Monday, October 20, 2008

Blood is Thicker than Water: Marie LaVeau and Madame Legendre

The cabin where Madame Legendre lived on St. Anne Street, not far from Congo Square, was rumored to have been in the LaVeau family for generations. In actuality, this was not the case. Madame Legendre knew, like all the children of Marie LaVeau knew, that the cottage had been acquired for services rendered for some wealthy patrons some fifty years ago. Legendre knew that the cottage had been purchased by voodoo, and she did not enjoy that, particularly since she was attempting to reinstate the good name of LaVeau.

Madame herself had been called a beautiful mulatto by the newspapers when she’d arrived to bury her mother. The papers thought they’d proclaimed her beauty by saying she was angelic, almost white. This also aggravated Madame. There was an etherealness about her and the neighbors found the way Madame Legendre carried herself a startling change from the way her sister Marie Glapion did. But Glapion had taken her mother’s name and place as voodoo queen. Legendre wanted to be respectable, to recapture the qualities that made her mother well known in her last days.

As Madame tended the small cooking fire, she felt resentment that the good LaVeau name had been forgotten. Marie LaVeau had bought comforting words to condemned criminals. She had followed Catholicism as well as voodoo. Now all New Orleans remembered her for were the evil charms, the gris-gris, that she had threatened her enemies with. Legendre’s half-sister, Marie Glapion, had compounded the problem. She assumed her mother’s name and used it to grow powerful in the city. When Madame had returned to New Orleans twenty years ago, she had driven her sister out of the family cottage. Glapion had disappeared and many of her followers claimed that she was dead. Now another voodooienne calling herself Marie LaVeau had risen, and tonight, when that woman came, Madame Legendre would tell this woman in no uncertain terms what she thought of that!

Madame had received the note from the woman earlier in the day. Marie LaVeau begged an interview with Madame Legendre over matters of great importance. Well, Madame would turn the interview into one of other matters. The woman would give up her mother’s identity when she left. Madame would make sure of that.

A knock sounded on the door. Madame stirred the coals of the fire, stood, brushing her skirt clean, and went to the door. She lightly fingered the cross around her neck as protection from any evil magic this woman might mean to make. She knew God would be by her side in this, and she felt more comfortable with that knowledge.
She opened the door and stared at the woman standing outside. She was startled at the woman’s immaculate clothing and regal bearing. Perhaps this woman could help her restore her mother’s reputation if Madame allowed her to carry on the charade, provided the woman only did good works. No, Madame realized, this was wrong. She had heard terrible things of this woman that made her sister pale in comparison. This woman could influence her by her appearance, but nevertheless Madame would be firm. Marie LaVeau, as a name used by anyone, must be no more this night. “Madamoiselle,” Madame spoke politely, “please enter.”

The woman came through the door. “You hospitality is well-know, Madame. I thank you for this meeting.” Marie sat down in a chair.

Madame returned to the fire and stirred the coals. “I have meant to discuss certain matters with you for some time,” she said. “I do not approve of your using my mother’s name.” There, she had said it now. It was out in the open and now she would weather the curses of the voodoo woman, still resolute in her stubbornness to see her mother’s reputation cleansed. Nothing the woman could do to her would turn her from that.

To Madame’s surprise, the woman apologized quietly. “I am sorry. I have used your mother’s name when it suits me ever since I have been in New Orleans. I have even claimed alliance to your family. But it suits me no longer to be Marie LaVeau.”
Madame nodded. “Then perhaps we can speak civilly after all. I was afraid of you. And what you might do to me.”

Marie came over to the fire and stood by the older woman. “You should not make the mistake of trusting me. You see, I return to you your mother’s identity. I intend to take yours with me.”

Madame rose quickly. She placed the poker she had been jabbing coals with between LaVeau and herself. She was not the frail old woman she was generally believed to be, and she wouldn’t let herself murdered without a fight. “What do you mean to do?”
“I knew you mother,” this Marie LaVeau said quietly. Marie could not tell Legendre that she had taken the original Marie LaVeau’s place some fifty years ago when the voodoo queen had been injured and Shalimar as Madame Lalaurie had tried to kill many of LaVeau’s followers. She could not tell Legendre how she had become Marie LaVeau at rites and sometimes how Marie had been in two places at once during night ceremonies along Lake Ponchartrain. Nor could Marie mention how she and Marie Glapion, the second voodoo queen by the man of Marie LaVeau, made a deal for her succession to the throne when Glapion, one of the first Marie’s children, was old and she was still in the bloom of her youth Shalimar had given her so long ago. Somehow Marie did not think Madame Legendre would understand. But Marie had hoped that Madame Legendre would be instinctual in what needed to be done to do right.

“Your mother fought evil, she didn’t cause it. I wish to fight evil as well. Did you ever hear the legends about the vampires?”

Legendre furrowed her brow. She remembered a story told around the hearth. Usually one of her many brothers would bring the story up on a late stormy night, when the boys would try to make the girls scream, particularly when their mother wasn’t home. When she was one of the older girls, she would smile and watch the younger ones try the same tactics. Shortly before she left New Orleans to marry her husband, she had a long serious talk with her mother.

Mother had said there were bad things in the world, but she was sure Legendre knew, and she was protected by her own goodness. So she had told Legendre the truth about the vampires, that they were real, and that an angel, her mother thought, had come to her to help her rid her city of the evil creatures. The angel was gone as soon as the monsters were driven away. Then her mother had given Legendre the wooden box. She had said the vampires might come back, when she was gone. Since Legendre was the best of her daughters, she was to guard the box until someone asked for it. Legendre crossed herself. Someone was obviously asking. “The vampires have returned?”

Marie smiled. “Your mother did tell you. That makes my task much easier.”

Legendre took Marie into her bedroom. The two of them pushed the bed away. Legendre crouched and lifted a piece of wood from the floor. She removed a mahogany box from a hole in the floor. Marie raised an eyebrow. Surprisingly, this was the box of a casket girl, one of the early French women who had settled in New Orleans with all of her possessions in a wooden box, or casket. The original Marie LaVeau was no casket girl. She had probably acquired it as payment for services rendered. But, like all the other caskets, it was handed on from mother to daughter, with family heirlooms. Legendre opened the box. The silk interior reflected in its contents—an ornate silver cross and a long silver sword. “Take these.” Legendre began to pack clothes into a little bundle. “I will leave tonight.”

“You’re leaving? Just like that?”

Madame did not look away from her task. “There cannot be two of us, blessed one. People will talk. I will leave you to your work.” She continued to pack in her silence. Marie wondered how much the woman really knew about her, but could not dare ask.

Finally, Madame stood at the door of the small cottage on the brink of the starry night. She kissed Marie on the cheek. “Give my mother back her name. Use both of ours names for that purpose. God be with you, Placas.” Marie began down the little path away from the house.

Marie touched her cheek where the woman had kissed it. She wondered at the old Catholic woman as she walked away into the night. Marie began to change. All any late night walkers from the celebrations in Congo Square saw as they passed by the cottage on St. Anne Street was Madame Legendre waving good-bye to a late night visitor. If they looked closely enough, they would see she was waving good-bye to herself.

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