I was seven years old the second time my mother almost died. I didn’t know why she was putting on her shoes at nine at night, didn’t know she had been a pack-a-day smoker since her freshman year of college. It was during one of those endless Florida summers when she woke us, creeping through the house like a pensive ghost.
“Vistiensen, mis amores.”
She peeked into the darkness of the bedroom my sister and I shared, backlit by the hall fluorescents. We dressed in a dim, groggy silence, obedient children, wholly unafraid.
She leaned on us as we crossed the street, mute to our questions, limping and hopping through our overgrown lawn. She held a plastic shopping bag with a shoe in it, smiled an apology at me as it bumped my shoulder with every step. At seven years old, I was almost her height. At seven years old, I didn’t realize how tiny she would always be.
The bruja across the street was technically not a witch. She was the wife of the pentecostal minister where we attended church. Four nights a week and twice on Sundays, we were reminded in shouts and hymns that the world was ending. That summer, we were ready for it.
At her kitchen table, the bruja traded whispers with my mother in a bright, drawling Spanish while we blinked, sleepy and enthralled by her massive store of potions and spices. The air bit at me, sharp with onion and ginger under the warmth of clove and stewed garlic. At seven years old, I didn’t know that my mother couldn’t cook. That having more than five spices was perfectly normal. At seven years old, everything was a kind of witchcraft.
The shopping bag opened with a rustle, revealing one of our mother’s sensible flats. She displayed it, reverent and a little ashamed, hands trembling, delicate with fear. She turned the shoe over and showed us. A small black scorpion, twice-stomped, fell to rest on a vinyl placemat. We stood, tiptoed and fascinated. Our little jaws dropped. One of the scorpion’s pincers had come off, like a toy broken in its packaging. The bruja inspected it with dark, curious eyes, poked it with the back end of a butter knife. Satisfied it was dead, she prodded it into a ziploc bag for safekeeping. I can still see the slow, knowing wink she gave me.
“Va ‘star fine.” The bruja smiled.
She stepped away and our mother reassured us, dismissing my sister’s talk of hospitals and ambulances. At seven years old, I didn’t realize scorpion venom could be fatal. I didn’t realize we were living a secret.
The bruja lit a candle, lending the kitchen an air of sacrament. My mother hiked up her house dress and leaned on us as she clomped her bare foot onto the table. Her big toe was swollen, the skin rough and red with poison. She squeezed my little shoulder, wincing while the bruja examined her, hurting in ways she would never tell us.
The bruja held the sewing needle out to us like the opening of a magician’s trick. Ordinary steel, transformed by the old woman’s brown paper hands into something life-saving. When she poured two fingers of rubbing alcohol into a Collins glass, the smell turned the kitchen into a hospital. She had our mother look into the candle and our eyes followed hers, transfixed. The bruja held the needle to the flame for a long moment and the room seemed to darken around us. She put the needle to the alcohol and the smoke and hiss it made felt angry, alive, magic. At seven years old, I was certain it was.
When the needle was put to my mother’s toe, she squeezed my shoulder again and I wanted her to. I wanted her to squeeze me until it stopped hurting. I didn’t know things didn’t work that way.
My mother’s blood—thick drops streaked yellow with venom—fell into the Collins glass of rubbing alcohol, blooming into clouds, grotesque and beautiful. I remember the satisfaction in the bruja’s eyes when the yellow had run its course and it was just my mother bleeding into a glass at her kitchen table.
I don’t remember going to sleep that night, but I must have. I must have crawled into bed, thrilled and exhausted, drowsy and powerless against the living fever of a Miami summer. I must have slept while my mother smoked her vigilant cigarettes, alone in the moonlight. I must have slept while the world got a little closer to ending in those million little ways we never notice.
Joaquin Fernandez is a recovering filmmaker and Miami native perpetually tinkering with his first novel. His fiction has appeared in Okay Donkey, Cotton Xenomorph, Rhythm & Bones among others. He’s also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best Small Fiction Prize, as well as being A Foreword INDIES Finalist. He can be found on Twitter @Joaqertxranger.
Artwork by: Arturo Rojas
Born in Mexico in 1963, trained as an architect, Arturo established the multi-disciplinary firm Archon Design in Minneapolis in 1991. Despite having no formal training in photography, Arturo’s candid photographic work focuses on discovering and capturing those spontaneous unguarded moments, offering us a personal insight to the life that surrounds him. His work has been featured in Communication Arts, adiseño and shown at the Perfect Exposure Gallery, Los Angeles, Alti + Bir Gallery, Ankara, Turkey and can be found in private collections.