Carolina, Puerto Rico--1848
Pola waited until there was people silence. The other women in her cabin snored or lay motionless after a sixteen-hour day in the heat and sun. The men’s cabin across the way was dark and still. There wasn’t even the squeak, squeak of the hammock ties. The overseer of Hacienda Paraíso (hijo de la gran puta, may he rot in whatever hell he believed in), even he, was a man of habit. He had surely put his whips away for the night and was sleeping off his latest raid on the women’s quarters. La familia, well fed and comfortable, was lulled to sleep by the ever-present song of the coquís, which filled the unusually cool night air. The smell of the patrón’s last cigar of the night had long ago dissipated. The patrona, groomed and prepared for bed, had already dismissed the house slave with a flick of her hand. Now, she probably burrowed into her pillow abandoning herself to dreams. Pola could almost see them tossing in their bedroom finery, content in their white people dreams. Snores floated out of open windows all over the plantation. Lanterns were long ago blown out.
No moon tonight. Clouds hung low in the sky, blocking out starlight and reflections. Pola looked around the batey. Her eyes strained, searching out every shadow, every movement in the back yard. The chickens sat silently, safe in their coops. The stables were still. There were low snorts from the pigsty but soon those too quieted down. The herbs she’d sprinkled in their trough kept the dogs drowsy, disoriented and quiet. The night had settled into its rhythm. This time, she would make it all the way. This time, she wouldn’t be back.
Everything was in order. The time was now.
She looked around one more time, then took a deep breath and started out, brushing aside the painful images that trailed her. A rustling in the bushes stopped her mid-step. Frozen in place, she sent out her senses, making sure, taking no chances. She waited. The few moments of apprehensive stillness seemed interminable and in the space of that time, the painful memories rushed in on her. A girlchild, oval mouth closing over swollen nipples, a held breath, the faint sounds of sucking, her daughter. The sound in the underbrush brought her back. A pair of pitirres flew up into the trees and disappeared from sight. Relieved, Pola brushed away the memories and screwed her intent. She knew she couldn’t afford distractions. She continued her journey.
Her steps were slow and sure and soon she had cleared the open space of the batey. Pola stayed on the far side of the chozas, slipping from one hut to the next, hugging the tied palm fronds that formed the walls of the slave quarters, hoping that even if there was an unsuspected eye, she was just one more shadow in the night. Hoping she left no trace of her ever having been there.
The road was dark and empty. Few people wandered around on a night like this, dark and cool. Most folks sought the warmth and softness of their beds and bedfellows—something she had never known. Passing scattered farm houses, she crouched and listened for noises. And in those moments, the child came back into her mind a stray lock tightly curling into itself, tiny fists lying still against her black breast; a faint cry for food, a warm trickle in her hand.
Then she felt it, the sticky, slippery sliding between her thighs. She didn’t have to see the red to know she was bleeding again. She knew she would be leaving a trail that could be easily followed. By morning it would be a clear map to her movements in the night. It wouldn’t matter by then. By then she would be far beyond them.
She stretched to relieve the cramping in her limbs and began moving again. Calves still burning, she made her way, crossing one field after another until she reached the outskirts of the little town. The most direct path was diagonally across the plaza. But that was too dangerous, too much open ground. And you never knew about the priests at the church. They might be up all night praying for some hacendado whose soul was already damned to his eternal hell. No, she couldn’t risk that. So, her shadow crawled across the back walls of the village houses. She had to be especially careful not to get too close. Her scent would drive town dogs wild and that would be the end. She prayed that these people kept their pets indoors, like the patrones. ¡Salvajes! They treated their pets better than the ever treated me. No, can’t get distracted, breathe, Pola, breathe. She sent out all her senses, heard nothing, saw no one.
One more house before the beginning of the woods. She started out across the last of the yards when suddenly a back door opened and a large woman stood there holding a lantern and squinting into the night. She was trying to make out the movement in the darkness. Just then, the clouds shifted and Pola stood out clearly, caught in a stray shaft of star light. She froze watching the woman watching her. She held her breath, waiting for the call of alarm once again. But this woman didn’t call out an alert. This woman lifted her lantern, her round, black face showed her taking in all the details, and then registering something like understanding. Her face shifted and Pola could see the almost imperceptible smile. The woman peered to the right and left, making sure they were alone. Satisfied, she nodded her head, once, and made a swift sweeping motion with her hand. Then slowly, carefully, she puckered her toothless mouth and blew out the light. Then she turned back into the darkness of the kitchen disappearing as quietly as she had appeared.
Shaken, Pola stood rooted to the spot. She had been betrayed before by people who looked just like her. It took a moment for her to understand what had just occurred. When she realized there would be no footsteps following her, she was galvanized into action, quickly crossing the distance to the wooded area up ahead. Mercifully, the clouds shifted, once again blocking the light. As soon as she had cleared the houses and slid into the forest, she broke into a full out run.
Just when she began running, the cramping started. Her hand automatically went to her belly. No, not now! She couldn’t, she wouldn’t let it stop her. She had to push on. She had to get into some sort of cover. Finally she reached the forest that led to the ocean. And still she ran. She barely felt the branches slapping at her as she entered the woods, pumping her legs and arms until she thought her lungs would burst. She drove herself, pushing beyond the pain in her legs, beyond the burn in her chest, beyond thinking. The cramping now cut across her belly and finally brought her down on her knees. She breathed heavily through her mouth, taking in great gulps of air, hoping to contain the pain that was twisting in her gut. It took a long time for the aching to subside enough for her to get up and continue her run. If she didn’t get up now, she never would and then it really would be all over.
Then she heard it, the swishhhh of leaves in the night.
Refocused, she looked up ahead, passed the denser branches to the palmera with its tall and elegant trees framing the beach. Swishhhh, swishhhh, a thousand palm leaves filled the air and soothed her spirit. When she finally got her breathing under control, she sniffed the briny in the air, perfume; motherscent intoxicated her, pulling her onward. Long before she heard it the sound of the surf drew her to her destination.
Once on the beach, she forgot everything but the welcoming song of the waves. This was the realm of her sacred Mother Yemayá, the place of all forgiveness and all safety. Enveloped in the salty air, her body moved, almost in a trance, this time towards her destiny. Her legs took over. She barely felt the water as she continued her journey. The waves caress higher and higher on her body. Her arms out-stretched in supplication, she began her plea, Eternal Mother, Giver of Life, Granter of Dreams, Mother of all Mothers. The water rose steadily, over her knees, caressing her thighs. Far off, a small glowing curve in the darkness, San Juan lights twinkling in the night. But Pola only knew the sound of the voice, living in her head, flying out of her mouth like released butterflies. Have you forgotten me, your loving and devoted child? The dark water now saturated her bodice to just below her breast. You must know my anguish, my grief and my despair. Her steps were strong and steady even as the water rose to her shoulders. Bathe me in your loving waters, wash away my pain and relieve me of this torment. With the sea finally splashing her face, Pola came to awareness. She looked out at the open sea, smelled the salt in the air and listened for the song of the waves. In one swift moment, she considered it all, the danger, the pain, the darkness, the fear, and then she abandoned herself to the pull of the current.
Below the surface, the water was cool on her legs, her pubis and her arms. And she welcomed what was to come, relinquishing all will, blocking out all knowledge, turning deaf ears to the fear screaming in her chest. She allowed the dark waters to take her where they might. Do with me as you wish but remove me from this world of most unnatural people.
Slowly, the waters began to swirl, pulling her into an ever-widening dance. She yielded to Yemayá’s wisdom. The waters pulled her down, down, down, into the depths. And Pola rejoiced in the Mother’s benediction. There would be no more doubts, no struggles, no terror. There was no more resistance, no sight, no sound, only the warm embrace of the Mother, the going home. Her last thought was of the joy of surrender. She released her body and her mind and allowed herself to be taken, sinking gracefully. She was almost there.
And then, in the gentlest whirlpool, they came to her, finally, the babies. They came in silhouette, faceless, nameless, as they had been in life. Each floated up, arms extended, seeking her out, the woman who hadn’t protected them, the mother who had never been there. But no, they didn’t come in recrimination. They knew. They floated up, not accusing, but welcoming her, finally, guiding her home. She had found forgiveness. She had found redemption. She would let herself be taken, gently into the depths.
Then, somewhere there was a shift. She felt a swell, the waters surged, squeezed, pushed her, abating for a moment before pushing again, push, push, again and again, pushing, pushing her up, pushing her out. She was finally expelled into the air. And there were the rough hands waiting, grabbing and pulling at her. She gasped, her lungs sucking in one breath then another. The intake burned, as the air rushed into her lungs, bruising, burning her chest. The hands kept pulling and then she felt her cold body dripping wet, sticky wet. Exhausted and half naked, she was dragged across the sand.
She felt the hands clamped around her arms. When she found thought, she knew she had failed once again. She knew her prayers had dissipated in the wind. There was nothing else, nowhere else to go. Then she knew Yemayá had abandoned her forever. The Mother that brought her here had turned her back on her for the last time. Faith turned to an overwhelming sense of betrayal. Betrayal turned to anger, anger to fury and the fury that filled her spirit hardened into iron right there on the sand. There was no hope, no escape, no place to go but within. It had all been for nothing.
She made herself slack under those brutal hands, releasing the full weight of her body and soul, making herself heavy with her disappointment and her sense of betrayal. They tied her up and hoisted her onto a horse.
Pola closed her eyes and shut out the voices, knowing full well that from now on, there would be no way out. Ever.
Ms. Llanos-Figueroa is a novelist, memoirist and short story writer whose work is grounded in the Puerto Rican communities on the island and in New York City. Her longer narratives, though universal in nature, are heavily influenced by West African mystical symbology and 20th Century Latin American magical realism while her shorter pieces are grounded in urban realism.
A 2006-7 Bronx Council on the Arts Literary Fellow and three-time BRIO/ACE award winner. Her novel Daughters of the Stone was shortlisted for the prestigious 2010 PEN America Award. Most recently, her work has been included in Breaking Ground/Habriendo Caminos, an Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980-2012. The excerpt published here is Yemayá, Chapter One of her novel-in-progress, A Woman of Endurance. For a full list of publications please refer to her website.