“Come at 7 p.m.,” Señora Rafaela said when they spoke on the phone. Bromelia knocks again. She presses her face against the window but she only sees darkness. She checks the knob and the door is unlocked—she pokes her head through. Smoke from burning sage wraps around her.
“Hello?” She hears her echoes. “¿Señora Rafaela? Soy yo. Bromelia. We spoke about the available room.”
Bromelia’s former roommate asked her to leave their shared apartment after Bromelia threw a lamp through a glass door. “You have a drinking problem,” they said, the morning after. “I don’t even fucking remember doing it,” Bromelia told her girlfriend, Dahlia, when asking for help in finding a new place. Dahlia gave her the contact of an old family friend in the area.
Señora Rafaela’s block is mostly pastel-colored tract housing, apart from her old, gray house, which has two floors and a steeple with sharply pointed spires puncturing the sky.
Bromelia walks in and pats around the wall for a light switch. A large crystal chandelier hangs over her and a long spiral staircase leads upstairs. To her left is a long hallway leading to another room.
“Hello?” she calls out, but no answer. Before reaching the entrance to the kitchen, Bromelia spots a door left slightly open. She hears faint voices and someone or something howling. Before she can reach the knob, the door is slammed shut by someone from behind her. Bromelia’s heart rattles in her chest.
“Niña, ¿adonde vas?”
“Fuck,” Bromelia exclaims as she’s hit with a waft of sage smoke.
“Ven conmigo.” A short, heavy, old lady with braided long gray hair takes her hand and leads her to the main foyer.
“Are you Rafaela?” The smoke is giving her a headache.
“Of course, niña. I’m not just walking around some stranger’s house.” Señora Rafaela adjusts her red rebozo and waves the smudging stick across Bromelia’s chest, then she grabs her by the shoulder and turns her around, covering her back with the smoke.
“What’s going on?” Bromelia asks, feeling like a ragdoll under Señora Rafaela’s strangely strong hands.
“We don’t need any more negative energy in this place, ¿me entiendes?”
Bromelia waves the smoke away.
“I’m Bromelia.” She extends her hand out to Señora Rafaela but Señora Rafaela walks past her to the front door to smudge the frame.
“Ya sé. I heard you screaming from the basement.”
“Oh,” she adjusts her tote bag. The two bottles of Svedka she bought on her way clank against one another. Señora Rafaela eyes her up and down.
“Ven. Grab your things.”
She follows the old lady up the staircase. The flower-patterned wallpaper alongside the staircase is faded and torn down in some parts—like someone tried to tear it down with their nails. Bromelia traces the edges of the paper as she climbs the stairs. The fuzziness from the dust and the sharpness of the paper sends chills down her spine. They reach a room at one end of the hallway.
“This is your room.” She points to the door across the hall. “That’s my room. It’s off limits. The kitchen—we share.”
“Sí, Señora Rafaela.”
Señora Rafaela walks down the stairs, stopping to look back at Bromelia. “The basement is also off limits, niña.”
Her room is small, with enough space for a twin bed set against the wall which has been blanketed with a navy-blue San Marcos cobija with a tiger on it. There’s also a closet and a wooden bookcase. The walls are covered in ivory wallpaper with the same scene of a woman by a river, a giant tree near her, and puffy clouds in the sky. Bromelia unpacks and sits at the desk facing the main street. The stark darkness outside and the bright light inside only lets Bromelia see her own reflection. She pulls out a Svedka bottle and a warm can of Coke from her tote bag. She pops the can open, takes a swig, and pours the vodka. She takes another gulp, winces, and pours more vodka into the can. These days, she resembles her mother more and more. They have the same dark hair, the same wide brown eyes, and the same crooked smile. Bromelia hasn’t spoken to her mother in months—not since after her father left her mother black and blue for the millionth time.
“You have to leave him.” Bromelia knelt by her mother.
“And go where? ¿Me vas a mantener tú?” Her mother could barely open her left eye, but Bromelia could see the same resentment she’d seen many times before, when her mother would ask her to take her and her younger siblings away.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Bromelia whispered to her mother.
Since then, Bromelia keeps her distance. And, after calling Bromelia a “selfish, agringada, malagradecida,” so does her mother.
Bromelia is reading for class when she hears creaking on the floorboards outside her room. Her stomach clenches. The creaking gets louder. Bromelia walks closer to the door and places her ear against it. Silence.
Beep beep beep. She jumps back and rolls her eyes.
¿Cómo andas? It’s Dahlia.
The house is creepy looking and the old lady’s kinda weird. But it’s fine.
LOL. She’s not weird. She’s a healer. I told you.
I guess. Early class tomorrow. Love you.
After a few more vodka cokes, Bromelia puts the Svedka bottles in the bottom drawer of her desk.
She wakes up in the middle of the night to wailing sounds. Her head feels heavy and dizzy and her mouth tastes sour. Bromelia throws her blankets off and tries to stand, but the spinning room knocks her off her feet and into her bed again.
“This is some bullshit,” she mutters.
She takes a deep breath and holds the edge of the bed, feeling for the door. She turns on the flashlight app on her phone and listens for the noises. The cries sound like wails, like moaning, like longing. The image of La Llorona pops into her head.
“Fuck, no.” Bromelia holds on to the door frame.
Her ears are clogged with the beating of her racing heartbeat. The cries continue. This is what she imagined La Llorona would sound like. As a child, she heard plenty of stories about her from the women in her family.
“Pórtate bien or I’m call La Llorona pa’que te lleve,” her mom would scare her.
“La Llorona is still crying over a no-good man. Don’t waste your time, mija,” her tía would warn.
“La mujer is nothing without her husband and her children. Mira como quedó La Llorona,” her grandmother would sneer.
She holds the handrails as she makes her way down to the foyer. Aside from still feeling dizzy, everything is pitch black. She can only see as far as the reach of her flashlight. The cries get louder. At the bottom of the stairs, she can see a crack of light escaping from the basement door.
“Niña, it’s late. Go to sleep.”
The voice startles Bromelia and she drops her phone. She can’t get the room to stop spinning.
“Niña, what are you doing?”
“I …” Bromelia reaches for her phone. She leans against the wall to hold herself and points the flashlight in the direction of the voice.
“What the fff—” Bromelia stutters.
A glowing figure—tall, slender, with long black hair, wearing a white flowing dress—steps closer to her. The glowing figure reaches her hand to Bromelia’s forehead. A warm sensation spreads throughout her body. She squeezes her eyes shut and tears stream down her face.
“Señora Rafaela,” Bromelia whispers.
“Ay, mi niña. You’re not ready. Go back to bed.”
When Bromelia opens her eyes, she’s back in her bed and the sun shines through the window. Her head drums. She checks her phone—one message from Dahlia: Buenos días, sunshine.
The house is still, except for the music coming from downstairs.
Had the weirdest dream last night. Late for class. Talk later. Love you, she replies.
After getting ready, Bromelia rushes downstairs and heads for the door. She spots Señora Rafaela—short, old, and stout—dancing around the kitchen and singing “Como La Flor” into a cucumber.
“Pero, ay ay ay cómo me duele,” Señora Rafaela belts out. Bromelia looks at the basement door and feels a warmth spread from her forehead down to her chest. The scent of sage slaps her in the face. Her stomach turns. Bromelia steps outside and the fall air cools her. She swallows the vomit rising inside her.
Weeks have gone by since she’s last heard the cries in the house. Maybe it was just the old lady crying, she tells herself—aware of her own tearful nights. Bromelia sees the old lady busy with the many women coming in and out of the house asking for limpias, getting Tarot card readings, or picking up fresh and dried hierbas.
Bromelia walks in the front door holding her tote bag against her body so the bottles of Svedka don’t clink. She hears a woman wailing and her skin crawls.
“Let go, mija,” she hears Señora Rafaela’s voice. Bromelia drops her shoulders and shakes her head. She steps into the kitchen and spots Señora Rafaela sitting across a weeping woman. Bromelia’s relieved to see the cries come from a flesh-and-blood person. She goes into the kitchen to grab a glass and some ice. The women don’t look at her.
In her room, half a bottle of vodka and 1,537 shitty words later, she looks up from her laptop screen. The cries echo through the house. Is that woman still crying? she thinks.
Annoyed, Bromelia heads downstairs with her phone as a flashlight again. There’s no one in the kitchen. The basement door opens on its own as she goes for the knob—every rational bone in her body warns her to run the fuck out of there.
“Let go, mija.” She hears Señora Rafaela’s voice.
Bromelia tries calling Dahlia but only manages to turn off the flashlight app. The darkness frightens her. The cries get louder. The screeching hurts her ears. She holds her head and stumbles against the walls, looking for the switch. Fear has frozen her in place. Tears fall down her face. She leans against the door and cries into her hands. In the darkness, she spots a bright ember light. She opens her eyes, and the stairway down the basement is lit. Bromelia hesitates, but carefully makes her way down.
At the bottom, Bromelia sees the glowing woman drape a red rebozo over a weeping woman kneeling on the floor. In front of them sits a little girl in a dark purple dress. The little girl is wet from head to toe—her hair sticks to her face, the dripping water echoes louder with each drop. The little girl catches Bromelia’s eyes.
“Nope, I’m out.” She runs up the basement stairs, up the spiral staircase, and slams her bedroom door.
What the fuck. She fumbles for her phone and calls Dahlia. When she doesn’t answer, Bromelia texts her.
I don’t know what I just saw.
She sits on her bed and waits for Dahlia to respond. She closes her eyes and wipes her face. When she opens her eyes, she’s tucked into her bed and the sun is shining into her room.
Bromelia checks her phone for any messages from Dahlia. Nothing. She scrolls through their messages but doesn’t find the ones from last night. Fuck my life, she thinks. She calls her.
“Hello?” Dahlia sounds groggy.
“Did I text you last night? I’m pretty sure I did but like my phone doesn’t show the texts.”
She can hear sighing on the other side, “Drank a little too much, did we?”
“What? No. I mean maybe but like definitely not enough to not remember shit.” Bromelia’s gut tightens. She wants to feel mad for being accused of overdrinking, but she’s overcome with guilt for lying to her girlfriend.
“Maybe it was a dream,” Dahlia yawns.
“Yeah, I guess,” Bromelia stops herself from explaining the cries and the old lady shimmering in the dark. Maybe she was drunk and dreamt the whole thing. “When are you coming to spend the night?”
“Mmmm, this weekend. What do you think?”
“Yeah, that’ll be nice.”
“Okay, then. See you soon. Try asking Señora Rafaela to give you something for your nerves. And, maybe don’t drink anymore.” There’s a silence.
Bromelia feels a pain in her chest. “See you soon. Te amo.”
As Bromelia makes her way out the front door, she sees Señora Rafaela dancing and cooking in the kitchen again. She closes the door and goes to the kitchen instead. She shivers as she walks past the basement door.
Señora Rafaela is singing, “Dicen que no tengo duelo, Llorona, porque no me ven llorar. Dicen que no tengo duelo, Llorona, porque no me ven llorar.” Bromelia recognizes Chavela Vargas’s voice in the background. Her eyes fill with tears—this song reminds her of her mother, who hummed it every time she braided her hair.
“Buenos días, Señora Rafaela.” She clears her throat.
Señora Rafaela drops her spatula-microphone, “Ay, niña. You can’t sneak up on old people! Me asustaste.”
Señora Rafaela reaches into a cabinet and pulls out a jar of sugar. She dips a spoon and brings it to her mouth.
“Ven.” She grabs a new spoon and offers it to Bromelia. “You look like you’ve seen the devil. El azucar helps to get rid of el susto.” Bromelia dips the spoon in the sugar and brings it to her mouth. The sugar is warm and she feels it traveling from her tongue down her throat and into her stomach. The warmth spreads across her body and she feels like crying. She takes a deep breath.
“You’ll feel a lot better if you just spit it out.”
Bromelia’s body tenses.
Señora Rafaela smiles and sighs. “Whatever it is you want to ask me. I’ve had enough hijas to know when they want to speak, but won’t.”
Bromelia presses her lips together. “Do you have something you can give me for my nervios? I haven’t been sleeping good.”
Señora Rafaela picks up the spatula, “Pero por su puesto.” She goes into the cabinets and pulls out a cloth satchel. “Lavanda will help settle your nerves. Tambien es bueno for an aching soul, I say. Dime, whose cries keep you up at night?”
“What?” Bromelia stops breathing.
Señora Rafaela places a hot cup of lavender tea on the table for Bromelia.
“Well, what usually keeps us up at night are our own sorrows or those of who we love. ¿No crees?”
“I …” She sips her tea. “I just … I don’t know … I’ve been hearing things. And then I thought I saw … I don’t know. I guess I’ve just been having more nightmares than usual.”
“Have you talked to your mamá? Sometimes the universe tries to send us messages through our dreams.”
Bromelia clenches her jaw. She doesn’t want to think about her mother and her siblings and how’s she left them to fend for themselves.
“Gracias por el té.” She places the near-full cup on the table and walks away.
“You and your mother are more similar than you think.” Señora Rafaela walks behind her. “Our heridas usually look like wounds of the women before us.”
Bromelia feels the warmth in her stomach from the tea turning hotter and hotter. She hears the cries again.
“What do you know about my mother?” she retorts, but she’s alone now.
“You don’t think she’s weird?” Bromelia asks, when she and Dahlia make it to the bedroom that evening.
Dahlia smiles. “Stop calling her weird. I told you, she’s a healer. She knows and sees what you can’t. That doesn’t make her weird.”
Bromelia rolls her eyes. “You know what I mean.”
“Why are you freaking out?”
Bromelia sighs. “I don’t know. ’Cuz freaky shit is happening.”
Dahlia lies on the bed. “I’m worried about you. Be honest with me: have you been drinking more?”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Bromelia paces the tiny room.
“Meli, I’m asking because I care. The last time you fell off the wagon …” Dahlia stops. They had promised never to throw shit in each other’s faces. Bromelia feels guilty anyway.
Now in bed, Dahlia faces the wall and Bromelia turns to the rest of the room. The edges of the door let in a glowing light. Bromelia rubs her eyes and looks at the door again, but the light is not there anymore. Fuck no, she thinks. She turns to Dahlia and pulls her close. Bromelia stares at the wallpaper, willing herself to fall asleep—to ignore everything outside. She follows the pattern along the wall. One of the pieces doesn’t have a woman standing by the river. Soon the other women are missing too.
“What the …” she mutters.
She leans closer to the design. Soon Bromelia is falling into an abyss. Cold water breaks her fall. She kicks and screams but the waves crash into her, tossing her around. She gasps for air, panic consumes her. She kicks her feet as hard as she can, reaching toward the big puffy clouds above her. The current pulls her and the ice-cold water slashes her skin, leaving her raw. She kicks and kicks, flailing her arms.
“Let go,” she hears someone call. “That’s the only way to get to the other side.”
Exhausted, she stops fighting. The water swallows her, pulls her down.
Bromelia wakes gasping for air. She checks on Dahlia, still deep asleep. She shakes her awake but Dahlia doesn’t budge. She hears the wailing again. Bromelia covers her ears with her pillow. No use. She hears the cries in her head, in her chest. She throws the pillow on the floor and makes her way to the door. She pulls a flashlight out of her backpack. She marches down the spiraling staircase, stomping on the steps. From the tears in the wallpaper, ice-cold water gushes out.
She opens the basement door and the light blinds her. The cries hurt her ears. She sees glowing figures sitting against the wall. Young girls, with long, pitch-black hair, wailing. Women—older women, young women—sit across from the young girls.
“Niña, hand me that blanket,” the glowing woman demands without turning around.
“Señora Rafaela? Is that you? What the fuck is this?”
“Niña, you finally made it.”
“What? I don’t …” Bromelia looks around and finds the blanket. She picks it up and walks it over to Señora Rafaela, who drapes it around one of the women.
“What is all this?” Bromelia looks around at all the little girls sitting against the wall. Their cries aren’t as loud as before.
Señora Rafaela stands, dusts her knees, and pulls Bromelia. “Let go.”
Bromelia looks at Señora Rafaela. Behind her, she can see the young girls floundering, their arms thrashing like hers just a few minutes ago when she thought she was drowning.
“I don’t know what’s happening.” Bromelia covers her face.
“Ay, mi niña.” Señora Rafaela caresses Bromelia’s arms.
“Look at the girls. ¿Qué son?”
“¿Cómo que ‘what?’ Stop con tanto ‘what.’ Look. Really look.”
Bromelia scans the room. The young girls wear purple dresses—like she saw the other night. “Are they … smoke?” The girls are see-through. Not flesh and bone. And they glow. Some of them glow brighter. Some of them don’t cry. Some of them howl.
Señora Rafaela’s face is soft. “Do you ever feel like you’re drowning? Like you’re being pulled into a dark place? Afraid you’ll never find a way out? Or terrified you don’t want to find a way out?”
Bromelia’s face fills with tears. She’s felt all of this for as long as she can remember. “Why all the wailing?”
“Our pain is anchored to a hurt little girl inside of us. The wailing, as you call it, is La Llorona’s battle cry—used to call all her lost niñas.” Señora Rafaela taps Bromelia’s heart.
“You wouldn’t have come here if you weren’t ready,” Señora Rafaela assures her. “Let go, mija.”
“No.” Bromelia steps back. This can’t be real. The thought of releasing all of the hurt inside of her is tempting but it can’t be possible.
“Here we can expel the little girls rotting inside us. The hurt little girls we couldn’t protect. We sing La Llorona’s song to find ourselves. ¿Lista?”
Bromelia wipes the snot from her face with her sleeve. She wants to believe Señora Rafaela. Bromelia thinks of her mother, her sisters, her aunts, her grandmothers—so much hurt there. If Señora Rafaela is right, then why should she be the one to be healed first? Bromelia presses her eyes tight until they burn.
“Mami,” she blubbers, and the tears flow again.
“It can start with you, niña. Are you ready?”
At first, Bromelia’s song sounds like screaming, full of anger, then a howling, full of grief, until, finally, she wails a melody full of hope.
Señora Rafaela steps closer and places her palm on Bromelia’s forehead. The warm sensation reaches the pit of her stomach, making it churn. Bromelia feels a fire deep inside her. She dry heaves and gags and cries until she vomits. She falls to her knees and Señora Rafaela holds her hair. Her body shakes as purple blobs of slime ooze out of her. A little girl in a purple dress screeches in front of her. The slime smells putrid.
“Ay, mis hijas,” Señora Rafaela wails at the top of her lungs.
The little girl claws for Bromelia, “Please, please, please, make it stop.” Bromelia reaches out. The little girl is dancing smoke and blinding light and breath on a cold day.
“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” Bromelia howls, scratching the ground underneath the girl, unable to hold her. “I don’t know how.” Smoke envelops Bromelia. It tightens around her throat, choking her.
“It hurts. It hurts. Help me,” the little girl cries, grasping her chest.
Bromelia brings her knees to her face, whimpers. The tightening stops but the smell of burning sage lingers.
When Bromelia opens her eyes, she’s back in her room. The sun is rising and Dahlia snores against the wall. She wipes her face and scoots closer to Dahlia, burying her face in her hair.
Bromelia jumps when she sees her six-year-old self standing in front of her in a purple, ruffled dress.
“Fuck me,” Bromelia mutters. She rushes down to the kitchen looking for Señora Rafaela, the little girl following after her. She finds Señora Rafaela making cafecito. The smells of burning sage mixes with the scent of freshly ground coffee.
“The night felt exceptionally long last night, ¿no crees?” Señora Rafaela sips, looking at Bromelia.
“Do you see this little girl?” Bromelia points to the little girl, now seated, dangling her legs.
“Do you see mine?” Señora Rafaela offers Bromelia a cup.
“No, stop. What the fuck does mean? What’s happening?”
Señora Rafaela remains calm. “You sang La Llorona’s battle cry and you found your little girl.” She points to the child.
“And now I have to take care of a kid?”
“You’re responsible for loving, forgiving, and nurturing yourself.” Señora Rafaela uses her fingers to comb through the little girl’s hair.
“When do they leave?” Bromelia hugs herself.
“They come and go. Healing isn’t a road with a final destination. We sing La Llorona’s song many times throughout our lives.”
Bromelia stares at the little girl in front of her. “What if I can’t do it? Take care of her.” Tears stream down her face.
Señora Rafaela tightens her lips and places a hand on Bromelia’s shoulder, “Ay, mi niña.”
Bromelia sits at the table next to the little girl. A waft of smoke makes Bromelia’s eyes water, and the little girl wraps her smoky arms around her. Rivers flow from their eyes.