A walk through the McDonoghville Cemetery during the evening hours can be a strangely beautiful experience. This centuries-old gray city of the dead has a certain parklike quality to it. Tourists and locals alike are drawn to something here. Each individual seems to have their own reason.
For the tourists, it’s the lore.
For the locals, it’s the hallowed earth.
For me, it’s a bit of both.
I have a particular place I like to sit and watch the people pass by. It is a crossroad in this cemetery where I gaze upon a tomb that resembles an old stone church. From here, I can see the living and the dead. To be honest with you, they all look the same to me, and it doesn’t matter much who’s who or what’s what. I’ve been around for a while, and the space between memories being made and memories being recalled blends together. I simply come here to wait and listen for her voice.
The McDonoghville Cemetery has always drawn me. My history here began long before I moved back to New Orleans seven years ago after decades of globetrotting with my caretakers, Cammie, Jersey, and Bella. They’ve been bringing me to this particular spot at the beginning of May each year since our return so that I can sit, and listen, and pray. Jersey lights seven candles and places them around me each night. After they burn down, the ladies take me home to rest, and we repeat the ritual for six consecutive nights. This is a tradition that we have carried on for one hundred and fifty-four years in various cemeteries around the world. It’s how we determine where to go, how long to stay, and who to bring with us along the way.
“Here you are, Papa,” Jersey whispers to me each evening. “You stay right here until it’s time. Cammie and Bella will be back soon.” And each night, I can’t help but remember as the distant memories play through my mind.
I was first brought here one evening when I was seven years old.
A local priest at the time had something against my momma, Lizbeth. Father Warrant was his name. He didn’t care all that much about momma’s brand of representing Jesus in this world, and quite frankly, she didn’t give a damn much about what he thought.
Except for one thing.
Father Warrant had a reputation for going rogue with his position of authority as a Catholic priest. It was well known among the slaves in these parts that this man was hellbent on bringing witch trials to the south. And see, that mission was certain to bring him to my momma’s door.
Momma Lizbeth was a rootworker.
Well respected among our own, and even by some who came from different parts of town. She was a kind woman and tuned in to the world around her. She taught us all about where we came from. It was empowering. She understood how to manipulate the elements of life to our favor.
I suppose you may have seen a movie or two that has depicted my momma as some sort of dark queen of black magick folklore. It’s attractive, I know. But I was only seven the last time I saw her, and I didn’t see that darker side of her, except this one particular night.
It was on that night, the strawman that Father Warrant was building my momma up to be came to life. And while it ended up costing him his life, it ended up extending mine.
“Josiah,” Ida whispered, “baby, wake up. Ya momma neejah. Come with me.”
Ida was one of the trinity. The three women that momma took in as young girls after their families had been lost to pay off a gambling debt to some plantation owner over in South Carolina. Momma raised them as her own for nearly twenty years before I was even born. They were understudies in her rootworking. But to me, they were and always have been the only family I’ve known. They’ve changed their names and vessels over the years, but the souls of the trinity are ageless.
“What is it?” I asked as my legs pivoted out of bed and my feet hit the floor.
“I got no time to explain, honey,” Ida replied. “You just stay close to me and do everything I tell ya. You understand?”
“Good, now let’s go.” And with that, we made our way through the cover of night to the McDonoghville Cemetery.
The cemetery wasn’t as aged then as it is now, but it still had plenty of stories that became legends. Pinchback. Claiborne. Berhrman. Their tales are why so many come through this area these days. I come here for Lizbeth.
My momma and the trinity had been planning this evening for quite some time. Young slave women had been disappearing from or being found murdered throughout the Bayou. It didn’t take long to connect the dots and discover the common threads that linked their stories together were rootworking and Father Warrant. It was just a matter of time before he came for the trinity. And my momma wasn’t about to have any of that. This man was going to be stopped.
Ida had held me close to her side as she led me through the cemetery to the spot I am sitting at right now. There was a circle of seven candles waiting for me.
“Josiah, you remember how you been sittin’ inside this circle at home the last five nights and prayin’ till they burn down?” Ida asked as she looked deep into my eyes.
“Good. Now I need you to do the same thing here tonight,” she continued. “And no matter what happens, don’t move.”
“I understand, ma’am.”
Ida leaned in closer. “No matter what happens. Ya momma is inside that tomb over there across the way. She waitin’ for a man. He’s an evil man. Bella and Chamile went to fetch him and bring him here. When you see them come, you don’t move. Not till these candles are burned out. Then you will come.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said in agreement. “I’ll stay right here, no matter what, until these candles burn out.”
“Good boy,” Ida said with a kiss to my forehead. “I’m gonna go be with your momma now. You be still.”
And with that, Ida made her way over to the tomb and disappeared inside the cryptic cathedral.
As instructed, I sat there and waited.
This was the first time I sat inside the circle of candles outside. I began to wonder what would happen if the wind came by. Would the flames give way to nature’s breath? Would the light go out before the wax burned down?
Remarkably though, these flames didn’t even flicker. Their tips seemed to reach toward the tomb where momma and Ida were like they were waiting to receive something.
“Be still. Be still. Be still,” was the only prayer or mantra I could utter.
My eyes scanned the surroundings. Tombs towered all around me, their shadows cast by the light of the crescent moon.
My vision began to adjust to the darkness around me, and I could see a faint light coming from the tomb where momma was. I wondered what she was doing in there. Ida said she was preparing for a bad man. She didn’t usually talk to me that way.
“Be still. Be still.”
The candles were burned down about halfway now. Still no sight of Bella and Chamile. What if they didn’t come before the flame was gone? My heart was beginning to beat faster, and there was suddenly a sense of claustrophobia inside that circle.
“He’s an evil man,” came Ida’s voice inside my head. “You stay here no matter what.”
My breathing was getting heavier, and the darkness was getting closer. I once again scanned my surroundings, looking for some sign of life.
Breaking into the ever-growing darkness were two familiar voices in the distance.
There they are, I thought to myself as I looked down at the candles, which were now nearly depleted. They seemed to be burning down faster than normal tonight. Besides that, the flames now changed the direction of their reach. Instead of giving their attention to the tomb that momma was in, they were now reaching for Bella and Chamile.
Actually, more accurately, they were reaching for the man that they were leading in my direction. His hands were tied behind his back, and a potato sack covered his head. He was walking with a limp, and I figured that Bella must have had something to do with that. She’s kind of known for being able to handle things that need to be handled.
I could make out the words that Bella and Chamile were repeating over and over again as they nudged the evil man forward.
“Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters,” Bella would lead.
“Lead us to the waters, Lord. Is time for a new creation,” was Chamile’s response.
That is all they uttered as they led the man past me and towards the tomb where momma and Ida waited. As they made their way up the two steps that led to the entrance of the tiny cathedral, Ida opened the door to greet them.
“Right on time,” Ida welcomed. “Father Warrant, come meet Momma Lizbeth. I believe you know of her.”
“Cursed witch!” Those were the only words I ever heard come from that priest’s mouth.
For the first time in my life, I felt hate. I wanted to leave the circle real bad.
“Nobody talks to my momma that way,” whispered the fire that was beginning to envelop my being. Then, as if the trinity had heard the words burning inside of me, the three ladies all slowly turned their gaze towards me, and I heard their voices inside my head.
As they entered into the tomb and shut the entrance, the wax from the candles emptied on the ground around me, but the flames didn’t burn out. In fact, they grew taller and taller until they formed a trellis or a hedge around me. Their heat and light surrounded me.
I couldn’t leave now, even if I wanted to.
The burning all around me began to intensify, but I couldn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel numb at all, but I didn’t feel affected by anything either. I peered from inside my circle towards the tomb in an attempt to make sense of what was happening in there.
But it was useless. I couldn’t see anything. That didn’t matter because the globe of flame that encased me began to stretch fluidly toward the entrance of the tomb. Despite the fact that gravity was still in effect and I remained seated on the ground, my body felt as if it was bending and twisting toward the energy of the tomb.
I could hear the voices of momma and the trinity in a rhythmic incantation of old proverbs and songs, but there was violence in their tone. I could hear them so vividly that it seemed I could reach out and touch them, but they were there, and I was here.
Then suddenly, as if I were about to speak myself with a voice that wasn’t mine, the flames around me flashed. I went blind, and there was silence.
“Josiah,” I heard my mother’s voice in the darkness, “follow my voice, baby.”
“Momma, what’s happening?” I said in a much deeper voice. “Momma!”
“Follow my voice, Josiah. Momma’s right here.”
I reached out for the sound of her voice and found her. She pulled me into her embrace and held me close as she hummed a wordless hymn in my ear. I settled into her as the darkness in my vision gradually began to give way to a blurred light and then clarity in sight.
I was in the tomb alone with her.
“Momma, are you ok?” I asked. “What happened here? Where’s the trinity? Where’s the evil man?”
“Shhh, baby. Quiet now,” she said with a firmness. “The girls are taking care of the evil man. They’ll be back shortly for you. I need you to go with them.”
I turned to look out the exit of the tomb where I was sitting just a few moments before and saw nothing. No candles. No trinity. No evil man. And then I realized that I felt a lot taller. I looked down at my hands and feet, and the depth perception was much different than what I remembered.
“Momma, what happened to me?” I inquired in panic. “Momma?”
“Josiah, you listen to me right now.” Momma didn’t use this tone very often. “Ida, Bella, and Chamile are going to take care of you for a while. You need to listen to them. They’ll help you find your way. Momma has to stay here. Someday you’ll come back, and I’ll be here waiting for you.”
“Momma, why can’t you come with me. What’s happening to my body, momma?”
With that, Chamile entered the tomb and placed her hand on my shoulder.
“Papa, it’s time to go now.” Chamile gently led me out the door with her voice. “Be strong and listen to my voice. Come on now.”
I never had reason to distrust any of them, so I slowly followed her back out to the cemetery. Ida and Bella bowed their heads to me with the same reverence that they showed my momma.
I turned back for one more look at her, only to see the door to the tomb shutting.
“Papa?” Jersey’s voice snapped me out of a dream. “Papa? Are you ok? It’s almost time. Cammie and Bella will be here shortly.”
Composing myself, I looked at her and said, “I’ve been waiting for this day for 155 years, Jersey.”
She smiled and kissed me on the forehead, “I know you have, baby. I know you have. You’re almost there. Now, you remember how we do this?”
“Now you sit here in the circle. I’m gonna go be with your momma.” It was deja vu. “Cammie and Bella are bringing you a present. You be still. You know what to do.”
“I understand, Jersey.”
She smiled as she stood up straight and turned towards that old cathedral tomb, making her way inside.
The moon was a crescent again. The shadows lingered. The flames burned, and the wax melted.
It’s good to be home.
Now to explain how we got to this night, I’m going to introduce you to the candidate.
To be continued…