Chapter 41: An Invitation Shrouded in Darkness
I had seen more blood that night than I had wished to.
It stained my dress, Ben’s blood. And now my hands were stained by my own blood. It became almost a normality to have it so close, and this scared me. I stared down at my hands and watched the red liquid drip onto floor like a leaky faucet.
“Come on.” Aza helped me to my feet. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
“No.” Mama’s voice was dry and emotionless. “I’ll clean her up. You go check on Ben.”
Aza looked at Mama without moving from my side. I wanted to say no to her suggestion because I didn’t trust her. Or rather, I didn’t trust the spirit guide that accompanied mama; Mama was acting as if the words that came out of her mouth and towards Hezekiah didn’t leave her lips. Technically they didn’t; they weren’t hers. But the detachedness was frightening.
I nodded to Aza, assuring her that I would be fine. Aza, with a worried look, slowly left my side, got up, and went upstairs. I stood on my own, still holding my hand to my nose. The pain had become throbbing then, but it wasn’t as intense as it was right after Hezekiah hit me.
Mama grabbed my arm and guided me to the kitchen. I stared at her. I just stared and stared, waiting for her to address what happened. But she didn’t. With heavy eyes, she grabbed an ice pack from the fridge. Her hand lightly touched her neck, which was sore and soon to be bruised from Hezekiah’s influence. This upset her; her brows drew in, amplifying the little wrinkles on her face. But she didn’t speak about it.
“Go on, baby.” She nodded to the dining room table. “Sit.”
My eyes lingered on hers before I slowly walked to the dining room table and sat down. This was reminiscent of when she patched up my arm after our encounter with Abraham at the safe house, only this time, Mama was much different. She was more bothered; angry.
The sink ran for a while before she came to my side with a wet rag and an ice pack. She sat down next to me and told me to tilt my head upwards. She cleaned off the blood; I winced, and she apologized dryly. This carried on in silence; I heard the faint sound of Aza speaking. Ben must have been up. That or Hezekiah came back. I hoped for both, but the latter made my heart sink deep in my chest the most. I wondered where he ran off too. I wonder how he felt. I wanted him to know that what he did to me was an accident - I was the victim of the “heat of the moment.” As for what he did to Mama, I was unsure if I could forgive him for that. I kept thinking about his hands around her neck. The anger in them. How murderous they were. Then I thought about him seeing Marie II being chocked underneath his hands instead of Mama and wondered if this was merit enough to alleviate the disappointment I felt.
“I kept telling you that man was trouble,” Mama said to me, finding it hard to speak from the pain in her throat. “He ain’t even no man, he a monster. Period. Told you from the beginning and you never listened. Now, I hope you’ll see just why he and Abraham are no bloodsuckers to be joking around about. And this tempus summatum nonsense. He conjured that up to try and trick you. I expected more from -”
I had to stop her. Dead in the middle of her rant. She shut up quickly, looking at me like I had lost all sense. The word “stop” held so much weight to her; she didn’t like to be interrupted.
“Mama, you can’t be serious right now.” I pushed her hand away and stared into her eyes like I’d find clarity in them. But it wasn’t there, no matter how hard I looked.
“What’s the matter with you, Lisa?”
“Do you remember anything that just happened?” I asked, but she continued to look at me as if I was crazy.
“Mama,” I said. “Marie II possessed you. She was speaking to Hezekiah through you. You don’t remember any of this?”
Mama’s mood completely changed when she heard that name. She was taken back like the mere idea of Marie II was of the highest form of offense. She got up from her chair to stand above me.
“Marie II?” she questioned, but she wanted no answer from me. “Alisande have you lost your damn mind? What business you got, talking about that woman like that?”
“Mama, she was talking to Hezekiah through you, telling him all of this shit about Marie Laveau’s death, and...and his wife and daughter and me, she was talking about me! I achieved tempus summatum, Mama. She said it herself!”
“That man must have knocked the sense right out you,” she said to me, disgusted. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing - what I was witnessing. Mama refused to believe me; she refused to believe that Marie II possessed her. But the reasoning was clear: if she believed this, then that meant she would have to come to terms with the fact that Marie II was her djab, not Marie Laveau.
I stood up, too. To get away from her. I took cautious steps back out of the kitchen, shaking my head at her. “You’re in denial,” I whispered.
“How dare you!?”
“There were witnesses, Mama. We all saw what happened. We saw her come into you! How can you deny that!? How can you deny that the woman in Hezekiah’s locket was me?”
“Because it isn’t true!” She yelled at me. “None of it is true! None of it! You’re a fool to put any kind of trust in Hezekiah, the man who Abraham sees as his goddamn son! You think Abraham wouldn’t be smart enough to somehow manipulate that photo? He wants you to think that’s you. He wants you to believe in this tempus summatum bullshit!”
It was like watching yarn unravel, listening to my mother speak - together, then slowly falling apart into a tangled mess on the ground. There was no way she could have believed the words coming out of her mouth; it would have been worse if she did. The deranged look in her eyes and the trembling state she was in made me realize that this was most likely her attempt at hiding something from me - shielding me from myself. Then Marie II’s words suddenly came back to me. They were words that I had heard before, from Aza and even Sajida the Shunned. And I decided to phrase it into a question - a question I didn’t know how Mama would react to.
“What is a ‘child of an unholy union’?”
There was nowhere for her to hide. She couldn’t cuddle me and tell me I had a bad dream. She couldn’t convince me that these words were less than what they actually were. And she definitely couldn’t tell me that I wouldn’t understand. There was nothing she could do to hide - I was out in the open. I was exposed to this. I was involved more than I ever expected to be. And I needed to know the entire truth:
I had achieved tempus summatum, but how? My djab was a woman of immense influence in my family, but who? Hezekiah knew me more than I knew myself, but when? And I was the child of an unholy union, but of what?
I was special; unique. And if Mama answered these questions, I would know exactly how I fit into all of this. But if she would have just answered me what the child of an unholy union was, I would have understood all that was meant for me to never understand. But she didn’t answer my question. She only stared with doe eyes that were almost pleading with me to let it go. But it pained her to know that I would never let it go until I knew the truth.
In our tense silence, Aza came down the staircase and right in between the two of us. She spared no time to ask what had happened between us.
“Ben is awake,” she told us, uncaring of how deeply Mama and I were staring at each other. “Y’all need to come up. He got a lot to say.”
Aza turned to leave, never waiting for us to follow her. I gave Mama one last look before following Aza up the stairs.
Aza sat by Ben’s side, bringing a wooden bowl filled with water up to his lips and advising him to drink slow. He was in bad shape, his face devoid of color and his skin bruised but compared to anyone else who would have gone through the same ordeal, he was a lot better off; he was alive.
I was scared to walk into the room because I was overcome with a pang of nonsensical guilt. Because I wrote the papers that the Council was after, I felt like it was my fault he almost died. Of course, I hadn’t written them yet, but I did; I would.
Mama sat in a chair close to the door while I approached Ben and sat on the bed next to his legs next to Aza, who sat closer to him. He saw the state of my nose - red and inflamed - and scrunched his face in concern, but I waved it away.
“I’m fine, Ben. Honest.” I leaned in over Aza’s shoulder. “How do you feel?”
“Better than before y’all found me,” he answered, trying to smile but finding it hard to. “Where Sajida at?”
“Gone,” Mama answered, her eyes drifting somewhere else. “She got no purpose here anyway.”
Aza rolled her eyes before looking back at Ben. “Tell them what you told me. About what happened.”
Ben adjusted himself in the bed, though Aza urged him to stay still after he groaned in pain. He looked at me, at Mama, then back at his sister. “They came knocking at my door right after sundown. Two white fellas and an older white woman - bloodsuckers. They got nice black suits on and they were cleaned up real nice. Had to be from the Council.”
Sajida was right. We all shared grave looks before we let Ben continue.
“They had a package in they hand - a fancy invitation to some dinner get-together. I let them in; that’s where I fucked up. They convinced me real good that their intentions were good, and somehow, I forgot who they were for a second. I realized right when I let them in that I messed up, but it was too late. They started pressing me about the parchments, asking me where I hid them. I wouldn’t tell them. That’s when we started fighting at each other. Eventually, one of them bit me, got me down to the ground. But once they couldn’t find the papers, they gave up and left.”
Somehow, I knew that Mama was upset that this wasn’t Abraham’s doing; she wanted a reason to hate him even more. I also knew that she was in denial that the Council was responsible for this.
Mama got up from her seat and walked over to him. “You’re very brave, Ben,” she said down to him. “I’m sorry they did this to you. But you won’t have to worry about them bothering you no more. The papers are gone, now.”
Ben, for the first time since I walked into the room, regained almost all of his sense. His eyes went wide, his muscles tense.
“What you mean the papers are gone?” he asked Mama.
“I mean I burned them,” she replied, almost attitudinal. I never thought Ben could get any paler. He looked at Mama with a fear in his eyes.
“You what?” he growled. Aza looked at me; we knew this was serious.
“The papers that had the ritual? I burned them, Ben. Now they ain’t got no reason to look for ’em because they gone.”
Ben was nearly frantic. Despite the immense pain he felt, he tried to get up out of his post, but Aza had to hold him down. I was overwhelmed with dread, knowing we had set ourselves ten steps behind.
“Goddamnit, Alize, what have you done!?” he shouted at her. “None of those papers had the Ritual in it!”
“That’s crazy!” Mama said in defense. “Why all those bloodsuckers looking for it, then!?”
“Because one of the papers had the coordinates to where the real ritual is buried, out west somewhere! And another one had the reverse ritual in it. Goddamnit! What the fuck have you done!?”
The world was falling apart all around us. I couldn’t even be surprised that this had happened to us - our only hope at victory now reduced to ashes. Ben was hysterical, close to wringing Mama’s neck for what she had done. And Mama was close to collapsing, the events of the night dawning on her and kicking her denial right where it hurt. I sat still on the bed, lost in space. I didn’t know how to feel or how to react.
And in the midst of this, the girls had come into Aza’s house and up the stairs, followed by the Coterie. They all filed in, assessing the situation - looking at Mama’s swollen neck, my reddened nose and lip, and Ben’s bedridden state; the blood on all of our clothes. They couldn’t understand, and at the moment, they wouldn’t. They just stared, asking us over and over what had happened; what was wrong. But what way could we tell them that hope was lost? What way could we tell them that their supreme leader made it a little easier for Abraham or the Council to gain total immunity to the sun? Without this reverse ritual that was in the parchments, there was no known way for us to defeat any vampire who was lucky enough to find this ritual that was buried “out west.” Where did west mean? West Louisiana or the western United States? Lafayette hadn’t crossed our minds yet because we didn’t think of it as a possibility; too many possibilities floated around already. How much had Ben translated? We couldn’t ask; he was too angry to speak to.
I turned towards Kizzy, who was crammed in the doorway next to Mambo Nene and Missus Taima. I had never seen such confused faces. What would they say when we could finally tell them what happened?
“Alize?” Mambo Nene called out, but Mama was drowning in the currents of her own thoughts, holding onto Aza’s dresser for support. She would let it overtake her again; whenever she was angry or scared, the spirit overtook her. She didn’t want this to happen. She closed her eyes, breathed, ushered any bad thoughts that would welcome Marie II in again; did she feed off of these darkened emotions? Is that where her influence came from - her ability to acquire full possession of her vessel?
“Get out,” Mama suddenly said to them in the doorway. Her hands then shook by her side. “Everyone, get out! Go downstairs!”
“Alize, what happened!?” Missus Taima asked. “What happened!?”
“Get out!” Mama screamed. By this time she was on her knees, eyes shut but tears still escaping onto her face. Aza was on the bed, trying to ask Ben if there was anything we could do; if he documented the translations he had or remembered any of them.
I still sat, speechless. Devoid of emotion. The pain on my face still pulsing. I thought of Hezekiah again. In a time like this, why did I think of him? His face and Ben’s face were very similar when they were angry; Hezekiah wore the same face that Ben wore when Marie II spoke to him. Did he go far? Abraham would kill him if he knew where he was running off to...
You’re in shock, Lisa.
I was. Maybe the entire day had hit me all at once when Ben told Mama how badly she had fucked up. Maybe my brain was short-circuiting. Maybe this was a dream.
A whole lot of maybe’s.
I heard the knocks on the front door first, surprisingly. Even though the room was loud and the questions were incessant and the panic was widespread, I heard the knocks loud and clear as if I stood by the door as the house’s watch dog. Then, Aza heard them.
“Everyone, quiet!” Aza yelled. Immediately, everyone shut their mouths. There was a chill in the air. Three knocks again; everyone jumped.
Mama got up quickly, composing herself. “Move,” she ordered, and the Coterie parted like the Red Sea. Aza and I followed; Aza was fast, gliding down the staircase. But when they stood by the door, they stopped moving. The knocks continued on as we stood there. Aza and Mama exchanged a look of uncertainty before Mama opened the door. The entire Coterie had come downstairs and stood in the living room to watch who was knocking at this hour.
When the door opened, we were welcomed to the sight of a woman. She was a vampire; it was obvious. Her eyes were a dirtied gold color, nonchalant in attitude but demeaning and intimidating in hue. Her skin was a deathly pale shade that reflected off the porch light. But besides these obvious traits of her vampirism, this woman was attractive, most likely more so when she was human. Her lips were rouge and ample, nose sharp and prominent with freckles on the bridge that stood out tremendously against her alabaster face. She was turned into a creature of the night when she was of older, mature human age; her laugh lines were still apparent, her black hair was gray in areas and her crow’s feet deepened when she smiled at us. Despite the heat, she wore a plum-colored turtle-neck and black pants that hung loosely on her thin frame.
This woman introduced herself as Sylvia Lange, the Council’s Head Mistress of Witchcraft.
None of us knew how to react to her presence, especially when she told us about her position in the Council; we all heard the word Council and froze still. Aza immediately wanted to end Sylvia’s life when she told us who she was; Sylvia could sense this animosity, but despite the tension, she continued to smile.
“Have I come at a bad time?” she asked us, referring to our dirtied clothes and signs of abuse. Sylvia’s accent was thick, but it wasn’t a thick type of New Orleans’ variation. I guessed Georgia or Alabama. Tennessee?
“No,” Mama answered, keeping it civil. “No, you haven’t. What brings you down here?”
Sylvia knew she wasn’t going to be invited in; she didn’t even bring up the question. “The Council has been mailing out invitations to various figures of importance in the Voodoo and Hoodoo communities.” The words ‘voodoo’ and ‘hoodoo’ left Sylvia’s mouth like a wretched poison. “I have been tasked with the honor of delivering an invitation to The Coterie personally since we know just how influential your sisterhood is to your religion and New Orleans’ history as a whole.”
“Invitation to what?” Aza asked coldly.
“We are hosting a dinner party,” Sylvia answered. “We have noticed that recently tensions have been quite high between various vampire clans and voodoo houses, and since it is the Council’s job to keep the peace between our two factions, we wanted to host an event that would hopefully bring us together to address the issues that bother us the most in order to achieve peace once again.”
In her hand were two black envelopes, one of them lined with gold trimming. She handed the plain one to my mother and kept the other one in her hand. Aza was shaking with anger just by looking at Sylvia, but Sylvia paid no mind to it.
“And if we decline this invitation?” Mama asked. Sylvia laughed, her fangs subtle but sharp.
“We really hope that you don’t,” she answered. Mama said nothing else in response, waiting for Sylvia to bid us farewell, but she didn’t leave. Instead, she brought that deep amber gaze onto me.
“I was also tasked with delivering a more personalized invitation to an Alisande Dumont,” Sylvia said. “With warm regards from our Head Chancellor, Russell Van Doren.”
Sylvia handed the last envelope to me, the trimming shining in the light. I took it from her reluctantly; everyone looked at me as if I had become a phantom, with eyes lost and fearful. But Mama and Aza’s looks were so frightening that it made me scared to hold the envelope in my hand. I had never heard of a Russell Van Doren, but he knew of me, and now, the leader of the Council had written me a personal invitation to his dinner party.
“To keep the air comfortable, Mr. Van Doren requests that your attire reflect semi-formal dress-wear of the mid to late 19th century,” Sylvia said. “Most of our guests in attendance were born during this time, so we want to make them feel as welcomed as possible.”
When Sylvia felt like she had said all that needed to be said, she wished us a good night and left down the street. Mama closed the door, locked it and looked back at all the faces staring at her. Then, she looked at me and the invitation in my hand. The sweat was glistening off her face.
“Give it to me,” she ordered, and when I didn’t obey, she repeated the order in a shout.
“Let her open it,” Aza interjected. “We don’t need you burning more important papers again.”
“You entertaining the thought of Lisa going to this thing?” Mama asked. “Where Abraham and a slew of other bloodsuckers are going to be? Whatever Russell want to do with her don’t matter ’cause she ain’t going!”
“At least just let her read it!” Aza drawled out, which spiraled her and Mama into a heated argument. I tuned out the sounds of their yelling and stared at the black envelope in my hand. There was a gold seal that held it together with the initials R.V.D. engraved in cursive on the wax.
Why me, I thought to myself. But wondering did little to satiate my curiosity, so I escaped to the kitchen, where I grabbed a knife and opened the envelope. Mama hadn’t realized where I slipped off to until I already began reading the letter, which was on aged parchment and handwritten in the most elegant cursive:
Please favor me with your company at dinner on Thursday next at half-past eleven with other guests whose names I shall not mention here. I should not consider this complete without your attendance; I will take no denial.
I have seen to it that an appropriate gown is made and shall be delivered to you before the festivities. I deeply enjoy you in the color red.
Yours ever sincerely,
Russell Van Doren,
Head Chancellor of The Council, L.A.