Some memories never fade. Even the smallest of the bunch, they stick with you like a sweater, warm and well worn, hanging in your closet, never quite forgotten completely.
I celebrated my nineteenth birthday five years ago just outside of Valencia in a place called Carta Blanca, a small town sandwiched between the neighboring towns of La Torre and El Tremolar. I had just arrived the evening before from Tarragona via Euromed, a two-and-a-half-hour train ride, and my destination was a little less than picturesque; I knew that Carta Blanca made up a town on the ring of slums surrounding Valencia. But I went willingly anyway.
I had received an email, in broken English, from a man named Youssef Adjani, who was looking for someone to run the hostel he owned during the evening hours. I wasn’t legally allowed to work (something about work visas and Americans and the Schengen Area, or whatever), but he heard through our mutual Dutch friend, Jakkob, that I was looking for a place to stay while enjoying all the beauty that Spain could offer. Youssef just wanted to know if I spoke English. When I replied, he told me I could have the entire fourth floor of the hostel to myself as payment for working around six hours a day, four days a week.
It seemed like more than a fair trade.
When I arrived, he was a kind, tall man, thin but strong, his skin a similar brown to mine, with cracks around his eyes from a lifetime of laughter and a white bushy beard. He showed me around the three floors of the hostel, about twenty rooms or so, the fourth floor, which looked just like a small flat, and he introduced me to his wife, Fatimah, a plump woman with a mild fuchsia colored hijab; together, they lived on the fifth-floor flat. I thanked them, took the key to my flat, and settled in before I started my shift at just before three-o-clock.
The day of my birthday, before the clock struck midnight, I walked out of the hostel, done with my receptionist duties for the day, to strike a match and light my cigarette when a boy, no more than twelve, appeared. He had glossy black hair, and the same eyes as Youssef, dark, with premature wrinkles around them, fat cheeks, and a necklace bearing Om, the Hindu symbol of everything. He told me his name was Salman and his uncle ran the hostel I was working at.
‘It’s older than I am by about forty years,’ I remember him telling me, his Spanish thick with an accent I didn’t quite recognize. I asked where he was from and he told me that he was born in Morocco but grew up all over Andalusia; his uncle, Youssef, weary of the nomadic life that his brother and his wife were throwing little Salman into, offered the boy a place to grow up and make friends and go to school, a roof over his head, a hot meal in front of him at the end of the day, the knowing stability that comes with settling down.
I listened to Salman’s tale until he was finished, and then, as we both looked at the crescent moon above Carta Blanca, he turned to me and said, ‘Can I have a bit of smoke?’ in perfect English.
I laughed and told him no; I didn’t feel comfortable giving a child tobacco when his voice hadn’t even deepened yet, and, typically, he had a reply.
‘We smoke hashish all the time in our flat,’ he scowled, kicking the dirt in front of us so it swirled like spilled ink in the air. ‘If you give me a bit of smoke,’ he continued, and then, after looking around, he leaned closer to me and whispered: ‘I promise to teach you a secret of the universe.’
Naturally, I raised an eyebrow. ‘What is this secret?’
‘Smoke first, then the secret.’
‘Secret first and then the smoke. Pinky promise.’
We kissed our fists as our pinkies locked.
‘Okay, then,’ he said, leaning even closer. ‘I’m going to tell you this because I know who you are. We met in our dreams a few times and I knew you were coming here.’
Wide-eyed, I cocked my head. ‘How did you know that?’
‘I just told you,’ he said, his eyes shining with excitement. ‘We met in our dreams a few times. But that is not the secret – the secret to heaven, for people like us – ’
‘What do you mean, people like us?’
‘You know, what they say about Americans is true. You talk too much, don’t listen enough.’ And then, a sly grin, ‘But of course, you are not completely American, are you?’
I shrugged. Who besides the native people can call themselves a true American? Not even George Washington, for that matter. I let him continue.
‘There is a difference,’ he said, his voice lower, ‘Between those of us who use our gifts to help others, being like al-Insan, al-Kamil, and others use our gifts selfishly.’
I began to protest, but he shut me down and smiled. ‘You forget, we have met each other in our dreams, Hijo del Viento.’ He continued. ‘I know your gifts and you know mine. The secret to heaven is to heed the warning of intervening. What’s yours is yours. But taking away someone’s gift, the gift of free will? That is not the work of Allah, that is the work of Iblis, and remember: they always require a sacrifice. That’s why Allah comes to visit at three in the morning – he gives gifts to the loyal and takes the offerings we give him. But if you do the work of Iblis, he will come to collect what he is due as well. Remember that, Hijo del Viento, and you will live a good life, with many treasures in heaven. Allah will bless you a hundredfold.’
I gave him my pack. Even if he was lying, he sure did know how to tell a good story.
Over the years, something that has plagued me is the fact that I never got his profile on Facebook, never was able to get his phone number; I once wrote a letter to Youssef about a year ago but it was returned to my address in New York, and when I looked up the hostel online, I found out it had burned down to the ground, the Adjani family disappearing without a trace. Still, the idea of intervening, of forcing someone’s hand, their luck, their will, stuck with me. It makes my skin crawl to think of it, even now.
Like I said, some memories never fade.
In the two days that Mother has been in the hospital, I’ve been keeping a close eye on Abuelita, watching her carefully, wondering if the few times she had directly forced things to happen were just flukes, or if it wasn’t something she regularly employed. It was harder than I first imagined, since she kept everyone busy with a lot of domestic chores around the house, something I thought we were doing so that Mother could feel more relaxed at home when she left the hospital. We traded chocolate and frankincense-infused candles with our neighbors for a small pile of pine twigs from their tree, and we strung up the twigs on twine by the doors and windows of our house, letting the fresh smell of the wild forest swim in the air. On top of that, Abuelita was regularly burning cedar and bear root and vanilla and cinnamon in a small cauldron she bought the other day.
I finally suspected it was more than just cleaning the house for Mother earlier today; I thought I saw a few Mayan symbols for luck and family (luck in the form of what looked like an ear of corn, and family being a circle) gleam in colors of red and purple and gold scratched into the doorways and various bits of furniture, but they were gone with a second glance. My sisters and I drew straws, and Dee drew the shortest; she asked Abuelita what we were preparing for.
‘Que barbaridad, mija!’ we heard Abuelita cry out. I pinched Percy to prevent her from laughing as we sat in the living room, noses buried in books, pretending not to hear. ‘The Winter Solstice? Como que no sabes?’
Ah, that’s right. The Winter Solstice. How could any of us forget such a time? A time, in her words, to celebrate the return of the sun, revering one God in particular: Kinich Ahau, the ‘Face of the Sun’.
‘It’s his rebirth that we celebrate,’ explained Abuelita to a wide-eyed Dee. My poor baby sister. She looked like a doe in headlights. ‘It’s his return to the world that we know. That’s what the incense is for, so that we can open up the lines of communication to Kinich Ahau. Don’t you know any of this?’
Percy and Dee, with all their skepticism, have been surprisingly helpful the last two days. Dee helped with the gathering of plants and herbs, and Percy helped with cleaning the house for the dinner tonight. They followed Abuelita’s instructions, lighting a candle in every room, laying a thin layer of salt along the door entrances and the windows, walking throughout the entire house, heads all covered in bandanas (mine a dark green, Percy’s a light blue, Dee’s a charcoal grey, Abuelita’s a royal purple) with sticks of sage and eucalyptus and sandalwood they bought last minute from a candle shop down the street. They opened all the cabinets and doors, and when the incense and the candles died down, they made sure to shut everything carefully before lighting a new batch of candles.
While Percy and Dee went to go pick Mother up from the hospital, we worked hard on the food, Abuelita and I, slaving away at the stove, she setting up the menu for the dinner and I tending to the food preparation with her closely watching over me. With her help I was able to make nacatamales, wrapped in dark green banana leaves, the tamales steamed, not boiled, rolling the masa with a few plump, green olives and bits of marinated pork and sweet peppers and black beans, and I learned to make rondon, which I had never had before, but it turned out amazing and savory, with fish and beef cooked together and marinated in succulent red peppers and juicy, fatty bits of yucca and a whole banana and sweet, yellow onions. The only downside was the option of the meats; Abuelita informed me that in Bluefields the people prefer to use turtle meat as opposed to other meat, a piece of information that collectively we as a family shudder to think about.
I made gallo pinto as well, a dish I had grown up to know and love, simple enough, really, that even Dee, who is the most averse-to-cooking member of our family, can make with her eyes closed: rice, lightly fried with a little bit of vegetable oil, garlic, and black beans, simmered in water for about twenty to thirty minutes. Peppers for taste, though we opted for the comfort of Mother’s take on it: tomatoes, freshly picked from our garden in the backyard.
We were setting the table as Mother came home, her face tired, her eyes awake with fire. She closed her eyes, inhaling the various smells, the moment she set foot in the house.
‘It smells…like home,’ she said, as Abuelita tied a red bandana around her head.
The head coverings, I was told, were out of respect, same with our bare feet along the floor; never approach a God with an offering and a wish without a head covering or with the dirt beneath your feet. It is considered an unclean act, and the last thing you want, Abuelita informed all of us, is an angry pantheon of deities.
‘The Gods of the old world are vengeful, if not kind,’ she said, tending to another charcoal in her cauldron. ‘We do all that we can with everything we have for them, as they have done for us.’
Our guests arrived right before the last few rays of the sun receded into the night sky; I invited Aleah, who brought two bottles of wine and a bottle of whiskey, and Percy invited her boyfriend, Jason, who wasn’t aware that he had to bring anything.
‘You made it!’ I said, kissing Aleah on the cheek as she hugged me.
‘Of course, I did,’ she exclaimed, laughing, in that same, effervescent way that she usually laughs; it’s like the rush you feel when you watch the sunrise. Full of light and promise.
Abuelita came over, surveying her, and as she did, I could see Aleah’s tattoo give off a slightly golden shimmer.
‘I am glad that Lucas trusted you enough to be here,’ she said, finally, offering a smile.
‘I’m honored to be here,’ said Aleah, returning a bright grin.
We opened up one of her bottles of red wine and let it breathe for a few minutes, enough time for my sisters to finish setting the table with plates and silverware, and for Aleah to be introduced to my family. Mother gave her a bright kiss on the cheek and a hug.
‘I’ve heard many good things about you, Aleah,’ she said, smiling at her.
It was true. Among the thicket of people I had met when moving here, Sophie the owner of The Library Café, Mansoor the gentleman who owned the candle shop next to my work, Jared my coworker, a few other familiar faces and smiles of those who run the nearby liquor store and the deli, I only really liked spending time with two people in particular: Noah, which was obvious, and Aleah.
The seven of us took our seats just as the moon began to show brightly. An eighth seat at the head of the table remained empty, for the ancestors and the Gods to partake from. I sat between Aleah and Mother, with Jason, Dee and Percy sitting across from us. Abuelita sat at the other head of the table, and when we all took our seats, she stood up gracefully and cleared her throat.
‘Thank you, all, for being here with us tonight,’ she said. ‘Tonight is a sacred event, commemorating the Winter Solstice, celebrating the return of the Sun God to the mortal earth we know and love. It is our duty to give our creators reverence, as they give us reverence in return. I want to welcome my daughter back,’ she said, raising a hand at Mother, who smiled warily, ‘to her house, cleansed of evil intentions and negative thoughts. And I want to welcome two new Children of the Wind, Aleah, and Jason.’
I caught an unmistakable set of protesting thoughts from Jason, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat and opened his mouth, but a thump was heard; I suspect Percy kicked his shin, and he grimaced, before smiling through the pain and remaining silent. My eyes focused on his hair, usually an untamed afro, but now, conditioned, hydrated, his short curls perfectly in place, his usually greasy complexion gone, as though he had really focused on his appearance.
‘And finally, I want to thank my family for help preparing this evening,’ continued Abuelita, her dark eyes snapping to life. ‘Lucas did most of the work in preparing this meal.’
She was right. I handmade the smoked creamed corn and the empanadas de queso, fresh cheese rolled into a sweet and salty masa mixture, only to be sealed with egg yolk and deep fried in olive oil and then vegetable oil, sprinkled with sea salt as a garnish, and I made the gallo pinto and vigoron without the pork (as Aleah is vegetarian and I wanted her to at least eat a few things), a salad of tomatoes and cabbage and lime and salt and pepper, and I also made the chocolate for the end of the meal; bitter, sweet, savory, with chili powder and cardamom, a little cream and sugar, but mostly thick and rich; just like the way we used to drink it in other lifetimes, said Abuelita.
‘I did, however, make the pox, the ceremonial alcohol needed for an event like tonight,’ said Abuelita, smiling. ‘And now, before we feast, let us pray…’
We each held hands and bowed our heads as Abuelita spoke, and for a moment, I thought I could see glamour’s swirling in golden and scarlet red and royal purple spirals just over our heads; everything seemed to be bathed in an ethereal sort of light, a warm light. A perfect light.
‘From the East, House of Light, May Wisdom Dawn in us so we can see things clearly…
From the North, House of Night, May Wisdom Ripen in us so we may know all from within…
From the West, House of Transformation, May Wisdom transform into right action so we may do what must be done…
From the South, House of Eternal Sun, May we Reap the Harvest correctly so we may enjoy the fruits of the world we know…
From Above, House of Heaven, Where Star People and Ancestors gather, may their Blessings come to us now…
From Below, House of Earth, May the Heartbeat of her Crystal Core Bless us with harmonies to end all wars…
From the Center, Universal Source, which is all that we know in the air, May everything be known as the light of mutual love…’
She exhaled loudly, Abuelita, and nodded her head. ‘Oh Yum Hunab Ku Evam Maya E Ma Ho – All hail the peace of nature in all.’
Gently, we released our hands, and for a moment, the swirls of colors seeping from the table and from our hearts grew into what looked like a tree, our individual strands forming the roots and the branches, the world tree, shining like the aurora borealis, evaporating before my eyes the more I watched. It was beautiful; nobody else seemed to notice, except for maybe Abuelita, who offered a small wink.
‘Alright, Lucas, since you’re the man of the family,’ said Abuelita, ‘You have the honor of first – ’
She didn’t finish. There was sharp knock, rat-a-tat-tat, on the door, and before anyone moved, it swung open in defiance. Our heads snapped over immediately, taking in the strange little scene that began to play out at the entrance of our house.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked.
Roberto was breathing heavily, and that was the only thing we heard for a few moments.