Baba Nono wasn’t what she expected. The Ifa priest wore black slacks, dress shoes and a crisp white pinpoint cotton dress shirt buttoned to the neck. His only other adornment, a plain straw canotier hat, ala Buster Keaton, with flat top and steep sides wrapped in a black silk scarf, a narrow brim running uniformly around it.
He didn’t move. Not at first. He watched the candle trickle wax onto the stone slab at his feet. Any markings on the stone had been erased by time so that it was impossible to hazard a guess at its age. In the soft candlelight Baba Nono carried the gentle expression of one either quite content, quite mad, or both.
A wooden tray rested on the slab near Nono. Carved into the edges of the tray where compass points would be, four solemn faces stared unblinking at the heavens. Figures filled the spaces between them, etched into the wood with impressive artistry. A warrior sitting astride a horse. A bird clutching a gecko in its beak. A snake and tortoise confronting each other. Finally, an anteater with fish scales covering its body.
A shoulder bag decorated with intricate beadwork lay just to the side of the tray. Three more faces decorated the green beaded background on the bag. Two of them were done in yellow beads with blue and yellow herringbone patterns on their foreheads. The eyes were of deep blue beads with what appeared to be blue streams of tears running down the yellow cheeks. The third face, red with deep black eyes and black tears, featured a blue diamond set in the center of the forehead.
Liliana went to Nono and wrapped him in her arms. A full head taller, he embraced her, whispering something that made her giggle before he released her and focused his attention on Kak.
“Alafia,” he said.
It seemed to be a greeting. Best to assume the same tone.
“Hello,” she answered.
Nono gave no indication if this was correct. He looked at her. That was all. For longer than normal convention held you should do it without comment. She wondered if the rudeness was intentional.
“She doesn’t feel crazy to me,” he said.
“You’ll see,” Liliana said.
Kak would have registered her objection, but Nono was tracing his way around the old slab toward her, his footfalls soundless on the hard ground. He stopped with his nose no more than eighteen inches from hers.
“You’re marked,” he said. “With the waning crescent.”
Self-conscious, she touched the bruise on her forehead. “I had an accident.”
“I very much doubt that,” Nono said, lingering on the bruise. “But sit here.” He indicated the spot immediately under her feet. She sat and placed Ugarte’s box beside her. Somehow the warmth of the day still radiated from the ground and into Kak’s backside.
“We don’t have much time,” Nono said. He circled around to his place at the foot of the grave and sat cross-legged. “We have to finish before midnight.”
Dipping into his beaded bag, he brought forth a silver chain, four feet long. Affixed at equal distances along its length were eight large pods, seeds of some sort. One end of the chain terminated in a small brass gear with worn teeth. The other end terminated in an old brass key. Nono lay this carefully on the mat to the side of the wooden tray. Next he produced a small silk bag. He poured the contents into his hand. Grape-sized objects, deep purple in color. Kak might have actually taken them for grapes in the low light had they not clicked together as Nono arranged them on the mat at the top of the tray. Nuts of some type.
If this setting at the table of the dead wasn’t odd enough, he added a curious object that appeared to be a cow horn at one end, bonded to a cow tail at the other.
The final item brought forth from the bag caught Kak’s attention more than any other. It was a glass bottle, etched and scarred, a cork stopper sealing the opening. From what she could see in the candlelight it contained a light tan dust. Nono placed it on the mat with notable reverence.
“The derecho,” Liliana said, situating herself on the opposite side of the grave. Kak took the bills from her Aruba envelope. Sixty-six dollars. She lay it on the slab. Nono collected it and added it to the crowded mat.
“I prayed about your situation,” he said. “I asked which tool I should use to help you.” His hand drifted over the objects in front of him. His steady hand hesitated over the chain. “The opele.” His hand moved to the pile of nuts at the head of the tray. “The ikin ifa.” He sat back on his heels. “The answer was not clear.”
Another sixty-six dollars and already the answer wasn’t clear? It was hard to ignore the signs of a pattern starting.
“Tell me,” Nono said, interrupting her thoughts. “Have you been finding things where you should not find them?”
“Besides finding myself here right now?”
Nono relaxed and allowed a short bubble of amusement to escape his lips. “Yes. Besides finding yourself here tonight.”
“I found a man where I shouldn’t have,” Kak said.
She didn’t know what she expected from Nono. Surprise? Rebuke? She received neither.
“On the beach,” she said, still worried over how Nono would perceive it and then exasperated with herself for caring.
Nono only lowered his head. He began to speak in the same tongue Liliana used the day before when Kak knew her as Zamira. He prayed this way for several minutes, rhythmically, in repetition, until Kak’s mind began to drift. She thought about Evelyn, the crab, alone in the sink. She counted the iguanas sitting patiently on their perches, noting the flicker of the single candle reflected in each of their eyes. Why were they here?
In the distance a screen door slammed shut. Nono stopped praying, abruptly, as if the slamming door signaled the end of the prayers. He uncorked the glass bottle and began pouring the dust into the wooden tray, gently shaking the bottle to help it flow. “I expect you have questions. It’s alright.”
“What is that?” she asked.
“Iyerosun. Termite dust from an irosun tree growing in the Shasha forest in southern Nigeria.”
“I guess that isn’t something you just order off eBay.”
“You can, actually. But how can you know what you receive? Sacred blood flowing from the roots of a forest deep in the spirit world? Or a pile of sawdust swept up from a carpenter’s floor.”
“It looks like sawdust.”
“Yes. So how do I know what is real?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t?” Nono mused. “Then how will you know what you find here tonight?”
She pondered this. “By being here?”
Dust continued to trickle from the lip of the old bottle onto the wooden tray.
“You went there,” she said.
“Yes. My body was born here but when I turned eighteen the tree called me to where my head was born. I walked in the Shasha forest with nothing to eat or drink. Young and stupid. But the tree watched over me. When I walked by, it dropped one of its thick limbs onto the ground as a gift to me. It spoke, saying, ‘that way, boy.’ I dragged the limb in the direction it pointed until I came to a town. A family living at the edge of it gave me pounded yams to eat. And a bottle of water.
“I needed rest so I stayed on their porch that night. My stomach was full so I slept easily. In my dream, thousands of termites marched in the moonlight. They swarmed the branch I’d dragged out of the forest, eating away the white wood with incredible speed. When I woke in the morning the branch was consumed. I gathered the dust from that feast into the empty water bottle and walked to the bus station. That was the beginning of my journey to Ifa.”
Nono corked the old bottle. “It is very precious. Blessed by God. We use it tonight to imprint your odu.”
He took up the combination cow horn and tail. Using the tail, he gradually smoothed the pile of dust into a layer covering every inch of the tray so thinly she could see traces of the wood tray through it.
Then he inverted the instrument and, with the tip of the horn, drew a horizontal line in the dust, from right to left. “This is the human world.”
From top to bottom, he drew a vertical line that intersected the horizontal line. “This is the spirit world.”
He tapped the intersection of the two lines with the tip of the horn. “We sit here, in the place where the human and spirit worlds meet.”
When Nono said this he took a tiny pinch of the dust and sprinkled it on the ground at the foot of the grave.
“Why here?” she asked.
“This is the grave of the first Ifa priest of Key West. Born in Nigeria. Stolen from his home and taken to Cuba to work in the sugarcane fields. Resold to the owner of a tobacco plantation outside Havana.”
“What was his name?” she asked, again searching the stone for a clue.
“You want to know.” He observed her appraisingly. “His name is Kufi Chizoba. Kufi because he was born on a Friday. Chizoba for his grandfather. It means ‘God protect us.’ But the tobacco boss gave him a new name. Henshaw.”
Of course. A new name. Your old name gone. Vanished without a trace.
Nono went on. “By the end of the American Civil War slavery was still legal in Cuba. He stowed away on a tobacco boat to Key West to be a freeman. By the time the tobacco arrived at the cigar factory here, Kufi was discovered. He would have been sent back but the cigar boss had a daughter with demons in her head. Kufi drove them out. The cigar boss was grateful and befriended Kufi.
“But the tobacco boss in Havana was angry. He came with men to take Kufi back. The cigar boss sheltered him from the tobacco boss’s men. The cigar boss and his men ran them back to their ship. Told them not to come looking again.”
“And did they?” Kak asked.
“No. Kufi was safe from them after that. But he fell in love with the cigar boss’s daughter.”
“That must have angered the cigar boss.”
“He was a wise man. He loved his daughter. He wanted her to be well and could not be angry with her or Kufi. But others felt differently. Secret groups were already forming in the South to fight northern Reconstruction. One of these groups caught Kufi and hanged him from a palm tree. When the cigar boss found him he was so distraught he gave up his own grave for Kufi. This grave.
“Eight months later the cigar boss’s daughter had Kufi’s child. And time passed. Kufi’s child grew up and had a child. And time passed. That child grew up and had a child. And time passed. So that child grew up and had a child. And time passed until that child had the very child you see before you tonight.”
Nono brought his hands up, making each touch the opposite shoulder so that his forearms made an x across his chest. “My great-great-grandfather’s death became my life. He is the reason I’m here. He is my angel. He stays close to me. Intercedes for me in times of trouble.”
He stretched his arms, putting both hands on the stone, his fingers spread wide as if to steady himself. “He welcomes me to a place at his table. Through me, he welcomes you.”