Updated: Dec 28, 2022
by Peter P. Núñez
On my block stood a house where the recaíto and photographs of people were kept in the freezer. Threads of incense and tobacco smoke squeezed through the cracks in the windows. When the door opened, the dancing flames of candles were visible. A peculiar woman lived in that house, a woman like no other—she saw and heard what others couldn’t.
People said she could fly, that only prayer said backward could bring her down. And while some people knew the prayer, no one dared to utter it because she would make you pay—suck your children’s souls through their navel or make you fall victim to death. Or worse than death, she’d cause you to go insane, as she did with poor Victor.
Before I was born, Victor and the peculiar woman had an altercation. People say they were lovers and she discovered him with someone else. Since then, Victor had been wandering the streets with gardening scissors in hand, cutting people’s grass to make money for cigarettes. He would smoke them while sitting on the sidewalk, talking and laughing to someone only he could see.
You wanted to be on her good side, this woman. Because when she liked you, she was of great help. She could make someone fall in love with you or make love disappear between other people. She could name those secretly trying to harm you. She could reverse a spell placed on you. And she could rid you of an evil spirit as she did with me.
Or at least tried.
Doña Fatima had been sweeping the same part of the sidewalk to eavesdrop on the conversations in the neighboring galerías. I came running down the block, crying and screaming to be left alone. Doña Fatima cursed me when I dashed by her and almost made her fall. She told my mother I’d been acting strange. When she turned to look at who or what I was running from, she didn’t see a soul.
My mother was concerned and asked me to corroborate what doña Fatima related. I admitted it was true; she asked me, “ who were you running away from, mijo?”
“I don’t know, mami,” I said.
“It’s okay. You can tell me.”
“But it’s true, mami. I don’t know. I couldn’t see him.”
“How do you know someone was following you, then?”
“Because I heard him.”
“You could hear him, but you couldn’t see him?”
“And are you sure it was a man?” She desperately attempted to make sense of what I couldn’t.
“It sounded like one, mami.”
“And where was his voice coming from? Could you tell?” my mother asked.
“Everywhere? I don’t understand, mijo. You mean you couldn’t tell if the man was ahead or behind you?”
“Yes, mami,” I answered. “It was as if the man was inside my head but also everywhere else.”
“Ay, mi muchacho,” was all my mother said before she embraced me, holding my head against her chest. Then, I heard a whisper, and for a second, I thought it was the man we’d been talking about. But it was not him. The whispers were my mother’s prayer in my ear.
We sat on two white plastic chairs in her backyard. I could hear the woman moving pans inside the kitchen. A smell of cuaba and rue emanated from the kitchen, so potent it made me sneeze. Then, whispering, the woman appeared through the curtain between the kitchen and the backyard with her eyes shut.
She was short, almost to a pathological point. Barefoot. Her skin was the color of coffee beans; her hair the color of ashes. She held two enamel cups, one in each hand. She sipped from one of them and spat its content on the ground, and rubbed her feet on it. Passing me the second cup, directing me to drink from it. Glancing at my mother, she looked skeptical, still signaled to do as I was told. The drink was flavorless, but not entirely—it hinted at something I could not recognize.
When asked why we had come to see her, my mother told of my experience hearing “people who weren’t there.” To this, the woman grunted and shook her head as if something had fallen on her hair, ordered me to close my eyes, take a deep breath, and make the sign of the cross backward. The latter took me multiple attempts to do right. She put her hand on my head and mumbled unintelligible sounds. The tablets of Moses. Lilís. Cristóbal Colón. Names and things I hadn’t, and still haven’t heard in the same sentence since then.
Unable to resist, I opened my eyes to find the woman’s eyes rolled back. Panicked-stricken, I tried to run to my mother. The woman was speaking in tongues and a strange force compelled me to remain sitting.
“I can help you,” the woman said with iris-absent eyes.
She revealed to my mother that there was a demon of insanity inside me. My father’s past lover expelled this demon to possess my father out of spite, though it plagued me instead as I was easier to control.
The curse could be counteracted with a resguardo she prepared for me—a piece of paper with a prayer of protection folded inside a sewn bit of cloth to wear at all times and placed underneath my pillow when I slept.
“I’ll prepare a toma to give him every time he complains about the demon talking to him,” the woman told my mother. “This—wait here.” She disappeared behind the curtain. She returned holding a flask filled with a greenish liquid, herbs, and what seemed to be human hair. She told me to drink, so I did.
When we got home, the voices entered with us. They were angry. The moment I thought of running to my mother and drinking the remedy, they threatened to kill us both.
“What was that you drank?” asked one of them.
Another answered, “it was poison.”
“He swallowed hair,” said another.
“It'll grow inside you.”
The last remark felt so horribly real that I ran to the bathroom and attempted to swallow my father’s razor blade. My mother grasped it from my hand before I could ingest it.
I ran out of the house and continued to run until I could no longer. I sat on the sidewalk and wept, my hands covering my face. Then, I heard a person sitting next to me. It was Victor.
He handed me a cigarette without saying a word and lit it.
We smoked and talked, yet not to each other.
I never felt less lonely in my life.
Peter Núñez is a Dominican-American writer and mental health professional living in New York. His passion for storytelling and exploring psychological trauma in the Latinx community inspired Peter’s literary work and his first novel, A Man of Honor. Peter works as a psychotherapist in Brooklyn.