Title: Bruja Born
Author: Zoraida Córdova
Release Date: June 5, 2018
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Three sisters. One spell. Countless dead.
Lula Mortiz feels like an outsider. Her sister’s newfound Encantrix powers have wounded her in ways that Lula’s bruja healing powers can’t fix, and she longs for the comfort her family once brought her. Thank the Deos for Maks, her sweet, steady boyfriend who sees the beauty within her and brings light to her life.
Then a bus crash turns Lula’s world upside down. Her classmates are all dead, including Maks. But Lula was born to heal, to fix. She can bring Maks back, even if it means seeking help from her sisters and defying Death herself. But magic that defies the laws of the deos is dangerous. Unpredictable. And when the dust settles, Maks isn’t the only one who’s been brought back…
They say El Corazón has two hearts:
the black thing in his chest
and the one he wears on his sleeve.
—Tales of the Deos,
Felipe Thomás San Justinio
his is a love story.
At least, it was, before my sister sent me to hell. Though technically, Los Lagos isn’t hell or the underworld. It’s another realm inhabited by creatures, spirits, and wonders I’d only read about in my family’s Book of Cantos. The place where I was kept—where my whole family was imprisoned by a power-hungry witch—that was as close to hell as I hope I’ll ever get.
But that’s another story.
“Lula, you ready?” my sister Alex asks.
I stare at my open closet and can’t find the socks that go with my step team uniform. I riffle through bins of underwear and mismatched socks and costume jewelry.
“Lula?” Alex repeats, softly this time.
For the past seven or so months, Alex has been extra everything—extra patient, extra loving, extra willing to do my chores. She means well, but she doesn’t understand how suffocating her attention is, how the quiet in her eyes drives a sick feeling in my gut because I’m trying to be okay for her, for our family and friends. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at faking it. But sometimes, like now, I snap.
“Give me a minute!”
I don’t mean to snap. Honestly. But everything that’s come out of my mouth lately has been hard and angry, and I don’t know how to make it stop. That’s not who I am. That’s not who I was before—
Rose, our younger sister, walks into my room wearing long sleeves and jeans even though there’s a heat wave and it’s mid-June. Rose has the Gift of the Veil. She can see and speak to the dead. Spirt magic runs on a different wavelength than the rest of our powers, and being so tuned-in to that realm means she’s always cold. Rose takes a seat on my bed and picks at a tear in the blanket.
“Can I go to the pregame with you and Maks?” she asks me. “I’ve never been to one before.”
“No,” I say.
“Why not?” When she frowns, her round face gets flushed. Sometimes I forget that underneath all her power, she’s just a fourteen-year-old kid trying to fit in.
“Because,” I say, digging through my dirty laundry. “It’s just for the team. You can drive to the game with Ma and Alex.”
“And Dad.” Rose’s voice is a quiet addendum.
Right. Dad. After seven years of being missing and presumed dead, he’s in our lives again. It’s an odd feeling having him back, one we all share but haven’t talked about. He has no memory of where he’s been, and even if we can’t say it out loud, maybe we’ve moved on without him. Alex was always the one who said he was gone for good, and perhaps deep down inside, I thought that too. But I always corrected her. I was the one who believed he’d return, because sometimes false hope is better than being completely hopeless. I believed in lots of things once.
“And Dad,” I say.
The three of us exchange a look of unease. There are too many things that are unsaid between us. I wish we could go back to being loud and rowdy and something like happy. But it’s taking longer than I thought.
So here are the things we leave unsaid:
One, we’re brujas. Witches. Magical BAMFs with powers gifted by the Deos, our gods. A house full of magic is bound to cause some friction, and after what Alex did, there is plenty of friction.
Two, my sister Alex cast a canto that banished our entire family to a realm called Los Lagos. She got to traipse across its magical hills and meadows with Nova, the hot brujo we never talk about, and her now-girlfriend, Rishi.
Meanwhile, I was trapped in a freaking tree. A big, evil tree. I was surrounded by all-consuming darkness, and even though we’re home and safe, I still feel that pull, like something is sucking at my soul and my light, and this house is too small and crowded, and I don’t know how to make this fear stop. I don’t know how to get over it.
Three, I can’t stand looking at my own reflection anymore.
I took all the mirrors in my bedroom down, even the one that was on my altar to keep away malicious spirits. They don’t need it. One look at my face, and they’ll be scared off.
“Ready when you are,” Alex says again, her guilt radioactive.
Technically, technically, the attack that left my face hideously disfigured with scars was Alex’s fault. I’m a terrible sister for thinking it. Forgive and forget and all that. But the maloscuros that came looking for her attacked me. Their vicious claws raked across my face. Sometimes, when I’m alone, I can smell the rot of their skin, see the glow of their yellow eyes, feel their presence even though they’re long gone and banished.
To be fair, Alex has scars from the maloscuros too. Right across her heart. But she can cover them up. I can’t.
Not naturally, anyway.
Having a sister who is an all-powerful encantrix has its benefits. There are a million problems going on in the world, and here I am, worrying about scars. But deep down, I know it’s more than the scars. I’ve been called beautiful my whole life. I’ve been aware of the way men’s eyes trailed my legs since I was far too young. The way boys in school stuttered when they spoke to me. The way they offered me gifts—bodega-bought candies and stolen flowers and handwritten notes with yes/no scribbled in pencil. My aunt Maria Azul told me beauty was power. My mother told me beauty was a gift. If they’re right, then what am I now? All I know is I left fragments of myself in Los Lagos and I don’t know how to get them back.
So I turn to my sister, because she owes me one. But before we can get started, my mother knocks on my open door, Dad trailing behind her like a wraith.
“Good, you’re all together. Can I borrow you guys for a minute?” Ma asks. She rests a white laundry basket against one hip and waves a sage bundle like a white flag. “I want to try the memory canto on your father before we leave. The sun’s in the right—”
“We’re busy,” I say, too angry again. I don’t like talking to my mother like this. Hell, any other time I’d catch hands for speaking to her like that. But we’re all a mess—guilt, anger, love, plus a lot of magic is a potent mix. Something’s got to give, and I don’t know if I want to be here when it does.
Mom throws the sage stick on top of the clean laundry, scratches her head with a long, red nail. Her black-lined eyes look skyward, as if begging the Deos for patience. She makes to speak, but Dad places his hand on her arm. She tenses at his touch, and he withdraws the hand.
“We all have to pull our weight around here,” Ma tells me, a challenge in her deep, coffee-brown eyes that I don’t dare look away from.
“Dad doesn’t,” I say, and feel Rose and Alex retreat two paces away from me. Traitors.
“He’s trying. You haven’t healed so much as a paper cut since—”
I widen my eyes, waiting for the her to say it. Since Los Lagos. Since the attack. But she can’t.
“You have Alex,” I say, turning my thumb toward my sister. “She’s an encantrix. Healing comes with the package.”
“Lula…” Ma pinches the bridge of her nose, then trails off as my father tries to be the voice of reason.
“Carmen,” he whispers, “let them be. It’s okay.”
But my mother doesn’t fully let up. “How much longer will you keep having your sister glamour you?”
Alex looks at her toes. All that power in her veins and she can’t escape being shamed by our mother. I might be just a healer, but I match my mom’s gaze. We share more than our light-brown skin and wild, black curls. We share the same fire in our hearts.
“Until it stops hurting,” I say, and I don’t let my voice waver.
We share a sadness too. I see it in her, woven into the wrinkles around her eyes. So she just hands me a black bundle—my uniform socks—and says, “We’ll see you at the game.”
“Close the door,” I tell Rose after our parents head downstairs.
I sit cross-legged on my faded flower-pattern rug as Alex prepares for the canto. Since she embraced her power, her brown eyes have tiny gold flecks, and her hair falls in thick, lustrous waves. She even wears it loose around her shoulders, and I think it’s because Rishi likes to twirl it around her finger when they think we’re not looking. There’s a light inside of her. The light of an encantrix and a girl in love. I hate to say I told you so, but I did tell her so. Magic transforms you. Magic changes you. Magic saves you.
I want to still believe in all those things.
Rose cleans up my altar, sneezing when she breathes in layers of dust. She lights a candle for El Amor, Deo of Love and Fervor. Beside it, she lights a candle for La Mama, Ruler of the Sun and Mother of all the Deos.
“Gross, Lula. When was the last time you cleaned your altar?” Rose asks, wiping her fingers on the front of her jeans.
I only shrug and lie back on the floor. She sits at my feet and holds my ankles. This isn’t for magic. I think she’s just trying to comfort me in the only way she knows how. Alex kneels right over my head. A year ago, Alex kept her power bottled up. Now, she calls on it easily. She pulls the smoke from the candles, elongating it between her fingertips like a cat’s cradle until it encircles the three of us like a dome.
Next, Alex rips the head off a long-stemmed, white rose and sets the petals in a bowl. Our magic, our brujeria, isn’t only about putting herbs together and chanting rhymes. Anyone could do that. This canto has no words, just the sweet hum my sister makes as she sifts through the rose petals. The rise of her magic fills the room, settles along my skin like silk.
One by one, she places each petal on my face. She hums until she’s covered every inch of pearlescent scar tissue and I’m wearing a mask made of roses. She pushes her power into the rose mask, and slowly, it takes on her magic. The petals heat up and soften, melting into my scars like second skin.
I’m never ready for the next part, but I grab the carpet and brace myself. Glamour magic requires pain. I hiss when it stings like hot needles jabbing into my flesh.
“Maybe we should stop,” Rose tells Alex.
I shake my head once. “I’m okay. I swear.”
Alex keeps going, holding her hands over my face, waves of heat emanating from her palms. I breathe and grind my teeth through the discomfort.
“There,” Alex says.
The earthy sweetness of roses in bloom fills my bedroom. Nothing coats the senses quite like roses do. Alex and I lock eyes, and there is so much I want to say. Thank you. I’m sorry. Are you okay? Her face, right where my scars should be, darkens with red splotches. I recognize the recoil of glamour magic—bruises and redness that match the person being worked on. All magic comes with a cost. The cyclical give-and-take of the universe to keep us balanced.
She never complains though. She smiles. Stands. Busies herself with her phone.
I go to my dresser and I pull out a round hand mirror that I got at a garage sale for a dollar. It’s a dull metal but makes me feel like the Evil Queen from Snow White. When I was little, I used to root for Snow, but lately, I feel the queen was way misunderstood. Women with power always get a bad rep.
My mood changes instantly when I look at myself in the mirror. I feel like I’m bound to this bit of magic that gives me back a part of myself, even if it’s superficial. The scars are gone. The Bellaza Canto is a stronger form of glamour. When I touch the area where the four claw marks are supposed to be, there is nothing there but flawless, sun-kissed skin.
“Mirror, mirror,” I whisper to my reflection, tilting my face from side to side.
I grab my favorite pink lipstick and apply it. It’s a coral shade that brings out the honey brown of my skin and make my gray eyes stormier. I fluff my mane of black curls and rub my lips together to make sure my lipstick is even. I wish I could make this feeling last. For now, I’m going to enjoy it until the next time.
“Thank you,” I tell Alex, and press a sticky kiss on her cheek.
“Gross,” she mutters, wiping it off. Then she picks up the decapitated rose stem and bowl of unused petals. “Let’s go, Rosie.”
My phone chimes and my heart flutters when I see Maks’s name on the screen. I’m outside.
I analyze the message as I put on my socks. His texts get shorter and shorter every day. Part of it is my fault for being so distant. Ever since Los Lagos, shadows seem to leap around every corner and crowds make me feel as if I’m sinking, my head barely above water. Nothing puts a big, fat hex on a social life like the fear of monsters only I can see.
“Today will be better,” I tell my reflection, slipping into Maks’s letterman jacket before I run down the stairs.
“See you at the game!” my mom shouts.
I wave as I zoom out the door and into Maks’s car parked out front. The minute I’m outside the house, I can breathe again. When I’m around Maks, I don’t have to think about magic, and I’m ready to sink into the comfort of his humanity.
“Hey,” Maks says, not looking up.
He fiddles with the radio stations, but they’re all staticky. He ends up plugging in his phone. His personal coach doesn’t believe in kissing, or anything else exciting, on game day. I want to believe that’s why his voice is distant and that’s why he isn’t reaching for my hand. But seeing him fills me with a sense of need—the need to be my old self. The need to be happy. So I press my lips on his cheek and leave the pink imprint of my mouth.
“You’re in a good mood,” he says, thick, black brows knitting in confusion, and I’m bothered that he sounds so surprised. His knee shakes a little, and I place my hand on it to try to comfort him. He always gets nervous before games. But he’s the best goalie the school has seen in years. Nothing gets past him.
“Last game of the year. It’s a big deal.” I smile when he looks at me before putting the car in drive. Relief washes over me when he takes my hand in his and kisses my knuckles, then speeds down the empty Brooklyn street.
“We’ve beaten Van Buren like six hundred times, but they’re still a solid team.” He squeezes my hand once, then lets it go.
“You okay?” I ask. As a healer, I can sense the tension knotting his aura. He’s always nervous before a game, but today it’s worse than usual. Maybe I’m feeling the residual magic from Alex’s canto. My magic has been way off.
At the red light, he turns to me. His hair is combed back at the top and his edges are freshly buzzed. I brush my fingers at his nape, where the barber didn’t brush off all the stray hairs.
“Lula,” he says my name like a sigh.
He turns to me again. I can’t tell what he’s searching for, but when I look at him, really look at him, I remember why I fell for him. The sweet, caring boy whose smile made me dizzy. I always keep a sprig of hydrangeas on my altar because they remind me of his eyes.
We both start when someone honks behind us, and he faces the road again.
“I was thinking,” I say, trying to make my voice low and playful, but I end up feeling silly, “we could do something after the game. Just the two of us.”
“I already told the team they could party at my house. My parents are on a business trip, and my sister’s already at Uki camp for the summer.”
I shouldn’t be annoyed, but I am. I tell myself he’s just tired. He’s been practicing extra hard. He’s going to Boston College on a soccer scholarship and wants to be at the top of his game.
“We haven’t really been alone in a while,” I say.
“That’s not my fault.”
“It’s not my fault either. Look, I don’t want to fight.”
Another red light. He shakes his head, like he’s dispersing the thought he just had.
“I’m just saying”—he sighs and flicks on his turn signal—“we haven’t been alone because you never feel like being alone. You’ve been so off, and I don’t know what to do anymore.”
“I told you about my dad coming back. And the break-in.”
I watch the red light, the people at the crosswalk. We’re a few blocks away from school. I recognize a couple of girls from my team by their black-and-red uniforms. A woman dressed in all black trails behind them. She holds a cane that glints in the sunlight, and with every step, her jewelry swings from side to side. She wears dozens of necklaces made of glittering gems and wooden beads. She glances at us in the car, and I swear I’ve seen her before. For a flash, the dark stare takes me to a place of my nightmares. My skin is hot, and when I close my eyes, I picture the shadows reaching for me with their claws. I grip the car seat so my hands will stop shaking.
“I know you have family stuff,” Maks says, thankfully unaware of my tiny freak-out. “I just—I’m not sure how to say it. You’re not the same person you were two years ago.”
Maks and I have been dating for two years. That’s two years of dates. Two years of I love yous and I want you forevers. Two years of going to sleep reading his messages, of hearing his voice just before I drifted off and dreaming about us together. Maks wasn’t the first boy to tell me I was beautiful. But when he said it, when he kissed the inside of my wrist and wrote it over and over again, You’re beautiful. I love you, I believed him.
I roll down the window. My scars burn and I flip down the sun visor and double check that Alex’s canto is holding up. There I am. I look like the old me even if I don’t feel like her.
Maks pulls into the school parking lot behind the gym and puts the car in park. He taught me how to parallel park even though I don’t have my license. It’s a weird memory, but it pops into my head as he unbuckles his seat belt and holds the steering wheel with a white-knuckle grip.
“Maks.” My voice is small because I know what comes next.
He breathes in long and deep, as if to steady himself. “I think we should break up.”
Also by Zoraida Córdova:
Title: Labyrinth Lost
Author: Zoraida Córdova
Release Date: September, 2016
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
An NPR Best Young Adult Book of 2016
Tor.com’s Best YA SFF of 2016
A Bustle Best Book of 2016 Selection
A Paste Magazine’s Best Books of 2016
The only way to get her family back is to travel to a land in between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…
Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic.
At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she’s not sure she can trust, but who may be Alex’s only chance at saving her family.
About the Author:
Zoraida Córdova is the award-winning author of The Vicious Deep trilogy and the Brooklyn Brujas series. Her short fiction has appeared in the New York Times bestselling anthology, Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, and Toil & Trouble: 16 Tales of Women and Witchcraft. She is a New Yorker at heart and is currently working on her next novel. Send her a tweet @Zlikeinzorro.