Loiza stood silently in the glow of the Dollar Tree on Main Street. The store, like every other at this time, was closed, but the light from the bus station bounced in long swaths off the shops in the Wilkes-Barre town square. The quiet made Loiza shiver. There was no sign or sound of life. A single petal floated past her face and as she turned and reached up to finger the blooms on the flowering dogwood, a red fingerprint appeared on the white petals. The contrast of the colors against each other intrigued the young woman, but did not raise her from her trance. Loiza looked down at her bloodied hands as a scream hot and liquid curled inside before finally escaping her throat. The deafening rattle punched her instincts into overdrive as she looked around for witnesses. Two college boys came sprinting around the corner.
"You okay?” one of the young men asked, looking for danger. Loiza looked down to find herself clean of the blood. Her face burned with shame at having cried wolf.
Loiza’s eyes darted from the boy in savior mode to the other one. She felt her brownness as his blue eyes crawled over her body with a glimmer of lust. Goosebumps rose on her deep brown skin with the claws of his desire tearing at her dress. Her great grandmother’s words echoed in her mind, “Your skin is the kiss of God, makes it a beacon to the devil.” The fear and pride of her namesake in their African roots was superimposed over her entire life.
“Ta bien,” Loiza said as she sped past the men and in the direction of the bar. She could not remember how she arrived downtown, or when. Still in a bit of a daze, she thanked her ancestors for the sprinkling of clarity that carried her towards the crowded scene. Throngs of college students in high heels and unbuttoned shirts made her feel twice the age of 25. Loiza had never felt comfortable at bars, and she couldn’t place a single face in the crowd.
She remembered her phone, purse, and smartwatch—all curiously absent. The strong scent of cedarwood tickled her nose as she felt someone brush hard against her backside. Loiza stifled the urge to vomit as her eyes met the stranger pushing up against her.
“You’re pretty for a black girl,” he said, “You must be mixed.”
Loiza quickly turned away, but a group of young women laughing and shrieking stood between her and escape. She pushed through the mob of street drinkers, then through the dancing, to the bar. Loiza waited twenty minutes through music bouncing from rap to techno, the sexual tension of the dance floor, men hitting on her, the whooping and hollering of college cliques.
“What can I get for you?” asked the bartender.
A woman stood at least 6’3, towering, but elegant, with long, dark hair waving down past her shoulders. Loiza winced at first sight of her irisless eyes and translucent skin. She wore a long sleeve, spandex crop top and shimmering overalls. One strap hung from the silver overalls, and the bouncing laser lights made her glow prismatically.
“You okay?” the bartender asked.
“Necessito,” Loiza stopped to clear her throat and calm herself. She tried again, but her broken Spanish was all that emerged from her mouth. Loiza ran the words through her head once more, then raised her voice over the music. “Has anyone returned a purse, phone, keys, um anything. I, um, can’t find my things.”
The bartender eyed Loiza, then disappeared to the other end of the bar.
Loiza let out a defeated sigh. She was stranded without her wallet and keys. Oh God, she thought. Someone might have my address—and the keys to get in. She suddenly became aware of the mounting perspiration on her upper lip and forehead, of her heartbeat accelerating. Just as panic began to boil up from her gut, she heard someone clear their throat behind her.
“This yours?” the bartender asked.
“What’s in it?” The question seemed merely a formality.
“Um… my wallet, my ID, keys…”
The bartender tossed the small purse onto the bar and walked away. Loiza snatched the satchel and made a beeline for the door. Still confused as to why and how she’d gotten there, she briskly walked out of the bar and across the street to the small center of the downtown area. She needed to escape the music and busyness of the bar but was too afraid to be completely alone and out of sight. After calling up an Uber, she secretly counted the cash in her wallet. Something niggled at her, but she wasn’t sure what. She looked down at her phone: 11:07 p.m.
As Loiza grew closer to home, anticipation formed in her belly. She pumped her hands in and out of nervous fists, and her eyes clambered over every centimeter of the dark. Her subconscious searched for something her body knew to fear. The air conditioner of the Ford Taurus blasted shivers onto her skin, and yet sweat continued to flood her every surface. She found herself, unwittingly, flapping the neckline of her dress for relief from the burn of the unknowable fear. You’re fine, she thought to herself as she gripped and released the backseat.
A brilliant white cross came into focus at the top of the church steeple, having a veiled sense of familiarity, safety, and fear in its shadow. Loiza thought of the bartender. The image and shadow were simply a flicker as the car seemed to move faster down the road.
“It’s just up the road here. You’ll miss it if you don’t—,” she began, but the clock on the radio blinked.
“1:29 a.m.,” Loiza whispered.
“I’ve never missed it,” the driver said, smiling before turning the display off.
Loiza stopped breathing.
The corner of the old factory-turned-apartment-building sat neatly off the street, almost hiding behind the Russian Orthodox church. Her temporary home’s muck-brown color typically blended into the night, but a shining something illuminated the three-step entrance.
Loiza yelled, “Go,” but the car crawled to a stop. Her head snapped from the illumination to the front of the car that now sat empty. Before she could question the driver’s disappearance, the bright source evaporated into an opening.
A rising and steady sound emitted from the opening. Loiza instantly recognized the thrum of the buleador, the alternating slap and open tone, steady and unyielding. Her feet slow at first, but not precautious, carried her from the empty car. Then she heard it, the soft clicking of the cua, snapping her head to the right. To the left she heard the shoosh and shuck of the maracas. All at once, Loiza sprinted toward the opening, responding to the call of the laina. Carried into the opening by her ancestors, Loiza disappeared from the street, and the light followed.
As she moved through the light, Loiza’s legs rose from underneath her. A shroud of white slowly engulfed them, then her torso. The fear of the night melted away as she landed with a soft thud on her bare feet. Her eyes did not open, but her heartbeat slowed to match the thrum of the buleador. With closed eyes, she saw the beautiful men in their buttoned guayaberas, a second layer of white linen and buttoned to the top despite the heat. Her skin felt melted, hot and marvelous.
And the music. She recognized it, and it recognized her. It curled over her feet and up her legs, dragging her hands onto her face. The white swath of muslin wrapped around her ears and tied at the top of her forehead. Her curly hair now swooped up into a pineapple. She didn’t open her eyes but could see a stout woman crouched low, hands gripping the middle of her skirts and petticoats as she walked the paseo, the circular path, saluting the buleador. Then, the piquetes and the marullos. The woman swung her arms and skirts from side to side. No words uttered as the jerking and unpredictable movements of her feet, shoulders, and waist elicited the reaction of the drums… and her heart. The woman turned to face her, and finally, Loiza opened her eyes.
The others slowly accompanied the woman. All of their bodies seemed to sing, to belt, to pound. And the leader’s eyes said it all. Only she, clad in her white shirtwaist and long skirts, could see Loiza. She beckoned her near. In unison, their shoulders bucked and spread. The drums and the women and the small crowd acknowledged and retorted their movements. In unison, their arms flapped as Loiza mimicked the paseo, then the abanico doble, quick stepping and remembering…
Why are you so angry?
Why are you so loud?
You don’t look Puerto Rican.
You must be mixed.
You must be mixed.
Those words didn’t even make her the angriest, yet they bounced off the chambers of her mind. And as the words echoed for a third time, a slap of the drums replaced them until nothing was in her mind. Nothing but the creases in the corners of her great grandmother’s smiling eyes. Nothing but the curve of her mother’s mouth as she tastes the labor of her time in the kitchen. And with the joy that seemed to erupt under her feet, so too came the tender inkling of something she had never felt. As the earth made its presence known, her mind almost named the thing.
Then, she heard it. The processional’s song.
“O Mar. El mar es una mujer. Ella nos trajo aqui. Ella nos llevo a una libertad.”
The sea is a woman. She carried us here. She carried us here to a freedom.
And with that last word, her third eye opened. Her feet slowed in tandem with the others as they circled the path first set by the laina. Loiza caught her breath, and the outline of the setting formed as if drawn, shaded, then colored. Each of the last steps pulsed life into the scene before her, and as she swung her arms and head in either direction, she came to understand where she was. Puerto Rico, but when?
Finally, the drummers and the dancers smiled and laughed and clapped their hands together. The sounds of love and comradery made Loiza smile until she remembered—she was invisible. Here, too, as in life, she was not a part of the joy, the party, the group. She was invisible. The thought almost dampened her spirits, but the scene unfolding before her was too vibrant and lively.
In quick succession the street and small, windowless bohios flickered to life. The modest abodes made of wood and dried palm fronds buzzed with laughing porch dwellers. The mussed dirt roads, a dusty fury of passersby—women and children and men. Some underdressed for outside and some overdressed for the heat, but jovial, taking notice of the newly dismembering crowd of dancers and musicians. Loiza took note of the various languages being spoken, mixed into the same conversations. She tried to make sense of it all. 1800s?
“Mar,” she heard someone call out.
Loiza turned her head in tandem. Mar was her great-great-grandmother’s name, and looking upon the countenance of the woman, the laina she knew—somehow—had drawn her there. She recognized the almond eyes, broad mouth, and pronounced jawline of the matriarch she had only seen in photos. The woman, Mar, turned to respond to her friend, then looked back over her shoulder. Loiza almost missed it—the slight wink and curve of Mar’s grin.
As Loiza followed her ancestor through the small, seaside town, she drank in every sign of the time. The various African flags, happy but worn-down inhabitants, and the scent of it all—the spices, the sweat, the sopas, and rice. Between the bare feet of the laughing children and the over-necked blouses tucked into flowing skirts, Loiza’s family came to mind.
“Que rico, heh,” Mar said without turning to Loiza, seeming to realize her presence.
Loiza couldn’t muster a response. Her mind was too full now; her senses overloaded. Instead, she just mumbled, Mm.
When the two arrived at Mar’s home, the door was ajar and Loiza could hear whining and chatting from inside. The small home was full of young women: some cleaning up, others hanging about on the sparse furniture, and the source of the whining. Mar greeted each woman—Alma, Abeni, Maria, Ife, and the whiner—Enitan.
“You bringing ghosts in here with you again?” Alma asked, getting up to leave. Mar shot her a smirk but didn’t answer.
“Abeni, mi amor, what are you doing to pobre Enitan?” Mar asked mockingly.
Enitan sucked her teeth and rolled her eyes, which elicited a brush smack in the head from Abeni. Abeni sat at the edge of the cattail leaf chair with Enitan between her legs, enduring the yanking, hitting, combing, and braiding.
“Sit still, nina,” Mar said, laughing as the girl winced.
When Enitan sucked at her teeth again, Abeni warned, “She the reason you here. The reason you free. Forget again, and I’ll give you more than a cocotaso.”
At that, the women laughed heartily. Mar brought a glass jar of something mud-colored and thick over to Abeni, pointing with pinched lips at Enitan’s head. Half of her thick wool hair was knotted at the top of her head while Abeni tried in vain to pass a brush through chunks of it at a time. Despite the pattern of separating and yanking, the young girl seemed giddy at the prospect of Mar’s concoction.
“You have beautiful hair. You can thank Mar for that, too,” Abeni started to say, but Mar cut her off.
“Tss. All she can thank me for is less dryness. Every beautiful thing she got, ‘specially that hair, came from her ancestors,” Mar said sternly. Abeni simply nodded. And as Abeni fingered small amounts of the moisturizer onto the younger girl’s head—the edges along her forehead and in between the parts—Loiza’s feet began to tingle. The feeling became stronger until she could no longer take it and looked down.
She found herself sitting on the packed dirt floor, legs folded and growing numb. The cool, damp dirt brought things into focus. Her head yanked to the side, and she looked up and saw Abeni, her face solemn as she carefully pulled apart a small section of hair. Abeni smiled at Loiza and patted her shoulder, then continued. Loiza felt the depression of Abeni’s index finger lightly push into her scalp, the musky smell of the moisturizer tingled in her nose and on her skin. Then she felt the soft, tight pulls of her strands being intertwined.
All the while, Mar stood by an open fire pit, stirring and dropping things into a large kettle. She hummed something bass-y and rambling as her hips swayed. For the first time in a long time, Loiza felt like—home.
Mar turned to look at her and winked.
“Finito,” Adeni said as she tapped Loiza’s head and nudged her out of the way.
Adeni chuckled and disappeared outside with the other women. Loiza reached up to feel her tendrils wrapped into one long braid around her head like a crown. She smiled through the pain.
Mar crossed to the part of the room that served as a kitchen to hang her apron. Near the latch, a billhook stood propped in the corner. Mar paused, staring at it momentarily, then suddenly Loiza saw a raised billhook in the flashes of her mind.
Instantly, a burning sensation spread from her neck, skin to muscles. Loiza moved to rub it when she felt the weight of the billhook in her hands. The ache and burn of a long day’s work screamed through her arms as she tried to use her forearm to shield her eyes from the sun. The merciless sun was only rivaled by the stare of an overseer, stomping through the sugar cane, through the rows of toiling folk, squatting and bent over, swinging their arms to cut and pry the damned things from a 6-inch height. Loiza quickly averted her eyes as the overseer’s shadow engulfed her. Unused to the burden of the squat, bend, and yank, her muscles seized up. Her skin burned with each cramp. The sweat cascaded down her face and arms, the moisture a stinging bath. She kept her head down, but let her eyes shift around the hellish field. Just as the overseer turned back in her direction, Loiza’s knees seized and released. She was saved by a young man with long, fine tendrils flowing loosely down the length of his back who cried out and dropped to his knees at the same moment.
Instinctively, his arm flew up to block the coming whip. A large bleeding gash appeared in his hand and the blood was so perfuse, it showered his copper skin.
“Limpiar eso, y trabaja,” the overseer screamed, but the man made no motion to move. “Ahora!”
The young man placed his hands onto his thighs and let his head hang down as he kneeled. His back heaved as he took several deep breaths. Some of the folks kept working. Others looked on with mixed emotions, taking advantage of the scene unfolding before them, to have a much-needed break.
Loiza locked eyes with Mar, younger and with a slightly swollen belly, but Loiza recognized her instantly. Mar stared hard at the young man. Her face was covered in sweat and tears, and a look of desperation. Loiza looked away, squeezed her eyes shut, then looked back. Instead of Mar, her eyes locked onto the man, then she felt it—the extraordinary pang of despair, fatigue, pride, and anger, a different kind of ache.
A scream snapped her to, and she looked up just in time to see the snap and slice of the whip across the young man’s back.
“Aguey!” Loiza yelled out.
Then, someone in the distance yelled, “Agueybana!”
Another snap and slice, and another until a bell rang out. With their heads low, the field’s inhabitants slowly filed away. Only Loiza, Abeni, Alma, Maria, and Ife remained. The women helped lower Loiza to her knees, though Agueybana refused to look up at her. She reached out for him, and his reluctance made her take hold of his chin. As she lifted his face, his tears and defiance melted into shame. He understood that his actions had condemned them both.
Loiza pulled his broken body into her arms. The women looked down the expanse of the field, praying in different languages. Loiza and Agueybana sobbed, her tears setting his open wounds aflame.
Once home, Mar took to making the salve for her husband’s wounds. Loiza watched as her ancestor gathered various plant cuttings into the pilon.
“And for good measure,” Mar whispered in Loiza’s direction before praying, then spitting into it.
Loiza looked at Agueybana, who stared directly at her with fear.
Sensing Loiza’s confusion, Mar whispered, “I fear this means he’s close to death.” Then, to her husband, “She is our great, great.”
This made the man smile, and Mar turned, concealing her tears.
When Mar moved towards her husband, Maria busted in, prompting Abeni to emerge from the other room.
“Something’s happened,” Maria said.
“You go,” Mar replied, pushing Abeni towards the door.
Several men and women huddled around a makeshift storefront. A young boy sat on a stool with an elderly woman standing behind him. He silently read a tattered piece of paper as the others stood in anticipation.
“What else it say, nino?” someone asked.
“So, far it say we free,” someone else whispered.
Loiza could feel the crowd’s anticipation rumbling like a storm cloud. She held her breath.
“Spanish Army, born after 1868, y the viejos,” the boy read.
The last declaration garnered teeth sucking from a few in the crowd and a slap in the back of the head from the women standing next to him.
The boy added, “Suppose who has it can buy their freedom.”
Abeni threw her hands up and slumped back toward Mar.
“Some freed. Nothing that applies to us. ‘Less you have dinero stashed I don’t know about,” she said.
Agueybana looked up at his wife, then quickly averted his eyes.
“Thank you, Abeni. You should head home. It’s late,” she replied.
Once Abeni had gone, Agueybana said shamefully, “they’ll never let us free now.”
“All they care about is dinero. Trick is—how we ask to be freed without saying we want to be freed,” Mar said.
“Tu marido. Donde esta,” the overseer yelled into the back of Mar’s head.
Mar was about to answer when she felt the communion of Loiza’s essence. All at once, she looked upon her physical self. Loiza embodied her, and while a part of Mar was frightened by what that meant, another felt the lull of the spiritual world and the peace of being rid of the physical one. Though Mar hovered beside her corporeal self, a tether kept her from being swept away.
Loiza’s spirit warmed at the gift of peace she lent her ancestor, but a sharp pain in her calf brought her down hard onto the left knee.
“Tu marido,” the overseer repeated, having just kicked her.
“Only be a burden here, them whips on,” Loiza began to say, when Abeni interrupted.
“We, two, make enough for the three of us.”
“We three,” Maria chimed in.
The overseer studied the three women, then Mar’s belly. He sucked his teeth and walked away. As he sauntered in the other direction, Maria helped Loiza to her feet.
“Chica, what was that?”
Unsure of what to say, Loiza simply groaned, picked up her billhook, and began to work again.
For a week, Loiza awoke in Mar’s body to toil in the heat and dirt; the unfamiliar weight of life growing in her and bearing down on her every joint and muscle. For a week, Loiza felt the turmoil of peace and pain. When will this end? What’s my purpose here? On the seventh day, she heard the words Mar had longed to hear.
“He’s gone,” the folks in the field whispered.
Before Loiza dared ask who, she saw someone slowly galloping through the field on a tall horse. She stood taller than any man, having long dark hair and eyes that seemed irisless. The new overseer was a woman.
“Since when they let their women work?” someone whispered.
“And in the fields at that,” another said.
The new overseer sauntered along the hushed chorus. She looked ahead and above the folks in the field until she spied Mar and her visibly puffed belly.
“You there,” she said in a raised voice, but no one wanted to be the “you” she was referring to. She galloped to Loiza. “Hablas ingles?”
“Yes,” Loiza replied in a meek voice. After a week of heat, bend, swipe, Loiza didn’t want to cause any more damage to her ancestor’s physical form.
“Go get a drink of water,” the woman said from her horse.
“It’s… it’s not time, yet,” Loiza replied.
“It’s time when I say it’s time. Everyone, go get a drink, a quick drink.”
No one hesitated, but no one dared to run either. As Loiza moved to follow the others, the woman blocked her way with the horse. She jumped down in one swift motion that made Loiza wince.
“Buy your freedom, nina,” the woman whispered, then leaned over and said something else only Loiza and Mar’s spirit could hear. Though delighted within, Loiza simply nodded at the woman with a solemn face.
At the end of the workday, Loiza rushed ahead of her friends. With each stride closer to home, Loiza felt music inside her. Just when she thought her feet might carry her into a dance, her chest tightened, and Mar’s essence ripped her from the body. Mar knew something she couldn’t share, but Loiza could feel it—terror.
Mar broke into a run. Her eyes stung with tears and sweat. The muscles of her feet screamed for relief and her knees felt as if they would collapse upon themselves, but she ran. Villagers jumped out of her way in disdain and curiosity. Abeni and Maria trailed far behind, but they, too, started to run. Loiza felt a rush of confusion and fear and… dissolution from her tether with her ancestor and with the place. She felt porous, and the wind began to pass through pockets of her body. Her feet no longer touched the floor, and just when she thought she’d disappear forever, back to her time or back to nowhere, she passed through the door of Mar’s home.
Loiza watched helplessly as Mar dropped to her knees and raised Agueybana’s lifeless body in her arms. Then, Loiza found herself sobbing onto his face. Her body was awash with his blood, and she could feel the last of his life being carried away with it. The ache of Mar’s heart sent a shockwave over Loiza’s essence. The tether between her and this world faded. She reached up, trying to grab hold of something, anything. She couldn’t leave Mar now. Please God. Not now.
“I don’t want to go,” Loiza cried out. “Don’t make me leave her.”
She looked around for Mar’s spirit, but could see nothing except blood. Loiza gripped Agueybana’s body tighter until he turned into a bright burst of light that leapt from his body like a flare, pausing for a second before disappearing. In the same moment, Loiza found herself standing over Mar’s body, engulfing her, as her ancestor prayed.
Mar said a prayer for Agueybana, and for their unborn child, then for herself. Then she looked into Loiza’s eyes and said a prayer for her, too. And something called to Mar, and Loiza also heard it. The laina. The bomba music called to them both, but Mar could not answer and so Loiza could not.
And when another seven days passed, seven days of visits to the sobbing, bed-stricken Mar, seven days of meals, and prayers, and love, the laina called again. Loiza answered them both. And in the reply of her paseo and her abanico doble, and the buck and spread of her shoulders and arms, she prayed. Loiza prayed to take the pain of her ancestors with her. With that prayer, every void filled with it, the pain wrapped and beamed with the work, the love, and the triumph of them all. And one by one, the people of Loiza, Puerto Rico, stood and looked up to see her fleeting spirit.