There is nothing like the smell of Santeria. It is a distinct smell that jolts me into my body the second I find myself enveloped in it: one that suggests cleanliness—in every respect—but with a little magic mixed in. Not easily reproduced, you won't find it anywhere but homes or supply stores, like my botanica, where regular orisha worship happens. It is the intoxicating blend of lavender-scented Fabuloso All-Purpose Cleaner; stale cigar smoke (used for various offerings to our dead and these African gods); burning candle wax; and subtle, earthy hints of animal sacrifice from the past, offered for the sake of continued prosperity, spiritual protection, and other vital blessings from the divine. No, it is not common fare. Much like the smell of ozone immediately after a lightning strike, it is a right time, right place kind of thing. But why wax nostalgic (besides the fact that my own home hasn't smelled like that for a long time)? It will be Dia de Los Muertos tomorrow and there is much work to do.
My boveda has gone neglected for months now, a shrine squatting in my cramped dining room, cold and lifeless as the ancestral spirits it was erected to appease. A thick layer of dust has powdered the picture frames of my dearly departed egun, dulling and clouding the rectangular glass. I look at the faces of my maternal and paternal grandparents and find that the once fine details have phased into each other, as if viewed through a thin curtain of gauze. I can't clearly see them and they—likely—can hardly see me. That is how it feels, anyway. The white tablecloth on top of the table is dingy; yellowed and stained from months of occasional sprinklings of agua de florida cologne and errant flakes of cigar ash. The water glasses (nine of them to be exact—one large brandy snifter and four pairs of others in decreasing sizes) seem almost opaque now. Their contents have long since evaporated, leaving behind striated bands of hard mineral and chlorine and the occasional dead fly, who's selfless sacrifice was likely not met with much appreciation by my dead Aunt Minne or Popo Estringel. Various religious statues—with their frozen countenances, glaring as though annoyed that my Swiffer hasn't seen the light of day for some weeks, now—call for immediate attention. Then there is the funky, asymmetrical glass jar on the back-right corner that I use to collect their change. The dead love money (especially mine). This fact has always suggested to me that hunger—in all shapes and forms—lingers, even after the final curtain closes. Makes sense, if you think about it. We gorge ourselves on life, cleave to it when we feel it slip away, and then after we die…
The statues—mostly Catholic saints—each have their own specific meaning and purpose on my boveda. St. Lazarus provides protection from illness. St. Teresa keeps death at bay. St. Michael and The Sacred Heart of Jesus, which are significantly larger than the other figures, flank either side of the spiritual table, drawing in and out energies of protection, and at the same time, mercy—the two things I find myself increasingly in need of these days. At the back of the table, there is a repurposed hutch from an old secretary desk with eight cubbies of varying sizes where nine (the number of the dead in Santeria) metallic silver ceramic skulls reside, representing my dead. They usually shine quite brightly in the warm, yellow glow of the dining room's hanging light fixture, but they look tarnished lately, save the eye sockets, which seem to plead for attention, glistening, as if wet with tears. A large resin crucifix rests in the half-full murky water glass (the largest one) in the center of the altar. It sounds sacrilegious, but it isn't. Placing it so calls upon heavenly power to help control the spirits that are attracted (or attached) to the shrine, allowing positive ones to do what they need to do for my well-being while keeping the negative ones tightly on a leash. Some smaller—but equally important—fetishes also haunt the altar space, representing spirit guides of mine: African warriors and wise women, a golden bust of an Egyptian sarcophagus, a Native American boy playing a drum, and four steel Hands of Fatima. The Hands recently made their way into the mix after a rather nasty spirit settled into my house last year for a month or so and created all kinds of chaos and havoc, tormenting me with nightmares—not to mention a ton of bad luck—and my dogs with physical attacks. One of them, Argyle, became inexplicably and permanently crippled (but that is another story).
Various accents, which I have collected over the years, also add to the power of the boveda: a multi-colored beaded offering bowl, strands of similarly patterned Czech glass beads, a brass censer atop a wooden base for incenses, a pentacle and athame (from my Wicca days), a deck of Rider-Waite tarot cards in a green velvet pouch with a silver dollar kept inside, and a giant rosary—more appropriate to hang on a wall, actually—made of large wooden beads, dyed red and scented rose. Looking at all of it in its diminished grandeur, I am reminded of how much I have asked my egun for over the years and can't help but feel a little ashamed of my non-committal, reactive attitude in terms of their veneration, as well as their regular care and feeding.
This year's Dia will be different. It has to be. It's going to take more than a refreshed boveda and fresh flowers to fix what is going wrong in my life right now; a bowl of fruit and some seven-day candles just won't cut it. Business at the botanica is slow, money is tight—beyond tight—and all my plans seem to fall apart before they can even get started. The nightmares have come back, a couple of times, anyway, and the dogs grow more and more anxious every day, ready to jump out of their skins at the slightest disturbance—like the scratching and scuffling from the large cardboard box that's tucked away in the garage. My madrina, the old Cuban woman well into her seventies who brought me into the religion and orisha priesthood, told me last night that we all have a spiritual army at our disposal that desperately wants to help us in times of need. She said with enough faith one could command legions of ancestors to do one's bidding, using as little as a few puffs of cigar smoke and a glass of water. While a powerful statement, that isn't how things roll for me. Her prescription for what ails me was far from simple.
"This year, your muertos need to eat and eat well! They need strength to help you and you need a lot of it. When they are happy, you will be happy. When they are not, you won't be," she advised, searching my eyes for an anticipated twinge of panic. I knew right then and there what she meant, and my stomach dropped straight down into my Jockey underwear. That may have very well dissuaded me from going through with tonight's festivities if things weren't so dire at present. Eyebale is a messy business, no matter how smooth one is with a knife. (Blood sacrifice always is, which is why I have always had such a distaste for it. Thank God I only do birds.) Regardless of that fact, my egun eat tonight at midnight. I give thanks to my egun tonight at midnight. I—hopefully—change things around tonight at midnight. What else can you do when blood wants blood?