Part 1 of 2
"What do you ask of the shells?"
"Justice." The child spoke firmly.
Rianne nodded. Shinel was her client, her first client in Oakland. Too young, but the only serious one since she'd moved here.
All her life Rianne had felt an affinity for children, had understood them, understood their language. Children had been her work, the work she had loved. Which had only made the accusations harder to bear. She'd avoided children even after the end of her "administrative leave" from state services. For over a year.
Now, though, a new leaf. A new life. A new career as a diviner. Rianne's ancestors had told her to take on any clients that came her way. The local orisha community must have been warned against her; so far Shinel had been the only one to schedule a reading. An eleven-year-old, but all Rianne could do was nod and stir the cowrie shells, clattering them against the sides of the shallow dish she used when divining.
The sound of the shells seemed loud in her quiet, sunsplashed living room. She loved her new home, bought with the settlement won in her countersuit. Light rode through the open window, coasting down from between the branches of the big willow in her back yard. Air entered as well, cool and moist, but warmer than Michigan this time of year.
"I'm gonna have justice." The child—the client—crossed her arms over her flat chest. Too young. "Nobody an nothin gettin in my way: Mama, Big Mama, none a them." She closed her mouth as if keeping secrets from escaping.
Rianne already knew what she needed to know. Shinel wanted Rianne to find out where her father was. He had gone missing two months ago. According to the client her grandmother wouldn't answer her questions about him, and her mother was full of lies.
Rianne shifted on her satin cushion and leaned against the pillow supporting her back. Her insides felt hot and hollow with fear, like a curling iron. This was one of the times to ignore how she felt; lately, there'd been plenty.
All the proper tools were in place on the floor before her. Her client had been cleansed, the ancestors had received their libation. Rianne picked the shells up in both hands, all sixteen, and poured them into the crystal goblet set on the white cloth between her and Shinel. The cowries sank below the surface of the spring water in the goblet, some fast, some drifting slowly down, trailing bubbles.
Efun: sacred chalk from West Africa. She marked her third eye with it, the back of her neck, other places, praying for clarity. Marked her client also. Then pulled the cowries out of the water, clean and dripping. She shook them damp, held them to Shinel's head.
Dong! The front doorbell rang. Dong! Dong! Dong! Dong! Five times total. Oshun's number, a blessing on the reading. But also an interruption. Rianne dropped the shells back in the water. She stood up from the floor and walked carefully around her client so as not to interrupt the flow of Shinel's alignment with heaven, the conduit between her client's head and her highest, wisest self.
The inner wooden door stood open; the heavily barred-and-screened outer door was locked. It jumped in its frame as the woman outside bashed it with her fist. "Shinel! Shinel! I know you in there! You come home! Come on now!"
The hammering woman ignored her. "Shinel! Get your behind out this door!"
Could this be her client's mother? Grandmother? Rianne was too isolated and too new to the neighborhood to know. Only a month since she'd moved in. "Mizz—Mizz—?"
"You got my baby in there? Watchoo doin? You let her out! She ain't but eleven years old—"
"I ain't talkin to you till you let her go. Shinel!" The woman raised her rough voice.
Rianne's client came to the entryway behind her. "Mama?"
"Girl, why you up here in this strange woman's house? What that white stuff on your face? Wipe it clean! Get your shoes on, come on home."
Strange woman. Rianne had moved to the Bay Area looking for the freedom to be herself, not who others wanted to believe she was. Would her client's mother investigate Rianne, take action against her? For nothing? She watched Shinel put on her pink-and-black checkered Vans and walk down the red cement steps, along the garden path and out through the gate in the green picket fence. Way too young. No more than a girl. Regardless of Rianne's innocence, being in Shinel's company could open her up to gossip, damage her reputation.
It wasn't till Rianne returned to the living room that she unfolded what Shinel had left on the white altar cloth: her offering. A fifty-dollar bill. Where had the child found that much? Rianne needed it for sure; her house was paid for, but that left the internet, the phone bill, food—she'd only been expecting twenty, maybe less, money saved up from babysitting or some chore like that. Bad enough her first client wasn't even a teenager. Now the reading had been interrupted, and how was she going to earn what she'd been paid?
A white stucco building sprawled in sun and shadow, two and three stories tall. "Malcolm X Middle School" proclaimed the brushed steel letters affixed above its Art Deco doors. Naming a public building after a black dissident; the influence of nearby Berkeley, thought Rianne.
During the week she would never have dared to approach the building, a strange woman with her history. Even today, Saturday, she carried a basket over one arm, an excuse. The school lay between her new house and the Farmer's Market at the MacArthur BART station. More or less.
She'd trusted rightly in her intuition. Shinel sat with two other girls beneath a big maple tree, watching four much smaller boys shoot baskets with a black-and-green, non-reg basketball. Rianne walked all the way up to the group of girls without them leaving. Shinel's friends were both bigger than her: taller, and with more meat on their bones.
"Hey." Shinel looked at her with curiosity masquerading as casualness.
"You, uh, left something at my place."
The bustier of the two Rianne didn't know asked, "Who she?"
"Mizz Rianne," Shinel explained. "She do hoodoo. An like tell your fortune."
Immediately the busty girl shoved one pale pink palm at Rianne. "Tell me! Tell me! Who my husband? When we gettin married?"
"You ain't believin that shit, is you?" asked the other girl. She walked away from them onto the court and grabbed the ball from a boy with half her reach.
Rianne opened her purse and got the fifty out of her wallet. "Here. Since I didn't do the reading." She handed it to Shinel. Or tried to.
The girl bit her lips and looked away. "Naw. You keep it."
"Keep it!" Glaring now, teeth bared. "I gave it to you so you help me. Now you gotta. And you ain't gettin out of it just by givin me that back."
"Shinel, I can't." Rianne felt uneasy. She saw her feelings reflected in the other girl's face as she continued, "If your mom doesn't want me to do a reading—she's your mother, in charge of you, and I—"
"What about my daddy? What about him?"
"What if he want me to do somethin, make things right, set him free—"
The pink-palmed girl had backed off. She was shaking her head, gold hoops swinging wide beneath stiff hair. "Your daddy ain't in jail, he just—"
"Shut up, Britney! You don't know nothin!" Shinel stood suddenly, fists balled tight. She took a step forward.
Rianne was at her side instantly. Old reflexes. "Okay, Shinel. Okay. Come on to the Dairy Freeze with me and we'll figure out what I can do for you."
It cost Rianne fourteen dollars and eighty six cents. The chunkiest basketball player turned out to be Shinel's little brother, and he came with them. His name was Brutus. He turned shy and solemn away from the other boys. Rianne believed he would have watched his sister eat a chili dog and drink an entire thirty-two-ounce Giant Coke Slushie without once asking her to share. She bought him a four-pack of Inch Burgers and an Orange Crush. After the children finished their meals, such as they were, she joined them in dessert, consuming a Double-Chocolate Swirlee Dipt Cone.
So she had spent part of the offering. Now she was truly committed.
Were people staring at her? That man in the Raiders hat, the lady with the walker parked by her stool? They must know she was a strange woman, out eating in a restaurant with someone else's children.
"Why come you can't just do the reading like you was gone to?" asked Shinel. She had chosen a Strawberry Shortcake Swirlee Cone, un-"Dipt."
Everyone was a potential accuser. And there was the lineage thing. Rianne tried to explain: "If your mom won't give her permission, none of your ancestors will talk to us."
"But it's about my daddy," Shinel protested. "Ain't I got no ancestors through him?"
It was a point. "Yes, but your mom's side is—closer, more powerful." Which sounded lame, but she wasn't going to give the real reason she didn't want to stir things up. The first one. Everyone was a potential accuser. Everyone.
"So what you can do?"
A good market-head on this one. Rianne wouldn't want to be opposite her in a business deal. "Well, I could put together a charm. Help you accomplish something you need to take care of, within—"
"You make me a mojo?"
"—within certain limits." Rianne emphasized the end of her sentence. "So think about what it is you want. Maybe we can get it."
She paused. Should she do this? "Take your time. Be sure."
Shinel's face shone with happiness and Brutus's with a quieter, deeper feeling. Call it joy. Rianne lowered her eyes in shame for what she had just said. Her client's mother didn't want the child to know where her daddy had gone, and she would have forbidden Rianne doing divination to find out. It was maybe a little less certain that she would put her foot down when it came to Rianne's charmwork. But only a little. However benign the intent, it would be wrong. And if discovered it would attract attention to her she definitely didn't need.
Maybe the mother would never find out.
She had no idea what else to do.
Coming back from the Dairy Freeze, Brutus talked more than Shinel, who was obviously considering what kind of mojo she wanted. Hickory Donald Clemmons: that was the name of their father. "Hick" to his friends.
They came to Rianne's house. She went in and left her client and her client's brother to walk home without her.
There weren't any other cases. Only sales calls on Rianne's answering service, only spam in response to her ad on Craig's List. She decided to divine on Hick's whereabouts for herself. No permission needed, nothing to do with Shinel's ancestors, only Rianne's own. For fast answers she relied on the simple four-cowrie method, which could yield five possible answers. All the answers had Yoruba names, which she translated to herself as "Oh, yeah!" "Yes;" "Maybe, under certain conditions;" "Most likely not;" and "No way!"
Was Hick among the living? Maybe. Under certain conditions.
How could anyone be sort of alive?
In jail, perhaps? Shinel's friend Britney had claimed otherwise, but after a quick, fruitless search of the relevant websites, Rianne cast the cowries again. Should she tell Shinel her father had been imprisoned?
Maybe. Under certain conditions.
Obviously fast answers were going to be insufficient.
Dong! Dong! Her door bell rang two times. The number of the twins, the Ibeji, guardians of innocence and harbingers of life's abundance. Sure enough, when Rianne opened the inner door there stood Shinel and Brutus.
"Hello." Rianne ignored the idea she was probably asking for trouble and let them in the heavy screen door, locking it behind them. "Shinel, you want to show Brutus how to greet Eshu?"
The girl had only done it once, but she took her task seriously and got it right: touching the floor before the sculptured cone of Eshu's head, shaking the rattle briskly as she told the great Trickster her name and errand, and asked him to be cool. "Now you." She handed her little brother the rattle and pronounced the words with him, slowly. "Now we can get up. Oh, yeah, an take off both our shoes."
Brutus stared openly at the moose antlers above the entrance to the dining room, at the Zulu spear leaning in the corner and the sequined flag becoming visible on the wall as Rianne led them to sit at the dining table. "You sure got a lots of stuff!"
She served her guests apple juice, which they sipped politely, no doubt wishing for something artificial and carbonated. Shinel removed a stenographer's notepad from her Sponge Bob backpack and pulled a cardboard rectangle from between the notepad's pages. "The mojo gotta be to bring my daddy back. I figured you could use his picture."
Rianne accepted the photo and examined it. Hick stood by a vintage pickup painted a gleaming candy-apple red, one hand on his hip, the other lying possessively along the truck's roof. His pose conveyed nonchalant acceptance of his handsome looks. Behind him the Oakland flats glimmered beneath a cloud-wrapped setting sun.
"Thank you," Rianne said. Would the picture help? She had an idea. "I'll let you put it where it goes."
The back bedroom housed her central shrine. Really, there were altars everywhere—kitchen counter; study window; by the bathtub; in the headrest of her bed—as well as Eshu and other, less visible warriors stationed at all the house's entrances. But now she took the children to a narrow white door, knocked, and ushered them into the orisha's main presence.
Mats rustled under their stocking-clad feet. Candles flickered in the sheltering gloom, shining off porcelain pots and gorgeous fabrics. Obatala, Shango, Yemaya, Oya, Olokun, Ogun—each orisha had its own area, with offerings and symbols of its attributes arranged before containers of sacred stones.
Rianne had been initiated as a priest for Oshun, goddess of love and culture, beauty, wealth, and refinement. To Oshun was dedicated the majority of the shrine room's space: half the ceiling glittered with intricately-made brass ornaments pinned to silken hangings of money green. The walls below shimmered with overlapping fans of peacock feathers: blue-green, green-gold, marked with eyes of royal purple, bronze, kohl-black. A gilt étagère held sweet-toned bells, a gold-glazed tureen bearing a golden crown, and wreaths of fresh, fragrant flowers: orchids, roses, lilies, and gardenias.
The boy gasped. The girl stood silent, speechless. Gratified by their reactions, Rianne ushered them forward to the edge of an Oriental rug. Flasks of perfume crowded together there, their crystal sides flashing brightly from among offerings of high-piled fruits and dark wine bottles. She showed Shinel how to pray on her father's picture, then present it to the goddess with both hands.
It didn't take much tutoring. Children almost always knew instinctively how to approach the orisha.
Afterwards, back in the dining room, she had second thoughts. And third and fourth ones along the same lines. What was she doing, messing in this family's business? What would Madrina say, the elder who had initiated her, trained her, far away and long ago, in a Midwest college town?
No doubt Madrina would say the same things she'd said when Rianne left her for Detroit: sad assessments of her young goddaughter's strong head and rash heart. Nor had she been any happier when Rianne returned to her house in the wake of the accusations, or later, when she left again, this time for California. Though she'd always told her goddaughter to decide things for herself, Madrina had openly been of the opinion that Rianne should have stayed near Detroit, or even gone back there again, and toughed out her accusers. They had dropped their charges. Rianne was innocent and ought to act like it.
But Rianne had chosen to leave. To come here.
Outside her new home it was still light, the spring afternoon ripening slowly, gently into evening. Shinel and Brutus ate peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches on whole wheat, the kid-friendliest food Rianne could come up with on short notice. Outside it was still light, but their mother would be missing them soon, and Rianne wanted to send them away before that happened.
Shinel tore from her steno pad the page she'd been working on between bites of sandwich. "This the woman I seen him with last time he come over our house." Rianne had lent her client a pack of twenty colored markers to supplement the ballpoint pen thrust through the pad's spiral binding. She surveyed the results.
A tall woman in a purple turban stood beside a truck obviously modeled on the one in the photo. She wore a vividly red shawl and a maroon dress. Her purple shoes had stiletto heels. Shinel had paid careful attention to the dress's details: a white lace collar over a deep, vee'd neckline; a burnt orange belt; a full skirt; long, belled sleeves ending in tight cuffs edged in more lace. It was the necklaces peeping out of the woman's décolletage that interested Rianne, though. They looked very much like elekes, the necklaces worn by those dedicated to the orisha. Another devotee? A daughter of Oya, the deity of sudden change, to judge by her outfit.
This was the woman Hick had run away with, according to Britney. Shinel had shared this theory with Rianne, but doubtfully. According to her, the turbaned woman was "old." A relative term, but it probably meant noticeably older than her father. Which was, of course, no guarantee against erotic involvement. At forty-nine, Rianne knew that for sure. She maintained herself. She'd turned down a woman's phone number on the bus not a week ago. Maybe once she'd settled in. . . .
She realized she'd been staring at Shinel's drawing for several minutes. "Okay. You go on home now. Come see me again tomorrow and I'll have your 'mojo' ready for you." Tomorrow would be Monday. "After school."
The fifty had been a confirmation gift from Big Mama. Shinel had said so when Rianne inquired about it as circumspectly as possible, and Brutus neither looked nor spoke anything to the contrary.
Rianne left the drawing of the turbaned woman on the dining room table. Her client had been unable to provide a name. Evidently Hick had declined to introduce the woman to his children. She had stayed on the street with his truck when he brought Brutus his birthday present on January 19th and sat drinking a beer with his ex-wife—Shinel and Brutus's mother. When he left their house, he drove off into the sunset with her and vanished.
Rianne took her blanket, pillow, and blue yoga pad into the back bedroom and rolled them out in front of Oshun's altar, then prostrated herself, ringing Oshun's favorite bell. She prayed for guidance. Then she slept.
Then, as she had hoped, she dreamt.
But not of Hick and where he'd gone and how to get him back. No.
On an enormous stage a thin figure in glittering black jerked its hips up and back, up and back. A tilted hat hid its face with brim and shadow. The figure moved impossibly, fast and smooth and slow at the same time, went forward sideways, whirled and stopped, whirled and stopped. One gloved hand grabbed its crotch while the other, naked, snaked high, low, left, right, then pointed straight ahead at—
—at me. Rianne shuddered, sitting up in bed. And knew who she had seen without one glimpse into his face.
Why? She'd never been a fan.
Eternal dusk dwelt in the shrine room. The windows were well covered. Rianne folded her bedding and opened the door to the dining room. Beyond the windows sunrise lightened the sky. She stowed her makeshift bed in the closet. Would she have to use it again, tonight, and maybe again after that? How long till she received guidance on how to make Shinel's "mojo?"
She wanted to be done.
Morning prayers at each altar, ringing bells and shaking rattles, knocking stones together, striking drums. Then coffee, her one vice, and scrambled eggs and toast. She wondered could she keep a hen as she dug in the back yard, creating a garden.
If she couldn't get clear of her client, if the Clemmonses thought to do some digging of their own, she wouldn't be here long enough to find out. Even though she hadn't done anything.
She sowed seeds, planted out the starts she'd bought at the BART market Saturday, ate a late lunch. Why dream of him? Was it because he, too, had been accused? Before her turn came around, Rianne had believed him guilty.
And what he'd done to his face—that was fucked up.
She gathered some of the things she would need to make any old mojo, standard ingredients she would have included regardless of what else went in: earth from a gravesite, magnetic sand, John the Conqueror root. As she weighed the relative merits of red versus white cloth, the doorbell rang. Once. Her clients, already? How had it gotten so late?
But it was Big Mama at the door.
At least Rianne thought the woman standing on her porch must be Shinel's grandmother. The resemblance was strong, much stronger than with the younger woman who had come looking for her client a few days ago.
"Hello." Rianne unfastened the heavy screen. "Come in?" Out of respect for her guest's age she didn't ask Big Mama to take her shoes off. And she knew better than to expect a woman who had to be a Christian to greet Eshu. "Have a seat." Her second offer of grape juice was accepted, but for the moment Big Mama left the glass sitting untouched on the dining room table.
"Shinel been talkin all about you. How you got so many pretty things and don't do nothin all day but work with the spirits. How you gonna help her find her daddy."
"Well, I told her I was willing to try."
"You ain't gettin no argument outta me over that. Janis—that Shinel and Brutus mother—she don't wanna hear Word One on the topic, and I do my best to respect her wish in her own home. Janis think he run off to keep from payin child support."
"But you don't, Mizz Clemmons?"
"Johnson. The Clemmons name come from Hick."
"No, I don't. After three years straight doin his duty? That makes no kinda sense."
An ally, and an unexpected one. "I have to agree with you." What kind of help could Shinel's Big Mama give her? "So what did happen, then?"
"Well, I been prayin on that, waitin for an answer." Now she sipped her grape juice, delicately. "Ain't got none yet. Meanwhile, you moved in. Shinel like you."
Rianne's mouth went suddenly dry. She gulped a swallow from her own glass. Of course Shinel liked her. Children always did.
Mizz Johnson's left hand dipped down below the table top and came up with a folded white envelope with words on it in brownish ink. "I ain't totally ignorant of how hoodoo done." She slid the envelope across to Rianne. "Here."
She spread it flat on her placemat. "Hickory Donald Clemmons," the ink read. "August 4, 2008." It was unsealed. She opened it and looked inside. Hair. A swatch of black crinkles and a few stray greys. Oh, yes, this would be useful. Rianne closed the envelope, then looked up and smiled.
"I use to cut everybody's hair, the whole family's," Mizz Johnson said. Her face was composed and serious, with only a hint of triumph in it. Showing up her daughter. "Now I know Shinel trust you, but you need to promise me won't no harm come to the man because of what I given you.
Rianne swore not to hurt Hick with a hand on her leather bible, which seemed to please Big Mama mightily. After several more quick sips of juice she stood to leave.
"Don't be expectin Shinel or Brutus over here tonight," Mizz Johnson said as Rianne unlocked the front screen. "Janis got her eyes peeled, but I'll make sure they have the chance to see you sometime this week.
"You a good woman," she added, already out on the porch. "I see them angels sittin on your shoulders."
Good, but strange, Rianne reminded herself as she shut and locked both doors.