Like those who envy the power of the Passover Angel of Death, my parents enumerated their wish-lists, hit-lists, myriad blacklists—names of people who my parents wished death upon flowed by, like a Judgment scroll in the busy hands of a skeletal angel on a thunder-evening.
We had the cigar shop; and then our enemies bought our shop, lying they wouldn’t also sell Cuban cigars in it, when we went and opened another tobacco store. Alida explained in a language my eight year old mind could understand, as if following some educational Montessori method or technique for helping children attain advanced learning of complicated codes.
Maybe they should have opened a cement shoe-store.
If only they had mobster-balls, to hire a Sicario, a hitman—Miguel and Alida sang their frustration in cant. “If only I was not so damned middle class, if only I had tough thick skin,” mother lamented. They recounted the invocation-names of Sephardim, sounding like they were entranced in a catechism, naming the names of God or the enemies of God: names of individuals who I had seen occasionally but who I had rarely met, individuals they wished would die, die, as if the Gods would send a falcon or an owl to swoop down and then up again, soaring through the trapdoor of heaven.
During Chanukah as during Xmas, (both of which went uncelebrated in our household by anyone except for grandma Asea who went to synagogue but also kept a plastic Xmas tree and any excuse to give a toy) my elders wished that the mere mental and bodily energy of their fervent desperate wishing would miraculously give birth to a brown widow spider; a brown widow to bite their enemies in their luxury sedans, heads sagging onto the steering wheels, jamming the horns in a long honk that would resound through the Sabbath, rippling its black message of fright through Caribbean town main-streets all the way to the flickering pleasure-districts of San Nicolas and of Noord…
I became a failed hitman only weeks before celebrating my 10th birthday party. (I forever forgot whether there had been cake or not, before kids dancing around the hole we dug in the beach before their parents came to pick them up.)
That day a fleet of cars gathered, parked round the Bayt Zion Aruba synagogue. The cantor had summoned a minyan for a fallen member of the community. Automobiles—many of them pickups– gathered like a fan spread out between our low wall and the synagogue’s low wall. (Where else in the world did synagogues keep such low, un-fortressy walls, almost like a lady baring her shoulders? Only in Aruba—or so I had heard—and in Israel; because in Aruba nobody hears about Jews or seemed to notice our existence; while in Israel they won’t see anyone anything other—or so we heard.)
My parents recognized one of the enemies.
“It’s him. That’s Fito Labadi…” Mother nodded.
Fito exited his Ford pickup with a yarmulke and sunglasses; he held his skullcap to make sure it was fixed on his whiting hair. He wore a polo over his paunch and leaned forward in his shorts like all successful men of that age.
My father took a plastic bottle of motor-oil from the pantry and took me outside.
“Go, and pour this under the tires,” he said (He sounded like the God of the Old Testament telling Moses “Go into Canaan, and slay all the men…”)
I looked up at him through my bowl-cut hair-bangs, my mouth open in shock that could cost me my remaining milk tooth.
But I did as commanded nevertheless.
Down the warm stone steps of our house, I tipped the industrial plastic jug, eking out some drops of motor oil in the shadow of each wheel on the side of the pickup, I counted the little puddles as they spread on the sun-bleached asphalt, its heat in my face. (I do not remember if I saw my own reflection in the chemical rainbow swirl on the surface of the thin layer of petroleum.)
I made sure to do it on the side not facing the long windows of the synagogue, where ten men in a candlelit room during the day could not see me and I could not peek at them as they prayed. The sun had not yet downed, the sky bright; the Khazan had called the men, gathering them to form a singing minyan, a wailing orchestra of ten on a day of Sheva, one of the seven days of mourning after a death—they had attended, despite being a work day, a business day. Death is important. (Deny it for long, and behold its angel shall pay a visit following a phone call.)
It surprised me that Fito did not drive a fancier truck: his beige Ford had mud on it; the basin-trunk full of dead browning palm leaves. My parents had taught me the impression that our enemies were successful. Or perhaps he was just cheap, like all rich—the logic of that famous, clear paradox, I learned only much later, as a truant of the Skol Arubiano high school, where I too would eventually be dropping out like a browning palm leaf from treetop, deigning so artistically to trace and follow a fallen coconut’s descent towards a shaded point in the cool sand.
Mother waited on the crimson clay steps of our house, her mouth less red than the staircase, and stern and unsmiling below her sunglasses, (the way she herself sometimes would describe “Lady Mao” another one of those wicked people who I had never met except in my parents’ descriptive world-by-mouth). Mom resembled the figurehead of a ship, wooden mermaid—only, unsmiling, and covered: black-clad. She stood at the prow of our house, next to my father, above him on the red steps, Miguel held a long fork from the BBQ where he was cooking tenderloin painted with chimi-churri sauce, to feast on the day of the death of an enemy mourned at stone’s-throw.
Mother had different motives: she knew her people longer, better than the thwarted convert Miguel. The people of the synagogue had betrayed grandpa Mordechaim; she would never forgive them. Miguel Jacobo was maybe her hope for an avenging death-angel, a sentinel, her hope of hurting them after how they hurt us, “They spat us out their throat,” she said. My senses a bit numbed, I scrambled up the Cordoba-red steps in my shorts back to the front door. The screen of the front door had tears, left by the claws and talons of a cat-versus-iguana struggle I had seen. (The iguana had died first from the cat’s maw: its bright green skin faded to khaki, said to be death’s favourite colour.)
“Good boy,” father said in English—one of his few sentences not in Spanish—without looking at me, the street mirrored faintly in his aviator sunglasses. Actually I doubted I had trickled a satisfactory amount of oil. Hardly 10 years old and already a lousy, flaccid assassin. I probably had poured it too timidly: cautious, like it was some mere salt too cautiously sprinkled on a meal, rather than a proper-murderous half-litre. But then, I thought if I leaked too much, Fito might notice and that would expose us. The mark reignited his Ford and rode off without skidding. He even gave a little steering-wheel horn-toot—wholly inappropriate for the ceremonial occasion.
“You are not to speak of this, you hear! Not out loud, at least,” Alida warned, hunched over, something in her voice crackled forcefully in such a manner rendering it unnecessary for her to wag a menacing finger. I could see the sternness of the mandate, like in a vision surrounded by flowers and flames.
Loyalty burned alight in the torch-lit crypt in my heart, and in my body of a good unspoilt son. Loyalty to my parents soldered my vocals and lips sealed. I hoped to serve—to avenge the honour of our offended Household, injured in its pride that had once glowed like a bright blank sheet held up to the sun—save for just a few rusty-pin stains, maybe—but nothing to make us fold in shame, like the sapling palm trees bowing outside under a powerful wind-gust.
My humiliated parents resembled two wounded pelicans, pecking at each other and yet nursing one another’s sick, handicapped wings after the wreckage of their past foibles together, tracing back to an oil-slick in the otherwise-pretty-as-can-be Caribbean sea.
Something needed be done to rectify it all. These thoughts felt mine: not just echoes of ideas mother sulked half-whispering over her glass of juice under her lips, like she was playing some Pan flute. These thoughts—wondrous grains of salt—were my understanding, my insights into this maelstrom of the adult world’s injustice spilling onto my shorts. I felt guided by the light of the starry old prophets who spoke of Justice and of Revenge, which were like two cousins distant enough to be married.
I sought the addresses of the family’s enemies in the Aruba Yellow Pages. I wished to become a budding sentinel of a son, to go armed, trudging onto their bougainville-shaded porches. I could transform into a paladin, wielding flaming machete. Or, with both hands I could swing a giant lobster by its raspy tail, as its clicking pinchers would jab at the fearful fish-like gasping faces of menacer-merchants. And their children (including brunette daughters) would weep, cornered in their parents’ haciendas’ machine-cooled bedrooms; all generations wetting their pajamas upon my visit of infamy-to-be. Maybe I would marry one or two of those whom I orphaned.
Even before growing up, I wanted to become a clement juggernaut child; mercifully wise; strategic as King Shlomo.
On that midnight op, I could bring along the dog: half-bred jackal pup stolen from a yard, and sold to us by a Haitian at the wharf (at that pier parapet, they sold every item depending on the hour).
True-blood Arubans believe hanging a roped aloe vera plant upside down from a low ceiling will ward off evil spirits and offensive odours. (If they still believe that, then maybe they use the word “negativo,” negative spirits, rather than evil.)
The hung aloe vera would begin to crumple at my nearing. A crucifix similarly would tilt skewing sideways, while Jesus corpus christi would wet his pajamas too, as I neared.
Whichever symbols or talismans decked out the enemy households (provided they weren’t Hebrew) I would cut those tender totems down, allowing wickedness to enter without tippy-toeing….
And if the angel of Death and the Devil had forgotten our island in his list of tasks, out there in the serious and mapped world beyond Aruba—why, then I would fulfill the task of emissary.
Later on in my development as my parents noticed I had begun reading more serious library books, Miguel would mention “Genealogy of Morals” as one of those books that his apprehended friends and acquaintances from long ago in cafés in Buenos Aires had told him about and which he wanted to read but never read. Whenever father mentioned books, they were almost always books he had never read, or books he had started to read but then abandoned. (Back in those days of banter, before the persecution that sent him to tropical refuge, the thing to do was talk about books by, say, Sartre or Sabato in some fancy bistro bar near the fancy Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires.) I wondered why M did not discuss books he actually read; perhaps these proved so special, dear to him, that he kept the titles in personal heart-secrecy.
In tones of admiration, Mother retold Miguel Jacobo’s stories about how the family of my paternal grandmother in faraway Argentina had dealt with adversaries. Justice for them was not attained by invoking book-titles their enemies hadn’t read. Justice you attained by vendetta.
My Argentinean grandmother Atalia Soledad’s father died young, gunned by his own cousins when she was still but a fishy inside her mother’s jutting bulb of womb-life under her long Calabrian-black dress. Soledad, Saveria named the growing Solitude in her, nearing third trimester when the black news arrived concerning the unborn girl-child’s father Pascual, murdered by clannish relatives—shot 34 X times: all that lead in his young body on his 34th birthday, at the centre of a Buenos Aires vegetable market where he had dealt in wholesale contraband—prime Argentinean vegetables stolen back from the ships bound from England in the La Boca port of Buenos Aires by that stinking lagoon. That handsome man with a fedora, fallen. Nobody dared to tell the men “Have Piedad on your own cousin’s birthday!”
(Closing my eyes I glimpsed a bearded man on the ground, with what resembled 34 glinting Argus eyes: blotches of lead lodged in his torso and limbs, one real eye missing.)
Did she, my grandmother, then a fish inside Saveria’s womb, hear the echoes scrape the silver clouds above the patios, the 34 birthday gunshots that traitor-cousins drove into her father?
34 bullets must have rippled the fabric of her universe…
“The lives of illiterates are always the most Shakespearian,” my mother Alida remarked, sounding almost grumpily envious.
Or had they only heard the news, shouted by messenger-boys on the market, on the radio? The women’s Calabrian funereal ways were practiced: as if raised to live for precisely such occasions, for such black dawn revelations and rituals that made work for paid mourners to lavish up the funerals of despised-yet-sociable dead tyrants.
Atalia Soledad’s family had bred many soldiers of tango music—famous beyond the Milonga arcades, beyond obituaries: like the great singer Miguel Caló, as well as the lesser-known but still influential musical duo Tony & Armando.
Something funereal dwells in the tango—I heard it rippling in father’s old vinyls, crackling ebullient on the relic gramophone. Sad sounds produced a little wave in his glass of hot amber liquid that kept him company. For he felt lonely, living with us islanders, Alida and me: in a house with two provincial Arubans who couldn’t fathom a cosmopolitan exile from glorious Buenos Aires, where so many citizens had read widely, or talked convincingly of titles at least. In the tango-sounds I heard that dark force, circling shark-like. When the Argentine cousins visited us on holiday, they sang a tango and then gave an afterword. Our relatives spoke of the influence of that only seemingly far-away South Italy—where, they told us, there had been a great plethora of funerals, burials; men of Calabria and men of islands nearby Calabria’s coast of Tropea, decimated by skirmishes and by vendetta, by honour, before the wind came and collected all the dead men’s fedora hats. Then, Primo turned up the volume and sang some more as wine or coca cola poured. That tango-sound mixes, like exquisite grease that interconnects different worlds: sounds of funeral parlours and granite-faced killers meeting the softer lyrics of seduction’s chamber-realms. They kept their wake-suits always on, just in case, funeral-finery cleaned by the natural laundromat of the rain clouds that chased them all the way up and downhill, as they carried a coffin tailed by weepers’ chorus to its grave under the crepuscular sundown bathing those hills of antiques. Then, later on that same evening they stepped into the ballrooms seeking out eyes of love.
On Aruba it almost never rains. When it does, the rain smells and tastes like a sweet trickle of forgiveness: clementine, opening all kinds of huntress eyes of love as the frogs, called Dori for once ribbit.
At least one local, sighing song features that rare sight, rain-frog in it. Called Dori Maco, it is sung in the Creole, however—they claim—to the tune of the song of the older inhabitants before Christianity. It goes:
“Dori, dori Mako “Dear frog, frog by the name of Mako
Ora cu mi muri, When I die,
Ta kende ta bai yorami?” Who will mourn for me?”
“Ami, ami ami” “I, I, I shall”
Dori, dori Mako “Dear frog frog Mako
Ora cu mi muri When I die
Ta kende ta bai derami?” Who is going to bury me?”
“Ami, ami, ami” “I, I, I shall”