Drowning

My body is pressed against yours in the cold tower, dread tower, silk and lace and red velvet sheets I am burrowed into, but you are naked and cold, shark smile and wolf fangs, and as you neck me into surrender I let out the softest of sighs.

First a bite under my  earlobe, then the meat of my neck, near my Adam’s apple, above my collarbone.  You let the blood runneth over and I smell iron and venom and wetness as you suck and drink and lick and fuck me into nirvana.  It pools on my breasts, which you move to in due time, and maybe it’s the full moon or me being a black lamb but all I can think is “Oh, he’s at it again.  I am the feast, and he is the wine glass.”

My gown, once ivory pale, soon turns gory.  You moan and call out to the old gods – no gods, you don’t believe in gods – and rub  kinks out of my  back as you continue your vampire shtick.  You always said you hated vampires, that you wiped them off your boots after walking Cerberus, and I threaten to cut Cerberus’ head and serve it to you on a platter if you don’t let me go back to bed and keep romancing my veins but you just laugh, and the drugs of your saliva are slipping in.

My limbs are jelly, not wooden, and I roll and we kiss and the tide of my ruin pulls me downwards.  There is a fire in the hearth in our stone room, rich black bear and wolfskin rugs, and usually we are in the dungeons, but today you chose a wintry pinnacle through whose window I can see blizzards and snowy owls.  The sheets are wet with crimson, and the hot rivers flow to my belly, to my groin, and you lick a path from my womb to my chest to heaven upwards, just savoring the last drops, and I tell you I am not your toy, though I delight in being a doll.  You laugh and are clearly drunk off bloodwhoring and cradle me against you, play with my hair, and when I have fallen asleep but just you lift up my comatose form and carry me down the spiral stairs to your study and set me on a velvet settee while you read poetry aloud.  Your favorite parts are when I am fragile.

But when I wake, you are gone, and I am angry, so I don my white wings and cloak of gold vengeance and the gown of the White Reaper and fly through Pandemonium with my hair like brass snakes.  You aren’t answering my calls, too busy ruling, so I soar to the island in the Styx where the unearthly Sanhedrin hold court and break columns depicting Satan’s fall and rise and reign.  You are etched in stone, so cold, and I break marble balustrades and caryatids of succubi and toss them into the sea.  I have super strength, all because I am ignored, and soon I grow weary of tossing Satan’s shrapnel into unforgiving waters and go out to get tea on the canals.

You finally pick up your phone and join me for a scone.  You ask why my desperate cries for your attention are always so overdramatic, and I pause from drinking chamomile and wonder.  Why is it I cry when I can’t hold you and even when you smell like sulfur or roadkill or blood I still want to cradle you to my chest?  Why do I make a monster a man, and scream when your hand turns ephemeral as I wake in reality.  I’m always chasing you, pursuing, you may be the hunter but I am the huntmaster – you are my prey, in a way, and we only do things I enjoy, from the fucking to the killing to the reading, gluttony of the senses for what purpose?  Amusement?

I wanted to feel my pulse so you drained me, and honestly, I’m only alive when I am in your arms.

Advertisements

Churning Literary Butter

So my manuscript is with 11 amazing agents right now – 3 fulls and 7 partials ranging from 10-50 pages. I just got a lovely rejection from a great agent saying there was nothing wrong with my manuscript, just that he didn’t click and had to be very selective in taking on clients, which made me feel great, as instead of getting feedback to improve on as I was in 2016, that means my manuscript is at the point where I just need the right agent to come along and fall in love with it, like the Taylor Swift song, where some literary magic happens. One agent from #DVPit has already said they were immediately sucked in to the first twenty pages and had a mighty need to read the rest and extended me a full request this weekend, almost overnight, and she is oodles of awesome. I’m pretty excited about that one. 🙂

My top picks are Brandon Sanderson’s agent, Meg Cabot’s agent, a new agent at Aevitas that seems like my spirit animal, and a former St. Martin’s Press Editor that is amazing and fun. All the rest are amazing too – I only query agents I think would be good fits for me.

So I still have eleven shots at making this manuscript work, which is more than the two I had in February. Doing revisions for the first two agents opened the door to so much possibility. And I’m ready to play with Ivan Kupalo again, to make it even better. I think chances are pretty good that I have a shot at a literary agent – the rejections I’ve gotten (3 out of 15 so far) have all been complimentary and one Big Name Agent with lots of six figure deals even asked for me to resubmit if I ever revised the beginning. It was good to put away Ivan Kupalo and work on Chwal, and I’m hoping to finish Chwal for Pitch Wars in August. But I might go with Space Oddity because that is such a fun manuscript.

I am so grateful to all these amazing literary agents that have cheered me on and believed in me, even if they ultimately did not take me on. When I cried at my first full rejection from Neil Gaiman’s agent at the tender age of 21, at 24 I take rejections with gusto and save them in an email folder so I can carry around a bag of them like Meg Cabot does (she actually hides it under the bed), maybe frame them on my wall (especially the one from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s agent on the full he got back to me in six days, haha).

Something magic is afoot. My second short story may soon be getting published by Pantheon Magazine as it moved past the fiction team and is under consideration by the editors. Simon and Schuster just requested my romance novel. I finally feel like I’ve got novel-writing a little bit figured out, and I’m barely 24. If you had told the 21 year old who had never completed a novel in her life that in three years time she would have gotten full or partial requests from the top ten fantasy agents in the business she wouldn’t have believed you. My dreams are so close to fruition, and at Beltane’s balefire I pulled an envelope with my future Tarot card – 8 of Cups, the wish card – your dreams are close at hand.

My dreams are so close. Like stars I can pluck from the sky. And it all happened because I worked through writing horrible stories since the age of 11 onwards to ones I’m proud of now. I wrote horrible query letters for two years before I learned how to actually write something that didn’t give agents a gag reflex. I blame youth and stupidity. 😛

So basically I’m just really excited. I’m going to let Ivan Kupalo rest and I’m kind of actually hoping for a conditional R&R or editorial agent as I would love to rework some bits and bobs after having not touched it since January. In the interim I have two novels to work on, flash fiction, short stories, and reams of poetry.

Even if I never get an agent, I’ll still be happy, because writing is like breathing to me.

And that’s enough to churn butter.

Lucky Number 13

#DVPit is about halfway over, and I’ve had some AH-MAZING agents make partial requests, putting the agents with my manuscript up to… lucky number 13!

I really wanted to explore my Russian heritage when I wrote this book.  I didn’t know I was part Russian until I did genealogy research after college – I’d always felt this inexplicable draw to the culture, and people had always told me I had a Slavic nose, and I kept dreaming about Baba Yaga sending me on delivery routes aback Grey Wolf or making me milk a golden cow with silver udders – but it didn’t really cement until I learned I’m a direct descendant of Vladimir the Great (Saint Vladimir) and Vladimir Monomakh, also this awesome cave prophetess named Malusha.

One of my dying dreams is to go to Russia and visit Gogol and Pushkin’s homes.  This novel wouldn’t have been created without Cat Valente’s unbelievably amazing Deathless, which really inspired me at 21 to finally write that Russian novel that had been in my head since age 19.  Dreams of Morena, Veles, and Perun would follow, and so would obsessively watching Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky ballets and listening to Mussorgsky on repeat.

I’m obsessed with Russian folklore.  Libby and I both took an entire class dedicated to it, and I lifted the name Morozko from our favorite Soviet film.  What intrigued me the most were the nechist, or land and house spirits – the domovoi and rusalka, the vila and bannik (why did I try to make a bannik hot!)  But above all, it was for the love of leshys that I retold an entire ballet.  Also for Baba Yaga, because my babushka is amazing, and crazy af.

Hopefully I’ll have an agent soon – I will probably spontaneously combust if I get an offer, but I’ll keep you all updated accordingly!

Waiting and Excitement

So I just got another partial request for my manuscript – meaning Ivan Kupalo is with five agents total, with about a dozen queries waiting on a response.  That’s three fulls and two partials out, and #DVPit is coming up on Wednesday.  This will be my first time pitching the revised manuscript as Adult, not YA, so we’ll see how that goes!

I’m really excited about all the fulls I have out and am obsessively checking my email only to find spam – I can’t help it!  I hope at least one literary agent falls in love with Ivan Kupalo as much as I loved writing it, but it’s okay if they don’t, I have three other projects I want to write Space Oddity first (1/4 of the way done), then Birds Away and Spider King.

Also Simon and Schuster just requested my romance novel, so we’ll see how that goes.  It’s also with St. Martin’s Press.

Things are looking exciting, and my friend said this really good quote with writing:

If things are getting hard, it means you’re close to success.

Chwal: Part 3

Part 1Part 2

Each of the angels, I learn, is a gear in a clock: put them all together and the hours of the universe turn.  As the weeks go on, they teach me – to sing in Heaven’s language, to dance the steps Jacob’s family circled in the desert, to revel in the beauty God planted on Earth.  My soul thrums with their devotion, and I feel pure as a mountain spring.

I start working in soup kitchens with momma and pa and fill piles of notebooks with prose, imagining words plucked from the Tree of Life.  I give back the love the angels pour into me to my small Louisiana town, and it’s hard to notice, but sometimes a flower will creep up through the snow where I step, and jiminy cricket if that ain’t something.

But for all that glory comes darkness.  Pain drawn to me, like I’m some candle in the pitch-black gloam.  We read a Rilke poem at Sunday school about angels: beauty is but the beginning of terror.  I wonder if Rilke walked with angels, too.  Who the other Guardians were.

The blackness comes every night now, swirling outside my window, calling me.  May, it says, I see you.  I hide under the covers in a cold sweat.

Raff takes to sleeping at the foot of my bed, snoring like a foghorn, sword at his side.  He doesn’t even bother to cover his scars now, and god dang it if he won’t tell me how the despair knows my name.  “Don’t worry about it, May-flower.  He won’t hurt you.  It’s just like a moth to a flame.  After all, you’re bright as the sun.  Just stay in and get some rest.  You’re safe as long as you don’t go outside.”

Too bad Raff ain’t that smart.  He shoulda known by now that giving me orders makes me do the exact opposite.  On the coldest night of the year, the darkness thrums, and I just get this feeling that whatever out there is waiting.  The only way I can get the darkness to stop taunting me is if I give it a good thwacking.  I take my dusty plastic light saber outta my closet for old time’s sake and climb down the gutter when Raff’s comatose.  Maybe it was a sin, but I stuffed him full of cookies and milk to get him to pass out.  I probably ain’t a Guardian after all: pretty sure Jesus didn’t manipulate angels with desert.

The black is so thick I can’t see.  I switch the blue glow of my lightsaber on and use it to illuminate the despair, earning scratches and bruises as I slide down the shingles, over the roof fronting the door, and slip down the gutter.

The Man who for so long has been watching me is there, waiting by a flickering lamppost, puffing on a cigar in a bowler hat like one of those villains in pa’s old films.  He sure can pull off a suit.  Shadows cling to him like a caul, and I can’t tell if it’s silk or bits of night.

He breathes out a snake of smoke. It squiggles up to the stars.  For however dark he is on the outside, there’s fire in the depths of his mouth.

I hesitate.

The Man in Black laughs.

Be strong, I think, like Leia or Maya Angelou or Zora Neale Hurston.  This is a smart woman’s world, after all, and smart women always win.  I point my lightsaber at him.  “You lost, mister?  This ain’t even a crossroads: it’s a cul-de-sac. I don’t have any deals to make or a soul left to sell.  Raff made that pretty clear a while ago: I’m owned, basically Heaven’s property.  Not that this Guardian thing doesn’t come with its perks.”

The shadows condense around him, leaving only flickering pitch eyes and a hooked nose that looks like it’s been broken a dozen times.  Black fog gone, I can see beyond my lightsaber’s bulb.  I turn its electric buzz off.

He chuckles all deep like a gorge, the kind I go swimming in in quarry pools with Raff.

I cross my arms.  “Not much of a talker, are ya?  You ain’t much fun at parties, I bet.”

The Man in Black takes another drag, then blows smoke in the shape of a beautiful woman at my face.  She dances and dissolves at the tip of my nose.

I swat the fumes away, irritated.  “Not a gentleman, either.  You’re dumb as a doorknob – don’t you know smoking causes cancer?  Granpa died that way.  You don’t wanna go like him, with sticky needles in your skin, hooked up to rattling machines.”

The Man in Black stamps out his cigarette with the clack of a Cuban heel.  “Poison’s in my nature.  Anyways, a few cigars never hurt anyone.  Say, little dancer, want one?”

I draw back, raising my fists.  “I’m not a smoker or a dancer.”

He fixes his cufflinks.  They’re shaped like cobras.  “Joker, smoker, midnight broker – you will be one day, ballerina, dealing in magic in societes for the sick, broken, and poor.  The desperate will flock to your light – someone that burns as bright as you can’t avoid it.  And oh, the music of your soul!  You’re dancing already: your heart’s a drum.  Every movement is a step closer to your grand finale.  In the end we bow together, go down together.  We’re counterparts, you and me, my dear.”

“I think all the fumes have made your head squiggly.  You don’t make a lotta sense, mister… mister…?”

“Mister Carrefour, spirit of the crossroads.”

“This is a cul-de-sac.”

“Close enough.  Everything moves in circles anyways – life, songs, psalms, waltzes.  We rise and we fall, take new names, play new games.   Well, want to make a wager?”

I poke him with my light saber.  It doesn’t touch him, just slips through him like a sword through water.  “I don’t make deals with strangers, much less bets, Mister Carrefour.  Momma raised me to be a lady, after all.”

Mister Carrefour looks up at the sky with finely ground pepper eyes, the irises bloody red.  “Your too-many-greats grandma did. Mistress Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.  She bet her soul for power – she could bend judges and the jury with a hot hot pepper, stroke Lafayette’s ego, dance with Damballah at the bayou on St. John’s Eve and bring blessings to her people.  She struck a deal with me for the betterment of all New Orleans.  After all, all magic passes through me and my magic leaves, flower child.  You’ve got the same voodoo blood in you, little girl.  Walking the line between angels and lwa.  Now don’t ask me if it’s gris-gris dust or a fete you’re throwing, but a strange wind’s blowing your way.  Kanzo comes, lave tets go, but the song remains the same.  Dancer that I am, I hitched a ride in on your tailwind years ago.  I like this place: Snake’s Hollow.  Little country town outside New Orleans.  It’d be a shame to see it go to the dark side.  It’d be a shame to see it disappear.”

I stick up my nose in defiance.  “What exactly are you saying, sir?”

Mister Carrefour lets the blackness thread through his fingers like a fish.  “That the blackness in this town has a taste: my older brother saw to that.  Sweet, sweet angel cake, and a little bit of devil’s food from you.  Legba built up the wards strong around the people of Snake’s Hollow, nearly taking it off my map.  But are they strong enough, I wonder, when my spirits come to play?  The Ghede, the Kalfous, the Ogous. Life’s a playground, after all, and my Petro crowd likes nothing better than drums that hum like sin.”

I put the glowing lightsaber under my eyes so my face looks scary.  At least, I hope it does.  “Snake’s Hollow is my home.  Ain’t no magic to it.  And you missed Leggie by four years.  He’s dust in the wind like that song.”

Mister Carrefour laughs like black coffee and ghost peppers.  He takes a drag of his cigar.  Pretty gross, but what else to expect from the Man in Black?  At least he’s got style.  Bet he listens to Satchmo.

“Legba ain’t gone, little girl.  All you needed to do was call him.  I can show you how.”

I narrow my stubborn eyes.  Momma says I look like a mule when I do that.  Maybe it will make him go away.  “I don’t know about Marie Laveau, and I don’t know about magic.  Mess with that stuff and it bites you like a gator.  Leggie will come back when he needs to.”

Mister Carrefour chuckles again.  It annoys me.  “All it takes is some cornmeal and some rum and some candles.  Didn’t your mother teach you that?”

“Momma’s a good Christian, not a witch.”

“I bet she is.  Too bad you kids forget about us.  The lwa are hungry, you know.  Why else do you think I eat the blackness in people’s dreams?  Don’t get enough offerings these days.  Nobody likes Mister Carrefour.  Not even little missus mambo.”

He pulls a buffalo nickel out of his pocket and flips it.  It lands tails up.

“I just made a bet with myself: whether I should help you or not, little missus.  Guess I will.  I got some fiery rum and old cornmeal left over from last night’s fete.  Even got a St. Peter candle somewhere in my cliff-deep pockets.  Gotta pay the piper, I’d wager.”

I step back.  “Is it okay to watch magic?  Or is that a sin too?”

“Ask dear Raphael.  Or don’t.  I sent my spirits to his dreams.  Ever wonder why he cries out at night?  He’s your shield.”

I wince.  “I think you’re evil, Mister Carrefour.”

Mister Carrefour draws out the materials to summon Leggie.  “I’m a lotta things, child.  Angel, devil, lwa, loser.  Ain’t nobody likes Mister Carrefour.”

“You said that already.”

He finishes drawing a veve – the kind in those hokey Voodoo shops on Bourbon street.  He shrugs.  “I’ll admit I’m a bit bitter about my popularity.  Humans won’t even look at me when I come down in a fete.  Guess I’m lucky.  They don’t bother me or my friends unless they want to curse somebody.  Now that’s a fun time.”

“It doesn’t sound so kind to me.”

“Guess it isn’t, then.  Alright, here’s Legba’s veve.  A lot prettier than mine.  Legba likes to be fancy.  Wonder if he’ll bring that little yappy dog.”  Mister Carrefour lights candles and chants in Creole.  He pours rum onto the flames and they combust.  I take shelter behind a dumpster.

“You sure this’ll work, Mister Carrefour?” I call, half-ready to scale the gutter and go get Raff.

He fans the flames.  “As sure as sin, ballerina.”

“I got two left feet.”

“It’s a metaphor, baby mambo.”

“Isn’t a black mamba a kinda venomous snake?”

“You got bite like one, missus.  Mambo, mamba, one and the same – you’re a dangerous little thing.”

Snoopy barks, then comes bounding at me.  Out of the flames step Leggie in a bathrobe.

“Kalfou, you idiot!  Why’d you wake me up?”  Leggie looks around, scritching his bald head as he examines my cul-de-sac.  His rheumy eyes widen and he smacks his whorled cane on the ground.  “You stirring up trouble in my May’s neighborhood, brother?  To the depths with you, you crooked, crooked fool.”

I pet Snoopy, who hides from the flames behind me.  She’s shivering and yappy.  I come back out from behind the dumpster.

“The angels and I got a deal, Legba.  You know I like deals.  Especially ones at crossroads-

“Cut it out, Kalfou.  I’m too old for this.  You touch a hair on May’s head and I’ll beat your hide with my cane all the way to Gineh.  May, May, child, you there?”  Leggie shields his gaze from the flames.

“Over here, Papa,” I call, scooping Snoopy up into my arms.  She smells like summer grass and licks my face.

Relief washes over Leggie’s face.  “You had me scared to death, May,” Leggie says, pushing Mister Carrefour – or Kalfou, I don’t even know, what a freak! – aside with his cane as he hobbles over to me.  Leggie adjusts his straw hat then hugs me, real hard.  “Didn’t Raff tell you never to leave your room when the blackness comes?”  Leggie’s voice is stern.

“Raff didn’t tell me a lotta things.  Like where you went.  Or that I’m a Guardian.”

Leggie sighs, then brushes a curl behind my ears.  “I like the curls, baby doll.  You make me proud.  I knew this day would come.”  The keys to the Heavenly Gates jangle-jing on Leggie’s cane as he turns to Kalfou.  Mister Carrefour?  I bet the Man in Black has a lotta names, none of them very savory.

Frosty grass crunches under my feet, but Leggie is hot as jambalaya.  “You do this again, brother, and I won’t be so lenient.  You’re overstepping your bounds.”

“Boundaries shift, brother.  May-flower needs me, now more than ever.  Me and my spirits.  Just like Laveau did.  I taught Laveau her tricks, I’ll teach her too-many-greats granddaughter.  To dance with snakes, to summon the lwa.  She’s already met half her celestial family.  The angels can’t keep her all to themselves.  Us lwa, we got our claim.  She’ll need all of us, when the time comes.”

“What time?” I interrupt.

Kalfou licks his lips like he’s at a barbecue.  “Bondye be calling, little dancer.  You gonna fight for him?  For us?  Us lwa, we in bad shape.  Marinette Dry Arms wants you dead.  But you’re the key to our survival.  Marinette ain’t thinking straight.  She’s all fire death and blood.  Black swine, black roosters, rougarou amassing in the swamps on her side.  She’s setting out for Snake’s Hollow soon.  She don’t much like angels and lwa working together.  She don’t much like Bondye – our God – at all.”

I sit with Raff at dinner the next day, almost blue from shame.  I don’t dare tell Raff I went out into the darkness.  I ain’t gonna tell him we summoned Leggie, or that Mister Carrefour gave me his card.  I didn’t even know lwa had business cards.

“You hold this card over a candle flame, baby mambo, and I’ll be there.”

It’s monogrammed with a swirly M and C in the shape of two snakes.

I ain’t raring to try it out soon, if ever.

Legba fixed me up with a hug and made his dark horse of a brother go away.  “You ain’t gotta worry about Kalfou, baby doll.  Tell Raff I said hi.  Things be a bit busy up above.  Legba’s gotta hobble home and sleep.  C’mon, Snoopy.  I’ll tell you more about Marinette later, May-flower.”

Who’s this Marinette, I wonder?

That’s the problem with lwa.  They leave a lotta things unsaid.

I’m chewing on a green bean that’s real stringy when momma comes into the room, dressed in a paisley skirt and pretty blue top.  She’s got high heels on and is singing as she places a steaming bowl of mashed potatoes in front of me and pa.  Raff is reading the newspaper, but he looks over the front page at the steaming taters.  I better sneak him some later.  We all sit down, say grace (I was eating before that, whoops) and dinner begins.

I’m cutting up some barbecue chicken when I catch momma outta the corner of my eyes.

“Momma?”

“Yeah May?”

Pa looks up from his taters.  Raff closes the paper and adjusts his reading glasses.

“Who’s Marie Laveau?”

Momma and pa share a look like they just stepped on an open grave.  I swallow a piece of chicken, one of the good bits without gristle.

“She’s our ancestor, sweetheart, on daddy’s side,” momma says.  “It’s where our family name comes from: it’s French.  She was a very famous woman in New Orleans back in the day: led the Haitian spiritual community and danced in Congo Square.  There’s a lot of fiction about her.  Why do you ask?”

“Just wondering,” I mutter, stuffing my mouth with taters so I don’t have to talk anymore.

Raff clears his throat, then elbows me.  I ignore him.

My parents give each other another look then go back to talking about pa’s legal practice and how momma’s winter garden is.

“May,” Raff whispers, even though he can’t be heard.  “Did you go outside in the black?”

My kitty slinks up and purrs, rubbing against Raff’s leg.  I cross my fingers behind my back for old times’ sake and look at the floor.  “Uh, no.”

Raff narrows his honey eyes.  “May Octavie Laveau, are you lying to your guardian angel?”

The blueness of shame creeps up again.  I blush.  “Umm.”

Raff rubs his brow all exasperated-like.  “You met Kalfou, didn’t you.  And he told you.  Things.  Things about the Petro.”

“Leggie saved me!  Snoopy was there too!  I was just making sure we were safe, Raff!  I even had my light saber.”

“That won’t protect you, May-flower!  Kalfou’s a nasty trickster and a smoker to boot.  Stay far away from him.”

“Then why does he have all of Snake’s Hollow as his playground?  His blackness is like smoke all over the town!”

My kitty purrs.  Raff pets her in worry.

“The lwa are strong in Louisiana, May.  They’re intercessors like angels, saints by one name, the vestiges of African gods by another.  God, Bondye, whatever you call Him – we serve the same Man Upstairs.  Some lwa are friends with the angels, like my good man Legba, but some are downright hostile, like Marinette.”

“Who is she?”

“One of the leaders of the lwa.  She led Haiti in the revolution against the French masters.  She doesn’t think straight half the time, too drunk off black rooster blood, and the same thing she did to the French, she wants to do to the angels.  Marinette, and some of her unsavory friends like her husband Ti-Jean and their bloodthirsty Bizango and loup garou servants, think there’s only room enough in Gineh – or Paradise – for one kind of spirit, and it ain’t angels.  And any mortals the angels mentor – and who keeps the angels tied to the lwa – well by my Father, Marinette wants them gone.”

I shiver and grab my kitten.  Not really a kitty anymore, just a fat calico, but boy does she act like one.  She paws my legs and nestles into my lap, so heavy.  I gotta stop spoiling her with cream.

“She sounds scary.  What can I do?”

“Don’t go out in the blackness, May!  Listen to me, please.”

I sigh and try not to roll my eyes.  “Alright Raff, I promise.”

Marie Laveau, Marie Laveau… I think to myself, going through pa’s library in his office late at night when my parents – and Raff – are upstairs asleep.  The name is like music in my ears, and I sing to myself, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.  I know Zora Neale Hurston did anthropological work in New Orleans during the Great Depression as ma told me – she’s gotta know something about my famous ancestor that gave our family its name!

Just when I’m climbing the rickety shelf behind pa’s desk, my hands grow hot, and the divine energy that flows through me that the angels have been teaching me to master grows piping hot like a tea kettle, leading my fingers to caress a worn paperback.  There – an energy zing like an electric socket!  I pull the book down and climb off the shelf:

Zora Neale Hurston: Of Mules and Men.  I gasp.  The pages light with my magic and open to a specific passage, where Zora Neale Hurston had visited Marie Laveau’s supposed nephew, now an ancient hoodoo doctor – he must be long dead now, a vestige of an old age where magic still bubbled under the skin of New Orleans.  Now it’s all just hokey shops in French quarter and drunken smelly tourists on Bourbon street.  I smooth the page and read from Zora’s journals:

I made three more trips before he would talk to me in any way that I could feel encouraged. He talked about Marie Laveau because I asked. I wanted to know if she was really as great as they told me. So he enligthened my ignorance and taught me. We sat before the soft coal fire in his grate.

“Time went around pointing out what God had already made. Moses had seen the Burning Bush. Solomon by magic knowed all wisdom. And Marie Laveau was a woman in New Orleans.”

“She was born February 2, 1827. Anybody don’t believe I tell the truth can go look at the book in St. Louis Cathedral. Her mama and her papa, they wasn’t married and his name was Christophe Glapion.”

“She was very pretty, one of the Creole Quadroons and many people said she would never be a hoodoo doctor like her mama and her grandma before her. She liked to go to the balls very much where all the young men fell in love with her. But Alexander, the great two-headed doctor felt the power in her and so he tell her she must come to study with him. Marie, she rather dance and make love, but one day a rattlesnake come to her in her bedroom and spoke to her. So she went to Alexander and studied. But soon she could teach her teacher and the snake stayed with her always.”

“She has her house on St. Anne Street and people come from the ends of America to get help from her. Even Queen Victoria ask her help and send her a cashmere shawl with money also.”

“Now, some white people say she hold hoodoo dance on Congo Square every week. But Marie Laveau never hold no hoodoo dance. That was a pleasure dance. They beat the drum with the shin bone of a donkey and everybody dance like they do in Hayti. Hoodoo is private. She give the dance the first Friday night in each month and they have crab gumbo and rice to eat and the people dance. The white people come look on, and think they see all, when they only see a dance.”

“The police hear so much about Marie Leveau that they come to her house in St. Anne Street to put her in jail. First one come, she stretch out her left hand and he turn round and round and never stop until some one come lead him away. Then two come together she put them to running and barking like dogs. Four come and she put them to beating each other with night sticks. The whole station force come. They knock at her door. She know who they are before she ever look. She did work at her altar and they all went to steep on her steps. “

“Out on Lake Pontchartrain at Bayou St. John she hold a great feast every year on the Eve of St. John’s, June 24th. It is Midsummer Eve, and the Sun give special benefits then and need great honor. The special drum be played then. It is a cowhide stretched over a half-barrel. Beat with a jaw-bone. Some say a man but I think they do not know. I think the jawbone of an ass or a cow. She hold the feast of St. John’s partly because she is a Catholic and partly because of hoodoo.”

“The ones around her altar fix everything for the feast. Nobody see Marie Leveau for nine days before the feast. But when the great crowd of people at the feast call upon her, she would rise out of the waters of the lake with a great communion candle burning upon her head and another in each one of her hands. She walked upon the waters to the shore. As a little boy I saw her myself. When the feast was over, she went back into the lake, and nobody saw her for nine days again.”

“On the feast that I saw her open the waters, she looked hard at me and nodded her head so that her tignon shook. Then I knew I was called to take up her work. She was very old and I was a lad of seventeen. Soon I went to wait upon her Altar, both on St. Anne Street and her house on Bayou St. John’s.”

“The rattlesnake that had come to her a little one when she was also young was very huge. He piled great upon his altar and took nothing from the food set before him. One night he sang and Marie Leveau called me from my sleep to look at him and see. ‘Look well, Turner,’ she told me. ‘No one shall hear and see such as this for many centuries.’”

“She went to her Great Altar and made great ceremony. The snake finished his song and seemed to sleep. She drove me back to my bed and went again to her Altar.”

“The next morning, the great snake was not at his altar. His hide was before the Great Altar stuffed with spices and things of power. Never did I know what become of his flesh.”

I flip ahead, anxious but excited by the power Zora spun into the words of this hoodoo doctor and the majesty of Marie Laveau, who seems to have never truly died, but lived on in the minds of her family, of New Orleans, and the lwa she befriended:

By the time that Turner had finished his recitation he wasn’t too conscious of me. In fact he gave me the feeling that he was just speaking, but not for my benefit. He was away off somewhere. He made a final dramatic gesture with open hands and hushed for a minute. Then he sank deeper into himself and went on: “But when she put the last curse on a person, it would be better if that man was dead, yes.”

With an impatient gesture he signaled me not to interrupt him

“She set the altar for a curse with black candles that have been dressed in vinegar. She would write the name of the person to be cursed on the candle with a needle. Then she place fifteen cents in the lap of Death upon the altar to pay the spirit to obey her orders. Then she place her hands flat upon the table and say the curse-prayer.”

“‘To The Man God: Oh great One, I have been sorely tried by my enemies and have been blasphemed and lied against. My good thoughts and my honest actions have been turned to bad actions and dishonest ideas. My home has been disrespected, my children have been cursed and ill-treated. My dear ones have been back-bitten and their virtue questioned. O Man God, I beg that this that I ask for my enemies shall come to pass: “‘That the South wind shall scorch their bodies and make them wither and shall not be tempered to them. That the North wind shall freeze their blood and numb their muscles and that it shall not be tempered to them. That the West wind shall blow away their life’s breath and will not leave their hair grow, and that their finger nails shall fall off and their bones shall crumble.That the East wind shall make their minds grow dark, their sight shall fail and their seed dry up so that they shall not multiply.”

Turner again made that gesture with his hands that meant the end. Then he sat in a dazed silence. My own spirits had been falling all during the terrible curse and he did not have to tell me to be quiet this time. After a long period of waiting I rose to go. “The Spirit say you come back tomorrow,” he breathed as I passed his knees. I nodded that I had heard and went out. The next day he began to prepare me for my initiation ceremony, for rest assured that no one may approach the Altar without the crown, and none may wear the crown of power without preparation. It must be earned.

I nearly cuss.  “Zora was initiated?”

Thoughts bubble in my head: that the angels had kept Kalfou, had kept Leggie, had kept half my heritage from me all my life – the Laveau blood that flows through my veins.  I want to be ready when Marinette comes, and though I can perform small miracles – parlor tricks the angels have taught me, water into wine slipped into the carafe at dinner for my momma and pa, bread multiplied for the homeless’s soup, spring flowers to bring joy in the harshest winter months to the people of Snake’s Hollow – I suddenly know in my bones that true magic awaited in the peristyle, in what Leggie had told me long ago was the holy house voodoo societes practiced in and drew down the spirits and ancestors.

Legba will never take me.  Neither would Raff.  But I just might know a dark horse that will.

I go straight to the kitchen.  I take fresh cornmeal and pour it into a jar.  I grab a matchbox and go to the center of the cul-de-sac, families all asleep now that it’s midnight.  I make two intersecting lines with diagonal snakes in a makeshift cornmeal veve.  Taking the lighter, with the blackness thick as blood, I turn it on, take Mister Carrefour’s business card, and let it burn.

The smell of Cuban cigars and cayenne pepper washes over me.  Florida water, which granmama used to get from the store and sprinkle on the porch threshold to keep out supposed demons.  Overwhelming, smoky cologne.

Mister Carrefour spreads his fingers wide like spider webs and waves them by his head like a circus freak.  “Didn’t think you’d come calling so soon, baby mambo.”

I square my shoulders and place my hands firm on my hips: “Take me to the other lwa.  I want to learn about my heritage: about voodoo.  If it’s good enough for Zora, it’s good enough for me.  I need to know about Marie Laveau, and what the angels are using me for.  I need to be ready for Marinette, whenever that haint comes calling.”

Mister Carrefour twirls a dreadlock between gloved fingers and laughs like gunpowder water.  “Alright then, little missus, to Snakes Spring we go.”

“Wait, what?  But that’s in the middle of the woods.  Billy Morse said it’s haunted – that Indians used to drown people there.  That’s not the good spring – the good spring is Calf Spring.  That’s where the tourists buy their dinky water from.  Snakes Spring is cursed.”

“All the better for me.  I do love a biting good bone-rattling curse, and death, though the Baron’s forte, is also my especialty.”

Mister Carrefour claps his hands.  A giant black draft horse-drawn carriage appears.  The wheels are writhing black snakes biting their own tails, round and smooth like tires. The spokes are femurs.  I shiver in fear.

“That thing looks downright awful.  Ain’t no way I’m riding in that,” I say, listening to the wheel snakes hiss.

Mister Carrefour adjusts his black top hat and snickers.  “Now now now, ain’t well for Bondye’s Chwal to be afraid of anything.  Come on, bless your little heart, hop inside, off to the woods we go.”

I climb into the haunted carriage and Mister Carrefour takes the reins and the draft horses gallop off, mouths foaming as they whicker.  The wind is wild as a woman shaking dust from a rug.

“What do you mean, Bondye’s Chwal?” I call over the gale.  I grip the seat as the steeds’ hooves start crushing velvet night under their keratin and we gallop off into the air.  It’s nothing like Raphael’s flying, all shaky, and for once I’m actually afraid of heights.

Kalfou’s eyes flash alizarin crimson.  “Vessel, vassal, Vaseline – you’re the Chwal, a balm to the world, a healing force, Bondye made flesh with Voodoo blood to spice things up.  All my blackness and darkness, Marinette Dry Arm’s fire, Ti Jean’s iron shavings – you could swallow them all down and spit up spring water and rainbows.  It’s a little like being the Messiah, but less Apocalyptic, and more what happens each generation: the angels choose Bondye’s successor, and she brings balance to the spiritual realms.  It’s always a young girl that knows too much and speaks too often and is too damn stubborn for her own good.  She’s also brave beyond her years, just like you.  No doubt about it, baby mambo, you’re Bondye’s Chwal.  His spirit rides you.  He be your head spirit.  You got great magic about you, deep wanga at work.”

The stars are so close I could pull them from the sky like onions after a rainstorm.  The femurs rattle and the horses neigh.  The moon is a great big steamboat on the Mississippi and Mister Carrefour is the Devil I dance with in the pale moonlight, only the dance is our words, wits clashing.

“Doesn’t Chwal mean horse in Creole?  The name for humans ridden by lwa at fetes?” I ask, recalling Leggie’s stories of the rituals of the peristyle.

Mister Carrefour glances back over his shoulder into the open carriage.  He smirks, and I wanna wipe that stupid grin from his face, what a jerk.  “Yup my girl, that’s right.  You’re a quick learner, ain’t you?”

Below, the forest spreads out like hobnobbed toothpicks covered in leaves and Spanish moss.  There it is: Snakes Spring, a bubbling hot spring, and a flock of crows fly above.  Mister Carrefour whips the reins and we land in a clearing.  He holds out a gloved hand to help me down, but I choose to jump instead, landing squarely crouched on my feet.

It’s spring, and there are wild yellow daffodils blooming, with reeds and stone around Snakes Spring.  I close my eyes and breath in the mineral water and wildflowers and run my feet through some bluebells by my ankles.  Reaching deep inside me, to the magic at my heart, I call up new buds.

Dandelions push through the grass – momma and pa would consider them weeds, but they’re my favorite flower for their strength.

Mister Carrefour laughs: “Nice parlor trick, baby mambo.  But Marie Laveau could do much more than that.  The snakes are waiting in their hollows, resting from a long winter.  Why don’t you wake those slitherers up?”

I know it’s a dare, but I want to show the Man in Black that I ain’t afraid of anything.  So I do.  I reach deep into the earth, into the crevasses around the spring and shout to the sleeping scaly secret keepers that gave the pure waters their name, and suddenly great hissing and the feeling of coiled muscles come pumping up from holes in the ground along the waterside.  A dozen black Eastern hog-nosed snakes dig their way out of the ground, some striped Diamond-backed water snakes dance out from the reeds, even a coral, black, and white milk snake slinks from under a log.

I think of the snake Marie Laveau danced with then cooked up and stuffed with her secrets.  The one that called her into her hoodoo power when she was but a girl.  The snakes slither over each other, piling up,  and they whisper in quivering words into my mind, and I know what to do.  I direct them to Mister Carrefour, and soon they are climbing the Man in Black, twining around his suit, circling his limbs, and he laughs so hard I think the sky will fall, his shadow belly rumbling.

“You good, little girl.  Choose one, why don’t you: we’ll need a gift for the Erzulie Sisters.  Every entrance to Gineh has a price.”

“What’s Gineh?” I ask, eying the milk snake, which unspools from the log towards me.

“Home to the lwa.  There’s the Petro Nation, Ghedeland, and of course, Rada Island.  That’s where we headed.  Freda be having a party, and boy does she love jewelry.  A snake will make a nice necklace for Sister Freda.  Maybe pick some flowers for Maman Danto while you’re at it.  The girls get jealous of each other, one always a mistress, one always a mother.  Ogou tries to please both but he ain’t very good at appeasing demanding women, and sisters often hate each other if they are sharing a man.”

Ogou, Erzulie Danto, Erzulie Freda – I’ve heard their names around New Orleans in Voodoo shops and of course from Leggie.  Ogou is the lwa of war and strength, Danto the mother of the Petro and hot helm of Haitian revolution, and Freda is the lwa of love and beauty.  I’ve always wanted to meet them.

I eye the pretty milk snake.  She dances just for me, and I beckon her from the shade of an uprooted tree.  She presents herself to me and I drape her over my shoulders like a necklace.  I know she won’t bite – as long as I tell her not to.  I summon the snakes away from Mister Carrefour, and he looks sad to see them go.

“Au revoir, mon amis,” Mister Carrefour salutes the slitherers.  “Well then, May, shall we be going?  Grab some flowers for Danto.”

I think Danto would like daffodils, so I grab a handful of stems and pull them from the earth.

Mister Carrefour chants in Creole, spills some cornmeal onto the ground in the shape of a labyrinth, then hops over it.  The cornmeal catches on fire, then a great portal to lush Caribbean tropics opens.

“Well, in you go, Chwal.”

I can smell tropical flowers and see manta rays swimming in coral on a beach.

“You sure about this?” I ask, petting my milk snake.  “Is it safe?”

“Ain’t nothing safe in Gineh.  But nothing’s as powerful as Bondye, and you got His blood.  Look at you, with a little Damballah on your shoulders.  Come on, before it closes.”

I walk through.

Chwal: Part 2

Part 1

The winters come and go, and I grow up.  I trade in my crayons for pens, braids for free-flowing curls that blow like a lion’s mane.  Raff don’t age at all, but that’s to be expected.

I’m twelve, finally in sixth grade, and it’s Christmastime.  Granmama’s sitting outside on the front porch, watching the fresh falling snow.  I lounge in the bay window, inky papers in my hand.  It’s pa’s legal pads, all stacked together with my stories, and the smudges bleed over the edge like some battle scene.

Raff smiles, watching me scribbling my next great novel.  I know writers are supposed to wait til their thirties or something to pen the Great American Novel, least, that’s what pa says, but we all start somewhere, right?  Even angels and Zora Neale Hurston – my momma’s favorite author, who maybe I shouldn’t be reading now at such an “impressionable age,” as granmama says, but I do – were in diapers once.  Well, angels wore something, because diapers probably weren’t around back then.

Raff’’s given me one of his feathers to write with, a different one on each of my birthdays.  This is the largest yet, and let me tell you – it’s impossible.  Impossibly beautiful, that is.  All long and plumy-white like something from a dream.  The nib etches lil streams of golden ink, and jack’s rabbit if that isn’t a miracle.

Raff sits crunching sunflower seeds.  “What part are you at, May?”

“The part where Keisha raids the moon base.  She’s freeing the rebel aliens from their prisons so the revolution can start.  It’s like Star Wars but better.  Instead of light sabers, Keisha has a light arrow.  It’s more precise, like a laser beam, with a hundred percent casualty rate when aimed exactly right.”

“Sounds exciting.  Want edits?”

“Sure thing, sweetheart.”

He always blushes when I call him that.  But I’m old enough to give Raff nicknames too now.  I like watching him squirm.  Angels ain’t got nothing on me, after all.

Leggie left a while ago, when I started asking questions.  Raff tells me only kids can see him, but I’m not so sure about that.  Sometimes, outta the corner of my eye, I swear I can see the old man sitting in the pews like usual, on rainy days, when there’s a stillness about the place some would call holy, and granmama’s soft snores touch the lights.  Sounds can touch lights, you know.  Raff explained that everything’s just a wave, like in physics, except his explanation is more poetic.

“It’s all a dance, May.  Like butterflies in an Indian summer.  Everyone has their time.”

He draws out his words like a painter.  His time stretches on forever.

I’m old enough now to see the scars behind his eyes.  Like a war vet.  Pa says grandpa came back from Korea and was never quite the same.  He died with that same bruisyness Raff has, the poky bits like a cactus.  Once I cut myself after falling at the quarry, and Raff tore off his robes below the knee and bound it with the fabric, then flew me home.

His legs were criss-crossed with scars, like train tracks over his skin.  I never dared ask him about it, but I have nightmares, sometimes, about what they mean.  I’m old enough to read the Bible all the way through now, after all.

“Raff?” I ask, one day as I’m waiting alone at the bus stop in the rain, and he’s hovering beside me, whistling to a bird in his hands.

“Mmm?”

“Your legs.  Do they hurt?”

He’s silent.

After a while, he asks: “How’s your story going.”

“Good.  It’s about a war.  You ever seen a war?”

Tears prickle his eyes, and I feel like I’ve kicked a puppy in the gut.

“Yes,” he says faintly.  The bluebird in his hand trills sadly as my angel hangs his head.  Raff shields me from the rain with his wings.  “But that’s something you already knew.”

I reach for his shoulder, but he turns away.  “I’m sorry I asked.”

“No.  It’s alright.  You have a right to know.”

“About the blackness?” I ask.  My shoulder bag suddenly seems ten times heavier.  “The Devil’s real, ain’t he.”

“Yes, but not in the way you would think.”  Raff lets the bluebird go.  It shakes itself free of rain and hops down his wing onto my shoulder.  Birds act strange around Raff, more friendly.  “He’s a custodian of sorts.  I think you’re old enough to understand what angels do.  We clean up after people and take care of them.  Well, he deals with the less fortunate souls.  Some people are lost, May.  They’ve fallen by the wayside in life.  He gives them a chance.”

I shiver.  “That don’t sound very pleasant.”

“Some people can be downright nasty, May-flower.  It takes a hard man to help harsh souls.  There may come a time when I have to leave you.  Not for long, but sometimes.  I want you to know that you’ll be safe on the nights the darkness comes, as long as you don’t leave your room.”

Just as he speaks, the bus rolls up.  I sit at the back where I can whisper to Raff.

“You’re leaving?  When?”

“In a while.  Before you were born, I was a doctor.  I help heal souls and the dying.  Your grandmother: she’s nearing her end.”

I stare out the streaky window to the gutter swollen with leaves.  Granmama’s been in the hospital for a while, and I knew it was coming sometime – sooner, rather than later.  “Jack’s rabbit.  She is, ain’t she,” I say quietly.  Raff pats my shoulder in an effort to comfort me.

“I’m going with her.  Whoever’s important to you is important to me as well.”

“Can’t I go too?  Please, Raff.  I gotta know that she’s safe.  She can’t go to Heaven alone, she’ll try to reorganize everything and clean the entire Heavenly Kingdom with that bad back of hers!”

He smooths my hair just like when I was younger.  “I promise on my sword she won’t come into harm’s way.  She’s a good woman, May.  No need to worry about her.  Now finish that math homework.  I’m off to work.”  And like a firecracker he disappears.  I slump into my seat and sit crying for the rest of the ride.  Ever since I’ve gotten older, he’s been leaving me alone more often.  Him being gone is like having a missing limb.

That afternoon I visit granmama’s bedside.  I bring her a bouquet of daisies from the soccer field where I had practice and a few tomato sandwiches I fixed up at home especially for her, with mayo for her aching joints – a silly family superstition, but I swear it works.  The moment I step into the room, I see Raff stroking her hair and massaging out the kinks in her shoulders, caring for her like a nurse.  He wears yellow scrubs just like the hospital staff and looks pretty handsome at that.  I stand speechless and nearly drop my flowers.  My throat burns with a kind of gratitude that is too dang hard to put into words.

Granmama can’t see him, but the rise and fall of her chest eases up as Raff works out the knots and kinks in her frail creaky shoulders, where she carries nearly a century worth of the Laveau’s family burdens.  He smiles at me all gentle as he looks up from his work.  “Hey May-flower,” he says, then leaves the room to give us privacy.  I mouth a “thank you” to him, swallowing back a tsunami’s load of tears.  Granmama looks at me with rheumy cataract eyes.

“May-be, baby doll.  Is that you?” she asks, voice all soft and fragile like tissue paper.  She reaches out with a tremble-spider hand.  I take it and hold it to my cheek, biting back my crying.

“Yeah, granmama.  How you doing?” I ask all forced-bright.

“Just fine, baby doll.  I could’ve sworn on Moses’ staff an angel of the Lord just visited me.  I feel light as a feather.  You scraping by at school?”

“Yes m’am.  I aced a test on negative numbers today.  And look!  Tomato sandwiches, just for you.”

We eat them together in companionable silence.  I talk about how handsome Billy Morse’s gotten and lick bits of mayo from my fingertips.  It’s hard for granmama to eat so I help her in lil bits, wiping crumbs from her neck.  One of those nasty IVs is a thorn in her skin and she near cusses it to Hell, invoking the Lord in a whole lot of creative ways.

“Pray for me, baby doll,” she says, her rickety voice outta breath.  I do, the Lord’s Prayer, followed by an invocation to St. Michael, and then a petition to St. Gabriel for healing.  Granmama’s been collecting prayers all her life, no matter if they’re Catholic, Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist – it don’t matter.  She writes them down on lil notecards as if they were recipes for some heavenly cook book.  I guess, in a way, they are.  From what I can tell, there’s a prayer for everything.

“I got one, granny.  To Raphael.”

“Who’s he, doll baby?”

“The angel of doctors, granmama.”

“That sounds downright perfect, child.  You’re a darn precious thing to have around.”

Momma picks me up in a thunderstorm after I’m done visiting.  I’m glad the rain hides the tears on my face.

“She’s looking better, momma.  That cancer’s been whipped to submission, hasn’t it?” I ask.

Momma smiles half-heartedly.  “Sure.  Nothing beats your granmama, not even Death himself.  He’d hightail it to the bayou once she got out her knitting needles and used them as pokers for his bony behind.”

“Sure thing!”

We entertain each other with tall tales of granmama’s Lordly wrath late into the night.  Raff sits around munching on cookies, entertained by the talk, and pitches one to me:

“Your grandmother’s tough as nails.  With a look she’d staple the Devil to his throne so he couldn’t move a lick.”

“That’s right, sir.  Raff, what’s A-squared equals B-squared plus C-squared?  I don’t see any squares, only a triangle.  I gotta talk to Leggie about this math stuff if he ever gets back, it just ain’t right.  He should tell God to change it up so it makes a lick of sense.  God messed up geometry big time.”

Raff helps me, and it’s a great distraction from what’s really on my mind.  He notices later on, of course.  Nothings quick enough to fly by Raff, not even those falcons that go hundreds of miles an hour.

“She’ll go peacefully, May.”

“Oh can’t you tell me when!”

“You know I can’t.  I already told you far more than was proper.”

“It’s not just that though, Raphael.  It’s the other angels I was wondering about.  I ain’t never seen any of them but you.  I got to thinking, you can’t be the only winged man in the world.  There ought to be other angels.  Angels of music, and traveling.  And – and of… of death.”

He sighs like an old wind blowing through an empty carnival.  “In time, May, just wait.  You’ll meet them all eventually.”

I raise my brows.  “I will?”

“I just wish it would be later rather than sooner.”

 

 

Granmama’s funeral is a stately affair, with the entire church gathered on the village green to pray for her immortal soul.  It’s just how she’d of wanted it, with eloquent speeches and an ocean of tears.  Only I don’t cry.  It’s like a plug has been put in my throat to stopper the sorrow.  All I can do is stare at the coffin and her empty face.  Raff is hidden like the sun behind a storm-cloud.  I can feel him, but I see nothing, just darkness in the shadow of Spanish moss swinging on the trees in a storm.

She passed in peace with us by her side.  For days afterward, Raff was gone.  I make the trek down Main Street, up the church hill, out to the graveyard each day, carrying brier roses cut from granmama’s favorite bush out front.  Sunday afternoon is dark as the Devil’s pit.  It storms as I walk to the graveyard.  The trees lining the iron fence stand like daggers against the sky.  The graves go back to Colonial times, as Snake’s Hollow used to be a kind of resort area in Louisiana, a home away from home for New Orleans elite, fabled for its mineral springs that can cure any ailment, so the stories go.  The tourist shop even sells bottles of it.  Now it’s just another small town, but the mystique remains, and in this hundreds of years old graveyard with stone angels and mausoleums, I can believe in the water’s magic, almost as if it has the power to revive my sweet granmama.

I come to her grave – as humble as the woman that shaped my life in so many ways, but stately, elegant, godly, and wretchedly beautiful.

“The sky’s crying for you,” I whisper, my lashes wet with rain.  The stone in my throat dislodges and the tears that pour forth are thick as the Red Sea.  Heaving, I sink to the ground, knees muddy as I kiss the gravestone.  “Granmama, there’s so much I wanted to tell you.  So much I don’t understand.  I feel so, so alone.”

Lightning illuminates the plot.  “Raff?” I cry out, sobbing in earnest now.  “Where are you?  God, oh God, why did you let her leave?”

An engine starts in the distance.  I steady myself, shaking like the Tower of Babel.  The cemetery gate creaks open.

“Hello?”  I rise, bunching my coat close around me for warmth.  Four figures peter in, hidden by the Spanish moss.  My hairs stand on end as I hide behind a stone angel.  Through the vegetation I can see them.  Wings drape around their shoulders like capes.  My jaw drops a country mile as they approach.

“May?” Raff calls, his face brilliant as the sun.  “It’s okay, May-flower.  You’re among friends.  There’s no need to be afraid.”  The clouds part above and his companions step out into the light.  A shaft of sun wreathes them in glory and glances off the halos above their heads.  I sink to my knees in wonder.

“Raff?”

“We’re here to take you home,” he says quietly, coming to me and picking me up off the ground, cradling me against him like he did when I was young.  He hushes me as I sob into his shirt.  The other angels stand back at a respectful distance.  “But first, hot cocoa.  And answers.”

 

 

“I’m what?”

The four angels look at me like I’m Kingdom Come.

Raff watches close, blowing steam from his mug of cocoa.  We sit in a booth in a small country diner, his coat over my shoulders as I stare wide-eyed at the three strangers.  One has hair like saffron threads, another slanted eyes rich as loam, and the third skin like champagne.  Their wings are tucked into their backs, and somehow the waitress can see them.  The four angels have a gravity Raff usually doesn’t, a presence like they’re actually here, with wings hidden from view.

“The Lord’s god-daughter,” Raff says quietly, arm around me as he hugs me tight.  He pushes a slice of apple pie my way.  “Eat, May.”

I pick at it, jaw dropped too far open to chew.  If I’ve learned anything from Raff, it’s that angels are many things, none of which are subtle.  I could kick him halfway to Heaven right now, springing his friends on me like daisies pushing up from a coffin.

“Jack’s rabbit I am.  That’s impossible!”

The angels laugh.  Michael’s stern face is softened by a smile.  He’s the one with the ruddy hair, the general of the angels.  A wicked scar juts over his brow, makes his face thick with ridges, like a mountain.  “Each generation, there’s a child raised by angels.  We’re their teachers.  Soon, May, you’ll inherit the Earth.”

“But why?”

“Because Father needs a guardian.”

“Like a guardian angel?  But that makes no sense!  I’m just a Southern girl that doesn’t know cat clawings from chicken scratch.  I write space operas – my head in the clouds as momma says, not a lick of common sense about me.  How am I supposed to help someone as mighty as God?”

The one with earthy eyes takes my hands into hers.  Gabriel – the messenger angel, I think – whose smile is like a bark whorl.  “God’s old, May.  Older than you can know.  He has places waiting for Him.  He needs someone to look after the world while he’s away.  That’s why you’ve been raised by Raphael.  The time will come when you’ll help others as He helps them.”

“How?”

“By answering prayers,” answers the golden angel.  Azrael, the angel of death.  Weird enough, I feel no fear under her swirling eyes.  Just peace.  “You’ll be a guardian like us.”

“But I’m not an angel.  Not at all.  I’m mortal.”

“Exactly,” Raff says, licking his fingers clean of the remains of my pie.  “Angels were created to serve humanity.  We bowed down before God’s creation out of love long ago.  Well, all but one.”  His face darkens.  “The point is, while we can do many things, we can’t interfere with occurrences directly.  We can help, of course, like I did with your grandmother, but we cannot change things outright.  I could ease her passing, but I couldn’t prevent her from dying.  We must respect the order of things.  But mortals can make choices, and we can influence them.  That’s where you come in.”

“Why?  What can I do?”

“You can make choices.  You’re the Guardian, May, the Guardian of this generation.  There is always one walking the earth, unbeknownst to humans.   To them, you appear an ordinary girl, but in truth, you’re an emissary of God, here to oversee things while He’s away.”

“Where did God go?  I thought He was everywhere – isn’t that kind of His point?”

Gabriel grins, her slanted eyes glimmering with amusement.  She nurses a tall coffee that’s black as sin.  “Even the old man needs a break.  We help Father take care of business.  We’re all different parts of God.  For example, I’m God’s strength.  That’s what Gabriel means.  Michael is God’s general, Raphael is God’s healing, Azrael his help.  It goes on.  And when you were made, sweet little thing that you were, we put something special into you.”

I tap my fingers on the table, nervous.  I glance at Raff in suspicion.  “And what exactly was that?”

Michael’s golden-green eyes focus on me.  “God’s love for the world.  It will give you the ability to take on the pains of this world, people’s suffering, and turn them into joy.”

“I still remember you up in Heaven, cooing away as I held you in my arms,” Gabriel smiles.  “You know the old wives’ tale that the indentation above your lip is God’s thumbprint?  It’s mine.  I cradle all babies before they’re born and whisper God’s Word into their ears.  I press life into their lips and shepherd them on their merry little ways.  You were delightful, and your soul shined just so, thrumming with God’s beauty.  To meet you again, all grown, why, it’s wonderful.”

Gabriel takes my hand.  She runs her fingers over the lines of my palm like she’s a fortune teller. “I can feel it in you, Father’s love.  It courses like lightning through your veins.  Raphael, you’ve been selfish, keeping her to yourself.  She’s too precious to bear.”

Raff squeezes me with his arm.  “She’s darn precious alright,” he grins, pulling my ear.  I fight him off.

“I’m too old for that nonsense, Raff.  I’m fierce now.”  I look at the archangels: “You guys better watch out.  Keep calling me precious and I might smite you with my supposed ‘powers.’”

“You sure are brave,” Gabriel laughs.  “Just like your cat, eh?  Raff keeps coming to work covered in calico hair.  He won’t shut up about how much it sheds.”

“If he’d stop petting her so much, maybe he wouldn’t get so messy,” I say.  I eye Raff.  “So what do you do up there, anyway?  Angels must be awful busy.  I don’t see how Raff has the time to spend with me.”

Azrael smiles serenely.  “We have many roles.  I’m the angel of death: I transport souls to the next plane.”

“I’m Heaven’s general,” Michael says.  He absently touches the scar on his forehead.  “I protect the world from demons.”

My heart races at the mention of demons, and I remember the blackness that terrorizes my nights.  I mask my fear and nod.

“I’m the angel of souls,” Gabriel says cheerily, drumming her thumbs on the table.  “I pluck new spirits from the Tree of Life and send them off to their birthing.  We all do a lot of things: odd jobs.  Answering prayers, for the most part.  I also play the trumpet pretty well.”

The table collectively groans.  “Not that stupid thing,” Raff teases.  “Gabby never shuts up, May.”

“Gotta practice for the Apocalypse!” Gabriel says.  She winks at me.  “All hell might break loose pretty soon – you’re growing up to be a head-turner, May, and men are the devil around pretty girls.”

“I’m not letting anyone touch her,” Raff mutters.

I roll my eyes.  “I don’t need two dads, Raff.  Ain’t no way you’re gonna tell me what to do.”

Michael laughs.  The sound shocks me, all deep and rich like dark chocolate.  I can’t imagine what it’s like when they all sing with their sweet-as-honey voices in the heavenly choirs.

“You’ve got a fireball on your hands,” Michael says.

“Yeah, he does,” I say.  “I’m not worth anything if I’m not trouble.”

“Keep that spunk.”  Izrail smiles. “It’ll help you down the line.”

Raff ruffles my hair.  “You’re a headache, a precious, precious headache.”

“I ain’t precious!” I protest.  “My cat’s precious.  You’re precious, in your silly yellow Sunday suit and top hat in church.  I got better fashion sense than you by a mile.”

The angels laugh at Raff’s expense.

I continue: “You’re all chivalrous and fluffy-winged.  You don’t have a bad bone in your body.  But I got a temper, and I know how to use it.  Ain’t nothing precious about me.”

Raff sighs.  “Whatever you say, May-flower.”

 

Mina Takes Advantage of Death

His skin is moonlight, eyes opium poppies, and as he looks at me, biting iris and black sclera, it is clear the poison flows not only from his veins but from his very touch, sly words, and serpent tongue.  I am naked in his bed, and without hesitation or asking I bring his wrist to my mouth and kiss the blue vein to claim him as my own.

I am oh so very hungry.  Like I have not drunk water for days.  But there is no pure spring in Hell, just the red Styx and gore and spirits distilled from ruin.  The best of us drink the ichor of demon lords and the lowest of us sip butcher’s milk in the gutter outside the slaughterhouse.

He smiles like a saw, fangs aglimmer, and he pulls me into his lap then presses his canines to the pulsing hotness of his blood and tears the skin open.  I lap up the blood that tastes just like sweet red wine and it flows into my mouth, out my chin, down onto my breasts in rivulets.  He laughs and plays with my hair, golden waves like wheat, and then he starts to moan as I bite him in return, and the air is so thick in this bed of velvet and silk, blacks and crimsons, you could slice it with a knife and still not cut through with true clarity.  We are smoke and mirrors, frankincense fumes and mist.

It is a bed of sin.  Of damnation.  But I ate his ancient apple before womanhood, when I was barely a maiden, and I am addicted to a ghost.  He is not very far from a corpse, and you can see every bone in his body, ribs poking out on a muscled torso, collarbone like a diamond knife, and sometimes I break open his femurs and drink down marrow or steal his pinky bone and place it on my ring to summon the Grim Reaper at will.

I must have been a slave and whore to Death a thousand times over, but he bends to my every whim and desire, so perhaps I am his master in the end.  I am always chasing after him because my Eros and Thanatos drives are mated in unholy union, summoning him into my body just so I can drown in his essence, raising him from the dead with my own flesh, because he is my child, but I am his creation, but wait – no – I’m his maker, I called his name from October winds, and I will eat my fill of him as I please.

He takes his turn, fangs at my neck, my breast, and the sheets are stained with alizarin.  Suck, lick, thirst after your lover and mingle spirits like a mixed drink.  I can’t tell alpha from omega, and I love him so fiercely and hate him so much that I will kill him, but after I tear his bones and sinew apart I will kiss him alive again, and I bruise him just as much as he fucks me over, and just plain fucks me.  He is not a good man, no, he is the essence of abuse and evil, but there is something about villains that appeals to the base desires of honest women, a candor in their cruelty, and as long as he is obedient, I give myself to him.