In a spiritual realm between Christ and a pagan god, a cleansing of the soul. From a novel-in-progress, Cuban Quartermoon.
By Ann Putnam
It was just the two of us now, making our way through the late afternoon streets of Central Havana. Under this gauzy sky everything took on a bleached, dry feeling. It had the close, musty smell of unremembered rain. Some late afternoon high cloudiness had drifted in from the sea and tamped everything down into a sleepy, unguarded dream. I was glad we were going to the mountains tomorrow. I could hardly breathe.
The babalawo spoke only Spanish. What he said, he said to me, not to Maria, though I understood none of it. I thought of my dangerous American otherness and wondered if it was in some way a sin to be here. But I came not as an anthropologist or scholar or tourist but as one of a thousand lost souls come in from the street.
He was a lovely looking, 65-year-old man. He had a carefully trimmed white beard and close-cropped white hair under a golden crown. He was wearing a Baltimore Orioles baseball jersey, tie-dyed parachute pants, and sports shoes. A hip high priest with a syncretism all his own. And around his neck a gold cross on a chain, yellow and amber beads for the goddess Oshun, and a string of white beads I could not identify.
The babalawo stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles and picked up his sacred book. It was full of numbers and markings and looked to be very old. He turned the pages carefully, then set it down. “He wants to know if you are ready,” Maria said. “He has prayed to the dead of your family and to the orishas for permission of your guardian angel to conduct the divination.”
“Tell him yes,” I said. I unclenched my hands, unfurled my heart. Now he would tell me whose child I was, and what my future held.
Then he touched my forehead with his opele, the iron chain with the eight, two-sided coconut rinds, and threw it on the mat. He studied the pattern they made—which landed up and which landed down, like heads or tails, and in which order—and wrote down the pattern in his little book. Then he threw the chain again.
I didn’t understand any of it. I was watching those dark, slender hands in a choreography of divination, and the way the chain and medallions flew across the mat. Finally his hand swept over the chain of coconut rinds lying in a pattern only he could read, and he looked up at me and smiled. Then he said in English, “Laura. Daughter of Oshun,” and touched me on the forehead. Then he returned to the Spanish while Maria translated.
“Do you have family?” the babalawo asked.
“A father,” I said.
“No husband or lover? No children?”
“No,” I said.
“Are you menstruating?”
I turned to Maria.
“If you are menstruating,” she said, “certain things have to be done differently.”
“I’m not anymore,” I said. How would I explain it? “I’ve had, you know, a hysterectomy.”
Maria’s eyes widened. “Okay. No problem.” She explained by cupping her hands below her waist and lifting them up.
“Ah,” the babalawo nodded. So there would be no children to wish for. I touched my stomach.
Then he handed me a seashell and a bone. Bone of what? my eyes asked.
“It’s all right,” Maria said. “It’s only a goat vertebra.” I closed my hand around it and shut my eyes. It felt strange and light in my hand. Then I shook them like dice, and slipped the seashell into my left hand, the bone into my right, and held out my hands.
He threw the opele again and pointed to the hand with the bone. Then he consulted his book and wrote down the oddu, the pattern and its legend. He threw it again. It came up seashell, then bone, then bone again and again and again. I did not take my eyes off his hands. Even from here, I could see the pattern of l’s and 0’s he was making, one under the other, until they made four lines across. Upside down they were hieroglyphs—marks and zeroes. My life.
Finally I looked over at Maria. Her face had undergone a transformation. It had clouded over completely. Her mouth was clamped tight. She was holding onto the edge of her chair.
“What’s happening?” I whispered.
‘The bone is very bad. There is very bad luck in the bone. He is finding out how it comes to you and what can be done to remove it.”
But the babalawo’s face did not change. The whole time the expression of
transcendence and calm never left his face.
“Now he is asking what offerings must be made. Also what sacrifice.”
I looked up at the crucifix that hung above him—the head hung to one side, the bloody knees, the word INRI above the cross beam.
“Why do you come here?” the babalawo said. “What is the weight to be lifted?”
A fist of panic caught in my throat. What was there to say?
“What do you want?” he asked again.
What did I want? I wanted my shattered self knit back together. I wanted to be whole. “I don’t want to be alone,” I said. Tears that came from nowhere ran down my face.
“Do you wish for love then? Do you wish for someone to love you?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know about that.” I looked at Maria.
“I know,” she said. “Love is complicated.”
“Yes,” I said, “I’m afraid to wish for love.”
“You should,” she said. “You should always wish for it.”
“All right,” I said.
The babalawo nodded and smiled. “My child, my child,” he said. Then he shut his eyes and began chanting in low, rich waves of sound.
All these years I had tried to beat back death with such an urgent eroticism, all I knew was the furious and unyielding insistence of my desire upon the moment. I had come unmoored, casting as I did filament after filament of myself into open air, then suddenly and always flung back to earth, and the loneliness after, a cold, old moon against a bleak, winter sky, a universe bereft of stars and human exhalation.
I had never been able to yield to the slow, more certain knowledge of heart touching heart, desire playing softly against my closed eyes, against my mouth, the sweet plum of faith on my tongue, the perfect supplicant.
I looked up at the statue of Christ on the wall and thought of everyone I knew who had been broken on the great, spiny wheel of life. I had been afraid of death my whole life. What I wanted was not to be afraid. What were those letters? What was INRI?
“You know,” Maria said. “It’s what Pontius Pilate said. “Here he is. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. I for Jesus, N for Nazareth, R for King, I for Jews. You must not be Catholic,” she said, smiling.
“No” I said, “I’m not anything.” INRI. Jesus. King of the Jews. INRI. My body broken for you. The syncretism was so clear and so complicated.
The babalawo lay down the opele and looked at me. “There is a river to cross,” he said. “Your heart is a strange darkness. Why is joy on the other side of the river?”
“So much loss,” I said. “People who have died for no reason.”
“Who? Who has died?”
It was all right. His eyes held me. Now I could say it. “My mother,” I said. “And once a little baby girl. A long time ago. There has been an accumulation of sorrows.” I looked at Maria. Her eyes were hot and dark.
“Fear or joy,” the babalawo said. “One or the other.”
Then he said, “Now you must hear a hard thing. Inside your sorrow is a great anger you have never spoken. You are angry for things that could not be helped. You have anger for your mother and father for not safekeeping you.”
There it was, all right, unclaimed all these years. “I know,” I said. “My anger holds them to me. My anger fills the empty space of them. It keeps me safe.”
“But anger takes up too much room. I will prepare an offering to take it away and replace it with a brand new thing. Three times a blessing will come to you.”
I shut my eyes and shook my head.
Then the wife came back and motioned for us to follow her into the alley.
“Oshun asks for a sacrifice,” Maria said, “so she can help you.”
“All right,” I said, and I stepped into the narrow strip of light filtering down from the long thin rectangle of sky between the buildings.
Then there it was, just as I knew it would be, out of the corner of my eye, when I stepped into the alleyway. The dark shape tucked under the shadows—the thin, black-speckled hen in the cage by the wall. I thought of all the plump, white chickens on kitchen towels and pot holders and hot plates and little rugs in front of the stove. Chickens and cows. Eggs and milk. Red strawberries on blue and white checkered tablecloths, the fat white chicken in the middle, picnics, birthdays, Fourth of July, all safe, all safe. How far this alleyway, how far that life.
The babalawo did not look up as we came and stood beside him, but continued making marks on the ground with a piece of white chalk—a smooth, half circle in front of the altar and five or six crosses through the curve. Then he stood up and said a prayer to the sky, then a prayer to the altar he had made—a tureen with dark stones, another full of a dark-green liquid that caught the light, a vase with yellow and white flowers, a single, small, white, lit candle.
What do I remember of what happened next? Who can say why some things collect in the net of memory and other things fall through?
It squawked only once, struggling only a little at the beginning, when it was first lifted up. That wild little heart against his smooth, dark palms, the panicked flutter of wings. But then as he stroked it the hen became still. Only its eyes told it was alive. It did not flap its wings or cry out. Its own tiny self a willing sacrifice, its heart a slow and steady pulse. How do they live, these birds bound to earth as they are, what sense do they have of sky or sun, or flight?
The hen was offered to the tureen filled with that dark, glistening liquid. Would I have to drink it? I would be glad not to drink it. All right. I would do anything now. I had come to the dark center of otherness. It was as far as I had ever gone. I was being drawn toward things so far outside myself I was in a country with no words I had ever known. I leaned over to take everything in. I would not shut my eyes, I would not miss a thing.
Then with the chicken in his hands, the babalawo made the sign of the cross—high up to the sky, down to the tureen with the stones, and then crossed himself, left then right, across his chest. “It is blood that is needed,” the babalawo said. “A sacrifice for Oshun. So she will help you.” In that tight alleyway, the sun was edging its way down those high, grey walls.
Then the babalawo bent over and picked up the knife. “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, hear our prayer.”
He stroked the neck of the hen with the knife, and dark feathers drifted down through the light onto the offering. “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”
Still, the hen lay quiet in his hands, the blinking eye the only sign of life, as the black feathers floated down through the holy light.
“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.” He took up the chant again, this time low and sweet and soft, an incantation of love and death. Then he took the knife, and in a single, fluid gesture severed the artery.
I do not know what happened next or what I saw. I only remember how the offering glistened with blood—how the droplets came down like little rubies in the light, over the offering for Oshun. Fruit and pumpkin seeds and purple flowers sprinkled with sugar and honey, and all of it carefully placed on a square of brown wrapping paper, now darkening brilliantly with blood. Then the babalawo lay the chicken on the pavement. I looked at it lying on the dark-stained concrete before the offering, a jumble of dark, scattered feathers.
Behind me were the spade and shovel. Gardening tools but there was no garden. Burial tools for graves of small significance.
“Was it a worthy offering?” he asked Oshun. “Was I a worthy daughter?” He dipped his hand in the dark liquid and shook it over the offering and sprinkled it over me. Then he nodded at me and smiled. Yes. It is a fine offering. All that is needed. So this was the necessary sacrifice. In death it seemed such a slight offering. The least of these, this small, diminished life, transfigured now through the awful blood. I looked at it lying there and felt the sun pouring into that narrow passageway, over my head, my shoulders, my open hands, washing me in a furious light.
I did not see him sever the head. I only saw him bending over the offering and when he stood up there it was, the eyes unblinking now, and the mouth, which opened twice. Two exhalations without breath, two words without sound, the final benediction.
The offering would be gathered up in the square of brown paper and cast into the sea. And my dark, fearful heart brought into the light.
I went into the living room and sat down. I could not stop the tears. Maria had disappeared somewhere in the back where the babalawo was washing his hands. I had passed the oval mirror in the holy room just before I had gone back through the beaded curtain to sit down. For a moment I had not recognized my face. I did not recognize the flush on my cheeks, the strange white around my eyes, the wide, dark pupils, my outrageous, extravagant hair. Asiento. Asiento. All those months of that long year making the saint—the covered mirrors, the shaved head, the fierce and radiant chastity.
Then they came back into the room and he saw me, and took my face in his hands and wiped my tears. “A small sacrifice for such a big thing,” he said. “You must come back some day and let me know how it goes.”
But I had come so far. How would I ever find my way home? I knew no bridge to take me there.