In the summer of your birth, a huracan ripped through the Antilles and into the heart of the island; hungry hurricane fingers tearing open the island’s soft flesh, boring into the wet earth to claw at it’s roots, upturning centuries-old cieba and guaraguao trees. Woven into that mangled mess of tree limbs were the bodies of the very old tethered to the too young. Ropes still wound around their waists so they would not be separated in the storm. Bodies piled on top of bodies, face to face, their mouths gaping open as if in the middle of a secret one has yet to tell. Even el rio Loiza, woke from its sleeping spring stillness and rose through the swamps, red river clay claiming the cane, tobacco, banana groves; pulling our dead out to sea.
“Aguantate, Xiomara,” Doña Juta yelled. “Don’t let go of the rope!” I could barley hear her over the roar of the wind and the rain falling like stones, crushing the thatched roofs around us and Doña Juta’s bohio of magic.
Arms stretched overhead, I fought to keep my grip on the twisting rope as it flayed the palms of my hands.
“No. puedo” I can’t. My eyes grew heavy as the pain in my belly swelled. My body broke open. Blood trailed into the rush of rain. Slowly the rope began slipping from my hands and my heart, beating like a thousand hooves, nearly muffled the crash of thunder.
And then I heard him, your father, my Emilio, his voice soft, brushing against the back of my neck as if he were alive again, “Xiomara, mi Negrecita, listen.”
From somewhere I heard chanting as my body began to give itself to the earth. First, no louder than a whisper. Then rising over the wind, over the screech of zinc roofs whipping through treetops, over the screaming bodies of our townsfolk tossed like rag dolls in the wind.
“Oya, Warrior of the wind, Keeper of the storm, Protect, this child born of rain!” Doña Juta placed herself between my open legs.
“Oya, Warrior of the wind, Keeper of the storm, Protect, this child born of rain!”
Then it was inside me, rising through the soles of my feet, pulling, tugging at my matriz.
“Oya, Warrior of the wind. Keeper of the storm, Protect, this child born of rain!” My sex tore and something smooth, slick, like a river stone was pulled from inside me. Then your cry, bellowing above the rain.
“May we live and die to live again,” Doña Juta screamed as she separated you from my body with her teeth.
The last thing I remembered were her shaking hands placing you against my breast.
When I woke in the morning of that death, my body burned as if lightning had split me in two. The ends of the rope that tied Doña Juta and I together was frayed and she was gone.
“Juta,” I whispered. “Juta.” I strained to speak. Then I felt in the iciness of my bones that she had left this place. That was her last act of magic, delivering you to me. How perfect you came, with your father’s eyes, like obsidian glistening as if you were crying always. Daughter of the wind, you were a fierce warrior, and I called you Tempestad.
The sudden storm stilled just as quickly as it came; the silence so loud you could hear the earth settle into itself like un viejo, tired bones creaking; the ground gurgling with the blood of those whose lives were swallowed.
I walked through the ruins of the town, bohio after bohio, hut after hut toppled and pressed into grama made thick like stew with the muddied waters of the sierra and the carcasses of pigs, horses, townsfolk who still wore the asabeches Doña Juta fashioned in the darkness of a new moon, their bodies scattered like play things as if a child scooped up munecas only to toss them aside hungry for the next game. Though this was no child, but Oya, Goddess of Tempests, Diosa of the wild silver hair, sweeping souls into each filament let loose across the sea. And everywhere voices searching:
“Have you seen my boy?”
“My family. They were tied to this tree…”
Then the groups of Americans swarming in from “La Cruz Roja”, their red crosses gleaming under the fresh August sun. We all walked as if underwater, slowly, treading through that thick sadness, a devastation so great we thought nothing worse could come. We were wrong. Two years later, the island would be hit by a different type of storm, the American Depression. It would weave through our people like a sickness. Those who left the island in search of a better life would die without ever returning home.
I was wrestling Doña Juta’s pilon from the muck when I heard the screaming. The wooden mortar and pestle she used to crush her magic herbs was still in my hands.
“Witch woman! You brought this upon us!”
The townsfolk gathered around me, whispering, “Yes, yes!”
“I heard Juta’s voice call to O-O-O-ya,” stammering as they danced around the goddess’s name. “And now she’s dead.”
“See, she bore the child in the temporal!”
They edged closer. “Ha! That is no child! Es un demonio!”
“A demon-child! Do us a favor and join Juta!”
The stones came soon after, and I ran, deep into the mountains, alone, nothing but you and Juta’s pilon held tightly against my chest. Over the years, Juta had always reminded me, “Nunca caminamos sola, mi’jita.” The spirits of those we love never truly leave us. They walk alongside us, divided by the veil that separates the living from the dead. They are the flash in the corner of an eye, the knot in the deepest part of the belly that urges you on when you think you no longer can. And when it is our time, they are the voice that carries us over. It is your father who urges me to tell you this story, though he is long gone now. He sits with us here in the manicomio, where the screams of the mad bounce off the walls and drown into the sea.
It was several months after the storm before I found work laundering for the house of the Vidarte sugar plantation. Before then, we lived from hand to mouth and house to house. Life could have been easier for us had I sought employment on the plantation after the huracan since hundreds of hired hands perished in the storm. But your father always held a deep mistrust of the sugar planters, and it was easier to share the bed of many men in exchange for rice, beans, and some goat’s milk for you when my breasts ran dry, than to shame his memory. Besides, many wives had grown lonely in the solitude of marriage and would not turn away company especially if she was a young mother with child. But after a wronged wife stood over us one night with a machete poised over her head spitting, “Salte, puta!” I prayed to your father for forgiveness and knocked on the door of the sugar planters that he had labored for during his youth. The Doña of the house was distant, and rigid as if an iron rod were soldered to the flesh of her back. In exchange for washing her undergarments (taffeta dresses and fine lace were reserved for family servants she could trust), she would give me bags of yautia, pigeon peas, or fresh coffee assuring me this was the best her family could do as money and meat were scarce then, though every so often I would catch the unmistakable scent of a roasting lechon or meat patties frying in pig fat.
Aye, what can I tell you of that house? Luxury I had never thought possible! Though never allowed to set one barefoot onto the marble-tiled entryway, I would always be able to steal glances when I collected the sacs of stockings and garters left under the trellis of the garden. From there, I could see the beveled mirrors framed in gold, the heavy mahogany dining room table made lush with margaritas and vibrant amopolas, bowls of ripe juicy mangoes inviting a swarm of flies. But the crystal chandeliers were our favorite, perfect blue teardrops glinting in the crisp morning sunlight. Do you remember how we danced to their tinkling? I would try to deliver the wash by dusk, just when the trade winds were at their strongest so we could glide to the symphony of glass against glass. Your body would be strapped to mine in the blue silk rebozo the Doña tossed out her window once in a fit of rage. I ran to snatch it as it floated from her window like a kite, before it could land among the bushes.
La Doña put us up in a hut by the river. Save for Juta’s pilon, which I used more for crushing herbs to season soups than for magic, and two straw bed mats, the room was bare. Yet to me it was more luxurious than Doña Vidarte’s house. For a girl who had nothing, calling something her own was a magic stronger than anything Juta could have conjured.
Those were happy times, hija, waking to your cooing, your little hands de manteca reaching to grab my nose, pulling at my unruly hair. Every morning, we’d bathe in the river and collect stones along the banks to place under our one window. This to keep unwanted spirits out of the house. Even the rude boys in bare feet who’d razz a single girl and her baby living in the woods could not take my happiness away, “Hey, mamao-cita,” they’d tease, pulling down their pants and gyrating their pelvises in our direction.
“Here’s something sweet for the baby to suck on!” “Oh, how cute,” I’d holler back, ”Little balls no bigger than canepas!” And I’d continue on, shaken, but squeezing the river stones in the pockets of my apron, giving me the poison of a snake’s tongue.
Once, I caught the oldest boy, a bedraggled and sad little worm no older than thirteen, pissing on our hut, urging the others to follow his lead, “Try to shoot it through the window!”
But when I emerged burning a lamp of eggs and cinnamon, speaking in the language of spirits, they ran in fright, tumbling over each other. A dust-cloud of pants tangled around ankles.
Una bruja! Una bruja!” A witch woman! A witch woman, they cried. And I’d laugh feeling Juta in my blood again and the strength of your father in my bones. Then I squeezed your round cheeks until they turned pink and dotted each of your black eyes with one kiss. If only Juta had taught me the art of divination before she left her body, I could have seen clearly what was to come. But I was blind. Then, like the storm that came so fiercely and passed so suddenly, you were gone just like your father. Layers of me were stripped away slowly as if I were shedding the shell of my body, ready to leave this place. But it was not my fate to die yet. Your father had other plans for me.
Emilio. Even now, my body warms to think of him, my cheeks flush blooming that same riot of red Doña Juta and I would dye our underwear in on the feast day of Santa Barbara. He was the youngest of fourteen and one of three left after sereno claimed his brothers and sisters with influenza or the tuberculosis, that dreadful lung-eating disease. Emilio was the last child to stay in our small mountain village with his mother after his two older brothers left in search of a better life in la Nueva York. “We’ll come home soon, Emilio, and send you and La Vieja money.” But Emilio never heard from them again and was left with his vieja, a woman gone mad after she found her husband lying with a younger cousin across the graves of their children. His father made his way to the railroad towns soon after that, “I’ll come home soon, Emilio, with money for you and La Vieja.” And Emilio watched his father’s bent body move farther into the distance. Later, he heard they found his father floating blue-belly up. Throat slit. An example of what not to do in a game of dominoes. A cheater in every way. La Vieja would spend the rest of her days roaming the cemetery in sereno among the ruin of their love, calling to her husband, “Anibal, Anibal, ” They say sereno robbed her of good sense as she pulled her bata over her head, folding it into a neat little square to sleep in nakedness alongside her children. The townsfolk called for Emilio to collect her soul. One morning her heart crumbled, and la vieja was laid to rest among the stones of her sons and daughters. After that, Emilio lived alone, at the foot of the mountains in his house of rotting wood and tin roof. He cut cane as we all did during those years, a boy-man all sinew and bone, a true hijo de Chango.
I first saw him in one of the many rows he had with the mayordomo. Always fighting with the overseer, always getting himself into trouble!
“Negrecita, you forget what crooks they were! Pocketing our money for half the work we did bregando con la cana! We were hungry! How did they expect us to work the cane with rumbling bellies?”
Hush, now, Emilio! Daughter, please forgive the voice of your father. It was never enough for him to let someone else tell a story, always interrupting to make sure it was told right.
“Then, tell it right, mujer. You can’t go on leaving out the most important parts.”
Aye, Dios Santo, Emilio! I won’t be able to tell her anything if you keep interrupting!
Well, mi’ja, your father is right. We were all hungry then. The mayordomo had just finished a lunch of sausage and platano. I remember this because that morning I sustained myself on a biscuit and a strong brew of hedionda Doña Juta had bottled for me the night before while I stretched the viandas of boiled bananas and yucca for my fourteen brothers. In town, merchants no longer offered credit. It was cash upfront or nothing at all. Even the scraggy and senile chickens confusing pebbles for corn called a high price.
Your father had just emerged from the boiling house. Peeling off a torn shirt from his sweaty sun-baked back, he approached the mayordomo.
“Jefe,” he said, “our pay not coming this week? We have debts to pay, too. Mouths to feed.”
“Calmàte. You’ll get your pay, bembon.”
The Jefe did not respond but chewed his tobacco, rubbing his fat, sweaty neck with his stubby fingers. Then, with eyes fixed on Emilio, he spit a black glob of chaw and fatty sausage bits onto your father’s shoe.
The workers crowded around your father.
“Let it go, pai. Don’t meddle with the boss or none of us will eat tonight.”
But un hijo de Chango does not take insults lying down and rammed into the Jefe’s gummy flesh. When Emilio came to, he found that he was left alone. His compadres had fled the scene. It’s true what they say. In times of hunger, pride is a premium very few can afford. I sat under the shade of the boiling house waiting, and when he stirred, I took him to Doña Juta to nurse his wounds.
“Marrallo parta! What is that?!” Emilio yelped.
Doña Juta rubbed a thick salve of lemon and silver into his scraped and bruised skin, singing to herself while thumping her bare feet on the dusty, dirt packed floor of her hut. “Aye, bendito. See, mi’ja, how tough they pretend to be?” She shuffled to the other side of the room, fussing over her pilon, the mortar and pestle her great-grandmother gave her. Emilio caught me staring into his eyes, black like obsidian, glistening something gentle and sad as if he were always crying. But I did not lower my eyes as a good and humilde, or humble jibara would. Instead, I smiled and blushed, feeling every bone in my body tighten, my inner thighs growing moist. He smiled and turned to Juta.
“Are you a witch woman?”
“I’m many things, but not half as stupid as you,“ Juta said as she walked toward him, crushing a naranja leaf into a bowl of oil to press to his brow.
“What is that?”
“For your hard head.”
“Tch, Tch…Not so funny. It could’ve been worse. You’re just like this one,” she reprimanded, flicking her hand in my direction, “headstrong and too smart. It’ll be the end of you both.” She placed the bowl of orange scented oil in my hands,” Here, you take over or I’ll have to use this for the headache that you’re both giving me.” I dipped my hand in the orange oil and lifted a shaking palm to his brow, our gaze locked as Juta walked outside, muttering under her breath, “Los dos me vas a volver loca!”
And how we drove her crazy! We became inseparable after that. Meeting at the river’s bend night after night, sereno, at our backs. Juta always warned us against going into that night-air. “Cuidado, nena”, she’d say,” Sereno te vuelves loca. It will land you in the manicomio! It seeps into the brain and crawls into the chest to eat your lungs!”
But what did two people in-love know of an old witches warning?
“Aye, por favor! Sereno,” I’d bark back, “That’s just silly bruja talk!”
“Te lo juro nina, sereno will eat you alive if the mosquitoes don’t get to you first!”
But knowing how willful we both were, she gave up, and instead slipped shawls into my sac to cover my head so that sereno would not seep into my brain. She forced me to drink potions under the guise of teas so that sereno would not eat my lungs.
“But Doña Juta,” I’d whine, ”I’ve already had four cups!”
“Ah, shut up and keep an old woman company,” she’d say though she never touched her cup. Instead she watched me intently to make sure I drank to the last drop. Sometimes, when she thought I was not looking, she shook violently behind my back to ward off the spirits she claimed sereno attached to the soul. I began losing patience with her. Brushing her off and, what I thought, was her old woman senility. Only later, after everything, did I realize how much she loved me.
Aye, but those nights! Emilio, I still remember the first time you showed me how to love.
“Negrecita, you were young and impatient.”
But you were a good teacher. That first night I was so nervous.
“Meet me at the foot of the mountain, where the river bends,” you said.
I told my mother I was spending the night with Doña Juta and then went to ask Doña Juta if vinegar was really a remedy against pregnancy.
“Now, girl, why would you need to know that?”
“You know these towns-girls. Too embarrassed to ask a woman of your age, they ask me.”
But she knew I was lying, and later, I would find vinegar-soaked sponges wrapped in the shawls Juta snuck into my sac.
I came to you that night with a bottle of strong rum someone had left hidden in the cane. I wanted to show you I was just as worldly as the whores in town. They were louder, smarter and could hold their own against any man.
“But you passed out after the first sip, negrecita.”
And when I woke, you were unwrapping me, carefully. First the shawl, then slowly unbuttoning my blouse, your mouth hot against mine. Rough palms softly cupped my breasts. When sereno playfully lifted the folds of my skirt, you slipped your hands in between my thighs, and I thought I would die of ecstasy. I memorized your body then, the curve of neck, the hard brown knot of nipple, the sour musky scent of your sex. My back arched, and I opened, floating to the inky sky, so close I could reach up and grab a pocketful of stars.
“Negrecita, I loved you the moment you pressed that dreadful orange oil to my brow,” you said. We laughed together and you curled into me like smoke.
Every night after that, this is how your father and I met, and in this love you were conceived. Soon after, he proposed marriage. My ring, a piece of tin from an old cigar box. We made plans those nights, belly to belly, our limbs and thighs tangled into a knot. Your father wanted us to wed alone, a private rite, at the place we first loved. So the next morning, after the first storm of the summer, I went into town to buy fabric for a wedding dress. I didn’t have much, and couldn’t afford shoes, going barefoot to save the one pair I had. Oloddumare must have been looking down on me that afternoon because on the way home I found a piece of silk left in the rain. I scoured the pages of the Sears Roebuck and Company catalogs, clipped out the pictures of film stars in “La Democracia” newspapers and, finally, asked Juta to bless the union.
“You’re not going to a church?” she asked
“That’s nonsense. We’ll wed alone, then tell everyone.”
Juta was preparing another pot of tea for me, straining the bitter herbs into calabash shells. “You young people don’t make any sense.” Then she sat down and lit a cigar, “But, if that is what you want, mi’hijta, then tomorrow, come after the first rooster crows, and I will bless your union.” She smiled and placed her knotted hand onto mine. “Now, sit down and keep an old woman company.”
On the night of our marriage, I ran to meet your father at our place, where the mountain met the sky. Even from a distance, I could hear the coughing, the rattling in a hollow chest. When I found him, he was doubled over, but when he saw me, he straightened, intent on masking his pain. But the dark drops of blood spotting his new, crisp, white guayabera betrayed all that. I knew, the way Juta knew that espiritus were near, that his days were numbered. I knew that the lung eating disease had set in. I knew we had made mockery of sereno. I knew sereno was now claiming what was rightfully his.
Doña Juta saw this, too, but in her kindness, did not mention the countless times she told us to stay out of the night air. Emilio worsened as the weeks went by. He became half his size. Doctors would not come to our village and when the townsfolk found that your father was stricken with the lung-eating disease, they wanted nothing to do with us. Even my own mother forbade me to set foot in her home lest I bring the disease to them. That was how I came to live with Juta those months your father was ill. But it was clear we could do nothing for him in our village, and the only place that was taking those with tuberculosis was the manicomio. It stood in the old city that skirted the sea. The sea air would be good for him, they told your father. He would get better. Then, we could marry. But I felt the iciness settle into my bones and knew. Juta rented a horse and wagon to take us into the old city.
It was a day’s journey, Juta at the reigns the entire time. By then, I found I was with child.
“Amorcita, she will be as beautiful as you,” Emilio smiled trying to squeeze my hands.
“She’ll be a pain in the ass is what she’ll be with parents like you!” Juta yelled from her perch at the head of the wagon, “What a fine mess this is. I’m too old for this mierda!” She lit a cigar, peering at the sun, guessing how much time we had before nightfall. She loved us both and behind her firmness, I could tell she was hurting, too. Emilio fell into interminable fits of coughing. We ran out of rags, so I tore my dress to soak the blood that trickled from his slack mouth. And through it all, your father still tried to laugh, still made plans.
“After I get better, we’ll move by the sea. We can’t count on anyone in town. The change would be good for us.”
I looked at the sky trying to warm myself against the chill of shadows that followed close behind us.
The manicomio lay hidden behind a veil of rain that pummeled the earth. From a distance, it looked like a fistful of clay, an unfinished piece of work left to rot by God himself. I threw my body over Emilio’s to shield him from the sea winds that pushed the rain in droves over us, a stampede that forced Juta to hurry the horses with the strip of leather she wound around her waist.
“Hold on!” she yelled, moving us up the steep hill that led to the manicomio. As we came closer, I could see dark clouds swooping in and out of the tiny barred windows of the asylum like diablotins, little devil birds calling to the spirits in the dark.
We were greeted by a small, soft-spoken doctor with a faraway look in his eyes. I barely opened my mouth when he announced, “Tuberculosis.” He quickly snapped his fingers in the direction of a group of women who were dressed in voluminous white gowns with blue aprons spilling over their breasts like water. They fluttered to Emilio like a circle of doves and carried him away to a small room that overlooked the sea.
The doctor and nurses did everything from injecting his lungs with sea air collected in glass viles to feeding him butter from cows that grazed churchyards. They even kept him separated from us in layers of mosquito netting. But your father kept wasting away into his feverish nightmares. His screams rivaled the screams of the mad in the next wing. It was only Juta who saw his soul slowly detaching itself from the body.
“Enough, mi’jita. He’s tired. You must let him go.”
After, we told the nurses to stop their daily treatments, but Doña Juta and I continued keeping vigil by his bedside.
That night I dreamt Emilio and I were lying at the foot of the mountain. He kissed me passionately, but I tasted metal. As he pulled away ribbons of blood stretched between us. I tried to speak but as my lips parted, a handful of teeth fell slow, like raindrops from my mouth. Plip, plop. Then they fell harder, bloody, chunks of carne still attached. Emilio just smiled, a gaping hole where his mouth should have been. When I woke, I knew he would die that morning. I walked towards him, and for the first time since we arrived, felt the air turn cold.
“Los espiritus are here,” I told Juta.
“Yes, mi’ja. It’s his time.” She walked out of the room to allow me my final farewell.
I walked towards Emilio’s bed and pushed aside the rags of black blood piled high in a tin bucket. My Emilio, who once defended himself against the choking cane, who swung punches at the greedy mayordomos, who loved me with such ardor, was now as small as child, so small, I could have cradled him in my arms the way I did you, mi’ja, when you were born. I lifted the netting that separated us, and crawled in alongside him.
Nurses flew in and out, “Get out of there, girl!” they warned. “You’ll get it, too!” Maybe it was the resolve in my eyes, or maybe it was the fire of Chango, but when I looked at them, they backed away slowly.
He felt for my hand. I pressed his palm to my cheek, kissing his long and withered fingers. “Negrecita, I loved you from the first moment you pressed that dreadful orange oil to my brow,” he said. We laughed and I curled into him and he became smoke.
“Negrecita, don’t cry.”
Aye, Emilio. I relive that moment every night, and when Juta demanded that they wrap your body in sheets and slip you into the sea, I felt I would lie at the bottom of that sea forever. But Juta had enough sense for us both, “Mi’jita,” she said. “Death is only a beginning. You must be strong for the child now.”
And I was strong for you, Tempestad. I drank the teas of jenibre and onion that Juta prescribed, ate papayas with cinnamon and wore the asebeche of the red stone to protect you from the mal de ojo. But I could not protect you from your fate.
My grandmother never cries. She is a strong-willed and feisty Puerto Rican woman. Silence is her weapon and she guards her memories well, gathering secrets into the knot of her heart. One humid night, on the eve of Hurricane Hugo and shortly after my 13th birthday, that knot began to unravel and with it the stories of her past. Manicomio is inspired by the secret language of ancestral spirits.
After receiving a B.F.A. in Theatre Arts from NYU, Nicole ventured into the literary world as a participant of the 1998 WILL (Women in Literature and Letters) summer conference. Founded by Angie Cruz, Marta Lucia, and Adelina Anthony, WILL was a brilliant collective of women writers of color. Their experience with, and knowledge of, the Caribbean and African diaspora helped to shape Nicole’s voice. She drew upon her own Puerto Rican heritage and the stories gifted to her by her grandparents. There, under the creative guidance of poet and guest teacher Lorna Goodison, Nicole began crafting her stories through poetry.
Soon after WILL, Nicole moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. She performed in various theatrical productions in both Los Angeles and New York, and starred in several independent films, which have been showcased in festivals across Europe. Over time, Nicole discovered that her understanding of character would come to play an invaluable role in her work as an emerging writer. Her stage work allowed her to craft characters in a more visceral and organic way.
In 2004, Nicole came back home to Nueva York for graduate studies, receiving an MA from Columbia University with a specialization in Intellectual Disabilities and Autism. She is now a curriculum coach and mentor for New York City’s district 75, a branch within the department of education that services students with special needs. Nicole draws inspiration from these experiences, as well as her world travels, and seeks to transport readers and make them witness to other worlds. She is currently working on two picture books, a young adult novel, and a play.