Still Water Saintsby Alex Espinoza
“As perfect as the beads of a rosary.”
–Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street
“Fresh, magical, beautiful, evocative” says Lisa See, about this wonderful first novel by Alex Espinoza. Still Water Saints chronicles a momentous year in the life of Agua Mansa, a largely Latino town beyond the fringes of/i>/i>… See more details below
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“As perfect as the beads of a rosary.”
–Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street
“Fresh, magical, beautiful, evocative” says Lisa See, about this wonderful first novel by Alex Espinoza. Still Water Saints chronicles a momentous year in the life of Agua Mansa, a largely Latino town beyond the fringes of Los Angeles and home to the Botánica Oshún, where people come seeking charms, herbs, and candles. Above all, they seek the guidance of Perla Portillo, the shop’s owner. Perla has served the community for years, arming her clients with the tools to overcome all manner of crises, large and small. There is Juan, a man coming to terms with the death of his father; Nancy, a recently married schoolteacher; Shawn, an addict looking for peace in his chaotic life; and Rosa, a teenager trying to lose weight and find herself. But when a customer with a troubled and mysterious past arrives, Perla struggles to help and must confront both her unfulfilled hopes and doubts about her place in a rapidly changing world.
Imaginative, inspiring, lyrical, and beautifully written, Still Water Saints evokes the unpredictability of life and the resilience of the spirit through the journeys of the people of Agua Mansa, and especially of the one woman at the center of it all. Theirs are stories of faith and betrayal, love and loss, the bonds of family and community, and the constancy of change.
From the Hardcover edition.
Sofia A. Tangalos
- Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
She could walk on water.
She roamed the banks of the Santa Ana, among the long green stalks, chanting to the moon, to the gods of Night and Shadow. She rose and stepped onto the river, her footsteps gently rippling the surface.
She summoned the spirits of the dead. They whispered their secrets to her, and she scribbled their messages on scraps of paper and in the margins of her phone book:
Tell Ramón the locket fell on the floor between the bed and the nightstand.
I’m all right. It’s like Disneyland up here, only without rides.
I don’t miss my ears because they were too big.
She fought the Devil. Every night he came to her, his head crowned with horns, his skin covered in scales. He cursed and called her names. She beat him back with her bare hands and sent him running, his cloven feet tapping against the tile of her kitchen floor.
She was a Bruja. A Santa. A Divina. A Medium, Prophet, and Healer. Able to pass through walls and read minds, to pull tumors from ailing bodies, to uncross hexes and spells, to raise the dead, and to stop time. When doctors failed, when priests and praying were not enough, the people of Agua Mansa came to the Botánica Oshún, to Perla. The shop sold amulets and stones, rosaries and candles. They bought charms to change their luck, teas to ease unsettled nerves, and estampas of saints, the worn plastic cards they carried in their purses or wallets for protection.
As thanks the customers brought her booklets of coupons and long strips of lottery tickets. They gave her fresh bouquets of roses and carnations. They showed her pictures of aunts and uncles she had helped see through heart surgeries and hip replacements. They brought in the children she had saved from drug addictions and prison sentences. They told her of the abusive husbands and gambling wives she had chased away for good. Men often grew uneasy in her presence. The women always opened up.
“I think I have bilis,” Gilda Mejía said, walking up to the register where Perla stood. “Look.” She stuck out her tongue. “It’s all yellow. Plus my stomach’s upset.”
“Where do I start?” Gilda rested her hands on the glass countertop. She rented an apartment over at the Agua Mansa Palms. Her brother and his new wife had moved in a few weeks ago, after he lost his job. The couple was making it hard for Gilda to relax when she came home from work because they were always in the living room watching television with the volume turned all the way up.
“You think they’d turn it down, but no. They’re not deaf. And his wife. I can’t stand her. The way she talks to my brother. And she’s cheating on him. I see the way she looks at that guy from 312. There’s something going on there.” It was too crowded for three people in a one-bedroom apartment, she explained. Her brother and his wife fought well into the night, making it hard for her to sleep. She was irritable all the time, and her nerves felt ready to snap at any moment.
Simonillo was perfect to cure strong cases of bilis, to relieve tension and stress. Perla stepped away from the register and walked over to the packets of herbs that hung from pegs on the left wall of the botánica.
“I want you to make a tea with this,” she said, handing the bag to Gilda. “Drink it on an empty stomach. It’s bitter, so suck on a sugar cube or put some honey in it.”
“Okay,” Gilda said, handing over money for the herbs. “I just want to be better.”
Perla took a blue seven-day candle from the shelves behind the register. She pointed to the picture of Our Lady of Regla on the glass candleholder. The Virgin, holding the infant Jesus, floated on a bed of clouds high above a cathedral. “Light this veladora before going to bed. Keep it lit all night while you sleep.”
After Gilda left, Miriam Orozco’s van pulled up. She got out, but her husband stayed in the car.
“Hi, Miriam. How can I help you?” Perla said.
“It’s not me this time.” She pointed to the van. “It’s him. He’s embarrassed to talk to you.”
“Embarrassed? Why embarrassed?”
Miriam shrugged her shoulders. “Men. You know how they’re like. Big babies.”
Perla walked out into the parking lot. The car door was locked. “Talk to me, Jorge,” she shouted and knocked on the window.
He rolled it down. “Hi,” he said, resting his elbow on the door.
“What are you embarrassed about? Miriam says you don’t want to come in.”
Miriam stood behind Perla, jiggling the car’s keys. “Tell her. Don’t act dumb.” She crossed her arms and sighed.
But Jorge stayed quiet.
Miriam said, “Here’s what happened: Jorge went to a doctor who said he has depression. The pills the doctor gave him made his mouth dry. Jorge, tell her! You’ve missed work.” Miriam walked over and leaned against the van’s hood, watching Jorge through the windshield spotted with mud. “He doesn’t touch me anymore.”
“The doctor,” Jorge said, raking his hair with his fingers. “He says I’m going through a midlife crisis. Menopause for men. Is that for real? I cry a lot. I’m no fun to be around. I can’t look at my wife in that way. When we’re in bed. Together. You know?”
“Come with me,” Perla told Miriam. Back inside the botánica, Perla asked her, “Has he been eating anything strange?”
“No,” she said.
The oils, bath salts, and scents were kept on the shelves next to the herbs and teas. Perla picked up a bottle of “Love Musk” cologne. “Has he been drinking?” She took a prayer card of Saint Job from the plastic rack on the counter.
“No,” Miriam said. “He’s been sober now for fifteen years.”
“I’m only making sure. Have you been putting a lot of pressure on him? To do things? Around the house? Are you fighting over money?”
“No. Everything’s good. Except for this.”
They walked back out to the van together, and Miriam got in. Perla handed the bag to Jorge and said, “This is a cologne I want you to wear. It’ll help you with your love problem. There’s an estampa. Job.” She showed him the picture on the card. “He’s the patron of depressed people. Pray one Rosary to him. And I want you to keep taking those pills the doctor gave you. Even if they make your mouth dry.”
“He’s bad at following directions,” Miriam said. “I’ll make sure he does, though.”
“Good,” Perla said. “If he’s not better, have him go see the doctor again. If still nothing, bring him back here.”
Miriam started the car, took the rosary wrapped around the rearview mirror, and handed it to Jorge. “Hold this,” she said as they pulled away.
Perla helped a man whose daughter was fighting hard to kick a drug habit. Someone else needed luck in starting up a new restaurant. An old woman Perla recognized but whose name escaped her memory brought in her grandson because the boy was wetting his bed.
“He’s thirteen,” the old woman said. “Too old to be peeing in bed. I think he needs a limpia.”
“I don’t wanna do this,” the boy protested. He crossed his arms and glared at Perla. “It’s stupid.”
The old woman tugged at his shirt. “Stop it, Tony.”
Perla took the sign that read BACK IN A FEW MINUTES and taped it to the door. She led the boy and his grandmother behind the counter and through the curtain that separated the front of the store from the back.
The small kitchenette, with the mini-refrigerator and microwave Darío had given Perla when he left her the store, occupied much of the cramped stockroom. The rest of the space housed three bookshelves about six feet tall on which Perla kept her back stock. The narrow hallway separating the kitchenette and shelves from the bathroom and utility closet was where she held private consultations.
Perla worked slowly to gather the items, trying to remember what Darío had taught her. “Limpias are delicate because you’re cleansing a body and chasing away evil spirits,” he had said. “So it’s important to concentrate.” He had used a cigar, feathers, and an egg. He had chanted and whispered, rocking back and forth on his heels.
She covered the floor with a sheet and stood the boy in the middle. She coughed when she took a puff from the cigar, then blew the smoke around his body, letting it drift and settle around his head. After beating the air around him with a gray plume she pulled from her feather duster, Perla told Tony to close his eyes. She took an egg from the refrigerator and rubbed it over his body and face.
“This is lame, Grandma,” the boy said, then opened his eyes. “Can we go?”
Perla turned to the boy’s grandmother. “There.”
The old woman pointed to the egg. “Aren’t you supposed to break it and look inside?”
“Oh,” Perla said. “Yes.” She cracked the egg and poured it into a Styrofoam cup.
“Tony,” said the boy’s grandmother, pointing. “See that red swirl? Inside the yolk? That’s what was doing it. That there.”
The boy looked. “Yeah, right.”
His grandmother pinched Tony’s arm, leaving two red marks on his skin. “We’ll see what you say when it starts working.”
Perla covered the cup with plastic wrap she kept on the shelf above the kitchenette’s sink. “Throw this out before you get home.”
“Why?” Tony said.
“Because if we don’t,” the old woman said, “the spirits will stay with you. So we have to get rid of it to lose them. Right?” She looked at Perla.
“So we’re just gonna, like, throw that egg out the window of a moving car?” Tony asked. “What if it hits somebody?”
“Would you rather we not? Would you rather the spirits follow us? Keep making you pee in bed? All your friends will find out and make fun of you, Tony. And that girl you like. You want her to know?”
The boy blushed. “No.”
“All right then,” the old woman said. She took some money from her purse and handed it to Perla.
Perla walked them outside and found a group of customers waiting for her in the parking lot. She sold a “Quit Gossiping” candle to a high school girl and a jar of “Adam and Eve” love oil to a man who rode up on a ten-speed bike. Then Rosa Cabrera came in with her four-year-old daughter, Danielle. Rosa was one of Perla’s favorite customers. She had been in high school when her mother had first brought her to the store. Now, she was in her late twenties, married, and taking classes to become a hair stylist.
Danielle’s hair was pulled back in two pigtails that glistened wet. She wore faded denim overalls and a red-and-yellow-checkered undershirt. She held out three wild clovers to Perla.
“We came from the park,” Rosa said. “When I told her we were coming to visit you, she picked them.”
Perla stepped around the counter and bent down to hug Danielle. She took the clovers and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “They’re pretty,” Perla said. “Thank you.”
She put them in a mug and set them next to the statue of Santa Bárbara to the right of the front door. The statue stood on a square pedestal, holding a gold scepter in one hand, a chalice in the other. Long curls of her brown hair rested in folds on her shoulders. Perla turned to Danielle and pointed at the saint. “I think she’ll like them, too, no?”
The girl smiled and pressed her face against her mother’s thigh.
“I need something to keep me calm. To help me focus. I have a big test coming up.” Rosa pointed to the incense sticks by the herbs and teas. “Can I get cinnamon?”
Perla took the pack, then walked over to the register to ring her up. “How’s school?”
“Good. Just a lot of things to memorize, you know?” She sighed, unzipping her purse. “Who knew studying cosmetology would be so hard?”
“It’s worth it, though.” Perla put the incense in a paper bag and handed it to Rosa. “You’ll see.”
“I hope so.” She took Danielle’s hand, and they turned toward the door. “We’ll come by your house tomorrow. After my test. I’ll let you know how it went.”
Hayley Garrett burst through the door, nearly knocking Rosa and Danielle down.
“Envy,” Hayley said, tucking back strands of blond hair and shoving her keys in her back pocket. “Someone has that envy thing for me. What you told this one man last time I was in here.”
“Invidia?” Perla asked. “The Evil Eye?”
“That’s what I mean. I was in the bathroom at work, in one of the stalls. I overheard this girl, Iris Camacho, tell someone else she hated skinny white girls. She said my name. She said ‘I want ’em all to go away. They’re so stupid.’ Something like that. I didn’t catch the rest because somebody flushed.”
Perla thought a moment. “How have you been feeling? Tired? Anxious?”
“Well, I always feel that way.”
“Has your period come on time?”
“Yeah.” The girl smirked.
“Stomach feeling okay? No heartburn?”
“Nope,” Hayley said. “I’ve been too freaked out to eat. Working two jobs is a lot. I lost ten pounds. Everything fits me baggy.” She laughed. “This Evil Eye, isn’t it like a curse? Maybe she cursed me, and that’s why I’m not eating. That possible?”
Perla said, “Well, yes.”
“Yeah. I think that’s what she did. She cursed me.” Hayley paused, then laughed again. “Maybe it’s a blessing. I’m starting to look good.”
“Losing weight quickly like that could do bad things to your body and your system.”
Hayley touched her stomach. “Well, I guess it’s not worth it then. All right, all right. What do I do?”
The white wood chips of the cuasia rattled inside the plastic bag when Perla reached for it on the peg and handed it to Hayley. Cuasia, Perla explained, worked to strengthen the body and restore balance.
“I want you to soak these wood chips,” Perla said. “Use one teaspoon of the chips for each cup of cold water. Steep this for twelve hours, then strain it. Drink one cup in the morning on an empty stomach and a second cup at night. Understand?”
The girl nodded.
Perla also sold her a bottle of “Repel Evil” bath salts and a “Hex Removing” veladora. “Here,” she said. “Bathe with the ‘Repel Evil’ salts in the morning before work. It’ll protect you from the girl’s invidia. Light the candle at night when you’re alone.”
Hayley ran her finger across the pictures on the front of the candle.
“Horseshoes,” Perla said. “Rabbit’s feet. Crosses. Lucky symbols. Positivity.”
“I hope this works,” Hayley said. “Even though I might gain back all that weight I lost.”
• • •
It was time to close. Perla began where she always did, dusting the figure of San Antonio, who stood guard on the wooden table by the front window. She took a bottle of ammonia and, using a crumpled-up sheet of newspaper, wiped down the window’s glass. She straightened the statues displayed on the right-hand wall and made sure they all faced forward. She organized the shelves of soaps and oils, bath salts, and incense sticks. Some of the pegs on the wall were empty, so she grabbed some herbs from the back to fill in the gaps. She rearranged the gems and crystals, the books and decks of Tarot cards, the amulets and pendants, the rosaries and crucifixes inside the glass case where the register sat. She took inventory in her binder— noting which candles were low, what packets of incense sticks had sold, what herbs and teas she was missing—and set the list next to the phone. I’ll place an order first thing tomorrow morning.
From the Hardcover edition.
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