Rawhead

The Greyhound ride from Tuscaloosa to Abuela’s lasted hours, and the humidity made Julia’s hair frizzle. At least my hair isn’t like Cece’s, Julia decided. With every passing hour, she watched Cece’s thicker locks grow nasty and tangled. Riding the bus was miserable. Some nearby lady’s purse smelled of cottage cheese, Julia’s sweaty thighs suckered themselves to the seat, and Cece viciously kicked her sister’s shin for making a “sit at the back of the bus” joke. By the time they pulled into the station, Julia was glad to leave the bus. Her messy black pigtails itched against her neck as she watched it pull away.

Julia, beige-skinned and short and halfway to plump, clutched her suitcase close in case someone tried to steal it. She felt diminished next to taller, skinnier, and darker Cece, who was glaring at the bus. The Greyhound decided that it took offense to her spite. With a cloud of exhaust, it departed. The sisters shielded their coughing faces.

Their roller suitcases clattered along the road, dipping in and out of potholes. Julia and Cece stood at the station until Abuela showed up. She swelled out of her car door. Abuela was darker than a walnut and had ankles thicker than iron bars. Julia knew that in Abuela’s mind, every day was Sunday, and so she perpetually dressed for church. Abuela was all bosom and business, trapping her mane of black curls inside a bandana. A shawl cloaked her hunched back. Julia and Cece wheezed when she compacted them into a hug and kissed their faces. Like baby birds beholding their mother, they looked skyward and kissed her cheeks back. Cece withheld her sulk while she did.

“¡Mis nietas!” Abuela said. “¡Hola, Julita! Hola, Cece. ¿Cómo están? How was the trip?”

“Long,” Julia said. “Hot. Someone smelled bad.” She watched Cece wipe a sweaty curl out of her face.

“Cece, fix your hair,” Abuela said. “Tú eres un asco, and I’m not having my granddaughter arrive at the house looking like that. Julita, don’t slouch. Shoo. Back to the car.”

She shepherded them into the recesses of her old El Camino. “We have a long drive ahead, and I need to make dinner when we get back.”

The suitcases went in the trunk. Cece stretched out behind the passenger seat and Julia sat in the farthest seat opposite from her. While Cece was settling,  Julia peered out the left window. The town was small, with perpetual drifts of red dirt blowing in. Secondhand civilization quickly dissolved into country. As Abuela’s El Camino bounced outside the town limits, Julia marveled at the peanut fields and thin horses behind fences. White heads of cotton bobbed along miles of roadside. Giant, silver spidery irrigation arms reached over the fields, turning in their big and slow circles, and Julia grinned as she saw one start with a whoosh. Cece closed her eyes and savored the breeze from the cracked window. Julia glanced at the driver’s seat before leaning towards her. The ancient seat belt whined.

“Hey, Cece. Do you think Abuela will let us play with the hose?” Julia whispered.

“Maybe,” Cece said. “It depends on if we do our chores or not.”

“I’m not feeding the chickens,” Julia said.

Cece opened her eyes just to roll them. “Of course you’re not. Abuela never makes you do it,” she said.

Julia shifted her elbows on the tattered middle seat. The seat belt cut into her neck, but that didn’t matter.

“I hear you two little mice talking back there,” Abuela said, eyeing the rearview mirror. “Cch, cch, cch, whispering away. Julita, sit up. That’s bad for your back. Speak up, too.”

Julia sat up. The seatbelt stopped slicing into her neck. She mouthed Abuela’s words as Abuela lectured them. Cece giggled.

“What’s going on back there?” Abuela said.

“Nothing,” Julia said.

That earned a wink from Cece. Her hermana looked much more relaxed now. Why were you upset earlier? Julia wanted to say. But her words failed her in the face of stretches of cotton, so she said nothing at all.

Abuela’s home was a crooked, yellow farmhouse balanced at the edge of a trailer park. Gallinas wandered her straggly lawn. Strange ribby dogs slept in the driveway and trotted behind the laundry line. The air smelled of honeysuckles. Kitchen steam boiled out of Abuela’s propped-open screen door, drifting into the blue sky, and Julia heard grease crackling wherever she was. A long gravel road stretched from their house to the neighbor’s trailer.

Julia and Cece broke in their first week at Abuela’s with gardening, kneading dough, and water fetching. At home, they slouched on each other and the couch, all while peeling through old magazines or tapping time away on a Gameboy. At Abuela’s house, they hustled until blisters popped onto their heels. Abuela’s kitchen matched Georgia’s weather: it was stifling, hot, and insatiable. They’d lift one offering—sweeping the house, peeling potatoes, hanging the laundry, scrubbing the bathtub—only to find it snatched up and another necessary.

“My feet are going to fall off,” Cece moaned. “I can’t feel them anymore.”

Julia giggled. “Don’t let Abuela hear you,” she said. “She’ll say as long as you have feet on, you can feed the chickens again.”

Abuela was a force. She never let her nietas forget that. Spanish scarred her tongue while callouses, arthritis, and lash marks twisted her fingers. She’d resided in the states for fifty years now, but Julia knew she’d never left Cuba. Not really. All her ideals remained fresh off the boat. When she caught Cece loafing around, she smacked the back of her leg with a ruler so hard she knocked white into Cece’s skin. Cece yelped and flew a foot into the air. She bit her lip, tearing up. All the while, Abuela brandished her wand.

“I see you, hijita,” Abuela said. “You’re one of my favorites, but I won’t let that lazy blood slide. There’s a little in your sister too. Ay, why you’d both get your abuela’s pelo malo? It’s sank its roots into your brain.” Abuela shook her head. “Go grab a chicken for lunch, Cece.”

“Julia hasn’t caught a chicken yet,” Cece said. She pried her hand off her leg. “She hasn’t wrung one’s neck either.”

“Julita is busy,” Abuela said, “and I asked you.”

Cece looked at Julia with a plead for help in her eyes. Julia didn’t understand it. She hung back. Abuela smacked the ruler against her hand, shattering the stalemate.

“¡Ándale!” she said. “The chicken won’t catch itself, and there’s going to be a storm later.”

Cece bit back a groan before trudging away. Preemptive wariness kept Julia from pursuing her sister. Instead, she waited by the house.

Nearby, away from where Cece had gone, a shorter road plunged into the mosquito-flooded woods. It went all the way to the strawberry patches and La Llorona’s creek by the cotton mill, where the migrants hiked every morning for work. To the left of the trail sat the busted up henhouse and a pig pen’s remnants. Abuela had owned pigs once, but no longer. It had been good news for Cece. She hated them. They’re so dirty, Cece had said, even the fancy ones. Curly hair or not, they all have the same scary tusks. You can’t dress them up. ¡Un cerdo es siempre un cerdo!

Julia lingered by the spigot. She heard a chicken’s sharp cry. Before too long, Cece trudged back to the house, a motionless red hen swinging from her hand. Julia trotted over to her.

“Are you okay?” Julia said. “It looked like Abuela got you good.”

Cece gave her the hateful look that belonged to the stray dogs when Abuela turned the hose on them. Julia backpedaled. She stayed away from the dead hen in case Cece swung it at her.

“Gee, Julia, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Cece said.

“Who put a stick up your butt?” Julia stuffed her hands into her pockets and tagged behind her sister. “It was just a question.”

“Don’t ask it,” Cece snapped.

“Well, it’s even if you and Abuela don’t get along, está terminado.”

Cece laughed. “No thanks to you. Thanks for all the help, Julia.”

“¿Qué?” Julia said. “What did I do?”

“Nothing,” Cece said.

“What did I do?”

“Cállate, Julia.”

“Fine.” Julia wrapped her arms around herself, falling back.

The distance grew between them.

Abuela plucked Cece’s hen as clouds rolled in. She plunked golden rice in her cauldron while the chicken cooked. Julia and Cece waxed the living room floor to the tune of droplets pattering on the porch. By the time dinner graced the table, rain rattled against the roof. Thunder built into an ominous growl that shivered the walls. Cece and Julia exchanged glances when the first spear of lightning zigged by. Then the lights flickered. Julia scrambled for the cabinet beneath the sink, searching for a light, and grabbed a battered flashlight right as the power failed. Everything went black. The gale swirled and groaned around them. Julia could barely make out Abuela and Cece’s storm-blue silhouettes at the table.

Cece whistled. “So much for electricity,” she said.

Dinner briefly stalled out with their light. Abuela lit stubby candles around the house. “This is what it’s like to live in el campo,” she said. “You two are lucky. You don’t know what real work is.”

The circles of candlelight licked at the blue darkness. They finished their dinner in murky darkness and washed their dishes to candlelight. Abuela turned in soon afterwards. Cece and Julia, freed, grabbed the flashlight, three plated candles, and locked themselves in their bedroom. The smell of Abuela’s pine wax lingered.

“Alright, mocosa, listen up,” Cece said. She turned the flashlight on and held it beneath her chin. Her hair puffed into a black halo around her head while the stripes on her nightgown became symbols of rank. “We’re going to tell ghost stories. Give me your best one.”

“No,” Julia said. She hugged her pillow to her stomach. “I don’t want to.”

“Don’t cry,” Cece said. “La Llorona comes for babies that cry.”

She didn’t come for you when Abuela pulled me out of the garden, Julia thought. La Llorona didn’t come for you when Abuela told me getting dirty makes me look like you, and that’s why I needed to wash myself. You cried then.

But she said nothing. Julia made a face when Cece hopped onto the bed to strut circles around her.

“If you’re not crying now,” Cece said, “you’ll cry when I tell you about Rawhead.”

“What?”

Julia reserved her wariness. La Llorona was old news. The Mexican boys next door had already worn that myth out. La Llorona was the witch who had drowned her children in order to get married. Now, she wept and searched for her lost babies as she dragged her rotting gown through the river, forever a bride and never a mother. Her crooning brought misfortune to anyone who saw her sunken face. But Rawhead—this was something new. Julia didn’t like new, not when it involved fear.

“Rawhead,” Cece said. “He’s La Llorona’s pet. After La Llorona drowned her children, she got lonely. She picked up a piglet at a marketplace. It grew into a big, nasty boar: the kind that eats baby deer. It walked on its hind legs and spoke to her. It wove a coat for her.”

“Boars don’t talk,” Julia said. “That’s a lie.”

“La Llorona was a bruja,” Cece said. “Brujas make people’s tongues tingle and their feet go numb and their chickens flip and stare at the sky. If she wanted to make a boar talk, it would.”

Cece’s feet sank into the blankets, bed springs creaking with her every step. Julia shuddered. The flashlight beam swung through the air in a wanton dance.

“But La Llorona ruined everything she touched,” Cece said. “A hunter saw the boar. He killed it and ate everything except its nasty head. La Llorona cried her eyes out when she found the pig’s skeleton.”

Cece lunged into Julia’s face. Julia strangled her yelp of surprise.

“But her tears brought it back to life!” Cece’s hands flew up like black doves. “Rawhead put on a dog’s hide for a coat and stole scissors and rusty knives for hands. It’s a pig Frankenstein thing that’s a hundred times uglier than La Llorona. I heard if you go to the fields at night you can see Rawhead picking cotton and strawberries for her. Breaking his back for La Llorona, since she won’t do anything.”

“Liar,” Julia said.

“Oh yeah? Prove me wrong, Julita.” Cece tilted her chin up. “Hike down to the cotton mill and see if Rawhead is there. I dare you.”

“That’s stupid. I won’t,” Julia said. “If Abuela catches me, we’re screwed.”

“Whatever,” Cece said. “I guess I couldn’t expect you to do anything that Abuela doesn’t approve of. Or anything that would ruin your pretty mayo skin.”

“I’m not that pale!” Julia huffed, digging her fingernails into her palms. “No soy una gringa.”

“You look like one.” Cece’s fingers wound her hair into tight, tight curls. “If they didn’t hear you talking to me, they wouldn’t even know you’re my sister.”

For a moment, Julia remembered the whispers and looks from white people and other Cubans at the tienda, the skin-pinching from strange tías and clucking—“Piel bueno, sí. It’s too bad her nose and posture don’t match”—and her vision blurred. Thankfully, Cece didn’t notice.

“Fine. I’ll go.” Julia stood. “I’m not a coward or a gringa. I’m not a bitch like you either!”

“No,” Cece said. “You’re always a bitch at home. Here is the only place you’re not one.”

Julia snatched the flashlight out of Cece’s hand. The B-word still burned her tongue. Now that she’d defied Cece she couldn’t back down. They headed to the door. Cece watched Julia yank on her galoshes and jacket. The rain settled into a low hiss in their ears. Julia inhaled as she stood on the threshold. Abuela, her savior, lay beyond reach. The night engulfed her. The gravel trail to La Llorona’s creek slithered into the woods.

“I’ll wait on the porch,” Cece said. “Once you’ve got a peek at him, run. Don’t be dumb.”

“I’m not!” Julia said. She stomped down the stairs. “I’ll go to the mill and prove you wrong. And when I get back, I’ll rub it in your face. There’s no Rawhead. You’ll see.”

A lump stuck in her throat. Every squelch of mud beneath her heel sent a shiver up her spine. Julia felt like she was watching someone else’s legs take her into the woods. Cece and the porch faded, trees surrounded her, and then Julia returned to her body. She wanted to cry. No, she told herself. Don’t cry. That’ll make it worse. With the forest cover above, mosquitoes whined at her ears. Julia ignored the iron ball of fear in her belly. She marched on.

The trail was far longer than Julia remembered. She endured the sound of crunching gravel. As she heard leaves rustle for the umpteenth time, Julia drew her shoulders in. She focused on something else. Why was Rawhead scary, anyway? It was nothing but a poor flesh-naked pig that worked in the field. It didn’t kill anyone, Julia thought, did it? If it had knitted a coat for La Llorona, it wasn’t all bad. There was nothing to be scared of. It was just a clumsy, ugly mishmash of parts.

A coyote yip echoed in the woods. Julia leaped forward. She clutched her flashlight. Leaves rustled again, but closer. Was that a footstep?

“If I die,” Julia muttered, “it’s Cece’s fault.” She tried not to think about it. Her hands trembled. Cece had to have known how awful this was. Why had she dared Julia to do this? Why did Cece hate her so much when they were here?

Julia didn’t know what she had done wrong. It had to be something in Abuela’s walls. Cece wasn’t like this when people thought Julia was adopted. Then, Cece laughed and threw an arm around Julia’s shoulders, saying “No, she’s not.” She was even more flippant when people asked her the same question. Julia never had to comfort her. Cece was invincible.

At home, Cece bandaged Julia’s skinned knees. She and Julia split two-part dreamsicles and they braided each other’s hair. At home, Cece didn’t care about any of Julia’s negrita jokes. She laughed at home! But here she cared, greatly. Here, she snapped like a cornered rat, as though Julia’s words were knives and her sister was coming to kill her. At Abuela’s, a fault line slunk between them that Julia could not mend. Tears welled into Julia’s eyes.

Another coyote yipped. She heard a faint clatter of gravel.

The coyote yips turned into a cascade of whiny howls and calls. Their shrill clamour raked goosebumps onto Julia’s skin and lengthened her stride. Swarms of fireflies clouded the woods, morphing into yellow eyes. Cold sweat trickled down her neck. La Llorona’s creek babbled nearby, with heads of cotton glowing in the moonlight beyond the forest. There was another crunch behind her. Julia hurried towards the moonlight. Bad creatures couldn’t live there.

As the footsteps behind her turned into a run, Julia sprinted for the cotton, and arms wrapped around her from behind. Julia screamed and shook them off. She lashed out with her flashlight. It thudded against flesh, giving Julia time to stumble away. She caught her balance with a scream on her lips. The world around her spun.

“Julia, stop!”

Cece’s voice split the night. Julia skidded to a halt. She caught her balance on the tiptoes of her boots. Cece ran to her, crying. Julia grabbed her sister’s arms to steady her. Relief flooded through Julia alongside the shards of broken tension. Both sisters huddled together, the night enveloping them.

“You were gone for a long time.” Cece rubbed her eyes. “I thought Rawhead got you.”

“I’m okay,” Julia said. “I promise.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I hate everyone when we’re here.” Cece clutched her head, sniffling. “I feel so ugly.”

Julia’s legs quivered. A breeze rustled her paper thin nightgown. “It’s okay,” she said. “I know I suck when I’m at home. It’s my fault.”

She wanted Cece’s sympathy. She wanted to end this. How? Julia thought. I don’t know what’s wrong. I just make jokes. Regurgitated psalms of their parents stuck to their skin with the humidity. The chasm between them shivered.

The cotton field lay ahead. Julia could see the blooms on its outskirts. The rest of the field was a foggy mystery. Strings of cricket song, so soft and intricate they could’ve been a distant violin concerto, bound the darkness together. Julia imagined a deep, uneven voice singing, and black curly pig’s hair in the cotton. She heard cloven hooves.

“We need to leave,” Cece said. Urgency lit her body with electric twitches. “I have to tell you something. But it can’t be out here.”

Julia couldn’t object. They retreated to Abuela’s, both in their pajamas. Neither of them looked back at the cotton field. Ten new bug bites already itched on Julia’s legs. She cringed when Cece pushed aside a briar. Judging by the red lines on Cece’s arm, it had caught her last time.

But Cece didn’t care. She walked faster and faster, driven forward by some wind Julia could not feel, and fear bit them into a sprint. The girls fled the forest and crept through the screen door. The girls retrieved a prayer candle and locked themselves in their room. For once, they huddled together in the same bed.

“Are you ready to hear a secret?” Cece whispered.

Julia hunkered into Cece’s shoulder. “What?”

“I know Rawhead is real because I saw him,” Cece said. “At the tienda.”

Julia gasped. “No.”

“I was waiting in line with Mamá to check out. We had a pig’s snout, pig’s feet, and ears on the counter. I heard the old man behind me laugh, and I realized he was pointing at my nose, and the pig’s nose. Back and forth. The more he laughed at me, the more far away the world felt. I felt like my skin was tar paper clinging to someone else. Like I didn’t belong there. And then, when I looked up over the dulce aisle…”

“You saw him,” Julia said.

She imagined the raw snout peering around the corner. The sad, rotty eyes. The pig bristles scattered on the deli aisle tile. Cece squeezed her hand so hard it felt like her fingers were coming off.

“You’ve seen him too,” Cece said, “right?”

No, Julia wanted to say. But it stuck in her mouth. She remembered the flickering lights of the tienda. In her memory, as tìas pinched her arms, she thought she glimpsed a tail around the corner.

“I think so,” Julia said. “Maybe. I didn’t know what he was.”

“I knew it! I’ve figured it out. That’s where he lives, Julia,” Cece said. “Not in the tienda, but in that weird space! The place you feel yourself go when you’re ashamed and can’t be in your body. Adults like La Llorona made it, adults like Abuela, and the tìas and white people at the tienda, and now he lives there. He comes after us because we’re alone and he needs someone to cling to, or else we’d become happy and leave him. Does that make sense?”

Julia mostly understood. She struggled with the last pieces. Cece, her face lit with ferocity, did not.

“I think so,” Julia finally said. “Cece, if you knew Rawhead was real, why did you make me go out there?”

“I didn’t know if you could see him.” Cece’s eyes brightened with tears. “You’re always doing better than me.”

Shame drenched Julia. Cece thought she was alone with Rawhead and the stupid, judgy people in the store. It does hurt her. She thought I knew and didn’t care.

“No I’m not.” Julia hugged her hermana. “I thought it didn’t bother you. I’m sorry.”

“All this nonsense has to go away,” Cece said. “Maybe it will when we grow up.”

“Yeah.” Julia felt Rawhead’s breath on her neck. “No more Rawhead. No more letting grown-ups make us feel bad about ourselves. At least we don’t do that to each other.”

Cece’s disappointment was palpable. Julia didn’t understand why.

The rain hissed away with their words. Cece slept soon after they finished talking. Even as the clouds parted and moonlight flooded into the room, striking the long extinguished prayer candle, Julia lay awake, pondering her sister’s words. She stared at Cece’s placid face and the hair fanned out behind her head. Cece’s fingers were a shadow against Julia’s pasty skin, and her knobby knee bumped Cece’s side. They lay in bed as a patchwork of girls. Rain hummed against the windows. The cotton would be soggy today and tomorrow. No one would pick it.

Is Rawhead real? Julia wasn’t sure. Anything could happen in that space where they left themselves behind.

She rested her fingertips an inch from Cece’s cheek and let her eyes drift close.

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