Grown-ups would tell us these stories: men and women whose skins had turned thick and been stretched and distended over jowls marking smiles and cries, joy and suffering. They would swear they had been followed by galipotes—demonic and shape-shifting hounds that dwelled in darkness. In hushed words they spoke of being accosted through dark pathways by those beasts, known to prey on young people to consume their blood. They told of praying them away, faith their only weapon against despair, and of hearing fleeing steps that resembled a horde.
I had met a man who swore to be a galipote himself. He was a street beggar wearing ripped pants, his face suspended in a tragic smile of rotten teeth. When transformed, he enjoyed running on all fours and ripping flesh off with sharp fangs.
It was a supernatural power given to him by the Lord—which Lord, I didn’t bother to ask—to compensate for a life of wandering barefoot and sleeping in construction sites through treacherous nights of downpours during a long rainy season.
I could see his jugular popping as he bellowed, excited as he was that I had shared some leftovers from my school lunch: “This could be given to you, too!” My knees trembled. “Imagine yourself,” he said, his oily face reflecting the gleaming rays of sunshine. “With this power you could turn yourself into a lizard with a leather face, a big toad with a long tongue, a wild and hairy dog that could chew anything, or even a guaraguao bird so you could open your large brown wings like that—and he stretched his stringy arms, exhibiting a naked chest where one could count each sorry rib—and go up over these houses and see their rotten roofs and think about the little people inside, the little people.”
“How do you make it happen?” I had asked.
The man looked at me with a troubled expression.
“You stop being yourself.”
She came into my life on a day like any other, sawdust flying in the air of a bright afternoon, blinding light. The sixth-grade history class was interrupted when the principal, a small woman with large, rounded eyeglasses, arrived at the door with a boy and a girl, not yet wearing uniforms. Miss Serena signaled for them to enter and stand before the chalkboard, by then a plank the shade of old grass.
I must have been influenced by a recent class discussion of some or other revolutionary war up and down the hills of this forsaken island, because I thought of a firing squad—their bodies tense, arms by their sides, gazes trying to avoid the faces that looked on with morbid curiosity. I could tell that the boy was the older of the two, even though he was smaller. I saw a severity in his face, pockmarked by new and old eruptions of pimples. She had a baby face under soft brown strands, and I thought I could tell that she did not want to be there. Neither did I.
Miss Serena had been introducing them but I only registered the last words she said: “…brother and sister who had to move here and will be in this class. Please welcome them.”
She asked them their names.
“Juan Bautista,” he said.
The girl muttered something.
“Pardon, I couldn’t hear that.”
“I had never heard that name,” Miss Serena said.
Práxedes didn’t bother to reply or smile back, her gaze remaining distant. Above us an old fan, its blades stained with dark grease, went on squeaking and accentuating her silence. In the sawmill nearby, blades let out piercing cries as they cut through the heart of timber.
“Very well, let’s have you both take the front of that desk for now.”
She pointed in our direction on the left side of the classroom. Apolo and I looked at each other, unable to believe our luck, and aware at a level beneath words that we would hate each other from thereon. We were behind the first row’s double-seater, one of those school desks of old with no attached writing surface in front. The teacher said the new students would have to write on their laps until a table arrived, which as far as we were concerned might never happen. We had all learned not to expect much in our country of unfinished errands, unfulfilled longings and inexistent heroes. We moved our book bags to make room for them anyway.
I was smitten the moment she turned around and asked if either one of us could lend her a pencil—Anything for her, my twelve-year-old self thought. I feared and desired Práxedes all the same. Prah-xeh-dehs, her name rolling around in my mind like an incantation. Apolo rushed to look into the multiple pockets of his backpack. I gave her the pencil I held without thinking. She smiled at me and I noticed her dimples. Her widow’s peak gave her an intensity that usually comes with age.
I turned to Apolo.
“Can you lend me one of your pencils?”
He looked at me in a kind of rage.
Several days later, Apolo and I took them up on an invitation. They lived in the hilliest street around, in an unpainted house, abandoned for as long as we could remember. It was the sort of spot that kids were afraid to walk by during nighttime blackouts, where stray dogs went to hump each other in daytime hours. Sometimes we would play baseball near their street and someone would hit the ball in that direction and it would go over the fence. None of us wanted to hop over to retrieve it. We saw the overgrown weeds, and we had all heard those tales of galipotes. We knew this was their kind of place, the weeds, the darkness, the old house, the stray animals—the evident curse of God bestowed on certain parts of the earth.
That trepidation was on my mind when Apolo and I went to see them that first day. We found Juan Bautista bending in the weeds, hacking away with a machete to clear a piece of land by the lot’s entrance. He was glad to see us and went without asking and got a hoe so we could help him. I held it first and scraped at the yellow dirt without conviction. Juan Bautista talked about his plans for the land, how he was going to take down a tree to let in more light and how he would plant that or the other thing that birthed edible fruit, and Apolo and I let him talk. Theirs was the only lot around that had room for any cultivation in that neighborhood of small houses with triangular façades, some with narrow porches and in most cases divided by alleyways that led to yards crammed with latrines, useless showerheads, clothes-wash basins.
Práxedes joined us in the yard after a while and gave us the smiling hellos we sought. I can still picture her. She wasn’t your typical girl, like those with twigs for skeletons that we knew from school, who spent so much time fixing their hair, and looked like they could break in a guy’s arms. She was strong, from what I could tell, and had different sides—a smile that could warm your heart, but also a weariness that would sooner or later crush you, alongside a sadness she couldn’t hide despite her smile. I noticed her hands were wet, and so was her skirt, and I could smell soap water, and this made me think of her body glistening behind a shower curtain and silky soap dripping over her. Had I been able to turn myself into a small frog, I thought, I could have hidden, breathing water, camouflaged on the wall. The thought made me anxious.
When she was near us, Apolo took the hoe from my hand and said I was doing it wrong, and started tearing into the dirt, removing weeds, along with roots and rocks, lifting a cloud of dirt. She laughed at first, but lost interest as he pursued a second row of digging. I was trying to think of what to say, but a jumble of words crowded my mind. I checked the curvature of my fingernails and the life lines on my palms and still found nothing to say.
“You don’t have a tool,” she told me. “Why don’t you come with me so I’m not alone?”
I could see Apolo sinking behind layers of dust. Juan Bautista kept telling him of his vision of ripe mangos, pineapples and stalks of sugarcane sprouting from that land. I turned away and noticed her skirt dance with each step through the path from the back entrance to the kitchen. She had chosen me, as unwilling victims sometimes do.
The house was unpainted inside and the kitchen seemed dark because the windows were too high and the light that entered at an angle stayed up there, bouncing from the eaves to the grooves of the gray zinc roof. She stirred something she had boiling on the stove. She went back to chopping sweet red peppers on a table by the dripping sink. She moved easily from one task to another. A small radio played a mess of percussion and wailing trumpets.
A thrum of cricket chirps fell like a membrane between me and that reality where Práxedes existed. I wasn’t sure if the noise came from inside my head or if one hundred thousand crickets were rubbing their wings together in the middle of the day. I could feel myself drifting away, so I asked about her mother, just to say something.
“And your dad?”
“We almost never see him. He’s a busy man.”
She hummed with the music from the radio as she cooked. I had the sense that she was watching me from the sides of her face. I felt it then: I thought I could take her right there. If I only had the will.
“Where does your name come from?” I asked.
She smiled, and I noticed those dimples.
“I don’t know. It must be from the Bible.”
Apolo and Juan arrived as I struggled to find more words. Apolo hadn’t lasted working the land, and convinced Juan to show him the inside of the house. Apolo looked at me and Juan Bautista looked at her and I’m not sure why that silence was funny to us but she and I laughed.
The visits became frequent. I would finish homework and walk to Apolo’s house, up the street from mine. We would trudge up that hill. We played, as boys do, shooting imaginary bullets, pretending we were superheroes, chasing each other through the dirt paths and throwing marbles when all else failed. Práxedes came and went, working in the kitchen and listening to her fast-paced songs of woe.
She made us crazy. It’s the only way I can explain why I ran full blast one of those days and crashed head-on into Apolo, sending us both into a muddy patch. I straddled him, and would have harmed him, had I not been distracted by the shining object I saw in his necklace, the light all around us concentrating there, bothering my eyes. He punched me in the nose. I lost that fight. I wanted to cry, but I held it in, and it welled inside.
One day she and I were alone in the kitchen. Práxedes asked me if I knew how to dance. I became defensive: “Yes, of course, who doesn’t know how?” She said she only knew a little. She asked me to show her.
I said I only danced at parties. “I’ll ask you at a party,” I offered.
“I don’t know, the school party,” I said.
That night, I imagined myself dancing with Práxedes and something inside me was filled with terror. I didn’t know how to lead a girl through the floor. I had tried, alone in the bedroom, moving about, looking into an opaque rectangular mirror that was part of an old dresser and only showed the upper half of my body. I had never worked up the courage to ask a girl to dance at a party, and couldn’t see how I ever would. I didn’t know how I was going to finish growing up in a place where dancing was a rite of passage and everyone except me seemed to enjoy it.
I found myself lying awake, replaying an old memory of my mother dancing with the man who had been my dad. I couldn’t see his face anymore, but I remembered motion, arms graciously suspended, a lot of twirling, a rhythmic back and forth, and the echo of laughter, as a crowd of other adults towered over me, a child of three or four who didn’t yet know what loneliness was. He had left, wherever it was he went, and I never saw her dance again. How was I supposed to know how to dance? What to do with my arms and legs? How to release myself to motion? How to embrace a girl?
I went to visit by myself one afternoon, thinking I don’t know what, and I walked past the wooden fence into the yard. I only noticed the woman of dark black hair and sunburned skin sitting by the kitchen door when I was standing right in front of her. She had been studying me all along, and this made me feel uneasy about her. She wasted no time in interrogating me.
“I heard you have been coming to play with Juan and Práxedes.” She rolled her eyes up and down to look at me. “Who are your parents?”
“My mother is the seamstress. She makes dresses and school uniforms.” I pointed in the direction of my house. Even as I said the words, I had a feeling that she was not listening, but watching me say them.
“What kind of dresses?”
“Women bring her photos from magazines and they buy the fabric and she measures them and makes them those dresses.”
I didn’t mention that one steady line of work for my mother was with the burial dresses. She realized that people liked to wrap their dead in shiny white Nylon when they went wherever it was they went, and she bought it by the bulk, and made an agreement with a funeral home. They didn’t pay her much because these puffy garments weren’t high couture, and they wanted them at a moment’s notice. I could tell she was ashamed to live off the dead, because of the hushed voice she used every time these orders were discussed. I was ashamed too.
Juan and Práxedes’ mother never told me her name and I took that as a sign that she didn’t like me. She looked tired and I found it odd that she was a mother, much smaller in stature than her children. She scared me, because she seemed capable of seeing through me.
“Does your mother know who I am?” she asked me.
“I don’t think most people around here know that anybody lives in this house.”
Juan came out before I could say more. He introduced me as “that friend he had been talking about,” flashing a smile, and he took me to see the first beans birthing from one of his plants. I didn’t know how to react, though I was relieved to get away from his mother’s stare. He went on about his little green plants, with their leaves shaped like uneven hearts, and he said they had broken through at the right time—and I thought for a moment that I was beginning to like him better than his sister, though in a different way.
“The Monsignor is coming today,” he said, “and he’ll see them.”
He looked at me like I was crazy.
“You know, my father, Monsignor López. He’s coming to see us.”
He took an index finger to his lips to signal silence and told me in a whisper:
“Don’t you tell anybody. All these people go to church around here, but they are not good Catholics.”
I didn’t ask what he meant, but he tried to explain anyway.
“You know that story from the Bible,” he said. “The one about the prostitute that Jesus saved. He told them, all those people who were going to kill her, to throw the first stone if they were not sinners, and nobody threw any stones.”
I barely understood, distracted as I was by my desire to see Práxedes. I had a sense that he was just repeating the Monsignor’s words.
“Alright friend?” he insisted.
Práxedes was free that afternoon because her mother was taking care of the kitchen duties. We were talking in the yard while Juan went inside to get something, maybe his baseball gloves. She was telling me of her wish to have a birthday party, and said she was going to ask her dad, and that she wanted to invite all their new friends, and she especially wanted me to be there because I was their first friend. I marveled at how she could go from being the sister who cooked and cleaned and washed the clothes, like a devoted housewife to no one, to this little girl, her voice an octave higher with delight.
“Will you dance with me at that party?”
Her smile turned me into a soursop fruit split in half, its thorns useless and white pulp spilling all over.
“Yes, I told you I would.”
She was stepping from stone to stone, as if skipping over a body of water, her hands touching the wire that they used to hang clothes out to dry. I thought she imagined herself some sort of ballerina, hopping over inexistent lotus leaves. She looked beautiful.
While we waited for her brother, she sang an old song, rooted in the Spanish belief in luck, her arms open to take all of life. She swayed as if to show me that she could, or that she knew all about my feelings. Life was all about chance, she sang, and the big prize we all wished for was love.
Why did she seem so happy that day, I now wonder. My guess is that she had a deep faith, or a premonition of life’s short stay. She glowed even in those moments when I found her at work, perhaps in the kitchen, kneeling down on the floor, when she was cleaning and squeezing a dirty rag into a bucket, a translucent expression of acceptance on her face. She was mostly a lonely girl, and a passing creature on this earth. I should have danced with her then, and shared her with no one, but I was a boy who knew not how soon those days would fade.
I kept bringing others to meet her and Juan, shielding myself from being alone with her and not knowing what to say or what to do with my hands. I invited Pablo, a short kid who had one leg much longer than the other; Danny, a boy with big ears who was good at catching baseballs and nothing else; José, the stiffest kid anyone would ever meet, always reading books; and Manny, as cross-eyed as he was funny. I invited Marcos to meet them too. Within months, a regular group of us, neighborhood kids, were playing on their land, trampling through Juan Bautista’s modest plantation to catch a ball or to find a good spot to hide and, in my case, learning the hard way that sugarcane stalks were not a good place to seek cover if one did not like getting prickled by hundreds of nasty needles.
After a while, Marcos, the son of a soldier with the government’s military guard, a tall skinny guy who was older by a year or two, was spending too much time around Práxedes, while the rest of us busied ourselves in destruction. Unlike me, he knew what to say and do: Apolo and I saw them walk out of the kitchen once, holding hands, and he twirled her around with his long knotty limbs as if dancing to a song only they could hear. I never spent time with her after that, but I continued visiting and listening to Juan Bautista’s grandiose plans. He had been studying a large catalog of nails, nuts, bolts, washers, screws, and all kinds of fasteners because he wanted to get a job at a hardware store, and eventually he wanted to own his shop.
He turned to me one day, his porous cheeks and deep-set eyes of light brown giving him a determined look, and told me something that I’ve never forgotten.
“You know,” he said, “boys like us, growing without our dads, we have to teach ourselves how to become men.”
The birthday party that Práxedes wanted was set for that July, during our summer break. That wasn’t a party for girls, save a neighbor or two, because those stuck- up ones in our classroom didn’t talk to Práxedes. Apolo, that guy Marcos, and all the boys, were invited, as was I. Her mother was baking a cake. They had borrowed some speakers to play loud music. Juan Bautista told me in secret that the Monsignor would be there. He seemed excited about that.
Apolo showed up at my house two hours before the party was to start, dressed all in white, smelling of talcum powder and dripping Vaseline from his curls. I had yet to shower, and was deliberately delaying, so he left before me. I stood by the showerhead, which had not given us water for months, and poured the buckets I had retrieved from the rainwater tank over myself. I waited, feeling cold. I put on my only dark blue jeans, a purple long sleeve shirt that didn’t match, and black shoes that were too tight. My mother gave me some kind of blouse that she had fashioned out of excess material, already wrapped as a present, and said the girl with the unusual name—“What is it they call her?” she asked; I didn’t answer—could pass by later to have it adjusted. I walked out as the afternoon light left us and the metallic shine of the moon shaped a nighttime horizon of dark silhouettes, where trees resembled a procession of hunchbacked old men.
I thought about feigning sickness and turning around, but my feet took me up that hill. I entered through the path in the back of the house, the only way we knew to go inside. I heard the merengue music as a distant clobbering. I stuffed the present in my shirt and walked to an alleyway between the house and a dividing wall. I leaned my back on the wall and pushed my feet against the house to inch my way up its side, like some feral animal.
The high window I reached allowed me a glimpse in the living room. All the boys were there, plus a couple of girls I didn’t know, and music was playing, and Práxedes was dancing with the guard’s son. Most of the boys were horsing around, ignoring the other girls and the music—except for Manny, who was dancing by himself. I saw the Monsignor, a man whose main distinction was a shiny pair of glasses with golden frames. Juan Bautista sat by his side, talking, probably about nuts and bolts. I was filled with indiscriminate anger in that dark alleyway and thought of the galipotes said to lurk in such places, but I experienced no fear.
I decided I was not going to dance.
I was not going to give her a present.
I was not going to go to her party.
I jumped off the wall and felt a need to run through the yard and kick the bean plants and rip out the saplings of fruit trees. I grabbed the machete on the ground and hacked away some of the sugarcane stalks.
The percussion from the party echoed in my head.
I took her present and I tossed it atop the roof of the outhouse.
Something rose in me that was neither guilt nor shame but was closer to a secret pleasure.
I had made it out to the street and discovered that I liked the tinge of blue light that the night was giving off, and I thought then that perhaps loneliness was not such a bad thing. I saw a large and misshapen rock and I picked it up and I tightened my grip on it. I looked toward the house, feeling its weight. In that moment, I harbored an unusual rage for all life.
Something broke free in me with the blast of the rock on the zinc roof and I ran around the large end of the block, laughing and shrieking like a fiend.
I kept going—rather, my feet kept going—so that I was panting when I made it to the other side of the property. My tongue was sticking out, dripping. My senses were sharpened as they are when one comes out of the grogginess of sleep.
I saw, for the first time, the front of their house. It was situated high off the street and I could see it had a large stairway that led to a wooden front door. I knew that no one ever knocked upon that door. The granular fluorescence coming from their window bothered me. I swear that at that moment I could smell the people inside, the salt off their skins stinging me to tears.
I grabbed more rocks and lobbed them at the house.
My heart was a wild thing; I was full of misery and joy.
I started toward home but my steps took me again to the back of the house, and the rocks were right there on the street. They seemed out of place, disturbances in the landscape.
I was no longer myself, but something watching itself.
I grabbed those rocks too.
I was almost foaming at the mouth when I hurled them.
A wave coursed through me when I heard Juan Bautista’s broken voice. He and the Monsignor had been hiding behind some trees on the other side of the road. Only then did I realize that the music had stopped, and when I turned to look back at the house I saw the boys who had been my friends—and those silly girls—all watching me. Her mother had a look of recognition. Práxedes, in tears, stepped outside. I could savor the sweet of sugarcane, a thick liquid in her neck.
Marcos was comforting her. It took all the might in me not to gallop, lunge at them and rip the flesh off their bones with my canines.
“I thought you were our friend,” Juan Bautista said. “I really thought…”
His voice trailed off.
Part of me meant to smile to let them know I didn’t mean any harm, but my face was transfiguring into a scowl instead. My eyes were liquid bubbles. I smelled fear and it tasted like the powdery crust of bone marrow.
The old monsignor appeared transfixed. I could see his urge to exorcise me. I’ve known his type for hundreds of years, casting their sins on my kind. I saw his crucifix glinting. The bristles stood on my neck.
I dropped the rocks and ran away on all four legs, knowing that I would be back.