In the village of Santa Maria de los Duendos, Leonora Sabia, the eighth daughter of an eighth daughter, hangs out washing. She has never understood how she managed to produce three strapping sons whose t-shirts, jeans and underpants take all day to dry in this steamy heat. Leonora rubs her aching back, a legacy of pushing these man-babies into the world. Girls would have been a comfort to her. Men simply create work for women to do.
The unfamiliar voice makes her look round. Nobody.
She squints into the sun. A shadow flits across her field of vision. She rubs her eyes and looks again.
“No, behind you.”
She turns. A hot breeze plays with her hair.
“Who’s there?” she shouts, cross. She has no time for tricks.
“Your daughters. Would you like to see us?”
“No.” It must be spirits trying to trick her. Her empty washing basket tucked under her plump arm, she makes a fist of her free hand. “Go away, whoever you are.”
In the cool of her kitchen, she drinks cold water from the fridge and pours a little over her head. She wipes her face and neck with a wet cloth and runs it over the insides of her thighs.
A voice whispers in her ear, making her jump.
“If you want to see us, go to the well and look inside.”
No one in their senses goes there at this hour, so close to noon. The time for the well is early, before the heat becomes an implacable enemy
“Go away. I’ve a meal to prepare.”
She peels potatoes, dropping their curling skins into the pail at her feet. What if these are the daughters she should have had? The idea will not leave her. Her men won’t return from the fields for at least an hour, plenty of time to make it to the well and back. She will walk slowly, the only way it is possible to walk during the day, keeping to the shade, her grandmother’s enormous crucifix round her neck. The eighth daughter of an eighth daughter knows how to take care of herself, even if she only has sons.
The well is set in the middle of a clearing, surrounded by trees. It looks different at this time of day, its stones shimmering and pulsating in the heat. Leonora steps into the piercing sunlight. When she reaches the well, she leans over the edge and stares into darkness. What a stupid thing to do! Who believes in spirits these days anyway?
She is about to straighten up when something brushes against her face, as light as breath but cold, like the air inside her fridge. The spirits will pull her in if she does not move quickly. She will tell the priest next Sunday that an exorcism is required. Before she can finish the thought, something grips her arms and she flies into the air, floating high above the well before plummeting into its depths.
When she opens her eyes, it is not as dark as she expects. Light comes from the side, not above as in a well. She makes out shutters, a chest of drawers, a cupboard and a chair. Beneath her she feels worn cotton sheets. It is her own bed. Maybe she did not go to the well after all. Maybe she fell asleep and dreamt. She fingers her chest. Thank the Lord her crucifix is still there. She throws back the sheet and places her feet on the cool floor. It must be well after noon and her husband and sons will be back any minute. They will erupt like the famous volcano on the other side of the lake if they find no food waiting for them. She listens for sounds of their arrival but the house is still. She tiptoes into the main room. Potato peelings lie scattered over the floor and the front door, almost always open, is closed. She notices an unfamiliar key in the lock.
“Mother, come and sit with us.”
Eight young women point to an empty chair at the head of the table. Leonora screams and hides her head in her apron. After a good dose of healthy screaming (where is Isabel from next door when you need her?) she pulls down the apron a little and peeps through her fingers. The women wait, hands clasped on laps. Where did the extra chairs come from?
“Who are you?”
“We are your daughters.”
Leonora has heard of stillborn infants appearing in their cradles not long after they were buried, but never of eight non-existent daughters entering a house and making themselves at home. She slides down the wall reciting her rosary. A gentle touch on her shoulder makes her shriek. The youngest – she can’t be more than sixteen – sits next to her, emitting a faint smell of mildew.
“Mother,” she whispers. Leonora feels a cold draught on her neck. She draws courage from deep within as if she were pulling a full bucket from the well.
“Get out,” she says in a low voice. “You are nothing but spirits.” But her heart shifts. What if these are her daughters? The ones the Good Lord owes her. She is the eighth daughter of an eighth daughter and should have had eight daughters of her own. She turns to the girl. There is no doubt about it. They have the same broad nose and thick eyebrows. She could be looking at a photograph of herself as a younger woman.
The girl offers Leonora her hand. It is like grabbing early morning mist. As they stand, the others rise too, their chairs silent on the tiles. Leonora scrutinises their faces one by one. She sees traces of her mother, her grandmother, her aunts. Tears spill down her cheeks. She holds out her arms.
“My daughters,” she cries. “Oh, my daughters.”
With a murmuring the women gather around her, enveloping her in a coolness that makes her think of that one time she went to the capital city, high in the mountains. They embrace her with tendril-like softness. Her feet leave the ground and she lets out a tiny cry, like a baby mewing in its sleep.
“Don’t look down,” says one of them, but she can’t help it. Beneath her she sees the table, nine chairs (this time she notices that they don’t match and are far grander than anything she has ever owned) and a full bucket of potato peelings by the door. She looks up to find the roof has opened, revealing hot blue sky.
“Where are we going?” she asks while an everyday part of her mind worries that she has not finished preparing a meal for her men.
The word repeats in many different voices until it is all she can hear.
“Home,” she whispers, much as she says ‘Amen’ at the end of a prayer.
By six o’clock the sun has vanished behind the volcano and night creatures are coming alive. A circle of candles burns outside the Sabia household, watched over by bare-headed men and veiled women. In the centre of the circle lies the body of Leonora, fingers closed around her grandmother’s crucifix. The flickering light makes it look as if she is smiling. Perhaps she is.
This post is brought to you by
How to Stop the Burning
by Zubaida Bello
In How to Stop the Burning, Zubaida Bello’s poetry focuses on themes of womanhood and inheritance, offering the audience an intimate portrait of herself through her words.
About The Author
Abigail Seltzer has been published in the 2013 Lightship anthology and Storgy, https://storgy.com/2019/05/29/fiction-mother-knows-best-by/ Visual Verse (as Alex Petrie) https://visualverse.org/writers/alex-petrie/ and Drabbles http://www.charliefish.co.uk/drabbles.html – Abigail She completed the novel writing course at Faber Academy in 2019 and Curtis Brown’s short story course in 2020. She is currently working on the novel she started at Faber Academy.
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