by Lydia Guzman
The two girls work for El Diario Libre. A week before the occupation’s seventy-fifth anniversary, they have come to interview Blanca about the night of that last battle—not because they know what she has seen, but because she is the only person left who was alive when it happened.
They were the ones who brought the photographs, so proud of themselves for having dug them out of whichever archive they’d been rotting in. As if Blanca hasn’t seen them spread across the newspapers every year when the anniversary of the occupation rolls around. As if she doesn’t see it all still, every time she closes her eyes.
They are sitting in white iron rocking chairs on Blanca’s small patio, in the shade cast by the sprawling mango tree. Its trunk is too thick and its roots are pushing up the mossy terra cotta tiles, but she can’t bear to see it torn out. They can do that after she dies.
“There are very few people who know what really happened the night of the last battle,” Blanca says. The girls exchange glances over their tamarind juice. This is not what they were expecting, but they humor her and continue to listen in polite silence. “I’m one of them. Felicia was another. She left Santo Domingo shortly after the occupation ended. War had broken out in Europe and some say she went to where the fighting was. Others say she went back to her mother’s campo and married the owner of a coffee plantation. I never saw her again after that night and I don’t think I ever will.”
Blanca can see her as she was then—fiercely beautiful, dark eyes dancing as she charmed men of all ranks. She doesn’t believe Felicia could be dead. She doesn’t believe Felicia could ever die.
* * *
It rained the day the gringos came.
It was April and save for September, when the hurricanes swept over the island like the breath of angry spirits, it was the rainiest month of the year. Brown water rushed through the gutters in the old part of the city and there was talk of the river flooding the wooden houses that had been built on its edge.
I was leaning out the second-floor window with an old tin mug in my hand, droplets making a frantic melody as they struck the dented metal. Felicia, the prettiest girl in Doña Belen’s whorehouse, had told me the day before that water from the first rainfall of April, when applied behind the ears, made for a spell headier than any that could be concocted by La Vieja Fefa or the parfumeries of Paris.
We had heard of parfumeries from Felicia, who had traveled through Europe on the arm of a man she called her lover. Doña Belen, never one to indulge in fancies, always snorted and said he was nothing more than a client, and quite a poor one, too, if he’d left her with so little she’d had to come work at the brothel.
I didn’t see why Felicia mightn’t have had a lover. She was certainly beautiful enough, with her deep brown skin and sparkling eyes. Hers was a dangerous beauty, the kind men were drawn to, and it seemed to me like she needed no help from the April showers to enthrall them.
The mug was half full and my eyelashes were studded with droplets when I saw the yanquis.
First came the motorcars, slicing through the sheet of rain, sleek as steel knives. The horses followed, stepping tall and black out of the mist, like creatures from a nightmare. The figures atop them wore capes. Their hats were pulled low over their eyes, and as I watched them approach I was certain the men had no faces under the brims, only shadows.
They had faces, but I didn’t see them until much later. That day, all we saw was the tops of their hats as we clustered around the upstairs windows and watched them parade through our streets, soaked in rainwater like they would soon be soaked with the blood of our men.
* * *
April dragged into May.
Since their arrival, every window and door in Santo Domingo had been slammed shut against the yanquis.
Some hung the national flag on their windows, while others, more direct in the expression of their sentiments, hung neatly printed signs that read fuera yanquis.
Very few of them had learned to speak Spanish. The man they appointed Military Governor, standing atop a dais with the presidential palace on one side and the sea to the other, had delivered his speech to the gathered crowd in crisp, cool consonants that no one understood. I knew a little English, as did a handful of other girls. I’d learned it from my grandfather, who’d gone to New York to make his fortune, not knowing that it was Hispaniola that was full of gold, and the yanquis who were stuffing their pockets with it. Nobody knew until they had disembarked from their ships and marched through our streets and declared our country theirs for the taking.
By June, rebellion had broken out. A young, dark-haired poet led an uprising of campesinos in the mountains. July had barely arrived when we had word that they were all dead and the yanquis had seized their fields.
That was when Felicia convinced Doña Belen to let us take in marines.
* * *
“You were a prostitute?”
It’s the younger girl who asks. Her voice is curious, devoid of the other girl’s brisk professionalism. Blanca likes her better.
“They called us whores then,” Blanca says, giving the girl a wry smile. “They called us traitors, too, and every insult they could think of. They attacked us in the street, and more than one girl had her face scarred by men who thought we shouldn’t be fucking anyone who wasn’t them. As if they’d bought our loyalty along with our bodies.”
She knows the word shocks them, partly because it’s crude but partly because they don’t expect her to know it. Blanca hides a smile. Every generation thinks they’re the first ones to invent vulgarity. She could be as proper as their mothers if she wanted—and she has been, for years and years—but she’s too old now to care much for their delicate sensibilities.
“Women were no better. They condemned us from their comfortable houses, asking us how we dared to be so unpatriotic. If the newspapers hadn’t been under the gringos’ strict control, I’m sure they would have written editorials about us, the disloyal whores of Santo Domingo, who sold ourselves to the yanquis when we should have been selling ourselves to their doomed cause. To them, and to the intellectuals and the idealists, our lives were as worthless as the lives of the campesinos they sent out to fight in the mountains while they stayed behind, claiming they could fight with their pens as well as machetes.” Blanca snorts. “A lofty sentiment, I’m sure, but in the end it wasn’t their lives that were lost up in those mountains, or their bodies rotting beneath the palm trees. They would have gladly sacrificed us too, if we’d let them.”
“Didn’t any of the—the girls think otherwise?” The older girl stumbles over the word whore. Blanca can see a shadow of those other women in her, the women whose eyes slid over her as they went through the streets inside their gleaming motorcars, as if she were an unsightly obstruction marring the perfect view. Or as if she didn’t exist at all.
She nods. “Some girls resisted the idea. But by then, the campesinos were dead and the yanquis had taken control of the fields and the markets. We were well on our way to starving and would have fucked the devil himself for a platano or two. The rich didn’t seem to mind exchanging their ideals for dollars then. We got more dollars for a fuck than they did for their pesos, though, and we didn’t starve, though I bet they thought we should have. We didn’t starve, and we found ways to get extra dollars from the marines in order to buy food for the old women and the street children the rich shooed away in the street. We took care of our own even if we had to pleasure gringos to do it.” Blanca shrugs. “What’s between a yanqui’s legs is no different than any other man’s. That was the first thing we learned.”
* * *
They were boys, like all the others we had serviced, tender or mean as the mood struck them, whispering their hopes and dreams into our pillows and weeping a little for the people they had left behind. They were boys like all the others— except for when they weren’t. Sometimes they were monsters. Sometimes they tied eighty-year-old men to horses and dragged them till they died just for the sport of it. Sometimes they set fire to a man’s tavern because he refused to serve them alcohol, even though the Military Governor had strictly prohibited its sale. Sometimes they shot children through the ear in front of their mothers, then shot the mothers for screaming too loud.
But sometimes, sometimes they were just boys.
There was a private called Allen who liked me because I reminded him of his girl back home. There was a sergeant whose name I never knew who stood in the doorway one night with his nostrils twitching, asking if there were any white girls in the brothel. He’d said it in halting Spanish and half the girls, giggling, had pointed at me, even though I had the darkest skin of them all. “I’m Blanca,” I’d said, making my way to the door, and joined in the laughter when he shook his head and left, quivering with outrage. The higher ranks paid better—or were charged more by Doña Belen—but the younger ones, the ones fresh to the service, were more fun. They flocked to Doña Belen’s in greater numbers than to any of the other brothels. The other madams claimed it was due to her arrangement with the quartermaster and the good quality rum she managed to get from him. I knew it was because of Felicia.
The marines ate with us and danced with us and taught us to chew gum and gave us drags from their cigarettes. They fucked us under the dripping ceilings of Doña Belen’s best rooms.
And they told our own stories back to us, reshaped by how well they’d understood the original Spanish and by the stories they’d carried with them from home.
One of them, a private they called Johnny, told us about ciguapas one night while we sat in the upstairs parlor. The smell of wet earth drifted in through the open windows, along with a mosquito or two, and a breeze that stirred the short hairs on the back of my neck. I was sitting on Allen’s lap and with his strong brown arms around me. A finger traced aimless patterns around my neck and shoulder, though it would roam lower as the night wore on. Allen always took time to get over his shyness.
Johnny was gregarious, the kind of man who needed to be the center of attention. What little Spanish he spoke was garbled, mispronounced and peppered with words we thought were Portuguese or Italian. But when he stood in the middle of the room, shirtless, his trousers unbuttoned and his yellow hair in disarray, talking loud enough to be heard over the beat of raindrops on wooden shutters, we found ourselves listening in rapt attention to a story we already knew.
He’d heard about ciguapas from two of the little boys who caught crabs in the caves by the ocean.
“They’re women, right,” he said, switching over to English when he felt his audience struggling to understand his convoluted Spanish, “normal enough at first glance, only their skin is tinged with blue and their feet point backwards. You don’t notice that they’re different at first. In fact, you don’t notice until it’s too late.”
The boys had told him about a marine who’d come across a ciguapa while wandering through one of the tangles of vegetation that grew thick and stifling on the edges of the old city. He’d lost a ball during a game, or had his cap blown off—it didn’t matter what had led him to plunge through the cover of trees, Johnny explained. It only mattered that he’d gone inside. He’d asked the boys for help and they’d followed him despite their misgivings, telling him all the while of all the dark things that lived among the branches.
“That was where he saw her,” Johnny said in a hushed voice. “A beautiful Negro girl, wearing not a shred of clothing. Just standing there, as if she’d been waiting for him, her long rough hair surrounding her like a cloud. She beckoned him closer without saying a word. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you—” he winked at one of the girls, who giggled even though she didn’t understand what he was saying, “—but when a naked girl calls me over there’s not much I’d rather do but go to her side.”
Laughter rose from the men.
“The private couldn’t help doing anything else. He walked to her as if bewitched while the boys pulled at his arms and his shirt, to no avail. They let go when the private neared the creature, and backed away until they were far from her grasp. And then they watched as she kissed him on the lips and took him back to her cave. Ciaguapas, you see, have the ability to steal a man’s heart through their kiss. And when they have it, they can make that man do their bidding until he’s dead. Then they go searching for a replacement.” The electric lamps bathed Johnny’s face in a yellow glow. “So, fellas, the next time you find yourself looking for a lost cap, or a ball, or having to relieve yourselves among the trees, don’t forget to keep an eye out for naked girls who want your hearts for their own.”
A lightbulb fizzed loudly in the silence, then went suddenly dark. One of the girls screamed, and though the rest laughed, I could sense the tension that vibrated inside the room like the filaments inside the lightbulb.
“Enough ghost stories,” Doña Belen said, rising abruptly from her chair and signaling for a maid to top off everyone’s glass with more of her best rum. Her tone, as stern as their commanding officer’s must have been, brooked no argument. “There are plenty of naked girls in here. No need to look for them among the trees.”
“Just make sure to check her feet first,” Johnny said, diving to the floor to take a look under Felicia’s skirt.
She squealed and giggled and playfully kicked him away. The laughter that followed carried with it a tinge of relief. The tension dissipated and business as usual was resumed, to the satisfaction of Doña Belen and the heaviness of her pockets.
The next day, Johnny was found dead.
* * *
Johnny wasn’t the first gringo marine to be killed on the island and he wouldn’t be the last—you could see that certainty in the boys who came around the whorehouse after the body had been discovered, urgent with the need to find a little pleasure before death came for them, too—but his murder was certainly the most gruesome.
He was found in Plaza Colón, late the next morning, when the sun had gained enough strength to burn away the early morning mist. Without the brighter light, they might not have noticed he was dead.
He’d been carefully arranged against a lamppost, upright, made to look as if he’d been patrolling and stopped for a cigarette, like a lot of the boys were wont to do. I saw him before they took him down, when Felicia and I crossed the plaza in our way to the dressmaker’s. One hand was in his pocket and the other on his rifle, which they said later hadn’t been fired. And his face…
His face was a ruin. Very little remained save for part of the nose and forehead. The fleshier bottom half was mostly gone, as was one of his ears, the skin around it as white as the National City Bank’s marble facade. The carnage continued down to his chest and the soft skin of his belly. Through the shreds of his uniform, I could see the viscous gleam of things that should never be seen in daylight.
A crowd gathered around us as his fellow marines cut him away from the ties binding him to the post. His knees folded and the body fell to the ground, innards spilling to the cobblestones. There was hardly any blood, only the rising scent of putrefaction. One of the boys turned away to retch quietly into the gutter. Beside us, an old woman muttered an invocation to the Virgin while two marines, their faces paler than bone, babbled something about Johnny having been mauled by a large animal.
There were no large animals in the island. But there were predators.
I turned to Felicia—to say something, perhaps, about the macabre sight before us or the shock of seeing Johnny dead when only hours before he had been telling us stories. Or even to make a callous remark about how much lighter our pockets would be without the dollar bills he carelessly stuffed in the bodices of our dresses. But the words died on my lips when I saw her expression.
She caught my eye and smiled at me, a smile full of teeth, then daintily raised a handkerchief to protect her nose from the stench.
I knew then, long before the marines announced it, that his heart had been torn out.
* * *
“Are you saying she killed him?”
Blanca has been listening to their silence and she hears the skepticism in it. She doesn’t blame them for their doubt—there were times when she didn’t believe the truth of it herself, even after all she saw. She shrugs.
“It might not have been Felicia. She had been with him the night before, but anything might have happened between leaving her bed and ending up strapped to a lamppost on Plaza Colón.”
The girls have stopped taking notes. They don’t seem to realize that the light is changing, and the golden brightness of afternoon is being slowly leeched away. As darkness creeps in, the wind begins to move through the leaves of the mango tree, reminding Blanca of the sound it had made the morning they cut Johnny down from the pole. The shadows grow bluer and Blanca closes her eyes as the past washes over her again.
* * *
Johnny wasn’t the first and neither was he the last. Only a week later, another body was found.
Allen, the dark-skinned boy who said I reminded him of his girl back home. He’d given me hair ribbons to wear while pretending to be her, and he liked it when I whispered in English in his ear all the things a proper young lady should say while being seduced by a man with arms as thick as tree trunks.
I didn’t mourn him.
I stood in the crowd in Plaza Colón and looked at the devastation that was his body. Whatever had killed him had left most of his face intact, save for the yawning holes where his eyes should have been. His chest was mangled, bloody, his heart missing, his body already swarming with flies and gnats.
Doña Belen was a solid bulk behind me.
“The gringos won’t like it,” she said, her voice heavy with all she knew was coming. “They’ll have their revenge, see if they won’t. And when they do…”
All the monstrous things the yanquis had done had been in the name of discipline and order. What horrors would befall us now that we had given them reason to punish us? Apprehension curled around the base of my spine and weakened my knees.
But still I followed Doña Belen back to the brothel, and when they came that night I teased and flirted and took them into my bed, imagining all the while what their faces would look like with their eyes chewed out, their chests ripped open, and empty places where their hearts should have been.
* * *
Two days after Allen’s body was found, we gathered in Plaza Colón to witness the execution of Pedrito Sanchez.
Pedrito was one of the most beloved people in Santo Domingo. To call him a singer would be to diminish his brilliance, but that was what he did. He sang. Those who’d had the privilege of hearing him said his voice rivaled that of any of the Spanish tenors who had performed on the island. But unlike them, he didn’t limit his performances to grand nights at the National Theater. He sang for the wealthy in their homes and for the poor in the streets, on the docks and in the mountains. He belonged to Santo Domingo and he was being taken from us by the people who had taken everything else.
They had built a dais on one end of Plaza Colon, in front of the Cathedral. The Military Governor stood on it with Pedrito at his side, and told all of us who had gathered that Don Pedro Sanchez had been found guilty of the savage murder of two American marines.
Pedrito’s brown skin looked gray as he was hauled forward. A heavy silence fell over the city and I was sure that, for that moment at least, the waves and the wind and even the birds had stilled to allow us to hear Pedrito’s voice one last time.
He opened his mouth and I closed my eyes and imagined his voice soaring over the rooftops, touching each leaf on the flamboyanes that lined the avenues and the crest of every wave, ruffling the hibiscus like a gentle wind.
But before he could even exhale, a shot rang out and blood and brains splattered over the cobblestones.
* * *
“They killed Pedrito,” Blanca says, and she is surprised to hear the grief and anger in her own voice. “It was the drop that spilled the glass. The yanquis had murdered our old, laid waste to our children, and filled their pockets with the contents of the National Treasury. All the while commanding us to tell the world how happy we were that they had brought progress to the island, as if we hadn’t once been called the Athens of the New World. They had not only killed one of our own— they had silenced the last good thing we had left that was ours.”
Blanca had heard him sing once. He was a prodigy but he was also a man, and like all the men in Santo Domingo, he’d occasionally enjoyed the company of Doña Belen’s girls who, along with the rum she served, were the finest in the city. He sang for them, a private concert, though they were neither wealthy nor grand. Blanca had sat as close to him as she could get and she had closed her eyes and allowed his voice to transform her.
“The battle started the next day. A group of men stole inside the Military Governor’s residence with the help of the cook and executed him in his nightshirt. They planned to take his body into Plaza Colón and display it like he had done Pedrito’s, but a company of marines intercepted them.”
Blanca knows they have heard this all before. They have read about it in their history books and they have listened to accounts of it on the wireless. But they have never heard what came after.
* * *
The fighting was at its thickest when Felicia knelt beside my pallet and shook my arm. We weren’t allowed to sleep in Doña Belen’s good bedrooms when we weren’t entertaining—we curled up on pallets in the third floor of the old house and slept two to a pillow. I didn’t have sisters, and I never got used to the uncomfortable intimacy of it, being poked by another girls’ hairpins and smelling their breath as they snored beside me. My one wish was to someday have a bed for my very own, and I did, though it didn’t happen until much later.
I was still half asleep when I followed Felicia into the dressing room. She dressed me like a sleepy child and dabbed something wet and odorless behind my ears— the rainwater I had collected the day the gringos came. I was walking up Calle de Las Damas before I was awake enough to ask where we were going, and by then it was too late.
The street lamps had been shot out and the night was darker than I had ever seen it. It was not silent. I could hear the fighting in the distance and under it, the ever-present crash of the sea against rocks and the whistling of the wind that rose from the water, sweeping through the streets and rattling loose shutters and leaves. It smelled of salt and wet, and of the blood that seeped over the cobblestones and into the overflowing gutters.
There were bodies strewn along Las Damas, soldiers in uniforms and men in regular clothing. The idealists had finally exchanged their pens for rifles, and now their blood ran in the gutters along with broken branches and dead rats.
A light rain began to fall. The drops thudded on the tops of our heads, soaking into the scarves we’d wrapped around our hair.
I didn’t see the man until his hand had closed over my arm. The moon was covered by clouds but I could see him in the candlelight that shone through the broken slats of a house’s shutters.
My heart had been racing. As he grabbed me, it seemed like it had plunged right out of my chest. Maybe it did.
I felt an iciness spreading over the place my heart was supposed to be.
Beside me, Felicia shifted. My gaze went to her and I saw my reflection in her glittering eyes, black as the night itself. There was nothing different in it from the face I saw when I looked in the glass. And yet— it might have been the night, or the rain, or the faint light that flickered over my red silk dress until it looked like I was clothed in blood.
I turned to the man and smiled at him, a smile full of teeth.
* * *
The Military Governor’s residence, a large white townhouse that had belonged to the President before he was chased out, was engulfed in flames. They went unchecked by the pattering raindrops, and clouds of black smoke billowed from the red-tiled roof, beckoning to us as we made our way through the old city.
The yanquis came out of the shadows, one by one, and one by one we devoured them and took their hearts. At first, it was only the two of us, stepping over bodies and shattered glass, walking through the rain that fell like bullets.
Then I saw them.
There they were, the women of Santo Domingo, shop girls and heiresses and university students, the ones who moved in polite society and the ones who walked the docks at night. I saw Doña Belen and the girl who mended our clothes. I saw the librarian, the pharmacist’s wife, the little girl who sold bouquets on the street corners.
We took the gringos’ hearts and made them ours. And then, once we had numbers large enough to overpower the marines who were still fighting, we guided our undead army through the streets of the old city and into battle.
And in the morning, there was nothing left but bones.
* * *
In the flower beds that surround the edges of Blanca’s patio, the frogs and crickets have begun their evening concert. The wind is rushing through the mango leaves and the air is charged with thunder and rain. It won’t be long until rain starts to fall. The girls will leave soon and Blanca will go inside and watch the raindrops from her first-story window, because she has grown too old to easily climb up the stairs.
Minutes have passed since she last spoke. The girls are silent for a long moment, then the older girl pushes her hair behind her ears and sits up straight.
“So what you’re saying is that it was ciguapas who put an end to the occupation.” She has found her skepticism again, and has wrapped it around herself as a shield against the horror of Blanca’s story. The younger one doesn’t say a word, but something in her eyes tells Blanca that if she were to smile, it would be a smile full of teeth.
Blanca’s amusement shows in her eyes. “There was one thing Johnny didn’t know. Ciguapas don’t lurk naked among the trees, waiting for men to stumble across them. They take in laundry and go to University and nurse the sick and the dying. Some of them are even whores. They are women, made of flesh and blood, and they don’t always take men’s hearts. But when they do, it is not to keep them for themselves.”
Why should they want men’s hearts when they have their own, beating loudly inside their chests, loud enough to hear over the sound of the waves crashing against the shore and the whistling of the wind through the trees?