by Kim Suhr
My foot catches on the threshold of the little house, the only source of light in the room,the doorway and two small windows into the living area. It looks like there may be a bedroom behind the soiled calico curtain. In the pocket of my housedress, my thumb strokes the talisman my father held as he died.
“I’ve been putting what’s left of my strength into it, my little squirrel,” he said as he placed the warmfigure of a man into my hand. “I no longer need it.”
With my free hand, I smooth the fabric of my housedress, faded blue with small yellowflowers sprinkled all over it. Worn but not stained, no tears or repairs. The yoke is accented withyellow piping, steady yellow waves one after the other, predictable, dependable. I made the dressmyself, before I lost the weight, at a time before my empty breasts sagged like deflated water balloons on my chest. I stopped wearing bras years ago but always wear underwear even though my girlfriends swear it cuts the Havana heat by 5 degrees to go without. "Who will know?" Safiasaid, a sly twinkle in her eye, when she visited during my last bout with the illness.
From here I can hear the cry of a rooster, maybe the one that will be used for the ritual. Part of me feels regret for the bird, but the other, larger, portion of my heart is grateful for itssacrifice.
The worry about what would happen to Rolando if I should–when I am no
longer here–has grown so heavy I must do something. Perhaps the santería healer can find a cure. The cock crows again, and I take a deep breath. Better the rooster than Rolando, I say.
I listen carefully and hear the ticking of an ancient clock, there in the corner of the room. Its face puzzles me. Why would one who intercedes with the spirits need an earthlytimepiece? Then I recall Safia telling me that, in his human form, the priest salvages old tires andresells them to buy his rice and put a roof over his head. "It would be impossible to live on the few pesos he gets from people with one foot in the grave." The gossipy morsel was out of Safia’smouth before she could stop it, and we froze for a moment as the words hung in the air betweenus. A nauseous look crossed her face. "But not you, amiga, your deathbed is far, far away."
My body is bent, unable to stand straight for many months now. I used to have posturelike a palm tree, despite the years hunched over a sewing machine. “Regal,” Mamá used to say,proud that people took notice when I walked into a room. They notice now, but it’s becausethey’re surprised I can still walk with no meat on my bones. They try to hide their reactions, but Ican read what’s in their hearts. That’s a gift and a curse I’ve had since I was a girl.
Rolando has known this for three decades; still he tries to hold it in. Long after he left forthe factory this morning, the yoke of his dread pinned me to the bed. His fear is for me, ofcourse, but for himself, too. The creases around his eyes said, How will I live without you?
I tried to speak comfort to him, but he put his finger over my lips, kissed my forehead. Heplaced his yellowed hands over mine, so I could not show him the talisman. His eyes said, Notyet. I cannot bear it.
I should have told him the truth. I do not have many days left, and there is so much Ineed to tell you before I go. How I love you. You are my world. I wish I could have given youchildren. I’m grateful their lack didn’t drive you from me. I should have told him what I fearmost, that he won’t survive losing me. That my death will kill him. I can’t stand the thought ofRolando’s blood on my hands, even if I’m not in this world to see the stains. I should have told him, but, since I didn’t, I must try one last thing, the thing I’d laughedat Safia for suggesting. "Me? Consult a voudou healer? I’ll never be so desperate."
At Mamá’s wake, Papá cried about the fact that he hadn’t told her how much he lovedher before she left the house that morning. But, even as I watched my father’s body weaken fromthe fasting that lasted far beyond the customary period of aflicción, I’d felt more sympathy forMamá .
Later, when people spoke of my father’s death, it was with a note of romanticadmiration,"He simply couldn’t live without her," they’d sigh, "just like Romeo y Julieta." Butin the core of my belly, I felt the burden Mamá must carry in the afterlife, the guilt of knowingshe hadn’t made it clear to Papá that he must continue to live without her, to love again even,before the cane truck took the curve too tightly and snatched her away from us.
The house looks empty. I could wait just inside the door, but I am tired from the dustywalk from the bus. I really must sit down. The only thing that looks like furniture is a woodencrate in the corner. I sit.
My thumb worries the rough wood until I get a splinter and stick my thumb in my mouth. I wonder where he could be. Then I hear movement in the next room. I thought I had called out, "Hola" when I stepped in, but maybe I didn’t. That has been happening lately. I’ve had wholeconversations only to find I’ve never actually said the words aloud.
“Hola?” This time I know I’ve said it because I hear a questioning grunt from the otherroom. The curtain is pushed back. In the dimness, I can see only two red-rimmed eyes, their darkirises piercing my own. For a second, my words to Safia echo in my ears,"All santería priests are drug addicts and frauds."
“I’m here for–”
“I know why you’re here.” He rubs his face and steps into the room. He
wears a pair of cut-off jeans and no shirt. A long scar runs from his
right shoulder to his navel.
“I’m sorry I didn’t make an appointment, it’s just–”
“That is okay.”
The sound of my stomach startles us both, and we look straight into each other’s eyes. Ican see my death mask reflected in his black pupils. He steps forward taking both of my hands inhis. His face betrays nothing, but I can read his feelings, can feel the conflict inside him. Hisgood heart is ready to kill his only remaining rooster, but I can’t let him. I move to stand up.
“You are hungry, Señora.” He goes to a shelf on the wall and pulls down a box ofsomething.
“No, I couldn’t.” I take a deep breath and look for the lily I smell. There are no flowers inthe room.
It is time to leave.
“Pardon, Señor. I am sorry to have troubled you. I do not want to add to your burden.”
His eyes hold relief and sorrow. “May you find peace.” I turn from him, shuffle towardthe door. Then, as my right foot crosses the threshold into the sunlight, I hear, “Señora, wait. Letme read the obi for you.” He takes a step toward me, reaches out his hand. “I cannot cure yourillness, but I can help you find the answer to the question that weighs on your heart.”
My stomach tightens at the thought of knowing. I should leave. I never should have comehere in the first place. I was right. This man is a fraud with his drug-addict, red eyes and shabbyrooster.
“Please, Señora.” It is the one thing he can do for me. Now that I am here, I must let him.The crate creaks as I sit.
He disappears into the other room and returns with a hammer, a coconut in a woodenbowl and a jug of water. He squats down on his haunches on the dirty floor, lifts the hammerstraight above his head and lets it down with a thud. The coconut breaks into four even pieces.
“Think of your question, Señora, while I wash the coconut.”He mutters prayers as hepours
the water over the pieces. He holds each one up toward the light of one
of the windows, rubs his finger across the surface. When he finishes
with the fourth section, his mouth does notsmile. His eyes do.
He breaks a small piece off each of the sections and places them before a statue that sitson a shelf in the corner. “An offering to the orisha,” he whispers, then lifts his voice in calmcadence, soothing as a lullaby. I close my eyes; try to focus on the disquiet that has brought mehere, but my thoughts become gently swirling shapes, a slick of oil on the water’s surface,rainbows changing form, whirling together to become one then separating into threads andbeads, cut off from the rest.
“Señora?” He lightly touches my shoulder. I don’t flinch though his touch has come as a surprise. “We are finished.”
I know the santeros could create any sanguine answer he wants to set my mind at ease,but his heart does not betray any false answer. His face shows relief and even a little joy as heforms the words. “Your loved one will miss you desperately, but, see this formation here?” Hewants to show me he is not a fraud, points to the angle of the coconut pieces on the floor. Ialready know what he will say, but I give him the pleasure of delivering the words. “He will livea long while after you are gone. Someone else will need him as you have.”
One hot tear rolls along the side of my nose, down the crease at the side of my mouth. Itstops for a moment on my jaw before it drops onto my dress.
I have been holding my breath—since I sat down on the crate, I think. Now I let it out,pull in another lungful. The sweetest I have breathed in a long time.
I reach into my pocket for the crumpled pesos I tucked in there this morning and placethem in the priest’s hand. It is warm. “Muchas gracias, may God be with you, Señor.”
“And God be with you, sister. You have a beautiful soul.”
I listen for the rooster whose life has been spared for one more day and hear nothing, noteven the ticking of the clock across the room. Its hands stand at 5:07. Did I only imagine itssound earlier?
Once more, I step into the dusty sunlight. I grip the talisman firmly, willing it to soak inmy life on my way home. When I get there, I will place it on the bedside table and wait for Rolandoto say good-bye.