Musicians, practicing an age-old tradition, scatter syncopated rhythms across the night sky. Through rapid hand movements and homemade instruments, they pay homage to fierce gods. The music tattoos the sky’s surface with patterns of prayer, patterns that transform themselves into welcome mats for beings in realms the musicians have no knowledge of. One such welcome mat beckons to WaLiLa’s tunnel. The tunnel dips and glides, then aligns itself with the musicians’ tones. Her body plummets, tumbling along the tunnel’s path as it shoots through space. Occasionally, she bumps the small of her back, her knees, or her toes against the tunnel’s pliant walls.
When the tunnel breaks into Earth’s atmosphere, it contracts, jostling WaLiLa into consciousness. She discovers herself crouched in the travel position: arms bound tightly about her, folded legs pressed close against her chest. The tumbling is dizzying, but tolerable. She throws her head back and grimaces as she struggles against the forces of motion to uncurl her body. Fully extended, WaLiLa picks up speed. She pushes her arms against her sides and points her toes to streamline her body as the tunnel narrows around her.
Within seconds, the tunnel recedes and deposits her into the air. Unaided, WaLiLa tumbles into the Realm of Human Being. When her toes reach the human altitude, they gently brush against a shoulder frosted with sweat. That shoulder smoothly dips down and across, making space for WaLiLa’s nude body. She slips into the opening, gentle nudges press against all sides of her being. A sea of swaying torsos, reverent palms, and open-throated song surrounds her. A pulsating mass of people—sealed into their own individual worlds behind the cloaks of closed eyes—rubs against her body. No one notices her arrival.
WaLiLa starts to push through the crowd, searching for some place on the edge where she can analyze her surroundings. Then, with the collision of a deeply-scarred palm against a taut drum, an explosive sound breaks through the crowd. Controlling beats roll forcefully toward the people. The peaceful trance is shattered. Every face lifts and faces east. Guinée lies east. Holy Guinée.
The drumming becomes feverish. As the frenetic rhythms burst above their heads, the crowd’s swaying becomes erratic. The drumvoices soar within WaLiLa’s chest like a command from the elements. Behind her, people begin to surge forward, straining to get closer to the drummers. Questions burn in her being-center. What land is this beneath my feet? What language is this dancing in my ears? What people are these surrounding my body? Her message-center reminds her to stay alert.
WaLiLa advances, following the demand of the drums. A sudden breeze slaps her into sharp thinking. You shall soon be seen, her message-center communicates. She tugs a piece of white muslin from a woman’s shoulder and quickly wraps it around her body. She turns around, searching for an exit through the sweat-soaked crowd, but finds none. The people between her and the drums begin to part. A narrow path is cleared, and the drums rush through and grab a tight hold of her throat.
Soon she is toeing the barrier around the drummer’s circle. An arc of drummers sits before the crowd. They are all of the male sex and completely oblivious to WaLiLa’s presence. Rhythm! their hands cry, Must maintain the relentless pace of the rhythm. Between the crowd and the drummers is a circular clearing. A woman in white whirls herself in swooping spirals around the clearing’s edge.
If WaLiLa weren’t positive that the soil beneath her feet was Earth’s, she would mistake the woman’s motions as bodyspeak: her own language. It isn’t—she knows this as well as she knows the danger of her mission—but the woman’s dancing unfolds into so many familiar movements that her wrists, arms, and calves ache to join in conversation. She has long since trained her sporadic arm flicks into oblivion, but when the woman contracts her chest into an open position and juts out her swinging breasts, WaLiLa feels so welcomed that her neck dips, her arms swoop up, and she loses her body to rhythmic swirling.
Through bodyspeak, WaLiLa queries the woman about their surroundings. The woman’s brain tells her this is simply a dance, a dance she performs at religious ceremonies, or rather a dance that performs her when an orisha gets a powerful hold on her. WaLiLa’s message-center registers communication—an essential gathering of information. The woman’s response to WaLiLa’s inquiries is so eloquent and clear that WaLiLa wonders if the woman is conscious of the communicative function of her movements.
WaLiLa learns that she is on an island in the Caribbean sea. Spanish is spoken here, and Africa is remembered. There has been bondage and savage killing. Twice determined youth revolted, causing citizens to drink optimism and communism like wine. After celebrated freedom, hardship rooted itself in the island soil. Today despair is as common as clouds. The local diet is resilience. The simple pleasures of work and food float beyond the reach of the common folk. The people have been losing family members with the passing of the years. Cousins, parents, and lovers try to escape by walking into the sea, as their tar-toned ancestors had done centuries past.
WaLiLa is so deep into the conversation she barely notices the new pitch the voices around her have engaged. A different tune is being expressed, and the woman’s motions change immediately. WaLiLa slows down her conversation. The woman opens her mouth, lets out a series of shrieks, and falls to the ground. The drumming lowers to a whisper. The chanting drops to a low rumble. Three people gather around the fallen woman. They clear the charged air around her with palm fronds. An old man stops singing long enough to bark some blessings over the woman’s body and shower her with rum sprayed from the fountain of his lips. The three lift her to her feet. Once on her feet, the woman opens her eyes. They shine like dark moons beneath the rim of her white head-wrap. When her eyes make direct contact with WaLiLa’s, the woman’s identity pops into WaLiLa’s vision center.
• Elisa Eguitez, 51, 5’4”, 201, Cuban •
Then her eyes flutter closed. The dark moons are strong, decides WaLiLa. This woman will be my host.
After the ceremony, Elisa walks directly to WaLiLa and asks her if she has a place to stay.
“You can stay with me, m’ija. What I’m offerin ain’t too special. I only have a small place, and I share it with my two sons, but…”
WaLiLa doesn’t question how Elisa knows she needs lodging. It has been some time since she last spoke this tongue and wants to observe more before she starts stretching sounds through her lips.
In silence, WaLiLa follows Elisa’s heavy, swaying flesh across a grassy field. Elisa stops at the trunk of a great big tree and leans over a rusty orange bicycle. She stuffs a bag full of mango and banana into a straw basket rigged to the front of the bike. Behind the seat, attached to the top of the back fender, is a plank of wood. Elisa motions for WaLiLa to sit. WaLiLa hikes up the cloth she had hastily wrapped around her body and sits. If Elisa notices WaLiLa’s shoeless feet, she says nothing. Nor does she comment on the flowers stuck to the soles of WaLiLa’s feet. With a grunt Elisa pushes the bike pedals into forward motion. After a couple of slow, strained pedal rotations, the bike takes flight. WaLiLa’s body jerks back. She spreads her arms and closes her eyes as the cool breeze rushes past her face.
During the bike ride, Elisa neither asks questions nor offers information. In the absence of chatter, a cotton-soft stillness envelops the bicycle. WaLiLa’s message-center is overcome with surprise. Serenity rarely visits in the presence of human beings. WaLiLa welcomes it as it reminds her of the deep peace of floating in a cocoon surrounded by the dark matter of space.
The quiet embrace of silence is abruptly broken when Elisa skids to a sudden stop. WaLiLa feels the imbalance instantly and slides to her feet. A thick crowd blocks the sidewalk and the street. Elisa pushes through the crowd with repeated permiso’s. WaLiLa follows. When they finally reach the front of the crowd, Elisa gasps. Her hands spread in shock; the bicycle tilts, then clatters to the ground.
“Changó!” Elisa whispers.
“What is?” asks WaLiLa as she feels her skin bend under sharp jabs of burning air. A ferocious being of concentrated heat leaps through the small courtyard in front of them. Its multiple fingers of light dance in the windows and on the roofs of the courtyard’s houses. The crowd is frozen in awe as fears spiral through the air.
“Changó!” Elisa yells a second time. The terror in her voice shoots over the crowd and bounces against eardrums that had been formed in her womb. Her children rest their buckets of water on the ground and turn to scan the crowd for their mother. When they see Elisa, they run across the courtyard, dodging neighbors, and grab a tight hold of her.
“I’m sorry, Mamá, the fire cannot be stopped.”
So this is the great being’s full fury, WaLiLa thinks as she instinctively backs away from the fire. She fixes her vision on the houses again. She watches as the little structures weakly bow and yield before the fire’s will. I have seen tales of your destructive powers, she quickly motions to the fire before returning her focus to the humans next to her. As the boys speak to their mother in soothing tones, WaLiLa examines them.
• Modesto Alonzo, 24, 6’1”, 160, Cuban •
• Pedro Alonzo, 38, 5’7”, 135, Cuban •
As Pedro’s slight body fills WaLiLa’s vision-center, the Assignment signal blinks immediately. It is the elder, WaLiLa thinks, who must provide the nectar. She crosses her arms and studies his mannerisms as he attempts to quiet his mother’s mumbling. WaLiLa can’t discern if Elisa is mumbling curses or prayers. She looks back to the fiery courtyard, watching as the fire, perhaps bored with toying with human emotions, burns down to a simmer, then finally extinguishes itself.
The day after the fire, Elisa, Modesto, Pedro, and WaLiLa stand in front of Elisa’s fire-buckled front door. A smoky scent hovers in the morning air. With worried fingers, WaLiLa twists the hem of the dress Elisa’s sister-in-law loaned her. Smoke is a bad omen.
Quietly, as if arming herself for battle, Elisa clutches the colorful beads that hang from her neck and begins to pray. Surrounded by the soft light of dawn, she begs for protection and salvation. She asks Obatalá, the ancient, for his wisdom. Observing Elisa’s prayer, WaLiLa sees a world of difference between the tightly-clenched body next to her and the whirling image in white who introduced her to this island. If there is ever a time for bodyspeak, for exalting arms and passionate wrists, WaLiLa thinks, this is the time.
Elisa’s plum-black lips move mechanically, pushing out prayers without passion. The gravity of her plea is communicated by the tremble of her lower lip. After the prayer, she inhales deeply and lumbers to the door. When she twists the doorknob, the door refuses to budge. Leaning her shoulder against the crumpled piece of wood her front door has become, she uses her heft to force it open.
The first things to greet her when she crosses the threshold are concrete shards, they crackle underfoot and grind into the floor. She sinks to her knees. Her body tenses as she realizes it is the fifteen-year-old concrete head of Elegua, the watcher, shattered before her. Elisa draws in her breath sharply and wonders if Elegua’s destruction was the result of the fire or the cause of it. She drops a small prayer of apology like a rainshower from the dark clouds of her lips.
Elisa stands and leads her sons into the house. WaLiLa watches as the blackness of the house swallows their bodies. She does not enter. The sun batiks patterns of heat on her bare neck as it rises in the sky. The scent of dew resting on thick flower petals slowly drips across her face. Her being-center leaps. You have not fueled since your arrival, her message-center notes.
WaLiLa curses herself for allowing the ceremony to distract her from collecting flowers. When her fuel banks are empty, she will no longer be able to transform human air into a breathable substance. One of the ancestors’ admonitions rushes into her consciousness like a clap of thunder. WaLiLa, she imagines them motioning, you never follow the rules. Upon arrival to earth, the first order of business is fuel-collecting. But most times motion is not married to my arrival. I come alone, in quiet night. This time I plunged into a dark sea. A dark sea not empty, but full of beings. And they gathered tightly around me. And I swam with them. She pushes her fingers against her lips and wonders how she could have forgotten.
Her message-center announces that she has five hours of fuel remaining. She slumps into a body sigh. She must separate from Elisa and her sons, locate fuel, and return once she is rejuvenated. WaLiLa approaches the threshold and peers into the dark house. Inside, nothing is left standing. Each of Elisa’s possessions has betrayed her, turned their backs on her ownership, willfully destroying form and usefulness to welcome fire’s full embrace.
Surrounded by the ravages of her life, an uneasiness settles in Elisa’s bones. She turns her back on the wreckage and clasps her fat hands on top of her head. She walks down the hall and sees the silhouette of WaLiLa’s body swaying in the doorway. She smiles bitterly at the irony of a house guest and no home. She steps to the doorway and stops when her body is a few breaths away from WaLiLa’s. The two bodies mirror each other. With the sunlight radiating behind her, WaLiLa stares into Elisa’s eyes. With the shadows of the house swirling behind her, Elisa gazes back.
“Have you ever had a fire?” Elisa asks WaLiLa.
WaLiLa shakes her head no. Hot fingers of light do not exist on her planet. Here on earth she has been fascinated by the little fires that heat human fuel and light dark spaces, but they are nothing like the fire she experienced last night. Smoke, too, is a stranger to her systems. A toxic intruder, it creeps into the being-center and fans out through the body, triggering malfunctions of thought and action.
“I can’t…” Elisa starts to speak. She looks up at the sky with a wrinkled brow, then fixes her glance on WaLiLa. “I can’t continue. Would you go in and see if there’s anything salvageable in there?”
WaLiLa’s belly shoots arrows of warning through her body while her message-center reminds her that Elisa is her bridge to Pedro. Her message-center also reviews the Human Decency Laws. The laws of human decency dictate that by accepting Elisa’s offer of shelter, she has placed herself in Elisa’s debt. Human codes state that WaLiLa owes Elisa gratitude in the form of courtesy or kindness.
Against her belly’s urgings, she turns and clears a passageway for Elisa to squeeze out of the narrow door frame. They pass each other as WaLiLa enters the house. As the sunlight recedes, she rotates her shoulders back and forth—each two shoulder movements a small prayer engaged to shake off the doom pressing against her scalp.
In every room she sees nothing but unrecognizable pieces of black. Then she reaches the back of the house. There she finds the only intact door inside the destroyed home. She turns the doorknob, and the door swings open with surprising ease. Two mice scurry out of the room, racing over her feet and disappearing into the ruins. She opens the door wider, and a bird swoops out. The bird is followed by a river of roaches streaming past WaLiLa’s legs. After the roach exodus is complete, she pauses, waiting for more creatures to flee. When none do, she enters the room.
The room’s air is cool, and it rolls over her silently. She senses that this is Elisa’s room—not her bedroom, but her prayer room. Above, a low white ceiling hangs solid and certain. The walls are plastered with scraps of paper filled with the markings of human speech. The floor is covered with mounds of objects. Each mound is a strange collection of items organized by a theme unknown to WaLiLa.
WaLiLa stoops to the ground and looks around. The mound directly in front of her consists of a jar of honey, an orange silk butterfly, a necklace of yellow flowers, old gold coins, and a pile of five oranges. The pile to her right has blue ribbons, three crystal glasses of water, silver rings, a doll in a frilly blue dress, a miniature ship with many sails, and a lace doily. The room bursts with ceramics, keepsakes, fruit, flour, flowers, water, wine, money, metal, nuts, coins, beads, shells, silk.
She leans back on her haunches as she takes in all the items that surround her. She focuses on a photograph of a smiling, young-looking Elisa holding hands with a beaming, sienna-colored man. Written on the back is “La Habana, 1973.” Next to it, under a crystal glass of water, rests another photograph of the same man. He stands knee-deep in the sea, his left hand resting on the corner of a handmade raft, the right one lifted in a melancholy salute. Written on the back is “Para Miami, May 1985.” Behind the glass of water, a small bundle wrapped in white silk waits. WaLiLa picks it up and hears the soft clink of metal. She gently unwraps it and discovers two plain rings. Inscribed inside the rings is the phrase “Elisa y Gigaldo, para siempre.”
WaLiLa reties the bundle and puts it back behind the glass of water. She stands and carefully steps to the center of the room. She takes a deep breath, and the unmistakable scent of fuel sinks into her body. Suddenly conscious of the energy pulsating through the items in the room, her hands begin to tremble. Not a flower has been singed, nor a fruit shriveled. She looks around and realizes most of the mounds are adorned with fresh flowers. One petal from each pile, her message-center calculates, will keep you fueled for the remainder of this trip. She tiptoes around the piles, plucking one petal from each altar and shoving them into the pocket of her dress.
When the collecting is done, WaLiLa listens to the noises in the rest of the house. She hears the muffled sound of things being moved around. Certain of her solitude, she lifts the hem of her dress and tucks it into the dress’s neckline. She presses two rose petals against the center of her torso and closes her eyes as her body accepts the fuel. Her practiced fingers feel nothing amiss. Neither her fingers nor her message-center consider that these petals stubbornly survived the threat of fire only by filling themselves with smoke.
WaLiLa sits at a round table nestled under the stairs with a belly full of mango batida and egg sandwich. The table, the stairs, and the apartment belong to Liliana, Elisa’s sister-in-law. On the night of the fire, Liliana guided the dispossessed family to her home. She filled them with hot chocolate, wrapped them in sheets, and insisted that they sleep. Elisa sits at the table across from WaLiLa. She stares vacantly at the wall. Since the fire, Elisa has locked herself into a silent state of mourning. She eats when Liliana places food in front of her. She bathes when Liliana fills a bath bucket for her. She only leaves the house when Liliana insists. Prayer is the only activity Elisa does unasked. The majority of her hours are spent staring into space, entertaining visions her mind creates and thoughts no one else has access to.
“Buenas!” Elisa’s former neighbor Silvia enters the open doorway ushering in the morning. Her soft, yucca-colored body is thinly covered with sweat. She sits down uninvited and asks for a cup of coffee. She runs one hand through her short curly hair, while she holds up a tattered envelope with the other.
“M’ija, this arrived for you yesterday afternoon. Papo brought it. His cousin had a visitor from Spain who carried it in his suitcase.” Silvia places the envelope onto Elisa’s lap with ritualistic flair and breaks into a self-mocking laugh. “Que triste! How sad it is that the mail travels more than we do.”
As Silvia presses her lips to the rim of the coffee cup, Elisa opens the letter. Silvia launches into an extended lament of exhaustion. Her bicycle is broken, she had to borrow her son’s, it is so hard to use a bicycle for transportation, maybe not for the children because they never had a vehicle, but wow, how she misses the old family car, and oh, what a hard life.
“What is it, m’ija?” Silvia interrupts her tirade to ask of Elisa’s contorted face.
Elisa looks up from the letter.
“My mother-in-law, she’s ill, she needs me in Spain.”
Liliana grabs the letter from Elisa’s hand and peers at her mother’s shaky scrawls. By the time she reaches the end of the letter, she is crying.
“She didn’t want us to know,” Liliana says to no one in particular.
Elisa stands and rests her arm around Liliana’s shoulder. A departure from Cuba’s arms is the last thing Elisa desires, but she’s the only one who can go. Liliana couldn’t get out of the country in a million years. Neither could any of Liliana’s brothers and sisters. Elisa, with her income and status, is the only one who can fly to her mother-in-law’s aid.
“Aiiii, mi niña,” Silvia complains, “if we were in any other country! Your poor mother may die before you get a ticket in this maldito country.”
Elisa shushes Silvia with a few clucks of her tongue.
“Don’t you worry, Lili. I’ll go get Mami, and I’ll bring her home.”
“Of course, of course,” Silvia coos. “I’ll help too. I have a cousin in the visa department. We’ll get the papers you need.”
“I appreciate it, vieja,” Liliana sighs. “I’ll go to Señor Alberto and Señora Franco to get the money Papi left with them. It’ll take me two days. You think your cousin can help us then?”
“Sí, I’ll go talk to him now,” Silvia says.
“I’m coming with you,” Elisa says and goes upstairs to collect her purse. Before she leaves, she wakes her sons and tells them what has happened.
“Liliana’s going to the country to get money from our relatives. I’ll be too busy running after visa papers to look after our guest. Watch over her, m’ijos. Make sure she has everything she needs. And…” Elisa adds to the list of commands, “ask no questions of her.”
The minute Elisa, Silvia, and Liliana walk out of the door, WaLiLa feels relentless questions whirling around her. These questions do not pass through the brothers’ lips. Fulfilling their mother’s request, they maintain a painful silence. Throughout the days, questions drop from their suspicious glances and take root in the air, like seeds in fertile soil. Left unasked, the questions blossom and grow. As afternoons pass, the questions learn to walk. They wander around the house following WaLiLa with their eyes. Soon, they sit across from her at the lunch table peering at her as she eats. Eventually, WaLiLa bursts out with answers.
“I live from a town small near to Toronto under Canada. I travel and study. I collect information of people, places, things. I watch and listen, then I bring stories to people mine. People mine do not much travel, and they want to know what world is. Your mother is nice to take me. After fire, I tell her I go other place, but she say I stay here. If I am problem, I go.”
“No!” growls Pedro, “Unless my mother says otherwise, you will go nowhere. As long as you are in Cuba, you stay in this house. Understand?”
WaLiLa shakes her head in agreement, keeping an eye on the questions. They still sit across from her, but they are shrinking. Now their eyes barely reach the rim of the table top.
“There is much to study here,” says Modesto. “We have a long and rich history, why don’t you take a tour?”
WaLiLa’s message-center processes this question as a challenge rather than a suggestion. She feels a tightening in her torso. The nuance of accusation she hears in his voice discomforts her. Is this what it feels like, she wonders, to be hunted? She slowly winds her arms around her belly. The smoke from the fuel she liberated from Elisa’s prayer room has saturated her being-center and clouded her judgment. With her hunter’s acumen weakened, she has not even attempted to find the source of the pain. She has one intention: to connect Pedro to the ancestors. To do this, she must reach his eyes. She turns her face toward him and says, “Tell about history long and rich. I feel pain, many pain here.”
Pedro lights a cigarette and glances up at the ceiling. As he exhales a breath of smoke with a sigh, WaLiLa stands and slowly walks to the kitchen window. She casually pulls a rose from a vase of flowers sitting on the window sill. She pushes the rose against her nostrils and returns to her seat, maintaining surveillance on the thin curls of cigarette smoke. The smoke does not reach her, but she keeps the rose pressed to her face anyway. She trusts its petals to filter smoke from the air before it can enter her body.
She looks at Pedro, and their eyes lock for a brief moment. When Pedro looks away, words start to spill from his mouth. “The pain you sense here is very specific to this time period. We have always lived with pain. Sometimes very little, sometimes a great amount. Today we are living at the limit of human dignity. We struggle to maintain some semblance of life, but it is …” he pauses, his effort to translate thoughts into words visible on his face.
“When we lost the Soviet Union, we lost a lot. Without their support, we are isolated and alone in the world. It’s a strange thing really,” Pedro mutters as he squints at the wall as if looking at something in the distance, “We are isolated and alone, yet the entire world watches us and regards us with curiosity and suspicion. You came out of curiosity, I assume?”
Pedro turns his head and glances at WaLiLa, then turns away when she nods her head in agreement.
“Oh, especially the Americans, they salivate waiting for us to fall so they can pounce on us. Castro will never let that happen…”
WaLiLa focuses on the bitterness in Pedro’s voice. She tunes out his speaking, wishing she could gain some assurance from the ancestors. Her muscles strain, begging to communicate with them. Can they want nectar from such a bitter fruit? Her thoughts are interrupted by a loud crash. She realizes Pedro is no longer talking and her wrist is stinging. Both he and Modesto are staring at her.
“Why you look me?” she asks.
“Do you know what you just did?” Pedro asks.
“You knocked everything off that shelf above your head.”
She looks up and sees a small plank of painted wood tilted off its wall supports. She looks down and sees the floor littered with overturned spice jars.
“Oh, my muscles jumps, must came back.” How could the arm flick have returned? She scrambles for words to explain, as her message-center simultaneously races to find an explanation.
“I have muscles jumps. I have no medicine here, so they come back.”
WaLiLa mumbles this as she kneels to pick up the spilled spices. Modesto also kneels. As his knees knock against hers, she looks up, and their eyes lock. Barriers open, and Modesto dives into the infinite space he sees in her eyes. He begins disrobing his soul. I hate it here, his soul cries. It is too painful to stay. Breathing the air here is like tapping a raw nerve. He speaks of a child conceived with a Spanish tourist. He speaks of joining her and their son in Spain. He admits to staying home so as not to see the prostitutes selling their bodies to foreigners. He describes the pain of having nothing, doing nothing; of endless days of smoke, smoke, smoking. He details the days he sits alone holding himself for he has nothing substantial to offer the hungry young women the regime has bred.
Pedro’s fingers wind themselves around Modesto’s collarbones and dig into his flesh. The pain forces Modesto to blink. The connection broken, Modesto looks up at his brother with a wet face.
“Qué haces?” Pedro yells. “What the hell are you doing?”
Pedro drags Modesto to his feet and pushes him away from WaLiLa. He shoots her a sharp, angry glance. His eyes are full of fire. In them, WaLiLa sees fear and a stubbornness that screams, You will not conquer me.
Over the next week, the memory of Modesto’s crouched frame heaving with confessional sobs under WaLiLa’s gaze remains in Pedro’s mind. When she blows into the room, he examines the burning end of his cigarette, stares at her lips as they move, focuses on any other activity so as not to fall into those eyes. Neither witty conversation nor exposed shoulder can draw his eyes to wade in her vision pools. Her attempts to establish herself as a love interest have fallen like a dove struck by a stone. Her body feels just as bloodied. Each passing moment of failure brings more pain pushing through her like pins piercing skin.
One day while the house is quiet, WaLiLa finds herself slumped on the floor almost paralyzed by pain. With each inhalation, she feels the air squeeze her like quicksand. She bites the inside of her cheek and pushes herself up from the floor. She holds onto the wall and pulls herself upstairs. Her arm leaps into an arc as she stumbles into bed.
She nestles into the folds of a rough blanket and closes her eyes. She intends to do a full review of her body functions and find the source of her pain. But before she can begin, her hunterself pushes against the inside of her chest. She taps her chest and allows her hunterself to exit. Her hunterself brushes against her forehead then starts buzzing around the room. After sweeping the room twice with broad wing strokes, her hunterself discovers one of Pedro’s rumpled t-shirts discarded on the floor. She lands gently on the shirt, collects his scent in the wells of her body, and flies out the room’s only window.
WaLiLa quickly loses the energy her hunterself is expending and abruptly falls asleep. With the road map of Pedro’s scent in front of her, WaLiLa’s hunterself goes flying through Havana, dodging families who spill out of doorways onto sidewalks, bouncing on the sounds of conversation, and flying over avenues filled with rusted vintage cars and legions of bicycles. She skids to a stop when she no longer feels Pedro’s scent. She doubles back and locates his scent two blocks away, floating outside the first floor of a little house. Hovering in the air that presses against a cracked window, WaLiLa’s hunterself sees Pedro gathered with ten people in a small, cluttered living room. Eleven mouths share a bottle of rum while eleven pairs of hands exchange cigarettes and finger snaps. One of the eleven leans against pillow cushions embracing a guitar. They all sing along, glowing in the space made light by the gathering of hearts.
Many laughs and musical notes later, discordant sounds reverberate in the small room. The crashing of a glass against the concrete floor. The rise of angry voices, followed by soft apology. Tears fall now; then a shaky-voiced reminder of tomorrow’s departure. The threat of the sea and fear of isolation wells up from the floor. The room is as quiet as held breath. Pedro is the first to speak. “We’ve been planning this for two years. I think we’ve deliberated enough. I’m done thinking. When tomorrow comes, my things will be ready, and I will sail.”
Before Pedro’s lips have stopped moving, WaLiLa’s hunterself is gone. Flying at breakneck speed, she returns to the attic where WaLiLa is resting. With a crackle, she rejoins WaLiLa’s body. Immediately the knowledge of Pedro’s journey sinks into WaLiLa’s being-center. She sits up abruptly. She feels as if shards are puncturing her lower back. With stiffness weighing on her bones, she commands her message-center to review her body signals, note which senses are malfunctioning, and identify which poisons are capable of triggering such reactions. It then cross-references these poisons with elements she has come in contact with. Hopelessness washes over her as her message-center comes up with a match: SMOKE SMOKE SMOKE.
She considers the smoke: It has been quietly damaging her systems for weeks, and it is too late for repair. Then she considers Pedro. She doesn’t have time to follow him. Her equilibrium is already damaged. She won’t have the capacity to walk, much less gather nectar in the next few days. WaLiLa twists her arms back and forth. She falls back against the bed as she accepts the truth: death is already promised her. If I am to die anyway, she thinks, the possibility that Pedro’s nectar may be poisoned cannot harm me.
WaLiLa sits up and slides her knees beneath her body. With a fluid, flicking motion from the top of her forehead into the air before her, she reports her decision to the ancestors. Oh great ones, WaLiLa raises curved, outstretched arms. The earth air is binding its poisonous cords about me. She folds her arms behind her back. This vessel that carries me is not so strong. She collapses to the right, then collapses to the left. I speak now to expose my failure. Palms outstretched, she criss-crosses her arms at the elbow four times. I cannot connect this human to you. She drops her head and shakes it vigorously from side to side. He is resistant. She snakes her torso forward. He fears me. She rocks her upper body forward and back. I have been ineffective with him. She cleaves her hands in the air, then breaks them apart suddenly. Because I refused to follow your rules. She bends forward weakly from the waist and shakes her head from side to side. I have ingested a lethal substance. She sits erect and stiff, and lowers her right ear to her right shoulder. With death as my insurance. WaLiLa lowers her shoulder blades to the ground. I am free to complete my assignment. She lowers and raises her fists with a constant steady rhythm five times. If his nectar is poisoned, it will die with me. She pounds the air with her fists, then drops her arms lifelessly. If it is not, I shall return to you and deliver the nectar. She pushes a path from her center to the space above her head. Then the smoke damage will bring my death. She lays on her side briefly. She ends by touching her forehead to the bed and rolling her hips.
Her communication ended, WaLiLa lays back in the folds of the blanket and slips into sleep.
As WaLiLa sleeps, night thickens. When the air reaches its blackest point, Pedro rides in on midnight wings. He is surprised to find his mother sleeping in his bed: the cot next to his brother’s. Pedro’s eyes rise up to the ceiling as he visualizes the only empty bed in the apartment: the bed upstairs next to WaLiLa’s. He sits on the floor between the two cots and soaks up his family’s energy. When he can keep his eyes open no longer, he rests his hand gently on his brother’s head, presses his lips to his mother’s cheek, then climbs the stairs. Keeping his back to WaLiLa, Pedro drops his shirt and pants on the floor. He sits on the side of the bed in his boxer shorts, attempting to quell the sadness that claws at his throat every time he imagines leaving his mother and brother behind. Then he lays back, solemnly reclining as though the bed were a coffin. He clutches the images of his mother and his brother closely to him and drifts off to sleep.
WaLiLa’s hunterself thumps on the inside of WaLiLa’s chest for thirty minutes, attempting to alert WaLiLa to Pedro’s presence. After WaLiLa becomes aware of the thumping, she takes another thirty minutes to rouse herself from rest. By the time she releases her hunterself and rises from the bed, Pedro is in a deep sleep. With teeth clenched, WaLiLa drags herself to Pedro’s bedside. Her hunterself flutters around his head. As taught during training, WaLiLa places one hand over his closed eyes and another over his abdomen, her thumb connecting to his navel. Under her velvet touch, Pedro’s eyes do not open. He does not even stir.
WaLiLa closes her eyes and pushes her chin upwards to the skies. As she establishes portals between their two bodies, WaLiLa begins to glow. Her hunterself detects a sound and flies to the stairs, peeking over the banister to investigate. She flies over to WaLiLa and tugs at her ear. When WaLiLa opens her eyes, her hunterself communicates Modesto’s presence at the foot of the stairs. Knowing that Modesto will soon be privy to her actions, WaLiLa tightens her grip on Pedro. She shrugs one shoulder in disappointment. She has never experienced a hunt so fraught with failure.
When Modesto reaches the top of the stairs, a painful sensation rips through WaLiLa’s body. Poison jerks through her torso. It rips into her organs like shards of glass. Modesto stands frozen, transfixed by what he sees. With gritted teeth, WaLiLa flexes her torso, closing off the internal portals through which Pedro’s nectar had entered her body. A loud tearing sound rips through Modesto’s eardrums and breaks his trance.
Modesto screams his brother’s name. As Pedro stirs, WaLiLa pulls herself away from his body and stumbles backward. When he opens his eyes, he sees her fall limply onto her bed. Seeing her skin soaked in a dark green liquid causes a mixture of terror and compassion to riot across Modesto’s eyes. Pedro sits up and rubs his temples. When he brings his hand down from his face it is moist. He brings his fingers closer to his eyes and sees green liquid on them. He looks down at his body. His torso is covered with the same liquid. As he jumps up and scrambles away from WaLiLa, the haze of his sleep dissolves.
They will come for me, WaLiLa motions weakly. They will come for me.
Exhausted and delirious, she slides into a deep coma. Long after her lids are closed, she imagines the brothers’ unblinking eyes examining her. She prays that when she opens her eyes she will be home. She pretends that she is already there, wrapping herself in the thick air of her nation until she vanishes into the folds. She imagines herself lying in maroon cloud fields over gold skies. She promises herself that as soon as she’s home, she’ll compete in flying races with her clan and never use her voice again.
When the coma finally lifts from WaLiLa’s body, she pushes her eyelids open to see herself resting in the same small room where her death began. The brothers are gone, but there is a pair of shining eyes staring at her from across the room. When the eyes see motion flicker across WaLiLa’s face, they rise from the camouflage of darkness and float closer to the bed. WaLiLa knows from the weight of the footsteps that the eyes belong to Elisa.
Elisa hovers over the bed, filling WaLiLa’s vision. She pushes a glass against WaLiLa’s lips. WaLiLa turns away. Elisa stands back, places one hand on her hip, and regards her silently. Why Elisa’s face holds no anger or fear is a miracle to WaLiLa. She closes her eyes again, twirling her wrist with the repeated question, Will they come for me?
“They will not come,” Elisa says, chopping through the thick silence of the room with her voice.
WaLiLa’s eyes pop open, and she stares into Elisa’s calm face. Seconds pass as the two examine each other in silence. Just as she is dismissing Elisa’s announcement as hallucination, Elisa speaks again.
“They are not coming for you.”
WaLiLa rises up onto her elbows and stares at Elisa incredulously. To her surprise, her body does not hurt when she moves it. Only her head throbs with pain.
“Who are you?” WaLiLa demands.
“I am Elisa,” Elisa responds with an amused smile. “I was once a nectar collector, like you, but Pedro’s aunt put an end to that, much as Pedro has done for you.”
“But…” Questions slam through WaLiLa’s mind battling for dominion of her lips. “How long have you been here? Did you know who I was from the beginning?” Then she motions with her arms, Will I die here?
“I’ve lived here longer than I care to remember. I realized what you were after you stole flowers from my altars. Before that, I only recognized you as a traveler and welcomed you as I had been welcomed on my previous Earth trips. And yes, you will die here.”
WaLiLa lays back on the bed and pounds her fists against the mattress in frustration. Then turns back to Elisa.
“Does that mean…?”
“That means you shall no longer collect nectar. Nectar shall be gathered, the ancestors shall be fed. But you will no longer do it.”
WaLiLa is overcome with strange sensations. Water drips from her eyes.
“Don’t look so confused. You died, but you have just been birthed. You are breathing your first breaths as a human being.”
“Yes. You have human emotions now. You have the ability to cry. Haven’t you noticed how easily you’re speaking? You were also given the facility to speak human languages.”
“But I thought…” WaLiLa touched the water dripping from her eyes and rubbed it between her fingertips. “I thought death was supposed to make me an ancestor.”
“Not here. The rules of our people don’t matter anymore. You will never see the ancestors again.”
The strange sensations wash over WaLiLa again. More water falls from her eyes.
“How could this happen? Was it the smoke? The poison?”
“The flowers I took from your room were filled with smoke.”
“Ahhh, so the poison saved you.”
“Smoke is lethal to us, but not to humans. Think of it this way: the poison you consumed is known here as “mortality.” It is a death agent for humans. Their death is not like ours. They consider death to be a finite thing.”
“What is finite?”
“The final thing, nothing more will happen after death.”
“But how can death be finite? Death is transformation. Death is change.”
“WaLiLa, I know that’s what you learned, but you must remember, you are on Earth. Humans are bound by such things as time and gravity. At least they believe themselves to be.”
“Will I die a human death at the end of this journey?”
“I cannot know until I meet my own death.”
“So I am never to be anything other than human?”
“I don’t know, WaLiLa.”
“But this is my first life, I will know nothing else!”
“That is not true, you are beginning your second life now. Although you still exist in the same outer shell, life here will be different from your life as a nectar collector. I promise you that Earth is not without its delights.”
Elisa interrupts. “We will talk later. For now, let your body do its work…”
“Rest,” Elisa repeats firmly. “You shall need your strength.”
Published in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora © 2000