She sat next to her mama, and every time a big black woman would climb the bus, they would look at her with pity on their face, and clucking like chickens would say, “Oh chile, da Obeah dat!! Yu haffu go da di mista fu pray pan yu, an bade yu. Or else yu gwein ded.” Obeah, the unspoken word at their hurried family meeting last night, the horror of horrors of black, unclean magic. It took perfect strangers to voice everything they loathed, and Rebecca felt a greasy sweat start, one chock full of guilt and horror of the evil unknown. She wished they didn’t have to go that route, but it seemed the only solution, and it was de rigueur for every other passenger it seemed, so obviously they had made the right decision.
The ride seemed endless, and Mama was so very good the entire way, a small smile playing on her lips, her face peaceful, with only slight grimaces when the bus would hit a pothole. The many hours that they spent together taught Rebecca something about patience and grace. The way Mama never complained about anything, the way she was quiet even when everyone else fussed over her, and the way she simply was the Mama Rebecca always knew and loved. Even her slipped disc, which had to have bothered her over the six hour journey, didn’t fade the beatific smile on her face. She seemed at peace. It was a torment for Rebecca - that everyone else was absolutely terrified yet Isabella seemed resigned to her fate. It was almost as if she was waiting for the inevitable.
Rafael and Jacinta were nearly comical with their growing excitement. They were heading home. How fortunate that the one person who could help Isabella was one village away from the one they were heading to. Rebecca was curious to see where Rafael had grown, what environment he had come from. She was fascinated by all kinds of things, and people’s backgrounds were one. She felt Mama nudge her, and she leaned in to hear her faint whisper, “They are really poor.” Rebecca smiled and said, “So?” Mama seemed satisfied with her answer.
Their definition of poverty stemmed from the fact that at the very least, at their home, there was work to be had. Food could be bought at the store, and more often than not, people had money in their pockets for little things. Poor to them meant basic living. Tiny homes that leaked, dirt floors, thatched roofs, chickens running in and out, naked children playing in a small patch of grass, growing and grinding one’s own corn for tortillas, instead of buying flour to make flour tortillas – that sort of poor. Rebecca and Isabella had known that kind of poor before. Isabella’s parents had grown their own vegetables and fruit, and meat was a rarity in the meal. Eggs were fresh, and as soon as a hen stopped laying, she would be a Sunday lunch that could sometimes extend to Wednesday, with ten children. The floor of the kitchen was a dirt patch, but over the years, the growing children and change in economy helped pay for cement floors. Rebecca had glimpsed the kind of poverty that made the cover of international magazines when she would see a troop of half-naked babies, following a sad-eyed older sister, dressed in dingy rags going from kitchen to kitchen, begging for leftover food to feed themselves, while their mama was in bed having another baby. Rebecca’s own cousins were poor too. She had an aunt who kept having babies, and her husband, rather than be a farmer to at least grow their food, was content to spend his week in the city in a street corner selling dollar bags of peanuts and sometimes, pickled plums. She always wondered how they survived. There were only so many peanuts one could sell. And all the while, back home, his children starved.
So, poor was a word Rebecca knew all too well.
The bus stopped at a tiny, non-descript village. The homes were set far apart, with lots of land between neighbors. The hot breeze that blew the tall grasses to and fro brought with it the distinct scent of wild stock. Scrawny, mangy horses stood in the heat, barely eating the grasses, a dog or two barked wildly in the distance, and flies buzzed around them, alighting every so often on their tick-riddled ears. Jacinta and Rafael were home, and Isabella and Rebecca felt at ease. It was just like home as well.
Mama leaned on Rebecca to walk behind her husband and mother-in-law. They knew the way, and it was easier to follow. Mama gasped slightly every so often, and she clutched Rebecca’s arm every time. She had weakened visibly on the bus ride, and it was time to start the healing process. There was some part of her that made Rebecca curious to witness the great healing, and she felt a bit of self-pity that she could not be a part of it. That much she knew from the days of her village, when the great Maya healer was alive and caring for others. It was always said that he would teach someone from the village, but it seemed that no-one had the mark, the calling. One didn’t just choose to become a healer; the powers of healing chose one. There was a lot of resentment when the white woman came to start learning, but there was nothing that could be done to stop her, as there seemed to be no heir to his healing prowess. The white woman was branded (perhaps unfairly) as an opportunist and savvy business woman, and the true heir indeed turned out to be in the village closest to the one where Rebecca found herself in now.
Jacinta pointed to the sky, and one glance confirmed that a storm was brewing. The breeze shifted and with it came a bite of cold. Huddling close, mother and daughter quickened their pace to make it home before the rain started. And what a home it was. Just like Rebecca imagined, it was a tiny thatched roof dwelling, and a black patch of dirt showed where chickens were most likely fed. And water strewn from the kitchen. There was a fire hearth under another small thatch roof, and smoke spewed from it already. Their arrival was quiet enough, but someone had been waiting for them. Rafael’s sister Raquel came running out to help with the bags, and she took an unflinching glance at Isabella in the process. It was something she knew well. A few years ago she left her abusive husband while pregnant, and he ‘cursed’ her to the point where she returned, only to get pregnant again. She left him for good when she went to the healer and discovered she had been under a spell. It was fascinating to imagine someone’s desire to be in control could lead to such behavior, but Rebecca often wondered if any of it was true. Before she crossed the doorway, she decided to leave skepticism at the door.
The rain came down in a deluge, and as there was nothing that could be done to get the healer to the house, Mama lay down in bed and awaited her fate, while everyone else sat around the table to talk. Hot cups of bitter coffee steamed in front of them, and Rebecca listened with half an ear as she went to check on Mama every so often. She slept like a baby, snuggled under a blanket, her whitened hair blending in with the sheets. They were standard issue hotel grade from Mama’s collection - a little touch of luxury in a room that was walled in with twigs and rough logs. The wall was papered with old magazine advertisements, colorful newspapers, posters and more. Just like the old days. The home was a throwback to Mama’s childhood.
There was nothing to do for the rest of the afternoon. Even though the rain stopped, a fine mist curled around the house and in the village for the rest of the evening. It was a rare sight, according to Jacinta. They tried not to read too much into the event, and when Mama slept late into the evening, barely stirring as the mist hovered, they held their breaths. Rebecca prayed, and Raquel applied hot fragrant leaves to Isabella’s forehead and chest. There was nothing that they could do but hold hope that the day would dawn bright, and the healer could perform his rituals on Mama.
Rebecca held her close through the rest of the night as she slept fitfully. Her husband had decided, along with his mother, that it was probably best that Isabella sleep with her baby. Everyone else crowded in the other bedroom. Raquel had sent her children to a friend’s home, and so she and her mother slept in her mother’s bed, and Rafael strung a hammock and curled up in the kitchen. They all woke up at various times in the night, and every time they woke, they prayed.
The next day dawned bright and sunny, and the entire village seemed cleansed from the night before. There was no mist anywhere, and Mama actually got up and sat at the table for a small breakfast. Sweet boiled cho-cho was mashed up for her, and she ate a bowlful. Eggs turned her stomach, and tortillas were too heavy for her. She had a bit of tea, and she smiled at Rebecca, holding out a comb. They loved to comb each other’s hair, and just the fact that she could do it one more day had Rebecca swallowing hard.
As she combed, hair fell out, and whitened strands showed starkly on the hardened earth. They snaked around each other as they fell, until they landed and stopped moving. Too much symbolism for Rebecca, but how odd that she never noticed hair’s movement as it fell to the floor. Rafael had already left for the other village as the day had dawned, and should have been on his way by the time breakfast things were cleared. Jacinta cleaned out the bedroom where Mama would be bathed and healed. She had a large pot of water on the fire hearth, and a few buckets of water at the ready. A giant tub that could fit Mama was in the bedroom as well, and plastic was laid on the floor so her feet wouldn’t touch mud. There were many more of the fragrant leaves in a basket by the tub, and Rebecca wondered what wonderful properties they had. She knew her grandmother used it for her rheumatism pain, and for when Rebecca or her other cousins complained of achy bones. When there was a rash of fever, the leaves were heated on the comal and placed hot on the forehead, feet, stomach and back. The leaves would blacken, and the pain would be gone. Modern medicine had nothing on that leaf.
In the distance, and growing ever closer, was a tiny wizened old man walking with Rafael. On his back he carried a knapsack fashioned with string, old belts, and crocus sack. What wonders were contained in the sack, no-one knew. Around his waist hung a small bag. Inside was his healing stone. Some people said that healers had one stone that gave them energy to heal, and knowledge and power. Finding such a stone was no accident, it found its owner, its host.
When the duo finally reached the doorway, the little old man closed his eyes briefly, clucking and shaking his head. “Ya-aba yah yan we-ya” (there is a lot of pain here). Everyone in the house respectfully gave him way, and he went directly to the room where Isabella waited. Her hair freshly combed, she sat and waited like a school girl on the edge of the bed. She wore a clean nightgown, and all items of monetary value and religion had been removed from the bedroom. The room was to be clear of conflict, and it seemed money and religion was the root of much conflict. At the very least, the healer knew the basics. Having followed him to the doorway, Rebecca hoped to be able to glance at his items in the sack, but he turned and smiled, asking for Jacinta to join him, and the door was closed.
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