artwork by Linn Bankson
The child stared unblinkingly up into the face of the old woman as she expertly wound a green-gold scarf about her head. The hair she covered held no hint of gray. Her milk chocolate skin was supple and smooth. The movements of her hands as she tied the silken cloth into its elaborate knot were certain and strong. None of these mere facts could deceive this child’s eyes.
There was such an air of deep wisdom about this old woman that it was clear she had been as ancient as the Earth from the moment of her birth. When the light caught her eyes just right – or just wrong, depending on how one looked at it – the cloud of pearl that was beginning to obscure the aging shaman’s gaze was visible. Yet none could ever doubt the clarity of her sight.
Near the hems of her skirts, a tiny voice wafted up from the dusty floor. “Tell me a story?”
The sage seemed to assess something that only she could see or hear. “Krik?”
Narcissa’s hands clapped in front of her in a joyful butterfly dance. “You remembered, child! You remember! Good! To hear a tale, the storyteller, she will ask you Krik? And you must answer Krak! more loudly than she has asked. If you are too quiet, I must say again, Krik?”
“Krak!” Boundless enthusiasm erupted from young lungs, and a tiny bottom bounced in place on the hard stone ground.
“Good, child! Very good. That was how it was done, far away and long ago, when I was a girl.” Her lilting voice paused, savoring echoes of a place removed in space and time, but which was never any further from her mind than the next blink. “Where I come from, years ago, it was always so ... when I was young ... young as you are now, my little one.”
Pointy elbows rested on the old woman’s lap. Narcissa patted the willful, rough curls that could never quite seem to be contained.
“Is it still like that there now?”
“Oh, it is still so now. Yes, you may trust that, child. Things in Haiti, the deep things, the things that matter, these do not change. The Loa, they do not let them change. Not really.”
“Tell me about the Loa again. Please? And about when you were little. Tell me a story you haven’t told me yet.”
“You will keep this story secret, child? Secret like the other tales I tell you? Secret like our visits here together, yes?”
A miniature heart was solemnly crossed before scrubby fingers rose through the air in earnest covenant. “Promise.”
The storyteller challenged, “Krik?”
“Krak!” her audience retorted.
“The drumming. It was the drumming that I first remember. It is my earliest memory, child.”
“I awoke from my sleep one night to the drumming. I do not know how old I was … three, perhaps four. It was not so hot a night, so I think perhaps it was winter, but I do not know. The drum song swam in through my open window and it tickled my skin until I opened my eyes.
“What I saw in the middle of the room were three children, all my size, all dancing to the music of the drum. I could only see the faces of two of these children, and I had never seen them before in my life. This was strange, you must understand, because I knew all the children, all the people, in my village. It was a very small village. But these two children, they were strangers to me, and this frightened me.
“Do you know what frightened me more? These two strange children, they looked the same, each just like the other. I had never before seen twins! Never thought of such a thing, child. Can you imagine such a sight?
“Ah, but I was such a curious little thing! Curious like some other children I know.” Narcissa laughed, tousling the child’s mop of hair. “I was so curious that I forgot to fear, and I asked them, Why do you look the same? And the one stopped dancing and stepped right up to me.
“I could not tell – was this child a boy or was it a girl? It was dark and my eyes were not yet opened, not really. Soon, they would be opened … in many ways.
“We are twins, Narcissa, he said. I should say, they said, for when he spoke, I heard his voice coming from his own lips, and from across the room where the other one still danced with the third child! We were born together, so we are one, they said, but we are more than one. We are male, and we are female. We are … Marassa.
“Marassa, child! Now the Marassa I had heard of. The Marassa are Loa, the spirits of Marassa Jumeaux – the divine twins. They look like young children, but they are most ancient of all the spirits. I remembered my mother’s mother, my grandmere, calling to the Marassa first, always first, after she called to Legba, the Crossroads. I knew this was something special, something sacred. I did not know that word then, but I felt it, you see. Felt the mystery of the Marassa.
“Dance with us, they said, taking my hand. It felt like the sea lapping at my ankles. It called me, pulled me, into the room to dance with the children. And how we danced! The heartbeat of the drum was our heartbeat. The beating of our feet was the palms on the drum-skins.
“And while we danced, the Marassa and me, now I finally saw the third child, another girl. And who do you think that girl was, child? I thought perhaps she would have a face like the other Marassa, but her face! Her face, child … it was MY face!
“Across the circle as we danced, I looked into my own eyes. My own smile. I heard my own laughter as she danced across the bonfire from me.
“Who is this Mirror Child? I asked the Marassa. But – they were gone! I looked around, around the bonfire, and I wondered to myself, Why is there a bonfire in my house? And then I looked all around again, and I found I was not in my house anymore! I was in the field, the field behind my grandmere’s home, and all the villagers, they were there too! And the drummer was not drumming, but still I heard the drums. And still the child who wore my face danced across the fire.
“Who is that Mirror Child? I asked my grandmere, pointing to the girl. No one spoke. No one moved. The people looked to where I pointed, and they looked to each other. They looked to my grandmere.
“Grann, oh my Grann. She was such a tiny thing. Hardly taller than the children, but so great was her power, the tallest men looked up to her. She came to stand beside me, and she looked at me and toward the Mirror Child. Tell me, who do you see, child? she asked me in Creole.
“A little girl just like me. Same size, same eyes, same everything. I woke up and she was in the room, dancing with the Twins ... but the Marassa are gone now ... I looked around, wishing they were still here, too, so we could dance some more.”
Some of the people backed away then. I heard their feet sliding backwards through the grass into the night.
“Ask your Mirror Friend what is her name? Grann told me.
“I obeyed my grandmother. I asked her, Koman ou rélé?
“The girl, she answered, Mwen rélé Océane.
“I looked at my grandmere, who just stared back at me. What did she say? Grann spoke so harshly! Like I never heard her speak before. It frightened me. More than waking to find strange people in my room. More than finding myself in the field without knowing how I got there. It was Grandmere’s voice that frightened me most.
“Her name is Océane,” I answered.
“Now my grandmother, now she was the one who looked afraid. She looked afraid when she looked at me. She waved her arm, and the people around the fire, all of them, they went away. Quietly, without a word, looking back over their shoulders, they went into the darkness like sparrows flee the hawk.
“Grann puffed on a cigar and mumbled some words that I did not understand. She sat on a stool and she said to me, The girl you see, child, she is your sister, your twin. She was named Océane to honor the spirit of La Sirena, and she died the day after you were born. Sometimes it is like that, you see. The baby, he comes, looks at this world, and decides to go back to the spirit land.
“Being a twin, this is very powerful. You have been blessed by Marassa. That your twin returned to the Loa ,this is even more powerful, because she is there to hear you, to help you, when you ask for her to guide you. You must always remember this and honor her.”
“I looked to where she’d been. She’s gone! I cried, and I began to sob. I missed her already, you see, this part of me I’d never known that I was missing, and then she was gone again so soon.
“Grann told me that Océane would come back, if I was wise and good. In the days to come after that, that she would never really be far from me …”
“Is she still here with you?” The child looked about as if expecting to see some strange spirit twin materialize from the ether at any moment.
“Do not fear, child. Océane likes you! She likes all children, for they are like her – innocent and wise, funny and cruel, serious and silly – all the contradictions of children. You and a few other children I know.” Narcissa laughed. “She likes you especially! She tells me so, child.”
“How does she tell you?”
“Ah. She tells me. She is Océane, of the sea, so she tells me things – with the shells. She shows me things – in the water. Oh, the things she has shown me. The things she has told me, child!”
“Tell me something she’s told you? Something she told you about me.”
“Oh, she started telling me about you long ago, little one. But first, Océane told me about my Manno …” Saying that name, the shaman’s voice trailed off, a sadness infecting her tone as it rarely did. “And then my Édith ...” The vivaciousness returned to her voice then.
“I was nineteen. Young and beautiful and a new bride. You laugh, child? Do not laugh. I was young once, young as you, and young many years. It is true. Though I am old now, and will be older yet, I was young then. And so in love! And it was Océane who brought Manuel, my Manno, to me.”
“For three days there was a terrible storm. Océane laughed all through the last night of that storm, singing to me of love and magic and impossible dreams. She told me to go to the shore at the dawn, and I knew to listen to her. There was a strange boat, a new boat, on the sand. Not one of our village’s fishing boats.
“I loved him. From the first time I saw him smile, I loved him. Bright as the moon over the night sea – that was Manno’s smile. I heard Océane laughing in the spray of the ocean, and I knew, child, that this man was her gift to me. I think she brought his spirit to this earth, and then to my shore. We had to learn to speak each other’s languages, child, because Océane had pulled him to me all the way from Cuba, across the waters. She told me where to find him, and she made him fall in love with me.”
“Manno, who was the rest of me … who knew me … really knew me, but he loved me anyway!” Narcissa cackled a laugh. “That is love, child. Seeing the flaws and loving the flaws. When you love, as Manno and I loved, those flaws are not flaws. Never dream of perfect love, child – the flaws make it perfect. When you are grown, will you remember this?”
“I’ll try,” the confused child answered.
“Manno could always make me laugh when I was angry. And he did not fear the power of the Loa or Océane, as many men did. He was such a good man. The best of men, my Manno. We married on that beach where I found him, so that Océane would be close to us.
“Océane, she called to me again, after we were married a little while. She told me to follow her far across the sea. Manno, he thought I was maybe a little bit crazy, like some do, child! Like your father does! But I was not crazy. I knew. Océane knew, too.
“Manno trusted me to hear, and to guide him. He listened to me, and we went in his boat and we traveled north. Oh, so long we traveled, child! Weeks and weeks on Manno’s boat, but always Océane sent us fish to eat and sweet rain for drinking. She did not stop pulling our boat until we were here. This great city with its tall steel towers so far from our home.
“Oh, what a time it was for Océane to bring us here. Oh, you have read, child, of the Great Depression, yes? It was 1930. Oh, such hard times for this city, for this land. Harder still for the poorest of the poor. Hardest of all for those who look different from most, like you and like me, eh, child?
“But Manno and I, we found others from our island, living in Brooklyn, and they took us in, no matter the hard times. Such good hearts. So giving. I helped the people, with charms and spells ... I told fortunes to people not always wise enough to know I spoke the truth ... Manno kept fishing, and though all were poor, we ate. And I ... I had my Édith. Such a perfect sweet baby she was! We had such happy times …”
“But it didn’t stay happy, did it? It got sad then, didn’t it? You told me this part before. Tell me again.”
Narcissa shook her head, her face darkened with shadows of the past, a past she had pressed away in the pages of her heart and seldom revisited. Her upraised hands moved as if to ward off the memories. She didn’t wish to return now to the days when her husband languished in the hospital, a cancer consuming him from within. She did not want to feel again the helplessness and the hopelessness, the failure of all her magic and their medicine. Refusals were on the cusp of being born on her lips.
“Oh, Krak, child. Krak. I will tell you your story.”
“We were so happy, the three of us. Poor, yes, and we struggled, true, but we were happy. So happy. Five years we were so very happy, child. But happiness does not last, little one. Like the tides, it comes ... and goes away again.
“Manno, one day, on the sea, he became ... very sick. They operated and gave him so much medicine. Édith liked visiting him in the hospital. She thought it was a great adventure, riding the subway, playing in the drinking fountain. I gave her nickels for bottles of soda pop that turned her tongue red. She loved seeing all the nurses in their white uniforms. She called them angels. One of them gave her a deck of cards with little fish on them. She sat on edge of Manno’s bed, and they played Go Fish until he could play no more.
“They sent Manno home, but he was not well. He returned a few days later ... they sent him home again ... we went back yet again to the hospital. The doctors, and I, we tried all we knew, all our pills and potions, magic and medicine, but all of them failed us all. They sent him home ... one last time.
“My Édith spent the day playing at the neighbor’s house, having a happy day, one more happy day, while she could. She came into the kitchen, smiling to see so many of our friends there. She thought it was a party, I think. The lights were all on to chase away the shadows. Corn pudding, fried plantains, and rice djon-djon were on the table, and the spiced cocoa on the stove, but no one was eating or drinking. She didn’t know why.
“Everyone left us alone in the kitchen. Her knees bumped the table when she sat on my lap. I’m getting too big to sit on your lap, Mama! And she laughed and laughed at that. When you’re little, all you want is to get big. How fast she had to grow up then.
“Édith, my little shell, Papa was very sick and couldn’t get better. He passed away today, my shell. Papa’s dead. My tears fell onto on her little arm. She just looked down and watched them roll off her arm and onto her lap. She watched her little pink skirt get all polka-dotted with them.
“Oh, she said. Just, Oh. Nothing more.
“She did not understand, child. I knew. I took her to see his body; I showed her, to let her know, to accept. Everyone thought she was so very brave, not crying, so grown up for her four years.
“And then ... seven weeks. It was seven weeks after the funeral of my Manno.
“I was washing the dishes. I remember the silence fluttering in through the open kitchen curtains. Even Océane was quiet, not talking to me from the water like always ... Édith came into the kitchen with her little deck of cards. She smiled up at me and she said, When Papa gets home from the hospital again, I’m going to play Go Fish with him.
“The air turned to stone in my lungs. I watched my fingers turn white, holding tight to the lip of that sink. That sink, it was the only thing holding me there, the only thing that kept me from sinking onto the floor.
“Édith, my little shell ... I looked into the water, praying that Océane would help me, begging her to give me the words to tell my Édith. Papa isn’t coming back from the hospital, my shell. Not ever. He can’t come back anymore. He’s dead. You don’t get to come home any more when you’re dead. That’s what dead means, my little one.
“The bubbles in the sink popped in that silence, one by one, releasing a scent of olive and palm oils. Something dimmed in her eyes then; she wilted just a little, like a flower plucked and left on the road. She stared down at the yellow rag rug on the kitchen floor, and I stared there too, like I might see something – see what she saw. But there was nothing there.
“I can still see her, child, turning that worn deck of cards in her hand. Her fat little fingers set them on the green Formica next to the sink of popping bubbles.
“Do you want me to play with you?
“No, Mama. It wouldn’t be the same.
“She was right, child. It would not be the same. We would never be the same. We sat on the linoleum, Édith and I, holding each other. I watched our tears make a pool on the kitchen floor.
“She told me later, child ... she told me that Palmolive dish soap ... it smelled forever to her like loss.”
The old woman and the young child who had crawled onto her lap leaned their foreheads against one another, sharing a moment of sorrow and empathy. Tiny fingers patted Narcissa’s cheeks dry of their tears.
“Your little girl didn’t have a father ... That’s not fair!”
“No, child, it is not fair. But that is the way of it, sometimes. We were not alone, child. We had each other. Like you and I now, we have each other. We are not alone. Though much is lost at times, much is still there, to be found, with those who love us.”
The small head nodded solemnly, with wisdom beyond years. “I can’t imagine ... not having a father ... Mine’s the most wonderful father in the world.” The child’s voice fell to a whisper. “Even if he does think you’re a little odd sometimes.”
“My Édith, my little shell, she was the center of the world to me, once my Manno was gone. She was smart and sweet and good. She grew into such a beautiful young woman.
“It was the day after Édith’s wedding, June, 1950. The house was full of our family, our friends, so much joy you had to swat it away from your face to see! Late that night, after everyone left, I was alone again. I talked to Océane in the bowl of water, told her to tell Manno how beautiful our child was and how happy ... and Océane began to tell me a tale. A tale of a magical place. A world beneath the world I knew ...
“She pulled my feet, so tired from the dancing on that happy day. She pulled me to the river and then across the Brooklyn Bridge. She pulled me like the tide to a sewer opening – to what I thought was a sewer. I told her she was crazy. I should not climb down that thing! But she called me and called me, and told me the time had come finally for the Loa to show me why they brought me so far from my island. I followed. When the spirits call, child, you must always listen, yes?
“I went and I walked ... and I walked. So far! I could feel that all around and above me was the spirit of a wondrous place, a place that had been sleeping so long. She led me to a waterfall under the earth! Such a sight, child! And she led me to a pool lying far below the earth, a pool that the mirrored the sky! In that pool, she told me tales like I never heard before.
“Océane told me that this is a place that has never been. This is a place that is not supposed to be ... but it is!”
“Many things that are not supposed to be, child, are. Centuries ago, child, the people said that a good person was as rare as a black swan. A black swan was impossible, you see. There was no such thing! All swans were white ... or so everyone believed. But then, do you know what happened, child? People traveled far around the world ... and they found ... guess what?”
Narcissa cackled and clapped her hands. “Of course, child! Black swans. Beautiful black swans. All along, they were there, of course; but no one knew. A magical place beneath the city streets, this is like those black swans. Rare and precious, and full of impossible things that are meant to be.”
“I did not go back Above to my home for two days. I found many chambers and tunnels, crystals and gems ... wonders never dreamt of! When I did go home again, my poor Édith! She was so frightened. She had called the police. She thought I was lost or dead. My poor Édith, how I worried her.
“I explained to my Édith that this was important – more important than anything else now that she was grown and well. She brought me food while I explored the world Below. She was my helper, you see. She was the first Helper of this magical world Below.
“For more than a year, I explored this place. I asked it its secrets, and it told them to me. Oh yes, we became great friends, this world and I.
“And then, the world Below, it told me that it was lonely, that it wanted more company. That it longed to be a home to many who needed it, to beautiful souls lost in the harsh world Above. Océane, she told me this, too, child. And so, we Called to them.
“Océane and I, we called on the power of the Loa, of the Crossroads, of the Marassa, to guide the people here.
“I painted the veve, the sacred drawing, on the floor of the Chamber of the Winds, so that the winds would carry the Call everywhere. Everywhere Below, and then Above, to all those who needed to hear the Call. That veve is still painted on the floor of that deep chamber, still magic, still Calling, still guiding those who need to find this place. I will show it to you one day, child.
“And one day, soon after, I found a poor woman, her eyes dark as onyx and full of fear, wandering the tunnels, lost and cold. I brought her to a warm chamber, gave her food and water, and we talked. She smiled at last, a deep dimple in her left cheek. Her name was Grace. She’d lost her husband and her home in a terrible fire. She had nothing, not even hope. I showed her my world, and she found hope again! She brought others here. Anna, and John, and Jacob ... one by one they came. They found this world ...”
“They found this world!” Narcissa’s mocking laughter filled the chamber. “Found it, like Columbus found my island … not noticing that our ancestors, the Tainos, were already there, eh, child?” She cackled at her own irony.
“I let them think they found this place. I let them believe it. Océane and I, we know how to keep our secrets. Like you, child. You are a good secret keeper. Even when you are grown, you will keep my secrets. I know!” Narcissa tapped an astute finger over the child’s heart. “I have seen!
“While they settled Below, I stayed away, most of the time. Many thought I was a crazy old woman. I told them that I was often away, deep in the tunnels, exploring, and learning ... and sometimes I was!
“But sometimes,” Narcissa laughed, “sometimes I was not exploring. I was really was Above – visiting my Édith ... and my grandchildren ... especially my youngest and favorite granddaughter, eh, child? Some of them, they thought I was a crazy old fool living in a dream of demons and spirits. Some still think this!” Narcissa’s smiling eyes looked deeply into the child’s. “Do you? Do you think I am a crazy old woman?”
“No, Grandmere, I don’t think you’re crazy. I think you’re wonderful!”
“Ah, child, I think you are wonderful, too! And I like when you call me Grandmere. Your big brothers, they do not call me that. When you do, it reminds me of my Grann. You were named Edith for your mother, but you look like my grandmother!”
“Do I really?”
“Yes, child. Yes, my little Edie. You have my Grann’s eyes, and her nose, and even her ears, child. Did I ever tell you, my grandmere used to always wear two different earrings? Yes, child. She never matched them. This was her way.” Narcissa shrugged. “Who can say why? When your mother was young, Edie, she did that, too!”
“I want to do that, too!”
“You do? OK, Edie. We will trade, yes? I trade you this earring for this one.” Narcissa removed one of her own long shell earrings and exchanged it for one of Edie’s tiny hoops.
“Oh, how you look like your mother now! Like my little Édith!”
Edie’s small thin fingers rose through the air again and she swore, “I’ll wear different ones all the time when I grow up. I promise. Tell me more, Grandmere Sharanova! Tell me about what’ll happen when I’m all grown up.”
Narcissa paused, her head tilted as she listened carefully to Océane’s voice in the bowl of water near her elbow. “Krik?”
“Krak!” her granddaughter answered.
“You will talk with magic boxes, Edie.”
“Oh, Grandmere, that’s just silly!”
“No, child. It is not silly ... Océane, she told me so ... so it will be true ... And you will be a Helper ... but that will be our secret ...”