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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

They Come to Me by Allison Amend

OBJECTVoodoo and Santeria Objects

BODY OF WATERBronx River

 

They come to me, reeking of desperation, eyes glassy with tears, weak brown like coffee. Señor Gold, they say, can’t you help me?

Can’t you help me get my man to stay?
Can’t you help me find a job?
Can’t you help me make the demons go away? They burrow in my skin like snakes.

Of course, I always answer. Here, take this bat’s blood and mix it with Fire of Love Oil. Then add just a drop of Narcissus. Use it when you wash his pillow case. He will never stray again.

Take a bit of the Manteca de Corojo, yes, the same as you anoint Changó with. With your index finger, smear some on this candle. Let it burn to the ground. Here is a special holder that will make sure the Orishas see it, and also make sure the candle does not fall over and burn your apartment building down. You will have a job within two weeks.

Take this angelica root. Put it in your shoes and wave incense over it for an hour a day. When was the last time you went to a bembe? There is one on Friday in the basement.

When I opened the business, I was my only employee. I made up potions, invented love spells, picked unhexing herbs at random. But after a while I started to hear what works. And then I began to know.  Lemongrass helps joint aches. Mosaka Oil cures baldness. One customer arranged for ten chickens destined for sacrifice to be delivered to the loading dock in thanks for curing her husband’s stomach cancer with a mixture of apazote and star anise. I have heard of answered prayers for wealth, for vigor, for fortitude, for love. And while I’m sure there are scientific explanations for these coincidences, also, I’m not so sure.

So when he gets sick, my child who has my heavy brow, my brooding nature, I know what to do.  I leave the upstairs office and walk the long floor like I used to, taking inventory in my head out of habit.

“What you looking for, boss?” Teofilio asks me.
“Just making the rounds, Babalawo.” Ten years ago I advertised a janitor position. When I hired Teo I hired a priest, a bodyguard, a spiritual advisor.
“What his symptoms are?” he asks. And a psychic.

The next day, while my wife takes our son to the doctor I sprinkle calamus root on his bed. I take the palos and make an altar to Inlé, which my wife takes down when I go to work. She leaves a note: “We are Jewish, Josh.”

Now she says, “Go home, Josh. Take a shower. I’ll stay here.” I look up from the floor. The tile in the hospital looks identical to the store’s flooring, the same large white squares marred by black pock marks like finely shredded bladderwrack. Her eyes are dull, as though she’s wearing a film over them.

I don’t look at our son, breathing heavily in the too-big bed.
“And Josh,” she says, “If I come home and find any of that voodoo crap, I’m leaving you.”

I stop in at work. It’s a Friday afternoon and the Wiccans have the basement worship space. They sing in minor harmonies which drift like incense smoke up to the store floor.

I get what I need, and instead of going home, I take the 12 bus to the river. I pick a spot where I won’t be interrupted, and I toss the twigs, the bits of plastic, part of a sock, to the side. Then I rake the sand so that the undulations point toward the water, wiggling like something caught. I kneel on the bank and put the trident in the sand. Silver snakes climb its tines, and I stroke them to feel their cool scales. Around the base I arrange the three fish and I make Ochosi’s arrow point toward them. The wind lifts and sets the pendants swinging on their tethers, the fish hook balanced by the caught fish, writhing on its lure. I hurry to sprinkle the narcissus flower water before the wind dies again. Then I look at the river and in its rippling I see my desperate brown eyes glassy like coffee. I scoop it all up and throw it as far as I can into the middle of the river. It floats for a moment—silver plated only—then sinks slowly as it travels downstream. I use the sage brush to sweep the raked sand into the river.

And then when he gets better, I know.

 


Allison Amend, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of the Independent Publisher Book Award-winning short story collection Things That Pass for Love and the novelStations West, which was a finalist for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Oklahoma Book Award. Her newest novel, A Nearly Perfect Copy, was just published to much acclaim. She lives in New York City, where she teaches creative writing at Lehman College in the Bronx.