They say one sign of nobility is the ability to accept a gift graciously. Some people seem to have a great deal of trouble doing that, even those who are generous to a fault when it comes to giving gifts themselves. Hand them a gift or do them a favor and they freeze and clam up. They become sullen, even angry, certainly resentful. It’s as if in receiving a gift or favor, they then feel obligated in a serious way, enslaved even, to the giver. It’s not enough for them to say thanks and mean it, I guess.
Walking past the store on the corner of 20th and Valencia today, a memory came up that illustrates for me that strange human problem better than anything else I can think of. Not long ago a Botanica stood there, una tienda latina that sold candles, incense, charms, religious statues, and so on. It also offered a service or two. One was the advice and skill of a brujo, a wizard.
What drew me to him was my fourteen-year-old daughter. She had been sick all too much, and suddenly I had a terrible thought: could a curse have been put on her?
The reason I could even think up such a nutty idea brings us back to the people who have trouble accepting gifts. Fifteen years earlier, I knew a guy I needn’t name, a guy who has since become famous, though then he was a nobody. He had made a woman pregnant, but as her time for delivery approached, he skipped town, unable I suppose to deal with it. But I really don’t know. He just went. I have myself done so.
My wife at the time, the mother of my daughter, who was about to pop herself, asked me to help out the woman. And together we did. We got her to a hospital and were there when she gave birth to a healthy boy. We got her home the next day. The following night her twelve or thirteen-year-old son telephoned at a late hour to say his mother was in trouble. We rushed over and found the woman hemoraging. We called for an ambulance. Two snotty gay-boy medics showed up, looked around with distaste, and announced that we were obviously on drugs and stalked out, noses in the air.
“No!” we pleaded. “Don’t you see that this woman is seriously bleeding? Please take her!”
No good. You could cut their hostility with a knife.
Meanwhile, the woman was still bleeding and in pain. My wife took charge of the baby while the son and I got the lady onto a kitchen chair and together carried her down a long flight of stairs and out to my car. At the hospital, they immediately rushed her to Intensive Care.
It all worked out. In two days we were able to pick her up and get her home. At that time I ran into the same ambulance boys parked in front of the hospital. I went over to them and reminded them of how they had walked out on us. I told them we had to haul a bleeding woman into the hospital ourselves, how she was rushed to Intensive Care, how she needed to be sewn up. I stood there at the driver’s window and told them, “You fucked up.” Their reaction? They sneered in my face and drove off.
Anyone who thinks the animosity smoldering between the straight and gay world blows in only one direction hasn’t been around much.
A few days after that, my wife gave birth to my daughter. The girl arrived so suddenly there was no time to give mama a sedative. She screamed for half an hour before the little head popped out, eyes already wide open. Instantly relieved of pain, mama smiled happily and gathered our baby into her arms.
The very next day, when I happened to be at home after spending hours at the hospital, was a knock at my door. It was the wayward father of our friend’s new baby. He barged into my house, all in a rage. He accused me of thinking he was a coward for abandoning his wife and new son! He was pissed at me, mind you, for what he thought I thought! Think on that!
But I told him that considering my own history I was in no position to pass judgements. And he left, with a scowl.
The next day he telephoned me to say he’d been to the hospital with his lady to visit my wife and daughter. He said my baby was so ugly, no one would ever love her.
Can you understand better why a possible curse on my daughter’s life might come to mind fifteen years later?
My meeting with the brujo cost me $35.00. He turned out to be a middle-aged Salvadorean fellow with a round brown face and a red baseball cap. We sat across the kitchen table from each other in a small upstairs apartment.
The first thing he said to me was, “I don’t kill no people. You wanna somebody killed, go find a hit man. Sometime people want me to kill their brother-in-law or somethin’ like that, but I don’t do it.”
I told him that’s not why I was there. I showed him a recent photo of my daughter. The brujo studied it for an impressively long time, then leaned it against a coffee-cup. I told him everything.
He looked at me. I could see two things. One, he had witnessed and heard about a lot of shitty things in this world. Two, nevertheless, he was actually shocked by my story.
“What kind of friend is that?” he said.
I said he was no friend at all.
He said, “What you want from me?”
I told him that my daughter had been sick much too much, much too long. I worried that some sort of curse had been laid on her by that bad boy fifteen years ago, whether an accidental side-effect of his bizzare mental glitch, or the deliberate stab of a psychopath. I didn’t care which because I didn’t care about him. What I wanted was for the brujo to check whether our girl was clean or was indeed dragging around something evil that had been attached to her and had been eating away at her well-being.
The brujo nodded and opened a drawer in the kitchen table. He drew out a small cloth drawstring bag. He undid the string and spilled something onto the tabletop, a bunch of small bones. They could have been chicken bones or fish bones. I didn’t care what. There was something serious behind the hokeyness of this whole thing.
He looked at me again. “Don’t say nothin’ while I do this, got it?”
He picked up the bones and muttered for awhile at his closed fist. Then he strew the bones on the table with a bit of care. He looked at the spread-out bones and grunted. He gathered them up and repeated the ritual. He repeated it five times.
“She’s ok,” he said matter-of-factly while spilling the bones back into the bag and returning that to the drawer. “She don’t got nothing on her from that asshole. She’s clean.”
Although I hadn’t been sure all along that I believed in any of this brujo business, I definitely felt relief at his announcement. I told him that, but I also reminded him that my daughter might be free of curses but was still sickly.
“I tell what I do for you,” he said. “Put the girl in old clothes. You bring her here. Meantime, you bring good clothes with you in a valise or somethin’ like that. My wife, she take your daughter clothes off and put her in the bathtub with a bunch of plants and special stuff in the water. She have candles and incense burnin’ in the bathroom. While your daughter in the tub my wife, she take all her old clothes out back and she burn ‘em. I going to be there at the fire and I say some words. Then my wife go back, dry the girl, and dress her in the good clothes. Goodbye sick stuff. And only for a hundred bucks.”
I told him I’d think about it and I did. It couldn’t be much more of a waste of time and money than what the doctors had cost us. And if it failed, so had what the doctors come up with so far.
But then again, what if it did fail? Going to the doctor was one thing, the same old routine. But having your clothes burned and magic words spoken was altogether something else. It was real drama, I thought. A real big deal. So if that too flunked out, after all the pills and teas and diets, etcetera, of the medicos, well that might be seriously, seriously discouraging to a fourteen-year-old girl.
Was my thinking about this illogical, timid, stupid? Did I blow a real chance to help my girl? Maybe to all of that, but I decided No anyway. Though in time my daughter outgrew that particular episode of illness, she never did get to take a bath in the brujo’s tub.