Salt of My Earth

Salt Flats, Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico ©2017 Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle

“Will she come for me tonight, Abuelo? Abuela said a spirit will come as a ball of fire.”

“Tranquila, nena,” the old man said. He stroked his granddaughter’s soft, thin forearm that lay before him on the cot. It was the color of dark honey and, to his eyes, as sweet. His eyes, deep in dark folds of leathery skin, glistened like obsidian in a stream. He grasped the salero, the large wooden salt shaker, and held it in his hands.

The girl waited. Hope, like the tiny bird hopping on the wooden windowsill, fluttered in her sunken chest.

Abuela heard things,” he said. “But spirits, like the wind, do not always speak a truth that a woman — even a woman as wise as your grandmother — can understand. She saw the flocks fly from the island out to sea and said they would never return, but after the storm, they were back. You remember, you watched birds taste the sugar on the sill.

“She saw the earth seething with ants, blankets of black like waves under a moonless sea. They spewed from the ground and covered the trees and the grass and the rocks and the paths until the world was a silhouette and even the sun recused itself. Yet, when you awoke with the sun shining on your sleepy face, they were gone and the world was green again.

“To understand evil is a gift and Abuela was truly gifted. But it is a treacherous gift from a devious devil who gives it to confuse us, to remind us we are not gods but humans. We are vain to expect to know evil but when we do, we must endure it…and if possible, defeat it.”

The girl understood little of what the old man said, but some of the words in soft and rhythmic Spanish soothed her: if Abuela was wrong before, she could have been wrong again. “Evil spirits walk in the skin of a woman by day,” Abuela had told her. “They walk along the paths of the village looking into open windows for weakness, weak women, weak girls, someone they can carry away.”

She didn’t want to be weak, but the fevers wounded her, wiped the power from her limbs, shook her and scared her when they came and scared her more when they went away because she knew they were there somewhere waiting to return.

“The spirits slip out of the human skins at night, like we shed our clothes to sleep,” Abuela had told her. “They spin about as balls of fire. You can see them dancing above the mountain Furidí on the hottest nights; the leaves of the Yagrumo trees rise up and touch them as they pass.”

“Will one of the spirits take me, Abuelo?” She reached for the old man’s hands and pressed with all her might. It was like the breath of a baby on the back of his fists.

His held his eyes shut, trying to force out the fears that formed and flowed within him. He knew that if he could find a spirit’s vacant skin he might prevent it from retaking human form.

Long before their ancestors were brought in the bowels of wooden ships from Africa to the island, Abuelo’s people knew the power of evil and knew ways to battle against it. The slave owners mocked them, but they knew that salt, the salt of the Earth, the white crystals that grew in the ponds next to the sea, could keep spirits at bay.

As the child watched, he poured a line of salt from the salero around her cot, an unbroken circle on the floor, pure and sparkling white, a halo of goodness. “This will keep you safe,” he said.

She smiled and kissed his hand. Her lips were cool; the fever was receding. She would soon sleep.

He knew that — even if only in a dream — he would find and salt the errant spirit’s empty carapace. It would flee far from the glittering glow of its tainted skin. It would seek a new island, a new village, a new child.

Not his child’s child, salt of his Earth. No, not now.

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