Haris A. Durrani
“Maybe I will be more explicit about why is it that I am reticent to speak about love. It is because the discourse of love has continued absolutely unbroken through the transformation that interests me. America was conquered in the name of love. Today, people can be bombed in the name of love. So, if everything is love, if religion is love, and if love is everywhere, and, you know, all you need is love—then fine. It’s just that it appears that much more than religion and Church, people have killed each other in the name of love, in a way that is… brutal. And you would think by now it’s time that, rather than rave against the Church—not that there’s nothing to rave against, I am in agreement—why is it that no one is against love? Because it’s about time—no?—that we recognize the damages that love has done. Now please don’t construe me as some kind of pessimistic, solipseric whatever. But I don’t see any reason why it’s more justified today to criticize religion than it is to criticize love… I have people who tell me that they love so much that they will burn me to death. Then I say you have a peculiar way of love, but I’m not going to say, oh, you were lying. No, fine, this is your love. It’s one that burns and kills. You’re strange that way.”
– Gil Anidjar, FMK Beograd, On the Christian Question
In 1965, Tomás Paoli made love to a ciguapa on the sandy banks of the Ozama River. He would say later that he fell in love with other women, but my uncle is the kind of man who lies to himself. He would go on to survive several tangles with death, and no matter how many cigarettes he smoked, no matter the kind of trouble he got himself into, he lived to tell the tale of each dance with mortality. “God loves me,” he says these days, to himself as much as to the family. “I ain’t never gonna die!” Sixty-something and counting, he remains unmarried. Picks up women at the Port Authority GW bus stop on 178th Street, where he hangs out with his homeless friends, druggies and rehab rejects discarded by their families as he was by his. I’ve learned not to listen to Uncle Tomás, no matter what he tells me about the women he meets. He hasn’t fallen in love since 1965. In the end, the ciguapa was the only woman who reached his heart.
In 1958, Tomás and his brothers spent their days swimming across the Ozama River. Tomás was eleven, and his brothers were about the same age. They raced the neighborhood boys into the distant water, through the sun and heat, and by the time they reached the other side their friends would have only traversed two-thirds of the river’s breadth. The Paoli brothers were fast as barracuda in the dark blue waves. They had the stamina of bluefin and the lungs of whales. No one on the island could swim like they did, could lay strokes through the waves and kick into their wake without a splash, could last that many minutes beneath the surface.
Uncle Mike describes this to me at Thanksgiving. His four other siblings, their spouses, and their children have gathered around Titi Lourdes’s living room in the apartment on 169th, plates filled with steaming chicken and moro. Some of us sit on the couch or a chair, and others are standing. Conversation has scattered. Mom, Uncle Tomás, Uncle Carlos, and I listen as Uncle Mike describes one of the days they raced their friends in 1958. He relishes the memory. It looks as if he is about to close his eyes.
“Tomás was always ahead of us,” he says, shaking his head but smiling. I picture Tomás’s arms moving in and out of the river with the efficiency of a trained rower’s oar. The water would flow around him, filling his pores, eyes, mouth, ears, and nostrils with its cool touch. “But Carlos and I, we were close behind,” Uncle Mike adds. “Más o menos.Not that far. He thinks he was.” The neighborhood boys remained pricks of foam far away.
But young Tomás didn’t know that.
“He never looked back,” Mom explains to me from across the couch. There is salad stuck between her teeth. “Like those brothers in that movie. Gattaca.”
Uncle Tomás, seated beside me and smelling of cigarette ash, nods to her, swallows a glob of plátanos maduros, and points his fork into an invisible distance.
“Straight ahead,” he says, nose raised.
He kept swimming, already five-foot-three with arms as long as the trunks of baby trees.
The Paoli brothers climbed onto the opposite bank and collapsed into the sand and grass. Caked with grains of coral, salt, and seashells and basking in the sun like breaded fish on the frying pan, they turned onto their backs and watched the river of sky overhead. Tomás had never seen an ocean without waves, a river without rapids, a pool without ripples. The Dominican sky was not like this. This sky was a body no one, man or nature, had tampered with. One day, Tomás thought, I will swim those waters.
He turned to his brothers and smiled. “Too slow!” he stuttered. “I b-beat you again!”
“You had a head start!” Miguelito yelled back.
Carlos nodded, quiet but in agreement.
“You shoulda started faster,” Tomás replied.
Miguelito and Tomás stumbled to their feet, swinging at one another madly with arms heavy from exhaustion. Still they fought. “There are no Indians in our family,” their father, Rafael, used to say. “There are only Chiefs.” Miguelito tackled Tomás to the ground, dispersing sand as Carlos watched on. Mud and sand clung to their wet skin and their water-clogged swim trunks.
They wrestled until the other boys’ uneven, noisy strokes reached their ears. Tomás and Miguelito rose, bustling shoulder to shoulder, until the boys hobbled ashore, legs quivering. The three brothers stood.
These were the same boys who taunted Tomás when he was seven-years-old and mute. He still spoke funny to them. He still used the words they taught him. The bad words, words for maleducados. They were jealous that he was so blond. “Tan hermoso,” the mothers in the neighborhood would say. “The girls will go crazy for him.” Sometimes they would pay him to sit on their porch for an afternoon, a living decoration, because his hair was so blond and his skin so pearly white. Mom tells me the other boys didn’t like that someone their age, someone as blond and tall as Tomás, could be so slow to understand, that at first he could not distinguish their insults from praise. They didn’t like that he could outswim them and, eventually, beat them in a fistfight, a skill previously their exclusive domain.
In the long run, they won. Tomás may have been bound for handsome, but he didn’t stay that way. I know that now as I stare into my uncle's misshapen face beside me, a face that reminds me of fried plátanos, with a scar along his cheek like a ragged Martian canal. These days Uncle Tomás is loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed, grimy, unshaven, and accompanied always by the ineradicable stench of cigarette smoke and smelly feet. When I’m walking with him down the street and a pretty woman passes, he points and says, “You gotta look, man! You gotta fucking look!” Mom makes him shower before entering the house and wash his hands before plunging them into popcorn at the movies. She doesn’t even want him to show his face when her suburban friends knock on the door because she complains he’s feo and nosy and smells like old wet socks.
But at age eleven in 1958, Tomás believed he was destined for greatness. In fact, he would spend the rest of his life believing this, as if, now a registered senior, he can find the time to grow up. He still smokes voraciously. He invited prostitutes into this apartment, where he used to live with Titi Lourdes until the TSA arrested him for smuggling Colombian heroine into JFK. And he buys bootlegged DVDs from his friend in the Bronx. I can see it now in his eyes, determined but elsewhere. The way he chews his chicken and rolls the moro around his mouth with his tongue, as if he’s got all the time in the world. If he was never going to die, as he saw it, what fate could he look forward to? His destiny was not ahead of him but behind, in the circumstances of his birth. But, as when racing the boys across the Ozama, Tomás never looked back. He was a man pinned to the present, running circles around it, a whirlpool in the flow of the Ozama River.
“You were f-fucking slow!” he told the neighborhood boys when they collapsed onto the sand.
“Yeah, what took so long?” Miguelito demanded. “Had to adjust your bra strap?”
Carlos grunted assent. “You swim like girls.”
“That’s right,” Tomás said, pounding his chest. “I’m the R-R-Road Runner. You better b-believe it!”
Miguelito stepped forward. “I’m the Road Runner!”.
Carlos nodded again. He didn’t mind. He was the least Chief among the Chiefs. “Yeah,” he said. “One of them’s the Road Runner.”
The other boys shook their heads and glared.
Tomás and his brothers knew they were the best swimmers in their neighborhood. This meant they were the best on the island. Chiefs of the Dominican Republic, here to reconquer the place where Columbus spoiled the virginity of the New World. This place that was now theirs.
At the Thanksgiving party, Titi Gloria, overhearing from her seat on the arm of the couch, grips Uncle Tomás’s wrist and leans toward me. She tells me this was only the banter of pubescent boys. In their way the neighborhood boys liked the Paoli brothers. And the brothers—except for Tomás now and then—liked them. “Next time I’ll beat you,” the neighborhood boys would say, and next time they’d try. And next time they’d lose. They lied to themselves, told themselves they could compete with the Paolis, but beyond the machismo they regarded them as brothers. After all, the Paolis owned the TV. When the cartoons went on, Tomás, Miguelito, and Carlos would call from their front door: “The cartoons! The cartoons are on!” Children would pour from the streets into the Paolis’ living room, where my abuela, Milagros, resident matriarch of the block, would cook them okra and sancocho and my abuelo, Rafael, would ruffle their hair. The Paolis weren’t filthy rich, not Trujillato rich, but the neighborhood boys valued their role in the community. Rich and poor walked the same streets, sweltered in the same gecko-infested homes, shared the same meals, waited out hurricanes behind the same concrete walls, watched Bugs Bunny on the same kiwi-fuzzy screen.
But the Dominican Republic in 1958 was no utopia. “If Trujillo or his generals pointed at you and said, ‘I want you,’ ” Titi Gloria tells me, “then you didn’t complain. You said, ‘With pleasure.’ ” There were three sisters in the Paoli family: Gloria, Lourdes, and my mother, Dolores, who was four-years-old. Gloria was the eldest at sixteen. “I was very pretty,” she tells me. Trujillo would’ve plucked her from the curb if he spotted her. If he so much as smelled a whiff of her. If he so much as heard a rumor of a rumor. “The man was a giant chick radar,” a cousin interrupts, smirking, “as if to compensate for something smaller.” Milagros said she would wear a burqa and force her daughters to follow suit, if it came to that. Rafael’s mother, of German descent, had fed Trujillo’s family when they were living off scraps. In fact, she was Trujillo’s midwife. She carried him into this world with a generosity equal in magnitude to his otherworldly evil, a wolf birthed into the arms of a lamb. Had she known, then? Until she died, she would intercede on behalf of Trujillo’s many prisoners, delivering food and prayers to the bodies of the violated. Rafael’s cousin was a prestigious lawyer, one of a handful of notables in the DR who openly opposed the regime. By guilt of association, the Paolis were denied access to food and Rafael lost his job. “It got to the point where we didn’t even have milk in the house,” Titi Gloria recalls. No one would help them, as others feared a similar fate. “Because of my German grandmother’s history with Trujillo, my dad could’ve held any position in the regime,” Mom tells me. “But our family doesn’t do that kind of thing.”
In 1961, conspirators gunned down Trujillo in his ’57 Chevy. Trujillo’s son, Ramfis, continued his father’s dictatorship. The Paolis lived between two army strongholds, and every few days Ramfis would ride by in his military convoy and peer into their home. Gloria would cover herself and hide in the depths of the house; she would not allow him to undress her with his gaze. Against her mother’s prudence, she joined demonstrations opposing the regime. She describes herself to me as a prophet, a radical, sacrificing the security of her livelihood for the cause. “Not a prophet,” she amends. “Prophet-like. This is the kind of thing prophets did.” She gives me a needs of the many speech and recites her father’s words. “I want you to be your own person,” he always told his children. But Milagros knew the punishment reserved for the family of open dissidents. Gloria ignored her mother’s warnings, and Milagros beat her with escalating intensity until one day she cracked open Gloria’s skull. “You will not ruin this family!” Milagros bellowed. “I will sacrifice my daughter for the lives of this family, if it comes to that.” But Gloria was as stubborn and stupid as Tomás. That’s how Mom puts it, anyway.
Titi Gloria and Uncle Tomás snort in Mom’s direction. She is the only child, “the spoiled brat,” Titi Gloria teases. Mom waves a hand and continues the family history, this time with my abuelo.
She explains that during all this, Rafael was forging ground in America. His grandfather was an Italian-American soldier in the DR during the U.S. occupation; he’d fallen in love with my half-German great-great-grandmother and settled on the island in 1918. Six years passed before the country declared its independence. Despite being born in the DR when it was under American occupation and spending a few years in the States, Rafael had voted in Dominican elections. He could not claim American citizenship. He had to work connections, travelling frequently between America and the Dominican Republic, although no one in the family knew precisely what he did. He was supposedly a businessman, the first employee of the Alcoa mining company, but they suspected he worked for the CIA. Eventually, he arrived in New York with four dollars in his pocket, about to live the American dream he had perhaps, in one way or another, already lived. One by one, Rafael and Milagros shipped their family to the land of the free, ladies first, beginning with Gloria and Dolores.
Arriving almost half a century after his Italian-American grandfather, Abuelo’s connection to this place felt like something to be read in a book. That’s how it sounds when Mom tells me this story. Distant. But this is her favorite part.
“Were we leaving or returning?” she asks me over the dwindling piles of food on our plates. The chicken is beginning to cool. She asks me this question each time she tells this story, as if the thought is born anew.
“Mom, I know,” I complain. “You always say the same thing.”
She smiles. “Every day is a new day for me. I wake up, no regrets, no memory, nothing! Rasa tula.”
“Tabula rasa,” I correct. Her Spanish is about as bad as her English. She doesn’t have an accent, but her vocabulary requires years of practiced interpretation. Dad and I tease her. We say she only preserved half of each language.
“Yes, tabula rasa,” she replies. “You know the Renaissance guy got that from the Muslim guy?”
“You say that too.”
“Oh, I do?”
“Yeah. It’s Locke and Ibn Tufayl.” I wave a hand. “Keep going.” I want to know the family history. I want to know how Uncle Tomás became who he is.
Before Mom can continue, Uncle Tomás interrupts. “No, no,” he says, bits of avichuela spewing from his lips. “She doesn’t know about the ciguapa. She doesn’t believe that shit.”
Mom rolls her eyes. The other siblings groan.
“Coño, Tomás…” Titi Lourdes says from across the room. She trails off the “s” in Tomás so that it sounds like “toma.” Take. Everyone has a habit of saying his name that way, often when exasperated. “You never met a ciguapa. There’s no such thing.”
He laughs. “I more than met that chick,” Uncle Tomás replies. And then, as if it isn’t clear already: “I banged her!” There is a collective sigh. My aunts wring their hands. He turns to me, eyebrows jumping. “I’ll tell you the rest, boy, you listen up…”
He tells me how Abuelo settled the family in Spanish Harlem. In the family apartment on 135th Street across from City College, Tomás missed the days when he and his brothers would swim and swim. The water in New York was cold and polluted, dark like the night sky, not blue like the day. Even the days were cloudy, tarnished by plumes of smoke that rose over the skyscrapers. Someone had tampered with this sky.
In the summer of 1965, the Paolis returned to the Dominican Republic. Tomás and his brothers dove back into the Ozama River, into the warm water and the grassy sand and the sky that could not be tampered with. They raced each other and the neighborhood boys until the sky blushed.
One day, Tomás told the others to go home for the night.
“Gonna cross one more time,” he said, surveying the currents with an unthinking gaze. Was this home? He liked it better than Manhattan. The air here was fresh and salty. But he didn’t live here anymore, did he? He lived in the streets of Spanish Harlem, where the space between buildings hummed, where the air was thick and loud and smoke tarnished the brick-and-metal-pricked sky.
They jeered. “You won’t cross before it gets dark.”
“I will,” he said. “Watch m-me.”
“We’re not gonna watch some pendejo drown. We got bellies to fill, eh? We’re going to go eat your mama’s ropa vieja, eh?” The boys and his brothers clapped each other’s palms and beat their chests. “Eh? Watch TV and shit.”
“Go to hell,” Tomás said. “I’ll be b-back. Watch me. You’ll see. I’ll be b-back,” he repeated, like Schwarzenegger’s T-800 on a feedback loop.
I’ll be back.
He watched them laugh and swagger home as he turned toward the Ozama, breathing through his nose. He stretched his arms, swung them around his torso, gazed for a moment at the colors overhead, and ran headfirst into the water. This time he looked neither behind nor ahead. He simply closed his eyes and swam until his muscles grew numb and until the sand of the opposite bank came running down his torso. He beached himself like a canoe and lay face down for a quarter hour, waves crashing around his ankles.
When Tomás flipped onto his back, the sky was dark.
He dusted himself and climbed to where the sand was cool and dry and breathed heavily through his mouth. He decided to rest before making his way to the bridge a mile down. While his chest rose and fell, stars began to appear overhead. He hadn’t seen stars in so long. He couldn’t see stars in New York.
As Tomás reclined, he heard a splash interrupt the sound of flowing water. At first he mistook the noise for a small animal in the surf, but when he turned absently to the bank, he spotted what looked like a thick wad of hair crowning the waves. The figure emerged from the water, revealing a bony face, then broad shoulders, and finally a tall, slender body swaying in the breeze. It was a she. She wore a thin, wet shawl that wrapped around her torso and legs. The shawl, Tomás realized, was a long band of algae. Fine gills, pink in the starlight, perforated her neck and fluttered along the exposed sides of her torso. Her face was narrow and filled with broad angles, occupied by long niches of shadow along the ridges of her cheekbones.
She stepped forward, moving with care over the sand and grass, as if treading the surface of an alien planet. Her backward feet laid a trail of footsteps leading into the ocean.
His mother had told Tomás and his brothers stories about the ciguapas when he was small. That they had backward feet. That they lived on the seafloor and riverbeds. That they emerged in the night and returned in the night, the pattern of their footsteps made to deceive the unthinking eye into believing someone had entered and left rather than left and entered.
Her jade eyes glimmered, and she spoke in a voice like falling crests.
“I have never seen a boy as pretty and stubborn as you.”
He stood. He didn’t talk to girls other than his sisters. Not yet at least.
“You have hair like the sun,” she whispered, taking another step.
His heart began to thud. The night air settled into his damp skin. He shivered and struggled to part his lips. What could he say? What should he say? He was the brutish, handsome retard on the block, the hermoso with a brick for a brain and gold for hair. Ridiculous, beautiful, and speech-impaired.
She stepped again. He could smell her now. Fresh soil and a fragrance heavy and sweet that he could not identify. The bare, slick skin between her sternum and her gilled neck reflected constellations.
Are these stars the same here as there? he wondered, remembering New York.
He moved his tongue between his teeth. “Who…”
She placed her backward heels against the tips of his toes. Her heels were smooth, not calloused and hard as most feet are. They were cold. Colder than the sand. Colder than the night air or the black between the stars or the Hudson River in New York.
“You could not pronounce my name,” the ciguapa murmured in stilted Spanish, almost Catalan.
She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, and scratched her heels against his blunt toenails. She moaned softly.
“That feels better.” She smiled and opened her eyes, looking down to where their feet touched, his toes to her heels, before meeting his gaze. She bit her lower lip. “I had an itch.”
“Who...” Tomás repeated. Her reversed feet confused him like an impossible staircase.
She rested her elbows on his shoulders and crossed her wrists behind his neck. Her arms were hard and cold and stretched a distance longer than her legs.
“You have never met a ciguapa, have you?”
“No," he managed.
“Well know this, my friend: Few do. But I decided to break a promise. I broke my promise for you… Who are you, my friend?”
“Rafael Tomás Paoli,” he said, confidence growing, adopting for the first time his father's tenor. His great uncle was Antonio Paoli, one of history’s great opera singers, nicknamed The King of Tenors and the Tenor of Kings. His ancestor was General Pasquale Paoli, who founded the first constitutional democracy when he freed Corsica from Italy, only for it to fall into French hands. Titi Gloria has told me that Napoleon was Pasquale’s bastard son, but the dates don’t quite check out. What I do know is that if not for Pasquale, Napoleon wouldn't have been born French, so there's that blunder for the family name. Abuelo, the tenor, and the general—they blundered occasionally but they were grandiose men always, spoke of failure like singing opera from the Senate Floor. This is the voice Tomás used to pronounce his name for the ciguapa.
They stood, breathing one another’s air, until she raised her arms and laughed.
“What are you going to do? Rafael Tomás Paoli.” She stopped laughing. “Do you believe in love at first sight?”
He frowned and looked away. She returned her elbows to his shoulders.
“You have never fallen in love, have you, Rafael Tomás Paoli?” She stepped back and skirted in a circle, drawing a moat in the sand. Her hair spun round her, sprinkling him with water. “Do not worry,” she said. “I will teach you how to fall in love.”
She strode toward the shore, toenails glimmering behind her in the starlight.
“How—” Tomás began and stopped. She turned, forehead raised. “How do I, uh, f-f-find you?”
“Tomorrow at midday, look for the city beneath the church.”
Before he could think to ask What church? she turned and flared her gills. Uncle Tomás tells me that, if he looked only at her legs, it would’ve seemed as though she were doing the electric slide into the surf.
“Shoulda looked just for her legs,” he says to me. He’s finished his meal and his siblings have already migrated to the kitchen to drop their plates in the sink. It’s only the two of us now. Uncle Tomás looks away. “Damn, those legs.”
I roll my eyes. “And she spoke like that?” I ask him. “Who speaks like that?”
“Oh, that chick did!” he says. “Just like that. All formal. Like she was dressed up or something. You know. Like an old lady. But that body, boy...”
“You’re old, Uncle Tomás,” I say, smiling.
The family’s discarded him, yet somehow he was once loved by this impossible creature. I can’t help but wonder how he pulled it off, how he attracts the strangest friends. There is something in him not worth discarding, something I think the ciguapa knew better than any of us, perhaps better than Tomás himself.
He chuckles and gestures as if batting flies.
“Aaah, fuck that, boy,” he replies. “I’m not old. You’ll see. I got the angels watching over me. I got plenty of time. Don’t listen to your mother. You’ll see. I’m gonna live forever!”
He pushes aside his plate and finishes the story.
The next day, heart beating and face red, Tomás left home at dawn. He scoured the river banks until he found what he was looking for: a decrepit church hanging over the Ozama. Footsteps led to and from the river’s edge. Here the bank did not slide into the water. This was a straight drop, a rocky but vertical cutoff that, for what Tomás could see, descended as far as the riverbed several tens of meters below. Even in the clear water, shadow and natural detritus blocked his sight.
The church itself was wide but overgrown, so much so that he realized he had already passed it several times that morning without noticing. Trees covered the walls, branching from the earth as if reaching their tips toward water instead of light. The edifice beneath the overgrowth was beige, brown, and crumbling, interspersed with tall, stained-glass windows. Ancient pillars rose along its sides. Tomás didn’t think he’d ever seen a thing this old. There was an old man the Paolis knew, a neighbor Milagros had made him visit. She said it was important to visit the elderly. They remembered forgotten histories. They were wise. But this church did not speak. It could not remember. It could not dispense wisdom from its cracked walls.
During a family vacation, I find the place. It is old. But the water beneath it is not as blue as I imagined. Perhaps time has aged the river as it has the church. I wonder if time has aged the memories of my family also. Uncle Mike has told me stories about this church and the city beneath it, of swimming between skeletons of rubble in the murky water, but Uncle Tomás never mentions that his brothers visited this place. He insists that he met the ciguapa when he was seventeen, but he exaggerates. Mom says he was twenty when they returned to the island, but she prides herself on forgetting, on each day being born anew. Hardly anyone in the family seems to remember the year he or she was born. Each time I ask, the answers change. They confuse their birthdays with their birth certificates—they’re different, they tell me—and their dates of citizenship with their college diplomas, if they have either. My great-great-grandmother was from Santo Domingo, not San Cristóbal, where Trujillo was born, but my aunts unanimously agree she was his midwife. After all, she did pull weight with the dictator. Their stories are inconsistent, my narrative patchwork and invented.
As I stand over the bank and smell the river’s mud, I wonder if I can draw a line between my imagination and theirs. Does it matter that they lived these lives and I have not? I do not want these memories to become history in my mind as my great-great-grandfather’s have become in theirs. I want so badly to live these memories as they have.
1965 is a good number, I decide. There was a civil war in the DR and America was occupying the country again, so I’m not sure if my abuelos would have allowed the family to return, but I think about my cousins on Dad’s side these days, travelling to and from Pakistan like it’s no big deal. Titi Gloria insists this was the year, and Titi Lourdes says not to listen to her, but it feels right.
1965, I say to myself. Let’s call it that.
And so it was on that fateful day in what I will call 1965 that Tomás filled his lungs and dove beneath the church. He swam and swam, swam as only a Paoli can swim. The detritus cleared and the darkness gave way to distant lights. Beneath, a city glowed from the slitted eye of a crevice. Through the gash in the riverbed, he glimpsed pulsing, emerald towers and rows of huts. Figures moved through the aquatic borough.
When he felt his lungs begin to pound, he kicked to the surface, breathed, and dove again. Each time he narrowed his distance to the crevice.
The fourth time, someone squeezed his torso. He spun, blinded by the bubbles swirling from his nose. It was the ciguapa. Her hair circled her scalp, and her gills fluttered as if dragonflies had perched along her neck.
She gestured. This way.
He followed her through the particulate water and beneath the shadow of the church, where she led him into a cavern. Dresses, tattered and wrinkled, were scattered across the rocks.
“The priests used to smuggle girls here,” the ciguapa explained. “Not for the priests. For the congregation. From Trujillo. He made alliances with the rest of the Catholic Church. But these priests were not like the others.” She pointed at the dresses. “They left in a hurry. El Jefe found them.”
She touched the wall where someone had labored words into rock:
GOD IN HEAVEN,
TRUJILLO ON EARTH
She took his arm and helped him out of the water. As she spoke, Tomás watched her with an intensity he’d reserved only for his kiwi-textured cartoons, Clint Eastwood, and WWII movies. Where once he had stared, mouth agape, he now looked, truly looked, with the concentrated effort he usually reserved for a long race across the Ozama River.
“But El Jefe never found us,” she was saying. “He is another kind of evil, Rafael Tomás Paoli. Just as we are another kind of people. He is not like any man. He is more than a man and less also. Thank God he is dead."
Tomás was a survivor. He would grow into the most dysfunctional man I’d ever meet, the kind of sixty-something-year-old living on government disability checks and the financial benefits of his siblings’ more prosperous lives. But no love would repeat what he had with the ciguapa. He was lucky. Very lucky. Perhaps he knew this. Perhaps, although he would spend the rest of his days attempting to fall in love as he was about to with the ciguapa, he knew that it was futile. Perhaps this was why he would later search for love in mirrors of himself, people on the edge like he was, heedless survivors, as if to allay the hurricane that was the reincarnating series of dances-with-death that would sum to his time on mother earth.
For now, Tomás was about to waste a lifetime's affections on the ciguapa from the Ozama River, the woman with backward feet whose name he would never know.
They began to spend their evenings on the banks of the Ozama. Night by night, she taught him how to love. She taught him how to hold her face and how to hold her hips. She taught him where to run his fingers through her hair and when to wrap his arm around her shoulders. She taught him how to fondle her.
“Melons!” Uncle Tomás says to me when he tells this story. He gestures with dirt-stained fingers as if he's a kid describing to his friends the menu item at Burger King with the coolest toy. “Breasts—they are like big, soft melons!" he exclaims. "You should go out with some girls sometime, eh, boy? You should! C’mon, boy, do you have a girlfriend? You can touch their tits. Like fruit.”
He smiles through his yellow teeth and cigarette-worn lips. His eyebrows leap to kingdom come.
“Sure, Uncle Tomás,” I say. “Working on it, Uncle Tomás. Yeah.”
“No one? Ah, you’re not my fucking nephew.” He chuckles. “C’mon, tell me really, you fuck…” He trails off and winks. “Italian? Chinese? Chinese girls… Do you like Chinese girls?”
“Chinese girls are nice.”
Somehow this filthy old man was once the prize of a ciguapa’s eyes, so beautiful that she had spotted him from the depths of a river. So strong and fast in the water that she had at first—she admitted this to him shyly—mistaken him for a dolphin. Tomás grinned as she ran her hands through his golden hair and told him this, oblivious to the fact that it was a compliment.
The ciguapa’s gaze fell into the distance.
“I am afraid for you,” she said.
“Nothing to, nothing to, nothing to—” he stuttered. “Nothing to b-be afraid of.” Tomás flexed his muscles and smirked.
She shook her head. The niches of shadows around her jaw flickered across her face.
“No. I”—she pointed at herself—“am afraid”—at him—“for you. I am not afraid. You should be.”
He laughed. What was there to fear? He was the tough kid now, not the bullied fool. He was the one who had swum drunk across the grimy Hudson, who had taken an ice pick in the chest to fight an alleyway crook for a nickel. He was six-foot-one and growing. She was the one bound to the waves and delicate above the surface as a butterfly who’d newly shed her cocoon. She would never survive New York.
Her eyes followed the movement of his jaw.
“Here I am vulnerable,” she acknowledged. “But in the water, you are.”
“I can swim,” he protested. “I can swim b-better than anyone!”
She curled her body and sat up. “It is not about the swimming,” she said. “It is about what you cannot control. The current, the tide. The other creatures in the water.”
I want to know this moment. My uncle doesn’t have more to tell me. I only know the ciguapa through him, filtered first by his adoration for her memory, filtered again by his lifelong refusal to understand. I want to know why she fell in love with him, and why she stayed with him. Tomás didn’t think about any of this. He assumed her love, as he would assume the support of his family, as he would assume his inability to die, as he would assume God’s favor. All I do know is that, despite the odds, the two remained together. His stutter even disappeared for a few short months. The match was too peculiar for them to be other than true lovers.
What I see in him today are only slivers of the young man she knew and loved. These days, when he showers and wears his cleanest clothes, he’s very handsome. I can see the blond beneath the grey and white, a young man in a suit too old. I’ve watched his face illuminate when my little cousins run past. I can remember the hours he spent playing basketball with me when I was their age, how he huffed and puffed until the cigarettes made it impossible for him to play. I want to know that man. What I think I see in him, the ciguapa knew. I can only guess. Perhaps she too assumed his adoration.
As she expressed her affection, he expressed his in the only way he knew. He would climb coconut palms and crack open their seeds, feeding her their clear milk and white meat. He would pick fruit from the nearest tree and place them in his lips, then hers. This was a practice he had adopted as a boy and that he had taken as a habit. If there were fruits on a tree, why not pick them? They were usually sweet. He had never shared the fruit he picked until now.
“You are an anomaly,” the ciguapa said gravely, sliding her fingers through the hairs on his barrel chest. She paused and opened her mouth, drifting between awe and adoration. “You are of this land, but you have hair like a white man.” She placed her palm flat on his breast. “You have the heart of child.” She tapped his lips. “But you have the tongue of a tigre.” She gazed into his eyes; hers remained quiet and dark. “There is none like you, Rafael Tomás Paoli.”
Tomás struggled to make sense of this, let alone to formulate a reply. He could not digest words the way he climbed trees or swam. He hardly knew how to form them. He had only begun to speak at the age of seven. Words embarrassed him. He preferred the words the boys in the neighborhood had taught him. They were comfortable in his ears and on his tongue. Putita, the name of the local stray and the girl who wouldn't kiss any of the boys, not even a peck on the cheek. Hijo de gran puta, the kid with the lazy eye, the father with the alcohol problem, the man who wouldn't give them back the baseball they'd sent crashing through his window. Coño, the word to be used when something hurt or someone hurt him. Cabrón, the name for the guy on the other end of a fistfight.
But that day an angel whispered in his ear and told him exactly what to say to the ciguapa. The whisper pronounced the words in his mind syllable by syllable so there would be no mistake. Say this, the voice seemed to say, as if it were a spell.
“There is none like you,” he replied and took her in his arms.
As the summer aged, so too did their affections. The ciguapa used to emerge nightly from the waves. Now, she did so only every other evening, and then every second evening, and then every third, leaving Tomás alone for many nights on the cold banks. He admired the night sky and reminisced, surprsingly, of the filthy streets and black water of New York. The dirt from that place clung to him like nicotine.
Tomás missed the ciguapa’s intimacy. The ease with which she smiled. No man or woman in his life had loved him as she did. She had brought him wonders from the river. Fish the shape of boomerangs, sponges the color of red peppers, weeds that smelled of fruit and slid like silk between his fingers and hers. The boys on the block had abused him, his brothers competed with him, his sisters teased him, and his parents were too busy acclimating a family of eight to the streets of New York City to devote their hours to him. These people loved Tomás in their ways, but only the ciguapa demonstrated her affections. Only she cared for him with such gentle ferocity, as if she had blinded herself from any sight except his. I think she saw in Tomás the gritty beauty of the earth but also glimpsed her heritage, displaced from itself and borne from the world above, for he swam with the elegance and purpose of the most dedicated creatures of the river.
As the ciguapa saw in him the earth, Tomás saw in her the river, the island, the uneddied sky. She exuded calm and constancy, with eyes that did not blink and skin that did not wrinkle like raisins in the water. But something of the earth followed her as something of the river followed him. It lingered beneath her formality and the steadiness of her gaze, churning and mucked as Tomás himself.
Yet Tomás remained alone on that beach for countless nights. Had she pretended to befriend him like the boys in his neighborhood? Had she abandoned him? What race would he have to win to show her who was number one? Against what obstacle would he need to demonstrate his tenacity? He could refuse the boys on the block a look back. But he could not refuse her. How strange that to watch her move toward him was, if he didn’t check his senses, to watch her walk away. As if she were grinding up to him, ready to dance merengue to a tune only she could hear. With the ciguapa, movement was a backward thing.
I like to think she still loved him. I believe she did. I know she did. She was protecting him. Not his body, for his body would always survive, but his spirit, for his had not yet taken form, had not yet developed the barnacled hull that would ferry him from each tragedy to the next. The ciguapa loved in him what I have only had the opportunity to pity: the simple heart beneath the shielded exterior; the ease of his smile, like hers, no matter how old or ugly or improperly timed; his colloquial relationship with God; his irreverence for the Devil and his trials. Below the choppy waters of Tomás Paoli, beneath the cat-calls and the cheap booze and the Marlboro Reds, was a child’s attachment to life, a perseverance of wonder that could not implode with puberty or break with adulthood or peter with old age. As he took long walks on the beach and dawdled for hours climbing trees during his youth, he spends these days—the only days that I have ever known him for—enjoying long strolls across the length of Manhattan. And if he tries to love again, as he has, he does so with every charcoal breath he’s got. Tomás Paoli cannot erode.
But he is a very difficult man to love. “He doesn’t think,” Titi Lourdes told me once. “He just does whatever! He believes he owns the world.” In this, I think the ciguapa believed she could be of service. Something had changed beneath the river, and she wanted him out of it. She would swim to the depths of the oceans for him, battle the fiercest demons of the sea and of her people, but not if doing so let these demons loose upon him. She believed he would understand that her distance indicated their time together had reached its end.
Tomás, being Tomás, did not understand. I suppose, like the rest of the family, he has as many problems making sense of distance as a ciguapa does. He took her absence as a call to arms. He remembered Gloria’s bravery against Ramfis Trujillo, his father’s words—“Be your own man,” he recalls to me—and, it seems, chose to forgo his mother’s prudence.
As the summer of 1965 reached its end, he swam beneath the church and entered the cavern. There he rested until his lungs were to capacity, climbed to the highest rocky perch, and dove. He narrowed his body like a sparrow piercing through wind, conserving energy through the intuition of his muscles. For seconds he sped through darkness. Seaweed and minnows brushed against his figure. As his ears began to pop, the blue light of the aquatic borough revealed itself through the crevice, interrupting the blackness.
Tomás angled his form so that he passed through without stopping to maneuver. He blinked as he sped into the luminescent borough, as if he were staring into the irregular, flashing heart of Times Square. But the place below was no city. No looming edifices or gargantuan monuments stretched in either direction. The buildings were stout and round, squeezed against one another at irregular angles like oysters. Tomás observed no streets; the ciguapas emerged from orifices laid atop the buildings like blowholes and swam above the roofs and between the coral, vegetation, and rock scattered across the unending floor. He tasted salt in his mouth. The ocean had somehow reached this place.
Only the occasional tower rose to the pulsing ceiling, circled by thousands of bioluminescent plankton, like power cords running the largest disco this side of the Americas. Did they dance bachata here? he wondered. Behind him, jellyfish the size of MTA buses and tuna the size of taxicabs clung to the rock ceiling. These creatures glowed, pulsating blue, green, and yellow, shedding light on the population below. Several crevices lined the glowing mess, visible as streaks of black across the makeshift sky.
His lungs began to ache. He kicked upward and through the crevice, rested for twenty minutes in the church cavern, and dove again.
He explored further this time, touching the smooth blue surface of a building. The ciguapas stopped around him, eyes wide. He smiled and waved. They retreated into their buildings. Tomás allowed the smile to drift from his face, but before he could return to the surface, someone snatched him by the ankles. He whirled in a flurry of bubbles, struggling against his attacker. But his lungs, already exhausted, collapsed and invited the river to fill him.
He woke to the whimpering of tortured dogs. As his vision cleared, he realized they were not dogs at all. “They were the ciguapas,” he tells me. “Giant fat ones with crazy hair and superhero muscles and metal clothes.” His eyebrows jump as he recalls the memory. “Boy, those sons of bitches were it. And they were giving each other shit. I could see it in their faces. Those guys were pissed. But my girl, she’s there and she’s giving it back to them. I have no idea what she’s saying, but she ain’t taking their shit, you know? And I’m starting to breathe, coughing water and shit, and they give me this crazy-ass look and they start screaming like the fucking Predator, boy, taka taka taka RAAAAAH!—”
The men stomped their heels, knees bent, torsos reclined, alien in posture. The woman gave him a look somewhere between consternation and relief.
“You get yourself into too much trouble, Rafael Tomás Paoli,” she said. “You are nosy, my love. One day, I will not be here to get you out of the mess you make for yourself. One day very soon.”
Tomás retched and then gasped for air. He scoped the room. The walls and floor were featureless turquoise, smooth as a retro spaceship, except for a triangular opening that seemed to block the water beyond with a membrane like Saran wrap.
She approached him. Her hips swayed one way, her torso the other, balancing the pressure from her toes. Her movement was insectile, each foot placed ahead of the last with uncomfortable precision, arms extended this way and that like antennae. He had never seen her on a flat surface. She was as unsettling in this place as the cockroaches in the family’s Spanish Harlem apartment, angled and skittering on the white tile, earthly yet not. The other ciguapas looked at her but she waved a hand and spoke in a voice that stung his ears. She leaned over him and dragged him up by his armpits.
“These brutes cannot understand us,” she said. “They are the Viceroy’s Guard. They think I am about to drown you. You are lucky. They wanted to have your head. They will have to wait for that. You are very lucky, my love.” She smiled purposefully. “Tell me, now. Do you have your breath?”
He coughed again and rubbed his forehead.
“Do I have my b-breath?” he repeated.
“Yes,” she hissed. “Do you have your breath?”
“I g-guess I—”
“Good.” She pushed him toward the triangular opening. “Take care, my love,” she whispered, her eyes sullen and her gills deflated. The other ciguapas screamed again, impatient. They marched toward her, awkward but menacing, like giant beetles on their hind legs. She continued to speak, jaw clenched. “You are the last man I will ever love, Rafael Tomás Paoli. You must believe this with all of your heart.”
Tomás opened his mouth, about to say, “I do,” when she shoved him through the triangular frame and kicked him into the passing current. Her last words were, “Swim! Swim, love, swim!”
He flailed, losing air, until his blood calmed and he could make out the aquatic borough sprawled in all directions, foreboding in its volume and light. He swam up toward the nearest streak of black overhead, but already his lungs were pounding. Mere moments passed before he began to see spots and stars and his arms refused his will. His strokes lost their precision, his legs their strength. Each advance took a heavy, trembling effort. He held his body still and concentrated on every movement until he had pushed into the river overhead.
Once again, he felt blackness crawl into him through his sinuses, the blackness of drowning, of suffocation, of meters of pressure. The blackness he knew from the tricks the neighborhood boys once played on him in the shallow water. Quiet entered his veins and stilled their frantic beat.
As his eyelids fluttered, someone slid against his torso and carried him upward. He recognized the slick feel of the ciguapa’s algal shawl and the thick cloud of her black hair. “I never saw her swim so damn fast!” he exclaims to me. “Whoosh!” He makes a swiping motion with his hands. “Like a fuckin’ torpedo. The other bastards were down there, just staring, wondering what hit ‘em.”
She flew into the belly of the church, trailing bubbles and seaweed, his body clutched in hers. They sailed through the cavern and collided with the rocky floor, crunching fingers and toes, before rolling into a stalagmite. The ciguapa knelt over Tomás, pressed both hands on his chest, and pushed her lips against his until he began to breathe.
“I was, uh, you know, uh, pretending,” Uncle Tomás tells me, giggling. “Just a little bit. It was a while, you know? But she, uh, she wasn’t happy—”
As soon as he began to breathe, she leapt to the water’s edge, placed one palm on the rock, clumped her hair at her nape, and stared into the river’s abyss. Her gills flared and her toes bent, strained at a paradoxical angle. She assumed the poise of a mantis about to strike, mandibles retracted, hind legs quivering. A minute passed with her back to Tomás as he heaved water. She exhaled and whispered something that tingled in his ears until at last she faced him. She knelt backward, resting naturally on the hind support of her toes, and spread her arms in exasperation. Her skin was riddled with bruises and lacerations, oozing blood and puss. Her jaw was dark as mamey, and the gills on her neck were the color of sugar cane.
“What do you think you are doing?” she demanded. “Do you believe you can go down there and knock on doors? Would I do the same to you? Your people would burn me as a witch.”
Tomás perched on his elbows and knees, waiting for his heartbeat to steady.
“I could help y-you,” he offered. “I w-w-want to help you,” he said, louder.
She looked away and laughed. “Help me? This is not any old sticky situation, Rafael Tomás Paoli. This is life and death. For you and me. When Trujillo found this place”—she indicated the moonlit cavern—“my people did nothing. Such are my people. There are reasons for what I do.” She paused. “You could not understand, my love.”
Tomás’s lips curled and uncurled, his tongue searching for words he could never find.
“No,” was all he could conjure. “No! That’s not t-true!”
She crawled to the water’s edge and faced him on her knees. No longer did she hold a shield between them. No longer did she raise her guard or put on airs. She faced him as she was, her expression contorted by wounds deeper than the pain in her bones.
“I am sorry,” she admitted. “I am sorry that I ever met you, Rafael Tomás Paoli, that you eclipsed the sun above me, that I ever saw you skirt the waves overhead like a bird your sky. Have you ever fallen in love with a bird, Rafael Tomás Paoli? You spend so much time in trees. Are there men above the earth who fly as you walk? I loathe walking. I cannot move on land as I can in water, and my ankles begin to ache. But I yearn for the feeling of ground against my soles. Not riverbed or plaster, but the thick, dry soil of the forest. Beneath the water, I cannot feel the weight of this planet. Most of my people feel this weight only for its pain. I find it reassuring. More so than the weight of the river on top of me. The water is…suffocating. God gave us legs for a reason. Not fins. Our people came from the mountains, you know. We have forgotten who we are…” She sighed and craned her feet to dip her bruised toes into the waves. “You long for water, and I for earth. Our people do not.”
Tomás stumbled to his feet. “No, you can’t g-go!”
“I am going,” she murmured. “It will be safer for both of us. You will see. Be ready. A time will come. It will be easier if we end it now instead of then.”
She plunged, and Tomás followed suit but soon lost her in the darkness. His lungs were too weary to bear his search. He clambered into the cavern and waited until the sun rose. For the first time since he’d moved to New York City, he shed tears. At first they were scarce but as the sun illuminated the sky, they flowed with the effortless movement of the Ozama River.
He admits this to me shyly, hiding his crooked teeth with long, yellow fingernails. He shakes his head and looks over my shoulder.
“I was in a baaad place,” he tells me. “A real bad place.”
Several nights later, Tomás again found himself alone on the opposite side of the river, waiting for the ciguapa. Minutes passed. The stars gathered. The water departed his skin, and he could feel his pores fill with air. He began to shiver. He knew she would not come, though he had yet to understand why. A man like Uncle Tomás does not respond to trauma. Warning signs have always taken post on roads beyond the map of his vocabulary.
After an hour, he rose and dusted the sand from his swim trunks. He spat into the water and turned toward the bridge when he heard a splash and a grunt. He began to spin round.
A figure leapt from the water and dove into his back, knocking the wind from his mighty lungs. Tomás swallowed sand, felt the particles fill his eyes. The figure landed blows into his spine before turning him and pinning him by the elbows.
It was a ciguapa, a male. “A big, ugly motherfucker,” Uncle Tomás tells me. A burly giant with shark eyes and a silverback’s lumpy sixpack. Heavy as lead. His hair long and black, the remainder of his body sleek as blubber. Gills spiked from his neck, larger than the female’s, webbed and throbbing red. “Like one of them freaky dinosaurs,” Uncle Tomás tells me. “One of those crazy bastards with the things that go like this.” He folds his wrists against either side of his neck and flaps his fingers, bearing his rotten teeth. It looks like he’s doing a silly face for one of his younger nephews. The scar across his left cheek keeps it real. “The guy stares at me like this is it and he goes—”
“You fucking her, boy?”
He struggled, muscles writhing, cursing into the air. It’s just like Uncle Tomás to shatter relationships. It’s very funny, you know, if you don’t take into account the fact that he was about to get nearly pummeled to death by Aquaman. The ciguapa’s boyfriend. He looked like Aquaman. Ludicrous and noob—if there were noobs in sixties aquatic culture—but buff as hell. This is how Uncle Tomás describes him to me, as if he has molded this new adversary from his childhood comics. He thinks his life is laughable and that, like his favorite superheroes, his Creator will resurrect him from one edition to the next, Vol. 1 to Vol. 2 to Vol. 3, battling foe after foe, generation after generation, ageless and molted to some fantastical and endless present. Striding backward against the progress of time.
But he is not leaving the suffocating waters of his past, as he believes he is. He is bound to them. Tomás can’t avoid trouble. This is his curse. Nothing in his life lasts very long. That is why he seems to live so many of them, as if the universe thinks it can make up for their brevity with quantity.
“Who?” Tomás screamed. “Fuckin’ who, man? Fuck y-you, man—”
“You know who.”
“Who?” Tomás asked, eyes wide.
He didn't wait for the reply. Tomás never knew a lot of things. He never quite finished school. He never figured out how to read a book cover to cover or got past algebra. But he knew how to survive. He saw a fight when it was coming, and he knew he could never talk himself out of one. So he talked himself into it.
“She didn’t tell me her name.” He blinked away sand and grinned. “Why?” he jibed. “Are you fucking her, man?”
The boyfriend’s gills flared the wingspan of a hawk. He released Tomás’s left arm and pressed his knuckles against his own hairless jaw.
“See this, cabrón?” the ciguapa said and raised his fist. “This is dy. Na. Mite.”
“You’re the fuckin’ cabrón, man—” Tomás managed, before his opponent’s knuckles collided with his chest.
The blow sent him to a dark place. Tomás lingered there, bobbing in the ether of his soul. But he was a Paoli. He had the lungs of whales. It was as if all those years in the Ozama had been spent to spare him this moment, to give him strength as he treaded the dark pool between this life and the next. As if God truly loved him. As if Tomás was not about to learn that his curse was not death but living.
Tomás grappled in the darkness, wrestled with it. He tells me the Devil was there. “I messed him up real good,” he tells me. “I gave it to that son of a bitch. I told him I was outta there. I told him, I’m on a mission from God.” Tomás climbed through the ether, feeling his body return to itself, feeling his lungs return to air, his eyes to light—
He emerged before his opponent’s shark eyes, gasping, smelling sweat and dead fish. The boyfriend’s eyes bulged in shock.
The ciguapa raised his fist again and swung.
This time Tomás rolled, taking the ciguapa’s other arm under his body and kicking forward, cracking it. The creature bellowed and faced the moon. Tomás kept rolling, pushing the body facedown and then mounting it, the ciguapa’s toes wiggling in the air. He sat on his opponent’s upper back and pressed the bare soles of his feet into the ciguapa’s head, forcing his face into the sand. Uncle Tomás paints the picture for me blow by blow like he’s trying to convince Dad that the bootlegged DVDs he bought from his friend in the Bronx are tip-top, narrating the detail of every swing, block, and duck as if to prove that he really did see Iron Man 2 or Terminator Salvation or The Expendables kick ass in perfect detail.
The ciguapa thrashed, arms stretching to reach Tomás around the bulk of his body, legs spazzing, gills going full dinosaur, kicking sand skyward. The boys on the block had done this to Tomás in the river several times. This was how he developed his underwater stamina. You thirsty, pendejo? You fucking thirsty? Now he reverse-engineered the process without a moment’s hesitation. It was easier to understand drowning from the perspective of the drowned.
The body slumped. The dino gills receded, limp as wet feathers.
Exhausted, Tomás fell onto his back and watched the stars, remembering the first time he laid here at night, when the woman with no name first approached him. You are an anomaly, Rafael Tomás Paoli. You have a mane of gold. Are you a white man, Rafael Tomás Paoli? You do not have a white man's name. You are an anomaly…
Soon a second ciguapa stepped onto the sand. This one was gaunt and short. His hair was silver and his eyes were hidden by folds of skin. Several more emerged from the shallow water, including the woman with no name. The first and last woman Tomás would love. The rest of the ciguapas would make sure of that momentarily.
He began to stand but their heads turned from the dead boyfriend to him. The silver-haired ciguapa shook his head. Tomás knew not to fight back, that the cost of fighting exceeded the gain. It was not a calculation for him. It was a feeling in his gut.
Silence, said the voice in his head, his brother Carlos's. Quiet.
The silver-haired ciguapa knelt and picked the corpse by the balls of its feet, then dragged the body on its belly backward—forward?—into the water. The others rose wordless from the surf and paced the bank, ruffling the footprints. Only the woman with no name remained in the water, watching Tomás with her jade eyes. He thought he noticed a sad smile on her lips.
The ciguapas returned to the waves, and the silver-haired one faced Tomás. He nodded to him and spoke in a voice high in pitch but resonant, from a place deeper and grander than his tiny, haggard body, as if bearing the music of whales.
“Rafael Tomás Paoli. I condemn your soul to the place outside of space and time, to the place where the great aspen grows to the weight of a metropolis, nourished by the flame it feeds. I banish you there so that you may wander this world and serve those you have not. I render impossible your erasure. I curse you with survival—”
The silver-haired ciguapa cut himself off and tilted his head. Behind him, the ciguapa Tomás had come to love placed a hand on her mouth, stifling laughter.
Up until this night, Tomás had only survived one death. The near-fatality of infant meningitis, the thing that had rendered him mute and, later, stuttering. His curse would be to suffer several more deaths, and it was in this second death, this second second coming, the encounter with the boyfriend, that Tomás Paoli would be cursed to survive the rest. Mom likes to say that he’s got so many lives it’s like he’s a cat. Nine lives, a series of resurrections to rival Jesus Christ himself. With each rebirth, Tomás would visit upon his setting an Armageddon. With each, he would come to dive in and out of time and space according to the merits of his cosmic affliction.
I know this is why the ciguapa was amused at even so dark an hour. What was the purpose of cursing a man already cursed? The act was so futile as to render its cosmic proportions irresistibly laughable, as pointless and ludicrous as “forty-two” was the answer to life, the universe, and everything. The silver-haired ciguapa had just realized what the female already knew, and what I have come to know, by bothering to care for this man’s damaged soul.
“Oh dear,” the silver-haired ciguapa continued, stating the obvious. “It appears you are already cursed. Who did this to you? Did you do this to yourself? Poor boy.” He waved a hand. “No matter. I curse you anyways, killer of cuckolds.”
The silver-haired ciguapa nodded once more, looked left then right as if startled from an ambiguous dream, and dove. The water gurgled with the sound of departing creatures. The woman was the last to dive, gaze averted, hair sparkling in the moonlight, the sad smile returned. But, seconds later, she too submerged.
“That was it,” Tomás tells me, shaking his head. “Don’t know what that old guy was talking about. Weird-ass son of a bitch.”
He looks down, eyebrows jumping again. I’ve never seen eyebrows jump so high.
As the ciguapas retreated to the place from which they came, Tomás retreated to his future, to 135th Street, then 175th, and finally 169th and Fort Washington Ave, to packs of Marlboro Reds and, until his liver ballooned, bottles of Bacardi. He’d left his home but his footsteps pointed the other way, kept saying he was bound for a better time and place.
I ain’t never gonna die. God loves me! I ain’t never gonna die…
Uncle Tomás was a fighter and a swimmer but never again a lover. He would try, but trying does not count in the game of love. He was a poor learner too. Shit went through one ear and out the next like smoke in a cartoon on his old block in Santo Domingo. What he did learn he easily forgot. Instead he continued on his trek for love, hitchhiking on kindred, apocalyptic souls along a road without direction.
Perhaps this was the nature of the silver-haired ciguapa’s curse. Perhaps this was the nature of Tomás Paoli. It’s hard to say. He’s oblivious to both. He is nature, after all. Lions don't contemplate their consciousness. He doesn’t realize he made love to a myth, a Dominican siren for all I know. That he killed her badass boyfriend with the mad determination of a shit-out-of-luck Jason Bourne. I don’t think he’s registered the meaning of it through that hard head of his, stubborn and anomalous and no longer draped in gold. People don’t make love to myths every day. It’s a very stupid thing to do anyway. What other outcome could Tomás have expected other than tragedy? A lack of foresight, that's what it was. From a ciguapa’s point of view, a lack of hindsight.
“Never saw that chick again,” he tells me, like she was just another one.
When I visit the church, I search its crumbled walls for an entrance, but there is none. I discover a narrow staircase leading under the foundation. I take it, inhaling mold in the claustrophobic dark, and stumble into the cavern beneath. I shiver. Although the sun peaks from irregular gaps in the rock walls, the geography of this lair generates a breeze that whistles between the stalagmites and stalactites.
Someone has chiseled the face of Santiago Matamoros into an outcropping of stone. The face is gnarled, contorted like a tear-stained painting. It bears tiny cavities for eyes, a nose the size of my thumb, and the outlines of a conquistador’s morion. By its side, the artist etched a sword the size of a pencil, and flecks of chipped stone mark its beard. The locals tell me mystics attend to the figure as a Catholic shrine, for it possesses properties of the unseen. They spend days fasting in this place, clutching their rosaries and searching for God. A woman with breast cancer lived here for a year, and the disease left her. Others, the locals say, have entered never to return. They tell me the face moves a few centimeters every year, creeping away from the water as its eyes peer in the direction opposite its igneous crawl. “Perhaps it’s yearning,” a man tells me. He shrugs. “Maybe conceited.” Over time the face shifts along the wall with a speed as gradual as the erosion of a riverbed. Uncle Tomás has not mentioned it to me.
“It’s from Santiago Matamoros,” Mom explains to me. “Santiago, Killer of Moors and Jews, from the Inquisition. Santiago is that guy from Othello.”
“Iago, you mean.” She’s told me this before.
“Yeah! That’s it,” she says. “The slimy one.”
I wonder if Nazis etched this shrine, a relic from that strange era when Trujillo opened his arms to the Third Reich. Did they curse this stone or was it born cursed, like Uncle Tomás? It perplexes me that the locals pray to this hideous thing, the emblem of the conquistadors who raped their ancestors—the Moors in Spain, the slaves from Africa, the Taínos of this island. Do they curse themselves with their prayers? I imagine the day that the face of Santiago Matamoros will slip through the tunnel and fall backward into daylight like a ciguapa who’s lost balance, unleashed upon the world with the fury of a caged jinn.
Someone has scrawled letters into the wall. The phrase is the reverse of what Uncle Tomás has described to me:
TRUJILLO ON EARTH,
GOD IN HEAVEN
I dip a finger in the water. It’s warm. I consider stripping to my underwear and taking a dive, but I don’t know the currents. I’m a swimmer, but I’m not a Paoli, not like Uncle Tomás. I want to be. I don’t know if I want to see what’s below, if I want to learn whether his account is real or not. I want to believe it is.
I climb from the cavern. Beside the church, I observe a fresh pair of footsteps leading to the vertical drop of the bank. The toes point to the river, as if someone has left for a swim, but the waves remain undisturbed. The trees behind me are obscured by leaves and shadow. I realize, then, that this place no longer reeks of mud. A steady wind unfurls from the depths of the forest, and I can detect a hint of jasmine. It is a scent as alien to this place as I am to its memories, as Tomás to death.
“Did you ever smell jasmine?” I ask him when I return to Manhattan.
“Jasmine?” he replies, after cursing and demanding I convince Mom to pay the airfare for a trip of his own. “What the hell is jasmine?”
I spend weeks looking for a jasmine flower that carries the same fragrance, and I forget about it for a while. Months later I recognize the scent in the back of a florist’s downtown. They are bunched in an open cardboard box, the petals of each spread into a cone the circumference of a fingernail, white along its edges and orange near its center. When I see Uncle Tomás next, I offer one to him. He lifts the flower into the air, pulls away as if bitten, looks at me, and sticks the grimy tip of his nose between the petals.
“Damn, boy,” he says, fumbling with the stem between dirty fingernails. The stamen has dusted his nostrils with bright yellow pollen. There is wonder in his eyes, big and clear as a newborn’s in the carcass of his skin. I can glimpse the hermoso my aunts have described to me, the tall boy with skin as smooth as sand and hair the color of the sun. The most beautiful boy on the island. He grins stupidly. “Damn, boy,” he says again, eyebrows jumping. Just another one. No big deal. He shakes his head. “Damn, those legs…”