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.
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