“You told me I was going to have a boy, and look what I got! Another girl! I have three already!”
“That can't be. Are you sure I predicted a boy?”
“Of course I'm sure. Don't you think I know what you told me? That's what I paid you for.”
“You must have misunderstood me,” Olga replied, unfazed.
She climbed onto the truck, rummaged through her trunk, and produced a slip of paper she showed to everyone present; a single word was written there:
An admiring sigh swept through the crowd, including the mother, who scratched her head with perplexity. Olga did not have to return the dollar but in fact reinforced her reputation as a prophetess. There were not enough hours in what was left of the afternoon and part of the night for her to attend to the line of clients waiting to have their fortunes told. Among the amulets and potions she offered, the most requested was her “magnetized water,” a miraculous liquid bottled in crude green-glass vials. She always explained that it was ordinary, everyday water but that it had curative powers because of being infused with psychic fluids. She carried out her bottling operation on nights of the full moon, when, as Judy and Gregory had witnessed, she merely filled the containers, sealed them with a cork, and pasted on labelsâbut she guaranteed that in the process the water was charged with positive force, and that must have been the case, because her products sold like hotcakes and the users never complained of the results. According to how the water was used, it provided various benefits: drinking it cleansed the kidneys, rubbing it on relieved the pain of arthritis, and massaging it into the scalp improved mental concentrationâbut it had no effect on affairs of the heart, including jealousy, adultery, and involuntary spinsterhood. On this point the healer was very clear, and she advised every purchaser of that fact. She was as scrupulous about her nostrums as she was in charging for them. She maintained that there is no such thing as a good remedy that is free; she never charged, nonetheless, for assisting at a birth. She enjoyed bringing babies into the world: nothing could compare to the moment when the infant's head emerged from between its mother's bloodied legs. She offered her services as midwife on isolated farms and in the poor areas of small towns, especially Negro neighborhoods where the idea of having a baby in a hospital was still a novelty. While she waited beside the mother-to-be, she hemmed diapers and knit booties for the baby; it was only on those infrequent occasions that her boldly painted sorceress's face grew soft. The tone of her voice changed as she lent support to her patient during the most difficult hours and as she sang the first cradle song heard by the babe she had helped into the world. After a few days, when mother and child were well acquainted, she would rejoin the Reeveses, who were camped nearby. As she said goodbye, she wrote the child's name in a notebook; it was a long list, but she called them all her godchildren. Births bring good luck, was her brusque explanation for not charging for her services. She was like a sister to Nora and like a grumbling aunt to Judy and Gregory, whom she thought of as her niece and nephew. Charles Reeves she treated like a colleague, with a mixture of petulance and good humor; they never touched, they seemed scarcely to exchange glances, but they acted in tandem not only in the work of the paintings but in everything they did together. It was they who handled the family's money and resources, they who consulted maps and decided which roads to take; together they went out hunting, disappearing for hours in the deep woods. They respected each other and laughed at the same things. Olga was independent, adventurous, and as resolute as the preacher; she was forged from the same steel. For that very reason she was not impressed by either the man's charisma or his artistic talent. It was only Charles Reeves's masculine vigorâwhich later would also characterize his son, Gregoryâthat on occasion could subdue her.
Nora, Charles Reeves's wife, was a being destined to silence. Her parents, Russian Jews, gave her the best education they could afford. She graduated with a teaching certificate, and although she left the profession when she married, she kept up-to-date by studying history, geography, and mathematics in order to teach her children, because the bohemian life they led made it impossible to send them to school. During their travels she read magazines and esoteric books, with no presumption of analyzing what she had read, content to pass on the information to the Doctor in Divine Sciences for his use. She hadn't the least doubt that her husband was gifted with psychic powers that enabled him to see beyond the veil and discover truth where others saw only shadows. They had met when they were no longer young, and their relationship had always been characterized by a certain decorum and maturity. Nora was not suited for the practicalities of life; her mind floated in otherworldly dreams, more preoccupied with the potential of the spirit than with everyday vicissitudes. She loved music, and the most splendid moments of her uneventful existence had been the few operas she had attended as a girl. She treasured every detail of those spectacles; she could close her eyes and hear the brilliant voices, suffer the tragic passions of the performers, and luxuriate in the color and richness of the sets and costumes. She read the librettos, imagining every scene as part of her own life; the first stories her children heard were of the star-crossed loves and inevitable deaths of the world of opera. She took refuge in this extravagant, romantic atmosphere when she felt weighed down by the vulgarity of real life. For his part, Charles Reeves was a man who had sailed the seven seas, earning a livelihood as a jack-of-all-trades. He had in his seabag more adventures than he could ever tell; he had left behind him a trail of broken love affairs and a few offspring he never heard of again. When Nora had first seen him haranguing a crowd of amazed churchgoers, she was immediately infatuated. She had become resigned to her spinster's fate, like many women of her generation whom chance had not gifted with a sweetheart and who lacked the courage to go out and look for one. Having been suddenly, and tardily, smitten, however, gave her the courage to overcome her natural shyness. The preacher had rented a hall near the school where Nora taught and was distributing handbills announcing his lecture when Nora caught her first glimpse of him. She was impressed by his noble face and determined air and out of curiosity went to hear him, expecting to find a charlatan like so many that passed through, leaving no trace of their passing but a few faded posters peeling from the walls; she was, however, in for a surprise. Standing before his audience, aided by an orange suspended from the ceiling, Reeves explained man's place in the universe according to
The Infinite Plan.
He did not threaten punishment or promise eternal salvation; he limited himself to practical solutions for bettering one's life, for soothing anguish, and for saving the resources of the planet. All creatures can and must live in harmony, he argued, and to prove it he opened the lid of the boa's box and let it coil around his body like a fireman's hose, to the amazement of his listeners, who had never seen a snake so long or so fat. That night Charles Reeves put into words the confused feelings Nora had not known how to express. She had discovered the teachings of Baha Ullah and had adopted the Bahai religion. Those Eastern concepts of loving tolerance, of the unity of mankind, of the search for truth and the rejection of prejudice, had clashed with her rigid Jewish background and the provincialism of her milieu, but listening to Reeves made everything seem simple; now, knowing that this man had the answers and could serve as her guide, she had no need to worry about such fundamental contradictions. Dazzled by the eloquence of the delivery, she overlooked the vagueness of the content. She was so moved that she found the courage to go up to him at a moment when he was alone, with the intention of asking whether he was familiar with the Bahai faith and, in the case that he was not, meaning to offer him the works of Shogi Effendi. The Doctor in Divine Sciences was aware that some of his sermons excited certain women, and never hesitated to seize the advantage of such bonanzas; the schoolteacher, however, attracted him in a different way. There was something pure about her, a transparent qualityâtrue rectitude, not just innocence, a luminosity as cold and uncontaminated as ice. He not only wished to take her in his armsâhis first impulse on seeing her strange triangular face and freckled skinâhe also longed to penetrate the crystalline surface of this stranger and light the banked fires of her spirit. He proposed that she join him in his travels, and she immediately accepted, with the sensation of having been taken by the hand once and for all time. At that moment, as she envisioned the possibility of surrendering her soul to him, the process of disengagement that would mark her destiny was begun. She left without a single goodbye, with a pouch of books as her only baggage. Months later, when she discovered she was pregnant, they were married. If it was true that a raging fire burned beneath her phlegmatic appearance, only her husband knew. Gregory himself spent his life captivated by the same curiosity that had attracted Charles Reeves in that rented hall in a godforsaken town in the Midwest; a thousand times he attempted to breach the walls that isolated his mother and reach her inner feelings, but as he had never succeeded, he decided that she had none, that she was hollow and incapable of truly loving anyone; at most, she manifested an undefined sympathy toward humanity in general.
Nora grew accustomed to depending on her husband, more and more becoming a passive creature who fulfilled her duties by reflex as her soul escaped worldly concerns. So strong was Reeves's personality that to make space for him, she herself gradually faded from the world, turning into a shadow. She participated in the routines of their communal life, but she brought little to the energy of the small group; her only contributions were the children's studies and matters of hygiene and good health. She had come to the United States with a boatload of immigrants, and during her first years in the countryâuntil her family had worked their way out of adversityâshe was minimally and poorly nourished. That period of poverty had burned the pangs of hunger into her memory for all time; she had a mania for nutritious food and vitamin pills. She communicated some aspects of Bahaism to her children in the same tone she used for teaching them to read or to name the stars, without the least spirit of conviction. Only when she spoke of music did she grow passionate; those were the only times her voice was vibrant and color lighted her cheeks. Later she would agree to raise her children in the Catholic Church, which was the standard in the Hispanic barrio where they were to live. She understood the need for Judy and Gregory to blend into their surroundings; they had enough to bear with differences of race and custom without being further mortified by unknown beliefs like her Bahai faith. Besides, to Nora all religions were basically the same. She was concerned only with morality, and anyway, God was beyond human comprehension. It was enough to know that heaven and hell are symbols of the soul's relation to God: proximity to the Creator leads to good and to gentle pleasures, while distance produces evil and suffering. In contrast to her religious tolerance, she would yield not an inch in principles of decency and courtesy; she washed out her children's mouths with soap if they used profanity, and she curtailed their food if they did not hold their fork properly. All other punishments were the father's responsibility; she merely identified the offense. One day she caught Gregory stealing a pencil from a store and informed her husband, who made the boy return it with apologies and then, before Nora's impassive gaze, burned the palm of his hand over a blazing match. For a week Gregory had an open sore. He soon forgot the reason for the lesson and the person who had inflicted it; all that stayed in his mind was his rage against his mother. Many decades later, when he was at peace with his memory of her, he could be quietly grateful to her for the three major gifts she had given him: love for music, tolerance, and a sense of honor.
The heat is unrelenting, the ground is parched; it has not rained since the beginning of time, and the world seems to be covered with a fine reddish powder. A harsh light distorts the outlines of things; the horizon is lost in a haze of dust. It is one of those nameless towns like so many others: one long street, a cafÃ©, a solitary filling station, a jail, the same wretched shops and wood houses, and a schoolhouse with a sun-faded flag drooping overhead. Dust and more dust. My parents have gone to the general store to buy the week's supplies; Olga has been left to look after Judy and me. No one is in the street; the shutters are closed: people are waiting for it to cool down before they return to life. My sister and Olga are drowsing on a bench on the porch of the store, dazed by the heat; they have given up brushing away the annoying flies and are letting them crawl over their faces. The unexpected smell of burnt sugar floats on the air. Large blue-and-green lizards lie motionless in the sun, but when I try to catch them they dart away and hide beneath the houses. I am barefoot, and the earth is hot on the soles of my feet. I am playing with Oliver; I throw him a worn rag ball, he fetches it, I throw it again, and in this game I wander away from the store. I turn a corner and find myself in a narrow alley, partly shaded by the unpainted eaves of the houses. I see two men. One is heavyset, with bright pink skin; the other has yellow hair. They are wearing work overalls; they are sweating, their shirts and hair are soaking wet. The fat one has cornered a young black girl; she must be no more than ten or twelve. He is holding her off the ground in the crook of one arm, and he has clamped his free hand over her mouth. She kicks once or twice and then falls limp; her eyes are red from her effort to breathe through the hand that is suffocating her. The second man has his back to me and is struggling with his overalls. Both are very serious, focused, tense, panting. Silence. I hear the men's puffing and the beating of my own heart. Oliver has disappeared, along with the houses; there is nothing but the threesome suspended in the dust, moving in slow motion, and me, paralyzed in my tracks. The man with the yellow hair spits twice in his hand, moves closer to the girl, and parts her legs, two dark toothpicks, dangling limply. Now I can't see the girl; she is crushed between the heavy bodies of the rapists. I want to run; I am terrified, but I also want to watch. I know that something fundamental and forbidden is happening, I am a participant in a violent secret. I can't breathe, I try to call my father, I open my mouth but nothing comes out; I swallow fire, a scream fills me inside, I am choking. I must do something, it is in my hands, the right action will save us both, the black girl and me; I am dying but I can't think of anything to do, I can't move a muscle, I have turned to stone. At that instant I hear my name in the distanceâGreg, Greg!âand Olga appears at the mouth of the alley. There is a long pause, an eternal minute in which nothing at all happens; all is still. Then the air is vibrating with a long scream, Olga's hoarse and terrible cry, followed by Oliver's barking and the voice of my sister, like the shrill of a rat, and finally I am able to draw a breath and I begin to scream too, desperately. Surprised, the men drop the girl, who as her feet touch the ground darts away like a frightened rabbit. We stare at one another; the man with the yellow hair is holding something purple in his hand, something that seems detached from his body, something he is trying to force inside his overalls. Finally they turn and walk away. They are not perturbed; they laugh and make obscene gestures. How would you like a little yourself, you dumb bitch? they yell to Olga. Come here and we'll give you a sample. The girl's underpants are lying in the street. Olga grabs Judy and me by the hand, calls the dog, and we hurry, no, we run, toward the truck. The town is waking up, and people are looking at us.