Home > Cemetery Boys(2)

Cemetery Boys(2)
Author: Aiden Thomas

The hairs on the back of his neck prickled at the same time Maritza shivered next to him.

“Do what?”

The bark-like demand made both of them jump. Maritza sprang back, and Yadriel had to catch her arms to keep her from bowling him over.

Just to their left, a man stood next to a small peach-colored tomb.

“Holy crap, Tito.” Yadriel exhaled, a hand still clutching the front of his hoodie. “You scared the hell out of us!”

Maritza sniffed indignantly.

Sometimes, even to Yadriel and Maritza, a ghost could go unnoticed.

Tito was a squat man wearing a burgundy Venezuela soccer kit and shorts. A large, worn straw hat sat on his head. He squinted at Yadriel and Maritza from under the brim as he bent over the marigolds. Tito was the longtime gardener of the cemetery.

Or well, he was. Tito had been dead for four years.

When he was alive, Tito had been an incredibly talented gardener. He used to supply all the flowers for the brujx celebrations, as well as weddings, holidays, and funerals for the non-magic folks in East LA. What had started as selling flowers from buckets at the local flea market had grown into his own brick-and-mortar shop.

After dying in his sleep and having his body laid to rest, Tito reappeared in the cemetery, determined to take care of the flowers he’d painstakingly tended to for most of his life. He told Yadriel’s father he still had a job to do and didn’t trust anyone else to take it over.

Enrique said Tito could remain as long as he was Tito. Yadriel wondered if sheer stubbornness would keep his father from being able to release Tito’s spirit, even if he tried.

“Do what?” Tito repeated. Under the orange lights of the church, he seemed solid enough, though he was the faintest bit transparent compared to the very corporeal garden shears in his hand. Spirits had blurry edges and were a little less vibrant than the world around them. They looked like a photograph taken out of focus and with the saturation turned down. If Yadriel turned his head a bit, Tito’s form smudged and faded into the background.

Yadriel mentally kicked himself. His nerves were getting the better of him, distracting him from sensing Tito sooner.

“Why aren’t you two back at the house with everyone else?” Tito pressed.

“Uh, we were just going to go into the church,” Yadriel said, voice breaking midsentence. He cleared his throat.

The rise of an unruly eyebrow meant Tito wasn’t falling for it.

“Just to check on some supplies, you know.” Yadriel shrugged. “Make sure things are … set up.”

With a sch, Tito’s shears sliced off a wilted marigold from its stem.

Maritza elbowed Yadriel in the side and tipped her head pointedly.

“Oh!” Yadriel wrestled off his backpack and dug around inside, pulling out a bundled white dishcloth. “I grabbed you something!”

Felipe was too busy with his girlfriend to care about what Yadriel and Maritza got up to, and it was pretty easy to sneak past Nina and Rosa, but Tito was a bit of a wild card. Tito had been good friends with Yadriel’s dad, and Tito had very little patience for nonsense.

But offerings of food seemed to make him look the other way.

“Lita just made them—it’s still warm!” Yadriel pulled back the layers to reveal a concha. The delicious sweet bread had a crumbly topping and looked like a seashell. “I got you a green one, your favorite!” If Tito wasn’t convinced by his terrible lying, maybe pan dulce could sway him.

Tito waved his hand dismissively. “I don’t care what you two buscapleitos are up to,” he grumbled.

Maritza gasped and pressed her hand to her chest dramatically. “Us? We would never—!”

Yadriel shoved Maritza to get her to shut up. He didn’t think they were troublemakers, especially compared to some of the other younger brujx, but he also knew laying on the innocent act too thick would not work on Tito.

Luckily, Tito seemed to want to get rid of them. “Pa’ fuera,” he said dismissively. “But don’t touch my cempasúchitl.”

Yadriel didn’t need to be told twice. He grabbed Maritza’s arm and made for the church.

“Leave the concha,” Tito added.

Yadriel left it on top of the peach-colored tomb while Tito went back to trimming his marigolds.

He ran up the steps to the church, Maritza right on his heels. With a hard shove, the heavy doors swung open with a groan.

Yadriel and Maritza crept down the aisle. The inside was simple. Unlike a standard church, there weren’t many rows of pews and there were no seats at the back. When the brujx gathered for ceremonies and rituals, everyone stood in large circles together in the open space. Three tall windows made up the apse of the church. During the day, the California sunlight streamed through the colorful, intricate stained glass. Dozens of unlit candles crowded the main altar.

On a ledge halfway up the wall stood a statue of their sacred goddess, the diosa who had bestowed the brujx with their powers thousands of years ago, when gods and monsters roamed the lands of Latin America and the Caribbean: the Lady of the Dead.

The skeleton was carved out of white stone. Black paint accented the lines of her bony fingers, toothy smile, and empty eyes. Lady Death wore a traditional white lace-trimmed huipil and layered skirt. A mantle was draped over the crown of her head, flowing to rest on her shoulders. The neck of her dress and hem of the mantle were embroidered with delicate flowers of golden thread. A bouquet of Tito’s freshly cut marigolds lay in her skeletal hands.

She had many names and iterations—Santa Muerte, la Huesuda, Lady of Shadows, Mictecacihuatl. It depended on the culture and language, but each representation and image came down to the same thing. To be blessed by Lady Death, to have his own portaje and to serve her, was what Yadriel wanted most in the world. He wanted to be like the other brujos, to find lost spirits and help them pass to the afterlife. He wanted to stay up all night on boring graveyard duty. Hell, he’d even spend hours pulling weeds and painting tombs if it meant being accepted by his people as a brujo.

As Yadriel approached her, propelled forward by his desire to serve her, he thought about all the generations of brujx who had their own quinces ceremonies right here. Men and women who’d emigrated from all over—Mexico and Cuba, Puerto Rico and Colombia, Honduras and Haiti, even the ancient Incas, Aztecs, and Maya—all bestowed with powers by the ancient gods. A mix of beautifully nuanced, vibrant cultures that came together to make their community whole.

When brujx turned fifteen years old, they were presented to Lady Death, who would give them her blessing and tie their magic to their chosen conduit, their portaje. For women, portajes often took the form of a rosary (a symbol that had begun as a ceremonial necklace and was altered with the rise of Catholicism in Latin America). It was a piece of jewelry that could go unnoticed and ended with a charm that could hold a small amount of sacrificial animal blood. While a crucifix was the most common symbol, sometimes a bruja’s rosary ended in a sacred heart or a statuette of Lady Death.

Men’s portajes were often daggers of some sort, as a blade was required to sever the golden thread that bound a spirit to their earthly tether. By cutting that tie, brujos were able to release spirits to the afterlife.

Being gifted your portaje was an important rite of passage for every brujx.

Every one, except for Yadriel.

His quinces had been postponed indefinitely. He’d turned sixteen the past July, and he was tired of waiting.

In order to show his family what he was, who he was, Yadriel needed to go through with his own quinces ceremony—with or without their blessings. His father and the rest of the brujx hadn’t left him with a choice.

Sweat trickled down Yadriel’s spine, sending a shiver through his body. The air felt charged, like the ground hummed with energy below his feet. It was now or never.

Kneeling before Lady Death, he unpacked the supplies he needed for the ritual. He placed four prayer candles on the ground in a diamond to represent the four winds. A clay bowl went in the center to represent the earth. Yadriel had nicked a mini bottle of Cabrito tequila from one of the boxes that had been gathered for the Día de Muertos ofrendas. He fumbled with the bottle before popping the cap off and pouring it into the bowl. The smell stung his nose. Beside it, he placed a small jar of salt.

He dug out a box of matches from the pocket of his jeans. The flame trembled as he lit the candles. The flickering lights sparked the gold threads in Lady Death’s mantle, catching in the folds and crevices.

Air, earth, wind, and fire. North, south, east, and west. All the elements needed to call upon Lady Death.

The last ingredient was blood.

Calling upon Lady Death required an offering of blood. It was the most powerful thing to give, as it held life. Giving your blood to Lady Death was giving her a part of your earthly body and your spirit. It was so powerful that human blood given in sacrifice could not be more than a few drops; otherwise the offering was enough to drain any brujx of their life force, leading to certain death.

There were only two rituals that ever called for brujx to make an offering of their own blood. When they were born, their ears were pierced, releasing a pin-drop amount of blood. This act enabled them to hear the spirits of the dead. Yadriel’s ears were gauged with black plastic plugs. He liked paying homage to the ancient practice of brujx stretching their earlobes with increasingly large discs made of sacred stones, like obsidian or jade. Over the years he’d gotten them to about the size of a dime.

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