L’uvri bayé pu mwé pu mwé pasé
remove the barrier for me so that I may pass through
I move past the revelers with a fishbowl of candy poison liquor in the crook of my arm. I eye the shop signs on the left side of Bourbon Street scanning for the right placard. The wooden sign outside is a small black circle with white bones spelling out the store’s name: Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo, a specialty shop for dolls, crystals, and books.
It remains hard for me to imagine a connection between the powerful voudou priestess and the assortment of logo hats and mugs that comprises most of this shop’s offerings. Of the goods they stock, the Marie Laveau prayer card is probably the most problematic to me. It contains a popular portrait of Laveau1; she appears as a light-skinned woman with full lips in a simple dress and shawl with her hair tied up in a tignon2.
After the death of her first husband, Laveau began her practice in New Orleans under the priestesses Sanité Dédé and Marie Saloppé. Laveau hosted weekly parterres3, which were private ceremonies that began with the arranging of flowers, colored candles, food4, and drink on a white cloth on the ground as an offering to the spirits. The parterres attracted participants of all races.
The ceremony also contained a small chorus and an accordion player. Laveau would ask the attendees what they were seeking before anointing them with rum. Small offerings to the loa marked with a signature veve were arranged around the room: tobacco5, roasted corn, and coffee for Papa Legba, sugar cakes, perfume, and fine jewelry for Erzuile.
The veve6 for Erzulie begins with a heart. It is adorned with crosses and stars and four curlicues. You can draw it with chalk, flour, or bark, but corn meal or brick is ideal. The spirits and loas need to be drawn down, so the heartier powders work best. Followers of Marie Laveau created a veve for her as well. It shares the same heart shape as Erzulie’s, but it is bisected7 by a serpent.
Laveau was rumored to have a concealed altar surrounded by animal statues in the back of her home where she crafted charms8 to beautify, to drive away, to break up affairs, to spread confusion, and to kill. Though one of the cards in the deck is named for her, Laveau did not read tarot.
The Laveau legend often refers to a huge snake called Zombi and certain records detail the presence of snakes9 in Laveau’s public rituals.
The ceremonies Laveau presided over were often described as orgiastic10, with women possessed by spirits speaking in tongues and writhing in the nude.
Though some say she gained power through blackmail, it is evident that Laveau had the finances to influence the law and the community. Laveau pledged monetary assistance to free women of color who had been arrested for non-major crimes in New Orleans.
There are contrasting stories about Laveau’s involvement with the parish prison and some of her more mythologized judicial efforts. One of the most popular of these is the story that Laveau would bring a special bowl of poisoned gumbo to prisoners as a satisfying last meal that would spare them from the gallows11.
Two sites, the Widow Pairs tomb and a wall nicknamed the Wishing Vault in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, are frequented by followers and admirers of Marie Laveau. At both locations, visitors come and leave offerings of sweets and money; they also draw X’s in brick12.
1 The original painting is lost. A replica hangs in the Louisiana State Museum. When interviewed in the early 20th century, acquaintances of Laveau and her descendants deny that this painting resembles the real Marie who, according to her daughter, refused to sit for an artist and was never photographed. Other circulated portraits depict Laveau as darker skinned, wearing gold jewelry, hair down in braids. I decide that the painting relies on its antiquity to establish truth. People take a portrait at face value out of convenience. I wonder about how much I have taken at face value and when a gilded frame has stifled my own curiosity or quelled my usual skepticism.
2 In Spanish colonies, this head scarf was mandated. Women of color were not permitted to style their hair or beautify it with ornaments. However, they subverted the tignon. Creole women experimented with bold hues and intricate knots. The Indian fabrics became stylish and in the U.S., Afro-Caribbean women continued to don the tignon. Marie Laveau was famous for wearing one with seven points twisted up to the heavens. Without knowing the significance of this scarf, we misread the painted Laveau as indigenous North American, Spanish, even white. When I think about how history has rewritten brown and black women, I think about if I, too, get lost in a misreading. I think of the special intonation when people ask, “Where are you from?” and how they scan my face, hair, and piercings, inscribing a geography of home that I do not belong to.
3 Most accounts of New Orleans voudou proceedings are gleaned from city arrest records; voudou was associated with drunkenness, prostitution, assault, vagrancy, and unlawful assembly. Until the rise of newspaper columns, voudou did not have a presence in Louisiana news at all. I remind myself of the power of secrecy because while Laveau actively avoided the press, the papers kept voudou invisible in New Orleans. No one spoke of it openly, so it was not there. Laveau kept her gatherings small so as to avoid police intervention thereby reifying a community that could not be penetrated by white oppressors. I wonder what Marie Laveau thought about passwords, or if she forbade such utterances entirely.
4 I needed bones for soup. I didn’t know any hunters in Tallahassee, and questions at local markets earned me uneasy glances and excuses about health codes. I learned much later that Publix will stock them from time to time, but eyeing the marrow wreathed in stark white bone under the plastic cling wrap disappointed me. I longed to smell the metallic tang of the unspeakable pieces as I selected them myself from the butcher. Rachel cringed when I put the neckbones in the grocery cart, but I knew she would love the broth when I finished it two days later. This is why I prefer to cook alone. I don’t like to pause to answer questions and assure anyone because my cooking is not about safety. It is about the reenactment of lost histories and decadence. Questions about recipes feel obscene. I write nothing down so that all my food stays mine. No amount of colonization can purge the names of my spices from their rinds and an attempt to measure herbs for my soup will bring you nothing but frustration. My cooking is my mother coming from Rajasthan to Madison, Wisconsin and saying goodbye to me when I moved to New York. Today I am tethered to a place which is none of these, so I try to feed people as often as I can.
5 In October of my freshman year, I made the decision to become a smoker because that was what people in art school did. I walked through the Village with a box of Djarums and thought, “This is it, la vie bohème.” I smoked on the way to school the next day and smoked on the walk back. I caught a glimpse of myself in a drugstore window, framed between the glass panels dressed all in black, with Ray Ban aviators, and an obsidian cigarette and felt pleased. In the morning, I jolted myself awake with a rattling cough. My mouth peeled itself open painfully, a sealed envelope clinging to its adhesive. Throat aching, I wheezed and went about making myself a cup of tea the traditional way, the way my mother made it at home: in a pot, with plenty of ginger, honey, cardamom and, ironically, like my cigarettes, cloves. My mother’s tea ritual was something I came to associate with safety and comfort. The scent would waft into the rest of the house and signal that it was time for bed. Surely this remedy would combat whatever damage I had done with my repugnant new habit. I slunk to the communal kitchen in my dorm, a space postered with flyers for free condoms and yoga workshops. A girl was standing there, stirring a pot of pasta. We exchanged tight-lipped smiles of mutual disinterestedness. She glanced over now and then, but I pretended not to notice. Finally, as I finished brewing my drink, she spoke, “Ugh, I’m going to have to go to Starbucks now to get a chai tea! Yours smells so good.” I ceased stirring and laughed unpleasantly, judging her choice of words. I pivoted to correct the girl, to explain that chai means tea so you need not say both, but she had already left. I stared into my steaming pot. Is this what I had become? A “chai tea” drinker? A “smoker?” It was like trying on hats. Suddenly I felt like an imposter making my mother’s drink. I thought of how appalled she would be if she knew of my smoking. She might even scold me in Punjabi, the language she reserved almost exclusively for cursing. I shuddered at the thought and decided I would pursue other vices.
6 As a child, I would take a scalding shower and use my finger to write in perfect cursive on the shower door. I would write my name to myself or leave a trail of hearts along the glass. Sometimes, I would draw a big peony like the ones that grew outside my childhood home. I loved all of the flowers my mother grew, wiry Christmas cacti, snapdragons, sunflowers, bee balm. There was something about the peonies, though. It was hard to capture the thickness of the peony petals, the infinity of the blossom. I would linger in the hot steam making petal after petal, interrupted only by my mother’s shout that I was going to miss the bus. Last year, I got two big peonies tattooed on my back. I chose the drawing carefully, and opted for simple black ink. I like my tattoo, but there’s something about the flatness of it that is unsatisfying. I think they’re not meant to be flat. There is a roundness to a peony, and maybe that is what I love about them. Despite their irregularity, they always look complete.
7 Most people associate the caduceus with medicine. You see it in pins on lab coats and the sides of ambulances. The caduceus was the staff of Ningishzida, a Sumerian deity. Ningishzida both wielded the staff and embodied the weapon itself. He was able to become human or inanimate at will. This seems like an excellent method for hiding, through the trouble with hiding is that you can hide for too long and become lost. Today, the caduceus is incorrectly read as the staff of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine. Both staves had snakes coiled on them, so the mistake is warranted. But only Ningishzida’s staff had wings.
8 Take one egg white and a tablespoon of honey. Mix. Add one tablespoon of plain yogurt and two teaspoons of ground turmeric. Wear no white so the turmeric cannot stain. Stir gently. Apply to face in broad strokes. Wash hands immediately. Feel your facial muscles tighten as the egg white dries. Smile slightly under the mask to feel the tension of the egg protein. Frighten the UPS man.
9 It is so rare to find people who love reptiles the way I do. I bought a corn snake hatchling last year. He was pink with white octagons and seemed most comfortable tucked into my Ray Bans case. I filled his tank with white silk orchids and marveled at his spiral form. I rolled my eyes at people’s gasps and shudders when they asked about my pet, asking how big would he get and what I fed him. I would watch him down a fetal mouse, the translucent lump of rosy flesh disappearing with each swallow. It made me remember to listen to no one about what is feasible and what is practical. Instead, I would remind myself that force alone is often the answer and sometimes, you need to do the impossible just to prove a point. This is how I rationalize my caffeine intake and my drinking. I have no serious addiction to either, but I suspect my bad dreams are tied to their sinister blend. In one dream, I find my escaped snake exactly where I hoped to. The pink ribbon of his body ripples when I lift him and put him back in his tank. I think of how dirty he must be so I go to the bathroom and make a concoction out of hotel soaps. I am careful with the ratio of shampoo. Not paying attention, I knock over the concoction sending a noiseless splatter all over the tile that looks like mother of pearl but smells like bleach and citrus. I put paper towels over it before I wake up. A few weeks later and not in a dream, I left the house without properly locking the tank. Snakes can go without feeding for remarkably long periods of time, and they can hide anywhere. I never found him, but I like the idea of the next tenant being caught off guard by a slither of pink and white.
10 I have always loved collecting things. My lipstick and perfume libraries make my friends’ jaws drop when they walk into my bedroom. Sex became one of my favorite acts of collection. I imagined tiny bronze figures of everyone I slept with, lined neatly in a bookcase. I derived a particular satisfaction from seeing a recent lay on the street; he would nervously say hi, and sometimes ask to hang out again. I would always say no. I gloated about my trophy fucks? mostly NYU business students, some art boys from Pratt, a couple D-list celebrities? incessantly, which irritated most of the women I knew. They found it gross, but I think they were jealous. It was fun for a couple of years, but New York is smaller than you think, and things can get messy. I remember a furious message from a guy’s now ex: “I read your texts about how much you and Mike want to fuck, so congratulations, sweetie, he is all yours.” Initially, I smiled when I read it, but I had not known about the girlfriend, a talented architect at The New School. The message made my mouth feel raw and sour. Shortly after, I started dating girls, but I lost my ability to fuck and covet and quickly abandon. The thing about being with a girl is that you are not just going to have sex, go to sleep, and eat leftover pad see ew. You might also paint nails in the afternoon, borrow clothes, and take pictures of each other with a Holga camera. That will always feel more intimate to me. I stay hopeful that after this degree, I’ll move back up North and find someone who might try to understand. In the South, you have to whisper your queerness and keep sex stories to yourself. For now, I just buy a lot of batteries.
11 The exact nature of Laveau’s death is unknown. I would wager that she died in her sleep, spared from a painful end by a great karmic return. In 1881, the New York Times ran an obituary entitled, “The Dead Voudou Queen—Marie Laveau’s Place in the History of New Orleans—The Early Life of the Beautiful Young Creole—The Prominent Men Who Sought Her Advice and Society—Her Charitable Work—How She Became An Object of Mystery.” This labyrinthine heading signals not only intrigue, but confusion as well. I think about the nautilus that forms as I live my life, the intricate coil of its many compartments. I’ll always concern myself with methods of self-preservation.
12 An X signals danger for those who see it. It is a warning: do not step here, do not drink from this jug. After Katrina, FEMA would mark houses in New Orleans with an X. In the top of the X, they would write what time and on which day they arrived; near the base of the X, they would write the number of people alive inside. The X’s became a grotesque catalogue, a silent series of pleas and deaths. I keep reading and talking about Marie Laveau, an illiterate mixed race woman who left no records, who embodies a fraught history of taboo racial mixing. Her story is filled with X’s. The crux of the X signals convergence. Good and bad, history and myth. The prongs that radiate from a shared center connote resonance. Resonance is what happens when language meets its own edge. Resonance is limitless. It departs from the written page and takes on sonic properties. You cannot mediate its length or breadth, and therein lies its power.
Rita Mookerjee is a PhD candidate at Florida State University. She specializes in contemporary literature of the Caribbean with a focus on gender and food studies. Her current research deals with the fiction of Edwidge Danticat. At FSU, she was the recipient of the Edward F. and Marie C. Kingsbury Fellowship in 2017 and the May Alexander Ryburn Fellowship in 2015. Her critical work has been featured in the Bloomsbury Handbook to Literary and Cultural Theory, the Routledge Guide to Literature and Food, and Palaver Journal. She currently teaches ethnic minority fiction and women’s literature at FSU.