by China DeSpain
Sunlight, sharp and bright as steel, cut across the plaza, bathing the old stone in searing heat. Ana-Carolina slumped in a shadow, resting against the outdoor wall of the cafe. In the courtyard, the fountain dripped sluggishly, as if even the water were enervated by the intense warmth. Ana-Carolina swiped a hand along her brow, ruffling her bangs and removing the sweat. She was used to this weather in the peak of summer, but this early in the spring—winter had barely passed—it was unseasonal and difficult to bear.
Ana-Carolina turned, startled by the voice. She’d thought she was alone in the old courtyard. But no. A man stood before her, proffering—of all things!—a bottle of red wine. She studied it; the bottle was heavy green glass, clearly old, and all that remained of the label was a patch of residue and the faint outline of a bull.
“Hello,” she said, a bit uncertain.
“You look like you could use this.” He pressed the bottle into her hand and she frowned. Strange doings were not so uncommon in these parts, but something about the man unsettled her. After all, what sort of person appeared out of nowhere and offered old wine to a perfect stranger?
“Ah, thank you?” she said, flustered. She took the wine he held, but did not open the bottle. She was not so foolish as to accept a drink from a stranger.
“I’m Tomás,” he said. Everything about him was dark, from his black hair to his brown eyes to his swarthy skin. His brows were dark slashes that highlighted a somber expression.
“I…” she cleared her throat. “I’m sorry, but I don’t quite understand. Why have you brought me wine?” She absently swirled the bottle, watching the thick liquid twirl.
He smiled, his teeth keenly white against his tanned skin. Suddenly transformed, he seemed approachable now. Attractive, even. Puzzling. “Like I said, I thought you needed it.”
“Thank you, but I don’t accept drinks from strangers.”
“But I’m not a stranger. I told you. I’m Tomás.” He laughed at her arched brow and gestured at the cafe. “I work here. Ignacio will vouch for me. Ask him for a glass.”
Ana-Carolina’s gaze followed his outstretched hand and she smiled. Ignacio was the cafe’s ancient owner. He was a tough, withered old man. Leathery, nearly toothless, and the best cook she’d ever encountered. She loved him like a grandfather.
“Drink it,” Tomás encouraged. “It will help with the heat. I’ll leave you to it.” He disappeared around the back of the cafe, toward the alley, and Ana-Carolina went inside, baffled but curious enough to ask Ignacio about the mysterious stranger.
Ignacio was in his usual place, perched on a barstool, observing his cafe with raven-sharp eyes that had not dared dull with age. “Analita!” he exclaimed when he saw her, and Ana-Carolina wrapped the old man in a hug.
“How have you been? It’s been too long since you’ve come to see me.” he asked.
“Well enough,” she said. “And I’m sorry. But something strange just happened.” She told him about Tomás and the wine.
Ignacio grinned, showing off the gaps in his teeth. “Ah, Tomás. That boy is peculiar, but he has a good heart.”
Ignacio shrugged. “He knows things. Sees things coming before they happen. A bit spooky, no? But he is not dangerous.”
“How long has he worked here?”
Ignacio waggled a hand in the air. “Eh, it is hard to say. He doesn’t work a regular schedule like the rest of my boys. He comes and goes with the wind. Before he came here, he worked for years at a cafe called Vine and Bean. They gave him a good reference. His resume was strong and customers like him, so I give him leeway.”
Ana-Carolina frowned. It wasn’t like Ignacio to accept such a flighty schedule. “You think this is okay to drink?” she asked, holding up the bottle.
“His wine is safe,” Ignacio said. “You would like a glass?” He muttered something to the bartender, and the man slid a goblet to Ana-Carolina.
She shook her head, as if that might help clear it. It was too hot, and Ignacio was encouraging her to drink this strange wine. The entire experience was bizarre. But she was thirsty and she trusted Ignacio with her life.
What the hell? she thought.
She scooped up the glass and thanked both men. “I’ll drink this at my usual table,” she said, heading to the corner she preferred. The cafe was small, and her favorite spot was shrouded by the leaves of a huge potted banana plant.
She poured the wine and took a tentative sip. It was dark and rich, sweet and fruity on the tongue with a hint of bite. She approved. She leaned back and drank deeper, and was surprised to discover Tomás had been right. She did feel better: cooler, lighter, happier. The weight of the unnatural heat lifted, leaving her buoyant. She drained her glass and poured another, nearly guzzling. She set down her glass and giggled, delighted by the wine.
That was when everything went hazy.
Her pupils constricted and the world fragmented into prismatic shapes, fractals tessellating endlessly. She could see the molecules in the air, hear the banana plant growing.
Ana-Carolina stumbled to her feet and out into the courtyard. Dizzy, she made her way to the alley where Tomás had disappeared. She found him there still, leaning against a wall, but he was changed. His lanky form remained, sprawled against the wall, but now it was more like a shadow or a frame that encompassed something else. Within him she could see an electric blue light that pulsed like a heartbeat.
She knew, without hesitation, that she was seeing his true form. Moreover, she recognized what he was.
Spirit-being. Magicworker. Seer.
The blue light pulsed brighter, and she heard his voice in her head. He no longer spoke her language, but she understood him on an elemental level.
The wine set you free, Analita. You know the world as it truly is now. You have become.
“I don’t understand.”
This was always your destiny. You are one of my kind and the time has come for you to embrace your true nature.
“But how is that possible?”
The blue light glowed serenely, in what Ana-Carolina recognized as a sort of smile. Duende are born in many ways, Analita. This is yours.
Ana-Carolina slid down the wall until she rested against the cobblestones. Her heightened senses were dizzying: she could taste the carbon in the air and smell the algae growing on the fountain in the courtyard. Sounds overwhelmed; she felt as though she could hear the heartbeat of the Earth itself. She glanced down at her body and was unsurprised to find that she resembled Tomás now; her figure seemed a mere shell that encased a brilliant violet light.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with this.” Hysteria edged her voice and she squeezed her eyes shut.
Do not be afraid.
She laughed without mirth. “Impossible.”
Trust me, Analita. Trust yourself.
She swallowed back the tears that threatened. “How? What do I do?”
Tomás reached out a hand and grasped her shoulder. She was startled to discover she could still feel his physical form.
Come with me, Ana-Carolina. I will teach you.
Yes. It is time to change the world.
Ana-Carolina grasped his hand and pulled herself up. “Show me.”
And he did.