Day Five: Continued.
We’re not in that courtyard for long. Four seconds or so.
Out one door, u-turn right into another, we walk through a small room full of jarred herbs and then right into the altar room. The room itself was small, but splattered with junk.
Every inch of wall adorned itself with chiseled artifacts and drapes of fabric, statues and tokens and everything anyone had left there over the course of the past twenty-five years or so, because in the end, this is a new temple.
In the back of the small room, entertaining two young women sitting on the floor, was Priestess Miriam, cackling like chicken. She had a throne, kind of, a normal chair someone had painted and draped with...I don't know, gauze? Doused in jewelry. Leathery and soft. She sat in front of a coffee table covered with tiny jars of crap, a notebook full of repetitive lines of the same scratchy gibberish, a house phone and a big old jar full of something.
We browse, touching nothing, conquered by this treasure altar of garbage and crap and love. People left cigarettes, lollipops, sticks of gum, pencils, pennies, whatever they could as offerings to whatever divine element. Thousands of coins just lying all over the floors and the tables, in scattered piles and mason towers. Dollar bills stuffed themselves in the corners, the hands of statues, crammed into any open crevice. Dried fish, cracked ballet slippers, golf balls, sketches and photographs, burned out candles…a freaking hubcap. Everything drips onto something else.
After a couple of minutes the two girls stand up and say their goodbyes, and Priestess Miriam opens up her jar and takes a long sip.
"Girls. Come on."
We all look around. Did she mean us? She wants to talk to us?
So we step towards her. The incense is lush. You can't help but move slowly, flowing with the simple extravagance of the room. With a slight lift of your foot you can feel the thickness of your limbs, the thickness of air, you swim through that room with a heavy, hesitant ease.
Muffy slowly guides us towards Priestess Miriam and chooses a chair, and the other three girls settle onto the floor while I sit on the remaining chair. Not so much on it as in it. Its paint and limbs moan.
"Wha' can I do for you girls?" our Priestess mumbles.
How about give me some of whatever’s in that jar?
We’re silently trying to connect our eyes, hoping someone will speak first, trying to remain courteous while scanning the collection of bones and canisters, pots and jars, ceramic and glass, bike handlebars. Forks. Napkins scrawled with prayers. A dumpster of hope and gorgeous, fleeting, trashy belief.
"Well, I have a prayer request..." Muffy hesitates, leaning forward.
The Voodoo Priestess leans back and pulls a scarred hand up to her temple. "Thass a heavy requess. Wha di you have in mine?"
"Well, ummm..." Muffy suggests, fumbling. "To uh...to make good decisions."
"Ohhhh, Lord. Wha dya need to desside? Iz i' something like, for a jahb, or for a...something more impohtin? Becuz..." she's interrupted by that phone. She stops talking completely, staring at it, waiting for the ringing to stop. "I'm poplar today! You know how that iz. Somedays you have no one, talkin' to the mine and the head, wondrin' where you--" deep sigh "--gotta be. An' then somedays you gotta be...e'rywhere alls atwonce." She spasm slightly, and leans back and laughs, loud and shriekish, hiding her face in her hands.
Muffy and I both laughed, uncomfortably. This bitch crazy.
In a good way.
"I gotta whet my whistle." She takes another sip from that jar in front of her. Moonshine? Totally. There are bottles of rum and whiskey littered throughout the room, full and half-full, hidden between handmade dolls and guitar branches.
Priestess Miriam starts chatting away, pausing strategically to grab the arm of her chair and cackle and squeal at her own jokes that none of us quite understand. She rambles for a good half hour, somewhat incoherent, but eloquently so, about politics, choices, living in Chicago.
Oh, she’s originally from Mississippi, but she lived in Chicago for years, where she met Priest Oswan and planned on running away with him to Belize, leaving behind her children, the church where she acted as bishop on the South side, her job at the hospital. And they stopped in New Orleans on their way to Belize, founded this temple, and never looked back.
I feel heavy and try to concentrate on her words, because they seem to make sense, but I have no idea what she says half the time. She pauses only in her story to stare at the randomly ringing phone, cackle at the sky. Grab the arm of her chair, sip from the jar. All hopped up on spirits.
She asks what we do for a living, what brought us to New Orleans. We tell her about the soup kitchen and the train, and she spirals into some story about how no one cared about New Orleans until a catastrophe, and now everyone wants to help. Shouldn’t they want to help the places that are always in trouble, all the time?
Sometimes, I think she takes little jabs at us, as Priestess, as a beautiful, drunken, philosophical savant. No, I know she does. She flat out makes fun of us. Not to diminish our self-worth, but as a matter of perspective. What do five white girls from the Midwest know about life in New Orleans?
Because in the end, when we take our turns explaining our jobs, we aren’t a group of young women who are individually on sabbatical, teaching special ed, finishing our masters, building playgrounds, and raising money for inner-city schools, who collectively choose to head out to New Orleans to volunteer at a soup kitchen. We are unemployed, an instructor, a wayward student, a salesperson, and an office manager, and we’re on fucking Spring Break.