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Dear John

Written for Geo, September, 1984

Batter up! A lopsided moon lay motionless over Dodger Stadium, a little silver bullseye for Maldonado’s ready bat. Maldonado, our squat right fielder, was in the arc-lit batter’s box, we were barely behind the Padres, 4-3, the moon was a hole in the nighttime sky and I, in the stands, was calling confusion down on the Padres’ yellow-hatted heads. "Padres dogli," I was shouting in the Ewe language of Africa. "Padres, Padres dogli!"

I had been taught the awful imprecation by one of the many witch doctors of Togo, the sliver-sized country on Africa’s former Slave Coast. For days, I’d driven to red-dirt villages to talk to these fetisheers, as they’re called, and I’d been told about dogli by a fire-eyed one in the village of Agbanto. Far from dancing around me maniacally in a leopard-skin loincloth, the fetisheer had on a pair of pale blue slacks and a shirt of pastel plaid as I sat on the concrete rim of a well to ask what someone in his profession would do, say, if asked to work wonders for the Los Angeles Dodgers. I told him the Dodgers played baseball, and I described in French how the lanceurs threw the ballons and the batteurs with the batons returned them, the fetisheer saying that, yes, he had once watched it happen on Togo TV. To help the Dodgers, he retired to his white-walled shrine to make me a $35 charm: a fetish, it’s called, an ear of sun-shriveled corn that he endowed with a preternatural power by feeding it gin, schnapps, salt, pepper, spit, and some faded partridge feathers, these to cause baseballs to fly like flocks of flushed partridges out of Dodger Stadium. At his stern command, I went there when I was back in Los Angeles and I adhered religiously to what he had called the mode d’emploi of this potent corncob, my left hand grasping it as I wrapped a string around it clockwise telling it, "Dodgers win," and counterclockwise telling it, "Padres lose," and I sat at the game shouting dogli, dogli, just as my fabulous doctor in Togo prescribed.

I wondered, will this damn process succeed? The gentle people of Togo think that it should, for eighty percent of them make appointments with the many trusted fetisheers. A few months ago, a soccer team called the Kpekuimes consulted my own plaid-shirted man on the eve of the national championships, and he cast some cowrie shells to predict to his and their consternation that any Kpekuime scoring a goal would promptly die. It seemed to be catch twenty-two, but the fetisheer circumvented it by lowering an empty freon can on a ten-foot telephone cord into the concrete water well to draw up a couple of gallons that, a number of herbs being added, he secretly sprinkled onto the national soccer field. And, voila, without scoring once the Kpekuimes won, 2-1, on some goals by its own disoriented opponents, who kicked the pigskin into the net themselves. The people of Togo, whose major religion is voodoo, of course credit this to the clever fetisheer, a man who modestly told me, "I do not play soccer with feet but I do with fetishes."

More often, it’s for their health that the people of Togo visit their versatile fetisheers. My own one in Agbanto was starting an herbal remedy for a man who was impotent even as I was exiting with my enchanted corncob. The day after that, I was chatting with an old fetisheer in Ahepe who was suddenly called away by a citizen with a black cobra bite. My man commandeered an old motor scooter to reduce his reaction time to ten minutes flat, and, at the victim’s home, he did what every boy scout would by cutting an X-shaped incision over the fang marks, at once applying suction. But unlike a scout’s rubber cup, the suction device was a magic rock that the fetisheer used for bee, wasp, spider, and snake bites, an apparatus he later assured me had worked, withdrawing the cobra venom from the citizen supernaturally, On another day, I was in a fetisheer’s hut in Vakposito as he was consulted by three diverse patients, one with constipation, one with diarrhea, and one who wasn’t conceiving any children.

The last was a woman wearing a wrap-around with an imprint of little chickens, pulling it hard around her as a cold rain went rat-tat-tat on the hut’s corrugated roof. In the rafters there were a hundred withered herbs like the pothoses in some decrepit apartment, and, in the gloom, we also identified an owl, crocodile, rainbow snake, and mermaid in ragged black paint on the whitewashed walls. On the damp cement floor was a goatskin and, on this warmer carpet, a hard wooden stool for the old bald fetisheer, an armful of silver bracelets jingling, jangling under his rose-colored robe like the riches of some cunning gypsy king. The man said nothing himself to the sad-eyed barren woman, but in the room somewhere the flat, fast, quacking voice of some invisible entity told her in Ewe language, "You want to have children, correct?"

"I do," the astonished woman said--well, I was surprised myself, and the old fetisheer turned to listen too. It sounded as though his whole salon were an open mouth, encompassing us and addressing us.

"I’ll need some wine," the void proceeded to quack-quack-quack according to my interpreter there, an investment adviser in Togo. "Wine and one hen and one rooster."

"It’s for the medicine," the fetisheer whispered to us.

"Tso schnapps va," the void continued to quack in Ewe, and my interpreter rendered this, "And bring me some schnapps."

"What’s happening?" I asked him in much bewilderment.

"I’ll bring it,," the woman who wasn’t pregnant promised.

"Who’s talking to us?" I asked, and my interpreter said it apparently was an imperceptible voodoo god. "A god! It sounds just like Donald Duck!" I protested.

"Wogbe di Donald Duck,." my interpreter snitched to the possible voodoo god.

It was getting weird at this witch doctor’s office. I kid you not: the sound of that drum-roll rain like a wild uncivilized ritual and, in our throbbing ears, the echoes of chickens clucking, of goats seemingly gargling, of children crying, and of that purported god in the gaps in the hut’s humid atmosphere, a god who was now declaiming to us, "Yes, I know Donald Duck. He too is a voodoo god."

"Donald Duck? A voodoo god?" I gasped.

"But you people haven’t the herbs to understand him." And then the void concluded in its same auto-horn voice but in English, "Goodbye!"

No way, Jose. For fifteen difficult minutes, I huddled there with the fascinating god, the very helpful fetisheer, and my heroic interpreter to get a little exegesis here. At last I learned that the god’s intended revelation was, a duck surely would be a voodoo god if, similarly, it spoke in Ewe and English without anyone’s assistance. Now this I concede, though I’m not really sure of the self-sufficiency of that garrulous god in the fetisheer’s hut, for I had discovered it never, never, stepped on the fetisheer’s lines, just like Charlie McCarthy.

Her prescription given, the woman who couldn’t conceive any children left to get schnapps, etcetera, perhaps so impressed with her doctor’s connections that her very faith in him had already cured her, and I left eventually to cry maledictions in Dodger Stadium. Also, I operated my new imported corncob there and, I didn’t say, I’d arrived early with a jar of the anti-opponent water of Togo’s soccer champions to sprinkle it diabolically into the Padres’ dugout. "Padres dogli," I was shouting now as Maldonado, the Dodger batter, moved his baton and hit his ballon to far left field, and I got really personal as the Padres’ fielder there, Martinez, levelheadedly waited for it. "Martinez dogli," I shouted so passionately that all the appropriate gods in Togo probably heard me, "Martinez, Martinez dogli!" And sure enough, the ball bounced off of Martinez’ glove, off of Martinez’ shoulder, and off the bleacher wall like a flustered partridge before it was caught--illegally, according to rule number 605--by that very hexed man, Martinez, as Maldonado was halfway home. But curses: the ball had bounced off the fatal wall but the blind umpire didn’t see it and shouted, "Out," the crowd booing and the Dodgers losing, 4-3. The ump dogli, I say!

 

A fetisheer there in Togo…More