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ISSUE #28

October 2016

FICTION

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Front & Back cover art
by Rew X

The Jicotea Princess

by Alex Hernandez

5867 words

 

When Demi Dominguez roared in on her skateboard, the stink of diesel and pulsing ambulance lights slammed her to a stop. The ominous vehicle hunched directly in front of her house, surrounded by all her neighbors, nosy, gossiping. Her heart sank like a stone thrown into a pond. She stepped off the board, kicked its curved front up to her hand and walked, very slowly, through the mob. No one noticed her. For a princess, Demi was not a rapturous beauty. She was short and round and unassuming. With her ordinary brown skin, boyish haircut and heavy backpack she blended with the other high school kids pouring out of yellow busses in the hot afternoon sun. Why would there be paramedics at her house?

But someone had noticed her. She felt the electric stare before her eyes connected with him. A lanky man, with an ash-green pallor stood taller than everyone else. He watched her casually as he sucked on a cigarette. Everything about him felt out of place: his faded camo pants, his gator skin biker vest over the too-big Old Navy T-shirt, his gray hair tied in a long braid falling over the scales and scutes of his vest like a cascade over glistening black rocks, his indifference at the emergency vehicle.

His golden eyes, cool and steady, made her look away. She wanted to recede into herself. She hated the instinct, so she kept walking until she reached her driveway. Was it her driveway? Maybe she had the wrong house and this was all a stupid mistake.

  Demi lived in a small boxy home built in the ’60s. It looked like every other house in West Hialeah, only hers was painted a tranquil green, like aged jade. The bottom half had been decorated with a tan and onyx stone veneer. At this time in the day the western side felt the shade of a medium-sized mango tree growing in their perfectly manicured front lawn. But the flashing ambulance reds and whites threw off her sense for a moment. Then the front door opened and her mother waved her in, eyes damp and red, mouth pursed into a tight beak.

Demi went numb. She ran her hand over her sweaty short hair, peeled off her backpack and dropped it and the skateboard on the grass. Then, after realizing she had to move, she hurried to her mom. “What happened?” she croaked.

“Ayapá,” was all her mother managed to say.

Her grandfather. Had he fallen trying to knock down the high mangoes? Had he finally cut himself on the machete he kept under his pillow? “¿Pero que paso?"

Mom enfolded Demi in her thick soft arms and pressed her close. Her permanent aroma of oily cooking and fresh linens obliterated all traces of the ambulance exhaust. “Ay, Demi, Ayapito is dead.”

Demi waited for the inevitable tears. Her throat closed up and her face twisted, but none came. She clung to her mom and barely noticed when she was pulled inside and the door shut.

From their living room they could see Ayapito’s room, it had been the garage a long time ago. Through the door she saw her grandmother Yeya hovering behind the two burly paramedics, answering questions in Spanish. Every minute or two her grandmother took off her big tortoiseshell glasses, wiped them on her floral housedress, and propped them back on her nose. Her father sat on the sofa, face in hands, crying like a baby. Ayapá was his father, or great great grandfather, or something.

“But … but how can he be dead?” she whispered into her mother’s neck, still holding on. “He’s like a thousand years old? A thousand three-hundred!”

“Shhh, I don’t know,” her mother said, rubbing her back. “These things happen.”

“Maybe it’s a trick? He’s just messing with us.” Her grandfather was the most immature person she knew. One time, he hid under Abuelita Yeya’s bed and nearly gave her a heart attack when he snatched her ankle just as she settled in for the night. He laughed so hard he nearly gave himself a heart attack too.

“No, mija, they checked him.”  

“But what did he die of?!” Demi shouted at the EMTs, pulling back from her mom.

One of them, the youngest of the pair with shaved arms and diamond earrings, said, “We don’t know, but probably just old age. He passed in his sleep.”

That made no sense to her. How could an ancient spirit suddenly die?

Then, with no effort at all, the paramedics lifted Ayapá. The small frail body, with its wrinkled skin the color of coffee and fluffy white hair, sailed to the stretcher. This was not her hero. No scintillating ashé rolled off of him like waves on a sunlit lake. This was an empty shell.

They covered grandfather with a sheet, gave Yeya instructions, and wheeled him away. For an instant, her home buzzed with a deafening underwater quiet. Then, Demi’s body spasmed, her chest tightened. She sucked in a big breath and crumpled to the floor. She hugged her knees tight and sobbed, trying to compress her entire being into her chest, letting her ancestral predisposition take over.

“Eso es mentira!” her father yelled suddenly, breaking her grieving. “Ayapito didn’t die in his sleep. He was murdered!”

“¡Alfredo cálmate!” her mother shouted.

Yeya puttered in the kitchen, wringing her hands and shaking her head. She never got involved when Mami and Papi argued.

“Don’t tell me to calm down, Lydia! I know it was that gringo boya who suddenly showed up. Ese hijueputa slipped into our lake in the middle of the night and got him. ¿Que carajo is he even doing in Hialeah?”

“I think Papi is right.” Demi emerged from behind her knees, anger bubbling inside her. She had her father’s temper. “I saw him too. He was outside right now, glaring at me. He wasn’t human, but I wasn’t sure.”

“Ay, Dios Santo. We should go. I should text Tía Magali.”

“No!” Demi and her father snapped in unison. He took a breath and regarded her, half annoyance and half pride.

Everyone fell silent.

“Just because we carry our homes on our back,” she continued. “Doesn’t mean moving away when things get bad! We always do that! We should stay and fight this guy.”

Everyone gaped at her now, even Yeya poked her head out of the kitchen.

“No,” her father said soberly, wiping away tears and spittle with his sleeve. He looked a bit like Ayapito, only fatter, more diminished somehow. “He’s too powerful. That boya will crack our backs with those jaws of his.”

The scraggy man hadn’t looked very impressive to Demi. “We’re powerful too,” she said, “I’m the Princess of the venerable Jicotea tribe. I’ll fucking do it myself!”

“No comas mierda, Demi.” Her father growled at her. “This isn’t one of your cartoons. Your title doesn’t mean shit in this country. We left all that behind in Cuba.”

“But I’m a turtle spirit in human form!”

“Me too. Big deal. I still have to get up at 5:40 in the morning, go to work and pay the bills.” He hoisted his bulk from the sofa and pointed a stubby finger at her. “No te metas, Demi. Just go back to your AP classes and catching Pokémon or whatever it is you do on your phone. There’s nothing you can do about Ayapá. He’s died before. Now, I need to think!” Her father huffed into his room and slammed the door.  

She winced. The only sound in the house was the blood pumping behind Demi’s ears and Yeya banging around in the kitchen, whispering on the phone.

Her mother lightly touched her shoulder. “He’s just upset.”

“I’m upset.”

“I know, mi amor.” She kissed the side of her head. “Since we’re not leaving, you should get ready. The family is going to start showing up.”

• • •

Demi sat in a creaky lawn chair on her back patio, soaking up the delicious heat from the evening sun. She gazed at the mint-tinted lake and let the breeze roll over her. The scent of tobacco from inside the house mingled with the fragrance wafting up from the nearby jasmine bush. Someone had salsa music turned down to a deferential volume. Her family had arrived. They had traversed all of South Florida on the magic liquid-black canals that gridded the region. Yellowbelly sliders, box turtles, diamondback terrapins, striped mud turtles, morrocoy, loggerhead musk turtles, river cooters, softshell turtles, even a few gopher tortoises had scuttled in to pay their respects. It was turtles all the way down to the water’s edge. The hundreds of dark, fractal-patterned domes littering their backyard made the place look like an unkempt Japanese rock garden. Her father was one of those domes now, a large Cuban slider from the Zapata Swamps of Matanzas. He greeted his relatives in the hushed primordial tongue of chelonia.

Demi just sat there, clenching and unclenching her fists, grinding her teeth. Her mother set a plate of croquetas and a cold can of Sprite next to her, but she barely noticed. Her eyes were on the water. She loved this lake. It was the reason her parents had bought this house in the first place. She often did homework or read by its shore. She swam in it every summer — and it was always summer in Florida. She had even hatched in that sandy spot underneath the dancing areca palms and had followed the moon into its lapping embrace. So she could tell that something was wrong.

It was subtle things like the nervous way the great blue heron tiptoed around its edge; or that drifting log, that-wasn’t-a-log, appearing and disappearing out of the corner of her eye; or that among this gathering of a hundred totemic aquatic turtles, all of them politely avoided the water as if it were made of acid. An evil spirit had intruded into her little kingdom and Demi burned with indignation.

The boya had crushed her grandfather in its maw. She knew from all the folk tales that animal spirits retained their bestial proclivities, predators hunted prey for their ashé. What if it went after her father next? Or her mother? Or the neighbor’s two-year-old son she’d seen splashing and giggling in the water last week? Poor cute, unsuspecting, woefully-human William. She had to do something.

Demi’s entire life had been that of a mortal girl, but she wasn’t mortal, or even a girl. She was the Jicotea Princess and no matter what her father said, that had to count for something. Maybe not here in the material world of bills and final exams, but beneath the thin algal membrane that separated the surface and fluid realms, her heritage would matter. All of Apayito and Yeya’s stories came surging back like tears and bile. Many millennia of arcane histories woven in with disastrous ballet classes and tantrums at Target, trips to Disneyworld and driving lessons that ended in shouting.

The turtles’ susurrations suddenly cut out and Demi turned to see a giant tortoise crossing from the neighbor’s yard. It was more statuesque than any Galápagos cousin, with cheerful marigold scales on its neck and legs and a vibrant green, almost turquois, shell adorned with vermillion starbursts. A jewel the size of a boulder. It stepped over the other guests with great solemnity and dignity, each move like an exhausted parent navigating their sleeping child’s bedroom. Demi watched it make its laborious journey all the way to her lawn chair. She knew she should stand or curtsy in its presence, maybe even bow, but the sight of it dazzled her into impropriety.

It dipped its elongated neck and said, “I’m so sorry for your loss, your highness.” It pipped like a small bird or frog.

Your highness. Demi wanted to roll her eyes and sneer, but she controlled her adolescent pesadeses. “Thank you,” she said instead.

“I will miss Ayapá very much.” She couldn’t tell if this being was male or female. It probably ceased to matter or care long ago.

“Me too.”

“You know, I was at your parent’s wedding.” The other guests inched closer to hear this flamboyant brontosaurus speak. “It was quite the event. The king and queen of the Jicotea tribe. A union between two royal families, one from Africa and one from the Americas. I danced with Ayapito all night long. I believe the island of Cuba shifted a whole millimeter with all my gyrations.” Ah, it was female. There was a smile somewhere in all the jaundiced wrinkles. The tortoise closed her eyes and swayed her considerable bulk to the bittersweet bachata now on the radio.

“That’s all over now.” Demi drew her legs close and bit her bottom lip. Her father’s words still stung. She knew nothing of that glorious past. She couldn’t imagine him as a young king perched on a moss-covered throne. They had left all that in Cuba when they’d came to Miami. All she knew was that he had gone to jail for a couple years and when he got out, they fled.

The painted tortoise nodded slowly. “Yes, there’s lots of sacrifice in exile.”

Demi waited patiently for her to continue, but she never did. Lost in thought, remembering the protracted laundry list of sacrifices. This was the soul of a long-extinct species, after all. She endured in the spirit world only because turtles the world over still sang of her splendor. Demi understood that simply by gazing into the constellations on her back. She had once been a real turtle, native to an atoll ground down by geologic forces, but she looked more like a shamanic vision than the actual product of evolution.

Then some asshole honked their horn and everyone jumped, including Demi. The heron flapped away, squawking. The mourners ducked into their shells. Even the antediluvian tortoise with its imposing size cowered within her pretty bunker. Fear stuck to everything like mud.

“That’s enough!” Demi shot up from her lawn chair, knocking over the now-warm can of soda. Round, wizened heads cautiously emerged from quivering carapaces. “I’m going to stop this shit right now.”

After that, everything blurred. Her heart boomed in her chest, her cheeks sizzled. She went inside, ignoring all questions and concerns from her people-shaped family and raged into her room. “Déjala,” she heard one of her uncles say. “It’s hitting her really hard.” She kicked off her sneakers, peeled off her socks, shirt and pants. Then fished her vintage Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle T-shirt from the closet and pulled it on with the care of a warrior donning enchanted armor. Demi fought the urge to glance in the mirror, one look at her pudgy countenance and she’d lose all nerve.

She crossed her home again, wearing nothing but the ebullient green shirt and panties. This time no one said anything as she burst into Ayapito’s room. The trace of his musky cologne permeated the air. His dead cells coated everything like dust. The black-and-white photos on the dresser, the unread El Nuevo Herald … it almost knocked the air out of her. She felt a powerful impulse to jump onto his bed and weep. Instead, Demi leaned in, snatched his machete from its sacred resting place and swished it around like a katana.

“You remind me of him.”

Demi wheeled around to find Yeya standing there in her floral housedress, eyes red and wet from tears. She had applied red lipstick for the guests. In her blind determination Demi had almost nicked her abuelita with the blade. When had she cried? The old lady was tougher than all of them — had taken charge in the midst of calamity.

“He especially would have appreciated the shirt. Como le encantaba ver muñequitos contigo.”

Instantly Demi got a flash of her grandfather, incandescent smile, ifá gleaming in one eye and mischievousness in the other, maybe dancing with a too-big tortuga. “Don’t try and stop me, Yeya.”

“I won’t,” her voice gave a bit. She smelled like sea spray, not from the tacky body splashes they sell in stores, but the ageless briny, salty stench of tide pools. Her eyes wandered to a photo of her grandfather — in his less-ancient days — grinning shirtless under a palm in Varadero. Her grandmother used to joke that you couldn’t tell who was skinnier, Ayapito or the palm tree.

Of course, she loved him. Yeya was her mother’s mom. She wasn’t married to Ayapito. Her husband had died long ago in Baracoa during the Revolution, but Demi knew that when the moon was full and the spiced rum flowed he would sneak into Yeya’s room — and not just to scare her. Sometimes, Demi would hear old Cuban Son emanating through her locked door. An attempt to drown out the rhythmic scrape of keratin plates, the moaning and groaning, the laughing and playful pillow talk. She would call him Ìjàpá, as he was known in Yorubaland, and he would reverently refer to her as Caguama, mother of all Taíno people. Two royal houses coming together. It used to gross her out, but now Demi found it unbearably sweet, and, as Ayapito used to say, “You can’t tell an old turtle from a young one.”

“I’m proud of you, Demi.” Her grandmother shut the door behind her. “No le hagas caso a ese Papa tuyo. Your title is not decorative. Your responsibility to your tribe is very real.”

“That colorful tortoise out there seems to think so.”

A hint of jealously flared in her grandmother’s eyes. “Yes, there’s still wisdom in esa vieja gorda.”

“Thank you, Yeya!” She wanted to hug her, kiss her, but her grandmother held up her hand as straight and cutting as a sword.

“But you need to slow down, mijita. Remember, el que empieza corriendo termina caminando. What is the rush?”

Demi hated that old saying. It seemed to her a very stereotypically turtle thing to say, but her grandmother was right. She had no idea what she was doing. “Maybe I should YouTube some Haitian machete fencing videos before I wield this thing in battle?” She flicked her wrist, slicing the air like a clumsy ninja.

“Por favor!” She chuckled and some of the sorrow washed away. Yeya sat on the edge of the bed and pulled Demi down next to her. “Ayapito only used that thing to cut caña. Ese flaco has never won a single fight with his fists in his entire life! But he was clever and charming and that counts for a lot.” She sighed heavily and the bed undulated like an ocean.

The mention of Ayapito losing a fight sent a sudden chill down Demi’s spine. “I still don’t understand how he could die in his sleep and have been attacked by this boya? If I … If I get killed out there, will my body be whisked back into bed, perfectly unperturbed?”

“No.” Yeya, patted her granddaughter’s thigh with a soft, leathery palm. “Your grandfather had more tricks than he could remember. He was probably dreaming of being a turtle, and so he was both snoring in bed and paddling around in the lake.”
Demi tended to slouch, but she sat straighter at the very real thought of her own demise.

“Coge.” Yeya pulled out a putrid smelling pouch from her pocket and hung it around Demi’s neck. “I also know a lot of tricks.”

“What the heck is this?” She gagged. How had she not smelled it until now?

“Un cocimiento antiguo. Yerba de jicotea to help you transform, because you’ve lived almost your entire life as a girl and don’t know anything at all, Vivaporú for its general potency — and a little something else for protection against evil spirits.”

Demi put her hand over her grandmother’s hand. “You’re okay with me doing this?”

“I’m worried.” Yeya shrugged, not callously. Her eyes and smile gave her manner a tender resolve. “But we’re turtles. We leave our young to fend for themselves on hostile shores. It’s our way.”

Demi kissed Yeya on the cheek and without another word, she stood up and left the room.  

• • •

The march from her house to the lake was excruciating. The thousands of turtle guests shuffled and shifted to open a clear path. Flanked by piles and piles of polished shells like stacked dishes left in a sink after a party, black and yellow, green and brown, her mother and father were among them, but she couldn’t pick them out. Even the giant, showy tortoise was overshadowed by the sheer numbers. She wondered if her parent’s regal nuptials had drawn such a crowd.

The moon was nearly full in the watercolor sky. She didn’t know if that was an auspicious sign, or a dreadful portent. Sweat soaked her T-shirt. She should’ve listened more carefully to her grandparents’ stories.

Demi Dominguez tried to dredge up the courage to keep walking. She was a supernatural princess. A nexus point of two mythic turtle lineages. Her slow and steady forebears had survived the rise of dinosaurs, mass extinction events, conquests, colonization, slavery, dictatorships, economic collapses and immigration. She could handle one malignant spirit sitting at the bottom of her lake. She clutched the pungent pouch of herbs with her left hand and the weighty machete in her right, its curve reflected the silver moonlight. She put one foot in front of the other until her toes touched the water’s razor edge.

No turning back now. She waded into the tepid lake. Black, wiggling tadpoles scattered like fireworks. Demi moved deliberately, trying to minimize the ripples that would alert her foe. Her mouth went arid with doubt. Her feet crunched on rocks and then sunk into squishy muck. The heaps of turtles behind her hissed a primeval dirge in her honor. She kept moving forward until the water tickled her waist. Then she inhaled deeply and slid below the surface, without ceremony or second thought.

Demi entered a world the shade of green tea. A forest of spiraling, aquatic plants caressed her body. The memory of a frightened hatchling in the tangle flooded her mind. This had been her nursery. Bluegill and peacock bass darted away as she approached. She kicked, propelling herself deeper into the lake. Even in human form Demi could hold her breath for hours. Her eyes quickly adjusted to the gloom and the rich, familiar ecosystem came into view. She scanned the area carefully and found no demon lurking in the shadows, but she could taste faint hints of something bizarre lingering in the current. It fouled the water like an iridescent oil spill. She swam on, strong and agile.

A long, black catfish zoomed by and almost made her gasp, which would’ve been unfortunate while submerged. Demi thought about activating her grandmother’s potion, but a part of her worried about shedding her human form. She’d never done so before. What if she couldn’t change back? What would happen to her extra molecules when she became a smaller creature? Would she get them all back? In exactly the same order? Worse still, what if she recognized her testundinal manifestation as her true form and the girl she’d been for the last seventeen years just faded like a dream? No, she’d grown to like the smart, squat, clumsy, little person she’d become. Besides, she needed an opposable thumb to brandish Ayapito’s machete. She let the pouch bob around her neck.

Demi dived until the water chilled and darkened. Life grew scarce. Her skin prickled with goosebumps. Lake Vivien was not actually a lake but an artificial retention pond excavated by the city to mitigate flooding in the surrounding residential area. But she had traveled deeper than should be possible, beyond any city plans. Of course, like all bodies of water, the lake was also a portal to an immaterial abyss, a fathomless underworld twinkling with spectral flotsam. Demi stopped, suspended in space, her T-shirt drifted above her belly. She felt completely exposed. Where was she going? She noticed two pinpricks of light holding steady in the shimmering gyre. They burrowed into her like golden lasers. Her pulse quickened.

Then something large swept through the dark water around her. She spun like a bath toy in its wake. Every muscle in her body locked with fear. She squeezed her eyes shut. The flavor of the water changed dramatically, acquiring the particular tang of sulfur emitted by decomposing sludge caged within mangrove roots.   

“You’ve got to be crazy coming down here, little girl!” Demi felt the words rattle in the pit of her stomach like starvation. “Didn’t even have the decency to wear your true face!”

She wrenched her eyes open. Tiny bubbles and particulates swirled in vortices around her head. Then she saw it. The massive boya, floating a short distance away. Jet-black and jet-fast. It was made of nightmare now, twenty feet long and two thousand pounds, all pulverizing jaws and anfractuous tail. Its four stubby legs dangled at its sides like an afterthought.

“You killed my grandfather,” she snarled, biting back the ballooning anxiety in her chest.

“You mean, that ol’ ghost turtle? Yeah.” Its long rows of bone-white teeth ended in a smirk. “Crunchy little morsel. Thought he could kick me out of this watering hole.”

The machete’s wooden handle smoldered in her fist. “Well, I’m here to kick you out.”

“Are you?” A terrible rumble, like a well-tuned Harley Davidson, resounded through the water. Demi braced herself. The beast shot toward her, streaking this way and that, pulling her along then wiping her around with a swish of its broad tail. This time she was ready. She recovered her equilibrium, attuned her internal buoyancy and thrust out with her machete. Strident metal met armored hide. Exhilaration cut through the viscous fear.

The rumble died. The roiling water settled, but the boya drifted — completely unharmed — three kicks away. Smug, serrated smile firmly in place. “Nice try, sweetheart.”

“This is my home.” Her astral voice cracked, spilling all conviction like smoky blood in water.

“You’re what, a Cuban slider?”

“Cuban-American.”

“Well then, that makes you an invasive species, don’t it? I’m an American Alligator. This is my territory, has been for all time. I might just do Florida Fish and Wildlife a favor and kill you right now.”

She swung her blade into striking position, frog-kicking to stay in place. Drag made her movements slow and graceful. “You can try.”

He came at her. Straight as a torpedo. She manage to glide sideways and — with all her strength — struck at its bow-shaped snout. The impact dislodged the machete from her grip. The boya’s elongated silhouette thundered past her like a nuclear submarine, sending her tumbling head over heels on its slipstream — helpless — as her heirloom dagger sank to the bottom of the lake.

Her head and stomach spun in different directions. She could taste vomit in the back of her throat. She grit her teeth and steadied herself.

It came at her again. No games or taunts, just fury. They churned around each other. Demi barely eluded its snapping jaws. Her compact size allowed her some maneuverability, but she was just stalling — unable to attack.

Then she saw an opening, and planted both of her bare feet on the tender scales of its belly and pushed off and away from the turbulent clash. She plunged deeper into the lake, scissoring with all her might, stroking her arms wildly. She dived until her ears threatened to pop in her skull, and then deeper still. She needed that machete. She possessed no natural weapons, in any form. The crocodilian phantom scalded the water behind her.

Her pupils eclipsed her honey-hued irises, panicked, hungry for light. She spotted a curved shadow below. She swam faster than any human could toward the promise of something. A round hollowed shape, pale yellow and russet, like a carved gourd, lay at the bottom of the lake. She had reached the bottom! For a heart-stopping instant Demi thought it was Ayapito’s carcass lying in a bed of fish bones and pond scum.

“End of the line, child.”

A crippling pain shot through her right calf, but it was only an agonizing cramp and not the fatal stab of ten thousand pointed teeth. Not yet, anyway. She knifed through the water. Her eyes focused on the thing that wasn’t her grandfather. It turned out to be the rusted-out chassis of an abandoned Volkswagen Beetle, waterlogged for five decades. There was no sign of the machete anywhere. It had been swallowed by the slime-covered graveyard.

Demi’s lungs tingled in complaint. ¡Coño! She could hold her breath for hours if she were enjoying a leisurely dip. Now, fighting for her life, she burned through precious oxygen like a furnace. Her heart pounded into her sternum like on old ritual drum. Boiling blackness and the taste of rot surrounded her. The merciless hunter had finally caught up with its arrogant prey. Every cell in her body screamed for the congenial protection of a shell. She gave into the prehistoric compulsion and scrambled for sunken car.

“When I’m done with you, I’m going up there and have myself a turtle buffet. You hear me?”

The door jammed, but she pried it open enough to squeeze her soft human form inside. Then she shrank into the car’s backseat as the monster outside probed and pounded the wrecked VW.

With the temporary safety, Demi’s mind quieted somewhat. She understood the utter lunacy of coming down here. The audacity! This creature was just as hoary as any jicotea, had survived the same travails, and was unimaginably more powerful. The words “suicide” and “come mierda” trickled into her mind along with the torrential terror.

The boya snapped up the car in its colossal jaws. Glass exploded and corroded metal screeched as five hundred pounds of pressure crushed the weakened vehicle. Demi fought the urge to scream. Then, the beast surrendered to its primal nature and spun its great body, car firmly in mouth, in a frenzied death roll. Demi smashed her head. A sharp piece of glass sliced her back. A tire went gliding into the murk. After an eternity, the boya flung the Beetle to the side like a crumpled soda can.

Demi accepted that this was the end. She lay beaten, wedged between the backseat and perforated roof at the bottom of a lake she had so foolishly thought of as her own. It had been a short, mundane life for the Jicotea Princess. Her Mami and Papi wouldn’t even find her body to bury. She was delirious. How had Ayapito and Yeya managed to live such incredibly long lives when the spirit world was so damned savage?

Her grandmother’s words pierced the vertiginous ringing in her ears. Ayapito had never actually won a single fight with his fists. He was clever and used tricks.

The boya circled outside, ranting, “I belong here. I’m tied to this land. I draw succor from it.” Boom! Snout hammered car.

It was right. Yeya’s protection spell hadn’t worked because the alligator spirit wasn’t evil at all — just angry and stupid — and this was its ancestral home. It had every right to be here. Boom! But it had a terrible appetite and Demi could not allow it to devour her family and friends — her tribe.

Her grandmother’s charm drifted across her face, its repugnant pong roused her like smelling salts. Demi reached out and grabbed it. It hurt so much to move, but the potent herbs felt warm in her frigid hand. If she transformed, would she keep her injuries or would her new body be unharmed? Would her ravenous lungs be refilled with air? A magical second-wind? The boya clamped down on the wreck. Metal squealed. Through a shattered window she saw down its ashen gullet. Demi knew she couldn’t survive another violent roll.

She ripped the cord from her neck and sent the pouch sailing into the waiting maw. A final act of defiance and desperation.

A conflagration of opalescent light engulfed the dreary universe, like pearls on fire. Her dark-adapted eyes went blind, but she saw the boya consumed by her grandmother’s juju as a neon afterimage on the inside of her eyelids. It writhed in pain. Its growl shook the beat-up car. Then all was quiet.

When Demi’s vision returned, her adversary floated before her, utterly stupefied. Clumps of pond scum fell like a slow-moving blizzard. She blinked, unsure of what she was looking at. The boya’s gargantuan form had been dwarfed by the sudden radiance. It was pug-nosed now. Its barded torso compressed. Its once prodigious tail swished, thin and unimpressive.

“What the fuck did you do to me?” A wild panic tinted its golden eyes.

Demi wanted to laugh — and cry. If her entire body didn’t ache, if she weren’t worried about a concussion or the shard of glass embedded in her back, she would’ve cackled like a witch. As it was, she had trouble controlling the wide grin spreading on her face. Ayapito would have loved this. “I turned you into a turtle. An alligator snapping turtle to be precise.”

“Change me back!” She could see the strain on its newly-flattened face, it was trying to undo the enchantment, to shift back the same way it did between reptile and human, but Demi had changed something fundamental — altered its core being. The demon gator had depended on brute force alone throughout the eons, and knew no other tricks. It was stuck.

“Um, I don’t think so,” she said, ruefully.

Its hooked bill went agape with disbelief, its front legs waggled with unrestrained outrage, but compared to mere moments before, the boya looked absolutely comical. It was also bound by time-honored magic and etiquette to obey its new princess.

Demi pulled herself out of the twisted-steel husk. She grimaced as pain crawled up and down her body. Then swam toward it, acutely aware of each pang and throb. “I couldn’t beat you and I couldn’t, in good conscience, exile you from your home — so I made you one of us.” She stroked its bumpy, boney shell and it tried to nip her fingers off. “Welcome to the Jicotea tribe! You can stay in our lake as long as you like. Just don’t attack any of the neighbors.”

“I killed your grandfather! Ground him up into dust!”

Demi nodded and shrugged, not unlike her grandmother. There was no malice in her manner, just exhaustion. “A turtle for a turtle, right?” She started to ascend. Her movements were very slow and deliberate. The boya watched her for a while then paddled away into the dark. It would curse her, shout and yell, tear at its new shell — perhaps contemplate this unexpected chapter in its life. Demi too had a lot to think about. She lowered her metabolism to conserve what little oxygen she had. There was no hurry now. She flexed her legs with the languid rhythm of swaying aquatic plants. It was night and so the different zones within the lake would all be equally inky. The only light in the water was the glimmer of ifá smoldering in her eye.

 

 


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Alex Hernandez is a Cuban-American science fiction writer based in South Florida. The short stories of Isaac Asimov, which he checked out from the public library as a kid, moved him to write his own tales. He immediately connected with the author’s immigrant story. Themes of migration, colonization and posthumanism permeate his work. His stories have previously been published by Bean Books, The Colored Lens, Interstellar Fiction and others. His short story “Caridad” will appear in Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Latin@ Science Fiction and Fantasy out in February 2017.

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