The santero sent us off with a shopping list of items I was to bring back the next day — a bunch of pure, white flowers, a coconut and an empty jar. He gave me special soaps to bathe with. I was to pour the water over my head three times.
“You don’t have to say anything,” Lydia told me. “Just watch and listen.” But that isn’t exactly what happened.
My boyfriend’s Cuban mother had confided in me that she was going to visit a santero (Santeria priest). Curious about the occult, I told Lydia I’d tag along.
The botanica’s window was a jumble of various faiths. Inside, the shop was warm and smelled sickly sweet from the soaps and herbs sold there. Bathing in them and lighting the magic candles was supposed to cover you with blessings and protect you from bad juju. Shelves were crammed with religious articles and figurines of saints, some even magnetized for convenient car dashboard use. (“Hey, St. Lazarus, watch this turn!”)
Lydia explained that santeria literally translated to “worship of the saints.” It’s a hodgepodge religion that originated from the Yuroba tribe when they were brought to Cuba as slaves. Santeria is a combo platter of Catholicism and African spiritualism; they put in just enough Catholic hocus pocus to get away with practicing their native religion incognito.
A young boy showed us into a curtained area. Upon entering, my knees felt weak and my heart caught in my throat. A tall man with dark, shiny skin waited for us. There was a worn, wooden table and two chairs in the room. He took one, Lydia the other. I stood behind her, feeling somewhere between intensely curious and freaked the hell out.
At first, the santero said nothing. He emptied a bag of cowry shells into his large hand. Jiggling them between both palms, he let them fall to the table like dice. The way the cowrys lay is said to reveal a person’s fate. Leaning back in his chair, he closed his eyes and cocked his head to one side, listening intently to the silence, possibly taking a nap.
Suddenly, he swirled his hands in big circles, moving them around Lydia’s head. “I see you surrounded by fire, engulfed by flames,” he said in Spanish (she translated for me).
“My son is a firefighter,” Lydia gasped. “Is he safe?”
“It’s not him I’m concerned about, but her,” the santero told Lydia, gesturing to me. “Your daughter-in-law.”
Lydia motioned to correct the santero; Peter and I weren’t married. “They might as well be,” he said. “They’re soul mates.”
The focus of the meeting shifted from Lydia to me. The santero seemed to be providing me with my own, fully customized set of commandments. I needed to have a baby—it would calm my restless spirit (I’d tried for years with my ex-husband); I had a horrible temper, which was the only way I might lose Peter; I had to stop grieving for my mother, who had died suddenly the autumn before. How could he have guessed any of these things?
At the santero’s request, Lydia and I changed places. This time, he threw the cowry shells for me. At the first toss, one shell rested upon another and he let out a heavy groan. “
The santero also told me to come back the following day so he could purify me. Peter and I would be leaving on a cross-country trip in a couple of days, so I didn’t want to take any chances.
I asked the santero what I owed him. “Give me what you feel,” he told me. Lydia thought $20 sounded about right.
The santero sent us off with a shopping list of items I was to bring back the next day—a bunch of pure, white flowers, a coconut and an empty jar. He gave me special soaps to bathe with. I was to pour the water over my head three times. In bed that night, Peter remarked on my new perfume. “I like it,” he told me. Occult No. 5. I thanked him. Although I felt guilty, I didn’t mention anything about the santero. Peter frowned upon such things.
Why was this man flailing me with the white carnations I’d brought? Why was he passing a coconut across my body? What were those prayers he was murmuring? Why did I feel so peaceful, foolish, and protected simultaneously?
The flowers would chase away the bad spirits, the santero explained—whatever spirits the magic soap missed, apparently—and the coconut would absorb them. Oil pulling for witches, I guess. He would dispose of the items in a nearby cemetery and I would be safe. Oddly enough, I began to find his cavernous chants soothing instead of disconcerting. I felt unusually light of spirit, as though something had been freed in me
The santero pulled petals from the white flowers and put them into the empty jar I’d brought. He poured in oil and herbs, mixed them together, carefully contemplating the contents, then thoughtfully adding more. “Keep this jar close by during your trip and anoint yourself with the oil several times a day,” he told me in slow, halting English. “It will protect you and help you prosper in the coming year.”
The next day, Peter and I strapped our mountain bikes to the roof rack of his Olds. I carefully wrapped the santero’s jar in a bandanna then sealed it in a Ziploc bag. When Peter was fitting the tent, sleeping bags, camp stove, and our backpacks into the trunk, I managed to wedge the jar beneath the passenger’s seat without him seeing.
A few days into the drive, Peter started commenting about a flowery fragrance. I knew it was the santero’s herbs but didn’t say anything. (Unbeknownst to me, the jar under my seat had cracked. Twenty years later, I still have it, though.)
I managed to keep my voodoo visit a secret from Peter for almost a week, but it began gnawing at me. Finally, as we hiked up Harney’s Peak in South Dakota’s beautiful Black Hills, I spilled my guts. By the time we reached the summit, I finished my confession. To my surprise, Peter was amused. “This isn’t going to become a habit, is it?” he wondered. I assured him it wasn’t.
I never went to visit the santero again, but I did pass by his shop many times in the following years, often pushing Peter’s and my son in a stroller. Standing outside, the santero would nod at me knowingly. Had he foreseen that Peter would ask me to marry him on that cross-country trip? Did he know Peter had that engagement ring stashed in his backpack? That we would take a detour to Las Vegas to elope?
Maybe, but he never said a word.