The Man with God in His Mouth

In tiny Miraflores Viejo, in Cuba's cane country, the religion of choice is vodou, and the high priest is Eugenio Sensio

Dinner is stewed pork, rice, and fried green plantains. Clavel Martinez, a disciple of Sensio who lives just across the highway, brings two vivid-green bunches of lettuce he has just harvested. Martinez is a quiet, weathered white man in his midforties who cultivates several crops in addition to his work in the cane fields. He takes off his cowboy hat and pulls up a chair, quickly draining the beer bottle he's brought with him. Leonel hands him a glass of what everyone calls alcolito: a clear, harsh, metallic-tasting homemade concoction.

Later, because Sensio has made it known he would like to do some spirit-summoning, about twenty men and women gather in the church: Leonel and Chavela are taking a short break from housework; Clavel is there, along with two other campesinos and several near and distant relatives, including Sensio's sisters Francia and Ileana, and his ex-wife Manuela, who is visiting from East Havana with their 30-year-old son, Ernesto.

Francia, the eldest of the Sensio siblings, is a santera and lives in Contramaestra, near Santiago. She is almost 80 years old, but her wizened face and reed-thin, limber body seem unconnected to time. Ileana, age 68, lives in Santiago. She is as earthy as Francia is unearthly: plump, jovial, habitually smoking a corncob pipe.

Francia takes a metal jar from the altar and pours water on the floor at the rear door of the church, and everyone else in turn does the same, as part of a purification rite. Sensio rings the brass bell, rises from his chair, and flings "Seven African Powers" perfume up at the bare light bulb hanging in the middle of the room amid a few strands of silver Christmas tinsel. He sits back down and begins a chant in Creole. The women answer, their voices high and piercing. He downs more aguardiente, passes the bottle, then lurches forward and straps a drum around his hips and begins pounding a steady rhythm. Ernesto and Leonel each take a drum and add a distinct beat. The drumming is as intoxicating as the free-flowing aguardiente and the soft haze of cigarette smoke.

Francia rises in a trance, reeling and spinning gracefully to the drumbeats. Two of the women hold her arms as she falls back and trembles, releasing anguished cries. "Where can I go?" she begins to ask. She turns this way and that, arching her back, more and more frantically. "No, no, no," soothes Ileana.

Camino Largo, a glass of aguardiente in one hand, takes a mouthful and spits a fine spray of it into the flame of a candle he holds in his other hand. The flame leaps. He takes another mouthful and spits again; the fire dies. "ACono!" he yells, tearing at his hair until it looks like a black haystack. He grabs a thick wooden cane from the altar and gently places the crook around Francia's neck like the yokes on the necks of African slaves. He leads her around in a circle with the cane, then she falls against him. Someone hands her a coconut, and she rubs it with white powder and dances, leaning her back against Camino Largo's chest.

Now a bottle of alcolito is making the rounds, and some of the women are dancing with the drums. Ileana and Chavela unfurl large appliqued squares of cloth, the closest they have to the elaborately beaded flags essential to many vodou ceremonies, and twirl them over their heads and around their bodies. Francia lies down on her stomach, and Camino Largo walks around her three times. She crawls between his legs, then dances in front of the altar with a machete, slapping one side three times against her brother's back. In a flash he flings the coconut to the ground, smashing it and spraying the milk everywhere. Then he lies down on his back, laughing up at the tinsel and the light bulb swinging in the vaporous air. One by one each person in the room steps onto Sensio's bare chest and stands for a few seconds. He gets up and two men bind him tightly around the waist with heavy scarves. Then supporting himself between them, he somersaults and lands heavily on his feet amid the pools of aguardiente, coconut milk, spit, and water.

At that moment a neighbor, Luis, and his twelve-year-old son appear at the church door. Luis, a gray-bearded, sun-parched farmer, is drunk and stands with an arm around his son's shoulders. "My boy has a very serious problem with his lungs," Luis tells the sweating, swaying assembly. "But I believe that this man," dipping his head toward Sensio and almost losing his balance, "can heal him."

The boy looks frightened but seems in no distress. Sensio nods. "It's a pity he isn't suffering right now because then I could show everyone that I can heal his asthma."

The father declares, "Some people say this is just a show, but I think it's real."

Sensio holds a bottle of aguardiente toward the boy and orders him to take a drink. The father looks on with an empty expression. Others in the church, some yawning, have drifted back to their chairs, but Leonel and Chavela appear alert, as if they're about to jump up and return to work.

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