Deirdre on the Bayou
Deirdre cast a cynical glance at her friend Kayley. “Why should I do something so silly?”
“It’s not silly. You need some cheering up. I can tell how down you are.” Kayley looked at her over a sugar-coated beignet and smiled encouragingly.
“It’s nothing I can’t handle.” Deirdre wondered if she believed her own words. Would she be able to handle this? Losing Lance? Losing the baby?
“Well, come with me tonight to the bayou.” Kayley smiled broadly and took a sip of coffee.
“What’s happening at the bayou?” Deirdre clutched her own coffee, somehow hoping that she could hold onto her sanity through the cup. Her knuckles were growing white.
The two young women sat at a coffee house in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans. They had met while studying at Loyola in New Orleans, and despite their different backgrounds, had become fast friends. Kayley came from a local Creole family who had readily embraced Deirdre with all the welcome the city could offer. It was from Kayley’s family that Deirdre learned about red beans and rice, Creole gumbo, and boiled crawfish. She was invited to most family functions, and Mama Anita had taken Deirdre under her wing upon learning that Deirdre’s mother had died when she was a young child. To Deirdre, a product of the very quaint area of Boston known as Beacon Hill, the family held all the fascination of exotic birds. Her father was a self-made man, the product of Irish immigrants, but after her mother’s death, he’d buried his grief in what Deirdre had long believed was an import/export business. Now, even her father was out of reach, in jail for his business activities. He wasn’t simply importing but smuggling, and smuggling guns for the local Irish mob. How could she have been so blind? Still, the money had paid for her college education. She’d met Kayley’s family and then Lance, handsome Lance. . .
“It’s about you and Lance, isn’t it? You can tell me.” Kayley gazed at her with wide, dark eyes. “Did the jerk break up with you?” Her voice rose. “Does he hit you?”
Shush, Kay!” Deirdre looked around at the other patrons. Some customers had glanced their way and quickly turned when noticed. “No, of course not, but he’s just—just distant since I lost the baby.”
“What kind of a man is he? That’s not your fault, and who is he to neglect you? He could sure as hell lose a few pounds, and his complexion could use some work. There you are with that red hair and those green eyes.” Kayley shook her head, obviously mystified at the ways of men.
This time Deirdre almost laughed and choked on her coffee. Kayley with her café au lait colored skin and Barbie figure epitomized perfection. Yes, Lance was a big guy but muscular, not fat, and a dark beard hid any skin problems. How inferior most people must seem to Kayley! “You still haven’t said what’s happening at the Bayou.”
“Summer solstice, girl. St. John’s Day, cher!” Kayley almost squealed. “The voodoo priestess is going to baptize.”
Deirdre felt a shiver snake up her spine. “I’m Catholic, Kayley. This seems too weird.”
“Hell, I’m Catholic, too. It’s not anti-Catholic, my Northern friend. Marie Laveau was a very good Catholic.” She took the last bite of beignet. “And a hairdresser by night. You can even bring doughboy Lance with you.” Kayley gave an evil smile.
“He’s in Houston visiting his family.” Deirdre suddenly felt lonely. When she’d met Lance her junior year, the attraction had been instant. By senior year, he had proposed, and with graduation, they saw no reason to avoid pregnancy—even if it happened before the wedding. After all, they both had jobs—she working in a marketing firm and he positioned at a law firm. They would be wed before the child came, and what a blissful way to begin their lives together. After her mother’s death, Deirdre had loved acting as surrogate mother to her younger brother; she’d wished God had granted her more siblings.
“Perfect that he’s gone. You come tonight with me. You don’t even live far from Bayou St. John. I’ll get you at seven. Bring some offering for the altar.”
Deirdre took a bite of the last beignet. Until now, she’s resisted. Staring at Kayley, she asked, “Like what?”
“Something to represent Our Lady of Prompt Succor. She’s important since Katrina. A picture of Marie. If you want to hex Lance, a bear image.” Kayley shrugged. “Wine, too, of course, any food. It’s a celebration.”
“You mean a bear as in the animal?” Deirdre couldn’t help but laugh.
“I don’t believe in such stuff. Why am I going?” Deirdre muttered under her breath as she and Kayley made their way from the double shotgun she shared with Lance to the bayou. She wore a flowing white dress. Kayley had insisted upon white for the occasion—and a white head scarf in case Deirdre chose baptism. It was after seven when they first saw the celebrating voodoo practitioners. The sun had begun to set, and the drumming grew louder as they approached. A picnic bench had been erected on the grass surrounding the bayou. Candles held by the gathered congregants flickered in the dying light. Nearly all were in white—the women in white dresses, the men in white jeans. Some of the women wore scarves around their hair. The young man drumming was shirtless—his brown skin and wavy black hair glistening with perspiration as he pounded conga drums strapped around his shoulders. A second bench rested under the shade of a live oak. Participants had spread treats onto it: pastry cakes, fried chicken, bread, onion rings, and rice covered in red beans. Apparently, there would be a communal feast after the ceremony. Deirdre and Kayley placed their offerings of wine and block cheese on the table.
“Wow! This is wild.” Deirdre squeezed Kayley’s arm and giggled. She had to admit that the atmosphere was exciting and the people not what she had anticipated. She chided herself: Did you think they would all look as if they came from Haiti? This crowd was a mélange of college students, professionals, bohemians, and older people. Some merely seemed curious; they laughed among themselves as the candles shook in their hands. Others seemed very serious—intently looking at the far end of the bayou. They were a multi-ethnic assortment of old, middle-aged, and young. Deirdre looked in the direction indicated by the serious practitioners. Suddenly, she gasped, “What the hell?”
Kayley gave her a wry smile, lit her own candle, and then used it to light Deirdre’s. “That raft is for the priestess. She’s coming for the ceremony.” She cast a sideways glance at Deirdre and let out a laugh more like a cough. “What did you think? That everyone here would be wearing bone earrings?”
Deirdre put her tongue out at her friend. “Honestly, I didn’t know what this would be like.” She scanned the crowd. “Do these same people come all the time?”
“Some, I guess. Hell, I don’t come all the time, but you get your just curious people.” She indicated a tall woman with ebony skin who swayed to the drumming. “She’s always here. Some say she’s praying for the soul of the baby she lost. Others say she’s praying for the destruction of the baby’s daddy, the man who raped her.” She pointed to a young man in a white shirt and slacks. “He’s an anthropology professor. He’s just curious. Pisses me off, looks at us like a bunch of animals to study.”
This priestess was the biggest surprise of all. Deirdre stared, wondering if her eyes had literally protruded from her skull when she gazed at the woman. A raft floated up the river. One muscular, formidable Asian man who couldn’t have been more than twenty guided it to the banks of the bayou. From there descended the priestess. Unlike her congregation, she was in purple with elaborate gold jewelry and gold silk head scarf; however, this was no practitioner from Haiti. Rather, this woman had skin as white as parchment and eyes that contained gold specks in the midst of deep blue. In contrast, the few strands of hair visible under her scarf were jet black, too black to be natural, Deirdre thought. She was ethereal, seemingly not of this earth. The oarsman helped her from the raft. The crowd clapped. The experienced practitioners began chanting in French, Kayley among them.
“What are you saying to her?” Deirdre spoke to Kayley but observed the crowd.
“They’re telling her to turn up the heat and feel the power.” Kayley’s gaze was fastened on the priestess. Deirdre could tell she was a true believer. Her eyes never left the pale woman who descended from the raft with the help of her oarsman.
It was then that Deirdre saw him, a young man bare to the waist wearing a skull mask. He and some other men pushed a large cauldron beside the bench that would serve as an altar for the night. He helped the other men secure the cauldron and then turned his attention to the woman. Deirdre noted how his muscles vibrated when he folded his arms and how his jeans appeared painted on his thighs. The vestiges of a light beard or goatee graced what little she could see of his face. The eyes staring at her from behind the mask were blue with flecks of brown, just like the woman. A relative? Her brother? Her son? The woman seemed ageless. The man could be either relative. Deirdre momentarily felt his gaze on her, but when she glanced in his direction, his stare was on the woman in purple.
“What’s her name?” Deirdre thought her whisper in Kayley’s ear sounded unnaturally low.
“Dominique, but who knows?” Kayley shrugged. “She may want her privacy.”
Upon alighting from the raft, the conjure woman concentrated on the bench, spreading a white cloth over it handed to her by the handsome Asian man. Members of the assembly handed the voodoo woman objects to be placed on the altar: tapered candles, a statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a crucifix, and then an image of St. John. It was then that the woman said, “Here was a man who always did right.”
The drumming had subsided to a light tapping but rose as members of the congregation brought offerings to the altar. Kayley removed another bottle of wine from the satchel she carried and brought it forth. Others brought vases filled with roses or carnations. Still others brought bread.
The voodooeine commanded as she clapped her hands. “Build a fire.”
The men assigned to the task immediately lit sticks around the cauldron and then stepped away. Again Deirdre felt the man stare at her from behind his mask. He, with other congregants, filled the cauldron with water. Then, with cries sounding like a combination of keening and primal possession, others produced their more base offerings. Someone tossed a snake into the fire. The creature writhed as it somersaulted through the air and into the pot. Still another offered what looked like a dead possum. It, too, went into the pot. The drumming intensified as participants added salt, peppers, and other ingredients Deirdre knew from her grandmother’s kitchen.
The voodooeine began dancing, an undulating motion as her skirts circled around her. Deirdre felt the drum beat move through her senses. She, too, began to dance with Kayley. Suddenly, the man in the skull mask was at her side, offering her wine. She took it—something she would never do in any other social situation. Kayley drew her into the circle of people surrounding the cauldron. The stars now present in the sky lit her friend’s face, making her even more beautiful. The masked man was beside her suddenly, holding his own wine as he circled Deirdre and Kayley. With one quick motion, he drew Deirdre to him, his muscular arms encircling her as his hardening member caressed her womanhood through the folds of her flowing dress.
The voodoo woman returned to the raft. She cried out, “It’s time for the water.”
Women removed their scarves. Men let out war whoops before diving in. The conjure woman slipped an arm around the first baptismal candidate and removed the scarf covering the woman’s hair. She pushed the girl to her knees and pressed her hair into the water. The girl then joined the voodoo woman in a dance, the priestess moving as if in a rapture.
“If you loved me so much, you wouldn’t have been such a dick about leaving me.” Deirdre met Lance in the same coffee shop where she and Kayley had discussed going to the voodoo ceremony. She took a sip of coffee, trying to resist the urge to hurl it at him.
“I only wanted to clear my head, see my parents.” Lance stared at her over his cup.
“So you told your little Texas mama about the baby.” Deirdre knew her mockery irritated him and experienced a sadistic jolt of pleasure. “Did she think I was a disgrace and should be flogged for my sins? I’m sure, though, she’d spare you. Men are always spared.”
“Well, she didn’t lock me out of the house or put my clothes outside!” Lance had raised his voice, and several other customers as well as the barista turned to stare. He lowered his voice. “What the fuck was that about? We didn’t talk, Deirdre. You just threw me over.”
“What was I supposed to think or do when you just left town, whimpering about needing to think things over?” Deirdre put her cup down and crossed her arms. “You’re a piece of work, Lance.”
Lance reached over, clutching her hand. “Look, I was upset after the baby. I worried we were rushing it, but a few days away helped me see that all I wanted was you.” He turned an ingratiating smile on her. “Let’s do it soon, get married, I mean.”
Deirdre looked away, studying the bustling Uptown street. A group of college students waited for a streetcar. An elderly man walked his dog. A young woman jogged on the neutral ground, an IPod to her ear. The gorgeous oaks shaded the coffee shop where they sat. Still, a chill ran through her body. Swallowing, she said, “Are you sure your mother wants to be tied to such a scarlet woman?”
“My mother likes you. Besides, she’d love grandchildren.” He drew her clenched hand to his lips and kissed her palm. He looked suddenly sad. “I hope one day we can give our parents that.”
What should she say? Deirdre had missed her monthly course, and such a phenomena had never happened before. She looked down and then met his gaze. She saw love there. “Your mother might have a chance at grandchildren. You know I’m never late.”
Lance let out a whoop that again made people stare, but this time, he sprang from his chair, clasped her to him, and smothered her with a burning kiss. “We always wanted this. We were talking to Fr. McGraw about marrying us. He’ll do it fast now.”
Deirdre wanted to tell him the whole truth, about the bayou, about the mysterious woman, and about her indiscretion with the unknown man. But why? She remembered little of that night—only waking in Kayley’s house the next day. Had she really drunk so much? She didn’t think so, only a glass of wine, but she did remember the intoxicating effect of the man’s kisses on her lips. No one had ever made love to her as he had. That she remembered and then shedding her clothes. She’d appreciated his advances. Lance’s rejection had stung; she needed soothing that night.
“Besides, this will prove them wrong.” Lance’s voice echoed from what sounded like a tunnel.
Deirdre looked at him. “What do you mean?”
Lance indicated the other customers, who all seemed interested in their conversation. Two little gray-haired ladies watched with undisguised interest. One adjusted her hearing aide. Slipping an arm around her waist, he guided her into the street. “When I was back home, I was tested. The doctors said the baby possibly didn’t survive because my sperm count is weak, but here we are, having another baby.” The shade of an oak cast a shadow over his face. “See, my sperm can’t be too weak.”
One week later, Deirdre followed the nurse into the doctor’s office. She now was experiencing definite signs of pregnancy. Her previous doctor had retired, and Kayley had recommended a new doctor. Deirdre stripped of her clothing and covered herself with a white sheet. As she sat on the examining table of the pristine office not far from Oschner Baptist, Deirdre noted a small painting on the wall. It showed a scene very much like the one on the bayou—a woman on a raft, floating up the bayou. Stepping down from the table and drawing closer, she studied the face of the woman. Surely she looked just like the conjure woman who had so fascinated Deirdre, but this scene evoked images of a long-ago New Orleans, one similar to the time of Marie Laveau. The door swung open; a tall woman with jet-black hair and porcelain skin advanced toward her, holding out a hand. “I’m Dr. Baptiste. You must be Deirdre.”
Deirdre could do nothing but stare. “Do I know you?”
The doctor looked at her chart, at Deirdre, and then smiled slightly. “I don’t think so. You are a new patient, right?”
“Ye--yes, that’s right.” Deirdre stammered slightly and looked around, confused. The woman’s eyes were the same cornflower blue with wisps of grain that defined the as the conjure woman, but if she recognized Deirdre, she didn’t let on. Deirdre found her voice, forcing herself to keep her emotions in check. Well, she didn’t know what her feelings were, anyway. Should she be afraid? Feel used? Violated? She indicated the painting. “That’s a really lovely painting.” Was it lovely, she wondered?
“Some say that’s Marie.” The doctor shrugged. “I just liked the way it looked in the neighborhood flea market.”
Deirdre looked at her quickly. “Do you think it’s Marie?”
“Some say she lives on in descendents.” Then, the doctor became very business-like, ordering her onto the table and beginning the examination.
Eight months later, Deirdre’s daughter was born. Dr. Baptiste, smiling benevolently, waited for Lance to cut the cord before placing the baby, bloody and wailing, on Deirdre’s chest. The child was tiny but perfect, and when the child opened her eyes, they were blue with golden flecks.