There was always an old woman dying in the back room of her family’s house when Isla was a child…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Storyteller’s Death by Ann Dávila Cardinal, out from Sourcebooks Landmark on October 4.
Isla Larsen Sanchez’s life begins to unravel when her father passes away. Instead of being comforted at home in New Jersey, her mother starts leaving her in Puerto Rico with her grandmother and great-aunt each summer like a piece of forgotten luggage.
When Isla turns eighteen, her grandmother, a great storyteller, dies. It is then that Isla discovers she has a gift passed down through her family’s cuentistas. The tales of dead family storytellers are brought back to life, replaying themselves over and over in front of her.
At first, Isla is enchanted by this connection to the Sanchez cuentistas. But when Isla has a vision of an old murder mystery, she realizes that if she can’t solve it to make the loop end, these seemingly harmless stories could cost Isla her life.
shadow and storm
Late one afternoon the following week, I was helping in the garden, hoping to see José, when an ambulance pulled up to Tío Ramón’s house next door and I knew that Rosa had died. My eyes filled as the red lights danced over the walls of green palm fronds. I had been so preoccupied with thoughts of José that I hadn’t made it back to sit with Rosa again.
I watched them wheel the stretcher out, a thin white sheet stretched across Rosa’s girth. This time, I knew who was beneath the shroud, so the sight held more meaning, fewer secrets. I smiled. Rosa wasn’t gone, not yet. Except for Lourdes, Rosa’s own family didn’t appreciate her, but I would be honored to see one of her stories come to life if she chose me. I put down the gardening trowel, brushed off my clothes, made excuses to Alma, and headed inside with purposeful steps. I had work to do. I got the book of cuentos out from my suitcase and cleared a place for it on the little desk. This time, I would be ready. I stayed in the room reading until Alma called me for dinner.
Things had felt so strained between Alma and me over the last few weeks, though I’m not sure she noticed as she’d been going to bed early and sleeping late, but Rosa’s death had only renewed my conflicted feelings about my great-aunt. We ate in silence and afterward I helped clean and dry the dishes. Then I excused myself and padded off to bed early with the explanation that I wanted to read. I lay on the bed with a novel open on my chest. I stared through the mosquito netting at the tiny stalactites on the white stucco ceiling and waited, the image of José holding the quenepa out to my mouth filling and refilling my mind. No matter how much I told myself to forget, that we were both going off to college and would forget all about each other, thoughts of him kept creeping back in like the surf. Eventually my eyelids grew heavy with the rhythm of my thoughts, and the book slipped to my side unread.
I woke to the sound of screaming.
I jolted upright in bed, the book thudding to the floor. I searched for the source of the screams and found I was no longer in my aunt’s guest room. The walls were wood, the floor worn, the furniture spare and utilitarian. Three people huddled in the corner, a woman and two small children, a boy and a girl. But the screaming was not coming from them. The walls themselves were shrieking. Howling. Groaning. The wooden shutter over the window to my right suddenly splintered and blew open, wind squalling in, rain pelting me like bullets. I jumped up and ran to close the shutter but found I couldn’t move it. I could feel the cracked frame, the peeling paint—that was new—but still I couldn’t budge it.
I stepped back when the woman got up and pulled the shutter closed against the driving wind and rain, latching it shut. She seemed unaware of my presence, so I looked closely into the woman’s brown, careworn face, searching for a resemblance to Rosa, but she turned quickly to get back to her children. Wait, was Rosa the girl? Or the mother? My heart jackhammered in my chest, and I followed the woman back to the corner where the family cowered and threw myself on the floor next to them, hugging my knees to my chest, no longer caring who was who.
At that moment, there was the sound of metal rasping, tearing, and all eyes went up to the ceiling in the same instant. The ridged, rusted tin roof squealed and stretched, and suddenly it was gone, the ceiling replaced by furious, swirling gray and black sky, rain crashing in at an angry angle. The furniture began to move across the room as if possessed, menacingly scraping over the uneven wooden floors. The small dining room table propelled itself toward the corner where we huddled, narrowly missing us and banging into the wall on the other side.
I was finding it harder and harder to breathe, as if the wind and my terror were stealing the air out of my body. The chairs followed, circling around each other in a macabre dance. One of the wooden straight-backed chairs started to move in my direction, its velocity increasing as it went over each floorboard, willing itself toward me like metal to a magnet. I threw my arms up just as the chair hit me, the sound of wood splintering all around, blood pouring off my arm and onto my forehead. I closed my eyes and let out a scream.
The next thing I heard was Alma’s voice, high and thin with concern, breaking over the sound of my cries. “Isla! Isla! ¿Que pasó? What happened to you? Are you okay?” I fought her at first, swiping her hands away with my arms, my eyes still clamped shut. Slowly I calmed down, my aunt’s familiar voice dragging me back from shadow and storm. I opened my eyes, and Alma’s face was right in front of me, alarm carved into the folds of skin around her mouth. I looked around the room frantically and saw the bed, the ornate carved dresser topped with Tía’s perfumes and doilies, the book sprawled on the floor near the night table, the solid ceiling above. Through the window, the evening was clear, the stars visible in the black velvet sky. Then I noticed a wetness on my arm. I lifted it in front of my face and saw the gash, my freckled skin streaked with blood. Alma carefully brought me to my feet, and I could hear her voice as if from very far away, clucking about the cut and the bleeding.
“How did you do this, niña? What a bad dream you must have had! We must disinfect this right away.” As she led me to her room, she gave the lecture I had heard a thousand times before about how cuts can go septic in the tropics—“This is not Nueva Jersey, you know!”—then sat me down on her bed. The texture of the chenille pattern pressed against my bare legs; water ran in the bathroom as she scurried about, gathering bandages, cotton, alcoholado. Alma spent ten minutes fussing over me, bandaging my wound, asking questions to which she didn’t seem to expect an answer. I just sat there watching, removed from the scene, a silent spectator.
By the time I was able to ask, my aunt seemed so glad to hear me speak that she didn’t find the question odd. “Was there a really bad hurricane here?”
Alma paused for a moment, then answered. “Yes, many over the years. ¿Por qué?”
“Was there one that could take a house’s roof off?” My voice sounded robotic, emotionless.
She paused again, probably concerned, but then she continued. “Sí, it was in September of 1928. San Felipe Segundo, it was called. I was twenty-four. It was very scary. Every Puerto Rican learned about preparing for the worst after that storm.” She looked at me again and put her hand over mine. “Do not worry, mi amor. You are safe. That is why our roof is concrete.”
I didn’t explain that I was not afraid of real hurricanes. I didn’t have the energy to talk. Or to care. Alma walked me to my bed, covered me up with the cool cotton sheets, tucking me in as she had when I was small, and sat at my side holding my hand until sleep took me.
All night, I had terrible dreams of crashing storms and bending trees, and I bolted awake in bed in the wee hours of the morning, breathing hard. As I was falling back to sleep, I heard the back gate squeal and Alma walk through the house. I had a fleeting thought that I should go and check on her but instead fell into a blessedly dreamless sleep.
I spent the next day in bed, only getting up twice: once to eat and once to record the terror of the previous night’s events in the book of stories before the sun set. Knowing that the hurricane was in 1928 helped determine that Rosa had been the young mother in the corner hiding with me and that the roof blowing off was one of her cuentos. Lourdes had said she told funny stories, but clearly, she’d also been carrying around this dark one. But why show me this particular story? Was it a warning? And why could I now feel surfaces in the visions? Did that mean they were getting stronger?
And the most pressing question of all: Why could it hurt me?
I wouldn’t get all the answers right then, if ever, and that was not an experience I cared to go through again. Monkeys and parades were one thing; hurricanes were another.
Until that night, I had thought the visions were a gift from the dead. An odd one, but still a gift. As I looked at the dried blood darkening my bandaged arm, I wished it were a gift I could return.
Excerpted from The Storyteller’s Death, copyright © 2022 by Ann Dávila Cardinal.