Willie was finally on duty at the ice cream stand, making change for some tourists off a cruise liner. A thin little boy in ragged shorts and outgrown T-shirt, he eyed me with an oddly adult skepticism when I mentioned “Granny,” the herb woman Lisabet had told me about the week before. He snapped up my five-dollar bill and found another kid to watch the kiosk.
Willie led me through twisting alleys squeezed against the base of the mountain, between houses in peeling stucco and wooden shutters. Flies swarmed in the stink of sewage and garbage. He stopped at the foot of a wooden stairway climbing the side wall of a two-story house.
“Upstairs?” I turned to the boy. “You can go, I’ll find my way back.”
He gave me a sly, quicksilver grin and vanished into the winding lanes.
I had to pound on the door at the top of the landing before it finally cracked open in a swirl of spicy cooking and an indefinable pungency. A tiny girl in an oversize polka-dot dress let me in. She led me through a living room with frayed furniture, droning TV, a shirtless man snoring on the couch, and magazine pictures in pink plastic frames on the walls. In the kitchen, a woman turned from the stove, wiping hands on her apron. “Fifteen dollah.”
The little girl tugged me down a hall to a closed door, opened it, and gave me a push.
The pungent smell engulfed me, foreign and overwhelming. Through the haze, candles vaguely illuminated pictures crowding the walls. Christ images, from innocuous blue-eyed Jesus sitting with a lamblike smile among a flock of children, to bizarre red and black renditions like Picasso on LSD. Surrounding them, painted directly on the wall, geometric veve patterns of spiky stars, triangles, filigreed curves, spirals.
On the opposite wall, rosaries. A statue of the Virgin Mary smiled gently from the corner, hands reaching down. Beneath her, on a cloth-covered table, a wild clutter: candles, a cross, seeds, dried plants and roots, feathers, corked bottles. And a big chunk of black rock, “dressed” reverently with a gold-fringed sash and silver chains.
The paraphernalia registered only for a moment. She moved, and there was no part of me that wasn’t tuned in on her.
She was enormous. Her sturdy wooden chair creaked as she rose ponderously to her feet. I’d never seen a woman so tall, sheer volume of flesh overpowering. She stood and I looked up into a broad shield of a face, full dark flesh in a net of wrinkles, age capturing only the outermost layer. A turban-like wrapping bound her head. She wore a loose white cotton dress, thick strong arms bare. She wasn’t swollen with fat, but packed solid, cast in a giant’s mold.
Towering carved stone face, immense hands cupping lifeblood, a cascade of vibrant green down Her mountainous flanks. It was this woman’s face I’d seen in my vision on the mountain with Conrad.
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