Sajaduras by Christina Wilder
I was already half-way through my lunch when I felt the tap on my shoulder. I turned, not sure who to expect; all my friends were sitting at my table, engrossed in their own conversations.
A young girl stared at me, her hair thick and black like mine, but her skin several shades darker.
"Hello," I offered.
She grinned. "Hey. You're Hispanic, right?"
"Yeah. South American."
Her eyes widened. So dark. "Really?"
"Really." I looked to my friends, but none of them seemed interested. A few of them glanced at the girl, but shrugged and went back to their lunches. I turned back to her, feeling oddly trapped. "I'm adopted," I blurted, and immediately felt stupid.
"Oh, cool." She grinned. "I'm Alma, I just moved here."
"Oh, hi. I'm Maria."
"Can I sit with you?"
I glanced at my friends again, who still didn't seem interested. Katie, my best friend since kindergarten, seemed to narrow her eyes at Alma, but I couldn't tell for sure.
"Um, yeah. Have a seat." I scooted over to make room, placing my backpack on the ground so she could sit.
"Gracias." Alma sat down next to me, pulling out a container from her backpack with a sigh. "I'm starving. The food here is a travesty. My mom packed empanadas, you can have some if you want, there are plenty. Beef and chicken."
"Empanadas?" I looked at the golden brown pastries wrapped in foil, leaking with cheese and beef. The pile of off-white french fries on my plate suddenly seemed inedible. "I've never had one."
Alma raised a perfectly arched eyebrow. "Girl." She set an empanada on my plate with a smile.
When Katie and I were little girls, we immersed ourselves in fairy tales, imagining otherworldly creatures around us. We learned everything we could about fairies, and the rules of interacting with fae folk. Never tell them your full name. Never accept a gift from them. Never eat or drink something from their world.
If you disobeyed these rules, you could be trapped in another world forever.
I smirked at the memory and unwrapped the food while Alma continued to introduce herself.
Her full name, I learned, was Alma Rodriguez. She'd moved to New Jersey a few weeks before the school year from Puebla, Mexico. Her father, Dr. Luis Rodriguez, was a surgeon who'd taken residence at the local hospital. Her mother Fátima stayed home, raising Alma's little sister Gabriela.
As the weeks went on, my friends moved on, or lost interest in me altogether. Alma was the only one who remained.
"Why don't you speak Spanish?" she asked one day in between classes, snapping her gum at passersby while I tried to extract a textbook from my stuffed locker.
"I just don't." My fingers tightened on my backpack strap. She was close enough that I could smell the soap on her skin. Lavender, and something sweet. Honey. Combined with the sharp spearmint of her gum, it made for a heady combination.
"Because of your parents." Alma glanced at me. "Your adoptive parents. They didn't learn it?"
"No." It felt like an odd betrayal, admitting that to her, but she only shrugged.
"I'll teach you," she promised, and winked before she walked away, swallowed by the crowd of jostling students.
As I watched her leave, I saw Katie stare at me, her eyes seeming to lack any kind of recognition.
The island of Chiloé is part of the southern archipelago in Chile, home to centuries-old wooden churches and houses on stilts that burst with color. It is my birthplace, and according to Alma, is also home to the brujos, a band of wizards who live deep in the forests and dwell inside a cave. Children were abducted, their bodies mangled until they were no longer human, cursed to live their lives as guards or messengers for the brujos.
I'd not known of these legends when I was a child. They came to me later, when I spent my free time with Alma, learning about my heritage.
"You could be the daughter of a witch," Alma had told me one afternoon. She sat next to me on my bed, running her finger along the threaded patches on my Girl Scout sash, which hung from a bedpost as a lazy teenage attempt at decorating. "One of the forest witches from Chiloé. Maybe that's why you love camping so much. It's in your blood."
"Is that true?" I asked, watching her touch the badges that I'd worn with pride as a child. "The brujos?"
"They call themselves La Recta Provincia." She smiled. "You don't believe me?"
"It's not that," I said quickly. Every country, every group of people has its own mythology, its own version of everyday people encountering evil. My mother, being Irish, told me of banshees wailing, carrying bowls of blood. My father showed me drawings of horns he'd done in Catholic school to ward off Il Malocchio - the dreaded Italian tale of the evil eye.
It had never even occurred to me that my own heritage had its own mythology. The realization made me feel idiotic and ashamed.
"Maybe that's why you're adopted," Alma said teasingly. "You were born with magical abilities, and it frightened your birth parents."
I smirked, but the reasons for my adoption were a mystery. My birth parents were a mystery. All that I've ever known is that they were a young couple, probably teenagers, not ready to raise a child. I knew their names - Marta Romero and Caleb Delgado - but nothing else.
Alma changed her focus to my bookshelf, which still held the collection of fairy tales that I'd loved as a child. I watched her read through stories that Katie and I had considered gospel, and she told me more about the brujos, comparing them to the mythological creatures mentioned in stories about gingerbread houses, poisoned apples, and glass slippers. How unsurprising to find so many stories of an enchanted forest, or haunted woods. Nestled deep within nature, it seemed, was the destiny of humans. Those who were kind-hearted, they found riches, while the wicked were rewarded with grisly deaths.
Come to the woods, my child, and see what awaits you.
A week before the accident, my parents and I had gone camping.
Our tradition went back as far as I could remember, setting up a tent and roughing it with nature before the crisp breeze of fall became too similar to winter chills. It hadn't yet crossed my mind that I was too old or too cool to look forward to camping with my parents, and part of me is relieved that I never got the chance to rebel against the tradition, which always makes me feel guilty immediately afterwards.
Dad collected the most colorful leaves, pressing them into a dictionary that was only used for this purpose, and Mom would later press them between sheets of wax paper once we got home, using them as decorations around Halloween.
On this day, Autumn had painted the trees with fiery bursts of color, illuminated by the sun's relentless glare. Dad put up the tent on the first try, a new record for him. He celebrated by blasting rock music on the boombox until Mom bribed him with limoncello to lower it before we "deafened the trees".
We ate by the campfire and told jokes instead of scary stories, which Mom said was for her own benefit but in hindsight, was probably for mine. The darkness closed in around us, and we crawled into the tent, snuggled in our sleeping bags as crickets and frogs sang to each other
My parents slept soundly. I closed my eyes, concentrating on the rhythms of my father snoring, but I could only think of Alma's smile, her beautiful dark skin, and the words she'd written on a piece of paper that she'd shoved into my locker. The paper was carefully folded in my wallet, already dog-eared from continuous unfolding and refolding.
It was our first lesson, she'd told me, her voice honey sweet as she whispered to me. Read the words. Learn them. I'll teach you.
Every rustle of the branches was a banshee with her face, every call of a wild creature was an evil eye, black as night, coming for me.
My mother had noticed my sleepiness the next day and smiled sympathetically. "Nothing is as terrifying as a snapping twig in the middle of the night," she'd said, and handed me a hot chocolate.
She'd been wrong. A screeching of tires and the crash of metal; that was the sound that haunted me forever since.
Being a newfound orphan made me into my own curse. Students stepped out of my path, nearly darting from me. Former friends left hasty notes in my locker, fumbled attempts at sympathy while maintaining a safe distance. Grief and tragedy, it seemed, were contagious.
Alma was away, visiting her abuela in Mexico. She didn't know. My life without her already seemed colorless, but now there was just a chasm of numbness that had become my reality.
I stared at my locker, thinking of the night in the woods, imagining her voice murmuring to me under the chanting of the crickets. After the accident, I could hear her whispering to me, calling my name as I surfaced from the pain.
I could feel her presence now, even when her absence ached.
"Where's your girlfriend?" Katie asked, appearing out of nowhere. Standing next to her was Abby Denvers, who used to spit in my hair during recess when we were children.
"Girlfriend?" I asked dumbly. It was the first thing Katie had said to me in months.
"She's got you all different now." Katie looked me up and down, her mouth curling with disgust. "You got weird."
I stared at her. "My parents..."
"Dead? Yeah. Too bad. But it's no excuse to be a freak." Katie gave me another reproachful look before sauntering away, clearly pleased with herself.
I moved to follow her, unsure of my own intentions, but Abby grabbed the back of my head and slammed it into the locker.
"Stay away, bitch." Her nails dug into my scalp and she shoved my head again, my skull clanging against the cold metal. "You ever so much as look at us again and you'll be as dead as your parents." Abby spat in my hair and stomped off, leaving me to turn and stare at the bloody print my head had made.
The pain sang a familiar song, a familiar screech, my blood pumping the frenzied beat.
To become a member of the La Recta Provincia, or "The Righteous Province", a man had to subject himself to standing under a freezing waterfall for days to unbaptize himself, and slaughter someone he loved to use their skin to make a book of spells. They were able to see all secrets, open locked doors, shapeshift, and fly. If someone dared to anger them, the brujos could inflict sajaduras - using magic to repeatedly slash the skin of enemies.
I read through the book of Chilean folklore, remembering how the seatbelt had cut into my stomach when the car flipped. I'd been upside down for what felt like hours, lights and screams around me. A kaleidoscope of terror until I'd blacked out. I woke in a hospital, my Aunt Giavanna sobbing in Italian next to my bed. Prayers, most likely. Or maybe curses against the drunk driver who had hit us. I never asked. I just held her hand, and waited until I was alone to cry.
Dr. Rodriguez did a wonderful job on my face, and while the scar across my cheek would always be visible, it would heal in time.
"Everything needs time," he said gently. "You don't even notice it in a few years, I promise."
"Years?" I traced the line from under my right eye to just above my jaw. It felt like a mask.
"Unfortunately, yes." Dr. Rodriguez smiled. "You are a brave girl, Maria. I am so sorry for your loss, but you have a lot of inner strength. My Alma told me that you're the strongest person she knows."
I managed to smile. It hurt. "Thank you."
"I'm going to talk to your aunt for a little bit, but I'll be back." He patted my shoulder and gave me another smile, then left me alone.
Once he was gone, I took out the paper his daughter had given to me when she had returned the night before, arriving at my aunt's home with flowers and gifts. Her arms wrapped tightly around my neck as we cried into each other's hair, and I breathed in the scent of her skin until our gasps for air grew more desperate.
"Mi amiga," she whispered, and kissed my cheek. "My Maria."
Her note had been carefully folded into a tiny square tucked into my pocket, to be read later when I was alone, as instructed. It was one word, repeated three times - a chant, a prayer, a blessing.
Amor. Amor. Amor.
I thought of men in caves, broken glass, the scars on my light skin, and the girl I loved in return.
She would have been my saving grace, if not for what happened the next day.
A prank, they called it. Just a bit of fun that got out of control.
Alma had been distracted, leaving the bathroom when Abby blocked the door and shoved her. Katie was there, and I've heard varying reports on how involved she was, but she did pull out fistfuls of Alma's hair. Abby had kicked her while she was down, repeatedly aiming for her stomach and head. When Alma began coughing up blood, the girls fled.
It was in between classes, and I was in the counselor's office at the time. We had a standing appointment, an hour in lieu of physical education.
An hour, spent talking about a memory I didn't want, while my best friend was dying on a cold tile floor, alone.
When I left the counselor's office, and saw the grim faces of the paramedics, I knew. I'd seen that look before. Death had come back for me.
There is darkness in the world, and we can succumb to it, or we can rise above. That evening, I went into the woods beyond Aunt Giavanna's house as she slept, ready to sell my soul.
I can regret what I've done, and what I might have caused. Maybe it's all a coincidence, what happened to Katie and Abby, and maybe the wizards in Chile are just men who want to be left alone. Sometimes a twig snapping is just a result of pressure on something weak, pushing until it can bend no more.
Growing up, I have learned to let go. Grief and regret dull with time.
I tell myself; the actions of an angry child do not influence reality.
I tell myself that wading into the freezing creek in the woods at night, chanting my allegiance to darkness in broken Spanish, did nothing. I tell myself that promising my soul to the brujos if they helped me was a manifestation of heartache. The scratches that I'd dug into my skin that night, they didn't miraculously heal the next morning; I must have imagined the way I'd torn open my own skin, laughing manically at the pain.
And when Katie and Abby were committed to asylums the next day, having scratched out their eyes and clawing at their skin, I told myself that it was a coincidence. When the same thing happened to the drunk driver who had killed my parents, I said nothing.
I told myself lies, until I allowed myself to believe.
I do not fear the darkness. I am the darkness.
There - can you hear it?
The breaking of fallen branches. The disembodied scream. The forest, waiting for you to arrive.
Meet The Writer
Christina Wilder was born in Santiago, Chile and grew up in New Jersey and Florida. Her writing has been featured in Coffin Bell, the first #VSS365 flash fiction anthology, and the LOVE anthology by Black Hare Press. She lives in Tacoma, Washington with her husband Chris and cat Bellatrix.
Her Twitter handle is @christinawilder, and can be found on Instagram at @christinamwilder.