Una (no)resolución y un cuento


Also, he added while we walked on the mud, you never have to kill tortoises, did you know that? You just place them in water, and use that water as the main ingredient for omiero.

Este año, quiero vivir en el presente. Quiero estar. Sencillamente estar.

Claro que es medio oximorónico el ejercicio de planificar para estar…el punto de vivir cada instante es precisamente dejar las fijaciones culposas (con el pasado) y las exculpatorias (con el futuro) para favorecer el estar aquí, pendiente del interlocutor y escuchando lo que nos dice, del amigo y lo que siente, de la sensación que produce el agua espumosa cuando lavamos los platos y de los sonidos de carros, pájaros e insectos alrededor. De la sonrisa o el dolor de un desconocido. De nuestra propia hambre o saciedad. Sencillamente estar.

Aquí va el cuento. Allí, en ese momento, no estuve.


His old age inconvenienced me. I was twenty, and in my haste to do an interview series with what seemed to be the only willing santero in town, I had not counted on his getting tired during long sessions. Or his house smelling with that faint odor that old people’s homes have even when they’re very clean. Or his insistence that I visit more often.

Or his hands trembling when he tried to kill a chicken. They were not supposed to tremble, and I was not supposed to help.

Santería is a Caribbean religion, the product of a syncretic mixture of Spanish Catholic and ancient African Yoruba mythologies, social structures and religious practices. A close relative of Brazilian Candomblé, Santería was born in Cuba among Nigerian slaves under Spanish rule, and brought to Puerto Rico, Miami and New York by Cuban migrants after Castro’s revolution. Seventeen years ago, I was so eager to get that story, I missed this story.

On that particular day, I sat down with my tape recorder and my list of questions, quietly hoping we would get down to the business of studying his religion, and quietly knowing we would get side-tracked. We did. Today, it was a zoological thing. The relative ease of caring for tortoises, jicoteas, as opposed to doves – you see, jicoteas just bury themselves in the back yard’s mud, never bother anyone. Doves, on the other hand, constantly soil their cages, their food, and their own beautiful white feathers.

I kept the recorder off, saving the tapes for the real information.

Also, he added while we walked on the mud, you never have to kill tortoises, did you know that? You just place them in water, and use that water as the main ingredient for omiero.

Omiero is a common and important potion. Out with the recorder. I knew some of the ingredients – fish, river water, palm oil and, after today, tortoise water, but the exact ingredients and their proportion was something only an ordained santero would know. I was about to get a recipe.

Not today. No more talk of omiero. Instead, I listened to some story about a client who came for a divination procedure and was sent to the doctor instead. Then he looked at my car. It had a dent from a small accident the week before. He was worried – was I driving safely? Did I follow the speed limits? Did I drink?

Yes, yes and no, I said, putting the recorder away with a sigh.

He scribbled some things on a little piece of paper and sent me off to purchase four ohíos, or very young chickens, some candy, and a dry coconut. He had the rest of the stuff he needed there, he said. Need for what? To clean and protect your car. No more accidents. Ohíos are best for that. Ochosi will protect you when you drive.

I went to the market. Apparently I was going to see something first hand. I was getting an A, for sure. Everybody else’s topic seemed suddenly boring. Not me. Ritual sacrifice, that was my story. Santería.

I came back quickly. So quickly I almost hit a car entering the neighborhood where my santero lived. Good thing I was going to get protection, I smiled.

He had the knife ready when I came back. The knife, some herbs, a jar containing an opaque liquid-omiero, he said, and I remembered the tortoises and hoped I wouldn’t have to drink any of the stuff as part of the procedure.

He broke the coconut against the sink’s rim, expertly, in four pieces. The coconut is a quick divination method – it can answer simple questions with a definite yes, a definite no, or a less definite maybe. Was I in danger? Maybe.

That’s when I realized the ohíos were about to get killed. I mean, of course I knew they were. But that’s when I really, really knew. You know, how you eat chicken or beef all the time and of course you know you are and then you read about the horrors of industrial chicken and cattle farming and then you really know you are? Something like that.

He started plucking the small feathers on one of the ohío’s tiny necks. His hands were trembling. He was old, and he was frail, and he had diabetes and high blood pressure and trouble with his eyesight and his hands trembled.

When he was younger, he had been in an orchestra, played the trumpet, fallen in love with his wife and married her. He had been ordained into Santería by chance, after their only son had been killed in Vietnam, because of a stint in jail for standing too long in front of the White House. It wasn’t about the war, he told me. It was more about the indifference. The selfishness of it all. The big building and the business-as-usual atmosphere and the people and the tourists wrapping themselves around his grief. Dark-skinned and Spanish speaking, he had been removed from the sidewalk by the police and sent to jail to grieve in a less public manner. He was rescued by a santera –nothing happens by chance, he said- and ordained a year after, son of Obatalá -the oricha of purity, peace, and compassion.

His hands trembled so much now he asked me to hold the chicken for him. He said, with a smile, you said you wanted to learn so now come and learn. You will be my assistant.

I held the small body. It was warm, and it moved softly. My hands felt as if they were holding a very large butterfly, or more like a very large, warm moth. In Spanish, there is only one word for both – moth and butterfly. Mariposa. There is also only one word for both turtles and tortoises. Tortuga. My santero always used the Yoruba word – jicotea.

They did not have any other children. His wife was ordained after he had come back- now daughter to Yemayá, Yemayá the mother, Yemayá the sea. They each had a separate room for religious use –each containing an altar, a collection of ritual objects, some books, a rug. A personal space for meditation and meeting with clients. She never talked. She would smile, though – every time I looked at her, she smiled and her eyes seemed very small and very dark when she did. She had long, gray hair.

The knife went in. I had read about cuchillo–ritual killing, which requires a separate initiation- and knew his technique was good. The hands trembled, though, and this made the process much messier than it should have been. Blood was everywhere. I also knew I wasn’t supposed to touch the blade. I didn’t want to anyway. We took some blood, mixed with omiero and feathers, to one of my car tires.

Three more times. Three more tires.

He never knew exactly how his son had died. He just knew he was dead – the classic scene, the visit by military men, standing at your door with the bad news, somewhat disrupted by the presence of an extended family, neighbors, and some farm animals. There was a biographical mess afterwards-death can be so messy- he had to leave to the States to deal with some bureaucracy, left the wife behind in shock, ended up standing in front of the White House for several days, or several weeks, he didn’t remember. His beard grew, he said. People would bring him food. I don’t remember the story well either. It was one of those things he told me between pieces of good information for my tapes. One of those things that then made me feel guilty about not visiting more often or without the tape recorder. One of those grandfatherly, non-exotic things.

We sat down. He was exhausted. His wife brought lemonade. I washed my bloody hands in the back yard sink and the discarded pieces of coconut looked pink for a few seconds.

When I came back, he was in the yard again. He pointed to the ground. Look, he smiled. The jicotea. He caressed the small back leg before it disappeared into the ground.


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