C R E A T I V E N O N F I C T I O N
BEFORE I DIED
b y m e l o d y w a r n i c k ~ s t. g e o r g e , u t a h
IN FOUR years, my Spanish has almost gone from me; my tongue falls heavily now on the trilled r's, the light-as-silver v's and b's. When in June I saw Presidente Nieves, who'd come to Utah to visit his grown-up daughter, I could hardly say anything, just stood mutely before him and held up my own toddler daughter for him to admire. I finally managed to remind him that in the time he knew me, when he was the president of the Puerto Rico San Juan Mission, I had a different name: Hermana McGrath. Hermana is a Spanish word I remember. It defined me then. I was a sister.
Sister of what, it was not always easy to say. Sister of Light, of Truth, of Zion? Sister of Perpetual Mosquito Bites, of Gringa Spanish? What we told people was that we were missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that we had a message for them. We let them assume that we were angels recently descended from the presence of God—cherubim in plaid jumpers and black nametags—if that helped things along. Normally, though, we were already known. Even in the countryside, on unpaved roads where children without shoes played pelota, a murmur would go up among the women sweeping their front steps and the men nursing cans of beer: "Los Mormones vienen."
In December 1998 I circled back to the center of the island, to Aguas Buenas, which was twenty miles from where I had started my eighteen-month mission in the pueblo of Gurabo. But whereas Gurabo was compact, clustered around a paved town square where the Three Kings materialized at Christmas and rowdy, drunken dances were held on Saturday nights, Aguas Buenas was diffuse, its homes scattered like confetti in the folds of the Cordillera Central mountains. The apartment where I lived for two months with Hermana Tyson, from Orem, Utah, abutted a steep, jungle-covered hill, and at night the two-note singing of the coquí frogs lulled us to sleep. My time in Aguas Buenas would mark my final two months as a missionary—on February 10th I would return home, soon to resume college—and so in mission parlance I was "dying," preparing to pass away from my life in Puerto Rico.
It was not my first time in Aguas Buenas, though. A year and a half earlier I had come with a group of other Mormon missionaries to see las cuevas, the immense system of caverns that unravels like a skein of twine beneath the mountains. To enter we crawled through a narrow passage, then pushed ourselves into a great hall where stalactites melted off the walls, stained in the light from a gap in the stone. Someone had heard that there were Taíno petroglyphs in the caves, and the men—boys, really, younger than all the women—went down some dark path to find them. But we hermanas were content to stay where we had managed to arrive. In the dappled light we read petroglyphs of the modern age, written on the walls with permanent marker: "Luis y Gloria para siempre, 1987."
My companion and I had been told that the caves were extremely dangerous, that people had died there, but no one need have mentioned that to us. We could sense it ourselves in the caves: a breath of something that does not love light, a stink of entrapment in the still air.
Hermana Tyson and I were teaching Rosalía the gospel of Jesus Christ. We met with her every few days in her little house on the west side of Aguas Buenas, to explain our beliefs and to study the scriptures. Rosalía had a bovine face, slow and slack. She was both poor and uneducated; we would ask her to turn to a certain page in the Book of Mormon, and she would flip through uncertainly as if numbers were meaningless to her. Over the years my memory of those visits has taken on the gleam of hyperbole, so that I almost believe that we sat in woven hammocks, swinging above a packed earth floor while chickens brushed their dirty feathers against our legs. But none of that is true. The floor was swept tile, and each time we visited, Rosalía served us glasses of Coke with ice.
Just to sit and listen to Rosalía's molasses voice spill out questions was a blessing. On bad days Hermana Tyson and I walked for hours, finding a street that we hadn't been down in recent memory and chirping "Buenos dias" at each house until it was clear that either no one was home or we were being studiously ignored. If someone was willing to listen, we would teach them a charla, a discussion, about what we believed in: Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon. An orderly procession of inscrutable facts. We spoke without a script until we came to the part where Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus Christ, and then we recited Joseph's own words, translated into Spanish, from memory: "I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me… ."
The version in our missionary handbooks excised a portion of the story that every Mormon child knows: When Joseph Smith knelt in a grove of trees to pray, and before two members of the Godhead appeared to him, he was overcome by Darkness, a physical force that held his tongue from speaking and that, Joseph felt, was strong and tangible enough to kill him. He wrestled with "the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being." And then, miraculously, God and Jesus Christ descended, dispelling the Darkness and saving the boy Joseph.
That is what Mormons believe—that evil will go to great lengths to prevent the accomplishment of good or to dog the steps of the righteous. But we didn't mention that Darkness to people who had only just heard of Joseph Smith.
Before I died, I arranged to trade places for the day with Hermana Sanchez, one of the hermanas working in Gurabo; she would come to Aguas Buenas to work with Hermana Tyson, and I would go to be with Hermana Long and to see friends that I had not seen since I had served in Gurabo the year before as a new missionary. Driving into town down Calle Matias Gonzalez Garcia, I saw that nothing was as I remembered it, and yet it was all precisely the same. There was the bakery where I went almost every day to buy a loaf of pan sobao for a dollar. The scatterings of hairless, mangy dogs. The houses painted fantastic tropical blues and lipstick pinks. On the far side of town, where buildings hadn't yet sprouted, the hills were impossibly green.
The Gurabo missionary apartment, where I had lived for four months when I first came to Puerto Rico and where Hermanas Long and Sanchez lived now, was behind a locked gate and up a flight of dim stairs above a street of storefronts—a café, a Christian bookstore, and a WIC baby food store, which was like a 7-11 whose shelves were lined with boxes of cornflakes and cans of Quik powder. Hermana Long took us home to fetch a notebook in the afternoon. Inside, there was a hotplate balanced on a chair; two desks for morning studies; and two separate bedrooms, one with an ironing board and boxes piled with years of accumulated missionary detritus, the other with two twin beds. The walls were still painted an orange sherbet color.
As she shut the front door behind her, Hermana Long said, "I'm scared to come back here. We had a weird experience last night. Someone—something—woke me up."
The missionaries were, I imagine, used to a sleep marred by car alarms and barking dogs and borrachos bellowing in the street below, but this was altogether different. Someone had been knocking at the door, Hermana Long said, steadily and loudly enough to wake her at 2 a.m. Maybe it was the bishop, or another set of missionaries, she thought; maybe there was an emergency. So she pulled back the deadbolt. No one was there. She closed the door and heard knocking again.
Somehow, impossible for me to imagine, she fell asleep again, and woke up this time because the bedroom door was open—they kept it closed to block out the light and noise from the hall. Groggy, all but out of her head with sleepiness, she closed the door again, and felt it push open against her hand. Maybe it was wind, a transient air current flowing from the hall, but she was angry now and grabbed a tennis shoe and wedged it under to hold the door closed. The door screamed open, the shoe went flying. The hermanas were both awake by then, and they started praying: What is this thing? Please make it go away. Eventually the energy behind the door ebbed, and it clapped shut.
As Hermana Long told me the story, I tried the doorknob myself—wasn't it wind? of course it was wind!—but the doorlatch was tight, the closure complete. This was not a door to swing open of its own accord. I sat down on the bed where I used to sleep, Hermana Long's bed now. A heavy midafternoon light seeped through the flowered bed sheets above the windows, and dust motes began sparkling in the air.
"Hermana Sanchez said this happened to some missionaries she knew in El Salvador. Their kitchen cupboards kept flying open. They had to get the mission president to come down and cast out an evil spirit."
"Did you call President Davies?" I asked.
"We told the district leader, and he said to for sure tell President Davies if it happened again." Hermana Long's face was wan and pinched. "But I don't know if I could handle it if it happened again."
When we left, I wanted to dust my fingerprints from the doorknobs, to erase my presence from the apartment. I wanted never to have been there. It occurred to me that if an evil spirit knew where the Gurabo hermanas lived, then he probably knew how to find our apartment in Aguas Buenas.
I was dying. With one week left to my mission, people began accusing me of being "trunky," of having my bags already packed. In some ways, this was true. I hadn't seen my family for a year and a half, hadn't read a novel or watched TV, hadn't dated or done more with a boy than exchange a warm handshake. My hair was falling out. I was scarred and itchy and sunburned and fat from too many meals of fried pork chops and arroz y habichuelas. Most definitely I wanted to go home; I wanted to die from missionary work and be reborn in the normal world.
But other things bound me tightly to Puerto Rico. Rosalía, our moon-faced investigator, was coming to church almost every Sunday, gingerly accepting what we taught her. Hermana Tyson and I, and indeed all Mormon missionaries, always asked the people we taught to make a logical sequence of commitments—first to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it, then to go to church, and ultimately to be baptized. To Rosalía we explained that this would mean being immersed in the water in the font at the Aguas Buenas chapel, and coming up clean, a newly born citizen of Christ. We had asked Rosalía before if she wanted to be baptized, but she had tossed her thick black braid, smiled enigmatically, and shrugged. "Maybe."
We were teaching only a handful of people in Aguas Buenas, and it seemed that some were slipping through our fingers each day. We also spent time with members of the church, both those who came to church each Sunday and those who didn't. Among those who didn't were Markus and his wife, Maria. Like many Puerto Ricans, Markus had spent part of his growing-up years in the United States, and so he spoke English with us, for which we loved him. We used to visit Markus and Maria in their wood house, built at the bottom of a flight of tumble-down stairs, to share scriptures with them and invite them to church. They always listened, nodded, and said they would try, but they never came.
Three nights before I left Puerto Rico, we visited them one final time so that I could have my picture taken with them. I have it tucked into an album: Maria sits in a chair, clasping a cup of Pepsi, while broad-shouldered Markus, one of the few Puerto Ricans we knew with a beard, grins from his perch on the arm of the chair. I am leaning in behind them, wearing a white sweater buttoned over my cotton dress. In the mountains at night it turned chilly, though Aguas Buenas was the first place in Puerto Rico I'd had need of a sweater.
Markus had just finished his shift with the Aguas Buenas Emergency Team. "A pretty boring night," he said. "Nothing much happened." But he wanted to tell us about something that happened a few years ago, when two teenage boys got lost in the Aguas Buenas Caves.
"These guys were seventeen or so; they went to the secundaria. They were being stupid and thought it would be fun to go climbing around in the caves together, so they skipped school one day and went. And they didn't come back. We got the call, and the whole town turned out to look for them. But I was the one who found them. I could tell I was close way before I saw them. I could smell it. The worst thing I ever smelled in my life." Maria tittered, shifting in her seat.
"They were dead, then?" I asked.
"Both of them were dead. It had been five days or so by then, so I guess we expected that. They were walking down a passageway, and it ended in a kind of cliff—dropped fifteen or twenty feet, maybe more. Only it was dark and they couldn't see, so the first kid walks off it, smashes his head on a sharp rock at the bottom, and dies instantly. The second kid walks off it and breaks both his legs."
"He didn't die right away?"
"They said that he had probably lived four days or so. I don't know how long."
"That's horrible," Hermana Tyson gasped.
"Yes," Markus said. "Las cuevas are very dangerous."
At 9:30 Hermana Tyson and I drove home, planned our route for the next day on our blue paper schedules, and got ready for bed. We prayed on our knees, in Spanish—"Nuestro Padre Celestial, te damos gracias"—then I said that I would stay up and read a little bit longer. There was nothing to read but scriptures and Church magazines, but I was too unnerved to lie still in a bed. I sat on a vinyl chair in the living room, my knees pulled up to my chest, and tried not to think about a teenage boy dying for four days in the Aguas Buenas Caves. His friend's body must have turned stiff and bloated by then. What ghosts he must have seen, rising languidly into the cave walls.
I was frightened. It was not so strange—hadn't I always been scared of the dark, been overattuned to the ills that the dark enabled? But I felt, when I finally turned off the living room light and skittered into my bed, a very real sense of being watched. Lying stiffly under the sheets, I ran a hymn through my head: "The Spirit of God like a fire is burning, the latter-day glory begins to come forth." It was a song the pioneers had sung at the dedication of the Kirtland, Ohio, Temple in 1836, when passers by saw white fire rising from the roof, and it was my incantation against fear and harm. But still I was waiting for the door to slam open or shut, for the kitchen cupboards to start flinging out their boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
Then something suddenly crashed in the closet. For several seconds, I ceased entirely to breathe, and my entire body went numb with adrenaline. "The Spirit of God, the Spirit of God," I thought, but it wasn't enough, and after a few seconds I leaped up to turn the lights on. Hermana Tyson blinked. "What's going on?"
"Something fell in the closet," I said. Opening the door, I saw that an old makeup bag of mine had spilled its contents—mascaras, long unused lipsticks—onto the cold tile floor. I looked to the shelf from which it had fallen. I had not touched it in a very long time, nor disturbed anything near it.
I did not sleep well that night. Three days later I died.
Almost five years after I left Puerto Rico, the island still haunts me. I sometimes dream in Spanish. I try, unsuccessfully, to track down people I knew there. Once, in an IKEA store in Virginia, I followed a dark, bearded man for several minutes before I acknowleged that it wasn't, after all, my friend Markus from Aguas Buenas. Something in me has wed itself to the island, and so the island remains with me, even though the Spanish has gone.
Fear remains, too. It is not a constant companion, but it resurges every so often, and in a way that no pragmatism can quell. I belong to a people who believe in Darkness made tangible, in an unseen Evil that has the actual power to harm. Home in California, after my death from the mission, I began to sleep with the light on, if I slept at all. I expected to hear the clacking of closet doors, or to see my sister's extensive stuffed animal collection tumble from their shelves.
None of that ever happened, though. No longer a missionary, it is likely that I am no longer worth the trouble. Or perhaps what we hermanas experienced was simply Puerto Rico's way of asserting its hold on us. Whatever haunted us may be there still, waiting in the caves or in the hills where the coquís live.
Melody Warnick served as a Mormon missionary while living in Puerto Rico.
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