Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Hi there,

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.


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
Varadero, Matanzas
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.”

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