by Kayla Cayasso

Spanish Florida

When New Amistad and its people were only fledglings in this land, still wiping the veil and the Atlantic from their eyes, La Manchita was already a name whispered in the night. Bruno had first heard the story in the dark and wet bowels of La Abundancia on the long voyage across. The sinkhole had been a well once, long ago, on the property of one of the founding virreys—some noble nobody called De La Mancha. On the ship, Bruno heard the story told different ways. In one telling, the virrey’s viejita found letters between her husband and another woman, and, in her heartbreak, threw herself down the well. In another, De La Mancha helped his wife down to the bottom. Both versions, though, agreed: once Lady De La Mancha reached the bottom, the earth in Her sorrow opened like an angry and screaming throat, swallowing the virrey’s wooden house with De La Mancha inside.

That’s how She got her name, a half-joke that people only laughed at when spoken through droughts of ale and cups of wine, a safe distance from La Manchita’s hungry jaws. Folks warned their children not to venture out to La Manchita, lest the Lady reach from the depths of Hell to pull them down. When the seasons changed, parents told their little ones that the sound of wind through the pines were the calls of Lady De La Mancha, screaming for a rescuer. The handful of women in Amistad warned their sons and husbands to do right by their wives—La Manchita was willing to do the bidding of angry, scorned women. Townspeople cautioned would-be adventurers against following the Lady’s cries into the woods, out to the Old Amistad Township. It’s a trick, they’d say, Lady Isabela will cry for a rescuer, then rip the ground out from under you when you get too close.

Behind Bruno and past the tree line, New Amistad was a softly glowing ember basking in the light of the quarter moon. On this night, Bruno had not heeded those old founders’ stories. He’d followed those wails through the woods, through the remnants of Old Amistad Township, to La Manchita. Huffing, Bruno peered into Her silty mouth, that deep corridor of dark, and wondered how he’d ever been frightened by those old ghost stories.

Squeezed between the San Sébastien and the Matanzas, the summer night air was tacky and humid. Bruno, boiling under his thick uniform breeches and issue vest, sat on his trunk to catch his breath and wipe the sweat from his eyes. He hadn’t imagined that the night-walk to La Manchita would be so difficult, even considering his cargo. His years in service to the king, his years in this backwater place, had made him strong, but his shoulders ached, and his hands, speckled with scratches and freshly broken scabs, burned. He’d given up carrying the trunk after a while, instead dragging it along the forest floor for the latter half of the walk. He lifted his head, his eyes following the divots in the earth where he’d dragged the trunk into the clearing where he now sat. Bruno would have to remember to destroy the tracks on his way to town.

Bruno could see the faint outline of the church steeple. He could hear the rowdy shouts and laughs of drunken men at the town tavern, the hoots of them, when, Bruno imagined, ladies of the night traipsed by with swishing skirts and lying mouths. Always with their lying mouths.

Some poor bastard was falling for their lines: Drink with me, guapito, I have been wanting for good and good-looking company. Have you heard the story of our Manchita? You must navigate through the woods to arrive at Her great opening. You look like you know the way.

Bruno’s brows gathered like fabric on thread, and a sour taste crept under his tongue as he remembered the night they’d met. Sofia had been a flurry of powder blue skirts, smiles, and lies. The women ambled by the tavern in laps after sunset, usually in twos or threes. He’d seen Sofia from the tavern’s wooden stoop, walking like the dirt road was the Spanish court. Her dress showed her bare arms, and Bruno had followed the lines of her brown fingers to her wrist to her elbow and up to her gently rounded shoulders like a map. For a second, just a second, those brown eyes flicked up and looked straight into Bruno, arresting his mind and body.

Her shawl, a lovely thing of green silk and embroidered with red carnations, cinched her waist sinfully at the center. She nodded at him and kept walking without hesitation. That nod, that flicker of eyes, called him down the steps of the tavern’s stoop and into the street.

Sofia was a good drinking companion and a better lover, but as the weeks passed and Bruno’s pockets grew empty, his fellow marinero Tomás tried to appeal to him. Try someone new if you must. A man who patronizes whores is a lover of women, but a man who favors one whore over the next is a fool in the making.

Bruno had waved him off. Tomás didn’t know Sofia like he did, didn’t know of the plans they spoke about as Bruno mapped out each dip and rise of her body, the land and house he’d build with his own hands somewhere south, where he wouldn’t have to worry about Huguenots or English pirates—men who wanted to steal Spanish souls and Spanish land. Past the city gates, Bruno and Sofia could build a world of their own. They could live off the land. Sofia knew this place. Her mother, Sofia had told him, was Seminole and had taught her how to survive the swamps south of Spanish territory. Past the gates, she could be only Bruno’s. Sofia had sworn herself to him, told him that he was the sole thing occupying her thoughts, her heart, even her prayers. For Bruno, an oath was an oath, even if not made in the church, even if not sealed by God, and even if spoken from the lips of a prostitute.

Tomás had been right. Sofia had made him a fool, a man to whisper and snicker about during guard changes. Seminole mother. Promises of forever. She’d been laughing at him the entire time.

A sound like shifting sand brought Bruno back to the present. The trees watched him, still and quiet, and he stepped around his trunk to scan the tree line. Nothing. Then the whistling of wind. But, no, that was wrong. The trees were stationary as obelisks, towering and dark in the night. His sweat clung to him, not whisked away by any night breezes. Someone was out there.

“¡Ay!” Bruno called. “Show yourself.”

He shouldn’t have stopped for a breath. He should have tossed the damned trunk and turned back for town. Should’ve been back at the tavern by now, drowning his residual thoughts of Sofia’s raven-wing hair, her strawberry lips, her wicked and deceitful tongue.

The soft sound of a gasp made Bruno jump and nearly stumble, turning to the source. A woman crouched near the sinkhole’s edge. Her cream-colored fingers fiddled with the leather straps of Bruno’s trunk, but she looked at him, through him.

“Who’s in here?” she asked. Her voice was a nail splitting Bruno’s nerves, and his jaw tightened with the anxiety of her searching hands.

He didn’t recognize this woman from Amistad, certainly not one of the ladies who lapped the town after dark, and not one of the town’s women of repute. Her dark hair was pulled back in a black braid that disappeared behind her shoulder and into the night. In her squatted stance, her dirty white nightgown pooled at her feet, bare toes peeking out under the hem.

“Back away from there,” Bruno said in a rush before tacking on slower, “please.”

She would not back away. The woman passed her hands over the old, dried leather of the closed lid. “That’s an exquisite shawl around her neck. I quite like the carnations.”

A chill crawled up Bruno’s spine. The scratches across his hands ached as he flexed them open and closed, trying to shake off a creeping nervousness. The sweat on his neck found the nicks there and set his skin on fire. Bruno swallowed hard. If he let his mind wander, he could still hear Sofia, could still see her bulging eyes, red like the fabric’s flowers. Could still feel the silk, wrapped around his closed fists, the crushing tension against his fingers.

With focused eyes, she set about undoing one strap. When her hands moved to unbuckle the other, Bruno reached down with fingers like steel, wrenching the woman to her feet and away from the trunk by her arm. Through clenched teeth, Bruno said, “You don’t know what you say, and it is rude to touch things that are not yours, woman.”

“I should say so,” she said, straightening herself. “Only a poor-quality man drags a woman about the woods like a bag of feed.”

“I—” Bruno began. He released her, his fingers cool to the touch. “Apologies. I think we are both out of sorts. Please, let me escort you to town. Our tavern may not have good ale, but it has a warm fire.”

“I will go nowhere with you. I want that shawl,” she pressed.

“You are unwell. It is only the body of some…” Bruno searched for a lie, “some diseased stray.” Bruno’s mouth was dry. He swallowed. Steadier than before, assuming his soldier stance. “Virrey Sandoval himself ordered its disposal.”

“A diseased dog? Is that right? Where did you get those?” she asked with interest, nodding toward the scars on Bruno’s neck and hands.

“These?” Bruno said, voice pitched too high. “She was a very bad dog.”

“Bad dogs do need to be put down, I suppose.”

“Exactly.” Bruno extended his hand to her. “Let me toss this thing and I will take you to town.”

Her bladed hands were quick, stronger, and sharper than Bruno imagined was possible. A blossom of red turned to a smock across Bruno’s chest and linen shirt.

His hands moved to his neck, trying to push the red back inside, trying to staunch the bleeding, but he felt the warmth crawling down his waist, down his legs, being chased away by a cold he’d never known until now. Bruno tried to step forward, tried to reach out with one hand for this wild, barefooted woman, but the trunk. Bruno stumbled over the trunk, cracking his head against La Manchita’s craggy ledge. His legs tumbled over him and into the cavern, their momentum dragging the rest of him, still alive and reaching for the woman, down Her throat.

The thuds of Bruno’s body ricocheting down La Manchita faded, swallowed by the sound of cicada songs and tired calls of mourning doves. The woman, Isabela, leaned her head back and let the noise soak into her skin, sink into hair.

These woods sang this very song nearly a century ago when her husband still governed these lands and lurked in dark corners, waiting for something young to traipse by. Isabela remembered the heat of that year, that night. The air had been thick and wet between the roving showers of this place. That was why she’d wandered outside, where she heard the cries of Juana, a sweet, well-mannered mestizo servant girl, tears slicking her face, her fingers clutching the edges of her undone bodice.

She propositioned me, Isabela’s husband, Gustavo, had claimed. These New World girls, they’re inhabited by the devil. She’s temptation embodied.

But that was a different time, a different man. A different lie. Isabela, hands bloody, unlatched the remaining strap on the trunk and lifted the lid. Inside, red and purple bruises peeked from behind the green silk around Sofia’s neck, and Isabela’s jaw steeled. She reached down and touched the silk, her fingers sliding over it like oil, and it occurred to Isabela that she couldn’t recall what silk felt like.

Isabela focused on keeping her fingertips solid, working the twisted fabric loose from the girl. As the shawl broke free, Isabela grimaced. A diseased dog, Bruno had said cooly. This girl. Too young for this, all of it. Juana had been too young, too. As had Isabela when she’d been hauled out of Basque country to marry the low-ranked Gustavo De La Mancha. As she had been that night, falling through the dark, hands trying to find traction on mildew-slicked well walls.

“Oh, mija,” Isabela said, brushing a curl out of Sofia’s cloudy, open eyes. “Men are terrible liars, aren’t they?”

Kayla Cayasso is an Afro-Latina writer and poet from North Florida and a Creative Writing MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida in the Fiction track. She is a recipient of the 2012 Hollins Creative Writing Book Award, the FAMU Graduate Feeder Fellowship, and placed first in fiction in the 2021 FAMU Annual Writing Contest. She has stories, poetry, and essays published in CaKe: A Literary JournalOlit, The Hyacinth ReviewJabberwock ReviewSaw Palm, and elsewhere. Currently, Kayla lives in Orlando and serves as Fiction Editor at The Dodge, a literary journal based out of Wooster, Ohio, that publishes eco-writing and writing about animals.