Nathalia Harris



Nathalia Harris is an emerging writer pursuing her BFA in Creative Writing at Stephens College. She enjoys putting every ounce of her culture that she can in her writing and continues to push people to see the Latinx community through more than a single lens. When she's not at school in Missouri she lives at home in Illinois with her mother, grandparents and two siblings.

Twitter handle: @NIsabellaHarris

Through Xibalba


**Trigger Warning: Domestic violence/

Substance abuse/ Brief mention of suicide**


I watched florescent lights flash in the distance through the window. The City of the Dead gleamed with bright oranges, purples, and pinks. The buildings towered over each other defying the rules of gravity and physics. I could make out faint music, but I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination or not. The city was surrounded by golden gates, protecting it from whatever lurked outside. Blackness flooded the bottom of the building we were in, and the path that led to the city. Sometimes I swear I could see figures move in the shadows. The sky was still and dark gray. I missed the warmth of the sun.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I jumped as La Muerte came to stand over me. She wore a yellow dress and a black hat decorated with roses and marigolds. Her hair was black as night and her calavera as colorful as the city itself. She was just as tall and beautiful as they described her. I stared. I couldn’t believe this magnificent goddess was addressing me. She followed my gaze and chuckled. “Worry not child, you will make it over easily.” With that she left my side and walked towards the other part of the room. I hadn’t realized how many of us there were—dead. I saw people of all ages and sizes. There were old couples, toddlers, young people, and one other girl as young as me. My mother used to tell me that death had no age and we were all proof.

I walked closer to where La Muerte stood. Her eyes connected with mine, and I looked away toward the old couple that were holding hands. Their love was so strong it bonded them together, even in death. I watched them closely as the woman pointed out the city to her husband. Her eyes lit up as she pointed from one thing to another, and he watched her, smiling.

When I looked back at La Muerte, she had a golden eagle perched on her shoulder. It sat ruffling its multicolored feathers and occasionally rubbing its face against hers. I could recognize an alebrije anywhere. They were described as fantastical being that were dreamt up by someone. They usually had multicolored accents all over the body and were mentioned to guide you through the afterlife. Seeing one here in the flesh, I was ecstatic.

“Come, he won’t bite you.” La Muerte bent down, and the eagle looked so deeply into my eyes I was sure he saw my past life. I reached out slowly, and he met me halfway touching his beak and then head to my fingertips. His warmth was something so simple, yet somehow it managed to relax me.

“Gather around.” She stood up straight, “It is about the time you pass Xibalba.” Her gaze followed the dark path that led to the City of the Dead. “You will be tested emotionally and mentally as you never have before.”

Our eyes connected and I again looked away. Xibalba was the place of fear, where demons fed on your negativity and attempted to keep you away from the City of the Dead. My mother flooded my childhood with stories of how the Xibalba demons would take me into the darkness if I didn’t behave. I asked her to keep the lights on in my closet for this reason.

“Most of you will find your alebrijes on the way through Xibalba. Others will have to rely on themselves to get through the fear-scape.” She walked through the crowd to an elevator and beckoned us on. The elevator dinged, and we descended to the first floor. The doors opened to reveal a room with clear glass on all the walls. I could see out into the shadows and then confirmed at the sight of red eyes that there were demon beings waiting hungrily beyond it.

“They cannot cross the threshold of the door.” She slowly passed us by and opened the glass doors. The demons spoke and whispered, clawing at the threshold.

“Dro, calm them.” Her arm extended and the alebrije that perched on her shoulder flew into the crowd of demons, color and light leaving his wings, making them disperse back into the shadows with quiet squeals. Fear crept up my body making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. My stomach churned and I suddenly felt as though I’d disintegrate right where I stood.

The old couple, with their hands still locked, walked up to the threshold and took their first steps out into Xibalba. A demon slithered closely behind them and the woman stopped. She let go of her husband’s hand and looked at the demon approaching. I stepped closer to the door trying to get a better view of what was going on, when another demon arose and watched me at the corner of the doorway. The woman said something to the demon that was trailing her, and the demon faded away. A cat with different colored patterns, ram horns, and wings manifested at her feet. Her alebrije had chosen her. Meanwhile her husband was immobile. He stood staring into a demon’s eyes being played by his fear. The color was fading from his face, and I turned to La Muerte. The girl who appeared to be my age was already by her side.

“Please help him, they’re taking ahold of him,” she pleaded with La Muerte, who only looked out into Xibalba.

“I cannot help you with this part of your journey. You must do it alone,” with that, she vanished.

I stood shocked, wondering if she would reappear in a matter of seconds, if she only did it to mess with us, if in reality, she would walk with us and scare the demons away herself. I hoped and prayed for her to reappear, to help me scare away whatever nightmare they were about to show me, but instead the demon by the door grew hungrier. It growled and bared its fangs.

More people made their way to the door’s threshold, and I tensed. I walked closer until I could feel the demon’s breath on mine. I shut my eyes and took another big step to be outside. I took a deep breath and opened them to find myself in my childhood bedroom.

The walls had specks of green glow in the dark paint splattered around them, and my fluffy wolf blanket was tucked into my bed. The pictures of my mother and I sat on my desk along with the stuffed animal my father gave me on my birthday. My star shaped nightlight glowed yellow by the cracked door. I heard yelling out in the hallway and followed it. I suddenly remembered the exact night my mother and stepfather fought. I climbed out of the bed and looked down the hallway to see him holding my mother’s head and sticking her hair in the garbage disposal.

When I looked this time, it was me being held by my ex-boyfriend Michael. I watched in horror as he spewed insults into my ear and pushed me farther until my hair caught in the disposal and pulled. Tears ran down my face, and I yelled and pleaded for him to stop. I begged my duplicate to fight back. I got up next to myself and pleaded for her to reach for the scissors and cut her hair. Just do it, grab them.

And to my surprise, I reached out and cut my hair free. I was able to turn around and push Michael off me, and I watched myself throw the scissors at him, not close enough to hit him, but close enough to scare him. I was proud of myself. I told him not to touch me ever again, and I packed my things and left. I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding.

I opened my eyes to see the demon before me vanish. I looked around for a couple of seconds expecting my alebrije to show itself, but there was nothing. My eyes followed up the trail to the old couple walking much farther ahead. The man who had once been taken by the demon walked with a colorful monkey on his shoulder. There were fewer of us than had initially started and the girl who spoke to La Muerte was still behind me at the threshold.

“What’s your name?” I shouted back at her.

“Selena.” She watched me from the doorway but backed away when demons approached her. The longer she stood, the more they were ready for her.

“Selena, you need to walk out or Xibalba will feed off your fear to attract more of these things.” I beckoned her over, but she shook her head.

“Do it for your family who will break pan de muertos for you, and put your picture on the ofrenda.” I felt bad in part for mentioning her family when I really didn’t know what her past life was like, but luckily she closed her eyes and stepped out. She was instantly faced with three different demons. They immobilized her and took her to her past.

I walked with longer strides in an attempt to catch up with the bigger group. I’d lost sight of the old couple. The City of the Dead seemed no closer than it had from the building, and I asked myself if I’d ever get there. I looked into the shadows that lined the path and saw red eyes appear and disappear. When I looked ahead there was a demon standing in my way a few paces away. I walked faster until it turned into my stepdad, and then Michael again. I blinked, and it was my mother. I stopped dead in my tracks as she took my head into her chest.

“Mi niña bonita.” Her voice cracked, and my throat got hot. “You don’t think I know what is happening to you?” She pulled away and brushed my cheek where Michael bruised me the night before. I flinched at the contact with the tender skin. Tears spilled down my face as I remembered the nights of my stepfather beating her. I often was the one picking her up off the floor and taking her to the bathroom, where I dabbed her face with peroxide bathed cotton swabs. “You have the strength to leave him, mija. I know you do.” I pushed her away from me in the past, angry because she didn’t have the strength to leave my stepfather. I was astonished at how a woman so brilliant and beautiful, a woman that was married to a man like my father, who loved her to the ends of the earth and back, was able to endure the abuse of a drunk fool. I told her, if she couldn’t leave my stepfather, I couldn’t bear to live in the same house. I packed my things and moved in with Michael that day. I never saw her again.

In the moment I faced now, I hugged her tighter. I told her I knew I was strong enough to leave him, but I was scared. I told her I loved her, and I needed her to look after me. I pressed my face into her chest no matter how hard Xibalba was manifesting the pain in my cheek. I told her I missed her, and that I was sorry I had said such horrible things to her.

“If I could go back and apologize to you I would, Mama.” And with a final squeeze she vanished. The demon in front of me disintegrated and I could tell I was closer to the city. The buildings were now more visible, and I could see La Muerte standing at the very top of her tower. I looked around once more for an alebrije that might’ve appeared, but again I was alone.

“I never asked you what your name was.” Selena said catching up to me. A purple cheetah with orange and gold antlers led the way, hissing at the demons that attempted to attach themselves to her person.

“Xiomara,” I extended a hand.

“The others have said your alebrije shows up when you overcome your biggest obstacle.” She pet the large cat and coiled her arm around the tail. “Mine was my death.” She looked up at me.

I avoided the eye contact and sighed. I’d already been through things that tore my heart out and stomped on it. How could I not have my alebrije?

“How did you die?” I averted my gaze, ashamed of having asked. I spotted another demon on the path that the cheetah ignored. It was mine.

She took a breath and then answered. “I took my own life.” A single tear rolled down her cheek. “My mother found me in the bathroom when she got back from work.” I took her hand and squeezed it, letting her know that she didn’t have to go on if she didn’t desire. I stepped away from her as we neared the demon.

This time instead of taking on a person of my past, it showed its true self and rattled at me. It bared its fangs and hissed, spreading its wings and showing its claws. I stepped back caught off guard at the way the demon chose to confront me. It snatched me by the arm and dragged me into the shadows where I was consumed by screams and cries of terror and pain. The path became harder and harder to see and the demon laughed at me.

“You scared?” It whispered in my stepfather’s voice. I went back to a night in my room. I was curled up under my wolf blanket after he’d beat my mother almost to death. He walked into my room even though I’d tried to quiet my sobs.

“Your mother,” he chuckled and sat at the edge of my bed. “She’s such an awful woman, she can never do shit right the first time.” He ran his hands through his hair.

He smelled of alcohol. I tried to cover my nose with my blanket, but he tore it away from my face and grabbed me by the hair, scratching my cheek in the process. I whimpered in pain and attempted with all my might to pull his hands away.

“You’re not going to be like your mother, are you?” He squeezed my hair harder, closer to my scalp.

I cried out for my mother.

“Are you?” He yelled and I shook my head, no. He threw my head against the wall and my vision blurred.

When he was halfway out the door, I was in my own body again, grown, no longer a helpless little girl. I followed him.

“You will never touch me, or my mother again!” I pushed him forward with every ounce of strength in my body. “You will never have power over us.” I stared into his eyes and saw his black soul filled with shame. “You are worthless.” I pushed him back into the hallway, “You are not even half the man my father was.”

He attempted to grab me by the arms, but I snatched them away. “And although I grew up to be involved with an abusive asshole just like my mother, I grew up to be just as strong willed as her too.” I gave him one final hard push and watched him fall into a dark oblivion.

The house faded around me, and I was back on the path, only this time, I had made it. The City of the Dead roared around me with mariachi music and vendors selling pan de muertos. The people greeted me and congratulated me on making my journey past Xibalba. I looked behind me, but there was no longer a path, or shadows, just more of the beauty and light the city had to offer.

“I told you you would make it with ease.” La Muerte looked down at me and I only smiled. She called that ease?

“Xiomara! You made it!” I watched Selena bounce over with her cheetah in tow, only this time I could see her bones, and her calavera was accented orange with bits of red and yellow here and there. She wore a flower crown over her hair and seemed to walk lighter than before. I looked at my hands and saw the bones of my fingertips. I reached for my face which was hard skull. La Muerte manifested a mirror.

I studied my new appearance. My calavera was accented purple with streaks of yellow and pink in floral designs around where my eyes were. I looked at the deep indentations where my full cheeks once were. I turned to the side to see how sharp my cheek bones looked now. I was beautiful.

I embraced Selena for a long time. I knew I could share my pain with someone now. I sighed and let my worry dissolve in the air.

“Where is your alebrije?” Selena pointed out an important point that I had almost forgotten.

“I don’t know, it never showed up I guess.” I shrugged knowing the hard part of my journey was done, and I had made it to safety. I thought about the things I faced in Xibalba and my heart hurt. I was at peace knowing I got my own do over at the important parts. I looked up at La Muerte and she nodded, excusing me from her presence.

I walked deeper into the city. Many of the people greeted me and congratulated me on my journey. I hadn't noticed before, but I was shedding tears. I passed shoe shops, and panaderias. I passed the arena where there was a big count down to the Day of the Dead. I watched kids play with their alebrijes and the mariachis sing the songs of their hearts. An old woman swayed listening to them while embroidering something on her lap. She smiled, shining a gold tooth at me.

I spotted a cliff at the edge of the road and moved towards it. I sat on the smooth edge and leaned back. I looked down to see a drop off of darkness and wondered what would happen if I jumped. The silly thought of respawning like in a video game entered my mind. After all, I couldn’t die again.

I hummed along with the mariachi as they sang Cielito Lindo. On good days, I danced to this song with my mother in the kitchen while she made dinner. We sang “canta y no llores,” “Sing, but don’t cry” with extra passion each time. My life was a beautifully terrible life. I endured things I shouldn’t have and still ended up moving on happily into the beautiful city. I looked up at the sky and took in a breath of air.

“You’re silly if you thought you were done with me.” A terrifying voice broke my peace and I looked down at a distorted version of Michael. He climbed the rocks from the shadows below and grabbed onto my foot. He pulled hard making my grip on the rock slip and my body slide down farther towards him.

“You are not worthy of a place like this, Xiomara.” He spoke shrilly. I covered my ears and did everything in my power to scream for help, but the words wouldn’t come out. A vivid picture of Michael on top of me with his hands around my neck swirled into my head. He pounded me again and again against the floor until I could feel the warmth of the blood pooling, and then the cold that washed over my body. And then a deep throaty growl.

I could breathe. Hands were no longer around my neck and Michael turned into three different demons. I looked up at a teal colored wolf with gold wings and accented purple marks all over its body. Its eyes glowed violet as it bared its teeth at the demons, warning them away. It took a protective stance over me, and the La Muerte appeared above me.

“Mi niña, you were never supposed to experience your death again—too painful." She bent down to touch my cheek. The wolf sat, and I watched her as she returned my stare.

“She's yours.” La Muerte chuckled, “And she came when you needed her.”

I reached out to touch the beautiful alebrije that I could call mine, and I felt lighter.


©The Acentos Review 2020