VOODOO QUEEN, Prologue
Catherine washed her hands in a blue porcelain bowl as her daughter groaned on the mahogany four-poster bed. The effort of the childbirth coupled with the stuffy night made sweat soak through the armpits of Marguerite’s nightgown. Catherine used a paper fan to give her face a little relief.
“Shouldn’t I send someone for Henri?” Catherine asked impatiently. Marguerite’s white lover and the father of her other two children only lived a few blocks away. It would take no time at all to bring him to her.
Marguerite snorted. “I told you, he doesn’t want anything to do with this. I’m getting tired of telling you.” A strong contraction took hold and she clenched her teeth against it, despite Catherine’s insistence that she needed to focus on breathing.
Catherine wanted to shake her daughter, but it wouldn’t do any good. This was not the first time Catherine was unhappy about Marguerite’s relationship with the rich white man who was twice her age. For Marguerite’s last two births Henri had paced in another room for hours, anxiously awaiting news of her progress. But those had been his children, and this child had no father.
Catherine glanced at how Marguerite’s fingers gripped the white sheets as another contraction took hold. This day ought to have been exciting for both of them, but Catherine could not muster up enthusiasm. Henri forgave his mistress’s infidelity, which wasn’t surprising, since her beauty made her one of the most desired mulattos in New Orleans. He could not forgive the baby for its mysterious origins. Marguerite spent most of her pregnancy at her mother’s house, and when the pregnancy was over, Catherine would have to raise the child herself.
So instead of being ecstatic about this birth, Catherine’s emotions were torn. She adored her grandchildren, but she was tired. Her forty-seven years had been strenuous. After decades of slavery, three masters, three children, and years working in the market selling calas and coffee until she was able to buy her freedom and finally a house, Catherine’s life was finally winding down. Her children were grown up and happy. All the money she earned, she got to keep instead of sharing with an owner. She answered to no one. It was not a good time in her life to raise another child.
A baby is coming into this world tonight, Catherine reminded herself, and that deserves celebration regardless of the circumstances.
Lightning flashed outside and cast sharp shadows in the room. It was followed a few seconds later by the dull rumble of thunder. Catherine brushed sticky strands of hair out of Marguerite’s face and dabbed at her forehead with a wet rag – an intimate gesture that was uncomfortable because they rarely touched. Even though Catherine had tried to ignore it all these years, the difference between her daughter’s coffee-with-milk-colored skin and the stark blackness of her own still made her sad. Despite their different colored skin, they had the same high cheekbones, narrow face, prominent lips, and thin eyes. Marguerite was undeniably her daughter.
For some reason, Catherine’s mind went back to a vision her mother had had in her behalf, one that she hadn’t thought about in years. In the vision, Catherine – a pure-bred African – raised a half-white child. That child became a woman teeming with power. The spirits did anything she asked. She could heal any ailment. Everyone she met rushed to do her bidding. Police ran from her, politicians trembled around her, and the weather changed for her.
They assumed the prophecy was about her daughter Marguerite, and this made the circumstances of her conception somewhat easier. But after years of disappointment and heartbreak from Marguerite, Catherine accepted that the vision meant nothing.
She felt Marguerite’s stomach to guess at the child’s weight – a trick her own mother had taught her. As soon as her fingertips touched Marguerite’s stomach, a shock like the lightning outside shot through her arm, jarring the joint in her shoulder. Static charge made the hair on her arms stick up straight.
Marguerite was breathing with such concentrated effort that she didn’t seem to notice Catherine’s gasp and abrupt withdrawal from the bed. Catherine stared in awed confusion at her fingers, her skin appearing yellow in the lamplight, then white-blue in the illuminating flash of lightning. She could taste a buzz in her mouth.
There was only one explanation for what had happened. This child had ashé.
The gift of ashé ran in their blood; her own grandmere was a voodoo priestess in Africa, and her mother taught Catherine much about serving the spirits. But the power emanating from Marguerite’s womb was exceptional.
“I just want this to be over!” Marguerite screamed. Catherine flinched. Seeing her daughter struggle through this pain never got easier.
“Tell me when you feel the need to push,” Catherine reminded her.
“I think it’ll be soon,” said Marguerite, hope shining through her frustration.
Outside a powerful gush of wind hit against the house, rattling window panes and throwing the front door open. It brought with it a wave of rain that shattered against the house and filled Catherine’s nostrils with the smell of warm water. In the backyard the chickens shrieked and madly flapped their wings as if a cat had attacked their pen. This was hurricane weather. Catherine ran to shut the front door to stop the rain and wind assaulting the hallway, though the wood floor was already soaked. The next crack of thunder was right on top of them as if it were hunting them down. The foundation of the house trembled under its force. A scream from Marguerite made Catherine run back into the bedroom and take her daughter’s hand. Her knuckles ground against each other under Marguerite’s desperate grip. The roar of rain and a new boom of thunder overpowered her daughter’s cry, but Catherine could see it in her face as light again burst into the room.
“Do you feel like it’s time?” Catherine asked.
Unable to speak, Marguerite bit her lip and nodded. Catherine lifted the gown up over her daughter’s knees to check. After five long hours of hard labor, Marguerite was finally ready to deliver.
Mother and daughter didn’t need to exchange words as Catherine helped her roll over to her hands and knees. Her body was weak from the long labor and Catherine had to use her full strength to push against her daughter’s naked, sweat-soaked back. Marguerite rested on her elbows and gripped a sheet tied to the headboard while Catherine situated herself on a stool at the foot of the bed.
Lightning struck again, illuminating Catherine’s view of the birth canal. Rays of electric power emanated from the child inside. Movement in the corner of Catherine’s eye distracted her just long enough to look up. In the feeble light of the lamp Catherine could see nothing but motion in the shadows near the ceiling. Catherine ignored it – she had to focus on her daughter – though she couldn’t ignore the feeling she was being watched.
“Push, honey, push!” she encouraged. Marguerite heaved out a guttural growl and her muscles contracted. Catherine moved the lamp so she could better see the edge of the baby’s head still wrapped in its mother’s flesh.
Another flash of lightning lit up the room and illuminated the source of the motion; on top of the armoire sat an enormous snake. The flash of light reflected in his round, black eyes. His head hung over the edge as he looked down on Marguerite’s labor. Thunder muffled Catherine’s shriek.
“Damballah!” Catherine cried. There was no mistaking this for an ordinary spotted black snake; this was Damballah, the ancient father of all life who arches across the sky like a snake. He was the greatest of all spirits, and he felt he needed to be present at this birth.
Marguerite’s cry overpowered even the thunder. Again, the lightning – which had increased in frequency – shed light on the emerging baby’s head as well as the flexing coils of the watchful snake.
“Keep pushing!” Catherine shouted. She had to focus – she couldn’t worry about Damballah just yet.
One last soul-clenching scream and Marguerite pushed a slick, dark little girl into Catherine’s arms. The moment she touched the child, the unmistakable zing of ashé filled her from arms to core with white heat. It felt as though she was touching a spiritual eternity her soul had always longed to enter. Then, just as quickly as it came, it was gone. Catherine felt nothing but the chunky-white and slick-red birth slime coating the baby’s swollen skin. The baby clenched her hands, scrunched her furious face, and pierced the room with her cry.
That's it for now... thanks for reading!
That's it for now... thanks for reading!