It has been just about 48 hours since fete Damballah ended. It was emotional in a very unexpected way and I am still trying to sort out how I feel about it and why I feel particular ways. Out of all the fetes and all the rites and rituals, Damballah’s fete ripped me open in ways that I absolutely didn’t expect or, to be very honest, desire. However, I now have commitments to the Lwa and stepping into the spotlight of those commitments is consent for things to roll along, regardless of whether I have grasped the intricacies of what will happen and why.
My preparation for the fete began mid-week. I hadn’t expected to be held to the standard of ritual purity that vodouisants who have been made are, but it was very clear by the rising level of anxiety in my life when I made plans NOT to be ritually clean that I was absolutely supposed to keep that standard. It’s a deceptively simple process—abstain from sexual activity and stay away from spicy/hot food. Of course, I had a date planned in there which had to be rescheduled for mundane reasons but it was pretty clear that had I gone ahead with the date and the planned sexy times, I likely would have been in some trouble.
Two days before the fete, I had a dream where I was informed that I needed to do a bath before the fete. Spiritual baths are a fairly common thing in vodou and many of them can be self-administered. No big deal, really. I try not to bother Manbo prior to fetes, since she is being yanked in eighty billion directions at once, so I called my houngan friend [HF] who is her initiatory child to ask Him if I should do the bath that I usually do. Being that I have commitments and will be going under ceremony in the near-ish future, he directed me back to Manbo because he didn’t want to prescribe the wrong thing and get us both in trouble.
Manbo and I had a quick phone call where it was clear that she was already being run ragged and we decided that I would do the bath at her house just before the fete, since it would save me a trip into Boston and her from having to try and schedule something between shopping trips and other preparation.
I had taken the night before the fete off to get a good night’s sleep since I would be spending all day Saturday helping get everything ready at Manbo’s house and then be up all night at the fete. I went to bed at the decadent hour of 12AM and slept for exactly four hours before being wide awake and scowling at my ceiling. I knew what not being able to sleep meant—I would be up for at least 24 hours straight [turned out to be more like 28] and that’s just not good for me, but what are you going to do?
It turns out that almost no one else in the sosyete did much sleeping, either—Manbo crashed on her couch at 2AM and was up at 5AM to start prepping, HF only got a few hours sleep, and the houngenikon who does most of the singing AND the cooking didn’t sleep at all. By the time I rolled up to Manbo’s house, the kitchen was in full swing—there were pots and pans on every surface, all the spare electric burners had been hauled out and were going full bore, and Manbo was brewing her famous coffee. HF was passed out on the floor and woke up when Manbo told him to get his hounsi butt in gear.
After coffee, HF and I went off on errands. We hit the fabric store, the liquor store, and he took me to a Haitian botanica where I bought lots of things I can’t otherwise get outside of Haiti. As an almost after-thought, I bought a blue glass rosary for Agwe, Who had asked for one for the fete a few weeks prior. I had ordered one online, but it didn’t reach me in time and He was insistent that I have one. He had been very, very present during the week via popping up with ocean and ship-themed things every single place I turned [since when do grocery stores carry replica buoys?] and after I got to Manbo’s house, He was practically crawling up my spine.
It was a bit unsettling in that I am not used to that level of attention and affection—He was basiscally whispering sweet nothings in my ear all day and, while it was very sweet, it made me squirm in a restless, uncomfortable sort of way. It’s unsurprising that He is so present—He has made it clear that He, out of all my to-be Husbands, is leading the maryaj and that He loves me a lot. I’m not good with receiving love and I know yet another thing I am supposed to learn with maryaj is how to do that.
After errands, we spent the afternoon and early evening getting the temple ready. HF was mostly responsible for the altar while I offered encouragement and input from Ezili Freda, Who was getting a table at the main altar at Her request. In truth, I was trying to rest a bit—I had done quite a bit of walking and standing and, over the past week, my leg has become more and more useless. Given that I would be expected to stand to greet any/all of my to-be Husbands and other Lwa and dance most of the night, I felt justified in sitting quite a bit. Between the useless leg and being severely underslept, I was really worried as to how I was going to get through the fete intact and still be able to get home. My request to the Lwa is to always leave me well enough to drive home, and that’s it.
Manbo gave me my bath in the early evening and it was FANTASTIC. She had prepared the bath in a basin and ushered me into the bathroom after giving me instructions on how to use it. I love her baths and all the baths I do under the direction of the Lwa because the effects on me are immediate. I had barely started to do it and I was flying through the clouds and giggling like a mad man. The bath was intended to strengthen me and shore me up and it did it’s job in the extreme. I’m super grateful the Lwa told me to do it—the giggly, stoned-vodouisant feelings didn’t last all night, but without the bath, I would have been in much worse shape.
The party started late and Damballah was the first to come down. My rule for fetes and other possessory rituals is that I don’t crowd the divinity—if They want to talk to me, I know that They will seek me out in one way or another or, if I need to speak with Them, I will be patient and see if They are willing to give me Their attention. However, HF booted me in the butt to go salute Damballah, since I will be marrying Him and have never saluted Him before.
When He comes down, Damballah writhes on the ground like a snake and is immediately covered with a clean white sheet for privacy. To salute Him, you must go under the sheet with Him. He doesn’t speak with words in possession, but He does speak in vodouisant’s heads and, when He sort of firmly rooted my hands at the end of my salute, I got the distinct impression that He was telling me that everything was going to be okay.
It was an unexpectedly intimate encounter. I know the woman He was riding, but He had changed the shape of Her face to suit His preference and looking into His eyes was like staring into an abyss that stared back into your very soul. It felt like that, in the ~15 seconds I was with Him, He had seen all of who I am, have been, and will be. In it’s own way, that was very comforting.
It was not without it’s ironic hilarity, though. I hate snakes. Like, phobia hate snakes. A friend keeps a harmless cornsnake and I won’t sleep in the same room as it’s tank because it freaks me out so much. And yet, I am marrying a divinity that comes down as a snake and that hissed at me when I stuck my head under His sheet. My life has become a series of perversely amusing divine situations.
Agwe was sung for not too long after that and, when it looked like He wasn’t going to come down, I realized that I had been holding an expectation that He would. As a rule, I don’t hold expectations going into fetes or possessory rituals. It’s a bad habit to have that always, ALWAYS leads to disappointment and this was not the exception.
When it looked like He wasn’t coming and His implements were returned to their proper place, I made a bitchy remark to Him—He had been sitting at the back of my head all day and I could still feel Him there—to the point of ‘You have been all over me all day and You’re not going to come down so I can see you?’. Well, I am a fucking arrogant dumbass.
Not thirty seconds after I sent that up the line, two people dropped with Him on their heads—one in front of me and one behind me. He didn’t stay in either of them longer than thirty seconds and, after He left them, He pushged me hard and left me sobbing. Point taken, lesson learned.
I knew immediately that I had been a selfish, self-possessed jackass who has pushed Him and perhaps screwed up whatever had been planned, if anything. I wanted to see Him? Well, He let me see Him and that was it—I saw, but didn’t get to speak with Him. I remarked to HF that I had pissed Him off and that I knew better than to hold expectations and he sort of smirked at me. When I got home on Sunday, I threw myself in front of my altar and apologized to Him for my poor behavior and bitchy attitude and that seemed to at least assuage the irritation. He got fresh flowers and a bottle of nice cologne yesterday as well, in apology.
Knowing I had pissed off the Lwa that has shown the most interest in me, consistently asked me for attention, and showered me with affection felt pretty shitty, but both life and the fete went on. Had I not been so tired, I expect I would have been more level-headed and not as upset. Now I know what to look for in myself next time to make sure I don’t behave in a similar fashion.
Things went a little off the rails from there. Freda was to be called and She really, REALLY wanted to come since She had been feeling a little bit ignored [though, to be fair, I think you could have a fete every other month for Freda and She would still feel ignored]. She was literally hanging in the air and Her salute was just beginning when a fistfight broke out between two attendees who apparently showed up with an agenda to fuck each other up. Freda took one look at that and basically said ‘fuck this shit, I’m out’ and was gone just like that. HF pulled all the knives off the altar and had me hold them with instructions that if any Lwa showed up, I was not to give Them any blades. I don’t know what he expected me to do if Freda or Someone Else came down screaming and demanding Their knife or sword, but there it was.
Beyond the inherent disrespect at fighting in someone else’s house AND at a religious event [and at a fete for Damballah, no less, Who doesn’t like screaming and swearing and blood], I felt really bad for HF, who is married to Freda, among other Lwa, and who had worked really, really hard to make Her table something She would like. I have also never seen Manbo so upset and enraged. She laid in to the two women who had literally shed blood in her temple for a good five minutes before restarting things.
Unfortunately, they weren’t done—I watched the woman who had started things start taking off all her jewelry and, when she decided to leave, she started hitting the other woman again. If Manbo was angry before, she was absolutely livid now. She stopped the whole fete, threw a bunch of people out, and took everyone who had even marginally been involved to task. After a lot of rapid fire Kreyol and arguing, she went back into the private temple room to confer with the Lwa and then came out and fed the drums a bottle of rum to basically cleanse them of the disrespect shown to them.
It was clear that none of the Rada were interested in showing at that point, so the fete moved on to the hotter Lwa. Legba nan Petwo showed for a few moments and Agaou came down briefly as well. I was pretty spent at this point and was in what I thought was a pretty bad emotional place. I found that, every time we started singing for another Lwa, I was fighting not to end up in tears and sobbing. It was really uncomfortable for me because that is not how I am pretty much at any other time and I didn’t want to cause any more of a scene, what with my earlier sobbing and the drama that had gone down with people behaving badly. I really thought I was having some sort of mental health crisis and I couldn’t figure out why—I was tired and not feeling well, but not in any sort of extreme way and I had done all of the self-care I do for all spiritual events in that I had eaten, was drinking lots of water, had followed all necessary preparations, and had done all the mundane stuff as well.
We began to sing for Ogou Senjak, Who is one of my to-be Husbands, and I started to cry again. I went to hide near the private temple area because I really didn’t want to cause a scene, and told HF so. HF was having none of that and told me that I needed to be out in the temple to great Senjak, as it would look really, REALLY bad if He came down looking for His intended and I wasn’t there.
So, I took a few steps into the temple and I really couldn’t contain my crying. I started to cry, then loudly sob, and then I started to scream and scream and scream. I was absolutely horrified because I couldn’t stop, and then I blacked out for who knows how long. I came to in a way that didn’t feel like I was in my body—I couldn’t feel any part of my body and could only see a little—and found myself head-to-head with one of the houngans of the sosyete. It only took a moment [and I only had a moment] to figure out that Senjak was riding me.
I blacked out again and woke in the middle of the temple with the houngan doing some sort of dance with my body that I was not in control of at all. I couldn’t feel the rum they spit onto my feet or, as I was told later when I was wondering why my neck was all sticky, the back of my head. I couldn’t feel it when Manbo tied Senjak’s moushwa onto my arm and I couldn’t feel it when Senjak started to do whatever He started to do when I blacked out yet again. I felt like I was suspended in Jello and it was then when He took my eyes. I could feel things, but I couldn’t see or hear at all. I felt the houngan holding my body up and then I felt my body start to fall and it felt like I was falling down miles into the black abyss. In reality, I fell backwards onto the floor with the poor houngan, who I probably had at least seventy pounds on, was trying to hold me up.
I woke to him trying to haul me to my feet and I had trouble telling Him that I was okay, even in English, and that he shouldn’t try to stand me up. They realized I was back and blessedly took Senjak’s moushwa off me and yanked my clothes back into place. I totally had a horrifying fat guy moment—my shirt had rode up and the houngan yanked it firmly back down, which was the first thing I had felt in my body when I was back—but I guess I’ll learn to deal with that if the Lwa are going to take my body like this.
I knew prior that one of the tells of an Ogou possession coming on is crying, sobbing, and screaming, but I didn’t think for one second a Lwa would take my body so I assumed I was having some sort of breakdown brought on by lack of sleep. I remarked to HF afterward that I didn’t understand why He had taken me when there were so many other people who didn’t have all the work to do that I do and he responded that not everyone needs to be a perfectly clean canvas for a Lwa to take their head. He also reminded me that possession can be multi-pronged—not only do They come down to speak with people, but occasionally to do work on the person being ridden—and that He also has a claim to me, being that I’m to marry Him.
I sat for awhile and ate some Marassa candy since I was shaking, but had to get back up when Ogou Feray [another to-be Husband] was called. Feray is really, really strong in my sosyete and you can’t sit when He shows up unless you want to feel the wrong end of His machete. I started to cry again but He blessedly did not take me and instead came howling into Manbo. He beat His chest and beat some other people’s chests and we all go on our knees until He lifted us up.
I wanted to sit, but I also wanted to salute a Lwa I am supposed to marry. By this time, I was exhausted, emotionally ripped apart, and my leg was almost entirely useless. He looked at me a few times, but decided not to greet me. HF and another friend from the house tried to console me, but I wasn’t really upset that He hadn’t paid attention to me—instead, I was upset that I had to stand up for fifteen minutes only to have Him ignore me. HF remarked that it reminded him of the story in Mama Lola of how Ogou ignored someone who was to marry Him until she effectively said ‘fuck this’, to which He replied ‘I’ve been waiting for you right here’.
That pissed me off because I don’t play those sorts of games in any relationships. I don’t chase or any of that, especially when I have officially confirmed my interest and even made a monetary deposit on my ceremony to prove that I am serious. I had a moment of serious insecurity after that—He showered some affection on a woman He apparently is marrying, via making a big show of pointing at Her ring finger, twirling her around, and giving Her a big kiss on the cheek. In my uprooted state, all I could think was that He was paying attention her because it is more acceptable for Him to show that sort of affection towards a woman than it is to someone like me, an aberration in the vodou community as a trans man. That was a really, really shitty moment and I was grateful that He left soon after that so I didn’t broadcast my displeasure and upset to Him and everyone else in the room. I doubt that this is a logical feeling—it’s more likely that I was exhausted and spent from having Senjak throw me around and destroy my emotional understanding of myself. I’ll talk to Manbo about it, but I’m pretty sure the answer is going to be ‘you were exhausted and over-emotional’.
The fete wrapped up after that—it was about 6AM and we were all beat to hell. After Manbo was back, she sat in a chair and sobbed for about ten minutes, which was awful to watch. It was a mix of her deep disappointment that the fete had not gone off as well as had been desired and that Ogou had spent a lot of time in her head. One of her ti fey helped her upstairs and a few of us trickled up as well.
A few of us crashed out in her living room and ate tasty Haitian food. It was a rather amusing picture—all of us in our whites [and Manbo in her fabulous sparkly karabela dress] mowing down on Haitian rice and beans, griot, fish, and amazing beet salad while there were old UFC re-runs on the TV. Everyone was too tired to do a damn thing besides just sit there, though, for quite awhile.
Eventually, I had enough legs to go put on street clothes and talk to Manbo for a minute, who wanted to make sure I was okay to drive and let me know that we would talk soon. I drove home listening to ABBA and show tunes because I am just that queer, and then passed out in my bed for ten hours complete with a dream where Senjak came like the wind and said a few things.
I’m still tired and my body is still trying to pull itself together. I have bruises in weird places and my head must have hit something while Senjak had me because I woke up with a sore temple and swollen eye. I’m not unhappy that He took me—it was also a surprisingly intimate experience—and I knew it needed to happen at some point, as I was made aware years ago that I needed to learn how to hold a divinity in my body. What it does mean is that I will have to prepare more carefully for fetes in the future so that, if I am ridden again, my body will be a useful vessel and I will not be a pile of goo afterward. I also won’t freak out so much if I start to cry and scream in the future. I’m sure I will still feel horribly self-conscious, but at least I won’t think that I am experiencing some sort of psychosis. I adore my friends in the sosyete, who assured me that it was both a textbook Senjak possession [even after I knew what was happening, I was still scared that I was somehow experiencing a mental health crisis] and that it was beautiful to watch.
I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about my impending maryaj before this fete. It was very much a needful thing and I was perfectly okay with that, but the emotional aspect was mystifying to me as I am not good with romantic love or affection. That didn’t change overnight, but I got a taste of what it could be like and how my Lwa love me and how it feels to be loved by the Lwa through intimacy that is strictly between me and Them—no one else can hear Agwe whisper to me, no one goes under the sheet with me to greet Damballah, and no one is in my head while Senjak rides me. Even though what They do may benefit others, it is really between me and Them in a way I hadn’t considered before.
I don’t know what I have done to be this blessed, really. It is impossible to express my gratitude for how all my divinities love me and how They transform my life at every turn. I never expected my life to be like this and never thought that every breath I took would have new meaning. They crack my world open at every turn and, even when it shakes me to the ground, it a wonderfully terrible and beautiful thing to experience. Each tiny death brings me to life even more and I have hope that, someday, I can be what They have shown me is possible. Life is fractured and complex, but ultimately more beautiful than I could ever have created on my own.