Ok, this is the chapter that pushed me over the 46K-word mark. It’s still a bit rough around the edges, and way too long—so I’ve posted the first section here, and will keep tinkering with the rest. My apologies to any native speakers of Creole—I haven’t verified these translations, and still have some research to do. Peter is Judah’s friend; he has become an important character in the sequel, and in the previous chapter he mocks Genna for believing in Hollywood’s representation of Vodou as “zombies and pins stuck in dolls.” But it’s tricky trying to expose the stereotypes *and* write respectfully about this religion. Anyway, back to work. Thanks again to everyone who offered feedback about the use of Creole.
Peter meets me after school and takes me over to his uncle’s place. My insides are twisting a bit, but Peter seems even more nervous than me. He’s talking nonstop, which isn’t like him at all. I just nod so he thinks I’m listening, but mostly I’m thinking about Judah and how happy he’ll be when I come back to him.
“My uncle’s pretty cool—I mean, he’s a doctor and everything, but he’s really down to earth and easy to talk to. Plus he’s traveled a lot—he even studied at the Sorbonne! Lots of Haitians go to France for their education—well, those who can afford it. We won our independence two hundred years ago, but that colonial tie is still strong. I’ve got an aunt who lives in Paris, and a few cousins in Montreal. Most Haitians speak Kreyol, but some also speak French. I’m not fluent, but I can get by. Right now I’m taking Spanish—Mrs. Freeman says foreign languages strengthen your college applications. What about you?”
This time a nod won’t do so I stammer out a real response. “Yeah—I mean, no. She told me that, too, but…”
“I guess you speak Spanish at home, huh?”
I shake my head and hope Peter won’t ask me to explain why. Fortunately, just at that moment we arrive at his uncle’s place. It’s one of about five brownstones tucked in between two apartment buildings. A small white marble sign hangs from a post announcing the office of Dr. S. Celestin. Peter opens the black iron gate for me, and I follow the stone path that leads to a door under the front stoop. Peter comes up behind me and presses a buzzer on the wall. The intercom crackles with static, and Peter says loudly, “Se m.” He puts his hand on the knob and waits for the buzz that unlocks the door.
I let Peter go in first. Now that we’re here, my stomach’s starting to do back flips. I’m not sure what to expect. I’m already surprised to find a voodoo priest working out of a brownstone.
Peter leads me down a short dim hallway and into a softly lit waiting room. Tiny lights hang like stars from two tracks that run along the ceiling. Half a dozen older women are seated on chairs that line the exposed brick walls. Peter greets them, then leans in and says something to the young receptionist. I can’t tell if he’s speaking Creole or French. She keeps her eyes focused on the computer screen then nods once and picks up the phone to call her boss.
I look around for an empty chair. The women here look like the same ones I see doing their shopping on Nostrand Avenue on Saturday morning. Flipping through popular magazines, they look bored and impatient, not crazed or possessed. Inside I admit to myself that I’m a little disappointed to find nothing out of the ordinary here.
Before I can sit down, Peter says, “Come on.” The receptionist lets us into Dr. Celestin’s office then closes the door behind us. I follow Peter’s lead and sit in one of the empty chairs facing a large glass desk. Everything on the desk’s tidy surface is chrome. I see my distorted reflection everywhere.
“Where’s your uncle?” I ask Peter.
“He’s just finishing up with a client. He’ll be in soon.” Peter sits back and gets comfortable in the black leather chair. I sit back, too, and wonder why Peter said “client” instead of “patient.” I lean forward and take one of the business cards stacked neatly in a chrome holder: Dr. Serge Celestin.
There is a door in one corner of the room. Just as I am wondering where it leads, a small, chocolate-colored man in a white coat opens the door and enters the office. He smiles first at Peter, then at me. “Bonjou, neve,” he says to Peter before sitting in the black leather chair behind his desk.
“Bonjou, tonton,” Peter replies. “This is my friend, Genna.”
“Hello, Genna.” Dr. Celestin’s accent doesn’t disappear the way Peter’s does when he speaks English.
I try to say hello but only a squeaky sound comes out of my mouth, so I just smile and nod instead. Dr. Celestin folds his hands together and smiles warmly at me. “How may I assist you today?”
I glance at Peter and wonder what he’s told his uncle about “my problem.” But Peter’s looking at the chrome clock on the wall like it’s more interesting than anything I have to say. I take a deep breath and begin. “I have a friend.”
Dr. Celestin nods. “Not my nephew.”
I shake my head. “No, but Peter knows him, too. His name’s Judah.”
Peter looks at me now, daring me to tell his uncle the same bizarre story I have told him. “Judah is…gone. And I need to find a way to get him back. To get back to him, I mean.”
Dr. Celestin frowns and looks confused. “I’m sorry, Genna, but I don’t see how I can help you. I am a chiropractor.” He points to the model spine dangling near his desk and my face flushes with heat. Is this some kind of joke? The doctor and I turn to Peter. Dr. Celestin’s voice loses some of its warmth as he switches from English to Creole. “Sa fè ou di l?”
Peter drops his eyes and mumbles at the floor. “I told her you might be able to help her.”
Dr. Celestin turns his eyes on me even though he’s still talking to Peter. “Li pa yonn nan nou.”
“Mwen konnen, men…li diferan,” Peter says. “She’s different.”
Dr. Celestin looks at me, his eyes searching my face for the difference his nephew claims to see. I self-consciously reach for the scratches that hold his gaze. “I had an accident,” I explain. He makes a strange sideways nod and I rush on to fill the uncomfortable space that has opened between us. “I’m here because Peter said you might be able to help me. I know this will sound crazy, but last summer I—I went back in time. And Judah did, too. Then I came back and left Judah behind—I didn’t mean to, but that’s what happened. And now I’m trying to get back to him. I need to be there, not here.”
Peter’s uncle stares at me without blinking or saying a word. With his eyes still fixed on my face he asks Peter, “Ou kwè l?”
Peter sighs, then runs his hand over his face as if to wipe away his own doubts. “They both went missing in June. Now she’s back and he’s not.” Peter pauses then adds, “I believe her.”
Dr. Celestin unlocks his graceful fingers and picks up a silver pen. He turns it between his hands for a moment. “You say you went back in time.”
“Where did you go exactly?”
“I was still in Brooklyn, but it was 1863.”
“And how did this…journey come about?”
“I was in the botanic garden—it was late at night, and I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I’d had a fight with my mother. She hit me, and I walked out.”
“And this fight was about your friend, Judah?”
I nod and look at my hands twisting nervously in my lap. “I snuck into the garden and went to my favorite fountain. I was alone, but then I heard voices…” I stop and wait to see how Dr. Celestin will react, but the expression on his face doesn’t change.
“What did they say, these voices?”
I frown and try to remember. That moment feels like it happened a lifetime ago. “They told me to run, to hide, to be careful. To keep going.” I pause, wondering if I should tell him about the ghosts.
Dr. Celestin must know I’m holding back because he asks, “And as these voices spoke to you, what did you see?”
“Just a little boy, at first. He said, ‘Don’t leave me.’” I clear my throat and try to blink back the tears gathering in my eyes. “Then I saw a woman. She was dressed in old-fashioned clothes. They all were.”
“These ghosts—did they touch you?”
I start to shake my head then stop. “I don’t know. They vanished and then I saw a penny on the ground. I wanted to make a wish in the fountain but something wasn’t right—the penny was too heavy, and the air was cold and…thick. And then security showed up and the voices returned and I could feel hands tugging at my body. Then someone fired a gun. I felt a flash of pain…” I shrug. None of it makes any sense. “Then everything went dark.”
Dr. Celestin watches me for a moment, then hands me a box of tissues. I take one and whisper “thank you” before wiping away the salty tears that are stinging my scratched face.
“Had you indeed been shot?”
“No. When I woke up I was in an ash dump—that’s what the garden used to be. I was on my stomach and it was snowing but my back was on fire. I’d been beaten by someone…but I couldn’t remember what had happened to me, or why. All I felt was the pain.” I shudder at the memory of being tied to the bed at the orphanage, my dress cut away from my bloody, blistered skin. “I still have the scars on my back.” I will show them to him if he asks me to. He’s a doctor—he knows my body can’t lie.
But Dr. Celestin doesn’t ask for proof. He simply sets the silver pen down on the desk, folds his hands once more, and looks at me. “It is possible the ancestors summoned you.”
“You mean those ghosts were—they were related to me?”
“It is possible, yes.”
“But…then how did I come back? And why didn’t Judah come, too?
“Perhaps his work there is not yet done.”
A hundred other questions flood my mind but I keep my mouth shut. Work? It’s hard to believe Judah and I were “on assignment” in the past. If our ancestors needed something, why didn’t they tell us what it was? And why did they make us suffer so much?
Dr. Celestin glances at the clock on the wall. “I do not wish to be rude, but I’m afraid I have other patients to see.”
Peter stands up but I’m not ready to leave yet. I haven’t got what I came here for. “So how do I get back to Judah? I mean, is there a way to contact my ancestors—to make them pull me back in time again?”
“The ancestors inhabit the spirit world, Genna. You cannot make them do anything.”
Desperation loosens my tongue. “I know—I read that online. You have to make an offering first, right? Peter says that’s what you do.” I reach down and force my trembling hands to unzip my book bag. “You probably think I don’t know anything about voodoo. But I’ve been doing some research,” I say as I pull the books out one by one and set them on the edge of his desk. Dr. Celestin only glances at the different covers, but his disdain is obvious—A Beginner’s Guide to Black Magic, The Book of Vodou: charms and rituals to empower your life, and Doktor Snake’s Voodoo Spellbook: spells, curses, and folk magic for all your needs. Peter looks like he wishes he could sink through the floor. For a moment I wish I could, too. But I don’t have time to be embarrassed by my own ignorance. I am here because I need information.
Dr. Celestin seems to read my mind because he clears his throat and says, “The answers you seek cannot be found in any book, Genna.”
I will myself not to cry as I pull the books onto my lap. “But…I don’t know where else to look.”
For just a moment, Dr. Celestin looks at me the way my father used to when I was a child. But I don’t want him to pity me. I want him to tell me how to reach Judah. Instead Dr. Celestin softens his voice and says, “Sometimes we search outside ourselves for what is already within.”
What’s that supposed to mean? It sounds like something you’d find inside a fortune cookie. Anger starts bubbling up my throat. I look at Peter but he is steadily watching the floor.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Celestin says as he pushes his chair back from the desk and stands. “I’m afraid I cannot help you.”
“But…I can pay you—I have money!”
“Genna—” Peter tries to shut me up but my mouth fills with more and more words. Don’t turn me away. Please don’t turn me away… “You help people—I know you do. Why won’t you help me? Is it because I’m American?”
A sad smile crosses his face as Dr. Celestin prepares to show us the door. “No, Genna. I cannot help you because you lack the proper konesans.”
“Connay—what? What’s that? I’ll get it—whatever it is, I’ll get it!”
Peter scowls but accepts his role as translator. “Konesans means knowledge, Genna. It’s not something you can buy at the botanica.”
Dr. Celestin looks sad and sympathetic at the same time. “The Power you seek is reserved for those who truly believe and are willing to serve. There are tools you must use, and it takes time to learn how to handle them with respect. Initiation is required, and only a few are chosen.”
Suddenly I am on my feet. The books tumble to the floor and my voice hits the roof. “I don’t have time! And I’ve already been chosen—you said so yourself. The ghosts in the garden that night—they spoke to me, they picked me!”
Peter snatches up the books I just dropped and then grabs me by the arm. “Let’s go—now.” He tries to drag me toward the door but I yank my arm away and stoop down to grab my book bag. I want to say something sharp that will hurt Dr. Celestin the way he has hurt me, but all I can manage is a sullen, “Thanks for nothing.”
The women in the waiting area look up as I stumble out of the doctor’s office and make my way toward the front door. My eyes are almost blind with tears, but my ears are clear. Behind me I hear Dr. Celestin giving instructions to Peter: Help her to understand.
I am through asking others for help. From now on, I vow, I will handle my business myself. No one understands what it’s like to live this way, with my body in one world and my heart in another. I hurry away from Dr. Celestin’s brownstone and make my way up to the parkway. By the time Peter finds me, my eyes are dry. I’ve decided I will not shed any more tears. Like Nannie, from now on, I’m keeping my salt.