Slowly, she turned one carefully on the shelf, reading the profession to the Catholic saint, “Our Lady of Guadalupe” that was printed on the back of it. It was written first in Spanish, which Ana by-passed and this was followed by an English translation. She moved a foot step to her left to look once more at the pink St. Valentine candle which was guaranteed, when burnt the right way, to bring a lost love into your life. The candle flame had to consume the name of the paramour on a piece of paper—a petition paper, while being burnt consistently, sometimes, for a fixed length of time. She began to feel embarrassed, silently reflecting that it was a damn shame that she could not swipe it off the shelf and slink out of the store without having to deal with the agony of an actual purchase. Lord knows I need some love back in my life, she thought to herself, feeling the slow, heavy tail of loneliness curl and uncurl around itself from inside its lair at the deep pit of her stomach.
An older man and an individual, who appeared to be his grown son, occupied a space at either end of the store. The man sat on one side of the store, perched sideways, inclined toward the front window and eating from a grease stained paper bag. Ana threw another cursory glance his way, briefly pondering what he might still be eating. His son was behind a counter, directly alongside the shelves with the candles, threading a selection of small colored beads onto something like fishing line. Ana watched the proboscis of threading line enter each bead deftly and then the young man’s fingers sealed them from slipping off the other end. She furrowed her brow at the sight of the various necklaces, in multitudes of color combinations. Ana was unsure what many of the colors represented anymore, even though she had seen them all numerous times before in the past.
Standing inside of this place of dark corners and sacred talismans reminded her of her childhood. Her memories were a mish-mash of Mighty Sparrow’s vocals riding on calypso rhythms and frenetic salsa timbaus; of kitchen smells like chopped garlic in madras curry (one of her father’s favorite meals) and the sizzle of frying platanos; of her grandmother wondering why her only daughter didn’t try harder to have a child who was less moreno. And as for her father’s side, Ana’s aunt, her dad’s baby sister, dark-skinned with swirls of kinky twists to her shoulders, once said of Ana’s mother that “only thing she have is colour” and though her tone was derisive, Ana already knew by then that colour was currency, and tangible, much like quality of hair. It was something wispy, painful and immutable. Something you could hold and taste and experience, aspire to, rail against, benefit from or pay homage to. She already knew the power and limitations of her brownness and how as a female, the skin that you were in mattered more in some ways just because of your gender.
The candles for the various saints, as well as those revering “Our Lady of Lourdes” especially, reminded Ana of her grandmother. When she was alive, she would light these with fervent regularity around her house, in which Ana and her mother also lived. The smell of incense would cloak the entire house, burrowing itself into the fabric of all their clothes, the cushions and rugs. Throughout the house, there were altars on small tables and wooden mantel shelves laden with flowers, glasses of water, wizened oranges, shriveled sweet potatoes, swatches of vibrant cloth, and various other objects. Her grandmother would occasionally mutter prayers as she shuffled through the old, shotgun style, south Florida house, slippered feet announcing her arrival wherever she went. Some days, she did so while she swung a rosary, dangling precariously from her crinkled, beige fingers.
Ana could clearly recall how old age bent her grandmother’s back lower and made the harsh yet beautiful angles of her face droop like slackened draw-string pants. Time made her grandmother’s fingers tremble whenever she tried to light a match, lowering the flame shakily into the depths of another novena. She thought too, about how she loved to watch the candles flickering as they consumed the word magick of a petition to Santísima Muerte or blazed in the wake of a prayer to St. Jude; how her grandmother deciphered the omen of a badly sooting candle with acumen, wiping and sanctifying the candle holder once, sometimes twice, or finding ways to counter whatever trabajos of bad spirits might be amok. Her grandmother thought spirits were ever present around us. They wafted in and out of our lives. They dripped from ceilings; they seeped in through fissures and exited through doors left open. They sat in dusky corners. They left us calling cards: droppings like soft-coated mice, or coded messages embedded in unassuming mediums. Some spirits were incendiary, some were fickle, others her grandmother had long relationships with, could laugh huskily with them over a tumbler of white rum.
Once she told Ana how Oshun helped bring her the last man she ever loved—Ana’s grandfather—when he came into her life one rainy Saturday evening, the colour of sweet soursop punch, formerly crisp guayabera dampened onto his back; hard-working, pliable, his heart quivering in his hands, offering it glistening with desire to her. Her grandmother would talk about their love tenderly, carefully unfolding and refolding tales of their living and loving, like origami. Often, her grandmother told Ana about the African Yoruba rituals and all the stories about the fierce men and women-Gods who lived in the sky. Sometimes they walked the earth in Africa as Orishas in human form and you could find them in varying versions, all over the Caribbean region and everywhere from their Motherland to Brazil, and down in the swamp lands of a sweltering Louisiana bayou.
As far back as Ana could remember her grandmother regularly crossed herself with the sign of the cross, adamantly shouldering her belief that the candles purified and protected the household. Light wards off evil, she once told her grand-daughter. As a young girl, Ana remembered entering these dark, independent stores at her grandmother’s side. Sometimes there was a nondescript sign that read botánica on the outside, sometimes there was no discernable sign at all. They would walk from the bus stop to these places, rain or shine. Ana alongside her grandmother’s strong, powerful stride despite her slowly stooping back. Her grandmother would speak in fluent Spanish to the person at the counter about whatever it was that she needed. She frequently bought candles to burn but sometimes, she got other things as well: herbs and spices in tiny satchels, small portraits of saints, painted statuettes, necklaces made with colored glass beads or cowry shells, or bottles of fragrant colored water with strange labels on them.
Ana’s mother meanwhile would grumble that the constant candles were a fire hazard, then she would sigh and complain incessantly. She did not want Ana to learn Spanish and she lectured her about integrating herself into American culture as much as she could. She didn’t want her claiming any kind of mixed Caribbean heritage because she was more American than anything else since she was actually born here. As far as Ana could see, her mother had little faith in any cultural practices and traditions of any sort. One day, she would have none at all. After her mother had screamed at her grandmother about stopping “that stupid evil mojo she brought here from the island,” their Sundays were then spent, seated uncomfortably starched, in the aisles of a charismatic Christian church, where the pastor spewed painful fire and brimstone and spittle from the pulpit. Ana’s grandmother came one time and never once returned in the ensuing weeks. She would stay home locked in her room when Ana’s mother dragged her out to the service.
Finally one day, her mother appeased, “Mama, you are not helping Ana you know. What will her friends think of all this craziness? Her American ones? Don’t you want her to fit in? Do you want her to be forever ashamed?” But Ana knew she loved the spiritual tales and the rituals connected to her grandmother and their shared culture. She wanted to speak up and shout out to her grandma that it wasn’t true, she wasn’t ashamed, there were other reasons why she never had friends come over to the house but she could not get the words out. Her mouth felt stuffed with damp tissues every time she would try to speak. Her grandmother just stared at her with watery, rheumy eyes saying nothing. She looked sad, defeated and very old.
Ana’s mother still thought that her mother was incorrigible. One afternoon Ana’s mother blew out the candle for St. Jude that was supposed to remain lit until it naturally burnt out. Her grandmother had not been out for weeks and would not be out again. These were her last candles unless she was able to get more. When Ana came home from school that day, the last flame went out by her mother’s sharp breath, followed by a ranting swathed in the thick accent she often struggled to stifle. The accent coated all of her words, raining down all around the room, giving everyone within earshot a drenching. She cited, among other things, that she was tired, so damn tired of the burning and the endless rituals associated with various candles. Every last shrine in fact, would have to go, she declared. The smoky aroma from the dying wick wandered around the room forlornly as her grandmother responded by wailing in desolation. She continued into the night and into the next day. She wrung her hands over and over while she tottered around, shoulders slumped, continuously wailing like the legendary “La Llorona,” the spirit of the Mexican woman who wails incessantly in the night by the water for the lives of her lost children.
She wailed so much and so long, that neighbors called and came knocking on the door to see what was going on. Her grandmother’s wailing disconcerted some of the neighborhood dogs, whose howls punctuated the wane and flow of the wails. During this time, it seemed as though, the sadness factor all over their small neighborhood had risen to epic proportions. The mail person refused to deliver mail on account of a crying compulsion which took over at the top of their street. Passing outside the front of their house became a problem, as people from all walks of life found themselves unable to do so, without erupting into soul-wrenching sobs. Ana’s mother was unaffected. Meanwhile, Ana fought the urge herself, as she went through the motions of life, feeling as though there was something tightly wound up inside her chest, on the verge of a stress fracture, perilously close to snapping.
Mrs. Anderson from two doors down came by more than once, awkwardly clasping and rolling her pale speckled hands together, while she spoke to Ana in her clipped American twang, inquiring about her grandmother and when the crying would stop. Mrs. Anderson’s own eyes were usually swimming in tears and Ana’s mother didn’t know what else to do. People were always asking her about the crying—while they cried. The collective crying, they wanted to know about. Their own and by extension, everyone else’s. Ana’s mother was so embarrassed and annoyed about all this, that she banged the table with her fist and swore and shouted things like, “You’re lucky I am not an American so I will never put you in a home. We must personally take care of our elders in our culture, but Mama you are driving me insane with that racket!”
Years afterward, Ana continuously thought about her absent father more and more, wondering if he went back to his home country after giving up on domesticity and family life. It was always hard not to wonder about whether her mother drove him away, or did he take himself away? Between the tears, raised voices, the bawling and even after that, he was always there, lurking in a corner of her mind—tall, coffee bean skin, his tightly packed low afro, cool bouncing stride like those island boys who popped their collars in Miami—walking away from the family. She longed for answers to all the unknowns that she didn’t have information for, still.
And didn’t the ancient Greeks believe a sip from Lethe would make you forget the pains of your past lived life, but Mnemosyne’s water would let you remember? In goddess spirituality, the memory-goddess was rightfully heralded but Ana felt as though she could be cruel as a spiteful minded imp. Who would elect to remember some of these things? The day the crying stopped. The time when her grandfather died— how he took her grandmother’s heart with him, (he wouldn’t go without it and what did she need it for anyway?).The day the dark thing crawled out of some corner of the universe and took up residence inside her grandmother’s house and how it seemed to trail Ana into adulthood. Most damning of all, memory made her crave the return of her last love to fill the craggy, widening chasm inside. She knew she was sad; a sad, pathetic woman hoping a novena candle for love would work a miracle—(the thick tail whipped back and forth sinuously in the base of her belly); decidedly, Ana grabbed the love spell candle in the midst of this realization.
The younger man posed over the beads observed her focused approach toward the finished necklaces on the wall. Ana grabbed a singular long set, recalled from a moment the night before the wailing had stopped. Her grandmother had bathed Ana’s neck with a mixture of scented cologne and rose water inside her bedroom when she came to kiss her goodnight. “I had a vision that your Orisha was Shango. He is the God of thunder and lightning, fire, drums and dance. He is a warrior and all powerful. Remember this Ana,” her hands shook slightly but her voice was steady. “His colors are red and white. One day, years from now, you will be big, Ana, and I will be long gone. You will no longer be forced to do your Mama’s bidding. You will be free to decide your own fate, your own direction and answer your own call if you hear an Orisha calling to you. When you do hear it, one day you will be free to answer.”
In her hand, Ana held a string of red and white beads which she placed on the counter next to her other purchase. The young man gave her a knowing smile as he appraised her selections and her heart stirred with anxious anticipation. She declined a bag for her purchases, placed the candle, gingerly, into her large tote, and swirled the beads over and around inside her fingers, looping them loosely around in her right hand. A noisy clap ricocheted outside in the sky—but wasn’t this typical, random Florida weather for you? She pressed the necklace against the outside of her lips with a shallow exhale of breath, thinking, whatever happens next, she knew she was ready for it. Ana walked out of the botánica feeling strangely whole.
Soyini Ayanna Forde is a writer, feminist and tea drinker from Trinidad and Tobago. She has had work featured on Racialicious, inside Black Renaissance Noire, The Guidebook, The Caribbean Writer, Small Axe Literary Salon and in Tongues of the Ocean. She is working on radical resistance through lipstick here: http://twolipscollective.wordpress.com/