In my dream I am a voodoo priestess. I am dressed in white cotton and snake bones, and tiny live green snakes dangle from my earlobes and writhe in the warm, wet air of a night even more humid than those I have become used to growing up in Miami. All around me in my sweet dream are fellow vodouisants admiring my very chic voodoo temple. People are dancing and a wind is blowing, and the boy I love, a boy so beautiful I get a lump in my throat just looking at him, is standing in front of me, dressed in the white T-shirt and shorts of a supplicant. He puts his hands together, raises them to me, and asks, "Mother, what is the truth?" In answer I very slowly raise my skirts to reveal my organ of creation. He falls to his knees and kisses it.
At which point I invariably wake up, usually because my sister, Celestina, is pinching me awake, scolding me for falling asleep so early on a Saturday night. Celestina has me on a two-slat diet, which means I must push Mama's pork chops around my plate in a desultory manner and skip the napoleons until I can fit through the space you get when you remove two slats from the jalousie window in my bedroom. Right now I am a four-slat fatty, which won't do at all if I am to continue sneaking out with Celestina for Mambo Theoline's voodoo lessons. I do not mind the dieting and the pinching and my sister's generally nasty attitude, because my dream boy exists and I am suffering the diet for his sake. Not because I must be thin for him, but because when I complete my course of voodoo study, like I swore to Celestina I would, she has promised to deliver him into my eager arms.
When Mama and Papa are safely asleep, we slip out the window and fly through the hot and mysterious night in Celestina's Miata, across the Rickenbacker Causeway to I-95. We slip up NE Second Avenue, into a neighborhood in Little Haiti that I might be terrified to step into if Celestina did not seem to belong there so thoroughly. We pull up to Mambo Theoline's little white house with the avocado tree out front and scratch at her door. Always she lets us in like it's the most normal thing in the world, like we're the meals-on-wheels girls come to bring her a late dinner, not apprentice vodouisants slipping into her home for instruction at a quarter to one in the morning. While we're waiting for everyone else to arrive, she gives us doll-sized clay cups of clairin, which is raw white rum, and delicious almond cookies, and with her puffy cheeks you'd think she could be Gary Coleman's grandma if her house didn't reek so horribly of blood.
Not human blood. Don't think that. We are not Bizango or Secte Rouge. This is friendly voodoo. Or friendly enough, unless you're a chicken. After the others have arrived and Mambo Theoline has started the ceremony, I kill a rooster who is the real-life spit and image of Foghorn Leghorn. I expect him to break into a strangled stutter as I wring his neck, to beg for his life. But he only flaps his wings desperately as I wring and wring. How long does it take to suffocate a chicken? I sense the others growing impatient as I throttle and shake Mr. Leghorn, and I begin to sweat, and still he shakes his thighs and makes hoarse, breathy squawking noises, until finally Celestina comes over and gently puts her hands over mine. I can smell the clairin on her breath as she twists her hands and my hands brutally and mercifully in opposite directions. Mr. Leghorn gives me an accusatory look just as he expires.
"Twist," Celestina whispers, "don't just squeeze."
"Sorry," I say. She smiles and retreats to a wall near the door, where the other hounsis canzo are standing. Mambo Theoline shakes her asson, her sacred rattle, to the north, south, east, and west, and cries out, "Papa Legba, ouvri barrié pou nous passé!" She is asking Legba to do us the favor of opening the gates between this world and the next, where the gods and the dead live. And he'll do it, of course, but nothing is for free. That's why I had to kill the rooster, and why I couldn't use a knife. When the chicken is for Legba, you've got to wring its neck.
Mambo Theoline takes Mr. Leghorn away from me and places him on his back in the middle of a complex design, a cross festooned with curlicues, drawn with pure white flour on the stained indoor-outdoor carpeting that covers her living room floor. Celestina steps forward with a bowl of water, which Mambo Theoline takes up to the little altar near the door to her bedroom. It was once a card table, but now is unrecognizable under all the layers of wax and feathers. It's covered with pictures of gods and saints, with beads and small clay pots, with old food and the tiny bones of snakes. Mambo Theoline pours water three times before the altar, then once at each of the cardinal points, then once before the big metal pole that really is the first thing you notice when you walk in her house. If you were one of us you'd call it the poteau-mitan, and know that it's the rod that connects this world with the other. It's the zero point, the border, the most mystical thing in the room, but whenever I look at it in the middle of all that green Astroturf, I think all it needs to be a golf-green pole is a little orange flag on the top.
The drums start up with the pouring of the libation before the poteau-mitan. They are like nothing you can possibly imagine without being there. When the boys get going on the three drums, talking to Legba in sweet, lovely rhythm, it's like somebody's reached inside me and got a hold on my spine, and now they're cracking it like a whip. I swear all my blood goes to my hips, and I often have trouble remembering what happens next, though certain things stand out.
I always remember Georges, Mambo Theoline's La Place (or chief male assistant), swinging his ritual sword, cutting away the boundaries between the here and the hereafter, cutting away the material world until we're in the kingdom of the loa. And I remember Mambo Theoline's Maya Angelou voice invoking the loa, one after another as she draws their vévés on the carpet. And I remember the sharp metal smell of blood as the chickens go down, and the way blood always looks like such a violent surprise when somebody gets it on their pure white dress. Mambo Theoline calls out to Damballah Arc en Ciel, Aida-Wedo, Erzulie, and Papa Guédé, inviting them into the room and into the people gathered here. Many fall into possession as the gods descend and mount them.
It has not yet happened to me, but when one of the loa picks me as their horse I hope it won't be Papa Guédé. That demanding horseman is partial to Celestina. I watch as she falls back from dancing as if struck by a two-by-four, and when she rises it's obvious that she's been mounted by Papa Guédé, the rude lord of death and sexual debauchery. She holds her head back and her eyes are so wide open I can see the white all around the iris. She runs to the altar and picks up a battered, waxy top hat and a half-smoked cigar, places the one on her head and the other in her mouth, then spends the rest of the night swilling clairin like it was Hi-C, dancing a nasty, hip-thrusting dance with any woman or man she can corner, and insulting people: "Tell my horse your ass is wide as the sea!" she says to me. When he leaves, she won't remember anything she said or did.
As for me, I dance and sweat gloriously, not possessed, but still in some timeless, disconnected place. The drums speed up and slow down, animals go to cruel and often lingering deaths, and their blood pays the price of passage for the gods to walk in us and among us. It's all a sweet blur to me. At some point someone grabs my sea-wide ass and I cry out because they've lifted me clear off the ground. I have a brief fear of being carried off like a fat little shrew by a hawk. It's Georges who has me. He puts me down and the dance continues on till close to dawn, when Mambo Theoline begins to kick out the gods who haven't left on their own already, as if they were so many boorish party guests who've overstayed their welcome. The ritual ends with a crescendo of drumming, rattle shaking, and clapping. The silence when it comes is as shocking as a punch in the face.
Celestina is lying exhausted on the floor, abandoned by Papa Guédé. I kiss Mambo Theoline goodbye, and she says, "See you Wednesday, sweetie." I wave to the others, load my sister into the Miata, and drive off. The sun is rising when we come off the causeway.
When we get to our house, I cut the engine and coast silently down our driveway. Celestina will only half wake up when I shake her, so I end up prodding and half-carrying her to my bedroom window. It's not hard at all, because she's brutally thin. As I push her through the window, I worry that her arm might catch against something and splinter like balsa wood. It's a struggle to get myself through, even with four slats out, especially without her pulling me. When I get through, I put the slats back in a hurry and crack one in my haste, but I don't care. I'm so tired I don't bother to carry her to her own room. I just throw her in my bed and crawl in next to her, then draw a sheet over us. She reeks of booze and cigar smoke, and has a terrible case of hat head, but her face is serene and beautiful. When I close my eyes I expect to sleep deeply and immediately, but instead I find myself in a weird, floating, half-awake state, like what you fall into when you go to bed after being at the beach all day, and in your cool white six-hundred-thread-count cotton bedding you still feel the waves tossing you about, except what I feel is my hips still jerking and twisting, and the horrid thrill of Mr. Leghorn's neck breaking against my palms.
When I say voodoo my sister pinches my ear and says, "Not voodoo! Vodun! Do not speak in bastardizations. Enough has been lost already." She means our fabulous voodoo heritage, lost when Mama ran away from the houngfort (voodoo temple) with our handsome papa, away from her own papa, Dieu Donnez of Archahaie, one of the most formidable houngans (voodoo priests) on the island, and her mama. Mention any of this to our mama and you will be sent to your room without dinner. That is perfectly in accord with the two-slat diet, but not to be done because it keeps her in a bad mood toward you for three days exactly.
Mama wants to forget all about Haiti. She does not live there anymore. Mama is entirely in this country now. Papa took her away to Athens, Georgia, where she married him while his family looked on in horror and shock. Or most of them did. Granny thought it was a fine idea, liked very much the deep-black girl he brought back from his stint in the marines. The others almost changed their mind about her after Mama went to medical school and invented a little knife that cuts your heart just so during open-heart surgery, and with patent in hand proceeded to make the millions that landed us here in the middle of Key Biscayne, in a cavernous pink stucco house with jalousie windows and a wall almost all the way around.
That voodoo heritage has nothing to do with why I go to visit Mambo Theoline, but it's about half the reason Celestina does. In the past it was the whole reason; she and our brother, Simalo, she says, felt a call in them. Voodoo will out in the true blood, Simalo said, even if our mama wishes it would not. I never felt that way, but they strove, secretly, to fulfill their potential and become like our renowned Haitian grandparents. Mama and Papa never knew a thing about it, not until Simalo began to die.
That's the rest of the reason Celestina thirsts for the power of the Mambo, for her own asson to rattle at the loa, to plead with them and command them. She wants to put our brother's soul to rest. He never had the proper voodoo rituals, and now his duppy is raging, has been all year. That's why Papa wrecked his car twice and had to have his jaw wired shut the last time. For a month I pureed everything imaginable for him, fed him with a straw slipped through the space between his bottom front teeth. Simalo's raging duppy is really responsible for Mama's being driven out of her position at the hospital, not the confederation of evil Baptist administrators who actually did the dirty work.
Or so Celestina says. Not that she cares so much about our parents' misfortunes. I think she rejoices in them. She would not have fed Papa. Or if she did, I can only wonder what six-legged horrors she would have slipped into his liver puree. For Mama she cares even less.
Celestina wants to put Simalo's spirit to rest because restless spirits are by definition unhappy spirits, and because she loves him, not because he's torturing our parents. If you ask her, it's their fault he's dead. The leukemia that got him could have been healed by a few smart waves of an asson. But Mama and Papa threw Celestina out when she came to the hospital with Mambo Theoline in tow, her purse bursting with candles and fetishes. He died in his hospital room, without her there. Mama, with her hospital connections, had Celestina barred from the building. He turned yellow just before he died, even in his teeth and eyeballs. His last words were, "Tell my sister that I love her."
Celestina was waiting for us when we came back from saying goodbye to Simalo. Or her body was, at least, decked out in full Papa Guédé regalia. She screamed in a voice that seemed somehow electric, "Tell my horse you killed your son. Tell my horse you are murderers. Tell my horse you have destroyed her happiness in this world." She spat once on each of our parents, then ran to the kitchen and ate a whole bottle of cayenne pepper. Then she left, strolled calmly out the front door. She did not come back for three months. Sometimes I think she moved back in out of spite, so she could hurt Mama and Papa with her excessive coldness and her constant little reminders that say, you killed him.
I loved my brother, and I miss him, but whether his spirit is running all over Miami wreaking havoc, I just don't know about that. I do know that Celestina said she needed my help to put Simalo to rest, and though I might have helped anyway, she sweetened things considerably by offering me the object of my desire. His name is Del Dippel. I have loved him since I first set eyes on him way back in eighth grade. Celestina says she will deliver him to me if I am initiated into the societé as a hounsi lavé-tête, and help her with certain ceremonies.
How much do you want that which you want more than anything? That which you've wanted more than anything previously, that need you cannot imagine ever stopping, not in a dozen lifetimes? That's how much I want Del Dippel. Needing him is a deep aching around which I have ordered my life. It's really for him that I kill the chickens, not for Aida-Wedo or Damballah or Erzulie. For him I would sacrifice a great deal more than the odd chicken.
But, as it turns out, all I have to do is proceed with my initiation next Wednesday, and Del will be mine, will have been mine, because that's prom night and he's already asked me to go. I've already got us a room at the Fountainbleau. Me, Miss Fatty, going with Del Dippel, the loveliest boy in the universe, who a year ago didn't know my name.
At church Sunday afternoon I am half dead, but Celestina is as perky as a lamb. She stands straight up, kneels with alacrity, and belts out hymn after hymn by the Reverend Carey Landry in her bell-clear soprano. It's hard to imagine how just hours ago she was possessed by Papa Guédé. Mama glares at me and pokes me with her elbow when I start to drift off. I shift uncomfortably in the hard pew. I am a score of pounds away from three slats, but still my bottom feels bonier than in the past. I think I feel my bones grinding against the wood.
"What time did you go to bed last night?" Mama hisses, just before the homily. I shrug. Papa smiles at me from beyond her. He doesn't mind if I sleep, and I wish I had sat next to him, except that would have put Mama next to Celestina. While Father Friend is droning on about something or other, I look around at his clientele. Everyone is pretty finely decked out: Our Lady of the Waters is the swankiest Catholic church south of Boca, and everybody here knows it. I try to imagine them all dancing and drinking chicken blood.
Mama folds her gloved hands in her lap and glares at me again. In her white suit she might be a well-dressed voodouisant: all she lacks is a turban and an asson to be a Mambo. Even she is bored by Father Friend's discourse. Her eyes start to wander to the statues spaced out between the stations of the cross. I wonder what she sees, if memory of the houngfort clouds her vision. Is that St. Patrick she sees, in the green robe with the little snake under his foot? Or is it Damballah, father of the loa, the serpent in the rainbow who supports the world on his coils? Is that St. James or Ogoune-Feraille, the war god who fought alongside Toussaint and Henri Christophe? St. Peter or Legba? The Virgin Mary or Erzulie Frieda, the incorruptible whore?
I sit up straight and pretend to pay attention till communion, when we all get up and file down the aisle in our finery. I can see people checking each other out, the women sizing up each other's hats and husbands. I take communion in my hand like any modern Catholic girl, like Celestina does, but unlike her I actually put mine in my mouth and eat it. She palms hers expertly, it looks like it's gone into her mouth, but in fact she's slipped it into her barely existent cleavage.
After the recessional we slip away from Mama and Papa, who will loiter by the door to exchange pleasantries with Father Friend. We take separate cars everywhere because Celestina refuses to drive with our parents. After church I always long to go to lunch someplace nice or to go to the beach, but Celestina will never have any of that. She insists on racing right home so she can feed her little voodoo box.
I call it that for lack of a better term. She won't tell me its true name. It's about a foot in length and width, about four inches deep, and made of shiny rosewood. It doesn't have a lock, but I could not open it the one time I tried. Celestina knew I had been tampering with it, and pulled my hair to punish me. It's dangerous, she says, stay away from it. She says I mustn't mention it to Mambo Theoline, that there are creatures inside that she will release one day to do her bidding. In the meantime they must be properly fed, so when we get home from church she rushes to her bed and lifts the dust ruffle to pull out the box. Out comes the Host from her bosom, and she slips it through a coin-sized slot in the front, the only opening I could ever find. When I shined a flashlight in that slot I saw nothing but deep darkness. After she puts the Host in the slot she puts her ear to the box and listens, then smiles.
Of course, whatever's in there, it's probably evil. Whatever it is, it's obviously eating what she feeds it, because when you shake the box you hear not the whisper of unleavened cracker against unleavened cracker, but ominous silence.
After she's fed the box she goes to her closet and removes my Barbie Dream House from deep in the back. It looks like any old Dream House, a pink plastic thing that looks just a little like our own house, except you can open it up right down the middle and meddle in Barbie's home life. Celestina was never into Barbies, though Papa always showered us with them, both the white kind and the black kind, when we were smaller. Simalo got the occasional Ken doll, to keep him from feeling left out. I got Skipper dolls. We were supposed to play at making a racially harmonious world with them: black Barbie and white Ken on a date with Skipper in the backseat, watching. We never did play with them that much, except to throw Dream House orgies for them, during which we'd arrange them into writhing piles and force their blank crotches together.
Sometime ago Celestina converted the Dream House to a Dream Houngfort. When you open it up, it's a mess of candle wax and playing-card size hagiographics. It's a miniature, portable altar. In the place of honor, in what was formerly the bedroom, is a special stone given to Simalo by Mambo Theoline, which Celestina took when he died. She will light a candle before it and pray for Simalo, like she does every Sunday. It's a loa stone. That is, a pretty ordinary piece of volcanic rock, but special because it's believed to be inhabited by the spirit of one of the loa. This one has a piece of Damballah. Some stones are so strongly possessed that they speak or cry tears of blood. This one urinates. I thought it was too much to believe till Celestina gave it to me to carry in my pocket one day and damned if it didn't pee all over my leg, once at noon and once at five-thirty.
I will amaze you with the story of how things progressed with Del, from a point one year ago when he didn't know my name, to Monday afternoon when we're walking hand in hand on the beach at Virginia Key.
One day, not a week after Celestina made me her proposition and took me for the first time to see Mambo Theoline, Del turned around in Chemistry and asked me if I had an extra pencil because he had broken his. I had made a point of sitting behind him, so I could admire his strong neck, the nape and the round knobs that appear under it whenever he leans his head forward, the ones I always want to press for luck. Sometimes I would lean close, especially on very warm days when he was sweaty, to catch his lovely scent, which is a mixture of the detergent his mama washes his clothes in and his own special sweaty smell, which is kind of like cookies.
I did not have an extra pencil, but I gladly gave him the one I was using. If he'd asked for my left hand I think I would have gnawed it off for him. Later he thanked me for the pencil, and in the days afterward kept looking at me during class. He moved from his seat in front of me to sit next to me, and I'd get this wonderful feeling in the middle of a lecture on ketones and not know what it was coming from till I turned my head a little and caught him looking at me. I was astounded by the power of the loa. When I told Celestina, she said, "I and the loa, we keep our promises." Who knows what bizarre rituals she was conducting with her box and her stone and my Barbie house. Who cares.
All that matters is that eventually he asked me out, ostensibly to study chemistry, which is the only class we have together, but really we just talked, and though I longed to touch him I never did because I was too afraid. And when I was so afraid I couldn't think of anything to talk about, I would talk about voodoo, which was good because it seemed to intrigue him. I marvel at the fact that voodoo brought him to me when the loa broke his pencil, and then voodoo brought him closer to me because he thinks it's all so interesting and can sit for hours listening to me talk. Celestina does not like this, says there are secrets that are not to be revealed, but I don't think I know any of those. Most of the things I tell him are made up, anyway.
We kept going out, and everyone wondered what Mr. Wonderful was doing with Miss Fatty, the misfit girl whose sister and brother were famous freaks. Bets were made predicting which day he'd reveal that it was all a cruel joke, that his friends put him up to it. But everyone waited in vain for that day. And one day he kissed me.
"Voodoo quiz!" I tell him, there on the beach, and pull him with me toward the water until our sneakers are wet. "Who lives in the water?" I ask him.
"Ogoué," he says.
"Correct!" I say. "And what do those remind you of?" I point at the tireless waves rolling around our ankles.
"Bondye," he says, "the force that drives the universe, and that which drives my blood through my heart."
I give him a kiss to let him know what a good pupil he is. Every time I kiss him I can't believe I just kissed him.
"When are you going to take me to a voodoo ritual?" he asks. I give him a loving look right in his shocking blue eyes and touch his big nose.
"Never. They'd put you in a pot and eat you."
"Would not," he says, taking my hand.
"Then they'd make you into a zombi."
"You said there's no such thing as zombis."
"I only said that I had never seen one." Which isn't true, because there's a woman whom Mambo Theoline keeps in her house, whose name is Felice, who is the broken-down remnant of somebody's abandoned zombi. Her master died and she wandered aimlessly without anyone to command her, until Mambo Theoline found her and took her in. She feeds her and takes care of her, and Felice does the dusting and vacuuming, but never speaks or smiles or frowns.
"You can see a voodoo ritual when we have our voodoo wedding," I say.
"I like the way your lips look when you say voodoo," he says. We walk up the beach hand in hand. I look down at Del's bare stomach, at the tiny hairs that come together in a trail that vanishes into his pants. I want to put my hand on it, but I don't.
"I can't wait for Wednesday," I say.
"Me neither," he says. He thinks that in our rented room we will make out, passionately but chastely, smooch and then merely hold each other for a few hours until it's time to go home. That is all we have ever done, though I press for more because my terrible need cries, "More!" Del says he won't sleep with anybody until he is married. I keep telling this to Celestina but she only says, "Trust in the loa."
Tuesday I go shopping with Celestina for a wedding ring. I am getting married to Damballah, the snake god. Or not really getting married to him, so much as being consecrated into his service. When you do your lavé-tête, you have to pick your loa. Sometimes the loa picks you, like how Papa Guédé picked Celestina, but mostly you do the picking yourself, with the advice of wise counselors. Celestina and Mambo Theoline agree that Damballah is for me, or I for him. It doesn't particularly make a difference to me, so long as Mr. Snaky Hiss does not in any way disturb things between me and Del, which Celestina tells me he won't.
But I need, in addition to eggs and flour and white cornmeal and a pair of white chickens, a ring. I want to go to the jewelry counter at Neiman-Marcus because we have a charge account there, but Celestina insists on hitting a bunch of seedy-looking thrift shops in Hialeah. There are a lot of gaudy things that look like they've just slipped off the pinkie of some gold-toothed Cuban boy. Del does not wear rings, and is not Cuban, but looking at the wide men's rings makes me think fondly of his thick fingers and hairy knuckles, so I am spacing out when Celestina finds a ring she thinks is eminently suitable.
"Look," she says, "I knew it would be in here. I felt it pulling me all down the street." I expect her to be holding up one of those tacky ourobouros rings that you sometimes see on people with too much piercing, but she's holding something I actually like. It's a silver ring crafted in the likeness of a wide-blooming rose, with a tiny pearl set in the middle of the flower.
"I like it," I say.
"I knew you would," she says.
"But will he like it?"
"He will. You must be careful never to remove it, once we put it on."
"Of course," I say. It's kind of nice to be shopping with her. Formerly, when Simalo was around, she did not exactly ever have time for me. In fact, she never seemed particularly interested in me. Neither did Simalo, for that matter. When Mama and Papa chided them for not doing more things with their sister, they merely gave blank looks. Mama and Papa did not understand that all their energy and attention was reserved for each other. I can understand that sort of exclusivity now, feeling what I feel for Del.
In these post-Simalo days Celestina and I have been closer and closer. It's sweet to have the sort of big sister who takes you to lunch and takes you clothes shopping, even if she won't let me eat a damned thing at lunch, and only takes me shopping for voodoo clothes. After she buys the ring from the shriveled-up person at the counter, she takes me to Neiman-Marcus where we loiter among the lingerie, and I try on bustier after bustier until I find one that she thinks will please both Del and Damballah.
On Wednesday, in the early evening, Celestina has me standing naked in my room, and she's instructing me.
"The consummation," she says, "cannot possibly take place in bed. You should do it on the floor. Beds are for the lazy and the bored. When he walks into the room--and you must remember to send him out, so when he comes in he will see you and your image will devour him--when he comes in he must see you like this." She kneels down and leans back, further and further until only her shoulders and the soles of her feet are touching the carpet.
"Like this!" she says. "Like this, or you will not have him! Do you understand?"
"I understand," I say, wincing.
"Good. Now get in the tub."
I get in. She's filled it up with two parts hot water to one part milk and scattered herbs in it that look pretty much like a lot of parsley and basil, but smell warm and sweet, like I imagine sometimes the night must smell in Haiti, though I have never been there. Mama won't let us go any farther south in this hemisphere than Key West.
When I have steeped sufficiently, she takes me out of the water and stands me in the middle of my room again. Milky water is dripping from my hair, staining the rug, but she won't let me make a move to dry myself. She does it herself, dabbing me with about a dozen silk handkerchiefs stolen from Mama's underwear drawer. When I'm dry she gets out a little clay pot of oil, which she says has taken a whole year to ripen properly. She rubs it all over me, every bit of skin, and I think when Del hugs me I will shoot out from between his arms and fly across the room like a greasy watermelon. But when she rubs the oil in, it's sucked into my pores as if my whole body were hungry for it.
"Almost done," she says, and pulls out a big white feather from her skirt. For a moment a thrill of fear runs through me, because I have no idea what she plans to do with that feather. She warms it with her breath, then begins to flick it all over my body, up and down, every place she put the oil, and I get such a wonderfully warm and tingly feeling I think if she turned the lights out I'd see her face clearly in my glow.
By the time she's done with the feather I'm so eager to see Del that I dress in less than five minutes and cannot sit still while she does my hair up with little pearl pins and combs. I want to wear the ring but she won't let me. It's for later, she says, and Papa knocks at the door to say that Del has arrived and is waiting for me in the living room.
Prom is a bore and a torture. The music is dull compared to the Saturday night voodoo drums, and dancing is not precisely what I want to be doing with Del. I do not wait long to ask him if we can go upstairs because the heavy bass is making my head hurt, and when we get up to the room I send him back down right away for some aspirin. As soon as he is out the door I get out of my dress and into the position, and then I am waiting for him, my back aching, my whole body aching, my whole person aching.
Later, as I kneel before Mambo Theoline and she braids and parts my hair while Celestina looks on proudly, I can only think about how wonderful and awful it was with Del. It all went beautifully, don't think it did not. I got everything that was coming to me, everything Celestina promised. He saw me on the floor. My need snared him and drew him to me. The aspirin rolled out of his hand and in the silence while he was walking toward me I thought I could hear them bouncing on the carpet.
Certainly I should have known what would happen. When I put my mouth on his nipple I felt like a vampire, like I was drawing something vital from him, but it was good. When I rolled him on his back and pushed his arms up over his head and ran my cheek along the glorious swell of his biceps, that was good, too, and when I put my face under his arm and smelled the cookie smell I was utterly at peace, and all I could think of was how rare and good it is to get what you want.
It was all the most wonderful thing in the world until it was over, because after Del brought me ever higher and higher on some crazy ziggurat, up and up forever until together we fell off the top, after I had the glorious crisis I had been working so hard for all year long, I slipped away and I had a vision of my sister. We stood on a bridge lit fantastically by thousands of candles. Our Secte Rouge brothers and sisters cavorted across the whole span, their bodies casting weird shadows down the gorge. Celestina threw a struggling package down in the middle of the crowd. It was a boy stolen from his village while he slept. Celestina choked him with a cord made of human intestines, then pronounced him to be a pig and thus to be eaten. We fell on him and I bit his thigh.
I did not scream when I opened my eyes, though I made a funny noise in my throat, halfway between a sob and a burp. My eyes began immediately to sting because Del was dripping tears into them. Apparently he'd fallen into a postcoital abyss of his own. He was weeping and clutching at me.
"What did I do?" he asked me, his whole body shaking, his lovely face all twisted up.
I didn't answer, but at the sound of his weeping I felt such remorse I thought my body would turn to ash. I kept thinking, stupid boy!
"I have to go," I said. "I'm late for my thing."
"What?" he said. "You can't go. You can't leave. What did I do? What did we do?"
"I've got to go," I said.
"I'll go with you."
"You can't come," I said. "They'll eat you."
"Please!" he said. He caught my leg as I was getting up, and wouldn't let go. In the end I said he could come but that he had to stay in the car. All the way over he kept asking why I wouldn't talk to him, and the closer we got to Mambo Theoline's, the closer I got to tears. As we pulled up he said he was sorry, as if what we had done was his idea. He said he loved me and didn't want me to be angry with him. It was too much.
"You don't really love me!" I said, just before I slammed the door. "You're just my voodoo love slave!"
Now, as Mambo Theoline breaks a pure white egg over my head for Damballah Arc en Ciel, and as she sprinkles flour over that, there are all these little voices in my mind going guilty, guilty, and evil, evil. The fact that Del's sweetness and desirability have not been lessened by my horrible use of him only makes me feel worse. When Mambo Theoline is done with the flour, I sing the song Celestina taught me:
Fiole por Damballah,
Damballah we do Fiole, oh!
Damballah we do Fiole por Damballah,
Damballah we do Fiole por Damballah!
I'm thinking, Damballah, just a few hours ago I was only going to do this for show. I was only going to pretend to marry you, but now I want to become your faithful nun-wife and never be evil to another human being again. Give me the ring, I will never take it off! But even as I think this a picture hangs in my mind of Del's face, flushed and sculpted by his breaking crisis. His face like that is precisely what I wanted. I wanted it to be mine to look at. I wanted his guttural articulations to be mine to hear, his weight to be mine to bear up. And I still want these things.
Mambo Theoline shouts a prayer to Damballah, and the drums start, and she steps up and kills a chicken on my head. Yes, she kills a chicken right on my head, and the blood runs down all over my hair and face until I look like Carrie White on her own ill-fated prom night. Now it's almost done, all that's left is for me to put on the ring and get possessed by Damballah. It's Celestina who brings up the ring and puts it on my finger, after which Mambo Theoline begins to shake her asson furiously and ask Damballah to come into me. When the drums start, I begin to dance. I can't help myself, though I stay in place and try to keep a solemn expression. The others are dancing, too, dancing by me where I'm standing and touching me gently in welcome and congratulation. There's blood in my eye, so I can't exactly see what Celestina is doing when she suddenly leaps in front of me and holds something up to my face. I have to wipe my eyes to see that it's the little box from under her bed. When Mambo Theoline sees it, she screams like she's just seen the most horrible thing in the world. Celestina opens the box.
"Child!" screams Mambo Theoline. "Do not look inside!"
Of course I do look, it's already too late when she warns me, but all I see is a creamy sort of brightness. Mambo Theoline is screaming "No, no," and she rushes at Celestina and tries to hit her over the head with the rattle. But it breaks before it touches her. A snake bone flies along my left cheek, giving me a shallow cut. Celestina pushes tottery old Mambo Theoline down, then kicks her in the head. She turns back to me and shuts the box. I fall flat on my back.
It was my plan to pretend to be possessed, to make a good show for my sister. I was going to slither all around on my belly, risking Astroturf burns, and lap up a raw egg, risking nausea if not salmonella, all to show her my heart was in the enterprise, but I never actually expected it to happen. When she opened the box, I felt everything I considered to be my mind draw up into a peach-pit-sized space in my head, and something else rushed in to fill it. At first I did not know what that something was, I did not feel snaky or all-powerful, so it could not be Damballah. I did not want to speak rudely or drink or smoke, so it was not Papa Guédé. I did not know who it was until I realized the familiar smell I smelled all around me was my brother's smell. From the back of my mind I watch as he opens my eyes and works my legs to stand me up.
"Is it you?" Celestina asks. When they saw the box the others had fled, even Georges with the sword he ought to have used to protect his Mambo. In their haste they have bent the poteau-mitan and overturned the altar. All the little pictures of the gods and saints are catching fire.
"What have you done?" asks Simalo. It is my voice, but somehow it sounds just like he did. In the little peach-pit room in my head I start to cry. Celestina comes forward and embraces me.
"I've got you back," she says.
"You have polluted this houngfort with sorcery." He looks down at Mambo Theoline and frowns. "It is not right," he says. From where I am, I can see everything he knows, and as he realizes how our sister brought him back, I realize it, too, though the knowledge is his, not mine. I understand that all this time the box that I thought held tiny voodoo monsters actually held our brother's soul, and that all she needed was somebody to put it in. Best would be someone who shared his blood, and since she could not put it in herself she put it in me. She had only to wait a year and a day, catch me at the very moment before I was consecrated to the loa, open the box in my face, then keep the box forever from harm.
"Now we are together again," she says. She steps back and puts her hand on the bloody cheek I'm sharing with our brother. He raises my hand to take hers, and though I can plainly feel his revulsion at what Celestina has done, I can also feel a palpable desire to remain with her, to live out a long natural life in my body at our sister's side. I can feel what he feels for her, and I realize that what I always felt for Celestina and considered love is quite pathetic and small compared to what he feels for her. It's a lot like what I feel for Del.
They stand there like that for quite a while, while the fire spreads around the living room. I begin to get a little cramped inside the peach pit, and I'm thinking, You bitch! How could you do this to me? And yet I understand. The good thing about being as hideously evil as I am, as I must be, considering what I've done to Del, is that nothing, no matter how decrepit, is strange to you, and therefore you can love and understand anybody, no matter how low and decrepit their deeds. It is no less than I deserve, certainly, after possessing poor sweet innocent Del, to be forever possessed myself, and rendered mute witness to my siblings' uncanny and powerful love.
When Simalo kisses Celestina and whispers to her, "Tell my horse I love my sister," I give up and resign myself to an eternity in the peach pit, but then he snatches the box from our sister's hands and throws it onto the altar, where it cracks open a pot of clairin and causes a small but impressive explosion of fire. Celestina screams, "No, no, no!" and throws herself after it, trying to pat out the fire with her hands, but she only succeeds in setting fire to her thin cotton-sleeved arms. With the explosion I am once again the sole proprietress of my head, but suddenly I'm very tired, and when I fall back on the floor I just want to stay there and sleep.
I think, I will just stay here and burn up with Mambo Theoline and my sister. But even as I turn to look at her, I see that Mambo Theoline is being dragged away by Zombi Felice, who gives me an empty look as she drags her mistress toward the door. And before I know what's going on someone's dragging me by one breast and one shoulder across the smoldering indoor-outdoor carpet, and I think it's Celestina until I realize it's Del. When he gets me outside and lets go, I start crawling back in.
"What are you doing?" he asks me. What does he think I'm doing?
"My sister!" I say.
"I'll get her," he says, but as he starts toward the door the red tile roof falls into the house, and a shower of sparks and flame rises towards the sky like an illustration of my scream. Poor Del gets blown back into me by the blast of heat. I gather him in my arms, like next to me Zombi Felice has gathered Mambo Theoline in her arms, and I stroke his head just like she's stroking hers. Like Mambo Theoline, he is as still as a big floppy doll.
I think about how my parents love my sister, and yet they will not miss her. I think how I will miss my sister, and yet I do not love her. I think of how I miss my brother, and of how I loved him, but did not really know him, how I was not very important to him when he was alive, and how he gave me back my body. I think of how I love Del in a fashion both pure and evil, and I wonder if maybe I confused voodoo with the operation of miraculous grace in my life, because whatever Celestina was doing to get me Del, it wasn't voodoo, not according to Simalo's knowledge. It was just a bunch of mumbo jumbo.
"You really do love me," I say. "You're not my voodoo love slave." I give him a squeeze and he moans but does not stir. Right then his love seems like the one thing in the world that is not complicated by evil, and certainly it is a good thing to hold on to while the house burns down, while I wait for whatever is going to happen next.