Late at night, in the basement of her modest home on New York’s Long Island, Marie Carmel Charles prepares to be possessed by a mermaid.
A mambo, or high priestess, in Haitian voodoo, Charles has gathered 18 of her younger initiates for a traditional, intensely private ritual called the Feeding of the Kolye, a tribute to the lwas (spirits) of the church and a celebration of several members’ recent inductions into the religion.
The newcomers range in age from their mid-20s to mid-40s; they are mostly African-American and Caucasian and wear pristine white garments. They chant Creole prayers fluidly back to Charles in a rapid, reverential call-and-response. They cry “ayi bobo”—a sort of “amen”—constantly.
Charles, an imposing, gracious black woman who appears to be about 60, kneels in front of the seated group, facing an altar cluttered with tall, multicolored candles, beaded bottles and a large frosted cake, among other offerings to the lwas.
She keens in prayer, furiously ringing a tiny handbell. Her “godchildren” rise and collect clusters of ceremonial beaded ropes, draping them across their torsos, and begin lively, synchronized dancing.
Marie splashes heavy, honeyed perfume on them as they dance.
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