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.
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.
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.