When Keely left her Bahamian home, with its pink sand beaches and silk cotton trees billowing clouds of white blossoms, to attend college in Miami, her father agonized. His modest fishing business provided no excess income to send her. How would she survive all alone in a big city full of criminals and ruthless social climbers? "He didn't know that Grandma taught me how to get help from beyond," smiles Keely, a 25-year-old who works as a flight attendant to pay for her FIU courses in Spanish, French, and international trade.
She saved the empty miniatures from airline liquor carts and hung them with colored string from a tree outside her Miami Beach apartment. In Bahamian magic, known as obeah, spirits travel in the form of smoke and love to rest inside clear glass bottles. Keely wanted to attract a specific spirit to help her with her future. After consulting a slew of obituaries, she attended the funeral of a wealthy stranger to, as she phrases it, "steal power from the dead."
Keely was interviewing for a job that week with a company headquartered in Paris. "The dead man was a CEO who lived a long, exciting life," she says. "Getting me work in my dream city would be an easy task for his spirit. And the bottle tree was ready for him to bring my luck to me." Dressed in her best Donna Karan, she looked like the sort of bright student the deceased might have mentored. She briefly reached into the casket lined with white satin to touch the dead man's hand. No one noticed when she hid a French postage stamp stuck to a tiny scrap of the Wall Street Journal under his fingers. "To get a spirit to do your favor," Keely explains, "you have to give its corpse a token symbolizing what you want."
Next month she jets off to Paris for her final round of interviews.
"Maybe it proves that the dead are more trustworthy than most of the living in Miami," laughs Keely, who, like other young Bahamians interviewed for this article, wants only her childhood nickname used. "America is about giving everyone an equal chance. This is a way to make the next world give the people struggling in this one a fairer shot. But I know it sounds so strange. If my co-workers knew, no one would sit near me in the cafeteria!"
It's not likely, however, that her colleagues would ever guess her secret -- unless they grew up among the islands scattered between Miami and Hispaniola. Unlike in Santeria and Haitian Vodou, there are no saints, priests, or priestesses in obeah (pronounced o-bay-uh). "Anyone can try their hand with the spirits if they have obeah's magical way of looking at life," says Timothy McCartney, a clinical psychologist who worked for the Bahamian Ministry of Health until he retired to Fort Lauderdale. For his book Ten, Ten, the Bible Ten: Obeah in the Bahamas, McCartney researched the rite of stealing power from the dead.
Some cultures believe that spirits of the dead hover about loved ones indefinitely, constantly ready to dispense affection and guidance, McCartney notes, but not in obeah. Spirits have just twelve months after their funeral -- the traditional Bahamian period of mourning -- in which to aid the living, unless they're invoked later through complex rituals. And because the spirits have only a limited amount of power to bestow, a blood relative who feels he should be first in line might be annoyed if a stranger cuts in.
"It's something we're aware of and keep an eye out for so that it doesn't happen," chuckles Athalie Range, Miami's first black city commissioner and since 1962 director of the well-known funeral home bearing her name. "Some visitors ask to place a token or written request in the casket. We say no."
At its third-anniversary party three weeks ago, the Bahamian-American Culture Club spoofed the practice in a skit. Club president Elliott Scavella, a 60-year-old retired school principal, played a man who changes his luck when he slips a bag of losing lottery tickets into a gambler's coffin. Scavella comes from Cat Island, a locale renowned equally for its devout Anglican churchgoers and its colorful obeah legends. "There's no comprehensive written overview of Bahamian folklore, so the fact that young people practice the custom shows how strong word of mouth can be in keeping a tradition alive," Scavella says.
For Bahamians his age and older, Scavella observes, drawing power from the dead is a phenomenon restricted to black funerals. But the younger generation, especially those living in Miami, has expanded that to include funerals of all people of influence, regardless of their race. And in Miami that means Cubans. Attempting to capture power from the dead isn't a wicked act, according to young practitioners; it's a challenge and a lark. (They've also inherited a strict Bahamian moral code: Never infiltrate the funerals of those who died too soon or unhappily.) "If Cubans won't share power with us while they're alive, maybe we can steal a bit from their spirits," says Franky, a 30-year-old social worker who came to Miami two years ago.
Franky needed a small budget increase for the family clinic he supervised for the City of Miami. The money would subsidize parking costs for the clinic's impoverished clients. He remembers waiting day after day for the Miami official who held the purse strings, sipping warm Cokes outside the man's office till he had memorized every stain on the hallway floor. Franky says he could hear jokes being told in Spanish and howls of laughter emanating from cronies behind the bureaucrat's door, but he never got inside to make his plea for money.
Then an elderly Miami power broker died. "The newspapers said he brought his big family over from Havana and found them all city jobs," Franky marvels. "He was a man who knew how to get things done. But it didn't sound like he knew many black people. I needed a good story to get me some coffin time."
Franky concocted a mother who, he told the Cuban mourners, had been a humble yet gourmet cook toiling over the deceased's lavish parties and who was adored by him.
Mourners stood back a respectful distance from the casket as Franky gave the corpse a manly yet touching shoulder pat. "And I palmed a parking ticket stapled to a dollar under the pillow his head was on," he recalls. "I knew he'd understand."
One week later the unseen bureaucrat called Franky to say the funds were available. The clinic could now rent the parking spaces it needed -- in a lot owned by one of the paper pusher's relatives. "Yes, Heaven does seem to work a lot like Miami," Franky muses. "If I'd been caught doing obeah at a Cuban funeral, it would have been very embarrassing and impossible to explain. But it was fun! The adrenaline! And it takes skill. I used to do magic tricks with coins when I was a kid, using my hands quickly. It all came back to me standing at the coffin. I might try it again. The clinic where I now work needs a lot of things."
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Earlier this year Sam, a student at FIU, decided he needed mystical intervention to help his floundering love life. He worshiped another student from afar but couldn't work up the courage to ask her out. He loitered outside her classrooms, peeking in the door "like I was twelve years old," he says, wincing at the memory. A friend newly arrived from Nassau pointed out the solution -- a choice of two funerals of men wise in the ways of the heart. The first man's obituary praised his 38-year marriage. The second man was famous in his neighborhood as a Casanova and would have four female pallbearers. "But he died a bachelor," Sam says, "with no woman at his side." So he went to the devoted husband's open-casket viewing. As soon as the sanctuary was deserted, Sam says he raced up to the coffin and stuck a red paper heart inscribed with the name of his true love inside the man's suit pocket. "Close to his heart," Sam emphasizes.
That month the coed miraculously experienced car trouble the very day Sam walked her from class to the parking lot. He gave her a ride home and had the "best conversation of my life," he recalls.
They're getting married in September.
"It's like any superstition," Sam shrugs. "There are a thousand times it doesn't work, but the one time it does, it's wonderful. And in a big city like Miami, an island man needs all the help he can get, even if he has to steal it from the spirits."
"If Cubans won't share power with us while they're alive, maybe we can steal a bit from their spirits.