Babalú Blessings

Havana, Cuba 1947

Gloria was upset. She felt she had been unfaithful to Beto by kissing el Americano. But it’s not as if she and Beto were together in reality. Letters didn’t mean a promise of marriage. Gloria considered her letters to be love letters and hoped his letters would become more heartfelt soon. In her last correspondence, she expressed her insecurity about their relationship but now wondered if that had been a mistake.

Beto’s letters were focused on his education and career goals, and then about being with her. If the university was not located where she was, would she even be part of his plans? And if they were reunited, would the feelings they, mainly her, had expressed in writing transfer to real life? At the same time, she couldn’t deny that she liked all the attention she was receiving from other handsome men, though she did not actually want to marry any of them right now. She hoped Beto would finally move to Havana so things would be settled once and for all.

Gloria needed guidance. At seventeen, she should’ve known more, but farm life had kept her sheltered and naïve. Maybe Magdalena, the other singer at the hotel, would give her relationship advice; after all, the woman was a beauty queen, constantly attracting the attention of men and women with her ravishing looks and gowns and her vocal – close to operatic – singing talent.

Or perhaps, she should pray about it. She hadn’t been back to church since she started working on Sundays. Of course, that didn’t mean she shouldn’t go on another day, and God would surely understand. She had to coordinate practice sessions with the pianist, and often they took place during her breaks when daily mass was being said. Since these performances were now part of her job, she had to spend time as much time as possible practicing. She could not risk being replaced for being unprofessional. Still, she would make the effort to be a good catholic, praying the rosary, lighting candles to la Virgencita. Hopefully, she would reap some blessings in return.

After a morning shift, and realizing she wouldn’t see Magdalena until the weekend, Gloria decided to go with prayer and took a lunchtime stroll, arriving at the old church within minutes. The large rounded wooden doors led to a foyer with a table of candles – many lit with wax dripping onto a long metal and several stubs of spent ones. The church was small, with only seven rows of dark walnut pews. The ceramic tile floor was shiny and clean, and the space felt cool. She proceeded toward the front where a statue of La Virgen de la Caridad was elevated above another collection of candles in a carved-out dome. Gloria lit a candle, bowed her head, and thanked la Virgen for having kept her safe during this time that she was away from her family. She turned around and settle in the right front pew.

While her intention was to pray, her thoughts strayed to Beto immediately. Replaying their special moments together and their kisses, Gloria felt her face heat up. Nobody would have noticed, since she was in the front pew. Still, she looked around, spotting only an old woman wearing a black veil. The woman seemed half-asleep, her head down and almost at her chest.

Gloria regained composure and recited a Padre Nuestro and three Ave Marias, then prayed from the heart. She asked God to forgive her for abandoning her family and for being selfish about pursuing her own aspirations. She knew the expectations placed on women, especially by their own mothers, and, yes, she would like to have a husband and family of her own, but she was in love with singing first. Then she got on the kneeler and promised she would write Mamá regularly until they could be reunited. She felt at peace with her decision to be on her own, though she was indeed scared of her uncertain future and thrilled at the same time. She also vowed to visit church and pray her rosary more often to stay in God’s good graces.

As Gloria rose to leave she heard murmurs, though no one but the old woman was in the church. Had Gloria simply just not heard them as she whispered her prayers? The noises had a rhythm, and she could not tell if they were words or possibly a kind of drumming. The sounds emanated from the right of the altar, behind a side door.

Curious, Gloria crept closer to hear what they were saying, as the old woman in the veil called, “Niña, ten cuidado,” causing Gloria to look back. Then, the woman lifted her veil, revealing a wrinkly, paper-bag-colored face, and repeated, “Ten cuidado.”

Taken aback by the warning to be careful, Gloria simply responded, “Sí, señora,” and rushed back up the center aisle and through the darkness of the foyer. She crossed her herself, then pushed open the heavy door and stepped out into the bright sunlight. Her heart beat fast, and she wasn’t sure if she was scared about the weird noises or the woman with the white cloudy patches in her eyes.

During her afternoon shift, Gloria sang and hummed, as she always did, but as she scrubbed a bathroom floor, the swish of the brush created a rhythm similar to the one she’d heard at the church. Had she heard a light drum and not voices? Why were those few seconds of odd sounds invading her mind now?

By the time Gloria finished with work, she had decided to return to the church. It was customary for some of the maids to go on strolls together, but she’d go alone, not wanting to alarm them with her bizarre interest in unknown sounds. The ancient woman, with her witchy look, could’ve been crazy and just trying to scare a naïve Gloria for fun.

As she entered the church, she was surprised to hear a small choir practicing as they stood near the back pews. The choir director greeted her, then quickly shifted her attention back to the singers. Gloria proceeded to the front of the church and sat in the front pew like before; this time she brought her rosary along. She thanked God for her job, prayed that her mother and brothers were healthy, then began to pray the rosary.

No matter how much she tried to focus, the repetition always made her lose her place on the beads and become sleepy. She didn’t want the choir people to see what she was going to do: snoop around the back rooms of the church. At the moment, no noises came from the room behind the altar, so she’d wait things out and continued to mumble her rosary prayers.

Gloria awoke abruptly, as if from a nightmare. She felt disoriented and swerved her head behind her; the church was empty now, no choir or old women muttering their supplications. But the space was not empty of sound, in fact, it was drowning in it; whatever was going on in that back room earlier in the day was now much more intense.

Tiptoeing, she approached the door, then remained there listening to the tumbadora keeping the beat, as voices chanted. Now it all came to her; these non-words were African sounds chanted to praise saints. There were some guajiros, the country folk, who practiced Santería, mainly for prosperity with crops and good health. Gloria had no idea if the Yoruba saints were related to the Catholic ones, but then why would these ceremonies be going on in a church? She did know that, sometimes, as her abuela once explained, santeros did not always have good intentions when they performed these rituals. They sometimes sent the “evil eye” or a curse in the direction of someone who wronged them.

Gloria was still interested in Santeria, in the good and the bad, but certainly wasn’t going to knock or open the door and interrupt whatever ceremony was going on.

She didn’t have time to decide whether to stay or go; the drumming stopped, the door opened wide in front of her, and powerful smells and sights attacked her senses.

The woman who’d opened the door peaked from behind it “Bienvenida.” Indeed, this was quite the welcome. The word was not uttered in a threatening or caustic way, as if Gloria had been caught doing something bad, not at all. The woman, whose round face was darker than night, smiled widely; she had plump lips, a gap between her two front teeth, and was missing at least one tooth on each side of her mouth.

Niña, are you coming in?” the woman asked, now standing in front of the door, with enough room for Gloria to pass through.

Gloria hesitated and simply stared at the enchanting woman; over seventy-years-old and dressed in white from the top of her head – wrapped with a veil-type material – to her ankles, where her long sheer dress ended. She wore a red sash around her hefty waist. Yellow beads hung from her neck, and various bracelets, also beaded, lined her wrists.

“Your first time.” the woman said as a matter of fact.

Sí, señora.” Gloria said shyly.

“My name is Omara, and I won’t bite.” She pointed to her mouth with the hand that held a tobacco. “Not with these bad teeth.”

Gloria smiled, then stepped forward and introduced herself.

She stared at the impressive display taking up most of the wall in front of her and noticed every detail. A low altar held wooden crosses and countless lit candles – tall ones on holders and short ones on metal plates – fruits such as apples, oranges, and grapes, honey, and flowers of all colors – some alive, some not. A glass bottle was half-filled with water with tiny cups next to it, and small bowls held coins.

Sitting in a half circle were three other dark-skinned women of varying ages and all dressed like Omara. There was one man, all in white, too, with an upright conga drum – tall and barrel-like, but not as polished as those in an orchestra – and at his feet, a much smaller one.

“Why have you come here? Are you seeking help?” Omara asked, breaking Gloria’s trance.

Gloria wasn’t seeking anything, certainly not this way. “Bueno, nada. I just heard the sounds and was curious about what was going on back here.”

“Sacred things, as you can see,” one of the other women said, as her arm made a sweeping movement showing off the beautiful altar.

Sí, señora, todo muy lindo.”

Bueno, niña, look and listen, and then you can make your requests.” Omara directed Gloria to sit on the side and signaled the man to “hit it,” so to speak. The drumming began, followed by chanting.

Ooooh, ooooh, ya / ooooh, ooooh, ya / ma ke ma no / ma ke ma no

ooooh, ooooh, ya / ooooh, ooooh, ya / ma ke ma no / ma ke ma no.”

As they chanted this first part, each of the women gathered oranges in one hand and bunched up flowers in the other. While bouncing on their bare feet circling about, they called out, “Oshun, venga, venga, Oshun, venga, venga!”

Gloria assumed this Oshun being evoked was a deity, and they were telling her to hurry up and arrive.

Mid-swirl, Omara called out to Gloria, “Niña, quieres amor, prosperidad y éxito?”

Naturally, Gloria wanted love, prosperity, and success, so she nodded yes.

The women repeated the chant and the dance, as their attention would, at times, turn in Gloria’s direction.

When the dance was over, the women sat on the floor heads-down, as if drained, for almost a minute, and the man also rested. Gloria kept her eyes on them the whole time. Then, almost in unison, they rose and returned their offerings of flowers and fruit to the altar.

“Now, for good health!” announced Omara. “Gloria, estas enferma?”

Gloria said she was not sick.

Que haces, en que trabajas? Tienes enemigos?”

Gloria said she worked as a maid and that she sang, and that she had no enemies.

Muy bien! May Babalú Ayé preserve your voice!”

Gracias,” Gloria said.

Almost instantly, a new chant and dance began. This time, different fruits were selected, and the women grabbed stubs of tobacco.

Babalú… Babalú… Babalú Ayé… Babalú Ayé…

This chant was louder, but the dancing was similar. The conguero played more forcefully as he rhythmically tapped his foot; he wore a bracelet of metal pieces around his ankle that sounded like bells. This time, before the women rested, they poured themselves small servings from the glass bottle, and Omara poured a smaller one and offered it to Gloria.

Assuming it was water, Gloria didn’t think to smell it and swallowed it fast. The sting made her body feel as if it was on fire, making her cough.

The women laughed, and Omara patted Gloria’s back and said, “Aguardiente, not water.”

Gloria had heard of this potent liquor, and in Cuba they made it with sugar cane and rum and who knows what else. Omara pulled out another bottle and swore it was regular water, and Gloria chugged it.

Buenas noches, Gloria. Feel free to come back. But next time, you can just knock.”

That Friday evening, Gloria’s second performance went well; several more people were in attendance, and Señor Franco said she could add a song or two to her set if the audience was receptive. And that’s exactly how things occurred. Afterwards, he congratulated her and said he was considering giving her an afternoon spot singing in the outside lounge area, during the summer when they had more visitors.

Late Saturday night, word spread like wildfire that Magdalena had collapsed during her performance and had to be taken to a room immediately. Gloria felt terrible for the singer; how embarrassing for that to happen in front of so many people. What was wrong with Magdalena?

As she dozed to sleep that night, Gloria suddenly panicked. The white-clad women had chanted for Gloria’s success and to preserve her voice, but Omara had also inquired if she had any enemies. She responded no, but had they somehow sent a curse in the direction of another singer that perhaps would set up Gloria for more success? Gloria wished Magdalena no harm and admired her greatly and tried to shake off the feeling.

Gloria was tempted to seek out Omara and ask her to come clean about the real intentions behind the chants from that night. She was scared, though. What if the woman got angry, thinking she was ungrateful for the good fortune she had just received: a larger and more receptive audience on Friday and the possibility of another show? And in her anger, place a curse on Gloria?

The next day, Gloria had not heard any more news about Magdalena and was quite worried about her. Unable to fight her impulse to get an answer for herself, Gloria resolved to seek out Omara. Although she had no desire to attend another ceremony, she went to the church to look for the woman.. The church was empty, but she asked some people on the street if they were familiar with Omara, the santera, and did they know where she lived. It took three people to get the information, and the woman’s home was a mere three blocks from the church.

“It’s the third house from the corner and the door is like no other,” an old man explained.

After taking a deep breath, she knocked on the large wooden door that had a variety of carvings on it – a rooster, a goat, snakes, the moon in its varying stages, and a few stars. At first there was no answer, so she knocked again, and harder.

“Who is it?” the woman said in a booming voice.

Hola, Señora Omara, it is Gloria.”


“I’m the girl who was at the church the other night and you let me come –” she started to explain as she heard locks being opened.

Niña, what are you doing here? How did you find me?” Gloria couldn’t tell if the woman was mad or simply surprised. “What do you want?” This tone clarified that it was annoyance. Omara was wearing white again, but her kinky dark hair was not covered up, and the waist sash and beads were missing.

“Uh, something has happened and..”


“And I want to talk to you.”

“I was taking my siesta, but go ahead,” the woman said, her annoyance escalating. Gloria apologized and had second thoughts about whether she should continue. “I’m awake now, so get to the point.”

“Well…. I want to know if…” Gloria felt weak.

Omara huffed in exasperation and said, “Niña, come in, what’s wrong with you?” Then she pulled Gloria by the arm, forcing her to step up into the foyer.

“Go sit down. Tell me what has you so troubled and pale.” Omara’s tone softened.

Gloria proceeded to the living room and took a seat on one of the wooden chairs set up in a half circle facing an altar. The display in the church backroom was duplicated, more or less, in miniature in this living room, though Gloria noticed a great deal of white chicken feathers here.

“What are you scared of?”

“I think you put a curse on mi amiga,” Gloria blurted out.

“I did?” The woman chuckled; her teeth shortage seemed more obvious in the daylight.

“I think so… maybe.”

“I see. She is your amiga, not your enemiga…so, naturally, you didn’t ask me to help you take revenge on your behalf.”

“No, of course not, but…”

“But?” Omara’s meaty hands were at her waist.

“But something happened to her…and…”

“And you seem convinced I had something to do with it.”

Gloria had dug herself into a hole, and silence or a simple never mind would’ve been the best idea at the moment, but despite this realization, she couldn’t stop talking. “Well… not exactly, but–”

The woman called out in the direction of the bedrooms. “Nando, come here!” The woman snapped a few times for effect. “We have un problema.”

Almost instantly, a gigantic man appeared. He was a larger version of Omara, just as dark and also dressed in white; he wore colored beads, and a large tobacco hung from the side of his mouth.

“No, no problema,” Gloria said and began getting up from her chair as the man moved closer.

Omara pointed to her as she addressed her husband. “She is practically accusing me of putting a curse on her friend or sending the woman the evil eye or something. But she won’t explain exactly what has occurred.”

Nando stood in front of Gloria, towering over her. “What are you accusing my wife of? If she said no, she means no.”

“I simply got confused. I am sorry, there is no issue.”

“Have you had a change of luck?” Omara inquired.

“Yes, somewhat.”

“Are you sick?”

Gloria shook her head.


No response.

“Let me give you some advice. Only worry about yourself. Yes, help others when they need or ask for it, but otherwise people need to take care of themselves. ¿Comprende?

“Sí, señora.”

“Anything else?” Omara’s husband asked as he backed away.

“No, señor,” said Gloria as she bolted from the chair.

Nando made a shooing sound to scare her. When Gloria reached the door, the couple laughed loudly, and as she stepped through it, she heard Omara say, “That niña has so much to learn.”

Friday’s performance was even better than the previous one, and as soon as she was done, she ran into Magdalena. She hugged the woman and told her she had been worried about her. Embarrassed to mention her far-fetched idea about blessings and curses, she only said, “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

“For now, I am. I guess you haven’t heard.” The glamorous woman gently touched her belly and said, “Soon, I’ll be big, and me and Pepe will be parents. We’re getting married next week, just a small ceremony with our families.” Magdalena beamed as she spoke.

They embraced, and Gloria expressed her good wishes.

Que bendición! I’m so happy,” Magdalena said.

A true blessing, Gloria thought, and here she was thinking a curse had been placed on the woman. What an idiota. She let out a chuckle.


Nada. I’m happy about your joyous news.”

“I hope you’ll be my replacement when I get too big and afterward when my tetas are so large from feeding the baby,” the woman said with a laugh.

“That would be an honor,” Gloria said.


Gloria was grateful that things were going well, so she would remain hopeful that her life would continue to get better. She resolved to refrain from worrying, but she needed to acquire the quality she lacked – patience. She knew she shouldn’t force things with Beto. If he loved her, he needed to realize that on his own, and then he’d come to her. Until then, Gloria would live in the moment and enjoy all the blessings that had already presented themselves.


Adela Brito’s short stories have appeared in Acentos Review, Hieroglyph, and Moko Magazine, and she is a former fiction editor of The Pinch literary journal. Her arts reviews and poetry have appeared Adelaide Literary Magazine, All About Jazz, Counterculture UK, Storyboard Memphis, and Underwood. She teaches composition and creative writing and holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Memphis.