The Maestro is the man at hand, and so it is that I hiked over to Belen Market to Pasaje Pauquito to get my cards read. I'm not at all impressed with conformity hippie bullshit in the Groniad, and I couldn't care less about bashing Christianity just because it's hip to be Gnostic. I'm not a believer in pomo orthodoxy. But Naipe cards, well, that's a whole nother story!
In the middle of Pasaje Paquito in the depths of Belen Market one might find a fat man with a caret-shaped moustache sitting alone at a creaky wooden table laid out with what look like Tarot cards. They are, in fact, Naipe cards, or as they are known more generally, Spanish cards. The fortune teller seated there is El Maestro, the great, the one, the only-- Ronel! He knows it all, and for a fee he will tell the future so you don't have to wait in suspense to find out how your personal movie ends.
The maestro sits on a plain wooden stool at a plain wooden board of a table upon which he lays out his fortune-telling cards, and there go to him people with problems of a mysterious sort, looking for relief from the Evil Eye, from the witchcraft of mercenary brujos who cast spells on those whose good fortunes arouse envy and hatred among their fellows, causing those latter to curse and destroy what little good the person of Belen might have enjoyed and wants returned and will pay for; and more, will pay for a curse on the one who cursed him and caused his good fortune to fall. The maestro, though, is a healer, not a man who casts curses. He reads the mystery cards and lets fate fall where it may, bringing some relief to the stricken, fleeting as it must be in this veil of tears we call living. I want to know about the Mystery. I want to know if I can believe, as others believe; and I want to know if the Mystery of the Cards will tell us all how better we can live right lives that I can believe in.
At the market where the maestro should be seated at his rough table on a hard stool, he looking wisely across the board, his cards spread carefully on a clean cloth, his thick brown wrist atnagled with bracelets and charms on chains and a swirl of colours as his hands move across the faces of the deck I see in my mind a man with thick salt and pepper hair, a nice-looking man of 51, plump from too much beer, a gentle if lonely soul who reads other people's lives and stories and tells them about their futures as they must gaze at the mass of ornaments around his neck, at the multiple strings of red berry beads and bits of bauble and chain that sway as he sways, jaguar teeth and mysterious fangs of demonic beasts clashing against the universe. The space is empty but for evil spirits in the gloom. He's not there.
I stop to ask his neighbour that the other table, the one piled high with Christmas candles of blue and black, red and yellow next to beads and trinkets and little joys at a penny or so, sacks of herbal things and powers and powers and bundles of sticks for healing, and mysteries in see through bags and various tiny bottles, full shelves, a show of design with its orderly arrangement of bottles in neat array, half pint bottles of black and quarts of orange and thimbles of crimson and turquoise, glass pyramids embossed with golden dollar signs.
Nor at the other stall of pretty animales made of soft red clay, lions with black and white smiles, terracotta toys and a lady sleeping in her chair as the world walks by in wonder. The maestro is not in. He is gone.
The maestro is a hard man to track down sometimes, his stall at Belen Market often being vacant but for the Spirits who must linger ghostly in the vapours of the lane, drawn to haunt the darkness in the Maestro's absence, fearing his return whereupon Evil must flee before him and be banished from the lives of the living, perhaps even bringing peace to the deceased who rest disturbed without the intervention of the Naipe Card Reader. Maestro Ronel.
|El Maestro Ronel: Knows All, Sees All, Tells All|
In the middle of Pasaje Paquito in the depths of Belen Market one might find a fat man with a pencil moustache sitting alone at a creaky wooden table laid out with what look like Tarot cards. They are, in fact, Naipe cards, or as they are known more generally, Spanish cards. The fortune teller seated there is El Maestro, the great, the one and only-- Ronel! He knows it all, and for a fee he will tell the future so you don't have to wait in suspense to find out how your personal movie ends.
And so it is that I must hunt him down and catch him and find out the mysteries of the cards and maestro.
I have a companion with me on my hunt for the mysterious maestro, a delicate young lady from Canada, a painter, a girl who looks into things like Naipe cards and wants her fortune told. I know already it will be bright, but the sun sets on all days, and I am silent on this score. I don't know what cards know-- and what card readers tell. Thus, having the maestro's address at his home and office, off we go in a three-wheeled mototaxi through the city, me gasping as we ride the edge of tyres over holes so deep the wheels would never end their fall, though we would, cast out onto pavement where we would be run over by the hundreds of other mototaxis right up close behind us. I never worry unless I'm sitting in an open speeding taxi with a young woman who has before her a bright and happy future. Such is fate, and I take that ride. We go deep into lower end of the city where the dirt streets are rougher, the mud brick dwellings poorer, and the concrete rubble tossed denser and wider as it spreads like a flood everywhere the eye can see those children in school uniforms skipping home and running and kicking and laughing in the warmth of a near Christmas late afternoon in the dust and the plastic garbage and rotting tin from ruined roofs and broken boards beyond reuse. If not for the cell phones and the music machines and the colour televisions and the toys that amaze me, so I tell my companion, this would look like my home way back when, back then, when I was then a boy. I didn't know it then, and I can hardly believe it now, the wealth of the world and the wealth of poverty. I could have never dreamed of such a beautiful world of stuff so cheap for all that anyone can have it and have it all. None of us could have ever dreamed it, not like I dream of my mother who died cursing death and not all at happy about the things she bought with her last breath: a microwave over that was the wonder of the neighbourhood and the colour television they all sat and stared at while she spat black in bed and died. For my companion of the day, the future is picture bright and focused. I can see all that and more, but I can't say because I don't know the cards and the mystery. I know some hard things, but I want to know about belief, perhaps the hardest thing of all.
We arrive at the maestro's dwelling, a space between two workshops, one, down the steep slope from the road and sidewalk with holes hip deep and calling, a furniture repair shop with a deafening angle-grinder shooting a cascade of white light sparks across the room in which one could hardly walk for broken bits of wood and metal and shreds of frayed polyester and decayed plastic upholstery tossed here and there by fate and the hand of man, jaws of dog, kick of foot. From the other shop beside the maestro comes the head of a ten year old girl with hair so long it nearly hangs in the dirt and she leans out the door to look at us in bewilderment that such unlikely people from some far away place from her own are beside her. She stares, then shuts the door, calling to her mama. I stare at the maestro's home. I've seen poverty before, and this is... yes, this is poverty. I see a poverty of the mind that I have seldom seen before. I see a future so bleak that I don't need cards to read it. I stand back a bit while my young companion calls the maestro inside him home, a building front of 16 rough pieces of wood roughly cut to comprise the top half of the dwelling, some originally white, some in the middle sort of red in the day but not no more. And the lower half of half-hearted carpentry a broad board lintel beam that falls short of the front, giving way to more narrow rough boards banged together till they run out and the front continues with a slab of plywood pulled from a pile of rubble to complete the maestro's makeshift shelter, his security a mess of white-washed scrap iron over the hole that would be the window next to the hole that would be a door of tossed away scrap iron and a patchwork of salvaged chicken wire. We are in luck. The maestro is home, and he is receiving company this warm and yellow day. I know we are in luck because his five handmade signs nailed on the housefront advertise his services as a card reader, as a seller of mapacho and aguardiente, and his need for a housekeeper, as well as an old bt urgent request for a rare blood type because the maestro needs transfusions, blood for which the maestro is willing to pay. I mindlessly kick the ground and manage at once to land three tin bottle caps in a hole at the corner of the house. The rest scatter in the dirt. We enter the maestro's home and office.
|Home and Office|
I make our introductions, my name meaning nothing to him and I not bothering to tell him or hers to him either. We are here, I say, to hear about the cards. I am no believer. I have no faith. I could be anyone. I could be nobody at all. I have not future to tell.
|Mysteries and Motor Repairs|
I enter behind my young companion and I stand and survey the maesto's living room, seeing a sign partly covering a rotting jaguar pelt nailed on the wall, the sign announcing the maestro's sideline of repairing televisions, fans, lamps, and other small electrical appliances. He is a versatile man, also selling kerosene. The maestro tells us he had six houses, but he sold them. I whisper to my companion that he used the sale money to buy his current home. She almost tells him what I said, and then catches herself and says not a thing. She sits in a chair the maestro brings especially for her, a child's seat, so small her knees come to her chin as she tries to sit in it. The maestro exchanges it for a larger chair, though not so nice.
|Please be seated|
The maestro, a gentleman to be sure, takes a chair the rest of us would likely never chance. I spot a plastic skull on a shelf at the back of the partition of a patchwork of plastic bags and scraps that makes his rooms a home. I ask him to hold the skull while I take his picture. He doesn't say a thing about the gob of hardened cement stuck on the forehead, nor of the broken screw that holds one loose jaw.
I too am a gentleman, and I say not a word either. Instead I turn to take a shot of his table of herbal remedies, the maestro being a man of plants, a man who believes in the healing power of beets and limes and garlic and ginger and empty bottles of beer.
The maestro is seated at the table he will work his cards at, having shown us the books he read to learn the craft that called him 31 years ago, a time when he was married still to a woman he doesn't mention, having two sons in Lima, a statement that brings no light to his eyes, those years having passed, the future looming for him and us all. Maybe they hate him.
|Revelations at Hand|
I do not ask, having no desire to know. And he spreads a cloth over the table top, it bulging as it must over the C-clamp attached to the table edge, and he lays out the cards to read my companion's future, her past, her present. The maestro establishes his bona fides by showing my companion the books he read, all three of them, and then commences to read her future as told to him by cards.
|Books of Mystery|
The card that catches my eye is at the bottom of the lot, a gazing man with a bundle at the end of a pole, the man walking unseeing off the edge of a cliff.
The maestro asks me to leave the room so he and my young companion can find the peace required for the maestro to consult the cards successfully on behalf of the girl who leans gently forward to find her fate.
I stand outside beside the chair and table the maestro has so thoughtfully brought out for me to use to write my notes, and I watch a rattling bus with no windows as it trundle through the dust toward Belen at work day's end carrying the poor to their hovels for dinner and family and sleep. I see at the end of the block a modern-looking Protestant church, its poured concrete the cutting edge of 1960's hippest architecture in it past glory rotting in the killing dirt that eats cement and ruins buildings by the thousands in this jungle city. I watch as a young mother and her three children walk in front of an old man carrying a metal frame chair, some work still needed to weave plastic string into a seat and back, the rockers newly furnished with bent tree branches resting on the old man's shoulders as the frame rises above him like a trophy hard won. He looks tired but content, and he doesn't notice as the maestro runs in front of him, crossing the street to chance my companion's large note, returning with change and a bottle of beer.
We all shake hands and promise to return in future to find out more about our future, sometime, someday, maybe later, maybe when we have more faith.
|El Maestro Ronel. Knows All|
Oh, but I do believe. I do indeed. I can't tell if such things as I believe are true; for that one would need consult the cards, and I missed yet another chance to find that truth. My companion is happy, and we decide to go for dinner to be happy and eat. Faith? Tomorrow, perhaps, or the day after. I can wait. Maybe till the end of time. I do believe.
A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:
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