Every Mouth Down

Zamira motioned her into the circle. “You’re welcome to enter,” she said. 

Kak stepped carefully over the chalk boundary, not bothering to hide her exhilaration. Zamira took her hand, leading her to the small table where two rattan folding chairs waited in the shade of the umbrella. A small wooden box on the table held business cards. Kak took one. The words MAMA ZAMIRA stretched across it in block print. An address had been written below in pen. That address had been crossed out. Another address hand-written below that had been crossed out as well. A third address written below gave a street number on Olivia.

“We can’t have a gust of wind ruin us,” Zamira said, placing small chunks of coral on the edges of the woven mat between them.

Kak silently agreed. She only had time for one more ruination and it was spoken for.

“The fee is twenty-one dollars,” Zamira said. “Will that be a problem?”

“No.” Kak took out her envelope of mad money.

“Put it on the table. We’ll get to it.”

Kak put the money in front of her. Zamira produced a dried, hollowed gourd and a candle from under the table. She poured bottled water into the gourd and set it aside before lighting the candle and quickly putting the hurricane glass over it.

Next came a small juice glass with a new cigar resting in it like a cocktail stick. Zamira pushed it across to Kak. “Light it,” she said.

Kak removed the cigar from the juice glass and extended it into the hurricane glass to get the tip to the candle flame.

“No,” Zamira said, pulling the candle toward herself. “You must puff it to get it started. This is important.”

She waited for Kak to nod her understanding before moving the candle back to the center of the table. Kak put the cigar in her mouth and leaned over the hurricane glass. The heat and vapor rose into her eyes. By the time she got the end of the cigar into the flame and puffed, the sting of tears flowed onto her cheeks. The end of the cigar ignited. She puffed again, the way she expected an aficionado might, drawing the cigar smoke into her lungs. She gagged, ejecting the smoke across the table in a blast of coughing that brought her close to vomiting. Tears flowed as she coughed up the rest of the smoke. Her sinuses stung and the sharp, heavy notes of burning Cuban tobacco clung to her tongue.

“How do people stand these things,” she croaked when she could manage it.

“You don’t inhale it,” Zamira said. “Just draw the smoke into your mouth and push it back out. Never into your lungs.”

Kak wiped at the tears with her sleeve. “Now you tell me.”

“It’s lit? Lay it across the mouth of the glass.”

Kak balanced the cigar carefully on the juice glass, grateful to be rid of it. 

This done, Zamira began arranging objects around the edges of the grass mat. First a smooth black stone. This was followed by a small conch shell. Then the head of a Barbie doll. A triangular shard of pottery. Two tiger cowries tied together with twine. A dull green object Kak first took for a stone but which upon closer inspection was a seed. The vertebrae of a large fish. And another gourd filled with a white, chalky substance.

“What is all this?” Kak asked.

“All this is Santeria. We’re preparing to use a powerful divination tool called diloggun.”

The certainty of Zamira’s movements and speech produced a sudden flush of jealousy in Kak. It had been a long time since she’d felt certain about anything. 

“You killed Barbie,” Kak said. “My brother cut off her head when we were children. I took it as a sign.”

Zamira completed the assembly with a ceramic figurine of a warrior in a red loin cloth and a beaded necklace of black and red draped around his neck and shoulders. He held a platter overhead with both hands. From the platter a disembodied head stared at Kak. Its eyes, nose and mouth were formed from cowrie shells.

“This is Elegua’s avatar,” Zamira said. “Elegua is the most important orisha. The lord of the crossroads. The messenger.”

Zamira reached under the table again, bringing out a small black silk bag. The contents clicked like marbles as she handled it. She poured them into her hand. Small cowrie shells. Twenty-one of them. Except they’d been altered. The domed tops of the cowries were ground down flat, exposing the internal whorls of the shell and allowing them to rest flat on either side like thick oval coins.  

“I’ve never had my future told,” Kak said.

“Don’t be absurd. No one can tell your future.”

“Then what are these for?”

“These are the homes of the orishas. Empowered through blood sacrifice to speak for them.”


“Spirits. No different than your Catholic saints. Listen. You chose your destiny before you were born, when you chose the head that would be attached to your body. But when you were born you forgot your destiny. We all forget. I can’t tell you what will happen to you. No one can do that. But with the diloggun I can reveal the energy pattern around you. I can help you orient yourself with the destiny you chose for yourself. To remember it.”

“And if I can’t orient myself with the destiny I forgot?”

“You’ll lose it.”

“If it’s my destiny, how can I lose it? By definition—”

“People waste their lives all the time, ignore their true destinies, chasing what the world shows them instead of what’s inside them.”

Zamira carefully arranged the cowries at the edge of the grass mat and, going again to the endless supply of goodies under the massage table, produced a legal pad and pencil which she situated to the right of the mat. She he wrote the date across the top.

“Full name?” Zamira asked.

“Kastle Keen.”

Full name,” Zamira repeated. “It’s important for the prayer.”

“Well. Kastle Ann Keen.”

Kak listened as Zamira wrote her full name. Then her date of birth. The sound of the graphite scraping along the pressed fibers of the page captivated her. So alluring. And so effortless in Zamira’s hand. For the second time Kak felt jealousy for this woman.

Zamira lay down the pencil and extended two fingers into the gourd holding the chalky powder. She scooped out a small quantity on her fingertips and rubbed it carefully over her hands, making sure to cover every bit of skin. “Now you,” she said. “But very little.”

Kak took a pinch of the powder and rubbed it all over both hands as Zamira did until her hands were ghostly white.

“Cascarilla,” Zamira said. “Crushed eggshell from a black hen. For protection. See the circle around us?” She indicated the ring of chalk encompassing the table and bicycle. “It is a barrier to the entrance of unfriendly spirits. So they can’t confuse and deceive us.”

Kak followed the unbroken line of powdered hen shell. She did feel safer within it. She could feel the energy of it. A protection from spirits. A barrier against the wretched gods that had cursed her.

“Now,” Zamira said. “The derecho. The fee. Take it and wad it into a ball. Tight.”

Kak crumpled the bills into the tightest ball she could, getting the chalk all over it in the process. Zamira observed until she seemed satisfied.

“Now cross yourself with it,” Zamira said. “You’re Catholic, yes?”

“How did you know?”

“The guilt has a specific scent.”

Zamira delivered this with a superiority that Kak let pass. She touched the wadded bills to her forehead, chest, left shoulder, and right shoulder, saying, “Amen.” The amen seemed out of place and she quickly followed it with, “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Zamira said. “We have more in common than you might think. West African slaves brought their religion with them to Cuba. The Spanish plantation owners forbade it as pagan. To save their faith, slaves blended in aspects of Catholicism. They linked their spirits to Catholic saints. Their owners saw this and believed they were converting. Santeria means the way of the saints.”

Zamira took the wadded ball of money from the mat. “There was power in the secret,” she said. “It made the slaves strong. Gave them hope. In a way it made them superior to their oppressors. Secrets can do that, can’t they?”

Kak didn’t answer this.

“You keep secrets,” Zamira said. “Don’t you, Kastle?”

Was this part of the ritual? Was this Santeria priestess just needling her? Before she could decide what to do Zamira spoke again.

“The oracle is opened. Say nothing unless I ask you to speak.”

She scooped more powder from the gourd and used it to make a circle on the grass mat, almost to the edges. When she’d completed the circle she took more powder and made short double lines of it through the circle at the north, east, south and west points. Like a compass.

Zamira dipped the fingers of her right hand into the gourd of water. She flicked the droplets that clung to her powdery fingers onto the base of the statue of Elegua. She did this three times and as she did it she spoke a paragraph in a language Kak didn’t recognize.

“We cool Elegua and honor him,” Zamira said, finishing with the water. “Elegua represents the beginning of life and the end of it. The opening of doors and the closing of them.”

Now Zamira directed her attention to the shells. She selected five of them and set them further to the side, flipping them so that all of their natural openings faced down. “These are the witnesses. They say nothing.”

From the remaining sixteen cowries Zamira picked one and showed it to Kak.

“See the opening?” Zamira said. “This is the mouth. When it falls with the mouth down on the mat, we say it is closed. When it falls with the mouth up, we say it is open. The number of mouths on the mat when the diloggun come to rest tells us the parent odu. Once we have that we cast them again to reveal the second letter. Then we’ll know what to do.”

Kak could barely contain herself. To know what to do! To hear it in clear terms.

Zamira placed the cowrie in her palm and collected the others from the mat until all sixteen shells rested in her hand. She added the balled up money to the shells and, placing her other hand on top of it all, began rubbing the cowries gently between her hands.

“We’re waking the souls now.”

Zamira resumed speaking in the same indecipherable language as before. This went on several minutes. The only distinguishable words, Kastle Ann Keen, were intoned three times.

When Zamira finished praying she transferred all the cowries and money to her left hand. She moved around the table to where Kak sat. With her left fist closed around the shells and wadded bills she touched Kak on the crown of her head. Then she touched her on the back of her neck and on each shoulder. Zamira kneeled down and touched Kak in the center of the chest. She paused there. Kak thought she detected the trace of a frown but Zamira’s solemn features made it hard to tell. The ceremony continued. A touch on her stomach, on the inside of each elbow, on each of her knees, and on each foot. The process made her think of the electrodes attached to her in the ICU at Langone. She scolded herself for letting her mind wander.

Finally, Zamira touched Kak on each hand with the fistful. She paused with the collection above Kak’s hands and whispered, “I transfer into your hands the sacred homes of the orishas. Their very souls.”

Kak cupped her hands and Zamira allowed the cowries and money ball to trickle gently into them. The shells were warm, radiating life. A fistful of souls. She tried to suppress a shiver.

“You feel it,” Zamira said. “Good. Tell me now. Why have you come to the feet of the spirits?”

Just hearing the question unnerved her a bit. How much to tell? She decided to keep it on a summary level. At least to start.

“I’m getting married on Saturday. But I’m stuck backwards in grief. If I don’t get from bargaining to denial before the wedding. Well. There won’t be a wedding.”

Kak finished and held her breath, fearing Zamira’s reaction. She wasn’t going to tell her what ‘there won’t be a wedding’ meant. It was too much.

Zamira said nothing, only cupped her hands to receive back the shells and money. The priestess took them in her left fist again and raised them above her head.

“Ochareo,” she said. “We join to the orishas.” She put her right hand on Kak’s shoulder. “When I cast the diloggun we will say, ‘Adache.’ We will say it together. It means, of our own free will.”

Of her own free will. It felt good to think it.

“Now,” Zamira said, lowering her fist to a foot above the table. She opened her hand to let the shells and money spill onto the grass mat.

“Adache,” they intoned in unison.

The cowries showered onto the mat, bouncing, settling, the ball of money rolling in their midst. It all came to rest.    

“Opira,” Zamira said, darkly.

“What’s that?”

“Every mouth down.” It was so. All sixteen shells concluded their tumbling with their openings resting face down on the mat.

“Is that unusual?” Kak asked.

“I’ve never cast it.” Zamira’s head shook almost imperceptibly. “You have so many osorbo in your life. So many obstacles.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

“We can’t continue. The reading is closed.”

“What? Why?”

“Opira has come to the house. A shadow. I have to cool these down.” Zamira scooped the cowrie shells into her hands and moved to the opposite side of the table.

“What does opira mean?” Kak asked.

“It means mental illness. Untimely death.”

The proclamation didn’t surprise Kak. What unsettled her was the way Zamira delivered it. Straight. Out loud, so that it couldn’t be mistaken for an inner murmuring in Kak’s head to be covered over with a conscious thought. 

“Can’t we try it again?” Kak asked.

“The shells have left my hand.”

“What does that mean?”

“You must be taken before Ifa. It is possible that you must make ebo to the Earth.”


“An offering.”

“Can’t we do it now?”

“No. We need the help of an Ifa priest.”

“What the hell are you?”

“A Santeria priestess.”

“You just take my twenty-one dollars and tell me I need help? I knew that when I walked up.”

“Payment doesn’t guarantee resolution.”

Zamira picked up the hollow gourd, bringing the handful of cowries close to it. “We have to cool the spirits now.”  

For the first time since Langone panic rose in Kak’s throat. It couldn’t be ending this way. Not after the optimistic way it began. She didn’t have time for a priest. She’d come too close to a solution to walk away.

“Wait,” she said, grabbing Zamira’s wrist just as she opened her hand to pour the shells into the gourd. Kak didn’t mean to clutch so violently. The force knocked the cowries from Zamira’s open hand and slopped water from the gourd onto the mat. The shells rained onto the woven grass again, pinging off each other, some threatening to roll off the edges but each one coming to rest on the mat. When they stopped, every single cowrie had again come to rest with its opening down.

Zamira tore loose from Kak’s grip, dropping the gourd and getting to her feet so quickly her chair turned over behind her. She took half a step back and clutched her stomach with both hands. “Who are you?” she asked loudly.


“Who sent you to me?”

“No one.”

Zamira’s eyes were dark slits. “You’re lying.”

The agitated exchange drew the attention of passersby and tourists getting their photos with the big buoy. Kak moved around the table to where she could speak to Zamira quietly. But when she closed the distance Zamira thrust out a hand, catching Kak in the chest to keep her at arm’s length. Zamira pulled her hand back, retreating further, her face twisted in pain.

“What did you do?” Zamira hissed. But it was more than a question. It was an accusation.

“I don’t know.”

“What did you do to your heart?”

Kak felt her cover falling away, exposing a secret she never intended to tell.

“What did you do?” Zamira said, louder this time.

“I stopped it.”


“With electricity.”

“You didn’t tell me that part.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Goddam you.”


“Get out of here, spirit.”

“Wait a minute.”

“You tricked me into inviting you into my circle.” Zamira searched the gathering crowd. 

“Hold on,” Kak said. “I need—”

“Help!” Zamira cried.

Kak backed away, scuffing through the white chalk ring. She grabbed her bicycle, the tires skipping on the pavement as she pulled it sideways. She didn’t want to create a scene or bring a police officer. Not trusting her shaky legs to hop on and pedal, she walked as fast as her unsteady gait would carry her, rolling the bike beside her. Behind her Zamira’s cries rang on.

Kak moved quickly north on Whitehead Street, away from the shouts of Mama Zamira and the cowrie shells all facing down. She wasn’t even certain she was going the right way, whatever that was. Any direction away from the Santeria priestess gone berserk had to be better. Across Catherine Street, out of sight and earshot, she settled down enough that she could allow herself a tear or two and get her bearings.

What had it meant? Those damned shells. All coming to rest mouth down. Twice. Mental illness. Was she mad? Had she hatched the whole thing in her head to avoid growing up and living a responsible life? Or had her stunt with the defibrillator actually done something to her that would never be undone?

Her fingers found the doxepin in her shorts pocket. They trembled as she opened it and lay a capsule on her tongue before washing it down with the bottled water. 

In her haste to put distance between herself and Zamira she hadn’t noticed the darkening sky. Now thunderheads threatened to overtake the sun. Low, fast clouds swept across the island from the north. Even though she straddled her bike in full sun on the west side of Whitehead Street, rain began to fall on the east side of it. In less than a minute the precipitation drenched the opposite sidewalk. She’d yet to feel the first drop from where she watched.

It meant something. Everything meant something. But since she didn’t know what the something was she took the only appropriate action left under the circumstance. She balanced with one foot on the pavement and the other positioned on a pedal. Whitehead Street stretched north. She told herself to relax, to get the range and flow of it in her mind. Closing her eyes, she pushed off, pedaling and counting. One thousand one. Sorrow. One thousand two. Joy. It was at one thousand three, for a girl, that she heard the first roll of approaching thunder.

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