“Sometimes you got to get yo’ hands dirty to keep yo’ house clean.”
– Mambo Lucia Deminy
The sunlight was intrusive. Without apology it barged through the grime-coated glass, brazenly assaulting Madame Vivian Luciénne’s offended eyelids. The self-professed priestess lay motionless, barely awake, squinting and staring at the ragged stretch of roof beyond the muck-crusted window. Vague remnants of a strange, recurring dream still muddied her mind. She did her best to dismiss them, trying instead to focus on the world outside, but found little beyond the glass worthy of her attention. The view was far from picturesque: a rusty, decommissioned air-conditioning unit surrounded by faded, yellow caution tape. She grew tired of watching the tattered ends flap in the breeze the same as yesterday and the day before.
Her two-weeks-and-counting stay at Mercy Hospital continued to drag on like a southern summer. Minutes stretched into excruciatingly long hours while she did little more than press the worn, red button of the morphine pump attached to her left arm in futile attempts to dull the pain.
The wound in her neck throbbed unceasingly when the medication wore off, but her overall pain lessened a bit each day. As of late, Madame Luciénne found herself pressing the button more for the escalating pain in her back than the ache in her neck, a side effect of the hateful bed currently holding her prisoner. To her dismay, the pump would not deliver more than the measured dose, no matter how many times she squeezed the useless button. Fully aware of the cruel truth, Madame Luciénne pushed it nevertheless. Her body and mind longed for relief like an addict craving a high. More than once she thought of her mother: a track-marked, emaciated junkie sitting in her own urine amid the squalor she called home, willing to give up anything for her next fix. Madame Luciénne shoved the thought back to the recesses of her mind and pressed the button again.
She slept a lot over the course of her stay, slipping in and out of a drug-induced haze. Madame Luciénne often startled awake, vivid memories of a handsome man’s azure blue eyes and his quick, slashing blade sending her heart racing, as adrenaline coursed through her body. Scenes of an old man pulling the naked, ashen corpse of a prostitute across the floor with a furniture dolly also haunted her dreams, as did images of a swirling, wine glass filled with her own blood. Sometimes the memories faded away when she pressed the button. Sometimes she pressed it just so they would.
During moments of lucidity, Vivian saw several doctors. While they all agreed her prognosis was hopeful, each remained equally amazed she was alive. One surgeon confided he only ever discussed cases like hers with next of kin, never with a survivor. She was in full cardiac arrest when the paramedics brought her in. Her heart seized from the stress of trying to rapidly circulate the precious few pints of blood left in her body. The doctors estimated Madame Luciénne lost forty-five percent of her blood volume, and none of them could explain how her feeble form was clinging to life. She took a full seven units of blood during the five-hour surgery on her neck and another two the following day. By all medical and logical reasoning, Madame Luciénne should be lying in a coffin instead of a hospital bed.
As the sun rose higher in the morning sky, Madame Luciénne silently scoffed at her physicians’ naïvety. The Voodoo underground of New Orleans was just as alive and well as she was and even more resilient. Her doctors, with all their capital letters behind their names touting advanced levels of education and extensive knowledge of human anatomy, understood nothing outside the physical realm. They may not know why Madame Luciénne’s life was spared the night Jack Haufmann left her to bleed out in the dark workroom above his store in the French Quarter, but she did. Mama Lu was no doubt responsible for that little miracle.
It was not the first time the great Mambo, Mama Lucia Deminy saved her life. A seasoned high-priestess of Haitian descent, well-respected and feared by the underworld of New Orleans, Mama Lu controlled life and death with a wave of her hand. The spirits of Voodoo did more than come to her aid; they bowed down as servants to a goddess. Mama Lu’s power and prowess were unrivaled, Madame Luciénne knew better than anyone.
Having been apprenticed to Mama Lu for a time, years ago, Vivian witnessed sinister, unnatural rituals – ones in which the victim’s soul was split from their still-living mutilated flesh. The body was left shriveled and twisted, a paralyzed shell barely clinging to life, cursed to endure years of torture as a trophy for the great Mambo.
Vivian also knew of countless times Mama Lu controlled a person’s will so completely, they carried out her bidding with no regard for the preservation of their own life. While the latter was a source of constant fascination for Madame Luciénne, the former had frightened her enough to abandon her allegiance. “Just as well,” she often thought. It was better to choose her own destiny than to have it stripped away – a certainty after Nalia arrived. From the time the abused and abandoned child was taken to raise, it was clear she would be groomed as Mama Lu’s successor, with Vivian playing second fiddle to the favored. She knew the feeling all too well and vowed long ago never to relive it. Another stinging memory of her mother flashed across Vivian’s mind. She pushed the button but found no relief.
With her back screaming in opposition, Madame Luciénne rolled over and stared at the bronze crucifix on the otherwise naked wall. There was not much else to look at in her neglected, hospital room, apart from a dying arrangement of flowers on a small stand in the far corner. The vase of white tulips and yarrow had been confined to the room nearly as long as Vivian. Someone was watering them; they held their vigor respectably, failing to wither until just days ago. There did not seem to be a card attached, and Vivian kept meaning to inquire about them but always forgot when nurses were in the room. The drugs were not kind to her memory in that regard.
She did remember asking for a mirror once but had yet to be extended the courtesy. She did not persist. Truth be told, Vivian wasn’t sure she wanted to see her reflection. The dressing on her neck was hot and itchy, the brace stiff and uncomfortable. Her scar was sure to be hideous. Having grown her own brand of hoodoo trickery into a thriving business, Madame Luciénne relied heavily on her charm to influence her clientele. Her newfound blemish was sure to be a hindrance. How would clients concentrate on her cleavage when they were staring at the salient wound on her neck? Each run-in with Mama Lu left Vivian similarly affected: alive, but scarred.
She was fortunate, she supposed. She had betrayed the great Mambo Lucia Deminy twice, historically twice more than others lived to tell about. For some reason, Mama Lu spared her, and the thought of being grateful ate at Vivian like a cancer.
The strained cry of neglected hinges pulled Madame Luciénne from her musing, followed abruptly by a piercing screech as the heavy wooden door stuck on a patch of uneven floor at the end of its path.
“No, no, no, not again!” declared a young nurse, entering the room and tugging fiercely on the door in a futile attempt to dislodge it. “Crap!” she said, finally giving up and shaking her head. Releasing a defeated sigh, she stood with her hands on her hips, staring at her unyielding nemesis.
“Problem?” coughed Madame Luciénne in a raspy voice. The word burned in her throat; she became suddenly aware of how little she actually spoke over the last two weeks.
The young nurse nearly swallowed her gum as she whipped around, startled. “You’re awake,” she said, watching Madame Luciénne raise her brow in disdain. “I’m sorry,” the nurse continued, “I don’t think you’ve ever been awake when I’ve been in before.”
“Perhaps you’ve never made such an ungodly racket before,” replied Madame Luciénne, wincing from the pain and shifting in her bed.
“Oh no, believe me, I have plenty of times,” said the nurse, without thinking. “Greta’s going to kill me. That’s my supervisor. She’s warned me a hundred times about this door. Last time she had to get maintenance up here with a pry bar to get it unstuck.”
Madame Luciénne rolled her eyes and did her best to turn her head. Her patience was razor-thin, and she had no desire to engage in idle chat-chat with one of her captors.
“I’m Edith,” said the nurse, trying to ignore the overt dismissal. “I’ve been looking in on you since you got here, just haven’t had the opportunity to talk to you yet. They reassigned me to this floor to train. Not sure why. I think Mama Lu may have had something to do with that. She’s been asking about you.”
“What did you say?” snapped Vivian, pain searing through her neck as she unwittingly whipped her head back toward the nurse.
“Mama Lu,” repeated Edith, pulling the bed sheet from Vivian’s arm and checking her IV site. “She’s been checking on you. Asked me to let her know how you were doing. She calls every couple of days to make sure you’re healing up proper.” Edith thumbed the IV’s roller clamp tightly into its groove, crimping off the drip. “I’ve got orders to DC your IV and start your pain meds by mouth. Looks like you’ll be going home soon.”
Madame Luciénne barely heard the announcement; her mind was still preoccupied with Mama Lu. Why was Mama Lucia Deminy concerned about her progress? What difference did it make? What business was it of the great Mambo?
“Her daughter dropped by yesterday,” Edith continued, pulling at a corner of the tape holding Vivian’s IV in place. “Nalia, I think her name is?”
Vivian’s lip curled, but her eyes went distant. A fleeting memory, little more than a feeling, raced through her consciousness, but it was enough to take her back to the dusty workroom above Jack Haufmann’s store: darkness, cold, desperation, emptiness… remorse? She felt the sensation of arms cradling her cold, lifeless body. Her soul moved toward the veil stretched between the worlds. She had the will to resist, but not the ability, her essence a mere leaf on the wind. Just before she breached the darkness, her soul stopped short. For an instant, Madame Luciénne saw Nalia’s face and then, a blinding white light. Her spirit lurched with a spark, like lightning filling the void in her soul, allowing warmth to float in like a gentle, rising tide. Nearly as quickly as it appeared, the imagery was lost, leaving Vivian confused and withdrawn. The sting of tape ripping her skin yanked her back to reality.
“I’m sorry,” said Edith, wincing as Vivian did the same. “Looks like your skin is really sensitive to this adhesive. I’ll bring some ointment for that.” Vivian slowly released the breath held captive by her lungs as Edith removed the IV and continued to ramble.
“I’m guessing you must know Mama Lu pretty well. Nalia told me she is going to be tying the knot. Said her friend, John, popped the question just days ago. I met him once. He seemed nice. Can you believe after all these years the great Voodoo queen is getting married? Word is Nalia is going to be taking over for her as the new queen. Nalia said…”
“I’ve heard enough about Nalia Deminy,” seethed Madame Luciénne. A longing stirred inside her at the thought of Nalia taking over Mama Lu’s position, a single ember left among the ashes of a fire long dead. Disgust rose like bile in the back of her throat. Spiteful thoughts assaulted her brain like well-thrown daggers. I should be next in line. I should be the rightful Voodoo queen of New Orleans. The power should have passed to me. If Nalia hadn’t come along, I would be running this city by now. Madame Luciénne played scenarios in her mind: how things could have been – should have been. Oh, how things would be different if I had received the power I was groomed for!
Confused by the outburst, Edith’s muscles tensed, and her defenses went up. She thought surely Madame Luciénne would be happy for Mama Lu and Nalia, but the animosity rising in the woman’s eyes told a different story – a frightening story. “The doctor should be in shortly to discuss a plan of care for after you’re discharged,” she said, placing a cotton ball and a Band-Aid over the IV site and bending Madame Luciénne’s arm at the elbow. Clearing her throat, she nervously balled bits of tape and scraps of gauze between her fingers before tossing them in the trash. “You’ll want to keep your arm bent like that for a few minutes,” she continued. “I’ve got orders for your meds. Are you in any pain right now?”
Two weeks of confinement and frustration mingled with a lifetime of disappointment further souring Madame Luciénne’s disposition. “More and more every minute,” she replied with an acid tongue.
Edith swallowed hard and turned for the door. “I’ll bring you something,” she said quietly.
“Take those cursed flowers with you,” snapped Madame Luciénne. “Throw them out; there’s not even a card on them.”
“Oh, didn’t you find it?” asked Edith, whipping around. “It got wet so I put it in the drawer to dry. It’s right there in the stand.” Edith crossed the room hoping to salvage a shred of serenity. Perhaps the card would raise her patient’s spirit, if only just. Opening the drawer, she retrieved the tiny envelope and slid the card from its pocket. “There’s no signature,” she relayed, “It just says, ‘life is like a spinning wheel.’”
Another blade of envy stabbed Madame Luciénne right in the heart. “Get them out of my sight!” she screamed, her throat burning with rage.
Edith cowered and stuffed the card into the wilting arrangement. She silently wished Madame Luciénne was sleeping today, like all the other times she checked in. Cradling the flowers in her arm, she turned to leave. As she exited the room, Edith gave a final, hopeful tug on the thick, wooden door lodged on the swollen flooring. It did not budge. “I’ll see if I can get maintenance to come up and fix this,” she said timidly as she left.
Madame Luciénne barely heard the comment for all the malicious thoughts bombarding her brain. She gave a dismissive wave and gingerly turned her head back toward the window. She did not notice the heavy door swing smoothly shut as her fingertips cut through the air.