“Why are we heading over to the basilica?” Ayodelé asked, her beautiful black box braids tapping against the small of her back as we wander down the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan.
“I mean you’re not even Catholic, why is this even a venue option for your wedding?”
“Well,” It’s not one of my options, “Hugo really likes the history of this place, and I promised I would check it out.”
“But he’s not Catholic either.” Ayodelé retorts.
Charlotte, my six-year-old niece, jumps over cracks as she navigates the sidewalk in front of us. She pauses and turns to face us, her copper curls bouncing around her face as she spins.
“Titi, is Hugo going to become a Djinn like us?”
“No sweetie. He’s not.” Knots twisted in my stomach with the words. “Remember, we haven’t told him yet. So, it’s a secret for now.”
Charlotte rushes me and squeezes her thin arms around my waist. Most of her front teeth are missing as she smiles. “Is he going to become a witch like Ayodelé?”
Ayodelé laughs hard and gently glides her hands over Charlotte's hair so it's out of her face.
“Not a chance, Ifé.”
“Ifé?” she almost sang as she said it. “My name's Charlotte, not Ifé.”
Ayodelé smiles, “Ifé means love, little one.”
“We better get moving,” I interrupt as I usher Charlotte downhill toward the basilica. A city this old groans and whispers with ghosts and imprinted memories. We all shudder as we pass a hotel called El Convento. Charlotte grabs my hand and pulls to hurry us along.
“I know sweetie, old places hold onto their stories. But they're just that, the memories of the place. Nothing there can hurt you.” I aim to reassure her. Charlotte stares at me, unconvinced as goosebumps spread across our arms.
“Dad says Djinn should stay away from ghosts and old buildings,” she grumbles and runs ahead. She stops at the foot of the stairs turning to look at us placing her hands on her hips when we take our time. The basilica looming behind her against the bright blue sky. I can’t help but see a smaller version of my brother’s worried eyebrows in her face. But I don’t say so. She doesn't like it when we do.
“It's ok habibti,” I say and hold her hand, as much for my own benefit as hers. Once inside, Charlotte releases my hand, determined to explore all the statues and paintings. I watch her out of the corner of my eye as she marvels at the stained glass.
Ayodelé leans in and whispers, “Quick question, Salma.” The sound of my name shakes me out of my thoughts.
“Are your kind even allowed in churches?”
I smile carefully, “I don’t see why not. One of their priests was a holder of a ring at one point. That’s in part how my kind made it to this part of the world. Although I wish it wasn’t—they just made a mess of things.“
Ayodelé shudders, her colorful beads shaking in vibrant contrast to her white dress. Again she whispers, “At least they never got a hold of a lamp. It’s a good thing you guys decided to change how that works.”
“ Yeah, that would have been bad!” I practically blurt out. People in prayer turn to look at me and immediately I shrink back whispering in increasing octaves to the point that I might as well have been mouthing the word perdon!
Ayo chuckles and slowly pats me on the back reassuringly “Don’t worry Salma. Places like this always make me feel like I need to keep quiet too. It's not like Witches have the best history with the church either.”
“True, true. Wait, where’s Charlotte?” I ask, suddenly aware she is no longer in my line of sight. I scan the pews and walk toward the main altar, peeking at the minor stations for prayer that line the walls. I find her chatting away with a little blond girl. Clearly a tourist, she’s wearing a bright pink and orange dress, her face painfully red from the Caribbean sun.
They’re smiling and the tourist child shows Charlotte the collection of My Little Pony dolls she has in her backpack. They sit on one of the pews to play. A woman I assume is the little girl’s mom kneels in the nearby nook to pray.
Ayodelé taps me on the shoulder. “Salma, you need to have a long talk with Hugo.”
“About the venue?” I know that’s not what she means.
“About the venue, about what you are. He's going to have to run the Cachibache with you at some point. It’s the family business. You can’t get out of it.”
“I will, Ayodelé.”
“When?” she lifts an eyebrow, her lips pursed to one side.
Before I can answer, my ears pop and I immediately look over at Charlotte. In an instant, the girls are on their feet. Their smiles disappear and the little blond girl is backing away from my niece, tears welling in her eyes.
Charlotte looks around for me, her eyes wide, her breath quick. “Titi!” she cries.
I run as the girl’s mom turns around and screams into Charlotte’s face, “What did you do? Give her back her toys!”
My ears pop again as the statue of the Virgin Mary disappears from the altar behind them.
Ayodelé gasps and appears beside Charlotte, gently pushing her back so an adult stands between her and the tourist mom. “What is wrong with you? Why are you screaming at a child like that? Don’t you know how to behave in church?”
That sets the women off and she screeches wordlessly at Ayodelé.
We look at each other and walk away without a word, Charlotte in tow. But the woman chases after us.
“Come back here! I’m not finished yet,” she shrieks. “Give them back!” The woman screams again, her face even redder than her daughters and at this point, people are staring. My heart drops into my stomach as my ears pop and a few candles disappear from the entrance. We pick up our pace before someone decides to pull out a phone.
We barely make it out of the door, but Charlotte is shaking. I stop, even though it would be smarter to keep moving. I kneel down to Charlotte’s level and hold her hands.
Ayodelé comes closer, sandwiching the girl between us. “Take deep breaths with me, ok?”
As they breathe in tandem, I remember to smile as I speak.
“Don’t be scared, habibti, this is normal. When we’re around people with big emotions, sometimes it feels as if a wish is being made. That’s why things are disappearing. Your magic is trying to exchange them to grant the desire of the big emotions. It's normal, especially for kids. I remember having really big emotions when I was your age, too. Just take your breaths like Auntie Ayo is saying and it’ll stop.”
Charlotte nods and breathes, tears peek out of the corners of her eyes. We all breathe, but not for long.
The tourist mom has backtracked which has given us a few precious seconds but now she is heading straight for us, dragging the lady who watches the donation box behind her by the arm.
They haven’t taken two steps toward the door when my ears pop and the ponies appear on the stairs near us. They pop again and this time I pick up Charlotte and jump back as the Virgin Mary lands in front of the basilica’s doors, blocking the path of our little tourist friend and her mom. Her pale hands reach around Mary’s head, trying to reach us. “This is the last time I come to the Caribbean!” She spits at us, but I just head down the stairs.
Ayodelé squints hard and points at the little tourist, but thinks better of it. Instead, she picks up the ponies and hands them over. Then she turns to the mom, looks her dead in the eye and points an angry finger, “May your sun block always fail.” She takes a few steps back and says a little louder, “May your flip flops always be too tight!”
“Ayodelé, stop with the minor curses and let’s go!” I tell her.
She flicks her eyes to me, but before coming down the steps she looks back one last time. “May all the food you eat on vacation give you mild diarrhea!”
We hurry down the street, Charlotte on my back. Ayodelé raises her hand and a flock of pigeons block the view behind us as we turn down one of the old city’s many alleyways.
“May they forget we were even here! Damn tourists—we live where they vacation!” she huffs.
I want to laugh, but my heart is pounding so hard I feel it in my head. I bounce Charlotte on my back, hoping she can’t tell how worried I am. I turn to Ayodelé. She's still fuming, but her face softens when she looks at us.
“Don’t worry Salma, they won’t even remember we were there.” She tries to reassure me.
“Phew! That brings me back!” she announces and doubles over to catch her breath. We haven't had that happen in a while I think, but still. I put Charlotte down and twist my ring. “It’s not enough Ayo.”
“You think someone caught it on their phone?”
“I don’t know, but better safe than sorry? I need you to make a wish. Just to be sure.”
Ayodelé gives me a stern look. “Are you sure? These things tend to backfire when we’re not incredibly specific.”
“I’m sure.” I know full well there’s too much at stake not to be sure.
Ayodelé grabs hold of my hand and presses on the gold ring that has been in my family for millennia with her thumb.
“I wish that any phones or cameras that happen to have captured our latest adventure would transfer those files to Salma’s phone,” she whispers. The air tingles with electricity as tiny red sparks flicker down the alley and hit my phone.
“There goes another one.” I sigh as it powers down and dies.
Charlotte grabs my free hand tightly, “Is it enough?”
I nod and she lets out a long dramatic sigh, bopping her head against my arm.
Ayodelé releases my hand and says flatly, “Tech doesn’t really mesh with magic as old as yours, now does it?”
I shrug and look back down the street from where we just came. “You know what?”
Both Charlotte and Ayo look at me simultaneously asking “What?”
Charlotte punches Ayodelé in the thigh and shouts, “Chitón! You owe me a soda!”
We all laugh for a moment and it feels so good to do so.
“Maybe we’re better off with a backyard wedding," I offer.
“You think?” Ayodelé rolls her eyes, but she’s still smiling. “Now, let’s go get that soda and may the bubbles be plenty!” She exclaims joyfully. Charlotte echoes the sentiment and the day is just a little brighter for it.
Kristina Diaz has a long career as a portrait photographer that has expanded to video and podcast editing/production in the past 4 years. Published in the Xavier Review she is a fresh voice from Dorado Puerto Rico that is currently working on her first novel and a collection of short stories. In addition to writing she is a fifth generation oral tradition storyteller.
For Kristina Diaz, stories shape how we understand the world. Stories are everywhere, from the looks we give when sharing an inside joke to the mysterious pair of pants that suddenly appear on a random street corner. Her proximity to the Bermuda triangle and the magical realism of the Caribbean are constant themes and inspiration in her work. In her free time she enjoys making passion fruit jam, exploring the vast world of teas, and hanging out with her husband Elvin, and their two pups Coque & Olaf.
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