“The question,” Nono said, “is whether or not you actually want to avoid death.”
Was it a question? Or a statement. Either way he had a point.
“I started to think it was the only way out,” Kak said.
“Eventually. But it doesn’t have to be now.”
Nono stretched his hand over the wooden tray, not quite touching it, as if checking a burner on a stove.
“And the voices,” Nono said. “What do they think?”
He watched her as he had when she first walked into the candlelight. This time it went on longer. Twice as long. Three times as long. She was about to object when he touched his own forehead in the same spot she carried her bruise. “Tell me how you put that mark on yourself.”
The bruise again. “I was riding my bike. I hit a parking meter or something. I’m not sure.”
He might as well have been deaf. Her explanation had no detectable impact on him. Worse, his unwavering scrutiny sank in like a truth serum.
“I had my eyes closed,” she admitted.
Finally, he blinked. “Why?”
“I don’t know.”
Nono set his elbows on the slab and rested his chin in his hands so that his fingers extended to his ears on either side of his head.
“I’ve never known,” she said.
The Ifa priest sat up. “So. You’ve done it before.”
“You’ve done it many times.”
Nono picked up the bronze chain with the evenly spaced seeds. “I made this divination chain myself. This key at the end is the one I used to let myself into my father’s house after school when I was a boy.” His hands traced their way to the opposite end of the chain. “I took this gear from the clock in his house. It stopped the same day he died. The chain opens our ears to the voices of the spirits. Tells us how to mark the dust so we may read their thoughts.”
He handled the chain with affection before putting it back in the beaded bag. “Tonight, however, it is useless to us.”
Nono’s head snapped up as if he’d been startled. “The voices. Can’t you hear them?” He cocked his head. “No. You’ve held them in so long you’ve become deaf to them.” He put a finger to his lips. “Shhh.”
Of course she heard them. Just not all the time. Intermittent schizophrenia wasn’t exactly a bragging point. But she was curious as to what he heard.
“What are they saying?” she asked.
“It isn’t time yet.”
“They’re saying it isn’t time yet? Isn’t time for what?”
“They’re not saying it. I’m saying it.”
If it was a performance, he was very good at it.
“You brought the rum?” he asked.
She took the bottle from her backpack and set it on the grave. Nono broke the seal on the Bacardi Superior. He poured a mouthful onto the grave.
“Eshu is generous,” he said. “Eshu would like for me to prepare myself.” He tipped the bottle to his lips and poured a swallow into his mouth before capping the rum and setting it beside his beaded bag.
He’d said she could ask questions. “If I’m alive,” she began, “why can’t I feel my heart?”
He couldn’t have been expecting this. But he drew his hands up in front of him, pressed together at the palms. “You’ve put a barrier around it. You are preventing yourself from feeling your own rhythm.” His joined hands moved back and forth in a smooth arc. “The natural balance between life and death is interrupted. The balance between head and heart. Hot and cool.” His hand stopped abruptly at the top of the arc. They separated and each found a spot on his ribcage in precisely the locations she’d placed the defibrillator paddles on her own ribs. “But something happened. And you can’t decide which side you belong in. So you can’t walk your destiny path.”
She checked Liliana, who only stared at the candle. Kak fought back the need to feel betrayed. She supposed Liliana had found it necessary to share everything Kak told her with Nono. He seemed to know so much about her. Maybe they were a team. One got details from you, relayed them to the other who could then speak to you as if they had special insight. Like a skilled fortune teller, making suggestions until you reacted positively to one and then building on the detail so it seemed like organic insight into your very life. Or death.
“Okay,” she said. “Which side do I belong in?”
“Only you know that.”
Everything was a riddle. “How do I remove the barrier?”
“That’s what we’re here to find out.”
“Stop supposing. Start by believing what I tell you. That you chose your birth. Your parents. Your destiny. And when you were born you forgot all of it. Can you believe that?”
She was here. She might as well. “Yes.”
“Good. We are here to reconnect you to your destiny path. To what you forgot and to what only you can remember. Do you want that?”
“More than I can say.”
Nono leaned forward. “The mark you put on your forehead. The waning crescent. It designates an important time for reversing spells. A time to shed old habits and negative influences. A new cycle for allowing positive energy into your body.”
“You think I did it to myself on purpose?”
“That phrase. On purpose? It’s tricky.”
“I know what it means.”
“It means you think I’m intentionally mutilating myself. That I’m mentally ill.”
“In the journey to restore personal harmony we all mutilate ourselves. It’s just that in most cases the marks aren’t as physically apparent as yours.”
He uncapped the rum, poured a bit more on the slab and drank again. “Eshu is generous,” he said.
She wanted to believe. But as she watched the old man take a snort of the rum it made her wonder what marks Nono had on the inside. The whole ceremony might just be a scam to supply an old man with a bottle, sixty-six dollars and a chicken dinner. What was Liliana’s cut? A standard twenty percent? Plus everyone got taken by Cooper’s house. That was how he benefited.
His question interrupted her thoughts. “How long have you been taking chances with your eyes closed?” he asked.
“Since I was a little girl.”
“When did this happen?” He indicated her forehead.
“Yesterday. On Whitehead.”
Nono took up the dark purple palm nuts she’d thought were grapes and arranged them in the open palm of his left hand. He muttered something she couldn’t make out, his right hand poised over the nuts like a hawk holding above prey, drifted back and forth as he spoke quietly. His mouth stopped and his right hand dove to grasp at the nuts, capturing them all in his fist. Nono’s left palm lay vacant. He returned the palm nuts to his hand and repeated the process. Again his right hand collected all of the palm nuts from the open left palm. Once more he placed the nuts in his left palm. His mumbling went on twice as long this time. When it stopped his right hand came down with greater speed and violence than the first two times. It closed as it struck and jerked back to its original altitude. And again, the action left his left palm bare. He carefully lay the palm nuts aside.
“Puzzling,” he said, musing over the broken stone slab, at the dark sky, across the band of iguanas still observing patiently from their chosen grave markers, to the crescent bruise on her forehead. He stopped.
“Of course,” he said.
“Of course what?”
“I can’t believe it took me so long to see it.” There was genuine amusement in it for him. “I know why you take chances with your eyes closed. It’s the reason I’m unable to cast for you.”
“Maybe you could let me in on the joke,” Kak said.
“You are casting your own bones!” he cried, spreading his arms wide over the grave. “You are casting yourself down to see if you land open or closed.” He watched her for a glint of recognition. “You don’t feel it?” he asked.
The only thing Kak felt was rising fear that she wasted an entire day to arrive in the presence of a confident wino. Still, he leaned forward with an unsettling urgency.
“Let’s try something else,” he said, fixed on Kak’s crescent bruise. The corners of his mouth curled ever so slightly. Nono extended a finger and made a mark in the termite dust. “Good. Now. Tell me about a previous time.”
She supposed she’d come this far.
“A couple of days ago,” she said, “I ran into someone running on the beach. On Sanibel. The man I told you about. It’s what got me here.” She glanced at Liliana without meaning to.
“And did you mark yourself?” Nono asked.
Kak opened her hand to show him the wound in her palm from the shard of beach glass when she ran into Rudy. Nono studied it and made a mark in the dust.
“Before that?” he asked.
She traced her way back in time, giving Nono the complete history of her mishaps from walking, running or biking with her eyes closed. As a freshman in college she jogged directly into the Central Park Carousel while in operation. The collision left a permanent dent in her right shin and dragged her for a full revolution before the attendant stopped it. Nono mused over the impression in her shin and made a mark in the dust.
She told him about the time she’d fallen down the front steps of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on a school field trip and received nine stiches to close the gash on her left elbow. Her teacher explained that Kak needed to watch where she was going. Nono inspected the scar and made a mark in the dust.
Before that? Kak described breaking loose from her mother’s hand at Battery Park and running blindly until she fell into the Liberty Island ferry docked there. While escaping serious injury, she chipped a permanent tooth which an orthodontist repaired by bonding a piece of tooth-colored composite resin to the broken edge.
“Let me see the tooth,” Nono said.
She bared her front teeth in a pretend smile, pointing to the replacement. If he tried, she knew, he could just make out the shape and orientation of the chip before the repair. He made a mark in the dust.
Once she began, it flowed from her. By the time she finished detailing the eight mishaps and accidents she’d experienced from running around willingly blind, the dust in the wooden divination tray had been touched eight times by Nono’s fingers. When they were done he leaned back and, over another sip of rum, surveyed the pattern he’d created.
“The spirits have been trying to speak to you since you were a little girl,” he said.
“I still don’t understand.”
“You’ve kept them bottled up inside you. Prevented them from escaping. They are coming out the only way they can. By telling you to mark yourself. Fortunately, they also sent you to Lili.”
If he drank again she’d scream. “Okay, I’ll bite. What have they been trying to say?”
Nono traced over the marks in the dust and began to speak.
“A man went to hunt in the woods. Ifa told him, first make ebo or you will encounter tragedy therein. But the man went into the woods without making ebo. While he walked in the woods it began to rain. So the man needed shelter. While searching for it he noticed a great hole in what he took for a rock. And he entered that hole in the supposed rock. However, instead of a hole in a rock it was Ayanaku’s anus. Ayanaku quickly closed it, trapping the man inside. The man’s family looked for him, but to no avail. Being wise, they went to Orunmila’s house for consultation whereupon they were told to make ebo. Immediately after they made ebo, a great desire to defecate overcame Ayanaku. And Ayanaku purged the man from his anus.”
Nono sat back, his shoulders easing a bit, lowering as if he had released a burden they were straining to bear up against. She sensed his satisfaction and felt none herself. She’d spent a long and uncomfortable day doing as Liliana instructed. Now she sat here in the middle of this wretched cemetery attempting to digest the ridiculous conclusions of an aging, black Buster Keaton with a taste for white rum.
“And how,” she said, “does this relate to me?”
There was no mistaking Nono’s disappointment at this. “I thought you understood,” he said. “You are the owner of this odu. You needed to perform ebo before leaving home to avoid difficulties in your path.”
“It’s a little late for that.”
“As it was in the story,” he chided. “So now you must perform it to escape.”
“Who is this Ayanaku?”
“Ayanaku is portrayed as an elephant. It is the animal totem for Obatala.”
“Who is Obatala?”
Nono raised his hands in reverence. “The sky father. The sculptor of earth. The creator of our human bodies.”
“If you like.”
“Are you saying I’m trapped in God’s asshole?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“And the only laxative is this ebo?”
“Your own castings specify it.”
Despite her fatigue and the unpleasant notion of being a human suppository in the anal region of the almighty, it made a certain amount of sense in the context of her situation. In through the out door. Everything backwards.
“Fine,” she said. “How do we fix it?” Nono dipped into his bag again and produced a knife with a green beaded handle. The flawless blade glowed in the candlelight.
“Ebo,” he said. “Sacrifice.”
Ugarte! Kak had forgotten what they were talking about. The time had come. Reluctantly, she picked up the box, carefully so as not to alarm Ugarte, and slid it over to Nono.
She was glad it was dark enough to hide the flushing she felt on her skin as the wave of guilt caught and held her. As if she was actually being kind in her attempt not to alarm the bird. As if the little chicken wouldn’t be terrified soon enough. Getting your throat cut had a way of doing that. Kak let go of the box, not wanting to see what happened next and not wanting to be responsible. But Nono said it. Your own castings specify it. She had doomed the little bird, choosing her from Cooper’s yard. It was cowardly to shield herself from it. She had to watch.
Nono lifted the lid just enough to slip his hand in. Ugarte clucked softly while the invading appendage moved around inside. Kak could hear Nono’s fingertips and knuckles brushing the cardboard followed by a beating of wings. The sound nauseated her. She imagined Ugarte, pressing herself into a corner, frightened, nowhere to go. Nono’s expression brightened as he clutched the prize. Kak found herself hating him almost as much as she hated herself.
As he withdrew his hand, Nono’s sleeve dragged across the rough top of the corrugated box. She heard herself say, “No.” It was unbearable to think of Nono soiling the cemetery with Ugarte’s blood.
Nono stopped. “You do not wish to make this ebo?”
“The thing is, I think I love her.”
“That’s good. It strengthens the sacrifice.”
“This is the only way?”
“You own castings–“
“Specify it. I know.” She nodded. “Okay.”
Nono’s hand emerged from the box, not wrapped around Ugarte’s neck, as Kak imagined, but cupping a much smaller object. An egg. She watched him rotate it in the candlelight. Perfect. White. Miraculous.
“Remove the box, please,” Nono said.
She fumbled for it, pulling it back across the capstone, suddenly glad for Ugarte’s weight inside it. Kak situated it beside her, not quite daring to believe Ugarte was safe.
Cradling the fresh egg in one palm, Nono lay the edge of the blade against it, frowning as he moved it a bit to the right, a bit to the left. Using a tiny sawing motion, he scored the shell with the edge of the blade, studying the position like a diamond cutter preparing to strike an expensive stone. When he was sure, he brought the blade against the shell in a swift motion that cracked it. He inverted it, still holding it in one hand, expertly adjusting his grip just enough to part the shell, allowing the egg white to ooze from it onto the stone grave. When the yolk threatened to escape Nono pulled the egg back from the grave and tossed it behind him.
Several iguanas moved to explore the discarded egg yolk. Nono spoke sharply.
The lizards froze like obedient dogs and resumed their places.
“Obatala’s meals are white,” Nono said, indicating the raw egg white he’d spilled from the egg onto the stone. “Nothing else.”
The pool of albumen left on the slab picked up the flickering of the candle in a way that made it seem to Kak that it had a pulse. Nono bent forward, lowering his head to the slab just beyond the puddle. He touched his forehead to the stone and began to pray again.
Kak pressed her hand to her chest, waiting for what was to happen to take place. She was still waiting a minute later when Nono straightened.
“O ti pari,” he said.
She let her hand linger until he continued.
“It is complete,” he said.
Eagerly, she pressed her palm more firmly to her. But there was nothing. No trace of a beat in her silent chest. No difference at all.
“What do you mean, complete?” she asked.
“The ceremony. It is complete.”
“But you didn’t fix anything.”
“Nor can I.”
What. The. Fuck. Had he actually said that?
“Nono,” she said.
“What the fuck?”
Liliana sprang to her feet. “Don’t talk to Baba Nono that way!”
“Shut up!” Kak snapped, beginning to feel breathless. “I did everything you wanted. This was supposed to make things better.”
Nono wrinkled his brow. “Was it?”
“Don’t start that shit.”
“You’ve done well tonight,” he said. “Better than you realize. But you must continue the process. You must give the process time to work.”
“Time is the one thing I don’t have.”
Nono ignored this. “You say you love your little chicken?”
“Don’t change the subject. I had a shitty day. And now I’ve had a shitty night. And you didn’t do a goddam thing for me except soak me for sixty-six dollars and a bottle of rum. And a chicken.”
“Do you love—“
“Yes. I love her.”
Kak took stock of the iguanas surrounding them. They’d pressed in even closer than when the strange ceremony began. The thought of them on all sides of Ugarte alarmed her. “You’re not making me give her to the iguanas,” Kak said.
“They’re herbivores,” Nono explained. “They eat plants and vegetables. Fruit when they can get it.”
Reluctantly, Kak removed the lid from the box and eased it onto its side so Ugarte could step out onto the ground beside Kufi’s grave. The little chicken wasted no time. She made her way out of the circle of light without hesitation. True to Nono’s word, the iguanas paid the bird no attention. Kak watched her fade into the darkness.
“Your little chicken showed wisdom,” Nono said. “She made her own ebo. Obatala was pleased with the egg.”
“Well. Good for Ugarte. Meanwhile, I’m stuck up God’s ass.”
Nono went into his bag a final time, producing a pair of black rubber flip-flops and a tapered candle. The straps of the flip-flops were decorated with beads. Yellow and green, alternating back and forth like strings of corn and peas.
“To protect you,” he said. “From premature madness. And death.”
She took them. “These cheap rubber thongs with the beads sewn on are going to protect me from premature madness.”
“Just like that.”
“And how much will these beauties set me back?”
“I often give a bracelet at the end of my time with a client. The voices asked for this instead.”
It was a gift. She stuffed the flip-flops into her backpack, too embarrassed to apologize for her remark. It had been a complete waste of time and money but the old guy was trying to be kind.
Nono dipped the wick of the tapered candle into the flame on the slab and handed it to Kak.
“This is for healing,” he said. “It will help you center yourself and allow you to release toxic thoughts when Lili takes you to see Archie.”
“Archie?” It was too much. The despair made it impossible to hold back. “I have to see someone else? First it was Rudy. Then Zamira, I mean, Liliana, then Bobby, I mean Cooper, then Ugarte, then you. And now this Archie? I thought each of you was going to help me solve my problem. No offense, Nono, but every time I see one of you it just means I have to see someone else. You’ll just keep passing me down your network until you bleed every penny out of me.”
“You’re bleeding pennies?” Nono asked in mock surprise. “You didn’t tell me that part.”
She didn’t have the strength to address it.
“Kak,” Nono said. He’d begun transferring the termite dust from the wooden tray back to the bottle using a paper funnel. “Did you think I would give you a magic phrase to say? Wave my hand? Behead a chicken? And everything wrong would suddenly be right?”
He paused his work and waited.
“Yes,” she said. “Actually. Something like that.”
Nono used his fingertips to brush the tray clean of dust. Every bit of it went into the funnel which he then tapped rapidly to knock particles loose from where they clung to the paper so it all fell into the bottle.
“And who is Archie going to send me to see?” Kak asked.
“You will have to find that out for yourself. You are on a path of your own re-creation.”
“You can’t help me with a clue?”
“Impatience is just another form of procrastination.”
“Just so you know, the Santeria Zen sayings aren’t helping. You have to believe me. I don’t have time for this.”
“Time again,” Nono said. “The thing about time, is that you have all there is.”
“I’m supposed to get married in three days!”
“Then you are very fortunate.”
It was exhausting.
“How do you figure?” she asked.
“You know what you are supposed to do. Now all you have to do is do it.”
“What I meant to say is that I’m expected to get married in three days.”
“Expected? By whom?”
It was the first time anyone had asked the question.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Nono stoppered the bottle and pointed his chin at Liliana.
“Take her to see Archie,” he said. “He means something to her.”
“Yes, grandfather,” Liliana said.
“I could probably still catch Ugarte,” Kak said, half joking. “You could chop off her head. Big sacrifice.”
Nono chuckled. “Mercy is never a mistake. Sometimes being willing to sacrifice is more important than doing it. Your sacrifice is coming. Just not tonight.”
“What sacrifice do I have to make?”
“You have fifteen minutes. Be out of the cemetery by midnight.”
His mood darkened. “You need to be out.”
“Does something happen?”
The shadows obscured his eyes.
“You don’t know?” he asked.
He hadn’t given her the creeps until now. He surveyed the iguanas. They’d changed. Become more eager. He spoke slowly. “No one has explained to you what happens in this cemetery after midnight?”
“After the clock strikes twelve?”
She felt her head shake in an involuntary reaction.
Nono leaned in close enough that she could smell the rum. His voice was low and raspy.
“I-feed-the-iguanas,” he said.
He held up a clear plastic bag of strawberries cut into quarters. “Why else would they gather and wait so patiently?”
Reptiles on the perimeter began hopping down from the surrounding headstones, hitting the dry ground with thuds, inching toward the bag of fruit.
“Don’t forget your rum,” Nono said. “You’ll need it.”
When she reached for it he caught her elbow, pulling her close, speaking in a volume so low only she could hear.
“Promise me you’ll check on Lili tomorrow.”
“Did you not hear me?”
“No. I mean, yes, I heard. But—“
“Promise me.” There was an urgency about his request.
“And Kak. The voices say the path through anger is dangerous.” He squeezed her elbow. “It seduces you. Once you are on it, move quickly ahead.”
The advancing lizards filled her with revulsion. Move quickly. She didn’t wait for Nono to tell her twice. The iguanas closed in fast, mouths gaping in anticipation of the treats. It made Kak shudder. The instant he released her she grabbed the rum from its place on the slab and picked her way through the macabre advance of gaping mouths and sweeping tails until she made it outside the perimeter of candlelight.
Once clear she followed Liliana, not back in the direction they’d come, but east. Kak couldn’t resist glancing over her shoulder. Nono, the grave, and the hoard of lizards were out of sight. It was as if they’d never existed.
Click this link to see the book: The Gods of Sanibel – Kindle edition by Cook, Brian. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.