Have you lost me yet?
The trick question, as if I am something to be found and kept, locked in your chest of bones. Yes, I implicate you. But you realize, eventually, that I am but an ellipsis in your running narrative. An unspoken thought. Niño, you cannot catch the words that I am. My hair is smoke in your hands.
Monster? No, but that is the word you would use. The imprecision of it allows you to untether yourself from that old winter armor. Monster is the spell you use to unmark yourself, absolution in a breath. The smudging of red ink until it is only flesh. But first: your father, and your father’s father. And of course, your mother and your sister, Sandra and Zoraida. They are who this story will always be about.
Don’t fret. There will be enough time for you to swallow this book. I will be there at the end of the world. Our oral history will sleep in my skin, one way or another. Perhaps it will even sink into yours.
A promise? No.
You are not worth the weight of that gesture.
The stars are murmuring secrets. Don’t speak, niño. You have done enough of that for a lifetime.
Listen. Just listen.
In La Republica Dominicana, past crooked streets and into a forest shattered by migrant memory, there is a family of trees collected into a question. Their ebony bodies carry dragon gashes, but that is not what Father One fixates on.
He is looking at the tracks that slither into both the mountains and woodland. Footprints, yes, but there is something impossible about them. Briefly, the whiteness of the moon frames Father One’s beer-cradled stupor. Father One is black-skinned, but if you ask him, he will say he has never been black a day in his life. He does not believe himself to be a Haitiano. Paradox is where he sleeps.
Another paradox, then, but one that unsettles Father One: the footprints in the dirt emanate from him. Father One is lonely enough to not be entirely afraid, but he knows there is someone in the night. Perhaps a body stretched out of his own skin. Walking. The night air carries a chirping, a whine. Or is it a howl?
In the sweltering mountains, yes.
He chases the dark for some light. Thinking about Esther, another fuckup on his part, another woman he cheated on, but he doesn’t think it is his fault. Men will be men, that is the word. Determinism turned justification, automaton face conjured. Infidelity cannot shatter la familia, not here, not cuando eres un hombre who works so, so hard, only dabbling in a little play. So he says. The footsteps lead nowhere.
Father One follows them in a night that has no time, a snapshot of a yearning smattered by deserved loss.
But he catches an image.
The tracks are a puzzle of someone. The flash of long, dark hair unraveling, a black robe in the night. A mane.
The heart rattle, the anxiety shiver: it smothers Father One. But he steps forward, asking the woman a question: “¿Necesitas ayuda?”
Nothing. Silence. Even while nervous, while scared, he is just trying to be nice. At the very least, he believes she owes him a response. That is his second mistake, an error stretched across his lifetime.
Then, he sees the feet. They are backwards. An incongruity, deformity, all the words for no. He cannot fathom them as beautiful. Father One can see her toes, but the woman is facing away from him, showing her back and its silken spine.
La Ciguapa, he thinks. Her skin is blue, dark blue, too dark, always too dark, but so smooth, so …
Father One moves to her but he stumbles. In that scraping slip, La Ciguapa is gone. A naked no.
Blood leaks across Father One’s knees. He never sees La Ciguapa again.
But he remembers. This is how a bedtime story begins. The kind that makes children cower in the murk. The type that conditions certain men to hate women.
No, he would never consider himself a stalker.
Many years later, after he has emptied that tale into Santo Domingo, to all his neighbors and friends and girlfriends, Father One has a son.
Father Two, of course. He tells his son that if he ever sees La Ciguapa, a cinqueno dog must be brought to track—the beautiful, hideous, ravenous, all the words that men use to mark women—the monster. This is how he twists an encounter into a hunt. The methodology inside a threat, the building of a vulnerable invader.
Oh, look at your father’s father, saying he was afraid for his life. I almost appreciate it. Better you men be fearful and never speak to me. But no, you always turn your fear into an entitled courage.
Father One vested this legacy onto his son.
What he did not understand is what Father Two found out for a fact. Neither of them realized the stars were confessing a future.
And now, for a horror story with an outstretched hand.
An interlude of sorts, to some. But to others? The wavering point.
Like ice slicing the murderous sun, frosting its burning range. I do not want you to open your eyes, niño. The infection of your gaze turns the world into monstrosity, into clay that you shape into the edge of a knife.
La Ciguapa, sí, that is what I have been called. Man-murderer, seductress.
But if I have killed so many village men, if I claim such tithe, a dear succubus of the long night, why are there stories to tell? There should be open veins, grave-less bodies, a fractured silence built on endless questions. Instead?
You all invent fictions for your rejection. You cannot understand how I walk away.
But let me show your sister—let me show Zoraida something. An ending.
No, niño. This is not for your ears.
But maybe one day. For now, you must leave the room. And yes, now can be a lifetime.
Father Two and Sandra have a fight using bitter sentences chucked with rime, the only cold in the Dominican Republic heat. It is what married couples do when there are no words left to caress. No chancletas in the air, no fiery Latina yelling. The world is not always a telenovela. Between Father Two, the husband, and Sandra, the traveler, there is only silence.
Father Two leaves his two children at home when he goes out to hunt. Sandra is on the verge of escaping him with kids in tow.
He cannot fathom why.
Father Two forces himself into the forest with a cinqueno dog, a black-and-white friend, many fingered and hunting La Ciguapa. The dog is a girl named Maja. Sandra’s dog, of course. Father Two does not think this matters. That is his first mistake.
And the moon is no longer hungry: it is burgeoning white, an egg so large it is cracking above the sky.
Father Two has a machete in hand. Maja, the polydactyl dog, strides through the dead forest, past its olive pillars, twisting a path in the dark.
The footprints lead to a cave.
Gristle and enamel, his face wet, softly licked.
Father Two paves a path that muddies his boots rust red. An augury of blood. The cave mouth is a hand away. He simply has to enter and … do what?
Kill the monster, of course. Save the forest, the mountains. Be a hero. He will show Sandra who he is, will show everyone.
And there is a cry in the night, a calling. La Ciguapa is conjuring something from the rain.
Father Two can hear voices inside the cave, the whispers of other men. The sky is spitting out saliva in earnest to collapse his focus, but he is ready. Why them and not him? Nothing can stop Father Two from becoming what he wants: a detective unwrapping the mystery of the cave.
And so, Father Two tries to enter through the stone mouth, but its threshold is lined with salt that burns his heart. It pushes him back into the gloom of green leaves. He needs control, wants to claim La Ciguapa. Or, perhaps, loneliness gives him a newfound strength. The baby birth of new entitlement.
Either way, it is not enough. He tries again and the threshold brings him to his knees, an invisible hammer that caves in all of his determination. The world saying no. Blood fills his mouth like a glass of wine.
Stagger, stagger. A defeat he cannot understand. Fistfuls of rice crawl out his throat.
On his knees, in the rain, Father Two learns what it’s like when the world turns you into a punchline. On that night, he is a telenovela, maybe an episode of Sabado Gigante. The joke waiting for El Chacal de la Trompeta.
No, he would never call himself dramatic.
Three nights, one kiss, and a blooming. This is how La Ciguapa unsheathes her secrets. It happens beneath another rippled moon:
La Ciguapa waits for a visitor.
Sandra, then. Callused and skin battered by the sun, a woman woven into a symbol. But she is more.
It also rains the day she takes her dog into the forest. Maja leads Sandra, tip tap, in line with the rainfall patter. Sandra does not carry an umbrella. She is sick, wet, strung out but carrying a tidal wave thrash inside her. A feeling that submerges the world.
The dog pulls her into another drowning. Across puddles that grip her ankles, that beg her to sink. The trees spiral with her.
An opening is close, a cavity-filled mouth, the hurt in the gums of the world.
The dog pulls harder.
Shivering, Sandra confronts the cave. A woman waits at its mouth. Her eyes carry the texture of hair, something that you can see without touching: “Pelo malo.” Rivulets run down the woman’s black skin, sliding across her hips, streaming across her thighs and shins, settling in the heels.
The woman turns around, heels first, toes a shadow behind her. Backwards feet.
Sandra touches her cross. Maja barks excitedly. Both of them follow La Ciguapa into stalactite and teeth.
Once, this telling was in Spanish, beginning to end. Now it is lost keys, the departure of a shade of my skin. I don’t know how to tell this story that same way anymore.
These bleached streets pull my other language out of me. It is a sneaking exorcism that leaves me … insufficient. A deficient speaker, unable to speak any language with the appreciable prosody, the desired polysyllabic grasp. I trip across words.
And do you know what it is like to try to catch your ghost? To beg your revenant to recite the words you lost?
There is a codex for this: tasseography and brujeria, astrology and the choosing of a zodiac sign. The tools of a Black woman are all that remains in this narration, no matter how the borders strangle our skin away. And though it has changed, this throat is not passive. It has merely adapted.
This is okay.
Zoraida, listen: your brother has gone away. For now, he is apart from us.
It is time for me tell you about your mother. And, of course, to show you what happens inside the cave.
The first night, in Spanglish.
“Dime. Is this where you live?”
“No,” La Ciguapa says. The cave walls are marked with petroglyphs: Taino stories that lived through blistering colonization, unravaged, hidden from the world. Protected in the dark. “I welcome people here.”
“Where do you live, then?”
“Deeper,” she says. “I live underneath.”
“¿Cómo te llamas?”
Maja is curled up on the ground, eyes open but otherwise languid. Comfortable, even.
“Okay,” Sandra responds. “No hay problema, you can tell me whenever you feel comfortable. What should I call you instead?”
It is too warm in the cave. There are impossible lights etched in the walls and ceilings, like captured suns encased in the stone. A forever burning.
“Si quieres. Hace lo que necesitas. Just dry off for now. You can stay here until you are okay.”
And Sandra thinks, but what if I don’t know how to be okay? What if I can’t grow into okay?
“I’ll try,” Sandra replies. Ahead of them both is a path descending into the dark.
“I’ll help you.”
And the heat in the cave rises like an oven cooking something that was once alive.
Sweating now but eyes dried. “Why did you let me in?”
La Ciguapa is cross legged on slate, hair spilling across her chest.
“We have to be there for each other.”
“What do you do out here? When you’re not host.”
“I try to help my friend. And you? After this, what happens? Is there a thing you want to do?”
“To be an architect,” Sandra says.
La Ciguapa smiles. “You’ll be that and more.”
“I don’t know. It’s hard to know. But what about you? Do you have any dreams?”
“Maybe not a dream. But there’s a place I want to visit. A thing I need to end.”
“Is it for the best?”
“It’ll make me happy.”
The second night tethers flesh to flesh. Births recognition. Familiarity, even.
There is context to the sun smothering the world into black. A preface to the crossing: another bout of drinking, of course. Father Two is yelling, rattling the world with a rum throat. The kids, Sandra knows, are pretending to be asleep. Playing deaf. It is a shield they learned to knit quite young.
“Nadie me ordena. You need to get that through your tongue and you won’t, and that’s fine because I won’t say it ever again. Esta es la última vez,” she says. But she loves him.
And he spits at her.
And it is raining.
And La Ciguapa is, in that moment, the only answer. A refuge.
In the kitchen, next to a plate of mangu con salami y queso frito, underneath a maroon ceiling with the make of crafted flesh, Sandra simply looks at Father Two as he speaks. He will apologize the next day. He would never hurt the children. He is not altogether a monster.
But that is not a consolation.
So, she walks away as he is speaking, saying whatever it is that he says, the liquor talk he will regret, and as she slips into the rain with no umbrella and chancletas and only pajamas, she thinks of how he will be reborn again in the morning. A new man. Ready to be a good husband, the best father. Always the same lie.
Sandra walks through the night. Her footfalls hatch open a home.
The cave, again.
And Sandra staggers across the salted threshold, eyes wet, the rain strangling breath from the world. No thunder, no wind. Only the sound of water leaking into the earth.
Maja is there, somehow. She wags her tail, rising from the ground. An invitation, almost. Maja leads Sandra deeper into the cave. La Ciguapa is nowhere in sight.
“Habla conmigo,” Sandra whispers. “Where are you?”
The cave pathway turns. And there are other sounds behind the rain, a muffled set of voices. It sounds like … men.
And down they go, Sandra and Maja. Their pace is slow as they descend down a pewter pathway.
Maja does not bark. Sandra simply dries. And the sounds grow … more distinct. Men whispering. But more. Arguing?
“You’re a fucking—”
And another voice, deeper, chain-smoke framed: “I’m just trying to be a nice guy. Why can’t you appreciate—”
The cave is framed by saffron light, but as she walks, she realizes that the space is dimming, and it takes only a couple more blinks to realize it is the walls that are darkening, shifting into a different form of flesh, shedding stone for metal skin.
Maja starts running and Sandra keeps pace, racing down the metal floor and the path opens to …
Not a gasp. But something like a dark smile with white teeth, enamel marked with blood.
The path stretches into a reliquary spotted with flickering light. It is everything Sandra has never seen but has always suspected: coffin technology, fog caressing the air, and men wired to the wall like puppet children. Their mouths move endlessly, reciting lines and lines, cutthroat adjectives, and …
Josefina, La Ciguapa, is sitting next to the men in a pink flesh chair that stirs as if it is breathing. Maja yawns and curls herself into a ball. There are too many things drooling out from the ceiling for Sandra to mimic her dog’s comfort: blistered flesh and metal, wires dripping out of exposed skin, insects collecting in control panels that sway in the air.
“I guess you’ve never seen a graveship,” Josefina starts. “The best way to put it is … well, this is my friend. My family.”
Sandra moves closer to La Ciguapa briskly, silently, until they are an outstretched hand away.
“Is this where you live?”
The floor, Sandra realizes, is flowering: where the metal is scarred away, there are roses pooling in the dirt. And the men are losing their words: each sentence that slips from them is now collapsing into incoherence, and even their voices are lowering, silencing …
Constantly interrupted, talked over. The men are stopped.
“I’m trying to make it home again,” Josefina says. “There’s a word for what me and my graveship are doing, I think. Growing, maybe. Or terraforming. It just—all it means is that we’re trying to make everything home again.”
“It’s never that easy, is it? Especially when the world doesn’t want us.”
“You’re right. This is why I need your help,” Sandra starts.
“I know,” Josefina finishes. And she stands, takes a few steps, and finally motions back to the chair. “You want to forget something, don’t you? Or to dull something?”
“Someone,” Sandra amends. Maja’s ears perk up, as if she is hearing a treat making its way into the world.
Josefina kisses Sandra’s forehead over and over again. Gently, roughly. Josefina’s lips come back caked with black ink and melted skin, oozing like mud. The memories are pulled, made flesh, clayed into bodies. La Ciguapa builds the men from Sandra’s recollections, reshaping and unmaking them as memory dolls.
And the graveship warms as La Ciguapa shaves off Sandra’s sharpest feelings. As she, in her way, deletes the men with knife fingers. Smudging faces, smoothing down instances. Lovers turn into cliff notes.
Because what hurts more than to be forgotten? To have never mattered?
On the third night, Sandra brings her two children:
They are blindfolded when they enter the cave. The three of them hold hands and Sandra is their eyes. They step, and step briskly, until they reach the graveship circle.
Josefina says this from everywhere. She is nowhere, perhaps in the ground, or perhaps she has become one of the feathered tombstones splintering the walls.
“To America,” Sandra responds, with the implicit for a better life. “Don’t worry. I won’t forget any of this.”
“I used to think forgetting was good, if you had the choice of it. But I hope you will remember me. More for the time we shared than the things I helped you take away.”
And Josefina smiles without a face. Sandra grips the children’s hands harder and says, “Say goodbye to our angel.”
Somewhere in the forest that cradles the cave, a cinqueno dog howls.
If the zodiac had a sound, it would be the dialects that signal blackness, that conjure migration. And if there were still stars in the sky, they would speak of scales. The world being balanced. A horoscope for the veins of the earth.
Did you know your mother began looking through the veil of astrology and brujeria to explain my bones? It was her way of trying to reach me after America swallowed her. She sliced and stitched the zodiac until it was monstrous, until she could make a mirror reflect me as a Libra. Is that not how new stories start? Is that not what she needed, after she left the island?
You were so young, Zoraida. Your brother, too, a little niño craving the dark. And the world was unraveling, falling into black hair, deep wells. When the plane took you away, I knelt in the graveship’s engines and went to work.
And I crawled, and swam, and walked through its flesh corridors and pools of oil. I toiled until me and the graveship were strong enough to enter this land that bleaches my voice and straightens my feet. We tunneled, slow but eager, cracking the earth, and …
Zoraida, this is your story. But for now, I must speak to your brother. There are things he also needs to know.
It is only fair.
But don’t worry. Fairness is a joke.
I suppose, niño, that you will not ask Zoraida about how she is helping her friends engineer an apocalypse. How they speak to the graveships, asking things of them, negotiating an ending. But you know your sister is a linguist.
You know she needs a ghost.
So, do not settle in your coffin. Not yet.
Sleeping in your shadow, underneath your bed. In the rim of your broken closet, waiting.
You will think it’s sleep paralysis, perhaps. But it starts tonight, niño.
The ink running from the world.
Count it down.
The breath leaving your bones.
Yes, you will try and slip away.
Yes, I will pull you to play vigil for the drowning moon.
Every human smells it in the air now. They will be able to see it soon after. The walls appearing overnight, arranging the world, the corrosion destroying the tech. A revolution. Black uprising.
Look out the window. It is starting.
How do we redeem you?
There is no spell, no equation to unearth a new skeleton from your skin. No. How can someone who rejects the very premise that they need reconfiguration expect to be received anew?
As I will always be your monster, perhaps you will always be my villain. The truth is that this fact hurts me. Yes, a monster wounded by the fact that you cannot be more caring. But you will see this as a challenge, or perhaps you will not see it all.
This is not pity, not disappointment. Consider it tiredness. No, I do not miss you. But your mother and I hope you will be better.
Do you hate yourself, niño? Do you hate your father and your father’s father?
Because you are not so special.
Do you believe you are a good man, so different from all the others? I don’t know if you can be right about this.
But you cry, too.
It will not be okay, niño.
I cannot spend more time on you. I don’t care if you don’t understand.
I have done you a courtesy. I have not given you a voice, no. But I remember your name. I will keep it in a box colored black, painted for the truth you have finally accepted, that you were forced to confront. Trujillo cannot bleach your marrow, no matter how hard his shadow tries. The body that chases him will always be black.
You fell in love with a Haitian girl.
She became a lawyer and succeeded in your absence. She moved on from you, forgot your breath in a quick span. I am happy for her.
You fell. But you are not her problem anymore.
Niño, I see that you are hurt. I will ignore the fact that sometimes I cannot tell you apart from your forefathers, that sometimes these iterations blur into one face.
You are crying, your stomach a casket of pills, fingers thick with old blood, the laceration aftermath.
I hold your hand.
It isn’t enough.
Niño, you rise from your vomit, pills slippery in those raw hands, but your eyes glaze over the window and catch white. Your head caves the floor when you fall again.
Does your apocalypse have the same old face? A mind spinning around pain, bookmarked under mental illness. Niño, or: always a man but not man enough, too black to have tears, for those tears to matter. Your name, crossed out, as you stay dying in your sleep. Wordless. Your world ending before ours. And I see that these American dreams haunt you. Why can’t you wake up?
But we know why. You choose to die for reasons that have nothing to do with storybook monsters.
I understand that you have been destroyed. Sometimes, that’s the only thing life will do.
Yes, it is complicated to care about you.
It is okay be sick of this.
Zoraida, I know you are tired of being strong, of endlessly losing family and friends. The only expectation I have is that you will carry my memory into the world’s funeral.
Do you smell the flags turning black?
I will be your panacea against the chalk that is bleeding across the sky and collecting in the streets. So, with my memory in your throat, you can start the countdown with no fear. Because the question, of course, has snuck into your veins. How long will the apocalypse last?
The uranography of your colonizers has given you a hint. It has been twisted by the maw of history. But the presentiments fixed to the stars will soon have only black hands to measure the worth of a world that has wronged us. Yes, a Black woman will hold scales that extend from her skin.
How long will the apocalypse last?
However long it needs to.
And even with Spanish slipping from your every exhale, I hope you will remember me in all your endings. Remember that I have always been here, just as Maja keeps pace with your shadow.
As the world murders itself, give my name a different meaning. Make it a promise. You know that our skin has long been denied a future. There were no soucouyants in America’s graveships, no Cucos in its paper cities. Your face was not in those pages. It only became a suggestion after much warring. And now?
I will be your talisman against the barbershop boys and the lovers who have cracked your heart.
We will be okay.
Zoraida, don’t worry if you lose my ghost. I will be back at the vigil of the world to be your shoulder. Prepare for my visit. Yes, you may call me abuela, hermana. Whatever it is that you need. Zoraida, I only ask you to keep your eyes on the walls that have begun to pillar the skyline. I see you standing at the pier edge in the mouth of Long Island City—away from Washington Heights, Jamaica, Harlem, drifting from all of your skin. Please don’t jump. There are no reeds to catch your breath.
Instead? Wait for me. Wait for the zodiac to turn flesh, for its premonitions to mangle the world. A Libra’s scales will weigh the hurt in your skin, tipping towards recrimination.
All of you.
As the borders rise, I will slink into all of your boroughs. My Black sisters, my Dominican children: I will be there for you when the corrosion rusts your streets, as I hope you will be there for me. As memories, as flesh.
Skin to skin, we will remember how to be whole. And we will open our eyes.
I know what it’s like to be alone, to wait. Until there is reunion, we can fill the silence with our stories.
A calling in the dark.