It was a bitterly cold November evening, fifteen minutes or so before closing when the young man first walked into Tia Adelina’s botanica.
He was clearly homeless. Swathed in what looked like a tattered old bedsheet, he shuffled in from the cold. His long dark hair was wildly tangled and matted in places. His face had the sharp angularity and sunken eyes of starvation.
It was rare that the homeless wandered into Adelina’s store, though it was her policy to treat them with kindness when they did. Particularly when they paused to greet Eshu when they came in, as the young man did, knocking three times on the floor in front of the altar she had set up for the Orisha of the crossroads at the store’s entryway.
He didn’t so much as glance at Adelina. Just wandered through the isles, his head low and shoulders hunched like a kicked dog.
When he paused in front of one of the altars, however, she thought it was time to make her presence known. The statue on the altar wasn’t particularly valuable or anything, not monetarily anyway, but still. She’d hate to lose it.
But he wasn’t there to steal it seemed. Instead, he fished some change from some hidden place in his clothing, counted out five shiny pennies and touched them to the top of his head before placing them on the altar at the statue’s feet.
“La Virgen del Caridad,” Adelina said softly, so as not to startle her guest. “Or Oshun, if you like.”
The young man turned to her calmly, not the least bit surprised to see her standing so close. It was as though he’d known the whole time that she was approaching. His eyes slid away from hers warily, but he nodded in reply.
“I know her,” he said, in a low gravelly voice.
“Are you looking to change your fortune?” Adelina asked, though the answer was obvious enough.
“I just want her to talk to me,” he replied, emotion choking his voice. He spoke of the goddess of the sweet waters as though she were a dear friend who wouldn’t return his phone calls.
Adelina could sympathize. When she’d first come to the states she’d had nothing in her pocket but bus fare and the tiny Eshu statue that now sat on her altar by the door. If not for the network of extended family and friends who had come to the city before her, she could easily have ended up on the streets as well.
“I have an idea,” she told the young man. “Stay here.”
Adelina walked swiftly behind the counter and into the back room. To the right was her makeshift office, to the left an equally haphazard kitchenette. The small dorm-sized fridge was full to the brim with everything from her leftover lunch to fresh herbs for ceremony.
Adelina selected the biggest, juiciest looking orange she could find and a jar of honey. With the butcher knife she kept in one of the drawers, she pared the fruit into five slices and laid them out on a clean white plate. Moving as swiftly as her aging legs would carry her, she brought both back to her guest, who had remained still as a statue before Oshun’s altar.
“An offering for her,” Adelina explained, thrusting the plate and honey jar into his hands. “Pour the honey over the oranges and don’t forget to taste it first.”
He stared at the food in his hands with obvious longing, but did as she asked. His face as he tasted the honey sent Adelina back to the kitchen. There was no way she was going to let him leave her shop that hungry.
When she returned, half a leftover pastrami sandwich clutched in one hand, he was singing to the altar. His voice a deep, dark baritone.
Iya mi ile, odo
Adelina approached him slowly, as he finished Oshun’s praise song and held out the sandwich to him. His eyes widened as she handed him the food. He took it from her gently and then sat on the floor to devour the thing in huge ravenous bites.
Outside night had fallen, and it had begun to snow.
“Do you have a place to go?” Adelina asked him. “Somewhere warm I mean?”
He looked down at the floor, crumpling the sandwich paper between his hands. “I…” He paused, swallowing the lie, and shrugged instead.
Adelina pursed her lips. Glancing first at the boy, then the snow, then the altar and back again. She imagined he she could hear the Goddesses’ sigh of impatience.
“Dammit,” she muttered under her breath. Then, rubbing her hands on her long white skirt she said briskly, “Go get your things. You can stay here.”
He looked up at her in shock. His eyes were a startling shade of yellow, irises large in the growing gloom.
“This is not charity,” Adelina continued sharply, as though he had argued. “I need help around here. Someone to carry boxes, stock shelves, clean the place, understand? I’m getting too old for that stuff.”
The young man had grabbed hold of her skirt with both hands. On his knees before her, his dark head bowed, he looked like a supplicant. “Thank you, thank you…” he gasped compulsively. Adelina heard tears in his voice.
“It’s not charity,” she repeated, yanking her skirt from his hands, profoundly uncomfortable. “I can’t pay you. But there’s a cot in the office and a fridge and microwave in the kitchen. My cousin Eduardo owns the bodega on the corner. If you run out of food go tell him who you are and he’ll take care of you. Just until you get back on your feet.”
The young man took a shaky breath and climbed to his feet. This close he seemed impossibly tall and Adelina resisted the urge to step back. For a moment she wondered just what the hell she was thinking, inviting a stranger to stay in her store. He wasn’t a boy. Not really. He looked to be around twenty, and though painfully thin, he was well over six feet tall. Was letting him stay in her store really a good idea?
Somewhere in the room a shelf shifted or a board settled, sending a sound like the quick ping of a small bell echoing through the room.
Confirmation, Adelina thought.
“No drugs in my place,” she continued, shaking an emphatic finger at the young man. “And if you steal from me I will put a curse on your head, so bad your great-grandchildren will still feel it.”
The young man smiled at her and nodded. “Yes ma’am,” was his only reply.
Satisfied Adelina nodded, hands on her hips. “Okay then,” she said, “go get your things. I’m closing soon.”
He was off like a shot and Adelina locked the door behind him.
With a sigh, she returned to her Oshun altar and the statue of La Virgin del Caridade. Grasping the intricately carved brass bell that sat there, she lifted it above her head and rang it loud and long.
“I sure hope I heard you right, yeye,” she said to the statue.
It seemed she had a new employee.
The young man, who called himself Lallo Coyote, cleaned up pretty nice. He’d lost about a foot of hair to irredeemable tangles and Adelina’s garden shears, but still had enough left to pull back into an abbreviated ponytail. He’d filled out a bit in the weeks since he’d showed up on her doorstep, but those cheekbones were still as sharp as blades.
“El es indio,” Eduardo had said, though the boy had declined to tell them where he was from exactly. He would only say that it was south of here, which could have been anywhere from Jersey to Brazil. He certainly had the look for any of those places.
Business picked up significantly as all the local girls and a few of the local boys, came to check out Adelina’s handsome new ‘nephew’, but Lallo only had eyes for his Tia.
Still, when an unfamiliar young man wandered into the store at five minutes to closing, walking around slowly and peering at things with obvious disdain, Adelina assumed he was looking for Lallo. The young man in question, however, had been stuck in the backroom for the better part of the day, checking in inventory. Adelina was hardly about to disturb him for a random admirer.
“We’re about to close,” she called out instead. She was already in the process of counting out the register, though she doubted the newcomer was planning on buying anything. Still, she glanced up expectantly as he approached. But he passed on by, heading instead toward the glass doors at the entrance.
Only he didn’t go outside. Instead, he glanced through the glass at the dark and empty street outside before turning the lock, locking them all inside.
“What are you doing?” Adelina exclaimed, the hostility in her voice bringing Lallo out of the backroom instantly.
The two young men regarded each other silently for a moment. Each sizing the other up.
The interloper must have decided he knew a way to get the upper hand. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a neat black gun.
“Nobody move,” he demanded, turning the gun in their direction. “This is –”
He never finished his sentence. In an impossible feat of athletics, Lallo leapt from his place in the doorway of the backroom, past Adelina, and across the counter. His long lithe body colliding with the robber in the blink of an eye.
A low rumbling sound that could only be described as a growl, emanated from him as the two young men wrestled for the weapon.
The sound of the gunshot was deafening.
“Lallo!” Adelina screamed, lurching toward the boy reflexively.
He had recoiled from the gunshot, and though she couldn’t tell if he was hit or not, he seemed to have come out of the scuffle with the weapon in his hand. One wide movement of his arm sent the thing careening across the room and crashing into a display full of ‘Has No Hanna’ oils.
The would-be robber tried to follow the trajectory of the gun, incidentally moving in the direction of Adelina. Seeing this, Lallo grabbed the other man’s leg, the low growl he’d issued earlier rising in volume and pitch until it became a full-fledged, clearly inhuman, roar of sound.
Both Adelina and the robber froze and turned to stare at him.
The light from the streetlamps outside shone in through the window, illuminating him. Those startling yellow eyes, Adelina had first noted, now glowing like two yellow lanterns. The irises of his eyes were slitted like a cat, and his lips had pulled back in a snarl, revealing long pointed incisors. Even his hands, long elegant fingers that had lovingly polished the varying curios and altar statues of the store for six long weeks, seemed to have sprouted wickedly curved claws where once had been neatly clipped nails.
It was too much for their young would-be thief. With a well-deserved cry of alarm, he scrambled sideways. Away from both Lallo and the weapon, his only thought making it to the door alive. When Lallo pursued, he turned and kicked out the glass of the door, rather than waste time fumbling with the lock. He ran into the night screaming and stumbling over the cuffs of his oversized pants.
Lallo did not pursue.
Instead, he stood in the doorway, fingering the edges of the broken glass, his head down and turned to one side.
Adelina approached him cautiously. As slowly as one would approach any wild animal, but he made no move toward her. Only said, “Will we have to replace the door?” in that deep scratch voice she’d become so attached to.
Adelina tilted her head, trying to see his face, but that long black hair of his had come free of its ties. Whether by intention or fate it and the growing shadows in the room hid his face and his expression from her.
Confused and shaken, Adelina glanced down. At the young man’s feet stood that same little statue of Eshu she’d brought with her from the DR.
Eshu. The trickster.
At some point long ago Adelina remembered hearing that the Indians of this country had their own trickster God. For a moment she groped in her mind for his name. She thought it might be some kind of animal…
And then she remembered.
“For God’s sake, Coyote,” she said gruffly, “don’t just stand there. Go pull down the damn gate. The last thing we need is two idiots coming in here trying to rob us tonight.”
He looked at her then, something like shock written clearly on his face. His eyes still slitted in the light. Still that unnatural molten yellow.
“Quickly,” Adelina said, making a shoo-ing motion with her hands, “We don’t have all night.”
Coyote smiled at her then. A big, toothy, slightly disturbing smile.
That was the last time anyone ever dared to break into Tia Adelina’s botanica on 171st. Word on the street was that the devil himself protected her shop.
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