Check out an exclusive first chapter of Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova!!
The second time I saw my dead aunt Rosaria, she was dancing.
Earlier that day, my mom had warned me, pressing a long, red fingernail on the tip of my nose, "Alejandra, don't go downstairs when the Circle arrives."
But I was seven and asked too many questions. Every Sunday, cars piled up in our driveway, down the street, around the corner of our old, narrow house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Mom's Circle usually brought cellophane-wrapped dishes and jars of dirt and tubs of brackish water that made the Hudson River look clean. This time, they carried something more.
When my sisters started snoring I threw off my covers and crept down the stairs. The floorboards were uneven and creaky, but I was good at not being seen. Fuzzy, yellow streetlight shone through our attic window and followed me down every flight until I reached the basement.
A soft hum made its way through the thin walls. I remember thinking I should listen to my mom's warning and go back upstairs. But our house had been restless all week, and Lula, Rose, and I were shoved into the attic, out of the way while the grown-ups prepared for the funeral. I wanted out. I wanted to see.
The night was moonless and cold one week after the Witch's New Year, when Aunt Rosaria died of a sickness that made her skin yellow like hundred-year-old paper and her nails turn black as coal. We tried to make her beautiful again. My sisters and I spent all day weaving good luck charms from peonies, corn husks, and string- one loop over, under, two loops over, under. Not even the morticians, the Magos de Muerte, could fix her once-lovely face.
Aunt Rosaria was dead. I was there when we mourned her. I was there when we buried her. Then, I watched my father and two others shoulder a dirty cloth bundle into the house, and I knew I couldn't stay in bed, no matter what my mother said.
So I opened the basement door.
Red light bathed the steep stairs. I leaned my head toward the light, toward the beating sound of drums and sharp plucks of fat, nylon guitar strings.
A soft mew followed by whiskers against my arm made my heart jump to the back of my rib cage. I bit my tongue to stop the scream. It was just my cat, Miluna. She stared at me with her white, glowing eyes and hissed a warning, as if telling me to turn back. But Aunt Rosaria was my godmother, my family, my friend. And I wanted to see her again.
"Sh!" I brushed the cat's head back.
Miluna nudged my leg, then ran away as the singing started.
I took my first step down, into the warm, red light. Raspy voices called out to our gods, the Deos, asking for blessings beyond the veil of our worlds. Their melody pulled me step by step until I was crouched at the bottom of the landing.
They were dancing.
Brujas and brujos were dressed in mourning white, their faces painted in the aspects of the dead, white clay and black coal to trace the bones. They danced in two circles- the outer ring going clockwise, the inner counterclockwise- hands clasped tight, voices vibrating to the pulsing drums.
And in the middle was Aunt Rosaria.
Her body jerked upward. Her black hair pooled in the air like she was suspended in water. There was still dirt on her skin. The white shirt we buried her in billowed around her slender legs. Black smoke slithered out of her open mouth. It weaved in and out of the circle- one loop over, under, two loops over, under. It tugged Aunt Rosaria higher and higher, matching the rhythm of the canto.
The the black smoke perked up and changed its target. It could smell me. I tried to backpedal, but the tiles were slick and I slid toward the circle. My head smacked the tiles. Pain splintered my skull and a broken scream lodged in my throat.
The music stopped. Heavy, tired breaths filled the silence of the pulsing red dark. The enchantment was broken. Aunt Rosaria's reanimated corpse turned to me. Her body purged black smoke, lowering her back to the ground. Her angles cracked where the bone was brittle, but still she took a step. Her dead eyes gaped at me. Her wrinkled mouth growled my name: Alejandra.
She took another step. Her ankle turned and broke at the joint, sending her flying foward. She landed on top of me. The rot of her skin filled my nose, and grave dirt fell into my eyes.
Tongues clucked against crooked teeth. The voices of the circle hissed, "What's the girl doing out of bed?"
There was a scent of extinguished candles and melting wax. Decay and perfume oil smothered me until they pulled the body away.
My mother jerked me up by the ear, pulling me up two flights of stairs until I was back in my bed, the scream stuck in my throat like a stone.
"Never," she said. "You hear me, Alejandra? Never break a Circle."
I lay still. So still that after a while, she brushed my hair, thinking I had fallen asleep.
I wasn't. How could I ever sleep again? Blood and rot and smoke and whispers filled my head.
"One day you'll learn," she whispered.
Then she went back down the street-lit stairs, down into the warm red light and to Aunt Rosaria's body. My mother clapped her hands, drums beat, strings plucked, and she said, "Again."