The offerings were set out at the table, and strange offerings they were too. It had not been the first time I had consulted a mambo or houngan, and even one dark night of the soul I had recourse to a bokor, for the thing I had wanted done was nothing honest priests or priestesses would touch. I had seen the veves drawn in flour and cornmeal, the bottles of rum and the plates of food, stacked piles of meat, fragrant spices and bowls of salt in different colors, rice and fried okra in Mobile, fried chicken and pig's blood in a Savannah - with the feet still on, I remembered. But not here.
The hounfor was a back room, cheap and dingy, in a house as old as the colonies; the mambo had insisted that this was the best place, for the loa liked old things, and the veves were drawn around a small table and chair that looked like something out of a black-and-white film. The table was packed with the offerings - a percolator full of strong black coffee, fresh and black as sin, but cheap brand; so too were the beans - canned beans, the cheapest you could find, she had told him, and she to hunt to find that - and a can of sweetened condensed milk, the lid open and a little molded along the edge, and besides that an old china dish heaped with white sugar. Cheapness was a thing, the mambo had told him; the loa was a frugal thing, and took its pleasures in thriftiness to the point that it almost became a vice.
The horse sat in the chair before the table, in a Goodwill suit, faded grey pinstripes carefully cleaned and ironed - the cloth worn and shiny with age. The pale brown eyes stared straight ahead, awake and sober, and before her lay a pile of blank paper and an old fashioned fountain-pen.
"Can't use no alcohol," the big woman had said; she had an accent that wasn't quite anything, one of those Southern drawls that partook of Floribama and Texas in equal measure. "Leastways, not that he knows it, though you can sneak it in sometimes. No drugs neither; he'll smell it. No, the horse need to go into this stone sober." She smiled, flicking her fat pink tongue at the gap between her front teeth.
He was of the ghede family, she said, though he was apart from Baron Samedi, Maman Bridgette and the rest. A walker in graveyards. I nodded and said nothing, as everyone took their places; young boys with typewriters hunched in each corner, beyond the veves. The mambo stood before the table, opposite the door, which the horse had her back to, starting straight ahead. I stood on the mambo's left, my back to a window. A bare 30-watt bulb hovered above the table, the only light in the room, and beneath the horse's chair a black kitten lazed.
The whole thing seemed sparse to me, from what I had known; I wanted a bonfire and dancers, smoking herbs and ululations, painted flesh and black top hats, wooden fetishes pockmarked with rusty iron nails. The mambo just smiled at me, and began to sing something low and soft, like her chest and throat were humming, and the words croaked out were a French patois with half-familiar words.
The boys began to pound the keys.
It was the drumming, I realized, as they worked through syncopated rhythms that were half-familiar, like four old pop-songs out of sync with each other, running into and around each other. The pounding filled the room, more than the song, and again I wanted the drugs, the booze, the grease on the cosmic wheels that separated the loa from us, and I stared at the horse who was the center of it all, thirteen if she was a day, her wavy black hair cropped close into a man's cut, a child in an old man's suit, the kind a white-haired old man might wear on that final trip in a pine box...
Her nostrils flared. That was the first thing I noticed, when the loa came to ride her. The mouth grew slack for a moment, and her posture straightened - was it my imagination, or did the suit seem to fill out, and her feet no more knocked at the legs, but touch the floor? Then she was on it, with fork and spoon, ravenous as she tore through the canned beans - but clean for all that, he noticed; polite, never an elbow on a table, never spilling a drop of juice. The coffee came next, downing cup after cup of it, each loaded up with plenty of canned milk and sugar, till it set his teeth on edge to think of the cavities she would get from this. And as she downed her fourth cup, the percolator almost empty, the cat crawled out from beneath the chair and mewed.
She stopped, and set the cup down at the table. Locked brown eyes with golden, flashing eyes. Then the two almost seemed to come together as one, the cat leaping as the two arms scooping down, and cat and girl together were in the chair, holding and primping and purring together. The little girl cooed, but the voice that came out was masculine, but high-pitched, with a strange Yankee accent. But it wasn't how she said it as much as what she said that caught me off guard.
"Nigger-Man," she cooed.
The mambo, who had stopped singing, smiled at me and waggled her tongue through that gap in her front teeth. "The ghede are vulgar," she said. "But the loa rides his horse. Ask him what you would, quick as quick. He doesn't like to stay long." She laughed a little. "Too many darkies. He doesn't like it."