Voodoo Queens of New Orleans

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Chapter 50: Lave Tet

“Are you crazy?!”

Mikael was furious. And he did have every right to be. I had asked Sajida the Shunned to perform a lave tet upon me, while also agreeing to spend the night at her treehouse. It was an impulsive decision, but I was so desperate for answers that I was willing to do anything.

I didn’t know how to respond to him. The reality of the situation finally kicked in the moment Sajida left the study and went downstairs. The Damiyas continued lightly clawing at my ankle, staring up at me but of course, unable to say anything.

“It’s the only way, Mikael.” I said to him. “Sajida’s willing to give me the answers I need. She’s the only one that’s willing to do this.”

“You think one lave tet is going to give you the answers you need?!”

“Why wouldn’t it?!”

“This isn’t just some one-stop quick-fix, Lisa,” Mikael stressed. “This head washing is sacred, and one is never good enough.”

“But one is a start, Mikael! It’s more than the Coterie ever offered to me.”

He sighed, “Lisa, please. There are other ways we can figure this out—”

“No, there isn’t!” I snapped at him. “My mama’s in complete denial: about me, about tempus summatum, about the Council, about everything! She thinks that sweeping everything under the rug and ‘convening’ is going to fix everything and it isn’t!”

“Lisa—”

“The loa want me to do this. They’re guiding me on this path. I’m not exactly sure to where, but I’d be an idiot not to follow it.”

“You can follow the loa without having to undergo a lave tet by an evil bayou witch!”

“Sajida is my family!”

“She’s evil, Lisa! Evil! Regardless of whether or not she’s family, you have no idea what her true intentions are!”

The Damiyas kept clawing. I picked up Pentagram in my hand and asked it what was wrong; to give me a sign or to use some form of gesturing. But it only continued to claw at my hand that it sat in.

“They’re trying to tell you what I’m telling you, Lisa,” Mikael said, referring to the dolls. “This is a horrible idea.”

“I don’t care,” I said to him. “I’m going through with it, with or without you.”

Mikael was taken aback by how serious I was. He expected me to cave in—to realize just how dangerous this endeavor was. But I was so close. I wasn’t going to give up the race when the finish line was in reach. There was a confliction that overtook him. He was angry; his hands were balled into fists, his lips pursed. I waited for him to leave me there alone with the Damiyas—to travel with the Gatekeeper out of the bayou. But he wouldn’t leave; he couldn’t. He wouldn’t have been able to live with himself if he left me there and something went wrong. So, he remained seated on the couch and said nothing else about the matter. Though he wore how he felt about it on his face. I almost felt bad for unconsciously forcing him to go through with the lave tet with me; I was Madam Dumont’s daughter, and if he went back into the city and told the Coterie where I was, they would crucify him for leaving me there alone.

He essentially had no choice but to stay.

When Sajida came back into the study, Mikael and I pretended as if our animated conversation never happened. The Damiyas huddled together, Pentagram jumping off of my hand, and waddled back to the table they came from, hiding in the shadows.

Sajida went around her desk but only stood instead of sitting back in her throne. “Y’all gots to share a room; all the other ones are occupied.”

“That’s fine,” I said. I wanted to be as uncomplicated as possible. Sajida nodded her head to the door, in which Mikael and I both stood up and followed her out of the study. We walked down the staircase and through an adjacent hall. All of the doors were closed; there was no sound coming from those rooms. At the end of the hall, however, there was an open door to a small room lit by a few lanterns with a full-sized bed; the window was closed and the curtains were pulled together, but there was a rotating fan that was on full power in the corner. There was no electricity, but luckily, the treehouse didn’t need it with Sajida’s magic.

Upon walking further into the room, Mikael and I cringed when we realized there was only one bed.

“Extra sheets in the closet,” Sajida said. “But it be so damn hot I doubt y’all gone need ’em.”

“But is there an extra bed?” Mikael asked. “Like a blow-up mattress or something?”

Sajida chuckled. “No, there ain’t. Y’all just gone have to share.” Sajida looked at me. “I doubt Miss Princess here know much about that there word, since her Mama pampered her most her life—”

“I don’t mind sharing,” I blurted out surely. “I’m fine with sleeping on the floor, too.”

Mikael shook his head. “No, I’ll sleep on the floor.”

“I can’t let you do that. I’m the whole reason we’re here.”

“Lisa, it’s fine. I’ll sleep on the floor—”

“I don’t give a damn about who sleeps where,” Sajida said to us. “Just make sure you both up at dawn. We gone have a long day tomorrow.”

Mikael and I nodded. We watched Sajida walk out of the room and close the door behind her. I locked it after I could no longer hear her footsteps down the hall.

I took off my backpack and set it on the floor by the bedside table. Mikael set the crossbow down next to my backpack, then walked over to the window and rested his hand on the curtain but thought against looking outside; he wasn’t sure of what he would find staring back at us.

I took off my shoes and my socks, both still damp from the bayou. Then, I took off my plaid long sleeve, only wearing my white tank top. Mikael’s eyes flickered towards me; his jaw ticked when he saw my long sleeve on the floor.

“I’ll set the alarm on my phone,” I said to him.

“Set it for 6 o’clock.”

“Alright.”

As I set the alarm, I could hear Mikael opening the closet doors. I turned around to find him pulling out extra sheets and a blanket.

“What are you doing?” I managed a laugh. “It’s nearly scorching in here already.”

“I’m making a bed on the floor,” he said to me.

I rolled my eyes, “Mikael—”

“Lisa, please. It’s fine. There isn’t enough room on the bed for both of us.”

“Yes, there is.” I walked over and snatched the sheets from him. “We’re sharing the bed. No one’s sleeping on the floor.”

Mikael tried to protest but I ignored him as I stuffed everything back into the closet from which it came. I began turning down the lanterns; the room was eerily dim. Mikael sat on the foot of the bed, taking his shoes off slowly. I sat on the bed, too nervous to lay down. So many things were racing through my mind that I couldn’t even accurately comprehend the art of sleep.

Mikael got up and turned all of the lanterns off. The room was completely dark. He then got into bed and laid on his back. I did the same. We both laid stiff next to each other, staring up at the ceiling. It was awkward, our situation; we couldn’t even look at each other. The bed wasn’t the largest; we didn’t have enough room for ourselves unless we relaxed our muscles, but we both decided against it.

“Do you have enough room?” he asked me. His shoulders were quite broad; they were touching mine, even though he kept his body tight.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I bit my lip; I needed to talk to him about something. Anything. “Was that you who lit the cigarette on fire?”

“What?” he said, but after a moment, he understood my question. “Why would you think that was me?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I’m still finding it hard to believe that I did that.”

“Unless Sajida set it on fire, that was all you.” He turned his head to face me, but it was too dark to make out any of his features. “Why do you find it hard to believe that you’re capable of pyro kinesis?”

“Mikael,” I laughed. “Do you remember who you’re talking to? I didn’t even know what pyro kinesis was a month ago.”

“I don’t think that matters much. Everyone’s capable of achieving some form of magic, but the reason that so little of us can actually do it depends on the energy we receive from the universe; not all of us can harness it properly.”

“But that’s the thing—I don’t feel like I harnessed anything. I don’t even understand how to do that.”

“A lot of the time, we don’t understand,” he said. “That’s what faith is for.”

I scoffed. “Faith in what?”

“The ancestors.”

“Now, you sound like Sajida.”

Mikael shook his head. “No. Sajida’s idea of having faith in the ancestors involves using black magic to manipulate voodoo. That’s exactly what I’m against.”

“You don’t think witchcraft and voodoo can coexist?”

Mikael took a while to formulate his answer. “They can, but not the way Sajida does it. It’s...it’s the kind of practice that she participates in that gives voodoo a bad name. So many people think voodoo is evil. So many people think it’s witchcraft. But it really isn’t.”

Mikael was so passionate about the topic. I understood even more why he didn’t want to come see Sajida in the first place. However, I was brought back to the words that some of the priestesses had said about the Coterie; how the Coterie used voodoo for personal gain. And when I mentioned this to Mikael, asking if he thought the Coterie and Sajida were both at fault for the same things, he couldn’t give me an answer.

“Mama was so against Aza being a witch, but I saw her use magic on several occasions,” I said to him. “It doesn’t make sense to me, Mikael. It seems like the deeper I get into this, the more I see the Coterie for what they really are. What if these priestesses are right about them manipulating voodoo, too? For all we know, this could be why the Coterie has faced so much misfortune; the loa are upset with them. With us.”

Again, Mikael was at a loss for words. We both turned to look at each other. My eyes had adjusted to the dark, and I could see the confusion—the confliction—in his eyes. But he could see the sadness and uncertainty in mine. There was a lot of weight on my shoulders. A lot that I had to think about. I was unsure of myself and of who I could trust, and Mikael saw that.

We both wanted to say more to each other, but it was getting late. Mikael urged me to get some sleep, even though I knew it was going to be hard to. He turned his head towards the ceiling, eyes wide open and stuck in thought. I turned my body to the side, facing the door. I saw a shadow underneath the door—small feet. Feet that I knew belonged to a Damiya. I sat up quickly, causing Mikael to sit up in alarm, too.

“What is it?” he asked, on edge. I pointed to the door wordlessly, and immediately, Mikael knew what it was. He got up and walked carefully in the dark towards the door. I heard the click of the lock, and suddenly, light began to pour into the room. But the Damiya had scurried away from us. I shot up out of bed and peeked my head out into the hallway. I could only see the back of the doll’s body, and as it turned a corner, I saw a few more dolls hiding behind the corner—dolls I had never seen before. Not the dolls that were in Sajida’s study.

When they noticed we were watching them, they all ran away and disappeared into the further reaches of the treehouse.

**

Dawn came quickly; I didn’t even remember falling asleep.

I woke up to the sound of my alarm on the bedside table. I felt Mikael’s chest underneath my cheek and forced myself completely awake.

Did we really fall asleep like this?

I turned off my alarm and shook Mikael awake. His eyes fluttered open until they were wide and aware. He sat up, stretched briefly, then got up to put his shoes on. I put mine on as well.

We didn’t say anything to each other, frankly because there wasn’t much to say. The lave tet was today. It was happening. Even if there was something to be said, my nerves would have made it nearly impossible to speak.

Sunlight seeped through the curtains. Mikael pulled them apart, staring at the ominous bayou below. This was the first time I was seeing the Bayou of the Shunned during the day time. The sun, barely coming up on the horizon, showed everything—all of the bayou’s wretchedness. The decomposition. The cypress leaves that seemed to shield the most horrid aspects from our window.

I grabbed my phone and my backpack, “You ready to go?”

Mikael nodded, grabbing the crossbow and following me out of the door. We walked through the hall into the living room, where Sajida was smoking a cigarette speaking to one of her co-workers; she spoke in French intentionally so Mikael and I wouldn’t be able to understand. The co-worker, like the others, had ivory eyes. There was a basket of flowers and herbs in her hand.

When Sajida saw me, she shooed off the co-worker, who left through the front door without looking at us. Sajida had on an all-white dress, a little large for her frame. There was a red ribbon tied around her waist, and she wore a white headscarf.

“Morning,” she said to us, smiling like she knew exactly what was to come. She put out her cigarette and walked over to the table, where a couple of white outfits were laid out.

She handed me a white dress, “Put that on,” she said to me. “And take off the shoes.”

She gave Mikael an outfit to borrow, but gave him no instructions; he already knew what to do. I went to the bedroom first to change. The dress wasn’t fitting like Sajida hinted the night before; it was large, the fabric thin cotton. I draped the blue beads over my chest like a sash. When I took off my shoes and carried them in my hand, I walked back out into the living room. Mikael looked at me with a hard expression. He still strongly disapproved, but said nothing in Sajida’s presence.

When he went to change, Sajida and I were left alone. She knew I was nervous, and she knew I had questions.

“So, how does this work?” I asked her. “I mean...what can I expect?”

“Everyone’s lave tet is different,” she said. “Some tell me that they saw their met tet. Others say that they felt like a weight was lifted off they shoulders. Other times, I had the loa speak to them through me.”

“How many times have you performed a lave tet?”

“Many times, Lisa,” Sajida said proudly. “It’s a beautiful ceremony.”

“Really?” I said, in which she nodded. But when I asked her about what the ceremony entailed, she wouldn’t tell me.

“You gain that wisdom from experience,” she said. “Mambos can’t be going around, telling you what happens during the ceremony, niecey. You understand, don’t you?”

I nodded, but I still couldn’t help how nervous I was; my teeth wouldn’t stop chattering. Sajida thought this was humorous.

“Don’t be nervous. You’re in good hands. Afterwards, you’ll feel more connected to the loa; it’s an indescribable feeling. Alize and Aza wanting to keep you from a lave tet is the dumbest thing I’ve heard, I tell you. Shame on them; how can they call themselves mambos, trying to stop you from spiritual cleansing?”

I couldn’t give her an answer. It was a hypothetical question, really, but I, too, wondered why Mama and Aza were so against a lave tet. I understood because of the trauma Sajida’s lave tet plagued them with, but it was a beautiful thing, spiritually cleansing the head. I wondered what I would see? I wondered if I would gain clarity?

I wondered if I would be able to speak to my djab?

When Mikael was changed, Sajida guided us out of the treehouse. Mikael climbed down first, then I followed. But when we were at the bottom, we looked up to find Sajida gone.

“Where’d she go?” I asked Mikael, but the sound of her voice startled us. She had appeared behind us, when a second prior, she was at the top of the treehouse. My heart pounded out of my chest.

“How’d you do that?!” I asked in amazement, but it was a foolish question, really; Sajida was a supreme witch. The power she had was arguably unmatched. What she had done—transmutation—was one of the most difficult abilities for a witch to master, and Sajida had done it effortlessly without breaking a sweat; it was second nature to her. Mikael was unimpressed; he was familiar with abilities like this. But a woman like me who, at the time, knew nothing of the world, was shocked.

“Follow me,” she ordered, unfazed by the awe I had for her mastery of witchcraft. We followed closely as we walked along the side of the treehouse through a group of trees and damp soil. As the sun began to steadily rise, we were able to see the bayou in its entirety, without the abysmal blanket of night hiding much of it from us. Sunlight reflected off of the water, and people were outside of their shacks, standing idle. They saw the three of us walking together and stared at us.

After five minutes of walking through the trees, we were brought to a clearing near a water way filled with cypress knees. In the clearing about fourteen co-workers dressed in all white and wearing white headscarves and bandanas were tending to the ceremonial area. This was the designated location where Sajida performed her lave tet’s—a clearing with a peristyle-like structure in the center. The columns of the peristyle were made from the surrounding trees and stood strong and tall to hold up the roof above made of moss and vines. In the middle of the peristyle were two low chairs facing each other, and in the middle of the two chairs was a large wood basin filled with water, two other chairs resting on either side. The co-workers stood around it, planting herbs in the water and speaking lowly as they did so. The moment they saw us, they stopped and looked at us, then parted out of the peristyle. I recognized one of the girls—the same girl I saw when we had arrived the night before. She stared deeply into me before looking down at her bare feet like her sisters around her.

“Take a seat,” Sajida said to us. I walked towards the peristyle, feeling small and insignificant once I was underneath the moss and vine tarp. I sat in the chair across from the basin of water; I stared at it, watching the collection of mysterious herbs floating in it.

Sajida sat across from me, and told Mikael and the mysterious girl—the girl that Sajida called ‘Kira’—to sit on either side of us. Kira sat down in the chair, completely still. She wouldn’t look at me. My hands gripped the hand rests tight; I felt the friction underneath my palms.

“This water has been consecrated,” Sajida announced to me, referring to the basin. I was unsure if this was supposed to ease my nerves. Before Sajida said anything else, a co-worker stepped onto the peristyle and stood before me. She took off my glasses and walked back to her original post with them in her hand. My vision adjusted to the absence of my lenses; my head began to hurt slightly.

Sajida stood up, and Mikael and Kira stood with her. They took each other’s hands, and with closed eyes, began to recite The Lord’s Prayer in French; some of the only French that Mikael knew fluently:

Notre Père, qui es aux cieux,
que ton nom soit sanctifié,
que ton règne vienne,
que ta volonté soit faite sur la terre comme au ciel.

Donne-nous aujourd’hui notre pain de ce jour.
Pardonne-nous nos offences
comme nous pardonnons aussi à ceux qui nous ont offensés.
Et ne nous soumets pas à la tentation,
mais délivre-nous du mal, car c’est à toi qu’appartiennent le règne,
la puissance et la gloire, aux siècles des siècles. Amen

“Amen,” everyone else said, including me. Then, the three of them began to recite The Hail Mary and the Apostles’ Creed in French without error, repeating The Hail Mary three times. After this was done, Sajida’s congregation came closer to the peristyle. She began to sing in French—the Priyè Ginen, which translates to ‘The African Prayer.’ Sajida sang one verse, and afterwards, everyone would clap ten times and repeat the verse back to her. This was done to welcome the spirits, this clapping. Despite Sajida nature, it was a beautiful sight to behold.

I remember the moment that I began to see them: the spirits, our ancestors, slowly coming into the clearing and listening to the reverence we were paying to them. It was three minutes into the recital, and Sajida’s congregation had begun to dance. I sat still, listening, grasping the language, watching them dance; watching Mikael participate with deep spiritual devotion, regardless of the fact that Sajida the Shunned was the mambo leading. The spirits stood around and watched us. They did nothing beyond this. I didn’t know if anyone else could see them—their light, airy figures barely visible to my naked eye—but I did; I felt their presence. But it felt odd, their presence. Different.

They sung for two hours. The sun was higher into the sky, and we were all drowning in our own sweat from the heat when they were finished. And when everything went quiet, Sajida reached underneath her chair and pulled out a large brass bowl; it was withered, appearing as if it had been passed down from generation to generation; I wondered if it had belonged to Marie Laveau at one point?

The spirits still lingered around us. I saw them standing, watching Sajida as she submerged the bowl into the holy water. They called my name; I could hear them. But the words they said besides my name where impossible to make out. Whispers layered on whispered surrounded me, filling my ears. My heart was beating out of my chest; the closer Sajida came to me with the water bowl in her hand, the louder the spirits became. Suddenly, as she stood behind me, the water was poured gently onto my head. It drenched my hair and face before falling onto my body. Sajida recited more prayers as she continued to pour the water over my head. Everyone sang and dance with unmatched enthusiasm as she continued to wash my head. And she did this until all of the water in the large basin was gone; it lasted for four hours, this head washing. But it did not feel this long; time became of no relevance. The water came over me, and with every wash, I felt like a burden was being released. I felt dirty before; I was clean now. Clean and without worry. Clean and with newfound clarity. Even now, I cannot accurately express the feeling I felt during my first lave tet; it truly is indescribable. That day marked the beginning of my spiritual awakening. I could hear what I couldn’t hear before; the loa called out to me the more the water in the basin shrunk.

This is why Mama did not want to perform a lave tet on me: I was coming into my own.

And when the water in the basin was gone, I could hear her clearly—my djab. She was waiting for this moment. The loa were waiting for this moment. Papa Legba pushed me to this point with the visit to Doctor Ben’s which, at the time, seemed coincidental enough. But everything from that point had a purpose. He wanted me to arrive here, as did my djab. She was waiting for me, and I couldn’t wait to meet her. So, when the water was gone and my head was cleansed, Sajida wrapped a white handkerchief around my head. The basin and chairs were quickly removed, and in their place, was a mat covered with a white sheet. I was to lay down on this mat until the day was finished; I was to speak to no one. I was to touch no one. I was still being cleansed, even though the water was gone, so any contact would contaminate me.

I laid down on the mat, my spirit at ease for the first time in what felt like forever. Sajida stood above me, covering the relentless sun. Mikael stood my Kira right outside of the peristyle.

“Rest,” she told me. And as she said this word, I heard my djab say it to me as well. So, I closed my eyes, and my soul parted from my body.

I moved in darkness; I was away from my vessel, and brought to the place where my djab wanted to meet me. I was rid of ungodliness and allowed to see the spirit world; the world of my ancestors.

I moved in darkness, until I opened my eyes and saw the peristyle no longer.

**

I opened my eyes and was in the night.

It wasn’t a familiar night—it was night with a sky filled with more stars I could ever count. I was still dressed in white, bare footed, but I was no longer wet. The streets were lit weakly by tall lamp posts; a carriage navigated by a neighing horse could be heard coming from the other side of the road. On either side of this stone street were shops that were lit brightly on the inside, and above me I saw trolley wires. I knew this place, but at the same time, I felt like I didn’t.

There was no one in the street; it was only me. But I knew it was a busy street from the expensive architecture and various shop windows. But in front of me was a cottage that was out of place—a small cottage with a short fence that was wedged between two buildings; it didn’t belong there.

Street signs suddenly appeared next to me: BURGUNDY, RAMPART. As I stared up at the sign, the door to the cottage opened, and a bright light poured out onto the dark sidewalk. I knew, deep in my bones, that I was supposed to go inside. There was a beckoning aura about that cottage; I felt like I had seen it before.

I walked into the cottage, where everything was vacant—the shelves that were meant to hold fine china were empty, and there were no pictures on the walls. But whatever this place was didn’t want me to focus on the living room. It wanted me to gravitate towards the room down the hall, where the light was brightest.

“Hello?” I called out the further I walked. I knew someone was in there; whoever wanted me to come inside the cottage was in there. I came to the consensus that my djab was in that room—my met tet. My spirit guide; this woman, out of all of the ancestors that preceded her, chose me. Out of so many priestesses and priests in my family one hundred and forty years after her death, she chose me; she spoke to me.

I could hear her shuffling about in the room. I put together these images in my head about her; she must have been a seamstress, or maybe a shop keeper as her side job. I had to make these things up to give myself an image of her, for I had no idea who she was. But this was going to change; I was in the doorway now.

The room was overtaken by an altar, lit with candles and filled with cigars, rum bottles, and candies. It was so bright and beautiful, more beautiful than any altar I had seen before. At the head of the altar was a woman. She was average height, full figured and shapely; buxom. She wore a white tignon wrapped high on her head and a white dress accessorized with brightly colored necklaces and bracelets. There was a large snaked resting on her shoulders, slithering around her arm.

I couldn’t breathe when I saw her—this woman was my ancestor. My djab. She stood before me; in this spirit realm, we were finally meeting. No interruptions, no intruders.

“Hello?” I called out again. Her back was facing me, and she continued to face this way even when I called out to her. So, I walked closer, and closer, until we were only feet apart. I could smell the cinnamon and lavender that coated her body, and I could see the gray in the hair peeking out from her head wrap. And when we were close enough, she began to turn around. I stood deathly still, worried I would miss the moment or wake up if I moved. I had so much I wanted to ask her; I wanted to know who she was. I wanted to know everything about her.

But when she turned around, the smile on my face faded.

I knew this woman.

Everyone knew this woman.

The whole world knew this woman.

I saw her skin—light colored, a warm beige. I saw her eyes—large, wise and completely overtaken by a glow. I saw her, with her salt-and-peppered curls sticking out of her head wrap, her aged skin and timeless beauty.

I took a step back as she looked at me. I was beyond disbelief; I was speechless.

Marie Laveau smiled at me, amused by my reaction. And when I couldn’t find it in me to speak, she did so for me.

“You gone let the flies in, baby,” she said to me, and lightly closed my agape mouth with her index finger.

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