Everything written about the learnedness and perspicacity of our late friend and colleague, Franz Schurmann, founder of Pacific News Service, is absolutely true. What I also valued in Franz is that he believed in magic.
Several years ago on a reporting trip to Central America, Franz visited our family in Antigua, Guatemala, where we lived for ten years. In desultory after-dinner conversation, I mentioned the name of a comadrona, or midwife, whom I sometimes visited at the foot of a volcano called Fire, Fuego. Then in her 70s, Basilia had delivered a large percentage of her village’s inhabitants, and she was generous about sharing talk of customs, herbal cures, the recent past. Sometimes she allowed me to watch as a client came with a query, existential or quotidian, and Basilia twirled an old pair of scissors in a shallow basket, divining an answer. Since the age of fifteen, villagers said, she had exhibited a special don, an inborn gift, not only a midwife’s, but a shaman’s skill.
The conversation with Franz at our table moved on, until we finally rose and walked across the courtyard to the door.
“Good night, Franz. See you tomorrow.”
“My mother is not well,” he said.
“Oh.” I felt taken aback by news that seemed to come from nowhere. “I’m sorry.”
“The woman, in the village,” he said. A long moment later, I realized he referred to the Maya Indian, Basilia.
“Could we go to her?”
This was not Franz’s renowned and insatiable curiosity talking, but the voice of a son, well into middle age, asking on behalf of an elderly mother. Franz intuited Basilia might have special strength, or the ear of the gods. Or represent one more way of sending positive mojo to his mom. What he did not think was that the idea was ridiculous, or unworthy of him.
Basilia had no telephone. When she opened the split-log door to her yard next day, however, she appeared unsurprised. Franz didn’t need me to translate; Spanish was one of the dozen languages he spoke. We followed the thin woman across the dirt yard, chickens running underfoot. She removed an apron and flung it across a line, becoming a figure that might have stepped out of a scene a thousand years old. She wore a square huipil blouse, handwoven with chevrons and circles in bold purples and reds, long indigo skirt and caites, rude sandals.
Inside a windowless shack, Basilia swept back a wisp of gray hair and set to “the work.” Franz handed over white votive candles we had bought on the way into town, and tiny incense cones. Basilia lit all, and as we stood, prayed in her native K’akchikel Maya language, gesturing in communication with figures of saints and holy pictures on a makeshift altar.
“Not yet,” she said to Franz when she finished. The candles had melted too quickly. We would have to return for another session in order for “the work” to be effective, she said.
On the next visit, Basilia broke an egg into a glass of water to read the ways its white fell and streamed. This procedure produced no alarming news, but the candles – again, they burned too fast. My cynical side suspected my dear friend, the shaman, of requiring more certitude than usual about Franz’s case, because of course, each time we came I brought a gift of food, and Franz pressed money into her hand. But Franz said he bore no suspicion, and agreed to a third meeting, which Basilia said should do the trick.
In three days time we were to travel to the shrine of Maximon, a kind of counter-saint revered by ordinary people but unsanctioned by any church. Maximon was big league, where Basilia seemed to think she could do “the work” best. This was joy to Franz’ ears, an adventure, a journey under the surface of things few travelers come to make. It was the kind of journey Franz liked best.
Nevertheless, we worried that even a trip to Maximon could be sabotaged by quickly melting candles, wax that did not aguanta, bear up. Once begun, no one wanted to leave the enterprise unfinished. But in a couple of days, Franz would have a plane to catch.
“Freeze them,” said my husband.
“What?” I couldn’t follow.
“Of course,” said Franz, without hesitation. “We freeze the candles, and they’ll take long to melt.”
Franz was not above assisting the supernatural.
Inside the shrine of Maximon, smoke filled the air from hundreds of candles set up before the icon, a top-hatted, life-size figure seated in a stiff-backed chair, smoking a huge cigar, bottles of moonshine at his feet. On a big metal table, the candles glowed in colors reflecting the intentions of believers: yellow on behalf of children, for instance, red for love. A hand-written sign forbade black candles, warning against the desire to wish someone bad luck. Black candles outnumbered the others.
Basilia had worn her good, bright huipil. She spoke to the wooden Maximon, throwing cane liquor on him from a bottle. Franz handed her the candles; she took her time lighting the wicks, eying their flames. Franz stood nearby, watching his shaman, observing the others. The smoke finally got to my asthmatic lungs, and I headed for fresh air.
When they emerged from the shrine, Franz and Basilia were talking animatedly. “How did it go?” I asked.
“Bueno,” said Basilia. “Good.”
Franz squinted in the sun, but he was smiling, extending his arm to help the shaman down the steps.