Subterranean Press Magazine: Winter 2008
Fiction: Ceremony (an excerpt from Black & White) by Lewis Shiner
[It is the spring of 1964. Robert Cooper works for an engineering firm that is involved in the “urban renewal”—which is to say, the near-complete destruction—of the Hayti neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina, once the most prosperous black community in the southern US. Opposing the demolition is Barrett Howard, a respected and feared black activist. Robert meets Howard, and his mistress, Mercy Richárd, at a jazz show in Hayti. Some weeks later Mercy recruits him as a chaperone to a swing dance in Hayti, with Howard’s grudging permission. Despite warnings that Mercy is involved in voodoo, Robert finds himself increasingly obsessed with her. When Robert admits as much to Howard, he promises to show that Robert doesn’t know Mercy at all. They arrange to meet in front of Elvira’s café in Hayti at midnight.]
Howard was late, and Robert began to let himself hope that nothing would happen. Elvira closed up and put him on the street, and Robert was thinking about where he was going to spend the night when Howard’s black Falcon jerked to stop in front of him. It was 12:15.
“Get in,” Howard said. Robert climbed in the passenger seat, trying to judge Howard’s mood. Not anger or triumph, but something more turned in, private, determined. Once they were moving, Howard handed him a large gray hooded sweatshirt. “Put that on. Once we get there, keep the hood up so you won’t be so conspicuous.”
Robert had speculated that wherever they were going had to do with the things Maurice had warned him about. The voodoo. He associated the word with pins in dolls and mandrake roots and stealth and subversion. Something in Howard’s grim expression said this would be confrontational. Up until that moment he had assumed that being with Howard would keep him safe. He felt the first chill of real fear.
He sniffed at the sweatshirt. It smelled clean. Mercy washed this, he thought. The idea gave him comfort. He pulled it on over his short-sleeved white shirt.
Howard said, “One other thing. I can’t let you see where I’m taking you. Obviously I can’t drive around with a blindfolded white man in my car. So I need you to kneel down on the floorboards there and lay your head down on the seat.”
“What, you mean now?”
“Now would be good.”
Robert did as he was told. The Falcon had bench seats, and with his feet against the firewall, his knees were shoved hard against the base of the seat. He folded himself as tightly as he could, put his left cheek against the vinyl, and closed his eyes.
“Good,” Howard said. “That’s good.”
Howard drove for a while in what seemed a deliberately random pattern, turning every few blocks, and Robert quickly lost all sense of direction. Then they were in the country. The air had a deep green smell and Robert heard frogs singing to the wet spring night.
The road got rougher, turning first to gravel and then to rutted dirt. Robert thought it had been at least 20 minutes since they left Hayti, probably longer. They could be halfway to Pittsboro or Wake Forest.
Howard made a slow, bumpy turn and said, “Okay, you can get up now.”
At first Robert thought there was something the matter with the car’s engine. Then he realized that what he heard was drumming. He was familiar with congas and hand drums—Chano Pozo from Cuba had played with Diz and Bird even before the mambo craze of the 50s. But these drums were wrong. They were playing much too fast. They sounded like panic, and the feeling went into Robert’s chest and legs.
Above the drums was the clank of metal, highly syncopated. The sound made Robert think of chains. And above that were the voices. Singing, ostensibly, though the highest voice, too high above the others, was more like a scream.
They tried to tell me, Robert thought. Maurice, Howard, Mitch. They all tried.
“Okay,” Robert said. He was still on his knees on the floorboards. “I believe you now. Can we go back?”
“Put the hood up on that shirt,” Howard said. “Get it down over your face. And keep those lily-white hands in your pockets or someplace.”
Robert put the hood up and got awkwardly out of the car. The sound came from a wooden structure two hundred yards away. The flat, sloping roof was corrugated steel. White light leaked out through the gaps between the vertical boards of the walls. Another twenty or more cars and pickup trucks had parked in the same empty field as Howard’s Falcon. Except for that field and the long stretch of grassy ground between it and the shed, everything in sight was old growth pine forest, dark and menacing. Haze muted the thin sliver of a moon.
Howard started walking toward the shed. Robert could not get his legs to work. “I ain’t fooling with you, now,” Howard said, looking back. “Let’s go.”
Robert stumbled forward stiffly. Like a zombie, he thought, without humor. He pulled the sleeves of the sweatshirt down over the unsightly paleness of his hands.
Howard waited until Robert caught up, then fell into step with him. “Once I get you settled, you do not move, you do not speak, you do not call attention to yourself in any way whatever. You have questions, you ask me later. You understand?”
“I can’t hear you,” Howard said.
“Yes,” Robert said. “I understand.”
An old black man, skin wrinkled like an elephant’s, stood by the opening at one end of the shed. He had a shotgun and a walkie-talkie, and Robert realized there must have been other watchers along the road. The old man nodded to Howard, who pushed aside the blanket hanging in the doorway and gestured for Robert to go in.
The place was some kind of abandoned barn, too big for a tobacco shed, maybe 40 by 60 feet. The instant they were inside Robert began to sweat. The air was thick with humidity and the drumming and singing battered him in tangible waves. What must have been a hundred candles lit the room. Their heat and the smell of burning only amplified Robert’s fear.
Four drummers sat along the left wall, playing tall, tapering drums that looked like congas. One drum had a battered blue sparkle finish, another looked crudely homemade. Two of the drummers played with open hands, two with one hand empty and the other holding a forked stick shaped like an upside down checkmark. They were bare to the waist, pouring sweat, their eyes closed or rolling back in their heads. A fifth man tapped a black iron hoe blade with an oversized nail, swaying, rapt. The rhythm loped like feet running away, the way Robert’s feet ached to run.
Five women shuffled rhythmically from side to side toward the rear of the shed. They wore loose white cotton robes and had white scarves knotted around their heads. They moved together like the fingers of a single hand. Dust from the hardpacked floor made a cloud around their feet. Whatever they were singing was not English. Maybe some kind of Haitian Creole, maybe something more ancient and African. The words came in a blur of speed, sometimes in call and response, sometimes in a jumble of frenzied chanting.
In the center of the room, a single post ran from floor to ceiling. It was white with a red stripe that spiraled up the length of it, like a perverse barber pole. Near it, a wooden model of a sailing ship, complete with paper sails, hung from a rafter. Opposite the ship was a smaller pole, three feet high, forked at the top. A woven straw bag hung from the fork.
Between the big pole and front door, drawn in the dirt and filled in with colored sand, was the symbol from St. Joseph’s church. From Mercy’s earrings.
Mercy herself was nowhere in sight. Robert’s relief far outweighed his disappointment.
Twenty people sat on three rows of wooden benches near the entrance. Howard led Robert to the farthest corner of the last bench and settled him there. For an instant he thought Howard was going to leave him there and he let Howard see that fear in his eyes. Howard shook his head sharply once, silently greeted a few of the men and women around them, and finally sat down to Robert’s right.
The drums roared to a finish and the voices carried on without them for a few seconds. When the drums started again they were slower and more melodic. A man came in through the back of the building dressed in white pants, a loose white shirt, black belt and shoes, and a bright red tie. His head was shaved and he showed a gold incisor when he smiled. His skin was a deep matte black. He carried a thin pine branch about three feet long and he was the only person in the room not sweating.
He went straight to the straw bag and pulled a bottle of rum from inside. He took a long drink and then started to draw in the dirt with the thick end of his pine bough. He drew a cross, then added circles at the end of one pair of arms and stars at the ends of the others. Then he added Xs and curlicues up and down all four arms.
“The crossroads,” Howard whispered. “He’s calling Papa Legba to open the way.” Robert, as he had been told, did not answer, did not look at him, did not acknowledge him in any way.
The priest finished the drawing, stood up, and sprinkled rum over it, holding his thumb over the neck of the bottle. Then he reached into the bag and scattered peanuts, roasted corn kernels, and dried chunks of some orange substance, maybe sweet potato, over the drawing. Finally he began to chant. Robert heard the name Legba and words that he recognized from his college French, including something about a chapeau and a grand chemin. Robert was starting to think that it was not so bad, that maybe he could endure it, when one of the women brought out the rooster.
He was speckled black and white and had a bright red comb. His feet were tied, his wings free, and unlike Robert he was giving voice to his fear. The woman could barely hold on, and the sight of him brought the crowd to its feet.
“Stand up,” Howard said, and Robert stood.
The people around Robert were singing now, writhing where they stood, and the drummers began to hit accents that cracked like gunshots, making the muscles up and down Robert’s legs twitch and jump. The priest took the rooster from the woman and made a complete circle of the room with it, the bird fighting him all the way. When he got back to the center pole he held the bird with his left hand alone, reached up with the right, and quickly wrung its neck.
Robert heard its death squawk over the drums, over the singing, over the pounding of his own heart. A spatter of white guano hit the dust at the priest’s feet and the crowd yelled approval.
The priest threw the dead bird aside and began to dance, taking hunkered, bowlegged steps, thrusting and jerking as if the spirit of the rooster had entered him. The drums changed again.
“Now Loco Atisou,” Howard said. “After Legba, always Loco.”
“Va Loco Loco Valadi,” the women sang. “Va Loco Loco Valadi.”
One by one the members of the crowd sat again. The priest drank from the rum bottle and sprayed more of it around the room.
The drums stopped.
As much as the drumming had frightened Robert, its absence was worse. The women were singing now and the priest slowly backed out of the middle of the hut to stand behind the silent drummers. The women began to move in a new formation, a rocking step that took them two paces back for every one forward, clearing a path. Everyone stared at the space they’d opened, focused, waiting.
From the rear of the shed came a noise like a ship’s foghorn, only higher, more hollow and mournful. At the first note the women stopped singing and complete silence fell for the first time. Mercy stepped into the light carrying a conch shell the size of her head. Like the other women, she wore a loose, belted white dress and headcloth, except her dress was gauzy and loosely woven and seemed to drape over her in multiple layers, tantalizing Robert with hints of the flesh underneath.
She walked to the center pole and turned her back to them, holding the conch shell with her left hand all the way into the opening, bringing the broad, flat end to her mouth. She blew into it and released the loud, alien, foghorn cry again before turning and directing a final blast toward the crowd.
Robert shifted until the woman in front of him blocked his view of Mercy’s face, and then he looked down at the dirt floor. At first he had felt the warmth that the sight of her always gave him. Then he’d seen her eyes, which were as strange and distant as the sound of the conch shell.
She handed the shell to one of the dancing women, who took it to a long low table in the rear of the shed and added it to the pile there of cakes and bottles and embroidered flags and bits of iron and images of the Catholic saints. Mercy closed her eyes and began to sing. The language was again French or something like it, and her voice was high and sweet and true, not the voice that Robert would have expected to come from that lush body. Though he could not make any sense of the words, the yearning and passionate melody spoke to him clearly.
As if answering her call, a young man entered from the front door, carrying a straw mat loaded with objects. He walked slowly, formally, bringing his feet together with each step. He was in his early twenties, with short hair and acne-scarred skin of a deep, rich brown. He was barefoot and he wore white cotton pants and a white T-shirt.
He knelt at Mercy’s feet and spread out the mat, revealing a bottle of white wine, a white enameled pot, a white paper bag, and two straw cages. In one cage were two white doves, in the other a white chicken. When he was finished he stepped away and the priest came out from behind the silent drummers. The priest reached into the paper bag and came out with what looked like a handful of white flour, which he sprinkled over the mat. Mercy was singing all this time.
The priest reached for the cage with the doves in it and Robert closed his eyes, expecting more blood. A moment later he heard the sound of wings and opened them to see that the priest had merely released them, and they were fluttering around the room, trying to find a way out.
The priest took the cover off the pot and poured some of the wine into it. He drank from the wine bottle, with an exaggerated show of pleasure that got a laugh from the crowd. Then he beckoned the young man toward him.
The other women began to sing behind Mercy. At first the melodies intertwined, then the other women became more urgent. They began to dance again and gradually Mercy stopped singing and became very still.
The young man lay down on the mat. He was trembling, which Robert thought did not bode well. The priest dipped both hands in the wine and whatever else had already been in the pot and pantomimed washing the young man’s head with them.
The drums were still quiet as the women’s voices got louder and Mercy began to sway back and forth. Her eyes were closed, but not in relaxation. Every muscle in her body was tense, the tendons in her neck and hands standing out, the movements of her legs becoming stiff and awkward.
Howard’s voice was in his ear again. “No matter what you see in the next five minutes, do not move from your seat or I will kill you.”
It looked as if someone came up behind Mercy and gave her a hard shove from behind. She went down on hands and knees in the dirt, right into the heart-shaped drawing. She stayed there for a long second, then another and another as the singing stretched the moment tighter and tighter.
When she got up she wasn’t Mercy anymore.
Something swelled inside her, something larger than she was, something of vast animal power. Whatever the thing was, it was female. Her movements were sinuous, erotic, as she swayed onto one knee, then to her feet. Her golden skin, sleek and damp in the blazing candlelight, was satin smooth, soft as a featherbed, warm as the sand on a summer beach. It cried out to be touched.
Robert’s own skin tingled. He could feel where his shirt touched the hairs of his chest, like sunburn without the pain.
She began to dance. The thing inside her seemed to exult in finding itself in such a glorious body. Robert felt its joy. The display lacked all calculation or deliberate provocation; the gauzy wrappings of her gown were confining her and it seemed the most natural thing in the world that she should pull them off, one after another, and toss them aside. There were six sheets of gauze, and when the last one fell, she was naked.
The man on the mat had come up on his elbows and turned toward her. He was breathing hard, and his erection was clearly visible through the white fabric of his pants.
Despite his fear, despite the freakish circumstances, Robert could not help being aware that this was Mercy’s body, the body he had held in his arms, fantasized about, longed for. Mercy’s full breasts, stiff dark nipples, gently rounded stomach, thick black tangle of pubic hair. Not innocently sunbathing or changing clothes, but sexually charged and provocative. Even as he was aroused he was embarrassed, repelled, angry, and jealous.
She circled the room, taking wide, strutting steps, and as she walked she twisted slowly at the waist, cupped her breasts and ran her hands down her thighs, seemingly oblivious to the eyes watching her.
When she finished her circuit she saw the man on the mat. She started toward him, walking with her legs spread wide, her toes pointed out, her crotch thrust forward.
Apparently Robert’s need to look away was not strong enough. As the man on the mat watched, hypnotized, she lowered herself slowly toward him until she was on her knees and his mouth was on her sex. Now, finally, Robert was able to close his eyes, but he could not close his ears a long minute later when she cried out, less in passion than in triumph, and when Robert’s eyes opened involuntarily he saw her rise again, laughing in unconstrained delight. The man had fallen onto the mat, eyes closed, a damp stain spreading down his trouser leg. The priest and another man came and took one arm each and helped him stagger dazedly out the front entrance.
She stood near the center pole, singing, now in a lower, harsh voice. Her eyes were wild and her chest was flushed, her nipples taut, her pubic hair wet and matted, the pink flesh of her cleft showing through. Robert’s need to be away from her, from that place, from the blinding light and piercing sounds, was now stronger than his fear of Barrett Howard, or of the priest, or of the creature that Mercy had become.
With a final, shrill cry, she collapsed in the dirt. Two of the female dancers rushed to her with a white terrycloth robe. It looked exactly like the one he’d seen her wearing that afternoon.
He stood up.
“Sit down!” Howard said, his voice muted but furious. Robert ignored him. He pushed his way past the other people on the bench and as he got to the aisle he saw Mercy out of the corner of his vision. Her eyes were open and she was staring at him. Robert looked back at her for what he was sure would be the last time.
Then he turned and walked out into the night.
He pulled off the sweatshirt as he walked and threw it into the grass. He moved quickly, not running, borne on the relief of being in the clean night air, relief that grew stronger with every step. He was beyond fear, more or less indifferent to what might happen next, with one single desire in his heart: to return to the life he’d had six months ago, a life that was orderly and understandable, with a small, tidy house, an alarm clock to wake him in the morning, a newspaper on the lawn, familiar streets to drive to work, dinner waiting when he got home.
Finally he stopped and looked back. No one pursued him. He took a deep breath and reached for his cigarettes.
The drums took off again.
The cigarette pack flew from his hand. The sound, he thought, would make him physically ill. He went to his knees, located the white pack in the deep grass, scooped it up and got a cigarette lit.
For want of another plan, he found Howard’s car and sat on the hood. He had no idea where he was, there were certainly armed guards on the roads, and if Howard wanted him dead there was no escaping it by running, not unless he kept going, out of Durham, maybe out of the country.
He sat there in something like a state of shock, arms wrapped around himself, smoking when he thought of it, for about 45 minutes. Finally Howard appeared, by himself, carrying the sweatshirt. “Get in,” he said.
Robert threw down his cigarette and opened the car door.
“Face down on the car seat, like before,” Howard said.
With mild interest, Robert processed the information. If it mattered that he not see where they were going, then Howard must mean for him to live. He got in the car and knelt on the floorboards.
Howard seemed completely without emotion. He cranked up the car, backed out, and drove over the same bumpy road they’d come in on. He was, Robert noted, driving faster. Robert grunted at a couple of worst lurches, as did the Falcon’s suspension.
Howard didn’t speak again until they were on hardtop and the cool night air was whipping through the open windows. “You got any questions?”
“Yes,” Robert said. “One question. How could you…How could you sit there, while that man…while another man…did that to Mercy?”
After a silence Howard said, “That wasn’t Mercy. That was a lwa, the lwa Erzulie.” He was quiet again for a while, then he said, “Erzulie was using Mercy’s body, that’s all. Riding her, they call it.”
Do you really believe that? Robert nearly asked. The hesitation in Howard’s voice was all the answer he needed.
When Howard told him to sit up they were in Walltown, a black neighborhood north of Duke’s East Campus. They rode in silence through downtown and then, as they turned onto Pettigrew, Howard asked him where his car was.
They parked at the curb behind the Mercury. As Robert opened the door, Howard said, “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Robert said. It came out with a bitterness that surprised him.
“Everything,” Howard said. “I’m sorry for everything.”
Robert stood on the curb and watched him drive away. It was three in the morning. Robert stank of smoke and the sour sweat of fear. He had been given what he asked for. But when he reached for the door of the Mercury, he felt as if his hand could pass right through it.