I was only five years old when I first saw a full-spectrum apparition. My guess is that I’d probably seen spirits come and go hundreds of time by then. Most newborns do. But this was the first time I realized I was in the presence of a bodiless being that according to logic wasn’t supposed to exist.
It wasn’t like you’ve seen in movies. I wasn’t staring blankly into space when my mother shook me by the shoulder and asked me if everything was all right. I was actually sitting on the toilet concentrating on an impossible mission. Cheese croquetas were to blame for my constipation. Maybe they’re to blame for my hallucination? I’m not sure. All I know is that I’d been at it for a while and . . . nothing!
I glanced at the corner of the bathroom, where the light green paint was peeling from the wall showing another peeling coat of yellow. First thing I saw was a smiling face, then a hand, then a ragged white dress with a few colorful patches that showed were the fabric had teared. Her skin was dark and her short braids pointed in different directions. There was something very familiar about her, but I knew she wasn’t supposed to be there. Not when I was trying to take care of personal business. Not ever.
I closed my eyes tightly and her image was still there, projecting on my closed eyelids as if it were a movie. Panicking, I hopped from the seat, ripped a sheet of the newspaper to clean myself (there’s no toilet paper in Cuba so we’re all a bunch of smart-asses), and screaming for my mother I ran right through the apparition on my way out. My mother was entertaining guests when she saw me appear with panties at ankle level and my face drained of color. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “She was dancing in the bathroom! There was a little black girl dancing in the bathroom when I was trying to poop!” My mother held back the chuckle and apologized to the guests. "Where is she? Come on, take me to her,” she said, pulling my underwear up. I took her by the hand to confront the rude ghost that had barged into the bathroom, impeding me from taking care of my personal needs. My mother opened the door widely. “There’s nothing here now, see?” I peeked inside. She was gone.
My mother then knew I’d received the gift of clairvoyance. Going by my description, I’d described a spirit. There was a see-through quality to her image as she began to reveal herself to me. I saw her a few times after that day but she was always a ghostly apparition. My mother wasn’t a doctor. She couldn’t be certain that I was extra-sensory and not psychotic. But the fact that I knew how to tell the difference between human reality and spirit-world reality seemed important to her. They’re both very real to me still, but I think it’s important to differentiate the two.
After attending a séance with our local circle of espiritistas, it was confirmed that the spirit of the young black girl who had been accompanying me for weeks was in fact one of my spirit guides. I was explained that spirits don’t have a bodily form, and that this particular entity had decided to show itself to me in a way that seemed less threatening to a child. The only question the espiritistas couldn’t answer was the timing. “Why did she show up when she did?” I asked. The answer was a chorus of chuckles.
My first spirit-sighting was followed by an event that shows the ill-intention result of ignorance combined with superstition.
A person who saw my eight-year-old self as a threat gave me a pretty black doll as a gift. One day while playing with my doll on the rooftop of my building, I became curious and did what most kids would do—see if you can unscrew the head and arms then put them back together. As I squeezed and pulled, the head snapped with a soft pop. When I peered inside the hollow body I saw something. I emptied the contents on the floor—human hair, one of my pictures, and sewing thread and pins. All in a bundle with other herbs and dust. God knows what else was there. I put the doll down and went to get the only person who could make things right—my mom. I’d been the recipient of a dark magical spell and the doll was the bait.
Black dolls were and still are popular in Cuba. They’re often dressed up and displayed in living rooms as spirit dolls—representing spirit guides of the people who live in the household. Little did I know I was about to get my first.
After taking the cursed doll and the matter at hand to the circle of espiritistas and to her godmother in the Santeria religion, my mother went to the store and bought me a new black doll. This one received the blessings pertaining to a spirit doll. She also received a name which I won’t mention. (In Espiritismo the name of a spirit is sacred and should only be made known to the person the spirit is a guide to.) Mom also made a gorgeous white dress for her, with lace and ribbons, and a pretty fashionable hat reminiscent of the Southern Belle look. The dress had an underskirt with a pocket. Mom never explained what the pocket was for, but I intuited it was to communicate with my spirit guide. That’s where I’d leave offerings of candy and handwritten letters asking questions that my spirit guide would later answer in dreams.
My spirit doll was the one prized possession I managed to bring with me when I emigrated from Cuba. She is so old now that pieces of her seem to break to the touch. Today, she rests comfortably in a box in the closet. Every once in a while I bring her out for fresh air and a gentle kiss on her cheek.
She was more than an invisible friend to me. She was the first spirit guide I ever saw; the teacher who allowed me to understand that the spirit world and the human world were not to be feared. And she taught me the most important lesson of all: Innocence is the protective cloak that makes children invincible.
Some years ago I wrote a short story titled “Losing Your Marbles.” It’s basically a fictional take on this personal story.