NIGHT OF THE BLACK CHRYSANTHEMUM
© Michele Carlo 2008
We were now living across the street from St. Peter’s Church in the Bronx, one of the oldest buildings in all NYC, dating back to the 1600s. A large part of my childhood was spent in that church graveyard reading faded tombstones, trying to catch praying mantises, or looking around fresh graves for a fat wallet because my cousin Kenny once found a $50 bill near one. Kids always played there, probably because it was the only place with trees and grass for blocks that wasn't an abandoned lot.
I felt totally comfortable there. The spirit world didn’t bother me. I had been aware of it my entire life. When you grow up Latin, traditions from hundreds of years of varied forms of worship color your everyday life. There was Titi Ophelia, who kept a glass of holy water behind her door so if anything evil followed you into the house, it would fall in and drown. And Titi Carmen, who had a special plant she’d break out to make a tea whenever someone couldn’t sleep. My mom had a rosary with multicolored beads and when she sat praying next to a window, it looked as if she counted rainbows in her hands. But no holy water, no tilo leaves and no Hail Marys could have prepared any of us for The Voodoo War of 1979.
My family had been the first Latin family to move into the building over 10 years before and for years we had to endure the Italian and Irish families complaining that our food stank, our music was too loud and we kids ran wild through the halls. Like Italians are quiet, the Irish are peaceful and garlic doesn’t stink. Right.
So when two more Latin families moved onto our floor that spring, we thought we’d have new allies. But both the Garcia and the Morales families kept to themselves. The adults didn’t speak much English and the teenagers didn’t listen to Led Zeppelin or The Who and were therefore useless. My mom found out they came from the same town back on the island and there was bad blood between them, to which my dad said, “If they didn’t like each other there, why the hell did they move in together here?”
After a couple of weeks we found out. We never knew what started this installment of their war, but it was obvious it had been going on far longer than even they could remember. First, there was cursing. Not the usual, "screw you, you mo-fo son-of-a-bitch” kind of cursing; but proclamations: threats for barren wombs, incurable diarrhea and brain tumors, unemployment, infidelity, madness and more diarrhea. It actually would have been funny if they hadn‘t sounded so serious. But then one day I came home from school to find three pennies in a triangle in front of the Morales’s door with some white powder sprinkled around them. I picked them up and showed them to my mom and she threw them out the window, made me wash my hands with Lava soap and alcohol and told me to not even look at anything near either of their apartments. But every couple of days, there was something else not to look at, like kernels of corn, or dead black flowers or strange-looking candles. The arguments got worse, too. Almost every night we'd hear them in the hall, only now I couldn’t understand what they were saying, because it was all in Spanish and these were words my family didn’t use. My brother and I would look up from our homework at my mom or dad and they’d just turn the TV up louder.
And then one afternoon I did something I hadn’t done in yearsI went to St. Peter’s to be alone. I had just found out the boy I had a total crush on said I had a nice ass but an ugly face. I sat down under a tree to cry and saw a piece of mail addressed to the Garcias smeared in what looked like blood and worse, a pair of what looked like freshly cut chicken feet neatly tied around with red string.
I ran home and told my mom what I had seen and she went straight to the Garcia’s door and knocked. When no one answered, she said, “I know you’re in there and I know what you're doing. You have to stop. It’s not sanitary. Children play in that graveyard!” A voice behind the door told my mother to mind her business or she’d be next. The next day, there was a skinned, crucified mouse taped to the Morales’s door. They moved out that night, at 2:00 am. We could hear them screaming and crying, hurling generation upon generation of curses upon the Garcia’s and everyone else in the building.
My mom was furious. “This isn’t right. Somebody’s got to do something.”
My brother said, “What’re you gonna do, get Titi Carmen’s plant after them.” “No," she said, "worse.” And she went into the bedroom and shut the door.
What had once been a simple clash between the Puerto Rican Hatfields and McCoys had now become Armaggedon. Because when my mother went into the bedroom, she opened her Bible and read it out the window, out loud, non-stop the remainder of that night and into the next day. Did I say non-stop? When my brother and me left for school in the morning, she was at the window. When we came back, she was at the window. When my dad almost burned down the kitchen trying to make us dinner, she was at the window. Every once in a while one of the Garcias would yell something at her and that only served to make her read even louder and nowin Spanish.
My dad tried reasoning with her, but when she started reading at him, too, he suddenly decided he needed to work a triple shift, abandoning my brother and me on the front lines. We tried to launch a counterattack by blasting late-night reruns of Rat Patrol and Prisoner Cellblock H on TV, but we were no match for the Almighty Word Of God. How so? Because not only did neither of us get a minute of sleep, we found out the next morning the Garcias had moved out, sometime in the middle of the night and what's more, silently.
As I was about to leave bleary-eyed for school, my mom, looking as fresh and Jackie O as ever, told me to take out the garbage. When I got to the alleyway I saw a pile of house stuff with pieces of paper among them. I looked closer and realized they were pages torn from the Bible. I looked up and saw our bedroom window between what had been the Morales's and Garcia's windows. Not only had my mother spoken the Word of God, she hurled it at them.
And so The Voodoo War of 1979 was stopped with the one weapon no curse on this earth has any power against: The righteous fury of a Latina mother scorned. And even though my mom said afterwards she needed to repent for tearing up the Word of God, I didn’t think so. Yeah, she was crazy, but she was also ahead of her time. She had Sinead O'Connor beat by a whole 13 years.