By Emily Peña Murphey
On that last day before the big storm, I first noticed something was funny when our family went to the mercado in Las Altas. We arrived very early, just as sunshine was coming over the tops of the mountains. Around the dusty little plaza the shops were opening, and vendores were setting up their stalls like always. But the grown-up people seemed worried and nervous. I could hear them whispering to each other as, if a secret, a certain word: “huracán.”
What could it mean? I was sure I’d heard it before, as a word for an ocean storm, but just the same I asked my big brother Eduardo about it. He paused and looked up for a minute from where he and some friends were tossing stones into the fountain.
“Oh, huracanes are those storms we have at the end of the summer every year,” he said. “But you’re too little to remember any of the really big ones—like one that hit us when I was small. The strongest huracanes sweep right in from the ocean with days of heavy rain, and wind strong enough to knock over a tree. That’s why the big coco near our house has always been growing kind of on its side.” Then I guess he thought he’d explained enough, because he turned around went back to his game.
Mami came and took my hand and said we needed to shop for some extra food, and that she was lucky to have a good hijita like me to help her. We took our bags and baskets all around the square and bought as much food as we could carry up the steep trail to our house— nearly at the top of the mountain. Rice, gandules, cooking oil, and a few onions. When Mami had spent almost all the coins from her apron pocket my little sister Arielis began to fuss, so Mami sat down on one of the old iron benches and swung her shawl around to the front to give her the breast.
I began to laugh when I looked at the big sacks of rice and beans we’d been carrying and said, “Mami, vamos a tener una gran fiesta, no? Aren’t we going to have a big party?” But instead of smiling at my joke, Mami frowned and said, “Niña, callate! Lo que viene va a ser nada de fiesta!—Hush, little girl; what’s coming will be no fiesta!” The way she said it sort of scared me and left me with a feeling I’d better keep my questions to myself.
Then Mami reached into her blusa and took out a bank note. It was decorated with fancy green designs and the picture of an important-looking man.
“Take this to the ferretería—the hardware shop—and ask for a flashlight and a package of batteries. Then with whatever’s left over get us some more of the big candles and a box of wooden matches. I’ll wait here with the baby and our bags of food.” She folded the bill and pressed it into my hand. Feeling important, I took the money and hurried off.
In the hardware store people were in a hurry to buy up all sorts of things. There was a long line all the way from the door to the counter. A kindly old abuelo noticed me and said, “Let the little girl go first!” The others stood back and let me move to the front of the line while they all watched. This made me feel so embarrassed that I forgot the names of the things Mami had asked for! I knew one of them had something to do with flashing light, but all I could think of was the word “quiebraplata,”—which in Inglés means “firefly!”
When I said that word in my shy little voice, the people standing around began to laugh. But Señor Ramos, the shopkeeper, said, “Tienes buena suerte, my daughter—you’re lucky—because you’re getting the last “firefly” I’ve got left in the store!” A few of the men behind me grumbled, but someone pointed out that no family would need the light more than ours, since we lived so high up the mountain and so far from town! Several men I that I knew were my Papi’s compadres nodded in agreement, and the viejito who had helped me in the line made the sign of the cross over me and muttered a prayer for God’s protection.
Señor Ramos knew about the batteries I’d need, and took down from a shelf a packet of the right kind. When I asked for velas, he handed me several big, waxy white ones, and also added the matches I’d nearly forgotten! These things went into a plastic sack, and I paid for them with Mami’s paper money. The ferretero gave me a few coins back and slipped a couple of bright-colored lollipops into the bag as a treat for Eduardo and me.
I thanked him and turned around to leave. Then I noticed that in just a few minutes the little store had become packed with people jostling each other to grab nearly anything that was left on the shelves. They seemed frightened, and I felt that way too as I made my way toward the door passing among many scuffed rancheros’ boots, tattered long skirts, and brown legs in worn-out work pants.
What a relief it was when I got outside and saw Papi—all my fear went away, and I felt safe as if by magic! He was standing beside our little burro, el Chaparrito, tying some big pieces of wood onto the pack saddle on the shaggy one’s back. Papi didn’t notice me at first, so I ran up behind to surprise him by jumping onto his back with a big hug. When he reached around and saw it was me he took me in his arms and happily cried out, “Mi reina!” He tossed me high in the air still clutching my bolsa, and caught me and gave me a kiss on my way down.
“Looks like you’ve been helping your Mamá with shopping,” he said, inspecting the contents of my bag. “Such a smart girl to be helping us get ready!”
Hoping I’d finally found someone who could explain all the ansiedad, I pleaded, “But Papi, what is it we’re getting ready for?”
“Ay, mi hija,” he replied, “Every so many years a really big huracán comes up from el Mar Carribe and vents its wrath on poor Borinquén! The people who have radios and wireless telephones are saying that a really strong oneis coming soon to Puerto Rico, so everyone on the island is getting ready to keep safe in their homes until the storm is over!”
“But why is the sea so angry at us?”
“Well,” said Papi, “That’s how some people think about, it. But to me it’s just something caused by our Mother Nature. She has her moods like any woman—sometimes she sends us sunshine and soft breezes, and sometimes she stirs up the waves and makes a great storm. It’s according to God’s will, and we must take shelter and be patient until it passes!”
“Are you going to build something with the boards?” I asked hopefully, remembering a picture I once saw in a magazine from Miami—a little pink house with some girls playing in it.
“Well, not really build anything new, Lupita, but try to make our house stronger by nailing these across our shutters and windows. Now let’s go find the others and get ready to head up the hill.” He took Chaparrito by his rope halter and turned his head toward the center of the square.
We found Mami, the baby, and Eduardo back near the fountain where I’d left them. Mami was still busy with Ariely, who after nursing had needed a change. Edi was impressed to see the large boards and other hardware we’d gotten, and offered to carry some of the heavier packages of food. We bundled all we could onto the burrito’s back and made our way toward the trail that led up the mountainside to our casita. My rubber sandals skidded on the gravel as I walked up the path.
When we got home Papi started right away to latch all of the house’s shutters and nail the big boards across them. Eduardo wanted a turn with the hammer, so Papi gave it to him and let him bang in some of the nails.
While Edi was hammering, Papi sat down on a stone to rest. He became thoughtful and said he felt sorry that when he built our house—back before I was born—there wasn’t money to buy cement for all four walls. He kept promising himself he’d fix the last one, but somehow he was always too busy. So the fourth side of our house was made out of trees stripped of their branches and thatched with palm fans. We called it the bohío wall, because that’s the name for the open wooden houses the country people used to make for themselves down in the valleys. It did sometimes let in wind and rain, but we covered it with a big plastic curtain and never thought much about it.
Mami went straight to the cooking area and built a big fire in the horno. She sent me with a jug to fetch water from the cistern under the house, and began to cook up a big pot of rice while the pigeon peas were soaking. When the rice was done she scraped it out into another pot and boiled the peas with some chiles, onions, and garlic. She sent Edi and me out to our little garden to pick all the vegetables that we could, even the ones that weren’t quite ripe, since we needed to collect as much food as we could before the rain started. We also collected as much wild fruit as we could harvest from the nearby trees: plátanos, mangos, and guayabas. As I carried my heavy basket into the house I looked behind me at all the plants that now looked so empty and bare!
While Mami prepared the cena, I amused Arielita by bouncing her on my lap and singing to her. Like all little ones, she loved the song about the coquí, the tiny frog that sings all night long in the trees. I held her little hands and clapped them in time with the chorus, which made her laugh. “Coquí, coquí , coqui-quí-quí-quí!” While I sang, Mami looked over from the hearth and smiled at us.
We had a hearty dinner of the gandules and rice, and the ripest of the frutas. We put the leftovers in a big iron pot with a lid, which Papi carried down to the cisterna to set it on the stone shelf where the water would keep it cool for tomorrow.
From what my parents heard in the village we were expecting the rain to start falling that night, so while it was still daylight Edi and Papi searched the woods on our hillside for dead branches. Papi chopped them up with his axe and machete to lay in a store of extra firewood. Edi brought the wood into the house and stacked it next to the cooking fire where it would keep dry. Papi took his shovel and dug a trench around three sides of the house so that any heavy rainwater would flow away from us and run downhill. Then he and Edi penned up the goats and el Chaparrito, and shooed the rooster and chickens into their coop.
That night when we said our prayers and bedded down to sleep, we could hear the coquí frogs singing like they always did in the trees around our house. When Mami was done nursing Arielis, it seemed that she and Papi shared an extra-long hug and kiss before they blew out the candle in the lantern.
I’d been sleeping soundly, but in the middle of the night I woke up suddenly to loud sounds of rattling, whooshing, and bumping. Soon I realized I was hearing heavy rain drumming on our metal roof, and very strong winds flapping the banana trees growing around our little casita.
“Mami, I’m scared!” I cried out in the noisy darkness.
“Come here and get in bed with us, mi amor!”She said, and as soon as I climbed in with my parents I felt very warm and safe.
I dropped off for a while. When I woke up again the sky was starting to lighten up a little, though we all knew there would be no real dawn that morning. The rain and wind sounded stronger than ever, and I could tell that now even my parents were getting nervous. That made me nervous too, and I noticed that during the night even the brave Eduardo had crept over to join the rest of us in our parents’ big matrimonio. We’d spent most of the night with all five of us huddled together, glad to be warm and dry.
But of course we were also worried. Papi finally quit his snoring and woke up to listen to the huracán. “I’m so glad that we moved our ancianos down to Ponce last year,” he said to Mami, who nodded in agreement. She said, “Of course they still miss all of us and the mountains, but they’re safer there in a special home in a lowland city where people take care of them. Though I still wish I could be there at their bedsides! At least my sister and cousins are nearby…”
Right after she said that, the sound of the wind grew so loud that it sounded like a roaring lion, and I hoped that the storm wasn’t so fierce down in the city where my grandparents were now living. We were all wide awake now, and could see that one corner of our roof was being lifted up and then dropped down again by gusts of wind. After what had seemed like a very short morning, the sky had become very dark. A trickle of rain began leaking in from under the bohío wall. Papi put a battery into the flashlight and went over to the door. He opened it a crack and peered outside, shining the light around.
“We must move this bed closer to the fireplace and chimney—that’s the strongest part of the house, “Papi said as he closed the door and latched it. So we got up and worked together to move the heavy piece of furniture. I didn’t want to say anything but I was beginning to feel still more scared, since Papi seemed concerned for our safety. I remembered the American story of “The Three Little Pigs” that the teacher had read to us in English on the first day of school. I could imagine there was a huge wolf outside trying to blow our little house down!
“Papi, you built this house very strong, didn’t you?” I asked at last.
“Yes, as strong as I could, mi hija!” But I could hear a worried tone in his voice and wondered what he had seen when he opened the door. We children had now been forbidden to look outside.
Mami got up and lit the fire and started to boil some water for coffee for the grown-ups. Once the coffee and hot water had been poured off into the pot to brew, she made some corn meal mush for the rest of us. While that was thickening she put on the heavy skillet. Then she sliced up some plantains and fried them in the tiniest bit of oil I ever saw her use. “I think I’ll cook some extra plátanos in case we want them later!” she said, and soon had cut up and fried almost all of them. This seemed odd to me, but then I noticed that drops of rain were beginning to splash down the chimney and make a hissing noise as they fell in the fire. I wondered if my mother was worried that the cooking fire might go out. But I didn’t say anything.
So that was how it was, and it was like that for days! Sometimes I felt like we were the family of Noah in the Ark, and wondered when the rain would stop. Then maybe we could send out a dove to bring us back hopeful news. And I wondered fearfully what had become of our animals; our goats and chickens, and our dear, patient burrito who was almost a family pet. Surely by now their pens had been damaged by the wind and they were scattered far and wide across the hills and barrancas. I hoped they had not gotten hurt and didn’t feel scared. And of course I was also worried about the other mountain families, whose daughters had become my playmates at the village school.
For soon it became clear that there was a great deal of water streaming down the mountainside, and each hour a little more of it came into our house! It was now our job just to do our best to keep warm and dry and keep our spirits up. Mami had set aside the lollipops that Edi and I got from the herradura, but she decided to give them to us now. Sucking on them cheered us up and helped us feel a little less hungry. Most of our food was gone and the tiny meals we were having were not very filling.
We tried to while away the time with songs and riddles and telling stories. We passed the hours curled up in the bed or crouched by the chimney, trying to chase away boredom by making every chore and activity last as long as possible.
When she wasn’t busy cooking, Mami took out her sewing basket and by the light of the lantern made a new dress for my rag doll, Pepita. Then she took out her special needle and made a pretty band of lace to sew on Ari’s little cap. The third morning Mami took a long time brushing my hair, and then braided ribbons into it like she’d done last winter for la Navidad. She held up her little mirror to show how pretty I looked, and we both laughed. During those days I learned that laughing is important—it works to break up and drive off that feeling of terror that can lodge in the belly when someone feels completely helpless.
From somewhere Papi took out a jackknife that we’d never known he had, and taught Eduardo how to open it up, sharpen the blade, and use it. Taking turns, they carved little fish and funny people from some sticks of firewood. “You must always take good care of the sharp edge of any sort of knife, mi hijo,” Papi said, “and treat it with respect. Otherwise the orisha Ogún, who rules all blades of iron, might cause it to act against you.” Edi nodded gravely, but looked confused about the name Ogún and the meaning of the word orisha.
Right after Papi had said these things, Mami glared at him, and he seemed embarrassed. “You know, mi amor,” she chided, “That’s not the Christian way of thinking that we want to teach our children!” “You’re right, of course,” our father admitted. “But when I was a boy how I loved to hear my bisabuelo tell the old stories of Santería!”
“What stories? Tell us, tell us!” Edi and I cried out, bouncing up and down. Papi looked at Mami and she shrugged her shoulders and gave him a look that said, “Well, alright!” So we spent a long afternoon feeding our sputtering fire and listening to Papi tell the ancient tales of our isla and the gods and goddesses of the Mar Carribe. These were the things the Taino Indians and African slaves of Borinquén once believed, before the Spanish priests came and baptized everyone into the Church of one God.
As Papi talked, we learned of the orishas: gods and goddesses of war; of dancing and drumming; of love, thunder, sunshine, and the ocean waves; tales of great storms, battles, and romances. It all seemed so delightful that somehow I couldn’t imagine that our loving Jesús Cristo would disapprove. Especially if it helped a poor jíbaro family in danger to hold on to their hope and faith!
I think it was on the third night or perhaps the fourth when the earth floor of our little casa was finally streaming with water and the fire had completely gone out. Papá had made many trips to the cistern for water, but it had become too muddy to drink or cook with. So finally we gave up and just put our biggest kettle outside the door to fill with rain. Everything was soggy now and it was only by holding onto one another in the big bed that we could feel at all warm. We had eaten most of the food that we’d been able to gather and prepare.
Suddenly we heard the sound of the wind become ten times louder than we’d ever heard it, and with every bump the loose corner of the metal roof began to flap up higher and higher into the darkness. We were all on the bed together, trembling under the soaking blankets, crying out “Ay! Ay!” and praying out loud to la Virgen de Divina Providencia to save us! Then, in a dreadful instant, there was a terrifying ripping noise, and we watched as our roof was torn completely away to sail off like a huge kite with a great, whistling roar. We could hear the big sheet of metal rattling and banging its way across rocks and treetops as it flew through the storm and away from our house forever.
Then we had nothing above us but the black and terrible sky with its ever more powerful winds and pelting water! We heard a creaking and cracking, and all at once we could see that the bohío wall too was breaking down and at any minute would be splintered to pieces. Papi leaped up and grabbed the wooden table, now starting to rock on its legs as heavy as it was. He lifted it up and lowered it over us on the flooded frame of the bed. “Children, keep under this for protection!” he shouted, as the wind whipped him and blew all sorts of things against his body.
Quickly, Mami handed me the baby and reached out to grab a corner of the plastic curtain just before it too flew away. She and Papi used it to make a kind of tent to cover the table and bed, and then crawled under it. There was barely room beneath this shelter for all of us.
To our horror we then heard fragments of what had once been our house’s fourth wall as they rattled and scraped by just inches from our heads before disappearing into the howling darkness. The wind seemed stronger than ever now, with one less barrier to hold it back. Edi and I clutched our parents and moaned loudly, and little Ari added her baby’s wailing to our cries.
What a long and miserable night it was, and how unprotected we were from the terrible huracán! I tied my braids together behind my head to stop them from lashing my face in the wind. The plastic tent that kept off some of the rain flapped wildly, and my parents held tightly to its corners. Papi gripped the table’s legs with all of his strength to keep our last bit of protection from blowing off!
What was even worse was seeing the place where we’d once lived so happily destroyed before our eyes. We watched in horror as one by one each of the furnishings of our little home was snatched away by the wind and carried to someplace unknown. Even the big boards that Papi and Edi had nailed so firmly over the windows came loose and began to swing to and fro. We saw great branches and even whole trees go flying by overhead, along with boards and fences and all sorts of things that could only have come from other people’s houses!
Finally, wanting to protect us from seeing any more, Mami made Edi and me close our eyes and put our heads down on her lap to try to sleep. In our bravest voices we all recited a bedtime prayer, and Mami rocked us and sang to us softly. As I finally dropped off, it seemed as if the storm might be calming down just the tiniest bit.
We had gotten so used to pounding wind that when we finally heard silence, it seemed like thunder! It was truly a miracle, for when I woke up in the morning the storm had passed over. For the first time in days I saw faint sunlight. Beside me under the table, Mami was nursing little Ari as Eduardo dozed with his head in her lap. Papi was standing over us peeling back the dripping plastic, clearing away trash, and looking around at what was left of our world. He saw me open my eyes, and lifted me out from under the table. Then, taking my hand, he guided me toward the front door. We walked across a mud- and rubbish-filled space contained by what was left of our house’s walls.
“Hija, ven conmigo y miremos juntos!” Papi said. “Daughter, come with me and let’s look together!”
We walked through the frame of the door and into the midst of a shocking vista—the tops of the trees that had once been so green and shady had been stripped off so that only trunks and bare sticks remained. The spiky stalks on the far hillsides reminded me of bristles along the back of a wild boar. New streams that had never been there before now flowed into broadened gullies that led to the valley. The water gurgled softly.
I gasped and began to cry. My Papacito picked me up and hugged me so tightly against his chest that I could feel his heart-beat. I could tell from his breathing that he was weeping too.
Then Papi hoisted me up onto his shoulders so I could see far, far, down the side of the naked mountain. Though it had always been hidden by the forest, I could see the dome and cross of our lowland village church, la Iglesia de la Virgen de Divina Providencia—named for the Mother who watches over our island. The sunlight grew stronger until the cross gleamed in its rays.
“Figúrate, hiija,” Papi said to me softly, “Sobrevivimos! Just think of it—we survived!” He lifted me over his head and set me down on the muddy ground.
“Sí, Papi!” I said, looking up at him. “Mother Nature is so very strong—now she’ll make the trees grow back, and we’ll raise food from the earth!”
My father gazed at his three cement walls. Within them, the others were beginning to stir and crawl out from under their shelter.
“A house can always be rebuilt,” my Papi murmured, “but never a family!”
About the Author:
Emily Peña Murphey is a granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, with family roots in the Texas Rio Grande Valley and the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. She worked for many years as a psychotherapist, listening to people’s life stories and accounts of their family histories. She has undergone graduate training in psychology, social work, and Jungian psychoanalysis. Peña Murphey’s current work on a trilogy of novels recreates the cultural and political milieu of Mexico and la Frontera of her ancestors in the decades spanning the Mexican Revolution, with special interest in the struggles of women. She uses writing to explore her cultural identity as a mixed race Mexican-American at the vanguard of the Latino diaspora. She has published poetry and memoir pieces in the e-journals Jung in Vermont and the Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine. Peña Murphey blogs at https://lafronterista.blogspot.com. In addition to being a writer, Emily is an avid gardener, cook, folk artist, musician, and singer. She lives in Philadelphia.