© Regina Garcia, 2012
A Selection From:
EN LA CALLE DUARTE or ON DUARTE STREET
An Illustrated Novel in Four Parts
Written by Marirosa Mia Garcia
Illustrated by Regina Garcia
Inside, the Bruja motioned towards a large red chair for the Girl to sit while she went into the kitchen. It made a strange creaking noise as the Girl sat and she bounced up and down several times just to see what other noises it would make. The Girl ran her fingers across the fabric of the large red chair as her eyes danced across the room, drinking everything in. The Witch’s apartment was stuck in the days of dinner parties and deep rich fabrics; when men still wore linen guayaberas and furniture had wicker inlays. Though well kept, it didn’t stop time from wearing out the fabrics and dulling its colors here and there. The couch – large and imposing – retained the imprints of the bodies that once spent hours lounging on it.
The Bruja returned with a plate of cookies and sat in the chair opposite the Girl.
“¿Que quieres?” she asked, fiddling with one of the two gold rings around her fingers.
This seemed to be a simple question to the Girl.
“Mi abuela,” she answered.
The witch shook her head. “She is gone. You know this.”
“You cannot bring her back?”
“No. She is on another journey now.”
“It’s not fair!” the chair squeaked as the Girl slammed her hand against the armrest.
“It never is. But that’s not why you are here. ¿Que quieres?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you do. ¿Que quieres? What do you want? Your grandmother is dead, yes. But there is something that you want. It nags at you. It’s why you are here, why you sat at the steps.”
The Girl – nose scrunched once again - stared at the ceiling. The Bruja waited, patiently, the plate of cookies still in her hand. She was in no rush. This part often took the longest. Then finally, as if she had found the answer in the cracks the Girl smiled.
“I want to say goodbye,” the Girl said.
“Si,” the Bruja said and placed the plate with three cookies in front of the Girl. “That is it, then. I can help you with that.”
The Girl reached over grabbed one cookie, taking a large bite as she listened.
“You will need three things,” the Bruja said, watching the crumbs fall down deep into her carpet, fighting the urge to clean them.
“Yes. The first, I have, and would be glad to lend to you. You will, of course, return it to me at the end of your journey.”
The Bruja reached under her blouse and produced a shiny gold key that dangled from a chain. It shone for a moment in the sunlight before the Bruja removed it from her neck and handed it to the Girl who turned it back and forth in her hand.
“Si, una llave. You will need it to cross the boundary.”
The Girl finished the cookie, placed the key inside her pocket and reached for the second cookie.
“The boundary?” the Girl asked.
“Yes. Between Life and Death. It will be the first of the few boundaries you will be able to cross and return from.”
“How many – ”
The Bruja held up her hand. “Many. But only a few are known to the living.”
“How- how did you get this key?”
The Bruja chuckled and her cheeks turned red.
“I’m afraid that is a very long and complicated story, only half of which is mine. I would love to share it, pero, time is short. Now, the second object you will need is knowledge.”
At this, the Girl brightened quite a bit.
“I’m very smart,” the Girl said. “My teacher tells me so all the time.”
“Do you know any riddles? ¿Adivinanzas?”
The Girl’s shoulders fell and she shoved the last of the second cookie in her mouth. “No.”
“Ask your grandfather. I remember he had the best adivinanzas in the world, back when I was young and he was single. You will need them, just in case.”
“Just in case what?”
“Just in case. A good riddle is invaluable in certain situations.”
The Girl reached for the last cookie.
“Finally, the third thing,” the Bruja said picking up a large crumb that had fallen. “Which might be the hardest thing you will need to get: Four traveling coins.”
“What are traveling coins?”
“They are coins that have seen the world and back in the pockets of a traveler. They start off as nickels, dimes, quarters – but through time they change. They become more. They have gone on many journeys and you will need them for yours. To get a traveler to part with four coins will be a hard task. But you will need them to cross – for safe passage with the boatman - to reach her before it is too late to say goodbye. And, of course, to return.”
“I must find a traveler then?”
“And get him to part with the coins.”
“Once I have the three things, what do I do?”
The Bruja stood and reached for the empty plate, to take back to the kitchen. When she returned she had a small bag with a few more cookies and a small glass bottle. She handed the cookies to the Girl.
“Escucha. These stairs that lead down to your grandfather’s apartment, they keep going.”
“They don’t. They stop at his door.”
“Callate y escucha. Yes, they do. When you’re ready to start your journey, I want you to stand behind the steps, right where the stairs form their shadow. With the key in your hand, your shadow must reach into the darkness and open the door.”
“My shadow?” the Girl pointed to herself. “A door? There is no door, there’s just a wall.”
“Trust me. There’s a door; it has always been there. You’ve seen it many times, but like many things that can only be seen from the corner of your eye, you disregard it. We all do. But, it is there.”
The Bruja continued, telling the Girl a few things she would likely encounter, the things she would need to know – just in case. The Bruja knew many things, but not all.
“Now you must go. If you wait too long, the sun will disappear.”
As the Bruja ushered the Girl out the door she handed her the small bottle and wrapped the Girl’s hands around it.
“A small favor, for myself.” the Bruja said. “A bit of earth, if you don’t mind.”
“A bit of earth from below. When you can. That’s all I need. When you return, I would like to hear about your journey. There are many things I still do not know and would love to learn. Therefore, you must be careful. Don’t lose the key and don’t lose yourself. Remember who you are at all times and why you are there – that is the best advice I can give you. A memory is a terrible thing to lose and to forget things would be very bad. Now go.”
As the Girl turned to leave, the Bruja grabbed her hand and brought her close once again. The Bruja held the Girl’s face in her hand and waited for their eyes to meet.
“It will be hard, this journey. But I have no doubt you will make it. I see it in your eyes,” the Witch smiled. “Yet I also see stubbornness – I recognized it as I would my own. And I tell you this de todo corazón – your grandmother is dead. She is dead. Don’t forget that.”
And even though she wished that she had given the Girl some words of inspiration, the Bruja knew that it would do more harm than good. Letting the Girl go, she turned back inside and closed the door. Holding the bag of cookies and glass bottle, the Girl headed down the steps. She stopped to collect the soda her Grandfather had left her, then entered the apartment. She passed her parents as they called relatives on the phone - discussing arrangements.
“Si, al medio dia. Funeral…” she heard her mother say into the phone.
Heading to the kitchen she placed the soda on the counter but kept the bag of cookies with her.
Then she entered her grandfather’s bedroom, where he sat in his rocking chair – very quiet, very still. When he saw her, he mustered a weak smile in her direction.
“Dime, did she open the door?”
The Girl nodded.
“She said you used to tell riddles. She said you were very good. Can you tell me one?”
Her Grandfather smiled and motioned to his lap. He whispered the riddle into her ear and she scrunched up her face.
“I don’t get it.”
He smiled and tugged at her ponytail. “Think about it.”
Minutes later the Girl walked out of the room in search of the four coins. Back in the room, her Grandfather sat, in his chair, letting the warmth of the day settle in his bones. He wasn’t sure what for, but there he stayed. Waiting for his own journey to start perhaps.
The Girl didn’t have to go far in search for the coins, just a few steps outside the doors of the Duarte building, out into the blazing sun. As if waiting for her all along, the Old Man turned and extended his hand.
“You owe me a quarter,” he said to the Girl. “I cut to the chase when it comes to people owing me things, tu sabes? Otherwise quarters just pile up all over the place.”
“Yes, I know,” she said to him like she’d owed quarters before and wasn’t worried.
“Well, where is it? I don’t see any quarter.”
“I don’t have any right now.”
The Old Man huffed and started to walk away.
“Wait! Necesito algo.”
“You need something from me? You owe me a quarter, what makes you think- ”
“Please,” the Girl said and her eyes started to tear.
The Old Man’s shoulders slumped in defeat and he kicked the dirt in front of him. “¿Que? What do you need?”
“Four traveling coins,” she said, shifting her weight from one leg to the other.
The Old Man stared at the Girl like she’d sprouted a second head.
“¿Queque?! What did you say?”
“Coins for safe passage.”
“I know what they are! Why do you need them?”
“I need them. Do you have any?”
“Quizas. Depende. What will you give me? I don’t do charity!”
The Girl presented the bag of cookies.
“What else do you have?”
Moments later the Old Man gulped down a can of soda with one hand, while the other held the bag of cookies and 2 other sodas.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhh. Not a cervesita but it’s not bad.”
He handed the Girl the four small coins that once upon a time used to be quarters, nickels, dimes, but now, either warped by time or magic, were something else. She inspected them closely; holding them up to the light then placed them in her pocket.
“Can’t use those to buy candy. Only good for one thing.”
“Safe passage,” she said.
“You’ll need it where you’re going.”
“How do you know where I’m going?”
“Only one place to go with those.”
“Where did you get them?”
“Always keep some coins on my self,” he patted his pocket that jingled softly. “Just in case. You never know when you need to pay the fare.”
“How do you know so much?”
He looked away. “I travel – things have a way of finding me.”
Tucking the cans and cookies into his pocket, he waved to the Girl as he turned.
“You still owe me a quarter. Don’t forget. I won’t.”
The Girl sat on the steps for a moment, staring at the objects she’d gathered. The sun bounced off each one as she moved them around on her palm. Eventually, she placed the objects in her pockets and walked around the stairs to where the shadow dwelled. She walked by the shadow several times, trying to catch a glimpse of the door as she passed. A woman entered the building and stared at the Girl for a moment – puzzled by her actions. The Girl stopped and smiled politely, as her mother had always taught her.
“It’s hard to look out of the corner of your eyes,” the Girl said. “I forget to hold still and then it’s no longer the corner.”
The woman nodded, as if understanding, and smiled before she rushed up the stairs to her apartment. The Girl returned to her task. She studied her own shadow and practiced for a moment – extending her empty hand forward – making her shadow hand disappear below the steps. She found that because the sun was in an odd position she had to lean forward just a bit before extending her hand. She fell in a couple of times and even disappeared into the darkness below the steps, before re-emerging seconds later in a panic.
Finally, finding the correct footing, she took the key from her pocket and reached into the dark.
For a moment the Girl’s hand remained suspended in the shadow. Nothing happened. Then, slowly, the shadow wound itself around her hand, causing it to turn slightly to the right. The Girl’s eyes widened; a sliver of light – not white, but orange, red, and violet - colors of the dusk – sliced through.
The Girl glanced at her Grandfather’s apartment door for a moment, worry and doubt clouding her thoughts. Shaking her head to get rid of them, she turned back to the opening.
“Remember who I am and why I am there,” she said to no one in particular before stepping into the light and down, down the endless steps made of tree roots and old ruins jutting out of the ground. The light was darker now, deeper tones of orange and red.
The stairs kept going and going. They turned into small bridges over large chasms then back to stairs. She stopped on one occasion to look at a ruin that peeked out of the earth, its marbled columns like weeds. Finally, the stairs ended, and an open expanse lay before her; an underground cavern as infinite as the universe, yet not.
A place where in its darkness you could almost see the edge of infinity, as the night starts to play at the edge of our universe.
The Girl placed the key – which had been dangling from her hand – back into her pocket. She took out two of the traveling coins and rolled them over in her hands, then put back in her pocket.
“Now where do I go?
To be continued...
We sincerely hope to see the full illustrated novel in print sometime soon, Mia. (The sooner the better!) Thank you so very much for sharing.
Marirosa Mia Garcia was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the New School in New York City. Her first novel, On Duarte Street, is an illustrated novel inspired by the residents of Duarte Street in Santurce. You can often find her reviewing books on PleaseDontReadThisBook.com.
To learn more about the author, please take a look at her Q&A in the Matchbox section of this blog.