Enrique wasn’t some fancy pants accountant with a big house and slick car.
He just did the books for mom and pops, the pawn shop, the boxing gym he sparred at, the botánica on the corner that dressed a candle for him on occasion, when he needed it, the last bookstore in the neighborhood, and some local restaurants. Restaurant work was his bread and butter, he liked to quip. Graciella, his daughter, groaned every time he said it. She was off at college now. He found that he missed her. She was the one who had marched him into the botánica one day, saying, “You need a candle, Papi. Let the lady help you.”
A candle for love. A candle to ease his sore and aching heart. A candle, red, carved with symbols, anointed with oil from pink roses. He was to burn it every night and say the prayer she gave him. He felt damned uncomfortable about it at first, but he’d done it anyway. He hadn’t said prayers in very long time.
Once a month, he was to set out pink and white roses, as an offering to love.
In the years after Anna died, Enrique floated through the house. He smiled at his clients when he saw them, which thank goodness wasn’t often, and then retreated home to his easy chair. Old cop shows. Belly growing softer, arms losing definition, boxing boots shoved in the back corner of his closet. Graciella would come home from high school and find him slumped over the desk in his tiny office room, it’s sole window looking out over the crumbling concrete that held their trash and recycling cans, file cabinets stuffed full and piled high. His head would be in his hands, calculator and computer waiting for him to get back to work. He was never quite sure how long he’d been checked out. With the time lapses, sometimes it took him to midnight just to get through one day’s work.
“Papi, come eat something. Get out of this room.”
She would cajole him toward the kitchen, where everything was neat as a pin, bright yellow walls, scraps of paper from some local cause or other stuck to the silver fridge beneath photo magnets of Disneyland, of Ernesto Che’, of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and of Anna. Anna and Graciella. Anna and Enrique. Anna’s face, beaming out of tiny squares, reminding him to live.
He hadn’t wanted to. Not then. But there was Graciella to think of.
Enrique had showered off the stink from the boxing gym, slapped on some aftershave, and was en route to grab a late lunch before getting back to Cherish Grocery’s accounts when he saw her.
She had stepped off of the sidewalk, perilously close to traffic, standing just outside a new sea green Prius and an old cream Volvo with a wooden roof rack. Those two cars were a snapshot of Berkeley, right there. Right hand gripping a walking stick with a shock of black feathers wrapped with leather around the top, her skin was almost as black as the feathers. In all his life, he’d never seen someone so black. She was dressed completely in white: white long skirts, white long sleeved shirt, white cloth wrapped in a tower on top of her head, framing her sharp face. Brightly colored beads roped around her neck and wrists. Her fingers were nobbed and ringless.
She was old.
He was just about to go offer her some help when he noticed she hadn’t just wandered, feeble minded, out into the street. She was standing there with purpose, face turned toward the sky. Enrique followed her line of sight, searching, searching. Crows. At the very top of the Japanese plum tree.
The tips of his fingers began tingling, the way they did sometimes in the botánica. The way they used to, back when Mami and Papi told him stories of the ancestors and spirits, taught him how to read the shells and to offer oranges and flowers.
There was a strange scent in the air, that he couldn’t quite place. Copal? Sweet grass? He couldn’t smell the usual coffee scent from the cafe he was heading to, that made salads towering with grated cheese and carrots, and round garbanzo beans. They always served it with a warm roll from the bakery down on 9th street. He loved those salads. Had been looking forward to eating one and closing out with an espresso made thick and sweet with condensed milk.
Despite his growling stomach, Enrique went very still inside, trying to listen. It was then that he noticed: No one was pushing baby prams past him. There were no joggers. No people slept on the benches under the trees or sipped at tea, huddling over text books at sidewalk tables in front of the cafe.
There wasn’t any traffic in the street. Two in the afternoon on a Wednesday. Spooky.
“I know you’re there.” She called out, voice raspy, and much stronger than he expected, to emerge from one so small. Enrique stood, dumbly, waiting for something to happen, knowing he was being very rude. Mami had always taught him not to stare, especially not at his elders.
Slowly, her head lowered, and her shining black eyes leveled directly at him. “I was speaking to you, son.”
Enrique moved toward her, uncertainty growing within him, along with the tingling and some strange pressure along his skin, and at his temples. Temples. He had never thought what a strange word that was to use for that place on the skull, that rested just behind the eyes.
She turned her attention back to the crows. He could see now that they were staring back down at her. Some strange communion was occurring. Walking toward her on the sidewalk he felt his heart opening to light.
The first time Enrique had burned the anointed candle and said the prayer, he had felt both foolish and uncertain. He read the words off the little card the shop owner had printed out for him. Halting, the words came strangely to his tongue.
It was a prayer to heal his heart. At the time, Enrique was not certain he wanted his heart to be healed. It felt like a betrayal. Anna held his heart. Since the first moment he really saw her. Not the first time they met, but three months later, she’d come walking toward him, laughing, and something inside him felt changed forever. He’d been in love before. Several times. But nothing was like this. No one was like Anna. And then the cancer ate her brain away, taking their life together one memory at a time.
Those years had been horrible, but they had been better than the emptiness that followed.
He found, over time, that he grew to love the ritual of lighting the red candle, basking in the rose petal scent of it, watching the faint etchings in the wax slowly melt away, reforming into puddles, smoke, and air. He even grew used to saying the prayer out loud. The words came easier.
Over time, he felt that something in him eased, as well.
“You got the payment, son?” The old woman was still staring up at the crows, two of them stared straight back at her. More were gathering each moment, chattering among themselves.
Then she looked at him. She looked at Enrique with her black, black eyes. She looked at him on that sidewalk, empty of all human life, except for him and her. And he wasn’t thinking she was so human after all.
The air began to whirl around him, and he heard the sound of hands slapping the taut skin of a drum. Something was happening to his heart. Strengthened by the boxing, the running through the streets in early morning, the lifting weights and eating lenguaje on Saturdays, and drinking red wine on Friday nights. Her night.
The drums faded and she cackled at his confusion. “No. Nononono. I am not Her. I am only me. An emissary. Someone who lives between the Greater Spirits and you. I don’t exactly work for no one. But I’m useful to some. Useful. To some. But I ask you still, you got the payment?”
He couldn’t stop staring at her face. The small round chestnuts of her cheeks. The sharpness at the tip of her nose. The sharp planes of her jaw. And that tower of white on top of her head. She could help him.
“Wash me clean, Mother. Wash me clean.”
“I’m not here to baptize you son. That kind of water, you’re not ready for.” A crow alighted on top of her walking stick. “I believe I asked you a question.” Now two sets of black eyes scrutinized him. He shivered, feeling naked. Not knowing what the answer was. What was the payment?
She began to walk toward him, stepping up onto the sidewalk, stick tocking onto concrete. He moved forward to help her, but she waved Enrique away.
Reaching out her left hand, she touched his breastbone. And he knew what the payment was.
Six months after he started working with the candle, he was feeling better. Graciella had stopped looking at him with concern when she thought he was too occupied to notice. She smiled when he ate the dinners they prepared in the yellow kitchen. He started gaining weight back. Found the boxing gym and began going there during slow hours, not yet ready for the camaraderie of men, but needing to get out. To move. To feel his strength again.
Muscles slowly built themselves. Women started looking at him in the grocery store, or as he sipped his espresso Cubano, lingering over the news.
He wasn’t ready for those women yet, who left lipstick stains on the white porcelain cups, and carried baskets down the grocery aisles in their yoga pants, picking over lettuces and apples, and selecting single bottles of white wine. He wasn’t ready for them, be they slim hipped or lush of body, be they dark skinned or pale. He wasn’t ready for the men, either. Didn’t know if he ever would be.
Graciella was enough company for him, but now she was gone, too, taking classes in calculus and colonial history, women’s studies, and dance, working part time at the Rite Aid, stocking shelves. She had a young man, too, he suspected, though she hadn’t really said. When she was home, it was mostly to study and to sleep.
Enrique started reading more books in the evening, instead of working until all hours. Amazing what being able to pay attention during the workday got a person: he actually got his work done in a timely way. Maybe he’d take a night class. Astronomy. History. Bonsai. Writing? Nah. Maybe.
The thing he really wanted to do? The thing he started doing in secret in the hours Graciella spent out doing who knows what? He started dancing. Merengue. Salsa. Mambo. His hips were rusty, but the more he moved them, dancing around the turquoise patterned living room carpet in his stockinged feet, the looser they became. He broke out the albums he and Anna had bought together all those years ago in record shops long gone. The albums were old when they got them, music from a different place and time. The old cabinet turntable they’d found one autumn Saturday at the flea market still worked fine, scratching out the tunes.
Herb Alpert. Willie Colon. The Buena Vista Social Club.
The sounds of brass and drumming filled the apartment. Enrique danced.
If he could have seen himself, he would have seen a man in flower, a man bursting with red, purple, and gold. He would have seen a man who smiled in the warm lamplight. A man in no need of wine.
He was starting to sweat, damn it. He hated sweating after he’d cleaned up and was looking nice. And his stomach was starting to clench up. Not just nerves, but hunger.
“I don’t know the answer you want.” It wasn’t really a lie. He did know, but he was uncertain. Or maybe he was just arguing with himself, the way he always did when it came to desire. To desiring anything but Anna’s lips and laughter. To desiring anything but the touch of Anna’s hands, and the words from that sharp mind of hers before disease stole her thoughts away.
The old woman didn’t even glance at him this time, which he was thankful for. But she was walking up the sidewalk, which made him nervous.
Where was she taking him? And where in hell were the people? There should have been college students on the streets, and teenagers getting out of school. Business women heading to the office supply store, or an afternoon foray to the gym. There was no one. Just Enrique, the old woman, and the crows.
How could he know what she wanted? And how could he offer it up?
He was not worthy. He had failed. He hadn’t saved Anna. Hadn’t even remembered that he could.
Dancing, he could momentarily forget he had the power. He could forget that he had not been told, but should have known anyway. He should have known that when his Mami spit the rum on the little potted figure made of stone, that it meant something. He should have seen it when his Papi lit the strong cigars.
He had known it, once. But had forgotten. He had forgotten so thoroughly, that he didn’t even recall that prayers were something that he had ever done.
He had watched Anna die, and never prayed. Not even once.
Enrique sat by her bedside and lit no candles. He offered no water and drank no rum. He built no altars. He called no spirits. He had relinquished it all.
Curse his hands and curse the feet that drew the power from the earth. Curse his mouth that could have spoken prayers. Curse his heart that should have known.
Seduced by numbers, he had started to give it all up even before he met Anna. Even when it became clear he was no genius in this world – just smart enough to be clever, and to understand, but not smart enough to discover something new emerging from the lines of the equations – his mind began to close to the strange world of his childhood, though on family visits, his father always threw the shells, and his mother asked him to light the candles when they had extinguished themselves.
With Anna, life was good. Their dancing was just dancing. Their laughter was just laughter. It was clean, uncomplicated. True. It was as true as the mathematics that he loved. She was the brilliant one: his scientist. His love. Who needed magic when he had Anna?
She had made it so easy to give up his family ways that he simply…forgot. He just forgot.
And he didn’t think, even now, that Anna would have welcomed his prayers.
The old woman was leading him to a place he’d never seen in this part of the city, though it looked familiar. A cousin to the botánica where he now bought candles on his own, this place was darker, more uncanny. The old, white clad woman led him through the jingling bells of the chipped white door, into a room with an old metal cash register on the counter, and scales to weigh out the herbs and incense that crowded the wooden shelves behind.
There were books, too. And statuary. Beaded banners on what wall space was left. He closed his eyes for a moment. He remembered the banners. Yes. He had rolled them up in the old chest that he used as a bench at the base of his bed. His mother had sewn them in the evenings, while she talked to him of the Mysteries. He hadn’t looked at the banners in years.
The shop smelled delicious, layer upon layer of scent: old wood, the sticky resin of burnt myrrh, white sage and rum. And weaving over it all, the faint odor of cherry tobacco.
“Follow me.” She push through some clacking black and brown beads into a room to the left of the long counter. He stepped through.
A massive altar reached toward the ceiling. Red and white candles. Shining beads. Shells to burn incense in. Glasses and plates piled up with offerings.
The floor in front of the altar was old wood, whose veneer had worn away from years of feet shuffling forward and back, making their ofrendas.
An old man sat in a rocker near the altar. At first, Enrique couldn’t even tell if he was real. His hair had white stripes like a badger’s and he was sitting very still. But then the brown eyes with their white sclera blinked.
“Welcome, son. We hear you gave up your gift and you’ve come to take it back.”
The old woman nudged him forward with her staff.
“No. There’s some mistake. I didn’t ask for anything. She just appeared in the street.”
The badger man chuckled. “You humans. You tell yourselves anything, don’t you?”
Then Enrique remembered something else.
Over dinner last week, he had told Graciella he was ready for something. He had thought he was just talking about night school. Maybe – long shot, but maybe – dating someone. But the conversation came tumbling back into his head and he remembered what he said:
“I’m ready to feel like myself again. You know, when I was younger, I had dreams, visions of the way things could be. I was interested in the way things worked. It felt powerful when I figured things out. Excited. I could feel the power in my hands, like I could do something in the world. ”
He had stood to clear the dishes. Graciella filled the sink with soapy water.
“You’ve done a lot, Papi. You raised me, didn’t you?” She grinned over her shoulder as he scraped the dishes into the compost bucket and set them by the side of the sink.
“You are a smart and beautiful girl, Graciella, and I’m proud of you, mija.”
Then he said it, the words: “But I wouldn’t mind feeling powerful like that again.”
“That’s right, son.” The old woman walked closer, staff tocking, tocking, tocking, on the floor. “You were the heir. You got that power. Your soul knows it all still.”
He looked around the room. Confused. Something inside him felt excited. Another part of him wanted to cry. For the first time, he noticed a long, low, altar lit with pure white candles. Glasses of water were spaced between them. Along with photos. Pictures of people well loved and long gone. The ancestors.
“Where are they, son?” He knew what she wanted then, this crow woman. This faerie creature. This witch.
He fumbled in his pocket for his wallet and drew them out. The photographs. Mami and Papi. And Anna.
“Put them here.”
Hands trembling, he set the photos on the altar next to one unlit candle. The old man appeared at his side, holding out a book of matches.
Enrique didn’t know if he could. He was suddenly shivering, as though the room itself wrapped him in a cloak of cold and silence. He longed for the sun outside this place of shadows. The candles, their beautiful flickering, all of a sudden only made him want to run.
The old man shoved the matches between Enrique’s resistant fingers. He could swear he heard music. Those drums again, and a voice singing above the rhythm, songs of praise and longing. He ripped a match out of the book, and scraped it against the narrow sandpaper strip. It hissed with light and sulfur.
He lit the candle. Anna’s face reflected the yellow light.
“Beloved one,” he said. And began to cry.
In the months that followed, his power slowly started to return. He was learning how to forgive himself for his forgetting. Crow and Badger – who they actually were, he did not know, but this is how he thought of them – taught him how to say the proper words again. His dancing took on patterns of the old sigils of the greater spirits.
He unfurled his mother’s banners and hung them on the walls. Graciella looked at the bright cloths, with their intricate beading and gave a sigh of contentment. He never even knew she had been waiting, but she clearly had. Together, they built an altar to the ancestors in the westward corner of the living room. Other altars slowly grew in strange places around their home.
People in the neighborhood began to stop Enrique on his daily walks to the cafe. They were having some money troubles, did he have advice? Granny was sick. Was there a tea he recommended? Could he put his hand on their sick cat? Just in case?
Could he make prayers for them in the morning? Ask the spirits for them? Because he was closer to the old ways than they were, and they needed help.
After awhile, Enrique stopped resisting. He remembered the things he knew once, as a boy: seeing sickness as a color, and hearing misfortune as a misplayed note. As the harmony within his heart increased, he was able to see what harmony looked and felt like in the people who sought his counsel.
The memory of Anna still hurt him, but even that was easing, just a little, over time.
He still drank his espresso with condensed milk. He listened to rock and roll, and the music of Willie Colon. He kept the books for the restaurants and stores, for the botánica that lived down the street, and got new clients, too. His wealth slightly increased.
“Not too much,” said the old woman.
He needed to live closer to those who needed his help than the wealthy ever could. Besides, he liked things simple, and things were complicado enough.
He no longer needed the old woman to guide him to the shop that lived in between. He was learning different ways to call the Other City into his touch and sight. All it took was paying attention. He practiced that every day.
His feet still danced around the boxing ring, but his solo dancing in the living room only happened on occasion, when he was really happy. Mostly, he took that dancing to the club on Friday nights. He danced with women who had trailing hair and hips wrapped in skirts that swirled out like small galaxies when he spun them away from his body and back in again.
Enrique lit his candles, and offered fruit and rum. The waters of healing baptized his soul, and he made friends with the crows.
Giving up his forgetting turned out to not be such a steep price after all.
His heart was growing strong.
copyright T. Thorn Coyle May, 2016
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