True Superstition, by Jessica Knauss
I was very young when my mother taught me what to say whenever anyone gushed over how fast I was growing, how cute I was, or how healthy and strong. “Tell them ‘thank you’ and smile nicely,” she told me, “but repeat to yourself three times, ‘Kiss my little ass.’” This was to ward off the curse that the admirer might surreptitiously be placing on me while pretending to praise my charms, which my mother said were considerable, indeed. “Kiss my little ass,” I replied.
“You might just survive,” my mother said then.
That’s how I remember home. That’s how things happened there.
I don’t believe in witchcraft or voodoo or santería or the evil eye or any of that. I don’t believe in anything. Not at all. But it’s good I don’t live at home anymore, with an attitude like that. I will never forget what happened to the americano tourists who didn’t believe.
The couple went to the psychic for fun. When they walked in, before they had said anything at all, the psychic told the man that she knew he had one little boy and two little girls and that he suffered from arthritis in his left hip. It was all true, but the americanos were not impressed. After they had sat down and paid her, she was also able to tell them that someone on the island had fallen in love with the man and was putting a curse on the woman so that she would end up paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of her life. She offered to put a counter-curse on the person who threatened them, saying it was the only way, but they laughed and said they would think about it. They didn’t. And the night before they were supposed to go home, the woman lay down on her bed and was never able to get up again.
I don’t believe in santería or witchcraft at all, but I do know that those who practice it know more than the rest of us do. My mother laid out food every night near the doorway so the good spirits would stay with us and protect us. She made a talisman blue eye, painted on the strongest piece of wood she could find, and hung it over the doorway, which she felt was the best protection of all. I will never forget the night before my first communion, when I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. I was afraid I would forget everything and every few minutes I went running to my father to ask him a question because he was the best Catholic in our family. Mother thought something must be wrong with me, and she made a full search of my room. Under the bed, she found a pair of scissors, open. She snatched them out of there so fast she nearly cut me. “So you see, “ she told me, “how we are protected by the eye. If we did not have good spirits watching over us, you might have slept all night with this under you and in the morning when you got up for your first communion your head would have rolled off your shoulders!” This image kept me looking under my bed ten times every night before I went to sleep. I was Catholic like my father, so I really didn’t believe in Mother’s spirits, but whenever I came through the front door I looked up at that eye and blessed it gratefully.
I think that you americanos are more superstitious than any latinos have ever been. You never build a thirteenth floor. I have seen people scream with terror in the street because they have accidentally walked under a painter’s scaffold and ladder. And this about broken mirrors and bad luck, really, how much more ridiculous can you get? Latinos would not infuse such power into inanimate objects. Especially not I, who do not believe in any of it.
However, Edelmira was a bitter woman who died of an infection she got from her husband, who had gotten the infection from some other woman. (We children weren’t supposed to know about that, but we did.) She had made it all too clear during her last days on Earth, from the bed where she lay dying, that she was not pleased with this turn of events. Almost everyone visited her at home, taking turns bringing food and attempting to take her mind off her imminent death and the reason for it. Even with a visitor sitting at her bedside, Edelmira let loose long strings of curses that were so loud we children heard them almost a block down the street, but they were so complicated we couldn’t understand them, anyway.
The husband slunk about in the front rooms until she screamed for him to come and change the sheets or give her the chamber pot. The guest always offered to do these things, but Edelmira insisted that her husband perform these tasks, which she made as unpleasant as possible for him by thrashing around and cursing him, his mother, his father, his grandfather, and all the generations since his cursed family had come here. If the visitor had the audacity to protest, she said, “I married him for better or worse. This is the worse.”
It was my mother’s turn one day to go to Edelmira, but she was taking care of her sister’s baby triplets at the time, so she sent me with a plate of rice and beans. I let my mother know I was not enthusiastic about this little lesson in household management, but she just said that Edelmira would not hurt a little girl. I could only hope. Nervously I approached the house. The husband opened the door miserably but fondly patted my head. Edelmira in her bed was groaning hoarsely, but when she looked up and saw me holding the plate out to her, she smiled almost brightly and said, “How pretty you are!”
I handed the plate to her as quickly as I could. How long could I stay there until her evil penetrated me, I wondered.
“How innocent!” I tensed up even more with these lavish compliments.
“Almost as innocent as I was on my wedding day. But I hope not as stupid.”
For a moment she considered me, standing there silent, starting to tremble. “No, you are very smart,” she finished. It was too much for me. I left the plate behind and ran out the door, saying breathlessly, “Kissmylittleasskissmylittleasskissmylittleass!”
They buried Edelmira on October 31st in the old cemetery outside town, wearing her wedding dress. Everyone was glad she was buried on that day, because the next day was All Souls Day, or the Day of the Dead, when everyone went to the cemetery to “pay their respects,” as you say — to remember the dead, because if we didn’t they might get too lonely and visit the living even more often than people say they do. Everyone hoped Edelmira wouldn’t have time to get restless between her burial and the Day of the Dead, after which she should be appeased for at least a year.
But my friend Celia and I, eight years old, with curiosity and my older brother corrupting our little Catholic hearts, went to the cemetery to check on Edelmira. My brother said he would tell her tomorrow was All Souls if she got frisky. I loved my brother but I believed his swaggering even less than I believed in the evil eye.
We girls put on our jackets and told our mothers we were staying over at each other’s houses, and with my brother leading us through the dark, we trekked to the cemetery. It was the perfect night for souls to watch and wait for the festivities tomorrow. Everything was silent, so I concentrated on the light “pat” sound of our feet on the dusty road. Celia held my hand very tightly, and the closer we got to the cemetery, the slower she walked. My brother saw her getting more and more nervous and he started to tease her. “¡Ay! What was that sound?” he said.
“I didn’t hear anything!” whispered Celia.
“There it is again!” he said.
“Shut up,” I said. “Don’t listen to him, Celia.”
“But can’t you hear the souls rising from the graves?” he said very low, serious.
We were at the gates of the cemetery. The moon was shining down on us, illuminating our fear and superstition. I peered past the tall monuments to important families, looking for the place where Edelmira had been laid to rest that morning. “It’s that way,” I said. “Let’s go.” But none of us moved.
All of a sudden, there was movement in the silence. No sound, just movement. Whiteness rose out from the place where Edelmira had been buried. Her dress was brilliant as the day she was married as Edelmira floated above the cemetery. Her sleeves caught fire and she hovered for a moment over the tops of the monuments, then her mouth opened and soundlessly she started toward us. We all found our feet at the same time and started running home.
Our mothers were only a little upset at what we’d done. They didn’t have much time to think about it because instead they had to make gifts to please Edelmira the next day. The whole town made something and left it for her so that no other children would be tormented, even though everyone suspected Edelmira was really just looking for her cheating husband. The husband left town with his current mistress and was never seen again. My brother visited Edelmira on November second because he’d seen someone leave a very tasty-looking postre by her headstone. After he ate it, he came home and told me. I told him he would be haunted forever, even though I didn’t believe it. “Oh, no, I won’t,” he said. “I told her she could kiss my little ass.”
That’s the way things happened back home.
“Special thanks to Héctor Medina, who shared a short, witty anecdote in Hispanic Studies 300.”