Lorena stood at the edge of the altar. Her dress was cotton candy blue and as big as a cloud. When she spun, she felt like a princess in a fairy tale. Her parents said it was her Las Presentaciones, but to her it meant this dress and singing and cake later. Padre Miguel cleared his throat and lifted his hand in blessing. Her stomach turned just as he opened his mouth to speak the blessing, but he was cut short by three sharp knocks. Lorena couldn’t remember much from that day, but she did remember that it was as if the entire church paused and held their breath; even the baptismal font stopped gurgling water. Another three knocks echoed to the high beams of the ceiling, only rivaled by wails louder than any organ. At the time, Lorena thought she had done something wrong or that her skirts had flipped up. But when she turned, her favorite uncle clutched his chest, face already ashen.
He was dead.
After her uncle died, the knocks and wails struck in the dead of night, a snake bite with no cure. Worse than waiting for another victim to perish, either one day or two or three, was being the only one to hear the augur. She was alone in both her knowledge and her unending grief. From that day on, Lorena Gabriela Garcia knew death. She knew his musty, cloying smell. She knew his knock: two sharp groups of three. And she knew the shrill wails of his companion, the Banshee of Abita Springs. In the coming years, every celebration was marked by loss. On her eighth birthday, her father died. At her quinceañera, her brother. And when she finished her schooling, death took her mother before she could even say “felicidades.”
In three short days, she was to be married to her childhood sweetheart, Luis. It was on this precipice of being a bride that fear clutched at Lorena’s heart. She did not know what would be better: for no one to die or for it to finally be her. She also did not know what she feared more: death or wanting to die.
When he visited her farm after work, she clung to him. “I’m terrified.”
He brushed the hair out of her face and kissed her forehead. “I am, too.”
Their fear was far from trivial. Other couples were allowed to be afraid of cold feet and burnt food for the reception. For them, it was life or death.
A chill traveled up Lorena’s spine, and she shivered. “Are you sure we should marry?”
Luis picked her up and kissed her until she giggled. “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life, mi querida.”
* * *
The next day, marriage preparations continued, softening Lorena into a cocoon of complacency. She stood in the middle of her great-aunt Lupe’s house, wedding dress hanging off of her. She shivered despite the heavy fabric and gathered the strength to stand while her aunts and cousins stitched and gathered and hemmed.
She felt her parent’s absence with a visceral longing: her mother’s sewing skills, her father’s advice. Instead of comfort, the loose relations filling the house amplified her losses. During a lunch break, her relatives feasted on soup, rice, and beans. Lorena sat, head down, food uneaten. They allowed her to sit alone and unbothered. From the other side of the table, a few of the women bent their heads together, conspiring. Their voices floated toward her.
“She is cursed,” her second-cousin whispered.
“She is dooming her husband-to-be to an early death,” her aunt twice removed said, barely containing her voice.
“When will it be she who dies?” her uncle’s widow questioned.
Lorena’s insides froze. She would give anything to take the place of her dead family members. These aunts and cousins knew nothing of her guilt and self-hatred. Through the snake-like whispers, her great-aunt Lupe placed her hand under her chin, claiming her attention. “Where is your smile, mi hermosa sobrina? There are few brides as beautiful as you.”
Lorena swallowed the bile gathered in her throat and answered, “I will smile when it is my wedding night.”
She stood mute and unhearing for the remainder of the day.
* * *
That night, as she laid awake and alone in her family home, three knocks reverberated from her bedside window. Wailing echoed across the property, bouncing against animal pens. Lorena lifted up her blankets and hid underneath. Yet, the sickly-sweet odor of death smothered her just the same.
She did not move throughout the night. She did not unearth herself as the sun rose, bringing light even underneath her covers. She did not dare to breathe too loud or blink too heavily as twilight took hold on the village of Vernado.
Sleep eventually claimed her, as it always did. When she awoke, it was her wedding day.
* * *
The sun grinned through her great-aunt Lupe’s house. Lorena smiled back, finally able to relax into the joy of her wedding preparations.
Her great-aunt set a flower crown on top of her head and dragged her in front of the mirror. “Look. Simply beautiful.”
Lorena’s hair was swept back with ornamental, bejeweled combs. Chandelier earrings hung like sun rays, only to be outdone by the lace on the bodice of her wedding gown. She knew her parents would have approved, would have been proud. Death permitting, this would be the wedding of her dreams.
She spun, spotting herself in the mirror. Her skirts billowed, and her great-aunt clapped with glee. The entire room, the entire household stopped their chattering to gape, caught in the hazy net of a happily ever after.
Then, like the clouds passing over the sun, Lorena’s smile guttered. The lump in her stomach hardened, and the smell of rotting fruit and putrid flesh filtered through the fresh-baked cakes and cookies. Death was near. With a sweep of her hand, she threw her flower crown to the floor. She crushed flower petals into the swept dirt floor as she ran out of her great-aunt’s house, leaving a cacophony of curses in her wake.
Luis lived two houses down the road. She kicked off her slippers and ran as fast as her skirts would allow. She banged into the blue door of his house, not worrying about bruises or torn cloth or misplaced makeup.
“Luis!” she screamed. The call was left unanswered. The men started their preparations later, so he would have been there alone.
She ran from room to room, the smell becoming all-consuming. Finally, in the back room, she found him.
Face up, mouth agape.
Blood blotted his white undershirt. She screamed and ran to him, all but missing the black shadow solidifying above.
She kissed his cheek, his neck. She pushed his black hair out of his face, still perfectly tousled. She mumbled his name over and over, but he could not wake up. Her tears toppled onto him, but he did not acknowledge the wetness or her sobs.
“Lorena,” said a voice. It was cold and silky, like the first frost of the season.
She raised her head. She watched a cloaked black-figure solidify from smoke into something more tangible. He held a scepter, its end coated in blood. Death himself materialized from the smoke, cloaked in black with a blood-tipped scepter in his skeletal hand.
“You killed him,” she sobbed.
Death regarded his scepter, chipping off the blood that had already dried. “That I did. And your uncle, and your dad, and your –”
“Why.” It was not a question. It was a command.
“Why?” he laughed and the sound was that of grating rocks. “Why not? With a beauty such as yours, how could I let your life be anything but mine? And,” he paused. “The Banshee of Abita Springs grows weary. I need a replacement. The Banshee of Vernado has a certain ring to it.”
Past Death, in the corner of the room, stood a woman. Her face was pale, her mouth poised to scream. She wore a wedding dress, now torn and stained. This was the woman Lorena had feared her whole life. She could now see that they were one and the same.
In all but one way.
A rage consumed Lorena. Her nostrils flared, her fingers curled. Without letting herself think, she lunged for Death’s scepter. She yanked it from his grasp with superhuman power. Death’s white, bottomless eyes lifted. Although he had no human features, Lorena registered that he was surprised. Taking full advantage, she raised the scepter. She channeled all of her self-hatred into this task, stabbing him once, twice, three times.
The Banshee of Abita Springs abandoned her post and stalked toward her. She lunged, but instead of reaching for Lorena, she pushed Death to the floor and stomped on his throat. Lorena watched, with curiosity, how convenient death could be when it was not steeped in tragedy. When the struggling stopped, Lorena sagged against the scepter, letting it carry the bulk of her weight. Part of her wanted to turn the weapon on herself, but the other part of her knew what Luis would have wanted, what he would have wished for her.
She turned her gaze to the banshee.
“What is your name, your real one?”
“Lita,” she replied. Her mouth tugged, looking like it had not smiled in a very long time.
“Lita,” Lorena repeated. “I believe there is some work to do.” She looked down at her lover, Death beside him. “Do you–” she hesitated, for once not knowing what would come next– “Do you want to figure this out, together?” She gestured toward the scepter, to Death on the floor.
Lita smiled, a proper one this time. “I do.”