I cannot clearly say how I had entered
the wood; I was so full of sleep just at
the point where I abandoned the true path.
— Dante Alighieri, Inferno 1. 11-12
Puerto Rico, 1973
Oak trees dripping with Spanish moss embraced us from both sides, but not enough to shield us
from the prison that would be my home for the next seven months. The high stone walls and neo-
Gothic bell tower loomed over us as my stepfather drove his Mercedes through the spiked iron
gates and into the sloping, curving driveway.
A spider of dread crawled up my back. Prison indeed.
I couldn’t believe it had come to this. The way things had blown out of proportion. I’d only
wanted to contact my dead father. Ask his forgiveness.
My mother reached for my hand from the front seat without turning around to look at me.
I stared at her perfectly polished red nails and the glittery square cut emerald on her ring finger.
Her fingers flicked, silently pleading for my attention, but I was frozen inside. Her hand
I stared at the convent, my eyes studying the pointed arched windows, the worn, age-blackened
stones. The place looked haunted. Perfect for my state of mind. What was my mother thinking?
Something moved behind one of the windows. A face. For an instant my pulse raced at the sheer
paleness of it, at the two dark holes that made up its eyes.
“What are you looking at?” Sara, my six-year- old half sister, asked.
I pointed. “A girl.”
She followed my line of vision. “Where?”
“There. High up. In the window.”
She dipped her head so she could have a better look. “I don’t see anything.”
I felt a shiver, but not from the cold. It’s white. It’s watching us.
Then the car moved too close to the building, and the face vanished from view.
“Is this your new school, Paloma?” Sara asked.
I nodded. Sara was the child, female version of my stepfather. Her bottomless dark eyes,
framed by velvety lashes, stared at me with misery. “I don’t like it,” she whispered, grabbing my
“It’ll be okay,” I whispered back, and gave her hand a little squeeze.
“Well, here we are,” Domenico said in his strong Castilian accent, stopping the car in
front of the entrance. He climbed out and opened the door for my mother. Then he proceeded to
take out my suitcases from the trunk.
My mother was silent. She stepped out like a wooden mannequin, her eyes shimmery
with unshed tears.
I climbed out, followed by Sara, the gravel crunching under our shoes. The early morning
air was cool and a blanket of mist still lingered—not surprising, since the convent was on the
outskirts of El Yunque, the island’s rain forest. More Spanish moss hung from the oak trees and
rippled in the breeze like long, shivering memories. I could smell the dew on the leaves and the
rich perfume of moist earth, redolent of open graves.
I glanced at the ominous clouds. “Beautiful morning.”
An ongoing distant hum resonated all around us. One, two beats passed, before it struck me:
Something within me shut down—or exploded, I couldn’t be sure.
I shut my eyes for a second, wiping out memories of chilled water searing my lungs.
I repeated the eighth multiplication table in my head. This always helped.
“After you,” Domenico said, interrupting my thoughts.
I wanted to loathe him. Tried to, anyway. I could see what my mother saw in him: a powerfully
charismatic, handsome man with the infinite skill to make people do his bidding. My mother,
with her small delicate features and petite frame, looked invisible beside him. A mere spectre.
But that was just a façade. I knew better.
The big oak door opened and a nun clad in black habit and a wimple came down the steps
to greet us.
Sara wrapped her arms around my waist. Her gesture both comforted me and heightened
my anxiety. Nuns in habit made me think of great black birds.
“Bienvenidos,” the nun said. Like my stepfather, she also had a Castilian accent. “I’m
Madre Estela and I’m second in charge to Madre Superiora. You must be Señor and Señora de
They exchanged small talk. Madre Estela sounded polite enough, but she didn’t offer to
shake hands with my parents, which I found strange. Maybe nuns weren’t allowed to shake
hands. I wouldn’t be surprised. I noticed the wedding band on her ring finger. Married to God.
“You must be Paloma,” she said tonelessly.
“Yes,” I said. Wasn’t it obvious? I didn’t know what else to say.
The cross on her chest caught my attention. It had a crucified Christ on it and I noticed
the thorns cutting Christ’s forehead, the little drops of blood glistening on His fragile body.
“Welcome to our school, Paloma.” Her critical gaze scrutinized my makeup, my tight
jeans. “I’ve heard much about you.”
I didn’t miss the hint of cold disapproval in her voice. I wasn’t sure how much my parents had
complained about my behavior, but considering I had been kicked out—well, actually, kindly
asked to leave—from my previous school in the middle of October, it couldn’t be good.
“Are you ready to resume your senior year of high school?” Stress on resume.
“I can’t wait,” I said. There was no point in being nice—or pretending to be. That just
wasn’t me. I felt miserable and couldn’t hide it. Besides, I could tell from our short exchange that
she’d made up her mind not to like me long before meeting me, and I had the sinking feeling that
no matter what I said or did, her opinion wouldn’t change. I had already been stamped in her
Inquisition book, tagged a criminal.
Madre Estela’s stony eyes moved to Sara. My little sister’s arms clutched my waist even
tighter. From the nun’s expression, I could tell she was wondering if I had infected Sara with
whatever plague ailed me. She dismissed us and turned back to my mother and stepfather.
“Madre Superiora is expecting you in her office. Let’s not keep her waiting. Don’t concern
yourselves with the suitcases. Someone will come for them shortly.”
They thanked her and followed her up the steps.
“I don’t want to go in,” Sara said.
“It’ll be okay,” I said. I glanced at the window. I wanted to see the pale face again. But there was
A drop of rain hit my cheek and I wiped it off. Then I held Sara’s hand and together we
walked up the steps and through the arched doorway.
I felt my throat closing up.
Seven months wasn’t that long, was it? Besides, Thanksgiving break was just around the corner.
Six weeks, to be exact. I had already marked my calendar. I couldn’t wait. I would go through
the motions, no need to make friends that I’d never see again. When you get close to people, you
end up getting hurt.