Cast of Wonders 376: The Ways of Walls and Words (Banned Books Week)
The Ways of Walls and Words
by Sabrina Vourvoulias
“If it were not for Thee, what would become of me?”
She’s not speaking to me when she says this. Her poetry nests behind a prison’s walls. I am an unknown noise on the other side of her door—the only spot where sound enters or exits her world—a sweep of bristle against wood, some transitory trace of life that has nothing to do with her.
She and her people are in cells lined along a corridor in the deepest reaches of the convent. On occasion the mentally disturbed have been kept here, tended to and made safe by walls so thick they are more than an arm’s length. These people, however, are all one family: a mother; an adult son; four older daughters; and this one, who has spent nearly half her life in here.
That was all the information the Dominican Brothers shared with me the day I started. Except that I must not attempt to speak to the girl or her family through their doors. The Brothers made me swear this before I swept even one stone.
In the language I share with jailer and jailed, my name is Bienvenida, though my Nahuatl name is different. By the Brothers’ reckoning, it has been 1,562 years since the death of God.
As I sweep in front of the locked doors, I don’t really think of who is behind them, or why. I think of my traps and whether they are filled or empty of food. I think of the lessons my mother teaches me, because I am the eldest and must care for my siblings if something happens to her. I think of how many chambers are left for me to clean before I can get back to the turquoise and emerald of our world. A world filled with living gods, not dead ones.
Though that, like everything else, is changing.
But if the timing is just right, if I’m by the door as the girl recites her poems, I wonder about her then.
Is she like me, alive for words? Someone who believes in offers of beauty? Who trusts that a perfect couplet will prompt the gods to fulfill its meaning?
I sweep. I wonder. I think about the ways of walls and words.
This Day, For It Is Your Day
I say the names aloud, so I won’t forget, and so the walls know who we are: Francisca, Luis, Isabel, Leonor, Catalina, Mariana, and Anica.
My name is Anica but I bear others too: one from the land my forebears claim as home; one for our hidden heart; one for the many times that heart has been betrayed.
I was born where the water shapes the coast of New Spain, the only one of us natural to this New World. Eight generations of our family lived along a different coastline—the Iberian one my mother still talks about—so the sea is part of us. I learned young to mix salted water into dough and knead it with a rhythm that pulls and crests.
When we moved inland to the greatest city in New Spain, my mother shed enough tears to harden the crusts of many loaves.
It was a shift from the domain of one element to another. This city is guarded by mountains that open their mouths to spew fire. After she wiped away her tears, my mother taught me to consign a piece of dough to the flame before baking. Though it might seem so, it is not a concession to our new home nor its governing element.
What my mother teaches is deeper than element or place.
We are behind these walls because we sweep the house clean on Fridays. Because we light two new candles before sunset, and bless our wine and bread at the table. Because, when we are done, we hide what none but family may see behind locked wardrobe doors.
When we say Dyó, we mean one, not three.
Someone took our tale to the Holy Office. That is what my mother thinks. My brother believes it was not a story but success that betrayed us, and my sisters accuse each other’s husbands. In Old World or New, the outcome of attention from Inquisitors is the same. In a plaza full of people, we were ordered into captivity. To renounce and reconcile.
Conversos. New Christians. Judaizers. Marranos. Anusim. There are many names for us. I hardly know myself what name to use. Except family.
At first I tried to do as the priests commanded. But I cannot go days on end without saying prayers the way I was taught, and I do not believe my mother would go even one. On the first anniversary of our imprisonment, after hours on the rack, my eldest sister Isabel confessed what everyone already knew: forced conversion is not faith. What resides where no human hand can touch it cannot be forsworn.
I look out my window now and, instead of an empty sky caged by bars, I imagine the leaves of our fig, pomegranate, and lemon trees fluttering there. My mother bought them dear, right off one of the Spanish ships, then planted them in our courtyard so that they would rub lovingly against one another when the wind blew. None had yet given fruit when we were taken from our home, but I picture globes of brilliant red, ovals of green, and sweet, dark teardrops hiding among their leaves. I pretend I am swallowing the sparkling, rubied seeds of the first, and reaching for the scion of the last amid its fragrant greenery.
And for a moment, by the power of memory and imagining, the sun pours down on my shoulders as it does on those of the free.
There are many hours in a day. When my imaginings turn sour, I fill the emptiness with the cantigas my mother and sisters and I used to sing together, for these are made for women’s voices and women’s work—the work of keeping things alive. When evening falls, the songs turn into to my brother’s words: prayers once celebrated in literary societies, praised for their clarity. “Las palavras klaras, el Dyó las bendize,” we say, and I hope it is true.
Let the harsh chains be smashed;
this day, for it is your day, has to be the day of forgiving.
Only I change the last word. Instead of forgiving I say escaping, and in my mind, I grow wings.
We Unwind the Jewels
The slab and block with which the Spanish have hidden our ancestral city is full of fault: it does not fit together without seams. The gaps between the stones of the cells are sealed with a paste that cures hard, but begins to crumble with time.
The mortar between the stones near the girl’s cell door needs a bit of coaxing. I work at it with my broom until I clear a small gap. I squat to look through, then whistle to get her attention.
“Aquí,” I say. Here. The edict that the Spanish should learn Nahuatl still stands in the city, but the reality is that most of them won’t. There is power in words, and they want that power to be shaped to their speech, not ours.
The girl gets up from her bedding, follows her ears.
She is my age, or perhaps a bit older, but not too many years after first blood. Her hair is curly, even around the mats. She is no beauty by Nahua standards, but the Spanish seem to admire skin like hers—lustrous like the inner chamber of a shell. Her garments are filthy, but except for her hair everything else about her is tidy. It must take her a long time to scrub clean with the water the Dominicans provide for drink.
She drops down so her eye meets mine through the hole.
“Your poems are beautiful,” I say.
“They are prayers,” she answers.
“Of course. Our Nahua poems are too,” I say. “Would you like to hear one?” I recite it in Nahuatl, then translate it: “We take, we unwind the jewels, the blue flowers are woven over the yellow ones, that we may give them to the children.”
In the quiet that follows, I hear her hitched breathing. All of them breathe that way. Breath caught between walls is what my mother calls it when the Nahua who work in the city’s mills come to her for treatment. She can’t cure it, only lessen it with anacahuite.
“I miss the moonflower and morning glory vines my mother planted so they twined all around our courtyard,” the girl says. “Are there many flowers where you live?”
“No,” I say. “But sometimes the trees fill with blue and yellow butterflies, and then it is as if they are in bloom.”
She closes her eyes to picture it behind her lids.
“How is it you speak Castilian so well?” she asks when she looks at me again.
“My mother says I was blessed with a quick mind just to torment her.”
“My mother says that to me too.” Then, “Used to say it.”
“She is in the cell next to yours,” I say, motioning at the wall to her right. “If she is taken to be questioned you will be able to see her pass by through this hole I’ve made.”
Her face twists. “I must hope never to see her, then.”
“How is it you are here?” she asks after a time.
“I was recently considered converted enough to clean for the Brothers.”
“The Dominicans are mostly concerned that we repeat exactly what they say in exactly the way they say it. My mother tells me I sound like a parrot.” When the girl doesn’t smile, I add, “My real words come from her.”
I can tell my answer troubles the girl because she turns her face away from the gap and says something under her breath. Not in Castilian.
When she turns back, her face is hard. “If you come again and recite more of your poems for me, you must not include mention of any pagan gods. Are we agreed?”
I nod even though I suspect she knows a poem doesn’t have to mention the gods to be meant for them. “You liked my poem then?” I say.
“I like that it brought the outside in with it.” Then, “You know what I miss even more than flowers and trees?”
“My mother used to spend an hour running a comb through my hair every night before I went to sleep.”
“I have something you can use,” I say. I take the small comb from where I stick it in my nest of braids and push it through the gap.
“Thank you,” she says, “but that’s not really what I meant.”
“Take it anyway,” I say.
“It is so small and my hair is so snarled. It’ll probably break.”
“No, it won’t,” I say, getting to my feet so I can start my work again. “The turtles around here are tough, and so are the combs I make from their shells. Still, if you want, I can give you a charm to say so your hair untangles as easy as water pours from a gourd.”
I hear her nervous laughter. “No. No magic.”
I want to tell her it’s all right. That magic, like poetry, is a gift from the gods. But then I remember where I’m standing. Neither gods nor gifts abide between these walls.
With the Keys of Abraham
Bienvenida’s daily visits have become everything to me.
She brings more than just the images that form in my mind when she recites her poetry. Despite the meals the silent priests bring twice a day, I am always hungry, so she secrets morsels of food in the folds of the sash under her tunic. She passes the day’s tidbit through the gap between the stones with such reverence, I bite my lip to stop myself from laughing at her odd ways.
“Food can be as strong a magic as poems,” she tells me, when she notices my facial contortions.
I nod, even though magic, as we know it, is the province of men. My mother cannot leap from bread-making to alchemy, nor from siddur to kabbalah, though she is accounted nearly as wise as my father was.
What Bienvenida brings with her is strange fare: Grasshoppers roasted crisp and dusted with a salty, spicy ash; cactus fruit with lurid flesh; even a small, greenish steamed pudding made of corn, pumpkin, and honey, wrapped in a leaf. I turn down the chunks of dark turtle meat she brings me though.
When I push the unclean meat back at her, she takes it, pops the chunk into her mouth and starts chewing it loudly. It occurs to me that this isn’t just an expedient way to get rid of it. She’s really hungry.
“Of course I am,” she says when I ask her. “After the encomendero takes our tribute, there isn’t much, and some days my traps are empty. I have three siblings.”
Before I can say anything, she adds, “Plus, turtle meat is like no other. Yesterday Fray Antonio said I had left dirt pushed into the corners of the refectory so he grabbed a stick but, because I had eaten turtle meat the day before, his blows rained off my back as if from a shell.”
At my snort, she gives me an obstinate, hard look. I’ve learned that when she gets angry she doesn’t raise her voice or huff away, as I would. Instead, she goes quiet and everything about her seems to turn darker. She scares me a bit.
The silence between us draws out until I ask about her progress in creating gaps in the other cell walls. She hadn’t intended to create any, but I’ve asked her to. Because these are the thoughts I worry most between her visits: if my family is alive; if they stand; if they are still themselves.
“A small hole in the wall to your mother’s cell,” she answers. “And an even smaller opening in another, which houses one of your sisters. The other walls are too freshly sealed.”
“The one they say has eyes like water.”
“Mariana,” I say. “Have you been feeding her and my mother as well?”
“No. Are you asking me to?”
I remember the hungry look when she gobbled down the turtle meat and still I say yes. She is my friend and, some days, all that keeps me from despair—but that is no bond compared to the one among family.
“I have to go back to work,” she says after a moment, and gets to her feet.
She’s told me that along with sweeping the hallway of cells, she’s responsible for cleaning the Brothers’ whole convent, from top to bottom. Except for the chapel. She says she’s fortunate it is only a convent and not a full priory or her cleaning would burn all the hours of sunlight.
“What does your mother owe that she would agree to let you be worked this hard?” I say. It’s half query, half sympathy.
Bienvenida shakes her head as if she doesn’t understand. “We owe everyone. We’re a rope of people, all woven together. Even the Brothers are part of the rope now.”
After a moment, she continues. “My mother’s knowing is a debt owed to the gods. She cannot turn her back on those who come to her—sometimes on their knees—begging a cure. And when Fray Bernardino comes to her to learn herb lore, that teaching is owed too.”
“But she could still do what she does elsewhere, and more happily if she were farther from the priests. Couldn’t she?” I ask after a moment. Maybe in saying this I’m really wondering why my brother and mother chose for us to stay here, even after my father died and his brother asked us to join him in Nuevo León, far from the threat of Inquisitors.
“I already walk a long way to get to my work here,” she says. “More than an hour according to Fray Bernardino, though maybe his long legs make it shorter for him than for me.”
“I meant even farther away,” I say. “Days and days away from here.”
“Tonalxochitl. Cuachachalate. Tlachichinole,” Bienvenida recites. It sounds like her first poem, the one she had to translate for me.
“Those are only some of the plants that root my family where we are,” she says. “We would never abandon them.”
“Things of the earth,” I scoff. “They’re created for us, not us for them.”
The look she returns is full of disdain. She takes some steps down the hall, out of my sight line, then I hear her stop.
“The rest of you are like mosquitoes swarming over our mother’s earthen skin. But we are her blood, Anica. Without us, she dies. Without her, we die.”
The steps resume, then fade away.
I wish Bienvenida back, wish it as if it were a prayer. I have told her a bit about our customs—mostly to better control the sort of food she brings me—but what I want her to understand now goes beyond custom. I want her to know that we are not like the others either. We, too, cannot be parted from what we love best. We carry it with us in law and ritual and cantilation. Without us, it dies; without it, we die.
Hours later, as the sun ducks beneath my barred window, I hear Bienvenida at our gap. “Put your hand under the hole,” she says after I kneel to the spot.
She rolls three black berries into my palm. “Don’t eat those,” she says. “Smash one between pebbles that have fallen from the walls. Use this to write with.” She pushes a single bristle of her broom through to me.
“I have nothing to write on,” I say. “And what am I supposed to write?”
“Your mother will not take food from me,” she says. “If you tell her that you trust me, she might be easier about it. Write on this.” She drops a pale bean through the hole.
Small, curved surface; flexing stylus; clumpy ink—has there been a greater test of will? I manage to trace one Hebrew letter.
As soon as I pass the bean through to Bienvenida, she disappears with it. When she comes back, she instructs me to put my palm up to the gap and a seed tumbles onto it. I turn it over on my palm. It carries the word “strength” in tiny, perfect solitreo.
“Your mother only took half a morsel,” Bienvenida says. She shakes a loosely clenched hand in front of the gap, and I hear the sound of crunchy things rattling against each other. Grasshoppers. My stomach grumbles and she pokes several of them through the opening to me.
“Next time she’ll eat more,” I say after I’ve finished chewing. “What about Mariana?”
She shakes her head. “The unseen harries her. She circles her cell, and the spirits compel her to scratch at her face and draw blood. She did not even hear me whistle for her attention.”
“Do something,” I say. I haven’t cried since Bienvenida started visiting me, but now I feel my eyes fill.
“I’ll ask my mother,” she says, then she gets up. I hear the bristles of her broom scrape at the door.
“What are you doing? You already swept.”
“It is Friday,” she says. “I am doing this now in your name. Our gods accept such substitutions. Perhaps yours will as well.”
I don’t know whether to be moved by her action or infuriated. She continues to speak openly of her terrible, false gods, and perhaps that should be the worst part but it isn’t. I have told her enough about our rituals that she knows the Sabbath’s prayers are special. It is the meter and cadence of poetry she is hoping for. Doing this for. Loyal to.
Not friendship. Not me.
Something rises in me, sharp and jagged, and I do not recite anything before she finishes and leaves.
The next Friday she does the same, and the Friday after that. I lose count of how many times it happens before I get over my anger. What does it matter if she’s here for me or my words, as long as she’s here?
Still, the prayer I recite for her is not truly to be said at sunset, only a childhood favorite recited every night after my mother laid down the comb but before she extinguished the light in my bedroom:
I have closed my doors
with the keys of Abraham;
the pious will come in, the evil ones will leave;
the angels of the Lord are here with me.
“Magic,” she says a moment after I finish reciting. “Do you hear?”
Before I can answer, a loud bellow sounds clear through my door. Bienvenida moves away from our gap and I hear her running.
After that, the stifling silence of my imprisonment falls again.
But no. There it is. Like hope where there was none before. The sound of wings.
We Are Loaned to One Another
When I arrive home—after a long detour to check my turtle traps in the waters off the causeway nearest the Tree of the Sad Night—Fray Bernardino is with my mother, waiting for me. It is unusual for him to venture out of the city except for his herb lessons, and those are done long before darkness falls.
The Brothers at the convent have told him about catching me with Anica. Unlike most of the Dominicans, the tall, red-faced Franciscan speaks to us in Nahuatl, and as if he believes us of more than usual intelligence. He has told my mother that if she were a Spanish man she would have made an excellent physick, and might even own a book like the little leather tome in which he records the appearances and properties of the plants she identifies for him.
She smiles whenever he says it and doesn’t tell him about the amatl bark books she hides under her mat. Women have always had to hide their wisdom from men, and the Brothers are men, if strange ones.
“I vouched for you,” Fray Bernardino says to me. “The Brothers have agreed to let you continue cleaning the convent, so your family will not lose that prestige. The lower cells, however, are off-limits. I have sworn that you will not be caught there again.”
“Who will clean that hallway?”
“Perhaps they’ll purchase one of the slaves newly brought to city,” he says dismissively. Then he stoops so he can look me in the face. “What do you speak about with that girl, Bienvenida?” He chose my Christian name for me, and I am thankful it is a nice one that means welcome. Some of the Nahua girls got names that mean loneliness or pain.
“I recite the flower songs to her,” I answer. I know better than to tell him about Anica’s recitations. His face creases anyway.
Fray Bernardino shakes his head as he gets up, then looks at my mother. “There is talk. About witchcraft in word and deed. And about the demonic nature of the pipiltzintzintli plant. You understand?”
My mother nods. “A peyotero, a midwife, and a sobadora have been taken from the people already.”
“But they have not been subjected to an auto da fé,” he says. There is something out of place in his voice, and I am struck by the thought that he craves my mother’s forgiveness.
My mother hears it too, but is not one for words dipped in honey. “Your people have completed the quemadero,” she says. “My people may not be the first to burn, but we will burn.”
After a moment, Fray Bernardino turns his face from hers and walks out. She follows him with her eyes.
“Tell,” she says without looking at me.
“The ones that need your help are women. One is sick with fright and haunted by unseens,” I say. “And one . . . my friend . . . she must fly away or her spirit will die.”
My mother doesn’t say anything.
“They need you,” I say.
She turns to look at me. “One day you will be me.”
She is short and wide, like a tepozán tree. Her hands are too big for her arms, and her feet are broad and horned with calluses. Nested deep in the wrinkles are eyes the color of silt, eyes that see everything. She is beautiful to me, as I will be beautiful to my daughter, and she to hers.
“Come, then,” my mother says as she sweeps by me. “While we can.”
Put on me a necklace of varied flowers.
The next morning, I leave our house with a garland on the outside of my tunic and one on the inside. The visible one is made of many-petaled white flowers woven in a perfect round; the invisible one has pieces of root, insect, bud, and bone strung unevenly on sinew. I arrive earlier than usual at the convent and search among the Dominicans for Fray Antonio.
He scratches the flaky skin around his tonsure when he sees me. “Are you here to be shriven?”
I take the garland from my neck and hold it out to him. “We made this. For the chapel.”
There is a moment when I think he might foil our plan by giving the flowers to the novice who cleans the sacred space. But after some consideration he takes them. They aren’t spectacular blossoms, but they have a pleasant fragrance that stays long on the skin. My mother has people rub them between their hands because the warmer the oil, the faster the sleep.
Fray Antonio motions for me to follow him, and as he walks over to the chapel he strokes the petals, then sniffs his fingers and wipes them on his habit. As soon as his fingers leave the fabric they’re back at the petals, and the whole process starts again, without the Brother noticing he’s doing it. He unlocks the church, then moves to the side where a small statue stands alone.
“Are you devoted to Our Lady?” he asks me.
This statue is not the Tonantzin the Brothers named Guadalupe. This one has a pale, delicate face surrounded by reddish-gold ringlets and a demure look that makes me doubtful she would ever understand our Nahua needs and delights. Still, the Dominicans bring her offerings like the ones we take to our own mother at Tepeyac.
Fray Antonio returns the garland to me. “Are you tall enough to crown her with it?”
“I think so,” I say.
“Good. I’ll go pray while you do,” he says.
All the gods favor beauty, so I take my time with the crowning. When I’m done, the priest is dozing in the pew. I drop an extra blossom in his hand on my way out.
When I arrive at the cells, Anica is crying.
“Last night I saw my mother,” she tells me, wiping her nose with the back of her hand as she walks over to our gap. She doesn’t need to say more. The only time the prisoners go anywhere it is to the room where they are stretched until the right words pop out of their mouths.
I pull the necklace from under my tunic and release three pieces of root. “These kill pain,” I say. I push one of the pieces through the gap. “Write on it that she must chew it to paste, then smear that over the worst of her hurts. Also, that she must swallow the juice that comes from the chewing. It is bitter but it will take away the pain.”
“She is used to bitter,” Anica says, then does what she’s told. When she passes the root back through to me, I move to the gap in her mother’s cell wall.
“Doña Francisca,” I call. The old woman lifts her head from the bedding, then fights to get up. It takes her a long time to cross to me.
“Anica sends these,” I say. I push through the first piece of root, the one with the writing. She squints to read it, then catches the other two pieces I pass through.
“I’ve lost most of my teeth,” she says. “I doubt I’ll be able to chew them.”
“Hold them in your mouth. Let them soften in the water that collects and swallow that. It will help.”
She nods, then, “I cannot write a seed message for Anica today. Tell her: She is the darling of her mother.” She starts her slow shuffle back to the bedding, the roots clenched tightly in her hand.
Anica’s jaw sets in hard lines when I tell her, and there is a silence so long I have to break it for fear it will outlast Fray Antonio’s nap.
“We must find a way to draw your sister to the gap in her wall, so I can give her this,” I show Anica the bud strung on my necklace. “Its spirit is so strong it will overcome the unseens that assail her.”
She settles on the pet name they had for Mariana, something to remind her of happier days and the bond between sisters. Still, when I say it, there is no break in the older girl’s pacing. I try explaining what I have, what it does, how she will find relief. When there is no response, I return to Anica.
“Why didn’t you just leave it?” she asks. “If she goes to find it later, there will be nothing there.”
“If anyone finds it, they will know it is my doing,” I say. “I am not allowed here anymore, not even to clean.”
“You’re here now,” Anica says. When I keep silent, I see realization dawning on her face, followed by a pinched, lonely look.
We are loaned to one another.
“Sister,” I say. As if she were an elder sibling. As a sign of respect even beyond friendship. “This is my mother’s deepest, most secret magic. One day, when I am old enough to have mastered it myself, I will use it to come find you.”
I take the hollow bone from my necklace, and the beetles shimmer blue to orange as I untie them. I pass them through one by one and tell her what she must do with them, and how it must be done.
I see her mouth twist as the beetles’ barbed legs move a bit on her palm. They are still very sluggish from their pipiltzintzintli meal.
“Must they be alive?” she says.
“Recently killed when you do it.”
“Tell me again why I should.”
“Because it will set you free.”
I have nothing left to give her, but I put my fingers to the gap anyway. Her slender, strong index finger hooks itself on mine. We sit for a few minutes like that, linked and silent.
Then I get up and leave.
Go, Find Another Love
The beetles crawl under my bedding. I shove the bone in after them.
I lay down. Hours pass.
The jailer brings bread and cheese, cold water. He takes away the slop bucket.
There are no words but mine to break the silence. Night falls.
Day comes again. The same silent priest appears and brings the same dry, hard meal.
Then another day.
I know the strength of whatever Bienvenida’s mother fed the beetles must be waning. Like food steeped in brine or alcohol loses its flavor after a while. Or does the long wait make it sharper, more concentrated? I no longer remember. Either way, I do nothing.
One day after many, the priest who brings my meal is a different one, with a brown cassock instead of the usual white. “Tomorrow, before midday, you will be taken out to the quemadero,” he whispers as he grabs the slop bucket. His face flushes a deep red. “God have mercy.”
I have thought often about dying. With fear, and sometimes with longing. Especially in these lonely days without Bienvenida. Yet now that I know the hour of my death, I do not want it.
As soon as the priest leaves, I tear my bedding apart. I find the bone and one of the beetles. There is no trace of the other, and I think maybe the living one ate it.
My hands shake as I get the chips of stone on which I crushed the ink berries. The beetle crunches and I keep grinding until its wet innards are so thoroughly mixed with bits of stone and carapace that the mixture turns dry and grainy.
When beetle grit is as fine as it’s going to get, I fit the smaller end of the bone into one nostril as Bienvenida instructed, hold the wider end over the dirty-looking little pile and snort it up.
Pain shoots into my head; my nostril stings and my eyes start watering. I move the bone to the other nostril and inhale what remains.
If it were not for Thee, what would become of me? And who, except Thee, would free me from myself?
I sit back on my heels and put my head in my hands. The spiky grit keeps cutting as my breath pulls it deeper. The pain intensifies, then spreads across my shoulders. They can no longer bear the weight of my arms and my hands fall, leaden, to the floor. Spine, hips, legs. Wherever the pain hits, the muscle recoils and tries to tear itself from the bone and tissue next to it.
I have not been tortured as my brother and sister and mother have, but I wonder if this is how it feels to be put on the rack. I wonder if they screamed as I am screaming, full-throated and from the center of my being.
Then, as the pain stretches me in all directions at once, I hear a pop and it all stops—the pulling, the pain, the screams. My body flops forward and my forehead cracks on the floor.
But I rise.
The girl beneath me crawls to her bedding, stretches out on it, eyes open. Blood seeps from the spot where her head connected with stone.
The wings that bear me aloft catch a draft through the window. I coast up to the deep sill, then scrabble onto it with tiny, sharp claws. I tuck my wings to my body, and with the waddling gait of a creature that finds grace only in the air, squeeze through the bars.
The Convent of San Diego is set on high ground, and the back end, where my window gives, looks not onto the splendid, sprawling city but to the far reaches of the lake over which the urban hub was built. The water pools dark turquoise in some spots, murky emerald in others, under the multiple causeways that span it. And on every surface that isn’t road or water, I see small trees covered with blue and yellow butterflies—opening and closing their wings in time to my memory.
I don’t know how far I range on the wings I’ve long dreamed of possessing—far enough for the bright air to warm me like I haven’t been warm in years. But I am more than just wings and the freedom they grant. If training brings the falcon back to the hand of the one who hunts with him, how much stronger are the jesses that tether the dove to her people?
I return and light on the window of my mother’s cell. She is stretched prone on the floor, where the afternoon sun falls brightest, holding a seed in one hand and a broom bristle in the other. She dips it in berry pulp, then touches it to the surface of the seed.
She looks up as I swoop down. There are dozens of seeds with words of perdurance and inspiration scattered around her.
“Hello, beauty,” she says as I land beside her.
I open my mouth. The words I intend come out as trills and coos. She reaches. I hop closer and rub my head along her hand.
I stay until the sun starts its downward arc, then I peck at the seeds and carry one out in my beak. The next window I fly into is my brother’s. I drop the seed into his hand and fly away to retrieve another from my mother’s cell. She watches me come and go.
I drop her seed messages in each of my sisters’ hands as I fly in into their cells and see them for the first time in years. Even Mariana stops her raving to receive what is given. Their faces are pallid and grim, but when the word drops, each flares with love.
I fly into my cell, nudge a seed into the limp hand of the girl who was me. When I wished for freedom, I imagined it to be different than this. Can it be sustained: a body yoked, a soul unfettered?
I return to my mother’s cell and mark each word as she prays, then, as she falls asleep, I doze too. When I wake at dawn she is already standing, washed and ready for what will come. She will go to the quemadero as Doña Francisca Nuñez de Carvajal, with all the meanings her names carry.
When she hears the rustle of my wings, she holds out her hand and I land on it.
“Adyó. Adyó, kerida.” She sings the cantiga that was my favorite once—in another place, another time. An enchanted time of perfumed dusks sitting in a courtyard filled with flowers gleaming like the moon, embroidery hoops forgotten in our laps as our voices joined in a tale of departure and heartbreak.
“No quero la vida. Va, buscate otro amor, aharva otras puertas . . .”
Goodbye, goodbye, beloved. I do not want to live. Go, find another love, knock on other doors . . .
A key turns in the lock. My mother draws me close to her lips, kisses the top of my head. “Adyó, kerida Anica,” she says.
I don’t have time to think of how she knows it is me before she flings my small bird body off her hand and toward the window.
I don’t want to fly away from her, but I do.
Where Is My Home?
It is December 9 by the Dominicans’ calendar. Smoke hangs black across the valley. The first burnings at the quemadero took place yesterday, a year and a day after I first met Anica. My mother and I are out behind our house—a tremendous distance from the plaza where the crowds had gathered to watch the spectacle—and still we breathe in what happened.
Our work of the past days has been uprooting the plants the Holy Office has declared demonic, to replant them where the Brothers will not find them. Remote, wild places that will sustain magic.
I cannot stop thinking about Anica. From Fray Bernardino’s recounting when he came for his lesson late yesterday, I know she and Mariana were spared—one for her youth, the other for her derangement—and that the Dominicans hope more years in detention will ultimately reconcile them to the God of the Cross.
But it is not my friend who is still behind those walls.
The real Anica is an immigrant spirit, feathered and winged. She crosses waters, crests mountains, rides the scorching air of the desert to a remote and wild place where she might thrive until I set out to find her.
I want to believe this is a triumph, only I am never going to forget how loneliness looks on her face.
“Pay attention,” my mother chides as I clip the root of a pipiltzintzintli I’m digging.
I tell my mother what I am thinking: how the gods make cages of our lives, lock us in them, and only occasionally let us find the key.
My mother puts down her digging tool. “Come,” she says, and starts walking. I trail her all the way back to the water near the Tree of the Sad Night.
“Pull your trap out,” she says.
I yank on the rope, bring up the cage. A small turtle slips back into the water through the slats. A big turtle—an old rope scar across its neck—stays caught.
“The gods don’t make cages,” my mother says. “We do. We choose to lock or unlock. Word, beetle, bud, and leaf—sometimes they are keys, sometimes not. There is only one thing that is always a key.”
She waits for me to say something and when I don’t, she stomps on the trap with one leathery foot. Slats splinter and break on top and bottom. The turtle slides its bulk into the water and swims away.
“That was tonight’s meal,” I complain.
My mother smiles at me, but there is sadness in it. “You know this isn’t the only trap. Nor the only creature caught by one.”
“I am just a girl,” I say when I work out that my mother’s imperfect couplet demands fulfillment.
“Yes,” she says. “But it is owed anyway. Today. Tomorrow. The days after that.”
As we start back to the stand of sacred plants waiting to be moved, I wonder why poems and gods and magic alone aren’t enough. I wonder why it all depends on us, a rope of people that so often leaves a scar.
Where shall my soul dwell? Where is my home? Where shall be my house?
I think I hear wings. When I look up, the sun has broken through the smoky overlay but there is only a small clear patch of sky.
It is empty with waiting.
About the Author
Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning Latina news editor, writer and digital storyteller.
Her news stories have been published at The Guardian US, Philly.com, Public Radio International’s Global Voices and Philadelphia Magazine, among others.
Her short fiction has been published by Tor.com, Strange Horizons, PodCastle, Apex Magazine and Uncanny Magazine, among others.
Her novel, Ink, is available from Rosarium Publishing and at all the usual places.
Biography photo by Claudia Gavin
About the Narrators
Ezzy G. Languzzi
Ezzy is a Latinx writer of speculative fiction. Her short stories “Naranjas Inmortales” and “Viva La Muñeca” can be found respectively in the anthologies STRANGE CALIFORNIA and BROAD KNOWLEDGE. She has contributed short stories, a novelette, and background setting design for various RPG properties, forthcoming in 2020. She’s currently pursuing her MFA in Popular Fiction Writing and Publishing at Emerson College and lives outside of Boston with her husband, son, and two labradoodles. Her work as a middle school counselor by day helps keep her on her toes!
Isabel has been a science fiction and fantasy fan since childhood and active in fandom for 20 years. Isabel is Puerto-Rican, and her essays on race and representation in SF/F have been published in Invisible 2: Essays on Race and Representation in SF/F; Uncanny; and WisCon Chronicles. She is a frequent panelist at science fiction conventions and is Co-Editor of the upcoming WisCon Chronicles: Volume 12, Boundaries and Bridges.
Isabel is also an active library supporter and has served on the boards of several library-related organizations. She has a master’s degree in Divinity from the University of Chicago Divinity School.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.