Chapter 34: Visions of Root House
The smell of rich spices and sausages filled up Miss Aza’s home once she and I made the journey downstairs. The Coterie was making gumbo - a huge pot of it for everyone that sat around in the living room. The Coterie was in the kitchen when we made it downstairs, whereas everyone sat on the couch or on the floor, their clothes still dirty and tattered. All them stopped their chatter when they saw me. Everyone went quiet, plagued with questions that they didn’t know how to ask.
Kizzy, Esther, Imani, and Rocio sat together and stood together when their eyes landed on me. They probably assumed I was dead. They probably thought that I was a lost cause. But I wasn’t. I was there, in the flesh, staring at them and waiting for one of them to say something. But none of them did. I wanted to say something - I wanted to tell them of the revelations that had come upon me regarding my family; regarding Marie Laveau herself. But I knew better than to open my mouth. Instead, I walked over to them, expecting an embrace. And they expected one, too; our arms were open, a sigh of relief escaping our mouths, our joints released of some tension. But this feeling of comfort and contentment was short-lived, for Mikael turned the corner in the hallway from the bathroom.
The moment I saw him, my blood began to rise in temperature before coming to a boil. The image of him holding Kizzy’s crossbow in the undercroft, aiming it at Hezekiah’s heart with complete disregard for my wellbeing began to brand itself in my head. Mikael knew I was angry at him, yet he didn’t know how to approach the situation. And frankly, neither did I. But before I could gather clear judgment, I marched forward and met a clenched fist to Mikael’s nose.
Gasps and yelps erupted throughout the living room, and immediately, Aza ran over towards me as Mikael stumbled onto the ground. He held his nose and shook in fear as he stared up at me.
“You dumbass!” I yelled at him. The knuckles of my right hand were throbbing. “This is all your fault!”
This wasn’t entirely true. This was my rage speaking, seething and foaming at the mouth, almost. Had Mikael not shot the crossbow, there’s no guarantee that my words and patience would have kept Hezekiah calm; in that state, Hezekiah wasn’t himself. He was completely overtaken by the vampiric disease. However, it was Mikael that lunged Hezekiah into that fit of rage, spiraling us into the situation that followed when Abraham entered the house. So, in my mind that was practically mush and a jumbled mess of information, it was Mikael’s fault; I needed someone to blame.
Aza grabbed my arm and pulled me back, and by then, the rest of the Coterie had come out of the kitchen to see what was happening.
“What the hell is goin’ on?!” Mambo Nene shouted into the living room, but once she saw Mikael on the ground and Aza’s grip on my arm, she knew; she immediately rolled her eyes and looked at Mama, who was just as confused as everyone else.
After a moment, Mikael managed to pick himself up. Crimson liquid was dripping from his nose, staining his palm. I didn’t feel any sense of remorse, and neither did Kizzy, who was trying her hardest not to smile.
“What is wrong with you?!” He exclaimed, eyes large like a frightened child.
“You’re the reason shit went south,” I said. “Had you not tried to play hero and shoot Hezekiah, none of this would have happened!”
“You what?!” Aza and Mama exclaimed at the exact same time. It was fascinating - they were both in sync with their words, but their facial expressions were completely different. Mama looked shocked, almost proud, at Mikael’s boldness. But Aza quickly became distraught and bothered; upset.
Aza looked at Kizzy and the girls. “And none y’all thought to tell me this when you got here?”
“We were more focused on not being killed by bloodsuckers on our trail than detailing everything that happened,” Rocio replied, sarcasm drenching her tongue.
Aza shook her head at them, then let go of my arm before coming face to face with Mikael. He took a few frightened steps back when their faces were only inches apart. “You think poking the bear’s gonna save your asses? You could have gotten all of them killed!”
“So I was supposed to stand by and just let Lisa baby Hezekiah as if he wasn’t the one who killed Tia Valeria?” Mikael snapped back.
“There was a plan,” Kizzy said to him.
“And it didn’t work!”
“Because of you!” We all shouted at him. It was then that Mama stepped forward to try and regulate the situation.
“Alright, everyone just shut your mouths. We’re all...tired. Scared. Ain’t no use arguing about this now.”
“Alize,” Aza said, turning around to meet her eyes. “Alize, you’re excusing what he did?”
“I ain’t excusing no one, Aza. I’m saying that we all got to keep our heads.”
Aza scoffed. Laughed, even. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Mama began to frown. “Don’t start this shit again -”
“Start what? Addressing the problem instead of letting it fester and sit around in the sun? The boy shot a vampire with a crossbow and pissed him off. What if the girls hadn’t closed the basement door in time? Hezekiah would have come up there and killed all y’all ’fore you had a chance to figure out what to do next.”
“But that didn’t happen, Aza. So, now we move on. And I’d think you’d be thinking like the adults here instead of getting in his face.”
“You wanna talk about acting like adults, when y’all kicked me out of the Coterie yesterday, then come to my doorstep begging for sanctuary?”
Mama didn’t say anything in response. No one did, because Aza was right. She couldn’t help but laugh at the situation, though.
“Why am I always the bad guy?” she asked rhetorically before walking back upstairs. Ava Claudette came forward and guided Mikael to the kitchen to get him cleaned up. I stood still and looked at Mama, who, with tired eyes, turned the corner and went back into the kitchen.
We all rested for a few hours. It was hard to; some of us didn’t sleep. But as the clock struck 1:00, the house was loud again. The entire Coterie was in the living room now - Mama, Miss Aza, Mambo Nene, Ava Claudette, Priestess Qadira, Mama Hepzibah, Miss Taima and Mother Babette. Once the other priestesses who had left the safe house and returned to the city heard about what happened that night, they rushed over to Aza’s. They knew that now, more than ever, they had to be on a united front. But there was clearly still tension between Mama and Aza, so they sat on opposite ends of the living room and refused to look at each other.
They started with a prayer service which was held outside in Aza’s garden. Leading from the back door, an array of flowers and plants stood tall and in abundance throughout the expanse; it was clear Aza spent a lot of time tending to her garden. We all walked through the walkway until we reached a small clearing. Here, we set down a large cloth with offerings - apples, oranges, cigars, rice and peas, along with blue and red candles on all four corners. There were several bottles of rum on the offering cloth as well, for Papa Legba, who we prayed to when the service began in order to have the doors open and the spirits come through for guidance. The Coterie stood around the cloth and danced and chanted, while we stood behind and watched. Their colorful beads and crossed necklaces swayed as they danced, their white dresses and blouses stained with sweat.
Mikael played the drums with two other male House members. We began to dance together. Aza, walking over to the tree closest to the clearing, suddenly came back with a large, green and black snake that worked its way up her arm from the box it was held in. It slithered around her outstretched arms, coiling around her neck, then wrapping itself around her arms again. They chanted to Dambala - the primordial creator of all life. The Sky Father. Aza got onto her knees, grabbed a bottle of white rum from the ground, took a sip, then passed it down to her sisters until it reached Mambo Nene, who sprinkled the rest of the rum on the priestesses. They were asking for protection. They were asking for guidance. They were opening the gates.
And the gates opened, for Papa Legba appeared.
He was in the center of the clearing, standing on the cloth with apple slices between his exposed toes. This was the first time I had seen Papa Legba - definitely not the last, but certainly the first. The Coterie continued to dance as if he wasn’t there, standing and watching them; they continued to dance because they couldn’t see him. But I saw him. And he saw me.
He was a tall man. Old, with a beard the color of untainted snow. His hair was salt and peppered, dreading over his shoulders and down his back. He stood there like a still river, leaning against the cane in his hand. He was smoking a pipe that looked worn and used, the smoke dancing through the holes in his straw hat. I looked around, hoping someone else saw what I was seeing, but when I realized that this “vision” was personalized, I stared in shock. In awe.
Like the loa Erzulie, his eyes were a bright white, almost like a bright smoke I could see right through of. They hypnotized me into immobility, and he used this opportunity to limp towards me, using his cane for support. He walked until we were close; we shared the same breath. He looked down upon me, his face gentle and kind but possessing an authority to respect. And upon reaching his hand forward, he touched my heart. I saw a dirtied street, in the neighborhood of Tremé ; I would ride the bus up there in high school to hang out with a boy I was messing around with then. It was an old house in my vision. The door was behind an iron gate, and a sign that read “Doctor Ben’s Root House” hung right above it. Suddenly, the vision was gone as quickly as it came, and so was Legba, who disappeared into the sky or within the dust. The ceremony carried on; only Kizzy saw that something was off with me. I was unsure of what happened, but I knew deep down that there was some significance with this house. If Papa Legba himself showed me this vision, I had to follow through with it.
I didn’t know for what reason, but I had to visit “Ben’s Root House” in Tremé.
I was initially going to go by myself. Around 3, I would drive over to Tremé, over to “Ben’s Root House” which was close to the Mahalia Jackson Theater on Lafitte street; a lot of foot traffic in this area, being close to the French Quarter and also being a historic district. But the Coterie became strict on the ruling that anyone who went out had to go out during the day in a group.
I told no one about my vision. When I got dressed, I brought the parchments with me and made my way through the front door, I told Mama that I was going to go repair the lense on my glasses, which was indeed cracked on the side from the night before.
“You ain’t going alone,” she said to me.
“I’ll just be an hour,” I assured her.
“Lisa.” Her tone was firm and direct. “If you gone go out, you take some people with you. No if’s, and’s or but’s.”
I was growing irate. Of course, I understood mama’s concern, and even if it was still daylight outside, it wasn’t safe to go out alone and exposed. However, I didn’t want to tell her about the encounter between Papa Legba and I; I knew she would become afraid or prophetic and force me to stay inside.
“We’ll go with her,” I heard a voice behind Mama say. It was Kizzy with Esther, Rocio and Imani. I had to refrain from rolling my eyes at the timing. I appreciated the kindess, but I wanted to do this on my own; I needed to figure this out on my own.
Mama stepped aside. “Alright. If all y’all going, then I ain’t got no problem. But you better be back before the sun set or else we coming after y’all.”
“We will be, Madam Dumont,” Kizzy assured her. “Promise.”
Mama, surprisingly, didn’t oppose any further. She let us go, blessing us on our way out. We got into the car, closing the doors. I turned on the car, let the AC run for a moment without driving yet. Kizzy was in the passenger’s seat, while Rocio, Esther and Imani were in the back.
“You’re not getting your glasses fixed,” Kizzy said to me. I looked at her, then decided it was no use keeping the secret from them. I told them about what happened during the ceremony - about how Papa Legba gave me a vision. And when I was done, they were all in shock.
“Are you sure it was Papa?” Imani asked, her hands practically shaking with anticipation.
I nodded. “Yes, I’m sure. And I’d be an idiot to not seek out this “Root House” that He showed to me. I think I’m supposed to find something of substance there, maybe a way for us to defeat Abraham or some other form of guidance.” I pulled out the parchments. “I brought these. I saved them from the safe house. Maybe whoever I’m supposed to meet there can decipher these for me?”
Kizzy took the parchments from my hand, opened them, read them over, but came to the same concensus as I - the language is unfamiliar.
“Esther,” Rocio said. “How do you feel about this?”
Esther sighed. “I don’t see anything bad when I hear the name of this place.”
“So, we shouldn’t be worried?” Imani asked.
“I didn’t say that,” Esther said.
“Look, you guys don’t have to come inside with me. Papa gave me the vision. I don’t want to put you all in danger.”
“Are you crazy?” Kizzy exclaimed. “If Papa showed Himself to you and told you to go to this Root House, then we’re coming with you.”
“I agree,” Imani said, almost excited.
It was settled then. I put the car in drive and made my way towards Tremé, the entire car ride silent but filled with anticipation. We finally arrived, and after spending twenty minutes looking for parking, we walked five minutes to the corner where the house was. The street wasn’t as tourist heavy as the french quarter, but it was close; we didn’t feel unsafe. At least not yet.
The old, terra cotta colored house was definitely it. In the swealtering heat, I still felt goosebumps on my arms. We approached the iron gate, reading the wooden sign hanging from above - Doctor Ben’s Root House.
“Root House,” Kizzy said to herself. “He must be a Root Doctor.”
“I think so, too,” I replied. It was no coincidence - Papa Legba guiding me to the house of a hoodoo practitioner. I wasn’t going to leave empty handed.
I opened the gate and knocked on the door. There was a long moment of silence before a click sound coming from the doorknob. We all exchanged looks before I turned the doorknob and opened the door, finding no one on the other side. I was brought back to our first encounter with Sajida the Shunned then, entering her tree house deep in the Bayou of the Shunned, feeling the magic radiate through the walls. However, the aura of this house wasn’t threatening like it was at her residence. In fact, it was inviting. We felt safe. Encouraged to take another step.
“Hello?” I called out, closing the door behind us.
“In here!” A man yelled from a room down the hall to the left. Through the bare hallway, we walked on until we reached the doorway to a room that was radiating sunlight from the wide open windows. And upon entering, we were left without words.
The room was large, with tall bookshelves that seemed to go on forever. Charms and trinkets dotted the walls, with relics in glass cases sparkling in the afternoon sunlight that kissed the walls. A large desk was at the end of the room, three stone chests right behind it. And on that desk was a man sitting on the edge, speaking to an older light skinned creole woman across from him; his back was turned towards us.
“’Dis gone get rid my chest pain, sir?” The woman asked in a croaked-voice, holding up a black bottle with a bag of herbs in her other hand.
“Yes, Ma’am. ‘Member - three times’ day, right through the nose, take a deep breath in, hold it, let go. Morning, afternoon, night, one month. You should be as good as new.”
She smiled, the wrinkles on her innocent face multiplying. “Thank you, Benjie. I be bringing Alice over here next week for that there fertility spell you told me ’bout.”
“I’ll see you then, Cecile. Take care, now.”
They hugged, Cecile giggling in his arms before they broke apart. She then waddled away towards the door, her long gray braid swaying behind her. We made way for her, saying a ‘hello’ as she walked by.
We all surely assumed that this man was Doctor Ben, though I imagined an elderly man living in squalor. But Doctor Ben was the opposite; embarassingly, we were all speechless at this man once he turned to face us. He was gorgeous - tall, lean and well kempt, wearing black slacks and an untucked white button down shirt, the top buttons unfastened, the sleeves rolled up his fore arms. He was older, his graying hair indication of that, but it didn’t take away from how handsome he was; light, almost fair skinned, with a sharp jaw and even sharper eyes, dark in color but genuine in gaze. His facial hair was shaved down to a faint goatee, whereas the hair on his head was gelled back into waves, a few dark curls springing free by his ear. There was a familiarity in his features - a familiarity that bothered me since I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Doctor Ben greeted us with a closed mouth grin, but when we all continued to stare on in dumbfounded silence, he began to laugh, his smile now wide and beaming.
“How y’all doin’ this fine afternoon’?” he chuckled, sitting up from the desk and walking towards us. Esther and Rocio shared one look of disbelief before turning back to stare at him. Kizzy snapped out of it first, shaking his hand and introducing herself. Slowly but surely, we all began to follow in her direction. I had never seen the girls smile so wide.
When Doctor Ben got to me last, he stopped. His smile waned a bit as he tilted his head like he didn’t understand the structure of my face.
“Lisa,” he said to me. We knew then - immediately.
Without a proper introduction, I told him about Papa Legba’s vision, and after I was done, Doctor Ben seemed to marvel at me.
“Papa came to me in a dream,” he said. “He told me Alize’s daughter was gone come to me.”
Chills ran through me like electrical currents. There was a reason to this, but I didn’t know what. But Doctor Ben did.
“Do y’all mind taking a seat?” He said to us, gesturing to the couch area by the wall. We all obliged, sitting down on one couch as Doctor Ben pulled the curtains over the windows, darkening the room. He turned on a couple of lamps before sitting down across from us, but his eyes seemed to stay on me.
“In this dream I had,” he explained, “Papa Legba told me to warn you when you came to me.”
My heart sunk in my chest. “Warn me about what?”
Doctor Ben sighed, thought for a moment, then got up and went to his bookshelf. It took him a minute, but he finally came back with a large book in his hand. He set it on the table between us, and with the wave of his hand, the book opened on its own. On the pages were black and white painted photos, but they were hard to make out.
“What is this?” Kizzy asked.
“This is Abraham,” Doctor Ben said, pointing to the picture. “At least, a depicted painting of him with Terah and his clan, from around the 1820′s. Terah and his clan used to hunt slave catchers. Terah and Abraham would buy out slaves from plantation owners and give ’em a choice that most the time, they wouldn’t refuse: help them protect runaway slaves from bounty hunters trying to bring those slaves back to they masters. But at a price - ”
“They would turn them into vampires,” I said lowly.
Doctor Ben nodded. “That be how they created this legion of vampires who would hide out in the forests around the Underground Railroad, making sure the path was safe for runaways. And any slave catchers come trottin’ by, they’d kill them. There be no other way to gain an upper hand on then than to become bloodsuckers. So, that’s what they did. Terah knew these old slaves would jump at the chance to kill white folk for their brothers and sisters to get to freedom.”
Doctor Ben turned the page, and on it was a drawing of a group of white men and women, all pale in the face with bright eyes.
“When white folk got wind of these killings by vampires, they weren’t too happy ’bout it, ’specially since their slaves was getting away to freedom. So, a group of white vampires down here in New Orleans started figuring out a way to stop them. They knew these black vampires was too powerful, so they started thinking of other ways to lessen their power. They did so by starting a war between the black vampires and Marie Laveau.”
“How?” I asked.
“By killing her husband, Jacques Paris.”
“Terah killed Marie Laveau’s husband?” Esther asked, horrified. But Doctor Ben shooked his head.
“No. The Council did.”
Doctor Ben turned the page again, and suddenly, the images came to life. By the work of his finger, the ink began to rise and mold into people. It molded itself into a white man sinking his teeth into a black aristocrat, killing him. This man hid the body in a coffin.
“Years went by, Marie thinking her husband ran away, but one day news came to her that he was killed by a vampire years before. She was heartbroken; someone tipped her off that it was Terah and Abraham who done had their fingers all over the mess.”
The black ink made itself into a woman - Marie Laveau - weeping over Jacques Paris’ preserved body.
“Just like that?” Imani asked.
Doctor Ben nodded. “Just like that.”
His fingers danced again, making the photo move forward in years, showcasing the bloodshed that Marie inflicted upon Terah’s clan behind the curtains. A woman rose up next to her - Marie Laveau’s daughter, Marie Laveau II.
“Marie wasn’t no bad woman. She was just overtaken by heartbreak and sorrow. And her daughter grew up in this shadow that overtook her, too. Even after Marie found out what the Council did, it was too late - vampires and voodoo servitures were at each other’s necks. Marie then decided to retire around the 1860s to try and get away from the mess she made, but her daughter was already in too deep, and decided to carry on this war against those bloodsuckers that her mama done started. This kept on until one day, Terah had enough.”
Terah and his clan then stood over Marie’s body, staring at it in its lifelessness. I knew this part of the story - the part Mama told me.
“But Marie’s daughter got away,” I said. “And started The Coterie.”
Doctor Ben was surprised I knew this. “Right. That’s exactly what happened.”
“Why are you telling us this?” Rocio asked. “Is this the warning Papa told you about?”
“I’m telling you this because the Coterie won’t; they don’t know the truth. They don’t know why Marie did what she did; why her daughter was the way she was. They think that they can trust the Council, but they just waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike and kill all of us. Marie II formed this shakey alliance with the Council, not knowing that they was the one who started this mess. Her mother tried to tell her, my great great great great grandmother tried to tell her, too. But she didn’t listen. Marie II’s influence is dripping all over the Coterie; I think her spirit still pulls the strings on your sisterhood.”
The girls and I exchanged looks that said a thousand words.
“Why haven’t you told the Coterie this?” I asked him.
“They wouldn’t believe me. I’ve been ‘ex-communicated’ for a long time from them. Even though I’ve been getting these flashbacks for years, they would write me off as crazy.”
“So, you used to associate with them?” Imani asked.
“Yes, ma’am. My little sister and I used to make potions for them. My sister joined them when we were young, around the time her and I stopped talking. I was holding up a mirror to their corrupt ways, and they didn’t like it too much. ’Specially your mama.”
I paused for a moment, staring into his eyes, and being hit again with that familiarity I thought of before.
“Who’s your sister?” I asked him. Doctor Ben managed a laugh.
“Camile. But y’all probably know her by Aza, right?”
I should have started a stopwatch then - at that moment, everything began to spiral down, one second after the other. And it started with Doctor Ben, who was Miss Aza’s older brother. He was ex communicated from the Coterie, most likely around the time that I was born; around the same time Mama came into contact with her djab. Did he warn her about the wrath of her spirit guide, thus leading to him being shunned away from them?
“Wait, wait, wait,” Rocio stuttered. “You’re Miss Aza’s brother?”
He rolled his eyes. “That’s the name she using these days?”
They all carried themselves into a conversation about him and his sister, but I was still connecting the dots. And there was once piece that I hadn’t fit in that I should have before.
“Doctor Ben,” I interupted. “Your grandmother, four times, knew Marie II? You said she tried to warn her about the Council?”
“They were the founding members of The Coterie,” he said. My blood ran cold.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a photo of her?”
Doctor Ben got up, walked around his study, until he came back with a framed photo. I almost collapsed when I saw who it was.
“We need to go,” I said, before getting up from the couch and rushing out of the room.
I didn’t want it to be true. As I drove home, the sun now disappearing underneath the horizon, the girls hounding me with questions, I didn’t want it to be true at all. It wouldn’t make sense. Or it would. Did I even know what I was thinking?
We got to Aza’s house, and I made a beeline for the front door. The girls called after me, Rocio upset that I cut our time with Doctor Ben short.
The house was empty; The Coterie must have been at a service. Still, I rushed upstairs, not knowing what I was going to find. Miss Aza’s door was wide open, and she was in her room, sitting on the edge of her bed as if she was waiting for me. I looked at her, but I felt like I didn’t know her. I didn’t know what to say until I grabbed the framed photo of the beautiful woman off of her dresser - her four-greats-grandmother. One of the founding members of the Coterie.
I showed her the photo. “This photo was in Hezekiah’s locket,” I said to her, barely able to breathe let alone form a sentence. “Why?”
Aza stood, her hands crossed in front of her, but before she could say anything, a shadow emerged from behind the bathroom door. And there he was - it was him, standing in all of his vampiric glory. He was no longer a monsterous sight to behold- he was the beautiful man I remembered, his skin rich in color, his face chiseled and scarred, eyes glowing in the heightening darkness of the room. Hezekiah’s eyes narrowed at me in a looming, almost weary way, but non-threatening; he was waiting for my reaction. But I couldn’t react. I couldn’t even move or think; when I looked at him, I saw Doctor Ben - the familiarity I couldn’t find.
“So, you met my brother?” she asked me. I looked at her, eyes wide in shock and disbelief. I then shook my head as if it would wake me up from this nightmare.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding,” I breathed out. “What the fuck is going on?”
Aza took careful steps towards me, “Lisa, calm down. Let me explain -”
“Wh-what the fuck is going on?” I saw red around me, the room spinning. I held onto her desk, the photo still in my hand.
“Lisa, please -”
“Why is he here? Is...are you working for Abraham?”
“What?” she exclaimed. “No!”
“The Council? Is this what this is?!”
“Then why is he here!? Why is this picture in his locket!?”
“Because!” She shouted, grabbing my arm while pointing at him. “He’s family!”
The countdown had made it to zero. The bells had gone off, ringing in my head as I looked at them, processing.
“He’s family,” she said again, her voice soft and pleading. “He’s my family.”