In Lieu of the Stories My Santera Abuela Should Have Told Me Herself, This Poem

Part I: I Am Blank Verse

Abuela of the Headless Saints: hello.
It’s Carlos, Emma and Osmundo’s son,
tu nieto. You’ve been dead ten years. Your ghost
is cheesecloth thin now, prone to holes,
and if I held your soul up to the sun
I could count the threads of your integrity.

Ten years: no hauntings, geases, duende pranks,
secrets, curses, visions or possessions.
Not one. ¡That’s not the way your afterlife
was meant to work, Abuela! ¿Dónde estás?
You should have come as a silver trick of light
to me some night before the sun was born
when I, my eyes still blurred by dreams, throat parched,
had sought a drink of water from the sink
and turned to see you hovering behind me,
your face a rictus paralyzed mid–howl.

You wouldn’t say a thing. I wouldn’t fear you.
The dead can’t help the way that devils carve them,
and neither can the living. I would sit
my bare ass on the chilly tile floor
and I would tell you stories of your life:
those you forgot, and others total lies.

¿Remember when you buried rotten eggs
in Mami’s garden, hoping to destroy
her chance to have more children? “¡Four is enough!”
you offered as your sole defense, then asked,
“¿Is Emma human, or a bitch? She breeds
like she has eight tits hanging from her chest.”
(I paraphrase. I got this second–hand.
I wasn’t even three when this occurred.)
¿Do you recall how Papi, so incensed,
took all the saints you owned and ¡bámbata!
stomped off their heads against the backyard steps?
“¡Basta con tu mierda Santería!”
he yelled, and decollated every statue
beneath his avenging heel.

                                         You kept those saints
throughout my childhood: they, your pantheon
of hollow plaster martyrs, listened well
to every prayer you whispered in their neck–holes—
so long as you remembered to provide
the candies and the rum orishas like,
the oranges and herbs, the spicy rise
of incense, waving like an endless flag.
¡What twisted pleasure you enjoyed, to hear
your prayers resounding, amplified, inside
Elegua, Yemayá, Oshún, Changó!
What a thumbscrew victory, to make a shrine
of Papi’s rage and Mami’s breathless dread,
one we saw every Sunday, when we came
to take you with us to our Catholic church.

Black magic. Witchcraft. Mami called you “bruja,”
and you did not deny it. You would brag
how you could sicken nietos malcriados
with your evil eye (my sisters to this day
wear talismans to counter mal de ojo).
With your Cartas Españolas you would pay
out fortunes for your friends, and you taught me
a game of taking tricks I still enjoy.
With a mother lion’s patience for her cub
(who learns his way to murder via play)
you let me pinch the papery backs of your hands,
make sails of your loose, thin, piebald skin.
I loved to press your river–branching veins
and, playing doctor, feel for a pulse.
I said I couldn’t find one; you replied,
“I guess that means I’m dead.” That made me laugh.
You liked the way I didn’t think to fear you.

Abuela. Oh. I knew you as a child,
and children have not struggled against time
enough to know the future’s fish–hook pull
will drag us from the water, gasping, shocked.
In college I discovered Santería
is not black magic, but, Yoruba–based,
an African–Caribbean religion
as legitimate as any gang of gods
a people have depended on to make
some sense of self–awareness in a world
of unpersonifyable dolór.
If I could haunt my younger self, appear
to Carlos, nine years old, he’d know
before I alphaed out to nothingness
our Abuela’s not a bruja, nor a saint,
but a sharp–eyed woman utterly displaced
from every scheme for understanding life
she’d spent her life developing. Instead,
the un–Cuban landscapes of America
deprived her of the comforting surround
of the trees and shops and roads and homes of home.
She always thanked the United States, when asked,
for rescuing her family from Castro,
but she had a marble, Michelangelo silence
when sitting in her Laz–E–Boy, that spoke
with all the dignity of Rhodes’ Colossus
about how quickly life erases victory
and leaves just sun–bleached ruins of our past
through which we sail daily. She had health,
a house, complete with mutt and mango tree,
her marriage to Abuelo,

                                      (never easy;
you knew him only as a laughing man,
but he, nine–year–old Carlos, was so violent
he’d leave machista Cuban men astonished
at his cruelty, his Goliath–killing fist,
the one he used to blind a mule’s right eye
when it refused to plow one time too many:
and evermore, head tilted toward the ground
so it could use the one eye it had left
to mind its footfalls, that blinkered mule
carefully obeyed Abuelo’s orders),

and the smattering of family that lived
north of the Florida Straits: my aunt and us.
(And we were almost nothing, visiting
on Sundays, holidays, and… yeah, that’s it.)
I’m tired of how people misuse “evil”
when all they really mean is “counterculture.”
¿When a lonely, exiled woman, all but trapped,
without community, facility
with English, money of her own, and hope
of ever going home, decides to claim
she has communion with the spirit world,
can snuff the fire of life with her winking eye,
can reroute fate away or straight toward ruin
depending on the way she’s treated, why
should we deny her anything? Her ebós
were thwarted dreams that ritual amended.
The offerings she left for saints bespoke
the fruit and fragrance of the life she lost.

So Carlos, nine years old, here’s what I ask:
a story we have heard throughout our life—
of how Abuela sent a mighty chicken
(¿ensorcelled, quest–bound, mounted by Changó?)
to teach Abuelo something of respect—
I never heard from her. Those Cuban friends
who came to visit us throughout the years
inevitably told us how Abuelo
left–hooked the eye from out his mule’s fool head
and how Abuela, scarier than he,
compelled a barnyard rooster to retrieve
Abuelo from the bar he frequented
instead of tending to his matrimony.
It must have been eleven separate Cubans
who sat in the Hernandez living room
espresso–charged and eager to recount
the marvels of my pedigree to me. ¿But she?
She’d never said a thing about her past
unless I asked. So ask. And then tell me.

Part II. My Abuela Is a Canción

I’ve always been a bruja.
My parley with the devil,
however, I am sad to say, is minimal.
I practice the occult
not as some grand revolt
against what every human thinks is goodness.
¡If people would respect me I would do less!
But women of my era
have power that they scare up
or else they live a barnyard–horse existence.
I’ve always been too lazy
and too much of a lady
to work so hard to make another’s supper.
But everybody knows that when a bruja
has made a wondrous meal
you push back from the table
or else you might end up a goat–rat–cow thing.
Mi esposo made our dinner every evening.

¿Our marriage? Somewhat equal.
Leopoldo wasn’t meek or
a man who’d tolerate a sleight of honor.
But he thought his reputation
for violence would fate him
to heirless loneliness and bachelorhood.
¡He needed someone guapa he could woo!
He courted me, ignoring
the rumors he was hearing,
since brujas have no fear. He thought me pretty
in the way adventurers are drawn to mystery.
¡I said yes to his madness,
for it was housed inside the handsomest
body you could find in all of Cárdenas!
¿Our love? Not made in heaven
but at least the fight was even:
our love resembled more an armistice.
But peace achieved by any means is peace.

Peace lasted for a while.
Our love was bright and animal,
¿and fighting? For the most part, aphrodisiacal.
It’s funny, though, how quickly
amor becomes monotony
once we have seen our lover’s naked body.
Exposed enough, we grow immune to beauty.
But part of maturation
is valuing the ration
of food and joy and quiet we are given.
We had a farm, and plenty
of work and friends and money:
that should have been enough to leave us grateful.
¿What made Leopoldo jaded, bored, and spiteful
not one year after marriage?
He’d ride into the village
for drinks and dominoes most every evening.
He’d leave me home. Alone. Indignant. Scheming.

Consulting with my cartas,
I only drew espadas,
¡and if the cards say “¡Swords!” then draw your sword!
I grabbed my sharpest knife and
went searching for a victim
to stand for Leopoldo (or I’d kill him).
At first I thought I’d sacrifice a chicken.
But when I saw our rooster—
¡who only lived for honor!—
a different plan occurred to me. I said,
“Gallito amoroso
go bring back my esposo,”
and he replied, “¡Mi doña, por supuesto!”
¡He took off at a trot, that caballero!
The kisses that I blew him,
as each one landed, grew him,
until that haughty, knee–high, gallant rooster
became the size of horse, then bull, then monster.

I watched the road past midnight
by amber–violet moonlight
for signs of either gallo or my husband.
¡Then, running up so fast
his soles kicked his own ass,
Leopoldo fled my champion cock, my chicken
who did his best to murder him with pecking!
Leopoldo ran inside
as fast as legs allowed
and slammed the door so hard the windows clattered.
I turned then to my hero,
that bloodied, wounded rooster,
who’d lost the better part of his black feathers
no doubt to Leopoldo in their battle.
I took a breath. He shrank.
Inhaled again. He sang,
and by the third breath he was poultry–sized.
I thanked him one more time. He merely gazed,

a chicken once again:
no magic left in him.
(No magic to begin with, some would venture:
they’d say I’d killed a fowl
and brought it into town
and used the corpse to beat my husband red
until he ran back home, awash in blood.
The rumored Santería
and wicked brujeria
would come much later, unbelievers offered.
Most people find it handy
to blame the otherworldly
when, driven to extremes by grief or rancor,
we act in ways unthinkably deplorable.
How shame would fill my face
if I had sacrificed
my gallo just to seek revenge, sin duda.
It’s lucky that I really am a bruja.)

The moral of the story:
we once again were happy,
in our resigned, appreciative awareness,
that life had worse indignities in store for us.
For the moment, I had youth,
and a husband I could trust,
for now we’d reached a proper understanding:
if he took me for granted, I’d remind him
there’re threats much worse than chickens I could send him.

(Editors’ Note: “In Lieu of the Stories My Santera Abuela Should Have Told Me Herself, This Poem” is read by Amal El–Mohtar on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 14A.)


Carlos Hernandez

New York Times Bestselling author Carlos Hernandez is the author of The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria, Sal and Gabi Break the Universe (which won the Pura Belpré award in 2019), and Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe, along with many short stories, poems, and works of drama. By day, Carlos is a CUNY Professor of English and a game designer and enthusiast. This story was inspired by cards from Negocios Infernales, the TTRPG he is co-creating with C. S. E. Cooney. Find him on socials @writeteachplay

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