“It’s your turn to leave heaven for the world below,” Elegguá said, standing with the old man. His grey brow knotted with worry, folds of black skin forming deep wrinkles in his forehead. Elegguá saw the fear in his eyes. “Don’t worry,” he whispered, drawing closer. “I’ll be with you.”
But the old man did not move. He kept his brown eyes focused on the gate between heaven and earth, where a mist rose between the two worlds. He watched as souls walked through that gate, disappearing in gentle bursts of white light as they slipped into the fog; it seemed to thicken and swallow them up, and they were no more. Always the scene at the gates looked the same, a never-ending swirl of mist and shadow that hid the material world from their own. It was this fog, this thickness at the edge of heaven, that frightened him more than what might lie beyond it. He shivered as if the air suddenly grew chill.
“I have heard that the world is a huge place,” he said, trembling. “And it is a terrible place filled with misfortune. What if sickness takes me while I am a baby? What if an accident takes me in my youth? What if I marry, have children, and die before my children are grown?” There was silence. “I’m afraid,” he whispered, ashamed of his fear.
“The world is not a bad place,” Elegguá said. “It is wonderful, filled with many great things. Sacrifice to me before you leave – offer me a basket of fresh apples picked by your own hands. Those more than anything are what I want from you.” The orisha smiled, and almost laughed. “Do what I say and you will live so long on the earth that you will eat your own waste!”
Slowly, the old man’s eyes moved away from the fog and focused on the orisha; Elegguá fidgeted like a small child, fingering the red and black fabric of his shirt. Indeed, he was in the form of a small child, his head barely higher than the old man’s waist. On his head was a straw hat adorned with hundreds of cowries. Had it not been for the orisha’s eyes, he would have thought Elegguá a child – but his eyes betrayed the centuries he had lived, immortal but frozen in the form of youth. “Elegguá, I thought you were wise,” he said. “Surely, you know I would never do that.”
“Surely,” said Elegguá, “you know my words never fall on the floor.”
The old man went into the orchards and picked a basket of apples for Elegguá. The orisha took these under his arm and with his free hand, grabbed one of the man’s own. “It’s time,” he said. Then there was that terrible fog and a burst of white light – they were in heaven no more.
They were sleeping, the old man and his daughter, she propped in an overstuffed recliner with a worn paperback resting in her lap, he in a king sized bed much too large for his thin frame. Pale light smoldered in the blue curtains, and sharper rays crept in through the cracks where the fabric met. She awoke as darkness melted, rubbing the thick sleep from her eyes and stretching before looking at the old man sleeping near her. He laid flaccid, limbs wound loosely in sheets almost as white as the starched white dress she wore, sheets contrasting sharply with his coffee-colored skin. He looked glazed; a thin sheen of sweat coated his face and dampened his bedding. The smell of sickness was in the air. Luisa could taste it in her mouth.
Sickness tasted like chalk.
In spite of the smell she breathed deeply before getting out of the recliner. She pushed on the footrest with her feet and it closed with a quick snap. The old man stirred. Luisa went to the master bathroom and turned on the hot water, running it over her hands until it was the right temperature. From under the sink she pulled out a small pink basin and filled it with water and soap. A pile of fresh linens was already on the nightstand by the bed. She put her basin there and gently called out, “Papa, are you awake?”
Armando opened his eyes slowly; sleep faded from them like darkness fading at dawn. He smiled at her. “Good morning,” he said, his voice weak.
“How are you feeling?”
“I ache.” He moved slightly beneath the covers letting out a soft moan. The cancer had settled into his bones, the doctors told Luisa at his last doctor’s visit, and no matter how many narcotics they gave him the pain would always be there. Morphine made it tolerable, but it ate away at him, nagging him like a cruel wife.
“Let’s get you changed.” Gently Luisa rolled him to his side; he sucked his teeth when she moved him, stifling a painful cry. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, stroking his back.
“It’s not you. The cancer.” By the bedroom door he saw his orisha, Elegguá. It was a cement face encased in a conch, with eyes, nose, and mouth made from cowries. It rested in a terra cotta plate, covered with red and black beads. The entire image was enshrined on a short pillar draped in brocaded fabrics. “You brought my santo to me?” he asked.
“You cried for him in your sleep last night, papa.” Luisa was washing his back with warm water and scented soap, her gentle touch seasoned by years of nursing. “I thought having him in the room with you would soothe you.” Armando sighed. ““Am I hurting you, abuleo?”
“No.” He was silent. Luisa wrung the cloth over the basin; he heard the water sloshing. “Why does Elegguá let me suffer like this?” His voice was but a whisper; Luisa never heard.
Armando was ten the first time he recognized in himself something like spirituality. It was a hot, lazy afternoon in the summer of 1935, and he was running through the thick brush and palmetto trees that grew on the outskirts of Tallahassee. Like most ten year olds he was wild, carefree, focused on the moment and little else. He heard his mother call to him in a voice as thick as were the tight curls on her head, or the mocha-brown color of her skin. “Armando!” she yelled. “Almuerzo!” It was time for lunch.
He raced through the front door of their old two bedroom house and plopped himself down at the table. “Lava los manos!” she ordered. “Wash your hands!”
He ran back outside to the well and the hand-primed pump that rose from the ground beside it; quickly he pushed the lever up and down and water started to run. Then he glanced at the outhouse and thought better of it. Dashing inside he let the door slam; when he was done he raced back to the well and primed the pump a few more times. He washed his hands in the water that flowed from it, muddying his feet and splashing his clothes. Back inside the house he kicked off his shoes at the front door and plopped at the table while his mother put a plate with ham sandwiches and strange slices of fruit in front of him.
“What is this?” he asked, picking up a slice of fruit. The skin was bright red like blood, the flesh white with small brown seeds inside.
“Manzana,” his mother said. Armando was born in this country in Ybor City; he was schooled in American schools and spoke English more fluently than the Spanish of his parent’s country, Cuba, but he understood it well and knew the English word was apple. His parents settled there in Ybor before he was born; in 1921 they had fled the military regime of Alfredo de Zayas y Alfonso and the left-wing Liberal Party for the seemingly kinder politics of the United States. When the Depression came and the cigar and tobacco factories that had been the area’s strongest industry began to turn sour, his parents moved further north and settled here, where the climate was more temperate and there was work. Not enough work – they had to practice a type of subsistence farming to supplement their income, but it was enough to live comfortably.
Quickly he bit down on the slice, and his mother’s face twisted in fear as he swallowed, barely chewing.
“¡No las semillas!” she cried. “¡Las semillas son venenosas!”
“Venenosas?” he asked. “The seeds are poison?”
“¡Sí!” she cried, holding her head in her hands.
But it was too late – the seeds were already deep inside his belly with the apple’s sweet fruit. Armando lost his appetite. The rest of the day his mother forced him to use the chamber pot and not the outhouse; fearfully she watched him, and watched for signs that the seeds had passed safely. When his father came home, weary from working the lumber yards, his mother told him all that happened that day – how their son swallowed the poisonous seeds of the apple and she was waiting for him to pass the seeds, or get sick.
He laughed, and in his native tongue said, “¡Son venenosas para los pájaros, no niños! Él estará bien.”
Armando was sitting in the next room; he stifled a laugh when he heard his father say the seeds were poisonous to birds and not children. When his father said he would be fine, his spirits lifted. Even though the seeds had not passed he went to sleep with a light heart. And that night he dreamed of being an old man and speaking to the orisha Elegguá. He was afraid in the dream, afraid of the world in which he was about to be born, and Elegguá told him not to worry. “You will be so old that you will eat your own shit!” said the orisha, and he laughed a hearty laugh.
The next morning at breakfast he told his parents about the dream. His father smiled; and his mother lifted her face towards the heavens and cried, “¡Gracias a dios!” Later that morning the seeds passed in his stool and his mother smiled approvingly. In English, which she so rarely spoke, she said, “Elegguá has blessed you.” She sent him to empty the chamber pot in the outhouse.
No one was surprised when, a year later, apple trees started growing from the soil behind the old outhouse. By the time Armando was a young man his parents had worked hard enough to afford indoor plumbing; his father installed it himself. The old outhouse was filled in, but with his mother’s urging, they left the trees growing intact. There were three of them growing in a cluster, their trunks winding around each other like vines. They never gave fruit, but they grew through the years until they towered above where the old outhouse had been.
Those trees were haven to the many brothers and sisters born to Armando’s parents when her mother became surprisingly fertile in middle age; and when Armando himself grew up and married, his own six children played in the shade of those apple trees. In time, when his children had children and they came to visit, they climbed the towering trees like monkeys, even tying an old tire to a rope as a makeshift swing. The apple tree nurtured generations, but never once did it give a single apple. “The weather never gets cold enough in the winter,” he told them. “To make an apple grow there must be cold.”
Luisa was tucking in the sheets and folding the mitered edges when Armando asked for his pain medicine. “Is it time, Luisa?” he asked. “Is it time for my morphine?” Pain was coming in hot flashes now. Something sharp dug in his chest.
“I’ll get it, papa.” She walked to the bathroom medicine cabinet where she kept his Roxanol. She returned with a brown syringe. “It’s not time for the pill yet. Take this,” and she opened her mouth. He mimicked her, and gently she pushed the plunger on the syringe. The bitter-sweet syrup filled his mouth; he swallowed. Soon his eyes were glazed and sleepy again.
“Why?” he asked as shadows filled his eyes. “Why does Elegguá make me suffer so? The pain . . . it gets so bad . . .” He drifted off in a narcotic haze. He muttered in his sleep. “Apples,” he said, again and again. “If only I had an apple . . .”
Later that afternoon he awoke to the sound of the television. Luisa lay stretched out in bed beside him, her eyes intent on the screen. La Fea Más Bella was on. “It was much better when the Columbians did it and it was Betty la Fea,” Armando whispered. He was on his side with a pillow wedged behind him, his back to his daughter. “Help me turn.”
Luisa sat up; gently she pulled the pillow from behind his back. Without its support he rolled over. “Is that better?”
“I was thinking,” he said, ignoring the question, “do you remember when I did my santo?”
“How could I forget papa? Abuela was worried to death. You had to sneak back into Cuba.”
“Through Mexico.” He smiled. “It was the only way in. They didn’t stamp our papers.”
“She was so worried Fidel would hold you there.”
“But I did it. I made santo. Of course I had to bribe customs to let my orishas through.”
“You could have gone to jail.”
“But I didn’t. I had faith. Elegguá kept me safe.”
He remembered his two weeks spent in Cuba. He was a young man with a family and elderly parents of his own to care for; leaving home and going to the land of his ancestors was a risk, but a risk he wanted to take. He remembered the first ceremonies at the river. It was November, but the water was warm and soothing as the priest ripped off his clothes and bathed him before drying him and dressing him in white. He remembered sleeping on the hard cement floor that night while in the next room, people were pounding and hammering and doing things he was not allowed to see. He remembered ceremonies and sights no outsider would ever see. “When my first day was done, when the initiation was over, I was exhausted.”
“But were you happy father?”
He remembered the day of his tambour, his presentation to the community as a iyawó, a newly initiated priest. Even under Fidel’s communist regime it seemed half the island turned up for the party. The drummers drummed; the dancers danced; and the orishas took possession of their priests’ bodies. Armando had never seen a person possessed by a god; fear rose in his throat like ice as their bodies twisted and contorted in unnatural poses, pushed onwards by the drumbeats and divine ecstasy. Elegguá had come down to earth that day. He threw himself to the throne as other priests removed his priest’s shoes and socks, rolling his pants legs up high. Someone found a straw hat and put it on his head as he rose; someone else gave him a gourd filled with rum and handed his a cigar. Armando had tried to throw himself down, to put his head to the floor in reverence to Elegguá, but the orisha grabbed his shoulders and held him tight. His eyes bore into Armando’s own.
“You worry,” Elegguá told him, in Spanish.
“I do,” Armando agreed. His heart was beating wildly in his chest.
“You still worry that you might die. That no one will be there to take care of your old parents, or to finish raising your children, or your grandchildren.”
“I’ve told you twice before that you will live to be so old that you will eat your own waste. This is the third time. It will be my last.”
Armando’s eyes teared up. “I remember the dream when I was a young boy, father. You’ve told me twice now.”
“My words never fall on the floor, iyawó.” He hugged Armando to his chest tightly. “This is the third time. It is also the last.”
He spoke to Luisa, “I never understood Elegguá’s word that day, m’ija. I remembered a dream as a young boy. And then there was that day when he possessed his priest and spoke to me. That was twice. I never understood why Elegguá kept insisting he spoke to me about my death three times.”
“He’s a mysterious orisha, papa.”
Armando smiled. “As sick as I am, and as bad as I hurt, I’ll never die. Because Elegguá’s words don’t fall on the floor, and I’ll never, ever eat my own shit.”
“I’m leaving for work soon.” She bent over and kissed her grandfather gently on the cheek. “Do you need your medicine before I go?”
Armando nodded his head. She gave him his pill with a sip of water, and then, gently, squirted the Roxanol into his mouth. “Liquid gold,” he whispered, closing his eyes.
A loud knock awakened Armando. For a time he lay there looking at the ceiling, his hand finding his way to his forehead. He was feverish, in pain, one thought in his head: “Why won’t Elegguá let me die? Have I not suffered enough?” When he realized he was alone, he was afraid, and he called out, “Luisa? Luisa? Are you there? Who was there? Who was at the door?”
Luisa came running down the hall; he could make out hushed whispers from the living room. “Everyone’s here, father,” she said. “The entire family. My brothers and sisters, your grandchildren. They all came to see you.” She paused. “If you’re up to it.”
“Let them in.”
Luisa stood at the door and motioned for the family to come. The grandchildren came first; gently they sat on the edges of the bed, offering quick, sweet kisses and gentle hugs. Armando’s children stood around the bed looking at him, some eyes filled with tears. Luisa’s daughter, Selena, stood in the back, holding a cloth covered basket in her hands. When he saw her he smiled.
“Is it time for my pill yet?” he asked. “The pain . . . it’s so bad.”
Luisa looked at her watch. Already it was early evening. “Yes, papa, it’s time for your pill. And you can have more of the Roxanol if you need it, too.”
“I do,” he smiled weakly. Selena walked into the room and sat the basket on the nightstand as her mother went to the bathroom to get his oxycontin and to draw up his Roxanol. “What’s in the basket?” he asked Selena.
She lifted the blue and white gingham that covered the straw basket. “Apples, abuelo,” she said.
“I’ve been dreaming about apples all day,” he said. Luisa was back with the pill; she gave it to him with a sip of water. Then he opened his mouth again and she squirted the roxanol under his tongue. He closed his mouth, almost enjoying the bitter-sweetness of the syrup as his mouth grew warm and numb. Then he swallowed; he closed his eyes as the warmth spread.
He lay there silently for some time. His children and his grandchildren stood by his bedside watching him breathe. The labored breaths relaxed. They were about to leave the room when he spoke again. “I want an apple.” His voice was soft but stern. “I’m hungry, and I want an apple.”
“Of course, grandfather.” Luisa picked one of the apples from the basket.
“I’ve been thinking about apples lately. I dream about them. I dream about apple trees in my sleep.” His voice was weak. Luisa wondered if it was the pain or the narcotic. “I suffer so much, Luisa. Why does Elegguá let me lay here and suffer? I love you. But I want to die.” He closed his eyes again – he was weary. He felt like he was floating away on a cloud made of morphine; his pain was all but gone.
“I know, father. I know.” Luisa had tears in her eyes. She was thankful her father’s eyes were closed.
Luisa motioned for one of the grandchildren to scoot away, and she sat on the edge of his bed with an apple. She noticed that it was the biggest, brightest apple she’d ever seen. “I have it, papa.”
Briefly he opened his eyes; when he saw the huge fruit in his daughter’s hands he smiled. “I haven’t seen one that big since I was a young boy,” he said, and his lids fluttered closed again. “But I’m so tired. Help me?”
Luisa held the apple to her grandfather’s lips. Armando bit into its flesh with his brittle teeth. Luisa thought his old teeth would break on the skin, but it split easily and the fruit inside was so soft that juice dripped down his chin. To him the skin smelled like fresh rain and leaves. With her free hand Luisa wiped up the thin line of juice that gathered in a single drop at the crease of his chin.
Thoughtfully the old man chewed. And he swallowed.
“This,” he whispered, “is the best apple I’ve ever tasted. Where did you get it?”
“From the apple trees outside, abuelo,” Selena said. There was a cold snap this winter, and they bore fruit. I found them when I drove in this evening.”
Luisa froze. “The old apple trees gave fruit?”
“Yes, they did,” Selena said. “After all these years, they gave fruit.”
Luisa’s tears gave away to sobs; Armando opened his eyes. His gaze was far away as he lifted an almost flaccid hand to touch his daughter’s face. “You know the story of those apple trees, don’t you m’ija?”
“Yes, father.” Her tears came freely now. She remembered the story he told her so often – the story of how he swallowed the seeds and his own mother watched for them to pass, thinking they were poison. The story of how he dumped the chamber pot in the old outhouse, and how the trees grew from that very spot.
“Elegguá is a tricky orisha, is he not?” he asked her. “His words never fall on the floor.”
Luisa took her father’s hands in her own; she kissed them. “Yes, papa, he is very tricky, indeed.”
A few minutes later when her father’s body went limp and lifeless Luisa’s tears came freely. She lay down over her father’s chest, and wept. The rest of the family stood around his bed, soundless, unsure what to do or what to say. As the light faded from the blue, drawn curtains, everyone left for the living room while Luisa sat in darkness; from his corner by the bedroom door, Elegguá’s silent face kept watch over them both.
On the bed beside Armando’s body lay the apple, forgotten, a single bite missing from its flesh.
“So now do you believe my words don’t fall on the floor?” Elegguá asked.
The old man opened his eyes. He was sitting on the ground, his back propped up against the old apple trees. Ripe fruit scattered on the ground around him. In one hand Elegguá held a half-eaten apple; he held another in his hand, offering this to Armando. Thoughtfully he took it and bit deep. It was sweet like sugar.
“No, father,” he said after swallowing the pulp. “Your words don’t fall on the floor. But you are one tricky orisha!”
“That I am.” He smiled. Armando stood up. His legs felt strong; there was no pain. Gently Elegguá took the old man’s hand into his own and together they walked away from the apple trees, towards a dim light that grew brighter in the western sky.
“Are we going there? To that light?” the old man asked.
“We are,” said Elegguá.
“Will my family be okay without me?”
“I think they will. They still have each other.”
“But I’m afraid.”
“Don’t be,” the orisha said. “Heaven is a wonderful place filled with many great things. And I will be with you there as I was with you on earth. Trust me!”
Trust him Armando did as the two of them walked into the light.