My mother didn’t want to be a psychic. “Divination is a sin,” she was always saying — as a warning, as an explanation for her bad luck, and as a preface to all the stories about her father. Her father had been a curandero. I am sure he would have liked me to use the polite word: homeopath. In fact, that’s what his business card read: “Rafael Contreras A. Homeopath. Cures you of all kinds of illnesses: diabetes, obesity, sinusitis, cancer, and witchcraft.” It was said Nono had the power to move clouds. Many people came from neighboring cities in the state of Santander, Colombia, to see Nono in Bucaramanga, and in the house Mami grew up in, the living room teemed with people awaiting treatment and readings.
Nono taught Mami to read fortunes. He gave her a normal deck of playing cards and told her, “It’s not the cards that matter, it’s what you see.” So, at 10 years old, Mami developed a system of meanings and symbols I know is not in any book, and which she tells me I cannot reveal. Mami practiced on Nono’s tarrying clientele and soon became a central attraction. When Nono died at 40 from a liver ravaged by alcoholism, the family decided divination was wrong. Only a man who had led a morally bankrupt life could die such an undistinguished death. Before his casket, as Mami attempted and failed to make Nono’s eyes stay closed, she agreed. It had to be sinful to interfere with people’s destinies. That was why Nono was unable to close his eyes and rest.
Mami left that life behind and she didn’t look back — until, 11 years later, when my father lost his job. In our home in Bogotá, Papi spent his days sitting in the dark, his back bent as he stared off into space, unable to eat. The bills continued to arrive. We had no savings and no way of paying them. So, in the attic, over a round table, Mami draped a blue cotton tapestry printed with galaxies and moons and stars, and over this image of the universe she scattered her small hand mirrors, her golden pyramids, and her royal blue cones of incense. “God forgive me,” she said.
Mami’s clients came, in ones and twos and threes, at all hours of the day. They were doctors, business people, seamstresses, cooks, security guards, engineers. There were the regulars: the fashion designer, the psychologist, the lawyer. I was 12 years old, and I’d sit in a bed of pillows at the landing, reading books and watching Mami’s clients travel between the floors of our house. They walked slowly behind her, staring at me. I stared back. We looked at one another as if we were each an item in a cabinet of curiosities. I lost interest in my books. Here, marching up and down my own house, was a more accessible and fascinating literature. What I really wanted was to be inside the room when Mami gave her readings, but I was not allowed, so I eavesdropped behind the closed door instead. I heard Mami’s commanding prayers, her clients sobbing or gasping; otherwise, I heard an eerie silence. I satisfied my curiosity by asking about her clients once they left. Psychic-client confidentiality didn’t exist, so Mami shared everything. There was the school grounds caretaker who wanted to know about her son’s father — not her husband, but a man she saw once and never again. There was the lawyer whose ex-wife had cursed him to die in a car accident, who came 12 days in a row so Mami could fix him, and then returned every weekend to have his fortune read.
When no one was scheduled to see her, I sat with Mami in the attic. It was my favorite place in the house. I’d watch her, mesmerized, as she lit a tea candle and placed it beneath a small tin bowl to burn rose water into the air. She smoked cigarette after cigarette. She was someone that loved to hear herself talk, and I was someone that loved to listen to her.
“Good divination is the art of a good story,” she told me, describing the legend-building, the assured guesswork about a client’s desires, the bridging of what she clearly saw and what she intuited. “But the biggest thing I have learned in all these years,” she confided, “is that nobody wants the truth, but everyone wants a story.”
I thought I understood what Mami meant then. Once, when we were idling around the Plaza de Bolívar on a Sunday, Mami let go of my hand to take a picture of my sister chasing pigeons into flight. An old Roma woman grabbed my hand, looked at my palm, and exclaimed, “Your life line is split in two! You will have the choice of two lives. One is more exciting but you will die young, the other—” Mami pulled me away from the Roma woman, and we crossed the Plaza with great speed, past grandfathers sipping coffee, past children throwing breadcrumbs at pigeons. The Roma woman ran after us demanding money for her reading, and Mami yelled over her shoulder, “Nobody asked you for a reading! Leave my little girl alone.”
Receiving a prediction did not feel good. I didn’t like being told what would lie ahead, and I didn’t like the way the Roma woman’s words haunted me. While I didn’t want to believe in her words, the way she had delivered them to me — so assuredly and so spontaneously — made me question every decision I made. I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly could lead me down a life that ended too early.
There is a violence to the truth, or what is presented to us as the truth. It demands to be acknowledged and remembered; even when we want to disarm it, to leave it behind, or to disbelieve in it, it latches on like a persistent nuisance. Did the Roma woman tell me the truth? Years later, at 23, I was hit by a car and lost my memory. In the aftermath of the accident, with no idea of my name or past, I contemplated getting on a boat and disappearing. I knew I had a bag with me, and in it all the clues to my past life. I dangled it over a city trash can, trying to make the choice between abandoning my old life and starting a new one, or retracing my steps and figuring out who I was and where I belonged. That day, I decided to seek my old life. I was too curious. When I recovered my memory four weeks later and I remembered the Roma woman’s words, I felt the prophecy releasing its clutches. This is the thing with divination — you carry the prediction until something happens that fits it. What she had said had come to pass, so I could move on.
I thought what my mother did was kinder. She told stories, spoke in allegories, in metaphors, gave hints. Stories are puzzles that fall into the background of our lives until we are ready to deconstruct or remember them.
Either way, I liked the way it sounded: Nobody wants the truth, but everyone wants a story. I stared off into space and repeated it to myself like an incantation.
When Mami first started to do readings, she gave her clients only the straight answers they sought: Yes, your husband is cheating on you. No, you should not go on that trip. Yes, he likes you, but he is not meant for you. Her readings were brief and to the point, and none of her clients came back. Sensing something was wrong with the way her message was being received, Mami experimented by disguising what she saw in a story.
There was a young woman, for example, who been disinherited by her father. Mami didn’t tell her the simple truth — that she needed to extend forgiveness to him before he extended forgiveness back to her. “Some truths are so simple, people dismiss them,” Mami said. “Nobody wants to be told: be a good person, be nice to your family, be kind. But sometimes that is the answer.”
Instead, Mami told the woman that the day her father had disinherited her, he had pinched one of her plants in anger, and until this plant was cleansed and released into the wild, her father would be deaf to her entreaties. Apparently, it was true that the father had been toying with a plant when he told his daughter she was to receive no more family money and was on her own. Mami and the woman wore surgical gloves and drove the plant to a nearby river, where they cleaned it with river water, said prayers, and it was at this point that Mami instructed the woman to forgive her father. The plant was a metaphor, but the woman would never know. Mami had given her a tangible task in the face of a broken relationship.
Whether the ritual worked or not is beside the point, in my opinion. In the attic, Mami told me, “You have to speak in metaphors, in paradox, in symbolism. You have to tell a story that will allow the client to experience the truth without you ever having to name it.” Mami gave the woman a story, and the woman forgave her father, and eventually, he forgave her, too.
Whenever there was a lull, and Mami became a little bored, she dealt the tarot cards into a star and read her own fortune. In her cards, Mami was always the empress, a woman wearing a crown of stars reclining on a throne with a scepter in her hand. Whenever she drew the card, she clapped in glee. Oh! There I am!
I loved to see how the stories bubbled to the surface in Mami’s tarot. It wasn’t the empress herself who told the story, but the cards around her. They were the ones that unfolded each chapter of Mami’s life. The poverty and violence of her childhood. The anger and obsession she awoke in the men around her. The cousin who nearly raped her. The man she was forced to marry. My father whom she finally made a home with. When Mami turned her attention to the area of the star that spoke of her future she stared breathlessly, but she did not dare tell me what she saw.
Even Mami was reticent in the face of a truth she had no control over.
While Mami was a popular fortune-teller, her main source of income came from filling empty plastic bottles with water from our sink. She held the mouth of the bottle to her lips, flashed the whites of her eyes, and delivered a long murmur. It was a healing practice that my grandfather taught her, which he had learned from his father, who had learned from his father. Mami blessed water so that her prayers, buoyant in the liquid, could be ingested. For the price of 5,000 pesos, the blessed water promised to rekindle marriages, turn up jobs, protect against the evil eye, carry out light exorcisms, and remedy the pain of unrequited love.
She laid the bottles sideways in a row, then stacked them in pyramid formations in the kitchen. Customers came and went, giving Mami money and stealing away with our tap water. My sister, Francis, and I were becoming increasingly skeptical of such traditions because of the private school we attended, which was comprised mostly of American and British teachers. We made fun of the healing water incessantly. We blew on each other’s morning coffees, which as Colombian children we drank regularly and without sugar, mocking, “Here you go, you will get an A in math today!”
Mami pursed her lips. “Ajá! And what do you think is paying for the roof over your heads and the food on your table?”
Meanwhile, on the second floor, down the hall, Papi sat still and broken on his bed. He said a word to no one and barely moved. We were giving him time to recover, but then he didn’t sleep for three consecutive days. Mami said she would fix it, but Francis scolded her: “What he needs is a doctor. Take him to the hospital.” Mami tsked. “What are they going to do? Medicate him until he can’t think?”
So she spent hours in the kitchen murmuring over the surface of three glasses of water. Usually Papi would have refused to drink anything Mami had prayed over, but he was becoming a different man. She said, “Drink,” and he tipped back each glass and swallowed every drop. That afternoon, he fell into a deep sleep.
“Que les dije,” Mami beamed. “My water WORKS.”
“It’s a coincidence, Mami,” Francis rolled her eyes. “He had to fall asleep at some point.”
Except Papi then went two days without waking up. We tried to shake him, but we couldn’t make him come to. He moaned. He tossed. We couldn’t make him keep his eyes open. We became worried again. Mami ran to the kitchen. “Ay jueputa, I overdid it.” I couldn’t help but laugh. In the kitchen, she opened the faucet and held a glass beneath the stream. “It’s because I used the wrong word,” she told me. “This time I am going to bless the water with the clear objective of making him alert.”
While the water in the glass rose and then overflowed over her hand, she said: “You have to choose the words accurately, you see. You can’t be inexact. A vagueness on your part, and kaput.”
You can’t be inexact, I repeated in my head. A vagueness on your part, and kaput.
The water meant to make Papi alert didn’t have an obvious effect — though maybe he became more alert to the television. Francis and I made fun of Mami. Each day she gave Papi a different diagnosis. One day, she made him water so he could reconnect with his purpose. Another day, she made him water so he could find his voice. And finally, she made water so that his voice, wherever it was being held captive, could return to him. When Papi drank this last water, he threw up in the bathroom. He retched until there was bile.
“Good,” Mami said. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
Papi crawled into bed looking pale and exhausted. He said he didn’t want to be bothered and Mami closed the door. “Now we wait,” she whispered. She made her way to the attic and I followed. I waited until we were seated amidst her trinkets and asked, “Wait for what?”
“Hmm?” Mami was simultaneously sucking on a cigarette and shaking a lit match in the air to extinguish the flame. “Oh! Your father? For his confidence to come back. That’s what’s wrong with him.”
“It is? Then why didn’t you tell him?”
Mami exhaled smoke. “The truth? I already explained this. You can only point the client in the right direction.”
After Papi vomited bile, he got the courage to start looking for work. He called in favors and got preliminary interviews. The problem came, each time, when he had to explain why he had been fired from his previous job. “A colleague backstabbed me,” he explained the first time. “Nothing, in the end, was proven,” he tried in the next interview. Then he hit on the right words: “I made the mistake of not being vigilant of the budget that people beneath me were handling. I will not make that mistake twice.” In a week, he was invited to visit an oil site and see if the project and new company was a good fit. Like Mami, Papi had to find the right words before it worked.
There was one regular client of Mami’s who was the most intriguing to me. She wore stylish ponchos and high-heeled leather boots. She was a trader, and what she asked Mami never varied. She brought handfuls of dates and wanted to know which dates were auspicious and which were inauspicious. My mother never asked, “Auspicious for what?” She assumed it had to do with shipments of some sort. I told her I thought the woman was lying and that maybe she was a wedding planner. Mami was sure the woman was lying, too, but suspected she was hiding worse things. What? She wouldn’t say. “What are we going to do? We need the money.”
As Papi was away interviewing at the oil site, the trader arrived with a big envelope. Mami pulled it out to show me: Inside there were three tickets for an all-expenses-paid vacation to Medellín. “What did you do to deserve that?” I asked. Apparently, one date that Mami had approved had been a great business decision and the woman was thankful. Mami didn’t think we should take the vacation, but Francis and I begged her to accept it. “You never take us anywhere!” we said. “Nothing interesting ever happens to us!” We argued that Papi was away and it didn’t matter where we went or what we did. So we got on the plane.
Medellín was very unlike Bogotá. It was warm and hilly and the hotel was luxurious. We lounged by the pool. The hotel staff were overly attentive. We reveled in the freedom of the warm air, the fresh towels, and all the virgin daiquiris we wanted. For the first time in our lives, we didn’t have to worry about money. We greased our limbs in coconut oil and browned under the sun. We only had to lift a finger for someone on the staff to notice and run to our side. We were told not to go sightseeing, however; Medellín was Pablo Escobar’s turf and he was on the run from hired assassins, riding motorcycles in search of him.
When we got home, Papi called to let us know he was still at the oil site and there was a chance the job might be offered to him on the spot. Francis and I were happy, but Mami seemed distracted and worried. When we hung up with Papi, she told us the trip had left a bad taste in her mouth. She said, “This smells like drug traffic to me.”
When the trader showed up to her next appointment, Mami thanked her profusely. The woman smiled and said she was glad we had enjoyed ourselves. She pulled out her new dates. “Maybe you can help me again!”
Mami said, half-joking, “Thank god you’re not testing your luck by being a mule.”
“Me?” the trader said. “No, nothing like that! That’s for the people I recruit.”
Mami hid her shock, and through a smile, she asked, “And business has been good?”
“Yes! Ever since coming to you, our people are almost never pulled aside by the customs officers!”
Mami gave the trader dates one last time, and once she was gone, she vowed to never see her again. When the trader called, Mami excused herself, saying, “I am retiring and there is a lot of darkness in what you do. I will not be involved.”
After the woman left, Mami lit a candle for my father and prayed that he would get the job and she could quit her psychic business. “Nothing about this business ever brings good luck!” She looked at me, her eyes glinting with what seemed like fear. “What if my life gets torn apart from all this meddling?”
Mami was sure it was a curse to take money that indirectly came from Pablo Escobar. On our television, Pablo Escobar was setting off bombs all over the country, in malls and highways, in front of banks, under bridges, on airplanes. Her hands shook as she told us we had received blood money.
This time Mami made glasses of water for my sister and me. I was ready to refuse, knowing my older sister would refuse first. But Francis didn’t protest. I watched my sister drink hers, then in a moment, she felt sick, and she retched in the bathroom until there was bile, just like Papi had.
I could not grasp how the same thing that had happened to Papi had happened to Francis — until I drank my glass of water and threw up and retched myself. The water I had just swallowed came back up, and after it, an orange, foul-smelling bile.
The stories we are told matter to us immensely, whether we choose to believe in them or not. I had not believed in Mami’s water, but when it touched my stomach it made me sick. My reaction — maybe to the water, maybe to the story around it — was visceral and subconscious. After drinking my mother’s water and retching, I felt clean and spent. My body tingled, and a deep rest overtook my body. For a moment before drifting off to sleep, I reveled in the physical sensation of the transformative nature of what had taken place.
This is why I think of my mother each time I sit before my screen and begin to write. You have to speak in metaphors, in paradox, in symbolism, I hear her voice. You have to tell a story that will allow the client to experience the truth without you ever having to name it. I write first drafts as if I were turning over tarot cards, too: I scribble single, disjointed paragraphs until the right image of a character emerges.
And I think constantly of Mami’s biggest lesson: Nobody wants the truth, but everyone wants a story. Mami didn’t read books to me at night, but she gave me the experience of story in a way I will never forget. ●
Illustrations by Tania Guerra for BuzzFeed News.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, Guernica, and HuffPost, among others. She has received fellowships and awards from the Missouri Review, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, VONA, Hedgebrook, the Camargo Foundation, Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures. She is the book columnist for KQED Arts, the Bay Area’s NPR affiliate.
Her debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, is available now.