OCTOBER 2023, SHORT STORY, 2900 WORDS
The frightening thing about Aunt Tae praying was that she never prayed, not anymore—not since Padilla flooded, she always said. Flooded. An absurd word. Flooded means that water moves, that it has to come from somewhere, and most unbelievably, that our town was once dry land. See, Padilla has been underwater for as long I’ve been alive, so that’s not the strangest thing about it.
The strangest thing is the ghosts.
I think there are more ghosts here than people. Once, I worked up the courage to tell Aunt Tae that I see them all the time.
“You’re imagining things, mija,” she said sharply, and kept grinding spices in the molcajete, her motions muscular even though she’s probably over a hundred years old. She dismissed me from the kitchen after that. I obeyed, because that’s what you do when Aunt Tae tells you to do something, but my cheeks stung with shame.
Abuela Filomena the tyrant is dead and haunting the church where she used to teach Sunday school; sometimes I think Aunt Tae is the tyrant now. Mamá calls her stubborn. Uncle Jesse calls her a rock. I think she’s the strongest person I know. She knows everything in Padilla, from how much salt is missing from Mamá’s calabaza recipe to how to soothe my baby brother Ángel’s colic to whether or not faraway passing hurricanes will disturb Padilla’s waters enough to harm Uncle Jesse’s tomatoes.
That’s why I’m writing everything I know about ghosts down. If I can write enough to make it a book, maybe Aunt Tae will believe me. She won’t banish me from the kitchen if she believes me, and grown-ups believe things they read in books.
Fact One: Not everyone becomes a ghost when they die.
Aunt Tae’s papá died of pneumonia in a mountain cave in Nuevo Leon. Or maybe he was shot by bandits. Or in battle. It was the war, you know, and men everywhere were dying because of revolutionaries with impressive mustaches. That’s what Efrayím says. Either way, he left Aunt Tae and Efrayím orphans. That’s why they came to Padilla to live with Mamá’s grandmother, Abuela Filomena the tyrant, who said Aunt Tae was too dark and made her do the most difficult housework.
But Aunt Tae’s papá is not a ghost. Maybe that’s because he didn’t die in Padilla.
Viejo Jesús died in Padilla. He’s Uncle Jesse’s tocayo, his namesake, and so Uncle Jesse carries his ghost on his back. I’m pretty sure that’s why Uncle Jesse needs a cane. No one else can see Viejo Jesús, so they all think Uncle Jesse’s work in the cotton fields before the flood ruined his back forever. He shows them scars from thorns on his hands and says picking cotton was the worst job he ever had, worse than picking strawberries, definitely worse than his current job of being a cobbler, so people believe it was the cotton.
I wonder if Uncle Jesse knows about Viejo Jesús on his back. I wonder if he ever looks in the mirror and catches a glimpse of his tocayo out of the corner of his eye, if he feels a ripple of somber recognition through the water.
I’ve heard stories that it was all Aunt Tae’s fault, that when her brother Efrayím died while swimming in the river she never cried. She kept her back rigid and her eyes dry. Instead, it rained. It rained so much that Río Purificación spilled over its banks in the night. When Padilla woke in the morning, the town was at the bottom of a lake.
For the first time and the last, people looked up at the surface, blue like a mirror at dusk. Then they lowered their faces and carried on with their lives.
In Padilla, couples wed, have children, die. Primera Iglesia Bautista fills and empties at regular intervals, gentle tides of worshippers lapping its shore. Armando the butcher still starts every Sunday by pounding on Uncle Jesse’s door, insisting Uncle Jesse owes him money and threatening to break his cane over his knee before ever again letting him darken the door of the grocery store. By the time Aunt Tae and I walk past after church, back to our yellow house at the end of Zaragoza Street, Armando is always sitting with Uncle Jesse on his crooked porch with a beer, talking about wives and cousins and tomato plants as if nothing had happened. Content, glistening ripples through the water punctuate their gossip.
Padilla has been underwater for so many years that the surface, with its sky, clouds, and passing birds, is not something most people care about, or even remember. Sometimes, when Mamá tells me to go outside to play, I go behind the abandoned military school, where soft hills of silt lift into ground higher than the rest of the town. Over there, a lean grove of Texas ebony still stands, though the trees died during the flood. Their pale branches reach through the surface like a skeleton witch plunging her long fingertips into a bright pool. I like to stand apart from the trees and look up at the undisturbed surface, trying to see through it, searching for flickers of wings.
Once, in our own back yard, I showed my baby brother Ángel the surface. Look, I told him, though he’s too young to really talk back, beyond nonsense babbles and asking for food or up. If you look closely, maybe you can see herons. He doesn’t know what herons are. I only know about them from my uncle Efrayím. I’ve never seen one. There are no birds in Padilla, not since the flood.
Ángel reached his arms heavenward, pushed against the silty earth with his bare feet, and began to swim toward the surface.
I cried out, half in surprise, half in fear. I had never seen something like that before. My chest threaded with panic; I seized his ankle and dragged him back down, down so hard he fell against me and we collapsed to the ground.
We stayed there a long moment, silt billowing around us. I hugged Ángel’s heavy head tight to my chest. I didn’t understand what had happened, only that it was wrong. Only that he was in danger, and that I should never let him look at the sky again.
Fact Two: Ghosts aren’t scary.
I can’t remember when I saw my first ghost. It was probably my uncle Efrayím. He’s played with me ever since I was little. When I was a baby, he says he used to gently tap the mobile that hung over my crib to entertain me during nap time and knock over towers of blocks to make me laugh. Now, he sits across the kitchen table from me, his chin cupped in one semitranslucent hand, correcting my spelling as I write. He has curly black hair like mine, so short it looks like it must have been cut two days ago, and thick eyebrows like Aunt Tae’s. The curve of his nose is like a mirror of hers, but there is something about how his face moves when he speaks that is much softer. Maybe it’s because he died so young.
I know from Mama that Efrayím died sometime before the flood. Whenever I ask him about it, he shrugs his lean, silver shoulders and tells me it’s not that interesting. When I beg, he relents (he likes to spoil me). But the tale is different every time. Sometimes he was fourteen, other times seventeen. He got tangled in the weeds while diving in the resaca on a muggy summer day. Or it was November, and there were heavy rains before he went swimming in the river and he lost the fight with the current. It’s always altered, always rewoven.
Maybe he can’t remember at all.
He remembers other things, though. Like what birds lived in Padilla before the flood. He tells me all about the noisy chachalacas shouting from their roosts, about what the skies above Padilla looked like after sunset. Now, the surface of the lake deepens from the silvery, light blue of day into something more metallic, something darker, until night washes over the town like a spill of oil. Efrayím says that he and Aunt Tae used to love to watch sunsets from the back steps of the house on Zaragoza Street. The skies changed to orange, then pink; clouds reclined lazily on the colored horizon like pillows, drinking deepening purple hues into their round white bodies like it was agua de jamaíca.
“In the afternoon,” he says, “the stucco of Primera Iglesia Bautista used to gleam bright white in the sun, so bright you had to do this when you walked up the front steps to Sunday school.” He mimes shading his eyes and squinting up at an invisible sun, the silvery skin of his temples crinkling at the corners of his dark eyes. Now, every building—no matter its original color—has a green film of algae and casts bluish shadows. Maybe it’s because of Efrayím’s stories that I look at the surface so much.
Efrayím is also the reason I know I’m not the only one who sees ghosts in Padilla. He says that sometimes, when I’m asleep, he sits at the kitchen table thinking in the dark until the early hours of the morning. (Fact Two and a Half: Ghosts don’t sleep.) One night, he noticed that Mamá forgot to turn off the lights before going to bed, so Aunt Tae came into the kitchen very late at night.
She saw him sitting at the table.
They met eyes, Efrayím says. The lazy ceiling fan cast shadows over Aunt Tae’s face. These swooped low with each rotation of the blades, gentle like bats at dusk.
Then she looked away, shut off the lights, and walked right out of the kitchen.
If Aunt Tae has seen him since then, Efrayím says, she doesn’t show it. She keeps her back turned to dark corners and her eyes stubbornly downcast before turning on the lights in the kitchen at dawn. “She’s always been like that, you know,” he says. The gentle shake of his head is like the sway of reeds in a current.
“Like what?” I ask.
“Like she refuses to see the shape of things change,” he says. “She’d rather drown the whole town than let things change.”
Fact Three: Ghosts don’t know everything.
Even when you think they should. Even when you cry until your throat is raw. Sometimes they don’t know.
Sometimes they don’t know why, when you’re in the back yard sitting on a worn dishcloth thrown over lake silt as a picnic blanket, trying to teach your baby brother to play tea party, he starts to choke.
At first you think it’s a teaspoon, or maybe one of the cookies that sit on plastic saucers. But there’s no remnant of cookie crumbs on his pudgy hands. Nothing in his mouth when you take his jaw gently in your own hands and open it. The only thing that was unusual, the only sign that anything could have gone wrong, was that before the choking, he was staring at the sky. Dreamily lost in thought.
Now his small body spasms against you; his head, always compared to a melon because it is so heavy, cracks against your jaw. You ignore the pain because his dark pupils are rolling back in his head, and he’s shaking, no, convulsing. His pink mouth opens and shuts, like a fish, begging, grasping, gasping. You scream for Mamá. You tighten your arms around his chest as his neck goes slack, as his body lifts off the dish towel and begins to float toward the surface.
Mamá slams the door of Ángel’s nursery shut in my face when the doctor comes. I don’t think she meant to. Her panic filters through the house like ink, spilling down the hall and infecting everyone.
Aunt Tae takes me by the arm and tells me to stay out of Mamá and the doctor’s way. No te preocupes, she says: She is praying that the Lord will take care of Ángel.
A feeling like falling yawns wide in my chest. Mamá’s panic has slipped under my skin; it will split me in two.
Because Aunt Tae doesn’t pray. Not since the flood. Not anymore.
I yank my arm from her grasp and run to the back door. I stumble into the yard, stub my toe on the steps. It bleeds. I keep running.
“I’m sorry, Señora,” the doctor is saying as I reach the window beneath Ángel’s nursery. “There’s nothing I can do. He drowned.”
“But why?” Mamá cries. The pitch of her voice makes my heart feel like someone had squeezed it into a fist and wouldn’t stop, like it was a lime that had no more juice to give. “We’re all underwater, for God’s sake! Why did he drown?”
Whatever the doctor’s answer is, I don’t hear it. My stubbed toe bleeds. Bright red liquid darkens when it hits water; it rises, billowing like a thin plume of smoke.
The screen of the front door creaks open, snaps shut.
From inside the nursery, the sounds of muffled crying.
And nothing else.
No fussing, no baby babble. No Ángel wailing because the slamming door woke him with a start.
He can’t be gone.
All I need to do is find his ghost. I’ll show Mamá, I’ll show Aunt Tae. Who needs facts written down when I’ll have proof that ghosts are real, that everything is going to be okay because Ángel will be with us forever?
I turn the house upside down, shouting his name in all his favorite hiding places. He isn’t in the back yard, but what about the minnow ditch? What about the gap in the fence that leads to the abandoned military school, to the grove of dead Texas ebony piercing the surface?
Mamá’s panic takes root in me and becomes my own. I run barefoot, convinced that if I stop to find my sandals, if I pause at all, he’ll slip out of my grasp. My breath comes in sharp pangs as I retrace my steps home; I keep trying to shake the feeling that it was my fault, for teaching Ángel to look up at the surface. To dream of herons.
I can’t. It clings to me like algae.
The surface above Padilla darkens to indigo when I reach the house. My toe hasn’t stopped bleeding. It leaves dark, wet smudges across the floorboards.
“Of course he’s not here,” Efrayím says when he finds me crying in my room. I’m sitting on the floor, my back against my bed, clutching Ángel’s favorite wooden block in my fist so hard my hand is going numb. Willing it to smell like him, like his downy cheeks and the sweaty creases of his neck. Mamá won’t open the door to the nursery. This is all I have now. “He’s dead.”
“So are you!” I cry. “So why are you here?”
He looks frozen, like a photograph. He says nothing.
He doesn’t know.
Neither do I.
“Who are you talking to?”
A sob catches in my throat as I twist toward the door. Water ripples as Efrayím does the same.
I left the playroom door open. Aunt Tae could hear me shouting. She’s standing in the doorway now, half-shadowed by the dark of the hall.
“No one,” I say. It comes out cracked, unconvincing.
The playroom door creaks on its hinges. Aunt Tae fills the doorway, fills the room, lowers herself slowly to the floor by my side. She smells like cumin and like laundry soap, and laundry smells like baby Ángel, and all of a sudden I’m an upwelling, a current, I’m the Río Purificación and I’m pouring out and I can’t stop.
Aunt Tae leans against the bed at my side. She makes a sharp gesture with her chin at Efrayím. “Shut the door,” she says, so softly it’s almost a whisper.
He rises and does so, eyes wide. I’m so surprised by her speaking to him that my sobbing catches, slows. Then, Aunt Tae beckons Efrayím with a commanding hand. “Sit with us.”
Again, he obeys, because that’s what you do when Aunt Tae tells you to do something. I guess that’s true for ghosts as well. We sit shoulder to shoulder, Efrayím, me, and Aunt Tae. Aunt Tae takes my right hand. Efrayím tries to take the other. His pale fingers slide through my palm, so instead he rests his hand on my knee. Minutes pass in silence. Maybe an hour. The skies over Padilla are changing, shifting. By the time I finally speak, it is to a darkened room.
“Why?” My throat is raw; my voice sticks in all the wrong places.
Aunt Tae lets out a long sigh. “I don’t know.” She squeezes my hand. Hard and firm. Strong like her. “But we’re here.”
“We’re here,” Efrayím repeats.
These are all the things I know about ghosts. I don’t know any more.
Isabel Cañas is a Bram Stoker Award-nominated Mexican American writer and graduate of the Clarion West and Odyssey Workshops. She holds a doctorate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. Her novels The Hacienda and Vampires of El Norte are out now. To find out more, visit isabelcanas.com.