The stalker slithered through the dry brush behind the wall of the gray stucco house in Highland Park, five miles and many worlds away from the spires of downtown Los Angeles. He crouched behind a boxwood hedge, nauseated by the smell of fried tortillas wafting from a nearby kitchen. The odor of cheap, burnt oil reminded him of his childhood, when his mother earned a miserable living selling codfish fritters at a roadside stand in South Florida and he promised himself he'd do whatever it took to avoid her stinking, sorry life.
Through a window he could see the ramshackle dining room of the house next to his hiding place. At the head of the table a pot-bellied Mexican in a t-shirt alternately sipped a beer and pecked at his enchiladas, surrounded by a brood of hyperactive children in diapers and soiled pyjamas who would take turns to come sit in his lap.
Damn snotty kids should be in bed by now.
The stalker looked up at the sliver of yellow moon floating above the downtown skyscrapers. He stared hard, praying to almighty Oyá, to the great Shangó and above all, to Ochosí, the magnificent hunter who was the saint of his devotion, to grant him the cover of darkness. His prayers were answered as a shimmer of low clouds drifted out of the Pacific and put out the moon. Then, with feline grace, the stalker vaulted over the six foot tall masonry wall of the gray stucco house and landed silently in the yard of his intended victim.
Inside the house, Armando Ponce rose from his recliner and turned off the telenovela he'd been watching. Although never a fan of the lachrymose sentimentality of Spanish soaps, Armando had been glued to the set every night for weeks, transfixed by the story of a wayward santero in Miami's Cuban community. Based on a real case, the show had been written with just enough truth to tantalize viewers--even real santeros like Armando-- with tales of improbable supernatural powers.
Now, mindful of the fact that he still had his evening prayers to officiate, Armando shuffled in his terry cloth slippers down to the pristine basement he had turned into his shrine.
Stooped from injuries, arthritis and an aging sway back, Armando treaded carefully, holding onto the rail to prevent a fall. His eyes at his feet, he did not notice the stalker crouching by the waist high weeds next to the house.
Stupid old fool.
Do you feel so protected you won't even look up to see the enemy at your door?
Your time has come, viejo.
Tonite you will be my slave in my circle of souls.
The intruder took out his hunting knife, felt the flat, broad blade, its serrated edge. He hefted it, kissed the blade, pressed it to his heart.
Do my sacred bidding.
Open the gate to the kingdom of Oyá.
Be my lover, my faithful companion.
Down in the basement shrine, Armando bowed before the bone white china tureen containing the sacred stones of Obatalá, the greatest of the saints. The wise spirit had claimed him as his own when Armando was only a boy of six, making Armando speak fluent Yoruban, to the dismay of his plantation owning parents back in Cuba.
It's those damned niggers with their brujería, his father shouted at his mother. Get rid of them!
All the black help had been dismissed. In their stead, the whitest girls from all of Spain, gallegas from northern Spain with blonde hair and Celtic blue eyes, had been the only servants allowed around little Armando, sole heir to his family's hundred thousand acre estate on the foothills of the Sierra Maestra. But his parents did not know the ways of the saints or that, once chosen, the soul is the god's forever.
One of the gallegas, sixteen year old Pilar, although out of Santiago for only two years, was already a believer. While the master and mistress slept, she took little Armando one night to the thatch roof hut where lived the old scarfaced African with the altars and the beads. There, dressed in white, the blood of an alabaster dove poured on his head, Armando was received into the house of the gods. Like the child Jesus at the temple, Armando astounded the santero with his wisdom until the sun broke, when he returned to the life and things of a child. But on his twentieth year Armando heard the voices of the gods once more. He walked out of his law course at the University of Havana and followed the music in his head all the way to the banks of the Cauto river, where he renounced his previous life and formally devoted himself to the things of the saints, to santería.
It was only now, in his 80s--having become a babalawo, a cardinal among santeros--that Armando was finally begining to understand the cosmic presence that so often filled him with awe; it was as though his physical body had to degenerate to the image of Obatalá, white haired and in crutches, before he was granted the gift of true insight.
The law of compensation, he mused distractedly, taking out the divination board and shells of the ifá. One thing must die so another can live. It is the eternal law of the saints. He threw down his cockle shells.
Armando was startled by the message of the shells. He took out the two books of wisdom he had inherited from his padrino to make sure he remembered the readings right. He had. The shells spoke of the emptiness at the end and a gate that swings swiftly open. He glanced up at the shelves.
The sacred tureen rattled as though an earthquake were shaking the shrine, the stones bouncing off the china like so many roller bearings. Then the tureen flew off and shattered on the white tile floor, spilling its precious dark liquid.
Armando looked up aghast. He knew now what the message was. He heard a loud crash from the service door and turned to see a figure in black rushing toward him with a glinting knife in hand.
Armando put up his arms, and almost simultaneous with the slashing of his fingers to the bone he remembered the final words of Olofi on the cross, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit, even as the blade veered and flew up, slashing under his jaw, his blood gushing in a crimson flood against the pristine white wall.