Don tries to imagine how it would have been in Queen Marie's time. A whole crowd gathered, all joining their shouts, firelight flashing in the sway of bodies. Tries to imagine the power that must have hung in the air.
He treads closer, feet silent on the soft ground, hiding himself in the tree-line slightly off to the right. The drumming halts for a brief moment, then starts up again in a different tone. Higher. A different drum. Then it changes again, and the sounds begin to cycle. Three of them. And the voice that he knows, but doesn't really.
Adelaide stands to the edge of the circle, closest to the black lapping water. Her eyes are closed, her head thrown back and her mouth open. Before her are the drums that Don last saw on a dull concrete floor next to a haphazard mound of bedding. Her face is covered in bruises, a cut on her forehead and a deep swelling along her right cheekbone, all familiar from his vision on the second night.
Beyond the circle, the five figures begin to stir. Muttering can be heard, jabs and cursing. The drumming and singing begins to build up in speed, rolling like a huge wave until it crashes and breaks into jarring silence.
The murmuring of the men cuts off too, and Don can see why. Two snakes are slithering forward over the pale dusted lines, scales gleaming and their thin forked tongues lapping hungrily at the light breeze. One is of pure white, and the other shimmering from red down to violet.
The second settles to the left of the huge veve, while the first continues on out to the side. A snap of jaws and ropes fall to the ground, a figure rising hesitantly as the long body flattens and curls its back half into a loop against the ground around both feet. Slowly it begins to glide back to the centre, urging the human along with it.
Adelaide turns and takes a few steps until she's before him when he stills, staring into him unblinkingly. "Nicolo Rossi," she says. The oldest man of the five, if Don remembers correctly. "Do you know where you are?"
His eyes are wide, flicking between the snake at his feet and the ghost in front. "The river," he says finally in a breath.
"This is where, four years ago, the five of you came upon a twenty-year-old girl on a walk, brutalised her and left her bleeding in the dirt."
Rossi shakes his head almost frantically. "No. I had nothing to do with that."
"Perhaps true. Three went on with barely a glance, and only two stopped and stayed and moved in once the others were out of sight. But which three is no longer of consequence, because you were all there seven days ago."
The man tries to step back, but the white snake coils tight. He opens his mouth, maybe to yell or to plead, but Adelaide is already turning away. She walks to the opposite end from where she started on soundless feet, where the candlelight falls on reaching branches. From within her coat she draws a small cloth bag, which she reaches up to hang off one twig before taking out another. Four are hung before she steps back and throws her arms up with another cry.
Then for a minute nothing happens. Even the snakes are frozen, heads reared as if waiting for something. Only Rossi moves, head continuing to whip around and gaze darting, until suddenly it stops and his features smooth out.
The snake unwinds and takes his place on the other side to his mate, and the man stays perfectly still. There's lightness and airiness about his manner, and his eyes still wander but not in anxiety. In front of him, Adelaide bends to pick up a large, knotted stick from among the tree roots, walking back to hand it to Rossi who takes it and holds it like a staff.
Something turns in Don’s mind: “Since Loko is the personification of plants, it can be hard to see when he mounts someone. He is recognisable by a stick he carries in his hand.”
The stillness breaks, then both snakes move. Two more men are released and led to their circle behind their fellows, followed by the last two. There's nothing keeping them there except for fear and shock, staring at the first man who slowly turns to face them.
"Murder," he says. "The worst crime to be done from one to another."
"Some murder," one mutters, sneering at where Adelaide stands. He is ignored.
"You will turns yourselves in," she says, voice clear and cutting through.
"We will all turn ourselves in," Rossi who isn't Rossi repeats.
"To who?" the youngest-looking man sneers. "The cops? They're all begging to be bought. Didn't even look into that 'murder' for a whole day before they were asking us how much we'd fork over to keep it quiet."
A head is cocked, considering, as a second hand moves to idly slide over the makeshift staff. "Yes, perhaps you are right." Eyes more than earthly fix the four. "You have all stolen, hurt, and killed. Two of you have violated and the other three didn't stop it. Judgement is made."
Then that hand leaves the staff again and is drawing a gun from a Rossi's pocket. Two shots crack in the quietness before anyone can move, then the shouts break out. A third man goes down, but the fourth is drawing too as if he's only just remembered he's armed and gets off his own.
Rossi stumbles and falls to one knee as blood gushes from his shoulder. The remaining man steps forwards, cocking his pistol again to finish the job, but it's knocked away as his legs are kicked out from under him. Two large hands wrap around his neck, blood not his own dripping down to stain his shirt as he gasps and flops before finally falling still.
Rossi turns to Adelaide for one last glance, then slumps to the ground. His eyes seem to clear for just a moment, the floating look giving way to horror before they go glassy. The staff rolls away from his hand a second before the fingers drop limp.
Don sees it all flash in a haze. His heart is its own drum in his chest, breaths coming in harsh pants. He's never seen death before.
Four bodies lie on the shore, red spilling onto the earth. The snakes fall out of their vigil and begin to slither around them, sweeping their large bodies. Erasing the veve, Don realises. Erasing all evidence of the ritual.
Adelaide too turns away and begins to blow out the candles one by one, taking them up and placing them in a pile with the drums. The staff is kicked away, where it lies nothing more than another fallen stick. Everything is cleared but for the single lamp when she speaks, back still to the tree-line.
"You can come out now."
Don freezes. He almost thinks he's misheard. The snakes finish their task and slither back to her sides, and she reaches her arms down to take them. The moon is starting to peek out from behind a cloud now, silver mixing with orange on that wide strip of shore.
It's not his sister. It wasn't his sister staring through that apartment door four years ago, it wasn't his sister beaten down in alley he's never seen last week, it wasn't his sister just now in the middle of the firelight with her arms raised and her voice terrible. She turns, white and rainbow coiling up both arms as she stands illuminated in the dancing flickers, and then suddenly he knows.
He takes a single step forward, out of the shadows and into the light.
"Hello, Ms. Laveau."
* * *
The moon is shining brightly by the time the lamp is extinguished, pulled out of the ground still lit and taken to the water where its burning head is doused in the waves. The bodies are mere black shapes behind them, the snakes already slithered away into the darkness.
"Are you going to hurt me?" Marie asks.
"Why would I do that?"
She seems almost taken aback before she looks away. "It was this exact spot," she says sofly. "She liked to walk along the bayou at night, beside the water. Then one night those men stumbled into her." She looks back where the biggest one lies. "Rossi was their leader of sorts, their motivator. The three brothers were descended from the original Matrangas through some marriage line or other, he was their cousin who said that they should claim their old right again. Maretti was a friend, if you could really call him that, pulled along for the ride." She walks back up to lay the lamp down with her other objects. "It was right at their beginning of their 'careers', coming back from a night of drinking, high on their new resolve. Adelaide was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Even with her unfamiliar manner, her strange gait, there are parts of his sister Don can see. The way she brushes an idle strand of hair behind her ear hits him with a flood of memories of the same little action over years of childhood. The way she holds her left hand at an slightly unnatural angle from her body due to a fall down the stairs that broke her wrist when she was nine years old. "And that's when you found her."
"Yes." She turns to look into his eyes, gaze searching and pleading. "I didn't force her, I didn't hurt her, I promise. She was dying, Don. She had her phone in her pocket and her body could be saved if she got to a hospital fast enough, but rape is one of the worst things you do to a mind. Her will was broken. Her spirit was fading."
Don exhales hard. "Have you done this before? To other people?"
"Yes," she admits. "But not many. And not for many years. I've lingered here in the bayou, and I'd seen your sister before. She had something in her, something worth preserving, and this was the only way I could."
"She always was amazing."
Marie turns away again, making her way from the scene and into the cover of the trees. "Her memories of the attack were clouded. I saw the men when they first stumbled around the bend, but not which ones went and which ones stayed. So I followed them, and made sure none of them did it again. They weren't really gang members, just bored little boys with simple jobs and too much family money to ride on, who banded together every now and then to hit something for the thrill. All easy enough to see, especially with my extra two sets of helping eyes." She nods in a vague general direction. "I couldn't have taken that to the police anyway, even if they weren't being paid off."
"So you stopped them yourself."
She nods. "At the start I only got there afterwards, they must have spent a little while wondering how their robbery acquisitions kept disappearing, as well as a few other things I managed. It wasn't until later that I gathered enough information to start getting there first. There weren't any more attempted rapes, so I put it down to one drunk anomaly. So long as they didn't do anything I couldn't stop, there was no need to do anything more extreme." Her jaw draws up right. "But then things started getting worse. Rossi wanted to step up their game, then I made a mistake."
Don reaches out to lay a hand on the cloth-covered shoulder, taking in the twisted body and expression that didn't quite mask all her pain. He remembers the list of injures Bryson gave him one week and so long ago, and he can see them all now.
"You were dead, weren't you? You still should be."
She bunches her cloak up tighter. "Yes. But he who guards the way let me go before I passed."
"Your body is still hurt."
Marie waves him off. "It will heal."
"But not well."
"It is all I can do."
"No it's not." Don clasps her shoulder again, turning her around and bringing them to a halt. "I saw, I heard. You could have used me." Don gives a hard swallow, taking a step back that presses him against a trunk. "They said you need my blood. How much of it?"
Unexpectedly, Marie smiles. "None of it," she says and smiles again at his confusion. "Or all of it, you could say. But forget what the movies say, Voodoo isn't all about curses and sacrifices. They are involved sometimes, yes, and there is darkness, yes, but here we work to find the balance." She steps forward to place a hand on his cheek. "The blood we need isn't your hurt, but your love. The blood that you share with Adelaide, that's what we mean. The strength of your bond with her. You feel it, don't you? Calling to you. It's been stronger since you arrived here, I expect that's how you saw all this, but it was there before too. It's always been there." Marie places a gently hand on his cheek. "That is what heals. And I could never take that. You have to give it."
Time passes. Don's mind whirls. Adelaide's face swims before his eyes. Then, slowly, he nods. "Then I give it."
* * *
There's no drumming this time, no calling. Marie simply takes out another of those small cloth bags and hands it to him. "An offering," she explains. "To bring Loko back. But we need only be gentle this time, for now we want him for healing."
He turns and hangs it on a branch as he saw her do earlier. Time goes by in silence, and he finds himself wondering what he's waiting for.
Then it hits him.
It's not invasive, or painful. It's a curious sensation, like his mind is being directed, lifted. He is the wind through the trees, the freshly sprouted leaves that flutter and dance, the flowers which bloom and turn their smiling faces towards the sun. He feels the world surging inside him, and life. So much life.
An action that isn't quite his own raises his hand to pluck out a leaf beside his offering. He spins and closes his eyes, reaching out to Marie. Fingers trace her hair, her face, and he lifts the leaf to her cheek to kiss her with it between them.
"Live," he says, and it all sounds far away. "Be whole. Be strong."
His hand moves down to slip the leaf into his mouth, and he feels her throat contract as she swallows. A sudden warmth explodes in him, and his eyes snap open to catch one last glimpse of her aglow in the moonlight before something releases in his mind and it all fades to black.
* * *
He's woken again by a soft hand in his. He twists with a grimace from where he's fallen on a root, as forces his eyes open.
A pale face smiles down at him. Clean, unblemished. And there's something else too. Not something new, but something old.
There are tears in his sister's eyes and he wraps her in his arms, holding on through his own shudders.
"I've missed you."
"I missed you too." She pulls back, kissing him on the forehead then letting him press his face into the curve of his big sister's shoulder like he used to when they were kids. "I love you so much, Don."
"I love you too, Adelaide. Always."
There's no words that need to be said. Not between two like them, who grew together, learned together, mourned together. The last four years seem to fade into distant memory as they sit now, solid, real, alive.
"Promise me you won't leave me," Don whispers finally.
Adelaide tightens her embrace as she replies. "I never did." There's another pause, then, "Tell me you're happy, Don. Knowing you, you probably ended up in a boring office job you don't like but don't hate enough to leave."
He looks up at her, thinks, pauses, then says, "Perhaps."
She doesn't reproach him, but chuckles in that humour of hers. "Just, make me proud," she says softly after falling serious again. "Make me proud, little brother, won't you?"
* * *
When he wakes again, he's lying on his side on the hard ground and the dawn is beginning to peek over the horizon. He spots the figure standing tall and straight before him, and knows that Marie is back.
"Why," he asks her. "Why did you send me away like that? And why did you try to stop me from finding you now?
Marie gives a sad smile. "What else could I do? Lie to you? Pretend to be her and hope you don't notice the difference? And now, when you came again and had reason to believe the truth, what would you have done to me if you'd found out that I'd taken your sister's body and trapped her mind?"
"I understand you had to."
"And I will be frank. I do not understand how you do. I expected anger. Horror. Violence. I was afraid."
Don stands, wincing as he stretches out his sore muscles. "Family, family," he says softly, his truest smile so far curling his lips as a seed of hope begins to bloom. "And as long as you live, there's a still a bit of Adelaide left in the world."
Marie turns away, face tilting upwards into soft morning sunlight. "Yes," she says. "She's always here, inside."
"Will I see her again?"
She shakes her head, but not in denial. "It's not something I can control." Then her face lifts along with her voice. "The real question, though, is could I stop her from seeing you?"