Monday, June 6, 2011

Rezo in Elias Piña

            After spending the last five years of his life in bed, stricken with thrombosis, emaciated and unable to walk, Amado Mateo Nova, Altagracia's father, died. His wife, Anna, had left him some years ago but came back to care for him during the thrombosis. Altagracia and I went to visit them a few months before his death and, while he was not alert for much of the time, he recognized Altagracia´s voice at some distance while we were still outside the little four room house and called her by her pet name, Ninina. She was, and still is, very proud and pleased and moved, inordinately pleased and moved it seems to me, that he recognized her then because, by most accounts, he had not been a loving father and it may be that her affection for him is only because he abused her less than he did her 13 brothers and sisters. Amado's brother, Ramoncito, told me that he influenced her parents to send Altagracia away to work and that he introduced her to Luis, who she would quickly marry, to get her to safer ground-- he spat on the ground when describing his brother, and this was at the memorial or rezo. He told me that while Amado did work he did not bring the money home to his family but spent it on game cocks, rum and women and that his children often went hungry and that he was sometimes violent.
            When someone dies here they are buried quickly. At 1:30 AM of the morning that Altagracia heard that her father had died and, even though the first guagua to Elias Piña would get her there well before noon, she worried that she would be too late, but she wasn't. Nine days later a rezo, a day of remembrance and prayer, was held.
            We had arrived at the house of Altagracia's family the night before the rezo and were served some boiled pork liver with yuca cooked in a kettle set on three cement blocks over a small wood fire outside on the ground under a shelter of thatch. Although there was electricity, the house only had two dim light bulbs so it was very dark with most of the light coming from the cooking fire, or fogón. Altagracia found that the only outhouse, a snug one-holer, was packed floor to ceiling with firewood so she ordered one of her younger sisters, Momona who still walks stiffly after having had polio as a child, and some of the men to empty it out and clean it so it could be used the next day. About 20 people spent the night sleeping on makeshift mattresses, slumped in plastic chairs or on the dirt floor and we all were awake by 6 AM to begin cooking the food for the expected gathering of 200 people. By 10 in the morning there were eight fogones scattered around the compound with some having kettles big enough that it took two men to move them. The two biggest kettles were set over a long fire in a hole about two feet across, two feet deep and six feet long dug in the garden. The foods cooked were pork, goat, chicken, yuca, rice, habichuela, tayota and chenchén, a corn meal and milk based mixture. The pig, which had already been killed, was coarsely hacked apart with a machete and then women with smaller knives finished cutting up the meat and splintered bone into stew sized pieces. The chickens were killed and plucked moments before stewing and the kettles were stirred with short poles that had been freshly cut and debarked. One short wrinkled old man was stopped from shaping one of these stirring sticks with his machete because the particular type of  wood he chose was bitter and would give the food a bad taste. The house had no kitchen or bathroom or running water so all food preparation and washing of pots and pans was done on the ground or on one of several makeshift wooden tables and all washing and cooking water was carried in 5 gallon plastic buckets. Scraps of food that fell on the ground were eaten by the dog or by one of the little pigs that wandered around. Coffee was brewed throughout the day by boiling the loose grounds in a kettle and then strained by being wrung through a long fine fabric tube that was closed at the end and then sweetened and served by women in tiny plastic cups maybe twice the size of thimbles.
            Anna, the widow, spent most of the day in a small room with close family receiving well wishers who might sit and stay for a while and who might talk among themselves, but it was generally a room full of sorrow and sobbing. While men did pass through to offer condolences almost no men ever stayed or sat. During the upcoming year the women of the family will observe a luto or mourning by wearing only somber colors and refraining from dancing, but men do not observe luto.
            An even smaller room in the house housed the prayer table with a candle, some leaves and the cross that would grace the grave site, although the inscribed birth date of Amado on the cross was off by about 15 years. I spoke with 4 of his brothers and none knew exactly how old he had been. Ramoncito answered that question by saying, Well, when I was eight he was about this tall and almost a man, and held his hand up to the height of the bridge of my nose.
            Out front, on the other side of the house, there was a tarpaulin stretched between trees to provide shade for the ongoing two domino games and where many of the men sat passing small rum bottles back and forth, most of which did not contain rum but clerén, a cheap, strong aguardiente from Haiti, only a stone´s throw away.  Many of the guests walked over to the rezo from Haiti, many women smoked tobacco pipes and some had short braids of hair hanging down in front of their ears and much of the conversation was in a Haitian patois which, to me, sounded like Turkish played backwards.
            The last guagua left Elias Piña at 5:30 in the afternoon and we barely made it in time to return home to Villa Mella.

            Kiki has now moved out, with his clothes this time, back to Pizarete and is living with a cousin named Fermin in Fermin´s little house and they seem to be getting on well. Altagracia and I bought him a folding cot and about 300 pesos worth of rice, habichuelas, sardines and other provisions. Fermin appears to be about 60, tall, gaunt and nearly toothless and told us he served some hard time many years ago but has since lived a clean life. What occasioned Kiki´s move was a problem in the barrio with Herman, a local tiguere. Evidently there were 8 joints between them and when Kiki and Herman tried to divide them evenly it came out to 5 and 3 in favor of Herman so Kiki took a couple of jabs at Herman and blackened an eye and bloodied his head so now Herman has sworn revenge and has been seen cruising the neighborhood in a car with two friends which means that they are looking to first kidnap and then kill Kiki and it is generally believed that they are serious and so Kiki, prudently, left.
            So it is, for now anyway, quieter around here-- although it is possible that Jhoanglish is rising to fill the vacant niche in the social ecosystem of the house as he recently stole Chavela´s point and shoot camera and gave it as a birthday present to a girl he had met two days before-- and food lasts longer in the fridge although Chavela still prepares a small bowl of food for Kiki every day and leaves it on the counter in case he comes back unexpectedly. Jhoanglish usually eats it.

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