Some are good at digging up the past, and some are gifted with the ability to divine the future. Most people live squarely in the present without even the slightest knowledge that all of time coexists, that each era is simply a thin rind circling the current moment. Rosa Blanco was one of those people who lived in the present, but she was always obsessing about the past. In her small kitchen, she would, sometimes for hours, replay a moment in the past ten, maybe fifteen, times. Each time, she checked and rechecked what she had said, how she had said it, what she had done. But the old woman who lived a few doors away was a different type of woman. She lived in the present, but she lived for the future.
Rosa Blanco was certain, quite certain, that the old woman knew nothing about reading tea leaves. She had asked her once about tea leaves, and the only response she had gotten was something about water dissolving what power they had. The old woman never thought about tea. It wasn’t that she despised vegetable matter, but that she relied on it, relied on it to see things. Threads, she called them. The old woman would take leaves, dry them, and then use them to her own devices. What Rosa Blanco knew, from the slight lilt to the old woman’s voice, was that she was not originally from Mexico. Rosa Blanco never asked, but she believed, and rightfully so, that the woman had been born in the Caribbean. Her Spanish was not Puerto Rican, but it may have been Dominican. The clipping of the “r” when she spoke Spanish made Rosa suspicious, but she dared not ask the old woman to tell her from where she had come. To Rosa, that would have been rude.
The first time Rosa Blanco had visited the old woman was one of those moments she replayed over and over in her head. Carmen Jimenez told her that she had visited the old woman, that the old woman had looked into her future, and that she had told her she would soon be pregnant. A month later, Carmen Jimenez visited her doctor and was told she was with child. Rosa Blanco had heard other stories like this. She had heard, in fact, many stories like this. All of them ended with the old woman’s predictions coming true. Why Rosa Blanco had gone to see the old woman that day, why she had let her curiosity rule her mind, was the piece of cloth she crumpled and then smoothed out over and over again in her mind. Rosa Blanco wished she had never gone to see the old woman. Somewhere inside her, she believed the old woman actually made these predictions happen. She blamed the old woman for her problems, and yet, she was always thinking about when next to visit her, when next to ask her what was coming, what to expect. Despite all of that longing to know the future, Rosa Blanco had only visited the old woman three times. Only three times.
The old woman came from a blessed family, Rosa had been told, a family that understood the ways in which herbs and plants worked. Rosa Blanco still wanted to believe that she first went to see the old woman because a crocus plant near her back door had died suddenly, giving off a terrible odor that lingered long after the dead plant was pulled from the ground and burned. She believed this with all her soul, that she went to the old woman to find out why this had happened. But the past was not what the old woman held in her hands. When Rosa Blanco knocked on Flora Diaz’s door, there was a long pause before she heard the old woman call out to ask who was there. When the old woman opened the door, she looked surprised. She offered Rosa Blanco a seat with a wave of her hand only. She offered her lemon water. And then she told her, the old woman told her, that she wasn’t supposed to be there, that she didn’t expect her to come so soon. Rosa Blanco wanted to feel startled, but didn’t. The old woman went on to say she had expected her to come in about two weeks’ time.
It wasn’t as if the old woman rubbed a crystal ball and then fell into a trance, her eyes open but glazing over. No, it was nothing like that at all. It was all very scientific. She needed things. She needed the leaves of a plant, and she needed them to be dry, brittle, desiccated. And so, when Rosa Blanco asked the old woman if there was anything she needed to tell her, the only response she got was a curt negative. She had no idea then what to do, so she just sat there and waited to see what the old woman would say. The old woman talked about her family, how her family had been an important family for centuries, how they were the healers, the ones who tended the plants not for food but to keep the people anchored in time. She rambled on to Rosa Blanco about how all changed when the ghosts arrived on the ships, how they killed off the men on the island, raped the women, took the land. It was then she chuckled, a strange little laugh, before stating that these ghost men had no idea the power of the land, the plants that grew from the land, or the women that tended the plants. Rosa Blanco could not follow what the old woman was saying then, but she listened anyway. She couldn’t help but listen. The old woman continued, told her that the ghost men took the women of her family for wives, thought that time and children would erase their skills, but that this never happened. “Every girl born to them carried it!” The old woman laughed some more and then offered Rosa Blanco more lemon water. Rosa Blanco declined the water and told the old woman she needed to go home and start cooking dinner. As she stood up from the table, Rosa Blanco saw a wire basket filled with orange-colored peppers.
“What kind of peppers are those?”
“They have no name. I have a man back home mail me a box each week.”
“Peppers? But they sell them at the store.”
“Not those peppers. I eat one each morning while sipping a glass of warm water. It clears the head, clears the mind and the body, prepares the body . . . ”
There was no doubt that Flora Diaz was an odd woman. And Rosa Blanco was sure now that she was not from Mexico, not from the country that birthed most of the people in the area. But before she could say any more about the peppers, the strange breakfast, the clearing of the mind, the old woman said:
“Next time, bring me leaves. Pull them from a plant in your yard and set them in the sun to dry. When they are dry and brittle, bring them to me. Then I will be able to tell you what it is you need to know.”
It took Rosa Blanco two weeks before she returned to see Flora Diaz. In that time she had gone outside and pulled leaves from the crocus plant next to the spot where the dead one had been. She had put them on the sill in the kitchen window to dry. When her husband, Ricardo, had asked her about the leaves drying up and blackening on the windowsill above the sink, she lied and told him it was for one of the kids doing a science project. Ricardo was a simple man, and she knew he would never understand why she would want to bring dried leaves to a woman down the street who some were convinced could see the future. It was better that nothing be said about that at all. Rosa Blanco kept very few things from her husband, but she knew he would not approve of this. She knew it wasn’t the leaves that he would disapprove of or the fact the old woman could see the future—it was the need some had to seek out the old woman in order to see their own futures. Ricardo would never understand that.
When Rosa Blanco returned to the old woman’s house, the door opened just before she knocked.
“I was expecting you this time.”
“You were?” Rosa Blanco said.
“Yes. This is when I originally thought you would come.”
“Now, today, this very day?”
“Yes, this very afternoon.”
“But . . . ”
“Did you bring me the leaves?”
“Yes, I . . . ”
“Give them to me.”
Rosa Blanco handed the leaves over to the old woman, who took them from her as if they were precious metals or gems. She held them flatly against her palms, her two hands open and facing upward, as if she were carrying a gift to a god. She walked slowly into the sunroom in the back of the small house, next to the kitchen. She didn’t so much as slow down when they passed the living room in which the two of them had talked the last time Rosa Blanco had visited. In the sunroom, she set the leaves down on the table and asked Rosa Blanco to come sit with her.
Nothing was asked of the old woman. Rosa Blanco never had a chance to ask anything. The old woman sat, stared at the leaves, bent her face down to them and sniffed them, then sat straight up and, without looking, clutched the leaves in her hands and crumbled them into scraps and shreds, the leaves making an uncomfortable crunching, almost crackling noise. The old woman closed her eyes and moved her hands over the crumbled leaves.
“You are married.”
“You have two sons. You were to have a girl, but she died before you could deliver her.”
“Yes. How did you . . . ”
“Silence. I’m not asking.”
Rosa Blanco was surprised. The old woman suddenly sounded younger, as if in the act of crushing the leaves she had grown younger, her voice now more vibrant and powerful.
“Your husband works for the mechanic. His father and your father are like brothers. You have known each other your entire lives, have been like family from before you were married.”
Rosa Blanco was afraid to say anything now, but she wanted to say yes to everything the old woman was saying. But she dared not speak, dared not say anything that might upset the old woman and stop her from doing what she was doing.
“Your husband is . . . Your . . . Your husband is a follower. He is about to find someone who can master the air, someone who can be seen but is unseen by most. Your husband is going to pick up and follow him because it will seem as if he has answers. There will be no answers. There will be nothing but time passing and air. And you will hurt. You will feel pain inside your chest. You will hurt each day you look at your sons because in them you will see your husband. And your husband will be gone. And your husband will never return.”
Rosa Blanco wanted to scream, wanted to cry, but she did nothing like that. She thanked the old woman politely and rose. “But I am not finished . . . ” the old woman had started to say, but Rosa Blanco was already walking quickly back through the house toward the front door. It would be several years before she set foot inside Flora Diaz’s house again. Years would pass before she ever spoke again to the old woman.
Rosa Blanco’s husband did, in fact, leave. One night, a few months after she had visited Flora Diaz, Ricardo did not come home. Weeks passed, months passed and, eventually, years passed. He never came home, never called, and still Rosa Blanco expected him to come back. There were times when she absolutely believed he would come walking through the door. She imagined she would hear a noise at the door, then the key in the lock and then the door opening. She imagined he would walk in carrying gifts for her and the boys, that they would laugh together, that he would tell her stories of faraway places and how he had left only to be able to return like this, return with gifts and money and and and . . . But Ricardo never came back, and the boys grew taller. The boys looked more and more like their father as each year passed. And Rosa Blanco had long ago stopped trying to explain to them where their father was. She stopped talking about him altogether. And then one day, in the grocery store, at the checkout counter while talking to Carmen Jimenez, she saw the old woman again.
“I thought she was gone.”
“Who, old Flora?”
“Yes, I thought she had moved away.”
“Girl, you crazy? She always around.”
“But I have not seen her.”
“Well, you need glasses, Rosa. Because she always around.”
“I want to talk to you about something, but not here. Stop by my house before you go home.”
Rosa Blanco was more afraid of Flora Diaz now than she had been years before, when she had visited her the second time, but she didn’t understand what that sensation was. She had been afraid of so many things in her life, but not in this way. She remembered the old woman that day, the way she had said Ricardo would follow someone who could master the air. She wondered if that meant he had gotten into a fight and fallen over a ledge or something. She wondered if the old woman knew where Ricardo was, but had been hiding so as not to have to tell her. She wanted to talk to Flora Diaz, but she was worried about what the old woman might tell her. And she was envious of Carmen, who always got good news from the old woman, wonderful and brilliant news.
When Rosa Blanco got home from the store, the boys were nowhere to be found. More and more they, too, were missing. They would stumble in reeking of cigarette smoke, sometimes marijuana. She knew that sometimes they were drunk. And her little Carlitos, well, he wasn’t so little anymore. She sat in the kitchen and waited. She checked on the soup in the big pot, chopped up some cilantro and onions and stirred them in, chopped up a tomato and stirred it in, poured in a cup of rice, and left it to simmer. She caught her own reflection in the kettle and decided she looked old, witch-like. She waited on the soup, waited on her boys, and waited for Carmen Jimenez to stop by on her walk home from the store. When Carmen walked by the kitchen window, Rosa Blanco stood up and moved toward the back door. She pulled the door open and pushed the screen door out as an invitation. Carmen came in chattering as always. She told her about an old man propositioning her and how she thought the new clerk was an idiot. Finally, Rosa Blanco broke in:
“I never told you, but I went to see Flora Diaz years ago.”
“Then why you so crazy today when she came in?”
“She told me Ricardo was going to leave . . . ”
“Oh, Rosa. You never told me.”
“I took her the leaves from a crocus in the back yard. I did as she wanted me to do, dried them and made sure they were brittle.”
“And that is all she said? That he was going to leave?”
“I wish I could say I couldn’t remember, but I do. It was strange, the things she said.”
“Well, she is a strange old woman, that Flora.”
“She said Ricardo would leave to follow a master of the air. I think he may have fallen over a cliff or a ledge or something. I am worried . . . I think he may have gotten into a fight.”
“Rosa, you can’t worry about that man. Shit, you shouldn’t worry about him at all. He just left. You think he worried about you? That man . . . ”
“I am just worried because it makes no sense.”
“Life never makes sense, Rosa. You got to know that by now. It make no sense.”
“When I saw her today, I couldn’t believe it. I have not seen her since the day she told me that terrible thing.”
“But Rosa, that is impossible! She lives half a block away from you. You must have seen her. I see her all the time.”
“But you work in the grocery store.”
“But I see her all over the place. Rosa, it is impossible you haven’t seen her all this time.”
Rosa Blanco didn’t know what to say. She knew she had not seen the old woman. She had actually believed the old woman had moved away, or was sick, or had died. She was one hundred percent certain she had not seen her for ages, had not laid eyes on her until earlier that day in the grocery store. And this, in Rosa Blanco’s head, had to be a sign. It had to be a sign. Maybe it was Flora Diaz’s way of letting her know it was time to talk again. Maybe it was time for Ricardo to come home.
“It is just that I think maybe she came there today so that I would see her.”
“Rosa, girl, you crazy. You know that? You crazy. If you want to talk to Flora Diaz, go talk to her.”
“But why haven’t I seen her since that day when . . . ”
“You had to have seen her, Rosa. You had to have seen her.”
“Maybe I will go talk to her. Maybe I will . . . ”
“Look, girl, I have to get going. I got to get home and start dinner.”
“Will you come with me to see Flora Diaz?”
“I don’t think that is the right thing, Rosa. She don’t do groups. She don’t like to feel all ganged up on.”
“But it is just that I think it would be better.”
“Rosa, some things in life you just got to do on your own. You know?”
Carmen didn’t say much more because she was practically in the yard by the time Rosa Blanco tried to say another word. She was in the yard and then walking past the house and then on the sidewalk walking home. Rosa Blanco hadn’t even gotten up from the table. She heard the front door and the boys arguing about something. Lately, they were always arguing about something. She called out to them that dinner was waiting. She called out to them that they needed to do something about the tree in the front yard that needed pruning. She had been asking them to trim back that straggly tree for almost two weeks, and they had ignored her time and time again.
When Rosa Blanco finally made it to Flora Diaz’s house, she was prepared. She brought with her some leaves she had pulled from the overgrown small tree in the front yard. She had plucked them almost a week before and left them to dry out on the front steps. When she reached the front door of the old woman’s house, the door opened. Flora Diaz looked no older than the day three years ago when Rosa Blanco had last gone there. Flora stood in the doorway but did not move.
“Why are you here?”
“I brought you some leaves.”
“You brought me some leaves? Why?”
“I need to know.”
“You need to know? You need to know? You do not need to know. You want to know.”
“Yes, I want to know about my husband.”
“You left before I could finish telling you about your husband.”
“I was frightened then, but now I need to know.”
“I cannot remember now. What I remember is that you left before I could finish.”
“But you must.”
“I cannot remember a thing. I threw away those leaves a week after you left. I thought you would come back, but you didn’t. I threw the leaves away.”
“But don’t you remember anything?”
“You were supposed to come back. You didn’t come. Why did you not come back?”
“I . . . I don’t remember. But you must remember what you were going to tell me . . . ”
“I am not one to store things like that.”
“But you told me about the master of the air.”
Flora Diaz stepped back and then turned, let Rosa Blanco enter her house. She shut the door and then walked to the sunroom. She said nothing as she walked. And Rosa Blanco noticed this time how bright the sunroom was, how the walls were painted yellow, how there were plants hanging from baskets and that the plants had purple leaves. She noticed how the table was pale wood, that it was unpainted, unvarnished, and yet it had not a single stain on it. She noticed the floor was white linoleum that also had not a single stain or scuff mark. It was as if Flora Diaz never walked or lived in this room.
“You told me he followed a master of air. Does this mean he fell over a cliff?”
“I do not remember.”
The two women sat at the table. Flora Diaz stared out the window. Rosa Blanco stared at Flora Diaz.
“You must remember something.”
“I promise you, I do not.”
“But you were so . . . ”
“I did not keep the leaves. I threw them away.”
“Well, I have more leaves for you.”
“But these will not reveal what those other leaves did.”
“Then I can go get some crocus leaves from the yard and dry them and come back in a few days.”
“But those will not be the crocus leaves I threw away. Don’t you see? The leaves show only one thread. No set of leaves gives you a chance to see the same thread.”
“Okay, but these leaves I have here, might they show you a similar thread?”
“It is unlikely.”
“But they might, right?”
“I will call to them. I will try for you. But these leaves will likely show a different thread.”
“But you will use them?”
“I will look.”
Again, she held the leaves in her upturned palms and stared at them for what seemed like an hour to Rosa Blanco. She crumbled them onto the table and bent toward them and inhaled. She sat up and then placed her hands over them. Her brow furrowed and then she closed her eyes and put her hands in her lap.
“You saw Ricardo, didn’t you? You saw him.”
“No. I did not see him.”
“You are lying. You saw him. I could see the change in your face.”
“It was a different thread. A different thread.”
“But it was related to the last thread, right?”
“So why won’t you tell me about him. Where is he? Is he okay?”
“The thread is related but is not the same thread. I could not see your husband.”
“Then why won’t you tell me what you saw?”
“I just think sometimes that it is best not to repeat what is seen in the thread.”
“Please. I am begging you.”
“It is just that it isn’t a good thing.”
“I don’t care this time. I want to know the whole thing. I am not leaving this time. I need to know. I will not leave until you tell me the entire thing this time.”
“You do not want to know this.”
“I do. I want to know, you terrible old woman!”
Rosa Blanco could not believe her own ears, could not believe what she had heard herself say. It was as if she were listening to someone else. She remembered Carmen in the kitchen, remembered her saying she was crazy. And now, for once, Rosa Blanco believed she might well be going crazy. She wanted to know. She wanted the smug old woman to tell her the truth, to tell her what she had seen in the leaves.
“Fine. I will tell you.”
“Please. Please tell me.”
“In your yard. In your very yard, one of your lives will end another.”
“What does that mean?”
“One part of you will end another part of you.”
“I am going to hurt myself? Am I going to fall in my yard and break something?”
“One Ricardo will kill the other Ricardo.” The old woman closed her eyes and spoke slowly. “One son will kill the other son.”
Rosa Blanco said nothing. She put her head down on the table, her forehead against the blond wood and cried like she had never cried. She sobbed and shook. She felt herself shaking and could not stop it. She felt as if she were gasping for air. And Flora Diaz? She stood up from the table, walked back through her house, picked up her small hand broom and went out on the front step to dust it off. She swished the small broom back and forth. She paused and looked the length of the street from right to left, looked up toward Rosa Blanco’s yard. She had no idea what to do with Rosa Blanco. She had seen the future, but she had no idea what to do now to help this strange woman. Inside, the sobs were still sputtering out of Rosa. Flora stood on her tiny front porch. She crossed it two or three times like a pacing cat. She swished the broom back and forth, the rhythm of it a background noise for the sobbing woman still in the sunroom next to her kitchen. She watched two figures coming down the road, easier and easier to make out as they got closer. The Blanco boys. She watched them but pretended to be sweeping the front steps.