The Black Abyss
So, this was grief.
She could feel the cold, alien fingers taking hold of her. Squeezing. Choking. The very air seemed impossible to breathe. She dropped to her knees, her white dress of silk and cotton now ruined by mud and blood.
Overhead, the creaking of the rope against the wood grew louder and louder as the body swayed back and forth. Summoning her last bit of strength, she forced herself to look up at the corpse that had once been her mother—now blooded, bruised, and hanged.
“Get up!” he commanded her.
She stood, her eyes never leaving the lifeless form before her, still swaying in the island breeze. Tears brimmed in her eyes, but she would not look away. She wanted to remember, to engrave every small detail into her mind: the swollen eyelids; the bleeding scalp, where chestnut curls had been ruthlessly torn out at the roots; the back torn open by the indelicate touch of leather to flesh; the bare, dirt-caked feet.
“Betray me, and you’ll be next,” he warned. “That witch isn’t here to protect you now. And your father wouldn’t dare cross me!” The bottle of rum he had emptied fell with an impotent thud into the mud, and the whip after it.
She clenched her fists, holding them stiffly at her sides. If someone could but put a sword in her hand, she would run him clear through with it, come what may. He was drunk, unsteady on his feet; his speech slurred. What defence could he possibly muster against her?
“Maria.” A much gentler voice said her name, long after her mother’s murderer had gone.
She felt his touch upon her hand, usually welcome, but now like a curse burning into her skin. She drew away from him, hearing the hurt of her rejection in his prolonged silence.
His words only roused her rage. “You watched it happen and did nothing! And coward that you are, you did not even summon me until the black deed was done.”
“He is my father, Maria.”
She rounded on him, the anger lighting a flame in her eyes he had never seen before. “And she is my mother! When it is my turn, when I am next, will you just watch then, too? Will you come to my grave after the lynching to tell me you are sorry?” She spat at his feet and brushed past him in a whirlwind of pain and anger.
Her dirtied white dress seemed to glow beneath the full moon glaring down from overhead, but, in time, she was swallowed by the darkness and the trees.
Her mother had built her hut deep in the woods, on a quarter acre of land bordering Les Bouchers and La Guinaudée. Here, Olga had lived in peace, growing her herbs for medicine, for healing. Maria knew them all by name and sight and scent, though she had never before given any serious thought to the life of a mambo.
The door was scarcely upon its hinges when she arrived. The one large room inside told of a struggle. To her left, the two beds upon which they had lain their heads many a night—Maria telling of her exploits and Olga tsking away—were overturned. To her right, the fire in the hearth had died out, and the meal they should have shared was seeping into the clay earth.
Drops of blood spattered across the dirt floor and wooden furniture told of the violence with which they had overpowered her mother. An elderly woman who had never lifted a finger against them. A mambo asogwe. An indispensable and honoured member of the coloured and White community, long before Seigneur Boucher ever set foot on Saint-Domingue.
The weight of Maria’s loss now fell heavily upon her. How could she ever again think of her mother without visions of her body dangling from a rope by a broken neck? Her lips tainted with the blue of death. Her skin paler than it had ever been in life. And all while Seigneur Boucher walked free, protected by the privilege of plantocracy.
But there was one power yet which knew no race or colour or class. The memory of this gave her new strength, new purpose. No, she could not give in to despair! There was work to be done and a life to claim.
She tossed wood onto the fire, lit a few candles, and retrieved a book from beneath the pile of overturned bottles that had once contained cures for everything from headaches to unwanted children. The Sekrè, as her mother had called it, was a collection of spells and potions written by Olga’s mother, the book of choice when Olga had first taught Maria how to read.
“Literacy is a magic of sorts,” she had insisted, when her only child showed obvious disinterest in her letters.
What good were adventures in books when she could live adventures of her own? Even at a young age, Maria had been cursed with a nose for trouble, and she much preferred to sniff around the slave huts, causing the occasional fuss with the slave children.
As she grew older, she learned that the frightening howls in the night, not long after she received a mere harsh word or two from her planter father, were those of the slave children who had accompanied her on her rendezvous. Thereafter, she spent more time at home in the company of her mother, sulking all the while, and consenting to the boring adventure of pursuing letters.
One day, the troublesome combination of disobedience and clumsiness had sent the Sekrè tumbling to the floor. When she picked it up, it was opened to a chapter she had never seen before. Almost leaping from the pages was a half-goat, half-man with red-rimmed eyes, dancing in a barren land. The words Liv Lanmò were written in red below his hoofed feet, in the elegant hand of her grandmother.
“It is the Book of Death: the final chapter of the Sekrè,” Olga had said in response to her questioning gaze.
Maria’s curiosity was instantly piqued, but Olga said but little more of it. “Let us first focus on all the good we can do,” she insisted. “When you are older, you may learn the rest. Not now.”
At sixteen, “older” had come. Only then did Olga finally teach her the power of the dark side of Vodou, and the responsibility that came with the work of a caplata. “When nothing else will save you and those you love, but never otherwise,” she had cautioned. “There is always a price for black magic.”
“What price?” had been young Maria’s eager question, failing even then to grasp the gravity of her mother’s words.
“Your legacy,” Olga had answered. “Your line will always have a hole in their soul, so the darkness can creep in.
“But sometimes a dark hole is a good thing, for it provides a window to the other side. Never forget, however, that when we look into that black abyss, it stares right back into us.”
Maria now threw the Sekrè open and found the exact passage her mother had shown her, so many years before. She had memorised it in her sixteenth year when she had been ordained a mambo si pwen, but, like her mother, and hers before her, she had never found cause to use it.
Not until tonight.
Tonight, she would make no mistakes. She would not say the words with half-hearted interest, as though they were foreign to her. Tonight, she believed. And tonight, she would call on all the powers of Darkness to do her bidding.
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