Chapter 29: The Last Day of Hunger (Part I)
That night dragged on like a relentless virus - slow, agonizing and painful.
I didn’t sleep - I couldn’t sleep. The spirits wouldn’t let me - they were all around me, watching me. Mama must have welcomed them into our home in addition to letting them into her heart. But it wasn’t just the spirits I felt (they were a quiet and respectful bunch), but the thought of Hezekiah running through my mind that made it impossible to sleep. I sat on the bed, hands shaking from anxiety, neck pulsing in pain, wondering what was happening to him. Did his lungs still feel like they were filled with boiling oil? Did he still struggle for breath?
Throughout the night, I kept trying my methods of escape, hoping that the latch on the door would unlock or the window would open. But still, they remained shut tight. I was alone in my room - this went on for two days. I remember exactly.
I had to knock three times on the door when I needed to go to the bathroom. Two knocks when I was hungry. One of the House members would open the door and escort me to the restroom or leave me something to eat if it was the latter. That was it. That was all I did for two days - eat, go to the bathroom, and slowly but surely go insane. There was no way to escape; there were House members everywhere watching the hallways and the staircase.
The walls of the room because smaller as the hours dragged on. The heat was unbearable, sweat drenching my clothes if I even decided to wear any. I savored the moments I was allowed to go to the bathroom to shower, for I could enjoy cold water giving my skin sweet relief.
The bathroom didn’t have windows, though. I would have been gone if it did.
If two months prior, someone were to ask me where I thought my life would be sixty days from then, I would have never thought of being where I was then, locked in that room. Even when my entire world caved in on itself the moment I saw Abraham murder Tia Valeria’s house, I would have never thought that my own mother would lock me in a room for my “safety.” But I was convinced that this wasn’t her. She had become something else; overtaken by something else. Was this reason enough to give her the benefit of the doubt? No. It was hard to; I couldn’t find it in myself to forgive her for this act of imprisonment. I wanted to get away from my own mother as much as possible regardless of the love I still had for her, but I was trapped, like a mouse in a trap, slowly dying. A painful death.
The second day arrived, the sun rays creeping through the tree branches outside of my window. It was another day of no sleep. I had counted every crack and crevice in the ceiling and on the floor. I didn’t knock on the door, not twice nor thrice that morning. I sat still, my mind a black fog drifting through aimlessly. I felt powerless, so I was indeed that feeling - powerless. In that case, I was waiting for Abraham to murder us all, I being the last victim locked high up in the attic room. I waited for him, counting down the seconds until the Coterie had met their demise.
The lock on the door began to turn during these thoughts of mine. My eyes were still focused on the ceiling, caring not who tried to enter my room. The door opened, and as mama slowly climbed up into the room, I was overcome with anger. It was slow and steady, like a poison, but it was there. I was processing it.
I sat up gradually, adjusting my glasses to make sure what I was seeing was true. She walked in, dressed in all white again, colorful beads draped across her chest. Her hands were white with chalk, leading me to believe she had just finished a prayer session.
Her eyes were soft and apologetic, like a calm pool or a still oceanside. Normal. Or at least what I remembered to be normal. I actually didn’t know what normal was anymore, so even though there was a familiarity with my mother, I remained on edge around her.
She inched into the room, her dress dragging on the floor. She stared at me, but I stared at the ceiling again to avoid interaction with her. Her eyes still focused in on me, waiting for me to meet them. I wouldn’t.
To my surprise, she walked over to the window and whispered something to it in a language I was unfamiliar with. The window unlocked and slid up, letting in the warm moist air from outside. Mama then stared outside, looking at the trees, listening to the sounds of the marshland.
“I wish I could tell you everything you wanna know,” she began, still looking out of the window. “I wish I could...there’s a lot of history that I just...I just...”
Mama began to cry, then. It was the first time I had seen her genuinely cry like that in a long time. My guard was brought down once I saw this side of her revealed to me. I looked at her then. I watched her cry by the window like an actual human being, not this impression of one she had kept up the past few days.
She wiped her eyes when she turned to look at me. “All I’ve ever done was make sure that you were safe,” she said. “And yes, my methods are...harsh. And mean. But I can’t help it. I went through hell for you. Hell. And now, more than ever, I feel like you’re in more danger than you’ve ever been in. From all different types of corners. There’s a lot that I wish I could tell you, Alisande but I...I don’t have the strength to. At least not yet. And I know how you are - you’ll be trying different ways to find out the whole truth. I can’t stop you. But just know that there are many different sides to ‘the story.’ And I hope you don’t rely on just one.”
I couldn’t think of any words to say. This was the first time since I had come down to New Orleans that she was this honest with me. Open. And even then, she wasn’t telling the complete truth. There was a story - a history behind everything that was going on. A reason. A motive. She didn’t tell me this history because she wasn’t ready to. How dark and twisted was the past of the Coterie? The past of the clans of bloodsuckers that lived in this city?
Without saying another word, Mama kissed me gently on my forehead, similar to how she would kiss me when I was a child.
“I promise,” she whispered. “This will be over very soon.”
I believed her words. There was an optimism in them, perhaps forbidden, and it made me believe them. I held onto the words as she left the room, leaving the latch unlocked; she never apologized for leaving me locked in the attic room. I figured, however, that she had no control over the actions. It was odd - that small moment of vulnerability that mama showed me made me forgive her for all of her transgressions. She didn’t have to apologize for anything; she was forgiven. I was a fool, though, to quickly wipe away the distrust I had; it was an understandable distrust. Her being my mother had nothing to do with it - it was what she wasn’t telling me. Had she told me this dark history while we were in that room, I could have been properly prepared for the future ahead. But I wasn’t. I let my guard down for just a second.
And that night was the beginning of this future - this dark, torturous future. Regardless of the events before that night, it was that midnight that a new world opened for me. One I wasn’t prepared for.
It was midnight like I had mentioned before. It began at midnight.
I was in bed sleep - the day had worn me out. I had spent it reading books I found in the study about witchcraft since I couldn’t see Hezekiah. All day was spent in my room, even though I was freed from that place. I stayed there, reading words that didn’t make sense. Not only did I want to get my mind off of Hezekiah, but I wanted to understand Aza and this animosity towards witchcraft that the Coterie had.
I had fallen asleep after reading the third book. It was the first moment of actual slumber I had experienced in days. I don’t remember what I was dreaming, but I do remember being woken up. Violently.
“Wake up, Lisa!” someone said to me in a harsh whisper. They wouldn’t stop shaking my body until I was fully awake. The lamp suddenly flickered on, dimming the room. My vision was blurry; I saw a short, stout figure in front of me. I fumbled around the nightstand for my glasses, and when I had put them on, I could see her - Mambo Nene standing above me, sweat dotting her brow, her eyes wide and alert. She kept shaking me as if I wouldn’t wake up, but I was awake. Fully awake. The sounds of frantic chatter and hard footsteps were coursing through the house.
“Mambo,” I groaned, my heart increasing in tempo. “Mambo, what’s happening?”
“We need to go.” She ran over to the attic door where my slippers were and brought them over to me. “Put these on. Quickly!”
“Mambo - ”
I shut my mouth and followed her orders, putting on the slippers. It was a task that was harder than it should have been; I couldn’t stop shaking.
“Mambo, what’s happening?” I asked again, my voice significantly more assertive. She still didn’t answer me, but instead focused on getting us out of the room. She turned off the light, opened the latch door and ordered me to climb down the ladder to the hallway. I did as I was told, hoping me being compliant would lead her to tell me what was happening. Seeing her with me this way, as if the tense events we had dealt with together earlier never happened, made me realize that whatever was happening was grave. I thought Mama was possessed again. I thought Aza had come back with a wrath.
I thought Hezekiah had escaped.
The hallways of the house were dark, save for a couple of lights on; all the room doors were open, the rooms dark and empty. I didn’t see anyone until we hurried down the stairs to the second floor, where the Coterie, in their nightgowns and pajamas, were ushering House members into their meeting room. People were running frantically through, holding hands as they scurried through the hall like mice. Mambo had my hand in hers, pulling me through.
“Everyone to the meeting room,” Ava Claudette said, her eyes flickering to each person, keeping a mental headcount. “Quickly!”
I feared the worst. I thought that night would be the night we all finally died. Of course, this fear of death was always present, but that night, I felt myself wondering how many moments we had left. I was scared, confused, but I remained silent, taking everything in, drifting along like a feather in the wind.
We all crammed into the study, everyone finding room around the large table in the center of the room. The Coterie counted, making sure everyone was inside the study. Everyone was talking amongst each other in panicked voices, others were crying, some had to sit down, others prayed. I felt like I was the only one who didn’t know what was happening.
There was an open space by the window, where Mama stood, staring out of it. Mambo Nene left my side and stood next to her. She said something to Mama, but Mama didn’t respond. She just kept staring out of the window.
I saw Kizzy a ways away. I went to her, and Esther followed suit. Rocio, who had this look of fear on her face that I had never seen, came by shortly after.
“Kizzy,” I began. “Kizzy, what’s happening?”
“Leeches,” she said in a distressed, low tone. “Leeches. Everywhere around the house, I think.”
My blood went cold. New-born vampires had come. They had broken territorial bonds and crossed into our turf. They were there for Hezekiah. There was no doubt about it. We were foolish to assume this wouldn’t happen.
“No,” Esther suddenly said, tears welling up in her eyes. “No, n-no it’s worse.”
“Worse?” I asked. But I didn’t need to know further. The way Esther’s nails clung frightfully on her pajamas paired with the blank, terrified look on her face was enough for me. I knew it was worse than Leeches, but I needed to see for myself. So, pushing through bodies, I walked over carefully to my Mama’s side. She said nothing when I was next to her, but I knew why:
Abraham. He was there, outside of our house, staring up at us angrily through the window.
It was one thing to have Leeches break the territorial agreements - they were naive, stupid, directionless. But this was different. This was a master vampire, who was present when the territorial agreements were drafted, breaking the rules. This was Abraham, who had crossed enemy lines and arrived with Tekoah, Beau and Jeanie, the rest of his Elders, at his side, with Leeches all around the perimeter. Even in the dim porch light, I could see them. I saw him; Abraham’s face brought me back to the trauma he had me endure when I was kidnapped by his minions. This threat was real - more real than anything we have dealt with yet.
I couldn’t move. It felt like I couldn’t breathe. My lungs were dry and cold, my stomach upside down on itself. My heart was still, for once. Still.
Mama stared on, her eyes blank in memory. And as she stared, everyone began to ask questions.
“What’s going to happen to us?”
“Can they get in the house!?”
“No, they can’t get in the house?”
“Then why are they here!?”
“QUIET!” Mama suddenly shouted. Immediately, all voices silenced. The meeting room was quiet and dark, save for whimpers and cries.
Mama took a few steps from the window, turning to the congregation. The Coterie in the midst of the House members waited for her to speak again.
“He’s here for Hezekiah,” she said shakily. ”Clearly."
“Then we give him to them,” Ava Claudette said, without question or a single doubt.
“No,” Mama shook her head. “No, we can’t.”
"Alize!" The Coterie hissed in unison.
“No! We can’t give in!”
“You willing to put our whole goddamn clan in danger, Alize!” Babette argued, barely forming a breath. “There are bloodsuckers at our damn door!”
“They can’t get in the house,” Mama said. “Vampires can’t come into a house they haven’t been invited to.”
“Abraham ain’t dumb,” Nene chimed in. “He wouldn’t have come without a plan.”
“They can’t get into the damn house!” Mama repeated loudly, shutting everyone up. But it seemed as if she didn’t believe in her own words to some extent. She was conflicted; she didn’t know what to do. But I did. I had an idea that would probably not work, but it was worth a try.
“Why don’t we use Hezekiah to negotiate?”
It was an outlandish idea. Completely outlandish. Everyone seemed to think I was crazy for even thinking the idea was a good one. But no one else had any ideas. Even mama was caught at a standstill. But when the words left my mouth, she turned to me slowly with this wrath in her bright blue eyes that chilled me more than the sight of vampires outside.
“Don’t be foolish,” she said down to me, but she said nothing else. No explanation as to why my idea wouldn’t work.
“Mama.” I leveled my eyes with her; it was no a longer mother and daughter dynamic, but just two lives in danger, needing to come to a decision. “I know it’s crazy, but think about it. He’s most likely starved to the point of complete desperation right now. We give him what we should have given him in the first place - blood. We put that bargaining chip on the table in exchange for negotiation with Abraham and the rest of his clan.”
“That’s never going to work -”
“We won’t know until we try it. We don’t have any other options -”
“No!” She stood her ground, refusing to crack. Turning her back to me as if I said nothing, she approached the Coterie, who looked as hopeless and confused as the rest of us.
“We can go about this a different way,” she spoke to them, though they were less than optimistic.
“How?” Babette said.
“We can summon Legba,” Ava Claudette proposed.
Nene frowned up at her, her eyes bold and wide. “Absolutely not! We don’t have no time to-to gather everything to prepare a ceremony; we ain’t been burning the candles on Monday.”
“It’s too impulsive,” Babette argued in agreeance with Nene. “We shouldn’t bother him selfishly this way.”
“You have a better idea?” Ava Claudette asked.
“Anything’s better than summoning Papa Legba last minute without the proper incantations. He’ll see it as lazy - sloppy. He won’t help us! None of the Loa will help us!”
“That may not be true,” Imani suddenly said, stepping forward to stand by them. “We can just ask Papa to open the door for us so we can communicate with our ancestors.”
“Whose ancestors?” Babette asked, attitudinal and impatient. No one said anything. I saw Nene sneak a side glance to Mama - one that I saw. It spoke volumes, but I couldn’t hear it well. They had an entire conversation with just the eye contact they shared. It was a conversation that Mama was strictly against having, even if it was non-verbal.
She glanced at me, noticed I was watching, and ended their stare-off immediately. And upon this interaction ending, yelling was heard right outside the window.
“Alize!” Abraham shouted up at her. His voice made everyone fill with dread. “Alize, we ain’t here to stir up no trouble. Just hand him over and we’ll be on our merry way.”
“Bullshit,” she hissed down at the ground before walking over to the window. I walked over with her and looked straight into Abraham’s eyes. His words were nonconfrontational, but his facial expression and posture said otherwise. In fact, the posture of everyone in his clan said otherwise.
Mama didn’t reply. Her eyes twitched, posture rigid when she looked at him, and he continued to look back at her with a now nonchalant, almost amused nature to him. His eyes moved from her onto me, and immediately he began to smile at me. Menacingly.
Mama pushed me away from the window.
“Just hand Hezekiah over, Alize,” Ava Claudette said again, begging. ”Please."
“We can’t afford to lose him right now.”
“We can’t afford to lose our lives,” Ava countered. Many agreed with her, but few, including I, knew how far back letting Hezekiah go would set us. And Mama wasn’t willing to budge. There had to be another way. And there was - my way.
“Mama, I’m telling you,” I pleaded with her, “my plan just might work. We can get rid of Hezekiah and get what we want, all without involving the Loa or the Council.”
“You don’t know what you talking ’bout,” she said lowly, her expression cold and mean the moment the words “Council” and “Loa” escaped my lips.
“You don’t want to summon Legba, you don’t want to speak to the ancestors, and it’s clear you don’t want to call on the Council because you would have mentioned them already.” My breath, scarce, was pushing out all of these thoughts to her in a desperate attempt to get her to listen. It seemed the entire room was listening, save for her. “This is the only logical idea.”
“Lisa, enough of this -”
“Mama, please I-”
“No, I said enough -”
“Mama, for once just listen to me!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. She staggered back at the power of my voice, as did the Coterie. I couldn’t think of a time where I had ever yelled at her that way. “You never listen to me, so I’m begging you to just do it this one damn time because I have an idea that might work but you refuse to even consider it. You so hell-bent on ‘protecting me’ and not telling me things that I should know, but I’m past the point of being kept in a little safe-box away from this bullshit. I’m in it now. Fully. So stop pushing me away and listen to me!”
I had ascended into something higher than myself. I was a butterfly finally emerging from its cocoon, witnessing the storm that was raging while I was kept hidden. But I wanted to face the storm. I didn’t want to stand by and let others do it for me. Without me.
Mama kept her mouth shut. She looked at me, studying my face, wondering where I was; wondering if she should welcome or shun who I was turning into.
“I’ll go with her,” Kizzy spoke up, pushing through the crowd. “Esther and Rocio will come, too.”
"What!?” Rocio whispered oppositionally, but Esther, amidst her anxiety and timidness, agreed to accompany me, holding Rocio’s hand as a means to keep her from escaping.
“I’ll go with them, too,” Mikael, the late Tia Valeria’s novitiate, said with a sense of dread and regret in his voice; Hezekiah was Tia Valeria’s killer. But despite of this, Mikael felt like he needed to do this.
“Madam Dumont,” Imani suddenly spoke. “If you would like, I will accompany them. To make sure they’re safe.”
Soon, unnamed House members began to offer to come with us to the Undercroft to confront Hezekiah in any means necessary. One by one, they were no longer voiceless associates trying to learn this religion the Coterie were devoted to. They were part of this cause, ignoring the fear they felt for the vampires in and outside our house in order to protect. Mama was speechless. The Coterie was speechless. The voices kept speaking up until Mama silenced them.
“No,” she said to everyone. “Just...just Lisa, Kizzy, Rocio and Esther. Mikael and Imani, you go with them, too. Everyone else, downstairs into the living room.” Mama looked at me, not as a child, but as an equal. “We will...buy you time. Bring Hezekiah up to the living room when he’s well fed, and well figure out the rest then.”
I thought I was dreaming. I thought this was a dream or a hallucination from malnutrition and lack of sleep. But this was very much real. I wanted to savor this moment - the moment that my own mother trusted me. But there was much to do besides gawk at her and kiss her feet. I nodded wordlessly; I wouldn’t let them down.
Everyone began filing out of the room and down the staircase. The six of us - the sacred six - stayed behind. We didn’t know what to say before we made our journey to the undercroft, so we stood silently and enjoyed the last moments of normality we would have; those were the last moments of normality. The moment we opened that door and built up the courage to go into the basement, our worlds shift permanently.
I looked out the window; Abraham began to smile up at me again.