Anna Montalvo was in her late twenties but looked much older, almost worn-out, as she led the child up the steps of the Spanish Harlem tenement building. She kept glancing around her, hoping nobody she knew would see her entering here. If anyone in her church saw her here, there would be questions that she would not want to answer. But the old ways were ingrained in her, and she knew she had to do this.
She hadn’t wanted this child. But the Church was against birth control; her husband wasn’t even supposed to use a condom. And when she became pregnant with her second daughter, she had no choice but to accept it. This lasted all of four months.
It was January. The morning sickness seemed to never end. She felt like she was losing her mind. Perhaps she had, because she’d drunk a half cup of bleach, hoping to spontaneously abort. She’d already decided that she would go to confession when she got out of the hospital.
But she didn’t abort; four months later, she’d had twins. Conjoined twins, what used to be called Siamese, they were quite literally joined at the hip, two months premature. The doctors at Bellevue Hospital, where they were born, operated a few weeks later, when the girls had been stabilized, to separate them.
Anna knew she couldn’t possibly deal with both, but she thought perhaps she could raise one of them. Her husband, Angel, at her quiet but forceful insistence, arranged for one of the baby girls to be adopted within the extended. Neither girl would ever know of the existence of the other, if it was done right.
The tiny little girl she kept for herself seemed normal at first, except for being born a month early. But as she grew, it became clear that something was wrong. One leg and one arm were slightly shorter that the other, and the girl had trouble moving those limbs. She might need to have an operation before she got too old to correct it.
And the doctor told her there was also a greater-than-normal curve in the child’s spine. It might be scoliosis, but it was too early to tell for sure.
To make matters worse, the baby seemed to be having trouble focusing and following movement with her eyes. But this couldn’t be tested until she was older.
The memories continued as Anna hurried up the inside stairs to the fourth floor. The eye test two years ago showed she needed glasses. Maybe later, as she got older, she might need bifocals. And she had a lazy eye; the eye doctor said it’s not really lazy, the muscles that move the eye were underdeveloped. So she had to wear a patch over the right eye, to strengthen the muscles in the left. She started having fits. She’d fall and roll around like she was crazy. Her little body shook as if she had a fever. Her eyes would roll up in their sockets so you could only see the whites. And she bit her tongue sometimes during these fits. She knew her daughter had a demon. So she saved her money until she could go to the bruja to get rid of that demon.
She reached the door and stopped. For just a few seconds, she wondered if she really wanted to do this. Dios mio, it was her daughter! But her fear of the demon got the better of her. She knocked. A boy, maybe eight or nine years old, smiled shyly as he let her in. He led her and her daughter to a room in the back of the apartment. There was no door, just a heavy black curtain nailed up over the frame. She went through, practically dragging her child with her.
The room was dimly lit by white candles in the corners. There was a table set up as an alter in the center, with a white sheet over it. There was an old woman standing by the table, wearing an old black floor-length dress with a sash tie at the waist. The witch motioned for her to lay the child on the table. After she’d done so, she handed the old woman the five hundred dollars she’d been clutching in her hand. Then she stepped back and made the sign of the cross as the old woman walked around to the other side of the table.
The bruja took hold of one of four straps attached to the table and tied it around the girl’s left hand. She then did the same with the other limbs, then went to a cabinet in the corner and took out five short black candles. She placed them in cut glass candle holders, then placed four of them at the corners of the table. The fifth she lit with a kitchen match, and used it to light the others. Then she placed that one in a holder and set it on the child’s belly.
She bent over slowly, reached under the table, and came back up holding a rooster. She walked around the table, almost dancing, and was chanting in some strange language the child’s mother had never heard before. As she moved to each side of the table, she held the rooster over the girl, then pulled it back.
When the old woman had made a complete circuit, she then reached behind her back and pulled a long blade out of her sash. She held the rooster over the child’s body once again, and with a hard slashing motion, cut its head off. The little girl screamed as the bird’s head flew to one side and its blood ran out onto the girl’s belly, almost putting out the candle there. She moved the bleeding fowl over the child’s arms, legs, and finally, when the flow of blood had become a drip, held it over her forehead. Ignoring the child’s screams of terror, she kept on chanting.
Suddenly the woman stopped her chanting and stood perfectly still. Then she let out a blood-curdling scream of her own, put her hands over the child’s body, and pulled up as though she was pulling something out of the child’s belly. After a moment of this, she backed away from the table and collapsed into a chair against the far wall. She sat motionless, with her head drooping, then looked up at the child’s mother.
“Es finito,” she said. It’s done.
But it wasn’t done. And Anna Montalvo refused to accept that the demon was really a neurological condition called epilepsy.
“It was a hard five years, trying to raise this child. Why couldn’t she be like her older sister? It’s that demon, I know it is! The old bruja’s ceremony didn’t work!” Anna thought. It didn’t matter that the old woman had been arrested a couple weeks later for fraud. She wouldn’t hear of going after her to get her money back. If she did that, the whole church would know she’d sinned, and then she might be excommunicated.
The child had to go. “Maybe I can send her to my mother,” she thought. “Let me call her.”
Marissa Montalvo walked from the plane to the terminal, finally back in New York after five years with her grandmother in Puerto Rico. She loved the old woman like she should love her mother, but her mother made that very difficult. How do you love someone who slaps you for asking questions, locks you in a closet because she doesn’t want to see your face, and sends you to live with relatives because she doesn’t want to be around you?
And her father was no help. He worked twelve hours a day driving a cab. He’s too tired to argue by the time he got home. So her mother ruled the home, and nobody could over-ride her.
Angel Luis Montalvo was waiting at the terminal. He looked happy to see his daughter, but there was a sadness there in his face, too. She wondered what it was. “Hola, Papa,” she said softly as she approached. She put her one small suitcase down and just stood there in front of him.
“Hola, mija,” he answered. Then he put both of his arms around her and just held her, afraid she might vanish if he let go.
Marissa gently extricated herself from his embrace. He was shaking, trying to hold back tears, with minimal success; she could see them in his eyes, but he refused to let them fall.
The first few days were relatively calm, if not exactly filled with peace and love. Her mother was cordial but distant. Her older sister teased her because of her limp, and for one arm being shorter than the other. But that was okay; the other kids near her grandmother’s home had done the same. Not to mention her glasses, which were bifocals. And her younger brother, who had just been a baby when she’s been sent away, was playful but a bit shy.
She like him for some reason. But she couldn’t play as much as she would have liked, with the steel plate in her hip. The doctors all said she’d have it out when she was older. It had been replace twice so far, so that her bones wouldn’t be constricted in their growth. They said she’d probably need to have it replace one more time, but she would always have a limp in her walk.
When those first days were past, her mother started getting nasty. Little things at first, like her tone of voice when she told Marissa to wash her plate and glass rather than rinse it. Then it was, “I don’t want to have to pick up after you.” And “You should be happy to have a home.” The general atmosphere in the apartment quickly became stifling. But Marissa was the only one of the three children to suffer from her mother’s wrath; she practically fawned over the other two.
One day she asked her mother why she didn’t correct her sister and brother the same way. Her mother stared at her, then turned her back, lifted her face as though to the heavens, and stage-whispered, “Dios mío! ¿Por qué tengo un demonio para una hija?” God, why do I have a demon for a daughter?
Then came the day her uncle Eduardo raped her. Things went drastically downhill from that point on. Her mother accused her of seducing her uncle. She called her a whore and a home-wrecker. She started throwing things at Marissa, sometimes hitting her with them. During one of these tirades, Marissa fell and hit her head on the coffee table. She bled all over the carpet. When her father got home and saw her just lying there, he picked her up and carried her to his cab.
At the hospital, the doctor put three stitched in her head and taped a gauze pad over the wound. Then a nurse suggested that she be moved out of the house; perhaps to a boarding school she knew of upstate. Some place where her mother wouldn’t have any contact with her.
Angel got the address and phone number from the nurse. The next day, he called from the cab company’s office and made arrangements. Two days later, he drove her to the train station and gave her some money for food on her journey.
She looked up in his sad eyes and asked, “Papa, why don’t you take me yourself?”
“I have to work, Mari,” he replied. “You know that.”
“Si, papa,” she acknowledged. Then she asked, “Why do you let mama do these things? Why does she hate me like this? What did I ever do to her?” The questions came so fast, it was like a dam had broken.
He could only stand there and listen; he had no answer for her. He just took her hand and led her to the ticket counter. He gave her the ticket, and they walked together to the boarding platform.
Then Marissa asked, “Papa, you’re a man, aren’t you? Why don’t you be a man and stop her from controlling everything?”
Angel sighed loudly, then answered, “She makes me tired, Mari. I don’t like to fight and argue, and when she does, she just makes me tired. But know this, mija. I love you. And I love your mama too. But I can’t have you together.”
Marissa stood there, stunned, looking at her father as if at a stranger. Then she made a noise deep in her throat and spit in his face.”
Angel looked shocked. He said loudly and authoritatively, “Marissa! Why did you do that?”
She didn’t answer. She just looked at him a moment, then quietly but vehemently said one word. “Cabron!” Bastard! Then she turned around and boarded the train. She knew she would be met in Poughkeepsie and taken to her new home, where she would live and go to school until she graduated.
At that moment, she hoped to never see her parents again.
Marissa had a decision to make. She was eighteen years old, and there were still two months until graduation. She didn’t want to continue staying here, but it was safe, more or less. At least as safe as such group homes could be, she supposed. But she wanted freedom so much that she could almost taste it.
She considered asking one of the staff members who had been friendly and supportive for advice. He seemed like a nice man, but he was also kind of strict. He would sometimes lecture her about sneaking out after curfew, like it was a crime or something. But that made sense too, in a way; on his other job he was a probation officer. She knew this because one of the janitorial staff had told her. He’d also told her that the man was married and had a kid. “Just in case you have any ideas,” the janitor had said.
Well, she thought, married doesn’t mean monastic. Any man can be had. It was one of the things she’d heard from the other girls in that place, and she figured it was probably true. But he doesn’t seemed to have any desire in that area. Maybe his wife was keeping him happy.
After thinking about it, she decided, Screw it. I’ll stay here until I’m out of school. They said they’d help me get an apartment and sign up for social services, so why not?
That decision made, she left her room and headed toward the community dining room.
After nearly two years of not finding a regular full-time job, she decided to hit the road and do some traveling. She’d been very frugal, eating only the bare minimum to keep her going and secretly saving much of the cash she got from public assistance. She’d met a young man she liked who also wanted to travel. So they made their plans, agreed on a time to leave, and gone.
Taking odd jobs here and there, they stayed on the road together for more than four years. They each took odd jobs occasionally, just long enough to replenish their supplies and cash, until her friend learned that his mother had been diagnosed with cancer. He begged her to come back to Poughkeepsie with him, but there was nothing there for her. Sure, she’s made a few friends there, but she enjoyed the traveling too much.
Four months later, in November, she realized that traveling alone in this way wasn’t as much fun as sharing the time with someone else. She found herself in Morehead City, North Carolina. She located a trailer she could move into with half of what money she had left. Then she found a job as waitress in a little twenty-four hour restaurant called the Waffle Shoppe. Both were on the main road through town, Arendell Street. And the job was just a few blocks from the bridge to Atlantic Beach, where her life would change dramatically.