I’m here. I’m not here. I’m here. I’m not here. I’m here.
Gaby stood on the steps of his front porch, where an abundant bush of pink choublak flowers was beginning to overtake the handrail. With his index finger he traced one flower still hanging on its stem and silently repeated the words over and over again, just like his sister Mika had taught him. This flower had blushing vellum petals, and anthers the color of flames. He learned that flowers like these were always opening and closing, here-and-not-here beings. They reminded him that existence consisted of both life and death, unceasingly. Being and Unbeing, all at once.
There’s no such thing as birth or death, Mika had said. Only change.
The last time Gaby saw his sister, she was a wasp. He had been out in the Lamandou cove for a swim. The water was soft and light, without waves or wind; there was only the peaceful bed of saltwater lifting his body up from the ground. He floated with his face turned up to the blue sky and imagined himself a cloud.
A buzzing thing passed his ears, then came back again and landed on his nose.
What are you thinking about? the wasp asked.
Gaby was suddenly dizzy from the effort of crossing his eyes to see the intruder.
Get off! he said. He swatted and splashed. The wasp lifted from his nose and passed by his ears again.
What are you…….
…..little brother? the wasp repeated.
Nothing, he answered. These days, seeing Mika was always a surprise. He was happy for her visit, but like most people, he disliked being snuck up on, and he didn’t much care for wasps.
Where have you been? Gaby asked.
Everywhere, she said simply. Elsewhere. I’m here now—tell me.
Clouds, Gaby said finally. There were hardly any in the sky, except for a few little wispy cotton strands. Clouds, like flowers, are here and not here, he continued. They are changing. They float and then they fall to the earth in rain.
ZZzzzzzz, said the wasp. But it was a warm sound, not a razor-sharp warning.
When are you coming home? Gaby asked. He fluttered his arms beneath the water, treading, like Mika had taught him.
Mika landed on a floating leaf—it was a mango leaf, long and skinny and turning yellow. Gaby tried to keep his eyes level with it, though they both bobbed gently. Mika put her front legs in the water. The stinger on her yellow-striped body pulsed.
I don’t know. I have more tests to pass, she said.
Gaby had hoped that maybe he wouldn’t have to be alone forever. He’d thought that Mika would come back quickly after her training and resume being his big sister, but now he wasn’t so sure. She was a mackandal child, after all, newly initiated, and destined to be a master of La-Pa-La: Here and Not Here.
You should get home, the wasp cautioned after a moment. It’s going to thunder.
It doesn’t look like it, Gaby challenged. The white wisps against blue sky looked more like scratches on a screen than clouds.
Mika buzzed. Why would I lie?
Mika kept lots of secrets, but Gaby still believed most everything she said. The mango leaf began drifting away, and Gaby paddled his arms a bit to keep up with it.
I miss you, he said. Manman is not doing well without you.
Mika buzzed again. I know. she said. I’ve tried to visit her, but she doesn’t want to see me—not like this.
Will you walk me home? Gaby asked.
I’m afraid I can’t, Mika said.
To the east, a rabble of gray clouds was now dancing toward the cove. Gaby felt a cool breeze sweep across the surface of the water which had been almost still before. When he looked over again at the dying mango leaf, Mika had flown away.
Gaby waded back to the pebble beach, a little strip of land beneath an overlook where people often convened to drink and watch the sun rise and set. His feet slipped on the glossy stones that shivered beneath him with each wash of an incoming wave. Someone long ago had carved a set of earthen stairs into the side of the overlook, for easier ocean access. Gaby climbed them with his sandals in one hand. A circle of men packed up their dominos, and began to stack their chairs nearby. In the distance, he could see a sailboat coming to shore, and a group of older ladies with plastic head caps waddling out of the water too. Gaby put his sandals on his feet, and walked along the road that would take him home.
The first fat drops of rain had already splattered across the dirt courtyard by the time Gaby returned. He snatched the clothes that were drying down from their line and set a bucket out to catch fresh water. As he headed inside, he pulled the door in and latched it shut behind him. He then changed into something dry and sat down close to the living room wall with some leftover breakfast—a slab of bread and peanut butter. He liked to rest near this wall because it had a cement air vent, a grid of circular holes where coolness flowed through in lieu of windows. Peeking through the holes, he watched the rain fall.
This was how Gaby imagined one day, Mika might return home. She would fall from the sky, materializing like a raindrop from a floating cloud. Without Mika here, he was left to do so much by himself. He used to hate her bossing him around, but now he wished someone would tell him what to do.
Gaby’s thoughts soon drifted from wondering what Mika was doing out in the world, and if she was safe, to imagining what she was training for, really, and what it meant to be “chosen.” Gaby could manage a little La-Pa-La himself, and honestly, anyone could do it in the right circumstances; it was only hard if you were trying. It was easier when you let it flow. The point was to balance: to be both Here and Not Here without neglecting the necessary. If a person was Here too much, they neglected Not Here and that space became full of disorder and disarray. It was the same for those who spent too much time in the Not Here: they’d become hollowed-out bodies—like daywalking zombies. Sometimes Gaby saw those people wandering the streets and muttering to themselves without clothes.
The other thing about La-Pa-La was that it didn’t work in any sort of linear way. It was more like water: like all things, really, but water would be the best way to explain it. There were interruptions, gushes, and breaks—and waterfalls. Waterfalls were La-Pa-La wonderlands. Gaby thought about them as much as he thought about flowers and clouds. They always reminded him of Mika, and of his first time doing La-Pa-La.
It was a nice day in the beginning of summer, and Gaby was ten. Mika had just turned fifteen, and a few of her friends had gotten small motorbikes. To celebrate the end of the school year, Mika’s group had planned a trip to Bassin Bleu. She was packing her backpack with snacks and clothes when her mother emerged from the kitchen with Gaby standing behind her.
Take your brother, she said, waving a long metal spoon toward the door.
Mika groaned and began to protest, but Gaby only grinned triumphantly, knowing his sister would not be rid of him. He had already put on his swim trunks and gathered his towel from the clothesline.
Soon, Mika’s friends began honking their horns jovially from outside the gate. There were two bikes filled with recognizable faces, and a third, driven by an unfamiliar girl with long braids.
Sorry, Mika said to the girl as they emerged from the house and headed toward her.
It’s fine, so long as he can keep up, the girl said. She steadied the bike.
Mika helped Gaby up into the seat behind her and then took her place behind him, effectively sandwiching him in. Gaby braced his hands on Mika’s knees. The drivers kicked their bike engines back to life, and one by one, they jolted down the road, toward the waters of Bassin Bleu.
Once the group made it as far as they could on their bikes, they parked and trekked the rest of the way on foot. They walked along a dirt path, cutting through tall banana trees and passing by the first two bright blue pools. Eventually they came to a ledge. Gaby looked down and saw cratered rocks filled with shallow puddles of water, and the edges of a pool further behind. One by one they scaled down toward the last and largest basin.
Can he swim? one of the older boys in the group asked. He was tall and skinny. His left hand was missing three fingers.
Better than you! Mika shot back. She took off her glasses and tucked them in a flap on her backpack. Her left eye skipped and roved westward.
Gaby didn’t know what it meant to be a mackandal child—only that Mika and her friends had claimed the title for themselves. He had read about the revolutionary hero Mackandal in his orange social studies workbook, in a chapter on maroons. When Mackandal was a young boy, he’d lost one of his arms in a sugar mill accident and was relegated to working with livestock on a slave plantation. But he ultimately escaped and became a rebel warrior for the revolution. And though it was not written in his workbook, legend had it that he could shapeshift, too.
Ann ale! Mika called. Her friends followed her lead.
They dropped their bags on rocks and stripped. Another girl removed her shirt, revealing a pink bikini top. Gaby tried not to stare, but he looked long enough to decide that she was pretty; her skin was covered in bright spots that reminded him of milk poured into fresh coffee. Another boy in the group, younger than Mika, did not speak—instead he made words with signs. He talked mostly with the girl in the pink bathing suit, who made quick movements with her hands and big expressions with her face.
The basin looked miles deep, rich and blue and somehow clear. The scent of lush moss and wet stone rose into the air. Mika climbed a rock and regarded the far wall of the basin which had been worn down by the waterfall into something resembling a face. To Gaby, it looked like half of a nose above two lips parted in the middle of a word, with freshwater slaking between them.
The waterfall rushed in white sheets at the other end of the pool, and Gaby couldn’t wait to dive in. At Lamandou, the cove near their home, Mika had taught him how to swim and float, how to kick and breathe, how to tread in place and how to freestyle. It was there, in that very ocean, that she had also taught him how to surrender his body to a ripping current in order to survive, and how to mark the change in tides. Still, despite his training and experience with rivers and oceans, this was his first real waterfall.
The rest of the group jumped right into the basin. Gaby followed suit after catching his breath, reveling in the plunging sensation of his body underwater, and the crisp feeling that enveloped his skin. Meanwhile, the older kids had already waded across to the other side of the pool where they could climb the highest heights of the rock wall and dive fearlessly into the basin below.
When Gaby resurfaced, he began picking his way up to the jumping off point to join his sister who had remained a few paces ahead. But then, Mika jumped—and voup! She was gone. They were all gone: it happened so fast. It appeared as though Mika and her friends had slipped through the heavy curtain of water—through a veil in space and time. Gaby panicked and launched himself after her, then, into the space where he had seen her disappear. He could have died! But if there was anything in this life that he knew how to do, it was follow Mika; it was almost instinctual the way he trailed after her. He saw, somehow, the current his sister had carved in the waterfall, clear to him as if they were footprints which he could use to pursue the trace of her. And when he passed through, he was…well he was Not Here. He had turned into a water drop and plunged deep into the basin. But then the basin wasn’t the basin anymore. It felt more like the sky on a moonless night: just glinting stars, and all the endless space they touched. Gaby felt flung out. And indeed, that’s what had happened. He had flung out of his own body and into another vessel entirely. He had lifted high, way up—way out.
Just as suddenly, he felt he was coming down. His stomach dipped and pulled like when jumping off a ledge. Down, down, down. He was moving too fast, he could not control it. He tried to kick and swim but he felt he had no limbs, no body to move or contain himself.
Then he felt something pull at him, bringing him back to his body. His head bobbed up through the pool’s surface, and he coughed. Mika held his arm as she waded toward her friends, tugging him along. When they emerged, they collapsed onto a rock ledge behind the waterfall. Gaby sidled up next to his sister, still catching his breath. The cascade made bubbles that swam up and down his legs and into his underpants. Mika patted his back.
You’re okay, she said. You shouldn’t always do what I do.
But you disappeared! Gaby said.
I was right there the whole time, Mika said.
And you too! Gaby pointed at the tall skinny boy. The group broke out into laughter. Mika cut her eyes at the tall boy, then turned to her brother’s questioning stare.
You must be hungry, tired, or both. You should have a snack, Mika said.
Gaby did feel tired, and he was very hungry, but he knew there was something Mika was hiding from him. At the same time, he also knew better than to whine about it, which would annoy Mika even more. He had just enough strength to swim out with the group from behind the waterfall without getting caught in it again. They paddled toward the bank of rocks where their clothes and food had been left behind.
Here: a bonbon, Mika said while unpacking their lunch. She handed him a shard of sweet coconut brittle, hoping the special snack would ease his worry. They ate quietly and then swam some more, and Gaby eventually let himself forget about the way his sister had vanished, and how he had nearly died looking for her at the bottom of Bassin Bleu.
As was his usual routine, Gaby made sure to finish his chores in the morning so that he could spend the rest of his day outside, fending off boredom. His mother had not been well since Mika left nearly a year ago. She had always been a bit whimsical, but now she just sat like an empty conch shell, gathering sweat in her tangled bed sheets and absently smoking tobacco from her pipe. Once, she had liked to sing and dance; she’d liked to shop for pretty clothes and buy long dresses from the secondhand markets in town to wear in their small lakou or just outside the house where she sold hot food. She had never been one to go out, though there was always a man somewhere who wanted to take her out. The only man she ever entertained was named Richard, and they always stayed in.
Richard came on Saturdays and went on Sunday mornings. Gaby didn’t care for Richard much, but he appreciated the dried beans and yams he left in the kitchen, safely stored inside plastic lidded buckets so rats would not bite into them. Richard did not smile, and Gaby did not smile at him either. But they nodded to each other, and Richard left Gaby crumpled bills every now and again. Gaby always made sure to boil the gifted yams before they spoiled, and carefully rationed the rest of the food for the week. His mother didn’t touch their pots anymore.
Growing up, Gaby and Mika’s mother had always been protective of her children—especially Mika, who had been born with one special eye. But Mika otherwise developed like a normal child, doing things her own stubborn way and not caring how people stared at her before averting their gaze. If she was stared at, she would simply stare back. But when she wasn’t wearing her corrective glasses, her eye had a habit of turning on its own, wandering and seeing things most people couldn’t. Or at least that’s what she told Gaby, whenever she was threading her stories. Mika kept a long, running tab of all the things she saw. At night, she confessed the most interesting things.
People are kissing in the bamboo at night, she once said.
Who? Gaby had asked.
Jerome, the barber who cuts your hair. I can’t see who else.
What else do you see? Gaby then whispered.
I saw ten thousand ants carrying a mouse—and I saw a frog grow wings and fly. Donia has a drinking problem. She’s going to die soon.
What will the weather be like tomorrow?
I don’t know. It doesn’t work like that. But a motorcycle will crash in the market.
Gaby didn’t know why Mika told him these things. She had her friends she could talk to, and she was always calling him stupid. But at night, as they laid there on their shared mattress, she would talk until she fell asleep about the things that she saw with her wandering eye.
I saw a plane falling out of the sky, she once proclaimed. Everyone will die. The man who finds them will take their shoes and empty their pockets before the police even arrive.
Some of the things Mika envisioned came true, Gaby knew, though most of it was gossip or fantasy—neither of which he could really corroborate. But he had heard about a plane crashing, and they did say a man had gone to take things from the dead, and that no one had survived. Just like Mika had said.
Our people suffer too much. For too long, Mika repeated often. When will things change?
The night before Mika left, she was finally ready to reveal to Gaby the basics of La-Pa-La. She felt that he was sensitive enough. He had followed her into that waterfall, after all, and he’d always listened to her stories so patiently. She didn’t want to leave him behind, but her destiny had been calling her for some time now, and she could no longer ignore it. Her friends would be waiting. She decided then that she would teach her little brother how to find her out in the world.
Once their mother had gone to bed in her room, the pair of siblings laid on their mattress as they did every night. Though on this night, it was surprisingly cool.
Gaby, put your hand over your heart, Mika commanded abruptly. She put her own fingers over her chest. Gaby did as he was instructed.
Do you feel the thump? She asked. He made an affirmative grunt.
Good. Now try to feel the opposite of that thump.
What is the opposite of a thump? Gaby asked.
Just try to feel the quiet moment between the thumps, Mika said.
Gaby tried his best to do as he was told, but he could only feel the thumps. His palm felt the warm pulse of his chest, and could not seem to tune in to anything else. A pulse was one whole thing: an undeniable presence. How could he try to feel its opposite? Wouldn’t that mean his heart had stopped altogether?
Well, I’m not dead, Gaby said. Mika sighed.
I thought you might be able to feel it—that maybe you were like me.
Gaby felt a pang of disappointment. All he wanted was to be like Mika. Fearless. Funny. Knowing of things beyond. Gaby put two fingers under his chin and tried again.
When you feel the thump, you know you are here, Mika said. But can you sense the space of moments in between? When you are waiting for the thump, where are you?
Much like before, Gaby could only register the soft beating of a pulse. I’m still here?
No, you are not. You are somewhere else. You are not thumping. You are waiting for the thump. You are elsewhere.
They sat silently again, this time to leave room for the negative space of their pulses in the night. Gaby could hear his sister’s breath: the rhythm of her inhales and exhales. Here and Not Here. He kept his mind trained on the thumps in his chest and in his neck. He could still not find enough space in the opposite of the pulse—all he could feel was the contraction of his heart. In his mind he repeated it over and again: I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.
Just as soon as Gaby had latched onto this thought, somewhere in his ears a group of drums began to sound. As if someone in the neighborhood was calling down spirits. Petro rhythms swam between the thumps of Gaby’s chest, confusing him.
Can you feel it now? Mika whispered.
That sound—the drumming in your blood? In your heart?
Gaby felt the space in his heart grow as he listened to the beating drums. He felt the clap of the air, the contraction of it as it floated from wherever the musicians played,all the way to the inside of their house. His heart slowed as the internal rhythms sped up. And then it became the drum. He felt hot all over. Without another word, Mika rose from the mattress, and Gaby instinctively followed. They stood together in the middle of the small, dark room, their feet gliding into patterns, stepping into and over the drumbeats the way little kids danced between raindrops or skipped over ropes. The moment to jump was not the same moment as the clap of the rope. Now Gaby understood: La-Pa-La was a game—a dance: an invisible rhythm.
Gaby’s skin slickened as sweat rolled from his temples into his ears. The room was dark and hot and his head was spinning. Mika was still dancing—he could hear her breath and the swaying of her steps. But he could no longer really see her—not with his eyes, anyway. Their bodies had become lost to their dance. Just like in the waterfall, he was flung out again—out of the room, out of the house, out of his skin. His ankles, knees, hips and shoulders had turned into one long muscle, one extended wave in the current of music floating through the night air. It felt so good to dance, he momentarily forgot about Mika. He didn’t notice the sound of her steps retreating, the way she disappeared from Here.
He stumbled, his feet snagging in the rhythm of the drums as if tripping over jumping cords.
Mika! Gaby yelled out into the void. He searched the room, he searched his heart, he listened for the opposite of its beating before calling out to her again, but he heard nothing back. He heard nothing at all, except the dizzy echo of his own voice bouncing around his head. He felt nauseous. His stomach heaved. All around him was blackness, the same up-in-the-sky place he now remembered visiting before. He couldn’t locate Mika’s footprints in the abyss, her current, her ripple in the veil which he had last used to follow her through. And though he called as loudly as he could, he didn’t know if she would come.
You shouldn’t always do what I do, Mika had told him after he followed her into the waterfall. She was always telling him this. But this time, she had asked him to follow her—and led him straight into La-Pa-La. Gaby squinted into the blackness. It was full of glinting stars blinking back. He focused on the brightest point of each star until he found his breath. I’m here. I’m not here. He said the words over and over again, this time aloud, letting them guide him from one star to the next. He felt steadied by the mantra, buoyed by its words.
A white spider drifted down from a single, sparkling star and dangled in front of Gaby’s face.
Good job, Mika’s voice floated in the air around him. I didn’t know if you’d figure it out.
Gaby’s heart beat so fast it went still.
His sister was a spider now, speaking to him for the first time from a new, terrifying form.
He wanted to cry.
What’s happening? he asked.
We’re suspended, Mika said. Between La and Pa La.
Her eight legs stretched. Seven black eyes looked straight into his own. Her eighth eye was white and seemed to stare far away.
You’ll have to go back very soon, Mika said. Gaby sensed his impending abandonment in the gentle caress of Mika’s spindly legs over his cheek. This time, he would really be left behind.
I won’t be there when you wake up, but I’ll always be around, she continued. You can’t stay…But at least now you know how to find me.
Where are you going? Gaby pleaded.
I’ve done my best to prepare you for what comes next, little brother. I’m a Mackandal child: a shapeshifter. I will go wherever my lessons take me.
I don’t understand! Gaby cried.
Hush, Mika soothed, her voice soft. I know you are scared, but you have to be strong. For me, and for Manman. Don’t be afraid.
Before Gaby could protest further, more white spiders began to fall from the stars. They crawled up and down Gaby’s body, all of them carrying tiny echoes of Mika’s voice, all their legs tickling his skin, brushing against him like an embracing cascade. He wanted to squirm, to run away, but his body wouldn’t move.
Wake up, little brother, the voices sang. It’s time to say goodbye.
Slowly, the spiders crawled back up their webs, spooling together in a silky tuft that looked almost like a cloud. Gaby closed his eyes, and felt his body sinking back down into his mattress. Back to Here.
Gaby woke the next morning to the lilting chatter of birds, a thin sheet tangling up his legs. He felt cool air lick his sweaty skin, in the cruxes of his elbows which were drawn above his head. Mika’s half of the mattress was as empty as his stomach. He rolled onto his side and rested his head on her old pillow, inhaling the fading scents of her fruity hair pomade.
In a nearby corner on the floor, a spider was spinning a web with shiny silver strands. The moment Gaby saw it, he felt a pebble of sorrow grow into a stone in his throat, and he was suddenly overcome by the need for fresh air. He ran barefoot to their front door and out onto their porch, where the snaking choublaks seemed ever closer to engulfing every available inch of space. But this time, its flowers were shut; a cluster of thin pink petals pinched together like closed umbrellas.
Only change, Mika had said. There was no end or beginning. Only change. After a long moment, Gaby steadied his breathing with a hand on his chest, and waited for the sun to rise and warm the petals into blooming.