As the shady canopy generously offered by Poinciana trees lengthened and hinted at dusk on a scorching summer Key West evening, Julia La Congo stepped out onto the decaying porch of her tin-roofed Black Town home to scatter cornmeal for the roosters.
The meal, which the aged, ebony-skinned woman dipped from a hollowed-out gourd held in her wrinkled and furrowed hand, had been brushed carefully from the kitchen table, where she had just finished preparing Cuban tamales. Congo Julia, as she was called, was not one to waste things. The tamales would feed her husband and herself, and also serve as Ebo-- an offering-- to Eleggua-- the Orisha who must never be ignored. In turn, the roosters would, sooner or later, make Ebo to Chango-- the Orisha of thunder.
The cornmeal would traverse the full cycle of life. It was good Ashé -- interpreted as luck, a sense of order and balance in the world, or simply fate--in Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion practiced by Congo Julia and many other former African slaves who had emigrated to Florida from Cuba. Since her free childhood in West Africa, the old woman had known she would be a Santera, a priestess of the shadowy faith.
Across the bone-dry dirt road, two little colored boys who had been playing marbles noticed the old lady feeding the roosters and, as mischievous boys are wont to, they began taunting her.
"Congo Julia!" they called out. The boys, as everyone who knew or had come to know of the old Santera, pronounced her name Kon-guh Hool-ya.
"Congo Julia! Voodoo woman!" they teased.
Then they began to laugh and dance mockingly in circles in the middle of the road until they were totally cloaked in a cloud of brown dust.
"Voodoo woman! Witch!" they continued to shout to their odd neighbor woman-- from a safe distance.
Little voices, little bother, Congo Julia whispered to herself.
For only the slightest moment, she stopped feeding the roosters and lifted her eyes slowly until they met those of the ill-behaved boys. With that, they halted their dervish-like dance and began to tremble.
Then Congo Julia reached into the bosom of her white housedress and, from between round, overflowing breasts, she withdrew a small, frayed and yellowed burlap bag, suspended at the end of a shiny gold chain. She drew the bag to her full, pursed lips, kissed it reverently (with a purposefully dramatic flair), and then turned her hand and the tattered bag toward the bothersome boys.
As if struck by lightning, both boys leapt in the air, yelped "Yikes!" and took off running down the road.
Neither of them knew what was truly contained in the mysterious talisman Congo Julia always wore around her neck, but they had heard their parents and others speak of it often-- mostly in hushed whispers so the young’uns wouldn’t hear. Word was, that bag contained a voodoo fetish. It represented strong juju-- powerful magic.
Seeing the boys high-tail, Congo Julia laughed aloud-- so loudly that the roosters scattered briefly-- and she craned her neck to watch the two spooked young’uns disappear behind the whore house a full two blocks down the road.
She was not mad with the two, for she knew the way of boys. She also knew the boys’ parents. When the time was right-- perhaps when they came to her for a divination-- she would simply have a word with them about young’uns respecting their elders.
The roosters returned, feverishly scratching the ground for the few remaining grains of tasty, yellow cornmeal.
Congo Julia closed her tired, century-old eyes and took a moment to inhale deeply the sweet scent of frangipani on the approaching night air. Then she returned to the cool darkness of her house, the rickety screen door slamming shut behind her.