He can’t steady his hands to catch the hen, now determined to escape the altar it was tied to, but he carves the cleaver through its craning neck. A woman aged by the equator sun, wearing a white linen dress with embroidered accents, lights candles with wooden matches in a circle around him.
The glow trails the path of the thick crimson strings that slip from the bird along the crevices of the slab and into a clay bowl waiting on the tile floor below. Red specks smudge a large hand-chalked symbol marking the center of the room.
A drumbeat rises. A wooden clock hanging above the doorway strikes twelve. The old woman shuffles her bare feet around the symbol: a star, a pitchfork, and a crescent moon, circled in white. A few younger women join her dance, chanting Portuguese in unison as their twirling skirts play with the flames.
Male drummers in white drawstring pants emerge from the darkness, drums strapped across their shoulders. They thump their fingertips on the animal skin, eyes sealed, and chins in the air.
The old man folds his sleeves, revealing a black tattoo of a snake eating its tail beneath his wrist, wrapped by a ring of lighter skin an inch wide. He slices the poultry carcass and arranges the pieces on a platter. Thunder rumbles through the vines outside, carrying a chilled gust of garlic and myrrh across the sanctuary. He sets the platter at the center of the symbol, crosses his legs beside it, and breathes a chant between his steepled fingers.
One of the dancers pours a clay bowl full of thick red liquid that coats the man’s balding skull, forcing his eyelids closed and then splashing onto his robe. A bloodstained grin in his cheeks, he lifts his body with open fists in the air and shouts, “Long live the kingdom of faith! Long live Exu of the souls!”