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Every day at a las tres de la tarde, we remember Lola. We remember the woman they told us to forget. They will tell you different stories depending on who you ask. It’s always the men, este said this, el otro said that, but we don’t believe them because we know she died. We all know how she died.

One story goes that Lola was a beautiful woman who married a wealthy man. She had an affair with another wealthy man, and her husband found out and killed her in a jealous rage. Another story goes that she worked at a hidden brothel. The story goes that she took multiple lovers and one man got so attached that he wanted no one else to have her, so he killed her. But we know that no matter how the story is told, the end is the same. Lola was murdered by the man who said he loved her. In every story about a woman, it’s always a man who says she’s beautiful. This is the first thing most people remember.

Both these stories are true and not true. We know that. It’s what we choose to remember that sets a story apart. Yes, Lola was married, and yes, Lola needed to find a way to feed herself, and yes, Lola was murdered, but there is so much more to it than that. This much is true.

We gather every day to remember. We gather every day to keep her alive. Then we decide to bring her back to life. Claro, we do this in secret because we don’t want others to find out. There is hesitation. It has been seven years since we’ve seen her, and we want her back because we want to feel safe again knowing that she’s caring for us. We want the woman that meant so much to us, who was robbed of so much.

We teach each other how to make candles. We warp the silky molds. We shape them into long, ivory things, like moonbeams in our hands, like sunrays peaking behind clouds, like that. We keep them away from the fires. We don’t want the things to melt and come undone. We need them here with us. These silky things will burn with what we feel. We want to light them and offer them to her, to our mother, our sister, our caretaker, who’s no longer here.

She took us in from the streets. We were dirty and tired and hungry. At first, Lola would visit us. Sometimes she’d bring us food and clean water. Just bread was enough to satisfy us, and we savored every bite of the soft, flaky loaves. She came into the bad parts of town. She was one of the few with shoes on, but when she noticed we had none, she took them off, and she walked barefoot por las calles. Then she’d remember her life from before the time she lived in the brothel. We knew that wasn’t something Lola liked to talk about, but she told us, anyway. Lola said she had men flock to her. Most of them weren’t there for sex. Some went to listen to her tell a story. Some went to have her embrace them. Some went to feel something of what they might have called love. We know better. Lola loved us in a way we had not known.

So, claro que we want her back. We want to feel her with us again, to smile the smiles we once did when she walked with us.

We wait for a night of the half-moon, a waxing moon, because the moon grows full, and so will our lives when she returns. We are all witches in our own right. We all want something, and we will do what is necessary to get it even if no one understands us, even if we are condemned. Isn’t this exactly what witches are? We are already condemned by everyone else in the town for leading the lives we live in order to survive.

Some of us reminisce on the past during our walk to the sea. Some of us talk about our memories with Lola. She brought a mother pastelitos and taught her to make them for her family. Then Lola returned three days later and taught more of us. She showed a boy how to sew buttons and fix the seams of his clothes so he could help his brothers and sisters look more presentable as they sold their wares on the streets. For those of us who had no other option but our bodies to work with, Lola taught us how to protect ourselves from unwanted pregnancies. She taught us how to make a mixture of sour milk, honey, and parts of crushed plants to put inside ourselves in preparation for the more violent, unforgiving men. Because there are, and always will be, violent, unforgiving men. Unlike what the doctors always told us, Lola said the mixture should be applied before and not after sex in order to help prevent pregnancies. For the new mothers, Lola used her husband’s money to buy azabache bracelets for their babies because she thought that every little bit helped. Every good thought put into action is worth something no matter how small.

We arrive at the sea, the waves and water under the ground and the rush of it all. It is three in the morning. We believe the lack of prayers at this time will allow ours to be heard. We bring our candles and burn the tops of their heads. We think of Lola. The soft, waxy shapes tingle our fingers with warmth. Their drippings fall onto our skin, caking our wrinkles and cracks and lines of life and love. Our hands join together in eternal supplication. Then we break from the molds and wax, watch the flakes fall into the still water. We think Yemaya will accept these prayers, or maybe la Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre. We don’t know, but it gives us comfort. The water hugs us, waist deep, like children, and in some way, we were children of Lola. Lola, who clothed and fed us, who taught us to read and write.

Our words are heavy on our tongues, mouthfuls of honey and coconut milk. Smoke rises around us. Some of us smoke to feel calm, to empty our heads and make our thoughts freer. We do not stop them if it’ll help porque we’ll allow anything to bring her back to us. We pray to our god and gods and spirits and ancestors. We pray to Lola, for Lola. We pray for intercession. The candle wax burns our skin, but we endure. This is a small discomfort to bear, and we accept it if it’ll bring Lola back to us. Those of us without candles leave things for her on the shore and let the tides pull them. El frutero leaves mangos in the break. The cigar roller sprinkles dried tabaco leaves. The children toss flowers into the water, roses white and full, hibiscuses soft and pink, gardenias, fragrant and strong. Lola always liked flowers. These are her favorites.

Then it happens, no flourish, no explosion of petals and sea foam. She is there, in the not distant shallows, walking toward us, her heavy dress soaked through.

From our flickering candlelight, we see her, skin shimmering with moonlight, and her cheeks are damp and sallow, eyes like dark holes in the earth waiting to be given seeds that she’ll nourish.

“Mis niños,” she says.

We drop the candles into the water and wade into the foam. We cry. We pray. We reach out to her, climbing and stretching over each other as if to receive benediction. We are enriched and full just by being in her presence.

Lola follows us up the sand, through the thicket of palm trees and into town, where we float toward the streets we’ve known since we were born. Buildings, once white, are grey with dust and age. Paint chips off in giant flakes. We find new cracks up the walls where there weren’t before. On any other day, this would worry us that a building would topple, but that doesn’t matter now. We have Lola. We have our mother, our sister, our saint.

She towers above us. She holds our children’s hands. We surround her in a halo of our own, and she accepts us like she always has, like we know she always will. We take her to our homes and show her that we have survived through everything she’s taught us. She smiles, teeth like starlight.

“You’ve done so well,” she says. “Todos.”

From a stash of laundry we draw a clean nightdress for her so that she does not sleep with her wet clothes. It is real fabric, as real as the lines on our palms.

We grow tired. The night has taken so much, but now it has brought us something in return for our suffering. Most of us return to our homes. A few stay awake to keep watch over Lola. We need to take care of her the way she did for us. We are afraid that when the morning comes, she’ll be gone, and then what do we do?

Morning does come, and Lola is there, sleeping on a mattress in the middle of what we’d consider a living room. We think of how we’ve never seen such a beautiful sight, our first in a long time. The sun creeps through the cracks in the windows and between the broken slats of the shades, making crosses of light on her skin. We get to work preparing breakfast: tostadas and café and fried eggs with slices of ham and fruit cut in slivers. With the little money we have, we send the children out to the streets to buy flowers.

In the center of the room, a stirring and we know Lola has awoken. We bring her a plate piled high with food, a glass of water, another of juice, and a cup of café. Whispers travel through the windows and streets, and we pour into the room.

Lola is surrounded by us. The children sit closest to her, looking at the woman they had only heard stories of. They ask if she is their other mother.

“She is everyone’s mother,” we say to them. “And sister, and daughter, and aunt, and cousin,” we echo.

Lola takes a few bites of the food we’ve prepared.

“Please,” she says. “Share this with each other. You all need it more than I do.”

How like her. Of course, she would put our needs before hers. Like Lola told us, we share our food and eat. We thank her for this. We relish every bite, the grease from the ham, the sticky sweet of the mangos. We lick our fingers clean and wipe the corners of our mouths with our tongues.

When the morning sun rises three days later she says, “Please, take me to his house.”

Her husband, we have not forgotten about him and what he did. We refuse to think about it, but there’s no way to separate him and Lola. She is and is not because of him, but she’s here because of us, and we decide that is what matters.

Outside, the morning unfolds in front of us. Humidity steams off the ground, rising in pillars where cracks of light spill from the sky. Butterflies and zun-zuns sweep through flowers, their jeweled wings slick with dew.

We lead Lola, but we know she knows the way. Today we’ve told the children to stay home, but we know that will not happen. They will follow us, and we will let them. Growing up where they have, there are few truths that will scar them. Villagers around us wake to church bells. They sweep their storefronts along el prado until they see us with Lola standing in the center of it all.

We don’t pay attention to them. Together we were collective sinners, trash, rotten. With Lola, we are strong. We believe in her, and she believes in us, and this is why we march.

We see the house at the edge of the town, a road lined with bougainvilleas. From the sea we can smell the clouds coming. That man’s house rises tall and white, its windows open to the smell of gardenias and sea spray. Gardeners tend the lawn, trimming flowers and shrubs. Across the sky, a flock of flamingos cuts through, pink and burning, a gash of feathers.

Lola stops at the edge of the home she once knew and looks at the sky. She breathes the air, and the wind encircles her. We stay as close as we can because we do not want her to fly away. She’s been taken from us before. Watching her, we breathe deep, like she does, and try to make out something other than the coming storm.

She walks toward the house. We part like a curtain for the light and let her pass ahead of us. We follow behind her, some of us smoking cheap cigars, some of us holding each other, our arms seeking warmth. She crosses the edge and stands. We follow. We will always follow her. One by one, the gardeners look up from their work. One of them drops his machete. He recognizes her. They all do. Lola wears a face as blank as the moon and as steady as the tides. We feel that, if she wanted to, she could disappear into the sky at any moment.

We see him from the window, smoking a pipe. He does not see us. He does not see the woman he murdered.

“There is something I need you to do for me,” says Lola.

The air hums and buzzes, and we wait for her words.

“Burn it.”

We never thought she would ask something like this of us. We are not prepared. Then, someone begins ripping the wooden floorboards from the porch. At once, we are upon the house, collecting as much dried material as we can. We work in a fury of sweat and fingernails and zeal. We make fire and feed it. The gardeners are nowhere to be found.

Smoke rises. The door bursts open, and there he is, older than we remember but recognizable, combed hair, a plain white shirt tucked into his pants, bigger belly than before. Un cualquiera, how could anyone dressed like that murder someone? He sees Lola, and his face turns to ash.

We are waiting for him with crude torches and the gardeners’ tools. Here, in front of us, is the reason Lola was no longer in this world.

Lola stands in between us and him. The fire grows and begins to take the furniture inside, the curtains at the windows, the rugs on the floor. Smoke thickens, makes our eyes water. From the sea, a breeze kisses the fire and gives it strength. It growls now. It is everywhere.

The man tries to run, but we grab him and push him into the fire. This is what he deserves. Claro que sí. How we must look to him, faces smeared with soot and dirt. How we have suffered and prayed and suffered again.

The house collapses, slow, like baby teeth.

We stand next to Lola and watch the wind take the flames into the sky. Then we look at our hands llenas de tierra. Lola takes them in hers, and the rain washes over our faces.

Christopher R. Alonso was born in Miami, FL, to a Cuban family. He is a graduate of the NEOMFA program, and his work has appeared in The Miami Rail and Fireside Fiction. He is at work on a novel. Find him on Twitter @ChrisRAlonso.
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25 Sep 2023

People who live in glass houses are surrounded by dirt birds
After a century, the first colony / of bluebirds flew out of my mouth.
Over and over the virulent water / beat my flame down to ash
In this episode of  Critical Friends , the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, Aisha and Dan talk to critic and poet Catherine Rockwood about how reviewing and criticism feed into creative practice. Also, pirates.
Writing authentic stories may require you to make the same sacrifice. This is not a question of whether or not you are ready to write indigenous literature, but whether you are willing to do so. Whatever your decision, continue to be kind to indigenous writers. Do not ask us why we are not famous or complain about why we are not getting support for our work. There can only be one answer to that: people are too busy to care. At least you care, and that should be enough to keep my culture alive.
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