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Maman Brigitte

by Ally Malinenko

She had been warned by her grandmother not to take the bus. But her grandmother always had warnings; not to gaze at the moon when it is waining because it will steal your baby (the moon is a jealous woman after all); not to cross the street behind tall men because their shadows will stay with you and haunt you. They were ghost stories, old-country stories, and she was sick of them. The fastest way to the center of town was the bus. And the center of town was where the doctor was.

Before the girl left, her grandmother rolled her filmy eyes up at her, pointed at her and with a “tsk” and a shudder muttered something in the oldest language, so old in fact they were words that hadn’t been whispered aloud on this side of the ocean.

The girl threw back her shoulders and walked out.

It was the last day of her first life, the last day she would be Marguerite, really truly. They wouldn’t give her the name Maman Brigitte for decades after her first death but they would still, in the stories that would be told, go back to this moment boarding the bus as her Loa birth, the moment she ceased to be mortal and became one of the Voodoo spirits of Haiti.

The windows were open and the island heat rose in waves off the dirt. It was warm, warmer than it should have been, and Marguerite’s blouse was damp with sweat and clung to her. She took a seat, feeling the sway of the bus making her queasy. It was 21 stops to the center of town.

At the first stop, an old man got on the bus. At the second, a mother dragging four screaming children. Marguerite looked away. She could not make eye contact. The youngest child screamed in her mother’s lap, her tongue wagging like a wild thing, her head thrown back till it seemed the child’s neck would snap.

Marguerite closed her eyes for what felt like just a moment but when she opened them, the screaming children and the mother were gone. Next to her sat an old woman. Marguerite rubbed her eyes, and pulled her shirt away from her sweaty body as she scanned the landscape. They were not close to town. The woman next to her smiled at her and Marguerite smiled back.

“It’s a boy,” the woman said, showing a mouth full of broken teeth.

“I’m sorry...” Marguerite started to say. She stammered a few words but then just let them trail off.

“If you aren’t going to raise it, then birth it, kill it and keep it, because it will have power. It’s a twin.”

“I... don’t know what you are talking about.” Marguerite felt sick suddenly and rose to leave. “Excuse me.”

“Sit down, child,” the woman said, grabbing Marguerite’s arm with her hand. Her skin felt so hot and her dirty nails dug into her flesh. Marguerite could feel the bile rising up in her throat.

The woman with the broken teeth squeezed her arm and as she did, like a pump, Marguerite’s throat was awash with acid, as if this woman were calling it out of her. She sat back down, as the woman with the broken teeth had told her to do.

“You must be careful, in the city. You never know what people will do. Pickpockets. They will steal from you without you even knowing they are doing it. You are going to the doctor, yes?”

Marguerite finally found her voice, though it was just a whisper. “How did you know?”

“That you go to the doctor? Because you are with child. You are having twins. Twins are magic.”

“How did you know I was pregnant?”

“It is from Ezili Dantor, the Black Madonna. When a Loa spirit gives a child, you must use it. Don’t anger Ezili Dantor. She is quick to anger, unlike her sister.”

“I have to go,” Marguerite said as the bus rounded a particularly sharp corner. The engine whined at the road. She noticed for the first time that there was no one else on the bus. “Please let me pass.”

She wasn’t going to talk to this superstitious woman. She sounded like her grandmother, spewing nonsense about deities and Loas. It was this kind of talk that destroyed this town, destroyed her mother. The old-world religions had no place here, not anymore. And Marquerite was not the kind of woman to fall prey to superstition and voodoo. Not like her mother, driving herself mad, and eventually to suicide with potions and cheroot and spells that were all garbage.

“I am only trying to help, child,” the old woman hissed. “You should be thankful. Pray to Ezili Dantor and she will show you the way. Light the Virgin Mary candles. You’ll see.”

Marguerite tried to push her way past but the old woman wouldn’t let go of her arm. Why did she take the bus? There were always crazy people on the bus. People who wanted money, thought they were blessed by the spirits, believed in this kind of garbage. “Let me go, please, I don’t...feel well.”

“Sit, child. You’ll make yourself dizzy.” The old woman pushed her back on the wooden seat, and as she did she brushed her hand across Marguerite’s breast and down her belly. It was then that Marguerite knew something was wrong. But she couldn’t move.

“Take care child. Remember twins are powerful. Magical.”

Marguerite felt a burning inside her, swelling up from between her legs, as if she had swallowed lava, a thick hot raw burn in her stomach. She doubled over and threw up. She lifted her head and, noticing that the woman was gone, put her hand to her chest.

It was at this moment that she realized her left breast was gone. Marguerite yanked her shirt up, her head spinning and could see nothing but smooth skin etched with five white scars, like fingers, in the shape of a hand. She started to scream, but no noise came out.

That is the story they will tell about the birth of the Loa spirit they would call Maman Brigitte and it was also the beginning of the death of the mortal woman named Marguerite. The doctor told her she only had one child. But she knew that on the bus she had had two, and she had had two breasts. And she knew the old woman had stolen them both.

After that Marquerite became very very ill. Two weeks later the boy fell out of her in pieces. First an arm. Then a leg, like small doll parts. Marguerite screamed and screamed as her grandmother collected them in jars and took them to the shed out back. Her grandmother fed her, soothed her fever, nursed her through the curse.

That night Marguerite had a dream of a hot land. She crossed the hot stones of this dreamland and with her walked a small dark boy with no lips and no tongue, his hand clasped in hers. When she approached Ezili Dantor she knew who she was, the black Madonna, cloaked in a gold wrap.

Ezili reached out for the boy, who ran to her, and hid beneath her dress. Marguerite said nothing, because you don’t talk to the spirits when they come to you like this. You wait for them to talk to you. Even Marguerite knew this.

“You have been wronged.” Ezili’s voice echoed inside Marguerite’s head. This is what talking to gods is like. “I gave to you a boy and a girl. The boy is with me. Your daughter was also saved, ushered into life by another woman’s womb, 250 years before now. Her name was Iwa. She lived as a high priestess in the old world. She bore many children. Those children were brought here, carried in the belly of boats. Dutty Boukman was one of them. When they cut off his head and his arms the flesh never decayed. He was a warrior, like Iwa. He freed the slaves. He gave you your freedom before you were born. I did this.”

“Thank you Maman Dantor,” Marguerite whispered in her dream. In the waking world Marguerite rolled in bed, awash with fever and her grandmother whispered in her ear.

“I gave you twins. The girl has already saved your life. The boy will do so in later years. You will be a priestess. You will serve me. Here...” From under her cloak she pulled a long knife. “Your child ushered you into this world. In this harsh country you will now pay her back.”

Marguerite took the knife and placed it against her remaining breast.

“You will grow old but you will not die. Your name is no longer Marguerite. You are now Maman Brigitte. And you will worship me. I will give you power, for as long as you worship me.” Then the voice was gone.

Maman Brigitte woke as an old woman and her grandmother was long gone. The blade was under her pillow. From her window she could see the flicker of the candles that the village women left her on her doorstep. Their prayers, their fears, their wants and needs flickering in the window.

She was far from that island now, back instead in another dark land, having fled a thousand captors and a thousand lives. Before she went back to sleep her old hands, wrinkled, scarred from years of magic-making, reached up to trace the scars on her chest. The five on the left had never faded. The one clean knife scar on the right bled still, on occasion, but that was to be expected.

Copyright © 2010 by Ally Malinenko

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