It was a blistering afternoon when the Hialeah commissioner showed up at Mercy Montes’s house in a starched linen guayabera, his hair slicked back as usual, a new twitch at the corner of his mouth. He refused to wait his turn under the purple orchid tree with the other clients, and barged in ahead of an old man who recognized him from TV and bowed slightly as he let him through the back door.
The commissioner needed Mercy to clean up another one of his messes; that much was clear just from looking at him. He was stiff, unsmiling, gray-faced. Tall and wide as a football player, he had to tiptoe through the dim consultation room crammed with bead-covered gourds, rusty old railroad spikes, black dolls in gingham dresses, cast-iron pots filled with butterscotch candies and penny offerings to the gods. He knocked into the life-size statue of Santa Barbara, her golden sword clattering in her plaster fist. Then he knocked into the life-size San Lazaro, the purple velvet cape that was draped over the saint’s leprous chest slipping to reveal a bony shoulder.
Mercy crossed herself, took her chair and shuffled cards. “What is it now?”
“Aren’t you the one who is supposed to tell me?” The commissioner’s right leg bounced and everything on the table—dashboard saints, dollar-store goblets filled with evaporating liquids, candles in tall jars—did a nervous little conga. Mercy put a hand on his knee.
She and her twin sister Milagros, dead six months now, had long been considered Miami’s top spiritualists. Mercy read tarot while her sister consulted cowrie shells. It was said that together, they could persuade the deities to fix a marriage, save a job, soften a judge, reverse a deportation order. Even grant the terminally ill a few more years in the physical plane.
But Milagros, born 17 minutes before Mercy, was now ashes in an amethyst urn— the urn that Mercy kept on her sister’s side of the table where they had always consulted in tandem, so that clients could see that the older twin was still working her magic, even from the beyond.
Now here was the commissioner, in worse trouble than he had ever been in. Mercy didn’t need her sister or even the tarot to know this. Fear radiated from his hulking figure. She pressed her thumbs to her temples and sent up a silent prayer. Santo Dios, where is your guiding hand? Ilumíname, Padre.
Truth was, Mercy had been working all this time without a single suggestion of Milagros. More and more, she felt deserted by the spirit world. So deserted that at bedtime now she prayed she’d wake the next morning and find nothing but empty chairs under the orchid tree, which she had a good mind to have cut down.
The commissioner yammered on about all the good he had done for his constituents, but Mercy was lost in thought. Ay, Milagritos, vieja, tell me what to do here on earth without you! How long can I go on without your help? He inched closer to Mercy, scraping his chair against the terrazzo and bringing her back into her body. Would he go down in the latest voter fraud investigation? Two Sweetwater commissioners and the mayor of West Miami had been handcuffed and hauled away. Mercy knew all about it. It had been on the news.
“Maybe I used the same political advisor those guys used,” the commissioner whispered. “But how was I supposed to know that woman would get the whole cemetery to fill out absentee ballots? I just wanted to return to office one more time, for the sake of mi gente. ¿Tu sabes?”
And he had another little problem, he said, but he didn’t think it was worth talking about right now.
“Tell me the truth, Merceditas. Do you see me under investigation? And, um, is it one investigation? Or two?”
“You politicians are all the same,” Mercy heard herself say as she rose. “You misbehave like children and then you come running here. The saints can only do so many favors.” She stood on her tippy toes to swat the commissioner on all sides with a red handkerchief doused in cheap cologne, a spiritual cleansing he didn’t deserve. But what about his wife? His children? Did they deserve to lose him, to lose their house maybe, to be destroyed by whatever this was about? Only God can judge, she and her sister had always believed. So she promised to ask the deities, yet again, to clear his way. And he walked out tall, after peeling two $100 bills from the wad in his front pocket and pressing them into Mercy’s palm.
As soon as she closed the door behind him, she dropped to her knees, the money still clutched in her hand. “¡Por tu madre, Milagros! You know this one is too big for me to handle alone!”
Everything was different when Milagros was alive. The twins, when they weren’t on one of their Caribbean cruises, had gladly devoted long hours to helping their clients. They’d wake before the sun each day to dunk dietetic cookies into café con leche while they listened to the latest lamentable news out of Cuba and Miami City Hall. Then they’d slip into matching caftans and twirl their gray-streaked hair into buns. They always faced each other while they worked, in the guest bedroom at the back of the sturdy Spanish stucco cottage they’d bought after they had fled Cuba. They dispatched their clients quickly, in a shower of tossed cowrie shells and a blur of tarot, cutting a machete path to each client’s predicament, committing to language the revelations that came pouring down from the Afro-Cuban gods.
The twins charged $20 for consultations that ran about 10 minutes and considered it fair enough compensation for dispensing courage and hope. When awed clients insisted on leaving extra money, when they fanned out a bunch of twenties on the table, the twins always made them take back all but one of the bills.
Lately, Mercy wondered if she should be hanging on to the extra cash, but pocketing the commissioner’s $200 only made her feel more wretched. She tucked it under the clay pot that held the Elegua, one of most powerful orishas, though he was represented as nothing but a smooth stone with shells for eyes; he didn’t look much different from the plastic potato her daughter and her niece used to play with. Every time Mercy and Milagros remembered how the girls used to prop their potato with eyes next to Elegua so he’d have company, they couldn’t help but laugh. Now there was nobody around to reminisce with about those early days in exile.
Mercy would give the cash back to the commissioner the next time he dropped in. She had a feeling it wouldn’t be long. But that night, when she got into bed with a mug of linden tea to calm her nerves, she couldn’t bring herself to call on the saints to help him one more time. Just the thought of him reeking of sugary aftershave, his manicured nails shining like ten little mirrors, made an unfamiliar bile bubble inside of her. Why should she squander what little power she might have left on this man who had never once seemed contrite about any of his missteps? So instead of trying to influence her spirit-world connections, she simply prayed.
“I ask you to do your will. Only your will. Nada más.”
She slept soundly, until nearly daybreak, when she was jostled by another of the strange dreams she had been having for weeks, all of them involving the orchid tree. This time it was bare and listing toward the lawn, like a broken old man looking for a place to lie down. A few times, the tree, loaded with its fragrant blooms, had shuddered and fallen without a sound. So many souls pinned underneath, all of them crying Help, help, please help!
How could Mercy help without Milagros at her side? Then again, what did most people need help with nowadays? More and more, the sisters had been seeing folks who bought fancy cars for no money down and then wanted help from the saints to afford the payments. They bought dream houses on bus drivers’ wages and then begged the twins to keep them out of foreclosure. In the late 1990s, some were still moving mountains of cocaine across the country, and they wanted the deities to spare them any prison time.
The orchid tree, 30 feet tall, with a canopy wide enough to cast soothing shade over the whole crowd in the yard, lit up most of the year with blooms that turned translucent in the sun. But it was a filthy tree, constantly dropping flowers and seed pods that stained the plastic patio chairs. There was not enough bleach in the world to clean up after that tree.
Mercy had long argued for cutting it down, pretty as it looked from afar. And it wasn’t just the mess. The tree was too much of a landmark. Even if you didn’t know exactly where the twins lived, all you had to do was drive around Little Havana until you found the yellow corner house dwarfed by the dazzling purple orchid tree. The twins were known to run karmic interference for the town’s most corrupt: the building inspectors who took bribes, public works employees who misappropriated budgets, elected officials who courted kickbacks. Mercy believed that if they got rid of the tree, some of the bad element that showed up at their door would lose their way.
Over the years, city officials had showed up squawking about how the tree was on their list of exotic invasives and would sooner or later need to go. “It doesn’t belong in South Florida, señora,” one inspector explained to Mercy early on. “It strangles the natives. Just takes over.’’
But Milagros had loved that tree—just a skinny little thing when they bought the house. She loved that they had watched it slowly grow higher than the fence, higher than the house, higher than just about anything on the block. The twins rarely argued, even as girls. But they’d had words about the tree. Mercy called Milagros bullheaded for wanting to keep it when it clearly had to go. Milagros called Mercy crazy. But Milagros was gone now. And more than ever, the tree felt like a lightning rod for the kind of trouble Mercy would never be able to ward off on her own.
Neither jimagua had seen the aneurism coming. They had gone to a Saturday-morning mass at the shrine to Our Lady of Charity. They loved how the cone-shaped building resembled a mantle-covered virgin searching the sea, and never failed to mention to any tourist who would listen how the cross at the top of the shrine looked toward Cuba. Every time they went to mass, they strolled out to the seawall afterwards, straining to glimpse their homeland beyond the horizon though they knew there was no act more futile. That last time they’d gone together the water had glittered as if it carried all of the world’s diamonds. As they headed back to the car, the older jimagua was suddenly stricken by a strange headache. She died an hour later, in a rescue truck screaming away from their house.
It was Milagros who’d found her spiritual gift first. The jimaguas were in the third grade, sipping pear nectars out of skinny cans and kicking stones around their dusty backyard when she let out a gasp.
“Abuela?” Milagros stared at the mamoncillo tree, her white sneakers drenched in sticky nectar.
“Don’t be crazy, Mili. Abuela never comes to Havana.”
“She’s standing right there!”
And that night, the family got word: the girls’ grandmother, who lived across the island in Holguín, had fallen dead that afternoon as she scrubbed bed linens against a washboard.
Soon Milagros started predicting all kinds of things before they happened. The two kids next door who were rushed to the hospital with burning fevers? She knew the boy wouldn’t be coming back. The bus to Marianao that her tía Consuelo took every morning to teach piano to the Americanitos at the fancy school? Milagros was always on the money about when the bus would be on time and when Consuelo would have an extra 15 minutes to press a certain dress or paint her nails.
“You can do it too, Mercy!” Milagros would say, urging her sister to look harder, see more. “You have to think! No, no—maybe you have to not think!’’ But it was no use. Milagros couldn’t get her sister to learn her tricks.
By the time they had turned 15, both of them tall and curvy and cool to the boys who constantly came calling, the girls had plotted their futures: Milagros would become the best-known espiritista in all of Havana and with the money she’d make, she’d help Mercy pay for medical school. Mercy was the much better student, after all. They’d marry men who liked to dance as much as they did and could tell them apart right away, unlike all those boys who didn’t bother to keep their names straight. And they’d live next door to each other, so that they could watch each other’s babies.
“I won’t need an x-ray machine to know what’s wrong with my patients,” Mercy would say. “I’ll just ask you and you’ll just ask the spirits!”
Then, as they were turning 17, Mercy began having dreams about all the boats in Havana’s harbor lifting off the sea and crashing into houses. She saw dozens of them turned turtle along the malecón. She saw bodies, too, crushed under trucks and toppled trees, covered in the fine gray dust of crumbled buildings. And blood, blood that ran in slow, sticky streamlets down the sidewalks.
“Don’t worry, mamita,” their father whispered when Mercy woke up screaming. He’d rub her back with soft palms. “Only the worst kind of cyclone could make something like that come true. Cuba has never seen that kind of cyclone, and it probably never will.”
But one day the skies turned black and a brutal wind howled. It rammed through boarded up storefronts, chewed chunks off of the most rock-solid colonial buildings and left death everywhere.
“You do see! I knew you did!” Milagros could afford to celebrate her sister’s newfound powers. Their house, 20 blocks from the sea, was still standing. Only the roof was gone.
By the time the jimaguas turned 18, they were consulting together in their family’s house, which boasted a new barrel tile roof they helped pay for with their earnings. Mercy got better and better at reading tarot, so thrilled any time she guessed something right. “I see a man,” she’d say, not sure where she was getting it. “He’s tall and fair and he has the soft hands of a scholar...” But the more she saw the light of recognition in her clients’ eyes, the more intoxicated she became with her budding clairvoyance. She willed medical school completely out of her head.
In the early days of Castro’s revolution, the sisters, married by then but still living together in their parents’ roomy old house, were kept busy by figures on both sides of the political line. It seemed everybody on the island was seeking help from the spirits to stay out of jail or away from the firing squads. At first, the sisters thought it was only fair to not pick sides, not let politics get in the way of their channeling the spirits. They helped both the good guys and the bad guys; for the first few years, it was impossible to know which side was which.
But by the early 1960s, after the revolution had finally declared itself communist, its thugs went after the Catholic church, the Jewish community—and officiants of Afro-Cuban faith. When the sisters were threatened with arrest for keeping a house full of religious iconography, they knew it was time to flee to the U.S.
Their husbands had been schoolteachers in Cuba. Both died in Miami, in what the sisters called poetic exile deaths: one of them electrocuted by the pastelito warmer at the Cuban bakery where he spun merengue all day; the other suffering a heart attack as he tried to shimmy across a rope suspended above a muddy pond in the Everglades, part of the war games he participated in every weekend with a bunch of other out-of-shape Cuban refugees who were determined to launch an invasion against the bastards who had taken over their homeland.
Neither twin considered remarrying. They raised their daughters under the same roof and stayed together after the girls went off to college and then got married. At first, the twins dedicated themselves entirely to their work. But once they got a taste for going on Caribbean cruises, they lived for those breaks when they could be on the sea and away from the grief that showed up daily at their door.
Mercy cracked open the consultation room’s blinds. She counted 14 people out in the yard and reached for the vetiver cologne she bought by the liter at la farmacia. She poured it into a cupped hand and splashed it across her forehead and the nape of her neck. The grassy aroma tickled her sinuses but did nothing to clear her head. There was a faint static crackling between her ears. That was new. She was afraid that soon she’d see nothing before her but a black void, like being out to sea on a starless night.
Outside, an old woman slept right in the scorching sun, her head hanging off the back of a lawn chair. A man in a gray suit dabbed at his brow with a starched handkerchief and stared at his gold watch, as if it could divine more than the time. Other people paced or caught up on business from their cell phones. A withered young woman with a wig too big for her head and shoes too big for her feet was just returning from a McDonald’s run, handing out burgers and fries to her kids and to the kids of a couple of strangers who during the hot morning’s wait had become not exactly strangers.
In the three decades the twins had consulted from this house, they had never bothered to look out the back window to see how many clients waited under the tree. Now Mercy couldn’t stop herself from tallying up the problems trying to push themselves through her back door.
If only Milagros would send a sign. Mercy didn’t need much, maybe just to catch the scent of her sister’s White Linen perfume, just once, as confirmation that she was not alone. How could she be expected to summon spirits when she couldn’t even summon Milagros?
She was peeking through the blinds again when Cristina, the blonde she had just dispatched, stepped back into the yard in her painfully tight jeans and spiked red sandals. So many pairs of eyes scrutinized her at once.
“How did it go, hija?,” a white-haired woman asked.
“Nada, it confirms what I already knew,” Cristina said. But a beat later, the tears came. The eyes in the yard turned away.
Her husband the Condo King, one of the town’s richest developers, was cheating on her. Mercy saw the other woman—redhead, tall, younger. He’s in love with her, she told Cristina in her most certain voice. And it was all there in the cards. But how good were the cards without backup from her sister’s cowrie shells?
“I’ll take every dollar that bastard ever made,” Mercy heard Cristina tell the white-haired woman. She wiped her tears with a McDonald’s napkin offered up by a little girl. “That bitch won’t want what’s left of him.”
She said something else but Mercy couldn’t make it out because the air-conditioner started roaring again. Cristina hugged the old woman and marched out to a silver Porsche at the curb.
“Dios mío, let it be true that the man is cheating,” Mercy thought and crossed herself.
She turned to find the commissioner in the doorway. She had never seen him in jeans before. Without the styling gel, his hair was several shades lighter and falling in his eyes. He looked like a frightened, stupid boy.
“Do you ever wait your turn?” she said.
“The people who come here are very gracious to me,” he said. Then he threw himself on Mercy’s shoulder. “I made a big mistake.”
“Ay chico, ya. Calm down. This is not the end of your life. I don’t see you doing much time for this voter fraud.” Mercy knew of several politicians who had committed similar misdeeds and walked out of prison in no time. “You’ll get a year, 18 months. Then, who knows. In this town? You’ll probably get elected again.”
“No, Merceditas. It’s something else,” the commissioner said. “Tell me what to do. Do I leave town?”
“How should I know?” Mercy said. She pulled the commissioner’s $200 from under the Elegua and handed it back. “Whatever you did, I don’t want to help you get away with it. Not this time. Trust me, there’s not much I could do for you anyway.”
The following morning, with the sun just starting its hot ascent, Mercy went out back to put food down for the cats and spotted a plastic grocery bag nailed to the orchid tree. Inside was a cow’s tongue, slit down the center and tied up with string.
The commissioner. He must have gone to a Santería priest, someone who fed blood to the saints, who didn’t mess around with the lighter stuff she and her sister had always worked with. Clearly, he didn’t want her talking about whatever it was he had come close to confessing.
She squatted over a plastic bucket in the laundry room and poured her urine over the chalky tongue, which was long like a snake, if any snake could grow that fat. Then she scooped the neutralized mess up with a shovel, deposited it in a garbage sack, tied the sack with three knots and carried it to the bin on the curb.
She went back inside and called the gardeners. “You know that big tree in my yard? The city just won’t leave me alone about it. They say it’s an invasive something or other. They’re going to start fining me. Can you send someone today?’’
Mercy hung up and paced, lighting white candles as she went. Finally, she stopped, her heart still pounding, to scribble out a sign saying she’d be away all day. She taped it to the back door so that clients would know not to wait around, and then she drove to the shrine and settled into a pew near the window. She prayed. She watched the sailboats that skimmed across Biscayne Bay.
The sisters had loved being on the water, and there was no corner of the Caribbean they hadn’t visited several times over, except their own forbidden island. They’d spot Cuba sometimes—really just a feeble glow of lights in the distance that must have been Cuba—and it was enough to bring tears to their eyes. They were rarely alone on the upper decks of those party ships. There were always other nostalgic exiles participating in the night watch. They’d all stand still, like captains watching their ship go down, until there was nothing left to see.
But there was no point in going on a cruise without Milagros. She was the one who easily made friends, who found widowers who remembered how to dance, who rounded up worthy opponents for games of double-nine dominoes. The jimaguas had always remembered to pack their own set, with slick ruby backs and deep black dots carved into their ivory fronts. Otherwise they’d get stuck playing the puny, plastic double-six kind most ships supplied.
When Mercy returned to the house at sunset, the yard was just a rectangle of dirt. The gardeners had turned over the whole lawn to dig out the tree’s shallow roots.
“Perdóname, Milagritos,” Mercy said aloud. Forgive me.
In the evening, as she sliced wedges of avocado to drop into her bowl of chicken soup, the phone rang.
“Mom!” Mercy’s daughter had never sounded so wild. “Hurry, put on Channel 23!”
There on the screen was the commissioner’s black BMW. It was parked behind a Payless Shoes in Hialeah, cops swarming all around it. He was about to be charged with molesting several girls who played tennis at one of the city’s parks, a reporter was saying.
The commissioner had pressed a gun to his head sometime that afternoon while sitting in his car—around the same time that damn tree came down. In the BMW’s trunk were the suitcases he had packed when he still thought he could run.
In the morning, before she put the cafetera on the stove, Mercy dialed a client she had promised to check on.
“Hola, hija. How are you feeling? What did the doctor say? It was benign? Didn’t I tell you?” She took a deep breath. She was used to doing favors, not asking for them. “Listen, you’re a realtor, right? Do you think you can sell my house?”
Just blocks away on Brickell, the luxury towers were multiplying. And young professionals were discovering Mercy’s neighborhood with its inventory of historic fixer-uppers.
“Can I sell your house? A 3/2 Pueblo five minutes from downtown? I think so,” the realtor said. “But where will you move? How will your clients find you?”
Mercy had dreamed the answer the night before. She had seen herself in a sun-washed little condo on Miami Beach, the Atlantic surging right at her balcony, as it did when she was on those cruise ships. In the dream, the sliding glass doors were open wide to the breeze, which carried with it the scent of her sister’s perfume.
“The right people will find me,” Mercy said. “The bad element will lose its way. By the way, you know that big messy tree in the middle of my yard? I had it cut down. There’s room for a pool now. Make sure you say that when you list the house.”
Lydia Martin is a longtime journalist who spent more than two decades covering Miami's cultural evolution for the Miami Herald. She continues to write “Lunch with Lydia" for the Herald, a column that has been a fixture for 17 years. Her writing has also appeared in books such as Presenting Celia Cruz (Clarkson Potter), and Louis Vuitton Miami City Guide; literary journals such as Fifth Wednesday Journal; and magazines such as Billboard, Esquire, InStyle, Oprah, Latina (for which she also served as a contributing editor), Marie Claire, Hispanic and Out. She has an M.F.A. in creative writing from Bennington College.