Chapter 1: Gris-gris
Mama’s shop was nestled in the heart of the French quarter in New Orleans, right on the corner of Tulane street and Spelman avenue.
“Dumont House of Voodoo.” It was popular—more popular than when I was a kid running around the counters on a slow day. I mentioned this to Mama, how suddenly the newer generation was garnering an appreciation for voodoo.
“It’s hoodoo they think they’re coming to get,” she answered over the phone; I heard her cutting something, but I didn’t want to know what it was. “They think I’m a root doctor or a witch. That ain’t true; it’s always the white folks and the tourists who don’t know what they’re getting into.”
That same phone conversation, I told Mama I’d be coming down for the summer, and she was so happy she couldn’t stop screaming about it. I didn’t tell her that I had thoughts of dropping out of college or that I had exhausted much of my college fund paying for classes that catered to my ever-changing major—civil engineering, then psychology, then goddam fashion merchandising. Who the hell am I to market clothing when I can’t even match my pants to my shirt half of the time?
Anyway, she was happy at the news I was coming down, so I took it as an opportunity to construct my case about me finally taking up the writing field and asking her to help me with it. I went over my entire request the journey down home from Houston.
“I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” I mumbled, situating myself in a cheap motel in Shreveport before I hit the road again the next day. “And along with being a writer, I’ve always wanted to learn more about voodoo, especially from the most popular Voodoo Queen in New Orleans.”
I had intentions on kissing ass, mainly because voodoo was a sensitive topic for Mama; I was never allowed to even bring it up much, even though she often prayed to the Loa around me, sometimes with her fellow priestesses (I was definitely Mambo Nene’s favorite little girl in the whole French Quarter. Priestess Qadira didn’t care much for me, and Missus Taima—never leave out the ‘missus’—forgot my name half of the time). I grew up around voodoo, but never between or in the midst of it. Mama made that an intention, but I was determined to swing it into a fortune on my end as if the twelve or so half-finished manuscripts on my laptop weren’t indication enough of the amount of initiative I possessed.
Early afternoon the next day is when I arrived at Mama’s shop, on the eighteenth day of May. I turned off my car and waited a bit inside of it, wiping the beads of sweat from my forehead to look somewhat presentable. But how could anyone look presentable in Louisiana heat? I wish someone would have given me a tip on how because I would have loved to know. My kinky-frizzy hair tied up in a god-forsaken bun and my sweat-stained tank-top would have loved to know. Hell, even my glasses, lopsided from the sweat on my nose would have loved to know, too.
I tapped my fingers against the steering wheel, nervous but excited to see Mama. I hadn’t seen her going on three years; I couldn’t bear to come back only for her to know how college was going for me. But it was the sixth year for me, meaning that hiding my failures was no longer any use.
My head turned to a voice outside my window. Mama was there, smiling widely and pulling on the locked car door like I had no sense to have it locked in the first place. I smiled back at her and opened the door to a strong, oil-and-lavender-scented embrace waiting for me. I could barely breathe in her arms, but I didn’t mind—I missed her hugs.
“Sweetheart!” she hummed into my shoulder.
“Hi, Mama!” I laughed. “You’re choking me. And crushing my glasses.”
She let go, refusing to apologize for her outburst of affection. Her eyes, blue as a clear noon sky, narrowed at my armpits. “Damn, you have the heater on in your car?”
“It’s over ninety degrees, Mama. And humid.” I couldn’t understand how Mama wore a thick kente headwrap with a dark blue jumpsuit and still managed only a light sheen of perspiration on her face. It made me conflicted—I acquired everything from her except her hypnotic eyes and her inability to sweat.
After we spent a few minutes sharing our honeyed words, we finally got to getting my things out of the car. Mama didn’t carry much—she had her novitiate, Imani, come get the rest of my luggage. Imani was an old soul who shared my age, with skin such a rich chocolate shade that it made people on the street stare in awe. I even stared in awe at her, long enough for me to bump into a lamp post on the way to the shop door. Mama chuckled, but Imani didn’t. Maybe she didn’t realize why or for who I almost broke my two front teeth; maybe she thought I was just stupid.
The shop was busy when we walked inside. People strolled past the display cases that were filled with ancient charms and voodoo dolls “from a time back when,” asking the associates about voodoo, most likely leading up to how they could get their hands on a love spell or something of that sort. Mama only helped those who were a) serious, and b) worthy of being helped. She had an eye for evil souls begging for a way out or a short cut through a blessing or a ritual by Loa Rada or Erzulia or another merciful god; her eyes scanned the room at her customers like she was determining which ones were even worthy of her time if they asked for it. Which they would ask—they always did.
“Imani, go on and take Lisa’s things up to her room.”
Imani nodded to Mama, taking the one laptop bag from her heavily-accessorized grip. “Yes, Madam Dumont.”
“I’ll be up there in a minute, baby,” Mama told me. I just closed-mouth smiled through the hoard of people closing in on her, like she was an angel sent to share a voodoo prophecy; the tourists were basically throwing money in Mama’s face without a question based solely on her name and her reputation.
I attempted to make small talk with Imani as we struggled up the staircases (as I struggled since she was clearly in better shape than I was). Imani returned the gesture, but it was apparent that she wasn’t confident enough in her English, broken as it was, to engage in much small talk anyway. I ended up finding out that she was born in Haiti, moved to Baton Rouge when she was seven and became Mama’s novitiate about three years ago--the last time I came to visit. After that answer, it became quiet between us; the moths were louder than us.
After the second staircase, Imani proceeded to explain to me what room I’d be staying in and exactly where it was in the shop, forgetting that said room of residence was actually my old bedroom; I grew up in that Voodoo shop, confined to the two top floors whenever we got busy days such as that one on the eighteenth day of May. But I just thanked her for guiding me through the narrow creaking hallways and up the steel staircases.
“Madam Dumont has not changed much in this room,” she told me.
“She doesn’t change much of my stuff,” I said. “Every other time I came down, I found my stuffed animals and Beyoncé posters exactly where I had left them.”
It was supposed to be funny, what I said. But Imani just smirked uncomfortably and opened my bedroom door. As per expected, nothing was different--the poster-covered walls, dream catchers, and charms Mama placed all over the place, and my trusted teddy bear, Edmond, were all left untouched. It was weird seeing it that way. It was like I was just coming home from a normal day at school again.
“Where would you like your belongings placed?” Imani asked me.
“Just by the closet is fine.”
Not only did Imani set my things down, but she opened my luggage and attempted to unpack my things. And I mean all of it. I just about died when she sorted out my thongs and found my goddamn vibrator. I screamed; she jumped. Not because of what she found, but because my screaming scared her. Her finding my vibrator or touching my underwear didn’t even faze her.
“You don’t have to do that!”
“You don’t want me to?”
Bless that woman’s heart. “No, it’s okay. I’ll unpack it. Thank you, really.”
Mama would have killed me, had she seen that vibrator herself. But Imani, I knew, would keep her mouth shut about it.
“I will tell Madam Dumont that you are getting situated.”
I was still so embarrassed I couldn’t even look at her. “Thank you.”
Mama told me to go up into her study once she was finished in the shop. Her study, off limits to me when I was younger, was open to me then for the first time. She kept the study dark, even during the day; the only light came from the candles throughout the room, some aromatic, others spiritual. I remember that the glass-painted ones of the Loa that Mama Hepzibah gave Mama used to scare the shit out of me when I was little, back when Mama kept them in her room instead of in her study.
It was pleasing to the eye, her study—shelves stacked with ancient books, antiques all over the walls, and chimes that seemed to ding here and ting there every second without a breeze. A portrait of Marie Catherine Laveau hung right above Mama’s chair. It was a well-preserved painting that Mama and the rest of the Coterie—the eight other Voodoo Priestess that reigned upon New Orleans—cherished, especially since my Mama was the only one in possession of such a painting of the notorious voodoo priestess. Her desk was the barest part of the room, though. I believed from that day on that it was always bare when she knew I or someone else “unfamiliar” would be coming in.
“Have a seat, baby,” she told me after I walked in. “I have a gift for you.”
I sat down in the plush chair across from her desk. Mama opened her desk drawer and pulled out a small suede box with gold accents on the sides.
She handed it to me. “Open it.”
“What is it?”
“You gotta open it to find out,” she replied with sarcastic annoyance. And so, I opened it. Inside was a necklace charmed with a small pendant the size of a quarter that glowed bright sapphire, circled with what looked to be obsidian. I recognized the veve on the middle of the pendant—it belonged to Papa Legba, the Vodou god of crossroads.
“It don’t look like it, but it’s a gris-gris,” Mama said to me. “I put it inside that pendant so it’d be more ‘wearable’ for you.”
“It’s beautiful, Mama.” And that wasn’t a lie—it was stunning. I had on a necklace that was gifted to me from the Coterie when I was eight but it was outdated, to say the least.
Mama watched as I took off my old necklace and replaced it with the new one.
“It will protect you and give you luck,” Mama explained with a satisfied smile. “Qadira helped me make it, so you best thank her.”
“I will. Thank you.”
I didn’t tell Mama about how I felt the necklace’s energy when I first put it on. It was a weight on my chest that subsided, then overcame me again. It wasn’t a bad feeling, but foreign; alien. I never felt that amount of energy with my old necklace. It baffled me—Mama, being so adamant about keeping me out from voodoo, gave me a sign that she wanted me in it; a specially made pendant with Papa Legba’s own veve on it had to mean something.
“Why are you giving me this?” I asked her. Her face fell immediately at my question.
“I just thought that it was time for a new one. Why? You don’t like it?”
“I love it. I’m just...this is Legba’s veve.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Was my last necklace a gris-gris like this?”
I was mushing questions together because I wanted answers all at once. Mama sighed without answering my last question.
“Is this about that book you wanted to talk to me about, Lisa?”
My mouth fell open wide enough to invite a family of flies inside. I had no idea how she could have known about the book I wanted to write. In truth, there was no logical way of her knowing because I never told anyone. It strengthened my case on how my mama was clairvoyant or psychic. She probably knew about my vibrator, too. My heart beat quickened at the thought of her knowing about it but not telling me. That’s probably why she side-eyed me every time I told her I’d be going to bed early when I visited before.
“How did you...how did you know about that?”
Her eyes darkened a bit before she replied. “What business do you got writing a book on voodoo?”
I wondered if questioning her further about her apparent clairvoyance was smart.
I decided it wasn’t. “I just...I’ve always been interested in Voodoo—”
“Hoodoo,” she then said. “You’re interested in hoodoo. You’re into the magic, the spells, the tarot readings and all that sparkly, fancy shit that has absolutely nothing to do with voodoo.”
“That’s not true.”
“They ain’t synonymous,” Mama continued. She stood up and paced around her desk. “I don’t do nothing involving dark magic, Lisa.”
“I know. I know they’re not the same. I just want to learn more about voodoo from you. Voodoo. That’s it.”
“And this is all for your little book that you want to write?”
She said the words ‘little book’ in a patronizing tone. In that tone, in that short sentence, she laid out my past educational faux pas and gave reason to why my future would have the same outcome.
That’s how strong and hurtful that tone was.
“It isn’t some ‘little book.’ I want to get it published someday, and I want everything in it to be accurate. You’re the most realistic source for accuracy in this case.”
“And what’s this book going to be about?”
I went on and explained the plot—voodoo queen falls in love with a spirit of the same religion. Immediately, Mama denounced it as ridiculous and ultimately blasphemous. And after her rant about how stupid my idea was and how inaccurate everything was in this idea, I grew misty-eyed. That was enough to shut her up. Whenever Mama would say something that got to me (which was a lot since I was an emotional little thing), she’d feel bad and try to swing it around as a life lesson.
“Look, Lisa. Voodoo isn’t something to be fooling around with,” she explained to me. “It’s a religion and a way of life that we take seriously. I dedicated my whole damn life to voodoo.”
“How would I writing about it negate its seriousness?”
“Because your idea is…it doesn’t make sense. And I don’t want no wrong or evil to come about on you for writing something like this.”
There was a lot, and I mean a lot that Mama wasn’t telling me. There were reasons most likely beyond my comprehension as to why she didn’t want my involvement with voodoo to be more than just being the daughter of a priestess. To me, it was just writing a book—a piece of fiction about some voodoo queens with some romance sprinkled in there to satiate that void inside of me that the stress of school and ultimate loneliness created. And wrapping my head around the fact that that was the reason why Mama wasn’t going to help me was a hard thing to do; Mama didn’t want to participate in the bastardization of her practice and the potentiality of me being sucked into it, too.
“I’m just trying to protect you,” she finally said after the stretch of awkward silence that afflicted the room. “That’s all I’m trying to do.”
And then her hand graced my face, like how she would hold my face in her hands when I was little.
“You are the most important thing in my life, Alisande. You are everything to me.”
I held back a laugh, “I thought voodoo was everything to you?”
She rolled her eyes, “I guess you’re a close second, then.” Her hand moved down to mine. “Go on and get freshened up. “SoBou” ain’t too busy around this hour, and I’m starving.”