Enjoy. (I hope.)
People ask me how I got to where I am now. Americans wonder why a kind-hearted woman such as myself turned evil. French folk want to know why an intelligent woman resorted to ignorant superstition. People of color ask how I grew into such power that friends came to me in droves and enemies trembled at the very mention of me.
It’s been a long road. If I had to put my finger on one event that started it all, I’d pick the day the slaves from the Andry sugar plantation were executed.
I was ten years old and selling calas with my grand’mère in the front of the Saint Louis Cathedral overlooking the frost-kissed square. The white sun hung uselessly in the empty sky as if it rose this morning but didn’t remember what for. I shivered under my blanket and drew as near to the violently popping oil of our frying pan as I dared. Catherine thought coats were an extravagance. It was rarely cold in New Orleans, and when there was a frigid day like this one, she said we could make it through until it warmed up. She worked so hard for the two of us that it was hardly my place to argue how she spent her money, so I had to rely on my blanket and our little stove to get me through the day.
Other marchandes clashed metal triangles and sounded bugles as they shouted their wares in French and Creole. Butter beans! they cried. Potato cakes! Stuffed crab, long sticks of taffy wrapped in wax-paper, razors, shoe string, oysters in tin pails! With everyone scrambling to be heard over everyone else, it’s a wonder the customers could hear a single thing. Next to me, my grand’mère shouted about our commodity.
“Hot calas!” Catherine called across the Place d’Armes. “Calas au riz, calas au feves!” Her voice fought to overpower a woman selling bowls of gumbo to her right and one selling chicory coffee to her left. Although they were competing with one another, there seemed to be no bad blood between them. Each morning when they set up shop, they nodded to each other as if to say, May the best woman win.
I had helped my grand’mère sell calas cakes since I could wrap an apron around my waist. Already, I could do the whole process blindfolded: Mix cooked rice, sugar, and yeast in warm water. Leave out overnight to ferment. Mix the resulting white sponge with flour and eggs. Carry the batter to a crowded market filled with stands, people, an overabundance of smells (some pleasant, some not), and an onslaught of noise. Cook in a skillet over a furnace. Repeat that night. After a long day I would close my eyes and see calas floating in my vision. I still see those oily cakes in my dreams from time to time. Usually hundreds of them are stuck to my skin like boils. I haven’t had the stomach to eat a calas in decades.
It wasn’t a bad life. Yet even at such a young age, I knew it wasn’t a good one, either.
For Catherine, selling calas in the market was much more than work. It was how she bought herself out of slavery, how she paid for the land to build her house, and how she supported herself after forty years of supporting her owners. It was her identity – the blood that gave life to her existence – and she took great pride in her work.
We had barely set up our stand and put the oil on the heat when our first customer approached us with a picayune. Our cart was popular and we arrived late that day, so we had to scramble to meet the demands of all the customers who had been waiting for us. There were also a lot more people in the Place d’Armes than I had ever seen, which meant more business and more work.
It was odd that we left the house so late. Typically we woke just after dawn to get the best spot in front of the cathedral before worshippers came to mass, but we slept through mass completely. I’ve only slept in a handful of times my whole life, and that day was one of them.
What was even stranger was the city’s mood. Ever since I can remember, I could sense moods. Not just the mood of one person, but the mood of a group of people or the mood of the entire city. When excitement was in the air, it felt like the vibrations after strumming a guitar string. This morning I woke up swatting at bees because the city was making a buzzing sound, and it swarmed all around me.
I asked Catherine why we came so late as I got to work frying the batter for the first customer. She shook her head and briefly glanced at him. This meant for me to wait until he left. I’ve known a lot of people in my life, but none of my relationships compare the one I had with my grand’mère. I trusted her so completely that I never disobeyed her, and she trusted me so completely that she never got onto me for disobeying. A quick glance from her would tell me more than a full conversation with an acquaintance.
I had to wait through ten customers before there was a long enough break for us to talk, and by then I was so impatient that I had to tense my jaw to keep from asking again. Finally the last person walked away, blowing on his steaming cone of hot cakes. Catherine said, “Something happened here that I didn’t want you to see.”
“There was an execution.”
My young eyes widened. “Why did he do?”
“They,” Catherine corrected. “A group of slaves rebelled against their masters.”
“If I were a slave, I’d rebel too,” I said with a shrug.
Catherine gave me a sharp look. “They killed people.”
“Oh.” I frowned. Now it wasn’t clear who was in the right, and I didn’t like questions with no right answers.
Catherine glanced around and over her shoulder. When she saw no one was nearby, she bent down to be eye-level with me, so I knew whatever she was about to say, I was supposed to remember. “There are certain things people deserve and certain things they don’t. No matter what someone has done, no one deserves to be killed with people pointing and jeering. Death is not entertainment. Understand?”
I nodded, though I was confused. Until that moment I didn’t know anyone found death entertaining. The executions interested me, but in a morbid, spine-shivering sort of way, and I had no desire to see them.
A woman’s scream pierced through the air. The sound came from the river and a few people ran toward it. Then there was more shouting and screaming. Soon everyone in the Place d’Armes was dashing to the levee. They knocked over a cart selling cans of buttermilk. White liquid splattered on the street and made milky rivers in the dirt.
Catherine stopped a woman of color who was so close to white that I had to take a second look to see the café au lait in her features. The tumult drowned out their words so that I couldn’t hear. Then Catherine’s back stiffened. The woman ran toward the river and Catherine rushed to our small stove and turned off the heat.
“What is it?” I asked.
“You need to go home. Don’t stop anywhere on your way. Don’t speak to anyone.”
Her behavior firghtened me. “But don’t you need help carrying all this…”
I dropped my blanket on the ground and started in the direction of home, but the crowd was already so thick that I was hemmed in. No matter which direction I went, I was pushed away from where I wanted to go. Soon I was pressed into people so tightly that I was no longer cold. Determined to do as my grand’mère said, I used my shoulders to wedge my way between people’s hips. I had been tumbled about so much that I no longer knew the right way to go. Finally I popped out of the mass and landed not at the cathedral where I thought I should be, but on the levee. I faced a horde of men and women who pointed behind me and gasped in horror.
Even though I knew I ought to dive back into the crowd and head straight home, curiosity pulled at me with the strength of human hands. I turned around.
I wonder now how my life would be different if I hadn’t turned around. Maybe I would have ended up in the same place, but what I saw shaped who I am so much that I’m not sure. I’m glad now that I did, though I would regret it for years afterwards.
Two men pushed a wheelbarrow along the waterfront nearly twenty feet away. Behind them, the gray Mississippi river stretched as far as I could see. The wheelbarrow was full of objects I couldn’t quite place. One of them looked like a face, only it was misshapen, like a scarecrow falling apart. They stopped and the men grabbed one of the objects and slammed it onto a spike with a crunch. When they lifted the spike and stuck it into the ground, I understood what it was.
The wheelbarrow was full of human heads. Their mouths hung open and their bloodshot eyes stared blankly at the sky. I wanted to turn away, but the image seemed to grab my eye balls and burn into my mind, determined to make me remember every detail.
One of the two men curled his lip. At first I thought he curled his lip out of disgust. Who wouldn’t be disgusted? Then I took a closer look at his face. It was full of hatred. Once the spike was firm in the ground, he nodded with satisfaction. The man rubbed his hands together to warm them and grabbed another head by the hair as his coworker handed him another spike.
The people around me were repulsed – I could see it in their faces as well as feel it squirming around them – but no one protested. No one cried in outrage or swarmed the men to make them stop. They just watched. I was more appalled at them than the men in with the wheelbarrow. My grand’mère had just told me even criminals deserved respect and dignity.
I wasn’t going to stand for it.
“Stop!” I shouted. “Stop it! I said, stop!”
Did I really believe a ten-year-old girl could make the men take those heads down? Maybe. I couldn’t do nothing, and that was what mattered.
A few people heard me shout and glanced at me, then glanced away, and the two workers didn’t even slow down. I would have to run right up to them to make myself heard.
I took my first step forward when a hand grabbed me by the wrist. It yanked me back into the mass of people and out onto Decatur street. The square was oddly empty now, littered with abandoned carts and food stands. The spot in front of the cathedral where my grand’mère had been was already vacant.
Standing above me was a large woman of color wearing a plaid green and yellow tignon on her head. Concern etched deep crevices in her fleshy face. I tried to twist away from her because I couldn’t abandon the dead people who were being humiliated. But I was upset, and my body shook uncontrollably. The shaking was so violent that I couldn’t breathe. The woman asked me where I lived, but I couldn’t speak. I wasn’t even sure I could find my way home.
The woman took my trembling shoulder in a kind but secure grip. “Come, I’ll take you home with me. This is no place for children.”
I was scared and the kindness of the stranger felt like a refuge when no one else was there for me. I didn’t resist her.
We walked up Conti Street until the woman approached a green Creole cottage. She unlocked the front doors and opened the shutters. Catherine would be looking for me, but I followed the woman inside because I didn’t want to be alone. I hoped Catherine would understand when I explained it later.
Inside a warm room, I was assaulted by the scent of incense and herbs. It was dark except for dusty beams of sunlight streaming through cracks in the curtains and a soft glow from the fireplace. My grand’mère and I had an altar in her bedroom – it was a collection of effigies decked with food, coins, and trinkets that represented the spirits and our ancestors – but this whole room was one big altar. Lining the walls were shelves heaped with candles, crosses, pictures of Catholic saints, African statues, bottles of whiskey, rum, and perfume, beads, and bowls of food like oranges and red beans and rice. I was so interested in my surroundings that it calmed me down to look at them.
The woman guided me into another room. Both of the rooms were crowded to the brim, but there appeared to be a strict sense of order. This had just as many shelves, but they were filled with row after row of jars, bottles, and boxes. Liquids, dried leafs and flowers, bones, dirt, Catholic medals and holy cards, and other objects I couldn’t place, from ceiling to floor on all four walls.
Besides the shelves, there was a worktable, a couch, and a small table with two chairs.
“Sit here,” the woman told me, pointing to the over-stuffed but threadbare couch. It was once red velvet, but had faded to a dark pink. White matting on the inside showed through in several places.
While I gazed around the room, the woman shuffled through the shelves and filled a kettle with water. She had to balance her enormous hips to bend over and place the kettle on the fire, and then had to exert great force to pull herself back up. Her breasts looked like someone had sliced a watermelon down the middle and stuffed the two halves down her shirt. I wondered how she moved around at all.
“I’ve never seen a room like this,” I said.
“It’s my store,” the woman answered. She poured hot water from the kettle into a black mug and stirred in a concoction of herbs.
“You’re a conjure woman?” I asked. Catherine occasionally went to conjure women for various things, but she never took me with her. This was the first one I had met in-person.
“I help people with whatever ails their body, their hearts, or their spirits. They come to me and buy my cures. Speaking of which, drink this.” The woman held the mug out to me. It smelled both exotic and familiar somehow, and there was a definite sweetness to it even though she hadn’t put in sugar.
“I don’t have any money,” I admitted.
“Don’t you worry about that. Mama Lulu is happy to help someone in need. Come on, drink up.”
I took the mug in my hands and felt prickles as it warmed my cold finders. Instead of sipping it, I watched the steam rise from the tea. I felt enormously heavy. “Why did they do that to those people?” I asked.
What I remember most about that day wasn’t the horror of what I saw, but my confusion. It was my first injustice. I was still at an age where everything had to be fair, and I had discovered that the world doesn’t always follow its own rules.
Mama Lulu scoffed, though not unkindly to me. “Why did they do that? Isn’t it obvious?” I was puzzled, so she asked me, “What’s the one thing all those people had in common?”
They’re all dead, I thought, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t the answer she wanted. Most of them were men, but not all of them.
“They were all colored,” I realized.
“That’s right. They were slaves who started a revolt to win their freedom. The execution was to punish them, but the spikes are to make sure every other colored person is too scared to step out of line. You Creoles think you have it good with your colored opera houses, your schools, and your businesses. One day it will all shatter, just like it did in Haiti.”
I perked up. Half the people in New Orleans were refugees who had escaped the slave rebellion in Haiti, but I had never talked to one of them. A hundred questions went through my mind: Did you see anyone die? Did you kill anyone? Is it true the streets ran rivers of blood and the slaves lapped it up like dogs? I didn’t think she’d want to talk about such things, so I moved on.
“There were so few of them. How did they plan on winning a revolt?”
“So few?” asked Mama Lulu. “You only saw the one wheelbarrow. Their heads are on spikes all up and down the levee.”
My jaw dropped. “Doesn’t that bother you?” I cried.
“Of course it bothers me. If my slave ran out on me, I’d much sooner clean this house myself than put her head on a spike.”
“Then why didn’t you do something?” I asked, my voice rising.
Mama Lulu leaned her head to the side and smiled as if what I said was both cute and stupid. It was patronizing and I did not appreciate it, especially since my question seemed obvious.
“I can’t just go around challenging the military. If they want to execute slaves for rebellion and put their corpses on display, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
I had trouble believing one could want to make a change and yet be powerless to do so. If Mama Lulu truly wanted to help those people, surely she would have found a way.
A seed of doubt sprouted inside me. I started to understand limitations, something I hadn’t thought of before.
“Let me ask you something,” Mama Lulu said. “Why didn’t you take them down?”
“I was going to,” I snapped. “I still might.”
“No you won’t, because you’re a poor little colored girl, and you’re wondering right now what a poor little colored girl like you can do to stop cruelty like this.”
She was right. I had never felt unimportant or helpless before, but I certainly did then. The idea upset me so much that my insides felt dirty.
Mama Lulu gave a sigh from deep inside her, as if her soul was tired. She raised the mug that was still in my hands and said, “Drink before you get upset again. Go on, drink it and you’ll feel better.”
I took a big long gulp. The heat went down my throat and spread into my chest and stomach, erasing the January chill and making me feel a little sweaty. I still felt disgusted as if I had eaten a barrel-full of rancid calas cakes, but the tea was soothing. I put my empty mug down on the little table and Mama Lulu lit three red candles on her work table.
“The tea I gave you is to loosen all the bad feelings inside so you can get rid of them. Without it, they’d just stick to you forever. Are you loose?”
I moved side to side and lifted my shoulders up and down to check. The tea had relaxed me, so perhaps that was what Mama Lulu meant. “I guess so.”
“Good. Come over here.”
I approached the table. The three candles were short, fat, and deformed from being lit many times. The sides were crusted with old drippings. One candle had tipped to the side, causing melted wax to ooze down onto the plate.
“These are special candles that absorb negativity. All you have to do is take the deepest breath you’ve ever taken – this draws all the bad feelings into your lungs – and blow them out onto a candle. Go ahead, take in a deep breath.”
Determined to do this right, I expanded my lungs with as much air as they could hold. I saw in my mind all the filthy feelings inside me, which looked like black fog, get sucked in. I held my breath, unsure, until Mama Lulu prodded, “Go on, blow it out.”
My heavy breath extinguished the candle. A thin stream of smoke rose from the black wick.
“Do it again,” Mama Lulu encouraged.
I drew in my breath a second time, collecting the black fog, and blew it all on the candle. Then I did it on the third one.
“Is that better?” Mama Lulu asked.
Incredibly, I felt safe and calm. I stared at the three extinguished candles, fascinated by the effect they had on me. “Where did you learn how to do this?”
“It’s easy for a mambo.”
“What’s a mambo?”
“You’ve never heard of a mambo before? I suppose it’s just a Haitian word. I’m a voudou priestess, and I’m the god-mother of this voudou house.”
“How is a voudou house different from any other house?” I asked.
“It’s not the house that’s different. This is the same as any old house, but it’s where my godchildren and I worship the spirits.”
“My grand’mère worships the spirits, but I didn’t think we lived in a voudou house.”
“Well, you don’t. This is a voudou house because I host ceremonies and perform initiations. I also train my initiates to be healers like me. It’s a school.”
I had never been to school and didn’t think I’d ever be able to go to one, so I lost interest at that point.
“What’s on your mind?” asked Mama Lulu.
“Just what you said about how I’m a poor little colored girl who can’t do anything.”
“I don’t mean you can’t do anything. I mean it will be difficult. All of us have a part to play in this world.”
“What’s my part?”
“You’re asking me? You should be telling me. This is what I want you to do,” said Mama Lulu. “Go home and consider what I said. Then, I want you to find your own power that no one can take away from you. When you do, come back and see me. Don’t come back until then. It might take years. I might be dead before you figure it out. You might not find the answer at all.”
“I will find the answer,” I declared.
Mama Lulu shrugged. “Go along, now. You mama’s probably worried about you.”