t listen. I jumped from one cracked grave onto the next. The men in uniform watched me as I dodged the crosses that scatted by me with the water. The plastic flowers that were glued onto cement urns littered the muck with blue and pink artificial colors. I wanted to catch one last sight of him before he was gone. Raul’s head turned to me and shook as the brown mud started covering all his body, his dark skin and pampered suit became petrified with the brown mud and tangled roots. His eyes glowing yellow before the thick moving river covered him. All fufú washed away. He tumbled down the ridge into the forested valley, and every shattered cement slab, every adorned cross, the logs and roots and pipes of bamboos fell over him. He disappeared.
Xavier Navarro Aquino was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He’s currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nebraska and a Fiction Editor for Prairie Schooner.