The News by C. Dale Young
The potted ficus in the corner of Flora Diaz’s kitchen, the ficus barely four-feet tall and planted in a rust-colored ceramic pot, the one that she watered every six days had, for the first time in the almost four decades she had owned it, started showing some yellowing leaves. This did not escape Flora Diaz’s attention. Nor had it escaped Javier Castillo’s attention; he made a point of pointing it out when he first told me about that particular time in his life. The ficus was one of the only things Flora Diaz brought with her to California when she left the island. Flora Diaz knew that Ficus benjamina, the weeping fig, only offered up yellowing leaves in times of stress, of over-watering or under-watering. And Flora Diaz was quite sure she had not altered the routine she had adopted in caring for this plant. As she studied the ficus, she discovered a whitish patch, discovered that one of the three thinner trunks twisted together had a white ring roughly midway between the soil of the pot and the small umbrella of branches. She noted this but could not discern the significance of it, and this bothered her. It bothered her more than she realized.
Sitting at her kitchen table after performing her morning ritual of checking her plants and drinking a glass of hot water with a freshly-crushed pepper in it, Flora Diaz could feel a prickling on her skin followed by a subtle change in the light just in front of her. Then came the distinct smell one associates with a wire burning. The light elsewhere in the kitchen was the warm light entering through the windows of the kitchen, but the cool-white light she could appreciate in front of her was not natural light. It was anything but natural; it was her nephew Javier Castillo. As she spoke his name, his form began to take shape, the cool-white light suddenly variegated and shimmering and then the shape of his head and his arms shaded, shaded and then definitely there. Within another thirty seconds or so, Javier Castillo was sitting in the chair across from his aunt, and within another ten or so seconds he was solid enough to speak.
“I can never surprise you, Tia. Can I? Like Mama, you can sense me before I am completely here.”
“Why are you here, Javi?”
“Is that any way to greet your only nephew?”
“No games, Javi. I am not in any mood for games.”
Flora Diaz was not one to waste time with small talk, I was told, especially with members of her own family. She was not even slightly interested in pleasantries. Her nephew, regardless of what he did, was a reminder of her past no matter how much she tried not to think of him in that way. She knew he had nothing to do with her early difficulties, but she couldn’t help but feel this way. In this, her family was no different than others. Javier Castillo was a reminder of her sister, of the life they had as children, of the island she grew up on, of the fact she came from a long line of “difficult people.” He reminded her of her own mother, his nose most definitely hers. And, sadly, he reminded her of the Archbishop who had time and time again abused and violated both her and her sister so many years ago. The smile, that mouth, the way it was capable of deception: Javier Castillo had his father’s mouth which, to Flora Diaz, negated the regal nose he had inherited from her side of the family.
“Mama is dying,” Javier said.
“No. She is not. I would know such a thing.”
“Well, she’s dying. She’s lost almost thirty pounds over the past two months alone.”
“Foolishness,” Flora said. I bet Flora Diaz wondered if this were a trick, an elaborate trick. Considering her nephew and his abilities to manipulate people, she had to have considered this.
“I think she has something... cancer, something.”
“Not possible.” Flora Diaz waved her hand as if swatting gnats, but there wasn’t a single thing in the air except the occasional awkward silence after each of them spoke.
“Mama won’t even see people, Tia. She won’t heal anyone.”
“Because she is a selfish whore trying desperately to heal herself.”
“See. This confirms you know she is sick.”
“I don’t know anything. What I do know is that you are reckless. You are never satisfied. You manipulate.”
Flora Diaz was probably not surprised at these thoughts she had, but she had to be surprised she was voicing them to her nephew. She was mostly a private person who said little, but she couldn’t stop herself then.
“I have, at many times, been a mother to you. And how did you repay me? You persuaded the Blanco man down the road to follow you. And for what? Because you need to be adored, to be worshipped? You let him see you disappear. You charmed him despite the fact you knew it would lead nowhere. You...”
“Tia, it is just plain rude to look into other people’s lives like that!”
“You are a charmer, Javi. You have done this before and will continue to do it. You choose to charm... You choose to do this.”
“Tia, we are all capable of charming, as you call it. It is the one thing that we can all do. What you are upset about has nothing to do with my charming someone. What upsets you is the fact I charmed a man.”
“Don’t start that with me, Javi. I know what you are, and I have never so much as said a word to you about it.”
“But it bothers you. I know it does.”
“Go home to your mother, Javi. At least there you won’t cause as much trouble as you have done here.”
“The Blanco man was a mistake, I admit that. And it was years ago, Tia.”
“Forget it. No need to keep discussing this. Just leave now, Javi. Go care for your mother.”
I wish I had been there to watch Flora Diaz chastise Javier Castillo, but once she had gotten the outburst out of her system she went on to surprise herself further with nothing but silences. Javier Castillo was definitely not polite. As if convincing people to turn over their money to him was polite. As if using your ability to manipulate people in all manner of ways was polite. Javier Castillo was his mother’s child through and through. That a man could possess the gift he had was something Flora didn’t know was possible until Javier Castillo was born. That he could bend light, as her mother Tita Diaz had called it, still amazed her, though she would never admit that. Her mother couldn’t do that. Not even her sister could do that. She had been taught that no woman since the first of their kind had held that particular gift. Both she and her sister had been warned by their mother not to have sons, but her sister had not listened. She was selfish and did whatever she wanted to do. And this was the result, a man who possessed one of the gifts, the first man to possess one of the gifts, the most dangerous of the gifts. When Javier recounted this, he always had a sheepish and almost guilty look on his face. He knew quite certainly that he had been a mistake. And mistakes always have consequences.
Minutes passed then with nothing but silence. The birds outside had stopped their morning racket, the relaying of the news as her mother Tita Diaz used to call it, which only made the silence in the kitchen more palpable. And Flora became very much aware then of her nephew Javier Castillo and the sadness in his face. He had come for her help, but this was one time she refused to help, could not help even if she wanted to do so.
“Mama needs you. You should have known I was coming. You should have seen me coming.”
“I am not as enamored of my skills in the way you and your mother are. She has made herself known as a healer. Maybe she should heal herself.”
“That is cold, Tia, even for you.”
“Not cold, Javi. Not cold at all. Just the truth.”
But Flora Diaz had lied, at least somewhat. She did know Javier Castillo was coming. She had seen it weeks earlier. But what likely upset her was the fact she didn’t foresee the reason why he was coming. She must have known it was because he was in trouble. But to hear Javier tell the story this was, for the first time in over three decades, a moment his aunt had not seen correctly. And this must have confused her, disturbed her.
“Are you okay, Tia? Are you alright?”
“Why? Don’t tell me you suddenly have the gift of Reading?”
“I don’t need your gift to see the changes in your face.”
“You always were a clever boy, Javi. So clever. But you are not clever.”
“She’s dying, Tia. You know it as well as I do. There has to be someone in the family who can heal her. I know it isn’t you, but you would know the right person.”
“There is no one. We three are all that is left. There have always been at least three, three gifted fools sharing none of the same skills. Your abuela could have saved her. Your abuela could have saved anyone. But this is irrelevant because your mother would not have the strengths she does were my Mama alive.”
Flora could remember as a child watching her mother tend to the sick from all over the island. And she remembered the way her sister Cassie would study her, memorizing everything she did. The way her mother cracked the window; the way she steadied her hands or shook her head; the way in which she lowered her voice: Cassie studied it all. Did she steal this skill from their mother? Or was it that Cassie already had the skill and was simply taking advantage of being able to observe a good teacher? Flora would never know, Javier would never know, though in the secret space of this story we all know Cassie stole that gift from her mother. She was that ruthless. She was born ruthless. Flora Diaz had no gift for healing. All she had was sight, what her mother had called the gift of Reading. And that had not become fully her own until her mother had died in the months after she had escaped the convent. None of them fully appreciated their “gifts,” fully commanded them until her mother died. Javier was quite sure of this. He would say that the day his abuela died his entire body changed, his mind changed, everything changed. It was as if the air itself surrounding him had changed.
“Go back to your mother. She will not be happy you came here.”
“Tia, you must come back with me. There must be a cousin, someone who can help her.”
“I won’t. I will not. I have no intention of returning to that place. Why would I fly half way across the world and then take a boat to that horrible place?”
“Isn’t there another like us in the family? There must be a distant cousin, someone.”
“There are seven gifts, Javi, but there are only three of us left. Even if a distant cousin had skills, it would not be strong enough to help. And it would not be the gift of Healing.” As she said this, Flora Diaz sighed as if worn out, as if annoyed at the ignorance of her nephew, as if by doing so he would tire and leave. “There are only three of us, Javi. We are all that is left. At one point, there were many of us, but we are all that is left now.”
Javier Castillo sat still and stared at his aunt. He said nothing more. His face became determined, and he slowly faded into a shadow, and then a shimmer, and then air. It was gradual. There was the man, and then the man seen through but still there, and then the spotlessly clean wall of the kitchen behind the chair where Javier Castillo had been sitting. Flora had seen this many times. The Blanco man had seen it. I have seen it. She knew that within minutes he would be near his mother’s side or God knows where else in the world. She remembered her nephew as a child, before her mother had passed. He was born in that convent. She remembered how Javier, barely five years old, demonstrated his gift, materializing to each of them in their rooms in the evenings, moving from room to room without walking. And she remembered how each time he left her she could follow the thread he left in the air to see where he went after disappearing. But when she concentrated, she could not see him. She couldn’t see him at all. Not one to give up easily, she got up, crossed the room, tore some dead leaves off the ficus and crumbled them on the table. She held her hands over them for almost fifteen minutes but saw nothing of Javier Castillo’s whereabouts. No matter how she concentrated, she could see nothing of her nephew.
She had not foreseen the reason why her nephew had come to visit her, and then she could not see him at all. She kept trying. You know she had to have kept trying. She must have stared so hard at the leaves crumbled on the table that she could feel the muscles on her scalp begin to twitch and ache from her staring. Her mother had been the only person on earth she could not see from a distance. You know Flora had to be confused. She must have considered the possibility that Javier was as strong as her own mother. But trust me when I say this: that was just not possible. In all of this, the one thing I have learned is that none of them — Cassie, Flora, or Javier — were as strong as the old woman Tita Diaz.
So many links. Too many links. The first time Javier Castillo had visited Flora Diaz there in the Valley, she should have known, should have seen what was to happen. It is likely she saw the events about to unfold but wanted no part of it. He had asked about the man down the street many times. He wanted to know what he did for work. Flora was so stupid not to intervene then. But she ignored what was right there before her eyes, ignored her nephew’s comments about how the man had really green eyes, the kind that startle you. He wanted the Blanco man. This I know. He wanted him. Her nephew was worse than the idiot girls she despised, the ones who threw themselves at men, tried to seduce them with coyness and guile. Yes, her nephew was, in many ways, worse than any of these girls. He wanted the Blanco man, and he was going to have him. But if you pull a link from a chain, the chain will no longer be complete. She knew this. She and her sister had pulled many links from many chains in their youth, destroyed them even.
A few days after Javier Castillo’s visit, Flora Diaz was surprised by the sound of her own doorbell. When she opened the door, Carmen Jimenez was standing there with that stupid look on her face. “I am sure you knew I was coming, so I won’t keep you too long.” Flora Diaz ushered her to the kitchen where, as she had done countless times, she crumbled the dried leaves Carmen Jimenez brought her onto the kitchen table. With her hands over them, Flora saw nothing. Carmen was chattering on about how she might be up for a promotion but that she wanted to make sure. But the way Javier recounts all of this, Flora Diaz saw nothing of Carmen’s future, and the only aspect of Carmen’s past she could see was what she had already seen years before, not sight really but plain old memory.
“So, do you see the promotion? I know you can see that I had an affair with the manager, but what’s a girl to do, right?”
“I’m very tired today, Carmen. I didn’t sleep well last night, and now I am having trouble concentrating.”
“It’s okay, girl. We all have bad days.”
“Yes, come back in a few weeks.”
“Well, if I haven’t heard about the promotion by then, no need to come back!”
Carmen was up and out of the house in what must have seemed a blur to Flora Diaz. First the visit from her nephew; and then her inability to find him in her sight; and then the unexpected visit from Carmen Jimenez: how was this possible? Unexpected? Nothing was ever unexpected for Flora Diaz. She was the soothsayer, the Fortune Teller, the oracle. Though she would never have used any of these words to describe herself, they were the words others had labeled her with for her entire life. Try as she did, she had no explanation for her sudden lack of vision. Something was wrong. She could feel it in her chest. Something was terribly wrong.
Flora tried to go about her business. She swept off her front porch and noticed the histrionic Blanco woman down the block pretending not to see her. Of all people her nephew could have chosen to charm, he had to choose that crazy woman’s husband. And why? Vanity, she must have thought, nothing but vanity. Javier Castillo was always such a vain boy. She went back inside. She rearranged the plants in her living room and kitchen. She went out into her backyard and weeded the flowerbeds. Something was wrong. As she pulled the weeds, she realized that she was merely pulling them from the dirt, that she couldn’t feel them the way she had her entire life. As a child, she remembered the first time she touched a plant and felt the spark in her fingertips, the way her mother had smiled at her and said, “It is okay. This is how some of us are.” But there in the back yard, she felt no spark. The weeds were just weeds. They rose from the dirt with the slightest of tugs, and there was nothing more than that. The weeds rose from the ground at her insistence and clumps of dirt fell from their tangle of roots when she shook them.
Flora stood up and walked around her back yard. In almost every flowerbed, there were weeds. Several of the plants had died because the weeds had stolen too much of the water around their roots. She did not believe she had neglected her yard, but there was the evidence staring her in the face. But the evidence seemed rigged, flawed because she knew she had weeded the beds just a few days earlier. But there in front of her was an abundance of weeds choking off her plants and flowers. She walked over to the old tree in the yard with a kind of confidence one sees with a magician who not only knows the magic trick but how to convince the audience it is every bit as real as the walls around the theater. Surely her skill was just weakened. Surely she was just out of sorts, too tired. Surely something as large as a tree... She touched the tree and felt only the grooved and cracked surface of the bark. Nothing more. No spark. No sudden rush of images. All of her life a tree was like an antenna for her. It amplified her ability to see. But there in the yard, nothing. Flora Diaz backed away from the tree and, for the first time in weeks, knew in the quiet of her mind that something was, in fact, terribly wrong.
Flora heard bells. She became aware it was someone ringing her doorbell over and over. Carmen Jimenez must have left something and had come back to retrieve it. But again, she hadn’t seen Carmen coming. When she answered the door, she was faced not with Carmen Jimenez but with Rosa Blanco, the woman who lived down the street. Flora did not invite her in.
“You may have fooled everyone that lives around here, but you haven’t fooled me.”
“I would never try to fool you.”
“I know you are a wicked old bruja. You made my husband disappear. You did it. And you killed my son!”
“I did nothing but tell you the truth, things you didn’t want to hear.” Flora tried to close the door, but Rosa pushed her foot against it to keep it from closing.
“You know, it is terrible to pray for bad things, but I pray every night that you suffer the way I have.”
“Everyone suffers, Rosa. Everyone. Not just you.” With that, Flora had the strength to slam the door shut.
Rosa Blanco kicked the door, hit it with her fists, and continued to do so for almost three minutes. Flora Diaz sat in the chair in the corner of her living room and stared at the door. She stared at it as if by doing so she could make Rosa Blanco disappear. Long after Rosa tired of hitting and kicking the door, after she had stopped yelling obscenities and curses in both English and Spanish, Flora Diaz continued staring at the door. It may have been thirty minutes later, possibly even an hour, when the mail slot in the door swung upward and the even rectangle of light in the door spit an envelope on the floor in front it. She could hear the postman walking off the porch and down the steps.
I like to believe this was a relief for her to hear the postman’s predictable steps. At least those steps told her this wasn’t a note from the crazy woman down the street who, as far as Flora was concerned, should be locked away in an institution like her one remaining son. Javier Castillo had charmed her husband, and the story of their lives had been changed. She knew that. I knew that. Javier changed everything around him so easily. We know that the Blanco man leaving made his wife Rosa crazy. One thing after another, the dominoes had fallen and, as they did, other dominoes had to fall. Mail usually came around 1:00 pm. Flora Diaz left the envelope lying on the floor. How she was able to do that, to leave it there, is the one part of the story I will never completely understand. I could never have left a letter lying there.
As Flora Diaz stood in her kitchen staring at the ficus in the corner, she could see that one of the three trunks had not just a white patch but also a full ring of white. She studied it and realized there were flecks of yellow as well. Rot. The plant had acquired rot. As she studied the other parts of the trunk, she found another ring, this time on one of the other three components of the trunk. Flora Diaz had gotten the ficus as a gift as a young girl. It was a gift from her great aunt, her mother’s aunt, Clara Diaz. It reminded Flora of the plant her great aunt had kept in her own kitchen, a small tree with a twisted trunk, a ficus, the weeping fig. In Flora’s mind, the ficus was her great aunt or, to be more precise, a symbol of her great aunt. And to see the ficus now with rot after so many years of care had to make Flora angry.
The way Javier explained it, Flora Diaz almost never dreamed. When she discovered that other people dreamed all the time, Flora had gone to her mother for answers. Her mother had no answers but told her not to worry about this because she had the ability to “dream” in the daytime, to dream while awake. Her mother knew little about the gift of Reading, but she knew it existed and was an important gift in her family. Flora Diaz’s mother was the child of a Mover, and her mother’s aunt, the one who gave her the ficus, was a Reader. But her mother and her great aunt never talked about their gifts with each other. They rarely talked at all. What Flora knew about her grandmother was the fact she viewed the English and Spanish, the white men who had claimed much of the Caribbean in times past, as devils. And though Flora never met her grandmother, she heard her grandmother’s words from her mother’s mouth all the time as a child. Her great aunt spoke those words, as well.
But the night after the visits from Carmen Jimenez and Rosa Blanco, Flora Diaz supposedly had odd dreams. In one she could see trees twisting and bending and, in the branches of a very large shak shak tree, her nephew was sitting and clutching the branches as the tree swayed, its obscene elongated pods swinging back and forth due to heavy gusts of wind, the blood-red petals fluttering away from the tree almost as if in slow motion. When Flora woke, she couldn’t shake the odd sensation that the dreams were both real and not real. What did the dreams mean? Why was Javier Castillo stuck in a tree? Was there a hurricane coming that would damage the island? This was the difficulty with dreams. One had to interpret them, which was a skill Flora Diaz did not possess.
When Flora rose from bed, dressed herself and went to the kitchen the next morning, she did what she had done her entire adult life, she boiled water and crushed a pepper in a glass over which she poured the hot water. Her mother had taught her this as a young girl, taught her by example. The pepper was to clear the chest and the mind. After so many years, the powerfully hot pepper barely made her tongue tingle. I never saw Javier do this. If my memory serves me correctly, only his mother and aunt did this faithfully. As Flora Diaz drank the hot water that morning, she looked over at the ficus, her weeping fig, and saw quite clearly that the rot had spread to all three of the individual trunks twisted together that made up the trunk of the plant. As she stared at the plant, she had to have seen that many of the leaves had yellowed specks on them. Rot. Someone had brought rot into her house. One of the many people who brought leaves for her to read had brought it into her house. And try as she might, she couldn’t see who had done it.
After an hour at the kitchen table thinking and rethinking the events of the past two weeks, Flora decided she should get some of her daily errands out of the way. As she walked through her small living room, she saw the letter that had been delivered the previous day lying on the floor in front of the door. She had forgotten it had come. No other mail had come, so the lone letter seemed all the more pronounced lying there on the hardwood floor. She crossed the room and picked up the letter, tore it open unevenly. She pulled the white paper from the bluish-tinged envelope and read it standing there in front of the door.
Mama died last night. Tried to come to you to tell you but unable. Not sure why. Unable to travel. Sister Juan Martín sent this for me. –Javi
Why was Javier Castillo unable to come to her? How had Flora Diaz of all people not felt her sister’s passing, which now, had taken place days prior? She had not foreseen any of this. Her mother and grandmother’s hushed whispers came to her, but she had to have remembered those whispers in their negative versions: “the white men won, they had finally won.” As she stood there, one thing had to be very clear to her. There would be no more of them. There would be no more of her kind. Her sister was dead. Something had changed. Her family was now at its end. The white men had won, had finally killed them off. She stammered and paced and read the note over and over. Can’t you see this? She had helped Cassie all those years ago, helped her to do unspeakable things. And didn’t she always know Cassie having a boy was a terrible omen, a violation of sorts? A boy. There was no one now to continue the family. Javier Castillo possessed one of the gifts, something that had been reserved for women for as long as her people had existed. But that boy would never have children. There was no place in him to pass on a gift to another. The white men had finally won, had finally exterminated them. They had done it many years ago, but she hadn’t realized it until that moment. There would be no more of them.
Flora realized she was kneeling on the floor of her kitchen. She must have tried to see Javier Castillo back on the island in the Great House. But we all know she saw nothing. The white patches of rot now stretched inches between the soil and the canopy of branches. It involved all three of the trunks twisted together. I would wager money that she touched the leaves of the ficus then and concentrated but saw only the kitchen around her. The light in the windows flickered and shimmered as the wind moved one of the tree’s limbs in the backyard. She must have believed it was Javier Castillo taking shape in her kitchen, but that would have simply been wishful thinking. Flora and her sister had done terrible things to their own family, even if they were only half-brothers and half-sisters. And Cassie had a boy despite being warned not to do so. And Flora Diaz must have known it was the end. She lay herself down on the floor of her kitchen, her face sticking to the linoleum, her left hand clutching the telegram. And the shadows of the large tree outside kept shifting the light as the wind moved the limbs over and over. One wonders what Flora Diaz saw as she lay there. One wonders what any of us sees at the end.
C. Dale Young practices medicine full-time and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. He is the author of four books of poetry, including The Halo due out from Four Way Books in March 2016 and a collection of linked stories The Affliction forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2018. A recipient of fellowships fro the National endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, he lives in San Francisco.