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.

No comments:

Post a Comment