Dallas Public Library.
8:56 am . . .
Each book had a protective plastic cover around it, like evidence in a police locker. And with each book was a small notebook with printed information. Some of it was the history of the particular texts. Some of it was bits and pieces translated by curious researchers. Slices of the environment in which these documents were originally created. Some notebooks were bigger than others.
“To understand these volumes, gentlemen,” Rupert professed, “. . . one must understand their history.
Haiti doesn’t have any official religion. The country’s constitution allows for religious freedom but gives special recognition to the Roman Catholic Church. More than 60% of the population is Roman Catholic, and about a quarter is Protestant. Since the 1970s some radical priests have espoused liberation theology—the theory that God speaks predominately through the poor.
However, most Haitian Roman Catholics are also practitioners of voodoo (voudou, or vodun)—a religion whose gods (loas) are derived from West African religions. Most of the nation’s Protestants consider Christianity to be incompatible with voodoo.
The religion of Voodoo is a creolized religion forged by descendants of Dahomean, Kongo, Yoruba, and many other African ethnic groups who had endured enslavement. They were eventually brought to colonial Saint-Dominique (as Haiti was known then) and Christianized by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The word Vodou (Fr.) actually means “spirit” or “deity” in the Fon language of the African kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin). This religion encompasses philosophy, medicine, justice, and religion. Its fundamental principle is that everything is spirit.
Humans are spirits who inhabit the visible world. The unseen world is populated by Iwa (spirits), Myste (mysteries), Anvizib (the invisibles), Zanj (angels), and the various spirits of ancestors and the recently departed.
All of these spirits are believed to live in a mythical land called Ginen, a cosmic “Africa.” The God of the Christian Bible is understood to be the creator of both the universe and the spirits. The spirits were made by God to help him govern humanity and the natural world.
The primary goal and activity of Voodoo is to sevi Iwa (“to serve the spirits”). This is done by offering prayers and performing various devotional rites that are directed at God and particular spirits in return for health, protection, and favor.
Spirit possession plays a very important role in Afro-Haitian religion, as it does in many other religions. During religious rites, believers sometimes enter a trance-like state in which the devotee may eat and drink, perform stylized dances, give supernaturally inspired advice to people, perform medical cures, and execute special physical feats. These acts are supposed to exhibit the incarnate presence of the Iwa within the entranced devotee.
“So,” Ricky read aloud, “. . . it’s all about restoring balance and energy in relationships between people, and the spirits of the unseen world.” And then he glanced over at me, like I should know something about this stuff because I claim to see spooks crawling around every now and then.
“It says here,” Rupert read, sitting at a rectangular wooden table, his chin resting between his thin, meatless palms, “that families can inherit familial spirits, along with the differing devotional practices from their elders.” He looked up, his eyes curious and speculative, “So there are whole societies that pass this along, from father to child, over and over.”
I was thumbing through a small book, about the size of a paperback novel, with several pages of strange drawings. Some of the drawings were of symbols and faces. There was a sketch of a bunch of people dancing around a fire.
Then the pictures got darker, and more supernatural.
And as I flipped the pages—silicon gloves on my hands that Rupert gave us so that we wouldn’t get our ‘oils’ on the pages—I noticed that some of the shadows in the drawings were stretched differently. They had personality. The shadows were characters in the sketches, even if the artist hadn’t intended it.
I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand when I turned the next page. There were drawings of people with things crawling around them. Looking at them, from the darkness. These things, they had long thin hands. Hidden in the shadows, waiting and watching.
“. . . The priestesses are the oungan, and the priests are called manbo,” Ricky read.
And I turned to the next page, and there were three of them. Three of the spooks. The creepy little shadows that I had seen crawling around in that morgue.
“. . . The children of the spirits are the ounsi, and the ritual drummers are the, uh, oun-togi.”
I flipped the next page and I saw a different creature altogether. This one was short and stocky, with long, skinny arms, and in its hands were knives. Knives with two blades. And it was hunched over a body that looked to be tied down to the ground. Maybe in some kind of sacrificial ritual. That creature with its arms and knives, it was cutting away at the victim. Cutting away at his chest.
On the next page, that same creature was pulling something out of the body. And even though I don’t read French, nor all of the various random squiggles and dots and symbols, I knew exactly what it was doing.
I realized that my hands were sweating inside the silicon gloves. Ricky and Rupert had stopped reading, and were standing over me, looking down at the picture.
“Ah, yes,” Rupert said, “. . . le Ramasseur.”
I looked up.
Rupert put his hand on my shoulder, “That is the Gatherer, in French.”
“He cuts out your soul?” Ricky posed, leaning down to the drawing.
And those words kept floating around in that room. Floating around in my head.
He cuts out your soul.
And, again, I feel myself shaking. Ricky and Rupert, they don’t say anything. We’re all just sitting there quietly. Ricky knows why I’m bothered by this image. He knows what I told him I saw when I was coming back from whatever it was that stole my life.
Rupert, he probably just thinks I’m getting caught-up in all of this stuff. He turns his head, glancing back at my book, and then down at the drawing of the Gatherer, and then to Ricky and me. And he narrows his eyes suspiciously at us, saying, “You told me somebody in your family left you that book?”
Neither of us answered.
“Do either of you have any idea what you are getting yourselves into?”
Good fucking question, Rupert.