Couillon: Excerpt

amazon1couillon [KOO-YOn]

(f. couillonne, p. couillons)

 origin: Cajun-French, from Old French couillon (“a vile fellow, coward, dupe”)

noun: a person who lacks sense or judgment, a fool, an imbecile, an educated fool, an idiot, (vulgar) a dumb motherfucker

adjective: crazy, funny, moronic, simple-minded, silly

note: can be used as a term of ribald affection or as an invective, as an insult

The stupide tourists having a picnic in the cemetery rouse me from my solitude, from my daydreams and memories. When next I visit, there’ll be another set looking much the same, what with their cheap plastic beads and blistered faces. I squirm around until I get comfortable again leaning against the oven vault’s wall, the bricks warming my back while the wall’s shade shields me from the late afternoon heat. The tourists come in droves to gawk at our cities of the dead or to look for Marie Laveau’s tomb, to take pictures and tell each other ghoulish stories until they giggle with fear or shiver with morbid delight. They’re not the least bit interested in the factual stories entombed with the population of New Orleans’ necropolises.

They sneak glances at me, a local, as they pass. I smile and wave, just a lift of my hand to acknowledge them, and then close my eyes again. If they only knew how the dead can linger, long after their bodies have decomposed. But they’d only pass it off as another New Orleans masquerade, one that only adds to their fascination with the place.

Despite their macabre imaginations, they don’t believe the things they say, all those things about magic and fantômes. But I do. I know he lingers. I’ve heard his voice, soft as a lover’s whisper. So I visit as often as possible, to keep him company. It’s only right.

Behind my eyelids, I can see him, his lopsided grin. That quirky, sly smile was the only thing that kept his angelic face from being beautiful. I still remember his long, lanky frame walking away in those faded Levi’s I so adored, the feel of his hand in mine, and I wonder whether the idea of a year and a day is absolute, whether the heat of a New Orleans summer could reduce his body to ash in so few days.

It has been a little over a year since he was laid to rest. At this point if the crypt were opened, would he be just another pile of dust? Or would I recognize him, would there be some relic that remained to remind me that he was more than flesh and bones?

I suspect not, but on days like this, when I come to visit, when I look back and wonder, I contemplate whether I should have, would have done something different. Probably not. I’m not exactly known for making the best decisions—thank you, Momma—but I like to think I learned from the experience, at least as much as I benefitted from it.

Then again, probably not.

It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was only early July two years ago and already hot as nine hundred hells as I walked up to the ramshackle storefront. The hand-painted sign on the door said Laveau Botanicals, and I hesitated on the banquette out front wondering what possessed me to come here.

Standing there in the smothering humidity, it all seemed silly. In my head, I could hear Momma laughing. Or she would be laughing if she knew I was going to some old hoodoo woman to help me get a man, the man I wanted, not some ancient geezer she wanted to fix me up with. You are such a homely girl. For God’s sake, take what you can get. She said those words so many times I may as well have had ugly tattooed on my forehead. I nearly turned around and headed home. After all, as Momma would have said this wasn’t exactly the best of neighborhoods.

Despite my apprehension, I pulled open the screen door, and as I entered the shop, a malaise shrouded me, making me feel heavy and dull, and a bit confused. The cloying smell of patchouli and sandalwood loitered heavily in the air, air already laced with the musky smell of sweat. And although the room was stiflingly hot, a chill ran through me. I shook it off, told myself that I was an adult, nearly thirty for heaven’s sake.

The woman behind the counter looked me up and down. Her presence filled the minuscule storefront. I froze when she smiled, a brilliant toothy white smile broken only by a single gold eyetooth on the left side. A merciless smile. Leaning forward, resting her elbows on the glass display case, she said, “Adiez vous?”

I faltered, wiped the sweat from my face, not sure what to say. Time seemed to drag with dreamlike slowness, like a knife through cold honey, and the room took on a surreal golden sheen as if I was looking through that same jar of honey. Maybe at that moment, the sun shone just right though the grimy windows, but the woman, the shelves, the jars, everything in the room appeared in tones of gold and sepia, except for the painting behind the counter. From behind the shopkeeper’s head, a fluorescent Mary and Jesus glared at me, their cartoon-like faces reproaching me for being there.

The woman smirked and asked again, in a slow cadence probably used on idiots, “Can I hep you?”

She knew she was beautiful. I could tell by the way she carried herself. Her expression, the way she dismissed me with a glance, boasted that she was sure I could never compare, that my dishwater blond hair, fuzzy from the humidity, had nothing to attract the eye the way her coffee colored braids did.

Though she didn’t need it to get attention, she wore what must have been twenty pounds of jewelry, with four or five gold bracelets adorning each arm. Gold against cafe au lait. Her bracelets jingled as she played idly with a silver coin hanging from a cord around her neck, rubbing her thumb back and forth over the disk’s surface.

“Ma’am, are you… are you Mama Eugenie?”

“What you want wit’ Mama Eugenie?” Cat-like, she stood upright, stretched—her bracelets jingling—and sauntered from behind the counter. Her skirt brushed against the glass case as she moved toward me. Her demeanor gave me cause to believe she would be the type of cat that prolongs the kill merely for the pleasure of torturing the smaller animal. Under her gaze, I was the rabbit, small and helpless, and she seemed to take pleasure in my discomfort.

I twisted the tail of my blouse, then forced myself to stop. I looked around as if the answer might be found in the countless shelves covering the walls, shelves holding hundreds of jars, every one labeled in a spidery hand too small to read from where I stood. There were jars with what looked like herbs, barks, and roots. Jars with dusts and powders. Jars with oils, unguents, and resins. I blinked twice before I realized I was looking at a jar of dried frogs. Beside it was a large jar of what I hoped were chicken bones. There were jars holding things I didn’t recognize then, like coffin nails and brick dust.

Other shelves held candles of all colors and shapes, one shelf devoted to human shaped candles: men, women, hands, penises. I didn’t want to consider what spells required some of the paraphernalia housed on those shelves.

I stammered, struggling for words that would sound reasonable and obviously making her evaluation of me worse. “The lady… a lady reads my cards, she… she said Mama Eugenie could help me.”

“Dat so?”

Putting it out there made me feel foolish, my request ridiculous. I could hear Momma laughing again, and in some ways the woman reminded me of her. I imagined each of them spellbound with their image in the mirror, worrying over each tiny wrinkle, applying a myriad of lotions and creams to retain the appearance of natural beauty.

I wanted to leave, and quickly, while I could still salvage a tiny bit of dignity.

“Yes ma’am, but I… I can come back another time, if, if she’s not here.” Sweat trickled down my spine, and my face felt hot, shiny with perspiration, betraying my embarrassment.

“Oh, she here. I’m just wondering what a rich white girl like you want wit’ Mama Eugenie.”

Before she could humiliate me further, before I could turn tail and run, I heard a voice from behind me. “Antoinette, enough. You tryin’ to run off a client?”

The voice was fluid, dreamy. Molten. Yet it held the sting intended. I expected to turn and see Ertha Kitt all decked out in her Cat Woman costume, claws extended. Instead, I found a woman who could have been Gaia embodied standing in the doorway. In a tone more solicitous than the one she used on Antoinette, she said, “What you want, chil’?”

Antoinette was beautiful, yes, with her red and gold beaded braids and willowy, boyish figure, but where she was haughty and self-assured, Mama Eugenie projected a sense of majesty. She was regal, a queen in her own right. She was wearing a dress of the most garishly combined colors I’d ever seen—lime green, iridescent yellow, orange, and magenta, colors akin to those outfitting Mary and Jesus on the wall.

Only a powerful person could wear an outfit like that and not appear absurd, especially one the size of Mama Eugenie. But she carried herself like a ballerina, floating across the floor toward me. Her skin and eyes, ancient, wizened and wrinkled, were the color of dark chocolate, and I suspected her hair was white, but I couldn’t tell. Her head was covered with a yellow and orange bandanna tied up in seven points.

I now know enough about Louisiana history to understand what she was saying with her bandanna. Seven points is a sign of status, the sign of a wealthy free black woman.

“Come here, ma petit bébé.” She opened her arms in a welcoming gesture, a gesture that seemed to come easy as if she’d done it a thousand times. “Don’t you worry none ’bout Antoinette. She just mean.”

She folded me into her massive arms, but I could see Antoinette, and from the adversarial look on her face, I imagined Mama Eugenie was giving her an equally vicious look. But when she released me, there was no indication of animosity on her face.

She took me by the hand, and led me through a bead-draped doorway into a back room.

Her demeanor confused me. She was the epitome of a benevolent mother, a contradiction in terms for me, and it made me suspicious, made me wonder what I wasn’t seeing. Momma taught me, early on, that no one was this nice without some underlying agenda, without wanting something in return.

As the beads clicked back in place, in a voice barely above a whisper, she said, “You be careful of dat one. She bokor.”

My lack of comprehension must have been obvious.

“Bad juju. She work wit’ both hands. Make you think you havin’ good luck, but you not.”

I nearly smiled, thinking she was playing with me, embellishing the mystique of the store with stories of zombies and evil spirits, stories for tourists and white girls who wander in off the street. Stories for tourists, that is, if Laveau Botanicals was on a main thoroughfare instead of deep in the Haitian home ground.

I had known where I was going. There was no stumbling upon this place. And Mama Eugenie’s face was serious. This was no joke.

“You just steer clear of her, girl.” She led me on a circuitous path across a small, dark room, a room filled to capacity with antique furniture. “Dat bad magic. Dat stuff, it come back on you in ways you don’t want to know ’bout.”

Smoke swirled and danced up in drifts from an incense burner resting on a huge, age-blackened sideboard. In the center of the room was a metal pole, what might appear perfectly normal anywhere else, just a structural post holding up the ceiling, except that the circular stone plinth in which it rested was covered with candles and cigars and silver coins, beads and feathers. A stylized white and blue snake spiraled up the pole toward the ceiling.

Mama Eugenie told me it was a poteau-mitan but didn’t bother to explain further.

I still don’t know what a poteau-mitan is, but I suppose it doesn’t matter now.

“Let me take a look at you, ma petit bébé.” She turned me around, as a dressmaker might, summing me up in a glance, and then pointed to a pair of chairs by a squat mahogany table. I blushed when I heard her murmur, “Oo-wee, too skinny.” Momma would have disagreed.

She took the larger of the two chairs and then laid a hand on the arm of the smaller chair, commanding me to sit with a simple gesture.

“What your name, chil’?”

“Janice, ma’am.”

I flushed with embarrassment, looked at my lap, my feet, the floor, anything but into her enigmatic eyes. My fingers went to my hair, combing them through, sweeping it away from my forehead.

“Sit girl, sit.”

I did. Straight backed, stiff. As I crossed my legs, I noticed the raggedy hem of my jeans and how scuffed and dusty my sandals were. I berated myself for looking like some homeless person who drifted in off the street. I suspect I looked as wretched as I felt, a wannabe princess in the presence of a queen.

She took my left hand, palm up, and examined it. “So you go to a card reader? Dat right?”

“Yes, ma’am.” I shifted, uncrossed my legs.

“And she done tol’ you to come and see Mama Eugenie?”

“Yes, ma’am.” I shifted again, re-crossed my legs.

“Settle down, girl. I ain’t gonna hurt you.” She enclosed my hand between her huge, warm hands, and a tiny bit of my embarrassment retreated. This was her job, after all.

“She told me to ask you about a—” I ducked my head and blushed again, “—about a voodoo doll.”

Dropping my hand, she leaned away from me, placed hers on her chest as if I’d hit her square in the heart with an arrow. I shifted in my chair, uncrossed my legs, and hoped she couldn’t smell the beads of sweat forming in my underarms.

The look she gave me reminded me of one Grandmère used when she thought I was fibbing. Eyes narrowed. Two vertical lines between her eyebrows. “Why’s dat?”

“I’ve been seeing her, this card reader, for a long time. She knows… She knows I’m in love. With someone…” My voice sounded odd, of a different timbre from trying not to cry. “He doesn’t love me.” The heat rose in my face again as Momma whispered. Why would he?

“The card reader—” I rushed through the words. “She, she said you’d know about things like that.”

The two creases between her eyebrows deepened. “She did, did she?”

“Yes, ma’am.” I kept hearing myself say yes ma’am. Grandmère would have been proud of the good breeding I was displaying, but I knew it was from fear. I was so scared it just rolled off my tongue in place of something meaningful.

“Dolls ain’t for play.”

In my head, I could hear her add you ridiculous white girl to her statement, even though she didn’t vocalize it.

Too nervous to say anything else, I waited for her to elaborate.

After a few moments of silence, she pulled a fan from under the cushion she sat on and unfolded it with all the ceremony of a Chinese princess. “Sho is hot.” She fanned herself for awhile, as if thinking things over. When she continued, her tone was, once more, that of a benevolent mother. “And what makes dis young man special?”

Wiping the sweat from my brow with my forearm, I wished for a fan. I wanted to sit back, fanning myself, and say something profound, to impress upon her the hold he had over me and the misery that was my life without him.

Instead I pushed my damp hair behind my ears, then returned my gaze to the floor. And I said the first thing to roll out of my mouth. “I…I don’t know.”

She snapped the fan shut. “Not good enough.”

I glanced up, expecting her to dismiss me. I could see her chasing me from the room, all the while swatting me with that fan.

She leaned forward and brought her face close to mine. Staring into my eyes, she said, “You don’t know what you want—” She pointed the fan at me. “Den you don’t need no doll.”

Flipping it open again, she made a humph sound, then turned her face from me and continued fanning herself. “Come back when you know what you want.”

My eyes misted, as I said, “Wait. Please ma’am.” I didn’t want to cry because I knew she’d think me pathetic and childish. “I can’t… I don’t want to live without him.” With these words, I dropped my face into my palms. I realized I had just proved how pathetic and childish I was.

“You don’t need no doll.” When I looked up at her again, she was scrutinizing me, disapproval evident in the set of her frown, and even though her voice was soft, I could tell she was angry. “You need a better self image.”

Trying to escape the look of disappointment on her face, I lowered my head, gazed at the floor. I felt like a mongrel waiting for a hand out. And I knew exactly what she meant. Even this woman who didn’t know me could see it. But I’d read a towering stack of self-help books, even went to therapy, and found not one solution, not there, not anywhere.

Mama Eugenie was quiet, letting me stew in my own misery, I suppose, until I looked up at her again.

She frowned as if I doubted what she’d said. “Just cause I believe in de old ways don’t mean I don’t read.” Lips pursed, she shook her head, side to side, as if to emphasize her point. “You think I don’t watch Oprah, chil’?”

“No, ma’am,” I said. “I believe you, and I tried. Really.” Tears pooled in my eyes and threatened to fall. I wiped at them with my forearm, and berated myself, again, this time for not bringing any tissues.

She closed the fan, gently this time, and tucked it back under the cushion, then got up and went to the sideboard where she rummaged around in one of the drawers, until she found a small plastic packet of tissues. I doubt I was the first person to cry in front of her.

She handed me the tissues and sat down. “Let me ask you again. What makes dis man special?”

So I told her. I told her that I loved what summer did to his chestnut brown hair, how streaks of pure gold shimmered in the sunlight. That I loved his dimples especially when he smiled. That when he smiled at me, I felt an electrical current rush toes to head. I smiled just thinking of how he made me feel when we were together. I told her how he carried himself, how proudly he walked, head thrown back as if he hadn’t a care. How he dressed. That he looked good in blue jeans. That he wore button-down shirts displaying his well defined pecs and biceps. How he spoke, of his tone of voice and the intelligence hidden there. How his Creole heritage had a habit of leaking into his speech at the oddest times. How he called me chérie. I told her how I felt like dancing when I was with him, and how I wanted to crawl away when I saw him talking with another woman. That I was merely a diversion to him. The latest one in a line of women to pass through his life. That I cried the first time he told me that I was beautiful. That he told every woman she was beautiful, especially if he thought it would help his odds of getting laid. That I feared the day he found someone more beautiful.

At this point, I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. I sobbed, gulping great breaths of air in between sobs.

Mama Eugenie took my hand and patted it. She made soothing sounds. Mothering sounds.

I told her of our lovemaking. That I was the only one giving any love. I told her that I thought of him first thing in the morning and last thing before I fell asleep. That I woke often to find that he had left in the night. I told her how he ran his hands through my hair. How elated I felt at his touch. That his voice gave me pleasure. That I waited for his phone calls. That he was often too busy to call. That he got angry if I called him or pressed him too much. I told her that I felt alone without him. That sometimes death seemed preferable to the emptiness I felt when he ignored me.

I left no good or bad detail untold.

“And you love dis man, even though he treat you de way he do?”

“He doesn’t treat me bad, not really.” Sniffing, I took another tissue, wiped my eyes, and then blew my nose. “I expect a lot from him. More than he can give.”

“You right. He don’t treat you bad. You treat yo’self bad.” Her eyes narrowed again, and she gave me a look that said listen girl. “Do you understand what it means to make a doll? You really want dis man’s undying devotion?” She peered at me. “Dis is no game,” she said, her voice taking on a heavier drawl than normal. “It can backfire on you in some most unpleasant ways.”

“I have no choice. I can’t live without him.” I sniffed. “Momma… my mother even had the doctor give me antidepressants, but it didn’t help. Nothing helps.” I twisted the hem of my shirt into a knot, then untwisted it, and then did it again, until I found the courage to say what I was thinking. “And I’m afraid of what I might do if I lose him.”

She sat, quiet, for several long minutes, and then, sighed. “You wait here.”

She pushed herself out of her chair, negotiated her way across the room, and passed through the beaded curtain back into the storefront.

And I waited, my psyche roasting in a hell invented just for me where I continually rehashed everything I had said and done. After a time that felt longer than a couple of Momma’s marriages, Mama Eugenie returned to find me examining a chalk dust drawing on the floor—anything to keep from playing one more round of did I misspeak—one of the many mysteries in the crowded room. She offered no explanation as to its meaning.

She held a brown paper grocery bag, explained that inside were the items I would need. Some red flannel and red silk thread. Amber resin and sandalwood incense. And two candles—a yellow female and a red male.

She placed her hand on my shoulder, as if trying to impress upon me the seriousness of what I was about to do. “You sure you want to do dis? Look me in de face, right now, girl, and tell me you want to do dis?”

I did. I wanted it more than anything I could imagine. I looked into her dark chocolate eyes and nodded, long and hard, afraid any words I uttered would start a fresh stream of tears.

She pressed the bag into my hands. “You need to collect some things on yo’ own. Yellow food coloring and some yellow flowers. Get some personal items, like hair from de intended. Be creative. Cut up some of his ol’ socks, preferably ones dat haven’t been washed, or somethin’ like dat.” She sat back down in her chair. For the first time I noticed how old and tired she seemed.

“Starting de night after de new moon,” she said, “take yo’self a yellow bath t’ree nights in a row. Dat’s what de food coloring and flowers be for. Yellow for attraction. Waxing moon for drawing. During your bath, burn de amber and sandalwood on de charcoal I gave you. Focus on cleansing your mind and body of all ill intent so de divine can enter into your space. For dose same t’ree nights, sleep with de flannel ‘neath your pillow.”

She motioned for me to sit again, and I did. “On de fourth night, burn de incense and light de candles. Yellow for you. Red for him. Red to inflame his passion.” She reached out and squeezed my upper arm. “Now listen, dis be de important part. You call on Erzulie to hep you. She’ll guide your hand. Cut de doll from de red flannel. Sew up de sides wit’ de thread I gave you. Fill it wit’ all de things you collected.”

She dropped her hand and closed her eyes.

After a few moments, in a low voice she said the words, the ones I needed to petition the divine spirits. She made me repeat them, again and again, until they didn’t feel foreign coming from my mouth.

“And den you wait.”

We sat like that for a while longer, her breathing deep and steady. I wasn’t sure if she had drifted off to sleep or was in some weird voodoo trance.

Clutching the paper bag to my chest, I eased from the chair. As I walked away, I thought I heard her say, “Heaven hep her.”

I left Laveau Botanicals, that day, with a brown grocery bag of hope. As instructed, starting on the night after the new moon, I performed the ritual Mama Eugenie gave me. I called on Erzulie to help me. I filled the doll with things he wouldn’t miss. Personal things. I put a good bit of thought into it. As Mama Eugenie suggested, I tried to be creative. I used strands of hair from his comb. A scrap of a discarded, well-worn shirt. A tarnished necklace he left on my dressing table one morning in his rush to leave. Even a used condom. Once the doll was full, I sewed it, all the while thinking of him.

As the finishing touch, I cut his face from a picture of us and glued it on the front of the doll’s head.

I said the words.

And then, as instructed, I waited.