I made myself small in the space between the beat up sofa and the metal TV tray that served as a table. Hunched with my knees pulled to my chest and arms wrapped around them, I strained to hear the hushed conversation between Mama and Aunt Celia. From this vantage point, I could only see Aunt Celia’s back and sometimes caught a glimpse of Mama’s face.
“I can’t do it,” Mama said.
“It’s been six days. If she’s not better tomorrow, you have to.”
“She’s my baby!”
“But the spirits ravage her.” Aunt Celia lowered her voice. “The ceremonial drapes have hung outside for six days. If Ariana isn’t released tomorrow, the spirits will claim the entire household.”
“She’s only three.” Mama leaned into Aunt Celia, sobbing into her shoulder. Her muffled cries echoed against the concrete floors and adobe walls of the sparsely furnished room.
Aunt Celia put her hands on Mama’s shoulders and set her upright. She then picked up a bundle that had been tucked under her thigh, the white cloth wrapping stark against the darkened room. Slivers of sunlight managed to sneak in between seams of fabric covering windows and through the warped door jam. I watched the back of my aunt’s thick arms move as she fiddled with the object in her lap and then extended her arms to present something to Mama.
Mama gasped. “No!” Metal clanged against the concrete floor.
I glimpsed the ornate silver handle, but my gaze settled on the long blade. I didn’t realize I’d broken my silence until I saw both women looking right at me.
“Mija…Cristina!” Mama and Aunt Celia exclaimed in unison.
“Mija, I thought you were outside playing with the other children.”
I slid out from the hiding place and stretched my legs. “Mama, I’m twelve. I don’t play anymore.”
Aunt Celia moaned as her eyes fluttered closed. “The premonition. It is true.” Her chin dropped to her chest and a string of words in an unfamiliar language tumbled into the otherwise silent room.
My eyes widened and I looked to Mama for direction. She appeared just as frightened. Lines creased her forehead and fear clouded her brown eyes.
“Go,” she whispered. “You should go play outside.”
Aunt Celia continued her chanting as if in a trance.
‘Alternate sacrifice’ were the only two words I understood. The hair prickled on my arms and a tingling sensation ran from my neck all the way down my spine. I sprinted for the door, not bothering to correct Mama that I’d passed the age of playing. Once outside, my toe caught the edge of one of the pavers making up the tiny porch. Stumbling into the adobe half-wall surrounding our house, I gulped several breaths while thinking of what to do. I knew my baby sister, Ariana, was in trouble. I stared at the ceremonial drapes; woven murals in bright colors that mocked life. I always thought that death slithered through night shadows shrouded in black, but the dawning came that death wore vivid hues of turquoise, yellow, red and purple. My eyes zeroed in on the skulls. Smiling skulls. They looked all too happy to rip souls from failing bodies.
I pushed off the wall, vaulting myself toward the brilliantly colored drapes. I screamed as I grasped and pulled at the fabric, tearing the cotton from nails that held them in place. I knocked statues and candle holders from the offering table butted up against the house. I dodged shards of ceramic that were intended to appease the spirits. I didn’t care. It was all just a tangled mess of superstitions, myths and wives tales. I didn’t agree with Mama and Aunt Celia; angry demons wouldn’t materialize and vengeful death wouldn’t steal the souls from healthy bodies in retribution. I believed Ariana would still be writhing in bed, face glistening from fever just as she had done for the last six days.
Aunt Celia bolted out of the front door, followed by Mama.
“No!” she shrieked and her hands flew up to cover her face.
“Oh, mija, what have you done?” Mama whispered, shaking her head.
I dropped shreds of fabric and stumbled a few steps backward. Silence descended; a heavy, stifling quiet that suppressed all noise, except the drum-like pounding of my heart against the bones in my chest. My pulse throbbed inside my head, but I resisted the urge to cup my hands over my ears.
“The alternate sacrifice,” Aunt Celia said.
I stood with my chin up. I didn’t believe in the death spirits, but still prepared for them to take me, just in case. Even in the balmy heat, a chill came over me and produced a dramatic shiver. My heart fluttered and then resumed its normal beat pattern. I sensed death spirits were among us, choosing souls like Mama selected meat from the market. God, please protect me.
Aunt Celia dropped to her knees. An anguished cry escaped her dry lips. “I am ready!” She reached toward the sky.
I stared in shock. Aunt Celia collapsed into a heap and convulsed.
“Look away, Mija!” Mama called over her shoulder as she turned her back on her sister.
I obeyed and turned away from Aunt Celia. On my eighth birthday, Mama had explained that eyes were the windows to the soul. Mama told the story of her great-great grandmother, Anne, who had been caring for her sick brother when she watched him gasp his last breath. She witnessed his struggle and his eventual surrender, only to die minutes later. It was believed that the death spirits entered Anne’s body through her opened eyes, like a burglar slipping through an unlocked window.
Aunt Celia’s body stilled, but I kept my eyes clenched, too afraid to look.
“Mama, I hungry,” a timid voice called from the house.
Mama and I both whirled around to find Ariana peeking around the door. She had been bed-ridden and near death for six days.
“How about macaroni?” I asked. Ariana smiled and nodded her head vigorously before disappearing into the house.
Mama kneeled down beside Aunt Celia and gently tugged her eyelids shut.
Drawing the curtains. All the women in town knew this duty. After death, the eyelids had to be closed to prevent spirits from moving through the body. Male hands weren’t allowed to do this.
As I walked inside, I knew this would be a story told to my great-great grandchildren: the day Aunt Celia took my place as the alternate sacrifice.
This was another collaboration with Emilio Pasquale – he provided the photo to write whatever I could come up with for a story. Be sure to check out his photo blog, if you haven’t already been there 🙂
Very good, been waiting for another great story from you. It drew me to the end.
I’m glad you liked the story, Tessa! I always have doubts when I post a story whether it will be good enough 🙂
I think we all have those doubts I know I do, 🙂
Good to know it’s not just me 🙂
Mesmerizing story.. really scary and this is exactly how myths are born.. I especially like the way to avoid looking in the eyes would save you..
Thanks, Bjorn! I think it would scare me enough to look away 🙂
Great story. Highly creative and a bit creepy!
Haha, yes, this one was a bit creepy, Suzicate!
Nice work, Janna. I liked your simile of the burglar. And yes, creepy!
Thanks, Patti! I wasn’t sure how this one would end when I started it, but I did know it would be strange.
It shows your versatility as a writer.
or that sometimes I get lucky and it works, haha 🙂
It happens too often to be a fluke.
Thanks, Patti 🙂
Wonderful release for Auntie!
Thanks for reading, Nancy! Auntie was released to somewhere 🙂
Janna, this one surely doesn’t disappoint — I found my eyes flying over your words in an attempt to learn what was going to happen. So creepy! Almost a Halloween sort of tale, and it goes so well with Emilio’s photo! Thanks for sharing it here!
Thanks, Debbie! I think my often dark thoughts at the moment contributed to the vibe of the story… but I knew death had to be in there somewhere, as the photo just seemed to scream “Day of the Dead” 🙂
Very powerful. Well done! 😀
Thanks, Widdershins – I appreciate you reading! Haven’t seen much writing from you lately… hope you are doing well. (I could have stuff buried in my email, but if so, I’ll get there eventually.)
Thanks for asking … I’ve been really sick with this flu/bronchitis for the last 2 months … but I’m getting better. Mrs Widds is currently down for the count … next winter we’re going to hibernate from November to March! 😀
Two months is a long time to struggle with illness. Hibernation sounds like a good plan for next year!
Yay! Janna’s back! What a great story. I’m thinking this is now one of my favorites! I’m getting more character development, and much more subtext in this than I ever did before. Or is that just me reading into it? But to call this a collaboration is an overstatement. I only gave you a photo prompt! I didn’t contribute one word!
Wow, I’m glad you liked the story that much, Emilio. I was actually hesitant to post it (as I often am) because I wasn’t sure if it was good enough. Well, I did finish this story up at 1:00 am and could hardly see straight so it’s possible that some character development and subtext slipped in 🙂 Funny thing is, I wrote the story in third person and I didn’t think it fit, so I changed it to first person. Then I had to change some of the wording and descriptions because they didn’t belong with a 12-year-old narrator.
Your photos have a lot of texture and visual elements in them, so they do make interesting subjects to write about. If you manage to get your photos back, perhaps we can try it again in April?
This one gave me the chills! … death spirits were among us, choosing souls like Mama selected meat from the market – yikes!
It is a rather creepy idea, isn’t it? Thanks for reading Joanne!
Gripping, Janna. Whoa!
Thanks for reading the story, Firstandfabulous! I appreciate it 🙂
OH, my! What a powerful, mesmerising story….very gripping
Thanks so much, Suej – I’m glad you stopped by to read the story 🙂
I saw the photo first, and followed the link…
Thanks, Lynne – I’m glad you enjoyed the story!
I could really put myself into visualizing this story. I saw it as Louisianan just because I know a few people from there and there is a pretty good culture of voodoo and such there. It is always a pleasure to see your stories come to life. Thanks for writing this for all to read.
As always, I do appreciate you reading, Sean. This one was a bit on the creepy side. When I visited New Orleans, they had a lot of haunted places… which I made sure to avoid 🙂
I was prompted by Emilio’s blog to come here. So glad I did! Your story really grabbed me.
I’m glad you took the time to read the story, Helen! Thanks so much 🙂
It is more than good enough. You did not disappoint. I thought I knew where this story was going, and then it took a turn. Well done.
Thanks so much for reading, Momtheobscure! My first thought was to have the girl be the alternate sacrifice, but that seemed too obvious 🙂
What a story! Glad I stopped by (Emilio’s urging) to read!
Thanks so much for taking time to stop by and read the story, The Dune Mouse. I appreciate it 🙂
You’re welcome! I love to write too!
I will be back to check out some of your stories… I looked at photos last time 🙂 (It may take a few days, but I left this comment in my email so I will get to it eventually!)
This is fantastic, Janna. I was hooked from the very first word. I had goose bumps the whole way through – very powerful stuff. I’m missed your work 🙂
I’m glad you enjoyed the story, Mel! Thanks so much for the kind words and encouragement… I do hope to have another fiction piece posted by the end of the month… now to see if life cooperates, haha!
This is my first visit to your blog. What a wonderfully written, fascinating. gripping story. I will enjoy reading more of your work.
Thank you so much for taking time to read the story, Good Woman! I’m glad you liked this story and hope you will like the next fiction piece as well… hoping to have something by the end of the month 🙂
Straight-ahead powerful story, Janna. A clashing of two worlds/cultures; a coming-of-age; a mother-daughter story; a tug-of-war on the heart-strings. This has it all. Great work, and again, even better to “see” you back with your creativity in force. And, for what it’s worth, I believe your creativity is a robust and muscular Force, lady. 🙂 Please do keep it up.
I appreciate your encouragement, Leigh! I have missed my regular writing so it’s nice to be able to at least do a little fiction here and there. Oh, and I’m glad you liked this story 🙂
Nice twist. Loved it.
Thanks for reading, Allen!
Whew! “sensed death spirits were among us, choosing souls like Mama selected meat from the market. God, please protect me.” Great line. You really built suspense in this story!
” like a burglar slipping through an unlocked window” “Drawing the curtains”
Only women allowed to do this…
Really well written. (and so much like real life here)
Thanks for taking time to read the story and share lines that stood out for you, Phil! I hoped this would come off as real and believable. Things are always creepier to me when the events happening seem plausible.
Remember the short story “The Lottery”? Your style accomplished the same believability.
I do vaguely remember that story… I should find it and refresh my memory, though. Thanks for the compliment, Phil 🙂
Amazing story Janna! Eerie, intense and fast-paced. I loved it!
Thanks, GodGirl – I’m happy you liked the story! It was a bit on the strange side, but then again, about half of my stories are, haha 🙂