1She startled me, as they always do when they come to my world. She stopped maybe half a yard from me, head lowered, wrapped in black clothes so that her iron-straight hair was all I could make out at first. Later, it occurred to me it might’ve been a wig that she wore. Her shoulders were hunched, her arms thin. Her hands, when she removed them from the pockets of a jacket slightly more old fashion than mine, were gloved and quite small.
The woman slowly raised her head, her eyes glowing like hot coals. I stared into the vast emptiness between each tooth. In the top row, there must’ve been half a centimeter between a tooth and its nearest neighbors. I was noting all this when, in a sweet voice, she asked me if I had any change. I smiled, handed over my coins.
But when she’d thanked me, the woman looked down at my feet and said, I have shoes for you.
At first, I wasn’t sure I’d heard her right. I said, Come again?
In that sweet voice I just mentioned, she repeated: I have shoes for you.
Satisfied now that I’d understood her, I gave my thanks and assured her I was good with my own shoes, didn’t need hers, no thanks. Those red eyes laughing, she continued along her way. I watched her go, taking note of her crooked step, the immensities of those shoes, the feet that dragged as if they carried two times her seventy kilos.
And then, there I stood on the corner of MLK and 29th, waiting on a friend, a dominicana who always ran late. And cursing her delay, too, because now the cold was cutting at me a little. And thinking about that woman who wanted to give me her shoes because she thought I was cold. And don’t get me started on the worn-out jacket I was wearing—it was warm enough, but out of style. Here, in middle-class Harlem, she’d pegged me for one of her own—somebody from the street, I mean, from deep Harlem, like her.
But I only thought about that later. As the woman creaked away from me, I studied my shoes. When I looked up and found that she’d vanished, a little chill went down my spine. I looked around for some door, some hole into which she might have disappeared. I noticed a security guard down the block from my friend’s building, smoking and pulling a beanie onto his head. Thinking now that maybe I should’ve accepted her gift, I thought about asking him if he’d seen where my would-be-shoe-giver had gone.
I looked for some door, some alleyway, into which she might’ve slipped. Within a couple minutes, though, a couple of middle-aged ladies appeared and pushed the buzzer for the apartment where I just happened to be heading. I greeted them, explained that my friend was running late, said I’d go up with them.
And then, like a genie from a lamp, that other woman reappeared. So, she did exist! She was flesh and bone. She asked the two ladies if they had any spare change, and they looked past her. No, they said, none. But that voice—so sweet that it was impossible not to follow her. Without another word, she turned and went off in the direction opposite the one she’d come from.
I stared after her figure as it swayed away from me, as though I might follow her back to her house, back to the shoes, with just my eyes. I stared until she turned around, smiled and, taking her hand from the pocket of the old coat, motioned for me to follow.
I craned my neck after her, curious. A memory came to me then, of that daughter of Iansã2 who defeated powerful men in court, then had her life turned inside out when those men hired feiticeiros3 to throw a hex on her. Once, on her way back to the mainland from the island of Itaparica, she’d heard a voice calling out to her. Made irresistible by their cauldron-smoke, it commanded her to throw herself into the sea. Come, it said, I’m waiting for you. Come home, come be with me. To save herself, she told the ferry’s captain to tie her up, for otherwise she’d follow that siren-song. In just such a way, the soft voice of the woman with the shoes was calling out to me.
You coming in, or what? wondered one of the ladies, still holding open the elevator door.
Yes, I answered, I’m coming.
But why, exactly, was that vagabond sorceress trying to give me shoes? The question plagued me. Maybe she’d pegged me for an easy mark, thought she could sell them to me? Or else, since everything is an offering in a negotiation with Exu, she offered first.
It was cold out, about sixty degrees, but not cold enough for the great clodhoppers waiting on the landing. But even colder is the question of style, of ostentation, of who gets to choose the clothes on her back and the shoes on her feet. A hard winter in London had already taught me as much.
When I stepped in and saw the inside of the apartment—high-ceilinged, furnished in a style totally at odds with the building’s humble exterior—a third hypothesis came to me. Taking into account my dreads, my out-of-style jacket, the autumn shoes I wore in her wintry New York, I decided that maybe the shoes were some kind of cipher. A signal, I mean, a code-word for something that might interest me.
But no, that still wasn’t it.
Exu matou um pássaro ontem com a pedra que jogou hoje!
Exu matou um pássaro ontem com a pedra que jogou hoje!
Exu matou um pássaro ontem com a pedra que jogou hoje!4
While making ready the man’s food, when my hand touches the dendê5 oil, I find the answer, I find the key. I was given the gift-shoes to keep my feet firmly on the ground as I made my way.
(translated from the Portuguese by J.P. Gritton with Courtney Crumpler)