For as long as I can remember, my life has been with the dead. My grandmother made elixers, gris gris, and mixed oils to ward off spirits. Before my grandmother died, she started calling for her grandmother. “Mama, Mama!” She would say, with her hands outstretched. The sterile, backroom at my mother’s house held her dying body. For a year, I watched my grandmother, my Nan go from the land of the living and the dead with only ceiling fans to talk back to her.
On good days, she would be up at her sewing machine. Never using the machine, but making pillows. Or surging hems around curtains or tablecloths. My oldest brother, Ernest, had her make his fiancée’s veil for their wedding in December. He thought she would be alive at least until the New Year. “She too mean to die, Peggy.” He laughed when he brought the toole over and brushed my shoulder. “Sewing always gave her something to do. This project will keep her focused. Mama is worried about her mind being idle.” He looked away from me as I sat at Mama’s big dining room table, doing my math homework.
Idle. He said that word like there was vinegar attached to it. I remember getting up and walking down that long dim hall with the panel walls. I put my hand along the wall, and anchoring me between the ceiling and the floor. I heard humming as I got to the end of the hallway off the kitchen. With all the moxie I could muster as a ten-year-old girl, I exhaled before I knocked on the dented peach door.
I bit my bottom lip, knocking three times in quick succession. I heard more humming. “It still works, it still works.” I tried the door. Mama told me to never try the door. I saw my grandmother with her headwrap on, this long white scarf, pilled on her head like a crown. I stood in back of the machine, watching her shoulders and upper arms push towards the fading light of the window. The whirring of the machine captured me. She was speaking low, and in broken Creole. I didn’t know much about my great-grandmother, but I knew that she worked for either a French or Creole family. I knew that her mother before her ran away from the master that stalked her and her younger sister before the Civil War. I knew that my great, great-great grandmother had learned it and told all her children.
I knew that my grandmother was dying. But that didn’t scare me. Her not being in the house I was in raised in didn’t scare me. Not being able to see her didn’t scare me. This, this dying she was doing, scared me. It seemed to have no rhyme or reason. She would be fine and then what seemed to be sick or paranoid. The whirring of the sewing machine got louder, matching the thumping of my heart in my ears. “Just like that Mama?” she asked to the room and light beyond my own sight. She hummed the hymn again. “it will never loose it’s power.” She turned and faced the wall where her dresser was. She had her good sewing shears and nipped her index finger. I heard the whizzing and whirring of the machine stop. I watched the black housedress she wore transform into the robe for a queen from the stories I read. The big white magnolia flowers marched the white crown she wore.
“It will work, Mama. I’m leaving soon. It must work!” She turned back to the veil she created. My feet, glued to the floor. I willed them to move, an could only twitch them. “Maharet.” She said, a harsh whisper. “This is blood work I’m doing. You can’t see this. You can’t be seen seeing this yet.” The sewing machine whirring again. I saw the tinted white fabric. She spoke French again, louder, then screaming in the empty room. “Mama, it ain’t time. It’s not time.” More whirring. She muttered, she always muttered when Mama forgot to give her the tea she made for confusion. “Protection. They won’t get him. Not through this line. No.” I still couldn’t move. The whirring and heartbeats deafened me.
My grandmother took a deep breath. Her shoulders slacked. “How does it go, Maggie? Sing it for your Nan.” She often had me sing to her on nights she couldn’t sleep. I sang the song , the same one I had snuck in to sing last night because she was screaming for her long dead father.
It still works,
It still works.
The blood still works,
It will never lose its power.
I saw her shoulders slump, as she fell backwards from her sewing stool. Fingers bloody, the veil falling over her. I couldn’t move still. I watched her eyes flutter to the ceiling and then close. The room was quiet again.
[originally written 10/14/2018]