Once a year, Tia Carmen takes me ghosting. We pile into her old pickup truck and drive out to the cemetery. She wears her red dress, makeup to match, hair up and spotted with flowers. She takes me even though Juan and Mateo are older because only girls know how to attract the dead, she says. Boys are too much tied to the earth. Esos mugrosos.
“Tonight!” she says as the truck bounces and skips over the bumpy dirt road like a jumble of metal bones. “Esta noche!”
But she says that every year. I don’t know what she means or what to say. But I like our late night adventures. Tia Carmen is the kind of grown up I want to be someday. We drive the rest of the way in silence, watching the headlights illuminate a world of dust and bugs.
At the cemetery, I unscrew the top of my mason jar, hold it out and run between the gravestones, arms wide. I run circles and figure eights around the old marble and rock that tell of peoples’ names and the lives they lived. Tia Carmen sits on a bench and sings. Always the same sad song. “El Triste.” Her voice is beautiful and sounds a hundred years old and sometimes it shakes, steady and rhythmic like abuela’s hands when she eats.
As I run, I forget about the bones buried beneath my feet and the tears that have watered the flowers. Instead I feel the chilled wind on my face and the long grass that whip-snaps at my legs. And I know that when I sit in church tomorrow with my yellow dress and white knee-high socks with Mama scolding me in sharp whispers, I will feel all the tiny little cuts that sting my shins and knobby knees, and I will remember this night. But Mama says Tia Carmen has been loca ever since she lost her husband. That she doesn’t go to church no more and sometimes goes barefoot even outside the house.
When Tia Carmen finishes the song for the third time, I’m out of breath, limbs burning lungs frozen, but I screw on the lid to the jar really fast and tight so no one escapes. Tia always tells me I did good and whispers a prayer.
On the drive back, Tia Carmen starts crying. She curses, rips the flowers from her hair and wipes off the lipstick with the back of her hand. She says she is losing hope. But then she says I’m old enough now and she tells me about Tio Ernesto. About their marriage, his death, and how today is the anniversary of both. And she tells me of her promise to him as he lay on the small bed in Santa Maria Inmaculada, coughing up blood and looking at her with his eyes that saw nothing. She promised she would come find him, find him and bring him home.
As she fills the ride with Tio Ernesto’s story, I lift the jar, the glass just inches from my face. Looking for something, anything, maybe for a light that doesn’t belong. Or a fog. Holding it with just the tips of my fingers, I try to sense if maybe it’s heavier now, if just a little.
Back at Tia Carmen’s house, she fills the living room with candles. Shadows dance on the walls and it’s as if the room has come to life. A silent party. She tells me to take my mason jar and sit in the middle of the floor. And as I sit with my legs folded just as I have done for the last five years I wonder now how many wrong ghosts I have released into Tia Carmen’s house. It must be filled to the roof with the souls of strangers, and I wonder if these are really the dancers I see flickering on the empty walls.
As is our tradition, Tia Carmen begins her prayer. It’s an old one, and I don’t understand most of the words, but I’ve heard it enough times to know its rhythm and when it’s about to end, and that’s my cue to unscrew the metal top to the mason jar and hold it high above my head, emptying its contents into her small, musty living room.
I thrust my arms up, and we wait. I hold the jar over my head for as long as I can until my muscles burn and I hear Tia Carmen start to cry again. A quiet cry, not like in the truck. I bring the jar back down to my lap and feel like somehow it’s my fault. I look to Tia to tell her that I’m sorry, lo siento mucho, and that’s when we hear it. Static. From the kitchen. Her little transistor radio crackling to life. And under that static, like those invisible riptides that carry people out to sea, a familiar melody starts to emerge.