Alberto Daniels's short story "La Bruja" appears in Issue No. 56: Expression
Small bare feet, country dress, plaited black hair, silent Yardie eyes, motherless. Yet, you mothered nine children in a tiny old room of a tiny old house in Chorrillo. Boy, you had the Panamanians fooled, pretending you were one of them. You let yourself speak your English only in the house. Your bakes and your English teas, your Seventh Day Adventist! You traded them in for tarot cards, for a kind of mystical Catholicism. But you prayed to both the saints and to God, and sometimes you made the kids shut off all the lights at sundown on Fridays.
You found a way to keep them fed while George was on a ship in Africa. His checks were enough for a family of five. A family of five would’ve eaten for days, and would have the money for shoes when they couldn’t be patched anymore. But you had nine children, and some relatives left their children with you too: Minerva and the Paña woman’s two girls from next door. You couldn’t send them home. You couldn’t serve yours while they looked on. Those polite little girls never had to ask for the scraps you served, and God forbid they did. You probably would’ve killed yourself if you didn’t have enough. And you knew just how you would do it too, take one of George’s fisherman ropes and tie it from that hole in the roof where the water always dropped in. There was a beam there, even if the world blew away in a hurricane, that beam wasn’t going anywhere. You’d drop that thing around your neck and make the lights go out.
You would do it if you had to see even one child beg. But no, not La Bruja. Frances, she would. That knock-kneed country daughter of a West Indian canal worker, but not you, La Bruja.
Sometimes it seemed like the whole of Panama City’s kids were in your apartment around dinnertime. Crying and smiling and punching the walls, and screaming, and saying leave me alone, and saying I love you, and putting on beat-up aluminum skates that were too big for them. And putting a jar in the path of roaches to capture their funny walk and stare at them for a long time. You would do it, but what would your mother’s sister say, the one who raised you. It seemed those old-time Jamaican women never had a fear of nothing. Your auntie didn’t hurt or want for nothing when her husband died, when he got crushed by the railroad on the Zone. It seemed as if your whole face would melt from how much water came out of it when that happened, felt as if your throat would close up and disappear. But your auntie, not her. She didn’t even shake a little bit. And now you know why. Who would have the time with all these responsibilities, all these kids. These kids don’t deserve that, deserve to know how poor life really is, at least not in their own home. You fail as a mother if you let them know for even just a flash. So, you read your tarot cards, you got good at it too. You got so good that you began to think that you weren’t a fake. You slept with them in your hands, missing George and wondering if he missed you too. And goddammit, you knew he did. How could he not. But George had wondered on his visits back home where you had gone. Who was this La Bruja and where was Frances. Who was this woman whose Spanish was improving and whose patois now sounded like a burden.
Eventually, he’d leave you, even with nine kids. He’d leave you and have two kids with two different nigger girls from New Providence. And, yes, he came back, after it was all said and done. After the wrinkles in their faces got deep and their pussies smelled. By then, you weren’t the same smooth-looking mamacita you once were either, but you were stupid-in-love with him. You swear you never even looked at another man. Maybe Harry, but you would never be able to get anywhere close to Harry Belafonte. Harry was at least ten years younger than you. And ten years cuter than George. You took George back, but you always remembered he’d left. You always did.
Still you continued to pretend you were Paña when you weren’t. Makeup lightened your skin, rouge gave you a sexy look. You tied flowers and pieces of fruit to your head, and you resembled one of those campesina folk dancers while you read palms, promising wealthy people they would get what they wanted. People would come from faraway to see you and they would leave feeling overjoyed, as if they had seen the archangel Gabriel himself. And on the occasion that somebody’s venereal disease was cured, or tuberculosis skipped their house, they would come back to your door holding flowers, and you’d send one of your kids up there to tell them that your children did not eat flowers. That what they wanted most was a belly full of meat.
Eventually, they all turned out OK. Serena became a middle-school teacher, Reina got married to a wealthy Lebanese Panamanian and lived in a house in New York with a heated pool. Mauricio joined the US Army and just missed Vietnam, Fonsito robbed banks for the gangs in the old neighborhood before he became a preacher. He was never arrested, not even once. Diana worked for an insurance company and got the rest of them jobs. The ones that made it out of the neighborhood and made it to the States did just fine. And, the ones that didn’t, just didn’t. You couldn’t know if that had anything to do with you. It could all be your fault, who knows.
People with money, heads of provinces, desperate people with fancy titles came to visit your tiny old house. They all wanted to get cured or receive some good luck, or for you to say a prayer. You were a star. You really were. You became something of worth—a black woman made-good-something-of-worth. Now, when they brought the flowers, you put them on the kitchen table. When they brought the perfumes, you sprayed them on the children. Someone got you a small, expensive dog that you named Ella, and you carried her everywhere. And by the time it was time to move out and find a better place, George came home and said you were moving to the States. No way, you cried. You were La Bruja, and you weren’t to be messed with. Not with three of your children and now Ella there in the ground. The two miscarriages, you still mourned—you never got to know them. Lucky you, right? But Enrique. . . you knew Enrique.
Despite all of that, you still loved George, you still moved. But you thought of Harry singing, Daylight come and me wan’ go home. And of Harry’s long, handsome yellow face and those sap-colored eyes that made you feel like a young gal with something good to tease him with. You wouldn’t even giggle when George pointed with his lips at the TV and called him a fake Jamaican.
Five years passed in the States, then ten, then fifteen. You’d left La Bruja behind in Panama. George was happy, was always saying he got his wife back. He had landed a job as a courier in the Garment District, a good job that came with union benefits. The kids were long gone from your apartment on Franklin Avenue. But, occasionally, your boy Enrique would visit you in dreams, and you’d sleep longer, cry tears of joy before waking up, and you cried more while you made your breakfast. This was the 1980s. Sometimes in the middle of the night, there’d be a noise in the kitchen, the joyful screams of a boy jumping off a cliff and into the water. A feeling of relief when you heard his palms slapping the currents, doggy-paddling to shore. You’d get up to find that you’d forgotten to secure the cooking pots on the rack. Weeping, you’d pick them up, calling his name and asking why he had to leave so soon.
In 1958 he hadn’t come home, someone said he went for a swim. You and the rest of the children waited for him on the beach until the tide went out and came in again. Months before someone had raped your little boy. Someone had lured him from your apartment. They’d heard the noise and seen the many people coming in and out, and they’d scooped him and taken him away. Had he drowned himself because of the guilt? You don’t know. But you hoped it wasn’t because of you, your “strength.” At eight years old, had he known what you were feeling inside, that you were hiding everything?
George retired and was home all the time. When he got restless, he’d take you into the city with him, to the Garment District, and you’d sit and have coffee in a coffee shop. One day, you stopped at a vintage store and he bought you an old set of tarot cards. You took it with you into the coffee shop and you sat down and tried to read him his future. You tried and tried until your head felt strained with the feeling of rocks and glass, and your hand got cut from squeezing your palm against the deck. I’m sorry, you said. I can’t see it anymore. I can’t see anything. You wanted to make things up, but your mind was fixed only on the past. George moved to the seat next to yours and took you in his arms. He smelled like the past, of what was good about it, like when the two of you made all those babies. You stayed like that for a little while, until someone came to your table and said, Ma’am are you reading those cards? And you said, Yes of course. And suddenly your hands moved fast, and the cards seemed to float over the smooth Formica. And someone else came after that, and your hands got sweaty from excitement. And you could tell folks you’re not lying when you say you had a line full of people waiting on you to read their future. . . . Mon, they thought you were a genius! And, yes, you were full of shit. And, yes, some of them could see right through you. But when you looked up and saw Harry standing there in-line staring at you, you knew you had done something in your life. You just knew.
ALBERTO DANIELS is a writer born in New York City to Panamanian parents. Currently, he is enrolled in the Brooklyn College fiction MFA program and is at work on a collection of short stories about the Panamanian immigrant experience. His stories have been recognized in various writing competitions, including two from Glimmer Train. Since 2012, Alberto has owned and operated a successful Allstate Insurance firm. He and his wife Melissa live beside a lake on Staten Island with their two young children and a puppy.
Photo by Ibrahim Rifath on Unsplash.
Artful. Presented touching mental image of main character.
This is a moving character study, but the N-word feels so out-of-place and jarring. I wish you hadn’t made that choice, as after I read it, I couldn’t help ascribing a mean racism to La Bruja… which I don’t think was your intention? I also wish the editors at Ruminate had made the choice to remove or soften the word; why hurt people with its inclusion?
This made me think about my own mom. This was a very good read. Thanks for sharing
Comments will be approved before showing up. We don't allow comments that are disrespectful or personally attack our blog writers.
April 13, 2021
Awesome!!! I feel as if I were there!!!