By Nick Farriella
On la noché de las velitas, the night of the candles, my family was setting up a vigil for my dead brother in the shape of a hawk, his favorite bird. We used almost 300 candles, lining them like dominos on the cobblestone sidewalk of the plaza. The entire city took to the streets to make candle vigils of their own. From the sidewalks up to the ledges and windowsills, across store fronts and rooftops, drops of fire in glass and paper lanterns turned Pereira into a scatterplot of light. It was our chance to be born again.
Pistachio shells fall in a ceramic bowl
The ringing is sharp and incessant
One by one
I’m sent back
My mother wept as she knelt down to light each candle, saying Juan would have loved this. My father grimaced, saying something I couldn’t make out, as the clinging of shells rang louder in my ear. I saw Juan’s face, smirking in front of the glow of the TV, cracking open pistachios with his teeth, spitting the shells into a bowl. He was calling me an asshole. He looked like he did when he was fifteen, messy twines of hair covering his forehead, fat mole on his left cheek. We were identical twins, aside from that mole, the only thing that told us apart and, for some reason, made him better looking.
I reached out to touch him but found only air. My mind started playing these tricks since he died, following sounds through tunnels into the past, seeing things that weren’t there.
“Mijo, you deaf?” My father asked.
The sound drew me away from my family, towards the tents in the corner of the plaza, where a group of Roma people had set up camp for the holiday season. My mother had told me stories about them from her childhood, and she always made them seem mystical. I don’t know if that’s true, but I wanted to believe it after the year I had, after finding Juan Carlos expired and unresponsive on the couch. I felt drawn to them.
The tent was covered in bright-colored medallion printed shawls. I saw smoke bellow from the front slit, and smelled ash and frankincense. Inside was like a shop, so I slouched around with my hands in my pockets, gazing over handmade iron jewelry, wool ponchos, leather belts with patterns burned into their faces. Hammocks hung low from the roof. The ground was covered with metal pots of different sizes. Everything was for sale. I felt dreamlike, not in control of what I could do next.
“If it’s answers you want, those are also for sale,” a woman said. I didn’t see her come in, but she sat on a stool made out of an elephant’s foot, holding a bowl of pistachio shells. She wore a floral scarf tied around her head, had deep blue circles painted beneath her eyes, and large hoops for earrings. She looked like a pirate, waving me over to the stool next to her.
I paid 40,000 pesos for her to see my future in some cards; I would have paid anything for her to tell me that everything would be okay. That with the changing of seasons, I would start sleeping again and stop seeing my brother whenever I closed my eyes. The worst part about finding Juan was seeing me dead before recognizing it was him. How strange it was mistaking my twin brother for myself, seeing the same long nose and hollowed out cheeks I’ve been seeing in the mirror all my life; there they were, the flesh drained of color, strung out on the couch. My gut hardened and dropped. The signal shared between us was suddenly gone and for the first time in my life, I felt unbearably alone.
She rubbed oil on my hands and said to take a deep breath. As I did, she smeared the same oil on the cards as she shuffled them. I coughed, but the musky oil hitting my nose, though harsh, was revitalizing, like smelling salts.
“I see cancer in your future,” she said, with a wide smile, pointing to the pack of Derby’s in my breast pocket.
I said, “I bet you see death in everyone’s future.”
She laughed, put down the cards then flipped one over.
“This is you,” she said.
On the card was a barren fig tree.
“You no longer produce fruit. You are mourning the death of yourself. Let go of your past self, it’s dead and gone.”
Skeptical, I sat back and smirked, crossing my arms. I removed a cigarette from my pack, lit it, and thought of a few other things I should have spent my money on; Aguardiente, especially. She turned over the next card. It was a panther, stepping out of the woods, its teeth showing, eyes blood red.
“This is what haunts you,” the woman said. “It’s at the edge of the forest now, ready to strike.”
Good, I thought. In the panther, specifically in the blackness of its glossy fur, I saw the deep centers of Juan’s eyes. Maul me, I thought, tear me to shreds. Drain me empty of this grief.
“With the changing of the season, the Virgin Mother allows us to shed any darkness that has clung to us all year. This is done through fire.” My mother said, as we looked over the hawk. If I stared long enough into rows of candles, it was as if its feathers were shivering in the wind. So, what, I thought, this vigil was supposed to bring him back? Or now that we took part in this night of showing off skills of sidewalk candle art, Juan dying was supposed to make sense?
La noché de las velitas was Juan’s favorite holiday. He used it as an excuse to throw away all the bad shit he had done all year and convince us he’d start the next a different person. It was always the next year he’d get clean, the next year he’d stop stealing. The thing was we always believed him. Like the cards telling me what’s next, we always believed in what was to come, as long as it was better than what had passed. How strange it is when you’re told what your future holds, but there’s still something holding you back to the past, an inkling that nothing will ever change.
“Make a wish,” My mother said.
I closed my eyes and pretended to make one, pretended that wishing for things still mattered. Just then I heard screams at the other side of the plaza. People were chanting or crying, it was hard to tell over the sound of the drums and bells of the band parading down the street. Men in Santa costumes on stilts, women twirling in elegant, flowing dresses; it was like the spirit of Christmas rose from the pavement and crept down the street with the resplendence of a muster of peacocks. Something stirred in me, boiling to the point where I felt restless in my own skin.
“Look, Mateo,” my mother said, pointing to the middle of the parade, where a papier-mâché animal, held up on sticks, waved around as if it was creeping through high grass. “Look at the panther.”
Beside it, another parader held up a large barren tree made of cardboard and bundles of branches. The panther circled the tree. In its beady red eyes I saw fire and death. It noticed me. I became too terrified to move. The sound of pistachio shells falling into a bowl grew louder in my ears and I said shut up, shut up. I closed my eyes and saw Juan, this time how I found him. I blinked and he was there in the parade; the panther, him, and the tree, all standing out and rushing towards me. He was next to me and in front of me; I couldn’t get the ringing of the shells out of my ears.
My dad said, “Calm down.”
I tried but the panther was in my face now; I could feel its hot breath on my chin. I jolted and swung and kicked.
“Mijo, cuidado! The hawk!” My mother cried.
The panther leapt toward me on my knees in front of the vigil. Just as I cowered back to embrace its bite, the flaming hawk rose off the ground and took flight. My mother screamed. I prayed to God, to Juan, to myself, to I don’t know who, to get me out of this. I was tired of walking around as a reflection of my dead brother; I was tired of carrying him.
The hawk screeched and soared above the lights of the plaza before crashing down, where he would surely engulf the panther and me in its fire. And I would lie there, after burning and burning, bright as a freshly lit wick, shedding my darkness one lick at a time, burning the past away.
Nick Farriella's fiction has appeared in Maudlin House, Soft Cartel, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, Across the Margin, and elsewhere. He lives in New Jersey where he works as a copywriter and is the founder of Freedom Through Literature, an organization that runs annual book drives for prisons. You can follow him on Twitter @nick_farriella.