Exclusive story: The Little Shop of Babalawo Eugenio
Superstition and Sacrifice in Old Havana
Many thanks to everyone who made it to the Zoom launch of Fifteen Moments.
I had a lot of fun talking about time, writing and badly behaved Italian philosophy professors.
Here’s a link to watch the event if you missed it. It’s about 40 minutes long.
Don’t forget, if you live outside the UK and would like a copy, please get in touch.
This month, I’ve decided to share an exclusive story with you. It’s set in Cuba and follows a mother struggling to stay on good terms daughter in Miami.
Next month, Coming Up Short will return to its usual format of an essay and recommendations for short fiction.
Enjoy the story.
The Little Shop of Babalawo Eugenio
Madelin flapped her arms like a fighting rooster. “Don Neto is not my boyfriend! You make me sound like a teenage girl.” She huffed and returned to her seat in front of the portable television in her shop. It didn’t matter if he had a better set, she hated relying on men.
Madelin’s neighbour, Maria Luisa, shrugged her shoulders. “Who cares? It has to be better than watching telenovelas on that old thing.” Madelin’s twelve-inch set was ageing even worse than her. The picture wobbled and the voices of the characters buzzed, but telenovelas were all the company she had since her daughter Argelia made it to Miami with her boyfriend.
“I’ve been saving for a new one from the pawn shop in Havana Antiguo.” Madelin’s Santería supply business might be able to attract more tourists now. The popular Callejón de Hamel, a colourful street in her barrio, now teemed with Afro-Caribbean sculptures and rumba musicians.
“Save your money, amiga,” said Maria Luisa. “Keep it up with Don Neto and he’ll buy you a new one.” He wanted her to give up the shop, too.
Madelin was about to protest again, but her friend was already leaving. She waved goodbye and touched the enamel bust of Obatalá The Creator for good luck on her way out. “Adios.”
The heat in the capital was sweltering, even with the electric fan on full. It just pushed the hot air from one side of the room to the other, muddling the aromas of spices and flowers used as altar offerings. The framed paintings of the seven orishas installed by her father Eugenio had long since been sold and replaced with cheaper versions.
The bell jangled and a European couple entered the shop, ducking their heads under the low doorway. They looked about the age of her daughter. The young man had a bag slung across his chest and went to cool himself in front of the shop fan. The girl was Madelin’s polar opposite — tall, skinny, and very white with straight hair.
“Hola, señora,” said the girl with a smile. Her voice was straight and sure, like Argelia’s. “Que bonita su tienda.”
The few tourists that stumbled across her little shop didn’t like the hard sell. At least she speaks Spanish, thought Madelin. “Thank you, Señorita. Please, look around.”
The couple passed around the displays inspecting the candles, books, incense and wooden idols. They whispered to each other and pointed at things that caught their interest. After a while, the man summoned the courage to ask about Eugenio.
“He was my father,” said Madelin, “a Yoruba priest, well-known in the area. He performed many ceremonies.” In the years since his passing, regular customers had switched to the newer shops. Why trust a woman who wasn’t even Medio Asiento? Many tourists only wanted to know about the dark arts of sacrificing animals to cause harm to others. They confused Santería with Voodoo. It had been a long time since Madelin had performed a reading, but there was something good about these people. Besides, the tourists’ money could go towards her new television. She smiled. “I can perform a reading of your future with orisha tarot cards.” Before they could refuse, she invited the couple to sit at her small table, then fetched her cards, together with a large white candle and container of water. “These objects represent cleanliness,” she said, “a white magic, and a future full of pure intention and of spiritual love.”
The tourists nodded in silence and Madelin lit the candle. She touched the girl’s hand and dealt three cards. As she turned the first card she saw Oyá, the feminine representation of death, ascending from a cemetery. Madelin worried her customers might take the image literally. “This card can mean the death of a chapter in your life,” she said with a smile.
The girl exhaled heavily and looked at her partner with a smile.
The next card showed ilekes, beaded necklaces representing commitment to a way of life. “Perhaps you will move towns, or take new jobs.” To finish, Madelin turned the third card to reveal a Cuban dressed all in white. “This Santero represents new life.”
The couple glanced at each other with understanding. They chattered in their own language and seemed pleased with the outcome.
Madelin breathed a sigh of relief that she had not had to deliver bad news. “Do you have any questions?”
“Yes,” said the boyfriend. “How long have you practised Santería?”
Madelin’s life was inextricably connected to the religion, but she still felt like a fraud selling readings to tourists. She had not completed her year-long initiation period before falling pregnant to Michel, a Catholic boy. “When your father is a Babalawo, you always follow Santería. Obatalá is my guide.” She motioned to the rosewood carving on her shop counter.
“Ah,” said the man. “The father of the orishas, no?”
“That’s right. When Eugenio was alive, this shop was the most important centre for Santería in the neighbourhood. Then, a few years ago, many shops opened in the Callejón de Hamel.” The whole neighbourhood knew her story, so Madelin hadn’t shared her past for a long time. She preferred to escape to the fantasy lives of her television series and her own romantic entanglement. With his high and mighty attitude and impatience in the bedroom did not make Don Neto someone to confide in. The couple let her speak. “I was not able to complete my path into priesthood because I became pregnant with my daughter.” Madeline bowed her head. “She lives in Miami now.” She told them about the falling fortunes of the shop since her father’s death.
The tourists paid twenty dollars, which could go towards her goal of replacing her tiny television. Or it could be a sign. Was it her father’s way of reaching out? She opened the door and went outside to look at the shop front. Madeline should invest the money in changing the fortunes of her shop so she didn’t have to keep relying on Don Neto.
When they had gone, Madelin made plans to order white cotton dresses, and to employ Baptiste, her neighbour’s son, to tout for business in the callejón. Although her father had been against the selling of Santería idolatry, tourist money could give her the independence to make her own choices for the future. Perhaps one day she could sell up and get a place by the sea. She’d worked hard, bringing up Argelia alone, but faith had brought her little reward.
Madelin took the pen and paper on the counter and began to write a list of the things she needed to attract foreigners — new clothes to sell, signs in English. Perhaps she might even learn some expressions. Madelin felt uneasy about making drastic changes, but it was better to cash in than watch the shop fade out of existence.
Business started to pick up, with little Baptiste able to drag a few backpackers or foreign groups the two blocks to the shop. She gave him a dollar for each customer that entered through the shop door.
“Welcome to the Little Shop of Babalawo Eugenio,” she would say. Madelin greeted customers in her father’s purple and yellow robe, her neck adorned with bead necklaces. She held a fat cigar stub to pose for photographs, and saved money by reusing the same one. The tourists loved it, and before long, Madelin had more than enough money from her readings to buy new stock and pay for the new television.
While the neighbours no doubt gossiped about her lack of respect for tradition, Madelin took pleasure in telling the story of her father. A faded photograph showed him in his full regalia — bright eyes shining out from under the stiff hat perched on his bald head.
“He was a strict man,” she explained. The tourists would nod seriously. “His grandfather came from what is now Benin.” Madelin had learned the word ‘grandfather’ and a few phrases in English to help communicate his story. “He performed rituals all over the city. Mira.” Madelin signalled for the intrepid travellers who entered the shop to follow her through to the concrete courtyard. “Here, we kept chickens for sacrifice, we built a boveda altar with offerings of rum, cigars and food.” The washing hanging in the courtyard somewhat ruined the illusion that it was a holy place. “Anyway, the location of ceremonies does not matter. We believe in aché, a life force. It balances the heart, mind, the body and the spirit. It cannot be created or destroyed and is found everywhere.” After the tour, most customers wanted a reading. If they didn’t request one, Madelin was always able to sell postcards or incense sticks for a healthy profit.
One afternoon, Maria Luisa entered the shop.
Madeline looked up from her telenovela, which she watched on the old portable on her shop counter.
“Amiga, we have to talk about Baptiste.”
“Ay, Baptiste is a good boy. He brings me so much business.”
Maria Luisa frowned. “That’s just it. He comes home with money, new clothes. He has a new stereo he blasts all day.” What was her problem? They weren’t a rich family, so it was good the boy could buy himself something. He deserved it.
“But amiga, I finally have enough for the television. We can watch our shows together and I can stop going to Don Neto’s.” After her last visit, Madelin had found a pair of knickers stuffed behind the bed.
“What would your father think of all this?” She motioned to the novelty candles and plastic figurines.
Madelin looked at the price list for readings, and she thought back to her father painting the sign above the front door, all those years ago. What her neighbour said was true. He would not be proud of this. And all for a flat-screen television set. She breathed a sigh and offered Maria Luisa a seat on a plastic chair. “Ay, amiga. I’m only trying to be independent, to make a better life. I didn’t choose Santería.”
“Nor did Baptiste,” she snapped. “You dangle a dollar under a boy’s nose and he bites like a dorado.” Maria Luisa was silent for a few seconds to emphasise the point. “Escuchame. My son is not going to work for this shop any more. He has his school work, his athletics team. I don’t want him wasting his money buying rap music and Coca Cola. Whatever next?”
Madelin adopted a calming pose. Tranquila. He could stay in school and she could find someone else to tout for business.
Maria Luisa gave her a vindicated nod. As she was leaving the shop, she offered Madelin a piece of advice. “Why don’t you speak to Babalawo Nelson in the callejón? You can seek guidance, perhaps connect with your father.”
It would be madness to pay for a ceremony even though she was the owner of the oldest Santería shop in the barrio. Then again, some of her profits would be invested in a cause her father would have approved of. Warm air rushed into the shop as Maria Luisa opened the jangling door and stepped out into the afternoon sun.
A thin line of smoke wound its way up from the boveda and the strong smell of incense came with it. The Babalawo, a wiry man with bony hands and leathery skin, wafted the smoke around Madelin. Next, he would add the offerings and start the process of taps and touches to transfer the energies of the aché de egun. She closed her eyes and thought back to the last time she experienced this, her father’s final ceremony.
Babalawo Nelson began to chant in a rasping monotonous voice. He circled around Madelin and flicked her shoulders with a branch of leaves. It tingled like hot sauce on the tongue. Madelin was used to providing the priests with these supplies, extolling the virtues of one incense over another, of selling extra offerings to please the right orisha. Now it was her indulging in the extravagance of a personal ceremony, taking the life of an animal to transfer the life force of Babalawo Eugenio.
Through the chanting and the incense smoke, a sense of calm descended. She felt the breeze of the courtyard, and the sounds of mopeds and music in the street died to a whisper. She remembered herself as a little girl, travelling on the back of a scooter with Eugenio to perform ceremonies. Sometimes, what people learned caused them pain. The ceremonies were always precise and performed with respect. Sometimes, if they had already suffered the misfortune of death, Eugenio did not ask for any money.
The Babalawo continued the chanting and began the preparation of the chicken that was to be sacrificed. Each touch of the animal on Madelin’s person brought her past into sharper focus. Suddenly, the heat of the day drained and the air prickled Madelin’s skin. The peripheries of her vision faded to black and an outline of her father’s face took shape above the altar. She tried opening and closing her eyes, but wherever she looked, the face remained. Though not able to see his features completely, Madelin felt his presence in her chest. She drank in the notes of his voice — deep and steady, with a thick Havana accent and just a tinge of the African dialect his father had carried. “What a welcome sight. My Madelin.”
Madelin swallowed. She finally had the chance to ask the question she had been ashamed to when he was still with her. “Father, have I disappointed you by not following your path?”
“No, my child. Your path in life has not changed.”
“But I am alone. First, that comemierda Michel left me before your granddaughter was born, then you passed away, and finally, after I did the hard work of raising Argelia, she left on a boat with that boyfriend.”
“Your daughter’s path is like yours,” replied Eugenio. “At this time, she is lost, but she will come back when you return to the life which you started, all those years ago.”
Perhaps Maria Luisa was right. She should treat her father’s legacy with more respect. “Should I make contact with Argelia? Open a second shop? Perhaps take a partner?”
Her father was silent for a moment, then replied. “All of these things take you further from your truth. Let Obatalá be your guide.”
The Babalawo continued with his preparation of the bird, touching it against the altar, against Madelin, but she hardly noticed.
“The shop embodies my spirit but is not your only home. Santería may be practised in any place,” said Eugenio.
The Babalawo finished his chanting, and Madeline heard the sounds of daily life in the Callejon again. She strained to hear her father as his spirit started to fade from her consciousness.
“Each generation will build upon the legacy of the last, when Obatalá says they are ready.” His voice drifted away and Madelin felt the warm air of Havana on her skin once more. The lump in her throat throbbed.
She opened her eyes to see the Babalawo parting the feathers of the bird’s neck. With practised efficiency, he took the blade and sawed off the chicken’s head. Its wings flapped up and down madly. Its eyes remained open in a state of surprise and its blood trickled down onto the altar. Crimson drops splashed against the white flowers and onto the shells connecting the world of her ancestors to hers.
The little Babalawo looked up, pleased with his work. “And now for the reading,” he said.
Madelin already knew the reading of the shells would tell her that her happiness depended on following the tradition of those in her past. Babalawo Nelson scattered the shells onto the ground. All twelve of them faced down as if protecting themselves from the influence of the outside world.
The shop bell rang and a tall couple walked through the curtain. They were the very same couple that had asked Madelin for a reading all those months ago.
“Señora?” said the man. He still wore his bag over one shoulder and had grown a beard. Madelin came through from the back of the shop. The blonde girl pushed a pram, and a tiny little coconut of a face peered out.
“Hello, my friends. Ay, qué guapo el bebé.”
He beamed a smile as white as Madelin’s dress. “The shop looks so different.” He was right. The cheap Chinese plastic items had gone, and Madeline had replaced them with scores of original carvings, paintings and drums sold by a local Santería craftsman. The shop was clean, the walls were white, and Madelin made sure to add a splash of colour with fresh flowers every day. It must have been a full year since they first visited, and nearly six months since the ceremony which allowed Madelin to ask for her father’s guidance. Although the tourist dollars kept rolling in, it had not changed her. She knew the money tainted the memory of her father, so she had stashed it in the carving next to her portable television, saving it for a special occasion.
She said, “I’m so happy you have returned. I am glad I have brought you a blessing, just as you brought me luck with this shop.”
“Your reading came true,” said the man, smiling down at his newborn. “We live in America now and it brought us a new life.”
Madelin pointed at her white dress. “And with this, I am like a newborn baby, too. I’m watched by Santero chaperones. Imagine, at forty years old! Celibacy for one year. You can imagine my boyfriend did not like that.”
The couple smiled back sympathetically.
If Don Neto wasn’t interested in her after the year was over, then Madelin would find a new partner. She deserved to be loved, but for the moment, she wished to concentrate on following the path of her father. Within a few years, she would be an ordained Iyalorisha and would travel the city, to where believers and practitioners required her.
The couple pushed the pram around the small space, inspecting the merchandise, and deciding together what kind of reading they should get this time. How wonderful it would be to have a family like that.
The piercing sound of the landline telephone in the back room of the shop interrupted her thoughts. Madelin smiled at the couple and went to answer it. “Digame.”
A short silence on the other end of the line was finally broken. “Mamí?”
Madelin’s mind quickened. She hadn’t spoken to her daughter for over a year.
“Are you there?”
“Yes, Argelia. It’s so good to hear your voice… listen, I want to—”
“No, mamí. I have to tell you something.”
Madelin felt like the whole world was eavesdropping, even though the couple were busy dealing with the baby. “Tell me.”
“I’m pregnant. I wanted to let you know, you will be a grandmother.” At that moment, Madelin understood how her father could have been so angry. The girl was only nineteen, with an education and a good job in Miami. What could she be thinking? “I had to leave my job, so I’m going to need help… to come back to Havana. ”
She’d said ‘I’, not ‘we’, so her partner had got her pregnant, then bolted, just as Michel had. Madelin sighed into the receiver. How could she be upset? She was going to be a grandmother, and her own baby was coming back, just as Eugenio said she would.
“Of course, child. You don’t worry now. I can send you money for a ticket.”
Madelin heard sobbing on the other end of the line. “Gracias.”
It was because of the path she had finally chosen to follow that Argelia was coming home. The life force of her family was interconnected with religion. Madelin brought the receiver closer to her mouth. “You don’t worry now, hija. Don’t worry.”
Thanks for reading.
See you in July.