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Fortune in Smoke

By Jen Knox
May 22, 2018 · 1,933 words · 8 minutes

The waters are calmer on the other side of the island, down that hill toward all the resorts. This is the windy side, 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 want the bottoms of your feet to be 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 many 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. Our air purges, you know.

Don’t worry about blow dryers or shaving—you don’t need all those bags for this short trip. This is a vacation for you, a break. The switches will work again soon; there are rolling blackouts. 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, our experiences are reduced to background, no? 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 this shore, right where you’re standing now. Oh, no need to move—just a little history. Clothes and children’s toys washed up from the mainland for years after that storm, parts of water wearing away.

It was shortly after the storm that Luna arrived. Luna as in Casa de, yes. She was one of seven survivors who came from another, smaller bay island—you can almost see it 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 up along there, against the brush. They are brighter than you’ll expect, will appear broad and round as though from flashlights. That’s her, looking for her home, perhaps. We moved the house, after all.

No, she’s not a ghost, nothing so simple. She’s a piece of the island you signed up to visit these weeks. She is a part of the natural world now, as are all of our stories. Hers is just one. If you’re looking to stay here, you should know at least one.

That area, beyond the coconut trees, was 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 a young woman who lived in the states and hadn’t made it to the island in a while. Luna was inspired that a woman owned all this, the whole compound, but she felt something needed to be done about the upkeep. She set out to meet this land monger in hopes of finding some mentorship, possibly a partnership.

As she waited for her opportunity, she worked. She would stand at the fork at the bottom of the hill, all the way down there, and take short, staccato puffs on an oversized cigar she’d offer 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, then again at night until reaching this very fence here. Depending on whether or not a ride arrived, it would take between ten and forty minutes to get to work.  

It was almost a year after her arrival that the owner arrived to visit and oversee work on her 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 reputation to some. 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 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. So as more months and then years passed, Luna and her cousins restored the home as best they could, at first grateful then resentful. Their work was worth more.

The cousins did construction, and Luna gave massages on the beach to supplement income and make a living wage. Tourist massages were big business then, as now, when people like you began to arrive. Luna worked long days kneading flesh, spent her nights drinking and making friends.

She wrote the land monger with updates, regularly asking if she could buy a piece of the land, pay it off slowly, but again her requests were ignored. It was around this time, maybe before, that Luna began to have visions; she told everyone she worked on that she could see beyond the day—far beyond, and at first no one believed her. She continued to foretell, however, and there was no denying that she tended to be right. She made powerful friends by telling fortunes, was invited to parties with government officials as an act, then a friend. She got legal advice, negotiated for papers.

After putting so much work into the land, Luna decided she deserved what she deserved. Leveraging her new acquaintances, 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, the island that saved her, was as much hers by this time as anyone’s. And this woman, the land owner she once respected was now a leach 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 fulltime, 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 her fortunes rang true by employing family and friends to carry them out. But only conspiracy theorists, such as my grandfather, thought this way. She began to curse or bless, depending on need, becoming a sort-of spiritual figure to some, and she cashed in on this by eventually claiming she could not only see the future but alter it—for a price.  

For all her gifts, Luna was still injured by that storm, tortured by nightmares of the day she lost her husband and by longing for the child she’d had only nine months prior to that eerily still sky. Her lost family carved lines into her face, encircling her eyes and tilting he 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 smoked more, puffing, breath of fire, on her cigars and blowing hard, slow, tracing the lines in smoke 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.

Only one ever dared to anger her. A neighbor—some said a friend of the land monger’s—accused Luna of witchcraft, and in the instant she said so, a fortune could be seen flickering out. Fearful, this neighbor set Luna’s house ablaze at night, killing her mid-nightmare. And 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 some lots over, was able to move in. My grandparents were invited by a cousin, in exchange for work and, others say, silence.

The neighbor’s action wore on her heart, however, and Luna’s anger was felt for quite some time. The woman began to have palpitations, then took a spill. None of the deep sea fishermen came home that year. Murder rates doubled. The rains were not strong but persistent; they didn’t let up and 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, every person who drowned that year, a record number, saw lights just like those I described just before the waves would swallow them. Luna is a part of the island now, another wave, another piece of nature.

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 ocean. There will be more visiting, people with bright colored straws, candy-colored porches, homes built to rent out—much fancier than ours.

Economy and ecology are at odds on this island, 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 ourselves—though not in large enough numbers. The resorts are beautiful, 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, you’ll hear all that I know. I can only hold so many. You’ll hear ocean in your dreams. You’ll see the Luna, and she’ll see you.

If you are afraid, you are 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; you simply need to listen. 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 look weary. Let’s go get you 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. Get your cameras poised. Later, you might go to lobster night and imbibe sugary rum and dance next to coconut trees. This is, after all, your vacation.

This story originally appeared in Santa Fe Writing Project Journal.

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