Chapter 25: Pariah
Mama retired to her room after that.
She didn’t say a word to me. She didn’t want to. I could see it in her eyes - she was almost ashamed at what had become of her. Sajida’s words were proven true; the spirits came through her in her moment of anger.
I stood on the front porch, stunned into silence. Hezekiah was gone by then, taken down into the basement - the “Undercroft” as some House members were calling it. Everyone was on edge, even when the vampire was locked away deep underground. And as they all cowered in fear, they looked at me as if I was the enemy. To them, I was supposed to let Hezekiah’s hand burn. I was supposed to stand by and watch, no matter how gruesome. But what they didn’t understand was that it wasn’t about Hezekiah’s hand. It was about Mama - what she was letting take over her. I didn’t want Sajida’s words to win, even if it was inevitable that they would.
I looked at Aza once everyone began shuffling into the house. She was upset - more upset than I anticipated. The heat lingered, sweat dripping down my neck - a mix from the heat and stress. My body was growing sore from being thrown across the room by Mama’s hand. Everything hurt, inside and out.
Aza, frown deepened and creased, tilted her head towards the house, silently telling me to go inside. I didn’t want to; it didn’t feel safe. I didn’t feel safe around my own mother who was somewhere upstairs. But I entered anyway. There was an eerie quietness that lingered despite all of the people that filled the room. They all stared at me, whispering loud enough for me to here. The comments consisted of how this was all my fault - how I brought a vampire into the house, how I put everyone in danger, and how I couldn’t have been Madam Dumont’s daughter.
Even though there were many more involved, I was the main culprit. But I took this with pride as I walked up the staircase. Slowly, I took in every step, knowing everyone was still staring at me. I took a deep breath, still processing everything that had happened. My hands gripped the railing, almost splintering my palm before I continued my ascent. On the second floor, the Coterie were meeting together, gathering around the table with quiet, frantic voices. Priestess Qadira was praying silently to herself, trying to pretend that what just happened actually didn’t happen. When they saw me, they stopped talking immediately. Their faces slowly molded into a scowl.
“Alisande,” Mambo Nene said. My full name - I knew I was in trouble.
I thought about apologizing. I thought about defending myself. I even thought about confessing everything, from the night Hezekiah stole Marie Laveau’s seal to seducing him and stabbing him with a vampire hunter’s dagger enchanted by Erzulie herself. They would either shun me for lying or realize I was telling the truth, plunging their sisterhood into chaos and disorder. Mama was nowhere in sight, isolating herself after the incident on the porch; their leader was gone, and a vampire was in their basement - one from Abraham’s clan. I had to make a choice given the sensitivity of the situation; I was going to confess everything as smoothly as I could. And I almost did, until a firm hand on my shoulder stunned me into silence.
Miss Aza stood next to me with Kizzy, Rocio, and Esther at her side. Don’t say a goddamn word, now, was what her look conveyed to me. I said nothing.
“Aza,” Mambo Nene said, waddling over to her. “We need to convene.”
“I figured,” Aza said.
“What about Alize?” Ava Claudette asked.
“What about her?” Nene replied. “You saw what happened, Ava. She ain’t in no state to be with us right now.”
“We can’t convene without the rest of the sisters,” Babette said. “Taima and Hepzibah ain’t here, Alize ain’t here, neither.”
“We should see Alize before convening,” Claudette suggested, playing nervously with the long brown braid hanging off her shoulder.
“We can’t disturb her,” Nene said to her.
“She needs us - ”
“She needs to get her mind straight!” Nene yelled. The entire room became painfully quiet. “I’ve seen this before - with Sajida. The last thing I want is to provoke her. Make her feel like we’re trying to coax the evil out her bones. Let her pray - the spirits will help her heal. Right now, we convene.”
No one opposed. Instead, everyone began to visibly relax as they sat down in their respective seats all around the table. Nene took the head chair, whereas Miss Aza and I took the two chairs directly across from Nene. She seemed so far away, but her stone cold gaze seemed to wring my neck with anger. I had never seen Nene this upset, throughout my entire life of knowing her. That moment, the pressure of our lives and the danger they were in was getting to her, especially with Mama unable to lead the way she usually did.
“I’m gone make this very straight to the point,” Nene said, aged fingers crossed on the table as she stared at Miss Aza, “Because now ain’t no time to be dancing ’round what we gots to discuss. We’ve been doing that too long, now. I’s a fool for realizing it now.”
Aza said nothing. There was no emotion evident on her face; she would have been a fool herself if she showed any.
“Sajida’s presence here was no coincidence,” Nene continued. “Then right after she waltz up in here, we find out that goddamned bloodsucker, Hezekiah, is in our basement? We need some answers, Aza. I’m tired of your games and you sneaking about. All it does is cause more mess; Abrabam done killed one of our sisters and is coming after us next. Now ain’t no time to be keeping secrets.”
“I know,” Aza said.
The coterie shared glances amongst each other. I didn’t know what to do or what to say, so I remained silent until further instructed by Aza to do anything else.
“How did Hezekiah get in our basement, all chained up?” Nene asked.
“Last night, he tried to sneak back into the house, most likely on one of Abraham’s errands,” Aza replied. “The girls and I caught him in the act and were able to get him before he caused any trouble.”
From the corner of my eye, Kizzy looked at me with lips pressed firmly shut, for we knew exactly what happened contrary to Aza’s lie; I began to panic sweat.
The coterie’s whispers were frantic at Aza’s explanation. Nene quieted everyone and proceeded with her interrogation.
“How the hell you manage that?”
“Holy water,” Aza said.
“I ain’t see no burns,” Babette questioned with an arched brow.
“Only enough to...what’s the word?” Aza bit her lip, then nodded. “Oh, right. ‘Disorient’ him. It burned him just a little bit but gave us enough time to slap those chains on him.”
“And no one heard this?”
Aza shook her head. “We were real careful, right girls?”
Rocio, Kizzy and Esther all nodded, all in different ways; Kizzy was most convincing, Rocio showing no emotion, and Esther trying her damnest to keep it together by a thin thread.
Nene narrowed her eyes, her wrinkles amplified. “You’re lying,” she accused coldly.
“That’s a bold accusation,” Aza said, the teasing look on her face gone. But Nene was right - Aza was lying. Completely.
There was a quiet that settled over the entire room. An uneasy silence. I was afraid one of us would crack. Maybe that “one of us” would be me.
Suddenly, when Nene had stared at Aza long enough, she looked towards me and said:
“Go on and wait outside. The Coterie need to convene for a minute.”
I looked behind me. Rocio and Kizzy were reluctantly standing already. I stood wordlessly and followed them out the room; Kizzy was basically dragging Esther’s anxiety-ridden body out of the room. The door closed behind us, and immediately, we all became frantic.
“We’re fucked!” Was the first thing that Rocio said. Esther began crying - she believed her standing with the Coterie was at stake due to what we did and what we were actively lying about.
“Shut up,” I whispered. I tried to keep my head level. “Just shut up, alright? Aza’s got this under control.”
“Oh, right,” Rocio laughed. “The most hated sister of the entire Coterie has this under control?”
“She’s misunderstood,” I snapped.
“Shit, you’re quick to defend Aza over your own mama.”
That was it. I don’t remember thinking over the decision to slap Rocio, but I do remember doing it. It was quick and instinctive. The moment she began to foul mouth my mama, something else overcame me. My palm stung from the force of slapping Rocio’s cheek. She staggered back, gasped, held her face with wide eyes. I had never done something like this to someone unless it was a bloodthirsty vampire. But believe it or not, it was an assault against a fellow sister. At the time, I didn’t realize it; I didn’t know I was part of a House. But it was an act of violence against family, and regardless of the morals in play, Rocio was not happy about it.
Kizzy caught Rocio right before she was able to kill me. Her hands clawed at my face, knocking my glasses clean off onto the floor. I jumped back, holding my nose where her sharp nails had grazed the skin. There was blood on my hands, and it fueled her. With Kizzy’s arms around Rocio’s waist, she continued to try and jump at me, seething and screaming at me. Angry, I tried to retaliate for what she had done to my nose, but Esther was surprisingly strong as she stood in between Rocio and me while Kizzy continued to hold Rocio back.
“You bitch!” I yelled at her as I picked my glasses up. Tears pooled in my eyes until they streamed out. I was bombarded with emotions that were counterproductive to the moment; my Mama wasn’t who I knew her to be, Hezekiah was chained in the basement, the Coterie was convening about us and our lies, and the entire world was a threat at the moment. Rocio’s act of violence against me made me break completely in ways I didn’t want to.
The Coterie stormed into the hallway shortly after. One by one, they filed out of the room and looked at us, wondering what had happened. A sea of white fabric and brown skin surrounded us - a coven of royalty. One I felt out of place to be in, even if my own mama was part of it.
Aza knew immediately. She knew of the tension between Rocio and me, and had figured that it had reared its ugly head. Her face, stoic but full of so much emotion behind her dark, serious eyes.
“What is going on out here?” Nene asked, waddling over to where we stood. Rocio looked at me once, then looked at Aza, the same venom present in her stare both ways. She then proceeded to ruin Aza’s great lie - our great lie.
“She’s been lying to y’all,” Rocio said, sighing out tiredly before continuing with a finger wagging at Aza and I. “She’s a goddamn fraud. They both are.”
Despite the unbalanced standing Aza had with the Coterie, they still jumped to her defense when Rocio, a Novitiate at that, called her out of her name.
“You better watch that tone, girl!” Babette warned loudly. Rocio held her tongue, but not for long, even when Aza gave her the death stare; a stare that could rot an entire harvest.
“I’m sorry, Sister Babette, but it be the truth. She lied to you in there. They both did. We ain’t burn Hezekiah with no holy water. No, there was a plan. A plan to capture him. That vampire hunter was with us and everything.” Rocio then looked at me and said, “Lisa ain’t nothing but a slut, willing to open her legs to get whatever she need.”
My face grew hot from a mixture of anger and embarrassment. I didn’t know the right words to say to defend myself. My mouth went dry, the defense stuck on my tongue. Maybe the bile rising in my throat would push it out.
“You shut your mouth!” Aza spat at her, but Rocio was fearless because the Coterie waited for the rest of the truth to pour out of her traitorous mouth.
“Lisa had sex with Hezekiah. Seduced him in order to catch him. Lured him in the attic, did what she needed to do, then stabbed him with a dagger Sajida the Shunned gave us. Erzulie blessed it; it passed him out when she stabbed him. Erzulie say the only way it would work is if Lisa seduced him, and Lisa agreed.”
I should have known. I should have known that we could only cover our asses for so long. Then again, chaos tends to be a derailing train - it never stops. It keeps rolling off the tracks, destroying one thing after another. That’s what this was - one thing after another being destroyed from the moment Sajida the Shunned walked through the door. And even though my actions were inexcusable, I refused to feel sorry for them. The way the Coterie looked at me was as if I was the monster. In that moment, I knew that my decisions were reckless, but they had merit. They couldn’t see that, which made me even more upset.
I took a deep breath. “I’m not going to apologize for what I did,” I said to them - all of them. Aza, whose face was yet again unreadable, slowly scanned the eyes of the Coterie after I said those words. They were shocked - speechless. Rocio was speechless, too. She expected to see me kicked out on the front porch by then, but instead, the Coterie watched me - examined me like I was some sort of failed experiment. When I didn’t get down on my knees and beg for forgiveness from the spirits, something was wrong.
“I’m not gonna say sorry for what I did because I did what I had to do for the sake of everyone here,” I said. “Yes, I’m not part of your Houses, nor am I even worthy of being present before all of you, but the moment I knew we were in danger, I did whatever I could to keep us safe.”
“No, Lisa,” Nene spoke up, clearly conflicted. “You put us in danger. Now, we have a vampire in our goddamn basement - ”
“A vampire we can get information from, Mambo. He’s Abraham’s right-hand man. He can tell us exactly what Abraham is planning so we could be one step ahead of him! Can’t you see?”
“I do see!” she shouted at me. “I see clearly. You done tangled yourself up in a mess that you know nothing ’bout.” She looked at Rocio, Kizzy and Esther. “All y’all did. You ain’t even scratch the surface of what you think you done figured out. And now, we got more shit to deal with because y’all wanted to go behind our backs.”
“It’s better than convening every single day, talking about what we should do. It’s clear my mama isn’t in her right mind now; she has her own trials she’s gotta settle with the gods. Who knows how long that’s going to take? Until she actually has her senses back, we have to figure out what to do - ”
“I know what you can do!” She then gets close enough for me to see all of the details of her face. All of the wrinkles, the moles, the sunspots. “You can stand back and watch me clean up the mess you made. Then, you gone let us pray for you; the spirits have tainted your soul somehow.”
“I think the spirits like me just the way I am,” I whispered to her. “Erzulie sure does.”
Since I’ve known Nene, I had never spoken to her that way. I knew better than to say such things to her - she was an elder. Family. But I wondered just where did I draw the line in regards to family? Sisterhood? Who should I trust?
Nene stared at me like she didn’t know me; she stared at me like I was Aza. I knew then how it felt to be an outcast amongst family. However, what if the reasons for being shunned away were justifiable on your end? Is this what Aza had to deal with her whole life? From the Coterie and especially Mama, who clearly had deep animosity towards her?
As Nene and the rest of the sisters continued to stare, waiting for the next move, footsteps began stomping up the staircase. We all turned, alert until we realized it was a House member.
“Sisters,” she said, her voice urgent.
“What is it, child?” Ava Claudette spoke up, walking forward through the crowd to approach her. Her long, chestnut-colored braid swayed as she moved.
“The vampire is conscious again. He’s asking to speak to Aza.”
All heads turned in her direction. The trust, if there was any, was gone, now. The coincidence is too potent for there to be any apparent trust. The Coterie looked in disgust and confusion at Aza, who walked through them and stood by the House member at the staircase. Aza asked no questions. I knew that she knew what the matter was; I wanted to know, but it was buried in secrecy. Well, until the House member said:
“He wants to speak to Lisa, too.”
My heart fell deeper into my chest. I didn’t move as promptly as Aza did. I stood against the wall, confused and anxious. Was he going to give us the information we needed? Or was he going to spit in our faces for our trickery? Either way, I was willing to go. I just needed to find the courage to move my legs.
“Who else he ask for?” Nene said, her brows furrowed.
“Just them two.”
“Absolutely not,” Qadira, who had been painfully quiet since the meeting began, interjected. “If he finally wanna talk, we all going down there. We can’t trust them alone with him.”
“No, sister,” Aza said firmly. “He asked for Lisa and I, so we the only ones going.”
“Qadira’s right,” Babette said. “We can’t trust y’all alone with him.”
“Fine,” I said. “We should all go. But there’s no guarantee he’s going to talk.”
At that moment, I had wished my mama was there to protect me from them - from our own family. I wished she was there to protect me from their judgment and stares. But she wasn’t there. I had to do this on my own, without her. I had to figure shit out, even if it made me a pariah. I knew that the circle of people I could trust was closing into a smaller one; Rocio was an obvious exclusion I should have made ages ago, but now, I realized that I had to make more exclusions. I only trusted Miss Aza - she understood. She knew. She had access to things, whether it be secrets of the Coterie or other forbidden knowledge. I trusted her, especially during my mama’s absence.
I wiped the blood off my nose again and proceeded to walk down the stairs with Aza. Right next to her. We didn’t say anything, but somehow, our silence spoke volumes.