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Ameer Phillips, ’17

Premio Ramiro Lagos, 2023
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Primer Premio | 1st Prize
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Ficción | Fiction
Anyelly Herrera, ’24
Michelle Geiser Menz, ’18
Anonymous

Voces de | Voices of Abiayala
Francisco Huichaqueo (Wallmapu, Chile)
Roxana Miranda Rupailaf (Wallmapu, Chile)

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Éowyn Bailey ’26
Max Congdon, ’23
Mary Grace Kelly, ’25
Nadia Letendre, ’25
Elena Miceli, ’20
Brendan Robinson, ’26
Grant Ward, ’23

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Jimena Bermejo (Theatre)
Ahana Nagarkatti, ’25

Poesía | Poetry
Éowyn Bailey, ’26
Colectivo Stein IV
Ahana Nagarkatti, ’25
Ashley Rodríguez Lantigua, ’23
Camiah Small, ’26

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Mark

Anyelly Herrera, ’24

Death’s First Goodbye

“Death’s First Goodbye” is the final part in a collection of short stories, The Embrace of Shadow, that focuses on the Dominican Republic. For this collection I wanted to tell the stories of regular day-to-day people in an unjust world throughout history. For this one specifically, I dove into a lot of oral histories and memories of when I lived in Dominican Republic. For this reason, this story is so close to my heart. When I read it, I am reminded of life in rural DR. While this story is painful, I hope that by the end of it people can come to understand the complexity of our world and our ideas of the afterlife. It is my hope not to glorify suicide but to convey the many reasons and desperation that drives people into corners. I also want to make it known that the images I insert below were created with Canva Text to Image. These images are approved by my beautiful Dominican mother. The tree in the photo below comes directly from a memory I have.

The project was made possible by a 2023 Weiss Summer Research Grant from the J.D. Power Center for Liberal Arts in the World, and prepared under the guidance of Prof. Carmen Jarrín, Sociology & Anthropology.

I want to start by offering a trigger warning for suicide.

︎

The Woman with the Black Veil


A single chair decorated Joaquin’s living room. It was a white plastic chair, the cheapest his mom could get at the market. That single chair became a reminder of everything he didn't have. A reminder that he didn't have the money to buy furniture for his small wooden house or enough food to satiate his hunger for a few days.

It was a long afternoon when he hadn't eaten anything of substance in weeks; the cassava his mother left still wasn't ready, and the cherry tree was starting to dry out. The water from the river was turning so brown that he realized he would die if he didn’t figure something out. He had lost everyone he had ever loved, and his neighbors were miles away where he couldn't reach them.

Joaquin had left school two weeks prior because classmates would bully him. They would make remarks about his hair cut which was a result of not having enough money to trim his afro. His school uniform was falling apart as it was passed down from his older brother to him about five years ago.

His older brother was able to run away from home and find work in the sugarcane industry, where he died a few months later due to extreme conditions. His mother was warned that if she claimed his body, the expenses for a funeral would fall on her, so she abandoned the body of her oldest son. Only three years later, Joaquin would be forced to do the same after his mother collapsed in front of a clothing store.

It had been only three months since her death. When he went searching for the only uncle he knew, Joaquin found that he was taken in a cage back to Haiti despite being born in Santo Domingo. When Joaquin returned home, he tried to find a job and asked around, promising to do anything required of him, but colmados didn’t want the son of a Dominican woman of Haitian descent helping them out.

This only made him realize that going to Santo Domingo or anywhere near the border for work was not an option. Due to his heritage and skin color, they thought of him as Haitian despite both his mother and father being Dominican. He was turned away from the field because he was too skinny, and they didn't think he could handle it. There were days when the local street food lady would pity him and give him leftovers as he went from establishment to establishment. Joaquin preferred not having friends because he was too ashamed to invite them to his empty house, so nobody could help him. The only reason he still had a home was because, in the rural town of Santiago, nobody cared about the tiny wooden house painted blue that sat miles away from the main road and had no electricity or running water.

That is the same reason his mother and her parents could live there for so long; their land had no value for people wanting the life the city could provide. There were no beaches or nice rivers nearby, so investors didn't care to make his home a tourist attraction. For him and his family, though, that land was enough to live off fruit trees scattered around and the cassava his mom had taught him how to grow.

When he had the energy, he would walk for about ten minutes to a guava tree so his stomach could get something more than cherries. This time when he arrived, he found a woman standing by the tree with a black veil around her head to protect her from the heat. She waved at the boy like she knew him.

“Oh, could you help me? I live a few minutes away and can't carry all the guava by myself,” she smiled, pointing to the basket filled with ripened guava.

Joaquin looked around, surprised that someone else lived deeper into the road than he did. He was too hungry and tired, so he shook his head rapidly and began getting ready to climb the tree.

“I have some food I could pay with,” the woman smiled again.

The promise of food was enough to convince Joaquin, so he picked up the basket and asked the woman to lead the way. The woman’s brown skin reminded him of the painting he used to see in school of the Taino people; her hair was like his, maintained with braids that went past her shoulders. Her brown eyes looked like honey against the sun, and her arms were filled with tattoos he didn't know the meaning of.

There was a tattoo he couldn't get his eyes off; it was a simple white ink tree, but he couldn't take his eyes off it for some reason.

“Do you like them?” the woman who had not looked behind her the entire time asked.

Joaquin didn't know what to say, so the woman said, “It’s just a tree. There is nothing special about any of the tattoos on my body.”

Joaquin nodded, fixing his grip on the basket that had started to slip out of his hand. “Why get them then?” Joaquin asked.

He was always told that tattoos were for criminals, so he didn't understand why she got them when society would judge her for them. The woman knew this and all the traditions of marking the body and their meaning.

“Why kill yourself if you think you are going to hell?” The woman’s words caused Joaquin to come to a full stop. He remembered getting the rope that was keeping the curtain on the wall. He could feel the blisters from the tree he climbed. There is a vague memory of him wrapping the rope around the tree but nothing afterward.

Joaquin looked around him, his brown eyes searching for anything that would make this place imaginary; maybe a tree in the wrong place, an extra finger on his hand, or something out of the ordinary on hers. But there was nothing. Everything felt as real as any other day. Even the insatiable hunger was still there.

Confused, he asked, “Am I dead? Is this hell?”

The woman smiled, inviting him to look around again.

“The house is a minute away. Once there is something on your mind other than food, things will start to make sense.”

The woman kept walking, and without knowing what to do, Joaquin followed her. He looked ahead but saw nothing until a tree began shedding its red leaves. A house in the same shade of wine red appeared. It was similar to his house in shape, but this one had a perfect stainless-steel roof that did not let rain flood the house.

“Leave the guavas by the door,” the woman said from her kitchen.

Joaquin placed the basket outside the door and entered the house looking behind him in case things started to fall apart.

︎

Between Life and Death


A plate with white rice, beans, and chicken was waiting on the table. Joaquin could see the steam coming from food, and while he wanted to doubt and hold back, his hunger didn't let him. The woman grabbed his favorite soda from the fridge and brought it to him. He didn't

question how she had electricity when there were no electric poles anywhere near and drank half a bottle in one go.

“You know some traditions believe that if you eat something from the realm of the dead, you are stuck there forever,” the woman sat in front of him.

“Is that true?” Joaquin dropped his spoon.

The woman laughed at his innocence even at such an age and said, “It is if you believe it. If it’s ingrained in your blood, then it will become a reality.”

Joaquin used to go to a Catholic church in town, so all he knew was heaven and hell. The woman’s words seemed like something an older person would say, so he ate like he was running out of time in the small paradise.

The woman sat before him with her veil still wrapped around her head and said, “Eat slower, or you will get a stomachache.”

She sounded like his mother, he thought. Even the way she sat there eating nothing and just looking at him. Back when she was alive, his mother couldn't afford to feed both of them, so she would pretend not to be hungry so he could enjoy his food without worrying about her. He eventually started realizing what his mother was doing, and by 15, he insisted they split the food up and eat together.

“If this isn't hell, then what is it?” Joaquin asked when he finished eating. “You are not dead yet, Joaquin.”

“Then what is going on?”

The woman, whose eyes looked black under the shade, said, “I guess you could say that I am trying to save you.”

“Save me?” Joaquin whispered, looking down to see the plate he emptied filled with perfectly cut guava.

“You have crossed the threshold between life and death but remain still in the land of the living. I believe that there is too much weight on your shoulders right now, and it’s stopping me from judging you fairly. There is very little that you believe in because of everything that has

happened to you. The world around you has made you feel like you deserve to be in hell or that you are not worth a place in paradise. But I want to change that; I cannot do that if you are already dead, though.”

Joaquin never thought he needed to be saved. For him, life was a series of tragic events that would never stop until his death. As the woman had said, he didn’t believe that there was a place for him in heaven. Joaquin didn't think he was important enough to be given a second chance, so he said, “I don’t matter. I just want the pain to end,” Joaquin was ashamed of saying this, but even if he wanted, he couldn't lie.

“I know it's hard to imagine, but things will not be the same without you. The world has done an excellent job at making people feel useless and like an inconvenience. But you-”

“Let me die,” Joaquin interrupted. “Just let me die. My death is the only thing I have full control of.” There were tears in his eyes now, and Death watched him carefully, letting him be overwhelmed with his emotions.

He continued between tears, “I have lost every single person that I cared about, and I couldn't even bury them properly. I can't get a job; I mean, no one wants someone as dark as me in their stores because they think I am a thief. Look at me right now; I've been wearing the same blue shirt and khaki pants for months. I haven't had a warm home-cooked meal since my mom died and my father abandoned me. I have nothing left, so just let me die so I can finally rest.”

The woman stood from the chair, wrapping her arms around Joaquin, and whispered, “That is the thing, Joaquin, you will not rest if you die now because you still believe that you somehow deserve punishment for existing.”

For Death, the saddest part of its job was never the passing itself or the suffering people experience as they die, but the suffering they carry with them. That suffering had begun to steal deserving people from a place to rest. Because Death depends on the deeply ingrained beliefs held by the people, there is no way to change their fate.

For the Christian or Muslim believers, it judged them based on the scale of their own making, sending them to their version of paradise or hell. For the Hindus or Buddhists that believed in reincarnation, they were given a new life to continue in the world of the living. But the world has shifted, causing Death to reevaluate its methods. It began to notice the pattern of dehumanized communities forced to believe that they didn’t deserve peace. They practiced religions forced upon them that blamed them for their suffering. The weight of their pain was so heavy that if Death had not interfered, they would have spent their lives in a circle of suffering.

That is why it created the world for Cayguan to give people a place where human greed didn’t take away their dignity.

When Joaquin had calmed down and was no longer crying, Death invited him outside, where Joaquin’s mother and brother were waiting. He ran to them, hugging them as tight as he could and not believing this wasn't a dream.

“How?” He turned to his mother, whose smile was filled with a happiness he had never seen before.

“It was our wish to be reunited,” his mother, Sara, said.

Joaquin looked around, the streets now filled with many houses and trees, giving a nice shade for those who wanted to sit outside and get some breeze. He turned to the woman for an explanation, but she had disappeared, and the house was long gone.

“Let’s go home,” Luis, his older brother, said.

Luis was about three years older than Joaquin. They looked the same as if his mother had given birth to twins. It hadn't dawned on him that his brother was the age he was now when he died. It made him feel even worse that he had grown up all those years without his older brother and with a mother filled with immense grief.

Luis and Sara began walking towards the house that now looked to be a few minutes away.

“Were you alone for those three years before Mom came?” Joaquin asked, his feet glued to the ground.

Luis came over, putting his right hand over Joaquin’s shoulder, and said, “We are not alone here. You see those houses; they are filled with people like Mom and I… We wanted something other than the Christian heaven-” “Let’s just go home,” Sara interrupted.

Joaquin started walking, Luis staying by his side and smiling. Even though he was confused and didn't know what to say, he followed them. When they arrived at the house, he noticed that the stainless-steel roof looked brand new, and he didn't have to carry the door to open it. The house was decorated with a stove, fridge, dining table, and couch in the living room with a large tv stuck to the wall. The floor was made of ceramic, and the hard cement he was used to was gone, and the curtains matched the decoration on the table.

“What do you guys want to eat?” Sara opened the fridge, which was filled with fresh food.

His brother had disappeared into the bedroom, and Joaquin couldn't say anything. He was holding back tears, but he also wasn't used to this mother, the mother he remembers would make whatever she could without asking, and they would eat without thinking there were any options.

He stared at her while she smiled, a smile that didn't seem to carry any sadness behind it like it used to.

When she finally got him to answer, he said he wanted something warm, so she settled for sancocho. Then Luis brought him some new clothes asking him to try it on with an excited face. They all laughed at the matching set of clothes Luis got. The look on his mother's face of hope made him run to the bedroom to change.

Joaquin changed into a white shirt with black pants. Then as he was about to walk back, he felt his legs tremble as if they had lost balance, the blisters on his palms were back, and sweat dripped down his face. He looked down, and all he saw was the tree branch he had climbed and, on his hand, the rope he had wrapped around the branch. It was like he was in two places at once. The part of his life that included his mother and brother now seemed like a distant dream; he could hear their laughs outside the door. He wanted to go to them to see their smiles again, but if he stepped forward or backward, he would fall to his death. So, he did the only thing that made sense: he begged for the woman.

“Please, help me,” he whispered, afraid to torment his family with his suffering.

The woman appeared in front of him, and the woods where he ran off to die started slowly materializing around him, replacing his house's familiar walls. He closed his eyes as the twisting of light and darkness began to hurt them, and when he opened them, he was greeted with his hung lifeless body. He turned around quickly, afraid of looking at himself, of looking at the body that had become cold.

︎

Death


Death had entered Joaquin’s home the second he decided to take his own life. It called his name, and there was no way back. It followed him into the deepest part of the woods claiming his soul and wrapping its arms around him. Death presented itself in peace for him, helping him climb the tree despite his lack of energy.

When it was time, Death showed herself as a woman to make up for the loss of his mother. It had no intention of saving him for the world of the living but to give back the value that the world stole from him. When he begged to stay with his family, Death knew Joaquin felt worthy of their love.

“Say goodbye to this world; it will be the last time you see it,” Death said.

As Joaquin turned around, he looked at the tattoo of the tree, which had begun to glow. From the white tree painted on her skin now hung his body. He wanted to ask but instead looked at his own body.

“Do you regret it?” Death asked and broke the branch with the snap of her fingers. The body fell gracefully as if floating on water and slowly sinking into the ground.

Joaquin wondered, too, if he regretted it. He was often told in Sunday school that those who took their own lives were going to hell. Some part of him believed that to be true, but the other part just wanted the pain in his chest to disappear. Putting his hand on his chest and feeling nothing but relief, Joaquin shook his head. The world is such a complex place, Death thought as she directed Joaquin back into the place, he created alongside Cayguan.

Joaquin looked around the woods, now bathed in sunlight, and asked, “Do people not get punished for doing what I did?”

Death momentarily thought about why. “Not everyone that commits suicide is a good person, Joaquin. There are many people who do it to escape from the consequences of their evil actions, and some that see it as freedom. The reason why you aren't getting punished is because it seems that your only crime was being a boy in a world developed by hatred and greed. The world had caused you immense pain by rejecting and abusing you. It was the world in a way that pushed you to jump. If only one person had stood up for you and your family, things could have been different.”

Joaquin didn't know what to say. So, he just listened as the woman continued, “I am not saying it was right. I am saying that no one should ever be put in a position where they would rather end their lives. But when the alternative is to either starve to death or meet the same fate as your brother, it is a rational desire to ‘pick’ a faster and less painful death over a death that hovers over your shoulders every time the soil ruins the crops, or the heat causes someone to collapse while they are working.”

When Death stopped, they came to a place in the woods that shone brighter than anywhere else. There was a door there that the woman commanded him to open. When he did, the little blue house he had left behind was on the other side. He could see his mother and brother laughing through the window. His ripped blue shirt and khaki pants were replaced with the white shirt and black pants his brother had given him. Death watched Joaquin embrace his family once again and close the door returning to the woods.

A figure awaited him, leaning against the oldest tree on earth. Death greeted Cayguan with a smile, and they walked in silence for a bit until they reached the place where Cayguan had died.

“Thank you,” said Death.

Cayguan came to a full stop and asked, “For what?”

Death smiled in the face he had worn hundreds of years ago to greet Cayguan for the first time. There was a moment of silence while they sat on the ground, and then Death said, “I have taken so many lives, granted so many wishes, and punished so many people. I have taken the soul of little girls forced into womanhood by a system that objectifies their bodies, of men scarred by battles fought in the name of nations that won’t even remember their names. I saw their pain, their regrets, and their hope, yet I couldn't see what the universe was trying to show me.”

“What is that?” Cayguan asked.

“That Death, as all beings that exist within the eternal universe, can evolve. You forced me to see a new perspective I had been refusing to see for a long time. This place exists because you were brave enough to confront Death about its blindness to injustice.”

“You give me too much credit.”

“It is time for you to rest and not worry about what becomes of this world.”

Cayguan nodded, accepting that this would be the last time it would see Death. Over the years, Death honored him with its presence to show him the future he asked for not long ago. A future where people like himself who were made to feel worthless and less than human found peace.


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