Both Sides, Now

I woke up to the sound of a death rattle. The A/C had given up and frozen over. I saw that the girl I’d picked up along El Malecón was still asleep and I wanted to keep it that way. I slid out of bed and made my way to the bathroom, shutting the flimsy door behind me and flicking the light switch. I turned my head to inspect my face in the foggy, grime covered mirror. Not too bad, I thought at first. The swelling was nearly gone, and the bruises had faded from a ripe purple to a sickly yellow. I took a moment to consider the damage done and wondered how the funeral had gone.

I decided that it didn’t matter very much. Her death didn’t matter all that much, I told myself, repeating the sentiment that led to me getting cracked in the face and cursed, the sentiment that had led me to this run down room near the Port of Havana. It hadn’t surprised me that my mother was gone, it had surprised me that she had stayed so long.

She’d spent most of my life and much of hers in a cabin on the edge of the North Florida swamplands, talking to gators and coral snakes and river spirits. She wore flowing gowns that trailed behind her in the marsh waters like a tidal bloom, swaying as she wandered between the reeds on her morning constitutionals that she referred to as ‘communion.’ Some people in those parts thought she was a prophet or a priestess, but most thought she was just a half-crazy freak who drank too much wine. That’s what I grew up thinking. She had her good days when she was affectionate in her own way. But all those other days – those were hard to forget.

I thought about the night she’d set the house on fire after dad died. She stood in the front yard and watched the blaze grow through the windows, muttering incantations and eating handfuls of dog fennel and bracken fern that she’d gathered from the woods around the homestead as the flames made their way from the kitchen to the living room and then to the bedrooms. That was when we’d woken up screaming. Standing there in the dingy bathroom, I could still smell my mother’s jasmine flowers and tincture bottles burning above the mantelpiece.

“What would you like me to say?” I had asked when my sister called and gave me the news over the phone a couple days earlier.

I knew that Caridad was calling because she cared. I knew I had no reason to be angry, not with her at least. She’d told me that our mother was dead in the calm, even intonation that she had adopted as a child. It was the way our mom had spoken, as if she was perpetually unfazed and unaffected by all the weirdness around her. The tone had a witchy quality about it that was eery and off-putting but could also be oddly reassuring at times. And I knew that’s what Carey wanted, to reassure me. Nonetheless, I could feel my temper flaring as soon as I’d answered the phone.

“Do you think it’s some great loss? Because I don’t, not to anyone outside of the 42 fucking reptiles she keeps in that shack of hers.”

She wasn’t amused, but she wasn’t shocked by my response either. She told me the plans for the funeral. In accordance with our mother’s last wishes, her body would be pushed out on a stream in Ocala Forest. I had pointed out that aside from this being illegal, it meant she would be picked apart and eaten by swamp creatures before her body even had a chance to rot in the heat. My sister nonchalantly explained that that was the point. The ceremony would take place early the next morning.

“Well,” I’d replied, not certain of what else there was to say, “thanks for letting me know, I guess. Take care of yourself, kiddo.”

The next day, one of my mother’s acolytes had shown up to my job. I’d smelled him before I’d seen him. The sterile scent of the mall had suddenly become hot and gamey and wild. By the time I noticed the strangely dressed man coming toward me, his fist was already in motion. His big leathery knuckles caught me just under the eye and left me sprawled behind the register. I watched as he scattered small bones around my body. Then he reached for his satchel fashioned out of armadillo hide, pulled out a severed egret’s head wrapped in blue wildflowers and placed it on my chest. I’d seen those flowers growing on the prairies when I was a child. I knew what they meant, at least according to my mother. She’d called them ‘lightning babies’ and said they were a powerful tool for connecting with the dead.

“The Marsh Queen is with you,” he howled, looking down at me. “She will always be with you. And until you make your peace, you will be tormented with the visitations. Sereno, the Water Witch is coming, boy.”

He knelt down and I could taste just how badly he reeked of Lucky Strikes and body odor.

“Remember the old rituals,” he’d whispered. “The blue moon will be here soon.”

I let out a groan and threw the cold, limp bird into the garbage as he turned and left. Fucking swamp magic, I’d thought as I sat there trying to gauge how worried I should be.

I still wasn’t sure how worried I felt. The previous night I’d woken up drenched in a cold sweat despite the ungodly heat in my apartment. The night before that, the night I’d apparently been cursed, a tropical depression had left my car completely flooded.

I’d never believed in my mother’s voodoo before. I had seen it many times, yes. She’d draw symbols in the mud around our house just before nightfall when a storm was approaching and the tide was coming in. When we’d wake up to the gray rain of the morning, the worst of the winds would seem to curve around our little home, savaging the marshes and wreaking a havoc that refused to touch us. I saw those symbols carved in the soft silty ground for weeks afterward, even as the push and pull of the tide washed everything else away. But seeing was different from believing. It was too awesome and terrifying for me to believe as a boy. And I didn’t want to start believing now.

“Not tonight,” I thought aloud. I felt a strange tug at my throat and dismissed it. As I went on, the tug intensified.

Ni hoy, ni mañana, ni el siguiente, ¿me copiaste? I’m not doing this,” I said.

I heard a reedy twinge of longing in my words and realized then that it wasn’t my reflection I was talking to. The sound struck me as vaguely familiar, like I’d heard it on my voice before but it took a moment for me to place where and when. She’d left us once before. Actually, she’d left us more times than that, but this one stood out from the others. I was 11 and Carey was 8. It was August, the dead of summer in the Florida wilds, when the air is practically too thick with humidity to breathe and the heat gets so oppressive it makes you want to lie down.

There was a girl who introduced me to heartache that summer. Her name was Annabeth, I think, or maybe it was Annabelle or Anne-Marie. She had pin straight blueblack hair and rich brown eyes that seemed elusive and mysterious to me at first. I liked her from the ring of the morning bell at the start of the school year and by the end of that week, I’d worked up the courage to tell her. She told me she didn’t have time for swamp rats like me and then she walked away. I cried in the corner of the classroom and cried on the bus as it took Carey and I toward the homestead. As we walked the 2 and a half miles from the bus stop to the house, I tried to find comfort in the hope that our mom would make it better when we got back, even if I wasn’t sure how. But when we arrived, there was nobody home.

We were used to finding the house empty at that point. Our mom would usually turn up before bedtime, regaling us with tall tales of the things she’d seen on walkabout that day. I made Spaghetti Os for Caridad and helped her with her homework, thinking all the while about the viciousness that had flashed in those pretty eyes and waiting to tell my mother about it when she returned. 3 days went by and August became September and still there was no sign of her. On the 4th day, I sent Carey to school and went looking for our mom in the woods.

Even in the daytime, the vicious tangle of the trees and grasses and weeds all grappling for purchase over one another, all the life growing and writhing and trying its best to reach the sunlight made me nervous. The vultures alone seemed at ease to me, waiting and watching as everything else killed and died, flora and fauna alike trying to eat each other. Every time I called out for her, “Mama?” that same shaky voice would carry over the water until it disappeared. It was hours before I found her, dazed and drunk and half-starved, holding a bottle in one hand and caressing a vibrant and ghostly orchid she’d found growing on a cypress trunk with the other.

“One day,” she’d slurred when she finally noticed me standing there in all my quiet rage, “this will be all that’s left of me. And when that day comes, I know you’ll find me then, too.”

It’s a strange thing, I thought to myself in the mirror, to be haunted by someone in their life and in their death.

The next morning, the room stank of piss and blood and the girl was gone. She’d left a note that read: “disculpa – no me di cuenta de que le pasaría al agua.” The carpet was stained an unpleasant rusty brown that grew more saturated the closer I moved toward the bathroom. I found a bright red tampon in the toilet that had ballooned to the size of a ball python. I decided it was time to leave.

I was halfway through my breakfast on the terrace of the Hotel Inglaterra when my sister appeared at the table. I raised an eyebrow and set my coffee down.

“What’re you doing here, kiddo?” I asked.

“Who did that?” She asked, screwing up her face and wincing as she looked at mine.

“Someone who wasn’t pleased I didn’t come feed our mom to the lizards. Put a curse on me too. Also got me fired, I think.”

“He put a curse on you?”

“Yep.”

“Which one?”

I rolled my eyes at the question. She scoffed and lit a cigarette.

“You been talking to her yet?” She asked.

“What are you doing here, Carey?”

“Yeah, you’ve been talking to her.”

“I asked you a question,” I said, trying to sound less annoyed than I was.

“And I could ask you the same one, but I already know what you’re doing here,” she said coyly.    Then her tone changed to one that was sweeter and more somber. “I didn’t realize how much you missed her.”

“I don’t miss her for shit.”

I heard the same reedy quiver but wasn’t sure if Caridad had heard it too. She looked at me pitifully and I knew that she had. It was difficult to return her gaze when she looked at me like a sad, scared little boy. Not because I felt patronized by my kid sister, but because I hadn’t realized until that moment how much I felt like the boy I had been, the one who was sad and scared and didn’t know what to make of his mother.

“When was the last time you two spoke,” she asked after a moment. “Before, I mean.”

“She called me a few weeks ago,” I replied, looking down at my coffee. “She told me that she’d made a deal with the moon, that she was going to be part of it so she could keep an eye on us from the dark side. I tried to be nice and made a joke. I asked her what a bargain like that cost.”

“What’d she say?”

“She said it cost her everything.” I looked up at her and found it suddenly very hard to swallow. She was nodding.

“How’d she go?” I asked, afraid of what I thought I knew already.

“She made a deal,” Caridad responded softly.

“Fucking swamp magic.”

“Well,” she said after another pause, “tonight’s the second full moon this month.”

“Blue moons,” I said, shaking my head. “You know I never bought into any of it the way you did.”

“Sure, just like you don’t miss her. But here you are in La Habana, a couple blocks from the beach she brought us to as babies. Are you staying near the ocean?”

I didn’t answer.

“Maybe you don’t believe,” she said, exhaling a stream of rich Cuban smoke. “And maybe you don’t miss her. Or maybe you just don’t want to because you don’t understand.”

“Understand what?”

“That you can hate something and love it at the same time.”

I turned those words over in my head along the shoreline near Punta Piedra just east of the old city that night. The ocean was tar black for as far as I could see, the moon unable to permeate the shadow water. This was part of it, I remembered – you had to bathe yourself in the darkness and wish to the blue moon. I waded in hesitantly, slowly inching deeper, fearfully awaiting the bull shark that I was sure would be ripping me in half any second.

The last time I’d done this I was a teenager in the Florida wetlands, surrounded by brackish water and cypress trees and a darkness that somehow felt even bigger and deeper than this one did.

“This is crazy!” I had called out to my mother and Caridad. “What if a snapping turtle bites my huevos? How will you guys even find me?”

I remembered my mother telling me that the animals wouldn’t touch me.

“They know your purpose,” she’d said. I could hear the smile in her voice. And for all the chaos that wafted around her like hurricane of dangerous perfume, the smile in her voice always had a way of making me feel safe.

I wondered if I knew what my purpose was, just as I had wondered beneath that blue moon so many years before. Treading water in the gentle waves that rolled in across the Florida Straits, I looked up at the sky.

“It cost me everything, mi amor,” she’d told me over the phone. She had sounded like she was smiling then, too.

I had to go under to make my wish. When you disappeared into the darkness, she’d told us, that’s when the moon can see both sides of you and you can see both sides, too. I took a breath and dove deep.

I didn’t know whether to make a wish or whether to make a deal, whether I wanted her to stay or wanted her to go, whether it was love or hate that had brought me to the shadow waters again. I didn’t know what I wanted. I just needed to see both sides.

*****

Travis Cohen studied creative writing at Vanderbilt University and will be enrolling in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami come the Fall. His work has been featured in The Vanderbilt Review and (In) Parenthesis Magazine and he has previously written for the Miami New Times. He lives in a bright blue house on a street corner in Little Haiti with his wife and their dog where he grows avocados, mangos and star fruit.