This week’s fiction piece comes to us from Keisha Cosand of Huntington Beach, California. The short story ‘Mal de Ojo’ depicts a complicated mother-daughter relationship, with a hearty dose of Mexican folk medicine thrown in.
Mal de Ojo
At the time, I had no hair. I was born with no hair, but that isn’t unusual. However, a four-year-old girl without hair is a community concern. As time went by, my mother, the family, and strangers in public began to worry. The nearly invisible peach fuzz never sprouted into anything more. My mother had been a Texan beauty queen who had made it to the state finals six years earlier, in 1969. Now, just twenty-four, married, with me, she considered a thing like a daughter with no hair a serious dilemma for the family. She began to panic, and growing my hair was her mission, her great cause. My great-grandmother told her to shave my head of what little semblance of hair I had—then thick curls would blossom from the hard ground of my skull. I saw my mom contemplating the razor in the bathroom one day, and I ran and hid in the hall closet. I was scared of the dark, but I closed my eyes tight, held my knees to my chest, and prayed to Jesus for hair.
Other matriarchs, well meaning of course, suggested things like spraying Pledge on my head every day for a month, poking it with a straight-pin to create small holes for the hair to grow, or, possibly even worse than the razor, a daily dose of milk of magnesia to loosen things up. After dinner one night, my mom insisted on trying it. I gagged at the smell and clenched my lips fiercely closed.
“Take it!” she said, and she stared long and hard into my face. I stared back with equal intensity. My heart began to beat faster because I had learned when to be terrified of my mother. This was one of those times, and I weighed the consequences in my brain.
“Dag Nabbit! Drink this!” I had no idea what those words meant… it was only later I learned it was a nice way saying “God Dammit” in front of children. “Bob, get in here and hold your daughter!”
My dad walked in to the kitchen. They seemed so giant to me at the time. I can’t imagine having me at age twenty-four. My dad looked tired. “Come on now, jus take it and git it over with.” He looked at me with a pleading look that said, “Baby, if you take it, we can both move on in peace.”
I didn’t budge.
My dad walked slowly over and pulled both my arms behind my back to hold me. I began to kick and squirm, biting my lips harder between my teeth. I could feel the heat in my face and warm tears forming in the corners of my eyes. I didn’t make a sound; it was silent determination.
“Get a hold of her! You better stop your squirming, or I swear to God, Daddy is gonna take his belt off!” she said.
“Shit, Becky!” I could tell he was getting frustrated with both of us. Daddy lifted me up, laid me flat on the kitchen floor, straddled my stomach and pinned my arms. Mom knelt down, forced the metal spoon in my mouth and poured the god awful stuff in between my lips. I screamed and choked on the thick white magnesium nightmare. Dad had had enough; he sighed and walked out of the kitchen without a word. I rolled over and purposefully vomited, which isn’t hard to do with a mouth full of laxative. Mom let out an enraged “Ugh!” and jerked me up off the floor by my arm. “Go to your room!”
After trying several remedies with no success, she was ready to take a more extreme measure.
We lived out in the country, and there were only a few houses. In the one closest to us, there lived a family, and the old grandma was a curandera. As a last resort, my mom took me over to her house. There were chickens in the front yard, and an old dog sleeping under a mesquite tree. The front yard was hard polished dirt with patches of Bermuda grass, and a hurricane fence surrounded the whole thing. I could feel my hands sweat as we got to the door because my dad told me this lady was a witch—she could put spells on people, and they would get sick and die. I squeezed my mom’s hand tighter. The front door was open with only a screen door blocking the way into the house. It looked like a deep shadow inside, and I couldn’t see anybody. My mom banged on the screen and yelled “Hola!” into the darkness. An old man in gray and brown checked polyester pants, black boots, with no shirt on his leathery chest, answered the door. He smiled a toothless grin and let us in. The floor was made of large clay tiles and small Indian rugs, striped with maroons, yellows, and black, covered it in places. I smelled warm flour tortillas and corn.
We followed the man through the small house, out to the back porch. It was screened in, and there were several old rocking chairs. An ancient looking lady sat in one of them. She had a large piece of black lace covering her head, and she wore a plain black dress that hit her legs mid-calf. Her brown knee-high hose were rolled down to her ankles in doughnut shapes above heavy orthopedic shoes. She was rocking and staring out over the yellow field, out to where the pigs lived. I used to like to hike over the tilled fields to feed them. Anyway, she was sorting through a big bowl of uncooked beans, picking out the ugly ones and little pieces of gravel. The old man left to get his daughter to interpret. The old sorceress turned to us. She smiled and went back to her sorting. My heart raced to escape my chicken-bone chest.
Soon, the old lady’s granddaughter, who was about my mom’s age, walked in. She was beautiful, with long dark hair, large almond shaped eyes, and flawless skin. She greeted us. My mom had already talked to her earlier about my problem. She came over and ran her dry, warm hand over my baldish head. Then, she turned to her grandmother and spoke several lines of Spanish. The grandmother nodded, stopped rocking, and slowly got up out of her chair and walked into the house. The young woman told us to follow her. We walked down a narrow hall and entered a small room. The window was covered with a heavy curtain. On one wall, there was a long table covered with lit candles—little candles, big candles, candles in glass jars with Jesus or Mary on them. There were also little statues of saints; some had rosary beads dangling from their hands. The room smelled like cheap melted crayons. In the center of the room was a card table with three folding chairs around it, and on the wall next to the window was a bookshelf full of little jars and bottles; some contained pickled farm animal fetuses. I was terrified and thrilled.
The grandmother spoke to the granddaughter. The young woman replied, “Si, Abuelita.” Then, she turned to my mom, “My grandmother wishes for you and me to stand outside while she looks over the child.” I couldn’t believe my mom was leaving me alone in the room with a witch. I shot a frightened wide-eyed look at her. “It’s okay. I’ll be right outside the door. She’s just going to look at your head.”
I was standing a few feet in front of the glowing shrine. The curandera slowly walked around me. She was a bit hunched over. The skin on her face looked thick and branches of lines spread across it. Her fingers seemed permanently bent, and I was terrified that she was going to touch me. After circling me three times, she grabbed the top of my bare head. Her hand felt like a talon. She closed her eyes and began mumbling. I wanted to scream and run but was paralyzed and knew I would get in trouble. Finally, she stopped. I wondered if she had put a spell on me. Maybe she didn’t like the way I looked, so she cast some horrible thing upon me that would turn me into a lizard. Maybe she liked to eat children, and she had brainwashed me to sleep walk back to her house in the middle of the night, where she would then hit me over the head with an iron skillet and boil me in a giant black pot. But she must’ve read my mind like Braille through her hand, because once she stopped mumbling, she leaned down to look in my face. Her eyes were like shiny black stones, but her face softened, she smiled, looked concerned, and then screeched something in Spanish toward the door. My mom and the woman came back in. My mom looked intently at the old curandera as she spoke loudly using her hands in big gestures. After several minutes, she stopped, and the young woman began to translate. She said that my lack of hair was a sign of a bigger problem. Although my hair could be somewhat helped by rubbing a mixture of whale oil, fat from a cow’s udder, and olive juice on my head, the curandera’s real concern was that I suffered from “mal de ojo”.
I didn’t understand what all this was about. My mom certainly didn’t understand. The woman went on to explain that a while ago, maybe even when I was a baby, someone had given me “the evil eye.” It was a curse that caused “susto,” a loss of soul. Because my soul had been weakened, there was no energy for my hair to grow. She said her abuelita had prayed a prayer over me that stopped the curse, but I would have to search for the pieces of soul that had leaked out of me. I suddenly felt a flood of emptiness. Moved by this power of suggestion, big tears began to stream down my face.
It was difficult to contain the sobs that built in my chest. This sounded fatal, and I immediately thought I was going to die.
“Ay! Mija!” said the witch lady when she saw me crying. She came over and hugged me to her stiff black dress. She began speaking excitedly to her granddaughter. The young woman looked at me. “My grandmother says do not worry, little one. You have an unusually big heart. It will find the rest of you. She says, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ For now, just rub this mixture on your head, and you will have thick, gorgeous hair in no time.” She handed me a mason jar full of thick grayish pink glop. The grandmother then draped a long string of fake gold beads around my neck. It was to keep evil spirits away from me because I had become an easy target. My mom smiled a patronizing smile at the woman, handed her twenty dollars, and thanked her.
The old woman held my hand and led me to the kitchen. She sat me at the round wooden table and gave me a plate with fresh tortillas and butter. My mom thanked everyone again, and we walked back down the dirt road to our house. She went on about how ridiculous the whole thing was, but then she ranted about how it was probably Mary Lynn Duffy who cursed me out of spite and jealousy over my mom being the pretty one, and she did rub that smelly glop on my head for three months. I, on the other hand, believed.
After that day, I frequently walked over to sit on the porch with the old woman. We never talked; we would just rock in silence, look out over the fields toward the pigs, eat homemade tortillas, and pick out the ugly beans.
As for my hair, by the time school came around, I had a decent amount of dishwater blonde hair, enough at least to hook one of those plastic animal berets in place. My mom also had my ears pierced so people wouldn’t keep mistaking me for a boy. I still think about the old woman once in a while. I’m sure she is dead by now. Occasionally, I’m startled when I think I catch her out of the corner of my eye turning the corner on a busy city street or when I’m looking in the mirror and a quick shadow passes behind me. Sometimes, I wear the fake gold beads to bed at night, just to be safe, and on bad days I wonder whether my soul ever fully recovered.
Expectations and disappointments are at the heart of this piece, and the reader can’t help but sympathise with Cosand’s bald protagonist in her attempts to satisfy her mother’s wishes. But behind it all, the hints of a young girl’s budding sensitivity and kindness give the piece a sweetness which lingers on the tongue.