Tree, Isabella - Sliced Iguana - Na Marcelina provides a healing limpia
Type of Spiritual Experience
Isabella went to a catholic school
A description of the experience
Laureana, Natalia and I have come to the market with a purpose. Overnight, Laureana's neck has seized up and she's in considerable discomfort, suffering, she assumes, from a mild case of whiplash.
She wants to have a limpia, a healing or - literally - a 'cleansing', from one of Juchitan's famous curanderas. 'She's remarkable, this Juchiteca. She's a grand old lady,' Laureana tells me; 'she cured my back last time I was here. You feel as if she's sucking all the bad energy out of you. The ache just left.'
There are male healers in Juchitan, too, but traditionally they're given the more practical side of things to deal with – broken bones and the like. It's the women who preside over the powerful mystical, spiritual dimension, as if, by adding this to their food-based repertoire, they can be totally responsible for keeping body and soul together.
'They see things in terms of bad spirits and devils,' Laureana expands, 'to a curandero, there's no such thing as an accident. There's always some malevolent force responsible.'
We find Na Marcelina caretaking her daughter's jewellery store. She's a wrinkled Mrs Tiggywinkle figure dressed from head to toein widow's black, her grey plaits tied with black ribbons, black beads and a silver crucifix around her neck. She gives each girl an enveloping hug, face blossoming into smiles, her doughy hands clasping Natalia's all the time they're talking, catching up on gossip in Zapotec.
When Natalia introduces us Na Marce's beady black eyes give me the once-over. 'She's checking your aura,' explains Laureana.
They put me down for a limpia, too - I'm not surprised my aura's in need of a dust-down - and we're given a shopping-list of special ingredients to bring to her house for our appointment the next morning. Laureana writes them down: 3 lemons, 2 green chillies, a large bunches of basil, a red onion, some orange-blossom water and (emphatically) a duck egg each.
She won't trust a chicken's egg. Na Marce says its shell is too brittle and often cracks under the strain………………….
Na Marcelina's door is opened by a muxe maid with hairy legs, a frilly apron and fluffy slippers. 'Enter,' 'she' lisps, brandishing a duster as if it were a lace handkerchief and spinning on her heel for us to follow. 'We wait in a tiny internal courtyard, typical of Zapotec houses, under an almendro with a white-washed trunk and a simple wooden crucifix tied to it.
Moments later, Na Marce emerges, her long grey hair loose and crimped from its customary plaits. Her moon-like face breaks into a beam. Almost imperceptibly she goes about the preparations for our limpias, chatting as she does so in a soft, continuous burble, then moving things about and gathering them together inexorably as a lava flow. She dons a white overall with a masonic-looking symbol crudely stitched above the left breast that makes her look suddenly and disconcertingly like a Druid.
She wants to tackle me first. Laureana and Natalia are ushered away to a veranda where they swing about in hammocks and wait their turn. I'm shown to a stool in the centre of the courtyard and told to take my shirt off.
I'm uneasy about the protocol (hands clasped in prayer? Head bowed? eyes open or shut?) and I'm feeling a bit self-conscious anyway in my Marks and Spencer light-support bra, so I just sit with my hands on my knees and try to look receptive. Helpfully, Na Marce closes my eyes with one of the duck eggs. Then she begins her incantations. This is more unnerving than I'd imagined.
Within seconds Na Marce is shaking like someone possessed, sucking and rasping and whispering evocations to God and Jesucristo, Antonio Romero and a host of saints I've never heard of. Her breath comes in short judders and is expelled now and again in a low feverish hiss.
I peek through my eyelashes and see her eyes are closed and there's a look of irritation on her face as if she's trying to untangle a knot that won't come undone. I make a concerted effort to try to relax as if that's somehow going to help her extricate the demons she's after.
Meanwhile, though, she's rubbing my head so hard with the duck egg that it's an effort nor to shout 'Ow!' Then she puts the egg gently in my hands and begins scrubbing me all over with the vegetables, first the chillies and then the onion, over my head, face, eyes, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, back, buttocks, legs, feet, and concentrating - worryingly - on an area above my left breast where I imagine she's divined the start of a tumour.
I'm beginning to ache all over and my eyes, even though they're now clamped shut, are smarting from the juice of the bruised onion and chillies. \
When she finishes with the chillies she sticks them under my armpits where I squeeze them in a sweaty salute so they don't fall out. The onion goes under the ball of my left foot; and the three lemons, after they've inflicted a considerable amount of deep tissue trauma, are packed under the other foot. This is beginning to feel ridiculous and dozens of humiliating pub games come to mind.
I have an overwhelming urge to open my eyes and turn round and make sure Laureana and Natalia aren't falling about laughing on the veranda. But Na Marce is still hissing as insistently as ever and I daren't do anything to break the spell - if that's indeed what it is.
Suddenly there's a resounding 'thwack' and a stinging sensation extends across the breadth of my back. Na Marce is beating me with what must be one of the switches of basil dunked into a bucket of water. Before long I'm dripping wet, smarting all over and beginning to smell like a mixed salad.
At last she takes the egg from my hands and raises me to my feet. The onion and the lemons roll to one side and the chillies fall out of my armpits. Uncertainly I open my eyes and Na Marce gestures to me to stand well away from them. Then she beats me again with what I fortify myself by calling the 'Basil Brush', before inviting me to stand on it. Gradually her incantations that had reached fever pitch a few moments before, subside into a blessing, and her robe rustles as she makes a final sign of the cross.
I realize I'm trembling and wobble towards my shoes and my shirt like a new-born lamb. My bra has turned sludge-brown and is covered in spinachy smears like grass-stains. The remains of the limpia lie strewn around the courtyard as if someone's shopping bag has split. Calmly, softly, as if nothing has happened, Na Marce tidies them away and brings out fresh ingredients for a repeat performance for Natalia.
I'm removed to recover in Na Marce's sitting-room and plonk myself down on one of a row of high-backed spanish chairs ranged against the side of the wall. I feel completely stunned. At the end of the room is the family altar - a large shrine with a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe and next to it a mini-shrine to Jesus Christ. There are vases full of tuberoses and carnations and all the candles are lit. There's a big TV in the corner, family photos on the wall, and an old poster advertising a bullfight with the matador Vicente Marcial - Na Marce's husband. The shutters are closed but I can hear a bus sounding its horn in the street and the babble of women heading for the market. In the courtyard Na Marce takes up her sortilegious sibilation once again.
Though it is cool and dark, cavernous almost, I have the strange sensation that there's someone else here besides me and turn round to find a large picture just behind my head and the Black Christ of Esquipulas staring equivocally past me into the room. I recognize him as the Indian icon of central America, as powerful in his way as Guadalupe to the north - the patron of healers, a sorcerer of sorts, whose origins, also rooting deep beyond the Christian phase, stem from the pagan traditions of the ancient Maya.
Suddenly I feel an emptying sensation, as if I'm being drawn through a plug-hole into the floor. I feel dizzy and light-headed and bruised, pulled between contradictory forces of magnetism, whirling in the vortex of the Tehuantepec bottleneck, caught up in some powerful chemistry I don't understand. Remotely, as if it's been planted there by somebody else, I feel a single hot tear rolling down my cheek.