Palingenesia: Part 1

Before she dies, Soledad stares at the passing landscape through the window of her mother’s truck and wonders where God is. It’s been forever that she’s been living like that: watching life pass by while she’s trapped behind an invisible, impenetrable layer.

Her mother, María, is driving with one calloused hand on the wheel and the other holding Soledad’s fingers. María’s fingers are warm, and her grip is firm.

The rays of sun peeking through the gray clouds strike María’s face, giving her tawny skin and white blouse an ethereal glow. Almost everything about her is deliberate: her curly black hair is precisely styled; her dark brown eyes don’t look anywhere without her meaning to.

The only part of her face that María doesn’t control is the thick furrow between her eyebrows; Soledad is the one who put it there.

Soledad recalls how María always says, “You can tell me anything, mija.” But she knows that those words are only her mother’s ploy to find out if she’s been with any boys. Today, Soledad wants to answer that prompt truthfully, but she’s not ready. Not yet.

As the truck hobbles down the dirt stretch ahead, Soledad spirals into her memories. She’s been chasing them recently. Perhaps memories are the answers she needs to figure out who she is.

“¿Que pasa? You look like you want to tell me something,” her mother says, jolting Soledad out of her daydream.

“Nada. There’s nothing.”

“¿De verdad? You’ve been acting strangely lately. You’ve stopped dressing like a puta.”

Soledad opens her mouth to retort, but she decides not to betray herself because to tell the truth would be to kill the person her mother has always known.

Back when Soledad was little, her mother would look over the back of the driver’s seat and say, “Soledad, you are a brujita. There is something wrong with you.”

When she said this, Soledad pretended not to hear the nervous edge to her mother’s voice, and she looked at her black shoes in shame.

         This always happened on Sundays when her mother would drive them in their ancient pick-up truck—always one bump in the road away from falling apart—down the empty highway back home from Mass. They would pass these red and purple flowers that bloomed in the fields flanking the road. In the distance were the rolling blue and green Tennessean hills. After that stretch, the highway started to twist around those hills, and around them, little waterfalls baptized the rocks below.

         Right before crossing the town line, they passed the rusting sign that read: Hollow Road. Soledad’s Abuela, riding shotgun, would look back over the beat-up leather seat, too, and her wrinkled face would morph into exaggerated seriousness as she began to tell Soledad the Story.

         Two teenagers—a girl and a boy—were making out (gross, Abuela!) in his dad’s truck at the dead end on that very road when they heard a wail in the distance. The boy went out to investigate (that’s stupid, Abuela), but he didn’t come back for a long time. Suddenly, there was a blood-curdling scream and then… silence. The girl froze in the passenger’s seat, but then she decided to follow her boyfriend into the dark. And when she tiptoed out of the car, all was quiet until a raspy voice cried Ay, mis hijos! and the Woman in White slit the girl’s throat and left her for dead beside her boyfriend’s bloody corpse...

        When Abuela was done with the Story—a meld of Mexican and Tennessean legends, refashioned for a new generation—Soledad would shriek. Her hands would shake, and Abuela would cackle in her scratchy voice and wink at her like the two of them were part of a big secret. María would then look at Soledad with a grave expression that sent goosebumps down Soledad’s skinny arms, and she’d tell her it was best to pray every night for God’s protection.

And Soledad did. She silently prayed that somewhere out there, God would vanquish her fear. But the scarlet blossoms began to look like blood flecked on the grass and her mother’s voice—continuing the lecture on the best ways to prevent ghost attacks (don’t make out with any boys)—began to mix with the truck’s groans and sputters until it sounded like the cries of La Llorona, the Woman in White.

When she looked out into the oceans of grass, Soledad wondered what dying was like, but when she thought about it too hard, she shuddered and resolved herself to never find out.

“Are you sure it’s not a boy?” her mother asks, glancing at Soledad. “You told me that you liked that boy who works at the grocery store.”

“There’s—there’s nothing. Like I said, nada.” Soledad fixes her eyes on the pink flowers that poke up on the highway divide like pieces of a broken heart.

“I told you not to run around with him. But you did, and now your heart’s in trouble.” After a long pause, she sighs. “Soledad, you can tell me what’s bothering you. It won’t be embarrassing.”

Before Wednesday, Soledad might have gushed about him, orchestrating her voice so it was high-pitched and lovesick. She might have lied to her mother, pretending that it was hard to confess that she had a crush on this boy. But Soledad can’t bring herself to lie anymore.

“If you don’t want to talk to me, está bien.” Disappointment laces her mother’s voice.

Maybe, Soledad thinks, those flowers are pieces of her mother’s heart.

Sometimes when they reached the town limits, her mother would pull into the parking lot between two grocery stores. One was called La Mexicana, and it had an old sign with a beautiful woman with red, white, and green ribbons in her braided hair. She always looked down at Soledad with a pitiful expression on her face, as if she felt sorry for her; Soledad always wondered how old this woman had been when she lost her virginity—if she’d ever been real.

The other store was the Dougherty IGA and it was even older, almost as patched and worn down as some of its patrons—most of whom hobbled around with canes or walkers and stood too close to Soledad when they questioned her about her relationship with a certain cashier.

When she was a kid, Soledad used to go into La Mexicana with her mother and Abuela, but in the months after she started high school, she liked to go into the IGA instead.

The reason for this was the boy who stood behind the customer service counter. Whenever Soledad entered the store, she saw that he rested his cheek on one hand, like he was having a romantic daydream or immersed in the eighties music crackling from the store radio. His name tag read: Jake Evans, and he had ruffled blond hair and gray eyes, and if Soledad got close enough to him, she could see the constellations of freckles spread across his nose and cheeks.

He was a good cover story, a white lie, to tell her mother, and it was easy to embellish their occasional awkward hugs at school, their platonic distance, and their amicable chats. Her mother never approved of the stories, which were as fake as Abuela’s ghost stories from years passed. For Soledad, it was better to have her mother patrolling her than to have her know that something was wrong with her relationship with Jake.

When Soledad visited Jake in the store, he would occasionally smile—likely because he was forced to—and she pretended like that smile was authentic and just for her. She returned it, forcing the skin framing her eyes to crinkle, and purposefully tapped her hand on the counter to feign nervousness when she bought the snack she wasn’t going to eat anyway. She’d remind herself to tilt her head and brush a strand of hair behind one of her ears, maybe play dumb—that’s what she’d heard the boys liked. It almost made her feel less wrong.

He never seemed to catch on; they were always friends and nothing else. Nothing more were the words that crossed Soledad’s mind.

One time, while she was purchasing a bag of chips, she mentioned to Jake that the Homecoming dance was coming up and that she needed a date. This only earned her a confused quirk of his eyebrows. She watched as his gaze darted—just for a moment—at the boy in line behind her.

“I’ll see you at school,” he mumbled, looking purposefully at the counter.

Embarrassment washed over Soledad as she fled from the store, only tripping on her heels as the door slid closed behind her. Why did he not take her hints? What could she do to be a normal girl who got dates to dances, who wasn’t only pretending like she wanted to go with anybody?

In the truck, when her mother asked her what the frown was for, Soledad lied again. She told María that she was having trouble with a boy (she did want to be more than friends with Jake, she lied to herself). Her mother rolled her eyes and tossed the bag of fresh marranitos in Soledad’s lap. As she cranked the engine, she began The Talk—again—and it lasted through the rest of the ride back home.

It’s summer, so the leather seat sears Soledad’s bare legs. Her church dress is longer than the ones she’s been wearing the past few months since she started high school, but there’s still not enough fabric to protect her skin from the heat.

Sweat drips down her face. She recoils because it feels too much like tears on her cheeks, and she’s been crying too much recently. With the hand that her mother is not clasping, she wipes the salty water from her hairline. Summer in the South is Hell—and the threat of rain makes the humidity intolerable.

She doesn’t know which is worse: marinating in sweat in the front seat of the truck or sitting rigidly in Mass like a corpse. She decides the truck is better. At least in the car, the Jesus on the Rosary doesn’t stare her down as he swings back and forth like a divine pendulum. In Mass, the stained glass windows have eyes; all of Heaven stares down at her as if contemplating whether she’s worth striking down. But no matter where she sits, it’s a lot of squirming.

“Mom,” she says.

María’s gaze is quizzical. “Yes, mija?” 

On the day of her First Communion, Soledad donned a poofy white dress with intricate beading. She slipped on tight, glossy shoes that echoed every time she took a step, and her mother went to painstaking lengths to meticulously curl her hair until there wasn’t a single flyaway left. For once, Soledad did not look like a brujita.

While she should have been excited, the car ride to that Mass was a solemn one, and as she slid back and forth in the front seat, she kicked the dashboard.

This was the first day she tried to picture herself getting married, and it was almost easy for her to look at her reflection in the glass and imagine her face with older, more defined features and a bouquet in her hands. What made it even easier was that she had to walk down the aisle with a boy who wore a tuxedo and had his hair equally gelled. It wasn’t that far of a leap to imagine a faceless man with slick black hair standing to meet her at the altar.

She’d never given it much thought before. She didn’t really like to think about it, and she couldn’t think of a single boy in the universe who she would want to marry. Or kiss. Or do anything with. (A month earlier, on the swings, Lacey had explained to her how babies were made, and Soledad had run screaming and cowered under the slide for the rest of recess.)

“Mami, why do I have to wear this white dress?”

Her mother held her hand. “It’s to show your purity. When you were baptized, you wore a white dress, too.”

“Then why does it look like a wedding dress?”

“Tienes muchas preguntas, mija. When you get married, you will also wear white because you will be pure. You will be a virgin. You don’t think about it now, but someday, you will have the desire to not be. But you have to wait until marriage—”

“Mami, that’s gross. I’m never going to do that.”

Her mother frowned. “You say that now, but one day, it will happen, and I just want to keep you safe.”

“Is La Llorona pure because she wears white?”

Her mother’s frown deepened. “La Llorona is evil. She is not pure. And if you keep acting like a brujita, she will come and get you.”

Soledad deflated like a balloon and sunk back against the burning seat. For the rest of the ride, she only continued to stare, tight-lipped, at her reflection, trying to conjure up some reality where she would want to get married… 

The drive back home after First Communion was equally morose, and Soledad thought it was more like athe funeral than a wedding or a celebration.

She had expected God to speak to her when the bread touched her lips. When that didn’t happen, she expected to hear His voice when she tasted the wine. But there had only been the pinched silence of the church and then the tapping of her shoes as she returned to her place, head lowered.

As she sat through the rest of the service, part of the stained glass window directly in front of her caught her eye. The sky painted in the window was purple, gray, and white and framed with black lines—the colors of a coming storm.

“Why did God make me a brujita?” Soledad asked her mother, thinking about that piece of glass as they drove back home. “Why am I different?”

María pursed her lips and didn’t look up from the road. “You’re only different if you make yourself that way. You choose to be a brujita.”

They passed the turn to Hollow Road, and Soledad wondered if the two teenagers would have gotten married if La Llorona hadn’t killed them.

Give me a sign, Soledad prayed. She folded her hands together and squeezed her eyes closed. I don’t want to be a brujita.

God didn’t answer.