Yadriel wasn’t technically trespassing because he’d lived in the cemetery his whole life. But breaking into the church was definitely crossing the moral-ambiguity line. Still, if he was going to finally prove he was a brujo, he had to perform the rite in front of Lady Death. And she was waiting for him inside the church. The black Hydro Flask full of chicken blood thumped against Yadriel’s hip as he snuck past his family’s small house at the front of the cemetery. The rest of the supplies for the ceremony were tucked away inside his backpack. He and his cousin Maritza ducked under the front windows, careful not to bump their heads on the sills. Silhouettes of the brujx celebrating inside danced across the curtains. Their laughter and the sound of music filtered through the graveyard. Yadriel paused, crouching in the shadows to check the coast was clear before he jumped from the porch and took off. Maritza followed close behind, her footsteps echoing in tandem with Yadriel’s as they ran down stone paths and through puddles. Yadriel’s heart fluttered in his chest, fingers brushing along the wet brick of a columbaria wall as he watched for any signs of the brujos on graveyard duty tonight. Patrolling the cemetery to make sure none of the spirits of the dead were causing trouble was part of the men’s responsibilities. Spirits turning maligno were few and far between, so the brujos’ rounds mostly consisted of making sure outsiders hadn’t snuck beyond the walls, keeping the graves clear of weeds, and general maintenance. Hearing a guitar being played up ahead, Yadriel ducked behind a sarcophagus, dragging Maritza down with him.
Peeking around the corner, he saw Felipe Mendez lounging against a tombstone, playing his vihuela and singing along. Felipe was a more recent resident of the brujx cemetery. The day of his death, barely over a week ago, was carved into the headstone beside him. Brujx didn’t need to see a spirit to know one was nearby. The men and women in their community could sense it, like a chill in the air or an itch at the back of their mind. It was one of their inherent powers, given to them by their Lady. The powers of life and death: the ability to sense illness and injury in the living, and to see and communicate with the dead. Of course, this ability wasn’t very useful in a cemetery full of spirits. Instead of a sudden chill, wandering through the brujx cemetery left a constant icy tickle on Yadriel’s neck. In the dark, he could barely spot the transparent quality of Felipe’s body.
Felipe’s fingers moved in a ghostly blur as they plucked at the strings of his vihuela—it was his tether, the material possession most important to him, that kept him anchored to the land of the living. Felipe wasn’t ready to be released to the afterlife quite yet. He spent most of his time in the graveyard playing his music and drawing the attention of the brujas, both of the living and the dead variety. His girlfriend, Claribel, always chased them off, and the two spent hours together in the cemetery, as if death had never parted them to begin with. Yadriel rolled his eyes. It was all very dramatic, if you asked him. It’d be nice if Felipe could pass on already, then Yadriel could get a good night’s rest without being woken up by Felipe and Claribel’s bickering or, worse, his terrible renditions of “Wonderwall.” But the brujx didn’t like forcing a spirit to cross over. As long as the spirits were peaceful and hadn’t turned maligno, the brujos left them alone. But no spirit could stay forever.
Eventually, they would become violent, twisted versions of themselves. Being trapped between the land of the living and the land of the dead wore on a spirit, chipping away at their humanity. The parts that made them human eventually faded away until the brujos had no choice but to sever the connection to their tether and release them to the afterlife. Yadriel motioned for Maritza to follow him down a side path so Felipe wouldn’t see them. When the coast was clear, he tugged on the sleeve of Maritza’s shirt and gave her a nod. He sprinted forward, weaving between statues of angels and saints, careful to not snag his backpack on their outstretched fingers. There were aboveground sarcophagi and some mausoleums large enough to fit an entire family. He’d walked these paths hundreds of times and could navigate the maze of graves in his sleep. He had to stop again when they came upon the spirits of two young girls playing tag. They chased each other, dark curls and matching dresses billowing out around them.
They giggled madly as they ran straight through the small birdhouse-like tombs that held cremated remains. The tombs were handpainted in bright colors and stood in crowded rows of golden yellow, sunburst orange, sky blue, and seafoam green. Glass doors revealed clay urns inside. Yadriel bounced on the balls of his feet as he and Maritza hid. Seeing the spirits of two dead girls running around a cemetery would probably freak most people out, but little Nina and Rosa were nefarious for other reasons. They were both huge tattletales who couldn’t be trusted to not rat him out to his dad. If they got dirt on you, they held it over your head and subjected you to torture the likes of which you’d never seen. Like hours of playing hide-and-go-seek where they always used their non-corporeal bodies to cheat, or purposely leave you waiting to be found behind the smelly dumpster on a hot LA afternoon. It was definitely not worth being indebted to those two. When the girls finally ran off, Yadriel wasted no time sprinting to their final destination.
They rounded a corner and came face-to-face with the lich-gate to the church. Yadriel’s head tipped back. Whitewashed bricks were stacked before him, forming an archway. The words “El Jardín Eterno” were hand-scrawled delicately in black paint. The Eternal Garden. The paint was faded, but Yadriel knew his cousin Miguel had already been tasked with giving it a fresh coat before the Día de Muertos festivities began in a few days. A heavy, bolted lock kept out any trespassers. As leader of the brujx families, Yadriel’s father, Enrique, held the keys and only gave them to the brujos who were on shift to guard the cemetery at night. Yadriel did not have a key, which meant he was only allowed to enter during the day, or for rituals and celebrations. “¡Vámonos!” Maritza’s harsh whisper and her manicured fingernail jabbing into his side made Yadriel jolt.
Her short thick hair was windswept. Pastel-pink and -purple curls framed her heartshaped face, popping against her deep brown skin. “We need to get inside before we’re spotted by someone!” Yadriel batted her hand away. “Ssh!” he hissed. Despite her words of warning, Maritza didn’t seem worried about getting into a heap of trouble. In fact, she looked downright excited. Dark eyes wide, a devilish grin played across her lips that Yadriel knew all too well. Yadriel crept to the left side of the gate. There was a gap between the last wrought iron bar and the wall, where the bricks slumped. He tossed his backpack over the wall before turning sideways and wiggling his way through.
Even through his polyester-and-spandex binder, the bar scraped painfully against his chest. On the other side, he took a moment to adjust the half tank top under his shirt so the clasps didn’t dig into his side. It had taken a while to find one that masculinized his chest without being itchy or chokingly tight. Slinging his backpack over his shoulder, Yadriel turned to find Maritza having a bit more difficulty. Her back was pressed against the bricks, her legs straddling the bar as she tried to drag herself through. Yadriel stuffed his fist against his mouth, stifling a laugh. Maritza shot him a glare as she tried to wiggle her butt free. “¡Cállate!” she hissed before finally stumbling through. “We’re gonna need another way to get in here soon.” She wiped at the dirt smeared across her jeans.
“We’re getting too big.” “Your butt’s getting too big,” Yadriel teased. “Maybe you should lay off the pastelitos.” He grinned. “And lose these curves?” she asked, smoothing her hands down her waist and hips. Maritza gave him a sarcastic smile. “Thanks, but I’d rather die.” She punched his arm before sauntering toward the church. Yadriel jogged to catch up. Rows of marigolds—the flores de muerto—lined the stone path.
The tall orange and yellow flowers leaned against one another like drunken friends. They had exploded into bloom over the months leading up to Día de Muertos. Fallen petals dusted the ground like confetti. The church was painted white and had a terra-cotta roof. Starburst windows flanked either side of the large oak doors. Above, a small alcove was set into a semicircular wall, housing another cross. On either side, two cutouts held iron bells. “Are you ready?” There was no look of trepidation on Maritza’s face as she watched him. She beamed, practically dancing on the tips of her toes. Yadriel’s heart pulsed in his veins.
Nerves roiled in his stomach. He and Maritza had been sneaking around the cemetery at night since they were kids. The churchyard was a good place to hide and play when they were little. It was close enough to the house to hear Lita when she called them for dinner. But they’d never actually snuck into the church before. If he did this, they’d be breaking about a dozen brujx rules and traditions. If he did this, there was no turning back. Yadriel nodded stiffly, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. “Let’s do it.” The hairs on the back of his neck prickled at the same time Maritza shivered next to him.
“Do what?” The bark-like demand made both of them jump. Maritza sprang back, and Yadriel had to catch her arms to keep her from bowling him over. Just to their left, a man stood next to a small peach-colored tomb. “Holy crap, Tito.” Yadriel exhaled, a hand still clutching the front of his hoodie. “You scared the hell out of us!” Maritza sniffed indignantly. Sometimes, even to Yadriel and Maritza, a ghost could go unnoticed. Tito was a squat man wearing a burgundy Venezuela soccer kit and shorts. A large, worn straw hat sat on his head. He squinted at Yadriel and Maritza from under the brim as he bent over the marigolds.
Tito was the longtime gardener of the cemetery. Or well, he was. Tito had been dead for four years. When he was alive, Tito had been an incredibly talented gardener. He used to supply all the flowers for the brujx celebrations, as well as weddings, holidays, and funerals for the non-magic folks in East LA. What had started as selling flowers from buckets at the local flea market had grown into his own brick-and-mortar shop. After dying in his sleep and having his body laid to rest, Tito reappeared in the cemetery, determined to take care of the flowers he’d painstakingly tended to for most of his life. He told Yadriel’s father he still had a job to do and didn’t trust anyone else to take it over. Enrique said Tito could remain as long as he was Tito. Yadriel wondered if sheer stubbornness would keep his father from being able to release Tito’s spirit, even if he tried.
“Do what?” Tito repeated. Under the orange lights of the church, he seemed solid enough, though he was the faintest bit transparent compared to the very corporeal garden shears in his hand. Spirits had blurry edges and were a little less vibrant than the world around them. They looked like a photograph taken out of focus and with the saturation turned down. If Yadriel turned his head a bit, Tito’s form smudged and faded into the background. Yadriel mentally kicked himself. His nerves were getting the better of him, distracting him from sensing Tito sooner. “Why aren’t you two back at the house with everyone else?” Tito pressed. “Uh, we were just going to go into the church,” Yadriel said, voice breaking midsentence. He cleared his throat.
The rise of an unruly eyebrow meant Tito wasn’t falling for it. “Just to check on some supplies, you know.” Yadriel shrugged. “Make sure things are … set up.” With a sch, Tito’s shears sliced off a wilted marigold from its stem. Maritza elbowed Yadriel in the side and tipped her head pointedly. “Oh!” Yadriel wrestled off his backpack and dug around inside, pulling out a bundled white dishcloth. “I grabbed you something!” Felipe was too busy with his girlfriend to care about what Yadriel and Maritza got up to, and it was pretty easy to sneak past Nina and Rosa, but Tito was a bit of a wild card. Tito had been good friends with Yadriel’s dad, and Tito had very little patience for nonsense. But offerings of food seemed to make him look the other way.
“Lita just made them—it’s still warm!” Yadriel pulled back the layers to reveal a concha. The delicious sweet bread had a crumbly topping and looked like a seashell. “I got you a green one, your favorite!” If Tito wasn’t convinced by his terrible lying, maybe pan dulce could sway him. Tito waved his hand dismissively. “I don’t care what you two buscapleitos are up to,” he grumbled. Maritza gasped and pressed her hand to her chest dramatically. “Us? We would never—!” Yadriel shoved Maritza to get her to shut up. He didn’t think they were troublemakers, especially compared to some of the other younger brujx, but he also knew laying on the innocent act too thick would not work on Tito. Luckily, Tito seemed to want to get rid of them. “Pa’ fuera,” he said dismissively.
“But don’t touch my cempasúchitl.” Yadriel didn’t need to be told twice. He grabbed Maritza’s arm and made for the church. “Leave the concha,” Tito added. Yadriel left it on top of the peach-colored tomb while Tito went back to trimming his marigolds. He ran up the steps to the church, Maritza right on his heels. With a hard shove, the heavy doors swung open with a groan. Yadriel and Maritza crept down the aisle. The inside was simple. Unlike a standard church, there weren’t many rows of pews and there were no seats at the back.
When the brujx gathered for ceremonies and rituals, everyone stood in large circles together in the open space. Three tall windows made up the apse of the church. During the day, the California sunlight streamed through the colorful, intricate stained glass. Dozens of unlit candles crowded the main altar. On a ledge halfway up the wall stood a statue of their sacred goddess, the diosa who had bestowed the brujx with their powers thousands of years ago, when gods and monsters roamed the lands of Latin America and the Caribbean: the Lady of the Dead. The skeleton was carved out of white stone. Black paint accented the lines of her bony fingers, toothy smile, and empty eyes. Lady Death wore a traditional white lace-trimmed huipil and layered skirt. A mantle was draped over the crown of her head, flowing to rest on her shoulders. The neck of her dress and hem of the mantle were embroidered with delicate flowers of golden thread.
A bouquet of Tito’s freshly cut marigolds lay in her skeletal hands. She had many names and iterations—Santa Muerte, la Huesuda, Lady of Shadows, Mictecacihuatl. It depended on the culture and language, but each representation and image came down to the same thing. To be blessed by Lady Death, to have his own portaje and to serve her, was what Yadriel wanted most in the world. He wanted to be like the other brujos, to find lost spirits and help them pass to the afterlife. He wanted to stay up all night on boring graveyard duty. Hell, he’d even spend hours pulling weeds and painting tombs if it meant being accepted by his people as a brujo. As Yadriel approached her, propelled forward by his desire to serve her, he thought about all the generations of brujx who had their own quinces ceremonies right here. Men and women who’d emigrated from all over—Mexico and Cuba, Puerto Rico and Colombia, Honduras and Haiti, even the ancient Incas, Aztecs, and Maya—all bestowed with powers by the ancient gods. A mix of beautifully nuanced, vibrant cultures that came together to make their community whole.
When brujx turned fifteen years old, they were presented to Lady Death, who would give them her blessing and tie their magic to their chosen conduit, their portaje. For women, portajes often took the form of a rosary (a symbol that had begun as a ceremonial necklace and was altered with the rise of Catholicism in Latin America). It was a piece of jewelry that could go unnoticed and ended with a charm that could hold a small amount of sacrificial animal blood. While a crucifix was the most common symbol, sometimes a bruja’s rosary ended in a sacred heart or a statuette of Lady Death. Men’s portajes were often daggers of some sort, as a blade was required to sever the golden thread that bound a spirit to their earthly tether. By cutting that tie, brujos were able to release spirits to the afterlife. Being gifted your portaje was an important rite of passage for every brujx. Every one, except for Yadriel. His quinces had been postponed indefinitely. He’d turned sixteen the past July, and he was tired of waiting.
In order to show his family what he was, who he was, Yadriel needed to go through with his own quinces ceremony—with or without their blessings. His father and the rest of the brujx hadn’t left him with a choice. Sweat trickled down Yadriel’s spine, sending a shiver through his body. The air felt charged, like the ground hummed with energy below his feet. It was now or never. Kneeling before Lady Death, he unpacked the supplies he needed for the ritual. He placed four prayer candles on the ground in a diamond to represent the four winds. A clay bowl went in the center to represent the earth. Yadriel had nicked a mini bottle of Cabrito tequila from one of the boxes that had been gathered for the Día de Muertos ofrendas. He fumbled with the bottle before popping the cap off and pouring it into the bowl.
The smell stung his nose. Beside it, he placed a small jar of salt. He dug out a box of matches from the pocket of his jeans. The flame trembled as he lit the candles. The flickering lights sparked the gold threads in Lady Death’s mantle, catching in the folds and crevices. Air, earth, wind, and fire. North, south, east, and west. All the elements needed to call upon Lady Death. The last ingredient was blood. Calling upon Lady Death required an offering of blood.
It was the most powerful thing to give, as it held life. Giving your blood to Lady Death was giving her a part of your earthly body and your spirit. It was so powerful that human blood given in sacrifice could not be more than a few drops; otherwise the offering was enough to drain any brujx of their life force, leading to certain death. There were only two rituals that ever called for brujx to make an offering of their own blood. When they were born, their ears were pierced, releasing a pin-drop amount of blood. This act enabled them to hear the spirits of the dead. Yadriel’s ears were gauged with black plastic plugs. He liked paying homage to the ancient practice of brujx stretching their earlobes with increasingly large discs made of sacred stones, like obsidian or jade. Over the years he’d gotten them to about the size of a dime. The only other time brujx used their own blood as a sacrifice was during the quinces ceremony.
The offering was made from their tongues to let them speak to the diosa, to ask Lady Death for her blessing and protection. And that cut was made with their portaje. Maritza pulled a bundle of cloth from her own backpack and held it out for him to take. “It took me weeks to make,” she said as Yadriel untied the twine. “Burned myself like eight times and nearly cut off my finger, but I think my dad has pretty much given up trying to keep me out of the forge.” Her shrug was casual, but she stood tall, a proud grin pulling the corners of her lips. Yadriel knew this was a big deal for her. Maritza’s family had been forging weapons for the men for decades, a trade her father had brought over from Haiti. She had a keen interest in learning how to craft blades from him. Since blood wasn’t used with the blades until a boy’s quinces ceremony, it was a way for her to still be a part of the community without compromising her ethics.
Her mom didn’t think it was a proper career choice for a girl, but when Maritza set her mind on something, it was impossible to dissuade her. “Nothing gaudy and ridiculous like Diego’s,” she said with a roll of her eyes, referring to Yadriel’s older brother. Yadriel pulled back the last of the cloth to reveal a dagger nestled inside. “Wow,” he breathed. “It’s practical,” Maritza explained, hovering over his shoulder. “It’s badass,” Yadriel corrected, a wide smile pressing into his cheeks. Maritza beamed. The dagger was the length of his forearm with a straight blade and a cross guard that curved like a sideways S. Lady Death had been delicately painted onto the polished wooden grip. Yadriel held the dagger in his hand, solid and reassuring.
He traced his thumb along the thin lines of gold paint that radiated from Lady Death, feeling every intricate brushstroke. This was his dagger. His portaje. Yadriel had everything he needed. Now all that was left was to finish the ritual. He was ready for this. He was determined to present himself to Lady Death, whether or not anyone else approved. But still, he hesitated. Clutching his portaje as he stared up at Lady Death, he sucked on his bottom lip. Doubt crept its way under his skin.
“Hey.” Yadriel jumped as Maritza placed a steady hand on his shoulder. Her brown eyes were intense as she studied his face. “It’s just—” Yadriel cleared his throat, his eyes sweeping around the room. Maritza’s eyebrows tipped with concern. A brujx’s quinces was the most important day in their life. Yadriel’s dad, brother, and abuela should’ve been standing next to him. As he knelt on the hard stone floor, the emptiness pressed around him. In the silence, he could hear the static of the uneasy candle flames. Under the hollowed eyes of Lady Death, Yadriel felt small and alone.
“What if—what if it doesn’t work?” he asked. Even at nearly a whisper, his voice echoed through the empty church. His heart clenched. “What if she rejects me?” “Escúchame.” Maritza gave his shoulders a tight squeeze. “You’ve got this, okay?” Yadriel nodded, wetting his dry lips. “You know who you are, I know who you are, and our Lady does, too.” She said with fierce conviction. “So screw the rest of them!” Maritza grinned at him. “Remember why we’re doing this.
” Yadriel steeled himself and spoke with as much courage as he could muster. “So they’ll see that I’m a brujo.” “Well, yeah, but other than that.” “Spite?” Yadriel guessed. “Spite!” Maritza agreed enthusiastically. “They’re gonna feel real stupid once you show them. And I want you to savor that moment, Yads! Really”—she took in a deep breath through her nose and clasped her hands to her chest—“savor that taste of sweet, sweet vindication!” A laugh jumped in Yadriel’s throat. Maritza smiled. “Let’s do this, brujo.”