THE FIRST CHAPTER
When twenty-five-year-old Sophie Nouveau inherits her grandmother's voodoo shop in New Orleans, she knows nothing about voodoo. Or her family's secret.
A Tale of Two Funerals
When I was twenty, I lost my mother. She'd died in my arms of a heart attack in our tiny bathroom in our tiny house in Saint Louis. Even though I lived with the woman for two decades, I really didn't know her. At. All. But I'd known that for a long time. When I was a little girl, I had found a cigar box at the back of her closet that contained: a faded photo of a woman in a shawl; a corn cob pipe; a blank postcard from New Orleans; one prayer card to Saint Michael; a stack of unsigned love letters addressed to my mother tied in ribbon; a monarch butterfly preserved in a small case; and--the strangest item--a glass eye wrapped in black muslin. When I finally got up the courage to ask her about the box of secrets, she told me, "That's none of your business."
I'd brought the box with me to the funeral home, hoping someone would show up and explain it. Explain to me what the items meant. Explain to me who my mother was and unwrap all of her secrets just as easily as I untied the ribbon around the love letters...with one gentle tug. But no one came to the visitation. No one at all. I just sat there with the box on my lap, waiting, and her words pounded like a relentless wave: that's none of your business.
Well, actually, I thought, that's exactly my business. Since my wonderful mother left me alone, not even giving me a hint about the rest of my family (like who they were, where they were from, what they did, if any were still living), I'd have to figure it out all by myself. Like always.
"Lost," I whispered, afraid of the funeral home's lonely echo. I clung to the box, like it was a life preserver, as the tidal wave of my emotions hit.
(Five Years Later)
At twenty-five, I lost my grandmother Seraphina. Mom never told me that her mother was still living, but according to the last will and testament I received in the mail two days ago, I was the inheritor of the family's voodoo shop. In New Orleans. So I'd packed myself up and boarded my first flight for my very first trip ever outside of my hometown of Saint Louis.
As I picked my way through New Orleans' foreign streets, I checked my watch for the eighty-seventh time, thinking there's probably a special circle of Hell for people late to their grandmother's funeral.
I quickened my pace. Whispers of fear slithered through me as reality settled in: I was lost. I tried the next street. Another dead end. I broke into a run. Tears stung my eyes as I remembered words like “single woman” and “statistic” from the morning’s paper which covered New Orleans’ recent crime wave. I gritted my teeth and stopped, straining to listen. The bells of Saint Louis Cathedral counted down.
There! I hoped my ears weren't playing tricks. Nope, that's people. I raced toward their voices. Turning a corner, I finally saw dozens of people one block ahead. A new noise layered itself on top of the crowd's babbling and the bell's tolling, a sound like millions of paper pamphlets falling from the sky. Several people ran toward me and I slowed my pace, my knees wobbling from the rush of worry and adrenaline. I wondered what was going on up ahead because, nearing the busy street, I noticed people with hands over mouths and fingers pointed to the sky. Between the row houses that loomed over me, I glimpsed an orange cloud descending upon the city. I squinted.
"Is that?" I asked under my breath.
"Yeah," a tourist with a camera replied. "They just came outta nowhere."
Squinting again, I tried to make sense of something that defied logic. Something...not natural. The man lifted his camera to his eye and the shutter click-clicked to capture the magic.
Millions of monarch butterflies rushed down the street like a tangerine river. A dragonfly alighted on the guy's camera lens before joining the butterflies. The bell's final ring mellowed into silence, the plague of insects growing thicker. That final toll meant the funeral was already starting and I had to get there. Since I never actually got to meet my grandmother, this moment would be my one chance to meet a large number of people who all knew her. It was the best way to get to know her in a quick amount of time. I would not give up. Pulling my waist-length tresses into a quick ponytail and raising my arm above my glasses like a shield, I jumped into the cloud of insects.
They crawled all over me. On my skin. In my hair. I swatted. Scratched. Ran.
Peeking under my arm so that I didn't trip, I glimpsed a man in a business suit running alongside me before retreating into a nearby building. Then I nearly slammed into a balcony support beam, sidestepping it at the last minute.
"You okay?" a woman shouted down from the balcony, her teenage kids armed with cell phone cameras. Giving her a quick wave, I sprinted forward.
My heart thumped. My eyes watered. My breath stopped...and started. The bugs nearly flew into my mouth as I gulped short bursts of air. Drowning in the insects now—they thickened as I got closer to where I needed to be--I jumped into a niche for a moment of relief. My hands shook as I inspected the welts and scratches on my bare arms. People ran by with newspaper helmets and umbrella shields. Protection. That's what I need. I threw my hands up, air escaping my mouth in a laugh-cry. Oh my God, I made the worst mistake, and now I'm not even gonna make it to this damn funeral.
Something flew down my shirt and I did a jig to shake it out. A woman chuckled from a nearby doorway. Shielding my eyes with cupped hands, I could barely make out her face.
"Don't you know who died child?" she shouted with amusement in her tone, as if that explained this whole crazy phenomenon.
Wiping the tears from my eyes, I yelled back, "My grandmother...I think."
A couple of police cars raced toward the cathedral, sirens blaring.
"I'm late," I shouted. "And now this." I waved my hands to indicate the end-of-days scene unfolding before us.
"Here, ma petite." She walked over to me and not one bug touched her. Not a single one. "Take this or you'll never make it." She slid her shawl off and wrapped it around me. Then she placed her heavy hands on my shoulders and gazed into my eyes, before glancing across the street. My eyes followed hers to a shop with bright blue shutters.
"God bless you, honey. Now hurry up," she said before turning her eyes to where the swarm flew.
Draping the shawl over my head, I shouted a thank you over my shoulder, leaving the woman framed in her doorway. Wrapping the long fabric around my arms and torso, I ran through the plague, feeling protected by the soft shawl that smelled, vaguely, of pipe tobacco.
As I entered Jackson Square, I nearly fell backward from the force of the wind. The winged creatures swirled overhead like a growing hurricane; the mass of them actually churned the air making me feel as if I was inside a swirling cauldron filled with thick, steaming stew. Clouds spun toward this supernatural force, unable to escape the eye of this storm brewing in the heart of the city. Lightning illuminated the freakish scene as the clouds leaked, threatening to rip open.
"What in the Hell?" I asked no one in particular.
"You mean Heaven? Because I think an angel has come to save us." Seeming to materialize from thin air, a man with a slick, dark ponytail and a gold watch the size of New Jersey held his hand out to me. "I'm Nico. Nice to meet you, sweetie." I shook his hand out of courtesy, but he smelled like garlic and smiled like a used car salesman. Nico held my hand for a socially unacceptable amount of time and I literally had to wriggle loose from his grasp.
Just then the rain clouds burst open, and I turned to run into the shelter of the cathedral and saw that it, too, was swarmed. Monarch butterflies crawled over every square inch of the building's exterior, making the church come alive; the building twisted and turned with the movement of muscles and joints underneath a skin of orange and black iridescent wings.
"Hey!" a burly guy, shouldering a news camera, shouted at me. "You're blocking my shot!"
People pushed past me to get out of the storm and it seemed that the butterflies were trying to move within, too. My adrenaline hammered me one more time and I almost decided to run. All the way back to Saint Louis. Instead, I surrendered to the push of the crowd which forced me into the mouth of the living building.
I hadn't stepped foot in a church since my mother’s funeral. My hatred for her bubbled to the surface. Immediately followed by guilt. Then sadness pinned my heart to my chest. Taking a deep breath, I looked around for a place to sit and saw hundreds of people jammed into pews and standing along the walls. I didn't know a single one.
Why am I here? I thought for the thousandth time. I didn't even know this woman...even if she was my grandmother. As I scanned the room, I saw emotion flow and break like waves across the bereaved faces. Confusion. Shock. Fear. All while the butterflies flitted around us, some even alighting peacefully on the casket.
At least this is better than the ten plagues of Egypt going on outside.
Mass had already started, so an usher led me to some standing room up front, between the casket and rows of lit votives. After drying my glasses on the shawl, I looked across the hundreds of holy candles flickering in tall clear jars, the wax hovering at different levels depending on when the penitent lit it. Each light represented a person’s hope. Each light yearned to shine bright enough to get God's attention. I looked at the dancing flames not knowing if I believed that God could come to the rescue. Not anymore.
Anger choked me. She told me that her mother had died before I was born. Flat. Out. Lie.
That’s what my mother had always been. A liar.
I shook my head and, with stupid faith and a flicker of hope, pulled some money from my pocket. Shoving my offering into the candle collection box and using the flame from another person's prayer, I lit the long matchstick, transferring the fire to my candle and my wish. As the wick caught fire, I thought about what I wanted: answers about my family, a job would be great, and a shot at a decent, loving relationship.
Turning back toward the casket, I pulled the worn picture from my pocket; the one from the cigar box. The only thing identifying the woman in the picture was the name Mother scrawled across the back in my mother's handwriting. I studied the features of this woman who was a mystery to me and yet had the potential to be a huge part of me. She wore her mahogany hair in short curls framing her heart-shaped face. Now I knew that her glowing caramel skin came from the mixing of cultures here in New Orleans: Spanish, French, African. And her violet eyes, the same rare shade as mine, danced with spirit and wanted to tell me about my family. I rubbed my thumb lightly over her face. She stood tall and proud with her hands on her hips and a red and gold shawl draped over her curvy frame. I looked closer at the picture and then down at the fabric wrapped around me.
The same shawl.
Goosebumps skittered up my arms like lightning. My immediate urge was to throw off the wrap but, synthetic fibers and votive candles don't mix. There's definitely a special circle of Hell for people who set cathedrals on fire. Instead, I hugged the shawl and, strangely enough, felt comforted by it. What was the likelihood that this was actually the same exact shawl anyway? All I knew was that two days ago, I'd received a package addressed to Marie Papillon. My mother's name was Marie Nouveau, but I opened it anyway because my mother never spoke of her past. The envelope contained the copy of a will stating that "Seraphina Papillon bequeaths half of her estate to Marie Papillon or next of kin." Skimming to the final page, I discovered the main inheritance:
Seraphina's House of Voodoo
1000 Chartres Street
New Orleans, Louisiana 70116
So if my mother was this "Marie Papillon" did that mean I was "next of kin?" I dug through the envelope, trying to understand, when I found a scrap of paper that read:
She left you half of the family business.
The funeral is Nov. 2 at Saint Louis Cathedral.
I'd left the will in my hotel room, but the scrap of paper burned in my pocket. I was determined to find this P.L.
So, as of two days ago, I'd been processing.
My mother may have lied to me for my entire life. She may have actually belonged to a voodoo family who owned a voodoo shop and for all I knew, she herself, was a voodoo priestess. Now, as "next of kin," those responsibilities were mine. She'd even lied about her name, which meant she changed her name from Papillon (French for butterfly) to Nouveau (French for new). Meaning, my mother wanted a new life, not a life with her family in New Orleans.
Well, at least the Mardi Gras postcard from the cigar box makes sense now.
The priest finished a prayer and his eyes settled on mine for a few seconds. He tilted his head and stared as if he knew me. Finally, his eyes left mine and he surveyed the congregation.
"Seraphina gave us a miracle today," he said.
Miracle's such a strong word. Strange phenomenon, I'll give you that.
The priest paused for a long moment, dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief. He sighed. "To tell you the truth, I had a long eulogy prepared, but look around. God is showing us a miracle right now. You have all been changed by Seraphina Papillon and that's why you're here. Seraphina changed me, too, opening my heart to a world where enchantment and spirituality combine to make a richer, deeper existence. I could not have the understanding of God that I now have if she had not shown me what she knows about Catholicism and about voodoo."
If my grandmother believed in voodoo, why the Catholic funeral?
Father interrupted my wonderings, "And so, brothers and sisters--and we really are family in our communion over the death of this loving matriarch--tell me about Seraphina. Tell me how she changed you."
A murmur arose as people shared stories with each other.
My eyes wandered across the aisle and met the gaze of a man in a sharp, black three-piece suit standing against the far wall. From where I was standing, I sensed a timelessness about him, a la Cary Grant, which matched his perfect features: high cheekbones, a strong jaw, intense eyes. Late thirties, early forties, I guessed. I bit my lip, unable to look away because of some attraction--no, more than that--some strange hold he had on me.
"Yes!" a woman shouted in my ear.
I jumped and clutched my chest. Feeling incredibly stupid, I glanced over to see his reaction to my near heart attack. A twinge at the corner of his mouth. Was that a----It was. He was smirking at me.
"Yes, yes, yes," the same woman shouted, raising both hands to testify, "Seraphina helped me to connect with the love of my life. That love potion worked something good, y'all! Mmm!"
A round of hollered "Amen! Ayibobo, ayibobo! Amen!" circled the church.
The woman hugged the man next to her. "He's my soul mate."
I never allowed anyone to get close enough to be a soul mate but, with a spark of wonder, I looked over at the candle I had just lit, where it burned alongside the rows and rows of other votives. All those hopes and dreams. It was strange to wish for my own miracle when I didn't even know if miracles truly existed. As for the man in the black suit, I didn't really know what to think, I just knew I didn't want to take part in another staring contest, so I avoided his general direction for the rest of the service.
As the voices went on, I wondered how my grandmother performed spells. My mother never mentioned magic, so I wondered if she practiced voodoo, too. I wondered why all of these people believed that spells could actually work. The church became quiet for a moment and I thought all the people had spoken, but then one last voice rang out from the back.
"I ran away from home when I was sixteen,” the woman said. “I was begging for money. Living on the streets. Trying not to get killed. Seraphina took me in these past ten years. She saved me."
Ten years. That makes her...twenty-six. One year older than me. It sounded like she lived with Seraphina so I raised myself on tiptoes, but I just could not see her.
When Mass ended, I tried to edge past people to find the mystery woman, but quickly realized it was impossible in the crushing crowd. As I neared the door, a Saint Joan of Arc statue towered above me, shining in silver armor from neck to toe, with her head held high and the white and gold flag in her hand.
A man leaned over and whispered into my ear, "You like her?"
I caught my breath and turned to face the man in black standing very close--so close that I could appreciate every bit of his exquisiteness, like appreciating a Monet from afar and then leaning in to see the painter's individual brush strokes. Dark hair smoothed carefully to the side. A chiseled jaw. Exquisite olive skin. Even though he was a decade or so older than me, he was easily the best looking person I'd ever spoken to. Actually, I couldn't speak; I could barely even think. This was my natural response to attention from the opposite sex.
He smiled, waiting for an answer.
Say something! The Joan of Arc statue...
"Sorry,” I finally said, closing my eyes. God, I'm pathetic. “Patron saint," I croaked, opening my eyes again, but avoiding eye contact.
"And as a good Catholic girl..." He pursed his lips. God his lips are perfect, too. "You take the name Joan."
At least he's leading the conversation. Focus, Sophie. Focus.
"Joan's my confirmation name--but--I’m not really a practicing Catholic anymore." I continued to avoid eye contact, so I could concentrate and say something that made sense.
"Certainly a brave one," he said. "Not afraid of death..." he relished the word "death" and it lingered in the air between us for a moment. "Not afraid of what other people thought about her--even with the voices."
“That's why I liked her." I finally got my bearings and my body relaxed into the conversation a bit. Don't. Make. Eye contact. "Back then I was naive because I actually thought those sorts of things were possible."
"What sorts of things?"
"Miracles…Inner voices…Now she'd be on Prozac or Valium."
He laughed, which caught me off guard. I looked up at him and, when our eyes met, I immediately felt fuzzy. His gorgeous steely-gray eyes, which were unlike any I'd ever seen, drew me in deeper and deeper. Submission filled my body, making my extremities turn to rubber.
Unable to look away, I said breathlessly, "There had to be some natural explanation for the voices."
"Maybe.” His voice so crisp. “But there are some things in this world for which we have no answer." He held out his hand to me, "Miss..."
Submitting still, I laid my palm on his, "Sophie...Sophie Nouveau."
His lips brushed the back of my knuckles and my core tightened.
"Well, Miss Sophie...Sophie Nouveau," he sounded amused. Releasing my hand, he turned his head toward the door, breaking his hold over me. "I believe I will take part in this second line."
"What's a second line--Mister...?" I waited for his name.
"Jacques Saint Germain,” he bowed slightly. “A second line is a funeral procession...New Orleans style. Most enjoyable."
Jacques walked toward the door, drawing the eyes of every single woman in the room, and when he stepped outside, jazz music blared as if on cue. With a spark of wonder, I turned toward the front of the church, found my offertory candle still burning bright, and rubbed the spot on the back of my hand where his lips had been.
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