Saturdays in Burleigh: fresh coffee brewing on James Street, blue skies and golden sand, sand so hot you danced on it, Sadie calling out orders for fish and chips – yes this early in the morning, too – and the sea-salty air obliterating any aggravation from the work week.
Those were my favourite mornings, a time where I could forget death and just surf instead. Surfing was my temporary distraction, a way to calm my mind. It was my creative outlet. An artist painted, a writer wrote, and a surfer surfed. There’s the thrill of waiting for the lump, gauging the size and direction of the wave, readying my body – apprehension and adrenaline combined – and the wave lifting my feet. I block out the world. It’s just me and the wave. The board catches, the world falls away, and I stand. Gravity takes me. The wave knows what to do. It has a mighty energy of its own. For a moment, we dance. I don’t thrash and slash the water, I move with it. It’s the purest form of surfing, soul surfing, riding the rail with my longboard. It’s important to treat the wave with respect.
The other surfers stick their middle finger up if you drop in, but for some reason, I cop it more than most. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a girl, because I ride a long board, or both. Maybe it’s because I surf better than they do. But no one owns the waves. They own you.
It’s not easy to describe the feeling you get after you’ve just finished an amazing set, unless you’re talking to someone with the same passion in spades. I felt that elated, yet peaceful feeling as I made my way home from the beach with my board under one arm, wax sticky and warm from the sun.
I took a left down Elder Entrance. My street was lined with old Queenslanders. Big timber homes, some from the 1800s, built on stumps for wind-flow. Most of those dinosaurs were fitted with air-conditioners. A few had been torn down and replaced with two-bedroom apartments, but my eyes were always drawn to the old houses.
Mine was the last place on the right, two storeys of cream, maroon, and white, complete with an enormous storage basement. The first storey housed one Toyota and eight years’ worth of stuff (including some of my Aunty Catalina’s belongings we couldn’t get rid of ), as well as a giant downstairs laundry and shower – perfect for a surfer with a clean-freak for a mum. Our house might’ve been old, but it was well-kept.
I unlatched the side gate, entered the laundry, and jumped straight in the shower with my wetsuit to wash the sand and salt water off of me and my surfboard. I dried myself and threw on a sundress.
I skipped every second step to the back door. ‘Zat you, Modesta?’ Mum, known to others as Ms Castro, or Connie, curled her Spanish tongue around my name. She was the only one who could say it properly. Most people just called me Mouse instead of Modesta. One, because it was easier. Two, because My Aunty’s name was Cat. Cat and Mouse – very funny, huh?
Ha de har.
‘Good morning.’ Mum was in a cheery mood often, despite all she’d been through.
‘Buenos días,’ I said.
‘You having a good surf?’ Mum grinned, as she chopped tomatoes and threw them into a bowl. She never really had lost her accent. She had come to Australia a little later than Cat.
‘Amazing. Thanks. Whatcha makin’?’ I pulled myself up on the bench and peered over at the ingredients.
‘Modesta, you no sit on this. I cook here. Get down!’
‘Mum, please … I help pay the mortgage. I’ll sit where I want.’
‘Modesta Castro.’ She looked at me like I’d lose a limb if I wasn’t careful.
‘Okay, okay.’ I jumped down off the bench. I put my chin on her shoulder as she chopped. ‘Sooo, whatcha makin’?’
She finally laughed. ‘Gazpacho. Hey. Hop offa me. I cannot choop this.’
‘Smells so good. Make lots.’ I painted on a smile, but underneath I was feeling terrible. The surf had helped eliminate some of the stress I was feeling. It returned, though, like a cork being held under the water. It always bobbed back up again.
‘You all right?’ Mum sensed my anguish.
‘Fine. Just stressed about my internship,’ I lied, but only partly.
‘You be fine. The little children, they love you.’ She smiled.
‘Thanks, Mum.’ I kissed her on the forehead and made my way to my bedroom.
I opened the door and looked at the papers all over my room. So much work to do. Where to start? I pulled out my laptop and made myself comfortable at my desk. I opened a file named ‘lesson plans.’ My internship teacher would want to see them on my first day of prac, so I read them over. I was happy to be teaching grade one; I did well with the little ones.
How do we know it’s o’clock? What do you do at 7 o’clock in the morning?
I stopped reading.
The tap dripped in my en-suite. Loudly.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
It echoed in my ear.
There was a short, sharp huff on my neck. ‘Catalina?’ I whispered. ‘Are you there?’ I waited for a response. ‘What is it?’ I heard nothing. I closed my eyes. I breathed deeply. I waited for Jon Bon Jovi to sing ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ in my ear, to smell the lilac oils Cat wore, or to feel her with me. Hoping, praying it was her come to see me. A visit from my dead Aunt Catalina I could handle; anything else might have tipped me over the edge.
I listened to the water drip.
Water brought me closer to the dead – so close, they could tell me their stories, show me their memories, let me see their pain.
There was a sound. I shut my eyes tight. The sound was soft at first. It grew louder. A whistling – a whistling though the teeth to the tune of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’
Hands reached over the top of mine and lifted me into a standing position. They were smooth. I felt light and warm. I opened my eyes and a woman stood before me. Her brown eyes held my gaze. I saw a tinge of red in them, much like her hair – autumn-coloured and fascinating. She smiled at me. I could smell the salty ocean mist and it soothed me. This woman soothed me. ‘Who are you?’ I said. No response. ‘Where are you? Are you all right?’ Still nothing. ‘Do you need help? Tell me where you are.’ I swallowed. If she didn’t give me a clue as to where she was, I wouldn’t be able to save her from dying.
My job was to see the future and put a stop to death before it happened, to cheat the Grim Reaper, to save those that Chalchiuhtlicue wanted saving. This woman seemed too far gone, like her soul left long ago, and only a whisper of her body remained.
The woman shook her head. She smiled even wider. I looked to her surroundings to try to figure out where she was, but there was only blackness. Her hands suddenly grew cold, but she held on tight … too tight.
Her face became grey and translucent, and her hair slick with oil. Scars and sores popped up all over her skin. Her eyes sank into her head, and her teeth transformed into broken and rotten stumps before my eyes. Her tongue slithered out through them. The stench! She squeezed my hands. She was hurting me. ‘Let go!’ I screamed.
She opened her mouth. Her tongue, gigantic now, flew out and licked my face. It searched for my ear and poked itself inside, searching, searching…
She was inside my head!
Her nails dug into my hands. Her eyes were so red.
Her hair was on fire.
Think, Mouse, think.
I closed my eyes. ‘Chalchiuhtlicue’s light surround. A golden egg. A gate shut tight. With love and light, I protect. Dark witch, bruja, I banish you from sight!’ I repeated the words over and over, I don’t know how many times. Ten? A hundred? Like an auctioneer’s litany. A sizzling sound filled the air, followed by a single roll of thunder.
Then, it was over.
I fell down on my bed, breathless. My hands were still bleeding from her nails. I’d never been hurt in visita before, and I didn’t think it was possible to be injured by a spirit. My heart pounded in rhythm with a killer sudden onset headache. Every minute I’d spent lying awake at night worrying about the visions taking over my life lately, every fear I had been trying to push away in the hopes my problems would disappear like a ghost in a nightmare, were made real by this one experience. Something had come and cut my hands. They stung. And now, not only did I have to worry about zoning out in front of the kids during my internship, I had to worry about having a damned stigmata in front of them, too.
‘Mum!’ I was finally able to scream. My throat burned. On top of everything else, I was maddeningly thirsty. ‘¡Mamá!’
I felt like I might pass out.
Mum came through my door. ‘Modesta.’ Her voice never sounded so sweet. She was beside me. ‘What happened? A visita? You all right, Modesta!’
I reached up and embraced her. ‘No. No, I’m not.’