Taina crawls underneath the shack to unearth her wooden cigar box. She opens it and places the items in front of her: a piece of leftover mundillo lace from an unfinished handkerchief, an ivory ribbon she stole from Don Victor’s store, and the rosary beads given to her by Abuela. Everything is right where she left it. She carefully places the items back and covers the box with dirt.
“Shhh,” Taina whispers, hugging the dog Choco. Choco licks the side of her cheek and nuzzles his cold wet nose on the crevice of her bony elbow. His dark brown fur is encrusted with fruit juice from fallen mangos. Sticky and matted. He needs a bath. Taina needs a bath, too.
She carefully crawls to the other side of the shack and hides underneath the wooden cart her mother sometimes uses to haul their wares to the plaza. From there, she can listen to her mother and aunt talk. This is the time of day when everything slows down. When her mother and aunt can speak freely as they work on another lace border under the shade of a flamboyan tree. The cluck of the chickens can be heard while the falling red petals of the tree blanket the ground around them. Inside the shack, her brother sleeps quietly.
“It happened again last night,” her mother says. She adjusts the portable pillow box used to create the mundillo lace on her lap. The wooden bobbins make a musical clinking sound as her fingers guide the threaded spools, turning and crossing them between her steady hands. The embroidered piece slowly takes shape. “The Ortiz family. It was the mother that found the girl.”
Taina presses Choco closer and ignores the insects dancing in front of her thinning face.
“La nena?” The aunt gasps, clutching her own pillow box to her chest. “Pobrecita.”
“They found her white as can be. Barely breathing,” the mother says. Her hair is up in an unraveling bun. “Stupid woman. I showed her exactly where to leave the food for La Caridad. She insisted her family needed the food more. Her baby girl nearly dead because of her foolishness.”
Taina stretches her neck to better hear them. Ever since she could remember, Taina knew to fear La Caridad. La Caridad appears like any old woman with grey wiry hair and a trembling voice. Her wrinkled fingers gnarled like the thorny branches of a ceiba tree. Walking with the aid of a blackened wooden cane, the old lady seems harmless enough during the brightness of day. Like most of the campesinos of Voladoras, Taina was taught to dread La Caridad, for it is in the cover of darkness when she sheds her skin and travels like a ball of light to feed.
“Her daughter suffered because of her mother’s selfishness,” the aunt says in disgust. “A little bowl of food once a week is nothing. We all do it.”
Choco barks at the soft breeze. Taina tries to shush him. It’s too late.
“Taina! Out from there,” her mother yells. “Almost ten-years-old and look at her. Sinvergüenza. Rolling in the dirt like a savage.”
Her mother is hard on Taina. As the firstborn, Taina must learn to shoulder the burden of bringing the weekly offering of food to La Caridad, the only way to protect the family from a nightly visit. Her mother was taught to do the same, as was her mother’s mother.
The girl crawls out from under the shack. Choco follows her just as guiltily. She tries to brush the dirt off of her tattered cotton dress. Her long dark hair is tangled in stiff bundles, with leaves hiding in the braids. Dark freckles sprinkle across the bridge of her nose. Taina takes after her father. He used to call her “little warrior” before her brother was born.
“It’s time to take the offering,” her mother says, straightening the girl’s dress. She picks a red petal from Taina’s hair and caresses the daughter’s hollow cheek. The two share the same large almond eyes. “Leave the food like I taught you to do.”
“But I want to go to Don Victor’s to help,” Taina says. Yesterday, the girl waited patiently in front of the store until Don Victor gave her the tiniest piece of turron de coco. The scent of the coconut candy stayed on the tips of her fingers all day.
“No, Taina, not today,” her mother says. Her soothing timbre has been replaced with the edginess of a weary voice.
When Taina was five, not too long ago, her mother taught her the song of the little chickens. Under this very same tree, she placed Taina on her lap, and with fingers that were not yet ravaged from the intricate mundillo lace work, the mother swayed her graceful hands to invisible notes. Her mother smelled of sweet guavas. The sound of her laughter enveloped Taina warmly, planting a longing deep within.
Back then, Taina sang the song over and over again:
Los pollitos dicen pio, pio, pio
cuando tienen hambre, cuando tienen frio . . .
• • • •
Now the little girl stares defiantly at the sun. There is never enough time. There’s the cleaning, the cooking, making sure father has enough food to work the field, helping mother lace the mundillos to later sell at the plaza. The chickens must be tended to, and then there is the baby. Her brother must be taken care of. Protected.
“Go now. The food is where it always is,” her mother says. “Do this and come back quickly. Your father will not be returning home tonight. There’s much work to be done. Go on.”
“Yes, Taina, go before the day ends,” her aunt says ominously, adjusting her patterned headscarf protecting her from the harsh golden rays.
• • • •
Inside the shack, Taina glares at the napping baby shielded under a canopy. Naked and fat. She pulls away the lace netting protecting him from the mosquitoes and pokes at the baby with a stick. She pokes at her baby brother again. The baby whimpers and looks up at Taina with a toothless grin. Then he closes his eyes and returns to sleep. Voladorans only wish for boys, a strong body to help work the field.
The girl’s stomach growls. Like her mother, Taina only ate a bit of rice. A piece of chicken was given to her father to eat on his break cutting sugar canes at the plantation. Another piece was fed to her growing baby brother and a much larger piece of the chicken was saved for La Caridad, as it always is.
“Eat fruit,” was what her mother suggested. How many times has the little girl scraped the inside of a coconut or sucked the juices off of a papaya? It’s the same, day in and day out.
A barrio overrun by weak hands. Too many girls, thinks Taina. Not enough strong hands to work the fields owned by La Caridad. Maybe if she were born a boy, then this life would be different. Maybe.
Taina grabs the prepared meal and motions to Choco to follow her.
• • • •
To reach La Caridad’s house, Taina must pass Don Victor’s store and go deep into the dense field. Women sit in front of their shacks, working on their pava hats to sell at the market. Children play, their faces smeared with the sticky fibrous meat of quenepas. As she walks by them, the little ones playfully throw the pits of the quenepas at her. Choco barks at them and they flee laughing.
Each of the shacks are the same, with uneven slabs of wood made sturdy enough to withstand the hurricanes, but not by much. Animals roam freely. La Caridad’s house is different. It’s the only home with no animals. And unlike the one-room dwellings that grace most of the barrio, La Caridad’s hacienda enjoys two stories with an expansive front porch flanked by towers. Shutters seal many of the windows shut.
Taina walks toward the direction of La Caridad’s house. When the grand place comes into view she stops. Only lush palm trees surround her. She opens the fiambrera, the metal lunch pail that keeps the offering warm, and glances around. Taina looks back at the large cold home and then at the food. Hunger as sharp as a machete strikes her so hard that she’s barely able to breathe. Earlier, her mother ignored Taina’s complaint of being so hungry. How the baby is always served a full bowl of food and she is left with only rice. Her mother called her selfish. Taina stood silent and watched her brother eat.
Always her brother. Never Taina.
Taina crouches to the ground. With dirt-encrusted fingers, she eats the food meant for La Caridad. She shares it with Choco. One scoop of rice with chicken for her, another for Choco. Her heart pounds with every chew. She continues. When she’s done, Taina lets Choco lick the fiambrera clean and then hides it in a bush to retrieve the next day.
Not completely full, yet satisfied, Taina turns away from La Caridad’s house and heads back home. She plays with Choco, throwing sticks for the dog to retrieve, unaware of the old lady following close behind. With floppy ears and a sheepish expression, Choco growls at Taina as she pulls the stick from his mouth. She throws it again and again. Choco was a gift from her father for being a big sister. A stray dog he found. A gift only for her.
“Did you forget something?” The voice behind her asks. Taina stops and slowly turns. Choco cowers next to her leg, whimpering with its head to the ground.
“Nena, did you forget?” asks La Caridad. Her wrinkled hands, a map of bulging veins and swollen knuckles, grasp tight unto a wooden cane. She wears a sky-blue Victorian dress with exaggerated puffy sleeves. Intricate mundillo lace lines the hem of the dress. A polished wooden cross hangs neatly around her neck, held in place with a white ribbon.
Taina saw La Caridad only once before. When she did, the girl clung tightly to her mother and never let go of her hand until the slouching silhouette disappeared into the field.
“Little girl, are you there? Did you forget something?” La Caridad asks again. La Caridad’s lips, a mere crinkle on her round face.
“No,” Taina says, her voice barely a whisper.
“I can’t hear you from over there. Come closer,” La Caridad says. “My hearing is not good. Come.”
Taina doesn’t move. From where she stands, she can see that La Caridad is nothing but a small shriveled up vieja, nothing like her beautiful Abuela. La Caridad reeks of a rotten prickly soursop fruit.
“Are you sure you don’t have a gift for me? I’m so hungry, and your mother makes the best rice. White and fluffy. And her chicken, always so juicy and fresh.” La Caridad inches closer. “You must have a little something from your mother. Hmm?”
“No, I don’t have anything.” Taina turns and runs. Choco, next to her, barks happily. La Caridad calls out. Taina doesn’t look back.
When the girl arrives home, breathless, Taina tells her mother she did what she was told.
“Good,” her mother says. “Then we are safe.”
Her mother presses the baby close and kisses her son’s forehead. Then she pulls Taina to her and holds both of them tight. The little girl tries to sit on her mother’s lap. There isn’t enough room for both her and her brother. Her mother gently pushes her away.
Taina stares at her brother. The sounds of the coqui, a tiny frog that exists only on this island, alerts the little girl that night soon approaches.
• • • •
While her mother slumbers in the other room and her brother sleeps in the makeshift bed on the floor, Taina stares vigilantly out the window waiting for La Caridad to appear. Although her eyes grow heavy and there are times when the night sounds lull her to join the others, Taina does not give in. She waits.
From a far distance, she sees the light. At first it appears like a tiny speck. Soon the speck grows larger and larger. The great ball of light floats across the fields, illuminating the sugar plantation, sweeping down Don Victor’s store and over the row of wooden shacks. With her skin completely shed, La Caridad lands atop a branch of the ceiba tree. Her insides dangle outside of her. Entrails. Muscles. Her colorless lips and bones. Organs lay bare, pulsating. La Caridad is no longer an old lady. It is a skinless creature, a soucouyant. Her milky eyes turn to Taina and the girl quickly moves away from the window. She buries herself underneath a useless piece of fabric. Choco hides in a corner.
Nothing alerts her when the creature enters the shack, not a sound or a gust of wind. Still, Taina senses the change in the room. It is as if all the animals and the insects went mute, just like they do right before the onset of a hurricane. Taina holds her breath and tries not to move.
La Caridad pokes at Taina with a long claw. Once. Then again. The soucouyant slowly pulls off the sheet.
The little girl gets up to run. La Caridad grabs hold of her. For the first time, Taina sees the monster up close and a fear she’s never experienced bursts within.
“Not me,” Taina whispers. “The boy.”
A lipless grin appears on the creature’s skeletal face. “I’ll take both of you,” La Caridad says.
“Not me. Please,” Taina says. “The baby is fat.”
La Caridad’s laugh is low and guttural. “Dumb little girl. Why are you giving your brother to me? Do you think that will change things? Nothing ever changes for the women of Voladoras.”
The more Taina shakes, the deeper the tips of the claw pierce into her shoulders.
“It is the women who must bare the cross,” La Caridad says. “We must hold tight to the old ways. That includes the offering. My food.”
Taina squeezes her eyes, shakes her head, and then opens them only to find the creature still above her.
“You’ve ever heard the saying, ‘Cada gallina a su gallinero?’ Do you know what that means?” The creature’s tongue licks the pulpy meat of her lips. “It means everyone who lives in Voladoras play an important role. The animals. The roosters and chickens. The adults and their children. Even you. I’ll remind you what that is.”
La Caridad presses down on Taina’s shoulder with its claw. With the other, it covers Taina’s mouth. It leans in and feeds. The girl’s heart thumps violently while a buzzing sound grows louder and louder. The creature continues to drink. Taina squirms and kicks, There’s no hope. When Taina’s heart reaches the point where time no longer exists, La Caridad pulls away. Weakened, Taina can only helplessly watch the creature’s movements.
While humming the pollito song Taina knows so well, the creature swoops toward the sleeping baby next.
Although this is exactly what Taina wanted, to return to a time when she was the only baby, the little girl remembers her brother’s toothless grin. How he follows her everywhere, his tiny legs unable to keep up. The sound of her brother’s giggles.
“No,” Taina says, barely able to form the words. “Don’t.”
The creature caresses the boy’s full cheeks and chuckles. There is a rustling movement from the other room as Taina’s mother turns in her sleep. Outside, the first of the gallos begin their morning call. The creature faces Taina.
“Don’t ever forget your place. You are the firstborn. You hold the weight,” it says. “And since you stole from me, it’s only fair that I repay you with the same.”
Before turning into a ball of light, the creature scoops up the cowering Choco. Taina opens her mouth to scream. Her voice fails her. La Caridad is gone. Choco is gone. All Taina can do is weep soundlessly.
• • • •
Without being told, Taina gets up before the dawn breaks. She walks to the kitchen to prepare the meal. Enough food for her father to sustain cutting down the long sugar canes. Enough food for her growing baby brother. Enough for La Caridad.
Before leaving to La Caridad’s house, Taina crawls underneath the shack and unearths her treasure box. She has not looked at the items in weeks. Taina dumps the lace and the ivory ribbon. The rosary bead she places around her neck. There will be no more trips to Don Victor’s for coconut candy. No playing with other kids. Taina carries the burden of being the firstborn on her ever-thinning shoulders without question.
It’s time to leave. The offering is ready.