Nothing says Puerto Rican funeral more than milky coffee, hot chocolate, bread, cheese, and stale pastries. Francisco Oller perfectly captured a snapshot of Puerto Rico in El Velorio, but Oller never painted the afterlife. He’d settled on the living and their celebration. Partying in La Placita captured the essence of life in my island, except here among the black clothes and the bitter coffee, there’s only death.
My funeral lacks Oller’s celebration: people sob, my skin’s yellow, and neither heaven nor hell welcome me despite repentance. My conditioned morality has no punishment. Goodness has amounted to nothing but another word in the dictionary. Inquiries won’t give me a second chance at life, or reanimate me for that matter. All that remains are memories, regret, and the monstrosity before me.
It arrived as I did, but in place of a face there was a vejigante mask. Reminiscent of a stag, it stares at me. Enormous paws scrape the red carpet as it waits for me at the edge of the open casket. It stinks of dread and pitorro. Its beady eyes drag me away from my pettiness. Its silence mocks me. The beast speaks without wavering lips. They tell stories of Agüeybaná, of the colonists, of the years forgotten among the petroglyphs. Words filter into my mind like water from a ruptured dam, enlightening me. The memories aren’t my own, but those beady eyes tell me otherwise. I can feel them in my blood—in the land I inhabited for all my life.
Yearning for an escape, my eyes meet my portrait. Glistening gazes mimic each other. I remember the day they took that picture: my discomfort. Mom’s nagging was excessive. She’d committed blasphemy to get my lips to part. I never understood why God wanted me to smile. What a wonderful birthday it was! My folks gave plenty of excuses that day: too expensive, too distracting, too whatever. Spoiled had nothing to do with it. I follow the commandments, I treat people well, why couldn’t I have what I wanted? At least, I like to think I know what I want—knew, anyway. My coffin is just another example of my folks’ pettiness.
The coffin my folks have chosen for me splinters under my weight. All the money in their joint bank account, and they couldn’t pick a better one? My flesh would rot in the ground, and the wood would cave in under the dirt.
The stag’s horns grace my back; it’s too close now. Each exhalation is history. No words have left its mouth. I wonder why it even has one.
Weeping escalates, and mother and father are snatched to the side to find comfort. My heart shatters—the same one that stopped beating a couple of days ago. My pride withers away among memories of my own tears—in silence, in turmoil, in worry, in desperation. Comfort was missing when I needed it. And now, among the perishables, like the food after Hurricane Maria, they all cared. How dare they take my moment away?
Swatting its horns, I turn to the stag. Robust thighs covered in emerald shrubbery catch my eyes. My nostrils are overpowered by sofrito and El Yunque, beach and sand, wind and sun. Despite horns sprouting from its face, it doesn’t frighten me now. Its familiar masks littered throughout Ponce and San Juan make me feel at home. However, the papier-mâché, the glue, the paint, and the humans are all missing. History clings to the fur and the rigor mortis in its skin—it’s weirdly comforting. My hand reaches out to the beast in hopes of finding the creases of the mask. There are none. Unlike the Fiestas de las Calles San Sebastian, this one doesn’t come off. It’s like skin, like bone, like what I fear more than anything—reality.
The beast nudges against my fingers.
Angels sent their ugly cousin to guide me to the afterlife. Just my luck. Christianity had abandoned me. Hadn’t I been a good servant? One look at charcoal eyes, and I knew the Europeans had nothing to do with it. This was ours all along. I hear the coquis, gargoyles, and chupacabras whispering.
No, I refuse to leave! My hands palpitate. Achiote stains my fingertips, and the yellow fades away despite my resistance. The single thought of crawling back into my skin clutters my mind. If only I could breathe life back into the stiff old corpse in the coffin. The auburn only expands, enveloping me.
Its beady eyes blink, enraged. Shining stars and imploding galaxies hide among those marbles. I see their glow—there’s more to it. There’s the shimmer of light and death. There’s a tint of green and blue.
“It’ll stop only if you agree.” Staff in hand, an old man in black and white sits on the front row. I’m amazed I hadn’t noticed him—the wizard-looking motherfucker stands out like a pink guava on a midsummer’s day. “You don’t want to stay behind.”
“I’d have to say I do.” Cousins I haven’t seen in years march into the room. They’d abandoned the island ages ago among the deterioration. One last glimpse at me before they went along with their lives. Family pictures would be hidden forever. “Anyone would.”
The duality in the man follows him as he approaches. Warmth and chills exude out of him. Pale bones are visible under the cloth. I can smell the cilantro and the habichuelas.
“Everyone has patatús.” Withered old lips smacked together. “How you deal with them is where potential lies. Come with us to Coaybay and leave the past behind. Otherwise, Opiyelguobiran will drag you if he must.”
The beast has a name. Impossible to pronounce, but a name, nonetheless. Only then do I notice the sharpness of the horns. Those would impale me and drag me to the unknown. Complying doesn’t sound so bad under the threat of a stabbing. An idea I might be able to get behind. Red flees from my skin as I comply.
I stroll down the path. Friends and family on either side: crosses and verses, coffee and bread, cheering and weeping. Did I ever know them? The picture near the coffin mocks me for the last time. The world vanishes behind me as I exit.
Opiyelguobiran leads the way beside the old man. That’s when I see it: the island, the people, my culture, my family. Long live the Caribbean!
“Who are you?” I bask in the merengue, the piña colada, and the pig roasting over a bonfire.
“That’s irrelevant.” The old man pets Opiyelguobiran. “You’re home.”
Heaven loses its appeal among the bayú. I let my legs and my hips do the talking. Where else would I find a slice of Puerto Rico?
Michael Baez Arroyo is currently teaching at the University of Puerto Rico Secondary School, while finishing his EdD in Curriculum and Teaching in TESOL. In addition to his teaching credentials, Michael Baez was Editor-in-Chief at Vaunt Zine. When it comes to his published works, Michael has published in Corpus Litterarum, Inter Metro Newspaper, Flores Nuevas Poetry Anthology, Leading Edge Magazine, Tonguas, Rigorous Magazine, among others.