The Night is Full of Haints

There’s a blackness that coats Snake’s Hollow, like night left her shawl over the entire town.  It is thick, it is alive, and to breathe it in is to choke down smoke and the ripe red cayenne peppers left in rum at the peristyle.

Call the blackness an omen, call it sin.  Out of all the humans in my small Louisiana home, only I can see it.

The night is full of haints, the church bells toll on their own, and sometimes, you gotta feed the crossroads.  That’s what the blackness brings – loup garou, zombies, the Petro Nation – and they stay away because of Raff and Papa Leggie, always on the town’s edge, but someday, they’ll come marching right on in.  That I know for sure, that it’s only a matter of time before your shadows catch up with you

Tonight I’m gonna meet them.

The blackness snakes across the woods like Spanish moss then enter people’s dreams every night, and my God-fearing granmamma makes a sound in her sleep that could curdle milk.  When I was younger, barely in elementary school, Raff would cover me with his old white wings and sing me to sleep in the tongue of angels, and the next day in church Papa Leggie would have ten more lines on his bark whorl face.  Leggie and God, they’re poker buddies, so Raff tells me.

I wonder if they gamble over which town’s turn it is to vanish into the blackness next.

Winter down here is chill and muggy, and maybe I’m riled up on Maya Angelou’s poetry that sweet momma loves to read to me before our dinner prayers, but I’m brave, and Raff is asleep on the roof, and not a soul is awake in this silly town.  They’re all tired out from church where they tried to get slices of salvation just like apple pie, and they’re clearly ain’t enough to go around like at church picnics, or the damn shadows wouldn’t be here watching me.

At the end of Still I Rise tonight, momma said “Be brave May Octavie Laveau, be strong, ‘cause this world will beat stubborn women down, and you ain’t worth anything if you ain’t stubborn as a mule.”  I wish I was like Storm in X-Men and could clear this place of the darkness, but it’s more than weather.

The blackness is in the bones of this town, fabled for Calf Springs that will heal and Snakes Springs that will curse.  There are so many heroes in my comics and movies – Leia, Nubia, Black Panther, Vixen – and I got a cape and light-up plastic light saber from a few years ago from when I still used to play make believe.  I put them on as a shield of sorts, full of sweet childhood memories, then crawl out the window, onto the gutter, and down the widow’s walk –

Wings in my face, strong hands at my waist.  I’m hauled from the widow’s walk back into my room like a lil girl picking flowers.

Raff just popped up like a daisy from a grave.  Jack’s rabbit if he ain’t fast as a hare.  I could have sworn I lulled him to sleep with momma’s chocolate chip cookies.  No one can see Raff ‘cept me, and he’s been with me since birth.  Love him but he’s a pain in my tush sometimes.

His scarred face is all stern, and he sits me down on my bed and dang it am I in for a talking.

“May!  What did I tell you about going out at night?  It’s too dangerous for you to even fathom!  I didn’t raise you to lose you, girl.”  His voice gets all gentle in the end, and he scratches his shaved curls.

I squint at Raff in the darkness of my room.  He’s got skin brown as me, and I used to not believe that he was an angel when I was younger.  I would say angels were only blonde women that played harps flying round the manger of baby Jesus, but Raff has a flaming sword and ain’t very good with babies.  He thinks they’re cute and all, but he’s been a bachelor since Literal Day 1.

“You didn’t raise me to be a scaredy cat either, Raff.  I’ve seen the Baron come down at fetes and watched my uncle get ridden by Ogou and swallow fire.  There’s a magic to my town, a curse of some kind that only I can see, and I’m going to save it.  I won’t let Snake’s Hollow be another of Leggie’s bets.”

“Legba isn’t trying to gamble Snake’s Hollow away, May,” Raff sighs, sitting down next to me.  “He’s trying to protect it.  We all are.”

The blackness exhales outside my window – it always comes at the stroke of 3:00 AM, the witching hour, then leaves by dawn, and the sun is coming up.  The howls of the loup garou on the bayou kept me awake all night.  When it breathes, it sounds like the whistle of a ghost train, and when it leaves, it’s like a tea kettle burning.

Raff makes the sign of the cross, only his fingers draw holy fire on the air, and the cross floats to me where it kisses my heart.  Blessings from angels never hurt, but I ain’t in needof  his protection.  I need his answers.

“You’re funny, Raff, you ain’t a proper man, and you ain’t a good angel.  Angels don’t lie, after all.”

Raff narrows his sunny yellow eyes, the irises an unearthly amber.  “What am I lying about?”

“Bets.  The lwa make bets all the time.  Leggie’s a trickster, after all.”

“Legba loves you, May.  He’s keeping the blackness away.  We all are.  Now go to bed.  You got school tomorrow.”  He hugs me then takes off my cape and tries to tuck me in.

“I don’t need you pulling the blankets up Raff, I’m eleven, not seven.”

Raff smiles like river pearls are in his mouth, then laughs.  “’Night, May-flower.”  He climbs up onto the roof and soon I can hear him snoring like a foghorn.

I watch the blackness until dawn drives it out.

The night is alive in Snake’s Hollow.

In the dark, the Dead have names.

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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.”

 

King of the Crossroads: Kalfou

“All magic passes through my crossroads – good, bad, in-between – Legba will protect you, but I?  I will show you your true potential.”

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Met Kalfou  is the dark horse Petro lwa, king of the crossroads, equated with the Devil, a dark spirit whose veve of two writhing snakes belies how all evil spirits and curses stem from his dark magic and enchanted leaves.  He is either the brother or dark side of Papa Legba, the guardian of ceremony and entrances and exits in Haitian Vodou.  Kalfou, or Carrefour, is Legba’s flip side, the shadow side of the kindly grandfather of the Vodou pantheon.

I call him the Man in Black, as he favors tailored black and red pinstripe suits, vests, blood hued ties, a monocole, cane, shining patent leather shoes, and cufflinks in the shape of snakes.  He is rarely without a Cuban cigar, rum, or his favorite blunts, and you can oftentimes find him working dark magicks and hexes with the leaves and herbs of his favorite trees or plants or crooning away at a piano as he sings sultry jazz.

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His skin is dark as night, he sports braids or locks that look like the sheen of an oil spill, and his eyes are either fully black as pitch or have red irises.  To me, he appears as a part of, but independent of, Samael.  Spirits rarely overlap for little hard polytheist me, but a vivid memory stands out in my astral dreams:

I’m sitting at the kitchen table with Samael, who is cutting herbs that smell like the forest.  He pauses with his knife and the blade reflects in his eyes.  Suddenly, his form shifts into an African man that I have seen throughout my childhood from the age of four on – coated in writhing darkness, the Shadow Man, and the caul slips away to reveal his second most taken human form besides the Middle Eastern one he usually dons, what I call evil Bob Marley.  He smiles and it looks like he is a lion ready to devour prey.

“Who are you, when you’re like this?” I ask him, hesitant.

He twines a blood red thread from his tie around his fingers then brutally snaps it.  His eyes are liquid oil spills of Pre-Cambrian depths and I see birds fly in them then sink into tar and die.  His nails are long and curved into talons, and he brushes a loc back.

“Kalfou: it is one of my many names.”

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I Google the unheard of before name when I wake up and discover it is no other than the lwa syncretized as the Devil but still not really Satan, but something perhaps older and even more dangerous.  I guess all these years he wasn’t playing at Evil Bob Marley after all and his passion for jazz might be organic, not acquired.

I think of the Devil at the crossroads, of souls sold for musical genius, and how others view Samael as Chango or Baron Samedi.

But not me.  To me, he is, yet is not, Met Kalfou, Mister Carrefour

I go through my drawings and find endless sketches of his as yet unnamed face.  To me, his eyes are galaxies, black hole hearts, and his power is that of the devouring void.

Being in his presence makes me uneasy.  He reminds me of a black mamba, and he takes another thread, then

Snap.

On Possession as Communication With Spirits

I say demonic possession, you probably think of the Exorcist and a girl masturbating with a cross and calling Jesus “daddy.”  I say angelic possession, you probably think of the  human vessels in Supernatural that usually end up with crispy angel wings or, of course, Castiel calling Mark Pellegrino an assbutt.  I say spirit possession and your immediate thought is the horses or chwals of Voodoo, Ifa, and Santeria and maybe that really inaccurate depiction of Papa Legba in American Horror Story: Coven and Marie Laveau writhing with snakes  in fetishized portrayals of valid religions.

Since the beginning of time, shamans and even laypeople in tribal communities have channeled spirits for spiritual communication with the divine.   Mediums do it today with archangels and the deceased, African diasporic religions have a rich history of invoking the lwas and orishas into the flesh, there is the Drawing Down the Moon ritual of Wicca, and of course the famous Lourdes possessions and fascination with demonic possession during the Satanic Panic a few decades ago.  These are all valid examples.  What is rarely talked about, however, is milder states of possession that allow a devotee to share a headspace and body with gods, spirits, angels, demons, the dead, and everything in between.

It is a step above channeling in that you can feel the spirits’ emotions, sometimes hear their thoughts or speech as a kind of inner voice, perceive them in your third eye, feel their touch, rushes of tingling and goosebumps and electric energy, or focus on certain chakras or damaged parts of the body as a means to healing.  There is full-on possession, wherein the devotee becomes a vessel for the spirit in question and most times blacks out and has little memory of what happened, whether as Ogou they drank a bunch of rum and waved machetes around, or accidentally invoked Artemis into the High Priestess instead of some nameless Great Mother Goddess and excuse you, but Artemis wants nothing to do with sex as she is a virgin.  Eyes can change color in the devotee, speech can change, entire mannerisms, even knowing other languages.

I want to talk about shadowing, or soul-sharing, when you are the eyes and ears and tongue and hands – the sensory organ – of your spirits in the physical world.  You share a headspace, can feel the spirit’s emotions, their physical touch, hear their thoughts, and in meditative states or astral travel, see through their eyes and even possess them in turn.  Samael has done that many times with me – letting me see through his eyes – and demons aren’t the only ones who possess people.  As a dumbass teenager I invoked Michael into my body by chanting his name, my eyes rolled back into my head, a hurricane was in my mind, I blacked out, vomited, then drank a glassful of salt water to ground myself.

It’s dangerous shit to mess with especially for budding pagans, but allows gnosis that is unimaginable through regular divination: imagine having a direct connection to the gods, being able to hear their unfiltered thoughts, feel their marvel as they react to the physical world, whether it be a demon tasting chocolate through your tongue or an angel stroking your hair when they are trying to comfort you.  It makes spirits undeniably real.  You are in their head, they are all up in yours, you can touch them when you project out of body, but when they are being channeled, they can touch you, speak to your heart, you can feel prayers as energy, the chakras churning inside you as different energetic centers react, feel their laughter as bubbling champagne in your breast, feel their sorrow as a heavy weight on your shoulders.  Soulsharing is beautiful and painful at the same time.

Personally, I’ve always been like this, before I even understood what spirits were.  Feeling the energy rushing through me, like I’d been plugged into a socket.  I thought they were aliens when I was 7.  I would mix souls with Archangel Ariel in dreams in the third grade and feel divine ecstasy.  I was a really strange kid, and it didn’t help my imaginary friends were Ariel, Uriel, Samael and Metatron.  I’ve always been what the Voodoo community would call a horse, but shy away from full on possession and mostly just use channeling for communication purposes.

I think it’s something you have to be born with – you kind of have to have your head broken open, a shamanic awakening  – and I definitely advise against soulsharing if you’re not supported by a spiritual elder and know exactly what the fuck you’re doing.  There are a lot of different ways to do it – I’ve found imagining sigils in my mind of the respective spirit and just chanting their name does the trick.  Sometimes spirits and gods give you calling cards – two proto-Hebrew taws on your hands for Samael, for example, though I think that’s probably just something that works for me alone, not in general – to invoke them into your body.  Words to focus on, song lyrics, chants, you name it.

Also,  if you are to engage in possession as a means of communication, make sure your shadow work is in check as it can be.  You don’t want to bring negativity into this, especially with spirits of vengeance, because this is opening a very deep line of communication and then they’ll start bothering you about brushing your teeth more (I joke) or confronting your deepest fears to overcome things limiting you, and if it’s a demonic or chaotic spirit, that confrontation will be brutal and humbling (not a joke.)

It is a very effective means of communication, but as with any spiritual endeavor, be cautious, prepare, and plan.  You may find untold levels of kinship, or you may get radio silence, but make sure you have a support system in place.  I didn’t for most of my life and experimented with various levels of possession and energywork without consciously knowing what the hell I was doing and no, elementary school Allies wearing tin foil hats doesn’t make pesky angels go away.

Other than that, it’s quite an interesting mode of spiritual connection.  I think I’ve said enough for now.  Might elaborate on this in further posts.

Bringing Spirits Home from the Botanica

Two of my best friends, M and R, just got married last spring and moved very close to DC.  They are both devotees of Lilith and Samael, and M was raised by her Haitian parents in the traditional mix of Catholicism and Voodoo, so she has helped me learn a lot about Samael as a “hot” spirit and we regularly trade stories and jokes and UPG.  She experiences more of his Ogou side while I get stinking Kalfou.  We often joke the best thing Samael ever did was bring me, M, and our “little sister” K together – he seems to collect girls that are the complete opposite of him – nice, like cute animals and anime, nerdy, etc.

M was getting her hair braided last night – I drove up to their brand spanking new apartment to celebrate M’s birthday.  R and I watched the entirety of Hellsing Abridged until we decided it was high time to go find his wife, so my crappy GPS got us lost until we found the hair salon.  M’s hair was about 30 minutes from being done, so we decided to bum around the shopping plaza and look for food.  Lo and behold a Hispanic botanica, something I had only ever read about in Kenaz Filan’s “Haitian Voodoo Handbook” when I was searching for info on the lwa for my middle grade story (I could have just asked M but I try not to bother her too much!  She’s still my beta reader though).  I was uber-excited but R, who is part Puerto Rican, was used to seeing these in NYC where they used to live so he humored me and we went in.

I was in Heaven.  It smelled like incense and I talked in my rusty Spanish with the shop owners – there were statues of Santa Muerte, orishas, lwas, and every saint and angel imaginable.  I went apeshit!  I bought wooden statues of Michael, Raphael, Jophiel, Santa Marta (who M said was a dangerous spirit that made her dad’s eyes burn during rituals – I just liked her because she was holding snakes and reminded me of Erzulie Danto) and of course one of the Grim Reaper for Samael.  R was entertained by the fertility candles shaped like you-know-whats and happy with my haul, we picked up M.

That night in their guest room I had a dream that Samael took me to an enchanted forest like something out of a Miyazaki movie.  There was a moss-embedded shrine to the saints, with little statues for them.  We lit incense and prayed and people had left dollar bills and coins as offerings.  We then took a canoe up a river through the autumn woods to a sacred grove for St. Francis – it was covered in medals of his face on the mossy ground, his traditional statue in monks robes with live birds in in his hands were there, and it was obviously a place people had made pilgrimages to, with prayers and petitions written on parchment, birch bark, and paper covering the little island in the river.

I think back on the St. Francis statue that caught my eye in the botanica and wonder, did I catch someone’s eye last night? 🙂

Chwal: Part 1

I have a big brother in the sky. His name’s Raff, he likes ice cream, and his eyes are yellow like the sun. He’s real tall and takes me out flying with him to catch lightningbugs. He’s got these big old white wings that are fluffy as my kitty.  Sometimes, when it’s dead winter and I’m shivering, he’ll wrap his wings around me like a blanket. I know I can always count on him to make me laugh when I’m crying or tickle me awake when I nod off in church, like now.

Raff’s perched by the edge of my coloring book like a bird: “May-flower, time to wake up: Sunday school’s over and you knocked over your juice when you nodded off.  The sermon’s soon.  Don’t worry, I cleaned up the spill.”

“Aww, Raff, why did you ruin my dream?  I was like Princess Leia, except instead of being captured by Dark Vader-

“Darth Vader, sweetheart.”

“Yeah!  That scary butt.  Instead of being his prisoner, I beat him up really good with a pink light saber.  It went pow-pow and sliced him right in half!”

Raff frowns like he just smelled an onion from granmama’s garden.  “That sounds unpleasant.  I think I should start taking you to more kid-friendly movies.”

The sermon starts, and Raff goes away to do whatever the silly fool does.

He’s up there in the sky, I’m guessing, going about his heavenly business. He tells me it’s real important, but I dunno if I believe him. My pa’s a real businessman – a lawyer, he dresses up in a suit and tie and everything, but Raff wears these silly outfits like you see on those Christmas cards, with those funny looking angels flying round the manger of baby Jesus.  Except those angels are all white, and Raff’s brown as a sun-baked potato. I told him so later that night: angels are only pretty blonde women in white dresses that sing soprano, and he laughs so loud I think the sky’s falling.

“We’re not all white, May.  Look at your Papa.  He’s one of the most holy men around.”

Raff’s sorta right, I guess.  Papa Leggie is a nice old man with a fine long beard and skin the color of wrinkly wood, with a big long cane he carries everywhere with the keys to Heaven clinking on the grip.  

Raff says he’s something like a saint.   I don’t know about saints, but Leggie’s a real charmer.  He laughs a lot and says he likes my curls, and sometimes, he even lets me play with his dog.  It’s a white dog, real fluffy, and real little just like me.  Leggie likes sitting in the park and watching flowers grow.  I say: Leggie, what are you doing alone?  Why don’t you have a wife?  You must be awful lonesome.  But he ain’t.  He’s happy, in his quiet old Papa ways.

Momma don’t believe me when I tell her about my friends. She tells me I’m just indulging in childish fantasies, and oh honey, isn’t our child just so precious! Sure I am, but just because I’m precious doesn’t mean I’m lying. That’s the problem with grownups: they’re stupid. They can’t see what’s right in front of them, the silly coots.

Dinner rolls around, and granmama sits on the porch sipping on sweet tea and talks on and on about Satan and how I better watch out! – otherwise he’s gonna come snatch me up because you’re playing on the wrong side of the street again, you silly child, so come back to your granmama and stay away from the traffic. She doesn’t like me playing over there, but I do it anyway when she ain’t watching. Raff helps me cross the street.  Mostly I just don’t wanna eat dinner because I know momma made peas again, blech.  Guess I’ll feed them to Raff or Leggie’s puppy.  I don’t know why they like peas?  I bet the mean old Devil grows them in his garden just for me and delivers them straight to momma’s door.

Why this Satan man would want me, I don’t know: maybe it’s because I’m just so precious, like the diamond on momma’s wedding ring. I ask Raff if that’s so, and he laughs again, then wraps me up in his big old arms and tells me: “Honey, I’ll never let that fool get you. Satan’s scared of little girls.”

“Well,” I say, “he should be.  I’m mighty fearsome.”

I tell that to granmama and she says: “Child, how do these silly ideas get in your head?”

I tell her Raff said so, and she just smiles.

She never believes me either.

 

 

It’s some holiday or something, and church is awful boring. We sing these silly songs and clap our hands and sing, Alleluia!  Praise the Lord!  The granmamas shake like Kingdom Come and belt out the lyrics.  It sounds oh so beautiful, and I like to dance to everyone’s song.  

I don’t know what an Alleluia is. I ask Raff, and he says it means we’re praising God. Then I ask Leggie why God wants all that praise, and Leggie smiles a bit and says He don’t need it, but people do it anyway, so it’s fine by Him.  Leggie’s real close with God, he tells me they’re poker buddies.  Don’t know how I feel about that, but I guess it’s okay to gamble if you’re a saint.

I ask Leggie if God goes to church, Leggie says no, so I tell him God’s a bad Christian. Granmama says if you don’t go to church, Satan’ll get you, so I tell Leggie God better watch out.

Leggie gets this sorta sad look on his face, so I tell him I’ll protect God because Satan’s scared of little girls. Leggie smiles then and lifts me up, up, so high in the sky, I’m flying with the stars. It’s awful cold up there, so he gives me a special blanket that feels like a kitten’s kiss.

I have a little kitten, y’know, and she kisses me all the time. It’s cute as a button. My kitten is just so dang adorable.

I tell that to Raff, and I ask him if he thinks so. He pets my kitten’s back and watches her purr, like a lil fire engine, then tells me she’s gonna be a mean fierce momma cat someday. I ask him if I’ll be a mean fierce momma, and he tells me not to rush my childhood.

I hate it when adults say that, and I tell him so. He tells me he ain’t no adult, but I don’t believe him. Tell me what you are then, I say. He tells me he’s an angel, just like before, and I laugh so hard I almost fall down the porch stairs.  Ain’t no angel got a five o’clock shadow!

 

 

Raff’s pretty gentle, but he’s got edges.  Poky bits like a knife.  The kind I use to mush my gross nasty peas with.

Raff’s covered in scars he says he got in a war, and his face is awful fierce sometimes when he ain’t smiling. He shows me his sword, and I say it’s cool, but not as cool as a light saber. I have a little blue light saber – my second favorite color, there were no pink ones, a shame! – that lights up and makes blasty woop-woop noises, just like Dark Vader’s.  I wonder if there’s a Light Vader too, a princess of the galaxy, except her armor is white like Leggie’s fluffy puppy?

I take out my light saber and show it to Raff. He has to admit my light saber’s darn fierce, but then he says wait, honey, watch this, and fwoosh! His sword lights on fire! I scream and giggle and tell him he’s gonna burn himself, but he doesn’t and just holds it all superhero-like, and then I gotta admit, it’s almost as cool as my light saber.

My kitten don’t like the flames though, she cowers and mews, so Raff puts it away and goes back to petting her. Raff likes cats a lot. I tell him he better find a wife soon, otherwise he’s gonna be an old cat lady, just like Leggie and his dog, and he looks at me all funny and says: I can’t be an old cat lady, honey, I’m a man.

I say no you ain’t. Men don’t have wings. Raff says: I know, honey, I’m an angel and a man, and I says: no, you’re an old cat lady, you silly fool. Now go dress up in a nice suit like my pa and find yourself a job, then a girl, then buy a house and stop squatting on my roof.

I’m still working on him, but I think with a little training, Raff’ll make a nice husband for someone someday.

I just gotta find the right woman for him.

 

 

It was raining awful hard today, so I just sat at my table, bored as anything, drawing Raff with a crayon.  He posed for me real nice, all still as a painting, and I just feel so bad, because he don’t know what I’m gonna do.

“Raff?  How do you spell batch-a-lore?”

He looks at me all funny.  He’s always looking at me funny, head sideways, lips squiggly like chicken scratches.  Maybe I’m a funnyman like Bill Cosby.  “And why do you want to know that, May-flower?”

I start stumbling over my words, then cross my fingers behind my back to save myself from the sin of lying.  It’s awful hard, lying to an angel.  Something about it ain’t right.  “Because I’m drawing a storybook, and this is the prince.  The princess’ll only know he ain’t taken if he’s got batch-a-lore on his crown.”

Raff takes a slow sip of his Coke.  I steal him food from the fridge every morning.  Momma always wonders where the mac and cheese went then gets all huffed up at my pa.  Mac and cheese is Raff’s absolute favorite, next to my granmama’s gumbo.  Yum yum yum!

“You’re a funny kid,” he says, ruffling my hair like a momma bird.  Then he tells me how to spell it, and I write the word real careful in big blocky letters, just like my teacher taught me to.  Her name is Missus Lovelace, and she’s sweet as anything!  She makes us apple pie and lets us play with hamsters.  She even let me bring my kitty in for show and tell, once.  That was before it peed on the carpet.  Oh well.

It’s still nasty as mushed peas outside.  The Devil must be beating his wife – that’s something my granmama says when it rains.  I tell Raff that, and he bursts out laughing.

“The Devil’s scared senseless of his wife, honey,” he tells me.  “All men are, deep down.”

Since we’re on the topic of women, I just gotta ask.  “If Satan’s gotta wife, then why are you and Leggie alone?  The dirty old Devil ain’t got nothing on you.  He’s not a pinch as pretty like your fluffy wings – all he’s got is gross spidery bat wings and fangs – and, and slimy scales!”

“I don’t need a wife – May, why in the world are you doing drawing hearts on that paper?”

“Nothing,” I say, real real guilty.  I cross my fingers even tighter.  I hope God doesn’t look down on me from his poker game with Leggie and see me lying to an angel.

Raff gets this look like he knows I’m up to no good, and in that moment, I swear, he’s just like Santa Claus.  I pray to the Lord I don’t get a big stack of coal for Christmas.  I really really want another light saber or maybe a cassette player.

“Let me see that,” he says, and before I can hide it in my jumper, he snatches up my drawing.  He reads it, and his eyes get wide as the moon. “Raff – heart, another heart- illegible?  Oh – eligiblebachelor?’ Eligible bachelor?  And more hearts?”  He looks at me mighty scared.  “Raff the eligible bachelor?  Is this a personal ad?”

I look down at my sneakers.  “No,” I mutter.

“Now May, look: I appreciate your wanting to help me, but this is way too far.”  The scars on his pretty face twist into a kinda smile.  “I like the way things are.  You’re the only girl I need.”  Then he tousles my hair and hands back the paper.  He delicately takes a crayon in his long, thick hand, just like he’d break it, he’s so so strong, and draws a crown on himself.  “There.  Now I’m a real prince.”  He crosses out ilegible bachelor, then draws a lil girl right next to him, holding his hand.

“That me?”

“It sure is,” he says, writing my name in beautiful teeny-tiny letters next to his.  He makes crayons look like a painting.  I add a big red bow in my hair, then the picture’s perfect.

“I don’t wanna be a fairytale princess, Raff.  They’re boring.  They sit around in towers waiting for dumb knights to save them. Real princesses are like Leia: they got guns.”  I launch outta my seat, and grab my lightsaber from my dresser.  “I wanna be the one that slays Jabba the Hut, and I want a flaming sword like yours!  You can’t beat up aliens in a dress, or climb trees, at least.”

My kitty’s curled up on Raff’s lap, purring like an engine.  He pets her absentmindedly, watching my antics – that’s what my momma calls them.  I think they’ve got something to do with ants?  

I swoosh my lightsaber through the air, chopping an alien to bits.  “See!  Just – like – that.”  I punctuate my words with vicious lil thrusts, stabbing it again and again.  The dragon dies, and I run up the tower to save Raff.  I bow, then draw him a pink paper flower.  “Here you go, m’lady.  I saved you!”

Raff pales a bit, which is funny, because he’s so darn dark, and his face turns the color of pa’s tea.  “I ain’t a princess,” he says, all low I nearly shiver.  

I giggle like a maniac, then draw a dress on him.  “Now you are, Raff-ay-el.”

“You’re as bad as Michael-” Raff begins, then freezes like a snowman.

Something clatters in the kitchen, and my granmama comes out with her afternoon sweet tea.  Quick as a minnow, Raff disappears.

She tsk-tsks, shuffling about, reprimanding me for the “Uncleanly state of my room!  And May, it might as well be a pig sty in here, for the love of the Lord.”  I wish right then I could disappear, just like silly old Raff.

The Devil may be scared of his wife, but even angels are scared of grannmamas.

 

 

Church was awful boring today.  The reverend droned on and on about sin and salvation, and I think: h’oh Lord, make him stop.  Leggie’s sitting in the back, humming to himself, reading the newspaper, and all the while I wait for him to butt in and correct the minister.  But Leggie just chuckles at the Sunday funnies.  They’re the best part of the day of the Lord, he told me.  Leggie says you can learn a lot more about the world from comics than you ever do in church.  Leggie says God likes Peanuts and that’s why Leggie’s dog is called Snoopy.

I start humming to myself under my breath.  Making sure no one’s watching, I take out my pretty red crayon and start drawing hearts on granmama’s hymn book.  She’s snoring like a groundhog in February, hiding under her big purple hat.  It has this kinda dead-looking plastic bird on it.  I feel a little like the bird.  

Momma and pa don’t notice me drawing because they’re too dang busy listening to the reverend, trying to get a slice of their own salvation.  I guess salvation is like apple pie at a family reunion: the folks here sure are trying awful hard to get it, and there doesn’t seem enough to go around.

“May, sweetheart: listen,” Raff whispers, gently taking the crayon away from me.  He’s sitting all solemn-like at the end of the pews in his canary yellow Sunday suit.  How can I take him seriously in that suit, I tell you, it’s gotta be a joke!  I glower, leaning against Raff’s strong arm and poking him in the side.

 “Raff, you gotta get a job.  I don’t need a stupid babysitter,” I tell him, trying to get my crayon back.  But he hid it real well in his pocket, and there’s no hope – just none at all.  I sigh.  “I’ve been on this green old earth nine years.  And I work more than you on an honest day.  I don’t need to listen to a silly reverend, and I sure don’t need you stealing my crayons.”

Raff draws his lips real thin and sighs, mussing my hair.  “You’re my job, sweetheart.  I look after you.”

I cock my brow all sassy, just like Leia.  “I don’t need any looking after.  I can tie my shoe, braid my hair, and cross the street all by myself.  You don’t even do that.  You just fly over like a fat New Orleans pigeon!”  

I like to feed the pigeons in New Orleans.  They’re real pudgy and squeaky.  So fat they can’t even fly!

“A pigeon?”  Raff tickles me with his wing, and I scream, laughing.  He smiles bright as the sun.  No one can hear us when Raff doesn’t want them to.  Not even my granmama, who has ears like a submarine spy ship.

Nobody notices me when I’m talking to Raff or Leggie either.  Dunno why.  

Raff might not be good for much, but he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve.  I like Raff anyways.  He’s kinda like my kitty: cute in a scruffy way.  Sometimes he forgets to shave and I gotta remind him.  His kisses are scratchy then.  What a mess!  I don’t know what he or the cat would do without me.

“Yes sir.  I’ll babysit you!” I say, smacking him with the Bible.  He bites his lip and sits ramrod straight.  “That’s it, Raff.  Sit all nice and straight, mister, like my daddy, and ask for God’s forgiveness.”

“Why?”

“Because, silly, you sinned.”  I show him how to pray.  “I’ll pray for your forgiveness:  Dear God.  Hello.  I really like Snoopy – she’s cute as a button.  Maybe Leggie will let me play with her in the park today?  Thanks a bunch.  And Mr. God, I’m sorry Raff is no fun.  Please forgive him for stealing my crayon and momma’s mac and cheese.  Amen, Mr. God, and please save the funnies for me.”

I wink at Leggie.  He has to keep himself from bursting out into laughter.  Raff don’t look none too pleased.  

“I am too fun,” he insists.

“No you ain’t.  The last time I tried to get ice cream, you started yapping about how ‘Bad ice cream is for you, so why don’t you just go eat your vegetables?’  Everyone knows peas are gross, Raff.  Now I dunno what angels eat, but it sure ain’t quality food if you think peas taste good.”

He don’t know what to say to that.  As momma says, Raff ain’t the shiniest penny in the pail.  But it’s okay.  I take care of him.  

Sometimes he comes to school with me.  I sit with him at the table all the way in the back, where the toy kitchen is, and help him with his math.  I’m awful good at math.  I can add and subtract like nobody’s business, and Raphael asks me bunches of questions.  He’s teaching me this funny language that he calls our secret code, and lemme tell you, it’s the most beautiful sound in the world!  All clear and clean like a good wind or rain.  He speaks it a lot with God when he prays.

Miss Lovelace’s passing out snacks now.  Me and Molly run up and grab the best chocolate chips, then bring them back to the girls at our table.  Raff’s sitting on the beanbags, sleeping like an owl.  I think of drawing a mustache above his lip, but then I remember the Golden Rule and think that I’d hate to have one.  Mustaches are only for distinguished gentlemen.  That’s what granmama says.  

I say they’re only for gentlemen and God.  Raff’s got no business going around unshaved.

Halfway through my cookie, Raff wakes up.  Billy Morse is pulling my braids and I’m hollering at him.  Miss Lovelace is too busy dealing with another dumb boy, so I get out my lightsaber from my backpack and thwack Billy on the head right hard and good.

“May!” Raff says.  “Don’t break that Golden Rule I told you about.”

“Then why else do we have lightsabers and swords?” I groan.  He takes my lightsaber away from me and slips it into his robe, then doesn’t give it back to me til we’re back in my room, the silly coot.

“To remind us what the cost of failed peace is.  Swords and lightsabers aren’t for fun, sweetheart.”

“Jack’s rabbit they ain’t!  What else are we gonna slay the bad guys with?”

“Kindness, May.  You kill your enemies with kindness.”

And I ain’t got nothing to say to that, so I just sit there, looking at Raff.  He laughs at my expression.

“What is it, May-flower?”

“You may not look it, but you’re pretty smart, Raff.  For a wifeless fool.”

 

 

Later that night Raff tucks me into bed and helps me read Nancy Drew.  I wanna be Nancy Drew because she’s always solving mysteries and going on bunches of adventures.  I’d have her spy-glass and precious skirts, except I’d take Raff along with me, and my kitty.  

I tell him I’m gonna be Sherlock, he’ll be my Watson, and we’ll go around saving lost pets.  He asks what I’m gonna pay him, and I say I’ll give him granmama’s cookies, because the old fool’s always stealing them anyways.

Raff blushes.  “I’ve never stolen from you.”

“Oh yeah?  I’ve seen the crumbs on your lips.  I know my kitten doesn’t eat chocolate chips.  She only eats oatmeal raisin, and granmama never makes those, only Missus Lovelace.  See?  I just solved a mystery.  Hah!”

“There are greater mysteries than that.”

“What?  Is Leggie’s puppy missing?  And don’t spout silly Sunday school nonsense at me, Raff-ay-el.  I see straight through that molasses.  Angels don’t have halos, God doesn’t smite nobody, and the Devil’s a big old sissy.  If I were some big mighty God, I’d come down as a little girl and give Satan a real good scare!”

Raff suddenly looks all concerned like pa does when I give the kitty makeovers with momma’s lipstick and my cute little markers.  “May, don’t say that.  I don’t even want to think about it.”

“Aw, horseradish, Raff,” I say, punching him in the arm.  “We’re gonna find that Devil-man.  It’ll be our greatest adventure yet!  I’ll beat him up real good with my lightsaber and let you finish him off with my squirt gun.  Then we’ll marry the old fool off to granmama and he’ll be too scared to torture even his peas.  Granmama says all men are the Devil, but she’d make a Christian out of even him.”

“What is it with you and marrying people off?”

I sniff and cross my arms.  “I just want them to be happy, Raff.  Is that really too much to ask?”

He buries me under the covers and tickles me.  I scream: “Stop it, you fool! Stop!” but he just laughs and turns out the lights, then climbs outside to sleep on the roof.  

Sometimes he snores real loud and the roof shakes, and I have to throw rocks up at him.  It’s hard getting them over the gutter but worth it for his screams.  He wakes up crying like a little girl, speaking our secret language, and I cackle like Alice’s Mad Hatter and go back to bed.

But sometimes I’m scared, and I need Raff.

I can see a darkness others can’t.  

Granmama might call it sin.  

I’ve seen it in the eyes of killers, on people whose souls are downright nasty.  They’re black, I tell you, black as tar, and I cry when I think about it.  Sometimes the blackness creeps in at night, when the dogs howl, and the lights turn off in the streets.  Raff shuts the windows and bolts the door, and I’m not allowed out of my room.  

Granmama sings feverish hymns in her sleep and Raff hides me under his wings, his face all fierce like a lion.  When I was little I used to cry, but I ain’t very little anymore, so I make him feel better.  He won’t tell me what it is, but I know he’s scared to death by it, so I make up stories about me and him.  He listens and braids my hair and just holds me like he thinks I’m gonna slip away.  He asks me to sing and I do, and no one else can hear us, not in the whole wide world.

Leggie don’t come back for days after that blackness, and when he does, he’s got ten more lines on his face.  Pretty soon he’s gonna look like momma’s garden gnomes.  He won’t tell me where he goes or what he’s seen.  It must be mighty fearsome if it makes Leggie scared, just like Jabba the Hut.

 

 

We’re eating oatmeal one day, and it’s gummy and gross because momma made it wrong, so I spit it down the sink.  Raff eats what I don’t want, and in between spoonfuls he asks the darndest question:

“May, have you heard of destiny?”

I puff out my lips and roll my eyes.  “Sure I have.  Destiny’s what all heroe ha’ve got to do.  I don’t know exactly how they get them, but I figure it’s some kind of instruction book, see?  Like pa’s car manual, except it’s written in pretty gold ink and looks like a fairy tale.”

He finishes the last little bit of gross oatmeal.  He don’t seem to get what I’m saying, so I try to explain it easier to him.  Like I said, Raff’s pretty slow.  Anyone who eats peas and actually likes them has gotta be missing a few brain cells I’d guess.

“All heroes have got quests, Raff, and before they get them, they need to know their destiny.  Except sometimes, they don’t find out til the end, and by the time they slay the dragon, they realize who they were all along.  Knights don’t know nothing, anyways, not like Yoda does. They don’t need to kill something to find out who they are.  That’s why Snow White’s queen had a talking mirror.  It told her who she was every day!  She didn’t need a silly knight, or some loony prince.  Except one day, the queen’s destiny changed, and she wasn’t very happy about that.  So lemme ask you, Mr. Raff-aye-el, are you happy with your destiny?”

He looks all shocked and bites his bottom lip like a rabbit.  “You’re very wise, May-flower,” he says finally.

“It ain’t hard to be smart.  I’m not some dumb grownup.  You’re only kinda one, so at least you know something.  Now take me flying, or you ain’t getting chocolate chips ever again, I swear on granmama’s Bible.”

Raff’s better than an airplane because he can talk.  We fly out to the apple orchard past the pancake house, and I eat so much fruit I think my stomach’s gonna explode.  I’m moaning and acting out under the tree like it’s Kingdom Come, and Raff finds a bee’s nest and whispers the little buzzers to sleep, then coats his wings with honey.

“Watch this,” he says, then he fans his wings out in the sun, like he’s drizzled in maple syrup.  Suddenly, the butterflies come from every corner of the woods.  They land on his feathers like he’s a buffet.  I gasp and go catch them, and he puts them on my nose and in my hair.  The honey makes them stick.  “Here you go, sweetheart,” he teases, making me a crown of orange ones.  “A tiara fit for a princess.”

“That’ ain’t very funny, Raff.  Look, here’s a halo for you, so you can finally be an angel.”  I take a bunch of yellow ones and stick the bugs on his head.  “Now you’re finally fit for God’s marching band.”

He smiles kinda funny.  “You think so?”

“Yep, I sure do.  All you need is a bed sheet and you’ll be ready for the Heavenly Choir.  How’re your hallelujah’s doing?”

“Pretty good, I think.”

He makes me a wreath of daisies and puts it on my head.  I twirl around and chase after a lil precious squirrel.  

“What do you think makes me an angel?”

I shrug.  “You help people.  That’s what angel’s do.  Momma’s an angel, pa too, except they don’t got fluffy white wings because they’re not dead yet.  You got them because you died, I guess.”

“Is that it?”

“Yep.  Though you can be a devil at times.  Can you reach that apple up there?  And did you make the sandwiches?”

He pulls the PB and Js out of his robe.  I don’t know how he fits so many things in there.  It’s just so strange, like all the things Raff does.  I have half the heart to tell him he should be a magician, but he takes himself too seriously.  That would break his pride, and momma said a man without his pride is nothing.  

Raff puts peanut butter on my apple slices then sticks raisins on them, just how I like, and my full belly grows like a balloon, with room for more food, because who can turn down even more yummy dessert?  

“Y’know, May, I’ve never been a man.  Not really.  It’s… different.  Up there.”

“Mmhmm.  Over the rainbow.  Just like in the song Satchmo sings on momma’s records.  You guys have bunches of bluebirds and golden doors and rivers of jewels, just like in Revel- revelah- um, how do you say it?”

“Revelations.”

“Dang, that’s a mouthful.  The people that wrote the Bible have to make everything difficult, don’t they?” I say, bits of peanut butter falling out.  It’s the chunky kind, with nutty bits, and they stick to my shirt.  Raff wipes them off.  “I think Heaven should be an apple orchard.  Oh, and it should have lots of cute animals, too.  And maybe waterslides, and bad guys, so it doesn’t get too boring.  Are there light sabers in Heaven?”

“If you want one, I’ll make one just for you.  I’ll even make it pink, out of starlight.”

“M’kay.  I’ll pay you in chocolate chip cookies.”

We watch the clouds roll by.  

“What’s it like?”  I ask.  “Sitting on one?”

Raff fans us with his wings, scaring away the swarming skeeters.  “Hmm… like a kitten.  Curled up beneath you.”

“Well that seems worth waiting for.  No matter how many Sunday schools I gotta go to.  Raff, does everyone go to Heaven?”

“Of course.  Anyone who tells you differently, sweetheart, they’re lying, or they don’t know God.  But even we forget sometimes.  There was a time that I was young.  That’s why I wear my scars.  To remind myself, each day, what I stand for.”

“Then what does the Devil do?”

“The less pleasant things, I suppose.  Someone has to do them.”

“So there’s no Satan?”

“No.”

“Then what does granmama go on about?”

He lures a white butterfly into his hand and puts it on my shoulder.  “Sometimes, May, people need someone to blame.  They get old and set in their ways, or their minds aren’t open like yours.  They’re afraid of differences, of change.  From that comes pain, war.”  A wind picks up around us, and Raff closes his eyes.  “Others have nasty lots.  They suffer, ask God why, and then… then there’s no reply.  Just silence.  It’s the hardest lesson of all.”

I don’t know why, but I find myself crying.  Raphael dabs my eyes.

“Oh May, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Tell me there’s a happy ending.  I need to know.”

He hushes me and fixes me another apple slice.  “Of course, sweetheart.  Sometimes, it just takes a while.  For humans, life seems long, but in the end, it’s a dance.  They switch partners, change songs, and move on.  In order to have summer, one has to go through winters.  It’s like… the dark nights.”

“The black?”

“Yes.”

“I hate that.  I hate it I hate it I hate it!  What is it, Raff?”

He hangs his head.  “People’s sorrow.”

The apple farmer’s wind chime rustles in the distance on the dusty old barn.  I shiver, thinking about it.

“Even it has a place in the world.”

“What does it do?”

“It takes their pain away.  Then it moves on, and people wake up.  You can’t hide fears in your dreams.  All your sufferings come out.  It’s like Confession each night, a cleansing.  Then, the blackness goes away.  It’s cleaned by the morning sun, and poof!  All troubles are gone.”

He scrunches his face up like he’s lying, but I don’t press further.

Sometimes, with Raff, there are things better left unsaid.