Chapter 2: Did You Hear That?
I woke up the next morning with sweat sticking and dripping in places I wish it hadn’t.
Mama’s laughter—her loud, cackling, deflating balloon laughter—could be heard across the hallway in our kitchen. I assumed it was Mambo Nene she was laughing with since Mambo Nene had the best sense of humor out of the entire Coterie and always made Mama laugh.
I got out of bed and walked out into the dark hallway until I made it into the sunlit kitchen. My suspicions were right about Mambo Nene being in there. Priestess Qadira was there, too, but she was preoccupied with a transcript she was reading.
“I told that ole white cat that he’d have to find a root doctor to get rid of an itch like that,” I heard Mambo Nene say right when I walked in. “And guess what this fool did, Alize? Go on, guess!”
Mama was crying-laughing at this point, “Oh, lord. Nene, stop it!”
“He pulled down his damn trousers! Had me looking at some shit I had never seen in my life, and I’m old as hell! He must have gotten that shit skinny dipping in one of the bayous because it was the ugliest rash I had ever seen. Alize, I swear it took everything in me not to laugh; Kizzy was traumatized, that poor baby! I gave him a remedy and told him I had left it in my special cabinet to ferment and get real potent. Guess what it really was? Cortizone with coconut oil.”
“Go to bed!” Mama cackled.
Mambo Nene reveled in the laughter from others at her jokes. I swore that if voodoo wasn’t her priority and profession, she’d be a comedian. That comedic spurt stopped once she saw me, replaced with a pure joy that came out as a suffocating hug.
“Look at Miss Little Alize!” Mambo Nene exclaimed. Mama stood up and watched Mambo Nene squeeze me around like a ragdoll, her bangles and bracelets chiming together.
“You’re killing her, Nene,” Mama said after a few seconds. “Let my baby breathe.”
“Sorry.” She finally let me go. I could see her clearly then—her skin smooth and ageless but her dark eyes and grayed hair were filled with history and tales to tell. Mambo Nene was much older than Mama but barely showed her age. She specialized in alchemic properties—remedies, potions, essential oils and so on. So, it was no secret why she looked twenty years younger than her real age.
“It’s just been so damn long since we’ve seen you,” Mambo Nene said up to me. “I thought you’d be coming down for Mardi Gras since all the kids do. Qadira, how long has it been, you think?”
Qadira was wrapped deeply into what she was reading; when the question was asked, she was studying whatever was written with an odd looking magnifying glass. When Mama said her name, she acknowledged that there were other people in the room.
“What? What happened, now?” Qadira asked. Wha? Wha happen, nah? is what it sounded like; her Cajun tongue was the strongest out of the Coterie.
“We were just talking about how long it’s been since Lisa’s visited.”
Qadira lost a bit of her defensiveness when Mambo Nene clarified. Between the three of us, we knew that something was wrong with Qadira. But only Mama and Mambo Nene knew what it truly was.
“What’s the matter?” Mama asked.
Qadira’s eyes kept landing back onto me from Mama’s figure. I felt out of place at that moment; a few minutes’ prior, I was warmly welcomed. Now, I seemed like a nuisance. An inconvenience to their conversation.
“Cunja,” Qadira replied. That’s all she had to say—that one Cajun word that I could not translate for the life of me. My mama’s eyes grew bigger than a pair of blue marbles you’d toss around outside on a summer day. Mambo Nene, short and stout as she was, looked like she was ready to fight someone at that word.
I stood by as the three of them exchanged animated conversation in French—Cajun-French, to be specific. Older folks speak it more fluently than the newer generation does, which is why I couldn’t understand a word they were saying; Mama would do that a lot when her topics were too sensitive for me to know about. I hated it when I was thirteen, and I hated it then when I was twenty-four, being brought back to my teenage self who couldn’t understand anything my mama said.
I poured myself a bowl of cereal when I knew I wouldn’t be brought into the chit-chat anytime soon. I dug my spoon in, took a bite, then two and three more. They were still talking by the time my bowl was filled with nothing but a puddle of flavored milk. Mama’s voice was raised an octave when I was putting my bowl in the sink. She spoke English then, like the language prior couldn’t properly convey her anger or frustration to the extent she wanted.
“His fate and Yusur’s should have been the same!” she yelled at Qadira. “That’s what I said but none of y’all had an inkling of sense to listen to me!”
Qadira and Mambo Nene looked at Mama like children being disciplined. It wasn’t until Mama met my eyes that their expressions weren’t so guilty anymore. Mama tucked a loose braid into her headwrap and tried to smile at me like everything was alright. I knew it wasn’t; she knew how I was. I didn’t know exactly what was going on, nor did I know who “Yusur” was at the time, but I knew that it was grave, what they were speaking about.
“I’m gonna go on and get dressed,” I told her coolly like I was deaf for the last five minutes. “I was thinking of doing some shopping or something today.”
“That’s good,” Mama replied. “Matter of fact, why don’t you take Imani with you? She don’t get out much.”
I knew I couldn’t say no to that suggestion. I didn’t dislike Imani, but I didn’t know her, either. She seemed nice enough, but she was still the woman who found my vibrator. I don’t think I could spend an entire morning and afternoon with her after that nightmare. But truthfully, it wasn’t like I had much of a choice; Imani walked into the kitchen right when Mama finished her reply.
“Good morning, Madam Dumont,” she said. “Good morning, Priestess Qadira, Mambo Nene.”
“Good Morning,” they all said. I just nodded to Imani and adjusted my glasses higher onto my nose.
“Should I open up shop?” she asked Mama. “Or do you want me to wait for the other associates to arrive?”
“Actually, I was thinking that maybe you should join Lisa for the day. She was thinking of doing some shopping. Right, Lisa?”
“Yeah, I was. I’ll drive if you want.”
The look on Imani’s face made it seem like she didn’t have much of a choice, either. And knowing the tight spot she was in, she agreed to join me. It was clear that Mama preferred us both out of the house; I was more curious than the cat who was killed by it. Nonetheless, Mama knew I’d try to eavesdrop my way into their conversation, English or not, because of the unsuccessful talk we had the day prior about the book I wanted to write. But Mama wasn’t smart in the small fraction of her plan she’d think I’d overlook.
“When y’all get a chance, give this seal to Tía Valeria,” Mama said. She ran up to her study and came back down with a blue velvet box tied shut with yarn. Imani took it from Mama without question; I had to hide the smile surfacing on my face from everyone in the room. Tía Valeria was the youngest of the Coterie—about twelve to fifteen years older than I was. She was also the only Hispanic member, and the softest spoken one, too. If anyone else from the Coterie were to fall victim of my incessant questions, they’d be sure to let Mama know. But not Tía Valeria—she was too soft to tattle on me. If I was going to go on with this book, Tía Valeria would be the best person to convene with.
I took a quick cold shower and got dressed in khaki shorts and a white tank top. Imani was dressed quite the opposite—long black skirt, long sleeved purple blouse, with flats the same color as her skin tone to finish the outfit off. I knew better than to say anything about her outfit, so we left the shop on our merry way and drove down to the Canal Shops on Iberville street, the entire drive painfully quiet. I got a little shopping done because of her looming presence and awkwardly quiet behavior. What we did manage to achieve was garnering stares from almost everyone passing by because of her outfit.
“Aren’t you hot in that?” I finally asked her halfway through the mall.
“No,” she answered. And that was that. I found myself playing with the soft sapphire of my necklace whenever things were too painful to bear between us. After the three-hour mark, I was itching, even more, to get out of the mall to talk to Tía Valeria. I was dropping subtle hints here and there, persistent enough to make Imani want to leave yet discrete enough to where she wouldn’t grow suspicious. The part where I found a way to talk to Tía Valeria alone was the hard part that I had to figure out once we got there.
“You ready to go?” I asked Imani when we found a bench by a gelato kiosk. I was praying that she’d say yes.
She looked down at my empty hands and frowned. “But you haven’t bought anything.”
“Nothing is really screaming out to me. And besides, we have to go visit Tía Valeria before we head back to the shop, right?”
“We have time. I am sure Madam Dumont does not want us back too soon.”
“You know why?”
She at least had an idea, but she pretended that she didn’t. Imani was exceptional at poker face; her face was as blank as a void. But I knew that she had an idea of what the Priestesses were talking about. The words Cajun and the name “Yusur” were familiar in Imani’s brain, I was certain. But I refused to pressure her. It was a chore getting her to leave the mall and go to Tía Valeria’s in the first place. Adding on interrogative questions about Mama’s conversation wouldn’t help my case.
Finally, after insisting we get something to eat at a small Italian sub restaurant followed by gelato from the kiosk on the other end of the mall, Imani suggested we be on our way to Tia Valeria’s to deliver the seal Mama entrusted her with. I rushed through the hot, humid parking structure for sanctuary in my car, whereas Imani took her time to get into the passenger seat and secure herself in with the seatbelt.
“Would you mind allowing the car to air out a bit?” she asked me softly. “I’m a bit uncomfortable in this heat.”
I said yes because being cordial brought me closer to meeting with the soft-spoken Voodoo Priestess. We sat in my car for five minutes with the doors wide open. It was close to three-thirty in the afternoon, and my impatient foot-tapping was shaking the whole damn car.
“What’s so special about the seal my mama wants delivered?” I asked Imani suddenly. I thought she wouldn’t answer my question, but perhaps she assumed we had developed some type of trust from the two days we knew each other, one of those days spent walking around a mall without a productive conversation.
“The Coterie use it to stamp off their letters and transcripts,” she explained. “What makes the seal so special is once it is used on a letter, only those of the Coterie can open it. Anyone else who attempts to open the letter sealed with this will find it impossible unless they use the letter opener enclosed, but Madam Dumont made sure to keep them separate, so ultimately it’s impossible for anyone else besides those of the Coterie to open anything stamped with the seal.”
I hated how I barely took her words seriously. I was an immature scrub, pouting my lips at Imani’s words and the way she said them; she spoke with sacredness.
“So, you’re saying that they pass on secret notes between each other? Like grade school?”
Again, Imani didn’t understand my joke. The look on her face mirrored the look an adult would give a little kid when they completely missed the ‘important’ part of their speech.
“Similarly, yes. There’s always the risk of unwanted people getting their hands on their information. The seal prevents said people from acquiring information that shouldn’t be known to anyone else.”
“How does that even work?”
Imani adjusted the sleeves of her shirt when a gust of warm wind entered my car. “The seal was enchanted by Marie Laveau years before she retired. It was kept between the Coterie after her death, to be held by the—”
“Enchanted?” I laughed. “Are you kidding me?”
Imani furrowed her brows at me. “Yes. Enchanted. Blessed.”
“I…I didn’t mean it in that way, I just—”
“I understand how this may seem funny to you,” Imani said before I finished my sentence. “You aren’t familiar with how Vodoun works, especially here between the Coterie. This isn’t your fault; Madam Dumont made sure to keep you from knowing too much, I’m sure. But it would be best if you spoke about it and responded to it with some respect. It sounds like you only see Voodoo as kid magic or something of a fairytale, which surprises me since you want to write a book about it—one that you’re serious about.”
For a moment, I questioned if I was talking to the same person. I couldn’t find the words to reply to Imani with that would help my case; she read me to silence. As my face grew hot with shock and embarrassment, Imani closed her passenger door and started up again, as if I could handle the first lecture she gave me.
“I grew up around Vodoun—Haitian Voodoo. My parents both practiced it seriously. They brought it here to the mainland and intended for me to practice it to their extent once I grew older. It is an honor to be Madam Dumont’s novitiate, and I was honored to have met her daughter. But I don’t think that being Madam Dumont’s daughter gives you a right to see Voodoo as a profit or something that comes to a commercial or comical benefit. As Madam Dumont’s novitiate, I am sworn to respect her kin. But when disrespect toward Voodoo is involved, I have to draw the line.”
It was clear to me who I was seeing then. It was the real Imani, not the polite, shy façade she had to display to me when I met her the day before. Admittedly, I was wrong for laughing at the thought of an enchanted seal. But it was more than the seal at that point; the dark, venomous look in her eyes and the tenseness of her shoulders made me feel like it was more than the seal.
I apologized for my words, but Imani didn’t respond. I closed my door and put the keys into the ignition. The only time we spoke was when Imani had to guide me through traffic to reach Tia Valeria’s.
Tia Valeria’s shop was smaller than Mama’s, and not as popular as the other Priestesses’ shops and Voodoo Houses. But ironically, she had the most associates and the most novitiates.
It was common for a Priestess to have one novitiate (I.E. Imani). But Tia Valeria had two. Imani told me that Samir was her first novitiate, and Mikael—the only male novitiate in all the Coterie—was the second. Mama used to clown Tia Valeria for her excessiveness.
“Guess you got time to have two novitiates when you ain’t never get no customers,” Mama would joke on hot summers with Tia Valeria in years’ past.
Imani and I got out of the car and took in the small house—“Casa de Oya,” or “Oya’s House,” was written on a sign hanging above the house. It had some “French Quarter” influence in the way it was built, which was odd since we were in the more residential part of New Orleans; bright pastel pinks and blues with steel-barred balconies weren’t common where we were.
“It seems quiet inside,” I said with narrowed eyes at the windows. The street was quiet, too except for a few people walking their dogs.
Imani didn’t say anything. I assumed she was still just upset at what happened back at the mall parking garage, so I followed silently.
Imani knocked three times, and it only took three seconds for someone to answer.
“Hello,” a short, anxious woman greeted. Her eyes were empty and devoid of emotion, and her smile was strained so tight it made me uncomfortable.
“Hello, Ina. Is Tia Valeria here?”
Ina shook her head up at Imani, the smile still straining and pulling at her cheeks. Inside, the house was dark and quiet enough to produce an eerie echo. No one was home, and this fact dampened my spirits and hopes of speaking with Miss Tia Valeria.
“‘Casa de Oya’ is closed today.”
“Oh. Why is that?”
“Tia Valeria’s orders.” Ina’s eyes shifted down to the seal in Imani’s hand. “That is the seal you were supposed to deliver today?”
“Yes,” Imani answered. Her tone was gradually growing more cautious. “I was told by Madam Dumont to deliver it to Tia Valeria.”
“It is too bad she is not here. But I could give it to Tia Valeria when she returns?”
And then Ina reached forward and tried to take the seal from Imani’s grasp. But if Imani was one thing, she was smart. She stuffed it into the waistband of her skirt and smiled cordially.
“That won’t be necessary, Ina. What you could do is tell me of Tia’s whereabouts?”
“Certainly!” she replied. “She took the House to the Saint’s Sector.”
Saint’s Sector. I had never heard of the Saint’s Sector, but Imani knew exactly what it was. Quickly, Imani thanked Ina, grabbed my hand and guided me away from the house. At that point, my frustration with Tia not being present for me to question her for my book was gone. A new feeling had arisen in me; new feelings had arisen in me:
Curiosity and apprehensiveness, mixed in with adrenaline.
“Something is wrong,” Imani told me in the car. “Something is very wrong.”
“What is it?” I asked, knowing she would never tell me.
“We need to go tell Madam Dumont and the rest of the Coterie.”
“Tell them that Tia Valeria went to the Saint’s Sector?”
Imani nodded. “The Saint’s Sector is deep in the wilderness. It’s where the Coterie performs private ceremonies. But I…I just…something is telling me that she isn’t there; she would never take her entire House there without telling the Coterie first!”
She was freaking out, and I was horrible for feeding off her fear and converting into excitement for myself. In my defense, that moment was the closest I had ever gotten to experiencing the other side of the Coterie I was never shown—the dark side, the fearful side, the side that is more than selling charms and amulets in the French Quarter.
The side that Mama fought so hard not to show me.
“Where is the Saint’s Sector exactly?”
Imani shook her head so hard I thought she’d suffer from whiplash. “No. We go to Madam Dumont’s.”
“If Tia Valeria is in trouble like you’re implying, then we should at least go see for ourselves before it’s too late. With this traffic, we won’t make it to Mama for another hour and a half.”
I exaggerated the last bit, but I needed any excuse to go investigate for myself. The images that were coursing through my mind of what could possibly be wrong were endless and pestering. Imani was a hard soul, but something told me that she wanted to investigate, too, besides her obligation to my mama.
“It is not a good idea. I do not want to put you in danger.”
“I’m a grown woman who can handle herself, and hearing that Tia Valeria might be in trouble is reason enough for us to go at least see. The Saint’s Sector, I presume, is exclusive to the Coterie. So, what danger could we possibly expect?”
“There is more to this than you can comprehend.”
I was tired of hearing that bullshit over and over like my mind was too small and premature to understand what the Queens went through. I started the car besides Imani’s opposition.
“I can drop you off at Mama’s if you want, but I want to go see for myself. I grew up with Tia Valeria, so it’s a little hard for me to leave it to Mama when we can try to do some good if she’s in trouble. I’m going whether you come with me or not.”
I pulled the guilt card high out of the stack. I had no intention of guilting Imani to come with me, but as Mama’s novitiate, she knew the trouble she would be in if she left me alone and vice versa. At the time, delving into the Louisiana wilderness seemed like a good idea; my adventurousness was speaking for me, as well as my stubbornness and my need to see the Coterie for more than what they showed me. It was selfish; Tia Valeria was in trouble by Imani’s prediction and I was driven mostly by my need to soothe that itch to know more of everything and anything.
“Fine. But Madam Dumont will be furious with us both.”
“I’m willing to take that risk,” I replied as I shifted gears. We pulled away from Casa de Oya slowly; Ina’s figure watched us leave, and Imani and I couldn’t look away from her in the doorway.
The sun was well set below the horizon by the time we left the city.
Imani pointed that way and this way to get me on some dirt road wedged between tall-standing trees. My headlights were high-beam and I still felt like I was driving through a black hole. My fingers clenched around my steering wheel tighter than my teeth were clenching to stop their chattering.
“How much walking will we have to do to reach the Saint’s Sector?” I asked Imani.
“Not much. Probably five to ten minutes.”
I bit my lip nervously. “It would suck if Tia Valeria was on her way back right now, huh?”
“Unlikely. Ceremonies in the Saint’s Sector take an entire day to perform. They are most effective at night, so the House probably spent the day preparing and getting everything in order. If they are actually there.”
If. That ‘if’ was strong. I remembered Ina’s behavior and wondered if she was under some sort of spell or hypnotism or something when she told us where Tia Valeria was. The look in her eyes resembled a look I had never seen someone possess. Then again, my better judgment advised against my claim of witchcraft or spell-work. Mama always said that I was foolish to believe Voodoo had anything to do with magic or ‘hoodoo.’
“Go talk to a witch,” she’d reply. “I’ll point you to a coven.”
I looked at Imani briefly. She was nervous; her hands shook on her lap as her eyes remained glued to the road. Seeing Imani’s nerves rattled made mine worse. And gradually, I started to feel bad that I encouraged her to join me. I even thought of turning back, despite the long drive we’d endured. But loud, deafening screaming blasted through the car and made me slam on the breaks. The screaming persisted for a second longer before it faded out. I could see smoke outside of my window from my tires, but my heart is what needed the most attention; its beat was fast enough to cause it to rupture.
“What?! What happened!?” Imani exclaimed, wide eyed.
“Y-you didn’t hear that?”
“The screaming!” There was no one outside. My hands were shaking. “S-someone was just screaming!”
“I didn’t hear anything, Lisa.”
I wasn’t crazy. Or was I? No, no I wasn’t. There was no way Imani couldn’t have heard that. It was so loud and piercing. You could feel the pain from the wail, I’m telling you.
The screaming sounded off again. I opened my car door, the smell of burning rubber and grass invading my nostrils. Imani got out of the car, too, but her face was nowhere near as distressed as mine. The screaming was surrounding us, bouncing against the trees.
“Lisa,” Imani called out to me. “Lisa! Get in the car!”
“It’s Tia Valeria,” I told her, wiping stress-sweat off my neck. “Don’t you hear her screaming? I know that voice! That’s her voice and she’s…she’s screaming!”
Imani thought I was insane. But slowly, she believed me, because she started to hear it herself. Only that time, it was coming from a definitive direction; it was a scream that was audible to anyone, not just to myself. I began to realize that the screaming was in my head at first. I had no explanation for how or why, but it was the only way it made sense.
“I hear it,” Imani whispered fearfully.
“Is that some ceremonial scream? Is that common for a Voodoo ceremony or something?”
I prayed her answer would be yes, but it wasn’t.
“What should we do?”
Imani asking me what we should do left me unsure of what to do. I started believing that being the captain of the danger-train back in the city was a stupid idea. But we were there, and we heard Tia Valeria.
I ran to my trunk and pulled out a bat I kept buried beneath my first aid kit and goodwill bags I never got around to donating. Imani was completely in denial of what she was seeing.
“We really aren’t doing this. I knew we should have just told Madam Dumont!”
“It’s too late to go back!”
I grip the bat tightly in my grasp. My clammy palms slipped underneath the metal, but I had a steady grip. My sight was compromised; sweating so profusely paired with the humidity fogged up my glasses. But I had a steady grip…I had a steady grip…
“What!?” Imani hissed at me, staring at me as if I was completely insane. “No! No!”
“Then you stay in the car! I’ll go!”
I pulled the same tactic that I pulled on Imani in front of Tia Valeria’s house without even realizing it. Imani paced around the car with conflicted mumbling coming out of her mouth before she joined me off the road. Neither of us had any idea what we were walking into at that moment. In my mind, I thought that Imani had some clue of what could be lurking in the wilderness with Tia Valeria—some monster, maybe a werewolf, or a personified Voodoo god with Tia in their clutches. But the fright in her eyes said otherwise, so I readied my bat.
I readied my bat in vain.