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*My second sighting of Yemanja is on stage at the explosively brilliant Bale Folclorico da Bahia at a performance performing in the tiny Teatro Miguel Santana in Pelourinho. Face covered with a seashell-beaded veil, she wears a bustle gown in pale lilac, blue and white. Shell bands grip her arms, and she carries a jeweled fan. Men in straw hats and white pantaloons dance joyfully around her—she has given them fish to eat. The women crouch and wash their clothes in the river—she has given them water for survival. And when they draw near to her, they shudder, shoulders jerking wildly, in a pantomime of the power of the goddess’s presence. She too dances slowly and regally, weaving around and between her worshipers, and I can’t help but remember Nietzsche’s words, “I would believe only in a god that knows how to dance.” [caption id="attachment_12161" align="aligncenter" width="768"] The island of Itaparica on the Atlantic coast in Bahia[/caption]
*On my last day in Bahia, I sail to Itaparica, a lovely, sleepy island a hour ferry ride from Salvador. It is mid-morning, the heat and humidity intense, as I stand on the deserted beach. A lone fisherman sails in the distance. I wade into the sea, and cool, clear water swirls around my bare feet. Although I am alone, I easily imagine thousands of worshipers dressed in pale blue—Yemanja’s color—gathering to honor her on February 2nd, her feast day in Salvador (in Rio, it is December 31). They fill holes in the sand with lighted candles and flowers. They also carve little wooden boats, cram them with mirrors, combs, flowers, and lighted candles, and send them into the sea with prayers. I wade deeper, lower my head and stare into the water. In the wavering light, my sun-dazed eyes see Iemanja, rising, tall and graceful, from the waves. My third sighting of the goddess. Before I can register the wonder of this magical encounter, her face turns toward me, and her eyes meet mine. For a long and terrible moment, I stand utterly still. I blink, and she is gone. But I saw her. And she saw me. Somewhere drums are pounding. My chest shudders. I dip my hand and bring it to my mouth and lick her sweat from my fingers. Slowly, slowly, I make my way back to the mainland. Born in Morocco, Ruth Knafo Setton is the author of the novel "The Road to Fez", and the forthcoming "Darktown Blues". A multi-genre writer whose award-winning fiction, creative nonfiction, screenplays, and poetry have been widely published, she teaches Creative Writing at Lehigh University.
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