Island on Fire

It began with just a few people. A low percentage of the highest of the high-class of the island: neuroscientists, investors, surgeons—the one percent in search of the other ninety-nine. They left behind their seaside weekend condos, their heated-floor mansions with the pompous fireplaces and chimneys they had installed in an attempt to embrace western culture. Fireplaces in an island-on-fire. But what would I know? I’ve never belonged to the class that had grilled Manchego cheese sandwiches for breakfast and sucked on Cuban cigars after supper.

I’ve always been the middleman. Never had quite enough green to brush shoulders at the country club, but just the right amount to be responsible for those below me. The “middle class” was always the one to suffer at the hands of the government. High taxes taking away huge chunks of our paychecks and going straight into the hands of the “unemployed” who remained unemployed because of the comforts of this generous assistance. Kids graduated from high school and marched straight ahead into the government offices in full toga and cap. They went in with a diploma in one hand and came out with our hard-earned money in the other. But who could blame them? They’re just kids. Hell, I would have done the same. Lived in one of those nice complex buildings, paid for my groceries with a magical card.

So the “lower class” grew and the middle class couldn’t keep fueling the ever-expanding machine. Teachers, managers, garbage men, the backbone of the island were barely able to provide for their own families, while those receiving government aid went to sleep with their bellies bursting. The middle and lower class started to melt and blend into a single puddle. And that’s when the real departures started to happen.

Once there wasn’t enough dough to go around, criminality grew. The old cobblestone streets of the capital were a warzone. Cars with shattered windshields, houses with doors hanging on hinges, houses with no doors at all. By the end of it all, people resorted to breaking off pieces of the cobblestones and trying to sell them online as historic pieces—which they were. The last things to go up in flames were the Capitol and La Fortaleza, where the governor of the island lived. But he was long gone before the first fuse was even lit. Probably sipping on a piña colada mixed with some Don Q rum somewhere in Europe or Asia. Panic spread and those who could still afford a ticket out of the wasteland they once called home got out of there faster than you could say Hasta luego.

But I didn’t leave. Sometimes I think I should have. But there’s something sickening about running away. Leaving the shithole you’re in to call somewhere else your new shithole seems stupid. It wasn’t the setting we were living in that needed to change, it was ourselves. But whatever. It’s too late for philosophy class.

After the island became an almost deserted warzone, our benevolent father figure finally decided to show up. Our island wasn’t a fully self-governing territory; we were the booty prize of one of many pointless wars and because of this, we belonged and responded to Spain. Viva la Patria. Throughout the whole decay of the island, throughout poverty, starvation and the spilling of blood, Spain had remained absent. Ojos que no ven, I suppose. They were pretty much looking the other way until less than ten percent of the population was still living in the island.

Most of the people who remained had moved into abandoned mansions or claimed whole hotels for themselves, but I stayed in my apartment in San Juan. I had spent most of my life in that flat, making it my own: the red oak bookshelf I had handcrafted and filled with the works of the very authors who inspired me to become a writer like them: Rosario Ferré, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Kurt Vonnegut, and Borges among so many other geniuses; the walls which I had turned into murals, depicting the things I loved most: my island with its endless green, its Olympian mountains and crystalline seas, and my family and friends, who had abandoned the island out of fear or hope or both.

There was also the furniture my father left me after passing away, which I hauled singlehandedly up seven flights of stairs: an antique rocking chair mamá used to rock me to sleep as a baby, the coffee table we gathered around on rainy days and placed hot mugs filled with café con leche next to crackers and queso de bola and finally, the nightstand my father would rest whatever novel he was reading before going to bed: La Charca, La Carreta, El Jíbaro. I was not about to leave my home.

Rey Fernando XIV—probably while sitting on his fat ass on the throne—had decreed the complete and final evacuation of the island. Those who refused would be “dealt with accordingly.” Rey Fernando XIV’s plan was to bomb the island once it had been completely evacuated. The island was once a key military base and with no one to live in it and protect it, he reasoned that it could easily fall into enemy hands. He announced a date and a time. We had one day to evacuate the island.

Most of the remaining people now lived in San Juan because it was our capital, and because the only remaining functional buildings were there. Things had settled down by then. There was no food to fight over and nothing to steal. So on our island’s last day, without planning, we all came out of our homes and walked down the streets and gathered together, as we used to do hours before a hurricane would strike. Like we did with Huracán George and the only way we could handle this new threat: La Bomba Fernando.

We danced the night away to the rhythm of bongós, swaying from side to side, our feet spending less time on the ground than in the air until eventually we were hovering in our traditional clothing; the women wearing long white flowing dresses, the dress of the jíbara; with flower bonnets adorning their wavy hair; and the men wearing Pavas, the straw hat that was their source of pride. We didn’t stop dancing to the rhythm of Bomba even after the sky consumed us.

Y se aprende a tener respeto
aprendeme a respetar
Y lo ajeno se deja quieto
No vengas a maltratar 

Aprende a tener respeto
aprendeme a respetar
Y lo ajeno se deja quieto
No vengas a maltratar

Joseph Santaella Vidal is a Puerto Rican writer who recently graduated with an MFA from Emerson College in Boston, with a concentration in Fiction Writing. He is a reader for the acclaimed literary magazine Ploughshares. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Acentos Review, Words Apart and The Mighty. His screenwriting has been featured on National Television and in 2015, his screenplay, The Guest, was selected as the "Best Short Screenplay," in the Puerto Rico Horror Film Fest's Screenplay competition. His short story collection, Sunflowers and Other Stories is forthcoming from Mariana Editores.

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