Snow white; sterile and clean. Fresh and undissolved purity is what we stood for before she arrived - the new High Priestess, that is. We know she is an ancestor of *Marie Laveau, but there is much more that doesn’t meet the eye lurking here in the fire-lit corners. People can claim whatever they’d like to- mostly half-truths they deem bearable. For me, I have no issue leaving the light behind once in a while. The shadows invite me in and make me feel quite welcome; they’ve never tried to stop me from leaving at the end of my visit. I’m not afraid of them and they respect my essence for it- *lwa’s and Voodoo’s alike. As for the rest of the soul-sucking trouts that come to whisper and stare, I don’t give a damn what they think; not about me, my family, or my life story. My destiny lies ahead of me with little freedoms to control it, so why would I waste even the slightest of thoughts on these useless wastes of oxygen? They can climb the ladder, peer through knotholes, and say whatever comes to mind, but they’ll never seal my fate. *Bondye has already done that for me. I don’t have to anxiously await anything; instead I sit here calmly on my laurels waiting for the signs to show me what to do… which direction to take. On the light side, I listen carefully to what it is I should do for my family and for the body that follows me around. It’s my duty to keep it pure and healthy so that others can speak through it when they need to. And when they don’t, I am the only one leading my charge.
That was until she arrived.
She thinks her black magic will scare us all into submission. But what she doesn’t know is that some of us like the dark and are comfortable bathing in its midnight magic. Others may quake with every click of her two-inch heels but not me- no, I stand here ready for the fight. Not one of good vs. evil, but free vs. enslaved. She would choose the latter for me. This she’s made clear in more than one way. But I think I have just as clearly let her know it will be over my dead body. I spend my life in servitude to some self-proclaimed Voodoo Queen. I will be the *Mambo, she will see. Lower your spine and drop your head when you meet me in Kalfou. It’ll take quite the bargaining chip for me to let her return to her earthly body. One day soon we shall see for ourselves, but until it is upon us- I take my orders from Bondye.
Night has once again returned to us in all of its rich, velvety glory. It spreads across the sky, encapsulating us down below its blanket of stars. Little glittering gems dance with celebration of their freedom, asking us to dance along with them. And tonight at the festival we hungrily accept the invitation. We will feast and sing and commemorate our severance from bondage. Our ancestors suffered so that we could live- truly live. Out of respect for their honor, we let them speak through us- become us momentarily to share in this magnificent world they created. It’s expected now that I am of age that I will let the lwa’s exchange places with me for the first time tonight. I am more prepared than anyone knows. Tucked thoughtfully underneath my tender breasts is her *gris-gris - the one I took from her box of charms. My hope is to use it to showcase my abilities and let the others know I am not one to take lightly. That I, too, hold powers that could damn and smite those who come against me. And for their sake, I hope I never have to use it against them.
I dress with silent exhilaration in my room, touching the bottom of my bra-line to ensure my secret is still cradled against me. I walk through my doorway to be greeted with a line of smiling women chanting as I walk through the bridge made from their own bodies. My initiation into womanhood begins; I stand as tall as the eldest of trees in the bayou, brimming over with pride through my branches. They try to knock me over as the wind does the treetops as I pass through them. No matter how hard they shake me, or how loudly their breath whistles against my eardrums, I must continue walking in a straight, undisturbed line to show that I am steady from within. I come out the other end of it unflinching and am deemed worthy - “destined for greatness”.
Overwhelming firelight shoots from the ground, trying to reach the cool surface of the sky, but its warmth continues to be stoked with firewood collected off the ground by the bogs. Letting the fire go out before the ceremony has even begun would be a bad omen of what is yet to come. The wrinkled hand of my grandmother leads to me to my place on the ring drawn around the fire. Those of us that will communicate with the spirit world and ask for possession will dance while the others chant their prayers around us. We will summon the willing and hopefully only the good, but they don’t know about the talisman hidden away close to my insides. The gris-gris will allow any spirit, lwa or demon, to make it on the other side; secretly I hope for a powerful *Boko to shine through with its murky dark atrocities. I know I am strong enough to send it back to the other side and soon the others will know my strength as well. Will they chide me for foolishness after? Quite possibly, yes, but I accept the gamble I take to make this name, my name, mean something in this realm and the other.
My hands reach down to the earth, rolling around in clumps of moist dirt; covering them to protect them from the burning ones reaching out from the other side. Drums are thumping, we are singing, chanting, and swaying our bodies to open ourselves to higher power. The group of us that had been strategically placed around the flames was instructed to begin the dance. The backs of my heels kick up reaching the sides of my thighs as I propel the upper half of my body forward with a healthy forty-five degree angle tilt. It would be so easy for someone inexperienced to lose balance and fall and so many do. Not me though; I had been practicing for weeks prior as not to embarrass myself in front of the others. My world whirs around me with dizzying disgrace; I am surrounded by blurred streaks of white face paint, colorful hair braids, and big bodacious hats that are worn to complement their loud patterned outfits.
My stomach turns and I feel the vomit coming.
I was told this would happen.
I knew what to expect - it was just all happening faster than I thought. I tried to glimpse the others around me in the circle to see if I could read their faces or thoughts, but was met with only pure laughter and smiles. I am the only one feeling the turn- the transition is happening. One moment I am fully in my body and the next I am looking down from that same velvety sky onto my scalp. I see my young tired body abruptly halt, taking on an entirely new stance. I am not in there anymore. I see it. I feel it. I know it. I am frightened as I watch my earthly body turn towards a group of elders that let out an unexpected shriek.
“Her eyes are red. Her eyes are red,” someone shouted. Another yelled out, “They aren’t supposed to be allowed back here, not like this.” Men from the group were creeping in on my body below as if they were hunters with no weapons trying to capture their evening supper. “Here little chicken. Come on over here. We won’t pluck your feathers, you have nothing to fear.”
I see my mouth open wide, a red vapor rolls out. The men gasp and leap backwards. My body turns just enough for my lwa in the sky to witness my new red irises. I am afraid again, but there’s nothing I can do but watch what happens. Jutting from between my lips, a serpent’s tongue appears; I am hiss-speaking now. “Sorrowful, pathetic fools. Never trust a Boko to house a spirit. Are none of you savvy to her yet? Do you not know realize that the juju she is carrying next to her bodice is black magic? Lucky for you, I don’t like it here or I would remain in this shroud for the rest of her days. I prefer the other side- much more freedom to roam. You think you’re all free? Think again- you are no more free than when you were owned by the white man. You just belong to a new kind of master now,” the demon turned and stared the new High Priestess down. “She is a fraud, by the way. She’s not even Voodoo- she grew up as an obsessed junkie but nothing more. You bow down to her because you think she is a Mambo or maybe even a Boko but she’s neither. She’s a nothing. You should praise the proper heir of Marie Laveau - you’re looking at her.”
His laugh trembled through me- I could feel again. It felt like I was plunging off a diving board into the deep end. I came up gasping for air and reaching for an invisible rail to help me out of the water. Clearly, I was back in my body again and it looked like I had some explaining to do.
Boko. A Vodou priest who practices black magic; different from an oungan or mambo.
Bondye. The supreme being; derived from the French bon Dieu, meaning "good God."
Gris-gris. In New Orleans voodoo, the most powerful charm, which combines black and white magic.
Lwa. Or "loa," the supernatural, immortal spirits who oversee different areas of the natural world and human experience. Similar to saints, humans can petition them for help.
Mambo. A fully initiated priestess of Vodou.
(Above definitions provided by https://www.beliefnet.com/news/2002/02/voodoo-glossary-of-terms.aspx)
Said by some to be the granddaughter of a powerful priestess in Sainte-Domingue, Laveau reportedly had a familial background in African spirituality. She was drawn to religion after the death of her mother. Laveau underwent the tutelage of Dr. John Bayou, a well-known Senegalese conjurer (root worker). She did not take long to dominate the culture and society of Vodou in New Orleans. As a queen for several decades, Laveau was mother to many. People sought her advice for marital affairs, domestic disputes, judicial issues, childbearing, finances, health, and good luck. Laveau would in turn counsel her practitioners by supplying them with advice or with protective spiritual objects such as candles, powder, and an assortment of other items mixed together to create a gris-gris.
As queen, Laveau predominately orchestrated rituals at three main sites: her home on St. Ann Street, Congo Square, and Lake Pontchartrain. At her home on St. Ann Street, Laveau would converse with clients who would meet with her regarding any issues they were having. In her backyard, she would also have ceremonies that conjured the spirit of the Great Zombi, the deity Damballah Wedo who would manifest through a snake. The second major ritualistic space, Congo Square, was a public square that was set aside by city officials as a gathering space for both enslaved and free African people. Laveau would gather her followers here on Sundays to dance and worship. No major ceremonies would take place here, but it was a place of spiritual gathering and rejuvenation for Africans who experienced major oppression and hardships both on the plantation and as free citizens. The last place of significance that was presided over by Laveau was Bayou St. John’s, which was located on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It was here that major ceremonies took place among the initiated in the religion. Laveau would often be accompanied by her “king” or a second-ranking male officiate. Singing, dancing, drumming, and spirit possession would occur in these gatherings.
(Definition provided by https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marie-Laveau)