I cannot clearly say how I had
the wood; I was so full of sleep
the point where I abandoned the
–Dante Alighieri, Inferno 1.
Puerto Rico, 1973
Oak trees dripping with Spanish
moss embraced us from both sides, but not enough to shield us from the prison
that would be my home for the next seven months. The high stone walls and
neo-Gothic bell tower loomed over us as my stepfather drove his Mercedes
through the spiked iron gates and into the sloping, curving driveway.
A spider of dread crawled up my
back. Prison indeed.
I couldn’t believe it had come to
this. The way things had blown out of proportion. I’d only wanted to contact my
dead father. Ask his forgiveness.
mother reached for my hand from the front seat without turning around to look
at me. I stared at her perfectly polished red nails and the glittery square cut
emerald on her ring finger. Her fingers flicked, silently pleading for my
attention, but I was frozen inside. Her hand retreated.
I stared at the convent, my eyes
studying the pointed arched windows, the worn, age-blackened stones. The place
looked haunted. Perfect for my state of mind. What was my mother thinking?
Something moved behind one of the
windows. A face. For an instant my pulse raced at the sheer paleness of it, at
the two dark holes that made up its eyes.
“What are you looking at?” Sara,
my six-year-old half sister, asked.
I pointed. “A girl.”
She followed my line of vision.
“There. High up. In the window.”
dipped her head so she could have a better look. “I don’t see anything.”
felt a shiver, but not from the cold. It’s white. It’s watching us.
the car moved too close to the building, and the face vanished from view.
this your new school, Paloma?” Sara asked.
nodded. Sara was the child, female version of my stepfather. Her bottomless dark
eyes, framed by velvety lashes, stared at me with misery. “I don’t like it,”
she whispered, grabbing my hand.
be okay,” I whispered back, and gave her hand a little squeeze.
here we are,” Domenico said in his strong Castilian accent, stopping the car in
front of the entrance. He climbed out and opened the door for my mother. Then
he proceeded to take out my suitcases from the trunk.
mother was silent. She stepped out like a wooden mannequin, her eyes shimmery
with unshed tears.
climbed out, followed by Sara, the gravel crunching under our shoes. The early
morning air was cool and a blanket of mist still lingered—not surprising, since
the convent was on the outskirts of El Yunque, the island’s rain forest. More
Spanish moss hung from the oak trees and rippled in the breeze like long,
shivering memories. I could smell the dew on the leaves and the rich perfume of
moist earth, redolent of open graves.
glanced at the ominous clouds. “Beautiful morning.”
An ongoing distant hum resonated
all around us. One, two beats passed, before it struck me: Waterfall.
Something within me shut down—or
exploded, I couldn’t be sure.
I shut my eyes for a second,
wiping out memories of chilled water searing my lungs.
repeated the eighth multiplication table in my head. This always helped.
“After you,” Domenico said,
interrupting my thoughts.
I wanted to loathe him. Tried to,
anyway. I could see what my mother saw in him: a powerfully charismatic,
handsome man with the infinite skill to make people do his bidding. My mother,
with her small delicate features and petite frame, looked invisible beside him.
A mere spectre. But that was just a façade. I knew better.
big oak door opened and a nun clad in black habit and a wimple came down the
steps to greet us.
wrapped her arms around my waist. Her gesture both comforted me and heightened
my anxiety. Nuns in habit made me think of great black birds.
the nun said. Like my stepfather, she also had a Castilian accent. “I’m Madre
Estela and I’m second in charge to Madre Superiora. You must be Señor and
Señora de Aznar.”
exchanged small talk. Madre Estela sounded polite enough, but she didn’t offer
to shake hands with my parents, which I found strange. Maybe nuns weren’t
allowed to shake hands. I wouldn’t be surprised. I noticed the wedding band on
her ring finger. Married to God. Absurd.
must be Paloma,” she said tonelessly.
I said. Wasn’t it obvious? I didn’t know what else to say.
cross on her chest caught my attention. It had a crucified Christ on it and I
noticed the thorns cutting Christ’s forehead, the little drops of blood
glistening on His fragile body.
to our school, Paloma.” Her critical gaze scrutinized my makeup, my tight
jeans. “I’ve heard much about you.”
I didn’t miss the hint of cold
disapproval in her voice. I wasn’t sure how much my parents had complained
about my behavior, but considering I had been kicked out—well, actually, kindly
asked to leave—from my previous school in the middle of October, it couldn’t be
you ready to resume your senior year of high school?” Stress on resume.
can’t wait,” I said. There was no point in being nice—or pretending to be. That
just wasn’t me. I felt miserable and couldn’t hide it. Besides, I could tell
from our short exchange that she’d made up her mind not to like me long before
meeting me, and I had the sinking feeling that no matter what I said or did,
her opinion wouldn’t change. I had already been stamped in her Inquisition
book, tagged a criminal.
Estela’s stony eyes moved to Sara. My little sister’s arms clutched my waist
even tighter. From the nun’s expression, I could tell she was wondering if I
had infected Sara with whatever plague ailed me. She dismissed us and turned
back to my mother and stepfather. “Madre Superiora is expecting you in her
office. Let’s not keep her waiting.
Don’t concern yourselves with the suitcases. Someone will come for them
thanked her and followed her up the steps.
don’t want to go in,” Sara said.
“It’ll be okay,” I said. I
glanced at the window. I wanted to see the pale face again. But there was
drop of rain hit my cheek and I wiped it off. Then I held Sara’s hand and
together we walked up the steps and through the arched doorway.
I felt my throat closing up.
Seven months wasn’t that long,
was it? Besides, Thanksgiving break was just around the corner. Six weeks, to
be exact. I had already marked my calendar. I couldn’t wait. I would go through
the motions, no need to make friends that I’d never see again. When you get
close to people, you end up getting hurt.