The dark shape of the mountains covers the moon as the car trundles over the tar roads leading out to Cortada. You remember windmills spinning over fields of plátanos where your grandparents took you as a child, but to think Cortada is where they grew up, where they spent their summers riding bikes and horses and studiously working to go to college … It shakes you with its humility.
The town is quiet in a way that feels interrupted, with shells of history left to rust and ruin in the tangle of sugar cane and tall grasses—unlike Viejo San Juan, where colonialism is a relic, all cleaned cobblestones and colorful buildings. Here there are plantations, mills, and homes left behind even before María took most of what remained. The stink of cane and the shifting tones of the reedy stalks makes for an eerie stretch of countryside. Cortada has an unmistakable sheen of the past, residual markings of lives lost and born in equal measure.
Before María took Grandma’s childhood home in Cortada, the knocking always started just past witching hour. Grandpa said you could stay up to hear the knocking sounds of a ghost trying to get in the front door. He always tried to communicate with him, unafraid. Grandma always went to bed, shaking her head.
One night, when you were seven, Mom fought with you to go to bed. Mom slept with her hand wrapped around your wrist, but you got up anyway. Three in the morning, Grandpa is there in the kitchen—shirtless but wearing slacks, and barefoot. His cross tangles in his chest hair as he pours rum in a glass for the ghost. Mom trails behind, whispering harshly. Her nails dig in as you twist away, following Grandpa to the living room and then outside where he gently sets the glass. He grabs your hand as Mom grabs your shoulder. Then it happens.
Knocking. Someone trying to get in. Three short knocks. Four slow ones. Then three again.
Grandpa smiles in the darkness, holding you and Mom close. You haven’t forgotten the look on her face when she heard it. The shot glass was empty by morning.
“It was the cats,” Mom said. But you never believed that.
You didn’t know at the time, but later Grandma told you that the ghost was a silo worker looking for her. She was the last person he saw while he was alive, and it was only natural he follow her home. Grandma related the story on a sunny day, after a cloudburst cooled the back porch tiles and the two of you watched lizards skitter into the bushes.
Grandma was thirteen, shepherding her sisters to school, a task she didn’t quite care for but had to do as the oldest child. In those days, they all wore starched dresses and lacy socks with Mary Janes, crosses fixed over buttoned collars. She recalled how hot it was, all of the girls powdered but sweating, and Titi Anita complaining her braid was too tight. Along the way, they saw a group of men fixing the sugar cane silos on the horizon. One of them dug his boots firmly into the edge of the silo, a strong arm shining with sweat while he worked. As Grandma reached to fix Anita’s braid, she wondered what would happen if the man fell.
You can see it, too—a man falling against the blue sky fringed by palms, a straw hat flying from his head. In your version, he sank behind the cane stalks. You didn’t imagine what happened after that. Grandma, however, knows.
“When he hit the ground,” she said, “what came out of him was green.”
The mountains press in. The coquí sing like they are the only creatures that exist. And perhaps that’s true, until later tonight.
Elena M. Aponte is a Women’s Studies and Academic Writing instructor. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Toledo and an MA in Literary & Textual Studies from Bowling Green State University. Her work has appeared in multiple literary journals including Barrelhouse, Hobart, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction has been featured in Women Write About Comics and Anime Feminist. She has also edited a charity anthology of Puerto Rican writing, Boricua en la Luna. You can find her on Twitter: @PalanteAponte.