There she stood, small, about five-feet-two-inches, her dark curly hair neatly secured with countless bobby pins, her wide smile cackling with energy. Her eyes met mine, fierce, burning with all the fires of the next world and the few of this one, the excitement of a thousand Arabian nights and the somberness of a Hundred Years of Solitude, ones who knew everything and anything. Ones that knew exactly what I was up to.
‘You’re here!’ she said, carefully, her thick, Nicaraguan accent bleeding through in English. ‘Como estas, mi muchachito?’
She walked over to me and embraced me tightly, her size deceiving her strength. I glanced over at Mother, who was inhaling deeply from her mug of what I can only assume was pure tequila, before looking over at a somewhat sedated Percy, her eyes glazing over and staring into space, and then onto Dee, who caught my glance and shrugged, offering a smile that told me there was nothing they could do either about this.
‘I’m good,’ I say, groggy, and mostly speechless, as she pulls away to look at me. Her eyes scan over me and through me, searching for words I’m not saying and not quite ready to say and she gives me an impish look. I have no idea how to react to this. ‘Trust me, I’m okay,’ I say, reassuring her. ‘When did…quando llegastes?’
‘You haven’t been checking your phone,’ says Mother, in a matter-of-fact way. ‘She arrived around an hour ago.’ She adjusts herself, still stiff while sitting down, as though restrained, before clearing her throat. ‘That’s how long we’ve been texting you.’
Maybe I’m drunk. Maybe I smoked too many cigarettes and that’s why I’m lightheaded and voiceless. But I can’t seem to register a single thought to say, even though millions of them are racing through my mind like the raindrops hitting the ground outside.
Abuelita, perhaps sensing my shock, walks me over to a spot on the couch and has me sit down, while offering me her mug. ‘Un poco de agua, si? Sienta te.’
I take the glass and do not drink, watching her sit down on the armchair opposite us. And then, a thought creeps into my head, a thought so foolish and absurd, I don’t know how to make heads or tails of it but I can’t help thinking it anyway, thinking that somehow, Abuelita was responsible for this storm. A cold wind from the east. An ill omen.
‘Abuelita was just telling us,’ began Dee, her eyes flicking between me and Mother. ‘About her trip over here.’ She swallows, before turning to Abuelita, who was sitting, straight and tall and egregiously, shaking her leg compulsively against the floor. ‘So, how was your flight, Abuelita?’
‘Hmm?’ Abuelita paused, before suddenly bursting to life. ‘Oh, si, good, it was good, gracias a los dioses.’ Her leg continues to shake against the floor while she hums to herself. It takes me a moment to remember that she has extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder.
A silence envelops us, one thick with unasked questions and words unspoken. A knife is needed to cut the tension. Luckily a knife comes in the form of Mother, who seems to have gotten her voice back.
‘So,’ she begins, casually, her voice cracking with an unmistakable awkwardness. ‘What, um, why did you decide to, ah…’
‘Why are you here?’ asks Percy, finally, as though bursting out of her self-imposed mental hibernation. I close my eyes. The subtlety of a sledgehammer, my younger sister.
Abuelita’s eyes change. She smirks, her smile growing wider and wider and wider until it seems unrealistic, until it takes over at least half of her face. ‘No lo sentistes?’ she asks, looking around. ‘None of you felt it? None of you at all?’ She looks at all of us, trying to draw us out. Her eyes flick over at the door, and in my mind’s eye I know for a fact that she’s looking at the two birds that form a crest just above the peephole, silver, forming almost an egg shape, with the words ‘GOD BLESS THIS HOUSE’ in the middle of it.
‘I know you felt it,’ she says, suddenly rising from her chair, holding a bony finger out as she approaches me. ‘The changing wind? The Juracan?’ She stands so small but seems to tower over everyone. ‘That’s why you moved here a week ago, right?’
In the time that I’ve been here, nobody had bothered to ask why I moved back home. Not my coworkers, not Noah, not Aleah, not Jamie the barista at the Library Café, not any one of the people who interviewed me. All I got were a bunch of ‘welcome back’s and ‘how do you like the sun?’. No interest whatsoever in why I left my carefully constructed lifestyle in New York, my sprawling network across all five boroughs, my friends, my adopted family, people I had handpicked and rigorously vetted before I allowed them all a deep, loving place in my heart. The sweltering summers, the white winter wonderlands, the first snow of the year, Fifth Avenue draped in holiday garb with the window displays each competing for which brand name can outshine the other (here’s a hint, Tiffany’s and Henri Bendel’s will always have the most photo tags on Instagram).
And yet, nobody stopped to think…why would anyone leave all that behind? Better weather is what most people assume. As though scorching sun over two-thirds of the year is considered better weather, with no change in breeze or the wind, with no difference in seasons, nothing about nature to let us know when Yule or Midsummer happen. California is where people stop and smile at you on their way to wherever it is they are going. A place where you meet someone and maybe they’ll keep in touch, instead of just letting you know exactly how they feel and where they stand. No bridges, no lights, no buildings that scrape the sky, challenging the gods of old to bless the people that made them with language and curse them with confusion.
No. Except for Mother and my sisters, nobody knew why I came here, nobody bothered to ask, nobody cared to ask. And, becoming evident with each passing second, I have a sickening feeling that Abuelita knows, too.
‘Did you really think you could hide anything from me?’ asks Abuelita, smiling radiantly, as though she had just heard the funniest joke in the world but could not laugh. Her eyes flicker from me over to Mother, who sits cooly on the couch, returning the same, intense stare her mother offered her. ‘Mija, que barbaridad, have you not forgotten where your gifts come from?’ She looks over at me, her eyes scanning all over, like an assault had been launched against my mind, trying desperately to tear down its walls and shields. I can feel pressure in my sinus cavity, a familiar pressure, as though I’m about to sneeze, as I try to remain strong.
Around Abuelita’s head are silver sparks, dancing to the song of the storm outside.
‘Which begs the question,’ says Mother suddenly, and I feel Abuelita’s invisible prying hands disappear as she turns to face her daughter. ‘How did you get here? Planes were grounded all weekend because of the storm.’ Her eyes narrow as she stares at Abuelita. ‘Did you leave your soaked broom outside?’
Abuelita laughs, throwing her head back as she does so, and her laugh seems to reverberate throughout the house, echoing along empty doorways and high ceilings. ‘Please,’ starts Abuelita, grinning wickedly. ‘These days, witches don’t fly on brooms, they fly JetBlue. And besides, it wasn’t raining all day. It’s only two hours from Dallas, which you’d know if you ever came to visit me.’
The barb definitely stings against Mother’s composure, but it does little to quiet her. ‘If I can remember correctly, you made it very clear not just six years ago that you did not want to hear from me, but also during Abuela Christie’s funeral two years ago.’
Six years ago…my high school graduation, first member of my family to graduate from an American high school. It was a proud moment for Mother and for Abuelita, marred by two things that nobody could change even if we tried. There was a deciding factor, you see; my step father, Roberto, was still in the picture. That was the last time Abuelita blew into our lives, flying on the winds of Summer. A good, strong set of winds, she believed, full of opportunity and luck and good fortune. What she didn’t realize at the time was that she flew into a mess, a warzone, a handful of grenades and land mines scattered everywhere. Black, wooden crucifixes, idols of the Holy Virgin, Rosary beads hanging on the walls, Jesus and the Immaculate Heart…Roberto’s work, nicely done, nicely done, stepfather, a perfect strategy for warding off a Mayan Witch. Simple, really. All you have to do to keep one at bay is transform your house into as close a Catholic church as you can get. She’ll never set foot in the house.
But she did. In fact, she stayed for over two and a half weeks, and as far as Roberto was concerned, that was two weeks too long. Pagan rituals, the cleansing of the air with incense, lots of salt went missing, and an inevitable showdown was imminent. At first, everyone believed the battle to be between Abuelita and Roberto. We were all wrong.
‘Tu esposo,’ began Abuelita, her face darkening as she registered the words that flew out of Mother’s mouth. ‘I – he was the one to – he made it clear from the moment I came in and visited for Lucas’ graduation, that I was not welcome in your home. Eso no es justo, Paulina. What he did to your family, eso no es justo. That was wrong and you know it. Soy tu Madre, hija mia. When did I ever raise you to let a man have the last word? To tell you that everything I taught you was wrong and false and incorrecto? To do what he says even if it’s wrong? How dare you let him force you to believe in something you don’t believe yourself.’
I left at the end of those two and a half weeks. I came out, he was Catholic, it’s not too hard to imagine what happened shortly afterwards. I had lost the showdown, I had not prevailed in battle. Not only was I no longer welcome in my home, but neither was Abuelita. Roberto had vanquished his enemies, those sowing seeds of discontent, those planting dangerous ideas in everyone’s heads, those ready to overturn the status quo and shake up the hierarchy. We were cast out like lepers from the colony, never to be heard from again, our photos removed from the walls, and Mother powerless to stop it.
Of course, the war wasn’t over. As far as I’m concerned, he lost the war. I mean, if you think about it, Abuelita and I have returned, welcomed (if you can use your suspension of disbelief to call her dramatic entrance and our coping mechanisms with tequila at two in the morning a ‘warm welcome’) by all. And where is he?
No longer under this roof as far as I’m concerned.
‘Mama,’ attempted Mother, quietly. Her face is softer, her guard down. ‘Things are…different now. Things have changed.’
And then, gentle, as soft as a freshly laundered comforter, Abuelita’s knowing voice emerged. ‘I know. That’s why I’m here.’ She pauses, looking at all of us. Dee and Percy are silent, sitting next to Mother, whose eyes are red and on the verge of releasing tears. She then looks at me, offering a kind smile, before glancing back at Mother. ‘Did you really think you could get sick and divorce your husband without letting me know?’
A brain tumor. That’s what they told me when I got that phone call three weeks ago. It was snowing in New York, early for the season by all standards, seeing as it was the second week of November. All bundled up in my forest green parka, I headed to a bar to see my best friend, Elliot. And that’s when I had received the phone call.
‘We need you home. We are not okay.’
I knew she was sorry. Percy had agonized over calling me before she finally made that decision. Stubborn and full of pride, like me, Percy is someone who never reaches out for help unless she is in a dire situation with no way to climb out. What compounded it even more was the fact that I had not been back home since I graduated high school. And this was the first time I was given the news that life was not okay back home. Not once in a conversation over the phone with any of them did they mention Mother’s tumor, or Dee’s depression, or Percy working sixty-hour weeks to keep everything afloat. Not once.
The situation was dire enough. I moved back home, because, well, is there really a reason? When you’re told your family is in trouble, isn’t the only answer that you can reasonably expect ‘yes I’m coming home’?
‘I’m here to help,’ says Abuelita, sighing happily. ‘I’m here for you. For all of you. El Dios Juracan sent me here to help out and that’s what I will do.’
Outside, I can hear the rain falling gently now, like a soft lullaby, ushering in sleep for the unrested. I watch Mother wipe a tear from her eyes as Abuelita walks over to hug her tightly.
‘Look,’ says Abuelita. ‘We can talk more about this tomorrow, okay? I’ll make breakfast.’
‘That’s a good idea,’ says Percy, yawning as she gets up and stretches. ‘I have work at ten tomorrow so I have to be up early.’ She looks over at Dee, who is snoring softly, her head uncomfortably resting against the neck of the couch. ‘Come on, Diana,’ says Percy, gently pulling her to her feet.
Abuelita leans in and hugs my sisters, kissing them both on the cheek, before sending them up the stairs as Dee murmurs ‘goodnight’. Mother follows them, before turning to Abuelita, who is still rooted on the spot in front of the chest.
‘You’re sharing my bed for now,’ says Mother. ‘Okay?’
‘Okay, mijita,’ replies Abuelita as Mother disappears up the stairs. She sighs again, before turning to look at me for a while. ‘You have a lot to learn, don’t you?’
Always. Every day. There’s always a new recipe to cook, a new menu to memorize, a new conversation to be had, places I’ve never been, things I’ve never seen. A book I’ve never read, a song I’ve never heard. A point of view I’ve never thought of. There’s always something to learn. ‘Sure,’ I say, though I know exactly what she means.
‘You have the gifts I have. Your mother may ignore them, but you don’t. And I will teach you everything I know.’
Her voice sounds a bit distorted, like a bad recording, and I feel a chill run down my spine. ‘How long are you here for?’
She shrugs, smiling, her dark eyes snapping with excitement. ‘Who knows? We are all Children of the Wind. We are known to stick together.’
And with that, her chest seeming to swell with pride, she turned to the set of stairs and began climbing them before turning to look at me one more time. ‘Goodnight, Lucas.’
Even if I wanted to sleep, I can’t. No rest for the wicked. Sleep is for the dead.