She always watched from a distance. Up in the trees, from within the shadows, she was always safely concealed. For many years, distant observation satisfied her curiosity. Perched on a swooping branch at the edge of a villa, she considered the objects of her study. Elena sat casually on the branch, her hands pressing into the thick, grooved bark and swung her legs back and forth. And she watched them.
Nearly everyone in the village worked for them, as maids, nannies, and groundskeepers in a vast spread of villas and resorts. The village was poor. There were a few, well-appreciated and generously paid, who served as the middle class. But for the most part, the rich residents from Mexico City and tourists who came to Santa Barbara del Sur had a constant supply of indentured servants to tend to their every need.
The village was crouched by a lake. Humble single-story homes clustered together, with veins of dirt roads separating the families into dusty sections. She avoided home as much as possible.
From the tree, she watched the activity on the elaborate villa. The sun always seemed brighter but kinder on the rich side of town. Maybe it was the vibrant colors of paint on the villas, the sparkling pools and pale flagstone paths that connected the abundant acreage. She knew many of the people who worked there. The villa was owned by a politician from Mexico City. His children were impossibly spoiled, his wife imperious and demanding. They lounged by the pool. The wife barely glanced at the servants as she snapped her fingers in the air to summon them. Elena huffed from her perch, indignant. They don’t even know our names half the time. They point and give us orders as though we’re dogs. They deride us and we just take it because we have to, because what else would we do? What possibilities do we have when we have so few options to begin with?
The youngest children sat near the pool, playing a game. Just as a maid walked toward the Imperious Wife, one of the girls swung her leg out as if to stretch, but couldn’t suppress her laughter as the maid tripped and nearly fell. The drink she was delivering soaked the wife. She leapt out of her chair, raising her hand and shouting a torrent of vicious curses. The children laughed and the maid tried to clean the mess with a towel while the Imperious Wife shrieked about shards of glass. The maid soon retreated into the chaos of humiliation.
Frustrated, Elena climbed down from the tree and walked away from the villa, seeking a more peaceful spot. She would have given anything to be able to rush down and scold those terrible people. But word would get around, and beloved cousins and friends would lose their jobs.
She sulked as she walked, eyes to the ground, ignoring her surroundings. Elena wondered sometimes what would happen as she grew older…was it part of a process? Everyone her age was brimming with youthful idealism, to the point of altruism, but little by little, life’s experiences wore them down. Like and old stone wall, storms and the stresses of time caused the smaller rocks to tumble to the ground, the larger stones unaffected until they began to shift over time, and eventually fall, the wall becoming a formless snaking heap of an intention long neglected.
She was determined to never become jaded. She had to change the world. Her plan was to become a journalist—maybe start out as an investigative reporter for Mexico City’s best newspaper, then travel as a writer for National Geographic. She would expose the world in all its truths. Her stories would wake everyone up—from the people who didn’t vote because they were too disillusioned to the greedy leaders of government and corporations. Through her persuasive writing, circumstances would change.
She finally raised her eyes to see a realtor’s sign outside one of the villas. The home was large, taller than many of the others, with broad windows and aqua blue trim. Surely the price of it was more than her family collectively earned for a generation or more. Cautiously, she approached the driveway. The house was quiet and dark. She looked into the windows. Everything was gleaming—the stove and refrigerator, all of the appliances. She could see into the nearby rooms—wide French doors opened into a long dining room, its table set as though a dinner party was about to begin. Sunlight glinted off the silver candlesticks. A living room lay beyond, she could see part of a stone fireplace and a brown leather couch.
Elena caught a flash of red out of the corner of her eye, and her heart jumped. She closed her eyes to calm herself, sighing—ashamed of her own impulse. I don’t believe in those stupid legends about the witch. I never did. I was just startled by the movement. The flash of red formed into an expensive car that was rolling up the driveway. The sound of it caused the birds to fly from the treetops, scattering into the sky. Elena’s impulse was to flee as well. But she allowed her curiosity to take over—she crouched down and hurried around the corner.
Sneaking into the house was a risk, but she couldn’t resist the temptation. Isn’t this the kind of thing an investigative journalist does? It was a strange thrill as she watched the people getting out of the car. This was the closest she had ever dared to be at a villa when people were present. She knew which ones were empty off-season, and would often peek in the windows to get a glimpse of the lifestyle she coveted. As her nerves jolted in fear of being discovered, she could almost see herself from her usual place in the woods, spying from much further away.
A woman in a blue suit got out of the car, self-consciously adjusting her blazer as she shifted a black portfolio with papers sticking out from one arm to the other. She swept her arm out dramatically as a couple got out of the back of the car. The man was tall, and wearing a suit. His wife was also dressed as if going to a business meeting. They were American. They were telling the realtor about a conference they were attending in Mexico City. They were often there for business and wanted a place of their own. A place to retire to someday, when they were ready to leave the excitement of Los Angeles.
The realtor held the door open, explaining the features of the villa: five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a Jacuzzi, a large swimming pool with an outdoor fireplace nearby, and two fireplaces inside. Elena hadn’t started working yet. She had just celebrated her fifteenth birthday; the traditional la quinceañera party was modest, but her family did everything they could to make sure it was special. Many people in the village contributed food and colorful decorations. Because she was born so close to the Day of the Dead festival, the theme was chosen with that in mind. Painted sugar skulls and flowers covered the tables. Her family refused to allow her to be consigned to a job she had to simply endure. They wanted her to focus on her studies. Only a couple of relatives went to university, and they were determined to provide every opportunity for her. If they had it their way, she’d eventually own one of these villas herself.
As the people walked into the house, Elena listened to their voices as she peered in, holding the door open ever so slightly, fearing it would creak and attract the attention of the people within. But it made no noise, so she remained low, listening. They spent a long time in the kitchen. Elena wanted to be cautious, wait until they went upstairs before she snuck in, but she was getting impatient. The anticipation was making her lose her nerve. Finally, the voices were growing distant, and she crept in.
Now the question was where to hide. Would they come back this way? Naturally, the prospective buyers planned to examine every detail. At least the house was fully furnished. She considered her options. She dashed into the laundry room off the kitchen and found a large walk-in closet full of bins of clothes. She made her way to the back and hid.
The error was soon apparent. How would she know when it was safe to come out? There was no way of guessing—the realtor could bring them out another door, tour the grounds, then leave, and Elena may never hear it. She had no watch, so she couldn’t know how much time was passing. And caught up in the nervousness, each minute seemed like an hour. The steady beating of her heart replaced the second hand of a clock. She lost count. She heard no footsteps, so she considered the coast clear.
Her legs were unsteady from the lack of proper circulation. She winced at the sharp pain and she staggered a bit as she tried to climb over the bins of clothes and stumbled, the bins smacked loudly as they hit the cement floor and the contents spilled out in a colorful wave of silks, cotton, and linen. The sound of surprise erupted on the other side of the laundry room door. Footsteps, voices, and the door swung open and Elena faced the realtor and the buyers, everyone equally shocked.
Instinctively, Elena bent down, scooping the clothes into the bin. She knew she should probably say something first, but she struggled with what to tell them. The realtor was taken aback, but smiled, “Oh, you’re Consuelo Ortega’s daughter.”
Consuelo worked as a maid for several families. Elena knew her well, as she was friends with her own aunt. Consuelo made a frilly green dress for Elena as a present for her quinceañera party.
“Yes, I’m Ana,” she smiled broadly.
The realtor had a concerned look on her face. “And how is she?”
Elena allowed herself to become Ana. “Unfortunately, she is still not feeling well. I’m helping out until she feels better. She expects to be back at work next week.” Elena righted the bin, looking over to the washer and dryer. “Only two more loads, and I’m done here. I’m sorry for the inconvenience, I know you don’t want people here when you show the house.”
The buyers seemed charmed, smiling, assessing Elena, probably imagining her as their own maid. She could almost hear their thoughts. Isn’t she sweet? So dedicated, she even takes over for her mother when she’s ill.
The realtor’s smile was less welcoming and more phony. She was certainly local, but had enough money to live away from the village. Probably in town where the tourists stayed. Elena bet that she was from the village at some point, and harbored a deep disdain for it. The more she observed her, the more she thought she could hear the thoughts. Don’t embarrass me, girl. Girls from the village always say stupid things. “Well, we’re leaving now. Please tell Señor and Señora Morales that our prospective buyers are impressed and will likely place a bid within the next couple of days. And I do hope your mother feels better soon.”
And then they left. She heard them as they made their way back to the car. “Lovely people in the village,” the realtor said. “Very devoted to the families they serve. But they’re a superstitious lot. But you know, they’re isolated…”
The couple laughed, and Elena heard the name of her nemesis. “Oh, the Red Witch!”
Elena didn’t believe the stories, even when her grandmother told them to her when she was very young. Elena rolled her eyes as her grandmother leaned forward in her patched and threadbare chair with a stern expression. “If children don’t go to bed when they’re supposed to, the Red Witch hunts them down. She’ll steal you away and cook you in her stewpot.”
Seven-year-old Elena looked at her directly, her expression not fearful, but challenging. “So you would let the witch take me away just because I’m not tired?”
“Of course I don’t want her to take you away. But witches use magic. She can kidnap you and I won’t be able to help,” Grandmother said, frustrated by Elena’s unwavering skepticism.
She continued to stare her grandmother down. “I’m smarter than that, abuelita. You can’t fool me. You just want me to go to bed because you say so.”
As the people got into the flashy red car, Elena bristled at the arrogant sentiment. So not only were all the people from the village primitive, but evidently, they all looked alike. As much as she was relieved not to be caught, it bothered her that she was cast in the role of Ana so easily.
All the more reason to explore their differences. She stacked the bins as they had been, and set out to see the rest of the home. She was stunned by the level of excess. The massive amounts of clothing and packaged food alone would keep her village for at least a year.
Elena toured the villa at a leisurely pace. She sat in every room and imagined what it would be like to have it as a home. A second home at that, just as a place to go when exasperated with city life. If this was a second home, then what did a full-time residence look like? Even the attic was overflowing with endless items: toys and books and clothing and so on—an abundance that would make her neighbors feel wealthy.
A series of figurines stood on the mantel above fireplace in the living room. Each one represented the notorious Red Witch of Santa Barbara del Sur. Every tourist shop sold them, and the grotesquely comical images adorned many of the signs in town. Even high-end art galleries sold depictions of the Red Witch. The figures on the mantel were comprised of a variety of styles: clay, wood, paper, and stone. All brightly painted, each wearing a red cloak. Some of them were tall and heavy plaster casts, others hastily created dolls small enough to fit in a pocket. Elena was annoyed that a few people in her own family made these dolls to sell to tourists. But the money was necessary. The dolls exploited the superstitions of the people in the village. Tourists found the image endearing. They thought of the villagers as a quaint anthropological study. Stories for cocktail parties. And you know, these poor benighted folk still believe in witches! Isn’t that something?
Elena was dismayed to find one of the dolls on the mantel was made by her Aunt Frida. Her aunt’s Red Witch dolls were less like caricatures of a hideous witch and more like an icon of a saint with a beatific face. In a defensive gesture, she pocketed the doll, but couldn’t let go of it. As she explored the villa, her fist hid in the grimy pocket of her yellow sweater, clutching the doll. Punishing it. Trying to squeeze it out of existence.
She left the house, disgusted by the excess and exploitation. She climbed a tree in the woods to sit and sulk, too frustrated to cry and unable to speak. It was after dark when she got home.
After dinner, Aunt Frida was making the dolls to pass the evening hours. Elena narrowed her eyes at the pieces laid out on the table. Frida busied herself with a whirl of scissors, cutting half-circles out of a red piece of cloth.
Elena scowled at her. “Why do you do this?”
“It means much more then you think,” she said, but in a way that made it clear she didn’t feel the need to explain herself. “I don’t do this to please the tourists. They want a sensational story—they want to make fun of us because they think we believe there is a Red Witch in the woods, waiting to devour children and who paints demonic symbols on trees and rocks in their blood. I’m redeeming her, because she was a real person who deserves to be honored.”
Elena knew something of the folktales and that in the time of the conquering of Central America by the Spanish, there was a real woman who became known as the Red Witch. But she always dismissed it. It wasn’t something taught in school, after all. In Elena’s experience, it was a story told by grandmothers to get children to go to bed. And it served as an excuse to patronize the people in the village, where the Red Witch came from. The tourists, the rich people who owned the villas—all used the image of the witch for profit and as a way to exploit the villagers. They told their spoiled children that the cleaning women and the nannies believed the Red Witch lived on as an evil spirit. The children in turn teased them. Elena just wanted the story to go away.
“You still feed their jokes,” she protested. “You make money off it.”
Uncle Carlos huffed in the background. It was not quite a cough, but tendrils of pipe smoke coiled out of his mouth and rose through his drooping moustache. He always read by the fire after dinner, punctuating the surrounding conversations with sardonic observations. “This money will send you to school and give you all the things you ask for. Think of that the next time you ask for money to buy the new album from that silly band you love…what’s the name? Lady Bird-Brain?”
She gasped, insulted at the mangling of the name of her favorite music, but she was momentarily shamed. At the muffled sound of her indignation, Uncle Carlos chuckled, rubbing his arthritic hands. After being a carpenter for more than thirty-five tears, he complained more of aches and pains. He used to come home and repair things around the house, but now, he wanted to retire, but they’d never get by without his income. This was never an open discussion. He would never stop working. He was more than making up for what she had lost, and so was Frida. Elena was orphaned at the age of six—her parents having died in a house fire. They relied on the fireplace for heat, and a log rolled out of place one night, knocking the screen out and falling onto the floor. The house was destroyed, and Elena had little to remember them by. She was then raised by Frida and Carlos and her grandmother, surrounded by cousins. They all worked hard. She understood, but she detested that it came at the expense of a comical superstition.
Aunt Frida’s smirk was almost kindly. “Elena, my dear, this doll honors Saint Barbara, too.”
“Yes, I know. The name of the town,” Elena sighed.
“The story of Saint Barbara is much like the Red Witch, you know,” Frida said, looking like the elementary school teacher she was. Her graying hair was pulled back in a bun, her strength reinforced by patience. A loose turquoise tunic and matching linen skirt was her usual outfit, the same kind of thing worn by many of the other women in the village. “Saint Barbara lived in the third century, in a city called Heliopolis. She was imprisoned by her father for converting to Christianity. She refused to renounce her new-found faith and go back to paganism, so he brought her to town, handed her over to the authorities, and she was flogged and tortured. By miracle, her wounds healed overnight. Her father dragged her up a mountain, bound her to a tree, and after torturing her again, beheaded her. It was at that moment thunder clapped above them and as she died, her father was reduced to a pile of ash. But she is one of the most revered saints, invoked against lightning and fire.”
Elena’s eyes pierced the floorboards, nodding, uneasy at the talk of fire and burning. No one talked about her parents, for fear of the trauma it caused her. She tried to think of the story of Saint Barbara to distance herself from the pain. Her family rarely went to church, but she saw the red-cloaked image of the saint all over town. “And how is her story like the Red Witch, other than the color of the cloak she wore?” she asked, her voice audible, but losing confidence.
Aunt Frida tried to meet her eye, but failed. “The Red Witch was from a Spanish family that came to the New World. She learned the Santeria religion from slaves and abandoned Catholicism. Changing from one religion to another—following her heart, just like Saint Barbara. Her father, a wealthy privateer and new landowner here, demanded that she renounce Santeria. She refused, so he had her tortured and killed—out there in the woods, where you go walking.”
Elena flinched inwardly. There was something else about Aunt Frida’s tone that made her nervous. There was some detail left unsaid, but she couldn’t guess why. She began to fidget with a bare piece of palm wood used as the doll itself. It was smooth and dry—it felt soothing. Something tugged at the corners of her subconscious.
She fell into quiet retreat. Uncle Carlos regarded her with a shrewd eye. “Kabiesile.” She barely heard him say it.
“I’m sorry, what?” Her voice quavered ever so slightly.
“Kabiesile. A little prayer to Chango. Slaves used Christian icons to represent the deities in Santeria,” said Carlos, with a stern glance. She should know this.
“You know Santeria?” she asked.
His chin tilted down as he fixed her in his gaze. “How long have you considered your family so uncool? Maybe you should spend less time staring at rich people in their luxury vacation homes and learn more about your own family. The Red Witch didn’t only follow Santeria, she had a child with a lover who was a slave, and that’s why her family disowned her. You are descended from the slaves and the Spanish. Slaves from Africa, and slaves who were indigenous to this land—the Aztecs. More slave than Spanish, you know. Some of your own ancestors were accused of witchcraft. Healers and midwives and wise women who were killed. Tortured and burned alive. You’re an intelligent young lady with a bright future, Elena. I’ve seen it. No matter what you aspire to in life—when you’re a famous travel writer, don’t forget where you came from.”
Elena stared at the floor, poking at one of the faded, loose floorboards with her scuffed sneaker. The finish had long worn off the floor, revealing a complicated landscape of natural wood grain and endless lines of cracks and crevices.
“Come here,” he said.
Reluctantly, she looked at her uncle. She tried to smile, but was too self-conscious in her embarrassment. He gestured to her. “Venir aquí, niña.” She stood before him, the heat from the fireplace unbearable as the fire within threatened to consume her. Uncle Carlos reached around his neck and loosened a chain. He reached out to her, presenting the pendant in the palm of his hand. “A double-edged axe, like Frida’s doll carries. The symbol of Chango. It represents lightning. I want you to wear this from now on, and think about your family. And it will protect you.”
“Thank you, uncle. I will.” She took it in her hand, and then looked at the featureless figure made of palm wood. “So the doll is like a trinity. The Red Witch, Saint Barbara, and Chango.”
Aunt Frida smiled. “That’s right. It’s late now. You should think about going to bed.”
As she lay in bed, she examined the stolen doll. She saw it in detail like never before. The doll wore a white tunic and a red cloak made of cotton. A cowrie shell was in the center of the cloak, surrounded by tiny white beads sewn as a border. The doll carried a double-edged axe made of a carefully carved cowrie shell, posted on a tiny stick of palm wood.
The doll’s beatific expression reminded her of Frida. Wise, kind, but hiding some secret—a melancholy never spoken. Thunder rumbled in the distance, bearing a message yet to be translated. Elena began to imagine what it must have been like to be Saint Barbara, handed over by her own father and subjected to torture, and beheaded by his sword. Or to be the Red Witch—frightened, tortured, and executed out in the woods just a short walk from Elena’s home.
Where her vivid imagination ended and the nightmare began, it was hard to say, but it felt more like prophecy. She saw slaves dancing with red and white rattles made of gourds, pleading to the thundering sky as lightning snaked in fierce bolts around them. People were crying.
Then in some other land, far away and in another time, a woman was crying in a chamber atop a tall stone tower. She was drowning in sadness as gauntleted hands dragged her down the stone steps and threw her into a horse-drawn cart. Terrified, she was bound on a platform in a public square in a town with small stone buildings. She felt the agony of the whip; she thought she’d die of it. The worst was yet to come. Vinegar was poured on her open wounds. It was like fire without flame. The young woman in Elena’s vision shrieked until her voice gave out.
In the cool of night, relief came as she lay on the stone floor back in her chamber. She prayed to the savior not understood by her father. A light from within was soft and cooling on her skin. The festering injuries stopped hurting and were healed by morning and she praised the Christian God. When her father stormed into the room, she breathed with calm grace. But her faith was new and though not shaken, she feared her father’s approach. He examined the dried blood on the flagstones, cursed her miraculous healing and demanded she renounce the new religion and revert back to the capricious gods she knew didn’t have a care for humanity. She refused. Like a recurring nightmare, the gauntleted hands dragged her down the stairs again.
It was a long ride, but more due to fear than distance. By the time they got to the foothills, she was shivering uncontrollably. The mountain road was rough; they encountered no passersby. He took her to a lookout point where a shrine to the fire god stood. Its arch was blackened, the platform menacingly drenched in old blood. Her wrists were manacled to each side of the arch, her tunic ripped from her so hard that bruises spread across her torso. Her father built a fire, stacking the logs high to increase the heat, and kept the irons in until they glowed. He then charged at her, bearing the irons to sear her flesh. Blinding pain, but not blind enough. The iron was pulled away from her waist, tearing flesh, her own burning stench gagging her. The last thing she saw was her father’s furious eyes as he raised a plain broadsword, his arm sweeping up before falling in a rapacious arc, the fire glinting off the blade…
Elena woke up in the dark, feverish under the covers. Overheated and startled, she stared wildly about her, trying to gain her bearings. She was surprised to wake up in her own bed, the nightmare was so realistic. Lightning flashed, casting shadows along the walls. They seemed to move on their own, stalking and scurrying out of the way. A broadsword swung down, a figure winced and collapsed. Thunder clashed again. Elena was too old to scream like a frightened child, but the urge to do so remained stuck in her throat. Unbidden, a question came to mind: Habría que morir por sus convicciones? Would you die for your convictions?
The next evening, Elena went for a walk after dinner. She loved being alone in the darkness, strolling down the paths between the villas. Her senses were sharpened. The smell of the fruits hanging in the trees seemed stronger. The sound of the palm fronds sounded like pages of paper scraping together. The Spanish moss whispered from the branches high above. The sky was the deepest shade of cobalt blue.
Eventually, she found herself drawn to noises—cars, yelling, and boisterous laughter. Elena remained hidden, but watched as several cars pulled up to a beautifully appointed villa with a long, curving driveway. The villa’s European architectural style was created with Mexican materials. All the popular magazines displayed it as an example of a cross-cultural fusion of elegance.
She crept closer, surveying the situation. Loud American music blared from within the house. Shadows of people danced in the upstairs windows, and a large crowd mingled rambunctiously throughout the first floor. She struggled to be assertive. Hadn’t she studied them enough to blend in? But she approached with caution, suddenly self-conscious of her appearance. Her hair was pulled into a simple ponytail. Even when rich girls wore ponytails, their hair seemed shinier and bouncier, perfect as an American doll. Elena didn’t even own make-up. She wore second-hand faded jeans and her favorite but ill-fitting yellow sweater with old stains that never came out in the wash.
She watched a group of kids her age approach the side door. The guys carried cases of beer ahead of the rest of the group. Gold chains glistened in the lamplight. Jeans were crisp, sneakers were spotless and white. Elena hung back, waiting in the shadows of the trees.
Another crowd of kids came up after the first group, and she felt her confidence revive. Definitely part of the same crowd, but reasonably scruffy. Plain t-shirts and cut-off shorts, and scuffed loafers. They carried a carton of tequila made locally and favored by people in the village. She snuck up behind them, and tried to act as though she was with them, but lagged behind just a step or two.
The girl in front of her was tall, wearing a long, curling black ponytail. Like her friends, she dressed casually, but as Elena got closer, she noticed essential clues. They were not local. Their accent was urbane, educated—worldly. The girl reached back to fluff her hair, and Elena saw the jewelry: gold and fire opals. Probably enough to fund a college education.
Elena was momentarily shaken, but determined to follow through with her plan. She took a step forward, peering around the kids into the well-lit house. She knew it was best to keep moving. If she just stood there and looked out of place someone would notice. She never attended a party like this before. Never just kids her age, only family parties. This was new and dangerous territory in more ways than one. She did her best to look natural by grabbing a beer off the counter. She took a sip and smiled, and moved into the next room.
The music was loud, and the room so crowded that it was hard to distinguish which couples were dancing together. Elena shrunk back, inching her way along the wall. The crowd moved as one entity, occasionally forcing her out of the safe place she found for herself.
Finally, Elena sidled up next to a tall potted plant in the corner of the living room. The beer’s flavor changed as it warmed up. It was rank and cloying, but she didn’t want to let go of it.
“Pretty bad, huh?” a voice above her said.
Startled, she looked up to see a handsome guy, a little older than herself. She tried to smile. “Huh?”
“That beer is swill. Someone was being cheap,” he said as he reached out gently, taking the beer from her and putting it on a shelf nearby. “Let me get you something better.” He darted out of sight for a few minutes, and returned with a red plastic cup. “Here,” he said as he shook it. The ice cubes sloshed. “No roofies, I promise.”
Elena sniffed at it. “What is it?”
“Bloody Maria. Like a Bloody Mary, only with tequila instead of vodka.”
She took a sip and was surprised to be pleased with it. She smiled back at him. “Thank you. I never really liked beer.”
“You like the hard stuff, huh?” he said with a wink.
She tried not to flinch at the innuendo. She felt so out of her element that she may as well have been on another planet. “I like tequila.”
“Reposado or añejo?”
She thought for a moment, thinking about her uncle talking to his friends as they relaxed after work. The tequila they sipped…“Añejo. I like it straight up, but this is good. Not too sweet.”
He drew himself up, assessing her. She couldn’t read his expression. His eyes looked sleepy, sly, and admiring.
She wasn’t prepared to overcome her shyness. She thought she could just be invisible. Now she was confronted with one of them. He seemed nice enough. Elena struggled to find words. “Are you from the city?”
He nodded, “Yeah, and you?”
“I’m from town. The neighborhood with all the art galleries,” she said, straightening. She enjoyed her drink, and was gaining ever more confidence.
“Not from the village? You look like you could be,” he said with an appraising stare.
The flash of indignation was raw. “The village? Why do you think I’m from there?”
He laughed. “I’m just kidding, relax. You drink too slow. You should be on the next one by now.”
The conversation slowed with her gulping down her drink. Truth be told, it was a harsh flavor, but its effects made her care less about it. She gave way to the joy of adventure.
She learned his name was Diego. He went to private school, and was planning to attend one of the Ivy League colleges in the US. Diego leaned in ever closer, touching her arm, tracing a line along her sleeve. Although she was self-conscious about her old yellow sweater, she liked the attention.
The situation exploded with an intrusion. Elena recognized her. It was the Fire Opal Girl she had followed into the house. She had taken the ponytail down, revealing blond highlights that reminded Elena of a tiger. Her eyes burned as she stared at Elena. “Diego, where have you been? I’ve been stuck talking to Juan’s stupid friend…and who is this? What are you doing with her?”
“Relax, I was procuring a treat for Juan.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Please, don’t even try with excuses.”
“Seriously, look at her! She isn’t even my type. Juan doesn’t have a girlfriend, and you know what they say about village girls. Eager to please…” Elena watched in amazement as his posture changed, his expression growing cruel, matching that of his girlfriend.
Fire Opal Girl scrutinized Elena, then Diego. “You sure you weren’t trying to get a little taste for yourself before passing her along to Juan?”
Diego laughed raucously. “Of course not! Sweetheart, I love you and you know it. And really, when would I ever do a girl from the village? They might like to do it with us, but they’ve all got fleas! Though I don’t think Juan will mind. He seems desperate tonight.”
His girlfriend smirked, but held back laughter. “You had better not. If I get any…diseases, I’ll know who to blame, and I’ll tell everyone about you.”
Elena gasped, hating not only the accusations, but how easily she was cast aside. “I’m not…I’m not…”
Fire Opal Girl whirled about like a trained soldier, her predatory focus on Elena. “Yes, you are. Stupid slut. You village girls are all the same. If you get one of our guys, you’ll get to live like us.” She reached out, yanking Elena’s ponytail. Tears burst from her eyes. “The only way you’ll see our lives is by doing our laundry, washing our dishes, and screwing our husbands when you think the rest of us won’t notice!” As Elena felt the sting of the slap across her face and her sight was washed out.
“I’m not…” Elena became aware that everyone was watching. She burned under their stares.
“So you keep saying. But you are. Look at you, stains on your clothes, you wear no make-up, and…what’s this?” The girl’s eyes flashed, reflecting the shiny object around Elena’s neck, like a carrion bird cawing at a treasure. Perfectly manicured fingernails scraped at her collarbone, scooping along the chain, and grasping the silver pendant. “She thought she could pass for one of us! But look at these old clothes. Who do they belong to? A cousin? A sister?” The crowd began to laugh. This entertainment was far better than dancing. “And you wear one of these,” she said, tugging at the pendant. “You worship pagan witch gods.” The tugging became harsh, and the double-edged axe was ripped from her neck, and held up for all to see. “Throw this bitch out!”
Diego was no longer kind. “Looks like you won’t be getting some after all,” he said, shoving Elena toward the kitchen.
The Fire Opal Girl took charge, rushing forward to grab Elena by her hair. She dragged her to the door and pushed her out. As Elena landed in the mud, the girl threw the pendant at her. It landed in the muck, equally forsaken. “You think you’re good enough to steal him from me? What do you have? Nothing! I’m going to summon the Red Witch, and she’s going to get you and you’ll be cursed!”
Fire Opal Girl took a step down, and everyone standing behind her, pointing and elbowing each other. Diego’s mocking laughter crowed above the rest. The girl kicked Elena in the ribs, and they all laughed and disappeared into the house, slamming the door. Howls erupted. She sat alone in the dark, the cold mud seeped into her sweater. A flare of laughter came from the kitchen window. “You left her outside with the Red Witch?”
Elena stared helplessly down at her clothes. She was aflame with humiliation. Her spine slumped as she got up, she fought back the tears, but it was a futile effort. She picked up Chango’s pendant, the pressure of the axe blades pierced into the soft flesh of her fingertips. The sight of it being covered in mud made her cry. Elena scurried into the woods. The shadows cooled the heat of her shame. She couldn’t go home, so she retreated into the darkness.
As she delved deeper into the woods, the branches seemed to reach out to her. They didn’t grasp menacingly—they lured, stretching out into curling lines to draw her deeper in—the woods no longer appeared familiar. The trees seemed larger, more expansive. It was quieter. Lights from the villa disappeared, as did the music.
But it should be nearby, she thought. I should at least hear the music. She heard night birds, insects…whispers. Indecipherable, yet familiar. She continued on. She caught her breath, her heart beating painfully, and the black void enveloped her. How can it be so unfamiliar? Where am I going?
Elena came to a rocky ledge and looked down. A crevice opened up before her, a gaping, miserable maw drew her in. It had secrets to tell. Secrets only for her. Wiping the tears from her eyes, she stepped forward, she couldn’t help but investigate.
The scent of ancient embers lingered. She had no flashlight, but somehow, she could see into the chasm, which was lit by an unearthly source, like a flame unseen. An old platform, though burned, refused to disintegrate. It had a story to tell. Above the platform was a wooden structure—wide enough to splay a human’s arms to full length. Above the posts, a double-edged battle-axe hung, centered over the platform. As Elena wondered what this was, the battle-axe began to swing back and forth…back and forth…ever so slowly, building up to a steady pace. A pendulum that beckoned. It had a story to tell.
As Elena leaned in to get a better look, she lost her footing and fell into the chasm. After a flash of pain, her world went black. But her consciousness fell into another place and time.
The cloak was coarse. Once a bright vermillion, it was now faded and threadbare. She hunched down, hoping to disappear within it. It was cold and dank in the cavern. She was surprised to see how lived-in it seemed. Once a person climbed down the steep, rocky slope, the cavern opened up into a broad space, tall enough for the average man to move comfortably about.
She wasn’t sure how long she had been imprisoned there, but it was at least three days. Maybe five. Isolated in the darkness, the moisture from the puddles soaking into her clothes, water pooling from the rain that fell since the night of her capture.
She had been pleading with Chango during a thunderstorm, a time when he was powerful—when her father caught her and insisted she recant. After a terrible argument, she was brought before the priest and accused of witchcraft. Her father said the recent floods were the result of her consorting with them—those who brought her to this pagan religion.
She knew what it meant to refuse. Executions were common. But she couldn’t bear to give up her newfound beliefs. After listening to the stories of the other gods, it was Chango who spoke to her heart. Her own Catholicism seemed empty, fraught with stringent commands and threats of destruction. She grew tired of being told she was nothing, simply damned. The others—those who served the conquerors, seemed to have richer lives. They loved more, they displayed their affection—they told beautiful and heart-wrenching stories. Her upbringing was a void by comparison. If she had nothing else, she had the courage of her convictions. If she couldn’t have the treasure she had discovered in loving Chango, she was willing to die. She was only fearful of the pain.
As her very marrow chilled, she began to feel sleepy. The endless dripping water, the occasional falling rock broke into her slipping consciousness. She didn’t hear the Inquisitor lead the priest and his men into the cavern. He grabbed her by her hair and pulled her head back, staring her down as though she were a disobedient dog. “Have you chosen to repent?” he asked, his voice deep and gravelly.
She began to hum her favorite devotional song, murmuring the words to soothe her heart and ease the pain. Kabiesile. Your Majesty, Chango. To ask him any questions does not exist.
Prayers in Latin thundered around her while her father, standing in the group behind the Inquisitor, condemned her to death. As her head tipped back, her eyes rolled up toward the fading light of the gloaming above. As the evening deepened, the men lit torches. The fire’s light hurt her eyes. She took small consolation that the fire was the element of her beloved Chango. She begged for a sign, but all gods had forsaken her as the Inquisitor pressed the torch to her again and again, burning her flesh in wide patches. The cloak melted into her wounds. It was a slow, agonizing death. Once it was done, the men left her there, bound and burned. “It is unconsecrated ground. Let her soul rot here,” the priest said as he led them out of the cavern.
Later that night, the people who loved her, had taken her in when her own family abandoned her, tracked her down and mourned her. They laid her to rest, and mounted a double-edged battle-axe on the beams above the platform to honor her love of Chango. But the lives of slaves were tumultuous—those who loved her were sold, traded, worn down to death before their time. The woman was forgotten, but the Red Witch was born. Unusual disturbances in the woods gave rise to stories. People began to talk of a red-cloaked spirit, an ethereal nomad, forever lost to all, visible day and night. Every child or animal that wandered off and was lost was blamed on the witch. The stories accumulated over the centuries. Some fantastical, some gruesome, but she was always evil.
Those who were responsible did not escape the wrath. A vicious storm ruined much of the village days later. The night before the storm struck, the pious knelt and fearfully prayed at the sight of a lunar eclipse. Black shadows obscured the blood-red moon, like a furious eye turning its attention to them.
No one could ever recall such a fierce storm. Lightning webbed across the sky, and the winds were suffocatingly humid. The thunder was deafening. The former home of the Red Witch was obliterated. As the lightning struck the house, all the horses fled into the darkness and were never seen again. The house burned so hot that few remains were found. The Inquisitor and his men were on their way out of town. A cowardly man at heart, he was frantic when he found himself deep in the wilderness when the storm struck. The horses bolted. His men were spooked by the shadows. They all reported quick-moving flashes of red in the distance. One of the men insisted the girl who bore the child of a slave still lived. They left her too soon. She must have survived and summoned the devil to aid in her vengeance. The Inquisitor called him gullible, but yet…the force of the storm felt supernatural to him, though he’d never admit it. The next day, as the villagers surveyed the storm’s damage, they found the Inquisitor’s body, bound at the wrists by vines between two trees, burned almost beyond recognition. The bones of his followers were scattered at his feet, blackened and still smoldering.
Elena felt as though she was back in her own body again, but was still elsewhere. She was aware of the dream-like quality of the vision, but she couldn’t escape it. It wasn’t done with her yet.
She stood on the platform, before a broken figure bound to the crossbeams. The red cloak was blackened. The witch’s head dipped down, the hood covering her features. A voice whispered Elena’s name, and her heart pinched in fear. But…she’s dead…maybe not? What if she’s barely alive? What do I do? Reluctantly, she stepped forward, peering up into the dark hood.
“Kabiesile,” came the sing-song whisper. “Hail, Your Majesty, Chango. To ask him any questions does not exist.”
All the words left her as the figure straightened, quick as a striking snake. As the head snapped upward, and the hood fell away, it revealed the familiar face of Aunt Frida. Her skin was covered in grimy soot, her eyes were windows of anguish. “She is me. You are me. She is us, Elena. Our ancestor. The blood of the Red Witch burns in our veins,” Frida said, her voice cracking as she gasped.
“I’m related to…”
Elena’s thought was cut short as Frida’s face was replaced in an instant by a younger woman. She had large, brown eyes and a full mouth. Her hair was matted and knotted with singed tangles. “Save my memory,” she begged. “You’re the last of my true family. Help each other. Call on him.” The light in her eyes dimmed and her head lolled downward.
Elena cried. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry. I didn’t know it was you!” She reached up to untie her wrists, and held her as she brought the body down to lie on the platform. “I don’t know what to do…”
The subsequent crack of thunder that echoed in the cavern was ear-piercing. The rumbling that followed sounded even more ominous underground. A flash of lightning made the cavern a luminous blue. As she knelt above the body of the Red Witch, Elena looked up to see the doubled-edged axe descend, swinging ever more furiously. Chango’s lightning—it destroys and rebuilds.
As the platform was engulfed in flames, Elena heard a sigh. It is done. Inherit my power and make it yours. The fire rose and swirled around her. It was no longer frightening. The world flashed. Elena was now back at the villa where the kids were partying. Maybe it was the sudden fierce thunderstorm that brought her around, left to stare in wonder. Fire exploded into an elemental wall of purifying destruction. She didn’t hear the screams for a long time. She looked in stunned amazement as she realized they were all trapped within the villa. There was no escaping the conflagration as explosions were heard within the house.
A rustling to her left distracted her. She saw the flash of red out of the corner of her eye before she turned her head. The figure stood beside her, eternal yet broken. The hood concealed the face. The fire momentarily forgotten, Elena stared. Her silent companion stood still for a long time. The continual screams broke into her consciousness. She looked at the fire, not quite comprehending. When she turned again to the figure beside her, it faced her. The hood fell back and revealed a gaunt and withered face of a soul in eternal suffering and wrath. The smile was skeletal, and its hand reached out as if wanting to hold Elena’s hand. Elena’s right hand curled reflexively, and she realized she was holding something. Looking down, her fingers opened to reveal the red-cloaked doll. The palm wood figure was gone, replaced by a bloody shard of bone.