Part I– Oyá’s Feast Day
Oyá dresses in purple and dances alone, with a necklace of bones clicking around her throat. She is the keeper of the cemetery gates and welcomes refugees of life into her kingdom. She collects little sugar skulls on the Day of the Dead and offers sweets to the widows and orphans. The mother of nine stillborn children, she has a special place in her heart for women who have lost their babies, as well as children without mothers.
Owner of the seven winds, Oyá rides them and rules over storms, tornadoes and tempests. She often enters atop them brandishing her horsetail fly whisk, swirling her nine skirts.
She keeps one foot in life and the other in death. Mistress of cemeteries, the orisha Oyá is not to be invoked in vain.
The ceremony started in the early afternoon. That day, February the second, was devoted to the Virgin of Candlemas, associated with Oyá in the religion of Santería. (Oyá was also worshipped as Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, though even the most knowledgeable santeros couldn’t explain her connection to the Discalced Carmelite nun.) Her devotees had gathered in an old house located in Guanabacoa, a colonial town across the bay from Old Havana. The backyard had been prepared for the ceremony. An altar stood covered in a white linen cloth and ornamented with fresh violets, candles, and candy in small copper trays, as copper was Oyá’s favorite metal. Eggplants—fried, steamed and raw— were served on porcelain dishes. A large print of Saint Thérèse presided over the altar.
The women who hoped to be possessed by the orisha wore skirts in all shades of purple. The newly initiated to Santería were dressed only in white down to their stockings and shoes, with white turbans or white kerchiefs covering their heads. Men dressed formally, with old-fashioned, well-polished shoes and ironed shirts.
At three o’clock, the drums began to thunder. Dancers moved in a whirl and followed the rhythm that beat in synchrony with their hearts. Those who didn’t dance remained in their seats eating malanga fritters, a meat and vegetable stew known as caldosa, and guava pastries, all washed down with generous swigs of rum.
Rosita, a tall forty-year-old woman who was dressed in all purple for the occasion, felt the wind rushing in her ears. Padrino, the babalawo who led the ceremony and Rosita’s Santería godfather, tapped her lightly on the head with his cane. She stood and Oyá entered her body, whizzing through her, dancing, laughing, crying, bending over, grabbing food from people’s plates and eating it right before their eyes.
“Maferefun Oyá!” they greeted her.
The orisha blessed the guests in a grave voice laced with contralto undertones. Oyá kept dancing until Rosita’s body collapsed on the floor. Two older women took her to a bedroom and placed cologne-soaked towelettes over her forehead. After she’d recovered, Padrino came to see her.
“Oyá came in strong today,” he said.
Rosita smiled and spoke in her usual high-pitched tone.
“Padrino, do you remember that boyfriend of mine who left Cuba?” she said. “Juan. The one I couldn’t forget.”
“Oyá told me he would come back, like a salmon swimming upstream. Does it mean he’s returning to Cuba, Padrino? Juan hasn’t been back in twenty years, as far as I know.”
“Maybe,” Padrino said. “But do you know why salmon swim upstream, mija?”
“To mate?” Rosita blushed.
“And to die.”
“Don’t say that, Padrino,” she whispered. “Juan is the man of my life. The first and the only.”
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