Vodou Child

Haitian religious rites in the unlikeliest of places: a Long Island suburb

One by one, Erol and the others greet the spirits. Each supernatural being receives a similar ritual: a song, an offering (usually of rum or some other liquid), a lit candle. Everyone kneels on the floor at least once during the greeting. Occasionally, Erol dances with one or two of the women—he dances the most with Florence, whom he calls his "spiritual sister." It's a sensual dance, but not sexy. The rituals are nothing like Hollywood's version of vodou—no pentagrams, animal sacrifices, skeletons, or zombies in sight. There's actually a lot of laughter and easygoing banter during the ceremony; it's a loose atmosphere, with people getting up, walking out, using the bathroom, or sipping water throughout.

Chantal is the most moved by the ceremony and the prayer. At around midnight, she cries as she sings. Her tears and words turn to high-pitched babble—she is speaking in tongues. She faints into the arms of Florence Jean-Joseph and Huguette. Erol gently, yet quickly, walks over to help ease Chantal onto the floor and then covers her with a white sheet. Florence sprays perfume into the air. The room now smells like roses, sweat, and fried fish. Chantal rises, then staggers into a small room off the main basement area, where she flops down on a bed for 15 minutes, exhausted.

At around 1 a.m., Chantal is back before the altar. Another spirit possesses her—it's Damballah, the snake god. At first, Chantal careens around the room, as if drunk, out of control. Then she falls to the floor, writhing, belly down, contorting her body and rolling her eyes back into her skull. She hisses in time with Erol's chanting. After a few minutes, Chantal rolls over on her back and faints. Erol again covers her, tenderly. When she comes to about a minute later, she gets up and walks out of the room, groggy, as if rising from a deep sleep. When Chantal walks in a few moments later, she asks if anyone wants coffee, and if so, would they like cream or sugar.

At 4:30 a.m., Erol ties a red scarf on his head, a striking contrast to his all-white outfit and caramel-colored skin. He is singing loud, summoning Ogou, the warrior god who also represents politics and magic. It is believed that he gave power to the slaves in Haiti when they rebelled against the French government in 1804, and bestowed power again when Aristide took over in 1994. Ogou likes weapons and chaos.

In front of the altar, the woman named Huguette sits on the floor, her arms floppy and her legs stretched out in front of her like a Raggedy Ann doll. She's dressed all in white, her satiny skirt billowing around her ample hips, with a white scarf tied around her head. Her face is soaked with sweat and her eyes are half-closed, in a trance. She holds an avocado in her hands. She takes a giant, sloppy bite of the fruit, skin and all.

Chantal, her eyes round and unfocused, slowly steps to the altar. She takes hold of the machete that has been sitting on the offering table. Erol removes the red scarf from his head and ties it around the knife's handle. He sways and sings, his voice rising above the low hum of the others who are having their own private conversations with the spirit. Erol summons Ogou in Creole and Chantal steps to the altar. Still clutching the machete, she takes a bottle of Barbancourt rum with the other hand and pours half of it over her head, then carefully kneels down. Setting the machete on the floor over two rocks, she pours the rum on the two-inch-wide blade and reaches toward the altar for a pack of matches. Chantal strikes one, then ignites the alcohol-soaked blade; there's a soft blue flicker. She chants, and the words get louder as she jumps up and tries to stamp out the flame with her bare feet.

In one motion, Chantal stands up, grabbing the machete by the handle and brandishing it above her head. She screams, angry, her eyes wide and clear.

Chantal's 18-year-old daughter, a slip of a girl with her mother's wide smile who is soon going to college in upstate New York, appears at the doorway to watch. She had been sitting in front of the widescreen upstairs in the family room but heard the noise and wandered down. Dressed like a typical teenager—she's in a pink Baby Phat tank top and tiny shorts—the girl looks like a time traveler, strangely modern compared to the women in long, billowing skirts. Chantal screams, loud, and the room suddenly feels uncomfortably small and crowded. The other five women stand before the altar, swaying in unison and singing. They don't pay attention to Chantal or the machete that she's clutching in both hands.

The other women in the room push the daughter forward, in front of her mother holding the machete. Chantal takes the blade and touches her daughter, gently, on each shoulder, almost as if she's knighting the girl. Chantal looks deep into her daughter's eyes while chanting in Creole.

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