The night before All Hallows’ Eve, the heavy oak door creaked open while I sat in the hall of the church manse. It moved like an old grandfather, obscuring my face and body in darkness. The dark had a voice. It called to me, a preacher’s daughter, two months before the age of my confirmation. It said Brynn Violet, we have come for you.
Why was I drawn to the hall every night, wearing my white cotton gown, like a bride of Christ? The thick air of the Florida night laid heavy in my nose and mouth. The ocean kicked up breezes, billowing salt air into the curtains down the hall, illuminated by the moon. My back felt sweaty against the bead board.
The open door kept me waiting for hours and hours in its shadow. When it wanted me to leave, it slammed shut, waking my mother.
“Why don’t you sleep?” she would say, standing in the light from the room she shares with my father. She would stand over me in her curlers and robe. “Why do you sit in the hallway all night like a wild hyena?”
There was whispering only I can hear, women’s voices, reciting something over and over, like a prayer, though I couldn’t make out the words. A shadow of a long-nailed hand appeared to poke mother’s curlers. I wanted to laugh but I was scared so I slunk away to my room while her words stabbed my back: “I wish I had never adopted you.”
The spirits of the dead had come for me the night before All Hallows’ Eve though my father, a minister in the Purify Church movement, has banned celebrating the holiday from our island.
My adopted mother often reminded me my biological mother was a witch. The Church had tried to drown her beyond the reef of Marathon Key to test her. It had been a stormy, dark day and she disappeared into the waves. Word had it she was still alive, that the devil had saved her.
There were constant reminders of the practices of my female ancestors, ancestors as far back as my great, great, great grandmother, Maria Fuentes, who escaped the violence of the Mexican Revolution and immigrated to the United States with Grandfather Alberto.
Grandmother Maria, housekeeper of the wealthy Warren family on Key West, had survived the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. For the holiday, she and Grandfather Alberto were visiting relatives on Islamorada. When a category 5 hurricane hit, she was swept out into the bay. Later she was found exactly where she had started, clutching a small robed statue that wielded a grim reaper’s scythe, Santa Muerte, a demon’s object, my mother always reminded me.
“What she sacrificed for her devil worship was her husband’s life,” my mother always instructed, “Your great, great, great grandfather.”
Yes but she and her baby, the baby in her belly survived, I wanted to say, but didn’t.
By the time I was in high school The Purify Church Movement was purging all people of foreign descent, people who were brown skinned. Only my status as an adopted daughter of a white evangelical minister saved me.
In the hallway at night, Grandmother Maria sent word that I would be protected. In the darkness I was in her embrace. I let my nails grow long and sometimes stood to look at myself in the mirror, the silver tarnished from the salt air. I tapped on the glass. Grandmother Maria tapped back, smiling, hair dark and wild like mine though she wore a death mask.
On Halloween the year of my confirmation, there was a little dark rabbit in our yard, a swamp rabbit nibbling the saw grass.
“Shoo!” I said though I wanted to make the rabbit my friend. I had been tasked by my adopted mother with keeping rabbits away. I was thinking I could convince her I wasn’t a witch. I was thinking since rabbits are a witch’s familiar, I could show her I thought they were dirty, nuisance creatures and I wanted nothing to do them.
“I’ll be back,” he said as he darted away. But how could he be speaking? I wondered.
One day when I was cleaning the church after school, a woman wearing a wide brimmed hat and carrying a burlap bag found me in the kitchen. Her skin was the same color as mine which had become rare. She wore a long braid down her back. She appeared to wear the clothes of a gardener or farm worker. Likely she was indispensable to a rich and powerful person.
She took my hands in hers. “These things belonged to your Grandmother Maria. Put them in a secret place and pray to The Bony Lady, our dear Santa Muerte. She has brought me to you so have faith. And she loves our Jesus.” I realized she may be assuming I had adopted the faith of my parents and wanted to reassure me.
She gave me a quick hug. Her hair smelled like the outdoors. She left me in a shocked silence.
When I got home the house was empty. I hid in my closet with the burlap bag. What I found was a massive statue of a painted skeleton woman wearing a robe and carrying a long blade at the end of a staff. She stood on a huge mound of skulls.
I sat with my back against the opposite wall and studied her. Then I perused other contents in the bag. There was a little book of prayers and instructions, a bottle of liquid called Florida Water, and five candles, each a different color.
I cleaned The Bony Lady according to the instructions in the book. I lit a candle and spoke to her using one of the prayers. I thought of the woman’s words “She has brought me to you so have faith.” I felt a little frisson of power transfer to me as I looked into the stark skeletal mask of the Lady’s face. I also thought what the woman said about The Bony Lady loving Jesus. Somehow, I don’t think my parents would see it that way.
That night I dreamt I was in a mangrove swamp. The mud held me tight. I fought it but I was beginning to sink. The dark rabbit who had invaded our yard sprung past. He shouted at me to hurry up and follow. The earth loosened its grip and I trudged behind dropping heavy mud from my feet and gown.
We went deep inside the arcs of the mangrove roots. I became small so I was able to follow him. “Where are we going?” I said. The aerial roots overhead looked like arcs of a cathedral.
Without turning he said “You are to become my bride.” And I could hear his teeth smack against his lip.
His bride? I felt as if I cannot breathe but still I followed him until we reached a little home deep in the mangrove swamp. The floor of his home was covered with leaves. The walls and ceiling consisted of mangrove branches and mud.
I was to be married here? Where was my mother? My father? Who was to marry us?
I woke with a start, shivering and sweating. No one was awake. I checked on Santa Muerte in my closet. She was still there. No one had discovered her or taken her. I sat down cross legged and lit a candle.
“Dear Lady, what is happening to me?” It was All Saints Day. I do believe she had become my saint and intercessor.
She stared at me, stern and uncompromising, but not distant. Her stillness was like the compassionate copper Christ, a statue anchored in a reef off Key Largo, the Christ of the Abyss.
“Please help me,” I implored her.
The next day the swamp rabbit was in the yard again.
“Shoo! Shoo!” I said, lunging and stomping my foot so that it hopped to the edge of the yard.
A dark cloud passed over. It stood on its hind legs. “Come with me, ride on my tail. I will make you my bride and save you from death.” Then he scampered away into the hedge.
That night I dreamt the hare took me deep into the mangrove swamp again. I had become skilled at walking through them, I did not sink or get stuck.
“You are becoming a woman,” the rabbit said, stopping to admire my progress. “It won’t be long now before we will be married.”
As if on cue, a crow flew down, the sun gleaming off its feathers. In its beak was a huge strand of raffia.
“Hold out your hand now,” said the rabbit. “We will measure you for the handfasting. You will be bound to me for your wedding night.”
And the crow flew around my right hand, binding my wrist tightly. With the rest of the raffia he bound me to the rabbit’s leg.
“The crow is our parson. Now you are mine, Brynn Violent!” he said, hopping off into the mangroves. I followed my captor at the other end of the tether. My head was in peril as I tried to duck quickly under the aerial roots. I had been tricked!
I awakened in a sweat. I leapt into my closet. I lit a candle for The Bony Lady. “Thank you, thank you!” I said, “You saved me!”
The danger was real now, it was not a dream. A dark crow landed on my windowsill with a long strand of raffia in its beak.
In the prayer book beside The Lady a page was dedicated to All Souls Day or Dia de Muertos. I picked it up and read out loud: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself.”
Just then Mother burst into the room. She opened my closet to find me with my shrine. “What are you doing?” she demanded. “What in the world are you doing?”
It was decided by the Church I must be practicing witchcraft and would be tested in the waters off the reef of Key Largo. The test was severe: A chain around my ankle, tied to a huge stone. If I were truly a witch, I would escape. If I died before anyone could save me, it would probably be for the best. I practiced the folk religion of drug lords and prostitutes.
I sank to the bottom of the ocean, the heavy rock landing hard on the ocean floor and shaking the chain, yanking my ankle. I had never felt so alone, so scared. Though down on the ocean shelf, a few hundred feet from the abyss, it was beautiful and separate from the evil above.
In my heart, I began to pray something I had memorized: “Lady, My Most Holy Saint Death, I declare myself filled with love and devotion for you, and I surrender myself to you. I recognize myself as your subject and recognize you as my queen.”
The chain loosened from my foot and slipped away. I kicked as hard as I could, past the Christ of the Abyss, rising to the surface, where I was hidden from the boat by the waves. I swam a good distance, careful when I came up for air that I did not stick my head up too far above the surface.
And this is how I escaped both the rabbit and The Cleansing. I found passage to Cuba and then on to Mexico.
I became a bruja, or witch, and people sought me out for my power. For the Day of the Dead I always gave my Bony Lady flowers and gifts. I practiced white magic out of respect for the Christ of the Abyss. I prayed for the safe return of my biological mother. And I told my daughter of the stories of the magic arts of her grandmothers.