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Mauricio J. Almonte


It's all in the wrapping, I think, what some call djòlè and others bulto. Have you ever seen a lion fish? Thing looks like a sensual zebra that floats over in front of its prey, as if accidentally, where it performs an elaborate, hypnotizing dance. It's the belly dancer of these waters, one that gets closer and closer to its singular audience, say, a mesmerized shrimp, in order to deliver a performance that's bound to culminate in a sudden suction of the spectator. What this fish does, that's bulto, djòlè. And it's true; lizards, bees, roosters and gamecocks... they all do it.

Before I give you the skeleton of the story, keep in mind that all this happened when Tania's mother, my grandaunt, was still alive. For a couple of weeks, Candy Man would come over to the house, around lunchtime, noon, supposedly just to wait out the sun. At some point he started making candy there: a slithery paste made out of water, lots of sugar and a few key limes as coagulating agent, eventually wrapped in thick, 24 lb. paper, at which point it looks like a long, eight-to-ten-inch thin cigar, and is called canquiña. Tania helped out with the wrapping.

Nearly everyone swears much more than that actually happened. Ask any of her brothers, my second cousins, why did my grandaunt pull out the family's rifle on the guy? Exactly what did Tania do to or with Candy Man (or the other way around)? Do that, and you'll hear a colorful insult, or two, or three, or more.

Men will measure manliness against other men, take an invitation to talk about Candy Man as an opportunity to highlight his lack of balls, his blackened teeth, and from there, generalize about people from this or that place, people who walk or laugh or eat a certain way. I will not trouble you with details; no, that would just bog down the story. Let us just say that mean things were said about the guy, all with the joyful madness of the best carnivals.

A different type of intermittent madness was attributed to Tania. During childhood she started having seizures, which were invariably interpreted as an irremediable imperfection of the brain or as an irreversible curse. Faith healers could not or would not go beyond affirming that it had all come from a mighty source, and that the episodes themselves were attempts, on the part of a powerful spirit, to mount Tania's body. The fact that these outbursts lasted but a few minutes revealed that the curse was in fact intended for someone else, a neighbor or another family member, perhaps. Physicians diagnosed it as epilepsy, and prescribed a lifelong regiment of pills, memorably tiny and expensive.

As a young child here, I witnessed one of these episodes or apparitions. Her remarkably green eyes seemed to stare into a far off dimension and then, in the smoothest of transitions, her whole body appeared to melt as it plummeted on the kitchen floor where her legs kicked in every direction, her arms swung violently, and her teeth gnashed so loudly that anyone would have interpreted the white foam at the corners of her mouth to be liquefied bone. She must've been in her late teens when this happened. Clearly, there had been similar episodes before; I remember those nearby had a pretty good idea of what to do: grab the extremities, pin the body against the floor, insert several fingers into the mouth, so as to prevent or minimize damage to the tongue, and above all, never try to do this on your own. Several men thus promptly fell on the body, and waited for the thing to come to pass.

Exactly when such episodes ended continues to be a matter of interpretation. Instead of peering into a neighboring galaxy, her eyes now seemed to be staring from that far off place, an unknowable there. She clearly did not recognize family or anyone for ten or fifteen minutes. I am told this state would last for hours. In some instances, she would rip off her clothes, break a dish, a cup or two, wring the neck of an inquisitive duck or unfortunate hen wandering inside or near the house. I am told she tried to kill a cat that way, that the animal sunk its claws and teeth into her right forearm. Ask her about any of these things, and she will fix those remarkably green eyes your way and smile and say she does not remember.

I hope these images help in understanding why her mother soon arrived at the immutable conclusion that Tania would never be able to carry a child anywhere near full term, supposing an uninformed man ever pursued the project. Not because of the palpable violence in the seizures, but rather, because the very medicine that would ward off these episodes would similarly keep her from ever having children. This is what Tania tells me, that her mother and neighbors had told her.

Why the seizures as a teenager, if she had been diagnosed and on medication since childhood? I remember writing that on a 3x5 card. Tania may have looked at me and smiled and said she didn't know, that, perhaps, the medicine was not as strong as many people thought. She may have resisted, as people sometimes do, and not swallowed a pill here and then. I cannot think of another possibility. It's either that or the force of the medication was no match for that of the spirit.

Such was the state of affairs when a thirty-something Candy Man began to wait out the sun at my grandaunt's house. And with him -a twiggy person from another part of this island-, so came stories, theories and affirmations about his past, present and future intentions. Tania must've been in her early twenties.

Suppose it's true, that only but a tiny slice of reality is available to us at any given time. One does not have to look very far -try the sky, for instance- to know that part of what makes us human is the disparity between the amount of information we do not possess and what we do know and/or are able to process, the thought goes. That all this is especially true when one thinks one understands everything or sees the entire picture, the thought continues, because all that exists is simply not the same as all that's available to us at any given moment.

Please know I write these things, not so much to condition the way in which a set of specific events and situations are interpreted but rather as a way of coming to terms with not knowing, a way of preserving the inherent humility that makes us human. It seems that all possible reactions when faced with unknowns can be placed on a line that extends from outright denial on one end, to acknowledgement and celebration on another end.

Take Candy Man, an irresistible topic of conversation at lunchtime, a person who, like the meal, was seen and treated by most as something to be neutralized, digested, processed, put differently, thoroughly observed and explained. Neutralized, first, by not allowing him to talk, by pressuring the guy into stammering an uncomfortable, It's li-like I to-told you!, or cornering him into signs of annoyance, a quiet hmmm or a loud clearing of the throat. Digested and processed, second, by producing theories or stories that claimed to explain Candy Man thoroughly, but never exhaustively, for there was always some detail, something that inevitably called out for additional observation and explanation, and so on.

There was talk of an unclear genealogy and of at least two brief stints in jail. Didn't help things by calling nearly everyone cousin. Invariably, someone would put forth a thunderous theory about his real parentage, followed or preceded by an indignant, Cousin?! Everyone knew all this to be untrue, but the rewards, the laughter and entertainment, were apparently enough for people to play along.

Talk of the brief stints in jail did not go much differently. Back then, the national government frequently boasted having one of the most ultra-modern prison systems in the world, and whenever the advertisements came on television, Candy Man was mockingly summoned to confirm or contradict what was being broadcast. These official reports celebrated the fact that the prison population was nearing that of elementary schools across the country; its images showed clean cells with shiny silver toilets, a close-up of an elephant-sized electricity generator, a bright light bulb, a male inmate reading a book, a female sheep shearing. Two or three narrators peppered the thing with alleged facts: according to a recent poll by an independent firm, 67% of the inmate population is happier inside than outside; the percentage is even higher among women, 76%; products and services created by this sector are projected to increase the nation's exports by .003%, and so on.

- That's not the one I went to. To be imprisoned is to be imprisoned.

That's what I remember Candy Man ever saying or being able to say, which was guaranteed to open the floodgates of personal attacks, promote the guy to the ranks of ingrate, traitor to the nation, etc. I still do not know if all this was a way of making fun of the national government by way of Candy Man or the other way around. It's a very delicate story to tell, a highly fragile thing to juggle, to laud a new penitentiary system while keeping one's natural or national audience from getting to close to logical conclusions, e.g., that people would indeed be happier there, three meals a day, electricity at night time, etc. And it's much more complex than the existential dilemma of, say, a police officer who does such a commendable job that his or her very function becomes obsolete. No, the celebrated success ran the risk of suggesting that contemporary penal colonies were ran much more efficiently than the entire country, and should or could thus be a possible model of general governance; that was the delicate terrain over which these advertisements tippy-toed, and much of it's audience, I think, was intelligent enough to know something else was going on.

I think Candy Man knew there was no way he would ever win an argument or engage in anything close to a serious conversation in that space. His words, perhaps, had too much entertainment value, and so, when enough sugar was available, he'd promptly ask to borrow a pot, announce he was about to make canquiña, go off to gather wood (if he hadn't done so already), and do his thing.

Work can feed dignity, and so it's plausible that Candy Man did this to earn a bit of respect from those around him, to showcase that he knew how to do something that many others didn't. Whatever the exact motivation, he would set up a small fire, in the middle of three stones where he laid a blackened pot, eventually transforming ten or so pounds of sugar into a dough of sorts. When the thing was thick enough, he would take it out of the pot and place it on a green plantain leaf, squirting water here and there so the thing would slide across anything it touched. From there, he'd lift his thing and place it on a nine-inch nail on a guava tree nearby, harnessing the power of gravity, which helped elongate the thing in two directions, like an upside-down V. Mind you, the stuff is still pretty hot at this point, as he grabs each extremity of this slithery thing, unites the ends, raises it off the nail, squirts a bit of water, folds, squirts a little more, sets it back on the nail, more squirt, all in an effort to stay ahead of gravity and heaven knows what other forces that transported every onlooker into another universe, entirely.

Tania had the best seat in the house. She was the one who provided the pot, washed it when the metal had cooled off, and gave him water. Sometimes she'd literally break into song. Clapping drumbeats and all that.

It was only a matter of time before someone would order her to shut up.

The wrapping that ensued took place in relative silence, kneeling over the thing on a plantain leaf. It was time to put finishing touches on what was about to become canquiña, and here Tania lead the way. Candy Man would break off a piece of the dough, roll it into a cylindrical shape and drop it diagonally on a piece of paper, which Tania promptly rolled, twisted at both ends, set it aside, and proceeded to repeat the process some fifty or sixty times.

That's all I ever saw.

My grandaunt must've noticed something else, driving her to the rifle. Maybe someone saw something coming, the imagined crystallization of an idea. I have no clue, really; none beyond five canquiñas I recently came across, as I sat down to write what you are reading. Pretty sure they're from back then. There is writing on the inner side of the wrapping. Two say, Follow me if you want to eat; one reads, Fuck me if you want to eat; and the other two say nothing at all. The first is an old slogan made popular by a politician back then; the second is clearly an obscene variation, an expression of what many took to be the implicit meaning in the first.

I doubt my grandaunt ever came across one of these, Fuck me canquiñas, supposing there were others, because the old lady could not read. It's possible that my second cousins did, but then again, Tania's mother was the one who jumped first. What I would like to know is, who wrote these slogans? And, assuming there was wooing going on with these canquiñas, who was wooing who? Whatever actually happened between the two lies somewhere along those questions, I think. For me, at this particular moment, it's all in the wrapping. And that's pretty much all there is to tell.

Candy Man has not been seen in the village since. Some say he was sent to prison for stealing a motorcycle. Others insist it was a sugar mule. Old lady died in her sleep, a day or so after intercepting and thoroughly slapping a neighbor who was rumored to have been saying that the reason Tania had developed such a condition was due to a fruit the mother had eaten while pregnant. No more than a few weeks after that, under the clearest of night skies, during new, crescent, half, waning, full, and waxing moons several men would regularly fall on Tania's body, her legs kicking in every direction, arms swinging violently, teeth gnashing so loudly that anyone would have interpreted the white stuff on her face to be liquefied bone, ripped clothes here and there, a broken dish, a cup or two, a nasty bite mark and scratches on her right forearm. In short, Tania ended up living alone in the house, for a while, before she got three dogs.

I know all this because she remembers all that. Maybe it was a spirit, she says, and adds, Exactly how much does one need to know?

Mauricio J Almonte is a poet and translator lives and works in South Florida.  His most recent work appears in Culture Strike Magazine and Muddy Cup: A Dominican Family Comes of Age in a New America (Scribner, 1997; Amazon, 2014).

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