Thursday, April 29, 2010
So here I am in Cu Chi one of the 163 miles of tunnels north of Saigon that let the Viet Cong appear and vanish as if by magic and led to some of the fiercest bombing and defoliation in the war. It's weird down here. So come along for the tour. I guarantee you'll see more than the inside of my nose.
First of all note the tiny opening into the tunnel. You enter arms over your head and close the trap. As you can imagine, when it's properly in place it's impossible to see where it is. Poof! you've vanished.
The tunnels are very tight. Especially for Westerners. American forces going into the tunnels were known as the rat brigade -- Australian allies mostly as they were a bit smaller. You think this looks tight? Imagine what it feels like in the pitch black. I got a light only when the Vietnamese soldier in front of me turned to take my picture.
Breathing holes were masked by nature. This one is in a termite mound where such holes are perfectly normal. The mounds are everywhere.
And here I am standing in a B 52 bomb crater forty years after the bomb. Imagine how deep it would have been then. And picture the surroundings, wiped out by napalm and Agent Orange. What hell is war.
Next post, a total change of pace. We're off to Dalat, the Niagara Falls of Vietnam.
Monday, April 26, 2010
So here we go -- into the Big Muddy -- a.k.a. the tiny waterways of Saigon's District 2 which take us out of the urban core and into, well, a whole other world very much like the Mekong Delta.
We found this boat by accident. A guy at the dock was hawking a trip but he wasn't especially official, and Daniel was a little afraid we were going to get taken upriver, surprised by some gang, murdered and dumped. But in the words of Blanche du Bois, "I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers."
So off we go into the harbour...
And soon we're seeing the skyline -- note the Financial Building from post one -- and disappearing into major off-the-beaten-track territory, and Daniel's fears start looking maybe possible.
Well possible, but not probable, I thought as I checked for something to swim to. Actually I felt way safer in Vietnam than when I lived in Hell's Kitchen in NYC in the 80s. But okay, yeah, maybe it's not totally smart to take rides from complete strangers on the other side of the world where you don't know the culture or the language -- although I think "HELP!!!! SAVE ME!!!" is pretty universal if delivered with enough sheer terror. Still, you can't book this tour through a tour guide -- I mean it isn't even listed in Lonely Planet -- so what the hell, eh?
Every few hundred yards we see a home on the water.
And guys panning for shrimp...
Or setting out to fish or visit neighbours...
Or something as simple and perfect as this.
Anyway, it was a great outing -- even if it's not the sort of thing you tell your mom about. :)
Next post, something a little more disturbing. Inside the Viet Cong tunnels of Cu Chi...
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) at night is a wonderfully garish spectacle. Here's the big night time market. (Check out the last post for a shot of the death-defying gauntlet of mopeds you have to face to get to the market.
Here's Daniel wandering a line of stalls.
And here's the city from the bar at the top of the Sheridan.
From street level, check out one of the nicer streets.
And one you wouldn't want your mother on alone.
Even the trees get festive at night.
Yowza. tomorrow a slower pace along the river in District 2.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Whee! This is the start of a series that'll take us from Ho Chi Minh City (still known as Saigon to most people who live there) up to Hanoi and over to the 11th century temples of Angor Watt, Cambodia. Watch out for the mopeds.
There's not a heckuva lot to see in Saigon in the sense of historic buildings -- yeah, yeah, the old Presidential Palace, the Opera House, blah blah blah. BUT there's a heckuva lot to feel and experience. Starting with the Wonderful World of Mopeds, pictured above. BTW, the women aren't masking their faces for religious reasons, or because of viruses, or because of pollution -- which as you can imagine is pretty bad. They're doing it to protect their faces from sun, since women here want a pale complexion.
Remember my blogs from Salta, Argentina, in January/February about drivers playing Whack-A-Mole with pedestrians? You ain't seen nothing. Hardly a light and they never stop. You have to cross six-lane roads eyeballing oncoming mopeds who swerve to avoid you without slowing down. The city sidewalks and alleys are often moped parking lots.
And for real fun, try crossing this at night! I'm serious!!!
The streets aren't all that's busy. If you think we have fun with cable and phone lines here, imagine getting a new line installed in Saigon.
Saigon is a mishmash of French colonial architecture adjusted to South Asia, Soviet-inspired cement-block hell, and dazzling modern skyscrapers. It's a city in full Blast Off, jammed with poverty and wealth. Here's a typical business section corner.
And a quieter -- and very beautiful -- shopping street. (Daniel is pictured hiding under his hat.)
There's times you think Edward Scissorhands has dropped into a slum -- (Note: I am not scratching my bum. I am holding the loose folds of my T-shirt together because when they just hang I look like an elephant. Vanity, vanity. And the effect still looks ridiculous. Sigh.)
Times you think centuries of urban and rural life have collided --
And times you think you're looking at the next century. (This building BTW, is supposed to look like a lotus from above.)
This is just the beginning. Tomorrow I'll show you the city by night. Then we'll venture across the river into District 2 that feels like the city has melted into Mekong Delta. and then we'll go up to Cu Chi north of the city and crawl around inside some of the old Viet Cong tunnels. Hope to see you there.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
I interrupt the blog posts on my trip to Vietnam/Cambodia to bring you some truly exciting news. I am, like, dancing on air. The film version of CHANDA'S SECRETS that I blogged about all December from the set a few hours north of Johannesburg is an OFFICIAL SELECTION OF THE 2010 CANNES FILM FESTIVAL!!!!!!!!! (Sorry for screaming, but hey.:)) Oh -- the lead photo is of me with the kids who play Chanda's brother and sister, Soly and Iris.
The film is running in the Un Certain Regard section at the Salle Debusy under title LIFE ABOVE ALL. We are in competition with Jean Luc-Godard -- how exciting is that? Claire Denis is the Un Certain Regard jury president.
Here is the Cannes link -- http://www.festival-cannes.com/en.html Click upper left box (Festival de Cannes), then click Press Kit and scroll down to Un Certain Regard. Look for "Life Above All", director Oliver Schmitz. BTW, it kinda goes to show how the YA genre label is kind of a marketing ploy, eh? The film is the story exactly as it is in the book and is being marketed for adults. :)
(Don't have the screening times yet. I'm currently scheduled to be in Chicago as the keynote speaker at a 1,500 seat celebration of Mayor Daley's Book Club where CHANDA'S WARS was a featured 2010 book. Hope I can do both.)
Anyway, for those who missed it, I'm reprinting my blog from December 29, 2009 about how the film came to be made. (It's as hard as salmon spawning -- and now this -- I honestly can't believe it.) If interested you can scroll backwards to see photos from throughout the shoot. the posts go back to December 6.)
This is Oliver Stoltz, producer of the film version of Chanda's Secrets. Unfortunately, he had a serious stomach ailment during the first phase of the shoot when I was in South Africa, so this photo is taken from his website. (Oliver, you're way more attractive in person! Get a new photo!:))
I first met Oliver in 2005, when he was in Toronto promoting his Emmy-nominated documentary Lost Children, about child soldiers, at the documentary film festival Hot Docs. (It also won the German Oscar for Best documentary, and a host of other international awards.) I contacted Oliver as a research lead for my then-upcoming novel Chanda’s Wars. Oliver had first-hand experience with former child soldiers, having filmed in Uganda’s Gulu and Padr provinces, barely escaping attacks from the Lord’s Resistance Army. (He's WAY braver than me. Also a little crazy. 'Ask my mother,' he says.)
Despite his hectic schedule, Oliver took time to meet me twice and had me as his guest at the screening. I gave him a copy of Chanda’s Secrets and we said so long. A little later, I was in Germany doing a reading tour for my German publisher, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, and Oliver and I reconnected in Berlin. He still had that rumpled just-rolled-out-of-bed look -- which I had first thought was because of all the press he was doing for Lost Children, but turns out to be just the way he looks.
(BTW: Here's the German cover of Chanda's Secrets. They titled it "Things We Don't Mention" in German. Apparently it's an expression used in Germany to refer to WWII; the publisher thought it would resonate with the German audience, and communicate the hush-hush nature of Chanda's struggle.)
Oliver told me how much he loved Chanda, and that he hoped to film the book in an international co-production with his German film company Dreamer Joint Venture Productions. On my next reading tour for dtv, this time for the German edition of Chanda's Wars (Chandas Krieg), Oliver introduced me to director Oliver Schmitz. Those of you follow this blog will know him already, but to newcomers, here's a shot of Oliver at work with Chanda and Mama:
And here, BTW, is the cover of the German edition of Chanda's Wars I was promoting:
Schmitz is an expatriate South African whose work has shown at Cannes and been well-received throughout Europe and Africa. (He was part of the directing collective with the Coen Brothers on Paris je t’aime.)
The commitment of both Olivers to my work, and their personal familiarity with the world and life of the novel, gave me utter confidence. I was also pleased that they took my suggestion of screenwriter -- the wonderful Dennis Foon. I gave them the contact info for the publisher, Annick Press, a deal was negotiated with Annick's film representative, and Oliver (Stoltz) went and got financing and a distributor. (He's co-producing with South Africa's Enigma Pictures; Bavarian International is the distributor.)
I have been treated so well. The Olivers and Dennis listened carefully to my notes on the adaptation -- something rare and to be treasured in the world of filmmaking. Maybe I'll chat about a few of the differences between book and film at a later date -- but all of the slight changes make sense in terms of film and completely adhere to the vision and story of the novel.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Well, if you're going to visit a foreign country, what better time to go than during its national book fair? Especially if one's book is at the fair and one's publisher is the gracious and generous Mr. Ton Quang Toan, or simply Ton as he likes to be called, of Thuong Huyen Books. This is us in the crowd outside the entrance gate in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) -- the fair is a really fun, open-air affair.
As soon as he heard I was coming Ton did miracles, arranging for the most impressive welcome I've ever received at a foreign book fair. First of all, he got a tent for a speaking engagement and a series of print and television interviewers. Here Daniel and I pose out front of the tent by a sign with the book's cover in Vietnam.
Inside the tent are a series of twelve or more posters spaced around the side walls. Ton and I pose here, sans crowd.
Then at the front of the tent is a stage with a massive poster across its entire width, with my name in letters taller than me. And running along the bottom, a series of drawings from the richly illustrated Vietnamese text. Yikes! Talk about an ego massage. My head was floating higher than a hot air balloon.
More on the speech later, but here is Ton at his booth at the fair. You'll note the red Chanda's Secrets in the foreground. :) He publishes books from Vietnam, the U.S., Italy, Russia, England and Canada (me:)). The books include high-end Caldecott titles as well as the reader-friendly Scooby Doo series.
It was a pretty house, with lots of interesting questions -- like, what did I think of China restricting entry of persons with HIV. Here are a few photos from after the session. I hope I have the names rights, but here's Ton's foreign rights head, Trinh Hai Phuong; my presentation translator Phuong Cao; Vy Dang who was M.C.. In another shot you'll see me and the presentation translator getting ready for a T.V. interviewer. and then me outside with my book translator, Truc Quan.
AND OF COURSE ALL THE TEEN READERS WHO MOBBED ME!!!
IT WAS GREAT!!!
Ton even arranged for flowers!
All you writers out there will know how special this treatment was. I am on my knees in gratitude.
THANK YOU TON!!!!!
Friday, April 9, 2010
Last post, I included a chapter from my comic adult novel The Phoenix Lottery that demonstrated how life interacts with imagination in the creation of fiction. (My actual experiences with a santerían purification ritual outside Guardalavaca, and at the duPont mansion in Varadero, had been posted, with pix, in the weeks prior.)
(BTW, if you'd like to buy a copy of the Phoenix Lottery, just post a comment and I'll see about getting you one. :))
I used that same real-life ritual to different effect in Chanda's Secrets, where it serves as the basis of a dramatic scene involving the spirit doctor Mrs. Gulubane -- which I post below.
FYI, there's a lot of overlap in santerían and subSaharan animist traditions, as santería (like voodoo) has its roots in Yoruban ritual magic. These religious practices originated in the ancient kingdom of Benin, now Nigeria, where many of the slaves were taken to the Americas. However, in addition to my Cuban experience with animism, I also used visits with spirit doctors in Botswana and Zimbabwe to create the Chanda scene. (Zimbabwe is said to have the most powerful spirit doctors on the continent -- I've heard that from friends in Bots as well as Malawi and Zambia. While in Bots, three spirit doctors -- a grandmother, mother, and child -- offered to take me to a ceremony in Zim if I'd drive them in the car I was in. Uh... no... I kind of wanted to be alive to write the book. Some readers of this blog have said I've lived through more than my share of nine lives, but I'm careful, really -- well, sort of -- and there are some things I just won't mess with. :) I have enormous respect for the power of spirit doctors to accomplish things -- either in the natural or spirit worlds.)
Anyway, enough chat. Here is an example of how an experience can trigger two very different imaginative retellings. It also demonstrates the complexity of answering readers who want to know how much of my novel are "true." (Skim over the last few post to the ones with pix from my ritual experience. To see Chanda's Secrets being made into a film -- a real spirit doctor was cast as MRs. gulubane -- check out my posts from South Africa in December.)
FROM "CHANDA'S SECRETS" (Chanda's voice, a sixteen-year-old from a fictional country in subSahara)
Our visitor is Mrs. Gulubane. The local spirit doctor. She lives in the mopane hut across from the dump with her aging mama and a grown daughter, born without eyes.
Normally Mrs. Gulubane wears a cotton print dress, a kerchief, an old cardigan and a pair of rubber sandals. But tonight is a business call. She has on her otter-skin cap, her white robe with the crescent moons and stars, her red sash, and her necklace of animal teeth.
Our kitchen table and chairs have been pushed against the side walls. Mrs. Gulubane’s reed mat has been unrolled in the center of the room. When I come in, she’s sitting on it cross-legged. To her right is a whisk broom of yerbabuena stalks and a pot of water; to her left, a wicker basket and a handful of dried bones. This is how she presents herself on weekends at the bazaar, where she tells tourists their fortunes while her daughter hunches next to her weaving grass hats.
It’s fun watching Mrs. Gulubane play with the tourists. Most traditional doctors try to keep their customers happy. Not Mrs. Gulubane. When she’s in a bad mood, she’ll tell them that their wives are cheating with the neighbors, and their children will be ripped apart by wild dogs. If they want their money back, her daughter rips the bandages off her eye sockets and threatens to attack them with her cane. It’s amazing how fast tourists can run -- even when they’re loaded down with souvenirs and videocams.
Tonight, though, I’m not expecting fun. Here in the neighborhood, Mrs. Gulubane takes her rituals seriously. So do a lot of people -- even people who know better. No matter what sounds come out of her hut, nobody ever says a word. I don’t know how many people believe in her powers, but nobody wants to be at the end of her curse.
Mrs. Gulubane stays seated. “Good evening, Chanda.” The lamp light shines off her two gold teeth.
I bow my head in respect, but what I’m thinking is: why is she here?
She reads my mind. “There is bewitchment in this place. I have come to see what I can see.”
I look uncertainly at Mama. Why did she ask her here? She doesn’t believe in spirit doctors.
“It wasn’t your mama called me,” Mrs. Gulubane smiles. “I was sent for by a friend.”
“Good evening Chanda,” comes a voice from the corner behind me. I turn. It’s Mrs. Tafa. She closes the shutters.
Mrs. Gulubane indicates the floor in front of her mat. “Now that the family is together, shall we begin?”
Mama nods. She hands me her walking stick and takes my arm. I help her down and sit beside her. Soly and Iris squeeze between us. Mrs. Tafa sits a chair; I suppose she’s afraid if she sat on the floor she wouldn’t be able to get up again.
Mrs. Gulubane lowers the lamp-flame. Shadows dart up and down the walls. She takes an old shoe polish tin from her basket. Inside is a small quantity of greenish brown powder. She chants a prayer and rubs the powder between her fingers, sprinkling it into the pot of water. Then, stirring the water with the whisk brush, she dances about the room flicking a light spray into the corners, and over and under the windows and doorways.
I’m not sure what Mama is thinking, but Soly and Iris are frightened. “It’s all right,” I whisper. “It’s just a show.” Mrs. Gulubane stops in her tracks, tilts her ear toward us and growls at the air. Soly buries his head in my waist.
Mrs. Gulubane returns to the mat. She pulls an length of red skipping rope from her basket, folds it in two, and begins to whip herself. Strange noises rattle up her throat. Spittle flies from her lips. Her eyes roll into her head. “HI-E-YA!” She throws back her arms, stiffens, and slumps forward in a heap.
A moment of silence. Then she sits up slowly and reaches for the bones. They’re flat and worn, sliced from the ribs of a large animal. Mrs. Gulubane takes three in each hand. Chanting, she claps them together three times and lets them fall. She peers at the pattern they make. Something upsets her. She puts two of the bones aside. More chanting as she claps the remaining four and lets them fall. Her forehead knots tighter. She sets a second pair of bones aside and picks up the remaining two. A final chant. She claps them together. One breaks into three pieces in her hand. The fragments fall on the mat. She studies them closely, muttering heavily and shaking her head.
She looks up. Under the lamp-light, Mrs. Gulubane’s face contorts into the face of an old man. Her voice changes too. It’s low and guttural. She swallows air and belches words. “An evil wind is blowing from the north. There is a village. I see the letter ‘B’.”
A pause. “Tiro,” Mama says. Her voice is tired, resigned.
“Yes, Tiro. It is Tiro. Someone in Tiro wishes you harm.”
“Only one?” asks Mama. I look over. Is there mockery in her voice?
Mrs. Gulubane glares. “No. More than one,” she says. “But one above all others.” She moves the bones around, cocks her head and makes a deep whupping sound. “I see a crow. It hops on one claw.”
Mrs. Tafa’s breath seizes. “Lilian’s sister has a clubfoot,” she whispers from the corner.
Mrs. Gulubane claps her hands in triumph. “The bones are never wrong. This sister of yours,” she says to Mama, “she has visited your home?”
“She came for the burial of my child,” Mama replies. “And when I buried my late husband.”
“Death. She has come for death,” Mrs. Gulubane growls. “And to steal for her spells.”
“Lizbet?” Mrs. Tafa gasps.
Mrs. Gulubane nods darkly. “When she has left, what things have been missing?”
“Nothing,” Mama says.
“Nothing you remember. But maybe an old kerchief? An old hankie?”
“I don’t know.”
“The evil one is clever!” Mrs. Gulubane exclaims. “Each time she has come, she has taken a hankie, a kerchief, something so old it hasn’t been missed. And she has snipped a braid of your hair -- oh yes, each time a single braid -- while you lay sleeping. With these she has bewitched you. She has put a spell on your womb. Even as we speak, the demon is coiled in your belly.”
Without warning, Mrs. Gulubane lunges across the mat and punches her fist into Mama’s guts. Mama howls in pain. The spirit doctor twists her fist back. Wriggling from her grip is a snake. She throws it against the wall and attacks it with Mama’s walking stick.
The air is alive with magic. From every corner, animal noises blare, trumpet and squawk. Mrs. Gulubane spins about, striking the reptile. Finally she leaps upon it, grabs it by head and tail and ties it in a knot. She lifts the lifeless body above her head. Its shadow fills the wall.
“I have killed this demon,” she says. “But there will be others. The evil one has your hankies, your kerchiefs, your braids of hair, to make more spells. She has sewn the hankies into dollies, stitched on eyes and mouths, and filled them with cayenne. Therein the pain to your body. At night, she has singed your braids of hair. Therein the pain to your mind. Beware. You must retrieve what she’ has stolen or you and your children will surely die.”
We stare in dumb silence, as Mrs. Gulubane drops the snake into her pot, returns the pot, whisk brush and tin to her basket, and rolls up her mat. She tucks the mat under her arm, takes the basket, and makes her way out the door.
Mrs. Tafa rushes after her. “For your troubles.” She presses a few coins in Mrs. Gulubane’s free hand. “Tomorrow, I’ll have the family bring you two chickens for a sacrifice.”
Mrs. Gulubane nods and vanishes into the night.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Over the last couple of weeks, I've written and showed pix from Cuba: of Varadero, the duPont estate, and my experience with santería. These have been mixed in with two excerpts from my first novel, The Phoenix Lottery. In those you read about our hero Junior (a literary version of me) as a troubled child in prerevolution Cuba. In this chapter, he's an adult returned to Varadero, now, after the revolution. I thought you might like to see how all the interests and experiences I talked about earlier, got turned into fiction.
The rituals mentioned at the end of the chapter, are taken from actual santerían practice.
FROM "THE PHOENIX LOTTERY"
Junior checks into the Melia Las Americas, one of a dozen tourist hotels on what used to be the duPont estate. Without bothering to unpack, he wanders the few hundred yards to the mansion where his father had abandoned him these many years ago. It’s a museum and restaurant now.
He pays two dollars to the attendant and enters, his stomach alive with butterflies. He feels like Alice in Wonderland: everything is and is not as he thought he remembered it. The major pieces of furniture and the decor remain as Irenée duPont had left them, but they seem to have shrunk. The little four-year-old in his mind who remembers scooting under tables and hiding under chairs can’t imagine how he used to fit. And what are tourists doing here? They seem to be operating in a different dimension than himself. When they rub their hands across the carved mahogany sideboard and green ceramic tiles, they are touching ‘a piece of history’; he is re-experiencing his past, a version of it anyway.
“That’s the spot where we put up the Christmas tree and I saw the angel for the first time,” Junior marvels, looking to the north-east corner of the Grand Room, past the pipe organ and the archway to the library. He goes upstairs and into the master bedroom. “This is where Mrs. duPont used to sleep,” a guide says. “Mr. duPont enjoyed his whiskey. She made him sleep in the adjoining room over there so his snoring wouldn’t bother her.” How does the guide know that? Junior can’t remember anything of the sort, though he barely had met the old man. To him, Mr. duPont was this big person you didn’t bother and he’d give you a candy.
He makes his way to the winding staircase and up to the semi-enclosed rooftop bar. How had he managed to race up the steps in this cramped passageway without bouncing off the walls covered in bruises? What could he have been thinking getting underfoot of Sara and the other servants as they tried to carry trays of glasses up and down those tight circular stairs? No wonder they’d been upset.
And now he is in the bar.
Like the downstairs library, the bar is full of small tables. Downstairs the tables are covered in white linen, and Cubans waiters serve tourists gourmet meals prepared with fresh cream and other ingredients unavailable to their own families. Upstairs the tables are for casual use, crowds of tourists coming for the 2-for-1 Happy Hour and the same exquisite sunsets he had once enjoyed in private with his father.
Junior looks at the bar counter in the corner. That’s where The Pillow Lady terrified him nigh unto death. He goes to the small walkout on the south side and looks over the golf course where he’d seen his father race off in the cart. In Junior’s dreams, the child sees the golf course stretching into an infinite nightmare of sandtraps and jungle. To the adult seeing it under the midday sun, it is hard to imagine how it might ever have seemed fearful.
If it’s true that the world shapes us through the experiences it provides, Junior thinks, it’s equally true that we shape those experiences by the way in which we see them. What a terrifying thought. Whether because of age, position, time or background, what we see of events is necessarily limited; and yet we act on the basis of our impaired vision, bringing consequences upon ourselves that can never be erased.
Junior leaves unsettled and wanders back to the hotel for a nap, wondering what he will see when he visits Sara.
At seven-thirty, Junior takes a cab to Sara’s home at the corner of calle 42 and avenida 1. His visit is a surprise: she has no phone and there wasn’t time to write, the decision to come having been made the previous night. All the same, the letter he’d recently received indicated her door was always open.
The cab pulls up to a simple home of cement blocks with a corrugated tin roof. Wood shutters and door are open to let in the evening breeze. Next to the door, Sara and her daughter Elena sit on an improvised couch of orange crates and old car seats.
Sara hasn’t changed much. Her hair is almost as black, her skin almost as supple and her eyes absolutely as bright as in the days she managed the household staff at Xanadu. To Junior, however, she is another person altogether. This Sara is rather short. The four-year-old remembers a giant. On the other hand, she is now almost as old as the child once imagined.
What a life those years have seen. After the revolution, she continued at the estate, helping the government take inventory of the duPont belongings, then cleaning it once it became a restaurant. Retired for ten years, she remains active thanks to Santeriá. She is santera mayore, called upon by neighbours to recommend love potions, spells to ward off spirits and herbal remedies to alleviate the sick. As she likes to say, “If you have friends, you don’t need a sugar plantation.”
Nevertheless, life has been difficult, particularly in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and her husband’s death of cancer. Of her remaining family, one son died in a fishing accident and the second, jailed for offences relating to the black market, left the country when Castro opened the prisons for the 1980 ‘freedom flotilla’. Today he lives off Calle Ocho in Miami’s Little Havana, where he works as a short-order cook at ‘Versailles’. He sends her letters, but the money inside usually disappears in transit. Her two daughters remain in Cuba. The eldest lives with her husband in nearby Coliseo where she is an economist at the local sugar factory. Meantime, the baby of the family, Elena, works as a housekeeper at the Hotel Paradiso, earning far more in tips than she ever did as a teacher.
It was Elena who helped re-establish contact between her mother and Junior.
Calle 42 y Avenida 1
My dear little Edgar,
It is your old friend from Xanadu, Sara Pérez. My daughter Elena is giving this letter to a guest at the hotel where she works. I hope this guest will mail it to you when she returns to Canada and that it finds you well.
This week I read about your lottery in Granma. It had a very nice picture of you. You haven’t changed. The boy is in the man.
Do you still have Señora Resguardo? She used to keep you so safe from the Espíritu Intranquilo who gave you many problems here. I do not mean to trouble you, but the night I see your picture in the newspaper, I have a dream. You are lost and crying for help. I cast the shells. I fear you may need a more strong resguardo than when you were a boy for now I see three Espíritu Intranquilos surrounding you. And more troubles beside from those living.
Forgive me if I interfere, but your father was so kind for me and you were such a sunshine. I do not forget. If you ever find that you have need of me, my door is always open.
Sara Maria Pérez Pérez
“So you have come, my little Edgar.” Sara introduces him to Elena. At Xanadu, he never knew that Sara had children. In fact, he never knew that Sara had a life.
He offers the women a bag filled with aspirins, cough syrup, chocolate, jam and other locally hard-to-come-by goods he’d picked up at the Duty Free shop at the airport. Sara takes the bag and, in return, offers him a plate of Moors and Christians. Junior accepts, though having stuffed himself at the hotel buffet the thought of black beans and rice makes him queasy. With a smile and a nod, Elena offers him her seat and goes inside to fix his plate. The moment she has gone, Sara says, “My little Edgar, my dream was correct? Yes? Or have you come to Varadero for a tan?”
“Please help me.”
Sara nods and holds his hands in her own. She rubs them; they are so cold. They sit in silence for a time, as the sun drops quickly and the night air fills with fireflies and the sounds of waves and neighbours. Then Sara says, “Your father -- he is still living?”
A discreet pause. “In a manner of speaking.”
Sara understands. “He was always a restless spirit.”
Junior begins to cry.
“He loved you very much.” Junior laughs, but Sara holds her ground. “It was in his eyes when he asked for your resguardo.” A pause. “And your mother? She is alive?”
Junior laughs again. “Oh yes.”
“Come.” She leads him inside where Elena has made his place at the table. As Junior eats by the light of seven candles, Sara tells him how frightened she had been when she cast his shells. Her fear carries weight, as Sara is blessed as an italera. For this gift she gives the glory to the orisha gods Changó, Oyá, her birth orisha Obatalá, and on this occasion Elegguá to whom she has called for guidance in divining future action.
Once Junior has wiped his plate with his last crust of bread, Sara claps her hands. “To work.” She takes one of three beaded necklaces hanging from a nail in the door frame. “You must wear this in Elegguá’s honour,” she says, putting the string of red and black beads around his neck.“Now take off your clothes.”
Junior strips to his underwear and stands in the centre of a circle Sara describes on the floor with a dozen rusty spikes, the rays of Chango. The old woman stands before him, eyes closed, concentrating on the sound of unheard drums. Her head begins to roll and her body sway as she chants prayers to Babalú-Ayé, orisha god of sickness, while whipping herself rhythmically with a red cord tied to a kitchen knife.
The candles on the table flicker. The outside six extinguish, while the centre glows more brightly than before, a curious orange surrounded by a rim of blue. And now Sara begins to moan, the moans transforming to animal howls, as her body is inhabited by something other. In a trance, she takes his right hand, sniffing it like a wild beast, gumming it til it drips saliva. In like manner, she snuffles up his arm, across his chest, and down to the tips of his left fingers.
A throaty laugh and suddenly she begins to speak in tongues, a rich mix of medieval Spanish, French and Yoruban. Elena translates. “The ability of the three Espíritu Intranquilos to cause you pain is increased by the actions of an evil man. He is a snake in the grass who holds sway over your mother.”
Junior gasps. “How could she know about Rudyard Gardenia?”
“She has sacrificed to Elegguá,” Elena whispers. “He is a trickster who punishes those who do wrong, and is eager to take up your case.”
Whoever, or whatever, is inside Sara has overheard. Excited grunts and gestures from the creature. Elena lights a cheap cigar and puts it in her mother’s hand. Sara puffs it with the lit end glowing in her mouth. More grunts. Smoke billows through the room, licking Junior’s pores. The cigar is replaced with a glass of rum. Sara downs half in a gulp. The other half she rolls thickly round her mouth, then sprays across Junior’s face and chest. Given all that’s happened in the last few months, he takes it in his stride.
More tongues, and more translation. “Elegguá will guide your hand as you rid yourself of this ‘Gardenia’. And rid yourself you must if you wish to deal with the spirits who haunt you.”
“But how can I touch him?”
Elena listens very hard, then says, “You must write his name with snake venom on a piece of paper. Glue the paper to snakeskin and cut to fit the inside of your shoes. Then walk, hard, on his name. As you do, the snake will be ground into the dirt.”
“Ground into the dirt,” Junior repeats, relishing each syllable.
The creature inside Sara leaps with glee, then crouches, spitting its dictation hard and fast.
“Next, you must rid your mother of the snake’s influence,” Elena rattles, barely keeping pace. “To do this, take two seven-hour black candles. Carve in the shape of a man and a woman. At midnight, set one inch apart and burn for an hour. On the second midnight, two inches apart and burn for an hour. On the third midnight, three, and so forth til the week is over, and the candles spent as that devil’s spell.”
The creature shrieks, collapsing on the floor. Instantly, the six dead candles burst back to life and all is as it was before.
Sara shakes herself back into her body and gets up. She smiles at Junior. “Elegguá will help?” she asks, wiping the dried spittle and rum from his body with a handful of fragrant leaves plucked from a basin of cool water drawn by Elena. Junior nods.
“Good.” Sara goes to a low box in the corner on which a black doll dressed in white sits behind a bowl filled with burnt coconut and cotton. The front of the box is open; within it are an arrangement of seashells filled with a variety of herbs. Junior realizes the box must be some sort of shrine. He watches as Sara takes a small neatly folded plastic bag from a stack at the right of the box, all retrieved by Elena from departed guests at The Paradiso, and mixes pinches of herbs within it.
“Seven herbs for seven despojos,” she says handing him the bag. “Bitter and sweet: escoba amarga, guairo, altamiso, canutillo blanco, cimmarrona, abrajo and yerbabueno -- your old favourite. One thimble in each bath will keep you safe from spirits. And keep a flavour of this in your clothes,” she winks at him, pressing a loose quantity of dried espartillo in his palm.
Elena interrupts to excuse herself. She’s expected to work at six in the morning and must get to sleep. Junior thanks her for the food and translation. Then he and Sara move to the front porch and talk about old times into the middle of the night.
When they say farewell, Sara gives him a hug. “It’s been too long since I have seen my little Edgar. You will come again?”
Sara pauses, uncertain. “I may speak freely?” Junior nods. “They had their problems, your mother and father, I think.” Junior nods again. “There is something you should know. You will not believe me, but it is true. Your father was not perfect, but he was a good man. He loved your mother very much. He asked the babalawo for a spell to bring back her love.”
“I guess spells don’t always work.”
“No,” Sara says with a sad heart. “Sometimes the orishas are displeased.”