Dropping her sweater on the back of a high-back cane rocker, Lena walked to the oversized French doors overlooking the deck, her yard beyond and the river beyond that and threw them open. Many nights she slept with the alarm system off so she could leave the French doors on that side of the house open and feel the night air and the breeze from the river.
The railings around the edges of the sprawling winding cypress deck that wrapped around the house and a huge nearby oak tree were a mass of tiny white flowers and dark shiny cupped leaves that exuded a heavy exotically sweet smell all the way over to where Lena stood inside the door. The scent of the jasmine drew her to the door and outside.
She was surprised at the changes out there. It seemed that in the week since Sister had come through on her way to a year's sabbatical in Sierra Leone and they had been out on the deck, vines and trees and plants on her property had exploded with color, scent and life. Azalea bushes that were mere shrubbery the week before were now mountains of white and pink and red blossoms. The weeping willows and weeping mulberry trees had been mere reeds blowing in the March wind. Now they were all--fifteen of them along the riverbanks--shimmering with the verdant haze of new growth.
Among the willows and mulberry and the azaleas and tangles of wisteria, a powwow of lightning bugs seemed to be assembling. Lena didn't know when she had seen so many among her woods.
"It's so early in the year, not even early summer, for them to be around," she said as she stood there watching the fairy show the insects were putting on in the woods.
She had to chuckle as her gaze landed on the remnants of the ceremony she and Sister had performed out on the deck--"It's best if it takes place outside," Sister had said--in the light of the new moon.
"Lena, you are a little foolish fool," she said to herself gently.
It had been a ceremony to summon up a man for Lena, a wonderful man, a sexy man, a wise man, a generous-spirited man, a smart man, a funny man, a loyal man, her man.
All week, she had felt a little silly telling James Petersen not to disturb the site, but Sister had warned her not to move any of the elements of the ceremony ("Even if it rains") or the rites would be void or the results turned inside out. James had silently shook his head, chuckled and said, "Okay."
The half-burned candles; the silver and black snakeskin that was a twenty-five-year-old gift from her brother Edward, who was obsessed with reptiles; the vial of salt; the pictures of saints; the water from Florida. All the elements were still there.
They had both been a bit tipsy from the home brew Sister had smuggled in from her last trip to Guadeloupe. "Girl, as long as I have a piece of your hair or one of your fingernail clippings and your picture with me in the bag," she would tell Lena all the time after some trip in which she had safely and easily brought back contraband, "I can get anything I want through any customs in the world. They just wave me on through."
She had warned Lena, "This stuff is strong, yeah. This stuff don't play," when she set the tall recycled rum bottle on the deep long picnic table that had once sat in Lena's family's breakfast room. But they poured themselves a couple of fingers of the smooth strong brew into two crystal goblets. And while they stood and sampled from the pots of delicious food on the stove, they kept sipping.
"Shoot, Lena, I remember the kind of stuff you used to do down home at school and the dreams and night visions you told me about before we went to see Aunt Delphie in Vieux CarrÚ," Sister had said as she drew bottles rolled in brown paper with red twine twisted around them from a croaker sack in her carry-on bag she had placed on the breakfast room table. Then she brought out different-colored candles--white for peace, pink for love, red for winning. "And I know the rituals and stuff. So I don't see any reason why the two of us together can't call up just about anything we want."
Thinking back on that strange night, Lena muttered to herself, "And we were just high and tipsy and silly enough to think we could do it, too."
They had even smoked a couple of joints Sister had been reckless enough to bring back from Jamaica or some island the month before.
As they moved around Lena's house and deck, giggling and bumping into each other and giggling some more, Lena heard Sister muttering and chanting all kinds of things in preparation for the ritual.
"Shoot," Sister said under her breath, "I just can't go out the country and leave my girl with nobody to watch over and protect her. Lord, I hope this does some good. Oshun, Our Mother, help us."
Even as tipsy as they both were, Lena knew that the ritual she recalled hadn't been completely authentic, couldn't have been. Halfway through the ceremony, Sister admitted she had forgotten the exact words to say and could not read her own writing, so she winged it. Lena remembered seeing her hesitate over whether to light the pink candle or the white candle first.
Then, she sucked her teeth and pulled a crystal vial from her bag. She uncorked the top and stuck her index finger in.
"Stick out your tongue," Sister had instructed Lena, and placed a dab of salt on the tip. She dipped the same finger in the small crystal box and placed a dot of the salt on her own tongue and swallowed.
"That's so we speak the truth in what we ask for and in what we truly want," she explained as she recorked the vial and placed it on the altar they had constructed there on the deck.
"You know, Lena, you need some more lights leading to your altars outside. With all these trees growing like something in a myth, it seems to be getting darker and darker out here."
Then Sister struck a big wooden kitchen match from the matchbox Lena handed her and lit another pink candle.
"I don't know why we never did this before," Lena said as she walked around the large guest room on the west side of her house where Sister was staying. The furniture in the room was Nellie's original angular blond guest-bedroom furniture that was all the vogue in the fifties. It had been in the attic on Forest Avenue for two decades when Nellie had given it to Lena for her guest room. And now it was back in style.
Sister had just chuckled when she saw Lena's room in its original state. "Miss Nellie was nothing if not current." She remembered the stylish woman she had first seen standing on the railroad station platform in Mulberry at Easter break her freshman year at Xavier. Lena's mother had looked fresh from the streets of New York or Paris in her cool, stylish, sleeveless seersucker dress in green and white puckered stripes and her high-heeled leather mules and a straw bag. Sister had always wanted a mother like Nellie. Her own mother, a stolid Louisiana bayou woman with all kinds of people in her background, was more a country woman, good, loving, true. But not a modern, slim, beautiful woman who was comfortable on the streets of the city. Sister's mother didn't even like to come to New Orleans, practically a stone's throw across the river from her country home, because its pace was too fast, its sights too varied.
Even now, with Nellie dead and her own mother still living three doors down from her to be a doting, comfortable grandmother to her own three boys, Sister felt a twinge of guilt over her secret wish to have a mother like Lena's.
But then, Sister had a number of secret wishes.
"Shoot, Lena, even though I really want to call you up a man, I have to keep myself from being so jealous of my students and single folks and you sometimes when I think you can go out and date . . ."
"Date?" Lena asked slyly.
"Or whatever it is you young single people call it now," Sister answered with a smile. "Whoever you want. It's not that I want anyone else. Douglas is a good man and God knows we've been through things together, weathered so much. But sometimes I would gladly give over my eldest child just to be able to smell another man.
"Sometimes I catch a ride with one of my single students just so I can sit in his car a few minutes and smell his smell, a new one, a different one, one that I don't know inside and out. Shoot, I can tell you right now what Douglas smell like at any given time. Ask me!!"
"Well," Lena said, "I have smelled my share and I guess yours, too, and knowing, being able to recall one man's scent sounds pretty good to me."
Lena had dated and smelled her share of men. But it never went anywhere. For her, it was difficult getting past the first-time attempt at lovemaking.
As long as the relationship remained this side of intimacy, everything was fine. Lena would sense a stray thought sometimes or an embarrassing moment, but rarely would she feel some man's ugly secret until they were nearly in the throes of passion. It was only when they touched each other intimately or kissed deeply that the man's thoughts and past came seeping out for Lena to hear and see right there as he inched his hand up the darker skin of her inner thigh. She would steel her hand right on the buckle of his pants or the flap of his zipper, trying to forge on, to concentrate on the act.
It got to the point that before each date or setup Lena had she would first pray, "Dear Lord, don't let me see so early." But it was always the same. She would see early enough to stop herself from being able to have a fulfilling sexual encounter.
She had grabbed up her clothes and purse and shoes so many times and rushed for the nearest exit while her date lay on the sofa or the floor or the bed of his place and wonder what the hell just happened. The same scene had happened so often in her twenties and even into her thirties that she had just finally given up on getting past some kissing and fondling and stroking. It was finally too frustrating for her.
When a man told her, "Well, Lena, I don't know what I did wrong, but give me another chance," she wanted to yell at him, "Go! You got diamonds in your back. You look better going than coming to me!" the way Frank Petersen had said under his breath when Lena's grandmama had flounced out of the house on Forest Avenue when Lena was little because Grandmama claimed she could smell "that stinking wino's nasty cigarette smoke."
Even Frank Petersen finally had stopped making fun of Lena's gentlemen callers because he came to fear that he was somehow impeding her progress as wife and mother.
"Good God from Gulfport, Lena, that Negro sho' got a big head. If his head was a hog's head, I'd work a whole year for it!" Frank Petersen would say as he came into the house after passing one of Lena's friends on the way out. But a few years before he died, he started keeping his opinions and critiques to himself. Then he progressed to, "Well, Lena, that one wasn't so bad, was he?"
If Frank Petersen hadn't died of liver failure when he did, Lena was sure he would have eventually started placing ads in the personals for her:
"Rich, good-looking, healthy woman looking for a man!"
If Sister's ceremony to conjure her up a man worked, she wouldn't need an ad.
"When was the last time we did this?" Sister asked as she proudly unwrapped a dried two-prong root and propped it up against the red plaid cloth it had come in.
"Not since college," Lena answered. And then spying the root. "Ooo, Adam and Eve root?"
"Uh-huh," Sister said casually. "I even got an Adam and Eve and the Children root at home. But I figured we'd just work on you and him for now."
"You sound so sure of yourself, Sister," Lena said.
"Well, girlfriend, I feel that way. I brought all this medicine with me, and I haven't talked to you about anything like this having to do with you in twenty years. And here you are agreeing to do the ceremony. It feels right.
"All you need is to just have your cat scratched," her friend continued. She said it matter-of-factly, not as a joke or anything lighthearted, just as one solution to the problem. Lena noted it was the solution of a woman who had been married to the same virile man for twenty-something years.
But Lena took her friend's comment seriously anyway.
She watched Sister continue to take items out of her croaker sack. They were things that Sister had from a ceremony she had attended at the International Yoruba Festival the year before in Cuba. Sister was so pleased she had had the presence of mind while there to go to some highly recommended botanicals to purchase herbs and roots and seeds for ritual and for planting. It felt good helping Lena. Sister knew how many folks Lena helped, herself included.
On Lena's land, the gardener had planted a number of herbs--skullcap and tilo and valerian. Other than the mild teas Lena sometimes prepared for her older friends who had problems with their nerves or slices of valerian root she dried for them to place in their pillows, she used most of the plants in flower arrangements.
"Umm," Sister had said, picking up her ancient-looking canvas bag and searching through it again. "I thought I had a picture of Mary Magdalene in here. She'd help us with the love thing. You do want love, too, don't you?" Sister asked Lena as if she were her hairdresser asking if she wanted her ends clipped with that shampoo.
Lena had chuckled a little grunt and said, "Sure."
"Yeah," Sister agreed, going back to her bag one more time to look for the saint's picture, "that's what you really need, yeah?"
"Uh-huh," Lena said vaguely. She was trying to remember where she had recently seen a picture of Mary Magdalene in her house. But after the rum and a couple of tokes on the joint Sister had rolled, Lena was having difficulty recalling anything.
"Bring a Bible while you in there, Lena," Sister had called.
"Okay. You need any more candles?" Lena had replied.
"Nope, we got enough," Sister had called back.
Lena walked unsteadily back inside to the wall of recessed bookcases in the great room and pulled down a volume, then she paused a moment at the rows of candles--votive, tapers, tall fat scented ones--she kept on the table and sideboard and in the rolltop desk and all around her house that she was always too tired to light at night.
Seeing the candles again now as she walked back into the house through the white French doors of the pool room and continued undressing, she wondered what she could have been thinking, lighting candles and praying out on the deck with Sister.
She and Sister had completed the ceremony that night a week before, but much of the rest of the evening was a blur.
"Calling me up a man, indeed!" she said aloud, and sucked her teeth.
Her temples still throbbed, and she knew a swim would help to clear her head.
Wiggling out of her short champagne silk slip and tap panties and popping open her satin bra, she headed for the deep end of the pool. She had left the doors to the deck open and was surprised that the scent of the jasmine permeated all the way to the far wall, where it even overwhelmed the fresh clean smell of eucalyptus oil coming from the cedar-lined sauna. Droppin