Raquel, who had been witness to many cleansings and had been treated herself, took pity on her step-niece, and suggested a walk through the village. Shopping, a bit of food gathering, a celebratory meal for when Isabella was cleansed. Rafael took a machete from behind the shelf of pots and headed out to trim some grass. Everyone took the cleansing as a norm, so Rebecca found herself hustled out of the house, and away from it all.
The walk revealed many more tiny homes like the one they had left, and in the front yard, chickens scratched at the newly moistened earth. Skinny dogs chased crowing roosters around, and women hung colorful laundry out in the yards to catch the best of the sun. Every once in a while, Raquel would call out to someone, and she would wave a friendly hello. Some doe-eyed children with long black plaits peered out their windows, eyeing the stranger beside her. A black stranger, raza de negro (mixed-black), walking along a highway next to a small Mayan woman. There had to have been some speculation, but Rebecca was used to it.
She took the stares in stride and instead focused on the task at hand, gathering ingredients from a variety of little side stands and the main shop in the village. Soon they had enough stock to make a feast, and they hurried back home, laden down with their purchases. Rebecca was surprised that so much time passed, and she was grateful for her companion’s tact and subtle maneuvering of her time. She tried saying so, but Raquel, flustered at the intimacy of it all, brushed her off brusquely and handed some items for her to start working on. Her smile softened the gesture, so Rebecca knew she was ok. The room was still closed off, and the intensity of herbs and smoke spilled out to the entire little building. Rebecca breathed in deeply, as if trying to cleanse herself as well. Her mind felt more relaxed than it had in months. She hardly thought of Papa.
The last conversation they had was when she decided to leave and accompany her Mama to be treated. He had seemed angry, aloof, and resigned, all in one. Rebecca tried not to read too much into what she heard, assuming she was projecting on him. She also tried not to think too much of her friends at school, and of Eddie. In all her days away from home, she missed having her companion. Mama would love him. Mama would have loved a rock if it’s what Rebecca loved; the more she realized it, the worse she felt about the previous years, and any outbursts she had with her Mama, the mere thought of them had her cringing. In her mind, there was no time like the present to start making up. As soon as Mama got better, she would make sure to visit more: No more 2-year gaps. The shame of those wasted years remained deep within her heart, and in a letter buried under her clothes. Mama had to send a letter for her to acknowledge her lack of visits, of calls. Well, no more.
As of now, it was a new leaf. Mama wouldn’t be able to get rid of her.
Cooking provided therapy for both women. The simple act of washing, chopping, frying, grinding and stirring soothed their nerves. Neither would admit out loud that they feared it was too late. Both prayed fervently as they danced around the kitchen in utter silence, with the exception of the sounds of fat spattering, bubbling and the clatter of utensils and pots, and their prayers were the same. Make Isabella better.
Outside, Rafael swung his machete hard. He had finished clearing almost the entire area, and he focused now on small shrubs and trees, trimming, a bit forcefully, and shaping some. He sweated under the hot sun, the agony of burning muscles nothing compared to what he believed his wife was going through. He imagined the life she would have led had he not convinced her they could make a go for it. He knew her previous life had entailed suffering, physical pain, mental torture, but all he ever wanted was to love her. The way she should have been. He saw the goodness in her, he heard the laughter in her, saw the smile on her face, and felt the warmth of her soul. He knew he had the love of his life, and for the few years he had her, he knew he was a better man for it. He prayed under the sun, he prayed as his blade sliced through the air, whistling and thudding at branches. He prayed.
By the time lunch was ready, the sounds in the room had quieted down. A slow chanting had been going on for a while, and that petered out eventually. The door opened, and Jacinta led the way, with a bucket full of water, dingy and brown. Leaves floated on the surface, and the smell of earth and dirt came their way. The healer followed with some smoking instruments. Flames had been doused, but smoke remained. The smell was pleasant, woodsy and sharp. Mama remained in the room. Rebecca and Raquel stood reverently by the stove, awaiting further instructions. The healer nodded at Rebecca, and jutted his chin at the bedroom, giving her permission to go in.
She stepped hesitantly in the room, not knowing what to expect. She was disappointed to see that Mama looked the same. She looked a bit worse actually, tired, and listless. She had been through a lot. She lay facing the thatched ceiling, and turned slightly when she heard her daughter come in. Isabella smiled wanly, and she tried to shift in the bed to make room for Rebecca. As she snuggled in bed with her Mama, Rebecca breathed in the herbal scents that hung in the room like a thick curtain.
“Remember when you were cleaning the room at Ramon’s?” Mama had been a housekeeper at one of the finer resorts on the island for years. Mama nodded.
“In here smells like that air freshener you used that one time.” Mama smiled. “Nobody liked it, except that funny family with the little girl, Mya.”
“Remember how the dad used to walk around naked with the windows open”
“Gross…yes, I remember. I saw him by the door once; thank god it was his butt.”
Isabella laughed carefully, slowly, “Lucky you.”
“I remember you used to pay me to help you clean. Twenty bucks a week – slave labor!” Rebecca nudged her mom playfully. Isabella smiled, sifting through her daughter’s wavy hair.
“We had so much fun didn’t we?”
“Yes, and you are going to get better, and we’ll have lots more fun Mama.”
Mama yawned long and loud. “Okay. Love you.”
“Love you too Mama. Want some food?”
“Later. I just want to sleep. I’m tired, all that prayer and hot water baths – I just want to sleep for a bit. Save me some.”
They all ate and feasted with the healer, while Mama sank into a deep, restful sleep. The healer told them he’d seen much damage, a lot of evil, a lot of harm done to Isabella. He had to come back in three days. For those three days, he would be praying and cleansing for her next rigorous treatment. His feast was his payment for the day. He refused money, saying only that his work was not done.
All four remained around the table after he was long gone, slowly getting smaller and smaller, until he was merely a speck in the distance. Rebecca talked about having to go back home before the healer could come back. Jacinta soothed her, saying that they would call, and that she should come back as soon as she could. Rafael knew his wife would miss her daughter terribly, but he also remained staunch, and urged Rebecca to go home when she should. He knew what awaited her.
Again, Rebecca slept with Mama, she who didn’t wake or stir the entire afternoon. By the time the household was ready for bed, there seemed to be some color coming back to her cheeks, and heartened by this discovery, they all rejoiced and prayed their thanks.
By morning, she was awake long before Rebecca. Isabella studied her daughter, tracing her nose, patting her hair, nuzzling her like she used to when she was a fat baby. She watched her as she lay snoring away. The sun was up a ways when she couldn’t take it any more, and she tickled her awake. They both got up to eat breakfast; Rebecca’s heart singing at the sight of her smiling mother. She was frail as ever, but there was a sparkle, a sign of life where before only death brooded. She would get better.
She boarded the bus alone, sad to leave, trying not to think of her mother’s sad face as she packed her clothes. Promises to call and write were made, but as always, Mama could make her feel guilty about her two-year silent period. Rebecca knew that would never be forgotten, by either of them. With the promise of a return trip in two weeks, wherever Mama was, she finally was able to pry herself from the house. As always, she was loaded with items that appeared magically. Fruit, vegetables, a small souvenir: a lēhķ (gourd; similar to the one she had admired in the kitchen); she drew the line at the live chicken Raquel tried to give her. She promised she’d be back to enjoy an escabeche made with the same hen. That gave them all a good laugh, and she was able to leave with a smile.
On the way home, a small storm hit, and she found herself pelted with stinging raindrops all the way through two small towns. The buses were famous for having full ventilation, 24-7. The windows could never close properly, and the first drops of rain were black and sooty from the built up grime. There were advantages to taking an aisle seat. In her case, she had a seat to herself, so she avoided most of the nasty rain. After the storm cleared, she watched the trees fly by through a clearer set of windows, and she played her favorite game.
Odd shapes took form, here an angel clutching its halo, there a cat chasing a rabbit, no, a dog, no, another cat. There, a witch’s hat, and again, another cat. There was a face, spooky and dark. She blinked, there, it was gone. And then, nothing. And all the way, until she hit the city, she focused instead on the couple ahead of her. It was like they had just discovered cuss words. Every other word in every sentence was peppered with expletives. Fuck was the girl’s favorite. Heck, it was both their favorite. She couldn’t wait to tell Mama about these two. Her bus rides were the most interesting, and she enjoyed embellishing and regaling Mama with her stories.
The boat ride home was endless, the dim, dull pallor of the mainland nothing compared to the fresh salt air whipping her face as the boat skimmed the blue sea. Already, her heart sang for home. Colors seemed brighter, everything appeared cleaner. San Pedro, safe haven for anyone willing to embrace her shores. Rebecca was home, and it was easier for her to see having holed up for two years without communicating with her mother. Almost.
Walking home brought with it the familiar gut wrenching sensation of being close to Papa, and again, close to entrapment. The place looked the same; the yard had the same clutter, shut windows made the home seem unwelcoming, almost sinister. She half expected to walk in and find everything covered in a fine dust, even though she had only been gone a few days. She hesitated at the door, willing it to be open, to show some signs of life.
It swung open, and there was Papa, sitting in the darkened space. He just sat there, staring off at the wall. He turned to her as she walked in. Her heart dropped when she saw his eyes: red rimmed, glistening with unshed tears; a face so broken, so pained. She knew, yet, she didn’t want to know.
Mama had died.
While she traveled by bus, by boat, on road, on sea. Mama’s soul flew overhead, aiming somewhere, wherever she had wanted to be. Gone, gone forever, no more talks, no more snuggles. No more Mama.
Months later, Rebecca walked to school after work. Eddie was waiting for her. She knew he wanted to talk, but she wanted nothing more than to lie down and never get up. She was so tired, of everything. Mama was gone, Papa had turned a new leaf within weeks. There was a new woman in the house now. He no longer insisted on looking for her after school, she was on her own. She had slept over at Eddie’s a few times, testing the grounds, and yet, Papa never questioned her. He was so wrapped up with his new wife, she was an afterthought.
Eddie was waiting by the stairs, underneath the famed almond tree. Rebecca knew there was no little man who came by in the heart of the night to pelt almonds at lovers. She’d been down that road before, she knew it wasn’t true. As she neared, she saw there was someone else waiting with Eddie. A man, someone she’d seen around a lot lately.
On the way home, Rebecca wondered just how it was that nothing was what it seemed. Mama seemed to have gotten better, within hours. The healer had firmly believed in her making it out of her condition, despite his misgivings about the advanced state of her deterioration. Rebecca honestly believed that Eddie was her soul mate, despite the obvious signs that he was all soul, not mate material. Maybe it was time to think for herself. Time to decide, time to stop expecting the world to fall at her feet in a perfect pattern for her to follow.
It was time to leave, make her mark on the world. Papa wouldn’t notice, and quite frankly, she didn’t want him to. It was time to run, be free. It started with one move. She closed her eyes, and took that first step.
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