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News & Features » July 2015 » “On or Off This Island” by Robert Arellano

“On or Off This Island” by Robert Arellano

Akashic Books is proud to introduce a new flash fiction series, Duppy Thursday. Though we’re based in Brooklyn, our location envy of the Caribbean is evident throughout our catalog. One aspect of Caribbean literature that appeals to us is the integration of folklore into contemporary stories—a perfect example being Jamaican author Marlon James’s debut novel John Crow’s Devil, which we published to great critical acclaim in 2005. Whether it be the spider Anansi, the devil woman La Diablesse, the Soucouyant, Mama Dlo, or Papa Bois, these mythical beings have injected life (and death) into the literature of the region. As with our other flash fiction series, we challenge you to tell your story in 750 words or less.

Duppy Thursday kicks off with a retracing of a Cuban family history from Robert Arellano, author of the Edgar-nominated noir Havana Lunar. Next week, Game World author C.J. Farley tells duppy stories in Jamaica.

Photo credit: Michael BenabibOn or Off This Island
by Robert Arellano
Havana, Cuba

My grandmother Fefita sits for la cena while my great-grandmother Maria Antonia cautions her on the caprices of obstetrics. Fefita is six months pregnant with her first child, my aunt Juana.

“The crying is horrible,” Doña Maria Antonia counsels her fresh-faced daughter-in-law, “but the silence is far worse.”

Maria Antonia has proven an excellent birther to my great-grandfather Don José Maria: nine children, all but two male, made it through infancy. But for each of the seven surviving sons, there has been a separate, stillborn child, beginning with the second, Eduardo. After the birth of the fourth surviving son (my grandfather Miguel), another soul, Enrique, was cast adrift without a christening or a cry. And then a lucky streak of three—Maria Luisa, Rosario, and Alberto—before God stole two in a row: Claudio and Hortensia. Gonzalo and Julio were parting gifts who remain two precious dolls perched on the mantel in Maria Antonia’s contemplation, for she is now getting old. The last three—Victor, Felicia, Carlota—were cruel postscripts. Seven infant souls straight to Limbo. Time to quit.

“The midwife turns away, unwilling to catch your eye, and removes the fetus before your instinctive clutch can touch its cold weightlessness.”

Only half-listening, Fefita fingers the lace brocade on the collar of her gown. Sitting through these stories is like church or like saying the rosary. She hears and abides, but the message is not meant for her. It is intended for someone else whose life is not so charmed. Good things happen to her; misfortune visits elsewhere. There is a lifeless piece of meat on her plate, and although she has no appetite, she consumes it to make the stuff disappear in the vain hope that it might serve as an emetic for the colossal solitude clutching in her throat.

“Then you are left alone, prone in a room full of emptiness. At first it seems like there is no possible way to survive the loss.”

Maria Antonia, too, knows that her words are an empty sacrament, but she intones the lessons still with faith that, in Fefita’s time of trial, the Holy Spirit will emerge to comfort her, whether or not Maria Antonia is there to lay a hand on Fefita’s flushed cheek and kiss her empty abdomen.

“You are like my seventeenth child, wife to my Miguelito, and if there is anything I can give you, you have only to ask. But more precious than gold, houses, and automobiles is this little pearl: the anguish will dissipate, and although you will visit the girl in the grave every Sunday and offer novenas on March 28, you will bear my son other children—and José and I more grandchildren—and in doing this, you will keep a covenant I tender to you that will be passed down to your own daughters for generations, on or off this island.”

Cutlery clattering on china, the sound of my great-grandmother’s voice—these things enrage Fefita. She feels trapped inside a stifling cocoon. Fefita excuses herself to go outside for air, but she miscalculates by using the kitchen door, which releases her too near the hog wallow, where the sow flounders in her piglets’ filth.

Clutching her breast, she turns back and, in a rush of juvenile conspiracy, Gonzalo and Julio storm into the kitchen. Under the din of their father’s shouting—he is not mute, only awaiting such an opportunity as this to bare his teeth—the animals pile in a squealing heap at their aunt Fefita’s feet. She kicks them away in either direction, shrieking, “Get off me, you little beasts!”

Fefita faints.

When she awakens the next day, her belly is empty.

Fefita does not get out of bed for breakfast. She does not get up for lunch, and she does not get up for la cena. She becomes so despondent after the death of her first daughter that they begin preparing to hold her wake, su velorio, before she finally stirs. She lies in bed with the shades drawn and contemplates, without taking any comfort from the woman’s advice, her mother-in-law’s clairvoyance. How had Maria Antonia known that the child would be a girl? And how had she chosen March 28, and that the child would be Juana, after Santa Juana de Maillé, on whose santo the baby was born without breath?

“Souls need a name in Limbo,” Maria Antonia will tell anyone who asks. “Where would they be without a name?” Saint Peter will call them someday, the innocents, call them to their ascent. They have to be called something.


ROBERT ARELLANO is a 2014 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipient in Fiction and the author of four novels from Akashic, including the Edgar Award finalist Havana Lunar. He is Professor of Creative Writing in the Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University.


Do you have a story you’d like us to consider for online publication in the Duppy Thursday flash fiction series? Here are the submission terms and guidelines:

—We are not offering payment, and are asking for first digital rights. The rights to the story revert to the author immediately upon publication.
—Your story should be set in a Caribbean location and incorporate some aspect of folklore, whether centrally or tangentially.
—Include the location and the referenced folk tale or figure of the story with your byline.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words.
—Please include a short bio with your submission.
—Accepted submissions to Duppy Thursday are typically posted 2–4 months after the notification date.
—E-mail your submission to info@akashicbooks.com. Please paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.

Posted: Jul 23, 2015

Category: Original Fiction, Duppy Thursday | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,