The Freemasons come first because Papa Julio is an initiate.
The two gentlemen look solemn—Mr. Napoleon with his black suit and tie and shiny leather shoes and Mr. Gerard with his tan suit and brown shoes.
“What seems to be the problem?” Mr. Napoleon asks.
Mother was working in her new garden when they arrived, so she’s wearing a sleeveless shirt and the front is unbuttoned, revealing the mysterious line of her cleavage; her shoes soiled and muddy. Strands of her hair have escaped her bandana. As the late afternoon light has ebbed from the room, she turns on the gas lamp. The pale light spreads in gloomy shivers,illuminates the dining room table with its oilcloth cover, the mahogany shelves on which pans and kettles stand, and the cracks on the walls. I sit quietly in a corner left in darkness, eating quenêpes, a kind of smooth-skinned litchi. Mother always says it’s rude to eat in front of guests and not to offer, but these men are not really guests, are they? Serious business has brought them here.
My elbow on a small table, I watch the flame dance at the end of the wick in the gas lamp. I also listen to the sudden, furious, whipping rain outside. The unexpected rain pummels the pine trees in the garden, the cement walls, on the tilted roof. The wind blows in through the edges of the windows and moves the cotton curtains with imprinted piglets.
Papa Julio, also in suit and tie, tells Mr. Napoleon about the cats. “I think they were demons. There were at least thirty of them under our window last night and their meow sounded more like a cry from hell.”
Overwhelmed by the wailing of neighbors, I didn’t hear cats cry in the night.In fact, I suspect there really are no cats—only a woman being beaten to death by the neighbor. But Papa insists the cats danced in the night full of dark shadows, and Mother even offers a reluctant explanation, “Our new home is built on an old crossroad, where offerings used to be made to the spirits. The gods were not happy to see this crossroad disappear, and now they’re letting us know.”
Mother has gotten this piece of information from Madan Sorèl, the lady who sells her pork meat and goat milk. The cats must have really shaken up Mother, for she usually never talks about such sornettes—nonsense—as ghostly ballet dancers.
“I shot one of the cats,” my father continues. “We both saw it fall on the lawn, but there was no sign of it this morning.”
“The maid saw the whole thing too,” Mother adds.
I understand that Papa wants these guys to perform some kind of exorcism and drive the spirit cats away. My father isn’t a church-going man, but he is considered a good, honest, decent citizen, and is well respected in the community. If he says he’s seen strange catty creatures, well, that is probably the truth.
Mr. Napoleon strikes a match, lights the incense he’s brought with him and rings a chime. A gray smoke curls up from it, and the fumes fill the room with an acrid, intoxicating odor. I hold my breath because I don’t want to take in the heavy smell of incense that stings my throat and mouth, already dry from drinking too much of Mother’s Manischewitz wine. In the swirling smoke, the faces of the men are eerie as their sonorous voices intone strange words in a strange language. I wonder then about what goes on inside a Masonic lodge room. I don’t remember Papa going to lodge all that much; I don’t remember it ever being a topic of discussion at the dinner table. I think about Sister Therese who despises all secret societies. When she sends my report card home for Papa to sign, I use lemon juice to make the three shameful dots—the three pillars of Masonry—disappear next to his signature.
I follow Mr. Napoleon and Mr. Gerard around as they call upon the spirits and energies living in the house, inviting those who will be harmonious with the new household to remain, and asking those who might be happier somewhere else to leave. I wait eagerly for a possession to take place, for devilish laughs or cries. In vain.
During the prayer, our hands swap sweat, slip, reclutch. I can’t concentrate on the words the men are saying because I am thinking how slithering our hands have become. I can see Felicie, our femme à tout faire, and the gardener gathered under the kitchen door; they peer in at us with disguised amusement. Felicie giggles behind her hand, and I am terribly embarrassed to have the servants thinking my father to be off his rocker.
The sun slips its last light through the close branches of tamarack. After the gentlemen leave, Mother allows Felicie to pour some palm oil around the house as well. The word vaudou is conveniently left out of their conversation, but we all know, I think, what kind of oil she is using. Apparently, we can use all the help available. Sure, we are Catholics and believe in an almighty God, but there is a reason Papa’s shelves are stacked with books on white and black magic, Rosicrucian teachings, Freemasonry and voodoo practices—in the midst of political and spiritual turmoil, we don’t know what god to turn to. Before he was ousted, our Catholic-priest president was encouraging the mob to take “justice” into their own hands, to steal from the “bourgeois,” to destroy businesses, and burn down fancy houses. Who knows what bigger evil awaits?
I love being a Catholic. I love our small church in Thomassin, dark and cool, the soft, blue tinge and the irregular shapes of the glass tiles that depict Orthodox saints and scenes of the Bible. I love the chanting of Veni Creator Spiritu, the statues of the saints and the Virgin Mary, with her smooth, serene face and her outstretched arms. Father Martin, one of the priests in Thomassin County, wears an elaborate robe with gold and silver threads that sparkle in the candlelight, and the smell of incense always seems woven into his clothes. Every Sunday, head bowed and hands together in front of my face, I make my way toward the altar; I genuflect, kneel, tilt my head back and stick out my tongue to receive the Body of Christ. I am awed by the centuries of rituals.
Later that week, Mother invites Father Martin to our home for a house blessing. The neighbors join the celebration with a fabulous joumou soup, bright yellow-orange and deeply African with an opulence of meat, vegetables and the Caribbean bite of lime and chilis.The festive occasion includes the mandatory Haitian colas, cake, a spiced concoction of domestic rum (kleren), and a thick spiked drink made with condensed milk called kremas. Papa even includes the Haitian rum Barbancourt, the national beer Prestige, as well as imported beers for his fellow professors. People come in long black cars—people who smell good, tanned women with cleavage, men with cigarettes.
The candles keep most of the mosquitoes away, but once in a while, someone slaps at their ankles or waves their hand around their head to swish away the fierce, hungry buzzing. It is dark all around, and the patio rests in a small pool of light, our faces half-light and half-dark, mottled with shadow.
Father Martin has a shy smile on a mouth too small for all his teeth, no chin but big, puffy red cheeks, bright blue eyes, and he smells old. When he walks in, I feel connected to something really profound, a source of stability, permanence, and transcendence. I am allowed to smile—and never, ever interrupt the adults who mostly talk about the coup and the embargo, about political prisoners starving to death in the prison in Port-au-Prince.
I sit alone in the kitchen. I can still smell Mr. Napoleon’s incense, and I know that there would be no more cat dances under the window. After a visit from the Freemasons, some vaudou oil, and a Catholic baptism,all the gods are probably satisfied.