On this island we like to die slowly. Generationally.
At the other side of the counter, Mamá stirs sancocho with the candlelight drawing tenderness onto her features. “I am lucky to have you,” she says. “Mi tesoro.”
It is, really, all she ever says anymore.
It worries her, the soundlessness when we go out. There are no children. Or, barely any. No children on the docks, tangled in the mangroves, skittering like fiddler crabs and calling out to one another. None at the colmado ordering papaya juice. Schools run empty. People have gotten scared. And restless. And superstitious in that way that no one talks about, but are aware of like a weary tide. I see it in the way she looks at me now, with sallow skin and shifting eyes: the desire to keep me close—to swallow me, if she could. Keep me in the pit of her stomach as something intrinsically hers. It frightens me, a bit. But it is enough for me to scoff at her words and shake my head with a mocking smile. In these in-between moments of candlelight, soft curls of tongue, and the heady smell of childhood spice, it is almost too intimate.
I push off from the stool. The damp floorboards carry my weight like a burden.
It’s been five days since I’ve seen Camelia, and this is five days too many.
The door gives to a humid outdoors, the shift in temperature prickling my skin with sweat. Bare feet on the mangrove bark—pelicans up in the crow’s nest of canopy—and, just below the water surface, the glimmer of fish. Further down, below sight, there must be some street, I know, but it has been years since I’ve seen one.
I reach down, trail fingers in the water, splash my legs against the persistence of mosquitoes. We practically walk on water these days when we climb our way across a nervous system of mangroves and ex-skyscrapers turned merely superficial rooftops. Five years of monsoon will do that to a place—drown it and soak it to the marrow. Leave it gasping and doggy-paddling its mouth right at the surface of waves. It didn’t take much. Puerto Rico’s metropolis was always teetering at nature’s maw. Now it hovers: un hombro, una oreja, a hip-bone buoyed in the water.
Camelia’s house is a bower bird’s home—an interwoven nook in walking trees. The seedpods hang and sway like wind chimes.
“Camelia!” I call, rubbing my finger pads against the perpetually bark-shaped bruising on my callused hands. My feet are equally sore—leather soles on the flats from years of natural jungle-gymming the island.
“Camelia—” I repeat, at the door now. I sink to my ankles in the compact sand, wipe the back of my hand against my forehead.
It takes a while, minutes, for her mother to answer the door quietly. Small, in the way she is not, not usually, she looks up at me with that same consuming desire that inhabits my mother’s face.
“Sra. Rodríguez?” I ask, uncertain and a bit like I’ve lost my footing. Losing your footing can be deadly here—here where we live on the brink of suffocation. Her knuckles are white with the clench of her grip on the door, as if she is avoiding this exact thing.
Her dark, dark eyes linger mutely on my face for a few seconds before she nods and turns away from me, pulling her mundillo shawl tighter around her. Her hands clutch it close, at her chest. It’s almost like watching a blind fledgling bumble through the traitorous landscape that surrounds it, the way she navigates the house. Like a duppy’s moved everything three inches to the left and there is foreign topography in the layout of a home that should be well-known to the hands that shaped it.
Sra. Rodriguez sits at the foot of a small, circular window. The glass’ frame has become completely interwoven with the ever-questing root system of the mangrove. The musk of damp earth, of layer upon layer of salt, of adobo y plátanos—of warmth—stays tacky at the back of my throat. It makes it hard to breathe—hard to speak.
“Where is—” I clear my throat. “Where is Camelia?” I ask finally, settled across from her in one of the rattan chairs, my legs pulled up and my arms crossed over them. She casts her dreamy eyes about the room and hums. There is a languid lateness to her expressions as if life itself has slowed for her. I shift in the chair. Ghosts of her hands, and her boisterous laugh, and her cheerful lightness-of-step linger in the walls—but the woman herself is a golem.
“Ah,” she says. “I didn’t get you the tea.” Feigned forgetfulness. She and Camelia don’t drink tea.
“I don’t need tea,” I murmur, watching her begin to push herself to her feet. She sags back into the couch with a heavy exhale.
“Ah. You don’t need tea.” She nods as if confirming a fact to herself. The silence stretches tenuously between us with each breath. I run my hands over the scars on my palms—scales. I think they look like scales. It would be nice to have scales, as a fish might, but they look more like the corrugated hide of a crocodile. It would be nice to tell Camelia that.
I lift my head to peer at Sra. Rodríguez, but she’s already looking straight at me.
“Por casualidad, ¿has visto a los otros hoy? The other children?” she asks slowly. I shake my head with a small frown. Not many to see. Not anymore. “Veo. Pues, it’s good you are safe. At least.”
The stillness of the house is unwelcoming—unsettling.
“And—Camelia? Has she seen others?” I brave, lowering one leg and grazing my foot to-and-fro over the uneven flooring. Such questions are best left unvoiced. Our numbers are less in some ways—more in others. Some can’t be counted as children. At least, this is what Mamá says. All I know is that there are some houses that are missing occupants, and that the cracked chalkboard at the town council meetings has more names struck off it each week.
“No. We don’t see others, outside of city council. And my Cami would not walk the marsh that far.” Sra. Rodríguez scrubs at her eyes tiredly. “She isn’t here, my Cami. She’s been—desaparecida. I thought maybe she was with you. I see that is not the case.”
I forcefully press the callused pads of my fingers against my scales. “No. That is not the case.”
“No,” she agrees, pulling some strands of greying hair behind an ear and looking out the window. Smog. Thick and rolling in with the late afternoon.
“Mama Dlo,” she says, quiet and child-like in the awkward search for the right words. “She likes children with good, strong singing voices. She’s the one that’s taking them, ¿sabes? Mi Cami siempre tuvo una voz hermosa.”
It is not an insinuation, but it is. It is a murmur heavy with belief—with certainty that Camelia would have been back by now, if not because of Mama Dlo. Despite my skepticism, I feel my chest, my throat, constrict. It’s easily dismissible as old woman talk. As misticismo nonsense. And yet, it’s true. Camelia’s voice was promising. Smog ruined most of our voices, made them ratty, but she’d somehow gotten lucky.
“Sí. Cami siempre tuvo una voz hermosa,” I repeat slowly. The words join the marble of smells at the back of my throat, of mother-tongue slithering in my ears. I stand up, walk to the window and get up on my toes to look out it. I rub sweaty palms against my thighs. Her breath rattles between us. We can sometimes get inhalers for Sra. Rodríguez, but it’s rare. There she goes again with the parranda in her lungs. Asalto!
She wheezes and I hear shifting noises until there are papery fingers at my elbow, guiding me to the door. I realize how heated my skin is when I step outdoors—the humid wind tugging at my clothes as the horizon becomes white with waves of smog.
“Yuya,” Sra. Rodríguez says, stops, looks at me. “Yuya,” she repeats. It becomes an exercise in waiting—me standing across from her, gnats stinging at my legs, and her heavy eyes that feel a frightful thing to look away from. Something terribly important here that I’m missing. “Te tienes que cuidar.” The weight of humidity—her gaze—my feet in the sand.
I stammer. Stop. “Y tú, Paulina. Take care.”
It feels wrong to leave her at the doorway. To not usher her in against the sun and the salt—to leave all that hunger at my back. But I am sinking where I stand, and Camelia is missing. No children in that house. Or in many others, aside from mine. No Camelia in the her-shaped space I keep tended in her absence.
Slow is how it makes a place for itself inside me as I walk across the horizon of water and root and moss rock. Hollow non-realization and non-grief because grief is tied to death. But I know that this, whatever it is that makes a home in my throat, is not unlike the pervasive starvation that resides in the gazes of our mothers.
She is not baptized. Camelia is not baptized. Nor am I. But she is not dead, either. If I’m to believe superstition, she’s been taken early—stolen—and it is not hard for the thing in my throat to twist a knot against my Adam’s apple.
We were not alike in this: the disbelief in the stories passed down to us from our mother’s mouths, and their mother’s mouths to them, and further back. My mother and Paulina María Rodríguez would sit as the rain spat bullets of water against the zinc roof—back in the old house—back before the flood years. Camelia Ramón Rodríguez and I at their feet, their fingers making quick work of our hair until a farmland of braids was neatly arranged on each of our heads. I was the doubter. I am the doubter, but Camelia is motivation enough to try.
I have to believe that she will still be nearby because she can’t have gone far, not with the water unpredictably deep. I have to believe, more than that, that Mama Dlo still has some stray ones left to collect and that she will stay. She will keep them close, all of her children—this is how the stories always go, after all.
Nightfall is the time where these not-things, in-between ones, make a home between the crickets and the warbler frogs.
I have always been the doubter, but my fingers keep drifting to touch at the cross around my neck. I roll the crucifix between my fingers, and flick the switch of the flashlight on with the other hand. A dimly-lit night makes the world a shadowed topography: the sea a pool of black and the trees moaning in the high winds. A coot screams out alarm, the sudden ruffling of feathers—an iguana’s tail disappearing past the beam I swing in its direction. After a few hours out in the dark, these things become sinister rather than comforting. With no proof of Dlo or Camila anywhere, they become doubly so.
Not quite as sure-footed in the dark, my feet slide off of roots. I scrape my legs, catch my arm on twiggy branches, bat swarms of bugs away from the lens, and then: a clearing.
The brine and heavy mangrove-rot scents fill my lungs—wet, damp, saltine, and corroding things. I set the flashlight up on a rock, widening the beam over the clearing.
The cays around Camila’s home are an expansive network, but I know the places she frequents. My fingers seek out the jagged scrapes at the side of the rock. A ‘C + Y’ so haphazardly chipped into the surface. I smile and linger for a moment before I leave the outcrop behind in favor of the tide pools at the shore. It is true that Camelia would not walk too far. She was—is—one far more satisfied by the comforts of the indoors.
I’ve just dipped my finger in the sixth tide pool when a sour, acidic smell joins me. I frown and turn around. Kchk! The clash of one marble of discomfort claiming another in the crowded space of my throat. I swallow while returning to the clearing on unsteady feet, and settle my hand next to the flashlight.
Hissing breaths, as if compressed out from large bellows, fill the space. They are massive sounds with weight and presence that arrive far before the body comes into view. I am reminded of when I saw a small snake tangled in branches of mangrove; its sheening scales and the diamond of its head. A thick body slithers through the underbrush, pulling out from between reaching roots and closer to me. She coils up a tree, cocking her inquisitively human face at me, yellow eyes a beacon in the dark. Mama Dlo is no small snake. “Ussssually my children have to go invite othhhher children before they come to me.”
I stare at her in silence, knowing she can hear my heartbeat, taste my fear. I stare and she stares back with slitted eyes, not angry—merely curious.
“I was not. Looking for you, I mean,” I reply with a sharp intake of breath. “I was looking for a, uh, friend. A girl.”
Her mouth purses into the parody of a smile and she looks at me from beneath her lashes. “A . . . fffffriend?”
“That’s all?” She croons and I frown at her. The patter of feet, shifting of foliage and scattered titters.
“Yes,” I reply again, less firm, less sure, gaze away from her as I notice the new arrivals.
“And,” I say, slowly, “I think you took her.”
A raucous roar of laughter surges up from all sides, children’s giggles and mocking amusement. Mama Dlo joins them, shaking her head and sending stray braids tumbling from the loose bun they’re tied up in. The douens—unbaptized children, sequestered little ones swaddled in the arms of older ones and all of them stuck in that limbo of not-death, of not yet and not quite—start to peek and crawl their way through the green. Their small backwards feet appear ankle-first in the clearing. Faces obscured by wide-brimmed hats, they sit and fold themselves down onto the ground. Their androgynous bodies go mostly nude, but for the occasional one in a well-worn shirt clearly loved, like the nostalgic souvenir of a place that now goes unvisited.
“I have taken many,” she says with casual disinterest and hums, gaze assessing. “But, yessss, I did take a girl recently.”
“She was not dead, not yours to keep.”
“They wanted a new one, an older one.” She gazes out over the douens in their coolie hats with a smile. “However, if you can identify your friend, you’re welcome to take her back.” When the smile passes over me it is no longer warm—a field of urchin spine teeth behind two lips parted like a wound.
I turn my back on her and face a gathering of bamboo hats. They shuffle closer, a humming reverberating from them and surging like a current across the bodies. They circle me, closing in as the humming becomes a low singing.
The flashlight skitters across the rock surface and falls to the ground with a crack—batteries expelled and the clearing left a detail-less void. The approach of the sounds of feet slapping against rock, muddy sediment—I breathe into a narrowing space, reach for the knife I should have brought but didn’t. Hands pull me by the clothes, tear at my face with razor nails, hold me by the hand and pull me forward.
“Brown girl, brown girl in the ring,” the douens sing delightedly.
I smash my hands, elbows, against the bodies blindly, pushing through the crowd as their chanting grows in volume and the air vibrates. My feet slip in the wet mud and clay—hands shooting out for balance against more formless bodies, fingers slipping against humid shoulders, arms, faces, chests. A foot catches against the root of a mangrove tree and, as I fall, I reach out again only to be met with bark. No bruising this time. It shreds the fleshy crests of my palms; leaves me wheezing and whimpering out a string of babble. The burn of toenails ripped or folded back past the quick, the warm well of blood smearing across the bark, the tremble of limbs and the heavy breathing—enclosing bodies, the sounds of more than fifty children wanting to pull me back with them—smells wet, and saltine, and vitriolic. “Tra-la-la-la-la.”
The push off from the tree trunk pitches me into disorientation and I begin to break the rules of a post-flood islander. I run. Running until my feet hit the shore—hit the water.
I fold into myself there, dry-heaving as the salt sears my palms, my legs and feet. But the sound has stopped. Silence. The moon hovers high and out from the canopy’s shadow I see my hands staining the sand dark. The grains stick to my palms and I shudder, a percolating in my stomach that goes unfulfilled. I feel sick, but nothing comes out.
No sound, gleaming eyes back in the foliage but no movement closer and I hear Dlo’s big snake body crashing through the underbrush, away from me. The scatter of feet follows soon after and when I look up again there are no bamboo hats or vague silhouettes watching over me. My eyes linger on my own feet and I think of Camelia and those children with their backwards feet. Did Mama Dlo snare Camelia’s feet in her jaw; have the others hold her struggling body down? Did Dlo whip, snap, re-arrange the feet herself—or did she instruct from afar? The various methods to disjoint at the ankle, the stinging of palms, the phantom whispers—contemplations that follow the heels of night into the dawn.
I consider running. But, I am quick to notice I am trapped between land and water. Bobbing, dewy lashes and gleaming eyes—water mummas have been drawn to the shallows. Either the noise, or my blood, has summoned them. They speak to one another rarely, and in non-verbal clicks when they do. All that is visible of them is the top half of their head as they examine me. I cannot see their fish tails, or distended maws, but I know they’re there.
I would not run even if I had where to go.
Their vigil keeps me up.
Limbs bogged down by sleeplessness, I stand just as the sky pinkens. My blood has crusted around the grains, the scratches barely scabbed over and stiff with a fine layer of salt. When I return to the treeline of the cay, I see footprints. Haphazard things that slope into giving earth, coming to and going away from the shore. I follow the ones pointed towards the shore into the forest, remembering backwards feet.
They lead me to a field of sleeping bodies: sexless children with their faces tucked up under their bamboo hats. Brown bodies in the lowlight. I make myself as quiet as possible, just another night creature as I pick my way through the crowd. It is hard to know Camelia like this. The larger ones are the ones I approach. Peaceful in sleep, their young mouths closed over razor teeth, I dare call them children. My fingers lift the brims of their hats carefully, revealing faces not unlike my own. A field of children at rest.
The hat pushes up from the forehead and luminous eyes peer up at me from beneath the hemline of bamboo. They are marbles in the dark—metallic glints in the night with a shy and traitorous moon. A hand grabs me by the wrist, wrenches me closer as I begin to struggle, to let out noise against knowing better.
“It’s me,” this creature says, pushing its face close to mine until the brim of the hat presses uncomfortably against my head. Shallow breaths between us and my heart arrhythmic, I shudder and shake and press forward into her—into my Camelia.
“It’s me, Yuya. I’ve been waiting for you. ¿Por qué te tardáste tanto?”
“I thought—I. I don’t know what I thought. No sé, no sé,” I mumble against her cheek. She smells of salt water and mangoes.
“You lost me?” She replies, soft and I feel the smile pull her cheeks. “You would never.”
She rubs her cheek against mine, trails her face down my neck until she rests at the nook there, her warm breath making me break out into goosebumps.
“They’re swollen. My ankles, I mean.”
I pull back, out from under the shielding hat and away from her heat. I am again suddenly aware that we are surrounded by these others, these greedy ones.
“Tenemos que—we have to leave. Now,” I say, pulling my legs beneath me to stand but Camelia’s hand on my wrist again stills me. She tilts her head back, face illuminated fully by the night and her hat a halo around her head. She looks confused—brown eyes looking from me to the other sleeping children.
“But, why?” she asks, low and with a smile that makes my breath hitch. “We can stay here. It is nice, and we sing all day. Mama Dlo brings us fruit and bathes us in the river.” She moves her hand to my knee and leans in close. “Stay, Yuya. You would like it here. We all like it here, where the sun is soft.”
I begin to tremble again, eyes flickering to the stirring bodies around us. “Camelia, por favor.” I tug at her arm. “We have to go.”
“Please stay. Here. With me?” She presses a kiss to my wrist, busses her lips against it and begins to pull me in.
“I can’t. I can’t, please, nos tenemos que ir,” I whisper hurriedly, frantically as I pull away, fall back on my hands and plead. We are getting too loud.
It’s when the stirring turns to shifting that I grab her upper arm and pull her to her feet. “Please, Camelia,” I say, high, panicky. She stares at me for a heavy moment before tilting her head down, obscuring her face with her hat, and allowing me to tangle my fingers with hers.
The whole time we walk she remains quiet but on occasion will stop in place and look off into the mangrove, the fingers of her free hand twitching at her side. She listens, and stops, and does not show me her face.
When I deposit her against the trunk of the nearest mangrove to the riverbank, I kneel down to massage her ankles. They feel broken, as if her feet have been wrenched backwards by hand, by pure force, by cruelty and little care. This is not how the stories go. They must have done this when they realized they’d taken her too soon.
“Stay, please,” I say gently. She watches me with glossy eyes; does not reply. But then, she gazes beyond me and points at the water.
At first I can only see the calm ebbing of water, and then I see them: the water mummas that have stuck their heads out of the water to watch us with shadowed expressions. Their hair gleams in the dawn, droplets glinting off the tight curls and a low chatter begins to rise—clicking sounds and a trilling of aggressive tongues. They’ve followed me, I realize. Scented me.
I hesitate, hands hovering over Camila. They’re interested. They want something of me, and perhaps I could also want something from them. I run my fingers over the crucifix at my throat pensively as I approach cautiously.
“I want—my friend, she—” A hush, sudden. Stillness from the figures. I swallow once, and again to attempt to soothe a tacky throat. “Mummas, Mama Dlo and her children took my friend and many other before their time. My friend—her feet, they are not turned right. You,” I pause, leaning forward to chase the minimal indication that I’m being listened to. They tilt their heads forward. “You can help me, right? Turn them back?” I murmur—not quite beseeching, but on the edge of vulnerability.
Two dark heads disappear underwater and the three remaining ones wait. A hoarse voice, when it comes, seems to have no body attached to it. “We can.”
I wait but they do not move until I dig my fingers into the red clay of the bank. There is no time for these moments of ambiguity—not for me, and not for Camelia. “I will cut my hair for you, if that is what you want,” I add. A bargain, I remember from Mamá’s candle-lit folktales. I don’t have much to give these woman-creatures.
They draw closer, webbed fingers ghosting near mine and they are cold—clammy. The three women are so close I feel their breaths on my face, shoulders.
“That is not enough,” comes the disembodied reply. “That is not valuable.”
“What would be?” I ask, pulling back slightly. Looking over their greyed skin.
“A drink, for each of us.”
I pause, glancing back at Camila. “My—you mean my blood?”
“We can do this for you only once, and that is our price.”
It does not seem too bad a price, if only there were not so many of them. As far as I can see, there are nine. Underwater there could be more.
I’ve barely nodded when I’m pulled down into the water by a hand against my neck and another tangled in my hair.
I’m breathing water and there is no light. No light but for the occasional gleam of a whipping scaled tail. A strong grip seals around my upper arms, keeps me in place as I thrash—panic and no breath and there is no light and the mother in the woods, and the mother in my home, and Camelia with her feet turned backwards. The sharp yank of my arms being pulled taut, scalding on my forearm like the time Elías threatened me with a cigarette, and then a sudden release. Writhing and the rough of bodies scratching, whirling against me and—air. Silence. I cough up into the night, ragged breaths and the rise and fall of a bruised ribcage. The River Mummas are gone under pitch black waters. I look down at my arms. From wrist to elbow, perfectly circular bitemarks mar my skin and weep.
“Do not waste,” a voice purrs at my side, but when I flinch there is no contact with a body. “Take the blood. Baptize her feet. You will be able to right them only then.”
On the riverbank, they have left me a bowl filled with liquid.
Once I haul myself away from the water, I make my way back to Camelia and sit at her feet. I am light-headed, shaky-limbed, but push through with determination, my hands grasping onto Camelia’s feet for as much her sake as mine. Grounding.
I put them in the bowl, begin to wash them with blood and saltwater until they wrinkle. Her stare bores into me—traitor, it says. Frightened, angry, on the sharpened dagger of exhausted, I am cruel in the way I twist her feet back around with a crunch and wrench of muscle and bone. Rough hands and no consoling sounds as she wails out into the night, hands flailing to grab purchase in the grass and clay. It takes every ounce of energy from me. She twists her body at the waist, sobbing into the earth and repeating a word I do not make out until I stand and walk to return the bowl. “Cruel, cruel, cruel.”
I fling the bowl into the river and stand on shaking legs as my nails dig into my palms. It’s sobering. I hear Camelia’s small whimpering breaths, stay in my place, wonder if Dlo will come for us. If Dlo can spare even one. If Dlo can scent me as the mummas have, or heard Camelia’s cry.
Camelia lets herself be pulled into my arms—lets me kiss the side of her head and hold her to my chest. “Can you walk?” I ask. She nods damply, but still ends up being unsteady when I help her up. She cries with each step, heavy tears that leave her trembling and looking like she’s on the verge of panic at any moment. I can say I’m better by very little.
I wonder if this will be enough: that Camelia’s feet are turned back. It seems suddenly possible that those douens could get lost—confused by their own footprints and follow ours backwards or consider them some of their own. It is equally improbable.
We are not far from the old post office, a small shack of a thing grown-over by nature and pierced through with trunks. I coax Camelia with small comforting noises as we stagger on feet skewered by an unwelcoming landscape.
It is far more in shambles than what I remember; practically a lean-to of completely element-torn walls. A boat is tied there, the post master’s, once. This town has gotten no mail for years.
I step into it and it groans but does not tip over or leak once I pull Camelia in. I slip the knife from the still open fishing kit into my pocket.
“¿A dónde vamos?” she wails, distraught and pulling against the arms I have wrapped around her torso. “We can’t leave without her. She—Yuya, she is everything.” She turns in my arms, holds my face in her hands. I force myself not to dwell on how satisfying this is. I force myself not to think on how I am unable to prevent the wounded, close-mouthed sound that escapes me as I lean into the touch. “Ella es todo, Yuya,” she repeats, her face the image of earnestness, of sobriety. Her eyes are not clouded by physical pain, or confusion: a moment of total lucidity.
“There is nothing for you there,” I growl. Instantly her look changes into a pitying one and I feel myself anger.
“Is it so wrong to want children? Or friends? That is all they want, and you could be part of it,” she murmurs, pulling close, sitting beside me on the central bench of the dinghy. “We could be part of it.”
“Camelia, look at what they did to your feet!” I shout. “La crueldad no es amor—you do not belong there. You have not died. They stole you, from your real mother. From me.”
“Our island has been dying a long time,” Camelia insists. “Dlo said I’m special—that if I did this, if I turned my feet, I would be her human girl—the one to keep growing. She just—she knows that we’re on a time-clock.”
“There is no future for you there.” I shrug her off brusquely and take the oars into my hands. “You can stay, si quieres. But I won’t join you.”
She is quiet and still at my side before she slips from the bench to the one at the stern and I begin to push us off. I’ve only just started to row when I find resistance. The oars lurch from my hands, a shout of alarm escaping me. Several pairs of hands pull and push the boat back to shore. Hyperventilation in my throat and Camelia has her head hanging over the side of the boat, looking down at her siblings, speaking to them in a quick-tongue parlance. My hand finds purchase in her tattered shirt and I pull her back from the edge, folded into my arms.
“They won’t hurt you—!” she says, wriggling in my arms.
The moment the boat’s lip bumps into the make-shift dock, I push her up onto it and follow with hastily scrambling steps, a shard of pain lancing through my foot. Her hand in mine, I pull her along as she shuffles her swollen feet. I’ve carved into bark, sliced meat into fine portions, cut my own hair—but I’ve never held a knife as a weapon. I pull it from my pocket, grip it hard.
The douens herd us into another clearing where Mama Dlo rests her snake body in a whorl, cheek pillowed on her flank. She opens one eye first and then the other—brown with big circular pupils. Her hair has been let down from its braids: tight coils rather than loose curls. In this light, she is younger—seems to look younger each second, but she springs from her coil in a vicious launching of her humongous body at Camelia with fangs exposed. Eye, shaving an ear to a stump, harpooned into the side of the neck—sites where the knife could find a pocket to inhabit. It hooks on the tender corner of her mouth, splitting her cheek open in a splatter of blood as I shove Camelia out of the way. Dlo’s body clips me, destabilizing me and throwing me into stumbling steps. My mind whirls, blood drips down my fingers. I am unsure if it is mine, or Dlo’s.
At whipping speed, she turns and sinks her fangs into my upper thigh. I scream, a ripped, hoarse, modulating noise that echoes through the cays. She squeezes her jaw down, the gory cut of her split mouth burbling with blood. My knees are likely to buckle, and her jaw will not slacken. My grip on the handle of the knife is slick and it fumbles as I drive it into her neck. I wrench it, both hands on the hilt to press it in deep against the violent thrashes of her serpent body—a fish heaving out of land. Heavy breathing, a constant stream of sounds tearing through vocal chords and—two soft, brown hands on mine. The smell of salt water and mangoes as Camelia takes the blade from my hand, hunches her body over it, and drives it down the rest of Dlo’s body. It remains wriggling obscenely for a short moment before she slackens. Her jaw remains tight around my thigh as I buckle, and one wide, panicked brown eye looks up at me plaintively. Acrid acidic smell as her insides spill onto the mangrove roots—and Camelia stands over the scene, the knife still between her hands. She stares blankly down at Mama Dlo for several quiet seconds before she turns towards me. Her sobs wrack her frame as she kneels at my side, pulls the hair from my face and strokes my cheek.
“Yuya.” Her hands tremble on my face and she smiles, pressing kisses to my face. “Thank you.” She moves downwards, pries the jaws open and releases my leg from its clamp. I shout out, hands slapping the earth.
Camelia watches me, face unreadable as her hands trace the tender puncture marks on my thigh. Her brown eyes yellow in the cresting sunlight, and her pupils almost appear diamond-shaped.
“Things are alright now, Yuya,” she murmurs, making her way back up to my head. “I love all my children very well. You’ll like it here, where the sun is soft. Where we sing all day.”