Miray La, Saraan, The Caribbean
When I emerged from my mother’s ebony womb with brown skin, white eyes, and a red spot on my forehead, the midwives knew what I was. They cut the cord from my mother and bathed me in white-water, the nectar of the Saraani Cactus. God’s kiss was a gleaming red circle between my brows so they smeared my face with white-butter before finally handing me to her. While I cried, cooed, and suckled at her chest, my mother grew silent. The day I was born was celebrated by all devout Devan Jeain and it was the last day my mother ever spoke.
In that first year of my life, we were gifted with fig cakes and stuffed dates. Our house was filled with dried rose petals. They were sprinkled across my blankets and rose oil was rubbed onto my wrists. Even now, the musky scent of dried flowers or the sweetness of figs reminds me of my childhood. It was a fine time for me, being ignorantly pampered and sheltered. Protective amulets were hung around my crib, in our windows, and above our doorways. The tinkling sound of beach glass in the breeze was a song that sang only for my birth.
Back then, I reveled in the awe towards me, a living deity. I even encouraged it at times. I grew proud and arrogant thinking I was beautiful even though I’d never seen my face. At night, I still touched it. I traced the birth of my wide mouth and nose. I brushed my fingertips through my thick lashes and ran a hand across my bare scalp. Mostly, I felt my scar tissue. The burn marks left delicate ripples and courses across my skin like water. Turbulent. Emotional. Passionate. People said these things about me too.
It’s funny what people said when they thought no one was listening.
But I was always listening.
Sound, smell, taste, touch. That was how I understood the world.
Lately, a certain wind had been prickling at my neck. Even in the Saraanish summer, hot and clammy with humidity, there was a chill that wasn’t natural. Didn’t seem of our world and I knew they were stirring. They were calling me, so I asked for a white-water bath.
In the center of our tiny kitchen, I stripped for Auntie Zamfra. The floor was warm and sticky with food. I could hear the birds cooing outside, their evening songs bringing on the night. Setting my white cane down and brushing crumbs off my feet, I stepped into the metal basin. I clutched at my bare ribs and tucked my knees up to my chest. The metal was cool on my flesh and I resisted the urge to urinate.
The rattling of metal pitchers and ladles told me Auntie Zamfra wasn’t prepared. Naked and vulnerable, I waited while she talked to my mute mother. I listened as Auntie Zamfra pulled out the juicer and skinned the thick watery stocks of cacti with a dull knife. Her favorite YouTube news channel was drowned out by the juicer’s dying engine which sputtered on and off. Her voice cut through the noise.
“I told them, I did, that I needed extra white-water for today. Of course, they all wanted to know why. Well, I told them, it was a family matter of greatest importance, asking them if they remembered who my niece was? If they remembered my sister was the Manman Bondye.”
God’s Mother, a title forced upon her ever since she birthed me, a Cave Walker. It was connection to this status that Auntie Zamfra cared about more than anything.
“And do you know what they had me do? They had me fill out a form. I mean, I understand the rangers are under a lot of stress from the government, protecting all that free growing marijuana, but still. They should at least acknowledge that if it wasn’t for our Galena here, they wouldn’t have any Saraani cacti, or weed, or forest to protect. The Skin Eaters would eat it all up like that!” she snapped her calloused fingers.
I smirked as the first splash of white-water hit my bald head. The Skin Eaters had no interest in eating cacti. The rough bark-like layers and prickly points made it difficult to grip. No. It was soft, human flesh they fed on.
“I’m asking you a question, Galena. Can you not hear me? Kèt I thought you were blind, not deaf?”
I chose to ignore her rudeness. “What?”
“I’m asking you, what is this?” Her rough fingertip jabbed the base of my neck, pushing on my spine.
Another chill passed over me then. I hated the wind, especially on wet skin.
“What does it look like?” I asked her. Jaytana used to describe my skin spots to me at length. I had learned what different descriptions meant. The consequences of a mole compared to god’s kiss were substantial.
Auntie Zamfra slathered my back in cool jelly. I relished the feeling of white-butter, a product made from the pulped stock of the cacti.
“It’s a dark spot,” she said in a huff.
“Is there a ring around it?”
Her breath was hot on my back. It came in small nervous bursts as she moved in closer.
“I don’t think so. Not yet anyway.”
“Let’s burn it now.”
“No. We wait. That’s the way.”
I sighed, and she hit me across the head.
“I just want to get it over with, Auntie.”
She sucked her teeth tongue disapprovingly. “You know we need to wait. Wait and see how big the ring develops. I do hope it’s not as big as your other ones.”
Her fingers drifted across the scar on my right shoulder, the size of a durian. Auntie Zamfra was a devoted Devan Jeain, whether that was for family devotion or a devotion to the faith was hard to tell. She enjoyed the status the calling brought to the family and yet, she still seemed to hate the scars. If she could have the attention of the ritual without having to burn my skin she’d be pleased, but that wasn’t the way in Saraan. That wasn’t the way for a Cave Walker.
In the coming days, god’s kiss formed a perfect circle had formed a target directly over my spine. This one would hurt.
The night before the ceremony, I lounged in my bed, listening. Through the walls, I could hear Auntie prattling on to my mother, silent as always. If I strained my ears, I could hear beyond them, outside the house. I could hear the night birds puffing out their wings for insulation. I could hear the crickets in the long grass and the flutter of a moth as it attacked the streetlights.
If I strained my ears even harder, I could hear the breathing of the cave. The Skin Eaters moving deep in the earth. Protecting the Buried One.
They were stirring. They were hungry. They wanted a sacrifice.
It was time for a burning day.
I was listening to a podcast when Auntie Zamfra hammered on my bedroom door and walked in without an answer.
“Ay, Auntie. I’m a grown woman, when will you give me some privacy, eh?” I pulled out my ear buds, securing them in their charging case. Even with headphones in, I still wasn’t surprised at her entrance. I had heard her heavy gait approaching from downstairs.
“You have a visitor,” Auntie Zamfra said, ignoring my reproach. She was traditional as could be when it came to domestic Saraanish roles. She had lived with us my whole life. Families, women in particular, lived communally regardless of age. It was rare for daughters or nieces to move out, even if they got pregnant or went to university.
I sat up and wrapped a silk robe around my shoulders, savoring the slippery fabric on my bare skin. It was one Auntie Zamfra had made for me. “Visitor? I haven’t painted myself yet.”
“It’s alright, dear. You can do it after.”
I shook my head, smiling a wry smile. The visitor had to be Madame Beatrice, our priestess, to elicit such endearments. Auntie Zamfra was not one to offer compliments or kindness unless there was someone to impress. Auntie’s blunt nature used to upset Jaytana, but not me. I may be blind, but I wasn’t incapable. I didn’t need her doting me.
“Do you need help?”
I shook my head. For the last several years I’d been painting myself. Jaytana used to help me, but it was only fitting that I didn’t have help now, seeing as it was my fault she was gone.
“Will you come downstairs to meet Her?”
“Yes. Of course.” I knew there were no other options. One didn’t refuse Beatrice when she visited.
The kitchen smelled of sticky fig cake and garlic eggs. My mouth watered as I tapped my way over to the table. The room was alive with its own rhythms. Auntie stayed near the door, hovering, waiting to be invited in or excused. My mother was upstairs. I could hear her shuffling feet moving from her room to the bathroom.
Madam Beatrice was always hardest to hear. She sat very still, but her breathing moved the heavily embroidered fabric up and down. I could hear the fibers constricting across her chest with each inhale, and then relaxing.
“Good morning, Galena.”
“Madam Beatrice,” I said, sitting down at the table across from her.
“Thank you, Zamfra. That will be all.”
Auntie left the kitchen, only I could hear her fidgeting on the other side of the closed door, eavesdropping—I wasn’t the only one in the family who had good ears. Auntie had the nervous habit of wringing her calloused hands. As a seamstress, her hands were constantly being pricked by needles or burned by irons. I liked that her rough hands made such delicate things.
“Are you ready for the ceremony?”
My fingers flitted across the table like a moth in search for light. I reached out to find a plate and spoon and started dishing up breakfast for myself. With Auntie out of the room, I cut a large piece of the fig cake without being scolded about my weight.
“Yes. I’m ready,” I said. The eggs were warm, soft steam touching my lips as I breathed on them.
“Good, because we have a proposal for you.”
Our conversations were always like this. A strange power dynamic between us. Jaytana used to tell me not to let the priestess control me. She may be our religious leader, but I was the deity. She needed my cooperation more than she needed her fancy headdress or church hall. I tried to remember that, for Jaytana.
“The government wants tourism up. After the pandemic… we were hit hard.”
I nodded; mouth full.
“That is why, they have decided, to publicize the ceremony.”
“Publicize? How do you mean?”
“They have been advertising it. Selling tickets. It will be open to the public, not just the church. Televised. Livestreamed.”
My mouth went dry. The aftertaste of garlic and eggs lingered on the back of my tongue. I tried in vain to generate enough saliva to swallow, to wash it down with my shock, but to no luck. Burning days were already awful enough, stripping naked in front of the congregation with nothing but a thick coat of white mud to protect me from their prying eyes. Now, the world would be watching too.
It would be the first time in history a non-Devan Jeain would see the ritual. Due to the controversy of our religion, Madam Beatrice had always insisted that foreigners could never see the more gruesome aspects of it. She didn’t want our ceremony of purification to be misinterpreted or slandered. But The Devan Jeain still had a public presence. A brand. We gave cave tours. Deity led tours were my idea. I took the spelunkers deep down into the shadow of the earth. Soon, these tours became vital to the economic success of Saraan. People were curious. Hungry for stories. Tourists wanted their social media feeds to be filled with the strange, the bizarre, the unique, and that is what I was. Special. I used to pose for photos, but to see me burning was a whole other level. Someone high up in the government must have convinced, or mandated, Beatrice. Or maybe the strict lockdown really had hurt our economy just that much.
“How many people?”
“A few hundred in person, give or take. The cruise ships are coming in today by noon. A stage is being built in downtown.”
I shook my head. “What if I refuse?”
I nodded. This was the same way I had stopped giving cave tours. Saraan could charge extra for cave tours led by me, an expert, a living goddess, a deity. I used to enjoy the job, actually. It had given me purpose. It was my expertise I could share with the world, be productive in some way. But since Jaytana died, I couldn’t bring myself to go back there. It wasn’t the dark I was afraid of. No, the darkness made no difference to me. There was a reason Cave Walkers were born blind, to not lose any sense of normalcy when we were in or out of the caves.
It was my fate I was afraid of.
Beatrice had tried, of course, to make me resume my tours. Threatened to take away our family stipend, our home. In the end we agreed on a “leave of absence.” A promise that I would go back some day.
Beatrice kissed her teeth, a hash sucking sound, of air and saliva on bone. “If you refuse, then we won’t burn your skin at all.”
“I’ll do it at home.”
“Your Auntie already has orders not to help you.”
“I’ll do it myself.”
“It’s on your back, Galena. How will you reach it?”
I fell silent, losing leverage. My mind was racing with options. She was right, I couldn’t reach the spot on my own, not fully, and if any part wasn’t burned away fully, it could speed up the mutilation of cells. Could be worse than not burning at all.
“If you can’t burn God’s kiss, you know what will happen.”
“I’m losing time.”
“Yes.” Beatrice leaned forward enough so I could smell her breath. Almond and coffee. “So I will see you at the ceremony?”
I didn’t say anything, and she stood up. The chair scraped against the floor. “Fantastic.”
Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.
Frankie leaned out the window so her menthol cigarette wouldn’t waft into Sam and Darla’s perfect apartment. She didn’t mind smoking like that, her hips resting against the window sill while the night air dried the sweat from her face. Taking a long drag, she watched the cars slurry beneath her, a stream of lights, people rushing and going without reason or purpose; people like her.
Sam rested his hand on the small of her back and Frankie turned to him. Standing in his boxers and grey t-shirt, his salt and pepper hair was tousled in a way only sex with Frankie could do, or so she liked to think. She always ran her fingers through his hair when he was down on her, directing him gently if needed, which he enjoyed.
“Can I have a drag?”
Frankie eyed the ceiling, the sounds of the shower running were proof that Darla was still occupied, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t smell it on his breath later.
“It’s alright,” he said, with a smile that charmed Frankie every time. She handed him the cigarette and he leaned out the window with her. Their bodies touching.
“Did you see that Saraan was in the news again?” Frankie asked, taking the cigarette back.
Sam rolled his eyes, but Frankie couldn’t stop herself. Ever since her mother’s passing, Frankie had become obsessed with genealogy, ancestry, and of course, the island her mother had emigrated from. Partway between Key West and Havana, Saraan was notorious for its spelunking tours, chili-infused rum, and export of cannabis. The fact that the long held secret skin-burning rituals of the Devan Jeain religion had been livestreamed yesterday only fueled Frankie’s obsession.
The YouTube video of a woman painted white with her back being burned had gone viral, driving up the price and quantity of cruise ships. The port was being flooded with liners, allowing tourists just enough time to brave its cave systems and take eye-watering shots of rum. Add the fact that cannabis was legal and Twou Wòch was quickly becoming the Amsterdam of the Caribbean.
The debate of whether the religion was gruesome or in violation of human rights laws didn’t change that fact that Saraan was trending. But despite the Saraanish economy relying on foreigners, the immigration policies were startlingly conservative. Frankie was shocked when she finally received her Saraanish passport after years of working on her heritage case.
“Anything new?” Sam’s voice was empty, bored, hoping for an easy out.
Frankie paused. If she was going to tell him, this would be her opportunity, but instead she heard herself saying, “Oh, just covering the ceremony again. Human right activists are trying to get the UN involved.”
She shrugged. “I doubt it. Saraan is the richest island in the Caribbean. It’s not likely that they’ll change their religion just because some foreigners are telling them to.”
“They should be left alone then.” Sam pushed off the window sill, retreating into his apartment. Frankie flicked the cigarette butt, watching it fade into the night, falling several stories before the red ember disappeared altogether.
She followed him to the kitchen, sitting at the marble topped island. He handed her a glass of whisky, neat. Frankie took a sip and breathed in through her teeth as alcohol burned her throat. It wasn’t her favorite drink, but the one they always shared while Darla showered. Darla had severe OCD and couldn’t handle the after-sex smell of sweat and semen. Frankie didn’t wholly understand why Darla wanted a baby. Babies were messy and unpredictable creatures, but then again, so was their relationship. Frankie had convinced herself that the three of them could make it work, not to mention the added benefit that while Sam and Darla tried, Frankie had been coming over every night. She liked that. Liked the distraction. She liked dipping into their lives, their problems. Focusing on how to fix them rather than dealing with her own life. She was like a leech on Sam and Darla’s marriage. They built the emotional intimacy, the commitment, Frankie just sipped the honey from the top of the barrel.
Her sense of comfort was one of the reasons she had put off telling them about her plans. Once she did, the inevitable conversation that would follow was one she wasn’t ready for. She wasn’t quite ready to leave them yet. Not with the hope of a baby or family on the horizon.
The shower turned off above them. The white noise of running water evaporated, leaving them in silence. Frankie was waiting for some sign, some way to know if she should tell them or abandon her plans of leaving altogether.
“Darla’s pregnant,” Sam said, looking at his drink. He swirled the caramel liquid, dispersing the oil, its translucent legs dripping back down the glass.
“Oh my God! That’s….” Frankie trailed off. She was equal parts surprised and proud. Proud as if she had somehow impregnated Darla herself. And in a way, she had. She was the one that always got Sam started before he finished with Darla. She was the one that had been coming over every month during ovulation, lately every night. She had been part of this. “That’s incredible!”
“Yeah, thanks,” he said, sounding as if he was discussing world hunger rather than his pregnant wife.
“Don’t be too excited though.”
He laughed and set his drink down, both hands on the counter. Frankie reached across the space and stroked his bicep.
“Don’t,” he whispered.
“Sorry,” she said, recoiling. They had rules to this relationship. The first was that Sam could only finish with Darla. The second was that Frankie was never supposed to have one-on-one time with either of them. But that was the rule no one followed, so she asked, “What’s wrong? This is good news. It—”
“—It means we’re breaking up with you.”
Frankie could hear the ocean in her ears. Her face flushed. Her stomach dropped. “What?”
“Frankie, we’ve loved having you with us. You’ve really… helped us. But Darla feels, well Darla and I feel, that if we’re going to have a baby, it would be best to do it with just the two of us.”
“I mean, she has a point. What would we tell the kid? That you’re their auntie or something? You don’t even look related to us.”
“Oh, so it’s because I’m black?”
“What? No. Sorry, no, that sounded bad. I just meant…”
“You meant now that you have a kid, you can’t have a threesome with some woman anymore. Can’t have me coming over and interrupting your perfect little picture. You have a spicy past, but that’s what I am. A fun story to tell your friends.”
“Frankie, you’ve been my fantasy come true. I don’t want this to end.” He was next to her now, the table no longer between them. His breath smelled like whisky. Too much whisky. His hand was on Frankie’s shoulder. “Look we still could, you and I. The two of us can still be together.”
Frankie and Sam both turned to the doorway. Darla stood in the hallway, her wet hair dripping onto her white t-shirt.
“I thought you said we could focus on the family?”
Darla clutched her flat stomach. Frankie grabbed her bag. “Congratulations Darla. You’ll make a beautiful mother.”
It wasn’t a lie. Darla had smooth chestnut hair and a body she maintained as meticulously as her house. She was a classic kind of beauty. Why Sam needed another woman was a mystery to Frankie and it drove Darla crazy, drove her into hyperdrive perfection.
It was better if Frankie left now before things got messy. She kissed Darla on the cheek and closed the door behind her. Their voices followed her down the hall as she waited for the elevator. She listened to them scream at one another until the elevator doors closed.
Frankie had broken her own rule, her secret third rule, which was, never become attached.