When we arrive at the new house in Louisiana, my mother squeals, Don’t you love it, P? I always wanted a house with a big ol’ wrap-around porch.
She practices her southern twang, pretending she has always been here, that we didn’t just speed down Route 81 and away from our life in Philadelphia. She says, We have to do our best to fit in.
The house is a faded yellow, the color of withering daffodils. Peeling white, wooden pegs line the porch, the bars of a cage. The three steps up to the porch hold themselves together at a slant. I love it, I say because that’s what she needs to hear. I add, Momma, because that gives her hope there’s still time to change my childhood. I’m fourteen, but there’s no use in upsetting Momma by reminding her.
My mother packed our things while I was at a sleepover with my best friend, Becky. Daddy wasn’t one of them. I don’t bring him up anymore.
In the car, she handed me a thick stack of books about New Orleans. I touched the glossy cover of The Magic of Marie Laveau. A little education about our new home, my mother said. Plus it’s gonna be a long drive. Buckle up, P.
I watch my mother climb up the steps, her muscular calves snaked with veins, and move across the porch into our new house. She doesn’t falter on the steps or even seem to notice the way they lean. I lag behind her, eyeing the porch steps. I bend until my torso is horizontal and my ear burns with pressure to inspect underneath the slanted wood, to see if a conjurer has left a warning for us. My book says a doll-baby left under a porch step usually means trouble. But sometimes it’s for the protection of the homeowner or a family member.
This gives me an idea. I pull myself upright, shaking off the electric tingles in my arms and neck. Momma doesn’t always see what’s right in front of her. I know what I have to do to make her finally see.
My breath halts, ballooning in my chest and throat. With one large step, I clear the stairs. Once the door is closed behind me, I sigh, thick rushes of air streaming from my nose and mouth. I want to tell my mother about something I read in one of the books she gave me. I want to tell her so many things. But she never believes me, always saying I have an active imagination.
Momma enrolls me in a local summer camp. It’s the best way to fit in, she says. To make friends. I nod and smile. After Daddy, I’ll do anything to make her happy.
I make no friends at camp. I sit inside in the air conditioning and read my book about the Voodoo Queen.
I ask my camp counselor, Tey, for gauze, felt, twine, popsicle sticks, and a hot glue gun. It’s a housewarming gift for my mother, I tell her to ease the wrinkles between her black eyebrows. She pats my shoulder. That’s a lovely idea, Penelope. I know she worries about me not making friends at camp. I want to tell her, Louisiana and its heat and its history are suffocating me, but instead, I smile at her.
On the last day of camp, I place the doll-baby on the porch of our new house, lying in its coffin of popsicle sticks. I whisper, Let her see, over it three times to begin the working. Just like I read. Momma shrieks when she finds it the next morning and jumps back, her feet propelling her away from acceptance. Shrouded in black gauze is Daddy, or a doll-size version of him. I feign surprise for Momma’s sake. I want to tell her about the book and coffin magic, about the spell I shaped just for her, but she isn’t ready for the truth, just like she isn’t ready to face the fact that Daddy is dead.
Christina Rosso (She/Her) is the author of CREOLE CONJURE (forthcoming from Maudlin House in Fall 2021) and SHE IS A BEAST (APEP Publications, 2020). For more information, visit http://christina-rosso.com or find her on Twitter @Rosso_Christina.