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Voodoo Queen

This child was favored by the spirits. Catherine wanted to know why.

By Teralyn PilgrimPublished 3 years ago 7 min read

Catherine washed her hands in a blue porcelain bowl as her daughter groaned on the mahogany four-poster bed. Childbirth was difficult enough without this tortuous heat. Marguerite’s nightgown was translucent with sweat, and its wetness clung to her breasts and her stomach. Catherine used a paper fan to give Marguerite’s face a little relief.

“Shouldn’t I send someone for Henri?” Catherine asked again. 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 fetch him.

Marguerite snorted. “I told you, he doesn’t want anything to do with this.” A strong contraction took hold and she clenched her teeth against it, despite Catherine’s insistence that she focus on breathing.

This was not the first time Catherine had been unhappy about Marguerite’s relationship with the rich white man twice her age. For Marguerite’s last two births Henri had paced in the next room for hours, anxiously awaiting news. But those had been his children.

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 women in New Orleans – but he could not forgive the baby. 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. No one had asked Catherine to do it. She certainly didn’t remember offering.

Catherine adored her grandchildren, but her forty-seven years had been strenuous. She was tired. After decades of slavery, three masters, three children, and years working in the market until she was able to buy her freedom and finally a house, Catherine’s life was finally winding down. Her children were grown 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.

Catherine’s mind went back to a vision her mother once had in her behalf. She hadn’t thought about in years. In the vision, Catherine – a pure-blooded African – raised a half-white child. That child became a woman teeming with power. The spirits did anything she asked. Police ran from her, politicians trembled around her, and the weather changed for her.

They had 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. Now she was about to raise another child, and she still believed it meant nothing.

Lightning flashed through the windows and cast sharp shadows in the room. It was followed 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. The intimate gesture was uncomfortable because they rarely touched, and even though Catherine had tried to ignore it all these years, the difference between her daughter’s light-brown skin and the stark blackness of her own made her sad. Still, they had the same high cheekbones, narrow face, prominent lips, and thin eyes. Marguerite was undeniably her daughter.

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 in the clutches of another contraction and didn’t 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 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 grandmother had been a voodoo priestess in Africa, and her mother had taught Catherine much about serving the spirits. 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.”

“I think it’ll be soon,” said Marguerite, hope shining through her frustration.

Outside a wave of rain shattered against the house and filled Catherine’s nostrils with the smell of warm water. A powerful gush of wind hit against the house, rattling window panes and throwing the door to the outside wide open. In the backyard, the chickens shrieked and flapped their wings. This was hurricane weather.

The rain from the open door assaulted them, and in the short time it took for Catherine to close it, the 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 to the bed and take her daughter’s hand. Her knuckles grinded against each other under Marguerite’s 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.

Catherine helped her roll over to her hands and knees. Marguerite’s body was weak from the long labor and Catherine had to use her full strength to push against her daughter’s 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.

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. She ignored it – she had to focus on her daughter – though she couldn’t ignore the feeling she was being watched.

“Push, honey, push!”

Marguerite heaved 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. The contraction ended and Marguerite rested on her elbows until the next one took hold.

Another flash of lightning 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 creature; 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 pushed, rested, pushed, and rested for so long that Catherine had to shift to keep her legs from falling asleep. Her cries between contractions 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. Marguerite sobbed. “You can do this, honey,” said Catherine. “Just be patient. The baby is almost here.”

The head eased out, and the moment Catherine cradled it in her palms, the unmistakable zing of ashé filled her from arms to core with white heat. The baby turned its head and looked up at her with eyes that were both innocent and powerful. Then, just as quickly as it came, the feeling was gone. One last soul-clenching scream and Marguerite pushed a slick, dark little girl into Catherine’s arms. Catherine felt nothing now but the chunky-white and slick-red birth coating its swollen skin. The baby clenched her hands, scrunched her furious face, and pierced the room with her cry.

“Hush, honey, there’s no reason to cry,” said Catherine as she wrapped the baby in a clean white cloth.

At the sound of her grandmother’s voice, the child fell silent. Her eyes were dark black like pools from the waters below where the spirits dwell. Catherine wasn’t a sentimental woman, but she felt that the child recognized her, and – unfathomably – she recognized the child, too. No longer did she feel resentment toward her role as caregiver. Her bones reverberated with the certainty that she was meant to raise this baby.

Catherine wiped the excess blood and slime from the baby and handed her to Marguerite, who took the baby without looking at it. She was too exhausted to do much else but press the child to her chest. The baby resumed her crying the moment she left Catherine’s hands. Marguerite bounced her gently. Once she regained a little strength, she finally looked down at her daughter. She lightly touched the baby’s shaking fingertips.

“She’s as light as my other children.”

“I take it that means her father is colored?” Catherine asked as she cleaned up the afterbirth. That explained why she didn’t try to pass the child off as Henri’s.

Marguerite rolled her eyes and didn’t answer.

“They start out lighter when they’re young,” Catherine explained. “Remember, Louise and Antoine looked almost white before their skin darkened.”

“I remember,” muttered Marguerite, who had been disappointed that her children couldn’t pass for white.

As Marguerite stared down at her wet, wailing newborn, Catherine searched for hints that she would fall in love with the baby. Catherine half-way expected she would be unable to give her baby up. But Marguerite handed the child over. Again the baby stopped crying and stared up and her grandmother with her wide, intelligent eyes. The storm outside had stopped.

The baby closed her tiny eyelids and nestled into Catherine’s chest.

With a jolt Catherine remembered the snake, but when she lifted her lamp to look at it, the snake was gone.


About the Creator

Teralyn Pilgrim

Teralyn Pilgrim has an MFA in Creative Writing from Western New England University and a BA in English from Brigham Young University. Her work has been published in the Copperfield Review.

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