Published by Sprout Magazine.
It rained the night Ana Sofía Serrano drowned the cat. Camila awakened before dawn to a loud pop, like the sound of a circuit bursting or a hairdryer in a bathtub. Her mother was hiding in the washroom, strangling the cat and throwing its skull against the dirty water. She hummed a limerick from her childhood—something her grandmother had lullabied her with—before Camila interrupted with a shriek, stirring the Señor.
Juan José Serrano burst into the room, casting his daughter aside, and dragging his wife by the hair. She was purely unrecognizable. Her brunette locks had turned to knotty wires dangling down her visage like a bead curtain; her brown skin had become sickly pale as if the color had drained. Camila could not discern where her father stole her mother to. But they had left the cat dead in the water. She wondered why it did not float.
Following the incident, Ana Sofía seemed chained to the cushioned chair on the porch. It had a perfect view of the Puerto Rican coastline, and the sea breeze would percolate through the netting and strike her flesh like needles. Just at her line of vision, she could watch the reds and whites of Juan José’s American flag oscillate back and forth, back and forth from the doorway.
Whenever her daughter would approach her, Ana Sofía would sob, so eventually Camila stopped approaching. Juan José thought at first to shower his wife with affection, as if anything is ever solved through love. When that failed he phoned a doctor with a severely receding hairline, who kept inquiring how Ana Sofía was feeling that day. She told him she was transforming into a tree in El Yunque because all she could hear anymore was running waters. This concerned the doctor, who furiously scribbled fancy names of medications for Juan José to cut into halves each night, and serve his wife each morning.
This routine continued finely until Serrano slugged an elderly man at a bar for referring to him as an “imperialist imbecile.” Juan José made a hobby of showing off his bald eagle tattoo to admirers, but the old man got in his face with beer breath, spewing nationalism, and Juan José lost control. The man passed away a week later of heart failure that the Señor heard could’ve been cured had he the money for treatments. Of course, Juan José blamed himself and devoted his faith to the Catholic Church to repent.
One day he stripped Ana Sofía’s vanity of all pagan icons and replaced them with crucifixes. She soon went missing, returning later that evening with the threat that she had paid an obeah woman to hex Juan José. So the next morning, when the Señor went outside for a morning stroll, he was stricken on the scalp by a falling coconut and rushed to emergency facilities. When Camila drove him home from the hospital, amnesiac and woozy off nitrous oxide, Serrano kept asking and asking to see their pet cat: it was all he looked forward to. Ana Sofía resumed her position on the porch when her husband returned, but she didn’t once turn her head at him. Serrano crossed himself.
The Señora never came inside that night. Juan José waited impatiently in a half-occupied bed, and when it began to drizzle sought to bring her indoors. But he found the porch empty. His first instinct was that she finally lost it and stood immobile in the El Yunque Forest amidst her kind. That was when he opened the door and found his beloved American flag on the ground, in a mud puddle, stamped to death by his wife.
“You loon! What do you think you’re doing?” he barked in English.
Ana Sofía answered in Spanish: “Imperialist imbecile.”
Thunder clapped some distance away, and Juan José darted out to the yard. The rain had turned to a downpour. Palm trees whistled and whipped in the wind. Once more, the Señor took his wife by the hair and dragged her across the lawn. He tried to avoid her tackles so long until she chomped the tip of his forefinger off. Then he tossed her into the dirt and locked the door behind him.
The following afternoon, Juan José purchased and hung an even larger flag in the same spot. Seeing this, Ana Sofía silently stood from her grass bed, left, and didn’t return for days. Even now, no one knows exactly where she got to.
“You really want to know where I was, I was with the cat,” she would reply upon interrogation. But again, this wasn’t for days she returned.
The Señor took great advantage of his wife’s leave of absence and memorized the entire catechisms. Later he began to board up every square inch of the patio.
When the neighbor Ignacio came over with cigars and whiskey he asked what renovations were being done.
“I’ve given up alcohol,” Serrano said when proffered, “Save for the Holy Communion.”
The hot Caribbean sun had caused Juan José to sweat beads of liquor. They dripped from his forehead and drained his body of all prior gluttony. Ignacio had learned it’s best to leave a man to his own devices, and smoked both cigars himself that evening instead.
That evening, Camila sunbathed on the lawn, switching watch from her father to the ocean ahead. The sunsets here were always deep, passionate, rich—always colors Camila thought she could take a shovel to and dig at for days. She thought she should write to her brother in the States, to inform him of their pet cat. But she was also waiting for her courtier, a boy that her father took particular affinity to, being he was of American affluence. Henry was his name. Pale and blonde and blue eyes, who never hit above triple-digits in golf. She didn’t like him much. But he was pretty, and she was desperate to escape the ongoing chuck, chuck, chuck of her father’s work.
Henry arrived in a German sports car, announcing he’d take Camila to the beach. That’s how he phrased it: “the beach.” Camila thought he was a true gringo, since there were millions of beaches nearby, but she didn’t care for specifics.
Henry shook hands firmly with the Señor and asked where his wife was.
“You should be focusing on your señorita,” Serrano responded.
Henry placed a hibiscus in Camila’s hair, escorting her to the curb. He opened the door for her, and when the pair revved off, Henry mentioned wine buried away in the back seat.
Camila coasted her palm out of the window, catching a gust of wind. “Do you believe in God?”
“Of course I do. My family is Lutheran.”
“You know my father gave up alcohol for God,” Camila said.
“A Puerto Rican giving up alcohol? That’s an oxymoron.”
She ignored that.
“Do you believe in God?” Henry asked her.
“I’m not sure. I hope there’s something. Everything is a bit more lonely thinking there’s nothing. It’s sort of romantic to believe there’s something up there, full of promises that everything will turn out okay. Something that has control. Because, for the first time in my life, I feel like I don’t have control over anything.”
“Is this about your mother? She’ll come back. Your dad will take care of that.”
Camila didn’t answer. She didn’t want to tell him that she wasn’t sure if she wanted her father to find Ana Sofía.
Actually, she had no idea what she wanted at all.
They arrived at the beach before the sun could disappear. It peeked from the horizonline, turning the sky pastel behind a row of palm trees. Henry grabbed the booze from his car and caught up with Camila halfway across a dune. He took a swig and passed it to her. She didn’t notice him. Her legs were knee-deep in the water, and when Henry went to join he jumped back.
“Jesus, Camila,” he shouted, “It’s freezing!”
She didn’t acknowledge him.
“What is it with you,” Henry said, “That your mind is never rooted. It’s always some place else. That’s a dangerous thing for a girl. Otherwise you’ll go wandering some place you shouldn’t. Now have some sense, and get out of the water.”
Camila obeyed, simply because she didn’t have the energy for a dispute.
Unbeknownst to the lovebirds, Juan José was then juggling his rosary beads, reciting his nightly devotions. For the fifth time that week, he entered a bed alone and remained there solitary until sunrise. He had plans floating through his mind: blueprints for the patio, the construction, the architecture. There was one day’s worth of work left, and then it’d be perfect.
He didn’t hear his daughter return around four-in-the-morning, stumbling drunk up the stairs.
The next morning, Ana Sofía returned. She trudged into the patio as Juan José nailed the last plank.
“Get out,” she demanded.
He peered quizzically at first, then left her be. She took her seat as usual, with the view of balsa wood instead of the seashore. It was boarded floor-to-ceiling. But she wasn’t going to question her husband—not now. She wanted peace and quiet, so she could become a tree. But the breeze couldn’t pass through the cracks in the wood, and she couldn’t hear the ocean. All she could hear was the distinct click of a lock. And when she tried to reopen the door to the house, found herself locked in.
Quitting her bedroom, Camila asked, “Was that ma?”
“Sí, don’t disturb her.”
“Is that what you were doing to the porch? You were building a jail cell.”
The Señor told her that things don’t always make sense on the surface.
Camila didn’t explain to Henry why he was driving her into town. She told him to grab his keys and get over to her house. He picked her up promptly, forgetting to gel his hair so that his cowlick was in full display. They drove down a shortcut littered in ferns and white frangipanis.
Camila relayed her findings to Henry. That her father had boarded up the patio. That he locked her mother inside. That he was keeping her hostage in there. She didn’t know why this had to happen to her. Why she wasn’t her brother, blissfully unaware, father’s favorite because he’s studying in California. She said her father had gone too far, that this was despicable. But she couldn’t do a thing about it.
“In a way, I understand your dad,” Henry said. “She’s his to take care of.”
“She isn’t his.”
“She may as well be—she married him.”
“What about me? Do I belong to my father? My brother too?”
“You’re not listening to me, Camila. You have to take responsibility for what’s yours.”
Henry parked the car outside El Morro. He waited for Camila as she hiked into Old San Juan, down an alley, taking a left, crossing two blocks, taking another left, then an immediate right, and into another alley where Camila had to climb three stories to knock on the stranger’s door. It was blanketed with green beads that jangled with each rap, and on the door was a small wooden sign with the word PSYCHIC painted in purple.
This was surely the woman Camila sought. The obeah woman that Ana Sofía had hex the Señor.
When the gypsy opened the door, Camila was surprised to find a short, stout Trinidadian lady with bangle-covered arms. She wasn’t sure what she expected—maybe someone mystical, someone that glowed mysteriously or wore a witch’s hat. This woman here looked just like everybody else.
She welcomed Camila inside and led her into a hideaway isolated by velvet drapery. They sat across one another, a crystal ball in the center. Hasn’t she seen Camila somewhere before?
“That was my mother,” Camila said.
“You look exactly like her, y’know.”
Camila brought up the hex, and the obeah woman was hasty to deny it. Whatever came to her family, they brought on themselves. Anyway, the gypsy specialized in fortune-telling, and obviously there was no such thing as magic.
She had Camila lean close, and whispered two things in her ear: she told Camila the secret to the universe, and to get the hell out of America.
She said something else, but Camila didn’t listen. She rose from the space and paid the obeah lady her dues. Dizzy off the woman’s words, Camila wobbled outside, catching sounds of something stirring from the square.
She followed the noise to the fortress, finding Henry lying atop the hood of his car. He was smoking a cigar, ignoring the crowd across the street. They surrounded the fountain. Children had stopped playing in the water, telling jokes about something Camila couldn’t see. Teenagers were recording off their phones. Everybody laughed.
Camila ran for Henry, grabbing him by the arm and forcing him through the group of people. When she saw the spectacle, she screamed. “Ma!”
Camila tried to drag her mother away, but Ana Sofía wouldn’t budge. She posed, her feet planted firm, her arms out like crucifixion. Her eyes were closed. She barked for everyone to shut up, that they were overpowering the sound of rushing waters.
“How did you get out?” Camila yelled at her mom. She realized then that the obeah woman was right: she looked so much like her mother. Henry tried to push the crowd away.
“I’m a tree,” Ana Sofía said. “Let me be. Tell everyone to quiet down; I can’t hear the waterfalls. I can’t hear them a bit with their incessant yapping.”
Camila’s expression dropped. “Where do you think you are?”
“I’m a tree in El Yunque, but I can’t hear the waterfalls.”
Camila and Henry held her up and carried her to the backseat of Henry’s car. The pastel colors of the buildings blended together like a crayon box, and, away from the commotion, Ana Sofía could hear the waters again.
“We should take her back to your father,” Henry said after driving off.
“No!” Camila exclaimed, “I mean, I don’t want to. She wouldn’t be safe.”
“What about your brother? She’d be better off in America with him.”
“No, he’s still in school…All I know is that she can’t go home. Could she stay with you, Henry? Please.”
“I don’t think that’s a smart idea.”
“You’re the one so fed up on responsibility. I’m your girlfriend, and I’m in need. Can’t you help?”
Finally Henry caved, promising to house her mother for the time being. He dropped her off at her house. They had to hide Ana Sofía underneath the seat, because the Señor sat outside goggling at his own wooden creation. He still believed his wife was locked inside. Camila felt her stomach sicken at the sight. She watched Henry steer off, not even having the chance to bid her mom goodbye.
When Camila approached her father, he chucked an envelope her way. It was marked for her, with a return address from Canada. Opening it, she found it was from her brother, answering her notice on their pet cat:
I’m sorry for the late response. I didn’t want pa to find out, but I moved to Montreal. I scored an internship with the local paper. My girlfriend Lupita and I found an apartment in town, and she’s working for the radio station. I know I have yet to tell you all about her, but I have good reason. You would love her, Camila. But she has a history, and please relay it to father—I anticipate his response. Here’s Lupita’s background, in layman’s terms:
Lupita lived with her mother Bianca under the roof of a banker, named Diego. The two married hastily after high school because of Bianca’s pregnancy, and moved to a Mexican village some hours from their hometown. He was your traditional Latino macho and forbade Bianca from holding her job, save her humble stand at the Saturday market. She was a seamstress. There she met the local preacher, Jesús Palma Navarrete, who visited her every week to purchase fabric. They began an illicit courtship. His status as a holy man prevented anything more, but one night under a full moon, in a field brimmed with millions of orange poppies, they became one. And when they awoke, Jesús dusted himself of the earth, and embarked on a pilgrimage to repent. Yet he swore he’d write Bianca every day for seventeen weeks. She trusted a preacher would keep his word, and trekked each afternoon to the post office with no avail. Bianca decided they were all hypocrites, expected to love and fear God simultaneously, as if anyone can love and fear anything at one and the same time. But this revelation was late, because the mailroom had memorized Bianca by name, and a worker who played poker every Friday night with Diego told him all about it.
Diego was always abusive, physically and emotionally. And when he found out about the affair…it should suffice to say he wasn’t pleased. His beatings grew oftener and harder, and the punches meant for Bianca began to land on Lupita. That’s where Bianca drew the line, and just before the sun could rise took Lupita, fled, and crossed the border illegally. I will not go into those details. Worried about deportation, Bianca got a job at a factory. Lupita focused on her education, and that’s how we met. We moved to Montreal some months ago. Bianca lives with us.
Know that I love Lupita. That should be enough for father. Hopefully you can visit.
P.S.: It’s a shame to hear of our cat. I’m sure mom isn’t handling it well.
Camila put down the letter and read it to her father. It left the Señor in such a fever that he couldn’t speak for hours. Camila tried to calm him, dabbing at his forehead with a wet cloth and feeding him soup. But he could only groan.
“My own son—with an alien!” he kept howling.
“You shouldn’t say that word,” Camila told him. “It’s not right. Personally I think it’d be a much more peaceful world if we did away with borders…”
“To think he’s with that thing!”
“Do you hear yourself? You’re an American puppet, pa.”
Camila couldn’t understand how her father, the man who had raised her, could think in such an ugly way. Something about Lupita’s story inspired her, opened up opportunities she had no idea were there. That letter had made everything click, and suddenly Camila knew what to do. She went immediately to Henry’s to tell him, and handed him the letter to read.
“What a disgrace,” Henry said after finishing.
“What do you mean?” Camila asked.
“Your brother is with an illegal.”
“Humans can’t be illegal, Henry.”
“They come and take the land and jobs of hard-working, everyday Americans, and they’re nothing but lousy criminals who should be held accountable. And more preferably deported.”
Hearing this, Camila was filled with rage, a seething rage that doesn’t boil, but fills your lungs with hot water. The sort of anger that she couldn’t hold against him, but to a myriad of things. It replaced her excitement with momentary cynicism. But the sadder thing was…she wasn’t a bit surprised with him.
“I’m going to move ma and I to Montreal,” Camila said, squaring her shoulders, “To live with Mateo until we can get our feet on the ground.
“That’s insane; you’re insane. You do that, and I’ll call Señor Serrano.”
Camila wanted to say something. She wanted to ask how he could do that, how he could be so selfish. After he knew what her father had done. She wanted to know what it was inside of Henry that made him think the way he did. How he came to be so inconsiderate. How he treated his own mother. She wanted to say so much, but nothing came out. Sometimes it’s best not to examine someone’s intentions, and just take them for the asshole they really are.
In the middle of the night, Camila stole her mother away. Ana Sofía seemed paralyzed, her limbs immobile as branches, her hair soiled with twigs and leaves. Her eyes were still pressed shut, and it wouldn’t be until Camila snuck her onto the ship that she would open them again. She almost shook herself into a seizure when she awoke, but she slowly breathed the first steady breath she could recall in a long time.
Back in Puerto Rico, Juan José Serrano would not notice the women in his life missing until the next Sunday when Camila did not show up to church.
Camila had written Mateo, but didn’t bother waiting for his response. The ship was set for the Canadian coast. She and her mother would take the Saint Lawrence River into Québec, and Mateo would find them from there.
For the first time in a while, Camila felt calm. Her hair flew out free behind her, catching the breeze of the Atlantic Ocean.
She finally had control.