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art by Melissa Mead

Dark Swans

Terra was born on top of a volcano (in Hawaii). She tamed a wild mustang before she turned sixteen, and before twenty-five, she had traveled throughout the U.S. and to parts of Europe and Mexico. She has also held some unusual jobs, like training llamas and modeling high-heeled shoes (though not at the same time!) Currently she co-owns a tattoo studio north of Atlanta, but spends most of her time creating artisan glass beads and writing. Her short fiction has appeared previously in Daily Science Fiction and also in Apex Magazine. She can be found online at: www.terralemay.com.

For Halloween, Josefa's mother puts her in a pair of wings and the same white dress she wore to her First Communion ceremony, two years earlier. Sadly, it still fits. She has hardly grown. Taller, a little (not even a full inch), but she's lost seventeen pounds. She's a bird on stilt-legs. A swan with a long, skinny neck.
"Mama!" she cries at her mother's reflection in the mirror and "Papa!" when her father steps in from the hallway to see her.
"My angel," he says, but though she's still beautiful--will always be beautiful to him--he's not smiling. He has dressed for Halloween, too, like Josefa. Only, his wings are black for mourning. So are his wife's.
It's late when they finally take Josefa out for Halloween--nearly two a.m.--and the houses in their small, suburban neighborhood have all already put out their porch lights. They bundle Josefa into the car (buckled in tight, for safety) and drive her into the city, to an upscale, gated community full of multimillion-dollar homes. They make the drive in silence, but Josefa smiles all the way there, her grin as broad as the grin of the jack-o'-lantern face painted onto her plastic pumpkin candy-basket.
When they arrive, Josefa asks her mother if the rich people will give her more candy.
"Yes, my sweet girl," her mother replies, " a mountain of candy." But in Spanish.
Josefa's father casts a disapproving glance in his wife's direction. They had agreed to speak only English in front of their daughter, so the other children at her school would not laugh at her for speaking Spanish--and so she would more easily integrate with her American classmates and have nothing but success in life. Of course, now that can never be.
Even so, they have never spoken Spanish to Josefa. She has never learned it, and should not know it, so it's a surprise when she replies, "¿Vamos a romper una piñata?" Are we going to break a piñata?
"No sé, Josofa," says Josefa's mother. I don't know, Josefa.
Well, thinks her father. Her grandparents must have taught her. He frowns, and tries not to feel envious of the time she's spent with them, this last year.
So what? It's a miracle that he and his wife have even this single day, and it surely does no good to dwell on the days they've missed or any of the other surprising or disappointing aspects of this precious gift he and his wife have been given.
Josefa's father pulls the car up beside an intercom and security keypad at the gated entrance of the very fancy neighborhood, a neighborhood Josefa's father built, then puts the car in park so he can search his pockets.
He finds the card he had secreted away in his inner breast-coat pocket, and enters the number jotted on the back of it into the keypad. After a moment, a gentleman's tinny voice comes from the speaker, and Josefa's father replies, ". Josef and Maria Lopez. And Josefa Lopez."
"Ah," says the speaker. "Good. I'm glad for you. We'll see you shortly."
The gate opens, and Josefa's father drives in.
It's far too late for door-to-door trick-or-treating, but Josef has prearranged things with his employer so that his daughter can ring the doorbell and ask for candy like an ordinary child, before they go into the house and join the party. Josef parks behind a Lexus at the end of a long line of cars much nicer than his own, and the three of them walk up to the house.
Adeleine--the boss's wife--answers the doorbell, and Josefa squeaks at the sight of her. Adeleine died of complications during surgery to remove her failed thyroid. Josefa's father had not worked for Mr. Fuentes at the time, but this is Adeleine's seventh Halloween party since her death. Her state of decomposition is dramatically more advanced than Josefa's.
But Adeliene smiles at Josefa and says to her, in a voice so clear and easily understood that it can only be explained as a miracle, "Oh my! Has an angel come all the way down from Heaven to ask me for candy?"
"I'm not an angel," says Josefa. "I'm a swan." She lifts her arms over her head and rises onto her toes, then executes a perfect pirouette, like a ballerina.
With no warning at all, Josefa's mother bursts into tears.
But it's too late now. Josefa is here, now, and they cannot undo what they have done, only wait it out. Josefa's father lifts his hands, a helpless gesture because everyone is looking at him, then he shrugs. For Josefa's sake, as much as for anyone, he pats his wife's shoulder and tells her she's being silly.
"Say 'trick or treat', Josefa," he says. Adeleine fills Josefa's jack-o-lantern basket--more candy than any child could eat in a month, let alone a single night. Then, they go inside for the party.
The party is everything and nothing like they could have expected. There are so very many children. The party is almost all children, except the parents, who linger like lost souls on the edges of the room, too stricken by their grief to even speak to one another.
Josefa befriends a boy who is dressed as a ghost, and they chase each other through and around the other partiers, wailing like banshees. Or perhaps it is several children dressed as ghosts, Josefa's father cannot tell. Two thirds of the children are dressed up that way, bundled beneath voluminous white sheets with holes cut for the eyes. And most of those who aren't are dressed in other costumes that cover head-to-toe in a similar way.
Josefa's father wishes he would have thought to suggest such a costume, for it is almost painful to look at Josefa the way she is now.
By dawn, he and Josefa's mother are sagging against one another, struggling to survive what has turned into the second most difficult night of their lives. Josefa has all the energy of a child her age, but it will not last.
When they leave the party, Josefa's father drives straight to the cemetery. They are counting down the minutes.
If he had known it would be so difficult to face the task of burying his child again, he would never have allowed himself to be talked into digging her up in the first place. His little girl enjoyed herself, to be sure, but Josefa's father has already decided they will not do this again. It's too hard. Better to move on and try to heal.
He and Josefa's mother walk out to Josefa's grave with her and tuck her back into her coffin. Josefa's mother sings to her, and cries. Josefa is too young to understand.
"You're going to turn into a pumpkin soon, my daughter. It is the Day of Little Angels."
"But your mother and I love you very much. We miss you every day."
Her eyelids droop with sleep, and she settles back onto the satin pillow, clinging to her candy basket as if it were a bear.
"I'll see you again next year though, right? We can be swans again, papa, for Halloween?"
Josefa's father swallows the rising lump in his throat and gives a stiff nod. "Yes, of course."
Then day comes, and they must close the lid of her casket.
Maria is too overcome by her grief to assist, but someone must rebury their daughter, so Josef fills the grave, one shovel full of dirt at a time.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

Author Comments

I wrote this one for a Halloween contest put on each year by a writing group I participate in. I owe special thanks to author Darren Eggett for the original story prompt, which was a few poignant lines of poetry about a dying girl. Those lines sparked the idea to write about the Day of the Dead and what it might be like if we really could spend a few hours on that night, every year, in the company of our deceased loved ones. Once the idea came to mind, the story followed quickly.

- Terra LeMay
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