Figure me as a house that wants to be haunted. A stretch of land that warps its visitors as it is marked by them. Children are pulled into my borders from all the places that are losing light. Most of these boys and girls are warned to try and sleep, to be normal and compliant lest they are whisked into the dark. Some of them are taken by my monster, my teacher. Noah. He is a folktale turned thing, but we are twisted together into one ghost.
The curse named Cuco and the bioweapon called Nisipa have been fair attempts at naming our most impenetrable components. We are a hole in the heart of the world, a strange diary for visitors to write in. Countless have been made to climb into us. Many are swallowed by the mouths of our bleached buildings.
And then there is you, exorcist. You are trying to be taken, unmade. Grown? Yes, my borders have stretched in the intervening centuries. What was once a small township now includes river and marshland. Abandoned quarries and forest. There is comfort in my vastness, in our symbiosis. Further expansion is unnecessary when our give and take have become communication and compromise. I have scarred you enough to be noticed. But do not worry. If you are returned back to your world, the only wounds retained will be inside you. Just be sure to never laugh with your teeth showing. After all, I am only as sorry as a process can be sorry.
And I know you are coming here to make a decision, so I am going to ask a question. It is the first step into a mistake:
What are the symptoms of an invasion?
Yes, I am testing you. Exorcists need to know what they are exorcising. The neurobiology of a weapon like me is a complicated thing to unravel, of course. You know there is a regulatory mechanism: we only invite those who are hurting. We are only entered forcibly by those who want to end their pain with thaumaturgy and salt. And this house is your home, isn’t it?
You are going to do something about your hurt. I can smell it. Perhaps you will even try and tame us. As a migrant that skitters within and across these borders, you recognize that colonization is more about reconfiguration and reducibility than it is about replication and subservience. Which means healing after I invade you is not the same as undoing my presence. There is no one you can bind to that promise. All we do is rearrange each other into different nightmares.
Whether to heal or hurt, I know you will confront me tonight. Now, now. You are not that unique. There are so many of you exorcists that we have named days after you. But as always, I will grant you a token of assimilation to guide you back into our dark lanes, a doll. This invasion has always been an invitation, in part.
And you have learned how to create a door, haven’t you?
Remember not to knock. You have always had a key.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s—this is just…I don’t know. A lot,” Elena said.
“You really need some help, Santi.”
Santi was smothered by her opponent on bloody tatami. She floundered to escape, slid out from underneath her enemy’s weight, and then the two warriors scrambled, careening across the cage. In an exhale, after the push-pull of bodies crashing, Santi threw the cross reflexively. She knew right away that it was perfect.
The orbital bone broke. Santi’s hand numbed but when the bones crashed to the ground, she forgot to shake off her shivering skin. Adrenaline tackled away the pain. There were thousands of screams. In a moment fashioned by years of blood and crackling joints, in a moment framed by blurred struggle, she went to check on Leslie (who grew a name after she stopped being an enemy). Santi hugged and thanked her. When the decision was read and she was announced the winner, Santi acquired the title of fighter. And the world acknowledged what she always has been, if only briefly. A Black girl who couldn’t give up.
Flags were waved, but in that moment they were just colours poking through flashing lights.
In between the ragged breaths, the punching and kicking and wrestling, the thank-you fist pound, she learned how to be alive again.
And when she is changing in her room later on, she remembers how, briefly, she was happy to win the right to breathe.
But the radio always plays and she can’t remember how to turn it off anyway. The sound of an invitation crowds behind the static of old conversations. Blade feet drag across her apartment floor, shearing, screeching. Santi’s back is turned to it but she has heard the wooden limbs being dragged for so long that it is almost comforting in a way.
She closes her eyes and waits.
It is the first touch of the doll that brings a rush of crushing feeling in. Moments slip into Santi’s closed eyes, and she feels the climb, the weight. Her feet are anchored but it is not enough. The doll scales her muscled back, rests its hundred finger claws on her skin. Santi tips into pain.
There is blood, and it nestles in the scars like water in an old cup.
Santi smacks herself over and over again, basks in the sting. The world is red static that bleeds into amber light. She knows she is crying but there is less of it now, less of her being pulled to live.
Santi keeps tipping. She tries to choke herself but her own hands are not enough to see darkness. Instead, the jiu-jitsu gis fill the room with the smell of Tide. They drip into the wooden floor. With her back turned to the uniforms, Santi steps on the chair for the third time, a number she does not know exactly but feels in her throat. She is growing more fearless. Acquiring capability in the slow ways of trying. The noose cradles Santi’s neck.
But she hesitates.
The cracked face of her broken watch does not change. The weight of the doll on her back does not lessen.
And the aftermath is the most judgmental silence. A silence with tomorrow. A silence with a courage that has to grow again to allow for another attempt.
She tries to sleep but morning visits her instead. The start of a rash creeps into her eyelids, snaps them open. When her fingers trace the ring on her ankle, when her nails rest on that raised cord of skin, she thinks only of the need to act. She scratches and pulls blood from the ring.
The radio spills into and out of her ears. She hears her own voice, conversations that never happened lapsing into conversations that are always happening. Elena’s voice, the crushing weight of her words. And other people, professionals with words like genetic disposition and thwarted belongingness.
Again, Santi blinks and in that space of time she is hanging, lolling. When she answers the radio—when she tries again and falls through the door in the floor like some lost satellite—she hears the same old word ring back,
learn to fall down, Noah said. This was the best advice he ever gave me.
And I learned.
The lake by the house no longer has any bones. It is water and coral bells. The children? They’re asleep.
The illness that rends them into silence is the same one that spurs them to dark action. And in a roundabout way, this illness is a type of
for her has never been an active choice. There is no time for burial. The bones cannot rest. They are reanimated in the sunlight, a graveyard dance in the morning.
She is so tired of walking the path, of doing the dance. That is why she will stop at the house.
There is a permanence to that decision, and it is steeped in practice: the vines that clog the sky have been choking her lungs for years.
Santi walks and even though the radio is gone she cannot help but shake, ruminations bundling with conversations in her bones and her mind and she vomits red chunks into the black grass. Another bruise made in the dark.
An exorcist is coming soon. She has dealt with houses before. And properties, children, men, women—so often so young. She has a rucksack with words in a book, letters to people she loves, a jar with pills and salt in it.
Her name is Santi and she is so sure.
I am going to help her. After all, no matter their age, they are all children in the face of a monster. In the eyes of a ghost.
They must all be guided to the mouth of an invasion.
Aldo appears from the grass after she vomited. He is a human boy that has been twisted into the shape of a cat. Aldo is Santi’s friend, returned to her. He is the ghost certain people draw out of the dark: when mourners lose someone, they want to be taken to where the lost went. To find them, to pull them back, to move on at the same pace as those who are gone.
Santi is following Aldo to meet a monster. She cannot see the house yet, not until the monster is confronted, but Santi can feel the township’s white buildings watching her as she reels from suffocation. The cat slowly guides her into breathing again.
“I miss you,” she says, trying to bridge a loss, but Aldo is different. “I’m sorry,” he responds, politely, distantly.
With bruised eyes, Santi trails behind him, shaking and scared to reach out to him again. But she now feels how she is being watched by Nisipa, the bioweapon-turned-colony: it is apparent in the snuffed lights of the candles, the broken lanterns strewn about the township. The dead flags, robbed of their colour. And what, Santi wonders, is a festival without its lights?
It is what an unmaking looks like. The silence of her father’s departure. Elena saying, “I made the decision for the both of us because there was never much between us to begin with.” An empty township. And now, Aldo’s response.
There can be no funerals, no resurrections when the world pretends nothing died. No one mourns when they turn off a light. Endings become not so much loss as a redefinition. A spell that rewrites the gravity of a decision. She is envious of its power. It hurts her in a way she can’t dispel. Santi thinks to put this magic back on herself, to undo the determinism that makes up her bones, to unwind her life away.
Aldo does not turn back to look her in the eyes. Santi tries not to hope.
Instead, the exorcist senses the windows summoning her, the house waiting for her. The comfort in this does not numb her to Aldo’s indifference. Santi still hurts.
There are bodies floating in the air above her, going back to their doors. White sigils mark the ground and even some of the ramshackle buildings. They are safety plans, hexes to deter the walkers. To bind them and raise them up again. The exorcist is the one who stitched them to this colony, and so it is with this talent that she creeps past their protections.
Santi is pulled towards the pale house. There is a hole in her back and its outline is infection green. That doll beats inside Santi like a heart in her spine, pumping a poison that allows her to withstand Nisipa’s sinister gravity.
As she descends, the exorcist is oriented and calibrated. Her neck is purple, stinging, but unbroken. Finally, Santi settles on one thought: there is no stranger feeling than being disappointed to be alive.
So she follows the cat deeper into the dark, where the monster is waiting to stop her. For a moment, it smells like her father.
And then the cat disappears. The scent of a river replaces him.
“Tienes que venir conmigo. Tienes una enfermedad y podemos ayudar.”
“No. I’m not sick, not sick like you think, not reducible to just that one word, and even if I was? I don’t want to. I’m fucking rational enough to make my own choices, okay? Deja me.”
“No quieres nada. Pero debes pensar de la familia, la reputación. No te estoy preguntando.”
“No, I just can’t. You are asking me, and if I want nothing, it’s nothing. And when did you try to be anything to me? You pretended, pretended real good, and then you got lost for a stretch. And you found yourself? Well, find your way back.”
“Yo soy tu Papa. No puedes hablar así—”
“No. I’ll talk to you however is fair. You call yourself my father. But what has that ever done for me?”
Another question calls me. A half-wrought threat tries to conjure my bones.
But I sit. I am stopped. Let me hold your hand so you can understand. Let me tuck you into bed.
Niña, this is what happens when a clock breaks: the heart forgets to tick. The hands are stuck in place, forced to lurk in the same minute, the same hour. Today has been going on for seasons. But this is what we are.
We have never known anything but the word monster. I need you to know that Noah has been here longer than me. I saw him in every half-glimpse, in the spark of every camplight fire. Every child that I saw held his countenance.
Noah stands here, in every moment that we are allowed. Slices of bright snakeskin peek out from the bandages. Noah’s lips still widen. His eyes?
I can’t see them anymore. He is hidden in yesterday, a rope that binds. It is the brashest determinism. Proof we are the ghost of a structure, the aftermath of it all. You are as bound by the rules of this game as we are. Cuco and Nisipa are not things or events so much as they are variables interacting. That is the way of illnesses.
But some of Noah’s teeth were stitched into my arm. They curved around a hole. Likani was the first day he dipped his finger into my skin. Slowly, surely, Noah stretched the blade of my forearm open. He stuck two tongues inside the opening—testing it for integrity. And when Norum happened and the light was snatched from the sky, Noah went to the sink and vomited into a jug.
It looked like red marmalade, chunks of fruit and old bones stuck in the jam. When he picked his head back up, Noah’s face opened. There were gums and no teeth.
“Do you remember what you told me? Say it again.”
I could hear sloshing.
“Teach me,” I said. “I want you to show me how to make the children grieve.”
Noah stroked the outside of my wrist with his forefinger. Slowly, surely, he poured the jug into the hole in my arm. And I drank him, remembering to be breathless.
Bioweapon Mar, baby-doll toy.
Those used to be my names.
Before I took this house as one of my bodies, I was young. I had grown used to being haunted. In turn, I learned to be the ghost. I swept across redwood floors, lingered in blood-tipped ferns. Noah taught me how to grow, how to keep my name in the mouth of every villager.
My body spans acres now.
Before Santi slipped through the door in the floor, she could see the radio working grooves into the maple: the beginning of an opening, the presentiment of a crossed threshold. Each word was an intimation that sheared the very foundations of the flooring. “I don’t feel anything when I see you,” said Elena. “If this is what you need to do,” said Farah. The door grew from an outline into a portal, a gamble shaped between each mirrored statement. I can’t anymore. You don’t work hard enough. There are better people for this, less selfish ones. You need to try harder, be stronger. So closed off. Overly emotional. You are cowardly, so fucking self-centred. Fearless.
And now Santi is trudging beneath a blackened moon, stuck in the moments before she decides to cross into a decision. Her throat is raw from when nausea gripped her stomach and vomited out a key.
“I am here for you,” Elena said, and the words were carried across the white fungus that strangled each tree. They nested in Santi’s ears, arriving at a door in her head engraved with an incantation for the night: every ghost story needs a premonition.
And Noah is at the foot of the green river, waiting. His pink face is bleeding, leaking black ink that slides across a broad white back. Ink that pulsates. Santi recognizes it all as her inheritance. A heritage of illness.
Santi stares at Noah, is paused by him.
“Some people are not going to be able to handle you doing this,” Noah says with a deep guttural sound, and the cluster of teeth embedded in his neck darkens: a dry rot, split into moments instead of months. “Everybody has been sad, everyone’s life is hard, you have to get over it. Are you just going to give up?”
Santi remembers turning back a dozen times from this very point. And so she walks beside Noah and holds his hand. His other face is a white canvas turned the colour of dark wine.
“I love you. You are sick,” Noah says, slipping between the voices of people as if they are masks, twisting their words in the way Santi always has. Contrasting them, folding time into a scattershot sequence of pain. “You need help. There is nothing you can do right, always fucking up and always hurting, hurting people, hurting yourself, yo recuerdo cuando me lo dijiste la primera vez,” a million other phrases, an alveolar trill juxtaposed against a smattering of prosodic variables. But they are a rehearsal from memory, reproduced and repurposed. “You are going to sever me. Fucking crush me. Are you really going to do that? You are making me, forcing me to be helpless.”
“I don’t think you can understand,” Santi whispers back. “I don’t think you… I’m not doing this to anyone. What do you want me to do? Tell you? Not tell you? Apologize for being like this? I’m not trying to hurt you.”
“But you are hurting me,” Noah says with Santi’s voice.
And then a wordless silence. A disconnection.
Noah mimes the sound of hyperventilating, the ritual creep of a panic attack. Temporality becomes a muddling of tenses with collapsing logic, and Santi is pulled in between and across its places:
i love you so much i am tired of you it is no one’s fault it is okay to change your mind it is okay to want to stop
“It has to be okay,” even when it isn’t, and they are both talking, one voice, and Santi grips Noah’s hand tighter, strains it of energy, pulls it forward.
Everything is happening and has happened between breaths. Kisses and anger.
So Santi closes her eyes. She walks into the river, but it is only knee-deep.
When her eyes are open again, Noah is gone. Her hand is white with spoiled milk, staining her black skin.
“I can see the house,” Santi says.
And so she does.
This is the way we keep our children. Home? Child, this is your only home. It has always been better here than there. We do not take children. We return them. Cuco is monster for motherfather.
Teeth? Tongues? You no longer need them. I will taste your food for you.
Let me keep you, save you, hide you from the world until you are ready to break the spine that keeps you breathing.
Let me turn your words to hisses and growls.
Sit, kneel. And let me ask you:
Why do people fear monsters?
Because monsters take them away from something. That is the fairytale lie. But I am only trying to draw you back to the well. Not so you can drown, no. So you can rest. Float.
Monster is another word for teacher.
Inhale, reach. And let me reassure you:
You are trying very hard. It is a deviation to exorcise yourself, to channel impulsivity into an avenue for capability. It is neither good nor bad.
Dying is simply the hardest thing there is to do.
It is not you.
It is all of us.
Noah sits in front of the canvas with Aldo beside him. Neither moves when I look inside myself, when I peer at them from my walls.
Green veins line Noah’s ivory back, travelling around his torso like a chain of ink. They pulsate, stretched across each layer of his veils. Noah has caught colours, but we all know it is for an instant. He is so white it blurs the night.
“I am drawing Santi in,” Noah says.
“I am assimilating her into us.”
Then, it happens again:
Aldo jumps, soundless. His claws pin him to the floorboards and for three seconds, he plays statue. Noah lunges at the canvas, brushes his tongues across its white in an arc. Red everywhere. A séance for the exorcist. Blood art that leaks from the canvas onto the floorboards.
It is never going to dry.
“Santi is near,” Aldo says, without the trace of migration in his accent. We have taken so much, so well. “Will she stay? Will she be okay?”
Oh, Tiger Toy. I remember when you used to be a boy, when you had skin instead of fur. We have made you a biochemical imbalance. A memory smoothed down into a statistic.
“The exorcist has decided this is her last visit.”
Aldo’s face twitches, and then he bleeds from his teeth. I have never seen him bleed. It is cacophonous: each drop rattles my doors, fills me with an anxiety that counts down a final moment.
It sounds like hands touching noon.
It’s time to open my doors. I’m clearing the mangled road, thinning the fog around my gardens—
In Nisipa, Starship Santi has started docking. I can already smell the water from a different sea, and it says: Santi is so close now. I can taste the cross in her chest. Papa Joan told this young woman to fear me, once.
And now, Santi strides to a house by a lake.
Her conviction almost makes me hope.
Here is how the countdown goes:
3. Memory—a confession, to orient
“Find it a problem?”
“A problem? Everything’s a problem, Santi.”
“El Cuco? La Coca? It’s probably both. I don’t think the monster is something we’re supposed to figure out or that it’s always that simple. I just know that I was going to be taken real bad when the bruja gave me the pills. I can’t tell anyone how she helped, not really. Y tú sabes porque.”
“I’m sure she meant well.”
“I know she did. I was a bad kid, you know? I lost track of how many friends I lost that summer. You don’t know how it goes when you wake up, and you look for your friends, and you look, and you look. They’re gone, see, but I never went nowhere. It’s like I’m still waiting to see if this hide and seek game is gonna end, if Aldo will pop out from the baby forest. Y la bruja told me to stay in place. You know what our priests will think of that?”
“Well, one of the Friars told me to swim in the cistern. When I went to do it, he broke my nose with his staff. And you know what? I think you’ll find that story funny one day.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You don’t have to. Just keep going. There was a reason you weren’t taken. Or if there wasn’t, it’s still reason enough to stop looking for the taking.”
2. Faith—that you will live, even while breathless
Beneath the shuttered Altar in her apartment bathroom, Santi de la Luna is tested. Her Santos are battered yet steady. As always, the sclera of her right eye glows amber. She forges her connection to God with a mantra caked in memory:
“One is not prayer, but an intake of breath. Two is not closed eyes, but sliding into blessed water. Three is Annoka, ship with wings, metal angel. Three is as one: judge, executioner, jury.”
Between words, Santi shaves the moon off her skin until there is blood, only blood. Her bath runs black.
Faith is not enough to keep away the dark.
1. Loneliness—where you will persist
Ritual is what it comes down to. Santi kills moments with Elena in between blinks. Hiding in the mangrove? Santi blanks it. Tonguing around Shemasi’s hands? Gone.
Until they slither back inside her blinks.
And Annoka falls. As Santi fails to forget Elena, she thinks to her clergy sisters in La Rosa. She thinks back to Papa, always talking about how Annoka was a holy angel, a starship home bent on brightening the world.
But it was a satellite. It only knew how to crash.
Knight in paper armour, ship of steel. Annoka, Santi. She has so many names but none of them shields her well enough. The cross is something Santi carries rather than wields.
And she is crowded.
The marsh water crawls up her legs but she is wading.
It fills Santi with a chill that she is ready for.
Cups and bowls are scattered all around the floorboards. I fill them with water that leaks from where my hands used to be. My own little faucet. I do this a dozen times. I run a bath for the children I would have had.
The vases, filled to the top with old teeth, crack.
A warning I have become familiar with.
She is here.
Santi crosses my lawn, slides her old-world sandals against the new dirt. There is paint on her feet. Blood from the house, the paint that never dried. She is home in so many ways. And Santi looks at the Yearning Tree, strokes the amber skin of it, and I quiver. The leaves stir. Santi, exorcist, niña, you: this is the moment where you fold into one person. So, tell me. Can you feel the children drowning inside the yew? Can you feel how we brighten them?
But niña, you ask me, ask the air, “¿Cuco, donde estas?”
That question reduces me to a whisper, tipping on the edge of myth. Why do you want to know? Do you want to find me? Are you asking searchingly, noticing the door to your house is ajar?
Or do you hope for my absence?
I will do you one favour.
Never say I am not sentimental.
The door creaks open, the sound of every fairy tale echoing from its hinges.
I let you in.
Story copyright © 2018 by J.M. Guzman
Artwork copyright © 2018 by Pear Nuallak
J.M. Guzman is a Dominican-American who writes about ghosts, coffins, and all the things in the dark. He has forthcoming fiction in Liminal Stories and Daily Science Fiction. You can find him on twitter @jmguzman_.
Pear Nuallak looks to their Thai heritage and the many faces of women to create words and images. They’ve contributed illustrations to The SEA Is Ours and The Future Fire.