Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Shooting at the Devil...

You wanna pass me over a what, now?
I recently discovered a blog which has quite gripped my fancy - As the Crowe Flies by author Penelope Crowe. Her book, 100 Unfortunate Days, is described on Amazon as being "...the diary of a woman of the verge of a breakthrough--or breakdown." With an opening like that, you can bet this'll prove to be a wild trip. I've not read it yet (it's available as an eBook right now and I've no eReader, so I'm waiting for it to come out in paperback format in the coming month or so, 'cause that's just how I roll). But Crowe's put some excerpts up on her blog, from the amusing Day 10, which provides "profiles" of a variety of pet owners, to Day 23, a dark fable which left me feeling rather hollow. In another post, Do You Believe in Possession? A True Story, Crowe writes about her friend, a young woman who suffered from and succumbed to Wilson's disease, though Crowe wonders if demonic possession was at the root of her illness. An unsettling post, certainly, but what really struck a strange chord in me was that the friend was in Portugal when the spooky stuff went down.

I'm a first-generation American of Portuguese descent. One thing about my peeps across the ocean that's always perplexed me is that, for a ridonkulously Catholic country, the folks there got superstition oozing out their what-whats. For instance, you can't say with any certainty that a thing you're planning will come to pass - you say it will, "Se Deus quiser" ("If God is willing"). For this reason alone, if you wish a Portuguese a happy birthday before that event takes place, you may induce a stroke in the poor unfortunate. Belief, whether real or "just in cases," of O mau olhado (the evil eye) is so pervasive that folks will give a newborn to the family a charm bracelet meant to protect the babe from supernatural harm. If a kid's stretched out across the floor, God forbid you step over him or her - the child's mother will insist you cross back over because you've just opened the kid up to eeeeeee-viiiiiiiiiiiil and you must close that "circle," imediatamente! (For realz!) Mind you, not all the 'guesers are that twitchy but the average native buys into this stuff just enough to make him careful not to cut a homemade loaf of bread when it's fresh out of the oven and still hot (because that would be the same thing as cutting into the loaf's maker, as everyone knows).

I myself have long been interested in things mysterious and spooky, from tarot cards to ouija boards, runes to gemstones, witchcraft to astrology to dream interpretation, vampires to werewolves, you name it. I've been told that my occult bent stems from a branch a little higher up on the family tree - my dad's maternal uncle (my great uncle), Tio Nuno*. (TEE-oo NOO-noo.) AND, as it happens, though the gentleman never met me in person, he did diagnose me as being "possessed" of some kinda yuck.

Tio Nuno was a typical, chouriço-fed farm boy from a podunk village in the middle of Portugal, until he traveled to exotic Brazil to make his fortune. This he did, and came back an "Espiritista," or Spiritualist, to boot. With his newly earned coin, he set about buying some forested land, a vineyard, and whatever else seemed a good money-earning prospect, and the man did well for himself. But he developed the reputation for being involved in bruxaria (witchcraft) and, to be honest, alcohol. My dad tells some entertaining tales of Tio Nuno's exploits, which frequently transpired in the black of night, while Tio Nuno made his way home from carousing with women and spirits of the liquid variety, his trusty pistol within easy reach. One time, as he made his way along the dusty road to the neighboring city of Aveiro, Tio Nuno was surprised by the Devil, who straddled the cliffs that bordered the road and effectively blocked his path. He told Old Scratch to get bent, who (unsurprisingly) wasn't inclined to oblige him. So Tio Nuno whipped out his pistol, fired off a few shots, and, when that failed to yield the desired result, prudently took an alternate route to his destination. Another time, as he engaged in his nocturnal rambles through the woods, he saw a light flaming from the top of a pine tree. Tio Nuno called out but heard no answer. He resorted to his pistol again, shot at the light, but it wouldn't go out. So he took an alternate route home. Yet another time, as he approached his parents' house in the wee hours of the morning, he found a lamb chillin' by the front door. He couldn't get past the lamb and couldn't shoo it away. Thankfully disdaining his pistol this time around, he scooted around to the back of the house, thinking to get in through the backdoor, but that tricky lamb was already there, once again blocking his access to the house. So what did Tio Nuno do? Well, he took an alternate route to Dreamland by snuggling underneath a nearby haystack, where he was discovered by his parents in the morning.

These stories are great for a laugh over a glass of vinho verde and some tremoços, but the one involving me is slightly less goofy.

Mom and Pop brought me over from the States when I was a wee one so the family could meet their first born. Apparently, I gave them a bit of trouble - I stayed up crying the first nights they were in Portugal, growing cold and clammy from getting so worked up. Nothing they tried soothed me. I hadn't been colicky or anything up till then, so there was no reason they could discern for my fussing. They took me to a local doc who assured them that I was medically fine. So my Mom put it down to me feeling out of sorts from being in an unfamiliar environment. Or, you know, the evil eye (I dig that she didn't rule anything out). Shortly after the doc visit, Tio Nuno stopped by my paternal grandmother's house and my Avó told him about my peculiar spells. Because my Grandma's husband had recently passed away, she wondered if he might somehow be "visiting" me and generally freaking me out. Tio Nuno thought there might be a larger problem and asked her if any of my clothes or belongings were lying around. She found something of mine and brought it to him, which he examined carefully. After a while he told her that someone in the family wished me ill, but he wouldn't specify who (the big tease). He gave her the following instructions to pass on to my parents:
  1. Make the baby a wreath of garlic and sprinkle her with holy water.
  2. Make a bonfire and toss into it some rosemary, rue, and eucalyptus.
  3. Pass the baby through the smoke of this fire and pray to some saints (which specific ones is lost in the mists of time).
When my Mom heard all this from my Grandma she nodded politely but privately thought there was no friggin' way she was going to pass me over a bonfire (the Portuguese equivalent of this thought, obviously). Instead, when she went to put me to sleep that night, she laid me on my back and prayed the Apostles Creed over me three times, all the while making the Sign of the Cross over me, asking God to liberate me from whatever ailed me. And, according to her, from then on, I did get better.

I have to admit, I'm disappointed that she didn't try the bonfire thing. Also, I think I'd look pretty smashing in a garlic wreath (kickin' it old-school!). But seriously, I'm proud of my Mom for turning to her faith during this peculiar phase in our lives...I hope I'll always turn to God, in good times and in bad. Still, I'd love to know who hit me with the bad juju, so I could avenge myself (and my parents) by TPing her house.

*Nuno was not his real name, but it is a common - and unique - Portuguese name, for an uncommon man!

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