“Fortune in Smoke” by Jen Knox

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The waters are calmer on the other side of the island, down that hill toward all the resorts. This is the windy side, an untouched beachfront. You can see the whitecaps for miles. The waves are as violent as they are stunning though—you should know these things.

These are the iron shores, so you want to jump out from that platform toward the mouth of the keyhole, straight out, if you must swim. Beach shoes are necessary, unless you don’t mind the bottoms of your feet cut all to hell, and don’t go out if you aren’t a strong swimmer.

Since your interest is in Casa Luna, and we are so happy to have you, there are things you should know. This property has been in our family for years. There are always winds like these. Feel them fully, breathe in the sounds, and allow your pores to swell with ocean air.

Don’t worry about blow dryers or shaving. The switches will work again soon; the blackouts are rolling. We have a generator, but there are hiccups. Sorry we didn’t mention that online. Oh, and your smartphones won’t work, but there are track phones and phone cards you can buy at a shop down the hill. It will be open on Monday.

You might want to retire those cameras while I show you around. If everything is a postcard or a selfie, experiences are reduced to background. Besides, there will be time later. Plenty of it, I assure you. Live and breathe the beauty. It is striking, yes.

In ’98, Hurricane Mitch delivered bodies to the shore, right where you’re standing now. Oh, no need to move—just a little history. Infant-sized overalls and ravaged pink dresses, button-eyed dolls and counting games, all washed up from the mainland for years after that storm. There is a well-preserved music box in your room, in fact, which arrived snug in a suitcase. The music is faint, but it still plays.

It was shortly after the storm first hit that Luna arrived. Luna, as in Casa de, yes. She was one of seven survivors who came from another, smaller island that you can almost see on a clear day. They arrived by boat. Others arrived piece by piece, wave by wave, not so lucky.

At night, you will sometimes see lights there, against the brush. They are brighter than you’ll expect, will appear broad and round as though from flashlights. That’s her, searching. We moved the house.

No, she’s not a ghost. Nothing so simple. She’s a piece of the island. She’s a part of the natural world. Hers is just one story of many. If you’re looking to stay here, you should know at least one. You would like to hear it? I am happy to share.

That area, beyond the coconut trees, is where the original house stood. Luna squatted there when she first arrived, along with her cousins and friends. This was a private beach even then, and all of the homes belonged to an American woman who showed face maybe once a year. Luna was inspired that a woman owned all this, the whole compound. She set out to meet her in hopes of finding mentorship, possibly partnership. She wanted to make a good impression. So she began visiting the primary schools and sitting in the small chairs, listening and jotting notes, until a teacher asked her which kid was hers.

She stood at the fork at the bottom of the hill, all the way down there, and took short, staccato puffs on an oversized cigar she offered around. The only woman to smoke cigars in this area, she was known for this. A group of people waited for rides to the beach to work then; she was one of many who hopped on truck beds and banged on the backs of clouded windows when a turn signal suggested the wrong way. They’d do the same down there, near Foster’s beachfront, and then again at night until they reached this very fence here.

A year after Luna’s arrival, the owner visited to meet a contractor and oversee work on a property. Luna was nervous. She’d practiced what she’d say. She wore a friend’s church clothes and put away her cigars, as she knew they dampened her image to Americans. She introduced herself, stood tall, and offered to take care of the land in exchange for the space and wages. She assured the woman that she had a great deal of respect for her, and suggested that her family would keep the grounds as well as anyone could.

The woman agreed, with some reluctance, but ultimately never paid the living wage promised. As months and then years passed, Luna and her cousins restored the home as best they could. At first gratefully, then resentfully. Their work was worth more.

The cousins did construction, and Luna gave massages on the beach. Tourist massages were big business then, as now, when people like you began to arrive with curious eyes and knotted shoulders. Luna worked long days kneading flesh, spent her nights drinking and making friends.

She wrote to the landowner with updates, regularly asking if she could buy a piece of the land, pay it off slowly. But her requests were either ignored or waylaid with contingencies. The woman wrote that she couldn’t sell off a piece until this or that repair was complete.

It was around this time that Luna began to have visions. She told everyone she massaged that she could see beyond the day for them, far beyond. No one believed her at first. She continued to foretell, however, and after so many correct predictions, there was no denying her accuracy. She made powerful friends by telling fortunes, was invited to parties with government officials as an act, and then as a friend. She got legal advice, negotiated for papers.

After putting so much work into the land, after making the right friends, Luna decided she deserved what she deserved. She had a pseudo deed created and claimed ownership of the land from there—on that hill—to here, where you will be staying tonight. This island, whose roads had become the veins through which her blood flowed, who had welcomed her to its shores, was as much hers by this time as anyone’s. And the woman, the previous landowner she had once respected, was now nothing more than a leech on her new land.

Luna’s fortune-telling business grew so fast that almost everyone on the island came to know and either admire or fear her. She gave up massage and shared her visions full-time, rarely having to leave her property.

If Luna predicted death, there would be death. Good fortune meant an imminent windfall. Some speculated that she orchestrated these events, ensuring that her fortunes rang true by employing family and friends to carry them out. But only conspiracy theorists, such as my grandfather, thought this way, and he knew better than to share his theory. Luna began to curse or bless, depending on need, becoming a spiritual figure to some. Eventually she cashed in on this by claiming she could not only see the future but alter it—for a price.

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A haunting story, yes. But it doesn’t end so well.

Luna was still injured by that hurricane, rattled by nightmares of the day she lost her husband. She longed for the child she’d had only nine months prior to that horrendous storm.

Her loss returned to her late in life. It carved lines into her face, encircling her eyes and tilting her mouth toward the earth. She would still clutch her sheets upon hearing a particularly strong wind; she still found remnants of life lost, reminders of her own survival washed up on shore. But during the waking hours, she wore strength like fine clothing.

She heaved in smoke as she looked out at the waves, breath of fire, and she blew hard, tracing shapes into the gray cloud to seal her fortunes or dole them out. The smoke didn’t lie, but with too little sleep or after a squabble with her cousins, her fortunes became tainted and darkened. After a time, it seemed that if Luna was in a bad mood, her customers would pay the ultimate price.

Elfie, a neighbor and friend of the American, was the only person to publicly accuse Luna of witchcraft. The instant she said so, her fortune could be seen flickering out. All it took was a long stare from Luna to unhinge the woman’s mind. Everyone told her to watch out, and so she did. She stopped leaving her cabana, refused to walk along the beach as she used to, and avoided the lobster nights and rum she once lived for.

Without her routines, Elfie lost her light. She lost her mind. She’d wander around in the brush, muttering to herself. It was Elfie who set Luna’s house ablaze, killing her mid-nightmare. We all knew. Luna’s revenge would not rise up in the smoke and flame but soon appear in the very ocean that had brought her here.

Our family, who had been groundskeepers a few lots over, was able to move in. My grandparents were invited by a cousin in exchange for work and, others say, silence.

While Luna had destroyed Elfie’s mind, it was guilt that wore on her heart. She began to have palpitations, then took a spill. She began to see things, as though Luna’s visions had transferred to her. When she saw boats sinking, none of the deep-sea fishermen came home. When she saw blades, murder rates doubled.

The rains were not strong, but they were persistent; they caused enough cumulative damage that it was as though the island had been hit by a major storm. Something happened every holiday—lost power at the grocery, a sudden collective rot of fruit. The church’s roof fell in twice.

The winds started to pick up on this side of the island shortly after Luna’s death, and I doubt they will settle again. Legend has it that every person who drowned that year, a record number, saw lights like those I described just before the waves would swallow them.

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Look down there, way down. There will be development this time next year, six condos and a garish pool full of chlorine right next to this angry ocean. There will be more visiting, people with bright-colored straws, candy-colored porches, and homes built to rent.

Economy and ecology are at odds, but I, for one, support economic growth. This is why I host you!

Our island is etching itself into a new psyche, a wrinkle deepening in the collective brain. Our island has destroyed and been destroyed. Its people have sought education and have become investors—though not in large enough numbers. The resorts are beautiful, they bring in the money, but they stomp on the magic as well as the coral, so I ask you to be respectful during your stay.

There are more stories. I can tell you one for every lot, every day. You stay long enough, or come enough times, and you’ll hear all that I know to tell. I can only hold so many stories, but I will offer them all to you. You’ll hear the ocean in your dreams. You’ll see Luna, and she’ll see you.

You look frightened, but please don’t be. If you’re afraid, you’re not listening. Luna is nature now. She warns us when she can, so you can snorkel and zip line and do all the touristy things you’ve come to do. The island will tell all. It will embed its stories beneath your skin, and I won’t need to tell you to come again. You will put down those bags and carry the whole of it with you when you leave.

You are tired, but look at that! We have light. Let’s go get that mocha you saw online at our new café near West Bay. I’ll show you the calm waters after, the other side of the island. I’ll show you what you saw in the pictures.

I see you have your cameras poised. I suppose you should do what you’d like. Later, you must go to lobster night and imbibe sugary rum and dance next to coconut trees. This is, after all, your vacation.

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Jen Knox directs Gemini Ink’s Writers in Communities program, which offers free creative writing workshops in homeless shelters, schools, community centers, and correctional facilities across San Antonio. Some of her short fiction appears in Chicago Tribune‘s Printers Row, Chicago Quarterly Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Istanbul Review, Room Magazine, and The Saturday Evening Post. She is the author of After the Gazebo (Rain Mountain Press 2015), which was nominated for the Pen/Faulkner, and is currently working on a novel. Find her at her website www.jenknox.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter @jenknox2.

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2 Comments

  1. Brendan

    Quite the imagination this woman has. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Sally A. Peckham

    What a unique story! 🙂

    Reply

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