When Sonia knocked on Ezekiel Beckford’s front door that Saturday evening and disturbed his meditation, he went to his window and dismissed her with a wave of his hand. Sonia, however, stood her ground.
“What you want?”
“I need you help.”
And with that plea Zeke had to open the door, for as a healer, he could not refuse help to anyone who asked.
Still, Zeke was surprised to see Sonia on his verandah. How many mornings had he stood at his fence, gazing up at the mountains and admiring Oludumare’s glory, when she would saunter by his gate on her way to the Cabarita Guest House where she worked, refusing to acknowledge him with even a “Howdy” or “Good morning”? And now she wanted his help?
“How I can help?”
“I can come in?”
Zeke looked around his living room. It was presentable enough. But he closed the door to his altar room, where he stored his oils and the altar to Orunmilla, his orisha.
“Come in,” said Zeke, and he opened the front door.
Sonia entered cautiously, and even though she pretended otherwise, Zeke could see that she was overwhelmed by the candles, coins, and calabash filled with shells—the visible remains of the language of the unseen in which Zeke was fluent. The wisdom of the ancestors had once again prevailed.
“Before I help, I need to know you name.”
“Sonia. Sonia Blackwell.”
“Them call me Zeke, but you know that already. So, what bothering you, Sonia?”
Zeke pointed to a chair in front of a small table holding a yellow candle that threw shadows against his armchair.
“Sit, sit, and tell me what wrong.”
Sonia’s mouth was trembling, but little by little, she squeezed the words through her lips.
“I need help with my boyfriend.”
Man problems, Zeke thought, as he sat in his armchair. He wasn’t surprised. Sonia, like so many other women who visited him near sundown, was desperate.
For as long as he had practiced the “high science” that he had learned from his father, Papa Legba, he had seen the familiar pattern. These “good women” who went to church every Sunday would fast and pray, and when that failed, they would show up at his doorstep, looking for a solution.
“I cyaan help you right now,” Zeke said, and he got up from his armchair.
“Reclaim you crown, Sonia,” Zeke said, and he held his hand over her head. “You cyaan expect our ancestors to help when you fashioning you hair like the people who enslave us.”
Sonia arched her eyebrows. Zeke knew he had offended her. But if she really wanted his help, she would need to do everything that he asked. This would be her first test.
Still, Sonia sat in her chair and would not move.
“What you waiting for?”
“I don’t think you understand. In two month time, my boyfriend, Trevor, is coming back from Miami, and I need to make myself ready for him. I need something that will help me to make a baby with him. Is the only way that I can keep him.”
So that was it. A baby with Trevor Bates. Zeke had always known nothing good would come from Trevor. From the time they were classmates in primary and high school, Zeke had watched Trevor grow from the neighborhood bully into a party enforcer for Lawrence Powell, the local MP and owner of the Cabarita Guest House where Sonia worked.
Other than his cruelty, if there was one thing that Trevor was known for, it was the many baby mothers he had in the village. And while he demanded fidelity from these women in exchange for the possibility of a government job in Montego Bay, he continued to father as many children as he could. During the time he had been with Sonia, he had fathered at least one other child with another girl in Glenbrook. He only kept Sonia, as he often boasted, because he wanted “to crack that nut.”
Sonia wanted a baby, but she was no longer a girl. Although she was only twenty-nine, by Glenbrook standards she was a childless old woman. For every day that she hadn’t given Trevor a child, especially a treasured “boy child,” her chance for making a better life was flickering like the candle in front of her.
“I still cyaan help you,” Zeke said, and he walked to the kitchen, where he filled a glass with water for Sonia. When he came back to the living room, Sonia was gone.
Good riddance, Zeke thought, and he blew out the candle. He drank the water that he had gotten for Sonia and went back to his mediation, relieved that she had gone out of his life as quickly as she had entered.
Zeke couldn’t have been more wrong.
Within a week, Sonia showed up on his verandah again. Zeke barely recognized her. She had cut off all her processed hair and was now wearing a curly afro in which she had stuck a yellow hibiscus over her left ear. Zeke welcomed her into his living room.
“I see you do what the ancestors want,” Zeke said.
“I will do anything you want me to do.”
That was also a good sign. Zeke could almost hear Papa Legba whispering in his ear, “Read her well before you give her a cure.”
Sonia again sat in the chair across from Zeke’s armchair. Zeke held her hands in his palms. They were as cool as river stones.
“This will take time,” he said. “But before we go any further, you will have to ask the blessing of you Ori.”
“You Ori is you head spirit. You have to get the permission of you head spirit before you can summon Oshun.”
“The orisha that will heal you.”
Zeke got up from his armchair and went into his altar room. He picked up a pad and a pen from his desk and wrote a few words from memory. Then, climbing onto a footstool in front of his shelf of vials and candles, Zeke reached for a bottle on the top shelf. He shook the bottle, pulled the cork, and then took a whiff. Perfect.
When Zeke came back into the living room, Sonia was staring intently at the candle. Zeke didn’t want to disturb her until she was ready to acknowledge him, so he waited behind his armchair. The flame danced and became still when Sonia finally looked up and saw Zeke. He waited for a few seconds and then gave Sonia the vial of palm oil.
“The first thing that I want you to do is to find a small table where you can put a candle and a picture of a grandmother, grandfather, anyone in you family who dead—the more the merrier—and a glass of water from the river.”
“I cyaan use tap water?”
“It have to be pure—without chemicals—like you crown right now,” said Zeke. “For three night, make an offering to you Ori. You must wear a white dress. You have a white dress?”
“You must cover you head and chant three time, ‘Ela ro. Ori mop e o’”
“What that mean?”
“That is how you summon you Ori. You calling on you own spirit to lead you. After you finish chanting, tell the ancestors you problem, ask for a solution, and give a offering of this palm oil. Then, you give thanks to you Ori.”
“No. After you give thanks you should chant, ‘Ori mi gbe mi. Ori mi la mi,’ which mean that you asking you Ori to support you. I write everything on this paper.”
“You sure this will work?”
“As Oludumare is my witness.”
“You like to call him God, but I know him by a different name. Now go and perform you offering.”
“I don’t have to pay you or something?”
“In time you will know how to pay me,” he said. “But for now, make peace with you Ori and the ancestors.”
Sonia took the paper from Zeke’s hand and studied the words before she put it in her purse.
“Here then,” Sonia said, and she gave Zeke the hibiscus she had in her hair. “Fair exchange is no robbery.”
Zeke took the flower and, as he walked with Sonia out to his verandah, he noticed the dust underneath the chairs.
“Zeke, this obeah business, tell me it don’t involve the Devil.”
“No, Sonia. Devil and Satan is for weak-minded people.”
Although Sonia didn’t understand what he had said, she was relieved. She turned quickly and went through the gate. Zeke watched her as she walked down the road and almost felt pity for her and the sisters who had given away their own power for things that could disappear as easily as the mist that hovered over the Cabarita River each morning. There was much so much work to do, but first he had to sweep the dust off his verandah.
By the next week, Sonia was back and she was radiant.
“It work! It work! Everybody at the hotel like my new style. The cook ask me if I was on a new diet. Is like a burden lift off my shoulders.”
“I can see that.”
“I notice everything.”
Zeke invited Sonia inside the house, and she went straight to the chair where she had sat before. Sonia didn’t even wait for Zeke to sit before she fixed her blouse and leaned forward from her chair.
“What is the next step?”
“This is where it get more intense,” Zeke said. “And you will have to trust me.”
“I trust you, Zeke.”
This was another good sign, for the next step wasn’t going to be the quick fix that Sonia probably expected.
“The offering was to clear you head, to get the permission of you Ori for the blessings to come.”
This was the only explanation that Zeke could give her. Papa Legba had taught him that the Ori had to be appeased first, so wasn’t it logical that any other orisha that Sonia would summon was already within her, waiting to be awakened by her intention?
“For the next five week—”
“Five week! Why it have to take so long?”
“Five is the number of Oshun, the orisha that you bringing into you life. It will take at least five week to clear the cobweb from you mind.”
Zeke got up and went inside the altar room. It didn’t take him long to find the oils he had prepared for Sonia earlier in the week. The vials were beside an empty jar of honey that Madge Powell, the MP’s wife, had once given him.
A successful business woman who ran her own apiary, Madge had been one of the desperate women who came to Zeke’s house. Her husband had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and while the chemotherapy had halted the disease, Lawrence had lost his appetite and will to live.
At first, Zeke had not wanted to help her because he despised Lawrence’s politics. But after Madge pleaded for Zeke’s help, he had had to give in. Zeke had prepared the oils from the herbs he grew in his backyard, and Lawrence regained not only his appetite but a vigor he had not possessed before.
“It’s like you brought him back from the dead,” Madge had told him.
“I only give you the ointment. You love was the cure.”
When Zeke came back into the living room, Sonia was waiting anxiously. She got up from the chair and stretched her hands toward him. Before Zeke handed the vials to Sonia, he pulled out the corks so that Sonia could smell the oils.
“Take a bath with these two oil. The first one smell like lavender. Use it to wash youself. After you bathe, use the second one. It smell like cinnamon. Try it.”
Sonia leaned toward the vials, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. It was as if the aroma filled her body, and she smiled so broadly her teeth peeked through her lips.
“They smell so good. I could wear them to work every day.”
“The last woman who did that had every man in the village chasing her. Even some billy goat.”
Sonia closed the vials quickly and put them in her purse. When she looked up at Zeke, he had lowered his head and his shoulders were shaking.
“Is true or you playing with me?”
Zeke couldn’t hold it anymore. He burst out laughing. He was laughing so hard that Sonia started laughing too.
“Zeke, you taking me for a poppyshow?”
“It’s not you, Sonia. Is a long time since I laugh this hard.”
“Me too,” she said. “For the longest time I was thinking you was so serious. I was afraid of you. You should laugh more often. It good for the soul.”
Zeke was startled and suddenly became serious again. He went back to his altar room and picked up two candles. When he gave them to her, Sonia cupped his hands between hers.
“Light these two candle and call on Oshun to bring you whatever you want in you life.”
“Whatever I want?”
“Anything. So you better be careful.”
“You ever use it?”
“Once. And I said I would never to use it again. For like the ancestors say, ‘See me and come live with me is two different things.’”
“I will remember that. But let me ask you one thing, Zeke. What do you want?”
“You don’t worry about me,” he said. “I can take care of myself.”
“You sure, Zeke?”
“Yes,” he said. “Me sure.”
“All right, then. I will leave you to youself.”
For the next three weeks, when Sonia came by to Zeke’s house for oils, Zeke handed them to her and went back to his altar room. Her question had unsettled Zeke in a way he could not understand. For Zeke had always been a man who knew what he wanted and exactly how to get it. But no matter how much he questioned himself and talked with Papa Legba every Saturday, when she came by with candies, cakes, and sweet breads that she had baked herself, his confusion increased.
Zeke thought of every possible way that he could discourage what he interpreted as her growing interest in him, and the opportunity presented itself when she brought him a bottle of Wincarnis wine.
“I cyaan take this,” he said.
“Orunmilla is my orisha. None of his children can drink alcohol.”
Sonia was crestfallen. She didn’t have a lot of money, and she knew the bartender at the hotel wasn’t going to give her a refund.
“All right, then,” she said. “At least take this?”
Sonia searched through her purse and pulled out a jar of honey that Madge had given her.
“I hope you won’t get cross with me,” she said. “I open it before and try it. It sweet so till.”
Sonia unscrewed the top of the jar and dipped her middle finger into the honey. She put her finger into her mouth and licked the sweetness off her fingertip.
“You want a taste?”
At first, Zeke wanted to resist, but he hadn’t tasted honey in a long time. Sonia dipped her index finger into the honey and beckoned.
Zeke walked over to Sonia and held her hand. He cautiously licked the honey on her fingertip. It was as sweet as he had remembered.
“Thank you,” he said. “Long time. I did forget.”
“Good. Is good to see you happy,” she said. She left Zeke standing on the verandah with the jar of honey in his hands.
Zeke watched Sonia as she unhitched the lock on his gate. But when she turned and smiled, Zeke knew he was in trouble.
For it wasn’t just that she was now—without his guidance—channeling the symbols of Oshun; she was disturbing his morning meditations.
Zeke called on the ancestors and Papa Legba for help, but they didn’t answer.
But what angered Zeke even more than the ancestors’ silence was the knowledge that he was helping Sonia to seduce a man who, sometime in the foreseeable future, would beat her for burning his dinner or create any other excuse he could think of to abandon her, as he done to all his other baby mothers after he had gotten what he wanted.
“You love him?”
“What kind of question that?”
“Is not whether I love him or not, is what I can do for myself. What me going do? Work the front desk of the hotel for the rest of my life? Or wait until Mr. Powell find someone prettier than me to work the front desk?”
“No one prettier than you.”
Sonia pretended that she hadn’t heard him, but from the look on her face, Zeke knew his message had gotten through.
“With Trevor, I have a little security. If I make a baby with him, maybe I can get a government job, save up, and one day get a pension.”
“Pension is not the only thing in life.”
“What you know about life outside this house?”
“This house and this land support me, my father, and my father father from the slavedom days. Not everything that you see is real.”
When Sonia kissed her teeth, Zeke stopped talking.
Even if it were possible, Zeke knew he could not change Sonia’s mind. What he offered could not be measured by a ruler or weighed on a scale. Sonia had thought through her options, and having a baby with Trevor, no matter the cost, was the only alternative. A child with Trevor would secure her future.
And what about his future? What would become of the secrets that Papa Legba had gained from his travels to Cuba and Haiti and passed on to him before he joined the ancestors? What would happen to these people, “history outside pickney,” as Papa Legba called them, whom he loved but who returned his affection with fear and scorn?
On the fourth Saturday of Sonia’s treatment, Sonia brought Zeke a gift of gizzadas and coconut water. He accepted the presents and handed her the oils, which she gathered into her purse.
Since their last conversation, Zeke and Sonia had come to an unspoken understanding that they would avoid any kind of contact and would not speak about the choices they had made. But Sonia broke the agreement.
“You ever married, Zeke?”
“Yes. For ten year.”
“How come you never have any children?”
“It’s not that I never try,” Zeke laughed. Sonia smiled and turned her head away. “My wife used to drink. She was also a careless woman, and no matter how hard we try, we lose every child until she couldn’t have no more.”
“Me too. She break my heart, Sonia,” he said. “But enough about me. We have to get you ready for you future with Mr. Bates.”
Sonia shuddered when Zeke said this. But he had to say it. This was the life that Sonia had chosen, and whatever the consequences, she would have to live with them.
“For the last treatment, you will need a pumpkin. You going cut the top off and set it aside. Then, scrape out the inside and write Trevor name on a piece of paper and put it in the bottom of the pumpkin.”
“It must be Trevor name?”
“That’s the man you want to be with, right?”
Sonia didn’t answer, so he took her silence as agreement.
“Stick the paper with the name of man you love in the bottom of the pumpkin with five fishing hook. Then fill the pumpkin with five egg yolk, honey, cinnamon, and palm and almond oil. Float five wick over the liquid, and light the wick for one hour for the next five day. After that, put twenty-five penny inside, cover the pumpkin, and take it to the river and throw it in. At the end, for better or worse, you will have Trevor. The next time I see you, you should be married.”
“I never say that I want to marry him.”
“Either way, Oshun will grant you the wish because she is now a part of you life. You pay her with the offering and she give you whatever you want.”
“And what you want as payment?”
“When the treatment is over, you will know.”
Zeke rose from his armchair and folded his arms. Sonia picked up her purse and waited for Zeke to walk with her out to the verandah, but he didn’t. Instead, he turned his back and walked into his altar room.
Sonia left Zeke’s house without saying a word. As it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end, Zeke thought.
For the next week, Zeke occupied himself with preparing oils for his other clients, whom he had ignored to concentrate on Sonia. They came with the usual requests: the offerings to Ogun to restore their warrior spirit; to Oya, to deal with unexpected changes; to Yemaya, for protection in perilous times. Zeke knew that he also needed to make a treatment for himself to Orunmilla, to restore the peace in his life. It was the peace he had sought in the three years since his wife, Myrtle, had died and during which he had committed himself fully to his practice so that when he met his ancestors in Ginen they would welcome him, like they did his father, as an egun.
But it wasn’t out of fidelity to Myrtle’s memory that he had remained single. Myrtle had been a hard woman to live with. Flighty and passionate, from one minute to the next she could be as calm as the stream behind Zeke’s house or as turbulent as the waterfall that crashed against the rocks downstream. Yet through it all, he had embraced living with Myrtle, and for ten years, he had never betrayed her for another woman.
Not that Zeke hadn’t been tempted with Madge. But as the ancestors warned him, “Better the orisha that you know than the one you don’t.”
It was late on Friday of the next week, after Zeke had turned off all the lights in his house and had turned in for bed, that he heard a fist banging against his front door. It had to be a brave person who dared to disturb him at this time of night.
Zeke pulled on his pants, went to the window, and turned on the lights in the living room and on the verandah. It was Sonia. He opened the door and let her in.
“I try and I try but I couldn’t do it,” she said, and she collapsed into Zeke’s arms.
“What you try?”
“What you tell me.”
Sonia took three steps away from Zeke. She was wearing a yellow dress with a sunflower pattern that stretched across her breasts and around to her back.
“I rub the oil over the crown of my head, across my forehead, down the side of my neck, between my breast.”
Sonia slipped the straps off her shoulders, and the dress fell to the floor.
“I rub the oil over my belly . . . and down here.”
In all his visions, Oshun never looked more beautiful.
“And you write the name of the man you love—”
Before he could finish the sentence, Sonia stepped over her dress and hugged Zeke. She wrapped her hands around his neck and pressed her thighs against his.
“You know what you doing, Sonia?”
“The name of the man I love is at the bottom of the river.”
Zeke held her face between his hands, looked into her eyes, and kissed her mouth. Sonia caressed his arms and felt the muscles in his back tighten.
“As sure as Oshun is my witness. You were too ’fraid to make the next move, so I pray to her and she tell me what to do.”
Holding Sonia by the hand, Zeke walked with her toward his altar room. In the morning Zeke would introduce Sonia to his ancestors and to Papa Legba, whose voice he could hear above their assent, “You do well, my son.”
In the meantime, Zeke vowed he would spend this night, and many other nights, with Sonia, this woman whom he loved and would cherish in this life and the next.
Geoffrey Philp, an author from Jamaica, has written three children’s books, Marcus and the Amazons (2011), Grandpa Sydney’s Anancy Stories (2012), and The Christmas Dutch Pot Baby (2012); two collections of short stories, Uncle Obadiah and the Alien (1997) and Who’s Your Daddy? (2009); a novel, Benjamin, My Son (2003); and five poetry collections, Exodus and Other Poems (1990), Florida Bound (1995), Hurricane Center (1998), Xango Music (2001), and Dub Wise (2010). A graduate of the University of Miami, where he earned an MA in English, Philp teaches creative writing at Miami Dade College. He posts interviews, fiction, poetry, podcasts, and literary events from the Caribbean and South Florida on his blog geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com.