Breadcrumb #483

ISABEL ANREUS

My abuela and I share the same Orisha, the santo Obatalá. Adorned in white; the eldest and wisest. The Orisha that preserves justice and reckoning. The diplomatic voice amongst a constant discord of sibling rivalry. The androgynous white knight. Obatalá is both male and female, both a Catholic and African deity. Every member of my family has an Orisha to protect and watch over them. My mother’s so accurately is Yemayá, the mother of all living things. She is all blue and resides in the ocean. She takes care of her other siblings’ unwanted children. My brother’s is Changó. He is fire, lightning, and thunder. Smudged red. Power, strength, and aggression are his most prized attributes.  He was once king of the whole earth, and Changó, like my brother, has an appetite for all things decadent. My father is the luckiest, his Orisha is Elegguá, the most powerful. Children of Elegguá are blessed; they have access to the twenty-one roads. He is the connecting agent, the negotiator with fate. Elegguá is also the trickster; the child with an incessant fervor for candy. His shrines are the easiest to spot, always covered in sweets, money, and liquor.   

Santeria translated from Spanish is roughly, “devotions to the spirits,” but most who practice it don’t use this term to describe it. The more familiar term is Regla de Ocha which translates roughly to, “Ruler/Rules of the Bark.” Orishas (spirits) are the children of Olodumare, the ultimate creator.  The tale goes that Oldumare got bored with Earth so she moved on to create other universes across the galaxy. She left behind her eldest children, the sixteen Orishas, to keep an eye on humanity, whether they do so righteously depends on the Orisha.

    My first real exposure to Regla de Ocha happened when I was five years old. My mother hauled me and my entire family to the Cuban capital of ‘90s New Jersey, Union City, for an official reading by a babalawo (a priest). His partner answered the door in a hot pink silk robe with matching slippers. A bright red boa wrapped around his neck. I remember I reached out and grazed one of the feathers with my index finger. By the front door was a coconut covered in Puka shells resting in a bowl filled with loose change, individually wrapped pieces of candy, and mini bottles of Bacardi.

The tale goes that Oldumare got bored with Earth so she moved on to create other universes across the galaxy.

     From a time beyond my own, it stems from the Yoruba tribe in West Africa, Regla de Ocha is commonly misinterpreted as a blend between two religions—Catholicism and the Yoruba tribal ceremonies— but it exists as something else entirely. It is a religious syncretism, creating a parallel, an alignment in the obtuse patterns of mysticism. After being forced to convert to Catholicism, many of the slaves kept their own traditions and rituals, attributing its similarities to the Catholic faith. Practiced in secret, Regla de Ocha was passed down through the tongues of those most persecuted, using the steady beat of the sacred batá drum to plant the roots of their religion that traveled all the way across the Atlantic to Bayamo, Cuba.  

     My abuela’s sister first introduced her family to Regla de Ocha back in Havana. The youngest of ten children, it must have been quite a game, matching each Anreus sibling with their Orisha counterpart. Finding one’s Orisha is not just based off of similar personality, but about capturing someone’s aura, their spiritual energy. It is about an individual’s connection with the universe, highlighting one’s inner truth and recognizing it as a larger sense of purpose. My great-aunt’s Orisha is Oyá. The warrior and protector of the dead. She guards the cemetery. The female counterpart to Changó, and the only Orisha who can control him. Full of sadness, death follows her everywhere. Her magic number is nine, for the number of still-births she’s had. She finds solace in few things, one of them being chocolate pudding.

    When I visited my abuela at the nursing home during the last several months of her life we developed a routine. I would rub Shea butter all over her hands and face, fold up and feed her an extra piece of Wrigley’s Freedent gum, and take off the garish nail polish the aids painted on a weekly basis— hot pink, fire engine red, burgundy, colors my abuela would claim were, colores de putas. When I cleaned her nails she wouldn't speak to me, she would just surrender each finger one by one. I clipped, filed, and buffed; scraped out the dirt and old food building between the edge of nail and skin. Then, I would coat each one with a glob of clear polish, exactly how she liked it. Her nails were shaped exactly like mine.

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Breadcrumb #458

KATIY HEATH

There was a station wagon framed with wood paneling. Painted the icy shade your tongue turns when you get to the end of a Bomb pop. Blue as a soft contrast to the rusted edges. It once carried the four of us to St. Louis on vacation, scraping its belly across I-70. Each bump, sending the kids into the sillies. For twenty miles any word starting with the letter ‘b’ sent my brother and me to near tears. Bubble. Bumble. Boat. Bobby. Beetlejuice. Boob. The sillies distracted from the defensive driving happening up front.

Marc Maron on the artist Lorde, a barely legal popstar who dances to her own music for three minutes. No singing, just moving her lanky body all over the stage like a funky, smiling scarecrow. Unadulterated emotion. Reckless. This is moronic to Marc.

    Watching, listening to intense joy—stuck in a car without the ability to switch off the tiny laughs in the backseat. It can make you start holding your breath while you switch lanes, lips pursed tight around the Fuck you buddies as you avoid the rearview.

     There was a maroon Oldsmobile Cutlass with a cracked grill. And a Mercury Topaz, gold with a prominent rubber line sweeping down the sides. Partially peeled, black Sharpie used to fill in for continuity. Drawing on metal with marker like an outline in a coloring book.

    All of our family vehicles were close to the ground. In first grade, we drove to Disney in a silver Plymouth Voyager. The Voyager had a cloth ceiling that hung low, tickling our hairlines on the way to school. I went from the sillies to asking mom to drop me off a block from the movie theater. In his craft class, Darin Strauss talks about characters as machines. Mr. Stevens in The Remains of the Day is a dignity machine.

     Dad is a machine of despair. Telling stories with a brown tint. And that’s why I can’t own a gun.  He likes to end with a punch line.

     I was driving back from Wathena with cousin Davey and his girlfriend. We were in high school and out of our minds. The car bounced against the guardrail. Have you ever heard teeth smack together? They make a clicking noise – like flicking a lateral incisor with a fingernail.

    His sister, Aunt Carrie, also was a raconteur. This house was built on an ancient burial ground. I think she is the kind of machine that believes in ghosts. There was the time she saw a young boy in the middle of the night, dressed for the coal mines, perched on a stack of towels at the foot of the bed. His cotton terry boot print still there at sunrise. Sleepovers were spent trying to catch a look, praying for a silhouette, but I saw nothing.  

    Uncle Mick did, though. At least according to Carrie. He rode to work with him one morning in the cabin of his truck. Red eyed and on his way to a 10-hour shift packing batteries, and there the boy appeared in his pointed shoes laced up to the knee.

    Sophomore year I took a class called Haunting and Healing, where I learned about the ‘Restless History’ of the Hudson River Valley. Did you know there are more tales of the supernatural upstate than any other place in America? Have you ever been to Columbia County, just south of Albany? I took a Ford Contour up the BQE and ran my fingers along the gritty brick walls of hollow brownstones, now mere etchings showing the Dutch influence, or what is left. I stopped at the House on Ten Broeck Street, picked paint off the white columns, and tried to rouse the man inside. Dressed in the clothing of a 17th-century Dutch soldier, he was last seen on the top floor holding a metal helmet and fistful of blonde curls. The most unusual hauntings familiarize the foreign, help us process trauma.

My aunt and uncle were having issues as the ghost child showed up. The kind of issues I would experience decades later, like when you can’t keep stories straight about how the remote control broke, or what happened to the red vase that used to sit near the corner of the couch. How Black Dog developed what was called an associative disorder with parts of the floor – the areas where things happened. The ex-husband saw a little girl standing by our bedside, in the spot Black Dog avoided. It’s her that keeps him from lying with us. The conviction in telling me how she smiled at him while I lay still.

The ex-husband saw a little girl standing by our bedside, in the spot Black Dog avoided.

Every dent in the dry wall smelled of burnt brussels sprouts and overpriced Malbec.  

My Dad told me to keep an eye on you.

We used to take the Dodge Stratus to the vet, leaving small dots of oil in our path.

The way Uncle Mick did from the kitchen to the garage, skin smelling of gasoline from nights at a work bench decorated in Kools empties. Playboy. Poster. Poontang. Topless girls above the lawn mower, high enough for all, including his elementary aged daughter, to see. She saw other things in the garage. Then she would go and reenact, making her cousin rub privates together like she had seen those other women do. Kids left alone, not knowing. Hiding, sneaking.

    Aunt Carrie rearranging furniture. Maybe one day he’ll come home, think he’s in the wrong house.

    Fourth of July was always at theirs. High on a hill of gravel I learned to not trust young boys with bottle rockets. Adults scattered outside, kids in the bedrooms: my cousin and his girlfriend locked away. You’re going to poke a hole in that baby’s head.

Juvenile hormones with no impulse controls.

     Like losing my virginity before my first menstrual cycle. Before I’m old enough to drive. Spending eighth grade hiding used latex in Nintendo 64 boxes, soiled tissues behind cartoon faces with oversized mustaches.  

    Rachel Cusk says she doesn’t believe in character development. That traits are more oceanic, seasonal even, and that people can and do change. Maybe we aren’t machines.

    My first car was a red Pontiac Sunfire.

    Graduation weekend, I was driving back from Wathena with a friend riding shotgun. Fighting blurry, tired eyes. She leaned out the window, wishing to touch the guardrail, then sprayed undigested Smirnoff down the side panel.  

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Breadcrumb #445

REY ARMENTEROS

When I was reading Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, I used mental approximations for oaks and elms every time I ran up against them. I would find "oak" in a sentence, and all I knew was tree. My image for oak then was nothing more than a general tree.

Outside of pine trees and palms, I had little notion of what the different types of trees looked like. I was not aware of their seasonal changes — being from Miami, I only knew one season. Tolkien's rich environment and whatever implied meaning he was driving at was lost on a reader that could never differentiate a maple from an oak.

And yet I love trees! I take notice of them every time they call my attention by a shift of sunlight or by clusters of diverse textures in the distance. I appreciate the grace of branches, and I try to memorize the exact shapes of leaves. I take whatever haphazard details I can recollect back into my studio, and I try to paint the details that remain with me.

But was a branch dark gray or brown? Was there an order of connections that the branch had as it climbed up into the canopy? I could visualize the image, but not every correct element would make it intact. Since I draw and paint from memory, understanding what you had seen earlier provides a greater advantage than merely memorizing random details.

I went to the library one day and found a few books on botany. I took them home to go about studying the categorization of plants with seriousness. I was finally going to acquire some understanding about trees.

However, I immediately ran into walls of scientific jargon. A dry text was what I encountered. Keen specificity were the barbs I had to negotiate. The first book didn't even have a warm introduction to spur me on. Before getting into the good stuff, the general groupings of species and other foundational information was too convoluted for the novice, and forty pages in, I was convinced there was not going to be any "good stuff."

I had given up, but I had not forgotten. In another part of the country, at another library, some years later, quite by accident, I found a how-to book on painting trees. I was flipping through it, convinced it was just another book on artistic technique when I slowly realized what the author was in fact doing. He was classifying the basic types of trees, grouping each one in two-page spreads, explaining through the point of view of a watercolorist what differences to look for in each type.

Enraptured, I took it home, read each spread carefully, took notes, and committed them to memory. His descriptions of what to look for provided me with building blocks. The structures of things were being decoded for me, and I was dreaming up possibilities for how to use them with my own painting techniques. I was taking my work from memory and infusing it with a system.

However, I soon took this basic knowledge and found myself asking questions, wondering why paint trees when we have real trees all over creation? Here's a charming little painting by the symbolist Gustav Klimt I find in an art history book, and the trees look so convincing. But do I want to look at Klimt's lesser known landscapes or see the actual landscape? We assume this is what the trees looked like under such lighting and other conditions. Klimt's simple, clear landscapes are beautiful, but I feel real trees are so much more than the ones that are raised in the mind's fancy with his maneuvers in oil paint.

On the other hand, I could be wrong since I have never seen the actual paintings but only photographic reproductions of them. However, regardless of which tree tickles the mind in a more direct manner, Klimt does provide ideas by the way he composes them, the manner in which he paints them, and the colors which he chooses. And these ideas, if still present to someone who had discovered them in his paintings, would bounce off the actual landscape when the time comes to look at an actual tree. And just like how the painted tree can bring up the visual characteristics of a real tree in your head, the real tree may have a tendency of invoking the tree that was made with nothing but paint marks. I know because I have seen such trees once under the same lighting conditions and immediately thought of Klimt.

And these ideas, if still present to someone who had discovered them in his paintings, would bounce off the actual landscape when the time comes to look at an actual tree.

It is reassuring, but after asking why paint trees, I take a broader view. Why paint anything for that matter? An open doorway within open doorways, a face in the dark?

Here is the glow that rises out of the bedroom at this late hour in the afternoon, and the orange nature of the light is noticed when I step out of the room and find that the orange room frames the blue bathroom like a sky blue rectangle cut into the wall.

I painted this thing a couple of years ago when I was transfixed by the warm and cool tones folding into these rooms. I was recreating the moment from memory. The bedroom is not orange, and the bathroom is not blue; the walls that are merely white were caught in a sunset that turned them into something else. I enjoyed the very idea of this transformation. I painted it with the orange and blue as close as I could remember.

But then, an interesting thing happened. After it was done, I could not help looking at this painting of mine about ephemeral light without acknowledging its quiet purpose lifted and turned into a silent declaration — in my mind, with time, the rectangle of the door in my painting became a long tombstone, and the feeling was now solemn.

And these unexpected ominous overtones brought up a singular beauty that I wasn't going to get from the real situation of the room in particular lighting conditions. I would like to think that my process of roaming through the depths of memory to resurrect this moment provided the bricks that would turn my quiet experience with the room into something different, something the paint discovered, as if in this room that was a part of my home, the paint found an apparition.

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Breadcrumb #419

RON RIEKKI

The teacher said we were going to have a talent show and I didn’t have any talent. I thought of what I could do but it wasn’t much. The students who were going to perform were singers and dancers, the type of kids where snow wouldn’t fall on them during blizzards. I stepped out from underneath a snow bank and said I wanted to do something. The teacher said I missed auditions but they needed judges. But the judges also had to have a talent that they’d demonstrate during the show. I thought being a judge would be even better, but I couldn’t sing or dance or anything. I had a ventriloquist dummy at home that I never used. I tried to make it talk but it was impossible without moving my lips. I said that I could do ventriloquism and she said congratulations, I would be a judge. Apparently she was overloaded with singing and dancing and needed something, anything different.

I said that I could do ventriloquism and she said congratulations, I would be a judge.

    On the day of the show, they set all the judges up at a table and then all the parents started filing in. I didn’t know parents were going to be there. I hadn’t invited mine. I got real nervous, like I’d started a kitchen fire and they were all coming to blame me. With the classroom packed, they introduced all of the judges and I just bowed my head. Then we had the singing and the dancing and it all crashed in front of my eyeballs with me watching students who couldn’t really sing and who could kind of dance and the applause was small and kind and we graded them and I just constantly gave a good average unforgettable score by holding up a card and saying nothing.

    After it was all over, a girl in the class came up and said, “How come you never said anything?” I asked what she meant and she said, “I’m not asking why you didn’t say anything. I’m asking why you brought a ventriloquist dummy and just held it in your lap. It frightened everyone.” The teacher turned off the lights and everyone left and I went back to the classroom and stood in its dark, a limp ventriloquist dummy clutched dead in my hand.

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Breadcrumb #415

T. PABÓN

IT’S A TIME before our own – before 1987, when she labored for 6 hours trying to meet me – and my mother traps me inside our wooden cabin. The cabin, of which I only see the kitchen through a sepia lens, holds strong against the powdery winds of the West. My knowledge of the West in this era spans as far as Hollywood’s depiction of it – women in full, lace-trimmed skirts; cowboy hats kissing moonshine.

    When I remember the dream where my mother kills me in our desert home, I picture her boarding up all the exits. Her mouth curled at the edges, the hem of her dress stirring up dirt as she circles the house scattering coal. I quickly realize the hearth is not the only source of smoke. Grey threads weave through cracks in the paneling, expanding into clouds. They surround me in swirls as the wooden walls pop and crackle sporadically, at first, until they begin to give in to the heat. Pop - I am as good as dead. Crack - my mother is a murderer. My body drops to the floor in an attempt to find breathable air, my hands gather the skirt of my frock and press it against my desperate mouth. No nod or explanation is ever given for why she wants me dead, but it never surprises me that she does.

    She does not always do it with fire. She has also shot me with a polished pistol after taking twenty paces. She has pushed me into the roaring rapids as I wash clothes on the river shoreline. My quick-draw is never quick enough. I don’t know how to swim. The dreams come one at a time, although sometimes they pile behind each other. The scenes are divided by silent movie cards with ornate calligraphy - “Episode I,” “Episode 2,” “Episode 3.” A wagon train of mini-certain-deaths.

My quick-draw is never quick enough. I don’t know how to swim.

    I wake one morning with the lingering image of my mother sitting cross-legged on dirt, watching our home furious and flaming. She waits until the elements absolve her. I enter the kitchen and my mother eyes me from the table as I pour bold brew into a coffee cup. Her middle finger thinks against her ceramic mug, tapping once and twice. She examines my movements, combs my face for something recognizable. With her voice even and nice she says, “Sometimes the child you want is not the child you get.”

    I take a gulp full of coffee and smile a pure, silly smile right at her face. Confronted, she turns quickly toward the window, grimacing at the sunbeams. I cross my legs in my chair, my spine stretching.

    Small death after small death, by now I am immortal.

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